The fun of it all . . . wrong room/wrong teacher . . . horoscopes . . .
the ‘project’ farce . . . student pranks . . . fun with Marti
Caine . . . mystery intruder, foggy nights . . . new-fangled
computers . . . NUJ versus IOJ . . . a visit from the HMI . . .
novel approaches . . . Prof.Test nerves . . .
If, looking back at my college years, I deliberately disregard memories of the serious journalism business, I see a long-running situation comedy with an ever-changing cast of thousands. No script, no story-line conferences - the mix-ups, mischief and merriment simply unrolled before us as the five-days-a-week instalments went by. So I shall devote this chapter almost entirely to what you might call the fun of it all.
But, when memories crowd in, where do you start? As good a kick-off as any, I suppose, would be the memorable day when a group of block-release journalism trainees found themselves face to face, by accident, with a gentle, grey-haired part-time lecturer whose speciality was EFL - English as a Foreign Language. It turned out that he had mis-read a number on a door. The reporters thought he was a visiting speaker no-one had thought to introduce, and the lecturer assumed that his audience comprised the mixed bag of overseas students who normally appeared before him at the start of a new term. Had he sounded off about maths or chemistry, the students would have rumbled him at once. But, slowly and with an encouraging smile, he launched into something about nouns and pronouns. The students, thinking that an undemanding hour of English grammar was on its way, made themselves comfortable and sat in polite silence.
The class had been running for perhaps ten minutes when one of the journalism staff glanced in through the half-glass door and was puzzled. ‘Who the hell is in there with the first-year block?’ he asked, back in the staffroom. No-one knew. A couple of us went along the corridor and peeped in unobserved. The session seemed to be going well. Shame to interrupt. So we let it run. It turned out that the group had begun to suspect that something was amiss when the kindly lecturer asked them, slowly and clearly, how many of them ever spoke English at home. His brief pleasure at discovering that everyone did was spoiled seconds later by the realisation that they were English and should not have been sitting there at all. But things then took an unexpected turn - the lecturer expressed delight at meeting a group of young reporters and there ensued an amiable and valuable debate on the use of language in newspapers.
The astute reader will perhaps wonder what was happening, meantime, in the room that the lecturer should have been in. The answer is that a dozen overseas students were sitting there wondering what to do, hoping that the one with the best grasp of English would go to find out why they had been abandoned. At the start of term, EFL groups could sometimes muster only a dozen words of English between them. Their progress was spectacular, and within a few weeks they could be heard around college greeting one another with useful phrases such as ‘How are you today?’, ‘Shall we go for a cup of tea?’ and ‘Can you lend me five bob?’ Their presence certainly enriched the college, and when on occasion they featured in Richmond Reporter stories they provided yet more ‘real life’ experience for the trainees who had to interview them.
The ‘wrong room, wrong teacher’ incident that I have just described is a headache in all big teaching establishments, I am told. They probably haven’t even got it right at Oxford and Cambridge yet. It sounds a simple matter to the outsider, hardly to be compared to putting a man on the moon or running a railway network, but it is remarkably complicated. A couple of business-studies lecturers were responsible for allocating rooms and they had a couple of hours knocked off their teaching duties to compensate for this extra nightmare of a job. At one staff Christmas knees-up I performed a musical tribute to them, at the piano, assisted by a shorthand-lecturer colleague whom I had pressured into wearing a wide straw hat and wielding maracas. The words, to the tune of ‘Granada’, went thus: The time-tabling chap - has to use every scrap - of his knowledge (clicky-clicky-click) to make sure someone’s put - into every square foot - of the college (clicky-clicky-click). There are people on stairs - and behind rows of chairs - and in places I daren’t even men-tion . . . We’ll soon need another exten-sion . . . or Colin and Arthur will soon turn quite grey . . . olay! Brought the house down, that did!
We tried for years to arrange that journalism classes were always conducted in the same rooms, preferably grouped conveniently and creating a sort of college within a college. But Richmond was running at full stretch at the time, and if a lecturer took a group out for the morning he would get back in the afternoon to find ‘his’ room full of retail-distribution trainees or medical secretaries . . . or perhaps displaced EFL students who, tired of roaming the building, had spotted an empty room and thought that fortune had suddenly smiled on them.
Speaking of fortune, I wonder if people who read horoscopes in provincial newspapers ever wonder who writes them. I can be of some help there. An extreme sceptic myself, I suffered a surprisingly blistering attack from a group of graduates after dismissing ‘fortune-telling’ columns as utter twaddle and humbug. I did not go so far as to say they were a waste of space - there were millions of otherwise intelligent people, I said, who greatly enjoyed reading such tosh - but I insisted that they were complete drivel.
Two girls in particular took me to task. They did so skilfully and loudly, condemning me for having a closed mind on the matter when other lecturers had advised them always to be ready to give serious consideration to views that differed from their own. I wavered for a moment. But then I saved the day with what I can only describe as a brilliant stroke. ‘Right,’ I said. ‘How many of you work for a paper that carries horoscopes?’ Nearly everybody did. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘All tear a page out of your notebook and write down who writes your horoscope column, without conferring and without letting anyone else see what you’ve written.’ Silence, and some brief scribbling. I collected the unsigned bits of paper. A couple of papers carried syndicated columns bearing vaguely familiar by-lines, but the methods employed by the rest were far more interesting . . .
In one office, the last person to arrive in the morning on a certain day of the week had to write the ‘Gipsy Petulengro’ stuff as a punishment. In another, someone who had not had a night assignment that week was given the job. One lad admitted that when from time to time he was forced to wear the astrology hat he leafed back through the files and cleverly assembled brand-new zodiacal twaddle by cobbling together snippets extracted from‘stars’ columns of about five years before. No-one ever noticed, he said. Provided he steered clear of particularly memorable bits of fortune-telling (the ‘Your wife will run off with a red-haired bloke on Tuesday’ sort of thing) the reader would be unlikely to spot words he had read before. And it would take an amazingly vigilant sub to spot such slow-motion repetition.
Mention of vigilant subs reminds me why we abandoned the practice of asking students to write 5000 words (or was it 3000?) on a subject of their choice, in their own time. I forget where this ‘major project’ idea came from in the first place, but it certainly caused more problems than it was worth. I had reservations about its value for some time, but I finally flipped when a woman typist in town rang up to tell us that Alice Sprockett’s project was ready for collection. In the hands of this nimble-fingered qwertyuiop virtuoso, Alice’s messy heap of words had been turned into a polished presentation that would surely merit an A-plus. Every mis-spelling corrected. Clumsy sentences invisibly repaired. Handwritten stream-of-consciousness pages sliced up neatly into logical paragraphs. And it was now ready for collection!
The practice turned out to be widespread. Even those who had not resorted to professional help had shown their work to mums and dads, former teachers, journalist uncles and aunts and anyone else who might suggest various little ways in which it could be improved. In one way, I suppose, that was praiseworthy. But the end products were useless as indicators of the authors’ real ability and I was blowed if I was going to spend hours evaluating this clearly second-hand stuff. I decided that in future I would trust nothing that had not actually been written right there in the room.
So we scrapped projects, and what a relief that was. Even the choice of subject had frequently created problems. Other people’s jobs were a popular option, and time spent with a social worker, a taxi-driver or a theatre manager could yield good copy. But there was always someone who wanted to write about gold-panning in the wilds of Scotland, or some such obscure topic, and kept asking for odd days off to enable the research to continue. Some subjects we had had to ban completely - religion and sport among them. We put the lid on religion after ploughing through a few cliche-ridden sermons that had required no research and which came close to calling upon us to repent our sins. And the ‘sport’ option usually resulted in 5000 hackneyed words about the student’s favourite team, much of it no doubt lifted from official programmes and similar sources. (Such plagiarism is even easier nowadays - ten minutes of computer-clicking produces enough raw material for half-a-dozen such ‘research projects’.)
It may sound cynical, but the only really useful thing about all this was that we could shamelessly get rid of a whole batch of students for a few days and thus create some time for catching up on administrative work . . . ‘We’re giving you the whole of next week off to devote to your project’ sounds like a truly magnanimous offer. (Even then, the lad researching gold-panning somewhere up near John O’Groats needed more time.) On rare occasions, I have to admit, students could have real fun. One girl, ambitious enough to approach a local RAF station, flew to Norway and back at some incredible speed, and one young lad made two or three return trips to London as an attendant in a railway buffet car. Thirty years on, some things haven’t changed - I notice that the programme of one high-level establishment includes ‘a major journalistic project and dissertation on a topic chosen by the student’. It perhaps works beautifully, but all the old doubts surface in my mind. Who will be able to say how accurate these ‘major’ pieces of journalism are? How will they be assessed? What proportion of the course time will they occupy? And will the students do the whole thing themselves at the keyboard or farm it out to the typist lady who lives down the road?
There was one respect in which students certainly could be relied upon - they would pull a fast one on the lecturers if they could get away with it. I recall nothing malicious, but any soft-hearted member of staff who wielded less than iron-fisted authority laid himself open to the occasional prank. In the vintage academic year of 1974-5 we were blessed with the presence of five lively young fellas who predictably dubbed themselves The Magnificent Five and injected a certain frivolity into the one-year pre-entry course. A lecturer would enter the room and find them wearing funny hats or facing the back of the class, but their best effort was the captive-in-the-cupboard routine. Long-suffering public-administration lecturer Richard Totterdell was the victim as he usually was, on account of his kindly manner, enthusiasm and eagerness to be helpful. Two or three minutes into one of his lectures there was a muffled shout of ‘Let me out’ accompanied by a banging on the inside of a cupboard door. Richard stopped in his tracks and hurried to wrench open the door of one of the cupboards that lined the side of the room. Out stepped one of the Five, uttering extravagant thanks for his rescue. There was much laughter and cheering. But that was only the curtain-raiser. When a further public-admin session began a couple of days later, there were more shouts for help. With an expression signalling both resignation and annoyance, Richard snatched open the same cupboard door - and there on a shelf was a steely-grey Tandberg tape-recorder. It was normally used for teaching English to foreign students. But on this occasion it was shouting ‘Let me out, let me out’.
One lecturer, at the wheel of a sweltering-hot Transit van on an outing to the Yorkshire Dales, drove for miles with all his hazard lights flashing having been persuaded by the Five that the little red switch on the panel controlled the air-conditioning. And, on a different outing, a member of staff was on the verge of reporting the theft of our hired vehicle from a motorway service station when he discovered, with a mixture of relief and displeasure, that it had been driven to a different spot while he was in the toilets. All good wholesome fun. And it must be said that the self-styled Magnificent Five were all bright lads. I have seen one of them several times in a serious investigative role on television, and another is editor of a daily newspaper in what I shall describe deliberately loosely as the bottom right-hand bit of Britain.
It was once the students themselves who were the victims of a fast one - played by none other than comedienne Marti Caine. By this time, Richmond had taken on its second role, as the only one of the NCTJ colleges to train press-photographers as well as reporters. Our lot needed to carry only notebook and pencil, but the photographers had to stagger around with shoulder-bags, fancy metal cases and cameras at the ready. Marti Caine was coming in to do one of her hilarious ‘press conferences’ (‘No, love, I didn’t have to get married - I could have waited another fortnight!’) and the trainee photographers had gathered at the college entrance ready to snatch their ‘celebrity pix’. I waited a few hundred yards down the road and flagged Marti down when she approached in her Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. (‘Well, they say it’s silver under all that muck,’ she told me when I admired it.) As we neared the main entrance to the building the jostling photographers took up their positions, preparing for an ‘alighting from the car’ shot. Marti slowed right down - and then roared off again towards the rear entrance. Turning in my plush leather seat I saw the photographers charging along behind us. ‘Eh, that showed ‘em!’ said Marti. When she left a couple of hours later, an observant student asked why the boot of this posh car was slightly open and fastened with string. It turned out that she had taken the opportunity, while visiting Sheffield, to deliver a carpet to a friend in town. The student seemed to think that such a celebrity should have a chauffeur. ‘You drive this yourself then?’ he asked. Marti grinned and leaned forward as if she was giving him a scoop. ‘Actually,’ she said quietly, ‘my legs go through two holes in the floor and I sort of run along.’ Good old Marti.
About once a month, on a rota drawn up by the vice-principal, two senior members of the teaching staff had to remain in college until 9.00pm as ‘duty lecturers’- a non-teaching role that simply involved spending three hours in the general office, within reach of the main switchboard and the enquiry desk, ready to spring into action in an emergency. When the job first came my way I felt a heavy weight of responsibility - if the place caught fire, or flooded, or there were intruders, the teachers busy in a score of classrooms on three floors would have no idea anything was amiss. But the worst that happened normally was that I had to plod up to the third floor to tell the Spanish teacher that Alice Johnson would be absent because her little brother had measles or that Jim Smith’s uncle couldn’t collect him at 9.15 because his car had broken down. We did have a mystery intruder in the girls’ toilets once, though. Very exciting that was. A girl rushed down three flights of stairs to report the sighting of a pair of boots topped by obviously-male ankles under the door of a lavatory cubicle. The brave duty lecturer went to investigate and discovered a poor chap who, it turned out later, used to spend his evenings in ladies’ toilets, armed with a flask and sandwiches. He toured the local educational establishments, apparently. This just happened to be his night for Richmond.
The college Principal once announced that, as duty lecturers, we represented him and could take decisions on his behalf. There was one high-level decision of that sort that we all hoped would come our way - closing the whole place down early when sudden snow or thick fog threatened to stop the buses and make the students’ homeward journeys difficult and dangerous. And once I actually did it! The thick-fog decision was made on the basis of how clearly the duty lecturer could see one of the lamp-posts near the main entrance. I’d been staring at it for half-an-hour or so one night when it most definitely disappeared completely. This was it, my moment of glory. I picked up the microphone and flicked the switch. ‘Hello, hello,’ I said. ‘There’s thick fog outside. All clear off home . . .’
That sort of thing often led to Reporter copy as well, incidentally, providing our students with a scaled-down example of the way in which power-failures on the London Underground or black-outs at airports inevitably lead to spin-off stories in the nationals. How had the blind students coped, had there been any car-park accidents, had any tricky science experiments been abandoned, did anyone miss the ‘go home’ announcement and get locked in the building . . ? The Reporter newshounds would think along these lines and go trawling for possible stories. Well, the bright ones would . . . some never spotted the opportunity. Much the same situation exists in all provincial newsrooms.
The computers that hum softly on every office desk today had not even been invented in the early seventies as far as we were concerned, and only those who remember the problematical days when typewriters gradually gave way to computers can understand the bizarre difficulties that arose. The Sheffield Star made the historic decision that typewriters were a thing of the past and that their trainees would start to use computers in exams. Sounds simple enough now - and it would have been simple if someone had invented lap-tops. But no - the electronic gadgetry that enabled a couple of reporters to take an exam had to be trundled into the room on an enormous trolley to which the guinea-pig trainees were attached by big fat cables. A typewriter is pretty dependable - but what would happen, we asked, if this awe-inspiring Wizard of Oz apparatus packed up during the exam? The Star had thought of that - a technician sat nearby, ready to spring to the aid of the candidates should they signal that their answers had mysteriously vanished from the screen.
The other candidates, in the meantime, clackety-clacked away on their manual machines, and all went well until the supervisor shouted ‘Time’s up’. Copy paper was snatched out of the typewriters and the manual performers made their last-minute corrections in ink . . . but the electronic whizz-kids had nothing to show for their labours until the technician lashed their keyboards up to a printer and pressed the appropriate button. Early printers were less than perfect, and we ended up with yards of concertina-folded paper on the floor. And then what? Were the candidates allowed to make inky corrections on these state-of-the-art print-outs - when they had gathered them up and decided whose was which - or was their copy deemed to be perfect and ready for the page in accordance with the new enthusiasm for ‘direct input’? Another thing - were the computer people to be allowed extra time for this printing-out palaver? Or should they finish five minutes before the rest, to allow print-out time? And could they be allowed extra time if their computers went all funny during the exam and started writing backwards or producing the words in vertical form instead of in a horizontal line? These questions, and others in similar vein, had to be debated nationally so that we all knew where we stood.
Computers raised the spectre of yet another horror - the total disappearance of everything that a candidate had written in the past two hours. It happened once, not in college but in a mock exam conducted by a colleague during an in-house training session at a newspaper office. A tea-lady, entering the room with a trolley, found the way barred by a power cable. So she unplugged it and thus wiped out several hundred words of carefully-crafted prose. We had to invent
hi-tec devices of our own, usually involving sticky tape, to prevent such disasters.
The students mostly had no idea of what was going on behind the scenes. Such was the case when we invited representatives of the National Union of Journalists and the rival Institute of Journalists to come to college and address a captive audience of trainees, all of them potential Union or Institute members. The NUJ chap - obviously highly-principled - initially threatened not to turn up if the IoJ was represented, but he agreed to come provided there was a decent gap on the platform between him and his opponent and on the understanding that, while addressing the trainees, they wouldn’t actually have to speak to each other. I smiled my way through polite introductions and all went well.
Bitter emotion bubbled beneath the surface as the IoJ man occasionally tried wickedly to trick his opposite number into a rejoinder. The trainees, asking their innocent questions, noticed nothing amiss, though we enjoyed talking about it later in the classrooms. The NUJ chap refused a proffered handshake at the end, and I can still see him making his grumpy exit from the lecture theatre.
Union representatives and editors came to college every three months or so for Friday-afternoon meetings of the Yorkshire Training Committee, a regional offshoot of the National Council that kept us on our toes. They would scrutinise the latest examination results and demand explanation whenever our results were not the best in the country. Shorthand was the thorniest subject - Pitman 2000 in the early years, contentiously replaced later by Teeline on the nationally-agreed grounds that the excellent Pitman system was too difficult for journalists to master. (The standard 100wpm pieces were initially four minutes long, but they eventually became two-minute pieces for a similar dubious reason.)
At one meeting, someone noticed that there was a 100-per-cent pass-rate at one of the colleges and demanded to know why we managed only about 70 per cent. Puzzled, I made some enquiries - and I was delighted to find that, at the other place, only those who were already known to be good at shorthand were entered for the exams. At least we came clean about our lot, I told the editors at the next meeting. When grumbles about failures reached a particularly high level at one meeting, I announced that - just to balance the picture - I had arranged for a shorthand tutor to come in and give the assembled editors a run-through at a modest 80wpm. No need for that, they muttered.
This business of relative standards at the six far-flung colleges occupied our minds greatly. The rivalry, though, was essentially good-natured, and someone at one of the other places had the bright idea of arranging for lecturers to meet occasionally, outside the NCTJ frame, to discuss common concerns. Thus was created the Association of Lecturers in Journalism, a worthy organisation that sadly survived for only a couple of years - mainly because members had to pay their own way for overnight accommodation and hundreds of miles of travel. It was good fun while it lasted though, and I still remember seven or eight of us gathering in a London pub for a cheery sing-song after a hard day discussing timetables, absenteeism, projects and consistency of marking. (I was the piano-player - and the landlord offered me a job. I had to decline.)
Talk of standards reminds me that we once came under the scrutiny of Her Majesty’s inspectors. Somebody had spotted, rather belatedly, that we should not be working in a further-education college at all - we were only journalists and were not qualified for the job. There was a serious suggestion that we might be sent to a teacher-training establishment in Huddersfield, one at a time, for formal instruction. But, in the event, the HMI’s visit proved to be our finest hour. After observing us at work for a week, dropping in on various sessions without prior warning, the wise and perceptive gent produced a written affirmation that our class-control, methods and rapport with students were beyond criticism. Journalists, he concluded, had the communication skills that teachers needed. We made sure that his report got a wide airing in college and we walked tall, half expecting to be offered jobs at Huddersfield.
The HMI spotlight had been turned upon us because we operated not in a journalism school as such but in the company of ‘real’ lecturers in various disciplines. When journalism first came to the college it had to be allocated a place somewhere, and the ‘Department of Languages and Journalism’ was created. Our operation was almost totally autonomous, but occasionally we had to play our part as loyal members of the department - which explains why one day I found myself invigilating a German A-level examination. The responsibility weighed heavily on me.
Several dozen students scribbled silently as I sat with one eye on the clock and the other on signs of possible cheating. I conscientiously counted down the final seconds and called time . . . and at that moment a colleague popped in to say I was wanted on the phone. I ushered out the last of the students and hurried to take the call . . . and half an hour later, as I drove out of the college gates on my way home, I suddenly remembered the German exam. I broke into a sweat. The papers would still be on the desks. The room would be unsupervised. Suppose the cleaners had already moved in and swept everything off into big black sacks! I did a screeching three-point turn in the road, raced back to college, parked untidily near the gates and charged up three flights of stairs. The room was exactly as I’d left it. Whew! I composed myself and then calmly collected the papers, securing them as I’d been instructed and depositing them safely in a steel cabinet in an office downstairs. The consequences could have been dreadful but, heaven be praised, no-one ever knew.
We were only journalists, you see. We were unfamiliar with the tried-and-tested procedures that proper teachers take for granted. Our talent, indeed - such as it was - lay in devising new ways of doing things. Take the dismal job of marking, for example. It’s easy to concoct, say, a tricky inquest exercise . . . but it’s no fun to trudge through fifteen versions of it late in the evening, red pen in one hand and coffee (or a glass of wine) in the other. It’s not a job that can be rushed. Every sentence, every quote, every comma must be examined carefully in fairness to the students. So I came up with the ‘individual recorded tutorials in a cupboard’ scheme, of which I was enormously proud at the time.
The idea was that, instead of laboriously marking with a red pen, I sat and spoke into a microphone, recording my comments on a reel of tape that bore the individual student’s name. The tape and the accompanying copy went on to a shelf in a specially-adapted cupboard that housed a Tandberg tape-recorder that we borrowed from the language people. At any time convenient to them, the students could open the cupboard doors and sit at the machine, wearing headphones, and hear my words of wisdom as they leafed through their written work. Brilliant! Sadly, it didn’t last. It wasn’t just that tapes and copy - and even the tape-recorder - used to go missing. It was more the fact that students felt silly crouched in a cupboard with headphones on.
To my colleague Peter Collins, though, goes the credit for inventing an ingenious system of dealing with the initial stage of marking. He would read swiftly through each piece of copy in a matter of seconds and mentally give it a gut-reaction grade. An impressive piece he would drop on the floor near the skirting-board and a clearly-abysmal effort he would sling a few feet away. Within two or three minutes, on the principle of better-than-that-one or worse-than-that-one, he had the students’ work sorted out in order of merit, which was a great help when it came to the more detailed red-pen bit. (He also used to claim that he sometimes marked copy to the accompaniment of televised snooker, awarding an ‘A’ to those pieces that were good enough to take his mind off the game. But I think he was joking.)
The students, of course, knew nothing of all this. They just got on with their studying, their partying and their drinking and hoped that they would pass their end-of-course exams and - eventually - the NCTJ Proficiency Test for which all this was simply a preparation. The college was one of the regional ‘Prof Test’ centres, and we were always amazed to see the transformation in our former trainees when they turned up on the big day. We had never seen the lads wearing ties before, and the girls - enjoying their transient role as students - had not normally worn smart suits or stylish dresses.
Impressively professional on the outside, they were very nervous on the inside. They tried to make themselves believe what we had told them so often, that in the news-story interview section no-one was out to trick them with deeply-hidden angles and obscure hints. A colleague of mine once chanced to be walking along the corridor behind a group of candidates on ‘Prof Test’ day and overheard a hilarious snippet of conversation. Asked how he’d fared in the interview room, one candidate said cheerily that he had got on like a house on fire. ‘What?’ spluttered another. ‘House on fire? The bloke didn’t say anything about a house on fire to me. What house? Bloody hell, I've failed - I know I have.'