Issue # 150

This Week

Edition number 150… and they said it wouldn’t last.

Nearly three million people have clicked on the site in the past 12 months – or, to be accurate, in the past year an unknown number of readers has clicked on the site nearly three million times, in total. It seems quite a lot.

It might be interesting to report how many stories we have carried since starting in July (Friday the 13th) 2007, but we don’t really care. Some weeks we have carried 12 pieces; on quiet weeks, like this one, only two.

What we know is that most people who log on every week (between 20,000 and 40,000 on a typical Friday) are along for the free ride.

Free, because there’s no subscription. Also free because they don’t contribute to it in any other way.

And that’s sad because all they can do – most of the people reading this – is write. But then they are used to getting things for nothing, I guess.

Less than one percent of the people reading this have written anything for the website; fewer than 10 percent have even visited the books page, which was created to ensure that books that mattered to the trade we are (or were) in would be preserved for posterity. (If it had been created to make money either for the authors or the publisher, it would have been a total failure.)

It’s sometimes tempting to wonder whether, in the last three years, we might have exhausted all known stories from the great days of journalism. But we know that not to be the case. We have book loads of them in the pipeline, upcoming shortly. And we have hundreds of our own. It would be nice, though, if some of the permanently idle readers would write a bit.

Meanwhile, as proof that there are some people out there who can both read and write, sometimes prompted by pieces in the current rant, back to this week.

Frank Corless follows Skiddy’s piece last week about stories that might have been made up.

And Alasdair Buchan follows Harold Heys (last week) and Mark Howard (the week before) about people who were wound up.

That’s the statistic, then: 22,769 people read this site last Friday, and around 7,000 every day this week. Two of them were minded to write.

(That’s enough ranting. – Ed.)

Scroll down to read on. Then write on.

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National story

By Frank Corless

My old mate Ian Skidmore reckoned (last week) that once upon a time in Liverpool you could ‘make it up’ and get away with it, and – to a point – he’s right, although I don’t remember outrageously invented stories being the norm. Except, that is when it came to the Grand National.

In the mid 60s, when circulations were huge, we were all under starter’s orders to help prompt even bigger sales on the day of the big race by coming up with a Page 1 ‘shocker’.

Year after year, the tall stories just got bigger – all based on the (correct) assumption that by the time was race over everyone would have forgotten about the perils we had suggested might befall horses, jockeys, and Joe Public, but not all at the same time, of course.

The long list ranged from fixers and dopers to betting rings, animal rights activists, and, worst of all, the dreaded Cough. The slightest hint of a horse coming down with The Cough was enough to send news desks into a spin.

One year, I was despatched to Aintree at midnight to see if I could blag my way into the stables to listen out for a coughing horse. Instead, I found Les Poole (Daily Express), and Norman Dickson (the old Sun), doing the same. We didn’t get in – and we didn’t hear a single cough.

In those days, the herd instinct applied. We all had to be as near each other as possible to pick up on the slightest hint that the opposition might have come up with a decent splash or – dare I say it – had invented one. And that’s where the Liverpool Press Club’s phone booths had a role to play.

Despite so-called soundproofing, every single word spoken in either of the two booths could be heard by the scribe next door and – on quiet days, or nights – even as far away as the bar. Usually, one or two of us ‘loitered’ as closely as it was possible to get without it looking obvious that we were deliberately ear-wigging.

After a long eve-of-National day at the course, and having filed what we thought would be the most sensational splash, we had to lounge around the club until midnight at the earliest, waiting for the likely, dreaded call from the news desk that someone else had come up with an ‘exclusive’ no one else had thought of.

Trying to convince the night desk that the story – even the most outrageous one – was drivel didn’t wash. So, it was a case of (a) getting them to read to you the opposition ‘exclusive’; (b) waiting 20 minutes while you did a re-write of it and filed it, or (c) getting back to the desk to tell them you had managed to get hold of a ‘very good contact’ who had confirmed it was ‘rubbish’. Usually, a & b held sway.

I was lucky enough to see the race more than 40 times. I say ‘see’ advisedly. I usually watched it on TV from the Aintree press box because, being right above the weighing room, it was the perfect spot to rush downstairs as soon as the race finished and bag a front-row seat in the adjoining press tent. To be honest, I didn’t miss any of the drama or the excitement because I was still close enough to hear it, and almost to touch it.

One of my last assignments there involved doing a news stint for the Sunday Mirror who sent along a staffer to help me out. No names, no pack drill, but he was well known in the job for ‘stretching,’ or ‘bending’ stories and, yes, even – would you believe it? – making them up. Always with a chuckle, of course.

So it proved with the big race, the one sports event in the world that didn’t need any topspin. Drama? The National was always a fantastic drama. But that didn’t stop Mr. X.

I felt the first hint of unease when I sat down to wait for the winning jockey, trainer, owner, and hangers-on to be delivered to the press tent for after-race interviews. My helper was nowhere to be seen.

Minutes later, as I dashed upstairs to the Mirror’s designated phone, there he was. Chuckling. ‘Don’t panic, I’ve sent it,’ he said. ‘Sent what?’ I replied as a cold shiver ran down my back.

‘The jockey, the owner, all that stuff,’ he said. ‘But, you weren’t there,’ I protested. ‘No, but they always say the same things, don’t they? Nobody’s going to care tomorrow.’

Gobsmacked wasn’t the word. If the National horses had been within earshot of my rant, they probably would have bolted and gone round the course for the third time. Calming down, I thought ‘Sod it’, and quickly wrote, and filed a different version. The true one.

The next day, the Mirror used their racing correspondent’s version, so it didn’t matter after all. But, every time the race comes round, I think of the reporter who beat everyone else to the post.

Away from Aintree, the story that I was never sure was true or false came courtesy of Arthur Redford, the Daily Mail Liverpool district man. For a while, I was Arthur’s sidekick (Santa’s little helper, they called me) before I got the Daily Mirror staff job in the city.

The story ranks, at best, as highly dubious.

It happened during yet another of the Mersey dock strikes. At that time, in the 60s, they were so frequent, and many of them staged for the flimsiest of reasons, that they spawned their own books of ‘jokes’. Typical was the one about two dockers enjoying an egg and bacon sarnie in a waterfront cafe before starting work on a spring morning.

‘See the daffs are out,’ said one.

‘Will it affect us?’ his mate replied.

One strike went on for so long, totally paralysing the port, that ships waiting to berth had to ride anchor at the Mersey Bar. Among them was a Russian freighter with a cargo of timber bound for Garston docks.

The gist of Arthur’s yarn was that the crew had so much time on their hands that they had started to become fluent English speakers, simply by watching TV for hours on end.

According to Arthur’s piece, the programme they watched most was… Pinky and Perky.

‘Why didn’t we have this?’ I was asked when I checked in with the desk that morning. ‘I can’t find anyone who says it’s true,’ I said. And I was being honest. Honest.

Back came the reply: ‘Well, we should have it.’

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Got a grouse?

By Alasdair Buchan

I can’t now remember the name of the young reporter on the Glasgow Herald but he’s quite entitled to still bear a grouse about the wind-up he suffered on the 12th of August, 1968. How can I be so exact about the date? Because the lad was given the job of doing a Glorious Twelfth round up.

Before the days of Nouveau Beaujolais, it was an annual standby of the Herald to run a story about who got the first grouse from the moors to the dinner plate. So the news editor told him to phone around to see what price they were charging for that night’s grouse. He was newly arrived from an Inverness paper and not yet Glasgow-aware so the reporters told him to call Roganos, the Malmaison, the Grand and the Great Eastern hotels.

With the first three, the answers were fairly predictable but when he called the Great Eastern he got quite excited. The conversation went like this: ‘Are you serving grouse tonight?’

‘Oh, aye, we always have it on the menu on the 12th.’

‘Great, how much will it be?’

‘Two bob a plate.’

‘As cheap as that. Really?’

‘Aye, really. Our residents are no made of money.’

He had his lead and started battering the typewriter.

At this point, I should reveal that despite its grand name the Great Eastern Hotel on Duke Street was Glasgow’s biggest ‘model lodging house’. These were large institutions where each night, for 3d, the homeless could get a bed for the night in large dormitories and a cup of tea and soup from the Sally Army before being evicted promptly the next morning.

They were foul, smelly, infested places, and the inmates’ idea of a grouse related to bedbugs, not birdies.

The only ‘switchboard’ was the doorkeeper’s phone and clearly, the man had assumed the call was a wind-up and had been answering with heavy sarcasm.

By a curious coincidence, the news desk wasn’t paying proper attention and the story got through to a sub who, again, was an out-of-towner. It was set and heading for the presses before a proofreader (please explain what they were to the younger readers) saved the day.

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