The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times, August 2007
December 21, 2007
Christmas past and a Christmas present
Our Letters Page this week has Ken Ashton on quotes and headlines, Edward Playfair on Ian Levack, and Rosalie Macrae and Howard Reynolds remembering Shelley.
Here on this page, HARRY PUGH reports on a Christmas surfeit of sausage in the Crown & Kettle, while IAN SKIDMORE recalls a total shortage of Christmas fare at Skidmore Parva.
BRYAN RIMMER remembers how the features team took a bus ride back to the office after a Christmas party at the Penthouse Club and GEOFFREY MATHER reminisces about the pantomime of a Cinderella spell check.
REVEL BARKER recalls the night Captain Bob bought Manchester for Christmas, GARTH GIBBS receives an invitation to spend the festivities with the world's most beautiful princess and LEIGH BANKS, sitting in the snow, puts something special in his coffee to keep out the cold. PETER KINSLEY relates a festive tale about a snapper doing a wheelie.
And the Gentlemen Ranters’ Christmas gift to their readers is a VINCENT MULCHRONE classic piece – nothing to do with the season, really, except that it is a gift of golden prose. Republished by kind permission of the Mulchrone clan.
Finally, I feel obliged to share a personal experience from this very week. I was attending a posh dinner and the lady sitting next to me said she’d been reading, that afternoon at the hairdresser’s, a magazine article about the dangers to which journalists, especially war correspondents, were often exposed.
‘Some of them were beheaded,’ she told me. ‘Some were blown up in their offices and some shot and killed on assignments.’
She was clearly impressed. ‘Tell me,’ she asked… ‘did anything like that ever happen to you?’
Christmas will soon be upon us, season of goodwill, piss-ups and punch-ups. We all have our favourite tales of boozy nights when the banter ends in brawling. My own was in the Crown and Kettle, the Express watering hole in Ancoats, back in the 70s when Manchester was an important publishing centre.
It was a December evening, I think a Friday, and the pub was heaving. Everyone was in a jolly mood. Even the landlord, John Akister, who could be a surly bugger, was smiling. He had just lifted a short ban on photographer Johnny Wardhaugh for some infraction, probably involving fisticuffs. Wardhaugh was never reticent in pub punch-ups.
We were all drinking merrily and may have rendered a carol or two although I don't recall Bob Blake singing his favourite, Away in a Manger. Suddenly the door burst open and two men came in. One was photographer Jack Kaye who had a goofy grin signifying drink had been taken. But more importantly he was swinging a string of sausages.
Jack had been on an assignment at a Christmas market which involved taking pictures of champion butchers. They had kept him well-supplied with drink and given him a massive parcel of sausages. Somehow this had been opened, and Jack entered the pub proudly swinging his trophy bangers and offering to hand them round as Christmas presents.
There was no secret signal, no uttered word of command. But, as one, the drinkers pounced. A pissed snapper swinging bangers? The temptation was too much. The sausages were snatched from him and distributed. I use the word distributed loosely. Chucked around would be more accurate.
Soon the air was filled with flying sausages. They were hurtling all round the bar. Some were thrown at friends or enemies. Others splattered against walls and ceilings. They stuck to the optics and slid down glass windows. After being thrown once or twice a sausage tends to disintegrate. There were bits of sausage shrapnel lying everywhere.
One of the sausages that had remained whole landed on the bar close to my pint. Standing next to me was a young man I had not seen before. He was gazing around in wonder at the flying missiles. I picked up the sausage, popped it in his pint and stood back to watch the result.
He shook his head in bewilderment and then raised the glass to his lips. The sausage had remained unseen in the depths. But the movement of his glass caused it to rise to the surface like a submarine. It broke through the froth and gently touched the tip of his nose as he took a swig of beer.
A look of disbelief flitted across his face, closely followed by shock, horror and anger. He slammed down his pint and turned around. The person nearest to him was in the act of hurling a sausage. That person happened to be Norman Luck. The stranger threw a punch that caught poor Norman just above the eye. And Norman, as you would expect, instantly retaliated.
The bar erupted. Instead of peace-loving carol-singing journalists, suddenly we were all involved in a wild-west-style melee. Everybody was throwing punches, ducking punches, attacking or restraining. The sausage war, playful at first, was developing into one hell of a punch-up.
I can't remember who was hitting whom. It all happened so quickly, like a speeded-up movie. The landlord came from behind the bar to try to calm things down. I remember John Wardhaugh, arms flailing like a windmill. Johnny didn't care who he hit - he just wanted involvement. Several of his wild punches missed the landlord by inches. I remember thinking: ‘If one of those connects, he'll be barred for life.’ Fortunately none did.
As the scrapping died down, I approached the guy who threw that first punch. I said to him, ‘You hit the wrong man. It was me who put the sausage in your pint.’
His first clenched and unclenched. I hastily added: ‘I didn't know it was your pint. I took it out of my pint and put it in the next one along the bar.’ This was a lie. I put it in his pint quite deliberately. But this, I quickly decided, was not a moment for confessions or heroics.
He had cooled down and he accepted my offer of a fresh pint as he told me his story. He was a Welshman so there was a bit of rapport even after I admitted the heinous crime. He had just completed a three-year sentence for garage breaking at Blaenau Ffestiniog and had been released from Strangeways prison earlier that day.
In his dulcet North Walian accent he said, ‘Three years without a bloody drink. I was really looking forward to my first pint. And when I picked it up there's a bloody sausage in it. Well you can't blame me for lashing out, can you?’
We finished up quite good friends. It's unfortunate that Norman caught the brunt, but I know he has forgiven me. We have laughed about the night of the flying sausages many times. Down the years there have been many Christmas piss-ups and punch-ups in Ancoats but this has to have been one of the best.
In 1950 Roly Watkins, the news editor of the Daily Mirror and a close friend, described me as unemployable. I have fulfilled that early promise by having been sacked from trade magazines, news agencies, weekly and evening newspapers, provincial and national dailies, a rival blog, TV and the BBC.
Will it never end? At 78 I have been sacked yet again. This time by my doctor from his ‘Fitness for the Future’ Clinic. Well, not so much sacked. I failed the entrance examination on grounds of lack of motivation. When he put my name down I wrote to him to say I would be very glad when the future is over and what I was looking for was parole not an extension to my life sentence.
The first time I was out of work it was Christmas time. I met Bob Ashton, then doing the gossip diary for the Manchester Evening News. He said, ‘I don’t suppose you will be having much of a Christmas?’
I said, ‘If I wanted a mince pie I would have to buy it on H.P. We will be out on Christmas Day because it is warmer out than it is in the house and I have promised the kids we will go to Curry’s to watch the Queen’s Speech through the window. Then we are going to a park to mug robins for their breadcrumbs.’
‘Not having a bird on The Day then?’
‘Not unless I can grab one of the robins as we steal their breadcrumbs.’
He said, ‘Why don’t you nip down to the poultry market at Shudehill just before it closes on Xmas Eve? They practically give birds away.
‘Then,’ he said, ‘come to the press party at the Continental Cinema on Market Street. I’ll wait for you in the foyer and smuggle you in.’
So I did.
I picked up a chicken with my last half crown and went to the party, where I set up a record, unbroken for many years, for drinking free scotch and eating vol-au-vents.
Then this guest said, ‘Let’s play rugby.’
Another guest said, ‘We haven’t got a ball.’
A third guest said, ‘Yes, we have,’ and grabbed the parcel of chicken from where it had been roosting under my arm. Everyone but me applauded the skill with which the next guest, a rather showy chap, executed a back pass with my parcel between his legs.
I was less pleased than anyone when the next guest followed through with a drop kick.
It was powerful, I will say that.
It sent the parcel soaring across the foyer, out into Market Street, over the heads of the passers-by, to drop, perfectly positioned, under the tyre of a passing bus.
They were all very apologetic. The manager of the cinema particularly. He said he hoped the parcel hadn’t contained anything important. I said, no, it was just a chicken I got for tea on Boxing Night.
For the rest of the party I was a bit thoughtful, though I did manage to clock up a further freeloader’s record of eight scotch and a round dozen vol-au-vents.
At the death, the manager came up and gave me a parcel. ‘I hope you will accept this replacement with our apologies,’ he said.
It was a twelve pound turkey.
Which would have been nice... but we didn’t have an oven at the time, just a gas grill. So we had to cook it a leg at a time.
Back in the 80s, when Floor Four at Holborn groaned with the weight of features writers, lawyers and egos, it fell to me to organise the feature writers’ Christmas party.
Being a chap of impeccable taste, I chose the Penthouse Club in Shepherd’s Market - reasoning that a clutch of stripping Santas would add a little class to the proceedings.
But how to get an invitation to the Invisible Eric Wainwright? Stab scuttlebut suggested The Waiter’s Club in Leicester Square and a Find Eric outing was suggested. Well, it seemed more fun than finding features for the spike.
However, I had a simpler solution. I took the lift to the Bank In The Sky and left the invitation with one of the cashiers. Brilliant! But would it work?
On the appointed day I began to greet the guests - around 35 I think - and ogle the Santas when a ruddy-faced, tweed-jacketed chap appeared at the door. Gotcha.
As we settled down around the table I decided to say a few words and, towards the end, introduced Eric ‘to those of you who have recently joined’. And invited the great man to say a few words.
Eric rose to his feet, gazed down at a sea of unfamiliar faces, and, in a voice richer and fruitier than a Tesco Christmas pud, said:’Well, it’s jolly nice to meet you all.’ And sat down again.
The rest of the afternoon drifted into a haze of wine and brandy and by the time we began to think of getting back to the office (The Stab by six) the wraithlike Wainwright had disappeared again.
But it wasn’t the end of the day. How to get about three dozen well wined hacks back to the Stab? By bus of course. And, led by the likes of Callan and Bill Marshall, we all tottered up to Oxford Steet and began hailing Routemasters. Eventually one driver was daft enough to stop. And became very rich.
Flushed with booze and Mirror money we demanded that the driver and conductor take us back to Holborn Circus. Each ‘Can’t do that, Guv’ was greeted with another fistful of fivers pushed through the driver’s hatch and into the conductor’s pocket. Eventually they realised it really was Christmas for them and agreed.
We spent the rest of the journey back singing carols and refusing entry to would-be passengers who weren’t blonde or didn’t appear up for it.
Next morning most of us assembled back on the 4th floor to swap stories and sip coffee. Most of us. At around a very grey looking Rita Grosvenor shuffled through the door.
‘Don’t remember seeing you in the Stab last night, Rita’.
Because she wasn’t there. While we all sang ourselves silly on the bus back to the Stab, Rita had crept upstairs and fallen asleep. She woke up in the small hours locked in a darkened garage in Dagenham.
Not even Eric Wainwright could have engineered a greater escape.
He had the appearance of a Buddha at the head of the table, mostly silent, and possibly brooding, always breathing with difficulty for he had asthma. Mr Boston was, to me and to many, the chief sub editor who knew everything worthwhile in the world. If he had a first name, I am not sure of it. I suspect it was Tom. But Mr Boston he was and Mr Boston he remained to God and man.
He appeared like something out of a bottle. No past. Nothing to talk about. Just an appearance at the head of a circular table. An immaculate conception. Accent, neutral. Knowledge, anything but. No-one within his control ever spelt wagon with two Gs; nor inserted a U in flamboyant; nor left the second E from the word plebeian. And The Times was reduced in stature, always, by quotes: “The Times”. The twin supports fore and aft suggested that we respected the newspaper but not, of course, with total confidence. As we sat in monastic order in support of his mysteries, we must have looked like something from the Last Supper.
Mr Boston was the god of my youth (‘Capital G for god only if referring to the Deity’) and more than half a century has passed since I saw him, but his face is there yet - handsome, composed, but a little tortured, the high authority without whom our evening newspaper, then called the Northern Daily Telegraph, would surely collapse in a heap of meaningless verbiage.
I only once saw him agitated. ‘It’s a wasp,’ he shrieked in a weak falsetto, pronouncing the name of the insect, surprisingly, to rhyme with the word ‘hasp’. The poor creature had come in through the window in all innocence, and now it had to observe this terrified, large, black-clad object, puffing and wheezing, apparently glued to his seat and pleading to be released from its presence.
To a man, the subs arose. The source of all wisdom had been challenged. ‘It’s all right, Mr Boston,’ we said, flapping around the first edition, but he would not be mollified and continued to ask where it was and what it was doing. (It left eventually, looking cross.) I found that trait disturbing in a man of such quietly held knowledge. He knew how many seats there were in aircraft so that if one went down, he had an idea of the possible number of casualties before the Press Association or Reuter.
He was the first man I met who knew the difference between the Primate of England and the Primate of All England (the first being the Archbishop of York and the second, the Archbishop of Canterbury). He knew that Acts (such as the Habitual Drunkards Act) did not have an apostrophe. He was a master of the hyphen (none in rearrange, rearm, reunion, but one each in half-dozen, half-crown, half-mile). And then, this? A wasp, pronounced to rhyme with hasp? A tiny, stinging, lost creature reducing a monolith to panic like an error in the style book?
At work, he had, to his left, a senior sub-editor from Wales, a roly-poly drinking man. Both were sparing with words. They rarely had a conversation lasting more than four sentences. The one from Wales occasionally sub-edited a story only to be told, ‘Incorrect.’ He would retrieve it, glance at it, and fling it back. ‘Correct,’ he would say. Then followed a shamefully childish ritual of the two pushing the paper at each other crying, ‘Correct.’
‘No it is not.’
If I wrote what I thought was a good headline, Mr Boston would wince and pass it upstairs unaltered for the compositors to wince in turn.
‘How green was my valet?’ I headlined a piece on Ascot race-goers having an unusual number of creased suits and shaving cuts. I waited years for a Russian diplomat to be expelled so that I could use ‘Red sails in the sunset’, the title of a tune at the time. That, I imagine, would have challenged his very existence more than the wasp.
‘Isn’t it time they called you up?’ asked Mr Boston when I met him unexpectedly on the stairs. It was praise, a paradox: the nearest he got to showing approval through playful disapproval. When I made a factual mistake in a subbed story, and the editor reprimanded me, through him, he defended me stoutly and said I was overworked. The editor retreated.
Everybody retreated before the wheezing Mr Boston with his slicked-back black hair. When I played cricket for the office he was there again, by the pavilion, checking my style. Style-book by day, style at the stumps: there was no escape.
Of course, there were diversions, even in Mr Boston’s holy room of deep endeavour. Next to me sat a sub-editor who later moved to BBC public relations. He looked rather dandy smoking his pipe. So when he left the room momentarily, I filled the base of the bowl with match-heads. He returned, lit his pipe, and a plume of flame headed for the ceiling as his chair rocketed back and hit the wall with him in it. ‘My pipe has exploded,’ he yelled at Mr Boston in explanation.
Mr Boston might not have appreciated the joke, but he had satisfaction in the description - to the point, short, direct, the sign of a good sub-editor even in turmoil. There was happiness for him in that.
We had an appalling commotion one day. A large parcel arrived addressed to me and people at the front counter were anxious to have it removed. It was encased in wood, a cube of around three-feet, and I could move it only by dragging. So I dragged it to the subs’ room where Boston eyed it with deep distaste. Removing the packing, I found much straw which strayed beneath his seat and around his feet. Beneath the straw were bricks. House bricks.
Light dawned. It was near Christmas. I had found two very large hard-backed catalogues of old Christmas cards, and packed them in wrappings. Then, when I met two friends in town that evening, I presented them with the parcels, insisting that they should not open them until Christmas Day. I then led them from pub to pub all night long. Their parcels caused them some pain. Apart from the weight they were unwieldy. They had, of course, opened them immediately they got home and found the old Christmas cards. They told me I was lucky: they had intended to fill a box with pigeons so that when I opened it in the front office they would fly unchecked to the very high ceiling, or even around the interior of the building.
The bricks? They were placed on the sports’ editor’s desk. He came back from lunch and moved them to a corridor.
Builders extending the premises assumed they were theirs and they are now part of the structure. All solved.
We had our mistakes and they were pinned on a notice board. I was stone-subbing, waiting for a corrected headline over a page lead, when the works manager said: ‘What is keeping this page?’
‘Cinderella,’ I replied.
‘What do you mean - Cinderella?’
‘It’s there, in the headline,’ I said ‘- spelt CINDRELLA. It is being corrected.’
‘That,’ he said, ‘is how you spell Cinderella. Send this page away.’ I could hardly protest. His brother was managing director. Somehow Mr Boston and I survived the assault on our authority.
A rival newspaper was the Lancashire Evening Post. On our notice-board was the motto: ‘It is not the fault of the blind man that he did not see the Post.’
Also on the notice board we had a picture from our newspaper of a large ship with the caption, ‘A tern eagle on her nest’. In another part of the paper at the time of publication was a picture of an aggressive bird captioned, ‘Ship arriving at Liverpool docks’. We had body-text slip-ups such as, ‘The bride, for stealing a hen, wore a gown of blue taffeta.’ And, ‘The Queen, after launching the ship, passed slowly over the bridge and floated stern-first up the river.’
Not very good for asthma, that kind of thing.
We maliciously kept examples of bad reporting. ‘A policeman was walking down the street when he was approached by three youths. One youth tapped him on the chest. ‘Desist tapping,’ said the policeman. The youth continued. The policeman disappeared over a hedge. A woman observing the scene went to the youths and said, ‘Don’t you think this has gone far enough?’
The same reporter referred to a tomato as ‘that rosy, rubicund fruit’ and baffled us all. Sub-editing his work was like solving crosswords. Goalkeepers were, of course, ‘custodians’.
Another reporter wrote: ‘The fire was in a first-floor room. In the room below, there was a hole in the ceiling.’
During the Korean war, a Page One streamer screamed, ‘See how they run’. By the time the paper got to the streets, our lot were running the other way. Bad luck, that. We expected better of them. Fortunately it was a Saturday and Mr Boston was off work.
Happy days, long gone. Mr Boston, together with his guiding rules, was duly deleted from his seat of office, as we all are in the end.
. Christmas Eve 1985. Holborn. I was walking along the deserted ninth floor corridor towards the lifts and home when Maxwell came out of his office, obviously in high spirits.
‘Come and celebrate with me,’ he beckoned. ‘I’ve just got the NGA to sign the agreement. You understand how important that is. Come and help me celebrate it!’
He ushered me into his office. ‘Open some champagne.’ I hesitated... ‘What do you want to drink?’
‘Perrier,’ I said; ‘I’m not drinking. It sparkles, at least. What have they accepted, exactly?’
‘The whole deal. Who’d have believed, 18 months ago, that we could get all this? It just shows that people can see reason if they’re handled properly.’
I asked him who had actually accepted it - the NGA convener Tom Harrison, or the chapel, or merely the NGA head office, whose negotiation counted for nothing with the Mirror’s printers.
‘Tom has. And he can deliver. And I’ve bought Withy Grove for your mates in Manchester.’
‘Not before bloody time, either. The number of times that deal’s been on and off...’
‘But who gave in at the end? Thomsons gave in, not me. Know what I paid for it? One pound. I’ve told you before, nobody plays poker with Robert Maxwell.’
It was, I was aware, the best possible news for Christmas that the Manchester plant had been saved. The bad news would still come, and it would be about redundancies because – as the Fat Man kept reminding us, we had more journalists in Manchester than the Sun had, worldwide. Maybe the bad news could wait until into the New Year.
‘It’s a great game for you,’ I told him. ‘But while you’re playing brinkmanship there’re people up north with families and mortgages who don’t know from one day to the next whether they’ve got a job. It’s all heart attack stuff.’
‘But it’s worked. And now they’ve got their jobs. Mind you, if it hadn’t - if I hadn’t got Withy Grove and this agreement from Tom - I was going to close down and go on holiday at Christmas.’
‘Close what down?’
‘You know, Bob, you’ve got it wrong. It’s the captain who goes down with his ship; the captain doesn’t sink the bloody thing and walk away across the water.’
‘It’s the same thing.’
‘Not if you’re a member of the bloody crew, it isn’t.’
Maxwell laughed. ‘I know what you mean. I had an uncle - this is when I was very young - and he sailed to America with a friend to join the gold rush. They had agreed in advance that if they struck lucky they would get only as much as they could carry, and then stop. Well he got all the gold he thought he would need for the rest of his life, but his pal wanted more. So my uncle waited while he dug for it. When they were coming home, just as the ship was leaving San Francisco harbour, the earthquake happened and the ship started to sink. Everybody had to get into lifeboats, so my uncle threw his gold into the sea, jumped in, and climbed into a lifeboat. But his friend jumped with his rucksack, full of gold, strapped to his back. He went straight through the bottom of a lifeboat and was never seen again.
‘Every time my uncle told us children that story he would shake his head and say: ‘...And I always wonder - did he get the gold, or did the gold get him?’
It’s a funny old world, because whenever I remember Bob telling me the story that his old Uncle Shlomo had told him, I always wonder: Did he get the pensions, or did the pensions get him?
The only gift any of my former wives ever wanted from me over Christmas was a divorce, so I was often free for shifts or assignments over the festive season. I don’t want to get too soppy or sentimental over this, but I did have some fabulous times… and none better than a late December trip to Monaco with super snapper Mike Maloney. The seeds for the trip were sewn much earlier, in the summer of 1975 to be exact.
There is no doubt that in the mid-seventies Princess Grace of Monaco was the most beautiful princess on the planet. Everybody wanted to meet her. Everybody wanted to interview her. Everybody wanted to do everything they could to please her. Even those most cynical of all citizens, journalists…
So it was a very pleasant surprise when an ardent newspaper reader in Marlow telephoned the office one evening to say a lady ‘who looks remarkably like the actress Grace Kelly’ was staying at the Compleat Angler. The hotel, named after the father of angling, Izaak Walton, is a posh gaff on the banks of the Thames in Buckinghamshire and it boasts a 400-year old bar.
I shot down there at once, booked into a nearby hotel, and early the next morning walked along the suspension bridge that looks down on the Compleat Angler. It was a great day for a stake-out. At about Princess Grace followed by a waitress, carrying a tray, emerged and sat down at a garden table under a parasol. Two security guards tried to look inconspicuous as they stood about ten yards behind her.
I leaned over the bridge and yelled as politely as I could that I was a journalist, with ID, and it would be great if I could have a word with her. She exchanged quizzical looks with her guards, then burst into a smile and said, ‘Oh, all right, then,’ as though it was a line of dialogue out of a new movie.
She was sensational. Wow. Forget ‘The Icicle’ bit, she was warm, charming and great to interview. She had no hang ups talking about her Hollywood past, from High Noon with Cary Cooper to films like Rear Window and Dial M For Murder, and High Society with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. She also spoke about the Principality, her plans for the future, her children, the works.
The next day we took her on an ego trip in the newspaper. She obviously approved because the upshot was an invitation to spend Christmas in Monaco. The invitation was to me and said I could bring a photographer along.
I wrote a polite reply saying that would be great and what were the chances of a photo shoot with Princess Caroline, then almost eighteen.
‘No chance whatsoever,’ I was told.
I wrote back saying there was no point in going to Monaco and not having anything to write about.
‘Oh, there is an International Circus Week on at the time, you can write about that.’
Prince Rainier, of course, was a circus freak. A circus in Monte Carlo was of no interest to Britons, I wrote back, but what about if we got Princess Caroline dressed up as a clown? That would be fun.
Amazingly enough we got an instant yes and the photos Maloney took of Caroline dressed up as a clown and dancing at Jimmy’z (owned by Regine) were sensational. The pictures were splashed across the world.
On our last day in Monaco we had lunch with Princess Grace and were then shown around the palace where I mentally jotted down ex-directory telephone numbers.
Sadly, I got to use one of the numbers on September 14, 1982, after a tip off from the Vatican that Princess Grace had died.
This was a great shock. She and daughter Stephanie had been hurt after the car they were travelling in careered off the road and tumbled 100ft down a ravine on the French border, turning over several times. But previous reports from Monaco had indicated that despite broken ribs, leg and collarbone injuries, Princess Grace was in a stable condition.
The sudden death (officially from a brain haemorrhage) led immediately to conspiracy theories. The tamest theory is that Stephanie, at the time not old enough to drive, was the actual driver of the ten-year-old Rover car. But there are other, darker, theories. One was that Grace was trying to break links with the Order of the SolarTemple, a sinister Francophone cult with which she had become involved and this led to her death.
On August 31, 1997, there would be more conspiracy theories when another princess died. Also after a car crash. Also in France.
…But I’m stuck here gents, in the last Starbucks at the World’s End. I’m drinking hallucinogenic brandy in my cappuccino and lying in ambush to interview Slovakia’s richest man.
This is a very strange posting indeed.
The last thing I filed was a thousand words on Mr Cool’s Hotel of the Living Dead… and that was for the Christmas Day edition of the Slovak Spectator. I had three English-speaking readers.
Mr Cool’s hotel is one of the healthiest places on earth, actually. He built it over a thermal lake so that he’d never have to pay a heating bill again.
Then he put in a cryochamber. It’s just a big Frigidaire really. It makes a good story though - three little minutes of death on special offer all day, every day.
What a bleak place this is. What a way to sped Christmas. I haven’t spoken to a colleague since 2005.
(I became a spaced-out oddity in that year, you see. A mournful clock ticking around . I have to admit it, I was just about done in by a life-time of wine, women and bong…)
The only Pack I meet these days is the pack of wolves that gathers at the dustbins behind the 24hr Tesco in the foothills of the High Tatras. The ancient army of brown bears usually sees them off by daylight, though.
God, I’m bored. Just me, Starbucks, hallucinogenic brandy and the snow-capped mountains. The Devil’s icy breath comes down off them like bony ectoplasm at this time of year. It can be 35 below on a mild day. You have to wear goggles to go outside.
I’m too old for this, gents – twenty five years on the road for the Sun, People and Star have taken their toll. Then they post me out here!
It’s no use giving you my location. I really am out in the sticks this time. It’s the sort of place they send you when you can’t get up in the morning because of the booze. That used to be a tabloid problem, didn’t it?
Do you remember Jim Price and Batman?
Well, let’s go underground, into the murky world of the Crusader Club. Stairs black as ink, rubbery swing doors. And here we are. All four of us, at the beer-stained table on the left.
That’s me, Harry Pugh is next to me – he’s desperate to bask in the dubious glory of his centre spread ‘interview’ with the Pope. But tonight Jim and Batman are at the centre of our attention.
Jim’s family lives in North Wales while Jim lives, four nights a week, in a dingy bedsit in the toxic back streets of Cheetham Hill.
‘A pit in CoffinCity,’ Jim says with a woefully Welsh smile: ‘Cheap you see, twenty five pounds a week, cockroaches thrown in.’
Cockroaches, a shaving mirror, a bedside table, a Westclock alarm with bells, a three-bar electric fire and that was it.
Apart from Batman.
Tonight, Batman is standing unsteadily in the middle of our table. He’s got a bit of a wobble on. We ponder him soberly. Jim has patched him up with sticking plaster but his body is still split from crotch to eyeball.
‘I don’t know what to do, look at him… he’s become the Taped Crusader,’ Jim sighs and downs his umpteenth pint. He’s sweating heavily.
‘Move closer to town?’ Harry suggests.
‘It’s too cheap where I am,’ Jim sighs again.
‘Sleep in the office,’ I say. (That sounds like luxury. I left my first wife three days ago and I’m sleeping in my car at the back of the Cheshire Cheese.)
‘Security won’t let me.’
‘Then drink a bit less,’ Harry says forlornly and sinks a large one. He tries to change the subject again. ‘Now, when the Pope looked me straight in the eyes and said…’
‘I need a few drinks to go back to that shit pit four nights a week,’ Jim sighs a bit too heavily and a button fires off his shirt.
‘Oh, look at Batman… what’m I going to tell the boy?’ Jim moans as he throws back a chaser.
You see, on the day Jim moved to Manchester as a staff man for the Daily Star, his young son gave him Batman to protect him. A token of a young boy’s love for his Dad.
And now Batman is in a bad way. His Bat Ears are gone.
Blue stains of Inkies slide by, smoking big cigars. This influx indicates the first edition has parked and there is a mass exodus of van men up the stairs. The ground above us begins to vibrate as the trucks rattle into life.
The problem with Batman, you see, is that Jim loves it down here in The Crusader. We all do. It’s our world beneath the gutter. It’s a funny world and we stay ’til three, four, in the morning, every morning.
We step out into the inky streets as the sun comes up in a gas mask.
Most of us could get by on three or four hours kip in those days. But Jim needed ten.
There he is, sleeping, a great white walrus in Y-fronts. He whinnies and moans as grey slides in through the cracked window. The wallpaper is a mass of gossamer webs and the air teems with the dust of dead men.
The Westclock ticks. Batman straddles the bells, facing the window and surveying CoffinCity. The three bar electric fire below buzzes and fizzes like a neon sign in flames.
Jim’s bizarre morning ritual ticks ever closer. He turns in the graveyard of his dreams and lets out a long low moaning fart.
The minutes slip by – then its ! A new day! Birds twitter, a bronchitic lark spits, the alarm’s bells rattle hysterically.
Batman falls in a dying swan’s arc, swoops by the windows of the Art Deco city, drops until he hits the chrome wire of the safety guard like it’s a trampoline, flips twice and plummets on to the filament. Great globs of him immediately begin to drip into the reflector.
Now it’s up to Jim. He has less than a second. His great white walrus lurches upright and howls: ‘Nooooo!’
He flounders from the bed and flips Batman into the air. They lie next to each other on the stained carpet, closer to a real burn-out every morning. Jim is breathing hard.
He has 36 minutes to get to work. But he lies there and begins to drift off again…
…Oh, how I wish… I was there, back in Manchester. But you can’t keep wishing your life away can you?
Actually, if the truth is known things are a bit hush-hush out here right now. Revolution in the air - semaphore in the sky. You know the kind of thing.
Well, the cappuccino is doing its job… I guess I must be seeing things. It’s a night whiter than light out there. A million angels are coming down.
And then my target’s sedan comes out of nowhere, slow as an old black dog. His chauffer knows the way. They are heading for the steam at the end of the road.
Okay lads, sometimes it’s worth the wait. I put on my goggles and step out into the night. All of a sudden I know where my target is going...
Jock Johnson, the photographer in the Newcastle office of the Daily Express (with Reg. Butler) was a frightening figure to me as a skinny junior trainee in the Daily Mail office when first I saw him: He was wearing a British army gas cape, camouflaged, as he stepped out of his battered jalopy at the Central Station to meet a photog. from the News Chronicle who needed a lift to St James’s Park for the match.
‘Why is he wearing that cape?’ I asked the News Chron reporter (who was much admired by the other lads for his ability to leave a bar, run like mad to the dunnee, have a slash, and be back at the bar with his beer within 30 seconds, a world record.
‘In case he forgets it.’
‘Yes, but why does he need it? The sun is shining.’
‘Look, old lad, he’s going to the match. He’s probably had his usual five pints of draught Worthington and the only way he can have a slash in front of a 50,000 crowd is to don the cape and have a Jimmy riddle, OK?’
Later I heard a tale about Jock, which I recount here:
He had probably had a similar or greater intake of draft Worthington (what a wonderful beer it was!) and was driving home through a tremendous rainstorm one festive night, when he had a flat tyre. He was on Gateshead high street, a street with more pubs than any other in the UK, I had been told, and it was pitch dark. Jock staggered to the boot, opened it and fell over onto the cobbles. He dragged himself up and grappled with the spare wheel and fell over again. He got the jack, cranked up the car, fell over again, picked himself up, replaced the wheel, tightened the screws, staggered back to the boot with the flat and shoved it in and slammed the door.
Sopping wet, he was about to climb into the driver’s seat when two bobbies stepped out of a shop doorway.
‘You’re under arrest’ said one.
‘For what?’ asked Jock
‘Aahm nae drunk. Ye’ve just watched me change a wheel on my car.’
‘Yes, said the officer, ‘but you changed the wrong wheel... ’
I do believe I am about to write what may be the most beautiful sentence in the English language. And not merely beautiful, but also unique. The five words are ordinary enough in themselves. But they have never come together in this order before because the magic moment they capture has never happened before.
But first I’ll have to take you to Jimmy McGuinness’s pub in Monaghan. You’d never find it by yourself. It has no sign. It never had. For as long as anybody can remember the pub has preserved its discreet anonymity — just another house in a terrace in Mill Street.
But talk about character. For a start, it looked as if it hadn’t been dusted since Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. The first Elizabeth, that is. Half its space was taken up by six snugs, those dark little stalls which the Irish use for plotting, or for discussing birth control, or for pretending that they don’t frequent pubs.
Behind the bar old Jimmy reigned alone. He pretty well had to because, behind the bar, there wasn’t room for more than one pair of feet. The rest was taken up by bottles, emptied by dead generations, and by a heap of correspondence, some of it 40 years old, which had assumed the shape and proportions of a miniature landslide. All that was left for the customers, between snugs and bar, was a narrow, uncomfortable, stone-flagged passageway.
Any student of pubs will recognise at once that this combination of discomforts was bound to attract intelligent drinkers on the run from pressurised beers, plastic bartops, chrome fittings and TV. Add to this the fact that Jimmy was a notable stirrer of political argument, a tight-lipped confidant, a crusty friend, and an idiosyncratic barman, and you will see that this was a pub well above the ruck. The professional and business leaders of the town thought so, anyway. Into that narrow passage were crowded doctors and lawyers and civil servants and butchers — all drawn by the highly individualistic appeal of what a man likes to call ‘his’ pub.
Then the blow fell. Jimmy announced that he was going to retire. The death of a loved one apart, there are few crises in a man’s life comparable to the wretchedness of being faced with a new landlord. The old familiarity and ease, built up carefully over the years, dies before your eyes. The pub reverts to being a building again. The sense of loss is real and profound. No matter how pleasant, skilful and even ingratiating he may be, the new landlord holds such terrors that he can split an old-established pub clientele asunder, fragmenting their carefully constructed camaraderie, and forcing on them the dreadful necessity of working their way into other pubs.
In a pub like Jimmy’s the fear went especially deep. There was even some wild talk, quickly stifled, about giving up drinking. And then came the glorious idea, so simple and so flawless that they are laughing still in wonder at it. With one perfect stroke they banished the nightmare and made a drinking man’s dream come true.
You have been very patient. Here comes the sentence nobody has ever written before:
The customers bought the pub.
They should have set the words to a fanfare. They should put it on a flag or strike a gold medallion. They slapped each other on the back, and they bought the boozer.
They took a count of the firm regulars. And 26 of them chipped in and bought it. Twenty-six of the happiest landlords in the world. When they’re all in, the pub’s full. And when the till tinkles, 26 pairs of eyes flicker with delight. They have a barman who works for all 26 of them. The service is perfect. They have got a 21-year lease for a mere £2,100. Some bought a share for as little as £25. Some have £50 in it, some £100. The most anybody has invested is £150.
The world’s most democratic pub has been open a week and it’s doing great business. Most of it from its landlords.