Four decades of typing, phoning, catching planes, being lied to

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A few days ago, I read that Hans Klein had died. He was not exactly a German politician, although he sat in the Bundestag and was for a while a junior minister. His real fame rested on his skill as a spin-doctor, as advocate to journalists for a string of forbidding politicians and causes.

I never liked so much a man whose politics I disliked so much. "Johnny" Klein was a small, lively figure with round spectacles and a pointed beard, much given to disrespectful laughter. He was born in the Sudetenland, and like many Sudeten Germans he had a curiously Slav sense of the world's absurdity. The glazed pomposity of Bonn politics vexed and amused him by turns. This did not prevent him from acting as a tireless PR man for the late Franz-Josef Strauss, the original bull in the political china shop, and from getting involved in all kinds of shady enterprises.

The only time I ever saw him disconcerted was when I ran into him on a South African military airfield in the Caprivi Strip. The war in Namibia was raging and the airfield was being used for secret raids across the frontier into Zambia. For once, dapper Johnny had nothing to say. I never found out what he was up to. Strauss had recently visited Namibia, trying to set up some sort of anti-Communist crusade among the old German settlers there. Perhaps Johnny was drumming up South African military support for that scheme. Just possibly, he was working for an arms dealer.

Searching through old notebooks for memories of Johnny, I realised suddenly that I have been a journalist for 40 years. It was in the autumn of 1956, in Manchester, that I was received into provisional membership of the National Union of Journalists. Like most occasions on the old Manchester Guardian, it was grave; I retain an impression of lean, white-haired men looking down on me with mistrust as I signed my name. But to look back on four decades of typing, phoning, catching planes and being lied to - isn't that a moment for gravity? As I write this, I see Johnny Klein's owlish face, trying not to burst out in mocking laughter. Yes, it has been fun.

It would be easy to go on about the purpose of journalism. I always envied my German colleagues; when you asked them what they were for, they would confidently reply: "Meinungsbildung" - the formation of public opinion. Wider ambitions to make people laugh or cry, or to make their hair stand on end, were puzzling to them. All the same, it was a relief to move from Britain, where the words "I'm a reporter" usually led to a door slammed on one's foot and mutters about scum or reptiles, to a culture where the response was an awed: "Ach, Herr Doktor! Please come in!"

But journalism is a trade with skills, rather than a profession, and the first thing I remember when I look back is my tools. For many years, I thought that the best notebooks in the world were the blank spiral-backs made and sold by Brown's of the Mound, in Edinburgh (Muriel Spark thought she would have to stop writing when Brown's closed, but the bookseller James Thin rescued British fiction by finding her some old Brown's stock). But then, one day in Mozambique, I ran out of notebook and Colette Braeckman, the Africa specialist of le Soir, gave me one of hers.

Now follows a commercial. The notebook Colette gave me was a Clairefontaine, made in France, and since then I have used no other. Like many journalists, I am a stationery fetishist. The faint scent of good paper and marker ink; the array of notebooks fat and thin, feint or plain, waiting to be filled with words; the hospitable ring-binders; the ranks of ballpoints and crystal-points and felt-tips; the phone pads and folders and giant paperclips ... these things draw me in from the pavement and drug me with desire. The Clairefontaine I love most is a plump little creature, spiral- backed and with a glazed checked cover, containing 180 pages of cream- laid graph paper but small enough to drop into a pocket. (In Britain, the only source I know is in London: La Page, in Harrington Road.)

Now that I have ceased to lug typewriters across the world, I wonder if I was really fond of any of them. We grew intimate enough: the memory of lifting an Olympia portable into an aircraft's overhead locker is as physically real to me as the memory of lifting a baby to my shoulder. I knew how to oil my first Olivetti, how to replace lost screws and return- springs with paper-clips and elastic. I shook desert sand, hairy toffees and cigar-ash out of those typewriters, and hid secret Polish addresses under the carriage. But the noise and effort of typing was always a nuisance. The laptop at least frees up the imagination.

All the same, when I first saw computer screens (on a Basque newspaper in Bilbao) they struck me as ideal for composing poetry but not much else. I have learnt better since. But the places where I worked were subject to power cuts and weird current surges, driving colleagues with early modems into nervous breakdowns. For years I preferred to dictate my stories by telephone, and the voice of a good copytaker - who understood and was interested by what he or she was taking down - was always the best medicine against loneliness and paranoia.

Any journalist of my age has some nostalgia for the days when papers were written, set and printed in the same building. I miss the flailing old Linotype machines in the composing room which said ETAOINSHRDLU on their keyboards instead of QWERTYUIOP, the wet galley-proofs and the intent huddle round the stone, the moment every night when the building shivered as the presses - deep underground, huge as a battleship's engines - began to turn. But above all I miss the company of printers and compositors, who forced the journalists to remember realities which were not virtual.

Before the change came, the journalist Bruce Page argued that "hot-metal journalism" imposed a certain style; computers would generate a different way of writing. He was right. Stories had been stiffly constrained, with obligatory "leads" at the top and less urgent matter at the end - because on the stone the columns of type were usually cut from the bottom. Today, the writing in newspapers is far more "natural" and personal. But the ease of screen and keyboard also makes people write more. Papers that would once have thought it generous to offer Tolstoy 500 words are now full of vacuous rabbiting-on.

In my 40 years at the trade, I have lived many office lives. I began in Manchester, where the typewriters balanced on sloping lecterns at which Howard Spring once stood to write theatre reviews with a relief nib. Now I work at Canary Wharf, where people sit lost in contemplation of their screens and the only sound is air-conditioning. Perhaps the best office was the old Observer building in Tudor Street, contemplative in a different way:

"Anybody seen Roy Perrott?"

"Isn't he in Upper Volta?"

"Well, he certainly isn't in his room."

But the real locus of my four decades has been the hotel room, each slightly different but each really the same. I once had a daydream about an excavation in a desert, in which scholars were opening a strange L-shaped tomb. A bathroom with rusted shaving tackle, a dressing-table bearing the organic traces of room-service ham sandwiches, some bottles, the scattered letter- keys of a typewriter, a heap of buttons from dirty clothes thrown on the floor ... Finally the extended skeleton on the bed, grasping a shrivelled yellow object which must have been a telephone. On the wall, traces of graffiti:

"Get me copy."

"Bit busy at the moment, lad, we'll call you back."