Category Archives: Making the News

The Office Quote Book

“You’ve started a profound quote book, have you?”
– Ken Scott, noticing these jottings being made in a notepad at the Watford Observer between October and December 1990.

“Got a second?”
– Peter Wilson-Leary, Watford Observer Group Editor, repeated every day

Lucy Parks talking to reporter Richard Arquati about his construction workers story: “I would have jumped on their tools.”
News editor Frazer Ansell observing Lucy: “She’s fucking mad. She gets too many E numbers.”

“We are doing our best to put other people’s mistakes right. Sometimes in doing this, we make other mistakes.”
– Malcolm Waller, deputy editor

“I’ll take that on board.”
– PWL every day

“I remember the old News Chronicle…”
– Malcolm Waller, every day


Chris Beech talking about office computers: “I think that’s what we’d call in the trade ‘a false economy’. But then we would because we’re pretentious like that. Other people would call it a waste of money.”

“I love my computer. It works so beautifully at the moment.”
– Malcolm, famous last words

“Why do I always have to be Eeyore?”
– Chris

“This machine’s playing up again!”
– Malcolm, not long after the above and again every couple of days

Keith to Malcolm as he opens a stationery consignment: “Have you got a couple of dog turds in there I can use instead of this PCS [typesetting] junk?”
Malcolm, looking up: “Yes!”


“We’re trying to be a community newspaper and that includes putting everything in that happened in this area.”
– Malcolm, every week

“I have done, would you believe, a piece on the M1 Link Road.”
– Simon ‘Scoop’ Berlyn

Chris, to me: “Have you subbed [edited] it?”
Keith: “Well, I’ve read it half-heartedly. That’s the same thing isn’t it?”
Chris: “For you, that’s pretty in depth.”

“I’ll tell you what. I’ve got a real problem actually. The council offices scheme has become a roaring great controversy.”
– Simon running on auto-hype

“If you call someone a ‘duck murderer’ is it libelous?”
– Richard Arquati, asking the important questions.

“Bugger the inspiration. Just get on with it.”
– Malcolm Waller

“I’ll book the photographer for 25 past cos they’ll always be late.”
– Frances Lewis optimistically talking to a contact


Fiona Duffy, women’s page editor, regarding some fashion pictures:
“It’s nice, but you wouldn’t wear it would you?”
Chris: “I’d rather eat my own head.”
Simon B: “You don’t want to give yourself indigestion.”


Features writer Ken Scott was married to a Thai girl whose complicated name was customarily abbreviated. After bumping into her one lunchtime, Chris Beech was heard to say: “We just saw Ken’s Dik in town.”


Simon Berlyn: “Why is sport always later finishing than anything else?”
Sports editor Ollie Phillips: “I’m afraid we try to get today’s news in Simon, not Monday’s.”
Simon: “The only news today is how long you’ve taken to do your pages.”


Keith: “I’ve lost my list of good ideas.”
Chris: “It was so small, it was only a matter of time.”


Frances: ‘I just couldn’t bee-leeeeeve it!”
Malcolm: “Well, she’s genuine is she? This seventy year old?”
Frances: “Oh, ab-so-lute-ly!”
Fran, getting impatient with Malcolm’s changes to her copy: “You’d rather have something that’s not too accurate?”
Malcolm: “Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah!”


Arts editor Grelle White discussing property with features editor Ken Scott:
Grelle: “You should move to Streatham. My son’s just moved in and he’s really comfortable.”
Ken: “And it’s only a four hour drive in?”
Grelle: “No, but it’s really nice in Streatham.”
Ken: “Grelle, you’re not too old to be spanked.”
Chris (aside): “You’re not too old to have your fingernails pulled out.”


Simon Berlyn: “Do you want to have one sort of amorous fling with me before the menopause is over?”
Lucy: “No, I don’t. Thanks for the offer.”
Simon: “It’s strange really because I always fancy the people I like least.”
Lucy: “What a bizarre person you are.”
Simon: “I always think of myself as one of life’s originals.”
Chris Beech (aside): “One of life’s throwbacks.”
Simon: “It’s nothing personal, I just hate everybody.”
Chris, spotting a coincidence: “That’s uncanny.”
Simon: “I think you talk in ironic terms.”


Malcolm: “Actually they’re loveable warm creatures these daleks. Ek-stir-min-ate!”
Chris: “Hey! I thought I was sitting next to a dalek!”


Keith: “Did you know ‘fog’ backwards is ‘gof’?”
Vince: “I think that’s one of the nice things about life, Keith. It’s a constant voyage of discovery.”

Chris: “I remember you — you used to work here.”
Keith: “I deny that.”
Chris: “You used to sit over there and do bog all.”
Chris, several days later, re-reading the above: “Can I add to that now? You used to sit there and do bog all badly.”


“I’m not a snob but one can’t help feeling one doesn’t want to mix with such social outcasts.”
– Chris excusing himself from an office outing


Keith: “English is my illegitimate offspring.”
Chris, watching me write this into the book: “I don’t think you can put your own unfunny quotes in there.”

Malcolm: “I think the whole media is rife with nepotism.”
Keith: “No it’s not, dad.”
Chris: “The trick is knowing which bum to lick when. Don’t put that in—they might realise I’m a bum licker.”


“I’m not going mad tonight.”
– Chris discusses the evening’s drinking strategy before heading to the bar

“I do feel unwell. I think I’m going to have to go home and lie down.”
– Chris with a raging hangover the day after.


Mike from advertising: “As Ken’s not here will you take care of that for him?”
Lucy: “Yeah, put it in here.”
Mike (dropping envelope in what looks like a slot under the desk): “Is that an In Tray or something?”
Lucy: “No, that’s the bin.”


“Honestly it’s no joke being a topical cartoonist, Keith. Christ knows how Giles gets on.”
– Terry Challis, Watford Observer cartoonist

Keith: “Well, what can I do to achieve excellence?”
Group editor PWL: “Nothing at the moment, Keith.”
Keith: “My first exercise in futility will be switching on the computer.”
Chris: “Hey, it’s what you do best.”
Keith: “You always go home at the end of the day. It’s what I’ve noticed about you.”
Chris: “It’s what I do best.”
Malcolm: “Right, it’s industry full steam ahead!”
Chris: “Shovel some more coal in the back of the computer…”


“Simon Berlyn’s an objectionable little runt. He should grow up and become a professional journalist.”
– local MP Cecil Parkinson, as reported by Jeremy Austin from a phone call to the office, which elicited the following responses:
News editor Frazer Ansell: “I’ve never liked Cecil Parkinson until now.”
Reporter Charlotte Adcock: “Did he sound as oily as he looks in real life?”
Jeremy replying: “My ear had to be syringed out.”
Chris: “So I don’t suppose we’ll be getting a scoop out him then?”
Simon: “I wasn’t sure of the meaning of that word but I’ve looked it up and it’s pretty objectionable. It’s Parkinson all over, slimey toad. If he thinks I’m a runt I can think of a word I’d use to describe him that rhymes with runt that’s more apposite actually.”


“Wouldn’t it be great to have a car that you were not too bothered about?”
– Christine Musgrove, TR7 driver


Keith continuing a discussion about what to do with a girl from the printing department if you were stranded on a desert island: “If it was a choice between reproducing and starving…?”
Chris: “I’d bud.”

Keith, pointing to picture on the wall next to Jeremy Austin’s desk: “Last question—did you have sex with this woman?”
Jeremy: “Yes. But she wasn’t there at the time.”

Keith: “Whatever happened to Malcolm Vallerius? About this time, he?d be calling for a knob inspection.”
Malcolm: “He clearly missed out by not doing national service.”


“No matter what time I stop here they still keep me standing here til five o’clock like a cunt.”
– John Batchelor, the most miserable man in the printing department.

“The editor’s indecision is final.”
– Ken Scott

“I don’t help no fucking empire builder.”
– John Batchie to Ken


“Did you ever feel that life’s ‘warm up man’ never turned up?”
– Pete Stevens, 1991

Troupes Long Past Revue

The Lights Are Warm And Coloured. The story of a serial killer. A suspenseful dark comedy for theatre. Promises promises. If you’ve ever sat in an airing cupboard over winter watching a hyacinth grow from bulb to flower, you’ll be familiar with the pace of this play. Lizzie Borden took two acts, and gave the audience forty winks. When they all left by the door, she gave reviewers forty more.

Grelle was less than amused.

Mike, my friend of many years, had come with me to see a Centralian Players production in the village of Abbots Langley. As I was reviewing it for the local paper, I had free tickets, so I’d told Mike we’d get dinner afterwards. My treat. On expenses. Partly. I only got a measly £2.50 maximum meal allowance but still, dinner was to be commensurate with the quality of the performance. If it was really good, we were destined for the finest curry house in town.

It wasn’t good. It wasn’t even mediocre. We ended up sat in a car park in Garston eating junk food. “I can’t believe you,” said Mike, around a mouthful of Big Mac. “We should have left in the interval. Like everyone else.” I nodded, digging into another handful of fries. I’d never left anything in the interval. On the other hand, I’d never been to anything as dire as this. The rain spattered relentlessly on the windshield as we recalled how appalling this amateur effort had been.

The audience had been outnumbered by the cast to start with. The tea break made it worse. As the curtain rose on the second act, apart from ourselves, there was just one other person left in the large village hall. I felt duty-bound to provide an honest review as the actors spoke shyly to the scenery lest they catch our eyes while fluffing their lines. The most intelligible dialogue came from the prompt whose voice boomed out clearly across the empty theatre.

With the exception of the lead player’s bright suit?a suit which would have delighted George Melly or Rupert the Bear? The Lights Are Warm And Coloured barely achieved tepid and monochromatic. It plodded. It ambled. It shuffled. It shrugged and died, right there before us. It was uncomfortable to watch but for the fact I knew how much fun it would be pulling it apart. Oh, this was going to be grand. High on grease and carbohydrates, Mike and I laughed like drains as we gave it the last rites.

Next day, I wrote up the sorry saga starting with the hyacinth analogy and finishing with a comment on costume departments stuffed with comedy trousers. Poison flowed tappity tap from my keyboard to the screen and I buried the hapless Centralians under six foot of scorn. I salted the earth, or rather the boards, trodden by these purveyors of pap in an effort to ensure they never inflicted such misery on anyone again. It was incredibly funny stuff, every line a gem, every paragraph a self-indulgent joy to behold. As was often the way, I was full of myself.

I transferred it to Grelle White, the arts editor, for publication in the Go section, our arts and entertainment pages, then I started working on something else. I watched furtively to see when she read it. I knew when the moment came. Her eyes bugged. She stopped reading and looked up. She waved me over, imperatively.

“Keith, what is this?” Grelle asked, incredulous.

“It’s fair comment,” I replied. “They were dreadful.”

“But were they really this bad?”


Wearing a satisfied grin is not a good way to look innocent and I certainly wasn’t looking innocent then. The Grin of Badness was upon me. I had amused myself and was feeling greatly pleased. Grelle’s a good person; she doesn’t understand unkindness. She didn’t see why I should be so pleased. And she certainly didn’t get my sense of humour.

“Well, I think you’re being too unfair. Good grief, if those poor people read this, they’d never act again,” Grelle said.

“Which would be a good thing!” I said.

“In your opinion. They’re just amateurs.”

“They charged for tickets. The few people who had paid left in the interval. They were just wasting people’s time.”

“Well, they weren’t wasting their time. You know, there’s other reasons to belong to a local drama group than appearing in front of an audience.”

This stopped me in my tracks. What? Was this some kind of parallel universe logic? Maybe some strange notion Grelle had brought over from Denmark where the high latitude and strange weather played tricks on the mind?

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“People join a local theatre company as a social activity. There’s pleasure in it for them to be part of this group, organising, rehearsing and putting on a play.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “Well, there was no pleasure in it for me. Or for the rest of the audience.” I countered. “They could go and join something else, something less public. Pottery classes, perhaps.”

But Grelle wasn’t having any of it. “Keith, this is just too harsh. You’ve crossed the line into cruelty. Go and take out everything you think is funny. It’s not going in like this.” And so I emasculated it of ridicule and the Centralians review was published. It was still scathing, but now my copy was as lukewarm as the play. They’d be less likely to read it and more likely to use it for wrapping up fries at the McDonald’s drive-thru.

As it turned out, someone must have read it because a few days after publication, a letter turned up from one Gerald Holm. “A few lines in the Go columns of your paper alerted me to an amateur production of a play about Lizzie Borden?? [surely you jest, I thought] “The Centralian Players turned out to be a highly accomplished body of actors? I could not have seen it done better at Hampstead Theatre or at the Palace Theatre, Watford?”

That didn’t say much for Hampstead or Watford, did it? Hello? Hello? Earth to Gerald, come in please! Hmm. Gerald Holm, that name looked familiar. Not with the space program, no. I wondered which local theatre company I’d seen his name associated with. Nevertheless, our esteemed editor published the whole steaming crock in the letters page.

The trouble was, I’d been spoiled. The week before, I’d taken Mike to see something else: Terra Nova at the Abbey Theatre Studio, performed by The Company of Ten. The Company of Ten were also amateurs but this had been breathtaking. This production of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s desperate journey to the Antartic and the doomed expedition to the South Pole remains to this day one of the finest pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. We sat on hard plastic chairs two feet from actors who performed before a backdrop made up of silk parachutes.

The acting was superb. We were held spellbound throughout the entire thing, the rigid seating forgotten along with the rest of the world as we were magically transported to the frozen wastes. This was how theatre should be. I remember Les Peacock as Captain Oates shedding a tear as the bitter cold froze off another body part. Aurora Borealis projected in soft colours on the icebergs behind and we were there, with him, feeling his pain.

It was absolutely fantastic. If I was going to the theatre, I wanted more of the Company of Ten and less of the Centralians. Grelle’s agenda, however, was to please everyone. She figured the Centralians would be around forever, longer than I’d be there at least. She also had four pages to fill every week and one good play a year wasn’t going to do it. My quest for artistic integrity, for dramatic purity was thwarted. Almost.

The thing was, Grelle did have those four pages to fill, come rain or shine. And there were a few rounds of golf to squeeze in too. Time and space were on my side. I knew that one thing Grelle wasn’t interested in reviewing but which remained popular was a horror movie. In fact, no one was interesting in reviewing them. Opportunity knocked. I happened to mention one day that I’d gladly take on writing up this drek and Grelle cheerfully agreed. That’s how I ended up sitting in the front row at Mr Young’s preview theatre in Soho, a beer in one hand and a bacon sandwich in the other, watching Phantasm II, a woeful tale of zombies running amok.

It was staggeringly poor. The Centralians no doubt watched this kind of thing in their master classes, taking most of their cues from the living dead. Even the free T-shirt I’d been given as a competition prize quivered in its bag under the seat, shocked that it could have been chosen to market something so feeble. I nevertheless wore that T-shirt with perverse pride for years to come.

On the way back I found myself concocting ever more amusing ways of sticking it to this tripe. Standing on Farringdon station, I read through the programme notes for inspiration and found the same director had also made Phantasm ten years earlier when he was a mere 25. Somehow he’d been let out of wherever he’d been locked up in the meantime, I reasoned. Lost in this reverie, trains thundering past on the tracks opposite, I didn’t notice a shadowy figure coming swirling up the dingy platform, trademark trenchcoat billowing behind him. It was Jon Challis.

Now, Jon Challis was deputy to the head of St Albans Leisure, a private company which had taken on the role of managing the districts sports and leisure facilities. Mid-thirties, smartly dressed, a go-getter, hungry for success. That was Mr Challlis. On a journalist’s expenses form, he was good for 14 miles, round trip. A not altogether unvalued contact, in fact. Tim had a saying for him, as he probably had a saying for everyone. “How do you know Jon Challis is lying? His lips are moving.” Nevertheless, even Tim had to admit, the management of St Albans Leisure made things happen and got things done.

“Keith! How are you doing?” Jon said, squeezing my hand and pumping my arm like a publican serving free beer to a winning rugby team. “I’m good, John. Very good. I’ve just been to see a film.” “Sounds good. Was it?” “I’m afraid not…” And that’s how we fell into conversation for the journey home. As it turned out, John was actually an interesting traveling companion, at least for that thirty minute train ride from Farringdon to St Albans. We spoke of films and the entertainment industry. Somewhere along the way, John asked me, “How’s work?” “Dull,” I admitted. “But… I do have a few ideas…”

Following Tim’s admonition about Mr C’s lips, I was a bit reticent. But I was also wildly enthusiastic so it wasn’t hard for him to draw it out of me. “Well,” I said, “what I’d like to do is get into TV and film making myself.” “Any luck so far?” “As it happens, I’ve been taking a few courses.” We talked on about films and film making, and also about the possibilities for local television. Our train pulled into St Albans Station and we parted cheerily.

Some time later I bumped into Jon again–although he appeared on several expense claims in the meantime. I happened to mention that I’d been talking to the local cable company who weren’t really doing anything much. “Oh,” John said, “well, you should come over to the local council offices some time and see the new information system we’ve set up for them in the foyer.” “Okay,” I promised, but that was later. Right then, I was ready to hammer Phantasm II with a barrage of keystrokes that would have made Freddy Krueger wince.

“I love film. I love all kinds of films. Except this one.”

Several weeks later, at a training session for junior journalists, I showed the editor of another local paper the two theatre reviews and the Phantasm II piece (which Grelle had left untouched) as they had appeared in the Watford Observer. “Nice,” he said. “These could count towards your training log if you like.” “Well,” I admitted, “that isn’t how the Centralians one originally looked.” I pulled out a print out I’d kept with the introduction about growing hyacinths and passed it to him.

It’s rare to see someone laughing out loud at your copy, especially when you’ve been led to believe it’s so self-indulgent. I savoured the moment. “This is great stuff,” he said. “Why didn’t they use it?” “You would have?” I asked. “Of course!” Oh. I explained Grelle?s reasoning to him. “Okay, I can see her point,” said my tutor, digesting this. “Maybe it is a bit cruel. But it’s still good. I would have used it.” I was clearly on the wrong newspaper. At least for theatre.

Yet, as far as film and television went, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And Jon Challis was to play a key role as the drama unfolded.

Rolling Along

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 funny—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 home—or rather, back to Britain, since she considered Africa home—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-editing—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 day—the day the Free came out—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 beautiful—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 immediate—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 bored—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, though—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 realised—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.

Busting Chops

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…

“Hello? Ray?”

“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…”

“Yes, Tim…”

“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 darkness—the pointless, meaningless deaths—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 £40, 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 once—local boy makes good—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 visualise—the first, most important step in any creative process—and it was good.

To Be Amusing

“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.”

Greening The Green

Flying to Kerry couldn’t have been easier. That day dawned pale amber on paler grey and I turned up at the airport with my toothbrush and time to spare. Parking was a doddle and in a short space of time, my overnight bag and I were on our way. My plane touched down in Ireland bright and early and our group moved swiftly into the airport bar. My bag arrived in Paris shortly after and sat there with my change of undies, shirt and a clean T-shirt all doing very little. I think it was 10.30 when someone gave me my first Guinness. It was about half an hour later that they gave me my second and told me about the bag. The thing about drinking at that time in the morning is, well, what the hell. It’s only a bag.

Opening an airport terminal felt like it should be a big deal and, on one level, that’s how it struck me. Important, impressive. Band, here. Head of state, there. It was a full-on production. Yet on another level, the opening of Kerry’s new international terminal felt very intimate. We were ushered out to the front of the building to hear the Irish Prime Minister, Charles Haughey, and as I seemed to be the only person with an SLR, I found myself right at the front of the press pack taking pictures. My camera was in Mr Haughey’s face and there was no space behind me to back away. So it was Mr Haughey speaking, snap! Mr Haughey cutting ribbon, snap! Oo, look?an aeroplane! Mountains! Cows! Snap snap snap! My head was buzzing from the early-morning Guinnesses and my enthusiasm exceeded my abilities but I carried on snapping until we were moved along to a white marquee.

Now, as marquees go, this one was a monster. Very large. Very very large indeed. It covered the whole car park and you could have hidden a three ring circus in there with room to spare. Perhaps they had. I could see the Prime Minister?s table somewhere near the vanishing points. Yes, when it came to big white tents, this was the daddy. But who were all these people inside? It looked as if the entire population of County Killarney had turned out. As I pondered the unlikelihood, a glass of champagne magically appeared in my hand and I sat down at an unfeasably long table next to a pearl-swathed elderly lady in the midst of this tented townfull of complete strangers. I raised my glass to my silver-haired dining companion. “This is nice, isn’t it?” I ventured. She smiled back and replied in a lilting Irish accent that it was, it was indeed. Very nice. Around me, the soft voices were creating a musical cadence and I was becoming lost in a sea of words and alcohol.

Alluring melodic voices seemed to be discussing all kinds of important things, yet when I listened, when I focused on their words, the conversations didn?t seem to be about anything much. Around me people continued to remark how very nice it all was and how very nice, too, to see the Prime Minister, constantly refered to by his Gaelic title, An Taoiseach. Phoenetically, Taoiseach sounds like “Tea shock” so the first few times I heard someone say the word with an Eirish accent, I thought they were saying “T-shirt”. The day had started becoming bizarre, I was through the looking glass and I found I couldn’t think of anything to say while my brain made feebleminded word plays around T-shirts and Taoiseachs. It was raining a little. Would they have a wet Taoiseach competition? How could you judge such a thing?

In the midst of so many well-mannered men and women, these ridiculous thoughts somehow seemed exceptionally funny and I had the urge to giggle. I smiled a little at the old lady with the pearls but it just made things worse. I coughed, politely, to one side, then concentrated on immersing myself in the pleasure of fresh poached salmon while imbibing copious amounts of water. I concentrated really hard. Perhaps this salmon came from the famous lakes. Perhaps I could get a souvenir Taoiseach. Somehow I made it to the afternoon without opening my mouth and revealing my humour deficiencies for all to hear.

Lunch was followed by a coach trip around the lakes of Killarney, a guided tour around beautiful scenery given by a beautiful PR girl with a beautiful voice. The sun was shining. Everything was beautiful. I was in a Beetles movie. We were taking the Magical Mystery Tour and scenery swam past the windows. The bus rolled up at one of Eire?s oldest pubs next to a sparkling clear lake and everything became more beautiful still, although I now had no idea what I was doing there and, as the sun shone brighter, I went down to look at the lake. Fish darted hither and thither between rocks in the crystal water and, despite the fact I?d have no dry clothes to put on afterwards, going for a paddle faded lazily into my consciousness as a Good Idea. A beautiful idea. To be sure. Fortunately, after a quick pint, the PR girl had a Better Idea and the good sense to get us all back on the bus.

We meandered along narrow country lanes, passing two horse-drawn carts in a surreal slow motion which seemed completely natural. We meandered peacefully, gracefully?as graceful as a coachload of half-cut journalists can be?on our way to the hotel, which despite its low-rise architecture, seemed anachronistically modern in its verdant hillside setting. It was mid afternoon when we got there and my bag still hadn’t turned up. Not impressive for an airline taking journalists on a publicity jolly, I reflected. We sat out on the patio, supping more Guinness and looking out across the lakes to the mountains of Killarney. Bag? Who needs a bag? I was drifting somewhere outside the real world, lost, oblivious. Nothing mattered.

Sitting out there on the patio, listening to the lilting Eirish accents discussing business, up and down, this and that, everything and nothing, and looking out at the magnificent view, I thought a little of my grandad leaving Cork to come to London for work so long ago. What was life like here when he grew up? Was it always this beautiful? My thoughts meandered like the coach trip earlier and I found myself wondering why the northern part of this emerald isle couldn’t somehow settle its differences and enjoy all this as good-hearted neighbours instead of feuding adversaries. I brought up the subject of the IRA and was allowed to continue my drunken rambling for maybe three or four minutes before the Irish journalist next to me suggested I drop it.

“Have you ever been to Northern Ireland?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “Well, you should shut up then because unless you?ve experienced it first hand, you’ve no idea what you’re talking about.” In a sense he was right, of course, but it struck me as odd that people were exploding bombs in London presumably to get the British public’s attention and, by extension, my attention. What did they want my attention for? Did they have a proposition which the peoples of Britain and Ireland at least might be interested in hearing? No one would say. The economy of London was messed up by bomb threats once a month and the killing continued in NI but the British press only wrote it up in terms of terror, the BBC assumed we all knew everything and school history had conveniently glossed over the whole thing. No one ever explained the issues or the context to us, Joe Public.

To be honest, by that point in the day I couldn’t have comprehended the difference between Sheffield Wednesday and Shrove Tuesday, let alone grasped a complex political issue. My brain had opened an escape hatch in my head and bailed a couple of hours earlier. It was happily swimming in the lake, bathing in the cool clear water. I guess in the end, anything truly lovely can engender covetous hostility. People will fight over the right to enjoy beauty in their own ways and the Emerald Isle had oft seen the green monsters of jealousy. Right then and there, these were all moot points. First hand experience of the situation or not, I was in no state to discuss anything in depth and at about four in the afternoon, I did the wisest thing I could. I finished my pint and went to my room. In keeping with the rest of the dream sequence which my day had become, the room had a stunning view. Fields, lakes, mountains… Look! Sheep! I was feeling very fortunate. Blessed. These perceptions flickered briefly on my consciousness before the last vestige of rational thought absconded to join the swimming brain. I slept.

Sometime around 7pm, an insistent knock on the door brought me round. It was the fine PR girl, whose enchanting voice would no doubt bring men to blows at some point, come to tell me that my bag had arrived. It had been to France and then Belgium–or was it Spain? Maybe all three. It had finally arrived in this lush green paradise and the explanation of its adventures made no sense, although I listened as attentively as I could. No, I couldn?t grasp abstract bag tourism at all so instead I grasped the bag itself and dug out my toothbrush. 7pm was a good time to get up and having clean teeth had moved to the top of my agenda. Ahh, clean teeth. Bleem bleem! I chewed a handful of peppermints for good measure. Half an hour before dinner. The bar was open once more so I did the decent thing and had another drink with the journos and Miss RyanAir. Dinner was sumptuous, the wine was great, the world was a blur. Sooner than I would have thought, I was back in bed, crashed out and sated.

Somehow I got back with the bag to Luton the next day safe and sound. I collected the car and thought briefly about dropping by the office to show my face, then decided it could wait. I’d see them on Monday. I went home and went to bed, to sleep the sleep of the just, or at least the just-about. Fortunately, I had a set of keys to the office, which meant I could go in over the weekend and write the feature up. I got it finished on the Sunday morning, when I had the peaceful luxury of an empty newsroom all to myself.

To be fair (and to be sure), it wasn’t a great piece of writing, but it wasn’t bad. To my mind, it just needed a little constructive criticism and some judicious sensitive editing. That?s what I thought. Ralph thought different. I was all about cultivating while he was all about weeding. The journalist writes, the editor cuts, of course, but sometimes I wondered if he was the kind of gardener who was happiest weilding a flamethrower.

Monday. St Albans Observer’s esteemed editor was back from his latest trip to the Aegean. His lack of joy at being in the office as opposed to, say, on a Greek island was palpable. “Ralph, I’ve written a feature on Killarney.” He raised a bushy grey eyebrow, loaded with scepticism. “Oh? Why?” “Well, Ryan Air started flying there last week and I went on the inaugural flight.” “Luton’s not actually in our catchment area, nitwit.” “Yes, I know that. But it’s the airport. They’re the local airport for our readers.” “Ireland isn’t local either.” I was persistent, “People go on holiday there and everyone flies from Luton.” “Okay,” said Ralph, bored. “I’ll look at it later. Now if you could just key-in these letters…”

Ralph sat on the feature for several weeks, until it was well out of date. Then he cut out large chunks to fit a space where an advertiser had dropped out at the last minute. “God, Jefferies, this is turgid stuff,” he said, rather less constructively than I’d hoped. “Stick to what you’re good at.” Pause. “What are you good at?” Standard unfunny Ralph routine. Then he simply sliced it part way through to fit it into a corner of a page. “Any ideas for a headline?” asked the aging Welshman. “Um…” I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm, so he wrote, ‘Fly the shamrock flight to Ireland’, added my name and stuck it in the paper. Sans photos. I said it wasn?t great, but I felt it deserved a little better treatment than that.

“Shame,” said Vince afterwards, dryly. Was he smiling? I couldn’t tell as he always seemed to be smirking about something these days. Not for him the drudgery of nearly two years in a printing department to get into his chosen field. He’d walked right in from university, and good on him but still. It was a bitter day. “No, really,” he added. “It’s a shame.” Well, yes, it was. However, I’d had a full days drinking in a fantastic setting, with great meals and a comfortable hotel room. Plus, not only had I not had to pay for anything, I’d also claimed expenses for driving to Luton and parking. As far as developing my feature-writing abilities went, this was nothing to write home about and another blow to my creative confidence. Yet, that aside, I did like the way Tim put it: I had had “a result”. Yes, definitely.

I was more green than I could possibly have imagined.

So It Was Written

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.

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.

Plus ça change…

Press cutting attached to a letter to the Watford Observer, December 12th 1993

The Piano (15) - Take away 
the ebony, ivory, strings, Holly Hunter, 
Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill, and you're 
left with a big wooden box (more or less).
The Secret Garden (U) - Someone 
forgot the golden rule: never act with 
children or plants.
The Snapper (15) - Alternatively 
described as (a) a fish, (b) a photographer, 
or (c) based on a Booker-prize winning novel.  
Take your pick.


Letter to the Watford Observer, December 12th 1993

Dear Mrs White [Go section editor],

I enclose 3 typical entries from this week’s Film Notes written by Keith Jefferies. None of them gives any information about the films; Mr Jefferies prefers instead to indulge in jokes of indescribable feebleness.

Do you think this matchless rubbish serves any useful purpose? It is baffling to those not interested in films and irritating to those who are. The annoying thing is that a proper guide, also indicating where the film in question is showing, would be genuinely useful.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Found

ps. The Snapper is not, as Mr Jefferies appears to believe, a booker-prize winning novel. Its author recently won the prize for another book.


Watford Observer ‘Go’ section, dateline Friday December 17th, 1993

Addams Family Values (PG) - Disturbing, 
amusing and politically incorrect.  The 
dead guys win.
Aladdin (U) - Arabian adventure animated 
by Walt Disney.  The hero wins.
Demolition Man (15) - Frozen and defrosted 
into a politically correct future, Sylvestor 
Stallone shoots Wesley Snipes.
Dirty Weekend (18) - Michael Winner rhymes 
with TV dinner and directs some passion and 
violence at the seaside.
Hard Target (18) - Jean Claude Van Damme 
does what he does in another violent film.
Hocus Pocus (PG) - A witch (Bette Midler) 
is brought back from the dea in Salem.  
The good guys win.
Indochine (12) - Catherine Deneuve, Vincent 
Perez, exotic melodrama, Vietnam setting
--I'll pass.
Jurassic Park (PG) - Genetically-engineered 
dinosaurs run amok.  The marketing men win.
Letter To Go (U) - Peter Found's moving 
literary classic had this reviewer in tears 
(of laughter).
Reservoir Dogs (18) - Matchless rubbish 
(much like these reviews) directed by 
Quentin Tarantino, a man with obvious 
talent (much like this reviewer) but 
some serious problems (which is where 
the similarity ends).
Robin Hood--Men in Tights (PG) - 
Mel Brooks lampoons the merry men.
So I Married An Axe Murderer (12) - 
Mike Myers is the gullible groom who must 
decide whether his beautiful bride is a 
psychotic loon.
Sommersby (12) - Jodie Foster is the 
baffled bride who must decide whether her 
handsome husband (Richard Gere) is really 
her husband (?).
Surf Ninjas (PG) - Indescribable 
feebleness prompts me to say this is an 
in-depth documentary into sun, sea and 
The Fugitive (12) - Harrison Ford 
runs away from the law.  Tommy Lee Jones 
chases him.
The Man Without A Face (12) - Mel 
Gibson directs a drama starring Mel Gibson 
as a horrifically scarred teacher.
The Piano (15) - Surreal images 
struggle in vain to cover up the fact that 
this is a stupid film about the sexual 
frolics of a dumb pianist.  Stars Holly 
Hunter, Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel.
The Secret Garden (PG) - Fairy tale-type 
balderdash about an orphan girl who discovers 
the makings of an enchanted compost heap.
UFO--The Movie (18) - The Snapper was 
alternately described as (a) a fish, (b) a 
photographer, or (c) based on a novel whose 
author won the Booker Prize for another book 
(thanks to P. Found of Oxhey for this useful 
information).  UFO is a film with Roy 
'Chubby' Brown.

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.