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
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
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"
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.