Issue # 145

This Week

The intro-writing thread continues this week with a short from Derek Roylance, who started work on the old Rhyl Leader and was on the Rugeley Times, Staffordshire Advertiser, Express & Star and Lincolnshire Echo before emigrating to Oz where he became a PR for the army – a Lt-Col, no less.

Other pieces have been proposed on the subject of intros, but none has arrived yet. Maybe the would-be contributors are still trying to think of the best way in to writing the stuff.

Meanwhile, Geoffrey Mather has moved on to consider clichés, and their place (or not) in the newspaper world. Worth a read, because whatever you say about clichés, they have stood the test of time.

The sunshine island of San Serif didn’t qualify for the World Cup (soccer) this time, so it tends to pass us by. But for Ken Ashton, even a fleeting mention of it reminds him of the time his Mum’s fruit cake turned out to be the secret weapon that once put Korea 3 goals up against Portugal.

Even further back, memory man Stan Solomons recalls a murder on his patch, along with a detective who didn’t have a clue.

And Don Walker comes up against Anne Robinson (for overseas readers, she hosts a quiz show in the UK) and other loonies in the executive suite of the old Mirror building.

You can find them all by clicking on their names, above, or in the contents column over there on the left.

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Sticky situation

By Derek Roylance

Reading Tom Brown’s piece on intros in Ranterslast week reminded me of one of the best I have seen… and it was on a media release!

To set the scene. I and my good mate the late Bob Cornish were operating as captains in the Australian army’s Public Relations Service with the 1st Australian Task Force in South Vietnam in 1969.

The task force commander had visited the South Vietnamese general who commanded a division just to the north of our location.He gave him a gift of a boomerang.

A few days later, following a message from the general the Australian commander sent an Aboriginal soldier up to help the general out.

In writing the story, Bob Cornish began: ‘A Vietnamese General has a very Australian Problem… His boomerang won’t come back.’

Proof that it was a cracker came from the two resident journalists with the Task Force.They always changed any intro we put on a media release. On this occasion, with much gnashing of teeth, they admitted to being beaten.

Needless to say, after the visits by the Aboriginal Digger, the general’s problem went away.

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Like the plague…

By Geoffrey Mather

As any writer knows, falling foul of a cliché is easy as pie. Annoying, too, which means that you tend to flip your lid, let the fur fly for Pete’s sake, go through the roof, get your knickers in a twist, climb walls while your blood boils.

Publications live with clichés. Can they live without them? As one cliché dies, another is invented. Everyone recognises clichés, yet still they slide through the close mesh of newspaper and magazine control, a mutant disease with no apparent cure. There is a perverse logic in play here. Sub-editors fancy puns or near puns, and these are blood relatives of clichés. One breeds the other until they march as one.

Two recent, and typical, examples of catch-phrasing, or punning – ‘Shaken Federer vows to bounce back.’ And after a furrow was ploughed in protest at Israeli occupation: ‘Palestinian PM ploughs ahead with future state.’ Then, ‘To avoid being lost in the cloud, organisations need to indulge in some blue-sky thinking about their future ICT needs.’

When an entire football team went down with ‘flu, somebody involved in production was heard saying, ‘Yea, fair enough, but what’s the angle?’ Facts are all very well but those who write news schedules feel the need for a cliché of sorts, to bind fact and presentation together. It is like a doctor yearning for ‘flu.

We have had dream homes (anything with more than three bedrooms), stockbroker belts (anything over four bedrooms), police with tracker dogs exercising their ‘long arm of the law’, detectives ‘proceeding as a result of information received’, Grannie Courage (who always fights off bag-snatchers), tycoons galore, and explosions in the home (for years after the war, ‘just like the Blitz’).

People in an earlier cliché tide did not die. They ‘bought it.’ They passed over, or away, or on, at which point they were laid to rest. We shall ‘never see their like again.’ The word ‘cancer’ was never spoken, only whispered. John Wayne called it the Big C.

Citizens had a gay time without being gays. If gays had a gay time they went to court. Police had moved on from being Peelers to being coppers, plods, Old Bill, and woodentops, and were yet to reach the inverted status of Filth.

People did not over-eat: they had ‘an elegant sufficiency’; and some of them munched. The word munch is an abomination, defined as ‘to chew steadily or vigorously, often audibly.’ It is an accident between crunch and lunch and my vision of a typical muncher is of a cow. The rallying cry of the twee restaurant might well have become ‘Munch lunch – five quid.’ There are less munching and more eating now and the world is better for it: It would be a mercy if the word, which is a cliché in its own right, was struck from the language.

People heading big businesses –‘tycoons’ – tended to be linked with their products in headlines, as in Mr. Bubbles (Cussons soaps in my case), or Mr. Fireworks (used as a 60pt headline after a photographer wrote the words on the back of his picture as a joke).

Britain recruited foreigners after the war because three-shift working required their labor. A page-one headline read, ‘Welcome, Mr. Sunshine.’ That trend disappeared, thank heaven, otherwise, we would have proceeded to Mr. Raindrops, for prominent Mancunians.

We are now in the era of giants {gentle), angels (little), and heroes (modest), and the one thing binding this unlikely trio is that qualifiers have suffered some misfortune, usually terminal.

Rapping is a thing largely confined to cultural singing of a kind baffling to anyone over 40, but not all that long ago it was a required word in football – ‘Fergie raps refs.’‘Refs rap back.’ Most things were ‘par for the course’ and still are.

‘Who’s rapping today?’ I used to ask our sports editor as I passed his desk in the morning.

Later, football manager after manager – and all without exception from a stockbroker belt – was to explain his purpose in virtually the same words: Eye on the ball. One game at a time. Keep focussed. All credit to the lads. On the day. At this moment in time. The defining moment. The rest is history. Level playing field. You couldn’t invent it.

The words delivered in a mumbled monotone…Meanwhile, a few managers go ‘to hell and back’ in a difficult season.

Gobbledegook – the clichery of business – has thrived as never before. Plain English Campaign lists: ballpark figure; be proactive, not reactive; bring it to the table; mission-critical; move the goalposts; think outside the box; blue-sky thinking; pushing the envelope; there is no ‘I’ in a team; win-win situation; client focus; deliverables; incentivize; take it to the next level.

Around 1981 I exchanged short and amiable words with Chrissie Maher, the woman behind the plain English movement. She had been demonstrating for her cause in London while Parliament was in session and a policeman intervened. ‘I never knew,’ she said, ‘what “in session” meant, but never mind. He had to read the whole document – 156 words – to tell us to go. I thought it was the best thing that ever happened.’

She said, ‘Do you mean “Leave?”…’ And he said, ‘Yes, damn you.’

If you want plain English you can’t beat a war. The 1939-45 tiff in Europe did not do a lot for real estate and landscapes but it inspired sub-editors. They honed their trade ‘as never before’ because they didn’t have much newsprint. Post-war, this ‘sharp focus’ persisted and I reckon that English newspapers were the leanest and most competent ‘to be found’ ‘anywhere in the world.’

I have seen three sub-editors apply themselves to one short, so that it became a shorter short than the last short short if you get my drift.

Headline:It was 120 degrees

Text: … in Brighton yesterday.

They would have cut a full stop in half with a sharp knife if they could. With more newsprint came flabbier styles, and 80 per cent of my Sunday newspaper now goes to the bin unread because the content is not relevant to me.

In this flabbier era we need to re-discover unpolluted language. But of course, nobody will. Perhaps nobody can. Perhaps it is too late. We have ‘lost it.’ The cliché, the pun, and gobbledegook have triumphed.

Former Daily Express features editor and columnist Geoffrey Mather ploughs his own cliché-free furrow at www.northtrek.co.uk

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Piece of cake

By Ken Ashton

Half-time in a World Cup soccer match, the crowd is going bananas, one team is smiling to the gods, the other looks shell-shocked. And my mother, bless her, is sitting in the stand and wondering whether to patent her fruit cake… created during World War Two.

Difficult to believe that a mere 15 years after the end of the Korean war and Mum panicking in case my National Service took me to the Far East, she would be sitting in the top tier stand at Goodison Park and cheering for the ‘little yellow men’, as she called them.

But to Mum’s fruit cakes, legends in their own lifetime and beyond. During WW 2, Dad worked on various ministry jobs as a ship’s carpenter in Liverpool, from patching up convoy ships and Royal Navy vessels to building Bailey Bridges for the invasion.

One day he came home from work with his trousers tucked into his socks, asked Mum for a newspaper, untied the tethers, shook himself and unloaded about two pounds of dried fruit. Smuggled out, a gift from Canadian sailors.

And Mum proceeded to bake the most fantastic fruit cake, using dried egg, gravy browning for colouring, saccharin instead of sugar and the smuggled fruit.

She produced, as if by magic, the most delicious fruit cake and once a month, from then on, she repeated the success.

Her link with Loyola Hall, a Jesuit retreat in Rainhill, a village 10 miles outside Liverpool, went back to the early 1900s. Born in 1908, she lost her own mother when she was six and for many years was helped by the nuns from Loyola Hall and St. Bart’s church who brought her and her brothers and sisters baskets of food every day. Her Dad was the village bobby and her mum had been the village midwife, so her ties with the village and the church were strong.

So, there we were, in 1966, me covering the World Cup for the Daily Sketch with Billy Liddell, Liverpool and Scotland winger, at my side, me ghosting his comments and receiving a football education return.

And one morning, prior to taking Mum out to lunch, I popped in with her and Billy to Loyola Hall to watch the Koreans training. A most unlikely team to be in the World Cup finals, having beaten Australia to qualify. There were no diplomatic relations with the UK at the time and there were all sorts of problems about national anthems and flags on commemorative stamps. But here they were, as large or as little as life.

‘They look half-starved,’ was Mum’s verdict on the Korean soccer team.

And so she went home to bake them a fruit cake. And a couple of boxes of mini cakes as back-up.

They went down a storm. The Koreans insisted on visiting her, drowned her with flowers, gave her a Korean shirt, tickets for the match – and an open invitation to visit Korea.

Then to Goodison. Having beaten mighty Italy, Korea was in the quarter-finals and facing Portugal. And by half-time, they were winning 3-0 and the world of soccer was stunned. Mum was praising her fruit cake as the Koreans’ secret weapon and I was trying to write half-decent copy. Billy Liddell was laughing.

Then Eusebio spoiled the party with four second-half goals and Portugal nabbed another for a 5-3 win.

‘If they’d had a decent meal, they’d have lasted the 90 minutes,’ signed Mum.

‘You should have popped down at half-time with more cake,’ said Billy Liddell, with a broad wink.

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 Dab hand at murder

By Stan Solomons

Detectives probing the brutal killing of a kind old lady who ran a tiny corner shop thought it was only a matter of time before they tracked down the killer.

They had found a vital clue at the murder scene – a set of fingerprints on a mantelpiece in the back room behind the shop in Halifax, just a few feet from where 84-year-old Emily Pye had been found battered to death.

It was the 1950s and the Halifax borough police force had called in Scotland Yard as was the custom with murder cases in those days. The Yard sent Chief Superintendent Hannam, one of its top detectives, who could hardly believe his luck.

Could the killer have been so stupid as to leave his fingerprints? Hopefully, they would soon find the answer. First, they established they did not belong to the dead woman. Then one by one they eliminated close friends and relatives who visited Emily.

The next stage was to fingerprint scores of people who lived in the area and were customers of the old lady to see if their prints matched those at the murder scene. But before that plan was put into operation, the man who left his dabs behind came forward and confessed.

It was, believe it or not, the Chief Constable of Halifax, Mr. Gerald Goodman. Apparently, some time after the murder he had walked into the room and put his hand on the mantelpiece. Just to make sure that they were his dabs he had to have his fingerprints taken and it was then found they were a perfect match.

Hannam, known to his intimates as The Count because he was well-spoken, wore smart clothes, and had an impressive manner, revealed the Chief Constable’s gaffe at one of his daily press conferences. The story was, of course, off the record and never appeared in print – until now. I can still picture Mr. Hannam chuckling as he told us the story.

‘We knew the Chief Constable couldn’t have committed the murder because he had a cast-iron alibi’ he joked.

As it happened Hannam never solved the murder. He had a pretty good idea who had committed it but could never prove it.

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Great truths of our time

donwalker 4By Donald Walker

‘Don, you don’t understand what I’m trying to do with this newspaper, do you?’ Anne Robinson said to me one afternoon.

‘No, Anne,’ I replied (though these may not have been my exact words), ‘I don’t understand. Does anyone understand? Do you understand what you’re trying to do with this newspaper?’

Well, all right, maybe I wasn’t quite that acerbic with the Queen of Mean as she wasn’t known in those days. But I never refrained from giving her as much lip as I could when I was a chief sub and she was an assistant editor.

The myth that Anne ran us all ragged in the 1980s was far from true. I read in a Daily Mail profile that Mirror feature subs trembled at the sound of her footsteps. Rubbish. She was just one of the many crosses we had to bear and another good reason to drink too much. Don’t even get me started on Chris Ward and Vic Mayhew…

Anne put up with as much editorial persiflage as she gave. She certainly made a nuisance of herself and tried to nag me crazy by making up editorial rules that no-one had heard of before, as though they were on tablets of stone handed out by some bloke with a long grey beard and lightning bolts up to his jumper.

‘Darling,’ she said to me, ‘the subs have written the headline from my last par.’

‘And…?’

‘There’s no surprise for the reader if the last par’s in the head, now is there, darling? That won’t earn you brownie points.’

To be fair, Anne treated us well, took our insults with equanimity, frequently took us out for lunches on her exes (once, most of the subs’ table to the Savoy), and consulted me with a fair amount of humility on points of grammar, syntax, and style.

But that didn’t stop her carping and uttering daft edicts. No sentences beginning with For… No trash in the TV pages… No stuff praising Joan Collins. (She hated Joan Collins.)

Making up new unbreakable rules was a terminal executive condition. Richard Stott, for example, who had never seen a dummy in his life before he was made features editor, started introducing all sorts of strange policy about what should appear where. His method of tackling any problem was to paw the ground, lower his horns and… CHARGE!

When he started to lecture high-mileage middle managers with lined, weary faces about ‘value added extras’ and ‘high traffic-rate pages’ they pretended they didn’t know he had learnt these phrases in the Stab the night before and nodded wisely and encouragingly.

That’s the way newspapers were. If the boss said it, it must be true. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

We all knew it was a way of asserting their egos… and fair enough. No doubt we would all have done something similar in the same circumstances. Yes-men agreeing with your every word is a powerful, addictive narcotic.

The problems came when somebody somewhere who ought to have known better let a drooling loony who wasn’t aware his hair was on fire into the executive ward. Then things could get really nasty.

The worst case I can recall was told to me by a reporter on one of the Mirror titles. I am not going to identify the paper, the reporter, or his boss. If you read on you’ll see why.

The reporter covered a press conference about the abducted estate agent Suzy Lamplugh. The attractive 25-year-old had vanished in the summer of 1986 after leaving her office to show a ‘Mr. Kipper’ a property.

Despite the pain she must have been suffering, her mother, Diana Lamplugh, put on a brave face and, in the hope of locating her daughter or at least her body, kept a high profile. Eventually, she set up the Suzy Lamplugh Trust with the motto Live Life Safe to help and advise the vulnerable.

So the reporter checked his notebook and Biro, put on his jacket, and started for the door. His news editor then called across the open editorial floor:

‘Are you going to the Lamplugh conference?’

‘Yes,’ replied the scribbler.

‘I’d like you to ask her a particular question.’

‘Okay,’ said the reporter fishing out his notebook.

‘Can you ask Diana Lamplugh,’ said the news editor before a roomful of journos who pretended they weren’t listening, ‘if she has considered there is a possibility her daughter has been abducted by aliens.’

In the stunned silence that followed the reporter could only manage: ‘What?’

‘Aliens, you know, like from Mars or Venus. Does she think they could have taken Suzy?’

The reporter looked deep into the face of his superior waiting for the gotcha line; he found only the deep, true gravitas of a loony dedicated to his work here among ordinary mortals.

‘What on earth did you do?’ I asked the reporter after he told me the story.

‘I asked the question.’

‘You did it!’

‘Yes. I was with a smudger and I didn’t want the word getting back that I’d choked. Everyone on the floor had heard him.’

The reaction?

‘Mrs. Lamplugh just gave me a long, cold stare and went back to the business in hand.’

I spent much of my career reading loonies’ letters, answering phone calls from loonies, going on missions devised by loonies, and even interviewing the odd loony, but never met one to equal that.

Well, perhaps one.

P J Wilson was Mirrror news editor in the early 1980s and at the time one of his deputies was none other than my old pal Brian ‘Bosie’ Sutherland, the well-known supersub and top newspaper designer.

P J gathered Brian and various other assistant news editors around the newsdesk one Friday in February and said: ‘Okay, I want at least five fresh ideas from each of you. Something visionary, something sparkling – and I want them by Monday.’

Muttering to themselves, the assembled crew broke up and set off for the usual weekend of drinkin’, smokin’ and funnin’.

Come Monday morning, somewhat bleary-eyed and hungover after too much fun, they reassembled at the desk.

‘Well?’ said P J, the new news editor.

‘Well what?’ said Bosie.

‘Five sparkling ideas – each. Where are they?’

The assistants looked at one another hopelessly; Bosie lit a fag and wondered how long it was before the Stab opened. He couldn’t even remember being asked for sparkling ideas the previous Friday and he certainly didn’t have any. After all, this was a newsdesk. It dealt with the news.

‘Christ! Must I do everything?’ said P J crossly. ‘Well, here’s the kind of thing I’m looking for: it’s Valentine’s Day this week and I want to get a laser gun that can be fired at the Moon.’

A clammy Monday morning horror stole into the hearts of all assembled.

‘I want,’ continued the imperturbable P J, ‘to get the laser gun to write “I love you” on the Moon and then surround it with a heart.’

No-one was quite prepared to tell him his hair was on fire, but some brave soul did say: ‘Don’t think it can be done, boss.’

P J flew into a rage. ‘That is exactly the kind of negative thinking I don’t want to hear. Just bloody find me someone, an expert, who can organise this. It’s simple enough. A laser gun. The Moon. A Valentine’s Day message, for God’s sake.’

Shoulders slumped, the newsdeskers dispersed in despair to various points of the compass most of which seemed to be pointing at public-houses.

Bosie, however, applied science to this monstrous tumescence that had grown in the brain of his leader. When dealing with someone who is evidently barmy what is the answer? he asked himself.

Water extinguishes fire. Chalk abates acid. Oil settles troubled waters. One science correspondent draws the sting of a cuckoo news editor. It’s obvious… science is the answer.

So Arthur Smith was wheeled before the baleful glare of P J.

Arthur was a tall, mournful character who lived to shatter myths and shine the searing beam of true knowledge on hoi polloi. There was no common misconception Arthur hadn’t righted on the Mirror. Cold weather makes you ill? Nonsense! A dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s? Rubbish! You can’t get pregnant if you do it standing up? Bollocks!

‘If you aim a laser at the Moon, it will reach the surface but will be too small and weak to be used with any accuracy,’ Arthur intoned. ‘Remember the Moon is 250,000 miles from the Earth and this tiny beam would have to be able to dig trenches many miles deep: otherwise, the result would not be seen from Earth. It would have to shift thousands of tons of Moon dust and deposit them – but where? Quite apart from the intricacy of such a task, it would take immense strength to wield such a device, quite beyond the capabilities of our technology and the power required to maintain such penetration would be…’

And so Arthur trundled on.

P J flew into another terrible rage. But, well, you can’t fight science no matter how important you are on Earth or how many yes-men tell you you’re right. It’s one of the great truths of our time.

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