The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times


Issue # 182
4 February, 2011


This Week

You couldn’t make it up… Neil Marr (ex Mirror, Mail, People), now living on the French Riviera, arranges to meet former colleague Ian Markham Smith and his missus in a local bar this week. The only problem is they haven’t met for maybe 40 years, so how will they recognise each other? No worries: Ian is just the same, only his hair is now white, and long-haired wife Liz (Hodgson – ex Sunday Mirror) now walks with a stick.

So into the bar trolls Neil, spots the pair already seated at a table, kisses the guy’s silvered head, hugs the wife and settles down beside them – impressed that they all stick to French as a courtesy to Neil’s wife Skovia. After a couple of rounds he realises that the white haired guy and his stick-carrying wife can’t speak any English at all… at about which time he notices Ian and Liz sitting at another table, watching them with bemusement, if not amusement.

Young Marr, for those among you who like to keep up, is one of those old hacks who ventured into publishing (given time, we could name others) and now has more than 100 titles on his imprint (BeWrite Books). Most of them are available as ebooks and – because he understands the technology (and we can’t get our heads round it, here) – he’s undertaken to shift the Ranters list into a new age.

What that means is that if you got one of those electric reading gizmos for Christmas (and, apparently, even if you didn’t – for you can read ebooks on your old PC screen) you’ll soon be able to download the books currently available only in tree-form in our Ranters Bookshop.

We’re starting with the first book we produced; Ian Skidmore’s Forgive Us Our Trespasses.

Neil Marr explains it down the page for the non-techie, which is probably most of us.

And Ian Skidmore reveals that he now carries his library in his pocket.

Harold Heys, who has galloped through the past two weeks with tales of The Sporting Life, changes horses to remember its worthy old rival, the Sporting Chronicle.

And John Kay reports on the first annual Lewthwaite Lunch in Fleet Street in memory of gentleman Jim. And... yers, we know that the first of anything can't be called an annual event, but we don't care.

Still in the pub, Bill Greaves is called to the bar where he holds court after a small legal dispute with his laundry.

For those of you who are missing the Rudge cartoon, hopefully all will be resolved eventually but it’s… bloody new technology. Life’s just a circle. Bristol board was so much easier.

#

New literary genre – with whiskers on it

By Neil Marr

We Ranters call Revel Barker’s collection of books by journalists ‘hack-lit’. The ‘hack’ appellation is no more an insult to ‘insiders’, of course, than the naughty N-word is in all-black company or a cheeky ‘queer’ within an exclusively gay circle of pals. In fact, it’s a compliment to be numbered among hacks... by fellow hacks.

But I never really reckoned Revel’s sub-head, ‘books by journalists for journalists’, was quite accurate, nor did it do his hack-lit genre full justice. I’ve read most of the titles in his catalogue – through Skidmore to Dunne and Waterhouse and Mulchrone – and have always firmly believed that most, if not all, would hold immense appeal to the general reading public.

After all, hack-lit has quietly been around, if unrecognised as an art-form, for donkeys’ years. Journalists (reporters and subs – occasionally, with luck, their editors and publishers) have always been uniquely skilled in successful mass-communication with their reading public from the first crude single-page news and ballad sheets to today’s raunchy tabloids and admirably courageous publications and impressive film documentaries that can, and do, change the world.

Governments, giant global corporations and the rich and famous shudder in fear at the journalist’s largely unfettered right to publish and be damned – with only the general reader in mind. And the vast public of strangers has lapped up our special brand of insight and street-wise humour.

Journalists have been writing for the chap on the bus to work and the lord who pours over the carefully butler-ironed pages of The Times in his study ever since Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenburger (Gutenberg to thee and me) was just a messy thing in his pram and then a struggling young feller with a bright idea, knocking an old wine press into a primitive, hand-cranked printing engine, away from prying eyes in his cellar... the written word’s first best-cellar?

It has whiskers on it, does hack-lit – as do Revel and I and old hack and author Ian Skidmore (all old mates); in our dotage, we need no longer be the guys in ties: Revel fishes off Malta in mufti, Skiddy dines in tweeds and I wear just one shoe on my reasonably good foot and have a whale of a time, and we’re giving my theory a whirl to see how it goes.

Since some nasty health hiccups forced me off the road and the trains and boats and planes in the mid-nineties, I’ve been ghosting and writing full-length books, then I turned to non-fiction editing, and then editing fiction (maybe just a tad more honest – if far less profitable – than some of the stuff I used to churn out back in the day). Seldom do I write a news piece or feature these days. And only to order on a pre-fixed fee.

I opened BeWrite Books ten years ago as a publishing venture. It’s been growing stronger ever since, with 2010 as a kind of watershed year for us. We always have at least 120 exclusive titles in our current catalogue. Part of the reason it’s working is that we were among the first in the world to run ebooks alongside our paperback treebooks a decade ago. We’re well ahead of the digital game – and they say it might even turn a buck when it stops raining.

And Revel, screaming and kicking at first, eventually gave in and made a wee deal with us to give some of his hack-lit paperbacks the full ebook treatment.

First hack-lit ebook title up, Forgive Us Our Press Passes by Ian Skidmore, is released in all digital formats today and is available right now for instant download in all formats from all international major and minor ebook retailers and our own website at www.bewrite.net. A big bonus is cover price – little more than the cost of a couple of pints in tap-room currency.

Why kick off with Skiddy’s hilarious memoire? It was the first Revel Barker Publishing title, and Skiddy was the first of Revel’s authors to agree to give ebooks a fair crack o’ the whip. In fact, Skiddy, who has always been an avid reader of anything with words on it, turned to using a Sony ebook-dedicated reading device for recreational reading years ago, and his family held a Christmas whip-round to get him a Kindle. Impresses me, does that. Mind you, where Skiddy’s concerned, I’ve always been impressed.

Old Mirror pal Skiddy is no spring chicken. In his lively eighties now and with one of the world’s most impressive handlebar moustaches and journalistic credentials, he told me, ‘a book’s its content. A good tale’s a good tale. How it’s presented for reading is utterly irrelevant.’

It took ebooks nearly six centuries to revolutionise Gutenberg’s wonderful basic model, all we’ve seen over subsequent centuries has been mere superficial refinement of the prototype. Even ebooks follow the Gutenberg lead. A book’s a book and, as Skiddy says, content is king. Story rules.

Now you can read Skiddy’s yarn – and soon many other RBP hack-lits – in beautifully prepared new digital editions, word-faithful to their print equivalent, on electronic platforms from PCs and laptops, through the entire range of new ebook-dedicated reading thingies and tablets, to iPods and ubiquitous Blackberries and smartphones. You can even read them on your TV screen if you know how. Somebody will, no doubt, be reading Skiddy while kicking his heels waiting for a train on the Tokyo subway tomorrow.

This is new technology at work and applied to a new genre... in an art form with whiskers on it, kicking off with three be-whiskered old hacks getting together around a virtual bar top out of hours – Revel on Isle Sans Serif in the Med, me in the south of France and Skiddy on his beloved Fenland estate.

We’re hoping to release RBPs hack-lit titles at the rate of one every month or so. Given a fair chance, my tech and design partner, Tony Szmuk in Canada, and three other editorial team-mates scattered across the globe believe this new combination of state-of-the-art technology and traditional wit, wisdom and humour is a natural teaming.

Let’s face it, we all balked against new-tech in newspapers ourselves not too many years ago... and we got over it by eventually embracing the technology rather than resisting it, as chaps and Ladies of the Street whose job was always to dig out the yarns and produce and present words to a mass readership, no matter how, in plain and appealing English. When did we not face new obstacles every single day and get over them by tea time and deadline?

Skiddy was an ace national newspaper reporter, news editor, syndicated columnist, and he also hosted his own hugely popular weekly BBC radio show for yonks. He has twenty-six non-fiction books and novels under his impressively lengthy belt, many of them huge-sellers, and he can scent the difference between Cognac and Armagnac at fifty paces.

Forgive Us Our Press Passes is... och well; I won’t bother you with the details here. Read all abaht it, and its author by visiting the front page of the BeWrite Books bookstore on www.bewrite.net or pop into RPB’s bookstore here at GentlemenRanters. I first shared a copy of this Skiddy book with wee (well, he measured the same in height and girth) night news editor Maurice la Wiggy and night picture editor George Harp-on during late-night Mirror shifts when it first saw the light of day.

Ian himself now has a wonderfully entertaining and insightful blog, which is updated with new material every Sunday: www.skidmoresisland.blogspot.com. You’ll be able to read his take on this brave new ebook move in this weekend’s edition.

Next Hack-lit title up? Who knows? AD? We’ll spring it on you as a surprise in March. So watch this space.

And a reminder: even if you don’t have a Kindle and sadly found no other fancy new digital gizmo under the Christmas tree, you can read all BeWrite Books ebooks – and all ‘coming soon’ hack-lit – in PDF on your old-fashioned PC, laptop or netbook. Kindle Mobi editions can be read on your home computers and laptops by free download of the Kindle-for-PC app (www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html/ref=kcp_pc_mkt_lnd?docId=1000426311) and ePub can be read using free Calibre Library software (www.calibre-ebook.com). Just be sure when you want to buy or ask for a review copy to choose the digital format that’s best for you. Any questions or calls for help, simply email Revel or me (ntmarr@bewrite.net).

#

Meet me in cyberspace

By Ian Skidmore

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young in World War II was very heaven. Living like Mr Mole in underground air raid shelters bombed every night like little Ernest Hemingways; best of all a Huckleberry Finn life of no school which meant I could devote more time to books.

By the time I was four I had learnt to read and could see no other point in education. At eighty-two, I am still reading, and it is the nearest I have ever come to spirited activity.

I read as a schoolboy, as a printer’s devil, as a soldier, in an army prison and through half a century as a reporter and a broadcaster. I read my way through two marriages, richer and poorer, and through cancer. I have sold books, bought books, stolen books, been a book critic and written twenty-seven of my own. I grew a Jimmy Edwards moustache to thank him for introducing Mr Jorrocks and his noble sentiment; ‘Pick me up, tie me to my chair and fill up my glass.’ Like Jorrocks I took up marathon wine-drinking.

It didn’t matter that my stories ended up wrapping fish and chips. It gave me something to read as I ate my suppers. When my father banished books from the dining room I read the labels on sauce bottles. Broadcasting was to give a third dimension to the printed word.

Ah the printed word! When the bubonic plague knocked the bottom out of his business making mirrors for pilgrims, Gutenberg invented the book by turning a borrowed wine press into a printing flatbed. Learning that moveable type was invented by a Chinese blacksmith sent me scurrying to Su tung Po, the bibulous poet of the century.

My family clubbed together to buy me an ebook-reader for my eightieth birthday and I was able to carry a library in my pocket. It was the first major change in the history of book making, and I couldn't wait to be part of it.

Now I am part of the automatic text-to-speak computers world. My autobiography, Forgive Us Our Press Passes, is winging out of cyberspace, never to yellow or disappear.

I was among the first to latch onto high tech communication; even though I started the job hardly able to change my own typewriter ribbons. I am a journalist from the hot-metal Golden Age. Speaking with a new breed of Evian-drinking, brown-bagging desk-huggers who feel nothing farther than a screen away is a waste of time.

Oh brave new world that has such wonders in it.

#

End of life for the Chron

By Harold Heys

Graham Rock, ‘Kettledrum’ of the Sporting Chronicle, was confident his nap selection for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot on July 23, 1983 would go well. ‘Time Charter in trim for Diamond Sparkler’, blazed the front page head x 5, 3, 3 & 3 in what looked like 72pt Tempo Heavy caps.

Time Charter held on to win at 5-1 that afternoon. But there was no celebratory puff on the Monday morning. By then the paper, the cornerstone of what became Manchester’s ‘Withy Grove’, was no more.

The Chron was founded in 1871 and two years later it moved from a dingy basement to become the foundation of what was to evolve as the largest newspaper publishing office in the world. It folded with a whimper mid-way through the ’83 Flat racing season, a victim to ‘rising costs and falling circulation’, said editor Tom Kelly.

The knock-on effect of the lengthy Thomson battle with the print unions over strikes and restrictive practices during the mid-70s had been devastating as the Chron relied on Times Newspapers for its distribution in London and the Home Counties. For the duration of the 1979 dispute it was blacked by unions in the south. It never recovered. In August 1964 the circulation had peaked at more than 127,000 copies. Less than 20 years later in was down below 30,000.

In a Page One column Kelly explained that there just wasn’t room for both the Chron and the Sporting Life and he went on to hope that ‘our friends’ at the Life would enjoy some years of stability. By then, titles such as the Empire News, the Sunday Chronicle, the Evening Chronicle, the Daily Dispatch and the Daily Graphic had been born and had died in Withy Grove. Within a few years Manchester was a wasteland. All newspaper printing had moved out of the city centre as a result of rising and prohibitive costs, a lack of room for modernisation and expansion and the need for motorway access that is now readily available at Trafford Park, Knowsley and Hollinwood.

Withy Grove had a succession of owners, from founder Ned Hulton, to his son Sir Edward Hulton, briefly to the Daily Mail Trust and then to Lord Camrose and Viscount Kemsley as Allied Newspapers which became Kemsley Newspapers in 1945. Roy, later Lord, Thomson took over in 1959 and eventually Cap’n Bob took charge.

For ten years it lay empty and forlorn. Building administrator Barry Lord tramped the echoing corridors virtually alone, but he managed to bring in some revenue by hiring it out to Granada Television for the filming of series such as Prime Suspect and Cracker and several other programmes. For the docu-drama Why Lockerbie? the Withy Grove reel receiving bay was rigged up as the baggage handling area of Frankfurt Airport. And very smart it looked. Right to the end, up on the roof, the old pigeon lofts, where birds once flew in with late sports results, could still be seen near the concrete Second World War fire-watchers' bunker.

Withy Grove was eventually sold and revamped and is now The Printworks, a £150 million entertainment, restaurant and leisure complex. It opened in 2000 with a celebrity disco-style launch featuring Lionel Richie.

I had worked at Withy Grove for a few years in the mid-80s as we wrestled with ‘new technology’ and smoothed its introduction into London. I haven’t been back since I walked out for the last time with a lot of others in May 1988. I’d sooner keep the memories of those frantic newspaper offices and, in the dungeons, the thundering presses as I remember them.

However, back to the Sporting Chronicle. Benny Green, the Daily Mirror columnist, penned a moving tribute to ‘another corner of traditional English life’ that was about to be chipped away. Green admitted that he wasn’t ‘a horse-player’ and didn’t read the paper, but he came from a long line of Chronicle readers. For him it represented ‘an entire lost continent of childhood’.

He added: ‘All the men in my family used to read those two papers [The Chron and the Life] with the intensity of Dr Pasteur glaring at a bottle of dirty milk.’ As a small boy he was left with the impression of ‘a world consisting entirely of parks (Haydock, Sandown, Hurst etc.) filled with galloping horses.’ He eventually worked out what racing was all about.

‘It went something like this,’ he explained for those still puzzled. ‘You took the weight of the jockey, added it to the age of the horse and divided the answer by the number of inches of rain which had fallen in the area that season. Then you went into the weight, diet, temperament, colour and sexual habits of its parents, grandparents and great grandparents and multiplied the result by the number of times the trainer had been seen dining out with a bookmaker. Then you balanced this against the odds the bookies were offering, divided this by the odds they should have been offering, and placed your bet.’

Well, something like that, Benny. It probably wasn’t the way Graham Rock came up with his last big nap of Time Charter. He had started his career with the excellent Timeform organisation and had been Kettledrum, the Chron’s top tipster, for four years. He went off for a stint as a stipendiary steward and handicapper in Hong Kong before returning to become the first editor of the Racing Post. He lost a long and brave battle with cancer in 2001.

I am occasionally moved to nostalgia over a large one or three in a quiet corner and I reflect on the brilliant headlines and purple prose of mine that never saw the light of day due to some impenetrable problem with the ‘inkies’ who occasionally pulled the plug on a whim. And I had wondered how Graham Rock felt when he didn’t get the slightest recognition in print for that last, winning nap. The last time I saw him was when we gave him a lift to Longchamp from the centre of Paris back in the mid-90s. Perhaps I should have asked him. But an old wound was best left unscratched, I reckoned.

I can’t remember all the Chron staff back in ’83 but Chris Judge was deputy editor and Len Bell was editorial director. Jon Freeman was northern correspondent while Adrian Cook, Francis Kelly, Alan Freeman, Paul Johnson, Ken Hussey and Martin Smethurst were also in the mix. There certainly wasn’t a cast of thousands.

Tom Kelly went over to the ‘other side’ and, for the next 25 years till his retirement in 2008, was the public face of the bookies. It was always open season on Kelly who was twice elected 'Bore Of The Year' by Claude Duval in the Sun. It takes more than that to wipe the smile off a lad born on the wrong side of the tracks in Edinburgh.

Kelly had been offered the editorship of the Life by the shyster Robert Maxwell, but turned the job down ‘largely because of the unpleasant way that the job was offered to me’. Racing journalist Alastair Down said it was to Kelly's credit that ‘he could see through that bullying rogue, whereas so many others sustained permanent back damage through prolonged bowing and scraping’. I suppose it was easy for Down to make that crack, not having been a top executive in the fat fraud’s firing line.

I’ll leave the last word to Benny Green. He may not have been ‘a horse-player’ but he certainly understood newspapers and gamblers. ‘The funny thing was,’ he mused, ‘that when it had all fallen to pieces and you had done your money and the air was echoing to the laughter of distant bookies, the one thing you never blamed was the paper. And the next day you started all over again.’

It was just a pity that, for the Sporting Chronicle – and so many other fine newspapers over the years – there wouldn’t be a ‘next day’ to start all over again.

#

Remembering Jim

By John Kay

The years rolled back as the wine flowed faster – and the laughter got louder as the tales got taller.

And the basement restaurant of El Vino at 47 Fleet Street literally shuddered with riotous mirth and good humour.

Welcome to the very first Jim Lewthwaite Memorial Lunch which – by popular acclaim – is going to become an annual event every January.

Serving Sun veterans Simon Hughes and I organised the shindig following the death of legendary ex-Mail and Sun ace reporter Jim at the end of last year.

The roll call was a classic Fleet Street mixed bag with the Sun, Mirror, Express, Mail, Evening News and Standard all represented.

As the Mirror’s John Jackson put it: ‘Why did we have to wait for the death of Jim to make this happen?’

In traditional style, lunch drifted on well into the evening and finished at The Bell at the bottom of Fleet Street.

The glittering guest list of retired and serving newsmen who came to pay tribute to Jim included:

George Hollingbery, Vic Chapple, Harry Arnold, Shan Lancaster, Hilary Bonner, Chris Dobson, Colin Hart, Ian Hepburn , Nigel Cairns, Arthur Edwards, Shan Lancaster, Mike Sullivan, John Twomey, Adrian Shaw, Antonella Lazzeri, Dave Connett, John Askill , Bill Newman, Paul Cheston, John Smyth, Barrie Mattei, Simon Hughes, John Jackson, Tom Petrie and John Kay.

Sadly, Old Bailey PA girls Pat Clarke and Sue Clough fell ill on the eve of the lunch after eating a dodgy fish supper.

The Mirror’s Syd Young was another last minute casualty but sent a message : ‘Regard the lunch as a dress rehearsal – in fact is it worth some of you even going home?’

Gentlemenranters stalwart Colin Dunne pinged an email at 2.30 pm saying: ‘I’m sitting here doing nothing at home in Sussex and suddenly realised I should have been with you all at El Vino’.

Harry Arnold suggested that all the hilarious tales told on the day should be put in a book [but he knows they wouldn’t be arsed to write them – Ed.]

One of my own favourite stories about gentle giant Jim never got told because of sheer lack of time.

One afternoon we had adjourned to Ron’s first-floor bar at the Cheshire Cheese on a 5pm ‘slope’ and were sinking our first pints of Marstons bitter when a couple of elderly American tourists came in.

After consulting a guide book, one of them said to Jim: ‘Excuse me sir, is this where the famous reporters of Fleet Street come to take refreshment?’

Jim replied: ‘It certainly is – and you are talking to two of them.’

Impressed, the Yanks began bombarding us with questions about the noble profession.

Minutes later there was a violent crashing sound and in through the bar door lurched the full-time Fleet Street branch secretary of the NUJ, out of his skull on booze and with his trousers round his ankles.

One of the startled Americans asked Jim: ‘Is HE a famous reporter too?’

Jim: ‘No, he’s our union leader.’

With that, the horrified Yanks didn’t even wait to finish their drinks and did a runner for the exit.

#

Holding court

By William Greaves

Let me tell you how I first became a temporary regular at that most famous of music hall pubs, the Old Bull and Bush.

Transferred for a few months’ trial from the Daily Mail reporters’ room in Manchester to the dizzy heights of Fleet Street, I was delighted to take up my dear friend George’s gracious offer to share his flat on the third floor of a mansion block in Finchley Road.

Leaving wife and three small children back home in Derbyshire for the experimental period and thus plunged into such major domestic decisions as what to do about my limited stock of shirts and smalls, I quickly found a friendly launderette in nearby Golders Green.

And equally speedily adopted the weekly routine: Clothes into washing machine, a quick drive up to the Bull and Bush, two pints, back to launderette, transfer clothes to dryer, one further pint up the road, collect clothes and mission accomplished.

But the timing could be critical. Quite early in the story I returned, two pints thoroughly enjoyed, to find a newly-arrived woman customer impatiently surveying a phalanx of washing machines, none of which was available. One machine had stopped, however, with the contents still within.

The newly arrived customer hesitated not. She deposited the cleansed clothes on to the floor and replaced them with her own. Whereupon the discarded clothes’ owner returned, slightly out of breath, to see her undies strewn around the premises for all to see. To my great surprise it was the very same lady with whom I had just been enjoying a pleasant chat over the second of my two pints up the road.

The fight that ensued is forever carved into the memory. Long before the end of it the modesty of both combatants had been diminished by the total or partial demolition of most of their outer garments and blood flowed from a multitude of scratches, erotically distributed around acres of newly-exposed flesh. A small but enthusiastic audience stood mesmerised, occasionally applauding a particularly telling blow, and at the end of it all I found it necessary to depart from normal procedure and return to the Bull and Bush for a couple of further settlers. I had certainly not expected to meet up again with my new-found acquaintance so soon – or, come to that, so much of her so soon – and London was obviously going to prove more exciting than the wilds of Derbyshire’s Peak District.

As well as being the subject of one of the best known songs of the Edwardian music hall age, the Old Bull and Bush, whose licence to sell ale dates back to 1721, has been the haunt of generations of artists including William Hogarth. And so it is just one of hundreds of pubs throughout Britain that can genuinely describe itself as historic.

Indeed there are few better ways to brush up on British architectural and historical heritage – including that most elusive element of every child’s schooldays, the dates of our kings and queens – than to embark on a major national pub crawl.

Pop in to the Old Mint, in Southam, Warwickshire, for example, and you can still see in the stone surrounds of the doorway the grooves made by Charles I’s surviving soldiers as they sharpened their swords after the Battle of Edgehill in 1642 while awaiting payment for their services. (They had to hang around for some time because their monarch ordered his local nobles to bring in their silver to be melted down and made into coin of the realm – a handy resource if you happened to be a king.)

On the walls licensee Ben Barrett has assembled a bloodthirsty collection of weapons that would have been all too familiar to those early customers, the mullioned windows bear witness to the tavern’s antiquity and today ‘a steady stream of regulars just about keep my head above water,’ he says. Good news.

Even closer to the conflict, in the village of Edge Hill itself, stands the remarkable Castle Inn, complete with castellated tower, which was actually built a hundred years after that momentous conflict as a folly – brainchild of Sanderson Miller, gentleman architect and amateur pioneer of the Gothic revival during the Georgian period.

‘Although it is a folly, it stands on the very site where Charles rallied his troops before marching down to the plain below,’ says licensee Tom Douglas.

To unlock the portcullis and ascend the tower to one of the inn’s three bedrooms and to gaze through the morning mist upon the battlefield hundreds of feet below, it is easy to imagine the sound of the trumpets and the stench of death as 30,000 troops fought out the first bloody but indecisive battle of a civil war that was destined to last another four years.

‘There are only about twenty houses in the village but we have a local butcher and the food brings people in from quite a few neighbouring villages,’ says Tom’s wife, Gill. ‘And the view from the garden brings in customers in their hundreds during the summer months.’

The Castle Inn in Lydford, Devon, has presided over 500 years of local community life, including the harsh times when the village held regular court hearings against those who were alleged to have transgressed against the ancient stannary laws – often paying with their lives. As 17th century local poet recalled ‘I oft have heard of Lydford Law; How in the morning they hang and draw – And sit in judgement after.’

But current landlord David Moxham, prefers the much later but ominously prophetic words of Anglo-French poet and writer Hilaire Belloc, frequently thrusting a yellowing cutting before the unprotesting eyes of his regulars: ‘When you’ve lost your inns, drown your empty selves – because you will have lost the last of England.’ And he proudly displays on the walls two 1,000AD silver pennies bearing the head of Ethelred the Unready, minted in the village, which would then have been more than enough to buy a couple of sheep. Now there’s history for you.

Although pubs and court rooms nowadays have little in common – except that the former often is chosen as the restorative bolt hole for anyone recently subjected to the mental torment of the latter – time was when they frequently shared the same premises. The law and a pint or two strode arm in arm.

At the Speech House, a glorious old inn in the very heart of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, there used even to be the wherewithal to carry out instant execution of anyone deemed to have offended against the laws of the forest. (Today’s regulars might be a little apprehensive to learn that the inn’s authority to carry out the death sentence has never been rescinded in the statutes of British law – although, in truth, inability to pay for the last pint might struggle to qualify for the ultimate penalty.)

The Verderer’s Court, set up in the 17th century to settle disputes between iron founders and foresters and other local issues, still meets every three months in what is now the inn’s dining room and the magistrates’ bench remains exactly as it was more than three hundred years ago.

And more recent history is represented by the shovels used by The Queen and Prince Philip to plant a pair of oak trees opposite the front door on April 24, 1957, and a plaque in the grounds in memory of Sergeant Pilot D. E. Prior at the very spot where his Westland Whirlwind crashed on December 14, 1941.

But new owners Peter and Gill Hands are determined that the Speech House stays not only an hotel and a monument to history but also a 21st century pub. ‘It used to be where the local workers met for a pint and we are here to make sure that it is returned to the community. We are just custodians – we come and we move on.’ Bravo!

Another pub that today looks back on its days as a seat of justice is the White Bull in Ribchester, Lancashire, a magnificent 17th century edifice complete with its original porch, supported by four Tuscan columns that were once part of a far older Roman fort nearby.

Not only did the pub double as the local court house back in the 18th century but one of its rooms acted as a holding cell – evidenced by a pair of leg irons firmly attached to the wall.

The Rose and Crown is one of Yorkshire's oldest inns, rightly acclaimed for both convivial hospitality and food – although its three bars and its dining room are separated by a labyrinth of corridors.

Overlooking Bainbridge village green and dwarfed by the mountains of upper Wensleydale, it is hard to imagine that hundreds of years ago it was surrounded by dense forest – so dense that every evening a horn would be blown to guide the foresters back to their home.

Although these days no such guidance is necessary to locate the sanctuary of the Rose and Crown, the horn can still be found hanging on the wall by reception – a constant reminder of dim and distant days.

Duck your way in to the Church House Inn in Rattery, Devon, and the first thing you spot is a list of vicars of the church next door, going back to Jeffery Hurning, 1139, followed by Walter de Pembroke in 1238 and Thomas Ballard who took over in 1260, with current incumbent David Winnington-Ingram in fiftieth spot.

‘But actually this building goes back even a year further than the church because in those days they built a hostel for the workers who then set about building the church,’ explained Ray Hardy, licensee these past nine years.

And rather more recent history comes in the form of a genuine notice on the wall offering a fifty guineas reward for information leading to the ‘discovery and apprehension of Thomas Carter alias Captain Black for his barbarous and inhuman attack on the Exeter Coach in October 1779 – a felon espied of late in the parlour of the Church House Inn, Rattery.’

(Another sign of rather more dubious authenticity outlines pub rules: No Thieves, Fakirs, Rogues or tinkers – No Skulking Loafers or Flea-bitten Tramps.)

And spare a thought for the luckless William Huskisson, MP for Liverpool, President of the Board of Trade and regular inhabitant at the bar of the charismatic Farmers Arms pub in Birtsmorton, Hereford and Worcester, who became the first man in the world to be killed by a passenger train when all he was trying to do was open the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830.

Now, there’s history for you.

###


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The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times


Issue # 183
February 11, 2011


This Week

Seen from here, it’s impressive to note how many old hacks appear to have adapted to new technology at home, far faster than they ever did in the office.

Ranters have been downloading copies of Ian Skidmore’s book to read on their desktop screens or maybe even on those e-reader thingies. And it’s nothing short of miraculous to see that people who have difficulty scrolling down a web page can manage it, to read a book.

If you want to join them, details are over there on the right. The RRP for the paperback remains at £9.99 (cheaper from some retailers), but the downloadable e-version comes in at your local currency equivalent of US$5.99, on some sites it’s even less.

Skiddy’s book, Forgive Us Our Press Passes, was the first we published in paperback for Ranters. Among the more recent was Man Bites Talking Dog by Colin Dunne. David Nobbs, unsuccessful (he says) reporter turned hugely successful scriptwriter (he created Reggie Perrin), has just got round to reading it, and has contributed a brief review for those among you who haven’t got round to it yet.

More book news: the hardback version of Bob Clarke’s totally fascinating book, From Grub Street to Fleet Street – An Illustrated history of English Newspapers to 1899, has just gone up in price to £70. Even the least numerate Ranter must realise that, at £12.99, our paperback version is something of a snip. Incidentally, Bob is still reading old papers, and he’s just come up with this, from the London Chronicle, May 4, 1758:

William Hague was committed to the Gatehouse by Saunders Welch, Esq; being charged upon an indictment last sessions, for making an assault on Mr France, with intent to commit sodomitical practices.

Even more, ex libris: Dan Carrier of the Camden New Journal has done a fine interview with Geoffrey Goodman, author of From Bevan to BlairFifty years reporting from the political front line. Pausing only to point out, before everybody else does, that Hugh Cudlipp was never editor of the Daily Mirror, legendary or otherwise, we publish it below.

Back to the Gentlemen-That-Reminds-Me section and Harold Heys’ offering, a couple of weeks ago, about Maxwell and the unions prompted the Guardian’s Stephen Bates to remember his first encounter with the man who blighted many of our lives.

And – same piece – brought Philip Jordan out of hiding (he’s in Las Vegas) with memories of creating an American version of The Sporting Life.

It’s all history, now. Some pubs, as we know, were part of history. No surprise, then, that Bill Greaves is leaning on the bar therein, grasping the handle of a pint pot.

#

The golden days

By David Nobbs

I didn’t get where I am today by laughing out loud at other people’s books, but I’ve had to make an exception for Colin Dunne’s Man Bites Talking Dog. My involuntary chortles roused many travellers from sleep on the East Coast Main Line. A useful tip – don’t read this in the Quiet Coach.

The book is written as a memoir rather than an autobiography. He’s more interested in other people than in himself, as a good journalist should be. But it’s much more than a personal memoir. It’s a hilarious and affectionate portrait of what he – and I agree – regards as the golden days of a great profession.

It takes us from the obscure by-waters of the provincial press to the magical, larger than life world that was once Fleet Street, in the days when men were men, women were women, and lunch was... endless.

A journalist once told Peter Cook that he was writing a novel. ‘Really?’ said Cook memorably. ‘Neither am I.’ Colin’s portraits are largely of people who didn’t want to write novels, people whose huge talents for fiction were poured into their claims for expenses, newspaper people through and through. His vivid and hilarious portraits are so warm that, when he does dislike someone, you know he really means it.

One of the book’s great virtues, in this age of instant celebrity, is the author’s self-effacing style. He portrays himself as a man who’d be lucky to survive a week, yet he survived a lifetime. Thank goodness he did, because it was such fun sharing it.

David Nobbs joined the Sheffield Star on graduating from Cambridge and claims to have been the world’s worst newspaper reporter – presumably not having met many of the other contenders for that title. But at least the experience inspired him to write a series of novels about Pratt of the Argus, before achieving fame as the creator of Reggie Perrin (and scriptwriter to most of the comedy stars in the days when comedians were funny).

#

Behaving like burglars... so what’s new?

By Dan Carrier (Camden New Journal)

He first remembers current affairs being discussed over egg cartons and rashers of bacon at Tommy Meredith’s dairy in Park Street, Camden Town.

The shopkeeper gossiped about the Prince of Wales, soon to be King, but, as Tommy put it, ‘he was too busy f***ing some American woman named Wallis Simpson’ and that the newspapers refused to print this, ‘despite most of us knowing exactly what is going on’.

It made a mark on the young Geoffrey Good­man, who spent the next 60 years working in the newspaper trade. In his memoir of a life as a political reporter – now in paperback – he reveals what it is like to have a front-row seat to watch the Punch and Judy antics of British post-war politics.

His contacts book contains the key figures, many of whom became close friends as well as professional acquaintances: Nye Bevan and Michael Foot were allies, while he also became a trusted aide of Harold Wilson.

Others he got to know well included his one-time boss Robert Maxwell, Tory premiers Edward Heath, Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher, trade unionist Jack Jones, media baron Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mirror’s legendary editor, Hugh Cudlipp.

Of the Tory leaders, he got on well with Heath: an invitation to Chequers is recounted. Geoffrey was taken by Heath on a tour, and while the reason for being there was to discuss the urgent economic situation, Heath was more interested in showing off the Chequers sound system playing Mozart.

‘He was a prime minister who was more absorbed with music than politics,’ recalls Geoffrey. Another politician he both covered and worked with was Michael Foot whom he believed was too cultured for the Commons.

‘The closer you got to him, the more you realised he was in the wrong place: he was a writer, a philosopher, a tremendous humanist,’ says Geoffrey. ‘Once involved in the murky business of politics, you have to face the cruel reality of being careful with the truth. That just was not Michael. He strayed into a political life, perhaps wrongly.’

Writing a memoir that spans five decades sounds arduous in terms of deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, and this is not about what Geoffrey had for breakfast, but how a leading journalist witnessed the events that shaped the nation.

‘I did not keep a daily diary like Campbell or Blair,’ he says. ‘I wanted to tell of the ambience of being close to the centre of power.’

This also leads him to consider how his trade has changed since he started on the Liverpool Echo when he was demobbed. The rise of rolling news channels and Twitter mean information is out there in vast quantities, but it’s not being siphoned effectively. Instead, says Geoffrey, it leaves an information overload that has telling effects.

‘Do not confuse a strong Press with avail­ability of information,’ he concludes. ‘We have information bombarding people, in a manner that was inconceivable when I first started. But what we do not have is the depth of knowledge, and this translates into a lack of understanding about key current issues.’ He believes spin doctors have become a barrier between the root of the story – the politician – and the reporter, and there are no longer the crucial off-the-record briefings.

‘In the old days you had time to reflect,’ he says. ‘This does not exist now, because of the urge to be first with a scoop, no matter how weak and spurious that scoop is.’

Of the current furore over phone hacking he says: ‘Violating the law to invade privacy is simply unacceptable, but in the old days we had reporters behaving like burglars, which was the same but without technology,’ says Geoffrey. ‘The tabloids had ‘picture snatchers’ on the editorial staff, and they would go into homes and steal. Phone tapping is a form of burglary. You are stealing material you would otherwise not be able to obtain. The media have got to recognise that unless they are prepared to accept voluntary restraint then it is inevitable governments will introduce legislation to protect privacy.’

It is long overdue, he says: more than 30 years ago he sat on a Royal Commission into the Press. ‘We said then there was a case for an ethical code along the lines the BBC was run on,’ he says. Nothing happened. ‘The Press Complaints Commission is pathetic, and unless newspaper editors accept the need for voluntary codes they stick to, there basically has to be legislation now,’ he says.

From Bevan to Blair: 50 years’ reporting in the political front line. By Geoffrey Goodman. Revel Barker paperback £9.99

#

What about the workers?

By Stephen Bates

Reading the reminiscences of Cap’n Bob Maxwell in Ranters took me back more than 30 years to my own two, very brief, undistinguished encounters with the Great Man (in the sense of large...) in his pre-newspaper ownership days, when I was a very callow young reporter on the Oxford Mail.

My first experience was early one Saturday morning in the spring of 1979 and, having just joined the Mail, I was doing the morning shift. Someone on the desk – I am pretty sure it was Peter Day, later a pillar of the Mail on Sunday newsdesk – spotted a small story in that morning’s Financial Times about Maxwell considering a bid to take over the then faltering Meriden motorcycle cooperative, into which the Callaghan government had pumped considerable amounts of public money to no avail. Ministers were then looking for a buyer to take the factory off their hands and the bouncing Czech had apparently offered to buy it – as he did so many companies in those days, especially when there was publicity in it.

Maxwell of course lived at Headington Hall, on the outskirts of Oxford and ran his Pergamon Press from offices in the grounds. ‘Go and ask him whether the story’s true,’ the desk said and, feeling slightly foolish to be rousing the great tycoon at 8am on a Saturday, I obediently drove up to the hall.

When I got there, everything was locked and in darkness, but I decided to show willing and knock on the door of the Pergamon office. As I was considering which part of the tinted plateglass door to knock on, a large figure in a diamond-patterned golfing jersey loomed from inside.

It was Maxwell. ‘What do you want?’ he mouthed at me, the door still locked. I explained who I was and stammered my first question. He answered, muffled, through the glass. I nervously asked another and, sighing deeply, he opened the door slightly and said in an exasperated fashion: ‘I can’t hear you.’ I asked again and the door opened a little wider. Eventually, he said: ‘You’d better come in, I suppose,’ and, as I followed him over the threshold, he pointed to some milk bottles left on the doorstep and added: ‘And bring those in.’

He led me up the stairs to the boardroom and gestured to the lowest seat at the bottom of the highly-polished table, before making for the chairman’s seat in the distance at the far end. By this stage, struggling somewhat, I was asking him about why he wanted to take over the cooperative.

Sighing and yawning ostentatiously at my impertinence, Maxwell replied that he was thoroughly in favour of workers’ control and of employees having a say in the way their companies were run. And he would ensure that happened, of course. As he said this, he leaned across to a console next to his desk and flicked a switch. A foreign woman’s voice answered. ‘Bring me my pills will you?’ he barked. ‘Vitch pillz?’ she replied. ‘Oh, you ought to know,’ he replied. ‘Bring the bloody lot.’ Then he returned to telling me how much he respected workers.

A few moments later a small, elderly – I guessed Filipino – woman came in, bearing an enormous tray covered in pill boxes and bottles and with a carafe of water and glass in one corner. Without pausing to acknowledge her, Maxwell swallowed a handful of tablets before waving her away.

Pretty soon after that I had exhausted what questions I could think of and was beginning to worry about my shaky shorthand. Maxwell escorted me down the stairs and stood, ostentatiously reading the wire machine that was ticking away in the foyer. ‘Who are you going to sell this to?’ he asked. I explained – again – that I was from the local paper and he eyed me coldly. ‘Oh, I should give it to the Sunday Times,’ he said. ‘They’re always interested in anything I say...’

As I drove back to the office I had a mixture of exultation at getting the quotes so quickly from the man himself, mingled with apprehension that my shorthand would reveal he had not really said anything worth quoting at all, or that, if he had, I hadn’t managed to get it down. I thought there was no chance of selling anything to the Sundays, whatever he had said. And I also had a vague sense of grubbiness about the way he had treated me and his downtrodden member of staff. So that was how tycoons behave, I thought. It was all about power and showing off. And, naturally, he never did buy the workers’ cooperative.

A year or so later, still at the Oxford Mail, still doing early shifts, I was asked one morning to ring up Maxwell about another story. This time it was about him planning to buy The Times (this being pre-Murdoch). The thing was, in those days, you could occasionally ring Pergamon and get the Great Man answering the phone himself. This morning he did. He was not really inclined to talk and answered my questions briefly and dismissively, almost monosyllabically and certainly rudely.

This time, I felt sufficiently aggravated to fire a chance question in the hope of provoking a reaction. Anyway, I’d run out of other things to ask.

‘William Rees-Mogg in this morning’s paper says you are not the right sort of person to own The Times...’ I stammered.

The response was volcanic. ‘What! How dare you! Who do you think you are? I’ve never been asked such an insolent question in my life!’ the voice boomed down the line.

In for a penny, I thought ‘And, furthermore, he says you DON’T HAVE ENOUGH MONEY TO BUY THE TIMES...’

I thought the phone would explode. There was a roar and an expostulation and the receiver was slammed down. I sat, slightly shaking, at my desk, but with a small sense of triumph. A few moments later, the editor, Terry Page, wandered across the news floor. ‘Has someone been speaking to Robert Maxwell this morning?’ he asked.

I admitted it. ‘What on earth did you ask him?’ he said. ‘He’s threatening to set the press council on us.’

I told him. This could be serious. I could lose my £30-a-week job. Instead, the editor roared with laughter and strolled away, hands in pockets. I never heard another word about it.

Stephen Bates has also worked for the BBC, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and, for the last 21 years, for the Guardian.

#

Life in America

By Philip Jordan

Harold Heys' story about the demise of The Sporting Life omits to mention that the ghost of the Life lives on, as America's daily racing paper, the Daily Racing Form.

In 1990, George White, then, I think, managing director of the Life, persuaded Robert Maxwell that there would be money in starting up a bright, full-colour competitor for the Form, which had been the tired old daily racing paper for America for decades. He had in mind something exactly like The Sporting Life at its best, and even much improved.

The Form was a dreary paper still produced by double-keystroking (journalists wrote stories on typewriters and the copy was rekeyed by former inkies into old IBM computers and put out as bromide which was then pasted up into pages and shot to make film to make print plates, just like the first days of computerization in Fleet Street). George wanted a modern, single-keystroked paper, laid out on- screen as whole pages that would be sent direct to print sites, just like UK nationals today.

Surprisingly, Maxwell, who was at this time trying to launch himself on the U.S. stage (and succeeded, by buying the feisty tabloid Daily News of New York City, without ever really handing over any money: I was present in New York when he presented David Dinkins, then mayor of the city, with a cheque for $80 million that he patently did not have) agreed with George's plan.

The paper was called the Racing Times. It was headquartered in New York City, with offices in Lexington, Kentucky, and Los Angeles, California, and print plants in New York, Chicago and LA.

Editor was the very bright Steve Crist, until then racing reporter for the New York Times and a professional gambler who was a member of the New York Jockey Club. (Steve was a good gambler as well as a good journalist and an all round good guy: in the nine months I was in the paper's New York office, he won the Pick 6 [six winners in the same day] twice, once for $64,000 and once for $18,000. And no one who was not a real gambler wanted to play him in the Wednesday night after-edition poker school. He was also a great jazz pianist, which I think comes from the same mindset that makes gamblers).

Managing editors included Neil Cook from the Life, and myself (I must be the only person to have been [because of work permits] a managing editor on the Racing Times and, technically, an assistant eEditor on the Life at the same time. I had come from 10 years at The Mail On Sunday where I was latterly deputy managing editor and was looking for something new.

Launching the Racing Times in 1991 — its first full year of production — was exciting and fraught at the same time: we all worked six-day weeks from 10 am to 10 pm for months (no breaks, food sent in, ‘If it's chili con carne, it must be Tuesday’) and partied most of the night, mainlining on adrenalin, Hennessy cognac and Rolling Rock beer (an American racing industry staple).

Maxwell was all over it (often parking his yacht, the Lady Ghislane, in the marina near the World Financial Center at the tip of Manhattan so as to be on hand for the Times’ editorial office in Hudson Street in New York's SoHo district) at the same time as he was trying to swallow the Daily News.

Technically, the publisher was Charlie Wilson (yes, that Charlie Wilson), who popped over now and again from London, mostly because his daughter was at film school in New York. But, George White, who was president of the Times and spent every waking hour trying to work out how to launch and run a new national newspaper without really having a dollar to spend, did all the heavy lifting.

And we survived various alarums, like the night that electricity to the whole of New York City was cut, tripped by a power station over the border in Canada, just as we were in the middle of the nightly edition. The main New York edition of the paper was printed out on Long Island and pages transmitted down communication lines that were immediately banjaxed. Communications with all our satellite offices and print plants in other parts of the country also disappeared. And the phones went out. Running on backup batteries, we were jury-rigging a New York edition by printing pages at the best resolution we could get out of a large black-and-white-office printer, ready to send them by motor bike to Long Island, when power was mercifully resumed.

But the paper seemed to be getting traction. I remember an off-track betting office (known in the U.S. as an OTB) ordering the Form to be dropped, in favour of the Times, only a few months after the launch. But no one really knew: George had all the real figures in his head and wild horses would not drag them from him. I am fairly certain not even Maxwell knew.

I was in the Los Angeles office helping turn the west coast edition from a broadsheet to a tabloid (to match the size of the Form) when news came of Maxwell's walk off the back of his yacht.

Mirror Group more or less immediately made the decision to sell the Times to the Form, which was only too glad to take it. It was said at the time that they were hurting from the competition. But in fact, it was a kind of reverse takeover, since the Form took the paper more or less intact, including its full pagination and full- colour production, and many of its key staff, including Neil Cook, who became the editor of the Form at a new headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona. The new owners kept just the masthead of the Form and changed the typography, so to speak.

I didn't stay. I had grown to like living in Los Angeles, and staying with the Form would have meant working out of Phoenix, or at the Form's east coast offices in Hightstown, New Jersey. As luck would have it, I found a job in LA as an executive with a company making newspaper equipment that wanted to get into the editorial systems business.

But the Times was the paper that refused to go away. This job proved to have an eerie link back to the plucky upstart when I persuaded the re-born Form to buy a complete suite of new production equipment from my company for the now fully paginated new-look newspaper.

I am not sure that even those on the biggest papers in the UK understand the sheer complexity of how a national racing paper in the US operates. The Form prints 2,000 original pages a night (mostly past performances of horses racing at meetings the next day) across more than 50 editions from multiple print centres. So not having the right output equipment was not an option.

The last time I looked, the circulation of the Form was about 110,000 copies a day and the cover price was a neat $3.50 (about £2.25)

But competition would not leave the Form alone. The paper lives or dies on its past performance pages and other statistical stuff aimed at bettors, as much as on news and views. Racetracks began to realize that they could cream off some of the Form's appeal if they printed the performances themselves, in the brochures they hand out to race-goers with their entrance ticket.

And eventually, the Form's owners put the paper up for sale. But once again, the ghost of The Sporting Life and the Racing Times came creaking out of the woodwork: the paper was bought by a venture capital consortium headed by former Racing Times editor Steve Crist.

It is still alive and still publishing.

What happened to Neil, I don't know. But I remember him working with one of the young whizz kids on the Form on some scheme to do with gambling web sites. The last I heard of George, he was running a pub in Newbury, Berks.

Philip Jordan started freelancing at 14, and became a full-time journalist with the Stockport Advertiser. Son of John Jordan, a sub on the Daily Mail in Manchester, he later worked as a reporter and feature writer for the Daily Sketch in Manchester and London; the Daily Mail in London; at the Guardian, and at the Mail On Sunday. In 1991 he moved to the USA as a managing editor for the Racing Times and later worked for other newspapers including the Los Angeles Times; for companies producing editorial systems for newspapers; and as a publishing consultant.

#

Froth blowing

By William Greaves

The Swan Inn first opened its doors to the villagers of Fittleworth, West Sussex, in 1382, the year after Wat Tyler led the Peasant’s Revolt against the unpopular reign of the Black Prince’s son, Richard II, and to walk through its friendly portals today and buy yourself a pint is to feel at first hand the awesome power of the Great British Pub.

But the Swan’s fame has nothing to do with Dickie Two. And waste no time searching for the names of Rudyard Kipling, Diana Dors and Lady Hamilton in the visitors’ book – although they are all in there somewhere. No, this delightfully olde worlde pub has hosted a far greater moment of history than any such transitory visits.

For it is here, one day in 1924, that Bert Temple, silk merchant thereabouts, founded the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers.

Froth blowers? Pause before ye mock.

OK, so it was dreamed up as a joke – with heartfelt charitable intentions – ‘to foster the noble art and gentle and healthy pastime of froth blowing amongst gentlemen of leisure and ex-soldiers.’ But within seven years it had captivated the nation, with an astonishing 700,000 members producing today’s equivalent of more than £4.5 million to endow hospital cots and fund holidays for thousands of needy children in the East End of London.

The good Mr Temple, forever grateful to Sir Alfred Fripp, whose stomach surgery had saved his life, sought to raise a mere £100 to support his saviour’s children’s charity by asking five shillings to become a member of his new-formed society – motto Lubrication in Moderation – which entitled the duly enrolled to blow froth off any fellow member’s pint pot ‘and occasionally off non-members' beer provided they are not looking or are of a peaceful disposition.’

The idea was to get new recruits to meet in pubs and clubs throughout Britain to enjoy ‘beer, beef and baccy’ and there to be fined for major sins, such as failure to wear the club’s cufflinks – all fines and membership fees to be sent to Sir Alfred and Lady Fripp for their ‘Wee Waifs’ East End charity.

In late 1925 the Sporting Times started publishing articles on the Order’s gatherings and the now-retired royal surgeon Fripp travelled the length and breadth of the land to recruit men (blowers), women (fairy belles) and their dogs (faithful bow-wows.) Those who enrolled others received titles such as Blaster (twenty-five new members recruited), Tornado (100) up to Grand Typhoon (1,000.)

The Order’s marching song, a specially commissioned adaptation of O du lieber Augustin, became an overnight chart topper:

The more we are together, together, together
The more we are together
The merrier we’ll be.

For your friends are my friends
And my friends are your friends
And the more we are together
The merrier we’ll be.

The order was voluntarily wound up in 1931 after the death of both Fripp and Bert Temple but not before the anti-liquor fraternity had been moved to a state of moralistic apoplexy and the emergence of a massive movement for the wellbeing of the deprived had proved for all time the national persuasiveness of the Great British Pub.

Pubs that have been around for long enough to be part of British heritage, as featured in last week’s rant, are one thing but pubs that have themselves made history are something else entirely.

(Not, of course, in the same league, but back in the late 1960s I started an annual gentlemen’s cake-making competition in the Red Lion, a charming local in the village of Coleshill, Buckinghamshire, where entrants had to bring with them a signed affidavit from their ‘other halves’ that no help had been provided at the marketing, cooking or washing-up stage and any cake failing to make £10 at the subsequent auction had to be bought by its creator for at least that figure.

Twenty years later the competition was revived, with widespread newspaper recognition, to raise money for my own Capital Kids Cricket charity, designed to reintroduce and maintain the great game in London’s thousand-plus state schools, with the rather thin excuse that men who yearned to wield their willow on the village green of a Saturday afternoon had to be taught how to create their own cricket teas in the wake of a threatened rebellion by the country’s much-presumed-upon cricket widows. Who knows, one day we might yet have a nation of gentlemen cake-makers to match the already established army of gentlemen ranters?)

Anyway, back to the history makers.

Just imagine rolling home from a lunchtime session at the Eagle, in Cambridge, to have the wife challenge you with those immemorial words: ‘well, what have you learnt today?’ And you could tell her how a couple of chaps wandered into the saloon and one of them blurted out ‘We have discovered the secret of life.’ ‘And, no dear,’ you would smugly proclaim, ‘that was before they’d taken the head off their first pint.’

For that would have been the monumental occasion of February 28, 1953, when a couple of local boffins, Francis Crick and James Watson, bobbed in to announce to an astonished gathering of locals that they had just discovered this thing called DNA.

Wow.

(Mark you, the Eagle had a knack when it came to making history. Wander in today and you can still see the bar ceiling on which RAF pilots from all over the world forgathered to sign their names using only cigarette lighters, candles or lipstick during a reunion immediately after the end of World War Two.)

It’s only a few minutes walk along the cobbled streets between converted Thames-side wharves that divide two of London’s most famous pubs, the Prospect of Whitby and the Town of Ramsgate, but just imagine being a bystander on the day when the infamous Judge Jeffreys made a dash from one to the other before spending his dying days incarcerated in the Tower of London.

The Prospect of Whitby has a flagstone floor dating right back to the pub’s origin in 1543, its bar is a rare pewter top built over barrels and from its small balcony at the rear you can listen to the rhythmic lapping of the waters of the Thames beneath.

But it was none of those features that drew the notorious Jeffreys to become one of its most regular customers. The ‘Hanging Judge’ who had delighted in sentencing to death all 200 men and their leaders after the failed attempt by the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 to overthrow the Catholic King James II was there to take even greater pleasure in witnessing the appallingly stretched out death of each and every one of his victims as they were tied to a post, near-drowned by successive risings of the tide and finally garrotted at Execution Dock, a few hundred yards upstream.

After the king fled to France, Jeffreys was found hiding in a coal cellar at the pub and just had time to flee to the nearby Town of Ramsgate, where he gulped down his very last pint before being dragged off to the Tower.

The Town of Ramsgate almost certainly dates back even further, to the 1460s and the Wars of the Roses, becoming known as the Red Cow in 1533 – a rather ungallant reference to a particularly sharp-tongued redheaded barmaid of the time – before earning its present name from the fishermen of Ramsgate who refused to pay tax for landing their catch at Billingsgate market and offloaded it instead at Wapping New Stairs, immediately alongside the pub.

Nowadays it’s long narrow bar leads from Wapping High Street to a small terrace overlooking the river and landlady Janet Biddle is a woman with a purpose. ‘We’ve got a plaque on the wall presented by CAMRA because of our place in history as the last drinking place of Judge Jeffreys; we do get lots of tourists at weekends but we belong to our regulars. We have no separate restaurant and the only food we serve is bangers and mash, pies and simple fare like that – we’re a pub and determined to keep it that way.’ Well done, Janet.

No fewer than seven past kings of England have laid their head overnight on the pillows of The Angel and Royal, Grantham, Lincolnshire, but the day it forever planted its name in the annals of history was when Richard III signed the death warrant for the Duke of Buckingham in its dining room.

Ray and Dave Davies, founder members of The Kinks, played their first gig in the Clissold Arms, Fortis Green, London, in 1957 and no serious fan will be unfamiliar with those immortal lines in their subsequent hit Fortis Green:

Mum would shout and scream when Dad would come home drunk.
When she’d ask him where he’d been, he said ‘up the Clissold Arms’,
Chattin’ up some hussy, but he didn’t mean no harm.

And, while on the subject, don’t forget that it was in the Star Inn, Guildford, that The Stranglers (then called the Guildford Stranglers) gave their first performance in 1974.

Those of us old enough to remember the morning of June 3, 1953 when The Times was the only daily paper to hold its last edition long enough to split the front page between the previous day’s Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (which the whole country knew all about) and news of the first men to stand on the summit of Mount Everest (which was sensational news for all) will find memories flooding back the moment they step through the front door of the Pen-y-Gwryd inn, high above Llanberis in Snowdonia.

For inside this remote oasis in the mountains is the very bar in which Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, together with all the rest of leader John Hunt’s triumphant team, planned in minute detail the climb that was destined to conquer the world’s last untrodden frontier.

Although immensely popular annual productions of Shakespeare’s plays have been performed in its wonderfully ancient and atmospheric courtyard for more than half a century, the rightful fame of the George in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, has nothing to do with the Bard or his followers.

It is no exaggeration to say that there never would have been an English Civil War without the George’s vital contribution to British history.

For it was in this very inn, then owned by his grandfather, that Oliver Cromwell was born in 1599.

Would Charles I have made the George his headquarters during the months leading up to his final undoing at the Battle of Naseby in 1645 if he’d known he was dining and sleeping under the very same roof as his adversary’s birthplace?

And did anyone point out the irony at the time?

Almost certainly not. The licensee of the Great British Pub has always known when it’s best to keep his mouth shut.

###


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E-read all about it

Forgive Us Our Press Passes, Ian Skidmore’s hilarious account of (some of) his time as a reporter, newsdesk man, freelance reporter and broadcaster, is now available as an e-book.

This means you can download it to read on your PC, your laptop, or your Kindle or any other e-reader machine.

Buy it on-line from the bookstore page at BeWrite Books and it’s there for you to read and enjoy in about a minute.

It’s also available from major on-line book shops, including Barnes & Noble, amazon and Reader Store, priced at the equivalent of $5.99, or maybe even less.

If you want the hard copy – the paperback – you’ll still find that version at amazon-uk, Waterstones and (with free delivery worldwide) at Book Depository.

If you have been away on a desert island for the past three years and want to know more about the book, go to the Ranters Bookshop or direct to the Skiddy Page to learn what you’ve been missing.

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The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times


Issue # 184
February 18, 2011


This Week

It’s called tradecraft.

We start with a Rant. In an interview last week Geoffrey Goodman said that journalists had always been burglars, so he clearly wasn’t overly surprised by phone hacking. This week Tom Brown asks old hands whether they would do it, and gets a fairly predictable (and probably the accurate) response.

Plain John Smith remembers Doorstepping, which the younger generation might think is just the latest dance fad, but was one of the ways we used to get stories before mobile phones were invented.

David Wright, while not wishing to quibble, reminds us, even the veterans out there, to check the cuttings. (For the record, Everest was conquered on May 29, 1953; the news got back as the papers were preparing their Coronation Day special editions for June 2; the Daily Express solved its Page One dilemma with All this and Everest too!).

In the colour supplement we welcome back James Whitworth’s Rudge cartoon after one of those technical glitch things.

And Bill Greaves explains, in case you need to know, why journalists used to go to the pub. There must be something in it – we learnt this week that Stanley Blenkinsop left a request in his will that his ashes be scattered along the pavement between the Express office and Yates’ Wine Lodge. [There were other newsmen’s pubs all over the country. And, presumably, stories to tell from them. Answers on an email, please.]

And if you lust for even more learning about what life was like on the road (and in the pub), there’s now Skiddy’s electric book – see the column on the right.

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Hacked off

By Tom Brown

Message to columnists on so-called ‘quality’ papers, especially in Scotland: Spare me the po-faced piety. Your posturing about ‘hacks who hack’ shows you have never worked on a REAL newspaper and you know nothing about the REAL facts of life for those who have to make a living in journalism today.

Of course, I can’t condone their conduct – even though I’ve pulled a few strokes and toppled a politician or two while sailing close to the ethical wind. But I can understand why fellow-journalists have stooped so low as to hack into private and personal phone messages

The real culprits are the rapacious results-or-else managements who know damned well how sales-making headlines are achieved and editorial bullies who abuse their hire-and-fire powers to intimidate staff in an ever-tightening jobs market.

It is risible for managers and editors to blame the ’rogue reporter’. Anyone who has worked at the editorial coalface knows that when a story involves the Royals or may result in a complaint or hefty libel claim, it goes higher up the tree – and sources are demanded.

And let us not forget the toothless Press Complaints Commission who have for years failed to enforce their own code of conduct and the police who are under suspicion for their inaction, aka the curious case of the dog that didn’t bark…

As an old foot-in-the-door man, I have asked journalists of my generation how they feel about the phone-hacking scandal and whether they can say hand-on-heart they wouldn’t have done it. Remember, we were the generation who bought up murderers, kidnapped witnesses, door-stepped story-subjects night and day, sleeping in our cars outside their homes and, while the grief-stricken mother of a dead child made us a cup of tea, swiped every picture off her mantelpiece…

Some who pulled off the most lurid scoops claim they wouldn’t have. One long-time union man said ‘We’d have stopped the paper’ (fat chance of that nowadays). But the ones I really believed were those who said: ‘Hmm... depends on the story...’

One recalled what he had been told by a Tory politician who is now in the Lords: ‘We were under no illusions you would turn us over if you could. But we respected you because, while you might walk along the kerb, you never got down in the gutter.’

Easy for us to say. Bosses wouldn’t have asked and, if they had, we could afford to have scruples. If we thought the story wasn’t worth getting dirty, we could tell editors and news editors to stuff their sleazy assignments, then cross the street and get a job on a rival newspaper. Those alternative jobs just don’t exist today.

When did that change? Journalistic standards have been on an inexorable downward slide, starting when a brash Aussie, Keith Rupert Murdoch (on the Express we made the mistake of not taking him seriously because of the Rupert Bear connotation) bought a mediocre mid-market broadsheet called the Sun from the even more mediocre management of the Mirror Group.

You had to admire the energy, the edge, the sheer flair and the shrewdness both in marketing and selection of journalists to deliver these. But decent people developed a new nastiness and arrogance when they went to the Sun, which they often vented on previous friends and colleagues.

That became the News International ethos. It is conveniently forgotten that News of the World sports reporter Matt Driscoll was awarded £792,736 by an employment tribunal after he suffered from ‘a consistent pattern of bullying behaviour’ that ruined his health. The tribunal found that the original source of the hostility towards Driscoll was the then editor Andy Coulson who sent an e-mail that he wanted to ‘get shot of him... as quickly and cheaply as possible’ after Driscoll did not stand up a laughable story brought in by Coulson, and other senior managers took their lead from him.

In recent years the fear factor has not been confined to Wapping. It has been rife on other editorial floors – especially, but not exclusively, on ‘red tops’ – as competition became intense and management demands for job cuts meant insecure editorial executives could cover their inadequacies with threats.

‘Get the story or get out’ became the unspoken rule. The communications explosion, allied with the cult of ‘celebrity’, created the out-of-control Frankenstein culture in which nothing is confidential – encouraged by the knowledge that the legal mess and the farce of self-regulation meant newspapers could intrude with impunity.

Intrusion, eavesdropping and persecution in the name of ‘investigative journalism’ are nothing new but the law is still useless mumbo-jumbo. What are we to make of the Crown Prosecution Service telling police that it was illegal to hack into a message before the recipient had heard it but not after – then changing their minds?

The Press Complaints Commission is no better. Clause Ten of their code could not be clearer: ‘The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails.’

The offending newspapers will quote ‘public interest’ and say celebs and politicians seek publicity and are therefore fair game. Again, the PCC fudges: ‘The PCC accepts that people such as show business celebrities or sports stars may need to create a professional image of themselves in the media.’ Then it adds lamely: ‘This does not undermine their right as individuals to privacy.’

So-called ‘quality’ papers cannot pretend to be aloof. What is the morality of Wikileaks? While the Telegraph won kudos for the MPs expenses scandal, that material had been hawked around newspaper offices for weeks. Wasn’t the operation against Vince Cable and other Lib Dem ministers entrapment by clandestine recording and abuse of the trust that should exist between MPs and constituents?

We claim to have a licence to expose hypocrisy and wrong-doing but there is a difference between ‘public interest’ and plain snooping, descending into lip-licking prurience. Who is to judge?

Not for nothing are reporters called ‘newshounds’ (once an honourable epithet). The time has surely come when someone will jerk their leash, probably a statutory body with real powers to punish. But it will not work unless the punishment hurts the real perpetrators – the bosses and the executive bullies.

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My life as a milk bottle

By John Smith

I’m pretty sure that it was Jimmy Nicholson, the Prince of Darkness, who (first) said: ‘I have stood on more doorsteps than a milk bottle.’

Many a hack will know how he felt. There is something to be said for every journalistic training course to include ‘doorstepping’ in the curriculum alongside such essential subjects as shorthand and the law of libel.

There should be no shortage of veteran reporters to deliver lectures entitled: ‘Doorsteps I have stood on.’ Or perhaps, if you worked for one of the posher papers, ‘Doorsteps on which I have stood.’

Over the years, I have hung around some quite memorable doorsteps, waiting for a word from the famous, the infamous, the celebrated and the sinners, the crooked and the criminal. There was war minister John Profumo, embroiled in the Christine Keeler scandal; east end gangsters the Kray brothers; soccer wizard Stanley Matthews; boxing great Muhammad Ali; jazz legend Louis Armstrong; child star turned diplomat Shirley Temple; actor Richard Attenborough; football playboy Georgie Best and, not least, Winston Churchill.

Add to that a variety of murder suspects, homicide victims’ families, football pools winners, various prominent con men like washing machine tycoon John Bloom, runaway vicars, disgraced MPs and dodgy policemen.

By and large, the doorsteps of the upper classes proved more accommodating. Council estates tended to be somewhat hostile. Patiently waiting outside a tower block in Stepney, hoping for a few words with the wife of a notorious east end criminal who had just escaped from Dartmoor, I was seen off by the villain’s two tattooed sons who broke my windscreen with a baseball bat. In the circumstances, ‘last night his family refused to comment’ seemed appropriate.

On the other hand, crunching up the gravel drive of a stately home in Leicestershire while on a foxhunting story (‘Master of hounds runs off with whipper-in’s wife’) one might frequently be amiably greeted by an old Etonian who was (a) terribly drunk or (b) so intrigued by the novelty of a visit from the gutter press that curiosity alone encouraged them to invite you in.

Mind you, a posh address didn’t always ensure a polite reception. Via the intercom of his grand house in Eaton Square, I tried to explain to Laurence Olivier that the anguish he was suffering over the breakdown of his marriage to Vivien Leigh could best be assuaged by opening his heart to readers of the Daily Sketch. Instead, England’s greatest actor chose to open an upstairs window and throw a bucket of water over me.

The efficacy of doorstepping might well be called into question by any competent time and motion study expert. Hours or even days of hanging around on wind-swept pavements would often end with the emergence of the quarry, brushing past in total silence or delivering a terse ‘no comment’.

There are times, however, when it pays off handsomely.

Back in 1964, Royal Navy war hero Commander ‘Bobby’ Bristowe saw his City stockbroking firm ‘hammered’ by the Stock Exchange, put out of business because they were ‘unable to comply with their bargains’ – the ultimate shame for any financial firm. Normally such censure would be confined to the financial pages, but Cdr Bristowe was a colourful character, a 6ft 3ins swashbuckler who had lost a leg during the war and been awarded the DSO by Churchill for leading a daring motor boat raid on a Vichy France battleship. Having failed to contact the disgraced stockbroker by phone, I was dispatched by the Daily Mirror to his home in Forest Row, Sussex.

With me was photographer Bob Hope, whose enthusiasm knew no bounds. ‘Is this going to take long?’ he asked. ‘I’m supposed to be off at six.’

We arrived in Sussex to find the Fleet Street flying circus camped out on the doorstep of Cdr Bristowe’s imposing detached house. All inquiries were being fielded by his fearsome and very county wife, who informed us: ‘He is not here and he is not going to be here. So kindly clear orf.’

One by one, as the hours passed and darkness fell, our opposition did indeed clear orf. Only Bob and I were left, instructed to sit it out by the Daily Mirror night news editor, ‘Major’ Mike Anderson, a military minded martinet who would place a bust of Napoleon on the news desk as inspiration whenever he was masterminding a major news story.

We were about to put in what we hoped would be our final check call to the news desk from a nearby phone box when I said to Bob: ‘You know, I reckon Bristowe is actually in that house.’ I leafed through my notebook, found his number from my earlier inquiries, and dialled.

‘Yes?’ the voice that answered was slurred.

‘Commander Bristowe?’

‘Yes.’

I introduced myself.

‘You the chaps who’ve been hanging about outside?’ he said.

‘I have nothing to say, but you’ve been bloody persistent and perfectly polite. You’d better come up and have a drink.’

Minutes later we were being ushered into the house by his scowling and disapproving wife. If we had wanted to stage-manage a picture of a broken man, we couldn’t have done it better. ‘Bobby’ Bristowe, shamed war hero, sat slumped in a high backed armchair, hair awry, shirt unbuttoned almost to the waist and a goblet of half-drunk gin trailing from one hand. By his side was a big, black Labrador dog.

He poured us two large whiskies, repeated that he had nothing to say, and we sat there in silence.

‘It’s been a pretty rough day for you, sir,’ I finally ventured. ‘Worse than the war?’

He glared at me, gulping his drink. ‘Worse day of my bloody life,’ he said. ‘And all thanks to that bastard.’

‘That bastard’ turned out to be a notoriously shady city speculator who had persuaded Bristowe’s firm to buy and sell huge blocks of share for him and then failed to come up with the cash to pay for them. This had led to the collapse of the stockbrokers.

As more drink flowed, the whole story came tumbling out. Bob Hope produced his camera, but Cdr Bristowe waved it away. ‘No pictures,’ he insisted.

‘That’s OK, sir,’ I said. ‘I’m sure we’ve got plenty of you in the files…But Bob is one of Britain’s most famous animal photographers,’ I lied. ‘While he’s got his camera out, why not let him at least take a few pictures of your dog. We’ll send you some prints.’

With a wide angle lens that ensured Cdr Bristowe stayed in the frame, Bob fired off a half dozen shots in the direction of the Labrador.

Flash, bang, wallop, what a picture!

Bob Hope’s dramatic portrait of the bedraggled Cdr Bristowe took up almost the whole of page one in the Daily Mirror next morning, alongside my interview.

There was no sign of the dog.

Some years later, in the late 70s, I found myself in Dallas, Texas, preparing a colour piece for The People on the anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy. Scratching around for something new to say, my thoughts turned to Marina Oswald, widow of the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. If anyone could vividly recall the drama of that day in November, 1963, it was surely her.

I asked around among my reporter pals on the Dallas city papers. The good news was that Russian-born Marina had remarried and still lived in the Dallas area. The bad news was that she never gave interviews and the only approach was through her lawyer who was totally uncooperative.

Time, it would seem, for a little light doorstepping.

There was no reply when I arrived at her house, about 30 miles from Dallas. I waited in my car and about an hour later she drove up and went inside. As I prepared to get out of the car, there was a sudden cloudburst and torrential rain poured down. Common sense told me to wait until the downpour had slackened. Instinct told me to do no such thing.

A long driveway led up to the front door and by the time I got there I was soaked to the skin. Marina answered the bell and when I explained my mission she stared at me, grim faced. Didn’t I know she never gave interviews?

I stood on the doorstep, downcast and dripping. ‘You’re going to get pneumonia,’ she said, surveying my sodden suit. ‘You had better come in for a minute.’

In the kitchen she handed me a towel to dry myself. It was then that I noticed the calendar on the wall. November 22nd was ringed in red.

‘That’s one date I wouldn’t think you needed reminding of,’ I said.

She sat down at a small wooden table and put her head in her hands. ‘Every year it comes around and every year I dread it,’ she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

And for the next 15 minutes she graphically described the torment of being the widow of America’s most famous assassin, the whispers, the hatred and the pointing fingers that continued to follow her and her family.

It was still pouring down as I left but it was all I could do to restrain myself from performing a Gene Kelly singin’ in the rain imitation as I splashed through the puddles.

I was drenched through again, but so what?

Doorstepping can be a damp and dismal experience. But when it leads you to an exclusive that has ‘centre spread’ and a huge byline written all over it, you couldn’t care less if it snows.

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Dateline, Everest

By David Wright

I hate to quibble with the accuracy of one of Bill Greaves’ delightful pub crawl tales, but if part of his anecdote about the Pen-y-Gwryd inn in Snowdonia is correct then I’ve been deluding myself for a half century about the moment I decided I wanted to be a newspaperman.

Bill writes about the Snowdonia inn’s link to ‘those of us old enough to remember the morning of June 3, 1953, when The Times was the only daily paper to hold its last edition long enough to split the front page between the previous day’s Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II… and news of the first men to stand on the summit of Mount Everest.’

Well, on the second of June, 1953 I was a 14-year-old paper boy in Heston, West London. Coronation day was a national holiday and at the newsagent’s shop we were under orders to pick up our rounds for delivery starting at 4am – two hours earlier than usual – so the boss could get an early start to her own day off. The streets were totally deserted as I left the shop in darkness, heavy bag full of papers threatening to drag me off my bike. As usual, I stopped under a street light to take a look at the first paper on my round – the Daily Express. I’m sure I can see that dramatic front page now.

The top half of the page was artist Robb’s exclusive sketch of the dress the Queen would wear when she was crowned in Westminster Abbey later that day. The headline on the bottom half screamed, everest conquered. The reason I remember it so well is that I was so thrilled and excited about the Hillary-Tenzing Norgay triumph that I wanted to share the news with… anybody. I’d followed the earlier newspaper stories of their progress avidly and this was truly stunning. I yearned to yell to someone, ‘They’ve done it!’

But at that ungodly hour on a holiday there wasn’t a soul awake. Every time I pushed a paper through a letterbox I searched for house lights that would signal that someone was up – and maybe I’d get a chance to blurt out the incredible news I was bottling up. But to my dismay it became apparent that I was the only person in Heston who wasn’t fast asleep. Just as my parents and sister were when I got home at 5.15. I had to wait what seemed like endless hours before I could use the excuse of a morning cuppa to wake them and pass on the news. They didn’t need to read the paper. By then I’d read the Express story about the Everest triumph so many times I knew every detail.

That was the day I’m convinced I first sensed the frustration and the fun of ‘breaking’ a story – and was inspired to be in newspapers when I left school. Probably, too, why I was so chuffed when I became an Express reporter 11 years later.

And, Bill… I’m sure it was the second of June, 1953.

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colour supplement

Rudge

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Good stories start here

By William Greaves

The sort of newspaper stories that are far too good to invent nearly always sprung from a pub.

So if you don’t happen to be in the pub at the time then you don’t get to hear the one about the budgerigar and the walrus. Or the Llama that somehow made it home from Cusco to Bishops Stortford. Or, indeed, the barmaid who turned up for work after being molested by a lion.

But if it’s true that the Great British Pub is the most productive source of really interesting news stories – as opposed to all those minor wars and political upheavals around the world and economic crises nearer to home that we are all supposed to be interested in – then it’s equally true that the most productive of all was not technically speaking a pub at all.

But back in the days when everything that happened north of Aberystwyth was covered from the great Manchester offices of the Fleet Street dailies, just about every news item that had its origins anywhere near the mouth of the River Mersey sprang from the jungle drums of the Liverpool Press Club.

The Press Club was, in everything except name, a pub. And a brilliant one, to boot. You didn’t have to join it – or, at least, I never remember doing so – and the only two differences between it and newspaper pubs everywhere else were the typewriters along one wall and the fact that it remained open all day. In every other respect, the bar, the chatter and the predictable to-ing and fro-ing of its regulars was indistinguishable from every Red Lion and White Swan elsewhere in the land.

(Even that distinction is not entirely accurate. The White Swan in Tudor Street, just south of Fleet Street, headquarters of Daily Mail reporters and known even to the capital’s taxi drivers as the Mucky Duck, did have one typewriter on a shelf by the phone. But no story was ever written on it. It was there only so an ally could rattle the keys and produce that unmistakable ting at the end of every line to add credence to the claim being fraudulently delivered by one of his colleagues alongside that he was ‘working late in the office, dear.’)

The reason why all news items, however extraordinary, emanated from that one Mersey bar (and, no matter how exclusive they were originally deemed to be, would appear in every paper next morning) was the existence of the notorious Liverpool Ring. And the reason why I was privy to its secret code was because Liverpool was the terrain of those two fine Mail reporters, Arthur Redford and Clive Freeman, and when either was on day off, the other would do the day shift and I would be despatched from Manchester, booked into the Adelphi Hotel and entrusted with the night’s revelations.

I quickly learnt the ropes. All bar one of the mighty daily press representatives were not at their ‘office’ at all – they were either at the Cavern or the Blue Angel being entertained by the young Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cilla Black or whatever other apostles of the Mersey Sound were in town that night.

One man, who had drawn the short straw, stood alone at the bar. If I was luckless enough to be holding the fort and any of the battery of phones rang, invariably it was one of the various Manchester night desks seeking their man. ‘Just popped out to buy some fags,’ I would say, ‘I’ll get him to call you.’

An urgent call to either the Cavern or the Blue Angel would bring not just the sought-after man but the entire corps back to HQ. Whoever was in demand made the required call, received the exclusive tip-off and Phase Two was set in motion. More straws were drawn to decide who should go out to cover the newly broken story.

Upon the selected newshound’s return, the information would be shared, subtly rephrased here and there, relayed to sundry copytakers and every paper would have the same story, by and large, for next morning’s edition.

(Once when a not-to-be-named representative of one of the red tops could not be stirred from his sleep, I stripped my story of all its adjectives, even truncating the occasional verb, and delivered it for him to an unsuspecting copytaker. It appeared word-for-word next morning – one of my proudest journalistic moments.)

As any reporter who has ever staffed a district office will know, the bollocking that followed a missed story was both more predictable and more eloquent than the herogram that might just result from an exclusive. It was far better to be safe than sorry.

And anyway, the Mersey Sound was just beginning to sweep the world and it was a pity not to be out there, foot-tapping to its pulsating rhythms at first hand. Those were heady days in Lancashire’s second city.

Elsewhere it was the more conventional pubs acting out their role as the street corner information and ideas centres that both assuaged the thirst and filled the notebooks (or at least the memory banks if they were still in working order next morning) of Britain’s weekly, evening and morning newspaper reporters.

A year before I was born a guy called Thomas McEntee opened a pub alongside the offices of the Scottish Daily Express in Glasgow. Unknown to the outside world, it was actually a part of the Express building accessible from within and Its real name was, and is, The Press Bar, but has always been known to its regulars as Tom’s.

Despatched to have my ‘fortune’ told by one of those psychiatric agencies that asked quick-fire questions, analysed the answers and told you what sort of a chap you were and what sort of job you might think about doing – in the days when you actually had a choice – I nobly subjected myself to the ordeal on behalf of the Daily Mail features editor and arranged for two other guinea pigs to be subjected to the same indignity, the then Provost of Glasgow and the legendary Celtic football club manager, Jock Stein.

(I can’t remember how the other two got on, but my summarised outcome was that I tended towards the arrogant, self-centred, irreverent and irresponsible, while being innately fascinated by unimportant trivia and appeared only suited to a career in newspapers. Outraged, I reported the outcome to my wife over the phone and her only response was ‘Yes – but how did it know?)

Another young lady taking the test was doing so on behalf of the Glasgow Evening Times – a tad worrying as the Mail invariably sat on such undated features for several days and she was obviously going to let all rival papers into the idea of doing the same.

Back in Tom’s, I encountered Charlie Wilson, latterly my deputy news editor in Fleet Street and yet to become a distinguished editor of The Times in London, who was currently the young lady’s boss. ‘Don’t worry, Bill,’ he said over the umpteenth chaser, ‘you let me know when the Mail is running your piece and I’ll hold her masterpiece until the afternoon before.’ There’s friendship for you. But then that’s what newspaper pubs were for.

Ironically, back in those far flung days, the Mail was the only Fleet Street paper to have its Scottish office in Edinburgh and everyone else was based in Glasgow in general and Tom’s in particular. What a hell hole. I vividly remember going in but can’t ever quite remember leaving.

Another man who admits to occasional bouts of identical amnesia is my old Mirror chum, Colin Dunne.

In the absence of a shorthand note, I rely on memory but Colin has an unforgettable turn of phrase. It went something like this:

‘At the Journal and Evening Chronicle in Newcastle the pub, the Printer’s Pie, was actually within the building and Gordon Chester, one of their top reporting chaps, decided to save himself a lot of travelling and married the barmaid.

‘In Manchester, the Swan with two Necks in Withy Grove was a jolly hack’s boozer until Mike Gagie, newsdesk man, decided to get the champagne cocktails rolling. No one was allowed to refuse. One afternoon it ended up with the entire staff in the pub and the news editor’s pleas for them to return raised only hoots of derision.

‘Eventually Gagie led the whole crew back in a conga line, singing Lily the Pink. They danced into the office of the editor, Mike Terry, and insisted he took a sip of the cocktail. Mike was on no-booze pills at the time and turned a weird shade of dark blue.

‘In McGlade’s bar in Belfast, the IRA stormed in one night, produced guns and demanded money. It was such a wild drunken place, full of reporters, that no one noticed. They had to put bullets in the ceiling to get any attention. The Europa in Belfast was blown up so often that when checking in hacks used to request a room with a window.’

Oh stop it, Colin – I believe every word.

(Nowadays, Gordon looks back on those Newcastle days in wonderment that he is still alive. ‘I remember the Printer’s Pie well, of course, but we also drank in the Lord Chancellor, the Black Boy, the White Hart – before they pulled it down to build the new Chronicle offices – which I seem to recall was why they had to build the Printer’s Pie into the new offices – the Brass Man, the Post Office Buffet, the Imperial, the Farmer’s Club (to fill the gap between afternoon closing and evening opening), the County, the Victoria and Comet – always known as the Spit and Vomit – the Forth, the Long Bar – heavens, those were the days!’)

Did the paper ever come out, Gordon? Silly question – Geordie newsmen were built of sturdy stuff.

My own recollection of Manchester pubs were the two just around the corner from the Mail and Manchester Evening News in Hardman Street, the Victoria and the New Theatre – both now sadly gone to make room for the new law courts.

The New Theatre, run by the legendary Arthur Gosling with the city’s finest range of cheeses alongside some of its best beer, was also home to the Granada TV faithful and regular barhanger Michael Parkinson famously instructed his reception desk not to say he was in the New Theatre but that he had nipped into ‘Studio 3.’ A quick call to Arthur had him back in no time. Not surprisingly, even Arthur began to believe his pub was called Studio Three.

Arthur’s father before him used to have the Sawyer’s Arms in Deansgate, where Sir John Barbirolli was wont to retreat after the rigours of conducting the Hallé Orchestra at the Free Trade Hall. Occasionally entrusted by the Evening News to review one of his concerts, I would track Sir John to his hideaway and seek his own verdict. ‘The Schubert was crap but we got ourselves together for the Saint-Saens,’ would be a not untypical judgement. My reputation as a music critic quickly soared.

Another Manchester pub much in demand during the wee hours of the night shift was the Sir John Abercrombie in Bootle Street. A pre-arranged coded tap on the window alongside the front door would magically cause it to open. Once inside you were quickly among friends, most of them officers from the nearby Manchester Police headquarters – so it was always wise to take a notebook with you.

And now – you’ve been very patient – to the barmaid and the lion. (It’s been told before in this seemingly interminable series of rants but, like all good stories, is well worth repeating.)

It was that famous Yorkshire Post editor, Sir Linton Andrews, who delighted in telling the cautionary tale of the reporter who failed in his duty – by not going to the pub.

It happened when he was previously editor of the Leeds Mercury and awoke one morning to discover that his paper was alone among all its rivals in missing the story of a local barmaid who had been bitten by a lion at a music hall in the city. It didn’t take long to find out why.

Just like every other night, nearly every late duty reporter had been supping in Whitelock’s Turks Head, the city’s oldest pub and still the regular habitat of Leeds journalists, the previous evening when the luckless lass clocked on, heavily bandaged, to tell the story of her ordeal.

Alone among the absentees was Francis Boyd, later to enjoy a distinguished career as political correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, who excused himself on the grounds that he was a Congregationalist and teetotaller. He escaped Andrews’ wrath on religious grounds but never forgot the big one that got away.

If Daniel Defoe had met Alexander Selkirk at the Llandoger Trow pub in Bristol a few years later than he did, it’s a pound to a penny he would never have been able to keep the story of Robinson Crusoe to himself.

For the Llandoger was destined to become the daily meeting place of that veteran band of West Country men, Chris White of the Mail, Sid Young of the Mirror, Phil Dampier of the Sun, Dave Newman of the Star and photographers Johnny Walters (Mail) and George Phillips (Mirror).

The day when Chris’s wife-to-be, Anne, met the gang for the first time, Newman was wearing a trendy jerkin as a body warmer. When Newman complained that no one had told him some detail in a story they had all done that morning, Young said, rather unsympathetically, that he was in the habit of checking cuttings and advised Newman to do the same. Newman retorted that the only cuttings Young ever got to see were grass cuttings (Young had a large house with enormous garden – bought with the proceeds of his days as the Mirror’s man in New York). ‘When Sid snapped back ‘At least I can afford a jacket with sleeves’, Anne decided it was time to leave,’ Chris recalls. ‘She generously put it all down to the drink.’

(When Chris finally married Anne his new father-in-law was amazed by the massive pile of telegrams. They turned out to be mostly from pub landlords throughout Avon, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. And he recalls that they all finished with the same four words: ‘We will miss him.’ Good on you, Chris.)

Before workaday boozing was largely outlawed around the scattered newspaper offices of London, all the legendary pubs were understandably collected around Fleet Street.

The Mucky Duck we have already discussed but many of the others had names that bore no resemblance to anything that appeared on the sign without. The miniscule Auntie’s had disappeared by the time I hit the street in the late sixties and even my old buddy John Edwards can’t remember its real name. ‘It was THE Mail pub in its day where Donald Todhunter did much of his hiring and firing,’ he recalls. ‘And it was pulled down to make a car park – for four cars.’

Neither Winnie’s nor Number Ten, on the right, just up Fetter Lane, was the real name of one of Hugh Cudlipp’s favourite boozers either – but what on earth was it called? Help, please.

And, of course, the pub that ultimately became the Mirror’s second home, the White Hart, was known as nothing else but the Stab in the Back. Only the King and Keys (Telegraph) and Popinjay (Express), as far as I recall, managed to hang on to their given names.

Our Chief Ranter recalls the day he walked into the Cheshire Cheese – more often populated by tourists looking for journalists than by journalists themselves – in its little alley just off Fleet Street with Sunday Mirror northern news editor, Ken Bennett, only to be told that its lunch tables were fully booked.

The conversation, as he recalls, went something like this:

RB: Full? Full of what, exactly?

Head waiter: Tourists.

RB: And they are here because...?

HW: Because it's the most historic pub in Fleet Street.

RB: So they come in here expecting to see what, or whom...?

HW: Oh... OK, I take the point...

And he led them to the corner banquette where he addressed an American family:

HW: Excuse me, sir, but you'll have noticed, when you sat down, that there's a plaque on the wall behind you saying Dr Johnson. His seat.

Yank: Oh, sorry... Has he come in?

HW: No, sir. Sadly he died. But before he died he bequeathed his seat to Mr Barker. And now HE has come in...

Yank: Then is it OK if we all shuffle up and make room?

HW (aside): There you go. Now you'd better entertain the buggers.

KB (sitting down): Did I tell you what Princess Anne said to me last week, the little minx...?

Magic.

And talking of conversational exchanges, how’s this for size?

Peter Jackson, that most eloquent of rugby writers, recalls taking his wife, Anne, for the first time into one of Cardiff’s two journalistic hideaways, Roberts Bar. (The other one was the Queen’s Vaults.)

‘Before she could even sit down,’ recalls Jackson, later to become rugby union correspondent for the Daily Mail but at the time recently arrived on the staff of the South Wales Echo, ‘a reporter on the sister daily, the Western Mail, came over and said: ‘Take her out – this is a men only bar.’

‘It was my wife’s first meeting with John Humphreys...’

###


Keep up to date with Ranters


If you are not already on our journalists’ mailing list (or if you used to be on it and have mysteriously fallen off) and want to be reminded when the site is updated, send your name and email address to

rantersreader@gmail.com


Use the same link if you have recently changed your email address.


We do not send any other emails and do not share the address list with anybody.


Skiddy goes electronic


Forgive Us Our Press Passes, Ian Skidmore’s hilarious account of (some of) his time as a reporter, newsdesk man, freelance reporter and broadcaster, is now available as an e-book.

This means you can download it to read on your PC, your laptop, or your Kindle or any other e-reader machine.

Buy it on-line from the bookstore page at BeWrite Books and it’s there for you to read and enjoy in about a minute.

It’s also available from major on-line book shops, including Barnes & Noble, amazon and Reader Store, priced at the equivalent of $5.99, or maybe even less.

If you want the hard copy – the paperback – you’ll still find that version at amazon-uk, Waterstones and (with free delivery worldwide) at Book Depository.

If you have been away on a desert island for the past three years and want to know more about the book, go to the Ranters Bookshop or direct to the Skiddy Page to learn what you’ve been missing.

#


The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times


Issue # 185
February 25, 2011


This Week

Funny old week on the sunshine isle of San Serif, watching the changing events in the middle east from the observatory atop Ranter Towers. Libyan refugees flood in to our south island while our own nationals can’t get out of the country; fighter pilots fly in, unannounced, and seek sanctuary at Bodoni International (and it’s said that, when they were spotted heading this way, Italy surrendered, on the off-chance). Colonel Mad declares that, oh bugger, he thinks he’d rather fancy becoming a martyr – and I am reminded that (a) I was refused entry into Libya for having described him in that way and (b) the Mirror chief librarian once complained to me that we had 15 different ways of spelling Gaddafi in cutts.

On the bright side, the unfolding history prompts former Daily Mail (and World in Action) man Geoff Seed – whose exceptional diplomatic contacts gave him a true story as the plot of his excellent journalism novel, A Place Of Strangers – to share another post-prandial Foreign Office reminiscence with us.

Still in the prompt corner, Derek Jameson, who edited three national papers (and one northern edition) picks up where Tom Brown (last week) and Geoffrey Goodman (week before) left off on subjects like phone hacking.

And Cathy Couzens has memories of both doorstepping (Plain John Smith, also last week) and the morality of the business (Tom Brown was her boss).

Elsewhere last week, as Bill Greaves went out for a pint, we mentioned that Stan Blenkinsop’s ashes were to be strewn along the route between the Daily Express office and Yates’s Wine Lodge; we also suggested that there might be other stories from other newsmen’s pubs. Revel Barker kicks off with a cautionary tale.

Meanwhile, on doctor’s orders our cartoonist, Rudge, has taken the dog for a walk.

#

What a picture

By Geoffrey Seed

As the fates played skittles with sundry Arab despots, I lunched with an ex diplomat friend who became a Foreign Office meeter-and-greeter when he retired.

One of the guests he entertained on a visit to London in the 1980s was the President of Yemen – Ali Abdullah Saleh – who now promises to jump before he is pushed like Mubarak et al.

President Saleh's status did not warrant a dinner with the Queen, only tea. Even so, this modest affair involved a degree of pomp and ceremony that impressed him greatly.

So happy was he in the magnificent surroundings of Buckingham Palace – and so charming and hospitable was the Queen – that President Saleh disregarded all protocol and announced: ‘I must have a photograph of this.’

The Foreign Office minders and Palace flunkies looked aghast at this breach of convention but not so the Queen. She looked around and asked if anyone had a camera. No one did so she said; ‘Well, I'll go and get mine.’

With that, she left her guests with their tea and cakes and toddled off to get her camera. She returned a few minutes later and posed with a joyous President Saleh while someone took their picture.

My friend thinks it might still be on the presidential mantelpiece... but possibly not for much longer.

#

Say it in Yiddish

By Derek Jameson

The Andy Coulson saga rattles on. It is beginning to look like a vendetta with Andy in the unlikely role of Captain Dreyfus. God forbid that any words of mine should comfort the Tory party, but methinks it is time I spoke up and got our fall guy off the hook by revealing why he almost certainly did NOT know what mischief his reporters were up to on the News of the World.

It all comes under the heading of a Yiddish expression I picked up as a kid on the streets of the East End: Better you shouldn’t ask!

In my days as editor of the NoW back in the eighties, the genius who masterminded those sensational front pages was the late, much lamented Bob Warren, news editor for half of his 44 years on the paper. He knew where all the bodies were buried, but was never going to tell the editor.

The reason was quite obvious when you think about it. If any editor knew half of what mischief was afoot at the behest of the quiet, benign Bob Warren, he would have to put a stop to it for several reasons – not least that the ferocious Rupert Murdoch takes a dim view of any editor threatening to give him a headache.

Having invested a great deal of time, thought and staff in his potential frontpage exclusive, the last thing any news editor wants is to hear the editor on the internal intercom bellowing ‘What the fuck are you playing at?’ So it’s heads down everyone and not a word to the mighty.

Perhaps more importantly, what the editor doesn’t know can’t hurt him or the paper. So when a call arrives from some luminary complaining about the antics of a faceless reporter, the editor can say, hand on heart: ‘I don’t know what you are talking about. Nothing to do with my paper. Try those rascals on the Sun!’

Then there is every editor’s time honoured duty to nurture the paper’s supposed reputation for honesty, integrity, fair play and to be whiter than white in all matters that concern the rights of the public, etc, etc. As well as protecting his own back, of course.

No wonder Andy Coulson – whom I have never met – declared at Bob Warren’s memorial service in March 2009: ‘He steered 17 editors away from the rocks of journalistic disaster.’

Most of the popular tabloids – indeed, all papers, come to that – observe these unwritten rules in varying degrees, but they matter more than most on the NoW in view of its appetite for sex and scandal, whatever means are employed to feed these twin monsters.

The scenario changes once the words stand up and get past the lawyer – Warren was a close friend of News Group’s legal honcho Tom Crone – and are circulated round the editorial. Then it is a question of whether we want this story in the paper, not how it came to be there. That becomes irrelevant. If anyone should want to know and the story looks a bit dodgy, then, hey – better you shouldn’t ask!

So far as I know, I never came across a story involving phone tapping, but well remember a mystery that might have been related. It concerned one of those red-and-white candy striped canopies that telecom workers erect on a pavement to ward off the weather. I discovered that two reporters were tucked away in such a tent and assumed they were spying on the comings and goings at a nearby residence. Thinking about it, I now wonder whether they were tapping underground cables…

There were more primitive ways of enlightening the public in the days before we got to grips with mobile phones and satellite communications. One story that landed on my desk revealed that Prince Andrew was still seeing his inamorata Koo Stark, months after they had parted. How do we know? Nobody was going to tell me. Long after we published one of my execs whispered that two reporters had got into a Kensington hotel room and listened to their chatter through a glass tumbler held against the adjoining wall.

Incidentally, artful dodger tricks are usually performed by freelances on casual shifts so that once again the paper can claim that none of its staff could possibly be responsible for whatever piece of villainy is being challenged.

As Geoffrey Goodman said, journalists have always been burglars. It goes with the territory. Working as a young sub on the Hickey column on the old Daily Express, it always tickled me to hear reporters introducing themselves on the phone to some errant aristocrat along the lines of: ‘London International Features Syndicate here, Sir, is it true you are to marry a girl from the local chip shop?’

My own greatest coup came with the Manchester United tragedy in 1958. The Munich clinic tending the victims wouldn’t release a casualty list before families had been informed. I was duty editor at Reuters and got Sidney Weiland, our man in Belgrade, to phone the clinic claiming to the British ambassador to Yugoslavia. ‘As the team have been playing here, I’m responsible for them until they get back home,’ he lied. ‘Please let me have names so that I can forward them to London. Thank you so much.’

Scandalous behaviour – in the public interest or simply of interest to the public? I didn’t think to ask.

Derek Jameson spent 40 years in Fleet Street before achieving fame as a radio and television presenter. From messenger boy at 14, he went on to become managing editor of the Daily Mirror and editor of the Daily Express, Daily Star and News of the World.

#

Ethics girl

By Cathy Couzens

Tom Brown should have written the piece about doorstepping last week, along with his views on morality and ethics; he was the one who sent us. He would sit pleasantly chatting with Arliss Rhind, the rain tipping down like buckets from hell, turn amiably around and wave. That smiling bald man could send you into the hobs of hell with a friendly Scottish pat on the back. Out of all the news editors and assistant news editors I remember the team of Rhind and Brown were the nearest thing to a Gaelic Two Ronnies I can drum up.

Standing outside a house in freezing conditions never made sense to me. We would always try and sneak in. I remember walking around the back of Pinkhurst, the home of Oliver Reed, accompanied by a rather greenhorn girl who had been sent from the Sun. It was the time Ollie hitched up with a 16-yr-old who later became his wife. The sweet girl from the Sun was terrified, I think she was more scared of me than being caught but the whole issue was she had been told to find proof that the old drunk was knocking off a local girlie.

As Tom rightly said… the girl was threatened with the sack if she did not get it right. I am a very nice person…truly I am. Ask little old ladies, small children and dogs… but I cheat sometimes. Ok. So I did not tell the wee girlie that I had hung out with Ollie for 12 months or so….that I knew how to get into his house.

I went around, looking very intense, opened the French windows, told the dog to go to bed and we went searching for proof. Easy. The dear Josephine had left her homework books all over Ollie’s bedroom. My little friend from the Sun (wish I could remember her name, I expect she is an executive now) was awesomely impressed. We both got a story… I had more stuff in mine as I didn’t show her round the whole house. Well, you have to keep your own job…

Tom Brown was the one on duty when I was threatened with a sawn-off shot gun by Mariella Novotny, the Russian mistress of a politician. She stormed downstairs looking like the mad wife in Jane Eyre with a sodding great gun. I left. I found a phone box and phoned dear Tom, who said, ‘You go back there and tell that woman that NOBODY points a gun at the Daily Express.’ To which I said, ‘No Tom, you tell her, I’m coming back.’

My daughter is a district attorney in America’s fourth largest city, soon to become third largest. If she knew that I had dismantled phones, stolen photographs, let air out of tyres and removed a distributor cap, gosh she would be mortified. Actually she would probably laugh, she is not worried by her mother’s wild past. We used to steal quite a lot of things… address books, phone parts, diaries – and were we supposed to have all those backward phone directories? I loved them.

Restaurant managers were always on my side… I have not got a clue why Regines gave me a table, or why boxes of new Beaujolais were delivered to my office. I just took it for granted. If they told me to go down a mine, I went. And when the restaurant in the Free Lebanon blew up ten minutes after I visited it with six Israeli soldiers I thought it sad. Damn, that was good food and who could confirm all the Black Label whisky on my bill now?

Fleet Street may not exist but like all good things it had a good run and we had the best of it. Oh, I just remembered who used to send me on the most door steps… Jill Lloyd, when she was night news editor of the DX. Damn it – trust a woman to put another woman out in the cold.

I still ask the awkward questions, even at community councils or church stuff. I still ask the questions no one wants to ask. Why not?

Once you have asked Prince Charles if he wants to go back to your palace or his, and asked the wife of the leader of the Liberal party if she knew her husband was homosexual… and asked Liberace when he first knew his boyfriend had Aids – hell you can ask anybody anything.

Maybe they don’t ask questions like that anymore. As Derek Jameson would say, Wot a load of bloody rubbish! They just don’t make them like us anymore. Oh, hugs to you Tom…Man, you look thinner!

Cathy Couzens started on the Brighton and Hove Gazette in 1968, worked for the Evening Argus at the same time and moved to Westminster Press London office in 1974, doing night shifts at the Daily Mail. She became a reporter on the Daily Express, later moving to the Daily Star. In 1981 she met a man on an airplane, married him ten days later in Reno and has been in Houston, Texas ever since. She still freelances, when called, and also gives talks on the Royal Family.

#

Behind bars

By Revel Barker

I can’t vouch for the veracity of the story that follows; I wasn’t there but I tell it as best I remember it, as it was told to me many years ago by Stanley Blenkinsop and others, so there’s an element of truth in it… somewhere.

If the devil is in the detail then the beer in question may actually have been Wilson’s or even Yates’s own best bitter (brewed for them by Wells and Young), but Boddington’s suits the story better. Of course it would all be fairly easy to check out, but I’m loath to do that in case somebody denies it. Meanwhile it fulfils the basic requirement for this website on the grounds that it’s a story I would happily – and confidently – tell in a pub.

On one of those days when the sun was shining even in Manchester and it was altogether too nice for any real work, Daily Express photographer Johnny Wardaugh found necessary enquiries that took him and a reporter out of the office. First stop (for, once outside in Ancoats Street the weather no longer matters) was down the stairs into Yates’s Wine Lodge where the pair ordered up a couple of heart-starters.

It was bang on opening time and at the counter they joined a stranger who had been narrowly ahead of them, waiting for the doors to be unlocked.

What they didn’t know (how could they?) was that their drinking companion had been released that morning from Strangeways Prison.

Something else they didn’t know (how could they?) was that while the majority of prisoners may have had a photo of Raquel Welch or Farrah Fawcett-Majors on the wall of their cell (that dates the story a bit), this guy had a poster depicting Boddington’s best bitter.

Tantalisingly, the ale was brewed within sniffing distance… at Strangeways Brewery.

So when he ordered up his pint he didn’t swill it down immediately.

He studied it.

His finger followed the condensation on the outside of the glass.

He leaned forward and sniffed it.

He stood back and admired it. The amber colour; the light white frothy head.

None of this was missed by our trained observers.

The thirsty ex-con then closed his eyes, the better to allow his other senses to savour the taste and the aroma he had been contemplating for two years (a slight case of GBH, but with good conduct).

He lifted the shimmering golden pint of pale ale to his lips, eyes still closed…

And as it neared his mouth he became suddenly aware that something unexpected had touched his nose. It wasn’t the froth.

He opened his eyes to find…

A cooked sausage.

He replaced the pint glass on the counter and stared in disbelief at the offending banger, bobbing about in the Boddy bubbles.

By this time a few more early starters had wandered in to the bar and all eyes were on him.

Except Wardaugh’s. He, with perhaps the slightest trace of a smile on his lips, was staring innocently at the ceiling. Something of a give-away, that.

The ex-con whacked him.

Well, you would.

He might have whacked Johnny twice but, as old Yates’s hands will know, the cash desk was separate from the bar and the cashier (I think she was called Mary, but it doesn’t matter to the story), having cashed his travel warrant, had been watching the chain of events and, before the devastated drinker had raised his glass, had dialled up Manchester’s finest.

The boys in blue were quick to respond and they had him back in Strangeways in time for lunch.

Before the poor sod had even tasted his pint.

A sympathetic magistrate heard his story and let him out. But, of course, he was banned from every pub in Manchester on the grounds of violence in a bar. He had to journey even unto Oldham to enjoy his first pint.

There’s a lesson in there, somewhere.

Probably that it was best not to go drinking with Johnny Wardaugh.

#

Rudge

###


Keep up to date with Ranters


If you are not already on our journalists’ mailing list (or if you used to be on it and have mysteriously fallen off) and want to be reminded when the site is updated, send your name and email address to

rantersreader@gmail.com


Use the same link if you have recently changed your email address.


We do not send any other emails and do not share the address list with anybody.


Skiddy goes electronic

Forgive Us Our Press Passes, Ian Skidmore’s hilarious account of (some of) his time as a reporter, newsdesk man, freelance reporter and broadcaster, is now available as an e-book.

This means you can download it to read on your PC, your laptop, or your Kindle or any other e-reader machine.

Buy it on-line from the bookstore page at BeWrite Books and it’s there for you to read and enjoy in about a minute.

It’s also available from major on-line book shops, including Barnes & Noble, amazon and Reader Store, priced at the equivalent of $5.99, or maybe even less.

If you want the hard copy – the paperback – you’ll still find that version at amazon-uk, Waterstones and (with free delivery worldwide) at Book Depository.

If you have been away on a desert island for the past three years and want to know more about the book, go to the Ranters Bookshop or direct to the Skiddy Page to learn what you’ve been missing.

#


 

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