Of course, once you had written a piece of copy, you had to put it in the wire basket on Max’s desk. When he had time, he would settle into his special chair (it was the only one that had arms) pat his pockets, find his pipe and tin of tobacco, put them on the desk and then fish the first offering out of the basket, holding the cheap little bundle of paper between thumb and forefinger.
‘Hmm,’ he would say, delicately hefting it. ‘About 300 words, I’d say.’ And then he would sit back, and start to read. If something amused him, he would tilt the chair back and put his boots on the table. If something really excited him, he would hunch over the desk, his elbows on the table, his hands clasped over his head. If he felt distressed he would sit up straighter and straighter, like a duchess in a brothel, occasionally bringing the copy closer to his face to check that he was reading it correctly, and then putting it back on the desk and staring at it with disgust.
I think I distressed him on my second day. I had typed up my copy on the little four by six sheets of paper, that would fit exactly on a Linotype machine; then realised I had forgotten to take a black – a carbon copy – and had typed it again. I’d put on the catchline, my initials; I’d put m/f – more follows – at the bottom of every sheet, and ends at the end. In short, I was feeling pretty damn efficient as Max fished it out of the basket, did his weighing trick, and then began to read.
He began to sit up straighter and straighter. I did not know then that this was the signal to leave. ‘What the bloody hell is this?’ he demanded.
‘It’s my story,’ I said. ‘About the rare newts.’
‘Newts!’ he said, making it sound like a mediaeval oath. ‘Bollocks to your newts!’
I stared at him, and wondered if he had gone mad. The subs, who sat at the next table, were suddenly very interested in the layout for page 67. The other reporters stopped typing.
‘Is there something wrong?’ I asked. ‘Is it not a good story? I mean, they’re great crested newts, you know. And they’re on the decline, people are worried about them. So the fact they found some in the vicar’s garden…’I trailed off.
Max was staring at me. ‘According to this, they found crested nets in the garden, and the expert, sorry,’ he looked at the copy once more, ‘the expat who looked at them said they were winders of their kind.’ He put the copy in front of him. ‘What the fuck is a winder?’
‘Well that’s obviously a wonder,’ I said helpfully. ‘Sorry.’
‘Don’t you know how to spell?’ he asked.
And then, God help me, I lit the blue touch paper. ‘I didn’t think you had to, on a newspaper.’
Max stood up. He started off reasonably calmly, by enumerating the beauties of the English language, he began to lose it when he got on to young squirt reporters, and then as he gazed at the newsroom, widened his scope to include all smug bastards that took Shakespeare’s tongue for granted. It ended with him ripping my copy to shreds, throwing it in the basket, getting speechlessly furious when it fluttered everywhere, and then resolving the situation by kicking the bin into the sports department and going off down the pub.
That lunchtime the other reporters took me to the pub for the first time and Max bought me a drink. On the way back to the office I bought a dictionary. Sorry, Max.