For more than 30 years, York writer John Wheatcroft worked in newsrooms and witnessed the weird and wonderful business of local journalism at first hand. As his entertaining first novel lifts the lid on that world, he recalls some characters he worked with and the strange stories that somehow made it into print
I’ll never forget the first piece of advice I was given on day one in a newspaper office: “Exaggerate.”
This had nothing to do with the paper’s contents. A senior journalist was talking about expenses. We didn’t earn much (although at least we were paid, no one had yet dreamed up the idea of unpaid internships in the late 1970s) and failure to top up our wages with a claim for a couple of working lunches was considered bad form.
There was an element of “sit next to Fred” for trainees trying to find their feet in the bi-weekly Rochdale Observer. The paper’s mercurial group editor was frightening but the news editor, Alan Tweedale, was a different kettle of fish, highly encouraging and tolerant of beginners’ shortcomings.
Still, he was a real stickler for the facts, and gave the lie to the monstrous idea that men cannot multi-task.
Alan took in every word you said while simultaneously lighting his pipe and ferreting through his wallet, from which pictures of fish he’d caught would fall like Brooke Bond tea cards.
He was determined to establish that you’d mastered your brief and was always sceptical of everything he heard: one reporter had to virtually go down on bended knee and swear on the Bible that the man jailed for his involvement in a pro-euthanasia group really was his old Latin teacher.
Another ally for us greenhorns was Jack Hammill, the local freelance, who not only had a real nose for a story but knew how to create one.
Jack once looked through a council meeting agenda and, seeing nothing to excite him, persuaded a councillor to use the longest word in the English language, floccinaucinihilipilification, during a dull debate. One of the nationals took the bait.
One early colleague was Michael Henderson, later the Daily Telegraph’s chief cricket writer, and a man of pertinent views and elevated musical tastes, including Beethoven, Mahler and Bruckner.
I’ll never forget the look of utter distaste on his face when the business reporter, a highly excitable former London bus driver, started jiving around the pub to a disco version of the 1812 Overture. “What’s up, Mike?” he said. “Don’t you like the classics?”
Some stories about journalists become the stuff of legend. I’d love to have been at the Christmas party where someone had a Mr Kipling cake stuffed down his trousers, doubtless a euphemism. He was later an editor and, yes, he did go on to make some exceedingly bad decisions.
In my novel Here In The Cull Valley, what goes in the paper is only half the story. The journalists who wrote the stories then turn to the camera, as it were, to reveal in a first-person narrative the full story that could not be told.
But looking back, it’s often the weird things that that actually got printed that stick in my mind.
Perhaps the most bizarre front-page headline I recall (this was in West Yorkshire) ran: Asian women want nude bathing sessions. In fact, the ladies were going to wear something rather more modest than regular swimming costumes. One can only guess at the conversation with the community leader who gave him the story, but it clearly involved the reporter not asking enough questions, or the right ones.
I’ve done it myself. I once spent a miserable hour trying to find out the precise identity of a Mrs Kershaw I was interviewing. She’d said: “You’ll know who I am” and I, clueless, meekly replied: “Yes.” It turned out that she was the Mayor of Whitworth and (I discovered years later) the mother of Andy and Liz.
Mildly salacious stories can be tricky. People will take offence at things in their local paper over which they wouldn’t bat an eyelid in the ‘Red Tops’.
We once carried a story in the Todmorden News about a man who had spent a few months in the town while adapting to his new identity as a woman: “Sex-change man’s double life in Tod”. No one actually put in a complaint but a few local bigwigs made it clear that this wasn’t quite what they expected to read.
Newspaper offices are perhaps a little sanitised now compared to the old days when circulation and staffing levels were much higher and human frailties, such as a fondness for a drink, were not so frowned upon.
It’s certainly hard to imagine a reporter being recruited these days, as one former colleague of mine was, while working in the family butcher’s. “I’m a hand short, would your lad like to start with us on Monday morning?” said the editor, buying his pound of skirt.
For all that, newspapers have, in my experience, continued for more than three decades to be eccentric and mighty interesting places to work. And I’m not exaggerating.
Here In The Cull Valley by John Wheatcroft is available to buy in a Kindle edition here, for £2.49
“Three people die on a notorious stretch of road. It is no accident and the key to what really happened lies in the bizarre, newspaper-style diary of one victim, journalist Teddy Beresford. The diary tells of his torrid affair with the car driver but also reveals a world of broken promises, backstabbing and deceit. Here in the Cull Valley, a tragi-comic novel about friendship, betrayal and sexual obsession, also offers an engaging insight into the vanishing world of Britain’s regional newspapers.”