Issue #86

Shark horror

This week

Remember when New Technology was… new? Jon Churchman does.

From new technology to old techniques. Joe Morris tells younger readers where stories used to come from on slow news days.

Old technology? Gordon Amory’s first editor used to come to work on horseback.

And where were you when Kennedy… no – where were you when the astronauts landed on the moon? Jeff Blyth was at Chappaquiddick, looking for the other Kennedy.

Don Walker was in Room 404, Holborn. For him, Johnny, there was no escape…

Letters from Allan Glenwright and Anthony Peagam over there on the right.

Bookshop, Tax Guide, Archives, Search engine etc… all over there in the column on the left.


Gin & IT

By Jon Churchman

‘Churchman!’… Voice unmistakable: The Editor. Had a way with words. ‘You’re a fucking genius!’

Told you.

The late David Chipp, editor-in-chief of the Press Association.

He also had a knack of spotting talent, or was prone to post-lunch displays of wildly misplaced enthusiasm. It depended on your viewpoint.

I was enjoying the first really perfect summer Sunday of 1985. A day off, sprawled on a lounger in the back garden:lime and bubbles swirling in the Gordon’s, birds twittering – summers we used to have, eh? – before global warming came and buggered them all up with floods.

‘David,’ I replied, squinting into the sun, keeping my ammunition dry. Praise from the Great Man, sunshine, gin – had to be a catch.

The drama of life-changing moments: I just didn’t realise it at the time.

That year saw Fleet Street on the edge of the precipice – the start of a revolution that led to the end of The Street itself.

IT was called ‘New Technology’ and full of promise, shrouded in mystery, slightly sci-fi and inevitable.

That phone call from DAC dragged me not only into the kitchen, but also kicking and screaming from low-hack to hi-tech.

Up until then, I’d been a perfectly happy PA reporter, underpaid, obviously, propping up all four corners of the bar at the City Hotel, Derry, never happier than watching history in Bogside, Birmingham and beyond.

For those not around that year, BC became AC (Before Computer) and the days of typewriter repairmen were decidedly numbered.

A former beetroot salesman called Alan Sugar had an electronics company illuminatingly called Amstrad (Alan Michael Sugar Trading). They catered largely for the lower end of the hi-fi (low-fi?) market.The first time I came across them was on an early evening TV ‘consumer show’ in which a smug young ‘researcher’ displayed a range of speakers from basic to luxury: He unscrewed the casing to reveal that each contained identical speakers, regardless of price.

‘What do you expect?’ was my immediate reaction and I switched off before Esther Rantzen came on and blinded us with her teeth.

Then in 1985 with amazing foresight, or fantastic luck, the company put on the market a laughably primitive electronic ‘word processor’ – the Amstrad PCW8256.

It looked like you’d expect a 1960’s Russian television to look: chunky and clunky, dull grey/green screen, tacky plastic keyboard, whirring and whizzing little printer – felt like a tap and it would shatter into pieces. Quite a few did, aided by a fist.

It was, admittedly, pretty cheap: 400 quid, all in, with a derisory 215 kilobytes of memory, and little discs with 150k of memory on each side. You had to turn them over for the ‘B’ side, like 45s on a record player.

Laugh? Well, it was a revolution at the time.

Running a primitive package called LocoScript, the Amstrad was a glorified electronic typewriter with the advantage of doing away with Tippex altogether and even paper, until you were ready to ‘commit’. It took care of retyping and repetition: it stored regular phrases – ‘The defendant told the court’ – names, numbers and minor layout, and recalled it all with a simple keystroke. Brilliant.

For hacks, budding authors and pseudo-geeks, heaven in a box.

The problem was, the people responsible for this futuristic beastie were not wordsmiths – or rather, they were, but not in a good way. They used words like confetti – a lot of it, but to absolutely no purpose.

The User Manuals (there were two) ran to over 800 cat-flattening pages of beautifully presented rubbish.They appeared to bear little relation to the machine to which they referred or what it was intended for – words, production of.

As a result, hours of good drinking time and sunny weekends were wasted struggling to make the thing produce a paragraph before chucking it away and going back to a faithful old Olympia typewriter and Tippex.

I was attempting to write TV scripts at the time, and the layout was a bastard: the Amstrad promised to take the pain out, and just leave me with the problem of plot and dialogue.

In frustration, I determined to master the beast and produced a ‘user manual’ of my own, which ran to 20 pages of double-spaced quarto.

I passed my masterpiece among friends and colleagues who had fallen for the Amstrad dream.One of them was David Chipp. He was thinking about writing his autobiography and had been effing and blinding for a couple of weekends as he struggled to produce just an intro without success.

On the Friday evening before that Sunday ‘call’, Chipp had slipped my ‘manual’ into his jacket pocket and departed for home.

It turned out that on the Sunday morning, bored and with a letter to write, he had unfolded it, read it, switched on (or ‘booted up’, which took most of the day) and by page seven, as promised, had produced an error-free letter. Without Tippex.

He was delighted and I was, albeit briefly, ‘a fucking genius.’

As luck would have it, PA, like everywhere else in Fleet Street at that stage, was eager to clamber aboard the IT bandwagon and dispose of those troublesome printers and other impediments to productivity and profit.

In managements’ wet dream, the electronic newsroom would enable journalists to produce everything: it would be clean, fast, cheap, virtually paperless – except the Paper – and hugely profitable. PA had the additional advantage of not actually having a paper to print, or printers, come to that.

This dream was, of course, rubbish; but that’s what dreams are for: escaping from reality.

Executives started clocking up air miles, jetting round the globe searching for ‘IT solutions’ and generally having a bloody good time, until eventually someone had to start signing on dotted lines.

PA, together with the Mail, Express, Observer, and other heavyweights in the provinces and around the world, settled for what seemed a hugely expensive system made by the American Systems Integrators Inc. of sunny Sacramento, California.

Suddenly we were part of an ‘SII Community’ worldwide.

Chipp, shortly due to retire, had decided I was the one to train our staff in the wonders of new tech and had passed on his view to his successor, Colin Webb. While the technical bods upstairs prepared for D-Day (Do nothing Day as it turned out), I set out to learn how it all worked. I went on a week-long course in snowbound Swindon and picked up some basics, and then began to teach myself.

After Christmas, possibly as a gift, I was ‘assigned’ a broom cupboard under the stairs in the nether regions of 85 Fleet Street at semi-basement level underlooking Salisbury Court.

Within a week, holes started appearing in the walls, cabling was prodded through and, eventually, a terminal – huge, brown, ugly – and a keyboard – huge, brown, ugly, then a chair – huge, brown ….. You get the picture …. materialised.

The main advantage of the ‘office’ was simple: hardly anyone knew it was there, and if they did, they almost certainly couldn’t find it.

So there I sat. In desperation I bought a tiny Apple Mac on exes and used it to write a manual, and sent it off to the printers; then an on-screen training course, with what I thought was a suitably amusing, light-hearted but meaningful approach. And then – zilch. The unions saw what was coming and wouldn’t touch the stuff.

I spent six months in that cupboard. I rewrote the on-screen course a few times more for something to do than improve it. I wrote a comic novel rather presciently called ‘Blind Alleys’ which, like me, never saw the light of day. And, since no one knew or cared whether I was there or not, went home on sunny days, went sightseeing, got to meet a lot of bar staff – all the usual holiday stuff.

Eventually, the unions and the management caved in and terminals started appearing around the building: we even had visitors come into marvel at them, well, laugh, to be honest.

Some bright spark decided it would take a year to train the staff five at a time. The thought of teaching for twelve months prompted hysteria and a need for drastic action. I suggested we could do it in three months, twenty at a time. (For reasons I never fathomed, they believed me.) Phew!

It was, to be polite, sensational.

As a reporter and then desk man, my knowledge of the workings of other departments – sport, in particular, operations (technical), and racing – was either non-existent or wrong.

Selfish, I know: I did my job, they did theirs. That’s how it worked.

The first shock was being told the technical staff were included in my remit. I was only teaching basic journalistic stuff: Enter, Edit, Eject – and I didn’t even know what they did, let alone what they needed to know. As so often those days, printers and journalists were very much in a ‘them and us’ mode.

As it turned out, they were brilliant – even the one who spent his time amusing us by pretending to give oral sex his to lunchtime baguette: suddenly the ‘enemy’ were mates. Still are, come to think of it.

Operations ‘done’ it was time to move on to the journalists. A shiny new ‘classroom’ was provided, above sewer level, with windows and a view overlooking Salisbury Court. Twenty or so terminals added to the strain on the already creaking floorboards and we were in business.

Such was the novelty of the stuff, visiting bigwigs would occasionally peer, goggle-eyed round the door at the hacks who in their turn stared goggle-eyed at their screens. For a while eyes were frequently goggled. (Not to be confused with Googled, which is what they call ‘research’ nowadays.)

The ensuing weeks provided a lot of laughs and no tears. Only one out of nearly two hundred seemed completely stumped, and even he managed the basics after an extra week.

But the best bit, for me at least, was discovering what everyone did for a living. I’d been at 85 for nearly twenty years and had not a clue how much PA actually produced. I knew we sent out ‘the equivalent of a novel’ every day, but that was just a word count.

Now I learnt what racing actually did, apart, obviously, from results – form, racecards – endless good stuff. Same with soccer, cricket, and the rest – it was brilliant. And so were the people producing it.

‘Systems’ provided a magic view of a news organisation – now they’d probably call it Windows or something daft. Perhaps only an interested editor (a Chipp) gets the same fish-eye view.

Suddenly – well, class-by-class – it dawned just how much talent thrived within those ancient walls at 85 and elsewhere.

And the beauty of even that lumbering old SII system was that you could tailor and tweak it more or less to the existing operation – replacing physical bits with electronic bits, to be technical.

Everyone who needed to be was trained. The system worked: it became the norm.

PA was, finally, ‘electronic’. It was July, 1987 – almost exactly two years after DAC’s call.

Then they sent me on a training course to learn how to use the stuff.

The timing was a little bizarre, I thought. But who’s going to argue with two months in California on exes, learning something you’ve just taught to that lot?

Pas moi.


Shark horror

By Joe Morris

There is nothing like a ‘shark horror’ story to quicken an old journo’s pulse rate. Sydney has just had four of them.

There has been big coverage in Australia and lots in the UK too – where sadly you don’t have your own shark-horror stories. But the Brits still love stories about sharks, crocodiles, bird-eating spiders or anything else that bites and/or poisons you and usually cause victims a terrifying demise.

In Sydney right now all the experts and statisticians are getting into the act about whether or not there are more sharks around. The water is cleaner due to the efforts of environmentalists and public awareness. There are more fish to attract sharks in Sydney Harbour due to the ban on commercial fishing. Ocean currents have changed due to global warming, bringing sharks closer to shore.

I want to get into this debate about shark numbers.

I can tell you categorically, there were more sharks in Sydney Harbour in 1966 than there are today.

How do I know – because a wise, old swimming pool proprietor told me.

I was a cadet reporter back then. On a tabloid newspaper. There were two in Sydney: the Daily Mirror and The Sun.

Cadets got to work on a Saturday because nobody else wanted to. Saturday was race day and this meant the only news anyone was interested in was racing. Hard news, of the type I was required to write, was basically restricted to the first three or four pages of these pitifully thin publications.

There was an upside to this. If you were a cadet and found some decent hard news, you’d often get the front page. This, of course, was and remains the dream of all cub journalists.

I found a way to do it. I became the leading light of the ‘Shark Scare’ story.

This is where the wise, old swimming pool proprietor comes into it. His name was Alf Vockler. He operated Alf Vockler’s Watson’s Bay Baths. (In Sydney, near the Sydney Harbour Heads). Alf was also an ex-wrestler, a police boy’s club instructor, a swimming coach and much more but that’s another story.

Anyway, if you needed a shark sighting, Alf could usually find you one.

When sharks swim into Sydney Harbour, they can go one of three ways. Straight ahead (West), turn right (North) or turn left (South).

With the exception of the unfortunate fatal shark attack on actress Martha Hathaway, at Middle Harbour (straight ahead) in 1963, all sharks entering the Harbour seemed to turn left. Coincidentally, this was where Alf’s Watson’s Bay Baths were located.

As there had been fewer than 28 shark attacks in Sydney Harbour since 1791, a period of 175 years, Ms Hathaway’s death was generally regarded as pure bad luck. On dusk, murky water, etc.

It was the usual dead-quiet Saturday at my paper. The police radio we monitored was silent and there was nobody at the front counter with a guaranteed Martian sighting. Then inspiration struck.

I picked up the phone and rang several Sydney Harbour swimming pools.

‘Seen any sharks today,’ I said.

‘No, mate, haven’t seen one for ages,’ was the common reply.

Then I called Alf Vockler. ‘Seen any sharks today,’ I asked.

‘Seen any sharks,’ Alf replied enthusiastically, ‘Have I seen any sharks? Three big tigers swam past about 30 minutes ago.’

Bingo. Newspapers made several edition changes on Saturdays, back then, purely to keep up with the race results. But, next edition I had my first front page.

Alf Vockley became my best contact. Come any quiet Saturday, I’d give him a ring.

Keen-eyed, Alf never missed a shark. Alf would report words to the effect: ‘Yeah, there has been a big tiger shark hanging around here all day. Funny you called, I was just about to call you, I saw a big tiger just off the beach about five minutes ago – he was 15 foot long minimum.’

Alf’s sightings may well have saved a lot of swimmers.

They didn’t do too much harm for Alf either as everyone at Watson’s Bay would flee the beaches and jump back in his pool. Through the turnstiles, where you paid as you entered.

They were all tiger sharks back then; we didn’t know much about bull sharks and didn’t worry about grey nurses. Local knowledge had it, they didn’t bite you anyway.

Today, the grey nurse shark is one of Australia’s most endangered marine species and despite not being a threat to people, it was hunted almost to extinction during the 1960s due to its fierce appearance.

As previously stated, the last shark fatality in Sydney Harbour had been in 1963. I’m dubious whether anyone a couple of years later, except people with really vivid imaginations, actually believed there might be another attack in the Harbour. Shark stories were like ghost stories, scary but a bit tongue in cheek.

In any event, my reputation as a ‘shark horror’ writer grew. Soon I was being asked to cover ‘shark alarm’ stories.

You could rely on the shark sirens going off, at least once on a Saturday, somewhere during summer. I became very good at handling these stories.

Firstly, I’d phone the surf club. I made of habit of speaking slowly and distinctly to the person who answered. This was because of the siren in the background, because all surfers have bad hearing, and primarily because the bloke was clearly off duty to have answered the phone. When lifesavers were off duty, they usually drank beer – lots of it.

I obtained some good stories. Here’s how I went about it. Let’s say it was Bondi Beach.

‘Gidday, mate,’ I’d say, ‘I believe you’ve got a shark there?’ – ‘Yeah.’

‘What do you think it is, probably a tiger, uh?’ – ‘Yeah.’

‘What do you reckon, about 15 foot?’ – ‘Yeah.’

‘Must have come real close to the surfers, what do you reckon, 25 yards?’ – ‘Yeah.’

At that moment I had my lead sentence and most of the story…

A 15 foot tiger shark menaced surfers at Bondi Beach today. Surf living saving officials said they believed the killer came within 25 yards of swimmers…

I developed a shark story vocabulary I could use at whim. Words such as ‘menaced’, ‘terrorized’, ‘horror’ and ‘panic’. Well, actually I developed entire sentences of stock shark story comment.

Divers and snorkelers in the area scrambled from the water, leaving their equipment behind. (The equipment was their ‘flippers’, known as ‘fins’ today. Getting rid of your flippers gave you added agility getting out of the water and over the rocks.)

The club surf boat was launched and crew hit the water with their oars to chase the shark back to sea. (I don’t believe there is recorded history of anyone actually hitting a shark using this method, but still.)

Surfboard riders in the area sat cross-legged on their surf boards to protect their dangling legs.

As the last recorded shark attack at Bondi Beach was in 1951, you could always have a bit of fun with these stories.

Today is different. People are actually getting attacked by sharks. Some experts say sharks are more prevalent, others say the risk of shark attack in Sydney Harbour or at a netted Sydney beach is infinitesimally small.

So, what’s the point of this story? Perhaps that the water is the shark’s element and not man’s. What goes on below will always be a source of fear.

And, the media can always fuel or quell this fear, depending on which expert or set of statistics they decide to run with.


Blyth spirits

By Gordon Amory

Funny, my daughter has never said ‘What did you do during the war, Daddy!’

For I could tell her quite a story! I was still at school with a Saturday afternoon job of taking copy and pictures from the local newspaper office in Blyth, Northumberland to the printing house at South Shields, home of the Northern Press.

The office at 7, Bowes Street was boarded up after a land mine had fallen nearby and the shop next door, a fruit merchants never put back the windows and displayed his fruit and vegetables in the open air.

This was in 1944 with D-Day not far away. I would collect an envelope marked to The Overseer, getting the bus and ferry to the other side of the River Tyne walking through bombed-out buildings to head office where I would hand it to the head printer.

I could even make a profit on the couple of bob they gave me for traveling expenses as I was able get half fare on the bus. It wasn’t long after I started doing this that the editor of the Blyth News Ashington Post told me there could be a full time job for me as an editorial assistant, if I was interested.

Of course, I was. I went to see my headmaster who said I should leave school early as I wouldn’t get a chance like that again. I was interviewed by the editor in chief of the group, an autocratic gentleman who on reflection must have got the bus from head office to come and see me as there were few cars around then.

I got the job at thirteen shillings a week rising to eighteen shillings after three months.

We had four reporters, men all in their seventies and a sports editor. The editor was very much Victorian and as the war ended he made way for a young go-ahead eccentric by the name of John H. Bell.

He would come to the office dressed in jodhpurs and tie up his horse in the back yard.

Quite a character and to annoy the older members of the staff, he would occasionally get up onto the reporters room table and do a jig slapping his thighs with a horsewhip!

This story must have got around for one day we were visited by a young couple who did a feature on him for the magazine Illustrated. Editor on Horseback got the front cover and a good show inside with big by-lines. Sadly they were both moonlighting staffers for the Daily Mirror and, easily identified, were fired after publication date and as far as I recall they freelanced as a husband and wife team thereafter.

Three others of similar age to me arrived at the office during this time and we remained lifetime friends.

I was soon joined on the editorial staff by Brian Park, who went on to join the Daily Express at the age of twenty and was later chief reporter on the David English Daily Mail.

Then by Peter Woods, who went on first to the Daily Mirror, made his name at Suez and read the BBC news for years. He had a yearning for acting and we had a beer together following his retirement when he was appearing in pantomime at a third rate theatre in Newcastle and he died shortly afterwards.

Then there was Terry Wynn another junior, a year older than me. He went on to the Daily Sketch where I joined him; he became the first news editor for Tyne Tees Television and chief press officer to the Lord Chancellor. He is also a Papal Knight and we are still regularly in touch.

After three years on the Daily Sketch, I spent the next thirty eight on the Daily Express so I have much to appreciate my old headmaster. And to think of all the fun we’ve had!

And another thing: We had a freelance who worked for us on the local paper at that time and he could write Pitman’s shorthand with both his left and right hand at the same time.

I suspect that not many people could do that.


Oh! What a knight

From Jeffrey Blyth

The bestowing of a knighthood (even an honorary one) on Senator Ted Kennedy surprised many in America (and presumably in Britain too) who remember the infamous Mary Jo Kopechne tragedy at Chappaquiddick back in 1969.

Although it was the weekend in the summer of l969 when Americans first landed on the moon, I flew with other newsmen to Martha’s Vineyard when the story broke. What we learnt was that on the Saturday night Senator Ted Kennedy, some of his political colleagues and a number of so-called ‘boiler room girls’, young political assistants from Washington, were celebrating at a party on Chappaquiddick Island.

Just before midnight Kennedy and one of the girls, Mary Jo Kopechne, left the party ostensibly to drive back to Martha’s Vineyard. The fact that the ferry was no longer running at that time of night, they may or may not have known. On the way Kennedy took an unexpected right turn down an obscure lane – a road leading to a beach. First they had to cross a somewhat crude wooden bridge, whose guard rail was just a few inches high. Crossing the acutely angled bridge the car somehow mounted the guard rail and starting slipping towards the water. Whether Kennedy, in the driver’s seat, had an opportunity to open his door and climb out as the vehicle teetered, is something only the Senator knows. There were marks on the bridge to suggest he might have.

The Senator somehow made it out of the car, leaving Mary Jo, drowning, still inside. Later he did say he contemplated diving in the river, but instead decided to seek help. Although there was a house, with lights on, just by the bridge, he headed back to the party. Passing on the way a fire station with a prominent alarm sign outside.

Back at the party, Kennedy signalled to two of his associates Joseph Gargan and Paul Markham, Together – without telling anyone else – they set off towards the Martha’s Vineyard ferry. At the landing, with of course no ferry, Kennedy unexpectedly – according to his two associates – jumped in the water and started swimming across the harbour towards Martha’s Vineyard. They assumed, they said, that he would go straight to the police at Martha’s Vineyard and report the accident.

Instead Kennedy, it was reported later, went back to his hotel, went his room, changed his assumedly wet clothes, and then complained to the night manager about a noisy party in the room next to his. The next morning he was up early, to catch the first ferry back to Chappaquiddick.

There on the landing he was met by Markham and Gargan who told him his car – with Mary Jo inside – had been found. The Senator took the same ferry back across the harbour – and this time did go straight to the police. Local police chief Dominick Arena was so impressed by the unexpected important visitor he offered the Senator the use of his office and desk. From there Kennedy began calling friends, and presumably lawyers, in Washington. Before the day was out, and the Press arrived in force, all the so-called boiler room girls had checked out of their motel and were on the way back to Washington, The only evidence of the party the night before was a trash can full of empty gin and vodka bottles.

Switch now to the Monday morning, That’s when I and some of my colleagues met a young boat boy who made a living ferrying yacht owners out to their boats anchored in the harbour. He threw a new light on the events on Saturday night. He was complaining that over the weekend someone had used his row-boat. When he left it Saturday night, tied up near the Chappaquiddick Ferry landing he had used what he called a sailor’s knot. Sunday morning he found it tied with what he termed a land-lubber’s knot.

So what happened that night? Did Markham and Gargan use the boat to ferry Senator Kennedy back to his hotel? Did they arrange to meet the next morning? At the subsequent court hearing – at which Kennedy was charged with leaving the scene of an accident and given a two months suspended sentence – Kennedy wore a bandage around his neck, as if he had himself suffered some sort of injury.

To this date, to my knowledge, the Senator has never contacted Mary Jo’s family. And he has never, at least publicly, discussed the Mary Jo Kopechne tragedy in the public.


When Johnny comes scribbling home

By Don Walker

donwalker 1 It’s a grainy black and white movie. The scene is a desolate one: barbed wire, bare, compacted earth and few props, perhaps a much used shabby piece of gym equipment in a distant corner of the flickering screen.

As the camera pans we see a wooden hut with a lean figure lounging outside; he is perched languidly on an armchair that seems to be a tattered brother of the far-off vaulting horse.

The camera dollies in and one of the man’s eyebrows rises quizzically. There is no other sign of emotion on his well-bred face. His pose remains undisturbed, but his head turns oh-so-casually and he calls quietly, insouciantly, over his shoulder to someone in the hut.

‘I say, old chap, bettah stop diggin’. Here comes the bloody Hun.’

A startled figure appears in the hut’s doorway hastily brushing earth from his threadbare trousers. The face is familiar. Yes, it’s John Mills… or Leo Genn… or perhaps the dashingly handsome Anthony Steel.

Well, no, actually it’s me: dashingly short and curly-haired Don Walker. For what you are watching is not The Wooden Horse or Stalag 17 or any other celluloid celebration of our resourceful British chappies held prisoner during World War II.

It’s a visualization, a fantasy version if you like, of room 404 in the old Holborn building during the early 70s. Trapped in there against their will are a host of proud but worn faces famed, if that is the right word, not for their appearances in those jolly PoW movies but for their far from frequent bylines in the pages of the Daily Mirror.

Turning back into our fourth floor Nissen hut, I cry hoarsely: ‘Here comes the bloody Features Editor!’ The room suddenly stirs with activity. Sid Williams stops playing darts, sits down and tries to look intelligent. Colin Dunne hastily puts away the cards he has been using to teach me poker. Paula James starts typing blindly, furiously, not realising there is no paper in her machine.

The lean figure of our putative boss is seen through the frosted glass of the door. The room holds its breath. Someone mutters: ‘What the hell’s he doing up here?’ only to be shushed by the rest of the lost souls. The shadow hesitates at the door. We see a hand reach for the handle, it turns…

But still he hesitates. Something in the corridor outside catches his attention and he turns and walks off. A vast, collective sigh goes round the room and Christine the secretary stands up and announces: ‘I’m going to the canteen. Anyone want a bacon sandwich?’

The relief is palpable and Jill Evans starts giggling hysterically. The danger has passed and we can go back to twiddling our thumbs. Or playing darts. Or learning poker.

How on earth did we end up here? We weren’t shot down over France or torpedoed in the Baltic. We didn’t see action in North Africa or Tobruk, though we had been in the front line of a few scraps in the Stab on a Friday night.

Colin Dunne gave his elegant version of our predicament in these columns recently and said no-one was to blame for this situation: so many, um, talented writers workless and confined to one room. Well, I beg to differ. There are a number of theories concerning the identity of the culprit. This is mine and I happen to think it is the correct one.

First, is the wartime allegory fitting? Absolutely.

One of the most popular television shows of this period in the early 70s was called simply Colditz. Inspired by the 1955 film The Colditz Story starring John Mills (how would they ever manage without him?), both film and TV drama were based on a book by a Major Pat Reid.

It told the story of Allied prisoners in the supposedly escape-proof Colditz Castle in East Germany. Free-spirited prisoners who absolutely refused to be confined by ordinary German prisons were slung in this vertiginous jug as a final resort.

The TV series dealt with the various escape plans of the prisoners and, more importantly, with the emotional tensions between the prisoners and their captors and among the prisoners themselves.

Yep. A soap. Mit bratwurst und sauerkraut.

All seemingly harmless enough. Yet for a couple of years the series so gripped the nation that people would utter phrases from the show or pretend to be one of the characters.

Trapped in a crowded rush-hour bus or Tube carriage some idiot would always come out with: ‘Zere ist no ezcape from here, Kapitain.’

The soap’s villainous character Major Horst Mohn spawned a host of imitations. The Major had apparently suffered severe wounds on the Russian front and sitting was painful for him.

So Mike Christiansenwould groan imperceptibly and clutch his stomach when sitting down at editorial conference. The editor, Tony Miles, who didn’t appear to be in on the joke or to watch the TV show would, in consternation, ask his deputy if he was all right. Mike would nod bravely and reply quietly: ‘Ja mein Kommandant.’

We played such scenes daily in room 404 while hatching our own escape plans. But the true villain of this piece was neither the Nazis nor the indignities of war. It was a little something called Mirrorscope.

This pull-out section, launched gloriously in the 60s, was aimed to be the Mirror ‘going serious’ in its attempt to ‘educate’ the public. Well, that’s what they told me. I took them at their word and wrote a deep, 1000-word profile of the Andalusian guitarist AndrésSegovia.

And they printed it. Complete with delicate line-drawing of the maestro.

Writers started using words like ‘farouche’ and ‘lucubrations’. Not only did the subs leave them in, they didn’t bawl us scribblers out for using them or try to harm us physically in the pub. Strange times.

Every year the tabloid genius Hugh Cudlipp would come up with a Big Idea. There was Boom Cities and Youth In Action, Mirrorscope and various Shock Editions.

At the time, the Mirror was a resounding success. True, it didn’t quite have the magical five million-plus sales of recent years, but its only challenger was the underfunded Daily Sketch – the chuckling infant had the playground more or less to itself. So (and don’t forget this is my theory), Cudlipp could indulge himself.

The Sunday Times was also in its heyday and favoured lengthy profiles, in-depth reporting, serious analysis of world events and thick black straplines embedded with subject headings such as ‘famine’, ‘policy’, ‘philosophy’.

So the didactic Mirror started to follow suit. Older journalists, reared on short pars and blunt, one-syllable words set in non-modular makeup, blenched as we became more Sunday Times than the Sunday Times.

One Mirrorscope piece on prison reform boasted the strapline RECIDIVISM. I am not making this up. Those older journalists threw their hands in the air at this point and went to the pub. And, refusing to return to the scene of the crime, stayed there. All was surely lost.

Not all of us thought so, of course. Now, at last, we were free of the sub-editor’s narrow-minded carpenter’s pencil. We could flourish our vocabulary, we could talk lightly of ‘tempered versus mean tuning’ and ‘string theory’, of Keynes and Engels.

And more hands were needed to serve up this nouvelle cuisine. Political mavens, lyric prose-writers, college fellows, young professors. Bring ’em on, pay ’em well. And they did. Soon we had more experts on everything than there were subjects to be expert upon.

But a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand was gathering on the horizon.

We capered on, all unaware. Explain how the American election system works. How did Marx affect world economies? Was Einstein’s theory of relativity flawed? China… tell me ALL about China.

And suddenly it was raining.

In 1969 Murdoch came along, bought the Sun from Cudlipp for £60,000 and got most of Essex to show her tits.

The Dirty Digger, as Cudlipp called him, even printed the Sun masthead in exactly the same colour as the Mirror. Unbelievably, we changed the colour of our masthead…

Mirrorscope struggled on for a good while, some years in fact, but its life was really over. It shrank and shrank until it ended up as Close-Up.

Then Mike Molloy looked upon Features and saw that it was awash with all the detritus of our bid for highfalutin intellectualism. We had more writers than you could throw an intro at. And seeing them all sitting there doing nothing was rather embarrassing.

‘Don,’ he said to me, ‘I’m moving you all up to this nice big room on the fourth floor. It makes sense.’

So in we went, perhaps like refugees believing we were going somewhere important, a better place, oh, it’s just temporary. And the newspaper went back to being the old Mirror and subs curled their lip at words like ‘hubris’ and ‘concatenation’.

Soon the crowded room 404 became a joke in the Street itself. I became aware of this when an artist on the Express I saw from time to time on the bus from Waterloo said: ‘Is it true there’s this big room with hundreds of writers doing nothing all day?’

‘Well, hardly hundreds,’ I said apologetically and changed the subject: ‘D’you think Einstein’s theory of relativity is flawed?’

The room and its contents became a self-perpetuating myth. Any odd bod the management didn’t know what to do with would end up there. There were just too many of us and insufficient work to go round.

I was sent out by Mike Taylor to do a colour piece on the IRA bomb that wrecked the Park Lane Hilton; when I returned people actually crowded round my typewriter as I worked to savour the moment… reformed fag smokers inhaling other people’s stale nicotine. One actually asked to read my copy, like an elderly man dreaming over the knicker counter at Harvey Nichols.

The less you worked the less you wanted to. Work became the thing you both dreaded and pined for. People visibly jumped when the phone rang.

But perhaps the B-movie allegory is misleading: for the cast contained some very distinguished names who wouldn’t star in any old rubbish. In no particular order the room included at one time or another, if only briefly: Colin Dunne, Jill Evans, John Pilger, Bill Hagerty, Madelon Dimont, Joe Haines, Paula James, Don Gomery, Sid Williams, Chris Hutchinson, Paul Hughes, Bill Marshall, Bryan Rimmer, Sally Moore, Dick Sear, Matt Coady, Stan Bonnett, etcetera, etcetera.

And me.

At the going down of the Sun and in the mourning…


Recent Rantings

Recent Comparisons

Recent Reviews