The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times, August 2007
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.
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.
With more than 140 published and unpublished cartoons up for auction exclusively online at www.luckners.com, with valuations ranging from £20 to £800, the collection offers even the most cynical of art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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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 ProvostDavid 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.
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.
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.
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. It 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 YEPLondon 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.
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 WhitleyBay, 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?’
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.