Weekly Local Biography

  Robert Tilley

Robert Tilley is a retired journalist and writer, but you can find him most nights (and days) at the Writer’s Club and Wine Bar on Rachadamnoen Road, the nearest thing to a journalists club in Chiang Mai.

He was born in Bristol in the UK, where he was doted upon by his mother, but that did not stop his parents sending him to a school that he described as a militaristic institution. It was there, however, that he demonstrated an ability in English. By the time he was 11 years old he was producing his own comic book. Despite only having a circulation of six, this was enough to start his thinking of journalism as a career. By the time he was seventeen, he was in his own words, “Consumed with the idea of being a foreign correspondent.”

Much against the wishes of his parents he opted out of school to follow this journalistic dream, stepping on the bottom rung as a provincial newspaper copy boy. “The smell of printer’s ink is more addictive than heroin,” said Robert.

He completed his four year apprenticeship but needed to move on. Spotting an advertisement placed by a newspaper in Central Africa looking for a young, single, enthusiastic journalist, he sent off his application. He was rewarded with the job, working for the next two years in what was then northern Rhodesia. The rewards, however, did not spread to the salary. “You had to be enthusiastic - there was no money!” Showing versatility, he moonlighted as a barman.

His next move was to a ‘real’ newspaper in Durban in South Africa. This one paid real money and landed him in that country during the interesting years of Mandela and the Sharpeville uprisings. The newspaper also sponsored him to the University of Natal to study African languages. In addition he was sending local reports (‘stringing’ in journalist’s parlance) to newspapers in London’s Fleet Street, the home of journalism. He was young and doing well, but became conscious of the fact that he was living the life of a privileged white in a black country. He was 24 years old, had his own ranch style home overlooking the ocean, while at the same time surrounded by poverty. There was a basic imbalance to all this, so he decided to return to the UK.

He began knocking on the doors in Fleet Street, at all the newspapers he had been stringing for, to be met with the news that there were no openings. In fact, one editor told him to go back to where he started in journalism. Provincial newspapers! Pocketing his pride, he became a sub-editor in Bristol. He lasted 12 months in what he described as a “sweat shop”.

Robert decided to try London again, and did get a job working as a features editor for a salacious (for its day) weekly. Picking ‘Glamorous Grandmother of the Week’ for a revealing photo shoot was nothing near his dream of being a foreign correspondent. He admitted that at this point, probably his nadir, he became totally depressed with it all.

Rather than try acrobatic diving from the Tower Bridge, he put his mind back into gear, and remembered he had heard about a radio station in Germany that employed English speaking journalists. This was Radio Free Europe. He knew if he wrote to them he would get the usual fobbing off - your application has been placed on file, blah, blah, blah - so decided a direct approach would be better. He rang, saying he would be in Munich, and would like to call in and see them. He jumped on the train and arrived in Munich, and left with the job contract in his pocket.

At last, he was again working in foreign lands, dealing with news. He stayed in Munich for the next 21 years at the Central News Desk of Radio Free Europe. He began stringing for newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph, on the side. On the surface, life was good. However, not ‘that’ good.

The fall of the Berlin Wall became a catalyst for many events in Europe. It also made Robert look at his career. “I left Radio Free Europe almost symbolically with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Did I want to be a foreign correspondent or a propagandist?”

He returned to main-stream newspapers and became a feature writer for the Sunday Telegraph, but there was a certain dramatic flair missing. Something that penning words alone could not satisfy, and in 1990 he found a job back in Germany presenting a TV show, in English, for a German viewing public. “This was a wonderful job, presenting, producing and writing. The budget was good and I did programmes in Africa, the UK and America.” However, good things never last forever and financial cutbacks began to reign in the high flying Robert. After 10 years it was time to look further afield.

Serendipity arrived again, when he received a call from a colleague in Bangkok who needed help in getting a magazine off the ground. The time was ripe and he arrived in Bangkok, but hated it. Then the magazine moved off-shore. “There I was, left high and dry and floundering and freelancing in Bangkok, a city that has more freelance journalists than motorcycles!”

However, he had met his Thai partner Tong and she suggested they spend some time in her village. “I was at a loose end, so we moved there. You’re in another century, but there’s a limit to the amount of time you can live in a Thai village!”

It was time to move back into civilization, and as they both enjoyed Chiang Mai, they moved here, where Tong opened the Writer’s Club and Wine Bar and Robert could indulge himself writing his memoirs. They will be here for some time (his memoirs are many), and Robert will be happy to verify all of the above, over a beer. The foreign correspondent has achieved his aim.