An evening with Jay Rayner
by Steve Salfield. 15th May 2013 8pm
Choosing your words: the craft of good writing, with Jay Rayner.
“I am not just a belly on legs with fingers,” says Jay Rayner. Repeatedly he tells us, “I am not a food writer but a journalist who happens to write about food.” Jay Rayner is a big man in many ways: height, girth, hair, brain and personality. He comes across as a very self confident man, assertive bordering on arrogant, but I have paid good money to attend this masterclass on writing and I do not object to him being masterful.
Media City UK where the masterclass is held is a revelation to me. It is a huge modernistic development of interesting new buildings. Here the University of Salford has its digital learning, teaching and research space, where we spend the evening, the BBC has its new home in the north, and creative industries have made their home. I arrive early and as I sip my flat white coffee in Costa, I people watch smart trendy young things parade the wide pedestrianised boulevards and security staff cruise on Segways. Gone from this area is the post industrial dereliction which I had naively expected.
The hundred or so participants seated in a modern conference room, are welcomed by a young man from the Guardian, super cool and confident. This is the first of these masterclasses in Manchester and he inveigles us to wave cheesily for his publicity photograph. Then Simone Baird, Head of Guardian Masterclasses, a dynamic young woman with a cultured Australian accent, dressed in black mini smock with a blue painted scene on the front, black tights and boots, introduces the big man.
Jay Rayner is a fat bloke what types, he tells us. And there is certainly evidence that he enjoys ingesting the subject of his writing. He wears an open neck shirt and a suit jacket, just that bit different with a velvet collar and he has what he has called an unnecessary amount of hair.
He opens by telling us, “One of the most important things for a journalist is never to be without a notebook. That’s the bottom line,” he puns, as he pulls an unsavoury looking pad out of the back pocket of his big man designer jeans. “That’s the shape of my bum cheek,” he informs us superfluously. He gives us a potted autobiography. He has always been surrounded by newspapers. As a child, his parents (his mother was Claire Rayner, the agony aunt) had four newspapers a day and each sibling was given one to read over breakfast. He studied politics at Leeds University and became the editor of the student newspaper. Then he worked on student supplements in national papers, later got into feature writing on everything except sport – politics, murders, arts, column writing. In the 90’s he landed a job as restaurant critic for the Observer where he has remained.
“The key thing about writing feature articles is the introduction. The Killer Line.” He makes this point repeatedly. “You have to grab them in the first paragraph. My aim is to stop them from turning that page and reading someone else’s article until I’ve finished with them. Otherwise I would lose my job.” A feature article is not about headlines but about adding value to the subject. Rayner does not like questions as an opener for an article. He is the journalist and is supposed to supply answers not questions. He writes in a pyramid with the less important stuff lower down because the subeditor is more likely to chop from the bottom. This differs from writing news articles where you need to give the whole story in the first paragraph because that is all that many readers will read. “Start your feature article with a punch line,” he advises, “then a paragraph or so of context, maybe a quote and maybe some statistics. Then if there is space, expand on detail and your research in the topic. By this time you will have lost some of your readers but they will already have the gist of the article.” He discusses the effective use of anger in writing and quotes from one of his articles where Rayner says, disparagingly, that Michael Gove does not care if children at school go hungry. He also likes the rule of three in writing.
What to write about is often a problem for the journalist. Sometimes Rayner resorts to reading random and perhaps obscure magazines to come up with a subject. A magazine on greyhound racing led him to phone enthusiasts and write an article on the dogs, which previously he knew nothing about.
He talks about profile writing using one of his articles about school breakfasts as an example. All topics, he says, are accessed through human stories – this leads into the argument. If you are writing about school meals, you have to do the research: talk to headteachers, teaching assistants, children, Child Poverty Action Group and others to check your accuracy and what has been missed, so the reader feels you are well informed. That last phone call is vital. When Newsnight ran a piece wrongly alleging that Lord McAlpine was a closet paedophile, no one made that last call to him to get his version.
He refers to one of his arts features which discusses why, in his opinion, almost all modern theatre is of the political left. His first sentence starts, “”I am sitting in the theatre…’ Well you must earn the right to use the first person,” he says. “Describe your credentials. Put in some rhetoric. Take the reader on a journey.”
For the last fourteen years Rayner has written roughly one restaurant review a week. He says his job is to sell newspapers and if people don’t read his work he will lose his job. So he is asking himself, “What will make people read this? Not talking about the food being undercooked, but being entertaining about the feel of the place, how people are behaving and what they are talking about.” He is not averse to nicking ideas and passing them off as his own; “this is journalism not academia,” he stresses again.
The second half of the evening is taken up with an interview with a man who is introduced to us as Mark Garner. He is probably in his fifties, conventionally dressed in an expensive checked suit and open necked shirt, confident and appears to enjoy the attention. We participants are asked to take notes during the interview and to then write the beginning of a report on the interview. Mark and Jay sit head to head on high stools on the stage. Jay interviews Mark and takes notes in his bum shaped notebook. Jay quickly establishes that Mark is the publisher and owner of “Confidential,” an online magazine which is about food and booze and is now morphing into a general newspaper. We discover that Mark is Manchester based and that he is proud to be politically incorrect and rude.
He started the magazine eight or nine years ago, but previously had a food blog. His father with whom he did not get on well, was “a bit of a gangster – no, a lot of a gangster, a member of the Quality Street gang,” which was a group of criminals in Manchester active in the 1960’s and 70s. “He died making not a bit of a fuss but plenty fuss,” and Mark says he inherited this characteristic. Mark grew up in a hard part of Salford and likes a bit of a scrap. At age ten he moved to the more select Prestbury; “It was like putting a fox in charge of a chicken coop,” he says. When he was about seventeen he once went to a nightclub and was made to wait in a queue. He then resolved that he would never again let others get in front of him during his life. He now clearly relishes being well known around Manchester and treated as a celebrity in Manchester’s clubs, bars and restaurants. He admits that he took advantage of females. He got into publication of hard porn “by mistake.” In recent years, thinking food might be the new porn, he got into writing about it.
Mark tells Jay that in his blog he writes under the pseudonym of Gordo which means fat bastard in Italian. Gordo is politically incorrect and likes his food and booze. He is Garner’s Les Patterson. Early in the blog’s life Mark realised that he would need a good team in order to succeed and he now employs an editor and other staff. His readership has grown to 444,000 and the blog turns over £100,000 a month. “”Confidential’ aims to educate, irritate and info,” he says. He tells us that to succeed, porn needs to be run as a business. “How hypocritical,” he says, “that John Major with his family values wanted to stop my porn business and later it emerged that all the time he was shagging Edwina Currie.” Garner tells us has spent three million pounds keeping himself out of jail.
After the interview Jay read out one or two report beginnings. He particularly liked the opening line of this one: “Nobody gets in the way of Mark Garner.” He thinks this sums up his personality and leads the reader to want to continue.
This is my introduction: “Mark Garner, the owner and founder of the online magazine ‘Confidential’ likes nothing so much as being outrageous. He boasts of his success in running a hard porn business and that he has spent three million pounds keeping himself out of jail.
His blog, he tells us, now has a readership of 440,000 and features Gordo, a food writer. Gordo we are told is Italian for fat bastard.
His open, friendly demeanour and conventional dress belie these dubious characteristics.
But is he for real or living in a fantasy world?”