Issue # 144 – What’s it about

What’s it about?

By Revel Barker

Fifty years ago Malcolm Barker (no relation) was the best writer on the Yorkshire Evening Post and in the intervening years, I haven’t encountered many who were anywhere near as good. When, as a teenager in the reporters’ room in Albion Street in Leeds I was stuck for an intro, I automatically turned to him for help.

‘What’s it about?’ he asked.

I told him.

‘That’s what you write,’ he said.

So a few years later, in the Daily Mirror district office in Newcastle upon Tyne, when Rupert Morters said he was struggling for an intro, I asked him what it was about.

‘That’s what you write,’ I said when he told me.

Although Rupert was a brilliant reporter who could – and did – find a story in the re-print of a telephone directory, he wasn’t that good at writing the page leads he turned up every day.

So he asked me: ‘But which bit is the intro?’

There were four possibilities – rare, even in a Daily Mirror story.

I told him which I thought was the best way in.

Rupert pondered for a while, then said: ‘Fuck it. I’ll use them all.’

And he strung together (‘crafted’ would not be the word for it) an intro that said something had happened BUT then something else happened, HOWEVER, something changed it all AND THEN something else occurred that altered everything again.

Bill Freeman, the news editor, was soon on the phone.

‘You need to rewrite the intro,’ he said.

‘But I’ve just written exactly what happened,’ countered Rupe.

‘You’ve got 120 words in your first sentence,’ said Bill. ‘Take another go at it.’

‘That’s why we employ fucking subs,’ explained Rupert, slamming down the phone and heading to the pub.

I don’t remember many of my own intros (I was rather pleased with describing a man appointed keeper of the Queen’s pigeons as ‘the last person who’d object to being called bird-brained’). And I still cringe when I recall reporting a bakers’ syndicate that scooped the jackpot on Littlewood’s pools as finding itself ‘in the dough’. Perhaps the others weren’t especially memorable, but I can recall several other people’s.

Stan Blenkinsop (Daily Express), on a failed planning application: A city’s library has been brought to book because one of its stories was too tall.

Laurie Taylor (Daily Sketch), on a poor reception for boxer Joe Louis, attempting a cabaret act: The Brown Bomber took a box-office nosedive last night.

Alf Gibbon (Daily Mirror) describing a part-time inventor who found inspiration while working in a signal box as ‘the railwayman who had ideas above his station’…

Even one by Mike Cable (Daily Mail) that didn’t make it into print: Blyth is a tiny seaport on the north-east coast where even the seagulls are known by name.

Every intro Vince Mulchrone (Daily Mail) wrote was a gem as the book, The Best of Vincent Mulchrone, clearly shows. Yet I remember this one:

I do believe I am about to write what may be the most beautiful sentence in the English language.

About 12 pars later the sentence – ‘the five happiest words I’ve written’ – was revealed as The customers bought the pub.

When Roy Greenslade picked up on Ranters’ intro pieces from the last two weeks in his Media Guardian blog, he described The Bible (‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth’) as being difficult to beat.

But he recalled football writer Harry Harris (Daily Mirror) opening with: Here in Jerusalem, the birthplace of the legendary Jesus Christ…

Which prompted one of his readers to offer another Harry intro: From my hotel room overlooking Mount Everest…

And another who remembered Kelvin McKenzie, writing in the Daily Telegraph: On Sundays, I do what most people do. I don’t buy the Independent on Sunday.

Revel Barker was a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post at 17 and on the Daily Mirror at 20. He now edits a website for journalists who remember the Good Old Days.


Read on: Tom Brown on Intros

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