Issue # 168

This Week

You’ll be sick of hearing, by now, that it’s the 50th anniversary next week of the closure of the News Chronicle and the London evening Star. But there are two other significant closure dates that were overlooked in all that excitement.

The Empire News (founded 1884 as The Umpire, a Manchester-based Sunday ‘sporting, athletic, theatrical and general newspaper’) folded on October 16, 1960, to be incorporated into the News of the World. Then the tabloid Sunday Graphic closed on December 4 the same year, ‘merging’ with the Sunday Times. A bad year, then, all-round for Fleet Street. And it presumably means that there’ll possibly be even more lost souls wandering The Street this winter in search of old memories and even older friends.

We are indebted for this information to reader Troy Kamara, an FT platemaker. Presumably, no journalists remembered the dates. Or maybe they didn’t think they were worth mentioning…

Also this week, agony aunt Claire Rayner took the lift to the Readers’ Service Department In The Sky. Claire, like Proops before her, was a gift to cartoonists and, with her husky voice, also to impressionists. As Liz Hodgkinson recalls, she was an agony aunt who agonised about her readers. She also introduced wanking to readers of the Sun [That can’t be right, surely? – Ed.]

If one of your domestic problems happens to be a child (or grandchild) who’s gone in for self-mutilation by body piercing, we can now name the guilty man. Jim McCandlish is the guy who popularised the practice. If you’re looking for somebody to hit, we know where he lives. But there’s a lesson to be learnt here: readers just don’t understand irony.

Talking about advice, the success of the Ranters’ consultancy, B&H (see September 24), continues apace. In addition to The Times, Sunday Times, and the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs seeking our advice, The FT has also come along and even more recently the bankers, Barclays Wealth, are after our input.

This has encouraged senior partner Brian Hitchen to wonder whether we should spread our wings, consultancy-wise. What about advising governments? After all, journalists do it all the time, telling politicians what they should be doing and where they’re going wrong. And the recently announced Shadow Cabinet (possibly so-called because it’s a shadow even of its former incarnation) was greeted with considerable derision by HM Press. We’re the experts, they’re happy amateurs. So Hitch has formulated a Working Paper – call it the Fleet Street Coalition – listing a few names of people who could do a better job than the present incumbents. It might be mischief, but we’ve seen dafter ideas. (It’s a Rant.)

For example, you can’t help thinking that MPs would have been less profligate with their personal expenditure of our money if Bill McLellan had been signing their exes. Alan Whittaker has tales to tell.

And finally, Bill Greaves is back at the bar of the Mucky, where he discovered that the pain from Spain went directly to the fingertips.


Wanking in the Sun

By Liz Hodgkinson

Claire Rayner, born in 1931, was a very different kind of agony aunt from Marjorie Proops of the Mirror and not so much a journalist as a kind of ‘big nurse’, dispensing advice as if to a patient. Claire was a State Registered Nurse and qualified midwife, so she came from a completely different professional background from Marje.

Rayner has written about her horrific childhood with her feckless, mendacious parents, and also about her long-lasting, completely faithful and monogamous marriage to her husband Des. She has asserted on many occasions that she has never had a sexual partner other than Des and that she has never wanted anybody else, which must make her something of an oddity in the days when 30 or more partners is apparently considered the norm, married or not.

She may have been different from Marje but Claire was an equally big talent. She first began to be noticed when she was an agony aunt on the young woman’s magazine Petticoat. She stood out as a potential, or actual, star, and her column became required reading for the nation’s young women. There was plenty that was outspoken and straightforward about Rayner’s advice in the days when most advice columns were decidedly mealy-mouthed.

Her column on Petticoat attracted the attention of Katharine Hadley, then woman’s editor of the Sun, and Rayner was hired in January 1974 after the existing advice columnist Dr. Wendy Greengross was summarily dismissed.

From the start, Rayner was uneasy about the Sun and wrote in her 2003 autobiography, How did I get Here from There?:

I hated what the paper was doing. It had been the old Daily Herald, a lovely, honest, working-class paper, keen on left-wing politics. Now that it had been transmogrified into a cheap nudge-nudge-leer-leer scandal sheet it really was the pits.

Rayner maintained she took the job only because Wendy Greengross had insulted her at a Marriage Guidance Council (later Relate) meeting by referring to Rayner’s husband giving up his job to be kept by his wife writing rubbish. She felt that Greengross – a qualified medical doctor – was arrogant and elitist, especially when she called Sun readers ‘barely literate’.

One of the three editors who interviewed Rayner for the job said: ‘We liked your column in Petticoat and we think you could beat Marje into a cocked hat.’ Rayner never took to the paper’s editor, Albert (Larry) Lamb, who she said was ‘never cuddly, never curly, never kind, never sweet’, but she acknowledged he was a gifted editor.

Lamb informed her that he did not want any rubbish about people finding their inner selves or any suggestion that the great British working man was anything other than super-virile all the time. Rayner insisted that every reader’s letter should be answered, as a service, not as a money-making endeavour, and she took the column deadly seriously, whereas she felt that Lamb just saw it as a sop to daft women readers, and as a way of getting more sex into the paper.

Rayner says that she herself saw her column as an extension of her nursing career and she campaigned for freedom of choice in all sexual and personal matters.

She got into trouble with those notorious self-styled moralists Mary Whitehouse and Valerie Riches, of the Responsible Society, for her response to a reader’s query: What is wanking? Rayner’s answer that masturbation can be enjoyable set Whitehouse off in full cry, and got her into trouble with Lamb, who did not approve of such words being used in the soaraway Sun.

Larry Lamb would, says Rayner, take her out to an expensive lunch at the Savoy Grill when she would far rather have had a pay rise, and after a time she began to feel angry and exploited at the paper. Matters came to a head in 1980 when she discovered she was being paid much less than the other journalists and asked for a pay rise. She had requested 35% to give her parity with staff journalists but Lamb offered her 10%.

At that she resigned and went to the Sunday Mirror, which she found very different: ‘The Sun had been pushy, noisy and go-getting. The Mirror made itself comfortable. The place was full of journalists who never seemed to get a word into the paper, which puzzled me… and the paper was known as The Velvet Coffin.’

Rayner was marked out to succeed Marje but in the event, it never happened. Not long after Maxwell arrived, Rayner went to the short-lived Today newspaper, since when she never again had a regular agony column, even though she was still best known as an advice columnist. She asked in her autobiography what right she had to do the job and answered herself by saying: ‘none, I suppose, except being asked to do it and finding more and more people wanted me to.’ Rayner also said she found herself becoming deeply embroiled in her readers’ problems and that although many miseries were certainly self-inflicted, many more arose from the way the state is run, with its built-in injustice (as Rayner saw it) to the poor and helpless.

Like Marje, Claire Rayner continually pushed back the boundaries of what it was acceptable to say in print and shocked the nation by advertising sanitary towels on television, in the first campaign that was not mealy-mouthed and coy about this essential female product.

Now, of course, there is no such coyness and much of this is due to Rayner. She felt that much of her success was due to her willingness to use direct language in medical and sexual matters rather than euphemisms.

She also served on many committees, was president of the Patients’ Association and a long-standing supporter of the National Health Service. Rayner was not just a journalist but a prolific novelist, radio and television broadcaster and public campaigner. She had no formal training as a journalist and picked up the tricks of the trade by first writing for little nursing magazines and gradually extending her range after giving up nursing when her first child Amanda was born.

Rayner was a gift to cartoonists and exploited to the full her easy recognisability. But although she may have come over in some circles as a joke, she was actually a ferociously ambitious career journalist who found her natural metier advising others. Very few journalists, men or women, past or present, have possessed her sheer staying power and Rayner had much illness in her life including, in her youth, being sectioned in a mental hospital in Canada.

She suffered breast cancer, overactive thyroid, arthritis, severe post-natal depression and hormonal problems, as well as malfunctioning vocal chords that were responsible for her distinctive breathy voice.

Claire Rayner, born 11 January 1931, died 11 October 2010.

(This is an edited extract from Ladies of the Street, by Liz Hodgkinson)


Rings of steel

By James McCandlish

Everybody talks about leaving a legacy. George W, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair…

Shameful as it is, I too have a legacy.

Does your kid have an earring through his eyebrow? Does the girl next door have one of those studs in her tongue? Blame me. That’s my legacy.

It was 1990 and I was living in the French Quarter in New Orleans writing for the National Enquirer. A routine assignment came my way about ‘self-mutilation’ – way-out kids piercing themselves for fun.

When I started working it I found there were only three joints in the US performing these strange rituals – in New York, LA, and, naturally, San Francisco. I made telephonic friends with these people. They even faxed me pictures and descriptions of their work which, I recall, included something called the Prince Albert. That was a ring pierced through the last place any normal bloke would want a ring pierced through (Google it and say ouch!).

Six months later I was strolling back from watching a New Orleans Saints football game in the Superdome with my then 10-year-old son Jeremy when we came across the Clarion Hotel on Canal Street.

There were big signs outside proclaiming a tattoo convention.

Always on the lookout for an offbeat story, I wandered in with the boy. There was the usual array of booths with tattooed bikers hawking everything from bandanas to black leather jackets.

And in the middle was a ‘piercing’ display.

I ambled over and to my astonishment saw a six-foot by three-foot blow-up of my Enquirer story suspended above. Let me explain that my story, while not completely disapproving, certainly had a mocking tone.

The illustration was a bloke with a bone through his nose and had the caption:’Yeah, but what does he do when he has a cold?’

I looked at the story with my three-inch tall byline and asked the geezer behind the stall – a guy with a ponytail, tattered Van Gogh beard and, yes, an earring through his eyebrow: ‘Why do you have that article above your booth? Isn’t it taking the mickey out of your business?’

He looked at me thoughtfully, stroking his greying goatee: ‘That, mister, is the best thing that ever happened to us.’

‘Whadya mean,’ I stammered, genuinely amazed.

‘Before that story appeared we were only in three cities,’ he said.

‘Let me guess,’ I said. ‘LA, New York and…’

…’San Francisco,’ he said. ‘After that story, kids in Albuquerque, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City and Podunk, Iowa, wanted piercings. It was like the Gold Rush for us. Shops opened up like a rash across the country. Soon everybody’s kid wanted to get pierced – in their bellybuttons and everywhere else.

‘Thank God for the National Enquirer.’

I looked nervously at my boy and his innocent upturned face. ‘Let’s get out of here, son. Time to get back to the house.’

Today he’s 30, living in Prague with a wife and a son of his own. He doesn’t have any piercings that I’m aware of, but he does have the Scottish Lion Rampant tattooed on his upper right bicep.

My legacy?

Jim McCandlish worked for the East Lothian Courier; Daily Mail Scotland; Royal Gazette Bermuda; Marketing Magazine Toronto; Vancouver Sun, Hong Kong Standard, and the National Enquirer; before becoming freelance in Lake Worth, Florida.




The Fleet Street coalition

hitchen100 By Brian Hitchen

While I realise that it might involve a bit of argument in the boardroom of B&H, the gold-plated Fleet Street consultancy, it’s my view that international communications companies should be able to look after their own back yards (like we used to) and we should concentrate on the area that needs it most – a complete reorganisation of the British Government.

When Prime Minister emeritus Margaret Thatcher was overthrown in a Tory coup in November 1990, I was editing the Daily Star, and devoted the entire front page to a picture of the Iron Lady, pouring scorn on her colleagues, and socialism, in a farewell speech, in the Commons. The headline ran: True Brit! Beneath it was a signed editorial in which I, slamming the lesser men who had signed her political death warrant, said: ‘Now we are left with only political pigmies. And God help us.’

Nothing has happened since that day to change my mind. With one exception, none of our present cabinet ministers has ever held-down a meaningful job. And yet these mediocrities have the effrontery to put themselves forward as our leaders. Running a country is too big a job for politicians, who care only for their own survival.

So, rather like a fantasy football team, let’s speculate as to what would happen if journalists, and newspaper folk, formed a Fleet Street coalition, and took over the jobs that are too important to clutter-up with party politics.

While half the board of B&H believes in democracy, the other half is more in favour of benign dictatorship.

Readers will note that no one has been appointed Minister for Overseas Aid and Development. This is because there will not be any overseas aid, nothing for the usual begging-bowl nations, until Britain is out of her present financial crisis, and our senior citizens have been provided with decent pensions. Only then will ‘our’ British Government consider giving money to foreigners.

This is the provisional line-up for a new British Government formed from Fleet Street.

Prime Minister: Boris Johnson, editor, columnist, and Mayor of London.

Deputy Prime Minister: Paul Dacre, editor the Daily Mail

Chancellor of the Exchequer: Murdoch MacLennan, CEO of the Telegraph Group

Foreign Secretary: Frederick Forsyth, author, former Reuters correspondent.

Home Secretary: Simon Heffer, columnist, Daily Telegraph.

Minister of Defence: Sir Max Hastings, columnist, author, and former editor.

Minister Joint Chiefs of Intelligence: Gerald Seymour, former ITN foreign correspondent, and author.

Minister for Trade, Industry, and Trade Unions: Kelvin McKenzie, columnist and former editor.

Minister of Education: Sir David Nicholas, former editor and chairman, ITN.

Minister of Police: Peter Hill, editor Daily Express.

Minister of Justice: Richard Littlejohn, columnist Daily Mail.

Minister for Immigration : Rebekah Wade, CEO News International.

Minister for Special Forces. Alastair McQueen, defence correspondent.

Minister for War in Afghanistan: John Fullerton, ex-Reuters, and former MI6 agent of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs: Charles Moore, editor and author.

Minister of Fisheries: Dick Durham, master mariner, news editor, Yachting Monthly.

Minister for Culture, Media, and Sport: Lord (Guy) Black of Brentwood, former Director Press Complaints Commission, Editorial Director, Daily Telegraph.

Minister for Europe: Professor Anthony Delano, former Daily Mirror foreign correspondent, author, London College of Communication

Prime Minister’s Press Secretary: Sir Bernard Ingham.

Cabinet secretary: Sir Gus O’Donnell would be asked to remain in his post.

Your additional suggestions are welcome, but will not necessarily appear on the list, particularly if I disagree with them! (That’s how dictatorships, even benign ones, work…)


Mac the knife

whittaker3 By Alan Whittaker

Bill McLellan was an old Fleet Street hand. Years spent doorstepping on run-down estates and time-wasting in unfamiliar bars had hardened him. Some would say soured him.

He’d worked on the News Chronicle, Daily Mail, Daily Herald and the original Sun. When Ned Kelly launched his irreverent version Bill was recruited to the news desk where one of his duties was to scrutinize reporters’ expenses; a task he performed with the ruthless enthusiasm of a gimlet-eyed Inland Revenue ferret. He relished the sobriquet of Mac the Knife.

Such zeal would normally have made him an odds on favourite to top the Montgomery Shitbag Scale but when the contenders included a front runner of the calibre of the late Norman Baitey and a conspiratorial bunch of Geordie mafia types he was merely an ‘also ran’.

It was when the Sun decided to have a six-week circulation drive in the Midlands that Bill’s abrasive accounting procedures were called upon. The specially selected team that commandeered a hotel in Birmingham would have earned the approval of Lee Marvin when he selected his Dirty Dozen squad and they set about their business in the highest traditions of Fleet Street. Rumours of unseemly goings-on in the early hours, minor scuffles, pitched battles, barmaids being kidnapped and traded, filtered back to Bouverie Street. They were dismissed as inconsequential matters.

Of greater concern were the bills submitted by the hotel management.

A month into the circulation drive Bill was despatched to Birmingham to ‘examine the validity’ of’ certain claims that might cause Ned – if he got wind of them – to raise a quizzical eyebrow and take a close look at the criteria required for pursuing charges of ‘obtaining goods or money by false representation’.

His orders were to ‘sort out’ the latest demand by the hotel housing the Sun’s representatives. It included:

Damage to lounge bar furniture: £847.

Replacing broken windows: £500.

Mirrors, table lamps and various glasses: £600.

Ten sandwiches: £120

A previous bill for damage to furniture and fittings and carpet cleaning had been settled by the Sun without involving insurance companies. In support of his latest claim the manager showed Bill the debris; broken chairs, a legless table, a dustbin full of broken glass. With an impatient airy wave of dismissal Bill assured him the damage claim would be met in full, as usual.

But £120 for ten sandwiches…?

Again the manager explained. ‘They were, after all, fillet steak sandwiches and the chef was got out of bed at 3.30 am to make them especially for your lot who were having a heated discussion in the bar. That’s when two chairs and a table were demolished.’

Sensing he had the advantage the manager continued. ‘I am not complaining about the late nights or minor damage. Your office has always settled claims promptly. Your crowd has been great for business but I want to make one thing perfectly clear. There is no clause in my innkeeper’s licence that requires me to let your staff fuck mine.’

A prominent member of the expedition to bring enlightenment to the Black Country and convert its denizens to Sun readers was Bob Adam, affectionately known from his Herald days as Black Angus. A delightful companion possessing a placid temperament but who – when roused – was capable of making a charging rhino alter course and head for protective undergrowth, simply by looking at it.

Bob had been one of the peckish recipients of the 3.30 am fillet steak sandwiches. Perhaps unwisely, McLellan, who was thick-skinned but certainly no rhino, confronted him in Birmingham Press Club at a late hour. Black Angus had a ready explanation. When it was finally accepted he released his hold on McLellan’s throat and lowered him to ground level. By the time they left the club to saunter to the hotel they were firm friends once more.

Because of the lateness of the hour and because, between them, they were transporting the best part of two bottles of Scotch, the saunter was more of a stagger – what earnest police constables used to describe as an ‘unsteady gait’ when relating to magistrates the apprehension of a troublesome reveller.

A combination of ‘ungainly gait’, a nudge, an answering shoulder charge and a hefty push sent the pair crashing into the door of an office, shattering the window… They fled… Gait unsteady.

Bill first sensed there might be trouble when he heard a detective sergeant had been to the Birmingham Press Club asking for a ‘Mr. McLellan of the Sun’. He decided to make himself scarce and for the next three days lived the existence of a fugitive appearing in the Press Club only late at night and only after checking that the detective was not around. ‘Someone from the Sun has been yapping to the cops about the shop window. How else would they know?’ he complained when he joined Steve Valentine, News of the World Midlands staffman, and myself at the Press Club bar. ‘This detective sergeant is a persistent nuisance. He was here again last night asking for me. Some bastard in the Sun crowd has stuck the knife in me. I came to Birmingham to sort out a claim for damage to furniture caused by that lot. It wouldn’t go down too well if I were to get nicked for causing damage to a window.’

On his last night he was standing at the bar when he felt a tap on his shoulder and an unfamiliar voice enquired ‘Mr. McLellan?’ There was no escape. It was the persistent detective sergeant. Bill nodded. ‘You are a hard man to track down Mr. McLellan. I’ve been here a couple of times looking for you but you seem to flit in and flit out and I’ve missed you.’

‘I suppose it’s about the shop window,’ ventured Bill. ‘I know I should have reported it. Let me get you a drink.’

The detective nodded. ‘That’s why I’ve been looking for you. I want to thank you and buy you a drink.’

McLellan was mystified.

The DS continued: ‘We’ve had our suspicions about that office for months but we had no reasonable grounds for a search warrant. When you broke the window we went in to secure the premises – as it was our duty – and found a lot of dodgy gear and interesting documents. We’ve nicked three men as a result. So what’s your poison?’

When Black Angus left the Sun to further his career at the Daily Telegraph former colleagues were intrigued. He was by-lined: Robert Adam, Fine Arts Correspondent. His new role took him to the auctions conducted by Christie’s and Sotheby’s and an unfamiliar world of paintings, delicate porcelain, Georgian furniture and fine wines. At one auction house, he became friendly with a member of the cellar staff, the fellows who hump the stuff from the storage basement to the auction room.

One stifling afternoon the Fine Arts Correspondent, while being given a conducted tour of the cellar by his new friend, spotted a tattered box containing a selection of wine bottles. He conversed convincingly and earnestly with his tour guide and they sat down.

Two hours later the auctioneer tapped his gavel. ‘Lot 420,’ he announced. ‘A case of fine old French wines.’ He glanced at the tattered box.

‘Correction! Half a case of fine old French wines… Who will start me at £400?’

Alan Whittaker was a News of the World staffman for thirty-seven years as reporter, columnist, features writer, TV critic etc. Previously on the Darwen News, and the Blackburn-based Northern Daily Telegraph (now the Lancashire Telegraph).


Sherry blur

By William Greaves

Pub regulars are obdurate creatures, not readily given to change. Their habits of a lifetime are so predictable that If they take more than a second or two to get from threshold to bar counter, their ‘usual’ is either awaiting them or at least well on its way.

So to change the drinking habits of an entire boozer – or at least a measurable chunk of it – is an achievement that anyone ought to be quite proud of. Ought to – so why does the memory invoke such painful pangs of guilt? Anyway, here’s how it was.

After a year or so in the Manchester office of the Daily Mail I was hauled down to Fleet Street to join an awesome team of veterans as a nervous incomer – only to find old and experienced heads shaking their heads in bewilderment.

An edict had gone out that anyone, regardless of stature, found incapacitated because of overindulgence in alcohol would be summarily dismissed. ‘Pissed and you’re out’ seemed to be the unprecedented order of the day.

The whole idea was, of course, ridiculous. ‘The silly boogers will have no one left come next Friday week,’ was the opinion of one senior scribbler with family origins somewhere near Barnsley.

And that’s when the thunderbolt struck its target.

J L Manning, sports editor and probably the best known ‘name’ on the paper because of his highly entertaining weekly contribution to BBC Radio’s Sports Report, was given his marching orders – apparently for no other reason than for wetting his whistle too enthusiastically too early.

The troops were dumbstruck. Two floors beneath the newsroom, the White Swan – or Mucky Duck as it was not too originally known throughout The Street – was honoured by having its phone number on the Mail’s internal switchboard. There was even a typewriter next to the phone beside the bar which could be ‘played’ by a loyal colleague whenever an inmate found it necessary to ring home and explain how he was being kept late in the office. (Older readers might remember the satisfying ping when the typewriter approached the end of every line – evidence of fervent activity to any doubter’s ears.) The pub and the daily office routine were intertwined and wholly dependent on each other. Was this the end of our world?

It was about that time that the great sherry houses of Jerez won a momentous High Court judgment that only they could call their product sherry. Any interloper from outside Jerez, even elsewhere in Spain, had to attach the country of origin to the tipple on offer – British sherry, Cyprus sherry, Spanish sherry or whatever.

The overjoyed victors – Harvey’s , Sandeman, Williams & Humbert, Gonzalez Byass and Domecq spring to mind – held a celebratory press conference to which I and notebook were despatched. Every interviewee in turn pressed a schooner of his nectar upon me which would have been churlish, nay positively adversarial, to refuse. Some even insisted I compare the heavenly warmth of the amontillado with the untamed power of the oloroso.

Back in the Mucky Duck, notebook filled and still only a little past 1pm, I delivered the exciting news to my fellow hacks. ‘Sherry is the answer!’ I spluttered. ‘Our problems are solved!’

And when none in the audience appeared to get hold of the significance of my news, I patiently explained that I had been obliged to down at least six schooners of the stuff and here I was, as sober as breakfast.

The resulting huddle assessed the claim, agreed that I appeared to be neither slurring nor slavering and when a close examination revealed no noticeable dilation of the eyeballs – we had all reported enough drink driving cases to know what to look for – within minutes Buck the landlord was combing his cellar for additional schooners as bottle after bottle of his rather meaner version of that ancient fortified wine flew off the shelf.

What Truman’s, the brewery company that owned the White Swan, made of the sudden transformation of Buck’s weekly order, I know not. Nor can I remember the exact duration of the Mucky Duck Sherry Period. But I am sure that songs of praise were being sung in Famagusta long before sanity returned to the pathways of EC4.

Only now, under the 40-year Fleet Street Secrets Act I’ve just invented, can the murky details of the rest of that momentous day be revealed. It is yet another Ranter’s exclusive.

After adding two or three sizeable dollops of Buck’s Cyprus Surprise to the ambrosia of the morning I returned to my desk, flung my obligatory mack over an adjacent chair, carefully lined up a purple Roneo sheet behind the copy paper in my Remington Rand and prepared to type ‘William Greaves’ on the top left-hand corner of the page.

Disaster. No matter how clearly the words of my intro formulated in my head a mysterious breakdown in the linkage system that connects brain to fingers meant that no one digit could move separately from the other seven. In other words, depressing the letter t activated an identical response from q, w, e, r, y, u, i, o and p.

My dear pal Dermot Purgavie once reported on the activities of a strange literary sect in the States that sought to outlaw the letter e by delivering his entire weekly column from America without once using that particular vowel but even he would have been floored by having to use ten letters simultaneously – even if the mechanics of the old-fashioned typewriter would have allowed such profligacy.

It was crisis time. Any pride in having accidentally stumbled upon Sherry-Quaffer’s Finger to add to the better known medical conditions of Housemaid’s Knee and Athlete’s Foot in much the same way that Alexander Fleming had earlier chanced upon Penicillin did naught to still a mounting wave of panic. Could the shortest ever Fleet Street career be already nearing its end?

Salvation, however, was miraculously at hand. The news editor and his deputy had chosen on this day not to share lunchtime refreshment with their flock but instead to attend a function elsewhere which was obviously and mercifully still going strong.

Clutching mack and notebook, I fled down the back stairs, made for the nearest telephone box and phoned in my piece without the copytaker once having to question my immaculate diction. And half an hour later I rang the news desk to tell them that I seemed to have picked up a bug and would it be all right if I went home to recover?

Within 24 hours I was able to confront a lightly boiled egg and a further 24 hours saw me back behind my desk.

The worst element of this shameful incident was, of course, the fact that I could not protect any of my colleagues from themselves falling foul of Sherry-Quaffer’s Finger. The merest whisper falling upon the ears of the powers-that-were would surely have resulted in ignominious dismissal.

I had survived but I had to leave others to plough their own furrow.

Many lessons had been learnt. High on the list was the indisputable fact that the great British Pub, despite its fabled hospitality, can hold hidden and vengeful pitfalls if not treated with the respect it deserves.

And I’ve somehow got through the last four decades without a single sip of sherry.


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