Geoffrey Mather reacts to last week’s Rant about the failure of journalists to bother about writing obits for their colleagues. And ends up writing a good one, albeit a bit late, for a much-missed workmate.
Tony Delano’s second classic book on how Fleet Street achieved real scoops, about the intense rivalry, and the fun, relates the story of the beauty queen accused of raping her would-be boyfriend. Derek Jameson, who’s in the book on the wrong side of the scoop, is reminded that he was a graceful loser on that one.
Those were the days, my friends… when reporters turned up on the job so quickly that they were sometimes interviewed as suspects – as Robin Morgan remembers.
A good reporter – at least, a good Australian reporter – says Desmond Zwar, didn’t ask questions of the news desk. He’d drive round to Buck House and ask his questions there.
And Colin Dunne finally finds Freelance Heaven…
By Geoffrey Mather
If I said that Jean Rook, ‘first lady of Fleet-street’, took time out while working to irritate farm workers gathering their crops would you be surprised?
Could it be that in this enterprise she was encouraged by a colleague of hers and mine who wore a bathroom tap on his head at political party conferences?
…Who possessed a two-foot fork to nick other people’s food?
We are not, I tell you in all truth, in Never-Never Land. And I am reminded of Jean Rook because the Ranters editor has been ranting himself: he can not understand why people will not write obits for him. Why? I ask myself on his behalf. And the reason is that obits are usually lists of achievements, solemn, processional, like many a cortege, long on fact, short on image. People are not really like that. The man of God can be the sinner. The sage can act the fool. In the philosopher there might be an irrepressible child. That’s my excuse and I am sticking to it.
We pause here for solemn reflection. I am not even sure what an obituary is: A song of praise? The case for the defence in the hereafter? Dishonesty with good intent?
I admired a deputy editor who, on his way to an editor’s funeral. mulled over the characteristics of the deceased, and decided that he did not, on the whole, like the fellow. So he turned back and went home.
I have written one or two obituaries and pulled back at the point where I was about to be over-honest.
For example, I often worked with Brian Duff, Express chief photographer in Manchester, and if you said he was a generous man, you would be right and wrong at the same time. If you said he was a born artiste, similar. He was both generous and ungenerous, artiste and anti-artiste. An enigma… So how do you label an enigma with surprising variations?
I enjoyed my time with him. I enjoyed his painstaking and impressive work, but I have a feeling that I enjoyed his discomforts more. I did not mention those at the time I penned his obituary when he actually died…
He lived in Burnley – which he called the Venice of the North – and once had a tremendous row with his wife, Anne. The serving hatch was between them. It got slammed by both contestants a few times until it fell off, and he then said that was it, the end, total crisis point, no turning back, shame about the kids, split the assets down the middle, or perhaps, dear Lord, more in his favour, cut the cat in half, he was leaving home. Off he went. Shortly afterwards, he was back.
‘I thought you had left home,’ said Anne. ‘It’s raining,’ he said.
He fussed a great deal about his health. ‘How are all your consultants?’ I used to ask. I thought of him as the only human I knew who was ineligible for the National Health Service because he claimed to have no health whatsoever.
When his wife was in bed suffering he volunteered to get her medicine. He went to the doctor’s only to return with medicine for himself. ‘Where’s mine?’ she asked. ‘Damn,’ he said, ‘I forgot yours.’
He turned up at parties in a knitted pullover reaching well below the knees. He had an expanding fork allowing him to take things from other people’s plates at dinner Before mobile phones were invented, he had a black telephone of the ancient variety which he kept in a bag. It had its own curly line attached to nothing.
He would pretend to answer calls in pubs, confusing all around.
Enter, Jean Rook.
When she was writing pages, not columns, for the Daily Express, he was her photographer. He would meet her at Piccadilly Station in Manchester and ferry her around in his car. She quickly learned the drill. If he saw a group of people grubbing about in a field and gathering some crop or other, he sounded his horn several times and they all unbent themselves wearily to see what it was all about. He waved at that point. They all waved back thinking they knew him. Then, of course, they had to go through the wearisome process of bending down again.
Jean Rook liked that. More, it entranced her. It was a form of human torment she had never before witnessed. When she first saw it, she asked whether she could have a go with the horn next time and he generously agreed.
If it was raining heavily he hooted at people huddled in bus shelters then stopped 20 yards further on. Usually one or two broke ranks believing they had found a friend. They hadn’t. He waited until they were almost there, then drove off. I know, I know. I, too, have read about torment in the gulags.
He had a piercing blue lamp in the roof of one car, and at night he would flash it at vehicles ahead of him. They invariably pulled into the side and stopped only to hear his manic laughter as he overtook them.
Once, parked outside a county police headquarters, he was listening to police traffic on his expensive radio and a deputy chief constable peered in to see what was happening. ‘Good radio, that, Brian’ he said. ‘We are hoping to get some ourselves soon.’
The tap? Ah, yes. At political party conferences he wore the tap on his forehead for no particular reason. Good knock-about stuff. But in Jekyll and Hyde mode, he was also a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society after being an associate and he would fret for hours, days, about the right picture. He had more reflective umbrellas than a space station.
In spite of his own eccentricities, he wanted the world to behave as he expected it to. Since his was a rather tidy vision, the world took no notice. That infuriated him. Big companies, shops, waiters and hotel managers were his normal fodder. He terrorised them.
When he snagged a coat on something protruding in Woolworth’s, he said to the manager, ‘This is an expensive coat.’ ‘I can see it is,’ said the manager. ‘I noticed it when you came in.’ ‘Right,’ said Brian Duff, ‘I expect you to pay for it. And I don’t want it invisibly mended because you can see it.’
In cheap roadside cafes he had some exciting times. He bartered. ‘I would like egg and chips but no tomato. Can I have an extra egg to make up for the cost of the tomato?’
‘No.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because there are no two-eggs-with-chips in the pictures.’ ‘What pictures?’ ‘The pictures of the meals outside and on the walls.’
‘You’d think,’ he said to me later, ‘that they would have given me the extra egg. Miserable buggers.’
If we stayed in London hotels before interviews, he always got the best room because I do not remember him ever accepting the one first offered to him. He would complain about size, draughts, noise of dustbins, views from windows, alleyways, the funny look the maid gave him, the lavatory seat still being up, anything.
Once, in a London night club with a Manchester writer, a full bottle of whisky appeared at the table. They viewed it with distrust. They had, of course, heard of these London practices: drink the whisky and you get a bill for, oh, £200 – that might be about right. But then they got a message from the club owner – ‘You are not drinking the gift I sent over.’ They drank it then in some haste. They would have drunk a small reservoir if it had been free.
Brian, who was a first-class drummer, and who could have made a living at it, was made even bolder that night than he normally was. He asked the group playing whether he could have a go at the drums and explained his impeccable credentials. They agreed.
What followed, according to the writer, was the most miserable time of his life. Brian Duff was plainly out of chunter with the music. Drum was beating time vigorously to a tune entirely foreign to the one being played. The whisky had worked. He had a serene look of total confidence in himself. Heaven and hell had collided in a most unlikely place and hell was plainly winning.
Truth only dribbles out long after people’s deaths when the total image has congealed into something tangible. Until then, it is something flimsy, borne on the wind.
The pictures he took were invariably artistic; yet when we visited an art gallery in Verona, he was indifferent to anything he saw. It meant nothing to him. He was out at the other end before I had started.
I often think of Brian Duff now for he was never less than entertaining. I can awaken at 2am and hear laughter. The vision has formed and congealed. Now, I think, I could write a proper obituary. But at this stage, who wants one?
There he is in vision, great, domineering nose, tiny mouth (‘Watch my mouth.’ ‘What mouth?’), full of inhibitions, spiky. ‘Do you think this is catarrh?’ he would ask, waving a handkerchief in front of my face. ‘No,’ I would reply. ‘I think it’s probably something to do with the scaffolding in your left nostril.’
We are in the office, the two of us: ‘Why can’t we charge reversing mileage? It doesn’t show up on the clock.’
And in the street when the great Europe bike race was in motion – ‘Vive, ole,’ he was crying loudly, with precisely that pronunciation.
A Hickey reporter who turned up for an appointment with a Stately Owner of a Stately Home introduced Brian Duff as ‘my photographer’. The result was pulverising. He felt two hands squeezing his neck and bearing him to the ground. Nobody, but nobody, could call him ‘my photographer.’ The Stately Man left immediately and the appointment was ended.
One reporter at the Express said he was glad to be appointed because the first thing he saw on arriving from Liverpool was a figure flying over a desk to grab a colleague by the throat. The flying figure was Brian Duff, too.
Mean? Of course he was. If you lunched with him and had a bottle of wine he could so engineer matters that he got two-thirds of it. His ploy was always to charge the glasses himself. Two big gulps, charge both glasses again. You might not even have touched yours in which case he would go through the motion of topping it up. I tried an experiment. One day, every time he drank from his glass, I drank an equivalent amount from mine.
‘Ee,’ he said when we had finished the bottle in three and a half minutes, ‘that went fast.’
Go to his home to drink, and he was the perfect host: always looking to see whether you needed more, always supplying more, almost pleading with you to have more.
Jekyll and Duff.
And so the final joke and the farewell. Not to me. Jean Rook. She was leaving for London on an evening train and Brian Duff delivered her to her seat, putting her case on the rack, and kissing her fondly and ostentatiously on the cheek.
‘Lovely time,’ he said very loudly so that all the businessmen heard. ‘I hope nobody finds out.’
Geoffrey Mather’s own always readable website of rants and reminiscences can be accessed by clicking here.
The real McKinney
By Derek Jameson
It was a tabloid editor’s dream come true. Thirty years on and the pulse still quickens at the thought of Southern belle Joyce McKinney abducting her former lover, Mormon missionary Kirk Anderson, shackling him to a bed and Having Her Way with him. In a Dartmoor cottage, of all places.
Joyce herself reckoned it was the Greatest Love Story Ever Told. Under arrest on kidnapping charges, she told Epsom magistrates that such was her love for Anderson, ‘I would have skied down Mount Everest in the nude with a carnation up my nose.’
Released on bail, she made whoopee on Fleet Street expenses while frenzied picture editors plotted how to get a shot of her on skis, preferably naked. ‘No waayy,’ she said, ‘No way would Ah ever take off mah clothes before a camera. Ah am a religious person.’
Shortly before she was due in dock at the Old Bailey, she was taken to the pictures – Joan Collins in The Stud – in a Daily Express Roller and later escorted home to her lodgings. Then she disappeared.
Mirror executive Anthony Delano, having given us the hilarious story of the bungled attempt to bring train robber Ronnie Biggs home from Brazil (Slip-Up, Revel Barker Publishing, £9.99), subsequently produced a blow-by-blow account of the McKinney saga under the title Joyce McKinney and the Manacled Mormon.
It was a rush job, produced for Mirror Books in 1978, and in recent times has become a collector’s item selling for more than £100. Now Delano, who these days has given up daily deadlines for a university professor’s chair, has plugged gaps in the earlier book, tidied up the text and adjusted the title to Joyce McKinney and the Case of the ManacledMormon. He has also binned 16 pages of tacky pictures, which I rather missed, but the book still promises to be as big a sensation as the first version.
The basic facts remain unaltered. In September 1977 Joy, as she liked to be called, and her faithful and supposedly platonic acolyte Keith May, were charged with kidnapping Anderson, a missionary dispatched from Utah presumably to escape the attentions of McKinney. He told police he was grabbed outside a Mormon church in Epsom, bundled into a car and driven to the rented cottage in Devon.
There he was held for three days, shackled to an iron bed. On the third night May appeared with chains, ropes and padlocks. Anderson was tied to the four corners of the bed and McKinney then forced him to take part in a sex session, claiming she wanted to conceive as she had miscarried his baby in America.
What makes Delano’s superbly told story unique is his detailed reporting of Fleet Street tabloids at work and the thinking of the two editors principally involved, Mike Molloy of the Daily Mirror and yours truly, Derek Jameson of the Daily Express – notlong before that, Molloy’s friend and deputy at the Mirror. Delano is the man who knows all – at the time he was the Mirror’s chief correspondent in America.
The essence of the story was the way in which Joy managed to persuade the Express – so triumphant to have found her in hiding in Atlanta – that she was a God-fearing innocent whose only crime was her obsessive love for Kirk Anderson, while the Mirror’s parallel investigation discovered that this former beauty queen with the surgically enhanced breasts actually made her money as a massage parlour queen touting weird sexual services in Los Angeles.
Peter Tory, then of the Hickey column, had escorted Joy to the movie premiere on the night before she did her vanishing act. His pride severely wounded, he subsequently found her hiding in Atlanta with Keith May. It seemed only fair to me that Tory should handle her exclusive story, for which I paid her the princely sum of £40,000.
The highly experienced, ebullient Brian Vine and chief photographer Bill Lovelace were dispatched to assist Tory and the Express team hit the road, never staying Iong in the same place. Joy was afraid the FBI was after her; Tory and Vine were more worried about the competition.
Delano writes: ‘Along the way Tory and Vine debriefed Joy, shaped and polished the story of her life before and after Kirk…The series was to run for a full week. It was fragrant with innocence and maidenly pride. The Mormons had been beastly so had the British. It would have been impossible for her and Keith to get a fair trial because no one in Britain could understand what she had felt for Kirk.’
Back at the Mirror, Molloy and his team – notably photographer Kent Gavin, who had acquired 300 sleazy photographs, and reporters Roger Beam, Frank Palmer and Jill Evans – were chuckling. They learnt from bookings for TV commercials that the Express was about to publish. That would let loose the Mirror bombshell. Molloy had been sitting on the sensational revelations for weeks, fearing to publish in case he was held to have influenced a jury. In the event, the CPS dropped all proceedings.
Molloy unlocked his safe and handed out his layouts. ‘Only one headline on Page One,’ he instructed: The Real McKinney.
It was the tabloid scoop of the decade, says Delano. The Express presses were still spilling out the anodyne version that Vine and Tory had concocted while a few hundred yards to the west Mirror vans were pulling away with bundles of papers that displayed Joy in all her nakedness.
Hearing the news in a shabby hotel in Myrtle Beach, South Caroline, Joy went berserk. Tory recalled: ‘She rushed for the windows, clawing her way up the curtains. She was dressed in her nun’s habit. She looked like a giant bat.’ Eventually she was restrained, taken to hospital and sedated.
Delano concludes: Jameson took it like a man. He made his way to the Mirror’s favourite pub, appropriately named the Stab in the Back, took in the riotous celebration going on there, and thrust both hands in the air. ‘I surrender!’
‘What else could I do?’ he asked afterwards. ‘They are all my mates. They had done a marvellous job, much as it hurt me to say so. What could I do but buy them all a drink?’
Delano recounts a strange sequel to this tale of tabloid tears and laughter… Joy turned up in Seoul earlier this year with a scrap of the ear of her late pit-bull terrier, Booger. She later produced five puppies she said had been cloned by Korean scientists. Using the name Bernann McKinney, she denied she was Joyce – but the game was up when her picture made the papers. True to form, she disappeared again, leaving behind the five puppies – and a bill for £25,000.
Joyce McKinney and the Manacled Mormon is published by Revel Barker and is currently available from both amazon and Waterstones on-line at a £2.00 (20%) discount.
Me? I had an alibi…
By Robin Morgan
A foul murder, a freebie, the old King’s late brother, a roulette wheel and Peggie Robinson… amazing how memories can lump together after 50 years.
Puzzled? Then let the denouement begin.
T’was bright and early on a 1959 Monday morning and having beaten a late retreat from the arms of a particularly well-known local young lady of irreproachable reputation, I was occupying the toilet of the Barnsley Chronicle washing and brushing up before any of the other staff arrived. At 19 years old you didn’t feel the need to sleep while in bed.
The toilet was a room with a view… of the back yard of the council mortuary into which drove the borough’s chief constable – a retired colonel (weren’t they all, in those days?) with a reputation of not getting involved in the business end of his business.
Unusual enough to merit an on-the-spot inquiry. The back doors of the mortuary were wide open.
Less than 12 hours before, the irreproachable young lady and I had been in a local pub enjoying the entertaining efforts of a lady pianist before arms had become entwined. Yet there, on the slab, was the body of the said pianist.
‘Buggah Orf’, said the chief constable. Great help. But I buggered off… to talk to Jack, the mortuary attendant, an ever-helpful soul, who muttered that the pianist had been strangled and left among dustbins close to her home.
Off to the street where she lived… and died. In those days coppers did not stand outside victims’ homes obstructing the free passage of hacks.
Her husband, still befuddled by being told a couple of hours earlier that the music had gone out of his life, could not have been more helpful. (Note for trainee reporters: Bereaved families are always best spoken to before shock sets in.)
Out he came with the life story of Lily Stephenson, along with the photo album and bags of pictures including half a dozen of her taken riding a camel while she was an ENSA pianist in the Western Desert. (Further note to trainees: ENSA = wartime entertainment parties for the troops: Every Night, Something Awful).
‘Borrowed’ the lot – as you do with pictures of dearly departed. With my lord and master, the Chronicle, amply supplied with head and shoulders and the fearsome Peggie Robinson, the Daily Express representative-on-earth in South Yorkshire, by now not being seen by an even more irascible chief constable, was the first to hear of my haul and offered a deal. Done!
A full page photo-spread in Lord Beaverbrook’s bible and the sobriquet ‘The Happy Pianist’ now firmly attached to the late Lily by the early Peggie left me smug…and waiting for the promised cheque.
Forward a couple of weeks. Scotland Yard had been called in. Always a big event in provincial murders and with Fabian of the Yard the then hit TV show, its superintendant arrived in town bathed in reflected glory. A week into his inquiries and over a pint or two in his hotel (Scotland Yard ’tecs were much more press-aware and helpful than local chief constables) I asked him, in all innocence, what made these ace cops special.
As a demonstration of his superiority over PC Plod he launched into an interrogation that within minutes had me almost prepared to admit to the dastardly deed.
His clincher was: ‘How come you were so soon on the scene? Where were you on the night of the murder?
‘Er…in her pub.’
With the prospect of my collar being felt it was time to produce an alibi: ‘Er… I was shagging the daughter of…’ (and mentioned the name of one of the town’s most prominent citizens). His detective sergeant guffawed and obviously made a note of the ‘confession’ because a few days later he was emulating me in the arms of the same young lady. Irreproachable but certainly not unapproachable.
Fast forward a couple of more weeks and an envelope bearing the good Lord’s Crusader logo arrived containing a cheque for fifty quid – two months wages by 1959 Chronicle standards.
The same day, Chronicle editor Ronnie Yates called me into his office. As reward for my coverage of the murder he was giving me an Army-funded freebie – to the 13th/18th Royal Hussars, a local regiment stationed at Falingbostel, Germany ,which was to receive new colours from HRH the Duke of Gloucester, brother of the late King.
Big deal – first trip abroad but I would, said Yates, require a dinner suit which I would have to buy myself. Generous, was Ronnie.
With untold wealth to hand, buying a tailor-made suit was no problem and the left-overs would ‘fund’ the incidentals of the freebie…which they did, thanks to HRH the Duke.
After handling over the new colours, the regiment threw a party in the officers’ mess to which I and the Duke were invited… naturally.
The centrepiece of the evening was a roulette table that HRH set upon with gusto. Until then roulette had been something I thought was played only in Hollywood movies and my face must obviously have displayed my innocence to the Duke.
‘Do you play this game, m’boy?’ he asked. ‘Er, no sir,’ I replied with even more nervousness than I approached Scotland Yard grillings. ‘Then sit here and I shall show you,’ he said patting the chair his ADC obligingly vacated. ‘Mind you, you’ll never be rich playing this game… I’m not!’
I can’t say he was a good tutor. The surplus of Peggie’s beneficence was rapidly separated from me.
Incidentally, the murder was never solved but an itinerant Hungarian refugee, recently arrived after the uprising, was strongly suspected but never charged; his alibi was not as strong as mine.
By Desmond Zwar
The Queen yesterday had to have three stitches inserted in her left hand after she tried to separate two Corgis fighting each other in the Palace. – The Times.
I had just come on for the 11am to 7pm shift at the Mail and the news editor called me into the glass booth where he sat with his deputy; two assistants manned switch-boards, filtering out nutters like The Genuine Elect of God.
‘Zwar, grab a cab to the Palace. Find out what goes on with those horrible little dogs. How come they can bite Her Majesty?’
Over to the Palace? What does one do? Go up to one of the Coldstream Guards and ask to be let in? Knock on the iron gates?
A good reporter, a good Australian reporter, did not ask questions. In the here-today, gone-tomorrow ruthlessness of Fleet Street, it was necessary to be noticed; to have an edge. Mine was never to ask questions when given orders. Jump? How high, Sir?… Phone Comrade Khrushchev?… I’m ringing him now. The reference library was there with the details, the phone numbers and how to go about it.
The first edition of the Evening News which came out, incongruously, at 8 in the morning, had a picture of the Queen with four of her pet corgis on leashes (two of them, joined by one leash, were allegedly the villains. It was an educated guess because who was going to ring up and argue? The Queen, it said in the caption, ‘was recovering’.
I found Buckingham Palace in the A-D section of the phone book and dialled. Could one perhaps speak to the Press Secretary? One could, sniffed the operator and I was put through to Miss Anne Hawkins, Her Majesty’s assistant press secretary. Could one help, she enquired? I wondered if one could actually come around to the Palace and sort of, well, you know, have a word about the… er, dogs. ‘There would be no question,’ Miss Hawkins said frostily, ‘of speaking to the person in charge of the corgis who is, of course, the Queen herself.’ But, she went on, one could come around and have a background chat and park one’s car at the east entrance. She would alert the police on duty.
It seemed too good to be true. I drove my Volkswagen to the gates, was saluted by a policeman seven feet tall and waved through. The appropriate door was opened by a gentleman in tight jacket, pantaloons and buckled shoes. In great ceremony he led me down a hallway lined with elephant tusks, shields, glass cases of silver trophies, and I was taken to a small room at the end of the corridor. Miss Hawkins’ tiny office held a tiny desk, two chairs, a mini hand-basin, a single-bar radiator and the lady herself, in pink twin-set and wearing two rows of pearls.
Where would one care to begin?
Well, I said, one wondered about the temper of the corgis. They were persistently in the news for biting policemen, palace sentries and the odd station-master when alighting from trains. Had there ever been an attack on a Royal before?
‘Oh, they are no less boisterous or mischievous than any others.’
‘Well,’ I tried again, as Miss Hawkins glanced at a small clock on her desk, ‘who scolds them when they do wrong?’
‘Oh, one cannot really go into that…’
Who trains them? ‘Oh,’ a smile at last. ‘They have been taught to do tricks. They sit up and beg for food. And they roll over on their backs.’
Yes, but who taught them to do that? A shake of her coiffured head. That question, again, was out of bounds.
One was quite obviously not about to tell the world about the private lives of Her Majesty’s cantankerous little Welsh animals. ‘Perhaps if you would like to leave your questions I may be able to talk to the Queen?’ she volunteered, but not too convincingly. It was obviously a polite way of ending our fruitless little chat.
Back along the passage with the aloof and wordless flunky I went; past the elephant tusks and African tribal masks. A fizzled assignment. Unless…
I drove back to my flat and typed out a list of questions and then drove back again, saluted this time by the policeman, and handed the functionary my sheet of paper.
Back to the Daily Mail office where I admitted I might well have failed to get a story. ‘Well at least you got in, old boy,’ said the surprised news editor. ‘I have never been there.’
Then two days later… a phone call. Miss Hawkins had not only spoken to Her Majesty, but the Queen had, seemingly quite enthusiastically, answered my questions. One returned rather fast to the Palace.
My first question: How and where were the dogs fed? – ‘The Queen, whenever she can’, said Miss Hawkins. ‘has the dogs’ food sent up in a dumb-waiter to the drawing-room at Buckingham Palace, or Windsor, or Sandringham, at about five o’clock. It is retrieved by a footman who hands it to Her Majesty, who has donned rubber gloves. On the floor, on a table-cloth, stand their individual bowls, each with the dog’s name on it, into which Her Majesty mixes meat, vegetables, gravy and biscuits.’ (I marvelled at the scene of Her Majesty on her knees) ‘And when the corgis finish their meal, the Queen clears things up and returns the bowls to a tray.
‘She very much likes to look after them herself, and of course they go where she goes,’ said Miss Hawkins. ‘If you see her in the Palace’ (a little unlikely, I felt) ‘on her way upstairs to one of the state rooms, the chances are that there will be a corgi or two with her. They just wander about with her everywhere. If they happen to wander in when a photograph is being taken they are included.’
Miss Hawkins gave me a pencilled royal corgi family tree, explaining that Her Majesty was firmly in charge of breeding. Even when Tiny, a corgi, gave birth to seven puppies fathered by Princess Margaret’s dachshund, Pipkin, it was, she insisted, ‘a planned marriage’.
Would one care to speak to the Queen’s kennels? Mrs. Thelma Gray, of the Rozavel Kennels, at Pirbright, Surrey, had enjoyed a ‘By Appointment’ relationship with the palace for years, and the kennels-palace friendship probably still exists. Mrs. Gray’s stud corgis had been mated with the Queen’s bitches on many occasions. The kennels had enjoyed its royal association going back to ‘Dookie’, the dog taken there for mating by the future King George VI in 1933.
Mrs. Gray said to me: ‘Her Majesty has done me the honour of discussing her dog-breeding plans with me, and on occasions I have suggested outstanding dogs owned by other owners as being the best choice of sires.’
On the delicate question of whether bride goes to groom, or vice versa, Mrs. Gray said, ‘The stud dog is always taken to visit Windsor.’ The particulars of the stud dogs chosen by the Queen had never been widely broadcast and were known only to a small circle of people, she firmly pointed out. ‘Therefore, such a stud dog’s fee is in no way altered by his having fathered a litter of puppies to a Royal corgi bitch; nor is the demand for his services in any way stimulated.’
And who house-trains the puppies? Her Majesty. If one of them does terrible things to a Palace Axminster, she rubs his nose in it. ‘The puppies are always house-trained by the Queen herself,’ said Mrs. Gray.
A royal scoop.
It had to be YOU
By Colin Dunne
After having my first two pieces accepted by the best magazine in the land, I was desperately eager to ease my way into their cast of regular writers and not to put a foot, or even a toenail, wrong. So my heart sank when I heard his opening words on the telephone:
‘I’m afraid, young Dunne’ – one of Jonathan Bouquet’s favourite phrases as opposed to an accurate chronological assessment – ‘that we’re far from happy with your invoice.’
Panic. What was wrong with it? I’d charged £650, the same as the two earlier ones and, in point of fact, not overly generous. Yet just when I was trying to insinuate myself into their favours and their accounts system, I’d clearly upset a senior commissioning editor.
‘Not happy at all,’ he went on. ‘We’ve had a talk about here and we’ve decided to change it. I’m afraid you’re going to have to take £900. Is that acceptable?’
Hacks’ Heaven. After all these years, all those evenings and mornings, all those scruffy newsmen and elegant magazine ladies, all those on-the-day funnies and portraits of a town I’d only driven through, all those young men in a hurry and old men clinging to the wreckage, after all that I’d finally found a place where they jacked up your pay by 50pc…
Whether you liked it or not. Unilaterally. It’s the sort of tyranny I can live with.
At that time, the late eighties, there were two sorts of writers in Britain. Those who worked for YOU magazine. And those who wished they worked for YOU magazine. When I say it was the best mag in the country, I mean it was the one with the most space, the highest standards, and the fattest cheque book. Most freelances would settle for those three. Actually, most freelances would settle for just one.
So not only was I through the door, but I was being bombarded with dosh. I knew then I was going to like it there.
Can we take a small slice of history here? The launch of the Mail on Sunday in 1982 was one of the great Fleet Street cock-ups. It was saved by YOU magazine, which doubled the circulation immediately and let instant sunshine into the dull world of colour supplements. It was the creation of two men: Dennis Hackett (ex-editor of Queen, Nova, and Today) and John Leese, an old Associated hand. They were both admired and respected by journalists who don’t usually go in much for either admiration or respect.
They thought that colour supps were pompous and boring, packed with what they called ‘Brazilian rain forest features’. Instead, Hackett and Leese returned to that old journalistic rule of telling stories through people. It was a runaway success. Some weeks it was 150 pages, advertisers fought to get into it… and so did writers.
It hit its peak when Nick Gordon, who was being groomed to succeed David English at the Mail, was given the editorship with Felicity Hawkins, who’d been one of Jim Dalrymple’s trainees at the Mirror Plymouth scheme, as deputy. What they wanted was ripping yarns and spiffing wheezes.
They liked extraordinary people doing ordinary things (Mrs Thatcher making Sunday lunch) and ordinary people doing extraordinary things (mouse-racing in an Irish pub).
There were rumours of a budget. Everyone ignored it. All that mattered was getting superb copy and stunning pictures. The cost was immaterial. A time of magic in our penny-pinched trade.
It’s not often you get to read a paragraph like that, is it?
Amazingly, for several years I was part of it. They were, of course, the best years of my life, and it came about, like most things in my life and quite possibly yours, by accident.
With every other freelance trying to elbow his way to the front, how did you get on board? I decided to try to write a YOU piece. The story I picked was the 50th anniversary of The Dalesman, the delightful little magazine that I’d known all my life in Yorkshire. The story was that the pocket-sized mag outsold Country Life and was thought to have a quarter of a million readers throughout the world. You wouldn’t have thought it to look at it. Their most popular running photo-feature, their equivalent of Page 3, was one on Yorkshire Letterboxes, Surely it must make a fortune? The managing director, amused that anyone would ask such a silly question, simply replied: ‘Let’s say we make a living – now that’s a good Yorkshire expression, isn’t it?’
So you see, it was quirky piece. YOU liked quirky. I liked doing quirky. But what clinched it – and how about this for luck – was that it landed on Felicity Hawkins’ desk.
Astonishingly, Felicity recognised my name from a piece I’d had in the Mirror (on taking a pet rock for a walk) when she was at school. She liked it. I was in.
The smile stayed on my face for several years.
For one thing, I found myself surrounded by my heroes. Val Hennessey, who persuaded Pavarotti to do an interview by giving him an encyclopaedia of pasta. John Sandilands, who when told by an editor that he enjoyed his copy more when reading it a second time, replied: ‘Can’t you read it a second time, first?’ He was so plagued by writers’ block that Felicity used to shout into his answersphone: ‘I know you’re there, John, come out from under the bed.’ Stan Gebler Davies, a wild Irish writer who would announce his arrival by saying: ‘I’m an alcoholic – have you any whisky in the house?’ Rod Tyler, ex-Mail and ex-NoW, would spend six weeks each year knocking off features from the five-star Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. Angela Levin, ex-Observer mag, did the celebrity interviews, Lee Wilson and Alasdair Riley did the light-touch pieces. Pearson Phillips, an elegant writer who did the grander stuff, had enjoyed an earlier Golden Age on the Telegraph magazine under John Anstey.
Doug Thompson in LA could get any star, no matter how big. He and photographer Paul Harris once knocked on Glenn Close’s door in New York and persuaded her to do interview and photo-shoot – just like that. Tom Hibbert, a charmingly eccentric interviewer who I once saw playing cricket in his socks…
Then there was Dermot Purgavie in New York, who could do anything better than anyone else, with the possible exception of his old friend, John Sandilands.
You wouldn’t find a more engaging bunch of oddities, some of them certifiable, outside The Priory. Come to think of it, if you’d carpeted YOU mag’s offices you could have closed The Priory down.
As editor, Nick Gordon was brilliantly gifted and, I’m delighted to say, was never tempted to attempt the role of restraining influence. If anything, he led the charge. Sometimes the stories took wackiness right up to the border with lunatic. When the England rugby team had an impending game with Fiji, he sent Sandilands and photographer Phillip Dunn to the South Seas with a wax model of the head of Will Carling, the English captain. The photograph showed the head suspended over a cannibal-style cooking pot while locals in grass skirts danced around it.
Good story? Oh yes. Good taste? I’ll get back to you on that.
Nick’s one – or possibly major – weakness was African wildlife. With the power of popularity and circulation, YOU could get to anyone, from Nelson Mandela to Imelda Marcos. Once they set up an interview and pix with a particularly difficult Hollywood star (Warren Beatty perhaps) who agreed to do it only on the basis that he was the cover pic. At the last minute, Nick decided to substitute a photo of a baby gorilla together with a save-the-gorillas appeal. Felicity Hawkins was out of the office when she got the call to rush back. ‘The fucking monkey’s died…’
Lee Wilson was dressed up in a superman outfit and sent back to his home town to right any wrongs he could find. Sandilands went to the West Indies on a banana boat. Some poor sod was smuggled into Somalia in a tanker.
With Patric Walker, also ex-Mirror, doing the stars column, every time it was promoted the circulation went up by another 100,000. Midas never had it this good.
However difficult they were – and here I’m thinking about the team of three who were arrested in Wales when inquiring into coal-smuggling, or the snapper and writer who, on their way to New Zealand, had a fight before they reached Gatwick – all was forgiven if the copy and pix were of diamond quality.
Ideally, to control and conduct this band of random talent you’d need someone with a chair and whip. Instead, they had the team of commissioning editors who wouldn’t have lasted half an hour on The Lady. Somehow, John Koski contrived to look perpetually worried, yet he was so quick-witted he could analyse a piece while you were reading the menu. The wine list took a little longer. He came via York papers and a marketing weekly. The name comes from Finland. Jonathan Bouquet, a man of elegance and style, had edited a glossy girly mag when he was about 20, which probably explained his smiling air of contentment. The name is Huguenot, which may explain his penchant for silk ties. Large, amiable, and deceptively innocent, Joe Houlihan was South London Irish: one of the few South London Irish who can speak passable Russian.
Together with Aussie John Chenery, twice a week they would go off to Il Barbino, an Italian restaurant on Kensington Church Street, for a four-bottle lunch followed by grappa. By the end, the Finn, the Huguenot, the Mick and the Aussie, who were not after all starring in a rude joke, had invariably tidied up two or three features that needed attention and come up with another two or three workable ideas.
Possibly this explained the reaction of Dee Nolan when she became editor. ‘You treat this place like a gentleman’s club,’ she said to Bouquet, as he drifted in around 3 45pm trailing expensive cigar smoke.
‘The funny thing is,’ Bouquet reported later, ‘that she said it as though it was a criticism.’ That was later.
I worked for all of them during my time with the mag. Knowing what delicate little creatures we writers are, they liked to take the pain out of it. The commission came over the phone. Then came the DR with the package, which contained a full brief, copies of all the essential cuttings, air tickets (usually business class), a schedule of people, times and places, and a fat wodge of the local currency.
I imagine they would’ve come round a sharpened your pencil if you’d asked. They liked writers. They liked to look after their writers, which is more than most writers’ wives can say.
It was quite easy: in return all they wanted was excellence. With pieces of 2,000 or even up to 3,000 words, the story had to be spelt out clearly, the backing facts and quotes all in place, a summary of the history, full colour and description of places and people, and – oh yes – it had to be assembled and written with a clearly defined voice.
Wry, detached, ironic, amusing, emotional even: but every piece had to be held together by the style of the writer, all the way through.
Koski, Bouquet, Houlihan and Chenery could read and dissect copy as quickly as a milkman reads a housewife’s note. They were more like publishing editors than subs in that they were concerned with the shape of the piece and that everything was in the right place.
A little less of this, a little more of that, perhaps move page seven up to page two, writers who thought they’d done their best found they could do better. It was very demanding. I knew a number of newspaper features men – all highly-regarded, one a Writer of the Year – who attempted it, and found they couldn’t do it.
For those who could, there was the satisfaction of being in there with the best. And if the international quarter of Finn, Huguenot, Mick and Aussie liked it, from time to time they would impose a completely unsought fee increase on you. I never quite caught up Rod Tyler on his £2,000, but I wasn’t grumbling.
It was the highest concentration of journalistic talent I’d ever seen in one office. Or, more commonly, one restaurant. Which was convenient, because when the business was done, there was really only one question… white or red?
It was never this good before.
It was never this good again.