Did The Prince Of Wales Really Have Such Bad Grammar? (31 August 1973)
During my time I have come across a lot of misconceptions about the nature of journalism and journalists. That does not matter except when they are projected by other media. So, for the benefit of lady novelists, script writers and others of that ilk, I will put the record straight by affirming that:
- The average journalist has no Fleet Street ambitions;
- The average journalist does not want to write a book;
- The average journalist is not a big drinker despite an unusual number of opportunities for becoming one at other people’s expense.
It should also be noted that there is a good deal more to the job than getting scoops. Scoops are important, of course, and I have known journalists who couldn’t write for toffee but had the much rarer talent for getting big and little unexpected news items frequently of human interest (which I sometimes think is the only real news) to such a degree that they were worth half-a-dozen mere writers to any newspaper.
To quote an extreme example: I was once on the late-night-cum-early-morning turn on a northern newspaper and was watching a mouse touring the rim of a waste-paper basket when the ‘phone rang. The call was from our correspondent in a little town about fifty miles away. To anyone beyond its borders the town was important only for the fact that it had a small airfield attached. In those days there were few air travellers, but one of them was the then Prince of Wales and he sometimes called there for refuelling when flying to and from Scotland.
Our correspondent told me that His Royal Highness had landed there the previous day on his outward journey and had landed there again that day on his way back. On both occasions he had been approached by a small boy with an autograph book. On the first day the boy had apparently been shooed away. But on the second His Royal Highness had signed.
And according to our correspondent he had signed after asking – wait for it – “Was you the little chappie what asked me yesterday?”
Something and nothing, you might say. Yet Princes of Wales don’t normally give autographs. And think of our worthy correspondent. It was nothing unusual for the prince to land there – whether incognito or not I have forgotten – so there was no reason why our man should constantly dance attendance at the airfield at the expense of other work. Judging from the lateness of his ‘phone call he had probably heard of the incident hours after it had happened and had then probably spent another hour seeking the boy, questioning him and examining his autograph book.
Finally, the prince’s alleged remark could have been the boy’s own version. In the upshot I could only get over the difficulty by using what in grammar is called the third person.
But you may now understand how valuable such correspondents can be as compared with those better writers who have no such news instinct. In fact, if you aim to be an author and have been told that a good place to begin is in a local newspaper office, my advice is: Don’t apply.
A newspaper office is more like an engineering workshop than a school for budding authors. Fine writing is at a discount. Much more important are a nose for news, an ability to get on with all kinds of people and a lively interest in every aspect of local life, no matter how mundane.
You must also possess adaptability. For instance, the working partnership which I had with former Gazette editor, Carl Moser, over about 20 years was very fruitful news-wise, yet I think our best effort was one which involved scarcely any writing but consisted literally in drawing a map by telephone.
The map in question was that of the proposed area for the new city of Milton Keynes. This was due to be released by the ministry at an hour most inconvenient for the Gazette, against which was the advantage that we already had some idea how the city boundary would run. The only way we could beat the clock was by telephone.
So, keeping my fingers crossed, I was among the several reporters who were at the ministry at the appointed hour and were issued with the map and a load of accompanying bumph. There was then a wild scramble for telephones and I was lucky enough to find a vacant box round the corner in Whitehall.
Mr. Moser had an Ordnance Survey map in front of him at the Bletchley end and to my dictation he followed on it the proposed boundary of the new city just in time to deliver the goods to Gazette readers.
It would be nice to be able to say that our map was accurate in every respect, but I must confess that I read it wrongly over a matter of a hundred yards or so somewhere around Broughton. However, it is a good illustration of the need for adaptability that faces any would-be news man or woman.