Peter Steward's Web Site
The floor was as hard as all floors tend to
be. Why doesn't somebody invent a bendy soft floor?
As usual on my first night in a strange place
I didn't get much sleep. It wasn't a case of tossing and turning as anybody who
has slept on a floor will know. You try desperately to keep any comfortable
position you can find.
I did fall asleep around 4 a.m and, as so
often happens, would have been quite happy to lay-in after the 8 a.m deadline I
had set myself for rising. Why is it you have to go to bed when you don't feel
tired, but always have to get up when you do?
When I got up I had a hangover from the
previous evening, but I consoled myself with the thought that Violet would be
feeling much much worse. Indeed at breakfast time she was conspicuous by her
absence. But as Robin said she rarely got up before 11 a.m by which time we
would be happily at work. I have to admit that the previous evening Robin and
myself had undertaken a mini pub crawl of some of the town’s more notorious
“You need to find out a bit about what the
locals are like,” he had told me before we set off.
Breakfast was bacon and eggs a la Robin and I
was soon to learn it was his staple diet. During the previous evening's drinking
session we had come to an agreement about buying food, cooking it and all the
other household chores.
Looking back the rent of £3.50 a week seemed
ridiculously low even for 1972 and for that we got regular drops of the hard
stuff. I only had to wait for two weeks before a spanking new bed and chest of
drawers arrived. I think Violet must have taken kindly to me or perhaps it was
something to do with the chocolates I bought her the day after she got drunk.
On the food front, Robin agreed to cook
breakfast every morning. We would then have lunch in town and then take it in
turns to cook in the evening unless one of us was working during the night,
which was quite a common occurrence.
"Morning Robin," I said as I went
into the kitchen rubbing my eyes.
"Morning mate, feel a little rough do
"Yeah just a bit"
"Well it doesn't matter as long as you
seem lively enough in the office. It could create a wrong impression if you fell
asleep. Old Greene’s the only one allowed to do that."
Despite still being early September there was
an end of summer chill in the air. I was later to find out that in winter a
vicious wind cut through even the warmest clothes.
We arrived at the office at just after 9 a.m
and I was looking forward to the day with mixed feelings. Fresh from college
where laxness and mistakes didn't really matter I was being thrust into the
world and a world I had no experience of. For me this was the big time!
When we arrived Louise was the only reporter
in. It appears the previous day they had all arrived early on Shad Greene's
instructions so as to create a good impression for the "new boy."
Louise looked up and smiled and pointed to
the tea pot. "Like a cup?" she asked. Both Robin and myself nodded. On
second reflection this girl seemed to be more attractive. Early 20s I would have
guessed. On top of that she made good tea!
The three of us then sat around reading the
national papers, except the Times of course. Burkitt arrived a few minutes
before 10 and Willson shortly afterwards. The pair spent some time in the corner
muttering between themselves and consulting the office diary where the routine
jobs for the day were written down.
Burkitt and Willson decided who was to do
what during the day. They always did this between themselves because if one did
it on his own he would automatically be more powerful than the other.
Shad Greene eventually made his entrance at
10.30. He grunted at all present, some of whom uttered a curt good morning and
some of whom said nothing. He then walked into his room, told Gwen that he would
receive no calls before midday and then sat down and opened the Times.
"Tha's him off," said Birkett who
tended to be a little sloppy with his speech "I suppose we had betta get
some work dun now."
It turned out that my first task as such was
to accompany Louise to court. Not to report anything, but just to sit and listen
and practice my shorthand and at the end to produce a mock story for the editor
to look at.
It was all pretty straightforward with no
rapes or juicy murders. Louise, who did court every morning, explained that it
was a typical day and only occasionally were there anything of note in such a
The big cases were for London and the large
cities and not a relatively sleepy town such as ours.
The main interest in the entire court list
involved somebody who didn't even make a court appearance. It was a guilty plea
to a driving offence. The man involved sent £5 with the message that he had
moved from the area and was not yet sure of a permanent address. Therefore to
save the police time and trouble he had sent £5, hoping it would cover the
fine. Any money left over should be given to the Magistrates for a drink.
Predictably, not wanting to further alcoholism or be seen to act
inappropriately, the bench fined him £5.
By midday we were back in the office and I
decided to carry out my "bit of practice" on a pretty ordinary case of
drunkenness. With that finished I went with Robin to the local Wimpey bar for a
fairly lengthy lunch before returning to work.
The afternoon was notable for two reasons.
Firstly my very nervous attempts to carry out my first job on my own and
secondly my first dressing down from Shad Greene.
The opportunity to do some "street
work" on my own came from Tony Willson, who midway through the afternoon
decided that I "shouldn't be sitting around doing nothing," but should
be given the chance to prove my worth.
His first idea was for me to scour the
streets of the town looking for a story. At college they had told us that this
was the way to make or break a reporter. To me it was a waste of time. Stories
were something that people came to you about or which occurred naturally. You
couldn't make stories by asking people silly questions about silly subjects and
then plastering them all over the paper.
Luckily he abandoned that idea and threw a
letter on my desk and told me to follow it up. The letter was written in a
horrible scrawl with plenty of spelling mistakes.
I must rite to complane about the serious
problems of the dust cart in Lower Hedges Street. Every Tusday aaternoon the
dustmen come and cause problem in our dangerus street. Their lorries are too
The letter was signed Effie Francis at number
Being a Tuesday afternoon it seemed the
perfect opportunity to go and see what was happening. I had noticed yesterday
that Lower Hedges Street was near the station. It was so named because 30 years
previously the town council had decreed that the hedges should be limited to
three feet in height. Gradually residents began to call it Lower Hedges Street
rather than Bernard Kenyon Lane. They petitioned to have the name changed and it
was duly done when somebody found out that former Town Mayor Bernard Kenyon,
after whom the road was originally named, had a police record in Huddersfield
prior to moving to the town.
The road itself was extremely narrow, the
houses very old and they looked to be suffering from advanced decay. I watched
as a builder's lorry trundled down and almost took up the entire width of the
road. I could begin to see what Mrs Effie Francis at number 10 was complaining
about. If a dustcart was parked in the road, even on the curb, it would leave no
room for other vehicles.
Number 10 looked even more of a shambles than
its neighbours. I walked bravely up to the door and pressed the bell. It played
Colonel Boogie from somewhere within the house.
"For Christ sake Emma shut it,"
came a voice from inside.
"Charming" I said to myself under
my breath as footsteps came down the hallway and the door slowly opened.
A middle aged woman, with hair in curlers and
a cigarette hanging from her mouth looked out.
"Yes," she said gruffly, looking at
me as if I was a potential burglar asking for entry to her home to steal her
obviously non existent family jewels.
I was taken aback by her sharpness.
"Oh I, I, I'm Eric from the local
paper," words had never before sounded so strange on my lips. A handful of
words that had sent me into a state of nervous exhaustion. Here I was almost
apologising. Mrs Effie Francis of
number 10 would be expecting an experienced and tough old newshound and here I
was a quivering wreck after saying those words to a member of the public for the
first time. What made it worse was the fear that Mrs Effie Francis at number 10
would not take my inexperience into account. As it happened I had nothing to
worry about because a complete transformation came over her immediately.
"Oh hello dearie, do come into my humble
She ushered me in and pointed to a chair that
at present was occupied by a rather fat cat.
"That's Emma, chuck her off," she
said pulling the cat by its tail. The animal uttered a shriek and ran off under
"Now you want to know abut these here
dustmen don't you. Well let me see now. I suppose you're the editor of the
paper. I read it every week, ever since I came to the area from good old Sussex.
That's where my Ernie died, God rest his soul. You didn't know my Ernie of
course did you? No you wouldn't would you? You might know his brother Sid
though, he's lived here for the past 20 years."
I tried desperately without much success to
explain that I was not the editor and also to stem the verbal assault.
"Perhaps we can talk about the
dustcart," I said.
"Oh that. Plenty of time for that later
after a cup of tea."
As she said this she filled up a rather dirty
cup next to her and pushed it in my direction. With that she was off again:
"That Mrs Swann down the road. I said to
her the other day. I said if we don't do something about that Mrs Vickers' dog
the things going to have all our gardens wrecked. It's an Alsatian you know
dear. If you want to see it she lives at number 28. Give you a good story I
wouldn't wonder. Of course she's just got back from somewhere exotic. Sounded
something like the Bananas, but I don't think that was it. Perhaps it was Spain.
Anyway that's another story again. What she did and didn't do over there is
nobody's business. She's divorced you know."
Over tea we got through just about everybody
in the street from Mrs Bridges' gallstones to the death of old Nellie's pet
Finally after 25 minutes or so she came back
to the reason for my being there.
"Well dear I suppose you want something
about those dustmen. Got yer notebook with you?"
Silly question I thought. Who had ever heard
of a journalist without a notebook. My hand went instinctively to my jacket
pocket and found a ten pence piece but nothing else!
"I bet you've forgotten it haven't you
"Here have this one."
She pulled out a small notebook from her
chest of drawers and handed it to me.
"I know you Editors always go around
without the tools of the trade. I suppose you have a pen with you?"
And of course I had forgotten that as well.
What a disaster this was turning out to be. But then she was quick to produce a
pencil as well from the top drawer.
"Now the dustmen. Uncouth lot they are
as well. They'll be here in 15 minutes or so, then you can see for yourself. You
know they have refused in the past to take some of our rubbish because they
couldn't get their damn cart down the road. Is that our fault I ask you? What
are we supposed to do about it? How can we live with rubbish piling up? What
would you do?"
The torrent of questions continued unabated
and I soon got the impression that Effie was just a lonely old soul who needed
cheering up. She asked the questions but really needed any answers.
"Rude load of buggers. Won't do anything
to help an old woman. You know they won't even talk to me since I chucked that
bucket of water over 'em from the bedroom window."
My ears pricked up. Even now I could see the
headline "Woman pours water over dustmen." Could this be my first
scoop? My hopes were, however, immediately shot down in flames.
"Of course dearie you won't print
anything like that will you? If old Gladys down the road read about that. Well
she'd never forgive me. You wouldn't make an old woman unhappy would you dearie?"
Her plea was just too much for me and I
decided I had more than enough information from Mrs Effie Francis from number
10. So, making the excuse that I had a deadline to meet, even if it was three
days away, I moved towards the door. Even then before I could get through it I
had to promise that I would return at some time in the future for a "cup of
tea and a nice chat."
There were still no signs of the dustcart so
I decided to try one more door and picked a random number some 10 houses from
Effies. It seemed that the entire neighbourhood was full of Effies. This time a
very large lady with chocolate daubed down the sides of her face came out to
greet me and it was the same old routine.
"Ello luv. I see you just came from old
Effies. Blimey you don't want to listen to a word she says. She's round the
bleedin’ twist, poor old dear."
I asked a few quick questions and then beat a
hasty retreat before I was asked in for another "nice cup of tea."
By this time the dustcart was trundling round
the corner and, after driving a few feet down the road, came to a stop and the
men climbed down.
The all looked rather large and threatening
to such a young reporter. Very large men with very large caps and dirty overalls
and backs bowed from carrying people's rubbish. After a few minutes I summoned
up the courage to go and talk to them.
"Excuse me," I said to the smallest
of the men. He weighed in at about 5ft 11in and around the 14 stone mark.
"I wonder if I can ask you about
"And what gives you the right to ask us
Slightly taken aback by his abruptness I
explained who I was and waited.
"Oh from the press are you. Hey lads,
this guys from the press - Sunday Times or something."
An evil grin spread over his face for a split
second and then just as quickly disappeared.
"Well what do you want to know
"I wondered if I could talk to you about
the difficulties of collecting rubbish from this street."
I began to feel the first signs of confidence
welling up inside. I had made the contact, now for the searching questions.
"We don't mind do we boys?" He
turned to the others as he spoke and they nodded.
"The only thing is you'll need a
photographer to capture the scene. I don't suppose you've got a camera with you
Now here was a problem I had not
contemplated. We relied on a freelance photographer who had a photographic
studio in the town. Nicknamed Happy Harry because of his sullen nature, he had
one general rule in life and that was to make as much money for as little work
as possible. He had already taken a picture that day for Willson and wouldn't
feel too happy being roused from his dark room slumbers, which were broken only
when he had bought a copy of Playboy. On these occasions his receptionist
remarked that his normal snoring noises were replaced by a rather more
lascivious kind of laugh.
Still here was my chance for a good picture
feature on the life of the dustmen - its problems and successes. A kind of down
to earth column exposing the truth about a life of grime. Could I miss it? No I
told myself quickly and so finding a 2p coin I walked to the nearest telephone
box and dialled his shop.
True to character Harry was far from
enthusiastic and tried a number of the old excuses before agreeing to stir
himself sufficiently to put a camera around his neck and walk the short distance
to Lower Hedges Street. He told me that one of the conditions of doing the job
was not being called out the next day when he planned to go fishing.
Five minutes before he arrived I had finished
my interview with the dustmen and among the useless information I had gained was
how long it took to empty a bin and the comparative times of clearing rubbish
from Claire Crescent and High Street.
"It only takes a few seconds in the High
Street because they all mind their own business. Now Claire Crescent, that's
another story. All middle aged women there with nothing to do. They'll talk all
Apart from that the relatively small dustman
told me what his favourite colour in socks was and what he had planned for the
"Hey lads the photographer's here. Tell
him to watch where he's pointing that camera it might go off. I don't take a
very good picture."
"That's okay mate I take the
pictures," said Harry only half joking. Harry only had one joke and that
was it. It had been used on countless occasions and the idea was to liven up shy
people and dampen down extroverts. It seldom worked!
"Now look me and my mates are honoured
that you should take such an interest in us and because of it we are going to
give you a picture to remember aren't we lads?"
The dustman I had got to know as Mick smiled
a toothless grin and pointed to Effie Francis' house.
"That old cow dropped a bucket of
freezing water on us two weeks ago. Well today we're going to do something about
it and you two members of the press are lucky enough to be present to witness
So saying the crew did a very un-dustmanlike
thing. They walked across the road to the house opposite Effies and, taking with
them four bins full of rubbish, redistributed it outside her door. Mick then
strode fearlessly up to the door and knocked very loudly four times. A second
man crouched behind the offside wheel of the dustcart, obviously clutching
something in his hands. A few seconds brought Effie to the door and as she
opened it and looked out, the second man jumped from his hiding place and threw
a bucket of water into her face.
Effie was very soggy, not to say speechless
and so was Harry who, in the excitement of the moment, had missed what could
have been the photograph of the year.
Effie cursed blindly at the men for a few
seconds before retreating into her house and slamming the door. The men turned,
climbed into their cab, nodded to me and reversed along the road, leaving half
the bins unemptied and a pile of rubbish outside number 10 and as we looked up I
could see a number of neighbours watching on from the doorways. They all seemed
to be smiling and as the binmen passed broke out into a round of spontaneous
So I had finished my first real job and on
the way back to the office I was already writing it in my head. I could still
see Effie’s face as she slammed the door. So with plenty of enthusiasm I sat
at my typewriter engrossed in the story and I must admit it ran fairly smoothly.
A 58-year-old woman, who over the past few
weeks has been having a running battle with local dustman, was the subject of a
wet and vicious attack on Tuesday.
Mrs Effie Francis of Lower Hedges Street was
soaked when the men threw a bucket of freezing water at her. Later the men said
it was payment for a similar action by Mrs Francis recently.
Yes it was certainly flowing nicely. I had
been sent out to do a basic and apparently boring story on the width of a
dustcart and I had ended up with a little battle between two types of human
nature. Little did I know how much I had to learn about work on a weekly paper.
I finished the story and triumphantly
adjudged it to be a masterpiece of journalism. I checked it through, folded it
up and put it in the out tray ready to receive the approval of Shad Greene when
he later had a quick look at the copy at the end of the day.
Twenty minutes later he banged on his window
and, as we all looked up, I saw that the finger was beckoning to me. Obviously
he had finished reading my story and was calling me in to congratulate me on a
job well done.
Confidently I strode into his office.
Depleted I crawled out a few minutes later. I had gone in as a confident, brash
young reporter new to his trade. I came out wishing I had become a brickie's
labourer or taken on some less demanding job. I was to remember this first
showdown for years after, although of course with hindsight I can now laugh at
"Sit down lad. I want to have a few
words with you."
I smiled as I sat down.
"You will probably have gathered by now
that I am a man of few words. I don't believe that there is any future in small
talk. During your career in journalism you'll have to deal with many blunt men.
So I'm going to lay my thoughts down straight, okay?"
I nodded. By this time I had realised that I
was not in for the praise I had expected.
"Now listen to what I'm going to say and
take note of it. I suppose you know what I'm going to talk about?"
"Is it the dustmen story?" I
inquired rather timidly.
"I wouldn't call it a story lad. It's a
bit of gossip and we don't deal in that kind of thing, although I suppose Tony
Willson might use it in his column. Certainly it's bad enough for it."
I could feel myself going red in the face,
but there was no stopping him by now.
"We are a good weekly paper with a fine
reputation in the town. We don't deal in ignorant tittle-tattle. I told you to
do a straight story on the dustcart and that's what we expected, not this
garbage that nobody wants to read. It's just a quarrel between two very silly
parties. No facts, just rubbish. Go and re-write it. What I want are quotes
about the dustcart being too wide for the street, what the people fear and how
it makes the collection of rubbish difficult."
I went from a deep shade of red to white.
"Well what's the matter? You did ask
those questions didn't you?"
"Well I didn't actually..... what I mean
is ....I....I... er no," I blurted this out and I could feel the
embarrassment welling up inside.
"Well that's no good is it. There's just
no story here. It might as well go straight in the dustbin and that's not a joke
either. You'd better go and sit down and I'll decide whether any of it can be
I trudged out of his office and sat at my
desk looking very downcast. After a few minutes Willson came up to me.
"Dear, dear lad, you must have done
something really wrong. He doesn't usually say that much in a year, never mind
10 minutes. You'd better pull your finger out."
So saying he left the office, leaving me
totally dejected. I stayed in the office until all the others had gone. The last
thing I felt like doing was facing Violet if she happened to be in. I was just
about to leave when I noticed a scrap of paper tucked under my diary. I could
see writing on it, so pulled it out.
"Don't feel so bad about that dustman
story. If the editor doesn't tear it up I'll use it in my column. If it's any
consolation I would have done exactly the same thing."
It was signed "Tony"
Not surprisingly Shad Greene tore the story
up and Tony Willson decided it was better not to cross the editor and antagonise
him by including it in his column. So my first journalistic gem never saw the
light of day, neither did a court case that followed in which Mick the dustman
was accused of dropping litter and assault.