Brian Hitchen and his wife Nelli were both killedafter being hit by a car while walking along the pavement in Altea, Spain, onDecember 1. Nelli died instantly, Brian the following day.
A former DailyMirror reporter, Brian became editor of the Star (1987-94) and of theSunday Express (1994-96).
In his twenties Brian Hitchen had animpressive and colourful range of contacts (not to be confused with what themodern generation refers to as ‘sources’ when they are describing pressofficers).
And on a quiet day, as a Mirror reporter, he would be allowedtime for ‘visiting contacts’ (nobody would query the exes).
Sometimes, if he knew I had the day off, hewould take me along. It was an eye-opener.
He introduced me to crooks, thugs,gangsters, members of the Sweeny and to tarts (the type we have heard about,with hearts of gold). And towards the end of an afternoon he would ask whetherI wanted tea, or a G&T, and we would drive off in his Sunbeam Alpine toMayfair or Knightsbridge to take refreshment with ladies of the night (andmaybe also of the day) who would do no more than put the kettle on or open abottle and tell Hitch what was happening in the big city.
For me, aged 20 and about to graduate to Fleet Street and join him on the Daily Mirror, the entertainment was nomore than watching the pretty ladies in half-open housecoats and little else simply moving about in their tastefully decorated apartments. For Hitch, it was‘seeing contacts’.
Nothing ever happened that couldn’t bereported back to Nelli.
In the central glove box of the Alpine hekept a shiny commando dagger. ‘Just in case,’ he said. He knew how to use it, hesaid; he had been in the Parachute Regiment.
Good God, I thought, more than once. Thisis what I joined for… the excitement I craved for as a kid reporter.
When he was working on Rachmanism the Mirror provided him with a minder called(I think) Freddie The White Eagle Of Poland, who had been banned as a wrestlerfor biting off the ear of an opponent. One night in the Establishment Club (itmay have been the Ad Lib) the singer Alma Cogan took exception to something Freddiehad said and, having found a cricket bat in the manager’s office (don’t ask),hit Freddie so hard it broke the spine of the bat. Freddie just stroked hishead and asked what he could possibly have done to upset her.
Trust me: it was a different world, in thosedays.
He came back from the India-Pakistan Warcarrying his Olivetti Lettera 22 and showed me the candle stub still stuck tothe casing. A trickle of blood ran through the wax and into the typewriter keys.
He explained that he had used it in thetrenches, often at night, to type his accounts from the front line.
And the blood…? He beamed: ‘War wound…cut my thumb opening a can of Coke.’
That was 1965. And in the half-century thathas followed we have stayed in touch. I never met anybody who mentored andencouraged young reporters in the way that Hitch did. Even when he left the Mirror for the Express and we became rivals he would take the time to send acongratulatory note on a story I had ‘got away with’.
He only once expressed anger with me. When Ihad stolen a story from under the nose of an Express man the guy explained it by claiming that he had beenwhacked by a ‘Mirror Heavy’. I hadbeen the only other person present and Hitch didn’t approve of that sort ofbehaviour.
I told him it was the nicest thing he hadever said to me – to imagine me as a MirrorHeavy. Our heavies, in those days, were Ed Laxton (known for some reason as TheTank) and Tom Merrin (who looked like a cross between the Kray twins, out ofHenry Cooper). I was gangly and probably 12-stone, soaking wet.
‘I’ll just say this,’ said Hitch. ‘I’llhave the bugger in the office tomorrow and if he doesn’t arrive with a blackeye he will certainly leave with one.’
Here is former Mirror managing editor Tony Delano, in Slip-Up (How Fleet Street found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard losthim):
If the Daily Express is one ofFleet Street’s archetypal products, then Hitchen is another, and it is a mildwonder that they took so long to find each other. He had spent most of hiscareer as a high-voltage by-line on the Daily Mirror, the tabloidbestseller among the nationals, putting in a stint in its New York bureau wherehe met [Brian] Vine, then the Express bureau chief there.
When both returned to London, Vinerecruited him away from the deputy’s chair on the Mirror newsdesk, andhe came home in spirit to the huge jammed dilapidated Big Room of the Express,where the cast may not be what it was and the scenery needs repainting, butthey still put on a stirring performance of TheFront Page every night except Saturdays.
Hitchen had been a newspaperman sincehe was fifteen and at thirty-six could hardly be taken for anything elseexcept, perhaps, because of his pink and white north-of-England skin and atonsured semicircle of invincible hair, a recently defected, rather depravedfriar. But that would necessitate ignoring the broken nose from his time in theParachute Regiment and the overspill at his belt that commemorates years ofdedicated expense account encounters in the pursuit of professional wisdom.
Hitchen knew the reporter’s arts asthe friar would know his rosary. He knew who to call, when and where to callthem and how to get them to say what he wanted to hear. He could talk into atelephone without being overheard by someone sitting three feet away and hold aconversation at a bar without having his lips read.
He never forgot a name or a face andnever threw away a telephone number. He always knew where a drink could be had,if necessary, in a place where no one knew what he did, or where they thoughthe was someone else – harmless misrepresentation being among the approvedskills of the calling.
He had bartered with the nation’sadministrators and custodians and, on occasion, bribed them. His encounterswith ordinary people had left them sometimes saddened, sometimes joyful orrelieved, sometimes in terrible trouble. He had known long nights and colddoorsteps, and a lot of foul and makeshift food in his day. He was decent nowand a good mentor to those he sent out to endure them in their turn…
When the Mirror sent him to New York, he needed to start an entirely new contacts book and it surprised none of his friends that most of the new surnames in it ended in vowels. It meant that he knew (or could find out) what was going on and, perhaps more to the point, that Nelli and their newly born son Alex were ‘safe’ in a new and foreign environment.
He came home to join the news desk before being enticed to the Express and stayed with the group long enough to add Mohammed Al-Fayed, Jimmy Goldsmith and Margaret Thatcher to his close contacts. He also managed, as editor, to change the daily Star from near-porn to something remotely close to news.
When he retired he took his contacts with him and created something called Brian Hitchen Communications. The names in the book were all glad to have him on call, as he had had them.
In more recent years, in our emailGovernment-In-Exile, Hitch was prime minister: no contest. England would havebeen rich because there would have been none of this nonsense about overseasaid or dodgy social benefits.
His right-wing views pervaded his editorshipof the Star and of the Sunday Express, and yet his manysocialist friends were unable to take offence because throughout it all therewas a wonderfully underlying sense of humour and mischief.
It was all a great game to him, and he wasone of the great players.
People talk about reporters and eveneditors who were loved, and people who were ‘legends’.
It is usually bollocks.
Hitch, bless him, was the exception thatproves the rule. And Nelli (real name Ellen), bless her, was the sort of wife that everyjournalist ought to have had.