We asked for only six words. Some sent eight, others submitted four. Clever stuff, almost all of them. Not, however, what was asked for. Four words is (are) two short. A rant, reminiscence, biog or story. And it’s biog, incidentally, not blog. With an eye, not an ell.
Journalists were never good at maths. Just look at their exes claims. Nevertheless, keep sending them in, please. And remember that there’s a prize.
Time for a rant. In these sorry, soulless times, when the hub has replaced the pub as the natural breeding ground for journalistic flair, what the hell is happening to reporters’ exes?
The recent swingeing clampdown at my old paper, the LondonEvening Standard, has hurt both pockets and morale. Incredibly, the penny-pinching killjoys have issued an edict banning journalists from entertaining contacts unless they can prove stories have been generated by the meal.
Each claim, to a paltry new ceiling of £50, must be accompanied not only by a genuine bill, but also by a credit card slip. And forget travelling with your contact in comfort. Taxis can now be used only in ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Most depressing of all, however, is the line in the leaked memo warning thirstier reporters that ‘a claim for more than a few drinks must be cleared with the head of department in advance’.
Can this really be the same great newspaper that once heaped rich rewards on its staff in the field and in so doing encouraged excellence, enthusiasm and loyalty?
The Standard’s most splendid gesture as far as I was concerned was when I was covering a lengthy siege at Algiers airport, following the hi-jacking of a Kuwaiti airliner. Having rushed from the top bar of the Harrow – minus overnight bag – two days before, I was sleeping rough under a hedge in blazer and slacks, being eaten alive by huge red ants and begging for scraps from the adjoining BBC tent pitched by the runway.
Then it came. Not quite manna from heaven, but close. News editor Philip Evans, with typical panache, responded to my pleas for assistance by flying out a Fortnum and Mason wicker hamper stuffed to the brim with elegant goodies.
Stem ginger in syrup: a jar of Australian honey; baby tuna in virgin oil; a caddy of Darjeeling tea; a china jar of Gentleman’s Relish; a jar of fruits of the forest; a tin of oyster soup; 1lb of Belgian chocolates; lemon curd…
BBC Radio’s Joe Paley, self-appointed head chef, was delighted when I handed most of the posh grub over to him to supplement our shared rations of space age instant food sent out from Bush House. Being a typical Scot, though, I wasn’t about to relinquish the tartan box of shortbread.
An attractive American reporter said she was prepared to do absolutely anything for the baby tuna, but that’s another story.
The real Robinson Crusoe of the British pack, IRN's John Cookson, who refused to leave his post even for a bath, gratefully guzzled the delicate cheese crackers.
The only real disappointment was that there was no booze in the hamper (required for strictly medicinal purposes, naturally) and, being Ramadan, you couldn’t get a drop of the hard stuff anywhere on the airport.
It really was my week. While still awaiting the next London flight with my main living essentials, the wonderfully talented and scented BBC reporter Triona Holden pulled out for a fresh assignment and lent me her cute, mauve sleeping bag.
Ian Skidmore's story of his Resistance-trained Belgian minder reminded me of my times with News of the World photographer Boyd Milligan.
It's the tenth anniversary of Boyd's death this month.
Despite a lifetime's assault on his own liver, he died of a heart attack aged 54. We met when he was a staff reporter at the Daily Sketch and I was doing a series of Sunday casual shifts in addition to my full-time job as court reporter and sports writer for the Stewart and Hartley freelance agency in Manchester.
Milligan had been nicknamed ‘Hooligan’ by Sketch news editor Mike Kiddey, and the nickname stuck for much of his subsequent career.
In 1971 the Sketch folded just as I started work as a general news reporter at the News of the World in Manchester. A few months after I joined, northern news editor Ollie Bachelor was looking for a second photographer to assist Ian Bradley.
As Boyd had been kind enough to show me round the Sketch office pubs – The Rising Sun, The Nag's Head, The Grapes and The Queens Club – during my shifts there, I put his name forward.
After a year of regular casual work, Boyd was taken on the staff and we became a News of the World double act. He had a huge sense of fun, which led us into various scrapes over the next 25 years.
Because Boyd had worked on the nationals before me and was two years older, I accepted his instructions that my job was to lure into vulnerable positions people whose photos needed to be ‘snatched’ by him.
So it was that after doorstep interviews, I had to ask directions of the interviewees so they would step out of the shadows and point from their garden gates. Boyd would be lurking behind trees and lampposts – a feat that became more difficult over the years as good northern beer changed his lean and hungry look into a Falstaffian figure.
When we were exposing hardened villains, my secondary job was to prevent them catching Boyd before he could escape while carrying an amazing array of equipment in both hands and dangling round his neck.
‘Cover me till I get to the car,’ he would say. This would involve me in a series of blocking tactics until Boyd was able to jump into his vehicle and accelerate away to the sound of screeching tyres and the smell of burning rubber.
The downside of this arrangement was that I was left on the pavement with the angry villain, using whatever charm I could muster to prevent him from trying to kill me.
Clearly I have survived to tell the tale, but we had our moments. On one occasion we were in my car, a soft-top Triumph Spitfire, when we wanted a photo of a crazy North-East farmer who would rent his cottage to couples only if they agreed not to have sex in it.
I managed to confirm the story in an extremely brief phone call, but we needed a photo of the farmer. We found him in a field, looking like Wurzel Gummidge.
His trousers, tucked into wellies, were held up with string. He had a brimless trilby on his head and was carrying a pitchfork.
My orders from Boyd were to keep the car engine running while he got out and took the photo. Because the farmer had his back to the country lane where I had stopped, Boyd called out his name. The farmer turned round and Boyd banged off a picture.
He then clambered into the car with his equipment, hotly pursued by the farmer. He was just lunging downwards with his pitchfork when I sped away, clipping a boulder. When I stopped half a mile down the lane to examine the damage caused to my front wing by the rock, I also saw two holes in the boot caused by the pitchfork.
On another occasion we were exposing a GP who had placed a series of adverts for housekeepers, but wanted sex thrown in as well. Four women had come forward to tell their stories, some of them too sordid to describe in a family website.
It only remained to get a comment from the dirty doc and snatch a photo. As ever Boyd was hiding with a long-range camera when I knocked on the GP’s door.
After rattling off some long-range shots, Boyd became emboldened by the diminutive stature of his target – little more than 5 feet tall – and left his hiding place to get some close-ups. The horrified doctor broke off from defending himself to me and shouted at Boyd to stop taking photos.
Then he launched himself at Boyd who was by now only a few feet away from him, snapping away. I caught the GP in midair, at which point Boyd said: ‘Hold him there, Harty. That's great. I'll just get one more.’
The doctor, meanwhile, looked as if he was being given swimming lessons by me. He was parallel to the ground; his hands were flailing towards Boyd; his feet were doing a sort of doggy paddle.
Then the GP looked up at me and said: ‘Put me down or I'll call the police.’
I placed him gently on the pavement and Boyd, who had got all the shots he needed, wagged a finger at the doc and said: ‘Don't you dare threaten my reporter. He's a Black Dan in Foo Yung.’
But my favourite memory of Boyd was for a quip he made in the early 70s when we were pursuing soccer legend George Best. He was holed up in his digs in Chorlton, Manchester, owned by landlady Mary Fullaway.
George had skipped training once again to go out on the tiles with what was known in those days as a dolly bird. A pack of reporters and photographers assembled outside the humble house where the world's most famous footballer lived in those days.
Among them was Daily Mirror reporter Denzil Sullivan.
As we hung around, Denzil spotted a dog sitting on the pavement, licking its balls. Denzil pointed it out and said to Boyd and me with a lascivious leer: ‘I wish I could do that.’
Boyd retorted without hesitation: ‘Well if you give him a biscuit, Denzil, he might let you.’
·Alan Hart was a reporter on the Sale and Stretford Guardian (1962-66), the Oldham Evening Chronicle (1966-67), Stewart and Hartley Freelance Agency, Manchester (1967-71) and the News of the World, Manchester (1971-2000). He now works for the nationals as a freelance travel writer.
There’s always been great defining moments in the life of Fleet Street photographers and for Bunny Atkins of the Daily Mirror it came one Christmas during the pantomime season at the London Palladium.
Bunny brought the house down at a photocall for the famous Palladium panto which was the big one for London’s theatre goers in the seventies.
All the papers were there and the star-studded cast duly lined up on stage for the grand finale photo op. The star that particular year was Engelbert Humperdinck, who was probably not the most popular of leading men with the rest of the cast.
Atkins, along with the other snappers, took the group photograph and then whipped out his notebook for captions.
Starting at the left he dutifully recorded the stars’ names for the Mirror and then came to Engelbert.
‘Name?’ said Bunny, head buried in his notebook.
‘Don’t you know who I am?’ said the egotistical star.
‘Look son, I don’t have time to play guessing games, what’s your name’, said Bunny with a straight face.
Humperdinck glared and the rest of the cast began to snigger.
‘I’m Engelbert Humperdinck,’ he declared.
‘How do you spell that? Came back Atkins.
‘Er…’ there was an excruciating silence broken only by the rest of the cast who by now were falling about laughing.
‘Come on son, it’s your name, how do you spell it?’ persisted a straight faced Bunny.
He could not spell it. He could probably manage Gerry Dorsey, his real name, but Humperdinck was beyond him.
By now the tears of laughter were streaming, not only from the cast, but from assembled snappers.
I can’t remember when I last heard the word lineage but a quarter of a century ago it used to occupy my every waking hour.
In those days as a cub reporter on the Morecambe Visitor it meant the difference between existing on the pittance of a weekly newspaper wage or selling enough stories to the nationals to be able to go drinking every night of the week.
And if the stories weren’t there to sell then you had to make them up yourself – provided there was the merest hint of a scintilla of truth behind them.
And when I found myself in times of trouble – you’ve got to remember that even then Morecambe was the dullest place on the planet including Barrow-in-Furness – ‘Father Alf’ used to come to me.
Alf Gower-Jones was actually a reverend in his seventies and living in a home for retired clergymen. He was a remarkable man who had been crippled by polio as a child but who had dispensed love and devotion to the faithful all his life and now devoted his energies to sending terminally-ill children to Lourdes in specially-equipped ambulances.
But Alf also had a devilish side to his nature, forever tilting against authority and causing considerable embarrassment to his brother who was also a clergyman but more importantly a Bishop.
Alf and I had a pact – whatever wheeze we could come up with to sell a story to the nationals I would keep half the money and the rest would go to his charity ambulances.
Well, we had the occasional tickle over the months until one winter’s evening when I gave Alf my usual weekly call and he sounded a bit low over the phone.
So I picked up a bottle of Scotch – Alf liked a drink as well – and 20 minutes later we’d opened the bottle and Alf told me why he was so low.
The doctors had given him only weeks to live but what was depressing him even more was the thought of his brother giving the eulogy at his funeral service.
‘You see, Ken,’ he said, pouring himself another large one,‘my brother preaches a crap sermon at the best of times.’
We lapsed into silence for a while as I struggled to think of a way of cheering him up.
As I looked round his small but homely room I glanced upon a shiny new video player next to his battered old TV and remarked on it, as VCR technology was only in its infancy in those days.
‘Yes, it was a birthday present from my brother the Bishop,’ he said.
At that – almost like a Tom and Jerry cartoon – a row of ??? signs lit up in my eyes as I told him of my idea.
I can still hear the helpless laughter and see the tears in his eyes as he agreed to my plan.
And so it was that in the Sunday People the following weekend an entire inside spread featured the Reverend Alf Gower-Jones and how he had recorded the sermon that he wished to be played on video at his forthcoming funeral because his brother, the Bishop, was a crap preacher.
Of course we hadn’t recorded a thing – neither of us had even seen a video camera in our lives.
But there was the merest hint of a scintilla of a shred of truth behind the story – his brother really was a crap preacher.
I know because Alf told me – or at least I think he did.
In the late sixties, Manchester was awash with great newspapermen, editorial offices and print works that quite correctly earned our city the title of Fleet Street of the North. Some argued that we regularly inked our way through a mile or two more newsprint than our London brethren ever did, although I have never seen the evidence for this.
However, apart from a specialist court reporting agency it didn’t have a news freelance operating in the city centre.
Manchester News Service had a nice ring to it and I was just the man – sorry, boy – to teach them all about bell ringing and the ropes to pull them.
I even had the temerity to set up an office in Thomson House, along with the Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, Sporting Life, Sunday Mirror and the News of the World.
I might even have got away it, if I hadn’t made the mistake of considering squatters’ rights in the Swan With Two Necks was all part of the rental package.
Now I will not have a word said against my old pal Leo White, long serving news editor of Daily Mirror or his gruff side-kick and deputy, Mike Gagie…
There are a couple of reasons that immediately spring to mind.
Firstly, Leo is very big and lives only 300 yards away from me, and Mike rules with a rod of iron – and possibly with a Webley Service Revolver – at my local ex-servicemen’s drinking club just up the road.
Quite wisely in retrospect, the Mirror Group never once by-lined Mike as their Diplomatic Correspondent. A few years back, he ordained that women should be banned from the ex-servicemen’s club on Remembrance Day. (He reckoned there wouldn’t be enough room for real soldiers to take refreshment.)
But it is fair to say that both were totally perplexed when I announced I would be freelancing in the very city they considered their patch.
When I started propping up the bar of the Swan With Two Necks, the sacred fount of all newspaper knowledge, they became anxious.
And when I dropped into conversation my rental of an office just one floor below their newsdesk, you would have thought the KGB had suddenly taken up some vacant space at Cambridge Circus.
Now I am not making any accusations. Neither is it my intention to offer even a suggestion that might be misinterpreted. But suddenly the landlords were asking all sorts of strange questions about the type of business I intended to operate, the office hours I kept, and going through my lease agreement with a fine-tooth comb.
What the ‘alleged’ opposition did not know, was office space in Thomson House and its adjoining Chronicle Buildings was actually the cheapest in town.
The landlords suddenly found me somewhere even cheaper and in a totally uncharacteristic act of kindness offered to help me move my bags and telephones if I would take up their offer.
I stayed put. I had Thomson House, Withy Grove, Manchester, on my notepaper and, very much on the cheap, a newspaper address to die for.
My first offering to the nationals was a little six par Sunday for Monday piece about a Manchester MP who, given his specialist interest in government aviation matters, had gained a private pilot license to underpin his authority.
To my delight Neville Stack gave me a front page piece in the old Sun, and the story was printed near enough word for word in the Mail, Sketch, Express, Telegraph, Times and Guardian. Ken Donlan rang from the Mail to wish me well, and the story made a few lines on the local BBC news. Even PA sent me a few bob…
But at the Mirror? It remained profoundly silent on the matter of my MP with wings.
I was a cuckoo in the Daily Mirror nest and it was some weeks before they finally allowed Manchester News Service to fully fledge.
Last week’s splash photo, from the Daily Express, above copy by Desmond Hackett, was taken by young Gordon Amory – and we would have credited it, had we realised that.
These photos. Below, were retrieved from the archives of Phil Spencer, from the Daily Mirror “Yorkshire office”.
Mirrorman Frank Taylor, Henry Rose, George Follows, Matt Busby and Tom Jackson in Nice, 1957.
Frank recovering in hospital, with wife Peggy.
Frank back at work after the 1958 air crash, with Man City payer Ken Barnes.
In the gutter
From Jeff Connor
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