His business card used to proclaim him as ‘Publicity Terrorist’, but he’ll answer to ‘Hype Merchant’ and acknowledges all that earned him the soubriquet ‘Muck Raker in Chief’ from Private Eye. If there’s one thing journalist Geoff Baker knows about it’s how to kick up a fuss – something he has continued to do at regular intervals since returning to Lyme Regis in 2010, a mere 35 years after he left in search of adventure.
Some of those years were kinder to him than others – he clawed his way up the greasy pole of tabloid journalism and landed a post at the Daily Star writing the kind of stories that defined the ‘Street of Shame’ at its most notorious; stories that ultimately brought him to the attention of the biggest rock star in the world, Paul McCartney.
Hired to deliver a stream of PR tales that would satisfy the red top grubs and deter them from looking for real dirt, before long Geoff was an indispensible part of the former Beatle’s inner circle and remained so for 15 years until an acrimonious split in 2004 sent him into a tailspin. Out of work and out of luck, in the grip of a breakdown he set off for the sanctuary of his Mum’s house in Lyme with nothing to call his own except the clothes on his back and the ideas in his addled head.
He recalls the darkness with characteristic candour: ‘My marriage had ended, I had no bank account, no money, no savings, I’d sold all my cards from Paul, all my memorabilia, the only place I had left to go was Lyme Regis.’
Geoff was born in Broad Street in 1956, went to school at St Michael’s and Woodroffe, leaving with E-grade A-levels in English and Economics. A philosophy degree later, he got a job at the Express & Echo whose the editor declared him the worst journalist he had seen in 40 years and packed him off to the Tiverton office to learn how to be a reporter. It worked and a career was born that took him all around the world and back to Lyme Regis.
He announced his return with a trademark scam that, like all the best ones, was based in truth – the one about Macca’s unemployed former PR chief reduced to sweeping the streets.
‘Well I was out of work and I’d read about some minister who said the unemployed should be put to work sweeping the streets, so that’s what I did.’
Geoff was going to conduct ‘Littery Tours’ of Lyme as he tidied up the town, a wheeze that was only surpassed when he became Britain’s first vegetarian fishmonger a couple of years later in a shoal of Beatles-related piscatorial puns.
‘I really enjoyed that. Simon Bennett, Si the Fish, who runs the fish shop on the Cobb wanted an assistant and I said I could do it even though I knew nothing about fish and had been vegetarian for 25 years. I turned out to be really good at selling fish and never had a problem with gutting them, I found it quite satisfying until it took a turn for the worse when I got into a row with a customer about hen crabs and sexing crustaceans.’
In between street sweeping and fish filleting Geoff published a novel called Rock Bottom that he hoped would change his fortunes. That it didn’t is evidenced by the unsold copies in the garage at the home he shares with partner Jill Newton.
‘I was offered ridiculous amounts of money to write a book about Paul – £20,000 just to sign an agreement for a book – but it’s something I’d never do. Instead I wrote a novel about a stressed out PR to a major rock star whose life unravels around him. Of course it was assumed I was writing about Paul, but I wasn’t. The book is set in Lyme, it’s great fun, absolutely filthy and I’m convinced that its time will come.
‘As it turned out I was still some way from hitting rock bottom. I’d been put on increasingly strong anti-depressants that replicated the symptoms of depression and actually made me worse. It took me years to get off them.’
These days he’s pleased to report there’s much more joy in his life. He has two young granddaughters and a brand new grandson that are the apples of his eye and at least some of the motivation for writing a series of books about the adventures of Sandy the Wonder Pig who lives in Lyme Regis with a dog, a hedgehog and a French-born seagull who talks like the gendarme in ’Allo ’Allo!
‘I had an idea of writing books that were not only aimed at young children but which are designed to be read to them by their grandparents. They’re a little bit more irreverent than ‘This is the cow, she is in the field’ so as to be interesting for grandparents to read as well as for the kids to be read to.’
After a spell as news editor of the London Weekly News he’s now contributing to the Independent, a West Country Sunday institution for more than 200 years, where his columns are clear evidence that old habits die hard. Geoff is a natural provocateur and ever since returning home he has thrown himself into Lyme Regis life with gusto, sharing opinions with anyone who’ll listen and, naturally enough, rattling a few cages.
‘When I came back it was clear to me the people in authority were largely ‘blow-ins’ from out of town. I don’t doubt they love the town, but they think they’re experts about Lyme Regis and I’m afraid I pull rank on them because I’m from Lyme and I understand its soul. I kept hearing people, many that I knew from school, really disgruntled and feeling their town was being taken away from them so I actively encouraged locals to stand for election. The council we’ve got now has a much better understanding of what it means to be from Lyme Regis.’
But no amount of string pulling could turn Geoff’s most prominent civic contribution, Guitars on the Beach, into a world record. Started in September 2013 with Lyme chef and restaurateur Mark Hix, the idea was to assemble a vast all-abilities band of guitarists on the beach to join a house band and play along to a simple rock ’n’ roll tune. In 2014 Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan, who lives in Lyme, joined in as did 3000 guitar players and set a new British record for the greatest number of guitars played in one place. The 2015 event made a loss and rain dampened the spirited attempt at forming the world’s biggest band in 2016. Last year the event moved to June and thousands of people but only 500 strummers convened as Ray Dorset lead a massed rendition of his Mungo Jerry hit ‘In the Summertime’.
‘What Hix and I wanted to do originally was something that would extend the summer season into September, attract one last big crowd to Lyme Regis and give local businesses a boost while raising some money for local charities. I’ve still got this thing in the back of my mind that I know Paul would absolutely love the idea of Guitars on
the Beach. We’ve been in communication privately since we parted company so we’re OK. I just need to persuade him to come along.’
One person Geoff is certain won’t be visiting Lyme Regis is HM The Queen and he can be fairly sure the Prince of Wales is none too keen either.
‘Oh, I tugged his sleeve once to hurry him up and have his photo taken with Paul. It was a charity thing at St James’ Palace and the Palace had requested a photo with Paul. Prince Charles was talking and Paul asked me to get his PR to interrupt him, but they wouldn’t. Paul was ready to go and in the end I lost it and caught Charles by the cuff of his jacket and invited him to meet Paul and do the photo that had been requested. He looked at me like he would have had me beheaded if he could, but the photo got done. It only took a second – well, one 250th of a second to be precise.’
It’s a shining example of the belligerence and irreverence Geoff believes is a Lyme Regis birthright. It’s in the blood.
‘We’re a rebel town,’ he announces proudly. ‘Lyme people like a row. Mary Tudor called us ‘That heretic town’; we beat the Cavaliers in the siege and provided the landing point for Monmouth’s rebellion.
‘But there’s always been a thing that we’re a Regis and one day the monarch will visit us. It’s never going to happen. So I’m campaigning to have a Monmouth monument on the seafront near where he came ashore by the Gig Club. It’s also where 12 of the 99 men of Lyme that joined the rebellion were hanged, drawn and quartered.’
And with that he’s off again, ‘shouting at the devil’ as he puts it, boarding another train of thought, destination: unknown.
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.