Issue # 190

This Week

Amazing thing, memory. Especially when it works right. There I was, making my daily dip into the Media Guardian blog to see what titbits Professor Roy had to offer and I was immediately transported back, half a century, to the Albion Street (Leeds) offices of the Yorkshire Post and the Yorkshire Evening Post, my third employer in two years.

What was happening in those days? Sir Linton Andrews, no less, had signed my indentures. Malcolm Barker (no relation), later to become editor, was still writing beautifully in the newsroom with Geoff Hemingway, Allen Rowley, Frank Metcalf, Alan Beasley, Peter Rose, and Arthur Day. Brian MacArthur was editing the Leeds University rag magazine before joining the YP to work alongside Jean Rook (fresh from Hull University), Andrew Alexander, Bernard Ingham, Hugo Young, Anthony Burgess, Ron Kershaw and Reg Brace (whose beat was – can you believe this? – Jazz and Tennis). A few hundred yards from our office was the competition, the Yorkshire Evening News. And eight miles away, in Bradford, the Telegraph and Argus. Three evenings, six changed editions a day, selling something like 250,000 copies daily, each.

And nowhere was Roy mentioning me, Joe Illingworth and Herbert Dewhirst in the same breath.

We’re writing history, Roy Greenslade says. Well… some of us are. The rest of you – maybe experiencing difficulties in the memory (or writing) department – are merely reading it.

Cathy Couzens’ memory cells were kick-started when she found some old cuttings books while moving house. I know… moving house is the only time we look at them. It brought her over all nostalgic.

For Chris Phillips, it took only a pint with a mate to remind him that, yes… those were the days, my friend.

Harry Nuttall simply responded to the mention, here, that – people who don’t use them simply won’t believe or understand it – one reason reporters frequented public houses (only one reason) was that they found stories therein. Harry claims that he has never yet gone into a pub and come out without one. And, yes, we’d be the first to agree, that would be a record that took some beating.

What prompted Alan Dean to put fingers to keyboard with memories of a Daily Mail job of yesteryear was his own mention, at the end of his last contribution, that… ‘that’s another story’… So here it is.

Roy Stockdill remembers Phil Ashcroft, the guy on the next desk.

And Rudge is in the dog house.


The first draft of history

greenslade 1By Roy Greenslade

Can you help to rescue newspaper, and war, history?

Newspaper reporting provides, says the cliché, the first rough draft of history. But journalists should also be responsible for rescuing history too, including their own history.

That is one of the values of, and of the republication of journalistic works by the site’s founder, Revel Barker, through his publishing company.

So I am delighted to aid another history saviour, Mark Rowe, who is calling for memories and photos of former Yorkshire Post war correspondent Joe Illingworth, who reported from the frontline during the second world war.

Rowe, editor of Professional Security Magazine, told HoldTheFrontPage that his interest in Illingworth was piqued when he came across his work at a Leeds library while writing a previous book. Rowe said:

‘An early dispatch of his soon after he landed on the Normandy beaches, telling of the simple lives of the soldiers, with reminders of death all round, was the most moving report I have ever read.

‘He was careful to talk to men of all ranks from the Post‘s circulation area and tell their stories.

‘And yet, presumably because he did not work for a Fleet Street paper or the BBC, his name is nowhere near as famous as other admittedly fine warcos such as Chester Wilmot and Richard Dimbleby.’

It’s a reminder that there is too little recording of the past contribution of regional journalism. Illingworth stayed on with the Post after the war, becoming the paper’s London editor.

Rowe said: ‘There were tears in my eyes in the library when I read his obituary – he died in 1976, aged 73 – because I had set my heart on meeting him.’

Anyone with memories of Illingworth, or of the Post photographer who was with him in Normandy, Herbert Dewhirst, can email Rowe at


Memories are made of these

cathyhat 1By Cathy Couzens

Moving house this week, so was going through endless cuttings, scrapbooks and photos – none of them collected by me, all of them either done by my big brother, now deceased, or my Mother who has gone to drink sherry with God. Boy did those stories bring back memories, especially the ones I did on the Brighton and Hove Gazette.

Brighton in the sixties, who could live in a better place for the good life? A training ground beyond comparison, it was packed with actors, singers, rich antique dealers, jewelers who bought from little old ladies who ran out of money and lived in tiny flatlets on the seafront. The pubs were steaming with stories and we had a great team of reporters who laughed, ate, drank, worked and never went home.

Working on a weekly paper was the hardest work I ever did. For the first year of my indentures, it was seven days a week. I was so naïve I did not realise that it wasn’t supposed to be like that. For the first five weeks I didn’t have a day off… then I got a weekend off to go home, took a train to London, another train to Newport, slept straight through the station and woke up in Fishguard. I had to find a phone that worked, phone Dad, explain the problem and finally get home at 5pm on Saturday, only to leave the next day at 2pm to go back to Brighton.

Remember the first time you saw a dead person? Well mine was my Nan, but I don’t count that, it was when I was 16. The one I really count was the dead councillor. He was a Labour chappie, lived in a council house in Moulescombe. I went there, rang the bell, the widow came to the door and we sat in the front parlour. I was 18, a bit fat, very unsure of my questions… I hadn’t been on any courses yet. We were thrown into the deep end in those days… just go and get a story on a dead person.

I must have floundered a bit so she cheerfully asked: ‘Do you want to see him?’ Oh yes, I said. Damn. Who said that? Did I really say that? Well yes, and there he was, laid out tidy on the kitchen table in his best Sunday suit. We stared at him. I turned and said: ‘Oh he looks lovely.’ (Who said that?) And as God is my witness the woman turned round and said: ‘Bastard… he always looked good.’ You just can’t beat the daft things real people say.

I lived in a flat in Lower Rock Gardens, was paid ten pounds a week and paid three pounds for rent. To have a bath I had to rent the plug, it was a shilling…or five pence. Every night I had a pie and half a lager for supper, it was all I could afford. I bought my own plug at Woolworths and bathed every time the old hag who owned the house went to the pub. I moved every six months, that was all the lease we had. Life was newspapers; there was no other entertainment.

Oh, but I got tickets for everything free, I even reviewed a Victor Borge concert, I had never heard of him… didn’t get the cuttings, thought he was drunk…then realised that he was brilliant and I wrote a sweet piece that got me applause from the big wigs.

We all remember the people we started work with… some are still alive! Roger Lacey, John Mathias, Freddie Lawrence (he invented the phrase Keep Britain Tidy), Ron Pidgeon… Spencer Swaffer (he is richer than God now, he gave up writing and went into antiques in Arundel).

So much has gone – typewriters, spikes, carbon copies, cigarettes, booze in the drawer, laughter, yelling. Don’t know about you but I think it is all rather spotless now and I loved it passionately the way it was.


It was the best of times…

By Chris Phillips

When I last met Bob (not his real name – he wishes to remain anonymous) for a reunion drink, we ended up chorusing: ‘We had the best of it.’ The days before women wore tights, PC was a copper’s rank and passive smoking was a no-cost alternative to a packet of Woodbines.

We both left secondary school and began as junior reporters in the same newspaper group – Bob on a weekly in Peterborough and me on another weekly in Whittlesey, a market town seven miles away. I swear I got the job because the owner, a charming old gentleman by the name of Algernon Sharman, gave me some dictation which included ‘building site’ from a speech by Stanley Baldwin. After noting that I had spelt ‘site’ correctly, he took me on a terrifying 80mph drive in his Daimler along Fenland roads from head office back to Peterborough, my hometown.

So Whittlesey is where I learnt my trade. Bike rounds to pubs for darts results, the football team managers for match reports and the Women’s Institute secretary, whose bosom was a distraction while I dutifully noted that ‘tea was served by Mesdames…’ Names spelt correctly was always more important than any real news coverage – standing outside churches to compile lists of funeral mourners, I found myself parroting: ‘Is that Brown without an E, Smith without a Y?’

As for all those wedding reports, I have two abiding memories. No, not Abide with me, but Fight the good fight chosen by one couple, with another bride describing part of her outfit as ‘a Dutch cap trimmed with lace’.

Then it was on to Peterborough to join Bob and to discover that I lacked an instinct essential to any reporter – er, news sense. It came during a council meeting when a council house tenant asked for a move to another property with a bigger drive to accommodate his two cars – this at a time when one car per household was a rarity. I was astonished when my report ended up as a page top in a couple of the tabloids, courtesy of ex-Mirror reporter turned Peterborough-based freelance, Rex Needle.

Meanwhile, Bob distinguished himself with a report about price inflation in pre-decimalisation days with a quote from a local butcher: ‘Yes, I’ve had to put my meat up a few coppers.’ Bob also doubled as the entertainment critic and, after seeing an up and coming group at the Embassy Theatre, pronounced them ‘mediocre’. Perhaps The Beatles were having an off night. Once, when Bob was on holiday, I had to cover an am-dram production of West Side Story. Highly entertaining, but for all the wrong reasons. It took the male lead three attempts to scale a chain-link fence before the Jets/Sharks fight scene and the poor fellow also had a lisp, which resulted in an unusual rendering of the song ‘Maria’.

From Peterborough, it was on to the Bristol Evening Post for 18 months, and then to the Hitchin and Luton offices of the Hemel Hempstead-based Evening Post, Thomson training ground for a clutch of graduate trainees who went on to make names for themselves, including Anne McElvoy, Alan Hamilton, Tony Holden and David Blundy.

I made a name for myself by leaving Luton magistrates’ court one lunchtime with a tremendous thirst, ignoring all the police cars outside a local bank, and next day discovering that it had been the target of one of the biggest safe deposit box raids of all time. No surprise that I lost my stripe as crime correspondent, but not before I had the chance to mingle with Fleet Street’s finest covering the Muriel McKay abduction and murder story. Jimmy Nicholson, if you happen to be reading this, you never did return the wellingtons I lent you for tramping round the fields of Stocking Pelham, scene of the McKay crime. Rotter.

A couple of other anecdotes during my time at the Evening Post: One of the junior reporters at the Hitchin office lost a contact lens, which I found in a wastepaper basket. ‘Thanks,’ said the grateful junior, I owe you one.’ Well, John Blake, now head of the eponymous publishing house, it so happens that I’ve just completed what I believe is a blockbusting novel…

And Irene Gibb, before your move to the Daily Mail, do you recall the time you picked me up one morning in what appeared to be the district office pool car, a green Vauxhall Viva? I say ‘appeared’ because this vehicle was in pristine condition. Intrigued, I opened the glove box and found a Bible. Now bear in mind that this was in the days when car anti-theft devices were less sophisticated than today. Turns out that there were two green Vivas left overnight in Luton’s multi-storey car park and the ignition key of the pool car just happened to fit the other, belonging to a church minister.

Then I hit Fleet Street. It was more of a plop, really, during the dying days of the IPC Sun doing the worst job possible for someone with no news sense, copy tasting. It was my task to condense any agency copy I thought merited inclusion on the morning news schedule into a couple of sentences. News editor Barrie Harding, the former Mirror bureau man in New York, would invariably look at my contributions while sucking on a toothpick (having just given up his 60 a day fag habit) and spike them.

I still cringe at the recollection of newsdesk colleague Bill Newman explaining the rudiments of the job on my first day. ‘Oh, I’ll soon pick that up,’ I responded. His expression was something along the lines of ‘What arrogant young prick have we got here, then?’

Someone arrogant – and stupid – enough to commandeer editor Dickie Dinsdale’s chauffeur-driven car to take me to the station at the end of one night shift. That really marked my early departure ticket. But not before I accumulated some notable memories of characters and events. Harry Arnold, strutting around like a bantam cock (and bedding a newsdesk secretary who at the time was the love of my life, bastard). Science/medical correspondent Leslie Toulson, with his accordion playing at the Cross Keys, opposite the Sun offices in Covent Garden. A floppy-haired reporter with owl glasses and a wonky eye, but his other eye was good enough to see him make it into the media stratosphere: chap by the name of Les Hinton. Aviation correspondent Brian Woosey, who gave me my first experience of nightclub hostesses – thanks for putting my excesses on your exes, Brian. Feature writer Jon Akass, whose one-line intro on the investiture of the Prince of Wales – ‘The lad did well’ – would have been envied by Ernest Hemingway.

But a callow youth having a crown placed on his head by Mummy was insignificant compared with two other events during my newsdesk shifts. One was the first bomb attack in Northern Ireland, with managing editor John Graham later signing up Westminster’s youngest MP, Republican activist Bernadette Devlin, as columnist. The second, for which I still have the PA ‘flash’, was the Apollo moon landing, which a gang of us watched on a flickering TV screen in the private quarters of Annie, landlady of the Cross Keys.

From the Sun, it was on to a brief spell at the Daily Sketch as a reporter, where the only incident I recall was being told to fuck off by Foreign Secretary George Brown during a doorstepping assignment, before I left newspapers for the more leisurely pastures of business magazines.

Ironically, it was during this time that a story of mine – an exclusive interview with union boss Hugh Scanlon on wage bargaining – made a Sun splash. I didn’t get paid for that, but I’ve since made some drinking money from the occasional story: the Punch and Judy man who whacked a local farmer for ‘goosing’ him during his act; Bishop Desmond Tutu being let off a parking ticket by an admiring traffic warden; and a man at my local pub who foiled a speeding fine after persuading police that the real culprit was someone driving around in an identical car using his number plate.

Nothing to rank as scoop of the year, but they serve to reassure me that perhaps I do have some news sense after all…


There’s gold in them thar pubs

By Harry Nuttall

Journalists and pubs? An unlikely combination. Only joking, of course. You really can’t go wrong – or couldn’t in the old days. Perhaps not now, as most reporters seem to be glued to either a telephone or a computer and even district men can work 20 miles from their beat. Poor bastards.

Over 20 years back, as Manchester fizzled out as a production centre and the madding throng filtered off to the provinces or started the haul down to the Smoke, I found myself running a district – my home town – for my local evening. Pubs were still being opened in those days and I spent quite a bit of time knocking back a few and picking up a lot.

In close on five months I never once went into a pub without emerging with a story or a lead for one. Not once. Ok, some made just a filler par but there were a few good tales spattered among them. Occasionally I had to hang around for an hour or two before something turned up, but it was a record I was rather proud of.

Mind you, it was a close-run thing. It was my last couple of days on the local beat before heading off to take the Shah shilling at Warrington. I edged to the Swan Hotel front door as closing time loomed and I faced a howling gale and lashing rain sweeping past almost horizontally. It wasn’t a long trudge home, but I was probably going to drown on the way.

It was then that I realised, to my horror, that I was about to leave a local hostelry without as much as a par about a jumble sale. My 100 percent record was about to fly away with the gale. I slumped against the stone door jamb. Defeat stared me in the face.

Just then, across the road, the front door of the Park Inn burst open and a local drunk called Johnny Headley flew out with a boot up his backside and he crumpled in a heap on the swilling pavement. He got up with an effort, presumably saw the bright lights of the Swan, and staggered over. ‘Hiya, Harry!’ he slurred. ‘Hey, have you heard about…’

Manna from a watery heaven. I almost carried him into the Swan, sat him down, got him a pint and listened as he told me about Roger, the landlord of the Albion, and his Problem Parrot… I could have kissed him but he hadn’t had a shave in days and looked like a drowned rat.

Roger and the Problem Parrot! Now, there was a tale to finish off my stint back on the evenings. Like most stories, it needed a bit of ‘top spin’ which it duly got.

The problem with the parrot, as I discovered the following lunchtime, was that the daft bastard kept flying into the pub windows. And it had chipped a couple of chunks out of its beak. A page lead wasn’t going to be a problem. And if it didn’t make a pic piece in the Daily Mirror then I was losing my touch.

‘Right Roger,’ I told him. ‘Ring this number. And tell ’em you want a classified ad. Read this to ’em,’ I said, still scribbling on a split beer mat:

Wanted. Speech therapist for parrot with a lisp.

‘And when the news desk rings up in a few minutes – which they will – give ’em the spiel.’

It didn’t matter that some other reporter was going to nab a by-line and, if he’d any sense, flog it on. And that’s what happened. The news desk rang back inside five minutes to check out the rather odd classified and Roger duly gave ’em ‘the spiel’.

Oh, yes; it had been a right little chatterbox. But now it talks funny and just sort of mumbles, he told them, warming to his theme. I might add that Roger was a pal of mine – I was best man at his second wedding – and He Knew How It Worked. He was a real character and knew a lot of hacks. He was once sacked as manager of a big night club. What happened? ‘I banked the fiddle instead of the take. And the fiddle was a lot more than the take,’ he admitted with a shrug.

Anyhow, the lisping parrot made a page lead the following evening – and got a good show in the Mirror the morning after – with a big pic of said parrot being ‘coached’ by a bowler-hatted Freddie ‘Parrotface’ Davies.

And that, children, is how to make something out of nothing. Or at least it was when reporters actually mooched around the mean streets and picked up – or occasionally made up – daft, colourful tales. What a pity that poor galley slaves these days are chained to their desks and their computers. And they can’t even reach for a fag.

If I were still working under those conditions I’d be as sick as a cliché.


Has anybody seen our ship?

alandeanBy Alan Dean

If a shrink was ever to tell me I had a split personality, I’d put it down to my days stringing in Belgrade. One day I’d be bashing out op-ed think pieces on such sawdust-dry subjects as ‘Tito’s self-management policies’ for Copley News Service in San Diego, while the next I’d be filing a piece to the Daily Mail diary editor about a couple of old Etonians running short of coal on their steam-engine Balkan safari; or a few pars to the Sun about slivovitz sozzled Welsh farmers causing havoc at an international plough driving competition in a small Serbian village.

So it was no real surprise when I got a phone call from Brian Freemantle, the Daily Mail foreign editor, asking me to drop everything and pop down to the Adriatic coast to find a missing yacht.

It was no ordinary yacht. It was owned by the Daily Mail proprietor Vere Harmsworth, aka Viscount Rothermere, and his champagne-loving wife, Pamela, better known as Bubbles to the Chelsea set and Fleet Street diary editors. Evidently, they had been at a dinner party when one of the guests remarked that they had seen the Harmsworth yacht sailing around the Greek islands the week before – which was news to the Harmsworths who thought it was moored at a marina in Zadar, on the Yugoslav coast.

Bubbles, it seems, had got into a tizzy, so Harmsworth instantly called the then Daily Mail editor, David English, who in turn called Brian Freemantle. The message: ‘Find the yacht’.

In no time, I was on a flight to Zadar, which did not go unnoticed in Belgrade, where a discreet eye was kept on the international press corps by the powers that were.

Zadar is a short boat ride from Goli Otok, an island where the Yugoslavs incarcerated their political prisoners at the time – and this probably accounted for the two leather-coated men who took a more than casual interest in my movements on the Adriatic coast and were on my tail from the moment I arrived. I doubt they would have believed I was on the trail of a Fleet Street publisher’s missing yacht.

It was a sizeable boat, a floating gin palace, and not hard to miss. But it was not at the marina, and the locals just shrugged when I asked where it might be. It could be at any one of the nearby islands, I told the foreign desk when I phoned in. Go and take a look, I was told. It was turning into a very pleasant assignment. The weather was great and the exes were mounting rapidly, what more could a humble stringer ask for?

I even had an impressive looking receipt for the hire of a converted motor torpedo boat and two-man crew. It was the only expense item I ever had questioned by the bean counters at Northcliffe House, but it was paid after my explanation that the MTB was a cheaper option than a helicopter, and I was sure the proprietor would understand, given the urgency of the matter.

I staked out the marina for three days before the missing yacht finally sailed back into Zadar. I met the skipper, a smooth-talking Croatian Omar Sharif look-alike, who told me with a straight face that he had been ‘running checks on the yacht’s sea worthiness.’

The truth of the matter, which came out over endless local Dalmatian wine at a harbour bar with entrepreneurial skipper and a couple of his local lady friends, was that he had been using the yacht to run his own occasional charter trips. The way the two Dalmatian damsels were knocking back champagne (Bubbles would have been impressed) he needed the extra income.

On phoning Brian Freemantle to tell him that I had found the Harmsworth’s mini floating gin palace, and assuring him that it was in a good condition, I was asked to stay in Zadar to keep an eye on things until the Harmsworths arranged for a new skipper – which meant another four days getting a tan by the hotel pool while running up a decent bar bill. The sacked skipper turned up at the hotel to tell me he was off to Italy, one step ahead of an impending investigation, no doubt.

I arrived back in Belgrade to find a telegram from Copley News Service – asking for 600 words on the implications of an ongoing food shortage in neighbouring Rumania. As I was saying about split personalities…

There is a postscript to the Zadar episode. Not long after I made a flying visit to Athens, where I caught up with an old friend, Chris Eliohu, the Daily Mail stringer in the Greek capital. We had a few ouzos together and he told me how he too had been sent on the Harmsworth yacht hunting expedition by the Daily Mail foreign desk. Comparing our exes, it was Chris who had flown to three Greek islands who came out the champion – which set me thinking that maybe I should have hired a helicopter after all.


Broadsheet man

By Roy Stockdill

At Wapping, on the News of the World open-plan editorial floor, the art desk was adjacent to the features department where I worked on book serialisations. Art director Phil Ashcroft’s desk was immediately behind mine and I remember a cheerful, witty man who kept up a stream of banter and lively comments, while being much respected by his staff.

It was saddening to learn that he had died last week, aged 70, after an 18-month cancer.

Phil, who retired in 2001, spent 35 years on Fleet Street and oversaw the first edition of the News of the World when it changed from a broadsheet to a tabloid in 1984.

phil ashcroftA popular figure, he was widely respected for his air of calm authority both on the NoW and previously at its sister paper the Sun.

He leaves a wife Sally, who he was married to for 39 years, and a son Adam, 42.

Sally said: ‘He loved working at the News of the World. He had a tear in his eye when he saw the first tabloid edition roll off the presses.’

His funeral will be held on Friday, April 1 at 11am at the chapel at Camberwell New Cemetery, Brenchley Gardens, Forest Hill, London.


This Week

So… how did you get into journalism? It’s a question you’ve surely been asked before, although it possibly started with ‘how on earth did you ever…’

What are (or were) we doing here (or there)? That’s a question we probably asked ourselves, possibly often. Why journalism? Were all the brain surgery vacancies taken when we were leaving school?

Most people have a different answer although in the end, says Revel Barker, the common line is that there was nothing else that we were equipped to do. There’s a new book out – published today – by Walter Schwarz who for years was a foreign correspondent for the Guardian. At the age of 13 he identified the reporter’s life as the one for him. Hence the title for his excellent memoirs: The Ideal Occupation.

So we’ll have a competition. Tell us how or why you got into the game and the writer of the best piece could win a million pounds. Or a copy of the book. (As usual, the editor’s decision will be final.)

And for those who want to know more, foreign corr Alan Dean reviews the book.

While for those readers who imagine that life at the receiving end of the foreign desk’s phone might be at least verging on the romantic, sometime stringer Rick Wilson spills the Dutch beans.

Back in the real(?) world, Harold Heys reports on the demise of a newspaper(?), the Sunday Sport.

Anthony Peagam adds to the memories of Phil Ashcroft (obit last week).

And cartoonist Rudge (James Whitworth) has a joke about something that some of us actually remember happening in the Daily Mirror newsroom.

What else…?

You’ll have read that the chief reporter and the former news editor of the News of the World have been arrested over the phone-hacking fiasco. If not, catch up here. (Our man in the trilby and the trenchcoat reports trembling among staff at the Mirror.)

And if you’re still at a loss for something to read (and not up to coping with anything as cerebral as a real book) there’s a list of Press Council complaints (described as an ‘unofficial list’) set up by that tireless charity-in-search-of-a-cause, the Media Standards Trust, that you could skim through.


The ideal occupation

rb3 3By Revel Barker

One day when Whispering Smith, who taught history, failed to turn up, the headmaster came in to entertain us instead. He knew sod-all about history so asked us, in a pseudo-caring, headmasterly sort of way, what we intended to do when we left school.

One kid said he fancied being a policeman and the head went apoplectic. ‘If that’s all you want to do with your life you should have given your place at grammar school to somebody who could make proper use of it,’ he sneered (no other word for it).

Callow youth though I was, I remember thinking, what an arse. Why didn’t he tell the boy to study science and go for forensics (Murder Bag – Supt Lockhart, Raymond Francis – was our favourite TV programme at the time), or to take the arts route, study law and become a prosecuting inspector – we had them, in those days?

When the history teacher returned he said: ‘So, Barker, you think you’ll be a journalist…’ It was a no-brainer for me; I was already writing for the local weekly and had had a good story (across two columns) on Page One the previous week. Got it from the headmaster’s secretary, no less.

‘What sort of journalism do you have in mind?’

I read the Daily Mirror and the Guardian every morning, so I thought I wouldn’t mind doing politics.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I suppose you might become a political correspondent, although God knows, you’ll never be a diplomatic one.’

(Years later, when I became foreign editor and was ploughing the embassy beat, among others, I thought of dropping him a line. But he’d left the school for pastures unknown, and he was called Smith…)

What prompts this reminiscence from days of yore is The Ideal Occupation, a new book by Walter Schwarz who spent most of his life as a foreign corr for the Guardian.

When he was 13 he had to write an essay called… The Ideal Occupation. After dismissing ‘rich bank manager’ on one hand and ‘quiet life with lots of free time’ on the other, he opted for ‘a life of travel, excitement, freedom: in short a journalist’. He had the foresight to add that he didn’t want to be controlled in an office by an editor and plagued by deadlines, but ‘to visit places (ordinary places), and talk to people (ordinary people), and build up my articles from that.’

His teacher wrote at the bottom: ‘Pleasantly written. An interesting ambition, not easily realised.’

ideal occup front proofDecades later, as the Guardian man in Nigeria (1964-67), Israel (1970-72), India (1972-75) and France and Germany (1975-84), visiting ordinary places and talking to ordinary people, with or without a notebook in his hand, life as a reporter was as much fun as he had imagined.

When one talks, as we used to do, in the pub, about what brought individual members of this unlikely gallimaufry into the Great Game, the most common answer is that we looked around, maybe even listened to the uninspiring advice of the careers master (who, personally, hadn’t been able to think of anything beyond teaching), and finally realised that journalism was the only thing we could do.

Certainly in Walter’s case it’s difficult to imagine what else he could have done as a career, except write (although at Oxford he thought that if he got a First, which he didn’t, he might have become ‘an academic’) – because when he wasn’t filing for the Oxford Mail, the Evening Standard, Jewish Observer, Spectator, West Africa magazine, Newsweek and eventually fulltime for the Guardian, he was maintaining a diary and writing letters home.

And one is forced to ask, how many journalists do we know who actually keep a diary? And how many write regular letters home? Most of them write hardly anything, even for the paper, unless there’s a promise upfront of money.

But Walter had the enormous benefit of the diaries and collected family letters, in addition to his cuttings books, when he sat down to type his autobiography.

It makes for a great read. Not only because it was a fascinating life, but because we are privy to his thoughts while he was living it.

There will be people reading this who, perhaps vaguely nowadays, remember how and why they came into the job. So for the best bits submitted on the subject in the next couple of weeks, we’ll give a copy of Walter’s book, The Ideal Occupation, by way of ‘payment’.

The rest, who still don’t know what they’re doing, or can’t remember, can buy the book.

The Ideal Occupation by Walter Schwarz is published today by Revel Barker Publishing at £9.99 and is available from amazon or (with free delivery worldwide) from Book Depository and in the US (with a discount) from Barnes & Noble.


Stuff that dramas are made on

alandeanBy Alan Dean

In the introduction to his bookThe Ideal Occupation, Walter Schwarz, a former foreign correspondent for the Guardian, muses that his reports from Nigeria, Israel, India and France might have mattered less if he had worked in the digital age where everyone has instant access to news, comment and background.

That goes for us all. But Schwarz, without doubt, would have succeeded as a blogger (a hack with an HTML attitude) if only because of his meticulously kept diary – the Pepys syndrome developed as a teenage boy. And it is those diary entries that have helped him go beyond the average I-was-there anecdotes that are often embellished with age in Fleet Street hackiography (or should that be FleetLit?)

I missed the civil war in breakway Biafra (I was caught up with the Six-Day War in Israel) but Schwarz was there with his pen, diary and Cable & Wireless credit card: he landed up in a Nigerian jail and was later deported. His description of that period benefits from having kept up with his diary entries.

I first met Schwarz, an erudite character, a couple of years later at a kosher restaurant in Mea Shearim, one of the oldest Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem if memory serves: alas, I did not keep a detailed diary. Schwarz, who first went to Israel in the late fifties on a retainer for the Jewish Observer, had returned to Jerusalem in the seventies as a staffer for the Guardian, but he was often mistrusted by the Israelis because of his longstanding friendship with several Israeli Arabs.

I know how he must have felt: I was once hauled over the coals by ‘the authorities’ and berated by the local Daily Mirror stringer, Ted Levite, for my supposed sympathetic coverage of an Israeli Arab at one of the first post-Six Day War trials for alleged terrorist activities, written for the Observer Foreign News Service: it would have been worse for Schwarz at that time because he was Jewish.

Strangely, Schwarz does not talk much of the uber-pro Israel coverage that came from most of the foreign press corps based in Israel in the somewhat gung-ho period between the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, but he does single out the BBC’s Michael Elkins for his ‘heroic tones’ in reporting.

It was after reading the chapter on his Israel experiences in the seventies that I went back to the earlier chapters on Schwarz’s childhood and his early days as a member of a family that had escaped to London from Vienna just before World War Two. Maybe that’s how The Ideal Occupation should be read, and it should be read.

Methinks there’s a decent BBC 4 mini-drama series in the making.


Only an inch away

rickwilson2By Rick Wilson

Reading about some old hacks’ exotic experiences on this site, you could be forgiven for seeing most British journalists as a sophisticated lot, impressively familiar with the wonderful ways of the wider world. That first-mentioned brotherhood perhaps excepted, I suggest you could be wrong.

It would be hard to beat the insularity of some back-in-the-London-office directors of foreign operations.

Revel Barker’s tale (March 4) of being asked to drive to Libya from Tunisia ‘because it was only an inch away on the map’ clanged a loud bell with me. And my memories were not of some Sirocco-blown desert.

As a former Express sub writing in English about tulips and suchlike for KLM’s in-flight magazine I was managing, despite the obvious distractions of the sexy seventies, to stay connected to Fleet Street through a stringership in long-haired, cannabis-wafting Amsterdam. Which, in case you didn’t know, is a few minutes’ flight from London but a good hour’s drive from The Hague (seat of government) and nearly double that to Rotterdam (then the world’s biggest port).

Let’s get this straight. The Express foreign desk did not actually deal in foreigners as such, or real foreign news, or anything quite so tediously non-English. Indeed, when I met him in the Popinjay pub next to his black-glass office, Express editor Derek Jameson tried briefly to be civil by mumbling something of foreign interest before glazing over completely. ‘I’m going to abolish the foreign pages, mate,’ he said, as if proud of it. ‘Foreign stories will only get in the main paper if they’re worth it.’

So. Change of Dutch government? Abdication of Dutch queen? Not interesting. To me, the foreign desk’s function seemed to exist mainly to follow the antics of the English abroad. Preferably of the football-hooligan variety.

Thus every so often, despite being engaged in gainful daily employment, I was asked to get in my car and check out this or that riot involving ‘our’ boys in, say, Rotterdam.

I would get back with the latest in a flash and they wouldn’t even ask how (it was, after all, only an inch away on the map). The secret – I can now reveal – was not a super-fast car but an excellent telephonic news service supplied by the Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (General Dutch Pressbureau). You just dialled up and got the latest domestic development. In Dutch, of course; that was the challenge.

Nevertheless, my old jalopy stood ready for anything. Except… well, I drew the line at a request to set about tracing the body of an Expressman’s brother who had just expired in Vlissingen (Flushing) in the deep south, and could be laid out in a police station, hospital or even a morgue.

I also drew another line at an even more bizarre request, issued in 1977: ‘We think Idi Amin is somewhere in the skies over Europe, on his way to the Commonwealth heads of government conference in London. We want you to find him.’

‘Eh?’ I burst out laughing but there was grim silence at the other end.

What I did use the car for was the hostage drama mounted by the South Moluccans, also in 1977. These aggrieved immigrants were trying to win independence for their part of Indonesia by putting terror pressure on the Dutch – holding 50 passengers on a train.

Unusually, and presumably because of its potential for a bloodbath, the Express wanted this extremely foreign story monitored daily. So I took a fortnight off my day job to drive every day 100 miles up to Bovensmilde in Drente and file regular reports – until I was joined by a London-office man, John Warden. After two days he scooped the world with an early morning final-edition report by instinctively staying awake on the night fighter jets screamed over the train to give the Dutch Marines shock advantage for a stunning rescue. While everyone else, including me, was abed. ‘I just had a feeling about that night,’ he told me.

Credit where it’s due. That was some professional. Through him the Express re-earned my respect. Until I was even more awestruck by a pre-emptive strike payment for all my efforts (including local advice to said London star reporter): Fifteen measly quid! It didn’t cover one day’s petrol…

And on the subject of respect, there was another moment when London sent over another star with somewhat less success. A schoolboy had gone missing in Exeter and it was reckoned the world’s top clairvoyant, Gerard Croiset, would be the man to pinpoint his whereabouts. He told me he needed some of the boy’s clothing. I collected the relevant parcel from the airport and took it to him at his Utrecht home, where he said: ‘I will help the police in this case only if no story is published until there is a successful outcome.’

Well, you don’t argue with someone who can put a curse on your house, do you? So I told the desk of his key condition. Nonetheless, they kept pumping me for ‘background to use when the story does break’.

The seer’s notes and drawings were then flown back to the police, and the following day someone was ringing my doorbell.

‘I’m from the Express – to do the story when the shit hits the fan,’ said the latest red-of-face dynamo.

‘When would that be?’ I asked.

‘Tonight,’ he said. ‘It’s to be the splash.’

Now I like to generate a national splash as much as any hack, but this was an outrageous breach of trust.

‘No, no, no,’ I protested – then called the editor and told him that if the story appeared he would be taken to the Press Council by his own correspondent.

‘Oh dear,’ he said. Yes, it was ‘oh dear’ all round. A political piece on Rhodesia took its place, and the Express and I drifted apart.

As far as it was concerned, I had gone boringly native and really wasn’t on its British side anymore.

Rick Wilson has been a sub-editor with the Daily Express, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Mirror, and a magazine executive in Amsterdam, Brussels, London and Edinburgh – where he edited the Scotsman Magazine for 10 years.


Gone tits up

haroldheys1 5By Harold Heys

So the Sunday Sport and its daily have finally gone tits up. Nobody can be really surprised. The writing has been on the lavatory wall for a few years and it’s been something of a miracle that the operation had lasted this long.

Media commentators have been wrapped up in figures and graphs in the past few days, but Peter Preston in the Observer got it right. ‘Don’t get caught up in dissertations on the death of newspapers as a result of this collapse. The Sports didn’t deal in news – just something the net, for its sins, could do faster, bolder and bawdier in full, living colour.’

It’s been downhill since editor-in-chief Tony Livesey packed his bags in the late summer of 2006 and headed off to a new career at the BBC. He was the man with the big, daft ideas. He was the man with the larger-than-life profile. He wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but his loss, combined with the inexorable rise of Internet sleaze, proved fatal.

It was probably back in 1987 that I first heard of him. An old pal, Dave Allin, the tough, ex-Royal Marines news editor on the Blackburn Telegraph rang me: ‘I’ve just taken on a good ’un,’ he said. ‘Bloke called Tony Livesey.’

‘What’s he done? Where’s he been?’ I asked. ‘Dunno,’ said Dave whose interview technique was rather brusque. ‘Nah, then, Tony,’ he’d said. ‘Are. You. Any. Fuckin’. Good?’

As he said, that’s what you wanted to know. None of the fanny about where-have-you-worked, and have-you-brought-some-cuttings and tell-me-about-your-hobbies and all that crap.

tonyliveseyLivesey didn’t hesitate. ‘I’m fuckin’ better than you,’ he told Dave. Next question: ‘When can you start?’ And Burnley-born Livesey, just back from Dubai, suggested the following Monday. End of interview. Dave knew all he needed to know: Livesey had balls. Tony had about 18 months on the Telegraph, where he won the North West Reporter of the Year title, and moved on to the Sunday Sport in 1989. He enjoyed a speedy rise through the ranks of sports editor, assistant editor, deputy editor and, in the blinking of an eye, he became editor-in-chief of the two papers. Tits and bums were indeed the order of the day but there was plenty of room for fun and froth.

To glance through the Internet references to the demise of the Sport papers you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only daft tale they ever came up with was the one about the World War II bomber being found on the moon – which was probably before Livesey’s time there.

bomberI interviewed him for a feature in Lancashire Magazine a couple of years back and we had a few laughs at some of the other madcap tales.

How about such world exclusives as ‘London bus found at South Pole’… ‘Hitler was a woman’… ‘Bagpipes strangled grandma’… ‘Donkey robs bank’… ‘Lovesick gardener marries lettuce’… and the tragic follow-up a week later: ‘Greenfly ate my wife’.

He told me: ‘We had a simple editorial rule. If two of us believed a story then it must be true.’ He kept a straight face while telling me this. It couldn’t have been easy.

But probably the strangest story he ever handled was the memorable ‘Aliens turned our son into a fish finger’. It was a story regaled by Les Hinton, once described as media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s ‘special envoy on earth’, to an international gathering of eminent editors in Hawaii as ‘the finest example in the history of investigative journalism.’

‘Hope you didn’t mind,’ Hinton told him when they bumped into each other a few weeks later. Not at all. The Lancashire lad was quite impressed. ‘Cracking that tale was hard work,’ he recalled. It was a great story and had something for everyone. Science fiction, family heartache, mystery, cookery, cannibalism…

The fish finger story featured in Sex, Lies and Aliens, a riotous TV film about madcap life on Sport newspapers which got great reviews back in 1997. It made his name and led gradually to a change of direction – away from newspapers and firmly into radio and television.

The last shot of him on his car phone telling a hapless hack to go to Asda and buy a packet of fish fingers, stick ‘the child’ in the box and see if his mum could recognise, him was the stuff of newspaper legend.

You probably think you’ve had some tough assignments over the years, but it’s a safe bet you can’t top that! Oh, and the tale did have a happy ending: The anxious mum immediately recognised her little lad.

It was even dafter in the office. Tony was the man with the big crazy ideas as Phil Smith, who was sports editor in the early 2000s, recalled. ‘He came over one day and said he’d had an idea for a competition. He got one of the Page 3 girls to strip off, sit on the desk and put her legs up onto my shoulders while I was working at the computer.’ The competition? Has anybody got a better job than Phil Smith?

It ran every day for a week. And the guy who won was a beer-taster at Boddingtons Brewery just down the road.

I often wondered how many of the staff over the years – and I’ve known a lot of ’em – were happy to mention where they worked. Phil, for one, was rather cautious. He was looking ahead to his fourth marriage but was rather cagy about where exactly he worked. Eventually, after stalling for a few months, he brought a copy home. Maureen took it surprisingly well, he remembered. Donna Gee, who had two spells there as Gerry Greenberg, used to tell friends that she was a freelance.

Daily perks for staff included a couple of models parading up and down on top of the desks (naked of course), and there was always the daily phone-in call where the lovely ladies fielded calls from frustrated guys opening their hearts about their various sex problems. Completely naked, of course. The birds – not sure about the guys.

A devil-may-care atmosphere pervaded everywhere. One young lass I knew – let’s call her Rosie – dropped Tony a line asking for some shifts. ‘Dear Tony,’ it ran. ‘Gizza fuckin’ job. With loads of dosh. Might even be a jump in it for you.’ I remember it ended, ‘Yours, If you’re lucky.’ And yes, she got some shifts.

Anybody beat that for a job application?

I must say that while most of the staff rated Tony Livesey’s enthusiasm and ideas, many thought his man-management skills were lacking. Donna Gee and another two subs were seen off randomly in a cost-saving exercise in 1994 and they picked up close on £30,000 in compensation at a tribunal. Livesey didn’t seem to take it very seriously.

In the early days I, like so many hacks, got some daft stories in the Sunday Sport. One I remember was about a well-endowed sizzler called Shirley who had a list of ten things she wanted to do before she hit 40. One was to pose topless in a national newspaper. Happy to oblige Shirley! I snapped off some cracking pictures as she posed astride her husband’s Harley. Oh, have I not mentioned that she was a local leader in the Girl Guides? They weren’t best pleased; she was ecstatic.

Among the staff men in the early days at Salford were Peter Grimsditch, Jeff McGowan, Andy Carson, Jim Copeland, George Grammer and Steve Millar, as I remember. Production soon moved on to Ancoats in central Manchester.

However, in the end, the tacky formula of tits, bums and cheeky stories had become tired. The experiment of James Brown (he founded Loaded magazine) of producing a lads’ magazine didn’t work. The relaunch was a disaster and lost 30 percent of its circulation almost overnight.

An insider told me: ‘The other problem was David Sullivan, whose tentacles were everywhere. As honorary publisher, he exercised the right of choosing the cover on a daily basis. He persisted in his format of If a cover works, use it again. It was a standing joke in the office about Rosie Webster of Coronation Street fame. He’d had a great circulation boost by using pix of her in a school uniform and he kept repeating them until readers said they were fed up with them.

‘The Sport didn’t keep up with the new generation. Lack of finance prevented any serious marketing and didn’t target the student audience, for example. The recession, bad mid-winter weather and the demise of the building industry and associated trades also hit circulation hard.’

Characters were sadly lacking. Murray Morse, editor-in-chief, was heavyweight in build but never really made an impact. Animal lover and kick boxing exponent Pam McVitie, the first woman editor, was promoted from within and lacked national newspaper experience. Management were far too cautious, but when you are dog-paddling in a rusting hulk it’s not easy to start slapping on a fresh coat of gloss paint and hanging out the flags and buntings.

• The Sunday Sport was founded by David Sullivan in 1986 as ‘the world’s most outrageous newspaper.’ The daily was launched in 1991, initially on Wednesdays and Fridays. Sullivan sold out to Interactive World in 2007 and the company then became Sport Media Group. Sullivan was called on in 2009 to shovel in more money.

• For more than a decade the papers had been printed by Richard Desmond’s Broughton Printers near Preston. Daily circulation peaked several years ago at over 200,000 but had tailed off to an average of not much over 60,000. The Sunday sold over half a million in its hey-day. At the death Saturday sales were down to 42,000. while the Sunday was selling just 50,000. It didn’t help when management slashed the pagination to 40pp on a daily basis and charged 50p a pop.

• Cost-cutting and redundancies had knocked the stuffing out of the papers in the past two or three years but they certainly provided something of a redoubt for Northern hacks ditched by the loss of the nationals to London, and aspiring subs from the northern evenings. The last line-up was a cracking mix of experienced pros. I’m desperately sorry for them.


The Street’s design guru

By Anthony Peagam

I met Philip Ashcroft in 1957, when we were both 17. We shared a bleak office in Tudor Avenue and worked for Argus Press, which was ‘training’ us to be magazine sub-editors – which mostly consisted of anglicising text that had already been published in the US.

Fresh-faced and enthusiastic, south-London streetwise and ambitious, the snappiest of dressers, Phil was a striking and immediately attractive personality – always cheerful and (as we didn’t say then) ‘up for it’.

A bright youngster with an excellent grammar-school education, he soon made the move into magazine design, and became one of those rare editorial beings: an articulate layout-man who cared about the words as much as the pictures.

Our paths criss-crossed over the years. We were together on Woman’s Mirror in the 1960s, but worked at different times for Ford Motor Company and for TV Times and regrettably not again once Phil had reached the fork in the road that led to a long and remarkably successful career with News International.

Things took off when he joined the Sun. Kelvin Mackenzie says, ‘I worked closely with Phil for more than a decade. He was a star. In the midst of the gunfire in the newsroom he was an oasis of calm. No matter what the drama, the shouting, the angst, Phil would rise above it with a smile, a joke and a warmth so very rare in that explosive arena.

‘Nothing was ever too much trouble. No matter how many times I changed my mind about page one, Phil never raised an eyebrow, curled a lip or snapped a pencil. It was always, How can I help to make the paper better? Actually, that was true of Phil’s approach to life – it was never about him, it was always about everybody else.’

Patsy Chapman, who worked with Phil on the Sun and News of the World, echoes Mackenzie’s tribute: ‘Phil was a superb layout man and always cool in a crisis. He drew the pages with even more of a flourish than he modelled his clothes. He was a handsome and happy man who was loved by all his colleagues.

‘He always made an impact. He had an incredible career working on wars, royal and celebrity weddings and big scandals and disasters. You would always want him on your team, with his talent, good nature and boyish giggle.’

Phil moved on to the News of the World when it went tabloid and became assistant editor in the late 1990s – famously clashing with Rupert Murdoch one night when the pressure was on, and equally famously earning an apology from the big man.

Piers Morgan described Phil as ‘the design guru of Fleet Street’, and speaks appreciatively of the ‘fantastic’ relationship he had with him.

Phil Ashcroft was to remain at the News of the World until his retirement in 2001, and briefly art-directed Punch before its closure. He will be sadly missed by his friends, many of whom attended his funeral last week in Forest Hill.




This Week

It may be that it was the mention of a possible million-pound prize in our competition – announced last week – that drew in the responses. But that would be an unworthy thought… what people are going for is the first prize: a copy of The Ideal Occupation, Walter Schwarz’s terrific memoir about life as a foreign correspondent, mainly for the Guardian.

Nobody wants to be second best.

To recap, Walter when aged 13 had written an essay about what he thought would be the perfect career and he’d opted for journalism. We asked how other Ranters had made the decision and why they opted for this great game.

(Anybody out there who can’t remember why can just buy the book. It costs only £9.99, is a great read, and is available with free delivery worldwide from the Book Depository , most other on-line booksellers, and on order from any half-decent high street bookshop.)

So we’re kicking off with Steve Bates, like Walter, a Guardian man. And like Walter he came in after university – which, if nothing else, will be news that pisses off Kelvin.

The jury’s out on whether this tale is pipped by Ken Ashton, who writes that his grandson Jacob has already chosen his likely career path at the age of SIX. He currently fancies becoming a monkey, but there’s plenty of time yet for him to see the light (and shade).

Then Harold Lewis reveals that he might have been a doctor. Reminds me a bit of Peter Cook telling Dud that he could have become a judge, only he didn’t have the Latin…

But first, some follow-ups to last week’s ranting.

Roy Greenslade review’s Walter’s book in yesterday’s Media Guardian.

Rick Wilson’s story about a Moluccan siege brought happy memories flooding back for Ian Markham-Smith of a gathering of Fleet Street’s finest that was clearly not one to be missed.

Andy Leatham follows Harold Heys’ piece with more stories from the Daily Sport.

And holding the whole lot up is cartoonist Rudge, down there in the colour supplement.

What else? Felicity Green is the guest on Desert Island Discs this weekend (Sunday, Radio 4, 11.15am).

And next Thursday – lest we forget – is WAYZGOOSE. You can all have the day off, unless you’re producing Ranters for Good Friday morning…


The foreign correspondent’s dilemma

By Roy Greenslade

‘Well, now, let’s see, there’s a riot in Bihar. Worth a quick trip?’

‘Perhaps. But floods in Bangladesh could be more dramatic.’

‘But then, Bhutto’s in trouble again: might do something drastic at any moment. Could drive up to ‘Pindi and have a look. Good chance to take the car out of India and renew its customs licence.’

‘Well, yes, but going out of town would mean missing the foreign ministry briefing – it seems they might have something to say for once.’

ideal occup front proof 2That is a one-man morning ‘news conference’ related in the just-published book by former Guardian foreign correspondent Walter Schwarz.

It illustrates the dilemma facing a man assigned to cover the sub-continent from his New Delhi flat. It also casts a light on the nature of news values. How do we choose what to report?

That’s just one of the virtues of reading Schwarz’s memoirs, a reporter who plied his trade, as I noted last month, during the days when copy was dictated over a crackly phone or transmitted by telex.

Aside from his Indian period, Schwarz’s The Ideal Occupation tells of his adventures in Nigeria, Israel and France. It is published by Revel Barker Publishing at £9.99.




Caps off to the Dutch

markham smith2 1By Ian Markham-Smith

Reading Rick Wilson’s recollections of stringing for the Daily Express in the Netherlands (Ranters, last week) also took me back down memory lane to the twin Dutch sieges of 1977. Although my memories of those splendid three weeks in the Dutch sunshine are very different from Rick’s.

The weekend had started badly for me. I had only been in the Daily Mail London office on Carmelite Street, within staggering distance of The Harrow pub, a few minutes on Sunday morning when I was told to get to Heathrow. I was off to Brussels. Overnight there had been a fire in a cheap hotel and several British tourists on a coach tour, who were staying there, had been killed with more being treated in hospital.

The only problem was Heathrow was fogged in and all flights delayed or cancelled. That May 22 was a very long Sunday making regular check calls to the foreign desk and being told to stick at it.

Eventually, I took off in the late afternoon but by the time I got there the Mail’s Brussels-base stringer – I think his name was Eric Kennedy – had quite successfully wrapped the whole thing up. Obviously, he wasn’t exactly delighted to have a whipper-snapper staff man from London intruding on his patch. Quite frankly, I felt like a spare prick at a wedding. OK, I filed but it was purely an exercise to cover my backside. To make matters worse, the Daily Express Thames Valley man, Colin Pratt, had somehow managed to get a flight from another airport and had got to Brussels hours before me. He’d visited the hospital – by the time I got there no visitors allowed – and got some great first person stuff.

So the Monday morning looked pretty bleak. I was preparing to return to London with my tail between my legs and facing, quite possibly, a bollocking even though I can’t be responsible for the weather and the airport bosses were obviously as unreliable in those days as they are now. But sometimes there is a God looking over down-in-the-dumps reporters.

As I was preparing to check out of my hotel around midday, I got a call from the foreign desk – manned by John Moger and his stalwart deputy Jim Thurman, two very experience old hands – saying that a major drama was unfolding in Holland. A bunch of disgruntled South Moluccans had hijacked a train close to the village of Glimmen in north-eastern Netherlands. Nine armed Moluccans had pulled the emergency brake on a morning train and had taken about 50 people hostage. At the same time four others had invaded a nearby elementary school and had taken a load of young kids and their teachers hostage as well.

Pretty serious stuff and possible career redemption. What I didn’t realise was that I was about to embark on the best pack job – certainly the best pack job overseas – that I would ever go on in more than four decades in journalism. Although it was hard work, Messrs Moger and Thurman could not have realised that, while it was hell for the hostages, it quickly turned into an extended paid holiday for many members of Fleet Street’s finest and the rest of the worldwide journalistic community that gathered in Holland’s idyllic flatlands.

The train and the school were situated between the Dutch towns of Assen, famous for its motorbike race, and the university town of Groningen. In those days about a five hour drive from Brussels – the roads have probably improved by now although the traffic is probably worse. After my experience at Heathrow the previous day, there was no way I was going to fly. A hire car would at least ensure that I got there within a reasonable time.

But this was a big story – not just for the local Netherlands press and a few other surrounding countries – so the world’s press quickly descended on the area. All the American TV networks dispatched their European-based crews and there were reporters from virtually every Northern European country representing newspapers, radio and television stations.

Hats of to the Dutch government information service. By the time I arrived they had created a press centre. There was a massive hall for regular press conferences and numerous rooms with desks and typewriters already set up (remember this was within hours of the hostage situation developing). As I entered the already packed centre, there were technicians fixing up banks of telephones, which the journalists could use to make free calls to anywhere in the world, and the officials were setting up a canteen and bar, where we could buy subsidised food and drink, and even a games room to help us while away the hours. I got so addicted to a sort of Dutch shove-ha’penny crossed with skittles game that I actually bought one and brought it home. The Dutch authorities had dealt with Moluccan terrorists before and they were obviously preparing for the duration. Never before or since have I seen such a well-oiled operation.

Within minutes of my arrival, I spotted Brussels rival and adversary Colin Pratt. Over the ensuing hours others started to arrive including dapper Harry Arnold from the Sun. Eventually, it became obvious that after filing initial stories, finding hotel rooms was a good idea. The only problem was there were no rooms at any of the inns. Hotel after hotel was fully booked. Eventually, we found one dormitory room with seven beds in a hotel in Groningen. There was nothing for it, we’d have to forget any rivalry and share until we could find separate rooms. And so it was, that Colin, Harry and I plus four others became unlikely room-mates. The rivalry wasn’t so much over stories but who beat who to the bathroom.

The Daily Mail quickly expanded the team with reporter Malcolm Stewart, legendary writer John Edwards – to do what John always did best and give some colour and depth to the yarn – and photographer Bill Cross, among others.

Tony Frost arrived for the Evening News, Keith Dovekants for the Standard, Guy Rais for the Daily Telegraph and Keith Graves for the BBC. The ITN man arrived without a jacket and had to go on-air almost immediately. We were about the same build and he asked if he could borrow my sports coat so on night one my jacket made it onto News at Ten.

By the weekend, John Ball, formerly a crime man on the Express and by then a reporter on the Sunday Times, and John Knight of the Sunday Mirror had expanded our numbers. John Bell, once known as Bell of Carlisle but for many, many years a high-flyer for the National Enquirer, was also sniffing around trying to find something ‘special’. On Friday night our press centre bar was buzzing. Fleet Street had moved a few miles to the East. If it wasn’t for all the foreign languages being spoken you would have thought you’d walked into the Stab or the Popinjay.

Things soon settled down to a nice routine – press conferences mid-morning and early evening. Occasionally, one of us would sneak off to develop a lead. But the weather was perfect early summer and there was plenty of time for shopping trips, experiencing the local restaurants and sitting in the sun sipping beer. There was even time on the first Saturday evening to organise a trip to the cinema to see director Sam Peckinpah’s latest blood-and-cuts flick Cross of Iron (in English, with Dutch subtitles) starring James Coburn, James Mason and Maximilian Schell.

Boys will be boys and there was plenty of opportunity for drunkenness and debauchery, although, heaven forbid that I would even for a moment suggest that any of my colleagues would indulge in such behaviour. But I do remember that one American TV network front-man had to seek urgent medical assistance after developing a dose of something nasty from an Asian beauty in a local brothel.

After about a week or so the story had flattened out but there were still more journalists than hotel rooms. Colin Pratt was replaced by Bob McGowan for the Express and a young Colin Myler, later editor of the News of the World, who I think was on his first foreign assignment, replaced Harry Arnold. They also took over their beds in our dormitory.

Bob and I quickly decided on a little competition. Instead of filing from Ian Markham-Smith in Assen or Bob McGowan in Groningen, we’d try and get more exotic datelines. The area was surrounded by small Dutch villages some with populations or around four. As a result, our datelines would be such places as Hoogezand, Veendam and Zuidlaren. The idea was to try and find a dateline more impressive than a Welsh railway station. It helped while away the hours.

Our routine was occasionally disturbed by events such as a pregnant hostage being freed, followed by a quick unexpected press conference but basically the days fitted into a pattern.

I had to pop back to the UK for a couple of days for a small operation that had been lined up for many months. I am pleased to say that the foreign desk chose to send me back as soon as the procedure was done. And my brief absence did not stop a double page spread I wrote analysing the events that had unfolded towards the end carrying a strap-line saying the piece was from ‘the man who has watched every minute of this drama’. I wasn’t complaining but it did not stop Keith Graves pointing out on every possible opportunity that the strap-line wasn’t exactly correct.

Sometime before the end of the siege other hotel rooms started to open up and our Fleet Street band of dormitory sharers drifted apart.

I move on to the night of Friday June 10. The day had been just like any other but by mid-afternoon there was a tension about the place and our government spokespeople were being strangely evasive. There had been rumours that something was up. More police than usual had been spotted around the area. The press centre bar was still operating but there were fewer of us around than there had been. Tony Frost, I and a guy from CBS decided to break the monotony by visiting a local bar in town but none of us was enjoying himself. We took it in turns to slip away and phone back to the press centre in case something is going on.

Normally, we’d have called it a day by midnight on a Friday evening but all of us decided to go back to the press centre; within an hour most of the usual suspects were just hovering around. We couldn’t actually go to the train because the area was sealed off, there were some 2,000 marines and soldiers keeping the place in lockdown; you couldn’t see anything and most importantly you were a long, long way from the nearest phone. This was a long time before we all had mobile telephones let alone today’s communications gadgets.

Among all the characters I remember being there to cover the siege – and my apologies to the many wonderful characters who were there that I have either forgotten or not mentioned – I don’t remember running into either Rick Wilson or John Warden. Rick may have been in his bed but I can assure you that when the shit hit the fan most of the rest of us weren’t.

It was in the early hours – around five local time, four in London – that the flash bombs and the shootings started as Dutch fighter jets flew over the train to give the marines their shock advance for the stunning rescue.

Our government minders quickly appeared and a running press conference started. Bob, I and many others hit the phones. The Mail copy-takers had gone so the night-man Peter Lynch started taking my copy while trying to negotiate with the production department to change the front. Peter, who now runs a media company in Sydney, Australia, told me this week about his frustrations at being unable to get my copy into the paper. Many of my colleagues were in the same boat and equally frustrated. Only Bob managed to get a piece into an Express Ludgate Circus edition. I never saw that day’s Express but I was later told the story carried John Warden’s by-line. He may have been involved but, if the story only carried his name, I feel very sorry for my rival Bob because it was he who stayed up all night along with me and filed the copy that made the last edition.

Nevertheless, we all carried on working throughout the night and morning. Obviously other colleagues had early starts as Brussels-based freelance Dennis Newson arrived around breakfast time to cover for the People and other Sunday colleagues soon followed him into the press centre.

My personal disappointment was eased when I got a call from a member of the foreign desk staff calling from home, saying that an old mate who had previously worked on the Mail but was now news editor of the Toronto Star needed coverage. As a result my Mail copy went to Ontario. Rick may have only been paid 15 quid for two weeks work but, on top of my Mail salary, I got 500 Canadian dollars for my trouble.

Many of us stayed on for a few days to cover the funerals of the six Moluccans killed in the raid but then, sadly, the holiday was over.

Another benefit for me was that John Bell kindly recommended me to the editor of the National Enquirer and a few months later I left the Mail to take a job covering Europe for the Florida tab.


This sporting life

By Andrew Leatham

The Sport’s first office was in an unremarkable 1970s office block perched between a dual carriageway and Salford’s famous Flat Iron Market. And it was probably scene of the most fun I ever had in journalism.

The permanent staff numbered no more than eight, backed up a motley collection of red-top hacks turned casuals that included me, Alwyn Thomas and Alan Rimmer from the People, John Burke-Davies from the News of the World and Maurice Chesworth from the Daily Mirror.

At first the paper came out only once a week, leaving us plenty of time to trawl the pages of Weekly World News and other obscure American mags for stories that could be re-written to make them British or European.

One day, a new casual came in for a shift. Now, this chap had worked for the Guardian and was totally unfamiliar with tabloid ways, let alone the ways of The Sport. He was given a cutting — I think it was about an Uruguayan woman who had given birth to a four-kilo cabbage after being abducted by aliens — and told to ‘do it up.’

He must have spent about an hour reading and re-reading the cutting until he finally asked: ‘Has anyone got a contact in the Uruguayan police?’

Half a dozen heads swivelled and stared at him quizzically. ‘What?’

‘The Uruguayan police. I’ve got this story to do and I need to check it out. Has anybody got a number or anything?’

His request was met by uncomprehending silence until ex-Daily Star man Dave Graham, who was news editor, spoke out. Without looking up he simply said: ‘Andy, take ‘im to the pub and tell ‘im how it’s done.’

We never saw the Guardian man again.

The pub in question though was seen many times again by the Sport staff. It was called The Flat Iron and stood on the opposite side of the market — so called because its layout resembled… a flat iron. It was a barn of a place that had long ago seen its best days. The furniture was stained and broken. Generations of damp had peeled the wallpaper away from the high corners. The carpet had that sticky feel that only many, many gallons of sloshed beer can achieve.

At first, we were treated with a degree of hostility by the locals. Chief sub Les Groves was called ‘a fuckin’ yuppie’ because he was wearing a tie. But gradually, when they realised we weren’t coppers or social security investigators, they accepted us but always treated us with a degree of suspicion. After all, I don’t think they had met many people who claimed to be working but still spent a couple of hours in the pub every day.

The number of Sport editions grew steadily until the paper had outgrown its Salford base and moved to the old Daily Express/Daily Star building in Ancoats, Manchester. The move introduced a new name for the title, the Daily Sport and it was soon publishing five days a week. It also introduced a new house by-line when Anne Coates joined the redoubtable Hazel Groves.

The number of staff also continued to grow and as it did so, the fun began to subside. Before long, the place had the feel of a proper newspaper office with an array of executives, news desk, picture desk and sports desk.

At its height, the Daily Sport employed some of the best tabloid men in Manchester but no one foresaw the rise of the internet which killed off the paper’s income mainstay, premium telephone chat lines.

Right from the start media commentators said the Sport would never last; that its mix of sex, nudes and more sex would never sell. But it did and for more than 20 years it titillated, teased, amazed and amused its readers. We will never see its like again. Someone should write a book.


Career building

batesstephenBy Stephen Bates

In my last year at university, I thought – not having done any journalism – that it might be a nice sort of a job, worthy of my talents, with the result that I easily failed to get on any of the hotly competed-for training schemes run by the BBC, the Mirror, Thomsons, Westminster Press, Birmingham Post or any of the other groups in those dim, distant days of 1975.

To add insult to injury, the university careers officer suggested, crushingly, that he didn’t think I was the right type of person to be a journalist – how about marketing, or personnel with ICI Paints, instead? No thanks – and when I reluctantly applied, ICI sensibly didn’t want me either.

But my father insisted that I really ought to get a job and wangled a place at the company where he worked (so strings were pulled, albeit from my point of view unwillingly, and not terribly glamorously). It was with the builders’ merchants Travis and Arnold (now Travis Perkins) where I found myself three months after graduation, working in a sawmill in Littlehampton, with the wind blowing freezingly right off the Channel and straight through the open doors.

This was not how I saw the life of a graduate turning out so I decided pretty quickly to revisit my idea of working for a newspaper and, having invested in a copy of Teach Yourself Journalism, followed its advice to apply to a local paper.

The third one I tried (having been turned down by the Newbury Weekly News in my home town and by the Henley Standard) was the Reading Chronicle, whose editor Bill Garner amazingly invited me for an interview.

I had not really expected a positive response by that stage. Just as well I didn’t realise how lucky I’d been: my application landed on the editor’s roll-top desk on the same morning as a note from a young reporter handing in his resignation. I learnt later that the coincidence fortuitously meant Garner could save himself the cost of advertising the vacancy in the UK Press Gazette. A day earlier, or later, and I’d probably not have been invited in.

It was a real, old fashioned newspaper office in the centre of town with the printing presses rumbling in the basement and paper and grime everywhere else. I was ushered up the narrow wooden stairs to see the editor, who seemed to be ingrained with ink, deep into the wrinkles of his face and hands and – yes – he really did wear silver armbands and smoked Woodbines.

He turned, got up and uttered the first words ever spoken to me by a journalist. ‘Hello, Mr. Bates,’ he said. ‘I hope you realise we can’t pay you as much as whatever you are getting at the moment…’

How characteristic was that? It gradually dawned on me that he was going to offer me a job. And he was right, he didn’t offer me as much as I was getting at the moment: £20 a week to be precise, but there was never a question of my not accepting. Asking golden wedding couples the secret of their married bliss (one long hoped for answer: ‘Not speakin’ to each other for 49 years…’) sure beat working in a sawmill on the south coast in winter.

Stephen Bates went on to work for the Oxford Mail, the BBC, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and, for the last 21 years, the Guardian.


All in the family

By Ken Ashton

Grandson Jacob is six and scary. Not in a frightening way. Scary because he’s too damned clever.

As the end product of a family of journalists – Nana is a former deputy editor, Mum PR and media boss at Chester Zoo, Granddad – well you know about Granddad. Or Taid. Or, as Jacob calls me, Ken.

At six, he is still learning to read and write, all with phonetic letters and all with eagerness. Like most little lads these days, he can whizz around a computer and a keyboard and knows more than is good for him. He looks at my e-mails, informs me who has sent what and – if I’m not careful – tends to reply. And he is delighted when Lord Skidmore’s name pops up on the screen. ‘An e-mail from Skiddy, Ken.’

He’s already admitted he wants to be Prime Minister one day, wrote to that nice Mr. Cameron and got Downing Street pencils back. He discusses the daily TV news with me and each day, before going off to school, likes to scan the local headlines. ‘I’m getting a bit fed up with Libya,’ he says.

And the Independent did him a favour when they launched their baby i, because it’s using short and snappy headlines, which he can figure out, is stapled, so it doesn’t fall apart and is referred to phonetically by Jacob as the i as in itch and not i as in eye.

He just doesn’t just play games, he performs them, so whatever the activity he needs an ID badge – we have about 100 saved on his own memory stick, all with logos, all looking official and each worn to suit the occasion. Fireman? TV news reader? Tesco delivery driver? Press Officer…

The other day he rolled home from school to inform us he’d had his photo taken as part of a local paper piece on of the school’s achievement of excellence in their inspectors’ report.

‘Right, Ken,’ he says, ‘I need a new badge – Press photographer. And I need a camera, please, but not one of those titchy digi things, a proper job with a flash.’ He sounds like a Press photographer already. He’ll be asking for exes next. Or moaning that he’s done that job before.

So I rummage around in my rarely-used camera gadget bag and come out with a Fuji FinePix that looks impressive, with built-in-flash, but the sort of amateur thing snappers would laugh at.

‘Right,’ says Jacob, ‘which button does what? And I need a pad and a pen.’ For…? ‘Someone has to write a caption,’ he says.

‘OK, Ken, hold that piece of paper, don’t put it over your face, shuffle a bit in that chair, look up, don’t frown, stay like that. Smile.’


‘Now,’ he says, ‘names, left to right?’

The lad will go far. As what, time will tell. But be very afraid…


Playing doctors

haroldlewisBy Harold Lewis

Frank Metcalf – mentioned recently in these columns – was a rarity among reporters.

A gentleman.

Unassuming, softly-spoken, he sat across from me in the newsroom of the Yorkshire Evening Post. And, in the course of his busy day, he found time to cast an avuncular eye over my first shaky sentences and help me polish them into something approaching acceptable copy.

But for his patience and encouragement and, I confess, a boisterous family gathering, I might have done something more productive with my life than devoting so much time to subterfuge, pretension and deceit or, come to think of it, carousing and frolicking and generally having a fine old time.

Like thrusting my hand up old ladies’ bottoms.

Or worse.

Around the age of twelve or thirteen, however – when it was still the fervent wish of my parents that I follow several of my relatives into the family business, so to speak, and I saw myself more as a rakish swashbuckler cast in the mould of Damon Runyon or Dashiell Hammett – I caught the down draught of a conversation that sidetracked me straight away from pursuing my mother’s and father’s lofty ambitions.

No fewer than six of my cousins were doctors then, of one specialty or another, and, inevitably, they liked nothing better than trading grim and gory war stories when they infrequently got together.

It was what cousin Phillip, a general practitioner in Sheffield, was recounting that had me all agog, in a cold sweat and instantly planning abandoning any notion of spending a lifetime catering to the aged and ailing.

Seemingly, he had a patient, a woman of a certain age, who had made an appointment at his practice to have a troubling and recurring pain in her nether region checked out.

Nobody, according to him, could have been more surprised when on investigation he ended up extricating a tin of boot polish, the obvious cause of her complaint. Kiwi by brand, black by colour.

The explanation from the embarrassed woman was that after a monster night out she had made friends with a fellow she hardly knew and had heard from a bunch of old wives that the tin of shoe shine would protect her not only from pregnancy but a variety of virulent social diseases, afflictions she had no wish to explain to her long-suffering husband.

So she had, she told my cousin, decided that there was nothing to lose in giving the shoe polish cure a shot.

Phillip’s words of chastisement, according to his tale, were chilling and to the point.

Inevitably, the incident also had the effect of terminating right there and then any budding medical aspirations I, or my mother or father, might have had.

There were easier, better and more dissolute ways, I reasoned, to earn a crust, like the infinitely more glamorous appeal of journalism. Quite obviously, my naiveté prevented me from knowing any better at the time. Indeed, so far as I knew then the only arseholes likely to be confronted, principally outside the office were all of a metaphorical nature.

As I later found out, however, it was difficult to get away from frightening and forbidding orifices of one kind or another.

Startling pitfalls it was all too easy to tumble into.

And, as Reg Payne, then the editor of the Sunday Mirror, once sagely reminded me in a rustic pub in Cheshire (I went along later to lick my wounds with Ian Skidmore at his nearby home and only succeeded in almost losing three fingers of my right hand when I stupidly attempted to pet his bulldog pup): ‘Harold, you’re a little grunt and I’m a big one. And if you are going to be a grunt, be a big one.’

Except, grunt, of course, wasn’t exactly the word he used.

In the years that followed, by dint of cultivating a penchant for eavesdropping and honing my aptitude for osmosis, I picked up enough of the parlance of the medical fraternity to pass myself off with some aplomb at those meetings and conferences attended by the men in white coats.

The same guys, incidentally, who, I suspect, insist on draping stethoscopes around their necks for group photo opportunities in case they are confused with the grocers in the deli department at Waitrose.

It was all a facade, of course.

But it was to serve the National Enquirer well.

Apart from celebrities, the other thing the paper pursued with a vengeance at one time were major medical breakthrough pieces. At the heart of it all, was a wish to be the first publication in the world to announce a cure for cancer.

Much money – hundreds of thousands of dollars at least, maybe even millions – went into attempting to run down this particular holy grail.

So when word reached the office of a dramatic new cancer treatment, a vaccine called Bacillus Calmette-Geurin (BCG) that doctors had been using successfully to boost the body’s natural immune system to overpower the killer cancer cells, the paper, in the way it did, went overboard.

A team numbering about a dozen was sent post-haste to the National Cancer Institute in Maryland where eminent researchers from all over the world were converging to release their latest, sensational findings.

There was one closed session, strictly forbidden to the prying press, but relying on what I had learnt in my formative years, I was eventually able to bluff my way in and mingle as unobtrusively as I could with the throng of scientists and physicians.

At one end of the room, I spotted a very familiar figure.

Billy Burt, formerly of the Daily Mail, had arrived at the Enquirer at about the same time as myself – the first of a flood from Fleet Street – and, significantly, he, alone apart from myself, had also managed to employ his wily ways to broach the inner sanctum. Billy’s secret weapon, of course, was that he was a Scot, obviously earmarked by the door minders by his distinctive accent alone as a foreigner and a welcome conference participant.

‘Dr. Burt,’ I boomed, coming up behind him. ‘So nice to see you again.’

Billy didn’t miss a beat.

‘Dr. Lewis,’ he responded, putting his arm around the two men with whom he was in animated conversation. ‘Have you met our colleagues from Canada and Israel?’

And that is how – much to the approbation of my parents, I’m sure, and in the most distinguished circumstances – I finally got to be a doctor for the day.





This Week

It may be that it was the mention of a possible million-pound prize in our competition – announced last week – that drew in the responses. But that would be an unworthy thought… what people are going for is the first prize: a copy of The Ideal Occupation, Walter Schwarz’s terrific memoir about life as a foreign correspondent, mainly for the Guardian.

Nobody wants to be second best.

To recap, Walter when aged 13 had written an essay about what he thought would be the perfect career and he’d opted for journalism. We asked how other Ranters had made the decision and why they opted for this great game.

(Anybody out there who can’t remember why can just buy the book. It costs only £9.99, is a great read, and is available with free delivery worldwide from the Book Depository , most other on-line booksellers, and on order from any half-decent high street bookshop.)

So we’re kicking off with Steve Bates, like Walter, a Guardian man. And like Walter he came in after university – which, if nothing else, will be news that pisses off Kelvin.

The jury’s out on whether this tale is pipped by Ken Ashton, who writes that his grandson Jacob has already chosen his likely career path at the age of SIX. He currently fancies becoming a monkey, but there’s plenty of time yet for him to see the light (and shade).

Then Harold Lewis reveals that he might have been a doctor. Reminds me a bit of Peter Cook telling Dud that he could have become a judge, only he didn’t have the Latin…

But first, some follow-ups to last week’s ranting.

Roy Greenslade review’s Walter’s book in yesterday’s Media Guardian.

Rick Wilson’s story about a Moluccan siege brought happy memories flooding back for Ian Markham-Smith of a gathering of Fleet Street’s finest that was clearly not one to be missed.

Andy Leatham follows Harold Heys’ piece with more stories from the Daily Sport.

And holding the whole lot up is cartoonist Rudge, down there in the colour supplement.

What else? Felicity Green is the guest on Desert Island Discs this weekend (Sunday, Radio 4, 11.15am).

And next Thursday – lest we forget – is WAYZGOOSE. You can all have the day off, unless you’re producing Ranters for Good Friday morning…


The foreign correspondent’s dilemma

By Roy Greenslade

‘Well, now, let’s see, there’s a riot in Bihar. Worth a quick trip?’

‘Perhaps. But floods in Bangladesh could be more dramatic.’

‘But then, Bhutto’s in trouble again: might do something drastic at any moment. Could drive up to ‘Pindi and have a look. Good chance to take the car out of India and renew its customs license.’

‘Well, yes, but going out of town would mean missing the foreign ministry briefing – it seems they might have something to say for once.’

ideal occup front proof 2That is a one-man morning ‘news conference’ related in the just-published book by former Guardian foreign correspondent Walter Schwarz.

It illustrates the dilemma facing a man assigned to cover the sub-continent from his New Delhi flat. It also casts a light on the nature of news values. How do we choose what to report?

That’s just one of the virtues of reading Schwarz’s memoirs, a reporter who plied his trade, as I noted last month, during the days when copy was dictated over a crackly phone or transmitted by telex.

Aside from his Indian period, Schwarz’s The Ideal Occupation tells of his adventures in Nigeria, Israel and France. It is published by Revel Barker Publishing at £9.99.




This Week

It was Wayzgoose yesterday and the entire staff took a charabanc down to the coast at Helvetica, went on the toot, and they haven’t been heard from since.

Leaving the editor to mooch about, catch up with his reading and discover (in something he found in the litter bin) that there were 421 stories about the Royal Wedding in the British papers last week… of which 127 mentioned Kate Middleton.

Yes. Do the maths. There were nearly 300 stories about the Royal Wedding last week – that didn’t mention who was getting married. Reporters, eh? Or do we assume that the names were subbed out?

Amazing, is it not? But is it even more amazing that there are people out there compiling statistics like that? We’re blessed by the fact that a registered charity – the Media Standards Trust, which has tasked itself to protect readers from the falling standards of newspapers – has assumed this onerous chore.

Any day now we’ll be seeing commercials on the telly saying that for only two pounds a month we could keep a statistician in Evian. Or maybe they’ll train monkeys to do it.

Cartoonist Rudge has noticed that standards are dipping, though. Scroll down.

And, talking of newspaper standards, before he went on the razz Harold Heys filed an update on what’s happening at the Sunday Sport.

Admittedly it’s a publication that causes a bit of a dilemma at Palazzo Ranti, where the question is whether it’s actually a newspaper, or journalism, at all. (You can’t buy it on the sunshine island of San Serif, so we hesitate to pass judgment.)

The decision is made on the basis that, whatever it is, it’s jobs for the boys who would otherwise have been unemployed following the mass withdrawal from the north as a print centre. Let them have their fun. If you can throw up (we use the expression nicely) a totally loony idea, you have somewhere to sell it.

Otherwise, we are leaving you this week to stroll down the nearside lane, check out the goodies in Column One, read the archive, play with the Search engine to see whether you or your mates are there, learn some English from Doctor Syntax, and browse through some jolly tales in The Stab (which is what we called the diary, when we ran one).

Save yourself some money by reading the specially written Tax Guide.

And read about the books we have published (or republished) – just for you.

You may even get some inspiration to write something yourself.

Meanwhile, thanks for all the stories about getting started in newspapers. There are some good tales and we’ll start running them next week. Feel free to contribute your own in the meantime.

Or buy the book that started it – An Ideal Occupation by Walter Schwarz. It’s available right now from the usual sources, from amazon or (with free delivery worldwide) from Book Depository, or Waterstones, Barnes & Noble or amazon in the US, or on order from any half-decent bookshop.

Have a happy Easter.

See you next week.


World of Sport

haroldheys1 5By Harold Heys

There are several things an aspiring journalist has to master. For example: a) The house rules over expenses, b) the nearest pub where you can regularly strap a few quid and c) the girls in advertising who are up for a good night out. Oh, and not bothering The Boss when he – or she – is off on holiday.

Murray Morse, editor-in-chief of the Sunday Sport and its daily till the wheels came off three weeks ago, took the liberty of contacting David Sullivan who was on a getting-away-from-it-all holiday in Dubai.

The Morse plan – more of an ‘outline proposal’, I am told – involved cutting staff including two editors and Mark Harris who had been running the sports desk as well as ten or more galley slaves and cutting the picture desk to just one. He outlined a lot of ideas that he said he had been working on – ‘a restructure plan’, he called it.

There would be revenue from magazine ideas he had had ‘in the pipeline’ and new print deals could be negotiated through his contacts. ‘We could start with a blank sheet of paper and build a team that we need at the price we want to pay’.

David Sullivan, perhaps a little more concerned with the plight of his relegation-threatened West Ham United and the occasional wispy cloud floating high over the paradise (if you are seriously loaded) of Dubai, was unimpressed.

He told Morse that, sadly, being off the stands for a few weeks wouldn’t help to make the paper viable. And added: ‘Really all the things you were “working on” should have been done months ago so you could have paid the bank and not found the paper in the position it’s in’. Rather harsh. Morse had taken more than £1 million out of budgets and gone through two rounds of redundancies. He had tried to save as many jobs as he could.

And over that first traumatic weekend no one else seemed to be doing very much at all. An insider told me that Morse had got back on to Sullivan and pointed out that most of his ideas had been with MD Andrew Fickling for weeks. And he also told him that no one in editorial had had a clue that the Sport had defaulted on payments to Richard Desmond’s Broughton Printers – the last nail in the papers’ coffin.

Mark Harris was probably the last person to ‘get rid of’ as Morse put it. He was Sunday Sport editor for a time and had been Tony Livesey’s right-hand man. He’d done just about every job on the paper over a lot of years.

Harris came up with a Grand Plan and Sullivan, focused on bringing back just the Sunday, has gone for it. Staff will be slashed to a handful. Word is that Harris will act as MD, Nick Appleyard, editor for the past three years, will continue in that role and they will have just three staff subs and three or four others. There will also be a casual budget which they will certainly need. It is expected to resurface on May 8.

Meanwhile, the experienced Murray Morse, former editor of the Cambridge Evening News, and many other journalists are looking for jobs. Morse took on a hell of a challenge when he took over in July 2008 after a disastrous relaunch that spring. It was on its knees and cynics gave it two or three months.

He’s probably quite proud that he helped to stretch three months to nearly three years. An old friend who worked there told me: ‘To be fair, no one tried harder to save jobs at the end.’ He said Murray had told him: ‘I did my best. Some you win; some you lose.’ He has wished the new venture every success but it’s difficult to see how it can grow on such a shoestring operation. It would be a pity if it didn’t make it.

The Guardian says that Sullivan offered the administrators ‘less than £1million’ for the Sunday Sport title. A lot less, I am assured. Probably less than £100,000. Work got underway almost immediately, moving computers and files out to new offices in Ardwick, a mile to the east of the Manchester city centre and the paper’s former HQ by the old Express building at Ancoats.

The Sunday Sport has had a colourful place among British newspapers for nearly 25 years since David Sullivan launched it as ‘the world’s most outrageous newspaper.’ Its staff have included some real characters; from the loud and the loopy to the charmers and the chancers. But real pros through and through.

I hope it can keep going for another 25 years.



rudge 193


This Week

We were looking at the factors that tempted old hacks into this (once) Great Game of ours. Harry Procter, who was a great name in the great game a generation or so ago, had been lured as a teenager by a book called The Street of Adventure and endured up to the point that he felt compelled to write his own version, The Street of Disillusion.

At a different end of the genre, and in a much later age, former editor Sarah Sands was tempted by reading Tony Delano’s classic, Slip-Up: How Fleet Street Found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard Lost Him.

Current generations, whether they’re in it, retired from it, or thinking about joining it, can now get hold of modern paperback versions of both books.

And the good news for the with-it generation is that now – from today – the Delano classic is available as an e-book… downloadable to computer screen or electronic reading gizmo.

For those who have been on a desert island (or maybe confined in a media studies classroom) what the critics said about the Delano book can be found in the column on the right. It’s not hyperbole: it is a truly wonderful tale about how newspapers, and newspaper people, operated in the great days of journalism – which were not, in fact, that long ago.

And if it worked sufficiently well to kick-start the career of an editor of the Sunday Telegraph, is there any embryo hack out there who can afford to miss it?

Anyway, Revel Barker regurgitates some notes about the book, and there’s further reading – including a piece by Keith Waterhouse – on our books page, here.

Although we sometimes (too frequently, for some readers) crack on a bit about the glory days of high circulations, there can’t be many of us left who saw sales figures rise on a newspaper that we were working on.

Rick Wilson did. In his first week on a local weekly, his first story made Page One… and, he says, doubled the circulation. Hesitant though we tend to be about superlatives, we suspect that might be a record. There may be people out there who can match it, but it looks difficult to beat.

So his contribution is deservedly the kick-off point for our selection from stories about how Ranters got their start in journalism. Whether it wins first prize – a copy of The Ideal Occupation by Walter Schwarz – is a different matter (the editor, whose decision in all matters is final, has been known to be perverse). Starting reminiscences are still welcome. If you can’t remember how you got into the game, buy the book.

We couldn’t let a day like today (another bloody bank holiday – it’s getting like the Med in the UK, except that you’ve got better weather) pass without commenting on royal weddings. Liz Hodgkinson remembers how they did it in 1973. Now… a memory test… no cheating… which wedding would that have been…?

(Interestingly, or maybe not, the readership of Ranters tends to drop by 20% on bank holiday weekends.)

Then, back to the great paper chase for circulation. What’s occurring? Cartoonist Rudge may have an answer.


Better than Scoop

By Revel Barker

Sarah Sands, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, wrote in the Independent (9 August 2009): ‘I became a journalist purely on account of Anthony Delano’s book about the Fleet Street chase to find Ronnie Biggs in hiding in Brazil.’

Earlier generations had perhaps been influenced by reading Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. The main difference is that Slip-Up: How Fleet Street found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard Lost Him is a true story.

slipupfront 1As an advertisement for the sheer adventure and romance of the newspaper trade it is unsurpassed. Keith Waterhouse described it as: ‘Perhaps the best analysis of Fleet Street at work ever written.’ And The Times reviewer wrote: ‘No journalist can afford to miss this cautionary tale… the story of the in-fighting and downfall of all concerned has one rolling in the aisles. Mr. Delano’s eye is astute, his ear a credit to his profession at any level; and his wit is accompanied by the ability to write clear English.’

Delano describes the days when, if a story broke anywhere, the reporter (sometimes a team of them) would collect a wad of travellers’ cheques from cashiers and a ticket on departure at Heathrow, and jet off, often within the hour.

All great fun. Could it happen today? Probably not; the evidence from reading today’s papers is that it couldn’t and doesn’t.

For Fleet Street itself is no more and the newspapers are all being run by accountants, where once there were journalists.

Delano, a former foreign correspondent (later, managing editor) is now a professor of journalism in London. Lucky students. He knows a story when he sees one and still delights in the enjoyment of his old trade. He has written another book, Joyce McKinney And The Case Of The Manacled Mormon, about similar scoop-chasing.

He writes brilliantly, but also historically. Sad, though, that it is now only history.

You can read the ebook edition of Slip-Up on everything from a PC, laptop or netbook, to the full range of hand-held ebook-dedicated reading devices, tablets, iPods, Blackberries and even your smartphone.

You can buy it at Amazon’s Kindle ebook stores worldwide, Apple’s iBookstore, all other major and minor ebook stores (including Barnes & Noble’s Nook Store, Sony and Kobo) within the next few days, and direct from BeWrite Books in all popular digital formats by visiting the bookstore section at

Those readers who prefer holding a book made from trees – and the Delano book is especially friendly to the touch – can get it from Book Depository (with free delivery, worldwide) or from any of the usual sources (amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones) or on order from any half-decent bookshop.


First week – and the circulation doubles

rickwilson2By Rick Wilson

The ease with which I got into my chosen business – quietly showing off on paper and in papers – seems very unfair in these computerised days when I see how hard it is even for heavily-degreed youngsters to get a foot on the much-fought-over journalistic ladder and, once there, how badly paid the ‘lucky’ job-getters are because the bosses (and everybody else) now think anybody can ‘do a bit of writing’.

Anyway, it went like this. My dad was a police sergeant in the modest Scottish town of Montrose, beautifully located on a sweeping five-mile stretch of the sandy Angus coast. Though it had its fair share of a better class of scum, it was not exactly a heaving den of criminal activity, so when he was doing his unmoonlit rounds one night in 1959, Dad noticed that lights were ablaze in the workshop of the Standard, the struggling one of the town’s two local papers. It was 3am-ish.

He approached with caution and a large torch, tiptoed up the outside stairs to the light-shining first floor, and kicked open the door. Well, he opened it, anyway – to find, in the middle of the venerable stone-walled room, the paper’s editor-publisher, Duncan Fraser, sitting at a clattering Linotype machine and writing that week’s stories directly into it. Was that odd? Well, yes, because stories should ideally have been going through an editing process, even just by him, before being handed to a dedicated operator of the Linotype, a head-high Heath Robinson contraption that created, from keyboarded letters and molten lead, one-line slivers of type to be gathered into a print-ready leaden mirror-image page.

There was obviously severe deadline pressure here. The boss looked exhausted and he started when Sergeant Wilson appeared at his shoulder to ask: ‘Why are you working so late, Mr. Fraser?’

‘Oh,’ he sighed, without easing up on the writing, ‘it’s you, sergeant. I’m afraid we’re really up against it and just short of staff. That’s all.’

With great presence of mind, for which I have always been deeply grateful, my old man said: ‘My 16-year-old son is very interested in this business.’

Still without stopping or looking up, Mr. Fraser replied: ‘Send him round in the morning.’

And that was it. I gladly took that morning off school, sat a little composition test in the downstairs office, and was simply asked at the end of it: ‘Are you ready to be a journalist?’

Was I ready? There were only two things I ever relished about school: ogling the girls and essay-writing – though the story slots in the school magazine had always gone to the academically brilliant ones who (in my opinion) couldn’t really write despite knowing some bloody big words. This would be a matter for taking the most delicious revenge in later life, but in the meantime, the idea of writing for a living seemed very palatable indeed. So I happily accepted the offer of 10 shillings a week and quit my education a week or two later, with no qualifications, early in my fourth year.

There was, of course, much more education to come. Of a rather different, but no less valuable, kind. Still in a classroom, there were the shorthand lessons, of course, where the crotchety old teacher failed to notice there was a male would-be reporter in her class of would-be shorthand-typists and always said stuff like: ‘Now gather up your papers, girls.’ But the true learning of my business and the outside world was all to start on my first day at the Standard with a bizarre character called Wee Willie Harris…

He was a chirpy little Cockney who was sold and hailed as Britain’s answer to the US rock sensation Little Richard. A former pudding mixer at Peak Freen’s bakery in London, he was known for his nuclear energy, multicoloured dyed hair (often green, orange or pink), bumper teddy-boy shoes, tight drainpipe trousers, huge polka-dot bow tie, and ‘larger-than-life stage jackets that looked like the coat hanger was still inside’. Also, of course, for his rock ’n’ roll singing talents which had been nurtured at Soho’s now-legendary 2Is coffee bar where he had played piano for many of the famous Brit-rockers who emerged from there, like Tommy Steele, Adam Faith and Screaming Lord Sutch. The teenage John Lennon and Paul McCartney were said to have queued up for his autograph.

Well, Wee Willie was booked to appear at our town’s Locarno ballroom that week – the week I started work – and I, along with all the other excited local young ones, couldn’t wait to be there. Little did I realise this would be my introduction to a life of brushing little puffs of stardust off my shoulder. )Sorry, I’m not saying he was just a little puff…)

To me, this was such a wildly important event that, without even bothering to question it with my very serious intellectual editor, I boldly took its coverage into my own rookie hands. God, I cringe now when I recall what I did then in the first flush of youth…

Without any thought of the expense, I phoned a local photographer the paper sometimes used and ordered him along. So he and I duly turned up to record a happening that the editor was probably not even aware of.

In the event, Wee Willie’s gyrating performance was a hit; everyone was delirious; but I was a disaster. Allowed to enter Wee Willie’s dressing room and grill him over his tea-break, I was a bag of nerves (never having even seen anyone famous before) and after my first few inane questions, couldn’t think of anything to ask. So I appealed pathetically to him… ‘Er, what do other reporters ask you, Mr Harris?’

He shrugged those coathanger shoulders, took a thoughtful sup of his tea, and replied: ‘I dunno, mate. Where the ’ell am I, anyway?’

Nevertheless, the salvage job was magnificent.

The editor was, of course, furious but stopped short of firing me after three days while clearly making the best of the situation by running almost all the received pictures – of Wee Willie and his freaked-out local fans – that he was now obliged to pay for.

All over the front page. Along with his own heavily edited version of my ‘interview’ in which he made the distinctly uncool observation that (despite not having heard the boy) Willie was such a good singer he could have been an opera star with the right training.

Well, many lessons learnt there, then. But guess the big one. That was that lots of faces pictured all over the paper sell lots of copies – to the subjects, their parents, their brothers and sisters and aunties and uncles.

Because what the editor could not deny was that the Standard circulation doubled dramatically that week.

My first week. What a start! It could only go downhill after that…


Dressed like a princess

liznewBy Liz Hodgkinson

This must be the day when hacks’ Royal Wedding memories surface. When I first joined the Sunday People in 1973 as a fashion writer, one of my early jobs was to judge a competition to win a wedding dress exactly like Princess Anne’s. Felicity Green was then the competitions and promotions chief, the competition was her idea, and I can remember quite literally quaking when I was summoned into her office – ridiculous, really, because Felicity is the nicest of people and at barely five feet tall, hardly a towering ogre.

But at the time she was the most senior woman in Fleet Street, the only one to be appointed to the board of a national newspaper, and she had a fearsome reputation, much of it undeserved as I discovered later. Anyway, I had to find the most deserving entrant and treat her to a wonderful prize. Apart from having a day in London where she would be fitted for her Maureen Baker-style white silk dress, she was to be taken to an expensive restaurant and treated ‘like a princess’ herself.

We had chosen our winner long before Princess Anne’s actual wedding from among the thousands of entries and that, really, was the easy part. She was the same age as Anne, a nice little ordinary provincial secretary, quite pretty but not too pretty – after all, Princess Anne was herself hardly one of the world’s great beauties – and the day in London, escorted to a top restaurant by moi, was also the easy bit.

She was being chauffeured everywhere by limousine, but time was not on our side. We had to get our bride measured, into the dress and up the aisle before the news value of Anne’s wedding had faded away. We knew that by the afternoon of the wedding or by the latest, first thing next morning, replicas would already be in the shops.

Our people, though, could work equally quickly and I’m pleased to say that our girl was the first to appear in a national newspaper in a replica Princess Anne wedding dress.

Nowadays, that dress looks so old-fashioned and I’m also wondering whether any newspapers still run such competitions? After all, it was a very expensive exercise, judging all the entries, getting the dress made in double-quick time, especially as Anne’s actual dress took weeks of preparation and dozens of seamstresses to get it exactly right.

But also – do girls of today want to look like a fake princess? I also wonder whether young journalists are still assigned such stories…

Liz Hodgkinson is the author of Ladies Of The Street, recording the contribution made by women journalists to the success of modern journalism.





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