It was once observed that Harvey Haynes was a man with an anecdote for every occasion. “It’s the same anecdote, but it’s for every occasion.” Ah, the wit and wisdom of Vincent Landon. Apparently in Switzerland now, science editor on Swiss Radio International, Vince was a superb travel writer–kept winning competitions with his features which took him all over the world. Sharp. Penetrating. All those steel-edged adjectives, he had an observation on everything when he chose to share them. And Harvey? Harvey was the St Albans Observer’s chief reporter and, it being Wednesday, Harvey was out of the office. Out to lunch.
Harvey’s skill at filling the paper with stories had less to do with sharpness and more to do with an extensive network of contacts. He had been gone since 10.30 that morning, although this was nothing unusual. Wednesday was press day and Mr Hayne’s regular routine was to bowl in at around 10.15, pick up a pile of papers, then shamble off with them under his arm, waving cheerily to Ralph. The editor would look briefly over his glasses in a pause from writing paperback reviews that no one much cared about let alone read. “I’m just taking these round to a few contacts,” our senior staff member would grin and with that he’d be gone. We’d be lucky if we saw him again before four o’clock. Or 4.30. We’d be lucky if we saw him again that day.
Wednesday is market day in ye ancient citie of St Albans and shoppers throng the streets, particularly elderly shoppers. Something about a bustling market brings old people out by the bus load and this Wednesday was no exception. Being a very tall man and no youth himself–rumour had it that he was a war correspondent at The Battle of Hastings–Harvey was clearly visible as his round head of scraggy silver hair bobbed Gandalfesque through the crowd, heading roughly in the direction of the council offices. His eyes twinkled and his nose burned slightly pink in the sun. It would be brighter in colour and often quite enlarged by the time we saw him again, but that would be more to do with several pints of London Pride than fresh air and solar radiation. His eyes would sparkle much more too, even if they couldn’t focus.
It was probably a mistake to leave Harvey in charge of an office full of trainees when Ralph went on holiday. Who knew? Tim and I certainly knew and I suspect Vince did too. We had seen Harvey evaporate into the fog of elderly faces, all stop-start stop-starting their quests for bargains under the bold-striped blue and yellow tarpaulins. We knew Harvey wouldn’t be back before The Jolly Sailor stopped serving him, so, to all intents and purposes, we were in charge. And we knew when the phone rang, we could make our own decisions.
Brrrrrnnng! “St Albans Observer, newsroom, hello?” “Yes, I want to complain about the story in today’s paper–the one where you said someone died after contracting meningitis. My daughter had very similar symptoms and I don’t think it’s right that you go around scaring people like this!” “Is there something wrong with the story?” “Well, yes. You shouldn’t be putting all that in the newspaper.” “Is it factually incorrect?” “I don’t know.” Hmmm. “Your daughter–has she been to a doctor?” “What?” “Has your daughter been to see a doctor?” “Well, no…” “But you just said she had symptoms similar to someone who died…” “Yes, and I don’t think you should be scaring people like this.” “Don’t you think she should see a doctor?” “What I want to know is who the bloody hell do you think you are?” “Well, I’m a reporter and I think you need a doctor. Goodbye!” Click.
Tim is across the office dealing with someone just slightly higher up the evolutionary ladder who’s calling to see if we can photograph a cheque presentation at their factory. A “grin and grip”. These are the bain of local newspapers. Zero imagination involved, an extremely dull photo opportunity and we get about five requests a week. Tim pulls a face at me and rolls his eyes. I make winding up gestures with my arm, indicating that his call has gone way beyond a timespan which could be considered reasonable. Tim slaps his forehead theatrically. Across from him, Vince has his feet up on the desk and is reading a book, oblivious.
The phone rings again. “Get that, will you?” says Vince imperiously, without stirring from his recumbent position. “You get it,” I retort. “I’m Busy,” he says in such complete contrast to the facts that the B capitalizes itself. The phone rings on and on until Kim in the advertising department picks it up and shouts across the office, exasperated: “Can someone in editorial please take this call?” “Yes!” I shout back, “Vince!” “No, put it through to Keith!” and before I can stop it, the phone on my desk is ringing again while Mr Landon sniggers smugly.
“Hello, news desk.” “Oh, hello. I wonder if you could help me. I’m calling from Ryan Air, we operate just up the road from you at Luton Airport, and we’re about to start running a service over to Kerry in Ireland. We were wondering if you might be able to send a reporter to cover our inaugural flight? The Irish Prime Minister will be opening Kerry Airport at the same time. It’s tomorrow.” “Oh. Oh. Hold on a moment” I put my hand over the mouthpiece and am just about to shout across the newsroom again when my brain clicks into gear. I take my hand away and smile. “Yes. That’s no problem. No problem at all. Where do they have to be and what time?” The nice lady on the end of the line gives me all the details and I dutifully copy them into my notebook. “Thank you, thank you very much. I’ll see you tomorrow morning, then.” And I hang up.
Vince glances up from his book. He knows he’s missed something but he isn’t sure what. It’s not attractive but I can’t help it; I smirk while I copy a few readers’ letters into the system using a nicotine-stained Apple IIe which was surely a graduation present for a younger Harvey Haynes. Or maybe not. Almost anything would be amusing at this point. “So?” says Vince. “Who was it?” “Oh, you know,” I say evasively, “Readers.” The smirk broadens into a full grin of badness. Tim’s phone call finishes too and he points out that it’s 11.30. “Shall we go to lunch?” “That would be best.” And so we do. But I don’t tell Vince who called.
Our lunch is two or three hours long but by the time we get back, there’s still no sign of our chief reporter. Nor is there by 4.30. Or five o’clock. Finally, at 5.45, a somewhat the worse-for-wear Harvey Haynes staggers back into the office, nose shining like a beacon on red alert and with a smile that threatens the safety of his jaw. “I’ve brought some sweets!” he declares loudly to the world in general and then flops heavily into a chair. “Would anybody like one?” He offers up an enormous bag which must weigh about two pounds full of mixed chocolates and toffees. “Thanks. By the way I won’t be in tomorrow. I’m doing a feature on Ryan Air and flying to Ireland. I’ll be back on Friday afternoon.” “Okay. No problem,” beams Harvey, without really comprehending. Vince mutters something around a mouthful of hard caramel. It sounds like, “Bastard.” Heh.