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from I'M HERE TO MAKE YOU SMILE

By Andy Darley


OLD JIMMY FUCKER’S phone is ringing again, his empty desk lurking in the corner of the office with its computer humming gently and all its pens neatly arranged, a smack in the face for those of us still here when he’s not. Well, someone else can answer it—I took it twice already today.

The first was one of his little old ladies, wanting to know whether the paper still had its Coronation issue available for public inspection. Then came a vicar, nice bloke, new round here and looking into the history of his church. Jim knows that sort of stuff, he knows everything. Management has tried to get him to retire three times, but he won’t go. He’s found his niche, his place in the world, and he likes it. If this newspaper is the living history of our dead-beat corner of the arse end of London then James Farquhar—Jimmy Fucker to his friends—is the living history of the newspaper. He’s got an encyclopaedic memory, a handshake that could crack walnuts, he brings chocolate biscuits in for everyone each Friday and now he’s in hospital with a cheekbone like a smashed car windscreen and an eyeball that’s just a wet smear across the High Street pavement. And his phone’s still ringing.

Until suddenly there’s a flash of colour and a shimmy, and Ally’s in the middle of the room, pausing for just a moment so that everyone can catch a snippet of her profile and admire the poetry of her movement as she turns away from us and snatches up the phone. Ally’s our photographer, a mad sexy bitch from Cape Town who once took seven perfect stills of Liam Gallagher pissing against a tree while she drove past him at 60mph, steering with her knees and leaning out of the window to get the shots. Today she’s wearing a tight blood red t-shirt with grey cargos, and as she leans over Jim’s desk there’s an inch-deep pink strip of her knickers on display along with some tantalising lines visible through the fabric of her trousers and I wonder what would happen if I went over there, fitted myself against her and conducted an investigation. Actually, I know what would happen, because it’s happened before. She wouldn’t be angry, but she’d firmly remove my hands, look at me reproachfully, and remind me about her husband, who’s a millionaire banker with a mansion in St George’s Hill and absolutely no appreciation of how lucky he is, the bastard.

“Hello, this is James Farquhar’s phone, Alison McNally speaking,” she says, in a deliberately posher version of her usual gravely, too-many-cigarettes, midnight-at-the-jazz-club Afrikaans accent. “No, it is quite impossible to speak to him, he is on sick leave, long term.”

There’s a quacking coming down the line, anxious and concerned. Another of his little old ladies, then—probably wants him to give a lecture at the Townswomen’s Guild or draw the Inner Wheel raffle. I tease him about them sometimes, his Hinge and Bracket fan club, and he tells me he’d gladly trade the lot of them for just one of the young lovelies he’s sure I’m seeing on the side. Which is a laugh, ‘cause the sly old rogue probably gets more action than I do. And anyway, I know he secretly feels a responsibility to them all—the pensioners and the vicars and the school kids doing projects, the local historians, all the people who want to look back on this place the way it used to be, when Jimmy Fucker was a kid and there were trees and orchards, before the tower blocks were built and the burger bars opened, when everyone knew everyone else and showed some respect, when old men could walk down the street and be sure they’d reach the far end of it without a trip in the air ambulance.

“Yes Miss Henderson, I am certain he would be delighted with a basket of fruit, it would be exactly what he would want,” Ally’s saying, gently disengaging from the old dear and hanging up. She turns and perches on the edge of Jim’s desk, checks again for an audience, and looks at me. It’s monologue time.

“Now here is something about this country Nicky I do not understand at all.” She calls me Nicky. No-one else does that, not even Mum. I don’t bother to answer, because her accent’s switched back to normal and I know she’s not looking to be interrupted. “This morning I answered your phone, because you were having a shit and I am a helpful person who does things like that. And there was a woman telling us to print a photograph of her new baby granddaughter. Do you know how old this grandmother is? I will tell you. She is 31. Does she have a man? Of course not. Does her daughter? Of course not. There are seven generations of them—seven—and do any of them? Of course not. Why is this allowed, Nicky? Why don’t they just take the babies away, give them to nice married folk who can’t have any of their own? In my country we would do that, and shoot the fathers too.”

Silence. I’ve worked with her a while, have had time to get used to this, so I hide a smile and wordlessly give her marks out of ten for content and delivery. Not so the Head Office types at the far end of the room. They all know her by reputation, of course—news like Ally travels fast—but exposure to the real thing has struck them dumb, their jaws dropping to the floor. She, meanwhile, is standing there like the cat that’s just eaten your last goldfish. But it’s typical Ally, she seems so unaware of the outrageousness of what she’s said that you can’t really be sure whether she means it or not. Probably she doesn’t, probably she’s just looking for an effect, but I don’t know—sometimes you can’t be sure with her. So I look in the diary, and sure enough it’s there as a pic job after lunch in her handwriting—“seven generations.” The address is depressingly familiar—a cluster of flats where Right to Buy never took off but Right to Steal Cars, Right to Receive Hand-outs and Right to Whinge About the Council Giving All the Houses to the Fucking Pakis all flourish. Oh, the fun of it.

It’s not really the sort of journalism I want to do, but it’s fairly typical for our paper, which doesn’t exactly specialise in setting the world alight. I stopped believing in Superman years ago, but I used to. When I carefully (and, if we’re honest, rather nervously) wrote “newspaper reporter” in the forms for the school careers interview, I already knew I wanted to do something that made a difference. I’d never heard of Woodward and Bernstein, but I knew all about Clark Kent. I didn’t much fancy the underpants-on-the outside bit, but I loved the idea of the crusading journalist righting wrongs. And, of course, I had a teenage crush on Lois Lane that was only exceeded by the one I had for that Blue Peter presenter in the tight jeans. So I entered my career with pencils eagerly sharpened in anticipation of uncovering financial skullduggery and government corruption. Instead, I found myself reporting on giant sunflowers, golden weddings and primary school fetes. It was a bit of a culture shock, really, and it took a fair bit of time before I got my head around how it all actually works. Perhaps there is a need for the heroic hack willing to go into battle on behalf of the little guy, but there’s nobody out there who’d be willing to pay his wages while he does it. And believe you me—there’s no such thing as the kindly indulgent editor who smiles tolerantly when one of his reporters disappears for a week in pursuit of a single story when there’s a whole paper to fill.

So that was that, and all my silly thoughts about making the world a better place slowly evaporated as the years passed by. It wasn’t just me, mind you. I’ve outlasted more do-gooders than I can remember—neighbourhood bobbies and Met Police sector inspectors, councillors and counselors, youth workers, volunteer co-ordinators, prospective Parliamentary candidates, Christian outreach workers, Young Offenders’ Institution governors, Sea Scout bosuns, Alpha Course leaders, hot-shot business angels, shit-hot headteachers, even a bloke who stood on a soapbox outside Tesco and read aloud from the Old Testament. He lasted three weeks before he got knocked cold by an accurately-thrown beer can and pissed on by a gang of laughing youths egged on by a teenage girl with shining eyes (according to the main witness, one of those blokes who collects the trolleys).

And it’s not as if our location exactly inspires, either. We inhabit a cheap and nasty office above a motor spares shop on the High Street, a single soulless room that manages to be both intimidatingly large and stiflingly cramped. The bound editions of our archives are stacked in a corner—neatly, because of the care and attention James Farquhar lavished on them—and the last three years’ papers are in individual piles along one wall for easy reference. Nothing can keep them tidy, there’s something in the molecular structure of old yellowing newsprint that makes its corners crease and its edges rip. We Blu-tak our holiday postcards to whitewashed breezeblock walls in a pathetic attempt to add colour and sit in front of a single giant window that leaks cold in winter and radiates a greenhouse intensity in summer. We do have the debateable pleasure of a view of the High Street, but no easy access to it, just a way in from an oily service road round the back that reeks of rubbish and piss. A skeleton staff—me to write the stories, Ally to take the pictures, Jim to lay out the pages and send them electronically to the main newsroom. Then there’s the Head Office types, an ever-changing rotation who base themselves here for a couple of days every few weeks and huddle together in their own noisy little clique—advertising reps, an office manager to deal with the administration, an editorial secretary because they think we can’t type for ourselves and now, since we lost Jim, a temporary sub editor. We never know who we’re going to get from one day to the next, only that they will inevitably behave with the crass superiority of western tourists among the unwashed natives, so after a while the three of us who call this place home stopped taking any real notice of them.

Given everything that happens around here, you might expect us to do a searing expose on teenage motherhood and life on the estates, or possibly launch an undercover investigation to track down the gang who just played football with Jim’s head, and if it was up to me we’d be right there, but that’s not really our style. We’re about feel-good news, fluffy words and pretty pictures to fill the spaces between the adverts. Sure, we’ll do tragic babies and health scares too—anything to jerk a tear or frighten you out of using your mobile phone—so we’re right here for you if you want to complain about how the country’s going to the dogs. I’ll write a crisp 250 words just like all the other crisp 250 words I ever wrote, and Ally will take a photo of you looking aggrieved in front of your vandalised play area, fly-tipped alley or rubbish-filled stream. And you’ll show the cutting to your neighbours and enjoy being the centre of attention for a while, but nothing will change, so when eventually you die your grandchildren will find it in a box of old photos and Christmas cards as they clear your house and they’ll know precisely what you’re complaining about, because it’ll still be exactly the same. Which is why mostly what we specialise in is unambitious, smiley nonsense: Easter bonnets, summer fetes, Hallowe’en face painting, and council grants for multicultural non-denominational mid-winter celebratory festivals. Can’t do the Nativity any more, of course—and can’t take photos of the little smiling kiddies, either, because the headteachers ban you in case dirty old men cut the pictures out and glue them to the backs of their toilet doors. What we’re here to do is paper over the cracks and paint a nice, happy picture of a nice, happy town full of nice, happy people, so that we can keep our nice advertisers happy, because happy advertisers hand over lots of nice money and we all get to keep our jobs. And isn’t that nice? Of course it is. Very, very nice. And that’s me for you. I’m here to make you smile.

The rest of this story is available, with many wonderful others, in the completed anthology