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At the end of My Turn to Make the Tea, Monica Dickens’s autobiographical local newspaper saga, her heroine Poppy is fired for an act of noble sabotage and replaced by ‘a lad of sixteen fresh from school’. I was that boy. At least, as I turned the pages, I hoped I would be. From the age of 14 I wanted the excitement of a newspaper life, to wear the golden trilby. I saw destiny in our evening paper’s ad for a trainee. I got the job. Instead of being a teenager I would be a junior reporter. My father bought me a blue suit, a maroon tie and a pen.

I’d seen the films so I knew I would find a noisy chaos of reporters at squalid desks jabbing typewriters beneath a cumulus of smoke. Someone showed me the mysteries of sub-editors, compositors and inky-aproned printers, servants of the gigantic presses. The place reeked of tobacco, ink, paper, hot metal and canteen fry. I inhaled.

As the lowliest form of life in the bewildering jungle I was given the Radio Times and shown how to copy out the programmes for the listings, typing as a wading bird pecks. I had to learn shorthand or be sacked. It was not difficult: at 16 you can learn anything. The shorthand teacher’s daughter, a vision in a fluffy sweater, brought coffee and digestives at half-time. I never missed a lesson.

‘Go to the station’, the news editor commanded, handing me my first, terrifying, assignment, ‘and meet this local chap. He went to America forty years ago, made his fortune and now he’s back for the first time.’ How, in the train crowd, would I recognize him? ‘Don’t worry, lad,’ said the photographer who came with me, ‘all Americans wear big hats.’ Not for the first time in newspapers I was saved by the cliché. A large stetson disembarked.

I sweated over the story until a pitying pro showed me the tricks of the journalistic jigsaw. He took me to the pub. ‘New boy,’ he told the barmaid. ‘Half a pint for him, then,’ she said.

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At the end of My Turn to Make the Tea, Monica Dickens’s autobiographical local newspaper saga, her heroine Poppy is fired for an act of noble sabotage and replaced by ‘a lad of sixteen fresh from school’. I was that boy. At least, as I turned the pages, I hoped I would be. From the age of 14 I wanted the excitement of a newspaper life, to wear the golden trilby. I saw destiny in our evening paper’s ad for a trainee. I got the job. Instead of being a teenager I would be a junior reporter. My father bought me a blue suit, a maroon tie and a pen.

I’d seen the films so I knew I would find a noisy chaos of reporters at squalid desks jabbing typewriters beneath a cumulus of smoke. Someone showed me the mysteries of sub-editors, compositors and inky-aproned printers, servants of the gigantic presses. The place reeked of tobacco, ink, paper, hot metal and canteen fry. I inhaled. As the lowliest form of life in the bewildering jungle I was given the Radio Times and shown how to copy out the programmes for the listings, typing as a wading bird pecks. I had to learn shorthand or be sacked. It was not difficult: at 16 you can learn anything. The shorthand teacher’s daughter, a vision in a fluffy sweater, brought coffee and digestives at half-time. I never missed a lesson. ‘Go to the station’, the news editor commanded, handing me my first, terrifying, assignment, ‘and meet this local chap. He went to America forty years ago, made his fortune and now he’s back for the first time.’ How, in the train crowd, would I recognize him? ‘Don’t worry, lad,’ said the photographer who came with me, ‘all Americans wear big hats.’ Not for the first time in newspapers I was saved by the cliché. A large stetson disembarked. I sweated over the story until a pitying pro showed me the tricks of the journalistic jigsaw. He took me to the pub. ‘New boy,’ he told the barmaid. ‘Half a pint for him, then,’ she said. Thanks to the digestives my shorthand soon qualified me for a seat in the courts alongside old sweats where I learned about human nature, greed, violence, unhappiness, death and sex. ‘You’re too young to understand,’ the news editor cautioned, reading through one of my first reports, ‘but women over 50 go a bit funny, and this one wouldn’t be the first to say a man put his hand on her ha’penny when he hadn’t.’ It was awful to receive notes from shoplifters imploring ‘For my family’s sake don’t put my name in the paper.’ ‘They all go in the paper, every one,’ the news editor said, cutting a penny from my expenses to show his steely way with crime. I liked the drama and majesty of assizes, the policemen’s yarns and the old reporters musing that murder trials had lost their edge since hanging ended. I also liked the opera of naval courts-martial, the saluting and foot-stamping culminating in the cruel ritual of the sword, its point turned like a matador’s towards an officer found guilty. Courts taught me to write fast and meet deadlines, to bring happiness to those rigorous hard men of syntax, the sub-editors who shaped and headlined our copy. One used to inflict summary punishment, striding into the reporters’ room to confront an offender. ‘You say here the council agreed spending to the tune of £5,000. How does that tune go?’ And he sang the words ‘five thousand pounds’ in a girlish falsetto as the humiliated hack squirmed. To this day, when I see ‘to the tune of ’ in a newspaper, I hear that cruel falsetto. ‘You write’, another wretch was scolded, ‘that during her visit the Queen showed no sign of her recent cold. What did you expect her to do? Spit out of the window?’ In this stern regime many words were forbidden. ‘Brainchild’ was one. We sometimes tried to spin invented words past the subs. One reporter tried ‘bustaceous’ to describe Marilyn Monroe, which some of us rather admired, but a sub nailed it. A friend persuaded me to take his theatre assignment and review the play Tea and Sympathy, and we were both before the beak because I used the word ‘queer’ which ran in the first edition before it was deleted. My rebuke was milder because it was assumed I did not know what it meant. We wrote out theatre reviews, not too critical, by hand immediately after the performance and dropped them into the paper’s letterbox. Similarly, reports of dinners, regimental, municipal and sporting, all known to us as ‘gutdowns’, were written up before the last bus went. I had heard every possible after-dinner joke before I was 20. I reported everything: crime, crashes, strikes, fêtes, funerals, farming, ship launchings, beauty contests, football pools wins and the endless permutations of ‘human interest’. Years later I saw that my stints in courts and councils made me feel at home with Kremlin politics, the White House and Mafia trials. The worst thing was football. There were no bylines on our paper and I wrote about football under the name of Roamer or Stroller. I envied a colleague, banned by the club for a critical commentary, but envied him less when the sports editor made him report from a tree beside the ground. I never really understood offside, but, then as now, neither did most spectators. Boxing was less attractive after a heavyweight bled on to my notebook. Like Monica Dickens’s Poppy I entered the world of digs, bed, breakfast and evening meal, and extra for a bath; my nylon-shirt period. Poppy lived under the roof of the tyrannical Mrs Goff. I knew one or two dragons like her. Landladies in those days said: ‘Go easy on the jam, it’s all we have till the end of the week.’ Mrs M, though, was fairly genial. When her husband hit her on the head with the telephone I intervened, but my fellow-lodger stayed with his toad-in-the-hole and said I was wrong to come between man and wife. I washed socks in my bedroom sink. One day I left the water running while I made a phone call and caused a flood that brought down the ceiling below. Mrs M forgave me and had the ceiling replastered. Another sock wash shortly afterwards brought down the ceiling again and this time the new plaster spread like pastry across the furniture. Installed in new digs I fell ill. The doctor sat on the bed brushing away the ash that fell from his cigarette on to my chest. ‘Tonsillitis,’ he diagnosed, ‘no smoking for you, my boy.’ In that bitter winter a tiny electric fire warmed my room and I used it to heat the lid of the biscuit tin in which I kept my files. The lid made a dandy bedwarmer until I overdid it and burnt a black square through sheets and mattress. I had to go. A local newspaper is accountable to a community in a way a national paper is not. We considered, proprietorially, that anything London wrote about our area was wrong. ‘Contrary to reports in a national newspaper,’ we would say. Fleet Street was big and bad, but it was where some of us wanted to be. I first worked alongside Fleet Street men on a ‘runaway love’ story. Remember those? Although supposedly rivals, they dashed around in their flying raincoats as a pack of hounds and worked in jovial camaraderie. When the father of the star-crossed runaway girl said he would give an interview to only one Fleet Street man I witnessed the ensuing nineteenth-century scene. In the back bar of a pub the tables were pushed back. The Daily Herald and the Sunday Pictorial stripped to the waist and, glistening sweatily, wrestled for the honour of seeing the silly girl’s dad. Many novelists get newspaper life wrong. Monica Dickens got it right. She showed that it is often grindingly mundane; and also privileged, varied, enjoyable and, frequently and mercifully, comical.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 10 © Trevor Fishlock 2006


About the contributor

Trevor Fishlock became a foreign correspondent for The Times and The Daily Telegraph. He represented The Times at cricket, but not wrestling. Monica Dickens’s My Turn to Make the Tea (1951) is sadly now out of print.

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