Composer phoned today. The CD is in the post, on its way.
This week has seen the following progress (or lack thereof):
Firstly, and most importantly, the past few weeks have led me to the amazing discovery of Wuthering Heights. This is thanks to a serialisation of the book on Radio Four. I can’t believe I haven’t read this. It’s everything I’ve been wanting to explore and more. The heart-rending beautiful hauntedness of the Yorkshire Moors is so clear, so poignant. So now I have a mission: read this book.
Secondly, I’ve finished reading Ben Elton’s book, Dead Famous. Elton has captured the zeitgeist perfectly. This is exactly how reality television and society both function and feed from the same plate. Is it mutual parasitism or symbiosis? Everyone “deserves” their 15 minutes of Warhol. Yeah. Wicked. Biggup yourself.
Third, I’ve taken on a new project. My friend Ronni from work has another friend Susan who is in this band called Stimulator. So Susan has a load of rushes and a very cool video and Ronni has put her in touch with me in the hopes that I can edit an electronic press kit (EPK) for this group.
So I’ve now got 60 gigabytes of video material and have spent two days converting it all to the same format (NTSC, 29.97fps, audio at 48kHz blah blah). And today I’ve been logging. They’re pretty good. Hope to have a rough cut for them by Wednesday. Visit their site here and checkout the video and say if you think it’s cool.
Fourth, The Car. What progress on your film, I hear you ask? I hear you because I’m pressed up against your wall with a beer glass. Yes. Scary huh? Okay, not really. So, what progress?
Well, the other week I borrowed a clockwork Bolex (camera) from a friend of a friend who happens to be working on Harry Potter down the road at Leavesden Studios. The studios are locked down tight so I didn’t see anything except the back of Harry’s house and the street on the back lot (an old airfield).
Shot the closing credits with the new music person’s name and other omissions included in Pete the photographer’s garden. Strange thing about a clockwork camera is that it only runs for 19 seconds and then you have to wind it up again. Which isn’t so handy for credits where you really need to keep the camera still. Anyway, got it done.
Last week I managed to get this material on to my Mac and have now edited the credits on to the end of the film. Now I need a sound mix and grading. Sound mix is being held up because I want to redo one of the music tracks but the composer has gone on holiday. Grading is being held up because I can’t figure out how to do it properly in Final Cut Pro so I was thinking I ought to really get a real pro to do it for me.
Quote for grading came in today at Ł200/hour. Ulp. Although doable. Just. Still no sign of the musician.
That’s it for now.
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.
Gary and Terry downstairs have bought the blue Suzuki jeep from the girl down the block. That’s the same car which the mad woman smashed up by driving it into someone’s front porch over the road here. That’s the same car which they then tried to dump over in a dodgy estate (aka ‘Beirut’ to those living nearby) while they appeared to be scamming an insurance claim. That’s the same car I had a mystery phone call about a few weeks back, apparently from a finance company which wanted to know if I’d seen the car because it hasn’t been paid for.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I think maybe I’ll cut the tree down after all. What the hell.
It’s press day and Tim is working on a story about tax evasion. Poll tax is the latest in a series of unpopular policies introduced by the Tory Government of the time and a lot of people have refused to pay as a form of protest. It’s tasty. It’s topical. Tim has a list of defaulters issued by the local court and is on his feet, pacing, as he calls a prominent Tory councillor for a comment. The phone is a big stick for stirring things with…
“This is Ray Scranage. Who’s this?”
“Er, it’s Tim Bowdler from the St Albans Observer. I’m working on a story about the poll tax…”
“Tell him it’s the front page lead,” Ralph calls across the room.
“Er, yes. It’s our lead story this week and, anyway… Ray, the thing is, er, we’ve got a list of people who are due to appear in court for poll tax evasion…”
“Well, let me put it like this, Ray. You’re on the list. You haven’t paid your poll tax. Do you have anything to say?”
“It’s a fair cop.”
That was the headline and our work was done. We rejoiced in the fact that Mr Scranage wasn’t going to be elected next time the ballot boxes opened. He’d have to hang a pork chop round his neck to get even a dog interested in him. And it would have to be a pretty special pork chop at that. His political demise was pleasing.
Hoisting a politician on his own petard was a high spot in a newsroom which churned out copy like a sausage factory. We were writing an average of fifty stories a week. Each. Now and again Ralph would let us write a feature and there was a two page arts section called ?Outlook? which had creative possibilities. Actually, we had a pretty free reign to do features whenever we wanted, but most of the things we wrote about came from press releases, council meetings and occasionally police, fire or ambulance contacts. Crown court reports came from an agency and magistrates court was almost completely ignored.
Sometimes, Ralph would send one of us over the road to the coroner’s court to write up inquests. Inquests were dark slaps in the face with harsh reality, dealing with sudden deaths?accidents, suicides and illegal killings. They were about mortality and the fragility of life. They were not only depressing but often deadly dull to sit through. Anyone on the edge would have jumped after two hours of incomprehensible witness statements and coroner Arnold Mendoza muttering more jargon. Nine times out of ten Dr Mendoza would come up with an “open verdict”.
This kind of darknessâ€”the pointless, meaningless deathsâ€”inspired equally black gallows humour and we’d go back to Ralph with suggestions for headlines like ‘Death plop’ for a story about a fatal fall. “How about ‘Dullard writes readable copy’?” he’d retort, followed immediately by an exaggerated stage sigh, “No, forget it. It will never happen.”
For someone who read eight or nine paperbacks a week, Ralph’s shtick was pretty lame. We’d written up his six stock phrases in the front of our contact books and suggested he simply refer to them by number rather than continue wasting his breath trying to break into stand up. Well, when I say “we” I mean the royal we, of course. Harvey mostly ignored our youthful exuberances and simply ground out copy.
Harvey covered county council and wrote nearly every page lead in the paper. Local government is the biggest business in Britain, second only to central government, so the potential for news was a bottomless pit. Harvey was backed up by his bottomless pit of contacts and, apart from The Sayings Of Chairman Ralph, his little red contacts book could answer anything. What he didn’t know or couldn’t find out ended up with a phone call to Roger “I’ll get back to you” Osborn in the St Albans Council press office. Roger got back to us about fifty percent of the time, which was pretty good considering how often we phoned him. He also had five other local papers he was trying to help, although of course we were the best.
Ralph and Harvey with input from Roger were effectively the driving force which produced the St Albans Observer. Over in Watford, there was the group editor, Peter Wilson-Leary and his deputy, Malcolm ‘I’m not bitter’ Waller, who had joined the paper as a boy and was now facing retirement. He would never achieve his dream of becoming editor and everyone knew it. Together, these people were ‘the system?’which we had to beat. There were a number of younger journalists, although never more than three at a time over in the small district office at St Albans. We had to get to a stage where we were better than our managers if we were ever going to escape. Or simply outwit them.
Tim moved back to Watford after a few months and observed that, socially, it was a much better place to work. “There’s just a lot more going on. It’s a bigger office. There’s more people you can talk to, more life. There’s a buzz.” He suggested I should get back there and have more of a life. I put the idea to the back of my mind. There were some advantages to working unobserved in the quiet district office. I could leave most of the keying-in until the weekend and do it undisturbed. And I could claim expenses for what I termed ‘flying a desk’ when I did same. Was I interviewing these people? Or copying their words into inverted commas? Who knew. That will be ÂŁ40, please. Ka-ching!
Tim’s oft repeated question to me was, “Have you got an escape plan yet?” to which the answer was mostly negative, although I continued taking film making classes whenever I could. Grelle White, the Watford arts editor, let me write up monster movie reviews and there were some interviews with actors and directors appearing in there too. I hoped that all this would eventually pull in enough contacts to make sense of an industry I wasn’t involved with but hoped to break into.
One of my favourite things to do was to visit my old school friend Paul, a model and prop maker, at Shepperton Studios where he was working on Thomas The Tank Engine, plus commercials and even feature films. I wrote up a feature on him onceâ€”local boy makes goodâ€”justified as he’d learned his craft at St Albans college. Ralph’s headline was ‘Modellers out to scale the heights?. Groanworthy but not totally dire. “No, no, no, no, no,” said Malcolm Waller, throwing down his pen when he saw it over in Watford. “You can’t use puns like that!” He underlined it in heavy red ink and sent us a copy of the paper, as he always did, marked up with his comments all over. We ignored him. Another advantage to working miles away.
As I learned more, my writing improved, at least a bit. I made more contacts and I knew where I could find out pretty much anything I needed to know. The district we covered had a fantastic amount of resources, although people rarely put them together. It was all just information and publicity for small pockets of people who never connected. I felt like I was collecting the biggest ever collection of digging equipment but finding that there was nowhere to start work on the escape tunnel. Metaphorically, I was on the first floor and there was no way down except through the window. The feeling of being trapped came home even more strongly after Roger met up with us in the pub one lunchtime.
“Tell them what happened to your wife on Christmas Day,” Roger said to Ralph, slapping him heartily on the back. “This is a good one,” he winked to us. Ralph opened his mouth to speak, “Oh, I don’t know…” He was about to continue but Roger, who’d heard it before, beat him to the punch. “Did you know Ralph locked his wife in the cathouse for Christmas Day? She was only wearing her nightie.” Ralph gave him a withering glance but it simply bounced off Roger’s irresistable bonhomie. Everyone loved Roger. “Well, I’m not going to tell now you’ve told them,” said Ralph petulantly. “Oh, go on,” said Roger, “they haven?t heard it.” So Ralph did.
The Slaters bred rare Persian Blues in a huge cattery in their back garden and apparently Mrs Slater had been inside a shed within one of the cages, feeding the cats. Ralph went out and saw the gate open, so he diligently locked it. It wasn’t until a few hours later that he wondered where his Christmas Dinner was and it dawned on him to check outside. Poor Mrs S had been outside for hours, freezing in only her nightie, while Ralph had sat by the fire watching videos.
We laughed. At least it wasn’t snowing. Mrs Slater didn?t come to any harm and even had the forgiveness to cook Ralph’s dinner. The irony was, we were as stuck as Ralph’s cats in the tiny cage of local journalism. The Slaters’ pedigree furballs weren’t allowed out to breed beyond the confines of their cages and we didn’t have enough money to buy ourselves out of the inevitable bank loans and overdrafts taken on to support a reasonable lifestyle.
“How’s the escape plan coming along,” asked Tim again one evening in the pub. “I don?t know,” I said, honestly. I’d been applying for various things in television, and even radio, but had had rejection after rejection, mostly from the BBC. They advertised great sounding posts all the time, every week, and the application forms took hours to complete. Sometimes I even got an interview but then came the letter. Always “Thank you…” never “pleased…” It seemed like they just didn’t want to play with me. It was May 1989. It was time to find a new pork chop.
It happened one morning, much like any other. Ralph was going through the mail and dishing out anything he thought worthy of writing up for the paper. He tossed a press pack over on my desk. I looked down.’Cable is coming’ it proclaimed. I opened it up. The press release inside said that Herts Cable Limited had put in a bid for the local cable TV franchise. It covered St Albans District (where I worked) and Dacorum (where I was born and brought up), an area which included two major population centres plus various smaller towns and villages in between. If they succeeded in their bid, Herts Cable would offer up to 45 channels of television including a local channel. I dialled the number.
“And will you be employing any local people?” This was blatant self-interest and my desk was right next to Ralph’s. However, it was also a fairly standard question to ask any new company. “Oh, yes,” came the reply, “we’ll need subcontractors to dig the trenches and lay the cable. We’ll need marketing staff and…” “What about television production?” “Well, our local channel, once it gets up and running, will be manned by volunteers but we will be employing a local programming coordinator.”
The story appeared in the St Albans Observer that week. ‘Cable TV aims at community’. It was a very positive piece. No one had seen the trenches and black tar stripes down the pavement then. The digging chaos was yet to begin. Somehow, Herts Cable’s press pack found its way into my briefcase for future reference. I filed it and all but forgot it until the next time Tim asked me about escape plans. “Well, I have got one idea,” I said. “I was thinking I might set up a TV station…” and I outlined all the resources already available, such as college TV studios, the police TV unit, local theatres, council grants, on and on and on. I’d begun to visualiseâ€”the first, most important step in any creative processâ€”and it was good.
Gary has been busy digging bricks out of his drive this week and putting them on the patch of dirt I like to call my garden. I moved said bricks on to the pile of builders’ rubble at the end of the street where they’re building a new cyclepath. I think Gary was eyeing up the stack of kerb stones to build himself a nice new flower garden, although to be fair, he did actually weed his garden the other day and plant some new shrubs, which is more than I’ve ever done.
Witchypoo has stopped asking me to cut down my conifer so that she can spy on the neighbours opposite. She seems to have stopped speaking to me altogether, which is just fine. I’m sure she’ll give the new owner plenty of earbashing. How delighted she’ll be to have someone new to gossip about! Big Mad Beulla will also be around for a spot of proselytising, to try coaxing him along to The Salvation Army for a slice of cake and a sing-song.
Did I write about the weird phone call I had the other day? Apparently the nice shiny blue jeep which the girl two doors down backed into another neighbour’s porch last year isn’t paid for. The finance company would very much like to know what happened to it and wondered if I might have seen it from my window. Alas, I hadn’t. Same caller also mentioned that one neighbour had been out on the street threatening another with a samurai sword. Nice.
It appears that the police visit this tranquil looking close far more often than I’ve ever realised. Actually, they did a drive-by the other morning at 5.30am, no doubt looking for the blue jeep. I was about to go to work when a patrol car slunk quietly down to the end of the road, turned round in slow motion and slunk out again. Fortunately I’d already dumped Gary’s bricks over the hedge just thirty seconds before. I don’t think they saw the guilty look on my face.
No, I won’t miss them. Well, maybe the bricks. But not the neighbours.
“What’s the purpose of review writing?” The question sounded particularly clueless that sleepy afternoon in the seaside town of Hastings. It was a question posed by someone seemingly searching for the well of knowledge who’d settle for the first muddy puddle. It had already been a long lunchtime. Alex had thrashed me at pool three times in The Nag’s Head and we’d played Tennesse Ernie Ford to death on the pub jukebox. There was beer there too, naturally. Forbidden beer. Mmmmm. Everyone had been told that drinking at lunchtime was A Bad Thing at the Westminster Press Training Centre. Bad enough that it could warrant being thrown off the course. Of course, that meant it had to be done. For badness’ sake.
Sitting with the self-appointed naughty students on the self-styled naughty table leant weight to my aspirations for badness. In my head, I was the Lone Wolf, bad boy outsider hero with piercing grey eyes. On the outside I was awkward, overly tall, high forehead and way too intense. I wanted to be James Dean but came across like a confused John Malkovich. No, not even that cool. I was certainly no pool player either, especially that day, yet there I sat regardless, oblivious, thinking I was on holiday, a paid vacation with expenses, and there were girls everywhere. Smart, beautiful women who wanted to be taken seriously as writers and have careers and whose curves stretched the seams of their ohsosmart ohsotight office clothes in exactly the right places. It was fantastic. I really needed a wake-up call. It was coming.
Across the aisle sat Debbie O’Driscoll, tall, blonde, cute tip-tilted button nose and incredible eyes the colour of pure honey plus a boyfriend back home to boot. Except that she didn’t and… ahh, who cared. Amber eyes. Pale gold. I was trying not to stare and doubtless failing miserably. Nice girls like Debbie didn’t drink in The Nag’s Head because they objected to the politically incorrect picture of a housewife in bit and bridle on the pub sign. Maybe they would have gone if they’d known Alex was there. Girls wanted to be wherever Alex was because he was charming, handsome and funny. Alex laughed a lot. Alex played in a band. Alex called Debbie ‘Dribbly O’Driscoll’. Women’s fickleness made no sense to me. We just went to that pub because it was so close and because it was the most wrong.
Sixteen Tons was the only recognisable song on the nicotine-stained jukebox so we’d kept punching the numbers until ‘Another day older and deeper in debt’ became our anthem in that spit and sawdust bar. ‘Saint Peter don’t you call me, cos I can’t go’ played on in my head as I continued to ignore the lecture given by Peter Unsworth–no saint and never mistaken for one. He was a fuzzy shape somewhere at the front of the room, droning on like a low wattage Hoover humming lifeless Leonard Cohen dirges. The ocean rolled relentlessly against the shore outside, sucking the sand with a rattling hiss while the vacuum impersonator up front sucked at the bedrock of our enthusiasm within, at our very souls.
Our other lecturer on this course was a great guy called Robin Thompson who got wildly enthusiastic when he passed on information. Here was a big Geordie bear of a man, his warm fuzzy pelt of new-age mysticism overlaying a well-fed core of editorial experience and backed up by some sharp legal claws. He may have been at the honeypot once too often, but this grinning grizzly knew nearly all there was to know about newspaper law and, more, how to impart it effectively. Respect was his due, although not necessarily for his sense of style.
Robin danced excitedly in his white trousers and pastel shirts, his silver-striped tie flashing like a mackeral as he taught us how to fish for stories while avoiding the traps of libel and contempt. He moved effortlessly from, “Ah’m okay, Yewer okay!” and “Ah’ve seen it in the crystals, mahn!” to stories of renowned defamation barrister Peter Carter-Ruck and his exploits in court. He taught us the importance of grace, guts and good manners; how communication with people is infinitely simpler and cheaper than going to court. And he taught us, too, how to refer to the accused by surname alone. Like Unsworth.
Unsworth was guilty of Boring for England in his humdrum Yorkshire drone that afternoon. If he wanted to prattle on about opinion pieces, then that was mine–my opinion and my verdict. Guilty of dullness. His get out jail free card was that he suspected some of us had had forbidden beers. Anyone judging him was guilty of many bad things themselves. In his opinion. Of course, opinions are like arseholes–everyone’s got one–but Unsworth knew for a fact that I, for one, was still being bad. I was doodling straw bosses and golden eyes on a notepad and not paying any attention in the slightest to the biggest arsehole of all until he called my name.
“Mr Jefferies?” I looked blankly in the general direction of the droning and acknowledged its pointless existence with a syllable it had cried out for since birth: “Um?” His glare hardened, certain that he was going to give me and my ego enough rope to hang ourselves. “Mr Jefferies, what’s the purpose of a review?” I gazed dozily through an ale addled haze. And then it happened. The answer popped into my head and was out before I could stop it. “To be amusing!”
Everything went silent and I stared at him. Surely I’d be thrown off the course for this much cheek. It wasn’t an answer. It was pure under the influence trolling. The class full of thirty young journalists held its collective breath. Okay, some just looked towards the heavens and muttered, “Oh, puh-lease!” Alex and a couple of others sniggered. Unsworth stared back at me, like a bug-eyed guillotine operator who can’t quite believe he’s just been allowed to release the blade.
“To be amusing.” It wasn’t the answer he was looking for. No way, no how. Uh oh. His look told me I wasn’t actually on holiday after all. Oops. It felt like bye bye career time. Time to talk fast. “Sure,” I continued into the void. “You’ve got to be amusing. The whole point of writing reviews, the whole point of putting anything other than news, of putting any feature in a newspaper, is to entertain the reader.” The pause appeared again but the atmosphere seemed slightly less menacing. You could hear the sea again. In fact, I bet if you stood really close to Peter and pressed your ear against his head… No. Don’t go there.
Somehow I was talking in class instead of willing it to be over. This subject had unexpectedly caught my interest and I found I actually did have opinions. And I found that voicing them gave me confidence. That alone was worth the price of admission. I dropped the pretentions of badness for a minute and continued from the heart. “You can put some information in there too, facts and figures, people and places, but the number one priority is entertainment. Sell newspapers.” I’d pretty much nailed my colours to the mast but the sliding blade had stopped and the discussion continued.
Today’s sideshow, tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers, I thought to myself. Did people really believe what they read in newspapers? Did they really attribute importance to this circus? Apparently so. Jesus wept. It was dawning on me that most people going into journalism hadn’t thought through any aspect of it at all. From the darkest tales of gore and suffering to the lightest, fluffiest feature, a good percentage had no concept of what profession they were entering or what it entailed. Some had said they would refuse to talk to the bereaved after a disaster because they were uncomfortable with intruding on grief. Unethical, they had said. It was staggering. Where did they think stories came from? The news fairy? Still, this time it was only about review writing.
“What would you do if you were reviewing a really dreadful amateur dramatic production?” Unsworth asked, “They do exist, you know. Shouldn’t people have a right to perform plays for their own pleasure? For the joy of taking part in a group activity?”
“Not if they’re charging for a ticket and inviting the public.” The way this lecture had just been making me feel was uppermost in my mind. “They don’t have the right to waste my time.”
“But, then, what if your unkind words in a newspaper stopped someone from ever acting again?” Unsworth pushed.
“Bad acting should be stopped. There are more than enough appalling soap stars mouthing their lines. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. If we can knock them on the head, that’s a good thing.”
Our lecturer didn’t seem quite able to believe that anyone would say these things.
“But…” he said, “But this might be a child with little experience you’re talking about…”
“Okay, you don’t have to be harsh if someone’s trying, but if they’re really dreadful and have no talent, then it needs to be said. Honestly. Nip it in the bud.”
The tweedy challenge drew himself up to the full height of his pomposity.
“So then, Mr Lord God Almighty Jefferies, who says what’s good and what’s bad?”
Well, duh. Was this a trick question? No, he was serious. I couldn’t quite believe it. It was a free shot at an open goal. I had to take it. Who says what’s good? “You do! The reviewer! That’s your job!” Yes, in a sense, that’s the real purpose of review writing, I thought to myself. Honestly held opinion. That and being amusing.
It struck me then that maybe Unsworth hadn’t been just talking out of his opinion but had actually been leading the conversation to that very point. Perhaps this bespectacled Yorkshireman with his National Health glasses was smarter than he looked. Okay, that wouldn’t be difficult, but let’s face it, he had got me cutting my flabby prose down to readable proportions only a few days before. Anything is possible. He carried on.
“Well, if you’re the final arbiter of good taste, Oh, Wise Buddha, what’s the benchmark?”
“Experience.” Where did that come from? The ghost of Robin’s new age aura still hung in that classroom and out of nowhere, inspired me. I recalled the words of psychologist Karl Rogers: ‘My experience is the touchstone of my validity’. I adapted that thought: “Your benchmark varies depending on what you’ve seen before and the level of expectation you have about the type of production you’re going into. You are the benchmark.”
Unsworth kept going on and I kept going on. He must have known I was three sheets to the wind, just talking because I couldn’t stop, because the more I talked, the more confident I felt and so on around. A vicious circle. Fingers drummed lightly on desktops around me. Soft sighs escaped. Not awestruck sighs but the kind which tell you to please please shut up. Tightly buttoned-up girls like Debbie O’Driscoll sat politely, quietly, properly, not willing at this time to show their… opinions… in public.
I drifted into a little daydreaming again, no doubt imagining sleuthlike probing of certain hidden depths or something along those lines as others took a turn to speak up. Paul Rowinski probably said something because he always did and people always respected him because he spoke with such passion and conviction. It may have been brilliant, but I forget. Alex and Tim chipped in, and more too. Across the table, Odette Schuster rolled her eyes and hissed at me, “God, Keith. You do go on!” I smiled. I knew. But at least now my eyes were open. The daydreamer was awake.
That discussion sharpened up a number of ideas for me. It brought many things–thoughts and feelings–into focus and, in the end, it actually was a useful exercise. Scary thing is, yes, I really did believe I knew it all, which in turn made me reckless. And, yes, that was arrogant, but the reckless faith in myself proved to be invaluable later on. Really invaluable. Some of it, dare I say it, even proved to be justified although, perhaps needless to say, women remain forever enigmatic, mysterious and unfathomable. Which is as it should be.
In the years to come, I did my best to live up to my own hype. Sometimes reckless self-belief paid off. Sometimes not. Without it, I can safely say, things barely moved at all. ‘You load sixteen tons and what do you get?’ Well, if you load the right raw materials, you get freedom. The freedom to speak among other things. Sometimes that’s all you need. Unsworth sneered at me on the way out, trying to make it seem as if he was sharing a little joke between us but failing wretchedly. “God, Jefferies, it must be hard being right all the time.” I fired off a parting shot as I quickly ducked past. “You’ll never know.”
Today I sold my property.
It’s been a great place to live. Good friends, good times. Remortgaging has paid for film making, world travel and lots of computer equipment.
Definitely worth it.
Bye bye, house.
Hello, new life.