On the shelf
The number of people who have suggested a compilation of The Best Of Ranters in book form is immensely flattering and encouraging.
But here’s a question: Who would buy it?
Almost perversely, journalists don’t have a book-buying culture. Some of them pick up as much as they need from freebies that come into the office and others cheekily just ring publishers and ask for a copy with the unspoken implication that there might be a chance of a mention in the public prints.
This website appears to have an average daily readership of around 1,000 (we passed the mystical 1.5million mark last Friday morning) – but we don’t know who most of them are. We have heard, directly or otherwise, from about 500 people since we started 11 months ago; but even those 500 are not, surely, reading the site on a daily basis.
Another question is: why would our readers, most or many of them penurious pensioners, pay to re-read in hard copy what they had already read on-line?
And finally, if we did do it, what should we call the book?
Meanwhile, if you are looking for something useful to read after finishing with today’s edition of Ranters, we recommend Barry Kernon’s Tax Guide For Authors And Journalists, which is accessible via column one on this page (over there, on the left). And if you prefer to read it in hard copy, email Barry and ask for a downloadable, printable version.
Final word on books (for this week) – copies of Forgive Us Our Press Passes by Ian Skidmore and The Best of Vincent Mulchrone are available from our BOOKSHOP. Also over there on the left of your screen.
We start with a Rant. Somebody – that’s somebody who was presumably paid to find it so – has concluded that journalism can be stressful. Tell us about it. We do.
Former freelance football writer Stan Solomons remembers the happy day when he raced down a soccer pitch, from half-way line to goalmouth, with the roars of 130,000 fans filling the stadium. If only he’d taken a ball…
We have yet another obituary – Harold Heys remembering Brian ‘Crazy’ Caven.
There’s a call to arms for all Express crusaders as the Black Lubyanka opens its massive doors to them.
And Colin Dunne remembers discovering that great expectations didn’t always come to fruition.
All human life.
I didn’t see the tears, I saw the story
By Revel Barker
I was still at school when my grandmother died, fairly peacefully, in bed and my parents thought it inappropriate for me to see her body. But a month or so later I was on my first weekly and when I went to collect the death notice from a bereaved family I was invited into the front room to see the corpse, lying in its coffin.
Colleagues had warned me that this was likely to happen and advised that, while viewing the body was optional, it was often considered impolite to refuse: so I went for a look.
A year later I was on the Yorkshire Evening Post and watched as the charred remains of an old lady were carried out looking like a stretcher-load of glistening charcoal, uncovered, from a fire-gutted cottage and in the same week I broke the news to a boy of 15 – because the police hadn’t hung around for anybody to come home –that his father had been found floating face down in the Leeds and Liverpool canal.
On another day I was covering the mid-air explosion of an RAF aircraft and found a flying boot standing upright in a field, with a bit of leg in it.
If I put the grey cells into fast forward from there I can recall (not necessarily in chronological order) being spat at, stoned, shot at and petrol-bombed in Northern Ireland, blown off my feet by a bomb in Germany, shelled in the Lebanon, bitten by a snake in the Caribbean and by a poisonous spider in Australia, jumping out of a blazing aircraft, being arrested in several countries, deported from one and thrown into jail in another.
I’ve had friends who were kidnapped, were shot and even assassinated.
Many people reading this – I know – have experienced far more and far worse.
In fact, my short list is nothing compared with lots of my mates whose job description took them further away from the office than the pub across the road.
So why do I mention it?
I was strolling down the Internet by-ways last week and discovered that the Institute of Work Psychology – and there’s an organisation designed to keep the otherwise unemployable out of the dole queue – had been investigating stress… in journalism.
If they’d asked me I think I would have mentioned deadlines; or being rung up at midnight and expected – nay, required – to immediately match a story in a rival paper that might have been weeks in the writing; or trying to get a line back from a third-world country, waiting for days, then being connected to a copy taker whose first language was not English…
That sort of thing, on the day, would be pretty stressful, I guess.
But they didn’t ask me. They interviewed ‘20 journalists’. That was 9 reporters, five editorial managers and six ‘journalism educators’.
Not a single photographer was included in this research, which seems to me to be a glaring omission if you are purporting to examine ‘stress’ in journalism.
Nobody, as far as I can see from the reading, mentioned the difficulties of getting stuff to the office. Presumably now that they all have mobile phones and laptops that doesn’t apply, so the assumed stress is about covering the job.
Here’s how the experts see it:
Journalists may be affected by traumatic exposure at three different levels:
Direct exposure, where a traumatic event is personally experienced or witnessed
Secondary exposure, such as via sympathetic involvement in the experiences of another
Vicarious exposure, where traumatisation occurs in the absence of personal contact.
And here are ‘some of the ways in which journalists of diverse specialities may be exposed to potentially traumatising incidents in the course of duty’. These are listed as ‘exposure hazards’:
Production – Graphic stimulus such as photographs from the aftermath of disaster
Foreign – Experiencing the realities of war first hand
Sport – Violent or tragic events such as crowd-crushing at football matches
Home affairs / crime – Graphic evidence in court or contact with victims of crime
Investigative – Prolonged contact with victims of tragedy, such as during a murder or missing persons investigation
News / features – Contact with bereaved families or victims of illness
Photographers – Tragic events such as the scene of an accident or aftermath of disaster
Producing such a list of ‘potentially traumatising incidents’ looks to me like looking for trouble.
Read it for yourself at:
It all seems sadly reminiscent of the modern policemen who take sick leave after covering a grisly murder or a big disaster.
What did these people think they were signing up for?
I don’t remember hearing about anybody – any journalist, I mean – being traumatised by covering Aberfan, for example, or Dunblane or Lockerbie.Or Ulster. But then, they hadn’t seen the list of potential hazards.
Come to that, did any correspondent who reported the discovery of Belsen or Auschwitz or who was first into Hiroshima need treatment for stress? – I don’t think so, because if it had happened it would surely have been written into the history by now.
Indeed, one of the interviewees in this survey told the researchers: ‘I didn’t see the tears, I saw the story.’
That’s reassuring; at least they picked one who understood the game.
Another said: ‘I don’t expect any support, basically, because there isn’t any.’
Well, that’s sad. Because there was no shortage of it in our day.
Before the term was even invented we had Stress Counsellors in the office. They would often be sitting at the next desk. And they would say: ‘You look like you need a drink, old man.’
Somewhere alongside the stress was anger, and frustration, which could manifest in a variety of forms.
Writing what you knew was a good piece that didn’t make the paper, finding that somehow an error had been inserted into your copy somewhere along the production line, having your stuff appear without a by-line or – worse – under somebody else’s byline…
What about writing the splash on the night the inkies decided to stop the paper? Or building up a piece for a Sunday newspaper, only to have one of the dailies break it on the Saturday?
The antidote was the same: we resorted to drinks rather than to shrinks.
But now that I’m all wised up I wonder: is it too late to put in a claim?
Regrets, I’ve had a few
By Stan Solomons
Looking back on a freelance career spanning more than forty years I often find myself thinking of stories I regret writing. There have been a few but I suppose getting a football club manager the sack must rank among the worst or maybe the best, depending on your viewpoint.
In a fit of pique back in the 1960s – or maybe it was in the 1970s – the manager of one of the teams on my patch placed the whole squad on the transfer list after a particularly bad performance.
I remember standing outside the ground with him as the team trained and he unburdened himself to me. Now, although he did not say the magic words, ‘Off the record’ I knew bloody well that he did not intend me using anything that he was saying. The fact that I did not produce a notebook obviously convinced him that I would not report anything he said.
One after the other he lambasted every member of the team, pointing out their lack of skills and/or commitment. In those days I was fresh and virile with an active mind – yes it’s true – and could recall every word he said.
It was wrong, I know, but I decided there and then that the man had to go. Not only was the team heading for relegation but his relationship with his players was appalling. He never even said ‘Good morning’ when they reported for training.
At that time most of the players went for cup of tea in a café near the ground. That’s where I found them. Gleefully I went from one to another telling them what the manager had said about them. Each of them, of course, hit back at him and I drove back to the office with their replies still fresh in my mind.
The next morning I got the back page lead in the Northern editions of half a dozen nationals – and the stuff hit the fan. Twenty four hours later the board sacked him.
Naturally I phoned him for a quote. I couldn’t possibly repeat what he said, but you can guess. The gist of it was that if I came anywhere near him he would use my head as a football.
For some time I felt bad about it, but then I thought ‘What the hell.I’ve done the club and the players a favour in getting rid of him and he’ll get a compensation package’.
Now, many years later, I still suffer pangs of guilt but then when I read the rubbish some of our present day sports journalists write and the barbed comments they make with the intention of getting managers the sack I don’t feel too badly.
Football always played a big part in my life as a freelance and the news that Reading are now being relegated to the Championship reminds me of the sports story I did in the early 1970s which earned our agency a few shekels and enhanced our reputations with a number of sports editors.
I can still remember racing goalwards from the centre circle at the Halifax Town ground (tragically the club has just gone into liquidation) with the tumultuous roar of 130,000 soccer fans almost bursting my eardrums.
The voice of the commentator reached fever pitch as I beat man after man.’Solomons is in the box, he swerves past Charlton and shoots – and it’s a goal!’ he screamed.
The fact that I was the only man on the pitch and there wasn’t even a ball didn’t matter. George Kirby, manager of Halifax Town, and I proved it would work. The club were then in the Third Division and trying for promotion to the second but were attracting only small crowds. George was desperate to boost the attendance and suddenly I had a great idea.
As a publicity stunt I suggested we draft in an invisible crowd. George went along with it and I phoned a friend at the BBC and asked if he could get me a tape of the crowd roaring at a Wembley FA Cup Final. He couldn’t find one but he went one better – a recording of the Hampden roar, 130,000 voices at the Scottish Cup Final. We played the tape on the club’s tannoy system and it was fantastic.
The sound was tremendous as I raced up the pitch with George doing the commentary over the loudspeakers. It was great fun. Just imagine a little club like Halifax playing in front of a crowd of more than a hundred thousand.
Our idea was to try it out at the next home game which happened to be against Reading on the following Saturday afternoon. We sent out the story in advance and it made a big show in most of the nationals. The FA said they had no objection as long as the opposing club was happy about it. And that’s where we hit a snag. Reading objected even though we told them we would be scrupulously fair, that Halifax would turn up the volume to the full roar as each side attacked, not just the home side. But Reading would not budge.
The advance story helped to boost the crowd at the game which I think Halifax won, but Reading’s refusal to play ball robbed us of a Sunday paper piece. So I shed no tears for them as they dropped from the Premiership. They missed the chance to make Football League history
People used to rate him
By Harold Heys
‘Do me a favour,’ I asked as I plonked two more large brandies on the pub table. ‘Email me your obit. You don’t want some twat screwing it up, do you?’
‘Bastard,’ said Brian ‘Crazy’ Caven. Ex-London Evening News, Liverpool Echo and Daily Express, Manchester, sub. Demon drinker, serious smoker and lifelong lothario.
He never did e-mail me that obit. Three days later Crazy was dead at the age of 64. Not old for a legend.
Let’s get the career bit out of the way and then we can look back to his prodigious drinking. Brian started as a 15-year-old on the Southport Visiter and after a stint on the Liverpool Echo he went to London where he worked on the Evening News while shifting on several of the nationals.
After a few wild months in southern Spain launching his professional drinking career he returned to England complete with deep tan, a wild mop of curly black hair and full beard. He became a sub-editor on the Lancashire Evening Post at Preston where an elderly fellow sub enquired: ‘Is he from Iran?’ No, he was from Planet Loony.
He was a sub on the Daily Express in Manchester during the 80s, knocking in the usual drinking shifts on the Sunday, and when the wheels came off he joined the Post, the Warrington-based national launched by Eddie Shah. When that folded he became chief sub on the new evening ‘Charlie’ Chester Tonight.
He joined the Blackburn-based Citizen group in 1989 and became editorial director and later head of IT for Newsquest, Lancashire, where his expertise in finance and commerce came to the fore. He’d been retired for the past few years and not in the best of health and had been living in Blackburn. He went to live with his second daughter Alison in Buxton a few weeks ago.
And it was in Buxton that I last saw him. As crazy as ever in spite of considerable pain from the cancer that was ravaging his body. Brian had quickly sorted out the various town centre pubs and had found one joint that sold double brandies for two quid. Over 20 years I’ve supped some strange concoctions with Crazy but I’d always drawn the line at crap brandy. He had no such scruples.
Anyway, like a prat I’d taken his advice and arrived in Buxton by train. Big mistake. The afternoon started quietly enough with a couple of coffees while he filled me in on his illness and proposed treatment. And then the fun started. It was just like the old days but he was struggling. His ribs were ‘disintegrating’ and his liver was pretty much shot but we were making plans for him to attend the annual Daily Express reunion piss-up in Manchester the following week and I was arranging to take him there and get him home.
But he didn’t think he would be able to make it. He wasn’t eating. It made him nauseous. He looked well enough, but it was pretty obvious that he didn’t have a long time. However, his prodigious appetite for liquid refreshment was undimmed and he still managed to sink a succession of large ones as the afternoon wore on.
‘That bloke over there,’ he confided in one pub, pointing to an old boy at the bar with long grey hair and a daft hat ‘is a professional poet. And the bloke next to him is a professional actor. And the bloke sat in the corner with two pints in front of him is a professional piss-head.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, admiring the glazed eyes and the red conk. ‘But not as good as you?’ Brian nodded. ‘Yeah. Better.’
I persisted: ‘But not as good as you in your hey-day?’ A shrug. A resigned nod of the head. It was like being told there was no Father Christmas. A really sad moment.
Brian Caven must have been dried out three or four times over the years. His consumption of Senior Service was about 12 on the Vesuvius Scale. He was ‘old school’. Back to the days when the culture of heavy drinking in the newspaper game, certainly on the nationals, was in full flow. These days it seems to be a couple of halves and off home. The thought of 20 Senior before a liquid lunch would fill most young kids with horror. Not for them a regular Friday night carrier bag full of untipped fags for the week ahead.
Some of Brian’s world records will probably never be broken. He was particularly proud of a pint of claret in 3.8 seconds. And of course the Lancashire Evening Post ‘longest lunchbreak’ record. ‘From 11 in the morning till 3 o’clock,’ he used to say to the kids. ‘What, four hours?’ some would ask in surprise, with the occasional shrewdie venturing: ‘What 3 o’clock the next morning?’ Pause for effect. ‘No. Three o’clock the following afternoon,’ he’d say modestly.
Crazy was unusual in that he seemed pissed after two pints of strong lager. But he never seemed to get much worse. And he was proud of the fact that he’d been banned from driving only twice.
They still tell the tale of the Pissathon. Some young sub from over Yorkshire way arrived with a bit of a reputation as a drinker. It wasn’t long before the gauntlet was thrown down. Our hero and the new man fastened their belts tightly round the brass bar rail and off they went, starting on the left of the top row as was the custom. It was all over within a few hours. And Brian casually knocked back three or four pints to celebrate his victory.
I’m not sure now as the mists of time roll in, but I think his record for downing pints in a session topped 30. And I vaguely recall that they were actually pints of Guinness.
Brian had become legendary for drinking and smoking and birding. During the quiet morning before I arrived for what would be our last session he’d worked out that he’d had 138 different young ladies through his hands in his colourful career. Probably about right. No one would have dared to make up that sort of score.
My last sight of him was from the train out of Buxton as he walked slowly down the platform on the arm of his lovely daughter Alison. He’d asked me only one favour. Would I take his 14-year-old daughter Leah for an ice cream some time and tell her that her dad wasn’t just a piss-head, old before his time, rather frail and worn out. ‘Tell her I wasn’t bad at this game in my younger days,’ he asked. ‘Tell her people used to rate me.’
It’s easy for all the madcap mayhem to mask his other achievements but he was an excellent journalist with a real flair for a headline. And in his later years with Newsquest he gave many a young journalist – and some not so young – a helping hand. He would never do anybody ‘a thick ’un’ as we say in Lancashire. And he was generous to a fault.
Christine, my wife, summed him up: ‘Brian was always kindly,’ she said, which is rather a nice epitaph for the mad bastard.
• Service and cremation at Pleasington, Blackburn, 2,30pm next Monday, June 9, followed by a wake in the Hare & Hounds.
Back in the black
By Norman Luck
It is billed as the Ultimate Trip Down Memory Lane – a gathering of ex-Express employees at their former spiritual home in Fleet Street.
Nearly 20 years after the last Express employee left the landmark art-deco ‘Black Lubyanka’ building, close to Ludgate Circus, a reunion is planned for July 1 to be attended by up to 300.
Goldman Sachs, the world’s richest investment bank – and current incumbents of 133 Fleet Street – who took over and refurbished the building in the early 1990s has agreed to host the meeting with full bar and catering services.
The all-ticket event has attracted interest from around the world with ex-employees flying in from Australia, America and other far-flung locations as well as all over the UK to attend.
Organised by the Express Old Boys & Girls Social Club – the unique fraternity which has over 600 members worldwide – the focus of the meeting will be in the Grade Two Listed front hall with its muralled ceiling, chrome serpent handrails and multi-coloured floor.
The group, founded by the late Jim Nicoll, in the 1980s when he retired from the Express foreign desk, is dedicated as a lifeline for ex-employees to keep them in touch.
The popularity of the EXOB&GSC – the only national newspaper to have a thriving reunion organisation – is such that they meet on the first Tuesday of every month at the Old Bank of England pub in Fleet Street with attendances ranging from 40 to 85 and on occasions more than 100.
The July 1 meeting came about by accident when ex-Express feature writer Richard Compton Miller attended former Express and Mail diarist Nigel Dempster’s memorial service at St Bride’s.
As he left the church he noticed the Express front hall was heavily-shrouded by net curtains and decided to write a piece for the Evening Standard property column on why such art deco treasures should not be on display to the public under the rules of the Grade Two listing authorities.
He rang Goldman Sachs to point out this oversight and they readily agreed to open the curtains. He duly wrote his property piece and rang me to offer his triumph as an article for the next quarterly EXOB&GSC newsletter.
Building on Compton Miller’s success I contacted Goldman Sachs to sound them out on the possibility of holding one of our First Tuesday reunions in the old building. To my astonishment they readily agreed.
Now its all systems go for July 1. The front hall (licensed for 99) will be the reception area for our members and a further lecture theatre area on the second floor (licensed for 300) in the proximity of the former editorial area, will be made available with buffet and bar facilities in both locations.
At the invitation of Goldman Sachs I conducted a reconnaissance visit to the venue in April – an occasion tinged with eerie memories, sadness and elation that such a return to the scene of our former triumphs was to be made possible.
My conclusions published in the EXOB&GSC newsletter recorded:
It was almost like going into a reference library. The Front Hall was eerily silent – a far cry from the bustling energy of the former Post Room and the cheery greeting of Jack Marshall – the former supremo who ruled the messengers with Draconian discipline.
The beautiful art deco ceiling looks immaculate; the chrome serpent handrails to the lifts sparkle; the multi-coloured floor – once a bustling walkway for lords, ladies, prime ministers, household name politicians and Express staff in various states of sobriety after a good lunch – is spotless.
The lift doors, although polished no longer house the conveyances that whisked us up to the editorial floor. These have been replaced by more modern, faster versions behind the central core of the listed area.
The thing I missed most, as I sniffed the hi-tech conditioned air which circulates the building, was the smell of printing ink – the blend of intoxicating fumes that used to permeate the environment as it wafted up from the presses below street level.
The building no longer shook with the mighty Goss presses – nearly sabotaged by the tinkering of the Duke of Edinburgh when he visited with the Queen to inaugurate newer versions in the early 80s – roaring into life for regular maintenance checks. (The Duke had nudged the switch from slow to max as nervous Swedish technicians looked on while carefully attempting to tweak the system before final commissioning could be guaranteed).
The first-floor van drivers’ tea bar, where staff could buy a doorstep-sized bacon sarnie and a mug of tea for next to nothing is no more. This area which once included the Poppinjay – the integrated pub under Aitken House – where many a career was dashed or enhanced and performances on major exclusives were assessed, is now a void under the alloy and glass opulence of the building’s re-styling.
On what was once the editorial floor, no more tin desks, tea-stained carpet tiles, poster bedecked walls and factory-style conduits carrying power cables and phone lines to News Desk, Pictures, Foreign and the cuttings library. Instead there are smart, wood panelled walls, lush carpets and giant TV screens relaying the latest world money trading figures to all parts of this magnificent interior.
The shell of the Black Lubyanka is the same – a memorial to the once proud traditions of Fleet Street – but the interior has changed beyond all conception. Gone is the sound of clattering typewriters, the barking orders of back bench executives chasing an edition deadline and the brash slogans ‘Make it Fast – Make it Accurate’.
Even on the trading floor of the world’s richest investment bank the atmosphere was subdued behind a wall of flashing computer monitors listing the ever-changing state of the world economy. Smart suited bankers walked silently by clutching files and folders – a world apart from the vibrant environment of a thriving newspaper office. No back stairs escape route to the pub for a swift pint because security dictates everyone has to come and go through the central reception desk staffed by six very busy and ultra-efficient ladies.
Old Jack Marshall would turn in his grave. I felt sad, with only my memories to cling to. Visitors to the July 1First Tuesday reunion will, I am sure, feel the same when they assess this journos-to-bankers transition.
A booking form and tickets for the July 1 event –at £25 per head – can be obtained from Norman Luck, 42, Church Way, Sanderstead, Surrey CR2 0JR. Tel: 0208 657 1572 or e-mail: [email protected]
The EXOB&GSC has a large number of members from rival newspapers who worked alongside Express personnel during their careers. These and any other former hacks who wish to make the trip down Memory Lane on July 1 will be welcome.
By Colin Dunne
What must have happened, I suppose, is that someone in Cudlipp’s office would put a call into the Manchester editor. At the morning conference, the editor would make the important (not to mention terrifying) announcement to the heads of department. They would then spread the word back to the troops.
It always took the same form of words… ‘They’re coming up from London.’
You wouldn’t believe how this simple sentence set nerves tingling, hopes glowing and terror trembling.
Why were they coming? To thank us? To punish us? To see what we got up to? To check our exes? Was it true that Cudlipp always made a point of firing at least one person when he went walkabout like this? Was it also true that he liked to pick out an unknown and make him a star? Or – as Pam Smart liked to say – her?
The mighty could be struck down, the lowly could be raised… didn’t bear thinking about. Those who wanted a quiet life – corned beef sandwiches at the desk, the 6.22 back to Cheadle – wondered about a short burst of coward’s flu to avoid the great man’s eye. The ambitious schemed and plotted so that they could catch the great man’s eye.
London – by which we meant the Holborn Circus office and all the power and glamour resident therein – rarely came on a northern expedition. But when they did, fear and hope bubbled all around.
It couldn’t happen now, because there wouldn’t be much point in mounting an expedition to inspect two men, one laptop and a mobile in the back of a café in Oldham. But in the dear dead days we all remember, Withy Grove was a thriving newspaper centre with, if you include all the district offices, around 150 hacks (more, some has been-counter would claim later than the Murdoch Sun had worldwide) and enough editions to keep most of them beavering away every day.
It was a national paper, of course, yet the office remained essentially provincial and domestic. Lunch was a pork pie. With home only half-an-hour away, wives popped in to leave the shopping. Really, it wasn’t all that different from the BradfordArgus or the Ilkley Gazette, whence we sprang.
Home and office overlapped. Colleagues were often neighbours. When I lived near Disley, Chris Clark (Mail back-bench) lived two doors away, Neville Stack (news editor of the Sun) was across the field, Charlie Wilson (Mail northern news editor) and Annie Robinson (Sunday Times reporter) were just over the hill near Mike Gallemore (Mirror sports sub). My daughter went to a nursery class with Charlie and Annie’s daughter. Clive Bolton and Gerry Brown (Sun reporters) were regulars in the pub at the bottom of the road. It was all pretty close to home.
When I worked in London and lived just outside Tunbridge Wells, the only other hack living nearby was Bob Rodrigo, the Mirror golf writer, and I think I only met him once, and that was in the office.
Manchester only ever had one celebrity, and George Best went and moved to Chelsea and became a smooth southern bastard.
Manchester and London co-existed amiably enough, with suspicion from one and granite indifference from the other. Manchester secretly thought that London knew nowt about newspapers, had never met a Mirror reader in their lives and were locked into a work-free lifestyle dominated by dray whate wane, name dropping and compulsory in-house adultery.
This was best exemplified by a splash about a transport strike when London used a blob par about the weather. ‘It’s going to rain, so remember to take your brolly.’ Thousands of dockers and miners rushed to get their umbrellas.
London seldom thought about Manchester at all. London, truth be known, didn’t know where Manchester was or who worked there. And why would it matter when it was too far to go for lunch and there were worrying rumours that you couldn’t get wine by the glass. Anyway, wasn’t it all a bit humdrum?
Oddly, they were both right.
So when the two mingled, there was a certain frisson in the air.
Cudlipp, of course, was the top-of-the-bill act. I always had the impression that he used these occasions to amuse himself as he staved off the boredom. Hunched in his chair, his snake eyes swivelling, he’d lob out a question that would be either tricky or plain impossible. Then he’d point to some poor sod: ‘starting with you.’
Hiding wasn’t recommended. Although he was an excellent features editor, Alan Price didn’t much care for confrontation. He tried to hide behind a pillar, nursing an ice-cream cornet.
‘Hey, you, Mr Vanilla,’ Cudlipp called out. Alan could feel his future melting away along with the ice-cream.
Or you could be bold. One senior exec, whose entire career had been built on never delivering a judgement of any sort, decided to show himself as a daring decision-maker. Cudlipp pointed to a picture on the back-page of the old broadsheet Sun, taken from a television documentary, showing a woman giving birth. ‘Is that good journalism or bad taste?’ he asked, then pointed at him.
He took a deep breath. ‘It’s brilliant,’ he enthused, in a slightly shaky voice: he’d never done daring before. ‘We’re not bloody Victorians. Women give birth to children every day – why shouldn’t we show it in the paper?’
There was a long silence. Snake-eyes speared him to his chair. ‘People go for a shit every day,’ said Cudlipp. ‘Should we have pictures of that?’
As it happens he was a stout party. And yes, he did collapse.
Occasionally, Cudlipp was mischievous, which presented a different problem. How do you tell the boss-of-bosses that he’s taking the piss? You don’t. Although Neville Stack, news editor of the Sun and something of a mischief-make himself, came dangerously close to the edge when Cudlipp insisted he was going to cover the front-page of the Sun in adverts. ‘Why not?’ he asked, daring Stack to disagree.
Neville said he thought it wouldn’t work because you should have at least one big story on the front page.
‘Okay,’ Cudlipp replied. ‘I’ll have a panel among the ads for that.’
Stack shook his head. ‘It wouldn’t work. China On Fire, See Page Five…’
Cudlipp’s laughter came as a great relief.
There was always the feeling that there was much to lose, and possibly to gain too. We’d all heard the story – I wasn’t there, so this is hearsay – of how Terry Stringer took the most appalling risk, and lived.
Cudlipp assembled the Mirror editorial staff and demanded suggestions to improve the paper. One or two toadies attempted to offer praise and admiration and were slapped down. He wanted to know where it was going wrong. Was there anyone foolish enough to attempt to field this one?
Now Terry Stringer was a terrific reporter, had a sharp wit and was more or less fearless. Ask him what’s wrong, and he’d tell you. Editors, deputies and assistants shrank down behind their desks rather than watch a suicide. This was some years ago when the Mirror ran a gossip column by Rex North. The same Rex North was thought to be a personal friend of Cudlipp. And it was his page that Stringer said was a waste of space, had outlived its time and should be kicked out. Mirror readers, fresh from a day down the mines, didn’t care too much about who was drinking champagne with whom at Knightsbridge parties, or what the Duchesses were doing for their birthdays.
Hearts shrivelled. Everyone waited for the bolt of lightning. It didn’t come. Cudlipp stared at him, then nodded. Terry Stringer didn’t meet an abrupt and bloody end. But the Rex North column did.
Well, that was legend. Did anyone fancy trying the same thing? No.
Sometimes, I felt, our response wasn’t always as sophisticated as it could have been. Once, when Mike Molloy was in the raiding party, he suggested popping out for a drink in the afternoon. At that time, the only place you could get an out-of-hours drink was a club over the road which was mostly supported by minor criminals and ladies who earned a living examining ceilings. Mike got his drink and turned to a young woman sitting on a stool at the bar, with a large medallion dangling round her neck.
‘And what did you win that splendid medal for, m’dear?’ he asked, charming as ever.
The best sub in Britain couldn’t have tightened up her reply. ‘For bein’t best fuck i’ Manchester.’
Inevitably, these visits brought about a scurrying around as people tried to make an impression, and not always getting it right. One departmental head thought he’d scored handsomely by sending Cudlipp champagne on the train home. One of the London party – a tall man who held the job because he was good at getting taxis – was quite scornful. ‘Hugh drinks only claret,’ he said.
Charles Dickens was probably thinking of the Mirror Manchester-London relationship when he wrote Great Expectations. We in the north were poor Pip, scruffy urchins for ever trying to impress the beautiful but haughty girl. London, of course, was Estelle, ignoring us with a toss of curls.
Whenever a new northern editor was about to be appointed, Manchester waited anxiously to see who would be honoured with this distinction. In London, they wondered which poor sod was going to be stuck with it. We thought it was a reward. They saw it as a punishment. When he was told he’d got the job, one London senior exec – a tough journo hardened in the cynical world of Fleet-street – burst into tears and pleaded for mercy.
What’s more, we never quite knew what they were sending us. Wasn’t it Jane McLoughlin who rushed in through the front door of Withy Grove one Monday, late, panicky and cross? I think it was Jane. Anyway, the lift doors were closing and although she jabbed at the open-door button several times, they went on closing. She gave vent to her feelings, which involved shrieking several words derived from the acts of procreation and bowel evacuation. (Odd how you never get any obscenities from gardening or knitting, isn’t it?). Miraculously, the doors quivered, stopped, and began to open. Standing at the front was the new editor, up from London, on his first day. He simply fixed a glassy stare over her head towards Warrington. Jane did her best to climb into her handbag.
When the lift arrived at the third floor, the doors clanked open. The new editor extended one courteous hand to invite her to leave. ‘Ladies first,’ he said.
Actually, it really was a glassy stare and Mike was not the sort of chap to be upset by colourful language, as we later found out when he dropped his glass eye into a pint before singing raucous old blues songs.
Occasionally, London would make a show of being fair to their northern colleagues. Once, when they were looking for a reporter for the New York office, they said there were two in the frame. A reporter from London. And me. Me. I could get quite excited about just going to York, without the New. Bill Freeman, Alan Price, everyone wished me luck as I hopped on the train.
In London I was ushered into a room where Ralph Champion, the New York bureau chief and imminently my new boss, was talking on the phone. He put it down and looked at me with raised eyebrows.
I said who I was. He looked baffled. I mentioned Manchester. He still looked baffled. I mentioned I was there for an interview for the New York job. With him.
‘Ah yes,’ he said, looking around him for a suitable question for a person from Manchester. Then he came out with it. ‘Are you pretty good with a menu?’ I was so surprised I asked why. Well, he explained, they often had to do a lot of entertaining, Hugh was a regular visitor, and he wanted someone who was at home with knives and forks. I said I thought I was. He said jolly good and that was the end of that.
I had a quick drink in the Stab before catching my train back north. There was a lot of revelry in there. Apparently one of the reporters had just landed the dream job.
I didn’t ask where.