Issue # 203

We are like Jews in our love of telling long, lugubrious, and insulting stories about ourselves, and our fierce resentment of anyone else doing so. – Nicholas Tomalin in the Sunday Times


This Week

We start with the republication of a piece that appears here in response to popular demand.

True, the folk who have asked for it remember it the first time round, more than 40 years ago. For some it was inspirational, for some motivational; some it encouraged to seek work on newspapers.

Whatever, it’s a piece that should be (if it isn’t already, automatically) read to and handed to aspiring newspaper people. Unless the job has altered so much, which would be a pity.

Nicholas Tomalin wrote it for the Sunday Times Magazine in 1969 as Stop The Press, I Want to Get On. (There had been a briefly run musical, in 1961-2, called Stop The World, I Want to Get Off, starring Anthony Newley. Ah… memories… Ah, headline writers…)

Plain John Smith continues our series of How I Started on The Job (other people’s contributions still welcome) which, unlike Nick Tomalin, he managed without the benefit of a Cambridge education – indeed, part of the attraction appears to have been that (unlike, say, becoming an architect) journalism didn’t appear to require much education at all.

Derek Roylance has been to yet another funeral and has suddenly realised that the congregations at these services are getting smaller. Reminds me of Bernard McElwaine, seeing off a Sunday Mirror colleague at Golders Green Crem, pointing to Jack Bentley and commenting, ‘It hardly seems worth his going home…’

Rudge, the cartoonist, has joined the trend and outsourced his subbing.

But wait… All those words and barely a mention of drink, let alone of anybody getting pissed. And this website (apparently) has a reputation to uphold, a tradition to maintain.

Then in comes a message from new reader Mick Davis, a former wireroom telegraphist at the Daily Mail in Manchester, with a touching story about Vincent Mulchrone being visited in hospital in his dying days by his chum John Edwards.

He found Vincent had lapsed into a coma, but sat by the bedside for a while talking quietly to him about various times they had shared and about the people they both knew in the business.

John was aware that Vincent was close to death and was somewhat distressed when he came to say what he knew would be a final farewell to his old friend and colleague. As he leaned over the bed to whisper goodbye he glanced upwards to find a small plaque attached to the bed head on which was the dedication, This bed has been donated by The Vintners’ Society.

So there you go. There’s no getting away from it. Even at the end.


Stop the Press I want to get on

By Nicholas Tomalin

The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability. If you look at the jewels of the profession, you will see that this must be so… Some are more literary and less cunning than others; some certainly are more plausible; but it is these shared qualifications that make all of them recognisably of the same breed.

The ratlike cunning is needed to ferret out and publish things that people don’t want to be known (which is – and always will be – the best definition of news). The plausible manner is useful for surviving while this is going on, helpful with the entertaining presentation of it, and even more useful in later life when the successful journalist may have to become a successful executive on his newspaper. The literary ability is of obvious use.

Other qualities are helpful but not diagnostic. These include a knack with telephones, trains and petty officials; a good digestion and a steady head; total recall; enough idealism to inspire indignant prose (but not enough to inhibit detached professionalism); a paranoid temperament; an ability to believe passionately in second-rate projects; well-placed relatives; good luck; the willingness to betray, if not friends, acquaintances; a reluctance to understand too much too well (because tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner and tout pardonner makes dull copy); an implacable hatred of spokesmen, administrators, lawyers, public-relations men, and all those who would rather purvey words than policies; and the strength of character to lead a disrupted life without going absolutely haywire. The capacity to steal other people’s ideas and phrases – that one about ratlike cunning was invented by my colleague Murray Sayle – is also invaluable.

None of these things makes the difference between a good journalist and a bad one. Goodness and badness in journalism are difficult to define, and depend roughly on the same qualities as they do anywhere else.

It is more difficult to get into journalism proper (by which, I’m afraid, I mean metropolitan national journalism) than it is to succeed once you are there. Once in (given the ratlike, plausible and literary knacks), things are reasonably easy. But to get in, at the right level and the right time to display your talents, is extraordinarily difficult. This explains the widespread resentment and bewilderment felt by non-journalists who feel – frequently quite justifiably – that they could do as well, if not better, than those within the charmed circle.

Anyone who has got into the club, however, has no right to complain. His talents are constantly and publicly on display to his colleagues and his customers. He needs no formal system of grading, no office politics, to demonstrate how good, or bad, he is…

There are three reasons why the club is so difficult to join. Firstly, it is because journalism (or ‘the communications industry’ as aspirants like to call it) is now the fashionable profession in this country… it is obvious that the old prestige careers like the civil service, Foreign Office and even politics offer no glamorous prospects. The only enjoyable job is to stand back and earn a living describing our [the UK’s] predicament.

Secondly, it is because there are surprisingly few good journalistic jobs available. Thirdly, it is because journalism is so complex and various that editors and publishers usually don’t really know what they want…

Your greatest test, therefore, will be getting your first good job. Persistence is probably the most valuable quality here. If you read the industry’s brochures you may imagine employers are searching for new talent, winnowing out contenders, and selecting the finest. In an intermittent undisciplined way this does go on occasionally, but the best editors are far too busy editing to bother with it. In practice what happens is that a constant stream of applicants are interviewed and forgotten, and no one thinks about hiring until a gap or a sacking occurs. Then the first plausible candidate to turn up gets the job.

Friends can help. The best Fleet Street newspapers are not the open-ended institutions they like to appear, but feudal fiefdoms all bound up in intimate friendships and shared values. All good publications are communities essentially cliquish and inward-looking; the best editors are good because they have the most talented friends. Therefore you need to cultivate like-mindedness, and pals at court…

An even more powerful help is a famous mother or father. Journalism, being fashionable, is a privilege profession. In its present state it shows many of the aspects of the aristocracy, and lineal descent is one of them.

However, the best – and more honest – way of all to get into the club is to offer a unique selling proposition. You can get a really good, exclusive story. Discover something that no one else could discover, write it down well, and take it to the correct man. If he wants it, he will subsequently want you, provided you don’t sell yourself short.

If this is an unsatisfactory situation, it is because journalists are always better at describing than doing, at telling others what is wrong than in practising what we preach. We are also oddly incompetent at examining ourselves. We are like Englishmen with our tender – and false – stereotype of ourselves as rough-hewn, cynical, full of endearing faults, incomprehensible to outsiders, but at heart absolutely splendid. We are like Jews in our love of telling long, lugubrious and insulting stories about ourselves, and our fierce resentment of anyone else doing so. We are like doctors: we make the worst, most touchy and litigious subjects of other people’s journalism (which is strange, because we are forever writing, fascinatedly, about ourselves in the fond pretence that others are as interested in our parochial problems as we are). We are obsessed with our professionalism, and convinced that there is not only a mystery to our craft, but a whole spectrum of laboriously learned techniques. We demand an apprenticeship, examination results, and years of drudgery before we allow entrants a proper chance to show their talents, and yet virtually all the really successful (and really good) journalists have somehow or other managed to escape such a cumbrous ordeal.

There are, of course, difficult techniques to master. An apprenticeship is essential. But one year, or even six months’ hard work, should be enough for anyone to learn all the practical techniques necessary. And this, in a just world, should be done by being in contact with the brightest minds and best institutions in journalism, that is to say, in Fleet Street…

A man who has served his apprenticeship on the Frensham Clarion is, according to orthodox teachings, meant to have had a far better training. He knows in his bones the correct form of address for a mayor, the legal intricacies of probate courts… and always to get the number of dead into his first subordinate clause. With such a superb start, he won’t necessarily spend his life in Frensham, but he is in terrible danger of doing so unless he unlearns it all in favour of the totally different, and no doubt disreputable, disciplines demanded by Fleet Street newspapers. Officially he is imbibing that precious indefinable thing, ‘a news sense’, at the grass roots. But he may not immediately realise that local news like weddings, funerals, road-widening schemes, magistrates’ courts, and aldermanic elections isn’t really news at all. It’s information, vitally necessary to that local society and to sell the local newspaper, but in real terms frivolous and trivial, properly fit only to be transmitted in some data-processing fashion, by computer.

While trotting round the flower shows the apprentice will have it continuously drummed into his head that the journalist’s job is to transmit something called ‘facts’. C P Scott’s antique motto ‘Comment is free, facts are sacred’ will be inscribed in pokerwork above his apprentice desk.

This idea is adequate only at the data-processing level of journalism. For anyone more talented than a news agency man, the idea of a ‘fact’ is so simplistic it is a lie. Facts are not sacred; the moment any reporter begins to write his story he has selected some and not others, and has distorted the situation. The moment he composes the ‘facts’ into a narrative form he has commented on the situation. The idea of ‘facts’, to be shoved at readers like little lumps, is best forgotten very swiftly.

To say a journalist’s job is to record facts is like saying an architect’s job is to lay bricks – true, but missing the point. A journalist’s real function, at any rate his required talent, is the creation of interest. A good journalist takes a dull, or specialist, or esoteric situation, and makes newspaper readers want to know about it. By doing so he both sells newspapers and educates people. It is a noble, dignified and useful calling. (All this is not, of course, to say that a journalist should ever be inaccurate, or false to the truth as he sees it. He must create interest while being truthful…)

The most valuable lesson a small local newspaper can teach an apprentice is that its most interesting contents, which sell the paper, are the classified advertisements. Even less real journalism can be gathered from schools of journalism, or from some academic course.

The only good teaching institutions in journalism are, I repeat, good newspapers…

To attack the idea of a comprehensive training scheme in journalism, and to assert that really good reporters and editors are born and not made, is difficult and dangerous. It appears to derogate a lot of brilliant people. It also smacks of arrogance, dilettantism, and a kind of whimsical disregard of honest craftsmanship…

The trouble is that journalism in Britain is crucially divided. Half, or three-quarters, or perhaps even seven-eighths of it, is a service industry, shovelling out perishable facts and names just as the United Dairies deliver milk. The other half, or fragment, is a collection of wayward anarchistic talents responding to, and usually opposing, the society which they are supposed to report.

It serves no purpose to pretend that these two traditions aren’t in many ways opposed to each other. No one denies life is tougher, and more real, for foot soldiers and general practitioners than it is for generals and specialists. No one denies this is so for the yearly batch of… trainees. But it really is a nonsense, born of a vague egalitarian urge to improve the public relations image of an unjust world, to pretend that they are cleverer, or even man for man more valuable, than the men who try to be brilliant on their wits alone.

Nick Tomalin’s first jobs in journalism after leaving Cambridge in the 1950s were as a gossip columnist and diary writer on the Daily Express, Evening Standard and Sunday Times. In 1967 he became literary editor of the New Statesman. He also established himself as a special correspondent, covering the Viet Nam war for the Sunday Times. He went to Israel for the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and was killed in a rocket attack.


Those first inky steps…

plainjohn 2 By Plain John Smith

It was my Billy Elliott moment.

At the age of 16, I announced to my astounded family that I planned to be a journalist. In a household steeped in the oil-stained rigours of the motor trade, it was tantamount to expressing ambitions to become a ballet dancer.

My father, having retreated to the nearest pub to get over the shock, returned to deliver a gloomy homily on the perils of the journalistic profession. It was, he warned, riddled with insecurity, ruthless competition and wayward living.

He concluded: ‘For everyone who makes it to the top, there are a dozen lying drunk in the gutters of Fleet Street.’ (For someone more skilled with carburettors than composition, my dad had a surprisingly graphic turn of phrase).

No, he insisted, what I needed was a proper job. And he had found me one, thanks to one of his garage customers who could introduce me to a much more suitable and stable career.

So it was that I became a thirty-bob-a-week apprentice at Sutcliffe and Partners, a firm of architects with offices in Manchester Square, just off London’s Oxford Street.

I hated it, particularly when I learnt that qualification as an architect would involve seven years of night school.

After two months I began planning my escape. Deliverance arrived in the form of a three-line advertisement in World’s Press News, the journalists’ trade paper in which I regularly invested a scarcely affordable shilling from my meagre wages:

‘Smart boy wanted for London office of major provincial newspaper group.’

Smart boy? They need look no further.

The group was Westminster Press Provincial Newspapers, publishers of scattered titles like the Darlington Northern Echo and the Bradford Telegraph and Argus. Their offices fronted onto the heart of Fleet Street, curling round the corner into Red Lion Court.

The entrance, scuffed wooden doors, was my stairway to Heaven.

I became an editorial dogsbody and I loved every minute of it.

They first put me to work in the City Office, staffed by two elderly gentlemen who arrived in mid-morning smelling slightly of sherry and wearing bowler hats, black jackets and striped trousers. After a couple of hours shuffling through company reports and making a few phone calls, they took up their perfectly rolled umbrellas and departed, muttering: ‘Lunch… contacts… stock exchange… might be some time.’

I was left alone at a corner table, with strict instructions to keep an eye on the Exchange Telegraph teleprinter for any fluctuations in the price of wool or cotton – vital information for the textile towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the heartland of the Westminster Press readership.

Periodically I filled in a proforma with the latest stock market prices for these commodities which I then took down to the wire room for transmission to our northern outposts. This I did with all the urgency and self-importance of Winston Churchill delivering another dramatic front line dispatch from the Boer War.

I moved on to the library, filing endless cuttings that the head librarian clipped from a huge pile of newspaper, all the while humming arias from La Traviata or Madame Butterfly, a reminder that by night he was also the Westminster Press opera critic.

Saturday afternoons found me at one of London’s soccer stadiums, stationed at the back of the Press box and eagerly awaiting handwritten copy from the group’s sole London sports reporter which I then dictated to a copytaker from one of the few available payphones.

For the Rugby League Cup Final I met up with a team of cloth-capped photographers from Oop North who arrived at Wembley Stadium in a mobile darkroom. This was a converted bakery delivery van, somewhat sketchily repainted so that beneath the Westminster Press livery one could still see traces of the homely slogan: ‘Try our fresh bread, cakes and pies.’

I crouched with this crack team of snappers behind the goal posts, their urgent instruction, ‘Get that one away, lad’, sending me sprinting down the touchline with film from their Speed Graphic cameras, plus a hurriedly scrawled caption (‘Ackroyd goes close in the opening minutes’).

Then it was a breathless race across the car park to the bread van (sorry, mobile darkroom) where technicians waited to wire the pictures north for that evening’s sports Pink ’Un in Barnsley or Bradford.

Other Saturday afternoons saw me criss-crossing Fleet Street to collect football pictures from the Press Association offices, the prints still damp from the darkroom and smelling strongly of fluid from the Roneo copying machine that they used for the pasted-on captions on the back.

Every working day I was surrounded by the glamour, energy and excitement of Fleet Street. Photographers on assignment dashed in and out of the Keystone Press agency, next door in Red Lion Court. Ribald laughter filtered through the doors of pubs where raffish reporters gathered to booze and boast. Suntanned foreign correspondents in lightweight suits tailored in Hong Kong arrived by taxi at the doors of the Daily Express, fresh from world flashpoints like the Congo, Malaya or Cyprus.

At night I took shorthand and typing lessons at Pitman’s College in Finsbury Park, surrounded by aspiring secretaries who were quite impressed to find a real, live Fleet Street journalist in their midst (I had already acquired the essential tabloid trait of exaggeration when defining my exact role in the newspaper world).

But I was almost 17 and it was time to move on.

‘Junior reporter required for lively north London weekly,’ said the advert in World’s Press News.

New challenges awaited at the Muswell Hill Record.

So I said a sad farewell to Fleet Street.

But, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’d be back.


Diminishing returns

By Derek Roylance

This week I attended the funeral of a former workmate and was reunited with other former workmates and acquaintances I hadn’t seen for years.

Nothing unusual about that you might think, but as I enjoy my octogenarian years I realised that I only ever see some of these people at funerals. The realisation took me back more than half a century.

In 1946 when I left school to become a cub reporter on the old Rhyl Leader it was one of my jobs to cover all the deaths and weddings in the town. But it was the coverage of the deaths and funerals that sparked my memory bank.

After calling on undertakers (they call them funeral directors now) and the local registrar to find out who their customers were, I set off on my bicycle armed with a pad of forms on which were printed the basic questions I had to ask; name, age, occupation, associations to which the deceased belonged, etc, etc.

I recalled that I approached the first few homes of the bereaved with some degree of trepidation. Would the family be annoyed at the intrusion of a callow youth on their grief? There was no need for concern however, I was expected.

I had hardly got out the fact that I was from one of the local newspapers – the Rhyl Journal was the other, and, I believe is still going – when I was whisked inside. Every death in the town was reported so the visit by reporters from the local rags was part of the grieving process.

Usually, I was ushered into the front room, gloomy because the curtains were drawn, and invited to take a seat.

As my eyes adjusted to the gloom and started to ask my questions I often sensed there was someone other than myself and the family member in the room. I was right. There, lying in his or her coffin on a pair of trestles was deceased.

At first this was a bit disconcerting to a 16-year-old and I noticed that my voice dropped to a whisper. Why, I don’t know… perhaps it was because I didn’t want to wake them up…

But all this is the precursor to the main point of this story. The follow up to the visit to the deceased’s home was the funeral. This did not mean we young reporters had to sit through endless eulogies and the like. We hung around outside the church (or chapel – this was Wales) until the cortege had departed and then went inside to gather the cards left by the undertakers in the pews to enable the mourners to fill in their names and addresses for the benefit of the newshounds.

It was a source of amusement to me at the time to note that a small group of what I then considered to be old men gathered in a huddle outside the church and, at the appropriate time filed inside. After the service they reconvened in a solid little group and after a few words and a round of handshakes, they all went their separate ways.

It was always the same group, less perhaps one of their number, and I remember commenting more than once that ‘these guys seem to meet only at funerals’.

More than half a century later I realise I am now one of a similar group. I have a new set of friends developed through various voluntary organisations I belong to. The mates made during my working life I only see at funerals… and their number is diminishing.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

After Rhyl (and National Service) Derek Roylance worked on the Walsall Times, Walsall Observer, Staffordshire Advertiser and Chronicle, Express and Star, then the Lincolnshire Echo. In 1965 he moved to Australia and the ABC national newsroom in Sydney, followed by 18 Years in Army public relations then 11 years as media liaison manager of the Civil Aviation Authority.


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