THE New Journal‘s offices in Camden Town were a little bit quieter last week, missing the hum of our mate Peter Gruner’s repetitive gags and morning reviews of last night’s television. A long time on the Evening Standard, but more recently, eight or nine years with us, he retired the week before with a party in Camden Town. A reporter on the Islington Tribune, local figures, including MPs and politicians from that borough, were among those there to see him off. He sang the Wild Rover for his final stand, encouraging everybody in the Sheephaven Bay pub garden to join in. He had earlier told the gathering that he had felt thankful to have found himself on punchy local newspaper after parting ways with the Standard.
Looking back, we, the slightly younger journalists, didn’t appreciate quite how well he had made the potentially awkward transition into an office of enthusiastic 20-something know-it-alls, who actually knew very little. As he said ‘sorry to be a bore’ every time he asked for help in getting his computer to work, he must have found some of us prattling on about all the big stories we were going to write pretty boring too, having already seen it all, done it all, himself.
It’s not radical to wonder whether there are too many newsrooms with hardly a face aged over 25, full of reporters with instantly expansive job titles but with stories that have come almost solely from social media. I can’t think of a story that Peter lifted off someone’s tweet. When he tried to use Twitter, he did the ‘Ed Balls’ thing of tweeting his own name.
The contrast with the way that Peter, when in the mood, got his stories and the way young reporters fresh out of an expensive course do tells a tale in itself. That’s not to say that new and old don’t have their place but here was a guy who, shock horror, picked up the phone and spoke to contacts, and sometimes went and met people for coffee. He didn’t have a Tweetdeck; that would have been quite a leap given it wasn’t clear whether he really knew how to print something out from his wonky CNJ machine.
Of course, journalism benefits from what goes on online too, but his less techy approach to newsgathering actually produced the stories people wanted to read. Big investigations into datasets, trends and graphs may be very well meant – I met a trainee journalist recently who told me that they were not learning shorthand because they were going to be a data journalist – but when flicking through on the tube readers stop on stories with real people’s faces and stories in them. If we really want to chart how London lives and changes, we’ve all got to remember that Twitter is not the only draft that matters.
The outdoor approach saw Peter stumble into unusual yarns and mini-exclusives which he would always describe as a ‘maj’ (as in major) or the splish-splosh (the front page splash), such as the Bob The Cat saga, the story of a cat inspiring a homeless man to turn his life around. A best-selling book followed, but Peter, as often referenced by the puss’s owner, had the first interview. He was in on street artist Bambi first too, before the Observer; the cartoon above actually appeared in the Trib one week as he chased the ideas that she might be a famous pop star.
Yet when you are institutionalised as some of us, what you actually take away from working with someone for ten years are the desk-by-desk quirks, rather than the articles. Or even that breath-taking oratory he delivered from the mic on the paper’s Save The Whittington battle bus. What was remarkable about Peter was his absolute dedication to his catchphrases. Over and over again, they never changed and became like an afternoon radio show bubbling away in the background, in between his updates on how he fared on the horses at the weekend and whether Silent Witness or Midsomers Murders had been any good. Usually, it was ‘all a load of old rub’.
Now, that this show is not on air, you kind of realise what a comforting soundtrack it all was. Almost without fail, if his phone rang while you were talking to him, he’d say: ‘If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a newspaper to produce’, To program yourself to say such a thing, without fail, every week for a decade is a feat in itself. There was a list of them. Every press night, every press night, he would crank whichever reporter had the front page story by saying the editor had called and said he had decided to change up the splash. Worst still, he’d wave around his swimming trunks, kept as a prop in his draw, and say he was going to splash if he thought he had the strongest story.
His fondness for the light-hearted can be seen when Toyah Wilcox caught him out, while dressed as a soldier, on Game For A Laugh, the hidden camera prank show, and his willingness to accept the Ice Bucket challenge from a local councillor. There he is, in the CNJ garden, hamming it up as the ice splashes down.
Beyond all this silliness, Peter is a kind, sweet guy. He loves films and rubbish detective series too much to be your man down the pub, but when he came to say goodbye to our place, he wanted to make sure everybody had a drink on him. Nobody went thirsty. He urged us to give the collection money to a homeless charity.
Now he’s beginning a well-earned retirement, I’ll miss his silly lines and his pretend competitiveness about the Tribune being the flagship newspaper over the New Journal. Every other week he’d ask us what we were splashing on, we’d tell him and then with mock surprise at how awful this suggestion was he’d reply, again without fail: No, I said what are you splashing on?
They’ve been the soundtrack to our office’s working life. One of his favourites played on the idea that however much triumphant reporters babble are about how great their stories are, they, or at least the byline marking who wrote them, are forgotten, the next day: ‘It never ends. You do one story. And then you have to do another one.’
Our friend now deserves some sunny days when he doesn’t have to write another one now.