Monday, February 5, 2018

My Log 595, Feb 5 2018: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 32; Small-town journalism in a left-wing English city; and then I meet a new phenomenon in Canada, technology designed to keep unions from ever crossing the doorstep

We arrived in England late in 1951, but I did not get an offer as a journalist until two years later when I received a surprise answer to my response to an ad in the World Press News, which each Thursday I scoured for job opportunities.  The offer came from the editor of The Coventry Standard, and after an initial visit this man, Edgar Letts, offered me a job as a reporter. Although Coventry was the first big city we had lived in (apart from London) this was small-town journalism with a vengeance.  The newspaper, a weekly, had been founded back in the eighteenth century. It was owned by The Coventry Telegraph, the local daily, which evidently was trying to make up its mind what to do with this odd little paper, published from its odd little rooms in a small mews in the city centre of this much-bombed city. Edgar Letts was a sort of phenomenon, almost of the Fred Miller type, whom I had first encountered in Invercargill. Except he wasn’t modest and human like Fred, but was full of what I have to call a sort of pathetic English pomposity.
He had decided on certain ways in which he could raise his circulation, for example, by taking photographs of weddings, family events and so on, then selling the pictures to those photographed, and hoping that they would buy the newspaper to see them printed.
Somehow or other this seemed to be working, adding a few subscriptions a week. He had also initiated a feature called Our Farmer Friends, one of the jobs that was given to me. Every week I sallied out into the countryside to interview a farmer about his farm, what he was growing there, who he was selling it to, and so on. And in this way, too, he might add one or two a week to his list of subscribers. I enjoyed these jobs, because I got to learn about English farming, and especially about the almost medieval conditions on which farmland was leased, usually from some big landowner. One thing I discovered that was surprising was that a farm I visited which had only scrub vegetation was nevertheless classified as Grade A land because he was raising goats, which will eat anything, and, when milked, will give the best  milk available anywhere. That farmer was making a killing by selling his goat milk to London hospitals: goat’s milk did not need to be pasteurized, which killed the health-giving enzymes, because goats were not prey to tuberculosis.
We found it almost impossible to find anywhere to live in Coventry. Shirley, as usual, was snapped up by the first principal she came in touch with, so she had a more or less permanent job during our year there. But we were never able to find anywhere to live except a small room, with a tiny gas ring to cook on, one of 16 similar rooms in a large house kept by a Communist landlord who worked for the city. Some communist, that one!
The inconvenience of this was bearable; we even had our friends around for visits. But what interested me most about Coventry was that it was run by an old-fashioned city council made up of self-educated unionists of the Labour party who  loved cocking a snook at the  powers that be. Coventry was a thoroughly Labour town, thanks to the workers in all the highly specialized factories, especially those manufacturing motor vehicles. When the central government in London decided that every municipality had to have a civil defence system to defend themselves against nuclear war, the Coventry city council would have none of it. A waste of time, they said, and refused to install it. So the central government, to preserve its dignity, had to install the system itself.
The city council twinned with the city of Stalingrad --- infuriating the popular press --- partly as a provocation against the British establishment, and partly in recognition of each city’s having been sorely used during the war. The city had drawn up a plan for rebuilding the central area that had been destroyed by German bombing. The new Cathedral, designed by Sir Basil Spence, one of the great British architects, was well underway, but the rest of the reconstruction was jogging along at a very measured pace. The old-time union politicians who ran the council had no time for the press, and when Edgar Letts decided to protest that they so frequently went into camera to discuss business, those of us who were present as reporters had to refuse to leave, in accordance with our instructions from our editor.  I didn’t like it, but the council adjourned, got in touch with Edgar, and they came to a compromise, so we were withdrawn from the chamber, Edgar considering he had protected the freedom of the press.
The staff we had was very much of an ad hoc character. We had two young local lads as apprentice reporters (one of them in later life became head of the BBC’s London area news service); the Chief Reporter when I arrived was an Australian from Hobart, who was filling in time while making a leisurely visit to England. For a time we had an ageing man who had been a Fleet Street guy until the liquor got the better of him: now he was just filling in his time, hoping to be able to keep himself together long enough to pick up his wages every week. Not surprisingly, he didn’t last too long. Our sub-editor used to cycle in on his tricycle every morning from Leamington, a nearby town, and we also had another reporter, a South African, whose naked hatred of the blacks in his home country exhibited itself in his despicable way of speaking of them, and set my nerves on edge.
I took advantage of the opportunity to write a weekly column about film and theatre, and was able to interview many performers at the various theatres in which I took an interest. These included the local variety house, the Hippodrome; the Belgrade theatre company, a local repertory, not yet established in its own home; the Birmingham rep, one of Britain’s most famous repertory companies; the amateur groups in Kenilworth, and locally; and the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare company.  All were within thirty or forty miles, no problem for us with our new scooter. Eventually the Aussie and his friend, an English reporter, left, and I was promoted to the top position, a sort of combination of Chief Sub-editor and Chief Reporter.
When the time came for me to leave --- we were intending to emigrate to Canada --- at least Edgar did not offer me more money, but thanked me for my service, and wished me well.
My last experience of a small town newspaper came with my first job in Canada. It was well-known that Thomson Newspapers in Toronto would hire anyone who would work for the miserable wages they offered. The job they offered me was in Kirkland Lake, northern Ontario, in their newspaper the Northern Daily News. Here I ran across something I had never before seen, a system of handling news designed specifically to ensure that no union ever crossed the doorstep.  The editorials and features were written in Toronto and sent out from there. The paper was kept ticking over by two long-term Thomson employees, the editor and sub-editor. Such local reporting as was needed was done by our remarkable staff of me, a New Zealander, a young South African (married to a New Zealand girl), a Jamaican (who kept his house heated to above 80 degrees all winter long), and an Englishman named Giles Wordsworth, descendant of the great poet, who was engrossed in absorbing everything about the local scene. Our photographer was the later famous chronicler of the Canadian North, Fred Bruemmer.
It was a lot of fun, so long as you didn’t mind being expected to work at any time of any day, and for minimal wages. We lasted three months, at the end of which we took off for Kenora in the far north-west of the province of Ontario, where Shirley had obtained a teaching job for $1500 a year in a small rural school.
 It was New Year’s Day, 1955, when we took a milk train from North Bay right across the breadth of Ontario. The whole snow-covered landscape was of endless evergreen forest, countless lakes, and rocks. Each stop was about 90 miles from its neighbor, and the people travelling from one place to another were mostly Finnish bushworkers visiting their neighbours, where most of them must have arrived more  or less the worse for wear after all the holiday festivities.
Six months later, in response to an article I had contributed criticizing something in the paper, I was offered a job by the Winnipeg Free Press, and I took it, ending my career as a denizen of the small-town newspaper.
Towards which exhilarating experience I have never had a moment’s regret.

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