A FRIEND was walking past our house the other day and we had an old-fashioned, face-to-face chat. He still works in the newspaper office where I parked my Doc Martens until a few years ago. Or he does when he’s not typing at home.
Offices are under threat as companies see the economic benefits of having people working from home. Newspaper offices are endangered for the same reason, especially as too many modern press companies never turn down an opportunity to squeeze the last blood from their anaemic stone.
Reach, owner of the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express, has just told most of its regional journalists that they will now be working from home. This may appeal to some, although it’s hard not to mourn the newspaper office, that crucible of creative gossip and busily tapping fingers. That home of good conversation and heated exchanges; of parried tips and shared sources; of great annoyance and good chats around the boiling kettle.
Young reporters who sign up and find themselves confined to their home will be missing out on learning from those around them, those padded with chat and old stories. Maybe they’ll see that as a narrow escape, but they risk being isolated in a job that’s all about people.
As a nomad of the late pastures, I’ve had a few assorted jobs now, and for the past year they’ve all been done from the study. This is both socially isolating and quietly congenial. If another office job ever comes along, my rider will be that I expect to be able to pick up my guitar through the working day, for a consoling strum; consoling to the strummer, at least.
My first newspaper office was small and sat above a shop in Greater Manchester. Other than that, there is not much to say about the six months spent there.
The second was large and sat above a shop in Deptford, south east London, adjacent to the pub where the playwright Christopher Marlowe is said to have been murdered in 1593. It was also next to the station and the office window offered a panoramic view of the platform. Of people coming and going, and waiting (some since 1593).
On climbing the stairs from the street, you were greeted by the switchboard lady, through whom all calls had to pass, as she plugged you into the outside world, goddess of a pre-digital portal.
We worked on typewriters, slipping a piece of carbon paper between two sheets, and the office rang to the clatter of keys, and stank of smoke and the sweet souring of afternoon beer, lunchtime drinking being the pastime of that lost age.
The editor was genial in the morning, a cheerfulness generally dissipated in the afternoon by too much midday Guinness. At his best, he was a campaigning editor who used his newspaper to stand against the National Front; at his second best he could spot a good job application submitted by a young man sitting above a shop in Greater Manchester.
Computers came in eventually, and not long afterwards another newspaper office was added to the collection, but only on Saturdays, when shifts were done on the Observer, which sat close to St Paul’s cathedral. A classic, old-fashioned newspaper office, until the paper moved across town to something swish with glass lifts.
After that there was York and three offices for the same newspaper, the most recent being the smallest, a parable in brick for the declining state of local newspapers, sadly.
Apart from that, I’ve worked in a newspaper agency office, shared a small university office, and roamed rootless at another university, sans office. And sat at home in the study, rooted but without companions (friendly Zoom coffee breaks making for a passable substitute).
Not everything is good about the office, but mostly it seems beneficial to be working away from home, to be mixing with your colleagues, to have someone to talk to who doesn’t have their looming Zoom face on.