Showing posts with label Evening Standard. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Evening Standard. Show all posts

Monday, 19 November 2012

Liz Jones and her instinctive feel for dividing opinion

Liz Jones sparks more controversy than any other journalist I can think of.

She’s infuriated virtually the whole of Exmoor with her excoriating columns about the unfriendliness and the cold and shops closing on Saturday afternoons and she hit the headlines again last week with a piece about the bloggers she met at the recent Mumsnet Blogfest. Just to give you a flavour, she wrote about being in “a tangled teepee of virtual knitters, spinning yarns so they can remain inside their cupcake-scented world.” Oh dear. And completely wrong.

But despite the brickbats that get thrown at her on a regular basis, she’s just been named Columnist of the Year at the British Society of Magazine Editors awards.

Announcing the award last week, BSME chairman Kitty Finstad said she’d been chosen “for her instinctive feel for personal narrative and for dividing opinion – as a good columnist should.”

The BSME are right, I reckon. Liz Jones maddens me more often than not, and I’m a bit sick of her writing about her cats, her horses and RS, her rock star boyfriend (despite all sorts of rumours no one has a clue who he is). But, and it’s a big but, I still turn to her column in the Mail on Sunday’s You magazine before I read the rest of the papers.

Actually, this week I felt a bit sorry for her. Writing in the main bit of the paper, she said she was feeling nostalgic for Exmoor just a week after selling her stunning house. She’s now moved back to London, but is missing the country already, the wildlife, the space and the peace and quiet.

I know how she feels. I love the city, but even now there are days when I yearn to be living in the middle of nowhere once more. It’s fantastic to be able to walk into Oxford to meet a friend for a coffee or to see the latest (brilliant) James Bond movie. But I still miss the autumn afternoons when we strode up Pendle Hill (above) and saw no one at all apart from the odd fell walker and countless sheep.

PS. Back in the days when Liz Jones was features editor of the Evening Standard, she asked me to write a freelance piece about living in France. I never met her (we only spoke on the phone) but she was easily one of the most charming, appreciative editors I’ve ever been commissioned by.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Hankering after my old job...

Tony Blair reckons he’s better equipped to be PM now than he was during his Downing Street years. He says he’s learned “an immense amount” and would love to have another go, even though it’s unlikely to ever happen.

I was never a Blair devotee, but his words – during an interview with Evening Standard editor Sarah Sands – made me think. 

In my 20s I worked as a news reporter in Fleet Street, haring around on the stories of the moment. I could be covering a grim murder trial at the Old Bailey one week (they often gave me nightmares) and sitting in a Bedouin tent in the middle of the Saudi desert with Prince Charles and Princess Diana the next. The deadlines were eye-wateringly tight, the bosses scary and the pressure intense, but life was never boring.

A quarter of a century on, I wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of being hired as a news reporter (in a profession that’s getting younger by the minute, I’m far too old).

But the ridiculous thing is that I’d actually be a far better reporter now than I was then. I’ve lived a hell of a lot more, had children, lost people I love – and understand so much more about everything (well, except for polymers, the offside rule and the ins and outs of the West Lothian question. Deadlines don’t scare me  and nor do tough news editors. When I’m working I focus 100 per cent on what I’m doing, rather than planning nights out with my pals or worrying about my love life. My children are almost grown-ups themselves so I don’t even have to fix childcare.

So, yes, like Tony Blair, I’d love to have a go at my old job. And yes, like him, I know it’s unlikely to ever happen.

PS. The picture shows a cutting from my reporting days. My writer friend Jane Gordon-Cumming found it in a pile of papers when she was moving house. We only met two years ago so she was stunned to find she had an article of mine dating back to the 1980s!

Monday, 5 March 2012

Car boot sales and getting rid of stuff

“Car boot sale...16 years of junk gone and £150 better off...result!”

Those were the words of my friend Jennie on Facebook last night. Her update status caught my attention the instant I spotted it and I immediately set about trying to persuade someone to do a car boot sale with me. My daughter says she might, so you never know, maybe I’m making progress.

Our family has a real problem with stuff. Accumulating it, I mean. And I’m the worst. I simply can’t throw anything away – from my children’s first shoes to my faded Evening Standard newspaper cuttings.

To everyone's horror, when my father had a sort-out at home and asked us to go through some of our childhood belongings, I came back with yet more stuff.

I swore that since I was 21 when he and my mum moved to their house in the wilds of Dorset, none of it could possibly be mine. How wrong could I be? Within the space of a few hours I’d found my Brownie badges, my first Timex watch, some Janet and John reading books, a set of scary school photographs and even my university thesis on Christopher Isherwood. I offered my daughter a load of treasures – a Biba T-shirt I thought was the bees-knees, a Squeeze CD and my A level history notes on the Russian Revolution. She took one look and said “er, no thank you.”

The best find of all though was a tiny, yellowing newspaper cutting of my mum’s that fell out of my history notes. I’d cut it out 25 years ago and kept it to read again. I never imagined that by the time I set eyes on it again my own children would almost be grown-ups and she wouldn’t be here anymore. But as I stood in the attic and read her words, time stood still and I could hear her voice so clearly in my head.

“I don’t think my children owe me anything,” she’d written. “I had them because I wanted them, because they’ve given me endless hours of joy. I’m in their debt, not they in mine.

“And if they want to emigrate to Yemen, as long as they’re doing what fulfils them I don’t think they owe me a letter, kindly or otherwise, a phone call, a card come Mother’s Day or Christmas, or even a hand-crocheted shawl, if ever I should come on hard times.”

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Tribute to a fine reporter - Patrick McGowan

Sitting on the Oxford Tube on the way home from London last night, I flicked idly through the Evening Standard. There, on page five, was a single column paying tribute to one of the most outstanding reporters on the paper – Patrick McGowan, who died last week at the age of 60. 

Pat was a straight-talking Yorkshireman, who joined the Standard in 1978 and for nearly 30 years covered all the major stories of the day. He was a brilliant newsman, able to turn his hand to anything the news desk threw at him without any fuss.

During my first months at the paper I was a bit nervous of him. He was so calm and unruffled about reporting, even five minutes before the edition deadline, when the atmosphere was tense and everyone’s nerves were on edge. But he was kind and funny, with a dry wit that got right to the heart of things.

I didn’t realise until I read the Standard tribute (written by friend and longstanding colleague Paul Cheston) that it was Pat who coined the famous phrase “the wrong kind of snow.” The saying caught the imagination of thousands of fed-up commuters when London train services were completely disrupted in the winter of 1991 and went down in history. Every time I hear it now I’ll think of Pat, one of Fleet Street’s finest. RIP Pat.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Christenings - and my son's promise to his godmother

We’re not even halfway through January and my son’s stressed about exams, my daughter’s up against an essay deadline and my husband’s in Malaysia.

But my spirits rise when two thank-you letters arrive in the post. Coincidentally, they’re from each of my god-daughters – Kitty, a sophisticated 24-year-old Londoner, and Maddie, 11, whose gymnastic talents are a joy to behold. They live at opposite ends of the country and I don’t get to see them that often, but I’m a very proud godmother.

Christenings seem to be going out of fashion – around a third of babies born each year are christened – but even so, I love the idea of a special event (christening, naming ceremony, welcoming party, whatever) to celebrate the birth of your children. And choosing godparents to keep a weather eye out for them is even better.

One of my closest friends, my ex-Evening Standard pal Wendy Holden, is my son’s godmother and she’s a brilliant inspiration to him. He’s so devoted to her that he even deigned to accept her as a friend on Facebook (he ditched me long ago, I’m sad to say).

One of the things (and there have been many over the years) that most endeared her to him was the time he stayed at her house in Suffolk at the age of eight. She sat him down and explained that being a godmother wasn’t just about her sending him presents – it was a “two-way thing.” She jokily asked him what he was going to organise for her as a treat. He thought hard for a moment and declared that when he was 21 he’d collect her from her house on a motorbike and take her out to tea at the Ritz.

She stared at him in astonishment. “Hmm… I’m definitely holding you to that one,” she said.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

When children struggle with reading

“If you could effect one major policy change in the governing of your country, what would it be?” That was one of the questions the writer and academic Norman Geras asked me in a profile for his excellent Norm’s Blog a few months back. Every Friday he puts interviewees on the spot by asking them to answer a pithy list of questions, from their favourite novels to their most treasured possessions.

I thought for a moment and in a flash the answer to the policy change conundrum popped into my head. “I’d increase spending massively on one-to-one reading support for early years and primary school aged children who need it,” I said.

And I meant it. Reading is such a fundamental part of life – from the day you read your first Biff and Chip book by yourself to the moment you discover an amazing new author. I’ve got a stack of books on the go right now, from the new Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford to You Before Me by Jojo Moyes, which I’ll be reviewing on the blog tomorrow.

One of the bits of journalism that most sticks in my mind was a piece I wrote about the Every Child a Reader project a couple of years back. A programme for five and six year olds (year 1 at primary school) who were struggling with reading, it gave them one to one lessons for half an hour at school each day with highly trained reading recovery teachers.

It was a brilliant idea and had spectacular results. The children progressed leaps and bounds, their confidence and self-esteem blossomed and they made four times the normal rate of progress in reading. In fact most of them caught up with the other children in their class.

Sadly, the Every Child a Reader programme funding only ran for three years and came to an end in 2011. There are other initiatives around, like the Evening Standard's Get London Reading campaign, which is giving more than 1,000 schoolchildren who can’t read properly help from special mentors. But we definitely need many more projects like it.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

New Year detox - giving up alcohol for January

Christmas is well and truly over in our house. The tree’s on its way out, we’ve posted our thank-you letters and there’s only one sorry-looking Christmas clementine left.

So it’s on with the New Year and as usual I’ve gone and made my annual resolution – a resolution no one believes I’m capable of keeping and which I’m regretting like mad already. Yes, I’m giving up alcohol for January.

My four weeks of abstinence date back to the heady days when I worked as a reporter in Fleet Street. The 25-strong news team started work at dawn and by the time we’d seen the final edition to bed everyone piled out to the pub over the road for a drink. When a major story broke, the news editor would simply ring the landlord and order everyone back to the office.

Unless it was January, that is. On January 1st every year, most of us turned stone-cold sober for four weeks and could be found sitting quietly at our desks, munching sandwiches and drinking the canteen’s disgusting coffee.

So this year I’m doing it again – and I know I’ll find it embarrassingly difficult. Instead of pouring a glass of chilled Pinot Grigio after work every night I’ll be opting for a litre of mineral water or my eighth cup of Earl Grey. Neither of them quite do the trick so if anyone has got any more appealing drinks to try I’d love some suggestions.

The most annoying thing is that apart from making me feel virtuous, my annual alcohol detox doesn’t make me feel better. My skin doesn’t glow, the pounds don’t fall off and worst of all, being tee-total is just, well, plain boring.

PS. “What’s your favourite David Bowie track?” It’s not the usual question you get asked in a shop – but that’s what an assistant in In Spitalfields, a shop in Old Spitalfields Market, said to me yesterday. “Er, Changes,” I said, amazed that I could even remember the title. “Why?” “We’ve decided to have a David Bowie day,” he said, “so I’m asking every customer what their favourite track is and then playing it.” What a great retail idea in these tough economic times. I stayed in the shop a good ten minutes longer than I would have otherwise and ended up buying a card and a chic wastepaper bin for my study.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Breakfast at a sunlit café in France

My lovely teenage daughter has arrived from London, laden with treats. From the depths of her suitcase she produces a mauve box of M&S Empress Grey tea bags (they’re simply the best), three mosquito nets, some Rococo fudge for her brother and a copy of last night’s Evening Standard. Even though I left my reporting job on the paper years ago, I’m an Evening Standard addict and the thought of reading it in deepest rural France is one of life’s little luxuries.

I take the paper to the Café de Globe to read in the sun over a coffee. After years of getting the etiquette of French coffee completely wrong I now know it’s essential to order a café crème. If you ask for a café au lait the waiter (with a very withering look) will present you with a bowl of coffee topped with an alarming mass of whipped cream. On the same note, never ask for a café crème after midday in France. It must be a petit café or an espresso. Nothing else will do.

My teenage son dashes across the street to buy croissants from the boulangerie and we sit and eat them with our coffee. I can’t imagine Starbucks being impressed by customers arriving with breakfast from another shop but it seems utterly normal in France.

The pavement outside the Café de Globe is so hot that the waiter hurries out to extend the awning and give us a little more shade. The café is packed with old men drinking Pastis and poring over Le Figaro and workers from the Crest Jazz Festival (see above) chatting about last night's storming performance by pianist Chucho Valdes. When I open my Evening Standard. I’m stunned by the terrible news from home. While we have been merrily painting, decorating and rearranging furniture at the House with No Name, stock markets across the world have plunged into turmoil, an Eton schoolboy has been killed by a polar bear in Norway and there's been a riot in Tottenham.

Suddenly our pretty sunlit café in the south of France seems the most peaceful place in the world to be.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

My royal reporting career

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s 11-day tour of Canada and California has got me thinking about my own brief sojourn as a royal reporter.

Apparently more than 1,300 journalists are covering Kate and Will’s visit, including hacks from as far afield as China and India. My sympathies are with them. For a start, they’re having to be more fashion writers than newshounds. Knowing their Issa from their Erdem and their Mulberry handbag from their Anya Hindmarch clutch is absolutely key. But not only that, with the media showing endless images of cheering Canadians and beams from Will and Kate (see above), it’s tricky to fulfil the demands of rolling 24 hour news and be fascinating at the same time.

I spent a couple of years following the royals for the Evening Standard back in the 80s. Princess Diana was splashed across the tabloid front pages virtually every day – for dancing onstage with Wayne Sleep as a birthday surprise for Charles (he clearly wasn’t impressed), dressing up as a policewoman for Fergie’s hen night and taking William to his Notting Hill nursery school for the first time.

But my most vivid memories are from Charles and Diana’s Middle East tour of 1986. As the royal couple progressed through Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, lunching in the desert, going to the races and attending endless banquets, it was hard to come up with new stories to file. Daily Express columnist Jean Rook (the only other woman reporter in the press pack) even resorted to dressing up in a burka to see what women’s lives in Saudi Arabia were like. Meanwhile the rest of us got worked up about whether the Saudis had been offended by Diana wearing a dress that showed her ankles when they flew into Riyadh.

For a lot of the tour they both looked utterly miserable. But at that stage even seasoned royal-watchers didn’t realise the rot had set in. Most of us simply assumed the tour was too long and gruelling, that Diana was missing William and Harry and that once you’ve seen one falconry display you’ve probably seen them all.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The press pack

Working from home is a double-edged sword. I can start work when I want, wear what I please, chat to my son when he gets in from school and fix coffee with friends without a clock-watching news editor yelling at me for being late back.

All good, but I still hanker after office life – the gossip, the banter, the buzz. The best place I ever worked was the Evening Standard, where I spent five years as a hard news reporter. London’s evening paper was based in Fleet Street back then and it was a different world – a world dominated by clattering typewriters, larger than life characters and eye-wateringly tight deadlines.

The vast newsroom was so noisy that we had to yell at top volume to make ourselves heard above the din. My friend Diane used to sit underneath her desk to do phone interviews because it was the only place she could get a bit of peace and quiet.

Few of us had mobile phones so when we were sent out of the office on a job we had to find a phone box (tricky in the middle of Saddleworth Moor) and dictate our stories straight from our notebooks to the army of copy-takers. “Is there much more of this?” they’d ask crushingly while we were in full, creative flow.

Best of all was the fantastic team of reporters. I’ve never worked with better. Newsmen like the late great John McLeod could calmly turn out the most exquisitely-written copy in ten minutes flat before the first edition deadline at 9.30am. Despite the early starts, John, who made his name covering the Great Train Robbery of 1963, was definitely a night owl. He lived and breathed newspapers and could often be found catching forty winks in the office in the early hours of the morning. His shorthand was immaculate, his knowledge of court reporting second to none and yet he was the most generous man, always happy to help out the younger, less experienced journalists in the press pack.

The move to swanky riverside offices and the advent of new technology transformed newspapers beyond all recognition. But do you know, I wouldn’t have missed Fleet Street for anything.
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