Issue #35

Life on the streets

Life on the streets

This reporter happens to believe that the beginning of the end of journalism as we knew it was when newspapers stopped competing with television and started competing with TV Times.

The power held by producers of Coronation Street and Eastenders was immense and the journalistic rivalry in chasing after the ‘secrets’ of plot lines and the private lives of the shows’ cast was scary then, and appalling in retrospect. Peter Reece wrote last week about how he found stories from the scripts in a rubbish bin (no comment about that!) and this week Alan Hart writes about the poor sods who were lumbered with the job. We’re using it only because it proves that there was justification for staying back after lunch for the extra bottle on exes.

But thereafter we say what no editor anywhere has ever had the courage to say: That’s enough Coronation Street, thanks. – Ed.

Another bankable saga from the north in those days was the seemingly endless seam of stories about George Best. Again, it is a subjective view, but can anybody explain why he was always more interesting than the likes of Becks and Gazza, who inherited his Page One prominence?

Lucky indeed was the agency that had access to these stories. Manchester News Service did – as Peter Reece recalls in a fond reminiscence of his colleague Brian Whittle, which includes an account of one day in the frantic life of the soccer star.

Norman Wynne, sports writer and columnist with the Daily Express and Sunday People in Manchester for more than 40 years, died in North Manchester General Hospital this week following a fall that fractured his hip. He was 77. Phil Smith pays tribute.

Around the time that cameras were reduced to the size that would fit into a shirt pocket, and when laptops were replacing wire machines, photographers suddenly discovered the need for assistance. While it’s true that reporters were sometimes required to hold, as steadily as they were able, something called a flash extension, once the snappers got involved in poncey magazine work it seemed that the writing arm simply wasn’t good enough for them. Ian Bradshaw enlightens us about the genre.

… But then, 50 years ago last week Gordon Amory had to lug his MPP plate camera and a set of slides up Winter Hill, through wintry weather. No assistants in those days. And the reporter (no fool, he) had disappeared into the fog with his notebook. Whether Gordon’s pictures – used over half a page in the Express – would have been any better if he’d had a helper, is anybody’s guess.

And Garth Gibbs reports on a pap who discovered that the best type of assistant was not so much a lighting man or a bag carrier, as a royal detective.

There was a time when newspapermen didn’t retire. They died in harness and office funerals were a regular feature of the diary. Now, it seems, there are more journalists on pensions than there are in employment. Well, the pension may be pitiful, but it has to be preferable to sitting in a totally joyless office rewriting PA… or even covering the election campaign in the good ol’ US of A (see below). Geoffrey Mather recalls a rare memory of one who got away, in the old days.

Reporters work on their laptops in a men’s bathroom as Democratic presidential hopeful US Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) speaks during a campaign rally at the Burger Activity Center, March 3, in Austin, Texas.(AFP/Getty Images/Justin Sullivan)

Our letters column includes a handful of herograms commemorating our passing the one million mark in website hits last week, and a couple of memory lapses – John Bell thinks that he was the reporter on a job described last week by Eddie Rawlinson; but, far worse, former Sunday People crime reporter Shan Davies has lost a pub.

Our only lost soul this week is Ron Spencer, sometime photographer for the Sketch, the Mail andthe People. Anybody know where he is?

 

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Street of shame

By Alan Hart

Once upon a time, in a town called Weatherfield, there lived some ordinary people whose lives caused great excitement throughout the land.

The most surprising thing about these people is that while the rest of Britain was watching a TV programme called Coronation Street, they never did.

Yet their bickerings, their romances and their tragedies had a nation in its thrall.

It wasn’t long before Fleet Street editors became equally obsessed with this story of everyday northern folk whose lives revolved around a pub called Rovers Return.

And so it came to pass that a multitude of reporters was sent to uncover stories about this strange world.

By the early 1980s, most northern offices had their own ‘Corrie Correspondent’. These included Ken Irwin, the Daily Mirror TV critic who, after watching the programme’s first episode in December 1960, predicted its immediate demise.

Paddy O’Neill represented the Daily Mail, as its theatre critic, in seeking snippets from the cobbles. Gerry Dempsey, from the Daily Express, also had to dip his shiny shoes into this murky water. The Sun had a series of reporters who came and went with such rapidity I can hardly remember them, apart from a bright young lad called Colin Myler. I often wonder what became of him.

Tom Hendry seduced a number of actors into providing exclusives for the Sunday Mirror. Carl Nagaitis was employed in the same capacity for the Sunday People although he, with a smaller chequebook, had to rely on low animal cunning to unearth salacious stories.

The News of the World was slow to respond to this phenomenon, and it was not until the early 1980s that I was asked to devote most of my time and effort to the Street scene.

Each lunchtime I would repair to a club on Quay Street, Manchester, opposite the Opera House and 200 yards from the Granada TV studios, called The Film Exchange. There, alongside Fleet Street’s finest and a few Street stars, I met Bill Podmore, the show’s executive producer.

Poddy, as he was known to all and sundry, had worked his way up from assistant cameraman in the early days of television when barely visible images would flicker on nine-inch screens.

On his way to the pinnacle of his career at Corrie, he had produced a host of well-loved programmes including Nearest and Dearest and Brass. The former starred Jimmy Jewel and Hilda Baker, who loathed each other. Hilda developed a passion for Poddy which he failed to reciprocate, not least because she was some 30 years his senior.

Poddy enjoyed a glass of red wine, but preferred several bottles. Evidence of this was provided by his nose, which was bulbous in shape, pitted with indentations and scarlet in colour.

He was adored by everyone and made many friends among Her Majesty’s Press. I used to meet him at weekends too where his local pub, The Lantern Pike at Little Hayfield, near Glossop, was the place where, coincidentally, Corrie creator Tony Warren penned the early episodes.

Tony called it Florizel Street initially, but someone pointed out this sounded like a disinfectant. Otherwise we might have been calling it Florrie.

But I digress. Back to The Film Exchange. As the other hacks made moves to leave, I would whisper to Poddy: ‘Shall we have one more?’ The answer was always Yes. Within seconds of our being alone at the bar, Bill would drop me some nugget of information about what was happening behind the scenes in the show. There were no witnesses and he knew he could rely upon my discretion.

The following week, after an exclusive had appeared in the Screws, Poddy would wag his finger at me in front of my colleagues and say: ‘One of these days I’m going to find out who your mole is.’

He may have been kidding the others, including Peter Reece (last week’s Ranters), but he wasn’t kidding me.

After Bill’s departure and premature death in the early 90s, I confided this secret to Val McDermid, former Sunday People reporter, who left journalism to pursue a highly successful career as a thriller writer.

It may be no more than a coincidence but in a book called Star Struck, Val tells the story of a soap producer who fed stories to a tabloid hack to keep his show at the top of the ratings.

Without wishing to ruin the plot, her private eye Kate Brannigan unravelled that and other crimes, so everyone lived happily ever after.

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The way to go

By Peter Reece

From a purely personal point of view, the really unfortunate thing about Ranters is that Brian Whittle isn’t around to read it and, still more mournful, to actually contribute. He would have loved it.

The memory of Brian remains the stuff of legend – a great and dearly missed friend, a writer who turned perpetual grumpiness into an art form, a cynical hack who devoted a lifetime to honing the very blackest sense of humour – and I wish to be the first to acknowledge his contribution to journalism and the fine art of Boddingtons drinking in our celebrated columns.

Brian’s untimely death at the bar of the Crown and Kettle, the watering hole of all Daily Express journalists in Manchester, just over a year ago, will long be remembered, and in particular by myself, for two quite contradictory but extraordinary reasons.

The first I recall with a measure of joy. If Brian had to die, then he would surely have chosen to take his leave in the rich and beloved company of hacks and inkies drunkenly gathered on a Friday evening to mark the final closure of the Ancoats office.

The second marks one of the saddest moments I think I have ever experienced in a lifetime of freelancing in the city.

The Daily Express had printed free drink vouchers for each and every guest that read: R.I.P Manchester Office 1926 -2005. The ‘Ale Money Banker’ displayed a picture of Tony Brooks, our congenial host, with the warning: No change given!

Obviously these were unique, but to me – and I assume to Brian – their rarity value was the fact that the Express was, for the first time in living memory, actually giving away something for nothing, and strong drink to boot… It was an occasion not to be missed.

Brian never got to spend his. He died moments after arrival, leaning against the bar wall before he could even knock the head off his very last foaming pint. Could the grim reaper ever have been more cruel? I still have Brian’s voucher framed on my office wall alongside his photograph (looking suitably miffed, and profoundly grumpy.)

We freelanced together for many years in an agency I founded called Manchester News Service, but for a brief spell in the mid-1970s Brian had joined the staff of the Sunday People.

Here we teamed up again after I had secured, and then sold, the exclusive rights to George Best’s affair with Marjorie Wallace – a torrid tale of sin and sex with the Miss World of the day, and the footballer’s subsequent arrest over an accusation of stealing her diaries.

George was found not guilty by London magistrates when Marji failed to turn up to act as the star prosecution witness, and the Sunday People was particularly anxious to whisk George into hiding to extract every last salacious secret of his current disgrace.

George had other ideas… He had promised to play five-a-side football for his Slack Alice night club team at Old Trafford that very evening, and no amount of pleading would change his mind.

To suggest that Brian, George and myself drank the buffet car dry on the return rail trip to Manchester in celebration of his court victory, is not too great an exaggeration. We were each well and truly pissed but, in rare form, George turned out for the club team and put up a dazzling performance that would have left even Sir Matt Busby smiling with pride.

Then, as the evening wore on, he continued drinking steadily at Slack Alice, except for a ninety minute interlude which took us towards two in the morning while George ‘serviced’ a delightfully pretty young lady on the couch of his private office.

Brian had been ordered not to let the footballer out of his sight while others at the Sunday People booked our trio, plus snapper Dennis Hutchinson, on to a mid-morning flight to Malaga, en route for George’s favourite runaway hidey hole, the Hotel Skol in Marbella.

The early morning ended with us piling into my car and the Slack Alice van to make a 20-mile drive to the village of Prestbury where George’s business partner, Colin Burne, had his home.

George stumbled into the guest room, Brian bedded down for a few hours of uncomfortable guard duty over the threshold of his bedroom door, and I slipped back to Manchester to get my head down for a couple of hours.

I was back at the Prestbury cottage at 7am to discover Brian soundly slumbering on the landing floor covered in blankets – and George’s bedroom echoingly empty.

‘Your bird has flown,’ I told the notoriously bad tempered Brian as I shook him awake.

Although Brian probably suffered the first of the heart attacks which would eventually take him, Colin and I laughed our socks off. We both knew where we would find the wayward child – tucked up in bed at Mrs Fullaway’s – his surrogate mother’s home in downtown Chorlton-cum-Hardy.

Apart from soccer, George loved nothing better then giving the press a bloody good run for its money. It was game he played as professionally as football, and the fact that he had suffered the stress of a London court appearance, drunk himself stupid, played football, fucked a fan, and finally put his head on the pillow at 3am was no barrier.

He had taken the keys to the Slack Alice van, waited until Brian slept, stepped over his body and driven back to Manchester for nothing other than pure mischief. The laughter only died away when Colin Burne suddenly turned very pale indeed, and grabbed the telephone.

He dialled Mrs Fullaway and gave her quite detailed instructions to search the streets for a van that might be parked nearby on the down-at-heel South Manchester council housing estate, and specifically asked her to place her hand under the driver’s seat.

Yes, she advised us ten long and anxious minutes later, she had found an unlocked and scruffy van, and there was a brown paper bag under the seat – stuffed with around £2,000 in readies, the night’s taking from Slack Alice.

George thought it was all the very best of craic. With Brian, Dennis and George in tow, we finally boarded our plane for the Costa del Sol and were climbing towards the clouds when we opened the first bottle of champagne. We were still drinking merrily two weeks later when the plane touched down in Manchester. Those were the days.

Thank Heaven Gentleman Ranters flows uninterrupted through the Internet ether. Perhaps Brian will get to glance at it after all…

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The contacts man

I intend no disrespect to any of his peers or contemporaries when I say that Norman Wynne was a true living legend in sports journalism. His name might not have been mentioned in the same breath as some illustrious Fleet Street writers and reporters some 40 or 50 years ago, but in Manchester he was in a class of his own. Not for Norman the pearly words and unforgettably descriptive turn of phrase. He was a digger, a story getter, a man you could turn to when you needed a quote to stand-up a story.

No university degree in media studies was needed in those far-off days. All you needed was a nose for a good story, the ability to winkle it out and, above all, the contacts in the game. And believe me, Norman had them in spades. He knew everybody worth knowing in football from players to managers, chairmen, secretaries, administrators, owners. His contacts book was the envy of every sports writer in the game. He had the telephone number of everybody who mattered because he had that ability to chat to them; he had their trust; he made them feel they were important. And he never betrayed a confidence. Off the record stayed off the record.

And the funny thing about it was that THEY invariably rang HIM. Thursday and Friday in the People office in Manchester saw Norman fielding calls constantly from players wanting to sew the seeds of a possible transfer request, managers tapping into Norman’s knowledge of which players with other clubs might be available – at the right price, of course – and which manager might be about to get the chop. Then it was ‘hold your breath’ time until Saturday in the hope that the dailies hadn’t got a whiff. Over 15 years as deputy sports editor to John Maddock I took it for granted that Norman would be at his typewriter when I went in the office on Saturday morning and the first word on the copy would read: EXCLUSIVE.

Maddock readily recalls those wonderful days, how Norman had a reputation as the best contacts man in the business, how he travelled all over Europe with Liverpool and Everton, one of the team, how he knew all the big names. The list is a football fanatic’s Who’s Who? – Bill Shankly, Harry Catterick, Bob Paisley, Roy Vernon, Brian Labone, Tommy Smith, Mark Lawrenson, Ian St John, Ron Yeats, Joe Royle, Howard Kendall, Colin Harvey, Joe Mercer – the people he met and chatted to regularly on his Mersey beat.

He spent every Friday night during the season watching either Southport or Tranmere Rovers, not to produce a match report, but on the look-out for visiting managers or chief scouts and to pick up the latest bit of gossip; who they were watching, who they wanted to sign. But his patch was the whole of the north west, and he was just as comfortable at Manchester United and City, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley – you name it. He knew just about everybody at the clubs, and everybody at the clubs knew him.

In 1981, when manager Dave Sexton left Manchester United, Norman was instrumental in getting Ron Atkinson into the job. To keep the other Sundays off the scent, the negotiations were held at Norman’s home. Just another little exclusive to add to the list.

But he always reckoned his biggest and best was at the 1974 FA cup final in which Liverpool beat Newcastle 3-0. Liverpool midfielder Phil Boersma stormed out on manager Bill Shankly, vowing never to play for Liverpool again after he was not selected as substitute for the game. Guess who Phil bumped into as he trudged down a crowded Wembley Way muttering oaths against the legendary manger? Yes. Norman Wynne. ‘Where are you off to?’ asked Norman. How lucky can a reporter get?

Outside football, Norman worked tirelessly for the Variety Club of Great Britain, raising many thousands of pounds with his Sportsmen’s Nights at hotels and other venues in and around Manchester. And guess what? He always knew how to fill the tables from his contacts book.

It has been my proud privilege to have known and admired Norman and his family for more years than I now care to remember. He leaves a widow, Jean, three children, and three grand-daughters.

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The hired help

By Ian Bradshaw

One of the main things that separates snappers from scribblers these days apart from the fact that snappers have to be there – and in the case of news, on time! – to take their pictures is an appendage known as the photographic assistant. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, sex and in the case of my first and only male assistant, colours.

I had just started shooting for the newly published YOU magazine when it became clear that I needed an assistant. Having struggled for years to do it all myself, the increase of lighting needed in the early eighties to shoot good colour features made an extra pair of hands essential. I was wondering just how to go about finding such an animal one day when the phone rang.

‘I really admire your work and wondered if you needed an assistant?’ the voice on the other end asked. We agreed to meet at Keith Johnson’s, the professional camera shop in Great Marlborough Street.

I was sitting talking to the lighting department manager when an unforgettable apparition entered the shop. Well over six foot and dressed in a bright pink duffle coat it headed unerringly for the lighting department.

‘I hope to hell that’s not what I think it is,’ I said to Morgan Reed, the manager.

It was.

I hesitated just too long to report a case of mistaken identity but he’d seen my photograph somewhere so it was useless.

We retired to the pub next door to get acquainted. He had done his homework, reeling off photographs I had taken and lighting techniques I had used so it was with a feeling of anxiety that I agreed to give him a try, half expecting that it might provide me with an excuse for getting rid of him early on..

He turned out to be very good. Often I did not need light stands, instead I had a vertical octopus with a huge reach and an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time. Women writers liked him, and many men did too; I later found out that he was gay. However, I did keep him away from Sandilands in his prime. A scribbler too far methinks.

He had a great sense of fun, of the college variety. It was much needed when I celebrated my birthday one year and having nothing better to do in Middlesbrough, gateway to absolutely nowhere in those days, fell off my chair in the dining room of the hotel and flattened several artificial plants. Nursing my hangover, he drove me south stopping for lunch and a hair of the dog at a pub in Nottingham. I went to get them in while he parked the car and turned from the bar to see another jape in progress.

Wearing the obligatory dark glasses the pink monster had found a white stick and was advancing across the pub wielding it in a passable Ray Charles impression but terrifying old ladies having their fish and chip lunches and glasses of sherry.

‘I’m sorry Bradders’, he boomed, as his white stick caught me round the shins, ‘I couldn’t find a parking space.’

I took his arm and led the ‘blind man’ to a corner.

‘Er, he is joking,’ I said feebly to the landlord, hastily pocketing the car keys.

And so it went on for more than two years until he committed the one unforgivable sin in my playbook. He was late.

I had always made it clear from my days in news. Never be late. I am never late and I don’t tolerate it in anyone else unless it is an unforeseen emergency. So I fired him and breathed a sigh of relief.

The next try-out lasted precisely 15 minutes in a studio. A young know-it-all who wanted to join me took a meter reading I knew was wrong. When I queried it I was greeted with ‘It’s near enough.’

‘So’s the fucking door. And close it on your way out.’

It was then that I decided that I did not like working with guys at all and went in search of the fairer sex for help.

Since then and to this day I have always worked with women assistants. The writers loved them and since I photographed people and celebrities it brought me a lot of extra time as they chatted up the males and titivated the females. Not always without incident however.

There was the vegan, about whom Colin Dunne has already written in the Ranters archives, who kept falling asleep because she did not have enough energy on her bean-sprout diet. The shy but very good looking technical wizard who has gone on to become one of the great interior photographers but could not talk to people. And then there was Roadie.

I was photographing the Saw Doctors in Galway when she got the nickname. A tiny, extremely pretty Indian lady. Born in Britain and had never seen India. One of the band said, ‘Is that yer roadie?’ And it stuck. She is now a good photographer in her own right but life with Roadie as she peered over the steering wheel of my Range Rover, organized me and writers alike and threw maps out of the window when I took a wrong turning in France was probably the happiest time in my career in England.

Venice was just not prepared for Roadie. She did not really drink much but there she discovered Harry’s Bar and Bellinis and when, for the only time in our relationship, she disappeared one morning I somehow knew where to find her. I strode into Harry’s Bar just after breakfast to find an amused staff being entertained by their first customer of the day guarding a row of Bellinis.

Venice was also the scene of one of my near disasters. We were photographing chocolate ice creams in the shape of gondolas garnished with fresh strawberries, at the Cipriani, the famous five-star hotel. It was the end of the season and they had only one perfect strawberry which was transferred from plate to plate as the new ice cream creations were brought out to us. And so we got into a rhythm – place ice cream on set, place strawberry, take two or three photographs until ice cream starts to melt, eat ice cream and transfer perfect strawberry to next freshly made ice cream. Things were going well until I got out of sync and ate the strawberry instead of the ice cream. Roadie looked at me in horror, lips moving but no sound coming out.

‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. She did an excellent impression of a goldfish but still no sound. ‘Well?’

There was a strangled cry, then, ‘You’ve eaten the fucking prop!’ I never heard her swear before or since.

Her boyfriend was also an assistant. One of the very best. He worked with me once when she was double-booked. She did warn him. ‘Bradders is, er, different’, she told him. He was amazing, writing down each exposure, captioning Polaroids, anticipating every move but finding my sudden changes of direction difficult to handle. He returned home to an amused Roadie.

‘Well, how did it go?’ she asked trying to keep a straight face.

‘That Bradders is fucking mad.’ came the reply. ‘Mind you I can see why you two get along, you’re fucking mad as well.’

They are still among my best friends.

I have continued with women assistants in America though they are all photographers now in the digital age.

Working in education, as I do a lot, a female assistant is a much softer approach on the college campus even though the girl students want me to photograph their dorm rooms, I can at least offer the guys an alternative.

I have had a six footer with a wonderful opera trained singing voice who ended up with a rock band. An absolutely brilliant photographer who worked with some of the top New York names but preferred my erratic style and is now living in China. A dietetics major who discovered photography later in life (her thirties) and now helps me on the West Coast, and best of all an outgoing Guinness drinking redhead who has her own photography business in Virginia. She is not really an assistant as such, but just likes working with me and is terrific company. And, most important, the wife likes her! She would have sat well in The Stab or the Mucky Duck or the King & Keys or the Cheshire Cheese. As long as they did not run out of the black stuff.

It is unlikely to change now. I seem to have this reputation for turning up with personable good looking ladies, nearly all Guinness drinkers, and in a country really run by women it does no harm at all. It is a far cry from the ‘Pinko’ but fair play to him he volunteered, he tried hard, he learnt a lot and I believe he ended up as a successful advertising photographer.

But it takes more than a pink duffel coat to get preference over a shapely body even in the land of equal opportunity. If they drink Guinness as well, it is as they say here, a no-brainer.

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A winter’s tale

By Gordon Amory

Fifty years ago an airliner from the Isle of Man crashed in a snowstorm on Winter Hill, near Bolton, killing 35 of those aboard.

As one of the first into the Daily Express that morning I was sent straight out into the blizzard with Frank Palmer, just back from covering Manchester United’s Munich air crash (years later he moved to the Daily Mirror).

Unlike the bright sunny Februarys of today it was like they used to be. It was a stormy, dark, dismal morning and there had been a steady fall of snow during the night and little daylight when Bob Blake, deputy news editor, came rushing out of the news room in Ancoats Street, Manchester just before ten o’ clock that morning ushering whoever was early on the editorial floor straight out of the office.

We didn’t know where Winter Hill was or how to get there but somehow Frank and I followed a miners’ rescue unit and an ambulance driving in the same direction. We had already started climbing the hill before they could unload all of their medical equipment.

Frank rushed off. He only had his note book; I had my massive MPP plate camera and all the slides to carry. Snow was drifting as we started the climb and the further we got up the more we were encompassed by thick swirling fog. I wore glasses which I had to take off as they blurred my sight with the falling snow and sleet sticking to the lens.

Then I fell into a ravine – well, it might have only been a trench of eighteen inches or so deep but it seemed never ending to me as I lay on my back struggling my way to the slippery surface. Toiling myself back onto my feet it wasn’t long before I was falling over the dead who had been catapulted out of the plane.

The fog was so dense, you couldn’t see anyone, never mind take a picture. My camera at the ready, I was just setting my exposure when the verbal abuse started. ‘How disgusting’… ‘Haven’t you any feelings?’… ‘Put your camera down and let us get on with the job…’

I ignored them, I had a job to do too but how to do it was also a problem. It was so dark, should I try a flash – this was no good. It just bounced off the fog. Do I give it a much longer exposure, slower shutter speed, larger aperture – I was pointing my camera but could hardly see what I was taking.

Plates and films were much slower in those days too. I took pictures but the ground was soft and thick with mud, it was difficult to lift my new suede shows off the ground as I came across the tail end of the plane and pointed my camera thinking all the time that taking pictures was a hopeless task.

I eventually got all the pictures I could and came across the ITV transmitter on the top of the hill, just in time to see the bandaged pilot Mike Cairns being carried to an ambulance – his smile I’m sure was just forced with relief. I saw a picture of him recently and he is still living.

I sent my pictures back with a messenger who had arrived on the scene – with instructions to the darkroom how they should be processed, but it was pot luck whatever the results might be.

I can’t recall ever seeing another picture man at the scene but they were there, I know. You just couldn’t see.

Thirty five on that flight were dead in the Bristol Wayfarer and many journalists would have flown in her as we would often fly Silver City to the Isle of Man in those days from Blackpool. Back at the office they were dispatching reporter Esther Rose and photographer Bill Gregory with a wire team to see the families.

They collected pictures of each of the thirty-five victims, all of them motor traders from the Isle of Man on a day out for an Exide battery exhibition and we used them over half a page next day. It was unusual for that time as we didn’t have the bigger paging or newsprint in those days.

I visited the site of the crash with my old friend Stanley Blenkinsop a couple of years ago and guess what – it was in late August, it was pouring, cold and there was swirling fog.

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Naffing Orf

By Garth Gibbs

In the days when gorgeous girls were throwing themselves at the feet of Prince Charles (encouraged to do so by the royal snappers) Princess Anne was having run-ins of her own. She told most of them to ‘Naff orf’ (a curse invented for the television series Porridge as a substitute for the F word). But there was one photographer who spooked her.

At this time Anne was a hot-shot equestrian, but there was a problem: every time she fell at a jump she landed on Page One.

And it was always the same photographer who captured the moment. What’s more he was of dark Indian origin with brooding eyes and a seemingly mystical manner. His name was – and is – Aktar Hussein. Anne glared at him with growing suspicion and became convinced that forces of evil were at play.

In fact, it got so bad that every time she was in mid air and spotted Aktar she automatically took a tumble. It was as though some supernatural force was plucking her out of the saddle; ‘Brrrrrrr’ purred Aktar’s motor-drive and up went Aktar’s bank balance.

Finally in an act of desperation Anne confronted Aktar at Badminton and demanded: ‘Are you throwing the bones?’

Aktar gazed at her slowly, looking as innocent as an Everest sherpa. ‘No ma’am,’ he said shaking his head.

‘Harrumff,’ she snorted, unconvinced.

But Anne never found out that it wasn’t clairvoyance that had Aktar perfectly positioned at each event. It was good old homework. What Anne used to do when she arrived for a three-day event was to walk the course like a golfer, to check out the hazards. She was always accompanied by a detective or an official and during her walk she would make observations like ‘Ooh, that jump looks dodgy’ or ‘that one looks iffy’.

However, the detectives or the officials would shortly afterwards find themselves in Aktar’s company and he would beguilingly, almost innocently, get them to relay Anne’s fears for the jumps along the course. And that’s where Aktar and his motorised Nikon would be lying in wait the next day. Whoops! There goes Annie again! She never did find out.

Princess Anne made Page One again soon afterwards when she was invited to open a new home for snakes in Jersey. A certain Daily Mirror hack – modesty forbids me from naming him — flew out ahead of her. He wanted to study her and see if there was any truth in the rumour he was spreading that she was pregnant. Alas, he was the only Fleet Street scribbler on the trip and Anne’s detectives spotted him at once and suspected that he was up to no good. ‘

However, the hack learnt that after opening the snake pit, Princess Anne would have to wind her way down a pathway to the exit. And bordering this pathway were at least twenty disabled ladies in wheelchairs. The hack started chatting to a couple of them and then knelt down beside them and awaited the royal presence. When it came, it was in a good mood. Anne loves animals, even snakes, and she was in buoyant spirits as she came traipsing down the pathway with the sun splashing on her and the birds chirping away. She stopped and chatted to a few of the old ladies in wheelchairs and then noticed the hack. You could almost see her hackles rise.

‘Princess Anne…’ said the hack pleasantly.

‘What…?’ Her voice had an immediate edge.

‘Are you pregnant?’ She went bananas.

‘What an impertinent question!’ she snapped and stormed down the path. Jersey television, which was following her, picked up the outburst. What an impertinent question, indeed. Okay, so Princess Anne wasn’t pregnant at the time but she became pregnant soon afterwards. Perhaps the idea appealed to her – so the hack is claiming he possibly helped in some small measure to launch her into motherhood.

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Just a flong at twilight

By Geoffrey Mather

The first newspaper pensioner I can recall was Bert Gabb. He was the Daily Express prodnose in Manchester and sat close to the back bench reading proofs for mistakes others had missed. He was also Lord of the Irish Edition and in that capacity took on all the auras of a werewolf. His word was law. He brooked no argument. He scissored and censored with vigour. I was his principal victim.

Bert Gabb was unique in having his own tea pot. I had a peripheral vision of pot and him from my left eye. While he was paying attention to the pot’s contents, I could relax. Once he leapt to his feet, jingling his cup in its saucer, I was paralysed by terror.

I sat five or six yards away from him as features editor; he was the back-stop responsible for the Irish edition being denuded of anything suggestive of sex or practises and opinions obnoxious to the Church. There were lot of those, so many that it was a wonder to me how anyone was born at all in that aparently virtuous land. Their innocence was not to be sullied by the likes of us because it could be expensive. ‘You can’t print that!’ Mr Gabb would declare, stabbing at a wet page proof. Sometimes he declared two or three features pages at a time off limits for the Irish.

The pages came up from London in the overnight flong box. That is, they were page impressions that could be cast in semi-circular metal in Manchester and sent straight to the printing machines. If Bert Gabb objected to a flong page, it had to be cast as flat metal and carved up so that offending pictures or type could be removed and more acceptable stuff inserted; a tedious and time-consuming business. The tragedy of missing the 9pm edition was never far away.

At 3.30 every afternoon the phone rang and the composing room overseer asked me: ‘Are the flongs all right?’ That simple sentence could be so filled with emotion that it was like asking the condition of a dying king.

We had some strange make-ups after a Gabb-strike. The Irish must, on occasion, have thought they were buying posters. A dubious four-column by six-inch picture might be replaced by four decks of 60pt, these in addition to whatever headlines were already on the page.

We were all, in one way or another, blighted and mesmerised by the Irish need for decorum and respect. A staff photographer, having noted it, heard that ‘pacamacs’ were scarce in the island so he took a suitcase full of them with profit in mind, only to discover that the pacamacs referred to were contraceptives, not rainproof garments for the whole body. It must have come as a shock to him to find that the Irish were shouting and hollering in the pubs, red-blooded as their neighbours across the water, and with at least a rudimentary knowledge of sex.

Mr Gabb wore a black suit and boots. It was said – true or not, I know not – that he had been editor of the Sunday Express in Glasgow and that one day, as he was chasing a butterfly with a net, a surprised Lord Beaverbrook walked into his office, observed the sport, and became very pensive. I sometimes pondered that unlikely scene as I saw Bert Gabb advancing on me. He had to navigate past the lawyer who smoked herbal cigarettes so vile in content that they threatened to finish off what bit of life was left in me as the Irish edition loomed.

Sometimes, I had to throw away a whole features page and some remarkable remedies were called for. If all the picture desk had to offer in its place was a lamb, then it was good for a half page accompanied by two hundred brisk words from library cuttings and a headline heralding the imminent arrival of Spring. Whether Spring was a week away or a couple of months was of no account when desperation ruled. An Irishman travelling regularly between home soil and England might well have felt aggrieved at seeing a cratur in a field if he happened to be in County Cork and some half-clad actress in the identical space if he were in Doncaster.

When Mr Gabb retired I wrote the words and assembled the pictures for a leaving volume of memorabilia recording his amazing feat of becoming our first pensioner. I watched him disappearing down the stairs for the last time, and assumed that cup and teapot would be donated to the nation.

His successor was no less diligent. One day, he and an office barrister were sent to Ireland to iron out some problem that had slipped through their censorship. The hotel was pressed for space so they shared a twin-bedded room. The prodnose snored. The barrister was a light sleeper. He stuffed paper in his ears. As time went on, in the darkness, he was beset by fear. Could he remove the paper plugs? Would they disappear into his ears for ever? Would he be permanently deaf? He began to prod his ears in the dark and sure enough, the paper seemed to be disappearing. He wakened the prodnose. The prodnose, startled, applied himself to the stuffed ears with attentive fingers. No use. He could not locate the paper.

Which is how they came to attend a hospital seeking urgent relief for the barrister..

The things we all did for the Irish. And never a word of thanks.

 

 

Forgive Us Our Press Passes

No apologies for devoting this edition of our website to a single topic: this week Ian Skidmore (79 this year) celebrates the publication of his 25th book in as many years, and it’s about his life as a newspaperman.

To lift from the back-page blurb: Journalist, broadcaster and author Ian Skidmore collects rare books and fine wines by choice and unlikely anecdotes and engaging eccentrics almost by accident…

His first, hilarious, account of such encounters was celebrated a quarter of a century ago in the first edition of this book.

The Liverpool Daily Post said its publication identified him as ‘the successor to Tom Sharpe’ and actor Ian Carmichael described it as ‘a comic masterpiece’.

Wales on Sunday said it would be a ‘hard act to follow’.

It was chosen as BBC Book of the Year, had the highest listening figures on Radio Four, and was read twice on the BBC Overseas Service.

The Daily Post described Ian Skidmore as Wales’ funniest columnist, the Western Mail as ‘a great eccentric’.

Now, revisited, revised, and expanded to more than twice its original length it is being published in this special edition.

It is only right to declare an interest at this stage. Forgive Us Our Press Passes is published by a new house called Revel Barker Publishing (motto: If your friends won’t buy your book, what bloody chance has it got?)

The book is available from amazon.co.uk or POST FREE from Waterstones on-line at ?9.95. Click on the cover to go direct to the site to order it.

Click here to purchase 'Forgive us our Press Passes By Ian Skidmore' from Waterstones.com £9.95It is possible – in fact highly likely – that more titles, for journalists, by journalists, about journalists, will follow.It is possible – in fact highly likely – that more titles, for journalists, by journalists, about journalists, will follow.

Regular readers of this website will need no introduction to Ian Skidmore’s writing; he has been contributing to it from the very start. But in the past eight months we have picked up a few thousand new readers, and for their benefit this week’s edition includes the editor’s choice of his offerings.

The only new item is the first one: a recollection that stems from a discussion after a long boozy dinner some 40 years ago. Its veracity in the original telling and in its recounting here cannot, therefore, be totally guaranteed but, as Ranters tend to say, if it isn’t totally accurate, at least it is accurate enough…

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Monkey business

By Revel Barker

It was one of those bright brisk spring mornings when the day, or maybe at least half of it, was crying out to be written off. The schedule – the Sked – would look after itself. So where to go for a long lunch?

Bill Freeman and Leo White, in the pivotal positions of the Daily Mirror news operation in the north, decided that a trip in the office car to Chester would be about right. They could call on Ian Skidmore, and guarantee a jolly lunch.

They knew exactly where to find him. Skiddy was spending every day at Chester Zoo because he was awaiting the arrival of the first gorilla to be born in captivity in Britain. He’d been booked on regular daily shifts to maintain a permanent watch.

Just for once, Bill and Leo decided, they’d give the guy a break, and take him somewhere different, somewhere decent, to eat. All those lunches at the Zoo restaurant must be boring for a bon vivant like old Ian.

The car rolled up at the gate and they presented themselves at the kiosk with pound notes in hand – they knew the price of admission from Skiddy’s exes.

‘We’re from the Daily Mirror,’ said Bill. ‘We’re looking for the gorilla enclosure.’

gorilla‘Go straight in,’ said the gateman. ‘We don’t charge members of the press.’

Ian would have been easy enough to spot if he had been anywhere near the Ape House. There, sure enough, was the gorilla. Since Skidmore wasn’t there he would presumably be at the offices, where he regularly entertained his zoo contacts – his other regularly reimbursed item of entertaining was the purchase of chocolate ice cream cones and ice lollies for the pregnant gorilla.

The Curator of Mammals and the Zoo Director welcomed the visitors warmly.

‘Mr. Skidmore? Lovely man. Only I haven’t seen him for weeks. He’ll be at the Golden Eagle, beside the courthouse, right now, before moving on to the Symposium Dining Club for lunch. I have all his numbers, in case anybody rings here, looking for him.’

But what, they asked, if a baby was born to one of the animals?

‘Oh, if there’s anything that looks like a story, or a picture, of course I would ring him.’

And what about the gorilla – suppose it gives birth…?

No worries on that score, the curator assured them. The gorilla was male.

No: if they were looking for Mr. Skidmore their best bet at lunchtime would be the Symposium.

As they turned towards the exit the Zoo director called them back.

‘You said you were from the Mirror… Before you go, do you need any blank bills from the restaurant?’

Gorilla picture: Edward Rawlinson

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Button up your overcoat..

By Ian Skidmore

I worry when people, usually mothers, ask me how I got my start in journalism. And not only because the question carries a sub text: ‘If a prat like you can do it, it will be a doddle for a bright child like mine.’

Mostly I hesitate, because everything that has happened to me in my career has stemmed from an embarrassing accident.

In this case going to prison. Only an army prison and I was guilty of nothing – but then they all say that, don’t they?

I suppose I could explain the issue by saying, ‘It was because my greatcoat was unbuttoned, coming out of a pub in Thetford.’

We were a night away from a draft to Palestine and were celebrating in a last chance saloon called the Green Man.

I was a lance corporal in the Black Watch (RHR) who had somehow got mixed up with an RASC unit in the days when Englishmen dominated the Highland Division while the canny Scots all joined corps and learnt a trade.

In my unit all the Scots came from Glasgow. None much more than five feet high. If you were any taller in Glasgow, you got posted to Edinburgh.

Because I was still fastening my greatcoat on the street, I was pounced on by the Town Patrol of burly corporals for being improperly dressed.

A diminutive Glaswegian ran up to one of the corporals and smacked him in the mouth for being impertinent to ‘a Highlander’ (from Manchester, as it happened).

In consequence, we were all charged with assault, taken off the draft to Palestine and sent to Germany.

My charge – ‘in that he did assault six regimental policemen’ – preceded me to my new unit where I was summoned by the CO. He said: ‘I am a very bewildered officer; you don’t look violent to me.’

kiltI didn’t. Indeed in the kilt I looked like an undernourished reading lamp and I have a photo to prove it.

I explained what happened, but he said there was nothing he could do about it. It was a court martial offence and he would have to remand me.

‘But’ he said, ‘a word of advice: plead guilty. Otherwise they will have to adjourn the court and you will have wasted the officers’ morning. They will have to bring the witnesses over from the UK and they will be very cross with you. Plead guilty and your Prisoner’s Friend will explain the situation.’

I did. He didn’t. And I spent the next 56 days in 3 Military Corrective Establishment at Bielefeld.

When I was released and posted to Bad Oenhausen I decided to desert. On my way to the Bahnhof to get a train to the Hook of Holland I was pounced on by the garrison RSM, a Scots Guard called Graham.

He was very rude to me, suggesting that if I didn’t smarten myself up he would take the red hackle out of my bonnet, stick it up my arse and have me clucking like a Rhode Island Red.

I was very glad when he dismissed me.

To my horror I saw him again five minutes later in the next street. Rather than face him I dodged into the first door I could open. As it happens it was the office of Army PR.

A CSM, Paddy Seaman, asked me what I wanted. I didn’t know what to say, so I asked him if he had any jobs going. I thought I might sweep the floor or make some tea.

He said: ‘Have you any experience of newspapers?’

I thought, that’s a funny question – because, as a matter of fact, I had. I had been a printer’s apprentice at Allied Newspapers at Withy Grove.

I said I had worked on the Manchester Evening Chronicle and Paddy said: ‘Blimey, we haven’t had a newspaper reporter before. Come in and see Kenneth.’

Kenneth, it turned out, was the CO. At the time I didn’t know officers had first names, so I was a little surprised.

I was even more surprised when I met Major Kenneth Harvey. He was a touch fey. I later learnt he had transferred to the Royal Armoured Corps because the black beret brought out the blue of his eyes. What with one thing and another I was very relieved when he asked me to sit down.

All I remember of the interview was the bit where he said: ‘Here’s a chit. Go to the QM and draw your three stripes.’

‘Stripes?’

‘You will join as a sergeant, of course.’

‘A SERGEANT?’

He bridled and his little shoulders shivered.

‘You cannot expect to be an officer straight away,’ he said.

That afternoon, with not the slightest idea what I was doing, I was on my way to cover the Berlin Airlift. Still the biggest story I have ever covered on my own.

But the army always did the unexpected. Some months later when I was Returned To Unit because of persistent drunkenness, another Guards RSM – Irish this time and called Kenny – thought PR was short for provost and appointed me Provost Sergeant of HQ 7th Armoured Division.

So if your child wants a career in journalism, tell him to try unbuttoning his overcoat in Thetford.

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There Stands The Enemy

By Ian Skidmore

I saw I was down on the diary to cover the Miners’ Gala on Hexthorpe Fields in Doncaster and to interview the guest of honour, Mr. Aneurin Bevan.

I found him in the cocktail bar of the Danum Hotel, where in the future I was to sleep in a bath, to beat a UP man in interviewing Charlie Chaplin.

I knew it was the Great Socialist because of his Savile Row suit, the shirt from Thos Pink, the Lobb boots and the Trumper’s haircut. A fragrance by Floris lay heavy on the air.

He was knee deep in aldermen and I hovered uneasily at the edge until he summoned me to come forward and be identified.

‘The Yorkshire Evening News? I am honoured. Come into the body of the chapel and tell me what I might buy you to drink.’

I asked could I have a half of bitter and he said, ‘A HALF OF BITTER?’ in that squeaky voice he had. ‘A half? Of bitter beer? You cannot dip the pen of eloquence in the watery ink of bitter beer… A large Scotch for my literary friend!’

In those days I had Scotch only at Hogmanay and I had never been anybody’s literary anything.

The minutes flew by in the sort of quiet content I expect you get by the yard in heaven. When the time came he put his arm round my shoulders and we walked together to the Fields. Hexthorpe? Elysian.

The miners parted like the Dead Sea and we strode through their ranks. As he climbed on to the dray from which he was to address them he was careful to plant me just where he could see me. He said I gave him confidence. I wasn’t surprised. I assumed that’s how it was with bosom friends.

The miners had been drinking Barnsley Bitter since dawn and it was a hot day. The sun on their heads sent the bitter a-thump and you could see it lifting their scalps. They were looking for someone to tear apart and Bevan gave them someone.

Me.

‘The enemy,’ he explained to them, ‘is not the capitalist in his Rolls-Royce and his Savile Row suit…’ (I thought: there is only one bugger here in a Savile Row suit, but the thought seemed unworthy and I banished it.)

‘No,’ he said in a triumphal squeak. ‘The enemy is not the National Coal Board in their swanky marble offices. No… There stands the enemy!’

And he pointed at me.

‘The prostituted press of our country – that is the enemy,’ he said.

They would have torn me apart there and then but they were transfixed by his eloquence. My notebook was all wet and soggy and I didn’t know if it was rain or tears.

As I shuffled off the field a pariah, I felt an arm round my shoulders. It was him.

‘Mr Bevan,’ I said, ‘I will probably get the sack for saying it, but I think you are a right bastard.’

‘Oh,don’t be like that,’ he squeaked. ‘We both got a job to do. Come and have a drink.’

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My Life And You Are Welcome To It

skiddy2By Ian Skidmore

I won a Golden Microphone after thirty years as a ‘celebrity’ presenter on Radio Wales and a fortnight later they dropped me because I was English.I took the BBC to a Race Tribunal and there was quite a lot of fuss about it. I had been rewarded with many by-lines on the splash of the Daily Mirror over the years. Now I was the subject.

The Head of BBC Wales told the paper I was a Victor Meldrew figure and the editor said I was too old. He didn’t say the same about Jimmy Young, Humphrey Lyttelton or Alastair Cook, to name but a few.

But the BBC gave me a few grand to keep quiet and I did.

Within a month both the Head and the Editor had been sacked.

But as I sit by my pond, keeping herons off my koi, I do ponder a bit. My Manchester accent has softened on account of marrying above myself and marinating the throat muscles in the benevolent sweat of the juniper. But I hope and pray I have not lost it.

At the time I had 26 million listeners worldwide to my rants. Plainly my bosses at BBC Wales were not among them. Or they might have noticed that I seldom said Yachi dda (I didn’t even know how to spell it).

The best editor I had in my years of Taff-railing was called Bob Atkins. He was an Englishman too, so he was scuppered from the first day.

He called me to Cardiff and said he enjoyed a programme I was doing at the time.

It was called Skidmore’s Island and how it worked was a producer called Jack King knocked at my door with his tape recorder playing and for the next half hour I talked. About books. About neighbours. If anyone knocked at the door I interviewed them and I played music on my radiogram. No scripts; no conception of what was going to happen.

Unfortunately Bob, who liked a drink, took me to the BBC Club in Cardiff and as he carried me out and poured me into a taxi he said, ‘I won’t ask you to explain how the programme works now…’ (which was just as well; it took me ten minutes to tell the driver where I wanted to go).

‘…Do me a memo.’

I didn’t remember that until I was back home in Brynsiencyn on Anglesey and, still pissed, typed out the following:

Radio Brynsiencyn

‘This is your smallest outpost. In the customary fashion of BBC bosses I have slept with the entire staff. But since we have been married for ten years it may not count. Our Uher tape recorder is so old it has a pebble glass window and a thatched lid. Our music department is a wind-up gramophone and our record collection includes Teddy Bears’ Picnic and In A Monastery Garden. In fact that is the extent of our collection.’

Then I sealed and posted it and it wasn’t until I sobered up that I realised I had probably dashed the prospect of a glittering career with an audience of sheep and men who wore clothes that looked as though they had been made from the covers of old prayer books.

What happened was that I got a letter from Bob: ‘Forget Skidmore’s Island. I want a series of twenty Radio Brynsiencyn.’

The trouble was I had forgotten by this time what I had put in the letter.

But… I had a title for my programme, twenty slots at a peak listening time, and a Uher tape recorder I bought for sixteen quid on the same stall at Llangefni market where I had found the wind-up gramophone that was my music department. I had an outside broadcast unit, a sit-up-and-beg bike with an errand boy’s basket on the handlebars. I had a wife with a posh voice… and not an idea of what to do with any of them.

It struck me that was par for the course in my ‘parent’ BBC, and decided to do what they did in similar circumstances.

Surround myself with a staff.

Anglesey being an island I needed a foreign editor to handle matters in the dark lands on the other bank of the Menai Strait. Fortunately a chap I had first known on a Bangor weekly paper had just retired. His name was Angus McDairmid and he had some experience of the role. After brilliant coverage of the wrecking of a sailing ship in the Menai Strait he was poached by the BBC and went on to become a distinguished foreign correspondent, covering Washington at the time of Watergate and various wars for the BBC.

Eminently suitable to look after Bangor.

Angus had interviewed world leaders but remained obsessed with his home town, where he was still ‘Gus’ McDermott (his name before being swamped by the Celtic Renaissance of the Sixties).

He used the job to indulge a secret vice. Wherever he had been in the world, however great the crisis, he always found time to visit any town called Bangor. Every week on Radio Brynsiencyn, until his sad death, he told an eager world about them.

The programme was beginning to take shape.

A cleaning staff is vital because broadcasters are a messy lot. Fortunately one was at hand: the love of my life, Rose Roberts, who already cleaned for us and ruled us with a rod of iron. I christened her Attila the Hoover and I was only partly joking. Dirt was terrified of her and dust disappeared at her touch.

Rose had a voice with the carrying power of a giant crane. She had appeared in the programme for only a few weeks when she took a day trip to London. She was queuing for the Palladium and passing pleasantries with her companions that could have been heard in Newcastle upon Tyne.

‘Blimey,’ came a voice from far down the queue: ‘It’s Attila the Hoover!’

No Welsh broadcasting station is complete without a choir. At a lifeboat charity evening I heard a quartet called the Oscars, and immediately recruited them.

A pal of mine, Derek Jones was a bit worried about his teenage son whose singing voice had just broken.

He was keen on broadcasting so Derek asked if we would teach him the art of interviewing. I was a bit reluctant. Whenever I heard the lad sing, the hair on the back of the head lifted and I had a sense that he had been touched by God.

His name was Aled Jones. Done quite well since, but at that time his preoccupation was a sandwich toaster he had bought with his first earnings and he was forever thrusting toasted sandwiches at you.

But I thought, ‘Give the lad a chance’ and employed him at a fiver a week.

Aled did nothing by halves. He played tennis to county standard; a fine footballer, he was offered trials with professionals, and he was so keen to get his O-levels that in the interval of a concert before most of America in the Hollywood Bowl he sat in his dressing room swotting. Aled went out with my wife on a couple of interviews and picked the art up so quickly he was soon doing them on his own. His dad told me he nearly drove his parents mad practising interviewing on them.

A remarkable boy. Never a trace of nerves. Singing for the Royal Family he forgot the lyric and made up one as he sang along.

He went to record Memories for Andrew Lloyd Webber. ‘Like to do a run-through?’ asked Lloyd Webber.

‘Can we go for a take?’ asked Aled.

They did and the first take was all that was needed.

‘Good God,’ said Webber. ‘It took Barbra Streisand a week to do that.’

His Dad told me: ‘I didn’t like to explain he was in a hurry to watch Match of the Day.’

Aled has been blessed with three gifts. The voice of an angel and his parents, Derek and Ness, who kept his feet firmly nailed to the ground.

When he was awarded his first Gold Disc the BBC planned a huge reception in Cardiff for the award ceremony.

‘Out of the question,’ said Derek. ‘He would have to miss school.’ The BBC had to hire a helicopter for the ceremony; it landed on the playing field of his school in Menai Bridge.

The programme was beginning to take shape: a ‘pirate’ radio station that parodied the commercial radio of the day. We had a signature tune; a group of producers and broadcasters sang the jingles to announce the items; Celia [Celia Lucas, ex Daily Mail: Mrs Skidmore] did interviews and I headed the whole thing with a rant.

Wearing a dinner jacket, of course.

The BBC printed T shirts, ties and mugs with the station logo which started to appear in the oddest places all over the world. We had the highest listening figures on BBC Wales; a ‘club’ of listeners was formed in Boston in the USA and the daughter of a friend started a Radio Bryn fan club at Oxford University.

Islands can be dull paces in winter. Anxious to get away, a neighbour toured the Loire. By the river one day he switched on his radio as he unwrapped a picnic… and heard the signature tune of Radio Bryn doing an outside broadcast – from outside his house.

Celia recorded the programme in our kitchen, rough cut it and sent it to Dewi Smith, head of light entertainment in Wales, for final polishing and transmission.

Then a funny thing happened.

Everyone was convinced it was a real pirate station and I started to get applications for jobs. Women’s Institutes, youth clubs and at least one school asked if they could tour the studios and BBC Controller Ulster heard it while driving across Anglesey.

He rang my editor to ask, ‘Do you have a studio in the cottage or does it come to you via landline?’

We were even a page lead in the Daily Mail.

The series ended seventeen years ago. It is still talked about in Wales.

Everything in what I laughingly call my career was an accident. This was the happiest of them all.

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Danish Blue

By Ian Skidmore

I am a connoisseur of bad temper. My father was in a perpetual fury, which I put down to being in the trenches at the age of fifteen in the First World War. After the war he joined the police because, I firmly believe, of the opportunities it offered for hitting people.

In a siege in Manchester in the twenties he was shot in the head by an IRA man who later ran a Dublin dog track. In the family it was widely believed he was shot by his own inspector, worn out by my father’s incalcitrance.

Certainly, the inspector had been heard to shout: ‘Take that bloody gun off Skidmore before he kills us all.’

Parades disgusted him. Every year Manchester police had a parade in a Fallowfield park.

The one year they allowed my father to take part he ruined the band’s first concert by shouting: ‘D’ye ken the Refrain from Smoking?’

Probably ill temper swims in our genes. Last year I discovered a cousin, the daughter of a brother of my grandfather, who none of the family knew about. We are not a close family. Except in disputes…

Every Hogmanay we went back to Edinburgh for a family party.

Every year my father would light a cigar to taunt my socialist uncle Tommy, who invented Scottish nationalism long before it became fashionable and was more Scottish than Harry Lauder. Probably because he was born in Newton le Willows, about which my father reminded him every year.

The youngest brother, who tried to pacify him, was himself turned into a pillar of fury when my father told him: ‘I didna see you at Paschendale.’

There was always a fight on the early evening. The women placidly moved their chairs to the walls of the room where they sat nibbling shortcake and gossiping, while the six brothers rolled fighting at their feet. Fighting, that is, until 11.55 pm when my Auntie Jeannie would say: ‘D’ye no ken the time?’

The brothers would get up, dust themselves down. And we would all join hands and sing Auld Lang Syne.

My step father in law, another Scot, improbably called The Menzies of Pitfoggle, was a GP in the Fens. A luckless journalist who went to him for advice on a sexual problem was chased down the drive of the surgery by Pitfoggle, hurling obscenities and, for all I know, pillboxes and bottles.

Yet, compared with Maurice Thompson, a photographer I worked with on the Yorkshire Evening News in Doncaster, they were, every one of them, tiny beams of sunshine.

The first time we worked together I was immediately rebuked for getting into his Morris Minor with mud on my shoes. Nervously I lit a cigarette and he launched another tirade about ash disposal.

How we ever became friends I do not know, but it came as a shock to discover he liked me.

Certainly it was nothing he said.

So it was a surprise when years later he rang me and asked whether I fancied a day trip to Copenhagen.

I am not a traveller. When we lived on the Isle of Anglesey my wife claimed I needed Kwells before I would cross the Menai Strait and it is quite true I suggested a holiday once in Beaumaris, a pretty town about five miles from our home in Llanfairpwllgwyngoghchewernynllantisilogogogch. I never did learn how to spell it, much less pronounce it. And one of the reasons I was loath to leave it was the dread of getting lost and being unable to tell a taxi driver where I wanted to go.

But in my own defence, I did offer to break the journey at Menai Bridge and the draught bass in the Bull in Beaumaris was ale that, to quote Beaumont and Fletcher ‘would make a cat speak.’ I digress.

Maurice had been hired to take photographs of an unusual PR stunt. British Ropes in Doncaster had been commissioned to make the huge ‘ropes’ from which a bridge was to be suspended over the Strait of Jutland. As a gesture of thanks, the workers who made the ropes were invited over for a day to see them, literally in post.

This happened in those earlier, happy days, before they invented holidays abroad. When holidays in Scarborough or Whitby were permissible but Blackpool or Morecambe were considered a bit on the showy side. No-one who valued his place in Yorkshire society would go to Bournemouth.

Denmark? It was Star Trek Country and everyone was very excited.

A busy day ended with a banquet in the Chinese Pagoda in the Tivoli Gardens. Maurice and I got there early in case there was a bar. There wasn’t, but we watched with interest as chefs patterned complicated devices in lump fish roe over the salads that stood by every plate. Clearly, they hoped the roe would be mistaken for caviar. It wasn’t.

The first diner to arrive called his mate. ‘Bloody hell, Harry. There’s caterpillar shit all over this lettuce.’

One by one, the British Ropers scraped rigorously at their leaves.

The man who had discovered this evidence of the filthy habits of foreigners also singled me out. ‘Tha’rt bloody journalist, ist tha?’

I admitted I was. ‘Nowt fresh to you then, this Abroad?’

Nowt, I lied.

‘Sithee,’ he said, leaning over. ‘Thi ’ave a lot of that sex stuff abroad, doan’t thi?’

Thi do, I said.

‘Weer does it go on, then?’

I had no idea. I said near the railway station because that’s where it went on when I was doing national service in Germany, my only other experience of Abroad.

‘A’ll tell thee what,’ he said, ‘There’s three hours before t’plane. We’ll ’ave a bit of a dander, just thee and me. Just to see, like.’ So we did.

The sex shops were a revelation to both of us. He was particularly exercised by loops of stiff hair, designed for putting on penis ends, to stimulate partners. ‘Dear, dear,’ he said, profoundly shocked, because he was at heart a God-fearing, respectable man.

He staggered off into the crowds. He was also a very tall man. I could keep track of him as he stumbled, horrified by the depravity and anxious to return to the safety of his world of darts and dog walking. A piece of totty detached herself from a wall and surged towards him like a determined trout.

I caught up in time to hear her proposition him and I saw the back of his neck deepen to vermillion.

‘D’yer mind,’ he said. ‘It’s the wife’s birthday tomorrow.’

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No socks, please

By Ian Skidmore

I hate sharing rooms. In PR, in the army, I shared a room with a chap who was called, not unfairly, ‘Filthy Sykes’. Admirable in many ways, he amassed a collection of single socks, all indescribably dirty, that would have had any decent incinerator retching with desire. They festooned every surface, door top, window frame and light fitting in the room and made cosy nests on most surfaces.

After the army, Sykes went to work for a newspaper in Canada and died, which is as near as life gets to an oxymoron.

My greatest regret, however, is the night I shared a room in the Westminster Hotel reporting on the ‘Mummy in the Cupboard Murders’ in Rhyl, with Terry Stringer.

I hasten to point out that Terry was the most fastidious of men, whose carefully matched and laundered socks were beyond reproach.

It was an unlucky room. I had it to myself before Stringer arrived and it was the scene of bitter humiliation.

From Rhyl I was sentenced to being northern night news editor of the Mirror, an experience much worse than my earlier incarceration in an army prison.

The assembled reporters gave me a dinner and the management of the hotel were so pleased with us, they baked me a cake. Understandable – we had spent more behind the bar than they had taken in bookings so far that season.

The cake was topped by a tasteful mummy, wrapped in embalming clothes in a marzipan coffin.

One day I hope to identify the guest who sold the story – ‘shocked hotel guests appalled by gruesome cake’ – to a Sunday paper.

During the dinner I sat next to a lady who had set up a slimming couch in one of the suites. When you lay face down on its moving panels, it gave erotic sensations of such intensity Tom Cooper of the Daily Telegraph wanted to get engaged to it.

The lady asked if there was anything I regretted about leaving the road and I said yes there was. I said everyone else came back from out of town jobs with tales of love making that would make your hair curl.

Me? Nowt.

She said well I will tell you what. After dinner go off to your bedroom and as soon as I can I will join you.

So I did. I bought a bottle of wine, I put on my silk dressing gown, scattered Old Spice about the room like May Blossom and waited.

She arrived.

I leapt into bed.

She followed.

Then she whispered in my ear. ‘You will have to hurry up. I am meeting (name deleted) at midnight.’

The last week on the road wore on. Terry Stringer was sent out to take over and we had to share rooms. Naturally I gave him most of the work and I spent my last days wandering about Rhyl hurling gold coins at stall holders, winning teddy bears, sticks of rock and on the last Sunday, a budgie.

In a plastic cage.

I was sitting at a bar table in the Westminster chatting idly with the budgie when we were joined by Reg Jones of the Daily Mirror.

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s an ostrich,’ I said with heavy irony.

‘No. The cage. It’s disgusting. The poor bird can hardly move. You want to get it a decent cage.’

‘Its Sunday, the pet shops are closed.’

‘Then find out the home address of one and get him to open his shop.’

So I did. It wasn’t easy. But I did.

‘Now are you satisfied,’ I said.

‘No’ he said. ‘It’s got nothing to play with. Budgies like little mirrors and see-saws and bells they can ring with their beaks.’

‘It’s Sunday and I am not getting the poor bugger out again. He’ll be having his dinner.’

‘Use your initiative. Go to an amusement arcade and win them on one of those grab cranes.’

So I changed a fiver into low denomination coinage, went to the amusement arcade, found a grab crane that offered various novelties on a hillock of liquorice torpedoes, and set to work. Winning nothing but grabs full of liquorice torpedoes.

I had amassed enough torpedoes to sink the German navy when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

I turned round and saw a man in a brown dust coat. At first I took him to be the Mayor of Blackpool. But it wasn’t a chain of office he had round his neck; it was a string of keys.

He questioned me abruptly and I explained I was trying to win some toys for my budgie.

Pushing me to one side, he opened a window in the machine and collected a variety of plastic toys, thrust them in my hand and said: ‘Now piss off and give these kids a chance.’

For the first time I noticed the queue of impatient children, clutching their pennies.

That night in its palatial cage, surrounded by toys, the budgie passed a sleepless night.

I had to wake Stringer twice to complain that his snores were keeping my budgie awake and the next day I had to tell the desk to recall him. It was the only way the budgie could get a decent night’s sleep.

Two days after I got it home the budgie was eaten by the cat.

I think it was the cat. But, in those days, I had a very funny wife…

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In the line of fire

By Ian Skidmore

News agencies, weekly papers, evening papers, trade magazines, national dailies and Sundays, Kemsley Newspapers, J P Taylors Colour Printers, The Black Watch (RHR) – twice, which I think may be a record – one school and two clubs…

I have been sacked by experts.

My shortest period of employment was a day and a half, working for Jimmy Lovelock, proprietor of Stockport News Service, owner of the only fornicatorium in Cheshire and the only man to organise an abortion on the National Health, when abortions were not even legal.

Editor of a weekly newspaper in his early twenties, he had been crippled with polio as a child, but nevertheless became a mountaineer, a pot-holer and a member of the expedition that climbed Nuptse, Everest’s smaller sister.

A remarkable man.

Jimmy introduced me to the staff, which took up most of the first day.

The staff was an odd little chap called Mickey. First of all we had to find him, and that was never easy. A year after his arrival no-one knew Mickey’s surname and I don’t think anyone ever found out where he lived.

He was invariably respectful and called Jimmy ‘Master’.

Mickey had a single purpose in life: to discover how millionaires made their first thousand pounds. Their memoirs, said Mickey who had read them all, always included the phrase, ‘with my first thousand pounds I bought…’ but they never explained where the thousand pounds came from. He suspected they had nicked it; but, scorning that as being too easy, he tried dealing. He only really mastered the art of acquiring. Disposal escaped him. To Jimmy’s puzzled chagrin he used the agency’s office as his warehouse. There were racks of clothes of improbable sizes, a job lot of string-less violins picked up for a song, inevitably tuneless, twenty gross of heavily tinselled cards wishing A Happy Christmas for 1948, that he had bought in 1951, and other less saleable items.

You could never find a pen there, or even a typewriter; but anyone in need of a string-less violin was easily accommodated.

Next he tried gambling, a curious reversal. Disposing was child’s play. Acquiring he never quite mastered.

He had one suit that he wore to the office, except on the days when he wore a mackintosh, in the hope that ‘Master’ would not notice he wore only a shirt, tie and underpants beneath, having pawned the suit. The gartered socks were a give away.

By the time I arrived Jimmy had taken to paying him by the day.

The second day there I got an out-of-town job; I was after all the only member of staff who could be relied on to turn up in a suit. Wilmslow magistrates court, which in those days could be reached from Stockport by train, was hardly outer space but Mickey anxiously took me for a couple of pints to stiffen the sinews. One pint led to another and by the time I got on the train I was exhausted, fell into a deep sleep and woke up in Crewe. I had seen enough Hollywood newspaper films to know what to do. I rang Stockport on a transfer charge call and asked Jimmy to wire me my fare back to the office.

I was touched that he went further. He drove all the way to Crewe to collect me. I see now that it gave him a greater opportunity for an in-depth character assessment, but at the time I thought it a charming gesture.

We were nearing Stockport when he ended his assessment.

‘Skiddy,’ he said. ‘We have two options. Either I employ you or we stay friends.’ Again I was very touched, it was my friendship he valued.

He generously paid me for a day and a half but despite the joint urgings of Mickey and myself refused to add the one and a half hours holiday money to which we felt I was entitled. After nearly sixty years the debt remained unpaid, though I had over the years mentioned it many times, even sent bills to his retirement home in Spain. He always copped me a deaf ’un.

In the fullness of time he came to work for me, doing shifts when I ran the night desk on the Sunday Pictorial. I tried to have my holiday pay docked from his shift money, but the linage department was obdurate. No amende honorable, not even when he made a fortune doing night shifts for six nationals outside a vicarage in Cheshire, in case the Vicar of Woodford sneaked back in the night.

In fairness he did bring me a kukri back from Nepal when he climbed Nuptse and I treasure it to this day.

I was especially touched because he was very cross. Picture editor George Harrop and I had sent him a telegram as soon as the news broke of his successful attempt. ‘Is there froth on the top?’ it read, rather cleverly we thought.

We didn’t know that it would take the Sherpa who delivered it three days to climb the mountain.

Mickey? No idea. The last time we met we were having lunch with Lord (Tony) Moynihan when his wife’s tits fell out and somehow, in the excitement of that, I never got round to finding out whether Mickey made his first thousand, but I was pleased to see he was not wearing his raincoat.

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Founding a dynasty

By Ian Skidmore

Regular readers will recall that I became a reporter by not fastening my greatcoat in Thetford. My son, youngest daughter and grand-daughter became journalists, turning me into a dynasty, because of something that happened to me in bed.

At my romantic best, my bed activities over the years would bring a smile to the face of an Easter Island statue.

Even on my own in bed I am funnier than alternative comedy; though, let us face it, I have seen acne eruptions funnier than alternative comedy.

When I was resting between marriages, and on nights when I was sober enough to make it to the bedroom the same night I started up the stairs, I had a ritual I used to perform.

About the only thing I had won custody of in my first divorce was the Teasmade, a combination alarm clock and tea maker; though even here I had to promise to bring it up in the Jewish faith.

I would activate the Teasmade, climb into bed, carrying with me a book to read and an apple to eat. Supine, I placed my false teeth on my stomach. Thus, if I felt the pangs of hunger, it was the work of a moment to pop in the false teeth and attack the apple.

Alas, on the night under advisement I neglected to put the pipe from the kettle into the hole in the lid of the teapot of the infernal machine. In fact it hung like the sword of Damocles over what I laughingly called my chest.

Worse, I fell asleep with the apple, the book and the false teeth in line ahead on the belly.

On the dot of 7am the kettle performed its function, heating the water to boiling point before waving it off on its journey along the pipe, which, you will recall, was poised over my ‘chest’.

The jet of boiling water hit it, waking me and causing me to leap into the air for just long enough for the dentures to slip off my belly and position themselves beneath me, so that when I landed I gave myself a very nasty bite in the backside.

I was dining at the Chester Grosvenor that night with my friend Long Langford and fellow members of the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs. (This has nothing to do with the story really but as a piece of name-dropping would be difficult to beat.)

Personal daintiness decreed that I should not put the teeth back in the mouth. The Ninth Baron was not best pleased.

‘Why haven’t you put your teeth in?’ he demanded.

‘If you knew where they had been, you wouldn’t ask,’ I said.

I was surprised a year later to open my daughter’s school newspaper and find she had written an account of the unhappy incident for the amusement of her peers. The response was such that she and my son both decided to take up careers in journalism.

Now my granddaughter is working for the PA. It’s an ill wind up…

 

Scoops

We have scoops about scoops today: how we made them. At last it can be told.

Geoffrey Seed recalls the scoop splash spy story for a monthly community newspaper (circulation 1,300) that dragged in the heavy mob from The Street for a Chapman Pincher follow-up.

Stanley Blenkinsop, who was northern news editor from1969-86, reveals how the once World’s-Greatest scooped the planet (and discomfited the Russkies during the cold war) by intercepting the first pictures transmitted from the moon.

Stan’s long-time and long-suffering photographic colleague Gordon Amory found a convicted murderer strolling the streets while allegedly still in jail. [And it’s always good to see the old team appearing in the same day’s publication.]

Liz Hodgkinson tells how watching the ads on TV turned into a splash that created a fashion, and introduced a new drink.

Talking of drink, Stewart Payne is helping organise a memorial wake in the Top Harrow to celebrate the largely liquid life of Mike McDonough, and Ken Bennett, this year’s president of what used to be Liverpool Press Club, serves notice of a Christmas lunch, to be held in November.

Must be planning a long lunch, then.

Which reminds Revel Barker that he appeared to be the only person to remember that everybody was supposed to be on the piss yesterday… and prompts Colin Dunne to remember the pranks he used to get up to, especially after drink had been taken.

Meanwhile, information you need to know: the lowest price we have seen quoted for Ian Skidmore’s rollicking new book, Forgive Us Our Press Passes, was at BookDepository – which you have to access via the amazon.co.uk site (don’t ask me why, it doesn’t seem to work, otherwise). Anyway, it is offered at ?6.53 plus postage, as a special reduction from ?9.95.

Try this link:

How on earth does anybody possibly make any money out of a bargain like that?

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Wayzgoose

rb3By Revel Barker

Yesterday – and there’s a fiver here says that you forgot it – was Wayzgoose. I didn’t forget it, so please excuse the shaky writing.

Time was when everybody in The Street, and on provincial mornings and weeklies (but not the poor bloody infantry on the evenings, who would have to wait a whole day) would have been aware and, likely, out celebrating.

It was the one guaranteed day off in the year, all down to a tradition dating from – oh, I don’t know, since time immoral.

It was the day that everybody in The Print took off.

The Queen called it Maundy Thursday and distributed money to the public; the lads called it Wayzgoose and distributed money to the publicans.

To the seaside, they went, in hired charas, or out into the country in search of pubs beyond the ken of licensing authorities.

We went on a mystery tour sometimes and somebody had the bright idea that we’d all guess our ultimate destination, and write it on a pound note that we’d put in hat. My guesses were usually quite close, but the bus driver won it, two years running, so we stopped letting him play after that.

Trust me: there’s a boatman where I live who advertises ‘Mystery trips to the Blue Lagoon’.

The secret (not about the bus driver – we never solved that one – but about the day off) was that Wayzgoose was the day before Good Friday which was a non-printing day.

We needed nominal cover in the office and the Daily Mirror wisely employed its own rabbi in the newsroom, for the same reason that it employed Jocks so that the natives could be off at Christmas in return for allowing the Scots time off to celebrate their own pagan festival the following week.

So, you are wondering, why Wayzgoose.

I’m glad you asked, because nobody knows.

The best sources say origin obscure, or even origin unknown.

Certainly by the 17th century the master printer – usually the owner, of course – in a print shop would treat his staff to an annual dinner on August 24, which was seen as the day when summer stopped and the nights started drawing in. The date also marked the issuing of candles for late-afternoon working (although no connection between goose and candle has actually been established).

The date was later switched to Maundy Thursday because, there being no publishing on Good Friday, it was a guaranteed day off (the only other one being Christmas Eve) for everybody in the print.

Because it was now a full day, it came to involve an excursion, usually a trip to the seaside, or to a country pub.

Of course, Murdoch and Maxwell then abolished Good Friday.

But it is as good an excuse for a piss-up as any.

And one that should be perpetuated, I think. Iffor no other reason than that it is such a wonderful word.

Maybe we should restore it by organising an outing incorporating a pub crawl, but instead of going out of Fleet Street, go back into it for an afternoon.

It’s a year away. I know that, nowadays, it takes time to plan things.

Any takers?

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Red spies at night

geoffseedBy Geoffrey Seed

Some stories take an age to winkle out; others walk into your kitchen, put the kettle on and tuck into the Hobnobs.

So it was with a tale of Russian agents on a secret Cold War mission to a remote Welsh valley near where I lived.

My source – a disgruntled local Bobby.

His allegation – dark deeds at night, worthy of a le Carre thriller.

Outcome – an exclusive for the Tanat Chronicle.

‘The what?’

The Tanat Chronicle, a community newspaper then selling 1,300 copies a month in the serenely beautiful Powys-Shropshire borders around the village of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant.

‘Llan where?’

Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant… the place where Hugh Grant filmed The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill And Came Down A Mountain.

OK. Gotcha.

The story starts in June 1980 when hill farmer Goronwy Morris of that parish ploughed up a strange radio transmitter buried in a waterproof bag with microfilm instructions in English on how to use it.

It looked like a portable typewriter in a metal box but with 40 pre-set frequency plugs and an ultra high-speed facility to send coded messages via perforated paper tapes.

‘A spy radio,’ said the local farmers’ union man.

‘Of foreign origin,’ wrote Willie Whitelaw, Home Secretary.

‘Fishy,’ declared Goronwy’s MP.

TV news crews were despatched and Fleet Street went big on theories of Soviet invasion plans and underground sleepers. But the story soon ran out of legs.

Then Harry ‘Chapman’ Pincher published Their Trade is Treachery in March 1981 and wrote: ‘Anyone (doubting) the KGB is still active should appreciate the true explanation of the Russian transmitting set found buried on a Welsh farm… almost certainly (it) belonged to an English subversion unit recruited by the KGB for sabotage action.’

By coincidence, it was in that same month that an aging constable slogged up the rutted, stream-bed of a lane to our mountainside cottage to check my suitability for a shotgun licence.

I was away but my pregnant spouse – ex drama researcher Ann de Stratford – took pity on him and he was invited in from the cold. Much tea and many biscuits followed. Legs were stretched by the kitchen fire; tunic buttons undone, ties loosened… and tongues, too.

My wife, who’d researched Granada TV’s Brideshead Revisited, knew the value of just listening. So the officer, miffed at getting little or no credit for his detective work on the spy radio affair, gave her the inside track… which she passed onto me.

Exactly ten years before, the Soviet Embassy had telephoned the Wynnstay Hotel in Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant to book rooms for a ‘trade delegation’.

Four men, a woman and a five-year-old boy duly arrived on February 27 in a large black limo.

After dinner that night, three of them drove off carrying several large boxes. Within two hours, they were back in the lounge – playing chess.

The leader, who’d refused to sign the hotel register, wouldn’t let the others attend the Welsh singing in the bar though the female obviously wanted to. Next morning, the Russians paid in cash and left.

The constable said he’d told his bosses about these mysterious goings-on but felt they’d ignored him.

To stand up his allegations, I found and photocopied the hotel’s guest book. And there were the names of the four Russians who’d signed in – Kolushenko, Bourinov and a couple called Savronov.

Further checks showed them among the 105 Soviet Embassy staffers deported from London later in 1971 for ‘unacceptable activities’ – Whitehall code for spying.

My story wrote itself and was the memorable splash in Issue 16 of the Tanat Chronicle under the banner headline: RED SPIES AT NIGHT.

Out came Fleet Street’s finest to follow up. The Guardian made it a page lead. No one gave any credit to the Tanat Chronicle, of course.

Still, acclaim comes in many guises.

The paper’s current editor, broadcaster and Oldie agony aunt Mavis Nicholson, has just discovered that the Aga cooker company’s latest advertising campaign features heiress and super-model Jasmine Guinness, reading the Chronicle in a photograph taken by Sir Paul McCartney’s daughter, Mary.

But that’s an everyday story of newsy Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant for you…

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From Russia – without love

stan2By Stanley Blenkinsop

It was the day that the Manchester office of the Daily Express scooped the world after breaking through the Iron Curtain.

An unmanned Russian spacecraft had landed undamaged on the moon and was sending home radio signals to the Soviet Union in March 1966.

Space scientists at Cheshire’s Jodrell Bank radio telescope – now threatened with closure – picked up the intermittent bleeps that were re-broadcast by the BBC eavesdropping on the Russian signals.

Twenty miles from Jodrell Bank the photo-telegraphy staff in the black glass palace in Great Ancoats Street heard the intermittent bleeps on the news bulletins. And suddenly a technician realised they had one of the very few machines in the United Kingdom that might be capable of translating the sounds into black and white pictures.

Night news editor Brian Stringer rang Jodrell Bank and offered the necessary equipment and the Express telegraphy experts to operate it — on condition that the pictures should be exclusive to the then World’s Greatest Newspaper (circulation at the time:4,300,000).

In the Express night log the late Brian, who masterminded the operation, wrote: ‘There is only a very outside chance we will succeed in turning the sounds into pix but we MUST try!’

At first Jodrell Bank agreed to the deal with the DE. Then the Jodrell director Bernard Lovell (later knighted for his part in the Space Race and 95 this year) decided that even pictures obtained with Express aid must be circulated free – and freely – to media throughout the world beyond the then Iron Curtain.

Reluctantly the Express agreed – and because of Ancoats expertise the world saw the surface of the moon in close-up for the first time. Several rival newspapers and TV channels at home and abroad were even courteous enough to credit the Express with the pictures.

But the scoop enraged Russia. There were diplomatic protests to London as Moscow had planned to use the pictures in an elaborately-orchestrated world wide publicity campaign extolling the great scientific skills of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin was staggered at being outwitted by Ancoats – but alcohol flowed freely as the celebrations erupted in Yates’s and the Crown and Kettle.

Until the closure of the Express Ancoats office 12 years ago a huge framed close up of the moon’s surface had pride of place in the editor’s office. And in the transmission department a commemorative plaque was fixed to the machine that had produced the picture.

Sir Max Aitken, then chairman of the Express group, wrote to Ancoats: ‘It gives me the greatest joy to see the proficiency, energy and enthusiasm of Manchester pushing through to the top.’

Seven years ago I was taken round the then derelict debris-strewn office — now a glittering block of flats, some with luxurious roof gardens and costing up to a million pounds each.

No sign, though, on my farewell visit of that historic moon picture in the dust and desolation of the editor’s old office – and no trace either of that wire machine with its brass plaque recording possibly the greatest Ancoats triumph of them all…

And is Jodrell Bank, now seriously threatened by budget cuts, doomed too? Over half a century it produced many first rate stories covered by some of the 1,200 or so journalists in the Manchester offices of the nationals. Today I doubt very much if the few surviving remnants of the ‘other Fleet Street’ employ more than 30 on their entire North of England payroll.

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Captured: a killer on the high street

By Gordon Amory

The 1947 ‘body through the porthole murder’ was one of many post-war crime stories that fascinated me for years when I was on a local evening and then later when I became a staff photographer on the Daily Express.

Glamorous blonde Gay Gibson, cabaret singer aboard the luxury liner Durban Castle was strangled by ship’s steward James Camb who then disposed of her body in the South Atlantic.

It was the first murder trial without a body for thirteen years and it coincided with the Commons deciding to suspend the death sentence experimentally for five years.

So Camb avoided the hangman’s noose – before it was restored by the Lords who countermanded the lower house decision. But by then Camb had been sentenced to life imprisonment which could not be rescinded.

After ten years he was released on licence from Wakefield Jail. At the same time atom spy Klaus Fuchs was expected to be freed from the same prison.

I was sent by the Express to identify suitable vantage points and make contacts to cover Fuchs release. In Wakefield pubs I sought out prisoners on parole from the jail to ask what they knew of Fuchs’s likely movements.

I made friends with a seedy little man, a former inmate, who seemed to know everyone and everything about anyone in the local prison. He made my blood curdle every time I was in his company but I would go into the local pubs and roam the streets in my car at night with him as a passenger pointing out various prisoners on parole. We passed a very smart man walking through the main street – ‘He’s one of ours,’ he said. ‘That’s Jimmy Camb.’ Surprisingly he seemed to know nothing about Camb, but I did.

cambThese were the days before long lens and any picture taken to show any detail taken on the Rollieflex, our favourite camera at the time, hadn’t to be any further away than five yards or seven at the most. I stalked Camb but could never get near enough for a decent picture and I couldn’t trust the slimy little ex-con to drive my car, so with a pistol grip attached to the camera, I drove as close as I dare and got a picture with a policeman looking into a shop window, then as he walked along the street – he paused in a shop doorway and I got another one… full face, much better.

Mission accomplished, so I was a bit more daring as I brushed past Camb having a drink in a pub: ‘I’ll kill you when I get out, you bastard’ he said. Camb was finally freed on licence in 1959 but was arrested and imprisoned some years later after sexual assaults on schoolgirls to complete the rest of his life sentence. He died in 1979 not long after being released for a second time. So I lived on!

Changing times. When the picture was used as a PhotoNews with the headline: ‘A murderer stalks the High Street’ his face had been blacked out, no doubt so he couldn’t be identified – what a daft decision.

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Making a splash

hodgkinsonBy Liz Hodgkinson

It was the dream and ambition of most reporters to get the splash – the lead story on the front page, and the most important story in the paper that week.

As time went by it began to look as though I probably never would have one. I was grandly titled consumer correspondent, but these stories rarely lent themselves to the drama and huge headlines of a tabloid splash. Sensational exclusive revelations were the subject of splashes, not outrages over the price of supermarket bleach.

Most of the time it didn’t bother me that much. Splashes were usually forgotten by lunchtime, I told myself, whereas a good consumer story could make a lasting impact.

But one night I was idly sitting with my then husband Neville watching television. When the ads came on an American-style thirties barman was polishing glasses and saying to a customer: ‘Harvey Wallbanger? White Lady? Slow Screw against the Wall?’ The customer, however, resisted all the invitations to have an exotic cocktail, and asked instead for the simple lager or beer that was the subject of this very elaborate and expensive commercial.

I had never heard of any of these cocktails, nor had Nev, so the next day at work I asked my colleagues whether they knew what a Harvey Wallbanger was. None had any idea; they had never heard of such a drink. On a hunch, I rang a few hotel bars and they said that since the ad had appeared, people were coming in asking for Harvey Wallbangers and White Ladies. Previously, they’d had no such requests, but now they were inundated. Many barmen said they’d never previously heard of these drinks either and that in any case cocktails were no longer very popular. This ad looked like changing all that.

What about the lager that was the actual subject of the ad? No; nobody was asking for that. In fact, none of the barmen I contacted could even remember which lager was being advertised. All that stuck were the unusual names of the cocktails.

Aha! Of such trifles light as air are the best newspaper stories often made. I wrote a memo for conference, and handed it to the newsdesk secretary, Beryl. She said she’d also seen the ad, and had wondered what a Harvey Wallbanger could be. The newdesk were also intrigued, and added it to the schedule of stories for the week.

After conference, Ernie Burrington, the deputy editor, said: ‘I like that Harvey Wallbanger idea, we could go big on it. So, could you find out how the name originated, how popular this cocktail is in America, contact the ad agency, and see how easy it is to get a Harvey Wallbanger in this country. We could even herald the return of the cocktail. Get the recipe for the Harvey Wallbanger as well, and we’ll take it from there.’

I amassed a large amount of information about Harvey Wallbangers, and became an instant expert, the way one often does as a journalist, and now had enough detail, or at least, as much as I would ever have, to write it up.

It was all, at least for us, a glamorous and upbeat story. The news point of the story was that, since the ad had appeared on television, sales of vodka had rocketed and sales of its vital ingredient Galliano, which previously had been little-known in the UK, were going through the roof as well.

Only the lager, which was what was actually being advertised, was refusing to budge.

The upshot was that the lager company, which had spent thousands of pounds, probably hundreds of thousands, on the ad, was in effect, promoting other drinks. They had spent a king’s ransom advertising something other than their own product.

It was this fact that gave my story its special twist and, as it happened, catapulted it out of the inside pages and onto the front page where it became that week’s splash, driving all the heavier stories inside the paper. The headline was: EXCLUSIVE: THE AD THAT PROMOTES RIVAL DRINKS.

If I had underestimated the pride and pleasure that getting the splash brings, I certainly understood it now. It made me feel like a real journalist at last, as if I had finally won my spurs in the competitive, cut-throat world of national newspaper journalism. And it was all so effortless, in the end. The story practically wrote itself. On every level, it was a winner.

Several people, including my mother, rang to congratulate me on the story. I was also pleased that, for once, my big story did not involve doing other people down in any way – apart from, perhaps, the ad agency which had dreamed up the unfortunate commercial. But they were big enough to take it. In any case, the facts spoke for themselves and could not be denied.

For me, getting such a nice story meant that I wouldn’t have to have palpitations all Monday, and go into the office on Tuesday with heart pounding, pulse racing, wondering what horrors in the form of comebacks from aggrieved parties awaited me.

By Tuesday, most of the daily papers had followed up the story, although they had little to add to it, really. But all wanted to get in on the act. The very name Harvey Wallbanger, familiar enough now, but unknown then, was striking enough to want to do a story around.

When I got into work on Tuesday morning another nice thing awaited me: there was a case of vodka and a case of long, slim yellow Galliano bottles with my name on, sent by grateful manufacturers. All my colleagues were congratulatory, too.

‘We must have a drink to celebrate,’ said Eric Leggett, as we passed each other in the corridor .’I knew you weren’t as dim as they made out. They said you weren’t up to the job, but I knew different. See you in The Stab at lunch time?’

‘Thanks for those few kind words, Eric. And yes, I’d love to.‘

We got there at about half-past twelve, giving ourselves special dispensation from our (often broken) rule of one o’clock.

‘What are you having?’ Eric asked, and added, in his best American drawl: ‘Harvey Wallbanger? White Lady? Do you fancy a Slow Screw Against the Wall…?’

I usually had half of lager or a glass of house wine in the pub. But this time I felt I could really push the boat out. It was unlikely that the Stab could do any of those cocktails I had introduced into newsprint so recently, but I entered into the spirit of things when I asked for a whisky, a beverage I rarely drank, especially at lunchtime. And I told the barman: ‘Make mine a double.’

The barman poured out the whisky, and then held up the soda siphon.

‘Splash?’ he asked, siphon poised.

‘You bet,’ I said.

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Drinking to remember

By Stewart Payne

The Top Bar Of The Harrow…! It deserves the capitals, and the explanation mark.

Alan Dove behind the bar. And Mike McDonough in front of it.

Just as he is here, (bottom right) with expansive gesture, in trademark pinstripe suit, at yet another Evening News gathering in its favourite Fleet Street watering hole. Among faces we can just about recognise are Percy Trumble, Jim Watson, David Stevens, Peter O’Kill, Tony Weaver, Laurence Cottrell, Dave Theobald, Peter Dobbie, Cyril Ling, John McShane, Ken Parrish, Hugh Whittow, Stewart Payne, Guy Simpson. Helen Minsky, Jimmy Gilheaney and Tom Roche.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The picture was taken in about 1978 although I cannot remember the occasion. There were so many.

There is to be another. Friends and colleagues of Mike are invited to assemble in the top bar of the Harrow for a gathering in his memory on Tuesday April 29, from 6.30pm onwards.

His daughter Cathy, who is arranging the evening, is well aware of the irony of the location. It was often her father’s undoing. Mike was not only a superb reporter but he was also a big drinker, always entertaining but with a self-destructive streak.

After two spells on Fleet Street, working on the Evening Standard, Evening News, Sun and Daily Mail, and with a stint on the National Enquirer in between, Mike went to Miami in the early 1980s and became a successful freelancer. He also put his drinking days behind him.

Mike died in November last year, aged 71, a month after he was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer.

Contributors to Gentlemen Ranters have already expressed their fondness and admiration for Mike, but, as his funeral was held in the US, Cathy contacted me to ask if she should arrange an opportunity for his former Fleet Street colleagues to meet in his memory. It seemed an excellent idea. A full-scale St Bride’s memorial was beyond her reach, so we have settled on a gathering at the Harrow.

I first met Mike when I joined the Evening News in 1977. I was new to Fleet Street and Mike was a great help professionally as well as entertaining company.

By the time the News folded in 1980 I had moved upstairs to the Mail, where Mike was given shifts, usually starting at 3pm. I knew Mike’s drinking habits and I also knew that Ron Birch, on the desk, had it in for him.

On a number of occasions, with Mike’s jacket draped over his chair, but no Mike to be seen, I went in search of him in the Mucky Duck to tip him off that the news desk was looking for him.

At this time I was renting a flat in the same house as Tim Miles. When Tim moved out to marry Wendy Henry Mike asked me if his daughter, training to be an actress, could move in. She did, and I have remained friends with her ever since, hence her approaching me to help arrange the get-together.

After eight years on the Mail I joined Today at launch, followed by the Evening Standard and then the Daily Telegraph.

It was while I was on the Standard that I had an opportunity to experience, yet again, Mike’s kindness and professionalism.

There had been a coup in Trinidad. Not much interest in the UK. At morning conference the editor, John Leese, asked who had been sent to cover it. ‘Er, Payne is on his way,’ said Philip Evans, the news editor, before slipping out to tell me to get to Heathrow asap.

I had no problems getting to Barbados but airline flights into Port of Spain had been cancelled because of the unrest. Mike, from his Miami base, was already there, freelancing for the UK nationals. By the time I managed to hire a plane the coup was several days old and I was in danger of missing it.

I arrived in Port of Spain and Mike, who I had been speaking to on the phone, was there to meet me.

‘Just in time’, he said. ‘Things are reaching a conclusion and I have a bird’s eye view of it all.’

As he gave me a comprehensive fill-in, he took me to an evacuated office block overlooking the government building where the rebels were about to surrender. Mike had paid a janitor for exclusive access to the building and, in my predicament, was prepared to share it with me. He even had use of the phone nearest the window and it was from there I filed my first-hand account of the surrender.

Mike was a great mate and I know that this story is just one of hundreds that people could tell about his professionalism and his generosity.

Cathy and I trawled Mike’s old Fleet Street haunts to find a location for the memorial gathering. The Mucky Duck is now a sandwich bar and the Witness Box will close later this year (the building is to be demolished).

The Harrow is now a Fuller’s pub. The back bar is still called the Vincent Mulchrone bar and the upstairs bar is now a restaurant.

But it is closed in the evenings and the landlord is happy for us to assemble there. Cathy and her family hope that many old colleagues will come along and share their stories and maybe bring any photographs they have of Mike. Perhaps someone would like to make a speech?

Cathy knows a lot about her father’s exploits and is not looking for a sanitised version of his career.

To help with numbers, and to plan light refreshments, please contact me if you are able to come. I can be reached on 07831 393561 or stewartpayne@fsmail.net

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Press club: early doors

By Ken Bennett

Calling all scousers – or any journo who has worked in Liverpool and has fond memories of the characters in this vibrant city by the sea!

In addition to celebrating Europe‘s Capital of Culture this year, Liverpool Press Club is 125 years old. And to that end we are hosting a special birthday lunch on Friday, November 28 at Holiday Inn Lime Street to celebrate this achievement. .

The three-course lunch and pre-drinks reception will cost just 20 a head. It promises to be a great affair and a chance to meet old and new friends from every section of the media. There is a special overnight rate for attending media.

As you can imagine, there is a big interest in attending the lunch already. Christmas lunches over recent years – hosted by the Friends of Liverpool Press Club – have become legendary with amazing tales of the boys on oblivion routes home…

Tables of ten are already being earmarked… but if you would like to attend (or bring a party of chums along?), contact Ken Bennett, Hon President Liverpool Press Club, 2008 on: 07802 966 922 or email: kd_bennett@yahoo.co.uk

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Phoney phone-ins

ColDBy Colin Dunne

Look, my excuse is that it had been a long, dull day. In Manchester on February 15, 1971, when Britain went decimal, we were all braced to sniff out the cheats. The Mirror had its Decimal Diddlers (or possibly Dodgers) Desk and the Sun its Decimal Dodgers (or Diddlers) Desk – at this distance, I can’t remember who was dodging and who was diddling. Anyway, what we were both pledged to do was expose cheats who used this currency adjustment to jack up their prices, as we knew they would.

 

So why not, I thought, brighten the day for our fellow sufferers at the Sun with a story that would gladden their hearts?

 

The Sun reporter said he thought it certainly was. Trying to conceal his delight – they’d obviously had the same sort of day we’d had – he enquired after the exact nature of this item. I said it was embarrassing. His voice oozed sympathy. He would understand.

So I told him my sad story. At the Normandy Landings, as I was leaving the landing craft with a view to driving Jerry out of France, I chanced to pull myself (know what I mean?) Even so, I landed and fought my way not only up the beach but all the way to Berlin

Limping every inch of the way.

 

In a trice the reporter had my name and address and was on his way. Actually what he had was A name and address.

We all had a good chuckle and made our way to the pub. An hour later in came a chum from the Sun: ‘I’ve just missed a belting story… Misheard an address…’

 

 

 

 

 

When my son Matt was training on the Haslemere Messenger, a cheerful little giveaway, he worked with a girl who he claimed would believe anything. To test this, I rang in with a news item from the Sussex Unipeds Assocation. I asked her if she knew what the Unipeds were. She replied: ‘Not as such,’ which I thought was a trifle guarded. So I explained that we were a group of one-legged people who got together to help each other. For example, a man with a missing right leg could be matched with someone with a missing left leg for joint shoe purchasing (assuming similar foot-size and taste, of course). ‘What a good idea,’ she said. My son was obviously right.

 

‘Brilliant,’ she murmured. Without so much as a chortle, she said it would make an interesting paragraph for the Messenger.

 

 

 

 

 

At that point, I anticipated a Sun headline of years later. That’s right… ‘Gotcha!’

 

Juvenile, wasn’t it? Totally childish. But not quite as juvenile as the occasion when Chris Kenworthy, of the Sun, was on a phone-in radio debate. It was a mildly absurd discussion in which he was supposed to argue that men were more intelligent than women and some woman journalist was doing the reverse. Radio phone-ins are God’s gift to hoaxers because they never have enough people calling in, and the ones who do are deadly boring. A call from someone a little different, shall we say, and arms are taken off at the shoulder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of them, an Australian I suppose, who liked to think he was a hard-nosed toughie, fell for one after another. Even the lonely Tynesider – ‘Geordie’ of course – who rang in to say how unfriendly people were in London

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

###

Letters

 

From the editor:

We received no letters for publication this week, which, in exactly eight months, is a first.

Possibly last week’s special Skidmore edition stunned Ranters into silence.

But it’s scary when the people that we know are out there have nothing to say.

Maybe we should just interpret it as meaning that the website has somehow finally achieved perfection.

And if we haven’t (yet) perhaps you’ll let us know.

#

 

 

 

 

 

TWO exclusive readers’ offers this week (we may not make a habit of doing this). Former Manchester freelance Peter Reece shares the secrets of his personal pension plan which appears – and we can say no more than this – to be a potential earner and an interesting and rewarding way to enjoy a flutter on the Lottery (the national one and/or the EuroMillions) with very little personal risk.

It is no part of our role to offer financial advice, but you can read Peter’s piece and you can judge for yourself by clicking on www.e-vwd.com/ranterseditor , and watching the promo film and making up your own mind. No doubt some Ranters will provide feedback within the near future.

Our second offer is an exclusivedeal of ?2 off the recommended retail price of Ian Skidmore’s latest book, Forgive Us Our Press Passes. Some readers reported a level of dissatisfaction in ordering copies from Amazon and from Waterstones on-line, and thought that, since Skiddy is one of us, there should be a special deal for fellow Ranters. So here it is. You can pay by using PayPal.

Otherwise, you can order a copy from any decent bookseller. You need to know that it is called Forgive Us Our Press Passes; author, Ian Skidmore; publisher Revel Barker; ISBN 978-0-9558238-0-0. Or, if you are really strapped, you can quote the same information and ask your local library to get you a copy.

 

Back to real life, as we used to call it.

Two contributors, memories jogged by our note last week about most people missing Wayzgoose, recall special celebrations.

Andy Leatham and friends founded the Society for the Preservation of the Wayzgoose and took a chara to Lancaster in an effort to fulfil their commitment. And there’s a picture to prove that they went. John Kay of The Sun remembers a Wayzgoose dinner in Sunderland of which there is, thankfully, no photographic record.

Cathy Couzens went all the way to Chicago, to celebrate St Patrick’s Day (where else would you go?) with Teddy Kennedy. Jack Grimshaw celebrates the immortal memory of the Duke of Wellington (how did the rest of us miss that one?). Harold Heys celebrates copytakers.

And Alastair McQueen drops us a photo of a home for retired snappers.

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Save the ’goose

By Andrew Leatham

Ah, the Wayzgoose… Such fond memories. Alcohol consumption on a scale that made Concorde’s fuel swallowing abilities look modest. Old scores settled. New grudges formed. Language that would make a docker turn Quaker. Adults at play.

Not long after Eddie Shah threw the spanner in the Maundy Thursday works by launching Today and saying he would publish every day of the year, a band of Manchester hacks, lead by the irrepressible Brian Whittle, founded the Society for the Preservation of the Wayzgoose. We had our own logo, a cross-legged – and cross-eyed – goose and we even had our own bank account for which we had to produce the minutes of the Society’s meeting that authorised the opening of such an account. I still have a copy. They read:

INAUGURAL MEETING OF THESOCIETY FOR THE PRESERVATION OF THE WAYZGOOSE

Item1: Mr B. Whittle (Chairman) got the beer inItem2: Mr A. Leatham (Hon Sec) got more beer in
  • Item3: Mr A. Thomas (Social Sec) got another round in

And so it goes on until Item 8 which simply states: ‘Someone suggested a bank account would be a good idea so it was decided to open one.’

Sadly, for reasons that I cannot recall, the Society was doomed to die a death when it was still nothing more than a Wayzgosling.

Our first outing managed to attract a degree of commercial sponsorship from those nice people who used to make Vladivar Vodka in Warrington, courtesy of the journalists’ friend, Phil Staniforth, owner of Staniforth PR.

We began, in time-honoured fashion, drinking Guinness and champagne in the office pub at 8.30am. About an hour later the coach, paid for by Mr Vladivar, arrived to transport us to a pub on the outskirts of Lancaster where we could legally drink the afternoon away (this was when pubs usually closed at 3pm) and indulge in a variety of healthy pastimes such as crown green bowls.

The first discovery we made was that the coach was carrying the marketing director of Greenalls Distillers Ltd. The second was that it was loaded down to the Plimsoll line with vodka and every conceivable kind of mixer.

We arrived in Lancaster about 11am to be met by a look of utter dismay from the landlady. I think it was first time she had ever had a coach party arrive pissed. And things just got worse. We started a bowls tournament which we thought was going well until the landlord appeared and bollocked us for bowling too fast and running on the green.

Then, diminutive Scottish photographer Brian Taylor, the original Poison Dwarf, fell asleep in a corner of the green, forcing us to use his head as a jack.

Things finally came to a head when the Dwarf, by now revived by ‘mair vodka!’ told the landlady exactly what he would like to do to her, if only she could get away from that …. of a husband of hers. His chat-up line began: ‘See me, I’m going tae ….. the ….. off you.’ We were invited to leave and never return.

The journey back to Manchester has long since vanished into the mists of oblivion. It’s highly possible we were invited to leave even more pubs but I have vague recollections of finishing up back in the office pub where the day ended, as it had begun, in traditional manner. With a scrap between two very, very emotional hacks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wayzgoose: The SPW arrives in Lancaster. Back Row: Steve White (Daily Mirror); George Dearsley (Daily Star); The Man From Vladivar; Boyd Milligan (News of the World). Standing, but only temporarily: Maurice Chesworth (Daily Mirror); Brian Roberts (Sunday Mirror); Brian Whittle (Cavendish Press); Alwyn Thomas (Sunday People); John Davies (Freelance photographer); Andy Leatham (Sunday People). Front Row: Alan Hart (News of the World); Ken Bingham (Daily Express); Clive Hadfield (Sunday Mirror); Tim Worsnop’s brother (The Sun); Tim Worsnop (Cavendish Press).

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Ranters promotion

 

 

Save ?2 on Skiddy’s book

What has been hailed by this reviewer as the literary masterpiece of the year – Ian Skidmore’s newly published book, Forgive Us Our Press Passes – has been receiving brilliant reviews.

small,coverWithout exception the book has been hailed as ‘hilarious’.

He has been interviewed by nearly everybody from his local paper to the BBC, and much has been written about the garden shed with a lavatory and a library in Ely, Cambs, where he currently toils.

The book chronicles Skiddy’s life as a freelance writer, reporter, broadcaster and sometime night news editor in the north west of England and in North Wales, with rollicking yarns about the eccentric, and often unlikely, characters he stumbled across or stepped over and some of the crazy stories he covered during the 50s, 60s and 70s.

As a special offer to readers of this website the book, which retails at ?9.95 can now be bought direct from the publisher – revelbarker@gmail.com for ?2.00 below the recommended retail price.

It’s now available for a mere ?7.95, plus ?1.05 post and packing.

Order it by sending ?9.00, andpaying via PayPal [ www.paypal.co.uk ].

Please include your name and address, including postcode, and a telephone number.

Books should arrive within five days of receipt of the order.

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Sunderland spectacular

By John Kay

The tradition of Wayzgoose was strictly observed by the North-East press corps, and by none so enthusiastically as our legendary Gentlemen Ranters’ founder and editor in chief, Revel Barker.

For some years , the very generous and tolerant bosses of Whitbreads brewery had kindly earmarked one of their pubs, kicked out all their regular customers on Maundy Thursday , and turned over the premises for the entire day and night exclusively to Britain’s thirstiest group of reporters and snappers.

The chosen boozer resembled a normal pub in every respect except two – you lined up at the packed bar to get a pint, but never paid a penny. Secondly, a galaxy of young ladies who had no inhibitions about divesting themselves of their outer garments paraded their charms as dusk descended.

It was in 1973 when the cavalcade alighted on a Whitbreads boozer in the outer environs of Sunderland for that year’s Wayzgoose. It was such a prestigious occasion that the Mayor of Sunderland insisted he had a right to attend. Local freelance Ted Elkins said that would be acceptable, but pointed out that the affair was fancy dress, so the council chief turned up dressed as Henry VIII, complete with gold tights and his wife’s gold lame handbag – to find everybody else wearing blazers and flannels.

Professor Stanley Blenkinsop, then the top man for the Express in the North-East, never failed to turn up – and always provided a commentary of the entertainment with references to his favourite hobby. An impromptu cabaret was provided by sports writer Bob Cass – still going strong on the Mail on Sunday – who could have been a professional comic as he easily out-gagged Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper rolled into one

As Cass left the stage to tumultuous applause, the first of the procession of gorgeous strippers appeared to leering cheers from the assembled hacks.

One Revel Barker, then in the North-East bureau of the Daily Mirror, took up his accustomed position in the front row and leaned forward intently to make sure that he was just a hair’s breadth from the action.

As the second girl shimmied across the stage, she caught sight of our distinguished Ranters editor with his bespectacled eyes glued to her nether regions.

Without breaking her dance routine, she executed a few slinky passes, just inches from his nose and with one swift move removed his horn-rimmed spectacles. To roars of approval, she secreted the specs in a very intimate part of her anatomy and continued to gyrate for at least another ten minutes as she got rid of all her clothes.

Then, as the tension mounted and Revel squinted even harder, she produced the bins just like a magician taking an egg from behind a punter’s ear.

She proceeded to put the steamed-up spectacles back on the nose of our revered editor… where they remained firmly in place for the rest of the evening. It was reliably reported that the Mayor of Sunderland heard Revel sigh: ‘I’ve died and gone to heaven’…

And, who knows, he may still wearing them to this day in his island lair on Gozo….

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Green as a primary colour

couzensBy Cathy Couzens

The madness that is America on St Patrick’s Day reminded me of a bitterly cold week spent in Chicago in 1978… well I think it was 1978, all I know was that the Daily Star brain, Peter Grimsditch, wanted me to go over and cover (no additional remarks please) Senator Edward Kennedy who was running in the Democratic primaries.

Peter thought Chicago was the best place to get the most out of the story so off I went, complete with full length fur coat, thick yeti boots and a hat that made me look like something out of Dr Zhivago. You have to remember I was once described in Private Eye as the least scruffy journalist in Fleet Street.

Chicago is one of my favourite cities so this was not a hardship. What I had never encountered before was March 17th in Chicago. They dyed the river green, they start drinking at dawn, the parade is at 10am and everyone is half crocked. It was snowing. Not nice little Dickens flakes as we get in the UK, oh no, stonking great lumps of ice and snow blasting from all directions. This is the Windy City and it believes in the title.

As usual I had no real idea what the hell I was doing but that never stopped me before and it didn’t this time. Everywhere Teddy went Cathy followed and I became new best friends with the secret service men. It was a superb show, Irish bands, Irish dancers, green stuff everywhere and drunks mixing with Irish policemen who would not arrest anyone that day. A large black man danced a jig with me, he was painted emerald green and his teeth were also green. Grand stuff and superb meat for this columnist who was having a ball.

The Secret Service guys were huge. I made best pals with a former Mr Birmingham Alabama; he was at least 6ft 7ins and had the best teeth I ever saw. I did my best to concentrate on the job… we were exhausted by the end of the day. Teddy was charming everywhere and tried not to drink too much, he sang and danced with the Irish and made sure he had their vote, which, being a Kennedy, he had already in hand.

We all went for a huge Chicago steak at a restaurant at the back of the famous Brown’s Hotel. It was heaving, I had never eaten steak like that before…you could cut it with a butter knife, and it was wonderful. Wine and beer flowed, and there were no worries until I realised that someone had taken my handbag. Oh crap. In my handbag, of course, was my purse, press pass, notebook with some of the best quotes ever to come out of TK’s mouth, and everything important. Gone. This was a huge restaurant, full of noisy press and even louder drunks, politicians and secret service.

For the first time in my life I actually burst into tears… those that know me know this NEVER happened and to be honest it was probably half wine and half fear…. his lordship himself saw my face and came over. I told the last Kennedy ever to run for president that my life had been stolen, he looked concerned, tapped my shoulder with concern and went back to his table.

I have no idea what happened, all I know is that two hours later a Secret Service agent tapped on my bedroom door and handed me the handbag. It was all there.

I asked him if he had to kill someone for it and he tapped his nose.

These days, living in America as I have done for 27 years, I hear a lot of bad things about the Kennedy family – and right now I watch from afar as the press corps work their arses off to get new tales out of the primaries… I am glad I am not there, but I have good memories and I am not just talking about Mr Birmingham Alabama!

  • Cathy Couzens started on the Brighton and Hove Gazette in 1968, worked for the Evening Argus at the same time and moved to Westminster Press London office in 1974, doing days for WP and nights at the Daily Mail. She became a reporter on the Daily Express, later moving to the Daily Star. In 1981 she met a man on an airplane, married him ten days later in Reno and has been in Houston, Texas ever since. She still freelances, when called, and also gives talks on the Royal Family.

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Putting the boot in

By Jack Grimshaw

When one’s personal coat of arms features crossed yard-of-ale glasses and the motto Kegito Ergo Sum (I drink, therefore I am), one does not require a reasonfor a few brews. However, when justification for a major bender is thrust under one’s nose, one would be an ungrateful wretch to not seize it.

So, one morning in 1972, perusing the dailies on the news subs’ desk at the Manchester Evening News, I came across an intriguing historical tidbit.

In 1830, Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, pushed through the Beerhouse Act. For two guineas, any householder or ratepayer in England or Wales could turn their private premises into a beer/ale/porter/cider tavern Monday through Saturday… even brewing their own product if so desired. The intention was laudable – to reduce the damaging high consumption of raw spirits (primarily gin, aka Mother’s Ruin).

The act not only failed in its intent, it was a social disaster of major proportions. In less than a month some 24,000 licences were taken out, primarily in areas with large populations of working-class people. Many of the new establishments quickly became places of ill-repute and the haunts of criminals. Within a fortnight, Sydney Smith wrote: ‘Everybody is drunk. Those who are not singing are sprawling. The Sovereign People is in a beastly state.’

This condition being something with which I was not entirely unfamiliar, inspiration struck. A conversation with colleague and dedicated imbiber Dave Manson, and the basic principles of a commemorative roust were soon established: news subs only (no sports, features or – God forbid – news reporter wankers); a Friday night in an area of numerous establishments; one drink in each. Agreed, 24,000 was a tad optimistic, but we’d certainly give it our best shot.

An invitation posted on the wall, featuring a magnificently endowed young lady from the Sun Page 3, aroused much interest. (It was the most enjoyable layout and writing I did for quite some time – in fact, until the next one.) The evening was a rousing success, much drink was took, I have absolutely no recollection of where it was.

And so The Dukes became an institution. Monthly, on Friday nights, a different locale was agreed on (Stockport, Cheadle, Didsbury, the darkest depths of Cheshire), copious amounts of beer were swilled (I seem to recollect one pub with a unique dart board featuring three triple-20 zones; I aimed at the middle one), much camaraderie and bullshit were shared. There were no major disagreements or fisticuffs, among ourselves or anyone else. Maybe we just didn’t stick around long enough in one spot for them to develop.

Always of some interest the following morning at the News was who made it in at what time and in what shape. Thankfully, chief sub on Saturdays was generally weekday copytaster Len Roberts, a gentleman with much more of a sense of humour than the two bleak individuals who usually ran the department.

There was a hard core (Jesus, isn’t there always where booze is involved?) – Manson, Peter Brewster (later, a Toronto Sun, Canada honcho), Tony Holt, Kevin Henry (son of former MEN editor Tom Henry), Barry Seddon, Dave Pickard, Simon Bygrave (son of Sunday ExpressManchester editor Howard Bygrave), Paul Jackson and me (son of the Daily MailManchester head printer).

Amazingly, a musical element emerged. Seddon on guitar, Henry displaying a dazzling virtuosity on spoons (a distant strain of Irish tinkers in the clan?), the rest of us harmonising, ululating and beating on the furniture, we delighted the locals (or so it certainly seemed at the time) with a variety of popular songs.

I vaguely remember a mouth organ, but that may be too many Brown Basstards – bottom half Bass, top half Newcastle Brown – repainting history’s canvas. I do know that for every round of drinks, with a clash of glasses, the salutation was the same – ‘Boots, baby!’

I like to think the Duke would have approved.

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Sorry, just changing paper

By Harold Heys

James Pinkerton didn’t look much like a newspaperman. Bottle-bottom glasses, flat ’at, crumpled blue suit. He was quietly-spoken and a connoisseur of old books, fine wine and obscure classical music.

Pinky was a copy-taker with the Odhams operation in Manchester when I joined the Sunday People sports desk 40 years ago. He’d seen it all over the years and was never averse to gently subbing phoned copy as he went along. It was invariably better for his light touch.

And he was as laid-back as they come. Not for him the ‘any-more-of-this-shit?’ cracks. He was much too laid back and sophisticated.

Ken Ashton’s recent piece about copy-takers brought back a few memories from the dim and distant. Vaguely, through a haze of old age and Benedictine, I recall a Pinkerton tale that goes back 50 years.

Jackie Milburn, the former Newcastle legend, had moved on to be player-manager at Linfield and had quickly established himself, scoring dozens of goals for the Belfast club.

Malcolm Brodie, then and for many years the renowned sports editor of the Belfast Telegraph, was phoning over an Irish League report on Linfield against, possibly, Glentoran, their across-the-city rivals and Malcolm was waxing lyrical. It went something like this…

‘Copy?’

‘Yes,’ said Pinky as he carefully stirred his cup of tea.

‘Linfield v Glentoran.

‘Yes. Right.’

‘Wor Jackie – Make that caps. WORRRRRR JACKIE…’

‘How many Rs?’

‘Just the one. WOR JACKIE comma the demon dazzler who has thrilled millions of Geordies in a star-studded career with Newcastle United comma turned on his own special brand of magic at Windsor Park last night comma picking up a loose ball by the centre spot and racing up the right wing in a superbly-crafted weaving run cutting inside to dance past more flailing legs before crashing the ball into the top left-hand corner to a mighty roar from delirious fans dash a fifth minute goal that rocked the Glens on their heels point…

Pause for breath: ‘Got that?’

‘Yes,’ yawned the laconic James Pinkerton, sipping his tea. ‘I just typed: Milburn scored for Linfield after five minutes.’

Pinky was too sharp for hairy-arsed news editors. He once took a story from Scotland, while working on the Daily Herald in Manchester, and banged it through to the desk. Ten minutes later news editor Ken Tucker appeared, asking with a polished sneer: ‘What the hell is this Pinky. What on earth’s a bloody grilse? You lot should be more careful.’

Pinky explained that a grilse was a baby salmon.’ Well, I’ve never heard of it,’ mumbled Tucker and wandered off.

Late in the evening when it had quietened down Tucker reappeared, a little subdued. ‘Well, lads. What sort of a day has it been?’

‘A bit of a mixed grilse really, Ken,’ replied Our Hero.

The MirrorDublin man Jack Keneally was a legend in his own lunchtime and he often exasperated the Manchester copy-takers after a hectic afternoon session. One evening, the newsdesk wanted to know the second line of McNamara’s Band. (A bloke called Kevin McNamara was standing for Labour in a by-election in Hull North in January 1966, although it doesn’t really matter to the story.)

The minutes were ticking down to deadline and all anybody in the office could come up with was: ‘Oh, mi name is McNamara, I’m the leader of the band; Da-da-di-da. Da-da-di-da. Da-da-di-in-the-land’ Someone had a bright idea: Ring Jack. He’ll know.

After a few more precious minutes ringing all the pubs round the office on really bad lines they got. him. ‘No problem,’ said Jack… ‘Oh, mi name is McNamara, I’m the leader of the band; Er, um. Da-da-di-da- Da-da-di-da Da-da-di-in-the-land. Give me two minutes.’ And off he went as the news desk screamed: ‘Make it quick!’

Two minutes later, with deadline perilously close, Jack was back on to the news desk on a crackly line. ‘Got it!’ he screamed. ‘We’ll put you on to copy,’ someone shouted. Big mistake.

‘Copy? Keneally, Dublin.’ This at full blast with his usual background accompaniment of clinking glasses, noisy banter, and raucous laughter. ‘Oh, mi name is McNamara, I’m the leader of the band,’ he roared at full slur.

‘Oh fuck off, Jack. Yer pissed again,’ said the fed-up copy-taker. And pulled the plug.

They never did find out that second line.

Keneally is also remembered for phoning through a Dublin dog card – from two different countries. He came on to copy one afternoon and started dictating, but in the middle of it – ‘Keneally, Dublin, Dunmore Park de-da-de-da’ – he was called to board his plane for Amsterdam or somewhere. He didn’t bat an eyelid and told the copy-taker: ‘All for now, can you mark it: More later.’ And the line went dead. A couple of hours or so later he was back on to copy: ‘Keneally, Amsterdam, add Dunmore dogs…’ And proceeded to dictate the rest of the copy.

Ian Wooldridge once covered the legendary Iditarod sled dog race through the Alaskan wilderness and suffered temperatures that would freeze the earrings off a brass gypsy. Working telephones were scarcer than ATM machines and getting through to copy was a nightmare. After one really bad day he finally and thankfully established some sort of crackly contact with London copy. Only to hear from the other end a rather plaintive: ‘I haven’t officially started work yet, you know’.

Yes, we’ve all been there.

Giving – and taking – copy, often in the heat of battle, was a fine art. And, sadly, a lost art. It was often quite an experience. You dreaded the whispered words: ‘You’ll have to bear with me. I’m new.’ And often, at the end, with just the hint of a smirk: ‘Hang on. News desk want a word.’

Not to mention the bad lines and copy-taking classics such as Noisy Bacon Society for Noise Abatement Society, and exchanges along the lines of:

Crewe Sailors?’

‘No. Cru-saders’

‘Cruise what..?’

‘For fuck’s sake.’

Click.

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Dunsnappin

oldmonkey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ranters offer

 

Against all odds

By Peter Reece

Pensions and pressmen have never been words that slept peacefully together since Cap’n Bob jumped ship. But if it’s any consolation to my Fleet Street colleagues who had staff jobs, we freelances placed our misguided faith in endowment pension policy salesmen, and for the most part we were thoroughly ripped off too.

But if I happen to mention in passing that the finest pension plan I ever discovered was all tied up in a lottery ticket you might think I’ve lost my marbles completely. For the morbidly sceptical, this is the point where I suggest you skip to the next story. Otherwise you may wish to read on.

It is, according to our friends at Camelot, a 14 million to 1 punt to hit a UK lottery jackpot, and even riskier if you happen to bet on your birthday numbers in the richer Euro Lottery.

Yet millions and millions of otherwise totally sensible people risk a few pounds every week in the hope that the miracle will happen. In fact it does. It could be YOU. The trouble is, it’s never you or me.

Then a couple of years back an old pal learned of my stupidity in buying tickets at the local Tesco and told me if I played in an on-line syndicate the chances of winning at least something was increased by 702% in the UK Lottery and a massive 3,600% if I employed syndicate play on the Euro.

When he went on to tell me how I could turn the lottery into an ever growing pension plan, I gave him that special look I have reserved for the next man who suggests he’s found Lord Lucan dressed as a woman and working behind the cosmetics counter in Harrods.

Then a funny thing happened. I won the lottery. Not a lot, but it was well worth banking the cheque. Then I won again and again and again. In fact if I don’t win something every week I get very ratty indeed.

Its is all down to two very clever guys in Wales (yes… the thought of investing my financial future in Welsh technology did strike something of a discordant note) who worked out the best odds of winning, and then devised a totally foolproof web-based method whereby anyone in the world* could play.

The UK Lotteries Council, http://lotteriescouncil.org.uk/ gave it the thumbs-up, and the council secretary, Peter Jones, thought it such a good deal he invests a few pounds of his own money every week.

The syndicates work on two distinct levels. Anyone over 18 can sign in and become a player to take advantage of much better odds of winning something, if not the jackpot.

But as an affiliate member of the syndicate, players can go on to invite their friends and associates to play in a syndicate format too. That position cost the princely sum of 163;4.99 a year and delivers your own personal web site, up and running, done and dusted.

For each affiliate member who joins, there is potentially an instant reward. Find just five new players – it took me two days and half a dozen ‘phone calls – earns enough in commissions to ensure you are playing for the lottery, or lotteries, for free

Then as that original group of friends goes on to invite people to join, the commissions arrive in the form of a very welcome cheque. It tends to get a little bit bigger ever month, which is something of a novel experience for me.

In a nutshell, it was the finest 163;44.99 I ever invested in my life. That little investment bought me a superb web site that tracks every last detail of my lottery syndicates, pays for a month’s worth of lottery numbers, and ensures I never forget to buy a ticket.

Well over 2,000 total strangers from just about every country on the planet have joined my syndicates in the past couple of years and my pension cheque grows from month to month.

This is not a get-rich-quick scheme and was never designed to be so. But it is the only way I know where the boring words ‘pension plan’ can be translated as a whole load of pension earning fun.

You can join us if you wish by reading the words, watching the movie and, if you are so inclined, going to the icon that says Join Now.

(* Our American cousins cannot play. Their economy is so bad that George Bush has banned the lads from using their credit cards for even a lottery ticket.)

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