A few days ago I was given an assignment to interview an American former gang-leader who was coming over here as part of an intiative to dissuade British kids from joining gangs themselves. This is of more than theoretical importance here right now, with kids being shot and stabbed seemingly every day in gang-related crimes. Just yesterday a 13-year-old girl was stabbed outside a school in Camberwell in southeast London, allegedly because her 16-year-old boyfriend was involved in some kind of feud with a gang over LSD and the gang wanted to get at him through her. So the visit of this American gentleman was newsworthy.
Anyway, the plan was for this gentleman - whose name is Sergio Argueta - and a couple of law enforcement officers from upstate New York, and another gentleman whose name I'm afraid I'm too tired to look up from my notes, would speak at a church in West Ham (which is in East London) to children from the local Catholic boys' school in the morning, and then do a similar talk to children from the local Catholic girls' school in the afternoon. I was invited to attend the morning part of the programme and I was told Sergio would be available for interview afterward.
Didn't exactly happen like that.
I got there a few minutes late (delays on the District Line) and arrived just as Sergio was winding up his talk to the boys and it was obvious he was going down a storm. Some local police bigwigs and other dignitaries were there too, and when the assembly wound up everyone wanted to chat with Sergio. I made contact with the chap who had invited us to send a journalist and said I'd like ten or fifteen minutes with Sergio, and he said okay, but Sergio was chatting with some of the other people who had shared the platform with him and he was chatting with some of the boys and some journalists who had got there before me wanted to interview him. Fair enough. I was brought up to be polite and patient and I was in no great hurry.
So the other journalists do their interviews and then Sergio's whisked outside to do an outside broadcast for BBC Radio.
While he's in the broadcast van, a journalist from a local television programme arrives, and when Sergio emerges from the OB van she sort of scoops him up, takes him off into a side room, and none of us sees him again for the best part of forty-five minutes. This really annoyed the news teams from another local television programme and a certain satellite news channel, but I was good. I was brought up to be polite and patient.
Sergio finally emerges and the representative of the other local news programme takes him off `for five minutes.' I went out and had a couple of cigarettes. I bumped into the organisation's representative, who had just been drifting around with a smile on his face. "Still waiting to speak with Sergio?" he asked. "Yup," I said.
The representative of the certain satellite news channel got him next `for five minutes,' and by the time they'd finished people were arriving for the next assembly and the local police Commissioner wanted a chat with Sergio beforehand. I was good. I was brought up to be polite and patient.
So I sat through another assembly. And I have to tell you Sergio is an outstanding public speaker. He's from Nassau County on Long Island - a place I always thought was wall-to-wall mansions but apparently also has some dreadful social deprivation - and the talk he gave about his life and why he turned it around was enormously affecting. The girls adored him - it was interesting, standing at the back of the church, to see them all suddenly crane their heads when he stood up to speak. It can be hard for a speaker from overseas to connect with an audience sometimes, but he pitched his talk exactly right. It was a great performance.
And afterward, I finally got to talk to him. He was shattered, as you would be. He'd put on two barnstorming performances, spent the morning being relentlessly grilled by the media, and he'd had enough, although he was perfectly polite and answered my questions, although he was putting on his coat to go somewhere else while he was talking to me.
The accounting for today's little adventure? I spent four hours sitting in a church in West Ham, sat through one and a bit school assemblies, watched the representatives of the British media trying to poach the story off one another while I was polite and patient, and in the end I got less than five minutes with my subject, which is not what I wanted although I can cobble some kind of story together from it.
Now, my editor - and indeed you yourselves - might ask why I didn't just storm in and grab Sergio in the morning when he was fresh, the way the reporter from the local news programme did.
The reason I didn't do that is because I believe in certain standards of behaviour. I believe in politeness and patience. Politeness is important to me. I believe in not hassling people and I believe in keeping my word. None of that will cut any ice with my editor, and I don't expect it to cut any ice with anyone else, but you've got to make a stand somewhere.
And the moral of this story is that none of that gets you fucking anywhere. All that happens is that other people who just don't care push to the front of the queue, and that's why they're on television. You wind up with footprints on your back and when you're dead people say, "He was always very polite."
And of course none of it mattered in the end because the plane crash at Heathrow was the main story on all the news programmes and Sergio got crowded out. The piece by the local news reporter who swanned in and scooped him up didn't air anywhere that I can find. One of the other pieces turned up online. Ironically, whatever I do manage to cobble together may be the most comprehensive account of the day to make it into the news.
I couldn't find any great comfort in this because I had a nightmare getting home tonight and when I did I found Bogna had defrosted a couple of chops for dinner. When I cooked mine it tasted all wrong, although Bogna says hers was fine. So my dinner tonight was a plate of potatoes and salad. A meal without meat isn't a meal, as far as I'm concerned.
And I can't even get completely shitfaced and try to forget about it because I have to go to work tomorrow.
And my feet hurt.