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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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The night Terry Pratchett collapsed after being sacked by Eric Price

TYRANT: Eric Price, editor of the Western Daily Press, had a fearsome reputation

By GARTH PEARCE


I served exactly two years under editor Eric Price at the Western Daily Press from April 5th 1971 to April 27th 1973, which was akin to national service.  He sacked decent reporters for the smallest mistakes — or simply because he was irritated by them.  


His fiery language could be heard coming up the stairs in the echoing old offices in Silver Street, Bristol, growling f’s and c’s. When he threw open the main swing door, wearing customary white shirt and black waistcoat, with tie askew, there was always a piece of copy screwed up like toilet paper in his right hand.  You just hoped it wasn’t your name he was going to shout out.


But no sacking compared with the brutal dismissal of Terry Pratchett on Thursday, April 29th, 1971, the day after his 23rd birthday. I had been at the newspaper for three weeks. I liked Bristol, liked the look of the Western Daily Press which was like a dead-ringer for the Daily Express at that time and even liked Price’s reputation as a perfectionist and hard taskmaster. It would be, in modern parlance, ‘challenging’.


I only had a few conversations with Terry Pratchett, pictured, who was on holiday when I arrived. I knew he’d worked on a newspaper in Buckinghamshire and that he had — unusually — bought a house near Bristol, compared with most of the rest of us, who were renters. He had also been married for at least a couple of years, despite being only the same age as me.  He seemed an intelligent and thoughtful guy, if a little nervous. Price, he told me, regularly had it in for him.


On that April evening, it proved just how much. Terry was struggling with a story on local railways (transport was one of the editor’s many obsessions) and Price had bounded up twice in the space of an hour to bawl him out. On the second occasion he shouted ‘It does not make sense, you stupid c***.’


As the night crept towards the first deadline, Price made his third entrance.  ‘You are a complete fucking disgrace,’ he told him, while ripping the copy in two. ‘Start again and think about what the hell you’re writing.’ With that, he turned on his heels and made for the door. 


Terry clearly had enough. ‘Oh, shut your mouth,’ he yelled loudly at the departing editor.


Price stopped stock still, arms sticking out on each side. If he’d had a couple of six-guns to hand, I’d swear he would have used them. Instead,  he turned slowly, face becoming ever redder, and walked purposefully to Terry, whose own already pale face had completely lost its colour.


He put one hand either side of Terry’s desk and bent down to stare at him:“PRATCHETT — YOU GO TOMORROW.”


The few reporters remaining in the room were left to examine their shoes or, indeed, anything which would avoid catching Price’s eyes.  I remember looking at my watch. It was 10 p.m.


The door slammed shut. Then came a much a much louder slumping, banging sound, followed by news editor Norman Rich’s uncertain voice. ‘Terry…Terry?…’


I looked up to see Terry flat out on the floor, legs and arms splayed wide. His eyes were open. We feared, momentarily, for the worst. He certainly couldn’t — and didn’t — talk.  


Country news editor Peter Gibbs was calmly dialling a direct line to the Bristol Royal Infirmary, which was no more than a few hundred yards from the office.  Within five minutes  an ambulance had arrived and I watched as the victim of the first of many public sackings I was to witness by the infamous editor was taken away on a stretcher.  


This, I thought, would surely unnerve even Eric Price. It had certainly unnerved the hell out of me.


A few minutes later Price, who had been told of the collapse and the fast departure of his reporter in an ambulance, bounded in to the room.  


“Is that c*** dead?” he asked casually, as if he couldn’t actually much care if he was.   


‘No, Eric,’ assured Norman. ‘I think he just fainted. But they want to take him in to examine him to make sure he’ll be all right.’


Price looked around the room at his remaining reporters. ‘Are any of you other bastards going to collapse on me?’


A murmuring of “no’s” came from all corners of the room.  


Price gave an angry stare behind his glasses, turned to the news desk and said: ‘We still need that fucking story he was working on — properly written.’


I never saw Terry Pratchett again.  He remained in hospital for the best part of a week and we were told by kindly Norman, ‘Poor Terry has had a bit of a breakdown.’


What on earth was I doing at the Western Daily Press?  I knew Price’s reputation and policy of instant execution in advance. I arrogantly thought I could hack it after being Chief Reporter of two weekly newspapers in my native Black Country and having a stint as district reporter on the Birmingham Post.  And I did…just about.


At the end of my two years of survival in Bristol I was lucky enough to be hired by the Daily Express as a news reporter.   I regarded it as mission accomplished.  


Terry Pratchett, meanwhile, moved in to a different universe. He was knighted, awarded an OBE, went on to write 41 books, selling 85 million copies, published in 37 languages and was awarded honorary doctorates by ten universities.   He died, aged 66, in 2015.  He has since been the subject of a docudrama, a biography and is still read by millions.  


I would imagine he didn’t much miss journalism. 


Eric Price was born on 20 May, 1918 and died on 14 October, 2013, aged 95.

Terry Pratchett was born on 28 April 1948, in Beaconsfield and died on 12 March 2015, aged 66. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.