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copytakers

IT happened more than three decades ago, and the memory of it has not dimmed with the passing of years.

I was in a press box in some football ground one late winter's night, trying to phone over a report of the game to a newspaper down south. The phone line was engaged for ages, and when I finally got through it was perilously close to deadline. "Where have you been? The sports desk has been screaming for this copy for almost an hour," were the copytaker's opening words.

Perhaps a quick word of explanation is required here. This was an era when reporters who were out on the road phoned the office with their copy. Today, we simply use laptops with wireless connections. Back then, the chosen medium was a copytaker – a man or woman who sat at a keyboard at the other end and took down the dictated copy, word by word.

I was young at the time, and it didn't take much for the copytaker's cool, educated tones to rattle me. It wasn't my fault that I was late, but no matter. Long story short: frozen solid, tired, hungry, feeling guilty and on edge, I made a hash of the dictation.

Midway through, the stadium lights were snapped off by an unseen groundsman, forcing me to peer at my handwritten notes in the impossibly dim light as the copytaker, his impatience increasingly audible, waited for me to decipher the next word. And all the time, the sports desk (I imagine) was apoplectic.

I crawled home that night feeling that my career was over before it had barely begun. By coincidence, that was also the night on which I discovered the joys of Jack Daniels.

It emerged last week that the Press Association, the national news agency, has scrapped its back-up copytaking service for newspapers, because the service was being called upon less and less. But I remember copytakers as being highly useful; they could (gently) correct your grammar where it needed corrected, or suggest that your wording might usefully be tightened up.

They also made you painfully aware of the need to be fast and concise – not least through their use of a phrase that was usually accompanied by a sigh and the sound of another sheet of paper being fed into the typewriter: "Much more of this, old chap?"

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