I’ve been writing many letters today for which exclamation marks have been arguably necessary but still gone unused.
The test of any new hack is Dog’s Dicks and the Death Knock. One is easier to get used to than the other but the former, when screamed about across a newsroom or down a phone, can be more stressful.
Dog’s dicks, if you haven’t guessed, are exclamation marks. You’re taught the joy of these in primary school: how they can make your words shout. In secondary school they are thought to give words urgency. Even in college you might use then in advertising or in political posters.
But Priest Marries His Own Son could be even more ambiguous with a dog’s dick. While ‘woman in sumo wrestler suit assaulted her ex-girlfriend in gay pub after she waved at man dressed as a Snickers bar’ would be more ridiculous with one.
You get the idea. A lack of initial confidence, though, can lead a trainee to think any story can be sexed up with a dog’s dick. Once on a paper you need to learn quickly that if you need an exclamation mark then you haven’t chosen the right words. You will learn this because this is what the editor is likely to yell at you.
“If I see one more dog’s dick I am going to scream,” the editor yelled at me repeatedly for my first few weeks.
“You will be if I see one more dog’s dick! If you need a dog’s dick then you haven’t used the right words in the first place!”
“I don’t under-”
“Exclamation marks. Knock it on the bloody head with all the exclamation marks. Girl wins national reading prize at local school is boring with or without a dog’s dick.”
I’d been pleased with that story. It had everything: schoolgirl, nice photo, literature, involvement of the community, interest of local school, potential for grannies, uncles, aunties, and so on to buy the paper. Also, my dog’s dick was genuine excitement for the kid.
The story came into its own for my editor a year or two later when she was killed in a hit-and-run. He suddenly acknowledged that the photo on file was “moving” and the fact that she had won a national reading prize “showed she had a promising future ahead of her”.
I was inevitably sent on the Death Knock: My first.
“You know the family,” my editor said. “That’ll make it easier for you.”
I wasn’t convinced. I’d met them once at a school celebration and here I was popping up with my pen and pad again, this time on the worst day of their lives.
“Get there while the body is still warm,” Barry told me. He was a gentle, charming and considerate man but had been a journalist long enough to know this reality. “They’re more likely to talk to you if you get there early on.”
I drove to their house, just a few streets from the school she had attended, and waited outside in the car. I could see movement inside, people milling about, but the house was silent. I took a deep breath, got out of the car and found myself walking towards the front door.
“Imfromthelocalpaperandwantedtotalktoyouaboutyourdaughter,” I said before their front door was even fully open. The dad looked so sad I though I might cry. “I’d like to write a story for you daughter to, perhaps, help the police in getting witnesses to come forward and -”
“Come in,” he said, managing a small smile. “I remember you from the school. The reading prize. Come in.”
My editor had a point. This was not what I’d expected. I followed him into the living room. He pointed at a chair for me to sit down, I turned towards it and there was the local priest. He was not as welcoming. He looked like Dot Cotton chewing a wasp. Polite “hellos” were exchanged and I sat down.
The family spoke to me willingly, openly. They told me all about their daughter and gave me photos to use in the newspaper, alongside those we already had. Then they went to make me a cup of tea.
“Do you think this is entirely appropriate?” The Priest had a slight Irish lilt and the look of a man who could punch me given half the chance.
“The police are still looking for witnesses, a story could help- ”
“Don’t give me that shit.” I was still naive enough to be surprised by a Priest swearing, this soon passed. “You might fool them with your effing codswallop but what you’re doing is wrong.”
“I genuinely think it might help.” I could feel myself bristling. I was no longer embarrassed to be there. I felt I had every right. I was on a mission, working to find witnesses to assure whoever committed this heinous crime was punished.
“You might convince yourself, you might convince them but I am not convinced.” He was hissing through clenched teeth, his eyes darting to the kitchen door to check they weren’t coming back.
The dad eventually returned with a tray of tea and biscuits and my interview continued. At the end he said, “Thank you. It was great to be able to talk about her and remember all she has done.”
“Thank you for talking to me,” I said, with a quick look at the Priest which I hoped wasn’t too smug.
I soon learned that people do like to talk to journalists about their lost loved-one, be it a dead cat, husband, child or friend. Over the years I have received phone calls and letters from people I have interviewed thanking me both for listening and writing about their loved one.
I also learned that Priests were never going to see it this way.
Money I have: still 9p
Number of letters I have emailed: 5
Job interviews I can’t attend: 1 – more to come on this