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Friday 22 May 2015

The secondary womb

I doubt the windows of the Telegraph and Argus building in Bradford had been cleaned since the thirties. Not surprising. I joined the staff a mere six years after WW2 and there'd been other priorities. Stalagmites of filth rose from the frame bottoms with the rest coloured a yellowy-brown. A hint at what the insides of my lungs presently look like.

"Joined the staff" is misleading; I was employed as a tea-boy. Morning, lunchtime and afternoon four of us brought mugs of tea from the canteen to chair-bound sub-editors and reporters hammering away at thirty-year-old Underwood typewriters. Our trays were ingeniously adapted; they had started life within coat-racks, detachable troughs into which wet umbrellas drained. Tea from the mugs slopped over, eventually turning into sludge since the trays were never cleaned.

Squalor reigned but I'd found my spiritual home. I was among the crass and the cynical, the under-educated and the frequently cantankerous, the shabbily dressed and the eternally cigaretted. All however serving a common purpose - turning events into words and ensuring that those words made sense. The talk was of "intros", "paras" and "heads" and the mood obsessional.

As I key in these words today, sixty-five years later, I am drawing on those impromptu lessons where mistakes in syntax were announced to all in a humiliating bellow and one felt grievously one had let the business down.

Training was mainly on the job. After an exhausting day I travelled by bus to watch the first act of, say, Coward's Present Laughter. Returned to the reporters' room, now much quieter, and banged out two hundred words. For which, if it was published, I was paid a penny a line.

School and its failures forgotten, I was starting to grow up.


  1. Seems like printer's ink was in the blood right from the start, RR

  2. I do just love this story.

    Sorry, can't think of anything clever to say, just that.

  3. Times have changed haven't they. I am not sure why, or how but many of today's youngsters see starting at the bottom as being beneath them.

  4. I wonder....were the 200 words a review of the after dinner theatre?
    The sludgy tea tray is giving me the creeps.

  5. Avus: Whereas I agree with you in principle, "printer's ink in the blood" would have got a thumb's down. A cliché, you see.

    Lucy: I can't think of any compliment I'd prefer more.

    Blonde Two: For me this wasn't the bottom; compared with the wretchedness of school I was in the empyrean.

    Stella: One outcome was that I swore I would never ever again in my life attend a play put on by amateurs. Which held until I wrote a play myself and acted as the narrator.

    I forgot to mention - the trays had once been painted (japanned may have been the correct term) in black and this gradually leached out into the no doubt acidic tea slops. As a result the sludge was light grey. It was as you imply revolting and yet being able to co-exist with it was proof that I'd chosen the right line of business. Leading to a form of confidence and determination that allowed me to assume the role of social pariah.

  6. How exciting! A little sludge can't be bad. A little squalor. I can just hear the sound of the Underwoods.