By ANTON RIPPON
It is getting on for a year since the newly-appointed editor gave me the news: after 20 years, my freelance contract with the Derby Telegraph – Evening Telegraph when I started out – had come to an end. Budgets and all that. Being named Midlands Newspaper Columnist of the Year for 2017 meant nothing come 2019.
I have to admit that, apart from the loss of earnings and the possibility that the time would come when I would no longer be recognised in Tesco, I felt a surprising sense of liberation. No more Mrs Rippon thinking that I was staring out of the window when, actually, I was working.
Hritika is a remarkable young woman. She watched Premier League football on TV in India, thought that she would like to become a football journalist, discovered the Derby course, applied, was accepted, jumped on a plane to the UK, and is now in her third year
No more recycling match reports by the legion of former Derby sports writers from Wilf Shaw, through George Edwards to Gerald Mortimer. No more wondering if I had said all this before, ten years ago; and, if I had, would anyone remember?
One of my favourite cartoons is from that wonderful ‘Peanuts’ series by the late Charles M. Schulz. It shows Charlie Brown’s pet beagle, Snoopy, receiving a letter from a publisher to whom he has submitted a novel.
The letter reads: ‘Please find enclosed two rejection slips. One is for the book you recently sent us. The other is for the next book you write.’
Rejection: it’s the writer’s worst fear. Well, after writer’s block, which is when you can’t think of anything to write about in the first place. And when this inflicts a weekly columnist, it can be a terror. George Bernard Shaw tried it for a few years on The Spectator before giving up because, he said, he felt like a man standing under a windmill. Just when he’d dodged one sail, the next sail was bearing down on him … and the next and the next.
No more columns, though. What would I do now? I thought about what my old friend and occasional co-author Andy Ward, son of a former England wing-half and Derby County manager, was always quick to remind me: ‘When you’re a writer, you’re only ever one letter away from being a waiter.’
For the first time in 60 years I really would be unemployed. Reporter for the Derby paper, feature writer for the Nottingham Evening Post, freelancing for the Sunday Telegraph, running my own sports publishing business for two decades, then back to freelancing, mostly for the paper where, for me, it all began. Happily, a major book publisher took up four pitches, and since the column ended in April – three months’ notice either way was worked into my contract – if I’m honest, I’m a bit busier than I would like. But still …
All of which brings me to the point – why go straight there when you can take the scenic route? – of why I sat down to write this. I’ve just been interviewed by a University of Derby student, Hritika Sharma, who is studying football journalism. Hritika is a remarkable young woman. She watched Premier League football on TV in India, thought that she would like to become a football journalist, discovered the Derby course, applied, was accepted, jumped on a plane to the UK, and is now in her third year.
Steve Hall, a former Derby Telegraph editor and a man who I hold in the highest regard, takes part of her course, and suggested that we met because she wanted to talk with a football author. Hritika turned up with a video camera, and, in the course of the interview, I recalled the 2015 SJA annual meeting when our newly-elected president, Patrick Collins, told us that his had been an “absurdly fortunate” career.
I suppose being paid to write about sport does seem a rather preposterous way to earn a living. But then, as the newspaper world, particularly regionally, changes, ‘the toy shop’ is surely now one of the few departments that still has to be done the old-fashioned way. Going out on the job, actually being there to report events and interviewing people face to face. It is proper journalism.
Recently in the industry magazine Publishing, Jon Griffin wrote about the 18 months he spent as freelance news editor at the Reach plc title, the Burton Mail. Griffin, a former business editor of the Birmingham Mail, painted a gloomy picture of a target-driven newsroom where the electronic ‘Chartbeat’ monitor was all-powerful, and many stories were gathered off other people’s social media posts while “police Twitter feeds provided news of accidents, stolen cars, missing persons etc.” Gone were the old-style calls to police, fire and ambulance, with their human contact and potential for further tip-offs.
Sports journalists cannot function like that. In talking to Hritika, I revisited the 1992 book Game Day, a collection of the work of Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell – Boswell, there is a good name for a writer – between 1970 and 1990.
2019 ✔️ pic.twitter.com/wYKej0UGlt
— Hritika Sharma (@HritikaSharma_) December 4, 2019
He said: “The fun of writing a column about sports is that, much of the time, you aren’t really writing about sports at all. You’re writing about what might be called the commonsense ethics of everyday living. Games are about who won, who lost, and how. But they are also about what’s right, what’s wrong, and why.”
Boswell says that talking about sport is a good way of probing people, learning about them, judging their values. Are they generous, broadminded? Or are they envious and judgemental?
Much of the sub-text of sport is about morals. “A large part of a sportswriter’s job, although it is seldom acknowledged, is to present, as clearly as possible, the central characters and issues in what amounts to an ongoing national conversation about mores: how do we act and how should we act?”
You cannot do that by topping and tailing Facebook posts. So never underestimate the value of football, or most other sports which Boswell says, “with their artificial simplicity, their final scores, their winners and losers, prod us away from that sea of grey, at least for a while”.
Hritika Sharma and her contemporaries will work in a different world to the one I knew. Theirs will be a world of multi-media platforms, which is already mystery to me because the last piece of technology I fully mastered was the ball-point pen. Good luck to her, though, because sports journalism is surely now one of the least absurd ways of earning a living.