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Adventures in Journalism: Death Be Not Proud. Or Tactful.

A newspaper reporter quits the darkest beat.

- January 19, 2005

At times like this, with so much death everywhere, I'm thankful not to be a reporter any more. I'm too old and tired to enjoy intruding on people's tragedies.

But it wasn't always so. Years ago, when I worked on British newspapers, I was known as the Death Knock Queen. If you'd had an even mildly interesting death in the family, chances are I would show up unannounced on your doorstep, offering sympathy as I wedged my foot in your door while warbling some inanity about wanting to do a "tribute" to your uncle Archie, who died ten minutes ago in a tragic lawnmower accident.

I'd invite myself into your grief, trample around your tortured soul, grab a photograph, and zip back to the office to bang out 300 words of tastefully titillating obituary.

You'd think after repeatedly barging into bereaved relatives' houses, demanding photos of the deceased, and staying until I got at least one (pardon the pun) killer quote out of the living people, that more of these death knocks would stick in my memory. But most of them don't. I worry that I may be a psychopath.

There are really only three of my death knocks that are memorable: the Dog Guy, the Nutter, and the Pointless Baby.

The Dog Guy was one of the first death knocks I ever did, as a cub reporter on a local daily paper in the west of England. Although the surrounding countryside was beautiful, the county town was a grimly nasty little hole full of pebble-dashed boxes housing surly inbred refugees from life's big trailer park.

The Dog Guy lived in one of these boxes, and one late wintry night I turned up on his doorstep, like the Grim Reaper's afterthought. I didn't know he'd turn out to be the Dog Guy at that point. To me, he was a 19-year-old motorcyclist and victim of a fatal hit-and-run accident. I think his name was Mark, but I can't be sure.

I gave the old spiel, "Sorry to bother you...blah, blah...difficult time...blah, blah ...tribute...blah, blah...can I come in...blah, blah," and was led into a tiny stultifyingly warm, dimly-lit living room. It was packed full of silent bereaved people—who were staring at me. I began to sweat, and not just from the heat.

I sank into a sofa and started babbling questions about the dead guy. And that's where I ran into trouble. After an hour and a half of solid questioning, here's what I knew about him:

1. He liked motorbikes.

2. And video games.

3. No girlfriend.

4. No other hobbies.

5. Didn't play a sport.

6. Never been a Cub Scout.

7. No distinguishing characteristics whatsoever.

8. He would be missed. But not by anyone articulate, apparently.

They were bereaved, but I was anguished. Try as I might, I could not find one interesting thing this poor dead guy had ever done, and none of the 30-odd people in the room could say anything interesting about him, either. I was looking at the newspaper equivalent of dead airtime. Eventually I had to admit defeat, and asked for a photograph—always a prelude to leaving. The dead guy was heading for an extended picture caption on page 7. The family got out a photo album and leafed through it as I tapped my mental foot impatiently and dripped sweat on their violently-patterned carpet.

"Here's one with his dog," the mother said, handing me a photo. "He loved his dog. Poor thing died of a broken heart three days after Mark was killed. Just curled up in his basket, refused to eat, and faded away. We're putting his dog lead in Mark's coffin so they can always rest together."

Ker-CHING! Now that's a story, madam. Quite worth the wait. It made a page three lead and an excellent addition to my clippings file.

The Nutter was also a hit-and-run victim; he was a Polish man in his 60s who'd been knocked off his bicycle late one Friday night. I was the early reporter on Saturday morning and was sent to his address, which was in a particularly seedy part of town. The reason I remember the Nutter is pretty self-explanatory. He was a nutter. And so were his friends. But I didn't know that when I knocked on his door at 7:30 AM one rainy Saturday.

But when the door was answered by a glassy-eyed elderly man displaying his penis through the open crotch of a pair of trousers held up by string, I knew this death knock would be beyond even my superpowers. And it was. After listening to him gargle incomprehensibly, studiously avoiding looking at his penis, I left. No photo—which was a bad thing. My news editor eventually stopped berating me after I discovered the address was a halfway house for elderly men who were learning disabled and mentally ill. That's a heavy burden.

I'm sure my cyclist is now at peace. That made page three, too, but it wasn't a lead. We went with the police angle. Dull.

And so to the Pointless Baby, which happened in a similarly small, grotty, poverty-stricken hole of a town, but this one was in Wales, so there was even more pebble-dash about the place.

I suspect most readers would be appalled to discover the common practice of advertising department executives giving editors sneak previews of the birth, death, and marriage notices before they appear in the paper. They do this so the editors can get advance notice of any interesting deaths and dispatch a reporter to add to the festivities. The reporter is usually told not to call before going, because the grieving family might have the courage to say no. The British being as they are, most editors know that people are usually too polite to turn away a visitor from the local newspaper, and even more so when their minds are muddled by grief.

On one such occasion, my news editor gave me a freshly paid-for death notice and told me to drive to the address right away. The notice was for a baby, but offered no clue as to the cause of death. I suggested that this might be an even more unwarranted intrusion than usual, and that we should call first, but I was overruled. Back then, I was young and stupid and always did what I was told, so off I went.

On a squalid housing estate I was ushered into a dark, hot room where five or six people were sitting in silence. They collectively turned to look at me. I thought nervously of the Dog Guy, but I plunged ahead with my comforting psycho-babble introductory speech, followed with an earnestly sympathetic, "Can you tell me what happened?" At this, the mother burst into tears and rushed from the room, followed by a few other people. The remainder glared at me accusingly.

I tried the uncle. "So. Can you tell me what happened?" He tried, but after three words, burst into tears and left the room. This left the dad and a couple of bling-laden, shaven-headed lovelies, clutching beer cans and staring at me menacingly.

Finally, the father spoke. And here, in eight words is the story, pried from his gritted teeth of grief.

Cot death. The baby lived a week. Then died.

(But I got a photo, so it was okay.)

It made a small, extended-photo caption on page 5. Not juicy enough for page 3, I'm afraid. I marched back into the office that day and had the only stand-up row I've ever had with a boss in my entire career. The gist of it was that invading someone's grief for no good reason when there was no damn story was a despicable act that should never be allowed to happen again. I finished up screaming, "What next? Shall we death-knock stillbirths? Miscarriages? How about unusually heavy menstruation?!?!" The news editor had the grace to look sheepish.

Even though the Pointless Baby's uncle called me the following day to thank me for the "sensitive" piece I'd written, I never did another death knock again. I'd lost the taste for it.

Geraldine Hayward is an editor at Star magazine.

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