Issue # 142

Where to start?

This Week

Where to start? That’s always been the problem.

We were debating tabloid intros in the Stab once after I had been moaning that I couldn’t get anything into the paper about the Cold War unless I could work in a connection to Coronation Street.

Somebody said the perfect Sunday newspaper intro needed religion, royalty, sex, and mystery, and came up with “Jesus,” said the Queen, “I’m pregnant. Whodunnit?”

Somebody else asked why he hadn’t worked a corgi into the plot for animal lovers. Another said it would work better if the Queen was talking to Joan Collins, or at least Elsie Tanner.

Then Derek Dodd (Doric Dead), Sunday Mirror northern editor who was on a visit, walked in and I told him of the conversation and said that he must be an expert… so what would be the perfect Sunday Mirror intro?

He thought for a long, long time. Sipped his pint. Thought some more. Then said: ‘About 17 words.’

Geoffrey Matherknew the problem. Still does. And he still ponders on the subject.

Desmond Zwardidn’t worry overmuch about intros and just phoned off the top of his head, or straight out of his notebook.

Don Walker rarely phoned copy at all. In Mirror features the phone calls were mainly incoming. And usually the wrong numbers.

Click on the name and, fingers crossed, you’ll find the contributors. Otherwise, click on their names in the column on the LEFT.

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What’s the intro?

By Geoffrey Mather

Intros – now there’s a challenge, and a sure cause of wretchedness, and nausea and deep, deep depression. People have had trouble writing intros since… oh, at least since Job. How does the Book of Job begin?

‘There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.’

Which chief sub is going to accept it? There’s no action, no drama, no atmosphere, nothing. Yet you get to paragraph seven and there it is, all you need, all you ever hoped for: the real nitty – ‘And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.’

What is the chief sub to say to that? I can only imagine –‘Hey, laddie, yes, YOU. Here you have God and Satan having a chat after Satan has taken a wander down Kensington High-street for all we know – not that they’d notice in Kensington. That’s an exclusive if ever I heard one, and you are on about Job being bloody upright in your intro? Buck up your ideas, laddie, or you’ll be walking up and down in it with Satan.’

A man who can write a book in a month can spend the first week on the intro. Journalists whose names are writ large in the great byline cosmos have spent much of their lives surrounded by crumpled sheets of copy paper, every one of them empty apart from half a dozen words.

You can feel the pain. Here, a contemporary example culled at random from the BBC website: ‘A tongue-tied Jeremy Paxman is about as rare as a unicorn from Manchester that supports Chelsea, yet this week’s Odd Box features just that. Paxman, not the unicorn.’

That might be the greatest intro you ever saw, but it is definitely, absolutely, not for me.

In 1620, the first permanent settlement was made at Plymouth, Massachusetts, by the Pilgrim Fathers arriving aboard Mayflower. William Bradford described it and from his intro, I would suggest that he had given up the task by the time he began. It was too much for him. He was a broken man, blundering on in torment. It was a moment in history that might have employed a hundred Pilgers and a million sheets of copy paper plus a Remington typewriter for a week or more, but Bill was pole-axed by it.

‘About ten o clocke,’ he began, ‘we came into a deepe Valley, full of brush, wood-gaile, and long grasse, through which wee found little paths or tracts, and there we saw a Deere, and found Springs of fresh Water, of which we were hartily glad, and sat us downe and drunke our first New England Water, with as much delight as ever was drunke drinke in all our lives.’

‘Drunke drinke?’ The Sun chief sub might have yelled past the three cigarette stubs adhering to what was left of his lips. ‘You been at the tincture, mate?’

A magazine long ago had a contest to find out how various big-byline writers would record the arrival of God on earth and ready for interview. Hannen Swaffer was a big name of the time with ego to match, heavy with inside knowledge, cigarette ash all down his bib to prove his journalistic qualifications. The best entry concerned him.

His intro was supposedly, ‘So I said to God…’

James Thurber recalled a student contributing to a college magazine who was told to jazz up his intros because the ones he regularly submitted were too tame. As I recall 30 years or so on from reading it, he began, ‘What is the cause of the sores on the tops of all the horses this year?’ My heart bleeds for him, even at this late stage.

Intro-writing produces a form of hysteria not known to the medical profession. Writers, reporters, suffer instant nausea, and the only cure is to reach the second paragraph, the equivalent of stepping ashore from a sinking ship.

The perfect story was said to require a strong intro, a good middle, and a strong end. I have no idea who thought up that one, unless it was a mischief-maker aiming at reducing strong men to tears.

Somebody else along the line thought: ‘No. I have a solution.’ And in came a vogue for the delayed drop. As in this example:

As Arthur Heckington walked along a road near his home yesterday nothing was on his mind beyond thoughts of a holiday.

He was due to go to Cleethorpes for a week.

But a stone coping fell from a three-storey building in Leeds and killed him.

The third-paragraph intro was prominent for some time, particularly on Sundays. The Sunday Express danced at the sight of it, for the deadly first paragraph had been thwarted.

The thousand-word writers tended to have a technique. They set tranquil scenes before dissecting huge issues. Here is James Cameron, of the News Chronicle, in Israel:

Just now among the flowering groves the air is adrift with the pale scent of orange blossom; the place smells like a wedding. It is beautiful, for those who like their irony by the ton. That is the frontier. One long jumping nerve between Israel and the Arabs – 700 miles of anxiety, bitterness, frustration, anger and by now, very nearly despair.

A nice solution, that, because it suggests competence (‘I’m good with the words, eh? – just look!’) and omnipotence is implied by association. Omnipotence from a mortal man in a suit can be awesome. A Time magazine writer describing nothing more exciting than villagers in, I think from memory, Spain: ‘The dusts of isolation had settled on their lives and obscured their purpose.’

I had a small book once that recorded Time intros and I loaned it to someone who inconveniently died. It is years ago and his widow survives, yet I daren’t ask her whether she ever came across it. In it was a 1950s intro so memorable that I still recall it with confidence:

The old man puffed into sight like a venerable battlewagon steaming up over the horizon. First a smudge of smoke, then the long cigar, then the familiar, stoop-shouldered hulk that a generation had come to know as the silhouette of greatness. Prime Minister Winston Churchill scowled as he emerged from the Queen Mary…

(No purpose in repeating Mulchrone’s twin-rivers intro to Churchill’s lying in the state because we all know it, all admire it.*)

Hilde Marchant was in pretty good shape when the war began in September, 1939 –‘It was not until Friday morning, September last, that I really took the sharp, agonized breath of war. That day it began in a slum in London…’

And John Pilger was being Pilger with the veterans’ march on Washington DC in 1971:

“The truth is out! Mickey Mouse is dead! The good guys are really the bad guys in disguise!” The speaker is William Wyman from New York City. He is nineteen and has no legs. He sits in a wheelchair on the steps of the United States Congress in the midst of a crowd of 300,000, the greatest demonstration America has ever seen.

I always thought The Day of the Triffids had one of the most striking intros – ‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’ The whole, very successful, book hung on that intro. In retrospect, of course, it could equally have described any journalist after a bad night at the King and Keys.

Arthur Christiansen was one of the best-remembered editors of the Daily Express and his perfect intro, laid down in one of his bulletins, read:

Mr. Roland Beaumont was sitting beside the fire last night, recovering from flu, when he heard a radio announcement that he had been awarded the Britannia Trophy for the best air performance of 1952.

It appeared in the style book. Alas, the man’s name was not Beaumont, but Beamont. Not so perfect after all.

There are some stories that should begin and end at the intro; otherwise there is no room for the reader’s imagination.

My perfect example of that was in a short:

Firemen were tackling ablaze when a pig bit through the hose.

It was enough. I wanted it to end there. But of course, a sub-editor of the time probably ruined it. Where did the pig come from? Did it just stroll up from nowhere and start chomping away? And the fireman – what did he say when his mighty hose turned from torrent to trickle before his careworn and smoke-laden eyes?

I had a nightmare about intros. In it, there was this ordinary-looking street of terraced houses, and fire broke out in one. Six people were inside, four of them children, and they were trapped. As the fire brigade arrived, their engine hit a police car and overturned. Two policemen died. At No 14, a thief had been surprised by a householder. They fought and the thief was killed. At No 16, a woman, alone in the house, went into labour. There was a suicide at No 18.

I was, in this dream, the sub-editor required to assemble the facts from eight sources and write an intro. I warn you: don’t have nightmares like that. They can be the death of you before dawn reveals your sweated brow.

That particular night of fantasy was brought about by a chief sub-editor who grew tetchy because I took too long in subbing a story for him. ‘Give it to me,’ he said, and began to write. The story was about a ship that had gone down somewhere off South Africa. He wrote his intro very quickly and magically transferred the tragedy to somewhere off Greenland. I did not argue with him as I stood by his side. I assumed at the time that chief sub-editors had the right to move ships if they considered it typographically necessary.

Nowadays, some of the better writers have learnt from the Jack Kerouacs and Hunter S Thompsons to let the stream of consciousness serve.

Kerouak, intro to Lonesome Traveller: ‘Less begin with the sight of me with collar huddled up close to the neck and tied around with a handkerchief to keep it tight and snug, as I go trudging across the bleak, dark warehouse lots of the ever loving San Pedro waterfront…’

Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ‘72 (and note the pastoral link with Cameron):

Outside my new front door the street is full of leaves. My lawn slopes down to the pavement, the grass is still green, but the life is going out of it. Red berries wither on the tree beside my white colonial stoop. In the driveway, my Volvo with blue leather seats and Colorado plates sits facing the brick garage…

Second paragraph:

When a man gives up drugs he wants big fires in his life – all night long, every night, huge flames in the fireplace…

A quick dip reveals these:

Simon Barnes in The Times– ‘God, I hate politics. Besides, we don’t have politics in Suffolk Coastal. We have John Gummer.’

Caitlin Moran, same newspaper –‘Of course I’m not going to be late to interview Gordon Brown. Don’t be ridiculous. He’s the Prime Minister, for goodness sake. I’m going to leave the house at 11.30 am.’

Keith Waterhouse in 2009 – ‘You’ve heard of the Nanny State? Yes you have – you’re living in it. But there’s more to come, as soon as you’ve eaten your greens. The Granny State is on its way.’

The intro lives and mutates but remains, forever, and for most, a problem. And while it lives a million journalists suffer.

In the beginning, was the word…

But which word, for God’s sake?

* All right, all right – if you insist. Mulchrone describing the lying in state of Sir Winston:

Two rivers run silently through London tonight, and one is made of people. Dark and quiet as the night-time Thames itself, it flows through Westminster Hall, eddying about the foot of the rock called Churchill.

Geoffrey Mather, former Daily Express features editor and columnist, runs his own website at www.northtrek.co.uk

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Scoop and scooped

By Desmond Zwar

Every desk in the Daily Mail newsroom was suddenly deserted, with sub-editors, reporters, and photographers jammed around a Foreign Room teleprinter clacking furiously.

A sub dashing back to his desk said an astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, had been launched into space by the Russians. The news-desk phones had gone mad. Reporters in Mail offices around the world were being ordered into action. ‘Interview scientists and leaders’, the foreign editor was shouting over the phone to Moscow. ‘Get the background on Gagarin.’

‘Zwar!’ I hurried into the home newsroom. ‘We want a backgrounder London piece. Get up to the Soviet Embassy and find out what they’re doing. Are they celebrating? What’s going on? Get a talk with the ambassador.’ I raced to Kensington Palace Gardens, better known as ‘Millionaires’ Row’, the centre of foreign embassies. I found the high-walled Soviet Embassy already surrounded by milling reporters and photographers.

‘They’re not playing,’ a disgruntled Daily Mirror man told me. ‘They say Come back in the bloody morning.’ I pushed past him and made my way to a great oaken door, pressing the buzzer. The door took a while to creak open and a fair-haired man in blue suit and brown sandals glared at me. He didn’t even want to know who I was.

‘In ze morning …’ And the door slammed closed. The mob waited, staring up at the sky as if expecting the spaceship Soyez 11 to appear above. Then Eddie Laxton, a burly, foot-in-the-door specialist who looked more like a boxer than an Express reporter, suggested we ‘doorstep’ somewhere more comfortable; like the nearest pub. To my amazement, as one, the pack departed, heading for Kensington High Street.

I was unsure. I had just joined the Daily Mail and I knew I wasn’t going to get the story in a pub. I went with them because it was obviously expected; but once they were gathered at the bar – I did what I later learnt to be unforgivable in the street-smart code of journalism – I broke ranks. I left them and headed for a bottle shop, an ‘off-licence’ as I found they were quaintly called.

I saw on the shelf a bottle of Stenochka vodka, labelled ‘Very Strong. 150 Proof’. I bought it and headed back up the leafy pathway to the embassy, rehearsing my speech and glancing about to see if there were other reporters around. Mercifully there were none. I walked through the embassy gates and knocked on the formidable brown door and waited, clutching the bottle wrapped in brown paper. The brown sandalled servant opened the door and before he could say, ‘in ze …’ I launched into my prepared speech.

‘I am from Australia. I come here on behalf of the Australian people who are delighted to congratulate the glorious achievement of the cosmonaut Comrade Gagarin. I wish to ask Soviet Ambassador Soldatov if he will take this as a gift and toast Major Gagarin with the people of Australia.’ Then I drew breath.

Brown sandals peered suspiciously, first at me and then at the brown paper wrapping, slowly removing it from the bottle in case it was a bomb. ‘You vill vait,’ he said. And taking the bottle, closed the doors. Heart thumping, I looked around to see if by now any of my rivals were around. I stood on the step for what seemed like 10 minutes and the doors swung open. It was the stony-faced flunky.

‘Come!’ he beckoned. And I followed him into the Soviet Embassy, down a long corridor to a great room lit by a heavy chandelier. There stood the egg-bald Ambassador Soldatov I had often seen on television; beside him stood a waiter with my bottle on a tray and two small glasses that were already filled. Ambassador Soldatov then smiled, lifted his glass and motioned me to take the other. We drank. ‘To Comrade Gagarin!’ he said. ‘Comrade Gagarin!’ I said enthusiastically. He turned on his heel and left.

The Daily Mail now had its ‘London end’ to the story; I had an exclusive on the front page: ‘AMBASSADOR TOASTS ASTRONAUT’.

But I had become a marked man. The threat filtered through from the Daily Express night duty driver to our night driver, (the recognised backstairs communication between rival newspapers). I had erred by breaking ranks. The ‘heavy mob’ was upset. I was to be punished.

And they didn’t wait long to deliver.

One wet, miserable winter’s night I was told to get to a police station on the M1 motorway where a bus-load of young convicts had overpowered their guards and the driver delivering them to Birmingham. The prisoners had all escaped.

The Heavy Mob arrived in their duffle-coats and sheepskin jackets at the same time as I got there; and I heard mutterings of my recognition. The police were adamant: the guards had already left, and the bus-driver, whose coach stood in the mist-covered yard, was not going to talk to anybody. We might as well all go home.

Reporters and photographers climbed back into their cars and waited, staring through the fug of tobacco smoke and frosted windscreens at the ‘nick’. Every hour one of us went to the front counter and pleaded. We were told a statement would be issued by Scotland Yard Press Bureau next morning and really, we had better all go home to our beds because even the coach driver had been whisked away and his coach would remain where it was.

At 1am, after I had called my news desk for the fourth time saying there would be no interview, they told me to go home. I had just emerged from the phone box when one of the mob said, ‘We’re all calling it a day. They’re not going to play.’ And half a dozen cars drove off. I got into mine and headed back to London. Next morning I got all nine newspapers. To my dismay I saw, in six of them, quotes from the coach driver that he had been overpowered and had been in fear of his life. It had been a ‘dreadful experience.’

I was carpeted and told in no uncertain terms that my record had been smudged. The Daily Mail had been the only national newspaper without the quotes.

That night Alf, the night driver, taking me out on a job said, ‘They got you, didn’t they? The Mob didn’t talk to that coach fella. They got together and made up a quote. They all used it. Except you.’

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Room 404

donwalker 3By Donald Walker

As if we didn’t have enough to do, there were endless problems with the phones. Well, actually we didn’t have enough to do, that was the real problem. There were some fifteen or twenty of us in the same room on the fourth floor of the Mirror building in Holborn.

All of us were skilled writers at the top of our game, or had been at the top of some game or other before a heady mixture of drink, the old ennui and raging expenses fever had shredded our nerves.

Now here we were in the 1970s dumped by unfeeling and soulless gods into room 404 to wait… for what? Nobody knew. We’d mostly been drafted into Daily Mirror editorial in better times when Cudlipp had had a bright idea called Mirrorscope.

This pull-out section, launched in the 60s, was supposed to be the Mirror ‘going serious’ in its attempt to ‘educate’ the public, to find its soul. A faint imitation of the far more erudite Sunday Times.

But then the unfeeling, soulless Murdoch had happened along, prised the Sun from Cudlipp’s reluctant (huh!) fingers and shown that the public was more interested in locating its G-spot than some ephemeral inner avatar.

Come to think of it, it was phrases like ‘ephemeral inner avatar’ that got us here in the first place. Ephemeral inner avatars could get right to the back of the queue behind the Sun‘s brazen Essex girls, their tits and bingo…as the Mirror‘s rapidly dwindling circulation proved.

But at least we in the Colditz of room 404 had the distraction of the telephones. No longer needed for our in-depth reporting and profound, learned research, we could distract ourselves with darts, poker, lunchtime drinking – and the weirdness of Holborn’s underwiring.

For some reason never fully or satisfactorily explained the telephone system in the old Mirror building in Holborn had become inextricably entwined and fused with all the other systems in the area, perhaps in the country.

The phones in room 404 would ring briefly and then stop. Pick up the receiver: silence. Or a distant, ghostly voice would say: ‘Sheila?’ or ‘Hello, this is Pearl Insurance’ or ‘Is that Gamages?’ Incoming? Outgoing? Who knew?

Worse, contacts (few) or angry wives (too many) or girlfriends (too few) would get through and say: ‘Where have you been? I’ve been ringing you all day!’ when the phone had been silent for hours.

The Bank of England was the much-sought-after target of many callers. They became quite apoplectic, as well they might, when told they had managed to get through to some distant outpost of Daily Mirror editorial and we couldn’t help them with their fiduciary concerns.

‘What the bloody hell is going on?’ they would frequently and understandably ask. As if we had any idea. We didn’t know what was going on in the editorial floor below us let alone in the grand, sweeping markets of hedge funds and gilts.

There was, of course, fun to be had, especially by the sharp-witted. Colin Dunne, often to be found in the taxing throes of teaching me poker, had the flexion to switch with ease from full houses and busted flushes to Spensely’s Nuts And Bolts Manufacturers.

Let me explain.

If I received a call through the neurotic and weird world web of wires that was the Holborn telephone exchange asking for Spensely’s Nuts And Bolts Manufacturers, I would politely say: ‘Sorry, you have a wrong number’ and replace the receiver. After lunch it might be: ‘Oh, piss off!’ or ‘Do I sound like a nuts and bolts manufacturer, you prick?’

But Colin, thus accosted, would never turn aside. The conversation would proceed in the following fashion:

Well-meaning Caller: Is that Spensely’s Nuts And Bolts Manufacturers, please?

Colin Dunne: Yes it is.

WMC: Can I speak to the stockroom?

CD: Speaking.

WMC: Oh. That was quick.

CD: Yes, we aim to give satisfaction with every nut and bolt.

WMC: Oh…Um, well, I’d like to order a hundred gross of number 9 nuts.

CD: No, we haven’t got any.

WMC (really alarmed): You haven’t got any!?

CD: Nope. Ran out yesterday.

WMC: Ran out?! But I been ordering number 9s from you for years.

CD: Yup. Demand has finally overtaken supply. How about number 15s?

WMC: 15s? I didn’t know you did a 15!

CD: Brand new in today. Want some?

WMC (now very concerned): I shall have to speak to my gov’nor. We need them 9s urgently.

CD: How about 8s? Can do you hundredweight of 8s.

Baffled silence.

One day, when the wires were crossed beyond all recognition, I was forced to listen to a whole telephonic conversation between a husband and wife who were unaware of my presence. I kept rattling my phone buttons constantly but nothing would dislodge them or even make them aware of me.

Soon I stoppped pressing buttons and listened. The conversation was itself a primer in how not to get pissed at the station bar and explain yourself to the wife.

The conversation was between…let’s call them Harry and Muriel. They were a couple in their late 50s; Harry was a piss artist and Muriel had heard every excuse known to housewife kind.

Harry had stayed too long at the bar in Waterloo Station but, carefully readied by his drunken mates, had his story down pat. He was set to deal with Muriel. This was in the days of IRA bomb threats and subsequent road and rail delays.

Muriel: Hello.

Harry (carefully sober): Hello, my darling.

Muriel: Who is this?

Harry (losing it a little): Who is…it’s me, Harry, your husband!

Muriel (without emotion): Yes.

Harry (still manages to sound sober, or thinks he does): I’m afraid the train’s been cancelled and I’ve been delayed. I’m still at Waterloo. The queue is terrible.

Muriel (even less emotion): Really. Why?

Harry (slurring very slightly): There’s been a bomb threat.

Muriel: A bomb threat? What do you mean by a bomb threat?

Now, this was beyond the point Harry’s training at Have Another One HQ had taken him. Despite vast experience in such domestic matters, his operations IMBYR (It Must Be Your Round) team had not anticipated direct, probing questions such as this. Mind you, as they could barely speak properly and had to close one eye to see the barman, this was not surprising.

Harry (totally losing it): W’d I mean? W’d I mean? You silly cow it’s a bomb! Don’ you know wh’d a fucking bomb is, you daft bint…Mus’ I ‘splain everyfuckingthin’?

Muriel (grimly): Goodbye.

When, many years later, we finally got to Canary Wharf, the telephone system worked perfectly. No crossed lines, no confusions, no desperate calls for a hundred gross of number 9 nuts. And the Stab was miles away. Life had lost something of its lustre.

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