Coffee and PC: The Best Bits 1

As threatened, the first in a very small selection of blog posts from the now defunct Coffee and PC that I'm actually reasonably proud of writing, and make sure didn't vanish into the ether when I pulled the plug. Someday, I may explain why. For now, make yourself and tea and settle down. More to come when I'm a) near a computer and b) not doing damage to my liver. TODAY THE NEWSPAPER: TOMORROW A NICE CUP OF TEA

I’m standing on a street corner on a rather cold March morning wearing nothing but a T-shirt on my torso, shouting out my name at the top of my voice. I’ve just been asked by a hippy to keep the noise down as I’m drowning out his band and exceptionally large and loud drum on the same corner. A man dressed as an Indian on roller-skates carrying a placard has just launched himself into the middle of a busy crossroads with scant regard for his own safety. He looks as if he’s about to fall over, which is no surprise really, as he only properly learnt to rollerskate a couple of weeks ago.

You could be forgiven for thinking I’d consumed vast quantities of cheddar before putting my head down on my pillow, and am now in the grip of a deep and eventful sleep, but this is no dream, this is a reality, a reality that’s been going on the best part of two weeks. To be more precise, it’s a job interview. The hardest job interview I will ever undertake in my life.

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To understand what I’m doing on this cold March morning it’s necessary to backtrack a couple of years to the point when I started my degree at Cardiff University. At some point in my pre/early teens I’d decided that I wanted to go into the media, with vague notions that this would manifest itself in the form of becoming a journalist. After brief dalliances with career options of actor and film director, both dismissed on grounds that I was slightly crap at both, I turned my attention back to journalism and the similarly named degree course at Cardiff University.

Visiting on an open day I’d been particularly impressed with the student media, which both appeared to have an impressive set-up and were reasonably well respected in the industry, and was particularly hooked on gair rhydd, the weekly student paper. Although what really swung it for me was the giant pool and snooker room on level three of the Students’ Union. I was getting my student priorities in order early.

In Freshers’ Week I duly made my way up to the gair rhydd offices and, as a shy new student found it so imtimidating that I only turned up to one meeting in the first year, approached the film editor with an idea for a feature, had it rejected out of hand and was so terrified I didn’t brave another meeting. My print journalism career appeared to have hit a brick wall in the form of scary section editors and my natural shyness. But media salvation was on hand in the shape of the student radio station – Xpress Radio.

Adam from my A Level Communications class was also at Cardiff and we naturally stuck together in the first few weeks. In fact he got on so well with the rest of my flatmates that he spent as much time in my kitchen as his own. Adam was also into his music and had made a beeline for the radio station at the Freshers’ Fayre, while I was still harbouring ambitions of becoming the chief news writer for gair rhydd. Nonetheless, I was still interested in Xpress and didn’t need much persuading to attend the welcome party. For some reason I put my name down for pretty much every different team, went back for another meeting, and another (neglecting the motorsport club that I’d paid £15 to join, so I was determined that I should at least get something out of the station – that was two nights’ beer money). I got the know other enthusiastic first years, including Karen who would become my housemate in the second year, as well as getting to know a lot of the station exec. Before long I was volunteering for late-night producer shifts for the FM broadcast sitting behind a desk taking the occasional phone call for a guy I’d never met before playing music that can best be described as a cross between Vangelis and Motorhead. I’d well and truly integrated myself into the station and I was loving it. Truly I’d arrived, and was convinced that radio producer was my chosen career.

That Easter I fired off letters to every radio station in my vicinity, which considering I came from Devon amounted about two and a half. One of them, Gemini FM, got back to me and offered me a stint in the newsroom. I was slightly disappointed as I’d really wanted to do producing, but I quickly got into the idea of using a dodgy tape recorder that should have been decommissioned years ago to record interviews with minor Westcountry celebrities and editing them. This was my latest epiphany – I was going to be a broadcast journalist and to prove my commitment I did extra weeks at Gemini, unpaid, for the love of journalism. That and I had sod all else to do for the summer holidays, and Devon is a bit of a quiet place for a 20-year-old living in the sticks.

In my second year I managed to wangle myself on Xpress Radio’s executive committee, not as Head of News, but as Head of Finance and Admininstration. In hindsight this was not the best position for me as not only are my mental arithmetic capabilities practically zero, but I also suffer from very mild dyslexia with numbers. In the exec elections in my first year I’d originally stood for Head of Music but lost out to Adam (who probably did a better job than I could have), but the guy who was elected Head of Finance, mostly on the basis he could do a really good impression of Kermit the Frog, had then decided that he didn’t fancy the job. Me, I was just happy to be involved in the running of the station, and even managed to get the finances in some sort of order. This wasn’t due to a previously-dormant ability for maths, rather I filed everything in its proper place, then took the books home at Christmas and got my mum to do the finance aspect.

In the meanwhile I’d taken tentative steps to reacquainting myself with gair rhydd. As our studio was next to their offices and the only toilets on the floor were in the Xpress complex, I’d got to know some of the new section editors, as well as the editor, Gemma Curtis, who would often drop in for a chat when she was working late and I was still producing Manners, the Vangelis-Motorhead DJ, who had moved into a more punk direction with his records, which still wasn’t really my cup of tea, but it was still good fun working on his show. Under Gemma’s encouragement I started turning up to a few meetings and wrote a couple of CD reviews, and I started dropping into the now less-intimidating newspaper offices to say hello to various people.

Towards the end of the year, though, the almost unthinkable was happening – I was losing interest in Xpress. I still wanted to stay involved, but there were a number of factors that were making me consider how involved I wanted to be. I’d been re-elected Head of Finance for my final year, not because I’d improved my Kermit impression, but because no other bugger wanted the job. I’d really wanted Head of News, but didn’t fancy running against another member of the news team, Kate, for the position. Plus I’d put myself in a distinctly awkward position of supporting the losing candidate in the Station Manager elections. This position wasn’t just elected by the Xpress members, it was a Students’ Union non-sabbatical position, and therefore had to be elected by the whole student body, and this year the two candidates had a major falling out when campaigning turned a bit nasty. When you consider the victorious candidate was my housemate Karen, you can understand why I was feeling a bit uneasy.

It wasn’t anything personal in my decision to support Elin over Karen, I generally believed Elin would do a better job. After all, living with, and studying the same course as Karen, I knew all her qualities and faults and I was worried she wouldn’t be a very effective Station Manager, even if she had been a very good Head of Producers. Looking back on it, this was probably more of a reason for her moving out than her desire to live closer to her boyfriend, but I didn’t see it like that, and we remained on good terms for the third year, but even so I was doubtful how involved I wanted to be at executive level, especially as some exec meetings were descending into petty bickering with alarming frequency. Plus, I was getting freelance work from Gemini FM, and wasn’t sure what more Xpress could offer me, bar keeping my hand in with news reporting. Soon after my re-election I passed my job over to an enthusiastic maths student called Mike McCarthy, who was somewhat better qualified than me for the position, given that he could actually read numbers, and started looking around for a new challenge.

On the campaign trail with Elin, I’d chatted occasionally to the successful candidate for gair rhydd editor, Tristan Thomas. His position was a sabbatical one, which meant he would be working full time for the Union as a director, but primarily as editor of the paper. Knowing Tristan vaguely, as well as a few other section editors, I thought this would be an excellent time to attempt to get properly involved in the newspaper, especially as it couldn’t hurt to have experience in print media, even if I still had my heart set on broadcasting.

I hadn’t really set out to edit a section in gair rhydd, but then I hadn’t really set out to get into broadcasting. I’d gone out to the pub for my friend Janine’s birthday and, as chance would have it, Tristan happened to be there. We got chatting properly and, as further chance would have it, I discovered that not only was he from Devon, Sidmouth to be precise, but was also an Exeter City fan. Up to that point I’d not met anybody else who supported the Grecians, so we spent a good hour and a half discussing the relative merits, or otherwise, of Kwame Ampadu as a creative midfielder and whether Steve Flack was an effective target man or just a lower-division version of Emile Heskey.

After several pints, the conversation turned to the newspaper and Tristan’s plans for it. Fuelled with Brains Bitter, I wasn’t shy in offering my opinion on the paper either, which, by and large, was along the same lines as Tristan. At some point I said I’d liked to get properly involved with the paper. Tristan replied that he had about half a dozen new sections that were still without editors and was I interested in them. After five pints this seemed like a brilliant idea and after briefly considering the Food section, I plumped for editing the Media section. Tristan then left as he was two hours late meeting his girlfriend, and I proceeded to get very drunk indeed. I awoke the next morning with a raging hangover, less dignity than the previous day and a newspaper section to edit.

As is my way with most new challenges I threw myself into editing the Media section with my typical enthusiasm, happy to plan several issues ahead. Media was a bit of a challenge as it was the first time the paper had properly run this type of section. It was one of many changes Tristan made. With the help of his deputy, Alex Macpherson, he scrapped the entertainment pullout and replaced it with a quarterfold lifestyle magazine with several new sections. He also redesigned the paper to make it more brash and tabloid-like, plus added several sections that hadn’t existed before, so there were a lot of new faces at the office. Some people ended up editing a section simply because they happened to walk into the office and ask to get involved when Tristan or Alex, who also had responsibility for editing the magazine, Quench, happened to be around and had unfilled positions on their mind. I was one of many who not so much a looked at an Apple Mac before, let alone trying to edit a newspaper page.

I slowly got to grips with the software (although looking back on some of my old pages, I still wince), and even got myself a team of five or six regular contributors. I enjoyed coming up with new ideas for media-related features and started to get to know most of the other section editors. There were about 50 of us in total, which meant my SIM card quickly ran out of space. I also organised a couple of socials, simply because Tristan was a bit busy and, well, Xpress had always had plenty of socials and I enjoy getting drunk. I wasn’t alone on the paper in that regard. One night out saw Riath, the half-Iraqi Sports editor thrown out of a bar for pinching the bouncer’s arse. Then again, Riath getting thrown out of bars wasn’t an uncommon occurrence.

The more time I spent at the paper, the more assorted section editors jokingly asked me if I was going to run for editor. When I started editing my section, sometimes taking up to eight hours to get one page done, this wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. But after a couple of months I was getting down to between an hour and two hours to do a page and was confident enough to start training a few of my contributors as potential successors for after when I graduated. Nonetheless it was generally accepted that Anna, one of the news editors, and Jamie, one of the music editors, would be contesting the position. But Anna was far from sure and just before Christmas decided she wasn’t going to run.

I’d frequently spend time throwing various ideas around with Tristan as to where I thought the paper should be going. I’d noticed Warwick’s student paper, The Boar, had a business section, which was completely useless to students who barely had enough to buy a greasy fry-up after a night out, let alone invest in the FTSE. Nonetheless, it struck me there were aspects of this that could be moulded into a Jobs and Money section. Having discussed this a few times with Tristan, he decided to go ahead and launch the section, with his girlfriend in charge. Nepotism got you far on the paper.

But Tristan was also giving out various hints suggesting that I could be a potential paper editor. He didn’t really rate Jamie as somebody who could take charge of both the newspaper and oversee the magazine. I wasn’t convinced I had enough experience compared to Jamie, who’d edited Letters before Music. But I certainly had some strong ideas as to where I thought both publications should be going, and Tristan wasn’t the only person suggesting the editorship to me.

I spent a lot of the Christmas holidays thinking about whether or not to run – it wasn’t something to enter into lightly. I had planned on applying to the broadcasting postgraduate course at Cardiff and, assuming I won the position, would require me postponing this for a year. It was a big commitment but in the end it was Janine, who had first provided the opportunity for me to get properly involved, who persuaded me to run with constant suggestions, both subtle and unsubtle, and when Jamie announced he wanted to concentrate getting onto the magazine journalism postgraduate rather than run for editor my mind was totally made up.

I wasn’t alone in running for editor though, as it looked that way at one point. Anthony Lloyd, Jamie’s co-editor on Music, decided at the last minute to run, as did Ben Wright, a sports writer who had no experience editing anything, and ran for reasons best known to himself. So rather than sticking up a few posters around campus and getting elected in favour of Re-Open Nominations (RON), I had a fight on my hands. Which is why, on that cold March morning, I was incurring the wrath of a hippy running for President of the Union, as well as doing my voice no end of damage.

Campaigning for a contested sabbatical or non-sabbatical position is a very surreal experience. The whole campus turns into a madhouse for two weeks while men and women in costumes and glitter strip down to their underwear to chase your vote. I’d like to say the students take time and care when electing their representatives for the next twelve months, but I’d be lying. Much like real politics, student union elections are like a glorified popularity contest with voters often choosing style over substance and paying practically no attention to policies. This meant your name and face had to be everywhere around the city and you had to be prepared to humiliate yourself in public to get that one potentially vital vote.

By the end of campaigning I was knackered. I was getting up and in for 8.30 most mornings (as somebody who did a course with seven hours a week, with only one lecture starting at 9am, this was a real shock to the body) to set up my publicity material around campus. In between lectures and editing my pages I was running into lectures of subjects I knew nothing about, annoying students in canteens with my insistence in talking to them about my ideas for the paper they probably didn’t care about, and generally running between every area of the University I could possibly be in. If I had time, I’d run home, microwave a meal, then run back into for the evening to spent several hours canvassing in the pub.

Spending every evening for two weeks in the pub might sound like a fairly easy life, but was probably the most tiring and difficult part of the day. At this point I was trying to engage increasingly drunk students into reasons why they should vote for me. Some were genuinely interested, others liked to point out what they didn’t like about the paper, which was fine as I could promise to put more three-legged windsurfing coverage in the sports section and they’d generally consider this enough to vote for me, regardless of whether I had any intention of adhering to this promise or whether it was a feasible promise. Others didn’t care, although occasionally feigned interest, while there were those who decided to take the proverbial Michael out of me. The last were the worse, because I couldn’t tell them to fuck off, as I’d dearly have loved to do on many occasions. If I lost my temper with them, chances were they’d tell several other students what an arsehole I was and I could lose votes, so I had to grin and bear any abuse that came my way. After these two weeks my admiration for politicians went up no end, as I to learned to lie and charm my way into winning votes.

Campaigning was hard work, but also had a lot of enjoyable moments, as well as several perks. For a start, as a candidate I got free entry into the Students’ Union nightclub every night for a week, although I didn’t really use this, as if it was difficult to get through to drunk students in a pub, it was even harder getting through to even drunker students in a noisy nightclub. Neither did I drink that much, although it was easily to see why some candidates got drunk every night – stress and temptation are not a great combination.

But then there was the time when one girl promised to vote for me on the basis that I looked like Clark Kent. Stupidly I didn’t get her number, which I still consider to be my greatest mistake of the campaign trail. It’s not everyday you get compared to Superman. Then there was the time I spent half an hour with one of the News Editors, Pete, trying too work out who best to weight down one of my campaign banners from his bedroom window. Eventually we stole his housemates shoelaces, threaded them through the bedsheet I’d converted into publicity material, and attached a can of ‘Shake and Vac’ to the bottom, which seemed to do the trick.

There were also some unexpected acts of kindness from assorted friends. Ed joined my campaign launch, which consisted of signing the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’ on karaoke, a stunt which surely lost me the vote of the music department. Vivienne often let me crash in her front room for half an hour, which was closer to Uni than my house, and kept me supplied to tea and snacks when I needed them. Kirsty, a girl who I’d once worked on project about Coca-Cola with, offered to wear one of my T-shirts for a week, Janine let me use her front room for campaign meetings and so on.

Even so, by the end of campaigning I was exhausted and just a little tetchy. I’d already snapped at my easy going housemate, Sarah, for no particular reason (Andy, my other housemate, was wisely keeping a distance from the whole charade). I was also paranoid that Ant and Ben had something clever planned up their sleeves, as I’d barely seen them on my daily excursions around university. When voting ended I was so relieved that I slept better than I’d done for several weeks, despite my nerves approaching the count the next day.

I’d like to say the count was a straightforward, quick and efficient process, but was drawn out beyond belief. Firstly the sabbatical in charge was, to put it kindly, borderline incompetent and, had he been organising a piss-up in brewery, would misplace the beer barrels. Secondly, one assistant returning officer had heard a rumour that Ben Wright had withdrawn and started crossing out his name on the ballot slips, was told he hadn’t, but accidentally put the spoiled papers in the valid pile, which meant there was a big discussion while those in charge debated what too do. This was potentially a case of electoral fraud and at one stage there was talk of re-running the election for my position. In my tired and stressed state this wasn’t the best news I could have received. Ant left the count, visibly crushed, while I went home and punched my sofa in frustration, managing to catch the only piece of wire hanging out in the process and severely mangling my hand. At that stage the whole thing was too much, and as I stood in my living room in tears, with Sarah attempting to bandage my hand, I announced I’d withdraw if they tried to re-run the election. There was no way I was putting myself through another two weeks of near exhaustion for a job. I had an interview for the postgraduate course – I could give up my editorial aspirations and get on with my life. At that moment my phone rang – it was the deputy returning officer telling me they’d reached a decision, were proceeding with the count and were nearly ready to announce my position. I immediately ran out of the house to the Union, trailing a blood-soaked and tear-stained bandage behind me. It was nearly over. I was almost beyond caring – it was just going to be a relief to have closure.

I’d imagined the moment of announcement in my mind several times. The result would be read out, myself and Any would shake hands, declare the best man won, and head down the pub to mull over things. I’d got on very well with Ant during the campaign, and despite the rivalry, there was never any bitterness during the two weeks and we were still talking. Sadly my utopian vision was not to be, as Ant was on a train to Bristol to review a Graham Coxon concert for Quench and my hands were not in a state to be shaken anyway.

I took my seat in the count room, as the officials finalised the totals.

“I can now announce the result of Media Officer.”

I closed my eyes and stopped listening. The totals were a complete blur. I forget everything until the final line:

“And therefore I hereby announce Gary Andrews elected as Media Officer.”

I opened my eyes. Candidates for other positions were learning over to shake my hands, no matter how bloody they were. I blinked, as the announcement sunk it. I’d done it. I’d bloody done it. The two weeks weren’t in vain. I was a fucking newspaper editor for a year. I clenched my fists in a rather embarrassing Tim Henman-style, thanked everybody, and left the room. I would have shouted in joy, but I was desperate for the toilet, so my first act of celebration was to run to Xpress Radio and have the most satisfying piss of my life.

In one of those strange co-incidences, Xpress was doing an FM broadcast at that point and the DJ was Manners, the Motothead-Vangelis-Punk enthusiast. After broadcasting news of my victory to approximately five listeners in Cardiff, I made my way to the gair rhydd offices and proceeded to misappropriate their phones to call everybody in my address book, starting with Ant, who couldn’t hear his phone.

I’d like to say there was a big celebration with my campaign team that night, but everybody was even more tired than I was, and the majority of them had deadlines looming. Nonetheless, several of us made it down to Wetherspoons for a celebratory drink. I was determined to go clubbing and succeeded in dragging along Jasmine, an ex-girlfriend of a friend who I’d only known for a two months at most and a friend of hers called Squirrel whose brother I’d gone to secondary school with. It may have been a small number of us celebrating until the early hours, but that didn’t matter. Naturally we all got hideously drunk. Naturally I can’t actually remember much past midnight. I woke up the next morning with a raging hangover and a new job. I was an editor, much like the year before, but this time I was in charge of the whole fucking lot. I permitted myself a celebratory ibuprofen, smiled, and started planning for my year ahead.