My education began in the library, where I read every book I could get my hands on. Before long, I wanted to be--among other things--a writer. I read books about it, and I learned that the chance of making a living writing novels was remote. But I also learned that if I got a job on a newspaper they'd have to pay me every week.
Immediately I wrote to the Bucks Free Press, the weekly local, without which a sizable part of South Bucks would not be able to be properly born, married, buried, sentenced in court, informed, or feted as the grower of the funniest pumpkin in the fruit and vegetable show.
It was 1965, and I had been told that journalism was very, very difficult to get into. Nevertheless I sent my careful letter to Arthur Church, the Editor. I informed him that I hoped to leave school with three A-levels the following year and asked if there was any possibility there would be a vacancy on the paper. This letter contained some nascent journalism, being accurate without being entirely true. I wasn't confident I would get the A-levels. I hoped I would. I also hoped to be the first man on the moon.
Arthur's reply said in essence, "I don't know about next year, but I have an opening right now." And almost before I knew it, I had a job prospect.
There was a minor problem. I hadn't told Mum and Dad about my application, and they were currently away on holiday. They'd left me on my own as I was 17 and perfectly capable of looking after myself, so long as the baked beans lasted and the dirty laundry basket didn't overflow. When they came back, I sat them down and told them I had been offered a job on the paper. Thankfully they were happy. My father took the view that his son would not have to spend his time looking at the underside of cars in a greasy garage, and my mother calculated that I would be the editor of The Times in 10 years.
The following Monday, I went to school minus my uniform, and notified them that I was not attending any more, thank you very much. Then I departed through the entrance that only teachers and visitors were allowed to use. I went up the road to the editorial offices and to a life of putting words together in their proper order.
My first day, I saw a dead body, and discovered that my new job was much more interesting than Maths. I also discovered that it is possible to go on throwing up long after you've run out of things to throw up.
Later that week--with my father in attendance because I was a minor--I was officially apprenticed to Arthur Church. My indenture was signed. More or less, the newspaper owned me; I was untrained and therefore a liability, my wages perceptible through a microscope.
My journalistic career unfolded with a certain routine. On Friday the newspaper came out. To some extent, this made it an easy day, although, of course there was always a court somewhere that needed the presence of a journalist. Actually they didn't. Justice was dispensed more or less satisfactorily whether we were there or not. Nevertheless Justice has to be seen to be done, and therefore a stalwart from the Bucks Free Press had to sit there in his Jeep jacket and write it all down in impeccable Pitman's shorthand.
For me, though, it was a time to scurry around, clearing and filing the spikes and generally cleaning up the place. The spikes, for those born after the era of hot metal printing, were just that, metal spikes on their own little wooden bases beside every desk. They were a kind of waste paper basket with a restore facility. Any piece of copy that the news editor had decided was not going to be used was stuck on a spike for possible retrieval in case breaking news changed things. They became the repository for everything from bits of information that might be useful later all the way up to quite a lot of your blood if your laconic stab led you to get the spike through that little web of skin between your thumb and index finger. And in any case, they all had to be filed first thing on Friday morning.
My next task was to write the week's episode of what would in the fullness of time be published as my first novel, The Carpet People, still happily in print in the UK and shortly to receive its US debut, 42 years later. It became my job because I was the newest recruit and nobody else wanted to do Uncle Jim's Corner. This children's column was to include a story and birthday greetings to those children whose parents had the foresight to let Uncle Jim know about the happy occasion.
We also had to put in our time dealing with the news, such as it was, of High Wycombe itself, in the eyes of Arthur Church the center of the universe. He had been brought up there and cared about the area with a quiet passion. So much so that when the Apollo missions produced their first astonishing photographs of the moon, Arthur had to be ordered by high command give them front page placement--even over his cherished local headlines! He eventually consoled himself with the reflection, "Well, the moon does shine on High Wycombe, after all."
Arthur instilled journalistic ethics into me, while George Topley, the chief reporter, gently taught me that sometimes they were not enough. They were good men. I am grateful to have met them, even if in those salad days I might have occasionally thought that they were cantankerous dinosaurs, especially as, nearly half a century after, I now realize that cantankerous dinosaurs have their place.
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