The Beaver conducted an interview with its old executive editor, Simon Garfield, now journalist and non-fiction author. He reveals insights into the alumni University Challenge, life at the LSE and careers in journalism.
After successfully reaching the semi-finals of the Christmas University Challenge, the LSE alumni team unfortunately lost to the opposing team, Peterhouse College from Cambridge. The LSE team was made up of writer and curator Ekow Eshun, journalist Maya Jaggi, journalist and author Simon Garfield, and economist Jagjit Chadha. The team performed extremely well in the earlier round of the show, beating Edinburgh University 165-120 points, however the Peterhouse team proved too strong an adversary.
Simon Garfield cited The Beaver during one broadcast: “I spent most of my time at the LSE working on the student newspaper which is called ‘The Beaver’.”
The Beaver sits down with Simon Garfield for an insight into the show and his time at the LSE. Garfield graduated in 1981 with a BSc degree in Economic History, however noted that he had always intended to pursue a career in journalism. He spent a large proportion of his time at the school working on The Beaver and looks back fondly on his experiences.
Q: I would like to start with discussing your experience with University Challenge. How did you get involved with the show?
People assume that it somehow takes place through the LSE but it’s not really like that – you actually don’t get any communication from the LSE at all.
What happened to me, which I’m sure is entirely typical, is I got an email from the producers and researchers of the show maybe two months before.
They had clearly done some sort of internet search and I think they went down a list of notable alumni and thought of who would be suitable.
I believe they make a note of anyone in the media or on television and think: ‘he’s in some way suitable’, and then where they went to University.
Q: How has your experience on University Challenge been? Did you know your teammates beforehand?
There’s not very much you can discuss beforehand: there are no tactics. It’s either you know the answers or not. You don’t have to get together and practice a scheme. There’s no advantage to knowing your teammates because it’s the first person to buzz. I vaguely knew Ekow for his media experiences and I had heard of Maya — so that was that really that.
It was good fun. We did well on that initial round and then flopped in the semis. But I didn’t mind at all. Obviously we would have preferred to have won but it’s such a fun experience. It’s absolutely a case of how fast you are, and whether your brain is working on the day as well.
Q: I also note that you have also written a myriad of books spanning a number of topics. What do you credit your wide range of interests to? Did this help your performance on the show?
I’ve written a lot of books about many things and most of them have been things that I’ve been passionate about. Most of them were my ideas, some were editor suggested, but even if I wasn’t interested in the subject when I began I certainly was when I got into it.
I don’t think they did help, is the answer. I mean I’ve written books about specific things like maps, history, the music industry and organic chemistry – really just kind of everything. None of which actually helped me on the day because none of those things came up.
Perhaps they were actually conscious of that fact, and picked questions about things that you wouldn’t necessarily know. I imagine they’d be conscious of who is competing as well. Perhaps it was particularly applicable as obviously the LSE doesn’t have a science department, for example, and we didn’t get those kind of questions.
Q: I would now like to move on to discuss your time at university, in particular your work on the student newspaper. What were your experiences when you were the executive editor of The Beaver during your time at the LSE?
I spent a huge amount of time working on The Beaver because although I was doing economic history as a course, my main interest in terms of future work was always journalism, even before the books. And so I realized that this would be a great training ground and a test of whether or not I really enjoyed journalism.
I found that I really enjoyed it and I was able to do pretty much everything there. I did some artsy stories, I reviewed plays, I did some politics, some Union reporting.
I knew a guy there who was a real inspiration to me. There were a few people that I worked with who were great, but there was one guy in particular who went on to work at the BBC World Service called Alex Wynter. He was just an inspiration in the range of articles he wrote.
And then there was Keir Hopley, the other editor, who I think then went on to become a civil servant and did not pursue journalism, but we stood together [as Executive and Managing Editor]. I think we were a good team because he was very involved in the union and politics and I was interested in the kind of creative side of things. I remember thinking that the paper was such an extraordinary journalistic playground.
We realised at the time that we would never ever as long as we lived have the chance to do as much as we were doing. So in a professional context, so the fact that we edited, wrote articles, layed the newspaper out, really doing everything as well. So it was I remember very much an absolutely wonderful time.
I’m delighted the paper is not only still going but also has retained its name.
— We actually have had a comment piece suggesting that the paper be renamed!
I can understand why, although it’s not really like that as The Beaver has become the LSE mascot emblem. Definitely it’s the language that’s changed. As it’s an old thing I think it’s fine. I wouldn’t have any issues with it myself, but it is just one of those a strange anachronisms which is why I thought it would be amusing to mention its name on University Challenge.
Q: How did working for The Beaver influence your career?
The guy that I mentioned, Alex had entered The Guardian/NUS ‘Student Journalist of the Year’ and came in second place. And I remember going along to the awards and then realising that actually this was a way into The Guardian and you could get an article in here and there and all that kind of stuff. It was a lucky thing, what you want to do is for them to really give you a piece of one thing. I realised that the judges really praised him when he came in second with the huge variety of his work.
I entered the year after and I won it. It was great because it just gave me this incredible boost, meaning not only did I immediately have some contact with The Guardian and ran a story, but also one of the judges pretty much got me my first job on the Radio Times. I worked on the Radio Three listings for about six months and then from then on I did a lot of freelance work.
Q: Finally, what advice would you give to current LSE students, in particular those interested in a career in journalism or writing?
Well, I would just say to enjoy it for itself, it is a great outlet for creativity no matter what.
Whatever branch of journalism you’re interested in or even if you’re not interested specifically in journalism, The Beaver is obviously a great outlet. Now we have blogs and Facebook and all the other ways of getting a message across and the days of the old fashioned printed paper are under threat. I’m very pleased that The Beaver still exists and I would just say to use it as much as you can.
The grounding of journalism as a career is knowing the value of good journalism: knowing how to tell a good a good tale, no matter what it is, gives it real practical value. The basic skill of reporting hasn’t changed and is valuable in whatever career you choose to go into.