Issue #30

Thanks for the memory

Thanks for the memory

Shan Davies fillets her grey cells and takes us to a night club where she meets guys who butcher stuff other than copy; David Baird remembers a young Digger in the outback of Australia; Revel Barker – prompted by Liz Hodgkinson’s reference last week to a legal eagle – remembers Hiram Powell, who was not destined to become the Man from the Pru; Peter Reece drops the Telegraph night editor in the du Cann; Bob Edwards mourns the loss and celebrates the memory of Alan Jenkins, a friend and colleague since his teenage years; Colin Dunne goes for an interview.

And then – good grief! – there’s a letter from Cyril Maitland, a legend before many of us even reached The Street, now living in Oregon where, inevitably, he is known as Cy.

Then Giles Pickford writes from Oz with a memory of the old Journo’s Club in Sydney, which closed – due to popular demand – about five years ago.

Finally there’s reference to a – ahem – typo, spotted and kindly reported by Nick Jenkins. It was corrected after the North Wales edition, of course, and obviously before anybody else spotted it. The sub has been docked a week’s money, and the writer has been forgiven on the grounds that he’s foreign.

We are always pleased to get notes about errors, if only as a sign that somebody is actually reading the stuff. But, given the choice, we’d rather have copy.

Oh, if you want to read Alastair Campbell’s Cudlipp Lecture at City University last week, you can find it here:

http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Media/documents/2008/01/28/CudlippLecture.pdf

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Meat you at the club

By Shan Davies

I wonder how many Ranters will remember the delights of the infamous Smithfield Meat Traders Club.

I first came across this exclusive club deep in the heart of meat market land when I was working on the now long defunct house newspaper Mirror Group News.

Working on MGN was a wonderful opportunity for the young, ambitious hacks and hackettes as, being on the premises, they were frequently given shifts on the Sundays.

Thinking back on it, I wonder why on earth I didn’t stay on Mirror Group News. We were paid only about a grand less than the nationals, worked literally 9-5 hours, had unlimited expenses, disgracefully long lunch hours and, if we felt like it, flew off to visit other offices like the Daily Record at Glasgow for a few days until having to return for fear of getting alcohol poisoning.

Anyway, PJ Wilson, who was at the time Graham Gadd’s deputy on the Sunday Mirror, regarded me as somewhat of protégée – having met me way back when I worked on a local paper and he considered that he had brought me to Fleet Street – which I suppose he had.

When I joined the staff of MGN PJ started giving me loads of shifts. I was literally working 24 hours a day what with my actual job and my freelancing. Fortunately, Allan Davis, who edited MGN, was very tolerant about these matters.

One Saturday I had to get up at 5am to go down to deepest Surrey to catch somebody early for a story for that weekend’s Sunday Mirror. I can’t remember the story and it’s irrelevant really. Anyway, I managed to accomplish the task and got home knackered around lunchtime and fell into a hot bath.

And then the phone rang. It was PJ.

‘You’re on 8 till 2 tonight,’ he informed me.

What? All I was looking forward to was a pleasant evening out with friends. Still, I was young and ambitious and so I duly reported for duty at eight.

It was an incredibly boring shift. Once you’d read the early papers there was nothing to do but sit around. The phone hardly ever rang and it was too late to do any spoilers.

At 2am, big Mal Munro-Hall, the chief sub, announced: ‘Right. Let’s go for a drink!’

A drink – in the seventies – at 2am? What was he talking about?

Anyway, I trooped along with about four others and we made our way in the dark night down to Smithfield Market. Along a row of buildings there was a rather battered looking front door.

Big Mal banged on it. In about a minute a voice came from behind the door.

‘Who is it?’

Sunday Mirror,’ replied Mal.

The door immediately opened. ‘Come in lads,’ a cheery looking bloke with a butcher’s apron ushered us in.

And this was the Smithfield Meat Traders Club. And it was heaving! Drinks were flowing and we ended up staying there until about 6 am.

It was a fantastic late-night drinking haunt and I got to know some lovely butchers and got very good cut-price fillet steak in the months that followed.

I’m just glad we ended up there in the early hours of a Sunday morning when even PJ and Graham Gadd wouldn’t want to get hold of me…

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Setback in the Outback

By David Baird

He seems unstoppable as he continues to add to his global media empire. But the Dirty Digger didn’t always have it his own way and I was lucky enough to be present when for once he came unstuck.

That was way back in the 60s when Murdoch was doing warm-ups, before taking over the world. He learned a useful lesson: before starting any battle, carefully check the opposition. In this case, he blundered by starting a circulation war in the wrong place: Australia’s Outback.

The scene was Mount Isa, a tough mining town lost in the red rock desert of northwest Queensland. Murdoch ran the only newspaper in town, the Mail, which came out twice a week. It had the field to itself — until the miners staged a disastrous strike and the Mail made a tactical error by supporting them.

That was too much for the mining company. After all, it was their town. They controlled pretty well everything that went on in The Isa — even to the point of making sure any good-time floozies who wandered in from the coast were escorted out of town, fast. The company decided to start its own paper and mounted an undercover operation fronted by Asher Joel, a dynamic Sydney PR man.

Fresh off the boat and totally unaware of all this, I met Asher at Brisbane airport where he offered me a job on his new paper, the North-West Star. The Outback! Adventure! This was better than doorstepping in the rain in wildest Lancashire and Yorkshire. So, unknowingly, I stepped into a frontier war zone.

Mount Isa, I soon learnt, was a trifle isolated, a mere 1,000 miles from Brisbane. The nearest town of any size was Townsville, 600 miles away on the coast, over mainly dirt roads. Or you could nip off for the weekend to Darwin, 1,000 miles in the other direction.

Then there was the climate. Hot and bloody hot. No wonder The Isa was dubbed the Copper Crucible. Many a newcomer gasped in the heat, around 100 degrees F, as he stepped off the plane and booked the next flight out. Most Aussies shunned the place. But, attracted by the high wages, more than 50 nationalities toiled in The Isa.

Asher, secretly acting for the company, spared no expense. Unlike the Mail, produced on antiquated machinery in a ramshackle shed, the new paper was printed on the latest web offset in a brand-new air-conditioned plant. Sir Frank Packer offered support and printers and journos were recruited from the SydneyDaily Telegraph at top pay.

Getting wind of this, Murdoch flew in by private aircraft to encourage his staff. ‘Don’t worry! We’re going to win,’ he reportedly told them. ‘I’ll stand by you against Packer and the mines.’

Soon, to the bewilderment of many locals, The Isa had two daily papers, hitting the streets seven days a week. I suddenly found that I was chief sub, working 18 hours a day with no days off. As the Aussies paid overtime, we were the best-paid journos and printers in the country. Cash piled up in my wardrobe because I had no time to visit the bank. When I finally did so, the clerk gaped at me, promptly quit his job and signed on as a junior reporter.

When the first Star came out, miners — egged on by Mail employees — ritually burned the paper in one of the pubs. Our reporters were threatened, scurrilous rumours were fabricated and at any moment we expected bricks through the windows.

The Star, a modern, clean-looking product, set out to assure readers that theirs was ‘a good town’. Asher Joel knew his trade. Sometimes the paper gave the impression we were living in a sort of tropical paradise. This required a certain stretch of the imagination.

There was the dust for one thing. Red, choking dust permeated everything. It was so dusty, said locals, that the crows flew backwards to keep the stuff out of their eyes. One night I went to an outdoor cinema and a dust storm blew in, obscuring the screen, so everybody went home early.

The Isa was also subject to plagues. Gidgee bugs, for example. They arrived one evening, millions of squishy moths fluttering into your mouth, your eyes, your beer.

But worst was the heat. This is one of the hottest areas in Australia. The sun strikes your head like a hammer blow. At night the temperature is rarely below 90 degrees F and, just before The Wet, it soars to 120 degrees F.

This, plus the near-total aridity, produced a monumental thirst. The Isa claimed to have the highest beer consumption per head in the whole country. The worst thing you could do was get between a drinker and his ‘stubby’. Men had died for less. When we journos held a party, we made sure to invite several cops — they mounted guard to prevent any bleeding, gatecrashing, drongos reaching the beer-filled fridge.

My first visit to one of the three pubs was a memorable occasion. Semi-comatose Aborigines lazed on the sidewalk outside and inside it was the Wild West. I was confronted by a gang of hard-faced individuals boasting Schwarzenegger physiques. And they were just the barmaids.

Fans whirled overhead as a hundred or so husky miners, in singlets and shorts, swigged, sweated and swore. To keep up with demand the barmaids filled 30 glasses at a time, using a hose. Now and again a drinker would slump to the floor, but nobody paid any attention. Eventually he would stagger to his feet, check that nobody had nobbled his cash piled on the counter and order another beer.

A Finnish miner named Sepp was among the sophisticated clientele. One day as a fellow journo and I refreshed ourselves before a marathon shift, Sepp loomed before us, glowering. ‘You black-enamelled bastards!’ he snarled as he wrenched a copy of the Star from the hands of my colleague and proceeded to tear it to shreds.

This was a John Wayne situation if ever there was one. The moment to cut this bully down to size and lecture him about democracy and freedom of the press. Unfortunately, Sepp resembled a grizzly bear, a grizzly about eight feet tall and the same width. Press freedom went on the back burner.

In contrast to the sober, reassuring Star, Murdoch’s Mail — with smudgy print, monster headlines and murky pictures — screamed at the readers. The stories, apparently evolved in the pub, became ever more strident and more hysterical.

It really came off the rails when it alleged that local schoolgirls were on the game. Offended readers gave up the Mail in droves. The battle was costing Murdoch a fortune. Costs were soaring. No problem for Mount Isa Mines. It made huge profits from the tons of copper, lead, silver and zinc harvested from the red rock and its owners, a New York corporation, had vast resources.

Then, after two months, Asher Joel let it be known that he was thinking of starting a second paper, in Darwin where another Murdoch publication ruled the roost.

This was too much for the Digger. He had taken on more than he could chew. Abruptly he announced that he was ‘rationalising’ news services. The Mail closed immediately and out on the street went the faithful staff.

I left The Isa shortly afterwards, as the Star became increasingly a PR sheet. Asher Joel went on to acquire a knighthood. And Murdoch? Some say that, smarting with humiliation, he took boat to Europe where he faded into well-merited obscurity. Others claim he ended up peddling pizzas on Bondi Beach. Who knows? One thing’s for sure, sport: he never showed his face in The Isa again.

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Brief encounters

rb2By Revel Barker

Hiram Powell stared at the potentially contentious copy I’d been instructed to discuss with him before letting the subs see it.

He slotted an untipped fag into the well charred furrow on his bottom lip, lighted it and started to read. It was the first time I’d had to present copy to the office lawyer and I was looking forward to a debate about the finer points of the laws of libel, so when he got to the third par, reached for his green pen and made a deletion, I asked him: ‘What’s that?’

‘I don’t like sentences beginning with the word But,’ he said. He read down quickly. ‘Otherwise, it’s all ok.’

By the time I received my first real writ – real as distinct from threatened – Hiram and I were firm friends.

We borrowed the editor’s car to meet a QC in Temple and on the way he shared with me a snippet of his family history.

His grandfather had been a minister in a small village church in Wales and one night he was visited by three elders of his congregation who said they had a proposition to put to him.

They suggested forming what they described as a funeral fund, inviting parishioners to contribute a token sum, sixpence a week, throughout their lifetime in return for which the fund would cover all the costs of their eventual funeral.

The reverend thought that was a splendid – indeed a Christian – plan; funerals were usually the biggest outlay of cash a family would be expected to pay; they sometimes occurred unexpectedly; they were often at a time of life when the family had its lowest income. He told them he thought their idea was admirable.

Yes, said his chums. And not only admirable but hugely profitable for the organisers. They had done the sums and calculated that all those sixpences, collected and invested over the years, would produce a terrific surplus, which the organisers could share, because on average people would have contributed far more than the cost of a coffin and a service by the time they died.

The penny (or the tanner) immediately dropped with the minister.

‘You can’t do that!’ he said. ‘You are asking me to gamble on the date that the Good Lord will call a member of my flock. That is indecent. How dare you? Get out – and never darken the door of this manse again.’

The elders repaired to the pub, where (Hiram learnt many years later) one of them said: ‘Well, we’ve heard what the Reverend Powell’s opinion of it is. Are we going to go ahead, or what?’

They agreed that they would give their plan for a funeral fund a go.

‘OK,’ said another. ‘If we go ahead with it, and make it a sort of Friendly Society, it’ll need a name. What shall we call it?’

‘I’ve thought about that,’ said the third elder. ‘I always thought that the word Prudential had a nice and reassuringly firm ring to it.’

So, there and then, the three of them formed what eventually became known as the Prudential Assurance Society.

As the Jag pulled up outside chambers in Temple, Hiram told me: ‘It’s not so much that I resent not owning 25 per cent of the Pru. It’s the fact that I have to walk past the fucking place every morning on my way to do this god-forsaken job.’

I thought I understood newspapers lawyers much better, after that.

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Trivial pursuits

By Peter Reece

When I was a lad, an aunt once entertained me by confessing how she managed to get herself fired from the newsroom of the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

(The fact that she had the legs of a gazelle, ate bananas with unimaginable sexiness, and smoked sophisticated Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes impressed me even more. It quite shook up my pubescent hormones.)

One of the pre-dawn chores imposed on the radio’s night shift staff was to gather what were called the market prices – the overnight wholesale values of meat, grain, fruit, fish and the like.

These facts were broadcast at 4am and my aunt was convinced that not even early rising farmers listened to this load of old tripe. One morning, simply to prove her point, she just made the prices up. For twenty hours it threw the whole economy of South Africa into chaos.

Which nicely brings me on to my freelance days in Manchester, together with one of my favourite and most rewarding sinecures – supposedly running the night news desk of the Daily Telegraph.

I say supposedly, because in those days the world was a much gentler place and good manners dictated that no-one troubled the Telegraph after 6pm, whether the news was urgent or not.

These well paid evenings would quickly pass by, undisturbed other than slipping out for a couple of hours of drinking with Mirror mates at the Swan, followed by supper at a rather fine fish restaurant in St Anne’s Square.

There was just one annoying little chore, which had to be completed before seven, and that was ringing the local weather centre to gather the so-called ‘Manchester readings’.

If I recall correctly, this was a published record of the hours of sunshine, measurement of rainfall, plus the high and low temperatures the city had enjoyed in the past 24 hours.

It was so simple a task that it was often forgotten – and after 7pm the gathering of the various pieces of data involved telephoning several individual sources who, for reasons quite unknown to me, recorded this totally insignificant information. Sad buggers! Who on earth would want to know?

Failing that, I made them up, adjusting yesterday’s temperatures by a degree or two, safe in the knowledge that no-one would notice, and relied on personal recall whether my beloved parish had been blessed with sunshine or showers.

Harry Myers was night editor and lived at the other end of the Telegraph newsroom surrounded by his industrious subs.

I suspect he never liked me, possibly because his end of the room was doing all the work while my end was determinedly engaged in sod-all.

But he did take vicarious pleasure in calling me well after 7pm on the internal phone with the inevitable question: ‘Didn’t Manchester have any weather today?’

Harry knew long before that seven-o-clock deadline that he had a little hole in the paper’s first edition, but never once called to remind me in time.

This annoying breakdown in communication festered over time. Then one evening I stumbled across sweet revenge.

I was alert (or sober) enough to spot an early front page pull from the stone, and a prominent little piece which introduced Edward Du Cann in its intro, as Chairman of the Communist Party.

I still find it hard to forgive myself, but I smiled quietly and awaited the hour when Withy Grove would, for a few glorious moments, shudder on its foundations as those great presses in the basement rumbled into life.

Hardly containing my excitement I even waited for lorry loads of first editions to leave the Thomson House yard and head for the railway stations.

Then I rang Harry and politely enquired: ‘How long has Edward Du Cann been chairman of the Communist Party?’

For the delicate ears of Ranter readers, his reply is quite unprintable… He definitely questioned my parentage, and threw in every other expletive he knew.

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Gentleman Jenks

By Robert Edwards

Several of Alan’s obituaries have described him, as does his good friend and loyal colleague Graham Gadd, simply as a gentleman.

That’s not a word normally used about someone in our profession, and it’s not a word I normally like; so I looked it up. The OED. is not helpful. Alan cannot, for example, be described as ‘a man of gentle birth attached to the household of the sovereign,’ but I think Nuttall’s Dictionary has got it right: ‘A man of good breeding and politeness, as distinguished from the vulgar and clownish.’

If anyone can testify otherwise let him step forward, but to my knowledge Alan has never been known to lose his temper. We are always up against the clock in our profession and that was particularly so in two of Alan’s top jobs.

He invariably kept his head with good humour and charm when all about him were going potty. So you are right, Graham. He was a gentleman, which is not what could be said of all his contemporaries.

Alan Jenkins was one of my two oldest friends. We began our careers on the same newspaper in a way that would now be unthinkable. Often taught at universities by former editors who have miraculously become professors, media students actually become journalists on real newspapers at what we would have regarded in 1943 as approaching middle age.

Alan was 17. I was slightly younger at 16. The paper we joined was the Reading Mercury, the Berkshire county paper, which had a sister paper for Reading, perversely called the Berkshire Chronicle. We all served on both papers, but the Mercury was the posh one.

Established in 1722 the paper hadn’t changed much since then. Nor had the rickety old building we worked in, but it was a proper paper. We hardly ever saw the editor. He had an office almost as grand as the one Alan was later to work in when he was editor of the Glasgow Herald. We actually had a literary editor and a revise sub, Major Foran, ex-Indian army, who claimed to have been a reporter in Chicago, and two memorably profane proof readers who worked in the attic.

Our location was in Valpy Street, a sort of mini-Fleet Street, because right next door was our competitor, the Reading Standard. We had suitable contempt for it, but at least it did take on at the same time as us Richard Beeston, who became a famous foreign and war correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

Like Dick, Alan and I were lucky to enter journalism in the middle of the second world war when many of the experienced staff had been called up, and this gave us our chance.

We had a wonderful time. There was a suitable aura around the editor, but there were no bullies on the paper. We were all male until Drusilla Beyfus joined us. We were all agreed that by far the most capable and professional of us all was Alan Jenkins – ‘Jenks’ as we called him.

I don’t know what they taught him at Aylesbury Grammar School but he was very well equipped when he arrived to join the chief reporter Gus Elmer’s team. Along with Charles Hennessey, who is with us today, he edited the school paper. He, that is Alan, had impeccable shorthand, as indeed did Gus Elmer, whose memory Alan cherished.

Gus had shaggy, greying hair and was a large, slightly lewd father figure whose rank was denoted by a small, roll-top desk at the head of the reporters’ table behind which when his head was bowed he was invisible – which he always was after he had visited the headquarters of Reading Football Club on Thursdays.

He was constantly phoning the Exchange Telegraph news agency and the London evening papers – reverse charge, of course – with stories to supplement his income, and invariably began dictating his reports with the same three words in his unforgettable hoarse voice: ‘At Reading today, comma…’

Old-timers described the way we entered the profession as ‘going through the mill.’ It may have been tough on other papers, though I doubt that, but we loved it. Every morning at eleven, with Gus’s permission if he was there, we would go to a delightful coffee bar called Sally Anne’s in an arcade. In those days we were considered far too young to go drinking.

Such were Alan’s skills as the best young reporter Gus entrusted him with covering major trials at the Berkshire Assizes, a source of such good stories that Alan regularly phoned London on Gus’s behalf, on a fifty-fifty basis, no doubt beginning his reports in his much younger voice: ‘At Reading today…’

The good times in Valpy Street rapidly came to an end with our call-up papers. I don’t blame Alan for recording in Who’s Who his military career in the Royal Berkshire Regiment. He achieved the rank of major, which was a lot better than at least one of his colleagues I could mention. He went with the West African Rifles from Nigeria to India. Helen has a photograph of him with Montgomery.

His career since then has been well covered in all the obituaries. Alan told one good story that hasn’t been published to Stan Westall, another successful ex-Reading Mercury journalist.

Alan was being given a job by the editor of the Lancashire Evening Post. ‘Look in that cupboard,’ the editor commanded. Alan opened what seemed to be somewhere to hang your clothes. Facing him on the inside panel was a life-sized, full length picture of a football fan – apparently drunk, rattle in hand, muffler around his neck.

‘Remember him, lad,’ said the editor. ‘That’s the fella you’re writing for.’

I don’t know if that advice was much help to Alan during his long period working on The Times after Harold Evans sought him out. That was towards the end of his career which I think peaked when he was night editor of the Daily Mail for seven years.

The Times rightly reported that in that role Alan – and I quote – achieved ‘the status of a legend.’ I think I’ll complete the paragraph, open quotes: ‘not merely because of his production skills but because of his unusual popularity with all his colleagues in a most demanding and nerve-racking job. It is said that no one ever saw him rattled.’

Alan loved going out for a drink with his team at the Daily Mail local, The Harrow, ‘between editions’ as we used to say, so much so that he liked to come down from his home in Scotland to celebrate his birthday there, which he did with them and many others on his very last birthday last year.

Alan always got on well with his colleagues. When he rounded off his career as consultant to the New Straits Times group in Kuala Lumpur his close friends were not ex-pats living there but his colleagues, who were Muslim, Chinese or Indian.

He paid several return trips to Malaysia and made such good friends that they came to visit him in the cottage he and Helen retired to in Balmerino, North-east Fife – that’s the cottage they bought when he was editor of the Glasgow Herald.

Alan’s formidable skills were known throughout Fleet Street. Charles Wintour sought him out to edit a special Saturday edition of the Evening Standard – a brilliant idea later adopted by all the so-called heavies a few years later, to the intense annoyance of the Sunday paper editors. Fortunately, from my point of view, the project was vetoed by the management on grounds of cost, and Alan joined me on The People as deputy editor (circulation 5 million plus).

Both of us moved mysteriously to the Sunday Mirror and then some bright spark persuaded him to succeed the man invariably described as the bagpipe-playing Iain Lindsay-Smith as editor of the Glasgow Herald.

Thus Alan found himself in that grand office in Mitchell Street, which had a pneumatic tube that carried the editor’s markings direct to the printer, just as on the Reading Mercury.

Alan had two happy marriages to Kathleen and Helen and five sons, Nicholas, Russell, Robert, Matthew and Joe, three of whom, like the Cudlipp brothers, are in journalism and all of whom are here, along with Alan’s five grandchildren.

I think I know the secret of their father’s celebrated equanimity. He must have inherited a whole cluster of happy genes from the man we called Pop Cawston, his absolutely splendid grandfather on his mother’s side, who owned a couple of river steamers on the Thames at Reading.

Alan and I spent many wonderful hours going up and down the Thames with Pop in command. As a riverboat captain complete with a skipper’s hat he came straight from central casting. He smoked his Woodbines and advised us, as he blasted his siren to warn lock-keepers of his approach, ‘It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you have a good time.’

Alan had a good time and he was a good man, of that I am certain.

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Jobs for the boy

By Colin Dunne

These days I like to think I’d know better. When you see an ad for a job in which they place heavy emphasis on the surrounding scenery, don’t even think about it. All it means is that the job, the money, the conditions are so miserable that they have to drag in God’s handiwork as though it’s a company perk.

‘On the edge of the beautiful Lake District’… The ads for jobs on the Barrow-in-Furness paper always used to toss in this casual line. Other jobs offered company cars and pension schemes; these people gave their staff scenic views and invigorating walks. You’d think that the management had themselves constructed the Lake District entirely for the benefit of their staff.

When I’d applied for the job as chief reporter, I’d failed to spot this. I was feeling quite chuffed. Moving to an evening from a weekly was something of a jump. And obviously I’d made quite an impression because the minute they got my letter, they were on the telephone asking me to go up for an interview. The quick call-back… another bad sign, but again I failed to spot it.

Over-enthusiasm from a potential employer is more about their desperation than your desirability.

The truth was nobody in possession of a full set of marbles wanted to go to Barrow. Possibly they still don’t – I don’t know. But as I walked through the town to the newspaper office and saw the boarded-up shops, the peeling paintwork and the litter-blown streets, even I could see this was no country for young men.

As we all know these days, we must not be judgmental, and personally I would rather die than be thought elitist. So let me simply say that my first impression of the town of Barrow was that every person over the age of 16 with sufficient intelligence to find their way to the station had already gone. And those who didn’t have the fare had walked it. What was left was an entire community composed of people who were in the care of the community, if you see what I mean. There were an awful lot of squints in the town centre.

When I got into his office, the editor gave me a cup of coffee, mentioned the fine walking country ‘on our doorstep’ and offered me the job.

His eye-rolling anguish was alarming. I murmured something about needing time to think.

He added another couple of quid to the pay.

I said I’d think about that.

He offered to make the job news editor. With a bit more money.

I was getting quite panicky by now. Maybe they were going to brick me up in the office. I said I’d certainly bear it in mind.

Then he made his last play. They had the usual op-ed page diary column and he said he was prepared to pay me for two items every week – the equivalent of 50p – which I didn’t even have to write. He tapped his nose conspiratorially and sat back exhausted.

I fled.

Interviews for jobs are exactly the same as teenage courtship. Despair is off-putting. As the French say, there is always one who kisses and one who turns away, and I got out just as Barrow was puckering up.

I’m not at all sure how you should set about interviewing hacks. If you know their reputation, then you don’t really need an interview. If you don’t, how do you tell? When he was northern news editor of the old broadsheet Sun, Neville Stack discovered what he thought was a foolproof way of assessing applicants. I think he’d read it in Reader’s Digest. The idea was that you sat the interviewee in the middle of the room, out of reach of any level surface, and gave him a cup of tea. What they do with the cup and saucer then demonstrates their character.

If he sits shuffling it, he’s indecisive. If he attempts to slide it under the chair, he’s sneaky. If he marches up to your desk and bangs it down in front of you, he’s aggressive. You get the idea.

He tried it while interviewing a string of would-be reporters and was delighted with it until a young Scots reporter came in. Afterwards they looked for the cup and saucer. Vanished. Stack couldn’t find them anywhere. He had to give the young Scot the job to find out what he’d done with them.

Apparently, he’d read the same article and had smuggled the crockery into his briefcase. Who was it? Oh, I think it would be indelicate to reveal the applicant’s name. In any case, you could probably guess it.

That’s right: Gerry Brown. Who went on to make such a massive contribution to the world of fiction.

With an editorial staff about one-tenth that of the other nationals, Neville was obliged to fall back on speed and ingenuity. It worked. Most of the time.

He was my neighbour across a field in Derbyshire and I well remember how he beat all the other news desks to the punch when a plane full of holidaymakers from Tyneside crashed in Perpignan one Saturday night. He got a taxi into the office at 4am the next morning and hit the telephones.

By nine o’clock, his entire staff were heading north with instructions to call in when they got there. How’s that for slick operating, he thought, as he sat back with a cup of tea.

At that moment the phone rang. I do believe it was Ian Skidmore. He was calling in to tell Neville about a plane crash. Don’t worry, said a jubilant Neville, it’s all in hand. Gosh, you were quick, said Skidmore. We don’t hang about, said Stack, I was in at 4am. There was a heavy silence for some time. ‘But it only happened ten minutes ago,’ said Skidmore. ‘I’m looking at it now.’

A plane had crashed in the middle of Stockport. And the entire Sun staff was hurtling through Yorkshire and Durham. When the first calls came, Stack simply said: ‘Come back.’

Neville had two wishes: to amuse and to be amused, and he excelled at both. He liked to pretend that, rather than recruiting reporters, he was casting a classic western film. Bill Jenkins, I seem to recall, was the old sheriff who, despite arthritic hands, was still the fastest gun in town. Was that Angela Neustatter who he cast as the saloon-girl with the heart of gold? Certainly he said her mini-skirt gave her the most famous thighs in Manchester. Bert Abell was the gruff but kindly rancher, Bob Perrin the gamblin’ man with a Derringer in his boot, and Mike Gabbert was the rogue who conned the bank. The northern editor, Arthur Brown, was cast as the hellfire preacher and drunk.

Neville? He was the one with the black gloves.

I suspect he really wanted Gerry as the baby-faced killer.

He never tried to recruit me. Cowboy films didn’t have a part for The Underweight Yorkshireman. He did, however, pass me on to Harry Whewell, the wonderfully entertaining news editor (and star columnist) of the Guardian. He was an unusual bloke who took great pleasure in people who pronounced his name Wee-Well (the correct pronunciation was Hu-Ell). He was also the only news editor who pinned up a list of unusual words and challenged his reporters to get them into their copy.

His question to me was, rather gloomily, which university I’d attended. None. Did I have an opinion on American imperialism in the third world? No, I shrugged. Was I interested in the women’s movement? Sadly, not in the least.

His face lit up. ‘Thank God,’ he said. He had them coming in all day from their universities with deeply-held views on women’s rights and the wicked Americans. They put their suede-clad feet on his desk, he said. ‘You don’t happen to do a bit of shorthand, do you?’ he asked.

It was clinched. Then, like a fool, I backed out of it and went to London to join the unemployed. Or, as they were known at that time, the Mirror Feature Writers. We had desks, we had salaries, we had office cars, but we didn’t have any work.

I was twice interviewed by Peter Stephens. Once, when he was editor of the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle, and later when he was on the Sun in London. Well, I say interviewed, but really we just shared a silence.

He had this unnerving technique of letting the conversation die. It just petered out. Then he would sit before you with an expressionless face, staring at a spot just to the right of your left ear. It was a technique that could easily rattle a chap. The first time I experienced it I soon began to feel panic slowly rising inside me. After a couple of minutes, I’d swear I could hear the blood hissing through my veins. After another couple of minutes, I could hear his blood hissing through his veins. Then I cracked and, gabbling like a half-wit, blurted out: ‘What’re you doing for your holidays, Mr Stephens?’

The second time was in L’Epicure in Soho. We had a nice chat – I liked Peter Stephens and I thought he was a fine journalist – and then he did the silence thing on me. I was ready for it. We silenced through the pate, we silenced through veal Milanese, and we silenced through millefeuille, espresso coffee and Armagnac. Once or twice he almost smiled, but he never spoke. Neither did I. I can’t remember if we said goodbye. Probably not.

I met Ken Donlan for an interview for the Sun in the George at the top of Fleet Street, where he thought we’d be safe from prying eyes. He was at the bar as I went in. ‘When can you start?’ he asked. Now I’d never spoken to the mighty Donlan before, so I began to tell him a bit about myself. ‘I know all that,’ he said. He did too. He knew every job I’d had, every piece I’d written, where I lived, how many kids I had, and, I suspect, my shoe size and blood group. ‘November the third,’ I said, and that was that.

The most mysterious interview I had was with David Montgomery. I had known him, slightly, as a downtable sub in Manchester and London. I say slightly because no-one ever knew him more than slightly. He was one of those men whose very existence lost its potency once he’d gone: the minute he left the room, you couldn’t remember what the hell he looked like.

So when I was working for the Sun, I was surprised to be called up by Montgomery’s secretary. He was editing Today and was inviting me in for an interview. Easily flattered, I whistled as I went along to see him. I’d never been head-hunted before. Luckily he had Editor on the door so I was able to recognise him.

He started off by saying that this was the new journalism where they had no need for specialists of any kind. In this brave new world, if he wanted a leader writing, he might well ask the football writer to do it. The women’s editor could be asked to cover a murder at midnight. A columnist might design the front page. That was the way it was going to be. Everyone could do everything.

So they had no need for feature writers, particularly for feature writers who could write only candy-floss copy packed with feeble jokes. Call me paranoid if you like, but I did get the feeling that this was… well, sort of personal. True, he didn’t actually mention anything about underweight feature writers with glasses and Yorkshire accents, but it still felt closely targeted. I wasn’t being head-hunted – I was being knee-capped.

There was no doubt about it. He had called me in specially to tell me that he wouldn’t give me a job, even if I wanted one, which I didn’t. It was the only interview I had ever failed before I’d even got in the room.

So I never did get the chance to test him out. I wanted to see if his reflection showed up in a mirror. But I think we know the answer to that, don’t we?

###

Letters to the Editor

From Cyril Maitland:

(Email:scotseyeview@

msn.com)

When I read that the White Hart was now a pizza joint it definitely was a ‘Stab-in-the-Back’ for me.

In April 1965 I held my triumphant farewell to the Mirror with a champagne party in the White Hart.

After thirteen years as one of the then photo editor Simon Clyne’s blue-eyed boys’ I was finally moving to the United States. Because many of the top features staff writers kept saying, as they raised their glasses, that they ‘admired’ my ‘courage in leaving’, I was scared shitless.

But here I am after all these years enjoying reading your wonderful nostalgia trip – thanks to an e-mail from Harry Edgington – and still, too, enjoying my long expatriation.

I may have out-lived some of the names I worked with but I do remember loving to work – however infrequently – with Skidmore. For he had me laughing at his wit no matter what the story.

I covered the front pages with pictures of Princess Alex and her trip to the Far East; the gruesome thalidomide murder trial in Liege, Belgium; the Duchess of Argyll’s famous divorce and finally Churchill’s funeral.

Phil Finn’s name also rings a memory bell from my days free-lancing in New York.

Anyway I just couldn’t resist dropping a line to a really worthwhile nostalgic website. If anyone remembers me, I’d like to hear.

I now live as a very sedentary and modestly successful impressionist painter in the very arty southern Oregon township of Ashland. In fact I am the President of the Board of the Lithia Artisans of Ashland.

My website is soundlessmusic.com, if anyone’s interested.

+

From Giles Pickford:

The Journalists Club in Chalmers Street, Sydney, just next to Central Station, used to be a favourite haunt of academics and hacks from nearby institutions who wanted to have a four-hour lunch without being noticed by the deans and dons in charge.

I was involved on one such occasion with setting up a lunch with Wayne Hooper (Adult Education, Sydney University). Hooper was particularly nervous about being noticed by staffers from the University of Sydney and he was not a member of the club. He told me that he was going to be late, so he asked if I could wait for him in the foyer and sign him in.

‘Just get the receptionist to page me,’ I said, trying to avoid a dry stretch in the middle of the day.

‘I can’t,’ he said; ‘If I give my name, someone from the sheltered workshop may dob me in to the boss. I am supposed to be in the Mitchell Library doing some research.’

‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘Just ask the receptionist to page Mr Pickford saying that Marcel Proust is in the foyer waiting for him.’

The plan was ingenious: but what we did not know was that the Liquor and Allied Trades Union was going to be in dispute with the Journalists Club on that day and the usual receptionist was on strike.

When Hooper arrived he did not know that the man behind the counter was the deputy editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. He made his simple request.

The deputy was not in a good mood, having been separated from his chosen vocation by a bunch of beer pullers. He glared steadily at Hooper for a good minute and then said: ‘Marcel Proust is dead.’

Hooper blanched. Then drawing himself up to his full height, he said ‘Do you think I can help that? If you don’t page Mr Pickford I will have to go upstairs and get him down here to sign me in.’

The deputy editor shook his head, grabbed the microphone, and said: ‘Paging Mr Pickford – Mr Andre Gide is in the foyer to see you.’ I was still sober enough to realise that I was needed downstairs by the embattled Hooper.

+

From Nick Jenkins:

I’m sure you’ll be receiving a number of letters about this from shocked (but not that much) subs and former subs – though possibly not all from those of us who have had to sub Garth Gibbs’s normally excellent copy in the past: ‘Choirs’ of newspapers?

Most of us have been asked, at some stage in our careers, to ‘make it sing’, but, however successful or otherwise we might have been in that, we still had to measure out the newspapers in quires…

Mr Gibbs writes:

Wow! That’s excellent. I hadn’t heard the expression until I first came to London in the sixties and figured it had something to do with newspaper chapels, also a novelty. As for Mr Nick Jenkins, he was (and I am sure still is when he wants to be) one of the greatest subs in the business and certainly improved many of my offerings. I shan’t forget quires

###

 

 

It’s Competition Time

Ranters on the email list will be a step or two ahead of the game and will know already that we’re running a competition this week.

[If you are not on the early-warning list, an email to the address at the top of the page will fix it*.]

The competition plot is to write rant or reminiscence, or pen an autobiography – using only SIX words. Not more, not less.

Smith Magazine (described as ‘the on-line literary magazine’) ran a comp for six-word autobiographies and got more than 10,000 entries.

Sam Leith (Daily Telegraph) picked up the idea this week. His own contribution was: Fancied self as haiku. Was clerihew.

Columnist Simon Heffer wrote: Still breathing, too early to tell. Comedienne Joan Rivers contributed: Liars! Hysterectomy didn’t improve sex life.

And Telegraph obituaries editor Andrew McKie offered: Chainsmoking Scot, made living from death.

Surely we can do better than those? There’ll be a PRIZE for the best one. Normal comp rules apply, of course.

If not, maybe you can write a longer piece… like IAN SKIDMORE, who this week recalls those strange days when reporters needed to take a minder along on jobs, or GARTH GIBBS, who remembers going on ski trips when Prince Charles was an eligible bachelor, or IAN BRADSHAW taking a freelance assignment with golf-playing god-botherers, GEOFF SEED, who chased cloak and dagger merchants, GORDON AMORY who has his head in the clouds (but not when he’s at home), or PLAIN JOHN SMITH, who only wanted a job…

Or PHIL SMITH, who remembers what he was doing 50 years ago this very week – as, no doubt – many of us will do, once prompted.

It’s all Candleford and Larks Rise stuff, apparently (see Letter). But, then, it’s the best that our worthy St Brides warblers can manage. We live in constant hope of better writings – or, indeed, any writings at all – from our critics. But we’re not holding our breath.

*If you are on our forewarning list and wish not to be, a message with the word ‘unsubscribe’ will have you vaporised.

#

Lost heroes

By Phil Smith

I imagine I wouldn’t have been the only old Ranter to sit for a quiet, reflective moment on Wednesday and cast my mind back 50 years.

God, 50 years since that fateful day of the Munich air disaster – Tuesday, February 6, 1958 – when football was struck by a blow that was to stun the world and plunge a nation into shock, utter disbelief, and many, many months of mourning.

Manchester United were on their way back to England from Belgrade where they had just secured a safe passage to the next round of the European Cup. Their stop-over in Munich was plagued by extreme winter weather conditions, and their Elizabethan aircraft barely left the runway when it crashed, killing 23 of the 44 passengers on board. Seven members of the famous Busby Babes lost their lives in that horrendous, devastating moment, and the severely injured Duncan Edwards was to become an eighth only days later.

Football was stripped of some of its finest young talent that day, but so too was our own profession of journalism. The Flowers of Manchester may have been cruelly plucked before their time, but several sturdy oaks also perished on that Munich runway.

These are the colleagues I remember with just as much fondness and admiration as the players – Donny Davies (Manchester Guardian), George Follows (Daily Herald), Henry Rose (Daily Express), Archie Ledbrooke (Daily Mirror), Eric Thompson (Daily Mail), Frank Swift (News of The World), Tom Jackson (Manchester Evening News) and Alf Clarke (Manchester Evening Chronicle).

Frank Taylor of the Daily Telegraph was the only writer to survive. He recovered from severe injuries and returned to work, but sadly died in 2002. Photographers Peter Howard and Ted Ellyard were also among the fortunate survivors.

I was sports editor of the Yorkshire Evening News in Doncaster in those days and I remember even now standing over the teleprinter as news of the tragedy began to unfold, straining against every emotion, trying to get my mind round what had happened, to summon up the words to put into print. We did have a Late Night Final edition to get out, after all. As a sports-mad reporter with ambitions of making the big-time I was in awe of the national guys, listening to every word they spoke as they dictated match-report copy on their rare visits to Doncaster Rovers.

These were the journos who could talk to managers and players. They were trusted with a confidence. They had the personal telephone numbers of everybody who mattered in the game. If they were told information was off the record, it remained off the record. These were the guys who actually joined the players on their occasional late night trips to clubland where the only story they wanted to pick up was a spot of transfer gossip. How different it is today.

I was lucky enough to strike up a friendship with Harry Gregg during his time at Doncaster. We became great pals on our team-bus travels and strangely enough, I followed him to Manchester shortly after he signed for United when I joined the Daily Mirror. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I bought a house just round the corner from Greggy who, to this day, remains my great sporting hero for the way he not only escaped without injury from that Munich crash but was crazy enough to plunge back into the smouldering wreckage with the rescue crews and pull so many people to safety. He always told me you had to have a screw loose to be a goalkeeper.

Radio, television and the nationals have all played their moving part over the past week or so in paying tribute to the memory of those who died at Munich, to those who survived, and to the families who suffered and are still feeling the pain. Gone, perhaps, but certainly not forgotten.

How the Daily Express covered the funeral of northern sports editor Henry Rose

#

Me and my shadow

geoffseedBy Geoffrey Seed

The poisoned umbrella murder of Georgi Markov, émigré Bulgarian and BBC journalist, wasn’t the only Cold War assassination in autumn 1978. Another London-based dissident, a Croat writer called Bruno Busic, was ambushed in Paris and repeatedly shot in the head.

I’d just been promoted as a producer on World in Action and was given his killing as my first solo film – investigating the mystery of who’d pulled the trigger. The KGB were obvious suspects as were Yugoslavia’s secret police.

It was serious stuff, le Carre’s fiction made bloody fact. But it had the farcical elements of a Tintin adventure too, especially when Michael Palin and the Pythons came to the rescue.

I filmed Busic’s funeral amid the ivied creepiness of the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Later, with researchers Ian McBride and Stephen Segaller, I followed a trail of intrigue across Britain and Europe.

Swedish TV had made a programme in the Black Forest about Croat resistance to Yugoslavia’s President Tito. I discovered Busic in the out-takes, materialising for just a few frames from behind a tree as the cameraman whip-panned from a group of Croats with rifles to others doing martial arts. If nothing else, this showed Busic was more than just a propagandist.

Tito’s secret police, UDBA (an acronym worthy of a Tintin story), would say he was a terrorist.

Segaller and McBride (ex-Birmingham Post and Mail) uncovered other murders across the world, allegedly ordered by UDBA, according to Yugoslav émigrés and academics.

In Germany, a group of Croat guest workers offered to take me to see and film an underground army training with weapons in Yugoslavia itself. I agreed to fly to Zagreb with a man called Boris… I kid you not.

I wasn’t to associate with Boris on the plane or at customs or on the bus into Zagreb. I must follow him to an hotel and sit in a coffee shop at appointed times until a new contact emerged to take me up into the mountains.

So far, so exciting.

But Boris forgot the script – well, my script anyway. Walking to the hotel, he disappeared through a door, leaving me staring at two men on the pavement who were obviously expecting us.

When Boris reappeared, they followed us – on foot, on a tram and into the hotel lobby itself. Boris then left.

My two tails became four, became six, became eight. Boris was clearly a plant and I was being set up – or warned off – by UDBA’s finest.

I rang a British diplomat and suggested a drink in the hotel bar. I told him about my predicament. He came and counted twelve watchers. The diplomat, young and jovial, recalled similar incidents with the secret police. One ended in a shooting, the other in jail. I needed my head testing. He needed advice.

He went to phone his boss but discovered he was out drinking for England at a diplomatic party. So we started to party, as well – watched by the men from UDBA.

Several mellowing rounds later, I asked what the diplomat missed most about the UK.

‘Monty Python’ he said. ‘Bloody marvellous, the Pythons. Hilarious.’

When I said I knew Michael Palin ever-so slightly through a mutual pal, his diplomatic eyes widened with envy and respect.

He drooled and almost fell off his stool with excitement, especially when I said I’d been to Chez Palin. Then he had a brilliant wheeze.

‘Let’s do some of the Python sketches,’ he beamed. ‘It’ll pass the time wonderfully.’

He wasn’t wrong. Saturday nights in Zagreb were only marginally livelier than those in Père-Lachaise.

So, under the puzzled gaze of Tito’s goons, the diplomat and I certainly acted out The Parrot Sketch and maybe even did The Silly Walk. I might have made that last bit up as I was unable to write a contemporaneous note by then – but I’d have loved to have read what UDBA made of our performance.

Anyway, thus giddied by fun and friendship, the diplomat invited me to stay in his flat. We were, of course, followed by an UDBA convoy.

He somehow got me the last seat on a plane to London next morning. But when I woke and opened the curtains, the previous night’s merriment was quickly forgotten. The diplomat’s street had been blocked off with cars.

He drove me to the airport – shadowed by UDBA – where his protection ended when I stood at passport control.

The officer looked at my documents, looked at me then signalled to someone behind where I stood. I was then led away and held while all my possessions were searched as more men with guns looked on.

After about forty minutes of this, and without a single question being asked, I was marched across the runway and put on the London flight which had been made to wait.

At Heathrow, I was tempted to do a ‘pope’ and kiss the tarmac but I didn’t.

I got a message about what’d happened to Michael Palin who was then filming A Life of Brian. He must have thought it a bit of a hoot as he sent back some memorabilia from the set which I duly had ferried through the diplomatic bag to Our Man In The Balkans to show my gratitude.

That Christmas – after my film had gone out despite efforts by Yugoslavia’s London Embassy to stop it – I received a card from the diplomat asking that his greetings be passed on to ‘Comrade Palin.’

And they were.

#

Getting to the top

By Gordon Amory

When I was working for the Shields Evening News – now long gone, I would do the occasional day at the Blyth News Ashington Post – now a giveaway called the News-Post Leader! Both had quite large editorial staffs in those days, many journalists going on to do well national-wise.

One day when I went to Blyth I was marked in the diary for ‘Demolition of Albion Chimney’ which marked the end of a brick works. How tall it was I’m not sure but it was bloody high and I’ve been told since it was a couple of hundred feet or more. When I got there, the foreman of the works was expecting me.

‘I’ll send Joe up in front of you,’ he said. ‘And I’ll be behind you…’ Before I could object, I had put my half-dozen single metal slides in my pocket and unfolded my VN plate camera. Step by step, I went up the shaky ladder to the top.

Joe got there first and directed me to put one leg inside the chimney, the other on the outside. I sat there to the left of me, to the right of me – taking aerial views of the town.

Then I slowly came down again, one steeplejack in front of me, the other behind.

In those days there was no real projection of pictures. ‘We’ll use a couple x2 and one of the chimney,’ the editor said. We were used to danger then, it was just after the war!

A few years later and I was on the Daily Express. There was an air disaster in Shannon; an Air Italia Douglas had crashed on landing. I was alerted just after midnight. We tried all over the area to get an aircraft to fly me there and just failed to get Westerby’s from Blackpool who did a lot of flying for us in those days. But the Mirror had already employed them.

We managed to get an old boy who ferried mushrooms from Ireland in an old RAF Anson. With a wire team I met him at Speke Airport and we set off, me in the position of the co-pilot, my intrepid colleagues in make-do seats behind me. He did have a road map and he would glance at that as we flew down through North Wales, then a little further south he said: ‘I think we’ll turn right here – see that lever to your right, push that forward – and the other one… pull that back. That’s good, we’re on the reserve tank now…’

They were the only words he uttered during the whole journey. Then he took a swig from an unlabelled bottle and it wasn’t lemonade! My intention was that we would fly over the wreckage before landing but I changed my mind mid-air. When we landed at Shannon I had a good look round and found Dennis Westerby who had flown the Mirror plane and hired him when they had finished.

I wired my pictures from Limerick before having a stiff whiskey (Irish). The picture was used across two inside pages next day – knocked off the front because Princess Margaret had just got engaged to my Daily Express colleague, Anthony Armstrong Jones.

I write this because for years my wife has said I didn’t have the head for heights. I had told her that when we first got married, when she wanted me to do some outside painting. Not a bad excuse eh?

#

The hustler

By Ian Bradshaw

As a freelance you get some strange assignments but one of the really odd ones for me occurred in the late sixties. I had just left The Times to go freelance when I received a phone call from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Hardly an outfit that I would have courted but a contact of a contact knew me from The Times and I was referred.

The inauguration of the Church of North India was a huge event in the Anglican calendar and they wanted it fully documented. The trip was two months in India and Pakistan.

Just starting out as a freelance I accepted although without huge enthusiasm. I hate curry, which proved to be a real blessing, as everyone else on the trip was laid low with various forms of Delhi belly and worse and I survived intact by eating Chinese food which is instantly sterilised in the hot fat of a wok.

It was the briefing that was strange. ‘When you get to Delhi you’ll be staying with the monks,’ I was told, ‘so you must take them some Dunlops.’

‘You mean golf balls?’ I asked in astonishment.

‘Oh yes, 65’s. They are running very low and the authorities won’t let them into the country.’

So how was I to do that? It turned out the normal method was to secrete the balls in a hollowed-out bible.

This might have been fine if you were wearing a dog collar or cassock but I was distinctly uneasy.

I flew in first to Pakistan where customs officials were much more interested in my hundreds of rolls of film.

‘You are allowed 20 only,’ I was told.

Protesting that I was there for two months was getting me nowhere until the arrival of a local looking chap in a sports jacket. He picked up my bags, jabbered away at the officials and rushed me through customs.

‘You’re from London?’ he enquired. ‘I am bus conductor on number 25 bus from East Ham. You know it.’

‘Yes of course’, I lied, ‘Ride it often.’

The trip progressed through Pakistan to India where I was met at the airport by a cowled figure.

‘You’ve got them?’ – was the first thing he said. It was like being asked if you had Durex from the local barber at school.

‘Golf balls?’

‘Yes of course, we’re on the first tee in the morning.’

Welcome to religion in the colonies.

To play golf in India you needed two caddies. One to carry your clubs, the other to run ahead and find your ball and stand over the hole on the greens. The locals used to steal the flags so this was the only way to mark the hole.

I had a great little fellow with one eye and bags of enthusiasm. I believed at the time that he and my carrying caddie were having side bets on the result.

First tee shot and in the intense heat with no golf glove, the driver flew out of my hand and disappeared over a hedge. The one-eyed forecaddie duly retrieved it and informed me there was no penalty for throwing your club out of bounds.

Things got better and we came to the ninth of the nine-hole course all square.

I was left with a nine iron to the green. My forecaddie raced ahead and stood rigidly to attention with his feet splayed either side of the hole doing his best impersonation of a flagstick.

I struck the 9 iron perfectly and it flew off into the midday sun heading straight at the ‘pin’.

One-eye lost it in the blinding light and was gazing heavenwards when the spinning Dunlop achieved re-entry and landed between his good eye and his bad eye. He dropped like a stone and the ball rolled a mere tap-in away from the cup.

I rushed up in horror thinking a funeral might be on the cards but was relieved to see him stirring and then, surprisingly, leaping to his feet.

‘Oh great shot, sahib. I have won all the money, I’m rich!’

And with that he went dancing round the green as if he had won the Open.

I duly tapped in the birdie putt and then learnt that he had won almost three months money from the others in side-bets.

He took me aside later.

‘Very clever of you, sahib, to let go of the club on the first tee. They thought you were a beginner and upped the stakes. You are, how you say, hustler?’ he chortled.

‘Oh it was nothing,’ I replied modestly, ‘I’m just glad I didn’t lose the ball.’

Smuggling golf balls was something I did not want to get into again.

I was something of a hero until a few days later. Breakfast with the monks was undertaken under a strict vow of silence but four straight days of cold, raw, supposedly hard-boiled eggs had done nothing to improve my humour.

The cook appeared with yet another raw offering. I could stand it no longer.

‘Don’t you know how to boil a fucking egg?’ I exploded.

The ‘shushes’ from around the table sounded like a blow out on a car tyre but at least they never asked me to bring in more golf balls.

#

Minder

skiddy2By Ian Skidmore

When my friend Andre Auckland was married in Maidstone the speeches from the bride’s side were gloomy in the extreme. The most optimistic began: ‘I suppose they might be happy…’

At length a small man of military appearance stood up and said: ‘I have known Andre for five years and have always found him friendly, co-operative and a social asset.’

His defender proved to be the governor of Maidstone Prison and Andre’s host for half a decade.

Like many of the legends that hung from Andre’s ample belt, this may be apocryphal. Though why anybody made up stories about this benevolent Belgian is beyond me. The reality was terrifying enough.

Andre was my minder on the Sunday Mirror and without him at my side I would have got into far less trouble than I did. How he got to Eccles, Lancs, where he ran, among other more nefarious things, a taxi service, he never disclosed. But he did reminisce about his days in a unit of the Belgian Resistance in Brussels, which met regularly in the café which was the local of the Gestapo. As he explained: ‘It was the last place they would have looked for us.’

He was introduced to the Sunday Mirror by news editor Harry Ashbrook at whose side corkscrews miraculously appeared rapier straight. Andre was ecumenical in friendship: confidence tricksters like Ashbrook, who sold Jack Stonely, one of his reporters, a car without wheels; out and out gangsters, prominent businessmen and two hangmen, were all members of Andre’s fan club.

I met one of them, Harry Allen, the deputy hangman, who said, when he learnt I lived in Chester: ‘Let’s see… that’s Shrewsbury nick. Don’t get much work down there. But the very next time I’ll break the journey at Chester and we’ll make a night of it.’

If you were a friend of Andre’s…

We were doing a job in Leeds when I foolishly remarked that it was Race Week in Doncaster where I used to work on the Evening News. Indeed the St Leger was being run that weekend.

‘We’ll go,’ said Andre, and instructed me what to tell the desk and to be sure they wired £50 to Doncaster post office. There was never any doubt who was in charge when I worked with Andre.

We had a great time in Doncaster. We lost most of the fifty on the course, but all my friends loved him – one of them, a very attractive lady, vigorously in the back of his car. It was midnight on the first night before I had the chance to point out to him that we had nowhere to sleep and that every hotel bed in Doncaster was booked weeks before the Leger.

Nothing to a man who was almost certainly on the Gestapo darts team in that pub in Brussels. He hammered on the door of the Wellington in the Market Square. When the landlord opened it, he explained in broken English that we were from Paris Match and had been diverted at the last minute from Morocco to cover the St Leger; we had not slept for two nights and were exhausted.

The landlord was very sympathetic. He said he didn’t do B & B but he did have a single bed in a spare room that one of us could have and the other could sleep on the settle in the snug. You will not be surprised to learn who got the settle, but when the landlord asked me, ‘Are you sure you will be comfortable?’ Andre broke in to explain, ‘Alas, my friend does not speak English.’

Alas, his friend did not speak French either, apart from four remembered words – sur le pont d’Avignon – which do not go very far in conversations in a Yorkshire pub, even when orchestrated with what I hoped were Gallic shrugs and a vocabulary of grunts.

So for two days I could not say a word, which for a gabby guy like me is not easy. I remember only fragments of the last night but the next morning is etched on my soul. My stomach seethed, my mouth was as rough as a tram driver’s glove, my left lobe was not speaking to my right lobe and my eyes felt like hot raspberry jam.

An aged crone was polishing glasses behind the bar.

‘Pour us a White Label Worthington, love,’ I gasped.

‘By ‘eck,’ she said, ‘not taken you long to pick up the language.’

#

Chasing Charlie

By Garth Gibbs

Now, of course, Princes William and Harry enjoy hearing stories of their father’s derring-dos in the good old days and how he was irresistible to damsels around the globe. But their favourite story concerns the time a Miss World girl threw herself at his feet. They particularly like the story because it wasn’t all it seemed to be at the time.

How do I know this? Trust me; I have it on the highest authority.

It happened on one of those delightful days on the ski slopes of Klosters when Charles was young and still glacially pure, well almost. The planning, however, started months before – at the November Miss World contest in London where photographer Steve Wood took a long look at a blonde, blue-eyed Miss Switzerland and told her, ‘Mmm, you’re nice.’

‘Thank you,’ she said.

‘Can you ski?’ he said.

‘I’m Swiss, aren’t I?’ she said.

Her name was Barbara Meyer and she lived in Berne. Barbara didn’t win the Miss World contest, which was just as well as she wouldn’t have been available for what Woodie had in mind. After the contest she returned home and Woodie kept in touch with her.

In January he telephoned her and told her the British Royals were going to ski in Klosters. Would she like to join him there?

Obviously more than a couple of Zurich gnomes had tried this line before because Barbara said yes, but only if she could bring mama, too. ‘You can bring papa as well if you like,’ said Woodie, just to prove how honourable his intentions were.

‘No, just mama will do nicely,’ said Barbara.

Barbara and her mum arrived at Klosters a week before Prince Charles’ party and were met by Woodie and that other great and famous royal snapper, Kent Gavin.

Woodie, who is a pretty good skier and who has perfected the kamikaze art of skiing backwards so he can take snaps of skiers zooming towards him, took Barbara out on the slopes.

He outlined the plan. ‘Hide in those trees over there and when Charles comes whizzing down the slope ski into him. Now you’ve got to be careful. We don’t want you to break his legs, but a direct hit is imperative.’

So for seven days Barbara rehearsed her role and practised sneaking out of the woods on her skis and heading smack into Woodie. She was careful not to break his legs either and to act out the rest, gasp for breath and then collapse delicately at his feet.

On the big day Woodie, Gavin, and Barbara and her mum were having a continental breakfast when Charlie’s detective, John McLean, walked into the hotel dining room and looked around for friendly faces

He spotted Woodie’s party, and he particularly spotted Barbara. He sidled over nonchalantly, ‘Can I join you?’

‘Sure,’ said Woodie nervously and gave Barbara a light tap under the table.

She made excuses and, to McLean’s disappointment, got up to go. When she was out of earshot he said, ‘God, she’s gorgeous. Who is she?’

‘Dunno,’ said Woodie and turning to Gavin, ‘what’s her name?’

Gavin shrugged.

It was a perfect day, meaning the light was great, and a couple of hours later everyone was on the slopes, Gavin and Woodie were perfectly poised near a mogul and Barbara was attempting to be camouflaged in the trees. They waited for the Royal party to come gliding down. McLean led the way. Just behind him came Charles and as they drew level, Barbara bounced out of the trees. Smack. A direct hit. She flounced around in a female frenzy and then fell at his feet, her legs intertwined with his. Charles almost lost his balance but not his gallantry. He picked her up and seemed to be mesmerised by her 100 per cent eyes.

‘There,’ he said. He shuddered he asked, ‘Are you all right?’

She smiled weakly as Woodie and Gavin were shooting away like mad on motorised Nikons and McLean was scrambling back up the slope.

Charles continued to gaze rapturously into Barbara’s eyes and then Woodie yelled to Barbara: ‘Fall down again – for colour!’

‘Oh,’ sighed Barbara slipping into a pretend faint, and dutifully falling down a second time. Charles, who couldn’t take his eyes off her, automatically bent to pick her up just as McLean scrambled through the snow.

McLean might have seen Barbara at the hotel for only thirty seconds but he recognised her at once and his alarm bells started ringing. He yelled over and over again, ‘It’s a set-up sir! It’s a set-up!’ But Charles was still heavily under the anaesthetic of Barbara’s looks and wasn’t even aware that McLean was around. Nor did he hear the whirring of the cameras.

Finally Barbara gave Charles a mini hug, whispered ‘Oh, thank you’ and headed off down the slopes. Charles still watched her but looked like an angler who had just lost a huge salmon in the River Dee.

‘They were setting you up, sir,’ McLean finally got through to Charles. Charles immediately suffered a bout of petulance. The next day he sent for Woodie and Gavin.

‘That was most disrespectful,’ he chastised them. ‘But, I say, she was exceedingly beautiful. Those eyes…’

The fall-down-again-for-colour command caused some gossip in Fleet Street. ‘You sure you guys didn’t shoot colour first?’ In those days the Fleet Street papers could print only black and white. The magazines printed full colour – and paid a bomb for the pictures. So, yes, you guessed it. They’d shot colour first.

#

 

 

Some have greatcoats thrust upon them

By John Smith

Colin Dunne’s entertaining account of his interviews with prospective employers triggered a couple of my own memories of job-seeking fiascos.

I first began knocking on the doors of Fleet Street almost 50 years ago when I was an ambitious young reporter on the BristolEvening World. ‘No vacancies, but come in for a chat,’ said a letter from Jimmy Anderson, news editor of the Daily Mail.

Clutching my cuttings book, I caught the early morning train from Bristol Temple Meads to London and by noon I was being led through the clamorous Daily Mail newsroom. Phones jangled, typewriters clattered, copy boys scooted past with big mugs of tea and smartly dressed reporters lounged among the metal-topped desks, languidly smoking and reading newspapers. Oh my God, it was just like I thought it would be.

Jimmy Anderson had only recently been appointed news editor and he was obviously finding it hard going. A big, burly dark haired man, he sat in his glass walled corner office surrounded by yards and yards of agency copy that spilled from teletype machines. There was something very frantic in his manner as his eyes skimmed through paperwork on his desk and he talked excitedly into the telephone: ‘I don’t care where those bastards from the Express have hidden him, you fucking find him…!’

Looking up, he found me hovering in the doorway. ‘Who the bloody hell are you?’ he barked.

‘Er, John Smith… Bristol… you wrote to me,’ I spluttered.

‘Did I? Bloody hell.’ He glared at me. ‘What’s that under your arm?’

‘Um, cuttings.’

‘Hmm.’ He snatched the book and kept up a chorus of grunts as he frantically flicked through it with the speed of a householder with a burst pipe searching the Yellow Pages for a plumber.

‘Yes, well, you’re obviously a bright lad,’ he said, impatiently tossing the book back across the desk. ‘Keep in touch.’

Then he got up and led me to a coat rack in the corner. Agitatedly conscious of the phone ringing urgently on his desk, he took a huge Crombie overcoat off one of the hooks, held it open and put it on me. ‘Good luck,’ he said, before racing for the phone.

The overcoat was several sizes too big for me. The hem reached all the way to the floor and the sleeves seemed to dangle down almost as far. I stood there like a circus clown, wondering what to do.

Maybe this was some kind of weird Fleet Street initiation test. The Old Overcoat Trick.

Shuffling across the floor, almost tripping over the folds of the voluminous Crombie, I coughed loudly to attract the great man’s attention. Startled, he looked up from his phone conversation and bellowed: ‘What the bloody hell are you doing wearing my overcoat?’

He jumped up, tore the coat off my shoulders and bundled me out of the office with all the finesse of a night club bouncer.

And that’s how I didn’t get a job on the Daily Mail.

An equally unforgettable encounter had taken place a few years earlier, when I was looking to move on from the world of weekly newspapers.

‘Lively national trade magazine seeks experienced young reporter,’ said the advertisment in World’s Press News.

The sheer brevity of the ad sent my mind racing. Brisk, businesslike. Probably one of those glossy magazines for the oil industry. I could see myself in the board room of Shell, interviewing the chairman about world wide exploration prospects. Or helicoptering out to an oil rig on the Gulf of Mexico – ‘A Day In the Life of An Oil Roughneck.’

Or maybe it was one of those entertainment industry publications. The inside info on the latest Hollywood films. Chatting with Diana Dors on the set at Pinewood.

My letter of application, sent to the Box Number listed, led to a telephoned invitation to come for an interview.

The offices of the publishing company were in a nondescript building near Kensington town hall in London. I walked up a narrow set of stairs which were covered in lino and bundles of magazines with titles like Laundry Machinery News and Tractor Times.

No cover pictures of oil rigs or film stars, I noticed gloomily.

My future editor looked like Mr Bean and spoke like Ken Livingstone.

‘Now, Mr Smith,’ he whined. ‘Tell me a bit about yourself. What are you doing at the moment?’

‘I’m a reporter on the Marylebone Mercury but I think I am ready to move on to something more national,’ I said eagerly.

‘I see,’ said Mr. Bean. ‘So what kind of things do you cover at the moment?’

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘there are the usual weekly newspaper things like courts and council meetings and jumble sales and so on, But because we are right in the heart of London – our office is just off Oxford Street – we have a very up-market readership. The area is loaded with the rich and famous…

‘There always seems to be some film star being robbed of her jewels in a burglary in her penthouse apartment or some duchess losing her pet poodle worth several thousand pounds. Then there are the film launches and cocktails at the film studios in St John’s Wood. And Sir Lew Grade is always inviting us round to his flat to talk about his wife’s latest charity project…’

‘I see,’ sniffed Mr Bean. ‘Well, I don’t think we can guarantee many film stars or cocktail parties. The opening we have is for a reporter on the Ironmongers’ Gazette.‘

There was a long silence which ended with a very audible gulp from me.

‘Just to go give you an indication of what your duties would be on the Gazette, let me ask you this,’ said the editor, lip curling.

‘How would you feel about compiling a chart comparing the qualities of various electric blankets?’

‘I wouldn’t like that at all,’ I said.

‘I didn’t think so,’ scowled Mr Bean. ‘Good day to you.’

Back in the George Street offices of the Marylebone Mercury I felt strangely gratified when I looked at the assignment diary. Next day I was down to cover St Pancras coroner’s court. There would be the usual litany of people gassing themselves, hanging themselves from the banisters or jumping in front of a tube train. Pretty gloomy stuff.

But it beat the hell out of analysing electric blankets.

###

 

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