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Unreality check

16 Mar

THE managing director, Don K Jacket, has circulated an email announcing the creation of a new executive role – Assistant Editor (Grassroots News). This has caused a stir among a workforce that has suffered redundancy upon redundancy over the past four years and has seen its workload and stress levels increase dramatically.

It’s late at night and the Misfit is twitching in her chair.

Misfit: “Didn’t they have an Assistant Editor (Grassroots News) at one time, and wasn’t he made redundant?”

Leek Man: “It was Mad Max the Manxman. Yes, he was one of the first to get the chop.”

Misfit: “But can they do that – make someone redundant when it suits them then recreate his position for someone else when it suits them?”

Leek Man: “Yes, because they have no concept of reality. What is reality in the present will be unreality in the past. Irrespective of the legal aspect of the redundancy process, they’ll do whatever they need to do in the present, and fuck what went before. That will have been brushed aside.”

Pause.

Misfit: “If we ignore reality and give ourselves executive titles, will that protect our jobs?”

Leek Man: “I expect it will.”

Misfit: “Good. I’ll be Assistant Editor (Stories About Furry Meerkats at Bristol Zoo). What will you be?”

Leek Man: “I’ll be Assistant Editor (Bloody Axe of Retribution and Merciless Avenger Destined to Snap One Day and Twat All the Executives).”

Misfit: “That’s that sorted then.”

Window of opportunity

15 Feb

I CLIMB the stairs to the Deputy Editor’s office to find him leafing through a leather-bound volume of the defunct Newbiggin-by-the-Sea Co-operative Society accounts. I notice a long metal object, shaped like a truncheon, on the desk next to his telephone.

I pull up a chair and gaze around the semicircular office at the wonderful things he’s managed to amass over the years: thirteen clocks, an Imperial typewriter, a set of Russian dolls, piles of railway magazines, a cobalt-blue Codd bottle and a complete set of I-Spy books. On the floor are more metal truncheons. These are a recent addition.

“What are those things that look like truncheons?” I ask, curiosity getting the better of me. “Truncheons?”

“Ahhhh . . .” he says, peering up from his account book. “They most certainly are not truncheons. They are cast-iron weights from sash windows. This one here on my desk is from a Regency window. The ones on the floor are largely Victorian. But the history and development of the sash window can be traced back as far as the 16th Century – in Britain at least. In Holland they go back even further. Did you know that Blenkinsop’s Foundry in Pontefract was a major producer of sash window weights?”

“Fascinating,” I say. And he laughs, because he knows I’m taking the piss.

“What brings you up here to my lonely garret, Pork Chop? Not that I want to be distracted, because I’m working on a piece for my Yesterday Today series and these accounts of the Newbiggin-by-the-Sea Co-operative Society are a mesmerising goldmine of facts. Did you know that one of the most popular commodities the Co-op provided in its early days was white doorstep paint? Doorsteps in Newbiggin – a colliery community – were all painted white, apparently, so that the women had to scrub them every day to keep them clean.”

“Fascinating,” I say again. “I just wondered why the Editor has been summoned down to head office. Is there something in the wind?”

“Ooooooh . . .” says the Deputy Editor. “I’d be surprised if he knew himself why he’s been summoned.”

“More jobs going? More redundancies? Another wave of terror and bloodshed about to sweep through the offices of the Observer and Bugle, Nitherley’s great family newspaper?”

“God, I hope not,” says the Deputy Editor. “I don’t expect there’s much demand for collectors of sash window weights.”

“I don’t expect there is. What about doorstep painters? There might be an opening there. Is there still such a thing as doorstep paint?”

“I say, what a splendid idea. What a marvellous way to make a living. Hang on and I’ll Google it.”

I watch his fingers – more used to clattering the Imperial typewriter – fumbling across his keyboard. The clocks begin to chime 9pm. One buzzes.

“Gosh. My goodness. There’s plenty of doorstep paint on the market. Ronseal do tins for £6. That’s cheap.”

“Charge £10 a doorstep.”

“It’s the future. My word, the past is the future.”

“Yesterday Today.”

“Everything that goes around comes around.”

“There’s nothing new under the sun.”

As I rise to leave, he says: “I can’t go into business by myself, Pork Chop. I’ll need a partner or an apprentice – someone to stir the paint.”

“Put my name down.”

“Can you come up with a snappy company title?”

“Step On It.”

“You’re hired.”

A toast to the future

10 Feb

THE managing director is holding his six-monthly staff presentation in an area of the building that once housed the Nitherley Weekly News. The Weekly News still exists – but it’s no longer produced in Nitherley. People with strange accents, most of whom could not pinpoint Nitherley on a map of northern England if all the other towns were removed, produce it somewhere south of Yaddlethorpe.

In recent years a tradition has evolved on the editorial floor of the Nitherley Observer and Bugle. When the Empress Lu Zhi, the MD’s ruthless though highly-efficient personal assistant, sends journalists an email inviting them to the presentation, it is dutifully ignored. For some, this is a form of protest against job losses and the wage freeze – a snub to the man who has initiated several waves of redundancies and is attacking their quality of life. For others it’s just that they can’t be arsed.

So Don K Jacket holds his presentation in an office as empty as a prairie and as cold as the Steppes. A collection of advertising reps, cleaners, administrative staff and reception girls with amber faces huddle on chairs arranged in a half-moon like a cinema auditorium. And at the end they clap.

Then life returns to a subdued normality. Those among us who refused to attend the presentation soon learn of its content. Revenues are still down. Targets have been missed. The pay freeze will remain in place. But the outsourcing of production and services and the transfer of jobs to other areas of the country – that strategy has been a phenomenal success. Something to celebrate, apparently.

At midnight, as frost cracks pavements and noisy drinkers slide from pubs, I pull on my coat and wander through this vast and empty building. I walk along corridors that once thronged with people, pass through an echoing press hall that’s now used as a furniture storeroom, peer through windows into offices that have been locked since their inhabitants were sacked three years ago and their jobs exported to India. And I try to figure out what it’s all about.

What is a regional newspaper if it’s not produced by the people and for the people of that region? Is its existence justified purely by the necessity to generate profits and hit targets set by accountants who care little about journalism and venture north only to visit the Lake District? Or is it more than that? Is it a heart that should beat like a drum; an authoritative voice that should be heard and respected; a mirror to reflect the concerns of the public; a vehicle to inform, educate and entertain its readers?

Or perhaps I’m missing the point. Perhaps this emptiness, this dust, this self-inflicted decay, the haemorrhaging of jobs and seemingly voluntary freefall into obscurity is the true nature of free enterprise. Perhaps the people don’t want newspapers any more. Perhaps, instead, they would rather sit down to their boiled eggs and toast in a morning and click on an app. Instant information.

Perhaps the future – the real and profitable future – is instant eggs and instant toast.

Going out of style

4 Feb

IT’S late at night and the office is empty. I’m waiting for a phone call from a man eighty miles away who, I hope, is going to tell me he’s received all the pages for tomorrow’s edition of the Nitherley Observer and Bugle and his press is rolling. Then I can go home and sleep.

I’m browsing the internet and have landed on a site called Grammar Party. It’s a blog about the finer points and intricacies of the English language, written by a young woman who is obviously passionate about the subject. She’s just uploaded a piece called Titles of works: italics or quotation marks. She delves into the Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Style Book.

When you care about words, how sentences are constructed, how to get your message across with clarity and accuracy, you read stuff like this. It reassures you. It touches a nerve in your brain that warms your body because the realisation dawns that there are other people in this world – perhaps thousands of miles away – who share your concerns. So I read her piece as I wait for my phone call.

Then I leaf through this morning’s paper, and in a story about illegal travellers’ sites notice the word Gypsy spelt in two different ways. And I recall a conversation from the previous evening.

Trout Man: “I say, how do we spell Gypsy these days? Dashed if I can remember.”

Mrs Strop: “Upper case G with a Y.”

Trout Man: “Could have sworn it was lower case G with an I.”

Mrs Strop: “No, it’s upper case G with a Y. They facking changed it.”

Trout Man: “Gosh. Just as well I asked. Things do reinvent themselves rather rapidly these days. Can’t keep up.”

There was a time when we adhered, with an almost religious fervour, to the Westminster Press Style Book, as did most British regional newspapers. Style was upheld, it was the identity that shaped your product, a benchmark of quality – and it was enforced by an angry man with an em-rule who barked across the office if you inadvertently spelt “advisor” with an E instead of an O.

Now style has become a casualty of the headlong race for the digital Holy Grail. It’s lying in a ditch at the side of a road while people who don’t give a toss about the English language upload badly-written copy onto newspaper websites in the unproven belief they are the vanguard of the future.

Meanwhile, people like me – sitting in an empty office while the rest of the world sleeps – are being made redundant in their hundreds, while clinging stubbornly to the certainty that readers don’t just want a stream of real-time information, they want quality, an experience, and reassurance that values still exist and are zealously defended.

The phone rings and a man says: “Wi hev aaahl yer pages, marra. Divvent hing aboot. Get yersel hyem.”

The English language: it bends and it flexes, it plunges and soars – it binds and enlightens. I switch off the lights and walk through a dark and empty newspaper office, comforted by the knowledge there are tiny beacons of hope all around the world.

Monday night. Red giant.

16 Jan

IT’S one of those crisp evenings when frost stings the back of your throat. It’s been a crisp day. But now the sun’s gone down, brick walls are beginning to glaze in the glare of the street lamps and the windscreens of parked cars are turning opaque. If this was New York, steam would rise from sidewalk grilles outside the newspaper office, adding atmosphere to the bleakness. But it’s Nitherley. And the only thing on the pavement is frozen chewing gum.

I hear a voice as I slide my electronic key in the slot at the staff entrance.

“Pssst. Pork Chop.”

I glance over my shoulder. Brian Lyon the former features editor walks towards me along the street, broad shoulders hunched, collar turned up and hands thrust deep in the pockets of his duffel coat.

“Hi Brian. How are you? How are things going?”

He stoops to thrust his face into mine. I can smell Polos on his breath.

“Can’t complain. Can’t complain.”

Then I make a big mistake. I ask a question to which I have already guessed the answer, but it’s a question that should be asked and one that seems natural. “Got a job yet?”

Brian smiles a sort of wide, leering smile and shakes his head, eyes glinting like stars. Glinting like the frost on the headlamps of parked cars.

“Nah,” he says, as pleasantly as possible. “There’s nothing out here. Absolutely nothing. All the papers are shedding staff like nobody’s business, as you well know. But even down at the lowest level, there is absolutely nothing. I mean, like, stacking shelves. I’d do that. I’d be quite happy stacking shelves. I’d find it therapeutic. But even jobs like that, there’s nothing.”

“Christ,” I say. “I know things are bleak but I didn’t realise they were that bleak.”

“Hey,” he says with sudden urgency. “Take some advice. When the shower of shite running this place (he nods towards the newspaper office) bring in the next wave of redundancies, whatever you do – don’t volunteer. Hang on for as long as you can, Pork Chop. There’s nothing out here. Stick in – right to the last. Do not volunteer.”

“The way things have been going lately,” I add reflectively, “I’m surprised there are still some of us left. I was expecting a purge just before Christmas. That’s how they do things. Merry Christmas, and here’s your festive P45. Another nail in the coffin of regional journalism.”

Brian drags his face away from mine, pulls his hands from his pockets and spreads his palms on the cold red bricks of the office wall. He places a cheek next to the bricks, as if listening for something.

“They can destroy us, Pork Chop,” he says in a whisper. “But they can’t destroy this place. The old Nitherley Observer and Bugle will live for ever. It’s part of history and part of the North. It has helped shape society and left its footprint on our culture. They can’t destroy that – because they can’t see that. Do you understand? They inhabit a lower level. They might have a financial advantage, but that’s as far as it goes. They do not comprehend, therefore they do not appreciate, therefore they cannot obliterate. They are fucking amoebas.”

A bus roars along the empty street. Stars flicker above the rooftops. I think I can see Betelgeuse, one of the upper stars in the constellation Orion. Brian pulls himself away from the wall.

“I’d better let you get to work,” he says, patting my shoulder. “Remember, stick in for as long as you can. Don’t volunteer. Now get in there and get that paper out.”

I watch Brian lope off down the street and into the shadows. He always was larger than life, and even now, in redundancy, he’s larger and shining like a star. Then I climb echoing stairs to the office, switch on my computer, and look up the constellation Orion on Wikipedia.

Apparently, Betelgeuse is a red giant nearing the end of its life. When it finally explodes it will be so bright it will be visible during the day.

That’s how I want to go – like a red giant, visible during the day, a permanent flash in the heavens. Like Brian Lyon. Something meaningful. Not a fucking amoeba.

Lighten our darkness . . .

10 Jan

THE paper has been put to bed. Most of the office lights have been switched off and the shadows creep ever nearer. Only me and Leek Man remain on the subs desk as the early hours settle on the roofs of Nitherley.

Wandering towards us from the only other pool of light in the office, like the alien in the final scenes of Close Encounters, is Middle Tom, the late duty reporter, clutching a piece of paper.

He asks: “What’s our house style for the word ‘affect’ – do we use affect or effect?”

We look at him blankly.

He continues: “Y’know. Like, we spell protestor with an ‘o’ not protester with an ‘e’. Do we have a preference for affect with an ‘a’ or effect with an ‘e’? Or does it not matter?”

Leek Man scratches his head and says: “They’re two separate words. Affect is a verb and effect is a noun. When you affect something, the result is the effect. Broadly speaking.”

Pause.

“Oh, right.”

Middle Tom wanders slowly back towards the newsdesk saying: “I’m in the wrong job, here. I’ve always had trouble with the English language.”

He is consumed by his pool of light, and that spooky Spielberg music starts. We leave the building hastily because it looks like they’ve found a new way to eliminate us.

Big freeze, pay freeze

22 Dec

THE company has introduced a pay freeze for 2012 because it is not generating sufficient profit to keep the shareholders’ bank accounts brimming. Regional press group Trinity Mirror – another company where imagination and flair are in short supply – introduced a pay freeze a couple of weeks ago, and now Spylt Inc has plodded into its tracks like a dullard following a muck cart.

And there’s more gloom – redundancies are gathering pace again. Down on the South Coast, Spylt Inc Southern has bundled an editor and a dozen journalists onto the streets, scattering P45s like Christmas cards. Sorry, chaps, no mince pies. Thank you and goodbye.

Here in Nitherley, under the less-than-paternal banner of Spylt Inc Northern, there is tension in the newsroom though genuine despondency over the pay freeze. Redundancies have left our numbers depleted and weakened our resolve. And the kettles have been taken away, too. Not only that, but the new water heater’s gone on the effing blink.

There was an NUJ chapel meeting in the function room of the Dead Duck yesterday. I put this resolution to members:

This chapel resolves that members surrender their wages in their entirety to enable the company to maximise payments to shareholders and buy more big cars for executives, and that the chapel approaches management with a view to opening up the empty offices on the ground floor so members’ families can sell their homes and move into the premises in order to increase working hours and further aid the shareholders in a genuine gesture of Christian unity at this time of goodwill.

There was no vote because no one took me seriously. But they did resolve to get cross if the water heater isn’t fixed promptly.

And now I stand in a freezing stairwell staring through a window out across the wet and benighted streets of Nitherley. Christmas lights glisten and dance on the December wind. Small groups of raucous smokers huddle in the alley behind the pub. A bus with steamy windows roars along an empty street while a man has a piss behind a waste bin.

And I think: we deserve better than this. Our readers deserve better than this. This country deserves better than this. But we are forced to settle for the lowest common denominator. We have to shrug our shoulders and bear our burdens while this once great industry is slowly demolished by a small though influential group of lacklustre, mean-minded nonentities who act like Murdochs and Maxwells but who cower behind closed doors when the glare of publicity shines on their deeds.

So I return to the question: should I be bothered? Should I, like those nonentities who are paid to know best, say fuck it as well? Or should I hang on in there clutching the desperate notion that someone, somewhere, possesses a bit of influence, vision – and perhaps a mince pie.