Revolution was in the air as the sub-editors of The Chronicle gathered during their evening break in the mess room at the back of the newsroom.
The revolution was inspired not by the workers this time, but by the government which was intent on reining in union power in the workplace, introducing legislation to make it easier for employees to enter into personal contracts and bypass union wage awards.
Don Bentley had heard all the arguments for and against union membership during his 40 years in journalism. He looked back to his days starting out in journalism in Britain and recalled to the sub-editors taking their break, and to some of the night reporters who had joined them, a time when unions and management actually co-operated, and jointly-funded initiatives to improve the working conditions of staff, especially in training. Bentley had trained in journalism under an apprenticeship program run jointly by newspaper proprietors and the journalists’ union. He looked back at this time, and a story came to mind.
The day Guy Paulson was appointed branch secretary of the journalists’ union was a cause for celebration.
Guy Paulson had received a unanimous vote one winter evening, during the branch’s quarterly meeting, not so much because he was ideally suited to the position - Guy Paulson was elected because he was too slow to come up with a reason why he should not fill the post, lack of experience, lack of time or even lack of interest notwithstanding.
A ritual marked the eve of the union meetings at times when the most senior officer’s post was falling vacant. Members worked on elaborate excuses when it appeared no one was going to volunteer. The journalists had to come armed with reasons why they could not perform the duties of secretary - excuses which over the years had ranged from a death in the family to homework commitments for the kids, or even the pain of divorce. Those coming to the meeting without a well-rehearsed excuse, one that could be trotted out instantly when eyes fell on them, ran the risk of being persuaded, dragooned or even press-ganged into putting their hand up. Such was the case with Guy Paulson. For a moment he had let his guard drop and here he was, by unanimous approval, the secretary of the north-west Surrey branch of the National Union of Journalists.
The position was unpaid, of course, and involved much paperwork and meetings with management. That’s why the union members had breathed a collective sign of relief when Paulson had reluctantly nodded his head to their pleadings. Such was the relief that the other 20 or so members gathered for the meeting had not paused to consider Paulson’s lack of experience, and more importantly, his apparent lack of passion for union matters. Paulson had in the past never displayed an urge to go out there and fight for what was right for journalists. At union meetings over the years he had not bothered to speak in support of fair pay and working conditions for his journalistic colleagues, or demonstrably carried the flag high for journalistic ethics and principles against newspaper owners who might put profit above such considerations.
Paulson had merely gone along with the proceedings, as indeed most members did, nodding agreement when a nod was appropriate and raising his hand in support, or in opposition, to a motion after carefully delaying to see what the majority was doing. Paulson’s mind, unable to grasp the union jargon bouncing around the room would often wander at these times and if you asked him what was the subject being discussed, and its resultant motion, he would in all probability not be able to tell you.
The other journalists had always believed that Paulson had attended the meetings for the same reasons that most of them did: they were held in a pleasant Victorian pub - the Surrey Tavern in Guildford - with warm coal fire in winter and a beer garden under the stars in summer, and it was a chance to talk journalism and exchange gossip with colleagues away from girlfriends, boyfriends or husbands and wives. “Hack talk” it was called, spoken in a language and covering topics that members of the public, even if they were attached to journalists in marriage or romance, would not understand.
The fact that some of the participants might return home a little worse for wear, might stumble down the stairs or retire to the garden to be sick, said much for the serious and the stressful nature of the business on the agenda of the meetings of the north-west Surrey branch of the National Union of Journalists.
The outgoing branch secretary had been perfectly suited to the position. He was a unionist’s unionist, committed to the advancement of his fellow workers, and he knew the history of not only the journalists’ union but the whole union movement in Britain backwards. Some said he harboured an ambition to one day be a Labour Party candidate for parliament, and his two-year volunteer union service in Surrey might obtain him a seat, because the National Union of Journalists, like other trade unions in Britain at the time, had the power to endorse Labour candidates for Westminister. First, though, the outgoing secretary was furthering his journalistic career, accepting a post as a sub-editor on a national newspaper in London, an important step up the ladder from his corresponding job on the Surrey Advertiser.
Not only was the outgoing official well versed in union history and culture. He had been a worthy representative of the journalists in discussions with the management of the three newspaper companies operating in north-west Surrey, winning special rights tied to local working conditions not covered by national negotiations.
Within the branch he had made sure that everyone had paid their union subscriptions on time so that the branch showed a healthy financial position each year, even showing a profit after such items as hiring the room in the pub and a small outlay on stationery were taken into account.
The expertise of Paulson in negotiations with management and managing financial affairs, even those as basic has collecting union dues from members and placing them in a bank to gain interest before they were in turn transferred to head office in London, were unknown to his colleagues. Paulson, however, shared not only his outgoing colleague’s outgoing manner, he shared his eagerness to be the first to the bar to buy drinks, to start the ball rolling for what always turned out to be an enjoyable evening of union matters, even if discussing items on the agenda covered only a fraction of the time actually spent in the Surrey Tavern
There was, however, an important distinction between the branch secretaries, newly past and present. The outgoing secretary only visited the Surrey Tavern for official union business, save from having the occasional pint at the end of the week when the deadline of the Surrey Advertiser had passed.
Paulson made the pub his virtual home out of office hours, even running a tab behind the bar to keep him in drinks, and bar meals, until pay day on a Friday.
Even when there were no colleagues or friends around to keep Paulson entertained he could be found in a corner of the Tavern, reading a novel of his favourite author Graham Greene.
Guy Paulson, a reporter in his early twenties, had left his home in the Midlands of Britain to pursue his ambition of being a journalist, and had arrived in Guildford because it had been the only place where he could find a job as a cub reporter. He had stayed beyond his indentureship at the Surrey Advertiser, and had carved out a modest career in country journalism covering the local councils and courts. He lived in digs not too far from the Surrey Advertiser office in a Victorian terraced street removed from the medieval charm of Guildford, which was famous for an historic cobbled high street.
Paulson’s landlady did not provide meals and so, when he had first moved in after splitting up with his fiancee with whom he had shared a flat, he had taken to going to the Tavern for meals, also taking suitable refreshment to go with his pie-and-mash, streak-and-kidney pie and fish and chips. The refreshment invariably was the best bitter from the local Friary Meux brewery, the hoppy odour from whose brewing process tended to permeate the town during the working week.
Another attraction of the Surrey Tavern was that its landlord, Alf Tanner, allowed the young reporters to run tabs, something the other pubs near the office would not allow from such young men and women.
The arrangement for Guy Paulson had proved even more convenient when, advancing up the journalistic ladder at the Advertiser, he had gone onto a monthly salary from his weekly wage, and his bar tab had followed this process, to be settled on the last day of the month.
Guy Paulson’s new-found expertise in managing his domestic financial affairs in a monthly manner had a mirror image in his management of union business. He proved an able and efficient union secretary for the first few months. He showed an enthusiastic, even ruthless, determination to collect subscriptions that went beyond the approach of his predecessor, who would allow for delays in payment if a union member had more pressing commitments that month. Not Guy Paulson. He would say the great movement for proletariat advancement, the commitment to not only protecting the rights of workers but their education through worker’s educational establishments, could not be delayed just because some member’s kiddy needed a new bike for their birthday, or a kitchen needed painting. Paulson would stress that such personal priorities went against the grain of collective consciousness, this great oak growing from an acorn of hope. That his how Paulson out it. He was very convincing, so convincing in fact he had staff members lining up on the last Friday of each month to pay their dues, all entered in payment books they presented to Paulson, he in turn putting their names and their contribution in his ledger.
This change of attitude regarding union matters might have come as something of a surprise to Paulson’s colleagues, but they were happy for him and speculated that it might lead to bigger things beyond the world of journalism. A professional union official perhaps, or even a Member of Parliament. This might be Paulson’s road to Damascus, even if for the time being it remained a cobbled street leading to the Surrey Tavern.
Branch secretary Paulson could even be found at the Tavern some evenings engaged in union work outside of official meetings there, ledger and paperwork spread out on a old oak table in a corner of the bar. On these occasions he was foregoing “The Quiet American”, or “Our Man in Havana”, or “Brighton Rock”, for the National Union of Journalists’ rule book.
All the while Paulson bought drinks for union members visiting the pub, and some people who were not union members, and some people that were not even journalists; there was always a drink for someone visiting Paulson’s quiet corner of the Tavern where he had set up office.
Paulson’s new-found passion for union activities, to go with his passion for journalism, pleased female members of the Surrey Advertiser staff. Paulson had cut a sad and lonely figure when his engagement ended, moping around the office. His fiancee had also worked at the Advertiser, but had left abruptly to pursue a career, and another man, in television.
Female members of the Advertiser staff, trying to be matchmakers, had set Paulson up on blind dates, to no avail. The union had now become Paulson’s mistress and the editor’s secretary had expressed the hope one afternoon that perhaps Paulson might meet a nice girl at union head office in London, if he should ever venture that way.
Instead of Paulson visiting the union in London, the union came to him in Guildford. A man from head office arrived one afternoon, off the express from London, that made the South Coast its next stop.
Usually when a man from head office was in town, all the union members would gather to greet and meet him in the upstairs room at the Tavern where the union meetings were usually held.
The man from London, the southern region organiser, usually arrived during the course of national pay negotiations every few years and he would give all the member a full and comprehensive briefing. This came in very technical union jargon and the journalists would stifle yarns and look forward to the time they all adjourned to the bar at the conclusion of the briefing. At these times there was an anticipation in the air, an expectation that a pay rise was on the way, even if it was well below the percentage demanded by the union, but a pay rise all the same, that would make life and paying its bills just a little easier.
This time, however, the union organiser wanted to see Paulson alone, not in the Tavern but in a solicitor’s office at the end of the High Street where the central medieval part of the ancient town suddenly merged into 1930s art deco, an area known for its law firms.
Paulson maintained a silence about the arrival of the union organiser. In fact, Paulson remained so silent that he vanished for a few days from the Tavern, forsaking his Friary Meux and steak-and-kidney pie for a tin of baked beans in his digs, much to the surprise of his landlady who called the fire brigade thinking that the smell from his burnt toast was the result of a fire.
Strange things started to happen that were not only connected with baked beans and burnt toast. They involved the union members themselves. Apart from pay rounds, union headquarters had largely left the workings of the south-west Surrey branch to its own devices but in coming weeks other union officials arrived in town, one in a smart pinstriped suite who did not look like a union official at all. He had the air of a barrister about him, or even a police prosecutor.
And then the man in the pinstriped suit, who merely introduced himself as Rodney, asked to see all the union members personally, and their subscription record books. Studying these, he closely inspected the handwriting of Guy Paulson, scraggy at the best of times, to confirm that union payments had indeed been made at the end of each month.
The man in the blue pinstriped suit then made a visit to the Tavern public house but not to enjoy a pint of the pub’s Friary Meux best bitter which the landlord Alf Tanner always kept in the best of condition. He wanted to speak to Mr Tanner in person, in his back office away from the bar.
When union members visited the pub, searching for Guy Paulson and asking about the activities of the man in the pinstriped suit, Alf Tanner would merely shake his head, all the while uttering a “tut, tut,” or some such sound before asking what the inquirer wanted to drink.
Paulson a few days later called an extraordinary meeting of the north-west Surrey branch of the National Union of Journalists to announce, with some sadness, that he was reluctantly giving up the position of secretary. He did not give a reason, as was usual in such cases. Paulson did not mention pressure of other work, or ill health or say he was moving from town. He made it clear, in fact, he was not leaving town, but he would not be drinking at the Tavern for a time.
Guy Paulson said he had a financial commitment to the management of the Surrey Advertiser, a loan that would take him a year to pay back, and he had decided to cut down on his drinking to help in this direction
A motion of thanks was proposed at the extraordinary branch meeting, in recognition of the sterling work Paulson had done for the union during his short tenure. It was carried unanimously and union members retired to the bar, happy in the knowledge that branch affairs were being taken over by head office in the short term and there would be no need for individual members to search for excuses, on the hoof, as to why they could not volunteer for the position at this time.
Grateful for the support he had received, Paulson was as ever first to the bar to buy a round of drinks. The union members noted, however, that this time Paulson did not signal to the landlord to put it on his slate.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
The ninth in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … his musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler.