There are no jobs for trainee journalists, but miracles keep happening to Jeremy Clarkeby Jeremy Clarke / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Just before Christmas, I came down to London from Glasgow by train, feeling a bit gloomy. In October I had started a postgraduate course in journalism at Strathclyde University. It involved sitting in a high-tech simulated newsroom, banging out news stories about Oxtown, an imaginary town familiar to anyone who has sat for a National Council for the Training of Journalists examination. Mr Barr, a hard-bitten, retired Glaswegian journalist with silver hair and elbow clips, would give us each a fictitious press release about a trivial incident-a fire in Oxtown’s bingo hall, a minor road accident on the Oxtown bypass-then give us half an hour to produce copy for the weekly paper, the Oxtown Gazette. The crucial thing, apparently, is to encapsulate the who, what, why, when and where of a story into a succinct opening sentence. Personally, I longed to receive a press release stating that an atomic bomb had fallen on the place, but the mundane fare of car crashes, weddings and vandalism continued unabated.
To keep our spirits up, Mr Barr marched up and down between our chattering Applemacs, scornfully deriding our feeble efforts and regaling us with anecdotes garnered from a lifetime on the tabloids. When we complained to him of boredom or nausea, he would sternly warn us that this was nothing compared with the harsh rigours we should expect when we launched ourselves out into “the real world.”
The first real, live, working journalist to come to talk to us was Neal Ascherson, the veteran foreign correspondent. He came one morning, looking tanned and famous. There was a swivel-chair race across the room as the 30 class members left their Macs and vied to get as close as possible to hear a master practitioner of their chosen profession. We clustered eagerly around him, our spiral bound notepads and contacts books at the ready. I sat throughout the talk with my face no more than a yard from his. It is not often that I find myself in such close proximity to a celebrity. While he spoke, I examined his teeth and looked into his mouth. Then I noticed a nasal hair hanging out of one of his nostrils like a spider’s leg. After I had surveyed his hair and the lines on his face, I looked down at his small hands to try and see whether there was a fate line on his palms (there was), then I looked further down at the pattern on his socks and wondered how much his shoes had cost.
“Who wants to be a foreign correspondent?” he asked, with mock innocence. Most of us raised an arm-in general, the firmer the ambition, the closer to the perpendicular. Mine was ramrod straight and obscured his view of the others.
He had brought us bad news, he said. The “golden age” of foreign reporting, in which he had been privileged to take part, was now over. We had just missed it. In fact, we couldn’t have been trying to get into journalism at a worse time. What with the new technology and the recession and everything, staff jobs on newspapers were rare. Even if we got a lucky break, we would be expected to work for nothing at first. And it is well known that in journalism there is no such thing as job security. Next to lecturing in a university, it is the profession with the highest incidence of mental illness. No, he had never known things quite as bad as this.
When he had finished his talk, two students, whose names were drawn from a hat, were given the opportunity to join him for lunch. I affected indifference when my name wasn’t called out, but I was bitterly disappointed. The rest of us went to the canteen and reassessed our post-diploma earning potential in the light of Mr Ascherson’s dispatch from the real world. If all else failed I could always go back on the bins, I told myself, as I ate my sardine sandwiches.
Then a miracle happened. The agent to whom I had apologetically sent a synopsis of an autobiography rang to say that several publishers were showing an interest in it and could I come and meet some of them before I went home for Christmas? I supposed they had never been exposed to such execrable prose and wanted to see what I looked like-a sort of fascination for the horrible. So, on the long train journey down from Glasgow, I wasn’t holding out much hope; I worried instead about not getting a job and not being able to meet the repayments on my Career Development Loan.
But the publishers not only told me that they liked my synopsis; they were willing to offer me an advance to write the book and even competed with each other to obtain my signature on a contract. By Saturday the bidding was at what seemed to me an astronomical amount of money. It felt as if the Oxford Street Christmas lights had been put up just for me. (I won’t disclose the amount, but even wealthy people of my acquaintance are agog when I tell them.) In the afternoon I went to see West Ham play Southampton-a friend had a spare ticket which turned out to be one of the best seats in the house. Unusually for us, we overcame a one-nil deficit by scoring twice in the last five minutes. Afterwards, I went to a Zimbabwean thumb harp concert in a room over a pub in Islington. I ordered a bottle of Sol at the bar. “It’s two for the price of one tonight, dearie,” said the barmaid cheerfully.