Black And White And Red All Over

Watford Observer was always a nasty place to work. It was the building as much as anything, although the penny-pinching and need to fight for everything from a secondhand Apple Mac and colour scanner–“Won’t monochrome be okay?”–to a direct phone line into editorial didn’t help morale. Don’t get me wrong. When the job was good, it was terrific. Varied and creative and a great opportunity to try all kinds of things. But the salary, ugh. The salary didn’t cover living expenses and my debts had offspring.

Now, at last, Watford Observer is moving out of the one-time perfume factory, a grimy shell that has housed it since the sixties when the printers moved there and the seventies when editorial joined them. Yesterday I received a call inviting me to an impromptu barbeque in the car park to mark the last day of work on that site. I arrived as dusk was falling expecting to find throngs of former employees warming their hands over the embers of the demolished buildings and dancing with glee. It wasn’t quite like that.

Twenty people were gathered on the grass off to one side. A few pieces of office furniture provided the creature comforts and somewhere to rest our beers while music came from a CD full of pirated mp3’s blaring out of old computer speakers rigged up in the old artdesk window. A filing cabinet was tipped on its side and a photographer was cooking sausages over hot coals in one of the drawers. The whole scene spoke in quiet tones. It whispered, “Urban surreal, low budget.”

I took a wander through the old buildings, around empty offices that once housed printing equipment and had now been refurbished for a new generation. An inspirational plaque on the wall purported to show who was the month’s highest achiever and a space was reserved for their photograph. I wondered how inspirational it really felt given that there were no windows in the place. Daylight is clearly a dirty word if you want to get ahead in advertising. If one of the sales staff had grown an extra head I doubt anyone would have noticed.

Memories. Some good, some bad. Like seeing the Autocon, a four foot long, four foot high machine which they used to scan photographs for printing on to bromide as part of the offset litho process. A man named Steve operated it jealously for years and refused to teach anyone else how it worked for fear he’d lose his job. Eventually Steve and his false fixed smile were replaced along with the machine.

Then there was the space on the wall where a timeclock used to be. When I started as a trainee compositor and typesetter, we had to punch a card whenever we came or went. They’d dock us about twenty pence when we were 15 minutes late back from lunch, which I always thought was too sad given that the union could call a go-slow and get overtime at the drop of a hat. That was in the days when smoking wasn’t just allowed in the composing room, it seemed to be compulsory with an ashtray on every flat surface and a haze hanging over the whole place. The old editorial office in the centre of the building was even worse.

At the front of the building was the original managing director’s office, a hallowed sanctum with windows on two walls. He had his own bathroom which was actually smaller than that found in a boarding house with en-suite facilities. A tiny cubby hole, the greasy old miser would wait in there to be ceremonially brought out when the newspaper’s former owner, The Duke of Atholl, came to visit. It would be laughable if it wasn’t for the fact that he actually believed this little show impressed anyone. No. On reflection, it is laughable.


Looking about, I generally felt glad I’d gotten out of that place all those years ago yet there was still something, a touch of nostalgia, some essence of having been part of something. A paper of record. That was the editor’s aim when I worked there. To record every birth, marriage, death, every occurance of interest, every council meeting, every fete, every nuance of local life in a paid for broadsheet. The impressive thing is that he managed to achieve it. He even fought a new managing director once in a fierce battle with our own free sheet to do it. It was a close thing with job-losses hanging over everyone’s head for years until the owners eventually sold up and the MD was replaced.

Despite the feeble budgets and some truly dire journalists–“Hey, the building outside is on fire!” “Oh, I’ll phone the fire brigade and see if they know anything.” “But they’re there right now, just outside…” “Well, I’m not walking out of the office when there’s a phone here.”–a core of ever-changing talent still made it breathe somehow, year in year out, just as they had since January 15th 1863.

Last night some of the latest of those people had fun. At one point we raced aging office chairs around the newly resurfaced parking lot and then rammed them, back to back into each other like fairground dodgems. Those things have amazing wheels on them. Then it grew cool and a palette was ceremonially ignited. Then another and another. We drew around the flames to keep warm and regaled each other with tales of beating the system, occasionally tossing a cigarette lighter into the pyre and getting a frisson of excitement from the small pyrotechnic display when it burst.

I think the building itself is actually going to be demolished in September to make way for a housing development. At that point I’m told they’ll invite everyone who ever worked for them to join them for a party. Celebrating what, I wonder? Perhaps the sheer determination of so many to escape and build successful careers for themselves on the back of the training and experience they gained there. Kind of like survivors of Colditz poking around the old castle.

Watford Observer is moving to modern offices, taking with them the ten year old Apple Mac’s that seemed to appear only after a long hard fight to replace the decrepid Apple IIe’s. I’m sure there’s some newer equipment too. The photographers use the latest digital cameras now, the ones which cost the price of a house in Scotland, a resounding restatement of the phrase that a picture is worth a thousand words. The photographic department’s reprint service actually turns a nice profit, so it’s an investment. And, hey, they’ve finally got a decent website.

Other than that, from what I hear, the new offices are too small for all the staff because of the way they’ve split the space between management (lots of space) and workers (what’s left), and there’s only 70 parking spaces for 200 people. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I slink away, into the dark, and count my blessings.