Entering the Profession:
From School Ties
When I left Slough Grammar School in the late 1950s the concept of the relaxed gap year in the sun was yet to come. I felt such an arrangement would have suited me admirably and I would have been a willing pioneer. However, those of us who are ahead of our time do not always reap our true reward. National Service had not quite died and there seemed a very unwelcome consensus around me that a couple of years of that would do me the power of good before I went on to university. As I considered this dubious proposition, sure enough there came an even more unwelcome summons to attend an army medical in Oxford.
With the encouraging words of the Headmaster, Dr W.R.V. Long, never one of my keenest admirers, ringing in my ears - "Don't suppose for a moment that a degree of shortsightedness will get you off National Service, Cooper" - I stripped and coughed my way through a cold grey morning with the others and was told to attend another medical a few weeks later. I was encouraged on arrival at this one to find that it was entirely a series of eye examinations. I was an old hand at these. I knew it had gone well when the MO said I was to a limited degree colour blind. The green (I think) postcard arrived in Christmas week, more welcome than any festive present. "Yes!" I cried triumphantly, punching the air. "I'm C3!"
This news, I soon learned, caused Dr Long considerable distress. But if I was surplus to the army's requirements, I certainly was not included in my patient family's plans. My parents were pursuing a sudden and startling determination to retire to their roots on a mountainside overlooking the sea in Snowdonia. My sister had long gone on from the local girls’ high school to become the first female editor of Cherwell, the Oxford University newspaper, and was by now on the Sunday Times, working for Ian Fleming’s Atticus page. I liked the sound of her life and decided journalism had better call me, too, or perhaps I should call journalism. I had, after all, edited the school magazine singlehanded for three years. I had been splendidly taught English Literature by Harry Todd, a fierce hurler of wooden-backed blackboard dusters, but a wonderfully passionate teacher, who had written me a most unexpected and fond farewell note of hearty encouragement.
And, as I told the personnel director of Kemsley Newspapers in London a few days later, writing was what I did best. It was, in fact, all I could do. He read through the few pieces I had brought with me, together with the note from Harry Todd, sniffed, made a rapid series of phone calls and arranged for me to go to Cardiff the following day. The home of the Western Mail and the South Wales Echo had long been recognised as one of the best training grounds for Fleet Street. It had produced a host of legendary editors – well, the Cudlipp brothers anyway.
I caught the train to South Wales the next day in a state of some alarm and in my Sixth Form blazer with sewn on sports colours and prefect's badge. I did not, we suddenly discovered, own a suit, having spent most of the months since I left school teaching myself shorthand in pyjamas and diligently keeping the fridge tidy by eating its contents throughout the day. I changed into a maroon (I think) tracksuit for this activity as it was pretty exhausting and spilt ketchup looked unattractive on pale candy-striped pyjamas.
The South Wales Echo editor, Jack Wiggins, was a stern, white haired old cove who was clearly sick of having hopeful young English applicants dumped on him from head office in London, but he wearily read my pieces and the helpful Todd letter and asked what I had been doing with myself in the months since I had left school. I told him that I had been teaching myself shorthand. This seemed to impress him. He said he had done the same as a teenager with dreams of being a journalist. I must have suddenly seemed different from all the elegant and languid Oxbridge sons of the famous sent down to him from London. He threw me a pad and pencil, seized the first lunchtime edition of the Echo, wet from the roaring presses downstairs, and rattled off the lead story. My shorthand was left far behind but I battled on gamely..
‘Right, Mr Cropper,’ he said genially. ‘You go next door and transcribe that at my secretary's desk while I'm at lunch.’
It was hopeless. I managed the first two or three paragraphs and was staring in silent misery at my illegible shorthand when his secretary returned. She was perhaps 21 and alarmingly beautiful. She seemed to understand the situation. ‘Perhaps I can get you going again,’ she said, looking at my pad. ‘Oh no, sorry, I do Pitman's.’
‘So do I,’ I said miserably.
‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘You do have a problem. I have to pop out again for a few minutes. You might like to glance through this till the editor gets back.’
And she winked as she tossed down that first edition of the Echo on the desk…
When the Editor came back 20 minutes later he read through my typed transcript in impressed silence and rang for the News Editor, a short, red-faced, angry-looking man in his sixties called Walter Grossey, a legendary figure in provincial journalism. ‘This is Mr Chipper, Walter,’ said the editor. ‘He is rather different from our usual applicants. He left school four months ago - you will observe he rather curiously still wears the blazer - and has already taught himself remarkable shorthand.’
‘Hardly remarkable,’ I said modestly. ‘I struggled with one or two words.’
‘So remarkable,’ said the editor, ‘that within less than an hour Mr Crapper here had transcribed all 14 paragraphs of the front page lead, even though I only read him the first six and the last two!’
‘Well,’ said the news editor, looking at me thoughtfully. ‘Unscrupulous, and yet enterprising; ingenuous, but resourceful. He shall start on Monday.’
And, to my great alarm, I did. They found me lodgings and 48 hours later I was back in Cardiff on a Sunday night, watching a black and white 'What's My Line' over high tea with six commercial travellers presided over by my first terrifying Welsh landlady, Mrs Griffiths who stuck instructions in Indian ink on little white cards all over the boarding house (‘Do NOT return chamber pots under the beds after use as steam rusts the bed springs…’). And four years later, I actually left clutching a thick cuttings book and the annual Parkin Prize of the National Council for the Training of Journalists as allegedly the best trainee journalist in the United Kingdom, a decision, I have to say, which was greeted with amused incredulity by my contemporaries.
I spent the money on a gap year. In the years that followed, I covered my first football match for the Guardian as a freelance, interviewed Katherine Hepburn and the Observer said the first of six admittedly very lightweight thrillers was "spare, deft and rather fetching." I eventually became an editor myself for more than 20 years and always particularly enjoyed interviewing job applicants. I hope dear old Toddy would have enjoyed the results of his teaching and his unsolicited, but so invaluable testimonial, but I wonder what Dr Long would have made of it all.