Review of small press and independent books.
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I’ve found an unlikely but fascinating resource book for writers
Three Men and a Quote by Ken McEwan, John Dowling and Philip Elms
Despite the fact that the indie publishing sector is seriously overburdened with personal memoirs, I have just found one which is well worth a look – especially if you are a writer. The three men were reporters on local papers in the south east of England. They all started work at the same paper, and they all retired round about the time local papers suffered the restructuring that has left them largely as pale copies of each other, with very little investigative or inspired reporting.
In their time, McEwan, Dowling and Elms explored the intriguing and often terrifying goings on behind the scenes in many areas of local life and their experiences are fascinating and informative. They contain a wealth of detail about character and procedure which is such useful background for a writer that I’ve put this book on my ‘less commonly recommended resources for writers’ list.
To set the scene, here are the three quotes from the three men which open this book…
Ken McEwan meets his first boss…
Freddie Goodsell was not the most conventional of editors. He was well known for his love of whisky and certainly enjoyed a nip or three during the workng day. Whether he was due for one or had just indulged when I arrived for my first interview I don’t know. But it lasted all of two minutes...
John Dowling introduces the news-eating monster….
Imagine a hamster in its cage trotting on its little treadmill. Like the treadmill, newspaper production has no beginning and no end, instead a ceaseless demand to produce and process copy and pictures…
Philip Elms on fantasy and reality…
It’s probably no accident that my dual interests of newspapers and theatre have dovetailed so conveniently. The similarities are clear. One is a representation of real life, the other thinks it is but is really an illusion. The only issue is deciding which is which.
The book is divided into three sections, each covering one of the three’s specialist areas within local newspaper work. Here is an overview….
You can’t go near local newspaper people without hearing stories about ‘drunken subbies’ so often that you could be forgiven for thinking it is the official job-title. McEwan’s accounts of some troubled attempts at getting home from late-night events will not correct this error, but do make entertaining reading. But he also tells some extraordinary tales of honour (upheld and destroyed) and detective work. You think international sport is crooked? Read this book and find out some of the back-stories in local sport. This, and many other areas of local life are illuminated by Ken’s anecdotes, and then there’s John…
John Dowling starts his own account of his journey into newspaper work right back at school, with the teacher who threatened to put ‘lethargic’ in his report unless he could tell her what it meant; with the occasional appearances of the school library – “a wooden trunk which appeared at regular intervals and into which keener readers plunged with a desperation born of real hunger” and then with early struggles to learn shorthand lefthanded. I was quite fascinated by this as, whichever hand he uses, an urban reporter really does not need to learn shortforms for “Dear Sir, I am in receipt of your favour of the 21st inst” – but when I personally started learning shorthand, a decade or so after John did, we were plied with the same ancient phrases. No wonder shorthand fell into disuse!
There are fires, runaway horses, royal visits and close-call elections (where John got into trouble for peeking over the returning officer’s shoulder and having the result announced on the BBC before the official announcement), all told from the point of view of a reporter desperate for copy: what was the worst thing about the notorious Northeye riot? It happened on a Wednesday night and the Bexhill Observer was a Thurday morning paper!
Finally, Philip Elms cranks up the drama with his tale of his two-centred career in theatre and newspapers. I love the picture he paints of scooter-riding reporters being accidentally rounded up with crowds of Mods, and having to be picked out from the flock at the magistrates' court and returned to the newspaper office, of hasty, verbal summaries of newsmen's days – “it’s snowing in Sussex and the Shah of Persia’s dead!”
The local version of the nationwide battle for the independence of the media is illustrated by a newspaper editor who would not exercise his right to vote because it entailed “publicly demonstrating a political opinion” and then cheerfully producing edition after edition in which the political news gave clear preference to his chosen party. Local sports reporting too holds up a mirror to national and international events in that an ambitious reporter often finds the highest dramas off rather than on the field.
But in Elms’ case, the highest dramas are often just that – not just the never-ending hunt for opportunities to interview his favourite show-business characters (the early bird doesn’t always catch the worm – Elms succeeded in scooping a one-to-one interview with Roy Orbison by the dastardly means of accidentally arriving after the press conference) but we also get a chance to enjoy his local exploits in dramatic societies, often battling to produce performances to be proud of in venues with “no visible theatrical attributes.”
Sadly, Elms’ closing chapters are the tale of the decline of local newspapers. All three men’s accounts tell of the increasing pressure on resources, of increased investment in technology rather than skilled investigators and writers, and the resultant declining respect for the press, followed by the disastrous economic consequences as traditional sources of advertising revenue turn to the internet. Elms summarises the problem as the 21st century gets under way and newspapers with their modern, streamlined staff look for ways to survive online… “Ideally, breaking news on the website would be followed up in the paper with analysis and background. Staffing levels were simply inadequate to supply a separate, complementary service, so readers had a choice: enjoy a free on-demand service or wait until the end of the week and pay 50p for it.”
Not a difficult decision really, and so the decline of local papers looks inevitable – and again, it is a mirror of what seems to be happening nationally. This book really does provide the reader with a lot to think about – particularly for readers who know Hastings, Bexhill and the surrounding area - but all the time I was reading the book, I kept thinking of the odd bits of information that novellists have to go hunting for - bits and pieces about how communities, schools, churches, councils, local organisations and businesses work. I think ‘Three Men and a Quote’ may well come out as my favourite indie non-fiction title of the year.
"Three Men and a Quote" McEwan, Dowling and Elms
Pub Rag Doll Media UK 2010
ISBN 978 0 956449 0 2