Issue # 154

This Week

Justin Stares’ excellent debut novel (in fact it’s a lightly novelised biography), launched here on July 25, was being offered on the Internet this week at the somewhat astonishing price of £443.99. But you can buy it for a saving of £434 by clicking here or going to the Book Depository (free postage, worldwide).

The Moon At The Bottom Of The Well tells the story, based on diaries, letters and journals, of the affair between a Pulitzer-nominated war photographer and a famous BBC foreign correspondent. Gripping stuff.

There are reviews from the amazon-UK site in the column on the right.

Meanwhile Man Bites Talking Dog, Colin Dunne’s laugh-a-line account of his journey from the Dales to – and through – Fleet Street, has been reviewed by Penny Wark in the current edition of The Oldie, reproduced below on this page.

Then we have some odd bits of meandering down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, EC4, and points north.

Cathy Couzens(now Hollowell) writing with a glass or two of Merlot to hand, remembers ‘one famous drunk story – actually dozens of them but, since the men are all still alive and may well be readers, it may be better to pretend the name is forgotten…’

Gordon Amoryrecalls a type of life on provincial papers that will be totally foreign to the current inhabitants.

And Harry Nuttallremembers a vintage Bentley…


But first –



Tales of Old Fleet Street

By Penny Wark (The Oldie)

It’s easy to romanticise the old days of Fleet Street, especially from the perspective of a newspaper production line where joy is as much a part of the daily life as hot metal. Where once there was a notion that if journalism was fun to write, it would often be fun to read, now there are rules about being at your desk and not spending money.

Man Bites Talking Dog is an unashamed celebration of the decades when newspapers had ludicrously deep pockets, valued mischief, and celebrated scallywags. In truth, many of those who skipped through the silliness were fine operators, Colin Dunne among them, though he denies it on every page.

He was, he says, a nine-stone Dalesman who grew into a ten-stone tabloid colour writer; he could never manage more than three drinks and wouldn’t recognise a news story if he fell over one. But if the highlight of his news career was, as he claims, the talking dog of Drighlington Crossroads, this was because comic nonsense is his forte, and boy, could he spin a feature.

News reporters run in packs and ask questions, feature writers are the awkward ones sulking on their own in the shadows, he explains – and it’s a perfect definition of the distinction.

Dunne began his career on a Yorkshire weekly and meandered to Holborn where he found himself incarcerated in the Mirror‘s infamous mink-lined coffin.

There forty writers snoozed, drank, and invented expenses until called upon to write every three months. He covered such culturally significant events as the making of the Pirelli calendar in Seychelles and the world’s first naked beauty contest in Sweden, and he reprints his whimsical interview with Mrs. Florence Capp, wife of the cartoon working-class hero, Andy. As he says, it was paid fun.

At the same time, he observed the dismantling of the mills, pits, shipyards, and the manufacturing industry that had provided a faithful following the Mirror‘s combination of japes and information. By the time he was freelancing for You magazine and The Times – and discovering a vigor that came from not having a fat salary and guaranteed expenses – the saucy postcard world of eccentrics, chancers, and statuesque women had faded, replaced by the land of no lunch. Most of us were much duller than Dunne makes out, but as we look back from today’s fiercely fiscal world we like to think that we had our moments.

Man Bites Talking Dog by Colin Dunne is published by Revel Barker at £9.99 and is available on-line from amazon and Waterstones or (with free postage, worldwide) the Book Depository; or on order from any half-decent bookshop.


Through a glass, deeply

cathyhat By Cathy Couzens

Who else remembers the handsome Sun reporter who moved house but forgot to tell his brain?

He caught the train home as usual (we always wondered how that was accomplished) then got a cab to drop him off at the house. As usual, so as not to wake the wife, he slid open the faulty French doors and crept in… feeling a bit damp – it had been a rainy day – he started discarding his clothes as he went towards the bathroom. He had just got to his whitey tighties when the lights went on and a shout of alarm was heard. There he was, standing almost naked in the house he had sold just three weeks previously to a very nice young couple who stood staring aghast at his not so sexy undies.

Ah well, he got out of it, did his usual impersonation of a famous film star, scurried to grab his clothes, and left in a hurry. Fortunately for him, it was Britain, if he did it over here in Texas they would have shot first and put the light on afterward.

Did the Prince of Darkness ever tell anyone else about the perfume he sprayed all over the tomb in a cemetery because he was mad about losing the front page to my better story? He had apparently bought the present for my birthday in a fit of madness and then found out I had displaced his crime tale so he sprayed it all away. Easy come easy go James!

Where are all the stories from Daily Express and Daily Star reporters, we have a cuzzillion of them – yes I know that isn’t a word but I have made up words before and got away with it. To be truthful I got away with a lot of things – like the story of the young woman teacher who seduced the 14 yr old son of a policeman… the Screws offered her money, the Sun offered her a sunshine holiday. I offered her nothing but the truth, got the story, got a massive headline and got a raise – you have to know more about women, sometimes you just have to be one to understand.

My first editor, John Hurren, said I would never be a reporter. He asked me for a job years later when I was the columnist on the Daily Star. Odd how the world turns. Another fairly well known Yorkshire reporter did the same thing, unfortunately, I have the memory of an old elephant and remembered that she went to boarding school with me and cut up my swimsuit and flushed it down the loo. Sorry, lady.

I cannot understand American reporters and unfortunately, after nearly thirty years in Texas that is what I get… they take too long to tell the story and put too much extra stuff in which means you know whose side they are on! Come on, what happened to report, what is all this gabble about? Also, their TV people shout! ALL THE TIME!

Ok, we have a hurricane on the way so must be off to tie down the palm tree. Really. If you want to know who the piss head in the wrong house was… Send me an email!

[email protected]



All our yesterdays

By Gordon Amory

I didn’t know it then but I was socially advantaged to have worked for the Shields Evening News which must have been one of the smallest daily newspapers around at that time – and it had served the local community for a hundred years then. I know because I was at the centenary dinner.

It had originally been the Shields Daily News but the title was changed to the when upmarket trends seemed to change. During the last war, the three evening papers serving the North East coast came to an understanding that if one of their printing plants was bombed out of action, each, in turn, would come to the other’s aid.

In fact, all three papers, the Sunderland Echo, the Shields Gazette, and the Shields Evening News had direct hits on their printing plants on the same night.

That was just before my time but it was still the big talking point when I joined the Blyth News-Ashington Post just up the road in 1944. I had got a Saturday job running copy from Blyth to South Shields on a Saturday when the editor asked me if I wanted to have a job there. My headmaster suggested I leave school then and take the job as ‘you will never get that chance again’

Apart from running errands, going to shorthand and typing classes, writing up the odd wedding, and the church garden fete under the supervision of the rotund Victorian editor, I also assisted the staff photographer by carrying his bag, mixing the developer, apart from adding the last ingredient: potassium bromide. He must have been thinking of my future sex life!

Although I carried on with my night schooling, I was getting more into pictures and when the photographer suddenly died falling down the steps of a hotel on the night of the Mayor’s Ball – I was in at the deep end, only to be replaced by one of their star men who had been in the forces. Sadly at thirty-six, he died too.

He was replaced by a more senior man – then two photographers suddenly left the Evening News, one to the News Chronicle in London and the other to Kemsley’s in Newcastle. I was to become their sole staff photographer for a fortnight at not much more than seventeen years of age.

Of course, I had to do my National Service so two more replacements were quickly found. This is when I should say the Shields Evening News, with a circulation of not much more than 17,000 was run like a proper newspaper. There was the editor, Arthur Dickinson, his deputy who was also chief sub and not related, Bill Dickinson, known to all in those days as Shanghai Dick because he had worked in the thirties on the South China News and it was rumored he would swing from chandeliers like a monkey…

There was the chief reporter and always at least five others including the women’s editor. The copy room was three young ladies. The creed room where the tapes would come through was just opposite the subs room where there would always be at least half a dozen subs and two on the sports desk.

Of course, the printers were their own men. No jobbing printing, just linotype operators and comps getting the paper out six days every week. Downstairs was the large opulent front office with lots of polished brass governed by Miss Stark who also handed out pencils and notebooks. She was answerable to the two joint managers, Charlie Rae, who did the books, and Albert Lough, a Flight Lieutenant in the ATC who looked after the transport. He had married well and he also owned his own car. Albert liked to have his picture in the paper and would often offer me lifts to various assignments if I would take a picture at one of his ATC parades.

The imposing offices at 52, Nile Street, North Shields, were then majestic, meaningfully built with a grand wooden staircase from the front office to the editorial floors. Miss Stark would often shout at me: ‘Have you always got to make so much noise when you run up those stairs two at a time!’ I wasn’t very fond of her then because she always wanted to know what I had done with my last pencil when I needed another.

So I go back to the beginning and talk about the privilege of being there in the first place. We had a magnificent staff who wanted to produce the best paper possible. I was there before my National Service and for some time afterward and those who were there during my time could read like a Who’s Who? in newspapers.

Although the subs table had a sprinkling of old-timers, such as Shanghai Dick, the chief sub, they had H.F. Pettengall, who had been on the old Evening World in Newcastle which closed down after three months and was one of those who struggled to find a job afterward. He was really Frank Pettengall but no one called him that.

Readers of Ranters, however, will be more aware of better-known names such as Norman Baitey, a very bright young man then just demobbed from the army as a sergeant – and those on the Sun knew how he could use his rank! Dick Parrack, became managing editor at the Sun; Charlie White subbed at the Daily Sketch when I first joined them; Jack Peart, the first sports editor when I was there, was the son of the old Fulham manager and became sports editor of the Sunday Pictorial. Dennis Brierley was for many years the chief parliamentary sub at the Daily Express.

Bert Stimpson, a reporter in my days eventually went to the Daily Mail in London and became chief copy taster. Terry Wynn, a Papal Knight now, was also at the Daily Sketch before other high profile jobs such as chief press officer to the Lord Chancellor. Neville Holtham, was sports editor of the People for a long time.

Alan Baxter, just seventeen when I came back from the services, eventually went to the Daily Mail and he and I worked together for a lifetime on the Daily Express and remain very close friends now after sixty years. We still meet up for the odd pint – and trips like this down memory lane.

Many more went on from Nile Street to the nationals, but they weren’t there when I was. Such as Bill Dixon at the Daily Mail, John Robson, who became the last Scottish editor of the Sunday Express, John Learwood at the Daily Sketch, John Wardhaugh, Daily Express.

And last but not least, William Hardcastle was a sub there in the late thirties, went down to London and became editor of the Daily Mail before launching the BBC’s World at One with his distinguished throaty voice. The editor, Arthur Dickinson would say: ‘He sat there next to me… not much of a sub!’

I also had a big exclusive before my eighteenth birthday. I was traveling on the upper deck of a bus that was passing the local golf course when I spotted three Newcastle United footballers playing there. One was Len Shackleton.

I got off the bus and they were delighted to have their picture taken. He was with goalkeeper Jack Fairbrother and winger Tommy Pearson. I raced back to the office, got a print to the chief sub – did a couple more prints and ran all the back to the golf course to get their autographs.

All put their autographs on the back of a print and Shack said to me: ‘You’ve got an exclusive there – I’ll be signing for Sunderland this afternoon at a world record fee’ He did, and the transfer cost Sunderland £20,050. ‘The fifty pounds extra makes it a record’ he told me. Could you imagine the £20m prima donnas confiding like that in a local newspaperman now?

Len and I remained friends for the rest of his life – he eventually joined me at the Express. Later we would meet up in Tenerife on holiday and he would always tip me off on stories he thought would make good pictures.

In 1958 after the Newspaper Society strike the Evening News became the paid-for Shields Weekly News and is now a give-away but for more than 160 years it had given many journalists an interesting start in life.

Gordon Amory organised the popular Pens and Lens Club lunch for nineteen years in Newcastle until last year when niggling health problems made it an arduous task. No one else has come up to take the reins but his address book is still available.


Vintage Bentley

haroldheys1 By Harry Nuttall

David Baird’s amusing recollection of Bill Anderson getting a second bite at the wonderfully staged tale of trench vets sinking their pints in a hole in the road, reminded me of a pal of mine who got a dozen consecutive stories out of a pile of old clothes found on the moors above his patch of East Lancashire.

It was the start of Wakes fortnight and news was always going to be slow. Most of the lads and lasses from the mills and the factories and the shops were in Blackpool. The nobs were in Southport and St Annes.

In Darwen that Monday morning, nowt was moving as Norman Bentley, the Blackburn Telegraph’s local man, sauntered glumly into the police station. It hadn’t been a good weekend for Norman. His three-year-old son John, walking past the White Lion with his mum Nellie, had pointed excitedly to the pub and told her: ‘Look mummy. That’s where daddy works.’

Norman’s arrival at the cop shop woke the snoozing desk sergeant. ‘Sorry, Norman. Nowt. Not a sniff.’ And then the old boy remembered … some old clothes had been found in the shadow of Darwen Tower: a shirt, trousers, a jumper and a pair of socks. Best he could come up with, he said apologetically.

Manna from heaven for a man of Norman’s calibre. He quickly fired over: ‘Police have discovered several items of clothing …’ The Tuesday follow-up was: ‘Mystery surrounds the discovery of …’

On Wednesday: ‘Police are carefully examining clothing found high on the moors for any traces of blood …’

By the weekend various explanations were being put forward by our intrepid sleuth: ‘Police, puzzling over abandoned clothing on the moors, believe…’ and ‘Police are working on the theory that clothing …’

Norman chalked up the second Monday with an intriguing bit of analyses: ‘Could the clothing found on the moors belong to two people? …’

By the second Tuesday, warming to his theme, he introduced the possibility of a phantom nudist, but after eight consecutive days even Norman was struggling to keep it going: ‘Police last night appealed to…’ and by the second Thursday it was: ‘After two week, police are no nearer …’

On the second Friday, as bags were being re-packed all along the coast, he recovered his nerve a little and squeezed out: ‘Have YOU lost any items of clothing…?’ and followed with a more detailed description of the troublesome togs.

By this time the whole town, well, the few dozen who hadn’t been swanning around stylish Southport and St Annes or getting blathered in breezy Blackpool, was wondering what Our Man would come up with next as the Wakes holiday came to an end.

Norman Bentley, my boyhood hero, was up to the task. On the Saturday he presented his final dispatch on the moors mystery: his piece de résistance: ‘The pile of clothing found two weeks ago on Darwen moors is now believed to have been a hoax.’

A master craftsman at work. And to his dying day he denied scurrilous suggestions from younger, less imaginative, hacks that the clothes were actually his own…



Recent Rantings

Recent Comparisons

Recent Reviews