Cole Moreton The Story-Teller
Cole Moreton is an award-winning journalist, who has just had his first novel, The Lightkeeper, published. He was made Interviewer of the Year in 2016, and has written about a whole range of people and events, starting in 1993 with a little boy called Amar, who had been badly burned in Iraq.
The boy was rescued by Conservative MP, Emma Nicholson, who was monitoring the treatment of the Marsh Arabs by the regime of Saddam Hussein. Much of Cole’s early work covered trouble hotspots around the world, but he actually got into journalism in the first place to prove a careers advisor that he was wrong…
“He asked me what I wanted to be. I couldn’t say a rock star, which was the truth (David Bowie was like my freaky big brother, giving permission to be individual), so I said a writer. He said: ‘So does everybody else, it’s not going to happen, what else do you want to do?’ Working-class kids like us were not writers. We worked in a bank if we were lucky. That’s what he suggested. So I took pleasure in becoming one, despite him.”
Not that journalism was the sort of writing Cole had had in mind.
“I didn’t want to be a journalist, in particular… I had a fascination with words and an inspirational teacher who encouraged that and one day the editor of the local paper came in to talk to us. I went there on work experience at the age of 15 and was given the chance to join as an apprentice the following summer.
The school I had moved on to after the inspirational teacher was terrible, really dysfunctional, and if you were clever or different in any way, you were picked on. This was the East End in the early Eighties. It was brilliant in some ways – full of energy, kids from lots of different cultures side by side as friends – but I knew I had to get out of that school, so I took the job.”
Had his life changed in other ways as well?
“After training for four years with the local paper, I had not really been anywhere other than the East End or done anything daring. I had also become a Christian. My parents were atheists; my Dad was a Labour councillor with a strong sense of social justice that partly came from his own upbringing in a Salvation Army home, but he had been damaged by hypocrisy in the church and didn’t want anything to do with it.
I knew Christians as friends and was drawn to them, but I also had gay friends who were being told they were an abomination and going to hell (as well as being beaten up in the street for being themselves) so I was pulled in different directions.
Then I went to interview Eric Delve, who was then being groomed as the British Billy Graham, and I found him a hugely attractive character: a story-teller, brilliantly funny in his performance but also passionate about the person of Jesus and warm, engaging and generous, personally. He made the difference.”
And then his horizons really widened?
“After that, with the enthusiasm of a convert and the naive gung-ho attitude of a teenager, I thought: ‘I want to test this by taking it as far as I can.’ So I joined Youth With A Mission as a full-time faith worker, unwaged, and eventually went travelling with them over the course of two years, visiting and writing about their work in Africa and Asia, particularly relief and development work in refugee camps and at crisis points.
I was not always impressed by what I saw – at that time, there was a tendency to ride roughshod over people’s cultures and too often it looked like an explicit deal was being offered: bread or medicine for your soul – but it did give me a more global perspective and enable me to realise the power of telling stories, to move people into action and save lives or make change. “
Has that drive remained?
“I’m not trying to change the world, per se, these days, because I think that’s a bit of an empty phrase. The world is constantly in flux anyway. My faith has changed a lot since those days but I do still consider it my vocation to be a story-teller, to help people tell their stories and to enable human beings to connect with each other in some way, because that is when we are moved to tears, or laughter, or empathy and feel we can and should do something about the problems others might have.”
Eventually, Cole realised he wanted to extend his education, and to move on.
“After YWAM, I came back and went to university and got a first class honours in English, because I had finally found my thing. After the degree I went to the Church Times half the week and tried to be a national journalist the rest of the week but I realised I had to step away from the safety blanket of Christian work and risk trying the nationals full time. This is purely a personal thing, but for me, I had to test the things I believed in out in what I then considered to be the real world, to see if it all hung together.
I was basically an intern at the Independent on Sunday, got poached by the Daily Express then returned to the Sindy [the nickname of the Independent on Sunday] a year later as a staff writer, rising eventually over 12 years to the title of Executive Editor. I was part of the editorial leadership team during 9/11 and the war in Iraq, which we opposed earlier and with more energy than any other paper. I’m proud of that.”
Did he enjoy it?
“There is something really exciting about being part of a team like that, working under extreme deadlines but reacting immediately to huge, world-changing stories. Writing (and editing) the first draft of history, as they say; but also helping to shape the debate. But editing made me ill, because of the stress, whereas writing came as a relief, so I changed tack and became an interviewer and feature writer again. That led to a spell as a freelance, promoting the book Is God Still An Englishman? which explored the dramatic changes in British culture, spirituality and identity, during which time I wrote for The Guardian, The Times and the Financial Times.”
But change was coming.
“The book led to me being recruited as chief feature writer for the Sunday Telegraph, where I covered the Olympics. I had a ticket to everything and it was on home ground, literally the waste land where I had played on my bike as a child, so that was emotional. I also covered the death and funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. It was a staff job, but the industry was changing and more than a hundred of us across all departments were made redundant in 2014. I actually felt this as a relief, because the job had been an honour but also a huge pressure.”
What does he make of the current newspaper scene in the UK?
“It’s going through a period of great change, like the country. But I will say this, passionately: if we don’t cherish and pay for responsible, serious reporting, we will lose it. The BBC has its faults, for example, but it is publicly accountable, and we will look back on this as a golden age if we lose it. Mainstream media has become a target for some people but there are a lot of brilliant reporters out there, pursuing stories that really matter, across the titles. You really don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
As a freelance, most of Cole’s work now involves interviewing those who are well-known, for whatever reason. Has he interviewed anyone he really didn’t want to talk to?
“Tons. I interviewed a politician once whose words I found so dull and empty of meaning that I threw the tape (those were the days) in the bin afterwards and told the editor it had broken. But that was a long, long time ago and I wouldn’t do it now. What I have come to realise is that everybody – absolutely everybody – has a story to tell, if you can only put aside how you’re feeling that day and help them get it out.”
One of the stories that Cole is most known for telling – a documentary series for Radio 4 which won Audio Moment of the Year at the Arias, the industry Oscars, and Best Writing at the World’s Best Radio Awards in New York – is The Boy Who Gave His Heart Away, reviewed in Sorted in 2018. It is the story of two teenage boys and how the fact that one was an organ donor meant the other survived a sudden collapse. It is a powerful story. How did he come across it?
“I met the parents of Martin Burton and was touched by the story of how his death, an enormous tragedy for them, saved other people’s lives. Then I realised we had the chance to put his mother in a room with the boy who got Martin’s heart and enable her to reach out and touch his chest and feel that heart beating. I’m trying to make connections and this is a story that reaches out and touches so many of us.”
Another story that made a radio series is the account of David Koresh and the storming of his cult headquarters in Waco, America.
“I met Livingstone Fagan, a survivor of Waco, whose wife and children were killed in the blaze, who lives in a flat in Nottingham and is sincerely waiting for the Second Coming of David Koresh. I wanted to tell his story.”
Cole is careful, in the documentary, to be even-handed, and he talks to the survivors from the cult as well as the police and government authorities who were trying to end the standoff peaceably. The only comment he allows himself comes right at the end, when he says, despite all the arguments still raging over whose fault it was, “Nobody would have died if it had not been for David Koresh.” The whole series, which was still available on BBC Sounds when I last checked, is a powerful – and perhaps timely – look at what people can be led to do if they are first led to believe the unbelievable.
Cole has now turned to fiction – what is the new book about?
“The Light Keeper is a novel of hope, faith, grief, longing and love. A woman goes missing in the midst of the stress of trying for a baby. Her partner searches for her in the beautiful but deadly landscape around Beachy Head, where huge cliffs fall away to the sea. And there in an old former lighthouse, on the brink of a four hundred foot drop, is a mysterious man who knows only too well that sometimes love takes you to the edge.”
“I’ve been writing The Light Keeper for ten years now, beginning soon after we moved to the south coast of England. I began to explore and respond to the landscape around me – the rolling downland, the wide skies, the high cliffs – and as I did, stories began to emerge that I might tell. Some of them are drawn from or inspired by life, and there are a few elements of the book such as descriptions of the IVF process and some of the grief and longing that the characters experience, that have been very real to me.”
What other influences were there?
“I spent a week with the voluntary Beachy Head Chaplaincy Service, an amazing group of people who patrol the edge in all weathers and at all times of day looking for people to help, and who save hundreds of lives a year. They don’t do publicity, but they did allow me to write a piece about them, which I am proud to say resulted in enough money being raised to keep them going for a few years more. They were the original inspiration for the group in the book called the Guardians, although I must say the Guardians are a fictional creation and are definitely not what the Chaplains are like in real life, some of them behave very differently.”
And his reasons for writing it?
“Because stories are the way we work out who we are, what we believe in and where we stand. There are themes in The Light Keeper around faith, prayer, belonging and the nature of the divine – and how we can often encounter the sacred in the natural world – that I have been trying to work out for myself over the years. Where do I belong? What can I hold on to when my life is in chaos? Where is God in all this? What happens when you pray? Do miracles happen? And if they seem to, why are they often so mysterious and hard to live with?”
Did it give him any answers to these questions?
“This wasn’t autobiography or writing as therapy, but the experience over the last ten years has been part of a spiritual and personal journey, certainly. I have found a place to belong, a landscape I love, that gives me space to breathe, think, feel and pray. My faith is very different than it used to be: more questioning, more doubtful, more generous and inclusive and all the better for that. I am certainly more full of wonder than I was.”
As a writer, how different an experience was it to write a novel?
“Totally different. Disconcertingly, scarily different. The main thing is that in any one moment you have a thousand choices, because you can go anywhere you want. I enjoyed finding a way to engage with the place where I live, learning to see it like an artist. I enjoyed the freedom. I enjoyed the discovery that I really do still believe in a God who is with us at all times, in all situations, like a music playing behind all things, if only we can take a moment to hear.”
“Sometimes, writing is an agonising process, if it just won’t come right, but it’s still better than working! I’ll say instead that I found it an emotional challenge, when scenes emerged in the writing that touched a nerve for me or came out of nowhere, apparently, and were poignant. There’s a moment where Sarah, as a three-year-old, is taken to hospital to see her mother, who is dying but doesn’t want to say so. I have never been in that situation, but when I wrote the first draft I was gulping back tears.”
Do you feel differently about the novel to the way you have felt about your previous books?
“It feels more personal, because I am usually telling other people’s stories. This one is mine. My aim is for The Light Keeper to carry you away, wrap you up in the warm breeze of a story, lift you up and make you think and feel. I hope you enjoy it.”
By Ali Hull