A random survey of Ranters readers showed that only one person in ten who have visited this site has actually clicked across to the Ranters Bookshop (it’s over there in the column on the left). So, to encourage the rest of you to take a peek at the list of classic titles on our list, this week – for one week only – we are offering readers THREE FREE BOOKS of their choice. See column on the right.
This week we publish yet another title, a brand new novel by former Daily Mail reporter Geoffrey Seed (he later defected to World In Action and Panorama) and the ‘hero’ of his book just happens to be a former newspaperman who left The Street for TV. There, one suspects, and hopes, the similarities mainly end. This guy attempts an investigation into his own life, with remarkable and far-reaching results, brilliantly told.
Geoff’s book is reviewed here by Martha Linden, Press Association reporter.
Talking of books, as we occasionally do – even if we don’t read them or buy them – our recent republication of Tony Delano’s exposé of the Case of the Manacled Mormon (see two issues back) prompted Chris Buckland to return to the town that gave Joy to the world.
Back to work, with the question – who corrects the correctors of copy? Our erstwhile diarist Al Vino has been reading the Mirror and the Guardian, with worrying results from both. Are there no classics graduates on the Mirror these days? No linguists (or subs who know what job they are in) any more on the Guradian?
Geoffrey Mather meanders down Memory Lane and pities all those graduates who were deprived of the learning like what we had.
And Colin Dunne continues his life’s saga and reckons that, if he had to do it all over again, he’d do it all over YOU.
By Geoffrey Seed
Those that can, write the copy… Those that can’t, write a novel about it.
So it was with A Place of Strangers, a work of fiction forced on me after chasing shadows on the most tantalising of tip-offs.
It began over supper with a retired diplomat who’d done past favours for Israeli intelligence. He said a contact once told him how he’d hunted down several old Nazis in the 1950s and ‘arranged’ what appeared to be suicides or accidental deaths.
I swear I heard the northern Daily Mail’s late, great, night news editor, Jimmy Lewthwaite, whispering in my freelance ear: ‘Good story if true, old man. Copy in basket by four o’clock.’
The diplomat introduced me to a second individual he believed could help. We met at his house – a Georgian mansion, all wisteria and Wilton, set in chocolate box English countryside.
Its urbane millionaire owner sat beneath oil paintings of race horses, smiling over steepled fingers as I pitched. Yes, he knew the first man. Yes, there may just be a grain of truth in what I’d heard. No, he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – confirm anything else. But stay for dinner anyway.
No matter how many overseas journeys I later made or ex-spooks, Holocaust survivors or Nazi relatives I talked to, no legally viable corroboration came my way.
I did, of course, interview the diplomat’s original source. He hadn’t long to live but, seriously ill though he was, he had no need of a confessor. There was still a fearsome toughness within him, as with all the partisans I encountered who’d escaped the ghettoes to fight with the Red Army against the hated Nazis.
Some information he offered up seemed at odds with the historical record. This shook my confidence though I couldn’t ever be sure that it wasn’t his deliberate dissembling. If what he’d admitted to the diplomat was true, this frail but flint-hard man had got away with murder. He wasn’t about to roll over for me.
However, when we talked about one particular ‘suicide’, his remarks included slightly more detail and were delivered with such quiet intensity it was tempting to think he might actually have been present when it took place.
Then he clammed up, saying ‘You’ll not draw me inch by inch into telling you anything I couldn’t have made up.’ There was never the remotest chance of him going on camera for me or being quoted in a newspaper piece.
Some acts of revenge were carried out by Jewish survivors immediately after the war and I made a small contribution to a documentary about this. But frustratingly, I’d not had the wit to dig out what might have been an even more telling piece of secret history and those who allegedly knew about it have since gone to their graves.
So I’ve compromised – top-spun my research, stitched it into other bits of whimsy from a journeyman’s life to make it a love story and called it literary fiction. But, no… I will not be naming any of the real people I met along the way.
A Place of Strangers by Geoffrey Seed is published by Revel Barker and available from amazon and Waterstones and all the usual sources at £9.99, or possibly less.
The marked deck
By Martha Linden
‘Hacks always play with a marked deck. They also hide cards up their sleeves, then deal from the bottom. It’s what cops do too,’ Geoffrey Seed observes in his thriller, A Place of Strangers.
Francis McCall, a foot-in-the-door investigative television journalist, is bent on solving the mystery of his past and that of his adoptive parents.
His journey leads him from rural Shropshire to London, Germany, Canada and Israel in a fast-paced novel deftly weaving evocative scenes from the Second World War and its aftermath, with the present (the 1980s at the time of the miners’ strike).
The novel deals with themes of espionage, adultery, loss, decay and the horrors and moral dilemmas of war in a racy, readable style.
Seed has a keen visual sense, unsurprisingly for a television reporter, and there are striking images throughout the novel with film playing a pivotal role in McCall’s search.
Seed portrays the vulnerability, frailty and at times desolation of the reporter on the road, the addictive nature of the profession and the at times ‘callousness’ of the journalist in full flight.
At one point, McCall is warned by his exasperated MI5 spy girlfriend against continuing his investigation – in pursuit, as she puts it, of another ‘Golden Turd of Cracow’ for his mantelpiece– at the expense of his personal life.
Seed also excels in portraying the small humiliations and rebuffs faced by the investigative reporter.
In a powerful scene at the beginning of the book, as Margaret Thatcher prepares to broadcast to the nation in the studio in the aftermath of the 1984 Brighton bomb, McCall attempts to chat up one of her Special Branch protection squad and is told to ‘piss off’.
Seed’s thriller is made all the more interesting by his own past, first as a young Daily Mail journalist in Northern Ireland who was a first hand witness to many of the worst atrocities of the Troubles.
Later he became one of the leading investigative television reporters of his generation, risking prosecution under the Official Secrets Act with his Channel 4 film, MI5’s Official Secrets, first broadcast on Channel 4 in 1985.
The film, banned from transmission for two weeks by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, spilled the beans for the first time on MI5’s covert spying on domestic targets such as trade unionists and the CND.
It was broadcast only after the Government let it be known that there would be no prosecution.
Seed’s characters reflect these preoccupations with a theme of espionage and McCall’s girlfriend, the daughter of a miner, spying on the strikers.
Seed likes to add the odd throwaway allusion to all of this.
I particular enjoyed the warning, by McCall’s adoptive father, Francis Wrenn, an old Foreign Office spy: ‘Steer clear of the Official Secrets Act if you can and all those silly buggers in bowler hats who go round snooping.’
In search of Joy
By Chris Buckland
The windscreen wipers clunked rapidly from side to side, barely having any impression on the torrents of rain washing through the night.
Then, as Bates Motel came into view, thunder cracked and lightening lit up the empty car-parking spaces outside every single room. I was on my own.
All that was missing was the heart-thumping music of Psycho as I entered the reception where a strange young man moved out of the half-light and nervously checked me in. I did not have a shower that night.
This was my first visit to Avery County, North Carolina, for thirty-one years. The County where there are 100 churches for 14,000 people and where the Rednecks roam. The county that was home to Joyce McKinney, she who manacled Mormons for a hobby.
I had spent weeks in these Blue Ridge Mountains when the story was hogging the national headlines. And it was the reprint of Tony Delano’s splendid history of the saga that encouraged me to go back in time.
Of course, the motel was not called Bates. It was the Pineola Inn, and looked much better in the dry daylight. But no other facts have been changed to protect the story.
Nothing much seemed to have changed in Avery County either in the three decades since the New York-based journos like myself had descended on the unsuspecting hill people.
As I drove through the city of Blowing Rock just a score of miles from the McKinney home I couldn’t help thinking that this was where Joyce must have learnt her tricks. Though she wasn’t exactly Rock Hudson’s type.
And then into Newland, the county capital, where I would solve a mystery that has haunted me since those days when Jimmy Carter ruled in the White House and my old paper, the Daily Mirror, was king in Britain.
I turned up to see my old chum Bertie Cantrell, now a sprightly 73 year old but still editor of a local paper, the Avery Post. (Typical of America, she fell out with the owner of the sheet she used to edit, The Avery Journal, and simply upped and founded her own rival publication.)
It was Bertie who introduced me to Sheriff James D Braswell back in 1978. He was a mine of information on young McKinney. And he was also keen on showing me his new jail.
There was a single cell in a wooden building. ‘Just look, Chris.’ and pressed a button that caused the barred door to slide open.
He invited me in. Introduced me to a callow youth sitting in the corner. Pressed the button again to close the door.
And went for lunch.
So I was stuck with the youth who I assumed was being banged up for a few hours to teach him a lesson for speeding. Or, at worst, being drunk and disorderly. I assumed wrong.
We chatted nervously. Or rather, I did. All I could get out of the hill-billy kid with the blank eyes was ‘I’ve been a bad, bad boy.’ And surely he’d be out after paying a ten dollar fine? ‘Nope, I’m goin’ to the chair.’ His last words before he sunk into silence.
When the Sheriff returned he was full of fun. He knew he’d dine out for years on the limey locked in his cell. But he wouldn’t tell me what the lad I’d just spent the last 45 minutes alone with had done.
Last month I found out.
Jimmy Rupard, 17, had taken a .22 rifle and shot the grandmother he lived with in her kitchen. Dead.
When his Grandpa came home, little Jimmy shot him too. Dead. First with the .22. Then, just to make sure, with a high powered rifle bullet in the head.
I’d been locked alone in a cell with a homicidal maniac while Sheriff James D Braswell had been eating his chicken and grits.
Clearly feeling guilty, he later gave me a bottle of moonshine he had raided from an illicit still. As moonshine and sunshine were equally welcome to me in those days, I made no further enquiries.
But now I know… well, the late Sheriff should have given me a crate of the stuff.
Mr Rupard, incidentally, did not get fried. He served only three years after a higher court ruled a mistrial as he had been charged as an adult, rather than a juvenile. He still visits the town where – because he didn’t like the school they had sent him to – he murdered his grandparents.
More updates: Miss McKinney is not seen in town much these days, although she occasionally visits her parents who have moved out of the large white house on Highway 19 and into a smaller pad close by.
Our heroine is now in California, cloning dogs. No change there, then.
Joyce McKinney and The Case of the Manacled Mormon is available from amazon and Waterstones or the Book Depository in the UK.
And here’s a review from the Barnes & Noble site in New York:
Anthony Delano brings 60 years of high-voltage journalistic experience to his books on stories that fired the imagination of newspaper readers, worldwide. In Joyce McKinney and the Case of the Manacled Mormon, he has again struck gold. His research, and attention to detail, is faultless. Any journalists who were involved in the Joyce McKinney story will nod their heads in approval of Delano’s meticulous investigation into what really happened when McKinney manacled a Mormon to her bed. And any journalists who were not involved will forever wish they had been. A superb read.
One of our subs is missing
By Al Vino
Murphy’s first law of journalism is that if you try to be clever while correcting and commenting on somebody’s faulty copy, you are pretty certain to drop a bollock yourself.
It must be hell, therefore, being what these days is called a Readers Editor.
The Mirror (we’re only guessing) doesn’t have one. This is why its travel page can tell readers that the ancient city of Troy (scene of that siege, involving a horse) is ‘in today’s Iran’.
And that’s the best argument we know for supporting the idea that, if you’re employing graduates, you should get some with degrees in history, geography, the classics… in fact anything other than journalism (which anyway was always best taught, and learnt, on the job – and which is where the better media lecturers learnt it for themselves).
Anyway, the Guardian has a readers’ editor. Being the Guardian, they opted for a lawyer, rather than for a journalist, of course.
She had great fun recently pointing out that omitting to attach a tilde (that’s that squiggly thing in the Spanish alphabet) above a letter meant that a reporter’s unsubbed line of copy saying that ‘The Golden Girls is being remade in Spanish as Los Anos Dorados’ translated into The Golden Anuses. The word should have been Años, she commented, with ‘hilarity’, when a reader who teaches Spanish pointed out the mistake.
‘While journalists and subeditors are not expected to be multilingual,’ the readers’ editor added, ‘they should put the right accents on names in all languages, where possible.’
Journalists AND subeditors, eh?
Do we assume from that distinction that the readers’ editor (a) doesn’t know what trade subs are in and (b) doesn’t actually get subbed herself?
Or does the Guardian employ subs who think they’re somehow different from journalists?
Answers on a postcard.
Happily, she was able to correct her own copy, on the Internet at least, a day later. You can read her style rules on accents, now amended, here.
The Mirror didn’t bother to correct its Trojan geography, even after it was pointed out.
Marvels of modern technology?
Marvels of modern bloody subbing, more like.
Another fine mess, Stanley
By Geoffrey Mather
There are severely deprived people in this world – people who went to Oxford or Cambridge, Winchester, Harrow, Eton. Becoming a journalist after that bad start is a difficult business. They have to make the leap from quiet learning and cake in the dorm to bedlam and duplicity virtually overnight. They are the last dogs out of the traps.
‘Let me put it this way’ – as one Daily Express news editor in Manchester said in a well-publicized remark to a newly arrived, unsullied, sober, highly educated, oh-God-what-have-I-come-to, up-from-the-Smoke, well-I’ll-just-have-a-small-one-if-I-must, new reporter – ‘have you ever reported a fire?’
Answer: No, of course not. Nor a court. Nor an inquest. Nor a road accident. Nor a rural auction mart with shearling gimmers, twinters, ram lambs and lonk tups in need of sorting. Nor had the accused witnessed the animal cunning, treachery and tenacity of the pack on the trail of a big story. That’s the very gritty nitty of the job. And the lust for success is like flu – it hits when you least expect it, turns your legs to jelly, and can knock you over.
I played back-street cricket with a lad named Kenneth Barnes who, sadly, lacked the proper guidance. He wasted his life. Not once so far as I know had he considered being One Of Us, a junior reporter. He left us quietly and struggled along unsighted. He went to Oxford University and became something in one of the government ministries where he was made Sir Kenneth Barnes with a CB and a KCB. The knighthood was some kind of compensation for the sad obscurity of his post, and inability to progress, I imagine. Not a single by-line in an entire lifetime: what a shameful waste of a brilliant mind. The rest of our team were so sorry for his failure to grab his early career opportunities as we had done.
You will have noted that the newly-deceased chef, Keith Floyd, began working life as a junior reporter, which, I imagine, kitted him out perfectly for stardom: irreverent tongue, brash awareness, loud, gutsy sense of humour, taste for good wine while actually working, nightmare hangovers. Early journalism can do all that for a boy on the way up. Becoming a TV chef is just a slight change of direction: in the worst scenario, where you lack real journalistic flair, you merely exchange writing tripe for slicing it.
I do, I admit, have some very, very slight secret envy of the Oxbridge lot. A smidgeon. The merest trace. A midge’s. All right, then, quite a bit. OK, OK, a lot. Enough to make me sad occasionally… Let us pass swiftly on before that nasty little hurdle sinks in and causes confusion.
Some of them might, just might, envy me my bits of gritty nitty. For a start they missed the local reporter who, given the chore of recording the town’s events of 50 years earlier, slammed the file shut at the conclusion of his year and said, ‘Thank God, that’s the job finished.’ It was gently pointed out to him that however long he lived and slaved, and grew peevish and a small black moustache, there would always be a Fifty Years Ago waiting for him in the brittle, yellowing pages.
‘Accrington launch survival fight,’ said a recent BBC headline and I thought for a moment that the old town had given up, sold the silver, headed for Blackburn eight miles away, clacking away in its little clogs. Not so. It was about football, not the town. And I am glad about that because once, Accrington, the town, belonged to me, JR/PR (junior reporter/proofreader), aged 16 or thereabouts – and Mrs. Sinkinson, give or take one or two more who were there at the time. We were, in military terms, ‘embedded’ in the nicest possible way.
Mrs. Sinkinson was the sister of the proprietors of the Accrington Observer and every week she wrote a column called Ladies’ Chain. Nothing to do with tying herself to railings: it was just considered an appropriate title. She never visited the office so I visited her – the reporter seldom trusted to report. I cycled up the long hill to her home once a week. There, panting like a new-born pup – me, that is – she confronted me on her doorstep, and never once invited me in. She placed the golden despatch in my hand and I went back to the office, feeling no less important than Reuters. Her despatch, in the little black case that swung from my saddle, was secure. Without me, Accrington would have lost its links to the charms and graces of its leading local ladies.
Mrs. Sinkinson never said much. ‘Nice’ was her usual response to my arrival. ‘Nice day’ was a speech that exhausted her. But eventually, she presented me with a well-thumbed book about journalism in London and smiled, in a wintry kind of way, before closing her door. I read it almost immediately, then read it again for good luck. It was a sort of unemotional bonding, a passing of the baton of life, this unusual gesture.
I still remember a snippet from it:
If with the lamp of truth you look to see things plain and clear, first you must dam the beaver brook and drain the rother mere.
Not very nice to Lord B, my future employer, was it? For him I mean. I rather liked it.
Mrs. Sinkinson was, in the memory, tall, slender, shadowed and faceless, a Victorian figurine, Beatrix Potter without the Herdwicks.
I would like to have asked one of the proprietors – Mr. Richard Crossley, actually, rather than Mr. Robert – about her but never dared. He and I were always wrestling to preserve his wretchedly rumbling and domineering stomach, and there were days when the stomach was beating us both. He was a martyr to stomach was Mr. Richard. The only mercy in his important life was that he hadn’t been born a cow, with four. I was never out of Boots on his behalf. I don’t suppose the Bodleian would be able to solve that.
The proof reader, Guy Cunliffe, tussled with the professional part of Mr. Richard. ‘Mr. Richard,’ he said, ‘this advert in the earpiece at the top of page one – it could give us a bit of trouble.’
Mr. Richard examined it carefully, then said, ‘Why?’
‘Well,’ said Guy, ‘the advertiser’s name is Robert Saul and he has used only the initial, R.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’ said Mr. Richard.
‘R. Saul,’ said Guy summoning all the courage he could muster in Mr. Richard’s previously unsullied office.
I am not, at this point, sure what Mr. Richard’s verdict was. Perhaps he decided that if he did not see a fault, his readers were incapable of seeing one. In any case, he probably realised that he was the one who would have to tell Mr. Saul that his shortened name was an abomination in the eyes of decent Accringtonians, Guy Cunliffe, almost certainly Mrs. Sinkinson, and, however reluctantly, his good self – not easy when the advert pulled in regular cash.
I recall another conversation between Guy and Mr. Richard. It involved a cartoon of a flock of birds in an advert. One of the humans passing beneath them was quoted as saying, ‘Out of all these people it had to choose me.’ Mr. Richard, in his innocence, could not get it through his head at all. To him, it was a pastoral scene with a human being grateful in a quasi-religious sort of way for the close proximity of these lovely airborne creatures. But suddenly, with an awful expression, the truth dawned and he said, ‘You mean one crapped on him? We can’t have that.’
Trivial stuff, you might say in the face of that noisy nonsense despatched from New York, Tokyo, or Paris, where the late-comers, the university lot, often ended in the course of their journalistic careers. Trivial? Trivial? My word, it was Ypres, Dunkirk, and the Boer War in our little nook down a side street. You see now, perhaps, why I am sensitive to news from Accrington?
While Mr. Richard and Mrs. Sinkinson were still abed on Tuesday mornings I was in the machine room of the Observer selling the new edition to newsagents who were a bit testy at 6.30am. They smelled of Thwaites’s bitter, and gnashed their gums at life’s minor ills, their heads monotonously clothed in the same kind of cap: worn slightly to one side, left or right depending on individual choice, damp, and uniformly drab. No ties of course, just granddad shirts. They reminded me of the agricultural show livestock – ‘Long-faced tipplers with not more than four broad teeth.’
There were always a few Observer spoils in the bin and I took them home as a perk of the trade. If I had a tiny by-line after working the week-end – Rex being my proper signature for sporting events, the well-read among you will no doubt recall – I could see it six times at once if I laid out the papers on the floor. I could then sense an attentive audience. It was, in my eyes, Power. Not so much as Mr. Richard’s power, but real, tangible, displayed-on-the-carpet publish-and-be-damned power.
I got a bit bored sometimes. I covered a Sunday church gathering of council chairmen and officials at Church Kirk, Church, and wrote, ‘At this point, the chairman of the council turned to a fellow chairman, and since there is some doubt about the propriety of what was said, the Rev R H Steven is believed to have offered up a prayer for their souls.’
The editor – who drank 40 cups of tea day, 36 made by me, four by his wife – was delighted. I had practically to wrestle him to the bare boards of the readers’ office to convince him that I was joking.
Many mature women in those days finished a little above the ankle and appeared again in the area of the neck. Anything that might have caused emotion in men was buried beneath this black and uncharted railway tunnel of cloth. There was not supposed to be anything noteworthy between opposite ends of them apart from corsets. In the circumstances, I am surprised the human race continued at all.
‘I fancy an early night, dear’… ‘Right, darling. You nip off to bed then. I’ll just disrobe in the spare room and be with you in four hours.’
Frank Randle, the Lancashire comedian, had a caravan at Accrington, close by the Hippodrome. He was against fellow performers appearing with teeth. His teeth were in his pocket (a trait adopted by John Barbirolli as he conducted the Halle) and he produced them only for the final curtain. They allowed him to talk pseudo-posh to show that he wasn’t as daft as he looked.
Randle joke: ‘Church bells are nice’… ‘What?’… ‘Church bells – nice’… ‘Eh?’… ‘I SAID T’CHURCH BELLS ARE NICE’…
‘Oh it’s no good. Can’t hear thi for them bloody bells.’
‘And what do you want to be when you grow up?’ asked a teacher of the boy Amos Wade.
‘Please miss,’ he said, ‘Mur of Accrington.’ And you know, he was.
When I left Accrington for Blackburn, where the resident lady journalist composed Doris Chats With You Over the Teacups, Mr. Richard was not convinced that I could write their language. Blackburn was slightly west of Tokyo in many Accrington eyes, and although it had a nice Booth’s emporium, it was marred by city slickness and made over-confident by having its own cathedral.
‘Are you sure you are ready for the big time?’
Ready? Ready, willing and able. While the future Sir Kenneth Barnes was trudging away with economics, philosophy and whatever came his featureless way at Oxford, I was soaring in clear career-choice skies with those defecating birds.
Or I thought I was. The ladies’ circles would miss my vivid four-line descriptions of their affairs, I imagined. But I swapped 12s6d a week for £1 willy and nilly. I would learn; I would spread; I would not necessarily get my suit at Burton’s anymore. My mother would no longer choose it. I would leave the bike at home; I would become a theatre critic in Blackburn’s noted cultural life, and one of the very best table tennis players at the police station (basement). And lo! It came to pass.
Now you see why my spreading roots have left a little cluster of twitching tendrils in Accrington.
And why the headline about Accrington survival gave me a start.
It was Accrington Stanley again: they needed £308,000 for the Inland Revenue, otherwise it would be good luck and goodbye to them. Had to be serious. Bury were thinking of a bucket collection to help.
If anybody runs into Sir Kenneth, give the poor soul the news.
Features creatures in paradise
By Colin Dunne
It was one of those dream jobs: a few days in the West Indies and a cracking story. But you know how it is. You start thinking about the airfare and the huge hotel bill and all those daiquiris, and you know that there’s no room for slip-ups here. Yours has got to be the best piece.
That was just going through my mind when in the hotel reception – I hadn’t even reached my room – I saw the very last thing you want to see under these circumstances.
Don’t get me wrong. Fine fellow, Bill. Excellent company, amusing chap, likes a glass. But he’s one of that small group of hacks who’s a fine reporter and a lovely writer. You could send him into the coal cellar wearing a blindfold and dark glasses and he’d come out with a superb colour piece. When it comes to writing, I don’t even want to be in the same country as Bill, let alone on the same island.
This was Jamaica, where the Antiques Road Show was paying a visit. Frankly, it would have cheered me enormously to know that Bill was safely snuggling up to a pint in the Old Bell.
But he wasn’t. He was here for the Radio Times. I was there for YOU mag.
It certainly was a great story. Why the BBC had decided to go to a country where there are no antiques, there are no antique shops and no-one even knows what the word means was never satisfactorily explained. The one thing you can be sure of is that Auntie Beeb certainly wouldn’t go halfway round the world just to give their guys a free jolly at the license-payers’ expense.
It certainly made for an interesting story.
When the Beeb’s experts set up their stalls for giving valuations, the queue stretched two miles down the road. The first problem was that the Jamaicans interpreted antique to mean anything over about three-years old. And I mean anything. It looked like the left-overs from a church jumble sale. Pots, pans, kettles, hats, clothes, shoes, records, tables and chairs, more chipped than Chippendale.
One man plonked down a pair of shabby trainers. ‘They’re old,’ he said, ‘but they don’t leak.’
Another said he’d like a valuation on this three-piece suite. ‘We can’t do home visits,’ said the expert. ‘No, man, I got it here,’ he replied, pointing to the furniture loaded in the back of a wagon. The expert was struggling to put a price on 1960s uncut moquette, but, anxious not to appear impolite, suggested it could be worth £100. The owner clapped in delight and held out his hand. ‘I take it, man,’ he said. They thought a valuation was an offer.
Simon Bull, the watch expert, had certainly attracted a huge haul of timepieces. ‘I seem to have founded the Jamaican Museum of Broken Fold-up Alarm Clocks,’ he said. It was a situation that called for a high level of diplomacy when Ian Pickford, the silver expert, was invited to value Captain Morgan’s Treasure – the Jamaican equivalent of the Crown Jewels – he encountered a tricky problem. As the Jamaican army stood guard over the heaps of silver, shining yellow in the hot sun, he shook his head. Captain Morgan, the buccaneer who was said to have seized the silver, had died well before the German silversmith who made it was born. Crisis time.
With all eyes on him, Ian Pickford delivered a short but brilliant speech on the importance of the silver in their national history. ‘What’s the value, man?’ several of them called out. He never hesitated. ‘It’s priceless,’ he said, and their cheers swayed the coconuts in the trees.
This was paradise for we features folk. We were knee-deep in snappy quotes and humorous happenings, even in the evening in the hotel. Henry Wyndham, then the show’s art expert, was leaning his six-foot-five frame against the bar to get down to my level to tell me about a conversation he’d had with one of the professional ladies in the hotel foyer. What they wore, which wasn’t much, was short, tight, and designed to display rather than cover. Henry had asked one the girls what she charged. One hundred dollars. ‘Is that US dollars or Euros?’ he asked. US, she said. ‘I am in the business of buying and selling,’ he said, ‘and that is a very serious over-valuation.’
I asked him if I could use the story. Thinking about possible embarrassment with wives and mothers, he asked me not to. Then, the next morning, he called me over to say that if I found it amusing, I could use it. He later became chairman of Sotheby’s, I believe.
That evening, the High Commissioner had invited us all for dinner in the garden. We all buckled on our stiff shirts, wrestled with our hand-tied bows, and donned our travel-crumpled dinner jackets. By the light of lanterns, waiters dressed like 18th century bombardiers ferried in the wines and food and somewhere under the palm trees a small orchestra played. Henry Wyndham came in a blazer and – I’ll swear I’m not mistaken – jeans and trainers. He offered no apology or explanation. The effect was immediate. We all felt ludicrously over-dressed. Eton… It never fails, does it?
This was, as I guess you know by now, yet another episode in the glory days of the Mail on Sunday YOU magazine. I have noticed that when I slip into my YOU memories, about 20 seconds later the room empties. I often wonder if there is some sort of connection.
Indeed, my golfing friend Russell Twisk, former editor of Radio Times and Reader’s Digest, once paused on the 14th at Petersfield after hitting a particularly fine chip shot up the hill to the green. ‘When you say Glory Days,’ he asked, innocently, ‘do you mean the days when they used your stuff?’
Why I play golf with a man capable of such demonic cruelty is quite beyond me.
I was still writing for the other magazines as well. Indeed one of them asked me to write about two of my most distinguished colleagues, James Whitaker and Harry Arnold, then royal reporters for the Mirror and the Sun.
It was a lovely piece to do. First, there was the contrast. James, never Jim, Harry, never Harold. With his tweed caps and sleeveless jackets, green wellies and country coats apparently fashioned from linoleum, the booming James was more royal than the royals. Son of a Kent greengrocer, five-foot six, slick-haired and dapper, Harry was more the cocky corporal, the cheeky chappie.
There was only one thing you needed to know about these two. Never stand between them and a story. You’d be trampled to death.
The peak of their careers came when James traced Charles and the pregnant Diana to an island retreat in the Bahamas. By diligent probing, he found out where they sunbathed. After measuring the distance along the coastline, he then crossed to another island and measured out the same distance.
At dawn the next morning, he fought his way through the jungle to the spot which would give him a clear view of the royal couple. Jagged thorns and thick foliage ripped at his designer shirt until, dripping blood, he stepped into a clearing. In the sweltering gloom of the jungle, there was just enough light to make out a figure sitting on a log, smoking a cigarette. ‘Morning James’, said Harry Arnold. ’One egg or two for breakfast?’ In the history of the tabloids, this was Stanley and Livingstone.
They’d both found the right place, and sure enough Charles and Di came out on to the beach. So who won?
‘Harry wasn’t to know,’ said James, ‘but I’d got a charter plane waiting to take me to Nassau. We beat him by two editions. Poor Harry.’
‘James didn’t realise’ said Harry, ‘but I found a wire machine on the island and we wired out stuff back. Beat him buy two editions. Poor James.’
They were, of course, both right. I’m not at all sure that it’s not the perfect Fleet Street story.
In newspapers and magazines, there was a sense of an era coming to an end. The newspapers had moved to Docklands. Fleet Street was left to the bankers. In the Old Bell there was no Jim Davies or Harry Dempster, no Ed Vale or Tom Tullett in El Vino, no Charlie Catchpole or Roy Stockdill in the Wine Press. They’d all gone. Some to Docklands, some a little further. The trade-tested staff men, their substantial salaries bulked up by weekly injections of expenses, no longer packed the bars and restaurants. Instead, young men brought from the provinces on wages you wouldn’t pay to a Filipina cleaner nibbled egg sandwiches at their desks.
One celebrity magazine paid what looked like recent school-leavers fifty quid a shot to do interviews, and then paid a real writer £200 to come in for a day and rewrite the lot. So they got 15 or 20 pieces for next to nothing.
Entirely by luck, for the moment, I was okay. Three or four magazines had enough work to keep me ticking over nicely, although I couldn’t ignore the crash of falling circulations and the non-stop shrieks from the farewell parties.
With money left over from a crashed marriage, I had bought a small weekend cottage in a village in West Sussex, which had been pointed out to me by John Dodd, former Sun writer who as a freelance wrote for everyone from the Standard to the Observer. It was visiting the South Downs that gave me my next brilliant idea.
In all these years in journalism, I’d never been an editor. I’d never been a publisher. I’d never hired writers and artists. I’d never dealt with advertising and circulation. This was my chance to experience them all. I would open my own magazine. I would show them how it’s done.
I’d never been simultaneously on the edge of bankruptcy and a nervous breakdown either…
Ah yes, that story in Jamaica with Bill Greaves. Who wrote the better piece? I’m afraid that question represents an intrusion into private grief. Push off.