No such thing…
By Michael Gallemore
Whoever coined the phrase, ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ couldn’t have worked in national newspapers.
I remember when we lowly chapel officials invited Percy Roberts out for a long lunch in Manchester to celebrate his retirement as chairman. We certainly pushed the boat out on his behalf as we swapped sordid tales of negotiating skulduggery with Percy and his management colleagues.
At the end of the festivities Percy made a heartfelt thank you speech which ended with: ‘I’ve never questioned your generosity or integrity but I’m sure the cost of this binge will appear somewhere on your exes over the next couple of weeks and I’ll end up paying for my own farewell.’
To which, fairly predictably, somebody (Louis Yaffa, I think) retorted: ‘It’ll be there but I bet you can’t find it.’
When I was talking about Harry Conroy with an old friend recently we had a laugh about another notable ‘free lunch’ back in the seventies. But this one went horribly wrong.
It was at an NUJ ADM at Ilkley in Yorkshire. Most ADMs, as far as I could see, was little more than an excuse for a piss-up. Harry was one of only two or three people who took them seriously and he was in good form at Ilkley.
There was a restaurant in town called the Box Tree, which had just found fame by being awarded a rare second Michelin star. One of the guys from the Glasgow branch who worked on the Record came up with a great idea: On behalf of all the Mirror Group NUJ delegates, he would invite the Mirror management team who were attending the ADM to dinner at the Box Tree. He reckoned that he’d got the nod from Hugh Curry, the editorial manager at the Record and Mail in Glasgow, that the MGN management would pick up the tab.
Our Glasgow brother put the word around that it was freebies at the Box Tree from 8.0pm until fall-over time. Around 20 of us from London, Manchester, and Glasgow, nicely suited and booted, duly assembled at the bar. We immediately launched ourselves at the most expensive of whatever was going, as was the form in such cases.
Tony Boram, Hugh Curry, Peter Moorhead and I think Duncan Lamont represented the management and the evening developed into a really good do. Naturally, we all went for the most exotic and expensive items on the menu, except for Keith Meadows, who had his usual waiter dispute when he ordered double egg and chips. I’ve dined with Keith at some of the best restaurants in Britain over the years and I’ve seldom seen him order anything that a five-year-old wouldn’t eat.
Double egg and chips for Keith is quite adventurous for him. When the waiter explained that they didn’t have that dish on the menu, Keith protested, ‘Call yourself a Michelin two-star restaurant and you can’t cook double egg and chips?’
Eventually, Keith got his dinner and demolished it in a matter of seconds, while the rest of us were still working our way through the second of four or five courses, quaffing merrily away at the dearest wines they had. (Keith was on the wagon at the time for health reasons.)
At the end of the evening a smiling Hugh Curry tapped his glass with a spoon, stood up, and said something like: ‘The great thing about Mirror Group is that we can have the most ferocious disputes and negotiations but, underneath, we remain good friends. The fact that you have collectively invited the four of us here to this wonderful dinner is an excellent example of that overall friendship and goodwill, and, on behalf of the management I’d like to say thank you.’
You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. All eyes turned to our brother from Glasgow, who got up out of his seat and headed for the bar, quickly followed by the rest of us.
A heated discussion followed while the brother totted up the bill. With an apologetic but straight face, he said: ‘OK lads, sorry that didn’t work. I make that around forty-seven quid apiece – but I’ll get them to break it up into individual bills for your exes.’ Which the Box Tree refused to do.
Suddenly, an angry voice shouted out: ‘Forty-seven quid for double egg and chips? – It’s a disgrace!’