Maybe you had to be there ...
Reflections on fun journalistic beginnings
Christmas is heading down the tracks and it feels like a moment for gentler musings. There will be time enough in 2024 to ponder the worrisome culture vibes, scratch beneath the surface of annoying things to see how they’re structured and lament that everyone else doesn't think the way we do. So, at least for now, put your slippers on and pull your chair closer to the fire. Here, I made you a nice mug of cocoa. It's story time.
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Thursday December 11 1986
Sharon: "I'm a fire sign"
John: "Does that mean you're ready for poking?"
Barnsley is the archetypal British northern town. It was dotted with coal mines (many were still operating) and plagued by poor health and unemployment. I began working there, as a reporter on The Barnsley Chronicle. Like all good local papers it was part of the town's fabric.
I'd been offered a first paid job on a newspaper in a much posher place - Marlborough, Wiltshire. The deal was almost done when they said that part of my regular beat would be covering the local Hunt. I've never liked hunting with hounds, so that was my excuse to turn them down. Plus, my then wife-to-be-for-a-while was a 'Barnsley lass'. So I hung in for a vacancy closer to home. Unemployment benefit was generous then, so it was no hardship.
The week I joined, the front page splash was about two old brothers who were resisting a compulsory purchase order on their home. One of them said he had a gun and he'd use it if officials tried to force them out. This made national news too, but it was our story. Their case eventually reached the European Court of Human Rights. They ultimately lost and it took 50 police to control the protesters who came out to stop the bailiffs removing them from Rose Cottage.
They're like that in Barnsley.
To get a flavour of the place at that time (American readers will doubtless struggle to even understand the patois) this is how the story was covered on TV [opens YouTube link].
It was exciting. At last I was a reporter, in a place where news was happening. In truth, a lot of my time was to be spent 'reporting' on Golden Wedding anniversaries and people reaching the age of 100, but there were always good stories to be dug up once you'd built your contacts book.
Like when the railway signal box was used for a soft porn photo shoot which appeared in Razzle magazine (the only time I've ever put a 'dirty book' on expenses) and a local group (who were produced by Don Was, no less) almost had a top 20 hit (stalling at 32).
Not that much really happened in Barnsley that would interest anyone outside, which paradoxically made it a perfect place for cutting your teeth in the world of news because there was always a thick broadsheet paper to be published every Friday, in several editions to serve each of the town's outlying districts. My patch was a satellite village called Cudworth. I was responsible for three pages.
But this story isn't about news. It's about old newsroom culture and people. It's about the end of an era which I feel grateful to have known. Before the internet destroyed print.
A strong sense of culture and people was probably why I recorded life in the newsroom. On a typewriter, using A5 size paper. That's how you produced copy, with no more than two paragraphs to a sheet. In a room filled with cigarette smoke, to which I contributed a constant stream of Old Holborn hand-rolling tobacco emissions and liquorice Rizla vapours.
I recently found two examples of this 'journalling', in a box of memories.
One is 'The Chronicle Crew'. Parody snippets of real newsroom life.
The other is a collection of genuine conversational exchanges.
What's striking about both is how gone forever they are.
That quote at the top of this piece? A middle-aged deputy newspaper editor's sexual innuendo casually deployed on a young female reporter. That stuff barely registered with us.
I never tested my assumption that Sharon didn't give a fuck by ever asking her. It was how we spoke. The piss-taking was relentless. A few months later Sharon had quit anyway. She was suddenly in LA, recording with Bob Clearmountain and I was thinking I might end up as the PR guy for her band. But that's a story for another day. The time we all discovered how the record industry really worked.1
You'll get a flavour of the newsroom atmosphere from another quote recorded for posterity.
We'd had an office burglary. Chief Reporter, Ian Thompson (a character who demands a portrait of his own here one day) announced to everyone:
"The burglars left a message on my typewriter. It was 'fuck bastard ha ha ha' but it didn't register at first because that's the type of message I get from colleagues"
The thing I called 'The Chronicle Crew' is a time capsule, preserving the essence of a local journalistic culture gone for ever. One in which the proprietors (a family of minor nobility) left the paper alone. For them The Barnsley Chronicle was a service as much as a business. It was profitable, but they didn’t milk it.
Anyone transplanted from a local newspaper of today into those offices would be amazed to find four photographers, ten writers/reporters, a Chief Reporter, a News Editor, a Deputy Editor and of course an Editor. Plus at least three Sub-Editors. There were even two full-time writers on the sports desk. All this for a town of less than 100,000 people.
Them were t'days. (US readers note - nobody says ‘the’ in Barnsley).
Although this is a nostalgia piece it has to be said that the Chron is in way better shape today than most of the local press in Britain. Here's a delightful recent portrait of how the paper is produced now. I'm heartened to learn that they still print onsite and that the same family owns the business.
I'm guessing today's team works a lot harder than we did, though, because digital never sleeps. The paper paper is just a part of the Chronicle now.
For us, most of Friday was spent in the pub, because that's when the paper came out. You'd just have to hope that nothing big broke on a Friday. Sometimes we'd drink in The Queens Hotel with Roy Mason (always with plain clothes detectives in tow, having served as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland which meant lifelong 24/7 police protection), who'd tell us Westminster gossip on pain of death if we ever revealed any of it.
In the pub, though, we were on our best behaviour. Like if we were out on a job. The newsroom was where everyone got to be themselves.
It wasn't exactly like this. But it wasn't much different.
The Chronicle Crew: Act 1, Scene 1. The Newsroom.
Sharon stares at the ceiling, squashing her nose and pulling her mouth in contorted shapes.
(Sharon wasn't really into being a reporter)
Paul W leafs through a telephone directory, giggling uncontrollably.
(Yes, he was the newsroom joker)
Paul G sits at two typewriters , typing on both, talking into two telephones and translates 24 inquest case shorthand notes, holding the pen deftly between his toes.
(Paul G's work rate clearly impressed me. He's now a prolific international documentary film producer)
Don O and Geoff R are locked in conversation about Don's indigestion.
(Geoff was Chief Photographer and photographer Don was just the most Barnsley man who ever lived)
Ian H enters.
(Ian was News Editor. He smoked heavily and often enjoyed a can of lager at his desk)
Ian H: "Who's going to the shop - Mike?"
(When you're last in, you're first choice to run errands)
John T enters:
(John was Deputy Editor. A softly-spoken and somewhat refined and cultured Cumbrian)
John T: "Ah, is Mike going to the shop? Good man. I'll have some obscurely-flavoured chewing gum, sir."
Ian H: "Oh, and can you go to the drinks machine on your way back?"
Ian H: "Eighty Berkeley Red, please."
Ian H and John T give Hind money.
John T: "Very good, sir."
Hind exits, followed by Don O.
Enter Don O, face flushed, breathing fast.
Don O: "Sharon, does tha know tha's parked car straight for t'first time ever!"
Sharon: "Eh? What time is it? Is it home time yet?"
Don O: [With mounting excitement} "Listen everybody. Sharon's parked car straight and it's first time ever. It's usually parked at an angle and the wheels are never straight but today, tha knows, shis parked it straight so I can get missen art, tha knows."
Everyone ignores him. Exit Don O.
John T: "Good man, sir."
Ian H: "Errm erm, where's me coffee, kind of, er ...?"
[I can imagine this piss-taking of someone's vocal mannerisms being seen as a micro-aggression in the 21st century. This never occurred to any of us at the time.]
Enter Don B. Everyone starts working.
(Don B was the Editor. The archetypal bluff Yorkshireman)
Enter Stan B.
(Another photographer. Stan would get a cheer from Barnsley Football Club's crowd at every match, just for appearing. He had a photographer's studio in town. One of the best known people in Barnsley)
Stan B: [Loudly, to Sharon] "Love you"
Sharon: "Eh? Is there any coffee left?"
John T: "Wake up, Sharon"
Sharon reaches for the phone, dials and waits.
Sharon: "Hi chick!"
Sharon talks on the phone for the rest of the scene, occasionally reaching across Hind's desk for tobacco, papers and lighter.
Enter Bill B.
(An ageing kind of 19th century guy with a distinguished silver moustache, who worked as the Arts Correspondent. Ex Times (London). Always drinking red wine. One time he came in from lunch and greeted the coat stand, thinking it was Stan)
Stan B: "Some say 'good old Mike' ... two sugars, son"
Ian H's phone rings.
Ian H [To the rest of us]: "Er .. hello .. kind of ... you know ... does anyone kind of want Carrie for anything .. kind of ..?"
No one replies.
Enter Liz G.
(A reporter who covered Barnsley's outlying rural area. She was taking driving lessons)
Liz G: "It was marvellous - I only stalled 16 times on the way to Dodworth. Then, when I was out of Eastgate I was all right."
[Our office was on Eastgate]
Paul G: "I took a mock test last week and failed for going all the way in reverse."
Enter Don O.
Don O: "Eh oop Sharon, tha's parked t'car well ageean ..."
Sharon: "Fuck off"
Don O: "Ah see tha's bin tekkin lessons, Sharon."
Hind: "Sharon didn't park the car, Don."
Don O: "Shis t'only person ah know who can't park streeaht ..."
Don retreats into his corner, muttering to himself.
Bill B: "That reminds me of a lovely story from ... ooh, it's going back years now - when I was on The Times..."
Everyone falls asleep.
End of Act 1.
Yes, we were very ... unreconstructed. The winds of political correctness were just a light breeze at this point, blowing far away from our office. Women were bad drivers, thick local accents were something to be mocked. But there was a grain of truth in this essentialising. Sharon really was a chaotic car-parker, who preferred catching up with her girl friends over chasing stories. Don really was obsessive about tiny things that the rest of us barely registered.
Some of the value of creating a time capsule like this flows from the unreliability of memory. For example, I have only now recalled that I would get my own back on colleagues treating me as the errand boy by being especially ungenerous in the pub.
Act 2, Scene 1. The Queens Hotel.
Ten old men are dotted around the bar, drinking in silence.
Enter John T, Bill B, Ian T and Hind.
John T: [to fat barmaid nobody's ever seen before] "Becks, please, love."
[The ‘healthy at any size’ movement was still 30 years off]
Ian T: "Guinness. I'll pour it because you haven't got the fuckin' knack."
Bill: "Red wine, please, love. Make it three bottles."
Hind shuffles around, looking into his wallet for longer than necessary.
John: "Drink, sir?"
Hind: "Go on then, I'll have half a John's"
[John Smiths - an industrial beer, popular in Britain]
Hind waits until everyone has lit up.
Hind: "Anyone want a roll-up?"
Everyone: "No thanks"
Balding old man in the corner: "Eh oop, Bill"
Bill: "Ah, hello Roy, what can I get you?"
Old man and Bill argue for five minutes about who should buy who a drink.
John [to Hind]: "How are you enjoying it then?"
Hind: "It's good."
John guffaws and buys another round.
End of Scene 1.
I did enjoy it, too. And I owe many of these people a lot for the training and encouragement they gave me. Like a lot of young reporters under their tutelage they always knew I would only be passing through, on my way to more 'prestigious' jobs.
I was indentured, which meant that I was to stay for set period at least (18 months, from memory). In return for my work they would turn me into a real journalist, who'd be wanted further up the journalistic ladder.
Some of them had been much further up and then come back. Some of them never cared to ascend it. They were satisfied with being local journalists. Looking back, there was a quality in them that seemed entirely absent in many of the people I later worked with, when I reached broadcasting. Something around perhaps being more honest and comfortable with themselves. Less status-driven.
I moved on at the first opportunity, first chasing more money and then more 'prestige', switching into media relations after 20 years. Better pay, easier hours.
Some of my colleagues from that time are still working the local reporting beat. Some have retired and written books. Some have passed away. I’m reeling today to learn that this includes Sharon, who I’ve been trying to contact. Hear her music, below.
I kept these records because they were funny to me. The people were funny. But they were real journalists too. Not the opinion essay writers known as journalists in the internet era. They did the hard jobs, such as the 'death knock', and taught the upcoming generation to do them too. How to spend a quiet news day picking out the more interesting cases in the local courts. Or sitting in on inquests and sharing with readers all the ways local people find to die.
The Chronicle Crew took my terrible copy and told me how to make it crisp. They taught me character as well as transferable skills. They gave me a chance, which I would take again in a heartbeat if I were in my 20s.
Someone I know recently posted on LinkedIn that his son has just completed his formal journalism training and now he's looking for a job in ... public relations. My heart momentarily sank. It was a reminder of how far most local journalism has fallen. Everyone in my training year wanted to be a hack.2 My next thought was about how 'young people today' aren't using drugs or having much sex either, so maybe going straight from journalism training into product and service promotion is just on trend.3
More newsroom quotes, some of which might get you an audience with HR in 2023 (of course, we didn't have HR)
Don B: [Brandishing a letter requesting for publicity] "All these charities! Half the town must be bloody deformed"
Paul G: [Commenting on a poster on a local Labour & Social Club] "Namibia Freedom Now! They're probably so thick they think Namibia is a cream you rub on your body"
Don O: "I'm on my day off"
Ian H: "How do you expect us to know the difference?"
Sharon: "Where are you going?"
John T: "NACODS" [a mining union]
Sharon: "Does that mean ‘piss off’?"
Paul W: "You'll have noticed about the women of Barnsley that they've got really weather-beaten faces - as though they've been strapped to the front of a trawler for six months"
Me: "How can I write an obituary on a seven-hour-old baby?"
Paul G: "Well, was she a member of any clubs or societies?"
Me: "I'm writing about PC *****, the copper who had a nervous breakdown. He's been burgled"
Paul G: "There's your angle. First he had a breakdown, now he's had a break-in"
Dedicated to the late Ian Thompson, my mentor.
And Sharon Holding, a talented songwriter, singer and dreamer.
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Sharon and her songwriting partner, Dave Brown. Photographed by Sheila Rock for the sleeve of their first and only single. I momentarily hesitated to publish this today, without re-writing the parts that mention her, having just discovered (while trying to make contact) that Sharon passed away last year.
The story of ‘Big’ has long been on my to-do list and now it can never be properly told. But I’ll give it my best shot sometime. Hint: they deserved better than to be an intentionally loss-making tax write-off for Virgin.
Here’s how she sounded. I still hope one day to hear the home demo recordings again, so the hunt is still on for Dave.
If you followed the link to read the journalist training memories you'll see a reference to an old and possibly apocryphal tale of how a pet parrot saved a family when their house caught fire. Then, a few weeks ago, it really happened in France.