Issue #87

This week

Last week we asked whether you remembered where you were, when… and mentioned the name of Kennedy.

Phil Harrison knows precisely where he was when JFK was shot.

James Mahoney remembers where he was when Churchill died, and how he almost blew a scoop.

Ann Farrell recalls her paper socking things up in occupied Germany.

Stanley Blenkinsop remembers where he was when the beautiful Yorkshire rose Katherine Worsley (daughter of the chairman of County Cricket Club) opened for Kent.

Colin Dunne wonders where all the Big Time Operators were, when he was doing all the important stories. Oh – apparently they were in Vietnam, Biafra, and covering assassinations in the USA, or on the last helicopter out of Saigon, while he was on the last bus out of Stockport.

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You always remember where…

By Philip Harrison

In 1963, I was subbing on The Friend, then one of the South African Argus group’s two-morning newspapers, and the second smallest. It shared the newspaper market in Bloemfontein with Die Volksblad, an Afrikaans evening paper. As Bloemfontein was 98 percent Afrikaans speaking, Die Volksblad dominated the circulation battle. An agreement between the rival newspaper groups stipulated that Die Volksblad could not publish to be on the streets before noon and The Friend could not publish to be on the streets before midnight. Because of the world’s time zones, this mainly benefited The Friend, never more so than on November 22, 1963.

The Friend published two editions an evening—an early one for the surrounding region and a late edition for the city. On November 23, after the first edition had gone, the staff of the sub-editor’s table was, as usual, down the pub for an hour or so before starting work on the final edition. The exception was Ron Schurinck, who did not drink and was looked upon as a bit of a management sneak. He stayed in the office while we were at the pub.

This night, however, he came down to the pub—in full flight.

‘Kennedy’s been shot,’ he yelled.

‘Bullshit,’ we replied as in a single voice.

‘No, no, it’s true,’ begged Ron. He had a torn-off piece of teleprinter paper in his hand which confirmed his news.

Mickey Davin, the news editor, decided not to panic.

‘This is serious,’ he said. He looked at his watch. ‘We still have 20 minutes’ drinking time left. No one’s going to bring the bastard back to life, so let’s have one more.’

Ron looked as if he was about to burst into tears. There was no television in South Africa and little news on radio in those days, so we had a wide open opportunity.

We sauntered nonchalantly back to the office and then it was on. For the first time in anyone’s memory, we threw out advertisements to make way for news. The first four pages were advert-free.

The editor, Robbie Robertson, who usually went home around 7pm after writing the leader, had heard the news and had come into the office. Even he was taken with the thrill of it all.

‘The advertising manager just phoned and I told him we were tossing out advertising,’ said Robbie. ‘He protested but I told him to get fucked.’

We delayed the deadline of the main edition till 3am then decided to put out a third edition to be on the streets by 10 am. Die Volksblad must have been mortified to have to sit on the story till noon.

We all agreed that nothing could top that for excitement.

The next night, Ron came running down the pub again.

‘Oswald’s been shot,’ he shouted.

We did not take kindly to this ridiculously obvious practical joke and together threw our beers over him.

Then we had a look at the sodden piece of teleprinter paper he was clutching. Jesus, it was true. It was on-again, but this time the advertisements stayed. The main excitement was a nearly stand-up fight between me, the news editor and the editor about whether we should call Oswald the ‘alleged’ assassin in the page one headline or just ‘assassin’. ‘Alleged’ won out.

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Total sock-up on the Western Front

By Ann Farrell

Anybody remember the days when it was still considered effing bad form to use four-letter words in print?

A small daily tabloid was published in the British Zone of Germany shortly after the end of WWII for the ‘edification’ of its occupying service and civilian workers. At that time the country was occupied by British, French, US and Russian service and civilian personnel.

The Brits’ communications folk ran papers for the zone. I was on one called the CCG (Control Commission Germany) Gazette where each day we recorded a BBC newscast as a lead story on Page One. We also had a classified section, and therein lies our clunker: to wit an ad for surplus army socks. Prosaic enough you say, but not quite ..

Our ad went: ‘For sale: large supply of army fucks, size 9, apply Box…’ etc. Hardly noticeable in today’s press but in 1947, there were ructions. There was a message for our editor IMMEDIATELY to call a certain brigadier who for reasons best known to army headquarters, was heading our civilian communications division until his ‘demob’ date came up.

In true army tradition, he tore a huge strip off the offending editor who each evening had to put the paper to bed in a German print shop where English was definitely a foreign language and proofreading dicey.

The brigadier, having delivered a salty dressing down to our editor, went on to say there was a silver lining — the appearance of an uncensored four-letter word in our classified section had resulted in the largest circulation figure ever recorded for this humble publication.

In the lingo of those days Sic transit gloria swanson!

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The Winston scoop

By James Mahoney

In the days when Reuters copy used to arrive in newsrooms via the clickety-clack-clack-clack of a teleprinter, the chief subs at Fairfax’s The Sydney Morning Herald and Sir Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph had a neat dodge operating to ensure they weren’t scooped on late overseas news.

You’ll remember the Reuter’s teleprinter copy: each take arrived with a unique number and a slugline. Thus: 846, Parly …6. For a news flash the machine rattled out Snap…Snap…Snap across the top of the file and bells rang to alert the copy boys that here was something they ought to rush to the copy taster. Those were the days well before those pesky ‘Breaking news’ things that happen all night on television but never seem to simply become ‘news’.

So each night, usually just before the first edition went to bed, one of the chief subs would call the other to suggest that their use of overseas copy end at, ‘What is it, Boy? … 875.’ Once that was settled, a gentlemen’s agreement ensured that no matter what then turned up, neither would run it.

Copy boys working The Herald’s subs’ room were quartered in a narrow room loaded with teleprinter machines that opened into the area where the main and international desks were housed. From here they did the usual subs’ room copy boy things: ripping copy from the machines, obeying the increasingly feverish ‘Chute, Boy’ yells as the edition deadline neared, running messages and making the nightly tea from the boiling water downstairs in the comps’ room.

The gentlemen’s agreement worked well, especially the night Winston Churchill died.

At that time, Australia was still overwhelmingly oriented towards Britain, especially as far as the Prime Minister, Robert Gordon Menzies, QC, MP, Knight of the Thistle and Lord Warden of Cinque Ports (to which post he succeeded on Winston’s death), was concerned. So Pom was he, that when Australia introduced decimal currency in 1966, Menzies wanted to call the new thing the ‘Royal’. Sense prevailed and we got the dollar.

Menzies and Churchill hadn’t been the best of mates since the former joined the War Cabinet in London during the Second World War. When Churchill died the Australian was on an official visit to the United States and couldn’t be immediately contacted for the usual laudatory comments about the Great Man. As the subs’ room copy boy that night, I was heavily briefed about the need to keep watching the Reuters teleprinter and to deliver anything from Menzies about Churchill to the copy taster in takes. Meanwhile, the night chief of staff, the unflappable Tom Smith, was urging The Herald New York correspondent to track Menzies down to extract a comment about Churchill and to dictate it direct to Smith. Tom was well-known for being fearless when the circumstances demanded a late night phone call to the grieving family of a murder or road accident victim to request a recent photograph for the next day’s paper. He was also a crack typist and could process dictated copy almost as efficiently as the copytakers.

As the edition neared, the New York office came good with the Menzies’ quotes and I had to run, literally, the copy, take by take, from Smith’s typewriter to the subs’ room. Alan Cragg, the copy taster, subbed it and shot it down the chute.

As the last take disappeared down the chute to the comps, the chief sub rang his opposite number at the Tele. Just as he suggested, ‘Might as well close on 948, don’t you reckon?’ the Reuters machine did its Snap…Snap…Snap and bells thing, followed by something like, ‘949…Menzies comments on Churchill.’ As an enthusiastic potential cadet, I yelled from the copy boys’ room, ‘Here comes Menzies!’ – in a voice that could have been heard over the phone.

If filthy looks from a dozen subs were anything to go by, a future career as a hack lost its momentum right there. But the nightly gentlemanly deal was already done, they closed on 948, we ran the Menzies comment (by-lined for safety, and that was unusual in those days) and the Tele squealed a bit the next night. After a bit of huffing and puffing from the chief sub, I was at least forgiven for almost blowing the first scoop in which I’d even been involved.

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Extracting the Michael

By Stanley Blenkinsop

It was something of a trip down Memory Lane this week to re-read Sir Michael Parkinson’s recent hardback Parky (now downpriced to £7 in Waterstone’s).

For the Yorkshire knight – 74 this month — almost caused me to be lynched from a Teesside lamp post in 1961.

There were race riots in and around Middlesbrough’s multi-racial Cannon Street and the national press corps descended en masse, Parky among them. He was then a Fleet Street feature writer for the Daily Express.

I was there too as the Newcastle upon Tyne district man for the Daily Mail before I rejoined the Express in 1962 – four years after leaving it to join the soon-to-be-defunct News Chronicle at an extra fiver a week

As the riots continued I was sitting in a Cannon Street pub reading Parky’s Express feature headlined: Canon Street – the dirty neck of Middlesbrough.

Suddenly a mob of local lads – inflamed with drink – burst in bawling: ‘There’s the bugger who says we don’t wash our necks!’

They dragged me into Cannon Street shouting ‘Hang him from a lamp post…’ But eventually I managed to prove I was from the Mail not the Express by producing my NUJ card and that morning’s Mail report with my byline.

The same year I came across Parky again —this time at York for the Minster marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Kent.

The night before the wedding ceremony the majority of the national press corps were in the lounge bar of the Royal Station Hotel – as always in those halcyon years the Express vastly outnumbering its rivals.

Each newspaper had been allocated an official pass for only one journalist for each title to be in the Minster for the ceremony. It was common knowledge that Parky would represent the Express.

But suddenly a row erupted at the crowded Express table, four times the size of the Mail’s. An editorial executive from the Black Glass Lubijanka had just arrived from Fleet Street with the editor’s decision that the Minister ceremony should be covered by the paper’s world-travelled chief reporter rather than a Yorkshire lad on his home turf.

As angry Express voices rose to shrieking pitch there were chants of ‘More! More!’ from rival journalists with the Mail crew as cheerleaders.

Then there was a standing ovation from the crowd – except the Express contingent – as Parky bustled out. He was not seen in York next day.

But Parky still holds a record in the British Army – their youngest captain outside the world wars.

During his National Service as a soldier he was seconded to the public relations department because of his journalistic experience on Yorkshire weekly papers before being called up – and he was given a commission.

When the Suez crisis occurred in 1956 he was flown out to help with press relations for the British force. Because of the importance of his post in dealing with the international press corps Parky was promoted captain – aged 22.

One of his PR comrades, Robin Esser – a few weeks older – later became editor of the Sunday Express after editing the Daily Express in Manchester in the sixties. Robin is now the chief managing editor of the Daily Mail.

Footnote; neither the royal wedding nor the ‘dirty neck’ is mentioned in the current edition of Parky

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The last bus out of Stockport

By Colin Dunne

Don’t blame them, for heaven’s sake. It wasn’t their fault that in the late sixties the Mail’s Edwards, the Sun’s Akass, and all the rest of the international brigade found themselves chasing Kennedy and King shootings, Biafran wars, the Prague Spring, and Vietnam. At the time, these probably seemed to be the big, big stories.

What they didn’t know at the time, of course, was that this meant that they missed the lawnmower racing, the dispute over the oldest brass band in Derbyshire, the pig-smuggling scandal, and the lady molecatcher.

I’ll bet they’re still kicking themselves.

If they’d all followed me into the Daily Mirror features department in Manchester, all these jewels of journalism would have been theirs. Wrong place, wrong time: simple as that, I’m afraid.

If that sounds as though being a feature writer in the north did not invariably put you in the orchestra stalls for the great drama of history in the making, then I wouldn’t quarrel with that. It wasn’t so much the last helicopter out of Saigon for me, as the last bus out of Stockport, which in some ways was even more frightening.

But, don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not complaining. Thanks to Stanley Vaughan’s demonstration of how to be a real reporter, at a pothole disaster, I had been obliged to face the fact that I wasn’t one. Or likely to become one. On the other hand, during my time on the Evening Chron in Newcastle, I had written about half-a-million features. On the basis that you should always do what you’re best at, I asked Bill Freeman (news editor) if he’d let me go to features, and Alan Price (features editor) if he’d accept me.

Since most reporters wanted to be like Edwards and Akass, I had only one rival – a district man in the North-East. He had a wonderfully light touch, damn him. Once I remember finding Alan Price sitting chuckling over a piece he’d written. It’s probably just as well I didn’t have my lighter with me, or I might’ve set fire to it.

Two men, one job. A classic confrontation. But I had my secret weapon.

This chap was not only a highly-regarded district man, a hard-news reporter of some reputation, but he was also making a name as an investigative journo.

My secret weapon was that I couldn’t do anything else. And since I could really only do truly trivial stories, I was that equestrian rarity, a half-trick pony.

Faced with the prospect of losing one of their best guys, or being stuck with me cluttering up the reporters’ benches for the rest of the century, the news desk decided to let me go.

What became of my rival? He went on to become a Fleet Street executive and one of Maxwell’s high command and later retired to a small island near Malta. I always tell people that he invented Gozo journalism, which was later stolen by Hunter S. Thompson who couldn’t even spell it correctly. I mean, ‘Gonzo’, for heaven’s sake.

Since he was also about eight-foot-six, the guy could well have pursued a career as a lighthouse. Actually, I never knew if he wanted the job in features: but I did know he was the only other candidate.

At that time, Manchester had everything. Or, more accurately, it had one of everything. One decent hotel, one restaurant worth eating at, one quality department store, one television studio, and one celebrity. People came from miles around in the hope of a glimpse of George Best. So did Manchester United’s manager, because at this time George was forever getting lost.

Roundabout Thursday every week, he would go missing. Where’s Georgie? Will he play on Saturday? The city was in a fever. Each week, without fail, came the Great George Chase. It wasn’t usually that much of a mystery. By the time the hacks found him, the usual pic was Georgie in a dressing-gown at a half-open door of a Chelsea flat, with the owner, invariably a blonde actress, standing just behind him. In her nightie.

There was a definite pattern to his disappearances. For the reporters, this meant a couple of days chasing around pubs and night-clubs in London, on expenses. Their complaints were less than audible. I know reporters who built extensions on their houses called The George Best Wing.

The sad thing about the golden times in our lives is that we never realise it at the time: that was one of mine. At that time, the Mirror had a great appetite for frivolous features, and, as a man who trained on conversations with corgis, most of them came my way.

By this time, I had begun to realise that I was temperamental – if not actually genetically – destined to be a features creature. Good newsmen liked being in the limelight. Loud of voice, strong of limb, they were assertive, definite sort of chaps, who’d elbow their way to the front of a crowd. They’d grab people. They’d demand answers. Newsmen had no nerves.

Whereas we weedy features people were much happier on the edge and in the shadows, lurking and skulking. When the hard news guy was asking the police chief if they’d arrested anyone, the feature writer would be noting the colour of his socks. Reporters ran in packs. Writers sneaked about on their own.

As a natural lurker, skulker and sneaker, I was much happier away from the mainstream.

And what a joy those stories were. The New Mills Prize Brass Band, which claimed to be the oldest, boasted a tuba player – a famously macho breed – who had simultaneously put two women in Stockport maternity ward. For the 1914 war, the entire band marched off blowing bravely to enlist together, and before long one of them paid the supreme sacrifice. He was knocked down by a despatch rider in Buxton. With their uniforms amateurishly modified for women and children – anyone who could blow was in – they were said to look like the Light Brigade.

On the way back.

The Yorkshire Freedom Fighters, another of my major exclusives, had a coat-of-arms of a nude Fred Trueman holding a Yorkshire pudding in one hand and white rose in the other. Their motto was Demos Eboraci Semper – the House of York Forever, and their policy was based on a twin platform: to push Lancashire into the sea and to export Pontefract cakes in large quantities.

Then there were the inventors with the plastic pillow to bring comfort to curlered heads (this was the north, after all), a magnetic tea-caddy spoon, and a pram alarm to frighten off baby-snatchers. The man who put a Perspex panel in an umbrella handle with name, address and telephone number was ejected into the street by the manufacturers: ‘we like people losing umbrellas,’ they said.

Even the ones that went wrong were funny. Someone sent me out on the streets to attempt to give away the new £50 note. The theory was that people would be so suspicious no-one would accept them. After about 30 seconds, in which time I’d got rid of five of them and had a queue halfway up the street, the story was called off. I was talking about this other day with Bill Greaves, ex-Mail man, who had been asked to do the same thing with fivers. He couldn’t get rid of one. Obviously, I pointed out to him, I have a more trustworthy face.

A similar disaster loomed when I was sent to interview a man called Bill Shankly. I phrase it like that because I knew nothing about him. I also knew nothing about football, as I believe the game is called. He was, or so I understood at the time, the boss of some team or other. The theory was that he would be so charmed by my innocent ignorance that he would reveal secrets he would never share with his sporting chums.

I realised the flaw in this theory within about a minute of arriving in his office. The only thing in his life was football. He only ever talked about football. He hated people who couldn’t talk about football. The only journalists he ever spoke to were football reporters, and he certainly had no wish to be interviewed by a feature writer. I think he believed feature writers to be men who conducted most of their social lives in public lavatories. My hair, curled poetically over my collar at the time, my yellow suede jacket and purple loon pants did nothing to contradict this belief.

He proceeded to give me a 30-minute non-interview. To every question he said it was a team game, and the man who cleaned the boots was as important as he was, and so on, and so on. Even my tape-recorder was yawning. Somehow I wasn’t touching his soul. In my research, I had noted that they had one young player (Steve Heighway? Does that sound right?) who’d been to university. Did that, I asked him, raise the level of the conversation among the knuckle-scrapers in the changing room?

For a minute, I thought he was going to hit me.

To be quite frank, I had thought he looked a bit finely balanced, and at this point he went crackers. In a burst of high-speed sporran talk, the little Glaswegian was off like a machine-gun. Fu’ba’ was nae aboot brains. In fu’ba’, you had yer brains in yer boots. Sorry, I can’t keep up this dialect stuff any longer. What it amounted to was that if they wanted intellectuals the managers would all be queuing outside Oxford and Cambridge, but they don’t, because fu’ba’ came from the back streets…

And so it went on, ranting and raving. It was marvellous stuff, and I got out, with my tape, before he decided to spill my brains with his boots. As I was leaving, I heard him say: ‘Who was that fuckin’ cowboy?’

I had made a complete fool of myself. On the other hand, it wasn’t a bad spread.

And, do you know, I’m still not sure who he was.

There were then, as I’m sure there are now, several men who’d like to hit me. I’m surprised Allan Staniforth didn’t, for one. He was the Mirror man in Leeds. For years he’d been building and driving racing cars. One Sunday, his great day of triumph, he broke three world and six British records.

On the same day, I won a lawnmower race. Who got top billing? Talk about no justice.

It was a cricket club near Sale who staged the world’s first lawnmower racing championships, and Alan Price, my boss, told me enter with a view to writing a few mildly comical pars. Beforehand, just to make it interesting, I went to Atco’s lawnmower factory at Preston where the mechanics were sick to death with slowing their machines down for old ladies. Could they speed one up? They thought they could.

Was I cheating? Well, nowhere near so much as Jimmy Savile, who had come to record his own athletic triumph for his radio programme. Never mind my little Atco, he’d got a cricket lawnmower the size of a grand piano with four forward gears.

After four half-mile heats, I finished the final by opening up the accelerator and letting my magnificent flying machine drag me round one last time. Sad if unsurprising to report that Mr. Savile was not a gracious loser.

But Allan Staniforth, good chap that he was, didn’t mind sharing the front-page plug with me.

At least by then I knew that lurking and skulking was the life for me. Not that we didn’t get our share of the big foreign jobs in Withy Grove features. Oh yes, occasionally I had to dig out my much-stamped passport to jet off to bring back world-shaking stories to a hungry public. Edwards and Akass and Co weren’t the only ones to witness war, pestilence, famine and death… and, that lesser-known, fifth horseman of the apocalypse, nudity.

I was sent to Sweden to report – exclusively, you may care to note – on the world’s first naked beauty contest.

It was a wintry night so I wasn’t all that surprised when the winner shivered and said: ‘Your notebook is so cold.’ Well, I had to rest it somewhere, didn’t I?

Unlike Saigon, there was no rush for the helicopters to escape.

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