Issue #82

Any old iron

This week

Editor’s letter (please read)

Harold Heys follows last week’s note about a reporter who invented his own list of mourners at big funerals with a cautionary tale about inventing quotes for vox pops.

Last week’s piece about the Border Wars in Carlisle also reminded Stan Solomons about the time he trekked to the north-west and was scooped on his own story in Gretna Green.

And another Stanley (Blenkinsop) stayed put in the north-east and was scooped on his own girlfriend. What can one say, except, ‘another fine mess…’?

Whatever happened to our readers? It’s a question most editors must be asking. But Cathy Hollowell doesn’t mean the lost legions of loyal purchasers – she’s wondering about the folk who read the proofs. By the look of things, they’ve gone, too.

John Smith remembers the good old days when they were so good they gave you a wad of plane tickets and a fistful of advances and told you to get out of the office and… well, write something.

And Colin Dunne takes a rest from his professional peregrinations to read Liz Hodgkinson’s book about women’s contribution to the old black art.


Lucky for some

Among this week’s emails was one from an old chum and sometime comrade-in-arms who has been following Ranters from the start and even contributing to it from time to time.

He’d ordered a copy of our excellent history of the part played by the fairer sex in the history of our trade Liz Hodgkinson’s Ladies Of The Street, from amazon (and if you want to do the same, click here). It is reviewed at the bottom of the page by Colin Dunne.

So far, so good.

The bum note was that he hadn’t been aware until the book arrived, that Ranters were into publishing books.

There may be more people out there, like that.

So let’s take this slowly, folks.

Exactly a year ago we started publishing (strictly speaking, re-publishing) classic books about journalism.

The plan was not to make money – which is just as well, because we haven’t actually sold very many – so much as to preserve for posterity out-of-print books that were worth saving.

We publicised this venture all over the place. There were pieces in The Indie and The Guardian, on Radio Four and even in the TLS and the Sydney Morning Herald. But the main publicity vehicle, fairly obviously, was this website. A couple of the books were fairly quickly taken up by media and journalism courses at the better universities – on both sides of the equator.

So how did my chum, and the rest of all those potential purchasers poring over this site every weekend, miss it?

By the end of last year we had done six – the sixth being not a reprint but a specially commissioned work for the collection.

There are two more already in the pipeline for this year.

And there is a dedicated website.

You can click on it over on the left (it’s helpfully called Bookshop) or go directly to the site at

There’s even a special rate for Ranters, although you need to pay by PayPal, which some people apparently find difficult to fathom although most of the rest of the world uses it to buy stuff on E-Bay.

In chronological order the six books are:

Forgive Us Our Press Passes– a hilarious account of the life of Ian Skidmore as a freelance reporter and broadcaster.

The Best of Vincent Mulchrone – a collection of his features from the Daily Mail.

Cassandra At His Finest And Funniest – selected columns from the great Daily Mirror columnist.

Slip-Up, How Fleet Street Found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard Lost him – The story behind the scoop, by Anthony Delano.

A Crooked Sixpence by Murray Sayle, about life in the hey-day of Fleet Street scandal sheets.

And Ladies Of The Street by Liz Hodgkinson.

Clicking on the titles will take you directly to the books at amazon where the books are just under a tenner apiece. Or maybe you can go to the bookshop and find a better rate.

But – don’t say we didn’t tell you…


You couldn’t make it up (contd.)

By Harold Heys

The background was some daft story about the price of tinned salmon shooting up and the news desk decided on a vox pop. Barm-pot reporter Peter Williams over in the Rawtenstall office couldn’t be bothered to wander out into the slanting rain so he had a fag and phoned through a made-up quote from some wayfarer called Paddy McGinty or something similar – it was a long time ago – who cheerfully admitted that he had never been able to afford a tin of salmon in his life so it didn’t affect him in the slightest.

Job done. Till the news desk rang up minutes later to say that a photographer had been dispatched and that Williams had to find Mr. McGinty and treat him to a slap-up salmon lunch in the local Co-op café while the photog snapped away.

Panic. Williams had perhaps 15 minutes to find some old dosser prepared to swear blind he was indeed the aforesaid Mr. McGinty in return for a free lunch swilled down with two or three free pints. Williams made it with a fag to spare.

Moral of the story for younger hacks: If you come up with a quote from John Bloggs of Longest Street don’t be tempted to give him anything more than a really boring quote. It could come back to smack you on the nose.

And while I’m on, here’s another tip which I used to throw at the young ‘uns in training sessions. Back in the 70s, when I was on the Sunday People, snapper Dennis Hutchinson and Scots reporter Jim Lawson were sent up to the North East to investigate a rather seedy gay club. I forget what the angle was.

So, after a bit of haggling, in went ‘Little’ Dennis and big burly Jim. They made their way to the bar as their eyes became accustomed to the smoky gloom and their ears to the smoochy music. Jim was distinctly uncomfortable and ready to leg it.

‘What do I do if someone asks me to dance?’ he whispered. Nothing much fazed Dennis who told him to relax. It wouldn’t happen.

Just minutes later a hulk of a guy, shaven and tattooed, lumbered up to decidedly heterosexual Dennis and enquired politely if he would care to dance. A straight ‘No Thanks’ wouldn’t have fitted the bill. Equally, a ‘Yes Please’ was too scary to contemplate.

So kiddies. Get out of that. Best answer used to earn a fiver on exes. But none of them ever matched the sharp inspiration of Our Hero.

Dennis’ quick-as-a-flash reply? ‘I’d love to dance with you, but Jim gets so upset if I dance with anyone else.’

The hulk smiled: ‘Oh, I quite understand,’ and slipped away. And so did Dennis and Jim.


Any old iron

By Stan Solomons

John Bell’s reference (Ranters, last week) to Gretna Green’s anvil weddings brought back some never to be forgotten memories for me.

I’ve done some daft things in my time but nothing quite so crazy as my attempt to steal the famous Gretna Green anvil.

I’ve often shuddered at the thought of what would have happened if I had been caught but at the time it seemed a great idea.

The year was 1957. I had been working for three years at the West Riding News Service in Huddersfield run by Alan Cooper and in which I later became a partner, and was game for anything.

The local Technical College had a bright rag committee who approached the agency with an idea for a stunt to get publicity for their charity rag week. It was really very simple. They wanted us to help them pinch the anvil. We would finance the trip and pay for the transport and hopefully we would make a profit from the sale of the story.

I was only 25 and it seemed like a lot of fun. So I volunteered to drive the raiding party. I must have been bloody mad. I had only passed by driving test a few days earlier and it was a harrowing drive up to Scotland in the car I hired. In those days there were no motorways and the journey took several hours.

My three student passengers and I escaped death twice driving up Shapfell in a raging blizzard when I narrowly avoided colliding with heavy lorries and I dented a wing hitting a high kerb. Badly shaken but undaunted we arrived in the early hours of Sunday morning and waited for daylight.

This was the cunning plan which not even Baldrick could have devised. Can you really believe this? One of the students and myself would walk into the smithy to establish that the anvil was there. Then we would return shortly before it closed for the day and hide. Once the smithy was closed we would take the anvil – we decided it would need two of us to carry it – and leave behind a ransom note and hotfoot it back to Huddersfield.

Even now, all these years later, I can’t believe how naive and downright stupid we were. To say the plan was full of holes was an understatement. Where in the building and in what would we hide without being detected by the staff and how would we open the door which presumably would be locked. And what if the smithy was alarmed?

As it happened none of these setbacks mattered. For the simple reason that things didn’t quite go according to plan. Mike, the eldest of the three students was chosen to accompany me because he looked older than his years and the first thing we noticed – or rather didn’t notice – when we walked nonchalantly into the smithy was that there was no anvil. We browsed through the pamphlets on display and looked at the souvenirs for sale and I then casually asked the man in charge: ‘Where’s the famous anvil’?

We could hardly believe the reply. ‘We had information that some students from Huddersfield were on their way here to steal it and we’ve had it taken away under armed guard’ he said.

Trying desperately not to give ourselves away we casually asked a few questions. Our pose as tourists must have been convincing because he never suspected a thing. It seemed incredible but he told us that the Laird of Gretna Green who owned the anvil and presumably the smithy had called in a local army unit. Believe it or not they had carried the anvil away on a gun carrier to the Laird’s castle.

As far as I was concerned that made as good a story as the anvil being stolen. I phoned the office with a piece and it was phoned round to all the pops and heavies.

That was it – or so I thought. But the students had other ideas. Without telling me they went to see the Laird, told him who they were and that they had intended stealing the anvil and then asked, ‘Please may we borrow it?’ There’s chutzpah for you. Why they did that behind the backs of their financial backers I never really found out. Perhaps they thought that I might try to persuade them it wasn’t a good idea.

Whatever the reason the Laird was obviously a great sport and agreed to let them borrow this valuable lump of iron. He even laid on a car to take the students and the anvil to where my car was parked. What really p……d me off apart from the student’s treachery was that a local freelance – I can’t remember his name or if he is still around – discovered before I did that the Laird had handed over the anvil, so we were beaten on our own story.

Naturally, the freelance sent a piece all round. The big shows the story got next morning was a combination of our piece and his and so the credits we got were considerably less than if it had all been ours.

My intention had been to keep quiet about the Laird’s generous gesture and do it as a follow up the following day, but that went by the board.

That heap of old iron was insured for £5,000 – a lot of money in those days – and I felt more than a bit nervous driving back home with it in the boot of the car. Over the next few days the students used the anvil for a number of stunts to promote their rag week and Alan Cooper drove the students to London with the anvil.

A mock wedding ceremony was performed over it outside Caxton Hall which got a decent show in the Evening Standard and a couple of nationals. I can’t remember how the Laird got the anvil back but the students were delighted with the way it all worked out.

I’m afraid you couldn’t say the same for the agency. I don’t think we broke even after paying for the hire of the car, the damage caused to it, petrol and meals. It taught me one thing. They say never work with children and animals. To that must be added… students.


Nurse – bring the scoop

By Stanley Blenkinsop

The story of a beauty queen went round the world. It led to questions in Parliament. It was an exclusive right under my nose – and I couldn’t see it…

Back to 1962. I was a fancy-free bachelor and a district reporter in the north-east for the World’s Greatest Newspaper (the Daily Express – then selling 4,562,000 daily).

In a Tyneside ballroom I had met a pretty blonde called Muriel Dunne. She was a staff nurse at Newcastle General Hospital. Within weeks we were ‘going steady’.

Muriel, four years my junior, often took part in the area’s swimsuit beauty contests – much more frequent events then than nowadays. She usually finished in the first three – and often in first place.

Very keen to advance her nursing career, Muriel attended many extra-curricular classes on medicine and repeatedly applied for promotion.

‘If it doesn’t sound too big-headed I wonder if some of these older matrons think I’m too pretty to be a nurse,’ she often told me. But I reassured Muriel her turn would come… And so familiarity bred contempt – or at least a contemptuous lack of professionalism on my part.

Of course, I enjoyed showing her off and one night took her to the annual Newcastle Press Ball. Among to those I introduced her to was two (male) reporters from Teespress, the Middlesbrough-based freelance agency. Both danced with her.

Two days later I had a call from the news desk. ‘Good story up there from Teespress about a beauty queen who thinks she’s too pretty to be a nurse – can you take it over and do it up properly…’

Shock, horror, shame. Obviously, Muriel had inadvertently told the Teespress twosome about the straight-laced matrons and their effect on her career.

Unlike me, Teespress saw the story’s potential immediately. Within two or three days it had gone round the world.

Muriel’s mailbag at her Sunderland home was so great that sometimes the Royal Mail van had to call two or three times a day.

Of course I was able to rehash the Teespress copy with extra details so I was not officially scooped – but in my heart I knew I had been. And very badly too. Even now – 46 years on – it still niggles me.

There were questions in the Commons; ‘Surely the prettier and shapelier a nurse, the better cure she is for a hospital patient,’ said one north-east MP.

Giles, legendary cartoonist of the Express, did a magnificent cartoon of Muriel ‘the girl too pretty to be a nurse’. At my request he sent me the original which I gave to Muriel.

Sadly the story led to the end of her nursing career. Among her overwhelming mail was a letter from the American airline PanAm asking her to join them as a senior air hostess – the first time they had recruited in the United Kingdom.

Muriel accepted the offer at a salary five times that of her nurse’s pay.

I met her several times in the sixties when she flew into Britain, and then back in the US she met and married an American and started a family (that framed cartoon by Giles was hung on her sitting room wall).

I still get the occasional card from her. It unfailingly reminds me of some happy times

– AND the worst scoop I ever suffered.


What happened to readers?

By Cathy Hollowell

It occurs to me as I sit reading the screen and giggling at stories from back in time on Fleet Street or in Manchester… wherever hacks and scribes were working at the time, that some of the characters who float around in my brain were not reporters at all. Some were reporters once and became subs because they hated the real world and preferred the land of fag ends and spikes.

Some were something else so important to us that we rarely gave them a glance. They were the readers.

Before I went to the DX, I worked long hours for Westminster Press in the office just off Fleet Street. We wrote for 112 provincial papers and 11 or 12, I do not remember now, evening papers… the Oxford Mail, the Evening Argus, the Northern Echo among them. It was hilarious sometimes.

I had been used to the Evening Argus and The Brighton and Hove Gazette so I knew how to write for those two but every paper has its style and you should have seen our style books – bloody thick tomes with pages missing (extremely helpful). Writing fast, over the phone and giving different lead paragraphs because the angle changes depending on the paper…

It was fast and furious and sometimes a little mad. We were a small band of fairly young reporters, all in our twenties, who yearned for national newspaper fame (good grief if I had only known then what I know now!) and were willing to work midnight shifts on the nationals as well as day shifts for WPN.

I digress. Must be my age again. Anyway, I was talking about Readers. I capitalize the word because I dare do nothing else. We had one who I can even smell if I close my eyes.

God, that was a bad idea. He had longish hair, looked very like Leo McKern being Rumpole, about the same shape and size. He had a gammy leg, arrived in the office around 10am with a hat clamped hard down on his head and a trench raincoat that reached almost to his ankles. His stick could be heard as he walked down the corridor, clomp, clomp, and there he was: a learned man, or at least that was the style he employed, his fingers orange with nicotine, his little eyes behind large tortoiseshell glasses.

He would grumph and groan as he made his way through the reporters’ office to the inner sanctum of Reader-land where he would ignore the other three men. Taking off his smelly coat and greasy hat and putting them carefully on the wooden coat rack he would turn and bow to the newsroom and sit down. There he sat until 7pm when he would do everything in reverse.

Another character in my memory is the library man. You would be wrong to call him the librarian, he was not highly educated, he knew how to cut and paste bits of newspaper onto copy paper and write a few notes and make a file. He was rather gay now I come to think of it, it never occurred to me until just then. He hated the night library man, a quiet nicely spoken Indian gentleman who liked to brew herbal tea and complain about the smell of cologne on the stacks of newspapers ready to be cut.

When I went across to the Daily Mail for my night shifts I would marvel at the real librarians there. They were helpful and quick and the cuttings were in the right date order and so it was at the DX.

One night at Westminster Press I was getting ready to leave and the Reader waved his arm in a come hither routine. Uho, I thought; what did I miss out or misspell now?

He just wanted to chat and I have always been good at that. From his filing cabinet he drew out a bottle of Scotch and two very murky glasses. We chatted about my childhood in Wales and his childhood in Yorkshire, mused over the love affairs going on in the office, vented about our living quarters; his were almost as small as mine. I lived in a tiny flatlet in just north of the Women’s Prison. My bed was a pull-down sofa and I could step straight from it into the kitchen, turn around up one step and there was the loo, very romantic I must say.His was not much better it seemed.

I went up in the world, got quite fancy really, then came to America and it is lively and hard work but fun. My old Reader must be long dead. In some ways he would be a great character for a book, he was certainly colourful enough. He frightened most people.

I thought he was lovely and when I got my job on the DX he came to my leaving party, gave me a bottle of Moet and cried.

Does anyone else remember the readers, the messengers, the spikes and the carbon paper? Oh and copy boys, we never had girls.


A fistful of dockets

By John Smith

It was Nicholas Tomlin who suggested that the essential qualifications for success in journalism were ‘rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability.’

However many of those requirements we possessed, they were never enough to prevent veteran hacks such as myself from occasionally making complete prats of ourselves.

Let me explain. Many years, before the age of Big Brother and Pop Idol, even tabloid newspapers were interested in stories about real people and real places. The People had an editor called Geoff Pinnington who delighted in sending me trotting round the world in pursuit of a particular theme. ‘Islands of Magic’ was one. Armed with a wedge of airline tickets as thick as a brick (former editorial managers may choose to look away at this point) I island-hopped around the globe, from Bali to Borneo. Along the way there were stops in such far-flung oceanic dots as Robinson Crusoe Island off the coast of Chile, the Galapagos islands west of Ecuador, various palm-fringed paradises in the South Seas and even the Falkland Islands, which in those pre-Argentine war days, few people had heard of.

But this particular tale of personal ineptitude arose from another Pinnington-inspired quest: Plain John Smith In Search of Romance. And then he sent me in search of romance. In these cynical, synthetic, plastic-wrapped, computerized and sex-obsessed days we live in, was there any real romance left in the world?

My international inquiries began in some of the more obviously atmospheric places like Paris and Rome. Then it was on to Casablanca, where I shuffled around doing my Humphrey Bogart impression and muttering ‘Play it again, Sam’ to various bemused hotel pianists. Next was Sidi Bel Abbes in search of the ghosts of Beau Geste and the French Foreign Legion (the Algerian army were in decidedly unromantic mood, arresting me at bayonet point as a ‘foreign spy’ outside the old Legion barracks before running me out of town on a rickety bus where I was wedged between several dozen crates of live chickens and a bunch of turbaned tribesmen with a nice line in synchronised spitting.

By the time I reached Vienna, my romance meter was running low. Okay, so this was the home of the Strauss waltz, but I was struggling to make it sparkle. And then, on the giant ferris wheel high above the Prater park it came to me: post-war Vienna, enshrined forever by that marvelous movie The Third Man. Why, it was right here on the Prater that the drug-racketeering Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, had emerged from the shadows when everyone thought he was dead. And while the film might have been a little bit short on romance, no one could say it didn’t have mystery, intrigue and excitement. Yes, this could work. 

‘Dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum, Dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum…….’ I started humming the haunting theme tune from the film, played on the zither by some bloke called Anton something-or-other. Crash? Crass? No, wait a minute. Karas, that was it! Anton Karas. And who better to re-live the menacing magic of 1949 production than the man whose music had set the mood for this unforgettable tale?

Anton Karas must be found. The concierge at my hotel was doubtful. ‘Herr Karas, he would be an old man now,’ he said. ‘Dead, maybe. And anyway, people didn’t like it because he made big money from a film that made Vienna look so bad. He became something of a recluse. He will be hard to find.’

He looked at me expectantly, invoking the code of concierge silence that can only be broken by the rustle of banknotes. I slipped him the equivalent of 20 quid and he immediately brightened. ‘I will try,’ he said.

I returned to the hotel later to find my man beaming beneath his braided cap. ‘I have found him!’ he said triumphantly. ‘Herr Karas. He is living in a village in the hills just outside Vienna.’

The next morning, at the wheel a hired car with a locally recuruited photographer, I set out in search of the zither man. It was February, and snowing. Soon the snow developed into a full-blown blizzard and the snapper wanted to turn back. No. No way! I was a man on a mission. I wasn’t about to allow a minor impediment such as a major snowstorm to stand between me and Anton.

Sliding and slithering on the icy roads, we finally made it to Anton’s modest, single story home in a hillside village.

The door was answered by a small, grey haired man who viewed us quizzically.

‘Herr Karas?’

He nodded, still mystified. I introduced myself and with a broad grin he ushered into his house.

Then, for the next hour or so, he regaled us with his memories of Vienna and making The Third Man. Carol Reed, the director, had been dining in the restaurant where Anton played zither in a local group. Intrigued by the sound, Reed flew him to London when filming was finished and kept him a virtual prisoner in his apartment for a fortnight until Anton produced exactly the sound the director needed to accompany his story of dirty deeds in the divided city.

Now, as Anton posed for pictures with this zither and the sheet music from the Harry Lime theme, a warm glow began to engulf me, despite the blizzard raging outside. I could feel a spread coming on. ‘In a snowbound Austrian mountain village today I found the forgotten Fourth Man of Vienna…’

As we prepared to leave, Anton put his hand on my sleeve. ‘Mr. Smith,’ he said. ‘You have asked me many questions. Would you mind if I asked YOU one.’

‘Of course,’ I beamed.

‘Your newspaper is in London, yes?’ – I nodded.

‘So why would you come all this way in this terrible weather to see me here in my home?’

‘Well,’ I blustered, ‘because you are the famous Anton Karas and this is where you live.’

He shook his head. ‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘But the reason I ask is because every Tuesday and Thursday I play my zither in the tea lounge at Bentall’s department store in Kingston-on-Thames…’


My life and gloves

By Colin Dunne

It was one of my first stories for the Mirror, but the burly man in the phone box wasn’t moving. Wimpishly, copy in hand, I was waiting for the phone when the young woman from the Mail arrived.

She swept me aside, ripped open the door, and through blubbering tears wailed: ‘I need the phone – it’s about a sick child…’ He apologised, banged the telephone down and held open the door while she took over.

When she’d finished, she looked at me with icy contempt and called me a name that even a news editor would hesitate to use. Well, some news editors. That was my first encounter with women journalists: the rest weren’t always so gentle.

Whenever we revive the deeds of old Fleet Street, I have to confess that we invariably neglect the part that women played in that outrageous, exciting, wonderful and frequently disgraceful history. Now – and it’s long overdue – someone has documented their contribution to our infamous past. Ladies of the Street is written by Liz Hodgkinson, who is something of a celebrated street lady herself.

She’s got them all here, from the pioneering Anne Scott-James to Rebekah Wade. I doubt if Ms Wade takes Friday off to be with her mummy in the country, which was commonplace when Anne Scott-James, mother of Max Hastings, was a secretary on Vogue. Indeed, when I joined the Mirror in London around 1970, I remember Lord Ardwick (formerly John Beavan) lamenting the passing of the days when lady journalists wouldn’t leave the office without their gloves.

The gloves came off in the fifties when Mary Stott began editing a new kind of women’s page for The Guardian when, as Liz says, controversial subjects were given their first airing. Over the years, that first trickle of freedom became a flood, with women writing about everything from their plumbing to their deepest emotions. Slowly, the barriers came down. Whereas once, they wrote daringly about ‘moments of magic’ and ‘peaks of passion’, in no time at all they were breathlessly recording their orgasms, which is of course exactly how orgasms should be recorded. Next they turned their attention to men’s erections, and you begin to wonder if they shouldn’t be wearing gloves again. Certainly, it set a fashion for the ‘confessional’ piece, with lots of men following their example.

As Liz rightly says, they feminised and humanised newspaper journalism.

It’s a fascinating slice of social and sexual history, as Liz traces the blossoming of women’s journalism right through Anne Edwards and Eve Perrick, Jean Rook and Linda Lee-Potter, Jill Tweedie and Julie Burchill, many of them telling Liz their own stories. Knowing Liz, I suspect she doorstepped them, in which case they didn’t stand a chance.

It’s all so recent that – this is a confession – I seem to have witnessed quite a lot of it myself. Around the sixties, in Newcastle, when there was talk of a woman features editor, several of the reporters said they wouldn’t be told what to do by a woman. Flick forward 25 years or so to an out-of-town story where the lady feature writer comes to join the newsmen in the pub. She has sunglasses dangling from her jeans pocket. ‘I didn’t know you were short-sighted down there,’ says one of the reporters. ‘Oh yeah,’ she said, ‘I’ve been missing a few lately.’ We all remember Sandy Fawkes.

Because they had to compete in a man’s world, the ladies of the street became supermen. Tough, unsentimental, shrewd, they could out-smoke, out-drink, out-f… well, out-frolic most men, and often beat them to the story too. They were great women.

They frightened the life out of me – after all, I did share a room with Paula James, Jill Evans and Sally Moore – but I loved them. We should all be grateful to Liz for assembling their history in such a comprehensive, startling, amusing and significant book. It’s a must-have for anyone who’s interested in newspapers, social history, women or simply a highly entertaining read.

And yet, I wonder if women’s role in newspapers has changed quite as much as Liz thinks. Half-a-century ago, when asked what tips she would give to young women who wished to be journalists, the Mail’s Olga Franklin replied: ‘Try to develop a prominent bustline.’


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