The biggest moment in those early days for any apprentice is signing your indentures.
Without that, you aren’t going anywhere.
By signing those indentures, your employer is bound to keep you, put you through college, abide by all the terms and conditions of all agreements recognised by the Printing and Publishing Industry Training Board (PPITB) – now defunct, and you are set to get a nationally recognised qualification at the end of it. Hopefully.
Equally, you are not meant to break those indentures, ie you don’t clear off and get a job somewhere else. You can, but once broken, that’s it. It was impressed upon me that this was a sin worse than not saying your Hail Marys (we had some Catholics in the office).
In fact, I don’t think it is such a big sin at all, and I did contemplate doing it.
But anyway. I’d heard some dubious stories about our strange editor refusing to sign someone else’s indentures and he kept her hanging around for weeks, months. What this does, is delay training, keeps your pay level down, and means you don’t qualify so quickly.
However the big day came, say after three months or so, maybe a week late. Because he was busy (he was never busy). And they were duly signed with the chief reporter in attendance as
bridesmaid witness. Even better, because the other new college entrant was signing at the same time, my indenture period was cut short – the college entrants had a shorter period.
So, I’m learning the shorthand on Monday arvos. I’m going to council meetings and enjoying those. My first court trip was less than brilliant. The senior reporter assigned to take me said ‘You don’t need to take down all of this, just write a couple of things down, and the result, you’ll remember most of it.’
I was a bit surprised, so naively I later told this to my Chief Reporter who was horrified, and promptly told me to take down everything in shorthand. Given the legal ramifications around mis-reporting a court case I can see why. It was probably the only duff bit of advice I ever got. On my next trip to court, I was escorted by the CR. Some of us are lucky to have great teachers, and she was one of them.
As the date for my two month block-release course came nearer, the shorthand classes doubled.
Gladly Sadly I had to miss charades on Wed afternoons and go to shorthand then too. On the block-release course we were expected to pass our 100 words a minute exam. We were probably on about 80 at the local class, so there was some fair ground to make up.
You couldn’t take your final exams without having the shorthand, and it was one of the biggest reasons people had to delay going for their ‘Prof Test’. (Test for the National Proficiency Certificate). The Prof Test was only held twice a year.
There were two colleges near us. Darlington or Sheffield. ‘Go to Sheffield,’ said everyone, ‘it’s brilliant.’ Two of the three college entrants on my paper had spent their full year there. Rather them than me. Two months was enough. What a shithole. The college, I mean, although I wasn’t fond of Sheffield either.
At the time, I was volunteering with the National Trust in a Sheffield group (the countryside around is magnificent) so I got some local accommodation through the group. It was an adequate bedroom, can’t remember being allowed to use the kitchen, and the sitting room was by invitation only. Hey ho. It was a nice area, the university gardens weren’t too far away, and most nights I went swimming in the splendid city pool.
Richmond College was one of those local education blocks that was built in the 60s/70s and designed by soulless architects (if they even were architects) who never thought about inspiring people to think/work/enjoy their time in that place. It was vile. Everything I had ever imagined a comprehensive school would be like – it was a school before it became a college which may explain a lot. It’s now a housing estate.
The journey there was an endless tour of the local council estates and there were a lot. It was the time of extremely cheap buses in Sheffield. David Blunkett had set up the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, so all the unemployed spent lots of time riding around on the buses. Not much else to do really as the steel works and the pits were in decline.
It made for an unpleasant trip to work/college though, full of fag smoke and oiks.
Our lecturers were, for the most part, patronising and full of tough journo attitude. I was reminded of ‘Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.’ [George Bernard Shaw].
We were given ghastly vox-pop (vocus populi – the voice of the people) assignments in Sheffield city centre, full of sad-faced people, who were probably sick to death of trainee journalists assaulting them asking for their opinions about nothing in particular.
My practical journalism report said something about my attitude and that if I applied myself I could produce the mature writing of which I was capable. Gee thanks.
I passed the law exam. This was a less exciting module than I had anticipated, given that I had previously considered doing a law degree. Duller than ditchwater would better describe it. We duly wrote everything down and learned it parrot fashion – naming of people in rape cases, definitions eg theft, burglary, robbery, endless rules and stuff about defamation (libel and slander) – this was an obvious one as it could cost the employer money if you stuffed that one up, and a load of other clart. I still have two copies of Essential Law for Journalists.
Public Admin was obviously more interesting and I got a credit in that exam. No idea what it consisted of now apart from learning about rates. That’s the precursor to council tax and poll tax for anyone who doesn’t understand the term. Here in Gib we have rates still. Sometimes it is so much easier NOT to change stuff. Anyway, the rate of the rates was changed every year by local government at the annual council meeting so we all needed to be up on this one, and be able to calculate how much the increase meant to the average property-owner. It didn’t help to be numerically challenged.
And the big shorthand exam came round. We all failed. It obviously happened all the time, certainly my hand was totally shaking, and at least one, or maybe two more exams, were scheduled before the end of the course. Most of us passed the next one. I did, and so did my two colleagues from the other paper who were on the same course. We even went for 120 words a minute, and colleague L was expected to get it. None of us did, but it was irrelevant. We had what we needed.
With passes in law, public admin, shorthand exams, and the course assessment on practical journalism, we could go ahead for the final hurdle, the Prof Test.
It had a low pass rate. Somewhere around 40% at the time. One of the things we had been told at college was that graduates thought they were good at exams but they weren’t very good at this one. That was probably a load of crap but it freaked the shit out of me.
I went to a union meeting with a local sub-editor from The Big Paper in the city and said I was worried.
‘Why? You’ve passed all the other exams you’ve sat. No reason why you won’t pass this.’ And with which, he dismissed it. Thanks Bob. You helped.
But before that, we had a refresher course. After horrid Sheffield, I cleared off to Darlington this time. Possibly the dullest town in the UK, but a rather better college, and a few friendly night clubs to go to with colleagues from the newspaper group. My grad pals must have chosen to go back to Sheffield, so instead I was in Darlington with the one who had arrived on my paper just after me, and a different one from the other paper. It was a week and it was good fun. There was far more confidence-building involved. Especially for my colleague and room-mate who built her confidence around a newly-acquired boyfriend. They may have done nice confidence stuff down at Richmond too but after the first session I wasn’t prepared to take the risk.
The big day came. It was a full day of exams in a city hall some ten or fifteen miles away from our paper, for people who came from all over the place. We arrived early, parked up, and lugged out our portable typewriters. New ribbons in place, and everything checked and working.
There were four exams. Interview and story, council report and story, in the morning. Lunch break, followed by speech and story, and practical journalism.
Because the examiners had to play at being spokespeople, fire officers, police officers, frightened victims or whatever for the interview, the morning session was flexible and you had to fit in the council report around the interview.
My interview was fairly early, and I was glad to get it over with. You had to ask all the obvious questions, eg, ‘And how do you spell that?’ and ‘Can I take your ‘phone number in case I need to check anything/have any follow-up enquiries?’
Not much use when you get back to your exam desk and you realise you have forgotten a classic question, because you can hardly ring them. No mobiles then.
You had to follow up appropriate answers that hinted to further information, and avoid red herrings that sidetracked you from the main story. On the college course, one of the things that had stuck in my mind was the crankiness of examiners and the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) standards. People who wrote post-mortem got black marks against them. It is not an after death, it is a post-mortem examination. It didn’t come up. I was gutted, I was so hoping to pass this exam on the basis of writing ‘post-mortem examination‘ because I had listened in class.
Once that was out of the way, onto the council report, which was pretty straight-forward. Inasmuch as there was a report issued that discussed proposing to build a million-pound housing development, bringing loads of local jobs to an area with high unemployment, on an environmentally-sensitive site where the only pair of lesser-spotted greater-crested yellow-breasted sparrows in the country were about to hatch their first eggs. What was your intro for that one? Which point was the most important? Could you cleverly summarise it all in the obligatory 20 words?
Lunch, and a chance to moan with colleagues. Followed by a boring speech that went on for ages which you had to take down in shorthand. See why we had to pass the shorthand test? Then, even worse, we had to decipher said scribble and make a story out of it. I couldn’t even remember how the speech had started by the end of it, apart from, “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, I am here today to…..”
The end of the gruelling day – and I tell you it seriously was, both mentally and physically – came with the so-called easy paper on practical journalism.
We were given the usual selection of 9-12 questions of ‘how would we go about approaching these particular stories’ and we had to choose three or four. It should be easy but by then we were all flagging a bit. One of my friends failed it three times, in fact to this day, I don’t know if she ever passed it.
The end finally arrived, our typewriters were packed up and we went jadedly home to await the results months later. Never was there such a long wait.
I passed. First time. So did all my colleagues who took it at the same time. We were all now Senior Reporters. Wow!
For those of you who are long-sighted and can’t quite see the date – yes, it was 29 years ago this month….. Double wow!! Writing this, it feels like just yesterday.