IT was in early January 48 years ago that I arrived in Newcastle upon Tyne to begin a school-leavers’ course at the Thomson Regional Newspapers training centre. The office was in the Bigg Market, hub of Geordie nightlife, but for us aspiring hacks there was little fun in store.
Along with two other lads from Lancashire, I had been billeted in Wallsend, where an icy wind whipped off the Tyne and through the bleak terrace streets. The sole form of heating for a three-bedroom flat was a two-bar electric fire in the living room. After one night, the chill had entered my bones and would remain there until summer.
We turned up at the office for introductory drinks on a Sunday evening (much to my chagrin as it meant we were missing Monty Python) and met our fellow students, ten boys mainly from Scotland and five girls. Our tutors introduced themselves as Brian Marsden, Walter Greenwood and the head honcho, John Brownlee, a rotund, fiftyish Mr Toad lookalike who was without doubt the most self-satisfied, puffed-up pillock I have ever met. Before we left that night we had already been informed that we were lucky to be taught by the greatest figure in the history of journalism; a message which would continue to be rammed home throughout the next five months.
‘When I was on the [minor Newcastle rag] Sunday Sun,’ Brownlee would intone with a faint smile, ‘I would go out on a Saturday morning and get 20 stories by lunchtime. And another 20 by close of play.’ Even if true, this was the extent of his newspaper experience. If he had reached the nationals they would have made mincemeat of him.
Apart from lessons in shorthand, local government and newspaper law, on the latter of which Greenwood was an expert having co-written a revised edition of Essential Law For Journalists, there was a great deal of play-acting.
One such exercise involved the routine morning calls to police and fire brigade to discover the overnight incidents. For some reason, Brownlee & Co suggested that the Old Bill were generally reluctant to release information and it had to be chivvied out of them. ‘So, when you ring you must sound lively and interested, and not give them the chance to cut you off. Get them chatting. The very LAST thing you should say is, “Nothing doing?”.’
We were then required to put this advice into practice. Greenwood disappeared into another room, where he would pose as a bobby. With a surname beginning with A, I was first up to make a call to him. For a snotty young shaver with a healthy disrespect for authority, watched by a gang of fellow-teenagers, this was an opportunity too good to miss.
The phone rang, he picked up and announced: ‘Newcastle Police, Sergeant Greenwood speaking.’
‘Morning, Sergeant Greenwood,’ I said. ‘Alan Ashworth here, from the Evening Star. Nothing doing?’
From next door came the sound of a telephone crashing on to a desk and seconds later Wally steamed in. ‘I suppose you think that’s funny!’ he roared. I couldn’t resist a smirk while most of the other students tittered, with the exception of a priggish lassie from Dundee who looked shocked.
It was the beginning of a fractious relationship between me and the tutors, who made it clear that they hated my guts. Half way through the course we were allowed a week off, during which we had to visit our parent newspaper to discuss our mid-term report. My editor in Burnley, Dennis Taylor, was off that week so my meeting was with his deputy, a lovely man named Tony Watson.
‘Well, lad,’ said Tony. ‘It says here that you are arrogant, disrespectful, lazy, stir up trouble and show no sign of any talent. What do you say to that?’
I replied: ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t take the course seriously. If these people were half as good as they say they are, they’d be editing newspapers not boasting to teenage whipper-snappers like me. Just wait until I get started here and you’ll see if I’m any good.’
‘Quite right and well said,’ said Tony (God bless him). ‘Come on and I’ll buy you a pint.’
Brownlee & Co were surprised to see me again, having expected their report to strangle my career at birth. Relations continued to be frosty as ever.
One of their pet projects was the District Drive, where each student would be allotted an area in which to spend a day before coming back with stories which would be offered to the local papers, the Journal and Evening Chronicle. I was sent to Throckley, a village seven miles west of the city.
One of our ports of call, we were advised, should always be the parsonage, where we’d be furnished with cups of tea and the local gossip. I duly headed for Throckley Vicarage, and hit paydirt. Invited in by the Reverend, I noticed in the hall several cartoons which appeared to show him in a leotard. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘I’m a professional wrestler in my spare time.’
For the next hour I scribbled as he went into great detail about his time in the ring, confiding that yes, some matches were fixed but only when they were billed as exhibition bouts. He gave no hint of ever having been interviewed on this subject before.
A genuine scoop! That’ll wipe the smirk off Brownlee’s face, I thought as I headed back.
The following morning saw a world first as I got to the office early. ‘All right, how did you get on yesterday?’ asked Brownlee, flanked by his henchmen. ‘Very well, actually.’ ‘Remind us, where did you go?’ ‘Throckley.’ ‘Oh God,’ they chorused, ‘not the f***ing wrestling vicar again.’
Some people might bear a grudge at having been thus stitched up. And I am definitely one of them.
Recipe Corner: Pea and bacon soup
Just the thought of winter in Wallsend makes me crave comfort food, of which thick pea and bacon soup is a prime example. You will need a very large saucepan, a kilo of dried marrowfat peas, some nice strong stock and a kilo packet of what is sold in supermarkets as ‘cooking bacon’, although I cannot imagine what other sort of bacon there is. Wallpapering bacon? Noseblowing bacon? Anyway, it generally sells for not much more than a quid.
Soak the peas overnight in water with some bicarbonate of soda added. The following day, chop up the bacon into small pieces, setting aside any bits of fat or rind which you can put out for the birds. They will be grateful. In the saucepan, fry the bacon in chicken fat or lard, if you have it, otherwise whatever cooking oil you prefer. After ten or 15 minutes drain the soaked peas and add to the pan with maybe a pint and a half of stock. Bring to the boil then simmer slowly, stirring frequently and adding liquid if it looks too dry, until the peas disintegrate, probably in about three hours. This should give you at least 20 bowls of lovely, filling soup.
A PS from PG
I’m not absolutely certain of my facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare – or, if not, it’s some equally brainy lad – who says that it’s always just when a chappie is feeling particularly top-hole, and more than usually braced with things in general, that Fate sneaks up behind him with a bit of lead piping.
PG Wodehouse: My Man Jeeves