Revisiting a smoke filled world of booze, cigarettes and desperate hacks sleeping in the office
by Jeremy Miles
- Jayd Johnson, David Morrrissey and Katherine Kelly in the BBC One 1980s set newspaper drama The Field of Blood
For all its flaws I thoroughly enjoyed the gritty Glasgow newspaper set TV drama The Field of Blood. It may have had some excruciating dialogue and a pulp-fiction plot but it was set in the early 1980s in a world that I instantly recognised. I spent much of the 70s and 80s working in newspaper offices just like the one portrayed on-screen as The Glasgow Daily News. When I first stepped into a newspaper office 42 years ago ( I can’t quite believe it either!) I entered a smoke-filled, booze-fuelled environment populated by a splendid assortment of grizzled old newsmen and keen young hacks.
That very first day I found myself covering an explosion that had killed eight people or at least I thought I was covering the explosion. I’d been despatched, notebook in hand, to interview shopkeepers whose windows had been shattered in the blast. It was a big story and I was thrilled to be a part of it. I returned to the office, and after what seemed like hours inexpertly pecking at a typewriter as I wrote up my quotes, I handed my contribution to the world-weary, cynical and, as I would later discover, endlessly unpleasant chief reporter. “We won’t be needing this,” he sneered, screwing up my copy and dropping it disdainfully into his wastepaper basket.
I’d thought I was pretty resilient. I may only have been 19-years-old but I was fairly self-sufficient and had approached the job with a sense of excitement rather than trepidation. That snub hit me hard though. My confidence had been rattled. I shed a few tears that evening and wondered if journalism was really for me. The next morning I decided to brazen it out and go back to the office with a smile on my face. I’d pretend to be confident. To my amazement I was greeted by the sneering chief reporter (I shall call him Den) with an apology. “Sorry about yesterday but we had to get the story out and the last thing in the world we needed was some new junior cluttering the place up. We’ll have a drink after work.” To say that drink was the first of many would be an alarming understatement.
Ironically Den didn’t drink much though he did use the services of the paper’s pub of choice ie. the nearest of the three hostelries that were within easy stumbling distance of the office. At least once a week I was despatched to buy him a packet of three condoms from the vending machine in the pub’s none-too-fragrant gents toilet. Among my other duties was the purchase of a bottles of cheap sherry, ginger wine and a variety of other get-drunk-quick favourites of some of the more alcoholically dependent members of staff. One particular character, Dave, a rakish 45-year-old with the remnants of a rock ‘n’ roll quiff and a dangerously unhealthy approach to life, actually lived in the office for several months. None of the management knew. He’d wake up early, wash in the disgusting office loo and as soon as a likely junior hove into view (often me) he’d send them shopping for sherry, lemonade, a custard tart and “the cheapest shirt, size 15 collar, you can find in Woolworth’s.” His day would then start with a ritual that involved removing the old shirt, sniffing at the armpits with a grimace as he did so and cramming it into an already bulging office drawer. Sitting at his desk, his braces hanging loosely beneath his grimy and never-changed vest, he would set about removing the packaging and pins from the new shirt before finally putting it on. Finally he’d pour himself a large sherry shandy, reach for the custard tart and triumphantly announce “breakfast!” Then, and only then, was Dave ready to start work.
His day appeared to be made up of trips to the pub, the bookies, the off-licence, strange meetings with even stranger people, planning convoluted strategies to avoid those he owed money and hushed phone conversations with his estranged wife who would occasionally call threatening suicide. There was also a rather half-hearted on-going affair which gave all the appearances of being more trouble than it was worth. In fact Dave spent almost as much time avoiding his bit-on-the-side as he did his growing number of creditors. He occasionally wrote a few stories too but Dave’s news-gathering was almost always a nocturnal activity as he frantically cobbled together the assignments that he should have been working on during the day. No one cared. Least of all the editor who was frequently locked in his office trying to deal with a two-bottles-of-Pernod-a-day habit. The younger staff did the donkey-work, the more responsible seniors wrote most of the serious stuff. Dave and one or two others provided the fun. Or at least it seemed like fun at the time. It must have been hideous for Dave. I used to think of him as a great character. I now realise he was a desperate man whose life was spiralling out of control, not unlike the entire newspaper industry. I should perhaps add that although I’ve had many editors, some of whom had spectacular psychological problems, the two-bottles-of-Pernod-a-day man was the only one who was seriously alcoholic. So seriously in fact that one day he was literally taken away from the office by men in white coats. Some of the others had fairly sensational episodes too, but those are stories for another day.
Several TV critics have described the depiction of 1980s journalism in The Field of Blood as being entertaining but perhaps a little fanciful. Far from it. The programme painted what in some ways was a rather soft version of what I remember. It may not have involved colleagues being fire-bombed by psychopathic gangsters, but it had its moments. If you could take the current generation of journalists back to that time their jaws would be on the floor. Practices that would cause outrage today were commonplace. Smoking and drinking in the office were considered utterly normal and for a while even a local dope dealer used to make deliveries to one of the editorial departments where I worked.
In some ways life was simpler back then. For instance drinking with the police and getting background information was simply part of the job. Access to crime scenes, accidents and incidents was extraordinarily easy too. I recall one occasion following up reports of a sudden death arriving at the scene of the disaster to see a friendly uniformed inspector beckoning me over to the parked car he was leaning against. “Look at this,” he said. “It’s amazing!” There was a man lying dead in the driver’s seat, a hosepipe hanging through the window was still attached to the exhaust pipe. I stared at the corpse. “No, no, not him,” said the Inspector impatiently. “That,” he said stabbing a finger towards the grass at the side of the road. “Look, a spider orchid. They’re really rare.” Now I may have got the type of orchid wrong but you get the picture. I could tell you so many stories but let’s just say that those years were one hell of a learning curve.
The back story to the crime thriller at the core of The Field of Blood was the arrival of computer technology, it’s devastating effect on the newspaper industry and the thugs in Armani who led the assault on the established order. Out went hot metal printing and in came first web-offset and then direct input. When accountants started running newspapers the carnage was spectacular as first the printers and then the journalists were culled mercilessly. The Field of Blood found Katherine Kelly portraying ruthless editorial executive Maloney as a kind of pantomime villain. Yet her cold-bloodied axe-woman was a pale imitation of some of the corporate maniacs I encountered when the asset-stripping and “realigning of personnel” began. Without a care they ripped the heart, soul and loyal, hard-working staff out of the newspapers I worked for. The irony is that the dead wood often stayed. It was the grafters, the award-winners, the writers, reporters and photographers who had gone the extra mile and been rewarded with pay rises and promotions who tended to get the chop first. The simple truth was they were more expensive to keep. Why would the bosses care how good the staff was? They’d simply bully the editor into achieving their ends. “Whaddya mean you can’t produce a multi-edition newspaper without any staff. Do it…or someone else will.” I exaggerate of course, but only slightly. There are still many fine, talented and experienced people left in newspaper offices but their ability to do the job is all too often compromised by huge and unrealistic workloads, ridiculously long hours, having to work with disproportionate number of inexperienced and poorly paid staff members and the feeling that they have little or no support. There is also of course a zero sense of job security.
Heaven forbid that we go back to the anarchic ways of the 1970s and 80s. It was pure Life on Mars, at least where I was. Not every day, not every week but often enough to define the era in my memory. It was fun but a lot of it was definitely not good. However I do fantasize that media bosses will one day realise that if they want to achieve longterm success they must produce a quality product whether it is printed on paper, broadcast on radio, TV or the internet, or published online. Constantly cutting costs and treating staff like shit is not the way to achieve it.