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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