From time to time, the Alloa Advertiser, buried in the central belt of Scotland, would be in the middle of good stories that landed in our wee county of Clackmannanshire.
Reporters from big papers, faces from the BBC or STV, would propel themselves through our mid-seventies newsroom, our best mates while they were looking to ferret out a piece. Then they’d be on their way again, like scavenger-hunters.
One was a well respected reporter named Tommy Crainie. He worked for Findlays, a very robust freelance agency. The eponymous George Findlay ran the operation and he offered me a job.
George was a buccaneer, if not an outright pirate. Bearded, rotund, a man with a monster temper and the worst dress sense in the world: orange shirt, white striped tie, green braces, dark tinged glasses that could not disguise beady eyes. He was a walking Christmas tree. He could have been selling cheap watches off a corner of Sauchiehall Street.
Court cover was his real earner. The essence was speed and quantity. That was what earned money. The Glasgow Evening Times would take mountains of court material- UDA terrorist gets 15 years for bomb plot; Knife attack left two wounded; Council boss jailed for fraud.
I quickly learned that as soon as you had a line for a court story, it had to be filed to our newsroom where it would be put on the wires. I must have spent 38% of my time at the courts – half my body in a phone booth filing stories and the other half on the press bench.
There was a formula here: evening papers first, then radio, then TV, then a re-jig for the morning papers and then, lastly, the Press Association so it could pick up the crumbs.
General news, off diary, would come in regularly. The Guardian, Times and Telegraph would ask us to pitch in with one-off tales which, to their London eye, intrigued them: posh Dollar Academy and its free intake of village pupils if their family owned a house in the town; the future of the Scottish Nationalist Party or the desperate plight of a council estate where kids still ran barefoot amid the rubbish. And, of course, the increasingly regal visits of a woman called Maggie Thatcher to the disappearing Tory seats north of the border.
We worked especially closely with the Edinburgh and Glasgow papers, some of whom had offices in the central belt between these two big cities. David Grindlay was the kingpin, a hardball reporter for the big selling Daily Record. He had a bad limp, a bad eye and dyed red hair. He battled his newsdesk constantly and held high his own stories he would unearth – most of it human interest or crime- and deride anything coming out of the head office.
He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to chase a story that The Record wasn’t interested in. His paper was news. Scottish news. Scotland had a population of five million. The Record sold 770,000 copies per day.
But despite his gruff attitude, he had a big heart. At one of our union nights out, two lads were found behind the bar of the workingman’s club we hired, dead out with the lock snapped off the alcohol cupboard. Tempers at the club were raised. It was news we didn’t want to see in the papers.
Grindlay called a special unofficial union meeting with no minutes, no attendance taken and pointed to the two bleary eyed lads. “This is gaunna stawp the noo. The kid gloves are awf. It’s been sortit. But youse dinnae do things like tha’ on my patch.”
There was never any trouble after that.
My boss George probably wasn’t around then, despite being a big NUJ man. He had found a quirky con that suited him, somehow becoming the union representative for freelances who covered Euro-affairs in Strasbourg. George would be forever flying off in his orange shirt and green suit, getting loaded with French-speaking hacks in Belgian or French bars. He let us run the ship while he did sophisticated union business “in Europe.” ’
With or without George, on a daily basis we worked closely with other media in our area. The Edinburgh Evening News had a small district staff because it had a slip edition for the industrial central belt. Reporters included sharp eyed Colin Liddell who was a very good journalist until he went to the dark side of PR and Sheilagh Matheson, who still remains a good friend of mine. John Smith descended from his Olympian cloud to write a story of two a week for the smug Scotsman and the Falkirk Herald boys would cover the town, red-eyed from the night before but never breaking into a booze cupboard ever again.
Once in a while a green open-top Morgan would cruise into view. It contained David Kerr, patrician Edinburgh correspondent from the Guardian. David had a voice bathed in pipe tobacco and honey and reminded me of Sgt Wilson from Dad’s Army, always faintly surprised to find himself taking notes or in a press conference. He had 100 word per minute shorthand in copperplate script. He was old school.
But the tabloids were our meat and potatoes. They paid the best. We never said no. And that is why I ultimately said goodbye to Scottish journalism – earthy, unpretentious, hard.
It was a story about a teenage girl. She was off to Canada to become an au pair. A new start, the old dream trip to the New World. Her family drove her to Prestwick Airport, then the departure point for Toronto.
But things turned horrific. The car crashed, the family were all killed except for the poor girl they were about to put on the plane. She was in a critical condition.
All the papers wanted material from us because she came from our area. The Evening Times especially hooked into the story because it had so much resonance with its readers – Glasgow has close links with Toronto.
But the essence of this tragic tale slowly tapered off. She remained in hospital, her family dead. Then the Evening Times news desk heard that her dog, which had been in the car, had been found wandering around. They wanted us to go to the hospital and tell the grieving remnants of her family about this ‘good news’ and get their reaction.
I wouldn’t do it. It was the last straw in hassling bereaved people in such an intense way. I told George (recently returned from a Euro-junket) and expected the riot act.
He sat in his office, wreathed in Dunhill cigarette smoke. Behind him was his weird collection of Dennis Wheatley black magic novels. For some reason, his dentures were out and he was toothless.
Strangely, he was very kind. “Richard,” he said taking off his huge tinted glasses and scratching his white beard, “This is the way I earn a living. This is how I put bread on the table.”
He lit another Dunhill and continued: “Sometimes, it isn’t nice. But I can’t have you say ‘no’.”
I told him I would quit. He shrugged. “Take two days to think it over. It’s a job here, and there aren’t that many in this part of the world.”
I went home and asked my wife Jane about the impending problem. We were expecting our second child. She said I had to do what was right. “We’ll make do,” she said.
Two days later I was unemployed. Soon, the Record called me. Findlay had put my name forward to the Glasgow head office. I said no; I had two other job offers on newspapers. One was in England and I took it.