What is now more than 20 years ago, and it shocks me a little to say so as in some ways it seems far more recent, I lived and worked in Cardiff. I was working as a sub-editor on the South Wales Echo, which I had joined in February 1986. I was 36 years old. It was my first journalistic job since leaving the CEGB's staff newspaper, Power News, in September 1984, and my first job back on a real newspaper since leaving the Birmingham Evening Mail for Power News in November 2002.
I say that the Evening Mail was a 'real' newspaper because Power News was much more of a company mouthpiece in which everything was hunky-dory, the future was always bright and, I shouldn't wonder, the staff all went to work with boundless joy in their hearts, able as they were to devote another day to the glorious CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board). As the electricity generating industry was so vital to the country and because any government of whatever hue wanted to avoid trouble at all costs, CEGB staff were treated with kid gloves and were exceptionally well-paid to keep the unions happy. So, for example, my wage jumped overnight from the £8,500 the Evening Mail was paying me to £11,300. In addition we got marvellous travel expenses, so all four of us subs, each of whom was responsible for two regional editions, organised trips away from the office for whatever reason, just to clock up the mileage. In addition, Power News was published monthly, so twice a month all four of us, plus the chief sub, travelled from our homes in various parts of the West Midlands to the printers in Bicester to proof-read. Naturally we could easily have organised sharing a car, but we all drove there separately to get the mileage, claim the exceptionally generous mileage allowance and boost our bank balances.
The pertinent point was that everyone higher up the ladder knew that such unnecessary trips were being made, but did not at all object, for three reasons. It kept the workforce sweet, they were doing the same themselves, and, anyway, as the CEGB (often wittily referred to by me as the KEGB, a regular quip which went down like a lead balloon) was a public body, it was public money that was being spent so what did they care.
This is a long way from Cardiff, but bear with me, if necessary to How The Left Works parts II and III.
Working on Power News was deadly, deadly dull, despite the comparatively large amounts of moolah I was earning. And despite the large amounts of moolah I was earning, I still got into debt.
At the beginning of the 1980s, I had become interested in photography. I ditched the silly 35mm holiday snap camera I was using with which I couldn't get the pictures I thought I was taking, and bought myself an SLR, first a Pentax something or other, then a Pentax K1000, which was not half as sophisticated, but which was the one I ended up using almost all the time. The next step was to teach myself developing and printing, and to print I borrowed all the necessary kit from a colleague of my then girlfriend (the one woman so far in my life I should have married, though at the time I was pretty immature, so I shan't claim it would necessarily have worked.)
By this time I was working for the CEGB and was being paid loads, so I started buying photographic equipment as though there were no tomorrow, my own enlarger - a very good one - lenses, flashes, slave units, trays, all sorts. And, of course, I got into debt, although at the time that didn't much bother me.
On holiday down here in Cornwall visiting my father at Easter 1984, I was out taking pictures along the north coast and fell into conversation with some guy. I can't remember anything about him except that he suggested that if I wanted to do photography properly, I should consider going to college and studying photography.
So I got myself a place on a very good course in the Wednesbury college of West Bromwich College, left my job and on the strength of £1,500 which, by chance, my father had given all his children, and the promise of four shifts a week working as a casual sub on the Birmingham Post, I left Power News, to my delight as well as that of the editor and chief sub, and began the life of a student. It worked well for a term.
Except for Wednesdays when we had a long session in the studio which didn't end until around 7pm, I would jump into my 2cv at just after 5pm, drive down the M5 from Wednesbury to Colmore Circus, Birmingham, and work a four-hour shift. Then it was back to my house in the Maypole (the area was so-named after a pub of the same name, which was one of those massive Brummie drinking halls and which has since been demolished) and often some kind of college work (always with a spliff in my hand) until 2am when I went to bed. I enjoyed that term a lot. Then it all fell apart.
Just after Christmas, the Post went for 100 redundancies and all casuals were axed. That was the end of that source of income. By Easter 1985, at the end of my second term, I realised did not have any money to pay my fees and support myself, so I had to leave the course and sign on unemployed.
Being jobless is no fun at all. I can't claim that what I felt was and is what others feel, but my sense of self-worth took a nosedive and I lived from 8am until the following 8am when the postman arrived with possible replies to the job applications I had made.
I was unemployed for the following ten months, first applying for jobs as a newspaper photographer which was, in retrospect, utterly unrealistic - who was going to take on a 35-year-old with no relevant experience and whose portfolio of photographs had almost no human subjects? I was offered one job, on a small weekly in Loughborough at something like £5,000 a year, but I just couldn't afford to go. Then I widen my job search to include reporters jobs, but again had no luck. The one possibility was on a news agency in Buckinghamshire run by an ex-Sun hack. It was a very successful agency, but it became apparent that his interest in me was more personal than professional (even though he was married) and it also became apparent that I didn't want to cross to the pink side, so that came to nothing either.
Finally, I also began applying for jobs as a sub-editor, and here my luck change, mainly because then, and possibly now, subs are always in short supply. The trouble was that at the time I found sub-editing deadly dull and really didn't want to work as a sub any more. But because of interest payments my debts were growing and so, very reluctantly, I accepted the job on the South Wales Echo in Cardiff.
Well, we've arrived in Cardiff, but no sniff of the Left yet. Wait till part II. Or not.