The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times, August 2007
November 23, 2007
‘Anything in the paper?’
We are experimenting, this week with the publication of a cartoon. It happens to be a personal favourite, ‘News’ by Thomas Derrick, published in Punch on May 4 1938. Perhaps it shows that the public’s appreciation of our noble calling has changed little in nearly 70 years.
The original lives in the Punch Archive on Brompton Road and is published here by permission of www.punch.co.uk .
Those with sharp eyesight will notice a light watermark, to discourage reprinting, but if you’d fancy a proper, clean copy, for your office wall or to use maybe as a Christmas card, you could check out www.punchcartoons.com . Art quality prints, A4 size, cost ₤24.99, including post and packing, and there are some real gems in the collection.
Word-wise… well, DAVID BANKS has recovered from his hangover, driven to Spain and filed his version of the Clive Crickmer report (Last week) on the Newcastle plc annual lunch.
GEOFFREY MATHER remembers a former editor, known as Strangler, because… well, his reputation included dangling his boss out of the office window while negotiating a pay-rise. A different side to his character was exhibited by employing a piano-playing sub, because the Press Club was in need of a pianist.
They were playing the Joanna in The Stab, too, recalls DON WALKER, remembering that Pat Doncaster was only one of his colleagues with remarkable keyboard skills, and that Des Lyons composed a closing-time song that got into the hit parade, while Mike Terry loved to shout jazz. And could drink a bit.
IAN SKIDMORE recalls even more memories of Bill Marshall (see Archives) prompting ALASTAIR MCQUEEN to remember the night Billy tried to hijack his train home.
And coming in out of the sunshine (she’s recently moved to Dubai) PHILIPPA KENNEDY sends more memories of Vincent Mulchrone.
The prospect of travel can be daunting, especially when the journey to be undertaken comes immediately after a day’s carousing in the company of journalists.
For it is strange, Mrs Banks will tell you, how ‘a day on the batter’ invariably takes place on the eve of lengthy travel plans or some important family occasion.
For example, she will inform you, he (that’s me) once embarked on a family holiday with a 300-mile drive to Devon, one elbow jammed in the driver’s door window to prevent further agonising damage to a suspected broken arm sustained in an arm-wrestling contest during a sub-editors’ day out at the Oval.
Or she will point to the crippling hangover that almost put paid to our attempt to shift furniture to a new house in 90 degree heat after I had farewelled our neighbours in Sydney by swimming through a sea of Semillon.
Last Friday, she was sure, would be no different but she issued the usual order anyway.
‘Do not return,’ commanded a woman more fearsome than any editor I ever encountered, ‘in your usual state after one of those do’s!’
Nodding submissively, I waved a weak farewell and traipsed into Berwick for the train. Ahead of me lay a day’s drinking with the men – and as far as I know it’s only ever men – of Newcastle’s Pens and Lens Club, a formation drinking team of retired Geordie journalists.
The format has endured for 17 years: lunch at St James’s Park following a free bar laid on by the journalist’s best friend, Scottish and Newcastle; stories of yesteryear obligatory, heavy drinking and hangovers mandatory.
Ex-Mirror man Clive Crickmer told everyone (again!) about the day he fed the Young Banks enormous quantities of Vaux’s Best in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent me filing the best story of the day, thus giving the Mirror its scoop. Alas, Crickmer awoke with a banging head to find the story splashed all over not only The Journal but every other national paper too; during his lengthy calls of nature I had found a phone and finessed the double-cross.
Clive’s stories were not the only high spot: as drink flowed mere exaggeration turned to downright lies, eternal friendships were falsely sworn and endless toasts were drunk, none more sincere than to P&L Club party organiser Gordon Amory’s wife Beatrice who, although poorly, had packed him off to St James’s ‘to look after the boys’. What a woman.
Mrs Banks, meanwhile, had retired for the night, rolling pin under her pillow to repel bawdiness. On the kitchen table lay a note replete with angry capitals:
‘Tomorrow we sail to Spain – HAVE YOU PACKED YET?’ Coming from my good lady this is a more deadly threat than gentle reminder.
So I quietly packed for the trip then tiptoed to the bedroom and listened fearfully at the door. ‘Z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z . . .’
I have served a number of editors. One drank 40 cups of tea a day and I made them all. Another, upon whom I called, always had plenty to drink but no food in his fridge. I had to invent a reason for bringing food. ‘I just happened,’ I said, ‘to have been to the supermarket...’
He did not believe me. A third said, ‘Thank you for inviting me out to dinner tonight.’ I said, ‘I can not recall inviting you.’ He replied, ‘Oh yes you did. . Put it on your expenses.’
But the most flamboyant, the most boisterous was Dick Lewis, otherwise known to the staff as ‘Strangler’ Lewis. I had no good reason to meet him. I was subbing away on an evening paper, happy enough where I was, but a friend, who had moved to the Daily Express in Manchester, suggested my name to him and he called me for interview. I arrived around six o’ clock and was taken into his office, where he ordered two cups of tea from Carrie, his secretary, and drank both.
We had an affable conversation, none of it about newspapers. He was more concerned with Army matters. He was, I gathered, a former major in a combative unit, and I had a horror of those. I had been in 6 Airiborne Division, not because I was combative in any way, but because I thought I needed to be surrounded by competent fighters in case I was threatened. My insignificant role in 6 Airborne pleased him no end, but he was cautious.
‘I might not like you,’ he said eventually. ‘On the other hand, you might not like me.’ We left it at that and I headed for the pub next door. I found later that he ran from his office shortly afterwards and said, ‘Where is he? I want him.’ That is how I arrived at the Daily Express. I was quickly told that when, as deputy editor, he asked for a wage increase which did not come, he picked up the editor and held him out of a second floor window. The rise duly appeared. I stayed well away from windows in his presence.
If a sub-editor arrived who appeared to have muscle, Dick would feel the arm admiringly and suggest that they might have a trial of strength at a convenient time and place. I was glad not to have muscle. He had no dislike of people. He just thought of conflict as a manly pastime.
Seen in the street, he looked like a successful lawyer: brief case, bald head, heavy spectacles, dark suit. He would sit on the back bench at night poring through the proofs, altering headlines, and sometimes he would vanish for a day or two. He appointed one sub-editor to play the piano at the Press Club on the grounds that we did not have a pianist sub-editor at the time. He was a very good pianist and an excellent sub and went to the Mirror for better things.
On one occasion there was some story in Ireland which required a reporter and photographer. (This was in the expansive days when journalists were more important than accountants.) They arrived in the pub - the one next to the office - and said the planes were full so they could not go. Lewis loudly ordered them back to hire a Dakota for themselves and that plane, if I remember rightly, carried around 40 seats. It was normal for the time.
When the pub caught fire, Dick was in his element. The firemen all came in brandishing their axes and hoses and disappeared upstairs to the seat of the flames. We went on drinking below, although I thought Dick a bit fidgety. He was indeed. He began to send up pints, and finally joined the firemen in hacking away at things. They all came downstairs refreshed and a departing fireman gave his verdict, ‘Best bloody fire since Belle Vue.’
I liked Dick Lewis. He filled my vision nicely. There was nothing underhand about him. He was just honestly flamboyant. It is said of him that he went to Ireland to fire a journalist, and arrived back days adrift having given the man a rise. When he demanded a drink after time somewhere among the forests of hand pumps that we recognised as Manchester, he was refused. ‘Tell them who I am,’ he said to the poor journalist chosen to keep up with him. The man weakly explained and slumped to the floor. Dick thereafter carried out a further conversation.
Each time he wanted confirmation from his companion, he hauled him up from the floor, then dropped him again.
Another sub-editor arrived home in a taxi after an hour or two, or a day or two, with Dick and as he emerged from it, his wife was approaching with a friend along the pavement. ‘You have not met my husband, have you?’ she said, and at that moment, he fell, inert, to the ground.
These stories - and there are many of them - might suggest that working for a newspaper was a simple matter of drifting through days in an alcoholic haze, all paid for in expenses. Not so. There was drink. There were also 12 and 14-hour days for executives. And if stories broke, nobody ever questioned whether they had finished a shift. It was hard graft and there was a spirit of endeavour and achievement. Drink was the companion of endeavour. The ones who progressed most were not the double-firsts but the street-hardened.
There was a news editor who, only once, was found without an answer. If you said of a man arrested an hour before, ‘What size waist was he?’ the news editor would have an immediate answer - ‘36. And he was wearing a belt.’ Colour? ‘Brown.’ Eventually, an editor asked him a question he could not possibly answer correctly - I forget what it was - and he said, ‘God, look at that.’ We all looked out of the window. A flock of birds was going by. ‘What’s so remarkable about that?’ said the editor. ‘Well,’ said the news editor, ‘an hour ago, they were over Bridlington.’
In those days you could get four sub-editors battling with each other to produce the best headline for a five-line brief. People left reasonably quickly if found wanting. They were not fired. They were invited to find another job within a month. It was discreet, and hard, and honourable, I thought. Sub-editors came in on trial - a night’s work to test them. They were handed stories like the rest of us and never told that they were subbing for the spike. So they sweated. One man was so overawed, he could not think of headlines at all. Since I recognised that stage and happened to be sitting next to him, I did them for him. He got the job and became an Express editor himself.
Dick Lewis went to London eventually, and life became a little grey as a result.
It was one of those days when drowning my sorrows was not enough. They had to be engulfed in a tsunami and go down with all hands. Chucking my lifebelt overboard and abandoning the handrail, I set sail for the Stab.
Misery loves company and you were seldom short of that in the Mirror’s White Hart. Sure enough, a delightful lady writer of my acquaintance called Mary was to be found, handbag on hook, elbows in a beer puddle, face sternly set, tucked in a corner near the gents.
She turned her basilisk gaze my way then, seeing I wasn’t the enemy, risked a brief smile.
‘Don, it’s a day when it’s not enough to drown my sorrows. They have to be...’
‘Engulfed? Tidal wave? Lost with all hands?’
‘Something like that. Tomorrow, once I get over the hangover I am now working on, I’m rewriting my will. It will stipulate that I be cremated and my ashes thrown in the face of the features editor.’
‘Ah, but Mary, on that I hope far off day, the features editor might be someone of a kindly and pleasant disposition.’
‘Some fucking hope.’
But Mary was wrong. Not all features editors were monsters. It came as a great surprise to me in my youthful ignorance that these men and their like, whom I thought at the pinnacle of their careers, were often as hag-ridden and desperate as the rest of us.
I’ll never forget my real dismay when I read that the legendary Arthur Christiansen had been cruelly mocked and dismissed by Beaverbrook. The Beaver offered Christiansen no respite from the sack or promises of financial help. He just bundled the ailing genius into his private lift and as it descended called out spitefully: ‘Going down, Arthur!’
This was Christiansen the master of Fleet Street, the architect behind the invincible (well, it was then) Daily Express. For God’s sake, he’d appeared in a movie as himself and had been a better actor than most of the actors.
But on that day, God was Beaverbrook and Beaverbrook was God.
I must have been lucky; the first two features editors I served under were human beings - certainly flawed, but human.
My first, whom I regarded with breathless awe (well, he did hire me), was Mike Terry. I had tremendous respect for him. A tall, commanding figure with a pleasant baritone voice and charming old-fashioned manners, I then thought him the paradigm of the Fleet Street executive. Thoughtful, resourceful and always ready for fun. And he drank a bit.
Well, actually, he drank rather a lot. Certainly more than was good for him. I have a very strong recollection of being in the Stab with Paddy O’Gara one evening when Mike came in. Asked if he’d like a drink he said:
‘Yes, I’ll have a double brandy and a vodka and Scotch with some ginger ale.’
‘In the same glass?’
‘Yes, and not too much ginger ale. By the way,’ he confided in me as O’Gara slid off to the bar to spend his expenses, ‘when I drink this I may go a bit of a funny colour. I’m taking these tablets to stop me drinking. Take no notice.’
Brandy. Vodka. Scotch. And Antabuse. All in the same glass. Now here was a man who drank like a hero. Steady with that ginger ale.
Mike had a glass eye and, far from being shy about its presence, he had the habit of popping out this object unexpectedly and dropping it into a glass of beer. I never found out why - perhaps to clean it?
More disconcertingly, he would remove it when he went to the gents and leave it by the hand basins. Then he would forget it and wander off, leaving this bizarre object to peer unblinkingly at the next visitor. Yells of shock heard coming from the loos were often met by knowing looks between the journos outside and the observation: ‘Ah, Terry’s left his eye behind again.’
He was also an entertaining, full-throated blues singer. His approach was to yell the words out at the top of his lungs causing other patrons’ eyes to pop out unexpectedly. He knew a good range of earthy songs and could be heard with several of the journo jazz bands then floating around the Street, often featuring trumpet-playing sub Ken Smiley.
It is hard to find any fault with the man who let you in the door and I have to this day among my souvenirs the job-offer letter Mike sent me. The signature is ragged and he obviously used the first thing to hand, a rough-hewn carpenter’s pencil like those favoured by layout artists, to sign it. Perhaps he had had too much Antabuse with his vodka.
I feel Mike did not particularly enjoy his time as features editor. When the pressure became too great it was his habit to go down to the comps’ floor and stone a page in. This was where he was happiest, doing what he loved best.
Soon he was sidelined off to Manchester as editor, which was more than a disaster. The editor in the North had little to do then other than drink and Mike needed distraction not encouragement. Rod Dines, one-time night editor in Manchester, reminds me that you changed the main London pages at your peril and brought down wrath on your head if you replaced a page top with a local-angle story.
It is from this city that many of the Mike Terry legends sprang. Bill Freeman tells me:
‘Many of us were staying at the Queen’s Hotel, in Leeds, after a Booming-Britain type dinner organised by Bernard Shrimsley, when at 7.30 in the morning at breakfast Mike was asked by the waiter whether he would like tea or coffee. ‘A pint of bitter,’ he responded. The enterprising waiter returned and poured the pint out of a silver teapot into a breakfast cup.’
On another occasion Mike was rolling back from lunch along the corridor, bouncing off the walls, with Paul Rochez, the general manager. The quick-witted George Harrop, night picture editor, in early for some reason, said: ‘There they go - Rochez and Ricochet...’
The most famous of these incidents is probably the occasion when his long-suffering chauffeur broke under the yoke of Mike’s late-night behaviour.
The driver apparently sent a memo to the powers-that-be along the lines of: ‘While it may be my duty to clean the car after Mr Terry has been overtaken by the effects of drink, I want to know whether it is part of my statutory duties to help him look under the seats for his glass eye.’
It was also in Manchester that the news desk received a call in the small hours from some irate reader who demanded to speak to the editor. The late-stop man cocked an eye at the editorial clock and said smoothly, ‘I’m very sorry, sir, but the editor is not available at this time of the…’
At that point the door crashed open. ‘Ah, just a moment, this may be the editor now…’ said the assistant turning towards the familiar noise. He saw it was indeed Mike Terry. But the only method of progress then available to him was crawling past the news desk on all fours.
The newsman watched his slow, laboured progress for a moment and then smoothly corrected himself: ‘No, it seems I was mistaken. The editor is not presently available. Why not write him a letter?’
Mike, as Bill Freeman reminded me, finally overstepped the mark and shipped out to The Sun. There he returned to his first love - subbing. Though he discarded his drinking habits, he never seemed to lose his sense of humour.
Colin Dunne tells me: ‘Mike was on the subs’ desk when I first joined the Sun. He called out in that melodious voice of his: ‘Ah, I used to be this young man’s boss. Now I am writing headlines for him.’
My second features boss was the wonderful Pat Doncaster. A talented writer and friend of the famous, he also played the piano and worried a great deal. The only time I ever saw an unforced smile on his face was late at night in the back bar of the Stab, hands dancing over the keyboard, slightly sloshed, a Peter Stuyvesant in the corner of his mouth, the smoke curling up past a left eye fixed in a conspiratorial wink. Playing the blues while I sang Sinatra with a style and tone that would have had Ol’ Blue Eyes choking me violently to death.
Mike Hellicar, Sid Williams and I were his feature writers, his boys, and I’m afraid we were merciless with him. Cruelly, we would take the mickey by adopting a strained, thin, simpering voice that was supposed to be an imitation of Pat’s and utter such phrases as ‘You’re MY boys - you’re the fire brigade. One of you will get the Big One!’ We thought this tremendously amusing.
The fact that it was such poor mimicry is demonstrated by the fact that after a drunken night the four of us found ourselves standing (just about) on the pavement outside the Stab. As we were shit-faced we saw no harm in doing ‘Pat’s voice’ while the original was there among us. So we did.
‘One of you will get the Big One!’ we chorused. Pat listened in admiration, swaying slightly, and then out of pure politeness joined in the fun and started doing an imitation of our imitations of him! We fell about and so did Pat. God it was hilarious. God we were idiots.
I don’t know, now I come to look at the above, why I am calling him Pat for he was known universally as Harry.
He told me this came from the days when he and Waterhouse and Tony Miles were writers. They tired of addressing one another by their given names and decided one name was sufficient. They chose Harry. So Harry Doncaster, Harry Miles and Harry Waterhouse.
Only Harry Doncaster carried the name to his dying day.
Among the other things Harry was famous for was leaving his jacket on his office chair. I believe he invented this device. It assured any other passing executives that Harry was somewhere close by though not actually in his office. ‘Somewhere close by’ was an establishment that served intoxicating liquor.
And, of course, the pub was where he really lived. He and other worthies, among them Des Lyons, actually composed a hit song one locked-in night there. Or so Harry said. It was called Hurry Up and the lyric was mainly just that: Hurry up, Hurry up, Hurry up, Come along, Hurry up. It was in imitation of Lesley the landlady’s shout at the assembled drunks as she came down into the bar in her pyjamas to find them all still there.
Harry assured me it climbed to number 5 in the hit parade.
Though he was truly loved and admired, not only by his colleagues but by a host of stars and celebrities ranging from Louis Armstrong and Sinatra to Jimmy Young he was the victim of much banter.
When Harry was writing one of Fleet Street’s first pop pages, the art bench thoroughly enjoyed themselves every week by mangling his picture byline.
Sometimes it would be cropped so tight all that would be visible were his hallmark spectacles. Sometimes it would be upside down. Sometimes it would lay in the overmatter. One week HUGE. The next week minuscule.
Every week, these japes produced the required result. The page proofs would go into Harry’s office - then out would come Harry purple in the face. ‘What HAVE you done now to the fucking byline?’ he’d rage.
His kind heart and generous soul never failed. His knowing eye recognised talent and encouraged it. His ambition was for others to succeed in a dangerous and unforgiving world whose menace he knew only too well.
I would give anything, well almost anything, to walk again into the Stab’s smoky den one Friday night and find him there, surrounded by admiring drunks, fingers flying over the eighty-eights, drink on the piano rocking dangerously to Hurry Up.
Search hard enough and there is always one word that exactly describes a person. In the case of Bill Marshall that word was outrageous. I did not know what trouble was until I met Marshall, the Daily Mirror district man in Liverpool.
He was a library of opposites. Lanky without being tall. A Lincolnshire lad with an American accent. Immaculate blazer worn with stained trousers; cowboy boots without socks; wild hair and an occasional beard. That was the picture I had when I saw him for the first time in the Liverpool Press Club a week after I joined the Daily Dispatch.
Though we kept in touch until the weeks before his death and I loved him like a brother, we did not see each other for 30 years. Which may explain why I was able to have a successful career as an author and broadcaster. Had Bill still been around there would not have been time, and I could well have been in prison.
I should have been warned when his wife invited me to a party in his flat at Formby and said, ‘Don’t bring Bill’. Getting barred from your own house takes dedication and a lot of effort.
There was the time he sold my passport and used the money to buy drugs for re-sale. But he wanted to be sure they were genuine. In those days Bert Balmer was head of the CID in Liverpool and his deputy was a man called Jimmy Morris. They were both members of the Press Club.
This night he passed me the drugs and said, ‘Go and ask Bert what it is.’ So in his thrall was I that I went to the head of CID and said, ‘Bert, what are these?’ passing him some curled-up leaves. ‘Bill sent you?’ asked that excellent man, and then passed them to Jimmy. ‘What do you think, Jimmy? Rhododendron or Azalea?’
There was the time he bought a roulette wheel and made me go out and buy a black shirt and white tie and be the croupier. I thought they looked silly with a sports jacket but I always did what he said. Even when he got me to shave off half the News Chronicle reporter Jackie Yeadon’s beard as he slept drunkenly on the club sofa and prop him up still asleep on a parapet while Bill shouted: ‘Roll Up and see the midget with half a beard,’ at the Saturday shoppers below in Lime Street. Yeadon was small and majestic with it. During the war he had got extra meat by telling the butcher he was the captain of a midget submarine.
Anyway, I stood behind the wheel of a game I did not understand in the Press Club annexe and lost £45 in ten minutes and that was in 1953 when I was paid £15 a week.
He made up stories for the Mirror that nowadays would have got him an overnight declaration in the Booker Prize. Like the one about the girl who couldn’t afford the cruise her doctor ordered so she bought (or, to be more truthful, Bill did) 45 round-trip tickets on the New Brighton ferry.
Then there was the dog he tied to the railings of the Bridewell with a note attached to its collar that read ‘My daddy says he is going to shoot my dog when he comes home because we cannot afford to feed him, though I have given him my tea every night. Please give him a home.’
The story he wrote produced so many offers of a home the Daily Mirror phones were blocked for three hours.
It was catching. Even Balmer, the head of CID, caught it. Every Saturday he would make up a story for us so we could claim a shift from the Sunday papers in our group.
My favourite was a spin-off from a fashion among criminals who had been in prison to have a swallow tattooed on the joint between thumb and forefinger. Bert told us the CID was worried the fad was being copied by juveniles. They showed they had been to reformatories by having a sparrow tattoo, Bert claimed, and all our offices fell for it.
Marshall struck when you weren’t watching. Years later when I lived in Chester, he rang me from Liverpool to say another of his many wives would be coming through Chester. Would I meet her off the train and give her dinner. ‘She is pretty upset,’ he confided.
I met her and we had a jolly meal. Over coffee she admitted she needed cheering up and I said, ‘Yes, that’s why Bill suggested I meet you.’ I thought she was going to explode.
‘Do you know why I am upset?’ she said. ‘We were divorced this morning and that ******* turned up in his oldest clothes, pleaded poverty and I have got peanuts for maintenance.’
When I heard some days later that Bill had turned left at a level crossing and driven several miles along the Liverpool-Formby railway line I felt a pang of regret he hadn’t shared the experience with an oncoming express. But the feeling didn’t last. You could only dislike him for about five minutes.
There was this time when I was sleeping on the newspaper files in the Daily Dispatch office, where I worked, because I had no money for digs. He rang to tell me that Hoagy Carmichael was in town and we should go and pay him homage at the Adelphi where Hoagy (who for some reason he called Hoagland) had a suite.
Hoagy could not have been kinder. He invited us in and although it was a little after poured us both giant Scotches. Inevitably Bill asked him to play the piano. Characteristically this very nice man agreed: but he wouldn’t play his signature tune ‘Stardust’. He said he couldn’t stand the damn thing, and he wrote it. So for an hour or so he plied us with Scotch and entertained us on the piano with tunes for which, he said, he had not been able to find a publisher.
A yelp from Bill brought the performance to an abrupt end. He had remembered that he should have been across the city covering an Assize trial.
‘Anything I can do?’ asked Hoagy, before I had a chance to warn him.
Bill said, yes, there was. He knew Hoagy didn’t like Stardust but he asked could he ring his news editor Roly Watkins and, when he came to the phone, hold the instrument over the piano keyboard while Hoagy played a few bars of it and then said, ‘Hello Roly, this is Hoagy Carmichael. I am afraid I have detained your reporter Bill Marshall.’
Good as gold, Hoagy did as Bill told him. He played the opening bars down the phone and said his piece. There was a pause and then a suddenly angry Hoagy said, ‘No, this is not Bill Marshall, I am not pissed at in the morning and I have no idea what is on at the Assizes.’
After the show that night, one of only two he did in Britain, he came over to the Press Club and once again at Bill’s command (by his time Bill saw him as his property) he played for the members.
After an hour or so he wanted to stop but Bill commanded him to play on.
‘Look Bill,’ he said, ‘I get a thousand pounds for a concert.’
‘Oh, it’s money you want?’ sneered Bill, and promptly wrote a cheque for £1,000, which Hoagy pocketed and played on.
The next morning there was another call from Bill who wanted to know if he had cashed any cheques because one had gone from his book and his bank manager had warned him if he cashed any more cheques he would close his account.
I said, ‘Only the thousand pounds you paid Hoagy,’ and enjoyed the panic I could feel down the phone.
‘We have to get it back,’ he said, and off we went to the Adelphi.
Hoagy was full of apologies. ‘I cashed it with the hotel half an hour ago,’ he said. In the minutes that followed I was repaid for all the indignities Marshall had heaped on me. And then Hoagy relented. ‘I haven’t cashed it,’ he said, ‘but you cannot have it back. I am going to have it framed in my den to remember a great night.’
I walked into The Stab one Friday night to find Billy perched on a stool away from the bar with a lot of space around him. He had clearly been refreshing himself with gusto.
He yelled at me: ‘Hey, Al, look at this. Whaddya think of this?’
And produced a .44 Magnum replica pistol, just like the one in the Dirty Harry movies. Several people moved to the back room rather nervously and quickly. I went over to him and asked to have a look at the weapon. Knowing Marshall it could easily have been real. Big Reg, the barman - an ex Coldstreamer - was simpering about calling the police and I said to wait a minute.
‘Don’t go near him, he’s mad and you might get shot,’ wailed Reg.
‘What’s that old queen on about?’ asked Bill.
Anyway he handed over his ‘piece’ and I examined it and found it to be a replica even though Bill was insisting it was real and he was going to blast that fucking sub who kept fucking up his copy.
Everything calmed down and eventually Bill poured himself off into the night towards Chancery Lane tube station where he boarded a train for wherever he lived in Essex.
A couple of hours later I was sitting on the newsdesk with the night news editor when the phone rang.
It was a British Transport Police inspector: ‘I have your Mr Marshall in my cells. He’s tried to hijack a train. Can someone vouch for him and maybe bail him out?’
We explained to the copper that Marshall did not work for us, but was the property of features and we would contact his boss. Features, of course, didn’t want to know. But the features editor rang The Stab and warned Mike Molloy about what had happened. He stormed back to the office and told Phil Mellor: ‘Go to whatever nick it is and get him out. Take him home and tell him to stay there until I send for him. He is not to come into the office until I call him.’
So off went Mellor with the office car and duty lawyer to spring Billy - who then refused to be sprung because he had sobered up somewhat and was afraid to go home as his wife was now aware of what had happened. And he feared she would beat the living shit out of him.
The cops no longer wanted him cluttering up their cell and ranting at them and the Mirror lawyer did a brilliant job in getting the charges reduced to something like drunk, which Bill couldn’t argue with. So he was kicked out of the nick and taken home. Mellor and the lawyer had to flee for their lives, such was the ire of whichever Mrs Marshall he was married to at the time. She blamed them ‘and all those fuckers at the Mirror who get my Bill drunk.’
He was eventually summoned by Molloy, bollocked rotten, taken for a boozy lunch and sent home pissed as a parrot to write another day.
What a lovely tribute to Vincent Mulchrone by Colin Dunne. I too have been thinking about him recently around the time of my elder daughter’s 30th birthday in November. I was heavily pregnant with Holly when Louie rang me in Berlin, where I was living with my army officer husband, to say that Vincent had died. I was on the next plane home, wrapped in a voluminous coat and sucking in my stomach to disguise the lump – they wouldn’t let you fly in those days past about six months.
I knew Louie all of my life. She was as close as you can get to family without the blood tie and became Holly’s godmother. As Colin said, she was manager of my father’s one-man medical practice in Holywood, Co Down. She was clever and beautiful but couldn’t get a job – she told my father she’d get as far as telling potential employers she was a former pupil of the Convent of the Sacred Heart and that was it. She was a Catholic in a staunchly Protestant Northern Ireland in the fifties.
So Daddy gave her a job and she was the first person, apart from my mother, to give me a good clip around the ear for cheek. I remember running outraged to my mother screaming ‘Louie Bogues smacked me,’ and Mum giving me another clip for telling tales.
She married Vincent and went to live across the water but every Easter and summer we’d head south for the little fishing village of Crookhaven in West Cork where I’d sit in a corner of O’Sullivan’s pub and listen to Vincent’s tales of Fleet Street – how he had been on the last helicopter out of Saigon, or hobnobbing in the Bahamas with the Queen – and I would think ‘I want a life like that’. And indeed when the time came, Vincent sat with me at the kitchen table at their home in West Byfleet and helped me write my application form to the Mirror training scheme in Plymouth. I remember how one of his sentences ‘I intend and mean to be a journalist’ was picked up by my interviewer, Geoff Harris, who remarked how determined I sounded.
In Crookhaven I’d meet the friends who made their way to Vincent’s ‘little piece of paradise’ – Colin Reid, Ken Donlan, Phil Wrack, John Winnington-Ingram, Terry O’Conner. John and Terry bought cottages there. Then there were occasional visits from Rod and Maggie Tyler and a single guest appearance from Max Hastings.
Other luminaries from the London scene discovered Crookhaven around the same time, a famous architect called Alan Best, a restaurateur called Tom Benson who ran Parkes in Beauchamp Place where Princess Margaret or Mick Jagger would pop in for supper at the specially reserved ‘kitchen’ table. They’d bring their famous friends to Crook for a few days which is why you could be drinking and singing in O’Sullivan’s with Terence Stamp, Jean Shrimpton, Judy Geeson and the like along with the Flynns, the Murphys, the O’Driscolls and the ‘blow-ins’ like the Mulchrones and the Kennedys.
Everyone was expected to perform. If you couldn’t sing, you had to play the spoons or recite. Vincent’s party pieces included Little Nell and the Wild Colonial Boy. I would sing Mary of Dungloe.
Vincent and Daddy decided one year to revive the Crookhaven regatta so the teenagers were dispatched all over the county pinning home-made posters to lamp-posts proclaiming the financial rewards available to the winners of the rowing, sailing, swimming and even the greasy pole competitions.
Nobody thought about things like safety boats and when one poor child started taking in water, there was panic. ‘Get in there and save him,’ yelled Louie and I had just time to take off my gold watch, a 21st birthday present from my parents, before diving off the quayside into the harbour in my new black velvet jeans.
The poor lad was furious at being ‘saved’ by a girl – don’t think he’s forgiven me to this day. But when I emerged dripping wet, Ken Donlan, then news editor of the new Sun newspaper, came up to me and said: ‘If they don’t take you on at the Mirror, you come and see me.’
And when I did exactly that, Vincent was waiting in El Vino with a chilled bottle of Veuve Cliquot to celebrate.
Like Colin, I met him on a job once, the Flixborough Colliery disaster. I’d been sent to write colour and I dutifully filed a piece about a chap who kept peacocks and was worried about how the fumes would affect them. I knew I’d only get 10 pars in The Sun at the most and that Vincent would turn it into something special so I told him about the peacocks.
Back in the office the following day, KD came up to me, mouth twitching with a rare early morning smile, and said: ‘That was a nice intro you gave Vincent.’ You couldn’t hide anything from KD and I never tried.
I lived in awe and not a little fear of Ken, one of the most consummate operators of all time and I don’t say that lightly. It turned into deep friendship and respect and years later, when Nick Lloyd offered me the news editor’s job on the Daily Express, my first instinct was to turn it down, thinking I’d never live up to Ken. When I confessed over lunch at the WhiteTower that I’d turned down ‘the best job in Fleet Street’ he gave me the bollocking of my life, so I rang Nick up and asked him to ask me again.
When Vincent’s middle son Patrick was dithering about whether to become a journalist, because he was worried about the inevitable comparisons with his father, I had no hesitation about telling him to go for it. The Mulchrone name would get him through the door, I told him, but he wouldn’t last if he was no bloody good. Patrick is my second daughter Katy’s godfather and a fine journalist on the Mirror.
Those of us who knew Vincent well still miss him 30 years after his death.
He died far too young. One of my most treasured possessions is a silver money clip he carried around the world with him plus his last NUJ press card which Louie gave me. He so loved the job and I remember how he had the word ‘Reporter’ in his passport – you used to have to specify your job – he considered the word ‘Journalist’ far too pretentious.
Colin talked about the ‘two rivers’ intro. Another piece I loved was one he wrote when he turned 40, one of the collection that the Daily Mail published after his death – they should bring out a new edition. I can’t remember it word for word but he talked about how sometime in the second half of his life he was going to mend the wonky handle on the living room door. He never did of course.
My husband did it for him.
I had some great role models. But there was nobody like Vincent.