Tuesday 25 June 2019

David Robbins: For years I was a hard-nosed hack. Then I became a dad -- and it all changed.

Journalists have a hard-won reputation for cynicism. Things that make ordinary civilians go "ahhhh" usually make journalists go "yuk".

Newspapermen wear a kevlar vest of jaded world-weariness. There is no story so tragic, no disaster so devastating, no tale of heroism so heart-warming that can pierce their shell of scepticism.

There are probably very good reasons for this. It's difficult to get a newspaper or TV bulletin out if you're in the bathroom weeping into the Kleenex over the injustice of it all.

And often, for journalists, bad news is, well, good news. There is nothing like a tragedy to sell papers. Victims are our stock in trade.

One editor I worked with was seconded to a management role. Nominally, he was still in charge of the newspaper, but we suspected he was gradually turning into "a suit".

He phoned one day to find out what our front-page story was. The leader of the UK Labour party, John Smith, has just died of a heart attack, we said. "Oh my God," he said, "that's terrible."

We knew then that he was gone from us. His was the normal, human reaction to the news that a fine, apparently honest politician had died at a tragically young age. But a journalist's first response would be: what a great story! Have we pictures?

Over nearly 30 years in the newspaper business, I thought I had built up the appropriate layers of cynicism. I was immune to schmaltz. I laughed in the face of cheesiness. Show me Shirley Temple singing 'On the Good Ship Lollipop', and I'd laugh like a drain.

And then, one night this week, I suggested to my six-year-old girl that, instead of doing her homework, we might watch a DVD. This is known in parenting circles as calling in the digital babysitter.

I could do some work, I thought, and she would be happy for an hour or so in the world of Pixar. "Could we watch Little Women?" she pleaded.

Her request left me conflicted, as the Americans say. The story was a preachy, sentimental slush-pile, I thought, but on the other hand, it was at least two hours long.

After about five minutes, I was hooked. It was the version with Susan Sarandon making doe eyes as Marmie, Winona Ryder as Jo and Kirsten Dunst as the young Amy.

With every turn of fortune for the March family, a layer of journalistic cynicism was stripped away. When the invalid Meg is presented with a new piano, I was done for.

My daughter, who was snuggled up against me, was as calm and composed as if she were watching a nature documentary. When my chest began to heave and my ribcage was wracked with sobs, she looked up.

"Oh dad," she said, "it's only a film."

I should have known better. Since becoming a father, every story involving children has the potential to reduce me to tears. I couldn't bear to watch the movie version of The Road -- I knew I would have to be helped from the cinema.

There are parts of Up that I find unbearably moving too, and Bambi can have a lip-quivering effect. Things reached an all-time low when I found myself going misty-eyed at The Little Princess, a Shirley Temple vehicle I would previously have sneered at.

New mothers complain that there is a conspiracy of silence around childbirth.

Why did no one tell them it would be so painful, they say.

New fathers suffer from their own conspiracy: why did no one tell me that I would turn into a blancmange every time a child was subjected to cinematic hardship?

I am resolved to restrict father-daughter viewing to Shrek from now on. It's upbeat and funny. Although, come to think of it, there is that sad bit about the Gingerbread Man . . .

drobbins@independent.ie

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