Monday, 18 December 2006

A TALE OF A SUB

A chance meeting at a Yorkshire bus stop on a clear, bright, sunny day shaped the course of my life for the next few years. I was soon to go to university to read history and politics, and I already knew that I had journalistic ambitions. The genial couple I chatted with as we waited for our up-country bus turned out to be Bill Oliver, deputy editor, chief leader writer, and art critic of The Yorkshire Post and his wife, Wynne. Our acquaintance ripened into friendship, and even before I started my degree course I formed the clear impression that Bill would welcome my eventual recruitment by the YP as his understudy.

In those days The Yorkshire Post was not just a widely read provincial daily paper. It had the ear of political circles ‘down south’. Owned by the Yorkshire Conservative Newspaper Company, its politics were liberal-tory of a Churchillian cast. These were the early days of the 1945 Labour government, whose election immediately after the end of WW2 sent shock-waves reeling through the propertied classes. Before the war the YP had been edited by Arthur Mann, a much respected figure in the C.P. Scott mould. His successor, W.L. Andrews, had been appointed from editing the more popular-style sister paper, the Leeds Mercury, and was suspected by some of wanting to take the YP down market. Bill Oliver had worked with WLA since starting as a cub reporter. I felt confident that, even in those days of paper rationing, when the YP published a four-page paper on three days a week and a bumper six-page issue on the other three days, Bill would secure me a place on the paper when I had finished my degree,

So I passed my three years at Cambridge without bothering too much about what I would do afterwards. Sure enough, when I had graduated Bill mentioned me to the Editor and I was invited for an interview. A business colleague of my father’s who knew Andrews also mentioned me to him. So I was more than a bit nonplussed that when I presented myself at the Victorian YP building in Albion Street, WLA seemed very vague as to who I was. After we had chatted generally for a while, he said “Oh, well, I’ll write to you”.

The letter duly came inviting me to join the YP in Leeds for a month’s trial as a junior sub-editor. The hours would be 6 pm until 1am, and the terms were £3 per week. I was living with my parents in Sheffield at the time, so had to hastily find digs for myself, which I succeeded in doing with a pleasant family whose house backed on to Headingley cricket ground. My hostess was musical, and had a nice piano which she kindly not only allowed me to practice on but encouraged me to have lessons with a friend of hers who was the head of the BBC music department in Leeds.

All seemed to go well for me in the YP subs’ room. The other subs were all older, experienced journalists who were happy to teach me the rudiments of the craft. Pieces of typed ‘copy’ were passed to each sub by the chief sub-editor, with a note indicating the length to which they had to be cut, and the size and nature of the headline required. My relatively humble items were a daily boiling down of the Radio Times list for the next day’s programmes, the weather forecast, and miscellaneous small stories about village fĂȘtes, church bazaars and so forth which had been phoned in by local ‘stringers’ not all of whom were very literate. Sometimes it was necessary to get into a huddle with other subs to decipher what the sender meant. Other, more factual, conundrums had to be resolved by visits to the library, presided over by Bill North, a witty and congenial person who has remained a lifelong friend.

In those days, the mechanics of newspaper production were totally different from those of this internet age. The subbed stories were typecast in metal, and brought together in page frames before mould impressions were made and recast into semi-circular drums which were affixed to the rotary presses. Sometimes, a careless slip in the typecasting led to disaster. Not long after I joined the paper, the UN envoy to the Middle East, Count Bernadotte, was assassinated. Bill Oliver wrote a leading article about this. It was style practice to set the first word or two of a leading article in capitals. Bill’s piece began ‘COUNT BERNADOTTE, who was assassinated this morning, etc. etc.’ Alas, due to a compositor’s gremlin, the ‘O’ somehow slipped out of ‘COUNT’. When the editor received his pull of the first edition, he went bananas and the presses screeched to a halt.

At the end of the first month, I asked the chief sub whether I had passed my month’s trial. He said he would speak to the editor, and returned with the message: “carry on for another month”. So I did, only to get the same message at the end of the second month. At the end of the third month, I asked to see the editor. He was joviality itself. I told him that I was extremely grateful for the privilege of working on his distinguished paper, and very much wished to continue doing so. I would be glad if he would tell me whether he was going to put me on the permanent staff, and if so what my salary would be. He did not give me a direct reply. He said ‘You know, when I was on the Daily Mail, there was a chap there who was a temporary for thirty years, and when he asked to be put on the permanent staff they sacked him’. He laughed heartily at the recollection, and concluded the interview by saying ‘I’ll think it over and let you know’.

Christmas was approaching, and I had been doing this night work for nearly four months for a meagre £3 a week. My father, understandably, was getting restless. He had of course been subsidising me as the £3 didn’t cover my rent. So I sat down and wrote a very carefully composed letter to WLA, pointing this out and saying that I really would appreciate a clarification of my position. The day after I handed in the letter he sent for me. His urbanity had vanished. He said: ‘It’s obvious that we can’t come to terms. You’d better take a month’s notice’. The effrontery of this attempt to get another month’s cheap labour out of me was astonishing. I said ‘I’d rather leave at the end of this week’. ‘Oh do’, he said – and handed me a letter.

I didn’t open this until I was retreating along the oak-panelled red-carpeted corridor from his office, reeling with shock. I have always wished I had opened it in his room, because I would have thrown it at him. It was a short, brutal dismissal note, containing the immortal sentence ‘I do not believe in keeping on men who are dissatisfied’. I have it still among my grislier souvenirs.

When I went back to the subs’ room there was consternation. The chief sub said he didn’t want me to leave, and was very satisfied with my progress. Would I like him to have a word with the editor? I said not really – there didn’t seem to be any point. Some of the older subs informed me that if I had stuck it out until I had been there for six months, I could have joined the NUJ and the paper would have been obliged to pay me the minimum rate of six guineas weekly. Andrews obviously knew this, although I didn’t.

And the aftermath? I went home to Sheffield with my tail between my legs. It took me nine months before I obtained another job – in London, where I had decided to go to read for the Bar.

Bill Oliver retired to bed for a week with severe stomach ache.

WLA went on from strength to strength, becoming one of the first chairmen of the newly established Press Council, and receiving a knighthood for his services to journalism.

One of those, I suppose, was to ensure that I never coveted his, or any other, editorial chair.

12 comments:

zola said...

Thank you Anticant : Inspiring.

Your example of now printing just how it was(and is)for you and for others, today, still, may mean much to others in the future.

Maybe you were already a blogger at heart before the big bloggers became fashionable.

Thanks Anticant - loved it I did.

anticant said...

Zola, you can imagine how that felt to a starry-eyed ingenue! That man was my first encounter with a Whited Sepulchre. I've come across a few more since, including Mrs. MW. Don't we all? But it's still a shock.

Merkin said...

Excellent, as always. Simple.

lavenderblue said...

Superb !
Brings back best-forgotten-but-can't-be memories of life in advertising...!
Bastards.

Merkin said...

SantyKant, truly identified with the story as it is said that there are three or four turning points per life. Butwhatif should be interested in the tale.
May I take the liberty of forwarding an email I sent to Trousers detailing a Pauline outing in Sheffield?.
Fun for nearly all the family I assure you.
Duckman wanted to put it on his site, but I had to assure him that the story, while true, would result in a lot of money for the Lawyers.

anticant said...

Merkin, "I do not believe in keeping on men who are dissatisfied" is graven on my heart, as 'Calais' was on Bloody Mary's. So is 'paedophilia', for different reasons.
I will give you the lead to this via e-mail. Yes, by all means do e-mail that link to me. I'm always avid for dirt, as you know.

Anonymous said...

Would be interesting to see in what different ways 'Calais is always engraved on our hearts'.
Some horror stories for the most part, I'll be bound.
Will try and forward this letter from the original Yahoo email.
Same one that was mentioned in DuckMan's thread.

gingerwaster said...

Well, I'm about 30 years younger that you, anticant, but I had a much more ignominious encounter with the YP. In the early 70s, I was a student in Leeds Uni and we were having a lot of fun experimenting with strange and magical substances. Once, having dropped a microdot with my mate Gus, I started having a bad trip. Convinced as I was that the world had ended, that my mate was the devil and that the room was on fire, I socked him on the jaw, ran out into the night and proceeded to hurl myself in front of a green double-decker with the aim of meeting St Peter and telling him to get knotted.

When the police arrived I was underneath the bus and struggling to get out, so the police and the ambulancemen dragged me out and took me to the hospital, where I was dutifully stitched up by a sadistic nurse who had been tending Hell's Angels with knife wounds all night. The police returned and drove me home. They wanted me to spy for them down at the Tartan Bar, which we used to call "Junkie's corner" in those days. They offered me money and a waiver on the conviction, as well as no reports in the press in exchange. I told them where to get off.

When my trial at the magistrate's court finally came round, we had to sit all day listening to stories of neighbours poisoning each other's dogs, fathers beating their babies with shoes and the like, while the reporters from the YP dozed.

Finally, my case came up and while the judge admonished me and I tried hard to suppress my amusement, I noticed to my dismay that the reporters seemed to wake up suddenly and begin scribbling away like madmen.

Well I got a 25 quid fine by promising to be a good boy and immediately proceeded to the offices of the YP to ask the editors not to put my name in the article, to avoid expulsion from Leeds Uni. They didn't even bother to receive me.

The following day, the article appeared on the back page "STUDENT ON LSD JUMPS UNDER BUS".

Worried that this might be seen by the student rag, I proceeded to their offices and asked the student journalist to avoid putting my name in. He promised to do so on condition I gave him some details of what was going on in Junkie's Corner, which I did. Next day, plastered all over the front page of Leeds Student, was my name and the story, with an article demanding the closure of the Tartan Bar. I returned to bawl out the wannabe journalist, who lamely replied that he was just "being professional".

Well, that put me off journalists for life. I've tried to find this article in the YP archives, but it seems to be a mission impossible - I even phoned them, but they never wrote back. Do you know of any way to get hold of it, or has my one claim to fame disappeared into Time's bottomless pit ?

anticant said...

well, Ginger, I do have some exotic visitors to my burrow!

'Fraid I can't suggest how to find the article, except in the British Library Newspaper Archive at Colindale. If you know the date it shouldn't be too difficult.

Maybe Chris White, who is one himself, might like to comment on the ethics of student journalism?

Boldscot said...

The internet has been in uproar as I try to get to the GingerOne's history first.
It is usually pretty difficult to get good stories of the strange things that can be done under the influence.
The usual horror stories from the conservative right tend to be urban myths. That was not. This is not.
A friend of mine having taken something designed to expand some part of his being had a great idea.
Deciding he was really the incarnation of Jesus he decided to do penance in the middle of the street.
Lying down along the white line, he spread his arms into standard crucifix position and was enduring torture that Mel Gibson would have died for when a taxi ran over his hand.

anticant said...

Substance-users are discouraged from the burrow, not because anti and ben are prudish, but because they don't like the smell and can't be bothered to cope with the unruly consequences such as those so shamelessly described by you and Ginger.

Anyway, you don't have to use them to have misadventures in the street. In the days of frequent thick fogs and trams, a friend of my Father's only managed to find his way home from central Manchester to the suburbs by crawling along on his hands and knees, groping for the tramlines. Luckily, nothing bumped into him.

Anonymous said...

I crawled on my hands and knees over the Charles Bridge in Prague, whist somewhat indisposed, because I am scared of heights and was scared to fall in.