“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.”