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'Enemy is all around' for staff from the weekly brigade

Another light-hearted entry in our recent contest to write about the dangers of journalism came from John Turner, ex-Western Gazette, Bristol Evening Post and, lately of the Clitheroe Advertiser and Times.

The countdown has begun to the day when I move into a former goatherd’s shack under the glowing sun of the Costa Blanca and at last contemplate the reality of having survived 45 years in the most dangerous area of British journalism.

Cowardice and knowing exactly the right time to run have been two of the reasons why I have survived a career which has claimed far better men and women than I.

Forget the bullet-ravaged streets of Beirut. Don’t think about the bomb-torn towns of Northern Ireland. Palestine, Korea, Vietnam, Kampuchea, Bosnia, the Falklands, the Gulf War.

Eat your heart out Kate Adie, these are package holidays compared to the risks faced by the small army of weekly newspaper journalists.

War correspondents, bolstered by grand expense accounts, are usually working from within a safety net of well-equipped, well-trained and friendly troops and the enemy is often easily identified.

For the boys and girls of the weekly brigade the enemy is all around.

Readers, advertisers, editors, sub-editors, publishers, circulation departments, editorial conferences, competitor publications. Not to mention the temptations of the demon drink. These have all been the enemy of the innocent hack whose driving force has been the phrase “You are only as good as your last story” or the worry about the source of the next half of best bitter.

There have been some hairy moments.

Like the morning Big Sid the bookie walked with me from court after receiving a hefty fine for tax evasion.

“It’s worth a pony to you if it doesn’t go in the paper,” said Big Sid.

I told him I only had a very small garden. He was not happy.

The underworld of the Westcountry would regularly make the demand: “How much is it for GBH?”

My reply of “Could be two years” would fall on stony ground.

It took time to dawn on me that they thought there was a sliding scale of how much it would cost to keep the report of their case out of the paper – something like 20 guineas for illegal activities with farm animals down to 30 shillings for causing a breach of the peace.

Those moments were not easy. You knew you only had three fingers that were any good on the old Remington. You just hoped the villains didn’t know which three.

It was the pure unpredictability of the job which has been alarming.

I remember calling on a railway porter who had won £75,000 on the pools.

I thought I would be calling on a house of happiness and receive a smiling welcome – and, maybe, a glass of port.

He chased me down the road with a shovel!

It was times like these which taught me when to cut and how fast to run.

Fortunately, modern journalists rarely have to go through the depressing task of taking names of mourners at church doors.

These jobs, too, had their moments of danger. A colleague once fell in an empty grave while trying to read the inscription on a floral tribute.

I shivered with terror when a large, elderly moustachioed County Alderman snarled when, having been given her surname, I asked “Mr or Mrs?”.

Let’s drink a toast to the brave lads and lasses of the local weeklies for lifetimes of unflinching heroism.

Whose round is it…?

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