The PR who made me feel like a museum exhibit

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Saturday 18th February 2012

The PR glanced at my scribble-filled notebook and did an astonished double take. “You write shorthand?” she gasped. “Wow. You’re the first journalist in ten years I’ve seen do that.”

Her words made me feel like a museum exhibit from a bygone age. But then again, shorthand is one of the most useful skills I’ve ever learned. Before I started as a trainee reporter on a small weekly paper on the edge of Dartmoor I spent eight weeks in a shabby Plymouth Portakabin mastering the rudiments of a shorthand called Teeline. Our teacher was the delightful Ella, who must have been in her sixties and thought Teeline was the bees-knees. Only when I’d got up to a decent speed did my editor send me out to cover the local magistrate’s court, industrial tribunals and the thing I dreaded more than anything, the district council’s planning committee meeting.

Even now I use my 100 words per minute shorthand every day. It’s a bit scrappy these days, with the odd word written in longhand, but when it comes to tight deadlines and interviewing people on the phone, a notebook and pen are still the best tools for the job. Far easier and far speedier than laboriously transcribing from a tape recorder. And there are still places where you can’t use a recorder, like courts for a start.

Shorthand seems to be a dying art so I was delighted to see it in the headlines this week. Why? Because a diary kept by First World War veteran Edward Sigrist has just been discovered in his family’s attic. It’s written in an obsolete form of shorthand and gives a vivid account of the dangers and discomforts of life on the front line.

Like most journalists I’ve hung on to most of my old notebooks. They’re stacked up all over the place in my office – but somehow I don’t think historians of the future will be poring over them.

14 comments so far

  • I still use shorthand! Good old Pitman’s, at one time 120 wpm. Used to practise by listening to records and transcribing lyrics. Once I’d got the whole of Subterranean Homesick Blues down I reckoned I’d cracked the skill.

  • I’d love to be able to write in shorthand. In fact, I might just go off and find a course. My touch-typing causes similar consternation. We ALL use keyboards now, but nobody seems to learn to type any more. I can manage 85 words per minute, rising to over 100 when I’m mid-job, and no RSIs.

  • I know exactly how you feel because I use my shorthand every day and, from the comments I get, I feel like Dr Johnson’s dog walking on his hind-legs … it’s not done well but you are surprised that it’s done at all.
    Thrilled that you are an old pupil of Ella’s – but she was much older than she looked, I’m sure she pushing 80 when she taught me. Do you remember her wonderful Cornish pasties?

  • Wow, Judy, I am seriously impressed. Pitman’s is a hard one to learn. And 120wpm – I never got over 100wpm on a good day. Transcribing lyrics sounds a great way to test shorthand too, much better than the tedious council reports I listened to on tape.

  • I really recommend shorthand, Nicola. So useful. But now for my confession. I have never learned to type properly. I am very fast and pretty accurate but still only use two or three fingers. Hangs head in shame.

  • Hi Mary. It’s great to hear from you and glad you use your shorthand every day too. Also, it’s lovely to hear you talk about Ella. She was absolutely wonderful. She had a real joie de vivre but I think you’re right. She was probably older than 60-ish. Her pin-up in our class was Alastair Campbell. He was brilliant at shorthand and did his 100wpm way before anyone else.

  • Did a double take when I saw your photo before reading the post – I thought “That’s Teeline – and I can read it!” Haven’t met anybody who can do shorthand (other than me) for about 15 years – definitely a dying art. But so very useful, despite working only part time these days, it still comes in useful for all sorts of things – wouldn’t be without it!

  • I’m really pleased it’s recognisable as Teeline, Caroline! I can read it but I thought maybe I was the only person who could. My old Teeline teacher wouldn’t be impressed with its scrappy look.

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