Prolific journalist that he is – and there have been very few days when at least one of his stories didn’t appear in some publication, somewhere – Arnie Wilson’s by-line is probably more familiar to readers of the Financial Times (where he has written most Saturdays in winter about skiing) than to readers of the dailies and Sundays for whom he’s been writing non-stop, about anything he thinks is interesting.
For his stuff has usually appeared on other people’s diary pages, and under their names: Dempster, Tory, Helliker, Callan, Hellicar, Mackwood, McKay, Kay…
And when a BBC interviewer asked Dempster who was this man to whom he had referred, he responded: ‘That’s Wilson of Deal, who makes four million pounds a year out of gossip columns.’
Arnie says modestly that Nigel was out by a digit or two, and that he was actually ‘Wilson of Ashford’ (near enough). But anonymous though, mostly, he might have been, the Duke of Edinburgh recognised him sufficiently to mark the card of Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands with the warning: ‘He’s only interested in gossip.’
Such royal recognition didn’t do Arnie any harm and he’s written a book about it. Big Name Hunting will be published next week and is available everywhere for pre-order, now. You can get it in time for Christmas.
Revel Barker has seen an advance copy…
Talking of books (as we do, sometimes, even if nobody out there reads them) Bill Hagerty has been taking another look at one of the titles that we (re-) published recently in a revised edition – Waterhouse on Newspaper Style. And he’s reviewed it in the current (out this week) issue of British Journalism Review.
And, still on the same subject, this weekend may be your last chance to steer friends and family towards the titles of books you’d like for Christmas (or to buy for yourself for reading over the holidays, or to buy for friends because you like them.)
There are 20 to choose from on our Books site. Have a look, read the list, buy a book.
Meanwhile, out of the library and back in the pub, John Kay, who succeeded Jim Lewthwaite as chief reporter of the Sun, and Bill Greaves, who learnt at Jim’s feet on the Daily Mail, remember Fleet Street’s gentle giant with rare fondness.
What’s in a name…
By Revel Barker
I once said to David Niven that I was worried I was becoming a bit of a name-dropper.
I’d come into it at a fairly early age; as a teenager on the Yorkshire Evening Post I’d met Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Roy Orbison, Gene Pitney, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, the Stones, Freddie and the Dreamers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and of course The Beatles…
… Who, first time I met them, insisted that I sing for my supper, so to speak, by helping them sign the hundreds of autograph books sent in to their dressing room, in return for an interview. Not unique, that: other reporters on the Beatles beat told me they’d been press-ganged into doing the same thing. Now I look at those offered scraps that appear on E-bay for hundreds of quids and wonder how many were actually signed by me, or maybe by Maggie Hall or Mike Hellicar.
So when I found myself, at 20, facing big star names on a daily basis, it never occurred to me to ask for an autograph. Yet when I sent postcards home to my childhood sweetheart I couldn’t think of much to say apart from: ‘Today I interviewed Mohammad Ali, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor…’ And when I fell into conversation with anybody on the train home from Kings Cross and they said they bet I met a lot of interesting people, I could reel off: ‘…Margot Fonteyn, Trevor Howard, Bing Crosby… and I had tea with Lord Mountbatten yesterday.’
I interviewed – and usually had a drink with – David Niven and Sophia Loren (separately) once a week on average over a period of seven months. And as I said to Niven, that was what concerned me. They might be big, big, names, but I was constantly dropping them.
Perhaps I should explain for younger readers that, in the days of my youth, a star was somebody whose face was instantly recognisable worldwide, but usually only from the cinema screen. ‘Celebrities’ (a word we didn’t use) were not people who’d had their 15 minutes of fame on the telly – in fact they hardly ever appeared on TV, except in newsreel shots reporting their arrivals and departures from airports or at a premiere. They didn’t open supermarkets or do commercials for coffin insurance.
And they didn’t appear in gossip columns, which were peopled almost entirely by names that were unknown outside the pages of Debrett.
All this changed shortly after Arnie Wilson started writing diary stories. Influenced by Nicholas Tomalin’s Atticus in the Sunday Times and Tony Miles’ Inside Page in the Daily Mirror, the fashion changed almost overnight into writing ‘gossip’ about people the readers had actually heard of – stars of stage screen and radio, politicians, businessmen, trade union leaders.
I was out of it by then, doing real news. But Arnie was in it and in his element. He’d be the last person to deny that he was star-struck. He enjoyed writing about famous people because – mostly – he liked them. And at the end of the interview he’d often have to struggle with himself not to ask for an autograph (although, sometimes, if he couldn’t help himself, he’d pretend it was ‘for my daughter, who’s a big fan’).
He even saved, as a souvenir of the interview, the butt of a cigar that Michael Caine had given him. (By contrast I can’t find the autographed copy of The Moon’s a Balloon that Niven gave me after rehearsing every chapter on me over innumerable drinks. I’m sure I have it somewhere, unless Rimmer borrowed it. But then, when Greta Scacchi sent Arnie a limerick she’d written for him, he also put it somewhere safe – and lost it.)
The other difference between Arnie and me – apart from the fact that he somehow contrived to spend half the year skiing as the Financial Times ‘ski correspondent’ – is that he remembers what these big names said to him. One reason is that he actually cared what they said; the other is that he often had the benefit of a tape recorder.
And whereas I sometimes think that if I could dig out some pictures and remember the words I’d have a spellbinding coffee-table book of the stars of the 60s, Arnie has actually done it and produced a paperback packed with magical memories of meetings and interviews with people who were worth talking (and listening) to over several decades.
Thus we have captivating quotes and insights covering royals (Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles); stars like Joanna Lumley, Paul McCartney, William Shatner, Bo Derek, Frank Sinatra, Noel Coward, David Hemmings, Edward Fox, Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole, Jack Hawkins, Stanley Baker, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Peter Ustinov; astronauts – Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong; film-makers, David Lean, Michael Winner, John Huston; TV people, Terry Wogan, Eric Morecambe, Patrick Moore… Not to mention Peter Tory, Dempster, Hellicar, Callan, Mackwood, McKay, Bob Friend, Mike Borissow, Geoffrey Pinnington, Lloyd Turner, Richard Kay, Reggie Bosanquet… In fact the list of names in the contents of the book takes up four and a half pages.
Arnie has got souvenirs or autographs from many of them, although some items (Joanna Lumley’s nightie – autographed in lipstick– and a pair of Peter O’Toole’s socks) found their way into charity auctions.
And Arnie cherishes the mementoes, even though his copy of the Pussy Cats album John Lennon had produced for singer Harry Nilsson was signed by Nilsson ‘with love’… from both of them.
As for Niven, who Arnie met miming to somebody else’s piano on the set of Casino Royale, he was able to offer me some comfort.
Nothing wrong at all with name-dropping, he told me. ‘After all, when you’ve just had tea with Sophia Loren [as he knew I had, that day]… nobody wants to hear stories about the fucking waiter.’
There are no stories about waiters in Arnie’s book.
Big Name Hunting – Confessions of a celebrity interviewer by Arnie Wilson is published next week by Revel Barker and is available for pre-order now from Book Depository (with free postage, worldwide), amazon, and Waterstones, in the US from Barnes & Noble, or from any half-decent bookshop.
Putting on the style
By Bill Hagerty
When a copy of my friend Waterhouse’s original work was placed upon the desks of every member of the Daily Mirror staff – a sizeable number in 1979 – a supercilious newsdesk executive contemptuously tossed it into the nearest waste bin without even looking inside its plain white covers. As well as being grossly impolite, this displayed a lack of foresight. As John Naughton noted in The Observer, the slim volume quickly “acquired something of a samizdat status in Fleet Street, with dog-eared copies changing hands for ‘considerations’ “. The unwise news editor not only earned the scorn of most colleagues but failed to anticipate the pecuniary potential of what is, with respect to Simon Heffer (see the previous review in this issue), the finest guide to writing for and subediting the popular press, and the unpopular press too.
When last year the enterprising Revel Barker proposed republication of a book that had been out of print for 13 years, Waterhouse enthusiastically agreed to revise it. Sadly, he died before updating could be accomplished and this was completed by Stella Bingham, previously Mrs. Waterhouse and close to Keith until the end. He had intended most of the examples of sloppy or inaccurate prose to remain untouched and they are. They are also splendidly relevant more than 30 years after he collected them.
The book is, of course, beautifully written. “Smothering an intro in a ketchup of adjectives does little to improve its flavour,” he observes. It is also – again, of course – very funny: “Never use punctuation marks to lend respectability to a sentence you would not otherwise care to introduce to your mother.”
But how good is it, and how effective has it been, as a guide through the pitfalls and booby-traps with which newspaper journalism – especially the helter-skelter world of daily publishing – is littered? There is no doubt it is an invaluable reference handbook, one that should be a mandatory component of the reporter’s and sub-editor’s toolkit. It can be argued that since its original publication it has become even more vital: sub-editors working long-range from Lapland, or dispensed with entirely by some short-sighted moneygrubbers, means that those supplying the words can no longer lazily but confidently trust subs to put it right when they stray outside the grammatical boundaries or into the wastelands of the tortured or the banal.
Yet despite the book’s success and the praise that has been heaped upon it, the transgressions listed by Waterhouse still regularly pop their unattractive heads above the parapet in newspapers. Clichés are not avoided like the plague, good puns and, as the author points out, even bad ones, continue to spill from copy into headlines, journalese and tabloidese, offering an entire language that is neither spoken nor employed anywhere other than in journalism, and thrives even now as reporters record news of changes that are sweeping, reports preceded by the word “shock”, and bids about to be curbed. (“No story ever lost impact by being told in plain English,” lectures professor Waterhouse.)
All those years ago he was deploring the decline of the tabloid style – perfected by a Daily Mirror that was to record sales of more than five million every morning – but, despite the salutary lessons the book contains, the deterioration continues. “In Beano journalism the tabloids are to be seen herding themselves into a cul-de-sac where their mutant form of tabloidism could surely, given time, only wither and die,” he writes. Those still churning out “Up yours!” and “sleazy sex romp” headlines should bear that in mind as the papers themselves wilt and slide towards oblivion.
The book also offers an epigrammatic feast: “Great minds do not think alike. Great minds think differently,” he writes, urging us to think outside the box; and, referring to a line from his beloved The Front Page while demanding succinct intros: “What Hecht and MacArthur really should have said was: ‘Who the hell ever reads the second paragraph if the first paragraph doesn’t grab their attention?’ “.
Mysteriously for someone so meticulous in his work, Waterhouse misquotes Fats Waller’s definition of jazz when answering the question: “What is style?” Waller didn’t say: “If you have to ask, I can’t tell you,” but: “If you got to ask, you ain’t got it!” Knowing Keith, he will not be thanking me for my only minor cavil as, surrounded by newspapers, he looks down from a corner of the celestial bar on us pygmies of the profession.
That aside, it is an extraordinary piece of work. If I were running the Daily Mirror or any other “popular” title, I would leave a copy on every desk.
This review appears in the current edition of British Journalism Review and is reprinted with permission.
Bill Hagerty was 23 years with the Mirror group, and was deputy editor of the Sunday Mirror and the Daily Mirror before becoming editor of The People. He now edits British Journalism Review.
Waterhouse on Newspaper Style is published by Revel Barker at £9.99 and is available on-line from BookDepository (with free postage, worldwide), from amazon, and Waterstones in the UK and from Barnes & Noble in the US, or on order from any half-decent bookshop, anywhere.
By John Kay
Gentle giant Jim Lewthwaite swayed in the doorway to the marital bedroom of his seaside home and addressed his long-suffering wife Pam.
Wisely, she was completely huddled under the duvet to shield her from the strong whiff of booze wafting in her direction.
As the grandfather clock in the hall chimed 1am, Jim, who was indeed nine sheets to the wind, pulled himself together and gravely announced: ‘I’ve met a young woman tonight who says I remind her of Robert Mitchum.’
A disembodied voice from underneath the duvet replied witheringly: ‘She must be completely mental’
And so another day in Jim’s amazing Fleet Street career came to a close as he crawled into bed at his home in Clacton, Essex – only to emerge bright and early the next day to catch the London train and go into battle again.
He was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the Sun’s greatest-ever reporters and part of the illustrious team of newshounds like Harry Arnold, Vic Chapple, Barrie Mattei, James Whitaker, Dennis Budge, Clive Bolton, Mike Fielder, and Les Hinton.
And now, at the age of 74, the father-of-two has gone to the Great Newsroom in the Sky after losing a short bout with bone cancer.
His ever-present by-line may have trumpeted ‘Exclusive by JAMES Lewthwaite’, but to every one of his legion of pals in Fleet Street he was known as Jim or Jimmy.
And that laid-back, languid figure – who did indeed bear a striking resemblance to the Hollywood star – was a worthy member of the Fleet Street elite.
It is impossible to think of any other superstar who managed to carry off the tricky act of being top dog in the newsroom – and yet was so incredibly popular with his admiring colleagues who never had a jealous thought about his success.
He joined the Sun in 1970 after he was head-hunted by new news editor Ken Donlan who had just moved across from the same post at the Mail.
Jim was deputy news editor at the Mail but Donlan persuaded him to come over to be the paper’s first chief reporter.
He immediately became number one firemen on Rupert Murdoch’s fledgling Sun and travelled all over the world on big assignments.
The fact that he came from a family steeped in journalism – his dad Jimmy was night news editor of the Mail in Manchester and brother Gilbert was a top reporter in the USA – may have contributed to his success.
Like any top pro, he always had an overnight bag packed in the office in Bouverie Street – and his well-thumbed passport in his inside jacket pocket.
In those far-off days before mobile phones or lap-tops, communications were always a nightmare but Jim never failed to deliver, often filing superb word-perfect pieces off the top of his head from a grotty phone box.
On a personal level, Jim immediately took me under his wing when I arrived as a nervous young reporter from the Newcastle Journal.
And I probably learnt more from him than from anyone else on Fleet Street.
Once in those early days I was under massive pressure from the tyrannical Donlan to produce an exclusive story along lines laid down by editor Larry Lamb in the morning news conference.
Coming from the Journal where the mantra was that you could only use as a fact something backed up by a named quote, I was staring into the abyss.
Sensing my growing panic, Jim stepped in, wrote the story in my name intro-ing on the angle required, backed up by ‘sources’, ‘speculation’, ‘it is understood’ and ‘growing belief’ – but without one direct quote supporting the Lamb line.
It sailed into the Sun as the splash the next day, was widely picked up by TV and radio, and there wasn’t a single complaint.
Jim then taught me a second important lesson and took me down to cashiers armed with a ‘yellow’ for £5 – an advance against expenses. So-called because the docket was yellow, the fiver was enough to fund an entire night’s carousing in Fleet Street to celebrate landing the splash – with enough left over for a cab home.
And that was Jim to a T – someone who worked hard and played hard and never let you down.
If Robert Mitchum was one of the greatest stars of Hollywood, then Jimmy was certainly one of the true giants of Fleet Street.
When I sent Sun editor Dominic Mohan an email informing him of Jim’s sad death last Friday, I fully expected him not to remember the ace reporter who left the paper in 1993 and went into retirement.
But Dominic not only remembered him – he said he had met him on the road when he was an extremely young agency reporter and Jim had often helped him out
In a tribute ,Dominic said : ‘Jim Lewthwaite was one of the Sun’s greatest reporters and helped to build the reputation of the paper in its early days. He will be sadly missed and we send our condolences to his family.’
Bill Greaves writes: But for those of us who came nervously to Fleet Street in the late sixties hotfoot from the Mail Manchester office and the legendary tyranny of news editor Ken Donlan, the presence of new colleagues Jim and brother Gilbert Lewthwaite was particularly reassuring because the nightly departure of Ken to the pub had left the desk in the charge of the long-standing and much loved night news editor Jimmy Lewthwaite Snr.
Gilbert soon departed for the Mail Moscow office but Jim immediately became my mentor and great buddy.
No one knew better than Jim the tales of the reign of fear from which I had just escaped and seemed determined to prove that London was a far happier environment.
Whenever that eccentric news desk duo Jack Crossley and his number two Charlie Wilson, later to become editor of The Times, embarked on a ferocious bollocking, it was always the huge figure of Jim who sprang to my defense with a wide grin and the kind of language that a young Manchester escapee would never dream of uttering.
I am afraid that all too soon I got elevated to the features department but always stayed in touch with my old protector – particularly in the pub.
He was a great no-nonsense reporter and a man of indestructible good humour.
By William Greaves
Drive north out of the picture postcard village of Hutton-le-Hole with its pristine white-painted fencing and gurgling stream, and travel ever northwards and upwards for several miles and if you are lucky enough not to be engulfed in low cloud you eventually see the Lion Inn on the distant skyline.
It’s been there for some 500 years as a travellers’ port in a storm and Gaynor Dent has been its manageress for the last 15 of them – running a staff quite capable of serving 800 meals on a single busy day.
‘We don’t have many locals, of course, but we do get coach parties from as far away as Scarborough, Leeds, Halifax and we have 13 guest bedrooms so the bar is usually pretty busy,’ she says. ‘We have walkers on both the Coast to Coast path and Lyke Wake walk across the North Yorks Moors, we’re very dog friendly and we even have a friendly ghost. His name is Tommy, who was apparently an alcoholic from Middlesbrough who loved his dominoes. He doesn’t bother anyone and I’ve often heard someone saying to a friend “don’t worry, it’s only Tommy” before ordering up another pint.’
And the sign behind the bar again contributes an entertaining addition to the litany of pub humour: ‘Lost Dog – 3-legged – blind in one eye – missing left ear – broken tail – recently castrated – answers to “Lucky”.’ Oh, all right then, but on a dark, windy night any little giggle helps to lift the spirit.
I’ve often passed enchanted hours in John Norris’ huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’ emporium in Penrith on my journey north to Scottish salmon rivers, but never before, as far as I remember, had I taken the road west from Penrith to Ullswater and beyond that ends up climbing into the stratosphere over the wild and rugged Kirkstone Pass. Most certainly, and inexcusably, I had never popped into the Kirkstone Pass Inn at the very summit. And by the time I encountered landlady Beverley Llewellyn she was looking a shadow of her former self. ‘it’s the first time all day we haven’t had a queue five deep at the bar,’ she said – ‘Where have they all come from?’
It was a balmy midweek day deep into October and the crowds at the tables in the garden were mostly in short sleeves, so I invited her to answer her own question. ‘Well we collect the water ourselves from the fell, there’s two diesel generators, Calor Gas, a sceptic tank and we have no TV reception or signal for mobile phones so it can’t be the modern amenities that drags them in,’ she said with a huge grin.
So who were all these punters? ‘We have three double rooms and one triple and we get people who come back year after year for those – for some reason quite a few of them come from Blackpool,’ she said. ‘And the rest are mostly tourists although Daryl Hardy here is our only regular.’
(Oh, and why would that be, Daryl? ‘I only come to see Bev,’ he admitted unblushingly. OK, so that doesn’t count then. The pub has no locals.)
It was Lakeland’s favourite son, William Wordsworth, who described this resting place for the weary as a ‘small public house recently built’ in 1846 but from then until the mid-20th century it was known to one and all as the Travellers’ Rest. And it was only built in the first place because of the number of deaths among storm-stricken walkers at the behest of the larger-than-life foxhunting Parson Sewell of nearby Troutbeck.
Seems the good William Sewell, albeit headmaster of Keswick Grammar School on days he couldn’t find anything to shoot, nonetheless found time to attend to his grebe lands in these parts and famously responded from the pulpit to a parishioner desperate for rain for his crops with the less-than-helpful counsel: ‘No use praying for rain while t’wind’s in this quarter’ whereupon he announced the next hymn. They tend to be a bit like that hereabouts.
While learning shorthand and typing at night school, I took a daytime job at a screen printing mill in Macclesfield. Nothing too demanding – I remember taking rolls of silk, spiking them to and fro on a couple of pins sticking out of the wall a yard apart, counting the folds and writing the total yardage on the end of the cloth. I also collected the tea from the canteen twice a day.
Amazingly, amid this frenzied activity, I retained sufficient energy to take a young girl c-worker in my erratic pre-war MG car up to the Cat and Fiddle pub at the top of the Buxton road for a glass of something or other every lunchtime. Ah, the resilience of youth.
It’s still there, indisputably the second highest pub in Britain and miles from anywhere, serving the needs of the intrepid – just like it did in the days when Charles Rolls and a few cronies used to motor up there on a regular basis in the first decade of the 20th Century with his brainchild, the early Rolls Royce roadster, dragging logs behind it along the tarmac to prove its reliability.
In the seven years he has managed the Cat and Fiddle, only for four days in the winter of 2010-11 was he forced to admit defeat and close the pub. ‘One of my previous licensees actually froze to death here and another employed a staff which included Albert Wilshaw, ostler and groom, so I suppose life is a bit simpler now,’ said current manager, Ben Davenport.
There’s been a pub of sorts on top of Dartmoor for nigh on 900 years but the current Warren House was built as recently as 1845 for the very practical reason that the local tin miners needed somewhere to wet their whistle.
And ever since that day it reopened the fire has burned non-stop in the saloon bar – 165 years without a single firelighter. And never was it more welcome than in the winter of 1963 when snowdrifts 20 feet high cut it off from the outside world for 12 weeks, with essential supplies being flown in by helicopter.
Nowadays landlady Janet Parsons tempts what few locals there are with such delicacies as homemade pork sausages and her famous treacle tart. ‘The tin miners have long gone and now our customers are walkers and car drivers,’ she says. ‘We keep in plenty of food and gas and just pray that the generators keep going.’
Bob Hughes and his wife Bethan have been running the Sportsmen’s Arms under the distant shadow of Snowdon in North Wales for the past 17 years – ‘it’s isolated on the moor, windswept and often pretty frightening, and I don’t suppose many people thought we’d last out this long,’ says Bob, ‘but we’re both from the Denbigh Moors and we knew what we were taking on.’
They have a cottage in the grounds which houses longer-stay residents as well as overnight bed and breakfasters and local farmers bring their families for regular meals. ‘But mostly we relay on visitors from further afield, with one luckless volunteer steering clear of the booze to drive home,’ he says.
At 1,531 feet above sea level, the Wanlockhead Inn, high above Biggar, in Scotland, is unchallenged as the highest pub in Scotland, but unlike its counterparts in England and Wales, it is surrounded by the 350-strong population of the highest village in the country and has only been a pub since early this century.
But some of the pub used to be the kitchen of the Duke of Buccleuch’s hunting lodge, before his grace donated it to the local branch of the Royal British Legion. ‘It was then turned into a pub after the only other pub in the village, the Mountain Lodge, that was actually even higher by a few feet, went out of business,’ says landlord James McKelvey.
And James’ tavern may be a new arrival but the village is no stranger to history. Not only is the 10th Duke the richest and grandest descendant of all Charles II’s illegitimate offspring but the locally mined gold – all 22.8 carats of it – features prominently in the Crown Jewels and the ceremonial mace of the Scottish parliament.
‘We built the new front of the pub but the village of Wanlockhead is mighty proud of its past,’ says James.
As a small child brought up somewhere near the top of the Pennines, I have vivid memories of digging through snow higher than my head to get to the outside loo. The highest pubs in Britain look down on such lowland irritations. They are the last of the great survivors. Long may they keep pulling the pints.
Drinks all round this morning as Arnie Wilson’s memoirs burst into print, just in time for Christmas.
As his book, Big Name Hunting, reveals, Arnie was the master of the unasked question. When you interview Michael Winner about money, are you supposed to ask him about the current state of his bank account? If you meet former Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger should you ask him about his health?
Arnie didn’t. He read the answers in the (other) papers a couple of days later.
It didn’t do his career – if gossip columnists can be said to have anything as serious as a ‘career’ – any harm. He went from strength to strength (or at least from paragraph to paragraph). And now he reveals all in his book.
Current generations of hacks, glued to desks and drinking Evian, aren’t likely to have much opportunity to follow in his footsteps (in Arnie’s case, his ski-tracks, for the bugger had another job as ski correspondent of the Financial Times). But they could learn much from reading it. And those of us who lived through it with him could take pleasure out of reliving some of those great days and magical memories.
We have more such memories this week from Harold Lewis. What they’ll make of it all down Canary Wharf is anybody’s guess. Some of us, the lucky ones, did some of it. Nobody will ever do any of it again. It all revolved around… what was that word? – ‘Expenses’. No questions (or very few) asked. Thing is, though, it worked. It produced stories. It sold papers.
Millions of them. Ah yes… newspaper sales measured in millions… Ask yer granddad.
You could have asked Jimmy Lewthwaite, one of the great operators of our time (whose life was celebrated here last week), how it all worked. Jimmy knew the plot. Gilbert Lewthwaite, his brother and another notable name from the Great Days, has sent a short message of thanks, for the memories. And Bill Lowther has added a note.
Meanwhile, still propping up the bar at the bottom corner, Bill Greaves stands elbow-to elbow with cartoonist Rudge and asks whether anybody knows that the pub called The Polite Vicar was actually named after a former door-stepping hack.
Nope. You couldn’t make it up…
Big Name Hunting
By Arnie Wilson
They don’t call me Scoop Wilson for nothing. In fact, they don’t call me scoop at all. Well, I ask you, who else would get to ski with Arnold Schwarzenegger and fail to discover that he was having open-heart surgery the very next day?
Who else would sit opposite Prince Caroline of Monaco for lunch and not recognise her? Or sit with his back to Ringo Starr all evening at a posh Aspen restaurant without realising he was there? Or knock the Prime Minister’s daughter Carol Thatcher off her skis?
Who else could have enraged Peter O’Toole on the steps of St Paul’s, but still manage to misappropriate a pair of his socks for a charity auction? Or have the phone slammed down on them by Patrick ‘Danger Man’ McGoohan, Laurie Lee, Harold Macmillan and Michael Winner before any interview had even started? And, having finally got to chat to Winner about his millions, find out a day or two later that he was technically £9 million in the red?
Who else would chat to Lord Mountbatten’s daughter without realising who her dad was? Or be dismissed as a ‘rogue’ by our future-king? Or be turfed out of John Arlott’s commentary chair at the Oval? Or bring tears to the eyes of the Carry On film star Charles Hawtrey?
Luckily I have got over these little setbacks in my ‘career’ as a showbiz writer and still managed to make a living out of chatting to celebrities – even though it could well be argued that in spite of spending a considerable number of years as a news reporter and acting night news editor, I didn’t always have a nose for scoops.
And I did have some success, after all – bullying Buzz Aldrin into having breakfast with me for the FT; persuading Clint Eastwood, in Sun Valley, to write a foreword to one of my books; gate-crashing David and Iman Bowie’s lunch; and running out of petrol (genuinely!) with Joanna Lumley in the passenger seat…
Maybe they felt safe with me. Or sorry for me. Perhaps they sensed that I wasn’t the kind of writer to dig for dirt? So not many scoops – but plenty of chat. Hours and hours of chat, some of it quite moving, with the likes of David Lean, Peter Ustinov, Terry Wogan and Eric Morecambe. Most of it on tape. Some of it on film, with Paul McCartney, Reggie Bosanquet, and Charlie Drake. Some interviews verging on the tragic, with Harold Wilson, Spike Milligan, Imogen Hassall and Jack Hawkins.
I chatted to (and sometimes skied with) film stars, rock stars, astronauts, comedians, authors, government ministers, former prime ministers and the odd American president. And that’s how my idea for Big Name Hunting came about – an amalgam of tape recordings of the famous, much of it material that had never seen the light of day.
And yet… I was quite shy as a teenager, and never really thought I’d see the day when I would chat to anyone well known, let alone find that they thought me worth chatting to. But as Terry Wogan told me once: ‘If you’re shy you do amateur dramatics – or do what I’m doing on the radio or television. It’s almost as if you’re making yourself do things against your character.’
I was petrified of appearing on television – so although I hated the sound of my own voice, I got a job as a TV reporter, and during ten years appeared on screen as many as 1,000 times. I was scared of making speeches. So I made scores of them, and, as local TV ‘face’, crowned beauty queens, opened fetes, and even opened a shop (only an OXFAM shop, but still a shop) and a working men’s club in Margate. I became slightly famous in Dover and Deal, I was referred to as ‘Wilson of Deal’ by Nigel Dempster (fame at last!) on TV. I was even asked occasionally for my autograph!
So I tasted very minor celebrity, and understood, in a way, what a doubled-edged monster celebrity can be. I enjoyed it at first – of course, I did. Who wouldn’t? But then it got to the stage that even in the towns where people vaguely knew who I was, I didn’t particularly want to be on parade, particularly on my days off when (with a curious mixture of arrogance and modesty) I walked around looking down at the pavement and avoiding eye contact.
In a very insignificant way it was a case of the biter bit. I was able to empathise a little with what REAL celebrities have to go through. Mind you, as the late ITN newscaster Andrew Gardner once told me, NOT being recognised can eventually be a little deflating. He’d gone to San Francisco and at first he was relieved that no-one knew he was a famous newscaster. After a while though, he started to miss being recognised. So he was quite pleased when a British ex-pat came up to him and said: ‘I recognise you!’ But he wasn’t so happy when the man continued: ‘Welcome to San Francisco, Mr. Honeycombe!’ [Referring, of course, to his fellow ITN newsreader who was also tall and balding.]
So what is this celebrity thing and why, oh why, does everyone crave their five minutes, five hours or even five years of fame? If EVERYONE can be famous, what’s the point of fame? It’s a cliché of course to say that celebrities ain’t who they used to be, but one of the reasons I gave up writing about them as my main source of income was that I no longer really knew who celebrities were any more.
When I’d started, at age 20 or so, they were quite a clearly defined breed (although even then lords, baronets and knights were regarded as interesting in the sense, I suppose that they were, rather like the movie stars of the day, remote and unknowable). And I suppose it was that ‘unknowable’ tag that made them interesting.
The job of a diary or gossip writer was to try to make them knowable. But of course, to state the obvious, as I do in Big Name Hunting,why this cult of celebrity? Who are these people? Are they so different? They quarrel, flirt and cry (real tears, sometimes), they bleed when cut, they have children, and their hair thins and they age just like the rest of us. Yet strangely their fame, when emblazoned in glossy magazines, seems to make them different. And less real. They may seem immortal, and immune to suffering. But of course they’re not.
And how does fame change people? Some become arrogant, vain, selfish, self-obsessed. Others, away from the spotlight, seem extraordinarily normal and modest. In my experience the really famous ones were often the nicest and most congenial because – although there were certainly exceptions – they had nothing to prove.
I found in my travels through Fleet Street and even across the mountains of the world (wearing my other hat as a ski correspondent) that many ‘hard-news’ reporters (and I liked to think that was another of my hats) found that the prospect of writing diary stories either beneath their dignity or beyond their comprehension. But then where does a good diary story end, and a cracking ‘showbiz exclusive’ begin?
Occasionally in every gossip writer’s career path a diary story can turn into a riveting news story. It happened to me, completely out of the blue, when I rang Spike Milligan to commiserate with him after the death of his utterly delightful second wife Paddy (I knew them both well) and to my utter amazement he poured his heart out to me in what the Sunday People later billed as ‘The most moving interview of the year’.
It wasn’t, of course – it wasn’t an interview, I mean. It was a magnificent and tragic soliloquy (a monologue if you want to be pedantic) in which very few questions were asked by me. It remains one of the most poignant half hours of my life. Such is the life of the not-so-humble gossip columnist. I suppose that WAS a scoop, but it was, tragically, handed to me on a plate.
Big Name Hunting – Confessions of a celebrity interviewer by Arnie Wilson is published next week by Revel Barker and is available for pre-order now from BookDepository (with free postage, worldwide), amazon, and Waterstones, in the US from Barnes & Noble, or from any half-decent bookshop.
Who wants to be a millionaire?
By Harold Lewis
While Arcadia has long been my destination of choice, inevitably it has been my luck to fall prey to episodes of spirited bushwhacking along the way and end up, more often than not, in darkest purgatory.
That’s not to say the trip hasn’t been sprinkled with monumentally hilarious, epically rewarding and delightfully lubricious moments and even though many were of the cardiac-arresting kind they are memories that will last the proverbial lifetime.
Indeed, David Wright thinks he and I might just have had the best of the Great Game.
The very best.
And I think he might well be right and that, although it pains me acutely to make this admission, he just breasts me at the finishing line because, after all, he slogged at it longer and undoubtedly with greater zest and deserves the laurel wreaths of the unvanquished marathon runner.
‘Thirty four years!’ I choked when we met at a reunion swill recently and he told me he had retired earlier this year from the National Enquirer.
That publication, like so many more, is a pale shadow of its former self now, poised, if recent press reports are to be believed, to declare bankruptcy soon with debts totalling more than a jaw-dropping billion dollars, the gross national product, probably, of many a small island nation.
But back in the day – before the celebrity content mushroomed to comic proportions and when its stories were not intended solely for desperate housewives and the more ingenuous of the lunatic fringe – it went out of its way to lure the cream of Fleet Street.
Hugh Cudlipp probably topped the list of those who took the bait and a trip through its revolving doors, spending most of his sojourn at the wheel of a hired gin palace breezing up and down the local waterways, but there were also dozens of others who were by-lined heavyweights on major dailies and nationals. They’ll tell a different story now, of course, but the truth is many were out of their depth and didn’t come up to scratch and simply couldn’t make the cut. Funny that.
The rewards for the survivors, though, were mouth-watering: salaries that were three and four times those that were then being paid by major publications in the UK, and the opportunity to live opulently and extravagantly in sunny south Florida.
And in many cases the chance to travel the world in a first-class style to which it was all too easy to become magnetically accustomed.
Although we probably didn’t realise it, the UK’s golden age of tabloid journalism was on life support and rapidly shuddering toward extinction, but by then David and I had already known the best of times on the Daily and Sunday Mirrors. Company cars. Assigned parking spaces. Ten o’clock starting times. Three-hour lunches. Fat pay packets. Liberal expenses. Vintage Fleet Street at its munificent best.
It was hard renouncing it all, but giving it up was what we did, heeding the insidious siren call from across the pond and the tantalizing promise of another golden age of tabloid journalism in America.
What really prompted me to make the move was when I flew over for my obligatory try-out – everyone was subjected to one of these feet-to-the-fire ordeals, the failure rate almost matching the holocaust when it came to singling out who was going to clamber aboard the gravy train – and I was sent on my first assignment to Hawaii. Honolulu for God’s sake!
Some days later, I continued my journey to steamy Singapore. And then took the short hop to Malaysia. Could I, I was next asked, then sort out an urgent, brewing situation in Fiji?
‘And would you mind, old boy, checking out a hot tip in Australia, if you can work it in on your way back,’ was, I think, the final request, although there’s a stamp from Haneda Airport, Japan, in my old passport that still has me scratching my head.
I could have flown all day, I could have flown all night, and still have begged for more …
All this in two weeks. Small wonder I was hooked as securely as a rainbow trout on an Adams Irresistible. In my dozen years on the Sunday Mirror my excursions abroad had been confined to a couple of downbeat budget overnights to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, if you can discount the time I banged on her door to beard the Dame of Sark and another when I staggered in a stupor around Belfast.
(Sandra, my invaluable fact checker and bride of thirty summers, sent to our modest library to substantiate the veracity of the statement, has just assured me … Northern Ireland is incontestably foreign territory.)
Later, with the Enquirer, I went on to undertake so much foreign travel that I was the only senior reporter to be issued with a more-than-coveted green International Air Travel Card (if you had half a mind, you could wreak real havoc with one of those) and at one time I was vying with Henry Kissinger for logging the largest number of miles in a year around the world.
In fact, I hot-footed it so much to foreign parts I was invited to apply for membership of the prestigious and somewhat fusty Circumnavigators’ Club, the refuge of many folk who genuinely are or certainly behave like Boston Brahmins.
For this, it was necessary to convince the selectors that, apart from being a candidate of unblemished character (laugh), I had in my travels passed through every meridian around the world.
‘Can you qualify?’ a snooty club official asked me pompously. ‘Three times over,’ I replied. In London, there’s an earl who heads up the local chapter and with whom I still have a drink from time to time.
The Enquirer sent me on assignments to almost half the countries on earth, sometimes the duration dragging from weeks into months as I hopscotched across countries and continents, the longest odyssey lasting for sixteen weeks. Money was no object and largess was dispensed in spades in far-flung and offbeat outposts around the globe – Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tonga, Sudan, Ethiopia, Senegal, Upper Volta, Chad, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Thailand, The Philippines, Iceland, Nepal, New Zealand, Israel, Guatemala, Iran, Lebanon, Niger, Kenya, Cyprus, Malta and Greece to name but a few. And the list goes on and on.
Everything was at my disposal then, first-class flights, on occasions chartered aircraft, sail, and powerboats, a stunning range of cars, helicopters and bundles of cash. I often withdrew $10,000 advances to supplement my office-issued credit cards (just in case I ran into any unforeseen problems overseas, I argued).
This I kept in a rubber band-secured roll in my front trouser pocket; safer, I thought, than a wallet but to my horror discovered one day on dragging my aching limbs out of a dilapidated taxi somewhere in the remote and hostile high mountains of Kashmir that the one-hundred-dollar notes were missing.
Fortunately I had, automatically, brushed my hands down the front of my pants and, after discovering my loss and before the agitated driver shot off again – he made it abundantly plain that he didn’t want to stick around long in such a wild and inhospitable spot – wrenched open the car door and found the missing roll in the middle of the plastic-covered back seat. It had been squeezed out of my pocket by all the ferocious jostling over the rough and rocky roads on the dramatic and daunting journey from Srinagar.
Often, at nights, I still wake in a cold sweat, recalling how I barely escaped writing memorandums into eternity or, worse, easily losing my life in a region where a handful of dollars placed in the right grimy hands can guarantee that drastic result. And, of course, for far, far less than what I had lost and snatched back from the taxi seat.
There was also the time when I returned from Cairo. ‘As its Egypt, I know damn well what you have on your expenses, even before you hand them over,’ ventured Bruce Camlin, my then articles editor, in his dour Scots fashion.
‘Now what’s that Bruce?’ I asked innocently. – ‘You’ve got hiring a bloody camel, haven’t you.’
‘Bruce,’ I said. ‘You know me better than that. Of course I’ve got a camel down on my expenses, but there’s also the camel-riding lessons…’
Then, warming to the occasion and stealing a page out of the great William Marshall’s playbook – I can still see him now chuckling away dementedly as he sat hunched over his upright in the Daily Mirror newsroom in Manchester, becoming an instantaneous legend in the annals of crafting expenses – I added very seriously: ‘Then, of course, we had to have a tether for the beast.’
Bruce shook his head in resignation. He knew what was coming. He had heard the same tale. ‘I know, I know,’ he sighed. ‘Money for old rope…’
Then there were the hero-grams, strictly in the domain of the often tyrannical owner Gene Pope. These he would send off sparingly, complimenting the gobsmacked recipients on major jobs well done and, in my case, on several occasions, enclosing tangible appreciation in excess of $1,000. Auspiciously, I must have got something really right on one assignment because, apart from the glowing words of praise, there was an enclosure large enough to send me into something akin to hypovolemic shock.
Invited to address a journalism class at Canada’s University of Western Ontario, I happily regaled the students with stories of life in the trenches as it was practiced then by staffers on the Enquirer. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ I told them. ‘Welcome to the world of James Bond journalism… fast cars, fast women, world travel and lavish living.’
Gerry Hunt, I believe, even went so far as acquiring the mandatory Walther PPK 7.65 mm, I told them. Or it might have been a Beretta 418.
In any event, Gerry dragged me out to the boondocks one day and we flushed a party of terrified fishermen out of the water and sent them scuttling off down the road, their fishing tackle dragging in the dust (naturally, they didn’t want anything to do with gun-brandishing hooligans who had shattered their peace and solitude, not to mention ruining their afternoon’s sport) before setting up targets on the river bank.
The afternoon ended with both of us suffering severe powder burns. So much for 007.
One of the pebble-glass-eyed students, who had probably spent his morning immersed in something as engrossing as Essential Law for Journalists or top tips for covering inquests and council meetings, came up to his professor afterward and asked awestruck: ‘Is he for real?’
I wasn’t even familiar with that avant-garde expression then, but I’ll be the first to admit that some of the taller war stories were hard to swallow. Except, unlike a lot of the bizarre celebrity, adventure and other tales that did make the paper, they had the distinction of being totally true. Most of the time.
When in the US, which was not that often, I lived in Palm Beach – then as now playground for the uber-rich, often described as the wealthiest island in the world – and later bought a stunning, brand-new waterfront apartment that took my fancy just across the Intracoastal Waterway.
Inevitably, in the parking lot were a couple of racy sports cars and down in the wilds of Surrey, where I regularly lived in splendour with a friend who owned the sprawling local manor house, I kept an Italian exotic… just so I had something appropriate to run around in when I went back home.
Alternatively, I discovered by chance that Jaguars met the secret office criteria for renting cars overseas – it had something to do with the volume inside the interior – so it was often in an elegant XJ8 that I sped out of Heathrow to catch up with all the local gossip at the Stab. The Florida bean counters couldn’t believe that a car they had on their approved and official list could rent for sums that took their collective breath away.
Ostentatiously squeezed into the kerb across the road, I often had to pinch myself, recalling that only months before I’d been garaging my trusty but worse-for-wear company Ford Escort in the nearby Mirror underground facility.
And it was on these trips that I took to buying my suits in Savile Row.
‘Gieves and Hawkes,’ I told an assistant in the office when she asked on the telephone one day where I was headed that afternoon.
‘Are they well known?’ Janice asked without artifice. – ‘Well, they’re Royal Warrant holders and they made suits for Nelson,’ I reassured her, without mentioning she had told me she had been privileged on a visit to Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum to see the blood-stained pants they cut off him.
As for David, he undertook many similar foreign forays and savoured the same, high profile lifestyle… and for many more years than myself.
And both of us know it was the paper we have to thank for it all.
‘I guess we were blessed,’ he said at the Blue Anchor, a 19th century pub that once stood near Chancery Lane and was dismantled and shipped to Florida by former Enquirer staffer Lee Harrison and Roy Foster, former art editor of the Sunday Mirror. ‘There were the glory days in Fleet Street. And then we had them all over again when we came here. Can’t think of any others that can make that claim. Just you and me.’
A heady piece of oratory, but one not out of keeping with the history of this particular boozer.
According to the literature – and we all know that anything committed to the written page has by definition been imbued with unchallengeable veracity – Winston Churchill used to belly up to the bar in the evenings for his nightly snifter of brandy.
As an afterthought, David lamented: ‘Shame it’s all over now.’
For better or worse, that’s the sorry case. When David and I joined the paper it employed dozens of maverick swashbucklers beavering away in locations around the country and even had select staff men living upscale lives abroad.
Staffers went out in soccer-sized teams on stories, very often each in their own full-size sedans, purring along majestically in cortege-like convoys to their various assignments. No compact cars then. No doubling up then. No sharing rooms. None of that nonsense.
Today, David tells me, there are two reporters in the head office in Boca Raton, eyes glued to the flashing screens in front of them, venturing out of the office only to take a breath of fresh air or a furtive drag on a fag. What a life.
You’ll hear some folks tell a different tale, but for the two of us, it wasn’t just the best of times in the newspaper business.
It was absolutely, staggeringly, unequivocally, uproariously, bloody marvelous.
The pity is we will never see its like again.
Thanks for the memories.
By Gilbert Lewthwaite
On behalf of Jim Lewthwaite’s family, particularly his widow, Pamela, I would like to thank the contributors to Gentlemen Ranters for their memories of my brother.
They afforded a few smiles through the tears. Jim was laid to rest in a simple, rope-handled coffin in a wooded field on a farm, owned by the Essex Wildlife Trust, near his home in Clacton-on-sea. The farm is now a dedicated burial ground, which will become a wood in perpetuity. A cherry tree will be planted over Jim in the spring.
It was, as Jim wanted, a private, family ceremony. In a brief eulogy, I recalled, ‘Jim had three loves in his life, Pamela and their family, his garden and his friends. When all three came together on the back lawn of 93A, with the sun shining, a bottle of wine open, the conversation flowing, and Josh and Ella-Rose (Jim’s grandchildren) running around the garden he tended so fondly, never was there a happier man.
In hospital Jim said he knew every leaf on the trees in his garden, and wanted to be re-acquainted with them. That wish was granted. A bed was moved downstairs to give him a panoramic view of his beloved acre. And so Jim died, surrounded by the people and things he loved most.
But even as we mourn his passing, we should remember that Jim lived life to the full. He loved life… He was a born journalist, the consummate professional, the accomplished all-rounder. He could turn his pen to anything, be it a revolution overseas, a general election at home, a murder trial at the Old Bailey, or a scandale in the City. The goings on of the world, great and small, were Jim’s grist.
And now one more memory of Jim, from Bill Lowther, long-time Washington correspondent of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday: ‘It is true that he went out of his way to help and reassure his colleagues. He bolstered my confidence just before I was going to the Paris bureau. Remember, I was part of the new wave that he had every reason to resent (when the Daily Sketch and David English took over the Daily Mail in 1971). But he didn’t. He knew I was concerned about being able to handle the assignment. We went for a drink in the Golf Club and talked about all kinds of peripheral stuff when he suddenly said: “Don’t worry, you will be able to do this job. Gilbert has been doing foreign for years and if he can handle it anyone can.” And then there was that throaty laugh to show he was joking but at the same time to indicate that I would be fine. It was an act of generosity.’
The pubs name game
By William Greaves
A week or so after I joined the Stockport Advertiser as a trainee and utterly bewildered reporter a plane carrying the entire Manchester United football team, its manager Matt Busby and a number of leading sportswriters crashed on take-off at Munich Airport.
Nearly all the fatalities, including the wonderfully gifted Duncan Edwards, already popularly crowned as the finest footballer in the land, lived in our parish and among those of my colleagues immediately assigned the gruesome task of knocking on the doors of the bereaved families was Ian Gregory, rather older than the rest of us because he came to his new journalistic career with an unusual qualification – a BA degree in theology at Manchester University.
So what has this to do with the great British pub? Bear with me.
As the years rolled by, my former ally rose to become editor of the Solihull News before rediscovering his former vocation and being ordained the Rev Ian Gregory, with a ministry in Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Much more memorably, however, he became so upset by a diminishing standard of common courtesy and the resultant damage such incivility was doing to the fabric of community life that he formed an organisation – local at first but soon receiving national status – which he christened the Polite Society.
With no less a patron-in-chief than the Duke of Devonshire, the Society launched several annual Days of Courtesy – ‘Think of Someone to Thank’ was one notable battle cry – and Ian became a regular interviewee on such mass media outlets as the Today programme on Radio 4.
After 20 years leading his flock – ‘667 sermons, 93 marriages and 140 funerals were about enough for any man’ – he retired in 2002. But not before a disused local insurance office had been bought and turned into a pub and the new brewery owners, discovering the fame of one of its potential regulars, called it The Polite Vicar and invited Ian to pull the first pint.
And that’s where we were when we met up again recently to chew over our absent years. ‘A pint of Greene King for me, please,’ I said to the attractive young lady behind the bar, ‘and the polite vicar will have the same.’ When the story behind this strange request was revealed, the barmaid was so overwhelmed she almost offered us the drinks on the house.
It’s not often that anyone gets the chance to slake their thirst with the very man or woman who features on the pub sign outside and my chest positively heaved with pride. (‘I actually held two christenings over in that corner of the bar,’ revealed Ian. ‘One or two Christian organisations objected but many people who are a bit frightened of going into a church feel much more at home in a pub and if we can reach them there, so much the better, don’t you think?’)
So that’s how one Great British Pub came by its name and we’ve already disclosed the origins of the Cat and Fiddle (Caterine la Fidele, Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII), the Elephant & Castle (Infanta de Castille, Edward I’s missus) and the Goat & Compasses (God Encompasses Us) but how’s about the Drunken Duck, inglorious countryside at Near Sawrey, not far from the banks of Lake Windermere?
I was enjoying a quick pint of Cracker Ale, brewed on the premises and named after the family Jack Russell terrier, when owner Steph Barton told me the delightful story. Seems that way back in Victorian times the then landlady came across her ducks stretched out in the roads and, although saddened by their demise, set about plucking them in readiness for the oven. She had almost finished her task when one of them gave a pronounced wriggle of protestation.
‘A barrel had apparently slipped its hoops, allowing beer to drain on to the floor and then into the ducks’ feeding ditch,’ said Steph. ‘So her beloved birds were not dead at all but merely sleeping off the night before. Filled with remorse, she knitted waistcoats of Hawkshead yarn to keep them warm until their feathers were grown again.’ Gorgeous.
Climb out of Haworth, home of all those Brontes, and after a mile or two you come to a pub on a lonely crossroads near the village of Stanbury – just as the hotly pursued Bonnie Prince Charlie did way back in the mid-eighteenth century. The Young Pretender stayed hidden there for a few weeks, relying on the tight-lipped locals to keep his whereabouts secret – albeit additionally persuaded by the threat of having their tongues cut out if they breathed a word.
Which is why the pub nowadays bears the unlikely name of the Old Silent Inn.
(When he was finally betrayed, Charlie rode out into the sunset, leaving a band of comrades to watch his back. A fierce battle ensued and one of his loyalists was killed. And you are quite likely to come across him today hanging around the bar, dressed in a long dark coat.)
And the pub is further immortalised by a best-selling detective thriller by American crime writer Martha Grimes – ‘the Dorothy Sayers of the 1980s’ according to the New York Times – entitled The Old Silent and featuring superintendent Richard Jury, who just happened to be staying in the inn when someone got bumped off.
‘I wouldn’t trust any of the regulars nowadays to stay silent for any length of time about anything as juicy as that,’ said landlord Paul Stapleton. ‘But they are a very well behaved bunch and very supportive of their local.’
It was snowing a blizzard when I slithered to a halt in the car park of the Busby Stoop Inn, a few miles outside Thirsk, in North Yorkshire, adding an even more sinister atmosphere to the grim events of 1702 which gave the pub its name.
After bumping off his father-in-law, a local chap called Tom Busby was hanged on the gallows that in those days stood just across the road from the inn and his ghost has been a frequent visitor to the inn ever since, with head drooping and the noose still around his head.
‘A former landlord used to keep a stool free for him at the bar,’ says current licensee Chris Rowley, ‘but when he left he donated it to Thirsk Museum.’
And all you have to do when you get to the bar counter at the Shroppie Fly, on the banks of the Shropshire Union Canal at Audlem, is to look around you to begin to understand the origin of that most curious of pub names.
‘Fly’ boats were the high-speed barges that used to ply the waterway, delivering the most important or perishable goods. Look at the bar and you realise it is made up of the colorfully painted bow and part of the oaken main body of the Shroppie Fly, a fine example of one of the elite craft once built hereabouts.
‘Although we are very much a local pub, we get a huge number of boaties, many of whom come back year after year,’ says landlady Kate Griffiths. ‘Some of them even return to us by car to join in our Saturday night live music and the folk sessions we have every Monday.’
Nathaniel Bentley, an ironmonger in Leadenhall Street, in the City of London, was so distraught when his bride-to-be died on the eve of the great day that he locked up the room in which the wedding feat was to be held, never to enter it again. Emotionally destroyed, he never washed or changed clothes again and even allowed his cats to rot away wherever they breathed their last.
Everyone loves an eccentric, of course, and Nathaniel’s business prospered, despite the pronounced pong of its surroundings. And when he finally retired in 1804, the landlord of the nearby Old Port Wine Shop in Bishopsgate, bought the room’s contents lock, stock and barrel – including the odd decomposed cat – and put them on display in his pub, promptly renaming it Dirty Dick’s.
Less well known, however, is the tale of how its metropolitan neighbour, the Widow’s Son, in Bow, East London, came to be. A widow’s seafaring son was due back to his cottage home on Good Friday, 1824, and sent word that what he hungered for most of all were hot-cross buns to celebrate his return.
Sadly he never made it home but his mourning mum never let a Good Friday go by without baking another bun which she added to the string hanging from a ceiling beam. In 1848 the cottage became a pub and successive landlords have ever since invited a Royal Navy sailor to add another bun to the ever hardening collection.
Charles I seldom passed a pub without popping in for a quickie and when he stopped to have his horse shod and discovered that Godmanstone in Dorset – horror of horrors – contained not one single pub he promptly granted a licence to the blacksmith so that he could provide him with the necessary refreshment. Not surprisingly, the Smith’s Arms is today a leading contender for the title of smallest inn in Britain – so small that, when I visited, I was amused that they had to paint the name on an adjacent building.
His adversary, Oliver Cromwell, although born in his grandfather’s boozer, the wonderfully historic George in Huntingdon (of which more later), was a bit of a puritan in his drinking habits and not nearly as beneficial to the licensed trade. But when he stopped over at Newbridge, just west of Oxford, for a night’s kip during the Civil War, he did choose an inn in which to lay his head.
While checking in, he noticed that the rose he wore on his tunic was decidedly wilted. The landlord enterprisingly summoned a pint of ale, into which he thrust the drooping flower, whereupon its petals sprang to life – hence The Rose Revived.
(Assistant manager, Vicky Leney, came up with two other theories when I called by. One, it was once called The Rose, had its name changed to The Crown and a later landlord chose to revert to its former name by calling it the Rose Revived. And two, when it was badly damaged by floods in the early 20th Century, all that survived when it was rebuilt was a single rose bush. It’s up to you, of course, but I know which version I prefer.)
And all those Swan with Two Necks up and down the land were never, in reality, such unlikely versions of Shakespeare’s beloved feathered residents of the River Avon.
In Britain, swans have traditionally belonged to the reigning monarch but back in the 16th Century, Elizabeth I granted ownership of some to the Worshipful Company of Vintners. In order to identify those which had passed out of regal command into the licensed trade, they were marked with two notches, or nicks, on their beak.
By pub standards, the leap from nick to the neck over the years was little more than a hop.
There seems little point in publishing on either Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, so we’re taking a break – © John Dale – from now until the first Friday in January. If you’ll need a reminder when we return, please check the box on the right.
And we’ll take this opportunity to wish all our readers (the site has had 3.12million visitors this year) – and especially all our contributors – the compliments of the season.
During the closure, we can still receive copy.
And we’ve a piece from Paul Bannister that’s a bit of a rant – and, even, an extract from his still-unfinished book – about working with Harold Lewis, who resurfaced from retirement on this page last week.
And, down there in the magazine with Bill is the weekly offering from the art department – the Rudge cartoon.
If you get withdrawal pains over the holidays, there’s always the Archive (in the column on the left) to flick through before it’s removed with the Christmas decorations. Not to mention the Books Pages (which of course we never mention, except to say that you can find plenty of good reading material there for the hols).
If you want something else that’s traditional at this time of the year, like an overview of the industry (a sort of review of the past year or so) there’s a very interesting (and very long) feature in the London Review of Books, spotted by Harold Heys. It may be stuff you know, or think you know, but it’s worth a read.
Have a merry one. – Ed.
By the editor
Every journalist, so they tell, has got a book in him.
Mike Molloy (I know we’ve quoted him before) once said he reckoned that every journalist on his staff had written either the first five chapters of the Great Work, or the first chapter of five Great Works.
So where’s yours?
The competition is simplicity itself: produce a synopsis of the book you have always been promising yourself you’d write, when you had the time.
The prize – subject to obvious conditions such as (a) the book gets finished and (b) it fulfills the promise of the synopsis – oh, and (c) it’s a book – will be a publishing contract. How about that? You don’t need to search for either a publisher or an agent. You deal directly with the organ-grinder.
What sort of book is up to you. It could be your memoirs, like Forgive Us Our Press Passes, by Ian Skidmore, or Man Bites Talking Dog, by Colin Dunne, The Street of Disillusion by Harry Procter, or From Bevan to Blair (Fifty years reporting from the political front line) by Geoffrey Goodman.
It could be the story behind the story, or the tale of a good old fashioned newspaper caper, like Slip-Up (How Fleet Street Found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard lost him), or Joyce McKinney and the Case of The Manacled Mormon, both by Anthony Delano.
It might be a biography of somebody you’ve met (as in ‘You’re a journalist? You must meet a lot of interesting people’), like The Sawdust Millionaire by Jodi Cudlipp or The Moon At The Bottom of the Well by Justin Stares.
Even a novel – perhaps even fairly loosely based on real-life experiences – such as Geoffrey Seed’s A Place of Strangers, Murray Sayle’s A Crooked Sixpence or The Upper Pleasure Garden by Gordon Williams…
It could be about newspapers and history, like Ladies of the Street by Liz Hodgkinson, From Grub Street to Fleet Street by Bob Clarke, Publish and be Damned! by Hugh Cudlipp, or Crying All The Way To The Bank (Liberace v Cassandra and the Daily Mirror) by Revel Barker.
But, so long as it appeals to the publisher (whose decision, as in all matters, needs to be final) your Great Work doesn’t need to be about journalism at all. Feel free to share with us your obsession, like Maggie Hall’s Mish-Mash Dictionary of Marmite, Keith Waterhouse’s The Theory And Practice of Lunch, or simply My Wine Cellar, by Patrick Buttigieg.
Or, if you’ve got something to say to upcoming – and even current – generations of newspaper practitioners, it could even be something along the lines of Waterhouse On Newspaper Style.
Don’t tell me there’s nothing similar, in that list, that you haven’t started, or at least thought about, writing.
So there you go. Knock out the synopsis, no more than a page or two. If it looks like a goer, the next thing you’ll be asked for will be the opening chapter…
Better still, you’ve got the entire holiday period to work on it.
BUT… here’s a secondary thought.
If you don’t actually have the staying power to compose more than a thousand or two words at a time, just send us that chapter you wrote of the book you couldn’t finish – every journalist has one of those – and maybe it’ll make a piece for Ranters.
Better still, perhaps, make it your new year’s resolution to start writing stuff for this site, for your mates.
Exes of the gods
By Paul Bannister
I read my friend Harry Lewis’ entertaining account in Ranters of life in the fast lane of Enquirer expense accounts [last week] and found myself nodding at that Western Ontario University student’s question: ‘Is this guy for real?’
As a fellow traveller on the same Enquirer editorial team, I can vouch that he was a Big Spender. From the minute he walked in the joint, Harry was an Olympic-class user of corporate credit cards. Keen observers of the human condition will note, however, that nowhere in Harry’s account is there mention of him Actually Writing A Story.
His tale of a fat roll of readies falling to the floor of a Kashmir taxi is likely true. He certainly was in Srinagar, and I wasn’t, damn it. Here’s the backstory of how he found himself there, extracted from my upcoming epic tome, Tabloid Man…
From my next assignment in France, it was an easy trip into Switzerland to meet the world’s leading expert on ancient astronauts. Erich von Daniken, ex-con evangelist for the theory of long-ago visitors from space and author of Chariots of the Gods, had invited me to his home in Zurich, where he terrified me and the local citizenry by race-driving the streets in a Chevrolet station wagon only slightly smaller than a nuclear submarine.
He told me tales of tracking ancient astronauts, and focused on one area in particular. He’d followed the Hindu legends of star visitors 3,000 years ago to a ruined temple in Srinagar, Kashmir. There, he and his assistant Willie Dunenberger claimed to have detected faint traces of radiation that led in a 52-metre straight line from the temple door to the altar. This, Erich extrapolated, meant that the site was once a repair shop for starships – the radiation traces were left as they drove in and out, and the locals had later built the temple in hopes like those of New Guinea’s Cargo Cults, of attracting their celestial visitors back again.
It all seemed very reasonable to me, if I could get a trip to India out of it, but fellow reporter Harry Lewis, whose white suit and wintertime tan, displayed in gloomy Manchester, had lured me into this situation in the first place, was on his way home from Hong Kong or somewhere.
Harry was instructed to stop off in India, take a hired academic along to the temple and independently verify matters.
I knew what would happen, and it did.
The Most Inventive Man in the Office didn’t want to have to write anything, so he simply neglected to find the radiation with the Geiger counter the academic brought along. As I watched my entertaining if unscientific story collapse, I pleaded with the editors. ‘Just let me add one word to the story. If I say it’s an intermittent line of radiation, everything else stands up!’
They weren’t convinced, and the story ended on the spike. Back home in Lantana, sleek and glossy on expenses, Harry showed us pictures he’d taken in Macau on another story, and I sulked.
‘I suppose you got that one?’ I snarled. ‘No, old boy, killed it, too,’ Harry smiled. He’d been halfway around the world without writing a word.
Note: Uncle Harry will be writing about A Story (or two) in the next edition of Ranters. – Ed.
By William Greaves
Until two or three years ago, the warm and welcoming Anchor Hotel and its low-beamed 17th-century neighbour, the Ship Inn, on the seafront at Porlock Weir in North Devon, were united under the same management and I well remember the evening I turned up to beg a room for the night.
‘We only have the one room left, sir,’ replied the landlord rather mysteriously. ‘That’s fine,’ said I, ‘because one room is all I need.’ The formalities completed, newspapers ordered for the next morning and a wake-up call arranged for 8am, I settled down to a well-earned pint in the bar and the book I needed to read.
(I was researching a magazine piece on the bits of Britain where fiction had become fact as far as legions of tourists were concerned and after arduous journeying around the land had arrived at the Exmoor homeland of Lorna Doone, where even the Ordnance Survey map clearly showed the whereabouts of Doone Valley.)
Several pints later, I tottered upstairs and was soon in the land of nod.
Which is still where I was when the door opened and a lady bearing a tray of tea came smiling towards me. Good lord, was it that time already? No glimmer of light edged the windows and I strained to read the time on my watch. And when I looked up my tea deliverer had vanished.
It had all been a dream and I returned thankfully to my slumbers.
That night, back in the bar, the landlord enquired after my night’s sleep. ‘Slept like a log,’ I assured him. ‘Glad to hear it,’ he replied, with evident relief. ‘I’m afraid we have a lady ghost who sometimes comes into that room with a tray of tea.’
‘But, oh my God, she did!’ I exclaimed. ‘I thought I was dreaming.’
‘Sorry about that, sir,’ said my host. ‘I’m told that if you watched closely, you would have seen the doorknob turn in the direction it doesn’t turn in for anyone else but her. We’ve no idea who she is but you’ll be all right tonight because she’s never been known to turn up two mornings on the trot.’
Thirty-odd years go by and, in the course of researching this humble celebration of the British Pub at the behest of the Lord of the Ranters, I checked in at the Speech House inn in the heart of the wonderful Forest of Dean, between Gloucester and the Welsh border, to investigate its pivotal role in the unfolding of English history – of which more anon.
Next morning I found myself chatting to the hostelry’s new and charismatic owner, Peter Hands, and told him how I proposed to devote one installment of my epic to the haunted pubs that maintained a spiritual link with their own individual history.
‘Well, we’re haunted as well, you know,’ said Peter, a tad uncertainly – ‘or so my wife and daughter tell me. On separate occasions recently they both stayed in the same room and first my wife heard strange tapping which seemed to come from right alongside her bed and before she could finish her account my daughter chipped in and said that, yes, she heard exactly the same and it was in the early hours before any of the staff would have been around in the corridor.’
‘So they would have been in Room 8,’ said I.
‘How do you know?’
‘Because I was in Room 8 last night,’ I explained, manfully trying not to display the chill which had suddenly enveloped me. ‘And I got up to have a pee and when I got back into bed I suddenly sat up because someone was in the room with me. I could swear I heard a tap, tap on the floor or wall. But then everything went still and I thought I imagined it.’
‘What time would that be?’
‘Five o’clock – I looked at my watch.’
‘Yes, my wife and daughter both said it was about five.’
Was I, I wondered, going bonkers? ‘Oh, I’m the ultimate cynic,’ agreed the sympathetic Peter – ‘or, at least, I was. But before buying this place, we used to own The Bell at Tewksbury. There was a penthouse room there and so many people said they heard the disembodied voices in there which, from snatches of their words, seemed to belong to about twenty “lost souls” who had come through the Wars of the Roses and for some reason were dragged out to the mill in the grounds and hung, drawn and quartered that in the end, I asked the local vicar to come and put them to rest. After his visit, no one heard them again.’
The incomparable Noel Coward sang of the stately homes of England and how, albeit ‘rather in the lurch,’ they nonetheless ‘provide a lot of chances for psychical research.’
There’s the ghost of a crazy younger son
Who murdered, in thirteen fifty-one,
An extremely rowdy nun
Who resented it.
And people who come to call
Meet her in the hall.
The baby in the guest wing,
Who crouches by the grate,
Was walled up in the west wing
In fourteen twenty-eight.
If anyone spots the Queen of Scots
In a hand-embroidered shroud
We’re proud of the Stately Homes of England.
Brilliant stuff but with all due and sincere respects to the Master (whom I once interviewed in Manchester and who called me ‘dear boy’ throughout – I loved it), if he were alive today he would certainly encounter more disembodied spirits in the historic pubs and inns of Britain than he would in the nation’s stately homes.
And if he really yearned to exchange a few home truths with Mary Queen of Scots he would be better advised to pop in one evening to The Talbot in Oundle, Northamptonshire, than seek an invitation from any of our hereditary nobles.
As well as staking a viable claim to being on the longest continuous site of any pub or inn in Britain – The Tabret was opened as a hostel in 638 AD and was completely rebuilt on exactly the same spot nearly a thousand years later to be renamed the Talbot – it is also the home of one of the most remarkable ghost stories of them all.
Ten years after it was rebuilt, the staircase from nearby Fotheringhay Castle was removed and reinstalled in the Talbot and to this day takes residents from near the bar to the second-floor bedrooms.
What many of those residents do not know when they ascend those ancient stairs is that the mysterious outline of a crown on the polished wood of the balustrade is believed by historians to be the imprint of the ring worn by Queen Mary as she gripped it for support while being escorted down that same staircase on the way to being beheaded at the command of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, in February, 1587. And a small wooden gate still to be found on the staircase marked the limit of her freedom while under house arrest at Fotheringhay.
Which doubtless explains the frequent sightings of Mary standing serenely at the head of the staircase and within a neighbouring room alongside more than 400 years later. With such reliability does she make her reappearance, apparently, that Beth Fretwell, the inn’s general manager, holds ‘fright nights’ three times a month, to enable various groups to say how d’you do to her luckless majesty.
(By way of macabre coincidence, the executioner who was given the job of beheading Mary lodged at the Talbot the night before and ‘partook of pigeon pie, drank a quart of best ale and made a merry discourse with the serving girl ’til the early hours of the morning.’ Fortunately for the inn’s harmonious spiritual relations he does not today choose to revisit the location of his brief but memorable stay.)
But if you are perceptive to sharing a moment or two with the disembodied, you’ll be positively crowded out in the gruesomely named Bucket of Blood pub in the village of Phillack, alongside the once-powerful port of Hayle on the North Cornwall coast. (A couple of hundred years ago, the then landlord went to draw water from the well but instead was confronted by a bucket of blood. A headless corpse had been thrown down the well but who and by whom has never been discovered.)
Hearing tales of weird encounters, including the appearance of a ghostly bishop, banging doors on calm days, moving furniture and creaking floorboards, a band of switched-on enthusiasts called the Paranormal Research Organisation recently asked if they could spend the best part of the night locked away in the low-beamed pub.
Over a pint of ale, I read its report with growing wonderment. ‘Our psychical team had no prior knowledge yet came up with the following presences,’ it began.
And get a load of this. The ‘presences’, in no particular order, included a man murdered in the cellar, a previous landlord who repeatedly walked across the road, a young man in the kitchen, an old woman in the bar, a cat and dog lurking in the garage, two nine-year-old girls smelling of rabbits in the bar and a one-eyed man called Jack sitting by the bar counter.
Landlord Richard Shackleton was able immediately to pour light on the identity of the last of the visitors. ‘That would have been the man with one eye who used to drink in here every night until he died,’ he told the investigators. ‘He used to sit on the very seat where your chap encountered him.’
Elsewhere in the land by no means all the spirits have optics sitting beneath them.
Although the current manager of The Birdcage in Thame, Oxfordshire, has been undisturbed these last 18 months, she has to assume that her ghostly residents are merely having an elongated nap. Because former landlady, Pat Neville, had no doubt that a top bedroom was still haunted by one of the town’s lepers who were once incarcerated there.
After several guests announced they were too frightened by the knockings and other sounds they heard during what should have been the quiet hours of night ever to want to stay in the building again and even her own family were beginning to get the collywobbles, she decided enough was enough.
‘I felt a real Charlie speaking out aloud in an empty room,’ she said, ‘but I felt I had to do it. I said “You are beginning to frighten my children. I don’t mind you being here, as long as you don’t hurt anybody…” Strangely enough, the knocking seemed to stop for a while after that.’
The Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland, Northumberland, was once the home of General Tom Forster, who led the ill-fated Jacobite Rebellion in 1715, and guests are still surprised when the ghost of his sister Dorothy confronts them with a polite request to take a message to her brother.
Although she didn’t make an appearance after the night I stayed there, the young lady who was jilted at the altar and died heartbrokenly is still regularly to be seen waiting for her wedding breakfast at the charming Castle Inn in Castleton, Derbyshire, and regulars sitting along with the padded wall seats of the low-beamed White Hart in Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire, are always glad to welcome nineteenth-century former landlord Donald Ross whenever he chooses to pay them a return visit.
They can’t actually see him, but they can hear the melodious sounds of the fiddle with which he used to entertain his regulars in distant days of yore.
There’s always a friendly reception at the fireside of the traditional British Pub – even if you happen to have been dead for a few hundred years.