Experience counts


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Asked by a youngster for advice about choosing journalism as a career, most of us would probably offer the same counsel we’d give to a young man contemplating marriage: don’t.

But if the questioner is determined, says GARTH GIBBS, it helps if they are blonde and female – otherwise it’s best to be stupid or colonial, or preferably both. He speaks from experience.

EDDIE RAWLINSON recalls his experience covering the world’s first nuclear accident, 50 years ago this week. ‘Have you managed to get inside Windscale yet?’ the picture desk was demanding. ‘It’s supposed to be leaking radiation!’

Plain JOHN SMITH relates what an experienced reporter is supposed to do when a story collapses on him in Hollywood… he gets legendary siren Mae West to invite him to come up and see her.

JACK GRIMSHAW discovers what an experienced sub on the dog-watch does not tell his masters about the whereabouts of the sports editor.

PHIL BUNTON describes his experience subbing – or maybe not subbing – on the Daily Mirror (a memory that will have that sub on the Indie hammering at our email In-Box, again).

FRED WEHNER retrieves the back bench bibles from his bookshelf for a refresher about how subs were supposed to do it, when they did it.

And COLIN DUNNE describes how his entry into the national world was totally off the cuff.

All this, plus the LETTERS PAGE, and diary pieces scattered about the place including the truth about Joe Haines’ relationship with Terry Lancaster, about Xenia Field and the Spaghetti House Siege, and Daily Telegraph editor Will Lewis seeking advice from Ranters.




Late starter

By Garth Gibbs


A stunning blonde student called Kate, on holiday in Cowes, stopped me the other evening and asked how you get into Fleet Street. I told her any (male) editor worth his salt would hire her at once on her looks alone.

But in my day, which was by no means yesterday, or even the day before, you needed naivety (ie stupidity), especially if like me you were a colonial. And you could really get ahead if your mistakes were major.

It worked for me.

I first arrived in England around the same time as Asian ’flu, and after Barts Hospital gave me a jab and kicked me out, I wandered over to the old Sunday Pictorial, just off Fleet Street then, and not yet in Holborn Circus.

I had a letter to the editor from a colleague in South Africa, who had once worked for the Sunday Pic. I eventually saw a chap who I found out later was Desmond Wilcox. He looked me up and down and said, without too much enthusiasm, ‘The editor said to give you a shift. Come in on Saturday, ten to six.’

Anyway, Saturday arrived and there I was, right on time.

‘Where the fuck have you been?’ said Wilcox.

‘You said ten to six,’ I said nervously.

Wilcox looked at me in disbelief. And so did those around him. And then they looked at each other, rolled their eyes to the heaven and broke into faint smiles. And I had the feeling they were never going to let me go.

As it turned out I got sent to a James Dean memorial concert in Soho that evening and got the second lead on page one in the late editions. I also got to work there on Saturdays for three months and as my visa was about to expire I was told: ‘Go back to South Africa and learn to sub. You can always get a job in London, subbing.’

I took their advice and on a cold November day in 1969 I was back in London town, in Bouverie Street to be exact, looking for a job. After a while I was ushered into the offices of Don Boddie of the London Evening News. Half an hour later I emerged with his words still ringing in my ears. ‘You can start next month. Some people sell themselves better than others.’

Weeks later I learned that this translated into, ‘Yes, I know you’re a bullshitter, but I’ll take a chance on you.’

He took a chance on me on the news subs desk and I didn’t let him down. I blundered spectacularly. I was rewriting a page one splash about Derek Ezra, then chairman of the Coal Board, and for some reason I changed the name to Ezra Pound. Of course somebody noticed. In fact, I was told later the phones didn’t stop ringing. I wasn’t aware of this, though, when I was called into the editor’s office. No, I wasn’t fired. I was handsomely rewarded.

‘Who’s Ezra Pound?’ asked Don Boddie.

‘He’s an American poet,’ I said, ‘He lived in London for a while … Oh, Christ!’ Suddenly I realised why I was being asked this question.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Boddie. ‘I’m impressed you know who Ezra Pound is. In fact, I am so impressed I want you and John Robbins to start a gossip column for the newspaper. We’ll call it NewsTalk.’

And so started my years of gracious living in Fleet Street. We were answerable to the editor ONLY and could write about whatever moved our fancy. Suddenly a new world opened, expenses, membership to the Playboy and Penthouse clubs, freebie trips around the globe and all the booze your liver and pancreas could handle. Boddie was wonderful. But then I boobed again.

I returned from a veggie lunch full of wind and self-righteousness and reacted to a note from Boddie that read: ‘I didn’t understand that Serena Williams story. What went wrong?’ I replied (foolishly): ‘Sorry you didn’t understand it, sir. Nobody else seems to have had any trouble. Next time I use irony I’ll lay it on with a spade.’

Boddie plotted his revenge. ‘I hear you’ve just been to Khartoum for lunch,’ he said. ‘You’ve had too many good trips lately. I want you to take a bus trip to Frankfurt and back.’

A bus trip? You must be kidding. He wasn’t.

I arrived at Frankfurt’s bus station tired and sore in the early morning, but brightened immediately. The National Bus Company had tipped off the German Tourist Board that there was a hack on the coach and there were three of them waiting to greet me. ‘We’ve got you a suite at the Intercontinental,’ they said. ‘Someone will pick you up this afternoon to show you around.’

That someone turned out to be a red-headed Lufthansa air hostess called Ingrid. She had a convertible Merc and showed me where, and how, Lorelei had lured sailors to their death on the Rhine. Then she showed me other things and I spent the rest of the time exploring everything she had to show me.

The only tough assignment I ever had from Boddie was catering to the whims of Rothermere’s wife, Bubbles. But these were the days before she started eating all the groceries, so even nights at the Pied Piper’s Ball in Park Lane weren’t too tough.

Alas, Boddie was too good, too nice and too loyal. They axed him after a few years. I left too, for some more wonderful years on the Daily Mirror.

My final words of advice to Kate were: ‘Get on to a national if you can. It really beats working for a living.’


The world’s first nuclear accident

By Edward Rawlinson


Half a century ago to this very day (OK, give or take a week – it was a running story) with my regular Daily Express hangover I was spending the morning taking pictures at Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester. I remember it well enough: my main interests were the chimps and a Tigon, which was a hybrid born through the liaison of a tiger with a lion

It was a rule that checks had to be made every hour when you were out of the office. When I called in, all hell was loose in Ancoats. ‘Get up to Windscale,’ they said. ‘It’s on fire.’

It was a hard and fast drive along the A6, stopping at Milnthorpe to do another hourly check and get updated. It was serious. The nuclear reactors were overheating. The journey took just over two hours and when I arrived there were hoses everywhere and lots of firemen running around the place. But there were no police or security men to restrict my entry. They were busy helping the firemen tackling a fire we couldn’t see.

Out of one chimney there was a slight emission but nothing you would expect for the office to get in such a panic. I did a picture of the smoking chimney and general scenes then went to check in again.

I started to tell the picture desk what photographs I had taken from inside the yard and was interrupted by the picture editor asking ‘Have you actually been inside Windscale?’

I again told him I had taken pictures inside the yard. ‘It’s supposed to be leaking with radiation’ he said.

‘Well, all I can see is a bit of smoke and lots of fire hoses,’ I told him. It isn’t easy to photograph leaking radiation.

Walking back again through the gates I was unaware of being in the midst of what at the time was the world’s worst nuclear accident.

I was also unaware that, when I arrived, the place had already been burning for 24 hours.

Photographer Ivor Nicholas, who still lives in nearby Cockermouth, had passed on the tip of the fire and had done a dramatic picture (left) of a helicopter examining the area before any other photographer arrived. In my opinion it is the best picture that ever came out of the incident.

Confirmation had been released, a bit late, by the Atomic Energy Authority and although it was only a short statement Chapman Pincher was already interpreting it as a major disaster.

At Windscale we were also unaware of the panic that was going on inside the plant as they tried to cool the overheating reactors.

Word got out from the wife of a man fighting the fire that preparations were being made to evacuate women and children from the area as the fire inside the nuclear plant was completely out of control. The situation was becoming increasingly serious but there was nothing actually to be seen that could be described as dramatic for pictures.

Inside the plant Tom Touhy, deputy to the manager, had donned full protective clothing and climbed up the reactor several times to look down into the towering inferno, it was an act of immense bravery. The hoses we saw outside were sending water into the reactor and fans were being used in the hope they would blow out the flames.

On Day Four Mr Touhy, in desperation, ordered the fans to be shut off and the flames just died down, it was as simple as that and by the end of the day the fire was out.

The evacuation of the residents didn’t have to take place. I stayed three weeks at Seascale, the village adjoining the plant, looking for follow-ups and we had to ‘dig’ for pictures as there was nothing coming out of Windscale. There was the photograph of an ugly building with its twin towers, milk being poured away because of suspected contamination, parents arriving to take their children away from the posh Calder Girls’ School, lovely landscapes and mothers with babies and the man in charge of Windscale. Every day the office was baying for pictures that were unobtainable of inside the actual building.

Reporters were not told of Tom Tuohy’s bravery nor of the original instructions given by Sir John Cockcroft when Windscale was being built that filters had to be fitted to the chimneys. Everything at the time was top secret. It was only later we were to learn that if Sir John had not insisted on filters being fitted the nuclear fall out would have spread over the North of England and led to a mass evacuation for miles around. It was complete Government cover up, not wanting the Americans (or, for that matter, the locals) to learn the possible full implications of the accident.

Rumours started about medical problems developing as a direct result of the leakage. ‘It would cause a form of cancer and children would be born with deformities’, they were saying – quite frightening if true.

And something else that was difficult to photograph… But fortunately it never happened.


Back from The Stab



Dead reckoning

By William Boot

The Times, last week, touched a raw nerve in its obituary of political editor Terence Lancaster. Its (anonymous) writer said that his ‘relationship with Joe Haines, Wilson’s principal press adviser from 1969, and a senior Mirror group employee before and after his service with Wilson, was workmanlike.’

Fair enough, perhaps. It went on: ‘Lancaster brought Haines to the Mirror after Wilson’s sudden resignation, and organised the serialisation of his exceptionally frank book on the Wilson years, The Politics of Power, which was hailed as sensational at the time.’ That may be true, up to a point, but the way Joe has always told the story, Mike Molloy, editor at the time, played a fairly significant part in all of that.

The obit continued: ‘The relationship ended over Haines’s willingness to stay on and serve Robert Maxwell after his takeover of the Mirror in 1984.’

Oh dear. Is somebody trying to use an obit as a method of settling old grievances or scoring points?

It was too much, at least, for Haines who was driven to the typewriter: ‘It is distasteful to criticise a recently dead colleague but your obituary of Terence Lancaster (Oct 10) in part reflects upon me and gives me no alternative.

‘My relationship with him did not end over my willingness to stay on after the arrival of Robert Maxwell at the Daily Mirror. The falling-out, such as it was, followed earlier, totally unrelated, incidents.

‘Lancaster’s frequent resignations from the Mirror were a standing joke. Any resignation at the time of Maxwell’s takeover was coincidental. Indeed, he ghosted for Maxwell the full front-page article setting out his “vision” for the paper which appeared on the day after Maxwell arrived, as well as several articles under the pseudonym of Wilberforce. His severance terms were not agreed “a week or two” later, but months later. And I made it a condition of accepting Lancaster’s job as political editor that he should be fully paid until his 65th birthday, which Maxwell agreed to do.’

  • More on Lancaster in the LETTERS page.


Way out West

By Plain John Smith


As invitations go, it was pretty hard to resist.

‘Honey,’ drawled Mae West. ‘Why doncha come up and see me some time?’

Almost 40 years on, the details of the ensuing encounter still burn bright.

The year was 1970 and I had flown to Los Angeles from the Daily Mirror New York bureau to interview Tony Curtis, who was then making a TV series called The Persuaders in which he and Roger Moore played a couple of crime-busting international playboys. Unfortunately, I arrived to be greeted by the news that Mr Curtis was recovering from a bout of emergency treatment for a compacted wisdom tooth. The interview was off, and unlikely to be re-scheduled in the near future.

I’d flown almost 3,000 miles and rented an expensive hotel room for bugger all, it seemed. It wasn’t my fault, of course. But I sensed that my New York boss, Ralph Champion, would not be best pleased, not to mention Pat Doncaster and the Mirror features folk in London who had a spread eagerly awaiting my golden words.

Still, wait a minute. This was Hollywood, baby. Showbiz, razzmatazz. Full of film stars and gossip and scandal and freaky La-La land people doing silly things. Surely there was some other piece I could conjure up to salvage something from the wreckage.

This being movie land, the hotel supplied every room with a copy of the newspaper Variety, the Hollywood bible. Leafing through it, I spotted an item tucked away at the bottom of a gossip column:

Fireworks are expected on set when feisty temptress Raquel Welch meets up with her co-star, ageing sex symbol Mae West, as they start filming Myra Breckinridge

Mae West? Mae bloody WEST? Surely not THE is-that-a-gun-in-your-pocket-or-are-you-just-pleased-to-see-me Mae West? Why, the woman must be at least 107. And here she was, still making films and ready to give Raquel Welch a slap if she got out of line. She must be worth a chat.

Half an hour of phone calls later I was through to Hal, a fast-talking Hollywood producer type who was Mae’s best friend, minder and constant dinner companion. Hal was friendly, but doubtful. Gee, Mae was pretty busy right now, what with the new movie and all. But he’d ask her, and get back to me.

He did. ‘Well, John, she can spare you about half an hour if you can get over to her place right away. She’s got a very pressing appointment later and then she has to be up early in the morning to start filming. But listen, she wants to talk to talk to you on the phone first.’

Five minutes later the phone rang and a voice purred: ‘Hi, honey, this is Mae West. What can I do for you?’

She listened as I explained that the Daily Mirror’s millions of readers were all avid fans of hers (diplomatically, I failed to mention that most of them, like me, thought she was dead).

‘That sounds OK, honey,’ she said. ‘Why doncha come up and see me?’

The Brooklyn Bombshell lived in the Ravenswood apartments, an imposing art deco block near the Paramount studios in Hollywood and which had been home to stars like Ava Gardner and Clark Gable. Mae had rented an apartment there when she first arrived to make movies in the 1930s and she liked the place so much that she bought the building and had lived there ever since.

The door to her penthouse apartment was opened by a young, blonde haired butler who owed more to Rambo than Jeeves. Muscles bulging under his short, black uniform jacket and bow tie, he looked as though he was on his way to an audition for the Chippendales. Although now of a pensionable age, it seemed that our Mae still had an eye for the essential duties of the home help, and light dusting wasn’t one of them. As she’d always said: ‘It’s not the man in your life, it’s the life in your man.’

Serving me an industrial-strength vodka and tonic on a silver tray, Rambo ushered me into the lounge and advised: ‘Miss West will be with you shortly.’

It was like walking into a blizzard. The entire apartment was decorated in dazzling white. A huge, white grand piano dominated the lounge. On top of it was a four foot high marble statue of Mae West in the nude (I recognised the spectacular figure which was the only thing that saved America from total depression in the 1920s). On one wall an oversized oil painting showed her lounging seductively and scantily clad on the silken sheets of a four-poster bed.

Ten minutes later, Mae West herself sashayed into the room. At the age of 77 she still managed to portray the femme fatale with some style. Skin remarkably unlined,she was dressed in a diaphanous full length housecoat which floated around her. Hair dyed bright yellow reached down to her shoulders like cascading custard. Eyelashes heavy with mascara curled like dead spiders. The fingernails of the hand which was offered languidly in my direction to be kissed were bright green.

‘Now, honey,’ she said, settling into a straight backed chair. ‘What can I do for you?’

And so it began. As the evening wore on I was treated to the full Mae West life story, including her early success on the Broadway stage with a plays like Diamond Lil and Sex which she wrote herself and which briefly put her behind bars for offending public decency.

‘Thing was, honey,’ she explained, ‘the Catholic church complained that young people were coming to confession saying they had seen my shows and got so hot and bothered that they were going off and making love themselves. I couldn’t understand why those priests were complaining. I gave ’em some of the best business they ever had.’

She talked about her partnership with WC Fields in films like My Little Chickadee and got up from her chair to act out for me her famous confrontation with Cary Grant who played a temperance league leader in She Done Him Wrong and received the immortal invitation from Mae, playing a slinky cabaret singer: ‘Come up some time and see me’ (it later got mangled into the more rhythmic ‘Come up and see me some time’).

Then there were the cheeky quips which brought here fame, including: ‘I used to be Snow White, but I drifted’, and ‘My left leg is Christmas and my right leg is New Year’s Eve. Why don’t you visit me between the holidays?’

While delivering these reminiscences she presented me with an autographed copy of her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It and a signed sleeve of her latest LP, Way Out West. The book title echoed another of her memorable lines from Night After Night, in which she starred with George Raft. Admiring Mae’s jewellery, a hat check girl cooed: ‘Goodness, what lovely diamonds.’ Mae shot back: ‘Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.’

Occasionally sipping on a glass of lemon slices in hot water, she told me about her beauty regime which included massaging cold cream into her breasts to keep them youthful, even though it seemed likely they had headed steadily south since their 43-inch heyday. Several times, Rambo the butler came into the room and seemed to want to interrupt, but each time she impatiently waved him away.

It was four hours later when she finally sat back in her chair, looked at me challengingly and said: ‘Well, honey, is there anything else I can do for you?’

I couldn’t think of a thing, so slid out into the Hollywood night with Rambo glaring disapprovingly as he showed me the door.

The next day I rang Hal the producer to thank him for arranging the interview. ‘Gee, I just wish she could have spared you more time.’ he said. ‘I hope half an hour was enough for you to get everything you wanted.’

‘Er, I think maybe she re-arranged her plans for the evening,’ I said. ‘I was there for a bit longer than 30 minutes.’

Cautiously, Hal inquired: ‘Oh? And, so, how long were you there?’

‘Well, I said, ‘Just over four hours.’

There was a pause and Hal said quietly: ‘John, you’re an English gentlemen so I know that what I am about to tell you will go no further.’

‘Of course,’ I replied, puzzled.

Listen,’ said Hal. ‘I know this lady. If you were with her that late, there’s no way that she didn’t want you to stay over, if you get my meaning.’

Oh, I got it all right. Stunned, I put down the phone and went back over my recollections of the previous evening. Of course there had been the usual Mae West vamping, the fluttering eyelids, the enticing smile, the hand brushing mine as she handed me her autobiography. But that was what Mae did for a living, for God’s sake. Even at the age of 77 these were the actions of a sex symbol on automatic pilot.

But then I began to think about it a bit more and the silly smile which appeared on my face stayed with me all the way back to New York.

Mae West had tried to seduce me. And I hadn’t even noticed.




Wrong answers

By Jack Grimshaw


Aged 23 and newly-hired as a news sub at the Manchester Evening News in 1969, I landed a casual gig Saturday nights as a sports sub at the Sunday Express. The extra few quid was handy and you were usually done by 11, the same time that the Portland Lodge (free entrance with an NUJ card) was heating up. Likewise, its platoon of female regulars (ditto with the NUJ card).

Sports editor was Ken Lawrence, one of the genuinely nice guys in our ratbastards-sink-to-the-top business (I’d just moved from the news subs’ desk at the Western Daily Press, Bristol, so I know of what I speak). He was also a neighbour of my parents in the High Grove area of Gatley.

A few Saturdays in I got elected to sentinel duty… while everybody else sloped off to drink their supper, I was stuck at the desk handling calls from suspicious wives or mistresses wanting to know whether their bloke was still working… Wrong answer: ‘No. I think he had a hot date in Wilmslow.’

Or the hysterical ‘Where the fuck’s the new head for the rugby roundup?’… Wrong answer: ‘I don’t know. Where the fuck IS it?’

And even stylishly-dressed bastards from the news side professing penury and the dire need of a loan… Wrong answer: ‘No problem, how much do you need?’

I was deep into Roderick Mann’s latest screed about the doings of American showbiz, dreaming the impossible dream that one day I might get to work in the States, when a voice from over my shoulder enquired: ‘Where is Mr Lawrence?’

The cultured, authoritative tone should have been a tip-off. This wasn’t some inkie, escaped from the bowels of the composing room, looking for insider gossip about the Reds to impress his muckers at the Rover’s Return.

Mildly miffed about being where I was while Roddy Mann was lounging poolside in Tinseltown and even the other MEN casuals – Tony Holt, Dave Pickard, Peter Igglesden – were at least slamming down pints and improving their table football, I didn’t even deign to turn around while muttering: ‘He’s out getting pissed.’

Wrong answer.

The stony silence that followed should, again, have been a tip-off. It wasn’t, and I returned, oblivious, to Hollywood.

Ken Lawrence’s phone call on the Monday morning was polite, cryptic and insistent. Could I drop by this afternoon, when I was through at the News?

I could, and I did. The meeting was short, to the point and rather bracing. Exactly which nabob owned the mystery voice – a member of the board, Max Aitken, or God –I’m not sure was ever made clear. What was made clear, in the nicest possible way, was that I was a bad-mannered, unthinking, arrogant asshole who deserved to be shown the door.

For a couple of uncomfortable minutes I got flashbacks of school where I’d had the same sort of chat more than once. Then, it was actually followed through by booting out after the Lower Sixth.

On probation and my best behaviour for the next few Saturday nights, my chagrin was leavened only by Ken’s deputy. ‘Out getting pissed?’ he said. ‘Fucking classic.’

  • Jack Grimshaw (Salford City Reporter; Western Daily Press; Manchester Evening News; Sports Form, Las Vegas) was a copy and layout editor at the National Enquirer for nine years. He’s now gainfully employed in Orange County, Southern California.




The way it was, then

By Phil Bunton


I fell in love with the Daily Mirror on my very first day, way back in 1967. Across the subs’ desk was Giles Wordsworth, tall long-haired public schoolboy, distant descendant of the poet. Dryly witty in a Brideshead-Revisited way. Several of the subs were Oxbridge graduates. But at the Mirror in those days that was their dirty little secret.

To get on it was better to be a grammar school dropout, which was what I was. The university guys often pretended to be one of us (go figure!).

Subs were treated as gods at the Mirror in those days. Different from the Sketch, which I’d just left, where Fergus Cashin used to berate us as ‘inky-fingered mediocrities’.

At the Mirror we would sit around most of the night reading books or magazines – and do at most two or three stories. Hemingway never got paid so much per word as we did.

But what surprises me to this day was the casual way that drinking was tolerated.

Every Friday a few of us – Phil Walker and Ben Noble among others – would meet up at Portobello Road market around noon and start drinking.

Slowly we would pub-crawl very roughly in the direction of High Holborn. We were expected to start our shifts at 4, but we rarely showed up on time.

If one of us was seriously impaired he would go up to the chief sub – Vic Mayhew – and say: ‘Can you excuse me, Vic, I’m drunk?’

Vic (or whoever was in charge) would look up sympathetically and say: ‘Oh, I’m sorry mate. Are you OK? Why don’t you go down the pub and if you feel better come back later.’

Of course down the pub would be other Mirror hacks and we’d party on. From the Stab to the Newspaper Workers’ Club, or the City Golf club, then the Press Club – and if we were still alive at four in the morning, we’d hit Smithfield meat market.

Great daze.

  • From the Aberdeen Press and Journal, Glasgow Herald, Daily Sketch, Daily Mirror, Sun, US National Star (later just The Star), Weekly World News, National Enquirer, Globe (US) Phil Bunton is now the owner, editor and presiding hack at Rivertown magazine in Nyack, NY, 30 miles outside New York.


Back from The Stab



In a field of her own

By William Boot


Xenia Field, aged gardening editor of the Daily Mirror, actually had an apartment overlooking the Spaghetti House [See Jimmy Nicholson and The Stab,passim].

News editor Dan Ferrari offered to put her up in the Ritz or the Savoy – her choice – for the duration if she would allow the Mirror use of her home and balcony.

Mrs Field stamped her little foot and said certainly not. She (she insisted) was an experienced journalist herself, and would contentedly cover the siege for the paper herself. Dan, in his most persuasive mode, explained to her about 24-hour cover and the problem of maybe having to rush out of the place, if the gunmen appeared on the streets, to do interviews and she eventually allowed a small concession.

I wasn’t involved, but it was something like the only people she would permit into her flat were John Knight (and, I think, possibly James Pettigrew) on the grounds that they were the only two gentlemen on the staff that she would allow anywhere near her furniture. Shows how worldly aware was our Xenia.

And that’s why the Mirror had to hole up elsewhere, and why John Penrose needed to take a suite at the Ritz.

Book review



Putting on the style

By Fred Wehner


The Simple Subs BookDoing It In StyleKeeping Up The Style

Leslie Sellers isn’t God. Yet to anyone of the journalistic persuasion then at the very very least he’s Heaven plc’s Mass Media Supremo (Print Branch).

He was production editor of the Daily Mail, whose style lived on not just through him at that one newspaper but all over The Street. Still does today, among those who care.

Here’s one line of his: ‘The full stop is the greatest aid to simple English ever invented.’ You can’t put a finer point on it than that.

Here’s another: ‘Always try to make the first word do some work. Make sure it’s a strong one.’ All of this man’s pronunciations were equally definite. Like a headline he proffers in a chapter on style: ‘Giant cheese kills two.’

Back in 1968 I wrote for Campaign magazine. But the page to which I always turned first was the one with the picture of this pipe-smoking gentleman wearing black horn-rimmed glasses and a determined look.

Here was the Sellers On Style column, an enormously gratifying and fun read every week, guaranteed. The wizard of words also did three books on subbing and writing, details on which later.

Right now, however, bores and haughties beware! With his wand raised and sharpened, Sorcerer Sellers is out to pop you.

He rails against long-windedness, especially the tortured sub-clauses that put the reader through a mental mangle. ‘Say as much as is needed to make the meaning absolutely clear – and no more.’ Therefore: ‘Nothing that can’t be absorbed at first reading ought to appear in a newspaper,’ he growls. ‘Yet day after day, week after week, these jigsaw puzzles get into print.’

I will spare the reader his examples at this point.

And he hates pomp and posh. The bride wasn’t ‘attired in’ – she wore. It wasn’t ‘prior to the luncheon’ – it was before lunch. And he didn’t ‘endeavour to suborn the chief sub’ – he ‘tried to bribe the swine’.

In places Sellers is obviously dated, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. He mentions the ‘chairman’ of the British Women’s Total Abstinence Union, not, as the politically correct Nazis would force us to write today, the ‘chairperson’ or ‘chair’.

For reporters and writers, he outlines what is and isn’t news, though. For instance if the aforementioned Abstinence bigwigette (clearly a female who’d be no fun at all in bed) gets pinched for drunken driving – of course it’s news.

A lot of this is just common sense, just enjoyable to read in the Sellers style.

In addressing Arabs, he says, there is no consistent order of names. But ‘large numbers of them are colonels or generals,’ easing the problem of how to address them. If still confused, best to wait for an established style to emerge from the country in question, which ‘should be within hours of the coup d’état anyway’.

Also: ‘Far Eastern names have the surname first. That splendid Korean gentleman, Lee Bum Suk, was Mr Lee.’

Which brings us to double meanings. Here, he says, journalists need a dirty mind – in order to avoid the sniggers. He quotes two splashes in major newspapers: the Evening Standard smirker ‘Out Comes The Wilson Chopper’ and The Sun’s ‘Chichester Conquers The Horn’ about round-the-world sailor Francis. Plus a Sunday newspaper he doesn’t name censuring a naughty priest with: ‘Go Unfrock Yourself’.

All this notwithstanding, the pleasant-looking man with the Sir Geoffrey Howe look, the briar and the oh-so-Fifties parting on the left, abhors vulgarity and attacks it on several fronts. Wallowing in sex cases is a major no-no, with the exception of the News Of The World, but otherwise… can’t even use ‘crumpet’.

And yet; ‘French Push Bottles Up German Rear’. This heading from Sellers might send those politically correct Shtummtroopers reaching for the duct tape to shut him up. Can Frogs and Krauts still be insulted in this fashion?

Some of his pet hates: Three-deck splash headings, straplines, abbreviations in headlines that slow the reader down. Also ‘if’ intros, misquotations, circumlocutions, officialese… But he likes appropriate use of clichés and Americanisms.

LESLIESELLERSBOOKS Leslie’s lectures are illustrated with highly entertaining examples, sometimes pictorially. In his sermon about captioning he cites a story about a guy’s ‘hair-raising trip’ and then shows the accompanying picture. Sure enough, the fellow’s a baldie.

And a warning to reporters who like to juice up their prose. ‘Beautiful blonde Gloria Stretch’… then the picture: ‘an old scrubber with a navy-blue parting and one of her false eyelashes falling off.’

Great stuff on how to crop – even turn – a photograph to create a particular effect. Nine different ways, for instance (2), of treating a head-and-shoulders for ‘bringing out the features’ or the ‘gay tilt’ or ‘a bright come-on look’ – these latter being further evidence of the book’s date of publication.

Sections cover every possible aspect of subbing. How to keep marks neat for the printer, write headlines, choose the best font – ‘Oh Mr Univers, are you the type for me?’

The drop intro? He doesn’t like them (gulp! because I like using them). Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s wrong, he says, because the average punter is reading it standing in a bus or in the 4½ minutes he’s waiting for a train and wants it quick. But then he’s really talking about news here, not features.

Sellers’ books weren’t cheap thirty-odd years ago at 45 bob up to ₤5.50. Today anyone fixing to buy one should be prepared to spend between 50 and 150 quid, although occasionally you might find a dog-eared copy of one for at a bit less.

That one’s The Simple Subs Book (1968 Pergamon) which I’ve seen for thirty nicker and here one should note the missing apostrophe in the title that, grammatically speaking, ought to come after Subs. It’s a beautiful omission that creates a sly little double entendre. A grammatical felony he would allow in, in certain extreme circumstances, to make a point.

His initial opus was Doing It In Style (1968 Pergamon again) which was probably God-the-Father to the other two, and the final tome is the 258-page Keeping Up The Style (1975 Pitman).

They were, all three of them, back bench bibles. Still are. A bit preachy, yes, but full of what one reviewer called ‘the roisterousness of behind-the-scenes in editorial offices’.

There was only one printing on all three, which is a sad thing because whatever Fleet Street has become today Leslie Sellers’ straightforward approach to subbing and writing will always be the guide. At the Daily Mail Chris Clark was keeper of the faith.

I am fully aware that we’re waiting for the full story on ‘Giant Cheese Kills Two’ – the murdering curd.

Yes, well he doesn’t explain whether it toppled and flattened the duo or whether the greedy bastards ate themselves to death on it, but none of that matters. The point he makes, by contrasting this with another in which ‘Giant ape kills two’ is about correct spacing and balance in headlines, ‘one of the most important aspects of newspaper design’.

Not even whether the French pushed it up the German rear. Sorry.

  • Some of Leslie Sellers’ books can be sourced from the AbeBooks link in the BOOKS ABOUT USsection of this website.


Back from The Stab



Will there’s a way

By Alasdair Buchan


Is anybody else getting letters from Will Lewis, editor of the Daily Telegraph, asking for help in producing his paper?

He wrote to me and asked how I thought it might be improved – and what recommendations and suggestions I’d like to make, to help him. Nice letter though it was, I thought he might have made the effort to address me personally in the full colour email rather than just send it out to ‘undisclosed recipients’.

Anyway I replied saying that I’d be delighted to help, of course, and that I would waive my usually consultancy fee and work on a colleague-to-colleague basis for a nominal ₤500 a day.

He hasn’t replied yet.

I reckon it must be a bit of an uphill struggle for him, at 37 the Torygraph’s youngest-ever editor, as his sits at the hub of an editorial wheel layout controlling specialists ready, 24/7, at the drop of a glass of Evian, to produce copy by podcast, vodcast, or plain old-fashioned keyboard-and-screen.

As BBC director general Greg Dyke described him recently, ‘He is the man charged with bringing the Telegraph into the 21st century, which is a bit tough because it missed out on the 20th century altogether.’

So the least we can all do is offer him a helping hand.




Off-the-cuff humour

By Colin Dunne


Harold Wilson got me my first job on a national. If he’d taken his holidays in Bermuda or the Bahamas, I doubt if I would ever have made it. As it was, he holidayed on the Isles of Scilly, and that got me home and dry.

Yes, I see what you mean: it does call for some explanation. Right…

Forty years ago I was writing a column on the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle. As a reward for my efforts, I was offered a freebie with a pack of Manchester journalists to go to Luxembourg. There were eight of us, mostly honest Other Ranks, apart from two of our party. One was Neville Stack, news editor of the old broadsheet Sun in Manchester, a job that probably rates as an NCO. Later, I seem to remember, he edited the Leicester Mercury before flying off to all manner of journalistic triumphs from Trinidad to Singapore. He’s retired in Ireland these days.

But that’s by the way. All you need to know here is that Neville is one of the funniest men in our trade which, in this barmy business, is saying quite a lot. When Murdoch made Ken Tucker the head of his Manchester operation on the new Sun, it was Neville who came up with the theory that Murdoch was sitting banging the desk and shouting: ‘I want my tucker’ … and someone misunderstood him. Well, that’s the story.

The officer-class chap in our party was the northern editor of the Mail.

Sorry, I mean Northern Editor. He was very much a capital letters sort of chap. Northern Editors are, as you will know, far superior to mere Fleet Street editors. In London, where the streets are thronged with the rich and powerful, a mere editor rates somewhere between a street entertainer and a mini-cab driver. In Manchester, the complete VIP list at that time was Bernard Manning and George Best, so the Northern Editors were pretty swanky people.

Naturally, during our trip, this particular NE found it necessary to remind us of this.

Occasionally, this edge between editors boiled over. Wasn’t there a Mirror story about one afternoon in the Douglas when Derek Dodd introduced Bob Edwards as ‘my London editor’?If that really happened, it would be no surprise that Bob responded: ‘No, Derek, I am the editor. You are the northern editor. For the time being.’I don’t think Bob saw northern editor as being a capital letter sort of job.

But our man in Luxembourg did, and his moment came on the last night. We were escorted around Luxembourg by that country’s Director of Tourism. Silkily suited, crisply collared and cuffed, with his silver-winged hair and elegant charm, he looked a million dollars, which, at a guess, was his weekly salary.

So it came as something of a shock when the NE, our self-appointed leader, suggested we should give him a present. It would’ve been like slipping the Queen a quid and saying: ‘Get yerself a pint on me.’Or that’s what I said, and I’m afraid the NE took some offence. ‘Not just any present,’ he said testily. ‘I was thinking of giving him my cuff-links.’

Hysteria welled up. Stack’s face, I noticed, was distorted with suppressed laughter. Although I came to know him much better later, this was the first time that I realised he was a man with a wonderful sense of humour (which means, of course, the same as mine). We avoided each others’ eyes. It was our only chance.

The NE, becoming more pompous by the minute, insisted that the Director of Tourism would be delighted to receive these cuff-links once he realised that ‘they had been purchased in the Scilly Isles where Harold Wilson, the British prime minister, took his holidays’ and where, indeed, the NE took his.

Clearly I was dreaming all this, or thought I was until, at the farewell dinner that evening, the NE rose to his feet and solemnly stripped himself of his cuff links. He handed them over after a speech in which the PM and the Scillies featured strongly. The Director of Tourism looked down at them in his hand without a trace of comprehension.

When you get a Spike Milligan moment like that, there’s no saying how it’s going to affect you. In my case, quite simply, I lost my mind.

Lurching to my feet, exploding with laughter, I began to unfasten my tie which, I said, I would like to present to the Director because it had been bought in a Yorkshire market town where Fred Trueman had once had lunch. Or possibly a sandwich. I think Neville offered a lighter which had ignited the cigarettes of several fully qualified sub-editors, or something like that, and in no time we were all at it. Ties, shoes, combs… they were all being offered.

Without a doubt, it was totally disgraceful and later, when the laughter had subsided, Stack and I sat down over a beer. He said he thought I’d enjoy working for a national. I went down to Manchester for interviews and, thanks to a general leg-up from Neville, was given a job on the Mirror by Bill Freeman.

Now it’s just as well that I didn’t want to write City analysis for the financial pages because, for one reason or another, I was only ever offered really silly stories to do. Or perhaps I should say Scilly stories. Certainly if Harold Wilson had holidayed in Rhyl it would never happened.

Destiny? You can’t fight it.



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