Reuters 'Circus' - more Big Top than Le Carré
Wednesday 6 January 2021
The Reuters world that I first entered in the late 1960s soon had me likening it to a circus, but with a vein of Barnum and Bailey along with John le Carré.
First were the interviews with the aloof and reticent executives Brian Stockwell and Stuart Underhill, followed by the offputting Brian Horton, doffing his spectacles on the desk before lounging back in his chair and addressing his questions to the ceiling.
Then, on the first day, after being kept waiting in the boardroom for half an hour, a lecture from a scowling figure with a thick moustache, beetle eyebrows and a prognathous jaw. General manager Gerald Long’s opening words to that year’s batch of trainees were: “Gentlemen, you have a lifetime of waiting in hotel lobbies before you”.
Next was a week’s induction in a dungeon room at neighbouring St Bride’s under the auspices of Trevor “Digger” Bloor, an Australian ex-mariner and former overnight editor who spent most of the time regaling us with anecdotes, mostly about his nymphomaniac ex-wife in Sydney, before taking us off to the pub.
Then it was off to the fourth floor newsroom, where God help you if you got in the way of the old hands in the rush for the trolley, with its huge tea urn and leftover bacon rolls from the canteen breakfast. But there the spookiness really set in.
The mysterious General Services Unit (GSU), with its stealth fleet of clipboard carriers buzzing around to who knows where. Their racket was blown when one of their number gave me a tip: “Always look busy and always carry a clipboard - it’s something I learned in the army”.
The deathly silence around the Situationers and Mailers desk, timeless pieces that later morphed into Features. It was presided over by the formidable Muriel Penn (aka Rosa Klebb), a 35-year veteran who took no prisoners and would suffer no spelling mistakes. Alongside was an even more venerable, taciturn gentleman subbing copy. “He’s a famous poet and author,” somebody whispered to me, pointing to Hubert Nicholson, whose works had passed me by.
The spooks turned out at night - the overnight editor naturally called the Prince of Darkness, a post long held by Scotsman James Forrester, who had a day job running a charity and could sleep with his head on a telex machine. Then there was the occasional late evening appearance of the arts critic, a becaped Frenchman called Jacques Pouteau (aka Dracula), who it was said was the only person who could raise a frisson of emotion in Miss Penn.
The news room itself, with desks split up into Western Hemisphere, Eastern, Africa etc, was smoke-fugged, noisy and shambolic, with overflowing baskets of teleprinter tape and oozing foil ashtrays.
Who could forget the Eastern desk editor, a shell-shock victim, who couldn’t type and did the rosters by hand, but was an ace in the race for the trolley. “I’m only a pencil sub, dear boy,” he explained to me. Or the poor sub who had severe epilepsy and would occasionally hit the floor with a loud thwack. “Don’t worry, it’s only Thumper, the nurse will be along in a minute,“ I was told.
And the grumpy Canadian, who chained his favourite chair to a radiator in his absence in order to prevent its possible disposal as a health hazard. (The magician-cum-journalist Lloyd Timberlake later extricated it, leaving the lock forlornly fastened to the radiator, and a certain Jack Hartzman was most put out). ■