Tag Archives: journalism

Croydon Till I Die: the flyover of life

I’ve written a piece about the concrete conundrum that is Croydon for the Guardian.

I have a peculiar relationship with Croydon, which seems appropriate as Croydon is a curious place. Growing up just outside Sutton, Croydon was Sutton’s scary big brother. The scary big brother everybody laughed at. Croydon had a reputation. It was ridiculous and people mocked it in a way you never seemed top get with nearby towns like Epsom, Sutton, Kingston or Bromley.

Perhaps as a result, I rarely went there, preferring to spend Saturday afternoons in the tedious safety of Sutton and then later in the West End.  It was only in my late teens that I really discovered Croydon.

By then, I could drive, and that seems relevant as Croydon was a town built for cars. In the sixth form I’d drive into Croydon with schoolfriends during breaks in the timetable to shop at Beano’s and have lunch – with girls! – at McDonald’s. And at weekends, I’d meet friends in the goth-metal Ship or in the Firkin beer garden.

That drive was thrilling. I’d soundtrack it to Aladdin Sane, which is ironic given David Bowie’s later comments about Croydon. I always entered Croydon from the south, via the flyover and that flyover was extraordinary and intoxicating. It was like nothing else around, certainly not in the dull suburbs of south London.

As I approached Croydon from this elevated position, the 1920s terraces spread out below, I always had a lingering desire to drive straight over the side into oblivion. It wasn’t a suicidal or maudlin, it was more like Butch Cassidy or Thelma And Louise, to exit in triumph.

When I left home, I came to increasingly dislike Sutton for the atmosphere of violence, racism, desperation and small-mindedness that I noticed every time I returned, seemingly growing worse each time. But with the benefit of distance, Croydon seemed far more interesting, an adventure in creating a new kind of suburban living that hadn’t quite worked but still left behind a town centre that was unique.

If only Beano’s was still around.

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Cocking up

I cocked up at work the other day. It wasn’t anything major, but it was enough to reignite that familiar feeling: stomach lurching, chest tightening, face reddening, bottom squeaking. A mix of self-loathing – ‘how could I be so stupid????’ – and indignation – ‘it wasn’t my fault!!!’ Then you start to wonder if you can get away with it, or should fess up forthwith.

In general, the best solution is to find that person who is at a similar or lower level of seniority to yourself, but way more competent and powerful (you know the one), and politely beg them to sort it out. But I work on my own, so had to bluff it out, which I did more or less.

It reminded me of other great cock ups of the past:

  • The time I forgot to include Coronation Street in the TV listings.
  • The time I asked if I could interview somebody who was dead.
  • The time I said on the cover of a magazine that the first phone call had taken place in London when it was really in New York.
  • The time I got the world 100m record wrong in the Guinness Book Of World Records.
  • The time I compiled the squad lists for a Premier League preview and completely forgot about Sheffield Wednesday.
  • The time I left the ‘S’ off Scunthorpe in the fixture list for a national paper (actually, I did this on purpose).

Ah, happy times and no lasting damage done.

The good news is that over the years I’ve witnessed far greater cock ups from people considerably more important than myself, so it’s clearly not a career-breaker in my chosen line of work.

Here’s to journalism, and gleefully calling other people’s cock ups to account while studiously ignoring our own.

Bullshit and journalism

Forget high-minded, rose-tinted commandments like these, journalism isn’t about integrity, objectivity or, lawd preserve us, education.

It’s about bullshit.

And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Necessarily.

A key part of what a journalist does is take a complicated story then condense, distill and edit it, before regurgitating it in a form that is accessible and interesting to the general public. And journalists are regularly asked to do this with subjects they don’t know anything about. They’ll research, of course, conduct interviews, ask experts, analyse and consider, but they’ll also, ultimately, bullshit. Because while journalists are not experts, they will end up having to pose as experts, or at least they will if the piece is going to be any good, because if it’s going to be any good it has to appear authoritative.

In an ideal world, journalists would only write about things they know a lot about, but – to take me for example – there are only so many articles you can write about tunnels, Chelsea Football Club, the 1968 American Presidential election and museum exhibition architecture.

So you have to diversify. In the last month, I’ve written about ballet, poetry and fashion. These are three subjects I know zilch – in fact, less than zilch – about, but that hasn’t stopped me writing about them. Why? Three reasons: because I was asked to, because I thought it might be interesting and because I needed the money.

All journalists do this to some extent, but features writers (such as myself) do it more than most, because we don’t specialise in anything – not in a single sport or art or type of business – and so turn our attention to whatever takes our fancy or whatever pays the bills.

This is both fulfilling and frustrating . Fulfilling because I have an inquisitive mind, so enjoy learning about new things and then translating this new information into a form that hopefully attracts the reader without pissing off the experts by making great clunking errors or hideous simplifications.

But it can also be annoying, especially when you end up writing articles on subjects you’re not really equipped to write about – equipped in the sense of having the knowledge that comes from years of reading and internal debate – simply because that is where your contacts have led you, while you can’t write about what you’re genuinely knowledgeable about because you haven’t made the connections.

On one level, this is a market failure, and comes down to the fact that you can understand the topic inside out, but that doesn’t help if you don’t know the editor or the PR or are beaten to the pitch by a canny competitor. And it works both ways. I bet one or two of my journalist friends are wondering why they hell I’ve been writing about fashion given that until last week I thought Manolo Blahnik was a Mexican superhero.

I think the public accepts this without fully understanding it. On one level, they know journalists have to bullshit – and it must be horribly obvious whenever a journalist covers the area they specialise in professionally – but at the same time, they would be genuinely shocked if they realised exactly how little we really know about some of the things we are entrusted to write about. They’d probably think it’s a bloody stupid way of doing things, unless their business also regularly employs people to work well outside their area of speciality, which might be the case if they are politicians. 

But that’s journalism: bluff and bullshit. And the best bloody profession on earth if you believe in knowing a little about a lot and making up the rest.

Do you have what it takes to be my slave?

Description
Magazine and newspaper intern wanted

Freelance journalist Peter Watts is looking for an enthusiastic and motivated intern to assist with finding stories for magazines such as Uncut, Prospect, New Statesman and many – but not that many – more.The position is based in a south London coal cellar and you must be able to commit for six weeks or you can just piss right off you time-wasting loser.

Tasks

  • Coming up with features ideas: scouring newspapers and online every day for great potential features to steal
  • Chasing stories, interviewing, transcribing, writing and taking cheques to the bank every week
  • Sending commissioning editors obsequious emails containing poorly conceived feature pitches and then ranting impotently when they fail to respond
  • Networking (ie having coffee with John O’Connell, where you will both gossip like old women about other journalists while trying to avoid paying the bill)
  • Experiencing general low-level resentment every time you see a peer’s byline in a newspaper or magazine
  • Pretending to be pleased for them
  • Finally mastering practice/practise and effect/affect
  • General admin duties (milk no sugar)
  • Liaising with girlfriend and daughter
  • Watering the potatoes
  • Monitoring Twitter, hoping this will be the day when @caitlinmoran finally retweets something of yours that is witty and pithy
  • Or failing that, @indiaknight
  • Look, even @gilescoren will do at a pinch
  • Coming up with witty and pithy Tweets
  • Taking crap photographs for self-indulgent personal blog
  • Getting three stars on tricky 5-7 level of Angry Birds

Experience required

Preferably a background in journalism or slavery. Otherwise, anybody lacking self-dignity and imbued with a lacerating self-loathing will do fine. Any applicant related to somebody already working in the media will obviously receive preferential treatment.

You need to have a hunger for wiping other people’s arses. We also need you to be highly organised, motivated, determined and really, really desperate – for you, no boot is too shit-encrusted to lick if there’s half a chance you might get another unpaid intern job in a dying industry at the end of it.

This position may give you herpes. You will leave this role without a soul or pride, making it a great position for anyone wanting to have a successful career as a freelance journalist. Previous experience in real life is probably not ideal.

Please submit an updated CV and a covering letter explaining why you’d be perfect to do my dirty work for me. This is initially a temporary unpaid position although for the right candidate there is the definite potential for it becoming a permanent unpaid position.

Based on an original idea by Tiffany ‘Chutzpah!’ Wright.

Update For some serious treatments of this story, see Graduate Fog, London Fashion Intern, Psmith and Siany Land.