If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.
The careers adviser was a prim, middle-aged woman with a gentle face. Short brown perm and oval glasses. Bony wrists protruding from the cuffs of her navy blazer. They were sat in her small office, separated by the large MFI desk, to discuss his work experience placement, compulsory for all the boys in his year. He was fifteen years old.
When she asked him where he would like to go for his work experience placement, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and said he wasn’t sure. She asked him which his favourite lessons were. English and history, he replied after some deliberation. After she pressed him what he wanted to do for a career, he said simply that he wanted to be a writer. Writing is a hobby, she replied, not a career. She suggested that he might want to consider another option, like being a journalist or a librarian or a teacher, as writers rarely made any money through writing alone. Unless he was content to be a penniless writer, starving in a garret, which she imagined his parents wouldn’t be too happy about, this might be a more realistic career plan.
Very few would-be writers are published. And of those even fewer make any money from writing. Any of those jobs – journalist, librarian, teacher - might provide a springboard into writing later in life. You need to gain some experience first, I’m afraid, before you can even begin to think about writing a novel. Most importantly, once you have finished your studies, you won’t be able to rest on your laurels. You’ll need to earning right away. Once you are earning, then you can focus on writing in your spare time. No. If I were you, I would choose a career to work towards first, and then start thinking about which A-levels would help get you into your career of choice.
A career in journalism would hone his writing skills, provide him with access to interesting stories and allow a writer’s sensibility to develop. Would he like to try a week’s work experience at a local paper? Having once watched an episode of Press Gang, ITV’s comedy-drama about a newspaper run by teenagers, it looked like lots of fun, so he agreed.
By the time he was fifteen, he had amassed plenty of work experience from doing his chores at home. Mowing the lawn, washing his parent’s cars, weeding the garden, raking the gravel paths or sweeping out the garage. Sometimes there was a wheelbarrow of sand that needed moving, or some bricks to dress. His father had been keen to instil in his sons the hard work ethic that had been somewhat unsympathetically drilled into him by his own father. Hard work meant self-sacrifice and self-sufficiency. Motivation. Drive. Success.
For most of his peers, their experience of work up to that point was a paper round or delivering the Buy and Sell on their estate. Few that he knew were expected to do chores around the home. They found it bizarre that he did.
Then there was the local market, a small encampment dating back to Elizabethan times which pitched up on the town’s common land every Thursday. After school a troop of green blazers would march, or straggle, down to the stalls to do a couple of hours packing up in exchange for a couple of quid being pressed into their palm. A rite of passage for most of the town’s teenage inhabitants.
In the summer that he turned fourteen he had found work at a fabric stall, helping a taciturn trader called David lug boxes of bed linen into the back of his battered, old Transit. Being a slight and still-small fourteen-year-old, he was ill-suited to the heavy lifting the market required, but the trader tolerated his efforts. The trader was probably in his late twenties or thirties. One of the youngest. Quiet. A lurker. Most of the older guys, the spielers and pitchers, had been kicking around for decades. They remembered the market in its post-war heyday. Long before Safeway arrived and started to suck the life blood out of it.
Work experience had long been compulsory for boys in the fifth year at his school, helping to preserve the distinction between academic, or intellectual, work, and real work, the kind that earned real money. Going to an all boys school, where one was but one among several hundred future paterfamilias, real work entailed rolling up one’s sleeves and committing oneself to a lifetime of hard and meaningful graft.
For many in his year a lifetime of employment, gainful or otherwise, was already just around the corner. A few of the older lads in his year had effectively ditched school to start working. Ironically, many of them had been among the most disruptive, unruly and disinterested students in the school. With their nascent beards and defiled uniforms and total disregard for the school’s rules, they had made the leap from adolescence into adulthood a long time ago. It was the diligent ones, the dreamers, the permanent students, the ones who might have ideas above their station, for whom the work experience programme was truly intended.
Each boy had been encouraged to select a profession or trade which at best inspired them, or else interested them, or which they would doubtless fall into once they left school. Here the social stratification of his peers became clear. The boys from the council houses and rougher parts of town spent a week scuffing around car repair workshops, construction companies, builders’ merchants, leisure centres, supermarkets, warehouses and the local ERF factory. Most of the middle-class kids spent a week with a local solicitor, at the local council offices, the law courts, at the offices of a blue-chip company on the town’s perimeter, or with one of its many estate agencies. An unfortunate few spent the week shadowing their father or another relative, knowing they were almost certain to follow in their footsteps.
He resisted that. It would be easy to follow his father into the building trade, at the firm his grandfather established. Like him, his father had resisted it but had been compelled by his own mother to take over the business due to his father’s ill-health. Running a business was rewarding, particularly financially, but profoundly stressful if it wasn’t successful. Lacking business acumen of any kind, he wasn’t sure if he would succeed in the building trade. In truth, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to work for his father either. But in terms of a career, this was the path which most clearly presented itself.
Generally, he preferred mundane tasks that required little concentration, which allowed his mind to wander, to ponder the many distractions of youth. Once with his mother he spent a couple of hours at his father’s office, sat on the scratchy carpet tiles on the cold floor, folding timesheets and slipping them into the slim envelopes that his employees would complete that week. Years later, once gainfully employed, he found a similar zen-like meditativeness folding letters and stuffing envelopes.
It wasn’t that he was averse to hard work. Outside of his chores, when he was eleven his parents bought the house that would become their home for much of his adolescence. That year, while his friends were off riding their bikes or playing football in the park, he spent most weekends with his family, pulling up floorboards and demolishing internal walls, before gathering together to eat their packed lunch on camping chairs in rooms thick with plaster dust.
If there was a pallet of bricks that needed dressing or a wheelbarrow of sand that needed pushing, he could usually be called upon to do it. On one weekend he might be helping his father to build a stone wall to line their driveway, selecting the stones and pushing them into position as his father laid the mortar. On another, he could be up a step ladder with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge, helping his mother strip wallpaper.
Helping his parents. Building a relationship. Being deferential.
At fifteen years of age he was still painfully green, the gauche and inhibited product of puberty and a single sex school. Too shy to speak to girls and certainly too shy to pick up the phone and harass a councillor about bin collections or vandalism in the local park. The thought of going into the offices of a newspaper and having to do these things was terrifying.
On the eve of his placement he slept poorly. He drew open the curtains of his bedroom to reveal a clammy mid-November Monday. It was his mother who took him in. The traffic, as usual, was appalling, and he was worried that he was going to be late. She dropped him outside the newspaper’s offices, wished him good luck, and merged back into the flow of traffic.
He rang the doorbell and was admitted by a middle-aged woman with a blonde shampoo and set, whom he took to be the receptionist and editor’s assistant. Once inside he could hear the persistent ringing of a telephone. She asked him to take a seat in the hallway and wait while she answered the phone. He sat quietly and smoothed his tie, a green affair with golfing elves on it. He was probably overdressed but had thought it better to wear a tie than look too casual. Somewhere behind him, he heard the low murmur of voices. Further off, the dim echo of another conversation in full flow, but, curiously, little suggestion of any work being done. He had anticipated hearing the staccato, almost Reichian rhythm of keys being pummelled, and instead there was near-silence.
The assistant returned. She ushered him into the editor’s office, a small room lined with overflowing shelves. In the centre of the room was a similarly cluttered desk. Behind it sat the editor, a youngish looking man who might be in his mid-twenties, barely out of university. He noticed that the editor was wearing a shirt and tie and felt reassured.
The editor shook his hand and invited him to take a seat. His assistant loitered in the doorway. Adjusting his glasses and leaning forward over the desk with his hands clasped in front of him, with fingers interlaced so they could be splayed for effect, the editor gave a short account of the newspaper’s history, its circulation, the role it played as a champion of local causes and campaigns, before moving on to the importance of accurate and impartial journalism. His father had edited the newspaper for many years and upon his retirement handed over the reins to his son. Just as the editor hit his verbal stride, his phone rang. I’m sorry, I’ll have to take this, he said, and upon picking up the receiver gestured for him to leave.
The assistant took him down the hall to meet the news team. Their office was at the back of the building. Deep in the bowels. As he neared the opening, his stomach knotted with trepidation.
He stepped through the opening into a large, cramped room, where he could see five journalists seated at their desks. Three men and two women. Their desks were arranged asymmetrically, randomly, and were flanked by bookshelves packed with files. The walls of the room were barely visible for bookshelves packed with files. Each desk faced one of these walls, with the news editor’s desk to his immediate right, facing the room. There wasn’t a huge amount of work being done. Most were staring at their screens through the steam of a hot beverage, or leafing through copies of last week’s paper.
It was a distinctly anticlimactic image. He had expected frenzied typing, phones ringing off the hook, unsmoked cigarettes mouldering in ashtrays, journos screaming obscenities at each other. Here was an eerie quiet, like the morning after some collectively traumatising event that none were remotely ready to confront. A condition he would come to know in later years as Back to Work Blues.
Like the editor, the journalists all appeared to be in their early twenties, save for the news editor, who looked to be in his early forties. He had the harassed countenance of someone who wanted to be somewhere else, someone for whom time was running out. His skin was pallid and pockmarked, the pores of his creased face clogged with decades of bad decisions.
Flashing an insincere smile, the news editor indicated that he was on the phone by gesturing to the plastic appurtenance wedged underneath his chin, so he was shown around the room, passed from reporter to reporter for perfunctory introductions. Each had their own remit, a particular area of focus. Council meetings. Court reports. Planning consultations. Littering.
Eventually the news editor came off the phone, so they were able to be introduced. Hello, I’m Neil. I’m the news editor. They shook hands. I’m afraid we don’t have a desk, or a computer, for you to use, but you can sit at my desk when I’m not here. Monday’s can be a bit quiet. The newspaper goes to press on a Thursday, so for the moment we’re just collating press releases. Gathering stories. I should have something for you to do by the end of the day. What it might be worth doing for the moment is having a read through some of the past issues. The news editor pointed to a bookshelf containing bound copies of the newspaper. That’ll give you a flavour of the sort of stories we’ve been covering lately. I’ll let you know when you we have something for you to work on. All right?
He spent all of Monday reading old copies of the newspaper, desultorily flicking through a year of Rotary Club jumble sales and announcements by local businesses, planning objections and plucky schoolchildren, with the odd motorway pile up thrown in. There were few of the campaigning stories described by the editor in his speech that morning. Little of the spirit of Upton Sinclair, HL Mencken and Woodward and Bernstein. He returned home more than a little dispirited. He wanted to be a writer. Local journalism seemed more of a distraction than an apprenticeship. An artistic dead-end.
The next day, Tuesday, he was dispatched by the news editor to the law courts in the next town with one of the cub reporters, Mark, a beleaguered and paunchy young father who had only qualified as a journalist a couple of years ago. They made the journey in his decrepit, grey Mini Metro, across the backseat of which were scattered the combined detritus of early parenthood and infancy. Crumbs, cassettes, cuddly toys. It took them over an hour to get there due to the traffic, and there was a possibility that they might be late for the first session of the court. This had a particularly adverse effect on what the journalist described as his recent attempts to cut back on the fags. Babysitting the work experience kid probably didn’t help either. By the time they arrived, the journalist had comfortably polished off a ten pack of Benson & Hedges.
They left the car in a nearby multi-storey car park and hurried into the courthouse. It was the first time he had been to the courts and he was looking forward to the experience, if a little worried about encountering any hardened criminals in the toilets. They had arrived in the nick of time for the first session, and after locating the correct courtroom, took their seats at the press table. The journalist unpacked his notebooks and Dictaphone.
Someone approached their table. A badge pinned to the lapel of his suit jacket said court clerk.
He’s not allowed in here.
Him. He’s not allowed in here. Why is he in here?
He’s with me. We’re from The Chron. He’s on work experience.
I don’t care if he’s on the World at One, he’s not allowed in here. Today’s youth court. Young offenders. Him being here is contempt of court. So he can’t be here.
We had another lad on work experience this week shadowing the clerks. We had to tell him to go home.
I’m glad you do. You can stay. He’ll have to wait outside.
That’s okay. How long do you think it will take? This session?
How long’s a piece of string?
As the clerk departed, the journalist looked at him and shrugged.
He went back out into the waiting area and found a seat. Wanting to appear diligent, he hadn’t brought anything with him to read, just his notebook and a pen. He doodled for a little while, wrote some notes, then watched the defendants milling around the room with parents, and in some instances, girlfriends and children. It seemed slightly academic to banish him from the courtroom, as he was just as able to identify the defendants from his position in the lobby. Though of course, now he wouldn’t know what they had been up to.
All were lads from the less affluent parts of the county. The best they could hope for was an assembly-line job at Rolls Royce, if they were lucky, though this seemed unlikely given that they were about to go up in front of the beak.
Most were in possession of a regulation crew cut, complemented by neck chains and earrings. Permanent scowls. Simian-looking. Furtively smoking near the entrance. He recognised the type from his school, but he couldn’t tell if any were from his home town. Lads with limited horizons. Unpromising futures. Billy Caspers. He thought of his friend Joe, whose dad scraped a living on the market, and whose brother had broken his neck diving into the shallows of a local beauty spot that summer. Joe was doing his work experience at his uncle’s garage, but he had zero interest in being a mechanic. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. Smoking weed and going to jungle raves, and that was about it.
Growing bored, he wandered outside. On foot he made a couple of circuits of the courthouse, plodding along the pavement in his school shoes, hands in pockets. He didn’t want to stray too far in case the session ended when he wasn’t there, and the journalist wondered where he was.
Eventually the court came out of session and the journalist emerged from the huge double doors.
Sorry about that, he said. I didn’t realise it was youth court today. Neil might have known. I feel bad as its a bit of a waste of a morning for you. Anyway, we’re all done here now, for the moment, so I’ll take you back to the office.
When he returned to the office the news editor seemed surprised to see him. What are you doing back here? He explained that the youth court was in session, so he hadn’t been allowed in. Never mind, the news editor replied. I ts as well you’ve come back, I’ve got something that wants doing urgently.
The news editor handed him a black and white photograph of three beaming Boy Scouts holding certificates, flanked by two adult Scout Leaders.
We need to get the names of these scouts before we go to press this week, the news editor said. You’ll need to call the scout group. The number is on the back of the photograph. Find out what they have been awarded. Get the names and ages of the scouts, and the names of the two Scout Leaders. Then I’ll let you write it up and send it to the editor.
When he asked why the newspaper’s photographer hadn’t got those details when he went to the event and took the photograph, the news editor replied, He’s the photographer, we’re the journalists. It’s not his job. It’s ours.
The news editor had cleared a small space at the end of his desk, so he now had somewhere to work. While the news editor tersely rattled away at his keyboard, he picked up the phone and phoned the number on the back of the photograph. A female voice answered. The voice was hoarse and wobbly, and sounded as if it belonged to a woman older than his grandparents. Older than the Queen Mother. He noted the names down as she relayed them, taking care to check the spelling, then hung up.
The news editor was out all the next day. At the law courts, Mark explained. He normally comes back from there in a foul mood. While the news editor was out, he was able to type up the picture story about the scouts. This took him almost an hour of labouring over the wording. When he thought he had finished, he left the document open on the computer.
After asking the other journalists if they had anything for him to do, he returned to reading past issues of the paper. He went back several years, hoping he might spot someone he knew in the pages. Someone from school or one of his parent’s friends. Every now and then there was a photograph of someone he recognised, which made him pause and smile, as if he’d spotted a familiar face in a crowd. Occasionally he came across an advertisement for his father’s building firm in the classifieds, and whenever he did, he felt the warmth of filial affection.
It was almost dark by the time the news editor returned. Everyone seemed to duck their head down when he came in. As Mark had foretold, the news editor was in a foul mood. Snippy and tyrannical. He flopped into his chair and immediately began complaining about his day at the courthouse, directing some of his ire in the absent editor’s direction.
When it came time to look at the short paragraph for the picture story he had worked on that morning, the news editor stared at the screen for several seconds without saying anything. Then he began speaking.
Hmm. This looks fairly okay. Sentence construction is largely fine. Nothing that can’t be ironed out. One of the names I’m not sure about though. George Georghingham? Are you absolutely sure that is his surname? Or his full name? George Ingham? Can I have a look at your notes? Pass me your notes, please? Thanks. Okay. Just as an observation. Your handwriting is going to have to get a lot better than this if you’re serious about being a journalist. This is far too sloppy. I mean, is this supposed to be an H or an N? I can’t tell. I doubt anyone else could tell. There’s not really any excuse for handwriting like this. How old are you? Fifteen? Are your teachers okay with you writing like this? They are? Well I wouldn’t be, let me tell you. You’ve also made a lot of crossings out here, which worries me. It really worries me. It makes me wonder if any of the names you’ve written here are the ACTUAL names of the people in the picture. So I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to phone them MYSELF. Because I can’t send it to print like this. Pass me the photograph please.
As he handed him the photograph, the news editor lifted the arm off the receiver and punched the number into the phone. Listening at the news editor’s elbow, he heard the same female voice answer, and the news editor explained that he just wanted to double check the names prior to going to print. The lady on the line obliged, and as she replied to his queries the news editor typed. There seemed to be a lot of corrections. Far more than he expected, and he began to blush with embarrassment. Thanking the lady, the news editor hung up and turned to face him. He looked furious.
Well, what a disaster! Did you even check the name of this guy? It’s George Ingham, not Gorgingham, or whatever you wrote. George Georghingham. Ridiculous. Not surprising it was wrong given the state of your notes. When you were on the phone yesterday, I knew you were making a complete bollix of it. I didn’t say anything at the time but it’s a good job I checked it, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? We’d have got a right bollocking for that.
His fury exercised, the news editor turned to his screen and began working on his court report.
He almost didn’t go back the next day, but his father persuaded him he couldn’t not go, after they’d taken the time to make the placement available to him. It would look bad. It might mean someone else doesn’t get to go. He couldn’t not turn up. So he returned sheepishly and determined that he would leave if anything further criticism was directed his way.
As it happened, the news editor was far too busy. Early that morning a substantial fire had broken out at a local leisure centre, and the news editor had spent several hours there with the photographer. With the newspaper going to print later that day, all the journalists were frantically trying to file the last of their stories by lunchtime. When the news editor returned, he was adamant the fire story should be on the front page. The editor refused to halt the presses. Neither was prepared to give ground, but eventually the editor won the day. By way of conciliation, he suggested that the fire story could have a colour front page, next week.
He wondered if local journalism was defined by these little battles over stories which would barely warrant a couple of column inches in a national newspaper. As each day had passed, he had become more sceptical about the profession.
After lunch the careers adviser visited the newspaper offices to see how he was getting on. They sat opposite each other on two plastic chairs in the space underneath the building’s fire escape. I hear you had a bit of an issue this week, she said. News about his bawling out had obviously reached her through, either via the editor or perhaps the news editor. He wondered how it had been reported, as a complaint or an apology. It shows you just how seriously they take their work here. A good learning experience, if nothing else. Other than that, have you enjoyed your week?
There was little he could offer her by way of a response. He shrugged and said he was glad it was almost over.
For the rest of that afternoon, he sat leafing through decade-old copies of the newspaper, while the news editor led a discussion about the hypothetical genital hygiene of several prominent people from the local area. He wondered if that display was for his benefit. He decided not to go back on the Friday.
On returning to school the next week, he found a copy of the paper in the library, and flicked through the pages until he found the image of the three smiling scouts, flanked by their two scout leaders, clutching their certificates. He inhaled sharply. His name was on the by-line. He hadn’t expected it, and seeing it now reminded him how bogus it was, how little pride he felt in that small endeavour. He stared at the image for a few seconds, holding his breath, as if waiting for something in the picture to reveal itself, before closing the pages and tossing it onto a tub chair in the reading area, watching it slide from the seat of the chair onto the floor. Then he walked into the library’s fiction section, looked at the spines of the books on their shelves, and exhaled.