Why Smoking Helps Make News (20 June 1975)
You may have been astonished by the recent cigarette-smoking confessions of five of the youngest members of the Gazette’s reporting staff. Frankly, I was not. I was astonished only at the fact that at times their consumption rose to as many as 30 cigarettes a day. I also felt a little envious that they could spend more money per week on cigarettes than my total income had been at their age.
Yet I have strange sympathy for them. Many youngsters leaving school fancy journalism as a career. Few are chosen. These few, replete with O levels, are then engaged for a trial period of six months. Some are quickly disillusioned and quit. Others turn out to be unsuitable and are given an indefinite length of time to find another job.
The very few that are left form the future members of the trade or profession. They are articled for three years, or for two years in the case of a university graduate, at the end of which time they pass a final all-round proficiency test and receive certificates which potential future employers now accept as proof of general competence.
It was not always so. The union of which I am now an honorary life member fought for years to establish this kind of arrangement and I am happy at having lived to see its successful outcome.
Some of the Gazette’s young smokers are going through that mill. The other have already gone through it.
But why do they smoke so much? I think I know very well. They smoke for the same reason that my own consumption of cigarettes still goes up every time I sit down to write this weekly column and then goes down again when the column is completed.
The explanation is that newspaper journalism is a jumpy kind of job. It is usually a fight against the clock and this so quickly becomes part of your make-up that you feel a compulsion to urgency even when there is actually plenty of time to do the task in hand. In other words, you live permanently in a state of tension that often rises to a peak.
The ideal is to be both a good news-getter and a good writer, but the two qualities are rarely found to the same degree in one person. Most people find it easier to get the news than to write it well.
You fly around enthusiastically on your inquiries or whatever, but after that the real hard work of presenting the goods begins. Your story has to be accurate, fair and bright. And it has to be told in the time and space available. So you are now on your mettle.
You are painfully aware that you are initially responsible for every word. You tell yourself not to worry, but you do worry. You begin to have doubts. Have you understood the situation aright? That was what your interviewee said, but was that what he meant? If he subsequently denies having said any such thing, it will be a case of his word against yours. Etc, etc.
The pressure mounts. You scratch your head. Or you bite your nails. Or you smoke furiously. Or you do all three. Anything to take the pressure off, although you are unaware of these actions until, having handed in your “copy” with a silent prayer, you survey the state of your desk and the floor around.
I remember with some amusement my first cigarette. My bosom boyhood pal and I put a penny each in a slot machine and drew out five Woodbines. We then hid behind a box tomb in the churchyard to smoke them. But the sexton was around. He quickly decided there was nothing supernatural about the smoke apparently rising from the remains of the dead and chased us off. I rather enjoyed that smoke, but my pal’s face turned a nasty yellowish green and he has never smoked since. Would that our reactions had been reversed.
The son of a journeyman plumber and decorator, his first job was that of a dental mechanic and his last was that of dental consultant at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary. He was also a cricketer of near county class and a very good organiser. But on retirement he went to live in the Lake District where, I am sorry to say that, despite his non-smoking and non-drinking, he is now more crippled than myself.
When I began my first job, one of the two seniors in the office sent me every day for a 20 packet of Craven A. The other kept on his desk a pipe rack full of pipes. The pipe man died long before the cigarette man who lived to a ripe old age.
My first move was to an indoor night job on a daily newspaper. Each night, the air became blue, not only metaphorically but literally. There was also a strong smell of beer, though none was drunk on the premises. The paper’s sole woman reporter was safely tucked away to write her daily screed on the doings of Princess Mary and Viscount Lascelles at Harewood House, etc. Today’s newspaper offices are convents compared with those of 40 and 50 years ago.
I became so hooked that one of my worst army experiences was the time I had to survive for three whole days on one cigar – since when I haven’t much liked cigars. Since then I have had two minor operations. Each time, on waking from the anaesthetic next morning, my first act was to light a fag and thoroughly enjoy it.
My excuses are that formerly a non-smoking journalist was a rare animal and that only in comparatively recent years has smoking been declared dangerous to health. It has to be noted, however, that insurance companies, who conduct their business strictly on actuarial lines, used automatically to charge us higher premiums than normal. It now seems probable that the higher death-rate thus implied was due more to our general life-style, including heavy smoking, then (sic) to our occasionally undertaking extraordinary risks.
So I feel for these young journalists. To me, their smoking indicates a laudable absorption in their work.
But you will have to get out of it, boys and girls – especially you girls. I am only sorry that I cannot tell you how.