My brief encounter with Peter Preston

The Guardian website has today published the obituary of Peter Preston, one of the newspaper’s most influential past editors who shaped it largely as we know it today. I learned a lot from the obituary about the man and the paper. It also brought back the memory of a brief encounter I had with Preston more than a decade ago.

One day in late September 2005, as I was walking past the Manchester Museum, a cheerful girl wearing a colourful vest handed me my first ever copy of The Guardian. I had never seen, let alone read, the newspaper before. In fact, those were my very first days in the UK – I had arrived a week or so before to start master’s degree studies at the University of Manchester. With hindsight I know these were early days of The Guardian‘s new Berliner format, so they were probably handing out free copies to students and passers-by to spread the word. I read every page of my free copy later that day. I liked it very much. From then on I would buy it regularly from the newsagents opposite All Saints Park which sold it at a student price of 25p.

A couple of months later I came across a call for applications for the Hugo Young Internship – an opportunity to spend several weeks as an intern at The Guardian headquarters. I typed the address of the application website and filled it in in one go. I did so out of curiosity, without much hope, and forgot about it. Some time in early 2006, perhaps in February, I received an email from The Guardian telling me I was one of the 15 shortlisted candidates and inviting me to an interview in April at the newspaper’s headquarters in Farringdon Road.

On the day of the interview, I took an early morning Megabus from Manchester to London. The journey took more than three hours, and I was fully dressed in a suit and tie for the interview. The couple who sat opposite me at the table seat of the bus spent the whole three hours kissing. I tried to read the copies of The Guardian I had with me. I should have travelled to London the night before, of course, but I didn’t want to pay for a hotel and I didn’t know anybody who could put me up for a night. I arrived in London in late morning and eventually found my way to 119 Farringdon Road with the help of the maps I’d drawn on A4 sheets the night before (this was before the age of touchscreen smartphones). I made it to The Guardian HQ just in time.

I don’t have clear memory of the interview process, perhaps because it was one to forget. About half of the candidates were from Oxbridge, as could be expected, and the rest also had an exceptional knowledge of the newspaper. Everybody except me was British, if I remember it correctly. It didn’t take me long to realise the gulf between myself and the other candidates. I remember wondering at some stage why the committee even bothered to shortlist me in the first place. I did my best in the interviews and joint sessions, of course, but that was clearly not good enough.

After one or two sessions we were invited to a cold buffet lunch laid out in a large room. Several journalists from the HQ and the Manchester office joined us for lunch, Peter Preston among them. I didn’t know him (nor the others) at the time. Preston was perhaps the most quiet among them, looking like a sage with a benevolent smile. Perhaps he sensed my deflated state of mind, I don’t know, but he told me we were – I was – among the 15 chosen from a pool of 900+ applicants. He asked questions about me, the university, the city – I remember him asking how I liked Manchester. It was a very brief encounter with someone I didn’t know at all, but the one I remember most vividly from that day I have tried so hard to forget.

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