Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Snapper dies - but the image remains vivid

Sadenned once again to learn of the death of yet another former colleague. This time it was Tony Gregory, former chief photographer of the Herts Advertiser in St Albans. And as if to bring the news even closer to home, he died after suffering a heart attack in what was, until recently, my local.

It also brought back a few memories of the days when newsrooms were crammed to the rafters with staff, lunches were long, workloads manageable at a canter and expenses went through on the nod.

But for all that, the papers were editorially strong, no-one appeared in court in relative secrecy and local councils were held properly to account. And no one could place a quirky small ad in a shop window and not expect a call from the newsdesk.

Greg, as he was known, was one of those larger-than-life characters who boomed their way around newsrooms, barrel-chesting their way through the day and "getting it sorted" in that robust, no-nonsense but highly ethical way that defined his generation.

He was there on my first day. One of the few still in the office at midday. I'd had a long drive from the westcounntry and didn't show until 1.00, just as the newsroom had emptied for a two-hour liquid lunch.

The editor knew I'd be late. He'd offered to store some of my stuff at his rambling old mill house in return for an early start date. But Greg didn't know that.

"New boy?" he asked, looking at his watch from the doorway of the darkroom as I sat there alone. I was a bit cocky back then and just replied: "doesn't do to be too keen."

"You'll go far," he replied. The ambiguity remains to this day.

He had a team of four or five, as i recall The reporters' desk was about 12-strong, from the old lags who knew everyone and everything to the training scheme modshipmites who called people sir on the phone. There was a newsdesk of two, about eight subs (maybe more) two district desks (four or five) a social desk of two and five more on the sports desk.

We were paid in cash in little brown envelopes the editor's secretary brought around on a Friday, before popping back again a few hours later with the exes. I claimed a tenner's worth at the end of my first week but that was laundered into £25 by the FoC who "hadn't fought all those battles" just so some boy scout could let the side down.

We did two stories a day, by and large, but the diary was as comprehensive as the schools in those days. The youngsters got stuck into pump features like Down Your Way, the seniors did death knocks and the pre-Leveson ones who stayed up to watch Lou Grant in the days before betamax video, even fronted up villains, preferably with Greg standing behind them with a Nikon dangling like a pendant from his neck and chipping in with "it's a fair question, pal."

The editor wore a colourful waistcoat, read the Village Voice and talked of "getting the vibe", the news editor was from up north and smoked a pipe at his desk, the snappers wore jeans, there was a hamster of a librarian who would let his car idle for a full ten pollutant minutes before engaging gear because he'd read something about optimum engine heat, a 5ft 4in bulldog of a chief reporter who'd ask geezers in the pub who they were looking at; the most senior hack on the desk had a handlebar moustache and the most junior a punk haircut. The babes in the ad room next door were all out of our league and the smoothies in suits they sat next to were derided by those of us who would have secretly claimed legit expenses for a month for plant cutting of their cool.

You couldn't have got more character in a room if you'd had oak beams and open brickwork.

When Robert Runcie left the city to become Archbishop of Canterbury, he told me in his exit interview the thing he'd missed most was "the dear old Herts Ad" he could never live without.

About a year ago, I went back there as part of a fact-find on behalf of my students and found a newsroom of five doing everything: writing and subbing all sections, cobbling together ad features and updating the website.

The current editor told me tales of jumping fences to jog across fields to the scene of a major fire, so the spirit is still there, even if the resources aren't.

Greg remained in the area after retirement and, like me, would have got the now-free edition through his letterbox every week. He had his fair share of illness but was a legendary non-complainer and if you read Medeliene Burton's piece here you'll see why (note the bit about helping Spitfires take off and you'll learn more of what built that generation).

The industry today may not be the one he remembers, but he goes to his grave with the comfort that he was there at the best of times.