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

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HITCH

 

Brian Hitchen and his wife Nelli were both killed after being hit by a car while walking along the pavement in Altea, Spain, on December 1. Nelli died instantly, Brian the following day.

A former Daily Mirror reporter, Brian became editor of the Star (1987-94) and of the Sunday Express (1994-96).

 

By Revel Barker

In his twenties Brian Hitchen had an impressive and colourful range of contacts (not to be confused with what the modern generation refers to as ‘sources’ when they are describing press officers).

And on a quiet day, as a Mirror reporter, he would be allowed time for ‘visiting contacts’ (nobody would query the exes).

Sometimes, if he knew I had the day off, he would take me along. It was an eye-opener.

He introduced me to crooks, thugs, gangsters, members of the Sweeny and to tarts (the type we have heard about, with hearts of gold). And towards the end of an afternoon he would ask whether I wanted tea, or a G&T, and we would drive off in his Sunbeam Alpine to Mayfair or Knightsbridge to take refreshment with ladies of the night (and maybe also of the day) who would do no more than put the kettle on or open a bottle and tell Hitch what was happening in the big city.

For me, aged 20 and about to graduate to Fleet Street and join him on the Daily Mirrorthe entertainment was no more than watching the pretty ladies in half-open housecoats and little else simply moving about in their tastefully decorated apartments. For Hitch, it was ‘seeing contacts’.

Nothing ever happened that couldn’t be reported back to Nelli.

In the central glove box of the Alpine he kept a shiny commando dagger. ‘Just in case,’ he said. He knew how to use it, he said; he had been in the Parachute Regiment.

Good God, I thought, more than once. This is what I joined for... the excitement I craved for as a kid reporter.

When he was working on Rachmanism the Mirror provided him with a minder called (I think) Freddie The White Eagle Of Poland, who had been banned as a wrestler for biting off the ear of an opponent. One night in the Establishment Club (it may have been the Ad Lib) the singer Alma Cogan took exception to something Freddie had said and, having found a cricket bat in the manager’s office (don’t ask), hit Freddie so hard it broke the spine of the bat. Freddie just stroked his head and asked what he could possibly have done to upset her.

Trust me: it was a different world, in those days.

He came back from the India-Pakistan War carrying his Olivetti Lettera 22 and showed me the candle stub still stuck to the casing. A trickle of blood ran through the wax and into the typewriter keys.

He explained that he had used it in the trenches, often at night, to type his accounts from the front line.

And the blood...? He beamed: ‘War wound... cut my thumb opening a can of Coke.’

That was 1965. And in the half-century that has followed we have stayed in touch. I never met anybody who mentored and encouraged young reporters in the way that Hitch did. Even when he left the Mirror for the Express and we became rivals he would take the time to send a congratulatory note on a story I had ‘got away with’.

He only once expressed anger with me. When I had stolen a story from under the nose of an Express man the guy explained it by claiming that he had been whacked by a ‘Mirror Heavy’. I had been the only other person present and Hitch didn’t approve of that sort of behaviour.

I told him it was the nicest thing he had ever said to me – to imagine me as a Mirror Heavy. Our heavies, in those days, were Ed Laxton (known for some reason as The Tank) and Tom Merrin (who looked like a cross between the Kray twins, out of Henry Cooper). I was gangly and probably 12-stone, soaking wet.

‘I’ll just say this,’ said Hitch. ‘I’ll have the bugger in the office tomorrow and if he doesn’t arrive with a black eye he will certainly leave with one.’

Here is former Mirror managing editor Tony Delano, in Slip-Up (How Fleet Street found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard lost him):

If the Daily Express is one of Fleet Street’s archetypal products, then Hitchen is another, and it is a mild wonder that they took so long to find each other. He had spent most of his career as a high-voltage by-line on the Daily Mirror, the tabloid bestseller among the nationals, putting in a stint in its New York bureau where he met [Brian] Vine, then the Express bureau chief there.

When both returned to London, Vine recruited him away from the deputy’s chair on the Mirror newsdesk, and he came home in spirit to the huge jammed dilapidated Big Room of the Express, where the cast may not be what it was and the scenery needs repainting, but they still put on a stirring performance of The Front Page every night except Saturdays.

Hitchen had been a newspaperman since he was fifteen and at thirty-six could hardly be taken for anything else except, perhaps, because of his pink and white north-of-England skin and a tonsured semicircle of invincible hair, a recently defected, rather depraved friar. But that would necessitate ignoring the broken nose from his time in the Parachute Regiment and the overspill at his belt that commemorates years of dedicated expense account encounters in the pursuit of professional wisdom.

Hitchen knew the reporter’s arts as the friar would know his rosary. He knew who to call, when and where to call them and how to get them to say what he wanted to hear. He could talk into a telephone without being overheard by someone sitting three feet away and hold a conversation at a bar without having his lips read.

He never forgot a name or a face and never threw away a telephone number. He always knew where a drink could be had, if necessary, in a place where no one knew what he did, or where they thought he was someone else – harmless misrepresentation being among the approved skills of the calling.

He had bartered with the nation’s administrators and custodians and, on occasion, bribed them. His encounters with ordinary people had left them sometimes saddened, sometimes joyful or relieved, sometimes in terrible trouble. He had known long nights and cold doorsteps, and a lot of foul and makeshift food in his day. He was decent now and a good mentor to those he sent out to endure them in their turn...

When the Mirror sent him to New York, he needed to start an entirely new contacts book and it surprised none of his friends that most of the new surnames in it ended in vowels. It meant that he  knew (or could find out) what was going on and, perhaps more to the point, that Nelli and their newly born son Alex were 'safe' in a  new and foreign environment.

He came home to join the news desk before being enticed to the Express and stayed with the group long enough to add Mohammed Al-Fayed, Jimmy Goldsmith and Margaret Thatcher to his close contacts. He also managed, as editor, to change the daily Star from near-porn to something remotely close to news.

When he retired he took his contacts with him and created something called Brian Hitchen Communications. The names in the book were all glad to have him on call, as he had had them.

In more recent years, in our email Government-In-Exile, Hitch was prime minister: no contest. England would have been rich because there would have been none of this nonsense about overseas aid or dodgy social benefits.

His right-wing views pervaded his editorship of the Star and of the Sunday Express, and yet his many socialist friends were unable to take offence because throughout it all there was a wonderfully underlying sense of humour and mischief.

It was all a great game to him, and he was one of the great players.

People talk about reporters and even editors who were loved, and people who were ‘legends’.

It is usually bollocks.

Hitch, bless him, was the exception that proves the rule. And Nelli (real name Ellen), bless her, was the sort of wife that every journalist ought to have had.

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