We have changed our address. This is of course not news to you because you found where we have moved to, and hopefully will continue to door-step us. [‘I’ve been on more doorsteps than a milk bottle’ – Jimmy Nicholson, the Prince of Darkness.]
The move, from Blogsite to Website (we think of it as Docklands, back to Fleet Street), became necessary because the blog was becoming unwieldy.
And it isn’t yet complete. Some of the furniture is still in storage, some is with Pickfords and there’s still stuff in tea-chests here waiting to be unpacked.
But, frankly, we were desperate to get moved in to the new place and invite our old friends in for a look before, so to speak, we finish the decorating.
Please bookmark the site among your favourites, so you can find us more easily every Friday.
It’s the usual mixed bag this week. Former picture editor ALUN JOHN reports on training photographers on the national news agency in Rwanda; BOB WATERHOUSE produces a real rant of a reply to a letter from Ian Skidmore in our last posting about whether or not broadcaster Tony Wilson was entitled to be called Mr Manchester, and wonders whether this might be evidence to support his belief that newspapermen envy broadcasters; JOHN HARRIS reports on what his search for Utopia – the view from the office was described two weeks ago by John Garton – was actually like; GEOFFREY MATHER finds himself fleeing from the Land o’ Cakes with Peter Thomas to escape surreal pub conversation; IAN SKIDMORE recounts how he founded a newspaper dynasty, almost by the skin of his teeth; EDDIE RAWLINSON recalls the possibly (?) lost craft of the village correspondent; and we end with COLIN DUNNE, on his old form, reporting his discovery of the near mythical existence of The Lost Feature Writer. He’d been away too long, had Mr Dunne.
Just click on This Week, over on the left, to get into it.
Across there you will also find the Letters page, details of our Contributors, our pedantic old friend Dr Syntax, and eventually much more…
If you close your eyes after looking out over the landscape of soft green hills, and lush valleys with rivers and trees, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in Tuscany.
But if you keep your eyes open, you will soon see you are in one of those few places in the world where you just need to hear the name to shiver – Rwanda.
They call it the land of the thousand hills. The main hotel in Kigali, Les Mille Collines, immortalised itself by giving its name to the infamous radio station urging racial hatred and mass killings in the streets of the towns and the villages of those thousand hills.
The people trapped in the hotel at the height of the genocide in 1994 couldn’t leave and the supplies couldn't get in. They ended up drinking the swimming pool dry. Their story was turned into the film Hotel Rwanda. Five years later I would sit around that same pool enjoying a gin and tonic on a warm tropical evening trying to picture the country during the worst of those times. It seemed a thousand miles from the thousand hills.
I was there on a project jointly funded by the Thomson Foundation and the BBC World Service Trust and I had a couple of weeks to train journalists at the government news agency to take – and to print – photographs.
The agency offices were a typical African set-up – rusted old machinery in the yard, a general air of dilapidation and some friendly girls trying their best to sweep the dust out of the place. I met the editor and was shown around. The newsroom was first. I was introduced to some of the reporters who shook hands and recited their names: Innocent, Robert, Veneranda, Ubaldo, Aggee, Uweniza, Theoneste, Mashema and Astrid Segawege.
The first thing I noticed about the room was the complete lack of typewriters let alone computers. The second, that there was only one telephone. It was in a little wooden box that left the handset free, but contained the dial behind a locked flap so that incoming calls could be taken, outgoing calls made only by whoever held the key. Obviously, the reporters were encouraged to make as few phone calls as possible.
The photo department was a shambles. The equipment old and rusty, the floor of the darkroom had an open drain running across it and the windows were not light tight. The bright sun streamed in through the gaps in the blackout. I looked into the film processing cubicle to discover a pile of rubbish, including an old oil drum full of some noxious chemical, and a little seat with a half-full spirit bottle next to it. No doubt it would be put to use during quieter periods of the day. The canvas of the print dryer had rotted away and the whole place needed a vigorous cleaning. A darkroom manager was produced, who looked to be in the same condition, and in urgent need of the same treatment as his darkroom.
The rest of the tour took in the printing works. The press was a flat bed and, on press days, a vast team of cheerfully-singing ladies was assembled to fold the pages of the paper together and get piles of them ready for distribution. There was a plate-making room and one extremely basic computer terminal to input the copy for the pages. The system meant that reporters would write their stories out in longhand on sheets of paper and give them to the editor who would revise them and start to plan spaces for them on the pages. He would then pass the flimsy sheets of handwriting and pencilled notes to the one girl in the office who could work the computer and she would input the entire paper sitting on a broken chair using the single keyboard and dim and scratched screen in the hot, airless darkened room. I wonder how European journalists, accustomed to working at ergonomically-designed desks in air-conditioned offices, might still manage to complain about their conditions if they had to work like this. I am sure that the lady there hadn’t heard of Repetitive Strain Injury, let alone think she might be compensated for a stiff wrist near press day.
The first task was to clean up the darkroom and see which bits of the equipment actually worked. The girls giggled frantically as they saw me start to clean the place myself and immediately rushed over to help. We filled some sacks with rubbish and put tape over the cracks in the blackout. I made holes in the wall with my Swiss Army knife for hooks to hang the towels and I chatted to the manager, who could speak only French and Kirirwandan. My French is based mainly on an ability to order what I want in a restaurant so the conversation was somewhat basic. He showed me his stocks of paper and chemicals and we did a couple of prints together in the darkroom.
This was when we made an important discovery, which in this digital age might pass most of us by.
Editor-in-chief Rogers Kayihura had earlier complained about the poor quality of the prints coming from the darkroom and said he had been told it was the fault of the poor equipment which was beyond improvement. It now became clear nobody at the newspaper knew different grades of photographic printing paper existed for specific purposes. They didn’t know what the numbers on the boxes meant.
One of the most crucial characteristics of producing a good print for reproduction is also the simplest to control through the choice of printing paper. Tonal differences can be exaggerated by the response of the paper emulsion to give the print more contrast than the negative or they can be diminished to give the print less contrast. This ensures the perfect tonal range for optimum reproduction quality.
The papers are made in numerical grades of contrast ranging from 0 – very 'soft', or low contrast, through 2 – normal or average – to 5 which is very 'hard' or extremely high contrast.
The paper grade has a powerful influence of the appearance of a picture and can at one end create an image with a full range of tones delicately distinguished apart, through to a virtual elimination of gradations of shade, leaving the image composed of dazzling whites and opaque blacks at the other.
Each negative has to be assessed to determine which grade of paper is needed to produce the best result. This is usually done through experience, although Photoshop now does the same trick with two clicks of a mouse. In the Kigali darkroom, paper was being used with no regard to the grade and the numbers on the boxes were either being ignored or people simply did not understand their significance. When paper was needed to make a print, the next box to be used could be of any grade, thus making it impossible to achieve the best results from the negative.
I had only been in the office for three hours and I had solved their main problem. Not bad! The rest of the two weeks flew by as I instructed the reporters in loading their new cameras, posing the subjects and introduced them to processing and printing. They picked things up quickly. We practised loading the film into the processing spirals, first in the light and then in the dark. This is probably the trickiest skill, requiring a certain amount of technique, but they all tried hard and after a few times could master it well enough.
Printing did not come quite so easily. One poor chap simply could not get the hang of it. All he had to do was place the paper on the enlarger baseboard, turn the light on in the enlarger, count to four and then switch off. He just couldn’t do it. We wasted twenty three sheets of paper until he got the first one right and even then I think we just gave up to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Ian Skidmore’s intemperate Rant about the late Tony Wilson (Letter, August 17) is inaccurate on many counts.
Let’s start with the Mr Manchester red-herring. Wilson never sought the title. Who would, when Mancunians associate ‘Mr Manchester’ with that turgid MEN diary column over the years? Wilson often as not answered to the call of ‘Hey, twat’ from young musicians he crossed in the street: musicians who loved and hated him in equal measure. He had absolute confidence in his own abilities, but no pretensions.
Skidmore’s list of great Mancunians worthy of the above title is confused and confusing. Who could question the contribution of a Barbirolli or a Lowry, but Alan Turing (yes, ed, Turing not Turnig)? Turing, London-born and Cambridge-educated, is best known for his brilliant work at Bletchley during the Second World War cracking the German Enigma code. He came to Manchester in 1948 at the age of 36 as deputy head of the ManchesterUniversity team working on what was to be the first fully-operative computer.
According to biographers his contribution was patchy, at best; then, in 1952, he was convicted of homosexual acts with a young Mancunian. Two years later he committed suicide in Wilmslow. While many of us have felt like topping ourselves in Wilmslow there’s little doubt that Turing would have been much happier in Skidmore’s ‘puffs paradise’.
Now, Alan Bates was no Mancunian. His roots lay in the Midlands. I suspect Skidmore is thinking of Albert Finney. I treasure a photograph taken by Denis Thorpe of Finney, back in Manchester during the 1970s for a stage role, posing in front of his father’s Salford betting shop. The name? Albert Finney.
And ‘Paddy... (yet another whose surname I forget)’ is most likely Ernie Garside, the Mancunian jazz trumpeter who presided over Club 43 in the 1950s and 1960s. Club 43 had many of the same American artists as Ronnie Scott’s in Soho, at half the price and in more intimate surrounds. By the time the club moved to Shude Hill in the 1960s it was attracting people like Miles Davis. My good friend Ian Breach, at the time the Guardian’s jazz critic, attempted to interview him there between sets. Miles had his arms round a couple of gorgeous chicks. He turned to Ian and said ‘why don’t you just go fuck yourself, man?’
Ernie, still alive and well and operating from Cheadle Hulme, became manager of the Canadian-born Maynard Ferguson, even taking British backup bands to the States with Ferguson. And that’s another thing, the Basie and Brubeck days Skidmore mentions were not special to Manchester. Norman Granz toured the UK with jazz legends in the 1960s. I heard Ellington, Basie, Monk, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone among others at the Free Trade Hall. It was one of their stop-offs.
On the thorny issue of whether print journalists made good television presenters or whatever, I suspect that Skidmore is falling into the old envy trap. The plain fact was that Granada started to blossom just at the time – the mid-1960s – when Manchester-based national newspapers were beginning to consolidate. Many print journalists made the jump successfully – after all, they had the experience and they knew their patch. Think of Peter Eckersley or John Stevenson.
Why Skidmore should choose to slander the memory of Bob Smithies, who died only last year, is a mystery. I worked with Smithies during his Guardian days. A fine photographer and great company, he was always prone to ‘delusions of grandeur’. He believed that he should have been made the Guardian’s northern editor after Brian Redhead left to edit the MEN, and indeed he also fancied Alastair Hetherington’s chair. That was one reason why, with a brick wall facing him at the Guardian, he crossed to Granada in 1974. There his rumbustious personality was perfectly suited to tea-time small-screen regional viewing. You could say the same about Bob Greaves.
Personally, I had a dreadful experience at Granada. Offered a three-month contract in 1976 to research a Liverpool story for World in Action, I found myself as virtual bag-carrier for a trainee director just down from Cambridge, name of Charles Sturridge. He went on to direct Brideshead Revisited and many feature films. I went on to start a freesheet called the Withington Reporter. The World in Action programme was never made.
Coming from a parsimonious newspaper background I was astounded when, in the normal course of things, we took a cab from Manchester to Liverpool and kept it with us all day while we did the rounds. I’d been allotted a desk at Quay Street and was sitting there trying to justify my huge fee when a World in Action staffer burst open the door and threw himself at me. ‘This is my office, piss off’. It was like that.
Tony Wilson had his fans and he had his enemies. Fair enough. I didn’t particularly like the uppity guy myself. For one thing, he always seemed to pull the women. But a poor TV presenter? I don’t think so. Writing last week in Media Guardian, Sebastian Cody, producer of Channel 4’s After Dark, the free-ranging late-night live conversation series begun in 1987 which often brought in Wilson to chair the most complicated sessions, endorsed the view of him as ‘Britain’s finest live presenter’. If asked to opt for this opinion or for Skidmore’s, I’d take the former.
Bob Waterhouse was a features sub and reporter with the Guardian in Manchester during the 1960s. Turning freelance, he launched the Withington Reporter (1978) and North West Times (1988). He was also launch editor of North West Business Insider (1991) and North West Enquirer (2006). His book about Manchester national newspaper history, The other Fleet Street, was published in 2004.
As a lifelong newsman, I’ve had my share of rotten reporting assignments – assorted disasters, political rallies, and boring, seemingly endless city council meetings.
But once, I lucked out to get what has to be the world’s finest journalist assignment of all time: travel the world on an unlimited expense account, and go from one beautiful place to another, in a search for Utopia.
It was this assignment, in fact, that lured me from a mainstream daily for a stint in the wacky world of tabloids.
Here’s how it happened: As a Cincinnati-area daily reporter in the early 1970s, I had been augmenting my modest salary doing free-lance assignments for the National Enquirer on weekends. I dealt with the office by phone and mail.
The Enquirer paid well, and on a good weekend I could make as much as the daily paid me for an entire week.
Soon, I had accumulated enough funds to take the wife on a Caribbean cruise. On the return trip, I stopped at the office of the Enquirer, which had recently moved from New Jersey to the tiny town of Lantana, Florida. I wanted to see where all those cheques had been coming from, and encourage the editors there to keep them coming.
‘Why don’t you come to work with us?’ an editor invited. ‘I need a reporter to send on this assignment around the world.’
Around the world! That nearly floored me. Around the world! What an opportunity. A big assignment for me had been travelling to Cleveland or Columbus. Going to Chicago, Washington, or New York was a super biggie.
Articles editor Selig Adler then showed me the assignment sheet: ‘Is there really a Utopia left in this world? What’s it really like to live in Tahiti and those other pipedream paradises? Let’s send a reporter to write a series of articles.’
The assignment sheet had owner-publisher Gene Pope’s initials, indicating approval. That was important. It would take big bucks to pull this one off.
And yet, I had every reason not to take a job with the Enquirer. I didn’t want it on my resume (the old guts and gore aura of years earlier still lingered over the paper in many minds even though it had cleaned up its act several years earlier). And it was generally viewed as a gossip rag.
I had already learnt, too, that the Enquirer was a revolving door, with staffers fired on a whim. On the other hand, my wife and I both had secure jobs, we owned a home in the Cincinnati area, and my two stepsons were in school there.
Common sense told me no. And yet, ‘around the world’ kept spinning through my head, even keeping me awake at night. Finally I decided that if I didn’t take this offer, I would spend the rest of my life wondering what it would have been like.
Well, I had my price. And the Enquirer had met it. That waiting globe-girdling assignment, a salary that topped the New York Times, and an opportunity to swap the Ohio snow, sleet, and slush for the sun, sand, and surf of south Florida finally proved overwhelmingly seductive.
So the next month I was in Florida as an Enquirer reporter.
After getting shots for a host of exotic diseases that I had hardly heard of, and obtaining numerous visas, I set out, and spent four-and-a-half months island-hoping around the world, sizing up the Utopian qualities of each.
The itinerary was a dream. A few ports of call: Madeira, the Azores, the Canaries, the Spanish Mediterranean islands, the Greek islands, the Channel islands (Guernsey, Jersey, and Sark), the Scottish isles of Mull and Gigha, Hawaii (Molokai), Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Fiji, Samoa, Bali, Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, Mauritius and other places too numerous to mention.
My assignment was to find out if there really was an island paradise where one could get away from it all, and live in peace, beauty and harmony with nature. Or had those fabled beautiful places that comprise our pipe dreams been spoilt by the encroachments of modern civilization?
I found that indeed they had, at least to a degree. An island is no longer an island once an airstrip is built there. It’s then open to the world.
And it was illusion shattering to be in Tahiti, French Polynesia, in the middle of the South Pacific, and witness a rush-hour traffic jam (Renaults and motor scooters) in its main town, Papeete. And this ‘paradise’ also had parking meters – believe it or not. Hardly a Utopia, that.
I thought American Samoa might be a Pacific paradise with plumbing. But to my dismay, I learnt that the Samoans seemingly have picked up our bad habits, but little of our industriousness. It’s disillusioning to see an otherwise picture-postcard-perfect lagoon littered with beer cans.
But despite modern encroachments in many far corners of the world, there are still spectacularly beautiful places well worth visiting. Certainly, the blue lagoons, lush green mountains, and golden sunsets of Bora Bora are no less gorgeous now that there are hotels, where you can eat and sleep in comfort. Back in the old unspoilt days, while visiting there, you had to hunt up a native family willing to share their hut.
If I had to pick the most pleasant of all places I visited, it would be Western Samoa, with its friendly, happy people, who love to sing and dance. And there you have the beauty of both towering mountains and palm-fringed lagoons all within view.
I’m always asked if I found a Utopia. No, not really.
Anyway, Utopia may be more a state of mind than a physical place.
For example, I found my Utopia when I got that around-the-world, all-expense-paid, assignment to search for it.
After editing two Kentucky weeklies, John Harris was a reporter for the Cincinnati Post, then the National Enquirer, National Examiner, and finally as business editor of the Boca Raton News, Florida. Now retired, he says he ‘learnt the art of doorstepping’ from his British colleagues.
A friend did not like arriving in pubs at opening time, which used to be 5.30, so we left it quite late, strolled quietly over the road and arrived decently, not even out of breath, at 5.31.
We were approached by two gentlemen, one in a black homburg. ‘Excuse me,’ said the one in the homburg, ‘but you look intelligent. When a white man has quarter Negro blood is that a quantrain?’
‘I think it is,’ said my friend, who did not know.
‘That’s what I say,’ the man replied. ‘I have no doubt it is in my Roget’s Thesaurus, which I bought for 10 shillings from a stall and which is at home… Now,’ he went on, ‘is Shelley buried next to Keats?’
‘He could be,’ I said. ‘Grantchester, oh Grantchester.’
‘That’s Shelley,’ he said.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘Rupert Brooke.’
‘And never ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,’ he said. ‘That’s John Donne.’ ‘Correct,’ I said. ‘It is in the flyleaf of For Whom the Bell Tolls.’
‘Hemingway,’ he said.
‘Let’s slide off to another bar where we can chat on our own,’ said my friend, whispering. We did.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘did I ever tell you about the kangaroo that used to drink in a pub I know? Big fellow, he was; never paid his round. He belted a chap around the head one night, giving him a cut nose and lacerations.’
‘You can’t explain that kind of thing at home,’ I said. ‘I mean, you can’t say you were just standing there, giving no offence, when a kangaroo attacked you.’
‘That’s true,’ he said.
‘I also knew a fellow and a dog that used to drink together all night then stagger off home. Trouble was, the dog was nasty in drink and the fellow had to watch for its teeth. It used to grab his legs. When they got home he dissolved an aspirin in its bowl and it would flop out. It never bought a round either.’
‘Funny you should say that,’ said a fellow standing two yards away, ‘but have you ever seen a drunken duck? They go like this’ - and he waddled in a circle slapping his feet against the floor. Neither of us had seen a drunken duck.
‘I used to drink with a chimp at Belle Vue,’ I said. ‘It drank pints and went to the gents with us, though sometimes it didn’t bother. It was a devil for drink and pinched my gin if I turned away. It fell in love with my wife’s leg and chased her.’
My friend walked away, several yards, and leaned against a wall; his shoulders heaving. There were tears in his eyes.
‘My dog is a Cairn terrier,’ I said when he returned ‘– about 18 inches long and 13 stone. When we got it we put it in a box in the kitchen and it kicked its box against the door until we let it out. Then it leapt into bed, tugging the clothes over it, and lay there, just like us, its head on a pillow.
‘It has been there, more or less, ever since, though it comes downstairs at ten to eight every morning because it thinks the letter box is throwing things at the house. All my mail is confetti.’
‘Does it drink?’ said my friend.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘It is teetotal.’
‘That’s a mercy,’ he said.
‘It can hardly jump on the bed at all now,’ I said. ‘It is 12 years old. I wait until it leaps then help it up from behind, pretending not to notice. You can hurt their feelings. If we go to bed after 11 o’clock it sits there, one ear down, grumbling, and sometimes it goes on its own.’
‘These drunken ducks,’ said the other fellow, ‘are amazing, padding about on those big feet and lurching.’
We bade him goodnight and went back to the first bar. The gentleman in the homburg and his companion had gone.
‘It’s a pity when a couple of chaps can’t have a serious conversation without being interrupted all the time,’ said my friend.
This was adapted from a Daily Express column by Geoffrey Mather. Peter Thomas (pictured) was the friend referred to; he died in 1984 and had been a Daily Mirror executive in Manchester before becoming associate editor of the Daily Express. The first pub referred to is the Land o’ Cakes in Great Ancoats Street, once a favourite drinking place for journalists. (The second pub, he can’t remember.) The drinker with the drunken duck report was Reg Powell, from the Daily Express publicity department. There is more like this on Geoffrey Mather’s website: UK North Perspective at http://www.northtrek.co.uk/
Regular readers will recall that I became a reporter by not fastening my greatcoat in Thetford. My son, youngest daughter and grand-daughter became journalists, turning me into a dynasty, because of something that happened to me in bed.
At my romantic best, my bed activities over the years would bring a smile to the face of an Easter Island statue.
Even on my own in bed I am funnier than alternative comedy; though, let us face it, I have seen acne eruptions funnier than alternative comedy.
When I was resting between marriages and on nights when I was sober enough to make it to the bedroom the same night I started up the stairs, I had a ritual I used to perform.
About the only thing I had won custody of in my first divorce was the Teasmade, a combination alarm clock and tea maker; though even here I had to promise to bring it up in the Jewish faith.
I would activate the Teasmade, climb into bed, carrying with me a book to read and an apple to eat. Supine, I placed my false teeth on my stomach. Thus, if I felt the pangs of hunger, it was the work of a moment to pop in the false teeth and attack the apple.
Alas, on the night under advisement I neglected to put the pipe from the kettle into the hole in the lid of the teapot of the infernal machine. In fact it hung like the sword of Damocles over what I laughingly called my chest.
Worse, I fell asleep with the apple, the book and the false teeth in line ahead on the belly.
On the dot of the kettle performed its function, heating the water to boiling point before waving it off on its journey along the pipe, which, you will recall, was poised over my ‘chest’.
The jet of boiling water hit it, waking me and causing me to leap into the air for just long enough for the dentures to slip off my belly and position themselves beneath me, so that when I landed I gave myself a very nasty bite in the backside.
I was dining at the Chester Grosvenor that night with my friend Long Langford and fellow members of the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs. (This has nothing to do with the story really but as a piece of name-dropping would be difficult to beat.)
Personal daintiness decreed that I should not put the teeth back in the mouth. The Ninth Baron was not best pleased.
‘Why haven’t you put your teeth in?’ he demanded.
‘If you knew where they had been, you wouldn’t ask,’ I said.
I was surprised a year later to open my daughter’s school newspaper and find she had written an account of the unhappy incident for the amusement of her peers. The response was such that she and my son both decided to take up careers in journalism.
Now my granddaughter is working for the PA. It’s an ill wind up…
Jess Duxbury was a ‘six-loom weaver’ until the time when he retired at 65. The old age pensioner was then offered the job of collecting advertisements for his local give away, as freesheets were known in the 1950s. The four page broadsheet paper was printed on a flat-bed Furnival machine averaging 360 hand-fed sheets an hour and it took two days to be printed, folded, packed into bundles then delivered along the streets of Padiham, a town in East Lancashire with a population of 15,000.
At the age of twelve Jess, like other children of his age, had started work as a ‘half timer’; that meant half a day at school and half a day in work until he was 13, then he’d spent the next 52 years of his life weaving cloth in a noisy cotton mill, and being responsible for the efficient output of six busy looms at a time.
Getting out and about and meeting people when collecting adverts gave Jess a new lease of life and with a lifetime passion for words he asked the printer whether, instead of having just adverts in the paper, he could write some local news for it, which was agreed and Jess was into local journalism.
He was collecting advertising and writing reports for the Padiham Advertiser with one snag, there was a lack of space for his flow of words. Jess's knowledge of football found him writing sports reports with no chance of them getting into his ‘freebie’ but his hand-written copy was passed around by him in the pub on a Saturday evening.
His fellow drinkers encouraged him to submit his copy to The Pink ’Un, the late Saturday sports edition of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, and although he didn't get any actual reports into it he got a regular ‘ordered job’ phoning in the football result of Padiham FC and sometimes even other people’s copy on Burnley from Turf Moor, for which he was paid a few bob.
His knowledge of what happened on his local patch was such that it was said nobody turned over in bed without Jess being aware of it and he’d know of a news story almost before it happened.
I met Jess in the mid 50’s while I was working for the Daily Express and he became a good contact. Our first link came when he telephoned me late one Sunday night to tell of an amusing story that had happened that very evening when a local scoutmaster was marching his troop to a special evening service at the parish church in Padiham.
As it was dark the scoutmaster was at the back of the troop carrying a lantern for safety reasons. That had been required by law since 1951 when a group of Royal Marine cadets were mown down by a bus while marching in the dark at Chatham in Kent. [Twenty four cadets were killed and 18 were injured.]
As the Padiham scouts turned left and went up the steps into the church the scoutmaster, instead of following his troop, did a crafty right turn and went into the back yard of the pub opposite, but was seen by two ladies of the church as he banged on the pub back door and was allowed into the darkened public house. Pubs didn't open until on a Sunday and the scoutmaster was in for a bit of ‘early doors’ while the scouts were in church. His irreverence annoyed the ladies so instead of going into the service they waited outside the pub to see what time the scoutmaster came out from this house of sin.
After the service, as the troop re-assembled, the scoutmaster had made another crafty move and was back with them, but he was having difficulty trying to get the lantern lighted. It was said later in court there had been a strong smell of drink.
The Mayoral party with the vicar led the procession away from the church with the scouts following and it was then noticed by the local constabulary that the scoutmaster appeared to be wandering about as he followed the procession and his oil lamp was going from side to side like a ship’s lantern in a storm.
The two ladies had pre-warned the local police inspector of the man’s condition when watching him leave the pub – little did they know the scoutmaster had also been there at lunchtime.
Already warned by Jess Duxbury that the scoutmaster would be up in court the next day and they had no local court reporters, we were in for an exclusive. The scoutmaster was fined for being drunk in charge of a troop of boy scouts.
A great exclusive from our Jess. Today a story like that would probably not even make the paper.
At the time tip-offs such as that were the life blood in the fight for newspaper circulation; whether they came from a local freelance correspondent or a contact like Jess; they created good warm gossip from the heart of a nation still reeling from the horrors of a war.
After finishing work the tap room once again became the barrack room. A meal on the kitchen table could wait while lads who had spent years away from home were reunited in the pub. Television hadn’t yet destroyed the art of telling a good tap room tale or relating a story that had appeared that day in the Daily Herald or the Mirror.
That story from Jess is just one of his many that made the Daily Express.
Contacts like him disappeared with the stroke of an accountant’s pen when the idiots took over the asylum.
Goodness knows, those 30-odd years in Fleet Street produced very little for me by way of achievement, fame or trophies. All I’ve got to show for it are a few divorce court appearances, arteries as congested as Shoe Lane, and a collection of anecdotes that can never be told. Why not? Because normal people would never believe them.
But I do have one claim to distinction of which I’m seriously proud, and it’s one that very few old Mirror men can make…
For I knew Eric Wainwright.
Oh yes, there are plenty who are familiar with the legend of Invisible Eric, the ghost of the Fourth Floor Features. But I doubt if any of them ever actually set eyes upon him. And fewer still who heard, first-hand, his explanation of why he found it necessary to wear his St James’s Street hat while seated upon the lavatory.
But I did. I knew him quite well. And his hat. And I’m glad I caught his show while it was still – just – in town.
It happened at a time in my life when I was obliged to spend Sunday mornings – and quite possibly bits of Saturday night – in the Holborn office. We do not need to go into the reasons. Some sort of domestic dislocation, I seem to recall – you know how difficult women can be. Anyway, after breakfast in the canteen, by mid-morning I’d be sitting with a coffee and the Sunday papers at my desk on the fourth-floor.
I always had it to myself. Until one morning when in bowled this dapper chap. Although clearly startled at having to share the room, he gave a jovial wave and sat down at a typewriter. The telephone rang. ‘No,’ he said, with complete conviction, ‘there’s no-one here called Dunne.’
At this point, I thought it wise to introduce myself. He apologised for not knowing me. In fact, he didn’t seem to know anyone. ‘Who’s the features editor now?’ I said it was Bill Hagerty. ‘Is he a little blonde chap with a moustache?’ I said no, he was a tallish dark chap with a clean upper lip. He nodded. ‘Bit out of touch these days,’ he said. ‘I try to keep out of the way.’
At that he was triumphantly successful. His contact with the office was his monthly visit, on a Sunday morning when the place was deserted, to do four weeks’ expenses. A little cautiously, I said that I hadn’t seen his by-line recently. ‘No, old boy, haven’t had a piece in for six years.’ I murmured something about how upsetting it must be to have all that copy spiked. He looked at me as though I was insane. ‘Lord no, haven’t written anything for six years.’
At this point, we need a little history. In the mid-seventies, the Mirror features department had reached its zenith with a splendid one-way employment policy: new writers were shipped in, but no old writers went out. One idle day (there were about 342 a year) I counted the number of feature writers and gave up when I passed 40. They were a mixed bunch. Former girl-friends of long-gone editors, executives who’d forgotten what they were executing, columnists who’d misplaced their columns, foreign correspondents returned home, and some people who I think just came in for the warmth. There were even one or two who wrote features. This wasn’t encouraged.
Passing the time could be a problem. Some took to the drink. Some took to adultery. Some took to both, and not always in the right order. Don Walker set up a music stand and taught himself classical guitar. Paula James made restaurant reservations. George Thaw was Scottish all over the place. Don Gomery sighed a lot. Occasionally we’d move the desks and have a badminton tournament.
Several of the writers, like Eric, became no-shows. His sports jacket – Daks, of course – was left over his chair, so that if anyone asked for him we could say he’d popped out to the bank and we would ring the number he’d left. The number, someone said, was for a drinking club in Soho in which he was a partner. We never rang it. No-one ever asked for him.
Years slipped by, and he became a sort of invisible yet indestructible folk hero. Once he put in a memo asking to be made Pub Correspondent. Tony Miles, the editor, asked someone to check with accounts to see if he was still on the staff. He was. ‘What the hell does he do?’ Someone said he spent most of his time in pubs. ‘In that case,’ said Miles, ‘he might as well have the title.’ So he achieved his ambition, and, true to the last, he never wrote a story.
Mike Molloy once called a conference which was a must-attend for writers. Bars and bedrooms all over London emptied and by the time he’d begun, the room was packed. At that point in walked this distinguished figure with his rolled umbrella and perched himself at the front. Mike was saying the new policy was to attract young readers when Eric spoke. ‘Delightful little boozer just outside Guildford,’ he said. ‘Lots of young people in there. Shall I pop down and have a look?’ A minute later he’d gone. It remained one of the great unwritten stories of our time.
Over the months, I got to know him well. With his slick of silver hair, florid face and drawing-room accent, he was of a type that even then was rapidly running out of fashion. He was – there’s no other word for it – a gent: British warm overcoat, yellow chamois gloves and tightly-furled umbrella with a whangee handle, he was clearly an ex-officer from some smart regiment. Only he wasn’t.
The story was that he was a Canadian who’d come over here with the Canadian air force and stayed on. There were rumours of military heroics. At one time he’d made a living as a cartoonist (some of his cartoons were on the walls of the Stab). Even more incredibly, he’d dressed up as a huge, ugly, half-wit woman called Cynthia who was the silent stage stooge for a northern comedian called Hylda Baker. ‘She knows, y’know’, Hylda would say, elbowing Eric in the ribs.
It was the sort of CV that could only end one way - in the Mirror features department. Long before those Sunday morning meetings, he’d built up quite a name for doing first-person pieces under the by-line DangerMan. He was terrific. He rode a motor-bike through a hoop of fire. He went into a cage full of lions armed only with a chair. He even went to the photographers’ Christmas party… no, no, that was a joke, he wasn’t that crazy.
He was what he himself would have called a genial sort of cove. Full of good spirits, full of good stories. Around , he would slip over the Stab, and return a couple of hours later, even fuller of good spirits. He would slump down in his chair and ring all his friends around the world. Occasionally, the odd snippet would drift over to me, and what collectors’ items they were…
‘Yerrs, still got the same old place out in Bucks. Thatched roof, y’know. Trouble is, bloody squirrels in the thatch. Gnawed through the bloody water pipe. Drips through the ceiling. Bloody nuisance. Have to wear a hat when I’m on the lav.’
With the writer’s true eye for detail, Eric knew this required further definition. ‘Y’know,’ he said, ‘the one I got at Lock’s of St James.’
There were stories that in his younger days he was an accomplished pub fighter. Someone who once saw him in action said he used the pub furniture like they do in cowboy films. To me he was never anything other than charming, apart from the day Roy Harris upset him. Roy, who was, I think, deputy features editor, sat in on a Sunday, and when Eric presented his expenses, he ventured a mildly casual inquiry about one item.
Eric was furious. He went immediately to the Stab. He stayed longer than usual. When he came back, he was purple with, among other things, rage. He asked my advice. What was the silliest story I’d ever done? A talking dog, I said. Where was the furthest point from the office? Land’s End. With finger-jabbing anger, he typed away, took it downstairs and slammed it down in front of Roy. It was for a trip to Land’s End to interview a talking dog. It involved well over a thousand miles’ travel, several overnights, lots of entertaining and taxis. All with no bills. The final, some might have said contemptuous, item was the one that caught Roy’s eye. ‘Bone for dog - £10.’
Roy, who was not a big man, shivered in the shadow of the figure looming over him. ‘Must have been a big bone,’ he whispered weakly.
Eric slammed his hand on the desk and roared: ‘It was fucking big dog.’
Roy’s signature fairly skidded over the paper.
Someone somewhere must have let me back in, because my Sunday mornings in the office came to an end. I missed them. I missed Eric. With him, I felt as though I was catching the last act of a wonderful long-running comedy.
About a year after I left the Mirror, Don Walker rang me up. I knew it was some sort of spoof because he was trying not to laugh. Eric was leaving, he said. They were having a farewell party for him. And would I go along because I was the only person who knew what he looked like.
Sadly, Eric isn't around any more. Any more? What am I saying?
Colin Dunne was a Daily Mirror feature writer from 1968 to 1978 when he left to freelance and write books.