This is based on a true story. Names have been changed and some details added or amended for narrative effect.
Monday 7 September 1964
“Never call yourself a journalist, son,” the news editor told Alec on his first day as an 18-year-old trainee at his local paper. “Anyone can call themselves a journalist. We’re going to make a reporter of you.”
Alec didn’t know what to make of this, so he said nothing. He was too shy and nervous anyway as he looked round the News Room at his new colleagues. He thought they looked old, though in fact most were in their 30s or 40s. They were nearly all dowdily dressed and, Alec thought, had an air of disappointment about them.
Not the news editor, though. A short, ruddy-faced man in his 40s, he looked the jovial type. He showed Alec to a desk by the window and introduced him to Barry, opposite whom he would be sitting. “Show Alec the ropes, will you Barry.”
Barry was an unusual figure in the News Room. As arts reporter he felt he had to maintain a certain standard, a certain style. He did this partly by wearing a three-piece, pinstripe suit, but most strikingly by speaking in what Alec assumed was an attempt at an upper-class accent. He couldn’t immediately tell whether it was natural or affected. It wasn’t Wearside; Alec supposed it must serve Barry well in the coffee bar at the Empire Theatre where, he soon learned, Barry, who was single, spent most of his leisure time as well as his working life.
That afternoon, when the news desk decided he had had enough time to settle in, Alec was given his first job. “Go along to Mowbray Park,” the deputy news editor told him. “You’ll see a group of old men sitting on a bench. Find out what they’re talking about and write ten pars. Oh, and don’t forget to get their names, ages and addresses and their old jobs.”
The thought of approaching a group of strangers was another cause of anxiety for Alec on his first day. He didn’t even think to ask how the deputy news editor knew there would be a group of old men sitting in the park that day, though he later realised that there were old men sitting there every day for want of anything better to do.
“Excuse me please,” said Alec hesitantly. “Sorry to bother you.” Then introducing himself for the first time with a phrase that never ceased to give him a sense of pride on all the many occasions he would use it or its equivalent in the future: “I’m from the Echo.”
The reaction was as much a surprise to Alec as it was a relief: “Are ye really from the Echo like?” asked one white-haired man, seeking confirmation of this unexpected announcement. “How! This lads from the Echo,” he told his mates. “Sit down, he said, making room on the bench for Alec. “What can we dee for yah?”
“We’re just interested in what people in town are talking about today.” And so began the first interview of Alec’s long career.
Thursday 10 September 1964
“Wearsiders expect Labour election victory.” Alec read the headline on his first story with satisfaction. The former shipyard workers in the park had all been confident that in the imminent general election Labour would oust the Conservatives after their 13 wasted years, as party leader Harold Wilson put it. They were less sure of Sunderland’s prospects back in the First Division for the first time since 1957-58, despite all the famous names in the team.
Alec had learned a valuable lesson from his first interview. Working people were generally willing, keen even, to talk to their local paper. It was the reserved middles class who tended to hide behind their net curtains if anyone they suspected of being a reporter knocked on the door.
Saturday 26 September 1964
“How’s your maths?” asked the deputy news editor. “Err, OK I suppose,” replied a surprised Alec. He wondered what was coming next. He’d passed ‘O’ level maths at school but hadn’t progressed any further. He’d managed arithmetic, algebra, geometry and even trigonometry without too much difficulty, but calculus had defeated him.
“Good”, said the deputy news editor. “Go and see the sports editor. He’s got a job for you.” Still puzzled, Alec walked over to the sports desk. It was Saturday afternoon, and there was an unusually large staff sitting round the sports desk, including some who were normally news subs.
The sports editor, a tall grey-haired man close to retirement, explained to Alec what he wanted him to do. The football season had started and so had the “Pink”, the Saturday afternoon sports edition which for thousands of Echo readers was the first source of that day’s results.
Much of the “Pink”, as with all other editions of the paper, had been prepared in advance – background, gossip, interviews, team news and so on. But even the Echo’s experienced reporters could not be sure of the results in advance.
Alec’s task, he was told, was to compile the league tables as the results came in. It was straightforward, for the most part. The more points a team had the higher up the table it was placed. But if two teams had the same number of points the task became a bit tricky: goals for and against had to be considered.
That would still have been easy if it had been a question of goal difference; just a matter of subtracting goals against from goals for. But when Alec sat down for his first shift on the sports desk, he learned that at that time it was goal average that mattered: he would have to divide goals for goals by goals against, sometimes to one of more decimal places. Without even a pocket calculator that was something of a challenge.
What’s more, it had to be done quickly. “Hurry up. They’ll be here in a few minutes,” said the sports editor impatiently. Alec hurriedly completed his final long division, and the tables were snatched from his desk. He sat back and after a moment he turned to the sub next to him. “Who’ll be here is a few minutes?” he asked.
The sub led him to the window, which overlooked the bridge linking the north and south sides of the river. A few men were walking hurriedly across it. “Here come the first ones,” said the sub. As Alec stood and watched the crowd of pedestrians gradually grew until the bridge was packed with thousands of fans heading from Roker Park to the town centre pubs.
Then Alec noticed another group of men emerging from the Echo building with bundles of “Pinks” under their arms which they were handing out to the avid fans, taking their threepenny pieces in return. Alec hoped to God he’d got his sums right.
Friday 10 October 1964
Another new and unexpected stage in Alec’s education began.
Every day the paper carried a short feature under the heading “Echoes from 25 years Ago” and Alec was one of its main contributors throughout his period at the paper. Most Friday afternoons he would go into the paper’s library, dig out the old files, select two stories each day, condense them into two paragraphs each and send his copy through to the subs.
In that way he followed the progress of the war through the pages of the Echo between October 1939 and March 1943. He started by selecting what seemed like the most important stories of the day and gradually, as he gained in confidence, he allowed a certain impishness to come into play and shifted the emphasis to whatever took his fancy as illustrating the more obscure or idiosyncratic features of wartime life.
He delighted in informing Echo readers of the actions of people famous during the war, no doubt, but virtually unknown by now, certainly to him, like Semyon Timoshenko, or quoting from the apparently authoritative Nichi Nichi Shimbun. No one at the Echo ever questioned these obscure references. Nor did anyone else. Alec wondered whether anyone ever read “Echoes from 25 Years Ago.” Probably only the nostalgic elderly.
Tuesday 21 June 1966
“Go round to the NUS office and find out what Jimmy Dodds thinks about being called part of a tightly knit group of politically motivated men,” the news editor told Alec. After almost two years on the paper Alec was regarded as reliable enough to cover one of the main news stories of the day.
The strike by the National Union of Seamen was an event of national significance. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, had used the “tightly knit” phrase to refer to the union’s leadership in a statement to the Commons the previous day.
Alec had met Jimmy and the other local NUS leaders before and was on good terms with them. They were not part of the union’s national leadership that Wilson had in mind, but Alec felt reasonably confident that they would have something to say in response to the Prime Minister’s charge.
“Hi Alec,” said Jimmy as the young reporter walked into the town centre office. “Tea?”
“What do you think of Harold Wilson’s statement that the NUS is a tightly knit group of politically motivated men?” asked Alec, taking his first sip from the tin mug.
“Ah dinna knaa’” said Jimmy. “What does he mean?”
Alec noted that “dinna”. Not “divven’t”. Definitely from south of the Tyne, he thought.
“He thinks you are Communists, and your aim is not pay and conditions but to bring down the government.”
“Bollocks,” said Jimmy. “We want a fuckin’ decent pay rise and less hours. That’s all”
“Can you make statement about that that I can put in the Echo?” asked Alec.
“Ye dee it. Y’knaa aboot that sort of thing better than ah dee.”
Back at the office, Alec looked up the cuttings to double check exactly what the NUS was seeking and what its leaders had said about their demands and the strike. He paraphrased it, placed it in Jimmy’s mouth – without f-words – and added some background.
When the first edition appeared, Alec walked the short distance from the Echo building to the NUS office and showed it to Jimmy. The seaman looked at the front-page lead headline, “NUS Wear leader rejects Wilson’s attack.”
“Ah knew yee could dee it,” he said to Alec.
Back at his desk, Alec was approached by the deputy news editor.
“Good interview, that, with Jimmy Dodds. Nobody else has been able to get that much out of him before.”
“Thanks,” said Alec sheepishly.
In the previous two years Alec had covered local stories of all sorts – courts, council meetings, industry, crime, accidents, weather events. He had attended college, learned shorthand, and studied newspaper law. He was beginning to feel almost like the reporter the news editor had promised to make of him on his first day.
Monday 27 June 1966
Almost, but not quite. Another surprise was in store for him.
“I want you to write a letter,” the news editor said to Alec.
“What about?” asked Alec, with concern. Had he done something wrong? Had the truth about his interview with Jimmy been discovered? Was he being asked to resign?”
“Rationalising the shipyards.”
“Oh, I see,” said Alec, not seeing at all.
There were five main shipyards on the Wear, but they were starting to struggle to win orders in the face of Far East competition. There was a case, the editor thought, for some form of rationalisation and co-operation between them. The trouble was, the deputy news editor explained, no one was talking about it, and it was the Echo’s responsibility to start a public debate.
“Oh, you mean a letter for the letters page?”.
“Of course. What did you think I meant?”
“Why don’t we just write a leader?”
“The editor doesn’t want to nail our colours to the mask on this one yet in case it turns out to be a bad idea. Besides, we need to start a good controversy for the letters page. It’s one of our best-read features but it’s been quiet recently, so don’t pull your punches.”
Alec started thinking of why and how the shipyards should be rationalised. When he’d finished typing, he took his copy over to the deputy news editor, who read it.
“Good.” He made just one change, crossing out Alec’s name and replacing it with Jim Smith. “Someone might recognise your name,” he explained. “It’s supposed to be from an Echo reader.”
Thursday 30 June 1966
Alec saw with satisfaction that his work was the lead on the letters page. But as he read what he had written he noticed that the “r” in rationalisation had been misprinted as an “n”. As he read through the entire letter, he noticed with growing alarm that the same had happened again and again. The whole letter was now advocating not shipyard rationalisation but nationalisation.
Panicking, he carried the paper over to the news desk and showed the letter to the deputy news editor. He was unusually pale as he knocked on the editor’s door, paper in hand. Sixty seconds later the editor walked grim-faced into the composing room, where the printers worked. The Echo certainly wasn’t in favour of nationalising anything.
Two minutes later he was back, looking chastened, and was soon followed by two men who Alec recognised as the Father of the Chapel (FoC) of the National Graphical Association (workplace chair of one of the printing unions) and his deputy. Angry voices emanated from the editor’s office before the union men emerged, looking smug.
That evening in the pub Alec asked one of the older reporters what had been going on.
“Winter (the editor) went to find out who had changed all the rationalisations to nationalisations,” the old hand replied. “He was warned that if he went around making accusations like that, he’d have a strike on his hands.”
Friday 1 July 1966
In mid-morning, after going through the morning’s post, the deputy news editor walked over to Alec’s desk. “That letter of yours certainly did the trick,” he said pleasantly. “We’ve had dozens of responses. They’ll keep the letters page going for at least a fortnight.”
“Well,” thought Alec, “he said he wanted a good controversy.”
That afternoon Alec was approached by Gerry, FoC for the National Union of Journalists. “Good letter, that, about nationalising the shipyards,” said the union man, grinning knowingly.” “Here, fill this in,” placing a form on Alec’s desk.
“Application for Membership,” he read. “National Union of Journalists.” He completed the form straight away and handed it back. Now he did begin to feel like a proper reporter.