This is based on a true story. Names have been changed and some details added or amended for narrative effect.
“Now you’ve signed your indentures it’s time you took responsibility for your own page,” said the deputy news editor. “Wow” thought Alec not sure whether to feel elated or daunted. He’d been on his first paper for six months, completed a probationary period and signed up for three more years during which he would be tied to the paper and in return would be given a mix of college education and on-the-job training.
“Yes, we’re starting up a weekly Children’s Page and I want you to take it on” said the deputy news editor. Alec, who by now thought of himself as a hard-bitten newspaperman, was deflated. But there was nothing else for it. He buckled down and spent the next six months reporting on children’s charity events, stolen bikes and the occasional “miracle” cure and sad infant death.
It was a relief when a new reporter even younger and less experienced than Alec took over the page, and Alec was reassigned to Boldon Notes. Boldon was an urban district between Wearside and Tyneside consisting mainly of three villages: the middle-class East Boldon and working class West Boldon and Boldon Colliery.
Alec soon learned how to turn the bureaucratic prose of the urban district council’s documents into stories for his page by seeking out and talking to the local people directly affected by the planning applications, temporary road closures and missed bin collections that made up much of the council’s work. Then there was Ollie.
Ollie was a middle-aged councillor (Labour, of course) living in one of West Boldon’s council houses who seemed to know everyone’s business. Every Monday afternoon Alec and Tony, a photographer, drove out to Boldon in the Echo’s old Land Rover and their first call was always to Ollie, who unfailingly dispensed tea and story leads.
There were always two or three of them, enough with pix to fill the bulk of the tabloid-sized page: the couple celebrating their golden wedding, the young man who’d landed a dream job in London, the proud breeder whose pigeon had won a race from South Wales, the devastated gardener whose leeks, of which he had held such hopes for that year’s show, had been slashed during the night.
Boldon Notes was far from a full-time job. Alec soon found that as well as being the Echo’s reporter in the land between the Wear and the Tyne, attending the Magistrates Court and Quarter Sessions, town council meetings and all the other jobs that needed doing, he had also to become a shipping expert.
Writing In Port by Quayman required a Wednesday afternoon nosing around the Corporation Quay and South Docks, seeing what ships were in, consulting Lloyd’s List to see where they had been and where they were going next, and seeing if he could get aboard to interview the captain.
On one occasion he noticed a weather-worn cargo vessel with a name he could not read but assumed must be in Cyrillic script lying at the Corporation Quay. He approached nervously, was ushered aboard and taken to a cabin where two men stood to greet him.
It was evident straight away that his hosts could speak virtually no English and Alec certainly knew no Russian. Still, some common courtesies can transcend all boundaries and when Alec was offered a glass of what he took to be vodka he accepted with a smile.
“Sheepshandler,” said one of the Russians. Alec looked at him, puzzled. “Sheepshandler,” the man repeated. Alec cottoned on: “Oh, he thinks I’m a ship’s chandler.”
“No, I’m a journalist,” he said, and immediately wished he hadn’t. Alec knew very little about the Soviet Union but had heard lurid tales. If one of the men he had met was the ship’s captain, the other was probably his Communist Party minder.
If they realised he was a reporter they would probably take him for a spy, and then what? In Alec’s wild imagination he saw himself being detained aboard when the ship departed for Leningrad or wherever and then to an uncertain fate somewhere in Siberia.
He hurriedly signalled his apologies and left, as he had heard of reporters on the sleazier nationals saying in other, very different, compromising situations. He was quickly back to the safety of the office, where he was met by the deputy news editor.
“You seem a bit pale and breathless, that’s all.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“No, there’s nothing happening down there. I’ll try again tomorrow.
“OK,” said the deputy news editor. But don’t forget you’ve only got two days to fill the page.”
Of all the roles Alec had thought he might fill during a career in the newspaper trade, one had never crossed his mind. But you never know.
“Lesley and Carol are both on holiday next week,” said the deputy news editor. “We haven’t got anyone to do the Women’s Page. I’d never have let them go at the same time if I’d realised. I want you to fill in as Women’s Editor for a week.”
Alec was taken aback. He had no idea where the start. He didn’t even read the Women’s Page.
“Don’t worry,” said the deputy news editor. “Carol hasn’t left yet. She’ll give you some ideas.”
The following Monday evening, following Carol’s advice, Alec made his way to the church hall where the Townswomen’s Guild was meeting.
“You can’t come in here,” said the chairwoman.
Alec explained who he was and why he was there.
“Oh well, I suppose it’ll be OK.”
Then, turning to the 50 or so mainly middle-aged women, she said in a loud voice:
“This is…what did you say your name was?”
“This is Alec. He’s from the Echo and he is standing in for Lesley and Carol, who are on holiday. I’ve told him he can stay.”
The women looked at Alec with a mix of hostility, suspicion, sympathy and what he flattered himself was interest.
“How did you get on at the TG last night,” the deputy news editor asked Alec, smilingly, next morning at the office.
“What were they talking about?”
“Yes, they’re going through Mrs Beeton learning about various unusual dishes that can be served up for the family. Apparently larks are in season until next month.”
“You never see larks for sale in Sunderland.”
“You only need 12 for the recipe,” said Alec, ludicrously. “Anyway, that’s what they were talking about.”
“Oh well,” said the deputy news editor. “I hope our readers find it interesting.
“They will,” said Alec, smiling to himself. Lark pie might never get eaten on Wearside, but that didn’t mean the idea of it couldn’t be enjoyed. Turning to his typewriter and inserting two sheets of paper separated by a “black”, or carbon paper. He started writing:
“As we women know…”
1 March 1966
When he walked into the office that morning Alec didn’t realise what a formative day it was to be in his career.
“I want you to help me and Gerry with the election for the next month,” said the deputy news editor. It was the day after Prime Minister Harold Wilson had called a general election, which had come as a surprise to many for, though Labour had a virtually unworkable majority of only four, it was a mere 17 months since the previous ballot.
Alec was as surprised as he was thrilled to be put on the Echo’s three-man election team. After all, he was only 18 months into his first newspaper job and still two years from formally qualifying, yet here he was being entrusted with a share of responsibility for what would undoubtedly be one of the biggest stories, if not the biggest, of the year. An interest in politics is what had first drawn him into the newspaper business.
“I’ll look after the Tories, Gerry will do Labour and you can look after the Liberals, as well as any other bits and pieces that come up,” said the deputy news editor. “We’ll give you the byline Our Political Correspondent for the duration.”
This got better and better. “Welcome aboard,” said Gerry, who was chief reporter. He stubbed out a fag, shook Alec’s hand and immediately took Rizla papers and a tobacco pouch from his pocket with nicotine-stained fingers and started rolling another,
And so it was that Alec spent the whole of that month immersed in the election. He wrote constituency and candidate profiles; he reported speeches and controversies; analysed manifestos and opinion polls for their local significance; he even drafted leaders for the editor. He conversed daily with the town’s civic and political establishment and found that they were as keen to talk to him as he was to them.
Thursday 31 March 1966
It was all over bar the counting, and Alec found himself that evening having a pint with a Labour candidate who they were both fairly sure would be re-elected as one of the town’s MPs.
“You can tell me now,” said the politician. “Who did you vote for yourself?”
It was an almost universal perception among politicians, Alec was to discover throughout his career reporting politics, that he always voted for the other side.
“None of you.”
“Really. Why not?”
The political correspondent raised an eyebrow; he suddenly realised the candidate didn’t know.
“I’m not old enough.”