By Geoffrey Mather
Name: Prodnose, a pedantic and interfering character in the humorous columns of J B Morton. The final column appeared on November 29, 1975, and contained the headline ‘Lawnmower Used on Vet’s Whiskers’.
I suppose Mr. Gabb was the first genuine Prodnose I ever met, though I would never describe him as either pedantic or interfering.
Competent. That’s the word for him. A gent we might grandly refer to as being ‘of the old school’. We came together daily at around 3pm when I was sorting out the London flonged pages for the Daily Express in Manchester and he was doing ditto. Manchester, you understand, served Ireland.
We sat within five yards of each other with the lawyer, who smoked foul herbal cigarettes. in-between. Twin saints, in a way, dedicated to the sanctity and virtue of Southern Ireland, and sorely tried by that pungent weed. When animated, or overcome, Mr. Gabb would go out with his teapot and bring back a brew. He was the only man in the office with a teapot. It was sheer class.
He wore dark suits and black boots and was older than most of us by quite a bit. His Christian name was never in use. A bit like TV’s Morse, really: always on the trail of wrong-doing; always a bit reticent in pursuit.
There we would be, then, time 3pm, office quiet, pubs busy, when – regularly – the worst happened: Mr. Gabb would leap from his seat waving a wet broadsheet page proof, head for my desk with it swirling around him, like Pavlova in Swan Lake, and say, with awful finality, ‘You can’t run this in Ireland.’
Normally, Mr. Gabb spoke in a restrained fashion, sort of 10pt Cheltenham. On warning occasions, you understand, he spoke only in 84pt Cheltenham Bold capitals.
We would have perhaps a dozen flong pages, or more, up from London on the train, and what we could use in Ireland dictated the quality of his and my existences. No flibbertigibbets, sirens, uncovered limbs, unguarded phrases of an immoral nature, no tarts or sluts, no bordellos or lap-dancing, no corrupt politicians or unpriestly priests, that kind of thing. We felt quite humbled by our regard for matters of the mortal soul.
It meant, in more earthly terms, that we required a flat cast of the offending page or, more likely, pages. Then, according to our instructions, chunks of metal would be carved out ready to be filled with unoffending loose type, and occasionally a big illustration would be supplanted by one much more modest.
Limbs were an abomination in our world. An example. As soon as I spotted Marilyn Monroe’s legs sprawled across five columns I knew that Mr. Gabb would erupt and I would whinny my support. I could anticipate him, and was equal to him: I would probably print only her head five columns wide.
There was nothing at all offensive about Marilyn’s head but anything below her adam’s apple was a minefield. We had some odd-looking pages, the only ones with heads bigger than the human originals. I supposed. in my ignorance, that Dublin had no idea what women’s legs were like and that all their own women were sort of prosthetic.
What the more enlightened thought of this form of head-hunting in Ireland, I never dared guess. But we remained unscathed, professionally, Mr. Gabb and me. Not always easy. We lost A Very Senior Editorial Person after an indiscretion with a picture. Not one of mine, I am glad to say. Something to do with visual identification in a court case. Exit, stage left. Could have been either of us after an indiscretion with Marilyn.
‘Will it be single?’ the news editor asked as the man prepared to head for the train and face his London seniors. Sadly, it was.
That kind of thing made us very careful.
So there you are: Mr. Gabb and me enhanced the moral principles of southern Ireland at 3pm five days a week. At least I liked to think that. I was not new to caution. I had some prior warning of Prodnosism in my previous newspaper where they banned the word ‘rape.’ It had to be ‘committed misconduct.’ So there I was describing events in an overseas war in a page one lead where ‘they ran into the village pillaging, burning, and committing misconduct.’
I really was the man for the job.
A photographer, bound up with the Irish frenzy himself – by proxy as it were – heard that the Irish were in need of Pac-a-macs, so, the story has it, he took a suitcase full of them with the intention of penetrating a ready market, whereupon he found that the name was used by his informants in place of ‘condoms’. Mr. Gabb would have known that had he been asked. None of us, so far as I recall, bought a Pac-a-mac of the genuine variety from this erring and sinful snapper.
My second Prodnose was a Roman Catholic himself so he was well versed in Southern Irish morality. He did not have his own teapot, but he was earnest in his task. On one occasion he and the lawyer visited Dublin to sort out some awkward matter and because the hotel was busy they shared a twin-bedded room.
When darkness cloaked all, one of the two found himself tormented by resounding snoring. This continued for some time, and it was interfering in his virtuous thoughts, so he shoved cotton wool in his ears. Deeply, for the snore was horrendous.
Then, since it was ink-black in the room, he got the idea that the cotton wool was too far into his head for comfort. It might, in his heightened imagination, even be a mortal danger. He attempted to remove it. He couldn’t. Panic set in. The cotton wool seemed to be disappearing further into his head. The light went on. The two sat on a bed trying to retrieve the cotton wool and couldn’t. So they ended in a hospital where the problem was resolved to the high relief of both.
The things we all did, the sacrifices we all made, for Irish morality.
When Mr. Gabb retired, affable and uncommunicable as ever, I prepared a presentation album for him, with pictures of colleagues and captions, all fit to be seen in the Republic. It was a touching moment. I watched his black suit disappearing into the stairwell as he clumped off the editorial floor for the last time, without looking back, and I realised that I knew nothing of him, beyond his courtesy, his teapot, and his commitment.
Bizarre stories were told of him, of course, for those on newspapers always exaggerate their own. They said he had been editor of the Sunday Express in Scotland and was running around his office with a big net chasing a butterfly when Lord Beaverbrook walked in.
Journalistic license, I would think. I could never imagine Mr. Gabb in pursuit of a butterfly. Or anything else for that matter. But rumor-mongers persisted: they said that Beaverbrook made a time-honored remark: ‘There will always be a place on the Express for Mr. Gabb.’
He just didn’t explain, it was said, what it was or where it was.
Anyway, something moved Mr. Gabb in my direction and we were not, I think, a bad little team, all in all. Our challenges were met one way or the other without fuss, without anyone else being unduly concerned, and the below-the-neck part of Ireland was left unsullied, cleansed by our joint efforts.
Though one Irishman did, in more recent times, spoil it for me. He said, ‘You could have left in the stuff you took out and nobody in Ireland would have bothered.’
Bert and me, martyred, in 15 cruel, cruel throw-away words!
You will note that I used his first name for the very first time in my life. It was emotion at the thought of that terrible sentence. It just welled up, in 84pt Cheltenham Bold.