Wednesday 16 September 2015

So long, and thanks for all the fish

“Well, he had a good innings,” we mutter to the bereaved after the coffin has trundled away at the crematorium, or as we attempt to sustain polite small talk over the subsequent ham tea.

At any rate we say that of anyone who has made it past the age of … I guess around 85 these days, now that 80 is the new 60 and any death short of that is considered an untimely tragedy.

My thoughts precisely

I certainly had a good innings at The Journal: 469 columns over 9¾ years, missing only the odd week through illness. Albeit after a rather longer hiatus in mid-2006 when my then editor and I had a serious disagreement over whether Islamic terrorism was an appropriate subject for comedy. 

Holidays never stopped me – not even my honeymoon. And amazingly I am still married.

It all started a couple of years earlier, in October 2004, with a monthly column in the paper’s well-regarded business section. I persuaded the business editor to add me to his roster because I had recently moved back to the North East full time and felt I needed a hobby.

I also hoped to raise my local profile in the hope of winning some new clients for my alleged PR business. Even then there was no budget to pay me for my efforts, but I was content with that. I learned a new craft, different from the financial copywriting that had long been my mainstay, and I enjoyed it.

By the time I graduated to the main paper in February 2006 I had begun to harbour deluded hopes of earning a living from writing rather than PR, so I insisted on being paid a fee for my work. This was set at a token £50 per week and remained so until a couple of weeks ago, when I was advised that “Trinity Mirror’s new fee structure” would mean writing for nothing in future, or not writing at all.

I would have given sympathetic consideration to such a request from a not-for-profit organisation running a community newspaper. For a ruthlessly bottom line and bonus-focused plc like The Journal’s owner Trinity Mirror, whose chief executive Simon Fox is currently jogging along on a feeble £1.8 million per annum, I felt there could only be one answer.

A fat cat

It pains me to break with The Journal, which I have read for as long as I have been able to read at all. It was delivered every day to my childhood home, along with its sister papers the Evening Chronicle and Sunday Sun; and, rather eccentrically, the long defunct Daily Sketch.

It was a broadsheet in those days and much more of a national and international newspaper than it is today. Unusually, the Hann family was not watching television on the evening of Friday, November 22 1963, so the first my parents knew of the dramatic events in Dallas was when I woke them the next morning, clutching a copy of The Journal with the biggest banner headline I had ever seen, and asked, “Mummy, what does ‘assassinated’ mean?”

I had not encountered the word before, though as an intelligent nine-year-old I had already grasped that it was far from good news for that nice Mr Kennedy.

Today the front page splash would be something like “City mum vows to beat cancer” with a small box to the right: “US President killed: see page 5.”

The paper was still a broadsheet when I used it to announce the deaths of my parents in 1982 and 1992, and I’d always assumed that it would be where my own funeral arrangements would be publicised. But unless my cardiac disease gets its act together in the next few weeks I now feel pretty confident that the obsequies of The Journal will precede my own.

This is a crying shame but I have no answer. Every round of cost-cutting removes another few reasons to pick up the paper and there are now scarcely any left. I certainly shan’t be buying it again. But the underlying problem of an ageing and inevitably declining readership is not one that could be solved by throwing money at it, either.

Still, I certainly cannot complain. My second weekly column appeared on February 14 2006 and was unoriginally entitled “Be my Valentine”. It prompted an attractive young woman to e-mail me and initiate and intriguing if short-lived relationship.

That alone might be considered a pretty good return on 700 casually dashed off words, but a later column actually found me a wife, and led to the totally unexpected arrival of two intermittently delightful children.

Rarely in the entire history of global journalism can any writer have been better rewarded for his work. On top of this there have been the many kind words I have received from readers who have written, e-mailed or stopped me in the street to say that they have enjoyed something I have written.

I am grateful to absolutely everyone who has ever read my column, and particularly to Iain Laing for giving me my first opportunity and Brian Aitken for making it a weekly event.

Now I have got into the habit of writing a column every seven days I am going to find it very hard to stop, so this website is a godsend.

But for The Journal, I can only echo Douglas Adams’ dolphins. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

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