By Andrew Jackson
In those days, long before the digital era, the thing to have was a particular Sony radio-alarm clock. Instead of a dial and hands this much-prized cutting-edge device used a Rolodex-like system, with the hours and minutes displayed on plastic wafers that flipped over with an audible and distinctive click as time went by.
The alarm was set, as it always was, for seven-thirty. That particular Friday morning, publication day, I heard the click and a second or two later the voice of Jack de Manio reading the news headlines: ‘…and in Edgware…’
I froze. My story, that story, was being discussed on the Today programme. The game was up. Disgrace was inevitable. I’d be sacked within hours.
With a feeling of dread, I washed, dressed, and drove the few miles to the high-street office of the Edgware Times and the Edgware Post (identical in terms of copy but not format – the Times was broadsheet and the Post tabloid).
As with many local paper district offices, the reporters’ room was at the back of a greetings card and stationery shop, a smoke-filled, window-less cuddy for two reporters, two sit-up-and-beg typewriters, and one telephone.
I parked in the service road at the rear of the building and entered warily via the back door. Mr. Harvey, who ran the shop, was waiting for me. ‘Ooh, now see what you’ve done,’ he scolded. ‘I’ve had to shut the shop and lock the door.’
A glance over his shoulder revealed a throng of men and women milling on the pavement outside, some of them bearing fully loaded Speed Graphics, one with an Arriflex news camera and tripod and another with a tape recorder slung over his shoulder. Most carried a copy of the paper.
‘You’d better sort it out,’ said Mr. Harvey. ‘It’s all your fault.’
I gulped a lungful of air, lit my first Woodbine of the day, and went out the door.
‘Did you write this?’ asked one of the group, pointing to the lead story. ‘Where can we find them?’ asked another. ‘Do you have their phone numbers?’
What could I say? How had it come to this?
To explain my predicament we must go back a few days to the start of a scenario that was now running out of control.
Aged 23 I ran the Edgware office of the Hendon Times series, assisted by my chum and colleague Brian Stratton. There was a similar set-up in Finchley but the senior reporter there, a woman, had fallen out with Alan Davies, editor of the group. We’ll call her Annette.
Alan had called a week earlier to say he was sending Annette to Edgware, where I was to ‘work her hard’ in the hope that she would foul up and he would have grounds to sack her, while Brian would switch to head office.
So, Annette turned up on Monday and we got on with the chores – wedding reports, flower show results, and so on – and agreed which of us would cover the jobs in the diary for that week.
Annette was much older than me and a tad prickly – she knew the pressure was on and wasn’t going to take any nonsense from a whippersnapper like me. For my part, my management style was more pleading than assertive but nevertheless, we rubbed along without conflict.
The lead story that week was expected to come from a council meeting on Wednesday evening. Annette’s shorthand was far superior to mine so we agreed that she would cover the council meeting and file her copy before covering the local magistrates’ court on Thursday morning.
Come the Thursday I did police and fire calls on the way in and pitched up around ten o’clock. The phone rang. Alan wanted to know when the lead would be coming over. I said I thought he had it already but I would check with Annette. The copy deadline for the issue was noon.
I took a look at Annette’s desk. No sign of any relevant copy there. Nothing on the spike, no blacks, nothing in the bin. I hurried over to the court building but there was no sign of her. Back in the office, Alan was on the phone again. ‘Where’s that bloody lead boyo? You’ve only got an hour.’ I explained that Annette appeared to have gone AWOL, taking the lead with her. ‘Then use your initiative,’ said Alan. ‘The clock is ticking.’
What to do? Fear and the specter of a white hole where the lead should be produced an adrenaline rush and a flash of inspiration.
The previous week we’d carried a letter from two women who wanted to warn others of the unreliability of au pairs. Theirs, they wrote, had run off without warning, taking items belonging to their employers with them.
This week, I decided, the au pairs would hit back.
I quickly knocked out a completely fictitious story about how au pairs were exploited, made to do work they shouldn’t, and how their lives were made a misery by thoughtless and uncaring employers. To help stand it up I quoted ‘Heidi from Switzerland’, ‘Lotte from Germany’, ‘Isabella from Italy’ and their friends.
I phoned it over to Hendon and within minutes Alan was back on the phone. ‘Bloody brilliant, boyo, but why couldn’t you have sent it earlier?’ I mumbled something about waiting for a quote and breathed a sigh of relief.
Now, here I was on Friday morning facing a Fleet Street pack intent on following up the story. I had no alternative but to brazen it out. I told them that I couldn’t reveal my sources as Heidi and her chums had spoken to me in confidence – but said that au pairs tended to hang out at a local coffee bar further up the high street. Off they went in pursuit of their quarry.
Readers of Ranters will not be surprised to learn that most of the nationals carried their versions of the story the following day, duly quoting ‘Ingrid from Norway’, ‘Anna from Austria’, and so on. Then, of course, the employers hit back and the story ran for another two or three days. There was even a question in the House.
We sold a lot more papers that week and Alan told me what we needed were ‘more stories like that’.
And Annette? She’d done a runner and was not heard of again. Brian Stratton returned from head office and life went on. You couldn’t make it up, eh…?