The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times, August 2007
March 21, 2008
We have scoops about scoops today: how we made them. At last it can be told.
Geoffrey Seed recalls the scoop splash spy story for a monthly community newspaper (circulation 1,300) that dragged in the heavy mob from The Street for a Chapman Pincher follow-up.
Stanley Blenkinsop, who was northern news editor from1969-86, reveals how the once World’s-Greatest scooped the planet (and discomfited the Russkies during the cold war) by intercepting the first pictures transmitted from the moon.
Stan’s long-time and long-suffering photographic colleague Gordon Amory found a convicted murderer strolling the streets while allegedly still in jail. [And it’s always good to see the old team appearing in the same day’s publication.]
Liz Hodgkinson tells how watching the ads on TV turned into a splash that created a fashion, and introduced a new drink.
Talking of drink, Stewart Payne is helping organise a memorial wake in the Top Harrow to celebrate the largely liquid life of Mike McDonough, and Ken Bennett, this year’s president of what used to be Liverpool Press Club, serves notice of a Christmas lunch, to be held in November.
Must be planning a long lunch, then.
Which reminds Revel Barker that he appeared to be the only person to remember that everybody was supposed to be on the piss yesterday… and prompts Colin Dunne to remember the pranks he used to get up to, especially after drink had been taken.
Meanwhile, information you need to know: the lowest price we have seen quoted for Ian Skidmore’s rollicking new book, Forgive Us Our Press Passes, was at BookDepository – which you have to access via the amazon.co.uk site (don’t ask me why, it doesn’t seem to work, otherwise). Anyway, it is offered at ₤6.53 plus postage, as a special reduction from ₤9.95.
Yesterday – and there’s a fiver here says that you forgot it – was Wayzgoose. I didn’t forget it, so please excuse the shaky writing.
Time was when everybody in The Street, and on provincial mornings and weeklies (but not the poor bloody infantry on the evenings, who would have to wait a whole day) would have been aware and, likely, out celebrating.
It was the one guaranteed day off in the year, all down to a tradition dating from – oh, I don’t know, since time immoral.
It was the day that everybody in The Print took off.
The Queen called it Maundy Thursday and distributed money to the public; the lads called it Wayzgoose and distributed money to the publicans.
To the seaside, they went, in hired charas, or out into the country in search of pubs beyond the ken of licensing authorities.
We went on a mystery tour sometimes and somebody had the bright idea that we’d all guess our ultimate destination, and write it on a pound note that we’d put in hat. My guesses were usually quite close, but the bus driver won it, two years running, so we stopped letting him play after that.
Trust me: there’s a boatman where I live who advertises ‘Mystery trips to the Blue Lagoon’.
The secret (not about the bus driver – we never solved that one – but about the day off) was that Wayzgoose was the day before Good Friday which was a non-printing day.
We needed nominal cover in the office and the Daily Mirror wisely employed its own rabbi in the newsroom, for the same reason that it employed Jocks so that the natives could be off at Christmas in return for allowing the Scots time off to celebrate their own pagan festival the following week.
So, you are wondering, why Wayzgoose.
I’m glad you asked, because nobody knows.
The best sources say origin obscure, or even origin unknown.
Certainly by the 17th century the master printer – usually the owner, of course – in a print shop would treat his staff to an annual dinner on August 24, which was seen as the day when summer stopped and the nights started drawing in. The date also marked the issuing of candles for late-afternoon working (although no connection between goose and candle has actually been established).
The date was later switched to Maundy Thursday because, there being no publishing on Good Friday, it was a guaranteed day off (the only other one being Christmas Eve) for everybody in the print.
Because it was now a full day, it came to involve an excursion, usually a trip to the seaside, or to a country pub.
Of course, Murdoch and Maxwell then abolished Good Friday.
But it is as good an excuse for a piss-up as any.
And one that should be perpetuated, I think. If for no other reason than that it is such a wonderful word.
Maybe we should restore it by organising an outing incorporating a pub crawl, but instead of going out of Fleet Street, go back into it for an afternoon.
It’s a year away. I know that, nowadays, it takes time to plan things.
Some stories take an age to winkle out; others walk into your kitchen, put the kettle on and tuck into the Hobnobs.
So it was with a tale of Russian agents on a secret Cold War mission to a remote Welsh valley near where I lived.
My source – a disgruntled local Bobby.
His allegation – dark deeds at night, worthy of a le Carre thriller.
Outcome – an exclusive for the Tanat Chronicle.
The Tanat Chronicle, a community newspaper then selling 1,300 copies a month in the serenely beautiful Powys-Shropshire borders around the village of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant.
Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant… the place where Hugh Grant filmed The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill And Came Down A Mountain.
The story starts in June 1980 when hill farmer Goronwy Morris of that parish ploughed up a strange radio transmitter buried in a waterproof bag with microfilm instructions in English on how to use it.
It looked like a portable typewriter in a metal box but with 40 pre-set frequency plugs and an ultra high-speed facility to send coded messages via perforated paper tapes.
‘A spy radio,’ said the local farmers’ union man.
‘Of foreign origin,’ wrote Willie Whitelaw, Home Secretary.
‘Fishy,’ declared Goronwy’s MP.
TV news crews were despatched and Fleet Street went big on theories of Soviet invasion plans and underground sleepers. But the story soon ran out of legs.
Then Harry ‘Chapman’ Pincher published Their Trade is Treachery in March 1981 and wrote: ‘Anyone (doubting) the KGB is still active should appreciate the true explanation of the Russian transmitting set found buried on a Welsh farm… almost certainly (it) belonged to an English subversion unit recruited by the KGB for sabotage action.’
By coincidence, it was in that same month that an aging constable slogged up the rutted, stream-bed of a lane to our mountainside cottage to check my suitability for a shotgun licence.
I was away but my pregnant spouse – ex drama researcher Ann de Stratford – took pity on him and he was invited in from the cold. Much tea and many biscuits followed. Legs were stretched by the kitchen fire; tunic buttons undone, ties loosened… and tongues, too.
My wife, who’d researched Granada TV’s Brideshead Revisited, knew the value of just listening. So the officer, miffed at getting little or no credit for his detective work on the spy radio affair, gave her the inside track… which she passed onto me.
Exactly ten years before, the Soviet Embassy had telephoned the Wynnstay Hotel in Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant to book rooms for a ‘trade delegation’.
Four men, a woman and a five-year-old boy duly arrived on February 27 in a large black limo.
After dinner that night, three of them drove off carrying several large boxes. Within two hours, they were back in the lounge – playing chess.
The leader, who’d refused to sign the hotel register, wouldn’t let the others attend the Welsh singing in the bar though the female obviously wanted to. Next morning, the Russians paid in cash and left.
The constable said he’d told his bosses about these mysterious goings-on but felt they’d ignored him.
To stand up his allegations, I found and photocopied the hotel’s guest book. And there were the names of the four Russians who’d signed in – Kolushenko, Bourinov and a couple called Savronov.
Further checks showed them among the 105 Soviet Embassy staffers deported from London later in 1971 for ‘unacceptable activities’ – Whitehall code for spying.
My story wrote itself and was the memorable splash in Issue 16 of the Tanat Chronicle under the banner headline: RED SPIES AT NIGHT.
Out came Fleet Street’s finest to follow up. The Guardian made it a page lead. No one gave any credit to the Tanat Chronicle, of course.
Still, acclaim comes in many guises.
The paper’s current editor, broadcaster and Oldie agony aunt Mavis Nicholson, has just discovered that the Aga cooker company’s latest advertising campaign features heiress and super-model Jasmine Guinness, reading the Chronicle in a photograph taken by Sir Paul McCartney’s daughter, Mary.
But that’s an everyday story of newsy Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant for you…
It was the day that the Manchester office of the Daily Express scooped the world after breaking through the Iron Curtain.
An unmanned Russian spacecraft had landed undamaged on the moon and was sending home radio signals to the Soviet Union in March 1966.
Space scientists at Cheshire’s Jodrell Bank radio telescope – now threatened with closure – picked up the intermittent bleeps that were re-broadcast by the BBC eavesdropping on the Russian signals.
Twenty miles from Jodrell Bank the photo-telegraphy staff in the black glass palace in Great Ancoats Street heard the intermittent bleeps on the news bulletins. And suddenly a technician realised they had one of the very few machines in the United Kingdom that might be capable of translating the sounds into black and white pictures.
Night news editor Brian Stringer rang Jodrell Bank and offered the necessary equipment and the Express telegraphy experts to operate it -- on condition that the pictures should be exclusive to the then World’s Greatest Newspaper (circulation at the time:4,300,000).
In the Express night log the late Brian, who masterminded the operation, wrote: ‘There is only a very outside chance we will succeed in turning the sounds into pix but we MUST try!’
At first Jodrell Bank agreed to the deal with the DE. Then the Jodrell director Bernard Lovell (later knighted for his part in the Space Race and 95 this year) decided that even pictures obtained with Express aid must be circulated free – and freely – to media throughout the world beyond the then Iron Curtain.
Reluctantly the Express agreed – and because of Ancoats expertise the world saw the surface of the moon in close-up for the first time. Several rival newspapers and TV channels at home and abroad were even courteous enough to credit the Express with the pictures.
But the scoop enraged Russia. There were diplomatic protests to London as Moscow had planned to use the pictures in an elaborately-orchestrated world wide publicity campaign extolling the great scientific skills of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin was staggered at being outwitted by Ancoats – but alcohol flowed freely as the celebrations erupted in Yates’s and the Crown and Kettle.
Until the closure of the Express Ancoats office 12 years ago a huge framed close up of the moon’s surface had pride of place in the editor’s office. And in the transmission department a commemorative plaque was fixed to the machine that had produced the picture.
Sir Max Aitken, then chairman of the Express group, wrote to Ancoats: ‘It gives me the greatest joy to see the proficiency, energy and enthusiasm of Manchester pushing through to the top.’
Seven years ago I was taken round the then derelict debris-strewn office -- now a glittering block of flats, some with luxurious roof gardens and costing up to a million pounds each.
No sign, though, on my farewell visit of that historic moon picture in the dust and desolation of the editor’s old office – and no trace either of that wire machine with its brass plaque recording possibly the greatest Ancoats triumph of them all…
And is Jodrell Bank, now seriously threatened by budget cuts, doomed too? Over half a century it produced many first rate stories covered by some of the 1,200 or so journalists in the Manchester offices of the nationals. Today I doubt very much if the few surviving remnants of the ‘other Fleet Street’ employ more than 30 on their entire North of England payroll.
The 1947 ‘body through the porthole murder’ was one of many post-war crime stories that fascinated me for years when I was on a local evening and then later when I became a staff photographer on the Daily Express.
Glamorous blonde Gay Gibson, cabaret singer aboard the luxury liner DurbanCastle was strangled by ship’s steward James Camb who then disposed of her body in the South Atlantic.
It was the first murder trial without a body for thirteen years and it coincided with the Commons deciding to suspend the death sentence experimentally for five years.
So Camb avoided the hangman’s noose – before it was restored by the Lords who countermanded the lower house decision. But by then Camb had been sentenced to life imprisonment which could not be rescinded.
After ten years he was released on licence from Wakefield Jail. At the same time atom spy Klaus Fuchs was expected to be freed from the same prison.
I was sent by the Express to identify suitable vantage points and make contacts to cover Fuchs release. In Wakefield pubs I sought out prisoners on parole from the jail to ask what they knew of Fuchs’s likely movements.
I made friends with a seedy little man, a former inmate, who seemed to know everyone and everything about anyone in the local prison. He made my blood curdle every time I was in his company but I would go into the local pubs and roam the streets in my car at night with him as a passenger pointing out various prisoners on parole. We passed a very smart man walking through the main street – ‘He’s one of ours,’ he said. ‘That’s Jimmy Camb.’ Surprisingly he seemed to know nothing about Camb, but I did.
These were the days before long lens and any picture taken to show any detail taken on the Rollieflex, our favourite camera at the time, hadn’t to be any further away than five yards or seven at the most. I stalked Camb but could never get near enough for a decent picture and I couldn’t trust the slimy little ex-con to drive my car, so with a pistol grip attached to the camera, I drove as close as I dare and got a picture with a policeman looking into a shop window, then as he walked along the street – he paused in a shop doorway and I got another one… full face, much better.
Mission accomplished, so I was a bit more daring as I brushed past Camb having a drink in a pub: ‘I’ll kill you when I get out, you bastard’ he said. Camb was finally freed on licence in 1959 but was arrested and imprisoned some years later after sexual assaults on schoolgirls to complete the rest of his life sentence. He died in 1979 not long after being released for a second time. So I lived on!
Changing times. When the picture was used as a PhotoNews with the headline: ‘A murderer stalks the High Street’ his face had been blacked out, no doubt so he couldn’t be identified – what a daft decision.
It was the dream and ambition of most reporters to get the splash – the lead story on the front page, and the most important story in the paper that week.
As time went by it began to look as though I probably never would have one. I was grandly titled consumer correspondent, but these stories rarely lent themselves to the drama and huge headlines of a tabloid splash. Sensational exclusive revelations were the subject of splashes, not outrages over the price of supermarket bleach.
Most of the time it didn’t bother me that much. Splashes were usually forgotten by lunchtime, I told myself, whereas a good consumer story could make a lasting impact.
But one night I was idly sitting with my then husband Neville watching television. When the ads came on an American-style thirties barman was polishing glasses and saying to a customer: ‘Harvey Wallbanger? White Lady? Slow Screw against the Wall?’ The customer, however, resisted all the invitations to have an exotic cocktail, and asked instead for the simple lager or beer that was the subject of this very elaborate and expensive commercial.
I had never heard of any of these cocktails, nor had Nev, so the next day at work I asked my colleagues whether they knew what a Harvey Wallbanger was. None had any idea; they had never heard of such a drink. On a hunch, I rang a few hotel bars and they said that since the ad had appeared, people were coming in asking for Harvey Wallbangers and White Ladies. Previously, they’d had no such requests, but now they were inundated. Many barmen said they’d never previously heard of these drinks either and that in any case cocktails were no longer very popular. This ad looked like changing all that.
What about the lager that was the actual subject of the ad? No; nobody was asking for that. In fact, none of the barmen I contacted could even remember which lager was being advertised. All that stuck were the unusual names of the cocktails.
Aha! Of such trifles light as air are the best newspaper stories often made. I wrote a memo for conference, and handed it to the newsdesk secretary, Beryl. She said she’d also seen the ad, and had wondered what a Harvey Wallbanger could be. The newdesk were also intrigued, and added it to the schedule of stories for the week.
After conference, Ernie Burrington, the deputy editor, said: ‘I like that Harvey Wallbanger idea, we could go big on it. So, could you find out how the name originated, how popular this cocktail is in America, contact the ad agency, and see how easy it is to get a Harvey Wallbanger in this country. We could even herald the return of the cocktail. Get the recipe for the Harvey Wallbanger as well, and we’ll take it from there.’
I amassed a large amount of information about Harvey Wallbangers, and became an instant expert, the way one often does as a journalist, and now had enough detail, or at least, as much as I would ever have, to write it up.
It was all, at least for us, a glamorous and upbeat story. The news point of the story was that, since the ad had appeared on television, sales of vodka had rocketed and sales of its vital ingredient Galliano, which previously had been little-known in the UK, were going through the roof as well.
Only the lager, which was what was actually being advertised, was refusing to budge.
The upshot was that the lager company, which had spent thousands of pounds, probably hundreds of thousands, on the ad, was in effect, promoting other drinks. They had spent a king’s ransom advertising something other than their own product.
It was this fact that gave my story its special twist and, as it happened, catapulted it out of the inside pages and onto the front page where it became that week’s splash, driving all the heavier stories inside the paper. The headline was: EXCLUSIVE: THE AD THAT PROMOTES RIVAL DRINKS.
If I had underestimated the pride and pleasure that getting the splash brings, I certainly understood it now. It made me feel like a real journalist at last, as if I had finally won my spurs in the competitive, cut-throat world of national newspaper journalism. And it was all so effortless, in the end. The story practically wrote itself. On every level, it was a winner.
Several people, including my mother, rang to congratulate me on the story. I was also pleased that, for once, my big story did not involve doing other people down in any way – apart from, perhaps, the ad agency which had dreamed up the unfortunate commercial. But they were big enough to take it. In any case, the facts spoke for themselves and could not be denied.
For me, getting such a nice story meant that I wouldn’t have to have palpitations all Monday, and go into the office on Tuesday with heart pounding, pulse racing, wondering what horrors in the form of comebacks from aggrieved parties awaited me.
By Tuesday, most of the daily papers had followed up the story, although they had little to add to it, really. But all wanted to get in on the act. The very name Harvey Wallbanger, familiar enough now, but unknown then, was striking enough to want to do a story around.
When I got into work on Tuesday morning another nice thing awaited me: there was a case of vodka and a case of long, slim yellow Galliano bottles with my name on, sent by grateful manufacturers. All my colleagues were congratulatory, too.
‘We must have a drink to celebrate,’ said Eric Leggett, as we passed each other in the corridor .’I knew you weren’t as dim as they made out. They said you weren’t up to the job, but I knew different. See you in The Stab at lunch time?’
‘Thanks for those few kind words, Eric. And yes, I’d love to.‘
We got there at about half-past twelve, giving ourselves special dispensation from our (often broken) rule of .
‘What are you having?’ Eric asked, and added, in his best American drawl: ‘Harvey Wallbanger? White Lady? Do you fancy a Slow Screw Against the Wall…?’
I usually had half of lager or a glass of house wine in the pub. But this time I felt I could really push the boat out. It was unlikely that the Stab could do any of those cocktails I had introduced into newsprint so recently, but I entered into the spirit of things when I asked for a whisky, a beverage I rarely drank, especially at lunchtime. And I told the barman: ‘Make mine a double.’
The barman poured out the whisky, and then held up the soda siphon.
The Top Bar Of The Harrow…! It deserves the capitals, and the explanation mark.
Alan Dove behind the bar. And Mike McDonough in front of it.
Just as he is here, (bottom right) with expansive gesture, in trademark pinstripe suit, at yet another Evening News gathering in its favourite Fleet Street watering hole. Among faces we can just about recognise are Percy Trumble, Jim Watson, David Stevens, Peter O’Kill, Tony Weaver, Laurence Cottrell, Dave Theobald, Peter Dobbie, Cyril Ling, John McShane, Ken Parrish, Hugh Whittow, Stewart Payne, Guy Simpson. Helen Minsky, Jimmy Gilheaney and Tom Roche.
The picture was taken in about 1978 although I cannot remember the occasion. There were so many.
There is to be another. Friends and colleagues of Mike are invited to assemble in the top bar of the Harrow for a gathering in his memory on Tuesday April 29, from onwards.
His daughter Cathy, who is arranging the evening, is well aware of the irony of the location. It was often her father’s undoing. Mike was not only a superb reporter but he was also a big drinker, always entertaining but with a self-destructive streak.
After two spells on Fleet Street, working on the Evening Standard, Evening News, Sun and Daily Mail, and with a stint on the National Enquirer in between, Mike went to Miami in the early 1980s and became a successful freelancer. He also put his drinking days behind him.
Mike died in November last year, aged 71, a month after he was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer.
Contributors to Gentlemen Ranters have already expressed their fondness and admiration for Mike, but, as his funeral was held in the US, Cathy contacted me to ask if she should arrange an opportunity for his former Fleet Street colleagues to meet in his memory. It seemed an excellent idea. A full-scale St Bride’s memorial was beyond her reach, so we have settled on a gathering at the Harrow.
I first met Mike when I joined the Evening News in 1977. I was new to Fleet Street and Mike was a great help professionally as well as entertaining company.
By the time the News folded in 1980 I had moved upstairs to the Mail, where Mike was given shifts, usually starting at . I knew Mike’s drinking habits and I also knew that Ron Birch, on the desk, had it in for him.
On a number of occasions, with Mike’s jacket draped over his chair, but no Mike to be seen, I went in search of him in the Mucky Duck to tip him off that the news desk was looking for him.
At this time I was renting a flat in the same house as Tim Miles. When Tim moved out to marry Wendy Henry Mike asked me if his daughter, training to be an actress, could move in. She did, and I have remained friends with her ever since, hence her approaching me to help arrange the get-together.
After eight years on the Mail I joined Today at launch, followed by the Evening Standard and then the Daily Telegraph.
It was while I was on the Standard that I had an opportunity to experience, yet again, Mike’s kindness and professionalism.
There had been a coup in Trinidad. Not much interest in the UK. At morning conference the editor, John Leese, asked who had been sent to cover it. ‘Er, Payne is on his way,’ said Philip Evans, the news editor, before slipping out to tell me to get to Heathrow asap.
I had no problems getting to Barbados but airline flights into Port of Spain had been cancelled because of the unrest. Mike, from his Miami base, was already there, freelancing for the UK nationals. By the time I managed to hire a plane the coup was several days old and I was in danger of missing it.
I arrived in Port of Spain and Mike, who I had been speaking to on the phone, was there to meet me.
‘Just in time’, he said. ‘Things are reaching a conclusion and I have a bird’s eye view of it all.’
As he gave me a comprehensive fill-in, he took me to an evacuated office block overlooking the government building where the rebels were about to surrender. Mike had paid a janitor for exclusive access to the building and, in my predicament, was prepared to share it with me. He even had use of the phone nearest the window and it was from there I filed my first-hand account of the surrender.
Mike was a great mate and I know that this story is just one of hundreds that people could tell about his professionalism and his generosity.
Cathy and I trawled Mike’s old Fleet Street haunts to find a location for the memorial gathering. The Mucky Duck is now a sandwich bar and the Witness Box will close later this year (the building is to be demolished).
The Harrow is now a Fuller’s pub. The back bar is still called the Vincent Mulchrone bar and the upstairs bar is now a restaurant.
But it is closed in the evenings and the landlord is happy for us to assemble there. Cathy and her family hope that many old colleagues will come along and share their stories and maybe bring any photographs they have of Mike. Perhaps someone would like to make a speech?
Cathy knows a lot about her father’s exploits and is not looking for a sanitised version of his career.
To help with numbers, and to plan light refreshments, please contact me if you are able to come. I can be reached on 07831 393561 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Calling all scousers – or any journo who has worked in Liverpool and has fond memories of the characters in this vibrant city by the sea!
In addition to celebrating Europe's Capital of Culture this year, Liverpool Press Club is 125 years old. And to that end we are hosting a special birthday lunch on Friday, November 28 at Holiday Inn Lime Street to celebrate this achievement. .
The three-course lunch and pre-drinks reception will cost just £20 a head. It promises to be a great affair and a chance to meet old and new friends from every section of the media. There is a special overnight rate for attending media.
As you can imagine, there is a big interest in attending the lunch already. Christmas lunches over recent years – hosted by the Friends of Liverpool Press Club – have become legendary with amazing tales of the boys on oblivion routes home...
Tables of ten are already being earmarked... but if you would like to attend (or bring a party of chums along?), contact Ken Bennett, Hon President Liverpool Press Club, 2008 on: 07802 966 922 or email: email@example.com
Look, my excuse is that it had been a long, dull day. In Manchester on February 15, 1971, when Britain went decimal, we were all braced to sniff out the cheats. The Mirror had its Decimal Diddlers (or possibly Dodgers) Desk and the Sun its Decimal Dodgers (or Diddlers) Desk – at this distance, I can’t remember who was dodging and who was diddling. Anyway, what we were both pledged to do was expose cheats who used this currency adjustment to jack up their prices, as we knew they would.
I was one of the team, and by late afternoon we were all yawning and sprawling after a hard day’s failing to detect the flimsiest signs of dodgers and/or diddlers. Not a soul had rung in. Dodgeless and diddleless, we had no complaints and had no stories. And it was still over an hour before the Swan With Two Necks was open.
So why not, I thought, brighten the day for our fellow sufferers at the Sun with a story that would gladden their hearts?
I gave them a call. I said I was a war-hero who had been wickedly victimised by decimalisation. My wartime heroics had tragically left me with a condition that required the regular purchase of a certain item of equipment from the Stockport Medical Supplies shop. Last week it was 7s 6d and now it was over £17. Was this, or was this not, a clear case of decimal diddling?
The Sun reporter said he thought it certainly was. Trying to conceal his delight – they’d obviously had the same sort of day we’d had – he enquired after the exact nature of this item. I said it was embarrassing.His voice oozed sympathy. He would understand.
So I told him my sad story. At the Normandy Landings, as I was leaving the landing craft with a view to driving Jerry out of France, I chanced to pull myself(know what I mean?) Even so, I landed and fought my way not only up the beach but all the way to Berlin.
Limping every inch of the way.
Ever since, I had worn a truss as a matter of medical necessity, the price I’d had to pay for defending freedom for a bunch of ungrateful Froggies.
In a trice the reporter had my name and address and was on his way. Actually what he had was A name and address.
We all had a good chuckle and made our way to the pub. An hour later in came a chum from the Sun: ‘I’ve just missed a belting story… Misheard an address…’
I slipped out the back door.
After all this time, I’m more than happy to offer my apology to the chap. I’m truly sorry. I shouldn’t have done it. Reporters shouldn’t play tricks on other reporters.
While the public may see us as leather-skinned cynics, distrustful and sceptical, we know it isn’t true. Since our stock-in-trade is the absurd, the ridiculous and the highly unlikely, we are desperately willing to believe anything and anybody – even the impossible. Particularly the impossible. Otherwise, how would we ever get a story? There are those who say you shouldn’t believe what you read in the papers, but we do, because we wrote it. So it’s unfair to trade on the credulous nature of our colleagues.
It’s fun, though, isn’t it?
To be quite honest, it’s not the only time. I have a bit of previous here, I’m ashamed to say. There was the matter of the Midhurst-to-Petersfield Hopathon.
When my son Matt was training on the Haslemere Messenger, a cheerful little giveaway, he worked with a girl who he claimed would believe anything. To test this, I rang in with a news item from the Sussex Unipeds Assocation.I asked her if she knew what the Unipeds were. She replied: ‘Not as such,’ which I thought was a trifle guarded. So I explained that we were a group of one-legged people who got together to help each other. For example, a man with a missing right leg could be matched with someone with a missing left leg for joint shoe purchasing (assuming similar foot-size and taste, of course). ‘What a good idea,’ she said. My son was obviously right.
I went on to explain that we unipeds were staging an outing from Midhurst to Petersfield to raise money. Those who had twice our number of legs would call it a sponsored walk; for us, inevitably, it was a Hopathon.
‘Brilliant,’ she murmured. Without so much as a chortle, she said it would make an interesting paragraph for the Messenger.
And indeed so it would if Matt hadn’t intercepted it at the proof stage. Now Matt was a touch scornful over someone so easily deceived, which was, with a father like his, asking for trouble…
All you need to know for the next bit is that my son’s first love, when he was about 11, was a girl called Michelle Hayes.
I rang back the next day with a silly voice and a fake name and address and spoke to Matt. I asked him if he would be interested in my singing dog. It sang, I explained, over his half-stifled giggles, that old Elvis favourite, ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ and, rather more obviously, ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window’. By this time he was choking.
What sort of dog was it, he spluttered. A French water dog, a rare breed which was called a Hayes terrier. And because it was French, my good lady wife had given it the name Michelle. Slowly, I repeated, ‘Michelle… Hayes…terrier.’
There was a long silence. In a dreamy voice, almost talking to himself, he said: ‘Hey, I used to have a girl-friend called that.’
At that point, I anticipated a Sun headline of years later. That’s right… ‘Gotcha!’
He is speaking to me again now, you’ll be glad to know.
Juvenile, wasn’t it? Totally childish. But not quite as juvenile as the occasion when Chris Kenworthy, of the Sun, was on a phone-in radio debate. It was a mildly absurd discussion in which he was supposed to argue that men were more intelligent than women and some woman journalist was doing the reverse. Radio phone-ins are God’s gift to hoaxers because they never have enough people calling in, and the ones who do are deadly boring. A call from someone a little different, shall we say, and arms are taken off at the shoulder.
In a voice that could equally have been a feminine male or a masculine female, I claimed to the researcher that I had personal experience which proved men were more intelligent. When I was a man, I explained, I could do The Times crossword in 20 minutes and now I was a woman it took over an
Chris told me later that on the screen in the studio there flashed an urgent message about a call from a sex-change loon which had been jumped to the front of the queue. They simply couldn’t get me on fast enough. Chris knew immediately who it was. He couldn’t say: it would have wrecked the programme.
Rather warily, he accepted my gushing support. ‘Aren’t you a fabulously successful author?’ I asked. He was attempting to deny this when I said I’d love to go on a date with him.
The rest of the programme went into a sort of mist. My telephone rang the minute it ended. It is my belief that Mrs Kenworthy would never believe her husband knew such language.
At one time I was a regular caller to a morning phone-in on LBC. I starred in a number of roles, each more preposterous than the last, and the more outrageous the more they loved it. Fox-hunters should be fed to their hounds. Chain-gangs for single mothers. All over the country listeners were dropping like shot rabbits. The radio producers loved it.
Then I hit on a splendid device for livening up a debate. This was to attribute the most disgraceful views to the radio presenter himself. ‘Yeah, you was right what you said abaht that Neil Kinnock being a pooftah’… ‘Like you was saying, mate, these coppers want a bloody good kicking…’ Presenters get very agitated when they’re accused of opinions that would make Satan quail.
One of them, an Australian I suppose, who liked to think he was a hard-nosed toughie, fell for one after another. Even the lonely Tynesider – ‘Geordie’ of course – who rang in to say how unfriendly people were in London. In an accent that made Ant and Dec sound like Brian Sewell, I said my southern work colleagues were very unfriendly. ‘Every neet like, when we’re gannin’ off home, I axe if neebody fancies a pint like, but they nivvor do.’
‘Strange,’ said the presenter. ‘What exactly is your job, Geordie?’
‘Why man, Ah’m a ballet dancer, me.’
He could barely splurt out: ‘Next caller please.’
I did once meet this presenter. Naturally I asked him if he ever had fake callers. ‘I can spot ‘em a mile off,’ he said. ‘They never get past me.’ I thought of asking him if he had any doubts about the Geordie ballet-dancer, but decided against it.
Disgraceful, isn’t it? And I’m the first to say how ashamed I am. I think the most shameful of all of them was the call to a ‘personal problems’ phone-in they had on Capital Radio, with an agony aunt, a doctor and a presenter to handle the calls. What they hoped for, of course, was for emotional cripples to call in to confess their tragic failures, preferably of an embarrassingly sexual nature.
Who was I to let them down?
The Woman Whom I Honoured With My Name used to listen to this programme in the bath. At first, she didn’t recognise my weepy voice as I said, sobbing, that my wife didn’t fancy me any more. The trio of vultures fell upon me, coaxing out every last salacious detail, which was, after all, the point of the programme. I wept as I told how she slept with her back to me, how she would never let me touch her, and how I suffered with sexual frustration. They couldn’t get enough of it. ‘Had I’ asked the agony aunt, in honeyed tones, ‘tried to discuss it with her?’
‘Dozens of times,’ I said. ‘But Anita won’t even talk about it…’
From the bathroom came a loud shriek, shortly followed by louder shriek as a wet wife naked but for a swiftly snatched towel came hurtling down the stairs.
‘I’ll have to go,’ I said to my radio audience. ‘I think my luck’s turned…’
I burn with shame just to think of it now.
The trouble is that once you know half the voices on the telephone are fake, it does tend to make one distrustful, sometimes needlessly. At the height of my phone-in fame, I took a call at home from a woman with a suspiciously upmarket accent. She’d just moved into the village – or so she claimed – and was inviting me to a drinks party. The name, she said, was Parker. As a long-practised spoofer, I spotted her immediately. ‘That wouldn’t be Mrs Nosey Parker, would it?’ I said, giggling with delight.
There was a pause in which ice wouldn’t melt. ‘No. Mrs Veronica Parker actually. And the invitation is withdrawn.’
That was when I realised it was getting too dangerous. I retired. And with me went all my new friends – the truss-wearing war hero returned to Hernia Bay, the ballet-dancer minced home to Tyneside, the singing dog went back to Battersea, and the uniped hopped it to Midhurst. All of them, gone. I still miss them.