The bus stops here

14 Feb

NITHERLEY Borough Council has spent £5,000 on installing a bus stop on a road where no bus has ventured for four years – and the residents are fuming. This is the Nitherley Observer and Bugle’s splash for tomorrow and the Leek Man is working on the Front Page. A small group of people has gathered behind him to watch the page come together – and offer advice.

Conversation 1 – Search for a headline:

Editor: “We want something snappy – not your general splash headline. Is there a catchphrase from On The Buses that we could use?”

Tony Malone the Assistant Editor: “You ’orrible little man, Battler.”

Editor: “Thank you. I was thinking more along the lines of ‘Stop this madness’. Gerrit? Stop, as in bus stop? And we could do the word ‘stop’ in red.”

Leek Man: “What about: ‘Bus stop ding-dong’?”

Editor: “Ding-dong! I like that.”

Tony Malone: “But why ding-dong? What has that got to do with buses?”

Leek Man: “Because when you’re on a bus and you want it to stop at a bus stop, you push the button and it goes ding-dong.”

Tony Malone: “No it doesn’t. It goes ding-ding. ‘Bus stop ding-ding’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

Leek Man: “Jesus. Split fucking hairs, why don’t you? ‘Bus stop ding-dong’ is just the ticket. It says it all and it’s witty as well.”

Tony Malone: “It sounds like Leslie Phillips should be involved.”

Editor: “I know. What about: ‘Stop this ding-dong’? The word ‘stop’ would be in red. Or, better still, what about ‘Stop this madness’? Have I said that already?”

Conversation 2 – The headline comes together:

Editor: “Right. This is where we are. We have the words ‘Bust-up’ in big red letters, and below have an underline that says ‘over bus stop’. ‘Bust-up over bus stop’. That’s great. What do you think?”

Leek Man: “I think it would look better if we had an overline instead of an underline. It would have more impact.”

Editor: “Yeh? Go on. Elaborate.”

Leek Man: “Something like: ‘Ding-dong over bus stop ends in . . .’ and then have ‘Bust-up’ in fucking big in-yer-face 124 point caps underneath.”

Editor: “Like it, like it. ‘Ding-dong over bus stop ends in . . . Bust-up’. Great stuff.”

Tony Malone: “But isn’t a ding-dong the same thing as a bust-up? Aren’t we saying the same thing twice?”

Editor: “Yes. It just needs some more work. But we’re on the right road. Unlike the bus stop.”

Leek Man: “What about ‘Bus stop mix-up leads to . . . Bust-up’?”

Editor: “Yesssss . . . Back of the net. That’s it. Go with that. Get it on the page and print me a proof.”

Conversation 3 – Fine tuning:

The Deputy Editor has emerged from his office with a pile of I-Spy books under his arm. The Editor calls him over.

Editor: “What do you think of the Front Page? Get this headline. ‘Bus stop mix-up leads to . . . Bust-up’ What do you think of that?”

Deputy Editor: “Hmmm . . . Do you need a hyphen in Bust-up?”

Editor: “For fuck’s sake. Of course you need a hyphen. Bust-up has a hyphen. It’s the sort of word hyphens were made for. It demands a hyphen.”

Deputy Editor: “Then shouldn’t bus stop have a hyphen as well?”

Editor: “No it fucking shouldn’t. Bus stop is a noun.”

Deputy Editor: “Bust-up is a noun.”

Editor: “Yeh, but bus stop is a different sort of noun, innit? It’s a real noun. One that exists.”

Leek Man: “I’ve got a better idea. Scrap the whole thing and just have two words: ‘BUS STROP’.”

Editor: “Yesssss . . . Another in the back of the net. BUS STROP. Does it have a fucking hyphen?”

Spit. No polish.

11 Feb

I’M sitting in Friday afternoon conference fighting an overwhelming desire to sleep. Up to now, the discussion has centred on heavy business stories, the economy, and the financial troubles of Nitherley United, the local football club.

The Editor is slouching in his executive chair. Chief reporter Big Bernard is yawning silently. Assistant Editor Tony Malone is tapping his fingernails on the arms of his chair. Blank Frank the website wizard is gazing vacantly through the window at pigeons sitting on the neighbouring roof. The Leek Man is shuffling his papers and preparing to give his presentation on the national news.

It’s more heavy stories – the economy, the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, the plight of Andrew Lansley and his ill-fated NHS reforms, and bonuses for Barclays investment bankers. My eyelids feel like lead weights are hanging from them.

Leek Man: “And finally. Enfield council has launched a bid to ban spitting in the street. They have approached Communities Secretary Eric Fatboy Pickles for permission to introduce a bylaw to that effect.”

A moment’s silence while this information is digested by minds that are far from alert.

Blank Frank: “What if they don’t see yer spit? How can they arrest you?”

Leek Man: “How the hell should I know? That’s nothing to do with me. I’m just telling you what’s on the Press Association news list – ‘Council’s bid for spitting ban’.”

Blank Frank: “Yeh, but if they don’t see yer gobbing, if say you’re walking down an alley and there’s no one there and yer just gob in the gutter, how the hell can they catch you?”

Tony Malone: “But that can happen with any law – murder, assault, using a mobile phone while you’re driving. Democracy is underpinned by our acceptance of the law and our willingness to comply. If you break the law and gob in the street, then you knowingly run the risk of being caught and facing the consequences.”

Blank Frank: “And what if yer out running and yer need to spit – like footballers do? What happens then?”

Leek Man: “Jesus Christ. You’re breaking the fucking law, for fuck’s sake.”

Big Bernard: “What if it’s an accident? What if you’ve got a cold and you suddenly cough and this great big greeny comes out and hits a copper and runs down his tunic? What then?”

Leek Man: “Why don’t you fucking well ring up the chief executive of Enfield fucking council and fucking well fucking ask him?”

Editor, sitting forward in his executive chair: “That’s a fair point. People have accidents. Look at Paula Radcliffe crapping down that drain. She didn’t get up in the morning and say ‘Hey, I feel like a good shite but I’ll save it for later when I’m running the London Marathon.’ It just came over her all of a sudden and she had to do it there and then.”

Tony Malone: “They should do it with chewing gum too.”

Editor: “Do what with chewing gum too?”

Tony Malone: “Ban it along with spitting.”

Big Bernard: “But where would you put your chuddy? You’re not allowed to swallow it because it bungs up your insides.”

Editor: “You should do a Paula Radcliffe and spit it down the drain. The drains go into the sewers, don’t they? That’s probably why Paula got away with it – the drain went into the sewer so all she did, technically, was bypass the loo.”

Tony Malone: “No. The wastewater systems that take rainwater from the roads and the sewer systems are not interconnected, Boss. They discharge in different places, otherwise you’d get poo popping out of the drains every time it flooded.”

Editor: “Is that right? I didn’t know that. Anyway, spitting ban. Great story.”

Only two paragraphs on Enfield council’s spitting ban appear in Saturday’s edition of the Nitherley Observer and Bugle, yet it generated more discussion than the economy, the Leveson Inquiry, bankers’ bonuses and the state of the NHS rolled together. And it kept us awake.

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.

The salt of another earth

9 Feb

IT was the second shock of the evening and it rocked the building. The first was the resignation of Fabio Capello as England manager. That caught everyone on the hop.

But we rallied instantly and ripped apart the Front Page. The previous splash – a story about more deep cuts at Nitherley Borough Council – was relegated to Page 7 to allow Capello’s face to glare gloomily beneath a banner headline that said CAPELLO OUT: REDKNAPP IN?

The page was finished for 10.30pm. We sat drinking coffee and watching the press reviews on Sky News, unaware that an even greater quake was about to shake us from our chairs and dislodge ceiling tiles.

One by one the front pages of the nationals were held up to the camera. Capello was there, his spectacles glinting, his downfall sudden and complete. Then came the surge of magma that cracked the walls – the Daily Express’ splash headline:

8 INCHES OF SNOW IN NEXT 24 HOURS

Editor: “Jesus fucking Christ. What the fuck are they on at the Daily Express?”

Leek Man: “Another fucking planet, that’s what.”

Big Bernard: “It’s fucking winter. It fucking snows in winter. That’s not news.”

Deputy Editor: “Absolutely splendid. Another bizarre Daily Express weather-related front page for my burgeoning collection of bizarre Daily Express weather-related front pages.”

That was last night. The world has recovered and the tectonic plates finally settled. I rise mid-morning, and after breakfast glance at the online version of the Express, just out of curiosity. The intro reads:

BRITAIN is braced for up to eight inches of snow today as temperatures fall to -15C.

I glance out of the window. It’s raining softly here in the North-East and feels quite mild. I might do a spot of gardening. But the second paragraph leaves me scratching my head.

It will be so cold that even the salt spread by gritters may not work.

A strange use of words. Does salt work? Can it be broken or malfunction? Would you return a packet to the supermarket and say: “I’m sorry – but this salt doesn’t work”? Perhaps the Leek Man is right. They’re on another planet at the Daily Express. A very cold one. Where the salt doesn’t work.

Taking the myth . . .

7 Feb

BIG Bernard is sifting through emails on the newsdesk. He suddenly recoils in alarm.

Big Bernard, to the subs desk: “Hey. We’ve had a complaint about the public toilet competition headline in this morning’s paper. Listen to this:

“Dear Sir. May I draw your attention to the story about Harrogate public toilets winning the lavatory of the year award and record my utter revulsion and disgust at the headline: ‘Public loo is top of the plops’. No doubt this gave some of your intellectually-challenged staff a chuckle – perhaps all of them – but it is yet another example of your publication descending into the gutter of popular media and immersing itself in filth.”

Leek Man: “Tell him to get a life.”

Big Bernard, thrusting back his chair: “Hey. Should I write back and say our original suggestion for a headline was: ‘Town loo is cracking crapper’? But we changed it because although crapper is a genuine word – coming from Thomas Crapper, the inventor of the Thunderbox flush toilet and the man who gave his name to crap – we took into account our ill-educated, intellectually-challenged readers getting hold of the wrong end of the stick and being unnecessarily offended. So the headline that actually appeared was in fact a genuine attempt to please the largely ignorant public and raise a smile on a dull February morning with some wittily-crafted words. Shall I do that?”

Leek Man: “It would certainly be one avenue to go down.”

Big Bernard: “Or should I just point out that ‘plop’ is not an offensive word?”

Leek Man: “That would, I think, be the safest option.”

Meanwhile, as this conversation is taking place, I consult Wikipedia – the destroyer of false truths and urban myths – which has discharged into the sea of polluted knowledge the following nugget:

Thomas Crapper: Contrary to widespread misconceptions, Crapper did not invent the flush toilet. He did, however, do much to increase the popularity of the toilet, and developed some important related inventions, such as the ballcock.

It has often been claimed in popular culture that the slang term for human bodily waste, “crap”, originated with Thomas Crapper because of his association with lavatories. The most common version of this story is that American servicemen stationed in England during World War I saw his name on cisterns and used it as army slang, i.e., “I’m going to the crapper”. The word crap is actually of Middle English origin.

Which just goes to prove something or other. But I’m not sure what.

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.

Crunching things

1 Feb

THE Editor is sitting at the internet desk, where the online version of the Nitherley Observer and Bugle is uploaded and managed. He’s discussing the best way to present the latest round of council tax rises with the website wizard, Blank Frank.

Editor: “What I would like is the figures for last year and the figures for this year side by side in a graphic, with a third table showing the rise in percentage points. I think that’s the best way to do it. Plus, the MD is in the office today and that’s the sort of thing he likes to see.”

Blank Frank: “The problem with that is: how do we work out the percentage points?”

Editor: “We just work it out. If you have one value and another value which is the first value increased or decreased, you can work out what the percentage is.”

Blank Frank: “Yeh, but how do you actually do that? I presume there is a formula or something.”

Editor: “I think you take the little number away from the big number then times it by a hundred.”

Blank Frank, clicking on a calculator: “Nah. That gives us a rise of 767 per cent for the first council. That doesn’t sound right.”

Editor: “Perhaps you take the big number from the little number. No, that doesn’t sound right either. Do you divide the big number by the little number then multiply by a hundred? Or do you divide it by a hundred? Try that.”

Big Bernard, from the newsdesk: “It’s nothing to do with big numbers and little numbers. You have to determine which value you want to show as a percentage point rise of the other and work that way.”

The managing director strolls across the office and nods pleasantly. “I heard you talking just there. Is there anything I can help you with?”

Editor: “Er . . .”

Blank Frank, jumping in: “Yeh, we can’t work out these council tax rises as percentage points because we’re all thick, basically. It needs someone with brains to do it.”

MD, punching the Editor on the shoulder in a jovial manner: “Good job you’re not in charge of the editorial budget, hey? Okay, Frank. Email the figures to me and I’ll sort them out when I’ve had a coffee.”

The MD walks away.

Editor: “Doesn’t that sort of thing absolutely grind down your fucking will to live?”

Big Bernard, from the newsdesk: “You take the big number away from the little number, divide it by the square root of the hypotenuse and multiply the answer by 3.142 – or 22 over seven if you prefer the imperial format. Works for me every time.”