Tim was late but he had an excuse. “I was driving along this morning and I saw this wheel go past. It overtook me and then it headed off down the hill. I thought, ‘That’s funnyâ€”it’s a wheel. What’s that doing in the middle of the road?’ I looked round but there’s nowhere it could have come from…
“Then I realised. It had fallen off my car.” Yes, that’s strange, we agreed, trying not to look too horrified. “Yeah. I just had the brakes done and the guys at the garage didn’t put this wheel back on properly.” So Tim had spent the morning chasing his wheel. Given that he could have been killed, you’d think he would have been at least ‘wheely’ upset but, bad puns aside, he didn’t seem too bothered. In fact he seemed highly amused. “Didn’t it bother you, this wheel falling off your car?” “Nah. The MG’s pretty stable.” No shit.
Tim was funny and a good pal but he wasn’t my only friend. In fact, I still had a good number of friends outside journalism, from both college and before. The closest person to me was Deb, who I’d known since the third year at secondary school. Deb is a genuine, warm and honest person. My rock and my light, at that time especially. She wondered why I would have anything to do with the journalists I hung out with. Because when they weren’t being amusing, they were mostly rude and incredibly juvenile. I took the rudeness as the price of career development although it occasionally made me wonder whether everyone in the media really would climb on top of the person in front of them to get ahead.
Deb was someone I didn’t get to see as often as I’d have liked since she was nearly always travelling abroad. Maybe if I had spent more time in her company, I’d be a better person, or at least got there quicker. Who knows. Once she finished university, she did a long season in France as a site manager looking after a chain of campsites and then she discovered Africa. Always fascinated by wildlife, somewhere along a roundabout route Deb also visited Australia and South America, but once the Africa bug bit (not literally) she never looked back. In fact, she’s still there today, leading safaris. Deb had a profound influence on my life, not least because she followed her dreams.
On one of her infrequent visits homeâ€”or rather, back to Britain, since she considered Africa homeâ€”we were talking about leadership and how to get what you want in a job. “You have to discover the secret of managing upwards,” she noted. “How to manage your manager.” This advice moved me forwards time and again. Later I discovered management theories which said the same thing, but that was at least ten years after our discussion. Deb was always ahead of her time. I miss her.
One Tuesday, Ralph sent me over to the Watford office with the St Albans page layouts. Peter Wilson-Leary, the group editor, came out of his corner cubby hole and did his inscrutable unfathomable half-smile. If you looked up ‘wan smile’ in the dictionary it would say, “See Peter Wilson-Leary?s facial tick.” He did it that well. “Hello, Keith. Got a minute?” We went into his office and he closed the door, as if we were having some kind of summit meeting. Peter liked to try to maintain an aura of mystery, although really he was about as enigmatic as a box of soap flakes.
“How’s St Albans?” asked Peter, or PWL as we called him. “Fine. Fine. No problems.” “Good.” He flashed his award-winning mouth twitch at me. “I’d like you to come back to Watford and learn subbing.” Subbing meant sub-editingâ€”designing page layouts, proof reading copy for spelling, accuracy and legal problems, rewriting and cutting stories to give them more impact, or sometimes just to have them make sense. “Oh, okay,” I responded, quickly trying to mentally balance the travel cost and expenses implications. “Are you sure that’s okay?” said Peter looking worried. This was his alternate expression, the one he wore most often. PWL was a man with a lot to worry about.
Peter was unlike any other editor in Westminster Press because he was always more interested in doing the right thing than in selling newspapers per se. He wanted to do the right thing for the paper and for the community. In fact, Peter’s idea of editing was community service. He should have been a priest. Mind you, that didn’t mean he couldn’t stand his ground if pressed.
At that time, the group editor was engaged in a bitter struggle for the survival of the paper. It took years, but he eventually outwitted one very hard-nosed managing director, Steve Oram, who had been appointed as a hatchet man. Steve’s scheme consisted of installing a different editor on the Watford Free Observer in the same office as the WO and then bringing it out the day before the broadsheet. Steve’s theory was that if everyone had already read the news for free, they would stop buying the paid-for. When circulation inevitably fell, he could justify axing it along with most of the journalists who produced it. Ka-ching! Big cheque and thank you very much for Mr Oram.
Except it didn’t happen.
Free editor, Alan Bird, and his staff of four had access to the whole WO computer system, so they had access to every story written by a much larger team. That should have meant they had the pick of the very best stories to fill their pages but Peter’s tactic was to hold back nearly all the WO’s copy and pictures until the last minute so that the Free had to find its own material. The tactic worked because reporters’ computers weren’t networked to the editing system but relied on floppy disks to transfer stories. Steve had been too tight-fisted or perhaps too short-sighted to upgrade the ancient Apple IIe’s which everyone in the newsroom used. It was his undoing.
The WO was regularly produced in a dayâ€”the day the Free came outâ€”and, with help from the photographic department, which still came under Peter’s authority, plus some bold design decisions on using those pictures, circulation didn’t fall. It actually went up. A bit. Thanks to constant orders for reprints, the photographic department actually made a consistent profit throughout and Peter won, although there were still redundancies along the way. After a long hard internal struggle which wasted considerable time, energy and resources, Steve Oram was eventually forced to concede. He left the group with his tail between his legs. Alan Bird went too and PWL took back control of the Free.
All that was yet to happen, however, and at the time I sat in his office that Tuesday afternoon, the battle was still being fought. Peter had plenty of reasons to fret. My reaction to his worried question clearly hadn’t been positive enough, so remembering to manage my manager, I replied more enthusiastically, “Yes! That’s great!” “Good,” he said, inscrutably. “Good. We’ll bring you over at the beginning of January.” Switching from worried to another hopeful attempt at conveying warmth through a facial expression, he wanly signaled the end of the meeting.
Tim had been right about Watford. There was definitely a buzz and a social scene, and learning a new set of skills was both a challenge and a joy. Angela Goodwin, who had also worked over in St Albans with me, was now on the subs desk and showed me the basics of page layout. It was beautifulâ€”clear, creative and aesthetically pleasing. I took to it like a duck to water. Subbing was, in some ways, the ideal job for me, especially at that time. It involved design work, typography, picture editing, graphics. It required pedantry over spelling and style, writing ability, joy in reading and a wide general knowledge.
Next to me sat Lucy Parks, who had started working at the WO a few months before I arrived. If I was loud, Lucy was louder. We competed for loudness, oblivious to the rest of the newsroom and we became fast friends. It was a friendship that was immediateâ€”and immediately mad. We generally behaved like crazy people. Angela smiled indulgently as we drew childish pictures of her and stuck them to the wall. “Mummy, aged 250, by Lucy aged 5” I’d write on an infantile scribble. Malcolm Waller didn’t know how to take us. He tried being stern but we were highly competent, so he had to use his sternness on other people, using his customary, “No no no no no!” in response to crimes against style. “No no no no no!” Lucy and I would parrot, throwing down our pens. Malcolm started doing the wan smile thing along with PWL.
Peter’s worst habit was to hold long meetings about very little. He loved his meetings, especially when he could close the door. He’d call us into his office with his customary, “Got a minute?” then ask us what we thought of two nearly identical photos. “Which one do you think I should use on the front page?” We’d think for a moment, then point to one arbitrarily. He would hum and he’d haa, then he’d call in someone else for a third opinion. Then a fourth, fifth and sixth. Eventually half the newsroom would be in Peter’s office looking at whatever it was and rolling our eyes at each other. “The editor’s indecision is final,” quipped Ken Scott one day. It was. It so was.
Ken sat behind the subs on the features desk with arts editor Grelle White. Ken was a dry Scott with a wry sense of humour. Good value. He wrote advertising features while Grelle produced the Go Magazine, our entertainment section. More often than not, Grelle was out interviewing someone or watching a film or a West End matinee. Actually, much of the time she was out playing golf. Or playing bridge. Or having her hair done. Or picking up someone from the airport. Grelle, we all figured, was there for ‘pin money’ rather than a serious vocation and, to be honest, if the money had been half decent, like enough to start buying a house, working as a journalist at the WO in a senior position would have been a tempting career proposition. Perhaps. For a while. Okay, I still would have gotten boredâ€”and bored I eventually got, although I had a lot of fun getting there.
After a few months, Angela left to start working elsewhere. We had a large gathering in the pub with leaving drinks well into the night. There was much toasting, good wishes for the future and even some champagne. Then we took her cartoons off the wall and promptly forgot about her. Chris Beech was drafted in as a replacement. I knew Chris from our days working together in printing. In fact, PWL had asked me a while back if I thought Chris would be a good person to learn subbing, not having had any journalism experience. I promptly said, “Yes!” although I?m sure he asked for several other opinions before taking him on. Peter wouldn’t have been Peter if he hadn’t.
The three new sub editors, Lucy, Chris and myself, were like nothing the WO had seen before and I dare say since. We had a truly fine time keeping Malcolm Waller on his toes while turning out a very high quality broadsheet in more or less a single day. We’d play amusing pranks like calling an abuse line then transferring the call to one of the reporter’s extensions. Or we’d sellotape the receiver down on someone’s phone while they were out then go to another room and start ringing as soon as they returned. Grelle made a good target because she was so good natured. She’d treat us like naughty children when she got back from wherever to find we had pressed our faces against the photocopier glass in mock terror then stuck the result to her computer screen, as if we were trapped inside. Another jape was to fill in her diary with fictitious appointments. Not that she ever read it, mind.
Serious career ambitions were put aside, although it did cross my mind once or twice that I was putting a lot of creative energy into a product for which I was getting very little financial reward. Job satisfaction, thoughâ€”that was high. Peter went on holiday one week leaving Malcolm and Frazier Ansell, the news editor, in charge. Lucy and I grew crazier. We went out and bought matching sweatshirts, then spent the rest of the week dressed as twins. Malcolm and Frazier went “Ho ho ho!” the first day. The second and third days they simply rolled their eyes. Thursday, they ignored us. Friday, we turned up in suits and bow ties, put up an “Under New Management” sign and sat in Peter’s office for most of the day. Photographer Pete Stevens had joined the paper by then and he documented our week’s proceedings. We duly stuck his prints up on the wall where Angela’s cartoons had been.
“It’s not big and it?s not clever,” said Malcolm. “Oh, but it is. It so is,” we replied, although we knew it wasn’t. Chris was inclined to agree vocally with Malcolm so we dubbed him Son Of Waller. Ken laughed. The rest of the newsroom looked on, lost in their own little worlds. The subs desk had become an exclusive club and we revelled in it. Lucy and I phoned each other on internal extensions and spat venom at each other. “Cunt!” Then we’d hang up and giggle like lunatics.
Chris and I would sometimes gang up on Lucy, parodying her graphic stories of what she’d done with her boyfriend Barry the night before. One time we changed her keyboard on deadline day. These were proprietary keyboards, with a line of arrow keys instead of the more ergonomic ones used today. We pulled the keys out and swopped them around, so that down became up and left became right. She hit the roof. Two weeks later, Lucy and Chris hid the large dictionary, the only one in the office and our only way of checking spellings. It was thirty minutes before the final deadline and they let me sweat for a good quarter of an hour before revealing it. They pantomimed pushing someone over a cliff as I worked frantically to get the last story out between increasingly worried phone calls from Peter and Malcolm over at the printers.
Like nearly every job I could imagine, subbing eventually became routine and I was clearly becoming restless. You could master graphic design. I could master it. Mastering it took me all of six to eight months. I went to the international typography conference, Type 90, in Oxford and charged it on expenses. I listened to Herman Zapf and Neville Brody talk about alphabets. I played with Apple Macs that the WO hadn’t the budget to purchase. I entered a logo design contest there, competing against top typographers from all over the planet. And I won. My marque wound up in London’s Design Museum and I took a group of friends along for a day trip without telling them why. “That signature looks familiar,” said my friend Paul, looking at this large framed original hanging in the entrance. “Hey, that’s yours!” Yep. I was beating the system. Almost.
For half a year I was in hog heaven and all my other aspirations went on the back burner. Then I amused myself by coming up with ever new ways to be bad. Peter put me in charge of the property and motoring pages, to edit features and write headlines. No one ever checked these pages, buried as they were deep in the advertising section. I had carte blanche. One week I wrote, “Manor, manor, b’boo bee doo doo” in sixty point Times Roman. Another week, I wrote, “The new Ford Mondeo, parked very badly” as the caption for a photo in a motoring supplement. The advertising department were perplexed. Ford cancelled their ads for a month. In another bold move, Peter gave me a features page called Mainly For Women to edit. By the second week, I had six fashion pictures pinned to a tree outside and Pete was photographing it to produce a print which would fill the broadsheet page. PWL vetoed it and I had to use a tree graphic instead. I was still restless.
Later, working with moving pictures, this restless need to be bad never happened, although the WO empowered me in an unexpected way. Strangely, it was creatively healthy to have someone draw lines for me to cross. Constant challenge kept me sharp. Nevertheless, the learning curve of moving imagery is endless. Technology and techniques continually change. Not only that, film and television are based on art, and art is subjective. No one can ever know everything there is to know about moving images. That, to me, is part of what makes it so appealing. Not only am I creating and communicating, I’m also continually learning, being challenged, being stretched. The only thing being stretched after half a year at the WO was my capacity for surprise over the increasing wildness of Tim’s stories. Fate really picked on him.
One time he went back to a girl’s house after a night out with a group of journalists. He’d had a few beers and so he woke up in the middle of the night desperately needing the bathroom. Somehow, he found it in the dark and relieved himself. Then he found he’d locked himself in. It was three o’clock in the morning, pitch dark and Tim was trapped. In his boxer shorts. In a house full of strangers.
Not wanting to create a bad impression on his ‘date’, he decided to climb out the window and go back in through the front door, which was unlocked. It was only when he was out on the ledge that he realisedâ€”he was two stories up. Fortunately the girl he was with had woken up by that point and got the bathroom door open. “What are you doing out on the ledge?” she whispered. She switched the light on. “In your underwear?” “Um…” Blushing, he climbed back in. Fate smiled inscrutably at the hapless Mr Bowdler. I smiled too. It could happen to anyone. Well, maybe not.
Eventually, after nearly 18 months at the WO, I didn’t feel I was standing on a ledge exactly, but I knew exactly how it felt to be stuck in the loo. I identified it as a feeling that I could put down to not writing enough. It was once again time to manage my manager. “Peter, I don’t feel I’m writing enough.” “Oh, what can we do?” “Well, I’d like to do some more reporting.” Wan smile. His. “Okay, let me get back to you. But I don’t really think I can spare you from the subs desk.”
About six weeks later Peter called me into the office and said, “Keith, I’ve been thinking. I don’t think you’re writing enough.” He made it sound as if it was all his idea. Well, the decision was his, at least. Either way, a result. Excellent. Or was it? On reflection, I really wasn’t sure. The subs desk was actually not a bad place to be… Peter’s indecisiveness had turned out to be just a little infectious. Still, too late. “I think it would be a good idea for you to go back to St Albans for a bit. So… What do you think?” Wan smile. Mine.
Fate smiled inscrutably at me too.