The reason I learned shorthand is that for a period of my early career I didn’t have it. I arrived at the Dagenham Post at the age of 19 and signed indentures – a kind of 19th century apprenticeship – after a six-month probation period.
As part of my indentures I was to be sent on two block release courses of two months each, a year apart. By the time I arrived at Harlow Technical College I had a total of 18 months in the job without shorthand. In an office where everyone was under 25, you had to learn fast. So you “got by” in your note taking – and not well. I don’t like to think how many stories I wrote with only one quote and a lot of indirect speech.
On my return to the office I had a very basic grounding in shorthand, but soon it was short cuts rather than shorthand. A year later and two more months of Teeline but, to my embarrassment, I barely got above 40 words a minute. Without the required 100 wpm, of course, there would be no proficiency certificate. Well, I don’t think James Cameron had shorthand – you will see the immediate flaw in that cocky self-delusion. I was not then, nor am I now, James Cameron or anything like.
The big problem was that I had got used to circumventing or ignoring the problem. Fortunately I was never called on to produce my notes for a court case or give a judge’s full remarks verbatim.
After four years of successfully hiding my failing I was offered a job at the Cambridge Evening News. One of my first jobs was covering a speech by the new Cambridge University vice-chancellor. She talked in long, flowing sentences that became sharp clear paragraphs, which expressed complex, intellectually coherent ideas about the future of the university and her interesting, important plans for that future. Unfortunately, my attempts to record them in my notebook rendered them into a bitty, inaccurate gibberish. I had been caught out.
A few months later, and one failed job application to the Press Association because of inadequate shorthand, and I bought the cassettes and practised Ted Heath’s speeches until I finally became competent in Teeline. I paid to take exams and got 80 wpm – not perfect, but over the years it has become an invaluable tool that I still use every day. I wish I had got the 100. Of course there are tape recorders and mobile phones. There are also trains, boats and planes, but everyone takes their driving test because most of the time you drive yourself. Once learned, shorthand is there as a basic support forever; learn it because you’re worth it.
- Chris Elliott is readers’ editor at the Guardian and chair of the NCTJ’s accreditation board.