Friday, October 5, 2007

PER ARDUA AD ASTRA


FRED WEHNER wishes a couple of words would fail him so he can answer the call of the scotch-and-limes at The Harrow

THROUGH STRUGGLES TO THE STARS

There had to be 52 words dead. Not 51. Not 53. And even an ‘a’ or an ‘an’ counted as a complete a word as antidisestablishmentarianism, even though that one never made it in at all.
The Stars, they were called, and they arrived in batches at odd intervals, which I always found, well... odd. Why not every day? Every week? Or was this the astrologer’s talent at its most transparent: sudden bursts of stellar inspiration giving birth to another constellation of horoscopic predictions.
That’s what these were. Horoscopes that arrived at the Daily Mail Features desk whereupon they were each to be fitted into a slot that someone with an anal brain had calculated years earlier to accept precisely 52 words. And this task was the sole domain of the lowliest sub-editor on that table.
Me.
Actually, when I show up the existing Mr.Bottom-Rung is a quiet fellow called Nick Gordon, a young staffer, who later rises to the editorship of You magazine. I’m a casual, newly recruited by Femail bigwig Gerald Rudge, and once I prove I can keep my head down lower than anyone else’s I’m in solid. Not a regular casual but the regular casual.
So now I’m the nether knave and I get The Stars, all of them, all the time. There’s a given that whenever Orion disgorges another clump of celestial wisdom it’s saved up and served to yours truly.
There’s other work too, of course, stuff to ‘knock into shape’, as they call it, and often to the annoyance of the feature writers, some of whom expect their compositions to remain untouched or they might elect to knock you into shape.
One time I get to sub Mike Kemp, the motoring correspondent, agonising over my myriad changes so much that in order to untwist my knickers I wind up making calls and rewriting the whole thing.
Let’s use a totem pole as the yardstick. I’m something lodged out of sight at the bottom beneath the salmon’s tailfin, while the eagle’s head at top is Bernard Connolly.
‘You rewrote Kemp?’ he asks. ‘Put in for a double shift.’
Twice the bunce just for doing that? I like Mr. Connolly. And I can see that my road to wealth lies in continuing to shave down the Saggies and pick up the Pisces, as many as they want. At times Orion’s offerings are too short, but mostly they require trimming, and I’m wielding the pencil.
What power! I sometimes reflect on the readers, imagining they plan their day around the Daily Mail’s zodiac. Coffee, toast with lemon marmalade, and then a quick 52-word read to determine what to do, or to avoid doing, until bedtime.
And I – the guy under the salmon – provide the guiding hand in telling them how to live.
It’s about this time that I’m passing by the Newsdesk and hear: 'Fuckin’ Fred Wehner!'
Ears akimbo, it’s Mike Borissow, Night News Editor on the Daily Sketch where I’d worked years earlier and he’s now the same on the Mail. Beside him, who has also made the transition, is Bob Hill, the Pancho to his Cisco, the Robin to his Batman, the Dick Cheney to his,... oh never mind.
‘What are you up to these days?’
Pointing to the Feature Subs’ desk: ‘Sitting over there. Counting my lucky Stars. Doing shifts.’
‘Well why don’t you come and do some for us.’
Thus begins a period of high tension. Yes I do come in each time Newsdesk secretary Joan Gabbedey calls and I get involved in major newsgathering again – a job I love. But there’s also the Feature Subs, those civilised fellows who book me in advance for large blocks of days. There’s bound to be a conflict, and it comes very soon.
Can’t do a news shift tonight because I’m subbing, so I offer up a very capable pal, John Sansom. But while he’s getting bylines covering Irish bombings, crime and politics and pulling mischievous Harold-Wilson-bashing duty I get The Stars once more.
‘You still here, Fred? Put in for a double shift.’
Bernard Connolly again in his sweet soprano voice. It’s only 10 pm and I’ve been at work a mere four hours. This is definitely the job for me. Not a staff one, just these mini-shifts that bring in double pay.
On the reporting side I’m kept way past my time on a doorstep, a human milkbottle, waiting for an ambush interview with someone who doesn’t want to talk to me. I’m cold, wet, famished, fed up...
‘Give it another hour.’
‘But I was off at midnight...’
Click.
So that’s the choice. On the one side you hardly have time to grab some nourishment amid your rabid quest for a story, you get into scrapes, have to shield your back at all times against office politics. On the other they throw money at you and applaud every stroke of the pencil: a cozy, sheltered, easy life with regular hours that they book in advance.
Which do I want? It depends on who I think I am. The feature subs discuss gardening and hobbies and mortgages and cerebral matters in a genteel way usually. The coarsest of them are into do-it-yourself projects. The reporters are a brash, carnivorous bunch given to boasting and carousing and getting into fights (although mostly only near-fights).
Apart from Cro-Magnon origins, the two separate species have one other thing in common – they all like a pint in the top bar of The Harrow. And yet even in this cramped, ‘watch it, mate’ environment where bodily contact guarantees beer slops on suits, the two groups maintain a strict apartheid.
Who are my peers? There’s the dilemma, the jungle versus the zoo. Danger or security.
Before moving over to News full time and taking a staff job, I provide Features with another pal to watch the skies as Orion’s Helper. It’s a sad farewell, but the lure of the outside world has just been too strong.
And, my starry links never severed totally, I have a lifelong friendship with the Mail On Sunday’s current astrologer, Sally Brompton, who warns that Mars is about to cross my Midheaven resulting in ruthless editing at the hands of someone in a position of authority.
One of my last stints as a Features Sub finds me not lost for words but unable to lose words.
The other subs have been in The Harrow for the last hour. David Loudfoot, Ernie McLaughlin, Dave Soulsby, John Ebblewhite, the entire gang. I’m on soothsayer duty again. They telephone: ‘Come on over, Wehner, your drinks are on the bar.’
‘Coming in a jif.’
Ten minutes later, the same. And then again. ‘The scotches are waiting. It’ll be your shout when you get here.’
‘Yesyesyes, OK Dave. Just got to get these last few Stars.’
I’m developing a powerful thirst just hearing about my liquor sitting there. Plus over the phone there’s the pied-piperesque music of clinking glasses and the warm, familiar buzz of animated journalistic conversation. Was that a near-fight in the background?
But The Stars, The Stars...
This time Orion’s really set me a right heavenly teaser: try as I might, I can’t get them down to 52. Here we have a couple of signs that I’ve pared down to 54 words, even 53 if I strangle English grammar to the brink of criminality.
I’ve already killed all the adjectives.
One more word. Just got to finish this, but how, when I can’t cut another without turning it all into cosmic gibberish. There will be people at the breakfast table unable to go on with their lives unless they read word-for-precise-word what their horoscope foretells.
Ring ring.
‘Right, Ernie. Four scotch-and-limes lined up now? I’m on my way this minute.’
And so, soddit. I snatch up my pencil and, for Aquarius and Capricorn, make the final cut. In each case just the one tiny word.
“Not”.

ENDIT

Copyright © 2007 Fred Wehner is a Fleet Street journalist formerly with the London Daily Mail who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Georgia 21 years ago. This piece was published on a website based in Malta.