I was invited to a university in Leeds the other day to give a speech to students about journalism.
I know, odd isn’t it.
I can only assume they were very short of people to ask but I said yes anyway, mainly so I could tell my mother I’d been invited to lecture at a university.
“Oh Steven, that’s wonderful,” she sobbed down the phone, very much as I imagine Mrs Firth did when Colin won his Oscar. “I’ll tell your Aunty Marjorie, she’ll be so proud – and it’ll give her a lift too; she’s got a terrible kidney infection.”
Another reason for saying yes was because the university offered to pay my expenses, which amounted to a £32 train ticket and a steak pie from a garage.
I noticed halfway through the pie, and with considerable distress, that it was two days beyond its best before date. Remembering all the times that my father used to tell me ‘best before’ was very different to a ‘use by’ date, I continued eating and finished the pie, convinced there would be no ill effects. I was wrong, spending around three hours on the toilet the following day.
But anyway, this speech. I did it and enjoyed it, not least because I had to talk about my journalism – I hesitate to say career, it seems too strong a term – hobby and in particular my time at the first newspaper I worked for in the late 1990s.
It was a small weekly publication in north Manchester and was a weird and wonderful place, mainly because of the editor, an eccentric chap in his 60s who had the crazed look of a professor and should have been, looking back, gently ushered out of the door a good decade or so earlier.
He made blunders every week and had astonishingly poor taste – we had hundreds of complaints, for instance, when, accompanying a story about an Elvis Presley fan who suffered from epilepsy, he thought it would be a good idea to use the headline ‘All Shook Up’.
One thing he couldn’t take was anyone pointing out errors.
There was a memorable occasion when an elderly man – 80-years-old minimum – came into the office in a mobility scooter to point out there was a spelling error on the front page of that week’s edition.
The editor removed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and screamed ‘right, outside now, let’s sort this out’.
It took four reporters to physically restrain him.
I was 21 and a junior hack, so got sent to all the worst jobs.
Two stand out. A council meeting where there was a 47-minute discussion about whether to put the traffic lights on the left or right side of the road at a junction (they went for the left, though only after careful consideration about visibility). The other was attending a meeting of the local Women’s Institute where the guest speaker was a woman who had collected a tea-towel from each town in Great Britain. I can still hear her to this day, ‘and this one, if I recall, was from Bexhil; I remember being pleased with it because it’s where Derek and I honeymooned and this tea-towel holds a lot of very special memories’.
Another time I was dispatched to a house to conduct an interview, about what I can’t recall now – but I do remember what happened.
The newspaper was in a deprived area, and as I walked up the path towards the house, I had to step around a large, scruffy dog. I knocked on the door, a man answered and as I walked in, the dog followed.
We sat down for the interview and about halfway through, the dog squatted in the lounge and, on the carpet, did what I can only describe as a quite gigantic motion.
I stopped speaking, horrified, waiting for my host to say or do something. He just looked at it, silently, with a blank expression.
The room reeked, so I wound up the interview as quickly as possible and headed for the door.
The man in the house shouted after me, ‘aren’t you going to take your dog with you?’
“It’s not mine,” I replied, aghast.
‘Oh,’ he replied. And shut the door.
Bonkers, but a completely true story.
Shameful moment in my career
That first paper, by the way, ended up being the reason I got out of news journalism.
A few days before Christmas, a teenage girl in the area died from meningitis, and I was instructed by my editor to speak to the family.
The thought of turning up on someone’s doorstep in their time of grief filled me with dread, but I was too naive and new to argue, so I did it. The mother of the girl opened the door, upset, and politely but firmly told me they didn’t want to speak.
I apologised profusely and returned to the office.
“In journalism you don’t take no for an answer,” my editor told me. “Go and try again.”
Horrified, I protested, but he insisted I return. I’m ashamed to admit that I knocked on the door again and was told they didn’t want to speak and to please stop bothering them. Mortified, I told my boss they wouldn’t speak. “This isn’t good enough,” he shouted. “We need a front page story, get yourself back there.” They were different times back then.
Had I been a few years older and wiser, I’d have quit on the spot. As it was I went back – but this time parked up, waited 10 minutes, then returned, saying there was no answer.
Unbelievably – and this would never happen at The Gazette – the editor tracked down the telephone number and stood over me while I called them. The family were, quite rightly, furious, but spoke to us just so we would leave them alone.
It was front page of that week’s edition. The editor had got his wish.
He was delighted and proud; I was disgusted with myself. It remains the most shameful moment of my career – and why I moved into sports writing; I didn’t want to ever have to do anything like that again.