A Dorset life for me
By Roger Guttridge; the illustration is by Becky Blake
Published in April ’16
I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s latest laugh-a-minute travel book, which I was delighted to receive as a Christmas present. I was even more pleased to discover that The Road to Little Dribbling describes a return visit to Bournemouth and other parts of Dorset, which also featured large in his 1995 bestseller Notes From a Small Island. In this sequel to that esteemed volume, he again refers to his two-year stint as a journalist on the Bournemouth Evening Echo – references that will no doubt have a spin-off for me. For years after publication of Notes From a Small Island, I was able to bask in reflected glory when chatting to people at social events or meeting them for the first time.
‘Oh, you worked for the Echo?’ they would say. ‘You would have known Bill Bryson, then. I read his book.’
‘Yes, we were like that,’ I would reply, raising crossed fingers to indicate our closeness. ‘And I can tell you that everything he says about the Echo is true – albeit a little exaggerated for humour.’
I always hoped they would not ask questions about this relationship, but if they did I would come clean. For the truth was that I could barely remember Bill Bryson, while he at best would remember me as a name on numerous sheets of copy-paper. You see, during his time on the paper – 1977-79 – he was a sub-editor at the Richmond Hill head office while I was grafting at the provincial coal-face, digging out stories as the Echo’s Wimborne district reporter. I ventured into the metropolis but rarely, and then only to attend a meeting or drop off a picture before a tight deadline. If Bill and I ever met, I confess I don’t remember it. But he would certainly have edited my stories and that is a good enough connection for me.
Chapter 6 of Notes From a Small Island comprises the best-thumbed pages on my well-stocked bookshelves yet it never fails to amuse me anew. It would be hard, but if I had to choose my favourite extract it would be Bill’s description of a colleague ‘so old he could barely hold a pencil’, who devoted his professional life to opening a window in the office with a long pole that was also dedicated to this purpose. ‘It would take him an hour to get out of his chair and another hour to shuffle the few feet to the window and another hour to finagle it open and another hour to lean the pole against the wall and shuffle back to his desk,’ writes Bill. ‘The instant he was reseated, the man who sat opposite him would bob up, stride over, shut the window with the pole and return to his seat…’ At this point ‘the old boy’ would begin the process again. And so on, all day every day.
I can not only to confirm that both pole and ancient sub-editor existed but that similar rituals went on in newspaper offices across the land. A few years before Bryson and I crossed paths, I was a trainee reporter on the Western Gazette at Yeovil, where the sub-editors included the grumpiest man I have ever met. He was middle-aged, misogynistic, lived at Sherborne and I’ll call him Gary. He was also the ultimate loner, appearing to have no friends or social life. I found this unsurprising, as he avoided unnecessary conversation and appeared to have lost the ability to smile.
The sub-editors at Yeovil sat around a large table in a room separated from other parts of the editorial department by flimsy walls of hardboard and glass. Gary’s chair was nearest to the door. Every few minutes, said door would open and someone would pop in to collect or deliver a sheet of paper. As these visits rarely lasted more than a few seconds, the visitors invariably left the door open in anticipation of their departure. No sooner had they passed his chair than Gary, who had an aversion to drafts as well as women, would stretch out his leg and slam the door shut with his foot, causing the hardboard and glass structure to shake violently. This happened so frequently that no-one even blinked.
One Saturday evening during this era, I was enjoying a drink in a backstreet pub at Blandford, where most of my fellow customers were squaddies from the Camp. So imagine my surprise when who should walk in but Grumpy Gary – alone as ever but having undergone a personality transplant. He smiled and we chatted. He told me he lived alone, didn’t drive and amused himself each weekend by taking a bus to another town or village – in this case Blandford. After a couple of pints, he left to catch the bus home.
The following Monday life returned to normal. Gary was back to his surly self; the glass and hardboard partition rattled regularly. But whenever I walked into the subs’ room, our eyes would meet. I knew there was another Gary trying to get out and he knew I knew. And although we never socialised again, there was suddenly an unspoken bond between us. ◗