Back to the future

Fifty years on, and I’m not just still reporting ladies’ luncheons clubs, I’m talking to them. A recent invitation reminded me that, half a century later, I’m back to where I started.

When I was a very small girl – four or five – I used to go visiting. On my own. To houses round about, and to old ladies, mainly (who were probably about 50). I spent ages just chatting to them, and one in particular used to let me listen to the sound of the sea in an enormous conche shell which she kept in her china cabinet. She told me her fiance had brought it for her from a distant land: he’d died in the trenches in the First World War. She had never loved anyone else, had never married, but whenever she held that shell she thought of him. It was, she said, her most treasured possession. And I was allowed to hold it, and listen to the magical sound of the sea.
Can you imagine letting a small girl wander the streets in search of a cosy chat nowadays? Of course it never occurred to me for a minute that this was preparation for being a reporter, but the seed of the idea of gathering people’s stories must have been sown at that very young age. And I can remember the moment I decided that was what I wanted to do for a living.
I had three older brothers. The younger one had built a tree house in a massive sycamore in the garden. It was quite an elaborate affair with steps and a door and a roof. It was clearly visible from the road. One day there was a knock on the door – it was a photographer and reporter from our then local evening paper, The Sheffield Star. They interviewed Jeffrey and photographed him. And the story, with a picture of him in the tree house, appeared in the following night’s paper.
It wasn’t a dramatic story by any means, but something about the idea of knocking on people’s doors and asking them to tell you something about themselves must have caught my imagination.
A few years later, there was another defining moment. There was a careers evening at school, and in Room 24 – the English room – was one Mr Tom Watson, editor of the The Star.
I asked for an appointment to see him. “Why do you want to see him?” asked the careers master.
“Because I want to be a journalist,” I replied. He sniggered. “A journalist? You’ll be lucky. You need some brains for that.” I was 14.

I got my interview and I can remember it still. Mr Watson told me that I would have to stay on at school into the sixth form, and do my A levels.

“And will you give me a job if I do?” I asked.
“Well, I’m not sure about that. But I might just give you an interview.”
Two years later, aged 16, my mother decided I had to leave school immediately after ‘O’ levels. She couldn’t afford to keep me on at school; I would have to get a job.
So I wrote to Mr Watson, reminding him of our careers evening encounter, and asked if I could now please have an interview. Amazingly, he said yes, and when I went to see him he was very firm: I had to get my A levels, you couldn’t be a trainee journalist before you were 18, and very soon the industry was going to insist on a university degree.
“I don’t want to be a journalist right this minute,” I said. “I just want to work in a newspaper office. I’ll be an office girl. I’ll run errands or make the tea until I am old enough to start training. I’ll do anything. Just give me a chance.”
He picked up the phone on his desk and spoke to Mr Rees, the personnel office in those days. “I’ve got a little girl in my office and she’s refusing to leave until I give her a job. Can you help?”
Mr Rees appeared. “We don’t have girls running errands,” he said firmly. “We have copy boys to do that.”
“So why can’t I be one of those?” I asked.
“Because they’re boys. Copy boys. We don’t have copy girls,” said the man from personnel.
“But you would if you had me wouldn’t you?” I asked, I thought not unreasonably.
And so it was that I left school on the Friday and became a copy girl on the Monday. By the end of August the boys were outnumbered: we had four copy girls, including me, replacing the four boys who had left.
I like to think I was striking a blow for feminism and women’s rights at an early age,  but in reality it was the same old story: sex. It must suddenly have dawned on all these male journalists – and the newsroom in Sheffield, as anywhere else at that time, was about 90 per cent male – that having smiley, 16-year-old girls running round after them instead of grumpy adolescent boys was a huge improvement. Still, I’d thought of it, not them, so that was something.
This was 1963, which turned out to be one of the biggest news years of the second half of the twentieth century: the year of John Kennedy’s assassination, of the Great Train Robbery, the Profumo affair, the Beeching report, and the beginning of Beatlemania. It felt like an auspicious time to start work as a journalist – especially in Sheffield, which had its very own scandal making the national headlines, the police rhino whip affair, the first widely-publicised incidence of police brutality.
But the main thing for me was that I was realising my ambition: at 16 I was working in a newspaper office, as close as could be to the whole production process which in those days, of course, was very different technically, if not professionally, from what it is now.
I saw copy-takers with their headphones taking dictation from reporters covering courts, council meetings, inquests and inquiries. I read the reports as they came through, and then saw the subeditors working on them – cutting and correcting them, making them fit, checking them for possible libel, and – crucially, when they had time, and they seemed to make time – telling me what thy were doing, and why.
I saw them planning the pages, choosing the lead story, deciding on the typeface style and size: 24-point bodoni, 36 bookman bold, times new roman, helvetica, courier, garamond: headline and body types, indents and paragraphs marked on the copy, all of which had to fit into the rigid page plan. And all of it done, of course, by hand, to be sent to the composing room where it was set on huge Lynotype machines which clattered and whirred and turned out little slugs of lead type, before being made up on “the stone.”
And when, from half-past eleven onwards as the first editions started to roll, you had to go into the print room, you were deafened by the sound of the machinery as thousands of copies rolled off the presses. We had to teeter up iron steps with huge piles of papers in our arms to bring into the office for the journalists to read what they had written and somehow put together in two or three hours. It was a world I never knew existed, but it was a magical one to a 16-year-old schoolgirl who wanted to be one of them.
More than this, though, I saw real  people whose names I had previously only read in the paper, preparing their copy; heard them interviewing people on the phone, heard the news editor pick up the phone on the news desk to take details of a breaking story, saw him pass it with instructions to the reporter.
There was a young writer called Peter Tinniswood, bearded and – to me – intellectual and mysterious, who became shortly afterwards a well-known writer for radio and television. Len Doherty, a former miner, who had written books already and was now writing features for the Star, travelling abroad to cover, on one occasion, the Six Days war. He took me under his wing, invited me to sit on his desk, saying: “If you want to learn how to write, watch me.” It was a bizarre instruction, but it felt like, and indeed was, an enormous privilege. “You’ve got lovely knees,” he once commented. Hmmm . . . so there might have been an ulterior motive.
On one occasion I was handed a brand new book by the reviews editor, Ron Wilkinson, a gentle, grandfatherly, man. It was Sing for Your Supper, by Pamela Frankau, and he asked if I’d like to review it. I’d never reviewed a book in my life; I couldn’t even type – I was still only 16 with no formal office training. Assuming he’d just given it to me as a sort of test, I wrote the review and handed it to him, almost expecting to get it back, marked out of 10.
Four days later, as I was standing putting copy down the chute to the composing room, Mr Wilkinson called across the subs’ desk: “What does it feel like to be top of the pops then, Betsy?” He held up the first edition of that evening’s paper, opened at the book review page. And there, heading all the reviews, was mine – and with my first-ever byline.
I can’t explain what that felt like: to have been considered good enough to actually get my name in the paper, to have my review chosen to lead the page, rather than those written by experienced journalists. There is no doubt in my mind now that this was an act of kindness and encouragement and recognition; part of the learning process I was undergoing, without even realising it. At school I’d been put down, written off, humiliated and made to feel useless academically as well as practically (“You only have to say the name Betsy Whitaker and everything falls apart,” commented one craft teacher – she was right, but you know . . . ) and had left school feeling worse than useless.
To be counted now as part of a professional team – albeit a tiny, insignificant part – meant such a lot. My time as a copy girl on The Star was, I’m sure, the most formative sixteen months of my life. When I think now of the formal, test-driven, monitored, measured and endlessly examined route into and through so many careers, it seems astonishing that I learned so much, just through absorption and observation and what I can only describe as nurturing, of and by a body of totally professional and committed people. And yes, of course, we were young, innocent girls in a man’s world, and we did have our share of teasing (and worse) by a few, but the majority were pleased and proud to pass on their knowledge and expertise.
I’m convinced that it was seeing the writing and editing and sub-editing process at firsthand that gave me the understanding of the need for simple, clear, accurate communication, whether in writing for newspapers, for industry, for the public sector or for broadcast. It has given me, also, a deep loathing of the needlessly obscure, the pompous and the verbose.
As is so often the case, it was through this humble beginning that the bigger things followed. One of the sub-editors, Dennis Walsh, moved to Doncaster as a district reporter. When he heard the local weekly paper, the Doncaster Gazette, was looking for a junior reporter to train, he not only rang to tell me, he also put a word in for me with the then editor.
I got the job, leaving home with a heavy heart at 17 years old to live in digs – a ghastly experience. I was terribly homesick.
Never mind, I was officially now an indentured, trainee reporter, going to college one day a week to work towards my proficiency test, and covering everything from the coroner’s court to school speech days; flower shows, jumble sales, parish councils, funerals and weddings.
And yes – the inevitable ladies’ luncheon clubs. More precisely, the Doncaster Conservative Women’s Luncheon Club and the Don Valley Conservative Women’s luncheon club. I don’t think Socialists existed in Mr Dutton’s world, but if they did they obviously didn’t eat.
I moved from the modern, purpose-built, open-plan Sheffield Star office, to a dingy back-street building with a rickety wooden staircase at the top of which was, on one side, the newsroom (about the size of an average living-room) and on the other, the editor’s office. It was, to my eyes, Dickensian, a step back in time. It was a small office in a small town, a long way from home – or so it seemed. I wasn’t impressed, but there was plenty to do and plenty to learn.
Then one day I was called into the editor’s office.
“Your mother’s been on the ‘phone,” he said. “She’s very worried that you don’t seem to have a social life so I’ve enrolled you in the Young Conservatives and the Young Farmers’ Club. They have dances and socials and you’ll meet a lot of nice young people.”
“But I’m not a farmer and I’m a member of CND. I can’t be a Conservative,” I protested.
“Well, you can give up the CND nonsense for a start,” was the response. And he gave me details of the next meetings of both organisations, and a little card for each. I didn’t mention that, thanks to the handsome young sports reporter, my social life was actually on the up. And I certainly didn’t tell my mother. But I never did get to either of those meetings.
One of the chores that had to be done, and that fell to me as the most junior member of staff, was the laborious one of writing up the wedding forms. Brides-to-be would complete them, send them in, and at the appropriate date I would write the report and file it in the subs’ tray. “The bride, who wore a cream satin dress with a 15-foot taffeta train and mother of pearl headdress, carried a bouquet of red roses, lily-of-the-valley, and stephanotis.” There was always  stephanotis. “After the wedding the couple left in a vintage Bentley for a honeymoon in Brighton.” Week after boring week this dismal ritual went on.
One day, the inevitable happened: I put my completed report in the subs’ tray a week early. All hell broke loose: the bride’s family was on the ‘phone, complaining that not only had the secret of the wedding dress been revealed, but anxious guests had ’phoned from far and wide to ask how they’d missed the wedding? Another time, I got the wrong church or the wrong groom, or some wretched detail had gone astray, and the furore that ensued made the current phone hacking scandal look like a tea party.
In disgrace, I was summoned to see the deputy editor, who was also the chief sub-editor (of two, I might say). Not in his office, which was at the top of a flight of stairs, but – curiously – in a sort of basement room.
“Come in my dear,” he leered, with his bulging, frog-like eyes, flabby jowls and nicotine-stained teeth. “Close the door. Now, come and tell Uncle ***** all about it.” (I swear I am not making this up). He patted his knee and, at his creepy invitation, I sat on it. I don’t know what possessed me, other than that he was, after all, my boss, and how on earth was I supposed to register my protest? He had the wedding forms at his side, and I knew I was in trouble. “Now, my dear, why are you making all these silly mistakes? Is it boyfriend trouble, perhaps? Have you got a boy friend even. . . ?” and on and on it went, and he began to stroke my leg and kiss my hair.
Some instinct of self-preservation must have kicked in because I did then stand up, and say something to the effect that he couldn’t do this, and I would have to tell my mum. I fled the room.
I told no-one in the office, fearing they wouldn’t believe me, and that if they did they probably would see nothing wrong in it, and when I told my mum at the weekend when I went home, her reply was, for the time, fairly standard: “Just steer clear of him in future. You don’t want people to think you’re trouble.” Yes – that was probably par for the course: if a man, even an old and ugly man, got his hands on you, it was almost certainly your fault.
Another time, I was called into the editor’s office – again. This time for an exciting assignment. “Alma Cogan is coming to the Playhouse,” he informed me. “Her agent is offering an interview. Would you like to do it?”
Would I like to? This would be the first really famous person I had ever met. I think at the time – this was 1964 and just a couple of years, incredibly, before she died – Alma Cogan was the highest paid, most consistently successful, singing star in the country.
I was so excited, and as the day drew near, it has to be said, a little bit nervous. Then, the day before I was due to see her, the editor called for me again.
“I’m afraid the interview with Miss Cogan is off,” he said. I asked why, but there was no explanation. I simply couldn’t do it.
I went back into the tiny newsroom and told colleagues my sad news. “And nobody will tell me why,” I wailed.
“It’s because she bats for the other side love,” said an old hack who’d been there from the year dot, and who made no secret of his own sexuality.
I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about and told him so. “She’s queer. Like me – only a woman!” and he chortled fit to burst.
“Rumour has it she’s a lesbian, but nobody knows. It’s just a rumour,” said the sober-sided news editor from his seat at the top of the office. “Now let’s hear no more about it and get on with your work.” I heard no more about it, because I had no idea what a lesbian was and didn’t think I wanted the details.
At that time, at 17 , I was frequently sent to interview people in the back streets of Doncaster and surrounding towns and pit villages: in the high-rise flats that were springing up all over the centre and which had replaced the terraced slums. I had to knock on the doors of complete strangers, sometimes after a murder or a stabbing or at very least, a funeral.
I would be sent to cover council meetings in Rossington, Thorne, Adwick-le-Street and Armthorpe, often at night, waiting afterwards in the dark to catch the last bus into town, and out again to my lodgings in the middle of a council estate.
Nobody gave a thought for my safety – yet the merest whisper that Alma Cogan was a lesbian (never proved, as far as I know) clearly put me at mortal risk.
I was indentured to the Doncaster Gazette for three years, which meant under normal circumstances I would not have left until 1967. But by some strange quirk of fate, only about a year after I arrived, the paper changed hands. It was owned at the time by Thomson Newspapers, who also owned the Sheffield Star.
One day a group of bigwigs came to the office to explain what was happening. The other trainee reporter and myself were given new contracts: all we had to do, we were told, was to sign on the dotted line and our indentures would be transferred.
“Sorry, no. I don’t want to,” I said. “I want to stay with Thomson Newspapers.”
“You can’t,” I was told. “You have to sign the new contract or your training can’t continue.” But I knew they were wrong. I knew that Thomson Newspapers were legally bound to continue my training – and the nearest Thomson newspaper office was, of course, The Star in Sheffield, my actual and spiritual home.
So at 18, I went back to Tom Watson, explained what I had done and asked if I could return to the fold.
“I don’t suppose there’s any point in arguing with you, is there?” he asked. There wasn’t – and so, barely a year after leaving as a copy girl, I was back as a reporter, albeit still a trainee, and still without any A levels.
I was assigned to a mentor – not such an alien concept as I’d imagined in the 1960s. He was called Jack Dodd, a big, burly bear of a man, six-foot-two and looking quite fierce. “Just sit by me and listen and watch,” he said. His first ‘phone call was to an RAF press officer, who was obviously not giving him the information he wanted. I could hear the conversation getting increasingly heated, until in the end Jack bawled down the ‘phone: “Don’t you bloody well swear at me you silly bugger,” and he slammed the ‘phone down so hard it bounced off the desk.
“Shall I get you a cup of tea, Mr Dodd?” I asked timidly.
“It’s Jack,” he snapped. “It’s not Mr Dodd any more. You’re not a copy girl now. You’re a reporter.”
And that was such a difficult hurdle to clear: all the subs, all the reporters, I had known by their surnames and Mr, Mrs or Miss. To now start calling them by their Christian names was incredibly hard to do. With some of them, I never could.
It was here that my training really began. Again, on-the-job training, doing it and making mistakes. Going to council meetings that would last until one or two in the morning, covering courts cases, and inquests, and human interest stories. Sheffield in those days was such a newsy area there was always a story to cover – and you did it, not on the phone, but by going visiting: just as I had as a small child.
But there was, as in every office, always the job that nobody wanted, and in Sheffield at the time it was this: a young, idealistic British lecturer called Gerald Brooke, was held in a Soviet prison for four years for distributing “subversive” literature in Moscow. In 1969 he was eventually freed in exchange for the release of two Soviet spies, Peter and Helen Kroger, members of the infamous Portland spy ring in the 60s.
His mother lived in a small terrace house in Sheffield. After Gerald was imprisoned many newspapers tried to get an interview with her, but she was having none of it. It was a high profile case at the time of the Cold War and caused major problems in East West relations. No wonder she didn’t want to say anything.
A female reporter who had been at school with, I think, either Gerald or his wife, went to see Mrs Brooke one day, on the pretext of being a friend of the family and omitting to mention that she was also a journalist.
The two women chatted away and Mrs Brooke was furious when, the next day, the story was splashed all over the papers. She felt, not surprisingly, deeply betrayed and said she’d never speak to the press again.
But newspapers are nothing if not persistent and the Star never gave up. Every month after that they sent a reporter to knock on Mrs Brooke’s door and seek an interview. She never gave one.
Everybody hated doing it, and as the new kid on the block, inevitably the chore fell to me. I knocked on the door, told her who I was and where I was from. Like the rest, I was sent packing. “I don’t talk to the press,” she had said, before shutting the door in my face.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The following month I had to go again. I didn’t drive so had to get a taxi, which waited outside. This time, there was no reply when I knocked on the door. Instead, Mrs Brooke’s next door neighbour, hearing the knock, came out. She opened Mrs Brooke’s door and shouted for her: “Mrs B. It’s that little girl from the Star again.” I was about to scuttle off in embarrassment, fearful of a tongue-lashing from the long-suffering old lady. But to my surprise she came to the door and asked what I wanted.
I asked, nervously, had she heard from Gerald – who was, of course in a Soviet labour camp. Yes, she said, she had had a letter from him. What did it say, I ventured?
“Oh,” she said. “He’s quite poorly.” He had a bowel disorder and was losing weight. I probed a bit more, and she just kept talking. He was carving chess men, she said, and because he was such a perfectionist he couldn’t bear not to carve them properly. His food rations, however, depended on the number of chess men he carved each day. And because he couldn’t bear to compromise his standards and carve more, he was slowly starving.
I knew it was a good story, but didn’t dare get out my notebook to write a single line. I just stood at the door, transfixed, as she told me more and more – about how she felt, how worried she was, how much she wanted him home. When I got back to the office the news desk were thrilled. “But I didn’t take any notes,” I said.
“At all? No notes at all?”
“No. But I can remember every word.” They trusted me, I wrote the story, and it became my first front-page splash the very next day. I was terrified at first that there’d be a backlash, that Mrs Brooke would accuse me of cheating and not telling her who I was. But then I remembered the words of her neighbour: “It’s that little girl from The Star” and I knew instinctively that Mrs Brooke knew exactly who I was and why I was there, and she wanted the story published. It was nothing to do with gaining her trust, or talking her round – I had just been in the right place at the right time. I went several more times, and each time I came away with a story, but I never, ever, made a note.
My other job as a trainee was, strangely, for a very square teenager, to fill the monthly pop magazine, Top Stars Special. It was all about music, local groups, visiting stars – everything that bored me rigid. I just wasn’t that kind of girl. However, it did mean I made the very early acquaintance of Peter Stringfellow, who at that time ran a nightclub in the seedier part of Sheffield. There were stories of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, and my mother was hysterical every time I went near the place, which was about twice a month.
Needless to say, though, I worked hard, got the interviews, and – once or twice – actually got to sleep with Peter Stringfellow’s wife. But that’s another story.

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One thought on “Back to the future

  1. A brilliant description of journalism for women in the 60s and 70s. Very entertaining and a reminder of what we took for granted as we tried to make careers in a macho environment.
    I had to battle to be allowed to do court reporting, because crime wasn’t a suitable subject for “girls.”
    Crimes of incest, now called paedophilia, were banned from the paper. It wasn’t the sort of thing people wanted to read about over their ham and eggs, explained the news editor.
    The features editor gave me a big break by asking me to write about the problems women had coping with monthly “women’s problems.” I was gutted when he rejected it, saying he couldn’t possibly publish the word menstruation. I had to rewrite it, referring to the curse, or monthlies. I did it dutifully, without questioning his wisdom.

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