Issue # 112

This week

Letter from the editor: Introducing the do-it-yourself obit.

Letters to the editor, with a complaint: Get your facts right. And lost Art is found.

More complaints? Inspector Watts finds Barker’s new book ‘the most repetitive book I have ever read.’ Possibly, even, ‘the most repetitive book ever written.’ But he couldn’t put it down, and then was sorry when he did. (By the way, there is a list a witnesses with a note of where they appear in the book that is effectively an index – only it’s at the front.)

Then it’s one small step for Yuri Gagarin, one short staircase for Desmond Zwar. But was he barmy? Gagarin’s interpreter said he wasn’t.

Piracy on the high seas is what fascinates Stewart Payne. Remember Ronan O’Rahilly? Remember Caroline? Stewart will swap a pint in the Fleet Street pub of your choice, for those memories.

And Colin Dunne remembers regrets (he had a few, but then again, a few to mention) when, as a freelance, failure was his friend.


After you’re gone

I learnt the news of Keith Waterhouse’s death last Friday through a call from BBC Radio Leeds who wanted me to talk about the great man to their audience who would have been driving home through what he and I (but probably nobody else, these days) would have called the Heavy Woollen District of the West Riding.

Stella Bingham had said he’d died peacefully in his sleep. She was being quoted everywhere as ‘a spokeswoman for the family.’ A spokeswoman. He’d have loved that.

A dozen or more people emailed to tell me the news. Another chum wrote from a mountaintop suggesting they’d be queuing up to write the obit on Waterhouse for Ranters.

Some bloody hope.

Bear with me while I tell you what happens here.

More frequently than I’d like, people send emails to tell me that somebody they know, and probably worked with, and maybe even liked, has been elevated to the Great Editorial Floor In The Sky. I ask whether they’d like to write an obituary, they usually decline; sometimes they are kind enough to suggest somebody else that I could or should ask. They also decline, and I can spend half a day emailing round trying to find anyone who cares sufficiently about some great character, brilliant journalist, salt of the earth, wonderful joker, possible ‘legend’ and friend of everybody, to hack out a tribute.

It takes ten minutes, if it’s somebody you know well. Maybe an hour, if you need to think about it. Perhaps a bit longer if you need to make a few enquiries, speak to the family, check a few facts.

But mostly it’s too much trouble. Great friend. I could tell you some stories. I’ll miss him terribly. We were inseparable. But fingers-to-keyboard? Ask somebody else.

So, here’s the plot.

The do-it-yourself obit.

Understand this, first… when you snuff it, nobody will care enough about you to write about you.

They might have thought kindly of you in the past, and may well be saddened by your passing; they may attend your funeral or write their name on the list at the memorial service.

But they won’t bother enough to write a piece. Even if they did, they’d get it wrong – but they won’t do it, so no worries on that score.

So you write it now and send it in and I’ll file it somewhere safe and hope I’ll never need to blow the dust off it.

Tell somebody close to you to be sure to drop a quick email to Ranters (the address is up there at the top of this page) when you fall off the twig. We’ll run the obit – obviously without revealing that you’d written it yourself. And everybody will be delighted with its insight and accuracy. People may be reminded who you were, where you were and when, and possibly even about whatever small contribution you made to this great game we were all (and some are still) in.

Please do not send a CV or submit the first five chapters of your autobiography. I don’t want something I’d have to start subbing, but 400 to 1,000 words would do nicely. For those among you unused to word-counts, 800 was the usual length of a Waterhouse column. You should be able to cover your life within that.

Otherwise, and it doesn’t matter who you are, or were, if you imagine that when you go anybody will be minded to write anything to mark your passing, you are already living in a different world. Ask yourself this: how many obits have you written, given the number of people you worked with and knew well and possibly even whose funerals you attended?

I once asked an editor of Press Gazette whether his magazine contained some sort of elixir because hardly anybody every appeared in the obits page. He said no: they died at the usual rate, but none of their friends could usually be arsed to write a piece.

For me it is frustrating to learn that people, some of whom I knew but not very well, have died and to be unable to persuade their former colleagues to pen a few pars and record the fact and the life, even briefly.

So do it yourself.

It’s your only chance.

Whoever gets the opportunity to read their own obituary? If you write it yourself you can read it as often as you like.

You’ll only need to hope, then, that you pop off before I do, because I’ll have the folder with the copy in it.

But I am feeling fine, thanks for asking, so don’t worry overmuch on that score.

If you missed any of the Waterhouse obits, you might enjoy reading Mike Molloy in the Guardian, Roy Greenslade in Media Guardian, Roy Hattersley (Observer), Richard Littlejohn (Daily Mail) and Bill Hagerty (Daily Mirror).

And if you want to learn what joyless modern hacks like Kevin Myers (Irish Independent) think about Waterhouse and his generation of scribblers…  ‘I never met Keith Waterhouse, but’… well, it’s worth a read, I suppose.

One tale that’s missing from all these, but surely worthy of inclusion, was the time he called in to the Printers Devil, en route to El Vino. He asked for the juke box to be turned down and the manager refused because ‘the staff like it’. So Keith changed a quid and pumped all the shillings into the machine, pressed the button for Amazing Grace 20 times, then finished his drink and left.

I shan’t be surprised in the slightest if, when the obits start coming in, I read that somebody else did that.


Get your facts right

We are always happy to receive letters and complaints, partly because we get so few of either. So when we get one that is both a letter and a complaint, we occasionally feel obliged to run it.

This time, though, we have removed the writer’s name as a courtesy. But he knows who he is. Here goes:

If you are going to criticise the emmense [sic] effort undertaken in producing a book of the quality and depth of Essential Law for Journalists (Ranters, last week) you, as a self-styled ‘journalist’ from the so-called ‘great days’, might at least try to get your own facts right.

Your report of Cassidy v the Daily Mirror was wrong in almost every important respect. The ‘Mrs. Cassidy’ who sued was not some estranged wife at home but the lady who accompanied the man at the races! Because she was already living with him, her complaint was that to announce their ‘engagement’ was tantamount to revealing that she had been ‘living in sin’ with her ‘husband’ for years.

And in the case of Artemus Jones, you even got the name of the case wrong. It was not Jones v Hulton & Co but Hulton & Co v Jones. You could easily have Googled it, while you were complaining about the book’s authors merely reproducing information from previous editions. You also even got the date wrong; it was 1910 (see Google), not 1908. So not quite ‘a full century’ ago.

You ‘did’ Law at A-level, did you? May one enquire whether you passed?


And this self-styled ‘journalist’ (although they used to call me a ‘reporter’) replies that a little knowledge and even less research is a dangerous thing. There was a report in one book – interestingly, it is called A-level Law (and I did warn readers about duff information in some other books) – that says, wrongly, that ‘Mrs. Cassidy’ was the lady at the races. It also says that they had been living together for some time, and that the grounds for her complaint were that everybody would now know they weren’t actually already married.

Does that make sense to you, squire? That a couple could pose for an engagement picture and then sue on the basis that people would learn they were not yet married?

Oh dear. No, dear. Let’s get our facts straight on this.

The lady who sued the Mirror was Mrs. Mildred Anna Cassidy, wife of Mr. Kettering Edward Cassidy since 1916 and the mother of his son. The lady at the races who he introduced to the photographer as his fiancée was called Miss Muriel Harrold. (While I believe that Mr. Cassidy may have married Miss Harrold eventually, that has nothing whatsoever to do with the story, certainly nothing to do with the libel case.)

It’s all there in the court reports (although not, I suspect, on Google) if you care to look them up.

As for the wonderfully named Artemus Jones, you have fallen victim to Google here, I fear. Or maybe to some crap book.

The libel trial (Jones v E Hulton & Co) was in November 1908. Don’t take my word for it; here’s a cutting from the archives of the New York Times, no less. (I told you the case was famous.) Then follow this, if you can: Jones was suing Hulton, not the other way round. The case you refer to – think about it – as Hulton & Co v Jones in 1910 was the appeal (not usually referred to anywhere); that’s why the names are in that order.

All that detail, including the result and the damages and the appeal in each case, is information that I would like to have if I were studying newspaper law. Not one bit of it could be found in the book, which is what I was complaining about; and because it wasn’t in the book, most media law lecturers were unaware of it.

[While I was writing this, incidentally, Mark Hanna and David Banks both wrote to tell me that I was (totally: although they were both too polite to say so) wrong in reporting that Artemus Jones had been left out of their new edition of McNae. He does appear, strangely, in a section called Offers Of Amends – although no such offer is referred to in the text. But honour must be satisfied: Artemus is in, albeit (I think) in the wrong place. And he is not in the index, nor is his case listed in the back of the book. But at least no diligent student of journalism can be excused for failing to know the guy’s name.]

When I did the A-level, in the early sixties, I had to look it all up for myself; one did that sort of thing. I passed, since you ask, with 90% after only three months part-time study, but of course I was also spending a helluva lot of time covering courts, from magistrates to sessions and assizes. That’s what we did, the majority of Ranters readers, in our youth. And that’s how we learnt. But thank you for writing.

You can find McNae’s Essential Law For Journalists here, with a generous discount, on amazon. And it is worth reading. Or at least dipping into. There are still things that we can learn. Like getting our facts right.


Laughter in court

By Michael Watts

watts I’ve just (Other Matters having intervened) finished Crying All the Way to the Bank – Revel Barker’s account of the 1959 High Court libel action by Liberace against Cassandra and the Daily Mirror.

Two criticisms must be made.

The first concerns the cover. This seemingly reproduces the notorious Mirror column by Cassandra (aka William Connor) which – three years earlier – had contained the (alleged) libel against the flamboyant pianist. Not quite.

The column on the cover begins: ‘I have to report that Mr. Liberace, like “WIND-STARKE FUNF,” is about the most that man can take.’ Eh? Curious intro – what can it mean?

Not until page 31 do we discover that it did not begin like that at all. Clearly, what has happened here is that, for the cover, the item has been doctored to fit. (Those with an eye for layout will immediately spot something amiss – the no-no of a crosshead appearing at the top of a column.)

Fair enough. Artistic license. But an apparently more serious criticism is that this 370-page book has no index.

Were I in power, non-fiction works without indexes would be declared illegal. In this case, however, there are mitigating circs. First, doing indexes is extremely boring and/or expensive chore. Even more mitigating, however, is the fact that in this case – apart from mentioning a sprinkling of old Fleet Street hands – 99.99% (recurring) of any index would consist of screeds of page numbers for Liberace, Cassandra and the two main counsel in the action, Mr. Gilbert Beyfus QC (for Liberace) and Mr. Gerald Gardiner (for Cassandra and the Daily Mirror).

Fair enough, again, then. It is a consequence of the book’s being so repetitive. In fact, this is the most repetitive book I have ever read. Possibly, even, the most repetitive book ever written.

That, surely, is a most damning criticism? Boring, boring…?

Not a bit of it. Impossible though it might seem, the very repetition involved in this impeccable record of the proceedings is its joy.

The responsibility is that of m’learned friends Beyfus and Gardiner. You lose count of, for example, the number of times they bring up Cassandra’s description of Liberace in the column’s pull-quote: ‘He is the summit of sex – the pinnacle of Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Everything that He, She and It can ever want.’

Yes, while I merely referred to the plaintiff as ‘flamboyant’, Mr Connor did not mince (oo-er missus) his words.

And it was on those words in particular, plus the epithet ‘fruit-flavoured’ – did they, or did they not, imply homosexuality – that the case largely turned. But as we all know the outcome (although perhaps we all don’t, so I won’t do a spoiler) my intention had been to read the opening bit and then skip the rest.

Certainly Revel Barker’s initial setting of the fifties scene is spot on. After that, however, it was to be skipping – or at least skimming – time.

Not so. The thing becomes compulsive. The more M’Learned Friends repeat themselves, the more the fun. Instructional, too – even for those with court reporting experience – as we have here prime examples of just how pettifogging MLFs can become. That is how they earn their crusts.

Indeed, as the pettifoggingness grows and grows (sometimes in desperation?) – and as each familiar phrase is analysed and picked apart for the umpteenth time – one greets their words as old and welcome friends. Entertaining ones too – as they provide us with more chuckles than those that occasionally produce the official ‘Laughter in Court’.

Not saying I shall read it again. (Yet?) But I’m jolly sorry to have reached the final page.

Crying All The Way To The Bank, Liberace v Cassandra and the Daily Mirror by Revel Barker is available from all sorts of places, sometimes, even, from amazon.


One small staircase, for a reporter

By Desmond Zwar

London was bathed in summer when Yuri Gagarin, a smiling, boyish soldier in uniform, now safely on land, had arrived in Britain as part of a grand tour. It was 1961 and the world was pleading to know, ‘What is it actually like in space?’

He was taken by the Soviets to Earl’s Court, a huge auditorium packed with hundreds of press and fascinated onlookers. Standing on stage with officials from the embassy and an interpreter, the cosmonaut was called on to answer questions from the body of the hall. In those days it was a frustratingly ponderous procedure to televise questions as one reporter after another, with his or her hand up, was chosen from the stage. A BBC television crew wheeled its camera through the throng to the particular reporter and the interpreter translated. Because the whole procedure was slow, there were no more than six questions asked – one of them was mine.

Watched by hundreds, and knowing I was to be telecast around the world, I got to my feet, suddenly scared, as the man-in-charge pointed at me. I waited for the camera to be wheeled from one side of Earl’s Court to where I was standing and then began…

‘Major Gagarin, I am Desmond Zwar from the London Daily Mail. Could you please tell us how your experience has affected you? Now you are back on earth, are you disturbed by dreams of being in space; do you have nightmares, believing you are still there?’ There was a ripple of interest and some laughter as the interpreter told Gagarin what I had said. I remained standing.

Then in cultured English the interpreter gave me Gagarin’s answer, ‘Major Gagarin has never had any mental instability, either before or after his experience in space. He is quite well.’ A peculiar misrepresentation of my question, or Gagarin’s answer, and I have often wondered why.

(My world fame on television was spoilt that night by the television network’s difficulty interpreting my name because of my accent. The caption under my face on the news that went out on millions of television sets said I was, Dennis Waugh of the London Daily Mail. So from then on ‘Zwore’ (the way the family name was pronounced in Australia), became Zwar, as in car. It was easier for the English to understand.

Because it was cheap transport and I couldn’t afford a car, I had a Lambretta motor scooter that I rode to and from work, avoiding waiting for the all-night ‘N’ buses after a 2am shift. It was particularly useful getting through traffic jams. I used it to follow Gagarin about London for the next few days.

I arrived ahead of the news pack at Karl Marx’s grave at Highgate, where the astronaut laid a garland of flowers. Last on the list of his engagements that day was to be a party given by the Anglo-Soviet Friendship Society at the Hyde Park Hotel. And this was out-of-bounds to the Press. The Soviet embassy media office had made it clear that this occasion was a strictly private party that the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan would be attending. ‘Forget that one, old boy,’ said the news editor. ‘Take the night off.’ (He didn’t understand Australian reporters. A non-invitation to me meant the exact opposite: Get in there!)

I parked the Lambretta in a side-street off Piccadilly and walked up the steps of the hotel. It was around 7.30. Gentlemen in lounge suits, medals clanking on their lapels, made their way up the curved staircase to the first floor; ladies on their arms. A steward in dinner-jacket stood half-way up the stairs, taking invitations. I walked up and made as if to walk past him. ‘May I have your invitation, sir?’

‘Oh, it’s all right. Daily Mail,’ I said. (I had always noticed sardonic enjoyment on the faces of petty officials when they were empowered to say ‘No’ to a reporter requesting information or access to their establishments.) This one almost salivated.

‘There are no Press tonight, sir. None at all.’ He stood in the centre of the staircase and barred my way. I turned and walked downstairs to the lobby again where an anxious manager was standing watching the last gusts arrive. He remained just inside the front door. He glanced at me. ‘Waiting for the Prime Minister.’

I went outside and waited myself.

From time to time, the worried-looking fellow came out through the doors, looking at his watch, glancing anxiously up and down Piccadilly. By now it was 8.15 and if Harold Macmillan was coming, he was certainly going to be very late. At 8.30 the manager came out for one last look, turned on his heel and went inside. He had obviously given up.

At 8.35 a black Humber saloon drew up to the front of the hotel. Its driver got out and held open the back door. Harold Macmillan alighted and stood, like a bewildered old walrus, looking up at the hotel. There were no security people, no police, just the chauffeur, who got back into the car and drove off.

I stepped forward from the now deserted lobby. ‘Good evening, sir. Would you be looking for the Anglo-Soviet Friendship Society?’

‘Yes. Yes,’ said the PM.

‘Then please come with me.’ He obviously took me for some sort of official and followed me inside. The Prime Minister and I made our way up the staircase where the flunky was still rigidly standing guard. ‘Good evening,’ said Mr. Macmillan as we passed. ‘Good evening,’ I said to the flunky. He went red in the face, but said nothing as he bowed to the PM. I opened the door and a hubbub of voices greeted us.

First to step forward was Valerie Hobson, wife of the War Minister, John Profumo. ‘Harold!’ she smiled. ‘Can I get you a whisky?’ And turning to me: ‘Whisky?’ She had no idea who I was, but I felt an acceptance would have tested my luck too far. I thanked her, but said no, and melted into the crowd. Gagarin was at a piano and they were playing the ‘Volga Boatmen’s Song’. It made the front page.


A life on the medium wave

By Stewart Payne

My departure from the Daily Telegraph has allowed me the opportunity to explore several book writing ideas, one of which is now coming together nicely. I am researching the colourful history of the 1960s pirate radio stations and examining their impact on the political and broadcasting establishment of the day; how they gave airtime to dozens of unknown acts who went on to become some of the biggest recording stars of the day; and the dramas and intrigues of life on the ocean waves.

However, as I was only 11 in 1964, I am a little short on first-hand knowledge of the launch of the first and most famous of all the pirates, Radio Caroline, and I am hoping that some of the slightly more senior Ranters may be able to assist me.

Ronan O’Rahilly, Caroline’s founder, was financially backed by, among others, Jocelyn Stevens, then a young gad-about and publisher of the fashionable Queen magazine, with offices in Fetter Lane. Caroline was given office space at Queen until its success led to it renting a huge HQ in Chesterfield Gardens.

O’Rahilly recalls taking a bunch of deeply sceptical hacks out for drinks in Fleet Street to tune in to the launch of Radio Caroline over the Easter weekend, March 1964.

With more confidence in the free drinks than in the idea of discs being spun on a ship at sea and being heard on a transistor radio, the journalists duly assembled. The drinks happened, the music did not. The signal from the Caroline vessel failed to penetrate the walls of Fleet Street hostelries and so the opening words from an unknown DJ called Simon Dee went unheard and O’Rahilly had no choice but to drag the hacks away from their drinks and out into the street before he could convince them that his radio station really did exist.

This, at least, is how O’Rahilly recalls the event. I am happy for this to be confirmed or corrected by anyone who was there. I would appreciate anecdotes from this, or any other, occasion relating to the pirate stations. As a teenager by the mid sixties I was aware of many of the later events and have a wealth of cuttings at my disposal. It is the launch period that I need more first-hand information about.

So, if any Ranters are able to assist, I would appreciate a call on 07831 393561 or email me. I can offer a drink in a Fleet Street pub of choice and a mention in the credits by way of inducement.


Penny for them

By Colin Dunne

Before we start, one stipulation if you please. Do not ask about Penny Perrick. We don’t talk about Penny Perrick. The guilt is too much. Okay? Now let’s carry on…

When abroad, it’s up to the gallant British hack to set an example to lesser breeds. I’m sure you’d agree. Certainly that was the view Alan Hamilton and I took in a smart Georgetown bar in Washington when we asked how to get to a hotel where we were to witness a major sporting championship.

‘Three minutes in a cab,’ was the answer.

‘And on foot?’

It was worth saying it just to see the reaction. Barmen and customers, all pleasingly aghast, weighed in with that American tough-talk – ‘Hey, you fellers, you don’t walk in this town.’ I mean, you’d never say in-this-town if you were in Stockport, would you? So we rather enjoyed the fuss; lambs being saved from the slaughter, and then, naturally, we felt obliged to do it. Walk, that is.

‘It’s nice evening for a stroll,’ we said, and left them open-mouthed.

Alan was – and no doubt still is – one of the few Fleet Street writers who is as funny in the flesh as he is on the page. He had that Scottish humour that is always described as dry, although there was nothing dry about this evening. We had consumed a number of what Alan referred to as Dr Bell’s Patent Brain Fuddlers, which possibly explains what followed.

As we stepped out into the soupy evening air, we did wonder for a moment. The streets were empty. Brains fuddled, fearlessly we set off. Not a soul, not a sound. We both nearly leapt out of our skins when a police car, siren howling, swept up alongside us, screeched to a halt in the middle of the road, and two cops – as I believe they call them over there – jumped out. One ran round behind us, the other ran in front. They were holding out their arms. They seemed to have things in their hands. They were pointing them at us. Were they offering us their sandwiches?

Good Lord no, they looked like guns.

And one of them, I believe, actually shouted: ‘Freeze!

Reassured by our less-than-menacing appearance, they moved in on us. What the hell, they wanted to know, were we doing?

I thought I’d make it easy for them. ‘We are muggees,’ I said. ‘And we’re looking for muggers.’

‘You two guys sure are gonna find them,’ said one of them, as they put away their guns. At least they didn’t call us weak-assed nigga bitches, but then they probably hadn’t seen The Wire at that time. Indeed, they couldn’t have been kinder. They put us in their car and delivered us to the hotel. They were still laughing as they drove off, and, as Alan said, it’s always a pleasure to bring happiness to the people.

The evening finished much as it began. The championship being contested here was for Monopoly and this too seemed to involve clinking glasses. The winner got so excited that he put the dice in his gin-and-tonic and tried to shake it. Even better, he was Irish.

I tell this story to illustrate that the journo life – or certainly this journo’s life – did not always go smoothly. From earlier pieces, it may sound as though the entire sequence of commission-write-cheque is as simple as it sounds.

Sometimes it did go like that. Sometimes it didn’t. Since I occupy a personal chaos zone of organisational disasters – not ideal if you’re trying to run a freelance business – I frequently found myself at home to Mr. Cock-up.

That is why I hope never to see Penny Perrick again. I can’t stand the shame. Just don’t ask me, that’s all.

The Washington Muggees night could easily have ended in disaster, and hospital. I had another lucky escape when I was going to New York with the long and languorous Geoff Wilkinson (the happiest of snappers and a treat to work with) on an assignment so important and so top-secret that even now I cannot reveal what it was. (Okay: I’ve forgotten.)

In the Heathrow business lounge, half-an-hour before boarding, Geoff, who was familiar with my forward-planning skills, suggested a last-minute run-through on all the paperwork. No probs: tickets, hotel booking, taxis, schedule of who to see and places to go. ‘Passport?’ said Geoff, as he picked up his bag.

At that moment, I could see my passport quite clearly. It was where I’d left it, in the drawer of my desk which was a 90-minute taxi drive away.

‘In that case,’ said Geoff, dropping his bag, ‘no-one’s going anywhere.’

The next 15 minutes were a bit of a blur. I whizzed down to the post office where a Young Asian man, who clearly had not absorbed the public servant ethos traditional to the British culture of letting the customers rot, decided to save me. He rang the Home Office who confirmed I had a passport. He then made out a holiday passport for 14 days, while I shot off to find a photo-booth. We just made it.

If we hadn’t, that would have been one less employer for me.

(No. Don’t ask about Penny Perrick.)

One morning I was summoned by a young woman who had been commissioned by IPC to try to put together a dummy magazine. Delightful young girl, strongest Lancashire accent I’d heard since George Formby, an amazing sheaf of carrot-coloured hair, she was clearly a keen young amateur. She could offer only £50 for a piece but if it worked out…

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Always glad to help out a youngster, me. Bit of a saint-like that. I did it.

A few weeks later she rang again. It had worked out fine. She was editing a new mag and was offering me columns and pieces and lots of space, together with lots of money. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I said, not listening. I was pretty busy, maybe another time, glad she was okay.

That was how I turned down the legendary Glenda Bailey, Marie Claire magazine, and no doubt thousands and thousands of pounds. Yet another shrewd move by the master freelance.

Incidentally, the carrot-coloured sheaf of hair must’ve been a wig. I saw it on Rebekah Wade later.

At least it wasn’t as embarrassing as Penny… Oh you know about that, I suppose.

Mistakes, I’ve made a few. A few thousand actually. In Sweden, I found a local fixer, a young man who spoke American English and who provided a couple of pretty young models for Dennis Hussey to use in his pix. You know how difficult it is to assess people when you don’t speak their language? There was something that made me a little uneasy about these two. As we drove along with the young women in the back, I began to worry. Could he perhaps tell me exactly what sort of young women these were? How would he describe them?

He took the cigarette from his mouth to speak as he drove one-handed. ‘Chickenshit,’ he said.

I tell you, for most of my time as a hack I made failure my friend. Almost my live-in companion too.

In Prague, soon after The Wall came down, I found a university lecturer to act as my interpreter and general guide. Under the communist regime, he had been made to work as a street cleaner because he wasn’t a party member and, excellent bloke though he was, it had left its scars. Everywhere we went, if anyone was less than slavishly helpful, he would start hissing: ‘He is communist svine, I know it!’ There were an awful lot of communist svine about, but I’m not sure his candour helped ease things along.

I know I was fairly young when I interviewed the singer Kathy Kirby for the Tyneside evening. Even so, I’m sure I could’ve done better. She was about 20, as famous a young singer as Britain had at the time, and startlingly glamorous too. Her manger was an old dance-band leader called Bert Ambrose, sixty-plus and portly with it. As I went into the Turk’s Head Hotel (or the Tork’s Heed, as Gordon Chester taught me to say), the woman on reception told me that although singer and manager had adjoining rooms, only one bed was slept in. Throughout the interview, Ambrose sat with his fat hand resting on her thigh and answered all the questions himself, telling me to run them as Kathy’s. She didn’t speak a word.

I did what he said. Why? God knows. But later Jean Rook got an interview with the singer in which she ’fessed up about her one-bed tours with old Bert. Her affair with Big Bad Bert.

When Punch was relaunched in the nineties by Mohammed Fayed with Mike Molloy and Peter McKay in charge, to my delight, they asked me to write for them. In retrospect, I do recall that the magazine was so fat and frequent that I suspect anyone who could join up letters was also asked. Printing nearly half-a-million, and sending out thousands of free copies to every mailing list he could find, Fayed swiftly established the old Jewish saying: if it costs nothing, it’s worth nothing. It failed.

But before we got to that, I was commissioned to go up to the North-East to write a piece about Tony Blair’s constituency. To my surprise his agent, John Burton, not only saw me, but escorted me around, introduced me to everyone, maintained a steady flow of pints, and even insisted that I stayed at his house. ‘I checked you out with Alastair,’ he said. ‘He says you’re friend so you can have anything you want.’

You can’t ask much more than that, can you? What I didn’t ask for was the discovery, when I got back to London, that the editorial team had been replaced and no-one remembered me, my commission, or wanted to read the result.

Do we really have to do the Penny Perrick story? Okay, let’s get it out of the way.

As a self-employed freelance, my method of organisation was to scribble things on the corners of newspapers and hope to find them later. As a system, it had its weaknesses.

When Penny Perrick called, I was pleased to hear from her. She had, of course, one of the most famous names in Fleet Street (daughter of Eve Perrick, of the Express) and no mean reputation herself. I’d known her on the Sun. Here she was now, features editor of some magazine, and called me to commission a humorous piece

‘Delighted, Penny,’ I said, making a note of the brief and the date for delivery. So far, it was all under control.

Exactly where I wrote that note – the back of my latest divorce papers, a parking ticket, a beer mat – I have no idea. Possibly it was stolen by a jealous rival freelance (Andrew Duncan springs to mind) or even, perhaps, thieved by a passing magpie. But it went. I never saw it again. The memory of it was struck from my mind until a couple of weeks later when Penny Perrick rang.

Had I finished the piece?

What piece?

The piece she’d commissioned.

Oh. Ah. Slowly the memory came back. I’ve a nasty feeling that for the next couple of minutes I told more lies than I had in the last ten years. I waffled. I ducked. I dived. Recalling days of missing homework, I may well have said the dog ate it. As a performance of dismal dishonesty, it would take some beating.

When she realised what I was saying – that I was letting her down for no good reason – Penny Perrick reduced me to the size of wriggling worm and rang off. The awful thing is that she was right. My behaviour was as disgraceful as it was unprofessional. I’ve never been so ashamed in my life.

I never heard from her again. I never saw her again.

But then, it’s only lately that I’ve dared to leave the house in daylight.

There. I’ve confessed all. Well, most. Because next came one of those golden patches that happen rarely. I found myself working for a magazine that employed the best, demanded the best, and paid the best.

What I was doing there, I will never know. But I didn’t complain.


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