Former Star and Telegraph journalist recalls the glory days of newspapers in new book

I'm a writer of fiction '“ with a new collection of stories about to be published.

Thursday, 18th January 2018, 5:00 am
Updated Friday, 19th January 2018, 10:00 am
The Star & Telegraph, York Street, Sheffield

I’m a writer of fiction – with a new collection of stories about to be published.

I like to think I’ve always had talent. But I have to admit it was Sheffield that taught me how to write.

Telegraph and Star's current building soon after it was completed

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For 15 years in the eighties and nineties, I worked on the Sheffield Star, first as environment reporter, then as film critic.

I estimated I wrote 120,000 words a year – the equivalent of two novels.

It was exciting. One time I was at a press conference in a London hotel suite to interview Richard Gere.

I was standing on the balcony sipping my Pinot Grigio when I heard a commotion behind me. Richard had arrived.

The Star & Telegraph, York Street, Sheffield Front counter - reception

I turned and walked through a curtain of ribbons and fell into him.

We both put out our arms to steady ourselves and ended in a hug.

“Gee, I’m sorry,” he said. In the ensuing months there were newspaper reports that he might be gay.

I was able to say to any woman who was interested: “I have embraced Richard Gere intimately in a hotel room in London and I can vouch for the fact that he’s all man.”

Michael Yates

What were newspapers like at the beginning of the eighties?

Start by forgetting the Internet. Forget mobile phones and laptops.

Think of an office made noisy by typewriters and smoky from cigarettes.

If you wanted to check a previous story, you didn’t click on a mouse, you went downstairs to the library where real bits of the paper were cut out by real hands using real scissors and shoved into real paper folders.

Telegraph and Star's current building soon after it was completed

If you were racing a deadline to bring home a story, you might have to find a telephone box and dictate over the line while pushing pennies into the slot.

Lunchtimes were a boozy affair and nobody tut-tutted.

Women reporters were in a minority and ended up doing the “soft” stories – true love triumphing, mothers raising cash for sick children, tearful family reunions. Plus lots about fashion, of course.

In my new book of 20 varied and entertaining tales, there are two stories about those medieval times.

Of course, m’lud, they’re not about real people. No, no, they’re about fictional characters in a fictional newspaper office in a fictional Yorkshire town.

When I first tried to write fiction, I wrote about an idealistic young reporter like me, a tad cleverer than I was, more than a tad handsomer and a million light years more successful with women. These stories were terrible.

The Star & Telegraph, York Street, Sheffield Front counter - reception

Then I invented Jack Parker, a middle-aged man with expanding stomach and thinning hair, a broken marriage and a drink problem, passed over for promotion.

I did this because I’d discovered by that time that failures were the most interesting characters.

Jack is a local boy who joined his fictional newspaper straight from his fictional school.

He learned the ropes the hard way: complicated court cases, brutal police reports, boring council meetings.

But one day he realises there is a revolution going on: women suddenly allowed to cover crime and even sport; and graduates from down south being hired instead of local school-leavers.

What does Jack think about this? “It hadn’t been like that when he joined.

In those days you didn’t get two years of college to play newspapers – you learned by doing it, by making a fool of yourself.

If you didn’t ask the right question at the right time, you were sent back to ask again. And again. And again. Until you curled up inside with the shame of it.

“You didn’t need a degree to write news because real news wrote itself.

Angry mums up in arms. Petticoat pickets in down-tools drama. If you wrote petticoat pickets these days, some bright slip on the subs’ table would tell you it trivialised women and they’d re-write it.”

So. Jack is a dinosaur. But dinosaurs are fascinating. 20 Stories High by Michael Yates is published by Armley Press for £8.99.

Michael Yates