Issue # 144 – Butter for parsnips

Butter for parsnips

tom brownBy Tom Brown

So I am joining the debate on intros. Where to start? At the beginning, of course. As Maria von Trapp sang: ‘A very good place to start …’

At the very beginning of what is laughingly called my career, I was inspired by a film called Come Fill The Cup in which James Cagney played an alcoholic reporter and wanted to emulate him – which I did, nearly the first and certainly, to this day, the second.

Opening scene: Cagney, hat on the back of the head and with that characteristic strut, walks into a newsroom from covering a plane crash. The aircraft had dropped out of the sky near a small town in the middle of nowhere. Cagney puts the paper in the typewriter and writes: ‘All the dead were strangers….’

His editor looks over his shoulder and says something like: ‘Great intro. But it was a week ago and you’ve been drunk ever since. You’re fired.’

Years later, I was on a job in Brussels when the Express foreign desk phoned and said the trans-Europe express had crashed at a level crossing out in Walloon-land. By the time I got there, the corpses had been laid out in the local school hall. Locals were speculating how many families from how many countries would be bereft by the bodies lying on the floor.

I did the traditional: ‘Anyone here speak English?’ Up came the chief accident inspector for Belgian National Railways who gave me the whole story. I went off to a local bar, opened a line to London, and dictated: ‘All the dead were strangers…’

Plagiarism? Maybe – but I bet nobody else can say they nicked an intro from James Cagney.

I confess: I am an intro-nut. But there was one intro that didn’t make it into the paper without slight rewriting.

Covering the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, the ‘year of the three Popes’, I took all the necessary precautions. I found the phone in the Vatican Press Centre, on the first floor in one corner of St Peter’s Square, where you could squint out of the window and see the new Pope as he stepped onto the balcony.

Naturally, I removed the diaphragm so no-one else could use it. A Roman journalist remonstrated at what he said was ‘English’ conduct. I informed him in my impeccable Italian: ‘Non sono Inglese, sono Scozzese – and this is what we do in Glasgow, pal.’  I shudder to think how many houses on Scottish schemes may have burned down through delayed 999 calls because hacks had dismantled the public phones to prevent rivals using them, then forgotten to go back and restore them.

More important than the Vatican phone, I had a list of ‘papabile’, the cardinals shortlisted as possible Popes. The white smoke went up from the Sistine Chapel chimney, I ran up the marble staircase to the pressroom, put the gubbins back in the phone, and opened the line to London.

Squinting across the square, I started to dictate the deathless line: ‘’Habemus Papam’ – ‘We have a Pope’ – the age-old cry went up in St Peter’s Square as onto the balcony stepped…. a  complete f***ing stranger!’

When I turned to a nearby Monsignor for help, he spluttered: ‘Wojtyla? Wojtyla? Is he African?’ His Holiness was, of course, Polish – and had come from nowhere in the Papal stakes.

It’s gratifying when an intro is officially recognized, as in the editor’s bulletin which was locked in a glass case in a daily ritual on the Express editorial floor. Derek Marks once praised the opening par in a story I did about a lady who had the first triple valve inserted in her heart: ‘Mrs. So-and-so is in good heart. You can tell by the ticking in triple time.’ Bless the sub who left that untouched.

Sometimes, but very rarely, the recognition was monetary. When the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland couldn’t make up its mind about female clergy, it was a parody of an old song: ‘They didn’t say yes, they didn’t say no – and would-be women ministers were left waiting at the altar.’

Lord Beaverbrook, who kept a beady eye from afar on the Kirk in which his father had been an elder, sent twenty quid ‘so you can have butter on your parsnips’. I didn’t know what he was on about until a more erudite colleague told me of the saying ‘Fine words butter no parsnips’.

In a previous posting, Vincent Mulchrone’s classic intro on the Churchill lying-in-state, the ‘twin rivers’ flowing through London was quoted. I reported the rehearsal parade where a single drummer set the slow march pace: ‘A solitary drum was the heartbeat of London in mourning.’ I thought it was fine until I read the real intro-master in the Mail.

A former colleague in Glasgow, whence I had transferred to Fleet Street, read my copy and shouted across the newsroom: ‘Lookout – Tam Broon’s written another o’ his smart-erse pieces.’

That seems like a very good place to stop.

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Continue reading: Mike Gallemore on Harry Conroy

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