The BBC newsreader on ‘Golf Ball Typewriters,’ being thrown in Van Mildert’s frozen lake, and having a Palatinate computer named after him
By Eugene Smith
George Alagiah, OBE is a man with little time on his hands.
Currently in the thick-end of both a novel and a documentary, he squeezes in a half-hour chat with his old newspaper during his journey home from presenting the BBC’s News at Six.
He’s just revealed to the nation that international development secretary Priti Patel has abandoned a trip to Uganda for a dressing-down from the PM; he nearly broadcast she was to be forced to resign, he tells me, but his team “weren’t absolutely sure we could stand it up”. Sure enough, five minutes into the interview and my phone flashes with a BBC News alert announcing her resignation.
Studying politics at Van Mildert from 1975-78, Alagiah “loved” his time at Durham. One immediate memory is his college’s old tradition of those whose birthday it is being thrown in the lake: “My birthday’s in November,” he sighs, “so there were a couple of times I broke [the] ice as I went in.
“Pretty hideous, but it was one of those college rituals, you know.”
He stumbled on the editorship of Palatinate in his first year, and held the position for a year after that. “God knows what possessed me – I had a lot more confidence than I do now, probably – but I stood for election, and amazingly I got it.”
Under his watch, he says, “there was always a kind of attempt at being serious, and then… our sense of having fun got the better of us.
“I tried to give it a more journalistic edge while I was Editor. I don’t know how much I succeeded, but I introduced a sort of op-ed [opinion editorial] page, where we could really take on some fairly heavy topics.
“I remember tackling stuff like cystic fibrosis, which has still not been solved but there was a guy at Durham who was working on it.”
He’s not entirely sure he was always fully in control of the paper, though. “I remember there were at least two days before we had to go to press when I spent my whole life, the whole day, traipsing up and down from college to college collecting articles that hadn’t been handed in on time.
“I’d tell myself I was in charge but in fact there was a woman called Anita Scott, who was our ‘manager,’ or something like that, and she sat in front of this massive, great big thing called a Golf Ball Typewriter, which in its time was state of the art but it was literally a metal golf ball.”
In stark contrast to the technological prowess of the current Palatinate office, replete with Apple Macs, this typewriting golf ball had “all the letters round it and it sort of swivelled round and smacked into the page, and there you had your copy”.
Rather fittingly for Palatinate‘s 8ooth edition, in which three illustrious alumni wrote guest columns, Alagiah adds: “The other thing I’ve got to say is there [are] some pretty illustrious people who’ve gone through and I’m not talking about myself at all. I mean, before I got there, there was Hunter Davies… and then Harold Evans, of course, very famous.”
Alagiah meanwhile worked with fellow alumnus Jeremy Vine when they were correspondents in South Africa, but although the pair of them often “chuckle at the idea we were both at Durham,” Alagiah was unaware Vine edited the same student newspaper.
When I tell him he and Vine share the honour of having a Palatinate office computer named after them, he laughs. “Yours is a lot faster and crashes a lot less than Jeremy’s,” I say. “So you’re the more popular of the two.”
He chuckles again. “Well, that’s as it should be!”
George Alagiah, OBE, has presented the BBC’s News at Six since 2007, having previously been an award-winning foreign correspondent for the corporation.
Photograph: linus_art via Creative Commons