Issue #88

Easy as ABC

So… where were you?

When Stalin died, Cassandra wrote a piece saying: ‘Few men by their death can have given such deep satisfaction to so many.’

But, as Liberace used to say, ‘That Bill Connor sometimes has rough edge to his tongue.’

Continuing our Where-Were-You-When theme, last week’s reference to the clacking of teleprinters when Churchill died triggered a memory in Phil Harrison’s grey cells. He wasn’t there when Stalin snuffed it, but he knew a man who was, and he, poor soul, was asleep at the telex in the ABC London office…

And, talking of the great and the good, what about that oaf Lord Longford, the man who gave a whole new meaning to the expression ‘nasty pompous git’? Roy Stockdill went brothel-creeping with him in Copenhagen.

Jeff Connor remembers, 45 years ago almost to the day, when sportsmen wouldn’t talk without money. Was this when it all started?

But… Where on earth did newspapers ever find all these people? That’s what Colin Dunne wants to know.

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Easy as ABC

By Philip Harrison

In 1960, I was in London working for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) bureau there. ABC radio employed about 20 journalists working in shifts in its Portland Place office to supply news by telex to Sydney. Most were locally employed, and it was a good place for Australian journalists to get casual work when they made the obligatory trip to Britain.

The ABC in those days was keen on getting a news service independent of AAP, which was owned by the newspaper proprietors. The London ABC office had a battery of teleprinters from news agencies such as Reuter, United Press, Associated Press, Extel, Press Association and Australian Associated Press. The duty journalists would monitor these teleprinters, which were housed in a glass-walled soundproof room, and rewrite their reports into news items for ABC radio.

The ABC apparently had no funds for a telex operator, so journalists would key their own stories through to Sydney. For instance, if there was a major disaster in Britain — a fire with many fatalities, a big robbery — the journalist would tear the newsagency reports from the teleprinters, amalgamate them into a few crisp paragraphs on the old typewriters and re-key the result into the telex machine to be read on ABC national news when it reached Sydney.

We ranked the newsagencies in order of believability. The most reliable were Reuter and its British domestic counterpart, the Press Association. The one most likely to exaggerate was United Press (American, of course). It was inevitable, therefore, that when news was flashed of a train collision with many casualties in Scotland, the old hands stood by their motto: ‘Take the Reuter story, but use the UP casualty figures.’

The midnight-to-dawn shift, predictably, was the most boring. The usually lone journalist spent his time reading and snoozing, occasionally monitoring the teleprinters to check for news stories and make sure the rolls of paper that fed them had not run out. The boredom was broken around 4am when the first editions of the Fleet Street papers arrived.

In those days there were at least 12 morning dailies and competition was intense. It was then that I learned one of the basic rules of journalism: the opposition’s news sense is always better than yours.

Let me illustrate. Often the first editions of the papers would disagree on what the main news story was. Six would have as their page one lead story, say, a political scandal, with a report about an Underground crash lower on the page. The other six would have the Underground crash leading page one with the scandal relegated to the lower position. When the second editions arrived a couple of hours later, the papers had reversed their news selection. The news editors who had chosen the scandal as the most important story had apparently changed their mind and now had the Underground crash as their main item. Similarly, the other six had seen their rivals, had a quick rethink about news values, and decided that their original judgment should be changed.

A few years before I worked there, on the night of March 5, 1953, the midnight-to-dawn shift was particularly quiet and the duty journalist had been sleeping for two hours when the Sydney-connected teletype in the office chattered into life. It was an urgent message from ABC Sydney: ‘BBC World Service says Stalin has died. Please confirm.’

The duty bloke looked through the glass partitions and saw that the whole of the teleprinter room was full of paper. Every teleprinter had run out of paper and was chattering away, typing important news on to the roller platen. Obviously a huge story had broken while he was snoozing. It was certainly Stalin’s death, but it took him 30 minutes of hand-scrolling through the writhing mass of paper, through eulogies and historical pieces, to find when, where and how it happened. ABC Sydney had to use AAP material for its first report on the death.

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Danish blue

By Roy Stockdill

What would be the worst thing about being in jail? The best answer to that question, some years ago (and they’re still arguing about whether it was Denis Norden or Richard Ingrams who said it first) was ‘being visited by Lord Longford’.

At the time, the 7th Earl of Longford was everybody’s favourite loony and the subject of much lampooning and derision over his campaign to get the Moors Murderer Myra Hindley released from prison. He was also widely ridiculed for his support of the morality campaigner, Mary Whitehouse, and his attempts to get pornography banned in Britain.

It was in connection with the latter that in the early 1970s Longford led a small party of fearless investigative Brits to Copenhagen, in those days the sex capital of Europe if not the world, to find out how pornography had severely corrupted the Dirty Danes; his self-appointed mission being to produce the evidence to prevent the same thing happening back home.

Given the potential for a huge amount of rib-tickling fun and mickey-taking to be directed in the good earl’s direction, the accompanying press posse was several times larger than Longford’s official delegation – and I and a photographer from the News of the World were among them.

It was my very first foreign assignment for the NoW and turned out to be one of the most hilarious weeks of my life.

I said the members of the porn-busting team were fearless investigators. Well, actually, besides Longford himself, they included an old biddy from the Labour Party, Longford’s pretty secretary, a shy girl of about 21 called Sue, and a very young Gyles Brandreth, then a rising media star who had come to public notice with his exploits as President of the Oxford Union.

The first surprise came when we were met at the airport in Copenhagen by a senior flunky from the British Embassy who somehow arranged for everyone, including we reptiles of the press mob, to be whisked through customs and immigration, trailing in Longford’s wake, with full VIP treatment.

We became even more impressed with the man from the Embassy when he proceeded to give us a thorough briefing on the city’s red-light district and where the dirtiest dirty bookshops, muckiest massage parlours and seediest sex clubs were to be found.

Whether his intimate knowledge of the Danish capital’s libidinous side stemmed from personal experience or whether this was an exclusive service the chinless wonders at the British Embassy provided for all distinguished visitors I couldn’t say, but we agreed that Our Man in Copenhagen seemed to know rather a lot about it.

The next couple of days were spent scurrying around the red-light district after Longford and his intrepid gang as the 7th Earl raced feverishly from one bookshop to another, buying up large quantities of searing pornography, some of it bad enough to bring a blush even to the cheeks of this reporter, who had been given his News of the World baptism in the bookshops and fleapits of Soho.

By this time the press contingent had swollen to even larger numbers, since the Danish newspapers had heard about the ‘mad English lord’ who was making heavy inroads into Copenhagen’s stock of filthy pornographic literature.

Reporters and photographers and TV crews had latched onto us and some of them even fell to interviewing members of the British press corps in an attempt to find out what all the excitement was about.

Longford gave an outlandish press conference which had many of the Danish reporters in fits of laughter. A number of them were sporting Gay Lib badges and openly holding hands with their same-sex partners – something not seen much in Britain at that time – and the Earl, who was anti-homosexual as well as being highly prudish about pornography, didn’t seem to think much of it.

His gangling, unkempt, eccentric figure, with his thick spectacles, domed head and tufts of hair exploding like a badly trimmed hedge, had already made him an object of enormous fun to the Danish press. They sniggered and sneered and laughed out loud as he rambled on in that pontificating voice about Christian values and morals.

Then came the time when Longford decided that, in the interests of his researches, he must bite the bullet and force himself to visit one of Copenhagen’s famous live sex shows.

Some of us had done a bit of homework and, having taken notice of Our Man from the Embassy’s comprehensive briefing and also having equipped ourselves with a guide that was, shall we say, a little out of the run of normal city tourist guides, directed him towards a club that was reckoned to be among the raunchiest.

The NoW photographer and I had decided to visit a different club with Longford’s secretary, the lovely Sue. I reckoned that because the story was already making headlines in the dailies at home I had to find a different angle, so I had done a deal with her to describe Copenhagen’s sex scene through the eyes of a young woman.

The place we wound up in was called The Love Centre, with the slogan Sex on Four Floors. The ground floor was a straight-forward dirty bookshop, the first floor featured blue movies, the next floor up was where the live sex show took place and the top floor was where those who desired more intimate, personal services could find them after the show.

This was the only live sex show I have ever attended, either before or since – honest, guv, if the missus asks – and to those who might ask if spending two hours watching couples copulating in every position known to humanity is entertaining, I can only answer that I’ve had more fun dodging the shopping trollies of the old dears in Sainsbury’s. After the first 20 minutes or so, it all becomes, well, a bit mundane, predictable and boring.

However, honesty forces me to reveal one incident which did prove somewhat embarrassing. Stark-naked ladies were prowling around the periphery of the stage, around which the audience sat in a circle, and every now and then one of them would pounce on a gentlemen and sit in his lap.

I feared the worst and it happened. A blonde Scandinavian maiden – I use the word maiden in its loosest sense, you understand – plonked herself on my knee and, grabbing my head and hair (I had hair in those days), forced my sweating brow between her impressively large mammaries and jiggled them until my ears sang.

My photographer chum was beside himself with glee and took several photos, which I later discovered he showed to the entire editorial conference when we got back to Bouverie Street.

However, he also got his come-uppance from the naked young lady with the prominent protuberances, as she snatched his spectacles from his face and inserted them into a place I very much doubt they had ever been before. She then handed them back to the photographer – but he made an excuse and left them off.

Back at the hotel later that night, comparing notes with reporters who had been with Longford at the other club, we learnt there had been a hilarious scene involving the good Earl.

Unlike us, he had not stayed the course. After spending only a few minutes watching the preliminaries, it seems a Scandinavian lady equally as buxom as the one I had encountered had descended upon him, sat in his lap, and curled a whip round his bald head. Then, in a voice not unlike Zsa Zsa Gabor‘s, she had asked: ‘Vud you like to vipp me, darlink?’

The horrified Longford sprang to his feet, depositing the lady unceremoniously in a heap on the floor, and fled from the room. He was pursued down the stairs by the club manager, a ferret-faced little man who, thinking Longford was disappointed with the show, ran after him shouting: ‘Please come back, my lord, you have not yet seen the f – – – ing!’

Also that night, a spectacular row took place between Longford and the younger members of his team, Gyles Brandreth and my friend Sue, over the nature and outcome of the expedition. It was obvious that while he was outraged and disgusted by everything he had seen, they, being much younger, were more tolerant and rather bored by it all.

A tearful Sue observed that Longford had made his mind up in advance, long before they got to Copenhagen, wasn‘t prepared to listen to anyone else and that she, for one, didn’t want to go on working with him.

All this made wonderful headlines in the dailies back in England, especially a splash and very funny centre-spread account of Longford’s activities in the sex club by Mike Hellicar in the Daily Mirror.

Next day we saw the darker side of Longford. No longer the loveable, eccentric loon, he gave Hellicar a vicious verbal lashing in front of the rest of the press corps and threatened to speak to ‘my friend Hugh Cudlipp’ and get him the sack. The heated discussion finally ended with Longford saying, patronisingly: ‘Well, you’re a young man and I wouldn’t want to end your career before it’s begun.’

The fun and frolics continued even when we got back to Heathrow. Some of the press had been winding Longford up on the plane, asking him what he was going to do with the prodigious stash of hard-core pornography he had acquired in Copenhagen. He replied that he was going to declare it to customs and tell them it was for serious purposes of research.

In the customs hall he marched up to a chap in a smart uniform with scrambled egg all over his shoulders, produced books full of dirty pictures and began showing them to the man, whose eyes were visibly popping out of his head.

‘Well,’ said Longford, ‘what are you going to do about it?’ Replied the man, looking bemused: ‘What do you expect me to do?’

‘You ARE a customs officer, aren’t you?’ Longford asked. ‘No,’ said the man, ‘I’m a courier for Thomas Cook’s and I’ve just come in from Paris.’

There was an extraordinary tailpiece to my week in Copenhagen with Lord Porn, as the press dubbed Longford after this bizarre expedition. I wrote my story, including the interview with his secretary and her account of the whole thing.

She had asked that the paper submit a draft to Longford, as her boss, which I duly did. On the Friday before publication he telephoned me and demanded that my story shouldn’t be published, saying he ‘couldn’t possibly allow a young girl to write about these things in such explicit detail.’

I pointed out that if he felt like that he shouldn’t have taken her on the trip in the first place, nor allowed her to go with me to a live sex show.

The News of the World, in effect, told Longford to get stuffed and we ran the story anyway. On the Sunday I found out why he had wanted my story spiked. Such was the massive public interest in the Copenhagen fiasco that Longford himself had done a splash for a rival tabloid, answering his critics.

It was this experience, plus the threat to get a journalist sacked because he’d written a story Longford didn’t like, that made me aware of a nastier side to the Earl and that he wasn’t just an eccentric and loveable buffoon.

After the Copenhagen venture, Longford produced a report on pornography many thousands of words long, but it was quietly forgotten and no government action ever ensued from it. I expect it’s probably still sitting on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust.

Unfortunately, the loony Lord didn’t have anything like as much fun gathering his evidence as I and the rest of the press pack did in watching him doing it.

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A star is born

By Jeff Connor

On April 4 1964, my sports editor at the Weekly News, a dour disciplinarian from Dundee called George Morton, presented me with a rail voucher for the journey from Manchester Piccadilly to Fitzwilliam in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

I was to doorknock a batsman called Geoffrey Boycott and ask him if he would tell our readers about his cricket career to date. It was felt (correctly as it turned out) that he would be selected for England at some stage that summer.

Mr Boycott, or rather his mother, with whom he lived, was not on the telephone and the journey was undertaken in the knowledge that he might not be home. Travelling hopefully was standard operating procedure for journalists in those days.

It was a departure for me in many other ways. In the newspaper’s Chapel Street office in Salford, I spent most of the week working on an uncredited ‘column’ called See Them on TV This Weekend.

In line with the stricture of the great Times editor of the 60s, William Haley, that ‘signed writing encourages exhibitionism’ (and how right he was) the Weekly News did not grant writers bylines. Only my parents were aware of the identity of the author of this weekly masterpiece.

Still, it was a cosy little world enlivened by visits to the homes of surprisingly docile and hospitable wrestlers called Billy Two Rivers and Masambulah, the occasional motor cyclist and, once, a very pretty American Wightman Cup tennis player called Carole Caldwell. Her fiancé, Clark Graebner, thankfully sat in and interjected helpfully from time to time as the interviewer became more and more red-faced and tongue-tied.

I had never heard of Geoffrey Boycott but I believed, with the naivety of a 17-year-old, that cricketers would be just as compliant and co-operative.

The train journey to Fitzwilliam involved changes at Leeds and Wakefield and after around three and a half hours of travel through a landscape of back-to-back terrace houses and coal tips, I arrived at the birthplace of my prey.

Mrs Boycott and her son lived at the end of a vast line of identical homes on Railway Terrace. She opened the door in person and seemed pleasant enough but stiffened perceptibly when I announced my profession. There was no invitation to step inside and when I asked if Geoffrey was home she braced herself in the doorway like a nightclub bouncer.

‘I’ll ask,’ she said without enthusiasm.

There followed the sort of three-way conversation familiar to anyone who has seen the shop sketch in Little Britain.

‘Geoffrey!’ shouted Mrs. Boycott over her shoulder. ‘There’s a journalist here to see you.’

‘From Manchester,’ I said. ‘’E’s from Manchester,’ said Mrs. Boycott.

‘What does ’e want?’ demanded a voice from within.

‘Geoffrey says what do you want?’

‘I just want to ask him about his career and whether he thinks he will play for England soon.’

‘How much?’ said the voice. ‘Pardon?’

‘Geoffrey says how much.’

‘Well, I don’t think we usually pay for interviews but I could go and ask my boss,’ I said.

‘No brass, no interview,’ said the voice.

I trudged back to the nearest telephone – on Fitzwilliam station – and made the 2p call to Morton.

There was silence for a few seconds, then: ‘Tell him to fuck off.’

Geoffrey, thankfully, had ‘gone to t’nets’ in the meantime, but Mrs. Boycott told me helpfully: ‘He says you can make an offer in writing.’

On the way home, the train broke down just outside Wakefield.

There were two lessons from this misadventure. The first, which turned out to be awfully prescient in the light of what was to happen later in the business of sport and its relations with the media, was that some personalities want paying for their time. Some also prefer to negotiate through a third party. Mrs. Boycott, although no doubt she and her son would see it differently, was my first encounter with a sporting agent.

Later, when I put in a claim for the cup of tea and ham sandwich bought on Leeds station, Morton refused to sign it off.

‘No receipt, no dosh,’ he said. There endeth the second lesson.

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Strategic thinking

By Colin Dunne

Did you ever see it? I never did. But somewhere in the sixties, in the north of England, there must have appeared an advert along these lines: ‘Wanted, character for a living museum of eccentrics. Must have peculiar appearance, personality and habits. Some journalistic experience useful but not essential.’

How else could you explain the features department of the Daily Mirror in Manchester? Looking at the people in it, you’d swear that they had been invented by Charles Dickens one night when he’d OD’d on the laudanum.

Do you know, there was one sub who was slowly dying of a combination of despair and gravity, and it was a toss-up which would get him first. He lived in a smile-free zone. Newcomers, the only ones foolish enough to enquire about his permanent depression, would soon regret it. ‘Because my much-loved Uncle Jack has just endured a terribly painful death,’ he would say. Someone close to him had always just died. And always in great pain – his family didn’t do merciful release. What it did to house prices in his neighbourhood, I never liked to ask.

As for gravity, he seemed to be slowly sinking into the earth. His face, his shoulders, his clothes, every part of him was gradually sinking, even the heavily-loaded carrier bags which he always carried, one in each hand. No-one knew what was in them. I suspected dead budgerigars.

Amazingly, his telephone manner must have transmitted his personality with complete accuracy. On his only visit to the London office, as he stepped through the door, John Garton and the features subs, who had never set eyes on him before, as one turned and pointed and shouted out his name. Now that’s fame.

For the most part, it was quiet office, disturbed only occasionally by Ken Tossell, a telly reporter, with his chronic identity crisis. A delightful man, Ken was also something of a worrier. He worried that people would confuse him with a sports reporter called Bob Russell, or that they may think he was from the Daily Mail. Both names, he thought, were easily confused. Rather like Ken himself.

So when he rang someone up he would always introduce himself at top volume and break up the words into distinct and carefully enunciated syllables. ‘My name is KEN-NETH TOSS-ELL of the DAIL-EE MIRR-ROAR’. He left a trail of perforated eardrums behind him.

Sometimes he was so concerned about establishing his identity that he would jump into an interview a little too quickly. After spending an entire day tracking down Gracie Fields for a quote on a news story, he eventually got her to a telephone in Capri. Once he had established that he was not Bob Russell and not from the Daily Mail, he went straight for the jugular. ‘How old are you these days, Gracie?’ A look of bewilderment spread over his face. ‘I do believe she’s rung off,’ he said.

After lunch one day, he returned to the office with a box featuring an illustration of a large mouse and the label Scram. Ken, a Londoner with a Livingstonian accent, pronounced it Scrame. He explained that he had been having trouble with mice at his home in Glossop and Scrame, a mouse poison, would soon see them off. I picked it up and pretended to read it. You’ve made a terrible mistake, Ken, I told him. This wasn’t mouse poison. It was mouse food. He was appalled.

He snatched it up and hurried back to the shop. It is one of the major regrets of my life that I was not there to hear Ken protest to the manager that they had sold him the wrong product. With this, he insisted, he’d be offering the mice a free meal. Mice would be coming from miles around to eat at Ken’s Rodent Restaurant. Eventually, by careful reading of the instructions they did convince him it was poison, but he was very forgiving. ‘Don’t worry, Col. It was a mistake anyone could make.’

Come to think of it, all the television staff were… well, interesting. As sometimes happens with specialists, Mike Kerrigan had been overcome by the Stockholm Syndrome. He had been subsumed by television – rather in the way that crime reporters become more like policemen. Or criminals.

He spent most of his time drifting around asking for ideas for a title for a new sit-com he was writing. We never came up with a title. Whether he ever came up with the sit-com I’m not in a position to say.

He was trying to follow the example of one hack who did make the leap from paper to screen. John Stevenson, the Mail’s telly man in Manchester, became a scriptwriter for Coronation Street at a time when it was distinguished by a wonderful thread of humour. His wonderful thread of humour. There weren’t many funnier writers around than Stevenson.

Visitors to the Granada studio were shown, among other things, a scene of Coronation Street at its very best. You must remember this: the Ogdens house, Stan is going to the pub, but because it’s her birthday Hilda demands a kiss before he goes. He stoops to kiss her. A puzzled look crosses his face.

‘What’s that funny taste, Hilda?’

Hilda gives a smile of immense satisfaction. ‘Woman, Stanley. Woman.’

I never knew for certain if John did write the line, but somehow I always thought it had to be one of his. If someone will give him a nudge in that Saddleworth pub he always used, perhaps he’d tell me if I’m right. If I’m wrong, just have another pint, John.

Our other TV reporter, Bill Keenan, a man of deep religious faith, was particularly fervent when it came to abortion – or, as he called it, ‘murdering tiny babies.’ I can’t say that Dennis Hussey, Brian Wood or myself were all that sympathetic: in our order of priorities, abortion was some way behind exchanging blank bills, office gossip, Maggie McCoy’s mini-skirt, and Man United. All three of us banned Keenan from mentioning the subject again. Ever. Occasionally he outflanked us.

One Monday morning, Keenan, a breezy soul, came bouncing in. He’d just had the marvellous weekend in the country. Perfect weather, beautiful surroundings.

So far so good, we thought.

From where he was staying, you could look out over north Lancashire and there was nothing but beautiful countryside all the way to the Lake District, he said.

Nothing to fear here.

And then, he went on, there was the wonderful empty countryside of the Lakes and the Scottish borders, all the way up to Glasgow.

Fascinating, we yawned, unaware that we were drifting nearer the danger.

‘Hardly a house or a person all the way’ he aid. ‘And yet they say this country’s overcrowded so they can slaughter tiny innocent babies.’ How we never slaughtered a tiny innocent TV writer has never been adequately explained.

In Manchester at that time, there were quite a few people who were Waiting for Bernard’s Call. Bernard Shrimsley, ex- news editor, had gone off to show them how it should be done in London. His friends in Manchester didn’t like to stray too far from a telephone in case he needed them urgently. Neil ‘Two Lunches’ Bentley – so called because if he enjoyed lunch he’d have the whole thing again – was in the Waiting section. Neil was mainly employed on organising events and competitions, because his high-octane charm was wonderfully effective with mayors and middle-ranking police officers. His main function was as unpaid, self appointed office chaplain, with a special interest in the morals and manners of the staff. If anyone was misbehaving – an unlikely concept, I know – with a crook of the finger, Neil would summon them down to the Swan with Two Necks and give them some corrective instruction. It was known as Neil’s Ten-bob Sermon. Oddly enough, when he eventually got to London he found himself in need of one, but don’t let’s go into that.

He certainly gave one to Brian Wood, who was probably the only member of the features staff who could make any claim to being normal. Handy writer, keen sportsman, semi-professional guitarist, amusing company and a useful man with a pint, Brian – like most people in our dangerous trade – found himself suffering from a seriously fractured marriage. Shortly before Christmas, when he was living with girl-friend (whom he adored) and apart from wife-and-family, he was overwhelmed with guilt and confusion.

Covered in shame, he announced he was returning to his wife, and left girl-friend in tears. On the way home, as a sign of intent, he put on his old wedding-ring. It wasn’t easy. He’d been so happy with girl-friend that he’d put on a little weight and even his ring-finger had fattened up. By the time he got to the marital home, it was really quite painfully swollen.

No sooner had he got through the door than he realised this was a terrible mistake. His marriage was completely beyond repair. His wife didn’t want him, he didn’t want her. He left. Then it struck him what he’d done. He could hardly go back to his girl-friend after treating her so shabbily. The only place where they would let him in was… his mother’s, which is not what you want when you’re thirtyish. By then, his finger was like a fat black sausage. Mums know about these things, of course. The only thing to do, she said, was to bring the swelling down with ice, then remove the ring. She had no ice. But she did have another idea.

As Brian put it to me the next morning, he had seldom been so depressed as he was that night. Sitting in the kitchen of his mum’s council flat, having upset the love of his life, with the third finger of his left hand stuffed up the anus of a Buxted frozen chicken.

‘A great pic,’ said Dennis Hussey.

The story, however, had a happy ending. He and the girl-friend were married. It is not true that the wedding breakfast consisted of frozen chickens.

Extraordinary, wasn’t it? All from one room in Withy Grove. And it was there in that room that one man pretty much doubled the pay of journalists throughout Britain. There ought to be a plaque up for Mike Gagie.

The exact opposite of me, big and burly, constantly bursting out of his shirt collar, Gagie, who sat across the desk from me, was a rough tough hard newsman.

Whenever I was in need of some real reporting, he would quietly give me a steer. Whenever he wanted a piece jessying up, he’d slip it over the desk. ‘Top and tail it,’ he’d say. Strap the two of us together, you might’ve had one decent all-round journalist.

Even when at peace with the world, Mike was a definite sort of chap. Angry, he was bloody terrifying. And this day he had reached hurricane force. He was also FoC, and he’d just learnt – in the Swan, of course – that Sogat had negotiated a house agreement with the Mirror for approximately twice the journalists’ rate.

When he came back from the pub the only reason he failed to defenestrate the senior management was because they weren’t to hand. He had steam coming from his ears and other less obvious orifices. It was rumoured that when they opened the windows in the upper reaches of the Holborn skyscraper, they could hear a roaring so terrible that it froze the blood. It was a peeved Gagie. He called a strike. No-one argued.

Elsewhere, everyone, our own union and our colleagues in London – thought it was madness and doomed to fail. They didn’t know Gagie.

Watching from the sidelines, or from the other side of his desk, I believe that he carried the strike forward by the sheer force of his own personality. The management capitulated. We were granted our own house agreement which almost doubled our income. Journalists on all the other nationals demanded and got the same. A plaque? We should have declared a National Gagie Day.

Everyone was happy, even Percy Roberts, the MD, who made off with Paula, one of the secretaries.

When, a few days’ later, editorial manager Peter Moorhead, who handled the company’s long-term strategic thinking, pinned up a notice in the newsroom warning of the dangers of dropped crumbs encouraging rodents, Terry Stringer inquired if this was the new Mouse Agreement.

Looking back, do you think it’s possible that Stringer might’ve set up this entire series of events just so he could crack that joke? Dafter things have happened.

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