The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. –The Times.
April 24, 2009
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.
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.
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....
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.
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 andtried 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.
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.’
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.
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 – plussome 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 BuckinghamPalace 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, LondonW12 0NN.
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.
Whenever he was at a loss for a topic for his column Bill Connor, the incomparable Cassandraof 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 ForthBridge, 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.
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.
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.