From 11 p.m. to just after 8 the other morning, the Press Association wire clicked out only time signals or "Now is the time to come to the aid of the party."
This did not mean nothing had happened in Britain. But David Chipp was asleep. And when Chipp sleeps or eats, no news moves over the nation's domestic wire service.
It has been this way since Dec. 5 when provincial journalists -- anyone working for a paper outside Fleet Street -- went on strike. Chipp has become a one-man wire service because of the peculiar rules of the labor relations game here.
The reporters' union appealed to Press Association telex operators for support in their fight to win an extra $40 a week from PA's client papers.The telex men, who punch written stories onto electoronic tape that is fed to these papers, agreed that they would only handle copy personally edited and signed by Chipp, PA's editor-in-chief.
So the 51-year-old boss of PA's staff of 252 has been compelled to become the hardest worker in his shop. His black pencil lightly works over 70,000 words a day -- everything from crime to politics to soccer games -- the equivalent of a book.
Rotund and gray-haired, Chipp looks lined and worn, but he takes a perverse delight in his task.
"The marvelous thing is I can still do it," he exclaims. "It's marvelous to come back again as a working journalist.
"I'm working as hard as this so there's a job for those buggers to come back to."
The "buggers" are the 90 or so PA reporters refusing to work. They have no quarrel with PA management. Indeed, their sympathy strike was narrowly voted down by a majority in the shop.
Similarly, the telex operators have no quarrel with PA. Their insistence that Chipp alone edit copy is a response to a plea from the journalists' national union officers.
The chances are that all of this would be ruled a secondary boycott in the United States and held illegal. But there is little labor legislation in Britain and this sort of ripple effect is common.
Perhaps the strangest feature of the affair is its ineffectiveness. The provincial papers could indeed be crippled or paralyzed if they lost both their own reporters and the PA service. But because of Chipp, and the PA reporters who feed him stories, the wire transmits copy and provincial editors have something to fill their pages.
As far as is known, the strike has closed only one of 120 dailies outside London and about 35 of the 1,100 weeklies and bi-weeklies.
Provincial reporters with five years' experience now get $140 a week and have just been offered $169. This comes close to the $180 they seek, so the strike may be nearing its end.
Meanwhile, their papers are getting nearly half their accustomed diet of domestic, foreign and sports news. In the first five weeks, Chipp's pencil flicked over 71,513 words daily compared to a file of 145,210 a year ago.
At work in the traditional rolled-up shirt sleeves, Chipp is a dynomo, his black pencil races down the carefully typed paragraphs -- his staff makes an extra effort to supply "clean" or error-free copy -- marking the rightangle symbol that tells the telex men to indent. He spots the occasional misspelling, very rarely changes a word or phrase for style.
There is no time to do more. The wire delivers stories to clients only as fast as Chipp delivers it.
How good is the quality?
"It gets in the papers and it's used," he says firmly. "I'm in the business of producing a wire service, not writing essays."
His proudest moment was an exclusive report on Lord Snowdon's marriage and an equally exclusive interview with the former husband of Princess Margaret.
But fellow craftsmen are likely to admire most his fast response to the surprise outbreak of IRA bombings in London last month. The call from the police reporter came through at 1:10 in the morning. Chipp was awakended in his Fleet Street apartment, five minutes from the office, and was at his desk at 1:30. Thirteen minutes later, PA put a Chipp-edited bulletin on the wire. Sixty-nine minutes later he had compiled, edited and transmitted a rounded story of 12 pages.
The Birmingham Post scrapped its front page for the story and most other papers got the story in time for their last edition.
He escapes from the deadly race to the Garrick Club for dinner each night, returning for a final hour to the office. On Saturday afternoon, he leaves for his country home near Oxford. British dailies don't print on Sunday and the handful of Sunday papers make few demands for spot news. Until Sunday afternoon, he slumps before a television set, "watching the most revolting things, like Starsky and Hutch."
A bachelor, Chipp says, "this has played hell with my social life" but he insists he is game for another six months.
Chipp is a Cambridge graduate and long-serving Asia correspondent for Reuter, a sister wire service. In 1956, he was the first resident Western correspondent in Peking. He served in executive posts for Reuter in London before becoming editor-in-chief at PA 10 years ago.
"I'm determined to keep the PA service going," he says. "I don't think they thought one man could do it."