Estimated reading time:8 minutes, 47 seconds
Everyone has a story. Journalist Peter Gruner knows Islington better than most of us despite never having lived here. After 11 years on the Islington Tribune (the Trib) he retired in May. Now heâs enjoying visits back to the borough as well as trips around the UK with his wife Maggie (“Mrs Gee”). Interview by Nicola Baird
Peter Gruner is a real Islington character, despite living in Barnet. For the past 11 years heâs covered so many local events, kept us up to date on Islington politics and people. He even took the Ice Bucket challenge, after nomination from Cllr James Murray (Barnsbury ward).
Peterâs granddad was a features sub on the Evening Standard, and his Dad started on the Ham & High before moving into TV. He reckons âjournalism was in the bloodâ – though he’s relieved that his three adult children, Olly, Jennie and Briony have chosen different career paths.
Peter spent 20 years at the Evening Standard covering mainly environmental issues, including the debate about the health impacts of using diesel fuel.Â He then moved to the Islington Tribune around 2004.Â âItâs incredible to believe that we knew about the dangers of diesel exhaust more than 20 years ago. But experts kept saying that as long as there are proper exhaust controls on vehicles thereâs no problem. We now know that diesel fumes are extremely dangerous particularly for children. And look how many schools in the borough are built next to main roads.â
Peter liked âThe Tribâ, as he calls it affectionately, from day one. âIt was wonderful to still be working in London and to have a small area like Islington gave me more focus. Thereâs so much going on, such interesting people and I had a soft spot for some of the hard working councillors.
Former council leader Catherine West [now MP for neighbouring Hornsey & Wood Green] and new council leader Cllr Richard Watts wereÂ good contacts. I alsoÂ enjoyed meeting former Lib Dem leader Steve Hitchins, the leader of the Lib Dems who was always being criticised by the opposition, but was responsible for Arsenal’s move from Highbury.
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Now 68, Peter retired in May 2015. His farewellÂ party was held at an Irish pub close to the newspaper offices in Camden Town and attended by friends, colleagues, contacts, councillors and even Jeremy Corbyn, MP. âBy the end of the night we were all singing Wild Rover. So I know Jeremy can sing,â says Peter with a characteristic twinkle in his eye.
As Peter Gruner sips his coffee, sitting in the sunshine at the garden behind Laraâs CafĂ© on Blackstock Road, his conversation is filled with humour. Heâs very good company.
âSomeone said that most people donât read further than the third paragraph, so the ‘intro’ to a story is really important.
“I’m always interested in people. That’s why I love journalism.Â And everyone has got something interesting to say, even though you may not always agree with them.Â However, Iâm not a foot in the door merchant. Iâm not sure I like digging up the dirt.â
Since his retirement heâs been able to swim more often in the Hampstead Heath ponds. âGetting into cold water is tough, but getting out is exhilarating,â he quips.
People in Islington Peter Gruner admires
âOver the years Iâve been inspired by many people, but I must mention lone Green councillorsÂ Katie Dawson and Caroline Russell. Katie was wonderful. She helped introduce the 20mph speed limit in the borough. When she first arrived on the political scene I was so delighted. It was a breath of fresh air. She had lots of good ideas, and she held the balance working with both Labour andÂ the Lib Dems. I was sad when she got knocked out.
- Now Green CllrÂ Caroline Russell is the only electedÂ opposition on Islington council against an often vociferous army of Labour members. I’m sure it’s very tough for her, but she does a brilliant job.
- I wish Jeremy Corbyn well as new leader of the Labour party. Iâve known him for 40 years since he was a councillior in Haringey and I worked on the Tottenham Weekly Herald. I did an interview with him on his 30th anniversary as an MP a few years ago and he talked about his love of cheese, in particular Stilton. Not a lot of people know that heâs a member of the Parliamentary Cheese Committee. He also enjoys baking his own bread and talked about his beloved allotment.
- My story about Bob the cat and busker James Bowen was read by a local literary agent. The rest as they say is history. She got James to write his life story which turned into several best selling books and soon a film. In Jamesâs second book, The World According to Bob, heÂ mentioned me by name â that was nice of him.
There are loads of famous people in Islington. I used to see Boris Johnson on his bike before he became London Mayor. HeÂ was president of the Islington Tories. Very nice bloke.
Peter rarely uses Twitter or Facebook to get stories, unlike a lot of younger hacks, and prefers the face-to-face interview. He’s a reasonable photographer after “buying myself a posh cameraâ. His tip for budding interviewers is to make friends with Google â âalways find out about the people you are planning to interview before meeting them.â
Peter says he’s always fascinated by people’s lifestyle and favourite foods. He’ll often ask an interviewee where are the best specialist shops and where do you get the best coffee? Itâs a question that led him to discover that Jeremy Corbyn is a big Stilton cheese fan.
Peter grew up in Hampstead and went to New End School â and now after a lifetime reporting about urban life heâs considering a move out of London. Itâs a time of big change â heâs also soon to be a grandfather. Peter admits that heâs unused to sitting still so has been making trips to historic sites such as Chartwell, the family home of Winston Churchill (now run by the National Trust). Heâs also looking forward to taking Mrs Gee to see the new movie Suffragette â which has scenes shot in Myddleton Square, Clerkenwell and the Houses of Parliament, see this grainy link here (shot by Hoxton Ferret).
NowÂ heâs not restricted to Islington news, Peter plans to find out more about the Suffragettes including taking a trip to Manchester where Mrs Pankhurst was born. âThe greatest thing is my freedom pass,â he says showing it off with a flourish, âit means I can go everywhere and anywhere – and use buses for free all over the UK.â
Street Cat Bob
And with the news that the life of one-time Big Issue seller James Bowen and his ginger cat Bob is to be made into a film comes the possibility that Peter will be turned into a character in a Hollywood movie. Heâs already joked that heâd like the late Sir Laurence Olivier to play him. Despite his modesty, Peter oftenÂ self-deprecatingly refers to himself as just a âhackâ, itâs clear that heâs looking forward to seeing himself on the big screen, for however brief a moment.
Places Peter Gruner enjoys visiting in Islington
Gillespie Park at Finsbury Park is a gem. Once upon a time about 30 years ago it was railway land threatened with development. But there was a big campaign involving Friends of Gillespie Park and Jeremy Corbyn and the land was saved as a nature reserve.
I like walking along Islingtonâs canals but they have become extremelyÂ scaryÂ due to commuterÂ cyclists. Itâs almost a no go for walkersÂ andÂ elderly peopleÂ who need eyes at the back of their heads. Iâm a part time cyclist too. What is the answer? Is it a dedicated cycle lane?
Laraâs the place I like to meet contacts. Itâs very central and a place I like to have coffee with a mozzarella, avocado and sundried tomato sandwich.
Local news journalists are todayâs Samuel Pepys, covering all the stories that help us Londoners stay excited about life in the big city. Peter Grunerâs tireless news reporting has ensured that Islington locals have been able to follow a wealth of stories about who is getting up to what in Islington – and thatâs helped all of us get a better borough. There may be a new recruit at his desk now, but thanks to the Internet we wonât be forgetting Peter.
Islington Tribune is free, find it around the borough on Fridays.
Over to you
If youâd like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.
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This blog is inspired byÂ Spitalfields LifeÂ written by the Gentle Author.
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