Issue # 209

This week

The News of the Screws saga isn’t going to go away, so what would Harry Procter – legendary [sic] ace red-top reporter in our (and my dad’s) day – have made of it all?

His daughter Val Lewis – she married Lynn Lewis and, like most of Harry’s family, worked for John Rodgers’ Fleet Street News Agency – reports.

By one of those happy coincidences, Brian Hitchen, sometime editor of the Star and the Sunday Express, follows up a story from last week about drunken editors that also features Harry, this time in a fondly remembered pub conversation with his old nemesis, former Sunday Pic/Sunday Mirror boss Reg Payne.

Yes, children… drink was sometimes taken, often in fairly heroic quantities. But it was not always enjoyed, nor properly handled, as Peter Laud learnt to his cost on the Daily Mail and elsewhere. Peter’s contribution, which was winged to us all the way from Tasmania, is the latest in our series about how we got started in this job, prompted by Guardian writer Walter Schwarz’s autobiography, The Ideal Occupation.

Last week we marked the sad passing of two frequently by-lined Page One names; this week we have fond memories of both of them.

John Dale and David Stoakes remember Gilbert Johnson (of the Sun, and most other papers).

And snapper Nigel Wright files from Australia with memories of Barry Wigmore (Daily Mirror and Today).

Then cartoonist Rudge observes the summer holiday intake making discoveries about journalists…

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Getting ‘a human story out of Satan’

By Val Lewis

A ‘hack’ once merely meant a weary, cynical journalist. There was a certain pride in being called ‘an old hack’. Today it implies evil practices.

I cannot help wondering what my father, Harry Procter – an old hack who has been dead more than 50 years – would have made of today’s murky Fleet Street practices of mobile phone hacking. Even though he often used dubious means to get some of his astonishing scoops, pushing up the circulation of the Sunday Pictorial by millions, I like to think that he wouldn’t have stooped that low.

Under the editorship of first Hugh Cudlipp and later Colin Valdar and encouraged by news editor, Fred Redman, on the Sunday Pictorial he was more or less given license to pull any fast trick he could muster to outwit his fellow journalists. Even in his day, in the early 50s, black arts were awash in Fleet Street. But in his autobiography Street of Disillusion he insisted he got all his stories by gaining the confidence of his subject and never paid anyone for a scoop.

When I was 16 I typed out the manuscript of his book for him. The original title was to be With These Dirty Hands. He wrote the book because he was sickened by some of the things he was asked to do by his newspaper. He felt he had sold his soul to the Fleet Street devil. He had been diagnosed with bi-polar and yes, like most Fleet Street journalists, he did drink and smoke more than he should have.

The Fleet Street devil took not just his soul, but eventually his life. He died in greatly reduced circumstances, aged 47, of lung cancer leaving our mother Doreen to bring up the two younger children on her own – with help from their four adult children and the Newspaper Press Fund (now the Journalists’ Charity).

As a trainee journalist on my local newspaper, at the time I often felt uncomfortable about what he wrote. But I realise now that he really did write his book as a sort of atonement for doing things he was ashamed of. His old mother, Flo (my grandma Procter), would not have approved of what he ended up doing. She insisted her five children went to chapel every Sunday, and was proud that her favourite son had entered what she thought was an honourable profession.

He never intended to end up like that. He’d aspired to be a respectable journalist. He had charisma, talent and wanted to write, to change the minds of men. When he was on the Daily Mail, a protégée of that brilliant editor Lindon Lang, he was encouraged to write ethically and honestly.

When he at last got a job in Fleet Street, on the Mirror when he was 22, he could hardly believe his luck. At 16 it had seemed an impossible goal. He was full of hope and ambition, dedicated to becoming an honourable ethical journalist. He’d never envisaged joining the ranks of what they used to call in those days ‘the gutter press’. Here is an extract from his book:

I walked down the Street of Adventure – aged only 22, the happiest and proudest young man in the world. To me, at that youthful and energetic age, Fleet Street represented the beginning of all things, the end of all things, the meaning of all things.

In Middlesbrough I had boasted to my colleagues: ‘By the time I am thirty I will be a Fleet Street Reporter.’ And here I was eight years ahead of schedule.

When I look back now, with my wisdom, with my experience, with the cynicism which Fleet Street gave me, and – yes, let us confess it – with my disillusions, and think about that young Yorkshireman who walked down Fleet Street all those years ago, I would say that, in my professional opinion, he had the world at his feet.

He was a fairly good-looking lad. He was as fit as a young ox, he was a moderate drinker, an indifferent smoker. He was trained to the hilt, as a solid, all-round reporter; trained to write straight-forward, simple English, to report the truth – and only the truth – accurately, swiftly, certainly. He was capable of tackling any assignment, which, even in this world hub of journalism, could be offered to him. He was a good reporter.

What use did Fleet Street make of this young man’s body, mind, soul, ability? And, equally, what use did he make of Fleet Street?

These are questions to be answered not by me. I am merely the reporter now, telling the tale fully and, I hope, fairly, presenting the reader with the facts. The reader must decide upon his own answers.

Fleet Street, I then expected, was to be the testing ground for all of my previous hard work and effort.

I remember standing enthralled before the Edgar Wallace Memorial, a simple plaque at the comer of Fleet Street and Ludgate Circus, reading with reverence that glorious epitaph: He Died a Good Reporter. I remember offering a silent prayer in front of that memorial that I might be able to uphold the standards of journalism required by Fleet Street.

A few years later, when I was a full-blown member of that rollicking, swashbuckling haven of hard-drinking, the London Press Club, I dared not have talked to my fellow members about that night of dedication. I think they might have laughed.

But that night I glowed with a humble pride in Fleet Street, and in being one of its fellows. And I went off to my Bloomsbury bedroom early, to brush up my shorthand.

I need not have bothered. For, within a month, I discovered that at least one thing the Daily Mirror was not paying me for, was my ability to take a shorthand note.

The great Montague Smith of the Daily Mail, close friend of our family and godfather to my sister, Carolanne, wrote many years ago: Who is the weary journalist? This is he …Who gets a human story out of Satan.

Which I think just about sums up how far the newspaper industry has sunk.

Val Procter started as a reporter on the Sevenoaks News, followed by the Bromley Office of the West Kent Mercury, where she met Lynn Lewis (then on the Kentish Times in Orpington). She moved to the Windsor, Slough and Eton Express, and later the South Londoner in Streatham. She also worked for Fleet Street News Agency and for Drapery and Fashion Weekly.

Harry Procter’s book, The Street of Disillusion, is available almost everywhere on-line or on order from any half-decent bookshop.

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Drunk in charge…

By Brian Hitchen

Reg Payne, when night editor of the Daily Mirror, was one of Fleet Street’s nastier drunks. He was also pretty vile when he was sober.

One night, in the Printer’s Devil, a poor, drink-addled, chap called Harry Procter, who had been one of Fleet’s Street’s finest reporters, was clinging to the rim of the bar.

Reg Payne strutted through the door, trailed by a bunch of his toadies. Payne, ever the odious bully, shouted across the crowded room: ‘Heard you’d just come out of jail, Procter, what was it this time, drunk in charge of a motor car?’

Hauling himself upright, Harry replied, with as much dignity as he could muster: ‘That’s right, Reg. But, unlike you, I’ve never been drunk in charge of a newspaper.’

Grins spread along the bar, and nasty Payne headed for the door, followed by his hangers-on and the jeers of the crowd.

None of us had much money in those days, but several pound notes and a few fivers were stuffed into Harry Procter’s pockets, and someone volunteered to drive him home.

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Like a lamb to the slaughter

By Peter Laud

It was the drink that did for me in the end. There were other factors too of course – unreliable shorthand note, a lack of street-smart cunning so vital for a good operator – but the drink was to blame.

Journalism was never my number-one career choice anyway. No: farming was the way I wanted to go but my old man, a dyed-in-the-wool Daily Express reader whose heroes were Chapman Pincher and the columnist Beachcomber, said a life on the land would be a waste of time and, anyway, where would the money come from to buy a farm?

Instead the possibility of a teacher’s life beckoned. I’d teach geography and coach the First Fifteen and wear a white polo neck sweater and roar advice from the touchline and marry that blonde piece who taught Eng Lit. But at teacher training college interviews a schoolboy stutter and a total inability to say vowels put paid to that and after a dozen failed applications I was still without career direction.

But then a former schoolmate, Roger Busby, who had gone on to better things as a reporter for Cater’s News Agency in Birmingham – he later achieved his dream job as PRO for Devon and Cornwall police and wrote crime novels – said that reporters occasionally obtained free tickets for the Hawthorns, home of West Bromwich Albion, and that was enough for me. Within a few months I was a junior reporter at the Birmingham Evening Mail on three pounds nine shillings per week and clearly headed to work alongside Chapman.

But then the problem of drink became apparent.

At lunchtime, and frequently earlier, we’d adjourn to the back bar of the Midland Hotel over the road for halves (or pints) of Bass the colour of dark honey. Now Bass was strong stuff but while the Mail staff veterans (Reg Jinks, Ted Taylor, Phil Lymn, Geoff Hancock, A J MacIlroy) handled it with ease, the junior reporter had difficulty from the start.

One pint meant blurred vision; two a headache; three meant no legs, illegible shorthand and a desperate desire to sleep the afternoon away. At the Birmingham Press Club, then housed upstairs in Bull Street, real pros such as Ray Hill (Mirror) Keith Colling (Daily Mail) and Jack Hill (Express) seemed to have no trouble combining drink and work; but for newcomers to the trade the course offered by the National Council for the Training of Journalists was of doubtful value. No mention of how to handle drink there. I tried to drink more, I really did, but in Manchester a few years later realised that drinkwise I was going nowhere.

In Manchester the staff of the Daily Mail (including Tony Hoare, Malcolm Long, Brian MacArthur, David Seymour, Chris Buckland, Tim Beaumont, Gib McCall) used to repair after work to The Victoria, to yarn about the day’s activities over a few beers in the company of the dreaded Ken Donlan, news editor and Very Fearsome Man (VFM) whose look of disapproval at a piece of crap copy could kill.

To drink in the office pub each working day was almost a condition of employment at the Mail along with a blue suit to be worn every day except Saturdays when a sports jacket was allowed. Some evenings I’d struggle through a couple of pints but often I was forced to make my excuses and leave.

I tried training in private, nursing a bottle of scotch at my damp little four pounds a week flat in Lansdowne Rd, West Didsbury, but it was no good. My personal best remained at the miserably low level of half a bitter and three shandies or a pint of cider on nights when I went out hell-raising in West Dids.

Back then, in the mid-sixties, it was customary for the reporting staff of the Daily Mail to spend each Maundy Thursday on an organised drinking spree. The programme called for a coach ride to various pubs followed by a game of ten-pin bowling, a Chinese meal and a few beers to round things off. For me it had all the hallmarks of a disaster and, once again, I made my excuses.

The reaction from colleagues, good blokes all of them, was swift and predictable, a chorus of You Can’t Say No. When pressed for an explanation I said I had a bird lined up, no worries, know what I mean and a tap of the nose. The lads left next day with an empty seat on the coach and I spent the day inspecting the mould on the lounge wall and dining on a Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie eaten straight from the tin with a spoon. It was, in its own way, a memorable day and one that at least had the benefit of being headache-free next day.

When I fled Manchester and KD for the sunshine of Perth, Western Australia, and a job on Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, the first paper he bought after learning the trade on the Adelaide News, I discovered further perils lurking in the pub. Compared with chaps on the Sunday Times the lads back in Manchester and Birmingham were drinking in a minor league.

In Perth ice-cold Swan Lager came in 7oz glasses known as middys. A 7oz glass, barely bigger than a thimble? Surely even a failed drinker would have no trouble in disposing of half a dozen. Wrong. For Swan Lager turned out to be only one step removed from liquid barbed wire. Half a dozen resulted in seriously impaired speech, a wild staring look, total memory loss for several days and a series of what Australians are pleased to call technicolour yawns.

I never did learn to love the grog and in a career that began with a reporter’s pay packet and ended in much the same way more than 40 years later, I was forced to make my excuses and leave too many times.

The most significant occasion was the 100th year of publication of Mr Murdoch’s Sunday Times, a river of gold which regularly carried 100 pages of classifieds a week. Mr Murdoch was coming to Perth to join the celebrations and since I’d laboured for several weeks writing the obligatory centenary lift-out supplement I was invited, along with some rather more senior colleagues, to join the great man for cocktails.

The editor’s secretary buzzed round checking what she imagined to be the automatic acceptances. But there was one problem. For reasons unexplained then and now Mr Murdoch had chosen to hold his celebration drinks on the same night as the monthly meeting of the local Organic Growers Group. I sent my regrets figuring that a working knowledge of garlic sprays, pruning and the best time to plant carrots was probably far more important than touching the hem of his garment. I suspect that from that moment my card was marked (‘unreliable; shows complete lack of interest, does not share the company’s vision’) by those who care about corporate protocols.

Some blokes can drink; others cannot. Maybe it’s genetic. But if you don’t drink you’re not in the swim. You’re not getting the office goss. You’re not keeping tabs on the movers and shakers. You’re possibly passing up the chance of impressing an editor whose special pastime (fishing, gardening, ballroom dancing) just might by some miracle coincide with yours and guarantee instant promotion. Instead, you’re out there somewhere in Nowheresville with your cup of cold tea and meat pie. Unaccounted for and unnoticed…

So now I have a small farm in southern Tasmania, half a world away from Deansgate. I never did get to meet Mr. Murdoch or visit the Hawthorns but missed opportunities are not necessarily matters for regret when there are more important issues at hand. In a few weeks time we will be lambing and in December making hay as the comforting rituals of rural life roll on.

Occasionally, just for fun, I’ll scrawl a note in Mr Pitman’s shorthand (I enjoy Gow’s music) knowing that the real music is the thud of a Ferguson tractor, the drum beat of the baler and maybe late summer rain on a hot tin roof. I’d certainly drink to that. But… one lump or two?

Peter Laud worked on the Birmingham Evening Mail and the Daily Mail before moving to Australia and jobs in Perth and Canberra. He’s also worked as a freelance but now lives in Kettering, Southern Tasmania, where for a while he ran the local post office before ignoring his dad’s advice.

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Odd man out

By John Dale

I can confirm that Gilbert Johnson’s imagination sometimes ran away with him, producing a stream of the most hilarious scoops for the Sun in the early 70s. Here are two examples.

In one he focused his attention on the popular washing powder, OMO. Rather surprisingly, a Sun page 3 lead disclosed that its sales were rocketing in Hessle, Hull, and Gilbert has discovered the startling reason.

According to his report, it was flying off the shelves because of growing sexual frustration being suffered by randy housewives whose husbands were away fishing at sea, or merely down the pub. The women were parking the soapbox conspicuously in their kitchen windows as a secret signal to passers by, meter readers, delivery men and random drunks – meaning Old Man Out. When this was sighted, it meant open house for other blokes to dash in to perform a quick service of the lady in question, and dash out before the hubby turned up.

It was all the rage in Hessle. Everyone was at it apparently. I don’t think this respectable fishing community ever recovered its reputation.

In another instance, I was covering some dramatic court case at Leeds Assizes alongside Gilbert and next morning the Sun splash had an extra revelation that scooped everyone else completely. The headline declared judge weeps over… (whatever the subject was).

We were all summoned into court first thing where a bemused judge eyed the press bench and said he had a brief clarification to make, which he delivered very deliberately and went on the lines of: ‘I am a High Court judge. I wish to make it clear to the gentlemen of the press (at which he pinned Gilbert with a beady eye) that I occasionally may touch my eye, as do most human beings. I assure you that I never weep while performing my public duties. I certainly did not weep yesterday as is being reported in the press.’

We stepped outside and roared with laughter. Gilbert got the next round in across the road at the Queen Vic.

Gilbert did push the frontiers sometimes, and kept us all on our toes. There are many other examples of his amazing scoops. Yes, he was very imaginative. He was a good reporter in every way but he was never better than when leaning against a bar, giving that rather odd smile and giggling as another bizarre idea began to form in his brain. We’d learn about it next morning.

There was no shame in being scooped by Gilbert. It was impossible not to be. We always forgave him.

In a way I think the people of Hull were blessed to have a reporter of Gilbert’s unbridled talent living among them. He made an unexceptional place seem incredibly exotic, erotic and generally mysterious as he projected it to the outside world through his own magic lens, seeing things that were largely invisible to ordinary mortals. Its citizens must sometimes have read his articles with great frustration, peering out of the window and wondering how on earth they were missing out on all the excitement apparently occurring nightly in the mean streets around them.

He was the Harry Potter of tabloid journalism, and I mean that in the nicest way. He would have laughed.

If Hull Council had made him their PR supremo, as they should have, it would now be flooded with tourists and psychic investigators interested in the phenomena of parallel universes.

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Master of the keyboard

By David Stoakes

I only ever knew Gilbert Johnson to be in a panic once when we worked together on the Sun. During the Cod War in the early seventies he engineered a place on a deep-sea trawler out of Hull bound for Iceland to face the gunboats.

No mean sacrifice for him, spending three and a half weeks on board without setting foot on shore. As everybody who ever met him knows he was a very sociable land beast.

It was perhaps ironic that Newington Trawlers named their ships after authors and I boarded the Joseph Conrad to replace Gilbert after his stint in the none too placid waters of the Arctic. The only trouble was nobody had informed him I was on my way.

Gilbert had been told a replacement would be sent, but I don’t think he had given it much thought before it was time to leave the fishing grounds.

The first he knew of an impending nightmare was when the skipper of his homeward-bound vessel told him they were to rendezvous with the Joseph Conrad to transfer him for another three weeks…

Gilbert wanted to tender his notice to the redoubtable Ken Donlan in London but then the trawler unexpectedly and mysteriously developed long range ‘radio problems’, making this impossible. I think the hoax was jointly brewed between Manchester and the trawler company. I was only too happy to maintain radio silence to help turn the screw a little further.

The real reason was the two fishing boats were getting within short-range radio of each other so that Gilbert could give me a briefing on what was going on. I am sure he was never so glad to hear my voice in his eventful life.

He will be missed. Picking up the phone in the office and hearing the words ‘Hello, it’s Gilbert,’ suggested mischief and subterfuge in the very delivery.

He was also quite an accomplished pianist and showed his talent on the stories where overnights were involved; if the hotel or pub had a battered dusty Steinway available he would often use it charm us and members of the local populace.

Like all good district men he had a formidable network of police contacts. One senior officer renowned for his dislike of Her Majesty’s Press was holding a news conference in the days when the newsdesks adopted a mob-handed tactic to the big ones.

A question came from the back of the crowded room and the grumpy copper’s face lit up into a big smile. He peered into the fog of smoke and said: ‘Is that you Gilbert? I know you are here somewhere.’

I’ve long forgiven him for not turning up to replace me for the night watch on a stakeout in West Yorkshire. He did arrive in time to speak to the newsdesk the next morning. Whether pianos had anything to do with it I couldn’t possibly say.

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The exes Teflon Don

By Nigel Wright

Bless me, ‘Wiggers’ is gone. As a young photographer it was my privilege to run around the world with Barry Wigmore for both Today and the Daily Mirror.

All good writers need a patron and Wigmore found that in the late, great, editor Richard Stott, who adored his friendship and was prepared to recognise and fund his exceptional talent accepting all his eccentricities.

Hanging on to Wiggers coat tails, I had some of the very best adventures of my career. Known to Stott as ‘the office bleeding heart liberals’, we were forever offering up hair-brained schemes for the editor to sponsor. Some he didn’t, most he did.

Once, exasperated by Wiggers nagging as yet another exotic feature proposal floated across his desk, Stotty dragged us into his office, thrust the latest readership survey under Wigmore’s nose and barked that according to this document the sort of features that we were creating ranked in readers estimation, somewhere below horoscopes and small ads.

Unperturbed Wigmore raised an eyebrow and merely said: ‘Can we go then…?’ Needless to say a purple-faced Stotty told us to piss of’. So we did… to India and Bangladesh.

Mostly, I will remember his unfailing ability to produce a well-pressed suit of clothing under shell fire, and his ability to find a razor, shower and soap when all those around him (mostly me) failed. He was, in short the cleanest, tidiest and one of the bravest writers that I have ever worked with.

In Cambodia, chasing the Khmer Rouge, he was known to all as ‘Mr. Barry’, while I, filthy dirty, sweating and dragging equipment around as usual, was dismissed as ‘Anu’, (as in ‘Mr. Barry and you’). I would tell him, ‘It’s like working with bloody Princess Anne.’ But time and again, the great spin-off for me was that while HRH was feted by the locals, I would often be able to detach myself unnoticed, slide off, and to take the photographs that we needed, un-chaperoned by government officials or other minders.

That particular Cambodian trip was an especially hairy one. We had a rule, ‘always sleep with your boots under the bed’, simply because if things got nasty you could run away naked better and faster if you could get your boots on.

One night we were staying way up in bandit country in a villa in the middle of a lake. It was such a hot evening that, trying to catch a cooling breeze, we pushed our mosquito-netted cots out onto the 1st floor balcony, then settled down to sleep. I dozed off only to be woken by the sounds of an intense, close gun battle. Wiggers added to the cacophony by snoring his head off.

I rolled out, slipped my boots on and crawled over to sleeping beauty. Yelling in his ear, I managed to rouse him and he joined me naked, except for our boots, huddling against the sanctuary of the parapet wall while we tried to figure out what was going down.

Suddenly, into this mayhem waltzed our pretty young Cambodian translator. Programmed by her government to dismiss all and any dodgy incidents that we might encounter she uttered the phrase, ‘and so…this is nothing’, just as a burst of machinegun fire struck the wall above our heads. As the plaster showered down on us she dived for cover missing me but landing straight on top of the naked Wigmore…He was always a lucky sod!

Wiggers hated being rude. Once in Vietnam as we sat eating with villagers in a ‘rustic country cafe’, I recall telling him that there was a pig at the table. Assuming my bad manners, Wiggers shot me a death glare which I only defused by pointing out the large snout resting next to his elbow.

The restaurant owner ran up and hit the hungry porker with a bamboo pole. Squealing with pain it somersaulted through the air like a gigantic pink and black kangaroo and crashed through the table. How we lived through that without being crushed by half a ton of bacon I will never know. At least, as Wiggers pointed out, we learnt that pigs could fly.

But his politeness could lumber him in dire trouble. On another trip, we were invited, as guests of honour, to a feast of swamp turtle by the elders of a northern Thailand border village. Thanks to my camera meanderings and ‘the Princess Anne effect’, we arrived a bit late; the whole thing had gone cold and was covered in flies. I firmly declined and just ate rice.

Wiggers who in dodgy climes, would normally ludicrously sit with his hand firmly clamped over any open beer, coke or water bottle to stop the indigenous fly population polluting the bottle, thought this incredibly rude. Try as I might to dissuade my usually fastidious partner, he tucked into a turtle egg sack and some rather nasty looking grey meat. The 9-hour drive back to Bangkok turned into hell as Wiggers’ insides decided to try to become his ‘outsides’.

On arrival a doctor was summoned to his hotel room, decided that this was a truly horrendous illness and prescribed the pallid Wiggers two full carrier bags of drugs! He burst out laughing, threw the whole lot in the bin and stated, rather obviously, that he was feeling a bit empty and insisted that we went in search of fine dining and claret. We did and blow me, he was right as rain the next morning. He was, as I often saw, a very tough little bird.

Style mattered to Wiggers: even his ‘flak jacket’ looked as if he had ironed it on. To drive into besieged Sarajevo,he selected a very dodgy, highly impractical, ‘soft skinned’ BMW Coupe from the second-hand car market in Split simply because it had leather seats and a pinstripe. It broke down so often and in such perilous places that it nearly cost us our lives on more than one occasion.

In India, as I went for an overdue wash and brush up, he sampled then threw our first proper meal in days from a moving train (too disgusting). I wanted to murder him for that.

In the sewers of Bucharest, upon entering he surfaced almost immediately choking and gagging while I was forced below alone again and again to endure the stench of the underground sewer dwellers. I wanted to belt him for that.

In the Catskill Mountains he allowed Mike Tyson’s barber to cut his hair and came out with the story, amazing collect pics and a head looking like a coconut (looked good). I nearly suffocated laughing at him for that.

In Houston he ordered, on expenses, the most exotically priced bottle of wine (beautiful nose on this) that I have ever drunk and then another couple just so we could have the most priceless hangovers in history. I wanted to put that on HIS expenses… They might have questioned mine but never those of ‘Wiggers’, the expenses ‘Teflon Don’, bless him.

And what was the best thing for me about Barry Wigmore…?

He knew a story.

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Rudge

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