Peter Steward's Web Site
Back in the mid 1970s I began to write a story about life on a small provincial weekly paper in a seaside resort. Although the resort is fictitious, the story was based very loosely on my first job in a Suffolk coastal resort.
I cam across the story again recently written on old scraps of paper in a folder hidden amongst a load of rubbish. I was also lucky (or unlucky) to find other scraps of writing which I also intend putting on the Internet.
If you are reading this one please be patient with me as I am having to type it all up from scratch and it is likely to take some time. I will therefore put it on a chapter at a time.
As yet the story has no title. So, for what it's worth, here it is.
© Peter Steward 2002
There are certain days in a person's life
that are destined to be remembered for ever. The first day at school, marriage
and the birth of the first child are just a few of these.
Numbered amongst them must also be the first
day at work. You arrive smart and ready to do business, but at the same time
very unsure about just what is going on.
Eight hours later you leave looking rather
dishevelled, with clothes slightly out of place and by this time you are feeling
totally unsure of yourself. All the confidence of the early morning has been
destroyed. The first day at work has that unique ability of bringing you down to
earth with a resounding bump.
So it was with my first day at work on the
Journal. The first of many days I would and could never forget.
I was rather late. I knew it only too well,
having run all the way from the railway station, stopping only to ask my way to
the newspaper office. Unfortunately the rather rotund reporter who led me up the
stairs was also well aware of my hurried arrival and was obviously itching to
point it out.
I was trying to be philosophical about the
matter. What do they expect? After all it was my first day and I had never been
one to hold punctuality up as a virtue.
"You're rather late aren't you
son?" he asked pointing at his watch with a superior air.
This man mountain had long, thin arms and I
could tell by a quick glance at his watch that it was more than five minutes
fast. I could visualise him sitting in the office as I arrived and moving his
watch forwards so he could expose me for the heinous villain he believed me to
be. Pointing at his watch also seemed to underline the fact that I wasn't
wearing one of my own.
"No watch then son. You won't get far
here without a watch. Never know whether you coming or going so to speak."
I half smiled to myself and muttered
something about losing my last watch in a card game. Man mountain was acting the
classic hard talking journalist - the kind that outside the trade is the
expected norm. Journalists think that they are hard talking people. The fact
that I came across many quiet, inoffensive men and women in the trade never
really seemed to register. Nevertheless I felt I ought to make some kind of
apology to this person.
"My train was late," I replied half
in a whisper, not wanting to tell him that the main reason for my late arrival;
was that I had dropped my keys down a grating at the railway station and had to
enlist the help of a good natured station officer with a handy piece of wire.
Afterwards I had to listen to him explaining that his days as a safe breaker had
made him very handy with an ordinary piece of wire.
Losing the keys was the latest in a long line
of accidents stretching back to a very early age. It still pained me to think of
the occasion at the age of eight when I had tumbled off a tri-cycle. All my
friends had spanking new two wheelers, but my mother insisted that a
three-wheeler was safer for me. Of course they all coped very well with their
two wheels, while I continued to fall off. On one particular day when attempting
to break the land speed record, I had to be pulled out from underneath a mass of
springs, wheels and metal.
Still back to the present and here I was on
my first day in a new job, full of enthusiasm and ready to set the world alight
and telling myself that confidence was all I needed to take away my reputation
as the person who gets everything wrong.
The man mountain brought me down to earth
with another glance at his watch.
"It's not like the 8.30 to be late son.
Surely if British Rail were aware you were coming they would have been early now
All his comments seemed to end in a sarcastic
question. I ignored the sarcasm. I had only known this person for a few minutes
but had already taken a dislike to him. Sarcasm was something I would get used
to over the next few months and Tony Willson was one of the great users and
abusers of the science.
"My name's Willson," he said.
"That's Willson with two ls and not the common person. You see I am quite
an uncommon person. You could say I'm an el of a person."
He sniggered. Obviously bad jokes were
another of his problems.
"Yes you can say I'm an el of a
"You can say that again," I replied
under my breath but obviously just loud enough for him to hear.
"Tread carefully son I heard that
remark. One thing I don't tolerate is cheek from junior reporters. Don't forget
I'm pretty important in this office. I am not a person to be ignored.
I understood only too well. Tony Willson was
one of those people you can't ignore but for whom your feelings fall far short
of adoration and the awe he expected. He stood about 6ft. 4 in tall, weighed
well over 16 stone and was built more like a Canadian lumberjack than a humble
small town reporter. A bulldozer of a man who constantly told people that Fleet
Street was waiting for him. If you ask me Fleet Street was trying desperately to
ignore him. He did make the capital some months later - but that's another
"Well son the old boy won't be too happy
about your non appearance at the appointed hour. I'd offer to make him a cup of
tea if I was you. He usually has one about now and it will get you in his good
books. I suppose you can make tea?"
"Yes I can," I replied trying to
hide the embarrassment I was obviously feeling and showing. You see I still
remembered the day I put salt instead of sugar in Aunt Mabel's afternoon brew.
"Salt in the porridge, sugar in the
tea," she had pointed out.
Anyway the plain fact was that I was
accident-prone and Tony Willson, as I soon found out, was always willing to give
you advice. The kind of advice that got you into trouble rather than sorting
It must be time for an explanation about who
I am, and what I was doing in what appeared at first glance to be a dreadful
It must be time for an explanation about who
I am, and what I was doing in what appeared at first glance to be a dreadful
My name is Bertrand Ayres. Well that's my
official name, but I never quite took to being called Bertrand or Bertie and so
for many years had been known by my middle name of Eric.
The change was helped on its way at school
thanks to numerous boring jokes surrounding my initials - B.E.A. As far as I was
concerned British European Airways had a lot to answer for. I soon became fed up
with the obvious jokes that came from classmates and so buried the Bertrand part
of the name.
That was all in the past, however. I never
liked school, but used it as a launching pad for my future career. So I achieved
my A levels, dropped the Bertrand once and for all and set about finding a new
So off I went to journalism college without a
care in the world and happy to be living 80 miles from home and determined to
have a final pleasure fling before settling down as one of the world's wage
earners - such is the immaturity of youthful thoughts.
After a year at college and struggling
through all the necessary qualifications I found myself at the Journal office
armed with a notebook, a great number of pens and very little common sense.
My stay at college had been a mixture of bad
jokes - told mainly by myself - and sarcastic remarks - directed mainly at me by
various tutors. Nevertheless I survived which is more than can be said for the
cars I owned during that 12 month period. The first had a fight with a tree on
what I told everyone had been a trunk road. The second was driven straight
through the front of a garage. I never could find reverse gear. A friend had
offered to put it away for me but I had refused, missed reverse, found second
gear and shot into the brickwork.
The result of all that was I left college
carless, careless and penniless. Hence the fact that on my first day at work in
this sleepy, wintry seaside town I was forced to use the massed might of British
Rail to get to my destination.
I had no idea about what to expect from the
newspaper office, but whatever I expected couldnít have been further from the
Willson knocked quietly on the door marked
"Editor". This in itself made me feel uneasy. Wilson didn't seem the
kind of person who would knock quietly on any door and weren't newspaper offices
supposed to be a place of hustle and bustle? No Willson was more of the
bulldozing kind of guy. After a few seconds there was what could only be
described as a grunt from the other side of the door and Willson took this as a
sign to enter. Like the dutiful youngster that I was I followed expecting to see
a monster with two heads. The editor was in fact seated at his desk with his
nose firmly in that day's edition of the Times. I was soon to find out that he
spent much of the day in a similar posture.
I never found out whether this man did any
work during the day, but I was continually told by people outside the office
what a "wonderfully hard working" man he was. Perhaps this was a case
of reality not co-inciding with the myth. It was certainly a statement
that those who knew him well took with a pinch of salt. On this first morning he
was no different towards me than he would be on any day during my stay on the
Willson pointed to a chair opposite him.
"Sit there son. He can't bite your head
off from that distance."
I sat down and waited. Waited was certainly
the word as he continued to read his paper. He must have been in the middle of a
very important and in-depth article, as neither he nor the paper seemed to move
and it must have been 10 minutes before I realised from his rhythmic breathing
that he was asleep.
What was I to do? How could I wake him up
without it seeming obvious? Wilson had told me that Shad Greene was not a man to
Then another thought struck me. The poor man
might be ill. He might have had a heart attack or something equally as
disastrous. I stared at the closed door and became very aware of somebody or
something watching me from the main reportersí room.
The editor's office was fairly small and was
an area partitioned off from the main reporters room. At the top of the wood
panelling there was a window running around the entire office and, as my eyes
wandered upwards, I caught my first glimpse of four people in the reportersí
room staring at me and silently giggling to themselves.
One of them was Willson. I had already
secretly summed up his character as something of a bully. The others were my new
colleagues. Three people, very different, who at this early stage of my career
just seemed like childish gigglers.
I decided there was no future sitting in the
office with this man who was either asleep or ill. On top of this I didn't
appreciate having four pairs of eyes staring at me, particularly when I would
imagine they had been through the same ridiculous ritual on their first days. So
I decided to go into the reporters' room to find out what was happening.
I very quietly shut the door so as not to
awaken Mr Greene, whom I now assumed was asleep. I suppose I spoke to Tony
Willson as he was the only one of the quartet that I had already spoken to.
"What's up with the editor. He seems to
be asleep or even ill. Don't you think something should be done?"
"Oh don't worry about it mate,"
replied a youth who looked about my
age but who I later found out was 10 years my elder. "He's asleep. I expect
he's sleeping it off."
"Sleeping what off?" I enquired.
"You'll get used to it mate. The old boy
still tries to bask in his former glory. I expect when he wakes up he'll show
you his cuttings book, but really he's just a sad old duffer who lives in the
past. The problem is the old devil drinks a bottle of wine before he comes to
work. It then takes him about two hours to sleep it off. Don't worry about the
Times newspaper. He never reads it. It's just a cover. He thinks we don't know
what's going on. You'll get used to it. The best thing is to ignore him."
"But you said he would be angry that I
was late," I said turning to Willson.
"Oh that's just a little joke son. The
old man's usually so pickled in the morning he never knows what time we come in.
If I were you I'd sit down at your desk over there and wait for him to summon
you. That way he'll think you've been here all day. Create a good impression if
you know what I mean.
"He only takes the Times because itís
the largest of the dailies and therefore he can make it less obvious that he is
asleep. Occasionally if you catch him just as he's waking up he'll try and
discuss some article. It's usually something from the previous day's edition. We
reckon he has a quick look through in the evening to prepare himself for the
next day. We believe that his real reading tastes are more towards the Sun or
the Mirror but firstly they wouldn't completely cover his face and secondly
nobody in his position would claim to read that rubbish for two hours without a
So I sat down to wait. Nobody took much
notice of me. Willson spent the time playing with a ruler and marking out what I
later learned was his special column for the paper and one he cherished greatly.
It was a column that the other reporters were not allowed to write for without
his specific permission. It was essentially a gossip column despite the fact
that there isn't too much gossip in such a small seaside town.
Willson was not adverse, however, to letting
others do his dirty work in making phone calls to people who didn't want to talk
to you or making visits to hospitals and other unpleasant places. Often you
would end up doing all the hard work just to give him your notes which he would
write up and then claim the stories as his own as he wrote what he felt
were "top class articles exposing the great under belly of the town."
The youth seemed to be interested in a race
between two maggots round the inside of an ash tray. He planned to set light to
the loser. The other two members of staff appeared nondescript.
The girl was reasonably attractive, but
seemed to have little idea about how to dress. She wore a baggy summer creation,
which drowned what could otherwise have been a shapely pair of legs.
The remaining desk was occupied by a fairly
elderly man. He had obviously consumed a delicious breakfast of fried bacon and
eggs as most of it seemed to be down his pullover.
There was an unnatural silence about the
office. I had always imagined a newspaper office to be a place of activity with
the clatter of typewriters and the rolling of the presses. It seemed that on
this small weekly paper I was wrong. The typewriters did not clatter until well
after 10 a.m and the printing presses were situated in a building 10 miles away.
Precisely at 10 a.m the elderly chap rose
from his chair and muttered something about going to court.
So that in general was the office I had come
to. Shad Greene was the editor, and the others were Tony Willson, Jack Burkitt,
the elderly one, Robin Ashton, the youth
and Louise Quinn, the girl.
After a further 15 minutes of twiddling my
thumbs there was the sound of stirring from the editor's office.
"Hello the old boys coming round,"
said Willson with more than a hint of contempt in his voice.
Shad Greene stood up, tottered over ever so
slightly, gripped the edge of his desk and shouted in a loud drawl.
"Willson where's that new chap. Isn't he
Willson grimaced and turned to me.
"You'd better go in son and remember
offer to make him a cup of tea."
I nodded and walked to the door and tapped on
"Can't hear you," came the voice
from inside. This in itself seemed to be rather a silly statement as he had
obviously heard me, but I'm assuming he was trying to make a point in some way.
I knocked louder.
"Okay, okay, no need to knock the door
I walked into the room and saw that Greene
had sat down again and was in his former position with the Times covering his
face. He slowly lowered it, folded it lovingly and placed it on the table. For
the first time I could see his face. I would estimate that he was in his late
50s and totally bored with his existence and life in general.
"Damn good paper that," he said
pointing at the Times. "The day you write like that is the day I will
recognise you as a reporter. I hope you're better than the rest we have here.
What you need is to read the Times every morning like me and someday you'll be
as good as me. Listen lad you play your cards right and I might show you my
I had the distinct idea that it didn't matter
how I played my cards. I was certainly due for a view of this cuttings book
whether I liked it or not. I cringed at the thought but somehow managed to force
a smile as I said:
"Thank you sir. I look forward to
"It's well worth the wait lad, well
worth the wait."
Apart from a slight slurring of his words,
there weren't many signs that he had been drinking.
"Now let's see you are Bertrand. Strange
kind of name for a youngster aint it?"
I cringed for a second time but somehow
managed smile as he spoke again.
"Yes strange name that. How old are
"Too bloody young. Listen son do you
know how old I was when I entered the profession. I was 26 and that's too early
to start. Thirty four is a good age. Wish I was 34 again. Good age that. You
know exactly where you are going and what you are doing. Do you know where you
are going lad?"
I shook my head. By this time I was totally
"No well you wouldn't at 19 would
I was beginning to learn that as often as not
he ended a statement with a question, but then I suppose he was interviewing me
for the first time as I had been given the job by the paper's owner and Greene
had not been on the interview panel - perhaps it had something to do with the
interview being at 10 in the morning.
By this time I was feeling very depressed. It
was at this point I remembered Willson's advice.
"Excuse me sir would you like a cup of
It was a straightforward question and I was
rather proud of myself for asking it. It could have come straight from the pages
of the best selling book "How to win friends and influence people."
Instead of being grateful, however, it seemed to have the opposite effect on
"What the hell do I want with a cup of
tea at this time of the morning. Never touch the stuff until midday."
I sank back in my chair wondering what I
could do or say to get him on my side. I decided in the end just to sit there
and let him make the approach and do his worst. After staring into space for
another minute or so he spoke again.
"Can you write?"
I suppose it seemed like a fair question and
I obviously thought he was asking me if I had received a good grounding in the
art of journalism at college. At least this time I was confident that my answer
wouldn't upset him.
"Yes I think so. We used to write at
least one story every day at college and I passed my exams in all the main areas
He stopped me before I could finish the
"No I don't mean that crap. I asked you
if you could write, join your letters together. There's lots out there seem to
have difficulty sometimes, their typing is poor as well." He made a general
nod towards the reportersí room. He then waved his thumb in their general
I didn't know whether to take his remarks
seriously or as a joke. I decided the best policy was to take it as a serious
remark. Shad Greene didn't seem to me like a man given to undue levity and after
all it doesn't pay to be too witty, cheeky or clever on your first day.
"Well I had some trouble when I was
young. I went from a class that taught unjoined lettering to one that taught and
got into all sorts of trouble.
All sorts of trouble. That was exactly what I
was getting into in this room. I felt I was virtually becoming a gibbering
wreck. My sentences were becoming disjointed and I was sure I wasn't making
sense. He seemed to disregard the remark and pulled a form from the top drawer.
I could see there was already writing on it and I guessed correctly that it was
a college report.
"Says here that you aren't very
punctual." As he spoke he aimlessly pointed at the sheet.
"Well I can tell you that you'll be
punctual while you are here. I get in here at 8 a.m. You make sure you're here
when I arrive, understand?"
"Yes" I replied knowing full well
about his early morning drinking habits and lack of awareness at an early hour.
I decided the most sensible thing to do was answer every question in a
straightforward manner that he was bound to approve of.
As on so many occasions my efforts to make
small talk and get on the right side of someone soon had me in hot water again.
I had been looking for sometime at a rather interesting telephone he had which
allowed him to speak into an intercom microphone without having to hold the
"That's rather an interesting telephone
you have there," I said.
"Never mind that son. Remember in this
job you can be as nosey as you like outside the office, but inside you mind your
own business, don't you?"
The question seemed to require no answer so I
didn't bother to give one.
"What speed shorthand do you have?"
I was particularly proud that I had been one
of only three people at college to reach 140 words per minute within the year.
The head tutor had, at the beginning of the year, promised a bottle of champagne
to anyone reaching the 140 mark and as a result I had spent a very enjoyable
evening during the last week getting very drunk.
"140 words," I replied proudly.
"140 words a second. That's not
bad," Shad Greene half grinned at what obviously by his standards had been
an attempt at humour."
I decided to play it straight again.
"No 140 words a minute."
"What" he bellowed. "If I had
my way I wouldn't employ anybody with less than 180. It's the owners of this
paper, they are too easy by half. Well you'll just have to improve while you're
here. Prove yourself better than the rest of this staff and don't get any ideas
that just because they are all stuck on 120 words per minute that you can rest
on your laurels. Prove to yourself boy that you are better than them. I did and
look where I am today."
I couldn't think of an answer to that one
without sounding facetious. This interview was going nowhere and the next
question had me going round in even more circles.
"What's your parents name and
I was happy to give him the details of this
as it appeared to be his first sensible question. I told him and he wrote the
"Good now we know who to contact if you
fall in the docks."
My expression must have given me away because
his next statement came before I had a chance to say anything.
"There's no need to laugh son. The
chappie here four years ago nearly drowned in the docks. Went out on a story
about illegal immigrants. Nobody ever found out whether he fell or was pushed.
Became a nervous wreck after that. He's in an asylum somewhere up north
These seemed to be just about the last words
of the interview. He grunted a couple of times, looked at the door and picked up
the newspaper. I realised this was my cue to leave the room and so I got up. I
was just going out of the door when he spoke again.
"Be a good lad and make me a cup of tea