Issue #53

Early to bed

Publishing a day early this week – because some of us need to resort to trains and boats and planes to get to the Harrow by noon tomorrow (Friday).

It promises to be a lively gathering, and the biggest massing of hacks on licensed premises since a Certain Gentleman, mistakenly believing that he could not be heard above the hubbub of the bar, offered a florin to Reg in the Stab and whispered: ‘It’s my round.’

Already people are saying that we should have booked the Albert Hall for the Ranters’ first-anniversary thrash, instead of the smallest bar in Fleet Street.

That – in case you have been out of town on a job for the past month – is the Vincent Mulchrone Bar at the Harrow (the old Daily Mail pub) in Whitefriars Street, down the slope towards Temple.

So it’s noon, Friday July 11.

Be there, or expect to be talked about (or, not talked about, whichever is your bigger fear).

So, because the deadline has necessarily been brought forward – and we’d had sod-all copy in, anyway – this week’s offering is a treat.

We have already debated whether Cass or Vince was Fleet Street’s finest.

Today we give you the evidence to decide for yourself.

The two World’s Greatest is writing on the same subject – a set essay that could be entitled ‘My Fleet Street’.

But before we get to that, here’s a commercial.

We have three classic books about journalism, by journalists, on offer.

  • Forgive Us Our Press Passes by Ian Skidmore
  • The Best of Vincent Mulchrone
  • Cassandra At His Finest And Funniest

If you don’t already have all three of those excellent books on your shelves, you should ask yourself what you are doing reading Ranters in the first place.

I know… I know… It’s because it’s free. And you still have that same florin…

The books can be ordered, at just under a tenner a piece, from any half-decent bookshop, or on-line from amazon who will send them post free if you order two or more.

Or, you can save about a fiver by ordering all three books direct from the publisher. Individual copies are 9.00 – including post and packing. All three books will cost only 26.00 – delivered free to any UK address.

The column on the right will explain how to pay by PayPal.

More details of the books are available by clicking on BOOKSHOP, in the column on the left.

And now, ladeez an gennelmen… introducing, in the blue corner, weighing in as the finest reporter on the Daily Mail, we have invincible Vinnie Mulchrone from Morley in Yorkshire…

Vincent Mulchroneborn in Yorkshire – ‘on account of the potato famine’ –left Morley Grammar school to start work as a window dresser with C&A Modes in Morley. Then, after a mercifully short career as a lemonade lorry driver, he joined his first newspaper, the Morley Observer.

The war years intervened (he flew Andovers and Bostons in Burma) and he returned to work, eventually joining the Daily Mail in Manchester in 1950.

In between he had been fired from the Mirror in the same city, for allegedly thumping an office taxi driver who tried to charge him a fiver – a princely sum in those days, especially as it was for a return trip to Wythenshawe.

The cab firm apparently threatened the Mirror ‘either he goes or we go,’ and Vincent started work with Harold Pendlebury at the Daily Mail the next day.

He moved to Fleet Street in 1954, became head of the Mail Paris bureau in 1957, then returned to follow his natural vocation as feature writer and special reporter

… and in the red corner, carrying 15 million readers daily, we give you Cass Connor, feared and dreaded, from the Daily Mirror

William Connor was born in Derry and educated at a local elementary school in Muswell Hill; he was rejected by the Royal Navy because of his poor eyesight.

He found work as a copywriter for J Walter Thompson, where he was credited with writing the famous ‘clean round the bend’ line for Harpic. After six years there he was recruited by H G Bartholomew – ‘Bart’ – to bring what was described as his ‘polished-up barrack-room style of writing’ to the Daily Mirror.

Possibly the most pithy piece he ever wrote was a single line beneath a now famous cartoon drawn by his friend Philip Zec, who Connor had introduced to the paper.

“The price of petrol has been increased by one penny.” – Official

CassFront

Churchill considered it treacherous.

‘It is a pity,’ he said, ‘that so able a writer should show himself so dominated by malevolence.’

Herbert Morrison described the cartoon and caption as wicked.

The wartime government debated closing down the paper as being unpatriotic, but eventually decided to let it off with a severe reprimand.

Connor joined the army to prove his patriotism, famously returning to the Fleet Street fray with the words: ‘As I was saying when I was interrupted…’

His friend Hugh Cudlipp said: ‘Cassandra disagrees with almost everything the Mirror stands for.

‘He is armed with intolerance, bigotry, and irascibility. But the Mirror would be a duller place without him.’

 

We await the decision of the ringside judges.

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The greatest company in the world

By Bill Connor (Cassandra)

I have been on Fleet Street for thirty years and I have never laughed so much. There is no other job like it, so preposterous, so wildly improbable. The task which we impudently assume is to chronicle the whole pageant of life, to record the passing show and then, with unforgivable brazenness, to draw conclusions, to give a verdict and to point the moral. Damn and bless our bloody eyes.

I would never advise anybody to come to Fleet Street. Learning this trade is like learning high diving – minus the water. But I wouldn’t have missed it for all the treasures of Araby. The man who when he was asked what it was like to be in the First World War said: ‘Oh, the noise, and oh, the people!’ You can say the same thing about Fleet Street – ‘Oh, the noise, and oh, the people!’

You can get used to the noise but I’ve never got used to the people. The lovely nuts. The gorgeous crackpots. And all those wonderful, generous, self-derisive folk who spend their lives making dirty great black marks on miles and miles of white paper. Newspaper people are the greatest company in the world. They know but they will never learn. Fleet Street is a pavement where the manhole covers are missing. The aspir­ants who walk down it are warned by notices which say: caution – men working. They stride on and in a trice are below ground. I know. I’ve done it.

Fleet Street is snakes and ladders. Fleet Street is the greasy pole with the old duck pond waiting scummily below if you fall off. I know. I’ve done it. Fleet Street is the slippery slide with the banana skin laid there for all to see. And the saints and sinners go marching on until bingo we all fall down. I know. I’ve done it.

The way to get on in Fleet Street is never letit be known what you want to do. Hide Ambition’s dark face. Never ascend the heights.

The newspaper business, especially in Fleet Street, is over-shadowed by an angry towering mountain with the summit lost in the eternal hostile snows. Way down in the warm valleys below the foothills, life in the print business can be serene and relaxed. The place is stuffed with bee-loud glades where the idle, as well as the able, the incompetent as well as the efficient can relax. The vegetation is thick and the great warm fronds provide shade for those who wish to lie down in the noonday sun. Reporters, sub-editors, feature men and sportswriters can all have a relatively pleasant time and, if they wish, can make love to the secretary birds under the kindly foliage.

A little farther up the mountain, the foothills begin and the hummingbirds are no longer seen. The flowers are still bright, but there is a freshness in the air that old journalists suspect and young ones too often relish. Above the foothills, you can see the sky between the trees.

Still farther up, the foliage begins to diminish. There is a nip in the air and old hands shake their heads. The conifers grow shorter and more stunted. The undergrowth thins out. Bushes take the place of trees, and there is little cover under which to hide. But the eager beavers press on. Like young wild pigs they grunt and bolt around, sniffing the freshening wind.

Far below in the valley there were flowers and berries and fruits to be found. Here there is little. Nor is the bark of the trees edible. But still rooting and snorting, the ambitious porkers press on. It is the charge of the Gadarene Swine in reverse – upwards instead of downwards – to disaster.

Above the bushes comes the scree. Above the scree come the boulders. Above the boulders, the snow line. The ambitious journalists have thinned out now. Some are exhausted. Others are killed by their fellows. But here and there a burly brute with a red gleam in a beady angry eye that indicates the fevered image of the Editor’s Chair still scrambles and scrabbles upwards.

I call them to come back. But it is too late, and as I stumble down the mountain to the softer climes below, I see the last of the Go-Getters, the I-Believe-In-Me mob, struggling ever upwards. Little black dots slowly ascending the North Col.

Ultimately, one of them makes it. O the Power! O the Glory! But they have still reckoned without the Abominable Snow­man – the mysterious yeti, nine foot tall, covered in silkyginger fur with great gorilla-like feet leaving imprints in the dazzling snow. Sooner or later they meet him face to face, and another familiar mountaineer has the millstone of Editorship around his neck and dies the death. And the faithful Sherpas who always knew that one glance from the Abominable Snowman meant disaster were right.

Editors! I seen ’em come. And I seen ’em go. But way up on the mountain overshadowing Fleet Street the Abominable Snowman goes on for ever.

So, young stranger, my advice is don’t come near us. Don’t come in ‘for the water’s warm’. It’s not, it’s hot. It’s also freezing cold and it’s rough too. But it is the best, the finest, the most furious, the most exciting bath of life that anybody could ever take.

But, for Gawd’s sake, mind the plug ’ole.

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What makes us special

By Vincent Mulchrone

It’s like war, of course – 90 percent sitting on somebody else’s laurels, the rest sheer panic. If in the panic, you can find the words to convey the blood and sweat of the revolt in Oojiboo, and (which is frequently more difficult) get them back to a sub-editor worried about his train home, then you are a reporter and the happiest animal on earth.

It is a thrill that lasts clear through to the next issue of the paper. And it is like war in that only the happy moments are retained in the ragbag of memory. The snubs from the great, the terror of not having coped, the other fellow’s scoop, all the group anxieties of the idiot, exacting trade, can be swamped by one good story. Todays.

‘I’m from the Daily Mail.’ It is a frail laisser-passer, no matter what the name. Few concierges in Beirut have heard of Lord Northcliffe. Yet it has opened doors that would otherwise be barred to one so obviously devoid of any talent but the rough cunning and low-born persistence required of a reporter.

Just now and again the huge improbability of the situation strikes home – and you have to hold hard not to yelp aloud with disbelieving delight. Like – well, like thinking about catching the 6.27 home and fetching up instead, at midnight, 30,000ft above Cyprus, listening to George Brown speculating on Labour’s forthcoming majority. (He was out by 40.)

And, for all that, not even listening properly to Mr. Brown. Because, farther up the Prime Minister’s plane, Lord Mountbatten’s stockinged feet were sticking out into the aisle. The sleeping Supremo, haggard with grief, was hitch-hiking like the rest of us to the cremation of his old friend Pandit Nehru… Sensible English serge in Delhi’s dust, no time for food, nothing stronger than Coke at the cable office, sweat dripping on to a notebook crammed with jibberish impressions… There must be an adjective that will bring the first par alive. There must. There is. But where is the bastard?

The news story must be the only human activity that demands that the orgasm comes at the beginning.

The foot-in-door training was useful of its kind, but it didn’t help when a tumbler of whisky and soda crashed at the Queen’s feet on the quarterdeck of Britannia, causing 200 guests to freeze into a Bateman cartoon. The Queen was entertaining the New Zealand press. We Poms volunteered to hold up the bars in case the royal yacht listed, or something. I was performing this serious task with Freddie Reed, the Daily Mirror’s great cameraman, when the Queen happened by and asked us what we were laughing about. My story had been one about drink. She laughed. Freddie laughed so heartily that his glass slipped from his fingers. The lady’s aplomb is proverbial.

She told a story to match. She never even glanced down.

That evening Freddie Reed was the ‘pool’ photographer alone in the foyer of the local theatre, waiting for a ‘one shot’ picture of the Queen. When he pressed the button his flash failed. He stood to attention as she passed, his mind on other things but loyalty. She paused in her stride to say, for his ears alone: ‘Just isn’t your day, is it, Mr. Reed?’ I hope I won’t bore my grandchildren with that story. But at least it beats anything I would have had to tell them had I stayed where I started, which was dressing windows for C&A Modes.

Of the two geography mistresses I have had, I prefer the Queen. She it was who took me to the incredible temples of Katmandu, to the chain-mailed horsemen of Kaduna, to the sunset on the Khyber, to the opera in Munich. (When I spent Acts II and III in the basement bar, she made no murmur. Teachers just don’t come like that these days).

No other trade would have paid one to swim at midnight in Alice Springs, or fish Loch Ness for its Monster with a bottle of Malt for bait, or open National Tequila Week (a purely personal fiesta) in Mexico City, or marvel at grey Jerusalem flushing apricot in the dawn.

When the barricade went up in Algiers the thought came, too, that it would be neither sweet nor fitting to die for one’s intro. If I stand up on this balcony I have a great view and, quite possibly a bullet in my left ear. I might get a half-column on Page One. ‘It is with great regret that we announce…’ Am I old enough for a commemoration service in St Bride’s?

Anyway, do they do it for Catholics? But if I go on crouching behind the balcony’s parapet I will see nothing. The Daily Express man, on the other hand, will dash out into the square to save somebody from under a hail of lead. Which is precisely what he did. (I solved my problem by bobbing up and down wearing a look which tried to convey ‘This is a Franco-Algerian affair and I am a British journalist whose first duty is…’)

Deadlines, like fear, heighten perception magically. But, as they heighten, they narrow. A coach-borne tourist knows more of Isfahan than I do. I know the concierge, the man at the cable office, the man at the airport. I can move faster than a tourist, so fast I sometimes don’t know which city I’m waking up in because the hotel bedroom came from the same American mind.

The symbols on the bedside push-buttons have all finally jelled into the same pattern. The lady with the feather duster, the man with the tray of drinks – all walk briskly across buttons from South Bend to Samarkand. Just one extra button – with a geisha, perhaps, or flamenco dancer – might identify the dawn. After a bad night, you might have to wait to identify the breakfast waiter’s language before you are sure you have made it.

Sometimes he is the only man who wants to know you. You are there, as like as not, because something has gone wrong. The press is bad news. You can feel yourself growing the extra skin. This explains, in part at least, why journalists live, and drink, and move together, whether it’s at an Assize pub in the West Country or in a press camp at war. (I think the trickiest spot I was ever in was outside a Welsh court where a popular mayor had been accused of tickling trout. All that saved us was the fact that the pressmen happened to be as beefy as the locals.)

We also stick together because, by and large, we prefer our own company to that of the prevaricators and liars and self-seeking schemers whose words we affect to take down. Diabolical phonies abound. I have never known one fool a group of journalists. Bluster doesn’t work with us and flattery rarely (though Heaven knows, we tend to sob at a kind word). Our papers do not pay us to be savage with the weaknesses and foibles of our leaders. But it is our private delight to savage them for the knaves they frequently are if only to buttress self-esteem we are losing.

It is a compensation, I suppose, for the times we have had to fawn, or wait someone’s pleasure, or choke on an insult because the clock was ticking and the deadline never waits. Yet I wouldn’t want to be anything other than a reporter. My friend James Cameron put it better than I could when he wrote:

‘I know with what cavalier disdain even the ostensibly serious aspects of newspapers are regarded by those who never had to try to form a thought at any time, least of all under the pressure of a looming deadline, a thirst, a ringing phone, and an uneasy conscience. It is rather sad that we should ever imagine it otherwise; it is a salutary thing to recognise the inconsequential nature of one’s own accomplishment.’

Inconsequential was never an adjective that could be applied to Cameron’s reporting. But the salutary warning is one we all know. We face it every day, every edition. That is what makes us special. And don’t you try to tell me otherwise.

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