COMPARED to the loud, rowdy and often booze-fuelled newspaper offices of yesteryear, today’s are akin to a library.
And I don’t mean an Irish library, where people seem to have impunity to talk as loudly as they do in the outside world.
I mean like an English library, where you can hear a pin drop — where everybody talks in stage whispers and stern librarians still shush you for even those transgressions... and, typically for the English and their odd manners and mores, nobody really has a clue why. I mean, do people browsing for books really require utter silence to do so?
When I started out as a cub reporter in the 1980s in the UK, a newspaper room was a boisterous place. Oh man, the din!
The clickety-clack of typewriters, the fist-on-table of an irate editor, the booming voices of hard-to-please news editors, reporters gabbling away down the phones, which, remarkably, were attached to the receivers by twirly extendable wires.
Shouting, swearing, stomping... and that was just the women.
And the noise wasn’t the only assault on the senses.
When I progressed to a sub-editor (although some reporters would prefer ‘regressed’), I had a smoker on either side of me and every time they exchanged pleasantries — or, more often, insults — I was covered in a cloud of their tobacco fumes.
I didn’t mind in the slightest, since I smoked too... yes, in the office. Gasp! Gasp indeed.
The swirls of smoke made it hard to make people out in the distance in the open plan offices, but the few non-smokers who complained about the polluted atmosphere were quickly shot down by the coughing, spluttering majority. Ah, the good old days...
Tempers often frayed in the era before kinder management techniques became commonplace. In one notorious newspaper office I worked in as a nixer, the entire team of sub-editors went out to the pub for liquid three-hour lunches every day, and when they returned to work, it was a recipe for disaster.
This boozy culture went all the way to the top. A bad-tempered Scot once offered me a full-time job with his team of big-drinking subs (presumably because I wasn’t quite as pickled yet as the rest of his team).
When I turned him down (I had a steady day job, and, although fond of a pint, I was rather attached to my liver), I could hear him combusting in anger in his enclosed office at this insult.
A friendly colleague rapidly steered me to the exit door before said Scot could get the chance to give me the hair-dryer treatment in front of all and sundry.
“Come back at the same same tomorrow for your shift, laddie,” my friendly colleague told me (there were a lot of Scots there). “The grizzled old bastard will have sobered up by then and forgotten all about your snub.”
For all of that, those people were bloody good journalists to a man and woman, and in any case I can safely talk about them now without fear of libel laws since they’ve all long gone to the great newsroom in the sky.
I was reminiscing about all of these past antics this week, when I began to work from home for The Echo as the Coronavirus sent huge swathes of the population into self-isolation.
With our three boisterous boys off school and our four-year-old daughter off playschool, my wife advised me to set up office in one of the bedrooms upstairs, far from the madding crowd.
“Not at all,” I shot back with uber-confidence, “I have the concentration of a tightrope walker when I’m working — nothing can put me off my key strokes.”
I regaled her with my tales of the rambunctious, very non-PC offices of the past and boasted that I had the iron will of Tiger Woods — who famously practiced playing shots while his father shouted and clapped behind him, trying to put him off. It was a great way for Tiger to get used to the fairway din as he marched to major glory.
Just like Tiger, I pictured myself beavering away at the kitchen table, deep in thought, while the kids squabbled, ate, watched TV, did their homework, and generally caused mayhem around me.
I duly set up my laptop at 9am on Monday.
Lads, I lasted for all of ten minutes...
That’s how long it took for me to abandon my idyll of home-working within the bosom of my family and scarper upstairs to the serenity and relative silence of a bedroom. The reason? I’ve worked in newspaper offices for 33 years and never once in that time — ever — has a colleague burst into tears because they banged their head on the back of my chair while they danced to The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on the TV.
Never once in my career as a hard-bitten journalist have I ever had to spend five minutes rubbing aforementioned sobbing person’s head and — yes — kissing it better. (I’m not sure even The Echo’s ultra-competent human resources department would have a precedent for that).
And, most assuredly, never once in my career as anyone ever interrupted my work flow to ask me to paint their nails with child’s varnish. Not once.
The breaking point came soon after, when said four-year-old told me she wanted Weetabix... no cornflakes... no toast.. with butter... no chocolate spread. NO. I SAID BUTTER, DADDY.”
I had worked through drinkers and smokers, rows and threats, insults and barbs, all swirling around me, but the pre-schooler had me licked.
I had had enough.
I unplugged my computer and meekly retreated to the bedroom, from where I am penning this missive.
We live in strange and worrying times — especially for those who have lost their jobs and whose livelihoods are in jeopardy because of this health crisis.
But, as someone pointed out this week: Previous generations sent their menfolk to war, or took a ship to a faraway land, never to be seen again, or lived through grinding poverty. The womenfolk had it even harder.
While most of us are being asked to work and Netflix and chill out in the living room, hopefully for just a few weeks.
Not so much ‘Your country needs you’, then, as ‘Your country needs you to stay warm and safe for a while’.
It’s hard work, but someone’s gotta do it.
Now, is it safe to go downstairs again...