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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 88 - Russian roulette of the pre-laptop world

WHEN I read obituaries in newspapers, I am usually impressed by the qualities of those who have passed onto what the poet Robert Browning called, "the great perhaps".

Here, is someone who, in British imperial days, minimised earthquakes, relieved famine and flood, and, en passant, kept the peace of some remote and rebellious border-line. Here, are recorded lives of august figures from the groves of academe, the lofty ramparts of philosophy to those who donned the purple of commerce, pouting, petulant showbiz celebrities and the captains and kings of the media.

All paramount players who have strutted and fretted on life’s stage but all-too-often missed are final-curtain assessments of the bit-players in the cast of destiny - those in supporting roles, the lower ranks of the human pyramid, the hind legs of the pantomime horse.

That is why I was gratified to see, in the Daily Telegraph recently, an obituary of Marje Schilsky, a newspaper copytaker on the paper, one of those, generally-stoical, hard-working and vital, backroom workers who, over the telephone, typed or took down in shorthand, reporters’ stories for subsequent sub-editing.

Mrs Schilsky was a Communist Party member but adapted well to the Telegraph’s Tory environment, although she was known to hiss with forceful resonance when typing the name of Enoch Powell. No overt support for, or comments against, party or politician were heard from copytakers when I joined them, in 1944, with newly-minted shorthand, in Edinburgh’s Evening Dispatch.

UNDER the supervision of Miss Jean Gordon, a kindly martinet, whose upright figure, on occasions of her displeasure at some copytaker’s sin of omission or commission, resembled a tightly-rolled umbrella, the staff was steeled for dictation that varied from the results of some local canary shows and turgid court cases, to breathless accounts of some headline-grabbing murder.

Miss Gordon, who died a few decades ago, was mistress of the impeccable shorthand outline, and no copytaker, struggling with Pitmanic runes, would seek her transcription aid in vain. Once, even her powers failed when a young reporter, having had the ill-luck to answer a telephone that had his chief reporter fuming with impatience on the line to dictate his account of the day’s play at a 1950s British Open golf tournament at Muirfield, panicked, grabbed an untidy pile of blank paper, wrote frantically-scrawled shorthand, got the unnumbered sheets inextricably mixed-up and ended with outlines about as difficult to decipher as the German Second World War Enigma code machine. Eventually, the Press Association report was used and the reporter sent home to repent.

In wartime, newsprint was rationed and all copy was ruthlessly cut. There were long hours in the copytaking room waiting for the Russian roulette of calls that could have an emotional line-up of reporters varying from calm, deliberate and clearly-spoken dictators to testy and sarcastic scribes with comments like, "Do you know anything at all about golf?" or - from a Scotsman reporter - "Are you completely ignorant of Homer’s Iliad?"

WHEN I became a reporter and saw life from the other end of the line, I knew that, while copytakers were generally-efficient cogs in the ceaselessly-spinning wheels of newspaper production, there were ones that could fill a journalist with leaden dread.

Some paused in mid-typing, while the edition deadline neared, to utter comments like: "Fined only £30. Disgraceful, he should have been jailed." Some were going deaf and typed with the slow deliberation of a blunt chisel hacking into granite, while others pounded keys with machine-gun rapidity, halting only to ask the deflating question - bitterly wounding if one considered one’s story to be the cream of crisply-written reportage - "Is there any more of this ("rubbish" implied)?"

Copytakers, in the laptop age, when out-of-office reporters’ stories can be fed straight into editorial computer systems, are becoming a rare breed. This newspaper group still has a skilled and dedicated section, and I salute them.

One day, when I am heading for my last deadline and may have to dictate a report of my life, I hope that Miss Gordon will take it and, predictably, say: "It’s that Bert Morris, late as usual."

If so, my celestial copy will be in safe hands.

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