I’ve sold my motorbike, I’ve sold my contacts book and sometimes I wonder if I’ve sold my soul. I’ve had to. The boiler thumps off with alarming regularity; the gas card as empty as my overdraft and the petrol light on again — that malicious little orange glow in the car that says woe is you, every mile moved is money.
I’m a reporter for a local newspaper and for a £1000 a month I put my foot in the door of grieving widows, phone firemen, try to charm the coroner’s clerk and keep a crumpled black tie for a bookmark in my black book — office attire for the funerals of strangers, tangled in the top draw.
It’s a dying job in a dying industry, but I feel privileged to be a part of its death throes — every story the wheeze, the rattle of a body breathing its last breath– every week bringing tidings of another daily becoming a weekly; another weekly going under as someone pulls the plug.
On the ground there’s little time to think about it all, the politics of this prose-making and the lifespan of your paper, as everything goes digital and revenue turns to dust; everyone’s scrabbling about for stories, because although there are good days, sometimes any given patch is a stone; unyielding and dumb.
You’re forced to turn to the teams of tenacious gardeners, their crypto control-freak obsession with tidy flowerbeds; the dance school divas and their daughters; the Victorian seafront shelter that burned down and the interminable debates that surround its replacement for copy to fill the pages.
The park. The pier. The poor. The pompous. The pricks lined up in the magistrates courts. The wife-beaters. The drunk-drivers. The muggers. The meat-stealers: So many broke carnivores, stuffing bacon in their bags and sausages up their sleeves you could weep, laugh, or turn vegetarian.
“No Big Words!”
Three words from my news editor that leave me displeased and muttering into my keyboard, though I know where she is coming from: Nobody wants their newspaper full of pompous thesaurus-raiding — and no one likes a smartarse.
Florid, rococo prose (the irony) that smacks of condescension is a cup of tea few choose to stomach. Yet methinks sometimes the reins are too tight and the bit too brittle. And assuming your readers are stupid is a terrible mistake.
Sex and Death. Eros and Thanatos. That’s what sells. And there’s no need to dress up a puddle of blood as a shimmering pool of crimson effluent. “If it bleeds, it leads” goes the old journalism chestnut and sometimes the facts paint their own picture in their own colour scheme.
But why assume your readers are so easily offended by words they may not understand? Or that every local paper reader has the vocabulary of an eight-year-old? Sure, you don’t need to litter your articles with multi-syllable descriptive baggage and to most editors words like “horror” or “shock” work better as nouns than their adjectival (see what I did there?) counterparts.
But slipping the sporadic word in that may have some of your readers looking it up in the dictionary shouldn’t be a crime. Why do we assume, again, that its use would be like a knowing insult; a prod in the reader’s eye?
(Have you ever noticed, incidentally, how so many great words start with the letter “P”? Peregrination, poculent, parviscient, panegoism or — fittingly for these times — pantophobia: “fear of everything”. Someday I will slip one of those little gems past the sub-editors, like a bomb primed to blow a scanning eye off the page and into the Oxford Dictionary — or back to the telly, according to temperament.
Harry Bond has the name — and the demeanour — for the job. He’s a defense solicitor at the magistrates courts; cynical, shabby and capable of painting a serial killer as a poor misguided soul who was having a bad hair day because his girlfriend maligned him, his doctor gave him the wrong medication or his dear mother had just passed away after a heart-rending struggle against cancer.
He makes me laugh a trifle nervously just to look at him and I wonder at his personal life. Is he a good man? Does he drink? Does he listen to Russian composers and play chess? Or just jerk off to bad porn? I’ll never know, which is probably a good thing. But today he is relishing his task — defending a pudgy teenager who has been done on a drunk-and-disorderly charge and who struts into courtroom 1 with a defiant rustling of his cheap tracksuit trousers.
“Whilst it is never a good idea to repeatedly tell a police officer to ‘fuck off’ and then call them a ‘fucking fanny’ this outburst was not entirely without provocation” he tells a grim-faced panel of magistrates; the chairman is a bald, school-tie wearing authoritarian with no sense of humour and he fixes him with a gimlet gaze. Nobody so much as grimaces or smirks.
I’m chewing my tongue to stop from laughing. The solicitor has articulated the expletives with perfect relish, savouring each syllable: “Fuck-ing Fan-ny”. He didn’t need to, but he’s getting a vicarious kick out of the words.
They look straight at him, frowning, wondering what is coming next and quite what the provocation was that turned the fat cherub in the trackies into a cop-hating Tourette’s sufferer who spent New Year’s Day in the cells. I lean back, flick my notebook open and exhale. His relatives in the public gallery lean forward expectantly. It’s going to be a good one.