Oh, those innocent times when all we had to worry about were the floods although, for the people directly affected, the floods following storms Ciara and Dennis were every bit as real a threat to day-to-day living as is the Coronavirus.
I was merely a distant onlooker to the floods; far removed from either peril or discomfort. Nevertheless, I did observe during this time, how my own local river was unusually swollen, its waters stirred from a quiet trickle to a fast-moving stream. In places its banks had been breached; the path that runs alongside the river had been flooded to a depth of a modest couple of inches; and one of the small bridges, which crosses it, had been completely cut off by the water. There was no great drama involved, but the occurrence seemed somehow noteworthy, if not necessarily newsworthy.
Back home and I began constructing my thoughts; translating them to paper. I had already decided on a point-of-focus for my piece––three Mandarin ducks, two male, one female, who had been engaged in rivalrous courtship, oblivious to the rising waters. I had an apt––if obvious––title in mind: “Nice weather for Mandarin ducks”. The article was practically writing itself.
I threw in some factual background information about the storms to set the scene; a bit of specialist knowledge concerning the names of certain localities; a few deliberately plashy description relating to rain and water; and then added some personal reminiscences about how I had played beside the same river as a boy, by way of making the author less anonymous.
An hour or so of concentrated effort and I had a nicely constructed feature article of around 500 words. Quite pleased with my work, I looked up the online submissions page of my local newspaper. I thought it might be the kind of lightweight, local interest story that they would find appealing. I sent it off along with several photographs to illustrate the piece, plus my contact details.
The next day, I received a breezy email from a young staff journalist, saying that she would like to use the piece. I felt rather pleased. My hour’s labour had not been for naught and, although I had no expectation of payment, I am sufficiently vain to enjoy seeing my name on a byline. The young newshound promised to let me know when the article would appear.
True to her word, the following day I received a second email, which gave me a link to where I could see my published feature. I clicked on the link, expectantly.
Was it my article? I read it twice and was still not sure. I recognised my photographs, but not a great deal else. For a start, my apt title had been changed to a bald and bland: “Flooding at Local River”. The background information was retained, but all the local detail was removed, as was the personal account of my boyhood adventures. Bizarrely, most of my more plashy descriptions survived the cut, but several facts were changed, leaving them incorrect––the caption to my photo of three Mandarin ducks was altered to read two Mandarin ducks, the editor clearly not recognising that a female Mandarin duck is still a Mandarin duck.
Overall, what had been published was something that I would have been embarrassed to put my name to. But, insult upon insult, when I looked at the byline, I found that my name wasn’t there anyway, instead inserted was the name of the young, staff journalist, as though she had come up with the idea and written the piece herself.
My feature had been turned into a news story, via an uncritical word-mill of cuts, inattention to detail and plagiarism, and it simply served to remind me that exactly the same process of literary vandalism has occurred on every other occasion when I have submitted an article to a local newspaper.
Have I learned my lesson? Probably not. In fact, I think I may submit this article to them and see what they make of it.
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow displays one solid journalistic trait: bitterness.