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Half the money, twice the value

Volume 32, Number 4, December 2021

Polly Graham

It was the glamorous job that young journalists dream of, until it just didn’t seem very important any more

During my 20-year career as a showbusiness journalist, I experienced many terrifying moments: facing volatile newspaper editors at morning conference with a story list as flimsy as cobwebs; the Oasis singer Liam Gallagher putting me in a headlock at a music awards ceremony; having my camera wrestled from me by Harrison Ford’s squat and snarling bodyguard at a film premiere. Or walking out of an interview with Bruce Willis after he arrived 90 minutes late, possibly the worse for wear, and refused to give any more than monosyllabic answers to my colleague and me.

All those knee-knocking incidents pale into insignificance when facing my Year 10 class, post-lunch, with the aim of teaching them poetry. This is my new career as an English teacher at an inner London state girls’ school, where most students come from disadvantaged homes and English is probably not their first language.

It’s like playing Whack a Mole – no sooner have you settled one section of the room, another rears its head.

“Miss, it’s too hot in here!”

“Don’t open the window, it’s too cold!”

“There’s a bogey on my chair, so I ain’t sitting here.”

“Miss, can I go (sic) toilet?”

‘Can I go TO the toilet and no, you should have gone at lunchtime.’

“But I got my period, Miss!”

“What’s the point of poetry? When I get a job, they ain’t gonna make me analyse a metaphor.”

How did I find myself, in this poorly paid, under-appreciated profession battling to instil a love of literature, and on this day in particular a passing interest in William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, in a lively bunch of teenagers? Having become a national newspaper journalist straight out of university, thanks to landing a job as a Daily Express graduate trainee, I had grown jaded with my two-decade long career.

Granted, in my 20s I had a fantastic time as a tabloid journalist, dining at London’s trendiest restaurants (Mr Chow, with the X Factor mastermind Simon Cowell), meeting the entertainment industry’s finest – including Angelina Jolie and Paul McCartney – and travelling the world at the expense of others. I was once flown business class to Los Angeles for the first screening of Pirates of the Caribbean simply to write a review. A trip to the waterside San Franciscan home of an international pop star included a five-day stay in a luxury hotel. I even learned to ski black slopes thanks to one-on-one tuition during a freebie in Canada’s stunning Whistler ski resort.

But you are only as good as your last splash and I felt I had become a slave to bylines, with little thought for the consequence of my stories. As a showbusiness reporter and gossip columnist, I had little sympathy for my subjects. Why should I? They sought publicity to boost their careers and earning power in the good times. When they stepped out of line, they were fair game and had the resources to lock themselves behind gated walls and hire PRs to keep them safe. As more and more celebrities have revealed their struggles with mental health, I realise this was too simplistic a view. But I’m ashamed to say that – at the time – it didn’t stop me quaffing champagne bought by my editor after two splash stories in a row, one of which exposed an international footballer for cheating on his wife.

I had also become too used to the cut-throat nature of the newsroom, with colleagues battling for the same stories. I once took a foul-mouthed phone call from a newspaper colleague because, while he was on holiday, I’d taken a call from a contact of his and published the story. On one paper, the editor encouraged rivalry between the news and features departments, so that not only were we battling with our rival papers for stories but also with our compatriots across the newsroom.

Senior journalists were wary of us trainees, as we hadn’t served our time on local papers. One female journalist took me aside to remonstrate with me for putting in expenses claims that were too low. “Don’t show us up,” she warned. “I once got my winter coat on expenses.”

Another time, when Hugh Grant was arrested for procuring a Los Angeles prostitute, the newsdesk told me to hotfoot it to Paris to chase after his girlfriend Liz Hurley who had fled to avoid the fall-out. When I said I would have to go home to get my passport, the news editor erupted in fury. All news journalists were expected to have their overnight things and passport on them at any time. No one had told me this. The guy who was sent in my place thanked me on his return because he had got to look for her in all the best Parisian restaurants. There were happier times too, drinking in the subsidised bar in the newspaper office while trying to avoid the groping hands of married senior journalists and editors.

Somehow, I survived and hardened and thrived on all this journalistic rough and tumble. But when I married and started to plan a family, I realised it was time to move on.

A move to weekly magazines didn’t prove much cosier and coincided with the onset of online sites. As showbusiness editor, I was expected to fill the online space with daily offerings which I hammered out and published with a total lack of quality control. I rarely had time to leave my desk and talk to the celebrities and PRs, something that had always been the most satisfying part of the job for me.

Yesterday’s celebs have no street cred

I come from a family of teachers, so when I announced my plans to retrain as a secondary English teacher, my brother commented that I was finally “joining the family business”. As I was a very organised person, he said, I would make a good teacher. Surely there must be more to it than being an obsessive list-writer?

During my interview at a London teaching university, when I sat there wide-eyed, explaining I wanted to make a difference to under-privileged kids, I saw a smirk cross the interviewer’s face. “Don’t expect any thanks,” he said, determined to knock any idealism out of me.

I’m happy to say he was wrong about that. My favourite moments are when students write me thank-you cards or emails at the end of a term or year. Sweetly, some apologise for being “a bit chatty” in my lessons but acknowledge that I had faith in them and helped them to fulfil their potential in English. I still get emails from former students telling me they’re really enjoying A-level English literature and are thinking of studying it at degree level, which makes all the hard graft of this job so worthwhile.

The first year I taught Year 11 GCSE English, there was one slightly mischievous student – who came from a home where English was not spoken – with target grades for English literature and language of two 6s (the equivalent of two Bs). I quickly recognised her potential and pushed her hard. She rose to the challenge and in the months leading up to her exams, handed her mobile phone to her father and told him not to give it back until the day of her last exam. She left our school with two top 9s in English and went on to win a place at Oxford – making this English teacher very proud, despite the fact she chose to read geography.

My year as a School Direct trainee, where I was paid a small salary and trained on the job at the school where I still work, was brutal. My husband and two small kids rarely saw me as I left at the crack of dawn and returned, having planned all my lessons for the next day, as they were crawling into bed. I swapped designer leather handbags for a North Face rucksack that could withstand the piles of books for marking I dragged home each night. My Jimmy Choo stilettos became sensible flats from Clarks now I was on my feet all day.

Journalism, with its fast turnaround and constant impending deadlines, prepared me well for the daily onslaught of being a teacher. The persuasive skills I had developed getting potential interviewees to talk to me became handy for cajoling reluctant students into completing their work. The fact I was older meant the girls did not automatically realise my inexperience and I could bluster my way through the day. My English department head gave me some good advice: “Just remember, you know more than them.”

I was cocky enough to think that my glamorous former career would earn me some credibility and respect. How wrong I was. One student looked at me steely-eyed and demanded a list of celebs I’d interviewed?

“I once interviewed Brad Pitt pressed up against him in a crowded VIP area.”

“Who?”

“Tom Cruise and George Clooney.”

“Never ’eard of ’em. You met Britney Spears?”

I hadn’t, so I gave up. Later, I discovered that homegrown celebrities had more cachet. They loved my story about cream tea at a Park Lane hotel with Ant & Dec, then known as the singing duo PJ & Duncan. I had to instruct the unsophisticated pair, straight off the bus from Northumberland, on how to eat their scones with cream and jam. Surprisingly, when I mentioned having EastEnders star Danny Dyer’s telephone number, there was a clamour of girls wanting me to send him a message. Even the fact that I worked for Piers Morgan when he was the Mirror editor garnered more street cred than a one-on-one with David Bowie.

When teaching Romeo and Juliet to Year 10s, I play up the fact they all have crushes on Leonardo DiCaprio, having watched the Baz Luhrmann version of the Shakespeare tragedy in which he plays the title role, and bribe them into working harder with the promise of telling my DiCaprio story. I once shared a swimming pool with him and his pals on another freebie in the Bahamas at the height of his Titanic fame. I inform them that he was a disappointment – all spindly legs and pigeon chest. On the same trip, I caught a glimpse of Michael Jackson’s forehead through his entourage, but I can’t use that one these days.

The thing I love about teaching is my colleagues, who have only ever helped me become the teacher I am today. In schools, everyone has the same altruistic motive: a determination to give their students the best start in life. This means they work themselves to exhaustion planning, marking and being there for their students.

Nothing like the old fake worm trick

Don’t get me wrong. We have a few laughs recalling some of the funny things they come out with in lessons, including the girl who asked me if I was alive during World War Two. While my new career has aged me, I blame the history department for the fact she hasn’t got a clue when the war was fought. Another asked me if “the world was in black and white in the 1980s”. When I used my media contacts to invite the Today programme presenter Mishal Husain to talk to Year 9s about her fantastic career, she insisted we should not pre-prepare the questions the students ask her at the end. We didn’t, which is why one of the first was: “How much are you paid?”

A Year 11 student, in our last lesson before the year group went on exam study leave, recalled a lesson I had taught them in Year 7. Addressing the class, she said: “Do you remember when Miss ate a worm in class?” This is a lesson I devised to teach persuasive writing skills. The entire class must use as many persuasive writing techniques as they can to compel me to eat a worm. I show them the worm, one my husband has caught for me that morning. It spurs even the most reluctant to produce good work. Of course, when I come to eat the worm, I have switched it with a jar containing a fake in fondant icing. They fall for it every time!

Most of the pupils at my school are delightful, hard-working people who understand and appreciate how hard all their teachers work for them. Some of them have unimaginable struggles at home and school offers them a refuge and some much-needed structure to their days. Lockdown was a torrid time for many of them. Many were trapped in small flats with large families, fighting to use the one computer or the limited amount of wifi. It is no wonder that I had to refer so many to mental health services. Most recently, our school has taken in refugees from Afghanistan. The majority cannot speak English and have never attended school.

I often find myself in tears at school and not because the kids have been horrid to me. No, because these girls are truly amazing and never fail to delight and surprise. When I worked with a group of Year 9 students and a charity called First Story, which provides poets for workshops, the students published their own book of poetry, a copy of which, like every other book, ends up in the British Library. I was blubbing so much as the girls read their efforts at the book launch that a mother delved into her handbag and handed me an entire pack of tissues. Back to that first lesson and Wordsworth’s The Prelude. After a couple of minutes, the students have settled and are in the poem. I marvel as they begin to question the relevance of this work about man’s relationship with nature. Ideas about how humanity has taken the natural world for granted and why we are having to pay the price through climate change fly around the room and I know they will be okay. And they might grudgingly admit that poetry isn’t a waste of time.

These students have taught me more than I could ever have learned as that 3am girl, propping up the bar at parties and willing celebrities to misbehave.

Polly Graham was an original 3am gossip columnist on The Mirror and worked as showbusiness editor at various national newspapers and magazines.

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