Does anybody still bother about covering the local mags courts? It was cheap copy, after all, like covering council meetings. Ken Lemmon, when he was my news editor on the Yorkshire Evening Post, told me he’d never seen a set of council minutes that didn’t contain five page leads and at least 15 fillers.
For freelance agencies, it seems the copy is too cheap. Even in London the corrs can’t make a living out of it. Yet in our day (you’ll excuse the expression) every courthouse in the land appeared to sustain freelance operations – some of them of course were the local men doing lineage, but some were thriving stand-alone court agency businesses.
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that those proprietors claiming to be strapped for cash and bemoaning the cost of ‘newsgathering’ would see the advantage of getting some young hopeful to learn shorthand and then just sit where the real local stories came up.
It might be a thought too far, that covering courts and councils was actually the cornerstone of what we used to think of fondly as Democracy. But it was also free, and privileged, and anybody with a hole in his, er, balance sheet ought to appreciate that.
There were good stories, local stories, daft stories and sometimes great stories. And the courts and councils were frequently where they started.
Nowadays they appear to be overlooked and even ignored. But they were stories that affected the readers of local papers, and were about people they knew. And then every so often there’d be something worth flogging to the nationals.
Those were the days, then, that Harold Heys recalls with a sort of fondness. Nick Jenkins (via Ken Smiley) reminds us that a good relationship with Their Worships could also be helpful in court reporting.
As for the rest of this week’s fare, it’s very much as it is intended to be, with stories prompting other stories.
A bit like being in the pub, then. Which is where we all came in.
A few weeks back I wrote a piece about the demise of the District Man. Well, I haven’t found many on a steady trawl through Lancashire. But I did bump into freelance Andy Rosthorn who told me one of his many tales, this one about the time he was a district man in Nelson in the mid-60s.
Andy, for those who don’t know him, made his name on the Daily Mail in the 70s and his claim to fame is that he is the only man to have been sacked five times by the Mirror Group. He is a world expert on Rudolf Hess and has more daft newspaper stories than anyone I’ve ever known. In more than 25 years I can’t recall him being on time for anything. Ever. He once rang me as he headed for the Adelphi pub through the grounds of Blackburn Cathedral. He had, perhaps, 200 yards to cover. I shot straight round. He arrived two hours later.
I’ll come back to his tale shortly. But first I’d like to bemoan the disappearance of another member of our profession: the Staff Court Reporter. There aren’t any that I know of now, probably because no one can do shorthand any more and magistrates and court clerks don’t take kindly to digital recorders.
It was often a monumental bore, but every now and then a spark of magic made it worthwhile. You never knew when it might happen. It could be in the middle of a dull Due Care or a litany of some unfortunates who hadn’t paid their TV licences. How many great tales have been missed in recent years, I wonder? Freelances do their best but it’s a thankless task.
Just one example. When the Sunday People entrenched back to London from Manchester in 1988 I went covering my home town of Darwen for the local evening before going off a few months later to fly the racing desk on Eddie Shah’s Post. It was close on 25 years since I’d covered a court but I soon fell into the swing. I’d get a cheery ‘Hello’ from the magistrates, most of whom I knew, and ‘Hiya, H’ from the local villains, all of whom I knew, and then I’d settle in a corner for a snooze. My probation officer pal would give me a dig in the ribs if anything interesting was happening and I’d immediately start scribbling away.
Next on the list this particular morning was a non-payment of vehicle excise licence and I decided it was time for a nod. I was awakened by a dig and a kick on the ankle and I went effortlessly into shorthand mode. Some poor sod was explaining that he and his wife had no money as they had just paid for the funeral of their baby who had died from unexplained cot death syndrome. Even better – sorry, worse – it was their second cot death. Magic! I slid over smartly and was interviewing him before the case had finished.
It was swings and roundabouts. A few weeks later, I recall, I lost a fiver to Kevin, the probation man. Some yob had assaulted the police and got off with a fine. I’d bet he’d get sent down – just like another yob the previous week. I was so pissed off I went round to the magistrates’ rooms later, knocked on the door, and asked a rather surprised chairman if he could explain why I’d just lost a fiver (I actually tried to draw a comparison between the two sentences). He huffed and puffed and was suitably embarrassed before slamming the door in my face.
His embarrassment at so flagrant an injustice (my loss of a fiver) was nothing compared to the time I pitched up late at Padiham court as a junior. ‘Ask at the cop shop,’ I’d been told and the desk sergeant pointed me up the winding stairs. Five doors. All the same. Pick one. Always go for the middle one, was the usual ploy. I swung it open and out fell a brush, mop and, from a high shelf, a metal bucket. Ok. Left to right. Success!
An elderly guy was sitting at a desk writing away. Obviously the local man. I edged in and sat besides him, snaffling his court list. ‘Where are we up to, cock?’ I asked. He recoiled and gave me a look that would have frozen hot pot. I slowly took in the room. The open-mouthed police inspector, smirking solicitors, a puzzled gallery… ‘Oh, sorry,’ I apologised and made as dignified an exit as I could muster. Leaving the bemused magistrate to get on with it.
But back to Andy Rosthorn’s tale of his days covering court and just about anything else in East Lancashire back in the 60s. Andy used to cover Reedley Magistrates where ‘thanks to a gritty hinterland and the mordant wit of its clerk Mr William Whittle, it was always good for a tale or two’.
They were NEWSpapers in those days, says Andy. The days of same-day stories in t’ Pink as the evening paper was called. And it was long before police – and council – media management. We well knew that good stories break without warning in the unpredictable battleground of a magistrates’ court. But you tended to get a bit too close to the local villains and vagabonds.
He remembers hesitating over the court list one day. It just didn't look right. The defendant's occupation was given as ‘tarmacer’ and he didn't like the sound of it. Macer, to rhyme with racer? – Surely not. He took care to dictate it as ‘tarmacker’ which sounded much better.
The following day colleague Peter Storah and photographer Ken Rumney suggested a pint in the Carters' and Motormen's Social Club – otherwise known as the ‘Fast and Slow’. It was a rough joint, rough even for Nelson, but it opened early. It was used for board meetings and deal-making by those itinerant bands who travelled the North of England offering lumps of tarmacadam to homeowners. ‘Just enough left on the lorry to do your drive, surr.’
They’d just settled in at the bar when they spun round in unison at a thick brogue from a dark corner: ‘Oy! You’re reporters aren’t you?’ And, pointing at Andy: ‘I know you!’
Suddenly, he was alone at the bar. The other reporters and photographers were on the move, edging carefully towards the door. A big guy loomed over him. Hairy. Greasy. And still pointing. At Andy’s nose. He clung to the bar, offering a smaller target.
‘I know you. Saw you at court. You did my case. Story’s in t' Pink.
The veteran District Man or old-hand Staff Court Reporter will sympathise with the predicament. Somehow, a whispered ‘Only doing my job, pal’ would have had rather a hollow ring to it. Alone, Andy awaited his next move. It was unexpected.
‘Well done, lad! You're t' first reporter to get my job right in all these years. It's got to be tarmacker, hasn’t it? Just like you put. I’m bloody sick of being called a tarmacer every time I’m up. We’re not tarmacers for God’s sake…
‘What’re ye ’avin, lad?’ he said, slapping Andy heartily on the back and almost puncturing a lung.
By this time, of course, with immediate danger past and conviviality in the air, Andy’s colleagues were more than happy to edge back to the bar to join in the all-round congratulations and bonhomie and to partake of vast quantities of free liquid refreshment from the horny hands of their new friend Tommy the Tarmacker and his fellow travellers.
Incidentally, I noticed the Daily Mail a couple of weeks back had Tarmacer in about 60pt in a front page WOB. Tommy wouldn’t have been impressed.
Thanks for Don Walker’s tribute to Ken Smiley (Ranters, June 12). As Don pointed out, there was no job that Ken felt was beneath him. Which was how we came into contact with him while he shifted at Reveille (a Mirror-owned weekly paper... ask your parents, or grandparents, as I always tell trainees these days).
Ex-Mirror trainees Nick Kent, Geoff Stimson and, later, myself found our first ‘Fleet Street’ jobs there, in Reveille’s New Fetter Lane office. And it was there that we came under the spell of the ‘real’ Fleet Street subs who made up Reveille’s regular weekly casual rota: Iain Stevenson, Derek Prigent, Bill Fletcher – and Ken Smiley.
Being a weekly, the hours at Reveille were very congenial. A 9.30am start meant that by lunchtime we were ready for refreshment, and ‘lunch’ involved each member of the subs’ desk buying a round at the Printer’s Devil, or sometimes – if we fancied a bit of a stroll – the Bishop’s Finger in Smithfield. It was over these lunchtime pints that we three (joined later by ex-Brighton Argus man Steve Castelli) most enjoyed the company of Ken, who was, being an old-school sub and a journalist who had been around a bit, a master story-teller.
Two particular stories stick in my mind – both tales from his early years as a reporter in Belfast. The first is a useful lesson in working relationships with officialdom, and the second just couldn’t happen nowadays, with every reporter toting a laptop.
Ken had cultivated a local JP, who would make himself useful when he was struggling to find a court story worth reporting.
As a dull court list dragged to a close, Ken would catch the magistrate’s eye. Obligingly – and often to the surprise of the defendant – the JP would suddenly work himself into a rage and launch into a furious tirade: ‘People who ride bicycles without rear lights are the scourge of society... an absolute disgrace... a menace that must be removed from the streets... the entire province must share my sense of outrage...’
This was all delivered at dictation pace and Ken, knowing he now had the page lead he needed, would gratefully get it all down. Including the rather lamer ending: ‘Fined 1s 6d.’
Then there was the time Ken was drafted in as a rugby reporter, producing live copy for his evening paper. How hard can that be, he thought, installing himself behind the aged typewriter in the press box.
‘Coleraine kicked off into a blustery wind...,’ he typed, ripping his first 200 words from the old Remington and handing them to the waiting messenger.
As the match went on, he warmed to his task, easily dashing off the required words and sending them off, via the messenger, to the composing room.
At the final whistle, he knocked off his final instalment, handed it over, and sat back to relax. Job done.
That was when the old Bakelite phone in front of him rang. It was the sports editor. ‘Nice job, Ken,’ he said. ‘Now, we just need your 1,000-word considered report in the next half an hour.’
Which was not easy for Ken. Not only did he have no record of his running report in front of him – but he had absolutely no recollection of what he had been watching for the previous 80 minutes.
I am truly, madly and several flagons deeply indebted to Colin Dunne for handing over his wilting quill to me (Ranters, June 12). It may have been a poisoned pencil to him, but it was a passport to exotic bars for me.
Of course, once I'd got my feet under his cobwebbed desk, I did have my endless Hunt-the-Eric-Wainwright days which were hard to justify because I could never get my hands on till receipts from The Waiters' Club, allegedly his bolt-hole in Leicester Square; and Alasdair Buchan and I could put only so many darts into the board behind the 4th floor door before being discovered by Derek Jameson. And I could try only so much bullshit on the Reveille Boat People sent as our apprentices before they cottoned on and became executives.
But in between our three-hour (on a bad day) lunches I did manage to scribble a few words – even though the Ranters editor claims never to have read one of them.
In fact the wonderful Mike Molloy claimed I earned more per word than Arthur Hailey. I'm sure he must have been talking about the quality of my prose.
But snigger ye not young Dunne. Let me tell you tales not even your talking dogs dare whisper. My talking dog could. He was called, and I noted it well, Beethoven. Every bark was a gem and every drool kept the cost of my honeymoon down. I'd acquired a bride and taken her to Hollywood for a honeymoon. Those lovely Mirror Group people provided the exes and that nice Mr Ford a scarlet Mustang to prance around the Hollywood Hills. Mr Beethoven, about to hit the world's silver screens, provided the excuse. Better than subbing Callan's diary copy. (Where are you Paul?)
But of course it didn't end there. That nice Mr Ferrari (the car chappie) arranged for me to spend time on Ipanema Beach. Until then I'd thought dental floss was supposed to go in your mouth.
Then that other Mr Ferrari (the news editor chappie) sent me to the Algarve in search of a naughty lawyer – and he wouldn't let me come back until I'd found him. Brendan Monks and I were devastated. It was the height of summer and all the girls seemed to be so poor they couldn't afford clothes. The expenses were wisely invested in keeping the poor wretches warm at night. For weeks!
Some of the days were Hell. A bar somewhere in Scandinavia, I seem to remember. And I even got to Heaven – a gay bar owned by Richard Branson. That, I think, was just before Paradise – a brace of blondes in that cluster of houses in California.
Then there was the posting to Siberia. Someone tried to freeze me out – but it wasn't that nice Mr Molloy. He paid for me to warm up the women in the coldest place on earth. I think that was after my adventures in Death Valley – allegedly the hottest. Oh these swinging temperatures are making me come over all thirsty. There... that's better. Well, better than swapping the Fourth Floor for real writing.
As you know, Col, I never did that. But the stamps in the passports kept coming.
I screwed up the chance to help launch a Murdoch title in the US (forever grateful to the wonderful Tony Miles for pretending never to have seen the resignation letter) but then bagged a Mirror sabbatical (young readers, don't even bother) to the San Diego Union. It was another hell: 300 miles of beaches and the first assignment to the only nudist one among 'em. Gawd, Col, you'd have hated it.
Even tracking down Ronnie Biggs to his new flat in Rio turned out to be a banker. He bought all the drinks in his club and I later flogged his phone number for £500. It was daylight robbery, said the lucky news editor.
Squeezed in between these gruelling gigs were hacks' cricket trips to dreadful places like Bali, Cuba, Chile, Argentina, India, Australia, Singapore, Zanzibar, Grenada and beyond. We got the taste for it from Alderney, where our first hosts, John Arlott and son Tim, showed us why the island is said to be populated by a couple of hundred drunks clinging to a rock. Colin, it were just like The Stab.
My words, meanwhile, lined up in orderly fashion to meet their spike. I, on the other hand, met the other Spike – and spent many happy weeks taking gin and jazz with him while I allegedly put together a series. Mr Milligan was so impressed by my ghost writing (certainly no one believes they saw it) that he invited me to his family Christmas party. And believe me, when it came to the falling down liquid, he was no Scrooge.
I even had similar – but not as boozy – adventures with Esther Rantzen. But when we later bumped into each other on Corfu, only husband Des admitted to knowing me. Esther has much in common with Mrs R.
Occasionally, I've had to meet real writers. Take Leslie Thomas. We and our respective brides went for a sail around the Med. As an ex-Evening News man you'd expect him to be able to take a drink. Two nights and one storm in, with mainsail billowing and the barman barfing, young Leslie reached over the bar and emptied a full three fingers of Scotch into the sink. ‘That's it, Rimmer’, he said. ‘I'm beaten’. And weaved off into the bilges. Or wherever superstars go to speak into the Big White Telephone.
Lack of practice, you see. That's what we got on Floor Four. Hours, days and thousands of pounds of it. Commons expenses? Small change. You were there, Col, but ducked out before the mink really lined the coffin.
Those MPs know nothing. Duck houses? I know people who bought Cotswold cottages. And Rolls Royces – they snappered them up. And Gold Rolexes from the East and... oh, the list goes on.
When I started in Geordieland, apprenticed to the bars of Consett (Guardian), Blaydon (Tyneside Courier), Darlington (Northern Echo) and Newcastle (Journal), I fondly imagined I might scribble for living. Rimmer, you see, has its roots in Rhymer – a barded fool of sorts.
Now, of course, I'm a bearded fool. But I can proudly say that I've made my living as a man of letters – without ever doing a day's work in my life.
Colin Dunne, I thank you from the bottom of my liver.
Revel Barker wrote a piece (Ranters, June 26) on bizarre cable messages:
Gobbledygook missives from unfeeling head offices have always been the bane of far-flung correspondents. While the poor hack suffers fly-blown miseries in malaria-ridden hellholes, his editors loll back in padded comfort, served cups of tea by charming secretaries while issuing impossible orders.
For a time I was a stringer for the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean's. My attempts to flog stories to them often hit the buffers. Queries would come back such as ‘Cannot locate Marbella. Where is this island?’ or ‘World shrunk two pages. Re terrorists killing eight, suggest wait until better peg’.
When the Spanish parliament was stormed by Civil Guards, I was cabled: ‘Six pages reserved Prince Charles wedding announcement. Will coup bid hold?’
One particular Maclean's correspondent unleashed a particularly satisfying revenge. The story may be apocryphal but some version of it surely occurred.
After suffering through mayhem, drought and general disaster in Africa, the correspondent was in a remote corner of the Congo when he received a telex message from Canada: ‘Your services no longer required. Please return all company cards soonest.’
Revenge is sweetest when it is served cold, they say. After careful deliberation, our man in Africa turned up at the nearest telex office at about the time when everybody in Toronto was knocking off for the weekend.
‘See this text,’ he told the operator. ‘Please transmit it to Toronto. Payment collect.’
‘All of it?’
‘Yep, the lot,’ said our man, handing the operator a generous tip.
On Monday morning staff at Maclean's were staggered to find their wire room ankle-deep in paper. When they picked up a sample, they found the African operator wasn't doing a bad job – Genesis, Deuteronomy, Joshua, they were all there. He was halfway through the Old Testament.
Quite a crowd had gathered round Jim Lewthwaite as he laid out his souvenirs on the desk. He’d just returned from Bangkok where he’d been sent to write a series on… now what was it? Early Siamese porcelain? Oriental calligraphy? The new spice trade?
Actually, no. This was the Sun. So, just for a change, it was a series on sex.
From among his mementoes, he selected a scrap of paper bearing his first name. It looked innocent enough. Just his name, Jim, in unschooled and wobbly writing. Hardly worth bringing halfway round the world. It had been written, he said, by one of the young bar-girls he’d interviewed. I said I didn’t think much of her hand-writing.
‘She didn’t write it with her hand,’ said Jim.
Let’s move on quickly. We can’t discuss things like this on a family website where any young innocent – Hilary Bonner or Philippa Kennedy – could easily stray in.
This was my introduction to life in the Sun. After I walked out of the Mirror – okay, flounced, I won’t argue – I found myself in the south of France where the novelist Paul Gallico had died leaving his sequel to The Poseidon Adventure unfinished – a story I’ve related elsewhere. I had been hired to pop in the odd full-stop and, if required, a nifty metaphor or two.
Ken Donlan, much-acclaimed and much-feared news editor, had invited me to join the Sun as soon as I returned. So ten weeks later, I found myself walking towards St Paul’s and turning right instead of left.
I won’t say I had never been south of Fleet Street before, after all both the Harrow and Scribes were somewhere down there. But it felt strange. Mirror men weren’t accustomed to too much travel.
Inside the Sun, that felt strange too. It was a newspaper office at odds with all the conventions of Fleet Street. Where were the leisure classes who populated the higher floors at the Mirror? Where were the storage rooms for writers and mistresses who had slipped from fashion? Where the corridors of the handsomely paid unemployed, some of them ennobled, that we had at Holborn?
Before I’d been there half a day, it was clear that here was a completely new system. There was a curious symmetry between stories to be written, hacks to write them, space available and subs to fit them. It flew in the face of everything Fleet Street stood for.
The way the Sun played the newspaper game, everyone was on the field and there were no spectators. Murdoch’s plan didn’t seem to incorporate a holiday home for hacked-off hacks. What’s more, I’d seen more reporters in the Mirror New York office than they had here. Six years after the launch, Larry Lamb, the editor, who was ex-Mirror and ex-Mail, had proved his point. The sexy, slim-line Sun – they should have got me to write their ads – was roaring away. Big momma Mirror, running to fat and losing her looks, was on the slide.
I must confess that once I’d got over the shock, it was refreshing to work in an office that was buzzing as opposed to snoring.
This is not to say that it was a fun-free zone. Oh no. Have you ever met any of the industrial reporters? I have.
If Albert Lamb, the editor, took his nickname from Larry the Lamb in the Children’s Hour classic, then Ken Donlan should really have been called Mr Grouser (No? Ask your dad). When a new district man called in on his first Monday and said it was a sunny day in Birmingham, Donlan snapped: ‘If I want a weather report, old man, I’ll ring the met office.’ He didn’t do the light touch.
Donlan tucked Lewthwaite, who was chief reporter, and me away at the back of the building, with John Kay and Peter McHugh, their young industrial team. It was a small room, far too small to accommodate the rowdy energy from the two most exuberant hacks I’d ever met. Laughter, jokes, insults, personal abuse, pub games, laddish dares and challenges, public schoolboy Kay reading out snippets from Wisden, Geordie McHugh singing ‘Whisht lads, ha’ad yer gobs,’ – it was rather like being on a permanent stag party.
Every lunchtime and evening, they would charge over to the ‘thirst’ floor bar of the Cheshire Cheese, to join Bob Bedlow of the Telegraph and Bob Porter of the Mail.
By the time you added Mick Costello, who was possibly the only diplomat’s son on the staff of the Morning Star who spoke fluent Russian and also liked a fight, and Paul Routledge of The Times, the stag party had become a mobile riot. To soak up the pints, Ron, the waiter, would occasionally smuggle Yorkshire puddings awash in gravy out of the kitchen.
Bedlow, who was more accurately known as Bedlam, was credited with this exceptional slice of dialogue when he went to the post office during a Blackpool conference to pick up some wired money. All you need to know is that it was after lunch.
Female counter clerk: Can I help you, sir?
Bedlow: Yes, a large gin and tonic, please.
Clerk: I’m afraid this is a post office, sir.
Bedlow: Good Lord. In that case, a first-class single to Euston.
The industrial boys had their own Good Samaritan system. If one of them was unable to file his story, because of an unexpected attack by seven pints of Martson’s, then one of the others would cover for him.
Terry Pattinson of the Mirror once rewrote his story and sent it to the Mail to help out an incapacitated Bob Porter. Later, Pattinson got a bollocking from the night newsdesk because Bob Porter had got a better story in the Mail.
Sure enough, when McHugh and Kay returned in the afternoon, bounding in like big puppies, they would, almost certainly, attempt to take someone’s trousers down – if necessary, their own.
I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if they’d given me an apple-pie desk. Maybe you had to be there, but it was great fun.
Amazing really how all this giddiness evaporated at the sound of the soft tread of Donlan coming down the corridor. My memory may be at fault, but I don’t think they ever took Ken’s trousers off.
For some years now the Sun has had a much-admired chief reporter called Kay. The director of programmes at GMTV is a McHugh. Obviously it can’t be the two I remember, but it is an odd coincidence.
In Manchester, they used to say that Donlan, although a legendary news editor, was also an unpleasant bully. I didn’t find this at all. Maybe he’d quietened down by this time, or maybe it was because I was supposed to be writing cheeky, giggly, and preferably naughty features. Ken knew nothing about features. Giggle? – He’d die before he’d giggle.
He used to fire people for being cheeky. And his idea of being naughty was to have a polo mint – before noon sometimes. So he used to read my copy with a puzzled look on his face.
But he could command space. I wrote my daft bits about sex in Sweden and sex in France, interviewed Page Three girls – and Brigitte Bardot – and then wrote about sex by the seaside and sex in the office. I wrote them, Ken gave them to Larry. Larry put them in the paper. That was it.
I even got to do some serious stuff too. In Berlin, to write a piece on the Wall, I was taken round by an Army PR major, who was perhaps new to the job, and a leathery sergeant driver.
As we drove along the Wall, I asked whether soldiers from opposing armies still did their traditional exchanges and if there was a chance of getting a bit of Russian militaria for my young son. The major tore a strip off me. It was against Queen’s regs. Most irregular. No soldier would ever do such a thing. Simply wouldn’t happen.
Over his shoulder, the sergeant asked me what I had in mind. I said a cap badge would be good. A couple of hours later he handed me one.
What happened was that at crossing points, the British soldier would leave a copy of Playboy by the car and conduct a lengthy examination of the rear axle. When he came back, the magazine had gone and something would be in its place. The most prized item was a general’s hat which was rumoured to be made from sable.
What, I asked the sergeant, could he get me for a pile of Page Three pictures? ‘For those,’ he said, thoughtfully, ‘I could get you a Russian general’s hat with a bleedin’ Russian general inside it.’
In the passengers seat, the major choked down on his coronary.
In Magaluf, at the end of the season, I watched as the shopkeepers took down the inflatable breasts and willies and scrubbed off the boastful graffiti arithmetic (girls multiplied by times), and put out dinky little tables and chairs, with tea-for-two and an Arrowroot biscuit each. Changeover week, when the young singles – Sun readers every one – were replaced by Saga holidaymakers, who had once been Mirror readers. The future of newspapers was there for us all to see.
One Spanish hotelier told me that his countrymen believed there were two islands called Britain: one was populated by murderous teenagers, poisonously pissed all day, constantly fighting or fornicating in the gutter; the other was home to genteel elderly couples with walking sticks and squeaky deaf-aids who had very little money but perfect manners. They could not believe they came from the same country.
Oddly enough, in an office where almost everyone was writing about sex, there wasn’t an awful lot of it about. It was true there was one near-editor who became entangled with a lady features person.
Chris Potter, political writer, certainly did his best of remedy this. At a Tory party conference – and this was long before he was married – he was seen escorting two women, one a little older than the other up to his room. Clearly no harm could come of this because he pointed out that they were mother and daughter. Whatever was going on up there seemed to require a non-stop flow of champagne until eventually the kitchen protested. ‘I’m afraid, sir, it’s interfering with the breakfast arrangements.’ It wasn’t long after that he died.
Even so, that was out of town, and it wasn’t much to show for an office where you could witness Kathryn Hadley teasing her wild hair between her lips, Shan Lancaster’s blue eyes in a frame of blonde hair, and Kate Lidgate who appeared to have been designed without a single straight line.
Even in Pacesetters, the women’s department dedicated exclusively to writing about the female orgasm (and where, judging by the noise as you walked past, they were getting the hang of it), they were more interested in getting to the Pineapple gym than men.
But the cleaners at the Sun never complained, as they did at the Mirror, that you couldn’t open a door without the risk of seeing a naked editorial bottom bobbing up and down.
There was a streak of northern Puritanism at the Sun. Jim Lewthwaite, a brilliant newsman who came from a distinguished newspaper family in Manchester (dad, a news editor; brother on the Baltimore Sun), bore a quite startling resemblance to an American film star. One night when he got home late-ish (train problem, no doubt) to Clacton, he stood, swaying a little, in the bedroom doorway. ‘I’ve just met a bird who says I look like Robert Mitchum,’ he pronounced, to the unmoving mound of blankets.
All he heard was her voice in the dark. ‘She must be mental.’ Keeps a chap’s feet on the ground.
At the time, the Sun had its stars. Walter Terry, the political columnist, was a real heavyweight who’d come from the Express. John Dodd, firmly in the first division of newspaper writers (and occasionally to be found on this website) was there. So too was Clive Taylor, prince among cricket writers.
When Clive retired, Larry Lamb challenged anyone who wanted to replace him to write a job description. At that time, for reasons I can no longer remember, it seemed a good idea to be absent from Britain’s shores for as long as possible. I applied. Larry called me in. He liked it. Frank Nicklin, the sports editor, would be talking to me.
Nicklin opened the door to our office and tilted his head towards the upstairs bar of the Tip. As I followed him down the back stairs, over his shoulder he outlined his plans for a new cricket writer. ‘There’s two chances of me giving our cream job to some feature writer,’ he called out. ‘Fat and no.’
Well, he’d certainly talked to me. And anyway, I would only have missed our wonderful British seasons, wouldn’t I?
In Jon Akass, I always thought they had the best columnist in Fleet Street. Whereas his rivals elsewhere whizzed off their columns almost as an afterthought to all their books and plays, Jon poured all his considerable talent into his column.
Flecked with cigarette ash – picture a speckled penguin – fuelled by carefully calculated gins, in between putting out the wastepaper bin fires which he used as central heating, he turned out a column that was rarely less than wonderful.
He avoided El Vino because he thought it attracted posers, preferring instead the shabbier boozers where he would find his friends Dodd and the TV writer Kit Kenworthy. Occasionally, in the company of his friends, Akass would come up with a piercing insight into our trade. In the Coach and Horses one night, steadily filling the ashtray while emptying the gin bottle, he said: ‘Everyone I ever met in newspapers who I really rated, the ones I thought were outstandingly talented, never got anywhere. And the people I identified as no-talent toadies are all in the top jobs.’
I don’t think I ever replied to that. Right then someone came in with some news. Larry was going. We were getting a new editor. Did anyone know a Kelvin McKenzie?
Some laughed. Some cried. Some began composing letters for jobs. One or two went home and hanged themselves. Oh boy, another new deal. Just when I was getting the hang of it.
On the shelf ?
Ian Skidmore’s Forgive Us Our Press Passesshould be made required reading for every child-in-a-suit populating what passes for our newsrooms these days.
Vincent Mulchrone could penetrate in a flash to the heart of a story in a few deceptively simple words.
- Vere Harmsworth
Slip-Up ... perhaps the best analysis of Fleet Street at work ever written.
- Keith Waterhouse
No journalist can afford to miss this cautionary tale… the story of the in-fighting and downfall of all concerned has one rolling in the aisles. Mr Delano’s eye is astute, his ear a credit to his profession at any level; and his wit is accompanied by the ability to write clear English.
- The Times
The best book about journalism – ever. – Phillip Knightley
Out of the workaday rounds of a provincial yellow journalist, Gordon Williams has scraped together an occupational ambiance as definitive as dirty fingernails... a yeasty mixture of character and social climate...
– New York Times Book Review
The flavour of this sort of journalistic life is caught as well as in any novel I can remember.
Bizarre and hilarious… Nothing shorter than a paperback could achieve a balanced report of the brilliance of the advocacy and summing-up.
- Hugh Cudlipp
John Dodd was warned that he was suffering from poor circulation. 'Are you going to give me bingo?' he asked. 'That's what we do in Fleet Street.' - Colin Dunne
Issue # 103
July 10, 2009
Banksy delivers a friendly tribute to 'The laughing cavalier of Australian journalism.'
Keith Farnsworth asks the old Telegraph boys (and girls) of Sheffield: where are you now? And where were you then?
Liz Hodgson reveals - now that the woman is safely dead - how she helped wreck a movie star's marriage.
Remember those daft pix of the Coal Board boss with a bag over his head? While the pundits revisit the days, 25 years ago, of the miners' strike Robin Morgan relives the memories from the Orgreave Garden Chalet.
And Colin Dunne recalls the man who took the fun out of the Sun.
Twenty-five years ago, almost to the day, expense sheets were making hay while a very hot sun shone. We called it Orgreave, the rough-stuff ruckus between the miners and Her Majesty's Finest.
If all the pints that were accounted for under 'hospitality' had been downed by 'contacts' on both sides, it would have been a drunken brawl and not the mediaeval-style Civil War it resembled.
What did you do in the War, Daddy? Shouldered the burden of the Fleet Street Flying Squads invading my territory, Son.
Being the Yorkshire Post industrial correspondent for donkey's years was as good as being on The Street in that The Pack and I hunted together in pursuit of the prey in my parish - except they got paid more and claimed somewhat higher expenses (well, a quiet - sometimes sober - life in the provinces comes at some cost).
The Miners' Strike is now the stuff of legends - some true, some wide of the mark but let's not spoil the eggheads misguided conceit in their current crop of retrospective punditry.
The truth was it was bloody hard graft covering the year long event - 20-hour stints, day after day, were not unusual during the fastest moving times and it is no wonder that a year after the strike ended most Ind Corrs had, on their own volition, moved on to other specialities - we were bushed.
Of course the Orgreave expenses were put to good use - in the weeks afterwards reporters on that beat were taking 'Orgreave holidays', buying 'Orgreave cars', I got an 'Orgreave garden chalet' but the big winner was the ITV cameraman (working almost continuously on 'golden hours', as they termed their ludicrous overtime payments then on offer) who acquired his 'Orgreave swimming pool'.
At that time attempts were being made to break the stalemate between miners and the State through a series of 'secret' meetings between Arthur Scargill and Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor. One was fixed at the Clifton Hotel, Rotherham, a couple of miles from the Orgreave battlefield.
When MacGregor arrived he was incandescent to find BBC and ITV camera crews lounging in the lobby. He ordered a top level inquiry to find the leak. No one told him the telly-boys were there because the hotel had the best in-house blue movies in South Yorkshire!
MacGregor was paranoid about secret meetings being discovered.
A subsequent 'secret' meeting was arranged at a country hotel at South Milford, near Pontefract. The Mail's Brian Carter, The Times' Ron Kershaw and I were on the doorstep to welcome him. More Macgregor fury.
His aide later explained that the Scots-born American coal boss had ordered his driver to go through the backstreets of Doncaster, go round and round roundabouts to throw off 'tails' and was certain no-one had followed him.
Explanation: the NUM's vice-president Mick Magahey had arrived at Doncaster's railway station from Edinburgh ten minutes before MacGregor arrived¡ and we had followed the unsuspecting miner to the venue.
That also explains why, to much television ridicule, MacGregor turned up at yet another 'secret' meeting in Edinburgh wearing a carrier bag over his head - he could not beat a determined pack.
During the Strike I had heard rumours that the IRA was providing some assistance to the miners and that a 'coaching' school had been set up in the Derbyshire High Peak national park. Before I had had chance to stand it up Orgreave occurred and after one particularly vicious battle the pickets had retired beyond a railway to lick their wounds. Harry Cook (Daily Express) and I had wandered up the hill to view the bloodshed from 'our' side of the line when a flight of petrol bombs flew in our direction. Success! An IRA link? Then they landed and bounced - petrol in Coke bottles¡ no self-respecting IRA man would teach that technique!
The Pack chose as its grandstand at Orgreave a low-built stone wall in the bottom corner of the field. A perfect view. One day half a dozen police dog-handlers with their snarling beasts came up behind us ready to unleash the bloody-thirsty creatures should the going get nasty.
'Tell them dogs we're Her Britannic Majesty's Press and are bite-free territory,' I told a handler. 'Not much point,' he said. 'These buggers can't read!' Laxatives were not needed that morning.
When the odd miner began to go back to work we were tipped off by the Coal Board and police when the armoured buses would be ferrying them in. At Maltby Colliery a strike-breaker was going in at 3.30am.
Now Maltby Colliery was set in a wood through which the road to the pit ran. As police and pickets clashed shots were heard and I took cover behind a bush as 'bullets' whistled through the branches overhead. Time for a retreat¡ but I could not move - an ITV reporter and, I think from memory, Ian Key of the Mail, were using me as a human shield while nails from a Hilti gun (that's a builder's tool used to punch them into concrete) were fired in our direction by a picket.
An hour or so earlier, a young South Yorkshire blade had been driving furiously to the wood for a spot of nookey when he ran into the police line. The chief inspector told me later: 'His bird was giving him a blow-job. We didn't have a breathalyser between us¡ but we had plenty of strong torches!'
Danger came out of the dark. When a handful of miners returned to Denaby Main, the pit village erupted. Blazing oil barrels were rolled down the hillside streets, a Coal Board office block was set alight and paving stones were smashed into throwable missiles - and young miners were mighty strong throwers.
I was talking to an ACC besides his police Land Rover when I felt something brush heavily across my corduroy flies followed by a crash as the stone punched a hole through the side of the Rover. But for thick corduroy I would be singing soprano these days.
The same ACC was a bit touchy at a similar incident at the Cortonwood colliery. 'You were bloody rude when I rang you at 3am,' he said. 'You didn't ring.' - 'Yes I did, and when I told you to get your arse out of bed and down here where it was happening, you told me to fuck off.' - 'No I didn't, I got no calls.' - 'Oh fuck! I must have got a wrong number!'
The Strike also created an epicurean 'delight' among Ind Corrs. After every NUM meeting in Sheffield we would repair to the Victoria Hotel to compare notes and lunch on ham or cheese sandwiches decorated with a garnish of crisps (Sheffield was never a gourmet centre). The ham and crisp or cheese and crisp sandwich was invented by us hungry, industrious correspondents.
In a way, it was sad when the strike ended 51 weeks after it started. The gravy train hit the buffers. In a round-up by UKPG, the editor of the Sheffield Star complained strike coverage for the year had cost his expenses budget an extra £500. £500? Huh, real reporters were claiming that in a week at the height of the strike.
Whatever you make of the Miners' Strike don't mock Arthur Scargill - he was very good to our expenses.
Bunting in Bouverie Street? No, I don't recall any bunting when Kelvin became editor. No cheering crowds, flags, brass bands, or hats-in-the-air either. What did happen - and this was perhaps more a reflection of the mood of the moment - was that a senior exec on the Sun summoned Tom Petrie off the news desk up to El Vino.
'Have you heard the dreadful news?' he asked. 'It's Kelvin.' And the poor chap burst into tears. Just to clear up any ambiguities here, let me make it clear that these were not tears of joy.
Kelvin. Kelvin who? Don't be silly. Although it's 30 years since he slipped into the editor's chair, he's the only Fleet Street man I can think of whose first-name is identity enough. That's fame. Or something very similar.
Do you know, the other day I heard him presenting a radio programme on Jack the Ripper, and I couldn't resist reflecting that if the staff of the Sun had been given the choice between the two of them, it would've been a close call.
Even then, I never for a moment saw his appointment as one of the principle pall-bearers at the funeral of Old Fleet Street. But it was.
We'd had the gradual demise of the old working-class, the dockers and miners and factory workers who read the Mirror. We'd had the arrival of television. And Larry Lamb had demonstrated how it was possible to produce a brilliant national tabloid with only a fraction of the staff.
Now we had Kelvin who was about to demolish the culture which had flourished so joyously between Ludgate Circus and the High Courts.
He hated lunch. Cor, how that man hated lunch. How he ever got to be such a little tub I'll never know, because if there was one thing guaranteed to light his blue touch-paper it was the thought of people eating between noon and three.
Or, to be quite fair, drinking.
Without lunch, the Fleet Street we knew and loved could not survive. Without lunch, you'd have lines of sour-faced sobersides nibbling at egg-and-cress sandwiches over their keyboards and praying for death. And that's exactly what we got. Have you seen inside the Indie lately?
The trouble was that whenever Kelvin saw an empty office - or even an empty chair - he was overcome with the fear that someone somewhere was having a good time. And it was his personal mission here on earth (as Son of Rupe) to put a stop to it.
It was what headline-writers call a blitz. Memos were fired off around the building warning that the lunch-hour was 60-minutes, or preferably less, and that staff were forbidden to return to the office the worse, or even the better, for drink.
One reporter was surprised to find a letter delivered to his home warning him about 'whiling away the hours in the Wine Press or Cheshire Cheese.' It surprised him because George Lynn, a model of restraint and decency, was a very modest drinker indeed. 'Frankly,' Kelvin wrote, 'if you don't like the tone of this letter then there is a simple solution: don't work here.'
Not only was he going to save the Sun, the nation itself stood in peril. In a memo to all feature writers and executives, Kelvin came over all Winstonian: 'Two-hour breaks do not do this newspaper, this country or yourselves a favour. It is no wonder that Britain is rapidly turning into a Third World nation.'
He was like a man possessed. He even stopped a reporter in the corridor to warn him that if he was seen with a glass in his hand anywhere within a mile of the office, he'd be fired. When he found Tom Petrie next to a double Scotch in El Vino he asked 'Is that yours?' Tom said it belonged to one of those lawyer chaps.
These were the days of the Kelvin Lunch Terror. Even now, all these years later, the few survivors don't like to speak of it.
It peaked with the Happy Wok. It was, I believe, one of his very finest performances, and I was lucky enough to have a ringside seat.
Kelvin, who used to flash around the building with almost supernatural speed, shot into the features room, which was mostly empty apart from a few subs and me. Where was everybody? Lunch. He grunted in disgust and was making for the door when Jerry Homburg, I think it was, said they'd all gone to the Happy Wok.
Kelvin froze in the doorway. Slowly he turned. 'Where?' he hissed. The Happy Wok. A new Chinese that everyone said was great.
I think it was the word Happy that did it. It wasn't a word you would use a lot around Bouverie Street in those days.
'Oh do they,' he said, at first quietly, and then building a crescendo worthy of Olivier playing Lear. 'They like the Happy Wok, do they? And they're all being happy in the Happy Wok, are they? Well, in that case, it's going to be fucking Unhappy Wok any fucking minute now. Ring the Happy Wok and tell them I want them all back in the Happy fucking Office right now.'
If Fleet Street had been run as something of a holiday camp, which it had, Kelvin was here to tell us the holiday was over. It didn't occur to any newspaper management that happy campers may produce better newspapers than a surly gang of prisoners manacled to their desks.
Many things changed with Kelvin's arrival. On the Mirror, when a raft of new recruits joined the paper, their predecessors just moved up a floor. The new regime on the Sun decreed that superfluous hacks had to go. Certainly Jo Foley and Bridget Rowe (later known as Death Rowe), recent recruits from women's mags, made off at some speed. So did Frank Nicklin, the sport editor.
For the rest, he seemed to target anyone who'd shown a glimmer of talent under the old regime - Jon Akass, probably one of the top three columnists in London, and Walter Terry, the distinguished political writer. Kelvin, it seemed, wanted to encourage them to leave without a big pay-out. He called Akass in, told him his column was crap, and chucked it in the bin. Akass, a man not easily cowed, calmly said he was paid to supply a column and that was exactly what he'd done. Walter Terry came in for a force-ten blast from the new and red-faced editor in the newsroom.
Walter picked up a paper, waved it gently up and down in front of the editor's face, and said: 'Calm down, Kelvin, you'll give yourself a heart attack.'
Walter went, with the money, and Akass decamped over the road to the more civilised atmosphere of the Express. Liz Prosser, a former women's editor, sat it out for months, red-eyed and unloved, before she too slipped away. Later, John Dodd and Kit Kenworthy, two writers who were admired and respected throughout Fleet Street, also moved on, unlamented by their new leader.
Anyone on the hit-list would look up and see Kelvin standing in front of them. 'You still here then?' he'd say. It didn't make for a sense of security. Is it better to turf people out Sun-style or preserve them in idle perpetuity like the Mirror? Look, I don't know anything. I'm not an editor, thank goodness. I'm a humble word-smith. If you want any help with a semi-colon, I'm your man. Man management? Forget it.
At first, it didn't look too good for Ken Donlan, the news editor. He had once described Kelvin as a loud-mouthed yob. On his return, Kelvin swept into the newsroom with the announcement: 'The loud-mouthed yob is back, Ken.'
And Jim Lewthwaite had once, in front of the newsroom and back bench, given Kelvin a full character analysis that suggested that he was some way short of perfection. Inexplicably, I believe the popular name for female reproductive equipment came into it. Yet both survived. Even in its newer, brasher form, the Sun would need one or two proper journalists.
By this time, all the writers - whether television, women's stuff, fashion or any of the softer disciplines - had been grouped together on the fourth floor. There was a theory that this was for economic reasons: if Kelvin shot one at the front, the bullet may well go straight through and take out a couple more.
Two or three times a day he would hurtle in, do a few cyclonic circuits of the room to make sure no-one was making restaurant reservations, say 'You still here then?' to some weeping hack, and then exit. One of our lady writers was heard to say: 'If his willie worked properly, he wouldn't need to do that.' A wicked calumny if ever I heard one.
His new team was in place now. Roy Greenslade came from the Star with the secrets of how to run a bingo campaign. About this time, on a visit to his doctor, John Dodd was warned that he was suffering from poor circulation. 'Are you going to give me bingo?' he asked. 'That's what we do in Fleet Street.'
In an earlier existence, Roy had been something of a union revolutionary who never saw a barricade without storming it, usually wearing an Afghan coat belonging to his wife, a Mirror writer. It's no reflection on him to say that it looked a great deal better on the elegant Noreen Taylor. Wendy Henry turned up as a sort of executive-in-waiting, which caused some loss of sleep for those who supposed they were executives. They were not reassured by the fact that Wendy only seemed to blink once every three days: disturbing. When I weedily muttered that I didn't care for all the bullying, she merely yawned and lisped: 'Goeth with the territory.' She became an editor. I didn't.
I came back from holiday to find myself sitting opposite the slight figure of a Scotsman with a little-boy hair-cut. Les Daly immediately regaled me with the story of his night at a fancy-dress party at a London club where the waiters wore only satin shorts and walked as though their knees had been stapled together. He had gone, he said, as a Zulu, which entailed coating himself in some black cosmetic from head to foot. Since Les weighed around eight-stone, and was the only man beside whom I looked chunky, this created an interesting picture.
'Did you find,' I asked him, 'that your make-up got smudged as the evening wore on?'
'Hey, you're wicked,' he said.
Les was what our editor called a shirt-lifter, a gay soul in every sense of the word. Even more surprisingly, Kelvin rather liked him.
This was the time when the Kelvin legends were born. One at least was mis-reported (which shouldn't be too surprising). The story was that Kelvin answered the telephone from a man who was complaining, so he banned him from reading the paper. The next day the man rang back to ask if his wife was allowed to read bits out to him.
Well, the first bit's true. I told it to my pal Peter White in East Sussex that night. And it was Peter - a world-class practical joker - who made the second call the following day.
At that time, Kelvin had nothing but contempt for those sad souls who were labelled writers. 'Don't need writers - my subs can do all that,' he said once. If anyone was in doubt, he made his disdain quite clear by awarding the Akass column to an unknown man in an anorak. The message was quite clear: anybody can write this rubbish. Unfortunately, this particular anybody couldn't and even Kelvin was obliged to let him go.
For a man at the furthest and most fanciful wing of the trade like me, this wasn't terribly promising. There was another problem too. I hope you can bear with me while I try to explain it. As I understood it, reports in newspapers were an account of something that had occurred in the real world. Thus, on the Craven Herald, when I wrote that Mrs L. Tupman presided over the Ladies Happy Hour on Wednesday, this meant that if you had gone to their meeting on Wednesday, you would have seen the ladies of the Happy Hour with Mrs L Tupman in presidential mode. Simple really.
However, at this time, tabloid journalism seemed to have swung off into creative writing. Some reports reflected things that hadn't actually happened in that way. Or indeed, not happened at all. Somehow, the connection between events and reports had come to be less¡ well, shall we say, clear. If Kelvin had known about it, I do not doubt that he would have been furious.
This was the time when the SAS went public and everyone was desperate for derring-do copy. I was told to write a piece on what SAS men do when they leave the army. Here you will perhaps forgive me if I move into the passive voice. I was told: 'Make it up - it's all Boys' Own Paper anyway.'
Luckily, I didn't need to. I turned in the copy with a couple of names and telephone numbers of men who were willing to be photographed. The reception was one of surprise. 'What?... You mean¡ they're real?'
However, it doesn't do to be too sanctimonious about these things. It's just that I'm not very good at invention, although I must confess I may have slipped in a few fake quotes when I interviewed that talking dog.
What was interesting - and, in a funny way, rather heart-warming - was the way the readers soon sensed a new relationship with the tabloids. Newspapers that had once been filled with affection and fun now seemed to contain stories that were designed to be hurtful. The public latched on to the new mood. At one time, if you telephoned a reader from the Mirror or the Sun and asked for an interview, they'd get quite excited and say: 'Course you can - as long as you bring one of them Page Three girls.' Now they sounded nervous and said they'd rather not.
It was fairly obvious I didn't fit in to the new regime. When I told Roy I was leaving, he told Kelvin and came back with a surprising message.
Kelvin was asking me if I'd think again. I said sorry, but no. Roy went back in and came out a second later. 'In that case, he says fuck off.'
You may have spotted in this the tiny seed of a rather splendid irony which blossomed later. After we'd all gone, Kelvin decided that even the Sun needed one proper writer. He picked up Richard Littlejohn, an industrial reporter who was beginning to flourish as a feature writer, and who - as we all know - went on to become one of the few columnists who can write five-star fireworks.
And here's the irony. Years later, Kelvin attempts to do the same on the Sun. The writer-hater became a pale shadow of a famous writer, not such much a sub-Littlejohn as a Tinyjohn. You can't say he doesn't have a sense of humour.
And of course Kelvin won. When the blood-letting was over, Fleet Street never was the same again. Kelvin was father to the egg-sandwich lunch. Journalists were seen unashamedly sober in daylight. The fun faded. The holiday truly was over.
From Chris Sheridan: Regarding Colin Dunne's memories (Ranters, last week) of trouser de-bagging at the Sun, we had a variation at News At One. On the occasion of one Christmas lunch, the then programme editor was partly de-bagged and the trousers, then at half mast, filled with chocolate mousse, rehoisted, rebuttoned and zipped...
From Paul Callan:
How wounding. How like a viper's tongue. How morale-sapping. And how bloody revealing!
I read (Ranters, last week), with tears coursing down my manly phizog, that Bryan Rimmer does not know where I am. (Well, nor do I, some of the time - particularly when it is half-past El Vino.)
To think that little Rimmer (he and Labour's Ed Balls share the weight of unfortunate surnames), my former diary sub, has not been following my towering Fleet Street career with all the respect that it deserves. My God, man! Everything you know, I taught you in those halcyon days in our diary office at the Mirror.
Bryan, despite the cruel rumour that he had played centre forward for Munchkin United, was an excellent sub and seldom displayed much impatience when I plonked a pile of rapidly-written copy on his desk, minutes away from deadline. He always entered into the bohemian spirit of the diary and never even complained about having to wake Peter Senn after a pink gin lunch.
And I know that he particularly enjoyed subbing Pat Smyllie's, er, elegant copy. Or wrenching Garth Gibbs off Glynis, our shapely secretary. (Garth and Glynis used to baby sit my daughter Jessica. Ironic, in that she grew up to be the lead 3am girl on a much later Mirror diary.)
I look forward to reading more Rimmer in Ranters.
And me? After giving up my post-Mirror job as First Lord of the Admiralty, I took the Express shilling. They still manage to squeeze features and news colour out of me. And I endure first nights at the theatre and opera - as I'm theatre and opera critic. It is a hard life, but I struggle on!
Welcome on board Bryan.
Once inside the door it is a world in which anything can happen. But you have to be there when it does… – Dermod Hill
Issue # 104 July 17, 2009
Colin Dunne's piece last week, bless his cottons, prompted two other Ranters to file copy. We have said this before, part of the plot is that you read something and say 'That Reminds Me...' The secondary option is that you just have a story you want to retail.
Liz Hodgkinson says that, despite what Col wrote last week, the ladies of the Sun didn't write only about female orgasms; sometimes they wrote about the activities of, er, gigolos. (No connection there, then.)
And blast-from-the-past Ted Hynds follows up with more information about the non-drinking (or rarely drinking) days under Kelvin's editorship – which, at least and at last, might make pleasing reading for the hairshirts on the Indie subs' table.
Ken Ashton remembers his own experience in the editor's chair: all members of the staff – editor, chief sub, reporter, sub-editor, stone sub, ad rep, receptionist, and sports editor – were allowed to drink.
Opportunies still abound for entry into the inky trade, says Dermod Hill. So why are there reportedly no jobs available for this year's graduate output of would-be journalists from Media courses? Answers on a postcard, please.Colin Dunne never had a problem finding a new berth. And when he got bored with what he was doing he could always write a book. All journalists know they can do that... Easy peasy; we can write, can't we...?
By Liz Hodgkinson
The other week in Ranters, Colin Dunne accused the women’s page staff of the Sun of writing exclusively about the mysteries of the female orgasm.
I’ll have you know, young Dunne, that we sometimes wrote about other things, and one of those was about gigolos operating in the South of France. It was while I was working on this highly important and world-shattering story that I got my scoop about Alastair Campbell, then aged 22, totally unknown and a recent graduate from Oxford University.
It was the story he not only later denied but tried to expunge from all the records.
This is how it happened. Woman’s editor Kate Hadley was being targeted by Philip Hodson, editor of Forum magazine, who was supposed to be providing us with juicy, sexy stories in return for suitable financial reward. The upshot was that I had lunch with Hodson in Scribes, where he told me that a certain young man working for him, name of Alastair Campbell, has spent the summer working as a gigolo and servicing grateful middle-aged ladies there.
Hodson arranged for Campbell and myself to meet and the two of us had dinner one night at The Orange Tree pub in Richmond.
Campbell was also being paid handsomely for this story so he had to spill some beans, and he related how he had made loads of money pleasuring these rich, middle-aged widows and how popular he was as a very tall, fair-haired, well-spoken Englishman. Most of the other gigolos, he said, were short, dark, swarthy Italians, so he had a distinct advantage.
The story went in the paper, I returned to writing about the female orgasm and I forgot all about this handsome young man and our not so secret tryst in the Orange Tree. Meanwhile, Alastair Campbell extricated himself from Forum and became a serious political writer on the Daily Mirror.
Many years later I was contacted by political journalist Peter Oborne, who was writing an unauthorised biography of Campbell, now very famous as Tony Blair’s press spokesman, and a media celebrity in his own right. Oborne had heard about my gigolo article and wondered whether I still had a copy as his researcher had not been able to find a single copy anywhere. It had, it seemed, been carefully excised from every single cuttings library in the world.
I said I had no idea but I would have a look in my attic and report back. Luckily for me but maybe not so much for Campbell, I found the article in about five minutes and Peter Oborne’s researcher came round to photocopy it for inclusion in the book. Oborne paid me a grand to reproduce it.
Later still I met Campbell at a health writers’ do at No 10 and told him about the article and how it came to be in Oborne’s biography.
‘So it was you?’ he said. ‘No, Alastair,’ I reminded him; ‘it was you.’ Campbell has never come clean about whether he really was a gigolo or whether the story was made up. Well, all I can say is that he sounded genuine enough at the time.
The original article which appeared in the Sun sometime in 1981, with a pic of the young Campbell, can be found on my website, www.lizhodgkinson.com
Liz Hodgkinson is the author of Ladies Of The Street, a fascinating history of the part played by women (not only at the Sun) in putting the Greatness into the Great Days of the past century. Details of this and other classic books written by journalists and mainly for journalists can be found on our books site.
In Vino’s veritas
By Ted Hynds
Not surprisingly El Vino still holds happy memories for me. None more so than those monthly refresher meetings with my old mucker, Sun news editor Tom Petrie.
I'd ride the Golden Hind out of the Southwest, stoked up on a BR Big Boy's breakfast in readiness for a hard day's meet and greet back home in Old London town.
But whatever the schedule it always included a lunchtime session with Devon News agency's best client.
Tom would usually arrive with the two Bills – Newman and McClelland – in tow. Over a leisurely couple of hours the group would swell and contract, in vintage Fleet Street style. You know the way we were.
Feeding off the fun and foolery. Sniping, swiping and recharging our batteries. Taking a break and the Mickey. It went on for years, until the Fat Lady finally sang, as Colin Dunne reminded us last week.
I don't know if Kelvin's arrival killed the music, but he changed the tune and soon everyone danced to it.
The Sun boys still came out to play. But they always had one eye on the clock. And there was a 'last orders' desperation in the drinking.
A bottle of house white and four glasses would greet their arrival. A quick slurp and a replacement was slapped down on the bar. Conveyer belt boozing had arrived and soon did the next bottle.
More grog would be lifted in fifty minutes than in all our old sessions. Then it was 'Gotta get back. He'll be watching.' And off they'd scoot.
One memorable lunchtime, the barman received a 'heads up' message less than twenty minutes after their arrival. 'He's on his way down'. Sun staff emptied the bar literally at the double, with large scotches all round.
It was chastening to see top men – the paper's engine room – running scared. Tom deserved better. He was the best of daily news editors and a workaholic.
Always at his desk early by 6am, reading himself in and ringing corrs for exclusives long before their alarms went off, as my disturbed sleep well knew. And he rarely left before 7pm.
He was shrewd and decisive. A gentleman and the officer he had once been. But he got more grief than a raw recruit and finally he couldn't take anymore and moved on.
Kelvin's tactics were no surprise to me. I had first seen him in action as teenage schoolboy. Back then he was a short, spotty fifth former, no great academic or sportsman.
He would have made no impression except for the cadet force, where he shone. As a platoon sergeant he was a tyrant, picking on the slightest fault in kit inspection or infringement of orders.
He loved to shout – no change there then – at his squaddies, and generally acted the martinet. Luckily I was two years ahead of him and our paths only crossed when, as a house prefect, he took my name for late arrival.
Being a second year sixth former and stroppy South Londoner I challenged his parenthood. Needless to say he still reported me.
With hindsight we should all have seen that his ruthless approach was just a foretaste of the bean-counters culture to come.
At least Kelvin was a great newspaperman, not some grey accountant. But he still pioneered the new abstemious, eyes down and smoke- free office life where noise and laughter seem frowned upon…
Compare the serene, subdued newsrooms of today with my first visit to the Black Lubianka in the late sixties. Through the swing doors into a heaving bear pit. The crackling of upright Remingtons, loud laughter, curses and non-stop noisy chatter.
The brown lino was littered with dog ends and a smoke cloud hung under the ceiling.
Two guys were arguing, on the verge of coming to blows .Desmond Hackett, that doyen of sports writers, sailed by, magnificent in Savile Row suit and carnation buttonhole like some stately galleon.
I thought I was in Heaven when PJ Wilson invited me down to Poppins. It seems like only yesterday
Now Lunchtime O'Booze is long buried and forgotten, along with hot metal and the household names of Her Majesty's Press.
I still drop in from time to time on El Vino – usually after a pal's memorial service.
It still looks the same, but we've all moved on.
In the editor's chair
By Ken Ashton
Probably about 50 years or so ago – but hey!, who's counting? –when the weekly magazines flitted round newsdesks, offering jobs galore and pastures new, I was often enticed by the pots of gold at the end of various rainbows.
And often, the pots turned out to be rusty buckets, with nowt in ’em.
Thus, in my twenties, I found myself as editor of an illustrious weekly newspaper in a picturesque corner of the Midlands.
The Atherstone Herald.
Editor, plus chief sub, plus only reporter, plus sub-editor, plus stone sub, plus occasional ad rep, plus ad hoc receptionist, plus sports editor. Yes, it was a one-man job. And it came with a self-contained flat above the shop near the church.
And when you’re a young trainee journalist, still wet behind both ears and revelling in the title of editor, it is a time to bask in glory while floundering in what people refer to today as multi-tasking. Maybe I invented the term?
The job itself was a sleepy doddle. Collect district copy, rewrite it, find a few local stories for the front page, cover court once a week, liaise with the commercial photographer who doubled as a Press cameraman, sub all copy, take it four times a day to the bus for Tamworth – head office – go there on Press day to see the paper off stone, write the contents bills. Liaise with The Comp, who had a linotype machine at the back of the shop.
Brilliant training, even though the one-man band team was occasionally struggling to keep cymbals, drum and banjo in tune. Freebie trips to the cinema, the occasional free drink at the local, cuts of meat, cakes and other goodies dropped in by local traders along with their ads.
And a bachelor pad. The pad was something different. The street where I lived was ancient, timbered buildings, all of the windows mullioned. The church and its bells were only 50 yards away, the football pitch around the corner.
The town’s main grocer was also part-time ad rep, an Aston Villa fan and father of a quite beautiful daughter. He also had a car, which I didn’t. And, as a season ticket holder at Villa Park, he often took me to matches in his Jaguar. And his daughter accompanied me many times to the free-pass cinema, although I didn’t tell her I had a free pass. It would have sullied the image.
The work was interesting if intense, the social life was admirable and the flat was comfortable, albeit a little wonky. It had a sloping floor, something I discovered one evening when I dropped an orange and it rolled across the room and settled by the door. Had the door been open it may well have bounced down the rickety stairs and out into the square.
What the flat lacked was a decent book case, so my various tomes sat miserably on the floor. Which was where my Dad came in. Dad was a carpenter, a very good one, who had worked on ships, helped build Mulberry Harbours and Bailey Bridges – D-Day stuff – and came one weekend to visit.
‘What we need,’ he declared, 'is a bit of timber, then you’ll have book cases.’ I left him alone while I went to cover a football match around the corner, came back and discovered him varnishing an instant book case.
‘Where did you get the wood?’ I sort of stuttered. ‘Found it in the ginnel, round the back of your office,’ he said. ‘Too good to waste. Criminal it was, left there.’
It was a very smart book case, divided the room neatly and housed the books perfectly.
Came Monday, Dad had gone home Sunday evening, the day started peacefully. Until the voice of The Comp shrieked into the reporter’s cubby hole: ‘Somebody’s nicked my wood!’
The handy bit of timber, ‘criminal to waste’, was in fact used to shutter the shop windows on the days the town played Shrove Tuesday football, a manic sort of round-the-town game. And Shrove Tuesday was 48 hours away.
I confessed, the replacement timber came out of my pay packet and I was duly admonished by the editor-in-chief.
Oh, yes you, learn a lot being a one-man band.
The bottom rung
By Dermod Hill
Two weeks ago a retired journalist, now professor of journalism in Sheffield, was reported as warning his students not to expect to get a job after graduation this year. The journalist, Peter Cole, former editor of the Sunday Correspondent and deputy editor of the Guardian, cited the recession.
But how can it be that an aspiring journalist with A-levels and three years specialised university study can end up with few or no prospects of employment? W H Smith is still piled to the rafters with newspaper and magazines titles, and the radio and television industry continues to burgeon. The answer may lie in the bottom rung. Or more accurately, whatever became of it?
At 16, I left school neither burning to crusade nor to communicate. My father was a Daily Mail journalist, so I simply saw in that line of work a course of least resistance. As preparation, I enrolled at a local poly for a six-month course in shorthand-typing. It was pitched at would be secretaries, so I was one of only two males in the class. Then, as now, woman were ten times brighter and more conscientious than men. At the halfway point, they were coping well but I was floundering so I packed it in.
With these slenderest of credentials – the basics of touch-typing and the rudiments of Pitman's shorthand – I found myself engaged by a small freelance London news agency serving the Fleet Street papers and the London evenings. Admittedly, those papers might have been horrified to see what was at the other end of the agency's telephone number. It was an office above a cockroach infested workers' cafe in King's Cross. But it generated a viable income by covering various London criminal, juvenile and coroners courts, and by accepting orders to cover general news stories of the day
On a shoestring, it ran a seven day news service between 6am. and midnight. In the process it provided a sink-or-swim experience for many aspiring journalists, many of whom later carved solid careers. It even produced the odd celebrity. Among my near contemporaries, for example, was Anne Robinson, who now beasts contestants on TV's The Weakest Link quiz. There was also a flirtatious lady called Trudi Pacter who went on to be a columnist, then Sunday Mirror woman's editor and later author of a procession of sizzling love fiction novels. Perhaps these are not the career patterns Sheffield University has in mind.
Needless to say, no training was provided. But for the first three months, my role was simply to dictate to Fleet Street copy takers the stories generated by the reporting staff. In this way, I became familiar with the underlying formulas of basic news reporting.
At last, one Saturday afternoon, I was briefed for my first reporting assignment. A Sunday paper wanted a few lines on a wedding that was taking place in north London. Being unfamiliar with the north London rail network, I ended up in the wrong place and never found the wedding at all. The future dangled on a thread. But reporters don't come much cheaper than £4 a week, and besides, the old man still occasionally ordered copy from the Mail news desk.
Within two years I had covered every conceivable type of domestic news story. Much of my copy was woven into that of others. But often it ran verbatim in the national press under a house by-line, and on one occasion, splashed across two pages of the News of the World. It was the era of paralysing national strikes. There were race riots in Notting Hill. There were rent strikes in St Pancras where reporters were stoned and thrown down flights of stairs because the tenants disapproved of their critical editorial line.
I covered not only fires and murders, but general elections. Before my 19th birthday I had interviewed two cabinet ministers. On others days, I would be plied with alcohol at pools-winner presentations in the Dorchester or, for the gossip columns, would report on the escapades of royalty. Princess Margaret's marriage to Daily Express photographic stringer Anthony Armstrong-Jones was a memorable bun fight. The Express, apparently stung by the fact the groom had not given it a beat on the story, was brimful of indignant copy and a fruitful market for anybody who could provide it.
As an agency writer, I also learnt the useful fact that the same words read like a Times story in The Times, or a Mirror story in the Mirror. The secret was clean, simple English.
With great nonchalance, I then decided to throw up journalism and attempt life as a jazz guitarist. When that didn't work, I returned via short spells in local papers, then settled into a career as a magazine feature writer in the celebrity interview market. At 22 I was actually earning more than my father who had been a Fleet Street for 25 years.
What has all this to do with unemployed graduates? It is this. The simple truth is that journalism is a job that requires only two qualifications: aptitude and experience. Aptitude, you are born with or you are not. Experience is something you must acquire, and the sooner the better. So how should employers view these new degrees in journalism or media studies? Reporting is a very broad spectrum profession and it has always had its old school tie coterie, and its quota of Oxbridge high fliers But degrees in journalism? Three year courses and then maybe no job at the end of it?
Is journalism a profession that truly lends itself to graduate starting salaries, to career patterns that by-pass the bottom rungs of the ladder? Or does journalism thrive best, as traditionally does the acting profession, with a door at least half open to hungry rogues and vagabonds with style? Would budding reporters benefit more from a resurgence of sweatshops that would pay a pittance but provide experience in a job? Flint hearted news editors are good at sorting the corn from the chaff.
For sure this year, as every year, contrary to Professor Cole's warning, I believe there are going to be many starter jobs in the journalism. But they are likely to be called editorial assistant or messenger. What they are called doesn't matter. What counts is that they are a start. Once inside the door it is a world in which anything can happen. But you have to be there when it does…
Brought to book
By Colin Dunne
No doubt there are dozens of people who would like to fling me ten feet through the air in the hope that I would land, rather painfully, in the middle of a rhododendron bush. But, on this particular Sunday lunchtime, with a few friends gathering from drinks on their lawn in Henley, Philippa Kennedy’s husband had good reason to chuck me around. John Pullinger was helping me with my research.
I was attempting to write a book, a thriller that involved a certain amount of guns-and-violence. I knew nothing about either, which is pretty amazing when you think that I was working for Kelvin MacKenzie at the time.
Philippa – Mirror, Express, editor of Press Gazette – volunteered her husband, who was then a major in the Paras, to give me an intensive education in both. And, helpful chap that he is, he did. He took me out double-tapping with a Browning 9mm (see how well I speak the language now?) on the army ranges and hurled me around the shrubbery to the great delight of their two little daughters.
I was attempting that circus leap from papers to paperback. A few had done it with spectacular success: Forsyth, Waterhouse, Taylor Bradford, Gerry Seymour – not all that many, when you think about it. Like everyone reading this, I had three coruscating chapters in my sock drawer, where it had curled up and died. Those who have been following these senile droolings will recall that I was then asked to finish a novel by a Famous Author who had, inopportunely, become a Late Famous Author. It was enough to inspire me to finish my own book.
It was based on a story I did with photographer Dennis Hussey for the Mirror about half-a-dozen fishermen who struggled to make a living on the Northumberland coast.
This hit the publishing world with all the impact of a used tea-bag. I was wondering what to do next, if indeed there was to be a next, when Ros Grose, one of the Sun’s brighter lady writers, introduced me to her husband Peter, who worked for Secker and Warburg, who introduced me in turn to the man he called the most respected editor in British publishing.
John Blackwell was indeed much sought-after. Real writers, people like David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, men who could employ a gerund without hesitation, queued up for his services. His skill was in assembling books; he had no equal when it came to the mechanics of what should go where and how it should all fit together. Although he seemed to have read every book that had ever been written, he insisted that he couldn’t write himself.
But he liked hacks, he liked lurching around Fleet Street, and when I met him he was already helping Leo Clancy, NoW reporter, with a book called Fixx.
Blackwell was whacky. I liked him enormously. With his dark hair creamed and neatly parted and his heavy-framed specs, he looked like a librarian. Yet he never wore anything other than an old denim top – he once wore it when he was best man at a wedding – and made his way around London on an old sit-up bike that was probably a shade too slow for Miss Marple.
Secker and Warburg then was an old-fashioned publishers in a tall thin building filled with rickety staircases in Poland Street. The qualifications for working there seemed to be high intelligence, a classical education, a passion for books, and an interesting collection of eccentricities. Take out the education, and it wasn’t unlike Fleet Street.
They ran on the very same fuel as Fleet Street. At any time of day, you’d find Peter Grose, of the floppy hair and unfailing smile, patrolling the steep staircases with a bottle, menacing friend and visitor alike with wine. He and his wife Ros were both Aussies and formed a sort of publishing-newspaper link. Peter liked recruiting journos to write books: ‘they don’t get too bloody precious,’ he told me.
One of the great legends of publishing, Barley Allison, seventy-ish, stick-thin, silver hair piled on top of her head, drank huge glasses of neat vodka on the rocks. She warned me against trying to keep pace with her. ‘It will only make you terribly ill,’ she said. ‘And then I’ll feel guilty.’
They were great people, tremendous fun and, not unlike our lot, they loved their work so much they never wanted to go home. When John Blackwell handed me his notes on my first manuscript, there were over 100 suggested alterations. ‘I’ll have a look at them,’ I said, begrudgingly.
‘It’s your book,’ he said, ‘don’t do them if you think I’m wrong.’ I took them home and studied them carefully. Every one was right.
Their one failing – a fatal one, unfortunately – was one I didn’t notice until it was too late.
Our problem was that Blackwell was excruciatingly shy. The only way he could break the dam was to down four or five pints, which freed him up to talk. So he insisted that I should meet him at six o’clock so that we could dash to the nearest pub. The trouble with this system was that after four or five pints I couldn’t even stand up, let alone take on board his advice. We compromised. I drank halves. Slowly.
This coincided with a feature I’d done for the Sun on retired SAS men. Someone – I really can’t remember who – suggested it may be wise to show the copy to one of Murdoch’s men who was involved in industrial relations in Bouverie Street. He also, it was said, had some mysterious intelligence connections.
That was how I met Bandy. That was his nickname. I think he’s probably dead now. But, just in case, I’m going to stick to Bandy. He is not a man I would wish to upset. In truth, Bandy was the most frightening man I ever met, and that includes Margaret Forwood.
I showed him the copy. He suggested a few changes. I rather sniffily said I might think about it – you know the deathly pride of we features creatures. He was in his early fifties, fit-looking, expensive suit, sarf London accent, ice for eyes. He chuckled. Certain people who might perhaps take exception to what I’d written could be very difficult, he said. Not for me, I chuckled: these mysterious people would hardly want that sort of publicity.
‘Where you park, Colin? The arches at Ludgate Circus? You’re going dahn there one night, couple of blokes jump you, kick the hell out of you, break an arm or a leg, knock your teeth out, nothing too serious. Take your wallet, watch, cash. That’s just an everyday muggin’, in’t it?’
I was suddenly struck by the penetrating intelligence of his suggested changes. I made them.
I got to know Bandy quite well. He had an interesting CV. Joined the Army as an alternative to prison after nearly killing a gypsy in a pub fight. He was in the Army prison for yet more fighting when an officer who was recruiting for a new and highly specialised regiment came to see him. ‘They tell me you’re a very violent man,’ he said.
‘Piss of before I break your fucking neck,’ replied Bandy.
‘You’re in,’ he said. He served more than 20 years with the SAS. Fighting terrorists in Malaya, he nailed one of them to a door by his scrotum as a warning to his associates. On his Army record, his personal qualities included ‘Lack of compunction.’
His stories, together with Major Pullinger’s back-lawn aerobics, kept me supplied with thriller material for the next couple of years. John Blackwell would peddle his bike down to Fleet Street to discuss it. Peter Grose published them. And I called my hero Sam Craven, as a nod to the Craven Herald in Yorkshire.
I once rang Bandy with a problem. My hero needed to kill a man instantly. ‘What’s he got? A brick? A bottle?’ Nothing. So he told me. For a man with strong hands (‘not you, Colin, you got ladies’ hands’), a stiffened forefinger driven into the corner of the eye would hit the brain. Instant death. ‘Makes a mess though – the eye jumps out.’
Seckers, who were worried what would happen if this information got into the hands of Britain’s football hooligans, declined to print this detail. If this got out, the King’s Road would look like the Somme after a Chelsea home game.
His nickname had nothing to do with his legs. On an operation against terrorists in Malaya, they had to make a rapid retreat leaving three or four injured colleagues behind. Nobody much fancied the job of making sure they weren’t captured alive. Bandy did it. That’s when ‘lack of compunction’ comes in. And that was also when he got his nickname. ‘Short for Bandicoot. The biggest rat in the world.’
After the SAS he’d gone on one or two unofficial security jobs. This was the time when London was plagued with the Richardson torture gang, who seemed to be beyond the reach of the police. Bandy joined the gang and provided the evidence to put them in prison.
The rumour – and I’m sure there’s not a word of truth in it – was that after I’d done my SAS piece, Kelvin said he’d like to meet some of these men. Bandy brought a couple into the office. After they’d gone, Kelvin, who must have been daintier than we realised, said they were no more than animals.
Then – this is the story: complete rubbish, I’m sure – my man Bandy grasped Kelvin’s collar-and-tie in one hand, his trouser crotch in the other, and lifted him above his head. He then shook him gently, so that all his loose change and pens and keys clattered to the floor. He then set him gently back on his feet and told him not to insult people. If this happened, which it didn’t of course, it would not be good for the public standing of the editor of a national newspaper.
Bandy, the rumour went, had resigned.
Even so, Alan Rusbridger, who was then running the Guardian diary, included a couple of mischievous pars on it. And when I eventually wound up back in the Mirror building, who did I bump into in Orbit House but Bandy? Maxwell had snapped him up when he left Murdoch. His job? To help close down the print unions. As usual, he did a good job.
This was all towards the end of my days on the Sun. One of these mornings provided the happiest three hours of my life. It was a Tuesday and, sitting at my desk on the fourth-floor, I was planning my farewell party from Fleet Street and my new life as a tax-exile zillionaire. Every hacks’ dream – that of becoming a best-selling author – was about to became reality.
I’d sent my novel about Northumbrian fishermen to David Niven – I’d done some minor writing for him in the past. To my amazement, he wrote back to say he wanted to buy the film rights; he would produce it himself; and his namesake son would put together the package. The figure he was suggesting seemed to take up most of one line of eight-point.
Forsyth, Waterhouse, Seymour, Taylor Bradford – now me.
That was why I was spending the morning planning my farewell party and the rest of my life. The Savoy, I thought, would be a bit flash. I’d be perfectly happy with the whole of the Cheshire Cheese. Who to invite? All the people I’d met on the way here. Perhaps Jack Heald would come down from the Craven Herald. Bill Freeman, from the Manchester Mirror, who’d launched me on this uncertain journey. Gordon Chester from Tyneside, Dennis Hussey and Brian Wood from Manchester features, Neville Stack from the old Sun, all the Mirror London and Lewthwaite and Kay and Dodd from Bouverie Street…
Kelvin? Why not? This was no time for pettiness. It wasn’t his fault that he was wearing the skipper’s cap when the tide turned.
For somewhere to live, I fancied a grand manoir in the French Pyrenees, with maybe a good old farmhouse in Swaledale to keep in touch with my roots. Should I change my office Escort for an Aston Martin maybe?
As I say, I was having a moment of delirious self-indulgence when the telephone rang. It was Niven. He would, he said, come straight to the point. He could only spend a limited number of days in Britain each year. That didn’t leave him sufficient time to shoot the film. So, terribly sorry, old chap, can’t go ahead with it.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, before ringing off. ‘Someone else will soon snap it up.’
The snappers must have lost my home number.
There never were any other offers, of course. I don’t think anybody else ever read it. The other books that followed – drawing heavily on background from Bandy and John Pullinger – were great fun to do and were much enjoyed by my few blood relatives. Some got into paperback, and some even got to America. Where they didn’t get was into the bookshops, which was Secker’s one weakness: they knew how to produce beautiful books, but they didn’t know how to sell them.
About this time I also learnt the First Golden Rule of Writing – you’ll make more money from a one-page piece in Good Housekeeping than you will from a novel.
Unless you happen to be called Forsyth, Waterhouse, Seymour, or Taylor Bradford.
Much as it warms my heart to see my name on the spine of a book, the calorific effect would be much greater on a big fat cheque.
Oddly enough, about this time publishing and newspapers experienced the same violent spasm. Lovely old firms like Secker and Warburg were later absorbed into the bland vastness of Random House. Characters like John Blackwell departed, with their bikes and vodka.
Back on our side of the fence, Kelvin found his lunchless paradise. At Wapping, a few thousand murderous printers stood between the hacks and the nearest wine list. And somewhere out there, a couple of rough beasts called Maxwell and Montgomery were slouching towards our own little Bethlehem, waiting to be born.
For the time being at least, my future driving an Aston Martin around the Pyrenees was on hold. Writing books paid just about as well as reading them.
So, back to the hackery. Surely somewhere there must be a quiet corner where an old-fashioned boy could put his aching feet up, trot out the odd piece, take a glass from time to time, and think about life?
Have you ever heard of the Daily Record?
All our yesterdays
IT'S TWO years ago this week that we first published a blog called Gentlemen Ranters. Those among you who were with us at the start will recall that it was created as a site for a couple of dozen emailing chums to deposit their reminiscences and rants (much of it was composed after closing time) for common amusement. But news spreads quickly among Streetwalkers, and by the end of the first week we had had 200 readers. By the end of the first month there were 2,000 a week and so it has gone. After six weeks we needed to graduate from a blogsite to a website, just to cope with the traffic. And The Times, in a piece about websites, wrote: 'The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street.' In the past 12 months there were more than 2,000,000 clicks on to the site. Which is success, of a sort, I suppose. Sadly, it isn't a financial success because we don't carry advertising (nobody know what old hacks and snappers spend their money on – certainly not on books, apparently). And because there's very little feedback we don't even know whether it brings much pleasure to those two million (call it 40,000 a week) who presumably keep returning. All we do know is that a loyal group of old chums, and the very occasional new one, are sufficiently enthusiastic to keep writing for it. Two million thank-yous, then, to them. And to the rest of you... What is it? Forgotten how to write? Or just got nothing interesting to say? Bloody hell, we could never shut you up, in the pub. So if you can write, please feel free so to do. Oh... but if you do write, please read it before sending. We're a bit understaffed on the subs table...
A Billy Wilder-style comedy of muddle, mistrust, and misplaced zeal. – New York Times on Tony Delano’s classic book, Slip-Up
Issue # 105 July 24, 2009
Read any good books lately? Or ever? A professor of journalism is looking for a list of books about the inky trade that all academics should be aware of and should be recommending to their students. You may have a view. You can nominate your own favourites by clicking here and reading the blurb. Truth (and I know that's a long-shot) is, it should be something we all care about.
Incidentally, to return to this site after going to an outside link, you just click on the Back arrow at the top left of the page you've gone to.
Talking of professors of journalism, Roy Greenslade discusses, in his Media Guardian blog, the affects of changes in the class system. You can read it in the column on the right, or click here to read it in full with the inevitable stream of class-conscious comments. And his own update – what to do about it – can be found here.
And talking of former editors, Derek Jameson explains why the editor – who legally carries the can for everything – might honestly claim ignorance of what's going on in the newsroom.
Reporter and popular desk man Jim Stevenson is the latest departure to the Great Newsroom. Andy Leatham remembers the man known (courtesy of Randolph Caughie, because he had only one front tooth) as Juanita, or as The Plank (Brian Whittle: no explanation given).
Jack Grimshaw, now living in sunny California, picks up two stories from last week: his teenage dream – an actual plan, no less – of working as a gigolo on the French riviera and then his start, instead, as a reporter. Ah well, he did all right at the end, and, remarkably, he can remember most of it...
From Oz, Philip Harrison remembers the days, more than half a century ago, when facts were sacred and checking them was, er, vital to a young reporter...
And Colin Dunne goes on the Record, then, inevitably given his track record, off it.
Readers and writers
Elliot King, professor of journalism at Loyola University (Maryland), is compiling a list of ‘essential’ books about journalism that all journalism students (and perhaps everybody) should read. He plans to present his conclusions to a journalism educators’ conference in Boston next month. He’s not looking for skills-oriented books like stylebooks or journalism textbooks;, nor books outside the field of journalism that might be important for journalists to have read in politics, history, literature or economics. His goal is to identify books about the history, development and practice of journalism; biographies of practitioners of journalism and great works of journalism that every journalism student (and perhaps everybody) should have read. Sounds like a good idea. Every journalist probably has a view on this, even if not every journalist reads books. So if you want to put in your two-penn’orth and nominate your favourite reading about newspapers, you can join in the fun. It’ll take only a few minutes to complete. Click below, then read the copy, and vote for his suggestions, and/or nominate your own. Then click the button that says Submit, to send it. http://www.surveymethods.com/EndUser.aspx?B793FFE2B1F6EAE3 Here at Ranters, we have already nominated – and published or re-published (or are in process of publishing or re-publishing) our own selection of books that are classics and essential – and fun – reading for journalists, written by journalists. You may of course disagree. You may have other titles in mind that you think should be added to the Ranters Classic Collection. Either way, here’s a reminder of what we’ve done so far (not, you’ll understand, that we are thinking of influencing your votes!):
Slip-Up: How Fleet Street found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard Lost Him:The story behind the scoop by Anthony Delano
Perhaps the best analysis of Fleet Street at work ever written. – Keith Waterhouse No journalist can afford to miss this cautionary tale… the story of the in-fighting and downfall of all concerned has one rolling in the aisles. Mr Delano’s eye is astute, his ear a credit to his profession at any level; and his wit is accompanied by the ability to write clear English. – The Times Anthony Delano, a reporter of much experience, has written the most useful, intellectually coherent and – yes – serious action-study of the British Press that anyone has given us for years... and hysterically funny… A beautifully articulated case-study of the Code of the Street in action. – Bruce Page, New Statesman Delano mercilessly exposes the savage Fleet Street competition that underlay the Biggs scoop, and the tale is pacey, absorbing, humorous. – New Society I’d say it's the funniest book about Fleet Street since Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. I stayed up half the night to finish it. It’s one of those you-can’t-put-it-down books. SLIP-UP includes some devastating portraits of Fleet Street characters. Delano’s wicked pen spares no one. – Phillip Knightley, Press Gazette A Billy Wilder-style comedy of muddle, mistrust, and misplaced zeal. – New York Times Gripping… Delano tells it superbly. It’s hard to think of a book since Scoop in which double dealing, grappling ambition, spectacular successes and the glaring ineptitudes of daily journalism are examined so sharply and with such wit. – The Australian A story worth telling, not only for entertainment, but also for the light it throws on journalistic practices. The characters are vividly and sympathetically presented. – Times Literary Supplement Dead-eye Delano has done it... He has taken on two of those worthy – if somewhat frowsty – British institutions, Scotland Yard and the Daily Express and demolished them with wit, pace and a keen eye... A hilarious straight-through read. Very, very good value for those who like a laugh. For journalists it is a must. – The Scotsman
Crying All The Way To The Bank:(Liberace v. the Daily Mirror and Cassandra) by Revel Barker, Foreword by Vera Baird QC
Bizarre and hilarious… Nothing shorter than a paperback could achieve a balanced report of the brilliance of the advocacy and summing-up. – Hugh Cudlipp
Cross-examinations and a brilliant closing speech had me barking with laughter – Law Society Gazette
It’s the Liberace Show…! – Time magazine
A literary assassin who dips his pen in vitriol, hired by this sensational newspaper to murder reputations and hand out sensational articles on which its circulation is built. … as vicious and violent a writer as has ever been in the profession of journalism in this city of London. – Gilbert Beyfus QC
Cassandra: At His Finest And Funniest by William Neil Connor
For thirty-two years – with time off to go to war – Bill Connor wrote his famous column in the London Daily Mirror under the pseudonym of Cassandra. It was syndicated world-wide and set a new standard for columnists.
Millions of his followers throughout the English-speaking world will treasure this book of some of his finest and funniest writing. – Hugh Cudlipp
Ladies of The Street by Liz Hodgkinson
An entertaining historical overview, charting the gradual rise of women into positions of power and influence. This book finally gives Fleet Street’s pioneering women their due. – Roy Greenslade
Their stories are all here, from the superstars such as Marje Proops, Claire Rayner, Jean Rook, Anne Robinson, Katharine Whitehorn, Jilly Cooper, Felicity Green, Nancy Banks Smith, Doreen Spooner, Sheila Black and Mary Stott, to the supporting cast who largely toiled without any recognition. Many of these women blasted their way into jobs previously reserved exclusively for men and they dared to write about things that had never been written about before in the public prints, for a large and grateful readership. Here is the story of Fleet Street in its bold, brash, powerful, influential – and often alcohol-soaked - heyday, and of the women who, by their courage, persistence and sheer talent, feminised and humanised national newpaper journalism.
The Best Of Vincent Mulchrone:A lifetime of wit and observation of the folly and splendour of his fellow humans by the Daily Mail’s finest reporter.
He could penetrate in a flash to the heart of a story in a few deceptively simple words. – Vere Harmsworth Newspapermen just don’t come much better than Vincent Mulchrone – Ian Skidmore
At the time, in an age that was almost certainly witnessing British – and therefore the world’s – journalism at its best, Mulchrone stood as the supreme practitioner. – Revel Barker
A Crooked Sixpence by Murray Sayle
The best novel about journalism – ever. – Phillip Knightley Wonderful – the best book about British popular journalism – Roy Greenslade The best novel never published. – Anthony Delano. A classic – Peter Stothard, Times Literary Supplement
Sayle paints a remarkably vivid picture of British popular journalism in its 1950s heyday. The hero, if that is the word, is one James O’Toole, easily identified as Sayle.– Geoffrey Tudor
Forgive Us Our Press Passes by Ian Skidmore
…should be made required reading for every child-in-a-suit populating what passes for our newsrooms these days. – Grey Cardigan in Press Gazette Hilarious –Start The Week (BBC Radio 4) Ian Skidmore's joyful account of the Golden Days of British national newspapers...entertaining and informative. His erudition and sense of humour are apparent on every page. – Stanley Blenkinsop
The Upper Pleasure Garden, by Gordon M Williams
The flavour of this sort of journalistic life is caught as well as in any novel I can remember. – Sunday Times A most entertaining and intelligent novel. – Evening StandardEverything throbs with life, vibrates with individuality... for sheer elan vital it's the next best thing to surf-bathing. – Irish Times
Out of the workaday rounds of a provincial yellow journalist, Gordon Williams has scraped together an occupational ambiance as definitive as dirty fingernails... a yeasty mixture of character and social climate... – New York Times
And, coming shortly… Joyce McKinney and the case of the Manacled Mormon, by Anthony Delano Plus Publish And Be Damned!The astonishing story of the Daily Mirror, by Hugh Cudlipp. More details about the current list at www.booksaboutjournalism.com
Yiddish business By Derek Jameson
Astonishment all round as Andy Coulson continued to deny any knowledge of hacking and other underhand tricks at the News of the World while he sat in the editor’s chair. He must have known, whined those eager to score points off Andy’s new boss, David Cameron. Well, I have news for the holier-than-thou brigade. Having been there myself several times over, I can assure them that he almost certainly did not know what was going on inside his own paper. It’s all down to an old Yiddish expression I learned as a kid in the East End: ‘Better you shouldn’t ask!’ It’s quite simple when you think about it. The editor carries the can for everything done in the name of his paper, and that includes breaking the law and even upsetting the moral minority. So when the news editor or another executive gets. Involved in anything dodgy, the last person to know about it is the editor. That way he is bomb proof. If and when the proverbial hits the fan, he or she can say, hand on heart, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about. Try the Sun.’ It doesn’t absolve the editor of the paper altogether, but it helps. Quite frequently the offended party will go away, looking for trouble elsewhere. As editor or executive, I can recall several times ring fencing the editor’s office to keep the top dog out of trouble – which might well come in the shape of the proprietor (morning, Rupert) as well as outsiders. It could also enable the desk to get on with the story before the outraged editor called off the hounds. Years ago we had a tip on the NoW that Prince Andrew was still seeing Koo Stark despite their very public split. Apparently they were holed up in a Kensington hotel. Never-say-die, a reporter – freelance, no doubt – got into an adjoining room and listened in through a toothbrush mug held again the wall. Yes, he could confirm they were together. ‘How do we know?’ I asked. Better you shouldn’t ask! Another time we were on to a supposed Soviet spy mission operating under strict security from a remote country estate hotel in Surrey. We couldn’t get past the outer walls for bodyguards carrying enough weapons to start World War III. So I hired a helicopter to buzz the place. The editor was not best pleased when the MoD appeared breathing fire and waving a stack of D-notices. Turned out our NKVD spy nest was European headquarters of the CIA. Ah well, you can’t win ‘em all, but at least the editor knew nothing about it -and wouldn’t he have loved the story had it stood up?
Great Newsroom latest
By Andrew Leatham
Jim Stevenson, one of the nicest men ever to fly a newsdesk, has died at the age of 81. He suffered a massive heart attack during a social evening at his local golf club in Troon, Ayrshire, to where he had retired after a lifetime in national newspapers. Jim’s career in nationals began on the Scottish Daily Express. He later joined the Daily Herald, staying with the newspaper when it became the Sun and was put in charge of the Glasgow news-gathering operation. When the Sun was bought by Rupert Murdoch, Jim moved over to the Sunday People in Glasgow, transferring to the Manchester office in the early 1970s. In 1975 he was appointed deputy news editor in Manchester but very soon found himself holding the baby after news editor Clive Entwistle was seconded to mastermind the buy-up – and subsequent minding of – the wife of Donald Neilson, the notorious Black Panther, who had been charged with the kidnap and murder of 17 year-old heiress Lesley Whittle and the murder of three sub-postmasters. Entwistle never returned to the desk. Jim ran the show for more than a year, gaining the respect of staffmen and freelances alike for his straight-forward, honest approach to the job. He resumed the deputy’s job after Terry Lovell was made Manchester news editor. In all, Jim supported two northern editors and four news editors, among them Colin Myler, current editor of the News of the World, before the People Manchester operation was axed by Robert Maxwell in 1988. Jim took the opportunity to retire to Scotland to concentrate on his beloved golf. Fellow Scot Neil Marr, who worked in the Sunday People Manchester office with Jim, said: ‘He was one of the nicest, warmest, most human and thoroughly decent chaps I’ve ever met in our game. Unlike others, he simply refused to play tough. I will remember him fondly.’ Jim’s funeral took place at Ayr crematorium last Friday (17 July.)
Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson
By Jack Grimshaw
Gigolos in the South of France? Cub reporters toiling in the English trenches? The sheer synchronicity in last week’s Ranters (July 17) left me simultaneously breathless and breathing heavy – and pondering the path not taken.
Liz Hodgkinson’s recounting of Alastair Campbell’s supposed escapades (Campbell scoop: Ranters last week) and Dermod Hill’s recollection of life as a teenage freelance (The bottom rung: ditto) prompted the kind of mega-watt neon flashback I haven’t experienced since the '70s in South Florida, when any given evening’s casual entertainment was dropping some heavy-duty LSD and touring the National Enquirer watering holes to watch people’s faces melt. (Window pane – don’t leave home without it. Or, on it.)
At 18 and, like Dermod, the directionless son of a Daily Mail staffer (in my case, the Manchester head printer), I was unexpectedly pointed toward the perfect job – beach waiter at the world-famous Carlton Hotel, home-from-home for the biggest stars during the annual Cannes Film Festival.
All I had to do, I was assured, was show up there with my O-level French (and the same tall, fair-haired, English charm as Mr Campbell), mention a certain name, and the job would be mine. The rich, older, local ladies would be falling all over themselves. The assurer of this, and owner of the name, was a neighbour – sweet, petite, red-haired and, to use a description that became common parlance three years later thanks to The Graduate, my Mrs Robinson.
This Liz, and such was her name, was a single, mid-30s mother with a young son, a part-time boyfriend with a Rolls-Royce, and a constantly changing cast of young, male renters. Busy failing my A-levels splendidly at technical college, I had no more goal in life than to play rugby, learn to drink, and recover socially from six years boarding at (the now-illustrious) Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester. I seemed to be making some headway in the latter endeavor.
Liz painted a glowing picture of life at the Carlton, where Mr Roller had paid her bills more than once. Intoxicated by an evening with Liz and the visions of my golden life as a boy toy on the Cote d’Azure, I stumbled home and blithely announced my plans.
To say that the shit hit the fan would be a massive understatement in terms of both stink and all-around messiness. My old man was livid, apoplectic and raving. Compounding matters was, he’d had his eye on Liz, himself, for some time. A fact that hadn’t escaped my notice. Or, I think, my mother’s. She took it out on me, by proxy.
The old man pulled strings. Within weeks, I was hired at the Salford City Reporter to cover news and rugby league. Doubtless influenced by where I wasn’t, my immediate impression was that if Salford was not the asshole of the world, it would certainly do until the real thing came along.
Salford was followed by the Western Daily Press, Bristol; the Manchester Evening News; the Enquirer;Sports Form, Las Vegas and, latterly, OC Weekly, here in Orange County, Southern California. There were also brief interludes in Atlanta (Georgia) and Birmingham (Alabama). It’s been a long strange trip.
Closest I ever got to the Carlton was a couple of weekends in Paris (the city, not the celeb). And the other part of the equation? Well, whether she has yet gone to that ultimate blind date in the sky or not, Liz will always be to me, as she put it in her own words, ‘29, in kind lighting.’
Never let the facts…
By Philip Harrison
I was a second-year cadet reporter at the Brisbane afternoon tabloid Telegraph in 1958, assigned to the police rounds desk. For a cadet, this entailed sitting at the desk for eight hours ringing round the city’s police stations in rotation and every hour ringing the country areas to speak to the senior sergeant. The phone calls went something like this:
If one of these calls elicited news of a road accident, a fire or – be still, foolish heart! – a murder, the senior police roundsman was usually sent to report on it. Only rarely was the lowly cadet allowed to go.
Saturdays, however, were different. The cadet was usually alone on the desk and covered any police, ambulance or fire emergencies, usually road accidents that had happened the previous night. That was the exciting bit. The flipside was that Saturdays in Brisbane were usually pretty dull, and anything newsworthy usually happened too late for the Telegraph last edition but well in time for the opposition Sunday Mail to pick up.
One Saturday, however, in the week leading to Christmas, the first accident report I received from the senior sergeant at suburban Inala was of a woman who had been knocked down and killed at a zebra crossing at 11 the previous night. Just a paragraph’s worth of news. Except that she had 11 children and was pregnant with the 12th. I got all the details I could from the police, wrote the story and handed it in. A few seconds later, the news editor came running over. 'Great story,' he said. 'Grab a photographer and get over to the house and interview her husband. Try to get him with all the kids.'
No one had ever heard of media ethics then, and any qualms I had about intruding on grief were more than quelled by the twin thoughts of a possible Page One story with my byline, and fear of getting sacked if I did not get it.
I drove out to the house with a veteran photographer of the Telegraph, Ernie Sear. I was comforted by the fact that Ernie had been around newspapers and tragedies a lot longer than I had. He would, of course, be first at the door of the house. I could hang back a bit and perhaps mutter a couple of questions.
We arrived at the house, an old fibro Queenslander on 7ft stumps. Ernie said: 'There it is. Go on in, then. I’ll wait here.'
Ernie was not as stupid as I had thought.
Spurred by the fact that I had about 20 minutes before deadline for the next edition, and by that old fear of being fired, I walked around the block once, then in the gate, up the outside steps and knocked on the door. A husky youth of about 17 answered (I was all of 18). 'Can I talk to your father, please?' I said.
He shouted: 'Dad, you're wanted', and went back into a nearby room. His father appeared, accompanied by a priest. The father seemed dazed. I explained who I was and asked if I could have a few words about the accident. I had expected to be thrown bodily out of the house, but the father was willing to talk. He even summoned one of his younger children to fetch the family’s child endowment book so that I could copy all the children’s names and ages.
I got all the information I needed and looked outside to see Ernie at the front gate, camera ready. I asked: 'Would it be all right if we took a photograph of you and the kids?'
The priest, who had been silent till then, placed a hand firmly on my chest and propelled me backwards out of the entrance. 'No,' he said. 'You have had enough. Please leave this family alone now.'
I was getting close to deadline so I ran to a nearby phone box, dialled the office, got a copytaker and started to dictate the story: 'It will be a bleak Christmas for the O’Leary family this year,' I started. 'For last night their mother, Colleen, was… '
There was a sound of earphones being taken from the copytaker and the news editor’s voice came down the line: 'Just the fucking facts, Phil,' he said. 'Don’t give us any of that sob-story bullshit. And for Christ sake speak up. The copytaker can hardly hear you.'
The reason I was keeping my voice down was that outside the phone box four of the O’Leary children, including the 17-year-old, were waiting to use the phone. I didn’t mind intruding on grief, but I did not want to give unnecessary offence to the 17-year-old, who did not look too friendly. I started again: 'A pregnant mother of 11 was knocked down and killed at a pedestrian crossing last night…' It took me 10 or 12 minutes to dictate the story. Ernie had driven the office car to the phone box and I brushed past the O’Leary children, hopped in and we went back to the office.
Boy, was I pleased with myself. What a great story.
As soon as I arrived at the police rounds desk, the news editor appeared. 'What the fuck was this woman doing on a pedestrian crossing at 11 o’clock at night?' he said.
Jesus. I had forgotten to ask. I racked my brains for a possible reason. 'Was she coming home from the pictures or something?' said the news editor impatiently.
A lifeline for me. 'Yes,' I replied. 'I thought I had put that in the story.'
'Don’t worry,' he said. 'I’ll write it in.'
It was the biggest story I had ever had in the paper. Even without photographs, it occupied most of page one. No byline, but you can’t have everything.
I was happy. Except for a gnawing thought: what if the Sunday Mail came out next day and gave some other reason for the mother being out so late? As all journalists know, when newspapers differ over the facts of a story, the rival paper is always right.
I had a bad night and rushed out to the front garden the next day to get the home-delivered Sunday Mail. There, on Page One, was the story, with a woman’s byline I had not seen before. And, yes, in the fourth paragraph, it said that the dead woman had been returning from the pictures.
Now a postscript. A few days later, I was covering a Rotary lunch and bumped into the woman who had written the Sunday Mail story. I told her how worried I had been about the possibility that the Mail story might contradict mine. 'Thank heavens,' I said,' that you checked and it turned out to be right.'
'I have news for you,' she replied. 'I couldn’t summon up the nerve to go and talk to the family, so I pretended I had done the interview and rewrote your story.'
Halfway down the Daily Mirror newsroom in Holborn was a small pen containing half-a-dozen desks and half-a-dozen journalists. One quiet morning, a man who used to be a downtable sub in Manchester – slim, thin-rimmed specs, a pale face as expressionless as a shop dummy – hurried past, stopped, stepped back and poked his head inside. ‘What exactly are you doing here?’ he asked, in a honking Ulster accent. Damn. They’d been rumbled. Worst of all, it was by David Montgomery, restless in his quest to make himself even more loved by uncovering nests of quaking hacks to boot down the stairs. He’d done it again. You may remember that I was feeling a little queasy in the choppy waters of the MacKenzie Frenzy at the Sun and cast about, a little nervously, for a quiet harbour where I could drop anchor for a while. (Can we return to dry land now? Thank goodness – I felt a ‘pieces of eight’ simile coming on.) Well, the Record’s London office was that sort of place. Lesley Hall who was my old chum in the Mirror building – not exclusively mine, because she was just about everybody’s best chum – tipped me off that the Record were looking for a London-based writer. Like most people in England, even journos, I’d barely heard of the Daily Record. To my surprise, I discovered that it was a major publishing success: massive circulation of over 700,000 – the highest market saturation outside of Japan – with about 400 hacks, pots of dosh and bouncing with self-confidence. Just the place for a shell-shocked Sun survivor. It wasn’t just as simple as that. Bernie Vickers, the Record editor, offered me the job, but would I first have a chat with his assistant editor (features), John Burrowes? I would’ve liked a chat with Mr Burrowes, but, inexplicably, he didn’t seem to want a chat with me. A small man with large glasses, he gave me an icy reception. As I sat across his desk, he stared unsmiling at the wall beside him. As a gesture, he asked one or two questions, like what did I know about Scotland. Since all I knew about Scotland was that it was somewhere north of Yorkshire and they didn’t play cricket – I didn’t actually say that – the answers didn’t amount to much. He wasn’t listening: it didn’t matter. When I mentioned the Mirror, he gave a choked snort that somehow suggested limitless loathing. When I left his room, I don’t think he noticed. I wrote to Bernie and said much as I would like to work for him, I felt John Burrowes did not share our enthusiasm. Burrowes rang to smooth things over, and there I was, on board (oh god, we’re not at sea again, are we?). On the Sun I had seen the future. It worked, which is more than you could say for the hacks who were de-jobbed. But when I walked back into the Mirror building, nothing had changed. The party was still rocking. And my next four years were up there with the best – having my own little columnar empire on the Evening Chron in Newcastle, working for Freeman and Price in the Mirror Manchester office, and my time with Larry Lamb’s Sun. The Record writer was detached from the third-floor pen, which was probably just as well. Even now I hate to admit it, but Montgomery did have a point. The precise function of the Record office in London was difficult to define. Liaison, it was called, and in pursuit of this somewhat blurred goal they had assembled a cast that looked like the blending of an end-of-the-pier show with a psychiatrist’s waiting room. Our leader was Jim Dalrymple – ex-Express – who had recently returned from running the Mirror training scheme in Plymouth. He had also just concluded a drinking career which included such highlights as breaking the nose of Frank Howitt as he sat at the bar in the Bell. He’d given up the booze, and – at least temporarily – given up hitting people. Instead, he was polishing his golf swing, between feeding snips of London gossip to Bernard – his major responsibility. If there wasn’t any, Jim would make it up. (‘The word is that Christena Appleyard’s the next editor…’). Alongside him we had a smoothly sophisticated man with beautifully cut suits, a BMW, and a well-stocked wine cellar. Brian Cullinan was a smoothie with great charm. He was their London reporter, and an excellent reporter too, but since the Mirror had quite a number of people already doing reporting, Brian’s services were rarely required. This left him free to give his full attention to his plan to trace and consume the world’s supply of Rioja. He didn’t miss many. With a face that was all specs and smiles, g-and-t in one hand, ciggie in the other, Lesley Hall was possibly the best-known and best-loved woman in newspapers. Thin as an elegant rail, signature silk scarf waving, she raised cries of welcome in every establishment from Vagabonds to Scribes. Fleet Street met her every need, even down to the husky young barristers she would pluck from El Vino to help her in the hunt for the elusive G-spot. John Mortimer, no less, said he thought she was trying to assemble a young barristers’ cricket team. She was a one, our Lesley. Her job was to tell Glasgow what London were up to. It wasn’t too exacting. I always thought that Barry Tranter had something of the poltergeist about him. Whenever he came into the room, you expected pots and pans to start flying about. Some said it was the drink, but he gave that up and remained as wild-eyed as ever. He made life interesting. He once told Glasgow that Jimmy Tarbuck’s wife was holding a press conference to announce her divorce. The message went to the Record’s hot-shot- showbiz reporter John Millar, a man so on top of his job that he immediately raised Tarbuck on the telephone. Tarbuck was astounded and enraged: it wasn’t true. It was, in fact, Mike Yarwood’s wife. This was fed back down from Glasgow to London where it only briefly discomfited our Barry. ‘Well I knew it was one of those comedians.’ People used to call in to our pen to admire the secretary, Jackie, a young woman of tumbling hair and pouting lips, who also had tumbling and pouting breasts. She had, it was rumoured, been a Playboy bunny girl. I believe Paul Callan had to be locked in the gents throughout her time. The Record’s London photographer, John Dempsie, who’d earlier been with the Mail, was one of the few truly busy people in the building. He covered most of the big news stories, escorted the constant stream of Record feature writers who came down from Glasgow, and completed a double act with me. John was, I think, the best photographer I ever worked with. He had the great gift of being naturally likeable, which made his job – and mine – much easier. The job. Ah. Actually, it was wonderful. Quite simply I had to provide a piece on whatever the big story was south – to them – of the Border. That meant colour pieces on royal weddings (Duke of York’s), major happenings (Hungerford massacre), the anniversary of Aberfan, and celebrity interviews. I’d never done these before, largely because I didn’t think they were very interesting people. I was right: they mostly weren’t, although there was the odd surprise. In the St James’ Club, where many visiting stars liked to see the press, Kirk Douglas sprang in from a side room quoting from a piece I’d written. He’d had his people dig it out to show how interested he was in me. Phoney, of course, but flattering. By then he’d be about 70, an actor of established reputation. So why did he bother seeing people like me? ‘I’m here to sell the movie, so I have to make sure that journalists like me. And you are going to love me, you son-of-a-bitch.’ He was right. That’s why he never got bad press. In Jersey, the best-selling writer Jack Higgins came to greet us clothed from head to foot in black leather. He didn’t trouble to remove his leather gloves before shaking hands. At lunch, at an excellent Italian restaurant, he ate scrambled eggs and bacon. He didn’t drink. Didn’t eat much. Didn’t travel because he didn’t like the sun. Didn’t like Jersey much. Good to see a man enjoy the fruits of his labours. With a new book out, Alan Whicker delivered to me a silken bollocking. My first question, he said, was answered in the book. For my second question, if I’d looked at Chapter Three. The third was also explained. ‘Do you know, old chap,’ he said, his smile still on full beam, ‘whenever I interviewed someone about their latest book, I tried to make a point of reading it beforehand.’ ‘So do I,’ I said. ‘But your publishers failed to deliver to me last night, so I couldn’t.’ There was a pause. Then he held out his hands, palms upward. ‘My dear fellow, what can I say?’ ‘How about sorry?’ It was a great time. Eventually, Burrowes and I got on wonderfully. His opinion of the English was so low that he wouldn’t even change flights at Heathrow (although, as I pointed out, he’d be most unlikely to encounter any English there) and he wasn’t all that impressed with the work-rate of the Mirror-men. I let that one go. In the end, he resolved his problem by deciding that Yorkshire wasn’t really England and my Irish father clinched it: I was okay. He despatched me and Dempsie all over the place. In Bremen one snowy Christmas, so cold I was glad to be wearing my heavy sheepskin, we strayed into some sort of formal party in our hotel. The room fell silent. They all stared. Then one man came over and, after a bit of heel-clicking, said he would be honoured to buy us a drink. It was a Luftwaffe reunion. And my coat was a World War II flying jacket. We were lucky we didn’t have to tunnel our way out. There was also something to be said for having your boss 500 miles away. When I said I was going down to Kensington, Burrowes’ deputy asked if that was an overnight. ‘Probably,’ I said. But then, I wouldn’t have known if Perth was an overnight from Glasgow. If anyone ever comes down from the Record account department, they will be surprised to find that the Old Bailey isn’t 28 miles from Holborn, as Cullinan’s expenses led them to believe. At that time, the Record would send down their writers every week. Some of them – Stan Shivas and Tom Brown particularly – were as good as any, and their showbiz writer John Millar would come down and knock off half-a-dozen features in three days. The Fleet Street papers – the Mail in particular – tried desperately to sign him up, which would have meant they could lay off four or five London writers. Millar the high-speed Scot, however, had other, better, things in mind. About once a year, I was invited up to Glasgow to see my leaders, and to have lunch with Bernie Vickers. Bernie, who’d edited the broadsheet Sun in Manchester, was an extraordinary man. With his slanting, florid face, flattened hair and large glasses, he looked like a Japanese general. He did enjoy a drink. In fact, that doesn’t quite cover it. Even in Scotland, he excited admiration and occasionally astonishment. Certainly he’s the only lunch companion I’ve had who, on entry to the restaurant, held up four fingers to indicate the number of bottles of his favourite claret. One each. And that was just for openers. There was also clear evidence that he was not gay. He had one talent that was invaluable both professionally and socially - total recall. At conference, he could remember every story in every paper – ‘page four, column two.’ After a heavy night, however damaged they’d all been, he could always remember who had said what. The next morning, people didn’t always want to be reminded. ‘Aye, Bernie, but I didn’t mean fucking useless in that way…’ Then, Maxwell and then Monty. The Record team broke up. All the energy that Dalrymple had directed into drink now went into work. On the Plymouth training scheme he’d had quite an array of talent pass through his hands, from Hilary Bonner and Philippa Kennedy to Matthew Symonds and Alastair Campbell. He picked up the phone and was immediately on the staff of the new Indie. He won Writer of the Year there and went on to the Sunday Times colour mag. These days he doesn’t need to write at all. Lesley took redundancy and was always worried that her stash of money wouldn’t cover her remaining years. Sadly, she ran out of years first, and the memorial service for The Naughtiest Girl in the School, in St Bride’s, packed the church with every hack who could still walk. Afterwards in El Vino, her cricket team raised a glass. Barry Tranter, I believe, retreated to the West Country to spread more confusion no doubt, Dempsie is still snapping away south of Croydon. John Millar, still in his beloved Scotland, spends much of his time in Hollywood organising publicity for Disney and other major film-makers. The Fleet Street daily rate wouldn’t pay for his golf tees. Bernie moved south of Guildford and briefly worked on the Today paper. When that ended, the local giveaway, the Haslemere Messenger, found they had one of the best back-bench men in Britain. As soon as Montgomery stuck his head round the corner, Brian Cullinan knew it was over. Clever chap that was he, he took himself off to the Northern Echo where he worked as an unpaid sub to learn a new trade. When he returned, he was soon recruited to the Sunday Times business section. One evening, in a very minor accident, he was knocked over, but suffered brain damage that meant he was never quite the same delightful man again. Before Monty blew the whistle, I’d taken the Maxwell pay-off, which, while not enough to fund a retirement in the Bahamas, was ample for a weekend in Filey. For one. I wasn’t replaced. The Record London Writer was no more. For me, the next job. I’d had one or two exacting masters in newspapers, from MacKenzie to Maxwell, but now I found myself working for the nastiest, meanest, most demanding little bastard I’d ever encountered. Have you ever been self-employed?
How journalism became a middle class profession for university graduates
By Roy Greenslade
That remark in the Alan Milburn report, Unleashing Aspiration, about journalism becoming ‘one of the most exclusive middle-class professions of the 21st century’, certainly touched a nerve with me.
It has been clear in my five years at City University that every cohort of post-grad journalism students has been overwhelmingly middle class.
I’m not going to get into arguments about the difficulties involved in defining social class. I’m willing to accept the report’s claim at face value, despite the elasticity of the term ‘middle class’.
There have been substantial demographic changes since I began my journalistic career in 1964 as a working class baby boomer benefiting from the chance to clamber up the class ladder.
At my first local paper, the Barking and Dagenham Advertiser, I found myself in the company of other working class staff - from the cleaner to the editor.
The same was the case with all the young reporters on rival papers I met at court each morning. And it was largely true also among my contemporaries who attended the NCTJ day-release training course at West Ham college of further education.
Geography was irrelevant. In 1967, I moved to the Lancashire Evening Telegraph in Blackburn and the editorial staff there were also drawn from the working class. (I think one sub editor, also from ‘down south’, may have qualified as a member of the middle classes).
The following year I joined the subs’ bench at the Daily Mail northern office. Virtually all the journalists there, from the old hands down to the new intake, were working class.
Nearly all of my contemporaries at the Mail were products of grammar schools. We were on the way ‘up’, unconscious of the fact that we were the advance guard of a radical change in British society.
The working class ‘masses’ were on the move, leading eventually to the middle class becoming the nation’s dominant social class.
When I arrived in Fleet Street at the end of 1969 I soon realised that there was a class division. The serious broadsheets were overwhelmingly peopled by the middle classes while the popular press was a working class enclave.
There were odd exceptions, of course, and these were noted on each side of the class divide. But the barrier was already being dismantled.
Over the following 25 years, the class composition of national newspapers gradually changed. The Sunday TimesI joined in 1987 was no longer a middle class ghetto.
Though most of its executives were Oxbridge graduates, it was also the case that the previous middle classness of Oxford and Cambridge university entrance had begun to change too.
Similarly, the popular press was no longer scorned by the middle class. Many of the reporters and writers on red-tops are no longer working class stalwarts.
By the late 1980s, entrance to journalism was also increasingly dependent on academic qualifications that ensured that almost everyone needed a university degree.
This was not such a problem until, say, the middle 1990s, because working class entrance to tertiary education improved year by year.
But the middle classes remained predominant and the barriers for working class entrance to university were also raised (not least by higher tuition fees and the fear of getting into debt by obtaining loans). To be honest, education became expensive.
Other factors were also beginning to dictate who did, and didn’t, get a start on newspapers. From at least the early 1990s onwards, huge numbers of middle class graduates sought careers in the media.
Newspaper editors and broadcasting executives were presented with a seemingly unlimited choice of applicants with superb academic qualifications. This tipped the balance towards the middle class.
Even if some local paper editors were prepared to give the odd school-leaver a chance, most of the London-based media organisations favoured middle class university graduates.
Then came the phenomenon of working for nothing. Newspapers, magazines and broadcasters discovered a ready supply of young, enthusiastic students willing to take up unpaid short-term work experience places and even long-term internships. Only the wealthiest of budding journalists can afford to work without pay.
Indeed, only relatively wealthy young people can afford to take the one-year post-grad course at City University. We now charge about £8,000 to enrol on the masters course in journalism, a well-known stepping stone towards journalistic careers in newspapers, magazines, television and radio.
Given the high cost of accommodation in London, it is virtually impossible for working class graduates to afford (though I concede that, remarkably, some still manage to do so).
Even if they do take the plunge, they find it challenging to make ends meet. For example, one dedicated female working class student I got to know well worked for hours every night serving in a West End bar. (She is, I’m glad to say, prospering now in a TV production company).
I also discovered that one student from a wealthy background, having heard about a working class colleague who had got into financial difficulties, had generously provided her with a room in her house free of charge.
But the working class will not advance courtesy of odd cases of middle class patronage. We have reached a position in which the working class do not even consider ‘the media’ as a career possibility.
Journalism has become a privilege that is open more or less exclusively to the middle classes. I note that the Press Gazette’s middle class editor, Dominic Ponsford, agrees.
In so doing, Ponsford makes a further point - that the advance of the middle classes into the senior editorial positions tends to entrench the middle class bias because they prefer, unsurprisingly, to appoint people like themselves.
But why should it matter? If the middle class is now the largest class in Britain, where’s the problem? Is it not an advantage to have better educated journalists regardless of social class?
‘Clattering typewriters, hot metal, the smell of ink, the thunder of the lorries delivering the rolls of newsprint and the more-or-less 24-hour drinking…’ – Roy Greenslade, talking to Agence France Press
Issue # 106 July 31, 2009
Former News of the World man David Mertens provides more detail (and a bit of that old thing, fact-correction) on Jamey's tale, published here last week and lifted all over the place, about the paper's old fashioned venture into surreptitious telephone eavesdropping. And David Baird picks up on Roy Greenslade's Media Guardian piece (also here, last week) about the value of educating journalists. Dermod Hill recalls his experience as a copy on the Daily Mail. And the people. And how you could tell where you were in the building, with your eyes closed... just by the smell.
Photographer Johnny Robson lied about his age to leave the Daily Dispatch and get a job on the Daily Mirror, and when the pensions people asked for his birth certificate they appeared not to notice that the copperplate pen-and-ink entry had been crudely altered in Biro. He made his birth date 11/11/11 – on the basis that even he could remember Remembrance Day. This all came to grief when he approached his (actual) 65th birthday. He rang the office to enquire about his pension and was told there was no rush – he still had another five years to work! But no matter. These days his old colleagues still remember John Brigham Robson, and they remember the date, and celebrate it annually on the nearest Friday, as Gordon Amory reports. Ever watch Homicide or The Wire, on TV? They are cop shows about life on the streets of Baltimore, written by a former crime reporter, mainly from his old notes and cuttings. Yes: I know... we could all do that, if only we could be bothered. Many of us have even toyed with the idea, there must be enough for a six-part series in everybody reading this today. Or at least for a pilot, then let some other buggers do the work. David Simon actually did it. And he wrote, in the Washington Post, about how things have changed since the days when hacks actually investigated crime stories. We just give you the intro (and the link) as a taster.
Colin Dunne tried it, and became one of the greatest novelists unread. So he became a freelance instead. Simple, really.
Through a glass, darkly
By David Mertens
Derek Jamieson (Ranters, last week) is quite correct that vital information re Koo Stark and Prince Andrew was obtained by listening with a glass to a bedroom wall. I know. I was that man. But his memory is slightly faded after 27 years.
The hotel was I think the Milestone Hotel overlooking Hyde Park, since renamed and refurbished – hopefully with thicker walls.
It was Koo Stark’s mother who was staying there not Koo and Andrew. But with this most modern of listening devices I could hear her on the phone talking to Koo who was excitedly telling mum of her plans for her reunion with the returning hero Prince (from the Falklands War)... including the flat where they were going to stay. A theatre executive’s if I remember correctly.
This gave us a nice picture of Andrew bare-chested at the window a couple of days later stretching in the morning sun, after a tiring reunion night.
I could go on about that particular caper but I don’t want to sound like one of those dreadful old codgers who fill your website with tales of the so-called ‘good old days’. Yes, Ted, I’m talking about you. And my very best wishes to Derek.
David Mertens, ex-NoW, ex-Daily Star, ex-Sunday Mirror, ex-Daily Sport, ex-Today, is now on the news desk of the Sun.
A degree of education
By David Baird
Roy Greenslade touched a nerve with his piece about the middle-class takeover of journalism. And set off a big debate.
Education is obviously not everything. Nobody that I worked with back in the 1950s and 1960s had education beyond Advanced levels GCE. University degrees were unknown among the staff of the Yorkshire Evening News, Stockport Express, Daily Herald etc where I worked. But it did not make them any less effective as reporters and subs.
I was surprised on arriving in Canada where I worked on the Ottawa Citizen, an evening paper, to discover that all my colleagues had degrees in journalism. I was even more surprised when I realised, very quickly, that 50 per cent of them would have had difficulty holding down a job on the humblest weekly in the UK.
That said, it is undeniable that a decent education, at least theoretically, should make you a better journalist. And a degree is very useful should you wish to escape from this worthy profession to seek employment in other fields. Sadly, I have no such qualification (unless you count two years on Her Majesty's Service). It still rankles that my attempts to obtain employment on the ‘quality’ press were rebuffed, at least partly, because I was competing with Oxbridge graduates. They knew nothing about practical journalism but they had been to the right schools. I was reminded of my inadequacies when, miraculously, I obtained a subbing job on an evening paper and found myself surrounded by 25-year-olds sadly lacking basic journalistic skills. But who cared? They were whizzkids on computers.
The truth is that we ancient hacks are unemployable in the modern world. Those that have studied for years – and thus gone into debt – to win academic qualifications have a position to protect. Once in executive positions, they are unlikely to employ young, or old, upstarts who don't have the right letters after their names.
Experience? Forget it.
Boy! Those were the days…
By Dermod Hill
Inexplicably, no copy boy's experience has so far featured in the reminiscences on this site, which I only belatedly came across. Naturally, the editor will wish to repair this omission.
I confess that I had never actually wished to become a Fleet Street copy boy. But as a fifth form schoolboy in the late 1950s I was strapped for cash and depended heavily on Saturday jobs. My father, George Hill, was a journalist on the Daily Mail and also father of the NUJ chapel. Through his intervention I was able to resign the greengrocery trade in my capacity of delivery boy paid two shillings, and, for the amazing sum of £2 was hired to do a 12-hour Saturday shift (7 am to 7 pm) at the now defunct Sunday Despatch in Northcliffe House, Tudor Street, a place that will stir memories for many readers here.
Its vast open-plan editorial floor, they may recall, had a rubbery smell that rose from its green floor covering upon which journalists would tip their ashtrays when they began to overflow. Indeed a blind person could navigate the editorial floor by use of his olfactory organ alone... The picture desk had a vinegary smell from the wet contact proofs fresh from the dark room upstairs. The sub-editor tables smelled of neat tobacco fug. No need to buy fags here. Just gasp.
As a novice Saturday casual, the career copy boys impressed me enormously. Some were old enough to be my grandfather. But others wore box-shouldered Italian suits, winkle-picker shoes, and had girl friends, which to me at that time was the definition of success in life. Being tall for my age, I wore a cast-off double-breasted suit belonging to my father in which I felt distinctly secondhand. I also worried constantly about all the homework I wasn't doing. Indeed, academically, I hit the buffers in Northcliffe House.
Worse, as almost everyone there seemed to know my father, I felt I was constantly being observed and reported on. In the tape room a kindly avuncular gent called Jack Privett taught me how to tear copy and deliver it to the copy tasters.
But a piratical figure called Joe Stannard was the overall boss and would look at me briefly through his black eye patch and look away again immediately. He, I think, was the ace reporter-backer. There was also a Scottish sub, built like a wrestler, called Bill Inglis who would shout 'Boy! Tea,' then give me his chipped enamel jug to be filled to the brim, and ostentatiously hand me a threepenny tip for being George's boy. I winced internally.
As I became more experienced I was increasingly leased out from the tape room. Early in the morning I was loaned to the news desk where, at that early hour, it was still only lightly manned by a female deputy news editor and one reporter. It struck me that it was grossly unfair that one man did all the work telephoning people while the other person appeared simply to hand out tasks. Later, in adulthood, I realised that this was a universal truth. For every one person doing something, there are ten watching him do it, usually on a higher pay grade.
In the afternoon, after a 30-minute lunch break in the Associated Newspapers canteen where the menu always consisted of a mashed brown substance known exotically as Steak Vienna, I was re-assigned to the sports copytakers’ room. There, until things became busy at final whistle, the male typists talked exclusively of sexual positions and who had tried what with their missus at home. Human beings are not blessed with ear lids, so I used to sit in rigid silence with my ears beetroot red. Then, as final match report rush came to an end, I was moved to the picture desk where my duties divided between running up and down to the dark room, and jumping into taxis to pick up rolls of film at railway terminals. Having practically no money in my pocket, it was a constant source of stress watching the taxi meter click up another notch. To this day I hate riding in taxis and would rather walk, no matter what the distance.
But at the end of the 12-hour shift there was one subtle pleasure. It was not the £2 drawn from the pay clerk's office. Half of that had already been mortgaged on bars of chocolate to keep me going through the shift. Instead, it was possession of the first edition of the paper destined for the remoter corners of Wales. Its arrival signalled both the end of my long day and the moment when I was allowed to take my copy on to the dingy platforms of Blackfriars underground station, there to be seen, with great ostentation, reading tomorrow's Sunday Despatch.
Many years later, I sat briefly in that same editorial floor as a Daily Mail features sub. Copy boys no longer fetched tea for threepence. Journalists no longer said 'old boy' or wore braces and a bow tie. Legends of the art of anecdote no longer had a reserved seat in the Mucky Duck (now a lawyer's wine bar). Instead it was all shoulder length pop star hairstyles, flared trousers and amphetamines, and editors who were neither Scottish nor alcoholic, but lived in the home counties and had children at private schools. But that is another story.
A day to remember
By Gordon Amory
When the crowd of journalists gathers at the St James’ Park, the famous home of Newcastle United, on November 6 not everyone will know how this unique re-union came about. Nor perhaps will they realise they are celebrating the memory of one of newspapers characters.
Johnny Robson was a retired Daily Mirror photographer when he told me in 1991 that he was soon to mark his 80th birthday. He added that he was born on the 11th day of November in the year 1911 – ‘Marvellous,’ said I: ‘We’ll have a lunch to celebrate!’ And this year the party goes on as we get together for the nineteenth time.
Jim Merrington, then head of PR at Newcastle Breweries, got out a special brew of Newcastle Brown Ale complete with the label: ‘Johnny Robson’s Birthday Broon’ and year after year we have marked the occasion in style. On his 85th birthday I got Newcastle United to produce a shirt with the name ‘Robson’ and number ‘85’ on the back and Kevin Keegan came to present it to him.
When John died sometime later, I couldn’t get to his funeral as I was away on holiday but the family kindly asked me to be there when they spread his ashes on his wife’s (he always called her ‘the Duchess’) gravestone.
‘Your dad was a great character,’ said I ‘– and fancy being born on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year!’
‘No that’s untrue,’ the children said in unison. ‘He just made that up’.
John was a one-off. He lived in Durham and when he over-imbibed, he would often miss his stop on his way home, wake up at Peterborough, Grantham or even Kings’ Cross and would have to get the train back again. He got over that by having a notice printed which he hung around his neck: ‘Pour me off at Durham, please’.
He was among the first wave that landed on the beaches of France on D-Day and kept his army helmet which he put to good use one snowy Saturday when Everton were the visitors at Newcastle and he was to sit behind the goal. He put on his tin hat as he followed the teams onto the pitch – and the crowd pelted him with snowballs.
On another occasion when he was covering a Manchester City game and the ball went out of play, someone in the crowd threw it back to the goalkeeper who missed his catch and it hit John on the head. He accused the City man of dropping it on purpose and the game was stopped as he had a confrontation with the goalkeeper and the referee. It was nearing half time so the referee blew his whistle to get the players off the park.
Hands were raised and John followed the teams to their dressing room with Johnny Crossan, then the Manchester City captain coming out to me on the pitch asking if I could help get the ‘wee fellow’ out. This all took place in front of a 50,000 crowd so imagine how a referee would treat that situation now.
Then there was also the time a Leeds player fell to the ground injured; John shouted to the physiotherapist (or was it just trainer then?): ‘Get him up – there’s nowt wrong wi’ him.’ The trainer, who was the England coach Les Cocker, left the groaning player on the ground, came over and threatened John with his ‘magic sponge’.
When he retired the Mirror lads in Newcastle bought him a bike and he would often ride the near twenty miles from his home to the office to have a few drinks around town. He would go back on the train with his bike in the guards van, both no doubt with labels attached.
He didn’t suffer fools gladly and if he felt anyone was exaggerating a story he would quickly say ‘Give-over!’ That was really his catch phrase.
So as the Newcastle Pens and Lens Club meet for their nineteenth re-union this year, we’ve got a lot to thank Johnny Robson for – even if we never knew when he was born.
My wife thought up the title Newcastle PLC – the Pens and Lens Club seemed to be right but it quickly became known throughout the country as the Pissed and Legless Club.
Already the acceptances are pouring in for our get-together in November this year, planned early for several reasons not least those who come from all parts North and South (and as far away as Malta!). They can get cheaper travel if they book early. It’s a great day of This is Your Life tales for the many who stood by the rules of publish and be damned for so many years.
By David Simon
In the halcyon days when American newspapers were feared rather than pitied, I had the pleasure of reporting on crime in the prodigiously criminal environs of Baltimore. The city was a wonderland of chaos, dirt and miscalculation, and loyal adversaries were many. Among them, I could count police commanders who felt it was their duty to demonstrate that crime never occurred in their precincts, desk sergeants who believed that they had a right to arrest and detain citizens without reporting it and, of course, homicide detectives and patrolmen who, when it suited them, argued convincingly that to provide the basic details of any incident might lead to the escape of some heinous felon. Everyone had very good reasons for why nearly every fact about a crime should go unreported.
Look in the Oxford English Dictionary and I think you’ll find it there:
Freelance n1. mendicant, beggar or impoverished person, euphemism for unemployed; (hence: ‘poor as a northern f –’); one who hangs around bars cadging drinks; nuisance; irritant (‘it’s that bloody freelance on the scrounge again’); 2 unemployed person, unwanted, often homeless, one who beside phone that never rings. 3v i to freelance, to lose your job, to plunge into despair, to abandon work, to leave civilised society (‘he’s f – ing now, poor sod’).
Or perhaps this is nearer the mark:
Freelance n1 most successful writer, one who chooses employers, sets own hours and fixes own terms (‘don’t upset him – he’s a top f – ‘); 2 rich, having abundant income for little effort, homes in Hampstead also S. of France, children at public school (‘Croesus was a f – ‘); one who is constantly flattered by editors; v i to freelance, to accumulate vast wealth, to become powerful and important (‘see that blokein the Roller – he’s a f – ‘).
Ah, but which one? I have known, as you have, plenty of the former, and maybe two of three of the latter. If I was going to freelance, and my job as the Daily Record London writer had gone very wobbly indeed, then those were the visions before me.
Disaster was in the air. In bars where once they’d talked of nothing but the comparative merits of the Mail’s intro over the Express’s, who’d done the best piece, who’d got the best show, who’d got herograms, and who’d been told to double his exes, now no-one cared. The talk, mostly slurred, was of cut-backs, downsizing, and possible pay-offs.
Newspaper managements, Christian gentlemen though they were, were just adjusting to the delightful discovery that, having got rid of the printers, now they could offload at least half the journalists, and they could slash the pay of the lucky survivors. Hacks who’d been to Sunday school remembered what happened after the seven fat years, and shivered in their sheepskins. Oddly enough, I’d somehow been a freelance and a staffman at the same time. This wasn’t brilliant professional positioning: it was, as usual in my case, all down to carelessness.
Quite unsuspectingly, I’d run up against the First Law of Work: this states that the more you do, the more you can do, and the more you want to do. Scary, isn’t it?
They ought to warn students on media courses about walking into this trap.
It happened like this. The Record kept me briskly busy. It also gave me an office in, to my great delight, the Mirror cartoonists’ department. This meant I had men like Wally Fawkes and Charles Griffin for company, and Pat Whykes, our shapely sloe-eyed secretary, handing out tea and gossip. I had computers and telephones and the papers and, since I’d long since stopped lunchtime drinking, once I’d done a couple of pieces for the Record each week, how was I going to pass the time?
With lots of encouragement from Peter Grose (husband of the Sun’s Ros) at Secker and Warburg, I was still writing some of the finest unread thrillers in English literature. This meant getting up around 5 30am and hitting the keyboard before going to work. That still left me with lots of unoccupied hours at work.
I stood outside Smith’s on Charing Cross station and looked at the towering bank of magazine covers. Inside, millions and millions of words, many of them correctly spelt. I could spell – well, after a fashion. So why not me?
Hesitantly at first, I began to tap out the odd piece. And I soon discovered that the style into which I’d been directed by everyone from Bill Freeman in Manchester to Nick Lloyd on the London Sun was… well, just about the only thing I could do. Amazingly, it was sellable.
There was a market for verbal candy-floss. All those years of racing lawnmowers and penetrating interviews with talking dogs and the fun of a night-out in Accrington – indeed, what the local Accrington reporter shrewdly identified as ‘plaiting fog’ – was surprisingly popular.
You may scoff, but Pilger and Edwards and McQueen were not the only ones to know the smell of cordite and fear. Sometimes we fog-plaiters put our lives on the line too. On the Sun, Nick Lloyd once sent me to Paris to write a piece on why the French didn’t like the Brits. On the way from the airport to the city my taxi was the second in a 40-car pile-up. My driver was lying flat on his back, groaning. I was on the floor in the back. Every few seconds there was a thud as yet another car ran into the line of crashed cars. I thought the liquid dripping from my forehead was blood: it was only sweat. Somehow I dragged myself out of the wreckage, found a taxi in the next lane, and got into Paris with a chipped knee that was rapidly seizing up.
I rang Nick and told him what had happened. ‘I can confirm that they don’t like us because they just tried to kill me,’ I said. ‘But they didn’t say why.’
‘Sounds very funny,’ said Nick. ‘I’ll put you on to copy.’
You see? You can die laughing – as long as you’ve filed first.
In the magazine market, funny was quite a good thing to be. For the women’s mags, I found myself writing quite a few ‘Hey’ pieces. You know the sort of stuff. The headline is always ‘Hey Girls, here’s ten ways to turn your feller on…’ or ‘Hey Girls, tell us your bedroom secrets…’
It was fun. I could fit them in quite easily into the quiet afternoons in the cartoonists’ department. Between thrillers, magazines and the Record I was writing so much that somewhere in Scandinavia there must have been a forest earmarked personally for me.
Then it began to get tricky. I had a phone call from The Times to go and see their editor, Charlie Wilson. When he was northern news editor of the Mail, he and Annie Robinson (then Mrs Wilson) had been near-neighbours, although I didn’t know either of them well. Would I go and see him? Who says no to the editor of The Times? Not me.
Now I was freelancing, he said, he’d like me to do the odd light piece for him. Yes, I know, there was an opportunity there to say I was a staff-man but somehow it slipped past me. I said nothing. No, that’s not quite true. I said that for a variety of reasons (all unspecified) I’d like to write under the name of Colin Duncan. Fine, he said, which was a relief. Too many Colin Dunne by-lines might attract attention. And I’d borrowed the surname from Andrew Duncan, a freelance whose stupefying success was a source of envy and admiration. Mostly envy.
And here was another echo from Manchester. Roger Collier, sometime sub in the Mirror features there, turned up as features editor in London. He’d like to use some of my Record stuff in the Mirror.
Next came a phone call from my old Sun chum, Les Daly. Guess what his new job was? Deputy editor on the Sunday Times mag. Would I be interested in doing the odd piece? It would mean giving up sleep entirely, but yes, of course I would.
At this point, they must have planted another forest in Sweden.
See how easily it can sneak up on you? For someone schooled in the Mirror tradition of six pieces a year, this was crazy. But I couldn’t seem to stop. On one occasion, I did a piece for the Record that the Mirror also used, and rewrote it for The Times as Colin Duncan. No-one noticed, which says a lot for my unforgettable prose style. Even so, it was frightening: I was a runaway writer, but, unlike a horse, no-one dashed out to drag on my reins. In the pub, my fingers tapped feverishly on the bar, looking for keys to hit. This was probably how Waterhouse started (unless, of course, he had four more Waterhouses chained to computers in his cellar – which, with his output, was always a possibility).
One morning, poised between dawn thriller writing and Record duties, I came in early to find my office locked. So I went down to the Mirror newsroom to write up a freelance piece. At the far end of the room was a group of people I took to be the cleaners.
As I was tapping away, they came nearer. I looked over my shoulder to see that actually it was a party of Japanese men being escorted around by a big fat chap with hairy-slug eyebrows. ‘And this,’ boomed Big Bad Bob, indicating me, ‘is the early bird who is catching the worm.’
If he saw the screen, would he be proud to think that Mr Murdoch was sharing his employee’s time and talents? Perhaps not. Frantically I searched for the delete button. I breathed again as ‘FOR THE TIMES’ vanished from the screen.
That was when I began to think about freelancing. The problem was, what sort of pay-off would I be likely to get? A couple of years earlier, lots of people had got generous pay-offs. At the Express, it was said, hacks had to hire pantechnicons to take away their loot. I think it was when Jim Davies was the union man that he negotiated several six-figure pay-offs which should keep a large fox from the door, if not the wolf itself.
The most enviable deal I’d come across was when Jon Akass left the Sun to join Jimmy Goldsmith’s NOW magazine. With a team of the finest writers around, it had been going for a year when they asked Akass to join at £36,000-a-year. Incredibly, if I remember correctly, he was paid only around £24,000 as the Sun’s top columnist, and Larry Lamb declined to make a better offer.
He joined NOW on the Monday. On Friday the magazine closed. He got a year’s pay. And Lamb, kicking himself for letting Akass leave, offered him his old column back… at his new salary.
In one week he got a wage rise of £12,000 and £36,000 in the bank.
But since then, generous payments had fallen from fashion. Fresh from their triumphs over the printers, the managements now realised that you could push a hack out of the back door with enough for a round of drinks and a Cornish pastie.
It was no time to be proud. I put in a formal inquiry. The answer was about six months’ pay. I took it.
When I told Andrew Duncan I was thinking of freelancing, he was most encouraging. ‘Come on in, the water’s lovely,’ he said. But he would, wouldn’t he? He’s the one with houses in Hampstead and the South of France. ‘Can’t talk now,’ he added, ‘just taking Ivana to the Le Caprice.’
I was just taking Bryan Rimmer to the Stab. Bryan, who had taken my old job on the Mirror, was less enthusiastic about my freelancing future. ‘But what about job security and pensions?’ he asked, with a doubtful shake of the head.
‘Bryan,’ I said, ‘who do you work for?’
It was round about this time that the first Mrs Dunne, after many years of neglect and provocation, decided that she’d been saintly for long enough and was prepared to hand the title on anyone brave enough to take the job. There were no offers.
The young Dunnes were not only growing up, they were coming to find me – a truly alarming thought. Daughter 1, a trainee nurse at Bart’s, enjoyed her visits to Fleet Street, probably because she liked to see that she had all those potential heart attacks and wrecked livers working their way towards her. The hacks loved meeting her: they didn’t get to see many people from the real world.
One lunchtime, I went down to Mirror reception to find she was waiting with her hands dripping in blood. She’d been helping someone who’d got a fractured skull after being run over at Holborn Circus.
‘You silly girl,’ I said. ‘What on earth were you playing at?’
Clever, sensible daughter sighed. ‘Dad, it’s my job.’
Oh yes. Of course.
Daughter No 2 had taken a job on the Eastbourne Herald, before slipping away in civil service PR. Later, having a job from which you could never be fired with a fat pension began to look very clever indeed.
No 1 son was having girl-friend trouble. He didn’t like going out with girls more intelligent than himself. This, as I pointed out, left him with only two in the whole of Sussex. Later he worked on the Haslemere freebie where Bernie Vickers finished his career, for Cassidy and Lee’s agency at Hindhead, for LWT and others as a series producer, before becoming a medical student.
All this excitement going on, and there I was with an alarming new life before me. At ten o’clock on the Monday morning, I sat at my desk and wondered what to do next. I’d been freelancing for an hour and hadn’t made a penny. Within minutes, the telephone rang. It was Les Daly from the Sunday Times magazine.
‘I know how terrifying it is, that first morning’s freelancing,’ he said. ‘So are you free to do a job?’
Free? Well, I wouldn’t say free. But I was certainly very cheap.
The end of the Street
By Revel Barker
All that’s left, now, is the London office of D C Thomson, Scottish publishers of the Dandy (known – and here’s news for you – since 2007 as Dandy Xtreme), the Beano, and the Sunday Post. So it’s not exactly a newsroom, in the normal meaning of the word.
When AFP shipped out its reporters (to Centre Point) on Sunday, that was the END of the Street as we knew it. Odd, isn’t it, that the Frogs should be the last to retreat.
Not a hack, sub or snapper to be found in the entire place, unless it’s some poor lost soul wandering about reliving former glories, and maybe former hangovers.
It’s just another Wall Street now, with a dash of Carey Street, investment banks intermingled with lawyers’ offices.
The Black Lubyanka, that shiny art-deco homage to Lord Beaverbrook, now has only civilians in it. The Daily Telegraph’sart nouveau Peterborough Court is now home to Goldman bloody Sachs, of immoral memory.
In fact all that’s left – and never let it be said that brewers and publicans have no soul – is the tiny back bar of the Harrow, miraculously still called the Vincent Mulchrone Bar.
In her forward to Crying All The Way To The Bank, the solicitor-general, Vera Baird QC, mentioned that ‘Fleet Street’ no longer refers to the village, stretching roughly from Holborn to the Thames and from the Strand to Ludgate Circus, but only to the thoroughfare itself.
No more Street of Ink, or of Shame or of Adventure. Farewell, Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
As the end of the error approached, AFP interviewed Roy Greenslade about their historic desertion. He told them:
‘Fleet Street represents the past in every way: the way we produce newspapers and the way we produce journalism… Clattering typewriters, hot metal, the smell of ink, the thunder of the lorries delivering the rolls of newsprint and the more-or-less 24-hour drinking…’
All those lorries – rather than the hot metal itself – meant that the Street had the highest concentration of lead in the atmosphere anywhere in the UK.
It had all started (as we all know) in 1500 when the fabulously named Wynkyn de Worde built Britain’s first printing press in an alley beside St Bride’s Church, presumably because it was close to the Public Records Offfice.
The first newspaper on the Street, opened there probably for the same reason, was the Daily Courant, a single sheet with two columns of type on each side, launched in 1702.
And the beginning of the end came in 1986 when Rupe started shifting his empire to Docklands.
When that was going on a TV crew – presumably at a loss for stories and resorting to the usual solution of ‘I know, let’s go and interview some journalists’ – came into The Stab, thrust a microphone under my nose and asked for a comment on the end of Fleet Street.
Perhaps a shade pompously, I said it was all nonsense. Wherever the Daily Mirror was, that was Fleet Street. More accurately, the heart of it was here, in the pub.
I can’t say I would have said the same, though, if anybody had interviewed me in Canada Square, Canary Wharf.
It’s somehow not the same as the cobblestoned streets that I, and Charles Dickens and Saml Johnson, Jimmy Cameron and Edgar Wallace and Cudlipp and Cassandra thought ofas home.
Boy, I bet those old courtyards and alleyways could tell a few stories.
If not, we’ll just have to try to persuade some of the journalists to tell them, I guess.