That was the week that I was drafted in as a sport sub-editor

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Office of the Evening Post and Chronicle, May 1951

ILLNESS and summer holidays have left our sub-editors decimated so for the past week I have been drafted into their holy of holies, as the acting temporary sports sub and copyboy on the racing desk. Never in the history of journalism has there been a more unsuitable candidate. It has been hell – thank god it’s all over!

I thought when they said The Racing Desk that it sounded really important.

Wrong. The ‘desk’ is in fact an ancient domestic table rocking on three legs and leaning against the wall through which there is a small hole into the small room next door. More of that later...

The fourth, short, leg of this sad dilapidated ‘desk’ is reinforced by a crumbling copy of Ruff’s Guide to the Turf and when this gets kicked away a pre-war edition of Wisden in disgusting condition.

The tooled leather of the table top is ripped away and round the edges are burn marks the length of a Wills Woodbine showing how the smoker was distracted by a call of nature, waiting for the minuscule loo to become vacant. There is but one such room for all of us. It lurks in Stygian and total gloom at the far end of a corridor. It is a disgrace. We visit it at our peril.

They offered me a chair. Anything more like The Chair they use in Sing Sing would be hard to imagine. It was built to last a thousand years. Its huge black frame would support a circus elephant. The thick frayed leather upholstery is held by mighty brass nails. I can picture the doomed prisoner, his wrists handcuffed to the arms, his body rigid against the chair back, waiting for the shock...

Behind the sitter’s head is an ornate brass canister, size of a cocoa tin. I asked: “What the heck’s that?”

“It was to hold a roll of Izal toilet paper on which the barber could wipe his bloodied razor.”

Yes, this is a barber shop chair. Mr Bone the office manager told me, proudly” “We bought it for a couple of quid at a Thursday United Football Club jumble sale.”

Now the pop hole in the wall. It has a flap which when lifted you hear a mighty roar like two express trains going under North Bridge in opposite directions at the same time.

Crammed into this hellhole are the chattering teleprinter machines indirectly linked to every major news centre of the world. What Paris, Adelaide, New York and Hong Kong were doing this morning we in Doncaster learn about this afternoon. The miles of punched tape they emit is fed into printers and George, in charge here, can run a strip through his fingertips and read it as if it were Braille.

Just to keep me out of mischief I handle not only the racing results but also the cricket scores, which also come via the pop hole and which have to be updated for every edition, of which there are three.

The Editor insists I give each player initials – DCS is Compton, FS is Trueman, PBH before May; Gentlemen or Players they all get the same treatment from me. Can’t remember them all; most I must mug up.

The task of handling the afternoon’s sporting results (two or more race meetings, eight or nine cricket matches) keeping them up to date might be easier but for the interruptions.

There are two elderly characters, grubby and unshaven, long mackintoshes, the sort you see picking up tab ends in the street. One of them I recognise as Pig who sells our paper at Christ Church Bus Stop.

He shouts “Angpo” every 30 seconds. On being translated it means “The paper I have for sale is the Evening Post.”

The other chap known as Yank or Hank stands opposite Clock Corner.

He says “treetirdywinneyandpri” which means if you look in the stop press you will find the winner of the 3.30 at Newmarket, with the betting attached.

They sneak into my space, hovering and hoping to read the result of races as I process them. Obviously they have a few bob invested with some bookie somewhere. I have trodden on them a couple of times.

The chief sub says tell ’em to b****r off. They come back next day, so close to my shoulder I can smell the Shipstones sold over the road at the Coach and Horses.

Another hoverer is the circulation manager. He’s an impatient agitator, who believes racing results, not journalistic excellence sell papers. He wants the same information and delays the printing of the edition as long as he dares so that it will carry that information.

“Can’t send papers to Thorne/Moorends without the 3.30 winner.”

Likewise, the garage manager. Drivers sit idle in their buff-coloured vans parked in Scot Lane, tanks full and rarin’ to be off to the newsagents’ shops.

The truth is, race results are the most important thing we sell. Doncaster is betting crazy.

Even within the office there is ‘the man in the stereo department who takes the betting slips to the bookmakers’.

It’s quite unofficial but everybody uses him.

The race information comes through the hole in the wall in dribs and drabs – starting with overnight declarations, then when racing begins the off-ats, the won-bys, the SPs, the full betting and if lucky the “Winner was Ranger’s selection” line, Ranger being our resident man who knoweth all and occasionally goes through the card, every one a winner .

After a pause comes a full description of the race.

All afternoon my bum never touches the infamous chair from Sing Sing, because if the winners don’t come in time to be processed by me for the paper proper they have to go in The Box which is Stop Press to you.

And if the winners miss the paper AND the Box they will have to be stamped in on the bundles of printed newspapers.

That’s when we use a Bush printer which is deafening and sounds like an angry machine gun. I must chase to see the latest results go where they are needed.

In my ignorance I had thought racing was the sport of kings, the flash of the silks, the gleaming steaming chestnut flanks of the thoroughbred, the sharp smell of superior manure, the roar of the crowd.

Truth is racing is about gambling. Here the Sporting Life and Sporting Chronicle are as sacred to the gambler as Bible and prayerbook to the priest.

People will wager on anything. For all I care they might just as well bet on two ants climbing a stick of rhubarb.

During all this there is young Gladys. Our Glad, a treasure who unfortunately for me was on holiday this week.

She is Copyboy (does all the fetching and running) and tea-maker.

The chief says this department runs on fags (which have turned the ceiling black), bad language and endless cuppas made by Gladys. During brief lulls between running from Box to Bush and back I can stand at the window breathing heavily and look down on Scot Lane, watching motorists trying to find somewhere to park.

I can also see across the street into Herberts’ upstairs millinery.

I saw Mrs Ansell, my mother’s neighbour, trying on hats in front of a mirror.

I’ll tell her that.

So my week in subs is over. Each day has ended with a call to the sports staff of our sister paper the Yorkshire Post in Leeds to get the close-of-play cricket scores for that Bush machine I was telling you about.

At the end of the day when all is quiet, all is calm and the mighty roar of the presses is stilled, there are always a few papers unsold.

My close-of-play cricket scores will sell them.

I think it right to say we at the Post are a happy ship, both in and out of office hours and the paper is a good product.

It is only the building that is Dickensian.

Dickens was a journalist, wasn’t he?

Bet he never had to handle the racing and cricket results!