SOMEONE came up to me in the street the other day and asked my advice about following a career in journalism. Budding journalists seem to be sprouting all over the place these days. But why she should ask me, who enjoyed quite an unspectacular journalistic career, was beyond me. When people ask me who was the most famous person I ever interviewed, the only one who comes to mind is Michael Lowry. And he was only doing me a favour.
I was taken aback too because the woman in question had pursued a very successful and much more remunerative career in a different field altogether. Why she would want to change courses in mid-stream, when everything was going so swimmingly for her, was beyond me – unless she had experienced a sudden urge to reform the world, as I did myself, when I decided to throw up a secure pensionable job in the public service nearly half a century ago to become a humble reporter.
My parents didn’t forgive me for months, but by then I had also discovered that the world didn’t really want to be reformed either, at least not by me. But there was no going back. I had thrown my cap over the wall of life, as Frank O’Connor said, and I knew I had to follow it wherever it fell. When it landed eventually in the Limerick Leader newsroom, I thought I had gone to Heaven. I was quickly disabused of that notion.
The woman must have noticed my discomfiture. “It’s my son,” she said. “He‘s very good at English. He got an A in the Junior Cert and he writes poetry in his spare time. I think he’d love to do journalism, but what’s the best way to get into it?”
Journalism and poetry don’t always mix well, I said to myself, but I wouldn’t dream of telling her that. Journalism has mixed with much worse and come up trumps. Anyway, the notion of a poet journalist in this age of sound bites, fake news and sensational headlines tickled my fancy, until I remembered that my favourite poet Paddy Kavanagh earned his crust by writing a column for the ‘Farmer’s Journal’ and even edited his own magazine. And, of course, my favourite journalist of all, Ernest Hemmingway, in addition to his wonderful novels, wrote poetry on the side.
The first piece of writing I ever had published was a piece of verse, couched in my best iambic pentameter, which appeared in the International Junior Digest when I was 16 and which would have made Milton really grateful for his blindness.
Thank heavens it was long before the advent of social media or it might have gone viral and I’d be the laughing stock of the world. Back then, however, the sight of my name on a rather risible tribute to the just deceased Pope John 23rd – and the fact that I received a proposal of marriage from a non-Christian Papal fan in Tanganyika, which freaked me out - were enough to convince me that the pen really was mightier than the sword and I was ready to start wielding it.
How to get into journalism, however, was an even more daunting challenge then than it is now. College courses in journalism were out, mainly because there were none, and partly because even if they did exist I could not have afforded the dubious luxury.
I was told that I needed shorthand and typing but I had declined both subjects in school, fearing that I’d be turned into a secretary in a pencil skirt with a bun at the back of my head. I didn’t even know how to change a typewriter ribbon, but it didn’t matter because there wasn’t even a typewriter in the first reporting job I took up. We had to write thousands of words by hand.
Someone else told me that he had got into journalism by writing GAA match reports free gratis for his local newspaper. The Larkinite in me balked at that, but it was a non-runner anyway because my attention span was too short for a game of hurling.
Eventually I just answered an advertisement seeking a trainee reporter. “We don’t usually take on a woman,” the editor said, and to this day I still don’t know whether my sex was an asset or a liability. My poetry certainly didn’t recommend me. In any case I got the job and I was told in no uncertain terms that I was joining a ‘Paper of Record’. I took this at the time to mean that I wasn’t to besmirch in any way the reputation of the venerable institution. It was a while before I realised that everything I wrote was for the record so I’d better get it right. I took lessons in Gregg shorthand straight away.
I came clean to the woman in the street. I hadn’t a clue which was the best route into journalism for her son. There are so many courses now - some of them leading no-where – that I wouldn’t even presume to advise which was fastest, easiest, most relevant or most fool proof, though I’m not even sure if any of them are really necessary at all. As far as I’m concerned, journalism is one of those trades most suited to a five year apprenticeship straight from school. Anything else tends to instil notions of grandeur.
When all is said and done, however, it was much easier to break into journalism when all you had to do was to throw your cap over the wall.