Robin Livingstone recalls a lesson from the early days
Sorting room, Royal Mail HQ Tomb Street, Christmas time, 1985 or 1986. My first full-time job. Well, I say full-time – it was full-time as in eight hours a day, but it was seasonal and I’d be out on my ear in the New Year.
For a while I’d been doing TV and movie reviews for the Andersonstown News and getting the bus or train to be interviewed in the offices of provincial weeklies: New-castle, Lisburn, Banbridge. Lurgan. No luck.
And so my brief and inglorious career sorting letters and junk mail began. Two days in and on my way home I dropped into the Andytown News office at Owenvarragh Buildings to leave in my latest batch of light-purple prose.
Séamus Mac Seáin asked me what was this he was hearing about me working in the Post Office. I told him I needed a bit of coin for Christmas and he told me not to go back – to start the next day.
That was it. I can’t remember if I handed in my notice, or indeed if I got my two days’ pay. Now here I am looking back on 50 years of the Andersonstown News with the realisation – the oddly surprising realisation – that I’ve been here for two-thirds of that half-century.
Looking back, it wasn’t my elegant writing style or my nose for a story that convinced Séamus (who ran the show with his brother Seán, Basil McLaughlin and Seán Mac Aindreasa) that taking me on hadn’t been a bad call – it was something much more mundane.
Before computer-to-plate technology revolutionised the industry, laying out newspaper pages was a labour-intensive business. Copy was cut in columns from printed glossy paper with a metal ruler and craft knife and stuck to lined pages with cow-gum or wax; pictures were cut to size with the same adhesive and tools; stories were divided off with lines made by rolls of black tape of varying widths.
Graphics for ads were photocopied from specialist monthly booklets devoted to the commercial seasons: Santa Claus and reindeer at Christmas; leprechauns and pots of gold for Paddy’s Day; eggs and bunnies for Easter… I’d watch my new colleagues preparing the pages and when it came to locating those ad graphics it was organised chaos, only without the organised bit.
Over the years the store of booklets had lost its chronological integrity, to the extent that locating a particular image for a particular ad was a whirl of trial and error, with booklets being tossed around here and there as deadlines approached, every search deepening the small library’s mess. And so one Friday afternoon I spent about three hours fixing it.
I got down on my hunkers and began to put the booklets – scores and scores, if not hundreds – in seasonal order. And I laid them out in ordered piles underneath signs indicating each month. Then, I put up another sign, one that I knew was kind of precocious for a new-start: ‘Please return all booklets to their correct month after each use.’
I was nearing the end of my post-lunch labours when there was Seámus with another question for me. “What are you doing?” I told him and he considered the scene before him, nodded his head somewhat gravely and shook my hand. “That’s a great job,” he said.
The usual Friday evening bounce in my step in heading off for the weekend was a little more pronounced that day. Oh, and the booklets remained in order. I relate this seemingly unremarkable little tale because while it’s not going to be made into a Netflix series, it taught me a lot about what kind of place I was working in.
What was valued at the Andersonstown News above everything else was the simple but surprisingly uncommon will to get things done. Na habair é – dean é. Don’t say it. Do it.
They built a newspaper, I’d just taken the intitiative to tidy something up, But they liked that. These were men (look, it was the 80s) who between them knew how to get things done: initiate civil resistance; rebuild Bombay Street; start an Irish language community; launch the Andytown News.
And in its mission statement of providing a voice for a West Belfast community that was viewed with either suspicion or enmity by existing media and by the British state, the Andersonstown News was getting the job done before I arrived there.
And the parade of unforgettable and talented people that I’ve had the privilege to work with since I went AWOL at Tomb Street all those Christmases ago have kept that work going.
Here's to them, and here’s to the people who let us serve them by sharing their lives and stories with us, by buying and reading the paper, by doing business with us.
And here’s to the future.