Although I was on the staff of Punch for 13 years, an experience which stood me in good stead for nothing that I can think of offhand, I have never been on the staff of a paper. I have, on the other hand, been a regular columnist for papers for 25 years, starting as a jazz reviewer for The Times in about 1966, which means that I have been landed for a quarter of a century with the problem of keeping people on the newspaper sweet without actually being there. It’s not easy.
Mark you, I was wary of newspapers from very early on. When I was just starting, I wrote to all the papers I could think of suggesting myself as a humorous columnist, and the only one that asked me for a chat was the Sunday Times, in the person of Oscar Turnill. He explained to me nicely, among other things, that a paper didn’t normally support more than one humorist and they already had Patrick Campbell, but if anything were ever to change… nearly 20 years later Patrick Campbell died. I crouched over the phone for days on end waiting for the call. It never came. No wonder I don’t entirely trust newspapers.
Meanwhile I had been hired as jazz correspondent by The Times, by the then arts editor, John Lawrence. This was at a time when jazz was hardly admitted to be among the arts, and Lawrence only had jazz covered because someone upstairs at The Times pressurised him into doing so. And the only reason I was hired was that I had sent a piece on spec to The Times some six months before, which was turned down. ‘Do we know anyone who knows about jazz? No? Hold on – wasn’t there that bloke who sent us a piece six months ago? Dig his letter out…’
Lawrence himself knew nothing about jazz, although he once told me his son had a jazz record, by someone he thought was called Charles ray. Nor did he see why he should know anything about jazz, as long as it didn’t lose him readers. For this reason, he wouldn’t let me review anything that wasn’t played in a concert hall for a year. Jazz in a club seemed somehow sort of dirty. And here were all these great musicians marching in and out of Ronnie Scott’s that I couldn’t get to review! I had to go down almost on my hands and knees eventually, and swear that Ronnie’s was more circumspect than the Festival Hall, better behaved than the Wigmore Hall.
So, fairly early on I got the idea that editors were people who need educating by their inferiors. This wasn’t changed by the man who followed John Lawrence, John Higgins. Higgins knew nothing about jazz either, but at least he knew that he knew nothing and that he might as well stick to opera, which was his great love and seemed to involve frequent trips to Salzburg and Buenos Aires whenever a change of cast was announced. In his absence, or indeed his presence, I just got on with things, reviewing people who sounded good and not those who didn’t. So when in 1981 I started a humorous column for The Times I had already become used to the idea that an editor was not always vital to civilization. But I also knew that if you didn’t keep in well with somebody, you might get the bullet, so I made a great attempt to be friends with the features editors at The Times.
Trouble was they didn’t stay long enough. By the times we had met, and established a modus vivendi, and taken each other to lunch, and got on Christian name terms, they had gone. I would ring up to have a chat with the new features editor…
‘Hello, is Nick there?’
‘When will he be back?’
‘He’s gone to the Observer. We don’t talk about him anymore.’
So I found myself talking to the subs instead, which seemed to be far more productive as they seemed to be far more au fait with what was going on, and often had a lot more effect on it. It must have been a gradual realisation that I had been talking to the wrong people all along – all those years of chatting up editors were wasted, and I should have made for the subs in the first place. It didn’t even matter too much that when I moved to The Independent in 1987 I also moved out of London, which meant that I have rarely been able to visit the offices of the newspaper. It is, it turns out, quite possible to have a meaningful relationship over the phone with people you have never met, and I have even found myself bidding quite emotional farewells at leaving time to people I have not set eyes on.
I also seem to have struck up a rapport with people in the library, more so perhaps than at The Times. On the rare occasions that I visited the Times library to look up my old cuttings, I was put in a corner and given a box and left to get on with it.
‘All your pieces are in there,’ they told me. ‘We don’t file yours under subject, or anything, and we don’t file Bernard Levin’s either.’
‘Because we can’t make out what the hell either of you is writing about.’
A compliment? I like to think so, Of course, it’s hard getting any compliment at all out of the subs, which is very good for the soul. Occasionally, when I think I’ve done a good piece, I try fishing for compliments. Useless. You say: ‘So…what did you think of today’s piece, then?’ They say: ‘Oh fine. It fitted perfectly.’
So there you have it. The secret of good relations at a newspaper is never to go there, and to have worked beforehand at somewhere like Punch for 13 years, so that you don’t miss the office camaraderie too much. And not to get involved with the editors, who are far too busy with their own campaigns. Before Charlie Wilson became editor of The Times I used to see quite a lot of him in the office; when he became my editor I resolved to see nothing of him, as I had of Charlie Douglas–Hume, and I succeeded.
After I handed in my notice to come to The Independent I got a note from him:’ Couldn’t we have lunch one day and talk things over?’ I wrote back and said I didn’t see much point in talking things over, but lunch would be nice.
He finally took me out to lunch a year after I had moved, and we talked about everything but newspapers, and do you know what? He was really nice. Not like my editor at all. Which he wasn’t, of course. That’s probably why.
Inside City Road - February 1992