The Grey Cardigan: 20 October 2006

ON THE first anniversary of this column's appearance, I am summoned to London by the editor of Press Gazette for what I presume to be a valedictory lunch and, perhaps, a pay rise.

The omnibus whisks me to the still evocative Fleet Street, where I am shown around the grubby garret from whence this organ emerges. In fitting with its traditional setting, conditions are Dickensian. The hacks labour over cramped desks, the smell of damp and despair clinging to them like a cloak of failure. Behind the massed ranks of subs — those kindly people who carefully insert grammatical and factual errors into this column just to make the rest of you feel human — the peeling wallpaper shouts: "If only I'd worked harder, I could have had a proper job on a proper newspaper."

We repair to the Cheshire Cheese. While I'm eyeing up the foie gras and scallops starter (£9.95), the editor suggests that we go straight to mains. He heartily recommends the fish, chips and mushy peas (£7.95) to the point that I would feel uncomfortable ordering the trademark steak and kidney pudding with mashed potato (£13.95) that I had been anticipating for days.

We talk, or rather he talks: budget cuts, margins, the cost of glossy paper, the difficulties of distribution, the intransigence of advertisers. We decide to forego pudding (£5.95). And coffee and petit fours (£2.95). Just before half past two, he scuttles back to the office, muttering about a feature on trademarks yet to be written. In his haste, he forgets to settle the bill.

My Budget Super Saver train ticket, which I forgot to ask him to pay for, means that the first train home I can catch is the 19.33.

I spend the next five hours in a railway station pub, mulling over the meat of our meeting. I have decided to accept the pay cut with equanimity. After all, it is an honour to be here.

FOR ALL our sins, it can't be denied that we journos like a joke. A wind-up, a scam, a spoof — all grist to the mill that keeps us sane.

The most dangerous of these stress relievers is the joke within copy — the one we hope our bosses will miss but our mates will notice (the sweary drop caps in a column), or the one we stick into a story just to give the subs a laugh… as long as they notice it. It's when they don't notice it that the shit hits the fan, which in this case is apposite.

With everyone stuck with an embargoed Fat Man Of Europe story, the Telegraph newsdesk tried to be different by ordering a secondary piece on the dietary regime of government ministers. The piratical Brendan Carlin and colleague Neil Tweedie quickly hacked together a reasonable stab at Mr Blair's rowing machine, Jack Straw's "spinning" classes (it's an exercise thing) and the predictable two-pie jibes at Two Jags.

It's when it came to the eating habits of Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt that the ordure arrived at the wind turbine. As the Telegraph notes, Ms Hewitt (57) leads a life of exemplary healthiness. "A spokesman insists that she eats infinitely more than the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. She has never smoked and allows herself an occasional glass of wine… and she does have very, very regular bowel movements."

"That'll be all those vegetables," the Telegraph piece concludes. Hmm. Are we really to believe that a Government stool pigeon (yes, that was deliberate) happily volunteered that information?

I think not. I sense mischief. Let's hope the new Roundheads at Victoria didn't notice it.

SPEAKING AT a fundraising function last week, multi-millionaire press baron Viscount Rothermere got up on his hind legs and said: "With the media industry going through a period of rapid change, I believe that the role of the Journalists' Charity will become even more important."

You know, I'm not even going to fucking bother with the punchline.

You can contact me, should you be minded, at thegreycardigan@gmail.com

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