You know how some writers shove a manuscript in the back of a drawer, convinced that it’s worthless drivel, then return to it years later and discover that it’s actually bloody brilliant and it secures them a six figure advance with a major publisher…
I’ve just had the opposite happen. I’ve spent the last ten or so years convinced that my student journalism days were golden, that I had spent my time at university effortlessly churning our several charming and original pieces of writing every week; from hilarious reviews to insightful interviews and ground-breaking news stories.
Sadly, when I recently unearthed a box full of old Student papers and peeled apart the curling, yellowing pages to read my first attempts at a writing career, it turned out that they were nearly all crap.
The Edinburgh Student has some fairly illustrious graduates. Past writers and editors include Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, and Lord Steel. More recently – when I was there – some of the regular faces in the Student offices included Helen Pidd, now the Guardian’s Northern Editor, Alistair Gray, who is now a reporter at the FT, and Chris Page, who is a senior broadcast journalist at the BBC.
And then there’s me. Sat at my dining room table writing DorkyMum. Ah well…
Many, many fun things came as a result of my time with Student. When a few of my colleagues set up Fest – a reviews newspaper that is published during the Edinburgh Festival – I was taken on as a reviewer, then as the Books Editor, and then eventually, post-DorkySon, as Kids Editor. I wrote for a pop culture website – sadly now defunct – called Robot Fist. I secured an internship at the Observer, and spent a slightly lonely but very educational few weeks there during university holidays.
But, more importantly, I made some great friends and shared some great experiences. We were inundated with free gig tickets, CDs and books – a real perk for a ramshackle group of skint students. We interviewed minor local celebrities, and 80s popstars who were doing the student union circuit, until we suddenly recruited an incredibly well connected postgrad student and started to feature people like Alan Rickman and Kenneth Branagh. And, of course, we enjoyed a genuine glow of satisfaction walking around campus and seeing hundreds of students reading the newspaper that we had worked so hard to pull together.
I started off as a lowly writer, and then became a section editor, which meant doing page layout on a creaky old Mac in our basement office. Eventually, after a couple of years, I became editor of the whole paper along with my friend Alan. It was always a job shared between two people, but even so, it took up a good 50 hours a week, on top of your degree.
Among other things, editing meant staying up throughout the night every Monday to get the paper ready for sending to the printers; checking every page for typos, making sure the pictures weren’t too pixellated and the features weren’t too inflammatory, placing all the ads, and finally emerging, blinking, from the office about 4 or 5am, just as it was starting to get light.
Sugary snacks, fizzy drinks, and the occasional bottle of cheap wine fuelled the weekly all-night editing sessions. They were both exhausting and brilliant fun, although Alan and I had, in our wisdom, decided to paint the walls of the office blue and red, which didn’t really help when middle-of-the-night, trippy, tired hysteria set in.
We also held two weekly meetings where we would gather together all the writers and section editors – one was to plan for the next paper, the other was to look over the previous week’s edition page by page, congratulating new contributors and apologising for the inevitable mistakes (I think our highlight was a front page story covering a visit to the university by Princess Anne, accompanied by a photo of the recently deceased Princess Margaret. Oops.).
On reflection – especially after re-reading my own pieces the other week – I think the whole point of student journalism is that it’s where you make your mistakes and learn from them. Sometimes they are small mistakes, like inserting unnecessarily smutty jokes into photo captions, or starting an ill-advised column called Leching at Lecturers… And sometimes they are larger mistakes that land you with a lawyer’s letter. That only happened
once twice though.
Words on a page can have such deep, far-reaching consequences, and I remain very grateful that I had a few years working at Student to help teach me that. Oddly enough, the only feature I wrote ten years ago that I was still able to read last week without cringing was a comment piece about the importance of newspapers in our lives, where I stated my sincere hope that even in the age of the Internet there would remain a place for them.
Student still appears to be going strong – and has in fact been making the news itself this week – so I think that for now at least that place does remain. I know that for the current editors the lawyers’ letters and late nights will be taking their toll, but I hope that ten years from now their time at Student is something to smile about. A good memory. Another story.
This is the last weekend for making nominations in the MAD Blog Awards. Last year I was chuffed to pieces that your support saw me end up as a finalist in the Best New Blog category. If you’d like to see DorkyMum nominated in another category this year, such as Best Blog Writer, you can do so on the MADS website here. Thank you so much for your support xx