Reporting fictions: a novel start for journalists

In the rat-infested basement of The Public Benefit Boot Company in Leeds City Market, Harry Proctor was sacked. His boss had caught him reading a novel. The tattered pages had already worked their magic, however. It was 1932 and Proctor, a now unemployed fifteen-year-old, was in thrall to the promise of Fleet Street. 

Seven years later, he joined the staff of the Mirror. Within a decade he was arguably London’s most celebrated reporter.  “Tell Harry Proctor about it” became a nationally-known catch phrase, such was his fame in the 1950s.

The book for which Proctor forsook his role as bootseller’s dogsbody was Phillip Gibbs’ Street Of Adventure, published in 1909. Re-reading this antique text begs a question. Are there novels yet that might prepare a young person for the life of a reporter?

Phillip Gibbs

Surprisingly, Gibbs’ century-old potboiler has enduring qualities. The Fleet Street of roaring presses, proud compositors, and companionable drinking holes is long gone. But for all the evolution of newspapers, much is unchanged. The toil of finding and processing stories is recognisable, even if the deployment of shoe leather has become rather more metaphorical than it was in the 1900s.

It was a rackety trade back then, in Gibbs’ account. Every job was insecure, ‘weekend warriors’ undermined freelance earnings, and the intensity of work burnt out most practitioners in the end. “What we want is a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Poor Pressman”, one of the reporters suggests. Funnily enough, 200 miles to the north, the National Union Of Journalists had just been formed to perform just that function.

Street Of Adventure owes much of its narrative to the actual story of the Tribune, a Liberal-party supporting daily. It launched in 1906 in a blaze of glory, only to sink two years later, behind a mountain of debt. In Gibb’s telling, an innocent, Frank Lutterell, joins its reporting staff, only be to blooded on assignment, brought low by the ceaseless graft, and seduced by the charms of a colleague.

Gibbs – a truly prolific journalist who covered both world wars and penned nearly 80 books – is at his best on newspaper culture. The hive effort necessary for the daily production of a newspaper is recognisably evoked, likewise the curious occupational demarkations, and the sometimes extreme personalities that people every newsroom.

He is at his most poignant on the experience of working on a title as it closes – something I have experienced twice. He perfectly captures a sensation akin to bereavement, followed by conflicted choices, friendly leg ups, and the steady dissolution of a family.

Denise Mina’s Field Of Blood (2005), set at the end of the hot-metal era, is clearly based on the Glasgow Herald of the early 1980s. Paddy Meehan is a teenage copygirl, who aspires to become a journalist. To achieve this she must endure the sectarian, bullying, macho culture, where the newspaper’s staff spend as much time in the adjacent bar as they do at their typewriters. It is an as unflinchingly bleak as it is depressingly accurate.

Some of the narrative furniture is now a thing of the past. Glasgow’s papers no longer dispatch nightly ‘calls cars’ to harvest stories from the city’s streets during the hours of darkness, and ranks of newsroom messengers have joined the roll call of historical occupations.

Like Gibbs, however, Mina captures much of the unchanging essentials of newspaper life – reverence for story-getting, appreciation of clear writing, and competing ambitions in a competitive trade.

Mina’s description of working-class, Catholic Glasgow in that era has a particularly authentic quality. Sectarianism certainly hasn’t disappeared, although is probably less naked today.

The texture Mina brings to Meehan’s character is as compelling as the setting. She battles with her weight, and a family for whom white-collar occupations are a mystery. Her determination to be a reporter, however, is unflinching. 

The unsolved child murder around which the plot turns is of a kind that few journalists will ever report, much less play a part in solving. It makes a gripping tale, nonetheless, in a way that rewriting press releases never could.

Holly Watt’s entirely contemporary To The Lions (2019) stretches the possibilities of news gathering even further. Her hero, Casey Benedict, works in the investigations department of the Post, a London-based national that has many elements recognisable from The Sunday Times, where Watt started her own career.

Her sketch of contemporary news room is rich in well-observed detail – the competition between papers, the foul-mouthed aggression of some news editors, and the thrilling randomness of assignments. She is also good on an experience common to many reporters of rubbing shoulders  with the privileged and powerful at work, while enduring poverty and borderline chaos at home.

The plot, involving door-stepping in Geneva and a stake out in an abandoned palace in Libya is fabulous, as befits a thrilling page-turner. Verisimilitude is delivered through her closely observed descriptions of the opportunistic, chancy and nerve-jangling process of extracting stories from wary or unsuspecting subjects. Helicopter-supported, undercover assignments are relatively few in the British press. The cunning, charm and occasional trickery required to obtain information has common elements whether you dealing with international gangsters or municipal officials.

If there is a canon of novels rooted in journalism, then Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1938) stands at its head. Loosely based on the author’s experience covering Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, it is a knock-about comedy designed as a caution against fake news. Protagonist William Boot is accidentally dispatched to cover a conflict about which he knows nothing. By way of mischief and misadventure, Waugh’s narrative enduringly crystallises numerous archetypes and tropes. Among these: “up to a point, Lord Copper” meaning “you are talking rubbish, but are too powerful for my to be able to say so”, and “funeral for a camel” denoting an outlandishly ambitious expenses claim. Both can occasionally be heard in newsrooms yet.

Michael Frayn’s Towards The End Of The Morning owes much to his time at The Observer of the early 1960s. His characters are responsible for a page towards the back of the book that includes crosswords, nature notes, moral entreaties by eminent clerics, and ‘In Years Gone By’. The novel is an affectionate and funny dissection of middle class mores, but has more to say about mid-career anxiety than the process of journalism.

A few days immersed in fiction would certainly provide aspirant journalists with sufficient news-gathering tips to more than justify the effort. It is the harshness of a career in newspapers that is the real recurring theme of all these titles, however.

Neophyte news gatherers are generally dazzled by their own ambition and the imagined glamour of the industry they are joining. If nothing else, a few hours with their noses in any of these books should persuade them that, for most people, a media career is entirely without the security and certainty associated with most professions.

No one better demonstrates this than Harry Proctor, alas. Shortly before he died, at the age of 48, he penned his own memoir, namechecking his original inspiration. Street Of Disillusion is a flawed book, full of bragging, contradictions and long-forgotten tabloid triumphs. The tragedy of Proctor’s burn out, however, is palpable. Journalism took him from a rat-infested basement, to the company of royals, and pretty much back again.

Proctor rightly insists that there is nothing more engrossing, demanding or fulfilling than reporting. If following his lead is your goal, however, all these books represent sound preparation for the known unknowns.  Worthwhile too is the lesson that, just occasionally, fiction provides the most effective means of getting to the facts.