Tomorrow’s fish and chips
By Geoffrey Goodman
Being a journalist is a kind of alternate for a job in an entire range of semi-skilled, perhaps even unskilled, trades. I am thinking especially of jobs such as the secret intelligence services – incidentally, a much over-rated occupation; a bookmaker (much under-rated), managing a casino, becoming a politician, which has increasingly developed into a job akin to running a casino; and to be sure, pretending to be an academic preferably one occupied with psychology or maybe still more appropriate, ‘modern communications’.
Anyone of these trades, in my view, can be regarded as interchangeable with journalism. Come to think of it you could add a few more – being a beachcomber, a coastguard on a lighthouse overlooking a particularly rugged coastline or island or, if things became really difficult, a brothel keeper.
I am quite sure it would be easy to think of other alternates: or perhaps a permutation of various of these splendid categories rolled into one inglorious amalgam of chance, circumstance, fortune, and probably ill-luck, much of which is always lurking around. So, briefly, I felt tempted to give this book a title of:
it’s only tomorrow’s fish and chips
It was a description given to me many years ago by a brilliantly perceptive colleague on the Daily Mirror (dear long-dead Len Jackson) who, during an outburst of outrage and frustration at the way my piece had been mishandled in the paper that day, reminded me: ‘Just remember, old chap’ he solemnly consoled, ‘it’ll all be forgotten in a couple of days when the paper is being used to wrap up six penn’orth of fish and chips. It’s only tomorrow’s fish and chips we are talking about…’ They were the days when almost all fish and chip shops used newspaper pages to wrap round their delectable cod and two-penn’orth of chips.
Sadly, in my nostalgia, I fear that this crude but workmanlike practice has faded from our clean-food culture. Fish and chips are no longer wrapped in yesterday’s newspapers, though, who knows, perhaps in some remote corner the heritage continues. So the title of this book has taken on fresh tokenism.
At any rate, I am not sure why I ever imagined my range of skills or lack of them, qualified me to become a newspaperman. Maybe it was pure romanticism. Perhaps I saw too many cheap films as a kid. More likely there was nothing better to do in the days when I was beginning to consider the forbidding prospect of a lifetime at work.
I well remember the retirement speech made by an old News Chronicle colleague, a great Parliamentary reporter of that paper (those were days when every national morning paper had its own reporter in the press gallery of the House of Commons) –E. Clepham Palmer (‘Cleph’). Upon receiving the beneficent retirement gesture from the Cadburys, who then owned the paper, Cleph observed in his dry, drawn-out East Anglian tones: ‘It’s been a wonderful life. It’s paid my mortgage, helped educate my children, kept me in food, drink, tobacco and clothing; assisted me to see something of the world at someone else’s expense and has provided me with a platform to address the nation at large… what another job would have provided me with such an opportunity? What other form of work could have given an unskilled labourer, which is what I am, such good fortune?’
Dear Cleph meant every word of that as he retreated to somewhere in his old native heath to enjoy the fruits of retirement from the Cocoa Press. He was not alone with such sentiments about the advantages of being in the newspaper trade. Ian Mackay was another labourer in that vineyard. The Great Bohunkus, as he was affectionately labelled by his chums, would frequently reflect on his good fortune. As a young boy in Wick he started working life at the age of 14 humping coal for a local merchant at two OLD pennies a day. He got up at six every morning to qualify in the grime trade before he dusted his hands and landed a job as a messenger boy for a local paper.
That was how Mackay started along the road to becoming one of the outstanding diarists and essayists to grace Fleet Street in the 20th century. He died, aged 54, still full of zest and brilliance, at the peak of his form, a pure Mozart of journalism, and still amazed at his good fortune at being able to spend his later life reading books and absorbing knowledge about the world, then writing about all this – subsidised, as he was fond of observing, by Mr Cadbury’s bars of milk chocolate.
It is not a bad way of avoiding work though, to be sure, some people have clearly discovered still better methods. Not that there was much money in the trade in those days – unlike modern media cash registers. Most of the best journalists of my time seemed to end up with a mere handful of loose change and large debts which they could scarcely understand, let alone pay off. All that has changed. The modern generation of media men and women is very well paid – at least by comparison – and some are among the more privileged earning groups in society. So they should be: the job is far more demanding than it ever was, as well as demanding far greater skills of invention.
So why this book? Why bother with yet another kind of memoir about a trade that has had its over-share of nostalgic inner-reflection? I have only one strong reason – I believe the picture I am presenting here is different. This story is a portrait of the century we have just left behind: a reflection of life for a working class, under-educated, certainly under-privileged boy who, through the depression years and the Second World War, somehow found a pathway into journalism and political life. The interweaving of life as a journalist and its contact with political power is a fascinating reflection of power throughout the ages. It always has been – though arguably more so, today, than ever. Northcliffe would be amazed if he returned to his old scene to witness how his own Citizen Kane role during the first two decades of the 20th century has been dwarfed by contemporary media moguls of power.
The book is also a testimony to a generation, my generation, the children born in the wake of the First World War. It is, of course, the experience through one eye: an eye that has seen an extraordinary transformation at every level across the spectrum of time. It encapsulates the story of an ordinary child of the century, born and reared in a north of England working class home of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland. There were no privileges except those bestowed from the natural ferment of a home, encompassing a large family, which generated turbulent spirits that erupted naturally from the insecurity and uncertainties of immigrant life.
I count all this not as a disadvantage but as a privilege, a huge gain since it contained the stimulus, the vibrance, the drive to establish roots and identity. It was a fight to survive from unpromising beginnings.
There are, of course, wider considerations that the book will try to reflect. I grew up in the slipstream of vast political and social upheaval, indeed of revolution. All over the world, following the 1914-18 Great War, there came an earthquake of change. The great melting pot of the 20th century was being molded: socialism, communism, were being hailed as the ‘New Religion’. Fascism was breeding on the carcase of decaying ancient regimes.
When my father returned from the filth, death and destruction of the trenches across the channel and eventually emerged from a recovery unit in an Edinburgh hospital, he went in search of work. Work? Ah, that was another story. He always told me his story with considerable reluctance and brevity that matched his modest outlook on life. He had emerged alive from the trenches – which surprised him: he had a few dreams and was a great Lloyd George fan; he wanted to believe that a new world was beckoning. Armed with those hopes, those dreams, he began looking for a job, found one briefly but then joined the long queue of broken dreamers. That was the crucible in which my earliest memories were formed. Growing up in the 1920s and 1930s was an outcrop of that time warp.
Yet it was more complex than that. In the immortal phraseology of Maxim Gorky those years were in fact ‘My university’. In that crucible all future life was shaped, unconsciously to be sure, but no less real. Feelings, passions, prides, prejudices, rights and wrongs, dreams and poetry – they all emptied into the crucible, shaping my ignorance as well as my knowledge. Such things are not open to choice, they simply happen. Like Everest they are there, dominating the landscape of one’s life.
For those people who grew up at the same time and yet remained outside that kind of ambiance, which was essentially a zone of protest and revolt, the world clearly looked very different. Yet among my own contemporaries, there were very few who were not involved, at one stage or another, in ‘trouble-making’ – politically, socially, or just for the sheer hell of it to break the monotony of orthodoxy. And since we were not protected by wealth, or the kind of class background which, by definition, provided its own immunization from reality, our options were limited – albeit no less attractive in a negative sort of way.
So I came to inherit the socialist dream as part of the accepted litany of any sensible life. Gradually the message grew more sophisticated, more complex, but also acquired a deeper logic. It was a kind of new, or different, divinity, offering idealised thoughts on the future of mankind and all that. It also provided an avenue of escape from the more conventional themes of organised mysticism and absurdities manifest in routine religious belief as practiced in church, synagogue or mosque.
Aneurin Bevan, whom I came to know so well in later years, once described socialism to me as a ‘natural biological development’. He believed that the specie would ultimately come to it in pursuit of its own self-interest rather than routed via pure idealism. Bevan saw this as the ‘civilising process’ – which, I still believe, is what drew so many of my generation to the concept. That indeed was our 20th century dream.
Even now it is impossible to predict how influential, or superfluous, that concept may prove to be in fashioning and moulding the illusions of this new 21st century. Darwin once observed that it is always easier to prophecy for a million years ahead than for the next fifty. Even so it is a reasonable assumption that many of the features of the new society that is now in embryo will, in fact, come to resemble many of the dreams that we, in our time, allowed to dominate much of our lives.
All this and newspapers too… well, it has been frequently claimed that journalism is the ‘first draft of history’: that somewhat presumptuous claim can be placed against my original and, I fear, more modest sceptical offering – Tomorrow’s fish and chips. And although it is not the title of this book I have a feeling at the far end of my mind that the truth might still fit, even if uneasily, somewhere between each.
Geoffrey Goodman worked on the News Chronicle, Manchester Guardian, Daily Herald and the Daily Mirror where he was industrial editor, assistant editor and columnist. He has worked in China, Soviet Russia and the USA and was founding editor of British Journalism Review.
His book, From Bevan to Blair – Fifty Years Reporting from the Political Fron Line, newly updated and expanded, is published by Revel Barker Publishing at £9.99.
Continue to Revel Barker on the Mirror’s secret history