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
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.
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 Wainwrightwas never anything other than charming, Colin recalled, apart from the day Roy Harris upset him. Roy, who was, hethought, 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 CountyKildare 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?
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?’
‘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.
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