When I first arrived at the Tribune, it was everything I simultaneously hoped and feared a national paper would be. The wit, the crackle of purpose in the newsroom, the in-at-the-deep-end demand for performance, the loud squalls of dysfunctionality, the alarming lunchtime drinking – and, above all, a proper Fleet Street editor who put every stereotype in the shade.
It’s not actually true that journalists are cynical; at least, not the senior ones. During the time that Pope John Paul II was seriously ill, the editor burst from his office at one stage, demanding (at full volume, as ever): “WHAT NEWS OF THE HOLY FATHER?” A couple of people thought he might be joking and laughed nervously. Staring round his newsroom in incredulity that not everybody was as transfixed by the drama as he was, he bellowed: “I’M MOVED BY THIS!” and disappeared back into the office.
He was obsessed with football, cricket, skiing, climbing and racing, and was constantly round at the sports desk. The sports department, in the best football traditions, called the head of the section “The Gaffer”, and such was his respect for matters sporting that the editor did too, with the result that the leader of a national newspaper with nine years’ tenure, who held the entire newsroom in a sort of high-adrenaline thrall, was frequently to be seen appearing round the corner of the Tribune’s L-shaped newsroom inquiring plaintively “WHERE’S THE GAFFER?”
He was a former sub of great repute on the Tribune’s sister paper and spent far more time on the back bench than he did in his office (and demanded, expected and got far more from his subs than any other editor I’ve worked for*). On the day John Paul II died, rather than amble out from his office near deadline to see how things were going, he plonked himself straight down next to his long-suffering chief sub, demanded from the picture desk a cutout of the elderly Pope, standing windswept and fragile on a dais with his hand aloft in blessing, and proceeded to assemble the Tribune’s memorial front page around it. “IN, PEARSON, IN! ZOOM RIGHT F@%£ING IN! RIGHT! NOW PUT A 24-POINT BLACK BORDER ROUND IT!”**
Press days were stressful, infuriating and prone to dramatic changes of course in mid-afternoon, making the paper so late that the production staff were almost tearful with remonstration (“I KNOW! I KNOW! WORST DAY OF MY LIFE!”), but they never felt like anything less than an event. When he eventually resigned, six years ago now, the subs’ desk made a presentation booklet for him, full of in-jokes and disrespectful reminiscences, and someone tried to capture the essence of those frantic Saturdays in a page. I’m not sure who it was: although most of us signed our contributions, this one was wisely anonymous. But every word you’re about to read is true. More or less.
Ah, this brings back the memories. And the tension headaches.
9:30am I’m probably unbelievably stupid, but this Focus piece isn’t working. (turning to chief designer) Caz? Caz! We need a f@%£ing huge picture of Kate Moss here!
10.15am Paulo, what’s the latest on General Pips? This standfirst isn’t working. Pearso, this spread is in the wrong place – it should be on 7 and 8. (murmured dissent) It’s simple, just move some ads! (murmured dissent) I’ll f@%£ing well do it myself!
10.55am Gaffer! Gaffer? Gaffer! What won the 1.45 at Wincanton? @%£*&^!&@!!
12.04pm (preparing errand for long-suffering administrator) Edie! Edie? Edie! Here’s a ton – Mulho Star, 2.40 at Plumpton, on the nose. Forget Azertyuiop on that Yankee, shove it all on Mulho Star… What?… No! It’s so simple a biscuit could understand!
1.17pm Page three? Page three? (to news desk) Boffey! Boffey? Boffey! What’s on page three?
3.25pm Thank f@%£, it’s the trolley. (approaches tea trolley) Haven’t you got any of those nice squidgy doughnuts with the custard in the middle and jam all over the outside? And I’ll have four oranges, three bananas and a kumquat. And a large tea. Here’s a 50. Keep the change.
4.24pm (approaching picture desk) Greg! Gregster! (applies vigorous shoulder massage) Where are those gorgeous snaps of Kate Moss with Mandela and the alligator? Just keep looking! Jimbo, weren’t you showing me them earlier? You must remember!
5.09pm Caz? Caz! There’s a fabulous f@%£ing Kate picture here … Nobody ever listens to me, but I think we should go for a 4-1 on the front, but we have to have a column five.
5.57pm No! No! It’s very simple. The lead is khaki and that turns to 7 and the off-lead is rape with a f@%£ing huge turn to 2, and we’ll take in the Kate pic – big, Pearson, f@%£ing huge! – on 2 as well, and if the turn doesn’t fit just make some f@%£ing room on 12. It’s so easy! Look, I’ll do it myself!
6.47pm Never mind the bloody regionals. Come and have a glass of champagne and don’t be such a f@%£ing killjoy.
* “Horses let you down more frequently than subs. Just.”
** There really was quite a lot of swearing in those days. To preserve the feelings of a family audience, I’ve used the time-honoured device of rendering the f-word as its initial letters followed by a series of colourful non-alphabetic characters. However, you may agree with Charlotte Brontë that “the practice of hinting by single letters those expletives … however well meant, is weak and futile. I cannot tell what good it does – what feeling it spares.” If so, you may wish to avert your eyes from what follows.