Grey Cardigan: In praise of the those who practice 'dark arts' in the circulation war

NOW I have great admiration for newspaper sales staff. In my experience, the circulation boys have always been the closest at heart to editorial, the only other department that seemed to have just as much fun as we did on this daily helter-skelter.

They had great piss-ups, were capable of outrageous pranks and, being by nature hustlers and snake oil salesmen, were magnificent fixers. Once, when all avenues legal and illegal had been exhausted, I asked our newspaper sales manager if he could procure hospitality tickets to the Cheltenham Festival for me and three mates from back home. Within 24 hours there was a discreet envelope containing the tickets on my desk, no charge of course.

I only realised the extent of the chap’s connections when we wandered into a chandelier-bedecked marquee, a little late after lingering too long in the Guinness village, to find ourselves in the middle of an auction for a bust of the Queen Mother. The bids were just going past the £11,000 mark at the time. It turned out to be an epic afternoon (I’ve always found the upper classes to be terribly well-mannered even when forced into the company of northern oiks) and the Brigadier sitting next to one of my mates was so enthralled by his conversation with a leading football hooligan that he quite forgot to chat with the lady on his left during the main course.

The circulation guys’ problem is the modern newspaper operation has no need of the people who practice the dark arts; whose specialist skills are marshalling gangs of semi-drunken street sellers and bolshy van drivers, smuggling our newspaper into the best spot in the newsagent’s shop (usually on top of the nearest competitor), finding new hiding places for bundles of bulks in that regrettable period when we relied upon them, or coming up with photographs of copies of the opposition’s frees dumped in a skip.

And let’s face it, it was a thankless bloody task. Who else would take a job where you were doomed to failure, year after year? Who else could face the inevitability of never achieving your principle goal? It must have been, and still is, miserable.

Still, some of those basic sales gambits still survive. I remember  throwing a massive strop the first time I was forced to carry a puff panel for a free doughnut on my lovingly crafted front page. Oh, the indignity. Who dared to associate this superb newspaper with 30p worth of jammy crap?

And it’s still going on. Last week alone you could have snaffled a free toasted teacake with the Wakefield Express, or beaten the pasty tax with a free Greggs Chicken Tikka Slice courtesy of the Llanelli Star. I thought The Sentinel in Stoke-on-Trent had clinched the giveaway grub title with their offer of a free bag of chips, but then I saw the Northern Echo. ‘Free fish, peas and chips’ shouted the blurb. Well you can’t argue with that, particularly as I’d just paid £6.80 for the very same thing in my local chippy. Maybe the old ways are the best, after all…

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