The good, the bad and the ones who nick your fags

I almost died of shock on my first death knock.

The
first shock was when the widow let me into the house, and the second
surprise was when she took me into the front room and showed me her
husband’s corpse in the coffin.

On another occasion I was the
only reporter allowed into the house because I was the only journo to
have shut the front gate behind him!

(yes, these little things matter to lots of people).

On another day I refused to visit the house of a young man who had hanged himself from a tree in a nearby park.

The
family were grateful, and the bereaved girlfriend came to my office
with a picture of him and thanked us for not bothering them at their
time of grief.

I also refused one day to doorstep a wife whose
husband had killed himself in the back garden with a kitchen knife
after an argument. Contacts advised me to stay away on the grounds that
the family had a history of domestic strife.

What would an
interview with a distraught widow who doubtless blamed herself for her
husband’s death have achieved in the world of journalism and for my
newspaper’s circulation?

Geralidine Hayward’s “pointless baby”
anecdote proves that reporters should have the guts to stand up to news
editors who insist on pointless intrusion.

There is no evidence that newspaper sales increase after successful death knocks.

But I have met many people who claim to have stopped reading the local rag after “intrusion” at a time of bereavement.

When
the police ask a bereaved family if they are prepared to see a
journalist the answer is always “no” and knocking on the door merely
irritates the bereaved and invites the obvious response.

Reporters,
including myself, have returned from “death knocks” with “scoops” and
pictures, but the experiences have always left me feeling like a
vulture.

Terry Pattinson, Surrey Herald

My memorable Daily Record doorstep wasn’t a “death knock” technically, since the death had occurred nine months earlier.

The lawyers for a father in his late fifties had got him off a
charge of murdering his son in Glasgow on the grounds that the son had
“fallen”

on the knife.

At first there was no reply at the
third floor flat in the tenement building, but soon after, the sound of
raucous singing could be heard from a group coming up the stairs. This
was at 9pm and the acquittal had been at 2pm. It was obvious how the
intervening seven hours had been spent.

I and the photographer
were welcomed into the fold and swept into the kitchen. The flat had
been locked up since the death, so nobody had had time to clean it up.
The huge smears of blood from the boy’s death were all round the walls.
Some accident.

Not that that seemed to concern the dad and his
family. They proceeded to offer us a drink which turned out to be gin –
or gin. “Have you any tonic?”, I asked. “Naw, just gin,” I was told and
was offered it in a chipped tea cup retrieved from the sink.

I
went to decline and deadly silence fell on the room. The photographer
gave me a savage dig in the ribs and muttered: “Drink it.” I did.

Quickly.

And
the result? A full front-page picture and story of a happy granddad and
lovely four-yearold granddaughter happy at his freedom.

We played down the fact that the wee girl was lacking a dad.

Alasdair Buchan, Diplomat magazine

Colin was an unpleasant little schoolboy when I first met him,
scrawny, thin-faced, hair the colour of dirty sand and with no
particular talents except for low-level thuggery and passing wind at
will. It was my bad luck, becaue of the alphabetical proximity of our
surnames, to have to sit next to him in the first year of secondary
school, where he tried practising to be a bully on me. After that I
attempted to avoid my would-be tormenter for the next seven years as
much as I could while sharing a classroom with him and 30 other boys.
Eventually I left school to go to university, and he left to go I knew
nor cared not where.

Three years later I was back in the same town, with a job on one of
the two local papers – not out of any desire to return, but because it
was the only offer of employment I had received from the many newspaper
groups I had applied to. I had written to the paper’s head office in
another town 10 miles away, which had sent my letter on to the editor
of the paper where I lived. It arrived on his desk at the same moment
as a resignation letter from a staff reporter who was emigrating to
Australia. Struck by this synchronicity, he hired me immediately.

Two
years further on, and I was doing the early-morning police calls. This
involved a visit to the town’s police station, where I and a reporter
from the rival paper would be handed a list each by a friendly sergeant
of all the reported crimes and incidents in the district from the
previous 24 hours. Two-thirds of the way down the sheet one day was a
paragraph announcing that a man out walking his dog in a wood on the
edge of town had found the body of a male, aged 25, hanging by a rope
from the branch of a tree. The dead man had been identified as Colin.
Foul play was not suspected. “Fack me,”

I said, “I was at school
with him,” and then regretted my admission, since my rival reporter
would now know, knowing me, what school the dead man had been to,
allowing her to add to her version of the story facts that should have
stayed exclusive to mine.

Colin’s parents had moved away from the
area several years before, and he had been living in a one-bedroomed
flat in a small block owned by the local council, for whom, apparently,
he had been working as a low-grade clerk. It was the middle of the
morning, but there might be someone at home in one of the flats who
could be persuaded to say something, to speculate on what might have
pushed their neighbour to a lonely spot with a length of rope.

There
was – an elderly woman in the flat below Colin’s, plump, working class
and, when she answered the door, blubbery with tears. The police had
been round and told her of Colin’s death. She could not understand it.

She
had not known him for long, six months or so, but he had always been a
very nice young man, popping into her flat regularly to talk to her and
share a pot of tea.

She sobbed with shock and grief at the
sudden, solitary suicide of her friendly young neighbour of a few
months’ acquaintance. I did not tell her I had known Colin myself, much
longer than she had, and could find nothing within me to come near the
sadness and emotion she was expressing at his passing.

At the
subsequent inquest there was evidence that Colin had become involved in
a cult which dismissed the idea of earthly achievement, that at the
same time he was worried about failing professional exams he had taken
which – if he had passed – would have brought promotion at the local
council. None of it seemed reason to tie a rope around your neck and
leap from a tree branch. His family declined requests for an interview.
I wrote the story up, and wondered, if Colin could have seen how an old
lady he barely knew shed tears and mourned for him in front of a
strange newspaper reporter, whether he would still have walked into the
woods.

Martyn Cornell, Twickenham

Last summer I interviewed a family whose brother had committed suicide in their garage.

During the interview they asked if I would like to see the garage where he had died.

I
left my bag, containing my cigarettes in their living room and went to
the back of the house. We were there for about 10 minutes while the
family smoked cigarettes out the back.

After the interview I got
in my car and opened my bag to get a cigarette. I was shocked to find
that the family had stolen a number of cigarettes from my packet. It
turns out they were smoking my cigarettes while I interviewed them.

So a front page story ended up costing me 10 cigarettes. Cheaper than cheque book journalism.

All I had to worry about when I returned to the office was how to claim them back on my expenses.

Emma Evans, South Wales Guardian

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