Tee-total Technology – an extract from ‘Lost in the Reptile House’
With exquisite timing, my giving up drink coincided with a burst of thrusting technology with the new wire machines transmitting colour negatives down telephone lines from hotel rooms, thus stretching the working day and creating an alien world for a teetotal technophobe incapable of re-folding maps or using chopsticks.
Best not to think about the old days when you breezed through Heathrow with just a fishing bag of cameras, knowing your film would be wired from the latest hotspot by the nearest AP or UPI office or flown back to London while you were off for a curry and a night of shame.
Now, with the new technology you could forget your birianis and think about five aluminium suitcases and chiropractor bills. Now, photography was just the start before racing back to the hotel and down on your knees on the bathroom floor loading six rolls into a developing tank in a lightproof changing bag, and with temperature, agitation and timing critical, rest assured the process would be interrupted by the maid and her After Eights. Once developed, the rolls are whipped through meths, taped to the shower rail and toasted with a hairdryer, the priority going to the shots you think London will want first, but never do. The wire machine, meanwhile, has been coupled to the telephone line as explained in the booklet. What the booklet fails to cover are the telephone plugs located behind the bed unit which is levered from the wall and you lie on your side amongst dumped Playboys, unscrewing the plate to reveal up to sixteen plastic-covered telephone wires barely thicker than fishing lines. Only two of these lines are coupled to the hotel phone, their identities known to the installing electrician and God, but with neither available on Room Service you place a torch in the mouth and a razor blade in one hand, take each wire in turn and begin shaving just enough plastic to reveal the minute copper wires without cutting through them. Balancing a telephone handset on the upper ear, you take two crocodile clips from the wire machine and make contact with two wires at a time, working through the two hundred and fifty six combinations until a dialing tone on your handset says you’ve got the right two, whereupon you triumphantly alert the office who say they were expecting the bloody pictures hours ago.
Each negative is then scanned to London via the wire machine every seven minutes. Says the booklet. In practice, this technological marvel is propped on your bed with a Gideon Bible and you watch the tortuous progress of a white line tick, tick, tick across the image on a monitor screen until it just reaches Diana’s face when either the line breaks down, Reception inquires about your leaving time, or London breaks in to ask what the hell’s going on, and you start all over again.
Meanwhile the Order of the Golden Scissors is in full swing wherein new technology has reversed the old world of exclusives, and negatives are now swapped, borrowed or bartered between papers down the echoing corridors. A head comes round your open door.
“You got Di looking left?”
“No, but the Mirror have. Wiring it now. They’re in 363….. or is it 336?”
“My lot’s going apeshit for the bloody dog she patted – anyone got it?”
“The Express have. They’re drying it now. 221… or 212.”
“What’s its name?”
“Is that with ‘IE’ or a ‘Y’”
“Dunno, I just made it up – it had black patches, didn’t it.”
“Yeah, and white patches too.”
And all the time you are listening with one ear to the tick, tick, ticking like a bomb disposal squaddie, praying the line holds good till the end of the negative and the next transmission begins.
Another figure appears, stooped with a dripping roll of film in a loop from his teeth and a hairdryer in his hand with the lead trailing on the carpet.
“You got Di looking at the lifeguard?”
“Bloody marvellous. And the lifeguard looking at her?”
“No, but The Times have. I just pinged it and they’ve taken it back. But they’re using the Telegraph’s machine.”
“Where the hell are they?”
“228 or 282.”
“Christ,” says another voice in the corridor, “PA’s saying she was weeping in the orphanage and the Desk want visible tears.”
“Was she hell – my blunt’s saying ‘moist-eyed.”
“Anyone got an upright of the handshake with the orphan.”
“Only landscape – she was crouching for Christ’s sake.”
“Try telling that to my bloody lot.”
“Reception are asking if they keep the Golden Dragon table for twelve.”
“No chance – I’m still trying to get the bloody dog over.”
Finally, six negatives go over after twenty two attempts and four and a half hours. London gives the magical order to close down and you sweep all technology from the bed and fall back knackered. Then London calls. Always. Something they’ve read in the copy of a reporter who’s stretched recollection to the point of fiction which has to be explained away with eggshell diplomacy without landing both of you in the shit.
The night is completed by one last gaunt face who invariably appears, slack-jawed and silhouetted in your doorway at an unknown hour, his developer-stained shirt hanging out of sagging trousers with negatives around his neck, scissors in one hand, a beer in the other and in urgent need of counselling.
“I don’t bloody believe it”
“It’s all gone bleedin’ pear-shaped, that’s what. Just pinged eight, the full monty, four bloody hours. The Express are using my lifeguard on Page One, the Mirror are running my sequence with the dog across half the page and you know what our lot are using? Sod all, that’s bleedin’ what, as they’re splashing some exclusive about her hairdresser quitting. You know what I’m going to do? I’m off to get rat-arsed with The Sun – you comin’, darlin’?”
No, I’m not comin’ darlin’. As you’ve now woken me, I’m going to mop up the bathroom floor, soak the developer-stained towels in the bath, try to find my negs of Di and the lifeguard which The Times borrowed and passed to the Telegraph, pack away the gear, re-insulate the bared telephone lines with tape, slowly sip a Bloody Shame from the minibar and lie awake listening to you lot getting smashed next door, wondering why I gave up drink and ever, ever thought this job was glamorous.