Saturday 20 December 2014

The greatest stories could never be told

The problem with euphoric recall is that it leaves out most of the other stuff

Published 16/03/2014 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan

THERE was a most entertaining piece in this paper last week written by John McEntee, in which he recalled scenes of astonishing drunkenness which he had witnessed during his career in Fleet Street.

We are forever musing on journalism in the digital age, with almost no attention being paid to this other great change in the nature of the newspaper industry and of the media in general. Yes, there is a tremendous technological difference between the old print journalism and the present-day version, but there is an equally tremendous difference between being drunk and being sober.

McEntee speaks to this difference when he writes that "no one drinks any more. No one goes out any more. No one meets people any more. Modern practitioners with their Pret A Manger salad lunches and their five-a-day infusions at their work stations, their forensic reading of Hello, OK, and Closer, sit from dawn 'til dusk at their winking computer screens."

He sees newspaper rooms "filled with Terracotta Armies of earnest young men and women...", an echo of Con Houlihan's lament that the offices of newspapers now have "all the atmosphere of a suburban pharmacy".

Indeed, a friend of mine who has laboured long in this trade described how he used to receive requests from schools who wanted their pupils to spend a few hours watching these strange people putting together the daily paper, barking into phones (always barking), arguing with one another to the point of violence, perhaps even yelling "hold the front page!", the day's theatre concluding with the roar of the presses and the disappearance of the

journalists back to the pub from whence they had surely come, to dream it all up again.

Today a party of schoolchildren would probably knock more excitement out of a trip to a call centre.

And yet, as always when we are talking about drinking and not drinking, there are the most tantalising inconsistencies, the most agonising contradictions.

I arrived into journalism towards the end of what we might call the Alcoholic Age, and alcoholism tends to bring with it a certain amount of euphoric recall. Undoubtedly some of it still seems marvellous, even miraculous. For example, I still have no idea how the men and women of the Irish Press group managed to put out two newspapers a day and a Sunday paper too, during the years when many of them were effectively living and working in Mulligan's pub.

Then again this may be a perception distorted by the personal experience of writing a weekly piece for the Irish Press, without ever entering the Press building, as such. I would deliver the copy to my editor in Mulligan's, we would drink a few pints, and it all seemed to go quite smoothly from there .

You also had the imperatives of shift work, whereby newspaper folk would finish their stint at, say, seven in the morning, leaving them obviously with no option but to go straight to an "early house" to unwind with seven or eight pints.

This was "normal", you see, as normal as a nine-to-five person going to the pub after work. And in the mind's eye, the vision that is most indelible is of the White Horse one morning, just a regular morning with the pub full of newspaper people drinking and smoking (always smoking), and Con Houilhan at the bar with his column written, and a video of Dirty Harry on the television.

There were other mornings, other afternoons, other nights, but for some reason this one has never left me. Sometimes I am looking at RTE's Morning Edition, and I see these journalists of the Post-Alcoholic Age reviewing the papers, wearing suits and ties and expressing all sorts of perfectly reasonable points of view. And I think back to those denizens of the White Horse, very few of whom could be expected to arrive for their morning appointment at RTE looking spruce and sounding coherent, and as for being reasonable, it was not their way.

But as every alcoholic knows, when he comes to an understanding of his condition, the problem with euphoric recall is that it leaves out most of the other stuff.

We remember Con Houlihan not just because he seemed to embody all the largeness of personality of journalists in general in that era, but because there weren't many Con Houlihans. A few minutes on Twitter can link you to articles from a variety of sources around the world, written by people who are obviously talented and as committed to their work as any writer of anything, in any age. Many of them seem to be sober.

We forget all the terrible hackery of those alcoholic times, which was no better than the hackery of today, just because they had the excuse of being drunk. We forget that drinking journalists tended to save their best efforts for the pubs, leaving much of that extravagance out of their actual journalism, prostrating themselves before the false god of "impartiality".

In the Palace or the Oval, they could tell you great stories about Haughey, but they never found a way of putting them in the paper. They were indeed out there meeting people, but a lot of those people were other journalists, which doesn't count.

And even back then, during those smoky mornings in the White Horse, you'd hear them saying that there are no characters left in the game.

Sunday Independent

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