This was my final column for The Journal. I’ve done it every single week for the past four years. I think I didn’t take a break because I thought they’d realise they didn’t need it if it wasn’t there. They don’t of course- these things are a luxury when local papers find it hard enough to pay journalists. They did say I could carry on without pay- but I think I can use the free time to write things for my PhD and surf the net looking at Jeremy Corbyn’s photos of manhole covers.
THE LAST COLUMN
I first came to Newcastle from Bradford as a twenty three year old apprentice radio journalist for Metro Radio in 1998. I drove an unreliable Rover Metro called Edwina and listened to “Garbage” and “Catatonia” cassettes at high volume. I fell in love with Tynemouth after glimpsing the Priory’s ruined arches, the two piers’ welcoming arms and rented a studio flat on Percy Park that I could only sort of afford on my ten grand a year wages.
I was older than some twenty three year olds because I’d lived on my own since I was sixteen after escaping from my dysfunctional family- and I was younger than some twenty three year olds for the same reason. I’d learned that you couldn’t rely on anybody, it was best to look after yourself, keep your head down and not draw too much attention. Still, to my surprise, the young team of journalists at Metro became a sort of family. Me, Simon, Julia, Lisa, Stuart, Moira and Alison were left to ourselves to dig out news stories while DJs broke down and managers shouted at people and talked about money and advertising. I still hadn’t told my own story- even to myself- but between us we told the stories of lottery winners and children’s home refugees, blue carpet artists and fruit and veg stall campaigners, IRA fugitives and wannabe pop stars.
A young management chap whose greatest achievement since seems to have been arranging the product placement on Hollyoaks, terminated my apprenticeship because he said my radio voice wasn’t good enough and I was exiled for six months to Rutland (the smallest radio station in the smallest county). I came back to Newcastle with my newly trained voice but, after another of the implosions commercial radio stations are prone to, I left to Manchester where an American radio consultant told me I couldn’t read my own news bulletins because listeners would get confused if there were two women at once on the breakfast show. Like a boomerang, I came back again to the city where I still sensed I could use my voice one day, open my mouth as wide as the Tyne’s.
It happened first with poets. Another North East family. This one were lyrical and passionate and political and committed (Some should probably have been committed, but that’s poets for you). On stage with the Poetry Vandals and many more. While the ukulele players strummed at the Cumberland Arms and the Tyne flowed by, we grabbed the microphone and spoke directly to audiences with beers in their hand. I finally learned to rely on other people and collaborate with them in getting others to raise their voices too. It was the mid noughties and,though we (It was definitely “we” now) didn’t get the City of Culture, there was arts money for schools and workshops and, imagine, you could earn more as a poet than a journalist. Encourage kids in schools to follow in your footsteps. “It’s about finding your own way of saying things” I said to thousands of them “Then follow a creative path”.
After the coalition, that money, those opportunities began to dry up. I was lucky- my voice somehow fit in places like Radio 4, then The Journal. I spoke up about the brilliance of North East culture and scenery and the Great North Run and out against the shutting down of steel, benefit sanctions and the inequality of money given to Northern councils. Plus a topic I returned to again and again in my columns over the last four years- how young people have fewer chances to make it, how Northern accents and voices aren’t heard enough or represented enough in the media or in the corridors of power. It’s something I know a lot about.
Local newspapers can still be what my journalism tutor Richard Horsman said they should be; “A voice for the little people who don’t have a voice”. I’ve been glad to have one here for the past four years. To learn more confidence in my opinions, to look at the bigger picture of lives ebbing and flowing like the Tyne, feeding into the North Sea, subject to the droughts and rains of commerce and culture from elsewhere.
It’s a space I knew couldn’t last forever, at this time of austerity and online competition, but I hope I can carry on finding places to speak which are as welcoming as the North East has always been to me. I also hope that, supported by their readers, local media can still tell the stories of those that need them telling and give voices to those who don’t have them. Thank you for listening to mine.