On the Record
An Irish Tale
By Maurice Neill
At the stroke of 10.00am the minister rose to his feet, cleared his throat and began to speak. Latecomers shuffled into wooden pews and sat down upon thin, worn cushions. One mouthed an apology but a whispered aside echoed in the empty church: “Bloody stupid time of the day to have a funeral.” The minister, coughed again, and restarted in solemn, Presbyterian tones. It was a poor turnout but then the deceased was not a religious man, outlived his wife and siblings and had no children. The family pews at the front were occupied by in-laws and the remaining seats by those long-retired with whom he had worked during a long and varied career. They looked round and wondered who would be next to feel a tap on the shoulder from the Almighty.
“John was one of Northern Ireland’s most respected and dedicated journalists,” the minister intoned. “His first newspaper was hand-written and published while he was still at school. His career took him from Belfast to Dublin, Manchester to London and back to his native city. He served as part of a parliamentary reporting team, as show business correspondent, transport correspondent and gossip columnist interviewing Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful and Dominic Behan. He covered the trial of one of the last men to hang, ‘rescued’ Jane Mansfield after her car broke down and found seven Paddy Reillys in Ballyjamesduff.”
The hymn singing started badly. Many simply mumbled or stared ahead in stoic silence. There was much stifled coughing and vigorous nose-blowing. At the end an elderly man rose to his feet and took a place at the lectern. “John would not thank me for a long eulogy. His maxim was simple: the maximum amount of information in the minimum number of words. He was a loyal friend, a reliable colleague and a dedicated professional who cared about the truth. He met his last deadline with the same dignity that he met countless others. An obituary will appear in tomorrow’s daily newspapers and become the last clipping in his file before it is moved to the library’s morgue. It deserves a place of honour.”
Outside in the sunshine old men in black overcoats shook hands and exchanged polite smiles as the hearse slipped silently out of the churchyard. They were the last of their kind, relics from the golden age of newspapers. Creatures of hot metal and dark ink, dial-up connections, copytakers and creed rooms; of fudges and blurbs, stand-firsts and leaders, leading, kerning and caserooms. Their lexicon, culture and code of conduct replaced by commercial necessity, ethical ambiguity, internet-hits and social media. But in the graveyard a new headstone awaited bearing the words: Forever on the Record.