DOORSTEPPING – we’ve all heard about it. A politician or an entertainment celebrity is alleged to have done something (cheated on the wife; fiddled their taxes; taken a bribe) and members of the press are on their doorstep waiting for them to step outside and face a string of questions and a barrage of camera flashes.
Some just ignore the questions and chat away without answering a single question (Johnson has that off to a T) while others smile and offer simple answers of the yes or no kind and head off to work without being offensive.
Others tend to run away.
Doorstepping has not always been so in-your-face. At one time it just meant calling on a person without making an appointment beforehand.
In the 60s and 70s reporters did not rely on the telephone to get their stories as they do nowadays. At that time telephones were the exception not the norm. If you wanted to talk to somebody about a story it was a matter of calling at their home or work to speak to them face to face.
The call might be to get reaction from local people about plans the council had for their area; or there might be a story affecting a number of people – such as an overflowing drain; then again it might be just to get up-to-date information on a local organisation or sports team.
In most of these cases ringing the doorbell was not a problem.
During my time in Basildon I did a number of such calls.
My first, however, was not a vox pop, or anything to do with an incident in the area where I went to make my call. I was tasked with the hardest doorstep of all – calling on a young widow, and when I say young I mean teenage, whose husband had died over the weekend.
The information from the police was that a young man had been out with friends at a local nightclub and following an incident at the door to the club he had fallen down the steps and died from head injuries.
I had his address and the name of his wife and the fact that she had a young child (that last titbit came from a young policewoman, who one of the police team who had informed the young widow about the death).
Armed with this information I headed to the address I had been given and noted a number of people on the pavement outside. I recognised some as journalists but I was too recently arrived to be recognisable.
The house was one of a modern terrace and the neighbour’s front door was was to the far right, out of earshot of anyone outside the the widow’s door.
Instead of joining my colleagues I rang the bell of the neighbour’s house and when it was answered by a young woman, probably a couple of years older than me, I introduced myself as a reporter from the Standard Recorder.
Her first reaction was to say: “I have nothing to tell you. If you want to speak to Sue you’ll have to join the queue but I don’t think she’s going to answer while that lot are outside.”
I told her: “I’m not here to ask you questions about your neighbour, I actually want you to help me do her a favour. Until somebody has a story they will be there waiting. Some of them will be keen to sell a story to the nationals and won’t care about her once they have talked.
“What I want to do is to let her tell her story the way she wants it to be told. I want to find out what sort of man he was and how they were settling down to parenthood. I’m not going to make up details or print anything she doesn’t want because we are a weekly paper and we are here for all our readers not just this week but every week.”
I’m not saying that her face had been hard up to then but what I said seemed to make it soften a bit.
She invited me into the hallway and pushed the front door to.
“Well, what do you want me to do?”
“All I’m asking is that you call on Sue and ask her if she is willing to talk to me about her husband, Gordon. I won’t be writing about what happened the other night, we couldn’t say much about that because police are still investigating. What I want is for her to tell me the real story about her and Gordon up to the point before he went out that night.”
Something must have convinced her I was serious, whether it was my boyish look of sincerity or the soft Welsh accent (which seemed to slip into my speech at certain times). She said she would go and talk to her neighbour but it could take half an hour or more and the best thing would be if she called me at the office (it turned out she was one of the few in that street to have a telephone) to tell me whether Sue had said yes or no.
Before leaving I asked one more favour: “Could you ask if she would mind if I had a photographer with me? The only pictures taken would be those she agreed to.”
I returned to the office and told Tony, the editor, the situation and he told me to get the photographer to stand by and if we got the go-ahead we could go straight there.
Forty minutes after I had left the neighbour phoned and said Sue had agreed to the interview and for a photographer to be present. We were to go straight to the house in 20 minutes.
With that the photographer and I headed off and pulled up across the road. The group on the pavement had thinned out but of those left a few knew our photographer and realised I must be a reporter.
“You’ve got no chance,” one said. “She’s not even answering the doorbell except for some woman from next door.”
“Ah well, worth a try,” I said and rang the bell.
The door was opened by the neighbour who ushered us in, leaving our colleagues on the pavement with their jaws dropped to their chests in surprise.
We were shown into the living room where Sue was waiting for us, holding her baby, Hayley, in her arms.
At first glance you would have thought she should have been in school. The tragedy may have left her with puffy eyes but she still had that schoolgirl look about her.
I introduced myself and the photographer and expressed my sympathy over her tragic loss.
We then sat down, or rather Sue and I sat down, she at one end of the sofa and me on an armchair facing her. I got out my notebook and stressed to her that I would not use anything she did not want used and any photograph would be at her discretion.
She was shy and somewhat withdrawn at first but as I asked questions about how they had met, and what Gordon was like, she started to come out of her shell and before long it was as though I was doing a feature interviewing one half of a couple celebrating a special anniversary.
She told me how they met at school, he was a couple of years older than her, and that they started “going steady” within a few weeks.
His main interest was football and he played for two teams, one was a club team he had played with since his schooldays and the other a works team. One was in a Saturday league and the other in a Sunday league.
Other than the football training and matches and the pair of them going out to the cinema he rarely went anywhere. Especially as in the early days he was saving for the furniture they would need when they got their first home.
The pair were the ideal couple for Basildon New Town, young, starting a family and looking forward to the future.
A couple of months after they married she got pregnant and he had devoted himself to being there for her, although she had insisted he go to his football matches.
Then a few months after the birth she suggested he should go out for the night with his mates, something he had not done for a very long time.
He had gone out that Saturday night and promised not to be back late.
He never came home.
By now Sue was crying and I asked her if she wanted us to go.
I knew I was sitting on one of the best stories I had ever had but I didn’t want to upset her. That was the promise I had made to the neighbour.
Instead she asked us to stay and said she would have to pop upstairs to freshen up if we wanted a photo.
At that she suddenly asked if I would hold the baby while she was gone and before I had a chance to say anything I found myself cradling a small bundle with a little pink face and tiny hands poking out of the blanket.
Naturally the photographer could not resist taking a few pix of me, claiming that he just wanted to make sure the lighting was right. He did give me a copy but after all the travelling I have no idea if I still have it.
Once she returned and we were done I asked if she had a picture of Gordon we could borrow. She gave us one taken of the both of them with the baby a few weeks after the birth.
The story almost wrote itself and because the picture Sue had provided was so perfect we didn’t use the shots taken by our photographer.
My story and byline were also used in our evening paper (a little bit of a bonus cashwise for me) and I later received a letter from Sue thanking me for being so kind.
Sue and Gordon were typical of many young couples in Basildon. Oddly enough I had another story in the Recorder that week involving another pair of newlyweds the same ages as Sue and Gordon.
This was not heartbreaking tragedy, however, They had recently married and ordered new furniture for their home including a brand-new bed.
Within a week one of the legs broke (no sniggering in the back there) and they had to prop it up with a tin of beans while the company they bought it from arranged for a replacement, unfortunately for them that took weeks.