The man who marked both my careers
I suppose most of us have someone who has affected our professional lives more than any other person. Mine was a man called David Paull, whose influence has followed me across not one but two careers – and he died a couple of weeks ago. David was 83, so he’d had a good long life, and I hadn’t seen him for twenty years or so, but his death brought me up short, as if I’d lost some one really close to me.
David was the person who taught me almost everything in my previous career of journalism. I was one of a group of eight trainees taken on by the Eastern Counties Newspapers group in the mid-1980s and sent to Norwich for David to knock into shape. This he duly did, and it has to be said that some of the trainees didn’t like his methods, which they saw as excessively strict and nitpicking. In my case, though, I felt he was exactly what I needed.
To understand why, you need to know that the English State education system of the 1970s, which is when I spent most of my time at school, was strong on individual freedom and innovative methods but rather weak when it came to teaching the basics. There was a feeling that areas like English grammar were old-fashioned and off-putting for pupils: far better to allow them to express themselves and not worry too much about whether their ideas were correctly spelled or punctuated. So was formed a new generation incapable of spelling and with an extremely hazy idea of the grammar of their own language. Fortuantely, I did have one or two teachers who kicked against the new orthodoxy and provided me with enough grammar to get by, but I was one of the lucky ones. And then I went off to university and learned to write lengthy history essays full of paragraphs with long sentences packed with loosely linked subclauses. It was hardly the best preparation for being a journalist.
That’s what I decided to do, though, and somehow I persuaded the ECN group to take me on and send me on David’s course. On it, he shared the classes with a wonderful woman called Frances, who taught us shorthand and typing (and to whom I’m still eternally grateful for my ability to touchtype) and a rather dull man who taught us journalistic law. David’s subjects were public administration (how government works at all levels) and newspaper journalism, and it was the second of these that really made an impact on me. Not only did he teach us how to get stories – how to deal with people, how to interview them and how to collect information – he also taught us how to write them. He taught us, for example, that you had to write a story so it could be cut from the bottom if necessary: that meant it needed the most important information at the top. He taught us to use the information we’d collected to get the details right. And he taught us how to structure a story so that all the most significant details were included in a clear, concise piece of writing. That meant he pursued bad grammar and poorly expressed ideas (as well as factual inaccuracies) like a demon. He simply would not stand for woolliness or bad writing and if we committed these sins he was quick to point it out. How could we possibly become journalists if we weren’t capable of expressing ourselves?
He was right, of course. Some of us may have hated him for being such a stickler, but many have later thanked him for it, myself in particular. Because I not only passed all the exams that came at the end of David’s course, the following year, after some time at work, I came through the journalism Proficiency Test with flying colours, winning the prize for best interview and for best overall result that particular year. Later on, I ended up helping David mark exam papers in the additional role he played at the National Council for the Training of Journalists.
But his influence went far beyond journalism. Because when I’d decided to end that particular career, after moving to Catalonia, it was that solid grounding and my 15 years’ experience as a professional writer than convinced me, and potential clients, that I’d be able to make it as a translator. My belief was, and still is, that knowledge of foreign languages is only part of what’s needed to make it in translation. The other, and sometimes neglected, side of the equation is ability to write in your own language. And when I write in English; when I’m translating, editing or producing a post for this blog, I still find myself wondering what David would say about the sentence I’m constructing. Is it properly punctuated? Is it too short and dull? Is it too long and winding, so it’s in danger of becoming caught up in its own subclauses? Am I avoiding clichés like the plague?
The last time I saw David would have been in 1997, in London. I’d suffered a setback in my career but he’d still asked me to help mark a set of NCTJ exam papers. Before we got to work on these, there was the ritual meeting at the headquarters of the Newspaper Society in Bloomsbury Square to discuss marking criteria. I met David on the train down from Ipswich to Liverpool Street and we walked across London together (he refused to take taxis). As we strolled through the City, I voiced my concern that as I’d come down in the world of journalism (I was now a plain business reporter instead of the deputy news editor I’d been a few months before) I felt a little out of place with my fellow markers and who boasted much more successful careers than I was now ever likely to have. And, in uncharacteristically revealing mood, David taught me his last, and perhaps most important lesson. “What do you mean more successful?” he asked. “Do you think I’ve been successful? I was just a weekly paper editor for a while, but I lost my job and was lucky enough to be asked to run the ECN training course. But it’s hardly the big time, is it?” We were quiet for a time and then we went back to less sensitive subjects of conversation but his words stayed with me a long time. They made me think about professional life and careers in a new way, realising that the only opinion of them that mattered was mine. Success wasn’t what other people thought it should be, it was what I decided it was. That’s something I’ve tried to live by ever since and I can date my change of perspective right back to David’s comment. Another debt I owe to a great teacher who’ll be sadly missed.
Has your career been influenced by a particular person? I’d like to hear about him/her. Please leave a comment below.