By Frank Corless
My old mate Ian Skidmore reckoned (last week) that once upon a time in Liverpool you could ‘make it up’ and get away with it, and – to a point – he’s right, although I don’t remember outrageously invented stories being the norm. Except, that is when it came to the Grand National.
In the mid-60s, when circulations were huge, we were all under starter’s orders to help prompt even bigger sales on the day of the big race by coming up with a Page 1 ‘shocker’.
Year after year, the tall stories just got bigger – all based on the (correct) assumption that by the time was race over everyone would have forgotten about the perils we had suggested might befall horses, jockeys, and Joe Public, but not all at the same time, of course.
The long list ranged from fixers and dopers to betting rings, animal rights activists, and, worst of all, the dreaded Cough. The slightest hint of a horse coming down with The Cough was enough to send news desks into a spin.
One year, I was despatched to Aintree at midnight to see if I could blag my way into the stables to listen out for a coughing horse. Instead, I found Les Poole (Daily Express), and Norman Dickson (the old Sun), doing the same. We didn’t get in – and we didn’t hear a single cough.
In those days, the herd instinct applied. We all had to be as near each other as possible to pick up on the slightest hint that the opposition might have come up with a decent splash or – dare I say it – had invented one. And that’s where the Liverpool Press Club’s phone booths had a role to play.
Despite so-called soundproofing, every single word spoken in either of the two booths could be heard by the scribe next door and – on quiet days, or nights – even as far away as the bar. Usually, one or two of us ‘loitered’ as closely as it was possible to get without it looking obvious that we were deliberately ear-wigging.
After a long eve-of-National day at the course, and having filed what we thought would be the most sensational splash, we had to lounge around the club until midnight at the earliest, waiting for the likely, dreaded call from the news desk that someone else had come up with an ‘exclusive’ no one else had thought of.
Trying to convince the night desk that the story – even the most outrageous one – was drivel didn’t wash. So, it was a case of (a) getting them to read to you the opposition ‘exclusive’; (b) waiting 20 minutes while you did a re-write of it and filed it; or (c) getting back to the desk to tell them you had managed to get hold of a ‘very good contact’ who had confirmed it was ‘rubbish’. Usually, a & b held sway.
I was lucky enough to see the race more than 40 times. I say ‘see’ advisedly. I usually watched it on TV from the Aintree press box because, being right above the weighing room, it was the perfect spot to rush downstairs as soon as the race finished and bag a front-row seat in the adjoining press tent. To be honest, I didn’t miss any of the drama or the excitement because I was still close enough to hear it, and almost to touch it.
One of my last assignments there involved doing a news stint for the Sunday Mirror who sent along a staffer to help me out. No names, no pack drill, but he was well known in the job for ‘stretching,’ or ‘bending’ stories and, yes, even – would you believe it? – making them up. Always with a chuckle, of course.
So it proved with the big race, the one sports event in the world that didn’t need any topspin. Drama? The National was always a fantastic drama. But that didn’t stop Mr. X.
I felt the first hint of unease when I sat down to wait for the winning jockey, trainer, owner, and hangers-on to be delivered to the press tent for after-race interviews. My helper was nowhere to be seen.
Minutes later, as I dashed upstairs to the Mirror’s designated phone, there he was. Chuckling. ‘Don’t panic, I’ve sent it,’ he said. ‘Sent what?’ I replied as a cold shiver ran down my back.
‘The jockey, the owner, all that stuff,’ he said. ‘But, you weren’t there,’ I protested. ‘No, but they always say the same things, don’t they? Nobody’s going to care tomorrow.’
Gobsmacked wasn’t the word. If the National horses had been within earshot of my rant, they probably would have bolted and gone round the course for the third time. Calming down, I thought ‘Sod it’, and quickly wrote, and filed a different version. The true one.
The next day, the Mirror used their racing correspondent’s version, so it didn’t matter after all. But, every time the race comes round, I think of the reporter who beat everyone else to the post.
Away from Aintree, the story that I was never sure was true or false came courtesy of Arthur Redford, the Daily Mail Liverpool district man. For a while, I was Arthur’s sidekick (Santa’s little helper, they called me) before I got the Daily Mirror staff job in the city.
The story ranks, at best, as highly dubious.
It happened during yet another of the Mersey dock strikes. At that time, in the 60s, they were so frequent, and many of them staged for the flimsiest of reasons, that they spawned their own books of ‘jokes’. Typical was the one about two dockers enjoying an egg and bacon sarnie in a waterfront cafe before starting work on a spring morning.
‘See the daffs are out,’ said one.
‘Will it affect us?’ his mate replied.
One strike went on for so long, totally paralysing the port, that ships waiting to berth had to ride anchor at the Mersey Bar. Among them was a Russian freighter with a cargo of timber bound for Garston docks.
The gist of Arthur’s yarn was that the crew had so much time on their hands that they had started to become fluent English speakers, simply by watching TV for hours on end.
According to Arthur’s piece, the programme they watched most was… Pinky and Perky.
‘Why didn’t we have this?’ I was asked when I checked in with the desk that morning. ‘I can’t find anyone who says it’s true,’ I said. And I was being honest. Honest.
Back came the reply: ‘Well, we should have it.’