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China 17: Face to face with 1,000 Buddhas

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China


Check into Dunhuang’s hotel which, unlike the hostel, does have running water.  And it is hot. Showers all round! The shower is galvanized steel, like an upended spout on a watering can, and the cubicle is bare concrete. But at the risk of repeating myself, there is water and it is hot. How marvellous it is to turn a tap on and see water coming out.

At lunchtime they put 21 plates of mysterious stuff on the table and although we do our best, it is beyond us. When we finish, bloated, it looks like we haven’t eaten anything.

Share a minibus with three Japanese people to the Mogao caves. It’s the same driver as yesterday with the big shades. The caves contain countless shrines to Buddha, carved into a sandstone cliff between the 5th and 14th centuries when Dunhuang was a big stop on the Silk Road.

When we get to the caves we buy tickets – you can’t go anywhere, or do anything, in China without buying a ticket. But when we drive from the gatehouse to the entrance, the gates are padlocked. A man standing there says, ‘The caves are closed until May.’

One of the Japanese guys, a poetry professor, and his wife, wade into battle. ‘But the hotel sent us here! We’ve bought tickets! What do you mean, closed? Two of our friends came this morning.’

‘Impossible,’ replies the gatekeeper, and then adds, really rashly for a Chinese person, ‘The man with the keys was here, but he has gone home.’

‘Gone home?’

‘He is ill.’

The bus driver, polishing his beloved minibus, comes up to join us. ‘How do you know he was ill?’

‘He told me.’

A crowd of Chinese people, also waiting by the gates, decide this is their cue. They too advance on the gatekeeper, much to his alarm.

‘Yes. How do you know he was ill?’ they ask. ‘Did he look ill? We’ve bought tickets too, you know.’

Eventually the gatekeeper, deciding that he is heavily outnumbered, comes up with a handy solution. ‘I’ll go and get him,’ he says, and scuttles off.

The key-keeper, when he arrives about half an hour later, really doesn’t look the picture of health, and Cheryl, Elspeth and I all feel a bit guilty. The Japanese have no such qualms. Off they stride, through the now open gates, with us behind and the Chinese bringing up the rear.

The caves are well worth the argy bargy. From the outside they look like run-down slum flats, because the sandstone has been shored up with concrete beams and pebble dashed to stop it crumbling. It was done during the Cultural Revolution so, in the circumstances, they were lucky to have got off so lightly.

It’s dark inside, with fitful light provided by dim electric bulbs strung haphazardly here and there. But the poetry professor has a torch like a collapsed sun, and we have little wavering torches that we poke bravely in some of the darker corners. The gate-keeper comes along with us, giving us random facts that Cheryl and Elspeth translate.

Some of the caves have faded and crumbled, but others are spectacular. In one, the walls are covered with 1,000 images of Buddha, done in repeat patterns of red, blue, green and ochre. The ceilings are painted with flowers and not a square inch is left bare. There are huge statues of Buddha, surrounded by disciples, some with the most evil looking expressions on their faces.

Three statues in particular stand out. In one cave you enter, you are at eye-level with the lap of Buddha; going further in you stare up at the rest of him, 13 metres high. After stumbling around the echoing stairways and passageways, being spooked occasionally by the distorted, echoing voices of our fellow explorers, we come upon a larger and even more impressive Buddha. As we pool the light of our torches, we realise that we are on a balcony staring straight into his eyes, and then we look down on the rest of his 26m high bulk.

In another cave, a gigantic dead Buddha lies surrounded by murals of people all over the world in anguish at his passing.

In every cave there is a statue of Buddha. Mostly his expressions are serene, sometimes bland, and once, his eyes glittered with malice in the light of our torches.

Remembering Reg, an Old Contemptible


Today is Armistice Day, and I want to pay tribute to Reg Hill, one of the last of the Old Contemptibles.

He was awarded the Croix de Guerre with star for conspicuous gallantry and I was sent to interview him when I worked on a weekly newspaper. Being a junior reporter and only 19 I didn’t really know much about anything, and that day when I arrived on his doorstep in November 1978 was no exception. My knowledge of the Great War was fairly sketchy and I had just pushed the doorbell when I realised I had nothing to write on and nothing to write with.

croix de guerre

But by then it was too late. Reg had already opened his front door. He was 96 and he looked small and vulnerable. I couldn’t help thinking that he actually looked like a tortoise that had lost its shell. But in two ticks he had welcomed me in, brushed off my ineptness, put the kettle on and given me a pen and a fancy boxed set of paper and envelopes to write on.

Reg was with the British Expeditionary Force present in France up to to the end of the First Battle of Ypres on 22 November 1914. Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, who was famously dismissive of the BEF, reportedly issued an order on 19 August 1914 to ‘exterminate… the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army.’

Sixty four years later Reg settled into his armchair and said, ‘There’s only three of us Old Contemptibles left in North Bucks now. That’s what Kaiser Bill called us. So we thought, right, that’s our name then.’

Reg was a sergeant artificer in the Rocket Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery in 1916. ‘We were in the trenches after a bit of a do, and we were being shelled and I heard this voice shouting, ‘Blesse, blesse,’ and I knew that meant, wounded, see, in French. So I put my head above the parapet and I could see this bloke lying out in No Man’s Land. I couldn’t just leave him there, could I?’

Despite his mates’ best advice not to risk it, Reg scrambled over the top, under fire, ran to the man and heaved him on to his back.

‘We were heavily shelled – I had to jump into shell holes three times on the way back,’ said Reg. ‘Terrible places, they were. Full of water.’

And he carried that man on his back all the way to the nearest first aid post. ‘They made such a fuss when I got there,’ he said, in some wonderment. ‘And being French, they insisted on plying me with wine before they let me go back.’

Reg went on to fight at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, and survived both, before being invalided out with a wounded arm.

‘I always go to the Remembrance Day services,’ he said. ‘Because I lost some good chums. No mistake about that.’

Reg died not long after that interview and was missed by many. I still think of him.

Taking a ride

worlds end

London is lovely in autumn. There are just too many people in summer and the pavements are sweaty and the Tube is suffocating, but when the leaves start to fall there’s a kind of quietness, even in the busy parts. And standing at the crossing outside Euston there was a clean laundry smell from the people around me, and I was feeling pretty content, and then I saw the No 10 sailing past, while I was stuck in the middle of the road with the pedestrian lights on red.

Plus ca bloody change, as they say in Walthamstow.

And then the lights changed, and the bus pulled in at the stop up the road, and I ran for it, and some doddery old couple were holding it up wanting to know if it went to Kamchatka or wherever and I made it. And I went upstairs and somebody smoked and I fell into a dream, aahhhh….no, that was John Lennon. And nobody is allowed to smoke upstairs now on a bus. So I just stared out of the window and we turned into Gower Street and there was a girl sitting on a trunk in the middle of the pavement, and an old guy with a big box, walking along as though it weighed nothing, and a young lad, obviously his son, carrying the same kind of box, and hurrying along trying to keep up, and I realised that it’s that time of year, when university is starting again, and then out of the other window I saw a blue plaque saying that this was the place where anaesthetic was used for the very first time. And I realised I was short on ideas for a blog post, so I got my phone out, and started clicking away like a demented tourist.

This is Gower Street. Fascinating, huh?

gower street

It’s part of Bloomsbury and, in the past, famous for its intellectuals. Its full of university buildings, and the British Museum is really close. But if you’re going to Kensington, like me, you stay on the bus and at the top, you hang a right past the amazing umbrella shop, which I couldn’t take a picture of, on account of somebody’s head being in the way, and you’re on New Oxford Street, coming up to the junction with the Tottenham Court Road, and the whole place is being torn down and rebuilt and it’s a mess. Makes you think what it might have looked like in the Blitz. But without the bodies.

new oxford street

And then you’re on Oxford Street, and there’s not much to say about it, really. If you manage to look down Argyll Street (unlike me, because the bus was too fast) where the tube station is, you’ll see Liberty’s, which used to be an utterly brilliant department store, where ladies up from the counties came for lunch and to wander about the wondrous fabric department. The carpet section was fantastic. A man there once showed me hand-made rugs from Afghanistan decorated with Kalashnikovs all round the border. Now it’s all been updated, (although the actual building is still worth a look); the carpets are in a cupboard somewhere, the cafe’s gone downhill, and there’s only three things for sale at a million pounds each.

oxford circus

Still, there’s Selfridges right at the bottom. The guy who founded it, Harry Gordon Selfridge, lavished the fortune he made from it on showgirls and ended up destitute but, hey, at least he had a good time, and the shop is thriving.


At the bottom of Oxford Street you turn left on to Park Lane, with its swanky hotels on the left, and Hyde Park on the right. After a while you go past the Hilton, which doesn’t look too swanky at all. And is chiefly memorable to me, for the time a mate of mine went out to report on some twit who had attempted to parachute from one of the balconies and landed rather messily. She found one of his hands on the pavement.


Then you turn right round the bottom end of the park, with the back garden  of Buckingham Palace on your left, and get ready to turn on to Knightsbridge.


You go past Knightsbridge barracks on the right, but I didn’t bother taking a picture because it’s just a brick wall really. This is where the guards keep their horses; they exercise them in park early every morning. Years ago, I used to go riding in the park, and I’ll never forget one winter morning a whole troop of soldiers just riding out of the mist by the Serpentine. Spooky.

Nearly there. Glance down to  your left as we go past the Brompton Road and you’ll get a glimpse of Harrods, the building with the domed roof, which I like mostly because of its Egyptian themed escalator. Really, it’s like being in the pyramids. Only you can get tea and buns afterwards. And their Food Hall is sublime. But go there only in February, when the tourists are hibernating and Christmas is a dirty word.


After that, you go past Princes Gate, below, where 25 people were taken hostage at the Iranian Embassy (that’s No 16) in 1980. When the attackers killed a man and threw his body out of the embassy the SAS were sent in and they rescued all but one of the remaining hostages, and killed five of the six terrorists. The sixth spent 27 years in jail. The embassy itself was a wreck for years, and didn’t reopen until 1993.


Then it’s the Albert Hall, which the bus just jerked past, so not one of my best.


Anyway, here’s a picture of a green hut in front of Kensington Gardens. You see these huts all over London, and they always look as if they’re trying to pretend they’re not there.  They are there. They are private cafes for London’s cab drivers.  I’ve often thought Dr Who ought to have one of those instead of a police telephone box. People who try knocking on the doors to ask for a cup of tea, spare change or a lift to Kings Cross, are never seen again.


On to Kensington High Street, and out at the station, which is one of the prettiest stations in London. Piccadilly is the most elegant (it has art deco lamps) but the entrance to Ken High Street is full of light and smells of flowers.


And er, that’s it. Eat your heart out, Henri Cartier Bresson.


New bills, please


Bills are written by newspaper sub-editors. They are displayed by shops to tempt innocent passers by, and are part of that list of weird slogans yelled by street vendors (‘orrible murder, gitcher news ‘ere, standard! standard!) But, sometimes, the sub in question has an off day…








Images courtesy of Alistair McIntyre at the Daily Drone, the world’s greatest website

Dead wrong


On Friday I posted a newspaper cutting about a guy who died while at work and none of his colleagues noticed for five days.

This morning I woke up and thought wtf?

The story claimed that a man called George Turklebaum, a proof-reader, had died at his desk on a Monday morning, and it took until Saturday morning before a cleaner tapped him on the shoulder and then maybe wished she hadn’t.


I mean, really, you’d have to be Mr Magoo with a heavy cold not to notice somebody in your office had been dead for a week. So, in the best traditions of investigative journalism, I went to NewYork turned to Mr Google.

Luckily I didn’t have too far to look. Those nice people at Snopes.com who specialise in debunking urban myths, had got there before me. According to them, the story is a complete hoax, first surfacing in America’s Weekly World News which is well respected for its considered take on global events.


The clipping I posted came from the Sunday Mercury in Birmingham, printed on December 17, 2000, (that’s Birmingham as in the home of Noddy Holder, Ozzy Osbourne and Joe Chamberlain, not Birmingham, Alabama), but the story is about a bloke in New York.

The Sunday Mercury claim they got the story from an NY radio station, but, according to Snopes, no newspapers in New York carried the story, and the Medical Examiner’s office knew nothing about the case. And there was nobody on the Social Security Death Index by the name of Turklebaum.

So there you go. Never believe everything you read in newspapers. Unless, of course, you agree with it.

Pictures courtesy of Creative Commons, via:








Florence and the zeppelin


Florence Parrott was the first person I ever interviewed as a junior reporter. I was 18, the same age as she was when she joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1918.

I had been a reporter for about two weeks when I was sent to talk to Florence, who was then 79, and partially deaf (you’ll have to speak up, DEAR!). She was tall, rangy, ready to laugh, with great booming ho, ho ho’s, and she told her story with a sort of matter of fact understatement that I, as a teenager, just nodded at and wrote down, and now as a mother and grandmother, think of with rather greater imagination.

In 1917, the teenage Florence Maple was a wine waitress at London’s Liverpool Street Hotel, and part of her job was to go next door to the railway station to give lunch boxes to troops departing for the front.

She said: ‘The train and platform were packed with people that day. We heard a whistle and thought it was the train moving off. But we looked up and there was a zeppelin, dropping bombs. I don’t think there was much of the train left.’

In the midst of all this carnage, Florence, who was hit in the arm, shook her fist at the zeppelin, swore at the Kaiser and then was taken to St Barts Hospital. When she was discharged, she went straight to the Connaught Club and joined up. ‘I said to them, if I’m going to get knocked about, I’ll damn well go where I expect it.’

She was one of the first women allowed to join the women’s section of the Royal Flying Corps, which became the Women’s Royal Airforce in April 1918. She went to France with the first boatload of such women and was stationed in Cressy, near Vron in northern France. It was her job to pick up stores from Etaples (‘Funny names the French have. We pronounced it Eat Apples’) which had become a vast military camp and giant hospital and then deliver them to local depots. According to FirstWorldWar.com the hospitals were targeted several times by incendiary bombers, and many of the orderlies present risked their lives getting the wounded men to safety. Florence just said: ‘We had to run for our lives a couple of times, dear, and I’ve known days when there was nothing to eat but a piece of hardtack. Of course, you couldn’t drink the water.

‘I remember the morning that the news of peace came through –we got every vehicle that had a wheel, including wheelbarrows, and we put the men who couldn’t walk in those and we went round and round the green patch in the middle of the camp. The PoWs came and the people from the village. We just couldn’t stop laughing and singing.’

Florence eventually made it back to England, with the last boatload of women who had served in the corps, in 1919. She married and settled down in Buckinghamshire, where she spent the rest of her life. To my shame I have no idea when she died, and I regret that I never asked her the questions that I’d like to ask her today; about how she felt and how her experiences affected her. Although I doubt, even if I could ask her, that she’d want to answer those kind of questions. All I have is a faded cutting and an enduring memory of one of the strongest women I ever met.


Roll up, roll up, for the snappy old writing process blog tour

stolen bride

The rather snappily titled ‘writing process blog tour’ has been making the rounds and I’ve been asked to answer some questions on how and what I write.

I was nominated for this by Bruce Goodman who posts a short story a day. He is funny and sharp, and you never know, even in 150 words, how his tales are going to end. Thank you Bruce!

So here we go:

What am I working on at the moment?

A romance set in the 1920s in France.  However, to earn my daily crust, I’m also editing a document about social partners in Europe. The combined effect is having serious effects on my sanity. I’m thinking of combining the two, so that the hero could be a designated representative for occupational health and safety, with the heroine attempting to organise a tripartite agreement on pay and conditions in the metalworking sector. They interface at a stakeholder seminar for hairdressers  in Monte Carlo, where he falls for her risk assessment techniques in the casino, and realises that together, they have a sustainable future in roulette. Yes? (No, ed.)

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It’s written by me? I suppose I ought to say, because it’s sassy and funny and altogether marvellous. But so are most other romances I read. I think I just try to write something that will entertain people.

Mostly, I concentrate on making what I write fit into its genre. I was trained as a journalist, and when I became a sub editor, I spent a lot of time re-writing other people’s copy but making it look as though I hadn’t touched it. Actually, I’m going to wave a flag for sub-editors here. They are the people who write the headlines, correct the reporters’ spelling and grammar, cut out all the libellous remarks, and generally stop reporters and columnists making fools of themselves. (I give you the assistant editor who told the subs not to touch her copy and then praised George Eliot for his wonderful novels). More importantly, subs make the stories fit on the page. (It’s amazing how many reporters think that 1,000 words are going to fit in three inches.) And when I worked on papers we did it all so unobtrusively that, quite a lot of times, even the paper’s reporters were under the impression they’d written what was under their name.

Why do I write what I do?

I started writing romances, because my husband and I wanted to adopt children, and in those days (the 1990s) the social services insisted that I had to give up work. So I looked around for alternative ways of making money and thought of writing for Mills and Boon. It was an entirely practical decision. I knew Mills and Boon read every ms they received, and let you know within three months whether they were interested or not. I felt that writing a romance was merely an exercise in writing to style. And if I couldn’t do that, I thought, then I really wasn’t up to scratch as a tabloid journalist. Of course, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, it turned out to be rather more tricky than I expected. I could write a snappy 300-word piece, but turning out a 50,000-word book was quite different.  I knew nothing about creating characters, or plotting, or anything much to do with writing a novel. At all. Still, Mills and Boon liked my first ms (but not enough to publish it) and then published the next five I wrote (under the name of Sally Carr).

By this time we’d adopted two children and then, to my enormous astonishment (after years of infertility treatment), I got pregnant (twice), so we had four children in three years, and writing rather went on the back burner.  A few years down the line, I thought it might be good to write children’s stories and I had a few of those published, and then real life intervened once more, and it’s only now, after starting to blog, that I have come back to writing again.

How does my writing process work?

My imagination just gets sparked by something. Then I let the idea grow and grow, and then, when my brain won’t hold any more stuff, I write. For example, I recently read a book by fellow blogger June Kearns and I was really captivated by the idea of setting something in the 1920s. Hers is based in England and Texas, but I’m setting mine on the French Riviera. (I’ve got the whole first chapter in my head, and I’m at the point where I’ve got to get it down on paper.) I’d never really been taken with the idea of writing historical romances before because, with the research involved, they seemed far too much like hard work. But the 1920s I can manage. And if I get stuck I can always borrow shamelessly from look up Agatha Christie or PG Wodehouse.

So there you go, there’s my contribution to the writing process tour. Next up, on Monday, May 26 is Ian Probert  a former sports and music journalist. In America, in the 1990s, his first book Internet Spy was a bestseller there and was made into a TV film. In the UK you might know him as the author of Rope Burns. He’s been posting chapters of his book Shotgun Reality, which is about as far from romance as you could possibly get, and frankly I can’t wait for the next instalment.



Title fights

headline applaud
Tony was our chief sub on the weekly paper. He wore jeans with a crease down the front and a shirt with no tie, which was quite daring in those days. If he had a question about your copy he would stand behind you, while you were typing or on the phone, and wait. Not in an obsequious, I’ll just wait for your convenience kind of standing, but an I’m here, I’m God, you have done something terrible, and I will make you squirm, kind of way. Subs are always like that, I know, I was one.
Anyway, the possibility of having Tony standing behind you, with your copy in his hand, was frightening enough to make sure that we checked our stuff over and over again. Had the jury been sent out while the judge was making these remarks? And if so why was I risking a prison sentence for contempt by quoting him? Why was there no age for Mrs Snetterton, who had won the iced buns challenge in the Disley produce fete? How did I know that the mayor hated mice? And so on. Every statement had to be backed up with a quote from a real person (none of this, a source close to, that you see so often today). Every story had to check out, or Tony would spike it, and that would be that.
canadian copy
Of course what we had absolutely no control over, were the headlines. Tony liked a pun, Dave, who smoked a pipe and stroked his moustache a lot, was fond of twisting biblical phrases. Thus, every week you would be sure to find fete accompli over some picture of a garden party, or perhaps, amazing Grace about the musical talents of some six-year-old girl who had won a piano contest (which was ok if her name was Grace).
Editing copy was one thing, but it wasn’t until I got to an evening paper, as a sub myself, that I really began to appreciate the difficulties of writing headlines. First, obviously, it had to fit. You might be able to shave some of the space between the letters, but you couldn’t shrink the type. And it had to make sense. And it wasn’t to be boring. Unless the editor suggested it.
The search for a perfect headline has always led to some bizarre places. You get so into what you think you are saying, that you don’t always appreciate that your readers might see your headline in a completely different way. Pity the poor sub who wrote Queen Mum can’t come, and Burglars in below empty flat. Then there’s the famous World War Two offerings of Monty flies back to front, or English thrust bottles up the Germans. And I’ve always had a soft spot for Father of 10 shot – mistaken for a rabbit.
On the nationals the search for a perfect headline often became rather surreal. Vince, on one tabloid that prided itself on its high quality subbing, would lie almost full length on the subs table with arms outstretched, as if he were listening for trains, and mutter possible combinations of words to himself. Another bloke I worked with would, if in difficulty, go for a pee and write on the wall. Perhaps it was he who crept intothe ladies, and wrote under the towel dispenser,(an Advance Towelmaster) and be recognised.
Meanings were stretched to impossible lengths, but on occasion genius flared. Who can forget (well quite a lot of people actually, ed) the glorious line on the story about a couple who lost all their luggage on the way to their honeymoon in the Seychelles? Just a sarong at twilight. Of course. Or, the picture of a Native American, in full dress, complete with feather war bonnet, newly arrived in London and hailing a black cab. The headline was Where to, chief? Isn’t that brilliant? I always thought there ought to be a sub deck of him replying either, Bow, or Harrow.
But the prize for the most fabulously tasteless and bang on the money headline has to go to the now defunct News of The World. The executives were grumbling about the fact that the latest picture of one of the Kray twins in prison was rather boring, because it was just him having a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive. That was until a passing sub looked at it and said, ‘I could murder another McVitie.’

And the name of the goldfish is…

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.

The editor’s mug

I want to tell you a true story. It’s about a man I once worked with. We were both subs (copyeditors) on a daily newspaper. The work was hard, the shifts were long, but we all had four-day rotas, which meant that the blocks of graft were cemented with decent layers of days off. There was also a pub nearby which we went to at any given opportunity, and we got paid very well, so you needn’t feel too sorry for us.

And then, horror of horrors. A new editor arrived. He was ok, as far as editors go. The only limitation being that, on Thursdays, he would speak only Latin. Nobody knew why. But then that is the way, and the right, of kings and editors. ‘Quintus ubi est argumentum?’ he would demand, of no one in particular, as the newsroom hummed with shouted obscenities from the sweating subs who might have been able to write the Queen’s English, but who generally spoke only Anglo Saxon.

Every afternoon at four a news conference was held in the editor’s office, where he and his assistant editors and department editors would meet to chew the fat over what was going to be the front page splash, and what would be relegated to page two, and so on. You get the picture. It was very soon noticed that, at these meetings, the editor would always drink out of a stripey blue mug, of which he seemed very fond.

And then came the dreadful news. We were to lose our four-day shifts; we were to work longer; and what is more, we would not be getting a pay rise. The editor proclaimed (on a Wednesday, I think) that it all made Perfect Sense, that it was an Efficiency Saving, and that he didn’t see what any of us could possibly complain about.

The next day he arrived at conference looking rather harassed. ‘Vidistis mea hyacintho stripey Mug?’ he asked his assembled henchpersons. The unthinkable had happened. His mug had gone missing. The execs looked at each other rather helplessly. The sports editor, who had taken a first in theology from Oxford, said, ‘Here, have my mug,’ but the editor shook his head and sat down, trembling, at the head of the table.

Over the next few days the change in him was marked. He had a wild look about him, and from our vantage point in the middle of the newsroom, we could see him button-holing various high-up members of staff and asking if they had seen his mug.

One day, not long after that, his secretary took his afternoon mail into his office, and a few seconds later there was a terrible cry. The editor stumbled out of his office, holding a padded envelope in one hand, and in the other, was a blue and white stripey china handle. ‘My mug!’ he wailed. ‘My mug!’ Forgetting that, since this was, after all, a Thursday, he should have said, ‘Mug meum! Mug meum!’ Still, he was in extremis.

Worse was to come. There had been a note in the envelope too. It said, in cut-out newspaper words, ‘Give us our four-day shifts back, or the mug gets it.’

You would think, wouldn’t you, that there would be a happy ending to this story. That the editor would see the error of his ways, and give us our shifts back, and consequently be reunited with his mug. But it was not to be. Despite his love for his mug, the editor stood firm on the new shifts, and dark days arrived for the subs of this particular newspaper.

I said at the start that this story was about a man I once worked with. I have neglected to mention him until now, because I know for a fact that he was the mug-napper, and I cannot describe him for fear the editor, even now, might exact some kind of revenge. One must never underestimate the power of the press. However, the reason I have told this story is that, shortly after this episode, my workmate disappeared. He had a tiff, apparently, with his girlfriend, who was either a baroness or a sculptor, I can’t remember which, and disappeared from our lives after a night out in a tapas bar near Waterloo Station. So if you are the man I mean, and you are reading this, get in touch. I still have the handkerchief you lent me that night, and stuck to it are a couple of cut-out words that you probably mislaid while concocting your message. I couldn’t possibly say what they are, except that they are most definitely Anglo Saxon.


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