Working to find the write stuff

The world of work has changed. Hunter Davies looks back on 40 years of being a happy hack

Hunter Davies
Monday 31 August 1998 23:02

I STARTED work 40 years ago today. I still have the letter, framed on my wall, from Robert Walker, news editor of the Manchester Evening Chronicle, confirming my appointment as a reporter. The salary in September 1958 was pounds 14 a week.

I was 22 and had just left Durham University where I had written for Palatinate, the student paper, and I thought, "how do I get a real job doing this?" The university appointments people were no help, though someone in my college said that a bloke called Harry Evans, who had been at the college eight years earlier, was now in journalism.

I found out there were two so-called training schemes for graduates - Westminster Press and Kelmsley Newspapers. I chose Kelmsley - which then became Thomson - because their papers were in big cities. The Withy Grove, Manchester office of Kelmsley was the biggest newspaper office in Europe. Apart from the Chron, which boasted 1 million readers every night, they produced the northern editions of nationals, such as The Sunday Times, Empire News, Sunday Graphic and Sunday Chronicle, plus the Daily Mirror, News of the World and The Daily Telegraph.

The training scheme was a joke. No courses, no exams. I did go to shorthand lessons, found myself with a class of 14-year-old girls, and gave up. They were too quick for me.

The advantage, for a graduate, was that if you survived a year they might move you around in the group. For the first few weeks I was sent out with a senior reporter, Barry Cockcroft. We would go to the scene of a crime or accident, Barry would get a few quotes from the police, the fire chief, a couple of witnesses - then he'd rush to a telephone box and dictate a story that made sense straight off.

When my time came, I stood behind the phone box for about two hours, scribbling away, and then got an awful bollocking from the deputy news editor, who hated me, and hated all graduates, because I had missed three editions. In those days, the Chron, and our deadly rival the News, had about six different editions a day.

I slowly realised it was all a trick. Barry had about five formats for such news stories, which fitted almost anything.

After nine months, I was moved to London on the Sunday Graphic. It was Fleet Street. Nine months later, in January 1960, I joined The Sunday Times.

I was the boy reporter on the Atticus column , under Robert Robinson, and then Nicholas Tomalin. I thought: "I'm stuck here; I'll never move up; you have to be Oxbridge or public school." And it was pretty boring, having to write about who would be the next Bishop of London or Master of Balliol. Then, in the mid-Sixties it all changed. I was able to write about the people I wanted to: gritty northern writers, scruffy Cockney photographers, Liverpool pop singers. I was on The Sunday Times for about 20 years, doing many things including editing the colour magazine and the women's pages - or the Look! pages, as we trendily called them.

Since then I have become a media tart, or, as it is known, a freelancer. I will write for anyone about anything - well, almost. Over the years, I've done regular columns for Punch, Stamp News, and currently the New Statesman

Plus columns that didn't turn out so regular. The London Evening Standard gave me the push after six months, because I was praising comprehensives too often. I think. The Independent on Sunday sacked me because they wanted a woman columnist.

I was the TV critic on the Mail on Sunday's Night and Day section for six months when the editor, Jocelyn Targett, came all the way from London to the Lake District to see me, in his chauffeur-driven Jag. We did a 10-minute walk to the lake, he sacked me, got in his Jag and drove back. I was so amazed I forgot to ask why. It came out later that David English had taken against me, especially when I boasted I'd never seen EastEnders.

This is the nature of anyone in the media. In the olden days, papers were grossly overstaffed, so if you fell out of favour, you could sit around and have longer lunches.

These days, there are no lunches, for most hacks. They sit silent in front of their screen all day, in their vast, open plan offices, not talking, not communing, working late, seeing very little of real life, which is why they have to get their inspiration from the rest of the media.

They are all following each other's tales. Today, I work every morning on my books then, around one o'clock, I get a call from some breathless executive, straight out of morning conference, who will say, "Quick, Hunt, can you do us 800 words on trainers?" "What's the angle," I say. "Oh, there's a par saying that Nike's shares have fallen." I was asked by three different papers to do that. They all saw the same little story and thought of the same follow-up.

Papers don't have the staff feature writers they once had, and the differences between tabloid and broadsheet have almost disappeared. Executives move around between them, and they take their contacts with them.

It's good that there are so many papers, even if they are London-based. Strange how so-called modern technology has reduced the number of different editions. There are no northern editions at all. Withy Grove in Manchester is a shell, about to become a multiplex cinema, and young reporters are now properly trained media graduates.

In the Sixties, if I got a good show in The Sunday Times, I knew that almost everyone I met next day would have read it. Now I often don't even read my own stuff - there are just so many papers, so many sections. I can't now remember who I did that piece on trainers for - or if it appeared - but I did get paid...

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