The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times, August 25
September 28, 2007
Colin Dunne started something with his piece last week about Money for Old Rope and, not surprisingly, a number of expenses claims were immediately submitted but many of them have been rejected by the EDITORIAL MANAGER, with a (courteous) note asking for them to be revised and re-submitted.
FRED WEHNER misses an office party to go off, unwillingly, on a buy-up for the Daily Mail that's frustrated by a man from the Mirror.
BOB WATERHOUSE decides that if the local evening isn’t going to cover the stories that interest him he’ll start his own paper.
ALUN JOHN keeps the flame burning for all those wannabe authors out there (and there’s more about authors – successful and sometimes less so – in THE STAB, our diary).
STUART WHITE goes to expose some evil doer in Margate for the News of the World and gets mistaken for his cousin Chalkie.
REVEL BARKER remembers Robert Maxwell’s last day in the office and reveals the existence of what’s described as a suicide note.
And we bring up the rear with a tribute to our friends in panchromatic artistry; PADDY BYRNE remembers AliMac – Alisdair Macdonald, IAN BRADSHAW recalls old-timer Tommy Braithwaite being sent on what was possibly the biggest job of his life, and COLIN DUNNE celebrates life on the road with the lot of them.
There’s even more snapper stuff in The Stab, plus that rare thing – a hitherto untold story about Jimmy Nicholson, the Prince of Darkness (which we are claiming as a World Scoop), plus how to save ₤219 by buying the autobiography of Richard Stott, and a piece or two about other publisher’s errors.
If you find any mistakes in Gentlemen Ranters, feel free to tip off Dr Syntax, or write to the Letters Page, or contribute your own offering about expenses, sex in the office, life with snappers or anything else related to the glory days that made our old office address Number One in the Street of Adventure.
Rene McColl of the Daily Express appears to have been the acknowledged master of the exes sheet.
He is the one credited with submitting the legendary bill for hiring a camel to take him to the front line of the Suez war and, when a hawk-eyed bean-counter pointed out that he had charged well over ‘the going rate’ for such transport, had explained simply: ‘Mine was a racing camel.’
Only it probably isn’t true.
Because another story is that McColl’s exes for that trip had read simply: ‘To coverage of Suez War – ₤500.’
And in this version of the tale editorial management had demanded ‘more details, like taxis, gratuities, and things’. So he’d re-submitted them, and now they read:
Taxi: office to Victoria station, including tip – 7s 6d Coverage of Suez War – ₤499. 5s Taxi: Victoria station to office, including tip – 7s 6d.’
And they’d been paid. Of course they had: it wouldn’t have been worth telling, otherwise.
They can’t both be true. But if you want to tell the story, ok, maybe he went twice; decide for yourself which set of those expenses would have been the first lot.
In any case, another reason for doubting what’s exhibited here as the Mark II model was an unwritten law of expense writing stipulating that if management had the temerity to return your docket, you ‘fined’ them – so the taxi fares would without doubt have been added to the total amount, rather than included in it.
In common with many submitted forms for reimbursement, stories about exes rarely stand up to close examination. Although containing an element of truth, they were frequently embellished to make them bigger and better. I’m talking, here, about… Well, both.
Never mind that old chestnut about ‘money for old rope’ which was queried, almost management-style, by Colin Dunne (Last Week), or even ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’, which admittedly would have been difficult to resist if the opportunity arose.
Or an investigation into fraud at a transport firm on Humberside: ‘Mileage fiddle – 500 miles return.’
Was it true that the first call a certain feature writer always made on any out-of-town assignment would be to the local jobbing printer, to whom he would explain that he was planning to open a new restaurant, and needed samples of the sort of bills he printed for all the food outlets in the area?
Possibly. The Evening Standard news desk kept a pad of blank bills for the Temple Bar Grill in Fleet Street – an eaterie that existed only in the inspired imagination of a former reporter (later an MP) who’d had them printed when his weekly exes fell short of his pre-approved limit.
But can anybody actually name the reporter who had claimed for the purchase of a pair of Wellington boots to cover a flood and then, mysteriously asked by management to produce them, been unable to explain why they were still fastened together at the top by a piece of string?
Was it the case that photographers who walked to a fashion shoot in Kendal Milne’s store in Deansgate, Manchester, always charged 160 miles return to Kendal (or even to a ‘Kendal mill’) in Cumbria – remembering, of course, to charge out-of-town meal allowances for the trip?
Somebody probably did that, once.
Does anybody believe the one about the guy sent to the Arctic circle who charged for hiring a team of huskies and, finding that his claim fell well short of the advance, invented first, vet’s fees, then interment of one of the dogs and then – when it was pointed out that his submitted total was still ₤30 light – said ‘Oh, I forgot’… and inserted: ‘Flowers for bereaved bitch’…?
Or about the reporter who charged ₤3 for ‘taxi to tenth floor to collect expenses’, and having got away with it for a couple of weeks made it ₤6 for the return trip, and all going well until, thus encouraged, he wrote: ‘taxi to tenth floor and return, including waiting time – ₤7’ at which point they were rejected by cashiers who said now he was taking the piss because he hadn’t had to wait at all?
I am prepared to believe that when Daily Mirror editorial manager Len Woodliff telexed Don Wise and asked him why his expenses for covering the war in Viet Nam were so high, Don cabled back with the message: ‘I give up: why are they?’ thus ending the conversation.
And it’s a fact that a memo was once sent to a features editor saying: ‘I know that London cabbies say the most generous tippers are tarts, Jews and journalists – but is this any reason for Paul Callan to tip three times the normal amount on every journey he takes?’
It is also true that Syd Young once sent in, and received without question, exes listing only:
Entertaining special legal contacts (no receipt available) – ₤147.00 Purchase of stamp to post expenses (receipt attached) – 17p.
But the one about the reporter writing his exes on the plane back from Poland and picking a vowel-less word at random from the in-flight magazine because it looked like a surname, then being asked by a new member of cashiers: ‘And was he much help to you, this Mr Sickbag?’…
Or the guy who was told to remove some expensive item – it depends on the story but in extreme cases it could have been a suit – from his exes because it was unacceptable, then being thanked for so readily complying with the request telling his manager: ‘Oh, it’s still there; you just try finding it!’… ?
Well, frankly: no.
In other words, we are not accepting any of these claims.
It’s the evening of the Daily Mail’s Grand Christmas beano; hosted, but not funded, by Sir David English in his days as plain old mister.
Which, to the chagrin of my colleagues, makes this very much a pay-as-you-drink affair, not a lot different from any ordinary night at our most-favoured gargling venue, The Harrow.
Except that certain managerial types were going to be there also. Therefore, partaking overly of the Fleet Street Water with its ensuing effects on one’s behaviour could well have major repercussions regarding one’s job security. Oh dear.
My anticipated presence at this subdued rave-up is torpedoed when, an hour beforehand, Jonathan Holborow, the news editor, sends me off to St Albans. I’m to ‘supervise’ the handover of a child from the clutches of Harry Krishna (as he calls it) to its rightful mother who had just distanced herself from the father and from the cult. He says we’ve paid her for an exclusive.
I’d always hated buy-ups – when we’re the ones paying the money, that is. Nerve-wracking. You can actually feel the grey hairs taking over.
Quite different when the opposition has shelled out the ackers and your job is to do a spoiler and get at the target somehow using charm, wiles and a generous helping of luck.
But this time it was our buy-up and those involved – including me at the eleventh hour – are forced to protect our investment. Bummer, but what can you do?
My colleague Roger Scott, who I’ve never met, is travelling down from t’north accompanied by a photographer and transporting the child along with a Krishna goon. We’re to meet at a hotel where the mother awaits. I’ve booked a room for all us Daily Mailers and informed both Manchester and mummy – but when I arrive there’s no sign of her.
I’ve been making regular check calls to our northern news editor, Pat Mullarkey, hearing that Roger and team are in Coventry, then Daventry, then Milton Keynes...
Soon I’m keeping a solid vigil at the main entrance and when I see a pair of shifty characters march straight to the public phone I know, I know. I wander over, ear’oling just enough to verify my conviction that these two cowboys have to be reporters. Can’t you just smell a fellow hack?
One more quick Manchester call and Pat Mullarkey confirms his blokes are already in the hotel – they just phoned him. From the reception desk, which I'd primed earlier, I learn a party has checked into a different room from the one I’d booked.
Stub out the Players Navy Cut I’d just lit (what a waste! The price of fags had just gone up). Race up the stairs because the lift has decided to dawdle. Belt along the corridor...
I knock. The door is cracked open. A face appears. I see the kid in the background. I ask for the mother. The door is slammed in my face – almost. A gnarled and oft-bruised foot (inside my shoe) is propelled into the jamb... automatic after years of Fleet Street foot-soldiering, but it still bloody hurts.
There follows a shove-of-war twixt those inside and myself outside. Whenever I manage to barge it open a little I catch a glimpse of other folk inside, but then in an instant the occupants shoulder it back again. And so it goes on for a while.
Suddenly instead of being pushed now, the door is pulled – yanked open and the two burlies come barrelling out. I’m flattened against the wall. We’re wrestling, punches are thrown. Writhing and cursing again, with these two demanding to know who I am and me not telling.
I hear one of them call the other Roger. I say I’m Daily Mail and who are you?
The moment is frozen in time. A knee stops short of my groin. Potential future Wehner generations are saved. And one of my opponents pants: ‘I’m Roger Scott.’
My northern brother.
So let me in! And once inside I see there’s the mother, the child... and one other gentleman I already know. The ruddy cheeks, that farm-lad frame – it’s Roger Beam from the bloody Daily Mirror!
What’s he doing here? Nobody seems to know.
But what we all realise is that while three Daily Mail stalwarts are pummelling each other on the outside, the Daily Mirror is getting the exclusive for which our rag has paid good money on the inside.
I quickly move everyone to the room I booked, telling Beamy his persona ain’t grata. He’s a persistent so-and-so and a big ’un. But I’m forced to usher him out physically, summoning strength from the firm knowledge that two hero-grams from John Womersley years earlier would now likely be negated by a serious wanker-gram from Holborow, his successor.
Yes, we do get the story. But the Mirror also get their story for which the Daily Mail paid. In the restaurant that night nobody can explain precisely how the enemy came to be inside our buy-up, but Roger Beam tells me later. All he did was sidle up to the mother and keep his mouth shut, then saunter along with her to the reunion with baby while everyone else assumed he was mum’s friend.
The Mirror desk are calling his coup ‘a Mini Nice One’.
And the Daily Mail’s grand Christmas knees-up? Judging by the complaints about booze prices voiced by many a luckless imbiber it seems I saved money big-time.
Simon Carr’s salutory story about the Milford Mercury (Ranters, Last Week) takes me back to the autumn of 1978 when I was one of a small group who founded a community freesheet, the Withington Reporter.
We were members of Withington Civic Society, distressed at the decline of a once-flourishing South Manchester suburb. The Manchester Evening News showed no interest at all in covering our fight to prevent what seemed to us the city council’s determination to drive the area into a clearance zone, so we decided to take the matter into our own hands.
Anyone who knows Withington will be aware that the ‘village’ was always split by Wilmslow Road, one of the city’s main southern arteries. To the east were solid houses built for Manchester’s prosperous middle classes from mid-Victorian times. To the west stood rows of terraces built principally for the masses who serviced them.
Wilmslow Road was a shopping street, once quite elegant but by the 1970s decidedly patchy. It, and the village, had been hit by triple blight: it was designated a district shopping centre by Manchester planners shortly after the Second World War; through traffic was to be taken out of the shopping centre and compulsory purchase had drawn a line of devastation through streets to the east of the shops; finally, Manchester’s overblown slum clearance programme marked out streets on the west side for demolition.
Triple blight spelt disaster for the village when the district shopping centre never happened. Neither did the road. And most of the demolished terraces became vacant crofts.
That, by 1978, was the state of play and we residents didn’t intend to put up with it silently any more. We started the Reporter with £2,000 of our own cash, four equal stakes of £500. I was editor; the other three investors were essentially sleeping partners.
My Withington house served as the office. We were to be fortnightly, an eight-page tabloid, typeset and printed professionally, distributed to 10,000 homes and businesses by our own team.
Our unpaid – nobody was paid at that stage – ad manager was a woman called Audrey Jones. Audrey had a high profile in the civic society, was a stalwart of St Paul’s Church, and was well-known to all and sundry as a true Withingtonian (unlike me, an incomer). She seemed the perfect choice, and luckily she was not prepared to invest.
What I didn’t know, but was to learn quickly enough, was that Audrey had political ambitions. Fate ordained it that a council by-election for Withington ward took place in the week of our launch. And who should be the winning Liberal candidate? Audrey Jones.
Foolishly, perhaps, we gave the story prominence. It was, after all, the Liberal Party’s first post-war municipal success in Manchester, then as now a staunchly Labour city. We were immediately branded a Liberal rag by city councillors, who cold-shouldered Audrey in the council chamber (when they weren’t vainly attempting to get their leg over).
Councillor Allan Roberts, Manchester’s fiery housing committee chairman, lost no opportunity to denounce Audrey, the Reporter, and me. Middle-class Nimbys only interested in the value of our houses, he alleged. No danger of Roberts trying to get Audrey on her back: he was openly gay, renowned for exploits in Berlin and Hamburg.
We were the Distorter, even to more sensible councillors. They didn’t want to know that Audrey had no say at all in what went into the paper. I saw to that. We were aligned over community interests, not politics.
What concerned Audrey was the independent line we took with advertisers. They got no glowing write-ups alongside their very cost-effective ads – which many showed a distinct lack of interest in paying for.
What concerned me was when Audrey started circulating a ‘newsletter’ called Focus in which, following Liberal Party practice, she played her own community cards, detailing the little victories councillors boast of:
‘Audrey has ensured that rubbish from Arnside Road will now be removed every week, not every month’… ‘Audrey has petitioned for Withington Library to open a further half hour on Saturdays’. Gripping stuff. But did readers associate that with the Distorter?
In the early days most Reporter contributors were locals. They included a restaurant critic, Dave Best, whose day job was with the Greater Manchester Council. He knew his food, and wrote honestly. When the Jabberwock restaurant opened in Fallowfield he attacked its pretensions, creating a wonderful headline opportunity: Beware the Jabberwock.
A hard-looking guy knocked on my door one day and told me he thought our sports coverage was fucking rubbish. I invited him to be sports editor. His football reports detailing the derring-do of South Manchester park teams arrived on beer-stained, nicotine-tinged hand-written sheets delivered straight from the pub by one of John Hampson’s lads each Sunday afternoon during the season. They were excellent.
Our pubs correspondent, the late and much-lamented John Turrell, was manager of the Red Lion, at the time Marston’s biggest-selling house. John reckoned that about one per cent of best bitter dispensed at the Red passed through his kidneys. Around the Houses, his pubs column, was brilliant. Both Johns obtained an NUJ card.
Our first splash covered an industrial dispute in a local bakery. We carried campaigning leads on landlord housing scams, local hospital closures, and – when the circulation area grew to include Didsbury – how was it that the chairman of Didsbury Civic Society happened also to be chairman of Heald’s Dairy, Didsbury’s major employer? Didsbury’s narrow terraced streets were plagued by huge milk tankers. John Heald went apoplectic.
By then we were the South Manchester Reporter, we were weekly, and we attempted more political commentary – though we never, in my five-year tenure as editor, overtly favoured one party.
We had fun with Fearless Fred, Withington constituency’s 1980s Tory MP, Fred Sylvester, way to the left of his beloved leader, and with what we called the Lord Chair, the hapless councillor who took on a nominal lead role after Labour abolished the post of Lord Mayor. We also asked how Dr David Sandiford, a Liberal city councillor and ardent academic, could represent Withington ward after he moved out to Didsbury.
At one stage we carried a cartoon strip by a disaffected art teacher. ‘Andertonius’ lampooned the headline-grabbing activities of James Anderton, then chief of the Greater Manchester Constabulary, by casting him as a Roman centurion trying not very successfully to keep rebellious Mancunian Celts in order.
The Reporter survived sundry editors from 1984 when I stepped down, including an exemplary stint by one Bill Freeman. It survived a succession of owners (I had sold my interests in 1988) until it was brought into the Guardian Media Group’s Manchester weekly stable, where it remains.
If the early barnstorming years could not last, the campaigns weren’t a complete failure. Withington village found a sort of stability, bolstered by the arrival (not to everybody’s taste) of wealthy ManchesterUniversity students from down south. Heald’s Dairy was removed from Didsbury village. WithingtonHospital closed.
And Audrey Jones? She became leader of the growing Liberal Democrat group on the city council. A few years ago it was her turn to be Lord Mayor. Yes, the post had been quickly restored.
Despite spats with the city council I had been a solid Labour voter throughout my time with the Reporter. But when Audrey stood as Lib Dem candidate for the Withington parliamentary constituency in the 1990s she got my vote. A vote of thanks, maybe, for all that grassroots activity. It didn’t do her any good.
On one of those long days when we were all sitting round doing nothing in particular, but ostensibly planning the launch of what was to become The European (I can’t put my finger on the actual date because most days were like that) somebody mentioned that somebody was writing a book.
Mike Molloy, editing in chief, was forced into a slight smile.
‘Half the journalists on my staff have written the first five chapters of their great novel,’ he said.
‘The other half have written the first chapter of five great novels.’
Mike himself had written six (complete novels), all in elegant longhand, at his various editing desks. All of them were described as best-sellers. So he knew of what he spoke.
I don’t wish to appear churlish here, but it is my experience that editors, anywhere, tend to get better reviews on the opposition’s books pages than their foot-soldiers. Although the fact that Robert Maxwell owned Mike’s publishers had nothing to do with it, because he had made his mark before that man had entered our lives.
What Mike was saying, however, appeared largely true.
When all that you know how to do is write, it seems a natural act to have a crack at a book. Journalists never need to look very far, after all, for plots or inspiration.
And when words are your trade it has to be particularly galling to walk into a branch of Waterstones and realise that you are surrounded by… the printed word.
Not a single one of them written by you. And yet you are the professional.
I read somewhere that 87,000 books are published every year in the UK alone. That’s about 1,600 a week (or nearly 350 a day, because publishers don’t work weekends). What does that mean? – That the market is already too swamped to get into? Or that, if publishers are churning out books at such a rate it must be easy for you, the professional, to get in there somewhere, and most probably at the top of the list?
Answers on a postcard, please.
Despite their unargued professionalism and expertise, however, very few of them seem to make it on to the bookshelves.
It doesn’t stop them trying, though.
When I was on the picture desk of The Independent I quite enjoyed working Sunday; it was usually quiet in the office and meant I could get a lot of the boring, but necessary paperwork work done in peace. I also regularly used to have lunch in the canteen with one of the home news sub editors. He would come over to the desk and argue with me about my demands for space for our pictures, but would always depart with a smile and a joke, treating our pictures well.
He was a gentle, bearded, bear of a man, with a soft American accent, a keen sense of observation and a wry sense of humour. He was also trying to become a writer. He’d already had some travel pieces published in Granta magazine and expressed some surprise that I had read them.
One day he told me he was quitting the paper.
He went on to explain he was fed up with the daily commute from his home near Virginia Water and picking his way through what he called the ‘toilet’ of the underground stations.
He had somehow got a contract from a publisher for a year’s work producing – of all things – a dictionary, and would be selling his house in the home counties, taking the profit and buying a house in Yorkshire. He thought he could support his family at least for that first year and then might be able to get odd writing assignments to keep him going.
Bold, I thought. Ambitious. Adventurous. But I wished him well with his dreams and he subsequently left the paper.
Bill Bryson was his name. I wonder what happened to him.
Let’s begin at the end. I was running down Margate seafront, briefcase in hand, tie flapping, sweat staining my shirt and three-piece pin-striped suit, pursued by seven women, two old blokes, six kids and an excited fox terrier.
They wanted my money. Rather, the money they thought I owed them. I didn’t have it and they didn’t deserve it.
Let’s now go right back – believe me it’s apropos. In 1958 at the age of eleven, I walked up to a complete stranger on Hastings seafront and said, calmly and accurately: ‘You are Lobby Lud and I claim today’s News Chronicle and Daily Dispatch prize.’ He said, rather churlishly I thought, ‘Not today I’m not mate.’
Up until her untimely death in her mid-Sixties my mother swore that he WAS Lobby Lud and we should have got the fiver.
Which brings me back – stay with me on this – to Margate. It was the much-maligned, but for me heavenly seventies. I was a staff reporter on the News of the World and was sent to the seaside town to beard some villain in his Evil Den of Sin.
Having done so, I filed the quotes, which had been literally – ‘Fuck off you fucking bastard before I smash your face in.’ But came out by some process of alchemy as: ‘I don’t wish to talk about this. It’s all very upsetting. Look, I haven’t done anything wrong. I know people will point fingers at me – but they’re just being malicious.’
It was now and the office told me to grab a bite, check in later and if all was clear head back home since there was little chance of me getting back to Fleet Street during office hours. I decided to have a stroll down the seafront.
In the days before reporters dressed like Che Guevara, I was wearing the standard Fleet Street rig: pin-striped suit, including waistcoat, white shirt, tie, highly-polished shoes. I also carried a briefcase.
I looked like a solicitor and the solicitor look was so effective people often thought we were.
(My colleague Ivan Waterman, who later sensibly moved into showbiz reporting, used to turn up on scandal-ridden doorsteps in his pin-striped suit carrying the regulation briefcase and announce: ‘I’ve come from London to sort it all out.’ He was frequently invited in. After about half an hour the demented wife-swapping, threesome-indulging individuals or whomever would tentatively ask: ‘Sorry…who ARE you exactly?’ By then all sides of the love tangle would have told him everything. Ivan would then reluctantly reveal he was from the News of the World and be ejected into the street.)
Meanwhile back in Margate; I sat down on a bench and inhaled the bracing sea air. Then I saw these two rather attractive young women staring at me and grinning. I grinned back. Hey, come on; I was young, single, the possessor of my hair then, and it was the seaside. Who knew what heady passion could evolve from a seaside glance?
To my delight one detached herself and came across, still smiling – if hesitant. She came closer. I said, ‘Hello.’ She said: ‘You’re him.’ I said him who? She said: ‘Him?’ I again said him who – and she said, ‘You’re Chalky White.’ I said there was only one person in the world who called me Chalky – Ivan Waterman as it happens – but how on earth did she know my name?
Her smile was now more of a rictus that would need maybe a surgical jaw dislocation to fix. She looked down at a torn piece of newspaper and said as if reciting a laundry list: ‘You are Chalky White and I demand my Daily Mirror prize.’
I remember thinking: God Almighty, she’s a nutcase.
She sat down next to me and laid a hand on my leg and said again: ‘You are Chalky White and I demand my Daily Mirror prize.’ I looked around for the hidden cameras, and as I did, behind her some yards away I spotted a Daily Mirror bill. ‘Chalky White is in town today. Challenge him and win £100.’ The penny dropped with a clang like it was landing in the chamber of an old gents convenience toilet door.
I got up, ‘Look. There’s some mistake. I’m not – er, Chalky White.’ The smile turned to hurt, turned to a snarl of thwarted venom. ‘You’re him!’
I protested that honestly I wasn’t and I walked briskly away. Her look followed me. That of a malicious spoiled child who wakes up on Christmas morning to the shock that Santa has failed to visit.
I went for a cup of tea and had a little chuckle to myself. Mistaken for Chalky White. Got to tell the lads about this one in the top bar of the Tipperary tomorrow night. I then went to a phone box to make a last check call to the office.
I was chatting to the news desk when I realised there was a sea of faces pressed up against the glass like I was a monkey in a zoo.
Children, women, old men – one of the latter without teeth – and all with the same rictus grin of embarrassed challenge on their faces. A dog was barking excitedly. I heard a chant, ‘Chalky White. Chalky White.’ I bade farewell to the desk and pushed open the creaky old red glass-paned door.
‘No…you’ve all made a terrible mistake.’
A harridan of about sixty pinned me to the phone box. ‘You’re Chalky White, inncha?’ I protested once again that I was not.
Then I suddenly got the giftie to see myself as others saw me. A summer’s day on Margate seafront? The de rigeur dress code was shorts, swim suits, t-shirts, open necked shirts, sandals, summer dresses. And here was this preposterous creature in a pin-striped suit and buckled, highly-polished shoes.
‘No I’m not him. You see…what’s happened is – ’
‘Prove it.’ The woman interjected. ‘Prove you’re not ’im.’ I should have run then and there. Had I not read of The Mob, seen it even at riots and demos? It thinks not with its head but its guts – and inflamed guts at that. The Mob didn’t see the truthful, charming, bearded rather raffish and harmless me. It saw a man in a suit. It saw Chalky White. It saw MONEY.
I thought I’d appeal to their logic. I’d prove to them who I was. I got out my Press card (NUJ, not Met in those heady days). Look, I pointed at my picture…I’m with the News of the World, not the Daily Mirror. And my name is Stuart W-w-w-w….the words teetered on the precipice of my tongue, I tried to pull them back but they toppled kicking and screaming into the abyss.. ‘W-w..white…’
It was enough. Newspapers are newspapers. Mirror? News of the World? Just early editions of fish and chip paper to come. The Mob had all the evidence it needed.
‘Chalky White! Chalky White!’ They began to pull at me, grabbing my suit, demanding the hundred pounds. ‘I saw ’im first,’ shouted First Harridan.’ ‘No you didn’t I saw ’im go in the bleedin’ box,’ screamed a younger but budding Harridan Two. ‘No you never. I saw ’im in the café and followed ’im,’ croaked Old Toothless.
There was only one thing for it. I made a run for it. I broke free. A swing of the briefcase caught an unguarded rib to a squeal of anguish; a hand-off learnt playing rugby sent a fat lady tottering. I accidentally stood on a tiny sandaled foot and its owner cried out in childish soprano. But pity was an emotion I couldn’t afford. I was off. I was 27. I was fit, and had I not been for three seasons left-wing for Windleshaw Parish Church Amateur Rugby League team in my teens? I ran like this was the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley, the try line lay ahead, and I was a candidate for the Lance Todd trophy.
They gave chase. Cheated. Thwarted. Angry. Murderous. But I made my open topped MGB, roared it into life and screeched out of town like I was gettin’ the Hell outta Dodge.
Now let me make it perfectly clear: I was not Chalky White and never have been. I have never worked for the Daily Mirror. I owe nobody one hundred pounds. It was a stitch-up, see. I was framed, see. Someone set me up, see. I suspect the real ‘Chalky’, keen to protect his newspaper’s precious hundred smackers, was no doubt watching from his hiding place and cackling.
But I rather believe for decades afterwards, her trust in newspapers for ever ruptured, a slowly greying mother would say to her growing daughter: ‘We got cheated that day in Margate. It was Chalky White all right. The bastard!’
Stuart White worked on his local newspaper the St Helens Reporter, and various provincial evenings before going to Fleet Street to the London Evening News. Between spells on the News of the World he worked in Hong Kong on the China Mail. His final assignment was as the NoW’s American correspondent based in Los Angeles. He writes a column for Business Destinations magazine.
There was a second phone on my desk. It didn’t go through the secretary or the Mirror switchboard. It was an external number that only Maxwell, the editor in chief (who’d been fired) and the three editors knew. It was ‘the hotline’ – part of Bob’s paranoia about security.
Sixteen people had these phones; in the event that the shit hit the fan and the company folded, 13 of us (ie, not the editors) would be the ones kept behind to close it down, and hopefully to resurrect it. It never rang. But now it was ringing.
When I answered it, a familiar deep brown voice asked: ‘Who’s that?’
Between jabbing the button on a console with his fat finger, and the time it took me to reach over and pick up the handset, he had forgotten who he was calling.
‘Aw, for fuck’s sake…’
‘Ah… Revel… please pop up and see me. Now.’
He told me to get myself a drink, and there was a delay because there was no bottle opener, so I asked for his driver to be called, because I knew that he had one on his key ring.
While we waited he said that he had received my memo. It had amounted to a character reading, reminding him that in July 1984 he had said that he never told a lie, but would sometimes allow his mind to be changed, and that on that basis he had reneged on every promise he had made to me or in my presence in the seven-year interim, from ‘journalists will be on top, management on tap’ by way of ‘would you like to edit The Sporting Life?’ to ‘I am going to let Stott and you buy the Sunday People’.
When he’d looked at the first memo I’d written him, what seemed like a lifetime ago, he’d said: ‘Get one of those yellow markers from the secretary and just highlight the important bits, the bits that I need to read.’ And I’d said no, because I wrote only the important bits; if I sent him a note I expected him to read it all.
This one, he had obviously read word for word. It wasn’t on his desk, but he was able to quote from it. It listed the broken promises, the last one being his failure to inject any money into the People which was as near as it had ever been to being in the black. My last line was ‘Enough is e-fucking-NUFF.’
It came from the heart. I had written and sent it before lunch. Mike Molloy, to whom I had shown a copy after sending, described it as a potential suicide note. ‘But he’ll probably just ignore it,’ said Mike.
But when the driver had been and gone Bob asked how many times I had told him I wanted to leave, and I said there were five occasions that I could remember, and probably more, when I’d been pissed.
And on each of those occasions, whether pissed or merely pissed off, said Bob, he had persuaded me to stay. Now he said: ‘Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I am not asking you to leave. But if you are adamant that you want to leave, what I am saying is that I will no longer stand in your way.’
‘Great,’ I said. ‘That’s easy. I want to leave.’
He shrugged. ‘If that’s what you wish. Now I want you to go back to your office and write out your terms for leaving this company, and bring them back for me to sign.’
‘On the other hand,’ I suggested, ‘you could just sign this.’ And I produced a folded piece of A4 from my inside pocket and laid it flat on his desk.
Bob stared at the dog-eared, slightly crumpled, sheet of typing. ‘How long have you been carrying this in your pocket?’
‘Since Friday, July 13, 1984. Only I have retyped it, revising the figures, from time to time.’
‘Honestly, I had no idea that you were so unhappy all those years. I thought it was just you being awkward and obstinate.’
That as well, I told him. But I didn’t see how I could possibly have made my feelings more clear to him.
He worked his way down my bullet points, quibbling briefly about the deal on the office car because it was new, and asking why I wanted to take what I described with intentional vagueness as my ‘computer equipment’. I explained that it was because all my personal stuff was on it, and anyway the PC was old. I didn’t say that there was also a laptop, and a new ₤1,500 printer. But I bought the car and the technology for a quid each, and handed him two pound coins, which he pocketed.
When he got to the bit about a pay-rise, backdated to January, he said: ‘I will increase your salary, as you suggest, but from April.’
No, I insisted: from January.
‘There’s a problem in doing that, because it will affect your pension.’
I told him that thought had also occurred to me.
‘When you’re dealing with pensions,’ he said, ‘you are taking money from widows and orphans.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But we are talking about my widow and my orphans.’
[Now I know… with benefit of hindsight, this was a weird conversation. But only with hindsight. At the time it meant absolutely nothing, to me – although, possibly, it meant quite a bit to him.]
‘OK,’ he agreed. ‘We’ll leave it as January.’
The deal was that I would leave on December 31 (this was October 31). He initialled the paragraphs of the document with his strange pen stroke which, years earlier, I had pointed out to him was actually the Pitman’s shorthand outline for ‘charge’.
It was unusually, eerily, quiet in the office. Nobody came in; the phone didn’t ring. He told me to get another drink. His driver had left the bottle opener with me.
He looked down in the dumps. I asked him if he was ok. ‘Don’t tell me you’re suddenly depressed at the thought of my leaving.’
‘It’s not that,’ he said. ‘I think maybe I am going down with flu. But I mustn’t get flu. The doctors told me that one day flu would kill me, because of the lung thing. [Diagnosed with TB, he’d had a lung removed, but the surgeons removed the wrong lung and then discovered that the diagnosis had been mistaken in the first place.] So I’m going off shortly to the boat, to get some fresh air. I’ll be ok after that. Look… come back next week and we’ll go over your paper again. Maybe we’ll round up the figures a bit. Don’t make an appointment. Don’t tell the secretaries, just come straight in on Wednesday morning and we’ll do it.’
Business completed, we chatted about other matters, and other people. I helped myself to another drink while he called Ian and reminded him that he was standing in for a couple of his appointments while he’d be on the boat, and told him what to say, and to whom, on his behalf.
Finally he stood up. ‘Come on, I’ll walk you to the lift.’ Bob never walked anybody to the lift. He pressed the button and as we waited he put his hand on my shoulder and said: ‘You know, you’ve been a good friend to me, and you’ve never given me anything but good advice, even if I haven’t always taken it. But anyway… come and see me next week and we’ll take another look at those figures. And have a good weekend.’
He had no other appointments that evening. He left very shortly afterwards to fly off to his yacht, Lady Ghislaine.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Read what you like into it. But that's how it was.
When it was announced that he was lost at sea, the Stock Exchange had his office sealed. When it was eventually unsealed, so the records show, the only piece of paper on his desk was my departure deal.
Between 1984 and 1991 Revel Barker was editorial advisor to the publisher, group editorial manager, managing editor, foreign manager, assistant managing director, general manager of the People, and managing director-designate of People Publishing – all jobs that ran concurrently.
There will be a memorial service for Alisdair Macdonald – one of Fleet Street’s best and most dedicated photographers – at St Bride’s church on November 1.
As a change from words, let’s remember him with perhaps his most memorable photograph:
The Kiss was the one picture that the world wanted to see and that every photographer wanted to take on that unforgettable date in July 1981.
And Alisdair was the one who got it as the Daily Mirror splash.
An estimated 600,000 people filled the streets of London that day. The Street’s finest photographers had been arguing for weeks about who would go where on the rota.
Was it better to get inside the Cathedral with 3,500 people, where TV cameras would broadcast the ceremony to 750million viewers – a world record – and be among the first to see The Dress? Or stand outside in possible rain (it was, after all, an English summer) being jostled by the crowds and take your chances trying to capture whatever happened on the Buck House balcony?
Alisdair drew the balcony spot.
He stood waiting for hours in his prime position, virtually immobile, his camera never leaving his eye, scanning the crowds for activity and then focussing in on the balcony when the main players eventually arrived, his long lens weighing heavily in his hand, and him terrified of running out of film and missing the one great shot that might happen only at the moment when he needed to change a roll.
It was worth the wait.
The shot went round the world.
Was it the best photograph he ever took? Probably not. There was packet after packet of his aircraft photography in the Mirror picture library – the Farnborough Air Show was always one of his favourite assignments. There were also plenty of on-the-road jobs for news and a folio of brilliant portraits: Michael Cain and Paul McCartney spring easily to mind.
But as a photo that captured the mood of a nation and the spirit of two young people, apparently so much in love, it seized the moment. Brilliantly.
I first met Tommy Braithwaite on a night shift for the Sunday Mirror in the late 60s. He was semi-retired even then and was in his usual place at one end of the Stab’s front bar. I had just left The Times staff to go freelance and this was my first encounter with the tabloid end of Fleet Street.
Stories of Tommy’s escapades were widespread even then… How other photographers would load his glass plates for him, put him in a taxi to some assignment, unload his plates when he returned and process them as he returned to his slot in the Stab.
They were always pin sharp and beautifully exposed although Tommy often could not remember where he’d been and who he’d photographed.
Unlike many of his colleagues who’d warned me off Fleet Street, Tommy was always encouraging to a young photographer. He gave me the best piece of advice I ever received, and still remember to this day.
I had to go to photograph the Queen and was understandably nervous about the etiquette involved. ‘Don’t you worry lad; you and the Queen have a lot in common,’ Tommy told me. Wondering whatever I could have in common with Her Majesty I asked the old sage what that might be.
‘You both shit in the mornings!’ said Tommy seriously. I never forgot it in my dealings with pompous company chairmen and self-centred celebrities and once reminded a particularly difficult CEO of the fact to his face. He thought about it and then cooperated.
Tommy was also famous for having handled The Big One for Mirror pictures. One evening he was hanging round the desk when the phone rang. Picture editor Simon Cline answered it, tensed and then turned to Tommy. ‘This is it Tommy the big one, go, go, go!’
‘OK, where to Simon?’
‘Don’t hang about Tommy go-go-go! Now!’
‘But where to?’
‘If you’re still there in a minute, you’re fired. It’s the big one! Go!’
Tommy, knowing better than to hang around, shot out the door and went to the Stab, taking up his usual position at the bar.
An hour later Tommy phoned the picture desk.
‘Where are you Tommy?’
‘I’m on my way Simon but could you tell me...’
‘Keep going lad, it’s really big.’
And with that the phone went dead.
This continued until closing time when Tommy made one last despairing call.
‘I’m just about there Simon, what’s the addr...’
‘Don’t worry old man, its over. Come back!’
Tommy never did find out where the job was. But plenty of mileage was duly recorded on his expenses: ‘Secret assignment for picture editor…’
Pairs, combinations, double acts… you know how we hacks love them. Why? Well, because we have the off-the-peg words to describe them. Flicking through the pages of our Handy Book of Nifty Phrases, we say – again and again – that this is the best marriage since fish and chips, or beer and skittles, or bacon and eggs. We’ve all done it.
So, when the commissioning editor of YOU magazine – the MoS colour supp, when it was the best of the lot – told me over lunch about the editorial twosome he had put together to go to Australia for a piece, I was temporarily lost for a comparison.
John Sandilands was certainly one of the most original and stylish freelance writers. He was also possessed of a dangerous wit. This was the man who once complained to a slow waiter: ‘Are you bringing those snails or are they making their own way to the table?’ As a piss-taker, he was mostly unhindered by a sense of mercy.
The photographer who was to accompany him, a talented chap, had one minor character failing. Thin-skinned doesn’t quite cover it. He was so touchy that he had been known to hit people for saying ‘Good morning.’ The red mist was never far away. A snapper who easily snapped.
A great combination. Wicked piss-taker and two-fisted paranoid. Suddenly the phrase came to me. ‘This,’ I said, ‘is the best combination since gunpowder met flint.’
My prediction was that they’d never last the two weeks in Australia. I was wrong. They came to blows on the train to Gatwick. Before they’d even sat down.
The placing together of man and monkey – or, more formally, writer and photographer – is more complicated than any matchmaker has ever faced. For one thing, I don’t agree with the widely held belief that most snappers are mad, although many of them, it is true, would benefit from regular doses of the liquid cosh and jackets with tie-down sleeves. They’re a little unpredictable, shall we say? Probably been unhinged by all those flashlights going off.
When I was far too young to understand these matters, I found myself in Warrington one morning with a freelance photographer called Ron. In the nearest pub, he looked round at the empty bar with some scorn. It was, he thought, pretty lifeless considering it was nearly . When the two pints came, Ron sneakily slipped off his wrist watch and dropped it in the glass. Pinter couldn’t have bettered the dialogue that followed…
Ron said he thought there was something in his beer. The landlord, bending down, said with some puzzlement that it looked like a watch to him. Ron said he thought the same. Crouching down to get a clearer look, the landlord said it was definitely a wrist-watch and expressed a high degree of curiosity about how it got in there. Ron, slightly indignant, echoed his curiosity at the same time as emphasising that he was not in the habit of putting watches into pints. Of course not, the landlord reassured him – the idea was too preposterous for words.
They looked at each other. There was only one possible explanation. The watch must have come through the tap. At this point, the landlord put his head beneath the tap and looked upwards for any further supplies of time-measuring devices that might be in transit.
‘But you lost your watch,’ I said, as we came out.
‘It was crap,’ said Ron. ‘I always carry one in case I want a laugh.’
I think the most creative photographer I ever worked with was Dennis Hussey in the Mirror’s Manchester office. When the visual artistes in London got stuck, they usually passed the problem on to Dennis. A cover pic for a shock issue about the re-building of the north? The next day Dennis came in with a picture of his son, aged about four, in a cowboy outfit, rifle at the port, against a background of houses rising on a derelict landscape. ‘New Frontier,’ he said.
Pollution, said London. Off went Dennis and returned with a picture of dead fish rolling in the foaming waters of the Tyne in the foreground, misty cooling towers in the background. I think he got prizes for that. A week later, the features editor, Alan Price, asked him to suggest a reply to a reader’s letter saying that the fish were clearly mackerel, and what were they doing ten miles upstream? ‘There’s always one clever bugger,’ was his reply, and he was right.
(What Dennis had done, being a very smart snapper indeed, was to buy a cran or something of mackerel, and hire two men with a motor boat.He sat up in the prow with his camera and gave the signal for them to tip the fish over the stern and start the outboard engine.Result: shoals of dead fish rolling around in turbulent waters.)
He and I worked a lot together, and it was always a pleasure. If anyone made difficulties, Dennis’s answer was to become brisk. When a fearfully snooty lady horse-breeder in Ireland said she didn’t wish to have her photograph taken, Dennis said: ‘You don’t want it taken, I don’t want to take it, so let’s get it over with, luv.’ He plonked her in front of a horse and before her astonished mouth could close, he’d got it.
In Portmeirion, going to interview the widow of the architect who designed the place – Williams Clough Ellis, Ellis Clough Williams, Clough Williams Ellis, or some similar permutation – I’d just passed through the reception of the rather superior hotel when Dennis arrived. The languid young man behind the counter was just saying to a colleague: ‘Apparently he’s from the Daily Mirror, but he didn’t seem such a bed chep.’ Dennis slapped his palm on the desk. ‘Aye, I’m not a bed chep either – which way did he go?’
There were two things you noticed very soon about Dennis. First, he was a dashingly handsome chap – or chep – with black hair and brown eyes, a sort of Lancashire Gregory Peck. The second was that he was fiercely patriotic. I got the impression that he thought foreigners were a very poor second to our rough island race.
It wasn’t until we saw a shop called Hussey and Son in Tralee that he told me something of his background. His family had originally come from Tralee, and there was the shop with the family name over the top. We had some time to spare, so Dennis went inside and introduced himself. They sent him on to a farmhouse outside the town to see a woman who was his auntie. When she opened the door, she cried: ‘Tis a Hussey come home!’
He told me all this later when he came back to the car. She had recognised him instantly because of this appearance. ‘Look!’ she said. He turned to see several Hussey cousins, with black hair and brown eyes. They’d told him the explanation. Hussey was a corruption of the name Jose. He was descended from survivors of the Spanish Armada who had been shipwrecked on those shores.
Naturally enough, Dennis was very moved by this romantic personal history, although I thought it did have other implications. ‘You know what this means, don’t you?’ I said, as we drove away. ‘I’m sorry to say it Dennis, but you’re a dago.’
He kept out of the sun all that summer, I can tell you.
For about three years, John Dempsie and I were the London-based features team for the Daily Record, and it was probably the most enjoyable three years I ever had. For one thing, the two of us had a free hand to go anywhere and do anything. Secondly, Glasgow knows very little about English geography. ‘Kensington, Colin? Will that be an overnight?’ It was.
Dempsie, ex-Mail and Mirror, was born in Motherwell and openly admitted to being Scottish. As we drove around together over the months, Dempsie persistently attempted to assert Scotland’s superiority over my native Yorkshire. (Ridiculous, I know, but that’s the Scots for you.) It came to a head as we were approaching the Yorkshire border from the south and I said I was longing to hear some of the lovely old Yorkshire songs again. Dempsie snorted with contempt: the only Yorkshire song was that bloody awful thing about Ilkley Moor.
Oh no, there were lots more, I told him. And I began to sing them in the car. The Northern Lights of Old Huddersfield. Over the Sea to Buckden. I Love a Lassie, a Bonnie Keighley Lassie. And that wonderful old closing-time song, When I’ve Had a Couple of Drinks on a Saturday, Bradford Belongs to Me.
As the final note died, I heard a Motherwell voice beside me say: ‘Ye’re nothing but a wee song burglar, Dunne.’
I’d thought he wouldn’t notice. After all, he is Scottish.
We had a lot of fun together, and so I did with Ian Bradshaw, when we were freelancing for YOU mag. Ian worked for everyone from The Times to the National Enquirer. He set high standards and could become a tad impatient if others couldn’t meet them. Bradshaw – for some unaccountable reason – was noted for having assistants so glamorous that they made most models look plain.
On one occasion he had a new assistant who could have made a camel look pretty. She was six and six: that is, about six stone in weight, about six-foot high. I’ve seen more robust bootlaces. In her early twenties, she was a health freak, a vegetarian, and vegan, and quite possibly a Martian. So fastidious was she that there was almost nothing she could eat other than a lightly grilled oak leaf in season. Certainly the only thing she could find on the hotel menu in Bremen were a few French beans, and she left most of those.
The next day we had to be up for a flight. As she went to bed at nine, leaving Bradshaw and me demolishing plates of dead animals and pints of beer, she pointed out that we had no respect for our bodies to be filling them with such filth, and if we continued to poison ourselves like this, we were not long for this world. And off she went.
The next morning, very early hours, the Vegan was nowhere to be seen. Bradshaw rang her room several times. Eventually she came staggering down, sat down in the foyer, and fell asleep. The two 50-year-olds, crippled from years of bad diet and hedonism, did her job as she snored. We were quite prepared to carry her to the car as well, but she managed to make it unaided. In the measured tones of a man who is one inch short of murder, Bradshaw made a suggestion to her. When you get back tonight, he said, lips tightening, I suggest you have a bloody big steak-and-kidney pie, a bread and butter pudding and five pints of bitter. ‘Then perhaps you’ll be able to do a day’s work.’ Yawning, she said she hoped to become an aroma-therapist. Bradshaw advised her to avoid strong smells: ‘they’d knock you over.’
Technically, everyone said that Bradshaw was the best. He was also the most competitive. Sometimes the two coincided…
We were doing a piece on gypsy fortune tellers… oh dear, you’re not allowed to say that, are you? How about professional liars of Romany descent? Anyway, he’d photographed about eight of them and he was disappointed. They simply didn’t have the right sort of faces. But he knew someone who did – my wife, whose ancestors were Sicilian. We went back with a headscarf, crystal ball, hoop earrings, and prints of the earlier pix. She seemed a little disappointed we hadn’t brought some pegs for her to sell.
Now this is technical so let’s hope I’ve got it right. Bradshaw pinned the gypsy pictures on Anita’s front and stuck a lens against the back of the crystal ball. Snap. It was a brilliant pic: scarved and ear-ringed gypsy gazing into a crystal ball wherein she could see the faces of all the others. At the magazine office, he chucked it casually on the desk. ‘Very clever,’ said one art bench exec. ‘That’s what I would have done.’
There was a pause. Bradshaw’s eyes narrowed. ‘And how exactly would you have done that?’
Answer came there… what’s that word again? Ah yes: none.
He’s in America now, bounding from success to success as usual. I don’t know who his latest assistant is. My guess is a non-vegan with a prominent bust-line
Say what you like about smudgers, they were never boring. In fact, quite often I found myself praying for a boring photographer, just for a rest. There was one snapper on the Sun who had an office car that would be replaced after two years or 100,000 miles. After six months, he put it in for a new one. The clock showed 100,000 miles. He’d got a girl-friend in Sweden and every weekend he’d drive like a fury to Humberside, cross on the ferry and drive right across Sweden. Then back.
The picture editor offered to provide him a choice of girl-friends, all with bigger tits, if he’d try to stay closer to home. I tell you, they looked after the staff in our day.