Issue #55

Choosing a career

Coming shortly

Next week (there’s nothing like looking ahead) will be August – the month when gentlemen don’t appear in Town.

So if you’re slipping off to the country or Chiantishire or even to the costas you’ll need something to read, And we have another book coming out – the fourth in our collection of classics about journalism written by journalists and for journalists.

This one is SLIP-UP (How Fleet Street Found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard Lost Him) by Tony Delano.

It has been described as the best book about newspapers since Scoop. But it out-scoops Scoop because it’s all true. A cast of characters you could not invent, and nobody would believe if you did.

Keith Waterhouse said it is “Perhaps the best analysis of Fleet Street at work ever written.”You can read more from him on that subject next week.

Meanwhile, if you want to be ahead of the game you can find the book at amazon by clicking here or you can buy it at a discount and post-free by ordering direct from the publisher and paying by PayPal. That’s £9.00 to any UK address. Or (and we’re trying to make things incredibly simple, here) only £11.00 to any non-UK address, which means we are charging only a pound and a penny for postage.

BUT you have to pay by PayPal.

Same for the other books. Special offer to Ranters – only £26.00 for any three titles, or £35 for all four. Post free.

The other titles, in case you’ve forgotten, are:

Forgive Us Our Press Passes by Ian Skidmore;

The Best of Vincent Mulchrone and

Cassandra At His Finest And Funniest.

Those titles, plus Slip-Up, should be on the shelf or at the bedside of everybody who calls himself a journalist. No argument.

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This week it’s the usual mixed bag. Andy Jackson recalls how he chose journalism as a career – or perhaps how it chose him, or at least how his headmaster chose it for him.

LiLiz Hodgkinson remembers a true character of the old People days, cigar-smoking lelleader-writer Nat Rothman. David Baird is still puzzled over the receipt of what was supposed to have been a favour from Keith Sutton.

And Derek Jameson shares with us the transcript of a tape he made about what makes tabloid editors tick (or perhaps what makes them ticked off).

Invited by a journalistic academic and ‘media historian’ to contribute to a book about tabloid newspapers, Jamey sat down at 2am after a hard day’s night and dictated his thoughts into a tape-recorder.

Delboy had been northern editor and then managing editor of the Daily Mirror. He edited the Daily Express, the Daily Star and the News of the World, he…

But, if you need Jamey explaining or identifying, you have stumbled over the wrong website. Kindly go back to Journalism For Beginners.

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Choosing a career

By Andrew Jackson

One day, early in1960, I was told at the end of the lunch break to go to the headmaster’s study. I had been a frequent visitor to this comfy cuddy over the previous five and a bit years and invariably had a pretty good idea of why I had been summoned: I was not a model student and conflicts with authority had been frequent.

But this time I could think of nothing that would merit our meeting – no recent misdemeanors, no unexplained absences, no riotous behaviour. Not for a week or two anyway. I arrived in the main corridor and perched on the radiator opposite Mr. Withers’ door, affecting a nonchalant air as giggling second form girls twittered past on their way to the Domestic Science room.

I was in the Upper Fifth at Oxted County Grammar School, supposedly preparing to re-sit my O-Levels, but actually continuing to enjoy the rich and varied social life (girls) and the sporting opportunities on hand (girls and rugby). I already had an O-Level in English, gained by chance the previous summer, and that would have to do.

I tapped on the door. ‘Come!’ I turned the tarnished knob and went in. Googie was sitting in a haze of sweet-smelling pipe tobacco, surrounded by papers, behind a desk illuminated by a small table lamp with a chintzy shade, which he had probably brought from home.

He turned slightly to look directly at me with his watery blue eyes. ‘Sit.’

He paused for a moment, as if gathering resolve or perhaps suddenly struck by the enormity of what he was about to do. ‘Jackson, how long have you been here? Five, nearly six years? And tell me, how long do you intend to stay?’

I said nothing. This was not the usual audience with Googie, which in my experience ended after 30 seconds of accusation and lame excuse with double detention. This was different – and all the more disconcerting for being so.

‘I intend to retire in ten years,’ he said. ‘And it concerns me that you have made yourself so comfortable that you may still be here long after I have gone. That will not do at all.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘In such circumstances I usually make some suggestions about career choices,’ he said, sucking furiously on his pipe and turning in his chair to face the bookcase. ‘Normally, the first might be that you join the Army. You’re fit but completely without discipline. The Army would make a man of you. But I served my country in the war, I believe passionately in the defence of the realm and all we fought for. I have to say I would not sleep easy in my bed at night knowing that you were stumbling around out there somewhere protecting our nation from the enemy. So please do not join the Army.

‘The second possible option could be that you take the cloth and study to become a vicar. You have a decent voice and appear sincere at times. But my faith is important to me and if I were to attend church one Sunday only to find the Reverend Jackson manning the pulpit, that faith would be destroyed forever. So please don’t go into the Church.

‘And then we come to journalism. I don’t believe a word I read in the papers but they are useful for lighting the fire, fish and chips and lining budgerigar cages. You are an absolute guttersnipe, you have no scruples, but you do write a good excuse note in the name of your parents. Go and be a journalist.’

‘Yes sir.’ And with that my fate was sealed. I had never contemplated journalism as a career – in truth I had never contemplated a career full stop. But he had a point. The only subject I wasn’t hopeless at was English. So I gave it a go.

Using my initiative I wrote a letter to my local newspaper, the Surrey Mirror, stating that my headmaster thought I should become a journalist and could they give me a job?

A few days later I was shocked to receive a reply inviting me to attend an interview. I was to call the office and arrange a suitable day and time. Since I was still technically at school I opted for Saturday morning at 11am, to allow for a bit of a lie-in and the 20-minute bus ride into Redhill.

I had few clothes apart from school uniform and jeans and jumpers, but had the presence of mind to carefully remove the school badge – motto fortiter fideliter – from my blazer, leaving just a few dark threads of cotton dangling on my left breast. It would have to do.

I arrived at Surrey Mirror HQ in good time and was told by the receptionist to go to the first floor and wait in the second room on the left. The room had two desks front-to-front, each covered in brown linoleum and bearing two ancient typewriters, loaded spikes, a selection of national newspapers and magazines, copies of the newspaper and its satellite editions, several mugs, ashtrays, carbon paper, strange looking printed items I later learned were galleys, and stacks of blank grey paper that had been cut to half its original size.

From beyond the door at the other end of the room for the first time came the wonderful scent of hot metal and the clanking of linotype machines at work.

Fifteen, 20 minutes passed and then there was a tread on the stairs and the door swung open to reveal Bill Locke, chief reporter, ex Fleet Street and a very decent bloke.

He removed his hat and skimmed it towards the hat stand by the window. It missed, clipping the Venetian blind and rattling down it, sending up small spurts of dust on its way.

‘Can I help you?’ he asked, taking out a small notebook, ready to take down whatever exclusive I might have to impart.

‘Actually sir my name is Jackson and I’ve come here because my headmaster…’

‘Andrew Jackson?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘But I thought you were starting on Monday.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Nine-thirty sharp. Look, I have to go, I’ve got a football match to cover. Can you see yourself out?’

And with that he was gone. And I had arrived.

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Rothman – king size

By Liz Hodgkinson

Whenever I walk down Fleet Street now, with its frothing sea of coffee shops, I think of Nat Rothman, Sunday People leader writer and qualified lawyer. Nat liked to eat in upmarket restaurants in the Street and would always request, at the end of the meal, a cappuccino or an espresso, only to be told by the waiter that, sadly, no such beverage was available.

Nat’s rationale for his persistent request was that if he kept asking, one day they might have them.

Now of course, Nat’s wish has come true, and Fleet Street probably has more cappuccino outlets per square foot than anywhere else in the country. But it’s all come far too late for him.

An elderly and eccentric bachelor at the time I knew him, Nat lived in some splendour in a fabulously appointed flat in Eaton Square. When another special writer, Sandy Brereton, announced she was getting married, Nat said simply, ‘I was married once. I didn’t like it.’

He was of the firm opinion that married couples should have, at the very least, separate bedrooms and, ideally, separate flats. It was an idea that sounded very bizarre at the time although in later life I have come to see the advantages.

Nat came into the office on Fridays and Saturdays and during the week, he ran a Rent Tribunal, which occasioned the remark every week from Eric Leggett:‘How many widows have you thrown out this week, Nat?’He would arrive at about 10 am, light up a huge Hugh Cudlipp-size cigar, polish off The Times crossword in about ten minutes and then go into the editor’s office to discuss leaders. By noon, he had usually handwritten two or three clever editorials, neatly encapsulating the editor’s opinions on burning issues of the day.

He would give them to the editor’s secretary to type up, and then it would be time for lunch. Most Fridays, Sandy and I would have lunch with Nat at Mario and Franco, a nearby Italian restaurant, now long gone.

Nat chainsmoked Havana cigars, so on the way to the restaurant we always had to call in at Weingott’s, the Fleet Street tobacconist, where every week the following invariable scenario would take place:

Nat: ‘Have you got any cheap Havanas?’

Salesman: ‘No such thing as cheap Havanas, sir.’

Nat: ‘In that case, I’ll have a cheap pipe.’

Salesman: ‘Certainly, sir. Over here.’

Nat, fingering the pipes: ‘How much are they?’

Then, wincing at the price:‘You used to have pipes for half a crown.’

Salesman: ‘That was long before decimalisation, sir.’

Nat: ‘Well I’d better have some Havanas, since you haven’t got any cheap pipes. But not Romeo and Juliet; they’re far too expensive.’

The salesman would then make a great show of pointing out the shop’s extensive selection of Havanas, which ended up, every time, with Nat buying a big box of Romeo and Juliets, muttering: ‘Just this once, then. But never again.’

Eventually, Nat had to have a quadruple heart bypass and was ordered to give up smoking before the operation could be performed. His doctor, however, took pity on him and allowed him just one cigar a month, which Nat used to get up at 4am to smoke, after counting down the days.

A thoroughgoing urbanite, Nat had somehow acquired a delightful cottage in Goudhurst, Kent, which had a large garden. Nat was no gardener himself but did not like mess and chaos, so employed a gardener, although he muttered endlessly about the expense and the fact the gardener was on benefits.

On an occasional table at the cottage was a bottle of whisky, a clutch of tenners, a couple of whisky glasses and a plaintive note saying: ‘Please, whatever you take, no damage.’ This was a note to burglars but so far as I know, Nat did not suffer a burglary.

Sandy and I sometimes visited Nat at the cottage and one day he revealed to us that he had a girlfriend of many years’ standing. He was about 63 at the time, and he asked us whether we thought he ought to marry her. ‘I’m just asking you girls for some advice,’ he said.‘As women.’

Given Nat’s publicly stated views on marriage and the fact that he was more than 30 years older than either of us, we shook our heads. We were of the opinion that 63 was far too old to get married after so many years as a single man, and in any case the idea of such elderly people marrying and possibly – perish the thought – having sex with each other at that age was too much for us to grasp.Nat, who hinted in an oblique way that he and his lady friend were, in fact, having sex, took no notice of us and eventually did get married, ‘with great misgivings’ as he confessed, although the marriage turned out to be blissfully happy.

After Sandy left the paper to have a family, both Nat and myself became godparents to her children. Nat, as a childless Jew, found being a Christian godparent rather strange but did his best, coming across with fantastic gifts.

After his late-life second marriage to the glamorous Juanita, Nat retired, sold his cottage, gave up the lease on his Eaton Square flat, and moved to Cheltenham.

It is a great pity and a great loss that journalistic elder statesmen such as Nat, with their long sweep of valuable experience, are no longer employed on newspapers. As a young journalist, I greatly valued Nat’s input, friendship and company; for today’s equivalents, there are, sadly, no Nats around.

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Life on Puzzle Corner

By David Baird

We’re all dreamers when we’re kids. How many times did I picture myself scoring the winning goal at Wembley? How vividly I saw myself filing pungent prose from the front line in some exotic location!

I could see my byline up there alongside the great names, Noel Barber, James Cameron, Donald Wise…

The journey from bucolic Shropshire to the heights took a little longer than expected. A few years passed before I found myself – in the early 1970s –subbing on the LondonEvening News. I had got as far as Fleet Street. Could fame and fortune be far behind?

Then Keith Sutton, the chief features sub (later to achieve certain notoriety editing the Wapping printers’ strike paper before migrating to Cumbria), approached me.

‘Bairdo,’ he said. ‘Got just the job for you.’

So this was it then. The big time at last.

‘The Puzzle Corner Editor is on holiday. Can you fill in for him for the next two weeks?’

I swallowed hard, but I did owe Keith a favour. After all he had loaned me a house, rent-free. The only problem was that it was near-derelict. Seeing it empty, the local yobboes had smashed all the windows, enjoyed barbecues on the living room floor and stolen all the taps.

I tried to convince my wife this was a bargain as we camped out in furniture-free rooms and tried to fix the windows, interrupted now and again by young tearaways hurling old bicycles and other garbage into the jungle of a garden.

It was like living in a haunted house – and in a ghost town, for it was located in Rayleigh, Essex. Everybody in Rayleigh was a commuter. You saw their cars in the station car park but humans were strangely absent, except at weekends.

Rayleigh was bad enough – now I had to face Puzzle Corner. Just finding the office was a challenge. For several hours I wandered through the Carmelite House labyrinth, up and down mouldering staircases, in creaking lifts, passing offices with bizarre titles on the doors.

Who inhabited these rarefied zones? Did anybody know they were still on the payroll? There was a Dickensian air about the whole rambling, decaying warren.

Finally, far from the thunder of the presses, totally removed from the stress and hubbub of the newsroom, I came across a cosy little hideaway. The Puzzle Corner Editor shared this remote eyrie with the Fiction Editor and a charming young secretary.

The Fiction Editor’s desk was covered with books. Occasionally a messenger would arrive and add even more to the pile, but of the great man himself there was neither sight nor sound.

No doubt he was attending Foyle’s literary lunches, rubbing shoulders with men of letters as they sipped the finest sherry, or polishing his latest contribution to the arts. I looked forward to some lofty conversation, but in two weeks I never glimpsed him.

A letter lay on the Puzzle Corner desk. I opened it warily. The editor, Louis Kirby, informed the puzzles supremo that, as from the following week, the News would no longer publish The Daily Riddle, The Bridge Problem and The Daily Proverb. Swept away, all of them.

Shattering news indeed. In one cruel stroke the Puzzle Corner empire had been slashed in half. Was this an indication of desperation at the once-almighty Evening News, I wondered? The circulation had slipped below one million. But it was difficult to see how chucking out The Daily Riddle would reverse that situation.

The secretary made me an extra-strong tea while I tackled the big job of the day, sorting out the crossword. I had been warned that cocking this up would bring down the wrath of thousands of readers.

Forget about Vietnam or economic crises. Print the wrong solution to the previous day’s crossword and the commuters would go barmy.

What a setup, I reflected. Telephone, secretary, snug little office far from interruptions and irascible editors. You could run a freelance agency from here, or a betting shop.

Sadly, after two weeks I had to return to the sweat shop below, to the tender mercies of the features editor, none other than Charles Wilson. Who could imagine as he stomped about the office barking out orders in a strange dialect (Glaswegian, I’m led to believe) that one day he would edit The Times?

As for the Puzzle Corner Editor, I never did meet him. I hope he enjoyed a restful retirement. And as for following in the footsteps of Noel Barber, James Cameron, Donald Wise and the rest…well, I’m still dreaming.

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A day in the life

By Derek Jameson

‘Soon as you start in the morning, your head starts buzzing with unanswered questions about your rivals.

Eleven o’clock: first conference. Then, you are invariably summoned to see the proprietor or one of his right-hand administrators, who no doubt will have some scathing comments to make on that morning’s product; where you went wrong, things you noticed long before they did. And, of course, many of the most glaring errors they haven’t even noticed because they lack professional experience and ability. You know a lot more than they do, you see, but that never stops them.

‘Then you return to your desk and no doubt there’s five or six people waiting to see you. Somebody has been offered a better job by a rival paper and can’t make up his mind to take it or not. Which means he will stay if you pay him more money. If you pay him more money that means several other people of equal status will want more money. Why should you pay him more than people who do the same job? The sports editor is there because he wants to send somebody to Australia to cover a rugby tour. Do we really want to spend several thousand pounds for five rugby reports from unpronounceable names in Australia? He’s then got the job of selling me the idea of this rugby tour of Australia.

‘While we’re dealing with that the political cartoonist is hovering nearby with five or six drafts in his hand of thoughts on the day’s main Cartoon. You don’t really like him or his work, you think the cartoonist in the other paper is much better, but you have to go through the motions of treating him as the greatest cartoonist in history; otherwise he will get the vapours and be looking for another job. Remember that top cartoonists are in short supply and you sometimes have to go all the way to Australia to find one – a good draughtsman with some pithy comments – he can end up earning more than the editor. So you take a very dim view of this fool hovering about here with his bits of paper who earns more than you do. And there’s always the danger that he’ll go off and join one of your rivals. So you have to keep him happy.

‘The leader writer: You look at him and think he’s so over-educated, he writes his leaders in Latin and then translates them back into English to make sure people like myself can’t understand what the hell he’s trying to say. You have to decipher his words and language to maker them readily understandable to millions of people. Not that anyone reads the leader column. Its more avid admirer is the proprietor, who fancies himself as something of a political expert, is probably looking for a peerage, always wants to keep on the right side of the government and so he feels he ought to read the columns and be an expert on them. So you’ve got to get the leader column right for the sake of the proprietor. You know only one reader in seventeen will plough through all that verbiage.

‘So when you’ve sorted that lot out, your secretary reminds you that you’ve forgotten your wife’s birthday. It’s now around twelve-thirty and you ought to be in your car because you have got to have lunch in the Commons with a tycoon who’s got great plans for the redevelopment of London, and you know he’s a villain who can’t be trusted, but he is too powerful and important to offend. For starters, his company spends half a million pounds a year on advertising in your paper. How late can you leave it before you go to lunch with him? There are four or five other people who want a word, but you should be on your way to lunch, so you have to do a quick mental adjustment. – who you’re going to talk to before you rush for the front door and jump into your office car.

‘And when you finally arrive for lunch fifteen minutes late and cursing the London traffic, you then have that awful business of having a couple of large ones before you sit down to eat. That usually means large gin and tonics. I can’t drink. Drink has a bad effect on me. I’ve never been able to drink, so by the time I’ve had two large gins, the best part of a bottle of wine, and a liqueur afterwards – because the tycoon creates the impression that if you don’t share his table, his booze and his food, then you’re somehow passing judgement on him – you have had a long boring lunch, too much to eat, too much to drink, and you get back to the office at three-twenty. For years you’ve been preaching to your staff that they should get their lunch over within an hour, and here you are, you left before one and it’s now three-twenty. You then have to catch up on what’s gone on in your absence. It could be that four or five major stories have broken.

‘You’re not at your best. One of the reasons you are the editor is that you are able to stand up to the rigours of this existence, so that you’re still compos mentis, but you’re probably a bit woozy, a bit befuddled; you’d dearly like to go and lie down for an hour. So you shut the door and tell the secretary you’re not into anyone, and start tackling the morning mail you should have looked at ten o’clock. There are threats of libel action then there’s a very dear old friend who’s been mortally offended by something in the gardening notes. There are always at least fifty problems in the in-tray to be dealt with at some time or other. And they’re still queuing up in the outer office to have a word with the editor.

‘Just as you sit down to this lot, the secretary reminds you that you have an interview at four-fifteen with a job applicant who works on another paper and who you are desperate to poach. So you’ve got to be at your most smarmy, ingratiating, over-flattering. You’ve got to do everything possible to persuade this journalist that they’re the greatest journalist of all time and their talents are wasted where they are working. But you can’t pay more than… You have hopefully discovered from your contacts what they are earning, not what they say they are earning. (They always add several thousand to what they’re actually earning.) It can be a lengthy and tricky business. You usually start off by talking about the days when you worked together twenty years ago as young reporters because the odds are you know them anyway. Fleet Street is a small, incestuous community. You tend to know all the others. This takes a lot longer than it should and by the time you’ve finished, it’s time for afternoon conference.

‘You decide what the most likely story is for the front page and what else is going on in the paper. After the conference, you’ll be talking about the paper, future projects, ideas, movement of staff, and so on until it’s around six-thirty. By that time there’s only one thing to do and that’s get out of the office, into the pub, have a few drinks, go back to the office and have a look at the front page. By seven to seven-thirty everything’s ready to print. Now begins the long wait until the first copies of the paper come out around ten o’clock. Of course, I’m talking about the old hot metal days – it’s all done much more quickly now with photo-composition and new technology – but this is how it was in my day.

‘So every night of the week you would have to wait a couple of hours for the paper to come out. Frequently, they are spent in the office pub, where you are fair game for everybody in Fleet Street to come and bend your ear, whisper gossip about some rival newspaper editor after your job, give you a character reading, tell you why your front-page headline this morning was the worst of the lot, a disgrace to your paper, and how they would have done it differently. This is very wearing, because you are drinking all the time. You had that huge lunch and now you are drinking again in the pub, or else you open the booze cupboard in your office and spend an hour or two there with executives, cronies and visitors, whatever. So a great amount of drink is taken. Then the paper comes up. By ten-thirty you’ve got all the rival papers as well.

‘There is a secret system by which newspapers exchange early copies, so you can see what the opposition is doing. If one of them is missing, you fear the worst because it usually means they’ve got some fantastic exclusive story which will be a five-minute wonder and you’d desperately like to have it on your front page.

‘You then have the great frantic chase to catch up with the rivals. You list stories they’ve got and try to stand them up independently. Your news desk will be seeking confirmation. If you can’t get that confirmation, you pinch the story anyway, and change the wording here and there, and pray that it’s true and not legally dangerous. This is where the editor is putting his entire career on the line because if you get that wrong it could be a very costly mistake. Look at the Jeffrey Archer case.

‘Having done your worst to stir up the entire organisation and get everyone on their toes, you stagger out of the office about twelve or twelve-thirty. Elated, if you’ve got the best story; depressed, if someone else has. You’ve had far to much to drink, worked under far too great pressure, but you’ve done your very best to keep your paper on top, and juggled all these balls without any of them falling down and hitting you on the head.

‘You fall into bed at one o’clock in the morning. There’s every chance the phone will ring at two o’clock and the proprietor will be there saying “What’s this bloody crap on the front page? If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times we don’t want pop stories on the front page!” You then have to justify yourself and what you’ve done to the proprietor, who takes it all very darkly, is not at all moved by your protestations and arranges to see you at ten-thirty the following morning in his office to explain further. You’re then supposed to sleep for a few hours until you start the whole cycle over again.’

AN excerpt from Shock! Horror! The tabloids in action, by Professor Sally Taylor

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