It all got off to a bad start on a bank holiday Monday – 40 years ago.
“Are you sure I start on Monday?” I asked the news editor, who could have stepped from the screen of Citizen Kane. “Only it’s a bank holiday.”
The legend that was Len Whiteside barked a laugh. “Bank holiday, bud? Does news take a bank holiday? Does news sleep?”
He was still chuckling, in a deeply unsettling manner, when he slammed the phone down.
That was it. I was in. Seated alongside the giants of journalism of the day. Jackie Heap. Peter “Rodders” Myerscough. Peter Baxter. David Pearce. Susan Greenhalgh – my age when she died just four months after early retirement.
Breaking bread, the crumbs of news for cub reporters, with Craig Fleming and Robin Duke. Breaking bad and good news as we beat a path to the door of those coveted front page leads and features. Banging out copy on heavy Olivetti typewriters, on slips of copy paper to be passed to news editors, sub editors. proof readers and beyond to the typesetters, the presses striking up with a roar at the purple prose below.
I’d be dispatched to the streets with the words “there are a thousand news stories out there, bud, find one.” And I did. I’d get on a bus and stop at a potential story. I once spotted a woman feeding a small menagerie in the back yard of a pub at Layton, stopped and bagged a picture story. I’d get a bag of chips and chat to holidaymakers on the beach. Or ensconce myself in Roberts Oyster Bar, bottle of bubbly from Yates’s and oysters courtesy of an indulgent editor, watching big name broadcasters and politicians canoodling with research assistants thinking the alcoves accorded them invisibility or parliamentary privilege to stray.
How the mighty would have fallen faster in the age of social media, selfies, instagrams. The River House and Imperial Hotel offered even richer pickings.
But first some breaking news. I never wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a teacher. Now I never want to be anything other than a journalist.
It is a rare privilege to be granted access to other people’s lives and allowed to write without having the copy pre-approved – the hurdle I’m about to face as a freelance writer.
I need words like other people need air. I came to words late in childhood, blocked by a learning disability, learning to read at nine, and words, the reading of them, the writing of them rather than the uttering of them, have been my escape ever since.
Becoming a journalist helped me pay the bills before and after my father died, keep a roof above my mother’s head. It kept the wolves from the door but not the Lions.
The charity turned up the Christmas before dad died, asking for food donations. My mother broke down. They returned days later with a hamper full of goodies.
In years to come I returned the compliment with publicity for both the Lions and Cancer Relief – the charities who helped us out at our lowest point.
Socially, I’m awkward, face to face, often crushingly shy. Press credentials prop up my confidence so I don’t falter with my foot at the door of the home of some ne’er do well, or dead girl’s parents, or celebrity with a chip on his shoulder and a mouthful of plums.
Words are oxygen. When I first joined the West Lancashire Evening Gazette in the 70s I was stifled, choking with grief. My father was dying. He was given three months. He lasted three years. The paper got me through it. It’s got me through every crisis, and there have been many, ever since.
I arrived with short stories which had been commended in national children’s writing competitions and an essay which had won The Gazette’s own Young Seasiders Competition.
I penned my application to become an indentured journalist with the posh fountain pen I’d won in that contest.
The editor who presented the prize gave me the job.
It’s been a joy in recent months to re-read the words of a man who became a mentor to me back then– Sir Harold Grime. I’d get summoned to his eyrie for a pat on the back or a kick in the butt, once after setting out to savage some amdram production.
“Remember these people are amateurs, my dear girl,” he said. “They devote their spare time to their craft. Do not dip your pen in venom – save that for the politicians.”
I adored HRG, he had style, wit and a way with words even to the last when his usual champagne restorative had to be replaced with regular infusions of blood.
But it wasn’t long before I was banished from Victoria Street, Blackpool to Wood Street, St Annes.
The posting to the Lytham St Annes Express was the breaking and making of me.
I’d landed the council beat, a council that met at night with members who talked their way to extra allowances, leaving me sat at the teleprinter in the early hours relaying copy across.
It was the beginning of my love-hate affair with local councils.
And it wasn’t long before my own look at alleged corruption in local government saw me land a job at Liverpool’s Radio City.
I became night editor, prone to faux pas at four in the morning, merging City and shipbuilding with disastrous consequences verbally.
I wrestled Mitzi Mueller, interviewed Michael Heseltine at his most condescending, Eric Heffer at his most ebullient, Robert Kilroy Silk at his most flirtatious and Cilla Black at her most scouse.
I worked alongside Keith Chegwin, Paul Rowley, Clive Tyldesley, Paul Davies and Roy Saatchi. Great men.
But it ended after I was raped, far from the station, and in my own home to boot thanks to my own misjudgment.
I found myself writing about it years later when working on a piece about women’s safety and suddenly found other words pouring forth, taking over, cleansing, cathartic.
I heard my boss apologise to the sub editor. “I’m so sorry I had no idea Jacqui was going to write this.” And his reply: “Don’t worry, it’s a bloody good read.”
And that was that, my rape dismissed as a “bloody good read”, and strange as it seems that helped too, placing it in a perspective any presswoman could appreciate for we know that no matter how tough life can be – there is always someone worse off. We’ve met them, interviewed them.
You need a thick skin to be a journalist. You stop taking yourself so seriously when interviewing a mother whose grown up daughter has not only been raped but murdered. Or worrying about whether your cancer drug will cause cataracts when there are women racing for life in recovery, or remission, the end post themselves.
It’s better to be a journalist than a police officer for we see far more of the good in people – as well as a little of the bad.
But I’ve stood on the spot where a girl, little more than a child, is said to have dispensed services to men for pocket money – and wondered what the hell the world is coming to.
I’ve mourned our lost children. I’ve door stepped people on who I’ve already passed judgement and gazed into their eyes and seen their sorrow and left feeling ashamed – for no one deserves that level of grief.
I’ve shared the joy – of recovery, of targets reached, of campaigns paying off, big hearted Blackpool’s charitable giving exceeding all expectations.
I’ve worn a burka and had my view of the world changed forever, taken the helm of a lifeboat, snogged a Hollywood star, stood with Everest explorer Alfred Gregory at the top of The Tower, escorted First and Second World War veterans back to battlefields and think of them each Remembrance Day.
I’ve wanted to punch suited booted panellists who thought fund-glutted Manchester more suited to a supercasino, shaken maggots off my shoes after stepping into the conditions in which some people live, and stood outside a doss house from which addicts were taken out in body bags and had to tell politicians to speak to the bereft mother at the gate, trying to tell them her son may have lived had the system helped sooner.
I’ve stood on the deck of an Icelandic trawler as dawn broke on a harbour reshaped by volcano, swum with dolphins in the Red Sea, ridden camels in the Negev, watched a Hercules refuel mid-air and stood behind pilots as it landed on Ascension Island, walked a plank over San Carlos Sound and gazed at a war grave below.
I’ve watched a queue of widows in Nicosia spit on the remains of a suicide bomber, and wondered whether terrorists who gift wrapped incendiary devices in children’s toys in Blackpool had kids of their own.
There’s so much more I could say about how I feel about this job, this paper, the people, the role it plays, must continue to play, but it sounds like a bad remake of Blade Runner.
I will miss my colleagues, the banter, deadlines, whingeing, dead pan humour – and you.
There is no job like it, no paper like it, and it wouldn’t be Blackpool without it.
* Jacqui’s weekly column will return to The Gazette – so watch this space!