The Last Story

“You’re only as good as your last story,” quips Ralph, “and your last story was crap.”

Unreasonably yet evidently satisfied with his motivational speech for the day–the same speech he uses every day–the editor of St Albans and District Observer tips his chair down from two legs and resumes typing. Although it’s not so much typing as high-speed punching with two fingers–two fingers distorted by arthritis so much that they look like little trotters jabbing at the keyboard. Like it or not, Ralph’s typing conjures up an image of a pair of piggies dancing on spring loaded podiums. Sunlight streams in through the picture window behind as the editor clackity clacks through book reviews. Someone stifles a snort. It’s a magical moment.

Behind Ralph’s head, a greasy smudge on the wall reveals where his curly silver hair has rested through the years. If you look closely, you can see some wag has added spectacles to the stain indicating the high regard with which we hold Mr Slater.

“Ralph’s an old cunt,” Tim remarks to me when we go out at lunchtime. Tim is one of my fellow trainee journalists, fresh back from Hastings, bringing an injection of youthful energy and enthusiasm to a tired local newspaper. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it. We’re only as good as it, after all. We’ve spent the past month coming up with the lamest puns possible to liven up the turgid reams of council minutes and police reports. Tim believed he’d excelled himself today with a reworking of a crime story which starts, “Bicycle owners were wheely upset when thieves stole their pedal-powered transport.” Ralph was not amused and gave us his standard lecture on such matters: “Wrong!” he declared, handing it back.

“Wheely upset,” chuckles Tim. “I still think that was funny.” Despite the fact that Tim is the champion of all things cool (he reads hip magazines, plays the drums and drives an MG with the sunroof down), we are obviously stuck in a rut. A symptom is that, despite what we say, we secretly think Ralph isn’t so bad. We recognise he has a great news sense, even if his page layouts are nothing to write leaders about. And he seems to have forgiven us for following him to the pub that time when he went out for lunch with his local council cronies. Yes, the time we sat in the corner going, “Dad! Dad! Why do you keep leaving us in the car when you come in here?” The councillors were amused. Ralph pulled faces and later got his revenge by taking us to play darts ad nauseum in The Pineapple, a drinking establishment with no redeeming features except its proximity to the office.

Darts aside, the main reason we know Ralph isn’t so bad is that, rain or shine, he lets us claim at least £40 expenses every week and signs them off. When your salary is £9,000 a year, those expenses make the difference between eating and monking. Monking, Tim’s term for living a life of deprivation. No beer, no cinema, and in extreme cases of the religious order, no big meals. Forty pounds a week. Much of our time is spent keying in press releases from companies the further away the better–“Trip to Bloggs Widgets open day in Redbourn, 12 miles at 34p/mile…”–and some of it is spent almost being a real journalist–“Accident victim story, 10 miles, roundtrip” but more usually “Angry residents up in arms, 8 miles”.

So, no. Given the limits of the role of a local newspaper–ie. mostly a lot of angry residents gossiping–Ralph isn’t so bad. He has his great news sense from having worked on a proper daily paper, the old Evening Echo, and he teaches us a lot. Press releases aside, he makes us leave the office as much as possible to meet people in person and talk to them face to face, which I know in my gut is the best way of communicating. It’s just there isn’t anyone else to take out our frustrations on. And, regardless of any groove we find there, it always turns into a rut. The rut of working on a local newspaper; the rut which saps our enthusiasm and drains our creativity for negligable reward. Yes, we are arrogant, but that doesn’t mean we’re talentless.

You can spend the whole day crafting a finely written feature only to have it hacked apart and turned into nonsense under a feeble headline or you can spend the time copying large chunks out of press releases, putting them into quotes and attributing the words to “a company spokesman”. It makes no difference; you get paid exactly the same and your self-esteem won’t be improved much by either process. Occasionally you might slip something through the net, something which you–your own worst critic–regard as a truly fine piece of writing, and then you can bask in the warm glow for a few days. Take Tim’s “Hell in copter” feature, for example, where he’d blagged a flying lesson and the witty prose flowed like decaff at an AA meeting. Occasionally you get lucky, but otherwise what? Ralph’s comment about our last story is true on ninety-nine days out of a hundred, so what’s next?

As luck would have it, I did have a plan. It wasn’t the most brilliant or original idea in the world. It’s a goal I shared with countless others around the planet. My road map to the goal more or less came straight out of a careers guide in the Manchester University Library. But it was still a plan. Two years previously, I had realised that the only thing which really interested me, the thing I spent all my spare time doing, was watching movies. And the best outlet for my creative drives would be to move into making films for myself. That helpful careers guide drew a path neatly from television production to film production. So how do you get into television production? Through research, said the guide. And into research? Local newspaper journalism. Aha. So that’s why I’m here.

Somehow I’d managed to get a job typesetting on the local paper and then convinced the group editor to take me on as a trainee journalist. Once I was on the inside, I also somehow convinced the arts editor at Watford Observer to let me review the films no one else wanted to see, shlock horror. Gems such as Phantasm II and Pet Semetary, which weren’t so much diamonds in the rough, as lumps of damp coal that had been heated with enough finance to become truly dreadful examples of the genre, burning dimly in the grate of the silver screen for a while before feebly flickering out, phhht. But I didn’t care about that. Because it was the silver screen which mattered. It was always magical. I was going to previews, getting a free beer and a sandwich and being paid to watch movies. And, what turned out to be more important, I then had to write about them, analytically.

I’d also been taking some film and television production courses on the side too and Tim, who never praised anything unless it was really outstanding, somehow remembered a short script I wrote, Cold Justice, a three minute ghost story set by the Thames. There we were, one Wednesday evening and we’ve gone down to the golf range to whack a hundred balls into the wilderness. It relieves many frustrations of dull hack writing to think of them as Malcolm Waller, the bald and bitter deputy of the Watford Observer. “No no no. You can’t write it like that.” Line up. Pull back. And swing… Thwack! Take that, Malcolm! You’ll never be editor! Off he sails into the distance, bald white glistening in the sun. Oh, yes. Very satisfying.

Then, as the conversation shifts to how we’re going to move forwards, for some reason or another, Tim remarks on Cold Justice. “You know,” says the captain of cool, “that was the best thing I’ve seen you write. You should do more.” Wow! Not only did Tim like it, but he remembered it. And that, someone else’s faith in my abilities, gives me all the confidence I need. It’s not about your last story, after all. It’s about your best story. And more, it’s about having someone recognise it and letting you know. Whether it really is my best story, I don’t know, but I do know for certain that that moment, that tiny lift to my confidence from my peer, is a turning point. Thwack! Take that. And this time, run with it.