Old Newsrooms

Old Newsrooms

Time was when every newspaper had its own stable of colourful characters who enlivened and adorned the atmosphere of newsrooms with professional panache and outrageous antics. As one who has had a merry run in a varied and unrestrained journalistic career, both here and in overseas journals, I have encountered my share of the most improbable personalities who ever put pen to paper.

But for sheer audacity, ebullience and charm none could have matched the irreverent cluster of newspapermen who strode the expansive corridors of Lake House with a haughty vivacity. But that was in the mid-sixties and late seventies, a phase in the profession which many regard as the ‘Golden Age’ of Sri Lankan journalism.

Warm and witty memories of the great journalists of the place and period will obviously be etched in the minds of those surviving ‘naughty knights’ of the press. The old daily ‘Observer’ (now defunct) and ‘Sunday Observer’ then were peopled by a bunch of wiseacres and buffoons, many of who became immortalized in the annals of newspaper folklore.

Actually, there was never a dull moment in the newsrooms even after everyone stretched themselves out on chairs and desks after beating stressful deadlines. Following a short rest during post-deadline calm many would be pacing the corridors looking to let off steam. The place was always playful and wildly alive. Everyone was a willing foil in this madcap menagerie which was bursting with energy fun and passion that was allowed free rein.

Yet, we the wordsmiths who forged out the best for our readers, were often called upon to perform delicate surgery on badly written copy and sheer butchery on the more horrendous contributions. It goes without saying that we the surgeons of the written word minded every other person’s language but our own.

Some of the best, most colourful expletives had been fashioned by bored and frustrated journos of the time. Yes, we were quite a breed apart. And we conjured up the more exotic abuse while prowling the ‘stone’ (pre-production line) to exorcise those beastly little printer’s devils. By this time one was assailed by myopic eye strain and it often became difficult to spot the most obvious faux pas even when the font was staring you in the face in all its immense 60 point glory.

Newsrooms as we knew them then were loud places where journalists yelled across the floor, where phones rang incessantly, where reporters ran up and down the corridors and the roar of raucous laughter shook the building to its very foundations. And when the crush of deadline came, the staff swarmed around, expletives were unleashed like cannonades and pandemonium reigned as the clock ticked down to zero hour.

Their denizens were swaggering with certitude, yet sometimes endearingly insecure, cynical but inextinguishably idealistic. Many were loud, cocky and rowdy. The newsroom radiated energy at a near sexual level. Typewriters clattered, teletype machines buzzed and phones rang incessantly. Reporters hectored sources over heavy, old-fashioned Bakelite dialling phones with hopelessly twisted cords. News editors and desk heads yelled. Liquor bottles leaked from desk drawers as cigarette butts smouldered in ash trays.

Everything happened at a hectic pace. The editorial was a study in personalities. It was full of diverse faces, old faces and young but all exuding character. All around were both enemies and friends. Usually we worked together for the common end. No one came into journalism or a newsroom in those days unless they had enough of an ego to fend for themselves and to fight battles. Shrinking violets in this game got trod upon.

They say it’s the adrenaline that kept it all going. Every day, this place called a newsroom brought together the thrill of the hunt and a race against time. And the language dear reader, was atrocious, to say it was outrageously smutty would be an understatement.

There was a lot of badinage thrown around and juvenile japery appeared to be the order of the day, every day. We had quite a few sharpshooters notorious for shooting rubber bands at their colleagues. Crumpled paper balls and paper clips were used as handy missiles. Ashtrays and heavy lead paper-weights came in handy when tempers got out of control. Murder and mayhem were frequently in the air and expletive-filled newsroom scuffles and fisticuffs were everyday occurrences.

Yet, no newsroom possessed such a stable of cuss-lords who were all unrivalled in their range of obscene curses and oaths in an environment peopled by a bunch of versatile opponents in the art of filthy vituperation

Ah, the good old days! At any given moment there arose an everyday battle of diatribes combined with the thrust and parry of sabre-tongued quips and repartee. The flash and ring of wordplay flew like sparks from fencing foils and nothing was held sacred. The invective bordered on criminal defamation as parental antecedents were vilified in the most shocking way imaginable. Pranksters letting off steam and the duelling of witty repartee were the order of the day.

But a story about an actual duel with deadly weapons actually became a reality when the animosity between a duo of veterans continued to resurface at the Press Club. One was nicknamed the Duke and the other Gompa G. That was when a newspaper editor arranged for a knife-fight between two adversaries to settle a long-standing score. The opponents were positioned at the opposite ends of the bar and were armed with razor-sharp steak knives.

Who could ever forget the brash, blustering Duke a hard-bitten newsman who used to prowl the newsrooms terrorising everyone who dared cross his path. He was obnoxious, crude, profane, irreverent and blasphemous. Gompa G on the other hand was an eccentric who frequently flipped his lid when provoked.

As the Press Club regulars and their guests looked on in amusement perceiving a feigned drama, the adversaries glared at each other with murderous concentration.

At the editor’s signal the Duke advanced gingerly on his quarry grinning like an idiot imagining it was only a simulated cameo. That was until the drink-crazed Gompa came charging at him with a murderous roar, clearly intent on homicidal mayhem. The Duke losing his nerve dropped his weapon and uttered the most fearful screech and fell to his knees quivering with self pity.

Whatever their faults and virtues, old-style newsrooms possessed a character of both old world charm and derring-do. Along with the intensity came a rumpus-room collegiality backed up by hard work, all-professional skill and barely disguised altruism. It was a place of noise and laughter and laxity. To use the most basic words, it was all riotous fun. [Gaston de Rosayro — gdgasross@gmail.com] (dailynews)

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