Monday, 28 October 2019

A reunion of hacks

Forty years ago (I can't believe it's forty years ago), I entered with great trepidation the Portakabin of Life as part of the Mirror Group Newspapers training scheme in Plymouth.

I was eighteen and rather nervous. I didn't really feel like I belonged there, alongside clever graduates from Oxford and similarly lofty establishments. I was a comprehensive school girl from Somerset.

But English was the only subject I was ever any good at. And since the age of about nine or ten, I'd wanted to be a journalist. I put that down to having watched the wisecracking Rosalind Russell in the 1940s film His Girl Friday.

I wanted to be like her - smart, sassy, witty, independent. I also wanted to wear those suits. And maybe catch the heart of Cary Grant.

The school's careers adviser said journalism was a competitive business and I'd be better off in retail management or train to be a librarian. I can't sell anything for toffee and I'm not particularly quiet, so neither option seemed suitable.

I carried on writing letter after letter to try to get into journalism. I was thwarted at every turn, until my letter to a Mirror journalist in Bristol bore fruit. Up until then, my fallback position was a Youth Training Scheme course in film editing that one of my older sisters had found. I often wonder what might have happened if I'd done that instead. I like to think I'd be working on the latest Wallace and Gromit movie.

Anyway, the Bristol journalist suggested I try the Mirror's training scheme, which was based on weekly newspapers in Devon and Cornwall. I'd never heard of it, but it was worth a try.

I didn't hear anything for months and then I had a dream. I was being interviewed in very cramped conditions, speaking really quietly in a room where lots of other interviews were also taking place. The next morning, I told my mother about my dream. She dismissed it and told me not to get my hopes up.

That day, I had a call from the Mirror Group. Apparently, I had been on a reserve list, someone had dropped out and could I come for an interview the next day.

I stayed with an old boyfriend at Plymouth Poly who gallantly slept on the floor and gave me his bed. We went to see the band Dr Feelgood while I should have been prepping for interview.

The next day, he dropped me off on the edge of Plymouth to a dingy old industrial estate. I made my way around the back of the drab building to a Portakabin at the rear. And here, in cramped conditions, there were whispered interviews going on with the various editors of the weekly local newspapers in the Mirror stable.

Incredibly, I got the job and, for the next two-and-a-half years, I learnt the trade, including studying newspaper law, public administration and shorthand. We had a bit of 'block release' in the Portakabin and were then let loose on local newspapers like young children in a fun factory.

My year comprised eight school leavers with A levels and Westcountry roots rubbing shoulders with bright graduates who went on to greater things. Many of the school leavers did, too.

I'm still in touch with my fellow trainees and we've just had a reunion.

I remember so many details - such as exactly where I sat in the Portakabin and who was sitting next to me - which the others have long since forgotten. I remember a wild party in Truro (of which the host now has absolutely no recollection) and hitchhiking around Cornwall with my flatmate and waking up on a cliff edge, having pitched the tent in the dark. My flatmate doesn't remember a thing.

It was a brilliant way to learn. I still feel like I got the job by default and I'm very privileged to have had such practical, good quality training, which has stood me in good stead over the years. Our training manager, Jim Dalrymple, was a legend. We've had some tantalising glimpses of his movements since then but we're still none the wiser. You'd think that one of us, as journalists, would have been able to track him down.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

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