Issue # 167

This Week

Attentive readers will be more than aware that this month marks the 50th anniversary of the demise of the News Chronicle. It is also, inevitably, the 50th anniversary of the closure of London’s then third evening paper, the Star. And across the years the date has been marked by reunions of editorial staff.

But, guess what… here are two reunions of employees of sister newspapers, with obviously gradually declining numbers, celebrating (or mourning) the deaths of once-great publications… at rival functions.

It takes journalists to be so well organised. Piss-ups and breweries spring easily to mind.

It is to be hoped that on October 18 each party will send an emissary doddering across The Street with fraternal greetings to the other side. And get their act together for the future while there are still some people left.

Meanwhile, Sidney Rennert reports from the Star front, and Betty Thomson (Williams as was) on the last days of the Chron.

On to different forms of media.

This week’s Ranters is published a day earlier than usual because the entire editorial staff is at the British Film Institute tonight to watch a rare screening of (albeit the expurgated version of) the film of Tony Delano’s brilliant book, Slip-Up – How Fleet Street Found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard Lost Him. ‘Perhaps the best analysis of Fleet Street at work ever written,’ according to Keith Waterhouse, who wrote the script.

Roy Greenslade previewed the showing in Media Guardian this week.

Delano has a sort of double up this month. On the 16th and 17th the BFI will also be screening previews of Tabloid, the story told in his book, Joyce McKinney And The Case Of the Manacled Mormon. Delano will be attending if only to confirm how much of it depends on his story and to what degree he gets the credit, editorial or financial. I hear that lawyers will be in attendance. May be fun.

And for those who remember Cassandra’s legendary columns in the Daily Mirror – and for those who don’t, but are eager to learn from an old master – the BBC will have readings from the classic collection of (some of) the best examples of his columns, Cassandra At His Finest And Funniest.

The extracts have been recorded by the brilliant Roger Lloyd Pack (Trigger in Only Fools and Horses, and Owen in Vicar of Dibley) and will be broadcast on Radio 4 over three days – October 19, 20 and 21.

Royalties from the broadcast, as from the book, go to the Journalists Charity. So tune in. Better still… buy the book.

And all this prompts Colin Dunne to ponder how they’d go about making a film out of his latest, Man Bites Talking Dog.

All good stuff, eh.

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Fallen Star

By Sidney Rennert

Just caught up with Stewart Payne’s nostalgic piece about the demise of the London Evening News thirty years ago, on October 31, 1980, and with Tom Welsh’s piece about the folding of the News Chronicle in 1960. There is, however, another newspaper fatality which may have been overlooked by many: that of The Star – an occasion that’s also to be marked by a 50-year reunion of the paper’s survivors on October 18.

The reunions are a reminder of the heyday of London’s papers when ‘Star, News, Standard’ was a familiar newsvendors’ cry, heard at street corners and outside tube stations, and their combined circulation reached 4 million copies a day.

All that changed one Monday morning. A piece by Peter Paterson, the Daily Telegraph industrial correspondent, forecast that not just The Star, but its sister paper, the News Chronicle, were about to cease publication and be merged, respectively, with the Evening News and Daily Mail. I well remember the morning conference at 9 o’clock when the editor, Ralph McCarthy, stood up and said: ‘I know you must all be worried, but all we can do is carry on.’ And that is what we did. At lunchtime, in the Marquis of Granby in Smith Square, fellow industrial correspondents asked whether the story was true. All I could tell them was what the editor had said. Then came a call from the office: ‘there will be a chapel meeting at 5 o’clock, so you had better come back.’

Needless to say, the reporters’ room was packed as the editor came in and, clearly shocked himself, announced that the last edition of the paper had gone. Apparently, he had been told of the imminent closure only a week before, with a strict injunction to keep the secret until the last edition had gone to press.

Fleet Street was a very different place in those days and there was immense sympathy for the hundred or so Star journalists who suddenly found themselves out of work. The editors of every paper bent over backwards to find jobs or offer freelance work. Within a few weeks all but four of the Star editorial staff had found jobs on other papers, in public relations or as freelances – most of them on higher pay. The four unlucky ones included the editor and his deputy.

However, the demise of the Star, a radical paper well to the left of the Liberal News Chron, was a sad day for Fleet Street. Under its founder/editor T P O’Connor – it began its life on May 3, 1888 – it shocked its readers with sensationalised coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders and, allegedly, even used a jobbing journalist called West to forge a letter purportedly signed by the killer.

A more ethical scoop was the contents of Chancellor Hugh Dalton’s budget in Labour’s first post-war government. It came as a result of a quick word by the paper’s political correspondent, John Carvel, with Dalton as he entered the chamber to deliver his budget. Ironically, it only made the paper because the last edition was held for a racing result. However, it led to a sour grapes complaint from the Evening Standard, an appearance at the Bar of the Commons for Carvel and the resignation of Dalton – a prime example of how the ethics of politicians have deteriorated over the years!

Although the usual haunts of the Star were the Mucky Duck (White Swan) next to the office in Tudor Street or the Harrow round the corner, the reunion will be held, as usual, in the Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street. And while after 50 years there will be many unavoidable absentees, more than a dozen survivors are expected to celebrate the anniversary.

Sidney Rennart joined the Star as a general reporter in 1948, had a spell in the Lobby and became the paper’s industrial correspondent. After it folded he became industrial correspondent of the Daily Sketch, which suffered the same fate as the Star some years later and was amalgamated with the Daily Mail.

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Folding stuff

By Betty Thomson

‘Wall falls on boy, Wandsworth’, or more frenetically, ‘Boy falls on wall, Bermondsey’. These were the sort of ridiculous news stories I put in as claims on my expenses sheet in the dying days of the News Chronicle after Geoffrey Edwards, the deputy news editor, had come round urging us to ‘Bump them up! Bump them up! Get what you can. You probably won’t have another chance.’

He, like everyone else, was afraid that the newspaper was going to fold. Rumours had been rife for weeks because of the falling circulation it might be sold. And on October 17, 1960, it duly was. Its Cadbury-family owners sold the liberal-leaning News Chronicle to the Tory Daily Mail literally overnight. With it, to the Evening News, went the Chronicle’s sister paper, the London evening Star.

That Monday morning, like many of the reporters sitting in the newsroom, I hadn’t believed it could happen. In the afternoon there was a frantic NUJ meeting chaired by the father of the chapel, Tom Baistow, but by the evening we were all out of a job and down in the Feathers, the News Chronicle pub below the newspaper’s building, drowning our sorrows. The spotlight of the rest of the press was on us and we were outraged at the perfidy of the Cadburys in selling the paper to its right-wing rival against all its liberal traditions, which dated back to its origins in the Daily News of Charles Dickens.

Then Betty Williams, I’d joined the News Chronicle as a reporter after a stint on the Daily Express in Manchester. I had been one of four women reporters in the northern office of the Express and in the 1950s a newsroom with more than two or three women reporters was not tolerated. After I had been there a few months Arthur Christiansen, the Express editor, came up on a visit from London. He took one look at the reporters’ room and pronounced: ‘There are too many women on this paper.’

So, as the last in I was inevitably the first out. The NUJ said nothing could be done but the northern editor, known to his staff as ‘The Strangler’ was uexpectedly sympathetic. ‘Take plenty of time to find another job,’ he said, ‘but don’t still be here at Christmas.’ It was then late spring and soon I was lucky to land a job as a holiday relief reporter on the News Chronicle in London.

To me, after the harsh macho atmosphere of the Express, arriving at the Chronicle was like coming home. Though I was one of only three women general reporters, I felt valued and no longer under threat. I got on well with Bill Pattinson, our genial news editor, but my first hurdle was to pass muster with the senior woman reporter, Mabel Elliott, renowned for her sudden hatreds and long feuds. After my first few days Vernon Brown, the elderly and eccentric shipping correspondent who was a particular buddy of Mabel’s, drew me to one side. ‘You’re going to be all right,’ he said. ‘Mabel likes you!’

And to top that, I was lucky to get a by-line in the paper in my first week. It was on a story about Yehudi Menuin testing out the acoustics of St Paul’s as a concert venue – and finding them wanting. I also got a commendation from the acting editor, Brian Chapman. In his weekly bulletin he wrote that I had achieved ‘a good angle on a rather difficult story’.

From then on my job on the paper was assured and that was the first of the many ‘human interest’ stories, as they were called, which became my forté on the Chronicle.

Early on, as a fan of the Marx Brothers I was pleased to be sent to interview an American harpist who, it turned out, was the person who taught Harpo Marx to play. She was called Mildred Dilling and was in London to give a recital at the Wigmore Hall. She told me: ‘I was in a harp shop in New York trying out a new harp. A young man listened for a bit and then said: “Lady, learn me that.” It was Harpo Marx though I didn’t recognise him then.

‘He had been trying to teach himself but he wasn’t much good. He had the harp on the wrong shoulder for a start. He saw it that way on a picture of an angel in a ten-cent store. His only fault now is that he won’t learn to read music. He calls me up long distance from Los Angeles and says “I want to learn so-and-so. Play it for me on the phone, Dilly.”…’

A bit later I was sent down to the West Country to report on the first wedding on Lundy Island. Storms and gales had buffeted the coast and on the island the bride had to wear gumboots to walk to church. The weather was so bad that she, the bridegroom and all the guests had become stranded there. I managed to reach them after a terrifying journey as the only passenger in a tiny Auster plane.

Subsequently, I was sent to do a feature on glider planes, and, hovering over the Sussex Downs, I prided myself on not baulking at any form of transport. That is until I covered the Channel Swim.

This annual race was organised by Billy Butlin. Contestants were taken over from Dover to France and the reporters were flown over to see the swimmers start. One year, after a reception given by the Mayor of Calais, we were taken to a deserted beach and were expected, I discovered to my horror, to embark in small boats to follow the swimmers back.

Looking at the pounding waves and the swelling seas and knowing that I would be horribly seasick, I dug my heels into the sand. I persuaded the woman reporter from the Daily Express to go back with me to Calais and fly to Dover the next day. Once there we managed to ‘pick up’ the story from the reporters who had braved the crossing – and the newsroom never knew.

During my time on the Chronicle I was lucky to get to know some of the great journalists of the time such as James Cameron, one of the paper’s foreign correspondents, Richie Calder, the first science reporter, Stanley Bishop, doyen of crime reporters, and Jon the cartoonist.

The meeting ground was often The Feathers where, when on night duty, we often used to spend our supper breaks. The night news editor was Jim Barnes, an upright, military figure, who was reported to have fought at Passchendaele, and who was much given to glaring at his staff and shooting his cuffs. If we were wanted during our breaks he would ring down to the pub.

There was a reporter on the staff called Bob Milne-Tyte and on one occasion when the news desk rang, Vernon Brown answered the phone. ‘Is Milne-Tyte down there?’ barked Jim. Vernon picked up his pint and considered the question. ‘We’re all tight down here,’ he helpfully replied and put the phone down.

All this came to an end, however, and on Tuesday 18 October subscribers to the News Chronicle were taken aback to find pushed through their letter boxes not the paper they expected but a Daily Mail with the words News Chronicle printed in very small letters under the masthead.

As time went on those words grew smaller and smaller until they finally disappeared. What also almost disappeared was any meaningful compensation to the deposed staff. I got £75 – and felt lucky after a few weeks to be offered a job as a reporter in the London office of the Yorkshire Post.

What didn’t disappear, however, was the friendship between the ex-Chronicle staffers. A bit like survivors from the Titanic we felt a bond that still persists. Every year since 1960 we have held a reunion to mark our paper’s demise. In latter years it has taken place in the pub which used to be the Feathers but is now called The Witness Box. But this year, appropriately, the News Chronicle is taking over the Daily Mail. A 50th-anniversary lunch will be held on October 18 in The Class Rooms, a restaurant that has been opened in the former Daily Mail building just off Fleet Street.

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Don’t miss the film of Slip-Up

greenslade

By Roy Greenslade

If you want to understand what Fleet Street was like and, in some senses, what journalistic competition is still all about, then try to see The Great Paper Chase next Thursday.

It is the BBC’s film of Tony Delano’s wonderful book, Slip-Up*, which tells how some of Fleet Street’s finest went off to Brazil in 1974 to witness Scotland Yard’s finest – in the shape of Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper – arrest the fugitive great train robber Ronnie Biggs.

Slipper of the Yard failed in his mission because the Brazilian authorities refused to agree to Biggs’s extradition. But it is the tussle between the journalists that is so riveting.

Anyway, after the BBC first screened The Great Paper Chase Slipper sued for libel (funded by Jimmy Goldsmith, incidentally), and in 1990 he was awarded £50,000 in damages. The BBC was also ordered to pay costs of more than £400,000.

Slipper died in 2005, but the BBC has steadfastly refused to rebroadcast the film. So it is being shown at the BFI (South Bank) next Thursday (7 October) as part of a retrospective for its director, James Cellan Jones.

Delano will be there and is expected to address the audience on his disgust at the BBC having chickened out from reshowing the film.

Tickets (£9 or £6.65 for seniors and students) are available from BFI Online here.

*Slip-Up (Revel Barker Publishing, £9.99)

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The film of the play of the book

coldBy Colin Dunne

Writers? There’s no problem getting someone to write it. David Nobbs would be the man for the television version, Tom Stoppard for the big screen, and Michael Frayn for the stage perhaps. Come to think of it, if Keith Waterhouse was still around, he’d probably do the lot before lunch. By the time we get to the musical, Herbie Kretzmer’s the man. He’s probably humming the songs already. They’re all old newspaper hacks and the show I’m talking about is one that celebrates Old Fleet Street. Already there’s a website (this one) attracting 5,000 readers a day, and I suspect a book/play/film/musical fest can’t be far behind.

If you think about it, Old Fleet Street has everything. For a start it’s of those stories neatly contained in time and space: the 35 years from the end of paper rationing around 1950 to the move to Docklands in the eighties, and the few hundred yards between El Vino and the Bell. As for outrageous characters – I mention only the reporter who carried a crutch in his car on the grounds that no-one, however difficult, would turn away a cripple. As for story-lines, you only need to remember My Night of Sin with the Virgin Bride as a sample of riches. To set the mood of the piece, I’d like to suggest that Kretzmer’s opening number could be The Mail’s Got the Husband but We’ve got the Wife.

It could be a major hit. After all, the hacks’ life in EC4 had the same shabby glamour you find in Runyan’s Broadway, Isherwood’s pre-war Berlin, or Wodehouse’s Twenties, and they responded well enough to showbiz treatment. Old Fleet Street, I reckon, could become another of those mistily imperishable places, half-fact, half-fiction, a sort of Brigadoon with liver damage.

I was there at the time (some of it I can even remember) but it wasn’t until I started writing a series for the Ranters’ website – now published as a book – that I realised just what a rich seam I’d hit. It wasn’t a place where you’d find a lot of straight-to-hell wickedness.

Naughtiness, deceit, dishonesty, idleness, cheating and vanity, of course.

Not to mention daily drunkenness, financial fiddling, professional plagiarism and sporadic outbreaks of violence – mostly, thanks to the booze, ineffectual. As for the truth, we tried to write it (well, most of the time) but we didn’t always say it to each other. Lying was our second language. Oddly, the epic boozing, in defiance of all medical evidence, never for a moment slowed down the non-stop adultery (A piece for Lancet here, surely?).

I’d be quite ashamed if it wasn’t for one thing… Gosh, it was fun.

What made it so special? I’ll tell you. It was the unique combination of soggy sentimentality and hard-eyed cynicism that soaked into every second and every sentence. Fleet Street boys (they never really grew up, did they?) could share the grief of a husband over his runaway wife as they nicked the pic of her in a bikini off the mantelpiece. Warm hearts, cold blood – works every time. We took an absurd pride in our trivial trade. One writer said that, like hookers and hitmen, most hacks would happily do it all unpaid. And of course there’s Nick Tomlin’s classic definition of the qualities required: rat-like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability. To be honest, we always found the last two were optional.

Perhaps at this point I should say that I’m rather under-selling my colleagues. The truth is that the people who made up the hack pack at that time were the best – quite possibly in the world. Whenever they had to perform, they had to be quick, clever and get it right. There were no excuses. ‘Come back,’ said Ken Donlan, one of the great news editors to some struggling hack, ‘and I’ll send a real reporter.’ Ouch!

Called to action, they had to deliver. When Chairman Mao died, a feature writer was dragged out of the pub, given about three miles of agency copy, and told to produce 1,000 words that made him interesting for British readers. Half-an-hour later it was there – if my memory’s correct: ‘One of West Ham’s keenest supporters died yesterday. He was also leader of the world’s biggest nation.’

It was also as personally tolerant as it was professionally unforgiving. Eccentricity was cherished. The Express reporter who, after a little light social drinking, crawled under the news desk and bit the news editor savagely on the calf, was fired. And reinstated the next day. Of course. Similarly, the reporter in Yorkshire who was criticised for filing stories with insufficient detail, wrote his next one: ‘Thieves who broke into Doncaster market last night stole an orange. It was a Jaffa.’ The man became a hero.

Did the Sun’s two top men, when presented with their airline credit cards, immediately jump on a flight to Los Angeles and never come back?. They did, they did. And was a Mirror reporter personally instructed by editor’s memo to keep his dentures in his mouth rather than his pocket when on company business? He was, he was.

I always thought it was dealing with the frailties of human nature that made hacks unusually vulnerable to moral lapses. We all admired the reporter who conducted an affair with the deputy editor’s secretary during her boss’s lunch-break. Until he came back early one day and found his desk covered in waving legs. Later he told the secretary: ‘Be sure to change the blotter, there’s a dear.’ Fleet Street was a hot-bed of… well, of hotbeds.

Everything had to be contained in a headline. So the bride who fled a wedding reception in one of Glasgow’s less dainty quarters, after the guests began killing each other, was dubbed The Virgin Bride. Suspended between ceremony and honeymoon, clearly she must be a virgin. Dennis, a reporter friend of mine, traced her to her uncle’s house in Nottingham. With the streets crawling with rival hacks, Dennis opted to import some booze to entertain the three of them. Friendship blossomed. The next morning, when he rang in to say all was well, he suggested the headline: ‘My Night of Sin with the Virgin Bride.’ The silence was arctic. ‘Don’t even joke about it,’ came the reply.

What made it all happen was the nature of the hacks themselves. They were people who were temperamentally and intellectually unsuited to proper jobs.

If it hadn’t been for newspapers, they would have ended up earning a living telling jokes in unsavory clubs, taking bets, pulling pints, dealing blackjack, or doing the three-card-trick in Oxford Street for the elucidation of tourists. Reckless and feckless, all that stopped them being cowboys was a fear of horses.

In any office, you’d find a fake Old Etonian, East End jokers, Scottish toughies, the old MPSIA (‘Minor Public School, I’m Afraid’), Yorkshire grumpies, office-boys on the way up, Oxbridge dilettantes on the way down, at least one pissed poet, a failed priest, the editor’s niece, and a couple of borderline psychotics. But drop any of them into China at 6pm and they’d be on to copy by eight.

Whatever appalling tricks they played on each other, they were decorous when dealing with the public. Every reader was like the Queen Mum. In this particular war, they ensured that non-combatants weren’t injured. This is, of course, the Kray Defence: ‘Never ’urt anyone that wasn’t one of us.’ It was mostly true. At the memorial service for Jon Akass, a wonderful columnist, someone sang an Irish folk-song that had the line: And of all the harm I’ve ever done, alas it was to none but me. From the damaged livers to broken marriages, it was true. But all in all, I think we did no more damage than careless parkers or fare-dodgers, and a great deal less than social workers or government spokesmen.

Someone surely will be able to do for Fleet Street what Joan Littlewood did for World War One. Oddly, although there are plenty of hacks’ books, there’s only one man who caught the hot-sour mix of sentiment and cynicism. Ben Hecht’s The Front Page, a play/film about American newspapermen in the thirties, captured to perfection the manic helter-skelter mood. For a contemporary title, it’s hard to beat the hacks’ own name for their patch – simultaneously sickeningly corny and slyly ironic: The Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Try saying it in a fake Alan Whicker accent. See.

Personally, I don’t think those times require a defense. If so, I’m happy to rely on Mike Molloy, the Mirror editor, as he watched his happy team clatter into the lift on the way to El Vino. ‘I always think that if they’re having a good time, it will sort of spillover into the paper.’

It did. The papers then were bubbling with affection and joy and mischief – and respect for their readers. Now they bubble with spite. When the fun went out of Fleet Street, it went out of the papers too.

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