Seems a bit late, now, but a happy new year to all our readers and, especially, to our contributors.
Thanks to everybody who picked up the challenge of our Christmas competition and submitted a book synopsis, or a chapter (even, in one case, a complete book) or the promise of one, or ideas for one. They’ve all made entertaining reading, even to an editor with a streaming cold, or Man-Flu. They’ll all be acknowledged as soon as the heady cocktail of Lem-Sip laced with The Macallan kicks in.
See what happens when you take a holiday and drop 39 degrees (C), which was the difference in air temperature between here, on the sunshine island of San Serif, and south-east Ireland, Begorrah. Don’t you just love Global Warming?
So, to this week.
We’ve had tales in the past about the difficulties journalists have experienced in trying to get home from the office. John Dodd writes about getting there in the mornings. He’s so old, is Doddy, that he can remember when ‘buffet car attendants’ delivered a full English to your table and served coffee in china cups. But then, I can remember when every table in the carriage had a reading lamp and the ‘steward’ offered you a choice of morning paper…
Harold Lewis remembers going on a story (and even actually writing one) where his knowledge of franglais turned out to be useful…
Alex Mitchell (ex Daily Mirror, ex Sunday Times) explains, in Walkley Magazine – that’s the one the journalists read Down Under – why Murray Sayle was one of those reporters entitled to be remembered as legendary.
Rob Freeman remembers Nigel Lloyd, former production editor and managing editor, who took the Executive Lift To The Sky last month.
In the Colour Supplement we have Rudge, and Bill Greaves who is starting the year as he means to go on, by playing games in the pubs he frequents. (Just a passing thought – I hope he doesn’t imagine he’s doing all this research on exes…
Let the train take the strain
By John Dodd
There are many ways to arrive in capital cities – by car, by bus, by underground, even by helicopter or river barge, but easily the most comfortable and civilised is to alight there from an old-style British Rail buffet car.
I was taught to ride in them by the impeccable Tommy Noyes Thomas, political editor of the News of the World, who five days a week began his journey with a can of Guinness awaiting him as he took his seat and spread his newspapers on the 9.32 out of Haslemere.
For 20 years I did the same journey, travelling up and back on the Portsmouth line. Some of my best friends I met over BR coffees or cans of beer at 80mph and there are still bonds of joint sufferings from the vicissitudes of strikes, line failures, demonic stewards, heatless carriages and diversions through Aldershot that survive the years.
At various stations up the line people from the newspaper, PR, photographic and advertising worlds, always the latest of starters, would get on and join us, picking up the conversation from the day before, exchanging office gossip.
There’d be John Hill, the newspaper designer, getting on at Godalming, Terry Fincher, the photographer, Jack Wood the sportswriter, Peter Hill, The Times business correspondent, Alan Waldie, advertising mastermind of the Benson and Hedges gold pack, all surfacing at Guildford, and then a profusion of other souls jostling aboard at Woking.
In those days there were two buffet car attendants and a chef, usually survivors of that even then bygone era of great liners or RN wardrooms, who cooked a fairly full range of grills, from the ‘full house’ of egg, bacon, sausage, tomato and toast to small steaks with an egg on top, down to boiled eggs.
Generally, people took toast and coffee, this in pale green china cups poured from silver-plated coffee pots, probably appropriated from some ocean-going liner out of Southampton.
Going home, free from the turmoil of the day, it was less civilised, the 18.50 and 19.50 buffets straining under queues that frequently stretched into the next carriage whilst ‘the regulars’ somehow commandeered their usual tables or outflanked the rest by huddling around the buffet ‘back door’ and ordering drinks from the stewards in a mystical variety of signals.
I suppose this is where the lore of the ‘W’ club dates from, although I never met anyone who was ever in it and my inclination is that it might have been a fragment remembered from the 1940s.
This is that you became a member by drinking a miniature scotch or whatever every time you passed a station beginning with ‘W’. Since the train started at Waterloo, you were immediately one to the good, and of course that would be followed by Wimbledon, West Byfleet, Weybridge, Woking, Worplesdon, Witley, and, since by then it didn’t matter, by Waslemere and Wetersfield as well.
There was a variety of Pompey stewards of which ‘Popski’, a Polish refugee with gold teeth and a broad Slav forehead, was always the doyen. ‘Mornink goff-ner,’ he’d say to everybody, ‘the usual?’ and your coffee or beer would be there before you were in the carriage.
Popski knew how to ‘work’ a train, producing orders from people who didn’t want to eat or drink and getting tips from those who rarely gave them. On days of go-slows and work-to-rules, something Popski despised, he sold bacon sandwiches to passengers on trains pulled up alongside on the ‘slow’ line, passing them out from the buffet car window across the track to reaching hands.
We buffet car regulars weathered lots of absurdities. BR catering, which became something called Travelers’ Fare, (or was it Travellers’ Fayre?) never once consulted us about any changes. On the day they dressed the stewards up as Ruritanian generals with fluffy gold epaulettes and silly stripes they introduced paper plates and plastic cutlery that wouldn’t cut.
It must have been 25 years ago when micro-waves were introduced which meant that eggs disappeared from the menu. Eggs in microwaves explode, so eggs-on-toast went, and then so did the toast.
I asked why. ‘Sorry, not doing toast no more. We’re not allowed to handle food and money at the same time. It’s the new EU regs,’ explained one of the stewards with a resigned shrug. So everybody’s morning mainstay, a round of toast, went into oblivion, as did everyone’s second favourite, a bacon sandwich, and their third, the ‘full house’ grill.
I remember the smoking ban in the buffet car in the early 1980s, which somehow coincided with BR painting the buffet interiors a violent yellow and taking all the stools away.
‘You’re meant to buy your drink and take it back to your seat, not hang about talking,’ confided Martin, the steward who’s now plying his trade on the Orient Express. ‘You’re not supposed to loiter.’
But despite all the afflictions, a peculiar human spirit of cohesion still managed to survive. There was my friend Ken, the Armenian PR man with seven Christian names and a funny peaked cap, Dutch Arnie, who now paraglides off Isle of Wight cliffs, Stanley Cobbett, descendant of William Cobbett, a suave head of a London legal chambers, little Ed, the photographer, who once collided with the Heathrow Airport coach at Woking station and is now a born-again teetotaller…
There was an actor (name forgotten) who kept showing me new studio photographs of himself and even a young twenty-something fellow from BBC World Service, Trevor McDonald.
Others I remember for the incidents connected with them, Roger the jeweler who fell (or was pushed?) to his death from the 21.50, the man with the staring eyes who tried (and nearly succeeded) in pushing me out on to the tracks at Clapham Junction (I remember the light catching the rail tops as my feet dangled above them), for the perceived mistake of jumping the booze queue, the just-released prisoners from Isle of Wight jails who stole the stewards’ uniforms and were arrested again by Woking.
There was Bacon-sandwich-Bill, notorious for stealing people’s bacon sandwiches as, after queuing, they turned to hang up their coats and left their sizzling prizes unguarded on the table in front of him. Bacon-sandwich-Bill, a City trader, could woof a bacon-butty in three swift bites and sit there innocently as the buyer turned back and stared open-mouthed at his empty plate.
There was Tony-the-Bookie who called everyone ‘uncle’ and blew his betting shop on a succession of photo-finishes that went the wrong way and Eddie, the East-End Jewish kitchen-furniture maker with eyes that seemed to have swum across the Baltic and a nose that had stepped straight out of a Bedouin tent.
It is just possible, too, that the 18.50 holds the secret to a mystery that has been aired before in these columns—how did Vincent Mulchrone get so pickled on a totally dry train? Mulchrone had just entered a period of abstinence and his son, Patrick, was charged with depositing him on his train to the Surrey suburbs, which he duly achieved. At the other end, Mrs. Mulchrone was waiting to whisk Vincent off to a social gathering of visiting foreign dignitaries; best behaviour was afoot.
When the train arrived somewhat late, did Mrs. Mulchrone notice a certain gait in his step, or glimpse that glow in the cheeks and that irrepressible twinkle of the eye that had charmed so many people, from kings to beggars, around the world?
Unbeknownst to her, the king of the Fleet Street intro must have had an encounter, unrecorded by history, across the lines with the prince of BR stewards, Eduard Popski. I can imagine the two trains standing side by side on the lines beyond Surbiton, Mulchrone’s senses aroused by the lights, laughter and clinks of the buffet car opposite, a mere umbrella prod away.
Probably there was a meeting of eyes, a gesture of two fingers raised, and a few scotch and sodas loaded with ice went across from the fast line to the slow. And back the other way went the Mulchrone tenner.
‘Much obliged goff-ner,’ Eduard Popski would have bowed. Mulchone would have nodded back, winked his thank-yous and raised the BR plastic glass.
Then the 18.50 would have moved off, rattling along, swaying with the dips of the track, stations flashing, as we quaffed our beers, swapped the jokes of the day – ‘two more Guinness please, Popski’ – until at times it seemed it was better to travel fitfully in a BR buffet-car than to arrive almost anywhere in the world.
The French connection
By Harold Lewis
Inevitably, some of the most complicated, frustrating and perplexing exchanges I have had have been in French.
And while I can handle a magret de canard avec poivre vert with the best of them and am something of a dab hand when picking out a grand cru from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger (the ne plus ultra of the villages of Champagne), outside that limited milieu I invariably tend to find myself up to my neck in l’eau tres chaude.
Take, for instance, the time I arrived hot, dusty and hungry in Senegal, a French-speaking African nation, on behalf of the National Enquirer. Famine was killing thousands across the continent then because of prolonged and devastating drought, surprisingly the sort of story the paper pursued at the time. Indeed, the piece, when it was published, was widely acclaimed by people in very high places and made it all the way to the Congressional Record.
Looking back, I realise I should have kept my mouth firmly shut when I overheard the couple at the adjoining table floundering as they attempted, largely by semaphore and unintelligible intonations and in brogues as broad as the River Tay, to order a meal from the menu in the dining room of my hotel in Dakar, the Croix du Sud.
Good Samaritan that I am, I didn’t though. I interceded and with a few Gallic flourishes and well-rehearsed phrases managed to conjure up more than a modest repast for a middle-aged couple of Scots.
When they realised I spoke something that bore a close resemblance to their native tongue, probably the only other person in the restaurant that did, they insisted on repaying me by inviting me to join them at their table. Big mistake.
It turned out that the husband was the captain of a supertanker who liked having his wife with him – Scots, English and Irish sea captains have throughout the centuries never been reluctant to surround themselves with all the comforts of home, even when going about their business thousands of miles offshore – as he delivered his black gold cargo to one country or another.
One post prandial tot led to another until the captain jumped to his feet and insisted on my accompanying him and his good lady to consult with his local shipping agent at the city docks.
In the shadow of his behemoth, at the hands of a master, I received a salutary lesson in how the land of my birth had gained an empire while making permanent, bitter enemies of the downtrodden and resentful natives, as in forthright and acerbic fashion, he laid down the law about the manner in which his cargo had to be handled.
The agent never stood a chance. Mouth agape, he dumbly acquiesced to every command he was given.
Then, with everything done and dusted, the captain, his wife and myself scaled a towering ladder that led to the upper decks of the giant tanker to spend several hours comparing and debating the relative merits of a variety of rare and delightful single malts in the comfort of his quarters.
It was well into the early hours of the morning when I gingerly, and with mounting apprehension, inched my way back down the slippery rungs to the deserted dock to await the taxi the captain had summoned for me from the ship.
Minutes went by. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty. Then, about half an hour after the captain had made the call, I spotted a pair of dim headlights cautiously nosing around the berth and, filled full of vengeance for having to wait so long in the unsettling darkness in my befuddled state, and charged by dram after potent dram, I leaped out of the shadows to wave the car down.
‘Take me immediately to the Croix du Sud,’ I bellowed in French, taking a leaf out of the captain’s manual for cementing good relations in foreign places. I can’t remember much of the conversation we had as we wound through the city streets, apart from fluffing off the driver’s muttering and mustering every imprecation in my somewhat stilted vocabulary, but when we rattled up to the front of the hostelry I plunged my hand in my pocket and showered notes and coins across the floor.
‘No, no, effendi,’ I can’t take that,’ the driver pleaded. ‘Why ever not?’ I demanded. ‘You don’t think I want a free ride, do you? You’re a bloody cabby aren’t you? Is there something wrong with my bloody money?’
‘No, no, effendi,’ said the stricken driver. ‘It’s nothing like that. It’s just that I’m not a taxi driver. I’m the port’s night watchman!’
And, if I hadn’t had some knowledge of the language, I wouldn’t have been able to sweet-talk photographer Vince Eckersley and myself into the presidential palace in Haiti, on the trail of the mega star Richard Burton and his pretty paramour of the moment, Susan Hunt, former wife of Formula One World Championship winner James.
Then we would have avoided the heated exchange we had at the palace when he emerged sometime later after a meeting with President Baby Doc Duvalier.
It blew our cover… which had a major bearing on the astonishing incident that happened later that afternoon.
Robin Leach, before he became Rich and Famous, was a stringer on the Enquirer team then, brought along at great expense because he allegedly had a special rapport with Burton, but obviously his language skills were not in the same category as his social connections as Vince and I spotted him and his photographer being briskly interrogated, and in all probability frisked, in a palace guardroom as we sauntered by. And that was the last we saw of them.
Vince and I were by ourselves when we finally crossed words with Mr. Burton and Mrs. Hunt, who, we were led to believe, were planning to exchange wedding vows sometime during their trip to the impoverished island nation. In fact, they did tie the knot a little later, spent some six years together, but were divorced by the time the actor died in Switzerland.
Fortuitously, Burton and Hunt, Vince and myself and Robin and his cameraman were all staying at the plush El Rancho Hotel in Petionville, damaged, I believe, in the recent earthquake, but not totally reduced to a pile of rubble like the presidential palace and much of the rest of downtown Port-au-Prince.
Knowing Burton’s penchant for flexing his muscles and strutting his stuff around the pool, Vince set up camp in my room as it had a wide and unobstructed view of the manicured grounds.
Then, with the curtains tightly drawn, standing unsteadily on a fragile chair, he poked the telephoto lens of his Nikon through a tiny chink in the fabric and began what we thought might be a long and boring vigil while I put the well-stocked room bar to good use.
Soon, though, Vince’s patience was rewarded when we spotted the actor flop onto a chaise alongside a comely blonde and engage her in animated conversation. Little by little, they grew more and more friendly. And it was soon after that he reached out his hand and put it firmly on her knee. Susan, I reckoned, might have been interested in the developing situation, but she was probably taking a well-earned rest after the rigors of meeting Baby Doc.
Needless to say, Vince got all the stunning shots he wanted, but then our quarry disappeared. We were both totally unprepared for what happened next.
Suddenly, the door of my room was flung wide open. Swaying, bleary-eyed, Burton glanced around, enviously I thought at the bottles I had lined up on the nightstand, and in growing bewilderment at Vince, teetering precariously on the chair and clinging to the curtains as if he were about to bring the day’s matinee performance to a close. Then, in a mellifluous cadence, as only he could muster, as if he were reprising his role in Macbeth, he apologised: ‘I do beg your pardon.’
With that, he turned sharply on his heel, closing the door softly behind him.
‘Christ,’ he’s rumbled us,’ moaned Vince, still clutching the curtains as if they were a life preserver. ‘I knew it wouldn’t take long for him to come after us after we caught up with him at the palace.’
‘Nonsense,’ I said, putting down my glass and hopping off the bed. Then, throwing open the door, I watched in amazement as the great dramatic star – at one time the highest-paid actor in Hollywood – put on a slapstick show worthy of Charlie Chaplin as he ricocheted wildly from one wall of the corridor to the other before bouncing grotesquely and disappearing into the stairwell. Emotionally overwrought, I think they call it in better social circles.
It turned out that he and his lady friend had the room directly above mine and he had just made the honest mistake of getting off the lift at the wrong floor. Right room location, wrong landing. Happens to the best of us from time to time.
And Robin Leach might have been to blame for it all. It was, he insisted, the right and proper thing to do to send a bottle of champagne over to the master toper and his lady friend every time he spotted them in the hotel restaurant or cosying up over snifters a deux in the bar. Burton was not the kind of fellow to turn down such largess.
And so to Hong Kong to check out the truth of Richard Nixon’s clandestine liaison with a local night club singer. I’d gone there to rescue Shelley Ross, who was having a hard time standing the story up, but it was she who later got to write a book about the affair. Indeed, she went on from the Enquirer to become something of a media superstar, a high-flying executive producer with her own agent and prime morning and evening shows on the major networks. Even though she did demonstrate a remarkable ability to alienate her television colleagues, but that’s another (well documented) story…
Most visitors, of course, are content to bring back souvenirs of practical nature from the former British Crown Colony, porcelain tea services, jade bowls and ornaments and carved ivory chess sets among them.
I had to be different.
I brought back a slim and nubile blonde, a twenty-something Parisian. Twice.
I first met her on a sailing junk on my way to Lantau Island and, yes, you’ve guessed it, couldn’t resist striking up a conversation with her in the language she knew best. Whether that won her heart or not, I don’t know, but soon after I returned to the States she was sharing breakfast with me at my place in Florida. Lovely as she was to look at though, she was, after all, well, French. And from Paris. And impossible to live with. As she twice proved in a very convincing fashion.
Former Daily Star and Sunday Express editor Brian Hitchen met her at a party in Palm Beach and was, I recall, bent thoroughly out of shape when he was introduced to her and bowled over by her behaviour and had some sage and old-fashioned advice for me at the time. It was not entirely a ringing endorsement of my choice of soul mate who, day by day, left me and a good few others feeling more and more demented. Vous ne pouvez pas juger un livre par sa couverture is a phrase that continues to haunt me.
On the other hand, as I say, she was a stunner. And adept at all the things the French are renowned for. And, remember, I was young and foolish then…
Truth, honour and scepticism
By Alex Mitchell
The Macquarie Dictionary defines a legend as ‘a person who has achieved fame or notoriety in a particular field’ and that is a fitting description of journalist Murray Sayle. The pace of his career was so furious that any chronicler is left breathless recording what he packed into his 84 years.
He interviewed Soviet agent Kim Philby in Moscow, climbed Mount Everest, tracked Che Guevara in the jungles of Bolivia, crossed the Atlantic in a yacht single-handed, and covered wars in Vietnam, the Middle East (twice), India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Ireland.
He leaves a legacy of fine pieces of journalism, a remarkably good novel on Fleet Street, and a towering reputation among newspaper practitioners of the old school. There is much in his life for the generation of 21st-century journalists as well: his inquisitiveness and irreverence, a pedantic approach to research and a larrikin joy in experimenting with words to create colour and humour. Sayle maintained that the essential characteristics of the good journalist were ‘a plausible manner, a little literary ability and rat-like cunning’ and argued there were only two newspaper stories – ‘We name the guilty men’ and ‘Arrow indicates defective part’.
Those who scorned his glibness missed the point. In Sayle’s dictum lay the essence of investigative journalism which pulled no punches, and he was highlighting the fact that large tracts of so-called ‘serious journalism’ had nothing to say and put nothing at risk. Born in 1926 at Earlwood in Sydney, he attended Canterbury Boys’ High School (motto: Truth and Honour) where other ex-students included his lifelong friend and colleague Phillip Knightley and ex-prime minister John Howard. Decades later, Sayle remarked that Howard ignored his alma mater’s two golden rules when he followed George Bush into Iraq and Afghanistan.
He studied psychology at the University of Sydney and, at 17, became editor of the student newspaper Honi Soit. He scooped the mainstream media by unmasking the perpetrators of the Ern Malley poetry hoax and earned notoriety by calling on Allied forces not to bomb the ancient city of Rome ‘no matter what plausible military reasons for such vandalism might be argued’.
He abandoned university to take a cadetship with Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph, later explaining that ‘the immediacy of journalism, the sense of history in the making, lured me away’. Following a brief sojourn on the Cairns Post, he moved to Ezra Norton’s afternoon tabloid Daily Mirror where the 23-year-old wrote a column called ‘Sydney Mann’. He traveled to London in 1952 and fell into a job on The People, a Sunday tabloid which specialised in yarns of the ‘Vicar in love tryst with showgirl’ variety.
Deciding it was time to ‘do some serious thinking and light-starving and get used to not having a job’, Sayle moved to Paris, where he turned his Fleet Street experiences into a classic book called A Crooked Sixpence. It was reprinted in 2008 after being banned for almost half a century. In 1960 he joined the staff of The Sunday Times, then owned by Lord Thomson of Fleet, and became a distinguished war correspondent and the winner of two prestigious awards – UK Journalist of the Year for his coverage of the Vietnam War and Magazine Writer of the Year.
Under the editorship of Harold Evans, independent investigative journalism flourished and the Insight team churned out trail-blazing accounts of financial scandals, government misadventures, war horrors, US election dramas, airline disasters and thalidomide as well as exposés of wine and antique frauds. Alongside Sayle, the ‘Australian mafia’ on the paper comprised Bruce Page, Phillip Knightley, Tony Clifton, Nelson Mews and myself. Murray’s influence was seminal because he insisted on digging out ‘the story of the story’, which meant not simply reporting the what and when of any article but also the how and why.
He was a great advocate of public service journalism and encouraged his protegés to take up ‘the shining sword of reform’. At the same time, his expense accounts were an art form in which he developed an awesome reputation. He once included the cost of a camel and was told to remove the expense because it was unacceptable to the accounts department. Murray rewrote the expenses form, the total amount remained exactly the same and he attached a sticker which said: ‘Find the camel.’
In 1973 he became Asian editor for Newsweek, based in Hong Kong, and so began a lifelong passion for the East Asian region, particularly Japan. He lived and worked in Japan for the next 30 years, writing for leading newspapers and news magazines in the US, Britain, Australia and Hong Kong.
In 1995 the New Yorker devoted its entire July 31 edition to Sayle’s ‘Letter from Hiroshima – Did the bomb end the war?’ while his other critically acclaimed piece covered the mystery surrounding Korean airliner KAL 007, shot down by a Soviet fighter near Sakhalin in 1983.
Sayle lost his entire library and archive of papers and photographs in a house fire in 1988 and friends raised a rescue fund. Rupert Murdoch sent an unsolicited cheque for £500 but Sayle returned it because of his aversion to what he regarded as Murdoch’s pernicious influence on the integrity of journalism.
With his wife Jenny and three children, Alex, Melindi and Matthew, he returned to Sydney in 2004. He continued to write for the Griffith Review and Quadrant and give radio interviews. In May 2007, the University of Sydney awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters for his distinguished work as a foreign correspondent and, in the same year, he received an Order of Australia for services to the media.
A few months before he died, Sayle’s account of Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in 1972 was vindicated by the Saville Inquiry in the UK. His original story had been spiked because it carried the proposition – furiously denied at the time by the Heath government, the Ministry of Defence and the army – that the Parachute Regiment had conducted a deliberate military operation shooting 13 unarmed civilians. When Lord Saville found that the army had gone on a killing spree, Prime Minister David Cameron told the Commons,’I am deeply sorry,’ adding that the killings were ‘unjustified’ and ‘unjustifiable’. Sayle, then in the terminal stages of Parkinson’s disease in a Sydney nursing home, raised a grim smile and said to Jenny: ‘I told you so.’
At the university ceremony at which he received his doctorate, Sayle concluded by saying: ‘And now we are at war again – many wars, big and small. Somewhere in me I can hear a 17-year-old editor asking, ‘Where is our university’s sceptical voice?’…’ He was also talking about our journalism.
Lifted with permission from The Walkley Magazine, journal of the Walkley Foundation, a non-profit body aimed at supporting and encouraging professional and ethical journalism and rewarding excellence in the Australian media.
Australian-born journalist Alex Mitchell arrived in London in 1967 and, following a short stint on the Daily Mirror, landed on the Sunday Times before joining Granada’s World in Action. He became editor of Workers Press and its successor, News Line, before returning to Australia in 1986. He joined the Sun-Herald, becoming deputy editor, London correspondent and state political editor before leaving full-time journalism in 2007. He now contributes a regular political column, Reverse Spin, to the Sun-Herald.
Barbed banter man
By Rob Freeman
Nigel Peregrine Lloyd, who died last month aged 79, was one of Fleet Street’s leading production journalists in a career that successfully spanned the ages of hot metal and new technology.
His man-management and technical skills were prized by a succession of editors, who saw his abilities as vital in helping to guide newspapers through the greatest upheaval they had known for a century. Lloyd was to hold senior positions at the Observer, the Independent and the Mail on Sunday. Sometimes feisty, always a perfectionist, he was known in the newspaper industry as the man ‘who got things done’.
Besides his passion for helping ensure the newspapers and magazines he worked for maintained the highest possible editorial standards, and getting them on the streets in time, Lloyd had a second obsession – for skiing. In a form of parallel career he became one of Britain’s most well-known ski writers. At his funeral, proceedings concluded with the theme of the BBC TV programme Ski Sunday being played on the organ at a slow tempo.
Lloyd was born in 1931, the son of an architect. He attended Highgate School, and won an exhibition in modern history at Queen’s College, Oxford. It was natural that his love of the written word allied to his intense curiosity would lead him to a career in journalism. Lloyd’s next stop was the Observer, where he was to stay for 20 years. He edited the highly-regarded colour magazine and in time became the paper’s managing editor…
It was at this time that Lloyd’s obsession with skiing took hold, after going on a winter sports holiday at the suggestion of his wife. It occurred to him that further trips could be facilitated by the simple expedient of writing about them and having them placed in the newspaper. Even after he left the Observer he continued to have skiing articles published in the paper under the pseudonym Terence Peters, to avoid detection by the editor and his old adversary Donald Trelford, with whom he had fallen out.
Lloyd’s professional amalgam of blunt speaking and sensitive perception was transferred to the social sphere and friendship with him meant enjoying a fascinating cocktail of kindness and rapier-like repartee – barbed banter was his stock in trade, usually with the object of deflating pomposity in friends and associates.
In spite of a spell at university in Grenoble, his command of foreign languages, particularly on ski trips, was sketchy – as when he attempted to summon a French rail steward on an overnight train by demanding: ‘Ou sont les attendants de la nuit?‘ Another challenge to mountain restaurateurs was his regular demand for ‘ein jambon sandwich bitte’. In 1986 he was one of the first senior journalists to be recruited by the Independent. The driving force behind the paper, Andreas Whittam Smith, had faith that Lloyd could play a big part in reshaping and redirecting the sub-editing staff as they mastered the new skills of computer production. Lloyd didn’t let him down.
After success there as production editor he went on to be managing editor at the Mail on Sunday You magazine, his final Fleet Street posting. He continued to ski and write about the sport, even publishing his own winter sports newsletter.
Nigel Lloyd, journalist: born London 23 July 1931; married Janice (one daughter, one son deceased); died London 11 December 2010.
It’s only a game
By William Greaves
Many of the sports and games that add spice and thunderous partisanship to everyday lives in the nation’s towns and villages would probably just about survive without the backing of the Great British Pub.
Soccer, rugby, cricket, tennis, golf and the rest of the biggies would like as not keep their flags flying – even though the advent of the Murdoch Age means that most of their enthusiastic followers would never actually get to watch them being played at national or international level without there being a handy pub in which to see them on Sky TV.
But how many households contain the basic requisites for a quick game of darts, dominoes, pool, bagatelle, bar billiards, shove ha’penny, quoits, ringing the bull, devil among the tailors, skittles – indoors or alfresco – or even cribbage?
And were it not for such worthy establishments as the Lewes Arms, whose charming maze of little bars lurk beneath the castle ramparts in Lewes, East Sussex, where on earth would you get to enjoy a spot of dwyle flunking?
It could be that there are those dwelling in remoter regions of the United Kingdom, or indeed the rest of the world, who have seldom, if ever, had the opportunity to flunk the occasional dwyle – but that is certainly not the fault of the many pubs in East Anglia and South-East England which resolutely keep a great tradition alive.
Allow, if you will, Rebecca Quinn, assistant manager of the Lewes Arms, to brief us all on how to get started.
‘First the two teams of eight line up for a clothing inspection, winning points from the judge for strict adherence to the dress code – straw hat, waistcoat, white baggy trousers or skirt, tied around the knees with garden twine to prevent rats running up legs, and spotted neckerchief.
‘Then comes a really important stage – each player must attempt to bribe the judge, with points again awarded according to the pleasure with which each gift is received. (Aha for the unashamed backhander – the very stuff of rural heritage!)
‘And after that, we are ready to start.’ Thank you, Rebecca.
OK then, will the fielding team please form a circle – or ‘girter’ – and start to revolve in time to the music, while the first member of the batting side – the ‘flunker’ or, in certain areas, the ‘driveller’ – positions himself in the middle, rotating in the opposite direction? When the music stops all players come to a standstill and, without a moment’s hesitation, the flunker must take his stick (‘swadger’), with a bar cloth soaked in stale beer wrapped round the end (the ‘dwyle’), and hurl his dwyle with the intention of hitting his selected member of the girter on arm or leg (one point), torso (two points or head (three points.)
If he misses the target altogether – are you following me so far? – he is obliged to down a pint of beer in the time it takes for the girter to complete a single complete rotation.
At this stage it would perhaps be helpful to quote from the official rule book, kept by Rebecca under lock and key in a desk drawer:
‘A flunk is considered finished when the dwyle comes to a halt in one of the following manners:
1) By hitting a member of the opposition forming the girter;
2) By hitting passers-by, spectators, officials, dogs or other flunkers;
3) By hitting the ground, wall or fence;
4) By not leaving the pail of old stale beer even though the flunker has attempted a flunk.’
‘It should be added that another way in which a flunk can be finished is by the dwyle hitting a passing car because the game is played on the road outside the pub, which we are not allowed to close to traffic,’ Rebecca added helpfully. ‘When each of the sixteen flunkers has flunked twice the game is over, with the judge – providing he or she is still sober enough to complete the scoring – announcing the winning team.’
Historians believe that dwyle flunking – or dwile flonking – originated in Suffolk in 1585 but it certainly passed into oblivion for many years until revived in Beccles, Suffolk, in 1966, when an ancient copy of the rules was discovered in an attic in nearby Bungay. Bravo!
Most of us above a certain age were once the proud owners of a mixed variety of glass marbles but what we actually did with them was a matter of personal choice and innovation. There is, however, a set of rules dating back at least to the 16th Century and the reign of Elizabeth I – for that is when two ardent gentlemen, one from Sussex and the other from Surrey, competing for the hand of a young maiden of Tinsley Green, near Crawley in West Sussex, and finding themselves still neck and neck after sundry bouts of fencing, wrestling and horse racing settled the matter with a highly charged game of marbles. (Although, who won and whether the good lady accepted the verdict does not appear to be recorded.)
Almost on the same spot where that fateful match took place, local teams together with international entrants from all over Europe and sometimes from the United States and Canada still converge on the Greyhound Inn every Good Friday for the British and World Marbles Championship, under the watchful gaze of organisers, Sam and Julia McCarthy-Fox.
‘We play on Good Friday because when the modern championships were launched in 1932, believe it or not, marbles was one of the very few games which were allowed to be played during Lent,’ says Julia.
Played on a specially constructed concrete raised ring of six-foot diameter, covered with fine sand, in the middle of the car park, the annual battle royal usually attracts between eighteen and twenty-two teams, is watched by several hundred enthralled spectators and was once covered live by Sky Sports. Serious stuff, indeed.
For those wishing to get started immediately, you need 49 marbles in the middle of the ring and each player chooses his target marble, or ‘tolly’, which when his turn comes, he aims at the assembled marbles, hoping to remove at least one from the field of play. (‘Hence the raised ring,’ explains Julia. ‘if the marble falls over the edge it is out and if it doesn’t it’s in – it resolves a lot of disputes.’) If this is achieved, his next shoot will be from the spot where his tolly comes to rest so a real pro must impose a spin on his shoot, in order to stop his tolly dead in its tracks at the most advantageous position for his next shoot. The first team to remove 25 marbles from the ring is declared the winner.
‘Some people choose to use a glass tolly and others a ceramic one but the weight doesn’t really matter – it’s a matter of accuracy,’ says Julia. ‘Teams are supposed to be here by 10.30 and we hope to get underway an hour later and finish by about 6pm but if it rains the sand gets slushy and tends to slow up the marbles.
‘The Dutch and French frequently send a team but Germany never fails. Sometimes they come to drink and sometimes to win – they usually do one or the other but never both.’
The most successful player on each team gets to compete in the individual championship and the walls of the bar are adorned with pictures of the all-time greats such as ‘Pop’ Maynard, ‘Red Pole’ Gibbs and ‘Captain Marble’ himself – Colin Gates.
I came across table skittles, or Devil among the Tailors as it is traditionally known, for the first time in the wonderfully ancient George in Castle Cary, Somerset, although it is certain that it was not around for Charles II to have a go when he popped in there for a livener while fleeing from Cromwell’s troops after his hiding at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.
If his ghost were to return, however, it could do worse than study the skills of barmaid Gale, who was happy to take time off to teach me the rudiments of the game. She arranged the nine pins in a diamond formation on the board and then took up the ball (or ‘devil’) on the end of a chain which was attached to the top of a pole. Pulling the devil towards her and propelling it forwards in a clockwise direction around the pole, she succeeded in demolishing seven of the pins (or ‘tailors’) in one fell swoop, disposing of the other two in only the second shot of the three she was allowed. (Do not ask how I got on, a chap has his pride. ‘It’s just a matter of practice,’ said Gale modestly.)
Again for the statistically minded, if all tailors disappear in either one or two goes they are repositioned allowing each player a maxim of 27 points. The winning target is usually 101 or 121 but, just as in darts, this score has to be reached exactly – to overshoot sends you back to the status quo. It’s great fun, I assure you, and several pints can slip down without being noticed.
Sadly, outdoor skittles has all but disappeared from the British pub scene but other indoor forms are still popular. Hood skittles , as played in Leicestershire and Northamptonshire with slightly different ‘cheeses’ but similarly strange tables whose protective hood renders a kind of armchair appearance, involves no small investment for any new pub wanting to join the fray.
Paul Moss, landlord of the Hollybush in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, where a ladies’, men’s and mixed team does battle every Monday, Wednesday and Friday respectively, proudly produced his £300 set of three yellow cheeses and led me to his hand-crafted table, or ‘board’, which recently set him back a cool £1,300. ‘It’s been worth every penny,’ he said – ‘the locals love it and so do our opponents.’
And let no one doubt the importance which the regulars of the Rose and Crown, in nearby Thurnby, place on their magnificent full-size skittles ally, revealed by parting the tables and chairs and rolling back the carpet in the pub’s function room. On one wall a large notice, bearing the date of April 2, 1927, lays down the law in no uncertain terms:
‘Four members with the President and Treasurer and Secretary shall constitute the Committee and have full power to manage the affairs of The Club, also be empowered to settle all disputes that may arise in connection with The Club. The yearly subscription be five shillings payable in advance and no member shall be allowed the use of the alley whose subscription is more than a month in arrear.’
When it comes to the serious business, there’s no place for short arms and long pockets down at the Rose and Crown.
Arguably the two most popular pub games are darts and dominoes – and nowhere do they come together more purposefully than in the Atherton Arms, in Atherton, Lancashire. For here in the typically friendly environment often associated with the miners’ welfare or the working men’s club, not only does it have a huge, designated games room but one which contains not one, but four specialist domino tables. And what precisely is a domino table? Well it has an appropriate rectangular shape designed to accommodate a typical final formation, with flanges to prevent tiles flying on to the floor in a moment of excitement and – most important of all – a shelf beneath to house pints of ale so that no accidental spillage is allowed to soil the field of play.
In one corner of the room, the darts board is surrounded by pictures of, and messages from, some of the greats who have come here over the years – such giants of the game as three-times world champion , Canadian-born John Part, fellow countryman Gary (The Mauler) Mawson and local hero Matt ‘Superman’ Clark.
And if that endorsement is not enough to establish the pub’s sporting credentials, the centre of the room is dominated by a pool table and full-size snooker table.
But where, I ask you, would we be without the Crown at Benfield in deepest Suffolk? Despite the unremarkable salmon pink exterior of this remote country pub, the lovely landlady, Jackie Grice, claims no less than ten games lie on the agenda within. If you allow the weekly quiz night as one, there’s bar billiards, darts, shove ha’penny, Devil among the Tailors, dominoes, Boxo (otherwide known as Shut the Box}, crib, ‘pokey dice’ (a sequence of throws which apparently determine whose turn it is to buy the next round – in direct challenge to Greaves’ Rules) and – wait for it – Caves.
‘We think we have the last remaining Caves table in Britain,’ said Jackie, leading me to a board attached to one wall containing five cut out circles towards which matching quoits must be aimed. ‘To be honest, we’re not entirely sure of the rules but each target is worth one to five and you have to score exactly 21 to win.’
Until a year or two Jackie used to stage an annual Pub Olympics, with sixteen contestants participating in what can only be described as the Benfield Octathlon (only the quiz and, I think, the pokey dice were excluded from the menu) and the mighty trophy still stands in the cabinet.
‘it’s only a very small village and I’m afraid we can’t get quite enough entrants to keep it going nowadays,’ she said with heavy resignation. ‘To be honest, we’re not that well supported by the locals but we don’t have a mortgage any more, we have a lot of fun and we’re definitely here to stay.’
Come on, you denizens of Benfield – get behind your local. Your country’s heritage needs you.
Eat drink and be merry, they say, and there are no obits this week.
So Harold Lewis goes eating on exes.
Bill Greaves is still drinking for England.
Donna Gee is being merry on the stingy Costas.
(It’s amazingly easy to write this stuff. All you need to do is find a cliché and…)
Take in PA.
Late meals, out of town
By Harold Lewis
Eating, I admit, ranks a poor second to tippling, but it is something even the most seasoned boozers among us is forced to embrace from time to time.
Actually, it was with a noticeable spring in my step and a sense of anticipation that I loped into the cavernous dining room of the Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta, a crumbling and faded edifice that would not have been unfamiliar to Kipling.
Moreover, I imagine, he would have felt very much at home among the deserted billiard rooms with their threadbare baize tables, the maze of corridors snaking off dusty landings, the aspidistra decked bar and bathrooms that in all probability had been personally plumbed by Thomas Crapper.
I had just taken a glance at the telephone directory-sized, well-thumbed and curry-spattered menu and spotted an item in it that I had been chasing down all my life and felt I would reward myself after a gruelling flight from Kathmandu.
Whatever the cost, it was payback time.
It all had to do with a bunch of stories I was pursuing for the National Enquirer.
Funny, isn’t it, how the bosses back at headquarters take a look at a map on the wall, determine that it’s only a few inches from one location to another and expect words and music by yesterday? And how budget cuts, probably, have brought about smaller and smaller wall maps and smaller-scaled versions so that now they think destinations can be reached in half the time?
Gravel-voiced Bill Boustead, for one, when he was northern news editor of the Sunday Mirror, was never able to come to terms with such cartographic challenges. Small wonder. Most of his day was spent in his satellite offices in The Grove and the Swan With Two Necks and he returned to the real office rarely and only to hone his alcohol-fuelled bluster. Arthur Brooks, with whom he once worked – and he was not alone – hated him with a vengeance for his impossible-to-keep map calculations. Others, and they shall remain nameless, but they know who they are, just hated him.
Similarly, the guy I was currently doing a piece for had little knowledge of anything that was going on more than a football pitch outside Lantana, Florida, the surprisingly bucolic home then of the NE.
I recall on one occasion spending the better part of an hour praising the virtues of the great first growths of Bordeaux, paying particular attention to their subtle nuances, their refinement and incomparable class, only to be left gobsmacked when he chimed in late in the soliloquy and in his squeaky falsetto confided to the thunderstruck assembled connoisseurs that he too was partial to a glass of Mogen David (supermarket rot gut that can be had for less than five bucks a bottle). Compare that to a bottle of 1961 Chateau Margaux, the claret I’d been extolling, now changing hands for anywhere up to $10,000 a magnum.
Anyway, I had done his bidding and hastened from Nepal to India.
And now, seated at my alcove table, elbows planted on the crumpled tablecloth, I positively salivated at the prospect of putting together the meal of a lifetime.
The menu – and it was numbered – was huge.
With utmost deliberation, I balanced the merits of one dish against the other, waving away the waiter at least half a dozen times after he determinedly shuffled over with his pad and poised pen to take my order.
I needed time, I told him, for I was on a mission – to construct an epicurean masterpiece.
Finally, when I felt I had assembled the right combination of dishes that would fulfill all my gourmet aspirations, I gave him a nod and the affable hotel servant bounded over again to my table. His relief was tangible.
Carefully I thumbed through the astonishing selection of offerings choosing, with his assistance, dish after dizzying dish, pakoras and samosas, naans, chapatis and poppadoms, chicken jalfrezi after jingha prawns and lamb kadhai gosht, mushroom bhaji, saffron rice and an assortment of chutneys, until I arrived at the piece de resistance.
Sitting back, with a great smile of satisfaction on my face, I informed him with a resounding wallop on the table top: ‘…And number 697, the peacock.’
The waiter’s hand faltered on his pad, a stricken look spreading across his worried face. It took him minutes before he was able to catch his breath.
‘I’m terribly sorry, sir,’ he croaked, perfectly impersonating Peter Sellers, undoubtedly close to tears. ‘The peacock, it isn’t on tonight.’
India wasn’t the only country where I encountered bitter disappointment when it came to chasing down a memorable repast.
Although, I have to admit, my experience in Kenya, has left me with a tale I will dine out on for the rest of my life.
There again for the Enquirer, hunting down Iain Douglas-Hamilton, one of the world’s foremost authorities on elephants and the driving force behind the worldwide ban on ivory, I found myself in the vicinity of Lake Naivasha.
Now this was a part of the world that was not unknown to me, as I had taken a lady friend to spend two or three weeks some time previously with Barry Gaymer, a famed white hunter who then farmed 140,000 acres close to the Great Rift Valley, an area so immense he used a light aircraft to patrol it all.
The Masai and their herds of cattle were strung out in corrals all over the vast stretch of land and it was to one of them that we ground over the dusty tracks the following day.
Grenadier guardsmen could not have given us a smarter welcome as the resplendent warriors, armed to the teeth with their razor-sharp spears and workmanlike shields and dressed to the nines in their scarlet robes, all sporting magnificent hair dresses, staged one of their intimidating ceremonial dances.
Then the chief conferred a truly great honour on us, allowing us to participate in one of their more sacrosanct ceremonies in which an arrow is shot into the jugular vein of a tethered cow and the stream of blood is mixed with milk and maize to form their staple dish, a challenging and unnerving concoction called posho.
With a broadening smile on his face, he brought the unappetising bowl over to us, inviting us with a sweeping gesture to seize hold of it and sample the contents.
It would have been a great insult to refuse. Barry had already made that plain. And it wasn’t so much the blood and milk mixture that concerned me, but the thick collar of flies swarming around the chipped bowl rim.
There was nothing else for it, though, but to tilt the buzzing dish back and think of England. Actually, what I really did think about was a pint of Theakston’s Old Peculier. Or Trois Pistoles from Belgium. Or anything, really, to keep my mind off what it really was.
In elegant dining rooms around the world, when the vintage port is being passed and the chink of crystal is picking up apace, and when the conversation turns inevitably to meals that have been savoured and diligently recalled and truffles, beluga caviar and foie gras are offered as the epitome of the epicurean experience, I sit back and smile.
It has been my good fortune, I often reveal to the assembled throng, to have sampled snapper turtle, alligator and rattlesnake in my travels. And, of course – and nobody can ever top this – a bowl of posho with the Masai.
By William Greaves
My dear old mate and former Manchester Evening News colleague John Dodd’s nostalgic memories of the commuters who nightly enjoyed the convivial after-work company to be found on the 18.50 and 19.50 down trains from London Waterloo to Leatherhead comes as a timely reminder of those heady days when the Great British Pub was not always to be found on the high street or village crossroads but sometimes ventured further afield.
It was one evening in February, 1980, and I had been invited to share with my hosts that precious hour when work-a-day Britain traditionally winds down with a drink and a chinwag before rejoining its family fireside.
Mr. and Mrs. Bob Wright were sitting in their usual alcove, where once they did their courting, with Wellington the spaniel in faithful attendance.
David Betts was supping a pint of Ruddles bitter from his personalised pot and about to deal the first hand in the nightly bridge school that he had joined five years earlier.
There was the usual sprinkling of end-of-day shop talk with Stella Hodaszy, an 18-year-old secretary, sipping a well-earned gin and tonic as she went through her notebook with her boss and three company directors were holding their twice-weekly board meeting over a sundowner or two.
And leaning on a corner of the bar, a couple of cigar-smokers were holding a post-mortem on the success of the regulars’ belated Christmas party which had graced this very space the previous night.
But this was not the Rose and Crown and neither was it the Corblimey Conservative Club.
This was the buffet car of the 6.45pm from Charing Cross to Hastings and the spaniel was looking as self-important as any dog would with its own £299 annual season ticket with ‘Mr. Wellington’ inscribed on the back.
The message was clear. You didn’t just catch the 6.45 – you belonged to it. This truly was a pub on wheels.
‘There is a chap who has been travelling on this train for two years and he is still only first reserve for the bridge school,’ I was told as my new-found companion set about introducing me to all present – ‘I’m afraid we’re having to keep membership pretty tight.’
‘What you have to remember,’ explained Bob Wright, displaying Wellington’s ticket to my incredulous gaze, ‘is that this is just about our entire social life. Nearly all our friends belong to this train and by the time we get home to Battle in Sussex it is really too late to go out meeting people.’
On the bridge table the drinks were already assembled. ‘We never play for money,’ said David, a film production accountant, ’because that’s the quickest way to lose friends.’ But how, in the absence of a genial landlord, did the quartet manage to keep the same table available for combat for five years?
‘We take it in turns weekly for one of us to leave the office early and catch the incoming train at Waterloo East and bag our table before the train even arrives in Charing Cross,’ he explained. Silly question.
Farther up the bar, Mike Blease, managing director of an international marketing company, had invited Keith Pepin, a Lockheed executive from California, to join him for a meeting.
‘I think British Rail would be amazed to discover just how much valuable foreign business is brought into the country by this one pub – sorry, compartment – but we have our fun as well,’ said Mike. ‘It really is like an exclusive club.’
But a cloud hung over the nightly assembly. So amazed was British Rail to discover that here was a fraternity of passengers which was actually enjoying itself that plans were already afoot to abandon not only this but all its pubs on wheels throughout the national network in favour of the stark service counter which exist today.
‘You know, I will never understand you British,’ said the man from Lockheed. ‘The commuter airline I use back home between San Diego and Los Angeles has just removed some of its plane seats – because there wasn’t enough room at the bar.’
Maybe the yanks still have a suggestion or two to offer as the Great British Pub fights for survival.
By Donna Gee
Gentlemen Ranters. Battle-scarred male hacks putting the world to rights. Well, that’s what it sounds like.
So how does a moaning old hackette get her voice heard when she’s passed her sell-by date at Wapping and Canary Wharf? How about heading for a relaxing semi-retirement in the Spanish sunshine and touting her ranting talents to expat newspaper editors? As a columnist called Grumpy Old Gran*.
That’s exactly what I did and, girl, was it something completely different because even Monty Python couldn’t have dreamt up as bizarre a life change as that represented for me. I’ll elaborate on that later. But for now my advice to anyone considering the moan-to-the-expats idea is, don’t bother. The job’s already taken – by me. If you can call it a job, that is.
To start with, there’s no money in it, unless you can live on the 30 euros a month I get for my grumpy column in the Costa Blanca’s Female Focus magazine. That’s 30 euros more than I was offered collectively by half-a-dozen other publications out here, half of which were particularly keen on the idea.
I even provided a free sample grumpy column to arguably the most professional free expat paper, the Euro Weekly News. They gave it a half-page blast under a neat logo, complete with flattering mug-shot of me (which I chose, of course). Indications were that the column would be regular – until the editor hit me with the ‘we’re skint’ hammer. ‘We want your column but have no budget to pay for it,’ he lamented. ‘Would you take a free advert as payment instead?’
Since I had nothing to advertise apart from my writing skills (or lack of them), that was a non-starter. Not to mention the fact that, since all the free papers on the Costas are packed with ads, the modest amount I was asking would hardly have dented his piggy-bank.
Ironically, it was a female editor who finally agreed to swap my rants for that princessly 30 euros a month. And a free magazine aimed specifically at women (even if quite a few men also read it).
It’s far from professional in appearance and after nine months of grumping, I’m still not convinced they know the difference between a heading and a standfirst.
But it doesn’t matter, because the fact I can just be myself is all that really matters. Because Grumpy Old Gran was once a not-so-grumpy young MAN.
It’s going on for 15 years since Gerry Greenberg began his transition from male to female – and 40 years since the legendary John Junor took him on as a sports sub at the Sunday Express. In 1972 Gerry transferred to the Daily Express in Manchester – with Junor’s assistance – and, after its 1978 launch, became a Daily Star sports executive and columnist.
As the Star rugby union correspondent and, later, the Scottish Sun rugby man, Gerry (pictured here) travelled around Europe and lived in the ultimate macho world. He even wrote the autobiography (admittedly a contradiction of terms, but nevertheless a fact) of England’s toughest player, 6ft 8in lock forward Wade Dooley. As far removed from Donna as it is possible to get, you might say.
My former People colleague Harold Heys wrote in a Ranters piece a few months ago that Gerry ‘decided that in future he’d go by the name of Donna Gee and have a sex-change op’. I know Harold meant no offense, but my transition was anything but the trivial change of lifestyle his light-hearted line suggested. It was the completion of an impossible dream I had nurtured since the age of six.
It cost me around £25,000 and a lot of pain to turn my life around. But that was a snip – both literally and metaphorically – for turning a colourless caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly. Well, maybe not beautiful, but hopefully a reasonably normal woman.
When I began living as a female in 2003, I was deputy editor of a weekly group in the north of England. However, I was also working as a Saturday sport page editor with the People and the news spread around Fleet Street sports desks like wildfire.
There had been rumours that one of the subs was changing gender, at which point Derek McGovern, now the Daily Mirror betting guru, apparently opened a book on the identity. If only I’d known I was listed as a 40-1 outsider, my winnings could have paid for my surgery!
Some of the reactions among fellow hacks and friends over the next few weeks were hilarious, like the Saturday Scotland’s winning goal was scored by a player called Paul Dickov. ‘There’s only one person I can ask to sub this one,’ yelled People sport’s No 2 Lee Horton. ‘DONNA!’
Then there was the email I received from Wade Dooley, who had heard the rumours of my transition from a local journo. ‘I think you are being very brave,’ he wrote. ‘But personally, it’s not the sort of thing I would do.’ In case he ever changes his mind, I reminded him in my reply that a broken nose and Desperate Dan jaw-line are not among the most desirable assets of a transsexual woman.
All that is now in the dim and distant past. I’ve spent the last five years in Spain on the other side of the closet, revealing my previous life only on a ‘need-to-know’ basis.
When I moved to Guardamar, my neighbours hadn’t the foggiest idea I wasn’t born female. My other half Lynn and I said we were cousins, but when the kids and grandkids came to visit us, the questions became more and more difficult. ‘Is Lisa your daughter or Lynn’s?’ I would be asked. Since a liar has to have a good memory and Lynn or I are both incredibly forgetful, we decided to come clean.
And apart from a few raised eyebrows, the reaction was all positive.
Still, I would not dream of revealing all to the newspaper editors I have had dealings with. What business is it of theirs, anyway? And, let’s face it, the way I am today I’d look a weird Grumpy Old Man!
It certainly makes no difference to my two daughters and five grandkids, at least three of whom have no recollection of my previous life. They all know, of course, but none of them care that Donna, Gransy or whatever they call me, was not always a woman. And I remain eternally grateful for the fact that they, like Lynn, my partner of 42 years, remained loyal and accepting throughout the years of trauma.
The vast majority of transsexuals are rejected by everyone from spouses to parents and children and go on to plough a lonely path, unable to get a job and bombarded with verbal and physical abuse by the sub-human element of society.
An estimated one in three despairing souls eventually end their own lives, among them at least one with a similar professional background to myself.
Los Angeles Times sports writer Mike Penner became Christine Daniels after revealing in print in 2007 that he was transsexual. Two and a half years later he killed himself at the age of 52 – months after transitioning back to writing as Penner.
I don’t know the full circumstances of that person’s torment but it will never happen to me because I have been blessed with remarkable acceptance from friends and family – and precious little negativity at any point.
The bottom line is that I have achieved all I ever wanted in life – and more. Everything that happens from now on will merely be a bonus – or a penance as the case may be.
For half a lifetime I was a woman in a man’s world. Now I am a woman in the REAL world with a story to tell that could fill a book.
And it might just make me more than 30 euros a month.
Several moons ago, with a mind to cobbling together a piece for the Ranters School of Journalism, we emailed some of the Usual Suspects and asked what would be their top tips for aspiring hacks.
The responses were not very exciting and the collation went into the drawer. The best one, from memory, was: Never swallow phlegm.
However, Ken Ashton who is still, at his great age, tutoring tyros, bless him, came across this in the Guardian this week by Tim Radford, the paper’s former science editor, letters editor, arts editor and literary editor (and how’s that, for a one-shop CV?): A manifesto for the simple scribe – my 25 commandments for journalists. Worth a read, as are (some of) the sometimes pompous and/or pointless or point-missing comments attached by readers.
But… here’s another tip. Most people are paying too much income tax. Barry Kernon, tax adviser to the gentry, has produced a tax guide purely for the ‘journalists and writers’ who inhabit this site. You know it makes sense, and it’s in a language that even journalists can understand.
Back in the pub, John Dodd, who could teach most people a lot about writing, ponders a late-career move. Forgotten, but not gone, he is considering following in his uncle’s footsteps with a life-changing choice that might be unavailable to most Ranters. Or not…
Personal disclosure: At our first one-to-one meeting Robert Maxwell offered me the editorship of the Sporting Life. Yes – it surprised me, too. All I had to do was save the paper, for it was haemorrhaging money. At our second meeting, a few days later, he told me to forget about the offer. ‘The Life has no life,’ was how he put it, although it survived for another 14 years, which was more than he did.
Harold Heys has been reading a book (there’s a thing you don’t hear of very often: a journalist, reading a book) about the times of our Life. It should appeal, he says, not only to racing fans but to journalists generally. It should be a romance; in fact it’s a bloody tragedy.
Talking of which, we lost ace photographer Charlie Owens this week. Frank Corless mourns the passing of his great mate.
Freelance John Rodgers turns up late for the Lewthwaite wake, and still wonders how Big Jim was tempted from the Smoke Room to the Smoke.
And Bill Greaves shares a heart-starter with Vincent Mulchrone and other literary legends.
The image of his uncle…
By John Dodd
If our memory serves us right, it’s nearly 50 years ago. He was sitting outside our family pub swapping generalities with the village cricket team, drinking a half of bitter beer and rolling himself a cigarette from his tobacco tin.
A young man he vaguely knew came up and offered him a drink. ‘Don’t mind if I do, boy,’ said my uncle, downing the rest of his drink.
‘Can I take your picture?’ asked the lad. ‘Might break the camera, boy,’ jested my uncle.
‘Hold the glass up a bit, Jack,’ said the lad. ‘Whoa-up,’ said my uncle, coming the old gamekeeper he used to be. ‘Click!’ went the camera.
And that was it. The lad slouched off. A whole year went by, the incident completely forgotten. Then, the very next summer, the postcards started arriving.
‘Look who we found down here,’ said the first, from Clovelly. ‘We didn’t know you had a film star,’ said another, from Tintagel. ‘We came down here to get away from him,’ said a third, from Lyme Regis.
We looked, and there he was, sitting outside our pub, the Harrow Inn at Steep, Hampshire, the lilac hedge in the background, the sunlight dappling his mutton chop whiskers, the collar undone, the beer glass raised.
My uncle ‘Jack’ Oakley was on postcards from just about every county in the south-west holiday shires of England – Dorset, Devon, and Somerset – each with a dialect poem on the back.
I suppose we were collectively rather cheered by it all, our country credentials at last recognised by the world of print and photography. Perhaps our Hampshire vowels lengthened a little.
My sister, the landlady, showed the cards to my uncle. My uncle showed them to the domino school, then the cricket team, then to just about everyone who came into the pub. There was a general approval all round, followed by a kind of protective outrage and a feeling that he, ‘old Jack’, ought to get something out of it.
‘Don’t you let um git away wiv it Jack,’ said Cyril, his domino partner (sorry, I’m doing Hampshire dialect here). ‘They’re makin’ a fawchewn ate uv you, Jack,’ said Lenny, the gardener.
My uncle affected to look flattered and wronged at the same time. He could not make up his mind whether his vanity had been insulted or complimented, so he was one moment crotchety and bellicose and the next rather proud of himself, stroking his chin and tweaking his side whiskers.
A cricketing solicitor was seconded from his conveyancing duties to write a threatening letter to the postcard company on my uncle’s behalf.
The Tuesday domino school was pregnant with expectation. ‘You’ll git thayzins, Jack,’ said Cyril. ‘Don’t take their first offer,’ said the old colonel.
My uncle tapped the side of his nose with his index finger and winked a Levantine wink. ‘They won’t git one across me, boy,’ he said, knowingly.
Of course he got nothing, absolutely nothing at all. The postcard company wrote saying they had bought the negative from the young lad who owned the copyright of it by having paid my uncle the price of half a pint of bitter to pose for the said reproduction.
And that was it. The idea that you don’t own your own likeness astonished the public bar even more and then convinced them of the general commercial conspiracy there was in the world at large.
My uncle retreated into a melancholy, maintaining a grumpy peeve at the thought of all those postcards of himself winging around the country and not a penny of it going towards his pension or his sixpence-each-way-doubles on Lester Piggott.
He took to long silences, brooding in the pub porch over the form at Thirsk and plotting his revenge with every lick of his Rizla cigarette papers.
There was only one thing to do. My sister saw it first. She went through one of those catalogues for country clothes, measured him up, sent off the order form and the money, and back came Jack’s suit.
And what a suit it was. It had huge gamekeeper’s patch pockets and breeches, it had red, ginger and green stripes criss-crossing it, it had oak-leaf patterned buttons, a waistcoat with pockets he could tuck his thumbs into and bear a watch chain dangling across.
She bought him a hat with jay feathers in the band, socks with a Donegal fleck to show off his calves and a spanking pair of brown boots.
She plucked a dog rose for his lapel and we all stood round and admired him. If the world had decided our Uncle Jack was a country character, then, by horse-brasses, we were going to make sure he lived up to it. If he had it, Uncle Jack was going to flaunt it.
And so he did, even if, at times, he looked like something out of a BBC costume drama. ‘You having one, Mellors?’ strangers would joke at him.
My uncle, never a man for niceties would grunt his approval. ‘I’ll have the usual,’ he’d say. His lesson learnt, ‘the usual’ was no longer a half of bitter, but a barley wine. Then it grew to a scotch. Sometimes it was a half of bitter and a scotch and then it grew again to scotches and barley wine.
He would also mention he lived ‘up the road’ so he was given lifts to and from the pub to his almshouse by the church.
He settled into a retirement plan where he was chauffeured almost everywhere, where he had his food free at the pub and people bought him drinks lunchtimes and evenings.
Strangers were happy to sit down and just hobnob with my uncle, the postcard superstar, and he was happy to accept their hospitality. With a few drinks inside him, my uncle could be coerced into songs about free and bearded barleys, strong beer and good cider, and country songs no one bothered to sing anymore.
As a family pub (now run by my nieces), we are still happy to bathe in his reflected glory because, though he’s been dead for 35 years, the postcards of him still arrive from vacationing customers.
I was a mere slip of the lad back in the early 1960s. Now, straddling a new decade, I contemplate the prospect of complete retirement. I look at myself in the mirror and consider my future. Is it worth putting up new ideas to those feature desks – and worse still, making phone calls – to people I’ve never met or heard of? And suffering that humiliation when there is that quizzical ‘John-who?’ silence on the line when I mention my name.
No, perhaps I’ll make a new career move. I think I’m roughly the same size as my uncle. I too like sitting in pubs dispensing rural rubbish dressed up as wisdoms while supping ale. I stroke my chin and wonder what I’ll look like with mutton-chop whiskers. Somewhere (I think) the pub still has his suit stored away.
If people want to see old gits in pubs, why not fill a national need? Life as a postcard superstar becomes more and more appealing.
‘Want a drink, Mellors?’
‘I’ll have the usual, thanks.’
That was the Life…
By Harold Heys
My family is never stuck on what to get me for Christmas. I always drop a few hints early in December and Santa always turns up trumps with another crop of horse racing books to add to my collection. Except for this year when there was a hiccup. James Lambie’s The Story of Your Life about a newspaper’s long history and sad demise which Peter Oborne described as ‘a barbarous act of destruction’ was top of my list. But it didn’t arrive.
Luckily, I managed to win a copy in a racing quiz and Lambie kindly sent me a copy of his excellent history of the Sporting Life, a national institution for almost a century and a half – until the bean-counters gave it the heave-ho in the spring of 1998. Lambie, well-known in racing as the Life’s chief northern correspondent for the last 16 years of its er, life, congratulated me on adding his ‘weighty tome’ to my ‘marvellous racing library’ (about 850 strong at the last count).
I haven’t put it down since it arrived. It really is excellent, particularly so at recording the death-knell of a national newspaper that was more a national institution.
It had been, said Oborne, ‘deeply entrenched in our national consciousness’. It was ‘as English as hot tea, warm beer, wet summers and the Changing of the Guard.’ It was ‘one of those curious national monuments that belong to all of us and extends far beyond the few that know and love racing.’
[I have long been puzzled, incidentally, why Gentlemen Ranters seem to be populated by news and features types, even the occasional photographer. Sport, often called the blunt end of newspapers, seldom raises its head. Not sure why that is. Discuss.]
However, for those who wouldn’t know a jockey from a jacket and who thought a dark bay was a dismal bit of coastline, I should perhaps explain that the Sporting Life was a wonderful racing paper that reviewed much else. Coverage of greyhound racing became a strength and over the years it had reported on rugby and golf, motor racing, football and cricket, coursing and ratting. It carried eyewitness accounts of the first fight for the heavyweight championship of the world and Captain Webb’s heroic Channel swim of 1875.
But racing was its life; It was the racing bible. Everyone has been most complimentary about the paper in Lambie’s book but I may as well stick with Oborne. He said that unlike so many English things the attraction of the Sporting Life had ‘nothing whatever to do with class’. He explained: ‘You can walk into the roughest Glasgow pub with the Sporting Life under your arm and immediately get involved in a conversation rather than a fight.’ He’s right. I’ve done just that – not in Glasgow, but off Scotty Road in Liverpool and in darkest Soho.
Let me just say here that James Lambie’s book is indeed ‘weighty’ but it is authoritative and detailed without being at all ponderous. Racing fans will love it and other Ranters will be particularly interested in the closing chapters on the arrivals of Maxwell and Montgomery – brought in as the banks’ ‘cost-cutter general’ – and the ultimate closure of the paper in May, 1998.
Most of us have had a wake or two over the years and the chapter on the Life’s last thrash in the Freemasons Arms in Covent Garden will bring back a few memories. The Freemasons had been the favoured watering hole of the Life team for close on half a century when, till 1971, the paper had its offices at 93 Long Acre.
Lambie wrote: ‘Now, the pub was to serve as a maudlin chapel of remembrance for the last generation of Lifers.’ As the ale – and the memories – flowed everyone was united in slagging the shabby way the closure (and merger with the Racing Post) had been handled. One reporter brought along a note from the management thanking him for his ‘loyalty over the years’ and enclosing a voucher for a few free copies of the Post over the next few days.
Lambie concludes his affectionate look-back to a paper that had real class with a line from Jimmy Cameron on the demise of the News Chronicle in 1960. The autopsy report, said Lambie, revealed that the Life had died of ‘a simple thrombosis, defined as when an active circulation is impeded by clots.’
Perhaps I could finish with a brief summary from the book of the perils of newspaper correspondents with perhaps more courage than sense. It’s the story of how the Life lost its French correspondent, H I Dillon, the 32-year-old son of an English parson, in the late autumn of 1862. Dillon had fallen out with Le Duc de Gramont-Caderousse, a noted hell-raiser among the Parisian demi-monde over the vexed question of amateur jockeys.
The simmering resentment came to a head when they met in a duel in a forest close to the racecourse of Maisons-Laffitte. Dillon had opted for pistols but, as the challenger, had to give way to the Duke’s choice of rapiers. Dillon spent a few days on a crash course in fencing before taking on the Duke who was a seasoned duellist. It was no contest. After a few exchanges, Dillon launched a mad charge and was run through, dying instantly.
A salutary lesson for all you youngsters out in the wilds, busily covering local flower shows and vegetable competitions. Don’t get too critical. And if elderly Miss Smith or old Mr. Jones does take offense at your raised eyebrow and writes a snotty letter to your editor – take it on the chin.
The Story of Your Life; A history of The Sporting Life newspaper (1859-1998) by James Lambie is published by Troubador.
The quality of Mersey
By Frank Corless
Saying a fond farewell to Charlie Owens is just about the saddest thing I’ve ever had to do. With his indomitable spirit and courage, I reckoned on him hitting a century and perhaps seeing me out.
He had faced up to many trials and tribulations, not least of them suffering a stroke that eventually forced his early retirement in 1986, but he always bounced back as cheerful and resilient as ever.
Even up to a few weeks ago, just before he was admitted to the Royal Liverpool Hospital, where he died on Sunday, aged 88, he was still driving his beloved BMW (though not very fast).
Chas wasn’t just my former colleague across three decades in the Liverpool office of the Daily Mirror in Greek Street; he was also a true friend, a father figure who was always around to provide help and guidance in the best, and the worst, of times. And there were a lot of both.
He was happy at the most sober of times, but when the drinks flowed he was the life and soul of the party. He loved having his friends and colleagues around him, and every one of them enjoyed his company. The very epitome of the phrase ‘hail fellow well met’, he was an incredibly charming and likeable character. Off duty he was a devoted family man to whom friends and colleagues knew they could turn in time of need, confident that he would help if he could. Legion are the names of those who owe a debt of gratitude to Charles Owens.
It’s as a mate that I will remember him best. But Charlie was the consummate professional, one of the all-time great Mirror photographers. His fantastic pictures still stand the test of time.
Renowned as a very talented cameraman, he had a great eye for a story matched with a silver tongue and the dazzling knack of capturing the moment through his lens.
He could put his subjects at their ease with a winning smile and his easy nature and created many thousands of eye-catching images to grace the pages of the Daily Mirror in an age when photography was an art with an air of mystery about it.
He was one of the most highly respected and distinguished members of a very exclusive group: the Liverpool press corps of Britain’s national newspapers.
From the rise of the Beatles, to seemingly endless dock strikes, the Toxteth riots, Grand National triumphs and heartaches, the political turmoil of the Derek Hatton years, and spectacular Liverpool and Everton successes, to name but a few examples, there was always something happening in the city. And you could bank on Charlie being there, camera in hand, ready to snap the very best moment.
Sometimes, he couldn’t stop clicking. Not for nothing was he known as ‘Just-one-more-Charlie’. But it wasn’t through any lack of confidence or of belief in his own outstanding ability. It was because he always wanted more… the ultimate, most brilliant picture.
On occasions, it had its comic consequences. No more so than after Liverpool full-back Chris Lawler got married on the eve of the team’s European Cup semi-final against the formidable Inter Milan.
Chris couldn’t spend his wedding night with his bride because manager Bill Shankly took the team off to Blackpool to be together before the big game. And you didn’t argue with Shanks. (To add insult to injury, Chris ended up sharing a room with ‘Anfield Iron’ Tommy Smith when he should have been with his new wife. How unlucky can you get?)
The following night, in a momentous Anfield spectacular, Liverpool went on to hammer Inter 3-1, and Chris even scored a goal – although, sadly, it was disallowed.
In those enlightened days, you could actually approach players. You could knock on their doors. You could even be first-name friends. And Charlie was a friend to most.
We rushed to Chris’s home in West Derby straight after the final whistle to ask if he would mind giving us a little chat, and posing for a few pictures with his bride. Chris wasn’t too keen but, ever the gentleman, he finally agreed on the proviso that we ‘made it quick’.
Quick was never a word that figured in Charlie’s dictionary. As the minutes went by, and with Chris getting more impatient, the clicks went on… and on… and on.
In the end, the usually urbane Chris became more than a little restless and said: ‘For God’s sake, Charlie, give over – this is my wedding night.’
‘Oh sorry,’ Charlie replied, ‘I completely forgot.’
Another time, when we sweltered during one of Britain’s ‘hotter-than-the-Sahara’ heat waves – yes, we did have them – the picture desk asked Charlie if he could come up with a snap to capture the mood. The idea didn’t take long coming, but taking the picture turned into a nightmare.
It involved borrowing a camel from Southport Zoo, and trailing it through the Ainsdale sand dunes, standing in for the Sahara, to link up with a model who Charlie had recruited to sit on the animal’s back. All went well until the camel got fed up and broke loose from its keeper.
Even now, I can see Charlie, the camel keeper and me, racing across the sand in pursuit of the screaming beauty, and the demented beast. Lawrence of Arabia, it wasn’t. More like Laurel and Hardy.
Charlie’s first loves were his wonderful wife Betty, his son Trevor, and daughter Wendy, and his grandchildren and great grandchild. ‘I’ve got the best family any man could wish for,’ he once told me. Celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary last year was the greatest highlight of his life.
Charlie’s second joint favourites were the Daily Mirror, which he’d joined in 1951 – right up until his final few days, he still read the paper from cover to cover – and the Press Club. His love for Liverpool FC wasn’t far behind.
A lifelong member of the Press Club, he was a regular ‘star’ of its famous Christmas pantomimes. He served as president and also as treasurer at a time of financial crisis when the club was threatened with closure in the 60s.
Charlie told the tale of how he went cap-in-hand to Littlewoods Pools boss John Moores, begging him to bail-out the club. Ever-persuasive Charlie cajoled the millionaire into agreement, but only on the basis that he would match, pound-for-pound, what the members could raise. Charlie relished the challenge and with the promise of a ‘pools win’ the members rallied-round to save the day.
The irony is that his death might never have happened but for a twist of fate brought on by Charlie’s cheerful willingness to help with the family chores.
He slipped on the ice outside his home, fracturing his left leg in two places. Complications later set in and the leg had to be amputated.
Yet, again showing remarkable courage, he still talked of eventually getting behind the wheel of his car, and of returning to Anfield to see Liverpool climb out of their troubles.
His death marks the end of an era, with the passing of a man who was truly a legend in his own lifetime.
He was born on 17th December 1922 in West Derby, Liverpool and attended Lister Drive School, leaving at the age of 14 to start work at the Evening Express. After a number of menial jobs he fulfilled his ambition to land a job as a photographer.
In the May Blitz in 1940 his parent’s family home was badly damaged in an explosion and Charlie volunteered for action. Then aged 17 he had to wait several months for his call-up but Charlie and a number of others from the Evening Express, including his pal Les Poole, were enlisted.
Always a natty dresser, he had wanted to join the Royal Navy, but he was informed that as a trained photographer his services were required in the RAF and he was sent for training in Blackpool and Whitley Bay before being posted to Coastal Command in Plymouth.
Alongside his role in reconnaissance Charlie also trained as an air gunner, and flew several sorties as a real ‘tail-end Charlie’ in the dangerous role of rear gunner in Short Sunderland flying boats, on convoy protection patrols in the Atlantic approaches.
When his squadron was sent to the Shetlands, Charlie’s main job was mounting cameras on Bristol Beaufighter reconnaissance planes that flew missions over the fjords of Norway, but also mounting anti-aircraft machine guns.
Charlie was a keen footballer and played for his squadron football team but also enjoyed leave visits back home to Liverpool where he often teamed-up with his Navy pals with the highlight being a trip to the Grafton Rooms where, dressed in uniform, they were feted by the local lovelies.
In 1944 his squadron was transferred back to Plymouth where he was involved in various operations including reconnaissance flights over the D-day landings. Late in the war he gained expertise as a cine cameraman, shooting RAF film of Doodlebug V1 and V2 rockets heading over the coast towards their targets in London.
At the end of the war he was seconded to the RAF College, at Cranwell, where he was offered promotion to Flight Sergeant, but opted instead for a return to civvy street, rejoining the staff of the Evening Express. It was during this period that he met Betty, the love of his life, at West Derby Village Hall and the couple were wed at St Mary’s Church in 1950.
When I last saw him, only a few days before he died, he thanked me for coming, shook my hand, and asked after everyone. He was kind and caring to the very last.
By John Rodgers
In France, keeping a careful watch on people who claim to be builders, I have just caught up with the news of Jim Lewthwaite’s sad passing from John Kay’s excellent account of his kindness. Despite the lateness, I cannot let the occasion pass without offering a rounder picture of the ‘gentle giant’ and recall my first meeting with what I long suspected was an archetypal gritty Northerner.
It was after work on my first day at the Hull Daily Mail in 1959. I wanted to introduce my pregnant bride, who knew no one else in town, to my colleagues. The reporters were all at the bar in the Smoke Room and when we entered there was a hush. Fellow novice Bill Davis who had the advantage of being a native, hurried towards us and whispered: ‘Women don’t come into the Smoke Room. Margaret will be more at ease with the other wives and girlfriends in the saloon.’
Bill showed us the way, introduced us to the women and ushered me back to the Smoke for some real men’s conversation. By the end of the evening, I had spoken to everyone but the tall, silent figure beside me at the bar. I tried some innocuous opening gambit. It may have been to ask for which London national he would like to work.
‘I hate fucking Cockneys,’ he replied. End of conversation. It may have been a slice of typical northern humour but for this Londoner venturing to live and work beyond the Watford Gap for the first time in his life, it was somewhat daunting.
Bill Davis, who died at a shockingly early age, explained that Jim’s ambition was to work in Manchester where his father was a news editor on the Daily Mail. As far as he and most of our fellow reporters were concerned London did not exist; Manchester was their Eldorado.
Years later, I was surprised to bump into Jim when he came to work in London. I chivvied him about our first conversation and possibly for the first and only time in his life he appeared a little sheepish.
He was friendly but made no attempt to explain his earlier antagonism. I was left to ponder on what persuasions were deployed by that crafty news man, Ken Donlan, to bring Jim to the Big Smoke.
Taking things literally
By William Greaves
He might have been technically awake for a few hours but for that greatest of all post-war journalists, Vincent Mulchrone, life began at 11am.
That was when the editor of the Daily Mail summoned all his department heads for the morning conference that would discuss the likely format of the following morning’s paper and was also the moment, with the chiefs otherwise occupied, for the Indians to make for the pub.
It was a daily excursion known as the ‘conference quickie’ and for the reporters it meant a dash for the back stairs that led to the saloon bar of the White Swan.
But for we small band of self-important feature writers – ‘poets corner’ or ‘the reporters with adjectives’ – the destination was the tiny back bar of The Harrow.
Here we would be met by Len the barman who would have ready on the bar a glass of Fernet Branca (a grape-distilled spirit with added myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamon, aloa and saffron, recommended for the treatment of menstrual and gastrointestinal disorders, baby colic or, in this particular case, hangovers) a glass of tap water and a half bottle of Champagne.
The morning ritual would be conducted in total silence. Vincent would walk to the bar, swig down the Fernet Branca, screw his face into a contortion of disgust, reach for the water, down it in one, shiver briefly and then take a heart-starting sip of the Rheims restorer at the very moment Len had expertly released the cork.
Only then would he have the strength or composure to acknowledge the rest of the company. ‘Morning Len. Morning chaps’… Another day had begun.
The fact that only Vincent was paid enough to afford our morning bubbly and the rest of us were digging far too deeply into the family housekeeping was simply accepted as being an unavoidable sacrifice to the decent order of things. We were in the theatre of the master.
Of all the newspapermen I have been privileged to work alongside (or in opposition to, come to that) Vincent Mulchrone remains the only one who could honestly be described as a ‘man of literature.’ (Among the hundreds of unforgettable pieces to emerge from his typewriter, the most appropriate to recall in this place concerned a memorable community rescue act in Monaghan, Ireland, and contained one of the longest drop intros in Fleet Street legend – opening with I do believe I am about to write what may be the most beautiful sentence in the English language and some 500 words later revealing the contents of that treasured sentence: The customers bought the pub. O joy!)
Alas, Vincent left us for the great newsroom in the sky many years ago but call into that same little snug today and not only does it declare itself to be The Mulchrone Bar but on the wall inside are displayed a smiling picture of the man himself alongside a glowing tribute from no less a figure than Associated Newspapers proprietor Lord Harmsworth. The journalists have long departed from Fleet Street – most returning only to say goodbye to former colleagues at their spiritual home of St Bride’s Church – and whether the modern-day clientele of City folk spare a glance for the heritage of their surroundings, I know not, but every time I enter I hear the ghostly ‘Morning Len, morning chaps’ as clearly as t’were yesterday.
The chemical interaction between literary genius and the Great British Pub has long been a recognised historical phenomenon but whether the pub spawned the scribe’s inspiration or the writer merely graced the boozer of his or her choosing is a matter for conjecture. Certainly in Vincent’s case, as with a whole generation of Fleet Street supremos, more ideas emerged from pub conversation than from any other source. Perhaps the word and the glass were merely happily married.
As was certainly the case within the Rabbit Room of the Eagle and Child in St. Giles’, Oxford, during the 1930s and 1940s when every Tuesday morning a fly on the wall would have been privileged to eavesdrop upon J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis and other members of a literary circle of Oxford University students and dons known as The Inklings when they took their regular seats in the pub they affectionately knew as the Bird and Baby or more often simply the Bird to chat about sundry elves, Hobbits, orcs and other residents of Middle Earth and more distant planets and read latest extracts from their books-to-be.
Such meeting were not without their moments of good-natured dissention and on one occasion when Tolkien was in mid-story, Lewis was famously heard to mutter ‘Oh, no, not another fucking elf!’ But it is also widely acknowledged that it was only Lewis’s enthusiasm for his fellow academic’s imagination at these weekly pub get-togethers that persuaded Tolkien to press on with his now-famous trilogy, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.
And a framed hand-written letter addressed to the landlord and signed by all the Inklings, thanking him for the excellence of the ham they had just eaten, still hangs on the Rabbit Room wall. It is dated 1948 – the year that Lewis completed the first draft of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (Nowadays, the pub is still the narrow zigzag of nooks and crannies that those distinguished regulars would have known and the food is still as mouth-wateringly simple, dominated by a daily variety of home-made pies. The day I walked in a notice on the wall proudly proclaimed: ‘Last week we sold 2,481 pints of ale and 369 pies’ – a true feast for Hobbits.)
‘As well as present day Oxford students, tourists come here in their thousands because the literary history of the pub is well-known everywhere,’ says manager Kerry Skrzypiec, who is no stranger to entertaining literary pilgrims. ‘My previous pub was the Crown, just down the road in Cornmarket, where William Shakespeare was a regular visitor and was apparently having an affair with Mrs Davenant, wife of the landlord, John Davenant.’ Indeed, it is widely rumoured that the Bard was the father of her son, William – later, Sir William Davenant and himself a playwright. The time-honoured relationship between literary prowess and the Great British Pub could scarcely get any closer than that.
And would there ever have been a Robinson Crusoe if Daniel Defoe had not struck up a casual conversation with one Alexander Selkirk over a pint of best in the Llandoger Trow pub in downtown Bristol? Come to that, would we ever have learnt of the adventures of Jim Hawkins if that very same pub – renamed the Admiral Benbow in one of the world’s best loved stories of derring-do – had not become Robert Louis Stevenson’s model for Jim’s family home in Treasure Island?
First-time visitors to the Tower Bank Arms, a simple and charming pub in the heart of the Lake District in Near Sawrey, not far from the banks of Lake Windermere, might well feel certain they’d seen it somewhere before. And they would be right.
Pick up your copy of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck and you will read how Kep, the wise old collie dog, ‘trotted down the village to look for two foxhound puppies who were out at walk with the butcher.’ And, sure enough, there they are on the opposite page, pictured in the author’s unmistakeable brush strokes, outside the Tower Bank pub.
It was a little ahead of opening time when I bowled up out of a snow blizzard but, in the absence of any promenading foxhounds, current landlord Anthony Hutton, true to age-old rustic traditions of courtesy, opened the door with a welcoming ‘Best come in and I’ll make you a cup of coffee.’
And in no time at all he was talking affectionately about his former famous near-neighbour and how she wasn’t much into pubs – and didn’t have much time for children either. ‘I’m afraid she was rather deprived of her own childhood and was perhaps a bit resentful about that,’ he told me.
And elderly neighbour Willow Taylor well remembers the many times as a little girl she was honoured to be at the receiving end of the wonderful storyteller’s disapproving turn of phrase. ‘Our playground in those days was the main road through the village that ran pas the inn,’ she recalls. ‘On many occasions when we were playing cricket, rounders or tennis our ball would be knocked over the wall into Post Office Meadow, the field opposite Hilltop (BP’s home) and owned by Beatrix Potter. Invariably, I would be the one climbing the wall to retrieve the ball just as she was coming along. ‘Why can’t you use the gate? – You are a naughty little girl,’ she would say.’
Without too many chimney pots nearby, the lovely little pub today is largely reliant on Beatrix Potter hunters for survival. ‘But we keep our prices as low as we can and often when people come once they return year after year,’ says Hutton.
Pubs throughout the land proudly rejoice in their close association with the written word. Both local lad William Wordsworth and his frequent guest Sir Walter Scott spent happy hours in the Swan at Grasmere – Wordsworth even making affectionate mention of it in his poem The Waggoners; the Black Bull in Haworth, West Yorkshire, will be forever associated with the entire Bronte family and Charles Dickens relied heavily upon his researches at the Ancient Unicorn in Bowes, County Durham, for the creation of both Dotheby’s Hall and its cruel headmaster Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby.
Frank Muir, the amiable genius behind so many hilarious television scripts was not only born in his grandfather’s pub, the Derby Arms in Ramsgate, but reputedly tried out his first joke in the bar there – at the age of six.
Visitors to Cornwall’s most famous hostelry, Jamaica Inn at Bolventor, are positively inundated by memorabilia connected with Daphne du Maurier and her family and Jerome K Jerome not only stayed in the Barley Mow in Clifton Hampden, Oxfordshire, but also wrote much of his wonderful Three Men in a Boat while enjoying its hospitality.‘
There are pubs that have entertained the literati in their times of leisure and there are those in which the wordsmiths have actually taken pen and ink to compose their magic prose while perched upon a bar stool but there is probably only one pub that one of the most nationally adored poets has actually written upon.
Pass through the lounge bar (then the stables in which he would have tied up his horse) and the lovely snug (then the tackle room that would have received his saddle) and climb the stairs to one of the bedrooms of the Globe Inn, Dumfries, and you will find etched into one of the window panes with his own diamond ring a poem inscribed by Robert Burns and intended for the eyes of a favourite young lady:
O lovely Polly Stewart
O charming Polly Stewart
There’s not a flower that blooms in May
That’s half so fair as thou art.
And upon a neighbouring pane, similarly etched, can still be seen a modified version of a more familiar refrain:
Gin a body meet a body
Coming through the grain
Gin a body kiss a body
The thing’s a body’s ain.
There was the occasion, too, when Burns, who described the Globe as his very favourite’ howff’ (or haunt), forgot to warn guv’nors Jock and Meg Hyslop of his and his companion’s coming but was nonetheless provided with the sheep’s head their hosts had intended for themselves. Full of gratitude and a tinge of remorse, their beloved guest was prevailed upon to pronounce grace:
O Lord when hunger pinches sore,
Do Thou stand us in stead,
And send us, from Thy bounteous store,
A tup or wether head!
O, Lord since we have feasted thus,
Which we so little merit,
Let Meg take away the flesh,
And Jock bring in the spirit!
Now there speaks a truly satisfied customer.
January 28, 2011
Here’s another thing you don’t hear of very often. Last week it was a journalist reading a book; this week it’s a journalist with a good word to say for Robert Maxwell.
Same journalist – our old friend Harold Heys – and same book (the story of the Sporting Life, which he got for Christmas).
Daily Mirror editor Richard Stott went to his grave believing that the ‘splash’ (sorry!) headline he wrote on the day the fat man drowned – The Man Who Saved The Mirror – was justifiable, even though he had to follow it up, in short order, with Millions Missing From The Mirror. And Harold thinks that Cap’n Bob might have just happened to have been the right man at the right time.
Certainly there’d have been no argument from the bouncing Czech, who reckoned that if he hadn’t bought the Mirror titles when he did (1984), they would have been bankrupted within a year.
The Sporting Life was the most precarious title in the group. Although every betting shop needed at least two copies – and that was only to put on the walls – and virtually every pub bought at least one, the Inkies were slowly killing it with demands for extra payment.
Indeed, it was often suggested that the only reason it was kept going was because the Queen Mother famously read it first, every morning.
She once told Hugh Cudlipp, at a Buck House garden party, that she was going to Balmoral that night; she also said that the Royal Train always left Kings Cross but travelled only as far as Doncaster where – sod security, she could trust Cudlipp – it stayed overnight in the sidings. Whether this was so that she could have a more comfortable night’s sleep, or so that she could arrive at her destination in daylight for photos, is anybody’s guess.
Anyway, Cudlipp had a brainwave and sent the Mirror’s northern circulation boss from Manchester to Donny with a set of the first editions. He found the Royal Train and – this would be around midnight, but sod security – reached up to hammer on the door. It was opened by a (presumably surprised) lady-in-waiting, in a nightie.
He handed over the bundle of papers and told her they were for Her Majesty, with Mr. Cudlipp’s compliments. She told him to wait.
When she returned she said: ‘Her majesty has asked me to thank you, and to ask you to pass on her gratitude to Mr. Cudlipp. But she has also asked me to ask you – do you not have a copy of the Sporting Life?’
How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen Vic. You don’t get story lines like that in Eastenders. You can’t even get a pint. But you can get one at Emmerdale or even in Ambridge if – like Bill Greaves, our man in the corner with the pint pot with a handle – you know where to look.
Under stopper’s orders
By Harold Heys
Twenty-five years ago the print unions still had Fleet Street in an iron grip. But their days were numbered. Grudgingly, journalists have to give Cap’n Bob some of the credit for breaking the stranglehold. He put the boot into everyone in his quest for money and power. And he didn’t shrink from taking on the inkies.
Most journalists under, say, 45, will have little comprehension of the abject awfulness of trying to get a paper out in the face of often total intransigence, certainly in Fleet Street.
Yes, youngsters will have heard tales of casual workers signing on for a Saturday night shift as ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘Donald Duck’ and then spending much of the night in the local pubs. But it went beyond funny; it got plain daft. Tax inspectors a few years earlier, for instance, had found dozens of odd names on the Mirror Group roster. ‘Sir Gordon Richards of Tattenham Corner’ was a busy man and so was ‘Percy Roberts of Ross-on-Wye’ (Percy had been chairman of MGN). Inspectors’ exasperation was nothing to the frustration felt by newspaper managements.
Last week I reviewed James Lambie’s excellent book on the history of the Sporting Life and am indebted to his chapter entitled – with an amusing lack of subtlety – ‘Anarchy’ for this brief look-back to the days of Robert Maxwell’s arrival on the scene and his face-off with the print unions. Younger journalists these days will probably have scant knowledge of ‘hot metal’ let alone the dozen or so unions and scores of union chapels, virtually any one of which could pull the plug. The big boys with most of the clout were the National Graphical Association (NGA), the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants (Natsopa) and the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (Sogat). NUJ members could only look on with growing despair.
The Life, a specialised racing paper with intricate production problems, was often the target. Mass circulation newspapers were much more able to weather the frequent storms.
Lambie recalls that there were days when the Life did not appear because members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the Electrical Trades Union simply refused to turn on the power for the presses. Other days were lost due to an unofficial stoppage by electricians, plumbers and heating engineers. One week, distribution would be severely curtailed because of an unofficial overtime ban by the National Union of Printing, Bookbinding and Paper Workers; another week it would be a dispute involving Sogat members, packers and van drivers. Says Lambie: ‘Demands for pay increases of 40 per cent were not unheard of.’
He adds an amusing footnote about the Communist-backed Daily Worker which had little trouble from the wildcats. Its racing correspondent Alf Rubin – famous for tipping Russian Hero, the 66-1 winner of the 1949 Grand National – suddenly had a new following as sales of his paper soared. The imperious Duke of Norfolk was seen with a copy, holding it, as Time magazine reported, ‘as if it were a week-old fish.’
In London the print unions were made up almost exclusively of white East-Enders who ran the show pretty much as they pleased. Most had day jobs as well. Supine management had thrown in the towel years earlier.
The Government was determined to limit union power and two Employment Acts and then the 1984 Trade Union Act had them rocking. Meanwhile, in the provinces, regional newspapers were embracing new technology as they had with the introduction of Linotype machines some 80 years earlier. The cowed printers would soon be down the road – and they knew it. But they clung on grimly in the face of a mounting swell.
Just a couple of examples. Although the London machine minders had agreed, for big money, to a ‘no automatic replacement of labour’ clause, they demanded a replacement for a 78-year-old who had died, even though his job had disappeared. The production of Reveille (light entertainment, pin-ups and froth) was halted for three weeks before management closed it down for good. In the mid-50s it was selling close on four million copies. On the paper where I worked, the print chapel insisted on some dolloper joining the staff as a replacement just because they knew it would get up the management’s nose.
Maxwell was probably the right man at the right time to give progress a hefty shove. The board of Reed International who owned the Mirror Group had felt they had no option but to accept his generous offer for the company. It left a nasty taste in the mouths of just about everyone who worked for the operation – especially the journalists – but they had to admit that there was no way Reed bosses would ever have taken on the printers.
The Life was losing a few million a year in 1985, largely because of the exorbitant print costs, and Ranter-in-Chief Revel Barker, an MGN executive at the time, recalls Maxwell saying that it would have been cheaper to give everybody who asked for a copy of the Life a pound note and tell them to go away. Probably the only thing that kept the paper going in the late 80s was the fact that it was the Queen Mother’s favourite. Imagining the old dear weighing up the 3.30 at Plumpton over her breakfast croissants must have appealed to the pompous fat prat.
Eddie Shah had started the new-technology ball rolling in the provinces and was lining up the launch of Today while Rupert Murdoch was gathering up his mob ready to decamp to a razor-wired fortress in Wapping. Maxwell flexed his muscles and hammered away at the printer devils in his particular corner. It was a long and hard battle and Lambie tells it with a keen attention to detail while capturing neatly the frustration of it all for just about everyone, especially the hacks.
Cap’n Bob was long gone by the time the Sporting Life closed in May 1998. A redesign had upset the bookies and the readers and the Racing Post was proving to be stiff opposition. Lambie takes an insider’s look through the closing years of the newspaper that had been a national institution. It’s a very interesting book for anyone with even a mild curiosity over what it was like in what we veterans are always calling the ‘Good Old Days’.
So they were in many ways, although our ‘colleagues’ in the print unions had a lot to answer for. Individually, or in a small group, they were great fun and I’ve enjoyed many a ‘wind-up’ and rough nights on the town with them. But line them up behind a union official with pound signs sparkling in his – or her – eyes and they were a different breed.
The last direct descendants of Genghis Khan, says Lambie, no doubt with a wry, nostalgic smile…
By William Greaves
Back in its early days when the TV soap Emmerdale Farm was filmed in gloriously unspoilt Lyttondale in the Yorkshire Dales, the locals got so fed up with the swelling army of gawking camera-clickers who invaded their tranquillity by the coachload that they pleaded with Yorkshire Television to take its cameras elsewhere.
The company duly obliged and, under cover of darkness and oath of secrecy, switched its allegiance to the village of Esholt, so close to the cities of Leeds and Bradford that its producers erroneously believed that the soap’s groupies would never think to seek their rustic idols in such a near-urban hideaway.
How wrong they were. In short time, a field had to be concreted to accommodate the coaches and the cameras of the voyeurs clicked anew.
This time, however, the locals rather enjoyed their new-found fame. The village pub, mundanely christened the Commercial, which one day every week had its sign and name covered up to pronounce itself the Woolpack, enjoyed galloping custom and the local post office/corner shop did a roaring trade with its Emmerdale diaries, Emmerdale crayons, Emmerdale notelets and Emmerdale everything-elses.
Despatched to the scene with a photographer to report on the latest fictional TV-inspired invasion for the Daily Mail, we were momentarily thrown by this lack of native resistance. Until, that is, we ventured out of the village centre in search of the soap’s eponymous epicentre.
And, glory of glories, there at the advent of a lengthy driveway was a large hand-written sign which remains in the mind’s eye to this day: THIS IS NOT EMMERDALE FARM – FUCK OFF!
(The besieged farmer later apologised for his unequivocal language, when we bravely disregarded his unambiguous instructions and ventured to his door, but said that he was several weeks late getting in his previous autumn’s harvest because of the multitudes invading his land and that the ‘real’ Emmerdale Farm was several miles away.)
But the village pub has now gladly given up any doubts about its role as an icon of the silver screen and renamed itself The Woolpack for all seven days of the week.
It was back in 1976 when the pub played host to the Emmerdale squad for the first time and, in fairness, it wasn’t Yorkshire TV that gave the game away but a rather unthinking Bradford Tourist Board which chose a picture of the Commercial for the front cover of its brochure – a picture instantly recognised by the soap’s legion of aficionados.
After stints by Amos Brearly and Henry Wilks, Alan Turner became the new landlord in the world of make-believe in January 1991, with grandiose ideas of taking it upmarket, changing the brewery and holding a spectacular re-opening in the revealing presence of Miss Skipdale Breweries – with a consequent surge in real-life customers.
And although the programme, which dropped the ‘Farm’ from its title in 1989, has not been filmed in the village since 1997 – when a brand new set was built in the grounds of nearby Harewood House – the current boss reckons that at least fifty per cent of her trade during the summer months is made up of the Emmerdale faithful.
And the Woolpack remains unique among soap pubs in that it actually exists. The Rovers Return Inn and the Queen Victoria in Albert Square have only ever been studio creations and the Bull in Ambridge, although inspired by a real boozer in which I recently enjoyed a couple of excellent pints, is really as non-existent as Ambridge and the family Archer themselves.
For a mere figment of the imagination, however, the history of the Rover’s Return Inn is probably better chronicled than any other pub in the land. Its first two landlords, Jim Cobishley (1902 – 1919) and George Diggins (1919 – 1937), although now formerly listed on the honours board, were actually long gone and buried before Coronation Street was ever dreamed up as the working-class saga it has become and even that unforgettable duo, Jack and Annie Walker, had been in charge for a full 23 years before their debut on screen in December, 1960.
When Annie finally retired in 1984, their wayward son Billy held the reins for less than a year until the pub’s most popular barmaid, Bet Lynch, became manager to her great surprise for ten action-packed years. After them – who can name them? – in fairly quick succession came Jack and Vera Duckworth, Natalie Barnes, Fred Elliott, Mike Baldwin and Duggie Ferguson (between 2001 and 2006) and then Steve and Liz McDonald from thereon. (That’s 10 points for all seven and one point only for Jack and Vera because everyone surely got them.)
And few pubs in the land can possibly have experienced so many memorable moments that have punctuated the years. Remember Martha Longhurst’s death in the snug (with Violet Carson, sorry Ena Sharples, bravely playing Down at the Old Bull and Bush on the piano to hide her tears), the lorry crash outside that was thought to have killed Deirdrie Langton’s baby in her pram until it was discovered that someone had abducted her a few moments earlier (1979) and the 1986 fire which so rearranged the inner structure of the building and which almost choked Bet to death in her bedroom – actress Julie Goodyear’s nightdress really did catch fire during the filming so her scream was entirely genuine.
No, there was never a dull moment down at the Rover’s Return.
Television ratings are ruthless slavedrivers, however, and if the Rovers can boast one inferno, its opposite number, the Queen Victoria, in Albert Square, watering hole for all those Eastenders, has already notched up two in a televised existence a full quarter century shorter than its northern rival.
The first conflagration was when Grant Mitchell, husband of freeholder Sharon Watts – remember her, daughter of Angie and ‘Dirty Den’? – set fire to the place in an insurance scam in 1992 but the second, only last year, was a far mightier affair, when the Vic actually had to be moved lock, stock and barrel to a specialist fire stage at Elstree Film Studios and the blaze involved 45 crew members, including make-up, a stunt team, fire safety officers, cameras, lighting, sound and costume departments.
Fires in real life boozers usually require far fewer personnel – even though sadly a couple of all-powerful soda siphons which used to do the trick are nowadays notably absent from the bar counter.
The Bull’s starring role in more than 16,000 episodes of The Archers has received no finer accolade than when it was named Best Pub of Borsetshire in 2005.
But the real-life pub on which it is based needs no such transitory compliments – the Old Bull on the village green in Inkberrow, Hereford and Worcester, is a wonderful and welcoming Tudor-timbered hostelry with much more to its name than the wall full of signed pictures of the stars who have illumined that ‘everyday story of countryfolk’ these last sixty years.
After all, it was here that William Shakespeare lodged on his way to collect his wedding licence. ‘And I’ve been told that Charles II’s horse is buried under the very chair that you are sitting on,’ said landlady Lyn Fishburn, rather unexpectedly.
So that must have been back in 1651, when the king was fleeing from defeat at the Battle of Worcester which finally brought to an end the English Civil War.
I don’t know exactly how many pubs there were in England during the 17th century but its a fair guess that either Charles I or his lad, Charles II, had a pint or two in all of them, even if both father and son had frequently to gulp the second one down pretty quickly when Oliver Cromwell’s pursuing hordes came crashing over the horizon.
At least the unscheduled arrival of a regiment of fully-armed soldiers and neighing horses is something that not even desperate scriptwriters have thus far imposed on the management and punters of the Rover’s Return, the Queen Victoria, the Woolpack and the Bull in Ambridge.