Over the past few decades, modern journalism has changed “dramatically, unfortunately not for the better” – from the silence of the telephones in the press room to a severe decrease in the number of staff journalists. Tim Rayment of The Sunday Times describes the autobiography as a “chronicle [of] the transition from one era to the other”.
For more than half a century journalist Derek Bellis has run a freelance news agency in north Wales, becoming one of the best known in Britain. In A Capable Journalist he recalls the stories he’s covered, including the Investiture of Prince Charles, the Jeremy Thorpe scandal, the loss of 15 holidaymakers in a river tragedy and the astonishing story of a chapel minister who mutilated and photographed dead bodies.
“I wrote the book simply because I think it is a story of change which is worth telling,” says Derek Bellis of his autobiography.
Here’s an extract from A Capable Journalist, where Derek recalls interviewing the Beatles in Bangor:
THE CALL CAME in the middle of a sunny Sunday afternoon in 1967. ‘This is ITN here, are you far from Bangor?’ ‘Half an hour away,’ I replied. ‘What’s up?’
Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles, had died suddenly. And it so happened that the Beatles, together with other famous members of the Swinging Sixties pop world, including the Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithfull, were in Bangor for a weekend of transcendental meditation with an Indian mystic called Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
A surreal event it turned out to be. This was in the era of flower power and ‘happy drugs’.
When I reached the courtyard outside Bangor Normal College – the last time I’d been there was as a boy when my sister was a student – I was handed a microphone and we
waited for the Beatles to emerge for a Press conference. Paul wasn’t there. He’d returned hotfoot to London on hearing the news.
I think I was paid about £12 for that interview, which was played on the following night’s bulletins. The recording has been heard all over the world, and is also at the Beatles
museum in Liverpool. So when I’m dead and gone, my voice will still be heard!
A crowd surrounded myself and Glyn Owen, covering for the BBC, as we did the interviews. Incidentally I first met Glyn when he was a copytaker on the Daily Post in Liverpool. He was an opera buff whose clifftop home in Holyhead was packed
with old ‘78’ records.
This is how my interview went:
JOHN: I don’t know what to say. We’ve only just heard, and it’s hard to think of things to say. But he was just… he was a warm fellow, you know, and it’s terrible.
Q: What are your plans now?
JOHN: We haven’t made any, you know. I mean, we’ve only just heard.
RINGO: Yes, you know – it’s as much news to us as it is to everybody else.
Q: John, where would you be today without Mr Epstein?
JOHN (quietly): I don’t know.
Q: Are you driving down to London tonight?
JOHN: Yes. Somebody’s taking us down. Yeah.
Q: You heard the news this afternoon I believe, and Paul’s already gone down?
Q: You’ve no idea what your plans are for tomorrow?
JOHN: No, no. We’ll just go and find out, you know. And…
GEORGE: Just have to play everything by ear.
Q: I understand that Mr Epstein was to be initiated here tomorrow?
Q: When was he coming up?
GEORGE: Tomorrow… just Monday, that’s all we knew.
Q: Had you told him very much about the spiritual regeneration movement?
GEORGE: Well, as much as we’d learned about spiritualism and various things of that nature, then we tried to pass it on to him. And he was equally as interested as we are, as everybody should be. He wanted to know about life as much as we do.
Q: Had you spoken to him since your… since you became interested this weekend?
JOHN AND RINGO: No.
GEORGE: I spoke to him Wednesday evening, the evening before we first saw Maharishi’s lecture – and he was in great spirits.
Q: And when did he tell you that he’d like to be initiated?
GEORGE: Well, when we arrived here on Friday we got a telephone call later that day to say that Brian would follow us up and be here Monday.
Q: Do you intend returning to Bangor before the end of this conference?
GEORGE: We probably won’t have time now, because Maharishi will only be here till about Thursday and we’ll have so much to do in London that we’ll have to meet him again some other time.
Q: I understand that this afternoon Maharishi conferred with you all. Could I ask you what advice he offered you?
JOHN: He told us… uhh… not to get overwhelmed by grief. And whatever thoughts we have of Brian to keep them happy, because any thoughts we have of him will travel to him wherever he is.
Q: Had he ever met Mr Epstein?
JOHN: No, but he was looking forward to meeting him.
Q: Did the Maharishi give you any words of comfort?
JOHN: Meditation gives you confidence enough to withstand something like this, even the short amount we’ve had.
GEORGE: There’s no such thing as death anyway. I mean, it’s death on a physical level, but life goes on everywhere… and you just keep going really. The thing about the comfort is to know that he’s OK.
The most famous group in the world, a sudden death, and meditation… what a mix.
Mind you, not everyone was besotted by the Beatles. A senior magistrate in Rhyl, Councillor Emlyn Williams, feared the visit of John Lennon and Yoko Ono could mean trouble from ‘undesirable followers’. The couple was intending to visit Rhyl to help the Hanratty campaign, but the councillor feared there would need to be extra police and a cost to the ratepayers. He said: ‘I have nothing against the Beatles. They were nice boys when they started but now they want to be authorities on all things.’
Thirty-five years after the Bangor visit, I was invited to a ceremony at the college to commemorate that strange weekend half a lifetime in the past. Someone recalled having said to John Lennon: ‘Do you like it in Bangor?’ To which he replied: ‘Is that where we are?’
I’m afraid the Maharishi didn’t register with this cynical Welshman. The Press were invited to meet him. We had to perch on the floor and remove our shoes, presumably
in respect. That was unfortunate for Jim Price*. He had a massive hole in his sock. I felt it sent a message to the Maharishi.
- Jim Price was a native of Rhayader and he covered north Wales for the Express for 28 years. Always with a smile, I don’t think he had an enemy in the world.
“Derek has chronicled the transition from one era to the other, and I am proud to count him as a contributor to the Sunday Times.”
Tim Rayment, Deputy News Editor, The Sunday Times
“One of the country’s most respected journalists… epitomises the values of our great profession.”
Dominic Herbert, News Editor, Daily Mirror
Extract from A Capable Journalist by Derek Bellis, available now (£9.99, Y Lolfa)