This is based on a true story. Names have been changed and some details added or amended for narrative effect.
“I won’t be here tomorrow,” Jim said to Alec, with a smug and rather mysterious look on his face as the two men queued side by side at the counter of the staff cafe at Thomson House, office of the Evening Chronicle, Journal and Sunday Sun in Newcastle. Alec ordered mince and Yorkshire pudding, one of his favourites, and found a table, where Jim joined him.
The Thomson organisation, a huge Canadian newspaper publisher which owned regional titles across the UK from Aberdeen to Cardiff as well as The Times and Sunday Times, offered its employees subsidised meals.
Facilities were segregated by occupational classification. Journalists like Jim and Alec, advertising staff and other white-collar workers were allowed to use the cafe. Printers, van drivers, and other blue collars had the works canteen, while senior management could enjoy the privileges of the executive dining room.
Though Jim, the Chronicle’s industrial reporter, and Alec, the municipal (local government) reporter, were two of the paper’s most senior editorial staff, neither had ever been in the dining room. Still, the cafe was a perk worth having. Prices were well below anything that could be found in the surrounding eateries of the city centre.
In recognition of this, reporters away from the office on assignment over the lunch break were allowed to make a small claim for expenses to cover the additional cost of eating out. Expenses were a fixed amount, and no receipts had to be shown, so there were ways of making a small profit.
Some reporters did not eat lunch at all. One was famous for always ordering sausage, egg, and chips at the cheapest greasy spoon he could find (cheapest of all was in Millfield, Sunderland), and he inevitably and unimaginatively became known to his colleagues as SEC.
Management, including the news editors who authorised expenses claims, knew what was going and turned a blind eye. Expenses were a small part of reporters’ income, but not unimportant for some, and were a more cost-effective way of keeping them happy than offering a pay rise.
“So why won’t you be here tomorrow?” asked Alec when Jim sat down with his meat pie and baked beans.
“I’ve been invited to the Gosforth Park Hotel,” replied Jim, looking even more self-satisfied.
“Ooo! Get you.”
The Gossy Park was Newcastle’s top hotel in the 1970s and a pit village lad, as Jim was, rarely if ever stepped inside. Alec had only been once when he and his wife had been invited by the paper’s racing correspondent on the eve of Plate Day, the year’s prime meeting at Gosforth Park racecourse.
The couple had fasted all day in anticipation of the meal of their lives, only to be served with a piece of cheese and half a tomato while racing experts made racing speeches and offered racing tips, leaving Alec and his wife, who took no interest in the sport, as bewildered as they were hungry. Simultaneously disappointed and bemused, they rushed home just in time to pick up a Chinese carry-out.
“I’ve been asked by the Chamber of Commerce,” said Jim. “It’ll be a chance to make some great contacts,” he added by way of explanation with more than a touch of self-justification.
In the usual newsroom bustle of the next 24 hours Alec forgot all about the conversation with his colleague. Then, the next day, about 3.00pm, Jim walked unsteadily into the newsroom and went up to the news desk.
“Hi Jim,” said the news editor, an affable man in his late 40s with a keen eye for a story and a generally easy-going but effective management style. “Good lunch?”
Jim needed no further prompting. He launched into a detailed and enthusiastic description of the meal – and the drinks. Especially the drinks. On and on he slurred: the prawn cocktail in a basket (this was the ‘70s); the sirloin steak, oh the sirloin! the Black Forest gateau; the Beaujolais Nouveau (a great favourite with the business class at the time).
The news editor nodded indulgently. Jim worked hard and produced a string of good stories; he deserved the occasional treat, as long as it did not come from the editorial budget. But even the news editor’s patience was soon wearing thin, and he was pleased to be distracted when the news desk ‘phone rang.
“Sorry Jim, I’ve got to take this.”
Jim walked unsteadily to his desk, holding onto office furniture for balance on the way. He slumped heavily into his chair and paused for breath. Slowly he opened a drawer, took out a form and started filling it in with the customary form of words: “Lunch: working away from the office.”