After a few hundred years of fossicking about with reports from the women’s institute and wedding stories, came the morning when I realised Max was talking about me to Nigel, one of the other reporters. ‘I’ll have to send her, there’s nobody else.’
I looked at them and they looked back.
‘I mean, she’s bloody useless,’ said Max, smiling so I knew that was a joke.
‘Bloody right she is,’ said Nigel, also smiling, but not joking at all.
Send me where? I asked.
Turned out there had been a house fire on one of the new estates. A mother and two children had been rescued in the middle of the night from a blazing bedroom, and I was to go, get ALL the facts, interview the mother, and not to do anything stupid. I was to be sent with the trainee photographer, Andy, and we were to get the story and some good pictures and not to mess about.
On the way there, determined to get this right, I wrote a list of questions. ‘What is your name?’ and then, ‘How do you spell that?’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘What time did the fire start?’ What were you doing at the time? ‘Do you know the name of the fireman who rescued you?’ And so on. Down to, ‘Where did you go on holiday last year?’
‘What are you going to ask her that for?’ said Andy.
‘Maybe she brought back a book of souvenir matches from Majorca,’ I said. ‘Then we could warn people not to buy them.’ The hidden dangers of souvenir matches. Are you carrying a menace in your trousers?
‘Right,’ said Andy.
We arrived at the house, which was damply smoking, but not too badly damaged. There was burnt furniture in the weedy, unkempt garden, and the mother was in the centre of a knot of reporters. I opened my notebook, and waded in. The other reporters left way before I did. I was determined not to let Max down. The mother, simply relieved that all her children were ok, was happy to talk. Andy, equally eager to please Perce, the chief photographer, took all the pictures he could, including ones from very arty angles.
I went faithfully down my list, and the poor woman answered every question with touching patience. Finally, I couldn’t think of anything else to say. It had not been souvenir matches that caused the blaze, but her eldest son playing with a lighter.
As I left, I said, as a throwaway remark,’Well, at least you’re insured.’
She shrugged. ‘The insurance ran out three days ago. But its ok because all the neighbours are giving me furniture and clothes and stuff. Even a new goldfish.’ I stood for a moment and stared at her. ‘Did you tell the other reporters this?’ She shook her head. ‘They didn’t ask.’
I had my first proper story. And it was exclusive. Max was going to be very happy. I uncapped my biro again and turned over a page in my notebook.
‘What was the name of the goldfish?’ I asked.
Sometimes, when you sit down at a blank screen, it’s hard to know what to write. And then I remember the advice I was given on my first day as a reporter, after being allocated a desk (plain, wooden, stained, wonky back leg) a typewriter (Adler, pale blue, size of a badger) a spike (a spike) and a sheaf of reports about the latest meetings of the local branches of the Women’s Institute.
‘Write an intro,’ explained Max, the chief reporter. ‘Put down all the facts in order of importance, and when you come to the end, stop.’
I listened enthralled. I was a reporter. I was going to write a story on a typewriter, like they did in the films. ‘Right, right, right,’ I said, ‘And what kind of a conclusion do I write?’ One of the senior reporters sniggered. Max sighed. And so I learnt the basics of writing copy.
Intros: short, snappy, and as up to date as possible. Not, for example, Last week Mrs Rothwell presided over the tea at an interesting meeting of the Drayton Bulgy women’s institute. Max pointed out, with commendable patience, that the fact that one of the members had set fire to their hair was possibly the item that would most grab people’s attention.
Body copy: expand intro, keep sentences short and to the point. If you have a quote, put it in the third par. One of the members, Lydia Parsnip said: ‘At first, Mrs Smith had no idea she was sitting too close to the candle display. However, there was no great harm done as organ player Marjorie Snitterfield threw the fire bucket over her.’
Last few pars: whatever is most expendable. Next week’s talk will be on dolls’ underwear through the ages. This is because, in the days of hot metal, working out exactly how much space a story would take was an inexact science, relying on an em rule, a facility with numbers, and the hope that the subs hadn’t spent too long a lunchtime in the Swan. If, when the comps came to make up the forme (the metal template for the page) the type didn’t fit, the story would be cut from the bottom up and the extra type would get melted down to make type for another story.
Nowadays, computers can make copy fit to within a gnat’s arse (traditional piece of newspaper terminology there, for you) but the basic rules still apply. Tomorrow’s talk will be Lace doilies: Fact or fiction?
I went to a school reunion a few years ago (actually, quite a few years ago) and this guy comes up to me and says, ‘Are you with anyone?’ (Because, obviously, if you’re not I’m going to dazzle you knickerless with my charm) While I’m mulling over a range of replies, from it’s none of your business, to that’s incredibly offensive, he says, and I quote, ‘Come on, I haven’t got all night, I want to know if I’m wasting my time.’
In her blog, Why women should be more like men yourejustadumbass says how fed up she is with the way (some) men talk to women as if they are God’s gift. Oh girl, I am right with you.
When I started work on a national newspaper, the bloke sitting next to me looked at my wedding ring and said, ‘Oh, that’s unfortunate.’ Because of course, yes, without it I wouldn’t be able to resist your skanky, laboured chat-up lines, you git. Over the next few weeks every man I worked with (that’s 35) asked what my husband thought of me working there. Naturally, he’s going to be really worried that all you sweaty, beer-bellied blokes with alcohol problems and anger management issues are going to sweep me off my feet to wonderland. Get real.
Newspaper offices in the 1970s and 80s were hardly hotbeds of political correctness. They were staffed mainly by young and middle aged men, pumped on adrenalince, alcohol and fags, and women were generally relegated to the role of secretary, as something nice to look at. There were women journalists, of course there were, but we were heavily outnumbered and generally appallingly treated. I’m not going to moan here about unfair it was, but when I look back I am amazed at how accepted it was.
At my first job interview for the job of junior reporter, the editor of a weekly newspaper told me, ‘Well, I’d love to employ you, but I’ve already interviewed a young lad and he’s as good as you, so of course I’m going to give him the job. There’ll be another vacancy in about six months, and I’ll let you know.’ To be fair, six months later, he offered me a job. On that newspaper there were several occasions when I got great stories only to have them taken away from me, and given to a male reporter, because they weren’t ‘suitable for a girl’.
It wasn’t so much the professional irritation of seeing some spotty herbert being priveliged merely because he had a penis, it was more the rampant idea that male journalists seem to have; that all they had to do was run a hand down my spine or try and get me in a clinch in the corridor and I’d immediately want to have sex with them.
And as dumbass says in her blog, how do you deal with this, how do you get through to men, that you don’t like their attitude and that what they’re doing is desperately unfair? First answer to that, in those days, of course, was that you couldn’t do anything, because you wanted to Get On. The best you could do was try to avoid awkward situations, or use your humour. If you complained, you were a feminist, probably with hairy armpits, and definitely a lesbian. Again, to be fair, I never really had any trouble with guys of my generation, it was the older, fatherly, types that you really had to watch. And they, of course, were the ones with power to hire and fire.
Of course, the saving grace about journalists, and the thing I always loved about even the worst lechers, was their generally outrageous behaviour, and more importantly, their sense of humour. All the hacks on an evening paper I once worked on,were invited to a very grand house party. I have no idea why. But buoyed up by the idea of lots of free drink, we went. Most of us were very well behaved. But the hostess wanted to talk about nothing but sex, and in a really, tedious, aren’t I being such a liberal free-thinker, kind of way. In the end, one of the lads got so fed up with her archly knowing comments , that he unzipped his flies and showed her his dick. ‘If you’d like some, just say so,’ he said.
Newspaper offices were not the grey, silent places they are now. Then, they were resplendent with talent, and noise, and heaving with utterly bonkers people, and, on the nationals, we were all working on really great stories. You could forgive a lot for that.
But still. I was told by the executive on one tabloid that I wouldn’t get a permanent job there, because they already had two women (and the 35 men) in the department. He bought me a pint and said commiseratingly. ‘Really, what we need is an older woman. Someone who’s had a couple of abortions.’ A friend of mine, who went on to be a very famous journalist, was turned down on her first attempt to get a permanent job, because the executive who interviewed her didn’t like her legs. Fact.
My lowest moment came late one night when I was working in the printers’ lair, the composing room, checking off the last edition. The head printer for that night, who closely resembled King Kong, in height and looks, picked me up, held me above his head and shook me, just for a laugh, while I was in the middle of correcting pages. Loose change from my pockets rattled on his face. He thought it was hysterically funny. When he eventually put me down, I was so absolutely fed up I punched him on the nose. Blood soaked down his shirt and I grabbed the proofs furiously and left, crying with rage and frustration all the way down the stairs.
So you can perhaps imagine how I felt, when a few nights later, I was in a bar on Fleet Street, when The Girls walked in. They were two reporters on a Sunday tabloid; tall, big, good-humoured women who always got their stories, and who could intimidate a man at 50 paces. I admired them greatly. This night, there were a bunch of sports reporters giving it large, and one of them, a very repellant little guy, so full of drink you could hear it sloshing about inside him, turned to one of the girls, and said, during a lull in the conversation, ‘I could really fuck you, you know.’
The lull deepened into a long, long silence. The girl looked down at him very calmly, and then said very slowly and clearly, ‘ If you do, and I ever find out, I’ll be really, really cross.’
There is one, important footnote to this story. Many years later, the paper was taken over by a woman editor. One of the lechers said to me, ‘God, she’s awful. She never listens to me, she patronises me and she treats me like shit because I’m a man. It’s so unfair. How can anyone be expected to work for a person like that?’
Has anybody seen the latest Who Do You Think You Are programme on TV? The one with the BBC journalist John Simpson? Turns out his great grandma was involved with Sam Cody the American sharpshooting showman. I’m saying all this, because, as part of his research, John went to some Wild West town in Kent (truly) and met this bloke who showed him how to shoot. At which point, I leapt up from my chair, and shouted something like, ‘My God! That man threw knives at me!’
It was a slow day in the newsroom (I’m trying to sound like Philip Marlowe, here) when Viv from advertising brought round an ad she’d just taken over the phone for the job vacancies page. ‘Knife thrower’s apprentice wanted; position suddenly available’.
‘Sounds like a nutter to me,’ she said. ‘Do you think he’s wanted by the police?’
Max handed the cutting to me, ‘Off you go, then,’ he said, settling back into his chair and lighting his pipe.
It was a publicity stunt, of course. The ad had been taken by Tod Coady, who wanted to get as much free coverage as possible for his knife-throwing and dare-devil pony riding show. (Don’t even think health and safety).
And so it was that I rocked up at Tod’s place with Perce, the paper’s grumpy, foul-mouthed, but rather kind photographer to find it heaving with reporters and photographers and a few very pretty ‘job applicants’. One by one they would stand against a board as Tod hurled knives at them. And then he looked at me, ‘Hey, why don’t you have a go? Don’t you want to join the circus?’
‘She already belongs to one,’ laughed Perce. There was blokey laughter from the lads as they pocketed their notebooks and stubbed out their fags. It was time to go.
‘All right’ I heard myself saying. ‘Why not?’
In the sudden silence I walked up to the board, stood within the outline and closed my eyes. Tod said something like, ‘Don’t move now, Elaine, I’ve got the shakes pretty bad these days,’ and then the first knife thudded next to my head. A four-inch wide, 12-inch long throwing knife.
‘Christ,’ muttered Perce, from behind his camera. ‘We better start advertising for another bloody reporter.’
Thud. The next one stuck quivering on the other side of my face. I opened my eyes briefly to see Tod staring at me thoughfully, his arm up, and then thud, another knife landed. And then another. And then it was all over and I opened my eyes again. There was complete silence from the assembled hacks. ‘You can have the job if you want it,’ offered Tod.
I knew he was joking really, but I was quite tempted. I refused of course, because as Perce said, I had already joined a circus.
I have just spent a depressing day shopping for clothes. Trouble is it seems you can only get clothes to fit these days if you are so small you can live in a matchbox. Take Primark. Or rather, don’t, unless you’re an anorexic six-year-old. What is going on there? Its target audience seems to be enormous women, who routinely push you off the escalator when they breathe out, but the shop is filled with rails of clothes that will only fit a shrunken Barbie doll. Where do all these big women go? Is there a secret room in every Primark that I don’t know about? Is there an initiation rite I haven’t fulfilled? Do I have to have a loyalty card with McDonalds?
Primark, though, isn’t the only shop that sells optimistically sized clothes. A friend of mine who told an assistant in Gap that she was size 16, was told, ‘I’ll go and have a look out the back where we keep some extra large things.’
H&M, which I have to say is brilliant for kids, and has a great section for teenage girls, seems to have completely lost the plot when it comes to adult women. I am a size 14, but I couldn’t get into a pair of their size 18 trousers without an industrial sized shoe-horn and a hoist (and forget about doing up the zip, that’s what big jumpers are for).
And it’s not just getting something round you that doesn’t make you look as though you’re bulging out of a string bag, its getting something that’s long enough. I don’t want to buy a jumper where I can’t raise my arms without it riding up to my armpits. I don’t want to sit in a train with strangers and realise after half an hour that my new woolly has snapped back to being three inches long, and has now not only exposed my rather tubby midriff, but has pulled my shirt up with it (thereby exposing the straining safety pin in my H&M trousers). I’m 5’8” by the way, not 7’ 2”.
While we’re on the subject of woollies, can I just ask, what is going on with cardigans at the moment? Why do most of them have no buttons? How do you keep warm in a cardi that you can’t do up? I thought we were supposed to be turning the heating down to save the planet, not turning it up to warm our frontal systems.
I do, however, have a possible answer for all of this. A friend of mine, who used to be a buyer for a well-known chain, told me that when a new line of clothes is being made up, the company chooses women of every size, and uses their measurements as a template to make up the clothes. Sensible, huh? Only trouble was, when the company decided to outsource their work to China and sent the sizes to the factory there, the Chinese refused to believe that any women could be this shape. They assumed that there had been some kind of mistake and made up the clothes to fit local women instead. No wonder it’s cheaper to send work to these factories – they only use half the cloth.
Unfortunately, I am not a small oriental person. I wouldn’t say size 14 was gigantic, but I’m beginning to feel distinct fellow feelings with that colossal girl in the film Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. No wonder women burst into tears when good old Gok finds them a dress to wear. I’d burst into tears if he got me a jumper that fitted.
I did get one crumb of comfort, though, yesterday – I saw a shop mannequin in Zara wearing a clinging dress that made even her look four months pregnant.
There is a lot of talk at the moment about the decline of the High Street. Is it any wonder that customer numbers are falling, if people can’t find anything that fits them? And if normal women are made to feel so outsize, it should be no surprise to anyone that we are taking in droves to the internet. I found just the jumper I wanted this morning, from a factory in Ireland, and they classed me as small! I was so amazed I had to ask for confirmation.
Don’t get me wrong, I like shopping. I like city centres. I like the idea of travelling hopefully. I just don’t like the idea of having to conform to what the shop wants, instead of them setting out to give me what I want. Is realistic sizing too much to ask for?
In the end, though, I know that there is one sure thing that will cheer me up. And I’m not talking about buying socks or a chocolate muffin. After I’ve been into every shop, taken off my clothes, tried something on that doesn’t fit, or just makes me look silly, called uselessly for the assistant, put my clothes back on, and trudged gloomily once more into the rain, there is one thing I look forward to – shopping for some nice stationery. Although I have to say, my new Muji notebook doesn’t actually fit inside my handbag.
When I was a junior reporter, I went everywhere on my push bike. Sometimes I felt so embarrassed about arriving on it to interview somebody that I would hide it round the corner and walk the last few yards. My car? I would say to people who thought I had parachuted in from nowhere, Where did I park it? God, it’s so difficult to find a space, isn’t it?
Trouble was, I couldn’t drive. Actually, I could drive perfectly well, except that the local driving examiners didn’t share my opinion. And, really, what did they know? I mean, they’re such prima donnas. One of them had hysterics just because I backed up on to a pavement and then drove along it for a bit. One of them kept putting his foot on the brake every time I came up to a set of traffic lights, and another got out of the car when I finished a three-point turn and refused to get back in.
So, like I said, I spent a lot of time going places by bike. Which I mostly didn’t mind, except when it rained. I liked being able to talk to people as I rode along; people cutting their hedges, or walking their dogs, or coming out of banks with stockings over their heads and carrying bags marked swag. No, scrub the last. That never happened, although there was one never-to-be-forgotten morning when I cycled past an enormous traffic jam being gradually brought to order by several rather flustered looking policemen. I knew some of them, but rather to my surprise, none of them responded to my jolly greetings as I threaded my way through the skewed cars and on to the office. Once there I was greeted by the chief reporter with the kind of enthusiasm that he normally reserved for a mass murder (not that there were any on our patch; we just read about them in the national dailies). ‘Well?’ he bellowed. ‘Well? Well? Don’t keep us in suspense. What’s happening up there?’ I looked at the ceiling and then again at Max. ‘Up where?’ I asked uncertainly.
‘Up near your house,’ he said ‘Where do you think? The bridge, the big road bridge, girl, it fell down at about seven this morning. Absolute carnage. You must have cycled straight past it. Did you get any interviews? I’ve sent the photographers up, but the traffic jams are hell. I want everythng you’ve got.’
The bridge. I pawed weakly at the fog in my brain. Had something happened to the bridge? Trouble was I had spent most of my journey thinking about, well, stuff. Like what it would be like to interview Warren Beatty, or possibly Neil Armstrong, and did Derek, the head printer, really strangle moles for a hobby? I hadn’t noticed the bridge (or sudden lack of it) at all.
I suddenly became aware that the other two reporters were looking at me, and there was that kind of silence and feeling of slowed down time that you get when you’re playing netball or rounders and the ball is coming straight at you and….I shook my head. ‘It’s really bad, Max. I couldn’t get anywhere near. I’m just checking in, and I’m going straight back up there again.’
‘Nobody can get through,’ he snapped.
‘I can,’ I replied loftily. ‘I have my bicycle.’
There is a huge problem with characters once you have created them, of course: they go off by themselves. It’s supposed to be a sign that you have done your job properly, but there is nothing more annoying than a character who thinks he knows better than you.
Don’t be nuts, I hear you say, after all, aren’t you, the writer, in charge? And the short answer to that is, no. I quite often get to the end of a story, and I have no idea how I got there. Sometimes I just start with a really strong character and hope for the best, and I’m just led along, step by step to a conclusion I hadn’t expected, but which is so right. Other times, well.
The problem is the plot. You have to have an idea of where you want your characters to go. I’ve talked before about not shoehorning them into a narrow path, but you do have to have some kind of plan, based on their personalities and situation. If for example, you are writing a romantic novel, and you’re not sure if you’re doing it right, Mills and Boon are very happy to look at three chapters and a synopsis of the rest. The trouble begins when the publishers give you the green light and you get to the end of chapter four and then your characters turn round and bite you. They’re all set up to have a row, or a bit of sexual tension, and they basically down tools and refuse. They turn into those method actor types who suddenly want to know their motivation, and then you lose your nerve and you stop writing because, actually, maybe they’re right.
Maybe your hero doesn’t want a steamy moment in the shower with the heroine; and maybe after all the emotional rollercoaster stuff she’s been through since Chapter One (when her heart began thudding wildly and hasn’t stopped since) she’s got a thumping headache. Poor girl.
The first thing to do in this situation, is not to put it away and promise you will come back later; you won’t. Go back to the beginning and read through it. Writing is a lot like knitting in some respects; you can drop a stitch and not notice, and then it’s only after a whole lot of stuff has unravelled, that you realise that you are deep in the doo doo. With a read through, you can often see where your characters took a wrong turn, or where you can insert stuff that will bring them back up to speed again.
The most important thing is to finish your writing session on a high, rather than on an extremely gloomy, ‘I just can’t do this,’ low. Characters can get you down, but don’t let the stroppy buggers stand in your way.
We were in the middle of a lesson about Romeo and Juliet when the rasta cycled into the classroom.
It was a hot day, even by Jamaican standards, and our school’s semi-outdoor classrooms – simple breezeblock cubes under the acacia trees – were stifling. Mr Clerkin, who taught English and motor mechanics, was writing on the board and we were passing notes and whispering, waiting for the bell, when our surprising visitor arrived. He was in his thirties, dreadlocks bulging in his big woolly hat. He had a beautiful face; fine features with large almond eyes, but his shirt was worn through at the elbows, and his trousers ended in a raggedy mess at his knees. He looked seriously round at us and we stared back, silently chewing gum. Mr Clerkin, who had been talking to himself as he scratched at the board, suddenly turned round, his arm still in the air, as if he wanted to ask a question. The rasta sat back on his ancient, rusting bike. He had an old school satchel on his back.
There was a small silence as Mr Clerkin took in the bike, the man, the tyre marks on the dusty concrete floor. ‘Were you looking for someone?’ he said at last.
‘Do you teach English?’ said the rasta.
Mr Clerkin suddenly seemed to notice that his arm was still in the air and he put it down rather self-consciously and smiled. ‘Why?’ he asked in his flat Yorkshire accent. ‘Do you want to join the class?’
‘Nah man,’ said the rasta, taking a wad of curling paper out of his satchel. ‘Do you want to buy a poem?’
This is a true story; a rasta really did cycle into our classroom. The reason I’ve posted it is because I wanted to say what an inspiring teacher Mr Clerkin was, and that I never would have become a writer if he hadn’t taught me. I have no idea where he is now, or what he is doing. But, thank you Mr C.
I want to say thank you to Jools, for nominating me for the One Lovely Blog award. Her blog documents her struggles and successes in writing, which is quite comforting when you think you are the only one to feel this way.
The One Lovely Blog Award requires that I give seven facts about myself and nominate another five recipients.
1. I started writing when I was 18, as a junior reporter on a local paper.
2. I like collecting silly newspaper headlines, such as Monty flies back to front, or Burglars in below empty flat.
3. I can’t resist buying scrapbooking paper. Some day I will sort out all the rubbish (sorry, memorabilia) that is silting up my house and stick it attractively into books. Really, I will.
4. I live in house that, about 100 years ago, was briefly a school. I have the original advert for this, which asks boarders to come equipped with six towels and a teaspoon.
5. I have touched a piece of moon rock.
6. I like going to France (although I’m not sure I’d want to live there)
7. My family is the absolutely best thing ever.
My five ‘pay it forward’ One Lovely Blog nominations are:
1. Dysfunctional Literacy, I can’t wait to read his next instalment of The Literary Girlfriend;
2. Iron Daisy, I loved her parody of a mother’s letter to teenage girls;
3. Journey into Poetry, I like Christine’s frankness, and I really enjoyed her poem, A wheelchair called Wil;
4. 1yellowfish, her descriptions are excellent;
5. Michaelalexanderchaney, very clever writing, good advice and, what’s more, he was the first to comment on my blog, so he’s obviously a discerning, all-round marvellous kind of bloke (that’s enough enthusing, ed).
When I decided I was going to be a writer I had the same attitude as Snoopy. I didn’t exactly start off with ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ but I felt the only way to keep my reader’s attention was to be as dramatic as possible. It was a romantic novel, so I wanted it chock full of all the best stuff I could possibly think of.
I gave my characters dramatic names, Rock and Sian (Rock????? What was I thinking?) (and Sian? How many people outside Wales know how to pronounce Sian?) I put them in a lush place (an island in the Caribbean). I made him a pirate who was a property developer on the side (glamour and wealth, you see) and her a proud but virginal librarian. I even had a dissolute Hollywood film star as the sexy beast who comes between them. How could I possibly fail?
The answer to that one of course, is, how could I not? It was a complete mess. I was so taken up with assembling all these marvellous elements, that I completely forgot about my characters’ feelings. I rode roughshod over them. I made my librarian go windsurfing, when really, all she wanted was a cup of tea and a lie-down. I made my pirate fall for a woman who might know the Dewey Decimal System backwards, but couldn’t even find her way to her own hotel bedroom. In any case it was obvious that he would much rather use his dark brooding charm on the hotel receptionist. And as for old Hollywood sexy boots; why on earth was he waylaying a colourless limey when every woman he met (apart from her) was throwing herself at his feet? Why indeed.
The point of course is that you don’t construct stories by just chucking stuff together. You start with one character, what they look like, how old they are, where they live, what their secrets are – and who they are keeping these secrets from. That way, everything pretty much falls into place.
If I were going to do the decent thing, I would go back to that original manuscript of mine and liberate those characters, stuck helplessly for the last 20 years in a haunted plantation house in the middle of a storm. I would allow Sian to find an old sofa to sleep on for the night, before ringing the police in the morning and getting back in time for her trip home to Bracknell. Rock could stumble about for a bit and then get knocked unconscious by a banging shutter (they always have banging shutters in storm-tossed Caribbean houses) to be awoken by the Hollywood sex god bathing his face. And they could live happily ever after running an interior design service in LA. There. Sorted. Sorry it took so long.