(Post by George Cheyne of Glasgow – March 2021)
Almost three years after leaving school to learn how to be a journalist in a local newspaper some bright spark thought it would be a good idea if I went to college to learn how to be…a journalist.
We were the generation that had slipped through the net, the ones who had gone straight into the job from school, and they wanted to teach us a lesson.
Well, lots of lessons as it turned out. The zealots at the National Council for the Training of Journalists clearly thought our minds had wandered off after two to three years of doing the job, rounded us all up and sent us to the concentration campus at Edinburgh’s Napier College.
It was an eight-week block-release course designed to make sure we attained the, ahem, high standards set by the full-time course.
But we all knew what it was…a jolly. Word had been passed down the line that the block-release course was a box-ticking exercise which served only to teach us the journalistic basics we’d already mastered.
It meant our college experience was always going to be more public house than Animal House but, hey, there’s worse ways to spend two months away from home – and work.
We were paid our full wages – plus a few extra quid in expenses – to be taught how to do what we already did every day. No wonder we went to the boozer.
Yep, you couldn’t make it up – except that’s exactly what we did. In our newspaper practice class we made up stories, lots of them.
And if you ever wondered where the majority of life’s dramas happened in the spring of 1978, I can exclusively reveal it was the Edinburgh suburb of Oxgangs.
The make-believe bank robberies, gun sieges, train crashes, high-rise fires, bomb-squad call-outs, hostage-taking and car smashes we wrote about all took place in EH13.
That was the “where” of our stories to go alongside the “who, what, why, how and when” you always need for any news tale.
Mind you, I often wondered what the good residents of Oxgangs would make of all these dramas on their doorstep. Those house prices would take a right dunt, that’s for sure.
The sleepy suburb was turned into something of a war zone as we wrote up our dramatic stories after being fed the imaginary information.
There was a siege at Oxgangs library after a gunman walked in and threatened to kill the staff. Presumably he wasn’t happy with having to pay charges on his overdue book A Beginner’s Guide On How To Be A Gun Nut.
Then we had a blaze at the high-rise flats in Oxgangs which would have given the Towering Inferno movie a run for its money considering all the dramatic goings-on. There were brave firemen, brave neighbours and brave policemen all around.
Oxgangs Primary School was the setting for a full-scale evacuation after the janny discovered an explosive device in the boiler room. The bomb squad were called in as the kids were moved to a nearby football pitch to carry on their singing lessons. Another Hollywood influence there, methinks
We also had a train crash in Oxgangs which made the movie Runaway Train look like an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine. In our fictitious story the train – with dangerous chemicals on board – derails just before the station and ploughs into the school playground. That train story caused a bit of a stushie for three of us in the class after we took advantage of our lecturer Bill’s easy-going nature
Bill, who made his name covering the murder trial of serial killer Peter Manuel for the Daily Express in 1958, was a free spirit who insisted on treating his classroom like a newsroom.
This meant you could come and go as you please so long as you did the work. And it also meant a large window of opportunity opened up for the Three Amigos.
Our newspaper practice class lasted four hours from 1pm and the assignment for the train crash scenario was two-fold. Firstly, we had to hand in a 150-word story by 2pm and, secondly, a 250-word story by close of play.
We were given the information at the start of class to write up the first part – for an evening paper story – and were told we would be drip-fed other details for the second one.
It didn’t take a genius to work out we would have the best part of two hours after handing in the first story before we would even have to think about writing the second one.
What to do? A few surreptitious looks and nods between the three of us led us to the nearest pub which happened to be beside a Ladbroke’s bookies.
We had a wee racing syndicate going where I was the silent partner, entrusting the other two to make some wise investments on my behalf in the 2.30 at Plumpton and a few others to boot.
A good few pints and punts later, we headed back to college – richer for the experience in every way.
Our classmates were looking a bit frazzled and, judging by the amount of info slips on their desks, the drip-feed had become a torrent.
As we took our seats at 4pm, right on cue another slip was handed out telling us the train driver had died. A quick flick through the red-herring slips that had dropped while we were in the boozer didn’t change anything. Driver dies after train plunges into school playground kind of writes itself.
Anyway, the next day Bill takes the three of us aside before class to tell us we have the top marks for the train story.
Only thing is, he says, when I read them out in class you won’t be top three because it was pretty obvious you guys went to the pub and it’s not fair on the rest of them.
So much for Bill’s free spirit. But at least we got a free afternoon in the boozer thanks to our winnings.