There stands the enemy by Ian Skidmore
Treadling a goat by Geoffrey Mather
Living in a democracy by Paul Bannister
The Last Cuckoo by Revel Barker
Poems written on columns (Keith Preston)
No-one but a bloghead by Ian Skidmore
Campbell’s kingdom by Revel Barker
Whiffenpoofs and Rankers
Welcome to this first issue of our blog. The title, as the literati among you will have quickly spotted, is a slight amendment of a lyric/poem by Rudyard Kipling, journalist and author, and first English language writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
His poem was Gentlemen Rankers – one reason neither Jonathan Ross nor John Rossall made it onto the Editorial Board – which was brazenly stolen by Yale University to become the Whiffenpoof Song. Mr. Kipling’s exceedingly fine verse (about soldiers) had:
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!
Yale’s choir merely changed Rankers to Songsters, altered damned to doomed, cleaned up the grammar, and had three baas instead of only two plus a yah. Not, then, the sort of original work for which that institution claims fame.
Our contributors may not all rank very highly, but they certainly rant. Hence the name.
Freelance photographer PADDY BYRNE – a familiar name on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams (as the Street of Ink had not yet become) – popped along to the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the Golden Years of Fleet Street which, as he says, is happening a bit late for most of us who were actually doing the gold-panning.
IAN SKIDMORE, successful (against his better judgment) freelance in Anglesey and Chester, prolific author (24 books published) and broadcaster, sometime Northern Night News Editor of the Daily Mirror, writes on the problems caused by having more columns than the Parthenon – including undergoing a sex change to write for the Manchester City News and becoming a streetwalker for the Sunday Pic. Elsewhere he writes about his short-lived experience as a Bevan Boy.
And we take a brief look at the little-known work of academic and poet KEITH PRESTON who wrote poems about columns while contributing seven of his own (columns) a week – two on Wednesdays – and editing the Books page with his other hand, on the Chicago Daily News.
Anybody who thought Beaverbrook and Maxwell were megalomaniacs will learn from former Daily Mail man PAUL BANNISTER what comparative pussycats they were in his description of newspaper life in the Sunshine State of Florida. And there’ll be more on this subject in later editions/additions of/to the Blog.
GEOFFREY MATHER, ex Daily Express columnist and features editor, says that “In Our Day” we had to make our own enjoyment – and reveals that one of the ways he did it was to invent well-known old-fashioned Lancastrian customs for the local papers to remember.
Ex Mirror man REVEL BARKER looks at (but doesn’t buy) the newly published diaries of his former colleague Ally Campbell and also has a whinge about The Times Letters.
But none of this matters, in the end, because, as ALASDAIR BUCHAN reveals, nobody out there was taking a blind bit of notice about all our efforts, anyway.
However, we trust that our newly acquired readership is, er, reading, and hopefully enjoying these efforts. You can either scroll down the page to see everything or use the Archive link on the left to find your own favourites.
Every article has a button on which anybody is entitled to click and add comments (which, please understand, maybe “moderated” at this end). Comments will be welcomed, as will offered contributions.
– The Editors.
By Paddy Byrne
“This is my photographer,” said the new girl on the Express to an interviewee, introducing the artist in light and shade who stood beside her.
“Yes,” said the snapper. “And these are her cameras, and this is her flash and I’ll see you back in the office, love, when you’ve done your photos.”
Newspaper photographers are not as other men (most of them in the business still are men). They are not even much like reporters, although that’s probably the nearest trade profession or calling to ours that there is. Generally, the two types were always great mates, despite the joshing; they called us Monkeys and we called them Blunt Nibs (or just Nibs) but we spent a lot of time in each other’s company, a lot of it just sitting around waiting for things to happen or for people to turn up. We were forced to talk to each other.
Where the Monkey name came from seems lost, now. Some say it’s because all we had to do was point a box and press a button – “and even a monkey can be trained to do that.” Others say it’s because we spent so much time perched in trees. The Nibs resented that, because we could justify claims for “grats for elevation” (for renting a step-ladder or borrowing a bedroom window) on our exes, and they couldn’t.
On the other hand, they travelled in our cars – because we had all the equipment in them – and they charged expenses as if they’d driven themselves, so it worked out about equal, I guess.
It matters not. Our day has finally come. About a quarter of a century late, but it’s come.
From now until the third week in October it’s our work that is on display at the National Portrait Gallery. They are actually celebrating “the golden age of Fleet Street” – a bit like this Blog site, in fact – and about time for that, too.
We panchromatic artists don’t claim all the credit for the gold that was mined in those days of mass circulation and of glory. There were other people writing the copy that illustrated our work, and presumably subs and layout men somewhere, fetching up well after the streets were aired, to draw the pages and make the gold fit the usually miserable amount of space that was allocated to display our craftsmanship.
The exhibition, Daily Encounters: Photographs from Fleet Street, covers the period up to the mid-80s, in other words ending around the time that people like Murdoch and Maxwell were exercising their muscle; sorting out the inkies and introducing colour, true, but screwing up everything else and firing good people, and worse, spoiling all our fun.
That was the end of The Street, geographically and spiritually.
The writing (and the snapping) was probably on the wall by then, anyway. The game had been invaded by the Paps, looking for an easy buck. Their nickname, at least, we can trace: it’s Italian dialect for a noisy irritating mosquito, the paparazzo, coined as a name for a photographer in Fellini’s film, La Dolce Vita, in 1960.
Your milkman could, and would, buy a Brownie and stand outside Tramp waiting for George Best to fall out of the door. With no employer and therefore no rules and no code, they would go where the pros wouldn’t venture – hiding in the bushes with a long Tom to watch Fergie having her toes sucked clean, or photographing Princess Di in what she thought was the privacy of her gym.
Di was, without doubt, the end of an era, and the end of an error. Most days she, or somebody on her behalf, would ring the office and say that if a snapper was in a certain place at a certain time, he’d be able to get a picture of her, apparently snatched, even if she was officially on a “private” visit.
And the readers who rushed to buy the papers with her photo on the front would tut-tut and say, “Poor child, she’s not allowed any privacy… Oh, look! Here’s an even better picture of her.”
The straight Fleet Street economics of the situation was that a picture of Di, on the Front, would typically put the day’s circulation up by more than five percent. And remember, we were talking in real millions of copies in those days. Diana had displaced Joan Collins as the picture editors’ favorite. She was replaced by Posh Spice. What does that tell you about our readers – fickle, or what?
Then almost inevitably the Paps – the closest of whom might have been the best part of half a mile away when her fatal crash happened – got the blame for it.
Right or wrong, the game was up. The show was over.
But thankfully we still have our memories. Without any doubt we had the best years out of the game. The exhibition recognises that, even if we didn’t, at the time. At least we have something to celebrate.
By Ian Skidmore
I saw I was down on the diary to cover the Miners’ Gala on Hexthorpe Fields in Doncaster and to interview the guest of honour, Mr Aneurin Bevan.
I found him in the cocktail bar of the Danum, where in the future I was to sleep in a bath, to beat a UP man in interviewing Charlie Chaplin.
I knew it was the Great Socialist because of his Savile Row suit, the shirt from Thos Pink, the Lobb boots and the Trumper’s haircut. A fragrance by Floris lay heavy on the air.
He was knee deep in aldermen and I hovered uneasily at the edge until he summoned me to come forward and be identified.
“The Yorkshire Evening News? I am honoured. Come into the body of the chapel and tell me what I might buy you to drink.”
I said could I have a half of bitter and he said, “A HALF OF BITTER?” in that squeaky voice he had. “A HALF? OF BITTER BEER? You cannot dip the pen of eloquence in the watery ink of bitter beer… A large Scotch for my literary friend!”
In those days I had Scotch only at Hogmanay and I had never been anybody’s literary anything.
The minutes flew by in the sort of quiet content I expect you get by the yard in heaven. When the time came he put his arm round my shoulders and we walked together to the Fields. Hexthorpe? Elysian.
The miners parted like the Dead Sea and we strode through their ranks. As he climbed onto the dray from which he was to address them he was careful to plant me just where he could see me. He said I gave him confidence. I wasn’t surprised. I assumed that’s how it was with bosom friends.
The miners had been drinking Barnsley bitter since dawn and it was a hot day. The sun on their heads sent the bitter a-thump and you could see it lifting their scalps. They were looking for someone to tear apart and Bevan gave them someone.
“The enemy,” he explained to them, “is not the capitalist in his Rolls-Royce and his Savile Row suit…” (I thought: there is only one bugger here in a Savile Row suit, but the thought seemed unworthy and I banished it.)
“No,” he said in a triumphal squeak. “The enemy is not the National Coal Board in their swanky marble offices. No… THERE STANDS THE ENEMY!”
And he pointed at me.
“The prostituted press of our country – that is the enemy,” he said.
They would have torn me apart there and then but they were transfixed by his eloquence. My notebook was all wet and soggy and I didn’t know if it was rain or tears.
As I shuffled off the field a pariah, I felt an arm around my shoulders. It was him.
“Mr. Bevan,” I said, “I will probably get the sack for saying it, but I think you are a right bastard.”
“Oh, don’t be like that,” he squeaked. “We both got a job to do. Come and have a drink.”
By Geoffrey Mather
The Lancashire of weft, warps, and weavers was also where, if fun were not invented, it scarcely existed at all. Fun did not come down a wire or out of the sky and it was no worse for that. It lay in such things as running and jumping, wrestling and reading; in going to conversaziones (concerts: and whatever became of them?), in feats of various kinds – of eating prodigiously or fasting relentlessly – or wrestling bears at fairs (a Lancastrian who wrestled one such animal is alleged to have said, on being defeated, ‘I would have beaten yon mon if he’d taken his fur coat off’).
Newspapers reflected this fun, and they gave considerable space to Old Customs. As a trainee journalist on what was then called The Northern Daily Telegraph, I had a news editor named TC Colling, who employed me at £1 a week, but only after asking how many languages, I spoke. I could speak two at the time: English and dialect, neither particularly well, but I said three and included French because my guess was that he would be either unable or unwilling to put me to the test. I was right.
I watched him mellowing and whitening down the years, and somewhere in this time, he became an Old Customs man. He knew, as I knew, that people love old customs like they love their dogs. They harbour them in far-off recesses of the mind to be stroked in silent recollection, or in pub talk. Somewhere in old tin boxes, a man will keep yellowing cuttings of some claim, monstrous or otherwise.
TC’s name was Cuthbert, but he was never anything other than Mr Colling to everyone, including his second wife. In due time, he became a victim of mine. I had moved to the nationals and he still sat at his desk concerned with East Lancashire both past and present.
Old customs are minefields for the unwary. Consider treadling a goat, grain humping, huffling a pig, or going to watch a dancing troupe known as the Britannia Cocoanutters. It takes a clever, possibly a three-language, man to discern the true and false in them.
Treadling a goat is an invention of mine. There is no such thing. So is grain humping at Preston Docks. Huffling a pig… well, I am not sure about that. If you believe that Lancastrians in pubs kicked a pig around in stockinged feet then you believe in huffling. The Britannia Cocoanutters existed and, so far as I know, exist yet. They find pleasure in dancing around with blackened faces.
I had been bemused for some time by newspaper pictures of old men with big moustaches standing at the doors of butchers’ shops. The captions were similar: ‘Little would you guess that this is now where the new town hall stands,’ and so on. I wrote to TC a letter which went something like this:
“It has no doubt come to your notice that in the old days, there was a custom on Haslingden moors known as bunting, or treadling, a goat. You will remember it well. The idea was that you put a number of iron hoops in the ground and the first man to bunt, or treadle, a goat through all the hoops without the goat’s horns touching the tops or sides was awarded a hot barm cake and a pint of mulled ale.
“I well recall an old gentleman named John o’Jacks who was a champion bunter. One day he turned up for a match a bit the worse for drink, so that instead of bunting the goat, the goat bunted him. Laugh! We did laugh, sir! It so happens that I still have my old treadling irons and I thought you might like to look at them, but I would be much obliged if you could return them, as they are of great sentimental value.”
The treadling irons were, in fact, hoops from brewery barrels, large, ungainly things kindly provided by the then landlord, Bill Martland, of the Adelphi pub across the road from the newspaper office. I delivered them to the front counter and left them there. The letter bore a fictitious name and a non-existent address on Haslingden moor, which is vast and possibly uncharted. I then had the satisfaction of seeing my Old Custom printed in full and in black type and waited for years for it to appear in an authentic book on old Lancashire. It has not done so yet, and I am surprised. There’s time…
As for the hoops, I have no doubt that TC returned them and I had a vision of an old postman somewhere in the moorland grass, trudging about at the age of 103 wondering what in God’s name he was carrying on his back and trying to find an address totally unknown at the GPO. At this disastrously late stage, I apologise to him for involving him in something that was none of his business.
Being the inventor of an old custom gives one panache. I was encouraged by the experience and decided to take on another Old Customs expert employed by the same newspaper. Harry Kay, a man of great humour, had a column in which he frequently referred to a jumper named Jack Higgins.
Higgins was, indeed, a remarkable jumper. He could leap across a canal, put out a lighted candle floating in the middle with one foot, and land on the other bank without apparent effort. He could also jump over heaven-knows-how-many barrels, and there were pictures to prove it. One of these pictures was printed so many times that the metal block was almost worn away. The story always ended with the same words (since the story was never re-written): ‘He was a jumper was Jack Higgins.’
I thought we needed a new hero, so I wrote to Harry (a man with whom I drank, incidentally), in these terms:
“Whatever happened to the humpers at Preston Docks? Many’s the time I remember, as a child, seeing them carrying their huge sacks of grain from the cargo boats in endless procession, moaning their old Lancashire songs … ‘Hook and carry, hook and carry.’ My old grandfather was one of the first humpers and the only man who could carry two sacks at one go. Hack was his name. Hack Jiggings. He was known far and near for his exploits among the humpers, and even at the age of 94, he was still to be seen humping his two sacks and moaning those old songs.
“Well, one day, he was humping and he went between the ship and dockside in an almighty splash, and some said it was the drink, and some said it was his age, but he never really got back into form again and he has gone into legend with others of his kind.”
The last sentence read, ‘He was a humper was Hack Jiggings.’
The whole letter was printed and not a word was said. Not one contradiction. I met Harry Kay in the pub sometime later and he just stared at me, laughing gently. I suppose he guessed the truth, but he made no reference to it. It takes a gentleman to do that.
Geoffrey Mather, former assistant editor of the Daily Express in Manchester, joined the Accrington Observer for 12s 6d a week and was bought out by the Lancashire Evening Telegraph for £1 a week. The above is adapted from his book Tacklers’ Tales (Carnegie), published in 1993, and still in print. Now he writes a regular column, often with news of old colleagues, on his own website, UK North Perspective: http://www.northtrek.co.uk/
Always worth a look.
By Paul Bannister
Life at the National Enquirer had a flavour all its own, and it often tasted like fear.
Working in Lantana (FLA) was an edgy adventure, if sometimes a dangerous one for your career, because publisher and owner Gene Pope ran a very tight ship and instructed his hatchet men to fire at will. Or, if not at will, at least when he said to fire.
And they did. It was normal on Friday afternoons to see small knots of red-eyed young women sobbing farewell to one of their friends, who’d lost her job at short notice.
Dismissal wasn’t really that bad. Many editorial staff who were fired, hung around the area freelancing. They got handsome fees, worked a fraction as hard as the staffers and were not subject to the last-minute assignments that forced staff reporters out of town despite other, domestic, commitments. We envied the freelances, their days at the Banana Boat bar, their freedom. It seemed they’d been playing the tuba the day it rained gold coins.
Then Pope issued an edict, ex cathedra: no Florida-based freelancers would be employed. It was a typical GP move, cutting the Gordian knot. In one easy move he put fear of firing back into staffers’ lives and increased the flow of ideas from other parts of the US.
It was only one of the ways Pope kept control. GP was Mafia mobster Frank Costello’s godson, and knew all about power and influence. His father, Generoso Sr was said to ‘run New York’.
The Popes were connected, but when three of the New York mob families went to war, Costello got sent down, and his grip on power began slipping away.
Pope later said Frank made some bad decisions, and Pope’s New York Enquirer became a victim. GP had to ship the paper from its New Jersey printing works, and there was a dispute with the Teamsters union. The story went round that one of GP’s delivery drivers had been found dead in the back of his truck, a note pinned to the body with a knife stuck through the man’s heart.
The note said simply ‘Don’t fuck with us.’
Pope got the message. His papers, his guy, he’d be next. He announced that the Enquirer was headed south, to union-free Florida. Enquirer employees were told to show up at Grand Central with their families for the train ride south – GP didn’t fly – and his henchmen started handing out train tickets. That was when those employees found out if they had a job or not. Most of the 80 or so families had sold or rented out their homes, packed their goods for shipment. They were going to a new life.
They showed up at the station expecting to embark on their new adventure, and about one family in three found they had no ticket. They were not along for the ride. They were fired. Tough about your home, tough about packing your goods.
It was Pope’s way. A man who’d let his dog eat right off his dinner plate, he had a mental disconnect when it came to indifference to others’ feelings – or futures.
As corporate policy, he pitted editorial teams against each other, with the loss of their jobs the penalty for the losing team. Once, he pink-slipped the whole public relations department of about 20 people at an hour’s notice. Another time, when he came across a memo with a word misspelled by a photo assistant, he didn’t even ask whose error it was. He just growled, “Fire the dummy.”
In later life, Pope’s second wife, Lois, told how his favourite question was ‘What do you want from me?’ and said he told her to keep out of his business.
He even canned the guy who likely saved his life. In New York, GP was travelling to a lunch appointment with then-editor Ted Mutch. An oncoming truck swerved into their lane. Pope’s chauffeur pulled off a miracle of evasion, swerving up the sidewalk and around a telegraph pole before bouncing back into the roadway.
GP never said a word.
After lunch, at which Pope had his favourite meal, chicken soup (which he believed kept him healthy) followed by pasta, Ted was surprised to find the limo outside the restaurant, with no chauffeur in sight.
“You drive, Ted,” said Pope. “Yes, sir,” said Ted. “Where’d the chauffeur get to?”
“Hadda fire the stiff. He nearly got us killed,” said Pope.
At the other end of the scale, Pope could be loyal to his crew. Ted told me once of taking a glamorous woman to dinner. As they entered the restaurant, a couple of drunks made a crude remark to her. Ted, a mild-mannered man, left it alone and checked in with the maitre d’, who recognised him as the new editor of the Enquirer.
They got a good table, and a complimentary bottle of wine. Ten minutes into dinner, Ted saw four large men enter and efficiently remove the two drunks.
“I excused myself for a moment and slipped outside,” Mutch said. “In the alleyway alongside the restaurant, the large men were using baseball bats to give the drunks a bad beating. One of them stopped to nod to me. ‘Mr Pope’s compliments,’ he said.
“The maitre d’ had called someone to tell him about the insult.” It was Pope’s way. He could gift you with protection, or he could fire you. That message was plainly on the wall for all of us, so much so that, in my second month at the paper, a Scots editor held a ‘bank balance party’.
He wanted to celebrate the fact that he now had enough in his bank account to move back to Scotland and set up house again if he got fired in Florida. It was an eerie feeling: we were celebrating ahead of the editor’s being fired. In fact, he hung on for years, but a metaphorical sword was dangling over our heads the whole time.We were also constantly and accurately reminded that we were highly paid, to shut up and get on with it.
Nobody was exempt. When one of Pope’s closest henchmen, Guy Galiardo, who was company secretary as well as a lifelong friend, was looking over the extensive office gardens with GP’s wife Lois, she made some suggestions about changes to the Christmas decorations.
Pope noticed the changes and brought up the matter with Galiardo.“Why’d you move that?” he growled.“Because Lois told me to.”
“See if you can get her to sign your paycheque next week,” Pope glowered. “Meantime, move it back the way it was.”
Pope could be cruel. An editor presented him with an extremely expensive bottle of Scotch at a meeting, a bad error, as it put GP, a man who never wanted to be beholden, in a position of having to return a favour, and that was part of Mob code.
At the next meeting of the same group, Pope referred to the gift: “I took a sip of that cheap booze you gave me,” he said, showing his large teeth.
“I must not be paying you enough. Stuff tasted like kerosene. I used it to clean the carb on my Chevy.” The other editors took mental note, and GP didn’t get any suck-up gifts after that, though I did present him with a copy of a book I’d authored, appropriately inscribed, as a thanks for his permission to use the magazine’s photographs in it.
I have to admit, I was highly nervous about the offering but decided it might be an insult not to pay tribute. I chose my time carefully, going the day after the paper locked up, when he was least stressed, and right after lunch, when he’d cooked his own hamburger as usual. I also insured my safety with a discreet phone call to one of his secretaries to see how mellow he was at the moment.The planets were in conjunction and he took my Danegeld affably, but it was always a challenge to the heart monitor to enter his office…
Sometimes, the mountain came to Mahomet, and the boss would patrol the buildings with a sergeant major’s inspecting eye. Once, when he used the staff men’s room instead of his private one, Pope noticed a couple of cigarette butts in a urinal.Within minutes, a sign went up in the toilet, over his initials in the red ink only he was allowed to use in the office.
“Anyone caught throwing cigarette butts in the urinals will have to remove them with his teeth.”
The urinals had never been so spotless…
When Lois and her mother once walked past a line of people waiting to view the Enquirer‘s Christmas decorations, Pope called them back.“Where do you guys think you’re going?” he demanded. “No cheating, everyone waits in line here.”
His wife and mother-in-law turned, humiliated, and joined the end of the line. “This place is a democracy!” Pope told his attendant editor, who was so afraid of the democratic despot he didn’t repeat the story for a couple of years.
Paul Bannister was on the Bolton Evening News before moving to Fleet Street to work on Cycling magazine (next door to Mick’s Cafe). He joined the Morning Telegraph, Sheffield, then the Odhams Sun and the Daily Mail, Manchester, before becoming a senior reporter on the National Enquirer.
By Revel Barker
I am old enough to remember the days when the Night News Desk always deputed somebody in the news room to read the Front of The Times, to see what they had that was interesting… among the packed columns of small ads.
It didn’t often reveal much (although it was probably more frequently a source of stories to follow up than it is these days) but maybe once a month there’d be something hidden away there: an announcement, an engagement, a legal notice – something.
At the same time somebody would be reading the Letters Page. This was always more productive, for it was where the nobs wrote to get a point across, and often where public statements were first announced.
It was also one of the best written parts of the paper. No journalists, but no end of experts riding their hobby horses. And wit (especially in the last short letter in the bottom right corner), and often wisdom.
After my own paper, The Times Letters was always the first place to which I turned in a morning.
It was a habit I found difficulty in kicking – at least until the Letters went on line.
Nowadays I do my gleaning of the blatts courtesy of the Internet. This isn’t only because I’m an impoverished pensioner: my better excuse is that I live on a rock in the middle of the Mediterranean and sometimes the newsprint copy takes several days to get here.
Still, all well and good. Everything is there, from the columnists to the famous Law Reports. It’s only the Letters Page that gives me gip.
On-line it’s a hotchpotch, a mish-mash, a veritable dog’s breakfast. Every individual letter needs to be accessed separately and individually (unlike the splendid Daily Letters page on the Telegraph site, which makes them all accessible on one click).
That’s bad enough, by merely being user-unfriendly. But worse is that the lead letter is not necessarily the one at the top of the screen. Worse still, for some reason they do not even appear on-line in date order – so the first letter might not even be today’s date. It’s almost as if they have taken a week’s input and jumbled them up.
The Internet is supposed to make things easy.
The first thing web designers learn (and I write, perhaps somewhat boastfully, as former webmaster of one of the first 50 websites in the world) is that nothing should be further away from the start than three clicks. With The Times Letters, the piece you might want to read could be as many as 16 clicks away from the Home Page.
And even then, you might not find what you’re looking for. Even if it’s a letter you wrote yourself.
There’s the rub.
I had written a letter to the paper and I couldn’t find it. I assumed it hadn’t made the grade.
Then I got an email from a chum referring to it (the wondrous benefits of the Internet, eh?). But even then, I couldn’t find it.
There you go.
Something else that couldn’t possibly have happened in our day…
Gentlemen Ranters does not have a Letters page – yet. But readers are invited to click on the Comment link at the foot of any posting and contribute an opinion.- Ed.
By Alasdair Buchan
Many years ago when I was on the Daily Star the editor decided we had to have a mascot. I was told to go and get a dog which I was to take to events such as the National Boat Show (which we sponsored ) and have it photographed with celebrities. Realising that straightforward refusal could offend, I went along with it hoping that something would turn up to put an end to such a humiliating – and apparently unending – assignment.
First I had to get the dog. So we went to the Battersea Dogs Home where, on their advice, I got a beautiful mongrel puppy and I was photographed holding it as it licked my face. We ran it big all over the front page (Save this Dog at Christmas, etc) and asked readers to suggest a name for the Daily Star mascot. (My instruction was that the entry nominating Lucky as a name was to win – remember that name in a moment).
Next came the question of where the dog was to live. I said no; the photographer, Stan Meagher, said no. He said he already had a dog. I played the trump card of the new baby at home being enough for one reporter and the snapper had to take the dog home.
To cut a short story shorter. Lucky went home to Stan’s, developed distemper and died within days. Then Stan’s family pet caught distemper and died too to the great distress of Stan’s family.
Fortunately the mascot idea died with Lucky.
And the point of the story? We never mentioned Lucky again and not one reader ever contacted us to ask what happened to the dog. Or to the competition.
So never get carried away with concepts like “Our readers” or “Our viewers” – the bastards aren’t reading or watching.
Keith Preston was a professor and a poet who, in his 30s in the Roaring Twenties, turned from academia to journalism as a columnist on the Chicago Daily News.
He contributed a daily column, plus a totally separate, extra, one every Wednesday. He also edited the paper’s books pages.
When he died in 1927 at the age of 42, he was described by the literary editor of the New York World, as “probably the most brilliant of the long succession of witty columnists that Chicago has produced in the last thirty years….He was a scholar turned newspaper man, and his excessive good nature made his shafts easy to take.”
He was, therefore, ideally qualified to describe the art or craft of The Columnist.
The Column In History
Great Emperors in days of old
On columns did their deeds unfold
To fill his column Trajan hurled
Red Ruin round the Roman World
Still columns mighty deeds record
But peace has triumphed o’er the sword.
I read a book or feed my cat;
My column tells the world of that.
The Top O’ the Column
Day after day our daily muse,
Perched in this high position
Watches the fluctuating news
Edition by edition
From noon to early afternoon
Home, tenth, to final makeup
She sees the news room change its tune
In shake-up after shake-up
She watches the alleged confirmed
And the confirmed denied
Whereat what is politely termed
her mindpuffs up with pride.
Our muse seems light to sober men
Her mind no weighty matter
But when her mind’s made up, why, then
You bet she’s a standpatter.
[Editor’s note: a standpatter is, fairly obviously if you think about it, one who stands pat, someone who is opposed to change. In poker it is a player who plays the cards with which he was originally dealt.]
By Ian Skidmore
Here I am growing yet another crop of words on this strip of limitless space called a blog.
Did it on paper, man and boy, for nigh on fifty years.
I have been the sole proprietor of so many columns I am known in the trade as the Parthenon Kid. Got my name over the door in the end, but when I started it was the High Noon of the Flamboyant Pseudonym. In the trade magazines I was at the same time Bookworm, Hod Carrier and Pro Bono Publico. In the Hairdressers, Wigmakers and Parfumiers Gazette I was A Chiel Amang Ye, which any parfumier worth his ambergris knew was a subtle allusion to the chiel in the poem by Burns who gathered notes.
In those days a reader had to keep his wits about him. The Manchester City News changed me into a Greek lady called Thea Page (Theatre Page to the wide awake). I was Townsman in the Yorkshire Evening News; in the Yorkshire Evening Post, which was renowned for its perversity, I was Countryman; I was even Streetwalker – I still think I could sue – in the Sunday Pictorial.
I have never written downright rude columns about anyone. Not even the bank managers I have been tortured by, though I have been tempted over the years. I feel too sorry for them. The one thing you can rely on with banks is that they treat their staffs even worse than they do the customers. I am so sorry for them that I feed them money. Feeding a habit I have had for years, called marriage.
When the trade figures go up, you know my Head Ferret has been to the dress shops. Which is very puzzling because she insists everything in her wardrobe is several years old. Of course she does go to every dress shop twice. Once to buy and once to take it back, because she no longer likes it.
I do not use a great deal of money for booze anymore, alas. Just an evening G and T in memory of the British Empire and an occasional mouthwash of the cheaper Champagne. In Britain, indeed, I am a near teetotaller. I used to be a teetotaller world wide till I went to the Loire on a chara and managed to fall off the wagon at a wine tasting. Now I am nominally teetotal only in areas covered by the National Health Service because I don’t want to be disqualified from going into hospital on the grounds that I am not healthy. You have to be pretty healthy to survive hospitals these days.
I fear I occasionally declare our dining room French territory and keep a tricolour in the drawer under my shirts for lightning nationality changes.
Alas, the days have gone when I cashed so many cheques in my Anglesey local, the bank manager thought I was being blackmailed by the landlord. I am, in consequence, occasionally prey to a hangover. On such occasions, I do not put in my teeth because I cannot bear the deafening click and I am trying to teach the dog to mew, because the bark forces the roots of my hair through the scalp and I am shattered by the sound of hair crashing onto the carpet.
There was a time when hangovers were delivered every morning with the papers. Those were the days when I was so keen on retirement as an art form, I worried that by the time I retired I would be too old to enjoy it. So I retired when I was thirty and had fifteen glorious years in a mist of perpetual revelry. Called it freelancing and hoped no one would notice. Then I went back to work, because there is very little money in perpetual revelry.
Champagne being the price it is, there was no money left to buy a weekly Health Stamp. When I went back to work it was fine. I wrote a few books, did a couple of TV series and hired the voice out for money. In no time I had enough to put back the stamps, even before the DOS realised they weren’t there. Doesn’t make any difference.
They could still have docked a fiver a week off my pension because I paid late. I suppose if I hadn’t paid at all they would have shot me. In fairness, you can appeal and when I did, a Portia among women came from the Contributions Agency in Colwyn Bay and took pity on me.
Can anyone tell me why we pay tax on our pensions? We have already paid tax on the money which paid the contributions to our pension. Why should we have to pay twice?
And they hanged Dick Turpin.
No wonder the Treasury lets the banks get away with murder. Not just because every time a Treasury mandarin retires he walks straight onto the board of a bank. It is because they could both give Jesse James three black masks and still beat him when it comes to Stand and Deliver time. This job that has bank-rolled Britain, I am now doing free. Even though I agree with Dr. Johnson: No-one but a blockhead writes, except for money.
By Revel Barker
I haven’t read the Campbell diaries, nor in all probability will I bother, not least because on the evidence of the lifted quotes I have read in the newspapers (on-line) the grammar is so sloppy, the writing so unstructured, that I would find it irritating. True, they are supposed to be extracts from a diary written late at night: but they are “edited”, even “sanitised”, extracts, edited by Campbell with the assistance of his old boss at the Mirror, Richard Stott. Both of them can write a bit. The least they might have done is clean up the syntax.
If, on the other hand, the fault is down to inadequate retyping, at speed, under pressure to meet the newsprint or agency deadline, heads should roll. Shorthand is long gone out the window, but typing – in a new world devoid of competent (or any kind of) subbing – is nowadays more important than it ever was.
It’s fairly common, among our Old Farts’ group, to say what would have happened “in our day”. Nothing would have happened because even the lousiest copy typists (and on the Mirror we had one who didn’t speak any recognisable form of English) were protected unto death by SOGAT. But now there is no such bodyguard system for the inept. Typists who press Send or Submit without reading their own copy or having it checked should be fired.
On the spot. These days it would be allowed. It doesn’t happen, because editorial management is also incompetent and idle and, if its internal memos are any clue, similarly grammatically challenged.
As to the much-advertised revelations of the diaries themselves, within an hour of publication the Press Association reported that there was “nothing new” in those 816 pages. Possibly their reporter could reach that conclusion with such impressive speed – though I doubt it.
A day later the Daily Telegraph’s Rachel Sylvester [who she? -Ed] writes that “politically, the diaries are not particularly revealing.”
Oh really? Rachel and her chums knew all that stuff all the time then, did they?
Then why is everybody going on at such length about the political equivalent of those “Not many dead” stories?
“There was nothing to report from last night’s speech,” the meeja-trained reporter tells his news editor, “because somebody shot the speaker…”
But what – the chattering political classes kept all that information for cosy discussion in the Press Gallery, perhaps sharing it with their dinner guests at home in Islington without bothering hoi polloi readers with such trivia?
What the extracts that I have read do not reveal (possibly with good reason) is the total idleness of that most pompous group of scribblers – self-inflated far beyond the normal run of Fleet Street hack, or even of typical modern editor – the Parliamentary Lobby Group [their caps].
This is a club more elitist and exclusive than the Lords.
They do not see themselves as other men, which is a pity, not least because their role in life is supposedly to hear what is going on in the corridors of power – the rumour and the innuendo, the shared back-of-the hand confidence – and report and interpret it for the rest of the world, rather than to rely on official statements (those being the province of the foot soldiers, the parliamentary reporters).
But how do they set about this task under a new regime created by Campbell, a man most of them protest to despise?
They troop along to meetings that he calls so that he can brief them. They take notes, although these days – such is the level of “secrecy” and of “confidentiality” (and of Pitmans prowess) within the Lobby – they are also allowed to take tape recorders with them. Then off they go to their lap-tops in pleasant privileged rooms in the Palace of Westminster and file it back to the office. They quote Campbell (occasionally, if they’d been good, he would trot out “TB” as a special treat for them), apply their own… er, spin to the story and that’s it. Back to Annie’s Bar for a drink with the lads and with the MPs to whom they – out of touch with the reality of the world beyond SW1 – alone suck up.
So you get Campbell’s spin (about which they complain), amended by the Lobby man’s “expert” and “interpretive” spin. And the public pays through the nose for the sheer joy of being allowed to share it.
In my day (here we go) the Lobby man – he was the Political, rather than the Parliamentary correspondent – was the top job on any newspaper. It went only to an established reporter who already had the contacts in place, who could ferret out stories, could pick up gossip and interpret it as news. And additionally, he could usually write it well.
MPs with something to get off their chests could talk to them individually or in small groups in the certain knowledge that the source would remain confidential. The understanding, on both sides, was that the information was sound, and its basic truth was the only quid pro quo for the guarantee of total confidentiality.
When Joe Haines did the Downing Street job for Harold Wilson, he understandably had his own friends within the Lobby to whom he would drop stories that he wanted to get out. Bernard Ingham, in a similar role for Mrs Thatcher, did much the same. At different times in my childhood I ran up against both of them.
Neither thought twice about calling in commentators through the awesome door of Number Ten for a bollocking if he felt the hacks had let the side down, or strayed from the party plot. Being cut off from this innermost source would be a severe punishment for the wayward reporter.
But the difference was that those two men, even at their most belligerent, respected journalists.
Campbell, having been in the Lobby himself immediately before taking up the job, despised them.
For the plain truth is that – with the possible exception of so-called Crime Reporters who do no more than sit in the press room at Scotland Yard and feedback to the office official statements that have just been “released” to them by the Met’s spokesmen – there is no more idle job in Fleet Street than that of a Lobby Correspondent.
Nor, given the fact that these days the Downing Street briefings sometimes appear in full on TV, is there a more useless one.
When I heard that Campbell was accused of “sexing up” the government’s position, even on something as important as the threat imposed or implied by Saddam Hussein, I thought: Yes; that is what a press officer is paid to do. He takes the brief and he sexes it up.
Stories, in Fleet Street terms, are either sexy or they are boring. As a general rule, boring fails to make the paper. Derek Jameson once said that news was something with a CFM factor. If you read an article and said Cor, Fuck Me! It was a story. Andrew Marr described the same thing as FMD – Fuck Me Doris.
If nothing else, Campbell’s diaries have exposed the system. Exposed it even for those readers and editors who didn’t know how it worked.
Will it be reported among the acres of space being devoted to the Diaries?
I suspect not. For newspapers are putting their own censored and censorious spin on what appears in their pages.
The second edition starts here:
Friday, July 20, 2007
Ah yes: I remember it well by Paddy Byrne
Maxwell’s House by Geoffrey Mather
Here’s to you, Mr Robinson by Revel Barker
The Old Devils by Edward Rawlinson
Lies have been told by Sue Bullivant
The publisher’s Christmas spirit by Paul Bannister
First cuttings (Media Guardian, Press Gazette)
My Life And You Are Welcome To It by Ian Skidmore
Three items, included in this our second ‘edition’, about proprietors – with whom, perhaps understandably, some of our ilk appear to have something of a fixation.
Paul Bannister continues his astonishing account of the mentality of his old boss on the National Enquirer, Generoso Pope; Geoffrey Mather reveals that, when told that he was mad, Lord Northcliffe reacted in a manner that might be seen as a sign that he was perfectly sane; and Sue Bullivant reports on watching a one-man play – which may still be doing the rounds in the provinces or home counties – written by a journalist and based on the presumed thoughts of Chairman Bob.
Stepping back in time, which is our won’t if not our veritable raison d’etre, Paddy Byrne looks at a photo from just before the war and says it might not be quite what it seems. It was actually queried by another publisher, John Blauth of Media Digest. But since John is hugely popular with his staff, and has the wisdom to read this blog site, he obviously cannot be counted along with the other loonies.
Eddy Rawlinson (briefly a publisher himself) describes how, in roughly the same generation, he narrowly escaped becoming an inky by moving into the world of flash-powder and block-making for the old rotaries, in a period of his life in which he could invite people to see his etching.
Back in the land of the living, Revel Barker recounts a possibly true tale about how the Daily Mirror brought romance – typically, at totally unnecessary cost – into the debate about the UK joining the EU (or the EC: in the days when it was merely a ‘common market’ and not just a bunch of overpaid, underemployed and interfering legislators).
Ian Skidmore describes how he set up a ‘pirate’ radio station – for the BBC. This was before being presented with a Golden Microphone for broadcasts to an audience in Australia, British Forces Network, Radio Ulster and Radio 4 – a total of 26m listeners. And being sacked a fortnight later by BBC Wales for being English.
For those who missed it we include Professor Roy Greenslade’s take on this website, published by Media Guardian within an hour or so of our launch last week.
Pickfords are meanwhile moving in a couple of items of furniture. We are introducing a Letters Page, which we can at least promise will be more accessible and user-friendly than the same thing on The Times site. We bring out of retirement Dr Syntax, last seen in the pages of Worlds Press News, before its reincarnations as (UK) Press Gazette.
And finally… What would the Internet be with Jokes? A darned site better; we agree. So the strict policy of this site’s er, Editorial Board on the subject is briefly explained in a new feature, with a couple of examples of what is acceptable, to which everyone is urged to contribute. But any offerings that start: ‘This is true! It appeared in the Washington Post / New York Times / Warrington Bugle this morning!’ go straight onto the spike.
Find articles by scrolling down, or by clicking on names or subjects from the permanently updated Archive, top left.
By Paddy Byrne
Take a look at this photo and guess what is going on.
Paul Callan and Magnus Linklater awaiting a carriage to take them home to Eaton Square at the end of summer term, perhaps?
First published in (we think) Picture Post, it is often dusted off and used to illustrate the great social divide, the class structure of pre-war Britain.
But according to John Blauth, publisher of Media Digest, it’s a cropped picture.
The full thing tells a different story. Or it would.
The only problem is that John can’t remember what it is. And the cropped version is the only one that Getty Images has.
Apparently, though, the urchins are not staring at the young toffs at all, but studying something completely different that is going on off-stage, in the bit that was cropped.
Every picture tells a story: we know that, and this one tells one of sorts but it is not necessarily about what was going on at the time the shot was taken.
The camera never lies: we know that, too (and we are talking, here, of the days before Photoshop was even imaginable), and although we can justifiably believe that the boys were all standing there under the portico at (presumably) Waterloo station when the bulb was squeezed and the shutter clicked, what we don’t know is what it’s really about. Nor, perhaps more importantly, what prompted the photographer to take it.
Does anybody know?
There is a photograph in the war museum in Jersey showing hordes of children with their right hands raised, as if in salute, and the caption ‘Sieg heil!’ But the story that the picture doesn’t tell is that a German soldier of the occupying forces had walked into the park, gathered the kids around the bandstand, and told them: ‘Anybody who would like chocolate, raise your right hand…’
Never lies, eh?
By Geoffrey Mather
Newspapers attract erratic proprietors. Northcliffe once phoned the office to declare, ‘They say I am mad. Send your best reporter.’ Beaverbrook was mean, ebullient, outrageous, and always a force beyond reckoning. And so to Maxwell, a seedier man than these, the bouncing Czech, who bought the Daily Mirror, raided its pensions fund of £440m, left 30,000 pensioners in despair, and floated into an uncaring sea alone to die.
Mourned by somebody, one supposes, but not by most.
His life recently unrolled on TV, compressed into an impossible 90 minutes, but not to the point where his principal characteristics were obscured: the bullying of his wife, his children, his colleagues, his business associates. He had a devious mind for creating obscure companies with shifts of money from here to there; he was a conjuror, a juggler, a manipulator, ultimately disgraced and left without respect or honour to be buried in Israel.
I watched the portrayal of all this through the actor David Suchet and was fascinated by what I saw. None of it unexpected – the moods, the Citizen Kane backdrops, the rants, the nonsense of the man – and I was glad to have had no part of him. Suchet managed, for me, the near-impossible: he exuded power, threat, irrationality in the way I had always imagined Maxwell. True or not, those closest to him will decide for themselves.
I came close to him only once, I am glad to say. I had arranged to meet him in London because it was rumoured that he was to buy Manchester United. I had a phone call from his secretary at 7.30 in the morning. He sent his apologies but he was already in conference and would be unable to make it. Perhaps as well.
Magnus Linklater, a journalist I had been more than pleased to work with, became one of his editors. He wrote about that experience in The Times. ‘… and my last meeting with him (was) after the (London Daily News) paper folded, as we all somehow suspected it would. I had gone to see him, bearing my watertight contract, which he had signed. ‘It’s been fun, Bob,’ I said, ‘but now I would like the money you agreed to.’
‘Mister,’ came the almost inevitable reply, ‘if you think I am going to honour your contract, then you don’t know me very well’.’
It was all very Citizen Kane, and there is ample evidence that newspaper proprietors as a genre are never short of, at the very least, eccentricity.
Henry Luce, of Time magazine, chastised a writer who complained that he did not have a desk, for lack of log cabin spirit. A satirical piece in, I think, the New Yorker describing Time contained the words, ‘Backward ran the sentences till reeled the mind.’ The descriptions of people were lurid. ‘Snaggle-toothed and pig faced’ was one.
As boss of Life magazine, Luce sent out an edict to all staff – ‘Let us bend our attentions to the Japanese beetle.’ And they did. At great expense.
Dorothy Parker wrote for the New Yorker, and told the editor she was absent from the office because someone else was using the pencil.
A New York man for the Daily Express once described for me a visit by Beaverbrook:
‘I was sitting in the office when I got a phone call from London. No 1 Reader arriving. Meet at airport. No, no, I said. I can’t. Deadline looming. Busy writing a story you want. Forget story, said London. Meet No 1 Reader.’
So off he went to the airport, late, having first ordered two large limousines – one to collect the old man, the other to be available round a corner should the luggage exceed the capacity of the first.
Enter Beaverbrook and secretary. New York correspondent missing so that the No 1 Reader was not smoothed through the arrival process. The New York man explained his dilemma of having to write a story and be at the airport. ‘That,’ said Beaverbrook, ‘must have been a very difficult decision for you.’
Second limousine required…
So the old man went to his hotel and began to send messages about share movements on the exchanges. And our New York man was hunting in the waste paper baskets for old envelopes in which to send the replies – since Beaverbrook would have complained about wasting new envelopes…
The old man invited him to breakfast at his hotel. The New York man began to study the very large menu with great anticipation. From the other side came the small voice, ‘I always think that at this time of morning, an egg and toast is enough…’
Beaverbrook rolled away and eventually returned for his flight home. He sat hunched at the head of his plane waiting, with impatience, for his secretary. He had bought a copy of Lolita. Finally, she arrived, breathless, and thrust a present into his hands. He brightened. Then darkened once more as he unwrapped his present. It was another copy of Lolita.
Once he was walking, in the South of France, with several colleagues, all in black suits and homburgs, one very tall and wearing a black eye patch. They were surrounded by people in bright clothing, some in bikinis.
‘Why,’ asked Beaverbrook, ‘is everybody staring at us?’
Beaverbrook managed to form a strong, workable relationship with his editor, Christiansen, though it was never, I imagine, easy-going. I was once in the London Express when a phone rang in the editor’s office. I had been left to wait there. A middle-rank editorial executive had joined me. We both stared at the phone.
Eventually, I said, ‘Aren’t you going to answer it?’
‘Not bloody likely,’ he said. ‘You answer it. Last time I picked up that phone it was the old man.’ Fear was abundant. When Beaverbrook walked into London office, the footsteps quickened in Manchester.
Once when the general manager, editor and Max Aitken were gathered in conference, Beaverbrook phoned from the south of France. ‘What’s the weather like?’ he said.
‘Snowing,’ said the general manager, his brow perspiring from the sunlight blazing through the window.
‘In that case,’ said Beaverbrook, ‘I think I will delay my return to London.’ All three were relieved, that editor told me.
So to Maxwell. He behaved like the others, but whereas they – particularly Northcliffe – had a feeling for newspapers, he appeared to me to lack it. He was all power and seemed to impede editors around him who had great competence in their line of business. He reminded me of Joe Hyman, who once bossed Viyella. Hyman said he was interested in buying The Spectator.
‘What would you do with it?’ I asked.
‘I would have a headline – ‘Joe Hyman says…’ – on Page One.’
That, I imagine, would have killed off The Spectator in no time.
Journalists go through a long learning process. Proprietors tend to think they understand the business without the training because they know money. Murdoch at least had a go at being a journalist before tycoonery whirled him to his penthouse in the sky. Thomson rode the Underground to work and remained modest. Beaverbrook always paid well for the not-so-obvious reason that it put pressure on other papers.
As for Maxwell. Poor man to rich man, rich man to poor man, lost at sea. What an epitaph! Oh dear.
Former Daily Express assistant editor and columnist Geoffrey Mather publishes his own regularly updated web of comment and jottings about newspapers and current affairs, at:
By Revel Barker
We were travelling first class – don’t know what it’s like today, but in those days it was an entitlement for all inter-continental travel – on the London to Singapore leg of a flight to Sydney. And like all journalists, anywhere, were swapping yarns about our colleagues. I stretched my limbs (the next row of seats was so far ahead that my feet didn’t touch it) and asked Molloy, the editor in chief, whether he remembered the story of Penrose and Anton Karas.
He said he didn’t think he did. But if I’d care to hum the first few bars…
It was the time, I said, when the Mirror was trying to persuade its readers to vote in favour of joining Europe, and constantly thinking of story ideas that might suggest to xenophobic Englanders that the Continent could be an interesting place. It produced features on the romance of Paris – lovers walking along the banks of the Seine – on la dolce vita that was Rome, on saunas and free love in Scandinavia… but by the time they got to Austria they had run out of ideas. Never mind that Austria wasn’t actually a member of the European Community: it was in Europe.
It had been Molloy himself, a dedicated film buff, who had suggested an interview with Karas, the man who wrote The Third Man theme – ‘the most romantic piece ever written for the zither, which is itself the most romantic of instruments.’
John Penrose (now better known as Mr. Annie Robinson, but then a person in his own right), newly detached from the newsroom to features, was given the job.
[Molloy said that he did not remember the story, but admitted that it all sounded likely enough, so I continued.]
Penrose couldn’t find Karas in the phone book, but eventually discovered an address, and set off to Austria, by plane to Vienna, then to Innsbruck, then in a taxi – but sod the expenses, this was Mirror features – high up into the Tyrol.
Karas invited Penrose into his home and asked why he had come all the way from London to see him.
‘To interview you. Because you wrote the theme music for The Third Man, which is the most romantic piece ever written for the zither, which is itself the most romantic of musical instruments.’
‘But why did you come… here?’
‘To interview you, of course.’
‘But why,’ the old zither-plucker persisted – ‘… why come here?’
Penrose asked how else could he have done the interview.
‘Well,’ explained Herr Karas, ‘every Thursday afternoon I play my zither for afternoon tea in the restaurant at Bentall’s store in Kingston on Thames…’
No, said Molloy: he had not heard the story, even though he had been in charge of features at the time. Interestingly, I told him, nor had Penrose heard it – but he had liked it when I’d told it to him, and said that he was perfectly happy for the story to be ascribed to him.
I couldn’t remember who had told the tale to me.
By Edward Rawlinson
Printer’s Devil survives today as no more than a name for a pub, before it gets re-christened as something ‘trendy’ like The Slug in Sandwich. But it used to be a real job.
The first print shops astonished the world by producing bibles that were all perfectly identical, and monastery clerics reckoned this was the work of Satan (not least because they were being put out of their jobs, spending about a year to produce a single copy) and the apprentices were usually stained from head to toe in black ink so, the story goes, they became the Devils.
And type that became confused in its cases, or was dropped on the floor – usually by the harassed assistant – was said to have been devilled, or pied: a printer’s pie was a mix-up of type, long before it was adopted as yet another pub name.
Among the old devils whose names you may be familiar with are Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Guy Bartholomew, Ian Skidmore… and your humble correspondent.
Three months into the craft I was about to sign a seven-year apprenticeship as a young devil at a local printers. I’d already recognised the boredom spent putting type back into cases so that one day I would be able to call myself a compositor. After I’d put every individual letter of used type into its proper place my initials were chalked on the case to show I had done the job correctly.
Anyone knowing single 6pt type fonts will understand just how hard it could be to recognise the difference between individual loose letters like b, d, q or p and it often resulted in my getting a clout from the foreman. Printer’s pie was no meal for a 14 year old apprentice. In those three months I learnt quite a lot about type and attended night school for typography three times a week, continuing my studies for another two years when not working nights.
I hadn’t yet signed my apprentice indentures when the opportunity came for me to join the bi-weekly Burnley Express as an apprentice engraver and photographer so I went off into what became a lifetime of enjoyment.
The war had taken most of the young men and I had to learn fast about block making and photography and within six months I was out and about taking photographs and then turning them into zinc printing blocks. There was only me to help the boss take pictures and produce blocks because the others had left the department and gone off to the war. The boss, Fred Simcock, was in his mid sixties – that seemed old, then – and sometimes would miss work through illness and I’d be left on my own.
Only a few photographers will be around today who have wound up a spring to fire a flint, to make a flash, to take a picture. Flash powder was used in those days after your rationed quota of flash bulbs had been used up. When using powder you soon learnt to make a quick exit from a room before a cloud of dust started to descend on the people you’d just been photographing.
One of the jobs that took me closer to the war, as a boy, was having to go to the homes of servicemen and collect photographs if they had been killed in action, were missing or taken prisoner of war.
It was a task as hard as that of the telegram boy who pedalled his red bike delivering the sad news to the families. I never received any resentment when I knocked on a door to ask for a photograph; in their grief everyone seemed to be proud that their next of kin had served his country. My constant fear was that one day I would have to copy a photograph of my brother who was in the Navy. I had already made a block from a photograph of my cousin who was lost at sea.
Having taken, or copied, a photograph, developed and printed it, sized it up and coated a glass plate with collodian and silver nitrate, I’d re-photograph my picture and make it into a metal image. After etching the blocks I had to stick the thin metal zinc plates on to the rotary press. It was a worrying time when the huge Crabtree machine started to go into top gear, waiting to see whether any of the blocks would go flying across the press room. Fortunately, that never happened to me.
Nowadays, so I hear, you just press a key on a computer.
Eddy Rawlinson also worked on the Manchester Evening News, then the Daily Express. In 1964 he bought a pub and started his own free sheet, Motoring Gazette, running it from behind the bar. He sold it to the Rochdale Advertiser and joined the Daily Mirror as a photographer, eventually becoming northern picture editor.
By Sue Bullivant
I saw this play by journalist Rod Beacham at the Edinburgh Festival last August with Cathy Crawford, former head of Mirror Readers’ Service.
To our amazement, it was brilliant. A one man show, the performance by Philip York was incredible (apparently he went to drama school with Maxwell’s daughter, and met him a couple of times); an interpretation rather than an impersonation, there were moments when, in my not particularly humble opinion, he totally captured the essence of the fat old git.
Without in any way being an apologia for Maxwell’s life, it gave his point of view, and almost made it possible to understand and even sympathise with his bitterness at the snobbery and racism with which he was greeted when he started a new life in England after the war, and his resentment at not getting credit for being a patriot and decorated war hero.
And all the time the spoilt little Aussie rich boy – ‘about as English as a kangaroo sandwich’ – was being accepted by the establishment and allowed to buy The Times and the Sun.
The bullying, megalomania and disregard for the niceties of the legal side of big business came across, but the performance and writing still conveyed his humour and charisma as well as the undimmed sexual confidence of a man who, in his youth, had been Hollywood handsome.
This bloke Beacham has clearly done his homework. The Daily Telegraph described it as ‘a spell-binding tour-de-force’.
See it if you get the chance (I think it’s still touring).
The play was still doing the rounds of the provinces last month when Mike Tully (who, for his sins, worked more closely with the Fatman than most people) saw it in Guildford. However he was not quite as impressed by the portrayal as Sue was. Nevertheless, if anybody can track down a run-sheet for it, we’ll be happy to post it. -Ed.
By Paul Bannister
Of itself, the decoration of the Enquirer grounds is worth a mention – even if only to help describe the publisher’s mentality.
When Generoso Pope moved to Florida in 1971, he brought with him memories of large public Christmas trees in snowy New York venues. For Christmas ’72, he had his first big tree, a 45-footer, decorating the office’s extensive gardens. Traffic backed up on adjacent Highway One, as people gawked.
GP was gratified. He wasn’t a man to seek attention, and in his grey button-down short-sleeved Sears shirt and grey pants, with his favourite re-soled Florsheim moccasins, strangers didn’t give it to him. He might speak like his favourite movie actor, Humphrey Bogart, but he looked more like a janitor or gardener than a mob-connected big-time publisher.
There was no budget for decorating the gardens and acquiring the tree. It cost whatever it cost, ‘How many hamburgers do I need to eat?’ Pope would growl, if the question of profits came up.
The tab for the giant spruce and the gardens display was around a million dollars a year almost immediately.
‘Mr. Pope loved the three or four weeks before Christmas, when he opened up the gardens, with the tree and Christmas display,’ said a former articles editor. ‘He disliked Christmas itself; it upset his beloved routine. He’d be morose around the house and play Mario Lanza songs, one after another, but getting ready to make the visitors happy gave him a deep satisfaction, and he got to show off his prized gardens.’
The manicured grounds really were his pride and joy. He had a few plants in that reminded him of New Jersey, and although it wasn’t a showpiece of rare and exotic plants, it was lush and green. The hedges were trimmed to an exact 9ft 6ins height, the lawns of Bermuda grass were cut exactly three inches high – he used a ruler to check on the gardeners – and it was, well, an engineer’s idea of nature as it should be.
‘He had aerial photographs taken and studied them. He at once saw that the gardeners had followed the same tracks when they mowed the grass, both at his home or at the office,’ said the one-time editor.
‘GP was not pleased. He said it left ridges. You might not be able to see the marks from ground level, but they were clear from the air. The gardeners had to vary their routine.
‘Yet he never minded that the grass got trampled by the Christmas crowds who jostled through the displays. He’d actually beam at some of them while he supervised every detail of where the model railroad went, how the lights were hung. It was like a kid playing with his best toys.’
But GP wasn’t playing. Being the man he was, he decided his paper was going to have the world’s largest Christmas tree, and he’d display it in a decorated landscape suitable to its status. If the Rockefeller Center had a 70ft tree, he’d have a 140ft one.
First, GP had a six-foot deep concrete sleeve set into the ground, with a Stonehenge of concrete piers and an array of stout guy wires around it.
This footing and support would hold a tree that was usually around 120 feet tall, and withstand 80 mph winds, or ‘strong gale’ force nine on Sir Francis Beaufort’s scale.
The sump was filled with water, to reduce the chance of the tree becoming a burning bush, and to keep it hydrated for its two weeks of gawker fame.
Once erected, the giant spruce was given some artificial aid. Because very large trees usually don’t have branches for the first 25 feet or so of their trunks, they don’t look much like the traditional six-foot Douglas fir with its branches low to the ground that we see in our living rooms at Christmas.
Pope looked at his untraditional Christkindlein’s Baum with enough room to park a double-deck bus where the presents should go and decreed: ‘Give it more branches!’
A crew of tattooed bikers who were employed to hang the decorations on the tree found themselves affixing giant fir boughs to the trunk, boughs so long they were too heavy just to be nailed on, but needed to be suspended with hidden cables.
Only then, with massive creaking boughs sweeping low over the onlookers’ heads, was the tree decorated with its 15,000 light bulbs, a mile of garland and 1,000 oversized ornaments.
Several hundred red bows added the finishing touch.
Around this forest giant, all across the manicured grounds and lawns of Bermuda grass, was an array of individual displays.
They were Toytown landscapes, complex model railroad layouts, animated Santas and elves, reindeer and chimneys. Bemused busloads of tourists strolled the displays to canned Crosby or Sinatra songs, under the illumination of almost half a million lights strung through the trees and shrubs.
The displays were something, but the prime attraction, the mind-boggler to end them all, was The Tree.
It wasn’t just any tree, the colossus of conifers was claimed as the world’s biggest, and it was the Enquirer‘s.
Over the 16 years the tree was erected, maybe two million people pilgrimaged to view it from all over the continent. When you live in December-frozen Michigan, a trip to see a Christmas tree in balmy Florida seems like a very good idea.
They came in busloads, carloads and on walkers. One old dear, driving the curve of Highway One into which the tree was tucked, happened by just at the moment some tired comedian from Pope’s youth was throwing the illuminations switch.
To the old lady’s startled eyes, a 120 foot lighted Christmas tree seemed to leap out into the road beside her, causing her to swerve onto the parallel railroad tracks and get a nose bleed.
That made a paragraph or two in the next day’s local paper, but they never did have the untold story of how the giant got there.
To find the magazine’s annual evergreen and fetch it home was a task given to an Australian journalist who was the wily sole survivor of the PR department purge, thanks possibly to his Dale Carnegie social skills training.
He flew to the Pacific Northwest in the fall and spent weeks with loggers, searching Oregon and Washington for the perfect spruce, one shapely enough and tall enough to please the boss.
Most years, the job was reasonably routine, but when GP heard of a 120 footer put up for the opening of an Oregon mall, he wanted to cap that.
The Tree Team located a 135 ft beauty after three weeks of damp tramping through Bureau of Land Management wilderness and called the office.
Enquirer business manager Dino Gallo flew west. He hired a team of loggers and had Southern Pacific roll up a rail flatcar to carry the forest giant 3,000 miles to Lantana.
All was ready, chainsaws primed, when a uniformed ranger stopped the show. ‘No trees can be cut this year,’ he said.
‘Conditions are too dry. There’s too high a fire danger. Dragging that through the forest could cause a friction fire.’
Thwarted only momentarily, Dino remembered another tree, 126 feet tall, he’d surveyed on a nearby Indian reservation. The Native Americans, he reasoned, lived outside federal laws.
After considerable negotiation with the tribe, a deal was struck.
The Indians would do a rain dance, soaking the ground and safely prepping the area against fire hazards, and the tree could be cut. Much cash changed hands.
The rain dance didn’t work. ‘The old guys can’t remember it properly,’ sighed one brave. That was when the Indians did remember that they’d be in trouble if they started a forest fire. The deal was off.
Dino made for the state capitol in Olympia and talked to the legislators.
Which lobbyists got what we’ll never know, but a special tree-cutting permit was arranged, with conditions.
Platoons of firefighters on five engines joined the Enquirer payroll for the day, an air tanker carrying tons of fire retardant circled overhead and a US National Guard Chinook helicopter was drafted to hook the tree into the sky and deliver it to the waiting rail car without danger of fire-producing friction.
A week later, the rail car halted on the curving line alongside the Enquirer office. The Tree was delivered.
It cost about a million dollars for the one evergreen, but the public got to view it for free.
For all that, GP never got his wish to have the world’s biggest tree.
He found that the Oregon mall’s one-time tree was actually 150 feet tall and had claimed priority in the Guinness Book of World Records.
His tree was in second place. Determinedly, he promoted it annually as the world’s tallest, using qualifying phrases to eliminate the competitor, and sent a series of editors to negotiate with the McWhirter twins who compiled the record book.
Ross and Norris were adamant. They’d turned down a Tasmanian Christmas tree because it was a eucalyptus, not a spruce, they’d disqualified a smokestack decorated as an artificial tree and they weren’t going to give the Enquirer‘s annual tall Tannenbaum the official world title.
GP probably never knew which was worse: being frustrated in his purpose, or being unable to fire the McWhirters.
Media Guardian, July 30:
Former Mirror reporter Revel Barker, who was editorial adviser to former Mirror owner Robert Maxwell from 1984 to 1991, said Stott was the only man he knew who “stood up to the bullying tactics of Robert Maxwell”.
In his blog on the Gentleman Ranters website, Mr Barker added: “It was perhaps fortunate, for both of them, that much of Stott’s ready wit and acerbic humour passed over the publisher’s head.
“But Maxwell immediately identified him as a ‘cheeky chappy’ and appeared to enjoy his company and, sometimes, even to take his advice on newspapers.
“Indeed, arguments between them often ended with a resigned concession from the publisher. ‘OK,’ he would say. ‘You are the editor.'”
In the afternoon of Boxing Day, 1989, feature writer Noreen Taylor answered the phone at home and heard a too-familiar voice: ‘Bob Maxwell here. Is your husband at home? I’d like to speak to him, if I may.’
‘Certainly, Mr Maxwell,’ she said, with a laugh. Then she turned to her husband, Roy Greenslade – managing editor of the Sunday Times – and told him: ‘It’s Paul Callan. Doing his Maxwell impersonation, again.’
Greenslade took the phone and said: ‘Piss off Callan,’ into the mouthpiece.
‘No,’ said the caller. ‘It actually is Bob Maxwell. And I’d very much like to offer you the job as editor of the Daily Mirror.’
Maxwell was eventually successful in persuading Greenslade that he was the genuine version. And thus started yet another new era.
Not just another ex-editor, he is a professor of journalism and media commentator of the Guardian and he was kind enough to welcome the launch of this Blog site thus:
Drop in for a quick one at the old hacks’ pub
Calling all ex-Fleet Street journalists! A blog, GentlemenRanters, has been launched today to enable old hacks to reminisce about their days of wines, headlines and deadlines. It’s a cyber replacement for the pubs of the past – such as the Mucky Duck, Stab, Poppins, Barneys, Auntie’s, Harrow, Wine Press, Tipperary, the Cheese and El Vino’s – so that the veterans can rant, recount and recant.
The ‘editorial board’ includes Paddy Byrne (freelance photographer), Ian Skidmore (freelance), Paul Bannister (Daily Mail), Geoffrey Mather (Daily Express), and Revel Barker and Alasdair Buchan (Mirror group). Barker’s opening words to his first posting give a whiff of what to expect: ‘I am old enough to remember the days when…’
Professor Greenslade somehow confused the first group of contributors with our Editorial Board, but no matter: a minor error – unless (or until) those journalists end up becoming members of the said board.
And this morning (Friday July 20) Press Gazette‘s Axegrinder column reports:
A group of ancient Fleet Street hacks has started a group blog. They are calling themselves the Gentlemen Ranters and they include ex-Mirror executive Revel Barker (who had to cope with Robert Maxwell at his most deranged), ex-Daily Express features editor Geoffrey Mather, author Ian Skidmore and sometime Daily Mail reporter Paul Bannister. ‘Our contributors may not all rank very highly, but they certainly rant,’ says the blog.
Barker, who now lives on the Mediterranean island of Gozo, says from his sun-kissed balcony that the blog was started because washed-up old hacks no longer have Fleet Street bars like El Vino, the Wine Press or the Cheshire Cheese to gather in and tell ‘tales of glory’.
He adds: ‘The blog was created in about three days. Yes, I know… you’ll say it looks like it was. In that case it can only get better.’
Good on you, guys, keep trying, I say.
If it goes on like this we may have to buy a cuttings book.
By Ian Skidmore
I won a Golden Microphone after thirty years as a ‘celebrity’ presenter on Radio Wales and a fortnight later they dropped me because I was English.
I took the BBC to a Race Tribunal and there was quite a lot of fuss about it. I had been rewarded with many by-lines on the splash of the Daily Mirror over the years. Now I was the subject.
The Head of BBC Wales told the paper I was a Victor Meldrew figure and the editor said I was too old. He didn’t say the same about Jimmy Young, Humphrey Lyttelton or Alastair Cook, to name but a few.
But the BBC gave me a few grand to keep quiet and I did.
Within a month both the Head and the Editor had been sacked.
But as I sit by my pond, keeping herons off my koi, I do ponder a bit. My Manchester accent has softened on account of marrying above myself and marinating the throat muscles in the benevolent sweat of the juniper. But I hope and pray I have not lost it.
At the time I had 26 million listeners worldwide to my rants. Plainly my bosses at BBC Wales were not among them. Or they might have noticed that I seldom said Yachi dda (I didn’t even know how to spell it).
The best editor I had in my years of Taff-railing was called Bob Atkins. He was an Englishman too, so he was scuppered from the first day.
He called me to Cardiff and said he enjoyed a programme I was doing at the time.
It was called Skidmore’s Island and how it worked was a producer called Jack King knocked at my door with his tape recorder playing and for the next half hour I talked. About books. About neighbours. If anyone knocked at the door I interviewed them and I played music on my radiogram. No scripts; no conception of what was going to happen.
Unfortunately Bob, who liked a drink, took me to the BBC Club in Cardiff and as he carried me out and poured me into a taxi he said, ‘I won’t ask you to explain how the programme works now…’ (which was just as well; it took me ten minutes to tell the driver where I wanted to go).
‘…Do me a memo.’
I didn’t remember that until I was back home in Brynsiencyn on Anglesey and, still pissed, typed out the following:
‘Radio Brynsiencyn –
‘This is your smallest outpost. In the customary fashion of BBC bosses I have slept with the entire staff. But since we have been married for ten years it may not count. Our Uher tape recorder is so old it has a pebble glass window and a thatched lid. Our music department is a wind-up gramophone and our record collection includes Teddy Bears’ Picnic and In A Monastery Garden. In fact that is the extent of our collection.’
Then I sealed and posted it and it wasn’t until I sobered up that I realised I had probably dashed the prospect of a glittering career with an audience of sheep and men who wore clothes that looked as though they had been made from the covers of old prayer books.
What happened was that I got a letter from Bob: ‘Forget Skidmore’s Island. I want a series of twenty Radio Brynsiencyn.’
The trouble was I had forgotten by this time what I had put in the letter.
But… I had a title for my programme, twenty slots at a peak listening time, and a Uher tape recorder I bought for sixteen quid on the same stall at Llangefni market where I had found the wind-up gramophone that was my music department. I had an outside broadcast unit, a sit-up-and-beg bike with an errand boy’s basket on the handlebars. I had a wife with a posh voice… and not an idea of what to do with any of them.
It struck me that was par for the course in my ‘parent’ BBC, and decided to do what they did in similar circumstances.
Surround myself with a staff.
Anglesey being an island I needed a Foreign Editor to handle matters in the dark lands on the other bank of the Menai Strait. Fortunately a chap I had first known on a Bangor weekly paper had just retired. His name was Angus McDairmid and he had some experience of the role. After brilliant coverage of the wrecking of a sailing ship in the Menai Strait he was poached by the BBC and went on to become a distinguished foreign correspondent, covering Washington at the time of Watergate and various wars for the BBC.
Eminently suitable to look after Bangor.
Angus had interviewed world leaders but remained obsessed with his home town, where he was still ‘Gus’ McDermott (his name before being swamped by the Celtic Renaissance of the Sixties).
He used the job to indulge a secret vice. Wherever he had been in the world, however great the crisis, he always found time to visit any town called Bangor. Every week on Radio Brynsiencyn, until his sad death, he told an eager world about them.
The programme was beginning to take shape.
A cleaning staff is vital because broadcasters are a messy lot. Fortunately one was at hand: the love of my life, Rose Roberts, who already cleaned for us and ruled us with a rod of iron. I christened her Attila the Hoover and I was only partly joking. Dirt was terrified of her and dust disappeared at her touch.
Rose had a voice with the carrying power of a giant crane. She had appeared in the programme for only a few weeks when she took a day trip to London. She was queuing for the Palladium and passing pleasantries with her companions that could have been heard in Newcastle upon Tyne
‘Blimey,’ came a voice from far down the queue: ‘It’s Attila the Hoover!’
No Welsh broadcasting station is complete without a choir. At a lifeboat charity evening I heard a quartet called the Oscars, and immediately recruited them.
A pal of mine, Derek Jones was a bit worried about his teenage son whose singing voice had just broken.
He was keen on broadcasting so Derek asked if we would teach him the art of interviewing. I was a bit reluctant. Whenever I heard the lad sing, the hair on the back of the head lifted and I had a sense that he had been touched by God.
His name was Aled Jones. Done quite well since, but at that time his preoccupation was a sandwich toaster he had bought with his first earnings and he was forever thrusting toasted sandwiches at you.
But I thought, ‘Give the lad a chance’ and employed him at a fiver a week.
Aled did nothing by halves. He played tennis to county standard; a fine footballer, he was offered trials with professionals, and he was so keen to get his O-levels that in the interval of a concert before most of America in the Hollywood Bowl he sat in his dressing room swotting. Aled went out with my wife on a couple of interviews and picked the art up so quickly he was soon doing them on his own. His dad told me he nearly drove his parents mad practicing interviewing on them.
A remarkable boy. Never a trace of nerves. Singing for the Royal Family he forgot the lyric and made up one as he sang along.
He went to record Memories for Andrew Lloyd Webber. ‘Like to do a run-through?’ asked Lloyd Webber.
‘Can we go for a take?’ asked Aled.
They did and the first take was all that was needed.
‘Good God,’ said Webber ‘It took Barbra Streisand a week to do that.’
His Dad told me: ‘I didn’t like to explain he was in a hurry to watch Match of the Day.’
Aled has been blessed with three gifts. The voice of an angel and his parents, Derek and Ness, who kept his feet firmly nailed to the ground.
When he was awarded his first Gold Disc the BBC planned a huge reception in Cardiff for the award ceremony.
‘Out of the question,’ said Derek. ‘He would have to miss school.’ The BBC had to hire a helicopter for the ceremony; it landed on the playing field of his school in Menai Bridge.
The programme was beginning to take shape: a ‘pirate’ radio station that parodied the commercial radio of the day. We had a signature tune; a group of producers and broadcasters sang the jingles to announce the items; Celia [Celia Lucas, ex Daily Mail: Mrs Skidmore] did interviews and I headed the whole thing with a rant.
Wearing a dinner jacket, of course.
The BBC printed T shirts, ties and mugs with the station logo which started to appear in the oddest places all over the world. We had the highest listening figures on BBC Wales; a ‘club’ of listeners was formed in Boston in the USA and the daughter of a friend started a Radio Bryn fan club at Oxford University.
Islands can be dull paces in winter. Anxious to get away, a neighbour toured the Loire. By the river one day he switched on his radio as he unwrapped a picnic… and heard the signature tune of Radio Bryn doing an outside broadcast – outside his house.
Celia recorded the programme in our kitchen, rough cut it and sent it to Dewi Smith, head of light entertainment in Wales, for final polishing and transmission.
Then a funny thing happened.
Everyone was convinced it was a real pirate station and I started to get applications for jobs. WIs, youth clubs and at least one school asked if they could tour the studios and BBC Controller Ulster heard it while driving across Anglesey.
He rang my editor to ask ‘Do you have a studio in the cottage or does it come to you via landline?’
We were even a page lead in the Daily Mail.
The series ended seventeen years ago. It is still talked about in Wales.
Everything in what I laughingly call my career was an accident. This was the happiest of them all.
Friday, July 27, 2007
Gentlemen, that reminds me by Revel Barker
Button up your overcoat.. by Ian Skidmore
Birth of a national by Alun John
In God’s name by Patrick O’Gara
His nibs by Edward Rawlinson
Going downhill by Paul Bannister
Bring back fun by Ken Ashton
All Capps ( Revel Barker, Brian Hitchen, Bill Freeman, John Edwards, Clive Crickmer)
Your starter for 10
Do you hate it when somebody starts a story and somebody else says: ‘That reminds me’…?
Oh dear. Maybe you’ve stumbled onto the wrong site. Because that’s how (what passes for) editorial conference on Gentlemen Ranters actually works.
Anything can be a prompt. For KEN ASHTON, a piece in the paper about a new job for the News of the World‘s editor starts a rant that somehow includes buying fish and chips on exes for Harold Wilson.
IAN SKIDMORE is ready to take offence when a parent asks how he started in the job – being improperly dressed can, apparently, be a start; and EDDY RAWLINSON explains why some become scribes, and some become snappers.
ALUN JOHN gets started on how a new newspaper – the Mail on Sunday – got started.
The Tour de ‘France’, starting in London, starts PAUL BANNISTER, who used to work for Cycling magazine (next door to Mick’s Café in the street of dreams) moaning that cycling is going downhill.
And PADDY O’GARA finds God (or, at least, one of His representatives) in the corridors of a newspaper office.
The Guardian reports the building of a statue in Hartlepool in memory of ANDY CAPP, which gets various contributors recalling tales of the greatest cartoon Englishman.
But we are kicking off this week with REVEL BARKER so that the others can tell their tales without interruption – because when these stories get going that bugger can even interrupt himself.
Find all these stories, plus some new Letters to the Editor (not all of them complimentary, PLUS the solution to our query about a photo of top-hatted toffs, from Brendan Monks) by scrolling down, or by clicking on the Archive link at top left.
By Revel Barker
Peter Morris emailed from Chad this week (honestly: we have readers everywhere) to share a quote that might have been intended as a warning to both ranters and rantees.
Franklin Pierce Adams, famous New York columnist and a member of the Algonquin Round Table – a man who reputedly advanced the careers of both Dorothy Parker and James Thurber – once wrote: ‘Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.’
Is that true? Is that why childhood days always seemed to be sunny? Is it why we remember only the fun and forget the frustration of trying to get stories, and then searching for a working phone box, dictating to an uninterested copy-typist, fighting to get good stuff into the paper, and the constant anxiety of working against deadlines?
Thank God that nobody had yet invented what’s now known as ‘stress’, because if we’d been put wise to it I guess most of us would have been on permanent sick leave.
[Which reminds me… Think about that for a moment. We hammered away for years on old Remington Uprights. They were replaced by keyboards that responded to an almost feather-light touch; and only then did anybody come up with something called Repetitive Strain Injury, caused by typing. But I digress…]
I don’t pretend to have a clue how memory works. But I know how it jogs. It typically goes like this:
Somebody mentioned the name of photographer Bill Rowntree the other day, which started me reminiscing – from among many experiences with him – about Bill’s world scoop photo on the imminent return of Robin Knox-Johnston from his single-handed round-the-world voyage, and that got the old grey cells working about a silly story behind the scoop.
See what I mean? I was already mentally interrupting my own stories.
Well, not all of them were originally mine. Roy Spicer told me this one, so I believe it.
Nobody had sailed single handed, non-stop, 30,000 miles around the world before 1969. Francis Chichester had tried two years earlier with Gypsy Moth IV, and was famously knighted on his return, but he’d been forced to put into Australia for repairs.
So when the Sunday Mirror calculated that Knox-Johnston, on board Suhaili, must be getting close to home and to a place in history (in a challenge entirely organised by the Sunday Times) the picture desk decided to make contact, and Rowntree prepared to scoop the opposition by the simple ploy of finding out where he was and chartering an aircraft to fly over him and take pictures.
[‘Aerial pictures are easy,’ Johnny Robson used to say.’ ‘You just set the camera on infinity, point it and press the tit.’ But back to the story:]
Picture editor Allen Baird got on to the ship-to-shore operator and asked for a radio link with the yachtsman. After a while he was put through. ‘Hello Suhaili, Suhaili, Suhaili… This is the London Sunday Mirror calling. Are you receiving? Over.’
[He’d been in the forces. He knew how to do two-way radio on a maritime network. You have to call the ship’s name three times… Oh, sorry.]
Back came the reply: ‘Hello Sunday Mirror! This is Suhaili. Receiving you loud and clear. Over.’
Baird: ‘Could I speak to Mr Knox-Johnston, please…?’
This story was often lost on drinkers in the Stab In The Back who had already forgotten, even during the brief (if uninterrupted) telling, that the entire point of the tale, and of the voyage, was that it was single-handed.
But luckily Roy Spicer was a man of infinite patience, and of good yarns.
I recall there was even a fine journalistic postscript, missed at the time by most reporters covering the yacht’s arrival at Falmouth. The customs men dutifully went on board and asked: ‘Where you from – what was your last port of call?’ And they were told: ‘Falmouth.’
Mention of Roy always reminds me that before joining us he’d been northern theatre critic of the News Chronicle.
He once wrote a piece for them that began: ‘Slick, sparkling, spectacular, and with some of the most brilliant dancing seen on the English stage, this colourful musical drama has a weakness – its songs. It has no songs to hum or remember.’
And the headline, across two columns on the Front Page was: ‘A humdinger – without a tune to hum.’ So much for the European premiere of West Side Story, at Manchester Opera House.
Shortly afterwards they made him motoring editor.
When we shared an office in the Mirror Holborn building I’d often walk in singing Maria, or Tonight, or When You’re a Jet, America, or even Gee, Officer Krupke. And Roy, unphased by this intentionally irritating habit, would just shrug and say: ‘Sorry, but I still don’t think they’re good songs.’
But that also reminds me of the time when Bob Edwards offered him the chief reporter’s job, and Roy said that if it meant a pay-rise, he’d take it, but only on condition that he didn’t ever have to speak to the news desk, and that his life-style would remain unchanged.
He didn’t want the job, you see.
In addition to motoring – which meant he got to drive a brand new car every week – he also organised the Great British Beer Competition which brewers competed for as if their careers depended on it, and had Roy constantly driving around in search of The Perfect Pint.
We called him our drink & drive correspondent.
Which reminds me that Patrick Mennem, Roy’s counterpart on the Daily Mirror, spent months warning readers about the impending threat of the breathalyser, then was arrested within 48 hours of its introduction, becoming the first person in that job to be banned from driving.
Pat, by the way, was in El Vino one lunchtime when the wine correspondent of the Telegraph announced: ‘I am going to Bordeaux tomorrow.’
Mennem – a man who always looked as if his face was about to explode in anger – told him: ‘One already feels sorry for poor old Doe, whoever he is. But it’ll be a blessed relief for the rest of us, in this place.’
And that stroll down Memory Lane, or at least down Chancery Lane to the Strasse, was all prompted by a bloke in darkest Kome [8º28′ 4.265”N; 16º43’19.058”E], 40 miles south-east of Moundou, reading our recollections in the middle of the night and remembering a quote from a guy on the New York Post who retired in 1941.
Revel Barker’s own compilation of rant and reminiscence can be found at http://revelbarker.blogspot.com/
By Ian Skidmore
I worry when people, usually mothers, ask me how I got my start in journalism. And not only because the question carries a sub text: ‘If a prat like you can do it, it will be a doddle for a bright child like mine.’
Mostly I hesitate, because everything that has happened to me in my career has stemmed from an embarrassing accident.
In this case going to prison. Only an army prison and I was guilty of nothing – but then they all say that, don’t they?
I suppose I could explain the issue by saying ‘It was because my greatcoat was unbuttoned, coming out of a pub in Thetford.’
We were a night away from a draft to Palestine and were celebrating in a last chance saloon called the Green Man.
I was a lance corporal in the Black Watch (RHR) who had somehow got mixed up with an RASC unit in the days when Englishmen dominated the Highland Division while the canny Scots all joined corps and learnt a trade.
In my unit all the Scots came from Glasgow. None much more than five feet high. If you were any taller in Glasgow, you got posted to Edinburgh.
Because I was still fastening my greatcoat on the street, I was pounced on by the Town Patrol of burly corporals for being improperly dressed.
A minute Glaswegian ran up to one of the corporals and smacked him in the mouth for being impertinent to ‘a Highlander’ (from Manchester, as it happened).
In consequence, we were all charged with assault, taken off the draft to Palestine, and sent to Germany.
My charge – ‘in that he did assault six regimental policemen’ – preceded me to my new unit where I was summoned by the CO. He said: ‘I am a very bewildered officer; you don’t look violent to me.’
I didn’t. Indeed in the kilt I looked like an undernourished reading lamp and I have a photo to prove it.
I explained what happened, but he said there was nothing he could do about it. It was a court martial offense and he would have to remind me.
‘But’ he said, ‘a word of advice: ‘plead guilty. Otherwise they will have to adjourn the court and you will have wasted the officers’ morning. They will have to bring the witnesses over from the UK and they will be very cross with you. Plead guilty and your Prisoner’s Friend will explain the situation.’
I did. He didn’t. And I spent the next 56 days in 3 Military Corrective Establishment at Bielefeld.
When I was released and posted to Bad Oenhausen I decided to desert. On my way to the Bahnhof to get a train to the Hook of Holland I was pounced on by the garrison RSM, a Scots Guard called Graham.
He was very rude to me, suggesting that if I didn’t smarten myself up he would take the red hackle out of my bonnet, stick it up my arse and have me clucking like a Rhode Island Red.
I was very glad when he dismissed me.
To my horror I saw him again five minutes later in the next street. Rather than face him I dodged into the first door I could open. As it happens it was the office of Army PR.
A CSM, Paddy Seaman, asked me what I wanted. I didn’t know what to say, so I asked him if he had any jobs going. I thought I might sweep the floor or make some tea.
He said: ‘Have you any experience of newspapers?’
I thought, that’s a funny question – because, as a matter of fact, I had: I had been a printer’s apprentice at Allied Newspapers at Withy Grove.
I said I had worked on the Manchester Evening Chronicle and Paddy said: ‘Blimey, we haven’t had a newspaper reporter before. Come in and see Kenneth.’
Kenneth, it turned out, was the CO. At the time I didn’t know officers had first names, so I was a little surprised.
I was even more surprised when I met Major Kenneth Harvey. He was a touch fey. I later learnt he had transferred to the Royal Armoured Corps because the black beret brought out the blue of his eyes. What with one thing and another I was very relieved when he asked me to sit down.
All I remember of the interview was the bit where he said ‘Here’s a chit. Go to the QM and draw your three stripes.’
‘You will join as a sergeant, of course’
He bridled and his little shoulders shivered.
‘You cannot expect to be an officer straight away,’ he said.
That afternoon with not the slightest idea what I was doing I was on my way to cover the Berlin Airlift. Still the biggest story I have ever covered on my own.
But the army always did the unexpected. Some months later when I was Returned To Unit because of persistent drunkenness, another Guards RSM – Irish this time and called Kenny – thought PR was short for provost and appointed me Provost Sgt of HQ 7th Armoured Division.
So if your child wants a career in journalism, tell him to try unbuttoning his overcoat in Thetford.
By Alun John
While the launch date of the Mail on Sunday drew closer and as we were assembling a staff for the big day, Mrs. Thatcher was assembling a task force to sail to the South Atlantic. Just as our own D-Day day arrived, so did the British forces in the Falklands. Editor Bernard Shrimsley was pleased: ‘I love a war.’ he said, ‘There’s never any argument about what to lead on.’
The first paper was not a great one. The lead headline, ‘Our Day’, on the story of the successful landings on the islands appeared above an old agency picture of General Galtieri riding a donkey. Inside were lots of maps and graphics. It didn’t really set me alight; it didn’t set the readers alight, either.
I rang picture editor Gary Woodhouse on the first Sunday morning of publication after listening to the review of the papers on Radio Four. He told me never to ring him again at home on a Sunday. He’d previously been picture editor of The Observer.
Shrimsley lasted eight weeks as editor.
We came in on the Tuesday to be told he wouldn’t be there, but that the morning conference would be held as usual at 11am. I was running the desk that week with Gary on holiday. Not really sure what to make of this news, I went to see Wendy, Bernard’s secretary. She was in tears. The door to his room was ajar and I could see the desk had been emptied and turned upside down with papers scattered everywhere. It looked like a crime scene.
Small muttering groups gathered in the newsroom. None of us really knew what would happen next. I prepared a picture schedule and we filed into the editor’s office. We all looked at the desk in the same transfixed way you look at a serious road accident.
It was freezing in the room and the net curtains waved in the breeze from the open windows. John Walker, the entertainment editor, said he thought things might soon warm up. He was right.
The door burst open and in walked Lord Rothermere. The senior staff of the Daily Mail – editor David English, news editor Paul Dacre, executive editor Stewart Steven, and a few others – followed him. Most were in dark blue suits, white shirts and restrained ties. You could cut the tension with a knife.
Rothermere announced that Bernard had been fired. ‘He had to go. He has not given us the paper we needed.’ He told us from now on the Daily Mail would take over and David English would edit both the daily and Sunday papers. Changes would follow and we would be informed about them. ‘Let there be no mistake,’ said Rothermere, ‘The Daily Mail is now in charge. There will be a few small changes…’
Just small changes, but by the end of the day there was only a handful of the original staff of the Mail on Sunday left in the building. People were taken up to the next floor to be told their fate. Either they left immediately, never to be seen again, or came down silently to clear their desks. Amazingly, the picture desk was untouched. It was if an Exocet missile had struck our editorial floor.
The next day we came in to pick through the wreckage. There were a few survivors. Art editor John Butterworth and Trevor Bond on the sports desk were still standing, as was news editor Iain Walker, and the minders from the Daily Mail were beginning to arrive.
The picture desk minder was a guy named Harvey Mann, with a thin moustache, a grin, and a perma-tan, who specialized in showbiz pictures from his ‘contacts on the coast’. That was California, not Eastbourne. After a ten-minute conversation with him, I was left alone for the rest of the week. Perhaps he thought I might know what I was doing.
The week wore on and the tension didn’t ease. David English took daily conferences and dismissed most of our offerings and assured us that there would be plenty leftover from the Daily Mail to fill that week’s paper. A steady trickle of former staff came into the office to empty their desks properly, or to collect their severance cheques.
Saturday arrived and we made the usual move up to the Daily Mail floor to get the paper out. Bernard’s brother, Tony Shrimsley, had also somehow survived the week, or possibly had simply been overlooked. He had been a distinguished political editor and editor of the failed news magazine Now and had joined Bernard at the new paper as executive editor.
There was much laughing and joking on the Back Bench that first Saturday under the new regime. Tony, however, was not included in any of it. He took his customary seat at the table and was completely ignored for the whole day and evening by the others. They didn’t speak a word to him, didn’t ask him anything, didn’t consult him on anything, didn’t say goodnight when he left later. His loneliness lasted four weeks until he managed to negotiate a settlement from the management to ease his obviously wanted departure.
Tony had a drink with a few of us in Scribes, and we asked if he had been given the cheque. ‘Not yet,’ he replied, and then, producing a set of keys from his pocket, ‘but I’ll keep the company car until I get it.’
It was obvious the paper was better for the surgery. Nonetheless, it was painful to lose friendships forged in the heady pre-launch days of long lunches with no paper to produce.
David English could not continue editing two papers simultaneously for long, even given that he was one of the most talented journalists of his generation. He appointed Stewart Steven as the editor of the Mail on Sunday and gradually David faded into the background.
Stewart was an excellent editor, the best I’ve worked for, but he had a bit of baggage to lose first. He had been responsible for two terrible errors of judgment in the past – he believed he had found Nazi Martin Bormann hiding in South America when he was at the Express, and had been involved in breaking a series of stories about a slush fund operating at British Leyland when he joined the Mail. Both had turned out to be untrue. But Stewart had established himself as a shrewd operator and often used to joke about his two failures.
I instantly hit it off with him in two ways. First, I supplied him with an autofocus camera for his holidays, complete with an ample supply of colour film, which I would collect from his secretary on his return and make sure was promptly processed and returned. Second, he could not understand how to work the video recorder in his office and I would be summoned to set it to record his choice of programme most days. This gave me a little privileged access and we occasionally chatted about office events as I punched in the channels for the video.
Stewart’s greatest gift as an editor was a supreme confidence in his own ability to become the greatest newspaper editor the world has ever seen.
He was also able at conference to absorb a long and detailed list of stories and features planned for the week ahead and immediately home in on the best contenders, especially for the centre spread display. Sometimes this would be simply a schedule one-liner or a passing comment from an executive. Stewart would fall upon it, issuing instructions for writers to be engaged, pictures to be taken, with ideas for the show it might make on the Sunday.
He would brief writers and photographers alike, with a confidence based on his ability to visualise the end result, before they had even left the office.
The paper was soon steadily building circulation under his command and establishing a reputation for exclusive stories and pictures.
Alun John started his career on the South Wales Echo in his hometown of Cardiff before transferring to the Western Mail, he worked for the Press Association and the Evening Standard, before joining the launch of the Mail on Sunday and then was launch picture editor of The Independent, assistant editor of The European, and later managing director of Syndication International.
By Patrick O’Gara
Although the name of God, and of his Son, would be invoked frequently during times of stress or even of sheer bewilderment, or when a story stood up, or when one fell down, I can’t say I was ever greatly aware of the presence of much religious fervour in any of the editorial floors on which I have toiled.
The final stages of the Sunday Mirror (and the Pictorial, before it) seemed to be put together almost entirely by Jews, working before sunset on Shabbat. Presumably they had a perpetual dispensation to do that, in the same way that in the old days the Romans among us were allowed to attend functions on a Friday where fish was unlikely to figure on the menu.
Good Friday – the most holy day in the Christian calendar – was a normal working one for us, with the added magic of providing a traffic free opportunity for driving to the office, and even parking on the street outside it. There’d be a service at St Bride’s for those committed people who couldn’t get along without one: posters usually advised that entry that day would be only via the Rector’s office (usually some wag would add ‘just step over him’, or alter the wording to orifice).
Apart from that, Scotsmen and Geordies, being all considered heathens, were expected to allow God’s Englishmen the day off on Christmas Day, in return for being encouraged to go home to celebrate their pagan festival of Hogmanay. And that was about as religious as we ever got.
So why, in God’s name, did the Mirror Group employ a chaplain? A perpetual stream of them. Not just on call, but on the payroll, each full-time with his own office and, for all I know, his own choirboy. Perversely, it was the only department in the company not controlled by a chapel, so far as I recall, but there was no need for one because most of the incumbents, like the rest of us, tended to congregate on the other side of New Fetter Lane and mass at the altar of Bacchus.
Some of them seemed pleasant enough coves wandering the corridors, not surprisingly, with a perpetual air of astonishment.
But I remember one, less bright even than the rest of them, less pleasant, and far less (if the word is assumed to have any element of the idea of giving) Christian.
He might even have passed relatively unnoticed if the story hadn’t got round that he had asked Felicity Green for advice concerning a friend of his who he described as being persecuted ‘by a frightful little Jew’.
I have to report that her response was not overly helpful.
He also started to frequent the Oak Room on the ninth floor. This was the executive dining room which offered rather good and, more importantly, highly subsidised meals at canteen prices but with tablecloths and silver service and a wine list.
Lawyers, circulation managers, production bosses and senior bean-counters took full advantage of its amenities but editorial folk seldom used it, preferring pub culture, or restaurants where they could perform out of sight of the boss class.
The journalistic exception was Reg Payne, when he was deputy editor of The People and then editor of the Sunday Pic/Mirror.
He would go there most days with people like Mark Kahn and Cyril Kersh and a small clique of execs and hangers on – usually about six of them.
The Mirror chaplain, being head of his own department – at least in this world – was also allowed to use it and became a regular. Being, to put it charitably, of a frugal disposition he would lunch alone, then – when other diners were calling for the brandy – would wander over to their table, hovering and hoping to be invited to join them in a glass on their tab.
Possibly, he had tried it successfully before with Reg. But on one memorable day Reg’s cup of Christian compassion runneth not over.
‘Listen, Vicar,’ he said, before the man of God could utter a word to get himself invited to pull up a chair, ‘Why don’t you just bless us all and fuck off?’
Paddy O’Gara worked on the Daily Mirror for 23 years before joining the new Today. He left that to help start up HELLO! magazine then spent a few months on The Star before joining The Toledo Blade to redesign it, becoming editor (Americans call it managing editor) in 1990. He retired, exhausted, in 2003 and now lives in Spain. He has also has a blog, http://elcaminounreal.blogspot.com/
By Edward Rawlinson
I suppose because I failed my 11 plus I was destined to be a Lens, rather than a Nib. Nibs often went to grammar school and either went on to university or spent those same formative years as a junior reporter on some suburban weekly, then on an evening newspaper before joining the officer ranks of a national daily.
A Lens moved up the ranks after being allowed out of a darkened room and promoted to the rank of Snapper. The dark room was his training ground where he learnt the skills of photography. I can recall many Nibs who had been to university but not a single Lens other than the two bigger Lenses I will mention later.
The great advantage a Lens had over a Nib was that he had the chance to see how Nibs worked and was able to compare them with other scribblers. He learnt a lot from that experience and was able to guide young inexperienced Nibs when they went out together on assignments. A Lens always seemed older than a Nib somehow; it could have had something to do with early developing.
One lesson many young nibs learnt in early scribbling was never, no not never, call a Lens ‘my photographer’. Trilby and notebook have gone flying at such words and a Nib’s only transport back to his office been seen departing in a cloud of blue smoke and screeching tyres… leaving him interviewing a very confused person.
An advantage a Nib had over a Lens was when the going might have been getting tough he had no need to be at the scene of any violence; he could get the words at a later stage from his – oops sorry: from a – Lens. The worst Nib to work with was one who had a vivid imagination, producing words unable to be portrayed truthfully with light. I have seen many encounters between Lens and Nib staged on the sawdust strewn floor of Yates’ Wine Lodge after such complication.
Nibs – Lens, Scribbler – Snapper, Reporter – Photographer, name them what you like but when working together as a team they were invariably a formidable force, much like Starsky and Hutch but occasionally (can’t deny it) more like Laurel and Hardy and very rarely even a bit like Tom and Jerry; but like Morecambe and Wise the truth was that they were best as a double act, and were generally less effective as a solo turn.
Don’t want to take sides, of course. But could I just mention the words, ‘by Royal Appointment’? Yes, we had Tony Armstrong Jones and Lord Lichfield, one the Queen’s brother-in-law, the other her cousin. Beat that, His Nibs.
By Paul Bannister
Cyril Jones was my first news editor, at the Eccles Journal, and he nagged a reporter’s education of sorts into the likes of John Stapleton of TV fame, the late Peter Hollinson (Western Mail editor, if memory serves) and tabloid titan Brian Wesley.
Jones of Eccles was an unlikely candidate for cycling’s hall of fame, but he deserves a pedestal there because he comprehended what riding a bicycle was about.
Bless you and your large Family Ales, Mr Jones. I forgive the year’s miserly payoff of 7s 6d for calling in copy to the Manchester Evening News almost every day, because now, I understand.
Cyril tutored us in the information business but he knew when to stop. He didn’t inform his juniors about the linage fees we’d get, and matters went smoothly (at least until Christmas, and the three half-crowns each.)
In similar fashion, too much info has wrecked my sport.
In 1962, I was a teenager obsessed with bicycle racing. I rode several hundred miles a week, (14,200 that year, my diary tells me) ate three extra, donated, breakfasts daily as I did the rounds of police, fire and ambulance stations en route to the office and was as lean and hungry as Cassius.
A bicycle was an instrument of speed, poise and glamour, I felt.
Cyril, on his rod-braked Rudge, belted and generously insulated in sub-editor Maurice Brown’s camelhair demob overcoat (bought from him for ten shillings in a moment of Maurice’s weakness, then dyed navy) seemed to have none of these qualities. He would pedal to town hall or magistrates’ court, upright and trouser-clipped in horseshoe-shaped spring steel, as the very image of stately motion.
I’d sigh, ease my Campagnolo gear lever forward and stamp my Stallard up Church Street.
I left Eccles for London, where today’s Tour de France voice Phil Liggett was my colleague at Cycling magazine, was my team mate on the squad sponsored by Witcomb Cycles and was my flatmate in an orange-and-black-painted Palmer’s Green lodging that brought people out in a rash when they saw the decor.
We lived within earshot of the North Circular, and trained in the evenings across Hertfordshire with a chain gang of 60 or so Londoners who had no clue what we Northerners were saying.
And I loved cycling.
Today, from the Pacific coast of America, I look sourly at Le Tour and wonder where my sport went wrong.
I’m not addressing the issue of cheating through doping, which seems to have permeated almost all sport. I’m talking technical and informational advantages.
Ranters use the phrase ‘In My Day’ a lot, and I gladly employ it here. IMD, we wore wool shorts and shirts, and leather shoes with slotted shoe plates. Our Brooks Professional saddles of leather, steel and brass rivets weighed about the same as a modern bicycle’s entire frame.
It was essentially the equipment used 40 years earlier, and only Bri-Nylon was our concession to modernity.
We didn’t have aero helmets and skin suits with bootees, and we didn’t ride in Superman-style tucks to slice more easily through the air on our non-cavitating, solid disc rear wheels and tri-spoked carbon fibre front hoops, with their ultra-slippery ceramic bearings. We thought if we just kept our elbows in, that was enough aero concession.
Of course, airflow had its advantages. Cycling to work in a suit can be a sweaty business, and a brisk, Lancashire-damp breeze had fine cooling effects.
I kept regular shoes at the office, because Cyril taught us that people checked your tie and shoes first to see what kind of clown the local rag had sent round to report the chip pan fire, and it made for difficulties if ‘lad from t’Journal’ clattered up in metal-cleated cycling shoes.
I devised a means of fastening my briefcase around the crossbar of the bicycle frame, and this allowed me advantages because I could hide the bike and stroll up like a somewhat odiferous insurance agent.
Once or twice a month, I’d have the duty of covering council meetings in a steelworks town a few miles away and for that respectable duty I’d use my brother’s orange-painted Mobylette moped.
This allowed me not only to arrive in unsweated if seriously windblown state, but allowed me to claim mileage, a privilege not given to mere pedal-pushers.
The disadvantage, I found on the night the councillors celebrated the free bar at the opening of a new social club, was that the moped was much harder to push when one was too inebriated to ride.
This might be too much information, but it brings me back to my rant: Tour de France riders get too much info.
I’m talking about the ear-piece wireless devices the professionals use to communicate with the team manager in the following car.
With them, he can tell the rider up the road what’s happening as he monitors matters, and it’s infuriating.
Time was, you broke away from the front end of the bunch and slipped out of sight. Maybe you’d be joined by a few others and would work together to stay away. Maybe the bunch would catch you. Maybe an escaper would sneak off before the catch and the main group might not realise there was still the One That Got Away somewhere up the road.
Enterprise, effort and cunning could pay off, just as it does in the world of doorsteps and stakeouts.
When the sport is controlled by a manager who has half of French television telling him who’s where by their bike-mounted GPS, individual effort is undermined.
The manager knows his équipe, working together, can cut X seconds per kilo from the gap. A bit of maths to calculate distance to the finish and he can tell his boys (whose heart rate monitors he can also read remotely) exactly how hard to work to bring back the escapee.
What a cheat, and what a bore. Forget the drugs, the sport’s busy cleaning itself up (and don’t get me ranting about steroid-loaded US baseball players who are stealing records fuelled by hot dogs and beer).
Just take away the damn radios, which already bedevil other arenas.
American ‘football’ – a game where the only foot to touch the ball belongs to the smallest man on the squad – has drugs, technology and radios.
The quarterback is told what to do by a squadron of advisors who call in every play. The receivers run planned routes, the blockers step into scripted gaps, the running backs follow designed pathways.
It’s a radio-controlled spectacle, and I hate it. I want my two-wheeled heroes battling it out elbow to elbow, on empty roads unscripted and on their own initiative.
There are times to remain silent, as policemen have advised me. It’s bad enough that mobile phones can keep you in constant touch with the office, especially when you want to hide for an hour or two.
Let’s resist an in-your-ear stream of instructions, let’s have some quiet.
If Cyril Jones could traverse Eccles radio-less on a Rudge, surely the professional entertainers who roll around France can manage without hints.
Cyril knew that a bike was for transportation. I knew it was for sport. We each did our thing unimpeded by instruction.
Maybe we can’t stop tech fiddlers ‘improving’ sports equipment from tennis racquets to pole vaulters’ springy poles.
Maybe we can’t stop drugs in sport, or halt the development of jumbo cricket bats and carbon fibre canoes, but please, please, let’s have radio silence.
By Ken Ashton
An Independent profiler, writing on the appointment of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as Tory communications director, said Coulson – unlike many media figures – had gone to ‘an ordinary school’.
And now I read that Simon Barnes, The Times chief sports writer, is to be given an honorary doctorate by his old university and, while reporting it, comments on the fact that many journalists worked their way through the ranks, eschewing media courses.
Ah, the dreaded media courses. When I was 62, I was enrolled at a local comprehensive school to teach journalism and media. After being roped in to help design their course material, since the head of department knew nothing about journalism, I was appointed a teacher, but paid as a technician, because I didn’t have the relevant qualifications.
The students, bless them, were happiest designing cannabis posters on their Apples or filming each other. They didn’t read newspapers because ‘you can’t believe them’ and they were not interested in public affairs, because ‘Dad pays the rates and the tax.’
All of which reminds us of our own golden days as, straight from school or national service, we went into the hallowed trade of journalism.
And here I am, at 75, mentoring would-be journalists in foreign climes. And many of them are not just good, they are brilliant. Like the guy who sent me an article yesterday and said he was having problems, being a Nigerian in Spain and finding doors closed to him. Or the woman in Sierra Leone who tells me she is sorry her work is late, but she can use her laptop only when the generator is free.
We, who gaze at journalism through our rosy Specsavers glasses, see the good old days as the best.
Were they? Well, the training was. Editors like Alf Glynn (who often would look out of his window in the office and think he could see Red Indians, covered in blood, coming up the High Street – and then carry on editing), who sent me back once on a five-mile bike ride to gather a first name I’d forgotten to ask for. I’d already been out pedalling all day doing district calls, but not many people in those days had a phone.
I covered Harold Wilson’s constituency on a bike and one of my rare car trips was accompanying him in his chauffeured car on election night and being despatched in the rain to buy fish and chips for three… ‘Put ’em on your exes, lad. Tell your boss they were for Harold.’
News editors like Gordon Bennett, at Warrington, who would make trainees stand to attention and sing misspelled words. Try ‘accommodation’ to the tune of Little Brown Jug.
Thank the Lord we didn’t have mobiles in those days. How would we have stayed out of the reach of news editors who never would have believed we couldn’t find phone kiosks that worked?
I once missed almost a whole day’s play at Chesterfield between Lancashire and Derbyshire because my car had broken down on the moors. I cobbled something from the radio and Manchester Evening News, but was unaware there had been a public address call for me to contact the office. Bob Findlay was not best pleased.
Today’s media students and university qualified ‘journalists’ have never experienced the trauma of door-knocking the bereaved, milling with strikers, using the stubs of cheque books as note books, à la Arfon Roberts, RIP.
When I tell some students of journalism how to write an intro, they will argue with me.
This is the guy who once rewrote the intro of a column by Peter Wilson, The Man They Can’t Gag. He came all the way to Manchester from London to chastise me – then took me out to lunch.
I have no quarrel with the trendy journalists who now have their shoulders clapped for mixing fact with opinion when reporting, or the Top Shop models who pose while they shout the evening news at me (… the girls Sir Trevor McDonald called docklands hookers on News Knight).
But I hanker for the days of yore – was it all of 50-odd years ago? – when we seemed to have more fun doing the job.
Maybe abolish media studies and bring back the fun? Now there’s a thought.
Ken Ashton worked on the St Helens Reporter, Yorkshire Evening News at Doncaster, Lancashire Evening Post, Liverpool Echo, Mirror and Sketch and on the Birkenhead News and Runcorn Guardian and Rhyl Journal.
The Guardian Diary:
Remember Andy Capp? The Daily Mirror‘s ‘loveable’ cartoon character has been immortalised in bronze and now graces Hartlepool seafront. Hartlepool is the home town of Capp’s creator, Reg Smythe, and his widow, Jean, appears to have won the battle against the PC brigade, who seemed to think a fag-smoking, hard-boozing sexist was not a suitable mascot for the town.
Meanwhile, the Lowry art gallery in Salford is hosting a major new art exhibition that features vintage Capp cartoons. The curator, Bill Longshaw, says: ‘Andy Capp is the original northern anti-hero who spends most of his time smoking, drinking and sleeping – combined with trips to the bookies or pigeon lofts. Rightly or wrongly his character has, over the last 50 years, helped create a popular image of chauvinistic, work-shy northerners – and exploring such cultural myths that have stemmed from the north is what the exhibition is all about.’
Back in Hartlepool, no local business wanted to put its name to the £20,000 project, so the local development agency pitched in with the Mirror. Next stop Trafalgar Square and the fourth plinth?
I met Reg Smythe only once. He told me the inspiration for the strip was a guy he saw at a Hartlepool football match, which he’d attended with his father. It started to rain and the man standing next to him took off his cap and put it inside his coat.
Young Reg said: ‘Mister, it’s started to rain.’
The man said he knew that.
‘But… it’s started to rain – and you’ve taken your cap off,’ said a puzzled Reg.
The man looked at the youngster as if he was stupid.
‘You don’t think, do you, that I’m going to sit in the house all night wearing a wet cap!’
My (now fairly vague) recollection is that Mrs Maxwell failed to see the humour in the strip.
When Cap’n Bob queried it, he was told how much it made from world-wide syndication – after which there was no argument about continuing it.
Cudlipp told me that he was in the Mirror editor’s office, can’t remember which one, when Reg Smythe came in to present his Andy Capp cartoons for the first time. [Jack Nener; the cartoons first appeared in the northern editions in August 1957, and ran in all editions from 1958 –Ed.]
Cudlipp laughed (a rarity unless he was firing somebody on Christmas Eve), and told Smythe to bring them back after lunch. If he still thought them funny, he’d be hired.
He did. And he was.
I remember Len Woodliff telling me when he was editorial manager that Reg Smythe was by far the biggest earner in the Mirror group.
Don’t know how it happened but I picked up the job at the Daily Mirror in the mid sixties as chronicler of Reg Smythe’s career and stunts.
We travelled together a lot.
One time we went to Devon to look up H E Bateman (dropped rifle etc). We found him in desolate poverty in a cheap cottage through which a stream ran after heavy rain. Memory now a bit shaky but I believe they exchanged cartoons.
We went everywhere by train. Reg would buy armfuls of those old joke books they used to sell and note down ideas for Andy.
I’m guessing this date is 1966… Al Capp was in a suite at The Savoy. Li’l Abner was his cartoon character. He was probably the richest cartoonist on earth.
I arranged for Reg (Andy Capp) to meet Al Capp. Al was delighted for the opportunity. This was because Andy Capp was now being syndicated in America to more than 150 newspapers. Later it was more than 200.
There was coffee and whisky and beer (Reg) and they drew Andy meeting Li’l Abner for a big Mirror spread that I would write.
All done, Al Capp asked Reg what he was going to do with all the money he was earning. Reg was puzzled. Al said his syndication in the US would bring him in a fortune. Reg was listening, smoking a fag and coughing.
Then Al said he had his own syndication company and would be quite willing to represent Reg worldwide.
He said he thought he could guarantee Reg $100,000 in the first year. Reg said he was earning £8,000 a year (about $20,000 in those days).
Al was astonished. Told Reg he should get in touch again and quickly.
We walked back to the office. Reg was talking money like an investment banker. And grumbling.
I did the piece. Mike Christiansen (Asst Ed) liked it and it was marked up for a spread. The cartoon was great.
Christiansen asked me what I thought of Al Capp. I said he was an easy guy to get on with and what fun it had been listening to him trying to get Reg to join his syndication firm and let him handle Andy Capp in America.
Jesus Christ! Christiansen almost exploded.
‘What do you mean? What do you mean? This is f***ing dynamite. Tell me again.’
So I did. And he stormed off.
Perhaps 30 minutes later he was back and called me into his office with the door shut.
I had to write a memo to him recalling every single word said between Reg and Al. Christiansen told me the memo was actually for Cudlipp.
I was concerned I had stupidly got myself involved in something very serious.
Around 6pm I got a call from Reg. I had been trying to ring him to let him know what was going on. No reply. Now he tells me he has spent all afternoon with Cudlipp and a lawyer.
His basic salary had been raised to £25,000 a year (a huge amount) and he was to get a decent cut of the Andy Capp annuals published in the UK. US syndication hadn’t been discussed.
We went across to The Stab and had several drinks.
In a day or two he called me into his Mirror studio and gave me a gold Cross ballpoint pen.
Not many nights later I handed it to someone in The Cock Tavern to write down a phone number and that was the last I ever saw of it.
In 1976, Reg Smythe, then aged 57, and his wife Vera moved from upper crust Harrow to distinctly unfashionable Hartlepool – a seemingly improbable step for a man who must have made millions – but he had felt the call of the town of his birth. I read a pathetically short piece about it in the Hartlepool Mail (shame on them, it was a bloody good local story) and suggested I did a feature on it – which appeared as a centre page spread in the Daily Mirror on April 2.
Their new home was a luxurious five-bedroom bungalow called White Gates incongruously surrounded by a pleasant but totally unpretentious private suburban estate. Perhaps appropriate, for I found this small, bespectacled and quietly spoken man, who had been a post office worker before Andy Capp brought him fame and fortune, to be utterly unpretentious, too.
Hull-born Vera, however, was quite the opposite; buxom and rather brassy, she wore her husband’s wealth on her fingers – I’ve never seen as many ostentatious rings on one person. But she was friendly and I would guess fun to be with and their marriage lasted 40 years.
Reg told me that he decided his cartoon character would be called Capp to reflect the flat caps of the working class of the north, but he couldn’t decide on the first name.
He said: ‘I was going to call him Johnny Capp or Freddy Capp but then I hit on the terrible pun Andy Capp because he was obviously going to be a social handicap. I never dreamt for one moment he was going to become such an international celebrity.’
That he was most certainly was, appearing in 1,700 newspapers in 17 different languages in 48 countries and enjoyed by an estimated 250 million people from the Yemen to Yokohama and all points north, south, east and west from Hartlepool.
Reg apparently liked the piece I had written and we enjoyed a good relationship after that.
The Mirror in those good old days loved stories containing the splendid Geordie ingredients of whippets, stotty cakes, black pudding, bookies and Newcastle Brown Ale, and I quite often phoned Reg for a ‘what would Andy have to say about this?’ comment.
He never let me down; sometimes his reply was instant, on others he would ask me to call back in ten minutes. Always Andy had something pithy and apposite to say. (These stories frequently got a far better show in southern editions, the London back bench evidently regarding us in the north east as outlandishly quaint.)
Reg died of cancer, aged 81, in June, 1998, and on a Sunday morning of leaden skies I returned to the bungalow where this time, in contrast to the extrovert Vera who had died the previous year, the door was opened by his second wife Jean, a small, slightly-built and reticent lady who had been his secretary or something and who had married him just three weeks earlier. Presumably she came in for his fortune but she seemed genuinely upset and didn’t strike me at all as the mercenary type; quite the reverse, in fact.
She showed me Reg’s ‘den’, as he called it, a small room where he created his cartoons – sometimes seven a day – and it was much as he had left it with his upright chair in front of an easel and drawing paper and pencils strewn about on a small table beside it. It gave me a strange tingle; that of being in an inner-sanctum of such journalistic and artistic accomplishment and history.
After I had filed my piece from home I opened a can of the famous Broon – it seemed appropriate – and raised it in salute to Reg. He was a very nice guy.
It is well known that Flo was based on his own mother – also Florence – who had the same indomitable spirit as Andy’s long-suffering spouse. Although Reg, I believe, denied this, the real-life Flo, who lived all her days in a terraced flat in a working class area, once told me she believed Andy was modelled on her late husband, Reg senior.
She said: ‘Unlike Andy, my husband was never an aggressive man but, my goodness, he didn’t like work though he loved a pint of beer and a bet on the horses.’
And, so I was to discover, all his characters contained images of people he knew. His funeral was a private affair, though the Mirror was represented by ex-editor David Banks, managing Editor Pat Pilton and cartoons editor Ken Layson.
I broke away from them when, before the cortege arrived, I saw a small group of mourners had gathered. One was Madge Rigg, immortalised in the strips as Madge the barmaid, whose late husband Jack was known throughout the world as the stoical landlord of our lad’s local. She told me – and here I am looking at my Mirror report on June 18, 1998 – ‘Jack and Reg were great pals and I like to think of them in Heaven playing dominoes together and cracking jokes as they used to. Jack would always stand behind the bar with his arms folded – just like Andy’s landlord. But Reg was the absolute opposite to Andy. He didn’t swig pints and get into trouble. He sipped gin and tonics and enjoyed a quiet chat and chuckle.’
Ex-barmaid Doris Robinson, 66, was there as well. She once appeared in a strip as a pub Mrs Mop in which Andy said she should be charged with burglary – for breaking into a smile. She said ruefully: ‘Trust Reg to depict me as a scrubber – and I don’t think I was that miserable.’
Retired police sergeant Alan Goodman knew that Reg had him in mind as the firm but kindly bobby who oft times escorted a drunken Andy home or to the nick. They – and their alter egos – had come to pay their last respects. And I now intend to do the same, by opening a second bottle of the old nectar and raising my glass to a most likeable legend.
The Mirrorman Who Stood Up To Maxwell
Richard Stott, reporter and columnist, twice editor of the Daily Mirror, twice of the Sunday People, and once of Today. 1970: married Penelope Ann, younger daughter of Air Vice Marshal Sir Colin Scragg, KBE, CB, AFC & bar (d 1989). 2 daughters: Emily (b 1972) & Hannah (b 1975), 1 son: Christopher (b 1978).
By Revel Barker
Many people claimed it, but Richard Stott – who died this morning aged 63, after a year-long battle against pancreatic cancer – was the only man I knew who actually stood up to the bullying tactics of Robert Maxwell, megalomaniac proprietor and self-styled ‘publisher’ of the Daily Mirror group of newspapers. Some people occasionally talked him down, but Stott met him head on and often put him down.
It was perhaps fortunate, for both of them, that much of Stott’s ready wit and acerbic humour passed over the publisher’s head. But Maxwell immediately identified him as a ‘cheeky chappy’ and appeared to enjoy his company and, sometimes, even to take his advice on newspapers. Indeed, arguments between them often ended with a resigned concession from the publisher. ‘OK,’ he would say. ‘You are the editor.’
He was never heard to say that to any other person in that job. There was, on more than one occasion: ‘OK, you’re the editor – but I am right.’ And even, once, ‘Sorry, I was wrong.’
A former Reporter of the Year in the British Press Awards, and later Editor of the Year in the What the Papers Say Awards, Stott was appointed editor of The People in 1984, six months before Maxwell acquired the Mirror group. When Mike Molloy was promoted from editorship of the Daily Mirror to editor in chief, Stott was a fairly obvious successor and remained in the job until the end of 1989 by which time Maxwell was becoming visibly irritated by him and tired of his arguing that a newspaper could have only one editor.
The crunch came on Christmas Day when Stott was planning to splash on pictures of Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena lying dead after being sentenced and executed by a military court. Maxwell, fairly typically, wanted to lead the paper with an appeal to Mirror readers to donate cash for ‘poor Romanians’.
They fought angrily. Stott won the day. But on Boxing Day Maxwell offered Stott’s job to Roy Greenslade (managing editor of the Sunday Times), who had previously turned down the editorship of The People.
To save face all round, Maxwell told Stott he was accepting his suggestion of a management buy-out of the financially ailing People, and he returned to edit it, in anticipation of becoming his own ‘publisher’.
Stott would become chairman of the new company and they both somehow decided that I should be managing director; I was in Austria when that decision was made and Maxwell flew to Munich to offer me the job at a meeting that lasted half an hour and after which he flew back whence he had come.
But there were complications with separating the paper from the Mirror stable because the group as a whole was about to be floated, so Stott as editor and I as managing editor were given a year to prove that we were capable of both financing and running a newspaper successfully and independently (although Maxwell was planning to retain a minor shareholding, and keep the printing contract, at least in the initial years).
A further complication was that Maxwell prevaricated about putting a price on the title. Its real value was about ₤15million but it was shown in the flotation documents at ₤50million – despite the fact that nobody could remember when it had last made any net contribution to group profits.
Planning reached the stage where we had negotiated rents for new premises and established new deals for staff and services. But Stott made the mistake of holding and slightly increasing circulation against the trend and – through his brilliant presentations to major advertising agencies – bringing the title nominally into profit in that first year of independent editorial and budgetary control.
At that point, to nobody’s genuine surprise, Maxwell reneged on the deal and kept it within the group flotation plan.
Thus Stott’s ambition to become his own publisher – the People journalists didn’t think twice about it when I told them they could either remain in the employ of a big fat nasty bastard, or ‘cross the road’ and work for a little fat nasty bastard and a tall thin nasty one – came to nought.
His initial consolation prize was to be offered the editorship of the newly acquired New York Daily News, which he turned down. Asked by Maxwell what he wanted, Stott replied: ‘I think it’s pay-off time, now, Bob… unless you want me to return to the Daily Mirror as editor.’
And Maxwell offered him his old job back.
On November 5 1991, when Maxwell committed suicide on his yacht in the Atlantic it fell to Stott, as editor, both to manage the coverage and to man the bridge in Holborn; after hearing the news one Mirror director flew off to the Caribbean with his wife on a holiday they had won in a Mail on Sunday competition; deputy chairman Ernie Burrington went home to play bridge.
Stott led the paper with a big picture of his late boss and the headline ‘The Man Who Saved the Daily Mirror – by The Editor’. Fifteen inside pages were devoted to the one story. Then he walked outside the building to face hordes of newsmen.
Asked how Maxwell had sounded, last time the two of them had spoken, Stott replied: ‘He seemed very buoyant.’
He told me later that he regretted having said that. But he didn’t regret the Mirror headline, because he honestly believed that by sorting out the print unions, buying colour presses and introducing a ‘new technology’ system that actually worked, Maxwell had saved the papers from an otherwise inevitable slow death.
He didn’t change that opinion even when, a few days later, he had to lead the paper with ‘Millions Missing From the Mirror‘, detailing how the publisher had stolen around ₤500 million from the company pension fund. And now Stott revealed how, when Maxwell’s wife and daughter had flown out to Spain, ostensibly to make arrangements about the body, they had immediately started shredding documents from Maxwell’s files on his luxury yacht.
It was a unique situation for any editor – investigating his own newspaper and exposing his own board of directors. When it was discovered that Maxwell’s head of security, a former chief superintendent with Scotland Yard’s serious crimes squad, had bugged some of the executive offices, Stott led the paper with a snatched picture of him and the headline: ‘This is the bugger!’
While much of it appeared good knockabout (and it is true to say that Stott was personally having great fun wreaking discomfort among the ineffectual executives who had clung to the publisher’s shirt-tails for the past seven years) it was serious stuff. Stott was by background an investigative reporter and by nature as tenacious as a bulldog.
His reporters followed the money, revealing the names and the detailed dealings of high-profile city firms that had handled deals for Maxwell, often with little or no regard for the sourcing of cash or even for the whereabouts of tangible assets.
He ignored pleas – and eventually direct instructions – from the board who told him that to run these stories was damaging to the company. Stott replied defiantly that it might be damaging to the directors, but that it was vital to the integrity of the newspaper, and pressed on.
He had originally gained the editor’s chair by being called from the People to Maxwell’s office to be told that the publisher was ‘minded’ to offer him the Daily Mirror job and would put him on a short list. In what was to be a typical reaction to Maxwell’s pomposity, Stott told him: ‘Bollocks. You are either offering me the job or you are not.’ Taken aback, Maxwell said that, in that case, he was offering him the job.
Instead of taking over immediately, Stott confidently spent a full month writing the terms for his employment, which in part laid out a revised editorial policy for the paper but essentially said that he would brook no interference from anybody. To his astonishment, Maxwell accepted the document and signed it without demur.
This did not of course mean that Maxwell didn’t attempt to inject his own ideas, but it meant that Stott could remind him of the deal, and rebuff him, even to the point of describing the publisher’s suggestions as stupid. Nobody else ever did that.
The basic problem for Maxwell was that he had no sense of humour and was never sure whether his editor was being funny, cheekily rude, or downright insulting. The fact was that when he spoke with him Stott was being earthily honest. He believed that he worked for the Daily Mirror, not for Maxwell, and would frequently tell him so.
After one blazing row about the most trivial of matters – how the rival papers were delivered to Maxwell’s front door by a messenger around midnight every night – Stott told him, from home: ‘You make this job a fucking misery, Bob.You can stick it.’ He slammed down the phone and when Maxwell called him back, Stott hung up the phone.
Next morning he was summoned to ‘pop up’ into the presence and asked ‘What are we going to do about this situation? You know… I always accept resignations.’
‘You are going to apologise for your behaviour,’ Stott told him. ‘And I, of course, will accept your apology. Then I expect you will open a bottle of Champagne.’
Maxwell thought for no more than a matter of seconds. He walked to his fridge and took out a bottle of Krug and opened it. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I was wrong.’
Stott’s humour could be dry, or it could be cutting. When first introduced to his prospective father in law, a high-ranking RAF officer, he had immediately asked him for his views on the Spitfire. Although he had flown Lancaster bombers, the Air Vice Marshal spoke in high praise of the fighter aircraft before being interrupted by Stott saying ‘Because I came here in one…’ and took him to the window to show him the little red Triumph sports car outside. ‘…It’s so much more sporty than the Herald, wouldn’t you agree?’
When meeting Peter Jay, former ambassador in Washington who had been recruited as Maxwell’s chief of staff and was experiencing marital difficulties, Stott asked him: ‘If it’s true that you are one of the brightest minds of our generation, why didn’t you wear a condom when you shagged the nanny?’
After Maxwell’s death the company was sold and Stott found himself working for another unworthy chairman, this time a man he had originally known as an exceptionally irritating sub editor. David Montgomery, who had failed as editor of the News of the World and Today, told Stott that his job was safe – and sacked him two days later.
Stott edited Today until it folded, then became a columnist on the News of the World and, after Montgomery‘s demise in the Mirror Group, on the Sunday Mirror, where he remained until overtaken by fatal illness.
His five editorships – twice of both the Daily Mirror and the People, once of Today (Rupert Murdoch described him as one of the three best editors he had known) – amount to a Fleet Street record.
He told his Sunday Mirror readers in June that he had cancer and that he might be away from the column for some time. But he continued to work with Alastair Campbell, his abiding friend and colleague who had followed him from the Daily Mirror to Today, and for whom he was editing the famous diaries, latterly from a bed at the Royal Marsden.
Copyright © Revel Barker 2007