October 5, 2007

 

The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times, August 2007


October 5, 2007

When KEN ASHTON went on a running story it was often he who finished up doing the running. His shoes were more likely to be spiked than his copy.

He reminisces about dear Doncaster days and names plenty of names (three dozen or more), while REVEL BARKER remembers when he was young enough to be bothered about his copy ending up on the spike – and more than 40 years later he’s obviously still vexed about it.

MICKEY BRENNAN remembers the great days in Costello’s in Manhattan, and the people at either side of the bar – although given the way the booze flowed in that establishment it’s astonishing that anybody can remember anything. Incidentally, as an aide-memoire of those days and some of the classic pix that illustrated the great stories, check out his website at www.brennanpics.com

FRED WEHNER remembers wishing a couple of words would fail him so he could quit star-gazing and answer the call of the scotch-and-limes at The Harrow. Fred’s was a pretty cushy number on the Daily Mail, not much work and good dosh.

But for real cushy, consider ARNIE WILSON, who spent 18 years working on Saturdays (mainly nights) for the Sunday People, night-shifted in the Daily Mirror news room for seven years, and worked on several Fleet Street diary pages, particularly for Peter Tory, then vanished one winter. He’d only landed himself a job as ski correspondent… for the Financial Times. Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up.

ALUN JOHN has fond memories of calling for ‘Swanseas all round’, when lunching with John Butterworth, who died recently. And DAVID WRIGHT recalls going on jobs with Bill Gregory, a photographer who ‘had an aversion to taking pictures’ or even to taking his camera out of its bag. Yeah, tell us about it. He does.

We seem to be developing something of a fashion for stories by hacks about off-the-wall snappers (see Colin Dunne, last week). Thank God, then, for Mickey Brennan for providing some sort of balance. But don’t the rest of them have anything interesting to report about reporters? Embarrassing photos would be perfectly acceptable, instead.

We have another claim – deemed genuine, this one – about expenses from the EDITORIAL MANAGER; surely not the last word on the subject for there must be hundreds more exes stories out there.

And finally, in this section, COLIN DUNNE recalls another features stalwart – Bill Marshall, a character who could be compared in individuality and eccentricity with Eric Wainwright (see Archive, August 24 and August 31) except that Bill sometimes came into the office and got stories in the paper.

Meanwhile, across in THE STAB  (find the link over there at top left) our diary has yet more stories and more names than you can shake a stick at. If your name isn’t appearing somewhere on this site, you should ask yourself why not.

But first… read on.

#

Up for t’cup, in Donny

By Ken Ashton

There could well be a cup somewhere in Doncaster, with my name on it. They say old journalists never die, they just wander off to sharpen their pencils – or reconfigure their hard disks.

Whatever, it is a fallacy that we journos are hard-bitten as well as dog-eared. No such thing. Wherever we pitch our notebooks, we leave a little bit of our heart. I’ve toiled in many towns the length and breadth of the country and whenever or wherever there is an ‘incident’, that bit of the heart goes back and conjures up magical memories.

And we trigger words from colleagues still doing the business. Graeme Huston, editor in chief of South Yorkshire Newspapers, spotted my name on this very site, among a number of reprobate retired journos, many of them former national, regional or specialist newspaper men who had passed through Doncaster, and not only on the train, and he got in touch.

I don’t know what it was about Doncaster that made it – a town of no more than 80,000 people – such an amazing incubator for journalism. True, it had two lively competing evening papers (the ‘south Yorkshire editions’ of two Leeds papers) with weekly papers attached, plus some damn fine freelances.

But the output of talent for a place that size must surely be unique. Consider these names, just an off-the-top-of-the-head sample of reporters, photographers, sports writers and subs who cut their teeth in that tiny town when it was little more than a traffic jam on the old A1 road (before motorways and by-passes were invented):

David Baird, Malcolm Barker, Peter Beardsley, Paul Berriff, Dick Bott, Dennis Casson, Frank Clough, Jim Davies, Paul Doherty, Phillip Finn, Kevin Fitzpatrick, Martin Gilfeather, Colin Gower, Maggie Hall, Allan Hobday, Mike Hollist, Ken Hutchinson, Ivor Key, Ken King, Jim Lawton, Bill McKeown, Jimmy Milne, Ken Montgomery, Neil Morgan, Bob Mozley, Jim Murray, Irving Oldfield, Michael Parkinson, Herbert Pearson, Neil Sanderson, Ian Skidmore, Phil Smith, Graham Snowdon, Mike Stares, Alan Steele, David Thurlow, Roy Trueman, John Varley, Denis Walsh, Johnny  Wardaugh, Leo White, Peter Whittle, Terry Willows, Austin Wormleighton, Bob Young...

I’d worked on the Yorkshire Evening News in Donny for two or three years (who’s counting?) in the 1950s. After national service in East Yorkshire, I was bitten by the white rose bug and after a short training in journalism found myself in Post Office Street on the YEN, edited by the stentorian Stanley Houghton with fellow-Lancastrian Jim Pennington as news editor and the Free Press, which Ken Dutton edited. Happy days.

And golden memories of lunchtimes in the snooker hall over Burton’s, the freebie nights at the Odeon, the events at the Corn Exchange…

Doncaster was also the start of my career as a sports journalist – I covered rugby league at the old Tattersfield ground while Phil Smith did the soccer job for Rovers’ fans. Phil and I went on to work on the Daily Mirror for a spell. Rovers’ one-time manager Peter Doherty saw his son Paul alongside us.

Great times – some brilliant sporting occasions.

We played a charity match at Belle Vue and though I scored eight or nine goals (who’s counting?) Peter Doherty didn’t see fit to see me as a new signing, although I was ‘offered terms’, as they say, at the rugby ground.

Around that time, the Free Press took under its wing a new heavyweight boxer, the towering Kiteone Lave, from Tonga. He was stabled at a training camp near the racecourse and we nurtured the guy. We scavenged food, blankets, clothes and kept fatherly eyes on him. Jim Pennington even drove him to bouts in Lancashire. We got a letter from Queen Salote of Tonga, thanking us – well, I did, but it found its way into the editor’s memorabilia file. Editors have the power…

Our lunchtime snooker sessions tended to drag on and we made it back to the office in dribs and drabs – though it was always a rush to get to the snooker room first, if only to grab the only straight cue.

That cup? Ah, well… I was sent to cover the (British Railways) Plant Works athletic club’s summer event and particularly their Memorial Mile. The secretary knew I was into running and invited me to bring my spikes – and I returned to the office with The Cup, having beaten the opposition out of sight.

So as I say, there’s a cup out there somewhere with my name on it. Perhaps Graeme could have a look round the editor’s office.

#

Ones that got away

By Revel Barker

In the days when the Army understood the meaning of PR (press AND public relations), and in the days when Britain had something called ‘industry’ they – the Army – organised a conference for foremen. Nowadays they would call it a seminar. But, since nowadays it wouldn’t occur to them to organise it in the first place, that bit of incidental intelligence is irrelevant.

Perhaps I should explain for younger readers… ‘Industry’ is an old English expression, now lost to the vocabulary along with ‘manufacturing’ which, loosely, involved making things. Long before the UK hived, or ‘outsourced’, this responsibility to the third world, industry was what Britain did for a living.

I write of an era when Britons made more or less everything, from shoes to aeroplanes, and even cars. We actually made and sold refrigerators to Eskimos (before they, the Eskimos not the refrigerators, were called Inuits) and prayer mats to Arabs. We sold instant curry to Hong Kong and ice (it was actually Scottish water – you had to freeze it yourself) to the Japanese to add to their Scotch whisky. I know, because I wrote stories about all those things.

This was all before we became a ‘service economy’ which, given a rapidly evolving language, I should also probably explain used to mean a system in which you could sort of at least half expect to get served.

A ‘foreman’, in those distant days, was the top man on the shop floor of a factory or mill. Perhaps, some other time, I should explain ‘shop floor’, ‘factory’ and ‘mill’. Not part of management, but not exactly of the workers, these people were most importantly the link between the executive and the workforce.

The foreman ran the industry from the bottom up; men in suits stayed in their offices and smoked cigars. The foreman was typically in a brown smock coat to distinguish him from the workforce that generally dressed in overalls or dungarees. He drank industrial-strength tea with three sugars, and usually smoked a pipe

What had this to do with the Army? Well, they had foremen, too: they called them sergeant-majors. They had the brilliant idea that they could share knowledge of man-management with industry, each learning from the other, and discussing the pivotal role between management (officers, directors) and man-power (a word that included women, no argument).

What had this to do with newspapers? The Army, no slouch in those days, invited the press along. And I rolled up at Catterick Camp to listen, in case there was a story.

One came from an early speaker from ICI. It wasn’t where I’d been expecting it, in the stories about management versus man, or bosses against trades unions; rather – as happens most often at such events – it came when he wandered slightly off track.

It was this: ICI on Teesside had secured an impressively big export order, selling tons of chemical fertiliser to Chinese farmers. A triumph for British industry. This was the 1960s, and we were all Backing Britain in those days.

Just how much it was worth in sterling matters nothing now – but it was millions of pounds in today’s money.

In fact its sterling value mattered even less to the Chinese at the time, because they had no foreign currency with which to effect purchase.

They opted to pay ICI… in alarm clocks. And negotiation was not an option.

In the coffee break I interviewed the speaker, who told me the world’s biggest chemical empire now had more alarm clocks than it could find storage for. They couldn’t give them away, even to staff – for how many alarm clocks does a household need, at the end of the day? Or even at the start of one? They gave them away with every four gallons of ICI petrol. Then with every two gallons, and they still had clocks to spare.

So I did the story.

ICI’s press department, when asked for an official quote, asked me not to run it at all. They said it would damage international trade. I said trade seemed fairly pointless if it earned only alarm clocks. They said it would damage our relationship with China; I asked what sort of relationship was it that was repaid in bloody alarm clocks. Then I realised that I was arguing with a PRO, which was always a waste of time. I promised I would relay his message to my boss, but that we should expect to see the story in the Daily Mirror next morning.

The news desk told me it had duly ‘noted’ the misgivings of the PR guy in my attached note and that, thank-you, it was already an early page lead.

Oh no: it wasn’t.

The PR guy rang his chairman, Sir Paul Chambers, who immediately rang Hugh Cudlipp and convinced him that such a story would have an adverse effect on the industrial health of the nation.

Well, I was nobbut a kid then. I could not comprehend that the Mirror, of all papers, through Cudlipp of all journalists, could be so easily talked out of what anybody with a hole in his bum could see was a page lead.

If Cudlipp didn’t agree with that, how could I be so wrong?

It was the first story I’d had spiked, and – fairly obviously – it still rankles, 40-odd years later.

The second one followed fairly quickly.

For some reason I needed to ring George Brown (of immoral memory). We were still Backing Britain in those days and Our Harold, with his fortnight in the Scillies, was exhorting everybody to spend their holidays, and more importantly their holiday money, in the UK.

George, his office told me when I called, was in Ibizia.

Well, that was a story. Wilson was telling everybody to stay home while his foreign secretary and deputy PM had gone off with the missus to Spain.

‘We can’t run this,’ said the news desk when my memo – did London want to handle this (and maybe check on the whereabouts of other members of Cabinet): if not, I would write it myself – bounced back up the line from London.

‘George Brown used to write for the Daily Mirror. Our policy is that we never attack our own.’

Bollocks, I argued. I knew George Brown quite well, I said. I had actually caught him when, pissed out of his brain, he’d tumbled down a full set of steps while disembarking from an aircraft. Many were the times I’d helped manhandle him into his official car. I could ring him and guarantee either a funny or a pompous quote to explain his choice of foreign holiday destination.

‘No,’ said the desk. ‘You’ve been told.’

This was the Daily Mirror, for God’s sake. We couldn’t attack any politician that used to write for us?

Barbara Castle, when she was Barbara Betts, had been our agony aunt and had married Ted Castle (who’d been our picture editor, before becoming editor of Picture Post).

Now she was Minister for Transport. We couldn’t criticise the Transport Minister because she used to be Marje Proops?

‘Put it that way and, no, we can’t,’ said the desk.

Staggering, because the so-called Cudlipp Edict, which every member of staff was required to read, and then sign in front of a witness to show that it had been read, said that we were even allowed to criticise the company that owned us – provided only that it was fair and accurate. But nowhere did it say we couldn’t censure politicians who used to write for us. Explain that, if you can.

I don’t know whether newspapers still have such loony loyalties.

But I suppose it’s unlikely that Boris Johnson lives in much fear of being panned by the Daily Telegraph when he becomes Lord Mayor of London.

#

American excess

By Michael Brennan

The combination of a fast car, excessive amounts of alcohol, the Chiswick flyover and several policemen necessitated my rapid exit from the Daily Mail to New York in 1973.

Costello’s bar and grill on East 44th Street in Manhattan was the meeting place for most of the NY based foreign correspondents.

Fred Percudani was known as the World’s Rudest Bartender. He would yell over a packed bar: ‘Just wait, you Limeys, everything round here’s done by hand!’

Or, ‘Subway!’ – indicating he required a tip to pay his subway fare home. It was usually directed at some hapless Brit journo who didn’t know the routine when buying a round.

Breslin

Freddie the rudest bartender and Jimmy the Pulitzer Prize-winner: photo by Brennan

Freddie was the wealthiest man in a ten-block area, we all borrowed from him.

Then there was Herbie, The World’s Worst Waiter, a German who had fled to Argentina and from there made a quick exit to New York City. He claimed he had been a waiter on the Argentine president’s yacht during the 1940s but skipped Buenos Aires after killing a fellow steward during a fight. An infractioni, he called it.

Herbie shuffled around in a filthy suit with soup stains and dribble caked on it, serving food. He would arrange a set-up – knives and forks, napkins etc – with the bread rolls in his pocket. The ladies didn’t like that.

The beautiful Anthea Disney, then the Daily Mail US correspondent and bureau chief, refused to be waited on by Herbie. Couldn’t blame her really after she and I saw him leaving the bar one afternoon with a dead chicken hanging from his pocket. Most ladies of my acquaintance hated the place. It did have a distinct smell. Lunchtime’s smell was disinfectant, later in the day it was stale beer and sometimes, late at night, cabbage and pee. The plumbing wasn’t that good.

Dermot Purgavie, another Mail bureau chief, once asked Herbie about a recent vacation in Puerto Rico. He answered with his guttural German accent, ‘Mr Dermot, it vos great, I got laid twice. One she was fourteen, zee other she vos twelve.’

‘But they are just children,’ replied an incredulous Purgavie.

‘No Mr Dermot!’ shouted Herbie, outraged. ‘Zat vos not zere age – zat vos the price.’

The loud and the legendary would congregate. The editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, had been a regular while a correspondent for the Express. One of his tasks was to attend to the needs of Jean Rook, the paper’s star woman columnist, when she visited New York. A demanding woman, she would call the pub continuously insisting on Paul talking with her. It was rumoured that the man who is now the most successful and influential editor had to purchase intimate apparel after her suitcase had been lost by an airline.

A fist-fight once broke out between a large gentleman and an encroaching New York Post photographer trying for a picture of Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter, enjoying a beer after a hard day’s work. The rival Daily News had taken her on as a summer intern.

Most of all, the beauty of Costello’s was the cheque-cashing facility.

This was long before ATMs. Timmy Costello was the bar’s reluctant owner. He acted as banker for the newspaper community. His father opened the joint in the early 1900s and while his brother had become a nuclear physicist Tim was stuck with the bar when the old man croaked. Tim was a saint. He would much rather have been writing children’s books – which I’m told he’s doing now. All the time I spent there (which was quite a lot), I never saw Tim put a limit on the size of the cheque. Most bounced, mine included, but Tim never refused.

The aforementioned Percudani once gleefully held a bounced cheque and shouted to anyone who would listen: ‘That fuckin’ Jimmy Breslin, he can win a Pulitzer Prize but can’t cover his tab.’

The late Brian Vine, bureau chief for the Daily Express, was a man of impeccable taste – and the paper was happy to pay for it.

New York Magazine wrote a story profiling Vino’s life-style, which included a luxurious apartment on the East Side of Manhattan, a weekend house at the end of Long Island, one very large Cadillac motor car (company owned) and a boat. He also had a couple of very slow racehorses.

When the then proprietor of the Express Group, Lord Victor Matthews, not known for his extravagance, heard of his employee’s lifestyle Vine was summoned back to London. First class of course.

The irony was that later on in his illustrious career Vino became managing editor of the Daily Mail: a job that required him to check exes. What’s that saying about poachers and gamekeepers…?

Back to Costello’s, a long dark narrow room. Breslin once quipped that the only way any daylight came into the bar was if a white panel truck parked outside the front window. The walls were covered with cartoons donated by the American humorist James Thurber – although actually he didn’t donate them, he drew them to pay his bar tab. Over the bar was a stuffed hammer-head shark (that’s another story) and in the restaurant area some of the legendary cartoonists donated their work.

One of which was Charles Schulz of Peanuts & Charlie Brown fame.

For us Brits the Zero-Hour was around 6pm. Since New York is five hours behind London that was when the first editions landed on the foreign desks. Most nights the two pay phones would ring (remember, this was long before mobiles) and a mad dash to grab them usually involved someone from the Mail, Express or the Mirror.

It was one of these calls on a Friday night that set in motion the emptying of Timmy Costello’s till and the race to JFK airport for the next flight to Rio de Janeiro. The Daily Express, through the hard work of reporter Colin Mackenzie, had found Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs. As we all flew south Dermot Purgavie was heard to say: ‘There’s an awful lot of copy in Brazil.’

Another big story that had us all scuffling to the airport was after the paperboys (remember them?) came into the bar with the first editions of the New York Daily News. Their front page exclusive announced that Senator Ted Kennedy was going to run for President of the United States.

This was a big story, given that his brothers had both been assassinated.

Phil Finn from the Express, Chris Buckland from the Mirror and myself (I think Finn only hired me since I happened to be at the bar leaning on a Heineken) headed to where Kennedy was going to start his campaign, some cold place in the middle of the country. The following day we managed to be ‘invited’ on board the campaign plane for the flight from Iowa to Phoenix, Arizona.

Phil had requested an interview with Kennedy while we were travelling.

The Senator was well aware of Mr Finn since Phil had covered Chappaquiddick and had caused Kennedy some serious discomfort.

The theme of the interview request was: ‘Should Senator Kennedy become President, what would he do about the situation in the North of Ireland?’  The PR asked Kennedy if that was ok with him but the Senator said no; he would discuss only domestic issues. Both the Mirror man Buckland and the Express man Finn agreed to the conditions and it was OK for me to take pictures. We were escorted to the front of the plane where the great man was sitting with his shoes off smoking a cigar.

Kennedy cautiously acknowledged Finn, remembering having been ‘dug-up’ by the dogged Express man in the past. Before the interview proceeded the nervous PR bloke once again laid out the ground rules: ‘Remember, only domestic issues.’

Finn’s first question to Kennedy went something like this: ‘Senator what do you have to say about the scurrilous reports of your being a womaniser?’

Interview over.

We were escorted to the back of the aircraft where Philip proceeded to polish off five vodkas and tonics. Around about the fourth he looked around, pointed at the rest of the travelling press corps and said to Chris Buckland and myself: ‘Look at this lot, CBS, NBC, ABC, BBC, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, Washington Post, they none of them would have the balls to ask that kind of a question. They are too close to the subject, they don’t want to offend him.’

He took another swig and paused.

‘I remember when I travelled with Doncaster Rovers; I never mixed with the players.’

Just goes to prove… you can take the man out of Doncaster but you can’t take Doncaster out of the man.

#

Per ardua ad astra

By Fred Wehner

There had to be 52 words dead. Not 51. Not 53. And even an ‘a’ or an ‘an’ counted as complete a word as antidisestablishmentarianism, even though that one never made it in to the copy.

The Stars, they were called, and they arrived in batches at odd intervals, which I always found, well... odd. Why not every day? Every week? Or was this the astrologer’s talent at its most transparent: sudden bursts of stellar inspiration giving birth to another constellation of horoscopic predictions?

That’s what these were. Horoscopes that arrived at the Daily Mail features desk whereupon they were each to be fitted into a slot that someone with an anal brain had calculated years earlier to accept precisely 52 words. And this task was the sole domain of the lowliest sub-editor on that table.

Me.

Actually, when I show up the existing Mr Bottom-Rung is a quiet fellow called Nick Gordon, a young staffer, who later rises to the editorship of You magazine. I’m a casual, newly recruited by Femail bigwig Gerald Rudge, and once I prove I can keep my head down lower than anyone else’s I’m in solid. Not a regular casual but the regular casual.

So now I’m the nether knave and I get The Stars, all of them, all the time. There’s a given that whenever Orion disgorges another clump of celestial wisdom it’s saved up and served to yours truly.

There’s other work too, of course, stuff to ‘knock into shape’, as they call it, and often to the annoyance of the feature writers, some of whom expect their oeuvre to remain untouched or they might elect to knock you into shape.

One time I get to sub Mike Kemp, the motoring correspondent, agonising over my myriad changes so much that in order to untwist my knickers I wind up making calls and rewriting the whole thing.

Let’s use a totem pole as the yardstick. I’m something lodged out of sight at the bottom beneath the salmon’s tailfin, while the eagle’s head at top is Bernard Connolly.

‘You rewrote Kemp?’ he asks. ‘Put in for a double shift.’

Twice the bunce just for doing that? I like Mr Connolly. And I can see that my road to wealth lies in continuing to shave down the Saggies and pick up the Pisces, as many as they want. At times Orion’s offerings are too short, but mostly they require trimming, and I’m wielding the pencil.

What power! I sometimes reflect on the readers, imagining that they plan their day around the Daily Mail zodiac. Coffee, toast with lemon marmalade, and then a quick 52-word read to determine what to do, or to avoid doing, until bedtime.

And I – the guy under the salmon – have a serious hand in telling them how to live.

It’s about this time that I’m passing by the news desk and hear: ‘Fuckin’ Fred Wehner!’

Ears akimbo, it’s Mike Borissow, night news editor on the Daily Sketch where I’d worked years earlier and he’s now doing the same job on the Mail. Beside him, who has also made the transition, is Bob Hill, the Pancho to his Cisco, the Robin to his Batman, the Dick Cheney to his... oh, never mind.

‘What are you up to these days?’

Pointing to the feature subs’ desk: ‘Sitting over there. Doing shifts.’

‘Well why don’t you come and do some for us?’

Thus begins a period of high tension. Yes, I do come in each time news desk secretary Joan Gabbedey calls, and I get involved in major newsgathering again – a job I love. But there’s also the feature subs, those civilised fellows who book me in advance for large blocks of days. There’s bound to be a conflict, and it comes very soon.

Can’t do a news shift tonight because I’m subbing, so I offer up a very capable pal, John Sansom. But while he’s getting by-lines covering Irish bombings, crime and politics and pulling mischievous Harold-Wilson-bashing duty I get The Stars once more.

‘You still here, Fred? Put in for a double shift.’

Bernard Connolly again in his sweet soprano voice. It’s only 10pm and I’ve been at work a mere four hours. This is definitely the job for me. Not a staff one, just these mini-shifts that bring in double pay.

On the reporting side I’m kept way past my time on a doorstep, a human milk bottle, waiting for an ambush interview with someone who doesn’t want to talk to me. Curdling. I’m cold, wet, famished, fed up...

‘Give it another hour.’

‘But I was off at midnight...’

Click.

So that’s the choice. On the one side you hardly have time to grab some nourishment amid your rabid quest for a story, you get into scrapes, have to shield your back at all times against office politics. On the other they throw money at you and applaud every stroke of the pencil: a cosy, sheltered, easy life with regular hours that they book in advance.

Which do I want? It depends on who I think I am. The feature subs discuss gardening and hobbies and mortgages and cerebral matters in a genteel way, usually. The coarsest of them are into do-it-yourself projects. The reporters are a brash, carnivorous bunch given to boasting and carousing and getting into fights (although mostly only near-fights).

Apart from Cro-Magnon origins, the two separate species have one other thing in common – they all like a pint in the top bar of the Harrow. And yet even in this cramped, ‘watch-it-mate’, environment where bodily contact guarantees beer slops on suits, the two groups maintain a strict apartheid.

Who are my peers? There’s the dilemma, the jungle versus the zoo. Danger or security.

Before moving over to news full time and taking a staff job, I provide features with another pal to watch the skies as Orion’s belter. It’s a sad farewell, but the lure of the outside world has just been too strong.

And, my starry links never severed totally, I have a lifelong friendship with the Mail On Sunday’s current astrologer, Sally Brompton, who warns that Mars is about to cross my mid-heaven resulting in ruthless editing at the hands of someone in a position of authority. (Subs please note.)

One of my last stints as a features sub finds me not lost for words but unable to lose words.

All others have been in the Harrow for the last hour. David Loudfoot, Ernie McLaughlin, Dave Soulsby, John Ebblewhite, the entire gang. I’m on soothsayer duty again. They telephone: ‘Come on over, Wehner, your drink’s on the bar.’

‘Coming in a jiff.’

Ten minutes later, the same. And then again. ‘The scotches are waiting. It’ll be your shout when you get here.’

Yesyesyes, OK Dave. Just got to get these last few stars.’

I’m developing a powerful thirst just hearing about my liquor sitting there. Plus over the phone there’s the pied-piperesque music of clinking glasses and the warm, familiar buzz of animated journalistic conversation. Was that a near-fight in the background?

But are the stars out tonight...? Not quite.

This time Orion’s really set me a right heavenly teaser: try as I might, I can’t get them down to 52. Here we have a couple of signs that I’ve pared down to 54 words, even 53 if I strangle English grammar to the brink of criminality.

I’ve already killed all the adjectives.

One more word. Just got to finish this, but how, when I can’t cut another without turning it all into cosmic gibberish. There will be people at the breakfast table unable to go on with their lives unless they read word-for-precise-word what their horoscope foretells.

Ring-ring.

‘Right, Ernie. Four scotch-and-limes lined up now? I’m on my way this minute.’

And so, soddit. I snatch up my pencil and, for Aquarius and Capricorn, make the final cut. In each case just the one tiny word.

‘Not’.

#

My career: downhill all the way

By Arnie Wilson

Although Switzerland featured regularly in my early life, skiing did not. When I was seven, I found myself at school near Montreux, and spent most of the winter tobogganing. I loved the mountains but the idea of skiing never even crossed my mind. I first put on a pair of skis at the age of 16 on a school trip to Hospental, near Andermatt – another Swiss resort. I seem to recall that they were made of wood, with cable bindings, and I wore lace-up boots. It was a poor snow year, but although I enjoyed the experience, my parents could not afford to repeat their generosity and I didn’t ski again for another 14 years.

I was 30, by now a television reporter (and doing weekend shifts in Fleet Street), when a friend who edited a ski magazine asked if I would like to visit what was then known as Haute Nendaz (now Siviez) near Verbier (Switzerland again) and write an article for him. I never dreamt that, as a result, skiing would become my life.

Assuming from my earlier teenage fumblings on the slopes that I would be an ace skier, I quickly discovered that I was a disaster. A little learning is a dangerous thing, especially where skiing is concerned. I attempted a long black run and was humiliated to find myself being rescued by the ski patrol. Watching me fall heavily almost every time I turned, they decided to rescue me and take me down in a blood-wagon (a rescue-stretcher-cum-toboggan). Ego and ribs were battered, but I vowed to learn properly. It was the beginning of major love affair.

But although skiing became my passion, it remained a hobby for more than a decade. By then I had begun writing occasionally for the Financial Times. Arthur Sandles, the paper’s leisure editor, a regular skiing companion, had paid me the great compliment of allowing me to contribute to his pages every now and then.

On a bitterly cold January day in 1986, Arthur and I enjoyed breakfast together before setting out for the slopes of Saas-Fee (Switzerland yet again). Before lunch, my friend, who had been skiing beautifully, was dead. At the age of 50, a heart-attack had robbed us all of a much loved colleague. This tragic event was to change my life. To my astonishment, almost by default, I found myself writing what used to be Arthur’s Saturday skiing column in the FT Weekend section.

Twenty years and some 650 resorts in 25 countries later, I still pinch myself to make sure I am not dreaming. ‘You must have the best job in the world’ is a regular comment. So is: ‘Do you want anyone to carry your bags for you?’ I could have done with some help in that department during the Financial Times Round The World Ski Expedition in 1994, when Lucy Dicker and I, accompanied by 14 bags, found our way into the Guinness Book of Records by skiing 365 consecutive days in 240 ski areas in 13 countries, completing more than four million vertical feet (think something like 135 Everests) in the process.

Although writing about skiing may well be one of the best jobs in the world, it can be an exhausting one too, although I certainly don’t expect sympathy. In a typical year, I criss-cross the globe, travelling to around 40 ski resorts across many continents. Not just the Alps and the Rockies, but from Turkey to Japan, and from New Zealand to Chile.

‘Don’t you ever get tired of skiing?’ is another question I am asked regularly. I always answer, quite truthfully, that I don’t. The reason being that I don’t just enjoy the crème de la crème of ski resorts, or pig out on exotic helicopter skiing (although I must confess that I am a glutton for that, be it in the Valais region of Switzerland or the Himalayas). But for me, skiing is fascinating wherever it is practised: on a small field in Alabama as well as across three huge valleys in the Tarentaise mountains of France. In the woods in Vermont as well as the chutes and cirques of Snowbird, Utah. Snowdomes, plastic slopes, converted garbage dumps (yes, they have those in America's mid-West, where one is affectionately known as Mount Trashmore) – I love them all. Consequently, I never get bored. Not even in Switzerland, the country I know best, where it all started, and which I still love as much as ever.

So when people ask me to name my favourite resort – as they do almost every day – I have to ask them which category they mean. Most of my skiing colleagues know that Jackson Hole, in a stunning valley overlooking Wyoming’s regal Teton mountains is my own particular favourite. My wife Vivianne fell in love with the resort too – we even got married there, right on the mountain, in 2000.

(In 2001, I took over as editor of the Ski Club of Great Britain’s award-winning magazine Ski and Board, which fills in the summer months, but makes it more difficult for me to escape to the southern hemisphere slopes. And no, I still don’t expect any sympathy!)

Helicopter skiing in such exotic places as Himachal Pradesh in the Indian Himalayas takes some beating. But if you want to know my favourite mountain range I would have to say the Andes. Not because they’re a touch higher than most, but because of their heart-achingly, almost mystically remote, beautiful and desolate location. And because of the kindly Chilean people who live life at a more laid-back, almost spiritual pace than we do – and the friendly, curious Argentineans.

But the real answer should be: the resort where I’m skiing right now. I can be as happy as Larry yo-yoing up and down a resort in Wisconsin as I can in the French Alps. It’s just a different kind of ski experience. Just recently, for example, I went skiing in Michigan – the state where, it’s said, it ain’t ice unless it’s blue, and you can see your reflection in it – and if you were silly enough to fire a gun on a ski trail, you’d stand a good chance of being killed by the ricochet.

I had noticed that my return flight from Salt Lake City back to the UK was via Detroit – a city known rather more for its production of motor cars than its skiing. But this rather flat state has more than 30 ski areas – that’s more than Colorado. In terms of size and distance from Detroit’s Coleman A Young International Airport, Alpine Valley seemed to be my best bet. Although the vertical drop is only 300 feet, the area has 25 runs and 16 lifts.

What clinched it was that there were four and a quarter hours between flights. The ski area was just under an hour from the airport. It would be tight, but I had my boots with me as carry-on luggage. I’d simply need to rent skis.

To my joy, we arrived in Detroit half an hour early. I grabbed the first Metro-Airport cab I saw – and off we went. To my surprise, the ski area had pulled all the stops out for my visit. Someone threw some skis at me, someone else lent me a warm jacket, and for a few brief runs, I was the king of Alpine Valley, Michigan. They had the head ski patroller to accompany me, and there was even a photographer to record my visit

I am extremely fortunate to do this job, although I do get a little tired of the most common question of all: What do you do in the summer? Answer: I dream about skiing, edit Ski and Board, help prepare the FT annual Pink Snow ski supplement, await the coming winter, and if I can’t wait, I catch a plane to Santiago, Chile or Queenstown, New Zealand. Last month it was Argentina. This winter I am planning trips to Kashmir, Russia and Japan, as well as the ‘usual suspects’ in North America and Europe.

OK, OK: I’m a spoilt b*st*rd.

  • Arnie Wilson (www.arniewilson.com) was named ski travel writer of the year in 1999 and was awarded the Ski Club of Great Britain’s Centenary Medal in 2003. He has written several ski books, including Top Ski Resorts Of The World, translated into German, Italian and Hungarian. He is also consultant editor for the recently published Ski Atlas.

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Large Swanseas

By Alun John

Fleet Street lost another one of its characters last week with the death, at 61, in the South of France of John Butterworth, former art editor of the Mail on Sunday.

John would bustle into the office each morning bubbling with the latest gossip, immaculate in grey suit, crisp white shirt and designer tie. By lunchtime the tie would be undone and his cuffs and the front of the shirt stained with marker pen as he had dragged his hands across that week’s page layouts.

Lunch was a high spot of the day for John and often the main reason for his leaving his flat in Alderney Street. He was rather taken with the name of the street and once actually went to Alderney for a holiday to see what it had been named after.

He was warm, kind and generous with his hospitality and lunches would disappear into a blur of champagne, chat and rounds of smoked salmon sandwiches followed by the inevitable glass or two of port. Often we would return to the office just as the street lights flickered on.

Returning one afternoon, he found Stewart Steven looking for him to discuss the layout of that week’s spread. Attempting nonchalance, John leaned on a handy hat stand, only to miss it and fall flat onto the floor via a slow motion spiral. Stewart, to his credit, merely paused a second, stepped around him and made no comment. The next day in conference, Stewart wondered aloud if we might run a piece on the merits of alcohol free lunching, just glancing for a fraction of a second at John before winking at him.

The early, pre-launch, days at the Mail on Sunday were glorious. No paper to get out and John and I had a chance to work our way through El Vino, Wheeler’s and The Wine Press at one end, past The Cheshire Cheese and the Bistingo to the new El Vino in New Bridge Street at the other, and The Dome in Seacoal Lane for a change now and again.

I managed to coin a good phrase with him once in the new El Vino. In those days, the bar shut at three and the obliging waitresses would come around with ten minutes to go and take an extended order so you could keep drinking. John and I had been drinking Champagne – nothing, of course, ever being too good for the workers – and now Josie, the waitress, politely enquired if we should like a Port to finish. We readily agreed and she asked John what measure he wanted, what size?

‘The large industrial size, of course,’ boomed John.

Swansea’, I said.

He looked blank. ‘Swansea, it’s a large industrial port’, I explained. He laughed and from then on we took to ordering a couple of ‘Swanseas’ most afternoons.

One holiday he asked if he might borrow a camera to take some pictures in France and I looked out an auto-focus for him from the cupboard, together with some rolls of colour film. He returned and gave me the films to process. When they got back, although they showed magnificent scenery, every one had a dark circle on the bottom left hand corner which I thought was a fault in the camera. Only when I studied them all a bit closer did I see that he had taken the pictures through the windscreen of the car without getting out from his seat and he’d included the tax disc in every shot.

He left the Mail on Sunday and settled in Auvilar in his beloved France where he quickly became accepted by the locals who remember him as affectionately as all of us who worked with him either in Fleet Street or New York will surely do.

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Cat and dog watch

By David Wright

Bill Gregory was a terrific photographer. When he wanted to be.

He’d taken the iconic picture of Matt Busby near death in an oxygen tent in the hospital in Munich and nabbed a host of other great exclusive snaps for the Daily Express.

Bill was an Express legend. When war broke out, he was a darkroom boy in the Manchester office. When he reported back to Ancoats five years later he’d been transformed into a Royal Navy commander. He easily outranked every other returning Express crusader, including the editor. The way Bill explained it to me, they decided they couldn’t send Commander Gregory, who’d been in charge of a warship and awarded all sorts of medals, back to the dark room working for a boss who’d ended up a corporal. So they promoted him to photographer.

He was in his fifties, and on the back side of a memorable career when we were thrown together in 1964. I was 25, sent by the new Express news editor Eddie Laxton to open up a Stoke-on-Trent district office. Bill was to be the district photographer.

Veteran reporters in Ancoats had gleefully filled me in on this curmudgeon’s heralded battles with scribes he didn’t approve of, so it was with some trepidation that I went to our first meeting in a pub in Hanley.

BillGregoryBill (pictured, left) was a stocky, florid-faced, immaculately-dressed man with bright blue eyes and a dramatically crooked nose, broken – so he told me – in a bar brawl in Algiers.

And once I’d plucked up the courage to point out to him that during an interview it was the reporter who was supposed to ask the questions, not the photographer, we got along famously.

The war had been over for nearly two decades, but the commanding voice that had once chilled sailors’ hearts could still bring a barman to attention – and ensure a couple of large gins and tonics – in the most crowded and unfriendly pub.

But for a photographer, Bill had a bit of a problem: by then, he had an aversion to taking pictures.

It was a great day – or even better, a great week – if he didn’t have to take a camera out of his bag.

It came to a head when I made the calls one morning. The fire brigade told me they’d rescued an unconscious cat and dog from a burning house – and given them mouth to mouth resuscitation that saved their lives. Not a bad yarn.

I called Bill, who lived 40 miles away in Cheshire, then drove to interview the animals’ owners. When I left, dog and cat were getting quite frisky again.

Bill called me a couple of hours later. ‘Can’t get a picture,’ he said happily. ‘The cat’s there, but the dog’s been taken somewhere else and there’s no point in taking a picture of just a bloody cat.’

Then he drove home to Cheshire.

Early that night, the back bench called. The story was scheduled as the coveted main news page lead – but only if they had pictures of the cat and dog together.

The night photo desk rousted Bill from his armchair and sent him back to Stoke.

A couple of hours later he called me. ‘Bit of a problem, old boy,’ he said.

‘I got to the house, knocked on the door and the woman opened it. I told her I was there to photograph the dog and the cat.

‘She burst into tears and said: “The dog’s dead, mester.”

‘I said, “What do you mean the bloody dog’s dead?” Then she tells me it suddenly croaked this afternoon.’

That’s when I lost it. ‘Bill, you’ve cost us a page lead,’ I raged. ‘If you’d just waited a couple of hours and got that picture this morning ….’

He let me stew for a while. Then…

‘Don’t worry, old boy. I’ve got the bloody picture and the film’s in a taxi on its way to Manchester.’

Bill – wonderful old Bill – had finally taken his camera out of the bag. Then he carefully propped the dead dog up against the wall, pushed the live cat into the dog’s embrace … and clicked.

The picture was used big in next morning’s Express. It touched millions of hearts.

And no-one seemed to notice that the dog’s eyes were closed. Or that he maybe looked a little stiff.

·        David Wright worked for Raymonds News Agency, Derby, the Sheffield Telegraph, the Daily Express, Manchester, and the Daily Mirror in Manchester, London and New York. For the last 30 years he’s been a reporter on the National Enquirer in Florida.

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Expenses: blame Mr Hitler

By the Editorial Manager

There was one feature writer who overstepped the line that divided creative writing from out-and-out fraud (see Please revise and resubmit these claims, last week).

He made out cash advances to non-existent names and took them to cashiers to draw the money.

Perhaps, to his addled mind, he justified the scam on the basis that it was well known at the time that the inkies put themselves down for un-worked shifts in invented names, M Mouse and A Hitler among them, and then collected the wages that were in those days paid in cash and without deduction for tax.

Nobody twigged what was going on for quite a while, maybe because he drew relatively small amounts. The money was either washed out as a ‘bad debt’ or lost in the machinations of the cashiers’ department. After all, everybody had to cover their own arses. But when he increased the amounts on the chits questions started to be asked about who these people were who were drawing cash advances and not putting in exes to cover them.

It could no longer be overlooked and the simplest investigation exposed it. The editor didn’t want to know and the miscreant was eventually summoned to appear in front of Tony Miles, who was both chairman and editorial director of the Mirror.

Seeking counsel from a colleague, he was told: ‘Well, what I normally do in these circumstances is throw myself on the carpet and start frothing at the mouth.’

Magical, that – ‘what I normally do’.

The guy was offered the choice of quitting or facing prosecution, so he quickly found himself a job on another paper, and got himself elected on to the chapel committee, possibly with an eye towards better personal job security, in the future.

His new colleagues eventually allowed him to become chapel clerk, I think, but they turned him down as treasurer.

#

The Bill

By Colin Dunne

You never read Bill Marshall’s finest and funniest interview. I didn’t either. In fact, nobody did because Bill never wrote it. And all because a Frenchman was touchy about the size of his todger. Honestly, some people…

However, I was there at the time, and I still have the tape of that totally unforgettable interview. For days afterwards, as word spread, a queue formed beside my desk: editors, department heads, and half of Fleet Street lined up to listen to it. Without doubt, it is a classic.

For those of you who weren’t around, this was the time when the Mirror had rather more feature writers than there were words in the paper, including full-stops. This meant that the Holborn office was a sort of National Museum of Neglected Talent, Bruised Egos and Certifiable Eccentrics, and Bill Marshall scored top marks on all three. There was no-one quite like Bill. Actually, that’s not true: there were quite a few like Bill, but he was better at it than they were: he’d had more practice.

Bill was better at most things. He was a wonderful writer of the pyrotechnic school – all whiz-bangs and wallop – marvellous stuff. He was the man who described Sinatra as being a little old man wearing somebody else’s hair. It was Richard Stott’s stroke of genius to get Bill doing show-biz interviews. When it comes to talking to people with nothing to say (which is usually any actor without a script), who better than a writer who was at his very best when writing about nothing?

Give Bill too many facts – like three – and he became confused. His best pieces were constructed entirely between his ears, with as little outside interference as possible.

With celebrities, his technique was to ask questions that had never been asked before. By anyone. Of anyone. His questions were completely unpredictable and mostly irrelevant. It worked like a dream. He once wrote an excellent piece on Ronnie Corbett which he provoked by asking him how often he cleaned his shoes. Corbett probably thought he was from Jimmy Choo’s house magazine, but it did make a brilliant read. He lifted show-biz crap into the realms of the surreal.

In life as in his copy, he was over-the-top. So far over the top that he was across No Man’s Land and drinking schnapps in the enemy trenches – a metaphor almost worthy of the man himself. From his wispy wizard’s hair to the trainers he always wore, he was a one-off. He spoke in a unique amalgam of Scouse and Los Angeles with lots of hippy slang, through a sort of forced whisper. To Bill, everybody was Baby.

There are many Bill stories but a couple will help to capture the style of the man. When he was a district man in Liverpool, he was an assiduous supporter of the Liverpool Press Club. He’d even lived there, for a while. Under the snooker table. He’d be surrounded by food and books brought in to him by friends. He was, it was matter-of-factly explained to visitors, practising becoming a hermit.

On the day he got married (or rather on one of the days he got married), his guests waved him off in the morning. In the evening, alone, he strolled into the Press Club. ‘Where’s your wife?’ a bemused customer asked. Bill looked at him with some disdain. ‘Don’t you know? They don’t serve women in here.’

Move on a few years to that half-forgotten time just before the Maxwell Terror when a one-legged man called Clive from the Abbey National Building Society was put in charge of the Mirror with a view to importing some sanity into the building. He didn’t do too well and, to be frank, I doubt whether he would have done any better if he had ten legs. He never really got the hang of the place.

This may have been because of an experience soon after he arrived. Wandering down a corridor, he heard sounds of revelry by day. He opened a door to reveal a scene of exuberant joy – Bill entertaining friends and secretaries with an open case of champagne. Bill recognised Clive immediately, sprang to his feet, flung his free arm around him and burst into Mersey-California: ‘Come on in, Clive, Baby – welcome to the Mirror! Now grab a glass!’ 

In all his years at the Abbey, Thornton could never have encountered such a scene. He pointed at the champagne. ‘Where did that come from?’

Bill exploded into laughter. ‘That’s why you’re gonna love it here, Baby. You just pick up the phone and it keeps coming!’ All the Bill stories – true or not – were like that.

For a while, Bill and I used to share interviews. If he had a good one set up for the Mirror he would include me, and I did the same with interviews I did for magazines. I’d set one up with Roger Vadim and Bill said he was keen to come along.

Now Vadim was the French film producer and director who’d created And God Created Woman. He’d had almost as many women as John Penrose, but of a slightly superior quality. He had been close to Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda. Close, that is, in the sense of being on the inside. While he was of little interest in himself, if he would say anything about these two famous ex-wives then we had a piece.

So there we are, Willie and myself, sharing a taxi on our way to the St James’ Club. Bill is getting excited, indicated by a sort of demonic cackle. ‘I got some great stuff to throw at this guy,’ he says, chuckling away. ‘I’m gonna wrong-foot him, see what comes out.’

A little nervous, I ask what he has in mind. Bill thinks it would spoil the moment if he tells me. ‘Just watch the fun,’ he says. I am not reassured.

At the club, we are greeted by a young lady who is doing some PR between Benenden sixth-form and her first city banker husband. A stint, I imagine, of about three weeks. In a high, fluting voice that would be well-suited to singing ‘O For the Wings of a Dove’ she lists all the things we cannot talk about. Covering, as it does, his past life, his future life and any opinions he might hold, it leaves only the book whose publisher she represents.

Naturally, we promise to observe these minor restrictions. And in comes the man, early sixties, a little bit chubby around the middle, exquisitely dressed in what appears to be exclusively cashmere. He has the face of a sensitive, intelligent and strikingly handsome artist, flanked by silver wings of hair. Beside him, Roman emperors would have looked a bit common.

Careful handling would seem to be the approach.  The PR fluting lady introduces us. We sit on the two sofas on either side of a glass-topped coffee table. He murmurs greetings and shakes hands. Bill wants to get this on a more matey basis. ‘Hiya, Rodge!’ he says.

Rodge winces. This is not a good start.

I lob in all the harmless stuff about what time did he get in to London and how does he like his hotel when Bill interrupts. ‘Hey Rodge, you’ve known some great chicks, y’know, Bardot and Fonda…?’

This is not an unexpected line, so Monsieur Vadim gives a gentle nod and says yes, it ’as indeed been his good fortune to know some exceptional women.

The next question causes some mystification. ‘Is it, y’know, ’cos you’re kinda blessed…?’

Blessed? The interviewee does not follow. Nor does the PR Flute. Nor do I, although I do experience a slight sense of foreboding.

‘Per’aps you would explain zis question?’ says M’sieur Vadim.

Bill leans forward, eyes sparkling with excitement. He reaches his hand out over the coffee table and points – unbelievably, so it seems – at  the man’s crotch.

Blessed – y’know Rodge-baby… kinda lucky down there.’

We all follow the direction of his pointing finger. We know what he means. There is no doubt where Down There is. ‘With these chicks, you gotta be well-hung, right?’

Bill sits back on the sofa and smiles with satisfaction. He’s pretty pleased with the effect, but not for long. Slowly, the well-hung (or not) Roger Vadim rises to his feet. He keeps his eyes fixed on Bill as though he expects him to make a murderous leap at his throat. ‘Zis man,’ he says to me, eyes still on Bill, ‘Zis man is asking me about ze size of my preek.’

This is followed by the sort of silence that I’m told follows an atomic bomb. Then all the noise erupts at once. PR Flute springs forward, her pearls fairly clicking with outrage. She has never heard such an offensive question in her life, it’s a disgrace, she would never have agreed… Luckily at this point her voice reaches such a pitch that it is audible only to dogs.

Had there been a fan in the room, it would have been coated in waste materials. Muttering to himself, Roger Vadim begins to make for the door. PR Flute is still shrieking and pointing at Bill. I rush round the sofa, grab the Frenchman by his sleeve and begin gabbling that it’s all a misunderstanding and that Bill doesn’t mean what they think he means, although my French is not sufficiently inventive to offer another translation of well-hung.

PR Flute comes down to about budgie level, Monsieur Vadim is persuaded to return to his seat. There’s no way of retrieving it, of course. Almost any question now sounds like pure porn. He offers a few trite quotes while Bill sits in silence staring at the carpet, like a bloodhound whose bone has been stolen. After a few more minutes, we break up.

Bill doesn’t speak again until we’re in the taxi on the way back. ‘You loused that up for me, Col,’ he grunts. Loused it up? I attempt to explain my efforts to save the situation but he’s not listening. ‘I didn’t get a chance to get my killer question in, Baby.’

His killer question? There is another one we haven’t heard?

‘Yeah,’ Bill leans forward, invigorated once again. ‘Next, I was gonna say to him, Look Rodge, you’re 63 – can you still raise a gallop?’

As I say, Bill never did write the story. Nor did I. By the time you took the shrieking out of it, there wasn’t much left to write. And, without discussing it at all, we never did any more joint interviews.

Days later they were still coming up to me asking me to play the tape. I’m often tempted to replay it after reading some lack-lustre ‘celeb’ interview by one of today’s colourless and formulaic amateurs. Maybe I’ll have it made into a CD and flog it to a Media School.

Looking back on it, as I frequently do, there’s one thought that always springs to mind. Ronnie Corbett got off damned light, didn’t he?

 

 

October 12, 2007

 

The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times, August 2007


A memorial service to celebrate the life and work of Richard Stott [See Archive, July 30] will be held at St Bride’s on January 16. These services usually start at noon, but sometimes they’re at 11.30am – so please check.


Hacks get stamps of approval

America plans to commemorate five of its most celebrated journalists – of whom Martha Gellhorn (sometime Mrs Ernest Hemingway) might be the only familiar name this side of the pond – by issuing postage stamps in their honour.

It begs the question: if the Royal Mail did the same, who deserves such an accolade?

Only dead people qualify.

Your nominations, please, to the address at top right – and maybe we can produce a list of names in our next issue. Who deserves such an honour – and why?

Now to this week...

We’ve tapped a rich vein by exploring many of the foibles and eccentricities of yesteryear’s Fleet Street and regional photographers. Plain JOHN SMITH continues the tapping along what may be an endless seam.

IAN BRADSHAW helps maintain some editorial balance, as a photographer writing fondly about a writer - his old mate Stan Gebler Davies.

JOE MULLINS explains why you need a dirty mind to get on in this job. What, us, guv? Surely not. Again, contributions of clever or dreadful headlines and copy lines are welcome.

FRED WEHNER gets all hot and hovered spending a day at the seaside with Jeremy Thorpe.

REVEL BARKER remembers his old exes-checker, Ken Udall.

GRAHAM SNOWDON takes us back to Doncaster with even more names than the Mirror 1980 editorial staff directory, and more memories than we had last week – surely confirming that there was never anywhere to match that town as the journalists’ alma mater. Everybody knows somebody who worked in Donny; most people know at least half-a-dozen.

And finally COLIN DUNNE has been listening to ladies on just about ever subject – but mainly on their backs…

Our diary editor, Al Vino, is otherwise engaged this week and, as an experiment, we have brought our Diary, THE STAB, into the body of the kirk, but scattered about the place.

There are contributions from JOHN GARTON on Bill MarshallBRYAN RIMMER on Billy Connolly – we always like to include a couple of Bills – and JOHN KNILL on the ubiquitous Phillip Finn. Then acting diary editor WILLIAM BOOT on Terry Lancaster (who died this week), Doreen Spooner, first lady snapper on The Street, and on the postage stamps story from the US Mail.

All that, plus, across the road, DR SYNTAX  explaining why manslaughter can be murder for subs, plus LETTERS , plus BOOKS ABOUT US – recommending some decent reading for the long winter nights now approaching when, as usual, there’ll be nothing on TV.

If you have anything to say or contribute – about stamps, about clever (or crap) headlines, stories or photos or diary pars or anything that takes your fancy – the address is at top right, just under the picture of William Boot’s old word-processor.

But first, read on… Scroll to stroll, or pick’n’click…

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Ringmaster of the Flying Circus

By John Smith

When I joined the Daily Mirror as a reporter in the early 1960’s the photographic crew was a talented and disparate bunch, a kind of amalgam of The Wild Bunch and The League of Gentlemen.

It included Freddie Reed, Bela Zola, Dixie Dean, Sid Brock, Eric Piper, Monte Fresco, Tom King, Charlie Ley, Bunny Atkins, Kent Gavin, Doreen Spooner, Alisdair MacDonald, Bill Malindine and Cyril Maitland.

Also on the staff was a grumpy and taciturn character called Freddie Cole, a former taxi driver who had got his foothold in Fleet Street by photographing car crash sites and another newsy overnight snippets which he encountered while driving his cab in the wee small hours. The pix were sold as early edition fillers to the (then) three London evening papers, The Star, the Evening News and the Evening Standard.

When his shift at the Daily Mirror was over Freddie would sit at home illegally monitoring the police radio and passing on information to the news desk. He insisted that this service should remain unpaid and anonymous. A typical call from Freddie would go something like this: ‘This is you-know-who. No names, no pack-drill. Police investigating suspicious fire in Oxford Street. Over and out.’

But the most intriguing of the Mirror photographers was Tommy Lea who dressed, spoke and acted more like a country clergyman than a battle-hardened foot-in-the-door Fleet Street snapper.

Beneath the neatly parted hair and National Health glasses lurked a first class operator whose guile and rat-like cunning were essential professional qualifications that were eagerly embraced by an ambitious tabloid hack such as myself who could only stand back and admire the deft footwork of this camera-toting conman.

Tommy’s benign and diffident approach enabled him to wheedle his way into the front line of many a major news story, from a hospital ward full of air crash survivors to the closely guarded gates of a top secret military establishment.

He famously figured in a court case which to this day is used as a benchmark in discussions about the press and privacy.

Sporting a smart dark suit and a bright red carnation, Tommy had sweet-talked his way into a high society London wedding in 1945 by announcing that he was from ‘the paper of the times’. But he was rumbled after snatching a couple of quick pictures, and the bridegroom punched him and smashed his camera before throwing him out.

A subsequent magazine article which labelled Tommy and the Daily Mirror as the ‘gutter press’ led to their both unsuccessfully suing for libel. In a scathing summing-up, Mr Justice Hilbery suggested that Tommy thought he had ‘some high mission as a press photographer to portray to the vulgar, the idly curious and, on some occasions, the morbidly minded, the private lives of other people.’

Looking at some of today’s celebrity-obsessed tabloids, one might think that little has changed.

However, my own most treasured memory of Tommy in action goes back to the day in the 1960s when he and I were despatched to a small Bedfordshire town to cover the murder of a young girl who had been raped and strangled on her way home from a village dance. We arrived at the family home to find the Fleet Street Flying Circus encamped by the garden gate of a modest, neatly kept terraced house.

To cries of ‘Yer a bit late’ and other more ribald greetings from the assembled shambles of reporters and photographers, we were told that the dead girl’s mother was alone in the house, but no amount of inducement would persuade her to make any comment, pose for any pictures or hand over any family snaps.

Blinking behind his thin-rimmed glasses, Tommy went into his archdeacon act. ‘Er, I think we should sort of, well, have a go John, don’t you?’ he said, making it sound like a stammering invitation to invest a tanner on the hoopla stall at a church fete.

Reaching into his pocket, he produced a packet of cigarettes and lit one. ‘Now, John,’ he murmured, in between cough-ridden puffs, ‘I know you are the writer. But would you mind leaving the talking to me on this one?’

Intrigued, I nodded and followed him up the garden path, watched with interest and not a few scornful smiles by the press pack.

Tommy’s gentle but insistent knocking at the front door eventually led to it being reluctantly half opened and we were confronted by the murder victim’s mother, tears staining her face and a pinafore covering her simple blue dress.

‘I’ve got nothing to say,’ she announced mournfully.

Tommy went into full vicar-mode. ‘Of course you haven’t, my dear,’ he said. ‘What could you possibly say? What could ANY of us possibly say?’

He put his hand on her shoulder. ‘You have lost the daughter you loved. And here we are bothering you and trampling all over your nice clean doorstep. I can tell, you see; I bet you scrubbed this doorstep this morning.’

Bemused, the mother looked down and nodded.

‘I thought so,’ beamed Tommy. ‘Just like my old mum. Always kept a clean doorstep.’

Then he took a mighty drag on his cigarette, which by this time had a produced a tip of faltering ash.

‘And with a lovely doorstep like this, the last thing you would want is me dropping my cigarette all over it. Is that an ashtray I can see on the table in the hall?’

Fag hand outstretched like a cavalryman’s sabre, he glided past her into the hallway and I followed, mumbling apologies.

Minutes later we were cosily installed in the kitchen while mum made a cup of tea, Tommy banged off a couple of snaps of her before making his choice from the family photo album and I coaxed some words out of her about the heartbreak of losing a daughter (sorry, but we old hacks still talk in tabloid headlines).

As we drove back to London I said to Tommy: ‘I didn’t know you smoked.’

He gave me one of his beatific smiles. ‘Only when the occasion demands,’ he said.

  • JOHN SMITH began as a messenger in the London offices of Westminster Press, then went to the Muswell Hill Record, the Paddington Mercury, the Brighton Evening Argus, the Bristol Evening World, the Daily Sketch, the Daily Herald, the Daily Mirror in London and New York and finally to The People where he did a globe-trotting column as Plain John Smith.

#

Back from The Stab

Spoonerisms

By William Boot

Mention of Doreen Spooner in John Smith’s list of memorable snappers of the Glory Days reminds me of an early glamour model who once remarked: ‘You never mind getting your kit off for Doreen. It’s like undressing in front of your granny!’

Less than totally complimentary, perhaps. But I think I know what she meant – sort of.

Doreen was, after all, the first female snapper in Fleet Street, and she became the first specialist fashion photographer on the Mirror.

As for the model who so comfortably posed for her, she had us enthralled one day with the story of her honeymoon in Kenya.

On a safari trip the newlyweds’ coach was hijacked and when the driver protested he was shot dead.

‘I’ll never forget that image for as long as I live,’ said our beauty. ‘The driver was slumped over the wheel with a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. But apart from that I can honestly say it was the best holiday I’ve ever had in my life.’

#

Stan the man

By Ian Bradshaw

'My snapper' is what he called me. Coming from anybody else it would have been an insult, possibly culminating in excommunication.

From Stan Gebler Davies it was intended as the ultimate affectionate accolade, close to conferring sainthood. And from the beginning it was set in stone by him, and nurtured by Guinness.

It all started one fateful day in the offices of YOU in the days when it was a real magazine. Jayne Gould, probably one of the best art directors ever to grace Tudor Street, introduced me to a shambling, wild haired apparition. ‘I think you two would work well together,’ she said; and then, in an aside to me, ‘I think you are the only photographer who might cope with him.’

Stan lived in Kinsale in County Cork, commuting to and from London to pick up expenses and terrorise El Vino. My first job with him was to photograph the West Carberry Hunt in West Cork, the subject of the TV series, The Irish RM.

Having arranged to meet in Cork I stepped tentatively onto Irish soil one Monday afternoon and made my way towards the large shed-like building which, in those days passed for the city’s International Airport. I was approaching the arrivals door when a window next to the entrance was flung open, a voice roared ‘Bradshaw!’ and an arm clutching a pint of Guinness was thrust at me.

Thus I arrived in customs - they still had them then - clutching a pint of the black stuff to begin what would be a running battle over the years, with a terrier of a lady from Irish customs who was disinclined to accept my explanation that I thought the Irish welcomed everyone in this way.

We made our way westwards, stopping at every bar on the road to Castletownshend, where Stan introduced me to all and sundry. ‘This is Bradshaw, my snapper,’ he would announce, and it stuck. Never Ian, always Bradshaw.

geblerOver the next few years we traversed the Emerald Isle for YOU magazine producing wild stories from poitín (potcheen: moonshine) distilling, mouse racing, hooker racing (they were 42-ft sailing boats), witchcraft, hunting, eating, and always drinking. In one case we demolished a dry stone wall in the race to get to a remote bar before the doors closed. (After all it is considered good manners to get in to the pub before closing time.) Stan wrote this episode off as ‘Bradshaw distracted by the wondrous light of a Galway sunset.’

Working with Stan was certainly different. He used to write at 2am with a bottle of whiskey or latterly vodka at his elbow. He rose around midday and breakfasted around 2.30pm. I used to go and photograph while he slept, describe the events to him when he got up, and he’d write the most accurate and humorous ‘eyewitness’ pieces from his bedroom.

If we were out together I had to keep a wary eye open for bars to which he would be drawn like a magnet. One day I was walking down a street in Galway with him when he disappeared. One moment I was chatting to him, then, momentarily distracted, I turned and he was gone. ‘Bar,’ I thought - but there was no bar in sight, only a row of shops, which I duly checked, and an estate agent’s office. Eventually I called in on the estate agent. There, sitting on the receptionist’s desk, was yer man, clutching a pint of Guinness. ‘Ah! Bradshaw,’ says he, producing another pint and handing it to me, ‘What kept you?’

I discovered later that Stan had suddenly felt in need of drink, slipped into the offices and told the extremely pretty receptionist that he was an alcoholic and in serious need of liquor to keep his blood levels balanced. He dispatched the lady with ferocious charm out of the back door to a nearby bar in the next street to fetch sustenance. ‘I may fall down if I try to go myself. Please also bring a pint for Bradshaw; he’ll be along shortly.’

It could only happen in Ireland.

I went on holiday once and the Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival came up while I was far away. Jayne Gould agonized over which photographer to send with Stan, eventually settling on the experienced Homer Sykes. I came home to a rant on my answering machine from Stan:

‘You’re not to go on holiday again without my permission,’ he roared, ‘That bastard Sykes doesn’t drink, makes me get up at six in the morning and does not stop at bars, I’m dying!’ And so it went on.

We went to interview the author Molly Keane. Stan thought it would be a gentlemanly gesture to take her flowers. Stan’s biggest mistake. ‘What the fook have you brought these for,’ shrieked the feisty author, ‘I can’t drink flowers… go and get a bottle of whiskey.’

He had to go in for an operation for a tumour on his lung and was told he might not make it through. Stan, accumulating sympathy all round, got his substantial bar tab cancelled in El Vino and asked the surgeon if he could have one last lunchtime in Fleet Street before he operated.

It was agreed on condition that Stan told him exactly how many drinks he consumed, as the doctor needed to balance the alcohol in his blood system so that he did not suffer shock. Stan duly survived, coming round to find two drips in his arm. One was blood and - he swore it was true - the other was neat Smirnoff vodka.

We all told him that he ought to cut back, that the drink would kill him. It was in vain. He eventually fell over one night in Dublin, split his head open and died. So it wasn’t actually the drink that killed him.

The world was robbed of a ferocious talent and now there is a new generation of boring editors who would never understand. They drink water, work out at gymnasiums and produce girlie magazines. The world has moved on and not necessarily for the better.

I still miss him. Stan Gebler Davies, a great, great friend, who once ran for political office with a huge rosette that read ‘Vote for me or I’ll kiss your baby.’ The biographer of James Joyce and one of the most brilliant and humorous writers of his generation is gone.

It’s been a while now but I still think fondly of him in the small hours and of the Guinness truck that I’m convinced pulls up at the Pearly Gates and tells Saint Peter, ‘Got a delivery ’ere for a Mr Davies.’

#

Back from The Stab

Terry Lancaster 1920-2007

By William Boot

On the day that Bob Edwards was sacked as editor of the Daily Express for the second time (but that’s another story) he, perfectly understandably, needed a drink and headed across the road from the Black Lubyanka to El Vino.

Entering the bar, he remarked to the guv’nor, Christopher Mitchell, that the bells of St Bride’s, the journalists’ church, were ringing – something, he said, he’d never heard before.

He was told: ‘Oh yes. It’s such a hoot! Terry Lancaster has paid the verger to ring them because his editor…’ There was a pause, then he continued: ‘The bells? Ringing? Oh, really, I hadn’t noticed.’

In fact Mitchell had mis-read the plot. The bells were being tolled in mourning, rather than in celebration. Lancaster, then Express foreign editor, was publicly disgusted by the sacking of his boss. That rare animal – a loyal journalist – he actually resigned over it, and when Edwards became editor of the Sunday People Lancaster joined him to write about politics.

There is an excellent obit to Lancaster, who died this week, by Geoffrey Goodman in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,2186483,00.html

There's also an obit - unsigned - in The Times which says that Lancaster was born in 1926 and joined the RAF in 1939, becoming ‘the youngest intelligence officer in the desert air force’. His birthday was in November, so when war was declared he was still 12, by their account. Yes; definitely the youngest, then.

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It's all in the mind

By Joe Mullins

It depends how dirty your mind is but I know I always got a laugh from headlines when nobody else did. ‘Up against a brick wall at Ripon,’ had me howling, although nobody else seemed to think it funny.

Everybody laughed at ‘Bonallacks to golf,’ though, and it summed up my own feelings about that alleged sport.

In Sheffield, one hapless sub handling a story about student rowdiness put up ‘City housewives dread Rag Week’. It got through and was pinned up in many a steel city pub’s taproom wall.

As young reporters we laughed about apocryphal lines in wedding reports like ‘the bride’s workmates presented her with an electric cock’, or more likely: ‘Bride wore Dutch cap’ (fashionable headwear at one time) which everybody claimed to have seen although surely, if it ever appeared in our lifetimes, it must have been inserted on purpose.

Its first appearance was confidently said to have been around the turn of the last century, when the Daily Mirror was launched as a newspaper for gentlewomen, and it could be true because part of the same story is that, so genteel were the ladies who ran the paper in those days, its coverage of Paris fashion week was headed – you’re way ahead of me here – French letter.

On much the same basis, everybody claims to have seen a correction that read: ‘When we described the constable as a defective in the county police force, it should have read that he was a detective in the county police farce.’

Fuchs1Fuchs2Do not, however, dismiss as apocryphal the one about ‘Fuchs off to Antarctic’. This one actually did appear – first, so far as I know, in the Liverpool Daily Post then, when Sir Vivian Fuchs made a return journey, on the Front of the Daily Express.

Obviously, you can’t keep a good joke down.

gulbis2It would have to be a joyless sports editor who resisted the opportunity to make space for a tale about the Wankdorf under-16 boys team whenever a story dropped from the agencies on soccer in that Swiss town. And when Natalie Gulbis, a golfing girl (picture, left) who was said to be chosen more for her looks than her ballplay, went round a Florida course with her personal best score… well it simply had to be ‘Gulbis enjoys a 69 on Coast.’

The danger, though, was not with the clever and intentionally inserted lines and headings, but when some devilish dealing was at work and you simply didn’t realise what you’d written, or what you were supposed to be looking out for.

Only a very brave sub would use the word ‘count’ in a headline. And if you were forced to mention in copy that the pen is mightier than the sword, you always double-checked the spacing between words – then double-checked it again.

It all came home to roost for me one Monday afternoon after I had spent the weekend as a very young deputy news editor running the desk on the Sheffield Telegraph.

Picking up the trail after starting my working week with a pint (or two) in The Old Blue Bell, I sat down to go through what the morning had brought in.

Suddenly, I was grabbed by the paper’s brilliant industrial editor, Leslie F Daniells.

‘Tell me you didn’t let it through, Joe,’ he said. ‘It must have been one of the graduate guys, surely.’

The paper was then owned by Thomson’s and we had a mix of staffers who’d come up the weekly-evening-daily ladder after leaving school at 16 or so (like me) and people who’d been to universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.

Leslie hoped it would be some smart-arse graduate that he could embarrass.

He indicated the offending story, played big on page one, about the acrid fumes from a coking plant at Greasbrough, near Rotherham. ‘Just read it,’ he said.

I skimmed through the story, saw nothing and back-tracked. Then it hit me. The money quote in the copy read, ‘My wife and I had relations at Christmas and the smell was terrible.’

Rolling my eyes, I admitted to Leslie that I’d put it through the desk. The subs hadn’t caught it either… but I blamed myself.

He said just forget it. ‘But read every line of copy with the thought in mind that I’m always there to take the piss out of you.’

Later in the day, I called over the reporter who had written it – a non-grad like me who very seriously considered himself as a man of the people. ‘It’s the funniest double entendre I’ve ever read, and I didn’t pick it up,’ I told him.

He was completely unabashed. ‘It’s an accurate quote,’ he said. ‘That’s how Yorkshire folk talk… I’m not about changing words because somebody thinks it’s funny.’

As I say, it depends how dirty your mind is…

  • See Dr Syntax for more editing pit (or prat) –falls.

#

Back from The Stab

Ace in the hole

By John Knill

Ranters who do not consider the ball-and-stick game a load of Bonallacks like Joe Mullins will doubtless be fascinated to learn that Phil Finn Jr – who’s  the same guy we used to know as Phil Finn, only a different shape – has been buying drinks in South Carolina.

PhilFinnWhy am I always in the wrong city, or on the wrong continent, when that happens?

Phil (pictured), now known as Lord Ace, sank his fifth hole-in-one since leaving New York.

Nobody is doubting this because the feat was witnessed by two club pros who were in the foursome along with Finn’s pal, Ron Supansic.

By all accounts he was wildly cheered when he completed the 18 holes, and retired to the nineteenth, where he dutifully bought drinks.

The ‘Lord Ace’ designation appears on Finn’s golf bag, and on the licence plate of his old white Mercedes.

Of his latest triumph, his lordship said he was now looking forward to sinking his sixth ace.

‘But I want to give other people a chance to get one, too,’ he said with the kind of modesty that has marked his otherwise unremarkable golf career.

If you care about the details, he used a five-wood for the 172-yard third hole of the Rees Jones course of Woodside Country Club at Aiken, explaining that the eight-iron he normally uses for such distances was being re-gripped.

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Beach bummer

By Fred Wehner

This is a sorry saga about an Indian summer with ruined seaside fun and marooned media and lots and lots of beer. Oh, and about a very prominent politician I think I’ll code name Fourpy, or 4P for short, in order to protect Jeremy Thorpe’s identity.

First, I insist on making it kick-arse clear that there is no what you might call fervent male bonding in this story. For in 1974 at the start of September, 4P’s naughty homosexual he-nanigans might have been known to some, but not to the whole world. And certainly not to me. Got that?

Britons are enjoying a bit of a late warm-up this particular summer and have swarmed to the shores, most abundantly along the south coast. There is also a general election looming, causing somewhat of a blasted botheration, doncha know, to the hoity 4P, queer as a four-penny bit, who... hell, let’s just call him by his right name.

The Right Honourable John Jeremy Thorpe, Member of Parliament for Devon North, leader of the Liberal Party, has a remedy: he switches his campaigning from routine inland venues to unscheduled stumping at the seaside. Speeches on the beaches. With a fraffly good chance this time around of some serious success, what-what, he intends to snaffle those votes. And the populace had better jolly well understand that they can’t escape him just by going on holyers.

Thorpey also wants as much media coverage as he can get, and he believes he’s secured that with the time-honoured elixir used to superb effect to bribe Fleet Street’s pushover denizens: beer.

So there, as my colleagues and I arrive at the start of this adventure, is a coach waiting for us, and on the back seat the Seductive Sauce of Ruination. Several cases of the stuff.

I remember feeling miffed right then. Knowing you’re a bunch of boozy old cynics is one thing, but having someone else identify you as such... how dare he?

And just beer? We’re not all gutter-press guzzlers. Where’s my sipping-scotch?

But any road, pop off some bottle caps and away we go

The whereabouts of the Great Man himself? All at sea, we’re told. His next appearance will be at Bournemouth, and, sure enough, as we huddle by the pier a hovercraft swiftly rounds the cove and runs up onto land. Panicked holidaymakers flee.

Sandcastles are flattened, deckchairs overturned. Anyone buried up to his neck gets a free blow job from an industrial strength zephyr that almost hurricanes the hair right off his head. Little Johnny runs back to mummy, drops his ice cream and now his whine is louder than that of the hovercraft’s engine.

Out trips Jeremy looking fabulous in yellow oilskins, wearing a matching sou’wester and a great big political smile like the front of a 1959 Vauxhall Victor and waving a great big fabulous political wave. But only to the brave souls who didn’t run: The Few

How to win over the electorate, eh? By buggering up their holidays. Right.

Fast forward for a moment to a day in 1975 when a Great Dane named Rinka is shot dead right before its master’s eyes. He (not the bitch) is Norman Scott and what follows is an icky tale of pillow-biting and attempted murder that grips the nation. The most oft-quoted line that registers top on Britain’s national snickermeter comes from a love note Scott has received from his paramour that reads: ‘Bunnies can and will go to France’. The sender? The Rt Hon member for Devon North, the bugger.

Thorpe’s khaki malarkey is out in the open now. I’m door-stepping his ritzy west London address along with the gang and it’s not a pretty sight. One of our number moons the house (remember, we’re the beer-belching oafs of the low press). When a telegram boy arrives, another hollers out to him at full volume: ‘Tell him you’re fifteen and you’ll be all right!’

Poor old Jeremy, allegedly not in his home although everyone knows he is, is hearing all this. Must be doing some major-league squirming, and not the kind he enjoys.

Among our merciless Fleet Street rabble is snapper Mike Maloney from the Daily Mirror who’s just come up from Devon where another mob is staking out ‘Miss’ Scott. High jinks there too, it seems. The coquettish former male model has emerged from his cottage, Mike says, wearing a frilly blouse, cheerily and cheekily serenading the gathered newshounds. To the tune of ‘You’re The Cream In My Coffee’ he’s substituted his own lyrics: I’m The Queen In Your Copy (You All Write About Me). 

Enough already! Enough. I’ve had it up to here with homosexuals!

So re-enter the Time Machine, back-pedal to the coastal campaign a year earlier…

We’ve bummed along northward, stopping every few miles to witness each time afresh the shock and awe of unsuspecting holidaymakers as Thorpey executes his commando-style raids. Like wildebeest scenting a lion at the water hole, most quicken their pace, moving inland as he begins his speechification – and it’s the same rehearsed rhetoric every time.

Now we’re in Brighton and every one of us needs to file some kind of story, uninspiring though it is. Thirty minutes later we’re back, about to board our coach – but all that’s left is an empty space. It’s gone!

What happened? Did the hovercraft eat it?

My coat’s on that bus. And my briefcase. My long-time Daily Mirror buddy Ron Ricketts is very worried about his belongings – his passport’s among them [Mirror house rule: reporters will carry their passport at all times]. The others are dismayed. They could at least have been bequeathed the rest of the beer.

We call the coach company and learn that it’s headed back to base in Eastbourne, so two taxis are commandeered and the chase is on.

At the depot the driver protests it wasn’t his idea to discard us gentlemen-of-the- press in Brighton, it was Mr Thorpe’s, sir. The man had cared not a fig for his Fleet Street retinue. Having jettisoned his hovercraft, he had sashayed aboard and, over the impassioned pleadings our driver now claims to have lodged, given the command to drive on and the press are such a hardy breed they can look after themselves and since Mr Thorpe was the one paying for the bus etc, etc... Yeah yeah. Where was he now? Gone to catch the London train.

Frenzied taxi rides again. We all make the station with minutes to spare. And there, lounging contentedly in one of the first-class compartments, we discover the Rt Hon member whose most recent action, wouldn’cha say, has proven just a trifle less than honourable, what-bloody-what!

He peers over his half-moon specs, disguising his surprise at seeing us by announcing: ‘Find yourselves some glasses, gentlemen.’

He’s got a nerve. Here he is supping fabulous champagne with two rather better-class fellows whom I don’t remember seeing on the bus and who identify themselves, grinning, as The Taimes and The Telegrah-ph.

Oh la-de-bloody-dah. So, I see, Mr Thorpe has chosen to cozy up to the conservative side and leave hoi polloi in the Brighton dust. We have readers too, I remind him, quite a few. And that’s the story I believe they would care to read.

And where does he suppose our belongings might be? Up on the rack, he says, he was going to ‘make sure’ they were returned to us. Oh yeah? Well, at least he didn’t just toss our clobber into the sea – it’s there. I’m relieved-stroke-peeved.

To me, I suggest, still ranting angrily, it’s clearly a case of ‘a pox on the plebian press’. Ricketts is frantically shoeing my shin at this point and muttering something semi-loudly about the Daily Mirror considering itself neither poxed nor plebian. Bung a couple of condescending cases of brewskis over to the wallies, I continue, because I’m on a roll now, and I don’t even drink beer. It’s an insult.

‘What do you drink?’ The well-rehearsed political smile again, and then quickly to one of his companions: ‘Can you find the Daily Mail a glass?’

Well, as it happens I’m not so easily bought, not with a glug of champers. ‘No thanks.’

‘My goodness,’ the MP sighs heavily and dramatically, rolling his eyes and sagging his already-low jaw down further in mock sadness. ‘We do appear to have upset the Daily Mail, don’t we? How can I possibly make amends?’

‘How about answering a few questions?’

In an instant, the Rt Hon member proposes we go into an adjacent compartment and we do, just the two of us, Jeremy and Freddy and at this point it becomes rather imperative in light of future revelations that I stress once more loud and clear in the most emphatic and irrevocable of terms that we only talked, and talked only about his campaign and nothing else, you understand. Nothing. I am not now nor have I ever been (apologies to Senator Joe McCarthy, 1954) a member of the Libertine Party.

By the way, that train ride yielded a long, productive chat, all the way in to Victoria. Not France. No, he never called me Bunny.

#

Back from The Stab

Billy, the kid

By John Garton

Bill Marshall (Colin Dunne, Last week) was one of the great, but hugely erratic, feature writers of the Mirror and as a young reporter worked in Manchester.

On the night in question – not long, as they say, after the old king died – he’d been sent out on the nightly Moss Side murder where he travelled with another pal of mine, Sean Bryson, of the Daily Mail.

Returning from Moss Side to their usual watering hole, they got stuck into a bevy or two. After a while, it was all too much for young Bill, who put down his drink and slowly settled to the floor in a stupor.

Bryson looked down from his 6ft 4 at poor Bill on the floor and thought, ‘That’s all very well, but I haven’t filed yet.’

He tottered to the pub phone, dialled the Mail, asked for copy and duly put over his piece, returning to his pint and noticing the recumbent Marshall.

‘Billy hasn’t filed either. I’ll do him a favour,’ thought Sean.

Back to the phone where he dialled the Mirror, asked for copy, said he was Bill and, after rewriting his Mail intro, filed the piece. He returned to the bar and in due course Bill was decanted into a cab and sent home.

Next morning, Sean popped in the pub for his morning livener and Bill rushed up to him, clutching a copy of the Mirror opened to a page lead, and sporting his by-line.

‘Look here, coonty,’ cried Bill, forever a man of words… ‘don’t ever fucking tell me I can’t write when I’m pissed.’

#

Beyond our Ken

By Revel Barker

I had started off thinking sadly that there wasn’t a lot that was memorable about Ken Udall, who died last week aged 78. But indulge me for a moment…

When I did Foreign for the Sunday Mirror (I know, I know: we didn’t use a lot of it) I reported directly to Joe Grizzard who was both deputy and managing editor; I was also group convenor for the FoCs of the NUJ.

When Joe was appointed editorial administration director, Bob Edwards, the editor, phoned to tell me about it: ‘Great news!’ he said. ‘You’re going to be negotiating against your old mate.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘Not good news. Joe fights dirty. That’s what I like about him - on the newspaper. But I don’t want to negotiate against anybody who fights dirty.’

Joe was, indeed, succeeding Tony Boram – a good negotiator, possibly the best the management ever put up – a man who never lied to us even if, we were prepared to concede, there were times when he was unable to tell us the whole truth.

And came the day, inevitably, when the dirt rose to the surface during negotiation of a new house agreement and Joe ratted on a done deal. Peter Moorhead, representing Manchester on the Grizzard team, said, sotto voce: ‘No, Joe. That is not what we have all agreed.’

Grizzard hissed at him to shut up. What we all knew to have been already settled had never happened, he said.

More forcefully, Ken Udall, the Sunday Mirror editorial manager, said: ‘Sorry, Joe, if that is the line you are intending to take, you are being totally dishonest. If you stick to it, then I for one will be unable to support you in the rest of the negotiation of this agreement.’

While I was not surprised at all by Joe’s dissembling, I was momentarily stunned by Ken’s stance. So were all the other FoCs and the other managers. For this was a guy who never normally said Gah to a goose.

Ken was a bit of an odd-ball in his position and the only non-journalist in the room. Previously competitions manager of Reveille, he had been saved when it folded by its former editor, Cyril Kersh, and brought in to do a job previously handled in their stride by Len Woodliff and Tom Cowie who looked after both Mirror titles in London (there was a lot of exes-signing, in those days).

Ken was a source of amusement. He wrote lots of memos which he ‘topped and tailed’ (his expression) in ink, drawing from a vast collection of (non-cartridge) fountain pens. He would ‘top’ them: Dear Editor, when writing to the guy everybody else called Bob, and ‘tail’ them, K R Udall.

In fact he always addressed the editor in speech as ‘Editor’ (and later only ever addressed Maxwell as ‘Publisher’). And he always spoke to them at attention, polished shoes snapped together and thumbs down the seams of his trousers, as if he was still in the RAF and presenting himself to the Group Captain. Odd, we thought it.

He always referred to the staff as ‘the boys and girls’. He had no idea what we did for a living, nor how we went about it. Sometimes, when he necessarily needed to be brought into the picture, he would listen wide-eyed and open mouthed and then say: ‘Crikey!’

One of his Dear Editor memos protested that I had claimed a lot for entertaining without mentioning any names on the exes docket. Bob Edwards told him: ‘You know what he was doing last week [writing about PLO activity on the streets of London] – do you really want to know who he was talking to? – Because I don’t.’

On another occasion Ken pointed out that ‘It cost more to keep Revel Barker in London last week than he normally spends on a week in Berlin.’ I didn’t know about that until the next time I suggested going to Berlin and Bob – without even asking what the story might be - said. ‘Off you go. Apparently you’ll be saving us money.’

Once, while I was literally being shelled in South Lebanon, I was interrupted by an allegedly urgent cable from my secretary. I was half-hoping it would be instructions to come home. Instead it said: ‘Mr Udall needs to know what rate of exchange you used in your foreign exes last week.’

Such larks. Ken was always eager to come across as a nice guy, which he probably was. I don’t know. I could never really fathom him.

But the important thing is that, come the crunch, he stood up against a belligerent Joe Grizzard on behalf of his ‘boys and girls’.

It took some bravery to face down Joe, I know. And, somehow, in the privacy of the management conclave he continued his principled protest, and won it. And we got the money.

#

Back from The Stab

Famous five

By William Boot

America is to honour five journalists by issuing postage stamps to commemorate their work, says AP.

‘These distinguished journalists risked their lives to report the events that shaped the modern world,’ said postmaster general Jack Potter, who announced the stamp series at the Associated Press managing editors’ meeting in Washington last week. The stamps are due out next year.

The journalists being honoured are:

Martha Gellhorn, who covered the Spanish Civil War, World War II and the Vietnam War and she stowed away on a hospital ship in the D-Day fleet and went ashore as a stretcher bearer.

John Hersey, who described the effects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

George Polk, a CBS radio reporter who covered civil war in Greece and whose murder in 1948 remains shrouded in mystery.

Ruben Salazar, a reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times who was killed by a tear gas projectile fired by a sheriff's deputy while covering anti-war rioting in 1970.

And Eric Sevareid, a newspaper reporter who was recruited to CBS radio by Ed Murrow. He covered World War II, reporting on the fall of France, and was an early critic of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communism campaign.

Under US postal service rules, people cannot be honoured on a stamp until five years after their death, except for former presidents who traditionally are commemorated with a stamp in the year after they die.

#

More names from the Leger

By Graham Snowdon

Ken Ashton’s list of Doncaster alumni (Last week) is pretty comprehensive – and I was flattered to be included because I was still at the Grammar School when Ken himself and many of those great names were in town – but top of the pile at least alphabetically should surely be the late Bill Anderson.

Bill perhaps didn’t go on to much greater things after he left Doncaster but was certainly a legend in his own lunchtime while he was there. With his partners in crime Leo White and Ron Cookson, he ran the famous Eastmid News Agency in Scot Lane (home also of the Evening Post before it moved to North Bridge).

My old pal Peter Whittell, who has now achieved a lifetime’s ambition by being given his own pub (well, not quite: he helps out at the Jolly Farmers in Leavening, near Malton, which his daughter and son-in-law run), tells the wonderful story of when Bill - in the very hard winter of 1962-63, when virtually all sport including racing was wiped out for weeks on end - thought up a story with the help of Ralph Raper who ran the bookies shop next door.

BillAndersonBill - pictured, right - bought half a dozen white mice and some chalk, with which he drew ‘lanes’ on the floor of the shop and organised mouse racing which gave the punters something to bet on.

The story and pictures were in virtually every national the next day. But Bill, never one to rest on his laurels, had another idea up his sleeve and got a second bite of the cherry by phoning the manageress of the local RSPCA, who was always good for a quote.

‘Have you read the stories in today’s papers about them forcing mice to race? Don’t you think it’s cruel? Don’t you think it’s scandalous?’ So, another day, another story.

I got to know Bill very well in his later life through non-journalistic connections (it’s a small world), and he never lost his sense of humour. A week before he died in December 2004, he sent me a Christmas card with a scribbled note which I could hardly read, saying: ‘Having trouble writing. Everything’s stiff. Well, almost everything.’

I was an usher at his funeral with John Woodcock, chief feature writer on the Yorkshire Post, and a month or two later enjoyed a slap-up meal and drinks with a dozen or so other friends with money that Bill had left for the purpose.

Bill himself told numerous stories about the period when he was in digs at Mrs Saxton’s, just off Town Moor, with Malcolm Barker and Leo White, but in true freelance tradition I won’t tread on their toes.

Some other missing ex-Doncaster names: Fred Dinenage, ITV news reader and presenter in the South, Jim O’Brien, Daily Telegraph news man in the Midlands, and my best man Ralph (Ross) Silvester, who subbed on the Daily Express in Manchester when the Evening Post folded. And what about Revel himself? Fred, I think, worked for Eastmid, and Jim was on the Evening News.

Roy Trueman is still bowling along on two artificial knees. Ian Frame was sports editor at BBC Radio Manchester before becoming a publican, I believe. Ian shared the sport on the Evening News with Peter Markie, who moved to the Morning Telegraph, Sheffield. Leon Hickman also did sport on the YEN before going to Birmingham. I remember David Taylor, putting his copy over to the Evening Post from the Harworth Miners’ Sports Day one Saturday afternoon, getting hauled out of a telephone box in mid sentence by an irate woman in curlers who had been waiting 20 minutes to place a bet.

Don’t forget Cal Finnegan (brother of Judy Finnegan, of Richard and Judy fame), who later worked on The Times, and Jake Ecclestone, son of the Red Vicar of Darnall, who also went to The Times (Ray Linfoot, another Evening News man, claimed he subbed the pigeon racing results). Jake, by then Jacob, became FoC at The Times and deputy general secretary of the NUJ from 1981 to 1997. Ken Whitmore went on to become a playwright, and Neil Patrick, another YEP man (who like Ken Ashton cut his sporting teeth by covering Rugby League at Tatters Field), later edited a magazine for oldies.

Joe King, not to be confused with Ken King, joined the YEN from, I think, The People (‘No, I’m not joking, I really am Joe King,’ he used to say when introduced to somebody for the first time).

The Evening News and Gazette offices (where I started in April 1961) were, appropriately, in Printing Office Street, not Post Office Street. Ken Dutton was editor of the Gazette, not the Free Press. Cyril Kilner (glasses, bow tie and long cigarette holder) was second in command and usually obscured by a cloud of smoke. I was sure Cyril went on to become president of the NUJ, but I can’t see any reference to him in the book they published to mark the union’s centenary.

Editor of the Free Press, which wouldn’t have taken much editing in those days, was ‘Masser’ Peet, who made most of his money flogging lineage from the courts with the help of reporter Alan Clegg and trainees such as Dick Clark, from Armthorpe, who went to work on the old broadsheet Sun in Manchester along with Dennis Casson before reinventing himself as Richard Clark, upmarket equestrian correspondent of the Yorkshire Post

Stanley Houghton went on to edit (as owner-manager, I think) the Epworth Bells, now a Johnston Press paper like the much improved Free Press.

To anybody who worked in Doncaster in the 1960s, Manchester really was The Other Fleet Street, so I am looking forward to reading Robert Waterhouse’s book which Waterstones tell me is winging its way to me, even though we were left a few hundred quid out of pocket when his North West Enquirer folded last year.

As far as I know Ivor Key and I are the only people on the entire list who were Doncaster born and bred. In retrospect (it’s more than 40 years ago now), my time in Donny was fairly fleeting, and probably a more worthy claimant for a place on the list would be my late father Dick Snowdon, who freelanced from 1936 until his death in 1970. In turn, my son Frazer Snowdon was sports editor of the Free Press from 1996 to 2001, making three generations of the same family working as journalists in Doncaster (and, uniquely, all having been members of the Sports Journalists Association).

#

Back from The Stab

Spiked emotions

By Bryan Rimmer

I am indebted to Andy Leatham for his exclusive (The Stab, last week), indirectly revealing that authoress Val McDermid was also moonlighting while on The People by writing material for Billy Connolly.

You wot? I hear you cry. Let me rant... Many gallons ago, when the bars were young, I was despatched to some swish Park Lane hotel for lunch with a constellation of stars. God knows what it was about, but the wine was fine and the food convinced me Dover had a soul.

Princess Anne headed a top table line-up of the day’s demi-gods and at her right hand sat Parky’s mate Billy Connolly. And on the left was supposed to be Mrs - now Dr - Connolly. Only she wasn’t. There, that is.

The gossip columns had been muttering for months that all might not be well at Big Yin Towers, so this hack smelled a scoop.

At an intercourse loo break I approached the Great Man and inquired about his good lady’s health. His face turned the colour of a particularly florid tartan and he rose to give me a kiss. Of the Glasgow variety. Some neighbouring star reached out a restraining hand and the Princess diplomatically turned in another direction.

I slithered off back to the safety of my own table. Sans scoop.

Speech time cometh and Billy was billed as the star speaker. He rose to his feet, threw away the prepared notes and launched into a four-letter assault on red-top type creatures. And one in particular. The one who’d had the temerity to enquire about Pamela Stephenson’s empty chair. 

On and on it went and higher and higher rose his voice and my colour.

Then the punch line: ‘And I hope his next shit is a hedgehog.’

I raised my eyes as far as I dared and watched Her Royalness vainly trying to suppress a snigger.

A good line, Val. And to you, ma’am: Your Court Jester may not think much of us, but he’s not beyond lifting our best lines.

#

Ethics girls, working The Street

By Colin Dunne

Susan should never have been working in Fleet Street. Susan should have been at home in Braintree, making chutney, walking Fritz the dachshund, taking her turn on the church flower rota, and popping in to the library to get her weekly Mills and Boon.

Instead, here she was sitting straight-backed on her stool in the - was it the Stab, or the Bell, or Peter Evans? I forget now. Anyway, there she was, at the age of 45 a full-time secretary and part-time mistress who got her weekly romance from a senior editorial person on the… was it the Express? Or the Mail? Or the Mirror? My damned memory…

When she’d been married to Trevor, she’d always thought Axminster was an easy lay. He’d cleared off with The Other Woman. In her middle years she’d had to resume her long-abandoned career as a secretary and washed up in Fleet Street. There, to her surprise, she became another Other Woman and as easy a lay as Axminster, although not, sadly for her, foam-backed.

Having been a model of suburban sanity, she had some problem adapting to her newer and more racy persona. But she did possess the one quality that we hacks admired above all in a mistress: she was gloriously indiscreet. The two Mirror feature writers who were known as the Kray Sisters, Jill Evans and Paula James, used to trek along Fleet Street to seek her out for the latest bulletin on her personal life.

Misses Evans and James got quickly to the point. Was the sex good? Oh yes, she nodded, as though they’d asked her if she was enjoying the latest Dick Francis. Quite enjoyable, she thought. Did they go in for oral sex, the Kray Sisters wanted to know. Ye-e-e-s. This time the answer sounded a little less certain. They pounced. Didn’t she enjoy oral sex? ‘Well, it’s not bad,’ she said, ‘but it does make your arm ache.’

On one occasion she was back at her lover’s flat when Mrs Lover came in. ‘What on earth are you doing here?’ the wife wanted to know. Now Susan could truthfully have said she had no idea. Equally truthfully, she could have said that she should be at home baking scones or catching up on the ironing, but, sensing this not what her new role required, she just grabbed her knickers (rather large, apparently) and ran for it.

No-one quite knew how she came to be there, including Susan herself. But, for all that, she was a mature and sensible woman; she had been swept away in the non-stop party that ran from the Embankment up to Gray’s Inn Road. The truth is that the old Fleet Street was hot-bed of… well, of hot beds.

If Susan wasn’t really cut out for the arm-aching life, others were. They approached the pubs where journos slouched against bars much as kids approach Woolies’ pick’n’mix counter. To these women the tough guys of the Street, who thought they’d been around and seen a thing or two, were about as menacing as a handful of jelly babies or a quarter of all sorts. Not only did they pick and mix, but they swapped notes later, and many were the men who couldn’t understand why all the women in the office giggled as they walked past. You just had to hope they weren’t going to hold up a little finger, bent over.

Lesley Hall was refreshingly open about it. I loved Lesley – we all did – sadly, in my case, only in the way of friendship. She was never terribly impressed with the quality of lover to be found on newspapers, and when in need of cheer she would pop down to El Vino and grab a takeaway barrister. At one time, John Mortimer, the playwright, asked her if she was trying to recruit a cricket team. ‘Rugby,’ she replied, since 15 seemed a rounder number.

We can tell these stories because Lesley told them all herself, usually the morning after, with full match reports on them all and scores out ten. She set pretty demanding standards. The only guy she ever gave the full ten was a departmental head called… Jim? John? Jack? Tony? Oh damn, name’s gone. Anyway, I’m sure he’ll know; he went off and married somebody in show-biz.

Okay, I must admit she did slow down a bit as the years passed and her health became a little wobbly. Even so, to celebrate her 50th birthday, she returned to her old haunt of El Vino, found herself a handsome young barrister who was indeed a burly Rugby player. He was a boisterous boy apparently. In her report the next day, she did confess that at one point she’d had to call out: ‘Hey, be careful, I’ve got brittle bones.’

Outrageous is the only word for the lot of them. Lesley’s friend – Susan, I think she was called, since that’s the name we’re settling for – was having a tumultuous affair with a chap who had thoughtlessly been to the altar with someone else. They do that, don’t they? Not that it bothered Susan, who was a feature writer on the Mail. Or maybe it wasn’t the Mail, I forget. It’ll come back. She was due to fly away for a week’s illicit holiday in the sun with the Errant Husband when he cancelled at the last moment. His wife had become suspicious. She was bringing him to the airport; if she saw Susan there, she’d know. Poor chap was in a breathless panic. When Susan told him not to worry, she’d get there somehow, his pulse rate went off the clock.

At Heathrow the next morning, he was shaking with nerves as he cast about for any sign of Susan. He didn’t even glance at the nun who swept past. Neither did his wife, which was just as well. On the plane, with a sigh of relief, he sank into his seat next to the nun. When she squeezed his upper thigh (very upper thigh, actually) with a surprisingly well-practised grip, he almost knocked himself out on the overhead locker.

The only problem they had was after Susan had been to the lavatory to change into her normal clothes. The pilot announced that the crew were most concerned that a nun who had certainly boarded the aircraft seemed to have vanished. Susan had to confess to the crew. They gave her a round of thoroughly well-deserved applause.

That was the trouble with borrowing husbands: a worried and fearful chap is not always a sure guarantee of sexual ecstasy, and indeed can sometimes lead to complications you don’t necessarily want when you’re in your baby-dolls. Another friend of Lesley’s (shall we call her Susan?) from one of the posh Sundays rang her one night to say that she had a tricky disposal problem. She had borrowed a husband – they talked about them rather as others talk of library books – and the history of long lunches, cigarettes, alcohol, deputy editor’s stress, and finally pelvic gymnastics had proved too much.

He’d dropped dead. In her bed.

This is when you find out who your friends are. Lesley shot round there. The two of them dragged the re-trousered corpse into a car, and took him home to Sevenoaks. There, they propped him in a seated position against the door, and gave the bell a quick jab as they left. As Lesley said, at least they had returned him to his legal owner, complete in all respects, if a little colder. I think one of her other friends engineered the story into a novel.

You must all remember… what was her name now? Felicity? Phyllis? Oh, it’ll come back. She was a freelance who tried out every form of cosmetic and sexual enhancement and wrote about it. Breast implants, colonic irrigation, bum lifts – she’d done everything, including having rings dangling where no ring had ever dangled before. Get one of those caught up in your specs and you’d need the fire brigade to set you free. On the train from Charing Cross, she met a sub – was he a friend of John Garton’s? – who was on his way home to Orpington, where his wife was holding a party for the neighbours. I should say that at this time Garton’s friend did not know the lady freelance had a sex life which these days would be called inclusive. Inclusive, all-embracing and highly experimental.

He took her home. At midnight, the wives were sitting in the kitchen nursing cups of tea and trying to ignore the shrieks of ecstasy, mostly male, coming from upstairs. Some of the wives were weeping. In the next few months there were several divorces in Orpington, including Garton’s friend. What really annoyed him was he was the only man who didn’t.

Fleet Street ladies and neighbours were never an easy mix. Sid Williams, the Mirror feature writer known as Sinister Sid, once invited Jill Evans to his Ealing home for a Saturday night dinner party. It was one of those affairs where the place mats featured hunting scenes cheerfully captioned ‘Tally-Ho!’ Around the table were members of the Rotary Club, the odd estate agent, the deputy headmaster of a small primary, a Nat West manager, and Jaeger wives coiffed within an inch of their lives. For three hours she listened as they talked about school reports, the new Ford Fiesta, the price of holidays in the Algarve, and the use of rosemary when roasting lamb. She nodded and said ‘Oh really?’ all night. She was quiet, polite, attentive, and bored almost to the point of screaming.

The next day she thanked Sid. He said, frankly, he was very disappointed by the way she’d behaved.

‘But I behaved impeccably,’ she protested.

‘I know,’ he said. ‘That’s why. I only invited you because I hoped you’d say Fuck.’

 

###

 

 

 

 October 19, 2007

 

The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times, August 2007


As we go to press we learn the sad news that Ted Oliver, Daily Mirror reporter, died on Thursday after a long and brave battle against cancer. More details when available.


Experience counts

Asked by a youngster for advice about choosing journalism as a career, most of us would probably offer the same counsel we’d give to a young man contemplating marriage: don’t.

But if the questioner is determined, says GARTH GIBBS, it helps if they are blonde and female – otherwise it’s best to be stupid or colonial, or preferably both. He speaks from experience.

EDDIE RAWLINSON recalls his experience covering the world’s first nuclear accident, 50 years ago this week. ‘Have you managed to get inside Windscale yet?’ the picture desk was demanding. ‘It’s supposed to be leaking radiation!’

Plain JOHN SMITH relates what an experienced reporter is supposed to do when a story collapses on him in Hollywood… he gets legendary siren Mae West to invite him to come up and see her.

JACK GRIMSHAW discovers what an experienced sub on the dog-watch does not tell his masters about the whereabouts of the sports editor.

PHIL BUNTON describes his experience subbing – or maybe not subbing – on the Daily Mirror (a memory that will have that sub on the Indie hammering at our email In-Box, again).

FRED WEHNER retrieves the back bench bibles from his bookshelf for a refresher about how subs were supposed to do it, when they did it.

And COLIN DUNNE describes how his entry into the national world was totally off the cuff.

All this, plus the LETTERS PAGE , and diary pieces scattered about the place including the truth about Joe Haines’ relationship with Terry Lancaster, about Xenia Field and the Spaghetti House Siege, and Daily Telegraph editor Will Lewis seeking advice from Ranters.

#

Late starter

By Garth Gibbs

A stunning blonde student called Kate, on holiday in Cowes, stopped me the other evening and asked how you get into Fleet Street. I told her any (male) editor worth his salt would hire her at once on her looks alone.

But in my day, which was by no means yesterday, or even the day before, you needed naivety (ie stupidity), especially if like me you were a colonial. And you could really get ahead if your mistakes were major.

It worked for me.

I first arrived in England around the same time as Asian ’flu, and after Barts Hospital gave me a jab and kicked me out, I wandered over to the old Sunday Pictorial, just off Fleet Street then, and not yet in Holborn Circus.

I had a letter to the editor from a colleague in South Africa, who had once worked for the Sunday Pic. I eventually saw a chap who I found out later was Desmond Wilcox. He looked me up and down and said, without too much enthusiasm, ‘The editor said to give you a shift. Come in on Saturday, ten to six.’

Anyway, Saturday arrived and there I was, right on time.

‘Where the fuck have you been?’ said Wilcox.

‘You said ten to six,’ I said nervously.

Wilcox looked at me in disbelief. And so did those around him. And then they looked at each other, rolled their eyes to the heaven and broke into faint smiles. And I had the feeling they were never going to let me go.

As it turned out I got sent to a James Dean memorial concert in Soho that evening and got the second lead on page one in the late editions. I also got to work there on Saturdays for three months and as my visa was about to expire I was told: ‘Go back to South Africa and learn to sub. You can always get a job in London, subbing.’

I took their advice and on a cold November day in 1969 I was back in London town, in Bouverie Street to be exact, looking for a job. After a while I was ushered into the offices of Don Boddie of the London Evening News. Half an hour later I emerged with his words still ringing in my ears. ‘You can start next month. Some people sell themselves better than others.’

Weeks later I learned that this translated into, ‘Yes, I know you’re a bullshitter, but I’ll take a chance on you.’

He took a chance on me on the news subs desk and I didn’t let him down. I blundered spectacularly. I was rewriting a page one splash about Derek Ezra, then chairman of the Coal Board, and for some reason I changed the name to Ezra Pound. Of course somebody noticed. In fact, I was told later the phones didn’t stop ringing. I wasn’t aware of this, though, when I was called into the editor’s office. No, I wasn’t fired. I was handsomely rewarded.

‘Who’s Ezra Pound?’ asked Don Boddie.

‘He’s an American poet,’ I said, ‘He lived in London for a while … Oh, Christ!’ Suddenly I realised why I was being asked this question.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Boddie. ‘I’m impressed you know who Ezra Pound is. In fact, I am so impressed I want you and John Robbins to start a gossip column for the newspaper. We’ll call it NewsTalk.’

And so started my years of gracious living in Fleet Street. We were answerable to the editor ONLY and could write about whatever moved our fancy. Suddenly a new world opened, expenses, membership to the Playboy and Penthouse clubs, freebie trips around the globe and all the booze your liver and pancreas could handle. Boddie was wonderful. But then I boobed again.

I returned from a veggie lunch full of wind and self-righteousness and reacted to a note from Boddie that read: ‘I didn’t understand that Serena Williams story. What went wrong?’ I replied (foolishly): ‘Sorry you didn’t understand it, sir. Nobody else seems to have had any trouble. Next time I use irony I’ll lay it on with a spade.’

Boddie plotted his revenge. ‘I hear you’ve just been to Khartoum for lunch,’ he said. ‘You’ve had too many good trips lately. I want you to take a bus trip to Frankfurt and back.’

A bus trip? You must be kidding. He wasn’t.

I arrived at Frankfurt’s bus station tired and sore in the early morning, but brightened immediately. The National Bus Company had tipped off the German Tourist Board that there was a hack on the coach and there were three of them waiting to greet me. ‘We’ve got you a suite at the Intercontinental,’ they said. ‘Someone will pick you up this afternoon to show you around.’

That someone turned out to be a red-headed Lufthansa air hostess called Ingrid. She had a convertible Merc and showed me where, and how, Lorelei had lured sailors to their death on the Rhine. Then she showed me other things and I spent the rest of the time exploring everything she had to show me.

The only tough assignment I ever had from Boddie was catering to the whims of Rothermere’s wife, Bubbles. But these were the days before she started eating all the groceries, so even nights at the Pied Piper’s Ball in Park Lane weren’t too tough.

Alas, Boddie was too good, too nice and too loyal. They axed him after a few years. I left too, for some more wonderful years on the Daily Mirror.

My final words of advice to Kate were: ‘Get on to a national if you can. It really beats working for a living.’

#

The world’s first nuclear accident

By Edward Rawlinson

Half a century ago to this very day (OK, give or take a week – it was a running story) with my regular Daily Express hangover I was spending the morning taking pictures at Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester. I remember it well enough: my main interests were the chimps and a Tigon, which was a hybrid born through the liaison of a tiger with a lion

It was a rule that checks had to be made every hour when you were out of the office. When I called in, all hell was loose in Ancoats. ‘Get up to Windscale,’ they said. ‘It’s on fire.’

It was a hard and fast drive along the A6, stopping at Milnthorpe to do another hourly check and get updated. It was serious. The nuclear reactors were overheating. The journey took just over two hours and when I arrived there were hoses everywhere and lots of firemen running around the place. But there were no police or security men to restrict my entry. They were busy helping the firemen tackling a fire we couldn’t see.

Out of one chimney there was a slight emission but nothing you would expect for the office to get in such a panic. I did a picture of the smoking chimney and general scenes then went to check in again.

I started to tell the picture desk what photographs I had taken from inside the yard and was interrupted by the picture editor asking ‘Have you actually been inside Windscale?’

I again told him I had taken pictures inside the yard. ‘It’s supposed to be leaking with radiation’ he said.

‘Well, all I can see is a bit of smoke and lots of fire hoses,’ I told him. It isn’t easy to photograph leaking radiation.

Walking back again through the gates I was unaware of being in the midst of what at the time was the world’s worst nuclear accident.

I was also unaware that, when I arrived, the place had already been burning for 24 hours.

windscalePhotographer Ivor Nicholas, who still lives in nearby Cockermouth, had passed on the tip of the fire and had done a dramatic picture (left) of a helicopter examining the area before any other photographer arrived. In my opinion it is the best picture that ever came out of the incident.

Confirmation had been released, a bit late, by the Atomic Energy Authority and although it was only a short statement Chapman Pincher was already interpreting it as a major disaster.

At Windscale we were also unaware of the panic that was going on inside the plant as they tried to cool the overheating reactors.

Word got out from the wife of a man fighting the fire that preparations were being made to evacuate women and children from the area as the fire inside the nuclear plant was completely out of control. The situation was becoming increasingly serious but there was nothing actually to be seen that could be described as dramatic for pictures.

Inside the plant Tom Touhy, deputy to the manager, had donned full protective clothing and climbed up the reactor several times to look down into the towering inferno, it was an act of immense bravery. The hoses we saw outside were sending water into the reactor and fans were being used in the hope they would blow out the flames.

On Day Four Mr Touhy, in desperation, ordered the fans to be shut off and the flames just died down, it was as simple as that and by the end of the day the fire was out.

The evacuation of the residents didn’t have to take place. I stayed three weeks at Seascale, the village adjoining the plant, looking for follow-ups and we had to ‘dig’ for pictures as there was nothing coming out of Windscale. There was the photograph of an ugly building with its twin towers, milk being poured away because of suspected contamination, parents arriving to take their children away from the posh Calder Girls’ School, lovely landscapes and mothers with babies and the man in charge of Windscale. Every day the office was baying for pictures that were unobtainable of inside the actual building.

Reporters were not told of Tom Tuohy’s bravery nor of the original instructions given by Sir John Cockcroft when Windscale was being built that filters had to be fitted to the chimneys. Everything at the time was top secret. It was only later we were to learn that if Sir John had not insisted on filters being fitted the nuclear fall out would have spread over the North of England and led to a mass evacuation for miles around. It was complete Government cover up, not wanting the Americans (or, for that matter, the locals) to learn the possible full implications of the accident.

Rumours started about medical problems developing as a direct result of the leakage. ‘It would cause a form of cancer and children would be born with deformities’, they were saying - quite frightening if true.

And something else that was difficult to photograph… But fortunately it never happened.

#

Back from The Stab

Dead reckoning

By William Boot

The Times, last week, touched a raw nerve in its obituary of political editor Terence Lancaster. Its (anonymous) writer said that his ‘relationship with Joe Haines, Wilson’s principal press adviser from 1969, and a senior Mirror group employee before and after his service with Wilson, was workmanlike.’

Fair enough, perhaps. It went on: ‘Lancaster brought Haines to the Mirror after Wilson’s sudden resignation, and organised the serialisation of his exceptionally frank book on the Wilson years, The Politics of Power, which was hailed as sensational at the time.’ That may be true, up to a point, but the way Joe has always told the story, Mike Molloy, editor at the time, played a fairly significant part in all of that.

The obit continued: ‘The relationship ended over Haines’s willingness to stay on and serve Robert Maxwell after his takeover of the Mirror in 1984.’

Oh dear. Is somebody trying to use an obit as a method of settling old grievances or scoring points?

It was too much, at least, for Haines who was driven to the typewriter: ‘It is distasteful to criticise a recently dead colleague but your obituary of Terence Lancaster (Oct 10) in part reflects upon me and gives me no alternative.

‘My relationship with him did not end over my willingness to stay on after the arrival of Robert Maxwell at the Daily Mirror. The falling-out, such as it was, followed earlier, totally unrelated, incidents.

‘Lancaster's frequent resignations from the Mirror were a standing joke. Any resignation at the time of Maxwell's takeover was coincidental. Indeed, he ghosted for Maxwell the full front-page article setting out his “vision” for the paper which appeared on the day after Maxwell arrived, as well as several articles under the pseudonym of Wilberforce. His severance terms were not agreed “a week or two” later, but months later. And I made it a condition of accepting Lancaster's job as political editor that he should be fully paid until his 65th birthday, which Maxwell agreed to do.’

  • More on Lancaster in the LETTERS page.

#

Way out West

By Plain John Smith

As invitations go, it was pretty hard to resist.

‘Honey,’ drawled Mae West. ‘Why doncha come up and see me some time?’

Almost 40 years on, the details of the ensuing encounter still burn bright.

The year was 1970 and I had flown to Los Angeles from the Daily Mirror New York bureau to interview Tony Curtis, who was then making a TV series called The Persuaders in which he and Roger Moore played a couple of crime-busting international playboys. Unfortunately, I arrived to be greeted by the news that Mr Curtis was recovering from a bout of emergency treatment for a compacted wisdom tooth. The interview was off, and unlikely to be re-scheduled in the near future.

I’d flown almost 3,000 miles and rented an expensive hotel room for bugger all, it seemed. It wasn’t my fault, of course. But I sensed that my New York boss, Ralph Champion, would not be best pleased, not to mention Pat Doncaster and the Mirror features folk in London who had a spread eagerly awaiting my golden words.

Still, wait a minute. This was Hollywood, baby. Showbiz, razzmatazz. Full of film stars and gossip and scandal and freaky La-La land people doing silly things. Surely there was some other piece I could conjure up to salvage something from the wreckage.

This being movie land, the hotel supplied every room with a copy of the newspaper Variety, the Hollywood bible. Leafing through it, I spotted an item tucked away at the bottom of a gossip column:

Fireworks are expected on set when feisty temptress Raquel Welch meets up with her co-star, ageing sex symbol Mae West, as they start filming Myra Breckinridge...

Mae West? Mae bloody WEST? Surely not THE is-that-a-gun-in-your-pocket-or-are-you-just-pleased-to-see-me Mae West? Why, the woman must be at least 107. And here she was, still making films and ready to give Raquel Welch a slap if she got out of line. She must be worth a chat.

Half an hour of phone calls later I was through to Hal, a fast-talking Hollywood producer type who was Mae’s best friend, minder and constant dinner companion. Hal was friendly, but doubtful. Gee, Mae was pretty busy right now, what with the new movie and all. But he’d ask her, and get back to me.

He did. ‘Well, John, she can spare you about half an hour if you can get over to her place right away. She’s got a very pressing appointment later and then she has to be up early in the morning to start filming. But listen, she wants to talk to talk to you on the phone first.’

Five minutes later the phone rang and a voice purred: ‘Hi, honey, this is Mae West. What can I do for you?’

She listened as I explained that the Daily Mirror’s millions of readers were all avid fans of hers (diplomatically, I failed to mention that most of them, like me, thought she was dead).

‘That sounds OK, honey,’ she said. ‘Why doncha come up and see me?’

The Brooklyn Bombshell lived in the Ravenswood apartments, an imposing art deco block near the Paramount studios in Hollywood and which had been home to stars like Ava Gardner and Clark Gable. Mae had rented an apartment there when she first arrived to make movies in the 1930s and she liked the place so much that she bought the building and had lived there ever since.

The door to her penthouse apartment was opened by a young, blonde haired butler who owed more to Rambo than Jeeves. Muscles bulging under his short, black uniform jacket and bow tie, he looked as though he was on his way to an audition for the Chippendales. Although now of a pensionable age, it seemed that our Mae still had an eye for the essential duties of the home help, and light dusting wasn’t one of them. As she’d always said: ‘It’s not the man in your life, it’s the life in your man.’

Serving me an industrial-strength vodka and tonic on a silver tray, Rambo ushered me into the lounge and advised: ‘Miss West will be with you shortly.’

It was like walking into a blizzard. The entire apartment was decorated in dazzling white. A huge, white grand piano dominated the lounge. On top of it was a four foot high marble statue of Mae West in the nude (I recognised the spectacular figure which was the only thing that saved America from total depression in the 1920s). On one wall an oversized oil painting showed her lounging seductively and scantily clad on the silken sheets of a four-poster bed.

Ten minutes later, Mae West herself sashayed into the room. At the age of 77 she still managed to portray the femme fatale with some style. Skin remarkably unlined, she was dressed in a diaphanous full length housecoat which floated around her. Hair dyed bright yellow reached down to her shoulders like cascading custard. Eyelashes heavy with mascara curled like dead spiders. The fingernails of the hand which was offered languidly in my direction to be kissed were bright green.

‘Now, honey,’ she said, settling into a straight backed chair. ‘What can I do for you?’

And so it began. As the evening wore on I was treated to the full Mae West life story, including her early success on the Broadway stage with a plays like Diamond Lil and Sex which she wrote herself and which briefly put her behind bars for offending public decency.

‘Thing was, honey,’ she explained, ‘the Catholic church complained that young people were coming to confession saying they had seen my shows and got so hot and bothered that they were going off and making love themselves. I couldn’t understand why those priests were complaining. I gave ’em some of the best business they ever had.’

She talked about her partnership with WC Fields in films like My Little Chickadee and got up from her chair to act out for me her famous confrontation with Cary Grant who played a temperance league leader in She Done Him Wrong and received the immortal invitation from Mae, playing a slinky cabaret singer: ‘Come up some time and see me’ (it later got mangled into the more rhythmic ‘Come up and see me some time’).

Then there were the cheeky quips which brought here fame, including: ‘I used to be Snow White, but I drifted’, and ‘My left leg is Christmas and my right leg is New Year’s Eve. Why don’t you visit me between the holidays?’

While delivering these reminiscences she presented me with an autographed copy of her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It and a signed sleeve of her latest LP, Way Out West. The book title echoed another of her memorable lines from Night After Night, in which she starred with George Raft. Admiring Mae's jewellery, a hat check girl cooed: ‘Goodness, what lovely diamonds.’ Mae shot back: ‘Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.’

Occasionally sipping on a glass of lemon slices in hot water, she told me about her beauty regime which included massaging cold cream into her breasts to keep them youthful, even though it seemed likely they had headed steadily south since their 43-inch heyday. Several times, Rambo the butler came into the room and seemed to want to interrupt, but each time she impatiently waved him away.

It was four hours later when she finally sat back in her chair, looked at me challengingly and said: ‘Well, honey, is there anything else I can do for you?’

I couldn’t think of a thing, so slid out into the Hollywood night with Rambo glaring disapprovingly as he showed me the door.

The next day I rang Hal the producer to thank him for arranging the interview. ‘Gee, I just wish she could have spared you more time.’ he said. ‘I hope half an hour was enough for you to get everything you wanted.’

‘Er, I think maybe she re-arranged her plans for the evening,’ I said. ‘I was there for a bit longer than 30 minutes.’

Cautiously, Hal inquired: ‘Oh? And, so, how long were you there?’

‘Well, I said, ‘Just over four hours.’

There was a pause and Hal said quietly: ‘John, you’re an English gentlemen so I know that what I am about to tell you will go no further.’

‘Of course,’ I replied, puzzled.

Listen,’ said Hal. ‘I know this lady. If you were with her that late, there’s no way that she didn’t want you to stay over, if you get my meaning.’

Oh, I got it all right. Stunned, I put down the phone and went back over my recollections of the previous evening. Of course there had been the usual Mae West vamping, the fluttering eyelids, the enticing smile, the hand brushing mine as she handed me her autobiography. But that was what Mae did for a living, for God’s sake. Even at the age of 77 these were the actions of a sex symbol on automatic pilot.

But then I began to think about it a bit more and the silly smile which appeared on my face stayed with me all the way back to New York.

Mae West had tried to seduce me. And I hadn’t even noticed.

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Wrong answers

By Jack Grimshaw

Aged 23 and newly-hired as a news sub at the Manchester Evening News in 1969, I landed a casual gig Saturday nights as a sports sub at the Sunday Express. The extra few quid was handy and you were usually done by 11, the same time that the Portland Lodge (free entrance with an NUJ card) was heating up. Likewise, its platoon of female regulars (ditto with the NUJ card).

Sports editor was Ken Lawrence, one of the genuinely nice guys in our ratbastards-sink-to-the-top business (I’d just moved from the news subs’ desk at the Western Daily Press, Bristol, so I know of what I speak). He was also a neighbour of my parents in the High Grove area of Gatley.

A few Saturdays in I got elected to sentinel duty… while everybody else sloped off to drink their supper, I was stuck at the desk handling calls from suspicious wives or mistresses wanting to know whether their bloke was still working… Wrong answer: ‘No. I think he had a hot date in Wilmslow.’

Or the hysterical ‘Where the fuck’s the new head for the rugby roundup?’… Wrong answer: ‘I don’t know. Where the fuck IS it?’

And even stylishly-dressed bastards from the news side professing penury and the dire need of a loan… Wrong answer: ‘No problem, how much do you need?’

I was deep into Roderick Mann’s latest screed about the doings of American showbiz, dreaming the impossible dream that one day I might get to work in the States, when a voice from over my shoulder enquired: ‘Where is Mr Lawrence?’

The cultured, authoritative tone should have been a tip-off. This wasn’t some inkie, escaped from the bowels of the composing room, looking for insider gossip about the Reds to impress his muckers at the Rover’s Return.

Mildly miffed about being where I was while Roddy Mann was lounging poolside in Tinseltown and even the other MEN casuals – Tony Holt, Dave Pickard, Peter Igglesden – were at least slamming down pints and improving their table football, I didn’t even deign to turn around while muttering: ‘He’s out getting pissed.’

Wrong answer.

The stony silence that followed should, again, have been a tip-off. It wasn’t, and I returned, oblivious, to Hollywood.

Ken Lawrence’s phone call on the Monday morning was polite, cryptic and insistent. Could I drop by this afternoon, when I was through at the News?

I could, and I did. The meeting was short, to the point and rather bracing. Exactly which nabob owned the mystery voice – a member of the board, Max Aitken, or God –I’m not sure was ever made clear. What was made clear, in the nicest possible way, was that I was a bad-mannered, unthinking, arrogant asshole who deserved to be shown the door.

For a couple of uncomfortable minutes I got flashbacks of school where I’d had the same sort of chat more than once. Then, it was actually followed through by booting out after the Lower Sixth.

On probation and my best behaviour for the next few Saturday nights, my chagrin was leavened only by Ken’s deputy. ‘Out getting pissed?’ he said. ‘Fucking classic.’

  • Jack Grimshaw (Salford City Reporter; Western Daily Press; Manchester Evening News; Sports Form, Las Vegas) was a copy and layout editor at the National Enquirer for nine years. He’s now gainfully employed in Orange County, Southern California.

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The way it was, then            

By Phil Bunton

I fell in love with the Daily Mirror on my very first day, way back in 1967. Across the subs’ desk was Giles Wordsworth, tall long-haired public schoolboy, distant descendant of the poet. Dryly witty in a Brideshead-Revisited way. Several of the subs were Oxbridge graduates. But at the Mirror in those days that was their dirty little secret.

To get on it was better to be a grammar school dropout, which was what I was. The university guys often pretended to be one of us (go figure!).

Subs were treated as gods at the Mirror in those days. Different from the Sketch, which I’d just left, where Fergus Cashin used to berate us as ‘inky-fingered mediocrities’.

At the Mirror we would sit around most of the night reading books or magazines – and do at most two or three stories. Hemingway never got paid so much per word as we did.

But what surprises me to this day was the casual way that drinking was tolerated.

Every Friday a few of us – Phil Walker and Ben Noble among others – would meet up at Portobello Road market around noon and start drinking.

Slowly we would pub-crawl very roughly in the direction of High Holborn. We were expected to start our shifts at 4, but we rarely showed up on time.

If one of us was seriously impaired he would go up to the chief sub – Vic Mayhew – and say: ‘Can you excuse me, Vic, I’m drunk?’

Vic (or whoever was in charge) would look up sympathetically and say: ‘Oh, I’m sorry mate. Are you OK? Why don’t you go down the pub and if you feel better come back later.’

Of course down the pub would be other Mirror hacks and we’d party on. From the Stab to the Newspaper Workers’ Club, or the City Golf club, then the Press Club – and if we were still alive at four in the morning, we’d hit Smithfield meat market.

Great daze.

  • From the Aberdeen Press and Journal, Glasgow Herald, Daily Sketch, Daily Mirror, Sun, US National Star (later just The Star), Weekly World News, National Enquirer, Globe (US) Phil Bunton is now the owner, editor and presiding hack at Rivertown magazine in Nyack, NY, 30 miles outside New York.

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Back from The Stab

In a field of her own

By William Boot

Xenia Field, aged gardening editor of the Daily Mirror, actually had an apartment overlooking the Spaghetti House [See Jimmy Nicholson and The Stab, passim].

News editor Dan Ferrari offered to put her up in the Ritz or the Savoy - her choice - for the duration if she would allow the Mirror use of her home and balcony.

Mrs Field stamped her little foot and said certainly not. She (she insisted) was an experienced journalist herself, and would contentedly cover the siege for the paper herself. Dan, in his most persuasive mode, explained to her about 24-hour cover and the problem of maybe having to rush out of the place, if the gunmen appeared on the streets, to do interviews and she eventually allowed a small concession.

I wasn't involved, but it was something like the only people she would permit into her flat were John Knight (and, I think, possibly James Pettigrew) on the grounds that they were the only two gentlemen on the staff that she would allow anywhere near her furniture. Shows how worldly aware was our Xenia.

And that's why the Mirror had to hole up elsewhere, and why John Penrose needed to take a suite at the Ritz.

 

Book review

Putting on the style

By Fred Wehner

The Simple Subs Book
Doing It In Style
Keeping Up The Style

Leslie Sellers isn’t God. Yet to anyone of the journalistic persuasion then at the very very least he’s Heaven plc’s Mass Media Supremo (Print Branch).

He was production editor of the Daily Mail, whose style lived on not just through him at that one newspaper but all over The Street. Still does today, among those who care.

Here’s one line of his: ‘The full stop is the greatest aid to simple English ever invented.’ You can’t put a finer point on it than that.

Here’s another: ‘Always try to make the first word do some work. Make sure it’s a strong one.’ All of this man’s pronunciations were equally definite. Like a headline he proffers in a chapter on style: ‘Giant cheese kills two.’

Back in 1968 I wrote for Campaign magazine. But the page to which I always turned first was the one with the picture of this pipe-smoking gentleman wearing black horn-rimmed glasses and a determined look.

Here was the Sellers On Style column, an enormously gratifying and fun read every week, guaranteed. The wizard of words also did three books on subbing and writing, details on which later.

Right now, however, bores and haughties beware! With his wand raised and sharpened, Sorcerer Sellers is out to pop you.

He rails against long-windedness, especially the tortured sub-clauses that put the reader through a mental mangle. ‘Say as much as is needed to make the meaning absolutely clear – and no more.’ Therefore: ‘Nothing that can’t be absorbed at first reading ought to appear in a newspaper,’ he growls. ‘Yet day after day, week after week, these jigsaw puzzles get into print.’

I will spare the reader his examples at this point.

And he hates pomp and posh. The bride wasn’t ‘attired in’ – she wore. It wasn’t ‘prior to the luncheon’ - it was before lunch. And he didn’t ‘endeavour to suborn the chief sub’ – he ‘tried to bribe the swine’.

In places Sellers is obviously dated, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. He mentions the ‘chairman’ of the British Women’s Total Abstinence Union, not, as the politically correct Nazis would force us to write today, the ‘chairperson’ or ‘chair’.

For reporters and writers, he outlines what is and isn’t news, though. For instance if the aforementioned Abstinence bigwigette (clearly a female who’d be no fun at all in bed) gets pinched for drunken driving – of course it’s news.

A lot of this is just common sense, just enjoyable to read in the Sellers style.

In addressing Arabs, he says, there is no consistent order of names. But ‘large numbers of them are colonels or generals,’ easing the problem of how to address them. If still confused, best to wait for an established style to emerge from the country in question, which ‘should be within hours of the coup d’état anyway’.

Also: ‘Far Eastern names have the surname first. That splendid Korean gentleman, Lee Bum Suk, was Mr Lee.’

Which brings us to double meanings. Here, he says, journalists need a dirty mind – in order to avoid the sniggers. He quotes two splashes in major newspapers: the Evening Standard smirker ‘Out Comes The Wilson Chopper’ and The Sun’s ‘Chichester Conquers The Horn’ about round-the-world sailor Francis. Plus a Sunday newspaper he doesn’t name censuring a naughty priest with: ‘Go Unfrock Yourself’.

All this notwithstanding, the pleasant-looking man with the Sir Geoffrey Howe look, the briar and the oh-so-Fifties parting on the left, abhors vulgarity and attacks it on several fronts. Wallowing in sex cases is a major no-no, with the exception of the News Of The World, but otherwise... can’t even use ‘crumpet’.

And yet; ‘French Push Bottles Up German Rear’. This heading from Sellers might send those politically correct Shtummtroopers reaching for the duct tape to shut him up. Can Frogs and Krauts still be insulted in this fashion?

Some of his pet hates: Three-deck splash headings, straplines, abbreviations in headlines that slow the reader down. Also ‘if’ intros, misquotations, circumlocutions, officialese... But he likes appropriate use of clichés and Americanisms.

LESLIESELLERSBOOKSLeslie’s lectures are illustrated with highly entertaining examples, sometimes pictorially. In his sermon about captioning he cites a story about a guy’s ‘hair-raising trip’ and then shows the accompanying picture. Sure enough, the fellow’s a baldie.

And a warning to reporters who like to juice up their prose. ‘Beautiful blonde Gloria Stretch’… then the picture: ‘an old scrubber with a navy-blue parting and one of her false eyelashes falling off.’

Great stuff on how to crop – even turn - a photograph to create a particular effect. Nine different ways, for instance (2), of treating a head-and-shoulders for ‘bringing out the features’ or the ‘gay tilt’ or ‘a bright come-on look’ – these latter being further evidence of the book’s date of publication.

Sections cover every possible aspect of subbing. How to keep marks neat for the printer, write headlines, choose the best font – ‘Oh Mr Univers, are you the type for me?’

The drop intro? He doesn’t like them (gulp! because I like using them). Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s wrong, he says, because the average punter is reading it standing in a bus or in the 4½ minutes he’s waiting for a train and wants it quick. But then he’s really talking about news here, not features.

Sellers’ books weren’t cheap thirty-odd years ago at 45 bob up to £5.50. Today anyone fixing to buy one should be prepared to spend between 50 and 150 quid, although occasionally you might find a dog-eared copy of one for at a bit less.

That one’s The Simple Subs Book (1968 Pergamon) which I’ve seen for thirty nicker and here one should note the missing apostrophe in the title that, grammatically speaking, ought to come after Subs. It’s a beautiful omission that creates a sly little double entendre. A grammatical felony he would allow in, in certain extreme circumstances, to make a point.

His initial opus was Doing It In Style (1968 Pergamon again) which was probably God-the-Father to the other two, and the final tome is the 258-page Keeping Up The Style (1975 Pitman).

They were, all three of them, back bench bibles. Still are. A bit preachy, yes, but full of what one reviewer called ‘the roisterousness of behind-the-scenes in editorial offices’.

There was only one printing on all three, which is a sad thing because whatever Fleet Street has become today Leslie Sellers’ straightforward approach to subbing and writing will always be the guide. At the Daily Mail Chris Clark was keeper of the faith.

I am fully aware that we’re waiting for the full story on ‘Giant Cheese Kills Two’ - the murdering curd.

Yes, well he doesn’t explain whether it toppled and flattened the duo or whether the greedy bastards ate themselves to death on it, but none of that matters. The point he makes, by contrasting this with another in which ‘Giant ape kills two’ is about correct spacing and balance in headlines, ‘one of the most important aspects of newspaper design’.

Not even whether the French pushed it up the German rear. Sorry.

  • Some of Leslie Sellers’ books can be sourced from the AbeBooks link in the BOOKS ABOUT US  section of this website.

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Back from The Stab

Will there’s a way

By Alasdair Buchan

Is anybody else getting letters from Will Lewis, editor of the Daily Telegraph, asking for help in producing his paper?

He wrote to me and asked how I thought it might be improved – and what recommendations and suggestions I’d like to make, to help him. Nice letter though it was, I thought he might have made the effort to address me personally in the full colour email rather than just send it out to ‘undisclosed recipients’.

Anyway I replied saying that I’d be delighted to help, of course, and that I would waive my usually consultancy fee and work on a colleague-to-colleague basis for a nominal £500 a day.

He hasn’t replied yet.

I reckon it must be a bit of an uphill struggle for him, at 37 the Torygraph’s youngest-ever editor, as his sits at the hub of an editorial wheel layout controlling specialists ready, 24/7, at the drop of a glass of Evian, to produce copy by podcast, vodcast, or plain old-fashioned keyboard-and-screen.

As BBC director general Greg Dyke described him recently, ‘He is the man charged with bringing the Telegraph into the 21st century, which is a bit tough because it missed out on the 20th century altogether.’

So the least we can all do is offer him a helping hand.

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Off-the-cuff humour

By Colin Dunne

Harold Wilson got me my first job on a national. If he’d taken his holidays in Bermuda or the Bahamas, I doubt if I would ever have made it. As it was, he holidayed on the Isles of Scilly, and that got me home and dry.

Yes, I see what you mean: it does call for some explanation. Right…

Forty years ago I was writing a column on the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle. As a reward for my efforts, I was offered a freebie with a pack of Manchester journalists to go to Luxembourg. There were eight of us, mostly honest Other Ranks, apart from two of our party. One was Neville Stack, news editor of the old broadsheet Sun in Manchester, a job that probably rates as an NCO. Later, I seem to remember, he edited the Leicester Mercury before flying off to all manner of journalistic triumphs from Trinidad to Singapore. He’s retired in Ireland these days.

But that’s by the way. All you need to know here is that Neville is one of the funniest men in our trade which, in this barmy business, is saying quite a lot. When Murdoch made Ken Tucker the head of his Manchester operation on the new Sun, it was Neville who came up with the theory that Murdoch was sitting banging the desk and shouting: ‘I want my tucker’ … and someone misunderstood him. Well, that’s the story.

The officer-class chap in our party was the northern editor of the Mail.

Sorry, I mean Northern Editor. He was very much a capital letters sort of chap. Northern Editors are, as you will know, far superior to mere Fleet Street editors. In London, where the streets are thronged with the rich and powerful, a mere editor rates somewhere between a street entertainer and a mini-cab driver. In Manchester, the complete VIP list at that time was Bernard Manning and George Best, so the Northern Editors were pretty swanky people.

Naturally, during our trip, this particular NE found it necessary to remind us of this.

Occasionally, this edge between editors boiled over. Wasn’t there a Mirror story about one afternoon in the Douglas when Derek Dodd introduced Bob Edwards as ‘my London editor’?  If that really happened, it would be no surprise that Bob responded: ‘No, Derek, I am the editor. You are the northern editor. For the time being.’  I don’t think Bob saw northern editor as being a capital letter sort of job.

But our man in Luxembourg did, and his moment came on the last night. We were escorted around Luxembourg by that country’s Director of Tourism. Silkily suited, crisply collared and cuffed, with his silver-winged hair and elegant charm, he looked a million dollars, which, at a guess, was his weekly salary.

So it came as something of a shock when the NE, our self-appointed leader, suggested we should give him a present. It would’ve been like slipping the Queen a quid and saying: ‘Get yerself a pint on me.’  Or that’s what I said, and I’m afraid the NE took some offence. ‘Not just any present,’ he said testily. ‘I was thinking of giving him my cuff-links.’ 

Hysteria welled up. Stack’s face, I noticed, was distorted with suppressed laughter. Although I came to know him much better later, this was the first time that I realised he was a man with a wonderful sense of humour (which means, of course, the same as mine). We avoided each others’ eyes. It was our only chance.

The NE, becoming more pompous by the minute, insisted that the Director of Tourism would be delighted to receive these cuff-links once he realised that ‘they had been purchased in the Scilly Isles where Harold Wilson, the British prime minister, took his holidays’ and where, indeed, the NE took his.

Clearly I was dreaming all this, or thought I was until, at the farewell dinner that evening, the NE rose to his feet and solemnly stripped himself of his cuff links. He handed them over after a speech in which the PM and the Scillies featured strongly. The Director of Tourism looked down at them in his hand without a trace of comprehension.

When you get a Spike Milligan moment like that, there’s no saying how it’s going to affect you. In my case, quite simply, I lost my mind.

Lurching to my feet, exploding with laughter, I began to unfasten my tie which, I said, I would like to present to the Director because it had been bought in a Yorkshire market town where Fred Trueman had once had lunch. Or possibly a sandwich. I think Neville offered a lighter which had ignited the cigarettes of several fully qualified sub-editors, or something like that, and in no time we were all at it. Ties, shoes, combs… they were all being offered.

Without a doubt, it was totally disgraceful and later, when the laughter had subsided, Stack and I sat down over a beer. He said he thought I’d enjoy working for a national. I went down to Manchester for interviews and, thanks to a general leg-up from Neville, was given a job on the Mirror by Bill Freeman.

Now it’s just as well that I didn’t want to write City analysis for the financial pages because, for one reason or another, I was only ever offered really silly stories to do. Or perhaps I should say Scilly stories. Certainly if Harold Wilson had holidayed in Rhyl it would never happened.

Destiny? You can’t fight it.

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October 26, 2007

 

The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times, August 2007


Issue 16

October 26, 2007

Subs bench and the Rest of the World

Where do you stand in the war between subs and scribblers? DON WALKER had a foot in both camps and reckons that never can the twain meet. And what about the battle between subs and snappers? ALBERT COOPER takes his life in his hands by not negotiating danger money for the guys whose biggest fear is probably falling asleep at the desk and hitting their head on the spike.

PHIL SMITH (former sports sub) wants to know where you were at the time of the Munich Air Disaster – and more importantly what are your memories of it.

Photographer IAN BRADSHAW remembers taking on the Scots by introducing new fangled ideas for both fun and photos.

Photographer ROGER ALLEN fondly remembers his old mate, former Mirror and Mail reporter Ted Oliver who, covered in blood after Vinnie Jones tried to bit off his nose, and hearing somebody call for an ambulance, famously said: ‘No – get me a photographer!’ PAUL CALLAN adds a postscript.

WILLIAM BOOT dusts a bookshelf and finds a funny autobiography of sixties Daily Mail editor Mike Randall.

REVEL BARKER recalls how, even as a child prodigy, he was turned down for jobs.

And COLIN DUNNE gets excited by the memories of experimenting with women on top… On one occasion, I did jokingly offer to throw a bucket of cold water over her.  ‘Oh, so you think I’d look nice wet?’ she cooed. 

All this, plus our lively letters from Chris Buckland, Bryan Rimmer, Harry Pugh, Paul Callan, and John Smyth and the books page should keep you going for another week.

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Cartoons for charity

Luckner’s, London’s first Internet auction house, is hosting a special cartoon auction with an environmental and political twist. Donated to leading aid organisation CARE International these cartoons by artists including Ralph Steadman, Nicholas Garland, Chris Burke, Mike Williams, Andy Davey, Stan Eales, Sally Artz and Peter Schrank will help raise funds to fight poverty around the world.

Bidders could end up owning a piece of cartoon history and give to charity at the same time.

treeWith more than 140 published and unpublished cartoons up for auction exclusively online at www.luckners.com, with valuations ranging from £20 to £800, the collection offers even the most cynical of art connoisseur the opportunity to start a collection or add to an existing one.

Most artists in the sale have contributed to The Times, The Independent, The Observer, Punch, Spectator and Private Eye. Ralph Steadman is a political cartoonist and illustrator, perhaps most famous for illustrating books by Hunter S Thompson. Nicholas Garland was the first political cartoonist for The Daily Telegraph and received an OBE in 1998 for his contributions. He has said that cartoons ‘are merely telling people what they already know in a highly simplified form.’

The CARE Cartoon Sale is running now.

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Why do they hate us?

By Don Walker

Why do writers hate subs? And why do subs hate writers? Well, generally speaking neither of these statements is true.

The hell it isn’t!

Subs see writers as flouncing, over-paid, expense-account prima donnas who wouldn’t know a good intro if it bought them a drink.

And writers see subs as horny-handed butchers who take out all the really funny jokes and put their own turgid one-liners in.

I was both a long-term writer (1968-1977) and a features chief sub (1980-1986) on the Daily Mirror so I ought to have been able to see both sides.

Strangely, I couldn’t. It’s human nature to side with the team you’re on – the other team, the enemy, must always be wrong.

But my unusual career path (and I don’t mean the one from the Mirror back door to The Stab) gave me a clearer view than most of the rights and wrongs of both sides.

The late Hugh Jones was a classic example of the brilliant sub who was constantly bedevilled by bad writers. Hugh could turn bum-fodder into crackling prose. There was this lady writer who imagined she was Dorothy Sayers on springs but who turned in the most hideously ill-written copy.

Hugh was given a two-parter of hers by the features editor, who was wearing his There-isn’t-much-hope-for-this-shit-but-see-what-you-can-do face.

Sighing heavily (he always did), Hugh set about the piece and, in his beautifully crafted handwriting, turned it into a readable feature with even the odd stinging phrase to leave in the memory.

Unfortunately, the lady writer was in the, um, care of someone in the top brass. She was unable to see what craft Hugh had brought to her copy and went tearfully to her admirer. And back it all went. Bad grammar, lumpy syntax and every anacoluthon in the undergrowth.

The writer is always right!

Well, not always. One of our top columnists, renowned for a short fuse, became incensed at what idiot subs were doing to the admittedly brilliant copy. Late at night, not much to do but get pissed in the Printer’s, I know, let’s rewrite clever sod’s intro.

Now the word was out. Everyone executive from the writer up was on the warpath and any sub seen walking unaccompanied in Fetter Lane’s purlieus was likely to be set about by roving gangs of enraged scribes.

Well, they were pissed off, anyway.

I was chief subbing when the storm broke. The star entered, blood in the eyes, hooves pawing the ground.

‘Here’s the column,’ and a sheaf of paper was banged on the desk in front of me. ‘And tell your imbecile subs not to touch a fucking word of it!’

I glanced down at the stunning intro and said: ‘What, not even that one?’ My grubby finger pointed to the word ‘paraphenalia’. The genius gulped as I inserted one letter to make it ‘paraphernalia’.

‘Oh, well,’ the maven said weakly, ‘you can change that’ and went to lunch.

The sub is always right.

Well...

Paul Hughes, the Mirror’s one-time travel editor, was always terribly disappointed by what the subs did with his copy. He would fly into terrifying rages and thump filing cabinets, often leaving dents in them that he obviously intended for the thick skulls round the subs’ desk.

One evening I found him near tears in the office. ‘Whatever is the matter, Paul?’ I asked.

‘The bleeding subs have been at it again,’ he said.

‘Oh, come on mate, it’s not worth putting up your blood pressure over a cut or two.’

‘A cut! A cut! Christ! I just wrote a par in my piece which said ‘and then we went to the local disco’. That’s all, nothing difficult, simple statement.’

‘Oh, and did they change it?’

‘Did they!’ He passed me the page.

Paul’s innocent, well-meaning paragraph now read:

‘And without more ado we set off at once for the local disco, a plush emporium of pop and prance.’

Every sub’s a cretin. Just ask John Pilger.

#

Working with compo

By Albert Cooper

I was talking over a pint the other night about the disgraceful way that governments fail to keep faith with servicemen and women who put their lives at risk - only to find when they are wounded that the promises of care and welfare are just empty words.

I said that it applied to all front-line workers, and told my drinking mates how, throughout the seventies, when photographers and reporters were being continually sent for two-week assignments to help cover Ireland, Cyril Cain had his ankle badly injured when a soldier shot him with a rubber bullet, and I felt it was time we knew what the facts were about the insurance cover the company had taken out on our behalf.

As the photographers union rep I brought the matter up at a chapel meeting. The first reaction was totally predictable: ‘What’s in it for the subs?’

One reporter who never left the safety of the office, covered the demonstrations, bombings, and shootings by telephone and lifting stories from the local papers, said: ‘Let’s go for danger money’ and a sub said: ‘OK. But how will WE qualify?’

I was dead against this because when in a dangerous situation, I thought that I would make the decisions about danger and safety, not some guy sitting in the safety of an office, saying go in there and do this or that. And then saying ‘this is what you get danger money for.’

I remembered being inside the GPO in Londonderry sending pictures of the rioting after the apprentice boys march, the start of the Irish troubles. I was talking to the night picture editor, Bert Able, (it was 1-30am), when our wire man came and said there was a Morris estate car unloading guns at the back of the building. He told me I could get a good photograph through the window. Bert overheard this and said ‘Get down there and get a picture, we must have a picture’, to which I replied, if I take a photograph of these guys, what do you think they will be shooting at after they see my flash go off? I also pointed out to him that we had all been told we were being made redundant (this was on the old Sun). My reply to his order ended in ‘off’.

The chapel resolved that I would liaise with editorial manager, Peter Moorhead, to make sure we were well covered.

Firstly I was sworn to secrecy, before I was shown the full details about the company’s insurance details which covered its staff.

At first glance it appeared that all was well. But upon reading it more closely, it was obvious that anyone injured would have been better off dead.

It had specific injuries such as hand injuries, with values put on the loss of a finger, or a full hand, or an arm up to the elbow, and so on; the same applied to a foot, or a leg. When it came to eye sight it was vague as to what compensation would be paid. It was clear that if you lost an eye or were blinded you were covered, but no consideration for damage to sight, which would cause a photographer to be unable to carry on with his profession. After long discussions, we emerged with a deal that I felt provided reasonable insurance.

Nevertheless, not every possibility was covered. At one chapel meeting I pointed out that there was no provision should a journalist be brain damaged by an incident, bomb or bullet. I said we didn’t know what the company would do in such circumstances.

And true to form Terry Stringer, one of the great reporters I enjoyed working with, answered ‘That’s no problem, they will give him a job on the news desk.’

Or maybe something even less taxing, like a subbing job with danger money.

#

The day that football died

By Phil Smith

A handful of this readership wouldn’t have been born at the time; some were still at school but quite a few – we know – were already working, and some were involved in the biggest sporting occasion of the decade, and possibly the biggest in their lifetimes.

Next February marks the 50th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster.

I have been approached by director/producer at BBCTV for assistance in contacting any reporters, writers, subs and photographers who were around and on duty either in Manchester or London on that fateful day. Apparently they don’t intend to roll out all the old crash footage but are more interested in the reaction and memories of press and public in the immediate aftermath.

What was it like to be caught up in the biggest sporting disaster of the century? How did the newspaper offices cope, especially those where, as the story developed, it became clear that newspaper men were among the casualties.

What was it like to walk the streets of Manchester in the days immediately after the disaster...? That kind of thing.

I’ve been given a few names already by Ranters, but if you do have any recollections that you are prepared to talk to the BBC about (not on camera, I understand) please contact me via this website and we’ll see what we can do to help mark the historic anniversary.

#

The London train mob

By Ian Bradshaw

There was probably no greater training for an Englishman to take on the Scots in journalism than a year on the National Enquirer under the infamous Generoso Pope. When your job is on the line every day with no guarantee of employment the next day, you do what Americans are brought up to do best – win!

Thus it was when I returned from America and the late great Alan Jenkins approached me to set up a complete new photography department at the Glasgow Herald where he had gone from the Sunday Mirror as editor taking Graham Gadd as managing editor.

In those days there was one big photographic staff that covered the Herald and its sister paper the Evening Times and photographers were offered a choice of who to work for… Me, a sassenach, or the local picture editor George Wilkes who was running the Evening Times.

It was a free vote and initially one photographer wanted to work for me and the other 11 for the local Scot. One week later after some serious drinking in Glasgow’s hostelries the second vote was totally reversed. Eventually they sorted it out and I inherited what became one of the best bunch of photographers I have ever worked with.

My first night on the paper set the tone for my stay in Glasgow. Jim Connor had produced a brilliant photograph for Guy Fawkes night and I went to the back bench to confront a night editor who looked as if he had just rolled in from Glencoe or Bannockburn.

‘I would like this to run across seven columns,’ I told him as I laid the print on his desk.

He glared at me in total hatred. ‘We don’t do anything bigger than three columns here, laddie. Just off the London train aren’t you? Think you know it all?’

I picked the print from the desk, went straight to Alan Jenkins who overruled the bearded monster and seven columns it was. The next morning the ferocious night editor suffered a heart attack.

The next night I repeated the exercise with his deputy sitting in his seat but Enquirer training - Attack is the best form of defence - was ringing in my ears. Before any more anti-English jibes could be uttered I stood in front of the back bench and said ‘Right, who’s next?’ Thus The London Train Mob was born.

We had a tie made, a golden Stephenson’s Rocket on maroon silk with The London Train Mob under it. Only twelve were made and they were presented to all the English (plus a Welsh assistant picture editor) from the editor downwards.

At that time Glasgow had a Lord Provost named David Hodge. A small dynamic man with a huge sense of humour and a great liking for whisky. Many was the afternoon I got a call from City Hall with the summons. ‘The Lord Provost would like to see you.’

Many was the afternoon when I arrived at conference after a session with David Hodge with a picture list that had been prepared by my deputy Dougie Bottomley and that I had no knowledge about.

Dougie and I became great friends, ‘I don’t want your job,’ he told me on my first day, ‘but I’ll get the boys to look after you.’ He was as good as his word. Even the day when he went missing and I went into conference following a ‘meeting’ with the Lord Provost with a completely blank sheet of paper. I confidently reeled off a list of pictures for the night’s paper when sports editor Eddie Roger leaned over to look at my non-existent list.

‘You lying wee bugger,’ he said. Editor Alan Jenkins merely smiled and passed on to the next department.

But it was the Lord Provost who helped me in the greatest April Fool’s joke ever perpetrated on the City of Glasgow.

I had been promoting Scottish Opera heavily with huge success for the company and the paper whose readership were all avid supporters when I hit upon the idea of Lord Provost  David Hodge ‘starring’ with the Opera. I had been playing around with the letters in April Fool and I came upon the little known opera Il Rapolfo. I mentioned this to the Provost one afternoon and he jumped at it. We enlisted the help of Scottish Opera’s lead soprano Catherine Wilson, a few colleagues at the Theatre Royal, who were sworn to secrecy, and a world exclusive was born.

Arranging for Hodge to be kitted out in full period costume with tights and Elizabethan dress I photographed him in an amorous duet with Catherine also in full make-up on the stage of the Theatre Royal.

I then wrote a piece about the Lord Provost always wanting to star in opera ever since he sang the aria Miniscule Chucci Burda on the stage of La Scala, Milan during a civic visit. Literally translated this was a famous Glasgow song ‘Wee chucky birdie’.

To add to the spoof the theatre staff produced a huge front of house poster advertising ‘David Hodge in Il Rapolfo’ complete with red SOLD OUT stickers on it which they would put up in the early hours of April 1.

The Herald duly published the article with a half page photograph of the Lord Provost and Catherine Wilson in fond embrace singing the aria. The theatre staff, unbeknown to the manager David Jackson, put the SOLD OUT poster up outside the theatre in the early hours and all hell broke loose.

The BBC, thinking they had missed a great story, dispatched reporters to all corners and broadcast it on their morning programme. Local radio broadcast stories of the Lord Provost’s secret rehearsals in chambers and the switchboard of the theatre was jammed all day with people wanting tickets. David Hodge had not even told his wife, who was eventually highly amused but believed it all at the time even when he swore it was a spoof.

The Scots on the paper were evenly split. A sense of humour only goes so far when an Englishman embarks on a wind-up.

However, at the end of my first year on the paper, Arthur Kinloch, one of the most talented photographers north of the border, won the Press Photographer of the Year with a portfolio of his work on the Herald so I felt vindicated. If nothing else the Scots also love a winner so I was forgiven for most of it. I remember clearly phoning the then Daily Record picture editor Martin Gilfeather and asking him to bring down the celebratory case of champagne they had put aside for their expected win yet.

To their eternal credit the Record photographers came down and celebrated with the Herald team. My first round of drinks in Rogano’s was £84 which in those days was a fortune. I duly put it on my expenses and handed them to Graham Gadd, the managing editor, who was luckily (for him) sitting down at the time. I then went into the editor’s office and with a tinge of regret handed in my notice to Alan Jenkins. After all, it wasn’t going to get better than this and the old adage from across the pond was still ringing in my ears; ‘Quit while you’re ahead.’

I still have the tie. Alan Jenkins died this year. A great man who really believed that a journalist’s best work was done in the pub. I owe him a great deal. It will never be the same again. There may be ghosts in Glencoe and Bannockburn but nothing to compare with the ghostly apparition in Mitchell Street, Glasgow. A puffing Stephenson’s Rocket and memories of the London Train Mob.

#

A right bollocks

By Roger Allen

Bollocks summed up most things perfectly for Ted Oliver, a greater bloke you could not meet. It could be a right bollocks, complete bollocks, absolute bollocks or any variation you care to think of but no-one was left in any doubt as to what Ted thought, and he was generally right.

Even when the doctors tried delicately to inform Ted he was losing his final battle against cancer last week ‘a right bollocks’ was Ted’s rasping assessment of the moment that most of us knew in our hearts was coming but wished for all the world would never happen.

Most of us who have worked on the road in Fleet Street get what it it’s all about; adventure, excitement, fun, triumphs and disasters. A professional and personal roller coaster and Samuel Edward Oliver rode it all the way.

He epitomised the spirit of Fleet Street more than anyone else I knew in journalism and to say we have lost a legend is no exaggeration.

Can anyone else can lay claim to a front page wipe-out with ‘Vinnie Jones Tried To Bite Off My Nose’? Did many have a sheep slaughtered in their honour by a Lebanese militia who had toyed with the idea of kidnapping him before deciding he was good bloke who, on balance, didn’t deserve getting banged up with Terry Waite and John McCarthy?

Fun was at the heart of it all for Ted but a clown he was not – jut look at the stories he covered and did so effortlessly. He learned his trade in the hardest of schools in Northern Ireland in the seventies when the Troubles were in full flow. By the time he hit Fleet Street with the Daily Mail he was already an award winning reporter. With the Mail he covered the Falklands War from Buenos Aires.

With the Mirror it was Bosnia... Where, in the middle of a mortar attack we were refuelling our Jeep, (the only unleaded vehicle in the Balkans) Ted was holding open the fuel flap with a stick while I poured in the fuel. When the petrol started overflowing onto the road, I asked what was wrong; silence for a second then ‘I’ve dropped the stick in the tank, will that matter?’  A passing squaddie pointed out that would ‘Block the carb mate,’ not the best situation to be in while the Croats were shelling us. 

Ted acquitted himself brilliantly on the international stage and he did likewise in the investigative role. With Frank Thorne and Terry Pattinson he exposed the dodgy financial dealing of Arthur Scargill and his cronies at the height of the miners’ strike. The investigation took more than a year and won the Mirror team Reporter of the Year. It was a belter.

He even turned his hand to writing the book Lambs to the Slaughter on the back of an investigation he carried out with me and Ramsay Smith at the Mirror into a paedophile ring we suspected of the murder of several children. Ted was proud of the result and enjoyed the critical acclaim for something he hadn’t tackled before.

As usual with Ted, there was always a laugh to be had. When he and Smith were holed up in Allan Hall’s splendid flat on a private estate in Sandwich writing the book a nosy neighbour overheard Ted talking about killings and murders with his distinctive Ulster burr and called the police thinking he might be an Irish terrorist plotting some terrible deed. Right enough, they hadn’t seen anyone like Ted prowling around their posh estate before.

After his outstanding career at the Mirror, Ted headed home to Northern Ireland to freelance and papers throughout Britain knew their interests were in the best of hands.

Omagh bomb? No problem. Ted took it in his stride and the Mail on Sunday will tell how grateful they were for the job he did for them that day.

Ted worked hard played hard and being on the road with him meant joining him on the roller coaster - or else. Refreshments were compulsory and lots of them. Sometimes he came close to losing his nose for a story, or rather losing his nose completely. Not Vinnie Jones this time but Ted in full flight in Vagabonds with some blokes from the SAS. They conned him into trying to drink a Sambuca while it was still flaming on the basis that if he succeeded he would be ‘one of them’. Drink it he did but the flames engulfed his hooter taking off most of the skin. Who dared singed but Ted loved telling the yarn.

You would not put Ted down as one of life’s great romantics (especially when he put his teeth in a pint of lager for safety, if fisticuffs were likely to break out) but his reunion with Anne, his second wife and university sweetheart, was a story he loved to recount. He was answering a page in the Europa Hotel in Belfast and when she overheard his name being called thought there could be only one Ted Oliver. She was right and they married last year.

Ted loved Anne, his family, his friends, rugby, drink and the great life he had. We’ve lost a Fleet Street great. And that, as he would say, is a right bollocks.

Paul Callan adds:

I think many of us knew that dear Ted was terminally ill, but it is still a shock to realise that his wonderful spirit and wicked sense of humour is extinguished. I have so many memories of him - not least, those late-night sessions in the upstairs bar of the Europa…

He was only 60 and with many years of life and journalism ahead of him. Incidentally, I thought the Daily Mail could have devoted rather more to Ted than just a few tawdry pars. They spewed pages of praise on Dempster - who was less than a midget in journalistic terms when compared to Ted.

I shall miss seeing Ted on jobs. It was always a joy to see him and be greeted with that twinkly smile and (in my case): ‘Ah Callan, you old reprobate. The usual large voddie, I suppose?’

I hope there will be a memorial service - and, if so, let's celebrate Ted in true Mirror style.

#

Book review

Funny side of The Street

By William Boot

There was a tradition on the Daily Mail, apparently, that when Lord Rothermere wanted to sack an editor he sent him and his wife on a round-the-world cruise while deciding what to do with him.

So William Hardcastle – who would go on to great fame as presenter of the Radio 4 Today programme – knew that his time was up when he was given first class tickets for the Queen Mary. But when the ship returned to Southampton (so the story goes) he found his proprietor there on the dock to meet him, and waving frantically to him. Mr and Mrs Hardcastle, gaily waving back from the deck of the liner, eventually worked out what Rothermere was shouting.

It wasn’t a welcome-home greeting. It was ‘Go round again!’

Mike Randall told that story, to illustrate how precarious his job was when he succeeded Hardcastle.

Sadly, it is not included in his book, The Funny Side Of The Street (Bloomsbury, 1988). Nor is his brilliantly bitter description of his own dismissal: ‘I’ve just been smiled in the back.’

He wasn’t even offered the cushioned let-down of a world cruise.

The stories in this biography are funny-peculiar rather than funny-ha-ha. True, he has an entertaining section on journalists’ expenses, and fairly colourfully describes separate meals with the Queen and Princess Margaret and trying to get decisions out of Harry Evans.

He relates being told to be sure to take ‘a country suit’, an item absent from his wardrobe, when weekending with Rothermere in the Cotswolds and his difficulty in sourcing one in his size and shape on the day of the visit. He also writes about measuring the copy from the Sunday Times Insight investigations team when it eventually dropped late on a Saturday afternoon – and finding the over-matter six FEET too long.

It just isn’t… funny.

Well, apart from the front-cover cartoon by Emmwood – presumably one he likes – which shows him wearing elastic-sided Chelsea boots with winkle-picker toes.

Even when he goes totally off at a tangent to describe working on a mushroom farm when unemployed, and apparently unemployable, to pay off his debts somewhere between working for a duplicitous Rothermere and an erratic Charlie Wilson (who gave him a subbing job with a face-saving title on the short-lived Sunday Standard in Glasgow), he failed to draw the comparison of being always kept in the dark while manure was heaped on him from on high.

Randall, a former Journalist of the Year (1965) was that rare animal – the only other one I can think of is Mike Molloy – an editor who had never stood on a doorstep. But unlike Molloy (who is yet to bother us with an autobiography), he appears not to have much of an eye for the bizarre.

Not many laughs, then, but nevertheless a fascinating account of life at the top in The Street in the old days.

  • The Funny Side of The Street can be sourced from AbeBooks in the Out of Print section of our BOOKS ABOUT US page.

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Lost opportunities

By Revel Barker

When I was 19 I was offered a job on the Daily Mirror – the newspaper with the world’s biggest daily sale. Wow. At 17 I had already achieved what had originally been my life’s ambition, a reporter’s job on the Yorkshire Evening Post, the youngest they had ever employed. I guess I peaked early.

The snag was that I couldn’t have the job for two years. In those days people ‘came of age’ at 21. News editor Bill Freeman explained that, if a story inadvertently got the paper into trouble, he might be asked in court why he had sent a boy on a man’s job; if I was 21 the question would not even arise.

So, imbued with the confidence, I looked around for something to do meanwhile.

There was a men’s glossy magazine called Town, which had started life as Man About Town, owned by Michael Heseltine and Clive Labovitch. town_64jun_110It had previously been relaunched as About Town. It was posh and stylish and used fine writing and I’d written a piece for it about the Royal Ballet Company owning three pigeons (for use on stage in the ballet called Two Pigeons – they needed an understudy), having discovered that the feathered cast comprised one male, one female, and one homosexual; ‘queer as a coot’ was my inspired line. So I wrote asking for a job and got a letter by return on beautiful embossed notepaper: ‘Dear Mr Barker, When can you come and see me? – Clive Labovitch’, so I was on the next train.

Mr Labovitch gave me a couple of folios of copy to read while he did something else, then asked me what I thought of it.

I gave him my considered opinion, based on a lifetime’s experience. ‘You are not, I hope, thinking of using this,’ I grinned, for it was clearly simply a basic test of my journalistic know-how. ‘It’s crap.’

‘You don’t like it?’

‘Oh come on,’ I said. ‘The man can’t even write English. He can’t form sentences. He doesn’t understand paragraphs. It’s all wham-bam-thank-you-mam nonsense. It has no place in a classy magazine like Town.’

‘Oh dear,’ said Labovitch. ‘I think we have a problem, then, because I like it.’

He couldn’t, I said, be serious. I didn’t say it in so many words but I tried to get the message across that he was being advised, here, by somebody who knew how to write, who was getting decent features into the Yorkshire Evening Post and who’d been promised a job on the Daily Mirror; there was no greater qualification for a writer than that.

‘If you don’t like it,’ said Labovitch, ‘I think we might as well call it a day right now, because I am planning to use it in the next issue.

‘I was sharing it with you because I think it is brilliant.’

Well, he was the editor. But I was a reader and I didn’t think the piece would sit well in the magazine. It would piss off readers and he’d have to start planning yet another re-launch. They’d already gone from Man About Town to About Town to Town. Would anybody buy the next incarnation, which would presumably have to be called just About?

‘You’re entitled to your opinion,’ said Mr Labovitch. ‘But I think we’re going to hear a lot more about this chap, Tom Wolfe.’

*

All was not lost for at this time they were recruiting reporters for the paper that was to become The Sun – ‘the newspaper born of the age we live in’. Catchy, or what?

Paul Callan, in the YEP London office, trolled along for an interview with the news editor-designate, John Graham.

According to Callan, John (who I got to know later as one of the nicest guys in journalism) wore a cardigan, cavalry-twill trousers, hush puppies, a wool shirt and a knitted tie, and opened the interview by asking where he was educated.

‘Er, public school. Eton, actually.’

He realised, asked John, that this was a trade union newspaper? ‘We’re not actually looking for public school types.’

And yet, Callan reminded him, Cecil King had been educated at Winchester.

‘But he’s the guvnor… You’re not applying for his job, are you?’

‘Not at this interview, no,’ said Callan.

He didn’t get either job, but kindly sent a message up the line and I bunged in an application.

I turned up in my tweed suit – the one I wore for covering the Great Yorkshire Show – and a Viyella checked shirt and wool tie. Instead of Sobranie Virginia I bought a packet of 10 Embassy and sat poised ready to be seen placing the two-point coupon in my wallet as the interviewer entered.

It wasn’t John Graham.

Barrie Harding, fresh in from New York and, more precisely, from Fifth Avenue, was dressed in a dark blue suit, blue shirt, silk tie and – two fashion items that I identified only later – silk socks and Gucci shoes.

I knew I’d lost it when he said: ‘It’s not as if you’ve even been to public school.’

So I called Callan and we met for a drink in the Wig and Pen.

‘It’s their loss,’ he consoled me. ‘You and I are evening paper men and the evening men are the salt of the earth in this business. We are the ones who find and write the stories, and all the morning paper crowd ever do is follow us…

‘We, my friend, are what newspapers are all about. I, for example, have just been offered a job I can’t possibly refuse on the Evening Standard. Evening papers… the jewel in Fleet Street’s crown.’

I took out my wallet to buy a drink and crumpled the Embassy coupon into an ashtray.

‘I suppose,’ said Callan, ‘you couldn’t lend me a fiver.’

  • Town magazine folded in 1968; The Sun, as we knew it, in 1969.

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Women on top

By Colin Dunne

It was my second week on the Mirror in Manchester when my moment came. It was a light news story that cried out for a bit of gussying up and general fancy-dan treatment, and I really did the best I could. ‘Some crap here from that new guy,’ said someone on the back bench, with an elaborate yawn. ‘Okay,’ said another, ‘shove it in with that crap from Macaulay.’

Delighted? I was supra-lunar.  A response like that rated as critical acclaim. Firstly, it was going in the paper. Secondly, it hadn’t been chucked back at me. And thirdly, no-one had called it effing crap. This was Manchester’s equivalent of the Pulitzer.

Move on about 20 years. I am in the Soho offices of Good Housekeeping having just delivered an 800-word funny (allegedly) piece to that famed editress, Sally O’Sullivan. I lounged around the office nervously waiting for her to read it. Ten minutes later her door swung open. There was Sally arms flung out in a gesture of unrestrained adulation. ‘Heaven!’ she cried. ‘Absolute heaven!’

In journalism, working for women is somehow not quite the same as working for men. I have worked for both and, without expressing a preference (do you think I’m mad?), I can confidently report that they are… well, different.

When I began in this business – let’s say it was so long ago that Brian Hitchen was making shampoo ads and Paul Callan was Dieter of the Year – the only women executives were in charge of soft furnishing and hemlines. You wouldn’t let a woman anywhere near the sharp end… good lord, they might start that awful weeping. So, when Peter Stephens (later of the Sun and NoW) appointed a woman exec to the evening paper in Newcastle, a bunch of the lads got together for some mutinous murmuring. It was widely agreed that no reporter in possession of a full set of gonads could take direction from a womb-bearing executive. If we went down that road, where on earth would it end? With female editors? Let’s not be silly, eh?

I don’t know if word of this got back, but certainly Joan Chapman (also later of the NoW, I think) was appointed features production editor, which took her slightly out of the front-line. Actually, it wouldn’t have mattered because she was terrific, although I have ever since been mystified by a remark of hers. One evening when I was taking her out for a drink in Whitley Bay, she made one stipulation: ‘no monkey business, Colin.’

Was she warning me off the salted peanuts, do you think?

At that time, newspapers were run mostly by men who would have failed the etiquette section of the entrance exam for Broadmoor. What they really liked was to get hold of some copy, rip it to pieces, fling it on the floor and jump on it, and a minute later do the same to the reporter. Then tell him to do it again.

Some preferred not to be so obvious. Ken Donlan, legendary news editor of the Mail and later the Sun, was more direct. Hardened hacks would avert their eyes as a shivering colleague stood beside his desk, whining weak excuses. As he listened, Ken’s eyes would rove the ceiling in an even mix of disbelief and boredom. ‘Don’t worry, old man,’ he’d then say, ‘I’ll get a real reporter to do it now.’ At that point it was probably a good idea to start clearing out your desk.

This was all known to be character-building and those who lived were better for it. I would say that, of course, because I was brought up in the boot-in-the-ribs school and could whimper with the best of them – I wasn’t, as I recall, offered any choice.

In the provinces, women journalists were pretty much like other women. They did a job, then popped home to make a casserole for the family, bake a few scones and catch up on a bit of knitting. Matinee jackets mostly, I seem to remember.

When I got to Fleet Street, women hacks weren’t like that at all. In the provinces they might seem like little home-bodies: here they didn’t appear to have any homes. Just like the men, they flourished in this drifting hothouse of bars, clubs and restaurants. They drank like men. Smoked like men. Joked like men. They had, I was assured, more balls than a pool hall. 

They weren’t like women at all. Did you ever hear anyone suggest that Annie Buchanan was a delicate little thing in need of protection? I doubt it. Did you ever see Hilary Bonner knit a scone? I think not. Their style was more along the lines of the Mirror’s Maggie Hall whose party trick was to dance with a pint of beer on her head – without spilling a drop. You never saw Shirley Temple do that. And Brigid Callaghan, at The Times, had a range of jokes rude enough to make Bernard Manning blush.

Most of the Fleet Street women out-maled the males. Only occasionally did they remember their gender and tuck a helpless hack under one arm and take him home for a late-night snack.

Who was that bouncy blonde who bobbed up on the Express and the Star in the eighties? Was she called Carrie? Something like that. She was a double for Doris Day, bright blue eyes, a swinging bob of corn-coloured hair, and when she walked the only thing that didn’t move was the tip of her nose. She cut a swathe through Fleet Street with one simple technique: availability. Editors, deputies, heads of department, she got through the lot – or perhaps vice versa – and she’d throw in the occasional sub or reporter on the quiet nights. She shot to the top, married well, and was never seen again. The whole operation took about six months. Life can be so simple.

So when they moved into the positions of power, you never quite knew what you were in for - girly-girly or growling ball-freezers. Of the former, we all liked the new women’s editor at the Mirror who arrived one Monday with thanks for everyone. She thanked the subs (‘I couldn’t sub a story to save my life’) and the writers (‘not my thing, writing’) before calling a departmental meeting to ask for ideas (‘isn’t it awful? – I’ve never had an idea in my life’). We never did discover what she could do, although we were not without theories.

At the Sun we had a marvellous female departmental head who was known as The Hair Sucker. She was so female that at time she was in danger of drowning in a tidal wave of oestrogen. After her briefing on a story, the writer was left sorely in need of a cold shower. She was pretty – blue-eyed and soft-lines pretty, with tumbling curls of blonde hair.

As she explained the story, in a low, husky voice, she would sink lower and lower behind her desk, slowly writhing. Then, she would take one strand of blonde hair and draw it slowly between her lips, and suck it. On one occasion, I did jokingly offer to throw a bucket of cold water over her. ‘Oh, so you think I’d look nice wet?’ she cooed.

Do you think they have that sort of thing in the Nat West bank?

Yet her counterpart was a crisp woman in her late thirties who looked rather like an old-fashioned hospital sister. If she suspected that the copy or the writer weren’t up to it, she had a technique that made Donlan look like a sweetie. With the copy in front of her, she would simply fire off impossible questions like bullets. A friend of mine who’d done an interview with a television weather girl was okay when she asked if the weather girl was married and to whom, and even on what her flat was like. But then the questions became somewhat trickier. Did she have a dog? He didn’t know? How about a cat? He didn’t know. Sighing with exasperation, she sent him off to make further inquiries. Half-an-hour later, his face beaming with hope, he looked round her door and said the weather girl used to have a dog, but it had died. He had failed to predict the next question: ‘so where is it buried?’

He left.

When I worked for the Sun, we briefly had a female features person who was forever trying to persuade me to undergo women’s rituals in the belief that this would be amusing. By hiding beneath my desk and faking madness (in my case, easier than you might think), I managed to avoid most of them. She never did direct me to become pregnant, although she came fairly close. But, rather like Jim Hawkins and ‘Pieces of Eight!’ I am still haunted by a voice that cries out ‘Go on then, get your legs waxed and see how you like it.’ Luckily she left.

Telling stories like those isn’t strictly fair. I worked for quite a number of women on papers and magazines and, since they were more inclined to flex their brains than their biceps, they were mostly better than men. No-one could ever brief more clearly than Sally O’Sullivan – and she could see where a piece needed tweaking at the first read through. When she was at Options, Jo Foley could roll off ideas by the dozen. Similarly Brigid when she was in magazines.

Frankie McGowan, when she was editing New Woman, did it with a brisk efficiency and charm that made most Fleet Street men look bungling. She knew exactly what the game was. When I wrote a piece for a rival mag along the lines of Blondes Are Best, she commissioned me to write the opposite: Brunettes Are Best. And yes, Frankie is a brunette (and, he added sexistly, a very pretty one). At it turned out, the brunettes piece was much the better of the two.

She rang me once when I was late with copy, and I trotted out those lame excuses about how difficult it was, and I wasn’t in the right mood, and somehow the words wouldn’t come… May God forgive me, but I think I was doing my Tortured Artiste routine.

There was a short silence. ‘Colin,’ a firm voice said. ‘I’m asking you to write 800 words for a woman’s mag, not War and Peace.’  Even now I blush to think of it.

At the launch of a new Bulgari scent (or fragrance, as they call it) in Milan, I returned with a crystal bottle full of the stuff that retailed for £300. On the domestic exchange rate, there was no saying what this was worth. Sadly, the commissioning editor said I should really pass it on to the editor, Dee Nolan. I did so, but with a cunningly phrased note saying how difficult it had been to prise it from my wife’s fingers, even though they were wet from all her sobbing. Generously, Dee sent it back with a note ‘returning it to its rightful owner.’ Hooray!

All I had to do was to return it to the office for an hour for pix.  It was stolen. And I bet the bastard who nicked it was a man.

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