Issue # 208

This Week

There was a time (predominantly the 60s and 70s) when it would have been unusual to have entered any newspaper pub (certainly in the north of England) without being regaled by stories of the most recent escapades of reporter Gilbert Johnson.

He died last week, aged 81, after working on the South Yorkshire Times (he was born in Mexborough), Hull Daily Mail, Daily Herald, Daily Express, the Sketch, Sun, News of the World, Yorkshire Evening Post and then freelancing out of Hull… And it would be great if anybody could remember some or any of those stories.

Barry Wigmore has also died – or, apparently more accurately, been switched off. He was Richard Stott’s favourite reporter. So presumably there are stories out there about him, too, if only somebody could be arsed to write ‘em.

Fortunately (apart from striving to meet its weekly deadline) this website is not constrained by time. So… when you’re ready, chaps.

Perhaps Ranters work better after a 50-year time lapse. Keith Graves wrote colourfully last week about his first editor and that reminded Derek Roylance about his own early days on the Lincolnshire Echo.

It also prompted David Isaacs to recall the time when Keith came to his rescue after a would-be MP had challenged a quote in the paper. (A reminder, perhaps, about why, if anybody is going to control the press, it shouldn’t be our politicians.)

And that’s the way Ranters is supposed to work.

In another follow up to last week, Harold Heys continues his story of how newspaper life was rekindled in the north with a kick start in Broughton, near Manchester.

Ian Bradshaw continues our series of tales about How I Got Started On The Job.

And – just in case you imagined it might be a Screws-free week, Alan Whittaker mourns the curtain coming down on the final performance of The Old Lady of Bouverie Street in a good old-fashioned Rant.

It’s enough to drive a man to drink. Only, as cartoonist Rudge discovers, it’s best not to send one of those work-experience kids to get it.

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Stretchered out

By Derek Roylance

Keith Graves’ piece on the alcoholic editor of the Lincolnshire Echo reminded me of when I met that gentleman for the first time.

I had applied for a job as a senior reporter on the paper and was summoned for an interview. The editor, J Watt Mackie asked: ‘Do you do shorthand, laddie?’ I said I did.

He tossed me a notebook and instructed me to take down a piece of dictation. After about five minutes he stopped and asked me for the notebook. He then proceeded to read my less than text-book Pitmans. He stopped at a word, beckoned me to look over his shoulder and pointed to an outline. ‘That’s not how you write that word,’ said he.

‘Well’ I replied, ‘that’s how I write it.’ I waited for the outburst and instructions to leave.

‘When can you start?’ he asked. I was in. I stayed for seven years and then headed for Australia.

I do not recall the stories Keith Graves related about Mackie. They probably came after I had left but they do not surprise me. For all his faults, and I recall him being stretchered out of the office after one drinking bout, Mackie was a good newspaperman and you could not bluff him.

I remember one senior journalist there asking for a rise. Mackie refused him so the journalist said he had an offer from another newspaper. The editor stood up, extended his hand and said: ‘Well, take it laddie, and the best of luck.’

The journalist did not have another offer and Mackie would not relent.

I also remember Keith Graves starting work there. I was the deputy chief reporter and a couple of times had to chip him about his spelling. I recall suggesting he should seek work in radio or television as you didn’t have to spell words there, just say them…

Years later, watching television in Australia, I noted a report by Graves from somewhere in the Middle East. He’d obviously heeded my advice. He did well. Happy retirement, Keith.

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Quote unquote

By David Isaacs

One of the many pleasures of Gentlemen Ranters is the reminder it provides of long lunches or evenings in the pub – swapping stories with colleagues, one sparking off another and another and another… All right, the absence of alcohol takes the edge of the experience but in a sense the spirit is still there.

Reading Keith Graves’s piece last week reminds me of the only time we met – though I doubt he will remember it.

In 1967 I was working for the Birmingham Post (then a respected regional morning broadsheet – happy days!) edited by David Hopkinson, who had earlier made a name for himself with the Sheffield Morning Telegraph for exposing the use by that city’s police of rhino whips on suspects.

I was despatched to write a constituency profile of Leicester South West, the scene of a by-election caused by the elevation of Herbert Bowden to the House of Lords. In his place Labour had selected a public-school and Oxbridge educated barrister called Neville Sandelson.

In the course of the day I met the candidates and accompanied Sandelson as he was walking very quickly on a canvassing trip. I suggested to him that he might have an uphill struggle as the Labour government was unpopular at that time and that he was following, in Herbert Bowden, a man with a very strong personal vote who had represented Leicester since the end of the war.

Sandelson was scornful of my question. ‘Personal votes count for very little,’ he said. ‘Labour could put a horse up here and get in.’

It was, of course, a wonderful quote but after my piece appeared the next day, Sandelson called a press conference – not only denying he had said any such thing but also declaring that he had not even met me.

David Hopkinson was not the sort of editor who disbelieved his reporters but this was serious stuff. He called me in and asked if I had a shorthand note. I explained that because we had been walking so quickly I didn’t have the opportunity to write it down until I got back to my car about five minutes later. ‘Was anyone with you?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘As a matter of fact, there was a reporter from the Sunday Express called Keith Graves, who would certainly have overheard the exchange between Sandelson and myself.’

Hoppy was delighted. ‘Keith used to work for me at Sheffield,’ he said – telling me to get back to my desk and forget all about it. He then began to set wheels in motion.

The following day, at his daily press conference, Sandelson suddenly recalled having met me and having said ‘something to the effect’ of what I’d reported.

Just a little debt I owe Keith, whom I have never met since that day but whose distinguished career I have always followed with interest.

For the record, incidentally, Sandelson (who later defected to the SDP and died in 2002) turned a 5,554 Labour majority into a victory for his Tory opponent, Tom Boardman, who won by a comfortable 3,939.

Sad, in a way, because I’ve been a lifelong Labour voter…

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The other Fleet Street – revived

By Harold Heys

The Express hit Manchester in 1927 and Lord Beaverbrook, firmly in the driving seat, spoke proudly of ‘a spirit of enterprise’. It was rather an inauspicious start however – a former corset warehouse at Ancoats and a few mean streets away from the bright city lights.

But it was a start. Within ten years a sister to the famous Black Lubyanka of Fleet Street had been built on the site and for more than 50 years the mid-market giants of Express and Mail – a mile away across the city centre – went at it like Lancashire cloggers.

By 1987 the Daily Mail had closed its Deansgate operation and in May 1988 Withy Grove, once Europe’s largest printing centre, breathed its last. The People, Mirror and Sunday Mirror lost their northern operations while over at Ancoats the Daily and Sunday Express and the Daily Star – launched in Manchester in 1978 – limped along for another 12 months.

It was heartbreaking for the journalists and the many other newspapermen and women, having to stand by and watch the slow disintegration of history. But the writing had been on the wall for a few years. Newspapers were being printed at satellite centres all over Britain. Who needed Manchester?

There were a few ill-fated attempts to brighten the gloom. The North West Times lasted a couple of months; the Post, based at Warrington, didn’t last much longer. the Sun, for a brief spell, and later the Daily Mail produced some regional pages in Manchester but by late 2002 the plug was pulled on even those modest enterprises.

London had always been the centre of the universe for the newspaper barons; from Hulton and Northcliffe through Beaverbrook and Scott to Murdoch and Maxwell. The north west was necessary for distribution only while advances in new technology – and the crushing of the print unions – slowly gathered pace. Manchester was allowed to ‘road-test’ the new technology. It was a bit like digging your own grave. And we knew it.

And then, out of the blue, came Broughton, the bright idea of John Maddock who had been working as a consultant for Express owner Richard Desmond for eight years or so. I told last week how he brought newspaper production back to the north west with, as The Beaver might have described it – a true ‘spirit of enterprise’.

The first edition of the new Daily Star Sunday on September 15, 2002, was a great success and more production work followed. The Sunday Express sport operation was moved north and a specialised team was created to produce TV programmes for all the titles. Another desk was formed to sub all the magazines including the Daily Express Saturday mag, the Sunday Express mag, the Daily Star mag, New! and Star magazines. Daily Express features moved up in January last year and Broughton now subs most of the feature pages for the Daily and Sunday Express as well as Daily Star news features and sport and just about everything for the Daily Star Sunday. It’s some operation and one that produces more than a thousand pages a week.

Another shrewd move inspired by Maddock was to make Broughton the Disaster Recovery site for the whole group. It had previously been housed in Glasgow but it was impractical to try to move key staff there in an emergency. The Disaster Recovery switch has certainly helped to cement Broughton’s future.

Former Sunday People men Mike Woods, Ray Ansbro and Ed Barry who were there on Day One at Broughton are still there although Mike has passed over the head honcho baton to Ged Henderson. A former editor of the Blackpool Gazette, he went on to join the Journal in Newcastle. He walked out of the editor’s job there a few years ago and pitched up later at Broughton where he doubles up as head of the Daily Express features team.

Frank McAuley is chief sub of Daily Star news, Ansbro is sports editor of the DSS and Scott Wilson is sports editor of the Sunday Express. There are up to a hundred people involved in the Broughton operation now; twice as many as in the early days. The small ground-floor room where it all started now houses magazines while upstairs there is a large editorial floor packed with the latest technology.

Main problem says Woods is that staff subs are not being replaced when they leave. It’s becoming more and more a casual operation. But it’s a job and the pay isn’t bad – for the north.

Back in the Good Old Days of Manchester production the earth used to shake as millions of copies cascaded off the deafening presses and into the dark city streets.

They were bound for Scotland and Ireland, northern areas of Wales and the midlands and the vast north of England. The Daily Herald from Chester Street, the Mirror and the Telegraph from Withy Grove, the Daily Mail from Deansgate, the Guardian from Cross Street and the Daily Express and Daily Star from Ancoats. And, on a Saturday night, as the rest of the country danced and drank, played and partied, the Sunday papers kept the ball – and the presses – rolling.

At Broughton the modern colour presses of Desmond’s Broughton Printers are rather more sedate but they certainly give a real newspaper ‘feel’ to the operation.

Manchester was a hard-bitten world of night owls and heavy drinkers, bruisers and odd-balls driven by deadlines but with a strange camaraderie probably found only in battle. Those days will never return, but at least the production of national newspapers is back and thriving again in Lancashire.

Robert Waterhouse’s excellent book on Manchester, The Other Fleet Street is still available, as he mentioned here a couple of weeks ago. Grab a copy.

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Early developer

By Ian Bradshaw.

The headmaster of Canford School shook his head in exasperation. ‘Standing on a street corner with a monkey on your shoulder is a waste of your education,’ he pronounced.

Unfortunately, or fortunately for me perhaps, my indoctrination into the world of journalism had not begun, so quick retorts such as ‘Fuck you!’ did not readily spring to one’s lips.

I suppose, when looking back on it, in 1960 faced with a student heading for a mathematics degree at one of the top universities, it must have seemed a ridiculous decision to a man steeped in academia.

The only photographer known to the majority of the British public was Tony Armstrong Jones who had just married Princess Margaret and he was associated with grainy black and white photographs of the East End of London not the high-class portraits of a Cecil Beaton or Baron [for whom he was an assistant].

My parents were also disappointed but became resigned to it. My father was a scientist and my uncle was a professor of mathematics at Manchester University, so it had been a foregone conclusion that I would follow. They thought, therefore, that if that was what I had decided I should go to the best college to learn the craft and I was duly accepted at Regent Street Polytechnic School of Photography under the then principal Margaret Harker, a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, a body that produced photographs totally irrelevant to the needs of Fleet Street and newspapers.

It was not long before I realised a fact that to this day holds true. Namely, those that can do and those that can’t teach. How on earth origami got into a photographic curriculum I will never know but once a week we were cutting and pasting bits of paper together as if we were doing a home decorating course.

I learnt about retouching with paintbrushes and scalpels on prints and negatives, printing in the dark rooms that was more fun with some of the young ladies on the course. Amazing what goes on in the gloom of a safelight… And then the big let down of portraiture classes.

This was where I thought I could really get to grips with photography but the first day, faced with a huge half-plate camera on an iron four-wheeled stand that took two or three students to move, I decided that this was not for me.

I persuaded my parents to buy me a Pentax H2, one of the first 35mm reflex cameras, and armed with this I was now mobile.

The college had an agreement with the Lucy Clayton agency that their new models could come in and sit for us to get pictures for their portfolios and they did not need much persuading that a day in the country with a young photographer would be much more interesting and produce better pictures.

My attendance fell to around 20% but I was producing some good portraits and eventually became the only student to have 20 x 16 prints from a 35mm camera allowed into the end of year exhibition, gaining a write up in the British Journal of Photography and Amateur Photographer. I still have those prints and have just published some in a retrospective book of my work over the past 50 years.

I managed to stagger through two years of this and then could stand no more, passing on the 3rd year and returning home to Salisbury to look for a job.

In those days it was not possible to go straight into Fleet Street without three years on a local paper so, armed with a small portfolio I approached the editor of the Salisbury Times. He was an elderly, white-haired, kindly gentleman who was encouraging but had ‘nothing at present’. However, would I be interested in any freelance jobs that might come up when their staff photographer was busy?

Of course, I would but the anticipated phone calls did not immediately materialise.

One day when I was beginning to think I had made a horrendous mistake and would never get a job, the call came. Could I photograph a dinner at the County Hotel for the paper. My first assignment!

In those days the secret of local newspaper photography was to get as many people in the pictures as possible working on the assumption that they would all buy a copy and boost sales and revenue. So arriving an hour early I was encouraged to see a balcony overlooking the dining hall. A perfect vantage point for an ace photographer.

I was extremely shy in those days and eventually found the president of the society running the dinner. He was reassuring: ‘First time? Don’t worry, do it all the time. I’ll say grace and then ask everyone to look up at you and you can get them all in from up there.’

With profuse thanks I retreated to my eyrie as the guests filed in.

I checked the exposure, checked my flash bulb and flashgun battery. All was working fine.

The president strode in, with the top table VIPs, banged his gavel, said grace and sat down to a hubbub of conversation.

‘Er, excuse me,’ my voice disappeared beneath the cacophony of sound. ‘Excuse me?’

Nothing.

I started to sweat and my successful career flashed before my eyes heading for oblivion.

It was now or never and in that instant my shyness vanished, never to return.

‘Oi! You lot!’, I bellowed.

You could have heard a pin drop. Two hundred pairs of eyes swiveled towards the balcony. I pressed the button. Flash! Pop! as the bulb ejected and fell 15 feet onto the dining room floor. I had it.

‘Thank you’ I bellowed again and waved to the assembled throng as I beat a hasty retreat.

The rest, as they say, is history: Surrey Comet, Reveille, The Times, Sunday Mirror, National Enquirer, Glasgow Herald, Observer, Telegraph Magazine, YOU, been there, done that. Now, instead of retiring, I find myself busier than ever back in the world of academia where it all started, photographing universities and colleges across America.

But some things never change: Those that can still do and those that can’t still teach.

And I still haven’t got that monkey.

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This show will run and run…

By Alan Whittaker

Fleet Street has never experienced a feeding frenzy of this magnitude. Politicians of all parties desperately seeking a diversion and any sanctuary from the mire of their own expenses scandal unite and hold up their hands to express shock horror at the antics of the loonies responsible for the demise of the News of the World.

An inconsequential film actor and a seedy multi-millionaire, miffed because their assignations with vice girls attracted the attention of the Screws, joined the chorus of hate and their bleats have been echoed, of course, by repetitive television programmes gorging on the entrails of the old girl.

This is a show destined to run and run. It could be a blockbuster although I doubt if 20th Century Fox will be bidding for the film rights. The curtain-raiser in the form of a televised inquisition by the Commons select committee intrigued Joe Public. Quite clearly there is an enthralling story line and an assorted bunch of disruptive characters usually found in the cast of a Whitehall farce, a pantomime, or a cell. Padded perhaps. But such a prestigious production merits a much grander stage than an obscure committee room.

There have been several suggestions.

A suitable and extremely popular venue would be a historic theatre just off Ludgate Hill, named, I understand, after an elderly Thespian called Bailey. It is an auditorium where many renowned performers made their farewell speeches and took their final bows before exiting to obscurity. A dark solid oak compound with a protective highly polished and well-gripped brass rail occupies centre stage. Uniformed attendants of a surly disposition maintain a watchful presence in this area which is reserved for characters central to the plot. It is where I saw the Brothers Kray and the Richardson gang make their last public appearances.

It will be familiar to at least one likely member of the cast in this Ned Kelly production; the paradoxically named criminal Goodman. Perhaps this odious wretch could be persuaded to emerge from whichever sewer he is currently polluting and reprise his much publicised role as the Lone Rogue Reporter despite growing doubts as to the accuracy of this billing. His testimony on this aspect could be interesting.

Some of the main characters in the dramatis personae have already been allocated.

Despite an unnaturally subdued performance at the audition there could be only one candidate with the venomous aura and natural nastiness to do justice (!) to the key role of the Wicked Witch.

She was not alone in radiating reticence. I never thought I would feel sorry for Ned, the executive producer of what promises to be an absorbing piece of theatre, but watching his somnolent appearance before the select committee I came fairly close. He’s not the kind that attracts sympathy.

Could this haggard apparition, I wondered, possibly be the audaciously aggressive shirt-sleeved dynamo I first encountered when he was brought in by the Carr family to save their News of the World from the clutches of the predatory Maxwell? An act akin – as it turned out – to inviting a cobra to share your bed.

Was this the debonair D’Artagnan from Down Under who swash-buckled his way into Bouverie Street and put the print Mafia to the sword? He resembled a cadaver prepared and groomed for the interrogation by an incompetent embalmer.

No doubt he will be fully focused and firing all guns by the time the production is premiered. He is adept at firing.

A major role will almost certainly be reserved for the amnesiac son and heir of the Demonised King who seemed to find the first rehearsal a trifle tedious. He had the appearance of the doomed dumdum in a sci-fi horror film who’s the first victim of the monster. Audiences may find his Dalek-like speaking style disconcerting and he will certainly have to brush-up his lines for the big production. The lad’s memory must cause his old man some concern too. He had ‘no knowledge’ or couldn’t recall events or incidents which, for one reason or another, the prying committee seemed to think relevant. Such as authorising cheques worth up to £700,000. Memorising lines can be very difficult.

Memorising lies is much easier for supporting cast, as some fringe players in this potential crowd puller have already demonstrated.

Most successful farces have at least one anencephalic character who is sublimely stupid, incompetent and unaware of their immediate surroundings. They are always good for a laugh. Over the years Ned has recruited a phalanx of the more seriously afflicted specimens and bestowed executive authority on them so there is a distinct possibility he could be spoilt for choice when deciding who takes on this envied role. But according to the bookies there is only one contender.

Take a bow Andy Clouseau. What better choice could there be than a figurehead who can remain as aloof and untroubled as an isolated lighthouse blissfully unaware that he is surrounded by a sea seething with intrigue and criminal activity? According to glimpses of the script in the public domain Clouseau had a sidekick, an unsavoury individual known – possibly because he has lycanthropic tendencies – as Wolfman. We’ve all met them. Wild, red-rimmed watery-eyed, slavering froth, sprouting grey hairs from flared nostrils and howling at the full moon. That sort of thing. You avoid them in the pub.

I suspect one person who dearly wishes he had never bumped into Wolfman is the recently resigned Commissioner of Scotland Yard. With Ned Kelly Productions you always get the top players. Why have a plain PC Plod or a dim detective constable in the show when you can entice the country’s top copper and one of his deputies into the quagmire?

Like most old NoW staffers I feel a combustible mixture of loathing and contempt for the despicable gang of unprincipled amateurs whose ineffable stupidity, ignorance, and arrogance, killed the old girl. As it was wryly observed in Ranters there was a time when experienced reporters were employed to find stories without resorting to the underhand and often illegal assistance of seedy shysters masquerading as private investigators.

Reporters who could write shorthand, knew their way around, and maintained contacts without resorting to a cheque book.

Reporters who had learnt the business on weeklies and in areas where rival evening papers competed.

Reporters who, as starry-eyed kids on staid locals, rejoiced on obtaining their first NUJ probationers card – evidence they were indeed journalists – and yearned to work in Fleet Street because, like a beckoning Everest, it was the pinnacle of achievement. Getting to Fleet Street was a hard slog.

Now, in an industry where talent and ingenuity have been replaced by unashamed crass and monumental incompetence they seem to be recruited from free sheets, glossy gossip magazines catering for the brainless and produced by the mindless, and the take-away across the road. With pygmies such as the Wicked Witch, Clouseau and Wolfman in catastrophic command.

What do these contemptible creatures know of the old News of the World?

The paper that revived British athletics with the Emsley Carr mile, a race that attracted athletes from all over the world. The paper that founded the oldest match play golf tournament in the world? Or the London to Brighton road race? The nationwide darts tournament involving thousands of pub players culminating at Alexandra Palace? Or a score of other oddities, such as the Brixham trawler race, the town criers’ contest, rifle shooting at Bisley, the northeast leek show, the Scottish pipe band contest and the El Alamein renunion?

The paper that employed legal experts to help readers with all manner of problems they couldn’t otherwise afford through its John Hilton Bureau? A Knights of the Road feature that recognised help given by motorists?

All pre-Murdoch. All gone.

History will record, without emotion, that after 168 years the News of the World a popular Sunday newspaper died on July 10, 2011 It didn’t. That was a tawdry replica.

The real News of the World died the day Murdoch took over.

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