Issue #101

This week

Another saunter through the groves of Ranteria.

Lucky dogs, that’s what we were, to have experienced the greatest of the great days. And Alasdair Buchan picked up a genuine lucky dog. But was anybody out there, reading about it? It’s a question we often ask ourselves.

Ignore the hard-drinking image, suggests Geoffrey Mather;there was hard graft, too – long shifts, plus a defenestrating editor known to the staff as ‘Strangler’.

It used to be said that there was nobody on earth who the national lads couldn’t find in a hard day’s work. After all, Fleet Street found Ronnie Biggs (and Tony Delano wrote a book about it – see the column on the right). There has been only one recorded failure, and Garth Gibbs forged a career out of not finding the guy.

When it all worked out, there was the prize – rare in the early days – of a by-line on the copy. Sometimes, as Stan Blenkinsop recalls, it would even be your own name. And then there’d be by-line beer to celebrate the event. But by-lines seem cheap, now. You don’t even need to write the copy yourself.

Eddie Rawlinson discovered a chap who probably never got a by-line. He didn’t start in the game until he’d retired from his employment in t’mill. But happily he knew a story when he heard one…

And Plain John Smith recalls a snapper who could get his foot in the hallway, against all odds. Do any of these people – and these skills – exist, these days?

Do exes still exist? Colin Dunne returns to a favourite Ranters topic, with some memories and some myths.


Lucky, for some

By Alasdair Buchan

Many years ago when I was on the Daily Star the editor decided we had to have a mascot. I was told to go and get a dog which I was to take to events such as the National Boat Show (which we sponsored) and have it photographed with celebrities.

Realising that straightforward refusal could offend, I went along with it hoping that something would turn up to put an end to such a humiliating – and potentially unending – assignment.

First I had to get the dog. So we went to the Battersea Dogs Home where, on their advice, I got a beautiful mongrel puppy and I was photographed holding it as it licked my face. We ran it big all over the front page (Save this Dog at Christmas, you know the sort of thing) and asked readers to suggest a name for the Daily Star mascot. (My instruction was that the entry nominating Lucky as a name was to win – remember that name in a moment).

Next came the question of where the dog was to live. I said no; the photographer, Stan Meagher, said no. He said he already had a dog. I played the trump card of the new baby at home being enough for one reporter and the snapper had to take the dog home.

To cut a short story shorter. Lucky went home to Stan’s, developed distemper and died within days. Then Stan’s family pet caught distemper and died too to the great distress of Stan’s family.

Fortunately the mascot idea died with Lucky.

And the point of the story? We never mentioned Lucky again and not one reader ever contacted us to ask what happened to the dog. Or to the competition.

So never get carried away with concepts like ‘Our readers’ or ‘Our viewers’ – the bastards aren’t reading or watching.


Muse, music and muscle

By Geoffrey Mather

I have served a number of editors. One drank 40 cups of tea a day and I made them all. Another, upon whom I called, always had plenty to drink but no food in his fridge. I had to invent a reason for bringing food. ‘I just happened,’ I said, ‘to have been to the supermarket…’

He did not believe me. A third said, ‘Thank you for inviting me out to dinner tonight.’ I said, ‘I can not recall inviting you.’ He replied, ‘Oh yes you did. Half past seven. Put it on your expenses.’

But the most flamboyant, the most boisterous was Dick Lewis, known to the staff as ‘Strangler’ Lewis. I had no good reason to meet him. I was subbing away on an evening paper, happy enough where I was, but a friend, who had moved to the Daily Express in Manchester, suggested my name to him and he called me for interview. I arrived around six o’ clock and was taken into his office, where he ordered two cups of tea from Carrie, his secretary, and drank both.

We had an affable conversation, none of it about newspapers. He was more concerned with Army matters. He was, I gathered, a former major in a combative unit, and I had a horror of those. I had been in 6 Airiborne Division, not because I was combative in any way, but because I thought I needed to be surrounded by competent fighters in case I was threatened. My insignificant role in 6 Airborne pleased him no end, but he was cautious.

‘I might not like you,’ he said eventually. ‘On the other hand, you might not like me.’ We left it at that and I headed for the pub next door. I found later that he ran from his office shortly afterwards and said, ‘Where is he? I want him.’ That is how I arrived at the Daily Express. I was quickly told that when, as deputy editor, he asked for a wage increase which did not come, he picked up the editor and held him out of a second floor window. The rise duly appeared. I stayed well away from windows in his presence.

If a sub-editor arrived who appeared to have muscle, Dick would feel the arm admiringly and suggest that they might have a trial of strength at a convenient time and place. I was glad not to have muscle. He had no dislike of people. He just thought of conflict as a manly pastime.

Seen in the street, he looked like a successful lawyer: brief case, bald head, heavy spectacles, dark suit. He would sit on the back bench at night poring through the proofs, altering headlines, and sometimes he would vanish for a day or two. He appointed one sub-editor to play the piano at the Press Club on the grounds that we did not have a pianist sub-editor at the time. He was a very good pianist and an excellent sub and went to the Mirror for better things.

On one occasion there was some story in Ireland which required a reporter and photographer. (This was in the expansive days when journalists were more important than accountants.) They arrived in the pub the one next to the office and said the planes were full so they could not go. Lewis loudly ordered them back to hire a Dakota for themselves and that plane, if I remember rightly, carried around 40 seats. It was normal for the time.

When the pub caught fire, Dick was in his element. The firemen all came in brandishing their axes and hoses and disappeared upstairs to the seat of the flames. We went on drinking below, although I thought Dick a bit fidgety. He was indeed. He began to send up pints, and finally joined the firemen in hacking away at things. They all came downstairs refreshed and a departing fireman gave his verdict, ‘Best bloody fire since Belle Vue.’

I liked Dick Lewis. He filled my vision nicely. There was nothing underhand about him. He was just honestly flamboyant. It is said of him that he went to Ireland to fire a journalist, and arrived back days adrift having given the man a rise. When he demanded a drink after time somewhere among the forests of hand pumps that we recognised as Manchester, he was refused. ‘Tell them who I am,’ he said to the poor journalist chosen to keep up with him. The man weakly explained and slumped to the floor. Dick thereafter carried out a further conversation.

Each time he wanted confirmation from his companion, he hauled him up from the floor, then dropped him again.

Another sub-editor arrived home in a taxi after an hour or two, or a day or two, with Dick and as he emerged from it, his wife was approaching with a friend along the pavement. ‘You have not met my husband, have you?’ she said, and at that moment, he fell, inert, to the ground.

These stories and there are many of them might suggest that working for a newspaper was a simple matter of drifting through days in an alcoholic haze, all paid for in expenses. Not so. There was drink. There were also 12 and 14-hour days for executives. And if stories broke, nobody ever questioned whether they had finished a shift. It was hard graft and there was a spirit of endeavour and achievement. Drink was the companion of endeavour. The ones who progressed most were not the double-firsts but the street-hardened.

There was a news editor who, only once, was found without an answer. If you said of a man arrested an hour before, ‘What size waist was he?’ the news editor would have an immediate answer ‘36. And he was wearing a belt.’ Colour? ‘Brown.’ Eventually, an editor asked him a question he could not possibly answer correctly I forget what it was and he said, ‘God, look at that.’ We all looked out of the window. A flock of birds was going by. ‘What’s so remarkable about that?’ said the editor. ‘Well,’ said the news editor, ‘an hour ago, they were over Bridlington.’

In those days you could get four sub-editors battling with each other to produce the best headline for a five-line brief. People left reasonably quickly if found wanting. They were not fired. They were invited to find another job within a month. It was discreet, and hard, and honourable, I thought. Sub-editors came in on trial a night’s work to test them. They were handed stories like the rest of us and never told that they were subbing for the spike. So they sweated. One man was so overawed he could not think of headlines at all. Since I recognised that stage and happened to be sitting next to him, I did them for him. He got the job and became an Express editor himself.

Dick Lewis went to London eventually, and life became a little grey as a result.

Geoffrey Mather maintains his own excellent website at  and this week writes about the comparison between the movie industry and the world of newspapers as we knew it.


Looking for Lucky

By Garth Gibbs

For a third of a century now Fleet Street scribes have spent countless hours and thousands of pounds searching for Lord Lucan. Deep down, they have heaved a great sigh of relief every time they haven’t found him. It’s not that they haven’t been searching for him as vigorously as they would search for a blank restaurant bill – it’s just that the game would be spoilt if he ever turned up.

For as that brilliantly bigoted and crusty old columnist John Junor once cannily observed: ‘Laddie, you don’t ever want to shoot the fox. Once the fox is dead there is nothing left to chase.’

With that in mind I regard not finding Lord Lucan as my most spectacular success in journalism. Of course, many of my colleagues have also been fairly successful in not finding Lord Lucan. But I have successfully not found him in more exotic spots than anybody else.

I spent three glorious weeks not finding him in Cape Town, magical days and nights not finding him in the Black Mountains of Wales and wonderful and successful short breaks not finding him in Macau, either, or in Hong Kong or even in Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas where you can find anyone.

The most recent success in not finding him – or anyway, not finding him definitely – is down to William Hall and Mike Maloney. William and Mike thought a hippy called Jungle Barry, who used to hang out in Goa, may have been him, but it turned out he wasn’t.

The Right Honourable Richard John Bingham, Seventh Earl of Lucan, vanished on November 8 1974, leaving behind a couple of letters, a bloodstained car and a dead body. In his absence, a jury returned a verdict that the Earl had murdered his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. This raised a few eyebrows among the aristocracy because there was such an acute shortage of nannies at the time. Then a couple of years ago the High Court declared Lord Lucan officially dead, but no journo with a current passport accepts that. He’s called Lucky and if he’s Lucky he’s still alive and out there.

James Nicholson, Prince of Darkness, remembers the breathless excitement in the Daily Express newsroom one evening when the night news editor was off as a result of an industrial injury (gout) and a reporter was sitting in for him. Suddenly, the phone rang and a voice declared: ‘I have found Lord Lucan and I demand my reward.’

‘Where are you phoning from, son?’


‘Newcastle upon Tyne?’

‘Yes, mate. That’s the one.’

‘Forget it. Lucan wouldn’t be seen dead in Newcastle. But listen, if you happen to go on holiday to Bali or even Singapore and see him there, don’t hesitate to call us. And don’t forget, you can reverse the charges.’

John Penrose, while on the Daily Mirror, also found some fame while not finding Lucan. Somebody reported that Lucan was on a microscopic island in the Pacific, somewhere in the vicinity of Guam, and John hurried out, flying to Montreal, across to Vancouver, and down the western seaboard to Los Angeles. Then a flight to Guam and eventually a two-seater Chipmunk to the tiny island.

It wasn’t that tiny. It had a hotel and a bar. And guess who was sitting at the bar? Yes, Lucky Lucan himself, sipping Scotch.

But as Lucan stood up Penrose thought: ‘He’s too short to be Lord Lucan.’

Then he noticed the man was barefoot, so it could well have been Lucan. Lucan disappeared into the night and John went for the glass. He picked it up in a bar cloth and rushed to his room where he carefully packed it in his suitcase.

He lost Lucan but the next day announced to the office that he at least had the Earl’s fingerprints, proof that the man was still alive.

‘Come back at once,’ said the news desk.

Well, coming back at once was not that easy, of course. But he did eventually arrive at Heathrow. He went home to change, left his suitcase there and popped along to the office.

He telephoned Scotland Yard’s Fingerprint Bureau and announced he had the Earl’s fingerprints. The Yard said that was all very well but, actually, they did not have Lord Lucan’s fingerprints on file. They did, however, have lots of fingerprints from the house in which nanny Sandra Rivett was killed.

Penrose rushed home to fetch the glass. But his mother had unpacked his bag and there was the glass – on the draining board.

He was horrified. But he did what any hack would have done under the circumstances. ‘Dad,’ he said, ‘please pass me that glass.’ He wrapped this up carefully, too, and took it along to Scotland Yard.

To this day he is very philosophical about it all.

‘At least I found out my father didn’t have a criminal record,’ he says ruefully.


By-line beer

By Stanley Blenkinsop

So another great newspaper tradition is no more.

Buying by-line beer is now as extinct as carbon-copies, working on the stone or calling for ‘Copy!’

Remember the thrill of the first time your name appeared above your story – especially on your first national – and it was drinks all round at the office pub.

Far, far better than even the satisfaction of carving your initials on a tree for the first time…

News editors happily signed approval when the cost of by-line beer was disguised as mystic mileage, un-eaten meals for the day or even a spurious overnight allowance.

Today the majority of national journalists rarely leave their offices but rewrite agency copy with the aid of phone calls. Sometimes their names appear in the same edition on three or four different stories from different corners of the country.

When I graduated to the Daily Express in Newcastle upon Tyne 50 years ago, some staffers went without a by-line for years. Three or four by-lines a year was then regarded as a first-rate score – and each one with its ‘by-line beer’ celebration.

In 1958 my north-east photographic colleague Jock Johnson got an exclusive picture of the re-arrested jail breaker Foxy Fowler (then a nationally-known criminal). It filled three quarters of the then broadsheet Express front page under the headline ‘Fowler Foxed’.

And it was captioned ‘Photograph by Robert Johnson’ – his first by-line in 16 years. But no-one realised it was taken by Jock, the name bestowed on him by all and sundry when as a teenager he moved from his native Scotland to Tyneside.

Then as the mystery of Robert Johnson mounted, Jock shyly confessed the picture was his – and the resulting by-line beer bill almost bankrupted him (even with the exes fiddle).

One of the most prolific by-line accumulators was Syd Foxcroft, a fellow Geordie who joined the old Daily Herald as their north-east staffman in the same week that I went to the Express office 300 yards down the street.

I know of no reporter who had more copy published than Syd who moved to the pre-Murdoch Sun when the Herald died in 1963 and then to the Sunday People.

Throughout his national career, Syd kept every cutting – from page one splashes to two-line shorts – neatly pasted in broadsheet-size cuttings books.

Each book was neatly dated and the final page listed the numbers of by-lines, publications, exclusives (including even exclusive briefs, marked with an ‘E’), splashes, page leads and picture captions in that volume. Then there were also running totals on the same page as the ‘library’ grew.

If asked at any time Syd would tell you the current total – especially the bylines – which when I last asked him in 1970 were numbered in thousands.

Some of this rubbed off on Clive Crickmer, who worked with Syd until the old Sun changed hands, at which time he was given a free transfer to the Daily Mirror. In no time at all – or so it seemed – Clive was celebrating his 1,000th Mirror by-line. (It seems like a lot, especially to our office-bound colleagues, but the maths suggest it is merely four by-lines a week for five years, which in those days was not unusual for our most productive district men.)

In his daily bulletin to all Daily Express staff, legendary editor Arthur Christiansen, once a weekly newspaperman on Merseyside, wrote one day:

‘Until now I thought Poole was in Dorset but now I find he is our new man in Liverpool. Today he has a splendid centre column on page one beneath the proud by-line of Leslie Poole. A first class piece of writing for which he has my warmest congratulations.’

Sadly my first centre-column in the then World’s Greatest Newspaper (4,350,000 copies daily in those days: now 713,000) was not so successful.

It was my fourth day in Newcastle office half a century ago. I picked up a story from a local weekly about an eight year old girl who had been badly mauled by a dog which was then shot dead by police. Children who had previously played with the dog then blamed the girl for its death and send her to Coventry.

When the first edition came out, it was the much prized centre column with a by-line. The Manchester night news editor – a fellow Geordie – rang me to tell me the news. I was over the moon.

Then ten minutes later he called back: ‘The editor doesn’t like your surname – says it’s too long for a start and wants you to suggest something shorter or it will be marked By Express Reporter for the remaining editions.’

I was furious. ‘If I can’t have my name, I’m not making up another one,’ I exploded. And so it was Express Reporter for another six months.

Another by-line mis-hap hit my Newcastle Express colleague, Alan Baxter, and myself when we filed a world-exclusive on the first human to catch foot and mouth disease – a male Northumbrian farmworker.

We filed the copy: By Alan Baxter and Stanley Blenkinsop. But the sub-editor involved abbreviated the by line to By Stanley Baxter.

It was used through the first two editions (including the north-east) before the error was spotted.

Next day the news editor, that fiery Scot Tom Campbell, stormed up to the offending sub and bellowed abuse at him.

The sub spluttered back: ‘But there is a Stanley Baxter, isn’t there?’

To which Tom bawled back across the editorial floor: ‘Aye, there is. He’s a fucking comedian and so are you!’


A weaver of tales

By Edward Rawlinson

eddie Jess Duxbury was a ‘six-loom weaver’ until the time when he retired at 65. The old age pensioner was then offered the job of collecting advertisements for his local give away, as freesheets were known in the 1950s. The four page broadsheet paper was printed on a flat-bed Furnival machine averaging 360 hand-fed sheets an hour and it took two days to be printed, folded, packed into bundles then delivered along the streets of Padiham, a town in East Lancashire with a population of 15,000.

At the age of twelve Jess, like other children of his age, had started work as a ‘half timer’; that meant half a day at school and half a day in work until he was 13, then he’d spent the next 52 years of his life weaving cloth in a noisy cotton mill, and being responsible for the efficient output of six busy looms at a time.

Getting out and about and meeting people when collecting adverts gave Jess a new lease of life and with a lifetime passion for words he asked the printer whether, instead of having just adverts in the paper, he could write some local news for it, which was agreed and Jess was into local journalism.

He was collecting advertising and writing reports for the Padiham Advertiser with one snag, there was a lack of space for his flow of words. Jess’s knowledge of football found him writing sports reports with no chance of them getting into his ‘freebie’ but his hand-written copy was passed around by him in the pub on a Saturday evening.

His fellow drinkers encouraged him to submit his copy to The Pink ’Un, the late Saturday sports edition of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, and although he didn’t get any actual reports into it he got a regular ‘ordered job’ phoning in the football result of Padiham FC and sometimes even other people’s copy on Burnley from Turf Moor, for which he was paid a few bob.

His knowledge of what happened on his local patch was such that it was said nobody turned over in bed without Jess being aware of it and he’d know of a news story almost before it happened.

I met Jess in the mid 50s while I was working for the Daily Express and he became a good contact. Our first link came when he telephoned me late one Sunday night to tell of an amusing story that had happened that very evening when a local scoutmaster was marching his troop to a special evening service at the parish church in Padiham.

As it was dark the scoutmaster was at the back of the troop carrying a lantern for safety reasons. That had been required by law since 1951 when a group of Royal Marine cadets were mown down by a bus while marching in the dark at Chatham in Kent. [Twenty four cadets were killed and 18 were injured.]

As the Padiham scouts turned left and went up the steps into the church the scoutmaster, instead of following his troop, did a crafty right turn and went into the back yard of the pub opposite, but was seen by two ladies of the church as he banged on the pub back door and was allowed into the darkened public house. Pubs didn’t open until 7.00pm on a Sunday and the scoutmaster was in for a bit of ‘early doors’ while the scouts were in church. His irreverence annoyed the ladies so instead of going into the service they waited outside the pub to see what time the scoutmaster came out from this house of sin.

After the service, as the troop re-assembled, the scoutmaster had made another crafty move and was back with them, but he was having difficulty trying to get the lantern lighted. It was said later in court there had been a strong smell of drink.

The Mayoral party with the vicar led the procession away from the church with the scouts following and it was then noticed by the local constabulary that the scoutmaster appeared to be wandering about as he followed the procession and his oil lamp was going from side to side like a ship’s lantern in a storm.

The two ladies had pre-warned the local police inspector of the man’s condition when watching him leave the pub – little did they know the scoutmaster had also been there at lunchtime.

Already warned by Jess Duxbury that the scoutmaster would be up in court the next day and they had no local court reporters, we were in for an exclusive. The scoutmaster was fined for being drunk in charge of a troop of boy scouts.

A great exclusive from our Jess. Today a story like that would probably not even make the paper.

At the time tip-offs such as that were the life blood in the fight for newspaper circulation; whether they came from a local freelance correspondent or a contact like Jess; they created good warm gossip from the heart of a nation still reeling from the horrors of a war.

After finishing work the tap room once again became the barrack room. A meal on the kitchen table could wait while lads who had spent years away from home were reunited in the pub. Television hadn’t yet destroyed the art of telling a good tap room tale or relating a story that had appeared that day in the Daily Herald or the Mirror.

That story from Jess is just one of his many that made the Daily Express.

Contacts like him disappeared with the stroke of an accountant’s pen when the idiots took over the asylum.


Ringmaster of the Flying Circus

By John Smith

plainjohn 1 When I joined the Daily Mirror as a reporter in the early 1960s the photographic crew was a talented and disparate bunch, a kind of amalgam of The Wild Bunch and The League of Gentlemen.

It included Freddie Reed, Bela Zola, Dixie Dean, Sid Brock, Eric Piper, Monte Fresco, Tom King, Charlie Ley, Bunny Atkins, Kent Gavin, Doreen Spooner, Alisdair MacDonald, Bill Malindine and Cyril Maitland.

Also on the staff was a grumpy and taciturn character called Freddie Cole, a former taxi driver who had got his foothold in Fleet Street by photographing car crash sites and another newsy overnight snippets which he encountered while driving his cab in the wee small hours. The pix were sold as early edition fillers to the (then) three London evening papers, The Star, the Evening News and the Evening Standard.

When his shift at the Daily Mirror was over Freddie would sit at home illegally monitoring the police radio and passing on information to the news desk. He insisted that this service should remain unpaid and anonymous. A typical call from Freddie would go something like this: ‘This is you-know-who. No names, no pack-drill. Police investigating suspicious fire in Oxford Street. Over and out.’

But the most intriguing of the Mirror photographers was Tommy Lea who dressed, spoke and acted more like a country clergyman than a battle-hardened foot-in-the-door Fleet Street snapper.

Beneath the neatly parted hair and National Health glasses lurked a first class operator whose guile and rat-like cunning were essential professional qualifications that were eagerly embraced by an ambitious tabloid hack such as myself who could only stand back and admire the deft footwork of this camera-toting conman.

Tommy’s benign and diffident approach enabled him to wheedle his way into the front line of many a major news story, from a hospital ward full of air crash survivors to the closely guarded gates of a top secret military establishment.

He famously figured in a court case which to this day is used as a benchmark in discussions about the press and privacy.

Sporting a smart dark suit and a bright red carnation, Tommy had sweet-talked his way into a high society London wedding in 1945 by announcing that he was from ‘the paper of the times’. But he was rumbled after snatching a couple of quick pictures, and the bridegroom punched him and smashed his camera before throwing him out.

A subsequent magazine article which labelled Tommy and the Daily Mirror as the ‘gutter press’ led to their both unsuccessfully suing for libel. In a scathing summing-up, Mr Justice Hilbery suggested that Tommy thought he had ‘some high mission as a press photographer to portray to the vulgar, the idly curious and, on some occasions, the morbidly minded, the private lives of other people.’

Looking at some of today’s celebrity-obsessed tabloids, one might think that little has changed.

However, my own most treasured memory of Tommy in action goes back to the day in the 1960s when he and I were despatched to a small Bedfordshire town to cover the murder of a young girl who had been raped and strangled on her way home from a village dance. We arrived at the family home to find the Fleet Street Flying Circus encamped by the garden gate of a modest, neatly kept terraced house.

To cries of ‘Yer a bit late’ and other more ribald greetings from the assembled shambles of reporters and photographers, we were told that the dead girl’s mother was alone in the house, but no amount of inducement would persuade her to make any comment, pose for any pictures or hand over any family snaps.

Blinking behind his thin-rimmed glasses, Tommy went into his archdeacon act. ‘Er, I think we should sort of, well, have a go John, don’t you?’ he said, making it sound like a stammering invitation to invest a tanner on the hoopla stall at a church fete.

Reaching into his pocket, he produced a packet of cigarettes and lit one. ‘Now, John,’ he murmured, in between cough-ridden puffs, ‘I know you are the writer. But would you mind leaving the talking to me on this one?’

Intrigued, I nodded and followed him up the garden path, watched with interest and not a few scornful smiles by the press pack.

Tommy’s gentle but insistent knocking at the front door eventually led to it being reluctantly half opened and we were confronted by the murder victim’s mother, tears staining her face and a pinafore covering her simple blue dress.

‘I’ve got nothing to say,’ she announced mournfully.

Tommy went into full vicar-mode. ‘Of course you haven’t, my dear,’ he said. ‘What could you possibly say? What could ANY of us possibly say?’

He put his hand on her shoulder. ‘You have lost the daughter you loved. And here we are bothering you and trampling all over your nice clean doorstep. I can tell, you see; I bet you scrubbed this doorstep this morning.’

Bemused, the mother looked down and nodded.

‘I thought so,’ beamed Tommy. ‘Just like my old mum. Always kept a clean doorstep.’

Then he took a mighty drag on his cigarette, which by this time had a produced a tip of faltering ash.

‘And with a lovely doorstep like this, the last thing you would want is me dropping my cigarette all over it. Is that an ashtray I can see on the table in the hall?’

Fag hand outstretched like a cavalryman’s sabre, he glided past her into the hallway and I followed, mumbling apologies.

Minutes later we were cosily installed in the kitchen while mum made a cup of tea, Tommy banged off a couple of snaps of her before making his choice from the family photo album and I coaxed some words out of her about the heartbreak of losing a daughter (sorry, but we old hacks still talk in tabloid headlines).

As we drove back to London I said to Tommy: ‘I didn’t know you smoked.’

He gave me one of his beatific smiles. ‘Only when the occasion demands,’ he said.

JOHN SMITH began as a messenger in the London offices of Westminster Press, then went to the Muswell Hill Record, the Paddington Mercury, the Brighton Evening Argus, the Bristol Evening World, the Daily Sketch, the Daily Herald, the Daily Mirror in London and New York and finally to The People where he did a globe-trotting column as Plain John Smith


Blank expressions

By Colin Dunne

All these years later, it still makes me laugh now when I think about it. There’s a Daily Record minor executive peacefully sleeping at home. Two in the morning. Telephone rings. Dozily he picks it up. A voice which at that time had instant recognition across several continents bellows in his ear.

‘Why are you giving away my fucking money, mister?’

It’s not difficult to imagine the rest. Did he fall out of bed? Probably. Did he experience several near-fatal heart attacks? Almost certainly. The addition of ‘mister’ at the end of such a sentence was always particularly ominous. Dithering and quaking simultaneously, he comes up with a rhetorical question. ‘Is that… er, is that Mr Maxwell?’

At this stage in his career, Cap’n Bob doesn’t think it necessary to produce proof of identity. This time his voice rises to a roar. ‘WHY ARE YOU GIVING MY FUCKING MONEY AWAY?’ No ‘mister’, this time: doubly dangerous.

What had happened was that while the world and Scots execs were restoring themselves with dreamless sleep, Robert Maxwell, finding a moment to spare in the middle of the night, was flicking through some old expense sheets. Much the same as you would yourself, I suppose. One of them, from a Glasgow photographer (Ian Torrance, I think), includes £5 for coming seventh or thereabouts in a photographic competition. He’d claimed the same on his exes because there was a tradition then – not any more, I’d bet – that the company would match any prize money. This he attempts to explain.

Unfortunately, Mr Maxwell is not a keen adherent of Scottish traditions. It is, he says, his fiver (can we take the f-word as read, now?). He wants it back. By return. Or exec and photographer will both be fired. End of conversation.

When we all first stepped into the wonderful world of free money – or expenses, as it was called – we didn’t know it was going to end with nocturnal telephone calls which would imperil both job and sanity. Even so, we sort of knew it would all hit the buffers one day.

You’ll have to excuse me for a moment while I explain something to that sub on the Indie who, at any mention of old-style Fleet Street, e-mails me about dishonesty and false pretences. Now my first thought is always to wonder how anyone without at least a brushing acquaintance with dishonesty and false pretences could hope to make a living in newspapers. Are all the monasteries full? My next thought was that someone should explain to these young puritans that the expenses system involved neither.

So here goes. Sit down, sonny, hang your halo on that hook, and I’ll explain it very slowly. This was how the management chose to top up our salaries during what was called a Pay Freeze. No-one was deceived. There was no fraud, as such. Every journalist knew roughly what he was allowed to charge. It suited the management because they could change our income by the week, if they so wished. We were probably foolish in going along with it, because this part of our income didn’t figure in holiday pay or pensions: great for them, not so great for us. But journalists, simple folk at heart, liked the idea of collecting cash from a sliding window on the ninth floor and going to the pub. It was fun, it seemed slightly dodgy, and it could be creatively challenging – all things that our raffish lot loved.

Now we’ve cleared that up, can we carry on?

We’ve all got our favourite exes story, but let me go first, okay? My first expenses scam was one I inherited from Bernard Ingham. As a district man for the Yorkshire Post in Halifax, he had – so it was said – introduced ‘the Calder Valley calls’, a 40-mile trip each day that added up to a large chunk of mileage at the end of the week. The best thing about the Calder Valley calls was that you did them on the telephone, which made it even more profitable. When I took the job, a few years after Bernard, I was looking forward to this weekly bonus. It never came. The news editor cancelled them in the first week. By then Bernard was probably making daily calls to New York and Moscow – bet you anything he never went.

If you’d spent the week in the office, it required some ingenuity to make it look convincing. Once I remember finding a really good story on someone else’s expense sheet. It was Peter Stubbs’, the Manchester photographer who’d left them in the typewriter. It was a headline he’d lifted from the Accrington Observer about a woman who confiscated some kids’ football after it landed in her garden. He deleted it from his exes and substituted another one I’d found for him – about a beauty contest in Rhyl, I remember – and the football story made a Page Three lead.

It was a tradition which quickly established its own classics. Everyone claims at some time or other to have paid for a mooring for a boat or for being towed out of a bog (‘money for old rope: £5’), some of which may even be true, and all the show-biz writers in London were always delighted to see their Scottish counterpart, Billy Sloane…

‘Entertaining Mr Sloane – £30’.

Small triumphs like that were very satisfying.

And there was the story of the photographer (said to have been Tommy Lyons) who, just before Christmas, charged: ‘One year’s reversing mileage – 187 miles.’ Asked to explain it, he said: ‘You know when you’re looking for a house and you drive a bit past… then you have to back up to it. Or when you drive into a cul-de-sac and have to reverse out. It doesn’t show on the milometer, but I did 187 miles like that, this year.’

We all have our personal favourites. Mine was typing out the simple, unadorned sentence: ‘Medical treatment following fall from coconut tree: £50, see bill attached.’

It was perfectly genuine. There I was lying on a beach in the Seychelles (I was doing a piece on the shooting of the Pirelli Calendar) when I saw some local lads run up the slanting trunks of the trees and chop off some coconuts. Looks pretty easy, I thought. So I tried it. Running up was fine until I looked down… I fell off. I cut my arm open trying to grab the trunk on the way down. I was hoping someone would query it so that I could relate this story: of course, no-one did.

Certain skills were required. I think it was Paul Hughes who showed me how a line of firmly-struck full-stops enabled you to tear off a potentially embarrassing letterhead so that it looked as though it had been ripped off a waiter’s pad. Thus a bill for a shirt from the Savoy Tailors Guild could in seconds become a receipt for entertaining unidentified ‘Scotland Yard contacts’.

If you were lucky enough to have bills from some distant country, preferably in early Sanskrit, you didn’t even need to do that. After six weeks in Iceland (fishing wars), the first thing I did was to ring the accounts department and ask if any of their staff spoke Old Norse. No-one did. After that, the extension I built on my house was always called The Cod Room.

Sadly, I never truly mastered the language of accounts departments which was the key to it all. After a serious clamp-down on advance expenses, which threatened massive unemployment in the restaurant trade around Holborn Circus, it was said that Keith Waterhouse had cracked the code. He simply wrote ‘Cash Adjustment: £50’ and the cashiers, who recognised their own tongue, were more than happy to hand over the money.

There was a similar device used by freelances when – as happened very occasionally – they were paid twice for the same piece. Feebly, I used to hang on to it in the hope no-one would notice. They always did, and I always had to return it. But those who were smarter than me would send a note saying: ‘I regret we have no machinery for effecting this repayment’, and it was never queried after that.

One of the saddest sights I ever saw was when I shared a room with Jim Lewthwaite on the Sun. He was sitting typing out some exes, cursing foully with every key-stroke. It was enough to break any hack’s heart. Ken Donlan had presented Jim, John Hiscock and Dougie Thompson with air travel cards so they could whiz off on major international stories. After a few drinks in the top bar of the Tip, John and Doug decided to try them out. They went to Heathrow, took a flight to Los Angeles, and never came back. While they sat in the Californian sun, Jim was left to complete all their back expenses in Bouverie Street. By the way he spoke, you’d never have known they were all good friends.

Years later, after a month at the Hacks’ Holiday Home, otherwise known as the National Enquirer in Florida, I sat down to do my four week’s expenses. ‘Those are no good,’ one of their staffmen said, pointing to my pile of bills, ‘they’re all blank.’

From my pocket I produced a set of multi-coloured pens and pencils. I thought of all those great creative artists who’d gone before me… Penrose, Jackson, Hagerty, Williams, men whose creative genius did for the expense sheet what Sam Beckett did for literature. How fortunate for me that I should be the lucky one chosen to take this ancient wisdom out to our innocent colonial cousins.‘Let me introduce you to an old Fleet Street tradition…’

Now, like the lamplighter and the candle-maker, the Old Exes Forger of yore is no more. One day, I’d like to think he will appear in those illustrations of the Street Cries of Old London Town. A hack crouched over his typewriter calling out: ‘Any blank bills? Any blank bills?’

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