The Gentlemen Ranters site is a
brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. –
Issue # 222
November 25, 2011
We start with the Leveson Inquiry on the grounds that
it’s still too new to have become boring (but it will, Oscar; it will). The
thing is that it could in theory produce at least one good story a day for its
entire run, and it could be of constant interest to the readers, but it’s the
papers that will tire of reporting it. Newspapers by definition want new
subjects (not necessarily the same as ‘news’) and my guess is that they will get
bored with the story before the readers do.
Anyway, we are not reporting it, so much as
critiquing it, commenting on it. And following the opening John Dale suggests that the gurus who
offered their expert advice to the Inquiry, before it started, may soon find
themselves hopping about on the wrong foot.
Hardly changing the subject, but opening it up a bit,
Liz Hodgkinson relates how we – and
especially the, ahem, weaker sex, used to go about investigations when she was a
John Rogers writes about the London news agencies of our youth (it appears
that he owned them all).
Ted Graham remembers Pater Caney, a sometime Daily Mirror sub, and Steve Linde of the Jerusalem Post describes a gentleman of
Dunne, idle on parade, joins the army and discovers a two-sentence
definition of journalists that Lord Leveson might feel inclined to keep in
All this, plus our cartoonist, Rudge, still on the subject of
‘culture’ in the newsroom.
By John Dale
As the evidence poured out in a torrent, it dawned on
me that some very senior journalists have been lured into a trap. Lord Leveson
may have constructed it inadvertently. More likely, it was a cold, calculated
act to corner Fleet Street’s big beasts, lock them in a cage and then poke them
with a sharp stick.
The trap was so obvious, nobody saw it, and now it is
These thoughts ran through my head as I sat listening
to the witnesses streaming through the Royal Courts of Justice in the second
week of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.
Their testimony was overwhelming. Only a fraction of
it could be adequately covered in the newspapers and on TV. At both macro and
micro level it shamed Fleet Street, and we can expect lots more of the same, day
after day, until mid-January, by which time the tabloids might well be having a
I cannot read Lord Leveson’s mind but it is difficult
to believe his inquiry is not already accepting there is more than a prima facie case of journalistic
corruption and debasement.
One month ago he seemed such a kindly old gent when
he sent out invitations to the press to participate in ‘seminars’, saying: ‘Come
along, tell me what you think.’
It was flattering to be on his list and so, in their
self-important ways, various Fleet Street legends stepped up on stage to tell
him how great they were. They spouted freely about the goodness embodied in the
Press Complaints Commission and preached the virtues of our current system of
From the side of the hall, Leveson watched and
listened, as a cat might watch a mouse. He sat motionless, silent and poised. He
did not contribute. He made no remarks, no comments, expressed no opinion,
although some say he occasionally purred.
He let others do the talking.
It was a lawyer’s trick.
Here’s some rope. Have you enough to hang yourself?
Here’s a pot of Dulux. Bet you can’t paint yourself into a corner. Ooh, you can.
What a clever boy!
At lunchtime, over M&S sandwiches, everyone
nattered as if at an embarrassingly dull party. Well, the party is
This week he started calling the victims, those who
found themselves in the palm of a berserk giant.
When Bob and Sally Dowler began to speak, how Paul
Dacre must have wished he could eat his words.
Every headline more or less read the same with
pictures of Mrs Dowler, hand clasping her brow, describing the false hope that
was raised by someone hacking into the phone of her missing daughter Milly,
later found murdered.
‘I rang her phone. Bob. I said, she’s picked up her
voicemail. She’s alive!’
This was a decent mother and her equally decent
But it wasn’t just the Dowlers. It was witness after
witness – not just headliners like Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan – but lawyers,
agents, a footballer and others. Kate
and Gerry McCann were devastating. Piece by piece, the reputation of
Fleet Street was being dismantled.
As I listened I found myself recalling Dacre saying
older journalists had been ‘outrageous’ in the old days and loftily,
authoritatively, informing the judge: 'The Press Complaints Commission has
changed the very culture of Fleet Street.'
Yes, I kept thinking… but in which
How eagerly Dacre and other notables – Roy Greenslade
and Bob Satchwell in particular – took the bait and fell into the Leveson trap.
They have made themselves hostages to fortune, as they will discover when they
too give evidence.
Leveson speaks softly and carries a big club. The big
club is Robert Jay QC, the inquiry’s counsel, and to describe him as forensic is
like saying CSI is a shambles. There is not enough wool in New
Zealand to pull over his
With the Steven Lawrence trial taking place at the
Old Bailey, this was an important week for Paul Dacre. But that hearing was
overshadowed by Leveson. Yes, Dacre is a great editor – some say the greatest –
but that will count for nothing here. What counts here is that he has been the
most prominent advocate of self-regulation through the
If the judge finds the PCC has failed as a regulator
(rather than as a mediator) as looks highly likely, then someone will have to
carry the can. The PCC chairman, Lady Buscombe, was the first futile sacrifice
some time ago.
But the big beast is Dacre. I can’t help but feel the
word ‘sorry’ might be more usefully and frequently
Nothing can take away his journalism. For that he
will always be a revered, if controversial, figure. But he may yet face his
Forgive me if I do not give a shedload of evidence in
detail. I don’t wish to duplicate what is available elsewhere. I also accept
that up to now we are hearing only from the ‘victims’, and so it is one-sided.
But the ship is holed below the waterline.
One witness, Graham Shear, summed up what he
experienced as a solicitor constantly having to firefight false stories on
behalf of celebrity clients:
The press made a conscious calculation regarding the cost
of stories and the risks. To claim to be exposing hypocrisy in others while they
themselves were acting unlawfully was the ultimate hypocrisy. ‘They were almost
untouchable, at a fever pitch of trying to produce stories. They lost their
moral compass and it became systematic to push the boundaries. They were
untouchable and could do almost anything.
As I explained in Ranters last week I have set up a site
dedicated to this media scandal but, like much better resourced outlets, I am
overwhelmed and failing miserably to fulfil my mission.
I do believe that the inquiry should be fully
reported – in a Leveson Made Easier sort of way – but even the Guardian and Independent have a limit on how much
space, and staff, they can devote to it. Good stories are being buried alive
under even better stories. Eighty per cent are not seeing the light of
Hugh Grant’s evidence – even when subbed down – was
still 9,000 words; I subbed Robert Jay’s opening address to a mere 22,000 words.
Yes, twenty-two thousand. But they were all very
Although this is too much for newsprint, it can be
easily accommodated in our brave new online world.
I wonder whether any Ranters readers – perhaps, like myself,
self-diagnosed with OCD – might be happy to work with me on this project which,
with various legal proceedings possible, may last for two years or
The evidence is streamed live and available as
transcripts at http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/
The raw transcripts are unpublishable without
editing. I need some skilled hands to knock them into shape, with subheads,
rather as I did imperfectly here – http://johndalejournalist.co.uk/qcs-opening-address-in-full-clarified.php
. You don’t have to leave your computer and you are welcome to improve on my
Other Ranters might like to help me cover the wider
story in person, with supplementary interviews, revelations, speculations and
investigations. We are reporting on the reporters, and their editors and
publishers, and Ranters know the field. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
It won’t complicate your income tax return. Your
remuneration will be the same as mine. A fat zero.
How we did it, in the old
By Liz Hodgkinson
As the Leveson Inquiry gets under way, younger
readers of this site – I’m assuming there are some – might wonder just how
journalistic investigations were carried out in the olden days.
How did we cope without corrupt coppers, mobile
phones, digital cameras, email or laptops? How were the investigations
organised? To what dirty tricks did we stoop and did the end justify the means?
Most often, we would try to get jobs in the
organisation or company we wanted to expose. During the few days of this job, we
had to take secret pictures, ask awkward questions and tape conversations, none
of which was an easy task when we were supposed to be ill-educated,
semi-literate menial workers.
And frequently, the reporters called upon to get
these jobs were young women. One of the first was Mary Beith, who exposed the
notorious smoking beagles story in the 1970s after securing a job in the animal
laboratory where they were forced to chain smoke. This story, still remembered
today, was followed up by the story of the beagles that were bred for
This time it was Shan Davies’ turn to infiltrate the
breeding farm. She managed to get a job as a kennelmaid at the farm in deepest
Wales, after being quickly trained in kennelmaiding by Jean Manifold, the
dog-breeding wife of Sunday People
investigations chief Laurie Manifold.
To nail this story, Shan had to take photos of the
beagles and their conditions, at the same time measuring the cages and taking
details of the labs where the beagles were to be sent. Her only way of
communicating with Manifold’s department was to make a check call from a phone
box a mile away from the farm. Every night she had to send her report and a roll
of film by Royal Mail – there was no other way. She just managed to post off the
last reel of film before she was caught taking pictures and ordered off the
Laurie Manifold, who was probably the best newspaper
investigations chief ever, knew that reports and film had to be sent daily,
otherwise they could be destroyed by the owners of the establishment being
exposed. Total secrecy was paramount and it was not easy.
At the time Shan undertook her first investigation,
she was just 23, and her success in this story led to her being asked to conduct
other undercover work, such as getting a job in an old people’s home to expose
the dreadful conditions there, and to pretend to be a prostitute, to expose a
The work could be dangerous and frightening and Shan
experienced several nasty incidents, such as being knocked unconscious by the
girlfriend of a murderer in a pub.
Very often, the young women who did undercover work
were completely alone and the entire story depended on them. I was never as
intrepid or willing as Shan but I had my moments, such as having to expose dodgy
sex doctors and seedy abortion clinics and massage parlours. The terror of being
discovered was immense and I was always sure the bosses of these clinics and
parlours would be able to hear my heart pounding.
Anthea Disney, then at the Daily Mail, blacked up, or ‘Indianed up’
to become an Indian girl and report on racial discrimination from the inside, as
it were. She had to take a pill to change the colour of her skin, but her
investigation was wholly successful and her story made a huge series.
Those were the days, you might say, when newspapers
carried out genuine investigations, without recourse to cheque books, private
detectives or bent coppers. There was enormous attention to detail when planning
one of these investigations, and Laurie Manifold, at least, left nothing to
chance, even making Shan write letters of application that were full of spelling
mistakes and in childish handwriting.
The satisfaction and sense of triumph when you nailed
a dishonest or illegal organisation was second to none. But it did require
considerable acting ability and ingenuity on the part of the infiltrator. It was
no good just getting a job in an old people’s home or animal laboratory; you had
to be utterly convincing when you were there.
In her early days, Rebekah Wade, as she then was,
conducted some investigations of this type – but is anybody doing them now? It
seems that all that most young women journalists want to write about are their
boyfriends, hairdos and drunken dinner parties.
Perhaps – at least one can hope - one result of the
Leveson inquiry will be to bring back proper investigative journalism.
More stories about the part women
played in journalism’s heyday can be found in Liz Hodgkinson’s entertaining book, Ladies of the Street, published by Revel
By John Rodgers
Paul Fievez's recollections of his days at London News Service and subsequent
career in Fleet Street were admirable, instructive and fascinating. But not
surprisingly there was a bit of confusion about the many agency names in use in
those days – lots of news desk people were confused too.
I hope he will not be too embarrassed to learn that
North London News Agency was never
owned by Tommy Bryant but was a forerunner of my London News Service where Paul starred
as a photographer.
Bryant originated Fleet Street News Agency and though I
helped him set up office above Peel's Pub in December 1961 it took ten years of
intense rivalry before I added FSNA
to my bewildering array of Company House registered titles. I joked that I owned
more agency names than staff members so it is not surprising that confusion
There were one or two good reasons for the
multiplicity but first I need to explain how it came about. Putting the names
into Google will produce little or no information so it might be useful to set
the record straight for anyone wishing to know about the multitude of freelances
and agencies that once covered our capital city.
I spent no more than three months working for Bryant
but it was long enough to encourage me to try my hand at the game when we parted
acrimoniously. I had nothing better to do while I waited for Bert Pack to make
good his promise of holiday casual shifts on the Daily Sketch.
My only means of transport was a bicycle so it made
sense to concentrate effort on the ground I could cover by pedal from my council
flat in Holloway. Hence, my first credit line – Rodgers of
The name did not suit Lee Lester who became my
partner when he, too, left Bryant's employ. We eventually changed it to Headline News Service, rented an office
Road, Holloway, and took on a couple of
When I got that call from Bert Pack in the summer of
1962 I turned him down because I was earning much more money as a freelance. In
my place I suggested Harry Edgington. He repaid the favour by alerting me to the
possibility of acquiring North London
News Agency where he once worked. It was the mid 1960s and I was looking for
a way out of a souring relationship with Lee.
NLNA was set up by Les Taylor in Muswell Hill as early, I
believe, as 1939. After the war, he formed a company called Consolidated Reports with two other
independent freelance outfits, South
London News Agency and West London
News Agency. Mike Anderson was the boss of South
London and signed it over to his wife when he joined the Daily Mirror news desk. I hope someone
can tell me who was the man behind West
London News Agency. I remember only that he left to write film
When I secured ownership, the three agencies were
operating from the same offices in Kings Cross Road under the leadership of
Lee Lester sold me his share of Headline News Service and joined The People as a staff reporter. I set
about getting the second letter in the word NEWS, East London News Agency. Unfortunately,
Harry Mitchell thought I was too young and inexperienced to ramrod his outfit
and sold out to my arch rival, Tommy Bryant.
I was so annoyed that I went to Companies House and
registered every variation on the name that I could imagine: East London News Service, East London Press
Agency, East London Reports, etc. For good
measure, I protected my other titles with similar
By the end of the exercise, I had about 18 names I
could use but none of them was as all embracing and evocative as Fleet Street News Agency. For the sake of simplicity, I plumped for London News
We operated as LNA for at least a year before
photographer Roy Reemer accused me of plagiarism. He was a commercial
photographer who acquired the library of the long established but by then
defunct London News Agency Photos. I
decided to avoid an expensive legal battle by replacing Agencies with
London News Service survived longer than the offices in which it was
born. They suffered severe fire damage after late shift reporter John Penrose
stubbed out a Gauloise and went home.
The search for new premises led me to Red Lion Square
where Joan Barratt was seeking to retire from the photographic agency started by
her father at the dawn of press photography. Before any legal agreement had been
drawn up, she announced to the staff of Barratt's Photo Press that I was to be
its new boss.
News soon reached Bryant who hurried back from his
annual summer holiday and, once again, trumped my bid. As always, he made Joan
promises he could not keep. Tom Merrin once described Bryant's technique as 'the
birdseed ploy'. He would entice the budgie from its cage with a promise of
birdseed for life. A pension of little but often can appear attractive to
retirees. But Bryant's promises were about as reliable as Equitable Life
Despite disgruntlement from duped sellers and fierce
attention from Scotland Yard over snatched pictures, Bryant continued to extend
his empire until 1972 when we began jousting for ownership of Sport & General, another venerable
It was almost in my grasp when I received a surprise
call from my rival. ‘Why don't you buy my outfit with the money you are about to
spend on S&G?’ he
That evening, in my car, tearful Tommy admitted he
was unable to pay his firm's wages. He had tried to buy Sport & General with a loan from its
bankers, NatWest. They agreed, providing he moved all his accounts from
Barclays. When Barclays found out, it promptly called in all its extensive loans
I was so moved by Bryant's distress that I turned
down his offer of every area he controlled. Greater London and its environs
would be enough to handle. And I was determined to conclude the deal with Spit
and Gob, as the picture agency was sometimes affectionately
So now I had the outfits I had long prized, ELNA, Barratt's, and FSNA. With them came Thames Valley News Service with offices
in Kingston and
a number of court stringers such as Brough of Bow Street and Hadfield of Croydon
and others I've forgotten.
Too many names, too much confusion, so why keep any?
Well, for one thing, they often came with goodies attached. Those were the days
when national newspapers paid small weekly sums to stringers and agencies to
watch out for their interests. Lose the name and say goodbye to the
When accountants took control of newspapers, those
piddling amounts went anyway and that enabled me to streamline our business
titles. But there were still advantages
to be had through multiplicity.
Sport & General's name, for example, was a passport to sporting
events whereas Barratt's Photo Press
was guaranteed to play a part in the Royal rota. Both were too respectable to
countenance paparazzi practices but not London News Service. Since it handled
foreign sales for the News of the
World, it was obliged to dirty its hands.
More important was multiplicity as a defence against
legal actions. If necessary, an offending title could be closed down without
harm to the rest of the organisation, as we had to do with East London. But my best business name
was one few knew because as a holding company it never traded. Instead it owned
all the valuable assets of the organisation. It proved to be a better safeguard
against libel damages than any insurance policy.
By Ted Graham
Peter Caney was found dead this
week at the obscenely young age of 62. Appropriate, isn't it, that he died as he
lived, alone in his bachelor flat. I first met Peter in the early 70s when he
worked on the Evening Standard. He
had a prodigious talent and I soon hired him for the Mirror subs table. He didn't take long
to join the mouse race and could have gone much further, so much further, but
for a character fault that dogged him all his life – a disdain for
On the Mirror, if it couldn't be done his way,
it couldn't be done at all. I've lost count of the times I would tell him to
speak up and then shut up. Sadly, he never listened and a parting of the ways
became inevitable. He moved to the Express where he was mainly the man
responsible for the introduction of what was then called ‘new technology’. He
knew exactly what he was doing, but, again, when it wasn't done his way he moved
on, but this time with a handsome redundancy
After messing about for a couple
of years, he left The Street to take up residence in La Manga Club, a sporting
resort in south-east Spain.
He was a charming man, and a
great favourite with the ladies. My daughter revealed when I told her of his
death that he was her first adolescent crush.
I considered him a friend, we
spent at least a dozen golfing holidays together, and he was always warmly
welcomed by my family when he visited our home.
His death is a terrible tragedy
for a young man who could and should have made it big time. I can't get over the
feeling of waste. But at least when he died he took with him his own worst
enemy. Rest in peace Peter, at last.
Our gentleman in Jerusalem
By Steve Linde (Jerusalem Post)
Eric Silver was a superb journalist with an elegant
style, as well as a thorough gentleman who respected the people about whom he
wrote – and both of these qualities shone through in the news stories he penned
while based in Israel for more than four
By Eric Silver, Dateline: Jerusalem, a book of his dispatches from 1967 to
2008 – many for the Guardian and the
Observer in the UK –
has just been published, three years after his death at the age of
Bridget Silver, his wife, came to the Jerusalem Post recently with a copy of the book
she had compiled, which I devoured in a week. It is the type of book you can
read slowly, though, one article at a time, and I thoroughly recommend it to
readers interested in Israel’s past and
Sir Martin Gilbert correctly observes in his
‘Appreciation’ that the articles tell us not only about the country’s history,
but about its soul.
‘Each article published here is worth reading, and
each article has lessons that can be pondered,’ Gilbert writes. ‘Even the
articles of several decades ago have relevance today.’
The Leeds-born, Oxford-educated Silver was first
dispatched to Israel by the Guardian following the Six-Day War in
1967, and five years later he also became the Jerusalem correspondent of the Observer.
But although he became a veteran of the foreign press
corps here, writing for several other foreign publications – including the Jewish Chronicle in London and the Los Angeles Jewish Journal – he also
wrote for local publications, including the Post and the Jerusalem Report. (He had initially
served as a Post correspondent in
London in the
Silver fell in love with Jerusalem, which became his
home, and the city where he and Bridget raised their three
Unlike the West Bank and Gaza, he wrote – somewhat prophetically – in a dispatch for
the Guardian on June 24, 1967, ‘the
future of Jerusalem is a problem of a different
dimension. The Old
City has gained such
symbolic significance for the Israelis that it is hard to conceive giving it
‘Emotions are controlled but strong. When I visited
the [Western] Wall all was very calm till one woman suddenly cried, “Let there
be peace in the land and the whole world.” Universal amens were released like
pressure from a vacuum.’
In another dispatch five years later, titled ‘Two
states projected for co-existence in Palestine,’ Silver gives the other side of the
story: ‘Mohammed Abou Shilbayih is a dreamer. But then, as he disarmingly
reminds you, so was Theodor Herzl. Last year Shilbayih’s Arabic testament, No peace without a Palestine Free
State, sold out in four days.
‘This week, like the founder of political Zionism 76
years ago, Shilbayih has followed it with a manifesto. His theme is still that
Jews and Arabs must stop brandishing guns and slogans and learn to live together
in a land where they both have roots.’
Silver’s first big stories as a foreign correspondent
were the Lod massacre in 1972 and the Yom Kippur War a year
The book includes profiles ranging from Shimon
Peres’s rise to power and Menachem Begin’s peace treaty with Egypt to Ehud Barak’s bold gamble at Camp David,
a tribute to Yitzhak Rabin, and Binyamin Netanyahu – Israel’s best salesman – selling
In between, there are also fascinating dispatches on
Ariel Sharon’s formation of Kadima, the spate of suicide bombings following
Yasser Arafat’s arrival in the Palestinian territories and a piece for the Jewish Chronicle in 2003 on ‘Where and
who are the Jewish settlers.’
‘In contrast to their television image, not all of
the settlers are religious,’ Silver writes. ‘Nor is the settlement enterprise an
Anglo-American bunion on the toe of sabra Israel.’
The book ends, eerily, with a comment after the
attack on the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva on March 14, 2008, in which eight students
‘It is a sad truth that the Mercaz Harav massacre
highlighted the fragmented state of Israeli society,’ Silver writes. ‘Almost all
the mourners at the memorial service and the funerals that followed it were
drawn from the pro-settler religious Zionist community… Israel has become a tribal society.’
Martin Woollacott sums up Silver’s legacy nicely in
‘Eric Silver lived in the wonderfully named Street of
the Prophets in Jerusalem, and the consensus of his friends was
that he looked the part,’ writes Woollacott, a colleague at the Guardian. ‘Tall and commanding, and with
an always evident confidence in both speech and writing, he was one of the
foremost journalist interpreters of the Israeli scene for British and other
English-speaking readers for over 30 years, and at the same time a very English
presence within the Israeli press corps.
‘If he was not literally prophetic, he was
nevertheless an extremely accurate and reliable guide to the complexities of
By Eric Silver, Dateline:
Jerusalem is published by Revel Barker
Publishing at £15.99. It is available on-line from BookDepository
(with free postage, worldwide), from amazon-uk
& Noble, and all the major retailers, or from any half-decent high
By Colin Dunne
I can tell you exactly where it was that I heard the
most pin-point accurate definition of a journalist. It was in the education
building at Catterick army camp, and it was an army psychiatrist, a major, who
came up with it.
He was trying to find a suitable career for me, and,
not entirely to my surprise, he was struggling. I’d spent the morning doing the
general intelligence tests – you know, if an elephant is smaller than a bee,
then write zebra, that kind of thing. I love those.
I wasn’t quite so happy with the practical tests.
These were things like a drawing of a well, with bucket and handle. He asked
which way would I turn the handle to send the bucket down for water. In the
background, you could see the outline of a house. The answer was obvious. ‘Why
not just go in the house and use the tap?’ I suggested. The major took a deep
breath and then, abruptly, stopped whatever it was he was going to say. I expect
it was thank-you.
It was just after that, when he’d studied my test
papers, that he came up with a two-sentence description that covers almost every
hack I’ve worked with. Later, later.
What made it even more odd was that he had no idea
that I was there as a journalist. At that time, the mid-sixties, I was writing a
daily column for the Evening Chronicle on Tyneside. It was a fairly
desperate harum-scarum operation, an ideal job for someone who had given up
sleep. Flies with blue bottoms looked on me as one of theirs. I can't remember
exactly why I came up with the idea of spending a week in the army as a normal
recruit , but it may well have been to get a rest.
The military wasn’t exactly a family tradition. I
think we had a genetic aversion to uniforms, unless it was a nun’s habit by way
of disguise. Whenever war broke out, the Dunne males took up their traditional
position: next to the exit. In our family, the MC medal stood for Monumental
Coward. I was drummed out of the cubs for my sloppy sheepshanks, and I’d escaped
National Service on account of my bad back. When asked what brought it on, I
said the colour khaki and raised voices, and that was me
Once they were convinced they weren’t being sent up,
the Army PR people loved the idea. But it had to be authentic. They’d drop me
into Catterick with a new intake and no-one would know
And that’s exactly how it was. I was pitched in with
a dozen or so others who were all so delighted to be in the Army that they were
practically squeaking with pride. Those who were placed in command were so
precisely in character that I suspected they were left-overs from a war-time
black-and-white film. With a name like Beverley Yates, our captain could hardly
have been a night-club bouncer or a career burglar. A tall, languid young man,
he looked a little lost without a teddy-bear.
Our growling, grizzled and battle-battered sergeant,
Evans, was the one who’d rescue you from no-man’s-land, no mistake. Corporal
Baines, ex-boy-soldier who had yet to attempt his first smile, would throw you
straight back into no-man’s-land.
It was a week of merry-go-round of racing – ‘at the
double’ – for kit, making beds, standing next to them and saluting, grabbing
grub, polishing boots and buttons, jumping around in the gym, and hour after
hour learning to march.
Up-down, up-down, one-two-three, from the left you
effing halfwit. You know the sort of thing. The baby-faced corporal gave it as
his opinion that Mrs Dunne should have kept the afterbirth and thrown me away. I
believe he went on to write scripts for Bernard Manning.
The boys loved it. At night, dizzy with exhaustion
and delight, we rubbed hot spoon handles over chunks of volcanic rock that may
one day evolve into boots. The more they blasted and bulled, the more we felt
like soldiers. This was the Army, Mr Jones.
Although, strictly speaking, I wasn’t a part of it,
it was impossible not to be swept along with the rest. When they jumped, I
jumped. I shrank under the frequent tongue-lashings and glowed at the rare
praise. Yet somehow I failed. For one thing, I couldn’t speak the
When Sergeant Evans commanded me to stand to
attention in front of him, he seemed unaccountably distressed by my reply.
‘Absolutely, sergeant,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry – I’ll be right there. Just give me
a couple of minutes, if you don’t mind.’
Eyes popping, he stared at me as though I was an
I couldn’t somehow pick up the rhythm of military
speech. Mine didn’t have the rat-a-tat-tat of command-and-response. With me, it
was more like a chat over afternoon tea with my Auntie
It came as something of a surprise when the padre, in
his welcoming speech, assured us we would never be subjected to any bad
language. Swearing at soldiers was not allowed, and if we heard any we were to
report it. Since all week we had been called B-words, F-words and even the less
popular C-word, we lined up bemused as the young corporal addressed us
afterwards. ‘As you ’ave just ’eard, you will ’ear no swearing ’ere.’ He screwed
his face up into a vicious grimace as he added: ‘You bloody THINGS!’
The earlier stuff sounded like an average morning in
any newspaper women’s department, but that th-word really shook
Somehow the soldierly style was beyond me. I couldn’t
march. I’ve no idea why, but the harder I tried, the worse it got. My marching
somehow looked more like a foxtrot.
Corporal Baines took it as a personal challenge. He
lined up alongside me and we marched together, left-right, left-right,
left-right. The idea was that with him next to me, I would inevitably follow his
example. Why it went wrong I’ll never know. Instead of me catching his rhythm,
he caught mine. In no time at all, the two of us were happily fox-trotting round
the square together. I may have failed to adapt to the Army, but at least I’d
made the Army adapt to me.
On the corner of the square we could see the sergeant
doubled up with laughter. The young corporal rather lost his military
discipline. He raised his little corporal’s stick and smashed it down on a wall.
Splinters flew everywhere. If that was the general’s baton he had in his
knapsack, that was his promotion buggered.
In the evening, as we did our letters home, I somehow
became spelling consultant. The Glasgow lad, whose mastery of English was a
work in progress, sought my help with telling his girl-friend what he was going
to do to her when he got home.
‘You’ve spelt it wrong,’ he
‘No,’ I said. ‘There’s a c in it. Otherwise it would
be a three-letter word.’
On the Friday, when we were preparing to go home,
Roy, a Birmingham boy, was distressed to learn he
couldn’t wear his uniform. ‘Me dad’ll be browken-hearted,’ he said. ‘Would it be
alroit if I took a boot ’ome. For a towken, loik?’
Capt Yates’ mouth twitched at the edges, but his face
remained straight. ‘It’s against Queen’s Regs of course, but pop it in your
suitcase and I’ll pretend I don’t know.’
Roy the boot-smuggler was
That definition? To the best of my knowledge the Army
psychiatrist had never met John Akass, Paul Callan, John Kay or Bill Greaves,
but his judgment seemed to cover most hacks.
Lining up my two test papers, he frowned. ‘You’re a
bit of a funny one, Dunne,’ he said. ‘Don’t think I’ve seen your sort before.’
Then came his assessment. ‘From the IQ tests, you
appear to be reasonably intelligent.’ He paused before adding the final line.
‘On the other hand, you can’t actually do anything, can
So what career was open to the intelligently useless?
He looked at my hands. ‘Morse operator,’ he said. ‘You’ve got long