This time last year I headed to St Leonards-on-Sea to finish a book and retrace my past. It turned out not to be quite the experience I thought it might be.
St Leonards is where I trained to be a journalist. I was sponsored by the Watford Observer, which meant my tuition fees were covered by the paper and I was paid a small weekly allowance too. I was 18, the youngest of the Class of 94 by a few years because it was supposed to be a post-graduate course. I’d not gone to university (just the school of hard knocks. Eh? Eh?) because I joined the Watford Observer straight after my A-Levels.
Anyway, I drove down on a bright sunny day last spring to find there was a mix-up over the keys for my Airbnb and, while the owner’s father drove down from south-east London with a spare set, I went for a bike ride past Bexhill-on-Sea and towards Pevensey. Perfect, I thought, to clear my mind before focusing on writing.
When I got back, I settled into the place, which was nice enough, but I already had doubts I’d last for the week I’d booked. That evening, I ate solo in an Italian restaurant on the seafront and wondered what I was doing. I’d come to the seaside to try to concentrate on finishing a book but it already felt like an airkick at nostalgia. I thought that by going back to the place where my career started it might inspire me to write. What a cliché. It worked, in a way, because it got me started again but after just a day or so I no longer felt the need to be there.
While I was there I thought back to when I first arrived on a dark, miserable Sunday afternoon in January 1994. I checked into a guesthouse called the Clevedon Court Hotel run by a slightly domineering Scottish woman (if it’s possible to be slightly domineering) and her meek husband, who shuffled around the place in a permanent state of apology. They were lovely people and very welcoming to the trainee journalists they had living under their roof who, I assume, were marginally less challenging guests than the sorts of people who had fallen through the cracks in society and found themselves housed in some of the town's grand hotel buildings that had long forgotten their glory days.
My room was tiny. A bed, a wardrobe, a sink, a little Baby Belling table-top oven with hob and grill and a window that looked out onto the square and on which the pigeons gathered from dawn every morning to wake me with their cooing. The bathroom was a freezing cold hop, skip and jump down the corridor.
The day I arrived I intended to spend the evening revising my shorthand because I knew there would be a test on the first morning. At times it seemed that the chief purpose of the course was to get everyone to the magic hundred-words-per-minute mark and that newsgathering and writing were of secondary importance to journalists. Shorthand was a very valuable skill back then but I can quite understand a young journalist today, used to pressing the record button on their iPhone, wondering what the point of it all was. Looking back now they seem rather quaint days – days when local reporters actually covered court proceedings and council meetings, where tape recorders were not allowed. Shorthand was the tool that enabled you to do the job.
Anyone who learned Pitman 2000 will know the phrase ‘Eat the peach and pay,’ and will be able to write it out in the curious language of thick and thin strokes. Every five years or so, usually when I’m coming down with flu, I have a recurring anxiety dream in which I am chased down an endless corridor by the Pitman 2000 short form for the phrase, ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…’ I don’t want to analyse too much what that means.
Anyway, in the early evening one of the other students knocked on my door and said that they were all going to the pub and so I closed my shorthand text book and did badly in the following day’s test. This started a six-month routine of getting up and making it in for the first lecture of the day by the skin of my teeth, two sessions of shorthand each day, lectures on law, local government and the process of news gathering, and one afternoon off a week to go out and gather some stories so we could create our own newspaper each Thursday night, when we’d take turns editing the ‘paper’ before heading to the pub.
In fact, we went to the pub most nights of the week to watch football on TV or play darts. On Friday nights we went to The Crypt, a nightclub in Hastings with a low ceiling and sticky floors and a DJ who would always play Geno or Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners when we were drunk. On Saturdays we’d drive to Brighton to buy CDs – for younger readers these were plastic discs that used to contain one Spotify playlist of about 12 or 14 songs – or we’d go to watch Hastings United or St Leonards (who played at grounds right next door to each other) depending on who was at home. On Sundays we’d head to the more sophisticated parts of the East Sussex coast – Rye or Camber Sands – for a lunchtime roast.
The whole time I was living in St Leonards, I got double paid in error by the Watford Observer. I’d spent the six months prior to the course working as an editorial assistant and they failed to stop my £100 a week salary after I headed to St Leonards and I didn't notice. Being the sort of person who just withdrew money from the wall until the machine said no, I lived like a king. It took 18 months to repay what I’d been overpaid with monthly deductions from my wages, but it was worth it.
One Thursday night we had a party at the Clevedon Court and more or less everyone from the course, including the tutors, came. I got lured into round after round of tequila shots and woke the next morning with a hangover I can still feel now if I think about it for more than a few seconds. I’ve never touched tequila since and just the smell of it is enough to turn my stomach.
In the morning I stood under the shower until the throbbing in the roof of my skull faded enough for me to get dressed. It was a still day but my headache was such that I walked along the seafront like a mime artist battling an imaginary wind. Only about half a dozen or so of the other students had made it in and after getting through the first lecture without throwing up we were sent home by the tutors. I spent almost all of the weekend in a fug of self-loathing, broken only by trips to the local café for bacon sandwiches when I could eventually face them. I lost the entire weekend to that hangover. When we went back in on the Monday, the few of us who had at least turned up on time the previous Friday were spared the bollocking. I suppose it says something about journalism’s old drinking culture that just turning up, despite being fit for nothing, was seen as fulfilling the brief.
It seems like a different world now, when competition for places at local newspapers was intense and the papers themselves offered a great opportunity to get started. Back then the Watford Observer was a two-section weekly broadsheet and there was a chance for a young reporter to do a bit of everything – hard news coverage (crime and court reporting), all the basics that were the staples of a paper of record (births, deaths and marriages; council meetings and community issues), human interest stories, sport, entertainment and feature-writing. Things have changed a lot since, but perhaps that's a story for another blog.