Issue # 165

This Week

Newspapers are in such turmoil that former Fleet Street editor Brian Hitchen and I (pick a job title – I’ve probably done it) are setting up as consultants to help them out of the mire.

Our advice has already been sought by the editor of the Daily Telegraph.

Now News International is seeking our assistance with its websites for The Times and the Sunday Times.

If you have specialist expertise that could be useful in this enterprise, we’d be happy to hear of it. If you know of other newspaper titles that are suffering and could benefit from our lifetimes’ experiences, please recommend or consider us.

We don’t come cheap, but – trust me – we’re good.

And if you want to invest in the enterprise before we go to Dragons Den for serious funding, now would be the time to do it.

Meanwhile, forgive us; we have lots of work to do for Wapping…

We’ll probably start by pointing out that there’s no point in being ‘the paper of record’ and carrying (even factually flawed) two-page obituaries if the subject’s former friends and colleagues, and even the grieving widow, can’t get to read them – like when the pay-as-you-go machinery is down.

That happened in the case of Murray Sayle, who died last weekend.

His funeral will be held at 1.30 today (Friday) at South Chapel, Rockwood Crematorium in Sydney, followed by drinks at the Toxteth Hotel, Glebe Point Road, Glebe.

Revel Barker recalls the author, historian, essayist, broadcaster, adventurer, explorer, mountaineer, sailor, raconteur – and concludes: ‘but, first and foremost, a reporter… we will never see his like again.’

From gone but not forgotten to forgotten but not gone. Stewart Payne summons the old stagers from that once-great broadsheet evening, the London Evening News. Folded 30 years ago. (Personally, I always preferred it to the Standard.)

And still down in the pub and down in the mouth when he’s not downing pints, Bill Greaves explains why Ranters is not only the Last Pub In The Street, but is likely soon to be the last pub anywhere. It is – excuse the expression – a rant

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Murray Sayle

By Revel Barker

Murray (William) Sayle achieved celebrity status in Fleet Street by writing a thinly disguised novel revealing the antics and tactics of exposés in the yellow press before becoming one of the most acclaimed investigative reporters of his generation.

His book, A Crooked Sixpence, was on the streets long enough to become a best seller and to be bought by Hollywood as a potential movie, but was suddenly pulped (and the plans to film it abandoned) when a penniless aristocrat claimed that he was identifiable as one of the characters and – in the belief that all publishers had libel insurance and would pay him off – put in a writ.

Withdrawn, the book acquired even greater notoriety as a collectors’ item and was acknowledged thereafter as a ‘classic’ among books about journalism.

Sayle, a railway executive’s son, had taken the boat from Sydney in 1952 in pursuit of both his career and (he’d had a very short-lived marriage, a year earlier) his latest love, the entertainer Shirley Abicair, who enjoyed a brief period of fame singing and playing the zither on children’s television. The affair fizzled out and Sayle, who had edited Honi Soit, the Sydney University newspaper, before dropping out to work for Frank Packer’s Sydney Daily Telegraph, and becoming a columnist on the (Sydney) Daily Mirror, found daily casual shifts on the London People.

(Giving evidence during the Liberace-Cassandra libel trial in 1959 he told the court that he wasn’t a music critic, but – ‘I have done gardening notes and horoscopes and court cases.’)

His novel, in near documentary style, recounts experiences from the four years he spent working under editor Sam Campbell (‘Cameron Barr’, in the book) with crime reporter Duncan Webb (‘Norman Knight’) – described by Time magazine in 1955 as ‘the greatest crime reporter of our time’ – chiefly turning over Soho’s vice barons and bent policemen. Eventually tiring of what he considered to be the hypocrisy and dishonesty in the game, he quit, deciding it was ‘time to do some serious thinking and light starving and get used to not having a job’.

Paris was, he knew, where people went to write novels and he subsidised his writing with work for Agence France Press in Paris and Geneva. It was in Paris that he’d met Theresa von Stockert, an Austrian countess who’d become his second wife (1955-61) and later, as Tessa Sayle, a London literary agent. After the book came out in 1960 Phillip Knightley – who hailed it as ‘the best novel about newspapers, ever’ – secured him shifts on the Sunday Times which led to work on the Insight team. By 1965 he had become a war correspondent for The Times and the Sunday Times, and went on to cover Viet Nam, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, India-Pakistan and Bolivia.

His coverage of Viet Nam earned him the Reporter of the Year award in 1970. He was made Magazine Writer of the Year in 1983 for his reports on the KAL 007 incident when a passenger aircraft was shot down by Soviet fighters.

His journalistic scoops included interviews with Che Guevara and with Kim Philby. He found Philby – the Third Man in the trio of defectors, following Burgess and Maclean – by the simple journalistic enterprise of hanging around the main Moscow post office on the assumption that an Englishman abroad might collect the London papers, especially during the cricket season.

Sayle recalled: ‘After a few days I saw a man looking like an intellectual of the 1930s, all leather patches on the elbows of his tweed jacket. I just walked up to him and said, Mr. Philby…?’ And he persuaded the former spy to agree to be interviewed the following day

When Sayle arrived for the appointment and took the lift to ‘the obvious KGB floor’ he found Philby sitting in a bare room with a table and two chairs. On the table were a bottle of Scotch, two glasses and a revolver. ‘One can never be too careful,’ explained Philby.

murraysayleSayle took part in the International Mount Everest Expedition (reporting for BBC TV) in 1970, the Round Britain Yacht Race (1971) and the Trans-Atlantic Single-Handed Yacht Race in 1972 (making a film for BBC, Alone on a Wide Wide Sea, during the race).

Invitations to his soirées in Palace Gardens Terrace, Notting Hill, a few yards from the Arts Club, were highly prized as Sayle held court for the Australian diaspora and London’s literati and sometimes even glitterati. Nick Tomalin may have been the first to write that all journalists needed was rat-like cunning and a little literary ability, but it had been Sayle who’d said it. When he claimed reimbursement for mooring lines on one of his sea voyages he was the first (of many who did it, or said they did it) to include in his expense docket: ‘money for old rope’.

He is still remembered for the nights he spent entertaining the journalistic night-watch in bomb-happy Londonderry, keeping colleagues awake with his stories of the adventure, romance and excitement of the job. But in January 1972 his account of Bloody Sunday – claiming that the Paras had faced no fire from the people who were shot, and suggesting that the shootings had followed a predetermined plan – was spiked by Sunday Times editor Harry Evans.

That was the beginning of the end of his relationship with Times newspapers; Sayle was profoundly depressed that his paper hadn’t trusted his investigation and interpretation of the incident (and it wasn’t until the summer of this year that the Saville Inquiry vindicated his report).

In 1973 he moved with partner Jenny Phillips – former PA to managing editor (news) Mike Randall and managing editor (features) Ron Hall and later a researcher in features – who was to become the third Mrs. Sayle, to the Far East, becoming Asian editor of Newsweek before going to live for more than 20 years in Japan as a freelance.

One of the – doubtless apocryphal – stories that worked its way back to Fleet Street via New York during this period was that for a time they lived in a seaside village where the only phone was in a bar on the marina. Newsweek would phone for his news schedule and frequently learn from the barman that – ‘Mr. Sayle he say nothing happening in Asia this week.’

He and Jenny moved to Australia in 2004 after he fell victim to Parkinson’s disease, and he spent his final years in a care home although he continued to write good stuff for a couple more years (as a search through the archives of the Australian quarterly Griffith Review clearly shows).

In 2006 his old university, from which he had never graduated, awarded him an honorary doctorate and the following year he received the Medal of the Order of Australia – ‘for service to media and communications, particularly as a foreign and war correspondent’ in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

He was delighted when, two years ago, I suggested republishing A Crooked Sixpence as part of my plan to revive a collection of out-of-print books about journalism. ‘There’ll be no writ this time,’ he said wryly. ‘He died four years ago.’

Murray Sayle died on Sunday aged 84 and is survived by Jenny and their three children Alex, Malindi and Matthew.

Author, historian, essayist, broadcaster, adventurer, explorer, mountaineer, sailor, raconteur – but, first and foremost, a reporter… we will never see his like again.

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Old Harrovians unite

By Stewart Payne

Thirty years after the London Evening News folded, its former staff are to hold a Fleet Street reunion in – where else? – the top bar of The Harrow.

Once boasting the World’s Largest Evening Sale, the Evening News was still outselling its rival, the Evening Standard when it ceased publication on October 31, 1980.

It shared premises in Tudor Street with Associated Newspapers’ sister title the Daily Mail, and staff from both papers used The Harrow. News hacks would pop into the downstairs Flo’s Bar (later the Vincent Mulchrone bar) for a livener on the way into work, and end the day in the top bar. Sometimes it just wasn’t worth going home…

Those days will be celebrated when surviving staff meet on Thursday October 28 at 6pm.

A reunion has been held every five or ten years, using the Golf Club as a venue, but as numbers diminish The Harrow was chosen as the more appropriate location. For those who have forgotten (easily done after a long session) it is still at 22 Whitefriars Street, EC4.

Today it used by bankers…

The News was merged with the Standard and some staff transferred across Fleet Street to Shoe Lane. Others found work on nationals and many are still gainfully employed 30 years later.

All editorial staff are welcome to attend the reunion, which is being organised by former News reporter Paul Smith and deskman Guy Simpson.

Refreshments will be provided and it would assist them to have an idea of numbers. Those who plan to attend are asked to email Paul on p.smith.32@btinternet.com or Guy at guysimpson09@googlemail.com.

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The Gentleman Ranter

billgreaves2By William Greaves

Somewhere back in the mists of time, I was employed as the Ripley district man of the Derby Evening Telegraph.

To be honest, Ripley was not the liveliest of towns in those ancient times and little of my sojourn there remains in the memory.

Save one nightly phenomenon.

Ripley pubs closed at 10.30pm whereas the drinkers in nearby Alfreton enjoyed an extra half hour in which to slake their thirst. And casual visitors who knew no better frequently had to leap for the safety of shop entrances as a mighty cavalcade of erratic and bleary-eyed car drivers made their impulsive dash four miles up the road for a couple of extra pints they probably did not need.

Meanwhile, in the North Yorkshire Dales of my childhood and of many scores of nostalgic return visits, there were several pubs in Hawes but only one in Bainbridge – again just four miles away. Hawes drinkers loved to drive to the Rose and Crown in Bainbridge for a change and residents of Bainbridge would just as often go in search of a wider choice between Board Hotel, Crown, Fountains, and White Swan in Hawes. As the closing time came round – in this case synchronised at 10.30pm in both cases – the motoring fraternity had two choices of a preferred route. Until quite recently the police came to a tacit agreement with the locals – they would patrol the main A684 on one side of the River Ure and leave the minor road on the north bank to sort itself out.

Thus the folk who had seen it through to closing time simultaneously rolled home via the twisty and picturesque alternative, safe in the knowledge that they were free from prosecution but all too well aware that everyone coming the other way would be just as drunk as they were.

Both the Alfreton stampede and the Wensleydale rat run were equally absurd examples of the dangers of regionally imposed closing times but if heaven forbid, the British pub really is in its death throes, it could just be that future generations of historians seeking the first manifestation of its demise will look back to the day that Britain finally abandoned the very legislation that most pub regulars loved to hate – licensed hours.

For it is timing that lies at the very heart of pub culture.

Anybody now over the age of 30 began his or her pubbing days in the era of fixed hours of business, when you either got to exactly where you and everyone else knew you were going before 2.30pm or held your thirst in check until 5.30 or 6pm. On Sunday the window of opportunity was restricted even further to a couple of hours between the final blessing of Morning Eucharist at 12 noon until 2pm and another three-hour stint between the end of Evensong at 7pm and a good Christian bedtime of 10 o’clock.

It was that wonderfully witty observer of life’s frailties and star of countless editions of Punch magazine, Basil Boothroyd, who innocently asserted that without licensing hours the great twice-daily ceremony of Opening Time would be lost forever. ‘There would,’ he wrote, ‘be no sense of anticipation, thrill of delayed delights. You may be able to get a drink whenever you fancy one in those stained old crummy round-the-clock Continental bistros; only here, in the land of the unfree, can we savour the springlike sensation, twice a day, of life beginning anew.’ The poor man was blissfully unaware that this daily miracle of re-awakening was doomed to disappear so soon into the slops tray of history.

During the last decades of the twentieth century, Basil’s beloved licensing hours were abandoned in favour of all-day opening – largely because visitors from abroad could not understand why they could not pop in for a drink in the middle of the afternoon or why they had to make tracks for bed within ten minutes of the 11pm chimes. These were, of course, the very same visitors who envied and hopelessly tried to copy the institution whose portals, at certain hours, they were barred from entering.

Whatever factions were pressing for all-day opening, it certainly wasn’t the overworked pub licensees who were leading the clamour. Nor, I strongly suspect, was it the customers, either.

To keep the place open for at least twelve hours on the trot, landlords and ladies were forced to engage extra bar staff to give them time to put their feet up and keep the books in order, and therefore put up the price of drinks to pay for the wages.

Furthermore and far more ominously, regular customers, used to meeting for a ‘lunchtime quickie,’ ‘early doors’ or ‘last knockings’ no longer knew when their cronies would be reporting for duty. Drinking by appointment began to rear its ugly head.

After plucking up courage to do away with licensed hours, the politicians were so stunned by their own temerity that they looked wildly about them for any other meddling they could get away with.

It was the start of a positive stampede of ‘repairs’ to an institution that wasn’t broken in the first place.

By well-intentioned ignorance rather than malicious intent, modern-day legislators have done more to endanger the future of the Great British Pub, which publicly they recognise as a priceless asset to the infrastructure of our nation, than any of the puritan regimes of the last two millennia.

The next pressure group to get its way was the why-should-I-be-stuck-at-home-with-the-kids-while-you’re-in-the-pub-boozing-yourself-silly brigade. All over the land taverns were coerced into agreeing, again by the official demand of the powers-that-be, to open their doors to ‘well-behaved children’ – despite the fact that many of their customers believed that there was no such animal as a well-behaved child and that they had only ventured out in the first place to get away from their own children and certainly had no wish to be surrounded by those belonging to other people.

With the advent of a new ‘family’ clientele came inevitably the demand for ‘something decent to eat’. The selection of pickled and scotch eggs, pickled onions, crisps, gherkins, the odd meat pie and the occasional sandwich which had satisfactorily augmented the serious business of drinking and chatting for generations of customers was no longer deemed to be sufficient.

(There is a pub in deepest Surrey called The Merry Harriers at which my Daily Mail cricket team regularly assembles prior to, and after, our annual match against the villagers of Hambledon, which seeks to attract potential customers with a sign a couple of miles away advertising ‘The Merry Harriers – Warm Beer and Lousy Food.’ Bravo! The beer is precisely as warm as it ought to be and the food, if not exactly lousy, aspires to no greater pretension than the common sandwich – and the locals love it.)

First, wine bar imports like quiche and stuffed potatoes began to creep into the advertised fare, closely followed by such foreign invaders as brioches, panini and ciabatta and finally, perhaps inevitably, the ‘gastro pub.’ (Panini? Ciabatta? The wife of a dear cousin of mine, upon being invited with her husband for a simple meal of ‘spaghetti or lasagne or something like that,’ replied apologetically: ‘I’m afraid Chris doesn’t eat anything that ends with a vowel.’ I can almost hear the chorus of ‘here, here’ emanating from the old guard in the taproom.)

Far more closely related to the continental bar/restaurant than to the British pub, this dubious newcomer soon began to view with various degrees of hostility those customers who showed no interest in the menu, gradually relocating them into smaller and more remote naughty corners, while simultaneously denying them space on the walls to publish darts, football and cricket results, fixture lists, forthcoming pub quizzes or postcards from Ibiza.

Worse still, whenever there were insufficient lunchtime restaurant punters to justify staff wages, the absentee gastro-pub owners closed the place completely. The unthinkable had arrived – a ‘pub’ that thought so little of its locals that it refused to open before the early evening throughout the working week. A resident licensee, who did not pay himself or herself by the hour, would always be on duty to look after the lunchtime faithful. A paid employee, apparently, was a luxury that could not be afforded.

Next onto the diminishing stage strode Rupert Murdoch and Sky Television. Up till then, if there was anything compelling on telly, anything really demanding like Coronation Street or Arsenal v. Manchester United, the pub would remain largely empty until the plot was played out, whereupon thirst and an uncontrollable urge to discuss whatever had just been seen brought everyone through the door in a renewed rush of enthusiasm.

The loss by BBC and ITV of most major sporting events to Sky, still unaffordable to most households, persuaded many licensees all over the land to invest in expensive public screening permits to cater for the disenfranchised, with the outcome that many pubs turned themselves into television stadia for the watching of soccer, cricket and rugby.

And so widespread was the arrival of TV into taverns all over the land that audiences even began assembling to watch en masse events that were available to them at home on terrestrial channels – thus filling large chunks of day and night with all-pervasive sporting activity, complete with demented commentary, and alienating all those for whom the local was meant to be a place for conversation and an escape from the tyranny of the small screen.

If that wasn’t enough to split the eardrums, distract the mind of the thoughtful and bring conversation to an end within the bowels of the very institution that could arguably claim to have invented it, many publicans scored an own-goal by filling whatever brief moments of tranquillity that accidentally survived with an epidemic of interference hitherto confined to the stress-filled environment of doctors surgeries, about-to-take-off aircraft and would-be Titanics – canned music.

Heaven knows what was the rationale behind this ultimate assault on the senses but it was more than sufficient to spawn a magnificent reference book conceived by two worthies, Derek and Josephine Dempster, called The Quiet Pint and sub-titled The Only Guide to Pubs without Piped Music. (In an introduction to its latest edition, Julian Lloyd Webber, a man who knows better than most how to produce music and where it should be played, previews ‘an even greater selection of these wonderful establishments which have bucked the trend of inflicting that most pernicious of aural pollutants – muzak – on their long-suffering customers.’)

It used to take centuries to change the daily lifestyle of a nation. Mules gave way to horses. Parchment succumbed to paper. The pigeon graciously bowed to the telephone. But, by and large, progress waited until folk were ready for it.

But nowadays, in the foothills of the twenty-first century, if Westminster fails to dictate serious change at least once a week it is commonly assumed that it has dozed off. Knee-jerk response has become the norm. And so, hard on the heels of this recent and frenetic epidemic of disapproval of drink, neighborliness, and conviviality, came marching the puritan hordes of the anti-smoking fraternity, waving their banners aloft.

Smokers were kicked out of pubs and forced to seek asylum on the wet or chilly pavement.

All over the land, the case was put by publicans who had no aspirations to become restaurateurs that a spot of smoking amid consenting adults would not exactly bring down the walls of Jericho. No, no, responded the Parliamentarians – every city, town, village and hamlet in Britain is stacked high with decent denizens who would love nothing better than to enjoy a peaceful hour or two in the pub were it not for the cigarette smoke that polluted clothes and left eyes a-streaming.

So, with the smoking ban in place, all over Britain the hitherto disenfranchised non-smokers gratefully poured back to their local boozer, thrilled to be readmitted to the throbbing heart of their community…?

Dream on.

All those disenchanted lobbyists who claimed they were excluded from pubs because of the dreaded weed have long since been exposed for what they truly are – non-pub people.

And the irony was that all pub regulars knew that to be the case long before the legislation came into being. Why? Because pub folk are never, by the very definition of their existence, disapprovers. If they didn’t choose to share essential space with fellow creatures with whom they quite possibly disagreed on the grounds of politics, football club allegiance, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, vocabulary or even personal hygiene, they wouldn’t be pub people in the first place. The last thing that would have offended them was the presence of someone puffing on something that they themselves had no need for.

The undeniable truth is that there is nobody inside who would wish them to be outside. The only ones who make that demand are not inside or outside. They are in the House of Commons. Or at home watching telly.

Small wonder that pubs are fighting for survival.

If I had been living and drinking in Islington, north London, rather more than 60 years ago one of my fellow ‘regulars’ might well have been that most eminent of pub-lovers, George Orwell.

And George – or rather Eric (Blair) as we insiders would have known him – was wont to wax lyrical about his favourite London pub, the Moon Under Water.

So what special ingredients recommended the Moon to that peerless literary prophet who was already looking towards 1984 as the year Big Brother would come to haunt us all?

Well, for one thing, its architecture and fittings were uncompromisingly Victorian – with ‘no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries’ and ‘no sham roof beams, inglenooks or plastic panels masquerading as oak.’

The grained woodwork, the ornamental mirrors behind the bar, the cast-iron fireplaces, the florid ceiling stained dark yellow by tobacco smoke, the stuffed bull’s head over the mantelpiece – everything reminded Orwell of ‘the solid, comfortable ugliness of the 19th century.’

But what brought him the greatest gladness was that the house possessed neither radio nor piano, that the barmaids called everyone ‘dear’ rather than ‘ducky’, that unlike most pubs, the Moon Under Water sold tobacco as well as cigarettes, aspirins and stamps, was obliging about letting customers use the telephone and was particular about its drinking vessels – ‘never, for example, making the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass.’

It would not be George Orwell, however, if there was not a sting in the tail of his lyricism – the Moon Under Water never existed, except in his imagination. Even in his day, apparently, the rot was beginning to set in.

‘If anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio,’ he lamented all those years ago, ‘I should be glad to hear of it – even though its name were something as prosaic as the Red Lion or Railway Arms.’

How cruel, to play with our senses thus! But we will not despair. Pubs have been with us for two thousand years and are surely destined to remain part of the Anglo Saxon landscape. Oh, c’mon, surely they must be.

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