And all the grown-ups will say: “But why are the kids crying?” And the kids will say: “Haven’t you heard? Rik is dead! The People’s Poet is dead!”
JOURNALISTS have a strange relationship to death. Do not believe all you read, we are not all heartless monsters who simply don’t care, but the reaction to news of people dying could often come as a bit of a shock to outsiders.
Timing plays a big part – as does just how desperate we are for a front page splash.
Can’t remember too many cheers when news of a death broke (certainly not to rival the ones which greeted the news of Piers Morgan being sacked at the Mirror, but we were in the pub so there was some liquid amplification), yet there has definitely been a few clenched fists of triumph and strangled cries of “YES” as the search for a big story comes to an end.
That sounds terrible and in nearly quarter of a century in this job – albeit largely watching on from the safe distance of the sports desk or a step removed on subs – dealing with delicate situations and grieving relatives has (almost) always been handled with the utmost sensitivity.
But when news, as it often does with celebrity deaths, breaks close to deadlines, practicalities take over with the job of presenting the story to the best of our ability in a very short time.
My first experience of this came when news of then Labour leader John Smith collapsing at his home broke perilously close to morning deadline (back in the good old days when evening newspapers were put to bed on the day they hit the news stands).
Hurriedly, as we dug around for scant information, two front pages were created – one of which would never see the light of day and one of which could well be totally out of date before it even reached the printers. Time for reflection or sorrow had to wait until after that edition had gone (the sad final news arriving just before deadline).
News of both the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret broke moments after the South Wales Echo’s Saturday night sports edition – the Pink – had headed off to the printers, although we managed to stop the presses (the only time I have managed to shout that in action down the phone) long enough to at least get them on the front of some copies.
Time was not much of a factor as a young reporter on New Year’s Day 1995.
Nursing a hangover having just wandered in during the afternoon to wrap up the holiday sporting action, there were only a couple of us kicking around the Gloucester Citizen office when a photographer wandered over to the sports desk (the duty reporter was out) and suggested putting Ceefax on (that ages this tale).
The top story was simple: “Fred West Found Dead In His Cell”.
Any hopes of a quiet afternoon were instantly dispelled as the phone burst into life. Over the course of a few hours, my role started as the sole source of contact to chasing down reporters across the country, digging through the archives and, eventually, the one who gets sent out to look for food.
Most celebrity deaths are not that dramatic, but at least a couple of them produced a common newsroom response – silence, followed by journalists working out from their colleagues’ reactions as to who had the recently deceased in the office’s version of a Fantasy Death League.
Once common in newsrooms, Cardiff’s version was known as the Coffin Club and involved picking a 11-strong line-up governed by strict criteria, complete with a mid-year transfer window – whoever picks the most celebrities who die over a year scoops the pool.
The black humour involved fits in well with journalism and you did not want to be in my team in one of two winning years when a record seven of my picks shuffled off this mortal coil – the winnings paying for one of the predecessors of the iPod we are currently working our way through.
In all those years, however, a few deaths have prompted a stunned silence and not prompted much in the way of joking for a while (one eventually sparked a lot of joking, but it took a little while to recover from the news).
The first was John Peel, which rocked a newsroom largely populated by blokes of a certain age, while the other came this week with the news of Rik Mayall’s premature demise.
Mayall was, as much as Marr, Morrissey, McCulloch or any number of jingly-jangly indie guitar bands, a huge part of my teenage years.
Twelve years old when The Young Ones first aired, it was instantly the talk of the school – trouble was, it just wasn’t on in my house. My mum had heard about this show and there was no way we were going to watch it.
Until, several weeks into the run, she was out for the night, my Dad was upstairs working and there was nothing else on my elder sister wanted to watch. The TV choice was mine and what it showed was something which had me wide eyed with astonishment.
Party remains one of the finest episodes and although half of the gags went straight over my head, it was unmissable from that point in. He was ours, something our parents just did not get. Yes, there was a lot of nob and fart gags, but it was performed with such energy and refreshing vitality.
Eventually, worn down by a succession of Rik impressions – complete with snorts – and endless quoting, my mum caved in and eventually sat down to watch an episode. Disgusted as she was – remember her being appalled by Vyvyan eating a dead rat – she was also enamoured by this electric presence and, for years to come , “Hands Up Who Likes Me” could reduce her to giggles.
It now looks bit dated at times, but can still happily sit down and rewatch old episodes of The Young Ones when they pop up, just as the music which soundtracked that time (roughly as mainstream chart stuff was being shunted aside for more alternative fare) still crops up encouragingly often.
The latest run through my iPod – from The Moldy Peaches to The XX – features a few from roughly that era. Four versions of Bankrobber (one by The Clash, two live from Joe Strummer and a cover by someone called Hawksley Workman), Barbarism Begins At Home by The Smiths and three versions of The Band Played Waltzing Matilda by The Pogues (who also managed to upset my mum).
The journey from Ballads… saw John Murry’s lovely Ballad of The Pajama Kid pop up twice either side of another track due to two different spellings (Pyjama), while we careered through a great little bar crawl – Barefoot by The Cadbury Sisters, Barfruit Blues by The Hold Steady, Barney (…And Me) by The Boo Radleys, Barstow by Jay Farrar (who saw live the night before England won the Rugby World Cup, meaning it is all a bit hazy) and Bartering Lines by Ryan Adams.
It all would have added up to a glorious run of tracks if it was not soundtracking both Mayall’s death and Hereford United being kicked out of the Conference into… well, who knows at what low level they resurface in some shape or form
Not a good few days.