Photo: John Sweeney
In this age of Twatter, Faceback, Isitagran and the other bits and bobs on the brainwashing machines called mobile phones, I am not going to tell you about my guilty passion. (Ed: go on, John…)
Oh, all right then, I shall come out with it in a quiet whisper (or as quiet a whisper as I can manage): I love local newspapers.
I love the itsy-bitsy stories about the rescue of a swan, or the death of a much-loved local eccentric, or a parish council meeting that raises concerns about – God forbid – the possible closure of a local library. Local papers are the engine oil of our democracy: lacking in glamour, perhaps, but essential for the proper running of our country and the calling of power to account. That's fancy talk for some of the copy that ends up keeping your chips warm. Obviously, I'm not talking about The Caterham and District Independent which contains pearls of prose on every page. (More, please – Ed.)
It's the stuff of life: reports from the local councils that manage your parks and pavements, notices of births, marriages and deaths, the adventures of local celebrities. I think it was Tolstoy who said 'there is nothing worse than a provincial celebrity' and, if you consider Caterham's most famous quiz show host Angus Deayton, the Russian sage was on the money.
I write for a living – eleven books and counting – but, a very, very long time ago, when dinosaurs trod where Waitrose in Caterham is now, I started working for a local paper. My first job was to knock out a shopping guide for the Sheffield Morning Telegraph, advising South Yorkshire housewives on what fresh produce to buy.
I went to India and interviewed the Dalai Lama and wrote it up, gaining a nickname I am proud of to this day: the Tibet Correspondent of the Sheffield Telegraph. Silly, I know, but my time on the local paper was such fun. I'd been to university – I got a third in Drinking – but my real education started on my local paper. Going to the coroner's court and listening to the man on the bench set out the cause of death of former miners – pneumoconiosis – again and again and again. So often, in fact, that, long before anxieties about global warming got serious, I hated coal-mining for the killer it was.
As social media is becoming ever more popular, support for local papers has been ebbing away, a slow melancholy roar throughout my entire life. This is not just a shame. It's bad for our communities, for the proper defence and scrutiny of public services, for looking after the countryside and our old churches and beloved pubs and all the rest of it. The thing in your hands right now, a freshly-printed copy of your local paper, is a weapon every bit as deadly as those spiky balls on a chain people in the Middle Ages used to argue about back in the not-that-good-old days.
The power of words: a well-constructed sentence can be more lethal than a bullet.
A local paper is a weapon that records the doings of the people who hold power. That's the reason you should treasure your local paper. It's your eyes and ears on the place where you and your kids spend most of your life. Love your local paper, love the Caterham and District Independent.
John's latest book is Murder On The Malta Express: Who Killed Daphne Caruana Galizia?, which is published by Silvertail Books.
FInd John on Twitter: @johnsweeneyroar