Two former Fleet Street editors, generations apart and even more distant in terms of manner and style, have written about a book we published last month.
Swaffer was a devout spiritualist who claimed to be still in touch with the long-dead Lord Northcliffe, his first boss. (‘He gives me advice, but I tell him, Chief, I never obeyed you when you were alive, why should I obey you now?’).
When he was doing a column for the People, he bored everybody about his expectations of the afterlife to the extent that editor Sam Campbell eventually promised that he’d publish anything he filed from The Other Side. And 20 years ago, as managing editor of the paper, I inherited the contract…
You couldn’t make it up.
Anyway, here he is, the Pope of Fleet Street – once described by Beaverbrook as ‘the greatest personality that has walked down Fleet Street in our time’ – in his own self-effacing words…
And just to continue with the theme (and the book, in case you’ve overlooked it, is The Street Of Disillusion by Harry Procter – available with free delivery worldwide from the Book Depositoryor on order from any half-decent bookshop anywhere), there’s a piece by Harry Procter’s son, Bob Procter, about a former Birmingham Mail colleague who was inspired by the same book.
And, in case you need reminding, there’s plenty of summer reading in the Ranters bookshop…
For other readers with long memories, here’s a note from Betty Thompson about this year’s News Chron reunion:
The News Chronicle will take over the Daily Mail for its 50th-anniversary reunion on Monday 18 October. Former members of the editorial staff will assemble for drinks and lunch in the Class Rooms, a bar and restaurant in the former Daily Mail building on the corner of Tudor Street and Whitefriars Street EC4.
This is an appropriate venue as the left-leaning News Chronicle was summarily closed by its Cadbury family owners in 1960 and incorporated in the right-wing Daily Mail. The last issue of the liberal paper which traced its roots back to the Daily News of Charles Dickens appeared on 17 October. The Chronicle‘s sister paper, the Star, a London evening newspaper, was merged at the same time with the Mail‘s Evening News. The Daily Mail office has since moved from the Fleet Street area to Kensington.
Ever since the paper folded, Chronicle staffers, some of whom are now over 90, have gathered together each year for a reunion to mark the date. The reunion was instigated and run for many years by former Chronicle sub-editor and London Press Club secretary, Johnny Johnson, and his wife Bunty.
Since Johnny’s death in 1999 the reunion has been organised by Betty Thomson, former Chronicle reporter Betty Williams. She can be contacted on 0208 973 3825 or by email at [email protected]
Classic Fleet Street memoirs back in print
By Roy Greenslade
I am delighted to report that a classic book about the popular journalism of the past – The Street of Disillusion by Harry Procter – has just been republished.
I can’t recommend it enough to all journalists because it is a riveting read, a candid account by a senior reporter who was regarded in the 1940s and 50s as one of Fleet Street’s finest.
Procter worked for the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail and the Sunday Pictorial (before it was retitled as the Sunday Mirror). His memoir, first published in 1958, starts out conventionally by recounting his rags-to-riches rise.
But it then turns into a revelatory confession, reminding us that whatever we may think of the content in modern red-tops and their journalists’ ethics, it is hardly a new phenomenon.
‘The Mirror wanted sex,’ wrote Procter. ‘It was not hypocritical about its needs – it was perfectly honest to both its employees, its readers, and its advertisers. Sex… sold papers… by the million. Hard news was merely the third course.’
During the second world war, Procter was told to write an entertaining article about the arrival in Britain of US troops, he took an American soldier on a sight-seeing tour of London.
US soldiers were known as GIs (Government Issue) and, according to Procter, his man’s name happened to be Joe so he nicknamed him GI Joe, a tag that stuck thereafter.
At the Mail, Procter became known for his crime exclusives and, after eight years there, in 1952 he was persuaded by Hugh Cudlipp to join the Pictorial, where he was given the title ‘special investigator’.
He became famous/notorious for exposing criminals of all kinds, from drug peddlers to slum landlords, from white slavers to phoney doctors. One of his most controversial stories concerned a brother and sister who were separately adopted as infants and, unaware of their backgrounds, married each other and had two children.
By the time Procter traced them, they had discovered the awful secret and obtained a divorce. The resulting front-page scoop, I MARRIED MY BROTHER, was followed two weeks later with the story that the woman was about to marry again.
Procter was then required by his editor to take the divorced brother to the wedding so that he could be pictured with the happy couple. ‘It left a nasty taste in my mouth,’ wrote Procter. It was a sign of the ethical qualms that would lead him away from Fleet Street and back into penury.
In the days before tape-recorders and video cameras, Procter depended on convincing his targets to speak on the record and sign their interviews/confessions. Known for his gift of the gab, he rarely used subterfuge.
The turning point came when he pulled off one of the most sensational stories of its time. He persuaded the father of 16-year-old police murderer Christopher Craig to denounce his son, and the parents of his accomplice Derek Bentley to sell their son’s final letter from jail before his execution.
Procter, by now disillusioned, resigned from the Pictorial in 1957, spent a brief time as a freelance in Manchester and ended up down on his luck and without an income.
The end of his life was very sad, as I witnessed at first hand at the beginning of my own career. I was a teenage reporter on the Barking & Dagenham Advertiser in 1962 when I called at Procter’s down-at-heel council house in Dagenham (though I can’t recall the reason I went to the address following a police tip-off).
Procter, who was living with his wife, Doreen, and their two youngest children (of six), was thin, wild-eyed and rude. Initially sullen, he became aggressive and I thought he was drunk.
In fact, one of his daughters, Val, told me some years ago that Procter was suffering from an illness that caused him to behave as if drunk.
My second visit to his house was even sadder. It was to confirm his death from lung cancer, aged just 47.
Four of his children – Val, Phyllis, Barry (aka Bob) and Jane (Maddy) – went on to become journalists too, though none of them went on to work on the street of their father’s disillusion.
When I made it to Fleet Street, I discovered that Procter had achieved legendary status. Old Mirror and Mail reporters liked nothing better than to tell of his extraordinary story-getting skills.
Angry young man
By Hannen Swaffer
After the collapse of a short-lived daily, the Tribune, early in the century, Philip Gibbs based upon its failure his first novel, The Street of Adventure. Immature as was the style, it set alight the ambitions of many youths to become journalists.
Among them was Harry Procter, a 16-year-old Yorkshireman.
Gibbs, who became, during the first world war, the only journalist at Haig’s headquarters – all were automatically knighted, while much more brilliant correspondents than all but him were ignored! – who won fame as a writer and, because of his gentle nature lasting affection as a man. To this day, he is proud of having been a reporter.
Procter, his disciple, on the other hand, achieved notoriety as a ‘crime man’ by obtaining innumerable scoops with his smooth tongue and dare-devil ingenuity. Yet, after a score of years in London, he repented at the ‘Burning bungalow’ babies’ funeral – ‘If this is Fleet Street, it’s time I left it’ – and, in a spirit of spiritual disgust, wrote The Street of Disillusion to expose the methods of modern crime reporting he had used.
By an extraordinary coincidence, The Street of Disillusion was published by the firm of which the author of The Street of Adventure was a director!
Originally, Procter’s book was planned as an exposure of the Sunday Pictorial, which he had just left. Nervous about it, the publishers showed the proofs to Geraldine House [then the Mirror HQ], only to be told the book was inaccurate and libellous.
Procter, appealing to me for support, at first refused to make any corrections: ‘I owe my book to Fleet Street and my fellow journalists.’ By that time, the number of legal threats had risen from two to six!
When I told him it was not his money, but theirs, that the publishers were risking, and that the ‘offensive’ statements could be deleted without spoiling his book, he took my advice.
Even as it is, The Street of Disillusion is by far the most revealing exposure of modern reporting methods that I have ever read.
Procter’s big chance came, strangely enough, because he had been ‘suspended’ for two weeks by Guy Schofield, then editor of the Yorkshire Evening News, for a blunder, but afterwards his editor on the Daily Mail. Using his enforced idleness, Procter came to London and got a week’s trial, against another man competing for the job, on the Daily Mirror.
After learning, on the third day, that he had lost the race, he accompanied one of the cameramen who said he had been sent on the ‘silly job of photographing a fat man and his wife at a fair. Hopeless, this. They’re peep-show people, just like bearded ladies. They won’t touch it.’
‘Not only will they touch it,’ replied Procter, ‘They’ll splash it’, and set about fact-finding. They were newly-weds, fresh from Australia. On the ship, because of their size, they had to sleep on the floor.
His story, which began, ‘The world’s heaviest pair of newly-weds are honeymooning in England,’ was at first ignored by the news editor, who, in ‘a thick phoney American accent’, merely remarked, ‘Oh yes, you’re the boy from the sticks. Busy now, boy!’
‘I walked back to the reporters’ room in disgust,’ records Procter. ‘My magic key had found a door it could not open. The Street of Adventure, I thought, sardonically.’
But, ten minutes later, the news editor raved: ‘Son, this stuff is marvellous! I’m holding it over until tomorrow and then we’ll give you the entire middle-page spread. My secretary is typing you out a letter of appointment…’
‘I walked down the Street of Adventure the happiest and proudest young man in the world. To me, Fleet Street represented the beginning, the end and the meaning of all things.
In Middlesbrough, I had boasted to my colleagues: ‘By the time I am thirty, I’ll be a Fleet Street reporter.’ And here I was, eight years ahead of my schedule!
‘I remember standing enthralled before the EdgarWallace memorial, reading with the reverence that glorious epitaph, He died a Great Reporter. I remember offering a silent prayer that I might uphold the high standards of journalism Fleet Street required.
‘A few years later, I dared not have talked to my fellow members in the Press Club about that night of dedication. I think they would have laughed…
‘The Mirror wanted Sex.’
One of the ‘dedicated’ man’s first shocks came when, sent down to a village from which a 21-year-old girl had written that when she and a boy were born on the same day, the announcements in the parish magazine had been inserted among the ‘Marriages’.
After interviewing themseparately because they then lived miles apart, and had only met once or twice, he then wrote what he thought was ‘a good bright story.’
‘When are they getting married?’ demanded the night news editor on the phone. ‘We want to lead off by saying that the boy and girl who were married in the week they were born are now to be really married in the same village church.’
Procter’s protest, ‘They barely know each other and they’ve each got a boy and girlfriend of their own’ was followed by the yell:
‘What the hell do you think we sent you down there for? You b——y well talk them into it. Give them a fiver apiece if you like, but hurry. We’ve already missed the first edition!’
‘I was learning fast,’ says the author. ‘The next day we carried the story about the forthcoming marriage.’
Soon, he was really tasting success: ‘Where the story existed I have always brought it back. No one in Fleet Street will challenge this.’
During a term in Birmingham, a paragraph about an old stage elephant which had been buried ‘without honour’ in a farmer’s field caught Procter’s eye.
After phoning the owner in another town, he began his story: ‘She was a dancing girl born and bred among the glitter of the footlights. But she died of a broken heart. For Daisy was the elephant who couldn’t forget.’
His London boss ‘cried with joy’ and decided on a middle-page spread.
‘We must get a picture of Daisy,’ thundered the art editor. Procter’s photographer, although told the owner had left Birmingham, returned within half an hour with a picture that was wired to London. ‘Daisy looks just like any other elephant, doesn’t she?’ he joked.
Procter left the Mirror, he says, because John Walters, fresh on a newly-created post cementing Anglo-American relations, had advised that a story of his about how he had brought about the marriage of an American soldier to the mother of his triplets would certainly do those relations no good!
‘On those grounds, the story was killed. But they had wired it to the New York Daily News who sent me a telegram, ‘You have scooped the world’. I felt so badly I could have jumped under a train.
‘That week, World’s Press News published a story about my story: ‘Great scoop that was not used.’
‘Guy Bartholomew, then the Great White Chief of the Mirror group, did not like the story in the trade paper. Nor, apparently, did he like the ‘great scoop’ not being used. There was a rumpus.
‘Humbler executives looked at me sulkily. I was unpopular.’
So he called on Lindon Laing – the fabulous news editor of the Daily Mail, whom I discovered in Britain – ‘a giant both in stature and ability. I never knew a man in Fleet Street more fiercely hated, more passionately loved.
‘Lindon Laing could inspire a reporter with such confidence that he would consider himself capable of any task on earth. He could make a reporter so terrified that he wished he’d been born to Chinese peasants.’
‘So you’ve come to see me at last, mister,’ said Lindon. ‘I thought you’d be around as soon as you were fired.’
‘But I haven’t been fired!’
‘It makes no odds to me, mister. Even I was fired from the Daily Express’.
Not wanting to work out the customary month’s notice, Procter went back to the Mirror office and pulled the news editor’s tie! Even then, they wouldn’t sack him.
Procter’s stories of his idol Laing will become a part of Fleet Street’s saga.
As we all know, he died of an accident in a train after celebrating the success of his volcanic fight for a veteran reporter who was to be pensioned: ‘I won’t have it! He has given his life to Fleet Street. I demand that he be allowed his typewriter, his telephone and his desk until he dies. Retire him, and you’ll kill him – and you’ll be b——y murderers.’ Laing died that night. The reporter is still here. When the news of Laing’s death arrived, ‘I saw tough, hardened reporters crying like babies. The man some reporters said they hated, the man most reporters said they feared, was dead. And Fleet Street wept.
‘Never mind, I said to a colleague. It took a train to kill him’.
I once had to fight for Bernard Falk like that. He succeeded me!
He tells how, when he telephoned the Daily Mail news of ‘the most sadistic murder of the century’ – the killing of Marjorie Gardner – the night editor said: ‘You must be wrong. The Press Association and every other reporter in Fleet Street says it was an abortion,’ he rushed to the office, and, as his faithful Lindon Laing was away, shouted his anger at every executive he could find: ‘If I’m wrong, I’ll never show my head in Fleet Street again.’
‘Yet, on the following Sunday,’ adds Procter, ‘they were so abject they would have given me the bust of Lord Northcliffe from the hall had I asked for it.’
He had arranged an interview with Neville Heath, whom he did not then know was the murderer: ‘I shall always wish he had kept the appointment with me for a few days later, he murdered another girl, Doreen Marshall.’ Heath telephoned to Marjorie, making a date, in his presence.
‘I phoned Scotland Yard. They sent CID officers to interview my colleague and me. We gave them a full description of Heath, “wanted for murder”.’
Most of Procter’s stories of his interviews with the murderers he knew are stupidly brief.
There is less than a page about Thomas John Ley, the former Minister of Justice in New South Wales, who had killed a barman out of jealousy over his mistress. When Procter called on him and said he would like to chat about a dead man found in a chalk pit, he asked, with a puzzled smile, ‘Whatever could that have to do with me?’ gave him a large Napoleon brandy and said: ‘I’ll keep your card. If I should need you, I’ll let you know.’
Haigh, the acid-bath murderer, on whom he called at his Kensington hotel two days before his arrest, said to him: ‘The police are a lot of imbeciles. They couldn’t catch colds. They’ve nothing on me, but even if they had they’d never prove it.’
Procter called his bluff: ‘You’re a dead man already. You’ve told the police you parked your car behind Victoria Street when you went to meet Mrs. Durande Deacon. But the old man there keeps a record of every car. I’ve just left him. You’re not on his list.’
‘Haigh went white,’ says Procter. ‘My bluff had worked. I told the police and on the Tuesday he was arrested.’
Near the Kent home where Procter wrote his book, there is a neighbour who still tells of his boyhood days with Haigh and of how the notorious killer had a most religious upbringing.
Procter left the Mail, he declares, because, after Laing had died and Frank Owen had left, he and Guy Schofield, the new editor, ‘did not begin our day with a fond embrace’, and the office was besieged with a band of Manchester men who had a motto ‘All for one and one for all’ and who had no use for ‘Little Laings’.
‘They had never loved Lindon Laing, for he’d a rather naughty habit of sending his Little Laings up into northern territory for stories the Manchester lads could not get.
‘Their hour of glory was a very brief hour. But I could not sit it out.’
One night, Procter got an exclusive about a number of frogmen drowned in the Thames on a secret exercise.
Thinking it too good to be true, one of the new executives ‘did what Lindon Laing would not have done.’ He sent out another reporter to check his yarn and, as he could not do so, threw it in the waste-paper basket.
Two hours later, when the Press Association had confirmed the story, the news editor called him up: ‘This will be balm to your soul. Will you phone your story over again?’
As he refused, ‘they had to go on their knees and find my crumpled copy, smooth it out and retype it… I wrote to Guy Schofield and told him I wished to resign. He accepted my resignation.’
I can sympathise with Procter. I had to suffer from a Manchester invasion when, for only a little over a year, I ran the Daily Sketch.
By a supreme joke, Procter went back – to Manchester!
I have only space here for Procter’s summary of his five sensational years on the Sunday Pictorial.
‘I exposed and exposed and exposed. I exposed the London call-girl syndicate, crooked financiers, white slavers, phoney doctors, pedlars in vice or drugs, unscrupulous landlords, swindlers, confidence tricksters. I exposed vile slums, black marketeers, crooked politicians, dishonest officials in high places. I exposed husbands who deserted their wives, and wives who deserted their husbands.
‘A new phrase began to be used up and down the country – ‘Write and tell Harry Procter about it’. They wrote to me in their thousands.’
These chapters are more extraordinary than any Fleet Street reminiscences I have read.
They contain the inside stories of Evans and Christie – ‘he regarded me as his friend and champion… smiled at me in the dock as a proud son might smile at his parents on speech day’ – and of how he spent the evening before Bentley’s execution with his parents in the bar of the House of Commons, while the last pleas for his reprieve were being made, and how he bought mourning clothes for Mrs. Vicki Wright to wear at her children’s funeral.
Although Procter looks back with shame on lots of it, he says the public are to blame for muckraking.
‘Sit down there, you, that man in the front row. I’ll have no hypocritical comments. How many murderers’ stories have you read, sir, in the Sunday papers? If you’ve never read one, I’ll listen to you. If you’ve read one, shut up! We poor slaves are your servants, sir, not your masters. We give you what you want because you want it.
‘It was tougher for me to do than it is for you to hear about it. But you, sir, you were the boss!’
Harry Procter has written a brave book. It may shock you. Some parts of it will give offense. But these extracts, which are only a. brief part of an extraordinary revelation, show that it should be ‘must reading’ for every newspaperman – from Sir William Haley to the creator of Jane.
Procter’s justification is that Sir Philip Gibb’s firm printed it. No one could accuse the impeccable Philip of making money out of anything he considered ‘dirt’.
He read the proofs, he told the author, ‘with very great interest and admiration. I cannot plead guilty to leading you astray by my old novel, The Street of Adventure, for you have done magnificently as a journalist’
Hannen Swaffer (1879 – 1962) started on the Folkstone Express at 16 and joined the Daily Mail in 1902. He edited the Weekly Dispatch and helped develop the Daily Mirror into a popular newspaper. He created ‘Mr. Gossip’ for the Daily Sketch then became ‘Mr. London’ for the Daily Graphic. He was editor of The People, 1924-5 and in 1926 became drama critic of the Daily Express. He joined the Daily Herald in 1931, then rejoined the People…
Drop the flying donkey
By Bob Procter
He was not exactly a lazy reporter. He just felt his talents were better suited to the meatier stories which daily hit the headlines. A juicy murder, dramatic bank raid or even a celebrity scandal. These were the type of journalistic endeavors at which, in his own somewhat biased opinion, he excelled.
The bread and butter stuff could quite adequately be catered for by the lesser gifted (and less ambitious) news staff. For him to cover such mundane assignments as courts, gardening shows or golden weddings was an unforgivable waste of his capabilities – apparently.
Like some others in his profession, he tended to have a vastly inflated ego, coupled with a more than average affection for the alcoholic beverages at a pub yards from his office.
His imagination had originally been fired after reading Harry Procter’s hard-hitting book on journalism The Street of Disillusion. But over the years the resolve the book originally inspired in him to be an ace reporter seemed to have dissipated somewhat.
It was in his favourite watering hole that the suddenly deflated wordsmith found himself staring moodily into his glass of half-finished beer, dwelling on the unfairness of his lot.
The reason for his attack of melancholia was that he had been ordered to review yet another of the interminably repetitious variety shows at the local theatre that evening.
This was down to the fact that his boss had an insatiable appetite for the show business scene, regardless of its entertainment value.
He pulled from his pocket a crumpled programme highlighting the various acts that night. He glanced idly down the list. A ventriloquist, juggler and a trio of singing sisters were included. His journalistic eye suddenly fastened on an item halfway down the list. ‘Marvello and his Flying Donkey,’ he read.
He banged the table with a gleeful cry of delight and was sorely tempted to perform a little jig. He would write his review in advance, spend the night in the pub with his cronies, and phone it to the night news desk when the show would be over.
The scribe’s fertile imagination went into overdrive as he penned the graceful way the talented donkey leaped from one trapeze bar to another, even managing a passable somersault on the way. Marvello, perched high above the stage, grabbed the bar and sailed through the air with the animal, the pair then landing expertly on a second trapeze stand.
According to the report, the delighted audience clapped and cheered loudly over the donkey’s antics. The amazing star and his master, clad in a star-spangled costume, were slowly lowered to the stage amid renewed applause. The donkey even appeared to bow its head in acknowledgment of the applause before being led away.
His review appeared in the following day’s paper and nothing more was heard about the event for several days. Then a letter from the theatre manager appeared on the news editor’s desk. It read:
‘Sir, I would like to thank you for the illuminating, if somewhat puzzling, review of the entertainment, Showtime, featured at my theatre this week. The report by your columnist gave a vivid and imaginative interpretation of the acts presented. However, I still remain a little confused over the section of the review dealing with the exploits of “Marvello and his Flying Donkey.”
‘I feel I should draw your attention to the fact that there was an unfortunate misprint in the wording used in the programme for this act. It should have read: “Marvello and his Flying Monkey”…’