So, Britain’s best-selling red-top is back in the blue camp again. I can’t say I was particularly surprised when The Sun’s 12 year love-in with New Labour came to an end the other week. Maybe it’s because my political conscience first rolled off the production line during the 1980s, but I’ve always struggled to think of the Soaraway One as anything other than a vicious little Tory rag. For me, at least, its recent volte-face was a bit like the Angling Times announcing a return to fishing-themed coverage after a decade or so spent focusing on musical theatre.
I’ve never much liked The Sun, but I don’t expect that revelation will come as a tremendous surprise to anyone who knows me and/or reads this blog. I don’t really fall into its target demographic, you see. It’s not pitched at those of us lumbered with left-leaning tendencies, celebrity tat allergies and a phobia of xenophobic homophobes. Mind you, this probably won’t give the Murdoch clan too many sleepless nights.
In The Sun’s defence, however, at least it’s not the Daily Mail. I may dislike The Sun, but I really do hate the Daily Mail almost as much as it seems to hate benefit cheats, asylum seekers and Jonathan Ross. That probably won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone, either. Still, I shouldn’t just pick on the obvious targets. While I’m on the subject, I detest the Daily Express, despise the Daily Star and wouldn’t eat chips out of most of the broadsheets, either.
These paper prejudices have been with me for years. They weren’t the result of some misspent life of political activism, a disastrous career on Fleet Street or even a Media Studies evening course at the local FE College. No, they have their roots in something far more mundane than that.
It was my paper round wot did it.
Between 1983-1986 I delivered newspapers for Kirton’s newsagents on North Birmingham’s Kingstanding Road (as Spinal Tap’s Marti DiBergi once said: “Don’t go looking for it, it’s not there anymore.”). The shop was originally owned by 1920s Aston Villa footballer Billy Kirton (because that’s the sort of thing that retired footballers did in those days), but Kirton died the year I was born and by the time I worked in his old shop it was run by a man called Harry Chapman. Harry was a stocky, jovial, middle-aged guy with Brylcreamed hair and one of those expressive, character-rich faces you don’t see so much of nowadays. He also had a penchant for scatological humour and was something of an expert in blown-raspberry misdirection. This was a variation of the old ventriloquist trick of throwing one’s voice, except it involved a simulated fart noise. It could get quite embarrassing, especially when the shop was crowded and the raspberry got misdirected in my direction.
Needless to say, he’ll always be my favourite boss.
Harry’s shop was a traditional newsagents store that probably hadn’t changed that much since Billy Kirton’s day. It had that old newsagents’ smell of newsprint and tobacco, and as you entered the store the counter to your left sold papers, mags and fags while the counter to your right sold chocolate bars and sweets from jars. Harry sold the things that newsagents’ shops used to sell and didn’t feel compelled to diversify. That’s something else you don’t see so much of nowadays. The shop was something a focal point for the community. Either that, or Harry liked to spend hours gossiping with his customers. He was, as they say, good people and I miss him a lot.
This was my old paper round route, courtesy of Google Maps:
Looking at it now, it vaguely resembles a stylised number 6 or perhaps one of those magickal ‘sigils’ that occult practitioners use to manifest their will or select this week’s winning lottery numbers. I didn’t notice this back then, of course, as I rarely looked at my paper round from a satellite.
Harry would often tell me that blue-eyed soulster Steve Winwood – former Spencer Davis Group member, former Traffic vocalist and former resident of nearby Atlantic Road – used to be one of his paper boys and that I had inherited his route. Obviously, as a neophyte music fiend, I got a certain kick out of walking in the footsteps of the guy who played Hammond organ on Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile. But there was always a nagging doubt about the authenticity of this yarn, possibly due to the fact that Harry was a consummate wind-up artist. Part of me thinks that his other paperboys were led to believe they were doing the former paper rounds of Ozzy Osbourne, Simon Le Bon and the Electric Light Orchestra.
In any case, as I hauled my big orange bag of news through those mean suburban streets – possibly whilst whistling along to the chorus of ‘Back in the High Life Again’ – I’d often read my cargo, and as copies of The Sun made up the bulk of my morning deliveries that tended to be what I read the most. To give you some kind of political context for all of this, my stint as a paper boy coincided with – amongst other things – the Miners’ strike, the 1983 General Election, the arrival of cruise missiles at Greenham Common, the US bombing of Libya and the Wapping dispute. Being a sensitive wee lad, the Sun’s brash and biased coverage of these events would often annoy the damn bejesus out of me. I was young, you see, so I still clung to the daft notion that journalism should at least try to be impartial and objective: it shouldn’t be telling people what to think, who to hate and how to vote.
So, reading The Sun on that paper round helped plant the seeds for many of the opinions – and possibly prejudices – that I hold to this day. It wasn’t just politics and journalistic ethics: my sense of alienation from an increasingly celebrity-obsessed culture can probably be traced back to the fact I was delivering newspapers when EastEnders was first launched. There was an unprecedented media feeding frenzy surrounding the new soap – doubtlessly aided and abetted by the BBC’s publicity department – and The Sun seemed to be Fleet Street’s worst culprit. There was a period when EastEnders scoops occupied The Sun’s front page on an almost daily basis, while the really important stuff happening in the world got relegated to page two, page four or a crossword clue. I was young, you see, so I still clung to the daft notion that journalism shouldn’t be about the private lives of actors in serialized TV dramas. Or, for that matter, whether or not the popular light entertainer Freddie Starr ate somebody’s hamster.
To be fair, it wasn’t just The Sun. Broadsheets annoyed the hell out of me, too, because the people who read them invariably had tiny letter boxes. This seemed to be one of those axiomatic laws of life – not unlike the way in which people with excessively loud car stereos always have an exceedingly crap taste in music – and it caused me no end of grief on Sunday mornings.
And, of course, my hatred for the Daily Mail can probably be traced back to my paper round, too.
There weren’t many Daily Mail readers on my route – it wasn’t that sort of area, at least not then – but one house I delivered it to had a dog, and that dog wanted to kill me. This wasn’t a pit-bull, a Rottweiler or a wolf; it was just a humble terrier, but it was a vicious little bastard and I strongly suspect it was a descendent of Cerberus, the fearsome multi-headed mutt of Greek mythology. Every morning, as I approached the house, I’d hear its savage YAP-YAP-YAP-YAP-YAP-YAP, like some manic saliva-oiled machine-gun. As I made my way up the driveway – squeezing my way between a perfectly-polished car and a perfectly-pruned hedge – its bark would get fiercer and more intense. Finally, as I tried to push the paper through the letter box, I’d see him through the frosted window of the porch – bolting toward me, leaping in the general direction of my face then crashing, nose-first, into the double-glazed pane that stood between us.
On second thoughts, maybe its ancester was Wile E. Coyote.
In any case, this merry dance continued on a daily basis for a couple of years until one fateful Wednesday morning. As I approached the Daily Mail readers’ home – probably after reading their paper – I noticed something odd. I could hear the rustle of leaves in a tree, the sound of birdsong and even the electric hum of a milkfloat, but I couldn’t hear the dog. Maybe they’d gone on holiday and forgot to cancel their papers, I thought. Back then, that sort of thing often happened in my line of work.
Cautiously, I folded the newspaper and squeezed my way between the perfectly-polished car and the perfectly-pruned hedge. If they’ve gone on holiday, why is the car still here? I thought, with not-quite Sherlockian shrewdness.
And that’s when I head the growl from underneath the car.
And lo, the diabolic creature did sink its ghastly and unflossed teeth into the right calf of the unsuspecting young paperboy. “Vile miscreant!” yelled the lad, as he stumbled out of the driveway and onto the pavement, a geyser of blood exploding from his lower leg. Once, twice and even thrice did he try to kick the hound loose but – alas! – to no avail. The saliva-spewing hellbeast did lock its jaw and gnaw ever more fiercely on the hero’s lower leg, presumably in search of his marrowbone. For many days and nights this struggle betwixt boy and beast did continue until the hero – finding strength from some hitherto unchartered internal terrain – did raise his big orange bag of news and bring it crashing down on the muzzle of his cowardly assailant. The now slack-jawed beast released its awful grip, scuttled across the pavement and became entangle in the shrubbery of a nearby perfectly-pruned hedge. Seizing this opportunity, the lad unleashed a torrent of blows to the skull, spine and tail of the creature…
Or at least that’s how I told it to my schoolmates the next day. The truth, of course, was a bit more mundane. The Daily Mail readers’ dog did indeed hide under a car, bite my leg and refuse to let go. I did stumble out of the driveway and onto the footpath and tried to kick it loose. I didn’t think of hitting it with my big orange bag of news, though, but did try to swat it loose with the rolled-up newspaper I was supposed to be delivering to its owner. At this exact point the dog’s owner came out of her house, saw me fighting with her dog and tried to brain me with the rolled-up newspaper that I’d delivered the previous day. Like I said, more mundane.
Eventually, the dog let go and I went on my way. That evening I had to go to my GP and get a tetanus jab and, as a result, missed an episode of Star Trek (a big deal for me at the time). Ever since then I’ve hated the Daily Mail.
Of course, I wasn’t aware of Pavlov back then.