There was a time (predominantly the 60s and 70s) when it would have been unusual to have entered any newspaper pub (certainly in the north of England) without being regaled by stories of the most recent escapades of reporter Gilbert Johnson.
He died last week, aged 81, after working on the South Yorkshire Times (he was born in Mexborough), Hull Daily Mail, Daily Herald, Daily Express, the Sketch, Sun, News of the World, Yorkshire Evening Post and then freelancing out of Hull… And it would be great if anybody could remember some or any of those stories.
Barry Wigmore has also died – or, apparently more accurately, been switched off. He was Richard Stott’s favourite reporter. So presumably there are stories out there about him, too, if only somebody could be arsed to write ‘em.
Fortunately (apart from striving to meet its weekly deadline) this website is not constrained by time. So… when you’re ready, chaps.
Perhaps Ranters work better after a 50-year time lapse. Keith Graves wrote colourfully last week about his first editor and that reminded Derek Roylance about his own early days on the Lincolnshire Echo.
It also prompted David Isaacs to recall the time when Keith came to his rescue after a would-be MP had challenged a quote in the paper. (A reminder, perhaps, about why, if anybody is going to control the press, it shouldn’t be our politicians.)
And that’s the way Ranters is supposed to work.
In another follow up to last week, Harold Heys continues his story of how newspaper life was rekindled in the north with a kick start in Broughton, near Manchester.
Ian Bradshaw continues our series of tales about How I Got Started On The Job.
And – just in case you imagined it might be a Screws-free week, Alan Whittaker mourns the curtain coming down on the final performance of The Old Lady of Bouverie Street in a good old-fashioned Rant.
It’s enough to drive a man to drink. Only, as cartoonist Rudge discovers, it’s best not to send one of those work-experience kids to get it.
By Derek Roylance
Keith Graves’ piece on the alcoholic editor of the Lincolnshire Echo reminded me of when I met that gentleman for the first time.
I had applied for a job as a senior reporter on the paper and was summoned for an interview. The editor, J Watt Mackie asked: ‘Do you do shorthand, laddie?’ I said I did.
He tossed me a notebook and instructed me to take down a piece of dictation. After about five minutes he stopped and asked me for the notebook. He then proceeded to read my less than text-book Pitmans. He stopped at a word, beckoned me to look over his shoulder and pointed to an outline. ‘That’s not how you write that word,’ said he.
‘Well’ I replied, ‘that’s how I write it.’ I waited for the outburst and instructions to leave.
‘When can you start?’ he asked. I was in. I stayed for seven years and then headed for Australia.
I do not recall the stories Keith Graves related about Mackie. They probably came after I had left but they do not surprise me. For all his faults, and I recall him being stretchered out of the office after one drinking bout, Mackie was a good newspaperman and you could not bluff him.
I remember one senior journalist there asking for a rise. Mackie refused him so the journalist said he had an offer from another newspaper. The editor stood up, extended his hand and said: ‘Well, take it laddie, and the best of luck.’
The journalist did not have another offer and Mackie would not relent.
I also remember Keith Graves starting work there. I was the deputy chief reporter and a couple of times had to chip him about his spelling. I recall suggesting he should seek work in radio or television as you didn’t have to spell words there, just say them…
Years later, watching television in Australia, I noted a report by Graves from somewhere in the Middle East. He’d obviously heeded my advice. He did well. Happy retirement, Keith.
By David Isaacs
One of the many pleasures of Gentlemen Ranters is the reminder it provides of long lunches or evenings in the pub – swapping stories with colleagues, one sparking off another and another and another… All right, the absence of alcohol takes the edge of the experience but in a sense the spirit is still there.
Reading Keith Graves’s piece last week reminds me of the only time we met – though I doubt he will remember it.
In 1967 I was working for the Birmingham Post (then a respected regional morning broadsheet – happy days!) edited by David Hopkinson, who had earlier made a name for himself with the Sheffield Morning Telegraph for exposing the use by that city’s police of rhino whips on suspects.
I was despatched to write a constituency profile of Leicester South West, the scene of a by-election caused by the elevation of Herbert Bowden to the House of Lords. In his place Labour had selected a public-school and Oxbridge educated barrister called Neville Sandelson.
In the course of the day I met the candidates and accompanied Sandelson as he was walking very quickly on a canvassing trip. I suggested to him that he might have an uphill struggle as the Labour government was unpopular at that time and that he was following, in Herbert Bowden, a man with a very strong personal vote who had represented Leicester since the end of the war.
Sandelson was scornful of my question. ‘Personal votes count for very little,’ he said. ‘Labour could put a horse up here and get in.’
It was, of course, a wonderful quote but after my piece appeared the next day, Sandelson called a press conference – not only denying he had said any such thing but also declaring that he had not even met me.
David Hopkinson was not the sort of editor who disbelieved his reporters but this was serious stuff. He called me in and asked if I had a shorthand note. I explained that because we had been walking so quickly I didn’t have the opportunity to write it down until I got back to my car about five minutes later. ‘Was anyone with you?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘As a matter of fact, there was a reporter from the Sunday Express called Keith Graves, who would certainly have overheard the exchange between Sandelson and myself.’
Hoppy was delighted. ‘Keith used to work for me at Sheffield,’ he said – telling me to get back to my desk and forget all about it. He then began to set wheels in motion.
The following day, at his daily press conference, Sandelson suddenly recalled having met me and having said ‘something to the effect’ of what I’d reported.
Just a little debt I owe Keith, whom I have never met since that day but whose distinguished career I have always followed with interest.
For the record, incidentally, Sandelson (who later defected to the SDP and died in 2002) turned a 5,554 Labour majority into a victory for his Tory opponent, Tom Boardman, who won by a comfortable 3,939.
Sad, in a way, because I’ve been a lifelong Labour voter…
The other Fleet Street – revived
By Harold Heys
The Express hit Manchester in 1927 and Lord Beaverbrook, firmly in the driving seat, spoke proudly of ‘a spirit of enterprise’. It was rather an inauspicious start however – a former corset warehouse at Ancoats and a few mean streets away from the bright city lights.
But it was a start. Within ten years a sister to the famous Black Lubyanka of Fleet Street had been built on the site and for more than 50 years the mid-market giants of Express and Mail – a mile away across the city centre – went at it like Lancashire cloggers.
By 1987 the Daily Mail had closed its Deansgate operation and in May 1988 Withy Grove, once Europe’s largest printing centre, breathed its last. The People, Mirror and Sunday Mirror lost their northern operations while over at Ancoats the Daily and Sunday Express and the Daily Star – launched in Manchester in 1978 – limped along for another 12 months.
It was heartbreaking for the journalists and the many other newspapermen and women, having to stand by and watch the slow disintegration of history. But the writing had been on the wall for a few years. Newspapers were being printed at satellite centres all over Britain. Who needed Manchester?
There were a few ill-fated attempts to brighten the gloom. The North West Times lasted a couple of months; the Post, based at Warrington, didn’t last much longer. the Sun, for a brief spell, and later the Daily Mail produced some regional pages in Manchester but by late 2002 the plug was pulled on even those modest enterprises.
London had always been the centre of the universe for the newspaper barons; from Hulton and Northcliffe through Beaverbrook and Scott to Murdoch and Maxwell. The north west was necessary for distribution only while advances in new technology – and the crushing of the print unions – slowly gathered pace. Manchester was allowed to ‘road-test’ the new technology. It was a bit like digging your own grave. And we knew it.
And then, out of the blue, came Broughton, the bright idea of John Maddock who had been working as a consultant for Express owner Richard Desmond for eight years or so. I told last week how he brought newspaper production back to the north west with, as The Beaver might have described it – a true ‘spirit of enterprise’.
The first edition of the new Daily Star Sunday on September 15, 2002, was a great success and more production work followed. The Sunday Express sport operation was moved north and a specialised team was created to produce TV programmes for all the titles. Another desk was formed to sub all the magazines including the Daily Express Saturday mag, the Sunday Express mag, the Daily Star mag, New! and Star magazines. Daily Express features moved up in January last year and Broughton now subs most of the feature pages for the Daily and Sunday Express as well as Daily Star news features and sport and just about everything for the Daily Star Sunday. It’s some operation and one that produces more than a thousand pages a week.
Another shrewd move inspired by Maddock was to make Broughton the Disaster Recovery site for the whole group. It had previously been housed in Glasgow but it was impractical to try to move key staff there in an emergency. The Disaster Recovery switch has certainly helped to cement Broughton’s future.
Former Sunday People men Mike Woods, Ray Ansbro and Ed Barry who were there on Day One at Broughton are still there although Mike has passed over the head honcho baton to Ged Henderson. A former editor of the Blackpool Gazette, he went on to join the Journal in Newcastle. He walked out of the editor’s job there a few years ago and pitched up later at Broughton where he doubles up as head of the Daily Express features team.
Frank McAuley is chief sub of Daily Star news, Ansbro is sports editor of the DSS and Scott Wilson is sports editor of the Sunday Express. There are up to a hundred people involved in the Broughton operation now; twice as many as in the early days. The small ground-floor room where it all started now houses magazines while upstairs there is a large editorial floor packed with the latest technology.
Main problem says Woods is that staff subs are not being replaced when they leave. It’s becoming more and more a casual operation. But it’s a job and the pay isn’t bad – for the north.
Back in the Good Old Days of Manchester production the earth used to shake as millions of copies cascaded off the deafening presses and into the dark city streets.
They were bound for Scotland and Ireland, northern areas of Wales and the midlands and the vast north of England. The Daily Herald from Chester Street, the Mirror and the Telegraph from Withy Grove, the Daily Mail from Deansgate, the Guardian from Cross Street and the Daily Express and Daily Star from Ancoats. And, on a Saturday night, as the rest of the country danced and drank, played and partied, the Sunday papers kept the ball – and the presses – rolling.
At Broughton the modern colour presses of Desmond’s Broughton Printers are rather more sedate but they certainly give a real newspaper ‘feel’ to the operation.
Manchester was a hard-bitten world of night owls and heavy drinkers, bruisers and odd-balls driven by deadlines but with a strange camaraderie probably found only in battle. Those days will never return, but at least the production of national newspapers is back and thriving again in Lancashire.
Robert Waterhouse’s excellent book on Manchester, The Other Fleet Street is still available, as he mentioned here a couple of weeks ago. Grab a copy.
By Ian Bradshaw.
The headmaster of Canford School shook his head in exasperation. ‘Standing on a street corner with a monkey on your shoulder is a waste of your education,’ he pronounced.
Unfortunately, or fortunately for me perhaps, my indoctrination into the world of journalism had not begun, so quick retorts such as ‘Fuck you!’ did not readily spring to one’s lips.
I suppose, when looking back on it, in 1960 faced with a student heading for a mathematics degree at one of the top universities, it must have seemed a ridiculous decision to a man steeped in academia.
The only photographer known to the majority of the British public was Tony Armstrong Jones who had just married Princess Margaret and he was associated with grainy black and white photographs of the East End of London not the high-class portraits of a Cecil Beaton or Baron [for whom he was an assistant].
My parents were also disappointed but became resigned to it. My father was a scientist and my uncle was professor of mathematics at Manchester University, so it had been a foregone conclusion that I would follow. They thought, therefore, that if that was what I had decided I should go to the best college to learn the craft and I was duly accepted at Regent Street Polytechnic School of Photography under the then principal Margaret Harker, a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, a body that produced photographs totally irrelevant to the needs of Fleet Street and newspapers.
It was not long before I realised a fact that to this day holds true. Namely, those that can do and those that can’t teach. How on earth origami got into a photographic curriculum I will never know but once a week we were cutting and pasting bits of paper together as if we were doing a home decorating course.
I learnt about retouching with paintbrushes and scalpels on prints and negatives, printing in the dark rooms that was more fun with some of the young ladies on the course. Amazing what goes on in the gloom of a safelight… And then the big let down of portraiture classes.
This was where I thought I could really get to grips with photography but the first day, faced with a huge half-plate camera on an iron four-wheeled stand that took two or three students to move, I decided that this was not for me.
I persuaded my parents to buy me a Pentax H2, one of the first 35mm reflex cameras, and armed with this I was now mobile.
The college had an agreement with the Lucy Clayton agency that their new models could come in and sit for us to get pictures for their portfolios and they did not need much persuading that a day in the country with a young photographer would be much more interesting and produce better pictures.
My attendance fell to around 20% but I was producing some good portraits and eventually became the only student to have 20 x 16 prints from a 35mm camera allowed into the end of year exhibition, gaining a write up in the British Journal of Photography and Amateur Photographer. I still have those prints and have just published some in a retrospective book of my work over the past 50 years.
I managed to stagger through two years of this and then could stand no more, passing on the 3rd year and returning home to Salisbury to look for a job.
In those days it was not possible to go straight into Fleet Street without three years on a local paper so, armed with a small portfolio I approached the editor of the Salisbury Times. He was an elderly, white-haired, kindly gentleman who was encouraging but had ‘nothing at present’. However, would I be interested in any freelance jobs that might come up when their staff photographer was busy?
Of course I would but the anticipated phone calls did not immediately materialise.
One day when I was beginning to think I had made a horrendous mistake and would never get a job, the call came. Could I photograph a dinner at the County Hotel for the paper. My first assignment!
In those days the secret of local newspaper photography was to get as many people in the pictures as possible working on the assumption that they would all buy a copy and boost sales and revenue. So arriving an hour early I was encouraged to see a balcony overlooking the dining hall. A perfect vantage point for an ace photographer.
I was extremely shy in those days and eventually found the president of the society running the dinner. He was reassuring: ‘First time? Don’t worry, do it all the time. I’ll say grace and then ask everyone to look up at you and you can get them all in from up there.’
With profuse thanks I retreated to my eyrie as the guests filed in.
I checked the exposure, checked my flash bulb and flashgun battery. All was working fine.
The president strode in, with the top table VIPs, banged his gavel, said grace and sat down to a hubbub of conversation.
‘Er, excuse me,’ my voice disappeared beneath the cacophony of sound. ‘Excuse me?’
I started to sweat and my successful career flashed before my eyes heading for oblivion.
It was now or never and in that instant my shyness vanished, never to return.
‘Oi! You lot!’, I bellowed.
You could have heard a pin drop. Two hundred pairs of eyes swiveled towards the balcony. I pressed the button. Flash! Pop! as the bulb ejected and fell 15 feet onto the dining room floor. I had it.
‘Thank you’ I bellowed again and waved to the assembled throng as I beat a hasty retreat.
The rest, as they say, is history: Surrey Comet, Reveille, The Times, Sunday Mirror, National Enquirer, Glasgow Herald, Observer, Telegraph Magazine, YOU, been there, done that. Now, instead of retiring, I find myself busier than ever back in the world of academia where it all started, photographing universities and colleges across America.
But some things never change: Those that can still do and those that can’t still teach.
And I still haven’t got that monkey.
This show will run and run…
By Alan Whittaker
Fleet Street has never experienced a feeding frenzy of this magnitude. Politicians of all parties desperately seeking a diversion and any sanctuary from the mire of their own expenses scandal unite and hold up their hands to express shock horror at the antics of the loonies responsible for the demise of the News of the World.
An inconsequential film actor and a seedy multi-millionaire, miffed because their assignations with vice girls attracted the attention of the Screws, joined the chorus of hate and their bleats have been echoed, of course, by repetitive television programmes gorging on the entrails of the old girl.
This is a show destined to run and run. It could be a blockbuster although I doubt if 20th Century Fox will be bidding for the film rights. The curtain-raiser in the form of a televised inquisition by the Commons select committee intrigued Joe Public. Quite clearly there is an enthralling story line and an assorted bunch of disruptive characters usually found in the cast of a Whitehall farce, a pantomime, or a cell. Padded perhaps. But such a prestigious production merits a much grander stage than an obscure committee room.
There have been several suggestions.
A suitable and extremely popular venue would be a historic theatre just off Ludgate Hill, named, I understand, after an elderly Thespian called Bailey. It is an auditorium where many renowned performers made their farewell speeches and took their final bows before exiting to obscurity. A dark solid oak compound with a protective highly polished and well-gripped brass rail occupies centre stage. Uniformed attendants of a surly disposition maintain a watchful presence in this area which is reserved for characters central to the plot. It is where I saw the Brothers Kray and the Richardson gang make their last public appearances.
It will be familiar to at least one likely member of the cast in this Ned Kelly production; the paradoxically named criminal Goodman. Perhaps this odious wretch could be persuaded to emerge from whichever sewer he is currently polluting and reprise his much publicised role as the Lone Rogue Reporter despite growing doubts as to the accuracy of this billing. His testimony on this aspect could be interesting.
Some of the main characters in the dramatis personae have already been allocated.
Despite an unnaturally subdued performance at the audition there could be only one candidate with the venomous aura and natural nastiness to do justice (!) to the key role of the Wicked Witch.
She was not alone in radiating reticence. I never thought I would feel sorry for Ned, the executive producer of what promises to be an absorbing piece of theatre, but watching his somnolent appearance before the select committee I came fairly close. He’s not the kind that attracts sympathy.
Could this haggard apparition, I wondered, possibly be the audaciously aggressive shirt-sleeved dynamo I first encountered when he was brought in by the Carr family to save their News of the World from the clutches of the predatory Maxwell? An act akin – as it turned out – to inviting a cobra to share your bed.
Was this the debonair D’Artagnan from Down Under who swash-buckled his way into Bouverie Street and put the print Mafia to the sword? He resembled a cadaver prepared and groomed for the interrogation by an incompetent embalmer.
No doubt he will be fully focused and firing all guns by the time the production is premiered. He is adept at firing.
A major role will almost certainly be reserved for the amnesiac son and heir of the Demonised King who seemed to find the first rehearsal a trifle tedious. He had the appearance of the doomed dumdum in a sci-fi horror film who’s the first victim of the monster. Audiences may find his Dalek-like speaking style disconcerting and he will certainly have to brush-up his lines for the big production. The lad’s memory must cause his old man some concern too. He had ‘no knowledge’ or couldn’t recall events or incidents which, for one reason or another, the prying committee seemed to think relevant. Such as authorising cheques worth up to £700,000. Memorising lines can be very difficult.
Memorising lies is much easier for supporting cast, as some fringe players in this potential crowd puller have already demonstrated.
Most successful farces have at least one anencephalic character who is sublimely stupid, incompetent and unaware of their immediate surroundings. They are always good for a laugh. Over the years Ned has recruited a phalanx of the more seriously afflicted specimens and bestowed executive authority on them so there is a distinct possibility he could be spoilt for choice when deciding who takes on this envied role. But according to the bookies there is only one contender.
Take a bow Andy Clouseau. What better choice could there be than a figurehead who can remain as aloof and untroubled as an isolated lighthouse blissfully unaware that he is surrounded by a sea seething with intrigue and criminal activity? According to glimpses of the script in the public domain Clouseau had a sidekick, an unsavoury individual known – possibly because he has lycanthropic tendencies – as Wolfman. We’ve all met them. Wild, red-rimmed watery-eyed, slavering froth, sprouting grey hairs from flared nostrils and howling at the full moon. That sort of thing. You avoid them in the pub.
I suspect one person who dearly wishes he had never bumped into Wolfman is the recently resigned Commissioner of Scotland Yard. With Ned Kelly Productions you always get the top players. Why have a plain PC Plod or a dim detective constable in the show when you can entice the country’s top copper and one of his deputies into the quagmire?
Like most old NoW staffers I feel a combustible mixture of loathing and contempt for the despicable gang of unprincipled amateurs whose ineffable stupidity, ignorance, and arrogance, killed the old girl. As it was wryly observed in Ranters there was a time when experienced reporters were employed to find stories without resorting to the underhand and often illegal assistance of seedy shysters masquerading as private investigators.
Reporters who could write shorthand, knew their way around, and maintained contacts without resorting to a cheque book.
Reporters who had learnt the business on weeklies and in areas where rival evening papers competed.
Reporters who, as starry-eyed kids on staid locals, rejoiced on obtaining their first NUJ probationers card – evidence they were indeed journalists – and yearned to work in Fleet Street because, like a beckoning Everest, it was the pinnacle of achievement. Getting to Fleet Street was a hard slog.
Now, in an industry where talent and ingenuity have been replaced by unashamed crass and monumental incompetence they seem to be recruited from free sheets, glossy gossip magazines catering for the brainless and produced by the mindless, and the take-away across the road. With pygmies such as the Wicked Witch, Clouseau and Wolfman in catastrophic command.
What do these contemptible creatures know of the old News of the World?
The paper that revived British athletics with the Emsley Carr mile, a race that attracted athletes from all over the world. The paper that founded the oldest match play golf tournament in the world? Or the London to Brighton road race? The nationwide darts tournament involving thousands of pub players culminating at Alexandra Palace? Or a score of other oddities, such as the Brixham trawler race, the town criers’ contest, rifle shooting at Bisley, the north east leek show, the Scottish pipe band contest and the El Alamein renunion?
The paper that employed legal experts to help readers with all manner of problems they couldn’t otherwise afford through its John Hilton Bureau? A Knights of the Road feature that recognised help given by motorists?
All pre-Murdoch. All gone.
History will record, without emotion, that after 168 years the News of the World a popular Sunday newspaper died on July 10, 2011 It didn’t. That was a tawdry replica.
The real News of the World died the day Murdoch took over.
The News of the Screws saga isn’t going to go away, so what would Harry Procter – legendary [sic] ace red-top reporter in our (and my dad’s) day – have made of it all?
His daughter Val Lewis – she married Lynn Lewis and, like most of Harry’s family, worked for John Rodgers’ Fleet Street News Agency – reports.
By one of those happy coincidences, Brian Hitchen, sometime editor of the Star and the Sunday Express, follows up a story from last week about drunken editors that also features Harry, this time in a fondly remembered pub conversation with his old nemesis, former Sunday Pic/Sunday Mirror boss Reg Payne.
Yes, children… drink was sometimes taken, often in fairly heroic quantities. But it was not always enjoyed, nor properly handled, as Peter Laud learnt to his cost on the Daily Mail and elsewhere. Peter’s contribution, which was winged to us all the way from Tasmania, is the latest in our series about how we got started in this job, prompted by Guardian writer Walter Schwarz’s autobiography, The Ideal Occupation.
Last week we marked the sad passing of two frequently by-lined Page One names; this week we have fond memories of both of them.
And snapper Nigel Wright files from Australia with memories of Barry Wigmore (Daily Mirror and Today).
Then cartoonist Rudge observes the summer holiday intake making discoveries about journalists…
Getting ‘a human story out of Satan’
By Val Lewis
A ‘hack’ once merely meant a weary, cynical journalist. There was a certain pride in being called ‘an old hack’. Today it implies evil practices.
I cannot help wondering what my father, Harry Procter – an old hack who has been dead more than 50 years – would have made of today’s murky Fleet Street practices of mobile phone hacking. Even though he often used dubious means to get some of his astonishing scoops, pushing up the circulation of the Sunday Pictorial by millions, I like to think that he wouldn’t have stooped that low.
Under the editorship of first Hugh Cudlipp and later Colin Valdar and encouraged by news editor, Fred Redman, on the Sunday Pictorial he was more or less given license to pull any fast trick he could muster to outwit his fellow journalists. Even in his day, in the early 50s, black arts were awash in Fleet Street. But in his autobiography Street of Disillusion he insisted he got all his stories by gaining the confidence of his subject and never paid anyone for a scoop.
When I was 16 I typed out the manuscript of his book for him. The original title was to be With These Dirty Hands. He wrote the book because he was sickened by some of the things he was asked to do by his newspaper. He felt he had sold his soul to the Fleet Street devil. He had been diagnosed with bi-polar and yes, like most Fleet Street journalists, he did drink and smoke more than he should have.
The Fleet Street devil took not just his soul, but eventually his life. He died in greatly reduced circumstances, aged 47, of lung cancer leaving our mother Doreen to bring up the two younger children on her own – with help from their four adult children and the Newspaper Press Fund (now the Journalists’ Charity).
As a trainee journalist on my local newspaper, at the time I often felt uncomfortable about what he wrote. But I realise now that he really did write his book as a sort of atonement for doing things he was ashamed of. His old mother, Flo (my grandma Procter), would not have approved of what he ended up doing. She insisted her five children went to chapel every Sunday, and was proud that her favourite son had entered what she thought was an honourable profession.
He never intended to end up like that. He’d aspired to be a respectable journalist. He had charisma, talent and wanted to write, to change the minds of men. When he was on the Daily Mail, a protégée of that brilliant editor Lindon Lang, he was encouraged to write ethically and honestly.
When he at last got a job in Fleet Street, on the Mirror when he was 22, he could hardly believe his luck. At 16 it had seemed an impossible goal. He was full of hope and ambition, dedicated to becoming an honourable ethical journalist. He’d never envisaged joining the ranks of what they used to call in those days ‘the gutter press’. Here is an extract from his book:
I walked down the Street of Adventure – aged only 22, the happiest and proudest young man in the world. To me, at that youthful and energetic age, Fleet Street represented the beginning of all things, the end of all things, the meaning of all things.
In Middlesbrough I had boasted to my colleagues: ‘By the time I am thirty I will be a Fleet Street Reporter.’ And here I was eight years ahead of schedule.
When I look back now, with my wisdom, with my experience, with the cynicism which Fleet Street gave me, and – yes, let us confess it – with my disillusions, and think about that young Yorkshireman who walked down Fleet Street all those years ago, I would say that, in my professional opinion, he had the world at his feet.
He was a fairly good-looking lad. He was as fit as a young ox, he was a moderate drinker, an indifferent smoker. He was trained to the hilt, as a solid, all-round reporter; trained to write straight-forward, simple English, to report the truth – and only the truth – accurately, swiftly, certainly. He was capable of tackling any assignment, which, even in this world hub of journalism, could be offered to him. He was a good reporter.
What use did Fleet Street make of this young man’s body, mind, soul, ability? And, equally, what use did he make of Fleet Street?
These are questions to be answered not by me. I am merely the reporter now, telling the tale fully and, I hope, fairly, presenting the reader with the facts. The reader must decide upon his own answers.
Fleet Street, I then expected, was to be the testing ground for all of my previous hard work and effort.
I remember standing enthralled before the Edgar Wallace Memorial, a simple plaque at the comer of Fleet Street and Ludgate Circus, reading with reverence that glorious epitaph: He Died a Good Reporter. I remember offering a silent prayer in front of that memorial that I might be able to uphold the standards of journalism required by Fleet Street.
A few years later, when I was a full-blown member of that rollicking, swashbuckling haven of hard-drinking, the London Press Club, I dared not have talked to my fellow members about that night of dedication. I think they might have laughed.
But that night I glowed with a humble pride in Fleet Street, and in being one of its fellows. And I went off to my Bloomsbury bedroom early, to brush up my shorthand.
I need not have bothered. For, within a month, I discovered that at least one thing the Daily Mirror was not paying me for, was my ability to take a shorthand note.
The great Montague Smith of the Daily Mail, close friend of our family and godfather to my sister, Carolanne, wrote many years ago: Who is the weary journalist? This is he …Who gets a human story out of Satan.
Which I think just about sums up how far the newspaper industry has sunk.
Val Procter started as a reporter on the Sevenoaks News, followed by the Bromley Office of the West Kent Mercury, where she met Lynn Lewis (then on the Kentish Times in Orpington). She moved to the Windsor, Slough and Eton Express, and later the South Londoner in Streatham. She also worked for Fleet Street News Agency and for Drapery and Fashion Weekly.
Harry Procter’s book, The Street of Disillusion, is available almost everywhere on-line or on order from any half-decent bookshop.
Drunk in charge…
By Brian Hitchen
Reg Payne, when night editor of the Daily Mirror, was one of Fleet Street’s nastier drunks. He was also pretty vile when he was sober.
One night, in the Printer’s Devil, a poor, drink-addled, chap called Harry Procter, who had been one of Fleet’s Street’s finest reporters, was clinging to the rim of the bar.
Reg Payne strutted through the door, trailed by a bunch of his toadies. Payne, ever the odious bully, shouted across the crowded room: ‘Heard you’d just come out of jail, Procter, what was it this time, drunk in charge of a motor car?’
Hauling himself upright, Harry replied, with as much dignity as he could muster: ‘That’s right, Reg. But, unlike you, I’ve never been drunk in charge of a newspaper.’
Grins spread along the bar, and nasty Payne headed for the door, followed by his hangers-on and the jeers of the crowd.
None of us had much money in those days, but several pound notes and a few fivers were stuffed into Harry Procter’s pockets, and someone volunteered to drive him home.
Like a lamb to the slaughter
By Peter Laud
It was the drink that did for me in the end. There were other factors too of course – unreliable shorthand note, a lack of street-smart cunning so vital for a good operator – but the drink was to blame.
Journalism was never my number-one career choice anyway. No: farming was the way I wanted to go but my old man, a dyed-in-the-wool Daily Express reader whose heroes were Chapman Pincher and the columnist Beachcomber, said a life on the land would be a waste of time and, anyway, where would the money come from to buy a farm?
Instead the possibility of a teacher’s life beckoned. I’d teach geography and coach the First Fifteen and wear a white polo neck sweater and roar advice from the touchline and marry that blonde piece who taught Eng Lit. But at teacher training college interviews a schoolboy stutter and a total inability to say vowels put paid to that and after a dozen failed applications I was still without career direction.
But then a former schoolmate, Roger Busby, who had gone on to better things as a reporter for Cater’s News Agency in Birmingham – he later achieved his dream job as PRO for Devon and Cornwall police and wrote crime novels – said that reporters occasionally obtained free tickets for the Hawthorns, home of West Bromwich Albion, and that was enough for me. Within a few months I was a junior reporter at the Birmingham Evening Mail on three pounds nine shillings per week and clearly headed to work alongside Chapman.
But then the problem of drink became apparent.
At lunchtime, and frequently earlier, we’d adjourn to the back bar of the Midland Hotel over the road for halves (or pints) of Bass the colour of dark honey. Now Bass was strong stuff but while the Mail staff veterans (Reg Jinks, Ted Taylor, Phil Lymn, Geoff Hancock, A J MacIlroy) handled it with ease, the junior reporter had difficulty from the start.
One pint meant blurred vision; two a headache; three meant no legs, illegible shorthand and a desperate desire to sleep the afternoon away. At the Birmingham Press Club, then housed upstairs in Bull Street, real pros such as Ray Hill (Mirror) Keith Colling (Daily Mail) and Jack Hill (Express) seemed to have no trouble combining drink and work; but for newcomers to the trade the course offered by the National Council for the Training of Journalists was of doubtful value. No mention of how to handle drink there. I tried to drink more, I really did, but in Manchester a few years later realised that drinkwise I was going nowhere.
In Manchester the staff of the Daily Mail (including Tony Hoare, Malcolm Long, Brian MacArthur, David Seymour, Chris Buckland, Tim Beaumont, Gib McCall) used to repair after work to The Victoria, to yarn about the day’s activities over a few beers in the company of the dreaded Ken Donlan, news editor and Very Fearsome Man (VFM) whose look of disapproval at a piece of crap copy could kill.
To drink in the office pub each working day was almost a condition of employment at the Mail along with a blue suit to be worn every day except Saturdays when a sports jacket was allowed. Some evenings I’d struggle through a couple of pints but often I was forced to make my excuses and leave.
I tried training in private, nursing a bottle of scotch at my damp little four pounds a week flat in Lansdowne Rd, West Didsbury, but it was no good. My personal best remained at the miserably low level of half a bitter and three shandies or a pint of cider on nights when I went out hell-raising in West Dids.
Back then, in the mid-sixties, it was customary for the reporting staff of the Daily Mail to spend each Maundy Thursday on an organised drinking spree. The programme called for a coach ride to various pubs followed by a game of ten-pin bowling, a Chinese meal and a few beers to round things off. For me it had all the hallmarks of a disaster and, once again, I made my excuses.
The reaction from colleagues, good blokes all of them, was swift and predictable, a chorus of You Can’t Say No. When pressed for an explanation I said I had a bird lined up, no worries, know what I mean and a tap of the nose. The lads left next day with an empty seat on the coach and I spent the day inspecting the mould on the lounge wall and dining on a Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie eaten straight from the tin with a spoon. It was, in its own way, a memorable day and one that at least had the benefit of being headache-free next day.
When I fled Manchester and KD for the sunshine of Perth, Western Australia, and a job on Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, the first paper he bought after learning the trade on the Adelaide News, I discovered further perils lurking in the pub. Compared with chaps on the Sunday Times the lads back in Manchester and Birmingham were drinking in a minor league.
In Perth ice-cold Swan Lager came in 7oz glasses known as middys. A 7oz glass, barely bigger than a thimble? Surely even a failed drinker would have no trouble in disposing of half a dozen. Wrong. For Swan Lager turned out to be only one step removed from liquid barbed wire. Half a dozen resulted in seriously impaired speech, a wild staring look, total memory loss for several days and a series of what Australians are pleased to call technicolour yawns.
I never did learn to love the grog and in a career that began with a reporter’s pay packet and ended in much the same way more than 40 years later, I was forced to make my excuses and leave too many times.
The most significant occasion was the 100th year of publication of Mr Murdoch’s Sunday Times, a river of gold which regularly carried 100 pages of classifieds a week. Mr Murdoch was coming to Perth to join the celebrations and since I’d laboured for several weeks writing the obligatory centenary lift-out supplement I was invited, along with some rather more senior colleagues, to join the great man for cocktails.
The editor’s secretary buzzed round checking what she imagined to be the automatic acceptances. But there was one problem. For reasons unexplained then and now Mr Murdoch had chosen to hold his celebration drinks on the same night as the monthly meeting of the local Organic Growers Group. I sent my regrets figuring that a working knowledge of garlic sprays, pruning and the best time to plant carrots was probably far more important than touching the hem of his garment. I suspect that from that moment my card was marked (‘unreliable; shows complete lack of interest, does not share the company’s vision’) by those who care about corporate protocols.
Some blokes can drink; others cannot. Maybe it’s genetic. But if you don’t drink you’re not in the swim. You’re not getting the office goss. You’re not keeping tabs on the movers and shakers. You’re possibly passing up the chance of impressing an editor whose special pastime (fishing, gardening, ballroom dancing) just might by some miracle coincide with yours and guarantee instant promotion. Instead, you’re out there somewhere in Nowheresville with your cup of cold tea and meat pie. Unaccounted for and unnoticed…
So now I have a small farm in southern Tasmania, half a world away from Deansgate. I never did get to meet Mr Murdoch or visit the Hawthorns but missed opportunities are not necessarily matters for regret when there are more important issues at hand. In a few weeks time we will be lambing and in December making hay as the comforting rituals of rural life roll on.
Occasionally, just for fun, I’ll scrawl a note in Mr. Pitman’s shorthand (I enjoy Gow’s music) knowing that the real music is the thud of a Ferguson tractor, the drum beat of the baler and maybe late summer rain on a hot tin roof. I’d certainly drink to that. But… one lump or two?
Peter Laud worked on the Birmingham Evening Mail and the Daily Mail before moving to Australia and jobs in Perth and Canberra. He’s also worked as a freelance but now lives in Kettering, Southern Tasmania, where for a while he ran the local post office before ignoring his dad’s advice.
Odd man out
By John Dale
I can confirm that Gilbert Johnson’s imagination sometimes ran away with him, producing a stream of the most hilarious scoops for the Sun in the early 70s. Here are two examples.
In one he focused his attention on the popular washing powder, OMO. Rather surprisingly, a Sun page 3 lead disclosed that its sales were rocketing in Hessle, Hull, and Gilbert has discovered the startling reason.
According to his report, it was flying off the shelves because of growing sexual frustration being suffered by randy housewives whose husbands were away fishing at sea, or merely down the pub. The women were parking the soap box conspicuously in their kitchen windows as a secret signal to passers by, meter readers, delivery men and random drunks – meaning Old Man Out. When this was sighted, it meant open house for other blokes to dash in to perform a quick service of the lady in question, and dash out before the hubby turned up.
It was all the rage in Hessle. Everyone was at it apparently. I don’t think this respectable fishing community ever recovered its reputation.
In another instance, I was covering some dramatic court case at Leeds Assizes alongside Gilbert and next morning the Sun splash had an extra revelation that scooped everyone else completely. The headline declared judge weeps over… (whatever the subject was).
We were all summoned into court first thing where a bemused judge eyed the press bench and said he had a brief clarification to make, which he delivered very deliberately and went on the lines of: ‘I am a High Court judge. I wish to make it clear to the gentlemen of the press (at which he pinned Gilbert with a beady eye) that I occasionally may touch my eye, as do most human beings. I assure you that I never weep while performing my public duties. I certainly did not weep yesterday as is being reported in the press.’
We stepped outside and roared with laughter. Gilbert got the next round in across the road at the Queen Vic.
Gilbert did push the frontiers sometimes, and kept us all on our toes. There are many other examples of his amazing scoops. Yes, he was very imaginative. He was a good reporter in every way but he was never better than when leaning against a bar, giving that rather odd smile and giggling as another bizarre idea began to form in his brain. We’d learn about it next morning.
There was no shame in being scooped by Gilbert. It was impossible not to be. We always forgave him.
In a way I think the people of Hull were blessed to have a reporter of Gilbert’s unbridled talent living among them. He made an unexceptional place seem incredibly exotic, erotic and generally mysterious as he projected it to the outside world through his own magic lens, seeing things that were largely invisible to ordinary mortals. Its citizens must sometimes have read his articles with great frustration, peering out of the window and wondering how on earth they were missing out on all the excitement apparently occurring nightly in the mean streets around them.
He was the Harry Potter of tabloid journalism, and I mean that in the nicest way. He would have laughed.
If Hull Council had made him their PR supremo, as they should have, it would now be flooded with tourists and psychic investigators interested in the phenomena of parallel universes.
Master of the keyboard
By David Stoakes
I only ever knew Gilbert Johnson to be in a panic once when we worked together on the Sun. During the Cod War in the early seventies he engineered a place on a deep-sea trawler out of Hull bound for Iceland to face the gunboats.
No, mean sacrifice for him, spending three and a half weeks on board without setting foot onshore. As everybody who ever met him knows he was a very sociable land beast.
It was perhaps ironic that Newington Trawlers named their ships after authors and I boarded the Joseph Conrad to replace Gilbert after his stint in the none too placid waters of the Arctic. The only trouble was nobody had informed him I was on my way.
Gilbert had been told a replacement would be sent, but I don’t think he had given it much thought before it was time to leave the fishing grounds.
The first he knew of an impending nightmare was when the skipper of his homeward-bound vessel told him they were to rendezvous with the Joseph Conrad to transfer him for another three weeks…
Gilbert wanted to tender his notice to the redoubtable Ken Donlan in London but then the trawler unexpectedly and mysteriously developed long range ‘radio problems’, making this impossible. I think the hoax was jointly brewed between Manchester and the trawler company. I was only too happy to maintain radio silence to help turn the screw a little further.
The real reason was the two fishing boats were getting within short range radio of each other so that Gilbert could give me a briefing on what was going on. I am sure he was never so glad to hear my voice in his eventful life.
He will be missed. Picking up the phone in the office and hearing the words ‘Hello, it’s Gilbert,’ suggested mischief and subterfuge in the very delivery.
He was also quite an accomplished pianist and showed his talent on the stories where overnights were involved; if the hotel or pub had a battered dusty Steinway available he would often use it charm us and members of the local populace.
Like all good district men he had a formidable network of police contacts. One senior officer renowned for his dislike of Her Majesty’s Press was holding a news conference in the days when the newsdesks adopted a mob-handed tactic to the big ones.
A question came from the back of the crowded room and the grumpy copper’s face lit up into a big smile. He peered into the fog of smoke and said: ‘Is that you Gilbert? I know you are here somewhere.’
I’ve long forgiven him for not turning up to replace me for the night watch on a stakeout in West Yorkshire. He did arrive in time to speak to the newsdesk the next morning. Whether pianos had anything to do with it I couldn’t possibly say.
The exes Teflon Don
By Nigel Wright
Bless me, ‘Wiggers’ is gone. As a young photographer, it was my privilege to run around the world with Barry Wigmore for both Today and the Daily Mirror.
All good writers need a patron and Wigmore found that in the late, great, editor Richard Stott, who adored his friendship and was prepared to recognise and fund his exceptional talent accepting all his eccentricities.
Hanging on to Wiggers coat tails, I had some of the very best adventures of my career. Known to Stott as ‘the office bleeding heart liberals’, we were forever offering up hair-brained schemes for the editor to sponsor. Some he didn’t, most he did.
Once, exasperated by Wiggers nagging as yet another exotic feature proposal floated across his desk, Stotty dragged us into his office, thrust the latest readership survey under Wigmore’s nose and barked that according to this document the sort of features that we were creating ranked in readers estimation, somewhere below horoscopes and small ads.
Unperturbed Wigmore raised an eyebrow and merely said: ‘Can we go then…?’ Needless to say a purple-faced Stotty told us to piss of’. So we did… to India and Bangladesh.
Mostly, I will remember his unfailing ability to produce a well-pressed suit of clothing under shell fire, and his ability to find a razor, shower and soap when all those around him (mostly me) failed. He was, in short the cleanest, tidiest and one of the bravest writers that I have ever worked with.
In Cambodia, chasing the Khmer Rouge, he was known to all as as ‘Mr. Barry’, while I, filthy dirty, sweating and dragging equipment around as usual, was dismissed as ‘Anu’, (as in ‘Mr. Barry and you’). I would tell him, ‘It’s like working with bloody Princess Anne.’ But time and again, the great spin-off for me was that while HRH was feted by the locals, I would often be able to detach myself unnoticed, slide off, and to take the photographs that we needed, un-chaperoned by government officials or other minders.
That particular Cambodian trip was an especially hairy one. We had a rule, ‘always sleep with your boots under the bed’, simply because if things got nasty you could run away naked better and faster if you could get your boots on.
One night we were staying way up in bandit country in a villa in the middle of a lake. It was such a hot evening that, trying to catch a cooling breeze, we pushed our mosquito-netted cots out onto the 1st floor balcony, then settled down to sleep. I dozed off only to be woken by the sounds of an intense, close gun battle. Wiggers added to the cacophony by snoring his head off.
I rolled out, slipped my boots on and crawled over to sleeping beauty. Yelling in his ear, I managed to rouse him and he joined me naked, except for our boots, huddling against the sanctuary of the parapet wall while we tried to figure out what was going down.
Suddenly, into this mayhem waltzed our pretty young Cambodian translator. Programmed by her government to dismiss all and any dodgy incidents that we might encounter she uttered the phrase, ‘and so…this is nothing’, just as a burst of machinegun fire struck the wall above our heads. As the plaster showered down on us she dived for cover missing me but landing straight on top of the naked Wigmore…He was always a lucky sod!
Wiggers hated being rude. Once in Vietnam as we sat eating with villagers in a ‘rustic country cafe’, I recall telling him that there was a pig at the table. Assuming my bad manners, Wiggers shot me a death glare which I only defused by pointing out the large snout resting next to his elbow.
The restaurant owner ran up and hit the hungry porker with a bamboo pole. Squealing with pain it somersaulted through the air like a gigantic pink and black kangaroo and crashed through the table. How we lived through that without being crushed by half a ton of bacon I will never know. At least, as Wiggers pointed out, we learnt that pigs could fly.
But his politeness could lumber him in dire trouble. On another trip, we were invited, as guests of honour, to a feast of swamp turtle by the elders of a northern Thailand border village. Thanks to my camera meanderings and ‘the Princess Anne effect’, we arrived a bit late; the whole thing had gone cold and was covered in flies. I firmly declined and just ate rice.
Wiggers who in dodgy climes, would normally ludicrously sit with his hand firmly clamped over any open beer, coke or water bottle to stop the indigenous fly population polluting the bottle, thought this incredibly rude. Try as I might to dissuade my usually fastidious partner, he tucked into a turtle egg sack and some rather nasty looking grey meat. The 9-hour drive back to Bangkok turned into hell as Wiggers’ insides decided to try to become his ‘outsides’.
On arrival a doctor was summoned to his hotel room, decided that this was a truly horrendous illness and prescribed the pallid Wiggers two full carrier bags of drugs! He burst out laughing, threw the whole lot in the bin and stated, rather obviously, that he was feeling a bit empty and insisted that we went in search of fine dining and claret. We did and blow me, he was right as rain the next morning. He was, as I often saw, a very tough little bird.
Style mattered to Wiggers: even his ‘flak jacket’ looked as if he had ironed it on. To drive into besieged Sarajevo, he selected a very dodgy, highly impractical, ‘soft skinned’ BMW Coupe from the second hand car market in Split simply because it had leather seats and a pinstripe. It broke down so often and in such perilous places that it nearly cost us our lives on more than one occasion.
In India, as I went for an overdue wash and brush up, he sampled then threw our first proper meal in days from a moving train (too disgusting). I wanted to murder him for that.
In the sewers of Bucharest, upon entering he surfaced almost immediately choking and gagging while I was forced below alone again and again to endure the stench of the underground sewer dwellers. I wanted to belt him for that.
In the Catskill Mountains he allowed Mike Tyson’s barber to cut his hair and came out with the story, amazing collect pics and a head looking like a coconut (looked good). I nearly suffocated laughing at him for that.
In Houston he ordered, on expenses, the most exotically priced bottle of wine (beautiful nose on this) that I have ever drunk and then another couple just so we could have the most priceless hangovers in history. I wanted to put that on HIS expenses… They might have questioned mine but never those of ‘Wiggers’, the expenses ‘Teflon Don’, bless him.
And what was the best thing for me about Barry Wigmore…?
He knew a story.
There will be no Ranters next week, as the entire editorial team takes a break. But we can of course accept copy during the shutdown (please use a new and unique subject line when you write, as you used to do for catchlines).
If you are likely to suffer from withdrawal systems, feel free to stroll through the Archive grove (in the column on the left), or play with the Search engine (ditto – it’s a bit slow, but it gets there eventually).
And if you need to be alerted when we resume play (in case we make it a two week break), please refer to the box on the right.
And so we said farewell, heartbreakingly, to Garth Gibbs, the scourge of the Miss World circuit, dogged pursuer of Lord Lucan, diary editor, contributor to and supporter of this website from the start, and one of the nicest guys you could possibly meet in this business.
When he phoned in January to reveal that he had lung cancer that was spreading into his bones, and later to report that the doctors were describing his condition as ‘terminal’, he said that, all things considered, he ‘couldn’t complain’. And, bugger it, apart from saying that the chemo made him feel grotty, he never did.
Jimmy Kelly – sometimes known as the Father of Irish Journalism – also died last week, aged 100. He was already an ‘old’ man (to us) when we crossed the water to cover The Troubles. When somebody asked whether he covered Stormont, he said he’d covered the opening of it. Paddy Clancy provides the obit.
And then – sitting here it was beginning to feel like doing casual shifts for the Grim Reaper – came word that Jim Allan(Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard, paid off twice by the same editor: ‘I haven’t a bad word to say about Max. He fired me at the Telegraph with a fat cheque, and when he rolled up to the Standard he paid me off again… generously. Here’s to Max’) had left for the Great Newsroom. Colin Randall has written a tribute.… He was swiftly followed by Bob McGowan (Daily Express). No obit, however, for him, yet. But hopefully one of his mates…
Then we heard that Keith Meadows (Daily Mirror sport and sometime Manchester NUJ FoC) had succumbed after a ten-year battle against cancer, aged 69. Mike Gallemore remembers a close friend.
God! It’s been a depressing week. Never known one like it.
So in an effort to lift your spirits, we are publishing an old-time favourite by Colin Dunne. This piece was one of the first he wrote for Ranters and has been lifted and reproduced elsewhere endlessly.
But our excuse (apart from trying to cheer you all up) is that this week sees the publication of his book, Man Bites Talking Dog, in e-form. Meaning that you can download the whole thing to your PC or onto one of those trendy e-book readers.
And then there’s James Whitworth’s Rudge cartoon, propping the whole thing up.
By Bryan Rimmer
The swamp that was The Street seethed with creatures of malevolence and mischief. Most hacks were about as trustworthy as a politician who sold double glazing in his spare time. The Stab got its name from its treacherous patrons. Yet in the 40 years that I knew Garth Gibbs I never heard one person bad-mouth him.
Of course there were a few tears from the ladies – usually AFTER bedtime – but eventually even they soon forgave. For charm came to Garth as easily as he chewed on a strip of biltong. And it was a charm that got him more than a few tasty tales as well as some tasty tail.
He came to Fleet Street from Port Elizabeth in South Africa and was soon turning on the ladies with his blonde good looks and NHS-free smile. But his travelling didn’t end at Heathrow. His plausible manner and nose for news soon had news and diary editors sending him on his travels. Fairly quickly it became evident that he didn’t need an atlas – his circle of Miss World friends were happy to show him their own back yards. And occasionally their hotel rooms.
I first met Garth while he was on the Evening News and I was moonlighting there from my job on the Sun. But we were soon together on the Daily Mirror, having a riotous time on Callan’s diary. We were also living close together in Hampstead – Garth above a pub in Pond Street which was the local for doctors and nurses from the Royal Free Hospital. Nuff said.
We drank in the Sir Richard Steele with a motley crew of boozers including boxer John Conteh, actors Glynn Owen and Ronnie Fraser and Twiggy’s first husband, Mike. The stories came as quickly as the rounds. Some of them printable. It was a diarist’s dream and Garth soon became a star with a diary of his own. He and his liver deserved it.
But he was the most unselfish of hacks – best illustrated by this tale which I know he told often. I had dabbled a little on the side managing a couple of models/actresses (yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking). One of my charges, who shall remain nameless, was of royal descent in parts foreign. And it came to pass that one of her cousins was the Foreign Minister to a tyrant who threw her in jail for an alleged sexual encounter. Every hack in the world wanted the inside story and I already had an in with the family.
Garth, generous chap, offered his Pond Street pad as a meeting place and came along as a silent witness. There were two beds in his single bedroom, one of which I occupied with the subject of my enquiries while Garth hid under the duvet of the other. I entered into Ugandan discussions while Garth took notes of the pillow talk.
Greater love had no man for his pal and his paper. And far more fun than phone hacking. Farewell, ‘Hairy’ Gibbs.
By Arnie Wilson
Garth Gibbs, a former Daily Mirror stalwart, and a regular contributor to Gentlemen Ranters, has died at 75. His led a complicated but inordinately cheerful and endearingly self-deprecating life in which he made a great many friends – largely because of his devil-may-care optimism, disdain for petty bureaucracy and refusal to take anything too seriously.
This went down well with his Fleet Street colleagues but perhaps less well with his three wives, of whom he once said: ‘The only gift any of my former wives ever wanted from me over Christmas was a divorce, so I was often free for shifts or assignments over the festive season.’
Born in South Africa (he never lost his accent), along with two brothers and a sister, Garth worked on the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg and the Evening Post in Port Elizabeth before helping to launch a newspaper in Zambia in 1966. He moved to England in 1969 where he worked for Reuters, the Evening News and finally settled at the Daily Mirror where he worked formore than 20 years. He travelled extensively before becoming a Mirror royal correspondent and later a columnist, penning Gibbs’ Gossip. With his friend and colleague Sean Smith, he wrote a book about the Countess of Wessex called Sophie’s Choice.
Apart from chasing royals, he also chased various Miss Worlds. Garth was close to Julia and Eric Morley during their joint stewardship of the contest. As Revel Barker says knowingly: ‘The Miss World pageant was one of his successful specialities, and he and photographer Kent Gavin invariably tipped the winner.’
Garth also managed to spend much of his time chasing various ‘sightings’ of ‘Lucky’ Lord Lucan, who notoriously fled abroad after apparently mistaking his nanny for his wife and bludgeoning the ‘wrong’ woman to death. Of this colourful period in an almost continually helter-skelter career, Garth himself wrote: ‘As that brilliantly bigoted and crusty old columnist John Junor once cannily observed: ‘Laddie, you don’t ever want to shoot the fox. Once the fox is dead there is nothing left to chase.’
With a wonderfully fertile imagination – a prerequisite of any good tabloid journalist – plus a good deal of chutzpah, Garth relished the challenge of keeping Lord Lucan alive – but never finding him.
‘I regard not finding Lord Lucan as my most spectacular success in journalism’ he said. ‘Of course, many of my colleagues have also been fairly successful in not finding Lord Lucan. But I have successfully not found him in more exotic spots than anybody else.
‘I spent three glorious weeks not finding him in Cape Town, magical days and nights not finding him in the Black Mountains of Wales, and wonderful and successful short breaks not finding him in Macau either, or in Hong Kong or even in Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas where you can find anyone.’
Revel Barker put it more realistically: ‘Whenever Garth thought winter was getting too cold, he’d receive a tip that Lucky was somewhere south of the equator…’
As well as three wives, Garth had 13 grandchildren. His first wife, Beth, was the mother of his two sons, Gary and Warren. Both live in Australia where Beth went to live when Garth met wife No 2 (Christine) and the marriage broke up. Gary is a high-ranking officer in the Australian Air Force and Warren is a journalist on the Australian Sunday Telegraph. Garth and Christine had two more children, Juliette and Russell, before he married Louise Montgomery, a Daily Mirror colleague who among other responsibilities ghost-wrote the Mirror astrology column. Eventually (as always seemed to happen with Garth) he went off to pastures new.
Those pastures, however, were always near Fleet Street – or to be more accurate, the Daily Mirror building, where he was Peter Tory’s deputy on the Mirror diary, eventually getting his own column. Says Tory, a keen pilot: ‘He was a lovely man. And the best wingman you could have – as long as you could keep him out of the pub. If I ever felt I might be in trouble, in any circumstances, Garth would be the man I’d want at my side. In military terms, if I’d been in the Battle of Britain, I’d have wanted him as my wingman chasing Messerschmitt 109s. I trusted him completely.’
Mike Hellicar says: ‘I knew him at the Mirror and beyond, and I always regarded him as the archetypal diary writer. He knew everyone, and more importantly everything about everyone, had social and chatting-up and drawing-out skills that one could only envy, and while hilariously reeling off anecdotes and scurrilous gossip, he was also very discreet when required. A good bloke.’
Another ex-Mirror colleague, Neil Mackwood said: ‘He always seemed to be roaring around the place dressed hugely inappropriately. I remember when we toff-posing hacks dressed in suits, ties and boaters covered Henley, Garth was dressed in jeans and a a top with disgusting logo that had some crazed animal with its tongue hanging out and revolving eyes and its hands posed as if to dive into the water.
‘Imagine my annoyance at not getting into the hallowed Steward’s Enclosure – not that I knew any of the silly boaty people in there – but Garth did (get in, I mean). Why? They thought he was the man who put up the marquee and was there to attend to a slack guy-rope.’
Alison Jane Reid, who lived with Garth for nearly ten years, said: ‘He had a god-given talent for writing, and a rare kind of charisma. Everyone loved him, and was changed by meeting him. I was also really thrilled that in the last few years he started to write some wonderful comment and opinion pieces for Gentlemen Ranters and the Independent. He taught me so much about the craft of writing, and made it seem effortless.’
For many of his last years Garth lived alone, in semi-retirement, in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. For a while his sole companion was a cat, which sadly got run over. He was never heard complaining about his lot, or being lonely. On the contrary, he seemed to enjoy his new lifestyle. One of his great delights was to cycle many miles across the island, usually stopping to feed the ducks on a rural pond a few miles from home. He was kind to most birds, most animals, and most humans. In his spare time he had fun editing a magazine called Quicksilver for a while – a sort of low-budget version of Saga magazine.
Living alone would have driven some men to drink, but Garth pretty much gave up drinking almost 20 years ago when – after recovering from pancreatitis – he was told that if he kept boozing it would kill him. But he always enjoyed washing his beloved biltong down with alcohol-free beer. Thus unbefuddled by drink, he had a formidable memory which almost made Google obsolete – especially for stories. He was never short of a quote or a joke, and effortlessly remembered every phrase and nuance.
Each May, he would unfailingly write in whichever diary column he happened to be working on (for years it was one of the many versions of the Daily Mirror diary), his all-time favourite aphorism:
‘Hooray, hooray, the First of May / Outdoor sex begins today’
He never got tired of that one, and when he no longer had a column to write it for, he would email this annual date to his friends, as if to remind them to get out there and enjoy a romp in the woods.
This was another of his favourites – poignant now: ‘If you think nobody cares whether you’re alive or dead, try missing a couple of mortgage payments.’
And bearing in mind his three wives, another was this: ‘There are two excellent theories for arguing with women. Neither one works.’ And yet he adored women, and they him (at least until they married him, it seems). On meeting an attractive new woman, his reaction was almost inevitable. He would invariably tell his friends: ‘God, she’s f**king gorgeous!’
In spite of his roving eye, Garth was keen on this quote from Raymond Chandler. ‘I wasn’t faithful to my wife out of principle but because she was completely adorable, and the urge to stray which afflicts many men at a certain age, because they think they have been missing a lot of beautiful girls, never touched me. I already had perfection.’
While he himself may not have been so good at marriage, Garth was loved by almost everyone whose path he crossed. As another Fleet Street colleague Nigel Blundell said this week: ‘Garth was one of life’s delights. A rare breed.’
When he heard that his lung cancer had spread to his bones he rang a few of his closest friends to tell them he had only months to live. With typical Gibbs bravado and feigned nonchalance, he insisted that he wasn’t bothered. ‘That’s life’ he said. ‘I’m 75, it’s no big deal. It’s just one of those things.’ Said Louise, his last wife, who spent the final weeks looking after him with other family members: ‘He put on a remarkably brave face right till the end.’
By Paddy Clancy
Jimmy Kelly, known as the doyen of Irish journalism, died last week and probably held the unique record of writing his last opinion column for a newspaper on his 100th birthday.
Colleagues in Belfast reckon he could have continued but Kelly obviously decided when the Irish News printed his last column on his 100th birthday three months ago that it was time to call it a day.
He died at his Belfast home, surrounded by members of his family.
He once described his career as ‘following the tapestry of turmoil’ across Ireland, having witnessed, riots, the rise of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, the Troubles and the eventual power-sharing agreement at Stormont.
The former Northern Ireland political editor of the Dublin-based daily, the Irish Independent, Kelly covered the most significant moments in the history of the North, from the Belfast blitz to the Good Friday Agreement.
One of his first memories was travelling as a child with his father to Dublin after the 1916 Easter Rising.
In recent years, he refused to complain about stiffening limbs but admitted growing deafness made dinner parties difficult.
Kelly, born in 1911, started work as a reporter at the Irish News aged 17. He then joined the Irish Press (now defunct) in 1931 and, after that, the Irish Independent, where he remained for close to 50 years before returning to the Irish News to write a regular column.
His wife Eileen died aged 90 in 2004. They had three daughters – Grainne, with whom he lived in Belfast, Eileen and Pat.
Billy Foley, news editor with the Irish News said Kelly remained a popular columnist until the end.
Foley added: ‘He did his column on an old typewriter and it was taxied down to us.’
Irish News editor Noel Doran said: ‘He is a legend of Irish journalism beyond doubt, the longest-serving columnist on these islands, a person whose life story was closely associated with the history of the Irish News and the history of the entire country, someone whose like you will not see again.’
By Colin Randall
Twice in the last month or two, I have sat in my French bunker and written articles for the spoof front pages traditionally prepared at newspaper offices when colleagues leave to work elsewhere, join other redundant job-seekers or begin retirement.
Jim Allan’s departure is more final and there will be no mock-up P1. Last week, he lost a long struggle against cancer and died aged 75.
Jim was a reporter when I first knew him, one of the best around but also among the most decent people you could hope to meet on whatever assignment you had both been sent.
His background was working class; his father was a Geordie, though his own accent was pure London. There were no airs and graces; there was, as one former colleague has observed, a self-deprecating aspect to his approach to life and work and, while he earned the admiration of those who worked with him, he was never heard to boast about his successes.
I wish no disrespect to the many fine people who still work for the Daily Telegraph, or to the more recent achievements of which it can be proud, but even broadsheet journalism has become a good deal more shrill these days.
Jim was a fixture of the paper at a time when it won great acclaim for its comprehensive but also thoroughly honest and measured treatment of news.
No one was ever in doubt about the Telegraph politics but these did not intrude on to the news pages and many prominent figures who opposed those politics rated its qualities highly.
Jim covered events in most of the world’s trouble spots, from Belfast to Beirut and beyond.
In Tehran, during the revolution that toppled the Shah, he had to witness the ceremonial disposal of all stocks of the evil alcohol at his hotel. The story must have been painful to write.
In Lebanon, as Julian Nundy (former Independent and DT correspondent in Paris) recalls, there was ‘a great moment when Jim shamed a drunken US Marine major into handing his gun to reception in the Beirut Commodore hotel circa 1982-83. When the major protested that the gun (which he had been waving around in the bar) was empty, Jim said very calmly, Empty guns kill, Major. And the major gave it to reception for safekeeping.’
Later, he was the Telegraph news editor – and therefore my immediate boss – and an excellent one, too. If I remember correctly, he was added to the newsdesk team, in the ostensibly modest role of No 3, in one of the earlier decisions taken under the new editorship of Sir, then plain Mr, Max Hastings.
Greater things, clearly, were planned for him. The news editor, a no-nonsense but highly popular veteran called Mike Green, had taken voluntary redundancy (‘if you can’t join ’em, beat it’ was the last line of his farewell speech) and Jim, aided by some careful behind-the-scenes manipulation designed to keep as many old ways intact as possible, was catapulted from No 3 to No 1 when the time came to decide who should take his place.
He took the same values that had served him (and journalism) well on the road into his new executive duties.
Reporters were expected to work hard and produce strong, compelling copy, but were also encouraged to play hard, as Jim always did. It was an age, now long gone, of long liquid lunch breaks and, invariably, further refreshment in the evening before homeward journeys were contemplated. It is a miracle that careers or marriages survived these habits, but somehow they did, with disproportionately few casualties.
Jim saw to it that the paper’s quality of news coverage was not merely maintained but improved.
He never lost that decency. I have clear memories of taking a call from him one Saturday afternoon and being asked to go to Sheffield; the Hillsborough disaster had just occurred and Jim, if not actually in tears, was audibly distressed.
Plaudits for praiseworthy work were warm and generous, sometimes accompanied by the left-over trips from the travel section that were within Jim’s gift. Rebukes, when merited, were delivered gently, almost apologetically. ‘This story is not quite up to your usual standard,’ he said to me once.
Eventually, Max wanted another set of changes. It may be that Jim was too old-fashioned, too hard-nosed for an age that called, in Max’s judgement, for more gentleman reporters and executives and fewer of the old school. All the same, Jim was invited to stay on and name his own new role. However genuine this offer may have been, he chose to make a clean break.
Quickly, he found a new home at the Evening Standard, where another group of reporters, sub-editors and specialists came to appreciate his professional and human qualities.
And later still, after Max Hastings became editor of the Standard and once more dispensed with Jim’s services in one of the mad, cost-cutting culls that have occurred over and again throughout our industry and others, he popped up back at the Telegraph. Past retirement age, he was nevertheless happy to take occasional casual shifts on the foreign desk, sharing his wisdom and experience with a new generation of correspondents around the world.
News of Jim’s death, in the same week that I also heard that three other characters from journalism’s better times (Bob McGowan, Garth Gibbs and Barry Wigmore) had also died, filled me with sadness, but also guilt. We had lost touch since the various departures from the Telegraph and my own moves to jobs overseas. It somehow seemed inappropriate to reappear just as the end was approaching; I now wish I had overcome such reservations and made contact in any case.
Jim’s passing does not rob journalism of a great practitioner because he had given the trade all that it could fairly have expected of him, and more. It does, however, deprive the world of an exceptional man and I wish his beloved Deirdre bon courage. Thanks, oddly enough, to Max Hastings, she should at least have two spoof front pages, from friends at the DT and the Standard, to bring an occasional smile to her face.
This is lifted with permission from Colin’s website, France Salut!
By Mike Gallemore
Keith Meadows, former Daily/Sunday Mirror FoC and Daily Mirror northern sports writer died, aged 69, in his sleep on Monday night, having lost his 10 year battle against cancer. Keith will be remembered as a fine journalist and an enthusiastic football fan, particularly where his home town club of York City was concerned. But he will always be held in the highest respect for the unstinting work he put in on other people’s behalf in representing Mirror journalists and trying to save Manchester as a publishing centre against impossible odds.
Keith was one of newspapers great characters and a self-confessed oddball. He succeeded some of the most outstanding chapel officials and Focs in the history of the NUJ in the Withy Grove office of the Daily and Sunday Mirror. Mike Gagie and Harry King led the way in the battle for recognition by MGN management to secure the first house agreement and Keith carried the fight in later years in the attempt to keep Manchester alive.
The 1960s, 70s and early 80s were great days in Withy Grove. The camaraderie in the office made it a fun place to be and there were more characters than anyone would believe. We ran a Mirror inter-department football league playing weekly fixtures and Keith was one of the organisers who also ran the Manchester inter-newspaper league.
He was a great organiser and a fearless and fair FoC. The problem that very few people were aware of, including me, was that the considerable pressure of being a chapel official took its toll on Keith’s health. In an effort to overcome his increasing nervous disorder he was prescribed a course of medication that became virtually addictive. Keith believed it was the pills he was taking were the cause of his many illnesses that plagued his life.
He explained all this when I met him for a drink in the Wellington at the Shambles before we headed up the hill to a David Hepworth organised reunion at the Hare and Hounds on Shudehill about three Christmases ago. I hadn’t seen Keith for a number of years when he rang me to ask if I fancied going to the piss-up. I said, ‘Will I still recognise you?’ and he laughed. Then I saw the familiar leather bush hat through the window approaching the Wellington and in stepped Keith looking like a white hunter; it was just like old times.
It was a struggle for Keith to live from day to day but he hadn’t lost his sense of humour and his love of the absurd. We laughed until we were nearly thrown out of a pub more used to throwing people in as we relived some of the more ridiculous scrapes we got into. Those occasions where chapel negotiations with the management had reached deadlock and we’d made the threat of walking out if our demands were not met were real nailbiting moments. The fact that they were often settled by one member from each side making an impromptu visit to the bogs made it all the more ridiculous.
I’ve got a million memories of Keith and from the wide variety of scrapes we got into. I’ve crawled under the table at some of the best restaurants in the country as Keith has had a standing row with a waiter in trying to order double egg and chips. ‘If this is supposed to be a Michelin rated restaurants why isn’t your chef good enough to cook double egg and chips?’ was a regular Meadows lament. A gathering of chapel officials at a dinner at the Box Tree restaurant in Ilkley, Yorkshire, in the 70s where the food and drink bill had to split between around 30 of us brought the legendary cry from Keith: ‘Forty eight quid for double egg and chips? – it’s a rip off!’
Keith took the job of FoC seriously. He was one of the kindest men I’ve met. He wanted to do the best for everyone and rarely got the thanks he deserved. It was tough trying to be tough and Keith had to try to achieve the impossible at a time when everyone new the inevitable end of Manchester was in sight.
As a weapon against the arrival of Robert Maxwell Keith produced a ‘brochure’ entitled Wither Withy Grove, which was the definitive version of why Maxwell should not be trusted to take over the Mirror and why it made sense to keep Manchester alive. Keith knew it made sense newspaper-wise but that to the accountants who had taken over the asylum it made financial sense to operate from one centre.
I can proudly say that Keith was a great friend to me for more than 20 wonderful years and he was a great friend to so many colleagues who worked in Manchester. To my knowledge he never did anyone a bad turn and although he didn’t suffer fools at any price he could laugh his way through any harrowing situations – and there were any number of those.
Keith’s son, Mark, also a sports writer, with Reuters, has inherited Keith’s dry, northern humour. In informing us all of Keith’s sad death he wrote: “Keith had cancer for nine years so did very well to reach his favourite number (69). Those who remember my dad fondly will excuse the humour which he dearly loved to put into everything.”
Keith’s marital madness was incurable and his exploits were bizarre in the extreme. His succession of wives and lady friends often led to them taking him to the cleaners but he always came back for more. Like most things Keith did, he did them to extremes.
I’ll miss the crazy bugger but I feel all the better for having known him and for sharing so many of-the-wall adventures with him. We all owe Keith a great debt.
Keith’s non-religious ‘service’ will be held at Fred Hamer’s Funeral Home, James Street, Rawtenstall on Friday, August 26 at 1.0pm followed by drinks from 2.0pm in his local pub, The Black Dog, in Crawshawbooth village, close to where he lived.
I knew Eric Wainwright
By Colin Dunne
Goodness knows, my 30-odd years in Fleet Street produced very little by way of achievement, fame or trophies. All I’ve got to show for it are a few divorce court appearances, arteries as congested as Shoe Lane, and a collection of anecdotes that can never be told. Why not? Because normal people would never believe them.
But I do have one claim to distinction of which I’m seriously proud, and it’s one that very few old Mirror men can make… For I knew Eric Wainwright.
Oh yes, there are plenty who are familiar with the legend of Invisible Eric, the ghost of fourth floor features. But I doubt if any of them ever actually set eyes upon him. And fewer still who heard, first-hand, his explanation of why he found it necessary to wear his St James’s Street hat while seated upon the lavatory.
But I did. I knew him quite well. And his hat. And I’m glad I caught his show while it was still – just – in town.
It happened at a time when I found myself working in the features room on Sunday mornings.
I always had it to myself. Until one morning when in bowled this dapper chap. Although clearly startled at having to share the room, he gave a jovial wave and sat down at a typewriter. The telephone rang. ‘No,’ he said, with complete conviction, ‘there’s no-one here called Dunne.’
At this point I thought it wise to introduce myself. He apologised for not knowing me. In fact, he didn’t seem to know anyone. ‘Who’s the features editor now?’ I said it was Bill Hagerty. ‘Is he a little blonde chap with a moustache?’ I said no, he was a tallish dark chap with a clean upper lip. He nodded. ‘Bit out of touch these days,’ he said. ‘I try to keep out of the way.’
At that he was triumphantly successful. His contact with the office was his monthly visit, on a Sunday morning when the place was deserted, to do four weeks’ expenses. A little cautiously, I said that I hadn’t seen his byline recently. ‘No, old boy, haven’t had a piece in for six years.’
I murmured something about how upsetting it must be to have all that copy spiked. He looked at me as though I was insane. ‘Lord no; haven’t written anything for six years.’
At this point, we need a little history. In the mid-seventies, the Daily Mirror features department had reached its zenith with a splendid one-way employment policy: new writers were shipped in, but no old writers went out. One idle day (there were about 342 a year) I counted the number of feature writers and gave up when I passed 40. They were a mixed bunch. Former girl-friends of long-gone editors, executives who’d forgotten what they were executing, columnists who’d misplaced their columns, foreign correspondents returned home, and some people who I think just came in for the warmth. There were even one or two who wrote features. This wasn’t encouraged.
Passing the time could be a problem. Some took to the drink. Some took to adultery. Some took to both, and not always in the right order. Don Walker set up a music stand and taught himself classical guitar. Paula James made restaurant reservations. George Thaw was Scottish all over the place. Don Gomery sighed a lot. Occasionally we’d move the desks and have a badminton tournament.
Several of the writers, like Eric, became no-shows. His sports jacket – Daks, of course – was left over his chair, so that if anybody asked for him we could say he’d popped out to the bank and we would ring the number he’d left. The number, somebody said, was for a drinking club in Soho in which he was a partner. We never rang it. Nobody ever asked for him.
Years slipped by, and he became a sort of invisible yet indestructible folk hero. Once he put in a memo asking to be made Pub Correspondent. Tony Miles, the editor, asked somebody to check with accounts to see if he was still on the staff. He was. ‘What the hell does he do?’ Somebody said he spent most of his time in pubs. ‘In that case,’ said Miles, ‘he might as well have the title.’ So he achieved his ambition, and, true to the last, he never wrote a story.
Mike Molloy once called a conference that was a must-attend for all writers. Bars and bedrooms all over London emptied and by the time he’d begun, the room was packed. At that point in walked this distinguished figure with his rolled umbrella and perched himself at the front. Mike was saying the new policy was to attract young readers when Eric spoke.
‘Delightful little boozer just outside Guildford,’ he said. ‘Lots of young people in there. Shall I pop down and have a look?’ A minute later he’d gone. It remained one of the great unwritten stories of our time.
Over the months, I got to know him well. With his slick of silver hair, florid face and drawing-room accent, he was of a type that even then was rapidly running out of fashion. He was – there’s no other word for it – a gent: British warm overcoat, yellow chamois gloves and tightly-furled umbrella with a whangee handle, he was clearly an ex-officer from some smart regiment. Only he wasn’t.
The story was that he was a Canadian who’d come over here with the Canadian air force and stayed on. There were rumours of military heroics. At one time he’d made a living as a cartoonist (some of his cartoons were on the walls of the office pub, The Stab In The Back).
Even more incredibly, he’d dressed up as a huge half-wit woman called Cynthia who was the silent stage stooge for a northern comedienne called Hylda Baker. ‘She knows, y’know’, Hylda would say, elbowing Eric in the ribs.
It was the sort of CV that could end only one way – in the Mirror features department. Long before those Sunday morning meetings, he’d built up quite a name for doing first-person pieces under the by-line Danger Man. He was terrific. He rode a motor-bike through a hoop of fire. He went into a cage full of lions armed only with a chair. He even went to the photographers’ Christmas party… no, no, that was a joke, he wasn’t that crazy.
He was what he himself would have called a genial sort of cove. Full of good spirits, full of good stories. Around noon, he would slip over to the Stab, and return a couple of hours later, even fuller of good spirits. He would slump down in his chair and ring all his friends around the world. Occasionally, the odd snippet would drift over to me, and what collectors’ items they were…
‘Yerrs, still got the same old place out in Bucks. Thatched roof, y’know. Trouble is, bloody squirrels in the thatch. Gnawed through the bloody water pipe. Drips through the ceiling. Bloody nuisance. Have to wear a hat when I’m on the lav.’
With the writer’s true eye for detail, Eric knew this required further definition. ‘Y’know,’ he said, ‘the one I got at Lock’s of St James.’ There were stories that in his younger days he was an accomplished pub fighter. Someone who once saw him in action said he used the pub furniture like they do in cowboy films. To me he was never anything other than charming, apart from the day Roy Harris upset him.
Roy, who was, I think, deputy features editor, sat in on a Sunday, and when Eric presented his expenses, he ventured a mildly casual enquiry about one item. Eric was furious. He went immediately to the Stab. He stayed longer than usual. When he came back he was purple with, among other things, rage.
He asked my advice. What was the silliest story I’d ever done? A talking dog, I said. Where was the furthest point from the office? Land’s End. With finger-jabbing anger, he typed away, took it downstairs and slammed it down in front of Roy. It was for a trip to Land’s End to interview a talking dog. It involved well over a thousand miles’ travel, several overnights, lots of entertaining and taxis. All with no bills. The final, some might have said contemptuous, item was the one that caught Roy’s eye. ‘Bone for dog – £10.’
Roy, who was not a big man, shivered in the shadow of the figure looming over him. ‘Must have been a big bone,’ he whispered weakly. Eric slammed his hand on the desk and roared: ‘It was a fucking big dog.’
Roy’s signature fairly skidded across the paper.
Somebody somewhere must have let me back in, because my Sunday mornings in the office came to an end. I missed them. I missed Eric. With him, I felt as though I was catching the last act of a wonderful long-running comedy.
About a year after I left the Mirror, Don Walker rang me up. I knew it was some sort of spoof because he was trying not to laugh. Eric was leaving, he said. They were having a farewell party for him. And would I go along because I was the only person who knew what he looked like. Just me.
Sadly, Eric isn’t around any more. Any more? What am I saying?
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