On June 24, I shall have served in Her Majesty’s Press for 40 years, assuming of course, that I don’t die earlier than I plan to or find myself unemployed. The odd thing is that 40 years sounds like an awful long time, but as anyone roughly my age will tell you, it doesn’t feel that long at all.
I am always utterly disconcerted when people refer to ‘the Eighties’ - as in ‘the Eighties’s disco boom’ or something - as though it were a particularly distant part of the Dark Ages, when, to me, it feels like, if not exactly yesterday, then at least as recent as last week. The explanation is, I think, that time seems to run extremely slowly when you are young - remember looking forward to something when you were a child and it was ‘ages and ages and ages’ away? - because you haven’t really got that many years under your belt to compare them to, whereas for us old farts one August (in, for me so far, 62 Augusts) seems very much like any other bloody August (though this year, in Britain, with a damn sight fewer hot and sunny days). The upshot is that with so many Augusts to choose from, they all become pretty much indistinguishable.
I started my first job in newspapers on June 24, 1974, and I really can’t tell you why I seem to remember certain dates so well. For example, I started my job as a reporter on The Journal in Newcastle on July 10, 1978, my first job as sub-editor (copy editor to you Yanks) on the Birmingham Evening Mail on January 7, 1980, and I joined the South Wales Echo in Cardiff, again as a sub, on February 24, 1986. (However, I doubled-checked all four dates to make sure they were all a Monday, and it turns out I had remembered two correctly, so maybe I’m not quite Amazo, The Memory Man after all.)
I’ve always felt that working as a hack, whether as a reporter or as a sub, is essentially a practical job, the finer and most salient points of which you learn as you go along, but a modicum of training, even initially merely being shown how to hold a biro (that’s Biro, actually - one for the subs reading this) does help rather a lot. So that my career as a hack has not been as dazzling as it might, perhaps, have been can be blamed on the fact that neither starting out as a reporter nor as a sub did I get any training at all.
My first job was working in the head office of the Lincolnshire Chronicle, a weekly paper in Lincoln. The irony is that hacks - and especially those pompous farts who like to refer to themselves as ‘journalist’ - try very hard to make out that joining their profession is ‘a vocation’, one up there with finding a cure for cancer or running an orphanage in Somalia. These types are all too often apt to use the phrase ‘to break into journalism’ as though jobs in the media business are at a premium and only the very best are able to scale the high wall surrounding the elite from you ordinary mortals. Like a great deal in journalism, of course, it’s complete bollocks, I’m afraid.
‘Management’, as we all learned to call them, are especially keen to push the ‘it’s a vocation, lad and count yourself lucky you’ve been chosen’ line as it enables them to pay staff peanuts and make them work far longer hours for nothing. The really cynical bit is that those handing out the jobs know full well that when you are young, you will fall for the whole ‘it’s a vocation’ schtick hook, line and sinker and will gladly beaver away for a pittance in the sad belief that somehow, in some obscure though vital way, you are making the world a better, better, better place. Invariably, of course, the penny drops, usually after a year or two of re-writing handouts submitted to your local rag by PR companies which courtesy as your skill as a ‘wordsmith’ then appear in print as news stories. You don’t believe me? Sucker.
There’s no overtime in the world of hacks, though there are still, occasionally, ‘days off in lieu’, and when I started, there was still a reasonably lucrative and gratifyingly vague system of ‘expenses’ which, if you had the necessary and were able to cover your tracks, you could use to supplement your rather pitifully small wage. Expenses, have, I’m told rather gone the way of the dodo (or is that dildo? No, probably not). For many years, the exception to ‘it’s a vocation, lad, so you won’t mind being paid peanuts, will you?’ was once the world of Fleet Street - that is the national papers in Britain who were almost all based on Fleet Street - who until about 20 years ago could be remarkably generous. But, they, too, have since discovered the financial benefits of paying your junior staff as little as possible and persuading those junior staff that they are doing them an immense favour by employing them.
As for working the expenses system, I was once in the glorious position when working as a district reporter in South Wales of making just as much by claiming totally fictitious expenses and, more legitimate, lineage payments I was being paid weekly. To this day I am baffled as to how and why I was able to get away with it, but get away with it I did and for quite some time. Even better was that although I was a North Gwent district reporter - where ‘North Gwent’ probably sounds rather pleasant to foreign ear but doesn’t at all do justice to the post-industrial horror that the South Wales Valleys were in those days, I lived in a rather pretty part of Powys, in a hamlet called Llangattock. This was just the other side of ‘the Heads of the Valleys road’ from North Gwent whose towns - Ebbw Vale, Brynmawr, Tredegar and Abertillery were as grim as Llangattock and nearby Crickhowell were chocolate-box pretty. Yet ‘work’ - the inverted commas are in this case not meant ironically as it can hardly have been called work - was only a 15-minute drive away over the moor.
I lived with a girl who worked for the sister weekly paper and it was a life of Riley. I never got up before 1oam and never in any kind of a rush. Once I had bathed and shave, I made my way up the Llangyndir back road into Ebbw Vale for a magistrates court hearing. This was followed by lunch in a pub or cafe and then a short district council meeting at 2am, before it was off home again at around 3.30am. This rather pleasant existence lasted, roughly, from early 1975 to July 1978.
The girl I lived with - her initials were JD, and she will surely make another appearance in this blog at some point in my occasional series of Romance And Why It’s Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be - was quite a good, though English, cook and liked sex just as much as I did. The one drawback was that I didn’t love her, that she had her mind set on marriage and I didn’t, and that she wanted to change me in virtually every way imaginable. But what the hell. Push came to shove in about 1977 when she realised nothing much between us was going to come of anything and found herself a job in Staffordshire.
However, we carried on ‘seeing each other’ for another year or so, she travelling down to South Wales one weekend, me travelling up to Staffordshire the next, so nothing much changed except that we were both paying rather more for petrol each week. I still didn’t love her, but she was still a good cook and still liked sex as much as I did and she had a very nice and very comfortable cottag in a little village called Stone. Why she carried on with the arrangement I really don’t know - you’ll have to ask her yourself: he initials are JD and she was living in Staffordshire in 1978. The only other detail I have about her is that she eventually married a butcher.
. . .
It’s at this point I am bound to admit that I have completely lost the thread of what I was going to write about, so I shall just carry on rambling, a task made just a tad easier as I have just opened another bottle of wine, a Morrison’s bottle of 2008 ‘Chianti Classico’. My two principles when choosing a supermarket wine is that I refuse to buy anything which is less than four years old and I refuse to buy anything offered at ‘half-price’. Wines more than four years old can, of course, most certainly be equally as undrinkable as a wine bottle barely four weeks ago, but the chances are that one chosen at random is rather less likely to be complete piss, mainly becasue there are rather fewer of them in your average supermarket. And when supermarkets decide to offer a wine ‘at half-price’, it’s usually because it’s cheap crap they have to get rid before anyone realises just what cheap crap it is.
. . .
I turned up at the offices of the Lincolnshire Chronicle which were at the far end of the printing works next to the canal at Waterside South. It was a small office which consisted of an editor, a sub-editor, a news editor, a sports editor, a long-time columnist of the old school and about five or six reporters. The editor, sub-editor - whose name was Linda, I recall - the columnist and the sports editor all had their own, very pokey, offices. The news editor and we reporters all shared a slightly bigger office, with the reporters all siting round one big table. We each had a typewriter, but there were only two phones between the five/six of us. Just off our ‘newsroom’, which cannot have been larger than 15ft by 20ft, was the photographers’ darkroom. That was even smaller.
This was in 1974 which, if your maths is any good, was closer to the Fifties than today, and the whole operation was more a hangover from what local weekly papers were in their heyday than what the few which remain are now. So the columnist, who to the 24-year-old I was then seemed ancient, but couldn’t really have been more than the age I am now, will have started his career on the Lincolnshire Chronicle in the Thirties and will have ended it there, too, and wrote stuff which will have interested no one except those his age and older. I do remember that at some point I fell foul of him, though I really can’t remember any details.
The sports editor was a young chap called Max, and as this blog is this evening in revelatory more, I can reveal that I screwed both his wife and her sister, though not at the same time. It’s not as bad as it sounds in that the marriage was, as I found out, already falling apart. That it was all over between them was quite obvious when I went out with his wife on a Saturday evening and she stayed with me that night and he then picked her up the following morning. He knew exactly where to find her and I had most certainly not given him my address. And he didn’t seem to mind a bit.
The news editor was a rather bouncy chap called Digby Scott. We got along well enough and I should imagine he got along well enough with most people. There are really only two things I remember about him, apart from what he looked like then as I can still picture him and conjure up his manner in my mind’s eye. One was that he was newly married and that in order to supplement his income and save up for a mortgage - this was, after all 1974/5 in the days before smartarse salesmen would hand loans and debts to anyone and his dog - he used to go from door to door in the evenings trying to sell insurance. (The deputy news editor of the local evening paper, the Lincolnshire Echo, was in the same position, and he and his wife were also saving up for a mortgage. Their ruse to make a little extra money was to have a knife-throwing act which, I assume, performed in local clubs. His name was Peter Brown and his wife was called Anne. Their act was called Petana. He once showed me a publicity still they used: he was clutching a fistful of knives and wearing tight trousers and a faux-gypsy shirt with balloon sleeves and she was in bodice and fishnet stockings.)
I got on well enough with Digby - in fact, I get on well enough with many of my colleagues and have always done so, and am always a little surprised when I find out, always obliquely, that they don’t quite get on as well with me as I do with them. But the other thing I remember about him was a memo he sent me about a month after I started with the Lincolnshire Chronicle.
I should explain that many young of the young folk who for several centuries had managed to ‘break into journalism’ were keen as mustard and since they had first set eyes on a newspaper at the age of nine had wanted nothing else but to be what was always described in Press Gazette job ads as ‘a newshound’. They used to frighten the shit out of me when I came across them. They had purpose, they had zeal, they were bastards and they were here today and gone tomorrow. They didn’t hang about. But, dear reader, that wasn’t me.
I had sent off letters to a number of newspapers asking to be taken on as a reporter because in those days I was convinced I was a literary genius who would make his name writing brilliant short stories and novels and, more to the point, felt that if I worked for a paper, at least I would be taking a step in the right direction as I would be ‘writing’. Actually sitting down to justify my status as a literary genius by making the effort to write brilliant short stories and novels didn’t occur to me for quite a few years. In fact, I’m not too sure it has even yet occurred to me. News, as such, didn’t interest me at all (and most of it still doesn’t - I take the view that if it’s really important - and, to be honest, nothing is that much - I’ll find out about it sooner or later. And if I miss it the first time around, I’ll be able to catch up on it in a history book.).
My lack of interest must have been very apparent to Digby Scott, as must have been my lack of ambition. The idea was that keen, would-be ‘newshounds’ should be straining at the leash to get out there to report. I, on the other hand, turned up at 9am and just sat idly reading the paper and waited to be given something to do. This wasn’t quite the attitude expected of a would-be Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock. Eventually, I got my first memo: Digby chastised me for not being more - well, these days it would be called ‘proactive’, but I can’t remember how he put it. But I also remember that he bollocked me because all too often my copy was bad ‘splet’ (sic). This did amuse me, though I don’t think it changed my attitude much.
. . .
Look, chaps, I’m on a roll her, but it is getting late. So I shall continue this rambling melange another time. You’ve got to admit, it’s better than me banging on about the fucking euro.
To be continued.