Bombed out of their minds by Revel Barker
You couldn’t make it up by Paul Bannister
The Petri Dish Kid by Joe Mullins
Life’s burning ambitions by Geoffrey Mather
Danish Blue by Ian Skidmore
The Blade, and Di by Patrick O’Gara
The Queen and I by Revel Barker
In this mainly calendar-driven edition we fulfill our original brief by starting with a Rant, to welcome (or possibly not) the silly season.
Then, Paul Bannister explains, if English journalists want to be inventive they still have a long, long, way to go to catch up with what their former colleagues are doing in the US of A.
Elsewhere, we remember two birthdays: Joe Mullins on don’t-call-her-a-test-tube-baby Louise Brown and Revel Barker on the journalists’ all-time favourite, the Queen Mum.
Geoffrey Mather sits in front of an open fire while Ian Skidmore travels to and searches for sex, Paddy O’Gara pitches camp in Corporal Klinger’s beloved Toledo where he’s induced to talk about his experience with Princess Di and polo.
So, a bit of both sex and travel, this week.
Which is one way of describing the gist of the regular message imparted to Robert Maxwell by Mirror editor RICHARD STOTT, whose obit is our final posting in this mixed week…
We also list some (hopefully) interesting or useful LINKS, accessible via the Archive. If you have others you feel are worth including and sharing, please let us know.
Find the articles by scrolling down or clicking on the by-lines at top left.
Please bookmark the site among your Favourites, so you can go back to it, without losing the link.
Comments and letters (and contributions) please, to firstname.lastname@example.org
Bombed out of their minds
By Revel Barker
It’s summer (on the calendar, if not at the Met Office) and as Parliament and the courts go into the long holidays newspapers perforce have to lower the definition of news, in order to fill all those potentially embarrassing gaps between the adverts.
One method, considered rather radical on some newspapers, is to ask reporters to think up and contribute ideas for stories.
The best that the Daily Mirror news desk could come up with recently was: ‘I know – let’s see how easy it would be for a terrorist to plant a bomb on a train.’
OK. Let’s get my declaration of interest out of the way from the start. For more than a quarter of a century the three English and two Scottish titles of the Mirror Group funded my lifestyle, either individually (at various times the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People) or collectively – those three plus the Daily Record and the Sunday Mail – and it would have been more lavish if it were not for the losses incurred by the Sporting Life.
Now for my declaration as a journalist, former NUJ convenor and sometime editorial panjandrum: if anybody had come to me and made that suggestion, I would have sent him – or had him sent – home, with instructions to stop at his GP’s surgery on the way.
If I’d heard that a news editor had taken up the idea, I would have made the same recommendation about him to his editor, his boss: that the deskman follows the reporter on the way out and for an immediate medical examination.
If you bend over backwards – and it would need to be beyond the horizontal – to look at the newspapermen’s point of view, you may accept that they were not actually going to plant a bomb, but merely a ‘device’ that could have been one.
If you listen to the paper’s defence for its action it goes like this: They were testing security in a time of heightened terrorist alert, therefore it was ‘a legitimate and justified journalistic exercise.’
Journalists, after all, have a God-given right to ensure that the people responsible for our security are doing their job efficiently.
And up to a point, Lord Copper, that last bit is true.
But you might think that, fully understanding that the security services are currently more than over-extended in uncovering and prosecuting real terrorists, to add to their burden with a time-wasting stunt was the height of irresponsibility. Not to say stupidity.
And if it works, what’s the message exactly?
It is exactly this: ‘Hey Ahmed – your idea of driving a jeep into the entrance of Glasgow Airport to blow it up and kill lots of people didn’t work… have you thought about just putting a bomb on a train, maybe one going through the Channel Tunnel?’
There are millions of separate passenger journeys on the trains every day. Most people carry some form of luggage. Last time I travelled by rail there was no personal or baggage checking – nor would it be practical for there to be any. Imagine the chaos it would cause.
So to get a device that’s not a bomb onto a train doesn’t sound like much of a challenge, to me. [This may now be a forgotten art, but district photographers used to put packages on trains every night – by the simple process of handing them to the guard. There were never any checks, although once when I sent an envelope containing prize-winning leeks and onions to the news desk, marked NEWS URGENT, the guard apparently complained about the smell.]
But suppose that the Mirror ‘device’ had been planted, and then discovered. The train would have been stopped, creating an unimaginable backlog of railway traffic extended across about half the county. Police would have cordoned off the rolling stock and closed adjoining roads, the army called in to secure the area, bomb disposal people summoned to make the device safe, the anti-terrorism and security services alerted, the Cabinet office would have been informed, people living in the area would have been evacuated from their homes…
This, clearly, is what the sometime world’s biggest and best daily newspaper nowadays thinks is campaigning journalism.
There must be an award for it.
But now here’s the good news.
Railway staff at Stonebridge Park depot (towards the end of the Bakerloo line in north west London, where Chunnel freight is loaded) spotted the journalists – dressed as railway workers in high-visibility yellow jackets and hard hats – carrying their fake ‘bomb’ and called British Transport Police before the guys had even planted it.
And they were immediately arrested under the Terrorism Act.
They were held for 12 hours while their homes were searched and their personal computer and photographic files examined. The Mirror described the police reaction – which many sensible people might think was the least that should have been done – as ‘heavy handed’.
The ‘midnight raids’ on their homes were ‘at best disproportionate and at worst intimidation of the most sinister kind.’
Nothing, then, disproportionate, intimidating or sinister – presumably – about pretending to plant a bomb on a train.
Referring to the arrests, Gary Jones, the paper’s (ahem) head of news, said: ‘You have to ask in whose interests the police are acting, and why.’
Perhaps I can help him, there. They were acting in my interests.
If anybody who isn’t a legitimate railway worker dresses up, trespasses on the railway, and pretends to be one, it is greatly in my interest for him to be arrested.
If he is planting a bomb I want him banged up for life, preferably in Guantanamo Bay with only a copy of the Koran, in Arabic, as reading matter.
If he is pretending to plant a bomb, I want him locked up for pretending to plant one and for wasting police time, and for intentionally trying to scare travelling members of the public.
A quarter-page photo of the pair of them, looking like a pair of paedophiles caught in the headlamps, was overprinted with the message that ‘The disquieting experience of these two Mirror journalists raises hugely worrying questions.’
It certainly does; but not the ones the paper was asking.
The Mirror, scratting around for some form of legitimate grouse, said the arrest of the two – at least one of whom, photographer Roger Allen, is an old Fleet Street hand (Photographer of the Year and News Photographer of the Year) and ought to have more bloody sense – ‘raises questions over whether the authorities can be trusted with new powers under Gordon Brown’s 56-day detention proposals’ [for suspected terrorists].
Well, I’d say that the answer to that one is a resounding ‘Yes – they can be trusted’, for the simple reason that they could have been locked up 28 days (and at some future date for up to 56 days), but were allowed to go home after only 12 hours. The system therefore clearly works, and it is excellent news that they appear to have proved that there is little fear of the jailing of innocent people.
Even if these two were not actually ‘innocent’.
Now for a reality check, lads.
Security systems need checking regularly, and that’s the job not of journalists looking for an easy ‘Oh what a clever boy am I’ story, but of the police and security services.
It happens, and it happens often. And it often happens that they find flaws in the system.
What happens then? Well (you’ll have to trust me on this one) they do not always report the security lapses – because it totally pisses off the people who are responsible for them.
The staff with the awesome responsibility of performing checks at airports, for example, are not entitled to pick people out of a queue who they think look suspicious nor, incredible though it may seem, even to ask an Arab woman to show her face in order to check it against the photo on her passport. They have to be seen to be working without any visible sign of ‘discrimination’, which is why old ladies are siphoned off to one side while bearded mullahs who walk as if they might have something stuck under their thoub or dishdasha are allowed to pass through.
When a policeman manages, in a test, to get a gun through the screening and the security staff are called to account for it they therefore react angrily. Instead of deeply screening, say, one passenger in ten, they make a point of examining one in five – with the effect that the queue to get into departures stretches thrice round the terminal and out onto the taxi rank.
The Mirror has had its wrist slapped. It should have had its head whacked. And its Ed, too.
But at least it has proved that, on this one occasion at least, the railway staff was fully alert, the police reaction was prompt, and the Terrorism Act with its planned 56-day detention of suspects is nothing that the fully innocent need to fear.
The Mirror has done us all a service – like it used to – even if it was actually trying to put the fear of God into its few remaining readers: the evidence of its pathetically silly stunt is reassuring.
Now it should stop bloody whining and start looking for a proper story. Maybe the paper should let its journalists out on the street more. That’s where the stories are – not in tormented and sadly inventive minds on high-rise floors in Canary Wharf.
You couldn’t make it up
By Paul Bannister
So it’s goodbye, Weekly World News, or is it?
The American Media publication was supposed to fold both its online and print editions on August 3rd but, for reasons which insiders say make no sense, management has now announced an August 27th demise for the print edition, while the online version of The World’s Only Reliable Newspaper is supposed to continue in cyberspace.
It’s on a credible/incredible par with everything else about the paper and its intriguing headlines. I’d also like to believe that the core of the planet Mars is composed of molten chocolate, as it reported.
The Wacky was begun in 1979 to utilise the National Enquirer’s unwanted printing presses at Pompano Beach and quickly reached cult status and a profitable million copies a week.
Everything about the Wacky seemed to have a sub plot, though.
Mike Irish – who, John Garton reminds me, was supposed to run the Mirror’s Ulster edition until the IRA blew up the colour printing plant in Belfast – was one of its editors. Mike’s real estate agent wife had an even more explosive claim to fame. She helped the 9/11 hijackers find a place to live in Delray Beach while they took flying lessons.
Photo editor and anthrax attack victim Bob Stevens did work for the Wacky after surviving a near-miss gunshot when his pal, former Manchester Evening News artist Jack Grimshaw, was demonstrating handgun safety. Jack lost his thumb and forefinger in the incident, Bob survived, only to become the victim of a still-unsolved murder.
Another creative Wacky editor was former Daily Record reporter Joe West, who gave up his brief career as a Glasgow copper for the news biz after a nasty after-dark incident involving a bucket full of human excrement and his foot.
But the vagaries of the Wacky’s staff only added to its charms.
Selby’s finest, ex Mail man Joe Mullins, now living the life of a lotus eater in Florida, notes: ‘The demise of WWN has been covered pretty well by the mainstream over here. There have been lists of favourite splashes (mine was Famed Psychic’s Head Explodes, which they made into a T-shirt) and an interview with Rafe Klinger, who created the crazy columnist Ed Anger. Countless people thought Ed was real and agreed with everything he wrote.
‘We had a neighbour whose daughter Cindy was an aspiring model. One day her mother bragged that Cindy had clinched a photo feature in a world famous magazine but was puzzled by the subject matter… she had to swim through a pool with a big fish in her mouth and break the surface with it clasped in her teeth. The mother thought the magazine was National Geographic and was rightly proud. The mystery was solved when WWN came out with something like Fish Girl Catches Them In Her Teeth. Angry mom wanted to sue but they had signed a release that covered everything.’
And, the Wacky did offer in-depth coverage.
They explained, for example, why Moses wandered the Sinai for 40 years. He’d lost the map. Rabbi Zalman Schmotkin-Fisher of the Moses Studies Institute, the paper reported, said a parchment sealed in an urn found near the wreckage of an Egyptian chariot contained a map etched by the fiery finger of God. It plainly showed the way to the Promised Land and the journey shouldn’t have taken much more than a month, even for the Red Sea Pedestrians.
The good rabbi theorised that Moses dropped the thing as he rushed for the parted waters and stubbornly refused to ask God for directions. That ticked off the Creator so much He wouldn’t let the Israelites in when they eventually did find the Promised Land.
In the columns of the Wacky, we learnt of the Calcutta man who, while digging a water well, hit a gravity well instead. ‘A gyrating maelstrom of pure energy’ began to pull everything in the area into the ‘great maw’ of the ‘whirling abyss.’
As the roots of the tree the well-digger was clinging to began to leave the earth for the abyss, a huge boulder got there first and fortuitously blocked the hole, saving us all.
The Wacky team were diligent in their coverage of events closer to home, too. They reported that a skinny green alien had landed his dusty spacecraft at Woody’s Car Wash in Lake Worth Florida and ordered ‘The works.’
A housewife found stuck in her dining room ceiling hadn’t quite ascended to heaven. She was a victim, the Wacky told us, of being taken up in a Half-Rapture.
A cannibal gourmand interviewed by the magazine’s intrepid journos said he didn’t favour eating Mexicans or Chinese as they were ‘too spicy.’ He wasn’t thrilled about munching on Germans, either. Too greasy.
Another foodie, a Mexican taco vendor amazingly discovered by the staff, was using a miniature alien flying saucer as a sombrero.
Sometimes the Wacky raised questions of a deeper, philosophical nature: ‘700 lbs of Oprah Winfrey! Where did it all go?’
Other exclusives deserved the splash. The Wacky revealed that survivors of the Titanic were still bobbing around the Atlantic, having survived since 1912 on the ship’s beer supply. They also reported that a tiny mermaid had been found inside a tin of tuna, and interviewed researchers who said the deer and the antelope had never, ever, played together.
The paper covered the romance of Saddam Hussein and secret dwarf Osama Bin Laden, and their adoption of a shaved ape baby, Robert, which they proudly displayed as their human child, and the magazine handed out practical advice, too. You could learn how to tell if your guardian angel is gay; or discover that the latest technology is a rotary mobile phone.
Through it all, the Wacky editors never blinked. The stories, they insisted, were not fake. They’d interviewed the talking toaster and the chicken that could do calculus…
‘It all depends on how you define fake,’ they explained.
I just hope they’re faking the paper’s demise, too.
The Petri Dish Kid
By Joe Mullins
Reporter kills world’s first test tube baby. That’s the headline that flashes across my mind whenever I read anything about Louise Brown. She was 29 last week (on July 25) and my heart went in to overdrive when I saw it noted in a Today In History paragraph.
It almost happened on my watch. I would have been able to blame photographer Mickey Brennan too. But most of the shit would have landed on me.
As a reporter on the National Enquirer – owned by Gene Pope, godson of Mafioso Frank Costello, the real Godfather – I would now be inside some Florida concrete column for making such a screw-up. He was an ogre…‘but our ogre’, we used to say fondly. Not a man to let down though.
I was pleased to be given the job of looking after Louise and her parents, Lesley and John Brown, when the family was invited to Florida a few months after Louise’s birth. In April of that year (1978), I’d been part of an Enquirer team sent to Manchester to find the expectant mother, along with Paul Bannister and an American reporter called Eric Mishara.
Paul and I were former Daily Mail men in the city with lots of friends and contacts there. Our team leaders, Bill Dick and Brian Hitchen, gave us instructions I’ve never forgotten. ‘Hit the bars, throw some money around, get your old mates drunk, pick up the scent.’
The scent? After a week or two of buying booze for half of Manchester we could barely pick up our backsides from the barstools.
It became clear that we were way behind. The Daily Mail team, including some of the guys drinking our beer, just about had it nailed.
The Enquirer cut its losses and started to negotiate for US rights if the Mail cracked it. I was pulled out and sent on to Stockholm to pester The Fonz, Henry Winkler, and his bride Stacey, on their honeymoon. (That’s another story.)
Back in Florida in July, I read the Mail’s scoop on Louise’s birth. Gene Pope bought the story from Associated and according to newsroom gossip at the time paid out all the Mail had spent and more.
As I’d almost given my liver for the story already, I thought it was only justice a few months later when my editor (former Mirror man Bernard Scott) told me the Browns were heading to Enquirer headquarters in Lantana and I’d be looking after them.
What could be easier? It was a top secret job, of course. Baby Louise’s first time on US soil. But the Mail exclusive had told of the joyous couple whose miracle baby had made their dreams come true. They were the salt of the earth.
‘I’m happy to tell you that anything you need will be here for you,’ I told John and Lesley as they came off the plane with little Louise at Miami airport. ‘After all, you’re the guests of America’s biggest newspaper, the National Enquirer.’
‘It’s crap,’ said Lesley. ‘I’ve read it. It’s a rag.’
John rolled his eyes. ‘No problem, Lesley,’ I said. ‘You’re here now. Welcome to sunny Florida.’
‘I don’t know how you can live here,’ said Lesley. ‘It’s too hot. It’s so sweaty.’
‘And this is Louise,’ I pressed on, smiling at the baby and gently tickling her.
‘Waah,’ said Louise. ‘Waah,’ screwing up her face.
‘Ooh, she doesn’t like YOU,’ said Lesley.
I put it all down to jet lag and drove the family 120 miles north to the suite I’d booked at a Sheraton. We were on Hutchinson Island with the warm Atlantic lapping beside us. The whoosh and hiss of the waves seemed so soothing. ‘I hope that bloody noise isn’t going to be on all night,’ said Lesley.
This could be a long ten days after all, I decided.
Because it was a big exclusive job, the Enquirer photo editor had decided to fly in Michael Brennan from New York. That was great by me. Mickey and I were old friends since our days on IPC’s original Sun.
He came down after I’d spent a day or two getting the Browns settled.
Now anybody who knows Mr Brennan soon understands that when it comes to taking pictures he is a very serious man. The face of a Botticelli cherub, someone once said, and the temper of a cobra.
‘Nobody said anything about snaps,’ said Lesley. ‘I hope he’s not going to be clicking away all day.’
Snaps indeed! Mr. Brennan is a former Photographer of the Year. His clicking away when Donald Campbell died on Coniston Water won plaudits worldwide.
Ever the peacemaker, I explained that he wanted to make a nice album for them to record their first visit to the United States. ‘Nobody said anything about snaps,’ she repeated. John Brown looked nervously to the heavens. Brennan glowered.
Lesley also made it clear that while she didn’t like being photographed, she positively hated the ‘test-tube baby’ term. After all it wasn’t actually a test tube but a Petri dish where Louise had her start. It was never spelled out but it seemed that Lesley was uncomfortable with the misconception (how appropriate) that a test tube had been stuck up her.
That’s a subbing problem, I decided. Not that the Enquirer, being American, had actual subs. In the States, subs are fat, greasy, overstuffed things you see in the sandwich shop. While in Britain, they’re…well, where was I?
Later in the bar, while the Browns had an afternoon sleep, Mickey and I discussed their bloody minded lack of cooperation. ‘Fuck me,’ he said, ‘you mean the greatest medical minds of the century combined to let these two reproduce?’
I decided that we had to give the Browns such a good time they could not fail to respond.
An illegal bonfire on the beach and a champagne barbecue. ‘Too smoky,’ said Lesley. ‘All this sand gets between my toes.’
A special dash to get rum raisin ice cream. ‘Nothing special,’ decided Lesley. ‘It’s just like ice cream with rum and raisins.’
Editor Scott’s pretty assistant Laura Doss babysat Louise each night while Mickey and I pushed the boat out for John and Lesley in the Sheraton bar.
‘He’s got another hangover,’ Lesley told me. ‘And it’s all your fault.’
But they gradually came round. I was always good with babies. My cheeks still flap in a high wind from being stretched by doing that thing where you put your finger in your mouth and make a pop as you pull it out. I’d stood behind photographers on every paper I’d worked for, getting kids to smile. I was stung by Lesley’s charge that Louise had taken a dislike to me. Of course I could win her over.
My popping eventually did the trick. And with Louise gurgling, even Lesley and John had to smile for Mickey’s camera. And of course there’s nobody better than him at doing his job.
From the beach, we headed up to Disneyworld for the standard Mickey Mouse and Goofy pictures…and I got one of those reporting chills.
Lesley and John wanted to go on the terrifying ride, Space Mountain, which meant queuing for an hour or more. I looked after Louise, cradling her on my knee.
‘Hey Joe, didn’t know you had a young ’un.’ I looked up to see Jim Leggatt, a freelance snapper, camera round his neck. Now Jimmy regularly worked for the Enquirer’s then major rival, the Star. He sat down next to me and I told him I was just looking after a friend’s baby while she was on the ride.
He had an exclusive on the world’s first test tube baby on a plate and didn’t realize it. When I told him the story a few months later, Jim said, ‘Dinna worry, boy. I wouldn’t have screwed you. We’re pals.’ You would have Jim…you would. And I, you. That’s our business.
But that scare paled alongside my panic the next day. As we idled our way back to Miami to wave the Browns goodbye, I took them shopping for souvenirs in one of the flashy malls. A few gifts. Cheap jeans. Florida T-shirts. A western poster in which they posed as cowgirl, cowboy – and cow baby, I guess.
And then an expensive lunch. I noticed as we ate and drank that Lesley kept Louise quiet by breaking bread from the rolls on the table, dipping it in soup and shoving it into her mouth.
As John tucked into a series of fancy shrimp cocktails, Louise got quieter and quieter. When I looked more closely at her, she was turning blue.
‘Oh shit,’ I yelled. ‘Louise is choking.’ The world’s first test tube baby, first of what is now more than one million, born to world acclaim after the ground-breaking work of doctors Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, was going bluer by the second, eyes rolling up into her precious skull. She was about to snuff it on my watch.
What’s more, Mr Pope would say it was all my fault. If the National Enquirer killed the world’s first test tube baby, it would be the lead news item coast to coast.
John and Lesley just sat, mouths agape. I ran round the table and tried to dig out a mass of food with my fingers. I couldn’t get it all. I spun her round and slapped on her back. It wasn’t working. Slap. Slap. Again and again. A sloppy mess of bread finally plopped out. Louise let out a mighty yell.
John Brown looked at me accusingly. ‘Fair put I off my prawns,’ he said in his Bristol accent.
I waved goodbye to John and Lesley at Miami departures and made a final pop for Louise. She gurgled happily.
Next year, when she’s 30, I’ll give This Day In History a miss. The flashbacks are getting too traumatic.
Joe Mullins was on the Daily Herald, The Sun (IPC) and the Daily Mail before heading to Florida, where he worked on the National Enquirer, Globe and the National Examiner. He’s now a freelance in Florida.
Life’s burning ambitions
By Geoffrey Mather
An investigation is being carried out to establish how a fire started at a factory in east Lancashire. Fire crews from Hyndburn were called to tackle the blaze at the James Dewhurst mill in Altham, Accrington, shortly after noon. – BBC
Once upon a time, when the world was young, I was 16, working for an evening newspaper, and life was always Spring. So there I was, alone in the reporters’ room apart from another junior reporter even younger than me. The seniors had all gone out. We were in total charge.
The phone rang. A large mill was on fire a couple of miles away. I ordered my junior (!) into action. It was our great moment. Telling no-one, we hurried to the scene. Flames were pouring from the roof of the building in spectacular fashion. Were there people inside? The police did not seem to know. I sent my junior to the hospital to inquire about casualties and wait there. I stood my ground.
I was in heaven. Fire crews, tangled hoses, witnesses – it was all mine. This was better than Dante’s Inferno. My inferno. I made the most of it. There was a phone nearby and I poured my material into it.
After an hour a tram was trundling past and it decanted a small person smoking a pipe. He ambled slowly towards the diminishing flames and stood bemused. The opposition had arrived. It was a senior reporter from the rival paper. I had finished. He was just starting. I headed back to the office and grabbed a paper. There I was – my very first Page One lead. And I had not even told the chief reporter!
Such minor achievements are the whole of life at the time. In retrospect, worth no more than a passing smile.
I was to move on, and up. As a district reporter I came across a journalist named Joe Higgin. He rode a bicycle, lived alone, wore a frocked coat, and invariably had a hole in a sock. Someone who knocked on his door one night, when it was dark, sold him a bunch of geraniums culled from Joe’s own garden. He had enormous intelligence, but was wayward in his conclusions.
He would not go to a lecture in town by one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare because, he said, Shakespeare was dead. When I covered a cat being hauled from a railway parapet by a fireman – an event that had halted the town traffic – and it got a splendid show in the paper, he did nothing about it because – he said – he had three cats and nobody would care about them except him.
He was often to be seen standing by the town centre urinal, having argued – rightly – that anyone he wanted to see would end up there.
A colleague played Chopin whenever he saw a piano and we were forever looking for him when he was supposed to be covering some event or other. When he travelled to a different town for what we considered a big trial, his report was all written on toilet paper culled from a train lavatory on the way back. Another wore black leggings and lived on peanut butter. Yet another, on a works outing, saw ballet for the first time and within 30 seconds had ruined the show by uncontrollable and loud laughter at the sight of a male dancer in tights leaping about for what he considered to be no good reason.
When I moved on to national newspapers I did not, again, see such eccentricity. But I saw eccentricity of a different kind that would have made Joe Higgin and the ace reporter who took a tram look totally normal.
And so we progress through life, always being amazed by things that apparently sane men believe to be natural.
Here endeth that lesson. And as I advance in age, they are still coming…
More of Geoffrey Mather’s perspective on dukes, archbishops, actors, writers, monks, oddbods, the garish and the gregarious can be found atwww.northtrek.co.uk
By Ian Skidmore
I am a connoisseur of bad temper. My father was in a perpetual fury, which I put down to being in the trenches at the age of fifteen in the First World War. After the war he joined the police because, I firmly believe, of the opportunities it offered for hitting people.
In a siege in Manchester in the twenties he was shot in the head by an IRA man who later ran a Dublin dog track. In the family it was widely believed he was shot by his own inspector, worn out by my father’s incalcitrance.
Certainly, the inspector had been heard to shout: ‘Take that bloody gun off Skidmore before he kills us all.’
Parades disgusted him. Every year Manchester Police had a parade in a Fallowfield park.
The one year they allowed my father to take part he ruined the band’s first concert by shouting: ‘D’ye ken the Refrain from Smoking?’
Probably ill temper swims in our genes. Last year I discovered a cousin, the daughter of a brother of my grandfather, who none of the family knew about. We are not a close family. Except in disputes…
Every Hogmanay we went back to Edinburgh for a family party.
Every year my father would light a cigar to taunt my socialist uncle Tommy, who invented Scottish nationalism long before it became fashionable and was more Scottish than Harry Lauder. Probably because he was born in Newton le Willows, about which my father reminded him every year.
The youngest brother, who tried to pacify him, was himself turned into a pillar of fury when my father told him: ‘I didna see you at Paschendale.’
There was always a fight on the early evening. The women placidly moved their chairs to the walls of the room where they sat, nibbling shortcake and gossiping, while the six brothers rolled fighting at their feet. Fighting that is until 11.55 pm when my Auntie Jeannie would say: ‘D’ye no ken the time?’
The brothers would get up, dust themselves down. And we would all join hands and sing Auld Lang Syne.
My stepfather in law, another Scot, improbably called The Menzies of Pitfoggle, was a GP in the Fens. A luckless journalist who went to him for advice on a sexual problem was chased down the drive of the surgery by Pitfoggle, hurling obscenities and, for all I know, pillboxes and bottles.
Yet, compared with Maurice Thompson, a photographer I worked with on the Yorkshire Evening News in Doncaster, they were, every one of them, tiny beams of sunshine.
The first time we worked together I was immediately rebuked for getting into his Morris Minor with mud on my shoes. Nervously I lit a cigarette and he launched another tirade about ash disposal.
How we ever became friends I do not know, but it came as a shock to discover he liked me.
Certainly it was nothing he said.
So it was a surprise when years later he rang me and asked whether I fancied a day trip to Copenhagen.
I am not a traveller. When we lived on the Isle of Anglesey my wife claimed I needed Quells before I would cross the Menai Strait and it is quite true I suggested a holiday once in Beaumaris, a pretty town about five miles from our home in Llanfairpwllgwyngoghchewernynllantisilogogogch. I never did learn how to spell it, much less pronounce it. And one of the reasons I was loath to leave it was the dread of getting lost and being unable to tell a taxi driver where I wanted to go.
But in my own defence, I did offer to break the journey at Menai Bridge and the draught bass in the Bull in Beaumaris was ale that, to quote Beaumont and Fletcher ‘would make a cat speak.’ I digress.
Maurice had been hired to take photographs of an unusual PR stunt. British Ropes in Doncaster had been commissioned to make the huge ‘ropes’ from which a bridge was to be suspended over the Strait of Jutland. As a gesture of thanks, the workers who made the ropes were invited over for a day to see them, literally in post.
This happened in those earlier, happy days, before they invented holidays abroad. When holidays in Scarborough or Whitby were permissible but Blackpool or Morecambe were considered a bit on the showy side. No-one who valued his place in Yorkshire society would go to Bournemouth.
Denmark? It was Star Trek Country and everyone was very excited.
A busy day ended with a banquet in the Chinese Pagoda in the Tivoli Gardens. Maurice and I got there early in case there was a bar. There wasn’t, but we watched with interest as chefs patterned complicated devices in lump fish roe over the salads that stood by every plate. Clearly, they hoped the roe would be mistaken for caviar. It wasn’t.
The first diner to arrive called his mate. ‘Bloody hell, Harry. There’s caterpillar shit all over this lettuce.’
One by one, the British Ropers scraped rigorously at their leaves.
The man who had discovered this evidence of the filthy habits of foreigners also singled me out. ‘Tha’rt bloody journalist, ist tha?’
I admitted I was. ‘Nowt fresh to you then, this Abroad?’
Nowt, I lied.
‘Sithee,’ he said, leaning over. ‘Thi ’ave a lot of that sex stuff abroad, doan’t thi?’
Thi do, I said
‘Weer does it go on, then?’
I had no idea. I said near the railway station because that’s where it went on when I was doing national service in Germany, my only other experience of Abroad.
‘A’ll tell thee what,’ he said, ‘There’s three hours before t’plane. We’ll ‘ave a bit of a dander, just thee and me. Just to see, like.’ So we did.
The sex shops were a revelation to both of us. He was particularly exercised by loops of stiff hair, designed for putting on penis ends, to stimulate partners. ‘Dear, dear,’ he said, profoundly shocked, because he was at heart a God-fearing, respectable man.
He staggered off into the crowds. He was also a very tall man. I could keep track of him as he stumbled, horrified by the depravity and anxious to return to the safety of his world of darts and dog walking. A piece of totty detached herself from a wall and surged towards him like a determined trout.
I caught up in time to hear her proposition him and I saw the back of his neck deepen to vermillion.
‘D’yer mind,” he said. ‘It’s the wife’s birthday tomorrow.’
The Blade, and Di
By Patrick O’Gara
My first evening in Toledo, Ohio, as a newly arrived Blade executive, was interesting. It was November 1989, dark, cold and wet.
The paper had found, at my asking, an apartment within walking distance of the office. As is often the case with old-established newspapers in the States, it was in the heart of Downtown.
My flat was in one of a smart row of terraced houses, with electric security gates for the garages, and gentrified to the nines, but the surrounding area was well down on its luck.
Still, it was all new to me, and after unpacking I set out to explore. On the corner of the next block, 40 yards from my door, was a bar. A small neon sign proclaimed The Dooville Lounge. I like bars. I went in.
In the dim light about twenty or so customers were scattered, some at the counter, others at tables. They were not yuppies. A loud jukebox played Welcom (sic) To The Jungle, a popular dirge of the day, whose significance escaped me at that point. Nobody paid me any obvious heed.
The barmaid was imposing and sturdily built, not unlike a Steelers linebacker, and clearly not to be fucked with. I asked for a gin and tonic.
‘You Briddish?’ she asked sternly.
Yes, no denying it.
‘You know Lady Di?’ she followed up. Well, not really, but I had met her once, I ventured modestly.
‘You met Lady Di! Where?’ barked the barmaid, who I would later know as Joyce.
I could not tell a lie. ‘At a polo match, as a matter of fact,’ I said, by now aware that the conversation was taking a surreal turn.
And it was true. While I worked for Hello! magazine, my royalty-besotted Spanish bosses had sponsored such a contest at Windsor Great Park, and Charles had played. Selected employees were afterwards introduced to the pair, who appeared at that time to be on cordial, even loving, terms.
‘Holy cow! Lissen,’ Joyce shouted to the patrons. ‘This Briddish guy met Lady Di at a fuckin’ polo game!’ Grinning muggers and hookers surged around, slapping my back, shaking my hand and re-filling my glass.
I now had instant chums in Toledo and bought no more drinks that night.
Amid the tumult, an alcoholically challenged patron misheard Joyce, and for a few delirious seconds was under the impression that England’s presumptive Queen and I had met at a poker game.
So, thanks to the People’s Princess my standing in T-Town where Jeeps are built, Art Tatum was born, and the transvestite guy in Mash was so keen to get home to, was assured from the get-go…
Now all I had to do was put out a newspaper every day, Sundays included, for the next fifteen years.
Piece of piss.
The Queen and I
By Revel Barker
Tomorrow (August 4) would have been the Queen Mum’s birthday. World War I broke out on her 14th birthday. It’s the sort of information that only those closest to her are aware of, I suppose.
I was in France when she died and learnt about it from the morning paper, which referred to her on the Front as ‘la Queen Mum.’
Not la reine mere, or even la reine maman. Such was her popularity, even among the Anglophobe Froggies, that she was the Queen Mum, world-wide.
Long – oh, long – before Diana, she was everybody’s favourite royal.
We had a chat, once. Well, not much of a tête-à-tête, but we conversed. She was about to board a Royal Flight and the photographers stood respectfully at the foot of the aircraft steps waiting for her to start posing or waving. She beamed, and the shutters clicked. Then her face fell as she looked along the rank of artists-in-light and asked: ‘Where is Mr Wallace?’
Tony Wallace, the Daily Mail’s resident photographer at London Airport, was absent from the usual line-up.
In those days photographers knew their place. And it certainly did not include talking to their betters. They shuffled their feet a bit and re-checked the settings on their lenses, and shook their flash-battery packs, but none of them spoke. It fell to me, the token reporter in the company, the caption writer, to break the embarrassing silence.
‘He’s off sick, today, Ma’am,’ I said.
‘Oh dear. I am sorry to hear that. Nothing serious, I hope?’
‘No, Ma’am. I believe it’s just a cold.’
‘Then please,’ she asked me, ‘give him my best wishes for a speedy recovery.’
‘Certainly, Ma’am. I will do that.’
I thought our little banter was getting along swimmingly. I was tempted to tell her that I had recently been at Gibside, in County Durham, where she had spent a significant part of her childhood, and maybe to tell her that the colliery railway wagons still bore the name of her family, which had owned the Bowes Colliery.
She might be pleased to know that, I thought. Then I thought better of it. Maybe next time; it could keep.
After we had exchanged our waves, I hastened back to the press room in Terminal Two and performed my loyal duty, as I had promised my sovereign’s mother – in whose husband’s coronation, I could have told her if the conversation had really got going or the subject had come up, my father had been proud to march.
The message had its desired effect. Tony Wallace made an exceptionally speedy recovery. But first he asked me to phone the Mail picture desk and pretend I didn’t know his home number, and ask them to pass the message from the Queen Mum on to him.
Of course I was delighted to do that.
‘The Queen Mum, you say… She asked after Tony Wallace?’
‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘As you probably know, she thinks the world of him. She was really upset to find he wasn’t there waiting for her this morning. She told me so, herself.’
‘The Queen Mum…’ said the Picture Editor. ‘Asking after Wallace. That is wonderful. Thanks awfully.’
But, as conversations go, it was not awfully significant, you no doubt reckon.
No? Oh really.
Listen. You will learn something.
When Tony Wallace returned to harness, miraculously cured, he bought me a drink and asked: ‘Do you know the last time the Queen Mum actually spoke to a reporter?’
Of course, I didn’t.
1923… And then me.
‘She’d made a bit of a faux pas, you see,’ said Tony, ‘and vowed never to speak to a reporter again, about anything, for the rest of her life. She wasn’t even Queen then, of course, just Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – and a descendant, as you know, of the Thane of Glamis.’
Thane of Glamis… I said yes I knew, but I’d forgotten.
‘She was talking to a reporter during a photo-session when she got engaged to the – then –Duke of York and she referred to him, just a slip of the tongue, I’m sure, as Bertie. Yes! Our future King George VI (although of course nobody knew that at the time)… Bertie! He was furious about what he considered to be lese-majesty – and she was upset that the reporter had dropped her in it, and not amended her quote more formally before publication.
‘So she spoke quite frequently to members of the public, but never to a reporter, after that.
‘All we’ve ever had out of her, since that day, was that smile. Her special smile…
‘But she spoke to you,’ said Tony. ‘…About me!’
So everything we have learnt about her, about her feelings, and even her quotes, we have got from third parties.
Hating her brother-in-law, briefly King Edward VIII, for not sticking to the job he was born into and marrying ‘that woman’, Wallis Simpson, and landing her sensitive, stammering husband with the crown he had never expected to wear, nor been prepared for.
As the last Empress of India (and indeed last empress of anywhere) she apparently believed that Mountbatten gave up India too early and that Britain de-colonised everywhere before the Commonwealth nations were able to cope.
Ringing below stairs and telling her staff: ‘When one of you old queens has a moment, this old queen would like a gin and tonic.’
Of Jimmy Carter: ‘That man was the only person, following the death of my beloved late husband, to have the effrontery to kiss me on the mouth.’
But none of that came from a reporter.
I know she spoke once to Hugh Cudlipp (but he doesn’t count as a reporter), at a Garden Party. She told him she was going to Balmoral that night and – sod security – said that after leaving Kings Cross the Royal Train always travelled only as far as Doncaster where it stayed overnight in the sidings. Whether this was so she could have a more comfortable night’s sleep, or so she could arrive at her destination in daylight for photos, was never satisfactorily established by Cudlipp, to my mind.
Anyway, he’d had a brainwave and sent Jimmy Wallace, the Mirror’s northern circulation boss, to Donny with a set of the first editions. Jimmy found the Royal Train and reached up to hammer on the door. It was opened by a (presumably surprised) lady-in-waiting, in a nightie.
Jimmy handed over the bundle of papers and told her they were for Her Majesty, with Mr Cudlipp’s compliments. She told him to wait.
When she returned she said: ‘Her Majesty has asked me to thank you, and to ask you to pass on her gratitude to Mr Cudlipp for his thoughtfulness. But she has also asked me to ask you – do you not have a copy of the Sporting Life?’
I wouldn’t have made a mistake like that.
But then, you see, our relationship was rather different.
Revel Barker’s own blog of people and places can be found athttp://revelbarker.blogspot.com/
Friday, August 10, 2007
Misfired by Brian Bass
Paradise found… by John Garton
Race issues by Ken Ashton
Give ’em two 10x8s and they want a mile by Albert Cooper
Rabbit stew by Alun John
Mummy in cupboard, budgie in cage by Ian Skidmore
Memories of an Empire by John Izbicki
Pubs and Publishing by Edward Rawlinson
Dempster Memorial – ticket only
A memorial service to celebrate the life of the Daily Mail diarist Nigel Dempster will be held at St Bride’s church on October 17.
Attendance will be by ticket only, and applications should be made in writing (by September 2) to the head of corporate affairs at Associated Newspapers, Northcliffe House, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT. – Daily Mail
World exclusive – then fired, TV viewers told
We start again with a Rant. BRIAN BASS, former features editor of the Daily Mirror, watched Anne Robinson telling the paper’s ex-editor Piers Morgan on TV this week how she was ‘effectively’ fired after revealing to the world the secret of PrincessDiana’s problem with bulimia.
Her very own world scoop – she had spotted it, and got James Whitaker to stand it up – apparently brought the wrath of the Palace down on the Mirror and she was forced out, she says.
It may have helped justify the programme’s title, You Can’t Fire Me, I’m Famous – but, says Basso, that’s the not way he remembers it.
SOME OTHER CORRECTIONS:
One of the great advantages of an on-line publication like this that we never enjoyed in real life is the ability to make corrections – in original copy.
Thus we have been able to adjust the date of the first appearance of Andy Capp in the Daily Mirror to August 1957 (we’d had it as 1958); and the News Chronicle cutting of Roy Spicer’s review of West Side Story turned up in a shoe box, so it has been amended. His actual intro was:
‘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.’
You can, should you be so minded, check the revised copy by clicking on Andy Capp or Roy Spicer in the Archive in Column 1.
They now both have the appearance of having been right all along.
Back to the current edition and JOHN GARTON recalls one reporter’s seemingly endless quest – on exes – to find Paradise on earth.
Why are we not surprised that there were jobs like that, when we were working?
It was of course the mad, Mafia-related Generoso Pope who inspired that one. We also have two more loony publishers this week: JOHN IZBICKI recalls being sent to Paris where part of his job was to baby-sit the wife of Lord Kemsley, and EDDIE RAWLINSON recounts his own short stint as a press baron and publican.
Eddie is effectively the godfather of this site, or perhaps a foundling father. He would stagger home around midnight from his local (known as The Clog, because regulars had objected to a name-change that would have had them going into The Queens by the back passage) and file an email rant to a select few old friends. His rants became the basis of Gentlemen Ranters long before it was taken up by a larger (now averaging 200 a day – thank you all for spreading the word) readership. So now he’s gone from Clog to Blog.
And the Westminster Hotel in Rhyl baked a cake for IAN SKIDMORE to celebrate his appointment as night news editor, half-way through coverage of the Mummy in the Cupboard Murders.
Encouraging news, when some of us remember pub landlords who trousered thousands of our fivers and bought up parts of Norfolk without ever buying a round. ‘I’m selling drinks, not giving them away,’ said Bill Pearce when his meanness was remarked upon at the bar of The Stab.
Elsewhere KEN ASHTON recalls the days when he was winningly fleet of foot but snapper ALBERT COOPER protests that he couldn’t keep pace with a winning racehorse (carrying the camera bag was his handicap, apparently), and picture editor ALUN JOHN books a rabbit into business class to gain asylum from Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya.
All human –and some furry – life is here.
As are some new and hopefully interesting LINKS, new LETTERS and a new section called The Spike for items that don’t otherwise have a natural home.
Find them all by scrolling down or clicking on the Archive references and by-lines at top left.
Comments and letters (and contributions) please, to email@example.com
As we go to, er press, we learn that regular contributor IAN SKIDMORE is about to have his 26th book, Kyffin, published in time for Christmas.
This is the ‘unpublished’ work referred to in his letter this week, commenting on our story about the Queen Mum in last week’s posting.
By Brian Bass
Could it be that the years of non-drinking have started to wipe clean the memory banks of winking Anne Robinson?
She appeared on Piers Morgan’s BBC 1 chat show on Tuesday claiming she had been sacked from the Mirror – after dire representations from the Palace – because she dared to break the story, on the one night she was editing the paper, of Princess Di’s bulimia.
We old hacks who were there at the time, and have not let non-drinking befuddle our brains, remember no such event.
We do remember, however, the Sunday when Annie was editing (she was never, as she claimed on TV, ‘number 3’ at the Mirror – Richard Stott and Terry Lancaster were both higher in the pecking order), and against all back bench advice she insisted on splashing on a story about how Persil wrecked your washing machine. Persil were not amused and proved the story to have been blown out of all context.
Nor did she then disappear to television as the programme insisted, but continued for some years to write her weekly Mirror column. She later decamped briefly for The Sun and even later The Daily Telegraph before becoming the world-wide star of TV that we all now love.
Considering the whole basis of the programme was bollocks, it doesn’t say a great deal for the investigative talents of Piers, either.
By John Garton
If you’ve been reading Ranters regularly, you’ve already enjoyed several tales of the larger-than-life Generoso Pope, founder of the American supermarket tabloids and boss of the National Enquirer.
I was a late Brit arrival on the American tabloids in Florida and as news editor of the National Examiner I inherited an ex-Enquirer reporter, John Harris, a soft-spoken Carolina mountain man who always brought me a jar of his family’s lethal ‘Carolina Moon’ concoction whenever he returned from his annual jaunt to his relatives up in the backwoods.
John was modest man and not one to boast of any past achievements. But he had a reputation for one particular assignment and he eventually told me the whole amazing story.
At the height of the Enquirer’s success John was hired by one of its editors from his news beat in Cincinatti for a special job. It was one of Pope’s brainwave ideas that his editors and reporters were expected to make a reality.
This one was a doozy. Pope wanted to find Paradise. The Enquirer would reveal this nirvana to its adoring readers.
John was fully briefed for his monumental task. Pope’s editors compiled a long list of exotic places round the world that they thought were likely to match Pope’s idea of paradise… Madeira, Hawaii, Bora Bora, the Seychelles, Fiji, Bali and many more.
After a lot of planning John was dispatched on his round-the-world quest, pockets full of Pope plastic and cash.
Arriving at each port of call, John inspected it carefully, spoke to local experts and eventually filed his piece to the anxiously awaiting Pope executives in Lantana, the Enquirer’s base in south Florida. The big guns examined it, pulled it apart, put it back together again and made their judgment that this place was or wasn’t paradise. They’d then pass it to the boss or they’d spike it.
Whatever happened, it was a long drawn-out process that caused the editors and Pope a lot of heartache and several editors’ heads rolled when they didn’t toe Pope’s line.
Meanwhile, the intrepid Harris pressed on. The journey took many months, hours of writing, editing, Pope rages and lots more besides. Every time Pope was presented with a Shangri-la candidate he declined it and Harris was urged on to yet another stunning destination. John, of course, was having the time of his life.
Eventually he reached some heavenly Pacific island and Harris thought he’d cracked it. No doubt about it…this was Paradise. He meticulously composed his magic words. The Lantana editors received them and their excitement mounted.
They went through the copy over and over again and agreed that this was The One. They confidently strode off to Pope’s office and presented the big man with the precious copy, declaring:
‘This is it, Gene.’
Pope sat back to read while the editors waited anxiously, praying that this was the end of it all and the boss would be delighted.
He finished reading and agreed that yes, this was it, run it. Huge sighs of relief and smiles and the editors retreated from the inner sanctum.
As they were leaving Pope called after them: ‘By the way, how did we get Harris’ copy?’
‘By phone,’ they chorused.
‘What?’ said Pope, ‘By phone? Kill it. Ain’t no phones in paradise…’
End of story. Harris was summoned home. Not one word of his worldwide odyssey was ever printed in the Enquirer.
Former Daily Mirror journalist and publicity man John Garton eventually left the US tabloids, ‘went straight’ on a Florida daily and is now happily retired in his own paradise in St Augustine, Florida.
By Ken Ashton
It’s a small world, as we like to say when we are stuck for an intro.
Graeme Huston, editor in chief of a group of newspapers in South Yorkshire, emailed to say he’d spotted our rants and picked up – well-spotted! – the fact that Skidmore and I had once graced (should that be dis-graced?) the fair town of Doncaster and requested from each of us some memories.
Mine were sporting and Skidmore and I could be read reliving the good old days in the Doncaster Free Press last weekend (August 3).
Inspired by that, I delved again with this gem, which has links to sport and newspapers, with a toast to an old editor and Peter Keeling, who splashed my success in the Manchester Evening News and caused me some embarrassment…
The night Dad and I were arrested had all the elements of pure farce. We go back to the 1950s, when I was running like the wind as an amateur athlete in Lancashire and a budding journalist. Dad, who had been a marathon man in his own young days, was my trainer, bag man, adviser and masseur.
In those golden days of real amateurism, there were athletics meetings all over the country, organised by businesses, councils, even the police. One of the biggest on the running calendar was Manchester City Police Sports, staged at the old White City stadium.
In that glorious summer, I had been winning everything I entered and, as a result, was down for the 100 and 220 yards – long before metres – in this prestigious event. But on this occasion, there was a snag. This was a Wednesday evening meeting and I was working as sports editor on the Manchester City News and the event clashed with press night.
I did the unforgivable. I left my running gear in a left luggage locker at Manchester’s Piccadilly station, complained of stomach ache around mid-afternoon, was allowed to go early, grabbed a sandwich and met Dad at the White City gates.
Four hours later, I had won both events and was on the way home from Manchester to St Helens by train. We didn’t own a car. Dad, a carpenter by trade, had his bag of tools, I had my bag of running gear and a guilty conscience to go with the euphoria of winning.
One prize was a tea-trolley, the other a canteen of cutlery. I also had prizes team-mates had won and wished to exchange, as they were ‘doubles’. I’d volunteered to take them back to the prize secretary the following day. So I was loaded with goods…
We left the last train at St Helens Shaw Street station and started the thee-mile walk home. Now the way home was via a road known as Croppers Hill – and it was steep. As I puffed and dragged aching legs up the hill, Dad’s tool bag on the bottom shelf of the tea-trolley with a watch and clock – my friends’ prizes – and my running kit on the top, a policeman the size of a Welsh prop forward stepped out of an alleyway.
‘’Ello, ’ello, ’ello. What’s all this then?’ I let go of the trolley, which ran down the hill, scattering Dad’s tools, goodies and cutlery in its wake. We were on hands and knees picking up cutlery and sorting out hammers, chisels and saws by streetlight, the policeman standing hands on hips and handcuffs at the ready. Dad was spluttering explanations and I was trembling with fright.
And, of course, when the bobby asked where we had got the cutlery and what we were doing with tools, my explanation that I’d won them – and at a police force sports event – was met with raucous laughter. We had a laughing policeman.
They also laughed at the cop shop, before phoning Manchester police to confirm the story. We got home around 2.30am and were back on the Manchester train the following morning at 8.0am.
I shuffled into work, was greeted with sympathy because I still didn’t look well and, red-faced, said I felt somewhat better. I did…until the Manchester Evening News hit the office around mid-day.
There, on the back page, was a photograph of yours truly winning the 100 yards in style. Complete with glowing write-up from my friend Peter Keeling. Ernie McCormack’s voice boomed my name… He let me off with a caution and I never missed another press night.
A week later and we are at our local track for St Helens Police Sports and I’m down to run the 100 and 220. The 100 was a runaway for my old mate Sammy Clemson, but the 220 was a doddle for me. I may have started as back marker, but I scuttled through the heats and semi-final and nicked the final by a stride at the tape.
I strolled up later to collect first prize, a luxurious rose-coloured eiderdown, something my mother had had her eye on as she inspected the prizes. The burly guy handing it over gave me one of those looks, as recognition dawned. ‘Go straight home with that,’ he grinned.
This prize steward was the copper who’d stepped out of the alley on that tea-trolley night.
Joe Humpreys, Mirror rugby league writer, was at that meeting. A week later, the Mirror offered me a sports subbing job… I hit Withy Grove running.
Give ’em two 10x8s and they want a mile
By Albert Cooper
What is it that makes sports editors think photographers are super-human?
When I joined the Sun as northern sports photographer in 1965, one of my first horse racing assignments was to photograph the start of the flat season, the Lincolnshire handicap, at Doncaster Racecourse.
I stood by the winning post and photographed the winners of the first two races. Then walked the mile back to the start to capture the required ‘start of the first flat classic’.
I was very pleased with they way things had gone, and rushed off to do my Sterling Moss driving bit, to get the film back to the Manchester office as quickly as possible in a 1100cc Ford Popular – as photographers did, in those days.
Back in the Oxford Road office, I took the results of my labour to the sports desk, and proudly laid my prints, one by one, in front of the sports editor. A good sharp picture of the winning horse passing the post, in the first race, and a similar one of the winner of the second.
Then my masterpiece, my photograph of the start with the horses as they leapt forward to take their place under the traditional back page headline, ‘They’re off!’
No compliments, just dismay on the face of the sports editor, as he said, ‘Templegate had the treble today. Where’s the photograph of the winner passing the post to win the third race?’
To which I replied: ‘I couldn’t keep up with it! Carrying the camera kept slowing me down…’
By Alun John
When Colonel Gaddafi broke off relations with the UK, all our diplomats had been recalled, together with their families. As with all expats, there was a lot of personal stuff to get home. One thing that couldn’t be brought home, however, was one family’s pet rabbit. It was going to be left behind to the mercies of the populace of the people’s republic of Libya.
‘We will rescue the rabbit,’ announced a confident Stewart Steven at the Mail on Sunday’s Tuesday conference.
The chosen rescuer was my old friend Keith Waldegrave. He was sent first to Paris to arrange a visa as we had no means of getting a Libyan visa in London, and then onward to Tripoli. He arrived safely, found the family and called with the news that the family members actually weren’t that bothered about the fate of the wretched rabbit after all. In fact, they were quite happy to leave it behind. This, of course, was not what Stewart wanted to hear – so I didn’t tell him.
Waldegrave was told to persuade the family and find a vet to provide the rabbit with the necessary papers and injections for travel. It also needed a flying case. Things went well and the rabbit was ready to fly by Friday.
Stewart was becoming more excited by the day. We had pictures of the rabbit in the garden of its Tripoli home and with the little girl that looked after it, and Waldegrave was booked on the Paris flight. Stewart was pacing the floor on Friday as take-off time neared. He went into deep conversation with John Butterworth on how best to display this latest exclusive gem.
Then I took a phone call and on a crackly line Waldegrave could be heard from Tripoli airport. Major problem. The airline was adamant the cage be placed in the hold. Keith was concerned that the rabbit, which had already been disturbed enough, would not survive the flight. I told him to insist the rabbit came into the cabin with him. No way, said the airline, it was cargo.
I told Keith to buy the rabbit a ticket and then it could fly on the seat next to him. Cellists did it all the time for their delicate instruments. A few moments pause and he reported the rabbit had successfully been bought a business class seat on the plane.
I also forgot to mention this slight hiccup to Stewart and he retreated to his office to busy himself with something else.
The flight went well. I don’t know what the rabbit was offered for lunch, but at least it didn’t actually become lunch. Keith carried it off in Paris, and then on another short hop (pardon me) to Gatwick, where the rabbit was placed in six weeks’ quarantine.
Stewart was delighted with the story. It made both the Front and the spread. We ran a competition to give the rabbit a new home and a new name and it made the paper once again. Following this, however, Stewart quite rightly lost interest – and threatened me with rabbit pie if I ever suggested a follow up on the anniversary of the flight.
The Mail on Sunday went from strength to strength and the circulation climbed. It was a great place to work, with exclusives thick on the ground and no lack of resources. However, I didn’t always make the best use of them.
Another week in charge, but this time things weren’t going well. Not much about and continuous pressure to produce. Stewart demanded to know on the Friday afternoon what I had in mind for page one and again, in a flash, I answered back with an instinctive idea. ‘The Princess of Wales will go into hospital to have her baby tonight’ I blurted out. Peals of laughter from the rest at the conference.
I came out of the meeting and called Lynne Hilton, a persistent girl photographer, and sent her to ‘doorstep’ St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, where the Princess was booked in. I finished the day, went home and waited. I got up in the morning and drove my usual route along the elevated section of the M40 in west London.
Just as I got to the stretch where you can see the hospital, on cue came the news on the radio that the Princess had been safely delivered of a son in the night. ‘YES!’ I shouted and punched the air. Into the office and a warm glow at having made a good decision. In came the Back Bench and geared themselves up for a chance to be nice to the picture desk for a change. Everyone was positive, everything was fine.
Well, not everything.
I hadn’t actually spoken to Lynne yet. This was in the days well before mobile phones and I would have to wait to hear from her when she called in. She called. I answered. ‘What had it made?’ I asked. ‘What could you see? What did you get?’
‘Nothing,’ came the crushing reply. She had not seen the Princess arrive. She had been there all alone and simply could not be watching every possible entrance at once. Not her fault. Entirely mine. I should have backed my hunch fully and put more people on it. There would have been no problem putting six photographers there, but I just hadn’t backed my instinct. My mistake, pure and simple – and no excuses.
When the Back Bench heard this there was no holding them in their weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was the longest Saturday I have ever endured. Thereafter every time there was the slightest query about a picture it finished with: ‘If we haven’t missed this one as well!’ It was no consolation that all the other papers had missed it. That simply was not good enough.
Stewart, to his credit, later did offer a sympathetic word to me quietly in the corridor. I wouldn’t do that again though. If a story is worth covering, it’s worth covering properly.
After the Mail on Sunday Alun John became picture editor of The Independent, assistant editor of The European, and later managing director of Syndication International. He has been described by Private Eye as: ‘A fat, red faced Welshman ceaselessly gorging himself on an endless round of awards dinners and lunches.’
There’s more of his memories of Fleet Street in the Eighties athttp://alunjohnascot.wordpress.com/
Mummy in cupboard, budgie in cage
By Ian Skidmore
I hate sharing rooms. In PR, in the army, I shared a room with a chap who was called, not unfairly, ‘Filthy Sykes’. Admirable in many ways, he amassed a collection of single socks, all indescribably dirty, that would have had any decent incinerator retching with desire. They festooned every surface, door top, window frame and light fitting in the room and made cosy nests on most surfaces.
After the army, Sykes went to work for a newspaper in Canada and died, which is as near as life gets to an oxymoron.
My greatest regret, however, is the night I shared a room in the Westminster Hotel reporting on the ‘Mummy in the Cupboard Murders’ in Rhyl, with Terry Stringer.
I hasten to point out that Terry was the most fastidious of men, whose carefully matched and laundered socks were beyond reproach.
It was an unlucky room. I had it to myself before Stringer arrived and it was the scene of bitter humiliation.
From Rhyl I was sentenced to being Northern Night News Editor of the Mirror, an experience much worse than my earlier incarceration in an army prison.
The assembled reporters gave me a dinner and the management of the hotel were so pleased with us, they baked me a cake. Understandable – we had spent more behind the bar than they had taken in bookings, so far that season.
The cake was topped by a tasteful mummy, wrapped in embalming clothes in a marzipan coffin.
One day I hope to identify the guest who sold the story – ‘shocked hotel guests appalled by gruesome cake’ – to a Sunday paper.
During the dinner I sat next to a lady who had set up a slimming couch in one of the suites. When you lay face down on its moving panels, it gave erotic sensations of such intensity the late Tommy Cooper of the Daily Telegraph wanted to get engaged to it.
The lady asked if there was anything I regretted about leaving the road and I said, yes there was. I said everyone else came back from out of town jobs with tales of love making that would make your hair curl.
She said well I will tell you what. After dinner go off to your bedroom and as soon as I can I will join you.
So I did. I bought a bottle of wine, I put on my silk dressing gown, scattered Old Spice about the room like May Blossom and waited.
I leapt into bed.
Then she whispered in my ear. ‘You will have to hurry up. I am meeting (name deleted) at midnight.’
The last week on the road wore on. Terry Stringer was sent out to take over and we had to share rooms. Naturally I gave him most of the work and I spent my last days wandering about Rhyl hurling gold coins at stall holders, winning teddy bears, sticks of rock and on the last Sunday, a budgie.
In a plastic cage. .
I was sitting at a bar table in the Westminster chatting idly with the budgie when we were joined by Reg Jones of the Daily Mirror.
‘It’s an ostrich,’ I said with heavy irony.
‘No. The cage. It’s disgusting. The poor bird can hardly move. You want to get it a decent cage.’
‘Its Sunday, the pet shops are closed.’
‘Then find out the home address of one and get him to open his shop.’
So I did. It wasn’t easy. But I did.
‘Now are you satisfied,’ I said.
‘No’ he said. ‘It’s got nothing to play with. Budgies like little mirrors and see-saws and bells they can ring with their beaks’
‘It’s Sunday and I am not getting the poor bugger out again. He’ll be having his dinner.’
‘Use your initiative. Go to an amusement arcade and win them on one of those grab cranes.’
So I changed a fiver into low dimension coinage, went to the amusement arcade, found a grab crane that offered various novelties on a hillock of liquorice torpedoes, and set to work. Winning nothing but grabs full of liquorice torpedoes
I had amassed enough torpedoes to sink the German navy when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I turned round and saw a man in a brown dust coat. At first I took him to be the Mayor of Blackpool. But it wasn’t a chain of office he had round his neck; it was a string of keys.
He questioned me abruptly and I explained I was trying to win some toys for my budgie.
Pushing me to one side, he opened a window in the machine and collected a variety of plastic toys, thrust them in my hand and said, ‘Now piss off and give these kids a chance.’
For the first time I noticed the queue of impatient children, clutching their pennies.
That night in its palatial cage, surrounded by toys, the budgie passed a sleepless night.
I had to wake Stringer twice to complain that his snores were keeping my budgie awake and the next day I had to tell the desk to recall him. It was the only way the budgie could get a decent night’s sleep.
Two days after I got it home the budgie was eaten by the cat.
I think it was the cat. But, in those days, I had a very funny wife…
Congratulations to young James Mellor who has been poached from the Sunday Telegraph newsdesk by Colin Myler to become news editor at the News of the World.
He follows in the footsteps of his father Phil Mellor, the legendary deskman at the Sunday Mirror – a man who’s been around so long some of his bylines are in Latin.
But has there been a mix-up at Wapping? Mellor senior has been telling chums: ‘Colin wanted me, but I’m too young!’ – Axegrinder, Press Gazette
When the Daily Express sent the dark presence of one Peter Baker – a powerful and fearsome name at the time – to Manchester office he was received in the news room by Geoff Brennand.
Who are you? – ‘I am Peter Baker, from London office.’
What are you doing here? – ‘I’ve come to organise things.’
Good. Then would you organise me a cup of tea? – GM
William Randolph Hearst, always in search of sensational stories, once sent a telegram to a leading astronomer: ‘Is there life on Mars?’ it read. ‘Please cable 1000 words.’
The astronomer’s reply – ‘Nobody knows’ – repeated 500 times. – KA
PERKY reporter Amy Jacobson, who worked for Chicago’s NBC station WMAQ-TV and also does stories for Today, has been ‘let go’ by the windy city station after videotapes showed her in a bikini at the home of a woman whose mysterious disappearance she was covering. Tapes made by rival CBS station WBBM showed Jacobson at the backyard pool of Lisa Stebic, who vanished on April 30. She was with Stebic’s estranged husband, Craig, whom police have questioned in the case. Neighbors told WBBM that Jacobson has visited the Stebic house ‘frequently’ since she began covering the story. – AB
One of Cudlipp’s first jobs as a reporter on the Penarth News was to cover a performance of Handel’s Messiah by the local choir. Though he knew nothing about the Messiah he just managed to scrape together 2,000 learned words by diligent research in Grove’s Dictionary of Music. But his editor had asked for no fewer than 3,000 words. Cudlipp had an inspiration. Opening a new paragraph he wrote: ‘The names of the choir were…’ His editor was delighted. – KA
Memories of an Empire
By John Izbicki
Shortly before I was sent to cover France for Kemsley Newspapers by Ian Fleming, then foreign editor of this powerful empire, one of its segments managed to lose a major libel action – all because the owner’s wife was sickened by the sight of a bull’s penis.
Lady Kemsley, with whom I was to become closely acquainted, was in the habit of visiting ‘her’ newspaper offices at 200 Grays Inn Road on Saturdays, when the Sundays – Sunday Times, Empire News and Sunday Graphic – were being busily put to bed. As she passed by the Graphic’s picture desk, her eyes pounced on that of a magnificent bull. ‘What is zees?’ she demanded, pointing at the bull’s superb protuberance.
‘It’s a prize bull, m’lady,’ the flunky at the desk informed her. ‘It won first prize at the Smithfield Show today, ma’am.’
‘And you intend zees to go into my newspepper? Jamais! Jamais!’ Lady K, who hailed from Mauritius and spoke with a thick French accent (her otherwise excellent French miraculously had distinct traces of an English accent) expressed her shock-horror at the prospect of such a picture finding its way into the pepper at all.
Her reaction was immediately transmitted to the editor, who was not to be ordered about by the proprietor’s silly wife. Instead of spiking the bull, he ordered it to be ‘slightly adjusted’. Out came the paintbrush and with a gentle stroke, the beast was, well, emasculated.
When on the following day the ‘prize bull’ made its appearance, the picture became a red rag to its owner. The farmer, who had been expecting thousands of pounds for his animal, sued – and won more than £40,000 – a fortune in the mid-Fifties.
Gomer Berry – the first Viscount Kemsley – who had built up his newspaper empire from scratch, was not a happy man but he loved his wife deeply and would not have a word said against her. Instead, he took her to Paris where he booked a suitable suite at the Ritz Hotel in the Place Vendôme – which is where I got to know her.
I shared an office with Stephen Coulter, who was the Sunday Times man in Paris while I looked after the rest of the Kemsley empire, ranging from the Sunday Graphic and the Sunday Empire News to the scores of provincials that served so many towns and cities throughout the UK. The office was immediately opposite the Ritz, which, to my misfortune, was found to be ‘handy’.
‘Ah, Izbicki, glad to find you in…’ one of my very first telephone calls greeted me. The gruff Welsh lilt continued: ‘Lord Kemsley here. Come over will you? You’re new so I’d better get to know you.’ He hung up, leaving me totally perplexed. I was young and at that time didn’t know whether to stand to attention (I had done my National Service just before starting in newspapers) or panic. Come over? Where’s ‘over’? I had no idea. Luckily, Steve came to the rescue and pointed out the Ritz. He thought the whole episode amusing and wished me luck.
Kemsley was an elderly highly imposing figure of a man. During my first brief interview, Edith Kemsley lounged on a sofa in the background and said nothing. My employer sat behind a small table, drinking tea. I was not invited to sit but received my instructions standing almost to attention.
‘Now listen,’ the Welsh lilt said. ‘Each morning when you get to the office, I want you to bring the day’s papers over here, addressed to Lady Kemsley, so she can read them. All right? That’s all the English daily papers, Telegraph, Times, Mail and so on – oh, even the Manchester Guardian. Right? Also some of the French papers – Figaro, Le Monde, France Soir etc. Then, before you leave the office in the evening I want you to telephone and ask Lady Kemsley if there’s anything she needs. Right? Good. Well, goodbye…’
I was somewhat dumbstruck but managed to think sufficiently to say: ‘Yes, Sir, thank you, Sir – but what if I happen to be away from the office?’
‘Away from the office?’ The Welsh lilt had taken on a kind of Lady Bracknell rasp.
‘Well, Sir, I am supposed to be reporting for the Group…’
‘Ah, yes, quite forgot. You’re quite right to mention it young man. Well, in that case, of course, you can’t phone from your office. But the papers. These you’ll have to make arrangements to have them delivered here to Lady Kemsley. Right? Good. Well, goodbye again.’ I was dismissed. But, just as I had reached the door, he called out: ‘Oh, Izbicki, one more thing. The bill for the papers. You’ll pay that and put it on your expenses. Right?’
Much later, Lady K became ill. During her travels, she had started to suffer from severe headaches. In Switzerland she was operated on and a nerve was severed. I never knew which particular nerve but it was obviously the wrong one, as the operation had left her face partially paralysed and still painful.
She used to call me over for a chat and a drink when I was not too busy and I found her a charming old woman. She would always offer me a dry martini (shaken, not stirred, as my boss’s character, James Bond, would have said). It was the only drink she knew. But she was clearly in pain and once asked me to find someone to help her.
‘Please, Monsieur Eesbeekee, please try to find this man for me,’ she said and handed me a slip of paper with a scribbled message: ‘Jean-Louis Bonsard – Magnetiseur’. It did not take me long to locate Monsieur Bonsard and to explain his task to him. He was only too delighted to come to the Ritz and help Her Ladyship regain her strength with his little magnet.
The visit turned into something akin to a Georges Feydeau farce. As Bonsard sat on Lady K’s bed, gently swinging his magnet from side to side across her face, her Austrian maid Riesa, stormed into the room. ‘M’lady, Professor Lévy has arrived for his appointment. He is in the next room.’
There was no way out for Monsieur Bonsard. But, being French and used to every possible embarrassment, he calmly put his magnet in his pocket, looked round the room and opened the door of an inbuilt wardrobe. He entered, waving Edith Kemsley a fond farewell, and closed the door. Professor Lévy, one of France’s most eminent neurologists, was able to enter and entertain Her Ladyship to his well known bedside manner for some 20 minutes, give her a piqûre, and depart. Monsieur Bonsard, sweating profusely, exited, stumbled back to Lady K’s bedside and, with a weak smile, resumed his magnetism.
I often felt sorry for Gomer, Lord Kemsley, for his wife (she was his second; his first, Mary Holmes, died in 1928) did not altogether treat him well or return his profound love. Often, when he entered the suite at the Ritz, she would pretend to be fast asleep and he would eventually leave the room on tiptoe as not to disturb her.
Once he was in London lunching with his great friend, Max Beaverbrook, owner of the Express group. Lord Beaverbrook told Gomer that he was anxious to get rid of his Bermuda villa. ‘I’ll buy it from you,’ said Gomer and took out his chequebook. ‘How much d’you want?’ I do not recall the price but one was rapidly agreed and after lunch both men drove to Max’s solicitor who drew up the relevant papers.
When Lord K returned to Paris and the Ritz, he gently awakened his wife. ‘Edith…Edith, my love,’ he said gently. ‘I have a little present for you.’ And he drew the Beaverbrook deeds from his pocket and handed them to her.
When they visited the villa for the first time, he immediately executed one vital change. He went to a carpenter and had a special board made. The name of the villa was altered to: Kemsley House.
Sad, for the many other Kemsley House signs around Britain were soon to be destroyed following the sale of Gomer’s empire to Roy Thomson in 1959.
But before that sale was completed and to show his gratitude for my help over the past three-plus years, Kemsley phoned me. ‘Ah, Izbicki. Come and join Lady Kemsley and me for lunch. Book us a table at Maxim’s – and ask them to give us one that’s private. You understand?’ Of course. Edith didn’t want people to see her looking the way she did. After all, she was born Edith de Plessis, one of the nobler families of Mauritius. She was a proud woman.
The lunch was a good one, even though everything I wanted to order I had to abandon. ‘Twenty-five minutes waiting for that dish,’ the waiter would whisper each time and I ended up with poulet à la crème, a course I could have eaten at any little bistro.
At the end of that enjoyable ‘thank you’ session, M’Lord turned to me and said: ‘You’ll take care of the bill, won’t you dear boy? If you’ve not got the cash, I’ll lend it to you. But I want this to go on your expenses…’
Ah, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
John Izbicki started in journalism at the Manchester Evening Chronicle as a graduate trainee on the day he was demobbed from National Service. He was sent to France for Kemsleys for three months but stayed three years. He later worked for the Daily Telegraph for 23 years — three as deputy industrial correspondent, 17 as its education editor and three as head of its Paris office. He wrote a column on education for the Independent and still writes columns for Education Journal.
Pubs and Publishing
By Edward Rawlinson
Many have sat back and thought how nice it would be to run their own pub, others have day-dreamed about going into publishing.
Without a thought of the pitfalls of running a pub or dreaming what it would be like to publish a paper I plunged into both at the same time: I went into a pub and established a small publishing business.
After moving from the editorial department into the publicity department of the Daily Express, Manchester, and becoming northern publicity manager I realised management certainly didn’t work like editorial. They had a different attitude to my previous way of life with the clock an important piece of office furniture and having a warm meal at home around 6.00pm was part of everyday life.
I should imagine it would have been a similar experience had I worked in some local council office.
After a second successful year in publicity, although suffering with a few scars to my back, I decided to take up an offer from the managing director of a brewery and be landlord of one of their better pubs. With a family to feed it needed some serious thought but the management job hadn’t worked out and I wanted a move. My wife and three small children could still enjoy living in a similar tree-lined environment to the one they would have to leave.
I would then be able to plan what had always been my life long ambition, to go into print and publish a successful free motoring paper. In 1965 it would be a first as no publication was concentrating on people who were investing in a motor car for the first time.
There were the well established paid for and expensive glossy magazines but something was needed to advertise affordable wheels for the working man. A free paper distributed in petrol stations, car showrooms and of course my favourite distribution point, the pub.
I had already formulated my plans when at the Daily Express while coping with fashion shows, contents bills, grocer’s exhibitions, advertising layouts and general promotions and a staff of eight. I said my farewell with a memorable send off, not by management, but from my old mates in editorial.
When finally in the pub I soon realised that having to organise beer, wines and spirits, lunchtime catering, three full time staff with another fifteen part timers at the weekend and all the unseen extras I was dragging my feet.
The main plan of going into print was well behind schedule. After a year my free motoring weekly paper was launched and I remember the gathering with our printer, our advertising man – who was a retired motor trader and knew all the garage owners – the manager of the Odeon cinema who was to arrange circulation, and myself with four of the pub part time staff helping out in distribution. What a team.
Three thousand copies was our first print run and the distribution went well although I did find copies being used as wrapping paper in of all places the chip shop opposite my pub. The manager of the Odeon, our acting circulation manager, was the suspect as he had reneged on his promise to give out papers when the audience left his cinema. He had dropped off some copies into shops that were open after the cinema closed and it was an error of judgment he confessed later in a ‘after time’ editorial conference.
Our advertising manager (the ex-motor trader) was doing well through his contacts and I think it helped him by being a freemason. Business was booming, except the accounts and payment for advertising did not equal out.
The pub had a very good clientele, it was in a posh part of Rochdale and one of the customers was our bank manager. He sorted out the accounting side of the business by recruiting a retired employee from his bank and everything was then on a straight run. Money wasn’t rolling in but it started to trickle through the front door and we were in profit.
During the day my wife looked after running the catering side and we had a nanny for the three children, our daughter the youngest was eighteen months old. She had only just learned to go down stairs from our living quarters and with an open door being a big temptation she sneaked out and ran towards the busy main road.
When about to cross the road fortunately she was caught by a motorist when he saw her standing at the road side. Neither my wife nor the staff had any idea she was out until the driver returned with her to the pub. The culprit was a cleaner who had left the safety door wide open.
That was it. Following what could have been a fatal accident the pub was of no interest and with my wife becoming more worried about the safety of our children, despite having a nanny we decided to quit. One thing we learnt in those two years was you can’t run a pub and care for your children. Motoring Gazette was doing well and by quitting the pub we would have to look for some place in which to live so I decided to run the paper and work as a freelance photographer.
Ron Ashurst, an old friend, offered me work at the Daily Mirror and a customer who owned the Rochdale Advertiser came out of the blue and made a very good offer for Motoring Gazette. It had run for more than a year and as there was a house to buy his money would come in handy for me to ‘go private’ as they say in the pub trade. The money offered by the Daily Mirror to work for them as a freelance was far greater than I had expected. Of course I regret getting rid of Motoring Gazette and with many free motoring magazines about now, more glossy with much larger circulation figures, forty two years ago it was a first in its field .
Twenty years on I was then Picture Editor of the northern Daily Mirror and my son Peter had become a journalist. After three years working for a local paper he started a national freelance news agency we took over a successful print shop with further ideas of producing a free paper. The first edition was in its embryo stages when he asked me would I mind if he took a job offered to him on a motoring magazine. It was quite a shock as I was about to live again those earlier years and my ideas of becoming a mini press baron went out the door with the staff and printing machinery.
His move South worked out well and instead of collecting adverts from Bury, Rochdale, Bolton and Burnley and keeping northerners, now wearing their baseball caps back to front, informed about expensive wheels he is doing it worldwide.
Maybe I did the right thing by saying to hell with pubs and publishing.
I had only one memorable Front Page. Two girls who were regulars in the pub posed on the bonnet of my MG. One had dark hair and she was a beauty; the other, a blonde, had the most beautiful legs and I wasn’t to know at the time she would go on to be a famous TV actress – landlady of her own pub in Coronation Street.
Friday, 17 August 2007
Cut costs, sack hacks by Revel Barker
Coffin fit by Paul Bannister
The King: ‘I’m still visiting earth..’ by Joe Mullins
The wit and wisdom of Bob Blake by Stanley Blenkinsop
In the line of fire by Ian Skidmore
It wouldn’t be summer without sighting Lucan by Sam Leith
Time travel by Revel Barker
The stuff that legends are made on
There’s a story (probably apocryphal – and we try hard to avoid those because the true ones are often difficult enough to believe) – of a professor of journalism calling a newspaper and telling them he had photographic evidence that Elvis Presley was alive.
A team was immediately despatched to his home and he handed them a photograph of himself, taken in his study.
So how was this ‘photographic evidence’ that The King was not dead?
‘Oh’, said the professor, ‘Mr Presley took the photo…’
And he turned up, Mr Presley, often in burger bars in America, more frequently than George Best turned up at Old Trafford – although not as frequently as he (Mr Best) turned up at Tramp.
Two of our guys were on the case following his (Mr Presley’s) reported death which occurred, or not, 30 years ago this week. PAUL BANNISTER was on coffin duty and reports on the tricks his snapper mates got up to, and JOE MULLINS was on the follow-up, getting Elvis himself to explain the sightings.
Both of them somehow missed the Weekly World News exclusive (see Issue 4 for that newspaper’s winning ways) interview with him.
What would the legendary John Junor have made of it all? I think we should be told. It’s a fair guess, going by the account related by his grandson, the Daily Telegraph’s literary editor SAM LEITH, that Beaverbrook would have said: ‘Do you know why I don’t believe all this? It’s because Mr Presley is bloody dead.’ And the same with silly season stories about Lord Lucan, Cornish sharks and giant dogs and cats.
A legendary news editor – it’s a remarkably flexible adjective – was Bob Blake. When he retired from the desk Bob’s colleagues on the Daily Express had a book of his sayings printed. It ran to 208 pages, and its publication is recalled as a fond memory by STANLEY BLENKINSOP, another er, legendary figure who succeeded him.
And IAN SKIDMORE gets fired by legendary news agency boss Jimmy Lovelock.
But we start all this with a Rant, because that is what we do, with REVEL BARKER on the expensive lack of logic in firing Old Farts – some of them legends in their own lunchtime – in the name of cost-cutting.
And we close with a short about a reader who claimed in a phone call to legendary news editor Dan Ferrari that he could go back in time (as if that is something that we aren’t all doing, all the time, on this site).
Sam Leith reminds us, off-screen, that Peter McKay once proposed forming an early version of Gentlemen Ranters, a ‘JJ Dining Club’ (while JJ was still alive), to swap stories about him – ‘the only criterion for membership being that you weren’t the man himself…’
Cut costs, sack hacks
By Revel Barker
Our American cousins are currently going through the sort of cost-cutting experience that we endured a quarter of a century ago, and they, more noisily than we did – but with no more apparent effect – are kicking up about it.
Cost-cutting in bean-counting-speak means job-cutting, mainly of older and more experienced (and therefore usually more expensive) staff; if you want to increase profits you look at where the money is haemorrhaging and the easy answer is to identify editorial as the culprit. The green-eyed accountant looks at the high wages, the lavish expenses, the cost of air fares to places that he couldn’t afford even on a once in a lifetime holiday, the level of entertaining… and the number of journalists who seem to spend most of their shifts either sitting around idly or – worse – decamping to the pub.
If that’s your yardstick, cutting costs is simple.
Editorial spend rarely relates directly to profit. If circulation increases, the circulation department gets the credit; if advertising income goes up, the space salesmen get the plaudits. If either of these revenue streams reduces, they all blame a poor ‘editorial product’.
We can’t argue that we were overmanned. We had writers who never wrote a word, because they were bone idle, and subs who were never asked to sub a story because they weren’t up to the task.
It was a problem by no means restricted to editorial, though. If all the inkies rostered for a shift had actually turned up on any one night, there wouldn’t have been standing room for them, which is why some comps were officially working a 26-week year (at least one of them did only 22 weeks, because it took in holiday time).
But all eyes turned naturally towards editorial where the inkies protested to management that there was something called ‘evening dress allowance’, which they believed meant a special payment for working after dark.
The first pronouncement of Clive Thornton when he arrived as chairman was that the Daily Mirror had more journalists in Holborn than the Sun employed world-wide. In fact the paper had more journalists in Manchester than the Sun had worldwide, and there were so many subs in Withy Grove on some nights that if one of them went to the lavatory he would return to find that somebody had nicked his chair.
But in those days the Sun and the Mirror were – this was our excuse – different papers. One had a deadline around lunchtime each day and the other had editions running through most of the night; at the weekend or on night matches there were different editions for almost every first division football club area (not altogether a brilliant scheme, if readers in Liverpool couldn’t get a full account of what was happening in Manchester, or Leeds didn’t know what was happening in Sunderland, before meeting them at Wembley).
I remember one night when the Sunday Mirror did 35 different changes, which may not have been a record.
So Thornton asked for, and got, non-automatic replacement and Maxwell demanded the same deal.
Montgomery had a totally different idea; he seemed to enjoy sacking people anyway, believing that two 20-year-olds on ?20grand each were obviously twice as useful as one guy of 40+ on 40grand-plus.
But there’s a reason for paying old farts more than tyros. And perhaps there’s no better proof than the Daily Mirror’s cock-up over the faked pictures of ‘British soldiers torturing prisoners in Iraq’.
When the paper announced its scoop by putting the photos on TV, Eddie Rawlinson did a screen grab at home and – before the paper even hit the streets – was telling his email cronies that he suspected there was a rabbit off, somewhere.
Eddie had been on the streets of Belfast and elsewhere and he knew what soldiers were supposed to look like.
The lacing on a soldier’s boots was WRONG, he said. The rifle held by one of them was the WRONG type.
The vehicle in the picture was the WRONG vehicle for Iraq.
The fastening on a soldier’s webbing was WRONG.
The trousers, at the ankle, were WRONG. The flow of urination (the soldiers were supposed to be peeing on the prisoner) was WRONG.
If Eddie had still been running a picture desk those photos would never have got across it.
The editor, Piers Morgan, would not have been fired. The paper – once the most highly rated and respected by soldiery of all ranks – would not have been brought into shocking disrepute.
But in the old-fart clear-out schedule, people like Eddie had been too expensive to keep. How do you put a value on experience? Does it matter that you have a newsroom staffed almost entirely by people who have never actually seen a soldier in uniform? How much are proprietors prepared to pay out in legal costs, rather than paying far less money in salaries to people who can save the company bacon?
And wherever the Mirror went, the rest of Fleet Street inevitably followed. It had been the same with pay deals; the Mirror always went in first, and upped the money, and the others all made their claims on the back of that, with no other justification or negotiating tactic than that the Mirror had got it.
So when the Mirror reduced staff, everybody else did the same.
Before Maxwell, a typical cost-cutting exercise asked on-the-road reporters to forgo the second round of vintage port and of Havana cigars at the end of lunch.
The point that they missed upstairs, however, was that the apparently indulgent lifestyle meant that reporters (this would apply to about half of them, I’d guess) would actually go out of the office and make and meet contacts – and would spend the money, and often come back with stories that were several hundred times cheaper than those that were bought-in, and rewritten by their colleagues who just pocketed the same level of exes and never ventured further from the newsroom than the office pub.
Dan Ferrari, in contemplative mood, once told me that if each of the hundred or so on-the-road men (this was early 70s) ‘went out of the office and spent their expenses and returned with only two exclusives each – every year – they would be far more use than sitting at their desks rewriting PA, and we would have a better paper.’
Far better to have a deserted newsroom, with staff out on the road, than have a roomful of people hanging about in case a Boeing crashed on Buckingham Palace.
But in the States, when a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis this month, the local paper sent 75 reporters, writers and photographers off the editorial floor and out to cover it. This was a paper that had reduced its editorial staff by – coincidentally – 75 earlier in the year, and everybody had moaned about it.
Whether the people who were standing idly by were any good, or had any experience in covering instant news, is difficult to judge from this distance.
But I somehow suspect that there won’t be too much sympathy among London editors for the tribulations currently being experienced by their opposite numbers across the pond.
Pictures: Edward Rawlinson
By Paul Bannister
Vince Eckersley was one of the Leigh Boys when we both attended De La Salle College, Pendleton, a fact unearthed at 5,000 feet on a desert mesa.
It wasn’t that Vince was in the habit of holding high-level converzationes, just that we were on a two-week muleback assignment together on the Baja peninsula of Mexico. We were seeking cave paintings of ancient flying saucers, a not-atypical National Enquirer venture.
To the background accompaniment of our three muleteers’ gastric rumblings (they’d eaten freeze-dried beef bourguignon too enthusiastically) we found we’d attended the same grammar school, a few years apart.
It was a small surprise that explained much. The contingent at DLS who travelled daily from Leigh was noted for its lawlessness, cunning and skilful interpretation of rules. All that made an admirable grounding for a photographer.
Vince had worked for Tillotsons’ Leigh Journal and Bolton Evening News before graduating to the Manchester offices of the nationals, but his taste for safari clothes and SCUBA diving (not indulged at the same time) led him to Florida and the Enquirer.
There, he and such as Scotsman Jimmy Sutherland (later Star photo editor) were among the handful of larcenous staff snappers who bought and sold their less-guileful American cousins week after week, smiling as they did it.
This is an homage to their breed, a modest account of just one episode. I’m proud to have worked with such as Vince, and Jimmy, and Jim Selby and Jeff Joffe, and … but not that Illinois idiot who gave the Guatemalan cop his driving licence…
After Elvis Presley died, the Enquirer had a stampede of approaches from his nearest and dearest, offering Last Photographs of the singer in his coffin.
The Enquirer ran one on the cover and sold more than seven million copies, which wasn’t a bad return for the $20,000 it paid to the family member – one of the people we called the Memphis Mafia – for the negative.
A couple of enterprising Enquirer employees later tried to lift that negative to print Elvis-in-a-box T-shirts. They were caught in a sting operation by the stork-like editor and a couple of fat cops. The story went that the editor unfolded out of a motel closet screeching ‘Aha! You rogues!’ and scared them half to death.
The publisher wanted another profitable Elvis cover, and hit on the idea of having a pic of the grieving widow, Priscilla, kneeling in prayer by the grave in Graceland.
Vince was given the job of getting that unsanctioned shot, for which Priscilla was to be paid.
The wily ex-Leigh Boy kitted himself out with a priest’s shiny black suit and dog collar, hollowed out a fat Missal and inserted a baby Rollei camera. Who’d question a priest in prayer?
Vince hung around some Holiday Inn in Memphis for a week, as Priscilla’s feet chilled so much that she never did that shoot.
Meanwhile, word came from Madrid. Bing Crosby had died and his body was being shipped to California for burial.
Eckers was told: Scramble. Get yourself to Los Angeles and get a picture of Bing in his box.
Observers at dusk a day later might have seen a portly priest busy with a pocket knife. He was removing a diamond-shaped pane of glass from the window of St Paul’s, Westwood, just at a place where a long lens might be inserted to get a fine view of the nave.
The next morning, the service was held early, to deter crowds, and that portly priest could now be seen at the back of the church, kneeling and murmuring over his Missal.
‘I looked up, and a big black-bearded priest was striding towards me with the light of battle in his eyes,’ Eckersley recalled. ‘I lowered my head, then cautiously looked again. It was Enquirer reporter Frank Zahour.’
Zahour was the only reporter inside the church, thanks to the ‘funeral director.’
That, in sober suit, was the late Gerry Hunt, another Enquirer reporter, (and ex-Daily Mail, Manchester) who was at the door, diligently keeping the media in its place outside while graciously accepting Kathryn Crosby’s thanks for his work.
Any indignant metro daily writer who protested at being excluded soon realised from Gerry’s demeanour that he’d best stay out. Gerry was noted for his short fuse and Pearl Harbour attacks at the office pub, and his air of menace wasn’t faked.
The service ended, and as Zahour exited, one of the humble excluded asked him for the name of the officiating priest. ‘Father Ellwood Kieser,’ said Zahour, who then spelled it, adding: ‘But, my son…’ (pause while the obedient hack waited, pen poised) ‘Check it. Check it!’
At Holy Cross Cemetery, the Enquirer team were back in mufti and the reporter who’d asked Zahour for the priest’s name did a mouth-breather’s double take.
‘A miracle, my son, a miracle,’ said Zahour, waving his fingers in blessing.
Former Daily Mail reporter Paul Bannister is shamelessly exploiting the Ranters blog in hopes of finding a publisher for his new memoir, from which this is an extract.
The King: ‘I’m still visiting earth..’
By Joe Mullins
Yesterday (August 16) was the 30th anniversary of Elvis’s death and most people can remember where they were when they heard the news that day in 1977. I was on the Pennines looking up towards Holme Moss. But I’m more likely to think about the last time I spoke to him, which was 12 years later.
We – me and the King, that is – were in a Sheraton hotel room in Toronto. Why Toronto? It was the home of Ian Currie, the man who wrote You Cannot Die. Ian’s dead now though.
Along with Presley’s stepbrother, Billy Stanley, I flew to Canada to set up a séance.
At the time Currie was the world’s top researcher into life after death. He wrote his book after studying a century’s writing about reincarnation and contact with the dead. He was a university lecturer and it was a scholarly work.
Currie and Elizabeth Paddon, a local medium, crossed the great divide and seemed to speak to the dead long before the current crop of TV seers made a mint doing it. They were serious and sincere in what they did. I was a tabloid reporter.
Billy Stanley, then 36, was there to blow them out of the water – or authenticate whatever they channeled.
His mom Dee married Elvis’s dad Vernon after Mrs Presley died. Billy and his two brothers, David and Rick, lived at Graceland and Elvis treated them as both friends and flunkies, often taking them on tours. Billy is a sweet and simple guy who clearly loved his big brother.
Before the séance, Billy told me that he had one big secret and a few smaller ones that only Elvis would know – would the King come across with the details?
As Ian Currie sets the scene by recalling Elvis’s death, English-born Elizabeth slips into a trance and tries to contact his spirit.
Suddenly he’s through. It’s Elvis on the line. Billy scowls skeptically. Me too. But then Elvis hooks him.
Elizabeth relays a question from the King. ‘Do you still have my shirt, the one you cried into?’
It turns out that just before Elvis died, he gave Billy a white shirt that he often wore. Billy kept it as a souvenir. He came across it a few years after Elvis’ death.
‘I had the shirt in my lap,’ he said. ‘I started crying and my tears dropped onto it. I never told a soul about the shirt or weeping. Elvis must be among us.’
I ask Elvis why people keep reporting that they’ve seen him. He says through Elizabeth that he’s responsible for the sightings that occur outside hardware stores in Alabama, supermarkets in Nebraska and truck stops in Tennessee.
‘I’m still visiting earth,’ he says. ‘There are things I’ve been trying to do. I always wanted to bring love to people and I left without achieving that.’
He admits that he sometimes tries to approach people and that’s why so many fans think he’s still alive. It seems the fallen star is in a limbo brought on by his rock n roll lifestyle.
‘I want to move on,’ he says, ‘Mama and Daddy are waiting. My brother too.’ [His twin Jesse was born dead.]
It isn’t his voice, of course, just words coming from Elizabeth to Currie, who repeats them.
The King goes on to reveal more information to Billy, like some of the shenanigans they got up to on the road. He also knows that Billy is working on a book and says he’s nervous about what it might reveal.
‘Just do your work with love,’ he tells Billy. Ian and Elizabeth close the séance by sending my thanks. Elvis says, ‘Joe, remember the music.’ What it means, I don’t know.
Afterwards Billy says he believes Elvis came through with information that nobody else could have known – ‘It sent chills down my spine almost too much to bear,’ he says. He’s shaking slightly and there are tears glistening in his eyes.
What about the big secret? No, Elvis didn’t deliver there. Billy wanted an apology from the King. It seems hound dog Elvis shagged the love of Billy’s life – and the younger brother wanted to hear him say, ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong to take your girl.’
He’s sad that Elvis didn’t understand what the brotherly betrayal meant to him. ‘Maybe he thought that she didn’t love me,’ he says, trying to make excuses.
In the bar later, I wonder why people have a need to believe in some afterlife. Instead of taking the piss, I play Don’t be Cruel on the jukebox. Maybe that’s what Elvis meant. The girls crowd around Billy when they hear he’s Elvis’s stepbrother. The Presley magic still works. As the night draws on, a hooker with an angel face comes on to him.
Ian gives the $1,000 fee I paid HIM for running the séance to Billy so he can be Elvis for the night. I learn later that Billy pays over the cash to the hooker just to talk because he still has the girl that Elvis seduced on his mind. ‘I told her all about Elvis,’ he explains to me the next morning. ‘We talked for hours.’
Elvis has been gone 30 years now and the sightings in rural America seem to have stopped. Maybe he couldn’t get out of Canada.
The wit and wisdom of Bob Blake
By Stanley Blenkinsop
In the wordy world of newspapers a unique volume, printed 25 years ago, still takes pride of place on the bookshelves of former Expressmen and women throughout the world. Its title: The Best of Blake.
The 208 pages, now well thumbed and dog-eared, are devoted to the words of Robert Blake.
Now 89, Bob is a Member of the Order of the British Empire for ‘services to journalism’, holder of the British Empire Medal for WWII service, and a retired Daily Express man who in 35 years filled every position on the news desk.
In that time news desk secretary Jean Kershaw kept a verbatim – and secret – note of the lugubrious Robert’s remarks to staff.
A few examples:
‘…Bottle washing. That’s what you university graduates have got to do here. And I’ll certainly see that you get a few dirty bottles to wash. Especially you women graduates.’
To a reporter who had gone into town for lunch: ‘So what would I have done if Martin Bormann [once wrongly ‘discovered alive’ in the Brazilian jungle by the Daily Express] came to the front lodge and asked to see a reporter – give him a taxi chit and send him down to the Danish Food Centre to find you?’
Commenting on pictures of a young Princess Anne leaving a London night club at 2 am: ‘No, well, I don’t hold with it, do I? If my taxes are going to be squandered I don’t want them squandered in swinging Soho clubs, do I? I want them squandered on pomp and panoply….I mean that’s what we pay for, isn’t it?’
Questioning a reporter on her expenses claim: ‘I’m told that you didn’t go to that fire in Bradford but did it on the phone… or to Sheffield for the three drowned children… and the nearest you got to Liverpool for that court case was the Crown and bloody Kettle. Please try again.’
To a reporter claiming ‘breakfast for friendly dustman’: ‘Are you asking me to believe that you went up to this chap in the middle of his round at 7 am and said: “Hello, friendly dustman, come and have bacon and eggs with me?”….’
To reporter regularly claiming afternoon tea allowance: ‘No wonder we can never get hold of you from four o’clock – you’re always eating bloody crumpets and drinking pots of China tea.’
On facial hair: ‘I always think people with beards have something to hide; and I always think people with moustaches have something to hide too.’
To new reporter sent from London: ‘You do realise that you’re surplus to my requirements. I didn’t ask for you. You were foisted on me…’
‘Judging by the number of expenses claims about tanker crashes on the M6 I reckon we’re getting pretty close to a national petrol shortage.’
‘I have no objection to women on newspapers, I think women on newspapers can be a good thing for us. Just so long as they are on other newspapers.’
On eventually raising a district man and being asked to hold on: ‘No, that’s all right… If I can wait five hours for a call from you, five minutes more isn’t going to make much differences, is it?’
On not hearing from a Belfast staffer till early afternoon: ‘We thought you’d been kidnapped.’
To mark Blake’s 1982 retirement, picture editor John Knill had the secret collection of quotes printed. They were illustrated with cartoons drawn specially by the legendary Giles, Bill Caldwell, political cartoonist of the Sun, and Tom Dobney, deputy art editor of the Express.
The Best of Blake went to the then Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Lord Carver, who had been Bob’s tank commander in the WWII North African desert campaign. Bob was his tank driver in the Battle of Alamein of which Churchill wrote: ‘Before Alamein we never had a victory – after Alamein we never had a defeat.’
His Lordship wrote back to Ancoats: ‘I have never laughed more in my life. The Giles cartoon of Rommel and Bob was first rate.’
Another copy was sent to the Burgomaster of Düsseldorf, son of the Afrika Korps leader Erwin Rommel. Although Bob had fought long and hard against the forces of the Desert Fox, he held him in the highest personal regard and a framed picture of the field marshal was among Bob’s retirement gifts.
Young Rommel, fluent in English, replied to the Express: ‘Very funny – father would have been delighted by the cartoon in which he appeared with Herr Blake.’
And more fragments from the BoB…
After hearing that a man due for arrest in a major crime had gone on a fortnight’s holiday: ‘Yes, well I expect they’re giving him an opportunity to shoot himself. After all, an inquest’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a trial.’
‘There is no cure for a hangover…’
To reporter complaining of a shilling cut in his expenses claim: ‘Ah well, we do have to wield the axe somewhere.’
‘When I was a boy we threw pennies to the veterans of the Great War who begged in the streets of London. My father told me that on a clear day you could also see the queues of starving miners in South Wales. He advised me not to be a war hero or a miner.’
‘Yes, I went to King’s School at Canterbury – England’s oldest public school. I got there because my father said we were an Anglican family. It wasn’t true – if we’d been anything we’d have been Congregational. So I said I thought religion must be pretty cheap if you could change it just to go to school, and he laughed.’
And after going to a ‘forward planning’ meeting only to find the room deserted: ‘What’s become of the think tank then? It’s like a sort of journalistic Marie Celeste in there. And there’s still a cigarette burning…’ FINALLY a footnote – too late to make the book – from Bob in a letter to The Times about the Iraq war in 2003:
‘When I was in the Army I worked briefly as a reporter on the four-page Iraq Times run by the British military public relations unit in Baghdad in 1943.
Three pages were in English, the fourth in local Arabic. As none of us could read Arabic, the back page was produced by an Iraqi sub editor
Production was stopped one day by a man from the British Embassy who pointed out that the headline on the back page report read: ‘Death to Churchill – British go home!’
# Picture research by John Knill
Stanley Blenkinsop was northern news editor of the Daily Express from 1969 till he took early retirement at 54 in 1986 to study at ManchesterUniversity. He graduated in 1989 with a BA Honours in modern history and politics.
In the line of fire
By Ian Skidmore
News agencies, weekly papers, evening papers, trade magazines, national dailies and Sundays, Kemsley Newspapers, J P Taylors Colour Printers, The Black Watch (RHR) – twice, which I think may be a record – one school and two clubs…
I have been sacked by experts.
My shortest period of employment was a day and a half, working for Jimmy Lovelock, proprietor of Stockport News Service, owner of the only fornicatorium in Cheshire and the only man to organise an abortion on the National Health, when abortions were not even legal.
Editor of a weekly newspaper in his early twenties, he had been crippled with polio as a child, but nevertheless became a mountaineer, a pot-holer and a member of the expedition that climbed Nuptse, Everest’s smaller sister.
A remarkable man.
Jimmy introduced me to the staff, which took up most of the first day.
The staff was an odd little chap called Mickey. First of all we had to find him, and that was never easy. A year after his arrival no-one knew Mickey’s surname and I don’t think anyone ever found out where he lived.
He was invariably respectful and called Jimmy ‘Master’.
Mickey had a single purpose in life: to discover how millionaires made their first thousand pounds. Their memoirs, said Mickey who had read them all, always included the phrase, ‘with my first thousand pounds I bought…’ but never explained where the thousand pounds came from.
He suspected they had nicked it; but, scorning that as being too easy, he tried dealing. He only really mastered the art of acquiring. Disposal escaped him. To Jimmy’s puzzled chagrin he used the agency’s office as his warehouse. There were racks of clothes of improbable sizes, a job lot of stringless violins picked up for a song, inevitably tuneless, twenty gross of heavily tinselled cards wishing A Happy Xmas for 1948, which he bought in 1951, and other less saleable items.
You could never find a pen there, or even a typewriter; but anyone in need of a stringless violin was easily accommodated.
Next he tried gambling, a curious reversal. Disposing was child’s play. Acquiring he never quite mastered.
He had one suit that he wore to the office, except on the days when he wore a mackintosh, in the hope that ‘Master’ would not notice he wore only a shirt, tie and underpants beneath, having pawned the suit. The gartered socks were a give away.
By the time I arrived Jimmy had taken to paying him by the day.
The second day there I got an out-of-town job; I was after all the only member of staff who could be relied on to turn up in a suit. Wilmslow Magistrates court, which in those days could be reached from Stockport by train, was hardly outer space but Mickey anxiously took me for a couple of pints to stiffen the sinews. One pint led to another and by the time I got on the train I was exhausted, fell into a deep sleep and woke up in Crewe. I had seen enough Hollywood newspaper films to know what to do. I rang Stockport on a transfer charge call and asked Jimmy to wire me my fare back to the office.
I was touched that he went further. He drove all the way to Crewe to collect me. I see now that it gave him a greater opportunity for an in-depth character assessment, but at the time I thought it a charming gesture.
We were nearing Stockport when he ended his assessment.
‘Skiddy,’ he said. ‘We have two options. Either I employ you or we stay friends.’ Again I was very touched, it was my friendship he valued.
He generously paid me for a day and a half but despite the joint urgings of Mickey and myself refused to add the one and a half hours holiday money to which we felt I was entitled. After nearly sixty years the debt remains unpaid, though I have over the years mentioned it many times, even sent bills to his retirement home in Spain. He always cops me a deaf ’un.
In the fullness of time he came to work for me, doing shifts when I ran the night desk on the Sunday Pictorial. I tried to have my holiday pay docked from his shift money, but the linage department was obdurate. No amende honorable, not even when he made a fortune doing night shifts for six nationals outside a vicarage in Cheshire, in case the Vicar of Woodford sneaked back in the night.
In fairness he did bring me a kukri back from Nepal when he climbed Nuptse and I treasure it to this day.
I was especially touched because he was very cross. Picture editor George Harrop and I had sent him a telegram as soon as the news broke of his successful attempt. ‘Is there froth on the top?’ it read, rather cleverly we thought.
We didn’t know that it would take the Sherpa who delivered it three days to climb the mountain.
Mickey? No idea. The last time we met we were having lunch with Lord (Tony) Moynihan when his wife’s tits fell out and somehow, in the excitement of that, I never got round to finding out whether Mickey made his first thousand, but I was pleased to see he was not wearing his raincoat.
It wouldn’t be summer without sighting Lucan
By Sam Leith
Many years ago my late grandfather John Junor – a newspaperman, in his day, of considerable clout – found himself in possession of one of the scoops of his career. He was editing the Sunday Express, when one of his reporters announced that they had been offered the clearest shots yet of the Loch Ness Monster.
It was about this time of year. A pair of lads had been walking by the loch with their Box Brownie, when there she was: Nessie, her majestic plesiosaur neck arching gracefully from the still, silvery waters of the loch. They had the presence of mind, just, to snatch a picture. She was blurry, but she was unmistakably the beast. The camera had not been tampered with.
JJ cleared the front page and prepared to make history. The presses were all but rolling, the Champagne all but open, and the eye of the Sunday Times all but wiped. JJ telephoned his proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, to trumpet his achievement. He finished his excited monologue, and waited for the congratulations to come. There was a pause.
‘Mr Junor,’ said the Beaver. ‘You must not print this story.’
The Junor jaw dropped. A chill took up residence in his spine. Ping! A single hair on his head turned grey.
‘Pull the story, Mr Junor,’ he repeated.
‘But, but–but-but-’ my late grandfather riposted.
‘Mr Junor. The photograph is a fake.’
‘I know, Mr Junor, that the photograph is a fake,’ continued the thumb-sized Canadian megalomaniac. ‘And do you know how I know? Because, Mr Junor, there is no bloody Loch Ness Monster. Good evening.’
The front page was killed. And the following day, the young men turned out to have been students on rag week.
This story springs annually to mind as I open my morning newspaper in the August sunshine to read about the disc
overy of a bearded Lord Lucan playing canasta or selling handmade ethnic trinkets in some distant province of the empire; a great white shark being sighted off Cornwall; or a plague of wasps the size of frogs, frogs the size of dogs, or dogs the size of horses.
Would its like take place now? Would Rupert Murdoch ever demand a story be withdrawn from the Sun on the grounds of a conviction that it was, though harmless, untrue? You’d have to wonder.
Would it even matter? When, halfway through the day, it emerged that the ‘Lord Lucan’ the Evening Standard had found was 10 years younger and five inches shorter than the one who disappeared in the 1970s, the newspaper relegated the story from the front page to page three. The implication was that the paper thought these facts may have made it less likely that their man was the missing earl, but didn’t kill the possibility altogether. (My colleague Christopher Howse this week murmured: ‘You know you’re getting older when Lord Lucan starts to look younger.’)
That reminds me, incidentally, of a heavenly cock-up on a Sunday red-top a few years ago. A paparazzo had taken a photograph that was splashed on the front under the headline ‘Who’s The Mystery Blonde With Rod Stewart?’ Then, too late to pull the story altogether, someone noticed that the man in the photo wasn’t Rod Stewart at all. The following morning, readers were invited to wonder: ‘Who’s The Mystery Blonde with the Mystery Blond?’ Genius.
When a television company transposes two pieces of footage in the editing process to make the Queen look grumpy, there are calls for mass seppuku among its executives. Yet when a newspaper finds its umpteenth Lord Lucan, or insists that Jaws is prowling off Padstow, the reaction is no more than a shrug of the shoulders.
I think there’s something slightly subtler than hypocrisy or simple bad faith at work. The reason that there’s no outrage is that nobody is fooling anybody. Do the editors who assemble these confections really believe for a nanosecond these stories are true? I doubt it. Nor do their readers. We are collaborating in a ritual of belief, or at least of the possibility of belief. This newspaper, too, added to the gaiety of nations by reporting the brouhaha surrounding the ‘discovery’ of Lord Lucan.
Something in us enjoys pretending to believe. ‘Silly season’ stories are the comical manifestation of an essentially benevolent instinct: the same instinct that keeps us searching the faces of the customers in the chip shop for Elvis, that keeps many in the Anglican Communion going to church, and that keeps us looking, in Portugal, for a child missing now for 100 days.
This year, I think, I shall be taking a late summer break in my grandfather’s honour, on the banks of Loch Ness. I’ll bring my camera.
Sam Leith is Literary Editor of the Daily Telegraph
[This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph]
It [Time travel] is an intriguing prospect worthy of an H G Wells novel: but, of course, it must be complete rubbish. – Daily Telegraph leader, Aug 9
The Daily Telegraph may dismiss the theory of time travel but the Daily Mirror, when I worked on it, was always prepared to keep an open mind on the subject.
I remember when a reader phoned to say he had invented a time machine that could take anyone back or forward in time.
News editor Dan Ferrari said that was wonderful, and that he would love to see it.
The inventor asked when he should come to the office to discuss his invention and Ferrari told him: ‘Come in and see me – yesterday.’
– Revel Barker
Friday, 24 August 2007
Darkroom Rwanda by Alun John
Unfair On ‘Mr Manchester’? – A Different View by Robert Waterhouse
My Search For Utopia… by John Harris
In Search Of Decent Conversation by Geoffrey Mather
Sinking Your Teeth Into Journalism by Ian Skidmore
A Weaver Of Tales by Edward Rawlinson
I Knew Eric Wainwright by Colin Dunne
Location, location, location
We have changed our address. This is of course not news to you because you found where we have moved to, and hopefully will continue to door-step us. [‘I’ve been on more doorsteps than a milk bottle’ – Jimmy Nicholson, the Prince of Darkness.]
The move, from Blogsite to Website (we think of it as Docklands, back to Fleet Street), became necessary because the blog was becoming unwieldy.
And it isn’t yet complete. Some of the furniture is still in storage, some is with Pickfords and there’s still stuff in tea-chests here waiting to be unpacked.
But, frankly, we were desperate to get moved in to the new place and invite our old friends in for a look before, so to speak, we finish the decorating.
This new abode, www.gentlemenranters.com, is where we intend to stay.
Please bookmark the site among your favourites, so you can find us more easily every Friday.
It’s the usual mixed bag this week. Former picture editor ALUN JOHN reports on training photographers on the national news agency in Rwanda; BOB WATERHOUSE produces a real rant of a reply to a letter from Ian Skidmore in our last posting about whether or not broadcaster Tony Wilson was entitled to be called Mr Manchester, and wonders whether this might be evidence to support his belief that newspapermen envy broadcasters; JOHN HARRIS reports on what his search for Utopia – the view from the office was described two weeks ago by John Garton – was actually like; GEOFFREY MATHER finds himself fleeing from the Land o’ Cakes with Peter Thomas to escape surreal pub conversation; IAN SKIDMORE recounts how he founded a newspaper dynasty, almost by the skin of his teeth; EDDIE RAWLINSON recalls the possibly (?) lost craft of the village correspondent; and we end with COLIN DUNNE, on his old form, reporting his discovery of the near mythical existence of The Lost Feature Writer. He’d been away too long, had Mr Dunne.
Just click on This Week, over on the left, to get into it.
Across there you will also find the Letters page, details of our Contributors, our pedantic old friend Dr Syntax, and eventually much more…
We wish you happy reading and ranting.
Feedback, Letters and Contributions, please, firstname.lastname@example.org
By Alun John
If you close your eyes after looking out over the landscape of soft green hills, and lush valleys with rivers and trees, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in Tuscany.
But if you keep your eyes open, you will soon see you are in one of those few places in the world where you just need to hear the name to shiver – Rwanda.
They call it the land of the thousand hills. The main hotel in Kigali, Les Mille Collines, immortalised itself by giving its name to the infamous radio station urging racial hatred and mass killings in the streets of the towns and the villages of those thousand hills.
The people trapped in the hotel at the height of the genocide in 1994 couldn’t leave and the supplies couldn’t get in. They ended up drinking the swimming pool dry. Their story was turned into the film Hotel Rwanda. Five years later I would sit around that same pool enjoying a gin and tonic on a warm tropical evening trying to picture the country during the worst of those times. It seemed a thousand miles from the thousand hills.
I was there on a project jointly funded by the Thomson Foundation and the BBC World Service Trust and I had a couple of weeks to train journalists at the government news agency to take – and to print – photographs.
The agency offices were a typical African set-up – rusted old machinery in the yard, a general air of dilapidation and some friendly girls trying their best to sweep the dust out of the place. I met the editor and was shown around. The newsroom was first. I was introduced to some of the reporters who shook hands and recited their names: Innocent, Robert, Veneranda, Ubaldo, Aggee, Uweniza, Theoneste, Mashema and Astrid Segawege.
The first thing I noticed about the room was the complete lack of typewriters let alone computers. The second, that there was only one telephone. It was in a little wooden box that left the handset free, but contained the dial behind a locked flap so that incoming calls could be taken, outgoing calls made only by whoever held the key. Obviously, the reporters were encouraged to make as few phone calls as possible.
The photo department was a shambles. The equipment old and rusty, the floor of the darkroom had an open drain running across it and the windows were not light tight. The bright sun streamed in through the gaps in the blackout. I looked into the film processing cubicle to discover a pile of rubbish, including an old oil drum full of some noxious chemical, and a little seat with a half-full spirit bottle next to it. No doubt it would be put to use during quieter periods of the day. The canvas of the print dryer had rotted away and the whole place needed a vigorous cleaning. A darkroom manager was produced, who looked to be in the same condition, and in urgent need of the same treatment as his darkroom.
The rest of the tour took in the printing works. The press was a flat bed and, on press days, a vast team of cheerfully-singing ladies was assembled to fold the pages of the paper together and get piles of them ready for distribution. There was a plate-making room and one extremely basic computer terminal to input the copy for the pages. The system meant that reporters would write their stories out in longhand on sheets of paper and give them to the editor who would revise them and start to plan spaces for them on the pages.
He would then pass the flimsy sheets of handwriting and pencilled notes to the one girl in the office who could work the computer and she would input the entire paper sitting on a broken chair using the single keyboard and dim and scratched screen in the hot, airless darkened room. I wonder how European journalists, accustomed to working at ergonomically-designed desks in air-conditioned offices, might still manage to complain about their conditions if they had to work like this. I am sure that the lady there hadn’t heard of Repetitive Strain Injury, let alone think she might be compensated for a stiff wrist near press day.
The first task was to clean up the darkroom and see which bits of the equipment actually worked. The girls giggled frantically as they saw me start to clean the place myself and immediately rushed over to help. We filled some sacks with rubbish and put tape over the cracks in the blackout. I made holes in the wall with my Swiss Army knife for hooks to hang the towels and I chatted to the manager, who could speak only French and Kirirwandan. My French is based mainly on an ability to order what I want in a restaurant so the conversation was somewhat basic. He showed me his stocks of paper and chemicals and we did a couple of prints together in the darkroom.
This was when we made an important discovery, which in this digital age might pass most of us by.
Editor-in-chief Rogers Kayihura had earlier complained about the poor quality of the prints coming from the darkroom and said he had been told it was the fault of the poor equipment which was beyond improvement. It now became clear nobody at the newspaper knew different grades of photographic printing paper existed for specific purposes. They didn’t know what the numbers on the boxes meant.
One of the most crucial characteristics of producing a good print for reproduction is also the simplest to control through the choice of printing paper. Tonal differences can be exaggerated by the response of the paper emulsion to give the print more contrast than the negative or they can be diminished to give the print less contrast. This ensures the perfect tonal range for optimum reproduction quality.
The papers are made in numerical grades of contrast ranging from 0 – very ‘soft’, or low contrast, through 2 – normal or average – to 5 which is very ‘hard’ or extremely high contrast.
The paper grade has a powerful influence of the appearance of a picture and can at one end create an image with a full range of tones delicately distinguished apart, through to a virtual elimination of gradations of shade, leaving the image composed of dazzling whites and opaque blacks at the other.
Each negative has to be assessed to determine which grade of paper is needed to produce the best result. This is usually done through experience, although Photoshop now does the same trick with two clicks of a mouse. In the Kigali darkroom, paper was being used with no regard to the grade and the numbers on the boxes were either being ignored or people simply did not understand their significance. When paper was needed to make a print, the next box to be used could be of any grade, thus making it impossible to achieve the best results from the negative.
I had only been in the office for three hours and I had solved their main problem. Not bad! The rest of the two weeks flew by as I instructed the reporters in loading their new cameras, posing the subjects and introduced them to processing and printing. They picked things up quickly. We practised loading the film into the processing spirals, first in the light and then in the dark. This is probably the trickiest skill, requiring a certain amount of technique, but they all tried hard and after a few times could master it well enough.
Printing did not come quite so easily. One poor chap simply could not get the hang of it. All he had to do was place the paper on the enlarger baseboard, turn the light on in the enlarger, count to four and then switch off. He just couldn’t do it. We wasted twenty three sheets of paper until he got the first one right and even then I think we just gave up to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Unfair on ‘Mr Manchester’? – A different view
By Robert Waterhouse
Ian Skidmore’s intemperate Rant about the late Tony Wilson (Letter, August 17) is inaccurate on many counts.
Let’s start with the Mr Manchester red-herring. Wilson never sought the title. Who would, when Mancunians associate ‘Mr Manchester’ with that turgid MEN diary column over the years? Wilson often as not answered to the call of ‘Hey, twat’ from young musicians he crossed in the street: musicians who loved and hated him in equal measure. He had absolute confidence in his own abilities, but no pretensions.
Skidmore’s list of great Mancunians worthy of the above title is confused and confusing. Who could question the contribution of a Barbirolli or a Lowry, but Alan Turing (yes, ed, Turing not Turnig)? Turing, London-born and Cambridge-educated, is best known for his brilliant work at Bletchley during the Second World War cracking the German Enigma code. He came to Manchester in 1948 at the age of 36 as deputy head of the Manchester University team working on what was to be the first fully-operative computer.
According to biographers his contribution was patchy, at best; then, in 1952, he was convicted of homosexual acts with a young Mancunian. Two years later he committed suicide in Wilmslow. While many of us have felt like topping ourselves in Wilmslow there’s little doubt that Turing would have been much happier in Skidmore’s ‘puffs paradise’.
Now, Alan Bates was no Mancunian. His roots lay in the Midlands. I suspect Skidmore is thinking of Albert Finney. I treasure a photograph taken by Denis Thorpe of Finney, back in Manchester during the 1970s for a stage role, posing in front of his father’s Salford betting shop. The name? Albert Finney.
And ‘Paddy… (yet another whose surname I forget)’ is most likely Ernie Garside, the Mancunian jazz trumpeter who presided over Club 43 in the 1950s and 1960s. Club 43 had many of the same American artists as Ronnie Scott’s in Soho, at half the price and in more intimate surrounds. By the time the club moved to Shude Hill in the 1960s it was attracting people like Miles Davis. My good friend Ian Breach, at the time the Guardian’s jazz critic, attempted to interview him there between sets. Miles had his arms round a couple of gorgeous chicks. He turned to Ian and said ‘why don’t you just go fuck yourself, man?’
Ernie, still alive and well and operating from Cheadle Hulme, became manager of the Canadian-born Maynard Ferguson, even taking British backup bands to the States with Ferguson. And that’s another thing, the Basie and Brubeck days Skidmore mentions were not special to Manchester. Norman Granz toured the UK with jazz legends in the 1960s. I heard Ellington, Basie, Monk, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone among others at the Free Trade Hall. It was one of their stop-offs.
On the thorny issue of whether print journalists made good television presenters or whatever, I suspect that Skidmore is falling into the old envy trap. The plain fact was that Granada started to blossom just at the time – the mid-1960s – when Manchester-based national newspapers were beginning to consolidate. Many print journalists made the jump successfully – after all, they had the experience and they knew their patch. Think of Peter Eckersley or John Stevenson.
Why Skidmore should choose to slander the memory of Bob Smithies, who died only last year, is a mystery. I worked with Smithies during his Guardian days. A fine photographer and great company, he was always prone to ‘delusions of grandeur’. He believed that he should have been made the Guardian’s northern editor after Brian Redhead left to edit the MEN, and indeed he also fancied Alastair Hetherington’s chair. That was one reason why, with a brick wall facing him at the Guardian, he crossed to Granada in 1974. There his rumbustious personality was perfectly suited to tea-time small-screen regional viewing. You could say the same about Bob Greaves.
Personally, I had a dreadful experience at Granada. Offered a three-month contract in 1976 to research a Liverpool story for World in Action, I found myself as virtual bag-carrier for a trainee director just down from Cambridge, name of Charles Sturridge. He went on to direct Brideshead Revisited and many feature films. I went on to start a freesheet called the Withington Reporter. The World in Action programme was never made.
Coming from a parsimonious newspaper background I was astounded when, in the normal course of things, we took a cab from Manchester to Liverpool and kept it with us all day while we did the rounds. I’d been allotted a desk at Quay Street and was sitting there trying to justify my huge fee when a World in Action staffer burst open the door and threw himself at me. ‘This is my office, piss off’. It was like that.
Tony Wilson had his fans and he had his enemies. Fair enough. I didn’t particularly like the uppity guy myself. For one thing, he always seemed to pull the women. But a poor TV presenter? I don’t think so. Writing last week in Media Guardian, Sebastian Cody, producer of Channel 4’s After Dark, the free-ranging late-night live conversation series begun in 1987 which often brought in Wilson to chair the most complicated sessions, endorsed the view of him as ‘Britain’s finest live presenter’. If asked to opt for this opinion or for Skidmore’s, I’d take the former.
Bob Waterhouse was a features sub and reporter with the Guardian in Manchester during the 1960s. Turning freelance, he launched the Withington Reporter (1978) and North West Times (1988). He was also launch editor of North West Business Insider (1991) and North West Enquirer (2006). His book about Manchester national newspaper history, The other Fleet Street, was published in 2004.
My search for Utopia…
By John Harris
As a lifelong newsman, I’ve had my share of rotten reporting assignments – assorted disasters, political rallies, and boring, seemingly endless city council meetings.
But once, I lucked out to get what has to be the world’s finest journalist assignment of all time: travel the world on an unlimited expense account, and go from one beautiful place to another, in a search for Utopia.
It was this assignment, in fact, that lured me from a mainstream daily for a stint in the wacky world of tabloids.
Here’s how it happened: As a Cincinnati-area daily reporter in the early 1970s, I had been augmenting my modest salary doing free-lance assignments for the National Enquirer on weekends. I dealt with the office by phone and mail.
The Enquirer paid well, and on a good weekend I could make as much as the daily paid me for an entire week.
Soon, I had accumulated enough funds to take the wife on a Caribbean cruise. On the return trip, I stopped at the office of the Enquirer, which had recently moved from New Jersey to the tiny town of Lantana, Florida. I wanted to see where all those cheques had been coming from, and encourage the editors there to keep them coming.
‘Why don’t you come to work with us?’ an editor invited. ‘I need a reporter to send on this assignment around the world.’
Around the world! That nearly floored me. Around the world! What an opportunity. A big assignment for me had been travelling to Cleveland or Columbus. Going to Chicago, Washington, or New York was a super biggie.
Articles editor Selig Adler then showed me the assignment sheet: ‘Is there really a Utopia left in this world? What’s it really like to live in Tahiti and those other pipedream paradises? Let’s send a reporter to write a series of articles.’
The assignment sheet had owner-publisher Gene Pope’s initials, indicating approval. That was important. It would take big bucks to pull this one off.
And yet, I had every reason not to take a job with the Enquirer. I didn’t want it on my resume (the old guts and gore aura of years earlier still lingered over the paper in many minds even though it had cleaned up its act several years earlier). And it was generally viewed as a gossip rag.
I had already learnt, too, that the Enquirer was a revolving door, with staffers fired on a whim. On the other hand, my wife and I both had secure jobs, we owned a home in the Cincinnati area, and my two stepsons were in school there.
Common sense told me no. And yet, ‘around the world’ kept spinning through my head, even keeping me awake at night. Finally I decided that if I didn’t take this offer, I would spend the rest of my life wondering what it would have been like.
Well, I had my price. And the Enquirer had met it. That waiting globe-girdling assignment, a salary that topped the New York Times, and an opportunity to swap the Ohio snow, sleet, and slush for the sun, sand, and surf of south Florida finally proved overwhelmingly seductive.
So the next month I was in Florida as an Enquirer reporter.
After getting shots for a host of exotic diseases that I had hardly heard of, and obtaining numerous visas, I set out, and spent four-and-a-half months island-hoping around the world, sizing up the Utopian qualities of each.
The itinerary was a dream. A few ports of call: Madeira, the Azores, the Canaries, the Spanish Mediterranean islands, the Greek islands, the Channel islands (Guernsey, Jersey, and Sark), the Scottish isles of Mull and Gigha, Hawaii (Molokai), Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Fiji, Samoa, Bali, Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, Mauritius and other places too numerous to mention.
My assignment was to find out if there really was an island paradise where one could get away from it all, and live in peace, beauty and harmony with nature. Or had those fabled beautiful places that comprise our pipe dreams been spoilt by the encroachments of modern civilization?
I found that indeed they had, at least to a degree. An island is no longer an island once an airstrip is built there. It’s then open to the world.
And it was illusion shattering to be in Tahiti, French Polynesia, in the middle of the South Pacific, and witness a rush-hour traffic jam (Renaults and motor scooters) in its main town, Papeete. And this ‘paradise’ also had parking meters – believe it or not. Hardly a Utopia, that.
I thought American Samoa might be a Pacific paradise with plumbing. But to my dismay, I learnt that the Samoans seemingly have picked up our bad habits, but little of our industriousness. It’s disillusioning to see an otherwise picture-postcard-perfect lagoon littered with beer cans.
But despite modern encroachments in many far corners of the world, there are still spectacularly beautiful places well worth visiting. Certainly, the blue lagoons, lush green mountains, and golden sunsets of Bora Bora are no less gorgeous now that there are hotels, where you can eat and sleep in comfort. Back in the old unspoilt days, while visiting there, you had to hunt up a native family willing to share their hut.
If I had to pick the most pleasant of all places I visited, it would be Western Samoa, with its friendly, happy people, who love to sing and dance. And there you have the beauty of both towering mountains and palm-fringed lagoons all within view.
I’m always asked if I found a Utopia. No, not really.
Anyway, Utopia may be more a state of mind than a physical place.
For example, I found my Utopia when I got that around-the-world, all-expense-paid, assignment to search for it.
After editing two Kentucky weeklies, John Harris was a reporter for the Cincinnati Post, then the National Enquirer, National Examiner, and finally as business editor of the Boca Raton News, Florida. Now retired, he says he ‘learnt the art of doorstepping’ from his British colleagues.
In search of decent conversation
By Geoffrey Mather
A friend did not like arriving in pubs at opening time, which used to be 5.30, so we left it quite late, strolled quietly over the road and arrived decently, not even out of breath, at 5.31.
We were approached by two gentlemen, one in a black homburg. ‘Excuse me,’ said the one in the homburg, ‘but you look intelligent. When a white man has quarter Negro blood is that a quantrain?’
‘I think it is,’ said my friend, who did not know.
‘That’s what I say,’ the man replied. ‘I have no doubt it is in my Roget’s Thesaurus, which I bought for 10 shillings from a stall and which is at home… Now,’ he went on, ‘is Shelley buried next to Keats?’
‘He could be,’ I said. ‘Grantchester, oh Grantchester.’
‘That’s Shelley,’ he said.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘Rupert Brooke.’
‘And never ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,’ he said. ‘That’s John Donne.’ ‘Correct,’ I said. ‘It is in the flyleaf of For Whom the Bell Tolls.’
‘Hemingway,’ he said.
‘Let’s slide off to another bar where we can chat on our own,’ said my friend, whispering. We did.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘did I ever tell you about the kangaroo that used to drink in a pub I know? Big fellow, he was; never paid his round. He belted a chap around the head one night, giving him a cut nose and lacerations.’
‘You can’t explain that kind of thing at home,’ I said. ‘I mean, you can’t say you were just standing there, giving no offence, when a kangaroo attacked you.’
‘That’s true,’ he said.
‘I also knew a fellow and a dog that used to drink together all night then stagger off home. Trouble was, the dog was nasty in drink and the fellow had to watch for its teeth. It used to grab his legs. When they got home he dissolved an aspirin in its bowl and it would flop out. It never bought a round either.’
‘Funny you should say that,’ said a fellow standing two yards away, ‘but have you ever seen a drunken duck? They go like this’ – and he waddled in a circle slapping his feet against the floor. Neither of us had seen a drunken duck.
‘I used to drink with a chimp at Belle Vue,’ I said. ‘It drank pints and went to the gents with us, though sometimes it didn’t bother. It was a devil for drink and pinched my gin if I turned away. It fell in love with my wife’s leg and chased her.’
My friend walked away, several yards, and leaned against a wall; his shoulders heaving. There were tears in his eyes.
‘My dog is a Cairn terrier,’ I said when he returned ‘– about 18 inches long and 13 stone. When we got it we put it in a box in the kitchen and it kicked its box against the door until we let it out. Then it leapt into bed, tugging the clothes over it, and lay there, just like us, its head on a pillow.
‘It has been there, more or less, ever since, though it comes downstairs at ten to eight every morning because it thinks the letter box is throwing things at the house. All my mail is confetti.’
‘Does it drink?’ said my friend.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘It is teetotal.’
‘That’s a mercy,’ he said.
‘It can hardly jump on the bed at all now,’ I said. ‘It is 12 years old. I wait until it leaps then help it up from behind, pretending not to notice. You can hurt their feelings. If we go to bed after 11 o’clock it sits there, one ear down, grumbling, and sometimes it goes on its own.’
‘These drunken ducks,’ said the other fellow, ‘are amazing, padding about on those big feet and lurching.’
We bade him goodnight and went back to the first bar. The gentleman in the homburg and his companion had gone.
‘It’s a pity when a couple of chaps can’t have a serious conversation without being interrupted all the time,’ said my friend.
This was adapted from a Daily Express column by Geoffrey Mather. Peter Thomas (pictured) was the friend referred to; he died in 1984 and had been a Daily Mirror executive in Manchester before becoming associate editor of the Daily Express. The first pub referred to is the Land o’ Cakes in Great Ancoats Street, once a favourite drinking place for journalists. (The second pub, he can’t remember.) The drinker with the drunken duck report was Reg Powell, from the Daily Express publicity department.
There is more like this on Geoffrey Mather’s website: UK North Perspective at http://www.northtrek.co.uk/
Sinking your teeth into journalism
By Ian Skidmore
Regular readers will recall that I became a reporter by not fastening my greatcoat in Thetford. My son, youngest daughter and grand-daughter became journalists, turning me into a dynasty, because of something that happened to me in bed.
At my romantic best, my bed activities over the years would bring a smile to the face of an Easter Island statue.
Even on my own in bed I am funnier than alternative comedy; though, let us face it, I have seen acne eruptions funnier than alternative comedy.
When I was resting between marriages and on nights when I was sober enough to make it to the bedroom the same night I started up the stairs, I had a ritual I used to perform.
About the only thing I had won custody of in my first divorce was the Teasmade, a combination alarm clock and tea maker; though even here I had to promise to bring it up in the Jewish faith.
I would activate the Teasmade, climb into bed, carrying with me a book to read and an apple to eat. Supine, I placed my false teeth on my stomach. Thus, if I felt the pangs of hunger, it was the work of a moment to pop in the false teeth and attack the apple.
Alas, on the night under advisement I neglected to put the pipe from the kettle into the hole in the lid of the teapot of the infernal machine. In fact it hung like the sword of Damocles over what I laughingly called my chest.
Worse, I fell asleep with the apple, the book and the false teeth in line ahead on the belly.
On the dot of 7am the kettle performed its function, heating the water to boiling point before waving it off on its journey along the pipe, which, you will recall, was poised over my ‘chest’.
The jet of boiling water hit it, waking me and causing me to leap into the air for just long enough for the dentures to slip off my belly and position themselves beneath me, so that when I landed I gave myself a very nasty bite in the backside.
I was dining at the Chester Grosvenor that night with my friend Long Langford and fellow members of the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs. (This has nothing to do with the story really but as a piece of name-dropping would be difficult to beat.)
Personal daintiness decreed that I should not put the teeth back in the mouth. The Ninth Baron was not best pleased.
‘Why haven’t you put your teeth in?’ he demanded.
‘If you knew where they had been, you wouldn’t ask,’ I said.
I was surprised a year later to open my daughter’s school newspaper and find she had written an account of the unhappy incident for the amusement of her peers. The response was such that she and my son both decided to take up careers in journalism.
Now my granddaughter is working for the PA. It’s an ill wind up…
A weaver of tales
By Edward Rawlinson
Jess Duxbury was a ‘six-loom weaver’ until the time when he retired at 65. The old age pensioner was then offered the job of collecting advertisements for his local give away, as freesheets were known in the 1950s. The four page broadsheet paper was printed on a flat-bed Furnival machine averaging 360 hand-fed sheets an hour and it took two days to be printed, folded, packed into bundles then delivered along the streets of Padiham, a town in East Lancashire with a population of 15,000.
At the age of twelve Jess, like other children of his age, had started work as a ‘half timer’; that meant half a day at school and half a day in work until he was 13, then he’d spent the next 52 years of his life weaving cloth in a noisy cotton mill, and being responsible for the efficient output of six busy looms at a time.
Getting out and about and meeting people when collecting adverts gave Jess a new lease of life and with a lifetime passion for words he asked the printer whether, instead of having just adverts in the paper, he could write some local news for it, which was agreed and Jess was into local journalism.
He was collecting advertising and writing reports for the Padiham Advertiser with one snag, there was a lack of space for his flow of words. Jess’s knowledge of football found him writing sports reports with no chance of them getting into his ‘freebie’ but his hand-written copy was passed around by him in the pub on a Saturday evening.
His fellow drinkers encouraged him to submit his copy to The Pink ’Un, the late Saturday sports edition of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, and although he didn’t get any actual reports into it he got a regular ‘ordered job’ phoning in the football result of Padiham FC and sometimes even other people’s copy on Burnley from Turf Moor, for which he was paid a few bob.
His knowledge of what happened on his local patch was such that it was said nobody turned over in bed without Jess being aware of it and he’d know of a news story almost before it happened.
I met Jess in the mid 50’s while I was working for the Daily Express and he became a good contact. Our first link came when he telephoned me late one Sunday night to tell of an amusing story that had happened that very evening when a local scoutmaster was marching his troop to a special evening service at the parish church in Padiham.
As it was dark the scoutmaster was at the back of the troop carrying a lantern for safety reasons. That had been required by law since 1951 when a group of Royal Marine cadets were mown down by a bus while marching in the dark at Chatham in Kent. [Twenty four cadets were killed and 18 were injured.]
As the Padiham scouts turned left and went up the steps into the church the scoutmaster, instead of following his troop, did a crafty right turn and went into the back yard of the pub opposite, but was seen by two ladies of the church as he banged on the pub back door and was allowed into the darkened public house. Pubs didn’t open until 7.00pm on a Sunday and the scoutmaster was in for a bit of ‘early doors’ while the scouts were in church. His irreverence annoyed the ladies so instead of going into the service they waited outside the pub to see what time the scoutmaster came out from this house of sin.
After the service, as the troop re-assembled, the scoutmaster had made another crafty move and was back with them, but he was having difficulty trying to get the lantern lighted. It was said later in court there had been a strong smell of drink.
The Mayoral party with the vicar led the procession away from the church with the scouts following and it was then noticed by the local constabulary that the scoutmaster appeared to be wandering about as he followed the procession and his oil lamp was going from side to side like a ship’s lantern in a storm.
The two ladies had pre-warned the local police inspector of the man’s condition when watching him leave the pub – little did they know the scoutmaster had also been there at lunchtime.
Already warned by Jess Duxbury that the scoutmaster would be up in court the next day and they had no local court reporters, we were in for an exclusive. The scoutmaster was fined for being drunk in charge of a troop of boy scouts.
A great exclusive from our Jess. Today a story like that would probably not even make the paper.
At the time tip-offs such as that were the life blood in the fight for newspaper circulation; whether they came from a local freelance correspondent or a contact like Jess; they created good warm gossip from the heart of a nation still reeling from the horrors of a war.
After finishing work the tap room once again became the barrack room. A meal on the kitchen table could wait while lads who had spent years away from home were reunited in the pub. Television hadn’t yet destroyed the art of telling a good tap room tale or relating a story that had appeared that day in the Daily Herald or the Mirror.
That story from Jess is just one of his many that made the Daily Express.
Contacts like him disappeared with the stroke of an accountant’s pen when the idiots took over the asylum.
I knew Eric Wainwright
By Colin Dunne
Goodness knows, those 30-odd years in Fleet Street produced very little for me by way of achievement, fame or trophies. All I’ve got to show for it are a few divorce court appearances, arteries as congested as Shoe Lane, and a collection of anecdotes that can never be told. Why not? Because normal people would never believe them.
But I do have one claim to distinction of which I’m seriously proud, and it’s one that very few old Mirror men can make…
For I knew Eric Wainwright.
Oh yes, there are plenty who are familiar with the legend of Invisible Eric, the ghost of the Fourth Floor Features. But I doubt if any of them ever actually set eyes upon him. And fewer still who heard, first-hand, his explanation of why he found it necessary to wear his St James’s Street hat while seated upon the lavatory.
But I did. I knew him quite well. And his hat. And I’m glad I caught his show while it was still – just – in town.
It happened at a time in my life when I was obliged to spend Sunday mornings – and quite possibly bits of Saturday night – in the Holborn office. We do not need to go into the reasons. Some sort of domestic dislocation, I seem to recall – you know how difficult women can be. Anyway, after breakfast in the canteen, by mid-morning I’d be sitting with a coffee and the Sunday papers at my desk on the fourth-floor.
I always had it to myself. Until one morning when in bowled this dapper chap. Although clearly startled at having to share the room, he gave a jovial wave and sat down at a typewriter. The telephone rang. ‘No,’ he said, with complete conviction, ‘there’s no-one here called Dunne.’
At this point, I thought it wise to introduce myself. He apologised for not knowing me. In fact, he didn’t seem to know anyone. ‘Who’s the features editor now?’ I said it was Bill Hagerty. ‘Is he a little blonde chap with a moustache?’ I said no, he was a tallish dark chap with a clean upper lip. He nodded. ‘Bit out of touch these days,’ he said. ‘I try to keep out of the way.’
At that he was triumphantly successful. His contact with the office was his monthly visit, on a Sunday morning when the place was deserted, to do four weeks’ expenses. A little cautiously, I said that I hadn’t seen his by-line recently. ‘No, old boy, haven’t had a piece in for six years.’ I murmured something about how upsetting it must be to have all that copy spiked. He looked at me as though I was insane. ‘Lord no, haven’t written anything for six years.’
At this point, we need a little history. In the mid-seventies, the Mirror features department had reached its zenith with a splendid one-way employment policy: new writers were shipped in, but no old writers went out. One idle day (there were about 342 a year) I counted the number of feature writers and gave up when I passed 40. They were a mixed bunch. Former girl-friends of long-gone editors, executives who’d forgotten what they were executing, columnists who’d misplaced their columns, foreign correspondents returned home, and some people who I think just came in for the warmth. There were even one or two who wrote features. This wasn’t encouraged.
Passing the time could be a problem. Some took to the drink. Some took to adultery. Some took to both, and not always in the right order. Don Walker set up a music stand and taught himself classical guitar. Paula James made restaurant reservations. George Thaw was Scottish all over the place. Don Gomery sighed a lot. Occasionally we’d move the desks and have a badminton tournament.
Several of the writers, like Eric, became no-shows. His sports jacket – Daks, of course – was left over his chair, so that if anyone asked for him we could say he’d popped out to the bank and we would ring the number he’d left. The number, someone said, was for a drinking club in Soho in which he was a partner. We never rang it. No-one ever asked for him.
Years slipped by, and he became a sort of invisible yet indestructible folk hero. Once he put in a memo asking to be made Pub Correspondent. Tony Miles, the editor, asked someone to check with accounts to see if he was still on the staff. He was. ‘What the hell does he do?’ Someone said he spent most of his time in pubs. ‘In that case,’ said Miles, ‘he might as well have the title.’ So he achieved his ambition, and, true to the last, he never wrote a story.
Mike Molloy once called a conference which was a must-attend for writers. Bars and bedrooms all over London emptied and by the time he’d begun, the room was packed. At that point in walked this distinguished figure with his rolled umbrella and perched himself at the front. Mike was saying the new policy was to attract young readers when Eric spoke. ‘Delightful little boozer just outside Guildford,’ he said. ‘Lots of young people in there. Shall I pop down and have a look?’ A minute later he’d gone. It remained one of the great unwritten stories of our time.
Over the months, I got to know him well. With his slick of silver hair, florid face and drawing-room accent, he was of a type that even then was rapidly running out of fashion. He was – there’s no other word for it – a gent: British warm overcoat, yellow chamois gloves and tightly-furled umbrella with a whangee handle, he was clearly an ex-officer from some smart regiment. Only he wasn’t.
The story was that he was a Canadian who’d come over here with the Canadian air force and stayed on. There were rumours of military heroics. At one time he’d made a living as a cartoonist (some of his cartoons were on the walls of the Stab). Even more incredibly, he’d dressed up as a huge, ugly, half-wit woman called Cynthia who was the silent stage stooge for a northern comedian called Hylda Baker. ‘She knows, y’know’, Hylda would say, elbowing Eric in the ribs.
It was the sort of CV that could only end one way – in the Mirror features department. Long before those Sunday morning meetings, he’d built up quite a name for doing first-person pieces under the by-line Danger Man. He was terrific. He rode a motor-bike through a hoop of fire. He went into a cage full of lions armed only with a chair. He even went to the photographers’ Christmas party… no, no, that was a joke, he wasn’t that crazy.
He was what he himself would have called a genial sort of cove. Full of good spirits, full of good stories. Around noon, he would slip over the Stab, and return a couple of hours later, even fuller of good spirits. He would slump down in his chair and ring all his friends around the world. Occasionally, the odd snippet would drift over to me, and what collectors’ items they were…
‘Yerrs, still got the same old place out in Bucks. Thatched roof, y’know. Trouble is, bloody squirrels in the thatch. Gnawed through the bloody water pipe. Drips through the ceiling. Bloody nuisance. Have to wear a hat when I’m on the lav.’
With the writer’s true eye for detail, Eric knew this required further definition. ‘Y’know,’ he said, ‘the one I got at Lock’s of St James.’
There were stories that in his younger days he was an accomplished pub fighter. Someone who once saw him in action said he used the pub furniture like they do in cowboy films. To me he was never anything other than charming, apart from the day Roy Harris upset him. Roy, who was, I think, deputy features editor, sat in on a Sunday, and when Eric presented his expenses, he ventured a mildly casual inquiry about one item.
Eric was furious. He went immediately to the Stab. He stayed longer than usual. When he came back, he was purple with, among other things, rage. He asked my advice. What was the silliest story I’d ever done? A talking dog, I said. Where was the furthest point from the office? Land’s End. With finger-jabbing anger, he typed away, took it downstairs and slammed it down in front of Roy. It was for a trip to Land’s End to interview a talking dog. It involved well over a thousand miles’ travel, several overnights, lots of entertaining and taxis. All with no bills. The final, some might have said contemptuous, item was the one that caught Roy’s eye. ‘Bone for dog – £10.’
Roy, who was not a big man, shivered in the shadow of the figure looming over him. ‘Must have been a big bone,’ he whispered weakly.
Eric slammed his hand on the desk and roared: ‘It was fucking big dog.’
Roy’s signature fairly skidded over the paper.
Someone somewhere must have let me back in, because my Sunday mornings in the office came to an end. I missed them. I missed Eric. With him, I felt as though I was catching the last act of a wonderful long-running comedy.
About a year after I left the Mirror, Don Walker rang me up. I knew it was some sort of spoof because he was trying not to laugh. Eric was leaving, he said. They were having a farewell party for him. And would I go along because I was the only person who knew what he looked like.
Sadly, Eric isn’t around any more. Any more? What am I saying?
- Colin Dunne was a Daily Mirror feature writer from 1968 to 1978 when he left to freelance and write books.
Friday, 31 August 2007
We all knew Eric By the Editor
As we were By Norman Luck
Piss-ups and breweries By Patrick O’Gara
You can’t sue me, you’re my editor By Walter Ellis
In sickness and in health By John Izbicki
I’ll never forget Wotsisname By Revel Barker
Kiss like a bee By Harry Pugh
The day I met ‘the national lads’ By Colin Dunne
A swagger of national men
We received a handful of flattering reviews last week (see Cuttings), our first edition from this new address, including being voted among the Best Websites of The Week by two British forums and one in the United States.
Thanks, for that, to our hardworking contributors, and also to a growing readership (around 2,400 at last count – and that’s people, not website ‘hits’) that is loyally putting the word around.
Talking of contributors, Alun John (Letters) bemoans the fact that he doesn’t seem to read much on this site that originates from the old Daily Mail building nor, come to that, from The Times or the Telegraph. But hot on the heels of that missive came a letter from Australia’s Gold Coast describing life on both the Daily Telegraph and the long lost Daily Sketch. It mentions Fergus Cashin – a name that should surely open a rich vein of gold. Stanley Blenkinsop digs up a further tale about John Junor, another highly productive seam that’s barely been touched, yet.
On the main page, This Week, feature writer Walter Ellis covers both the Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph, reporting the war between two colourful editors, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne and Andrew Neil, that spread from the comment columns to the courts. Walter had switched sides (or, at least, changed papers), mid-conflict. ‘Whatever the truth,’ he writes, ‘the fact remained that I was being sued for libel by my own editor – a remarkable event in a singular profession.’
It was a real life proof of the old line: The moving finger writes and, having writ, moves on.
But Omar Khayyam (for it was he who wrote it) went on: nor all your Piety nor Wit / Shall lure it back to cancel half a line, / Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.
And there’s probably a lesson in there somewhere, if you can be bothered.
But back to reality as we knew it, where, if an editor was vexed by you, he’d most likely take you across to the pub… Colin Dunne’s widely-praised feature about Eric Wainwright (see Last Week, if you missed it) jogged the memories of a few Old Hacks who claimed to have other stories of his exploits, which we are happy to add to the myth without endorsing the truth of any of them. After all, Eric never confirmed anything, even if you could find him.
Norman Luck says that, well, that’s what life in The Street was like in our day, when reporters might get sent to the airport to buy a ticket to Hong Kong – ‘and await further instructions.’
Paddy O’Gara says that the role of a journalist is to attend piss-ups, rather than to organise them – even, or especially, in breweries. John Izbicki meets Robert Maxwell, Revel Barker contends with Magnus Magnusson, Harry Pugh gets kissed by a transvestite cartoonist, and a teenaged Colin Dunne discovers his new heroes, ‘the national lads’ (this was some time ago). There was only one word to describe them, he says: ‘the collective noun is a swagger.’
We are also delighted to launch, this week, our new Diary, THE STAB, which will welcome all inside stories that are not making the papers elsewhere, and any non-libellous tales of daftness. Read it to discover which Fleet Street editor was the ‘tabloid toss-pot’, and which the ‘self-regarding turd’…
Diary pars, letters, links, suggestions, and contributions – to the new address, please: email@example.com
The links are at the top left, so… just direct your feet, to the funny side of The Street.
We all knew Eric
By The Editor
Last week’s posting, I knew Eric Wainwright by Colin Dunne, generated a welcome feedback from our readers – who, incidentally, numbered 2,320 at last count – and many of whom had a tale to tell about Eric.
A young ranter on the Daily Telegraph emailed to say he had caught a sub actually guffawing at his terminal, surely an unlikely occurrence in Canada Square these days, and discovered he was ‘reading about Old Wainwright’.
‘Grey Cardigan’ in Press Gazette today (Friday) instructs his younger readers to seek the piece out. [It is currently in Last Week (August 24) on this site.] ‘Then’ he writes, ‘you might understand.’ Professor Roy Greenslade, in his Guardian media blog, described the copy as ‘a laugh-out-loud piece’, and urged everybody to read it. [See footnote]
And so they did. And it prompted even more tales about the non-writing feature writer famed as the Mirror’s Invisible Man.
Invisible he may have been, but an awful lot was known – or at least rumoured – about him. Helpfully, Eric neither confirmed nor denied any of the stories about him. Not even the ones he told himself.
During the war, apparently, he was shot down returning across the Channel from a Canadian Air Force mission. There was an unwritten agreement (so we’re told) that German air-sea rescue aided downed fliers on their side of the water and the RAF looked after its own side. Eric hit the water somewhere near the middle and a German boat came to his rescue but decided that he was marginally on the wrong side of the imaginary line. A sailor waved a bottle of brandy, Eric swam towards it – and spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft-something (invent your own number, 17 is a popular choice, when retelling this story).
Photography, not surprisingly, was forbidden in POW camps, so Eric applied his natural ability for drawing likenesses that prisoners could send home in place of photos. He also portrayed the guards, in return for goodies like soap, which he traded for Red Cross cigarettes and chocolate… with which he bribed the guards to get more comfort for his hut-mates.
He also ran an illicit still (shades of The Great Escape, here: perhaps Eric was actually Steve McQueen) and when the Americans liberated the camp he refused to leave, because his hooch hadn’t quite reached maturity and he wanted to see how it turned out. He reckoned it needed another week, so the Yanks gave him food and fags and carried on with the invasion.
Eventually back in London he was left some money by an aunt, bought a half-share in a Soho drinking club and bankrupted himself playing his own one-armed bandit.
At some stage he joined the Daily Mirror and wrote features as the paper’s Danger Man. Certainly he flew a mission with the RAF, and did jumps with the Paras – all without bothering about insurance, as the office discovered only afterwards.
Tony Miles, one of Eric’s staunchest supporters and happily editor and then chairman, once set people up to follow the feature writer and report what he did all day. The team lost him somewhere in Holborn.
A distinguished columnist was sent, for no remembered reason, to collect him from his drinking den and return with him to the office. Affronted by the very idea, without leaving his bar stool Eric swung round and decked the office’s messenger. Then carried on drinking.
But let it not pass unnoticed by the current management of the Mirror that – although he had not filed a story in half a dozen years (nobody had asked him to write one) – when he retired he was given a farewell lunch by the company.
It was in a private dining room at the Ritz. Yes: we had style, in those days.
The Jockey Club was holding a luncheon in the next room with the Queen Mother as guest of honour and when she arrived she walked straight past the owners and trainers to the only face she recognized – Arthur Thirkell, the Mirror’s theatre critic. Arthur introduced her to his colleagues and while this was happening Eric turned up. He walked straight to the Queen Mum, shook her hand and thanked her for coming to his party.
Eventually rescued by her detective she was escorted to the function she was supposed to be attending. But as she was led away she said to Eric: ‘Oh dear, this one looked like so much more fun.’
- If you wish to see the air of abject misery and sense of humour failure ingrained in (some of) the generation of newspaper folk that followed ours, go to http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/greenslade/scroll down until you come to his piece about this site, and read the comments. And despair. – Ed.
As we were
By Norman Luck
Life in those heady days of yesteryear was not so intense.
Journalists in that era were chosen because they were shrewd operators – not glorified re-write men and women as they are today. Each day was an adventure. One minute you could be enjoying the first pint of the day in the paper’s favourite watering hole and the next racing to the airport to catch a ride to Marbella where a Brit-based story had developed.
We had the trust of our peers. My memory goes back to those five hour lunches in the Cheshire Cheese that became a regular event. Sid Williams, Alastair McQueen and a host of other Mirror names would join in convivial union with Express rivals to enjoy roast beef with braised celery and a few pints in the full knowledge that if a story broke they would be off quicker than a whore’s drawers to some far-flung location.
We were trusted by our masters. As long as they knew where we were, they knew we could be launched like Exocets to get the best coverage for the morning’s edition… unlike today, where every minute of the day has to be accounted for – usually behind one of the battery of screens in the newsroom re-writing somebody else’s copy.
It seems adventure in the job has long been confined to history. In this cost-cutting age frantic car dashes to the airport to get a plane to San Francisco to cover an earthquake or the order: ‘Go to Heathrow, book a ticket to Hong Kong and await further instruction’, would seem like a figment of a journalist’s imagination. It happened and we can treasure those memories.
Today, as a youngster with a degree in journalism sits at the screen putting his or her name on a piece of PA or stringer’s copy, while eating a bubble-wrapped sandwich or taking a swig of Evian water, our tales of the glory years seem so unbelievable.
When I joined the Daily Express in 1964 there were 10,800 employees worldwide and the circulation was 4.2 million a day.
When I left it in 1996 there were 1,500 employees worldwide and the circulation was around the one million mark. I mentioned this recently to a Daily Express executive and he couldn’t believe it, adding: ‘These days we do it on fewer than 500.’
Piss-ups and breweries
By Patrick O’Gara
After the regular morning conference, a small group of execs was gathered in Mike Molloy’s elegant faux Edwardian office. Among them was Joyce Hopkirk.
Now Joyce was without doubt an exceptional journalist, one of the greats, but – like many of us – not too hot on some aspects of the day-to-day management of a department. True, she’d been women’s editor of The Sun, launch editor of Cosmopolitan, and would become women’s editor of the Sunday Times and editor in chief of She.
But one can only speak as one finds and, at the time in question, she was found as assistant editor of the Daily Mirror in charge of features.
Molloy asked her about something she was supposed to have organised. The memory is foggy, now, but it possibly had something to do with inviting Spike Milligan into the office for lunch in the private dining room, and her inviting him on the wrong day, or somebody booking the room for the wrong day. Whatever.
Her explanation was deemed unsatisfactory and Mike, usually unflappable, began to rant.
‘Oh, fie Hopkirk, [or words to that effect],’ he snarled, ‘You couldn’t run a piss-up in a brewery.’
Joyce said nothing, but I could see she took it hard.
A day or so later she met me in a corridor and handed me an invitation, clearly one of many.
It was headed A PISS UP IN A BREWERY!
Mine said: Joyce Hopkirk is delighted to invite Patrick O’Gara to a gala piss-up at the Whitbread Brewery, Whitechapel Road, London, E1, on Wednesday July 16th at 7pm. Guest of Honour: Mike Molloy.
‘What do you think, Pads? This will show Mike I’m not as inefficient as he thinks, won’t it?’ she burbled.
I asked whether she had put out many invitations yet.
‘Because the Whitbread Brewery is in Chiswell Street in Smithfield, and I’m not sure it is even a working brewery these days. The brewery in Whitechapel Road is Watney’s.’
She let out the sort of scream only bats can hear and began racing round the office snatching envelopes from in-trays, while instructing her secretary to do the same.
It was, her many friends conceded, an easy mistake for a non-beer drinker to have made. After all, they both began with W.
It was only later – during the week of the planned event – that somebody noticed that the 16th was not a Wednesday but a Tuesday. It was fairly late on Tuesday when this was spotted. Joyce’s wretched secretary had to race round all the editorial notice boards altering the date, and then ring everybody when they came back from lunch to tell them that the organised piss-up was occurring that very evening.
Nobody seemed to mind much, not when they realised that it was perfectly acceptable to visit Watney’s brewery and drink gin and tonic, and a good time was had by all who managed to attend. I have to report, though, that Mr Molloy was wearing a fairly smug expression, throughout.
In fact, organising piss-ups is not something that comes naturally to journalists – in spite of our reputation.
I could mention a certain sometime Mirror executive (now, I believe, editing a highly regarded website for Old Hacks) who once organised a book launch at Scribes for the volume he’d edited to mark the retirement of the said Mr Molloy, called Round Up The Usual Suspects.
It was a bold idea, to publish a book, instead of the usual dummy front page, for Mike, who had already written half a dozen best-sellers from the editor’s desk.
Exactly how bold became clear on the evening of the launch when the assembled drinkers – all co-authors – were presented with nothing more than a set of page proofs to admire. The exec concerned naturally blamed the inkies for being a day late. I wonder who he blames when things go awry, these days.
You can’t sue me, you’re my editor
By Walter Ellis
The legal papers landed on my desk with a thump. I looked up to see the Sunday Times editor, Andrew Neil, staring down at me. He was smiling. He didn’t look happy. It was May, 1991.
‘What’s this?’ I asked, instantly alert. It was a Friday afternoon and I was working on a focus for that week’s paper. Surely he didn’t expect me to take on something new this late in the week.
Neil’s response was like the verbal equivalent of a head butt. ‘It’s a writ,’ he said.
‘What do you mean, a writ?’
‘I’m suing you.’
I looked aghast, which is just one step down from ghastly. Colleagues later reported that the colour drained from my face. ‘You can’t sue me,’ I stammered. ‘I work for you.’
‘I think you’ll find I can, Sunshine,’ he replied, his eyes twinkling as they habitually did when registering the dismay of an underling.
‘But what am I supposed to have done?’
‘Read it and see.’
And with that he was gone. He has a long body and short legs and his scarlet braces as he retreated were almost as long as the trousers they held up.
The eyes of the newsroom were on me as I picked up the weighty document. What the hell was happening? I began to read, and then it hit me.
Eighteen months before, when I was chief feature writer at the rival Sunday Telegraph, I had been called into the office of its editor, Peregrine Worsthorne. Perry, in his mid-sixties, was a throwback to another age. Coiffured like a pre-revolutionary aristo, with luminous cravat and matching luminous socks, he embodied (as he would have put it himself) the de haut en bas approach to the lower orders that so endeared the Bourbons to the inmates of the Bastille.
But unlike Louis XVI, whose failure to understand the obligations of kingship would have been, in Perry’s eyes, his principal fault, the Roi du Sunday Telegraph was a good egg who deemed hypocrisy – or good manners – on the part of the Establishment an essential part of the democratic myth. He regarded those of us below the salt much as an infantry colonel saw his men in the run-up to the Somme: they were to be issued with tin hats and gas masks to protect them from the enemy. He wished them well. But in the end it was their job to go over the top and get killed.
Perry lived to shock. On that particular afternoon, in the spring of 1989, he was working on a leader that would get him into the second biggest public row of his life (the first being when he said ‘fuck’ on television in 1973, eight long years after Kenneth Tynan had broken that particular taboo, and still only the second person to say it). ‘Playboys as Editors’ was a fevered assault on the life and times of the unwashed editor class. It centred on Neil’s recently revealed affair with a young Indian woman, Pamella Bordes (who turned out, unknown to him, to be a prostitute), with a generous side-swipe at the Observer’s editor, Donald Trelford, who had accompanied the same young lady to the opening of a night club. If there was a serious point to his diatribe, which I doubt, it was from the perspective of the old High Tory Right directed against what we would now call the neo-cons, represented by the Sunday Times.
My role in this melancholy business was to write an accompanying ‘news-feature’, in which Neil’s misdemeanours, such as they were, over the previous 12 months would be compared to other, high-profile indiscretions. I did not seek out the commission. I would happily have played pass-the-parcel with such an obviously poisoned chalice. But journalism is not for the faint of heart.
The resulting piece, about a thousand words long, under the headline Dangerous Liaisons, was based on clippings and contained nothing that had not been said before in a score of diary items. My one concern as I left the office for the pub late on the Friday night was a paragraph inserted by one of the paper’s executives, with an unsubstantiated reference involving Rupert Murdoch – Neil’s proprietor
I had placed various calls to the News Corp. boss, even speaking at one point to his butler in Australia. Newspaper magnates resent intrusion into their private lives much as the Royal Family does, but with rather more hope of success, and my calls were not returned. Thus I had no idea what Murdoch thought. I told my senior colleague that his insert was pure speculation and that it should either be removed or else his name substituted for mine on the piece. He assured me he would make the necessary adjustment. In fact, all he did was add a line in which Sunday Times executive Ivan Fallon denied the story. On such caprices, whole lives can turn.
In his leader, which appeared that Sunday, Worsthorne laid into Neil like an intellectually upmarket telly evangelist. He accused him of bringing the holy fraternity of broadsheet editors into disrepute by way of his relationship with Bordes and his membership of Tramp, a somewhat louche west London nightclub for the menopausal male. Neil was not, in Perry’s words, an homme serieux, but a playboy.
Most recipients of such an attack from such a source would have shrugged it off, evening the score at some later date with a sharply observed diary item comparing Perry, unfavourably, to Malvolio, complete with cross-garterings.
Not Andrew Neil.
Time passed and, as is the way with these things, the ‘scandal’ fizzled out. Fleet Street’s gaze, like the eye of Sauron, sought out new targets to torment and tease. For my part, I had other things to think about.
In the spring of 1988, it was announced that the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, which had been taken over three years before by Canadian entrepreneur Conrad Black, were to be merged into a single, seven-day paper. At the Telegraph’s headquarters in South Quay, a semi-derelict site on the Isle of Dogs, in London’s Docklands, where Black’s journalists were exiled as part of the flight from Fleet Street, a self-pitying groan arose. Journalists do not like change. They prefer old certainties to almost any form of innovation, which they see as the precursor to job losses and big bonuses for executives. They are not wrong in this.
But Perry, not truth, was the first casualty. Max Hastings, editor of the Daily, who years before, in Belfast, had taught me how to eat an artichoke, was appointed editor-in-chief of the combined operation. No doubt to the huge satisfaction of Neil, Perry was demoted to the post of Sunday Comment editor, in charge of opinion and ‘fine writing.’
The blow was as savage as it was unexpected. Our hero, under whom circulation had risen 25% in two years, was fired in the most brutal fashion. He was degraded over poached eggs at the Savoy by Andrew Knight, Black’s right-hand man, who, having invited him to a power breakfast, made clear that while both might enjoy the breakfast, only one enjoyed the power.
Perry never stood a chance. Announcing his humiliation to the newsroom with a touching dignity, he then retreated to the rear of his office, where he adopted a stoic pose, gazing out over the Isle of Dogs as if in solemn contemplation of the Fall of Man.
It was too much. I followed him in and told him that we were all behind him and wished him well. I don’t think this was toadying. He was on the slide, after all. I think I genuinely felt sorry for him. At any rate, he turned away, moist-eyed. The following week, in the diary column of the Spectator, he related how ‘a relatively junior member of my staff, whose work I had often spiked and who had no reason to thank me for anything,’ had approached him with words of comfort, adding that this simple act of kindness had moved him to tears.
De haut en bas to the end.
Some weeks later, as the projected merger moved into the trench warfare stage, I left the Sunday, where I had been supremely happy, for the oped pages of the Daily. Op-eds (opposite the editorial page) are the comment equivalent of instant history: a kind of rush to judgment that is based, as often as not, on that morning’s Today programme on Radio 4. My protest to Hastings, that I never sought the transfer and didn’t want it, met with the retort that I was ‘bloody lucky’ to have a job at all.
‘Indeed,’ I replied, bowing out of his office like a family retainer taking his leave of the Queen. ‘Absolutely.’
It didn’t work. I knew it wouldn’t. The newly merged papers soon fell apart again, but not before I quit to join the Sunday Times. A friend, Peter Millar, who had recently left South Quay for Wapping, arranged for me to meet Roy Greenslade, the paper’s associate editor, about a possible job. Greenslade (now Professor of Journalism at London’s City University) liked my work and hired me on the spot, subject only to the editor’s approval.
Neil raised no objections. In fact, he welcomed me on board. Over the next 12 months he sent me to various trouble-spots as a foreign correspondent, as well as to my native Ulster, where I sporadically covered ‘the Troubles’. He even sent me a couple of ‘herograms,’ thanking me for the efforts I had made while on assignment in Bucharest and Belfast.
It doesn’t get any better than this, I thought. And then it did. At the prompting of the managing editor, the late Tony Bambridge, I was put in day-to-day charge of the prestigious News Review section, working under Bob Tyrer, one of Neil’s principle lieutenants, and made an assistant editor of the paper, with my own clipboard. I attended editorial conference three or four times a week, fawning over the editor’s jokes, waiting for my chance to earn brownie points with a particularly withering aperçu. To cap it all, I even had my own column, in which I confided to my readers each week much more than they could ever wish to know about the onset of middle-aged angst. Oh yes, I had it all. In media mafia parlance, I was a ‘made man’.
That was when Andrew Neil’s timebomb went off.
Sixteen years on, I have come to the conclusion that he didn’t realise when he hired me that it was I who had penned the feature article accompanying Playboys as Editors. It wouldn’t make sense otherwise – would it? He would have to have been mad, or unusually vindictive, to have taken me on simply to set up his revenge. No, he must have discovered my secret identity only when his legal team drew up its indictment, surprising himself as much as he surprised me. Given that he clearly felt my article was both offensive and defamatory, you might suppose my name would be firmly implanted in his brain. I mean he must have read it obsessively at the time. But though I raise the question, I have no explanation to offer. Nor do I have any idea why the writ, and the trial that followed, only came along nine months after my appointment and more than a year after the article complained of. Such are the vagaries of English justice.
Whatever the truth, the fact remained that I was being sued for libel by my own editor – a remarkable event in a singular profession. Perry’s leader was obviously the primary target of Neil’s ire, and press coverage of the trial, ignoring the piquancy of my predicament, made only passing reference to me. Yet I found myself in the position of having to defend a comment about Neil, written by someone else two years before, knowing that its subject now controlled my career, and with it my mortgage, my alimony payments and my son’s school fees.
As it happened, Neil was aware of the dilemma, even sympathetic. On the last Saturday before the curtain went up at the High Court, he called me into his office in Wapping – the same office where, once before, well after midnight, I had observed a beautiful Asian girl asleep on his leather sofa – to offer me some words of advice and a glass of champagne.
‘You’re not to worry about the trial,’ he assured me. ‘Just tell the truth and the facts will speak for themselves.’ More to the point, he informed me over our conspiratorial bubbly, I could even be doing him a favour. Libel payouts tended to be big in those days and, though money was not the object of the exercise…
‘Cheers!’ I said.
If only …
Worsthorne’s team was meanwhile stepping up the pace, hoping to reach ramming speed by the time their man was called to give evidence in his defence. I was advised, for the sake of my career, to tread carefully. The line was that I had been naïve in saying what I said about Mr Neil, and in recent months, having worked closely with him as my employer, was more than ever convinced of his status as a dignified, upstanding member of the community.
Yes, I said. But what about the Murdoch stuff?
‘When it comes up, say that the words complained of were not yours and leave it at that. Cast no blame; don’t cause a fuss; don’t make waves.’
Each morning, during the week-long trial, I would join Worsthorne’s legal team in the Bar Library, off the Strand; then, after our pep talk, walk the 200 yards or so up the road to the High Court. In the evenings, I switched sides and accompanied my editor back to Wapping in his limo, feeling like a man hitching a lift to the prison yard with his executioner. As the week progressed and Neil’s optimism gave way to cold fury, he maintained an increasingly stony silence.
The trial was, as it was bound to be, a farce. Perry – a man who once observed, speaking from experience, that a man’s mistress should always be younger than his wife – attempted to take the moral high ground, affecting a lofty disdain for what he characterised as Neil’s down and dirty contemporary lifestyle. For the purpose of the trial, he assumed the persona of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell. Editors, he explained to the judge, should be familiar with the chancelleries of Europe and Oxford and Cambridge common rooms, not Tramp, where the embonpoint of young women was all too obviously on display. Neil, thin-skinned and prickly, was questioned about a widely reported incident in which Bordes – then turning tricks for £500 a night – had allegedly cut out the crotches of his suits. He denied it. He was then asked which chancelleries he frequented, and which common rooms. There was even discussion of various romantic gifts he had bought for his lover, including, for some reason, a Magimix food blender.
Olde England versus New Britain had never been so cruelly, or entertainingly, exposed.
When it came to my time in the witness box, on the final day, Neil’s barrister came straight to the point. I was asked to explain how I had come to write the article and with what justification I had included the false reference to Murdoch’s alleged distaste for his editor’s approach to the present controversy.
I kept to the script. The executive who had landed me in the soup was looking on from the public benches. I liked him, in spite of my present difficulties, and said nothing that revealed his part in the affair. He was grateful. As to the moral nature of Mr Neil, I had obviously been wrong to include him in a gallery of philandering public figures, for he was a man of good character and a credit to his calling. Throughout this pathetic self-serving drivel, Neil stared back at me, as inscrutable as the grave. I knew exactly what he was thinking.
The jury, in the dry language of such things, found in favour of the plaintiff. But there was little cause for celebration. He was awarded precisely one thousand pounds – the 1990 version of a penny in damages. Winningly, he did not cash the cheque. Instead, he had it framed and hung it on his office wall. Costs were awarded against the Telegraph.
The non-Murdoch press had a field day. Neil – forever seeking to square the circle of meritocracy and his own indulgence of power and privilege – was seen to have won, at best, a pyrrhic victory. Worsthorne, for his part, was exposed as a rampaging snob and scourge of progress. The two men were presented like an ill-assorted Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: self-obsessed, comical, unable to see the risible reality of their positions.
[Asked by The Independent this week to list ‘any regrets’ during his Fleet Street editorship, Sir Peregrine included: ‘I also regret a libel of Andrew Neil which resulted in a court case and was very painful and embarrassing.’ – Ed.]
That evening, I slunk into the Sunday Times company limo for the last time, with flashbulbs bursting all around. My editor and I did not speak. The atmosphere was sulphurous.
Later, as I sat at my desk in Wapping, wondering how on earth I could avoid the fallout from my performance, Bob Tyrer came over, as if on castors, to inform me that, with immediate effect, I was barred from conference and would no longer be responsible for News Review. Mercifully perhaps (for I wasn’t quite sure how best to describe my last five days to Sunday Times readers), he also told me that my personal column had been summarily axed.
I now entered the Twilight Zone. For the next eight weeks, I did almost nothing for the paper. Neil wouldn’t speak to me. He refused to acknowledge my existence, turning away whenever I approached. No suggestion that I made was taken up, no story commissioned. Such work as I did get was either unsigned or else handed down to me via the newsdesk.
Where previously I had been a rising executive with his own column; now I was a jobbing hack. Colleagues who weeks before were happy to spend time with me, joke with me, even ask my advice, shunned me. I might as well have gone around with a bell, proclaiming ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ It was a cold, clinical procedure. As my editor sulked in his tent, I was frozen out of my job. Given that I had a salary of £45,000, plus medical cover, pension rights and seven weeks annual leave, this was no small matter.
Fortunately for me, Peter Millar once more rode to my rescue. The winner of the What the Papers Say Foreign Correspondent of the Year award for his work covering the fall of the Berlin Wall, he had been appointed number two on a new weekly newspaper, The European, edited by no less a figure than Ian Watson, previously Perry’s deputy on the Sunday Telegraph. Watty would be delighted, I was informed, if I came on board as features editor.
Friends have since said that I should have stayed at the Sunday Times and fought my corner. There was a strong case to be made for victimisation and constructive dismissal, though it was also possible that Neil would have relented in the end and allowed me to resume my career. I can’t say one way or the other, but at the time I was having none of it. I considered the Watson-Millar offer for about an hour before composing my letter of resignation. The reply from the editor’s office came back the same afternoon. Andrew did not seek to persuade me to stay, but required me to ‘work’ my notice. He did not offer me champagne.
There was just one small complication in the way of my appointment to The European. I had to be vetted first by the new paper’s proprietor, who apparently approved all top level hirings personally. The proprietor’s name? Robert Maxwell. Out of the frying pan into the fire…
- Walter Ellis worked for the Irish Times, Observer, FT, Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Times and The European. His memoir of childhood, The Beginning of the End, was published last year by Mainstream and serialised in the Sunday Times. He now lives in New York.
In sickness and in health
By John Izbicki
The telephone call I received that morning in Paris came as a total surprise.
‘Is that John Izbicki?’ the voice said. ‘I’m calling from Robert Maxwell’s London office. He’d like to talk to you about joining a new newspaper he’s launching called The European, and representing it in France. Would you be interested?’
Well, I never reject a decent opportunity and from what I’d heard on the grapevine The European sounded like a winner, so I said yes.
‘Good. We’ll make arrangements to fly you over for an interview. Would tomorrow suit you?’
It was the spring of 1989 and I was already preparing to return to London. My three-and-a-half years as head of the Daily Telegraph’s Paris office were drawing to a close. I had bought a house in Normandy – my umbilical chord to France – and prepared to wave a fond farewell to the powers that be at the Torygraph – Max Hastings and the ghastly Jeremy Deedes who pulled the paper’s purse strings and got up everyone’s nose. Even his father, the remarkable Bill (Lord) Deedes, for whom I always carried – and would continue to carry – the highest regard, remained strangely perturbed when in Jeremy’s presence.
When one door closes, they say…
So I flew to London and went to a fairly modest building behind the Daily Mirror in Holborn. I was whisked up to the fifth or sixth floor to a reception area that proved far grander than the building in which it was constructed. It had massive glass doors embossed with RM. Anyone going through them was to be made aware that they were in the presence of some sort of god.
Yet, despite the flying and the whisking, I was asked by a flunky to wait and made myself as uncomfortably comfortable as I could in a deep and shiny leather armchair. After an hour of this, I began to fidget. I eyed the flunky, coughed and explained: ‘Er, I have a plane to catch tonight. I ought to get back to Paris. Will I need to wait much longer?’ The flunky shrugged his shoulders. ‘Don’t know, Sir’.
Some 90 minutes after my arrival, a door to the inner sanctum was flung open and a male person beckoned me to enter.
I marched smartly forward and into The Presence.
Maxwell, looking well fed and amazingly like a replica of Buddha, watched me closely as I approached. He was holding what I could only assume was my CV in his voluminous lap. In contrast to his rotund body, his face was pale and haggard. Here, I thought, was a sick man. But I smiled and, when invited, sat on a chair facing him.
‘You are Izbicki,’ he said, pronouncing it correctly as in the original Polish – Ish-bitz-ki – and your age, I see, is…’ He looked at the paper before him. ‘…58? Is that right?’
I agreed. He shook his head slowly. ‘Fifty-eight? You look fit for your age. Are you?’
I said I thought I was fairly fit. Inwardly, I smiled a little and thought: ‘A damned sight fitter than you, I’d wager.’
Then, suddenly, Maxwell started speaking to me in French. It was fluent and without a trace of any accent. For about five or six minutes we conducted a conversation in French (mine was about the same standard as his). How was Paris? What did I think of the French? Did I think The European would go down well in France?
And in the middle of my answers, he interrupted. ‘Are you sure you’re as well as you look?’
I made a mental note not to limp on my way out.
Then, without warning, it was over and I was dismissed with a ‘you’ll receive a letter from me, Ish-bitz-ki.’
I took my leave, turned and marched towards the door. Just before I reached it, came the parting shot in that basso-profundo of his.
‘You really can’t be as well as you look!’
A letter did come. Quite civilized as such notes go, thanking me for coming over to see the lord and master (it was not from him personally) but explaining with regret that I was not quite what ‘they’ were after.
Clearly, I looked too well for the job.
And I was relieved.
I’ll never forget Wotsisname
By Revel Barker
The soundman played that familiar – but suddenly scary – fanfare and I walked a few feet, stepping up onto the carpeted dais and sitting comfortably in the iconic black leather seat that Magnus Magnusson had told me earlier was a specially designed mixture of the upper and lower parts of two standard office chairs, joined so that nobody could actually market ‘the Mastermind chair’.
I was a contender.
I was expecting an easy ride from Magnus who was, after all, an Old Hack himself (Scottish Daily Express and The Scotsman, before going freelance); and my specialist subject was Fleet Street. I’d been 15 years on nationals, the last five geographically in the Street. What could he possibly ask that I wouldn’t know?
Magnus looked up from his pack of cards and smiled, reassuringly. ‘Who is the editor of the Sunday Mirror?’
I stared at him like a fool. First, I couldn’t believe that he’d asked me for the name of my own editor. Surely that was too easy. Was it a trick question? Did he actually say first editor, or did he mean last editor before this one, or maybe youngest editor, or the current editor? Had he missed a word out of the question? Had I heard the question right? Hang on a minute: did he say Sunday Mirror, or was it Daily Mirror?
Second: anyway, what was the man’s bloody name?
Meanwhile the seconds ticked by.
On the other hand, I reckoned, the first question was usually fairly easy, to allow contestants to get comfortable in the chair. Not Weakest Link easy – ‘What P is the capital of France?’ – to which the offered answer had once been ‘F’. But not really difficult, either.
If the answer was simply my own boss, I could tell him, just as soon as I could recall his name. But there, being grilled under the spotlight, I was thinking maybe I should answer only name rank and number. Otherwise my mind was a virtual blank. If it was who I thought it was I could tell Magnus that it was a highly appropriate question because the editor – whoever he was – had a problem with remembering names. He’d once forgotten the name of his own son when relating a yarn to sports editor Tony Smith and me in the bar of the Stab.
‘My young son, er… young wotsisname… er, his name will come to me in a minute… anyway, his name doesn’t matter – ’
‘Of course it is.’
Magnus would enjoy that story. He knew him, too, Wotsisname, whose name would also come to me in a minute.
And there was the time when he, Thingy, was telling me about his sometime best friend on the Daily Express: ‘Old, er… Jesus Christ… I can see his face now…!’
‘I know that,’ he had snapped at me. That, too, would have tickled Magnus, I had no doubt.
He was nearly as bad on faces. Once, in the Garrick, he’d said he thought he recognised a familiar face at the bar. He was told it was Sir Robin Day…
Anyway, I couldn’t sit there all night. I took a stab at it. ‘Bob Edwards?’ I ventured.
‘Correct,’ said Magnus. ‘What famous Fleet Street hostelry has an entrance in Wine Office Court…?’
There was a full, interminable, minute of this then, the sound-check considered done, the Mastermind final got under way. It was won that evening by a taxi driver from Rickmansworth.
I turned the tables on the old inquisitor later by getting him to put his name to the Sunday Mirror’s Christmas Quiz. I wrote the questions for Mirror readers on his behalf and sat him in the chair to test them and Magnus cheerfully conceded that he did not, in fact, do very well.
Think you could do better? Name the taxi driver, then. What was his specialist subject in the final? And in what year did he win it?
Photo: Carl Bruin
Kiss like a bee
By Harry Pugh
There is a character in Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not who uses the catchphrase, ‘Ever been stung by dead bee?’ Well, I have a question: Ever been kissed by a transvestite? I have – just the once. I’ve not made a habit of it. And this is how it came about.
When I worked as a reporter on the Sunday Express back in the 60s, the paper was very fond of printing long dramatic features, often about the war. We used to call in a freelance artist called Bruce Young to illustrate them.
Bruce was an art teacher at a school in South Manchester. He was very good. The writer would describe the scene to him – shipwreck, plane crash, World War 1 trench battle – and Bruce would come up with the goods.
He was a shy man, quiet, self-effacing, given to blushing when caught up in the bawdy talk of the newsroom But all that changed when Bruce became Ruth. He announced his new identity in letters to the offices of the newspapers that employed him.
I knew Bruce quite well. But after he became Ruth, I hardly recognised the person who came teetering on to the editorial floor of the Daily Express in Ancoats. High heels, fur coat, long black hair, she looked quite a dolly-bird. Even more remarkable than the physical difference was the personality change. Ruth was saucy, flirtatious, chatty – all the things that Bruce wasn’t.
Ruth did lots of work for the Express, often being driven by photographers to major trials where she would sketch the accused and other courtroom faces. She always did a good job but I remember one of the photographers telling me of his chagrin after a long day in court with Ruth when a five o’clock shadow began to manifest itself.
And there was a bit of trouble with the Express secretaries over Ruth using the female loos. The secretaries didn’t like the thought of a man among them as they powdered their noses even though Ruth, as she now was, was quite harmless.
It was the diaspora, that day in 1978, that brought about the kiss. Express Newspapers announced they were launching a new paper, The Daily Star. Half the staff in Manchester would stay with the Express – the other half would move across the editorial floor to nurture the new baby and get it up and running.
There were about 20 reporters on the Express, and ten of them, me included, moved to The Star. We decided the occasion should be marked by some sort of a gesture to our beloved news editor, Stanley Blenkinsop. As well as presenting him with a jeroboam of champagne, we hatched up the idea of getting a cartoon drawn.
As I knew him/her better than anyone else, I was given the job of ringing Ruth and asking her to draw a cartoon. I sent her a photograph of Stanley and she did a very nice sketch of him running the newsdesk single-handed with all the phones ringing and no-one to answer them as we had all decamped to The Star. I told Ruth I’d organise a collection and send her £25 for the drawing.
Well, I never did, did I? In those heady early days of The Star, things like money and debts were, alas, forgotten. I was much too busy writing, having fun and getting drunk to remember my promise to poor Ruth. But then, one night about three months later, I bumped into her.
After the Ancoats pubs shut for the night (yes, they did eventually) there were a number of dubious clubs we used for late late drinking. One of them in Oldham Street was a favourite haunt of gay men, lesbians and transvestites. And it was here I saw Ruth one night, looking at me accusingly with her big doe eyes.
Guilt washed over me as I remembered my broken pledge. I thought the least I could do was buy her a drink. So I left my companions and went over to her. I offered her a drink and began to stutter an apology for not sending her the promised pony.
Ruth smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry about it, Harry. If I can’t do that as a favour for an old friend, things are coming to a pretty pass.’
With that she leaned towards me and, before I could prevent it, she planted a large wet kiss on my cheek. Shock, horror, disgust, revulsion, embarrassment – all these and other emotions flashed before me like a drowning man. But all I did was mumble my thanks – not for the kiss but for letting me off the pony.
Sadly, Ruth died a few months later. She had a heart attack following, I was told, sex-change surgery. But she earned her place in the great parade of characters who passed through the glass house in Ancoats Street.
I’ve had many memorable kisses but that is one I’ll never forget.
The day I met ‘the national lads’
By Colin Dunne
As soon as we heard the noise all five of us, in the reporters’ room at the top of the building, stopped work. Coming up the narrow back stairs was what sounded like a team of overweight removal men shifting several large pianos. There was an awful lot of puffing, cursing and bumping around.
Mr Waterhouse, the deputy editor and most other things too, looked at his watch. Ten to three. In the fifties, in our small market town, closing time was 2.30. Chapel-goer though he was, even Mr Waterhouse knew what that meant. Two-hour drive from Manchester. Two hours in the Hole-in-the-Wall back bar.
‘That’ll be the national lads,’ he said.
A minute later they exploded into our room. The Express. The Mail. The Mirror. All the way from Manchester.My first glimpse of real reporters, right here in the offices of the Craven Herald and West Yorkshire Pioneer, over a shop in the Yorkshire Dales.
And what a head-spinning shock it was. Pink-faced from climbing the stairs, shiny-eyed from pints, swathed in sufficient sheepskin to stage One Man and His Dog, they rode in on a tidal wave of chat and charm. Perched on desk edges, flopped into bentwood chairs, they lit cigarettes they joked, they swore, they laughed. If you had to find a collective noun, it would be a swagger of national lads.
For all his multi-tasking as deputy editor, chief sub, chief reporter, music and theatre critic, for all his 110wpm shorthand, Mr Waterhouse, in his darned cardigan, looked faded against their blazing glamour. They were fun on the hoof and, at 16, I knew, there and then, I wanted to be one of them.
What’s more, it was my story that had brought them from exotic Manchester (a place I had heard talk of, without being sure where it was). A man who had sent his prize budgerigar to a show in Keighley had complained when British Rail failed to return it on time. So they’d put on a special train from Keighley to Skipton, just to bring his budgie back.
It got only three or four paragraphs in the Herald, but the national lads had picked it up. Mr Waterhouse shook his head. He couldn’t understand their interest. ‘There’s no story, lads,’ he told them. ‘Now if it was 20 or 30 people who’d been stranded, then yes – that’d be a story. But a budgie? Never in this world…’
They exchanged glances. With a shake of his head, Mr Waterhouse said they could take me over to the Carla Beck Milk Bar to talk about it.
Until then, I’d been pretty much satisfied with my career in journalism. To understand that you have to know what it was like working for the Craven Herald in the fifties. I cannot improve on the succinct definition provided by the editor, John Mitchell, when television’s Man Alive team made a programme contrasting the Herald with a modern weekly in, I think, Bedford. It was not a kind comparison. Bedford had new technology. We had Charlie Ayrton, the printer, holding up a piece of ink-stained string to indicate ‘copy required’. They had a photographer in a sport car. Our photographer, Fred, was also a printer who had to change out of his overalls before picking up his plate camera. Bedford had designers sketching out a front page. We had a front page full of adverts.
With a final piece of boot-inserting, they’d put it straight to John Mitchell in his office. Weren’t we miles behind the times with ads on the front page? John smiled benignly. ‘Oh, that’s what you’re getting at,’ he said, completely undisturbed. ‘You see, you don’t know what it’s like round here. In Bedford they’ve got all their best news on the front page. Round here, we don’t have news. Inside the paper, we confirm what people already know – who won the whist drive and the football. The only news is what’s on at the Odeon next week, and that’s on the front page.’
He was right. But it did mean that life for a young reporter was, well, something short of tearaway. I typed out wedding reports by the score (I still don’t know what tulle is). I reported on the North Rib rugby team. I sat through hours of parish councils where they discussed the siting of litter-bins and the problem with dog mess. I scoured the yellowing files for items for Fifty Years Ago Today.For civilisation to endure, justice must be seen to be done, so I unfailingly recorded the fines on careless drivers, the most serious crime we had on our patch.
My week peaked at around 4 30 on a Wednesday afternoon when Miss A Walmsley (we only ever did initials) came in, hotfoot from the latest meeting of the Ladies’ Happy Hour. She would dictate to me. It didn’t vary a lot. Mrs L Tupman (president) always presided. Miss A Walmsley (secretary) would read the minutes. There would be a speaker (‘In the Master’s Footsteps: my trip to Palestine’) or perhaps a competition for putting the most objects in a matchbox. A lovely warm-hearted woman, Miss Walmsley (doesn’t look right without the A, does it?) took a motherly interest in me. So too, she assured me, did Mrs. L Tupman (president).‘Mrs. Tupman thinks you’ll go far.’
Well, it was more encouragement than I ever got off Maurice Wigglesworth.
Among the tea-ringed desks, the ripped lino, the curling files and the jammed Underwoods, the office style was a bit Baden-Powell: hard work, clean living. This came from Mr. Waterhouse, who set clear moral standards. In our photographs of prize-winning bulls at agricultural shows, a little discreet trimming ensured they did not look too, well… bullish. That was sex taken care of. Drinking and swearing played no part in our office life, although Mr. Waterhouse did offer his own vocabulary of near-swear words when provoked – ‘we don’t want any bally nonsense.’In real extremes, he could be driven to use the name of a local railway town. ‘Well, I’ll go to H–… Hellifield Junction! ’ he’d say. Then, triumphant, he’d beam around the room: ‘You thought I was going to say it, didn’t you?’
This, he told me many times, was the best journalistic training in the world. It was certainly the best training for working on the Craven Herald. They took on a trainee about every two years. Not so many before me had been indentured and unpaid, and before that they had themselves even paid for the honour, like articled clerks. Now, Mr. Waterhouse said with some pride, they had moved with the times, and the junior reporter now was paid.
It was true. At 16 I was paid five shillings a week. That’s a quarter of a £ which I dare say is around 25 pence. At 17, it doubled to ten shillings a week, 50 new pence. After that, at 18, you moved on to the union rate which was slightly over £2, and by the time you were 20, the company could no longer bear this staggering financial burden. You were encouraged to seek your fortune in the wider world down south.
Or Leeds, as we called it.
To my young eyes, the reporters from the Express, the Mail and the Mirror shone like diamonds in a dustbin. Bouncing with bonhomie, they whisked me straight past the Carla Beck Milk Bar and on to the Hole-in-the-Wall back bar where, they said, earlier research had suggested a look-in later on. ‘This young feller’s celebrating his 18th birthday,’ said the Mirror. ‘Give him a glass of mild.’
We sat down. I told them all about my budgie story. The Express gave me a half-of-mild. The Mail gave me a Senior Service, untipped. The Mirror told me a joke. They were rude, they were risky, they were reckless – they were everything I’d ever dreamed of. Somewhere at the back of my mind I had always suspected that journalism must have a little more to offer than the Ladies’ Happy Hour, and here it was. Perhaps this was the future Mrs. Tupman had foreseen for me. If you can forgive the intemperate language, it was bally brilliant.
It was half-a-century ago, but I can still almost remember the three real reporters. The Mail, I’m pretty sure, was Don Turner who later opened their Dublin office. The Mirror – I think – was Alan Cooper who later ran a freelance agency in Huddersfield. The Express man is, I’m afraid, lost.
My budgie story made page leads all round. It confirmed all Mr Waterhouse’s worst suspicions. ‘These national lads,’ he said, ‘I don’t think they’re properly trained these days – they don’t know a bally story when they see one.’
I agreed. He was absolutely right. Right that is for the Craven Herald and West Yorkshire Pioneer. But I had just had a glimpse of a world beyond.