Gentlemen Ranters is a blog that publishes a charmingly eccentric compendium of fond reminiscences and tall tales from the glory days of the old Fleet Street. – Professor Tim Luckhurst, Centre for Journalism, University of Kent 

 

Issue #89

April 3, 2009

 

This week: cockle-warming

It warms the cockles when the in-tray fills up after a Ranters edition with copy that was prompted by the current week’s content.

Roy Stockdill’s account, last week, of his trip to Denmark with that self-promoting peer and all-round tosser Lord Longford mentioned how he said he’d get Mike Hellicar fired for taking the piss out of his antics in Copenhagen. Hellicar now tells the other end of that tale, how Lord Porn apparently changed his mind when he realised how much publicity he got out of the Mirror splash and spread (and maybe – dare one mention it? – because he got to write a first-person piece for the Sunday Mirror).

John Kay, chief reporter at the Sun, had a different sort of experience with his loony lordship, all leading to exclusive stories without the old coot realising that they were treating him as a total plonker.

Colin Dunne’s piece on the Daily Mirror features operation in the north prompted ex Mail-man John Stevenson to recall some of the journalists who defected with him to TV, mainly as script writers of great comedy and drama in the days when those who stayed behind on newspapers couldn’t decide whether they were supposed to be competing with telly, or competing with TV Times (and chose the latter course).

The same recollection revived fond memories for Geoff Mather of another mutual colleague, sometime Express features sub Bill Keenan, a man of deep conviction who appeared to keep an open line to God.

And Colin Dunne keeps up the momentum this week with more Manchester memories – which will hopefully prompt more contributions, and solve the editor’s weekly worry about what fine fare to serve up to you for next week.

Keep ‘em coming.

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Teaching Cudlipp about sex

By Michael Hellicar

Roy Stockdill’s account of those heady nights in Copenhagen with Lord Longford (Ranters, last week) recalled how Lord Porn held a press conference in Copenhagen at which he threatened to report me to his ‘friend’ Hugh Cudlipp after the Daily Mirror had splashed and spread my account of his ludicrous investigation into the seedier side of life in the Danish capital.

Two days later, back in the London office, my phone rang. It was Cudlipp’s secretary, summoning me to his presence. Now, I had never met Cudlipp, although I had heard all the fearsome stories about him, but as I had just received a typically generous herogram from editor Tony Miles about the piece, I felt I was on safe ground.

And indeed, I was. Cudlipp led me into his vast office, opened a bottle of rather fine red wine (it was 10am, after all), and told me he’d just had a call from ‘that c**t Frank Longford’.

He and I didn’t see eye to eye about the shield of truth and the sword of justice, I said, rather too defensively. ‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ said Cudlipp, ‘but he said you gave him and his anti-porn crusade some very valuable publicity and he wants me to thank you.’

He poured us each another glass of wine (filled to the brim, of course), and then things took an unexpected turn. ‘Now tell me,’ said Cudlipp, leaning forward conspiratorially and breathing fumes from a lifetime’s intake of Chateau La Tour over me.

‘What were those sex clubs really like? Did those girls really have sex or was it simulated?’ I told him it was all very, very, real and Eric Piper, he now of fond memory, had the pictures to prove it.

‘Yes, but they must have been prostitutes, surely? Ugly slags, eh? I mean, nice girls, good looking girls, wouldn’t have sex in public, would they?’ I told him the girls were stunners, but weren’t hookers, and did evening shifts at the clubs after their day jobs as secretaries or shop assistants. In a curious sort of way, it was all very unsexy.

‘Yes, but the men,’ persisted an alarmingly naive Cudlipp… ‘Surely they wouldn’t have been allowed to be, er, fully aroused in public?’ But they were, Hugh. And the chaps in the audience weren’t far behind them, either.

And so the grand inquisition went on. Lunch was served in the private dining room (steak, boiled potatoes and peas washed down with what was by now the fourth bottle of wine), and it was not until 4pm, when the secretary popped her head round the door to say that Don Ryder, chairman of the parent company Reed International had called Cudlipp for the third time, that I was allowed to pour myself back into the newsroom.

‘Is it true you’ve been upstairs with Cudlipp all day?’ asked Pat Doncaster, the features editor. ‘Well, yesh, Pat, as a matter of fact I have.’

‘Has he been bollocking you about Lord Longford’s complaint?’

‘Quite the reversh, in fact, Pat.’

Cudlipp would dine out on the stories about Longford in Copenhagen for many years to come, and the anecdote he loved best was one that, not surprisingly, I never put in my piece for the paper.

At one of the sex clubs we visited with Longford, naked ladies moved among the audience to intimately entertain the punters – men and women. One sat on my lap, took my hand, spread her legs invitingly and asked if I would like to touch ‘something rather warm and very sexy’.

Well, yes, I would ma’am, I said, forgetting all those strict rules about making an excuse and leaving. Whereupon she thrust my hand into Eric Piper’s swollen crotch. Under the circumstances, I was lucky – Longford was sitting the other side of me, and it could so easily have been his!

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Lord Porn of Hypocrisy

By John Kay

Roy Stockdill’s hilarious account of his trip to Copenhagen with Lord Longford to study the porn industry vividly reminded me of my own friendship with the 7th Earl – aka the potty peer/loony lord in Sunspeak.

His right-hand man was one of my best contacts and leaked me countless stories about Myra Hindley which resulted in a string of exclusive Sun splashes.

As his 85th birthday loomed, his aide suggested that I invite Lord Longford out for a celebration lunch at his favourite restaurant, the Gay Hussar in Soho.

When I rang him to extend the invitation he said he could not possibly accept the hospitality of Rupert Murdoch.

 I countered that I would pay for the lunch out of my own pocket and he immediately – and naively – accepted.

In fact he was so unworldly that when told ‘it’s down to the subs’ every time he phoned to protest about being called potty peer or loony lord in an intro, he always accepted my word.

On arrival at the Gay Hussar, he had The Sun sticking out of his pocket and had read it from cover to cover.

He asked if I had a tape recorder and I produced one which was clearly off and he muttered ‘We may need that later.’

After a super meal complete with birthday cake with 85 candles, he told me to switch it on and ask him a question. There was no point beating about the bush and so I asked why he was so keen for Hindley to be freed.

He replied: ‘The only reason that Myra Hindley is in jail today is because of The Sun newspaper’. I thought ‘that’s a splash’ – and it was.

So began a long friendship spread over many lunches at the Gay Hussar and the House of Lords and by now he insisted on me calling him Frank.

He clearly revelled in all the publicity and while on one hand continually condemned The Sun and our stance on Hindley, he was only too happy to be quoted and interviewed by us.

At one of our last lunches before Frank passed away, he unusually arrived 20 minutes late – he was normally very punctual..

He explained that he had been walking along Piccadilly and noticed to his horror that his latest book was not in the window display of Hatchards.

He continued: ‘I went inside and spoke to the manager, asked if he knew who I was, and he promised to put it right immediately.

‘I said I would wait while he did so and he filled the window with copies of my book.’

‘What’s the book’s title , Frank?’ I asked him.

Without a trace of irony or humour he replied… ‘Humility’.

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Defecting to the box

By John Stevenson

I was outed by Colin Dunne in the latest (Ranters, last week) instalment of his memoirs – don’t stop Colin, it’s a terrific read – as ‘John Stevenson, the Mail’s telly man, one hack who did make the leap from paper to screen’ as a scriptwriter’.

It wasn’t just me. In the 1960s all sorts were at it. Geoff Lancashire, after several Sunday papers were shot from under him, sidled into Granada as a promotions writer, later scriptwriter, later father of actress Sarah. Peter Eckersley defected from the Guardian. So did Arthur Hopcraft.

There was a sizeable scribble of journos with Oldham Evening Chronicle roots, including me. Jack Crawshaw who ended up producing This Is Your Life, John Stapleton who went from researcher to presenter – he’s still at it – and Clive Entwistle who masterminded a lot of the collisions Roger Cook had with thugs and fraudsters. From the Oldham press agency Tom Brennand and Roy Bottomley launched a chat show/magazine for ABC TV. In 1962 or 63 when they were auditioning possible presenters for the show they paid me a tenner to sit in the ABC studios being interviewed variously as football manager/crooked councillor/ pools winner by such as Des Wilcox, Angela Huth, one of Manchester’s numerous Duffy Brothers, and a chap called Mike Parkinson. A tenner was half a week’s wages at Oldham Chron. rates.

Tom and Roy went on to write about half the Hylda Baker/ Jimmy Jewel show Nearest and Dearest scripts. I wrote the other half. Come to think of it, in the early 1970s Colin Dunne contrived to write a whole page in the Mirror about a joke I constructed for a Nearest and Dearest show about a chap in a pub who accidentally ate his own father’s shrivelled liver – bottled by Band of Hope militants as a warning to drunkards.

Bob Greaves was the first chap to show that there was life after the Daily Mail when he went into the Granada newsroom and on from there to become the best presenter they ever had.

It wasn’t all a one-way process. When ABC TV folded after their weekend contract was handed to Granada in the late 60s, Mal Griffiths, ABC’s press officer, and his deputy Alex Stuttard, both went back to newspapers. I think Mal went to the Mirror as a sub.

In his piece Colin credited me with an exchange between Stan and Hilda Ogden after she gets him to kiss her. ‘What’s that lipstick taste of, Hilda?’ –  ‘Woman, Stanley! Woman!’ That wasn’t mine. It was Les Duxbury’s. Les Duxbury the journalist.

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Confession time

By Geoffrey Mather

At last, we share a character: Colin Dunne’s trawl around Manchester Daily Mirror features (Ranters, last week) turned up Bill Keenan, TV critic there, of whom Granada TV’s Peter Eckersley said, ‘Here comes Bill, trawling everything through the wide mesh of his net.’

‘A man of deep religious faith,’ Colin says. My word, yes. I think he enjoyed more catholic tastes than the Pope. Whereas life had tensed most journalists to snapping point, myself included, he was relaxed and without any apparent troubles. Before his Mirror days, he was with the Express in Manchester – as a features sub. He tended to arrive for work rather later than we expected but once, notably, he did appear ahead of time. I was features editing and examined the clock closely to see whether it had malfunctioned.

‘I hope you don’t mind,’ said Bill, ‘but I would just like to pop out to confession before I start.’

I assumed he was confessing to being early.

Given half a chance I think he would have issued encyclicals. He asked me to stop my car in Salford as I gave him a lift from Manchester to Blackburn. A minor crisis? A sudden urgent need? Not really. He had spotted a Catholic church and wished to call the Boss. It was a relief when he stopped my car on another occasion because this time it was a huge pie factory. He was known to the night shift and in return for early newspapers had access to free suppers. On that score, I joined him with enthusiasm.

He spoke of Catholic saints with easy familiarity and probably spent more time on his knees than a bishop. With fruitfulness in mind, he regularly produced children with his wife Barbara, filling first the house and then Bramhall with what he sometimes referred to as his cricket team. I lost count.

I knew him for centuries before he appeared in Manchester. He wrote some excellent stuff for the BBC and had a feel for scripts that I totally lacked, so the result was inevitable when he suggested, eventually, that we collaborate in something. There was nothing to combine from my side. The thought of inventing conversations and scenarios made my eyes glaze. He  seemed to sail through it. One had to envy the strength of personal beliefs that made him such an optimist and enthusiast in whatever he did.

He was at one time resident at Hoghton Tower – then housing Sir Cuthbert de Hoghton – where his mother in law was housekeeper, I discovered much about high life there in a tumble of balls and dinners.

The chief constable of the time – a man who knew which way to pass port – used to attend jollies and the local policeman would toil up the endless drive on his bicycle late at night to check that the licensing laws were being obeyed. He was likely to be met by Bill cheerfully asking whether he wanted a word with ‘the Chief’. The constable never did; he would wearily turn his bicycle around for the long descent to the road.

A Lady of Importance buttonholed the Chief at one of these affairs and said that she had been stopped for speeding –  ‘What shall I do?’ And the Chief said, grandly, ‘Look more carefully in your rear mirror.’

In that sprawling hilltop castle, the ancient and imposing flush toilets, rather like small thrones, could act rather as does the piping on a ship where the man at the helm could communicate with the engine room. Hidden in a toilet you could hear everything people were saying in rooms below. Good training for any investigative journalist.

Bill was a man of sudden and overwhelming enthusiasms. In one of these – and I forget what it was about – he led me half way across Hoghton Tower and I found myself scurrying through a large room that had all the appearances of nocturnal use. ‘What was that?’ I said. ‘Sir Cuthbert’s bedroom,’ Bill replied. We carried on regardless.

Bill got on well with Sir Cuthbert, so far as I could see. The holder of the second oldest baronetcy in the country would observe his Times with great interest, coming across wars in far places as he proceeded from page to page. Then he would say things like, ‘Must ring Puggy at the Foreign Office about that, find out what’s happening.’

Bill eventually moved to Bramhall and often told me of grandiose garden schemes that were flowing through his mind. But when I went to his house – where he continued his visions with enthusiasm – I noted that he kept his back to his own garden as he talked, and it, like mine, was an orphan in need of care and attention.

Sadly, we lost touch eventually as he headed for London – late, of course – to convert savages, But I have happy memories of a man who could smile through any misfortune you cared to throw in his direction; a man with total confidence in his religion, untouched by mortal fears.

And I treasure his reasons for not being at the office on time. Especially this:

‘The children were building castles in the drive, but they used concrete, which set, and I had difficulty getting the car out.’

#

Plain sailing

By Colin Dunne

Exactly why Mike Gallemore made such a determined effort to murder me I have never entirely understood.

It was when I’d moved to the Daily Mirror in Manchester and finally settled just over the Derbyshire border. After Mike Gagie doubled the wages of all national newspaper journalists with his strike, I bought an Enterprise dinghy at a sailing club just outside Whaley Bridge.

I was so desperate to sail it that I couldn’t wait until the first weekend. So I was delighted when Gallemore – friend, near-neighbour and subbing colleague in features – offered to come with me one evening after work. We got there about eight o’clock.

At this point, there were one or two fairly obvious reasons why we should perhaps have hesitated. For a start, it was beginning to get dark. Secondly, there was a near-hurricane blowing. Thirdly, we were the only ones there so there was no safety back-up. And fourthly, I had omitted to tell Mike, who had never been in a racing dinghy, that I had served only about 20 minutes before the mast myself: and that was with Neville Stack, the Sun news editor, in a boat too small to hold the washing-up,  on a placid Sunday afternoon.

There was also another reason which we didn’t know about. I still wake at night screaming when I think of it.

There we were, at the waterside, rushing to get it on the water. Mike leapt in; I pushed off, as the wind whipped into the sails and sent it hissing through the waves at a startling speed, I reached behind me for the tiller. My fingers grasped only flying spray.

Suddenly, and with complete clarity, I knew where the tiller was.  It was in the boot of my car where I had left it.

Did Mike Gallemore warn me of this? No he did not. And if that isn’t attempted murder, I’d like to know what is.

It was a voyage distinguished by brevity and terror. Those of you who have driven a car with the accelerator jammed down and no steering wheel will know what it’s like to sail a boat without a tiller in a high wind. Round and round we spun, faster and faster, before we hit land at such speed that we shot up the beach and were halfway to Buxton before we stopped. 

I was given an official reprimand by the club for dangerous practice. I didn’t press charges against Mike. Even so, he never offered to crew for me again.

Ask him where he lives now? Whaley Bridge. Talk about returning to the scene of the crime…

He went on to edit Sporting Life and I like to think this early experiment in fear management may have helped him in dealing with his publisher. I often wonder whether he was on that boat with Maxwell – that would explain a lot. These days Mike’s a successful magazine publisher. One of his titles is Harold Shipman’s Guide to Sailing.

I just made that up. Sorry.

Outbreaks of attempted homicide aside, working as a hack in Manchester around 1970 was a delightful conflation of two worlds: the journalistic standards of a top national tabloid with a lifestyle that was both provincial and homely. The Gagie-led editorial uprising which doubled our pay meant I could afford a four-bedroomed Edwardian house, handsomely set on a Peak District hillside, cost £3,000. 

To celebrate the birth of my son, I also bought an old MG TD which could comfortably accommodate me, one passenger (small, slim, and blonde ideally) and a packet of Bensons. It would have to be a packet of 10 – the 20 pack would be too big. This was described by my son’s mother as a typically unselfish gesture for a father of three. She had a point. 

It was a good life. By train or by car, I could be in Withy Grove in 45 minutes. Finishing work at 6pm, I could have a pint in the Swan with Two Necks and still be home in plenty of time for the Archers.

It was all delightfully small-scale so that work and home overlapped. Gallemore lived just over the hill from me. His neighbours were Charlie Wilson (with whom he later had a small difference, I believe) and his wife Annie Robinson, who at that time was still taking a social drink with friends. When I dropped off my daughter Becky at Miss Latham’s nursery school in Disley, Annie would be there with her daughter Emma.

Neville lived across the field at the back, Chris Clark  - the Mail backbench whizz – was 50 yards away, and Gerry Brown and Clive Bolton lived on the new estate. Peter Fairley, who I’d known in Leamington and on Tyneside came down to work on the Sun, also lived there. Sad to say, his move ended in failure. Peter could write high-class colour, which is why Neville hired him.  But time after time, Peter turned in a straight news piece.  ‘I’m not good enough to do that stuff,’ he protested.  Poor chap, he was strangled by his own modesty.

When the Wilson government introduced an astonishing deal which meant anyone made jobless would receive half his last salary until a suitable job came up, Peter became contentedly unemployed. Some would argue that the distinction between being a journalist and being unemployed is too small for the human eye to detect, but he was, officially, on the dole. He was quietly confident that a small Derbyshire town would never be able to find a job appropriate to his skills. And so it was for several months until the manager called him in.

‘It has to be a suitable job,’ Peter warned him. The manager nodded. Then the interview started.

Was Peter used to dealing with the general public? He had to agree. Was he used to asking them questions? Again, there was only one answer. Was he used to writing up reports of these interviews? Yes, dammit, he was – but what was this job?

 ‘Working here in the job centre,’ said the manager, triumphantly.

Defeated, Peter went back to his old job on the Chronicle on Tyneside.

To be honest, I didn’t achieve this consummate work-life balance the moment I arrived in Manchester. (Incidentally, they only started calling it a work-life balance when I had none of the former and very little of the latter). At first I rented a bungalow in Hazel Grove. It was a mistake. I’m not a bungalow sort of person. Without a staircase, I get sort of moody and pace a lot. And the whole of Hazel Grove is at ground level: even standing on a chair isn’t allowed. It wasn’t the place for me, as I soon discovered.

As the Pickfords van pulled away, I sprang into my car to go to the local shop. Left arm over the passenger seat, right hand on top of the steering wheel, head turned for full rear view, I zipped down my drive and on to the narrow estate road. So far so good, but I still can’t quite explain what happened next.

I stayed with left arm over passenger seat, right hand on top of wheel, head turned, as I reversed briskly straight across the estate road and down the drive of the bungalow opposite. I couldn’t seem to stop, and indeed kept on going down the side of the house. I only came to a halt when I hit the front of the car which was parked in the garage.

Drive back on to road, knock on front door, warm greeting from resident.  “Ah, our new neighbour, welcome to Hazel Grove.” I said I was sorry to tell him I had just crashed into his car. “Not mine,” he replied, cheerfully, “mine’s in the garage.” As he looked round the side, he saw his car with steam coming out of the radiator and some bits hanging off the front. No, he did not regard it as a contributing factor that he had left his garage doors open.

Between the bungalow and the boat, settling in to Manchester was not without its problems. The Mirror, however, was a joy. In fact, I think that Manchester journalism had got it more or less right. The amount of work we had to do was nicely poised between that of Bertie Wooster and a galley slave – possibly a little nearer the Wooster end of the scale.

The Withy Grove office had a pleasantly benign atmosphere. In the Holborn office, you could hear the whisperings of vicious plots, characters being assassinated and careers in flames, as soon as you turned up Fetter Lane. The Mirror in Manchester – and I suspect most of the other nationals there – was pretty much a malice-free zone. When – on Cudlipp’s instructions – they had to fire a reporter, no-one knew how to do it.  They had to give Maurice Wigglesworth a day-shift so he could show them how. Fortunately the old master hadn’t lost his touch. 

The Wigglesworth technique was simple.  Go through the spike until you find a completely unreportable story – something like a man in court for having sexual intercourse with a goat (unknown in Yorkshire, but surprisingly common in Lancashire). Send the reporter to the man’s house to get a full interview with both man and goat. When he rings in with several teeth missing, you say: “Try again and if you can’t do it, go straight home. Your cards will be in the post.”

Certainly the feature writing in the north was as good as anything coming out of London. When he wasn’t doing straight reporting, or writing his fishing column, Alan Bennett on the Express could conjure up a piece like spinning thistledown: light, funny, clever. And I never saw anyone who could put together a piece with such grace and intelligence as Shelley Rohde. Sent to provide the colour on a brewery strike, Bennett’s first line was: “Warrington was spitting feathers last night…”  When Shelley interviewed a man who’d lost his memory, she came up with the best last line I think I’ve ever seen. To cheer him up, she told him that he could be in for a pleasant surprise – maybe he was George Best.

“George who?” he said.

If you went on a job and saw those two, the wisest course was to ring in sick.  It worked for me. 

Between the stuff for the northern feature pages and for the Irish edition, we were busy enough. Then, of course, there was London.

Could you hear the sigh implicit in that sentence? The trouble was that the London office really did see themselves as the Champagne Set, sophisticated poets, doomed to deal with the roughnecks of the Northern Beer Boys. I well remember the cheers of delight from the subs when they received a complaint from some London exec about a page layout – “in future, please be good enough to omit your absurd provincial curlicues”

And we thought curlicues were only found in Ena Sharples’ hair.

We always enjoyed the Four-thirty Four-bottle Inspiration Call.  That was the time it came, when the London office began to fumble their way back to their desks, and the four bottles of wine were the inspiration. This so freed up their creative thinking that they would sometimes invert the whole editorial process. The first thing was to come up with a headline that was both original and hilarious – easy-peasy after four bottles. Then they’d design a page or a spread around it. Almost as an afterthought, when they realised they had no copy, they’d ring Manchester and ask them to oblige. 

They were the dreamers of dreams: we were the poor bloody movers and shakers who had to make it happen. 

Oddly enough, this upside-down journalism sometimes came off.  

A year after Oh! Calcutta! had opened in London, over lunch they came up with the headline Oh! Accrington!  It was, they all agreed, wonderfully clever.  Then they asked Manchester features in general – and me in particular – to write it.

This piece was described by a local reporter as plaiting fog. He was spot-on. In the complete absence of any facts, I find that fog is a useful substitute.  And it looks good on a passport. 

Occupation: fog-plaiter.

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Furniture

removal

 

Since you’re reading this, you have obviously realised that this website has what used to be known in the trade as ‘columns’.

What you may not have noticed is that there is another one, over there on the left, that might, in an earlier age, have been referred to as Column One.

Please take a moment to cast an eye over it.

It is the Contents Column – for there is more to this site than a weekly refreshment.

There is some special stuff that stays as furniture.

For a start, there is a Search function (it isn’t brilliant, but it sometimes works) into which you can type a subject or a name and see what comes up.

There’s an Archive, that contains all the contributions from the last 12 months, in case you find yourself at a loose end one weekend and fancy a bit of scanning and scrolling.

There’s Dr Syntax (not updated recently, sadly) for those who care a bit about the language we use.

Perhaps importantly, or usefully, to some, there is a guide to income tax by Barry Kernon, who is an expert on matters journalistic.

And there’s a link to our Books site, which is worth a look even if you are one of the many journos who can’t be bothered with anything as long as a whole book.

It’s just something that is worth clocking, because the books over there were chosen especially for YOUR pleasure and published (or mostly re-published) for your benefit and to be preserved for posterity, simply because they are worth it.

That’s the truth. They weren’t done to make money (although it would be nice if they did); they were all done for history’s sake.

There are books by Ian Skidmore, Cassandra, Vincent Mulchrone, Tony Delano, Murray Sayle and Liz Hodgkinson.

That site's own Column One has links to the authors.

They are all available on order from decent bookshops, or on-line from amazon (link direct from the books on the site) or from Foyles or Waterstones.

You can even buy them at a discount direct from the books page.

In some cases the royalties, such as they are, go to charity – so you could actually feel good about buying a book about newspapers for your own pleasure.

But the main reason for mentioning Column One is that there is a limited amount of space.

The stuff that is over there does not necessarily stay there.

As the site fills and overflows every week something needs to be removed to make space.

So, if you’re interested, get it while stocks last.

You never know, you might find something there that interests you.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

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As Revel Barker recorded last year on his superb gentlemenranters blog, “the Queen called it Maundy Thursday and distributed money to the public; the lads called it Wayzgoose and distributed money to the publicans.” – Roy Greenslade, Media Guardian

Issue #90

April 10, 2009

 

This week: Good Friday agreement

One of the good things about working on Good Friday – which reminds me, did everybody celebrate Wayzgoose* yesterday as we did here on the island of San Serif where I have declared it a national holiday? – was that you could drive easily to work (8 miles in 8 minutes, in my case) and then park anywhere.

It was like a Sunday, which Allan Glenwright remembers today. But even more than a Sunday, there were no stories to do because everything was shut and nobody, unless they were going on holiday and had opted to be stranded at Heathrow, was going anywhere. All that was necessary was for the subs to decide whether it was a Dank Holiday or a Blank Holiday; the rest of the paper had been filled days in advance, mainly with holiday weekend TV schedules and sport.

All changed now of course, like everything else. Glenwright was working in a district (on the banks of the coaly Tyne, queen of all the rivers) but Harold Heys says that not even districts, as we know them, exist any more.

Come to that, nor does subbing – not, at least, as we knew it. But if other people’s experience was anything like that of Philip Harrison, it may be something for which we should be thankful. At least his night in the chief sub’s chair was safely far away in Bloemfontein.

And where are the stars of yesteryear? Does the current lot match up to the memories of our old heroes? Jeff Connor thinks not.

On the other hand, we’ll always have Ireland. Nothing much changes there, as Colin Dunne reminds us. Twinkly-eyed leprechaun hunters and mad bastards with armalites.

As Col would say (and often did): Begorrah.

And if you are feeling generous of spirit, cast your eye on the Letters column on the right where two people are looking for help with research.

* Wayzgoose, my babies, was Maundy Thursday. Because there were no papers on Good Friday it was traditionally a day off for workers in the print (or at least for all of them who were involved with the creation of daily newspapers). It continued until the mid-80s when Murdoch and Maxwell abolished Easter. Apparently K Waterhouse ran a piece about it in the Daily Mail yesterday; certainly Roy Greenslade covered it in his blog. We have touched on it here, in the past, as Professor Roy kindly mentions. Where the name came from is anybody’s guess (and feel free) but it apparently has nothing to do with geese. As a festival, though, it should be preserved – if only because it is such a fabulous word. Indeed, if you are reading this on Friday it means the chara got us home safely, last night.

#

Bloody Sunday

Not always to be appreciated having already done six days before it, but one had no choice. Then again photographers always moan, as many a reporter has noted including an ex-Daily Mirror bloke who is quite tall.

Fortunately Newcastle upon Tyne from the mid-sixties (at least for me) was a pleasant place in which to work and doing a Sunday was really no exception. Quite often I actually looked forward to it. At times a bit of light relief.

While employed by an agency, the early years were usually spent at the Daily Express with Stanley J Blenkinsop who may be known to some.

On quiet Sundays it was the custom to drive round the Swan House roundabout in my employer’s Ford Anglia (when it would start) with tyres screaming. Stanley enjoyed that. Or throw condoms filled with water out of the window of the third floor office in Dean Street. It’s amazing how much water you can get into a condom.

I escaped paid employment (if you can call it that.... my starting salary in 1962 was £7.15s in old money and fourteen years later not much better) in 1976 to become my own reluctant boss when the Sunday shift involved working with Douglas Watson of The Sun.

One of the masters of the great intro and perfect pun. Rape in a taxi? No problem… ‘squeals on wheels’. Splendid chap, as was Mike Gay and Bob Cass on sport who was the acknowledged champion of the dominoes challenge. Somehow I never won when Bob was there.

The shift usually started about half-past nine followed by a round of calls then a bacon sandwich from Peter’s Snackbar across the road from the office in Marlborough Crescent.

Then the check call to Manchester with Ken Tucker on the desk. A rewarding experience. ‘Ring in, on the hour, every hour’ was the instruction.

Just as well it was impossible to trace the reverse-charge calls made from the coin-box during the lock-in at Balmbra’s Music Hall in the Cloth Market. Julie the barmaid was usually accommodating (subject to approval by Keith, her partner and the landlord) in dispensing Glenmorangie well after time had been called. The unwritten rule to preserve this privilege was that no advances of a sexual nature were made towards Julie (although one could always fantasize from a distance) since Keith was very well-built and keen to chuck people into the street if required.

Before the arrival of all-day opening some of the ordinary customers must have been puzzled by our lot leaving in late afternoon just as they were queuing to get in.

At the time national newspapers still had district offices in Newcastle. If you were doing a Sunday and something nasty happened an element of co-operation was essential otherwise it was impossible to cope. A bit of sharing was required but it was always best to let the office know that this was happening.

Air-sea rescue at Tynemouth? No problem. An agreed split. I did the helicopter lift with a long lens. John Learwood did the collects. Jimmy Hunter did the hospital watch. All stitched together in the end.

Everyone happy. Well, almost. Ken Tucker wasn’t.

In an effort to get the first edition away The Sun’s picture desk in London asked me to work directly to them on pictures. Ken was not pleased. In fact he went berserk. He was northern news editor, everything went through him. Had there been a naughty corner I would have been in it.

Anyway, job done. Shift over. Splash on Monday.

#

All change on the district line

By Harold Heys

It’s not the game it was, is it? The life of the District Man, for instance, is becoming lost in the mists of time. Have any evenings or weeklies got any district men these days? Most papers I’ve come across are entrenching back to head office behind an encircling wagon train of computers while the bean counters hover menacingly, ready to strike.

The pulsating roar of the machine room as those giant presses thundered into life around three o’clock in the afternoon is seldom heard these days. The whole building shook and a foray down into the bowls of the earth for half-a-dozen copies was to encounter a nightmare vision of inky and oily blackness in which beefy boiler-suited blokes roamed over heavy machinery the size of houses. The noise was almost unbearable.

Print centres now are often miles away in the middle of green fields. Modern machinery – run by computers, a few buttons, and fewer staff – barely hums. How many of today’s young reporters have ever seen a giant printing press? How many give a toss? My local evening paper, the ‘Blackburn-based’ Lancashire Telegraph, is printed in Wales, for God’s sake.

But, back to the days of the district men – women in those days weren’t allowed out of the main office; who knows what fate might have befallen them if they’d been allowed to tramp the mean streets. Although once, just once, I remember a bit of Southern totty being sent to do a colour piece from the middle of the crowd behind the Darwen-end goal at Blackburn Rovers’ Ewood Park. ‘How did it go?’ one of the news lads asked her on the Monday morning. ‘She doesn’t want to commit herself till she’s had a smear test,’ cut in laid-back soccer man Alf Thornton. The news editor hadn’t been daft enough to send her to Burnley. She’d never have made it out alive.

I enjoyed about five years in the districts. I soon learnt that every area had a small pool of local characters who could always be relied on for some daft tale on a quiet week. We had ‘Nelson’s Swimming Granny’ and ‘Darwen’s Mighty Atom’ and Burnley Clog Dancer Henry Whittaker whose card pronounced him also to be a Whistler and Versatile Artiste (BBC and ITV fame).

Every few weeks Ray Horsfield, over in Burnley, would file a piece with exactly the same intro: ‘Burnley clog dancer Henry Whittaker is hopping mad.’ And subs’ chief Denis Cosgrove would let it go through to amused chuckles from the rest of the desk. It became a standing joke. The head was always the same: Clog dancer hopping mad.

The local loon I remember best was ‘The Brierfield Houdini’ aka ‘The Great Roberto’. Among the hacks working that patch of East Lancashire in the early 60s, he was also known as: ‘That Barmy Twat.’

He was a bloody nuisance: always coming up with some daft scheme or other. He breezed in one day and announced that he had perfected the art of escapism. ‘What about Harry Houdini?’ I ventured. ‘Bollocks,’ said Bob. I took up the challenge. A length of tow-rope, the lock off the cellar door, a ball of twine used for wrapping up newspapers, assorted rags and bits of wire. A polite enquiry to the local cop shop for the loan of a pair of handcuffs was met, surprisingly, with a curt: ‘Fuck off.’

I did Roberto up good and proper. It was a labour of love. And I carted him off and locked him in the small upstairs toilet to let him stew for a bit. Meanwhile, it was off to the Lord Nelson pub across the road. And then down to the Alexandra snooker hall for a frame or three; and then a few more jars around town and eventually back to my digs at the Wagon and Horses for a few nightcaps.

Yes. I’d forgotten all about ‘The Great Roberto’ who was eventually found whimpering and freezing the following morning by the circulation manager who wasn’t best pleased. He’d sent Roberto home in a taxi with a fiver to calm him down by the time I rolled up.

It became a legendary tale around Nelson, although Bob never complained, fearing for his reputation, I suppose. Andy Rosthorn was telling me the other day that when he pitched up in Nelson a couple of years later, every time he went to interview somebody, they always asked him: ‘You aren’t going to tie me up are you?’ He though he’d landed in the middle of some strange cult of sexual deviants till someone explained how the appearance of a Telegraph reporter tended to excite some caution among the locals.

It wasn’t bad being a district man, I suppose. You certainly got closer to real life than today’s kids who seem to be stuck in head office on the phone for most of the time. We had some great days. Most reporters of a certain age have done the Pub Opening. Great stuff! Ok, it might not have compared to the national boys’ landing a few days at the George V in Paris or a cruise on the Med but it was a few free pints and a handful of sausage rolls. Nelson colleague Tony Watson and I went one better. We went to the opening of a new brewery! Beat that for a full-day freebie. Not that I lasted the full day.

Just about the only thing I can remember of it was Tony getting me back to the Wagon and Horses that evening and propping me up against the pub wall. I’d be slumped there yet but for a couple of the locals finding me and talking me inside for a few reviving brandies.

Most district men I knew were in the same mould; laconic, laid-back and hard-bitten – and they liked a pint. They also knew just about everyone in town. Darwen veteran Norman Bentley perfected the art of ‘making the calls.’ Ring. Ring. ‘Darwen police.’ ‘Owt?’ Pause. ‘Nowt.’ Click. How cool is that?

I once got an invitation to some product launch at one of the big local factories. As a PR operation it was something of a disaster as the booze ran out inside the hour. I must have had a lump of it as I remember announcing: ‘Right everyone! Back to our place!’ And a convoy of cars with assorted hacks, PR types and company execs was soon threading its way through town. Christine was just finishing the packing – we were off to Rhodesia that night – as I arrived to tell her: ‘Just brought a few pals back for a jar, love.’ Oh, and she’d just washed her hair and had a towel round her head.

The mob cleaned us out inside a couple of hours. Christine made a few sandwiches, poured coffee down everyone, finished the packing, tidied up, sorted out the kids and helped me into the taxi for the airport. I think we left the firm’s sales manager sleeping it off on the rug. He’d gone by the time we got back a month later.

Christine didn’t bat as much as an eyelid at the mayhem. That was the way local newspapers worked in those days.

No, it’s not the game it was.

#

The second-last-chance saloon

By Philip Harrison

In the early 1960s, The Friend, Bloemfontein’s English-language morning daily, was the second last chance for many of the Argus group’s problem journalists. That means the drunks. Bloemfontein, in the heart of the Afrikaner Orange Free State, was not the sort of place that English-speaking South Africans wanted to live. They preferred Cape Town, Durban or Johannesburg. Mind you, one of its distinguished editors had been Rudyard Kipling.

But serious misbehaviour at any of the Argus group’s newspapers in the bigger cities meant banishment to Bloemfontein. If this did not work, the final solution was at hand — exile to the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley, then home of the biggest man-made hole in the world (the De Beers diamond mine, not the newspaper). Bloemfontein was therefore not the most attractive place for an ambitious journalist to work. That is why the Argus group recruited journalists in Britain to work there. Including me, in 1962.

The chief sub of The Friend, Garth Gibbs (does that name seem familiar?), believed in giving his subs a chance to see what it was like to be in charge now and then. So he drew up a roster for three days a week under which each sub would have a chance to lay out the paper and supervise the subbing. By coincidence, Garth also had a girlfriend who, office scuttlebutt had it, he would visit during the evening for several hours.

My turn to be chief subeditor came one Tuesday in 1963. I was full of enthusiasm, if not expertise. My idea then of page layout was to use as many typefaces and typographical tricks as possible — stories set in panels with milled borders (remember the simplex border?), pointing fingers from a caption to the photograph, reversed headings, lots of fancy stars and arrows… everything. Of course, this put enormous extra pressure on the composing room, already working to tight deadlines as Wednesday’s paper was big to accommodate extra classified advertising.

After the first edition went to press — it was called The Goldfields Friend because it circulated mainly in a town called Welkom, capital of the Free State gold-producing area — I set to work rearranging all my fancy layouts and sent them down to the composing room.

I had no idea what problems my layouts were causing until I received a telephone call from the print room foreman:

'We have just received your layouts for pages 2 and 3. I think you have forgotten something.'

'Oh? What is that?'

'You’ve forgotten the ****ing holly borders!'

That was my last chance at chief-subbing for The Friend.

#

When gorillas roamed the earth

By Jeff Connor

Walter Cronkite called them the 800lb gorillas, the heavyweight, heavy duty columnists who appeared on the grandest of sporting occasions to add their wit and wisdom to proceedings.

Between 1950 and 1980 they were, justifiably, megastars in their own right. Their names would appear on billboards outside Wimbledon, Wembley or Twickenham (PETER WILSON IS HERE TODAY) and they would be recognised and stopped in the street. In the case of the tabloids they were one of the main reasons for the massive circulation figures of those days.

Their armoury in every case was a deep knowledge of sport and an awareness that the essence of the business was simple: young people performing to the best of their ability at something they loved. Nothing else. They were also JOURNALISTS who believed that hard fact was far more important than opinion.

Nowadays, the columnists come armed with nothing save a Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary of quotations and a belief that the most important part of any event is themselves. That is why they employ the perpendicular pronoun (work it out) a lot and, when the ink dries up, ramble on about ‘What the late, great Bill Shankly/Matt Busby/Jock Stein once said to me’. These so-called columnists must rank as the laziest in any branch of journalism.

Those really were the days. Wilson joined the Daily Mirror in 1935 – on the same day as Hugh Cudlipp and Bill (Cassandra) Connor. Wilson became ‘The Man They Can’t Gag’ and one of four reasons the Mirror got close to a daily circulation of 5m in the 1950s and passed it in the 1960s. (The other reasons were Connor, agony aunt Marjorie Proops and showbiz writer Donald Zec backed by priceless furniture like Jane and, later, the Andy Capp cartoon strip and the Old Codgers ‘Live Letters’ page.)

The truth is, no-one would have wanted to gag Wilson; most of us just wanted to be Wilson. His column always ran beneath a banner headline identifying him as the ‘World’s Greatest Sportswriter.’ It should have been accompanied by a subhead: ‘And World’s Greatest Scotch Drinker.’

An Old Harrovian, burly, rumpled, and unfailingly courteous, Wilson had a walrus moustache, an upper-class accent and a brief from Cudlipp to wander the planet, documenting every big sporting event of interest. On the way, he set his own records for speedy writing and consumption of whisky. According to one awed American rival: ‘When it comes to Scotch, Peter has flattened more contenders than Joe Louis.’

A young Daily Mirror junior (and much later British Sportswriter of the Year) called Ken Jones recalls shadowing Wilson at a British title fight at Earl’s Court in the ’50s and looking on wide-eyed with amazement as the great man rattled page after page, two fingered off his typewriter… without taking his eyes off the ring for a second.

He was partial to boxing (Archie Moore and Rocky Marciano were among personal friends) and Olympic track events, insisting: ‘They are the only pure sports. Man either fights or runs away. The rest are contrived.’

For all the supposed bombast, Wilson never denigrated a single sportsman, preferring to let facts speak for themselves. His description of Welshman Dai Dower’s preparations for his one round world featherweight title defeat against the unbeaten Argentine Pascual Perez in 1958 – Dower doing the rounds of welcome parties and British Embassy soirees in Buenos Aires while Perez sweated and snarled in the gym – remains a masterpiece in the art of disguised damnation.

Unlike his counterparts of today (Barnes, Samuel etc) he eschewed adjectives and concentrated on facts and observation. If alive today he would write, and drink, his successors under the table.

#

Bombed out of my mind

By Colin Dunne

Okay, let’s get this straight before we start: I’ve got no experience of reporting wars or terrorism or any of that military mayhem. But I can tell you this – I know a petrol bomb when I see one. And I was looking at scores of them.

I could see the bottles of sinister pale yellow liquid packed into the half-open cardboard box behind me in the Ford estate. The box must have held a couple of dozen bottles. Since there were 20 or more boxes that mean there must be…

Enough petrol bombs to damage my eyelashes, and quite possibly my fringe, which was always a worry for we dainty features folk.

Since this was Northern Ireland when the fashion for blowing people up was at its height, and since my driver was almost certainly fully-qualified in such matters, it wasn’t looking good. For a start, he was driving at high speed and the bottles kept jiggling against each other as we slid round corners. I mean, how much jiggling can a petrol bomb take before it starts to simmer, or whatever it is petrol bombs do?

What made it worse was that each bottle was labelled, with black irony, Crisp ‘n’ Dry Cooking Oil.  Crisp ‘n’ Dry, presumably, because that was how the onlookers were left after the big bang.

‘No,’ said my driver with a sharp laugh, ‘they really are bottles of cooking oil. We took the rep’s car and we haven’t had time to unload it.’

So – Edwards and McQueen and the rest of you war boys can laugh – it seems I don’t know a petrol bomb when I see one. In fact what on earth I was doing in Londonderry behind enemy lines, I’m not sure to this day. It wasn’t supposed to be like that.

London,’ said Alan Price, with the weary sigh that accompanied his every mention of that city, ‘have a good idea for you.’ At that time, the IRA had set up no-go areas where they held supreme authority: no soldier, no policeman, dare set foot in the place.  Alan, my features boss on the Daily Mirror in Manchester, explained that the London office wanted me to go into the no-go areas.  His briefing was slightly different.  ‘The whole idea’s too silly for words. Stay for a couple of days, have a drink or whatever it is you reporters do, then come back.’

That sounded more within my range. Even so, I thought a gesture towards doing the story would help.

I booked into the City Hotel in Londonderry, just down the road from the Bogside and Creggan,  ‘Free Derry’ as they called it, where the uninvited would have the life expectancy of a belch.  Announce what you had in mind in the bar of the hotel, I was told, and word would reach the IRA. So, I mused aloud about how I would like a conducted tour of the area.  That was that. Job done. Unless the IRA were setting up in the travel business, that’s the last I would hear. I settled down to my pint and the paper.

Twenty minutes later I was called to the phone. Explain what you want, a voice said. I did. ‘Be on the corner of Williams Street at 11am tomorrow,’ the voice said.

Oh my god. I was in serious danger of getting a real story, which in my case was pretty much unprecedented.

That was how the next day I came to be taken on Terrorists’ Tours in a rep’s car loaded with cooking oil by my guide, Harry McCourt, a Sinn Fein politician.

Look, he said he was called Harry McCourt. He said he was a politician. If he’d said he was the Wizard of Oz I wouldn’t have argued. He was a chatty chap with a downturned Mexican moustache about 10 years after the fashion had gone. What he was like as a terrorist I don’t know, but he was a first-rate PR man.

By way of superficial bonding, once he knew I was from Manchester he said he used to like the city when he worked there.  As a Mister Softee ice-cream man.

The only reason I’d got in was that my phone call had coincided with a decision by the political branch of the IRA – the ones with the brains, however small – to show the world how well they were running their empire. He pointed out how they’d replaced the shattered street lamps and organised taxis to replace the buses. By way of law and order, they were obliged to do a little tarring here and feathering there – he even introduced me to one young man who’d had the double treatment for joy-riding. ‘I deserved it all right,’ he said, just as if he’d practised saying it all day.  Then he went off-script: ‘Actually they’d run out of feathers so they had to do me with straw.’ I wasn’t at all sure that an organisation that ran out of feathers was equipped to run a country, but what would I know? For more serious offences, there was a bullet: in either the knee-cap or the head, depending. Apparently running out of bullets wasn’t a problem.

‘A snack?’ Harry suggested. He took me into a council house where we had tea and buttered scones (delicious, by the way) while two young men watched Laurel and Hardy on television. Apart from the carbines across their knees, it was all quite decorous.

By the time I got back to the hotel, it was early evening and there was a slight panic in the air. No-one ever thought I’d get in; then they thought I’d never get out. They’d been giving Catholic taxi-drivers large wodges of cash to drive round looking for my remains.

After I filed the piece Tony Miles, the editor, came on, all the way from London. It was fine, he said, but my descriptions of the daffodils in the neat gardens and the litterless streets made the Creggan sound like a desirable residential area. I had to point out that it was. Although the rest of Londonderry was shot to hell, the terrorists didn’t burn down their own buildings or blow up their own houses.

To an outsider it was inexplicable that ‘the enemy’ were right here.  Everyone knew the Provos’ HQ was halfway down the Falls Road opposite Casement Park.  This seemed to me a bit like the German SS having a press office in Kensington High Street in 1942. A reporter who was there when the British Army surrounded it said they all paled when they heard a hideous screeching noise outside.  Blood on the pavements?  Not quite.  One of the armoured cars had parked on a set of bagpipes.

For a visiting hack, this was all very confusing. Until then, as far as the British press were concerned, there was only one Ireland: it was a land populated by loveable, whimsical, twinkly-eyed rascals who believed in the little people and liked a drop o’ poteen.  All their sentences began with the words: ‘Would you ever…’

Mostly my trips to Ireland were pure joy: a day or two at the Gresham, a pint or two with the excellent Liam Kelly, and a trip down the country for a comical story about mouse-racing or pig-smuggling or moonshine-making. I used an awful lot of begorrahs in quotes, I remember. The Irish, a shrewd lot who knew the comical mick image was good for tourism, were always happy to go along with it. Hence all the tea-towels wittily inscribed ‘May you be in heaven half an hour before the divil knows you’re dead.’

I remember once saying this to a professional chap – a solicitor, I think – who was sitting at a table at a race meeting in Kerry, reading his paper, as American tourists swarmed around. He knew immediately what I meant.

‘Ah, it’s a bit of the ould paddy-whackery you’re wanting, is it?’ he said. He may even have said begorrah. He sprang up, tilted his hat over his eyes, tucked his rolled-up paper under his arm, and began to jig to and fro as he sang :’With a shillelagh under me arm, and a twinkle in me eye, I’ll be in Tipperary in the morning.’

They could turn it on like a tap, and very enjoyable it was too. So naturally when I was doing a piece on the introduction of the breathalyser, it wasn’t about drink, it wasn’t about road safety, it was about paddy-whackery. The joke in this case was that the conviction rate was low.  ‘Jasus,’ said one well-briefed official, ‘you’d have to be sick in the bag to fail.’ For feature writers, Ireland was the land of smiles.

Yet here was this other Ireland, where the residents had abandoned whimsy in favour of mutual destruction.  So it was a bit of a leap to find myself getting out of a taxi at ‘a mean abode down the Shankill Road’, as one of their lovelier poems says.  So proud to be British were they that they’d painted the kerbs red, white and blue, which encouraged me to think that they’d welcome a fellow monarchist from over the water.  Not a bit of it.  They were even more unpleasant than the other lot. So much for a shared heritage.

I was there to see a man called Tommy Herron, who was a top man in one of the Protestant ‘defence’ groups. Three young men were blocking the doorway. I said who I was, and attempted to slide discreetly through, when one of them produced something from his pocket.

I’m not saying it was gun. It looked like a gun, it clicked like a gun, and I had a nasty feeling it would make a hole like a gun. But for all I know it could have been a water-pistol, which would, in any case, have been quite enough to frighten me. It didn’t matter because a voice from inside said I was expected, which meant that I wasn’t obliged to take the young man’s advice. To feck off.

As far as I remember, Tommy Herron didn’t say anything to push back the frontiers of international understanding or to threaten Oscar Wilde’s reputation as a drawing-room wit. The only thing I do remember is that one of his bodyguards was reading a copy of The Beano.

As you will perhaps have gathered, personally I was quite at home with the mouse-racers and moonshine-brewers. When The Troubles revived, at first, the natural instinct of the journos, as perpetual outsiders, was to sympathise with anyone who claimed the title of rebels. If we were confused, imagine what effect this had on the Irish. I shall never forget the look on Liam Kelly’s face one night in the Stab when a packed room of English hacks demanded a rebel song, and cheered uproariously as he sang about a couple o’ sticks of gelig-a-nite and me ould alarum clock. Even Liam was a touch surprised to find himself feted for singing about IRA bombers in a London pub.

He was about as baffled then as I was when a reporter in McGlade’s told me that Coleraine was ‘a naice wee Proddestan tine.’ I wasn’t accustomed to hearing any version of Christian faith used to describe a municipality.  I mean, was Skipton a nice wee Methodist town?

After a visit to Belfast, I was glad to get down to see an old friend in Cork.  He wanted to know how I found it in the North.  Didn’t I think that the Prods were disgustingly bigoted?  Nervously, I said they seemed much the same as anyone else.

That, he protested, was rubbish.  ‘Why,’ he said, ‘I can even recognise a prod in the street. With their nasty little pale feckin’ faces and mean little feckin’ mouths, won’t put a hand in the pocket for fear of spendin’ a feckin’ penny, jasus their feckin’ teeth’d fall out if they gave you a smile…’

And did he find them bigoted, I asked. Yes, he said. Without a doubt.

For all that ‘me da was a culchie’ (ask Google for a translation), this was all beyond me.  I wasn’t even all that surprised when I got two threatening phone calls after the pieces on Free Derry and Tommy Herron appeared. Was it because I had called them murderous, heartless bastards who loved to gun down women and children?

No. They quite liked that.

The IRA were enraged because I’d reported that Harry was a former Mister Softee, which had apparently led to a certain amount of teasing – good-humoured, no doubt – from his bloodstained chums.

And what had upset the Loyalists was not that I’d mentioned the thug reading The Beano. But surely I didn’t have to say that his lips moved, did I? I removed myself before my knee-caps became a matter for discussion.

I should’ve known better. You can’t be too careful when dealing with such sensitive souls.

###

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letters

From Paul Willetts:

I’m a writer of non-fiction books, currently working on a biography of the club owner, porn baron, theatre impresario and property magnate Paul Raymond, commissioned soon after his death in March 2008.

 At the last minute, a contact suggested that your website might be able to put me in touch with journalists who had dealings with Paul Raymond.

I’d be especially interested in hearing from anyone who met him during the 1950s when he ran a series of touring nude shows and also set up the celebrated Raymond Revuebar.

Of course the nude shows, run by him and other promoters, involved semi-naked models striking poses that often mimicked famous sculptures or paintings.

On the insistence of the Lord Chamberlain, who had the role of theatrical censor, the models had to remain motionless.

An acquaintance told me a nice, probably apocryphal, story about how Raymond used to distribute pea-shooters to members of the audience who would then fire at the models, forcing them into yelping, breast-jiggling movement.

If any of your readers can help me, I’d be really grateful if they’d give me a ring on 01603 766862 or e-mail me at <paul.willetts@sizzel.net>.

 

From Harriet Tolputt:

I am trying to trace journalists who worked in the Manchester area in the 1970s and I wondered if any of your contributors may be able to help.

I am researching a serial killer called Trevor Hardy for my Masters in criminology. I am interested in the fact that despite killing three young women there was not much written about him.

I would be very interest in talking to anyone who worked at that time to shed some light on news judgements.

If you could help I would be very grateful if you could email: Harriet.Tolputt@bskyb.com

 

 

Gentlemen Ranters is a blog that publishes a charmingly eccentric compendium of fond reminiscences and tall tales from the glory days of the old Fleet Street. – Professor Tim Luckhurst, Centre for Journalism, University of Kent

 

Issue #91

April 17, 2009

 

Is splg necy?

Can reporters spell? And is it even necessary for them to do so? There ws a time when short forms were t norm and pple used a language shorn of vwls – long before txt msgs became common, whi perhaps implied that comps cld spl, even if reporters cldn’t. And even then thr wr hacks who had the brass neck to type a word, worse still, a name, and then write (splg?) after it, signifying that they were too bloody bone idle to look it up for themselves.

Joe Morris says there were some reporters, in his day, in Sydney, who just couldn’t hack it. The trick, even while sitting at your desk, was simply to get an outside line, ring the office number, and dictate your copy across the newsroom floor. Mind you, they had a lot of daft place names thereabouts. Woolloomooloo was just one of them. It helped if the copy-taker had a map. The Daily Mirror had 15 different spellings for Gaddafi (some starting with a Q). The Independent style book has, or used to have, a list of common mis-spellings at the back, including millennium, but not including desiccated, which nobody ever gets right.

If they couldn’t spell… boy, you should have seen their adding-up. We’re dealing with accuracy, here. When it came to exes, says Dave Brammer, they couldn’t even get their facts right. Exes are familiar ground for Ranters, but Dave suspects that there are stories out there that haven’t yet been told.

Mike Gallemore insists that the story about when a taxi driver took his father across Albert Square, without switching on the clock, but getting a tenner as a tip, is absolutely kosher. Those who remember Ronnie wouldn’t doubt it anyway.

But how accurate IS accuracy? Don Walker relates a theory for establishing facts from the minimum available information. Hey, don’t knock it. It always worked in features… Even during the advent of ‘new technology’.

Fickle things, facts. We were the guys who recorded history in the making but somebody (it may even have been me) once said that nobody who has ever heard two eye-witnesses describe a road traffic accident can ever believe anything he’s told is ‘history’. And we may live to see the day when some student unearths this week’s offering by Colin Dunne and produces a thesis proving that when Cudlipp disposed of The Sun, he effectively ended the British Empire.

Last word, on Wayzgoose (Ranters, last week) from the Ranters’ Central Research And Planning department...

Wayz (wase) is apparently an obsolete word for a bundle of hay, straw, stubble; hence a 'stubble goose', a harvest goose or fat goose, which is the crowning dish of the day’s entertainment.

A bean-feast often featured something called a bean-goose in the meal. (Now applied to annual outings or ‘beanos’.)

A bean-goose was a grey goose which arrived in England in the autumn; so named from a mark on its bill like a horse-bean. It is also reputed to be fond of newly sown beans.

In Caxton’s day, management were referred to as ‘wayz-counters’. But that last bit is a fact that I just made up. Doesn’t mean it isn’t true, though.

#

Spell Czech

By Joseph Morris

Most readers, along with most editors and sub-editors, seem to believe successful working journalists need to be able to spell and type. I would like to question this belief.

Why? Because a wise, old chief-of-staff told me these skills weren’t necessary and named a reporter on our newspaper who, he said, had neither of them.

The chief-of-staff who told me this did not have a malicious bone in his body and he truly liked and admired the reporter he identified. I suspect he only told me because he was busting to tell somebody and, from an incident I won’t go into, knew I could keep a secret.

Anyway, I decided to observe. Some months later I was mostly ready to accept what he had told me.

Here’s how this excellent journo, a former bouncer at dance halls, went about it. He had three secrets:

The telephone… The car two-way radio… The obliging nature of the copy-takers – those wonderful women who would type your dictated copy on duplicates and call ‘copy boy’ to take your story in progress to various sections of the paper.

I watched this newsman for many months. He would sit in front of a typewriter, as we all did, but he never touched it.

Fortunately on many occasions he found it necessary to be out of the office to report on whatever story he was covering. He would file his story by phone or staff car two-way radio. Most courts, for example, had ‘press rooms’ or even exclusive press phone boxes where you simply picked up the handset and it went direct to your newspaper.

If the job was away from a phone, we used the car’s two-way radio.

Hence, in these instances, you couldn’t really prove this journo couldn’t spell or type as he was entitled, in fact required, to use the technology which was available.

But there were often times when you obtained you story over the phone while sitting in the news room or returned there to write it. In these instances everyone else sat at one of the decrepit typewriters and typed. Not this reporter.

He would pick up a phone and dial our newspaper. ‘Copy takers, please,’ he’d say.

Then he would dictate his story to a copy taker, perhaps 10 yards away.

Occasionally, on a deadline, he would walk across and simply dictate to the copy taker in her little booth. In these instances she never needed her phone head-set.

Make no mistake, this reporter might not have known how to type a story but he sure knew how to dictate one. He always had as much stuff in print as anyone else on the paper. And often it was the best front-page stuff because he had a huge range of great contacts (read: good drinking mates) and an uncanny eye for the angle in any story.

Sylvia was his favourite copy taker. I think they may have been a team. But, if Sylvia had a clandestine secret about dealing with this reporter’s copy, she never told.

Usually Sylvia would do her job without fuss. Her job was to take dictation, she took dictation. Sylvia would almost never interject, ask a question or make a suggestion.

Sylvia became my favourite copy taker too. Other seasoned copy takers had the maddening habit of offering advice and suggestions to junior reporters such as me. Anyone who has written a news story knows how well received this advice can be – about as welcome as a blow-fly in a meat pie.

But Sylvia had instinct. She would know when you were in real trouble and only intervene then.

Woolloomooloo is a very small waterfront suburb, less than one square kilometre and nestled in a valley between the entertainment strip of Kings Cross and the central business district of Sydney. Back then it was a suburb of extremes and plenty of good stories. Our naval fleet was based there along with the Rock & Roll Hotel (The Macquarie) where young women were allegedly raffled on a Friday night. The pub opposite, owned by a former boxer, was a biker hang-out. A host of newsworthy crims, victims, prostitutes, pimps and police also hung-out in Woolloomooloo and made good copy from time to time. In earlier days, Sydney’s reigning crime queen, an English immigrant named Tilly Devine, operated from there. Tilly had 75 convictions before she turned 25 and was jailed for a razor attack on a man.

Lot’s of good and bad things happened in Woolloomooloo. But, could I get my head around spelling Woolloomooloo? Not once. It came up so often I should have had it tattooed on my wrist.

But Sylvia was always there…

‘If you mean our Woolloomooloo, Joe, I think it has two ‘o’s’ after the ‘w’,’ Sylvia would say. Or, ‘I think there are two ‘o’s’ on the end, dear.’

When I did occasional stints in the sports department I’d always find myself running across English hoop, Lester Piggott. It was uncanny. And could I remember how to spell Lester’s family name? No way. ‘Piggott’, ‘Pigott’, ‘Pigot’ or ‘Piggot’. It was the toss of a three-sided coin.

‘I think it might be Mr Piggott, sweetheart,’ Sylvia would say after I’d changed my mind three or four times.

Truth is I had lots of problems with proper nouns, place names in particular. Such as just some in the classic Aussie song, ‘I've Been Everywhere, Man’ - Mullumbimby, Goondiwindi, Mooloolaba, Maroochydore, Murwillumbah, Cunnamulla, Ulladulla, Muckadilla, Wallumbilla, Boggabilla, Kumbarilla, Indooroopilly, Kirribilli, Yeerongpilly, Wollondilly, Cabramatta, Wangaratta, Coolangatta; what's it matter?

Sylvia was my dictionary and spell check. But only when she would hear the desperation in my voice.

Anyway back to my favourite reporter. Now I know, from what he’d personally told me, he’d had next to no schooling. Further, I never saw him pick up a newspaper even to read one of his own stories while colleagues were patting him on the back. Could he spell, could he type, could he even read? I guess we’ll never know what skills this reporter actually possessed. He was too cunning to ever show his hand.

But, maybe you don’t need to spell or type if you are cunning? Cunning is a winning quality in any journo and perhaps you don’t need much more?

And, just thinking about it, maybe there were actually two reporters on the Sydney Daily Mirror who couldn’t spell.

…Dedicated to Sylvia, and to all those kindly, useful, caring copy takers.

#

No expense story spared

By Dave Brammer

After a quarter of a century, I have a confession. I may have exaggerated my expenses once or twice during my time working for the Mirror Group. I know I’m not the sole perpetrator of such a heinous crime. In fact I’d wager every illicitly-gained penny that the silent majority of Ranters have also added an extra receipt here and there to their expenses claims.

But, in mitigation, a mixture of being broke and knowing that a certain editorial exec would sign anything thrust under his nose as long as he was distracted while he was being effusive on the phone, made earning an extra few quid irresistible. It was all a matter of split-second timing.

Besides, if the trustees of the Maxwell estate have an issue with me fiddling a few quid out of them, they can reclaim it from the thousands Old Fatso embezzled out of my pension fund.

My revelation is by way of an introduction to a collection of exes stories that have circulated around provincial and national newspaper offices over the years. I hope that one or two of you will add your own anecdotes to add a little light to the Ranters page to contrast with the darkness of obituaries.

Many expenses tales have become legendary, such as Daily Express foreign correspondent Sefton Delmer’s one-line expenses claim for his coverage of the entire Korean War and the plea from the head cashier to ‘add a bit of colour’ ... and the Manchester football hacks who often claimed overnights for trips to Stoke which was less than an hour away, not to mention the hundreds of miles claimed for wrong turnings on various motorways.

Then there was the young reporter in the Yorkshire Dales whose car supposedly broke down in the middle of nowhere. I think it was Bill Bradshaw who first told me that tale of how the young junior had to borrow a length of rope from a farm to get a tow into the next town. Anybody out there who can stand up the magical expenses line: ‘Money for old rope: £5.’ ?

One of Bill’s colleagues on the Newcastle Chron used to open his wages and expenses packets on a Friday afternoon and carefully count the notes out into three piles. ‘That’s me spends,’ he’d say as he counted the first pile. ‘That’s the wife’s hooskeepin’ and that’s the bairns’ shoe money.’ He would then proceed to gather the piles together, fold it all and put it in his back pocket.

Much later down the local for the traditional Friday night drink, he and his colleagues would sink several pints of Exhibition and when the bell went for last orders he’d stump up again and lament: ‘Ahh, I’m a bad father. There goes the bairns’ shoe money!’

Guardian cricket writer Paul Weaver got his national break in the 70s after honing his skills on the Brighton and Hove Argus. He joined Reg Hayter’s sports agency  in London where the owner’s skills for slashing expense claims at a stroke were legendary.

During his first few days, fellow scribes warned the new recruit not to claim more than £1.25 for lunch. So for the first few weeks, he never put a receipt in for more than that amount. But after a couple of months, curiosity got the better of him and he filed a claim for £1.50. He clipped the receipt to the form, signed it and wandered into Hayter’s office with the form.

Ten minutes later, a voice boomed from the office: ‘Oi, Weaver. Where do you eat - Café Royal?’

Former colleague Harold Heys was telling me the story of his first week’s expenses. He was 16 and had forked out for a bus journey into the outskirts of Blackburn. He claimed ninepence-ha’penny and signed it off with a flourish. Joe Molyneux, the Northern Daily Telegraph news editor, called him over later and confided: ‘We don’t worry about halfpennies, son.’ Excellent. He looked forward confidently to making a small profit. Till he opened his envelope on the Friday and counted out a sixpence and three pennies! ‘What a bastard,’ said H. But has anyone ever had a cheaper lesson in the dark art of filling in expenses forms, I wonder?

In the early 70s Harold had a useful side line at the Sunday People in Manchester. Blank bills were always prized, of course. But he used to pop into his local weekly, the Darwen News, root around in a box of old half-tones, get a few lines of type set and print off his own receipts to pass on to the lads - including the Northern sports editor, the famous Harry Peterson. There were some nice touches: The Brown Cow, The Shoulder of Mutton, The Red Lion - all in out-of-the-way villages no one had heard of and to where mileage was difficult to check.

It went well for weeks until it suddenly fell apart and he got a right bollocking off dear old Harry. He, in turn, had had the head cashier on his back and he was now jumping up and down and waving one of the crisp do-it-yourself bills, a heavy red line struck through it. ‘How did they know it was a ringer,’ H. wailed. ‘Look at it!’ Harry-Pete shouted. And there, staring back from the receipt for the ‘Black Bull Bistro, Belmont’, was a small logo, not of the head of a snorting bull, but of a rather benign sheep. Oh, shit! His counterfeit operation came to an abrupt halt; his budding reputation as a master forger lost for ever.

Former Sunday People football reporter Norman Wynne had a fund of expenses stories. My favourite was the Daily Express security correspondent who, week in week out, claimed a few quid for entertaining Major Ivan Popov of the Czech Embassy. One week it might be £4 18s 6d; the next, a particularly hectic few days, it might be £5 19s 4d.

It went well for months till a wizened old boy from accounts ambled downstairs to confront the hapless hack. He had made, he intoned in the middle of a packed office, extensive enquiries at the Czech Embassy and had ascertained that there was not, and furthermore had never been, an attaché there called Ivan Popov. They had not even had a cleaner called Ivan Popov. The bean-counter pushed his pince-nez up his nose half an inch and awaited an explanation. The room went quiet.

The Express man didn’t even blink. ‘Thank you,’ he said, reaching for his overcoat. ‘In future I will not believe a word he tells me.’ And with that it was off to the pub.

The Manchester lads went to visit Mirror soccer writer Bob Russell who was in hospital after a rather serious car smash. It was a sombre get-together. Bob could hardly move; he was wrapped in bandages and smothered in plaster. He could barely manage a throaty whisper.

After about half-an-hour the lads were fed up and making off-to-the-pub noises only for Russell, a man who was careful with the pennies, to begin a faint but insistent keening noise from behind the bandages. It was sad to behold.

Norman leant forward earnestly. ‘What is it Bob? What do you want, pal?’ Slowly, and with an almost superhuman effort, the mangled hack carefully edged battered fingers inside the folds of lint, bandages and plaster, emerging eventually with a crumpled piece of paper.

‘P-P-Put these in for us, lads,’ he whispered.

No yarn about expenses would be complete without a nod to Colin Dunne’s wonderful tale – told on these pages – of Mirror man Eric Wainwright. The wonderfully mysterious Wainwright  was never anything other than charming, Colin recalled, apart from the day Roy Harris upset him. Roy, who was, he  thought, deputy features editor, sat in on a Sunday and when Eric presented his expenses, he ventured a mildly casual inquiry about one item.

Over to Colin: Eric was furious. He went immediately to the Stab. He stayed longer than usual. When he came back, he was purple with, among other things, rage. He asked my advice. What was the silliest story I’d ever done? A talking dog, I said. Where was the furthest point from the office? Land’s End. With finger-jabbing anger, he typed away, took it downstairs and slammed it down in front of Roy. It was for a trip to Land’s End to interview a talking dog. It involved well over a thousand miles’ travel, several overnights, lots of entertaining and taxis. All with no bills. The final, some might have said contemptuous, item was the one that caught Roy’s eye. ‘Bone for dog - £10.’ Roy, who was not a big man, shivered in the shadow of the figure looming over him. ‘Must have been a big bone,’ he whispered weakly. Eric slammed his hand on the desk and roared: ‘It was a fucking big dog.’

Quick wit can often save the day. At the start of the Irish troubles Andrew Rosthorn, whose proud boast is that he is the only man to have been sacked five times by the Mirror Group, had been chasing some IRA-training story over in Burtonport, Co Donegal, for the Daily Mail.

Back at the ranch, he was surprised to be beckoned over by northern editor Peter Clowes who seldom bothered to speak to mere reporters. But he was something of a gourmet and asked: ‘Mr Rosthorn. Did you have to eat lobster at every single meal?’  Rosthorn didn’t hesitate: ‘Only during the annual Burtonport Lobster Festival, Mr Clowes.’

Back in 1975 there was a two or three-week siege at Monasterevin in County Kildare after the IRA had kidnapped Dutch industrialist Dr Tiede Herrema. It was a big story over here and the locals made a fortune out of the hacks sent over to cover it. They charged for just about everything.

There was the usual cheery banter at Dublin airport as the Sunday boys flew in and the weekly boys flew out for the weekend break. Jeff McGowan of the Daily Express was among those hurrying back, but he found a few moments for a cheery enquiry to the new arrivals: ‘Hey lads. I’ve a couple of chits left. Wanna buy ‘em?’

So there’s a few to be going on with. Any more offerings?

#

More Wangadang

By Mike Gallemore

Before recalling another adventure of my father, Ronnie Gallemore – the Wangadang Kid, I’d like to categorically admit that his unusual taxi ride across Albert Square by a cabbie is perfectly true.

To those who didn’t know Ronnie well, he had a fascination for black cabs and was well known among the ranks in Manchester. He would often ring for a cab from a pub, club or phone box (in the olden days some of them worked) and expect it to arrive 10 seconds later. If it didn’t, he’d ring for another one. I was with him on one occasion where he had six cabs waiting outside a pub for him – he’d rung one, looked outside, no cab, rung another. Then repeated the act five more times when nothing had turned up. When we got outside the pub I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ He pulled out a bunch of notes and walked down the line giving each of them a fiver apiece and then signalled me to get in the back of the last in the line, saying, ‘Six cabs are better than none.’ When I asked why we had got in the last cab he said, ‘He got here the quickest.’

On his most famous cabbie occasion, he had meandered out of the old Press Club at the far end of Albert Square in the early hours, walked across the road to the taxi rank and said to the cabbie: ‘Take me to the Albert Grill’ (which was a 24-hour restaurant on the opposite side of the square aboout 70-80 yards away).’I could carry you there,’ the cabbie replied. ‘OK fruit, you’re on.’ The cabbie duly got out of his taxi and gave my Dad a pick-a-back across the square, kicking open the door of the restaurant with his foot so he could make his delivery right on the premises – as my Dad had insisted. The handful of diners and staff barely batted an eyebrow. ‘Great ride,’ said my Dad, who gave him a £10 tip for getting him there without stopping.

This tale I’d like to tell has an intro: One morning I walked into our back lounge on Dickenson Road, which was more like a pub than a lounge. It had red flocked wallpaper, in the style of an Indian restaurant, and a long, wooden oak beam that stretched the length of the room with a large, very well equipped bar at the end (many readers may remember the venue). It had been decked out totally in black and white, with beer towels, pot dogs and boxes and boxes of Black and White whisky miniatures. It looked as though Newcastle United’s supporters club had staged their AGM there the night before. I shrugged my shoulders and went off to school, thinking how quiet these Magpie fans must be, not having heard the normal commotion the previous evening....

It happened in the Grove pub, which, if my memory is correct, was actually on Sugar Lane, close to the Sugar Loaf pub. The landlady was a wonderful woman called Eileen, who all my life I called Auntie Eileen because I saw so much of her when I was a kid I really did think she was my auntie.

On an extended break one night my Dad, George Harrop and Bill Lowe – and others – were having a quiet drink when a stranger walked purposefully up to the bar and announced in a loud, clear voice: ‘I’ll have a large whisky please....and make it Black and White.’

Ears pricked and eyebrows raised the Three Musketeers, spotted a mark and moved in. ‘That’s my favourite whisky,’ said Harrop adding, ‘It’s good to meet another Black and White man,’ while my Dad and Bill Lowe muttered their endorsement.

They quickly found out that the stranger was a rep for B&W whose role in life was to visit as many pubs in the area as he could and in as short a time as possible go through his routine for all the regulars to hear – in the hope that they would become B&W drinkers.

To the delight of the B&W rep his new-found friends turned out to be close acquaintances of just about everyone in the pub – and, magically, having been introduced, they were all willing to become B&W drinkers.

At the end of the night/morning the B&W rep made his farewells and was accompanied to his estate car by his new drinking friends. ‘I don’t suppose you have any Black and White miniatures in you car?’ says Harrop. ‘I’ve got miniatures, pot dogs (the logo and advertising line of B&W was two black and white Scotty dogs), beer mats, towels – you name it, I’ve got it.’

Well he did have it, until the boys cleaned him out, lock, stock and ashtrays, convinced him that he was in no condition to drive (not bad coming from Gallemore, Harrop and Lowe – although I don’t think Harrop had ever driven) and accompanied him to The Mitre and suggested he stayed the night there.

Harrop and Lowe left the scene with as much as they could stuff in their pockets – they were cabbing it home – while my Dad filled his car with the remaining contents, which were considerable.

Black and White whisky was his staple diet for the next few week – but he swiftly returned to his beloved Bells when supplies ran out. I often wonder whether that B&W rep managed to keep his job... or whether his employers thought he was the fastest rep in the North West.

#

Living on the razor’s edge

By Donald Walker

It was a device, an analytical tool, known to just a few. Well, now I come to think of it, known to just a two: me and that leading sub-editor and top newspaper designer I may have mentioned here before.

We called it Bosie’s Crosshead or Brian’s Razor. We stole the latter from Occam’s Razor, the principle suggested by the 14th century monk William of Occam that now underlies all scientific modelling and theory building. Old Bill’s theory states that you should not make more assumptions than the minimum needed. Sometimes it’s called the principle of parsimony. That’s all you really need to know.

Brian Sutherland (for, yes, it is he I was referring to earlier) and I don’t pretend to be highfalutin philosophers or profound thinkers, so in our words the theory can be described thus: If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and farts like a duck, don’t get fancy and imagine it might be a hybrid of a goose and a swan, or an elaborate chimera from legend and myth...

It’s a duck.

This device, the details of which I shall get to in a moment, proved an invaluable weapon in the part we played in Fleet Street’s thorny journey to New Technology.

It posited that a newspaper production system, no matter how clever or how complicated, was not even worth considering if it couldn’t do the simplest of editorial tasks.

It may come as a surprise to many compositors of my former acquaintance, but every production journalist’s dream in the mid-1980s was not the overthrow of the NGA, troublesome though many of its members were. Most of us had workaday friendships with printers and knew them as hard-grafting partners with the same aim as us – getting the paper out on time and looking good.

Journalist-driven New Technology soured this relationship: the comps felt threatened and closed ranks abruptly and without applying much reason to the situation.

New Tech had crept into Fleet Street’s composing rooms long before Murdoch decamped to Wapping. The Daily Mirror and its sister papers installed a system by Linotype-Paul in Orbit House and an Atex network was widely used by the comps themselves in the main Mirror building in the early 1980s.

Sadly, the NGA decided it didn’t want journalists getting their interfering fingers on keyboards and cathode ray tubes and, almost without exception, the new equipment was guarded with the ferocity of a pit bull standing over its doggy-bics.

We stone lackeys knew of old that we had to keep our hands behind our backs and never even think of touching any kind of metal. Fair enough; who wanted to be on the receiving end of a walkout or Dickensian lines such as: ‘Are you trying to take the bread out of my children’s mouths?!’

But New Tech was designed, indeed aching, for authorial input. Why sit at a keyboard typing in a 1,000-word piece which you then gave to someone else to sit at a keyboard typing in a 1,000-word piece?

I believe the fact is the comps failed to recognise the future when it was sitting on their faces. They should have worked harder at blending in with the journalists. But, no, what they did was:

·Forbid journalists from standing on certain areas of carpeting that were too near the new machinery.

·Prohibit staff other than NGA members from even looking at, let alone handling, paper proofs produced by new tech.

·Threaten journalists who dared to stand too near the new devices and even forbid them from looking at them.

·Greet any mild inquiries about the new machinery with, at best, stony glares, at worst obscene threats.

·And, worst of all, purposely slow up the production system on the new networks to ‘prove it was useless’ and not the way forward. Not, as we shall see, they needed much duplicity in this: the new stuff was wayward to say the least.

I and my production system colleagues all experienced these and many other unpleasant results of the slow and painful advance of newspaper technology. We were not faint-hearted nerds who’d flounce off in tears at a barbed comment: we were used to the sharp, sticky end and could give as good as we got.

But this was ridiculous.

At times, the tense atmosphere and stress in the New Tech areas were such that I believe they caused at least two fatal heart attacks.

Rising above this goal-mouth melee, this farrago of bad and good intentions, was, as I indicated earlier, the new techies’ dream: Not to depose the comps but to have computers, to have a cyberspace network, that would gather news, edit and prepare it, give it shape and form and present it to the reader in beautiful, artful colour to shine a light on nescience.

It was a sodding long time coming.

But that didn’t stop us trying. After the internecine wars begun by Colonel Eddie Shah and pursued vigorously by General Rupert Murdoch had faded, the search for such a system was resumed.

The equipment could certainly turn out miles of bromide containing text. But the dream was a complete graphic system that would show a page on screen – a page, or even a spread, that could be shaped and adjusted before our very eyes.

As part of this quest to strive with the last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable star, we journo-techs were prepared to travel vast distances, charge vast expenses and drink all night long until we had to close one eye to see the night porter. If that’s what it took.

I personally travelled to America, Russia, Hungary, Africa and deepest Berkshire looking at newspapers and their computer operating systems and anticipated systems.

On the home front, my good friend Brian Sutherland was roped into the battle early and given a special task by Phil Walker, then deputy editor of the Mirror.

‘Brian,’ said Phil, his voice husky with intrigue, ‘they are testing a new computer system in Orbit House.’

‘You mean the building that houses The Stab?’ said Brian enthusiastically, referring to the office boozer.

‘Yes, yes. The printers are trying to produce a full spread on this equipment and I would like you to supervise it. Make sure it’s editorially sound, looks good and so on. You know.’

‘When’s it off stone? Today?’

Phil smiled as one does at an eager, unknowing infant. ‘Today? God, no. The machinery can’t cope with that kind of demand.’ His eyes misted over. ‘Maybe one day...’

What Brian found in Orbit House impressed him. This new stuff might take a while to get a page on the street, but it sure looked the business.

There were flashing LEDs, CRTs, keyboards, a moving track that carried something from one place to another, buttons galore, humming diodes and a number of strange rollerball devices that with the flick of the wrist switched crosshairs on green screens dramatically from one coordinate to another.

This, thought Brian, is New Technology. Wow.

Sitting at one workstation was a man in a white coat who had the look of a serene, confident pilot about to get a jumbo jet effortlessly into the ether. Here was the spreadmaster, Brian’s calm guide through the cyber-jungle.

‘You’re comping a spread then?’ inquired Brian.

‘A spread? Oh, yes,’ said the spreadmaster with a smile strangely reminiscent of Phil Walker’s. ‘Well, we’re starting anyway.’

That was Monday.

Screens flickered, buttons were pressed, coordinates were entered precisely by hand and headlines began to appear.

That was Tuesday. Wednesday came and went. Thursday loomed. The Stab opened and closed, closed and opened.

The phone rang. It was Phil. ‘Brian, how we doing?’

‘Pretty good, Phil’ said Brian, wiping his lips hastily. ‘Pretty good.’

‘Um, any chance of...um..a proof?’

 ‘A proof!’ Brian stifled a laugh. ‘Ahem. No, Phil not really.’

The man in the white coat was flicking switches, sending rollerballs spinning with deft movements. A singe bead of sweat ran into his collar. Brian leaned confidentially over him.

‘My boss just asked if there is any chance of a proof.’

The spreadmaster looked up from his screen and simply fixed Brian with a wry glance.

‘Just asking,’ said Brian, backing off. Adjusting his blazer comfortably he added: Think I’ll pop downstairs for one...’

And so the days passed easily. Thursday became Friday. Friday moved smoothly into the weekend. About a week after the great project started Brian returned to Orbit House to find the spreadmaster in a state of excitement.

‘News?’ he asked.

‘Great news! We have a proof!’ And it only took seven days.

Brian marched it triumphantly over to Phil’s office.

 ‘Wonderful!’ said Phil. ‘Ah yes, wonderful. Now, Brian, perhaps there’s a few things we can do...’

Back in Orbit House, Sutherland told a beaming spreadmaster: ‘Well done! The boss loves it. Now...there are a few minor things he’d like.’

‘What would they be?’ asked the man in the white coat, his hands going unerringly to the rollerballs.

‘Phil wants a crosshead here in this leg and oh, another here while you’re about it.’ He chuckled encouragingly. ‘Bosses, huh! You know what they’re like.’

The spreadmaster’s tongue showed between his teeth. He was concentrating. Almost inaudibly he said: ‘A crosshead here...and one here...and...oh, shit!’

Brian sensed an emergency. ‘What happened?’

 ‘Erm, the page’s vanished.’ There was no alarm in his voice. This after all was a man who flew the printing equivalent of jumbo triple sevens.

Assume the crash position. Sick bags are under your seat. Make sure your seat arms are raised and your food tables in the upright position. Follow the aisle lights out to the waiting rescue craft in an orderly fashion. Don’t panic.

‘What do you fucking mean the page has vanished?’ asked Brian reasonably. ‘I only asked you to put a crosshead in.’

‘Well, two actually...’

At that moment the phone rang. It was Phil. He sounded happy and cheerful, full of sunlight, dreaming of love, laughter and spreads in the cyber-jungle. ‘How’s it going, Brian?’

‘Phil...’

 ‘Yes...’

‘The spread has vanished.’ There was no other way to put it really.

‘What do you fucking mean the spread has vanished?’

‘I already asked them that. I dunno.’

‘I cannot believe it. How can something like that happen?’

How indeed. But it was not the last time this question was to be asked. Our disappearing spread was merely among the first of many such mysteries. The lovingly crafted pages were nowhere to be found – all for the want of a crosshead.

But this event did give birth to Brian’s Razor. After hearing the story, from that day forward, whenever I viewed a newspaper system proudly on display by its programmers and software engineers, after it had been ‘put through its paces’ I would always say:

‘Can I try a minor amendment?’

‘Of course,’ they would cry joyously.

‘Can you insert a crosshead here...and here...and here.’

You would be surprised how quickly the light faded in their eyes. After a while word must have got round, for the wiser ones would say:

‘A crosshead? Ah, one day, perhaps, in the future. It’s our dream.’

#

 

The times, they were a-changing

By Colin Dunne

‘Right then,’ said Tom Hopkinson, the Bradford freelance. ‘Here’s your choice. The 15-minute tabloid news reporters’ talk-through, the feature writers’ two hour tour, or the colour-supp half-day job.’

What was it about his response that made me think I wasn’t the first?

As long ago as 1968, Lumb Lane, Bradford 8, was becoming famous as a home-from-home for Asians. Tom, never a man to miss a story, had evolved a range of crash courses for visiting hacks who were eager to see what was probably the first instance of reverse colonisation. With his tweedy jackets and country-tanned moon-face, he looked as though he’d just come in from doing the milking. Since he knew everyone in Lumb Lane, he made an excellent white hunter.

The response from the Yorkshire locals to this new community was amused curiosity. In a pub just outside Ilkley, I was ordering a pint when a car-load of young Asians came through the door. ‘Hang on a minute,’ the landlord said, ‘I’ll just serve these Bradford lads first.’ Smiles all round, including the new arrivals.

Fearlessly, I followed Hopkinson-sahib on his hacks’ safari into the uncharted territory of the street that was known to locals, with cheerful innocence, as The Khyber Pass. Here you could have a meal, drink a pint, watch a film, visit the bank, book a holiday and get a taxi without seeing a white face.

Reactions all round seem laughable today. Some young white boys boasted to me that they had entered an Indian restaurant and had a sort of spicy stew called curry. ‘Not si bad either,’ said one, ‘if tha’s had a few pints.’ An elderly Indian woman told me she wept with pride when she saw Lumb Lane. ‘At last I have seen Paradise before I die.’ A young Sikh, an accountant, said he was brought up to believe that all Englishmen were like the one they knew best at home. When he arrived in Bradford – unluckily, closing-time on a Saturday night – it wasn’t easy to spot the resemblance to Lord Louis Mountbatten. In fact, it wasn’t easy finding anyone who could stand up.

With just a trace of embarrassment, I have to tell you that the cutting before me records that I described these newcomers as coloureds and remarked with some pride that there had been no ‘nigger hunting’. I must’ve been reading too much James Baldwin.

Why am I reviving this old story? Well, if we’d only had eyes to see, what we were witnessing then was the start of the world around us today. But neither I nor Tom nor any of the Daily Mirror readers realised that within a few years scores of towns and cities would have their own Lumb Lanes. Only nobody calls them Paradise any more.

This all came about when Cudlipp launched one of his rare forays into the north, which he knew rather less well than Tom knew Asian Bradford. While in Manchester, he launched ‘Voice of the North’, a series of features that was going to tell the world about all the exciting things happening in the north. Why? Well, whenever he ventured north of Holborn Viaduct, he felt obliged to launch something: we were lucky it wasn’t a battleship.

Laser eyes combing a room of shivering executives, Cudlipp spotted Alan Price, the features editor, who was sticking to his usual policy of trying to hide behind a pillar. He was also eating an ice-cream. That was a mistake.

‘Hey, you, Mr Vanilla,’ called Cudlipp. ‘What do you think?’

Alan turned pink, gave one of his theatrical shrugs and, with ill-concealed insincerity, replied: ‘Marvellous’.

So he was given the job of coming up with a list of features that would bring some sort of sense of this barmy venture. Alan, who viewed popular newspapers, those who wrote them and those who read them, with contempt, was also astonishingly good at things tabloid. Before Cudlipp fell of the train at Euston, awash with claret, he’d come up with the list.

It caused some alarm in London. Malcolm Keogh, originally from Liverpool, was told to oversee it. A fine journalist, he knew immediately what he must do first. He made a few phone calls to ensure that his exes would be put through open-handed London, rather than miserly Manchester. Things like that mark out the real pro.

Pilger, the big gun we’d been promised, came up and did a couple of pieces. We didn’t see much of them after that. And since London soon abandoned the whole idea, we were left explaining all the wonder of the north to… the people who lived in the north.

Somehow that didn’t seem to have the same missionary purpose as telling the world.

Oddly enough, the Voice of the North turned out to be curiously prophetic.

There was ‘redeployment’, under which coal-miners were helped to find jobs above ground. I talked to a 43-year-old pitman who at 14 had followed his father down the pit at Crook, in Co Durham, for 17s 3d a week; now he was now working in a light-industry factory. He had only two regrets. One was that he could no longer pick a live coal out of the fire to light his cigarette because his hands, once calloused and leathery, were now pink and soft. The other was the coal bill.

Long before Scargill and Mrs Thatcher turned the coal industry into a battleground, the pits were already beginning to shut down.

The same was true of the cotton and woollen mills. In a hill-top village called Shore in Lancashire, I found a woman who for 20 years had been a spinner in Clegg’s Mill. She still worked there but now she was assembling shaving cream and deodorant sticks.

All over the north, pits and mills, shipyards and furnaces, were closing, and with Voice of the North we told our readers. Although, with half-a-million people losing their jobs, it’s possible they had noticed this already.

Then there was the story about ‘reclamation’ – odd how vocabulary is just as vulnerable to fashion as skirt-lengths. The aim of this was to restore land made derelict by the vanishing industries.

Work was just starting on The Wigan Alps, three massive pit-heaps, to turn them into a playground for ski-ing and sailing, riding and rambling. Maggie Hurst, who lived across the road, told me she used to pick bluebells there. ‘I’ve seen ‘em go up, and I’ll see ‘em come down.’

I wonder if she did. I’ve never been back (look: there’s quite enough disappointment in my life), but I haven’t heard too many reports of the Wigan ski slopes.

This was one of those stories where the editor comes back with a silly question. Why don’t we have a couple of paragraphs of statistics to show the whole picture? We didn’t because there weren’t any. Just a few lines then? Okay. So I wrote a couple of pars – something along the lines of ‘Every week, a team of 50,000 men with 2,000 bulldozers, shift half-a-million tons of muck in clearing 5,000 acres a day…’

You know the sort of thing. It was hailed as a triumph of investigate journalism. For a couple of years afterwards, I used to see those figures repeated everywhere from The Guardian to Panorama. And very fine figures they were: I crafted them myself.

Then there were pieces on the steady demolition of the rows of terraces that were at the heart of northern life. As the houses came down, the life there was recorded by television’s Coronation Street. – mostly written by newspaper escapees, as John Stevenson (sometime Mail-man) recorded here recently.

The cult of celebrity flickered into life. In the Yorkshire Dales, Clapham (the one near Ingleton, not the one near Wandsworth) had Alan Bennett, occasionally at least. Dent had Mike Harding and his rhinestones, and later Janet Street-Porter, the well-known elocution teacher, and in Giggleswick where I had a cottage, we acquired Russell Harty, who lived with his boy-friend at Rose Cottage.

Not all our northern villagers were ready for this influx of metropolitan sophistication. One evening, when Russell Harty’s young man friend had just left the bar of the Black Horse near to the church, I asked a pal of mine, a farm worker, what he thought of it all. ‘What? Harty and that feller?’ He pondered for a moment. ‘Well, if it were down to me, I’d line ‘em all up agin yon wall, and I’d mow ‘em down wi’ a machine-gun.’ He paused to take a sip out of his pint. ‘Other than that, I’ve no strong feelings.’

I digress, I digress (good little digression though, wasn’t it?)

These were good days for journalism in the north. Sales were good. For us, there was lots of hiring, very little firing. We lived well. One lunchtime in the Mirror pub, I remember Mike Gagie, tough news deskman, remonstrating with Ted Macaulay, stylish reporter-writer, over a blue suede coat that made him look like the best-dressed highwayman in Farnsworth. ‘It’s easy for you. If you’re feeling a bit down,’ Gagie went on, ‘that’s all you need – a new suit or a coat to cheer you up. I have to have a new Jag.’ These were our choices and problems. They could’ve been worse.

None of us realised what was staring us in the face. We were not only witnessing, but we were also recording, the beginning of the end.

Mills, mines, factories, all the heavy industries – this was where Daily Mirror readers worked. Behind those polished front door-knobs, that was where they lived. Piece by piece, the Mirror readership was being dismantled. The traditional working-class, now laughably old-fashioned, were hard-working, thoroughly respectable, law-abiding, good-hearted people who were not afraid to want to improve themselves. To do so, they joined book clubs and went to WEA classes and tried to ensure their kids got a decent education.

The Daily Mirror, with its clever mix of fun and information, was exactly what they wanted.

They voted Labour, but Mirror readers were by nature conservative. Wrenched out of my Sunday leisure, I once had to dash up to a Working Men’s Club at Walker-on-Tyne. I was wearing pink cord trousers. No tie. Longish hair. They had to have a committee meeting before agreeing to let me in… reluctantly. I heard two lads at the bar talking. One of them said: ‘He’s from the Mirror, he’s called Dunne.’ The other replied: ‘He looks more like bloody Marje Proops to me.’

Then, even the young guys were traditionalists. But that world was slipping away, vanishing before our eyes, and I for one never saw it.

Even my old weekly, the Craven Herald (don’t forget And West Yorkshire Pioneer) reported, somewhat baffled, that the editor’s wife, Molly Mitchell, who was also on the local council, had demanded that she be addressed not as Mr Chairman, or even Mrs Chairwoman, but as Madam Chair.

The idea of it. Calling someone after a piece of furniture. How ridiculous could you get?

At that time, of course, we hadn’t heard of Ms Harriet Harman.

Someone had seen it coming. Rupert Murdoch. Cudlipp handed him the Sun. He created a new paper for the new readers – readers with tattoos, six-packs, shaved heads, who didn’t frequent the WEA: their idea of self-advancement was to rob a bank.

Still there was one decent joke left in it. In Manchester, Ken Tucker, formerly Neville Stack’s deputy took the brunt. Stack insisted that Murdoch had been banging his knife and fork on the table shouting ‘I want my tucker’ – and that’s how he got the job.

A couple of years later, with the Sun sales rocketing and the Mirror (and the Express too for matter) limping, poor old Cudlipp still couldn’t face up to it. Glass of claret in hand, silver quaff in place, blinded by his own vanity, he strolled around his penthouse reassuring his executives. ‘This Ned Kelly, this antipodean bandit, he’s nothing. It’s the old enemy, the Express, that’s the one to watch.’

He was the last man in Britain to know.

###

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOOKS

If there isn’t sufficient here for you to read, please pay a visit to our Bookshop (click on it, over on the far left, in Column One)

There you will find:

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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, Press Gazette

…Hilarious – Start The Week, BBC Radio 4.

…Hilarious – Cambridge News.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Of Vincent Mulchrone

… The Daily Mail’s finest reporter – Vere Harmsworth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cassandra At His Finest And Finniest

millions of his followers throughout the English-speaking world will treasure this book of some of his finest and funniest writing – Hugh Cudlipp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Slip-Up: how Fleet Street found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard lost him – 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Crooked Sixpence, by Murray Sayle.

…The best novel about journalism, ever Phillip Knightley.

…Effectively a documentary, lightly disguised as a novel Neville Stack.

…Wonderful – the best book about British popular journalism Roy Greenslade

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ladies Of The Street, by Liz Hodgkinson

…this book finally gives Fleet Street’s pioneering women their due. – Roy Greenslade

 

 

 

 

 

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

Issue 92

April 24, 2009

 

This week

Putting the boots in: There not much that’s surer to get fingers to keyboard as a mention of exes (Ranters, last week). Desmond Zwar and Jeff Blyth remember the gumboots story, among many others; Tom Brown demanded a rewrite. Derek Jameson remembers subs getting exes…

More prompts from last week. Some had greatcoats thrust upon them and Ted Macauley misses that blue suede coat, recalled last week by Colin Dunne.

Mike Cuerden remembers Ian Smith; Revel Barker remembers Peter Kinsley.

Alan Whittaker remembers Cudlipp and Cassandra (as we do over there on the right) when they were constructing soup, rather than finding themselves in it.

And Colin Dunne checks out the ice maidens. An odd job, even for him, but at least he got the background for a novel (it’s called Black Ice, and worth searching for on the Internet).

#

Putting the boots in

By Desmond Zwar

It was Friday. All 30-odd reporters could be seen at their uprights, faces concentrating on a task with a determination and seriousness seldom given to the most sensational news story: doing their exes.

Expenses (I later learnt) formed a large part of their income, and required creativity far surpassing the delicacy of a human-interest story.

My first week on the paper was ending; I got out my notebook to recall what I had spent. There was 8d on telephone calls; I had had to take two Underground rides to the West End on a murder; that came to 1s 6d. I’d taken a taxi on that rush to cover the disturbance in a Soho night-club. The lot came to 10s 4d.

I placed my expenses form in news editor’s secretary Joan Gabbedey’s in-tray and started work on the day’s assignment. About an hour later there was a shout from the glassed-in inner sanctum. ‘Toddy’ Todhunter, the news editor, wanted me.

He had my expenses sheet in his hand. He looked disturbed, embarrassed even. ‘What,’ he wanted to know, ‘is this total of 10s 4d?’

God! I was being accused of dishonesty in my first week as a reporter in Fleet Street. I hurriedly explained the public phone calls I had made, the taxi to Soho

‘NO!’ he said, shaking his head. ‘I... do... not... want... to... know. Take this,’ he said, handing back the offending piece of paper. ‘Go and talk to Jack Greenslade.’

Jack Greenslade, a tall, red-faced veteran of crime reporting, was about 45. He knew most of the top underworld villains and could be heard on the phone to Jack Spot, the knife-man, or Ruby Sparkes, burglar to the nobility, discussing the latest dramas in their lives where once again they complained of being ‘fitted’ by the police for something they clearly had not done. ‘I hear,’ Jack would say, confidentially, his hand over his own mouth and the phone mouth-piece, ‘the Old Bill have been a bit naughty, Ruby?’

When Jack had finished his conversation I handed him my expenses sheet. ‘Mr. Todhunter says you should have a talk to me about this.’ I began explaining the trips on the Tube as Jack fumbled for his glasses.

‘Jesus Christ!’ he exclaimed, ‘Ten and bloody fourpence!’

‘Yes, but ...’

‘Look,’ said Jack, his hand half-covering his mouth again, ‘go away my boy, and add ten quid to what you’ve written.’

‘But that would be dishonest.’

His face was now redder than usual. ‘My son, we live by our bloody exes. The paper gets a better tax deal by giving us phoney exes than it would if it gave us higher wages. Understand?’

I was incredulous. They were all dishonest; the reporters, the news editor, the accountants… the system.

I did as I was told and, feeling my father was leaning over my shoulder watching me, shaking his head, re-typed the expense sheet, adding three taxi trips and giving myself an out-of-town meal late at night.

Over the next months I learnt to hire snow-ploughs, to dine with celebrities, to give ‘drinks’ to all sorts of ‘officials’ – particularly hotel doormen – for information. My colleague Syd Watson had been on a country job and he’d put down £2 10 shillings for a pair of gumboots he’d said were necessary to cover the story. But he went too far.

A grim-faced accountant, obviously trying to walk some sort of honest path in the wicked system, asked the news editor to have Watson bring in the actual boots, as they might well be used by a reporter with the same-sized feet on another ‘country job’. Syd hurried out to the nearest army surplus shop where pairs of gumboots hung from hooks. He forked out £2 for a new pair, taking care to spatter mud all over them before presenting them in the news room.

Next day he got a note from accounts. ‘Next time you go out on a job, maybe you could move a little faster if you undid the string at the top.’

As regular as clockwork, word went through the reporters’ room that a ‘purge’ on expenses was on. Some audit was being done, or a new accountant, unaware of the system, had taken over.

I received a note:

Dear Mr. Zwar,

We have taken the opportunity of easing the claustrophobia you must be experiencing in public telephone boxes by adjusting your phone expenditure to 12 shillings. Two of your crime contacts have been sobered up to some extent by cutting your entertainment bill from ten to three pounds for the week.

#

These boots weren’t made for walking

By Jeffrey Blyth

One of the sharpest wits of the early fifties was the News Chronicle man in Liverpool, Jack Yeadon.   Confronted once by an accountant who asked why his bills for taxis were all consecutively numbered – 101, l02, l03 etc although they covered an extended period of weeks, even months, he quickly responded: ‘Easy. I'm such a good customer they keep a special receipt  book just for me....’

Then there was the time another nosey accountant making an inventory at the Newcastle office of the Daily Mail surprised everyone by saying: ‘I see that during last year's floods someone charged for a pair of rubber waders. I assume you still have them.   Could I see them?’  Slight consternation until the bureau chief  replied:  ‘I think they are  in the basement.  Someone take a look.’  

As a compliant reporter edged towards the basement door, the bureau chief whispered: ‘Ask the shoe shop up the street if we can borrow a pair of waders  for a few minutes.’  

A few minutes later the reporter returned, holding a pair of large wellies, and saying: 'Here they are!‘  The accountant ticked off an item on his inventory, and seemed satisfied.  As he left however he told the bureau chief:  ’Next time someone wears those waders I suggest you cut the string tieing them together....’

A story from my days  further  afield in North Africa.  Again a nosey accountant writes to a well-known Daily Mail correspondent about a charge he made some months earlier, when confronted with a desert transportation  problem, which read: ’To purchase of camel - 25 pounds’.   The accountant asked: ‘I assume when you left North Africa you sold the camel.  What did it fetch?’   To which the newsman (I think it was Ralph Izzard)  replied: ‘Thanks for the reminder. To my last month's expenses please add: ‘Camel died... to burial of camel.. . Five pounds.’

A final personal note. Covering the Budapest uprising in l956, Noel Barber, who had flown to Austria from London and I, from Cairo, each rented a car from the equivalent of Hertz in Vienna.  Noel, who fortuitously happened to  have a visa for Hungary, drove directly that evening to Budapest and for two days drove back and forth to the  border, handed me his copy and I phoned it to London.  The third day he was the victim of friendly fire, students rioting in the streets of Budapest.  Noel was hit in the back of the neck and hospitalised.  Sefton Delmar who was in the car with Noel was fortunately not in the driver's seat.  Being so much bigger and burlier than Noel he would almost certainly have been killed if he had been at the wheel.

Subsequently Noel was transported back to Vienna and flown home to Paris for medical attention.  I took his place. For several days, in my rented car, I drove around Budapest and then when the Russians moved in again I left for Vienna too.  Pulling up in front of my hotel I took my foot off the brake for a second. The car rolled onto the tram tracks - and a passing tram dislodged  my bumper.  What to do?  When I returned the car the garage wanted to know what happened. They wanted to charge for the damage.  Should I tell the truth?  Instead I said that the bumper had been damaged in an encounter with a Russian tank!  We still had to pay... but I didn't look like such a feckless driver.  The accountants didn’t even query the charge.... 

#

Creative writing

By Tom Brown

As an FoC, I once had to defend a writer who charged for ‘Dinner with R. Sands’. At the time, Bobby Sands was dying on hunger strike in The Maze…

And a desk-bound assistant news editor in Edinburgh, who liked to knock out the odd feature, put in exes for ‘entertaining Mr R Stevenson, advocate’ for a piece on the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. He’d culled the info from a little-known work by the author of Treasure Island.

Later, as an executive, I’d routinely cut reporters’ exes – not because they were fiction, but as a fine for lack of imagination or because they were an insult to my intelligence.

More seriously, managements and chapel officials connived for years in bumping up expenses allowances as a substitute for proper salary increases. The managements didn’t want shareholders and other unions thinking they were being over-generous to journalists. I always argued against the ‘put a tenner on the exes’ settlements because they didn’t count towards pensions and could be arbitrarily removed.

On our side, things that were barely justifiable – like TV rentals and meal allowances for subs (everybody knows they live on chips) – were a way of increasing income, particularly during government-imposed pay-freezes. When we had to argue these house agreements through the Department of Prices and Incomes, I could see the civil servants enjoyed the sessions. They were tickled by our ingenuity and I felt they went away and had a good laugh behind the Minister’s back at what they’d allowed us to get away with.

#

If the shoe fits

By Derek Jameson

Last week’s dissertation on exes reminded me of the day I sat in my office as northern editor of the Daily Mirror signing expenses - always good for a laugh - and happened upon a food receipt which had somehow lost its heading, though there was a line of tiny pearl at its base.

Intrigued to discover what had cost the princely sum of £5.75, I looked through my magnifying glass normally used for weighing up photo contacts and read the following wondrous words: These shoes cannot be exchanged once they have left the shop.

As I said, a good laugh that certainly deserved a larger audience. In this spirit of bonhomie, I told the story to a visiting reporter from Stet, the Mirror house organ, which was only too pleased to publish it. Dearly beloved FoC Mike Gagie called a mandatory chapel meeting even before the proverbial had hit the fan, to protest at the editor’s outrageous libel on upright NUJ members.

Since the meeting looked like going on for a fortnight, managing director Percy Roberts was on the phone to me in minutes. ‘Have you gone fucking mad?’ he wished to know. ‘But, Percy,’ I protested, ‘it’s absolutely true. I’ve got the receipt in my hand now.’

‘Well, tear it up,’ said our learned leader, ‘and get in there immediately to apologise.’

That I did together with a letter complaining at Stet’s crass stupidity in regarding an apocryphal story as God’s truth. The Chapel kindly accepted my contrite apology and returned to work.

That’s my favourite exes story – you could write a book, couldn’t you? – closely followed by a fellow executive who bunged a load of receipts and names at his secretary and told her to dream up five weeks’ outstanding exes. Sadly, as the cashiers’ department soon discovered, she had him down on December 25 for lunch with the chairman of the Southeast Gas Board.

‘What’s all that about?’ the editorial manager inquired politely. ‘Oh, no problem, cock,’ said our dedicated friend. ‘Checking up how Christmas dinners were doing – everything tickety-boo in the kitchen. Nobody missed their turkey and brussels.’

It isn’t generally appreciated that those generous helpings of Mirror expenses were not another example of management lunacy, but quite deliberate and inspired by Hugh Cudlipp, who took a dim view of comps earning more than subs and reporters and tried in this way to make amends.

Which is why the Holborn skyscraper was known as the mink-lined coffin. Thanks to my work on Photonews at the Express, I was lured there the week the Sunday Mirror succeeded the Pictorial. Editor Reg Payne offered me twenty quid a week more than I was getting at the Express.

As I was going out of the door promising to think about it, he added ‘And don’t forget your exes!’

‘Exes? Exes! Subs don’t get bloody exes,’ I told Reg. ‘They do round here, cock,’ he snorted.

Never a truer word. I signed up quicker than a rat up a drainpipe. Trouble is, it makes it difficult for the likes of us to wag a reproving finger at those greedy MPs.

#

That’s enough exes stories – Ed.

#

Blue suede blues

By Ted Macauley

If I may I would like to thank Colin Dunne for his gracious comment (Ranters, last week) about my being ‘a stylish reporter/writer’ and make further reference to my blue suede coat he so accurately recalled.

To fit the image of the E-type Jaguar I owned – Lord knows how – I did indeed buy such a full-length, raincoat-style suede coat on a job to Rome. It was my pride and joy.

I was wearing it to the office when Leo White, the Daily Mirror news editor, ordered me to Ireland via the office car to Ringway, a six-seater plane, a madcap taxi ride from Cork airport to the dockside at Castletownbere and a hired fishing trawler for the scariest four days of my life.

A midget sub carrying two guys had sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic and they had only a week of air as a rescue fleet sailed to save them.

I didn't have chance to go home and change and I was resplendent in my blue suede coat – the absolute envy of my good pal George Best – as we sailed out of the harbour straight into a force eight.

The first wave that hit us,100 yards into the voyage, drenched me and my pride and superbly-tailored joy.I looked like I was wearing a window cleaner's wash leather.

That's how it stayed for the next four days, shrinking more with each passing hour and blue-staining my Ted Lapidus suit and white shirt. The captain, grinning over his non-stop diet of fried-egg butties, offered: ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you're lucky, that'll give your bollocks a fine rinsing.’

My heartbreak was compounded by having to live in the gear and endure the stench of fish in a cramped bunk bed next to the hold.

The sub was hauled to the surface and the two men dramatically saved with barely a couple hours of air left and we set sail for Ireland.

Two days and about 400 miles out the first mate called me to the heaving, bumping, sloping, slanting bridge to take a phone call from the office.

Green-faced, blue-bodied, I heard a crackling voice announce: ‘It's Peter Shaw here. Can you hear me? Over...’

It was the Sunday Mirror sports editor in Manchester. I worked for him on Saturdays covering football...

‘Where are you? Over.’

‘About 400 miles out into the Atlantic in a bloody rotten force 8. Not feeling very well. And it all looks bloody dodgy to me. The waves must be 50-feet high. Over...’

‘Bloody 'ell. Does this mean you will not be able to make Stoke versus Everton on Saturday? Over.’

Boss's priorities!

Anyway, I must thank the eloquent Mr Dunne for reminding me that style may sometimes only last as long as the first bow wave on a stinking fishing boat.

#

Smithy, the compassionate wordsmith

By Mike Cuerden

Ian Smith, one of the most talented journalists of his generation, has died in hospital at the age of 62.

A luminous career on the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and then The Times – plus some exhilarating months on the National Enquirer in Florida – was cut short by multiple sclerosis, which he fought for 25 years. And very recently he was found to have an aggressive cancer.

Ian Ewart Smith was born in Ebbw Vale, South Wales, son of a Scottish local politician who put service before power, and a Welsh mother who was sister in charge of the local mental hospital.

He began work at 16 as a copy boy on the Free Press in Pontypool and was soon promoted to become a reporter.

After spells on the Western Daily Press and the South Wales Echo, Ian moved to the Daily Mail in Manchester. He had all the hallmarks of a cracking reporter: boundless enthusiasm; tenacious research; genuine feeling for those he interviewed; cunning to outwit the opposition; and modesty about his abilities. He was also very good fun.

 ‘Smithy,’ as he was known to all, was involved in almost every major story in the north of England between the late 1960s and 1989, when MS forced premature retirement. He is particularly remembered for his work on the Yorkshire Ripper, including coverage of the trial at the Old Bailey, which culminated in his securing the memoirs of the former Ripper squad leader Ronald Gregory for the Mail on Sunday – a coup that the then editor Stewart Steven said made a major contribution to the paper’s circulation.

It was his compassion that led to a long friendship with Mrs Winnie Johnson, mother of Keith Bennett; he campaigned with her to try to get the Moors murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady to reveal where they had buried the young boy’s body. It led to the Topping investigation, but to Ian it was much more than a story.

He was despatched to Thailand – foreign trips were rare for Manchester reporters – for another big exclusive: spiriting Rita Nightingale, who was serving 20 years for drug smuggling, away from the pack when she was given a royal pardon; on another occasion, he smuggled himself into an Italian jail to obtain an interview only to be marched out at gunpoint when the guards found him.

One of his happiest journalistic coups was tracking down and getting the first talk with a young Polish woman who, as a baby, survived the Manchester United Munich air disaster.

Everyone on the road at the time will remember the scramble getting to the Isle of Man to cover the horrific fire at Summerland in 1973; but, as ever in the execution of duty by Her Majesty’s Press, things did not always go as planned.

The first two Mail men on the scene were Smithy and Howard Reynolds. Cash in hand, they ran into Mylchreests’ office in Douglas to grab the last two Minis for hire on the island.

Smithy was first in the driving seat, revving hard as he executed a perfect turn towards the gate; simultaneously Howard performed a stylish swoop across the car park in his Mini.

Howard recalled the blur of the next moments in his usual elegant way: ‘Unfortunately, the laws of geometry hold within them certain inviolable truths, not the least of which is that two opposite and opposing ellipses will, at some juncture, meet. And so Smithy and I crashed into each other at Mr Mylchreest's gate.’

That was Smithy: first into action and mad about fast cars; not always a fruitful combination.

While on the South Wales Echo he owned a British Racing Green MG and was soon stopped for speeding by a Cardiff policeman, with the words: ‘Mike Hawthorn, is it?’ Not long afterwards Ian went to cover a crash involving a Panda car – driven, it turned out, by the same PC. What joy for Smithy to ask him: ‘Mike Hawthorn, is it?’

He married at this time and his beautiful daughters, Katy and Anna, were born when he moved to Manchester to join the Daily Mail. Sadly the marriage did not last.

There were two major turning points in the 1970s and 80s. It was in the Nag’s Head that Shelley Rohde, bidding farewell to the Mail, introduced Ian to her great friend Liz Broderick.

The rest of their lives became, quite simply, an enduring love story: as it says in Captain Correlli’s Mandolin: ‘Those that truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches they find that they are one tree not two.’ That was them.

And so alongside the buzz of the bylines, there was the promise of happiness. But just two years after they married Ian started experiencing numbness and tingling at the ends of his fingers. He put it down to vodka – but it turned out to be MS.

At first, sporting a silver-topped walking stick, he was able to carry on working; but gradually the disease ate into his abilities – even note-taking and a voice-activated computer became impossible. Instead of driving fast cars, he became restricted to steering wheel-chairs – and then to being pushed.

Despite his illness, his life with Liz was gloriously happy and they were sustained by their faith. They found in each other a sense of adventure and a delight in the ridiculous. You always came away feeling better for being with them.

All this time, while looking after him, Liz was building up the charity she started, which has helped more than 300,000 people tackle problems with drink and drugs. One of Ian’s proudest moments was going to Buckingham Palace when she received her MBE – accompanied by her sons, Tim and Steven, who became as sons to him.

Ian had a type of MS that is experienced by only about three per cent of sufferers, and he decided that when he died some tissue should be donated for research.

About five years ago a series of seizures cruelly robbed him of parts of his memory and these later years were plagued by infections and complications, brought on by MS. He was frequently in hospital, but rarely complained of the pain that afflicted him daily as he became first wheelchair-bound and then confined for long periods to his bed.

He was taken into hospital in March with yet another infection and tests revealed that he had cancer. He died ten days later.

Ian was brave and generous, gentle and strong, the most loyal of friends and a lost talent.

Donations in his memory may be sent to: The UK Multiple Sclerosis Tissue Bank, Division of Neuroscience and Mental Health, Imperial College London Hammersmith Campus, Du Cane Road, London W12 0NN.

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Ranter to the death

By Revel Barker

Peter Kinsley, a born Ranter, a wonderful raconteur with a thousand stories about the great days, died last week in London, aged 74.  A fortnight before the end he was still filing to Charles Bremner’s blog at The Times about interviewing celebrities in the 60s and 70s. He was an unstoppable storyteller.

From grammar school in Newcastle he’d joined the local district office of the Daily Mail as, I think, an assistant wireman – although he said he was effectively a ‘junior reporter’ there. He was immediately bewitched by the characters he met and determined to become one himself.

In Don’t Tell My Mother I’m a Newspaperman, the first of four volumes of autobiography, he recalled chorus girls dancing on newspaper office desks, as the days of wine and roses began for him. From Newcastle he went to Manchester and then to London and the Daily Mirror as a sub on £24 a week in the 1950s when he was still only 21.

He joined the Daily Express to do crime and met murderer Donald Hume – ‘who gave me a new design for the atom bomb, courtesy of his cellmate, Klaus Fuchs.’

Such names and unlikely sounding stories are sprinkled like confetti through the book. He interviewed Shirley Bassey in a freezing flat and she invited him to join her in bed, to keep warm. He reckoned the office might not believe that, so he got her to sign every page of the notes he took.

Then he moved to freelance in France (he’d been stationed in Fontainebleau during national service) swam with Princess Grace, got legless with Richard Harris and interviewed film stars like Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale.

In fact the index to the second volume is perhaps worth quoting, at least in part, as a bit of a clue to remembering the days when stars were stars, rather than the jumped up 15-minutes-of-fame that passes for ‘celebrity’ these days:

Lord Snowdon, Lady Astor, Francis Bacon, Brigitte Bardot, Warren Beatty, Lord Montagu, the Duke of Bedford, Brendan Behan, Aneurin Bevan, Lord Beveridge, Richard Burton, Winston Churchill, Jean Cocteau, Noel Coward, Diana Dors, King Farouk, Peter Finch, Ian Fleming, George Formby, Lucien Freud, Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner, Paul Getty, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Rex Harrison, Jack Hawkins, William Randolph Hearst, Vyvyan Holland (son of Oscar Wilde), Trevor Howard, Augustus John, Christine Keeler, Charles Laughton, Vivien Leigh, Jimmy Lewthwaite (the reporter who invented the Loch Ness monster), 'Lucky' Luciano, Princess Margaret, Somerset Maugham, Robert Mitchum, Lord Montgomery, Stirling Moss, David Niven, Peter O'Toole, Aristotle Onassis, John Osborne, Gregory Peck, Edith Piaf, Oliver Reed, Mandy Rice Davis, Hannen Swaffer, Elizabeth Taylor, Stephen Ward…

Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end.

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Sahara soupermen

By Alan Whittaker

Whenever he was at a loss for a topic for his column Bill Connor, the incomparable Cassandra of the Daily Mirror, would instruct his readers how to build a soup. Connor never made a soup. He firmly believed a good soup was designed and then constructed. Like the Forth Bridge, he declared, a good soup is a feat of engineering.

Cassandra's interest in soup construction went back to around 1943 and the time he spent with the wartime forces newspaper the Union Jack as the Eighth Army chased Rommel's Afrika Corps across the searing deserts of North Africa. By any standard the Union Jack had a fair team. Hugh Cudlipp was boss and his staff included Bill Connor, Peter Wilson, sports writer for the Daily Express and then the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Pic's Fred Redman, novelist Ralph Hammond Innes and the highly volatile Charlie Markus who was a sub on the Daily Telegraph at the outbreak of war.

Soup in the Sahara may seem a trifle twee, perhaps unnecessary – especially in the middle of a world war and in a tent – but as commanding officer and a gentleman Cudlipp insisted on starting the evening meal with a ladle of the stuff and Connor was installed as soup constructor. It was a task he took seriously and one that brought out the impromptu and sometimes cunning culinary secrets and skills he was later to share with millions of his devoted readers.

For this information – classified until now – I am indebted to former army Captain Charles E Markus who, when he was northern editor of the News of the World, hired me after an interview recorded on the Richter Scale.

Apparently there came a time when Connor's evening offerings caused murmurs of anxious discussion. Well out of range of the creator's hearing questions were asked. Like: ‘Have you ever heard of green Windsor soup?’… ‘Did you notice he didn't have any himself?’… ‘Why would he want a chunk of camel meat?’…

As usual Cudlipp took immediate action. No messing about. No half measures. Connor, he announced, would be relieved of soup duties with immediate effect. All eyes riveted on the ring-master. Which one of them would he select as Cassandra's hapless successor? No one wanted the job. Cudlipp savoured their apprehension, smiled at their discomfort, and then revealed his master stroke. A group of Italian soldiers had been captured and before the war one of them had been a chef in a top Milan hotel. Cudlipp had hi-jacked the fellow and henceforth he would be chef (i/c soup, preparation of).

'This should solve the soup problem,' he confided to Charlie. 'At last we'll get some decent soup and put an end to the grumbles.'

It was not to be. After a couple of weeks of suppe-Milanese eager anticipation had turned to bewilderment. Discontent, consternation figured on the menu. The soup was sewage. The untreated sort, it was rumoured. Cudlipp's strategy was questioned.

There were subdued whispers. Connor's soup was not always indefinable. Often it was tasty. Sometimes quite good. Connor was highly sensitive and clearly upset by his sacking. He was a proud chap. So would a restoration policy be feasible? Ever alert to a possible mutiny Cudlipp called a meeting and confessed he had been grievously misled. The PoW had indeed worked in a top Milan hotel. As a toilet cleaner. He was discarded and returned to join the other PoWs . That left the question, fundamental to Montgomery's and the Eighth Army's successful pursuit of Rommel, unresolved: Who makes the soup?

Not unnaturally Bill Connor, after being dismissed in cavalier fashion, was reflectively reticent to resume his former role. He was certainly not going to volunteer. No way. Persuaded, perhaps! Cajoled? The vision of a penitent Cudlipp on his knees begging for forgiveness was not unattractive.

Once more Cudlipp took instant, incisive action. There was no chance he would prostrate himself before a gloating Connor. 'From now on I'll make the soup,' he announced. His tenure as soupmaker lasted one day.

It was a long day. From early morning to late afternoon he became an isolated meditant fleetingly glimpsed consulting a book, possibly one containing recipes. Rommel could have counter-attacked, the Luftwaffe could have strafed the camp, it could have snowed. Nothing would have distracted the new officer i/c soup, preparation of, from his self-imposed task.

And so it came to pass that before the evening repast the new soupervisor called over Captain Markus to surreptitiously view a cauldron of his simmering concoction.

'Taste it,' he ordered, 'and tell me what you think. I want your honest opinion.'

Charlie took a sip. 'It's okay' he ventured. Cudlipp detected a tremor of hesitancy.

'Okay! Is that all you can say?' he rasped. 'Try some more.'

Charlie took a larger sample.

'It's very tasty, very pleasant' he said.

'Pleasant!' echoed the soup supremo indignantly. 'What does pleasant mean? Have some more.'

'It's very good,' replied Charlie. 'Can I ask what it is?'

'Scotch broth,' confided Cudlipp.

'Well, I think it's good.'

'It should be bloody good. I've put two bottles of Scotch in it,' retorted Cudlipp.

#

Check book journalism

By Colin Dunne

Imagine Cameron Diaz when she was 19. And Charleze Theron. Then perhaps Scarlett Johansson at the same age. Got that? Now try – this won’t be easy – to picture an island where almost all the women look like this, except for the unlucky ones who look like Sienna Miller.

You should also know that this was an island where going to bed alone was pretty much against the law. Going to bed sober certainly was.

I had to spend a month there. It was hell.

For all their ingenuity, the tabloids have rarely succeeded in fitting chess into their view of the world. They’ve never shown much interest in Iceland either. It’s up there somewhere, just north of the Daily Record, isn’t it?

So when the two coincided – a chess game in Reykjavik – most editors were fairly yawning with excitement. In 1972, with Watergate, the miners’ strike, and air-crash survivors in the Andes eating each other, they weren’t exactly scraping around for stories. Since Iceland was Up North, it was a Manchester job. ‘Two days in and out,’ said Alan Price, the Daily Mirror northern features editor. ‘Take your thermals.’

Both bits of advice were wrong. Iceland doesn’t have ice: it’s damp, wet, cold, and miserable, with the sort of dim half-light that you might get from a 40-watt bulb. Not unlike Manchester in fact. And the story that was worth no more than a quick colour-piece miraculously exploded all over the world’s front pages.

There was I, steaming like a sponge pudding in my all-over thermals, the Mirror man-on-the-spot for a story that got bigger and funnier with every passing day. Let me remind you that I was the reporter whose experience of major news stories had peaked with, but never risen above, the Talking Corgi of Drighlington Crossroads.

Quickly, the story began to fall into shape. Since the two contestants were Russian and American, it was immediately seen as a war without bullets on the roof of the world. What made it even better was that one of the players – a genius, without a doubt – would have been more at home wearing a jacket with tie-around sleeves and a room with cushions for wallpaper. Bobby Fischer was, to use a psychiatric term, nuts.

He was a touch unpredictable. At the last minute, with the whole world waiting, he cancelled his flight from New York. ‘He’s so sure he’s the best,’ said one expert, ‘that he sees no point in coming.’

Fischer didn’t think much of the location when he got there. ‘Where we gonna play – the back of a whale?’ Told it was a modern 3,000-seat stadium, he didn’t like the lighting, he didn’t like the heating, he’d need a Merc on call (an automatic, naturally) in a place that had only about 80 miles of decent roads. And could he be sure to get his favourite apple juice?

He didn’t think much of the money either. It was only when a British financier doubled the prize money to £100,000 – not bad in 1972 – that he got on that plane. When the first game started, three days late, Fischer was even late for the kick-off.

It was wonderful stuff. A ditchwater-dull story about a game for school swots had revved up into a blazing extravaganza that combined high drama with pure panto. Hacks from all over the world poured in. Ian Wooldridge did the first piece for the Mail, then handed over to John Edwards. Clement Freud, then a journalist, was covering it for the FT.

A cuddly little Irish girl called Mary Kenny was there for the Standard. Keith Hatfield was there for ITN.

The Express sent a political chap who’d brought his wife for a break; every day he filed one par, adding a phrase I have personally never dared to employ: ‘Take in agency’. The Telegraph’s Maurice Weaver had to get his wife to rush to the airport with the passport he’d left at home. Tim Jones for The Times gave us the occasional recital of Welsh misery music.

In all, 200 pressmen flooded the four hotels and the little tin town of Reykjavik. These days, with international tourism and whale-watching, it’s become much like anywhere else. Then it was like only one other place: Dodge City. Fishing had made Iceland highly prosperous. But what do you do with wallets fat with krona when you’re stranded on a hot volcanic rock out in the middle of a freezing ocean? You go mad, that’s what you do.

For a start, they abandoned any moral standards (much as we did 30 years later). If the only alternative was reading those bloody sagas, then no wonder sex was a popular pursuit. There was only one television channel: it was evenings-only and didn’t operate at all on Wednesdays.

On an island where drink was almost unobtainable, you had to admire the population’s response to the challenge by getting smashed every night. There were, I think, only four bars and they were in the hotels. They didn’t open until 7pm. One day they didn’t open at all. The beer was almost alcohol-free. A gin-and-tonic then was about a fiver.

On my first day, when I arranged to meet our stringer from the local paper, I suggested the hotel bar at seven. ‘Are you sure?’ he said, sounding thoroughly doubtful. I saw why when I went through the door. It looked like Glasgow on New Year’s Eve. There were people slumped against the walls, people attempting to fight but mostly missing, and people asleep on the floor.

To work around the limited opening hours and horrific prices, they topped up with home-made hooch at home before launching themselves on an evening of Reykjavikian sophistication.

Why anyone would want to be permanently legless in a country with the most beautiful women in the world is one for the psychiatrists. It was the first thing you noticed. In every bus queue you’d see three or four Miss World finalists.

Cameron, Charleze and Scarlett would have been lucky to get a date.

All around, journalistic jaws dropped at the sight of shop-girls and waitresses with blue-grey eyes, soft fair hair, and a perfect white slash of a smile. In Britain, we were accustomed to the same old choice: it was either a splendid chest – which always came with a huge bum, or the slim-hips-no-tits model. In Iceland, you could have slim and voluptuous in one person. Our boys had never seen that before. Frankly, our boys liked it.

What’s more, their traditional Icelandic welcome seemed to involve a lot of leg-waving.

The problem wasn’t Icelandic women. The problem was Icelandic men. I have never seen so many men get so drunk so quickly every day of the week, and I speak as a man who’s been to the photographers’ Christmas party. They were big fellers too: powerful from all that net-hauling, I suppose.

Big, strong, ugly, drunk and usually looking to end the evening with a traditional attempted murder. They liked battered cod, true, but they preferred battered Brits.

We were the guys who had attempted to steal their fish.

On our first night out, our tidy little British team of half-a-dozen hacks edged into the dance-hall adjoining the hotel to see what looked like open night at the infernal regions. From the mass of brutish brawling emerged, incredibly, a bride still in her bridal gown. She was stunningly lovely. She was also stunningly drunk. ‘You English?’ she said. We nodded. With a sweet smile, she added: ‘I am Icelandic and I like the sex.’

You see what they were up against. Before getting close enough to these women to discuss a little mutual harpooning, our gallant hacks had to negotiate a way around bands of murderous men.

I brush away a tear of pride here as I record that one or two of our brethren made it through what was in many ways an early video game: daring death to win the hand, or some other part, of the fair maidens.

One of the smaller members of our group – now what was his name? – somehow smuggled a vast Valkyrie up to his room. At 2am, the rest of the corridor was awakened by a glass-shattering soprano shriek: ‘Give me a son!’ It was an odd time of night to start being gender-specific. Unless, of course, she’d actually been shouting ‘Give me The Sun.’

Another chap called – oh my memory, there it goes again – found himself engaged in a pelvic clash with a blonde, several floors up in what appeared to be a council tower block, when he heard a noise behind him. He looked over his shoulder to see a tattooed tower of trawlerman in the doorway. ‘It is my husband,’ piped up a voice beneath him. ‘He does not care.’

Somehow, this reassurance failed. He left. A trained observer, he had made note of a telephone box outside the flats, so he knew he would not be stranded. Even as he flicked open the directory, he realised he was in one of the few countries in the world where the local word for taxi isn’t taxi. He got back to the hotel just in time for breakfast.

Even for a band of travelling hacks, this was bad behaviour of the highest order, and – feminists will rejoice to hear – it was on an equal-rights basis. Where was that slim blonde girl from? It will come to me. It certainly came to her. One morning she burst into breakfast to announce that she had just screwed a grandmaster from Prague.

‘Ah,’ I quipped ‘that would have been a Czech mate.’

Actually, I lie. Like all the best lines, it only came to me 37 years later, about ten minutes ago.

With so many journalists there, one of the problems, obvious to all the practised foreign reporters, was getting copy back. The handful of young women on the switchboard were under heavy pressure. Some said a few folded notes helped speed it up. But I saw one of the girls almost melt when a famous international reporter laid his hand on her shoulder. He had clearly laid his hand elsewhere. ‘Sometimes,’ he confided in me later, ‘you need to make a personal connection.’

Meanwhile, the story just went on getting sillier and sillier, and therefore better and better. Bobby wanted the seats in the hall moving. Bobby didn’t like the television cameras.

Bobby thought the Russians were trying to hypnotise him. He threw games away by simply not turning up.

What made it even more fascinating was that somewhere the two chess players seemed to have swapped identities. The American was behaving like a crazed and ignorant Russian madman.

With his well-cut sports jackets, his friendly charm and good looks, his morning games of tennis, Boris Spassky, who chose to live in Paris rather than Moscow, was giving a passable impersonation of the young David Niven. Fischer was alone, but teams of Russian grandmasters worked out all the possibilities for Spassky while he rested.

It wasn’t enough. The Russian smoothie might be winning the PR, but the ungainly clodhopping Fischer wielded a mean pawn. Even though he persistently threw away games, Fischer was too strong for this pleasant young Russian. One evening when the game was suspended until the following day, Fischer had to write down his next move and place it in a secure envelope. The next morning, he wasn’t there when the game resumed. The referee opened the envelope and made the move for him. Spassky instantly resigned.

In a couple of minutes, Fischer had worked out the one move that made his victory inevitable. It had taken the Russian team of experts all night to come to the same conclusion.

As they all left, the Russians and the officials and the spectators, I stayed in my seat in the auditorium to write up my copy. As I sat there, I saw a tall figure step out from the wings and come to look at the board. He was giggling. It was Fischer.

How was this accomplished non-newsman managing? To be honest, I’m not at all sure, but Dan Ferrari, the London news editor, seemed happy enough. But as the days turned into weeks, the place became claustrophobic. You can only go and look at hot springs so often. All the food – even the one Chinese takeaway – tasted vaguely of seal. We were getting stir crazy. David English rewarded John Edwards with a break at Charles Forte’s fishing lodge on the Nordura river, one of the most expensive salmon beats in the world. He caught nothing. Were we sorry for him? No.

Finally, Fischer won. It was over. The more imaginative among us had bills written out in Old Norse, a language not usually understood in most accounts departments.

One man bought a puffin perched on a rock to take home for his wife. ‘She’s always accusing me of stuffing birds,’ he said, ‘so I thought I’d take her one.’

I was packing my case when the news desk rang. ‘It looks as though the Cod War is starting up again, old chap. Do you fancy staying on to cover it?’

My studies of chess had not been wasted. I employed the King’s Sicilian Defence and buggered off to the airport.

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Queer, we
call it…

 

Those Ranters who are on the email list already know this – and congratulations (and thanks) to all who took advantage of it.

At the start of this week Waterstones were offering an amazing pre-publication price on our latest book, Crying All The Way To The Bank (by Revel Barker).

But at the end of the week you need to go to amazon for it.

It’s the story of the libel trial, 50 years ago this summer, brought by the pianist Liberace against the Daily Mirror and its columnist Cassandra (Bill Connor).

Widely held to have been the Trial of the Century, it was certainly the biggest and most expensive of its day.

It turned out to be something of a learning curve for journalists, and the cross examination of Connor by Gilbert Beyfus QC, then the top man in libels, has been compared with that of Oscar Wilde by Edward Carson in 1895.

Among the journalists who gave evidence (and had their copy scrutinised by the lawyers) or were named in it were:

Cassandra and Cudlipp, Donald Zec, Peter Stephens, Murray Sayle, Stan Bonnett, Tony Miles, Jack Frost, Rene McColl, John Lambert, Pat Doncaster, Ken Tossell, Roy Perrett, Alan Cassell, Charles Stuart Reid, Jack Nener, Sylvester Bolam…

The book, 372pp, 180,000 words, is priced at £15.99, and due out on June 8, the anniversary of the trial, but will be available before that.

Meanwhile, as Liberace might have said, something very queer happened this week.

On Tuesday Waterstones were offering free UK delivery and a special saving for pre-publication orders of £4.80. By Wednesday this saving had reduced to £3.20. On Thursday the book was not available on-line at all!

BUT, it is available from Foyles, and is post free from amazon. Just click on the link.

For goodness’ sake, get your order in before it disappears completely.

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