The blog has been really quiet this past couple of weeks, down to the quantity of face-to-face, travel, canoeing and wrapping up of some major projects that has somewhat swamped me. Coming up over the next few weeks will be a series of small-ish blog posts, covering my thoughts, workshops, films and presentations that I've been developing this past month in the States. In the meantime, to reassure that I have not indeed expired, please let me take Christian Long up on his invitation from last June.
Way back in the beginning of June, Christian posted an interesting meme: what's the "worst job" you ever had that, ironically, helped prepare you to one day become an educator? For me, hands down, it was one of the best worst jobs I had as a student that wins the accolade: copy taker at the Edinburgh Evening News "Pink".
The Pink was a Saturday newspaper published by the Scotsman family of papers which, within 15 minutes of the final whistles being blown on football matches around the country, was sitting on the shelves of Edinburgh newsagents and being shoved into the hands of fans as they left the stadium. It's no surprise that such a high-speed print operation became defunct in 2002, an age where people began to get full-time results as text messages on their mobile phones and, increasingly, video highlights and match commentaries through the same devices within seconds of the events occurring.
However, the flow of work there was a great lesson in making a crust through speed, accuracy, good humour and, yes, homework. Let me explain.
The reporters out around the country would phone in to the Scotsman offices around five times each over a Saturday afternoon: the pre-match period about 30 minutes before kick-off with the team names (all those Eastern European ones with no vowels being spelt out at great pain to the reporter) and an atmospheric team news paragraph, which would be para number two; the first half full-time scores (these would arrive within as much as twenty minutes of the actual half-time whistle in a slow-moving match) and two more paragraphs; the beginning of the second half (with any team changes and fresh scores); just before full-time, with the 'final score' (in inverted commas since we were going to press without knowing for sure) and then, only if something changed in the dying moments of the match, a fifth and final call would be made with great excitement and the fresh score news.
The person who got all this information and had to get it through into a system that the sub-editors could work with, and apply to the actual page, was the copytaker. I was one of a team of about six. I was the only male. And the only one under 50 (and some: I was only 17 when I started).
Worse still, kids, I had lied to get the job, saying I could touch type at sixty words per minute. I could go fast but, much like today, I went to the "go-as-hell-a-fast-as-you-can" school of typing, which necessitated three things: nerves of steel, great confidence in one's fingers to 'feel' it and, finally, sight of the letters on the keyboard.
When I came down for the initial interview and typing test I was read a story from the day's paper. As Margaret Turner, my superb but nippy potential boss, began to read, I looked down to begin rattling the keyboard.
Shit. No letters.
I had never come across the problem certain female computer users must face every day. With long artificial nails, these 50 plussers had managed to scrub out any sign that had ever appeared on those grey-with-dirt keyboards. They were now completely blank.
I kicked my memory into overtime as I spent at least three sentences-worth of job interview and typing test starting, backspacing and restarting my efforts, as I worked out where on earth 'q' and 'p' were. Once I found my flow I had my memory catch up with Margaret. I finished the test barely six words behind her, an impressive speed of 58 words a minute. It was good enough for her, and bloody impressive for me given that I had spent about 20 of those words working out the blank keyboard in front of me and that, until that minute of reading out loud, had never heard what sixty words per minute sounds like (it's rather fast).
So, every Saturday at one, I'd head over the Meadows in Edinburgh down to the Scotsman offices on North Bridge, now some swanky hotel, and take up my place at the window which overlooked the whole of Princes Street and Waverley Station (we saw the guys jumping off the Bridge every four months or so - always on a Saturday afternoon it seemed). I was subjected to some of the most profoundly proud moments of my professional life - ever - as rather well known sporting reporters would let me know that I was the best copytaker they'd ever had (within two months I knew how to spell the names of all the footballers in the four main leagues and various juniors and seniors leagues). They appreciated the effort I had put in to go from being pretty awful, meriting the curses of every screaming reporter at the biggest stadium in the country as he tried to file the 90th minute goal in time for the final print, to being pretty damned good. I was able to decipher meaning quickly despite the fact 80,000 fans were screaming rather loudly behind the reporter. It was as much my report, I sometimes felt, as the reporter who had attempted to make himself heard down the phoneline at Ibrox, Celtic Park or Dens.
I stuck at the job for two years, eventually ending up writing for the paper thanks to some help from a generous sports editor, Paul Greaves. He's now the Editor of the whole operation.
I learned how to fulfill your promises, get better at something you had no interest in and enjoy doing it, how, as a young and 'worthless' rookie, to wag chins with the people you admire, and not let them know you admire them. Above all, I learned what it felt like to earn your own good money by putting in the hours no-one else wanted to do. I worked overtime, back shifts, evening shifts and even did the night shift at election time. I earned double time, triple time and bonuses, for three of the House's newspapers. I learned how to take down farming reports, the most demanding literature I've ever had to write, getting them colon, comma and dash correct from the garble down the phoneline despite having given up maths aged 16.
Basically, I learnt what it means to work: nothing stays the same so you always have to relearn it (even typing), no-one will do you any favours (unless you ask the Sports Editor for one) and you'll end up with the Editor's desk with the nice view when you least expect it. And you may never even notice that. It was the first time that, as a paid employee, I had the confidence (encouraged by Margaret Turner) to occasionally tell writers, editors and subs - all of them senior to me - that they were wrong, and I was right, and that they really should just go back to their desk and get out of my office. My office. In time, they stopped taking their problems out on the lad (me) at the bottom of the food chain, and asked for favours from me instead to cover their mistakes over.
Those couple of years were a hoot and, I guess, that remains the main raison d'etre of work for me. If work doesn't feel like escapism, play, fun... then it's not something I want to be doing. If it's not fun any more, I've not done it any more. I've found or made up something else and made it happen. If those reporters, writers and subs attempt to put barriers in my way, I tell them to get out of my way. Fast. Before the barriers become too big to overcome.
Not a bad set of lessons from the bottom of the newspaper foodchain.