‘Talking Shop' On The Subject Of Shorthand (2 February 1973)
Somewhere in the house are four certificates. One says I can swim. One says I can render first-aid. One says I can sing. And one says I can write shorthand.
I may come back to that one some time, but here I am concerned with the shorthand one – and if you are not interested in that art or science or craft you can skip the next few lines.
Or perhaps your will read on because you have found what I have found; that a man is usually at his most reliable and most interesting when he is “talking shop,” whatever his trade may be.
Quite recently, at a fairly large private gathering which included a number of journalists from various newspapers, I found myself being introduced by one to another as “the chap we always used to check our notes with.” These words by a friendly competitor pleased me no end, as I had just about forgotten those times in the intervening years of increasing desk-work.
Though a first-class note is not now rated so highly in newspaper offices as it was in my early days, a reporter’s note should still be much better than average. It is one thing to be able to write at up to 200 words a minute across a business office desk. It is quite another to be able to do so among a noisy, jostling crowd at a political hustings.
In these and similar situations, such aids as tape recorders are of little use. A man with a notebook and pencil is the only answer.
In fact, before the war there was a court case in which a well-known political figure hotly denied he had made a certain remark which had been reported. The judge – who I think must have been selected for his own expertise – closely examined the reporter’s note and made his award against the politician.
One of my worst experiences was a case in which a firm of exporters claimed de-rating on the grounds that certain goods would not be accepted somewhere in China unless they were labelled with certain Chinese words more or less all over them. I was asked by one of the parties to take a verbatim note of the proceedings, but found I had bitten off almost more than I could chu-chin-chow with all those oriental words I had never heard before. However, I was handsomely rewarded in the terms of those days.
When I came to Bletchley I had not done much shorthand for eight or nine years, but I was reassured by the results from my first council meeting here, which was in March 1946, and I was never again much worried on that score until a few years ago, when I had to take a seat in that unholy of unholies, the press gallery of the House of Commons.
That exercise was for the expected announcement by Mr. Richard Crossman of the government’s OK to the creation of the-then-unnamed new city of Milton Keynes. I suppose it was rather a historic occasion for poor old North Bucks. At any rate, your Gazette’s then editor, Mr. Carl Moser, wanted what reporters call “every spit and cough” of it and took steps to get it.
I had never reported Parliament before – though I guess it had to come sometime – and was concerned about whether I would be able to hear well enough, and also whether I would know the names of any speakers following Mr. Crossman.
In the event, it was a piece of cake. The hearing arrangements in that large new chamber are magnificent. The very few following speakers are named and all were audible, even when not visible from my perch.
The Gazette report was out before the official parliamentary report reached us, but later I was pleased to see that the Hansard boys agreed with me!
And now, you young people with shorthand ambitions, I will give you a bit of advice, free gratis and for nothing.
First, use a soft pencil or an old-style fountain pen. Ball point pens are nearly impossible for Pitman and not so good for Greig.
Second, do as little typewriting as you possibly can. On average, the reporters of 50 years ago were far better shorthand writers than today’s. This was because, over the whole range of the job, typewriters were little used, there was none whatever in the editorial offices of the newspaper series for which I worked for my first seven years.
All reports were written at a fast rate in longhand and it was this ability to manipulate a pencil at speed for any purpose that led to the higher average at advanced shorthand. A good speed in typewriting can be worked up before or after the telly or anywhere else between by almost anybody.
Third, practice until with every word that comes from your hand, unknown to yourself, is automatically moving accordingly. Use whole pages of notebooks, saying and writing a single phrase as fast as you can again and again. That way it becomes ingrained.
And the best of luck to you all.