Editor’s letter: the untold stories
British Journalism Review – out this week
Best man at a Hollywood wedding, by Jeffrey Blyth
Court in the act, by Stan Solomons
The elephant we missed, by Garth Gibbs
Pleasant memories of Reveille, by Ian Bradshaw
The office Mungo, by Jack Irvine
The gent from the Why Pee, by Colin Dunne
PLUS Letters – on newspapers without editors, the Dalai Lama’s great escape, Fat Bob’s photo, and changing standards in London.
Letter from the editor
The untold stories
A lady Ranter asked the editor this week, ‘What about all the untold stories of Fleet Street?’ She cited three: 1. The night militant lesbians raided the Daily Mail; 2. When the windsock on the Maxwell House helipad was rigged so that The Ego could not land; 3. What happened to the hacks when the printers closed down The Times?
It’s a memory thing, again.
Here at Palazzo Ranto consensus appears to be that the lezzie attempt to storm the Mail appeared somewhere, if only in the Mail. But it’s all a bit hazy; maybe the story appeared only in the Harrow and in The Stab.
And were there not several books written about the closure of The Thunderer? Certainly there were several written during it.
As for the windsock, that’s one we remember well: it didn’t prevent the Ego landing (© the late lamented Peter Donnelly, by the way) – au contraire.
The helicopter pilot, returning ‘the Publisher’ from Heathrow, complained that he couldn’t see the windsock on the top of the Mirror building.
An order was issued to the effect that, in future, the windsock should always be visible. And the company Flag Marshal (oh yes!) in his ignorance of aeronautics ensured this by putting a wire coat-hanger inside it, so it would always stand out visibly and horizontally.
Now, as all you retired Senior Aircraftmen will be aware, a horizontal windsock specifies an amount of wind. Thirty knots, in fact. So next time the pilot brought the Fatman back, he allowed for that windspeed, and landed with a bit of a bump.
The flag marshal was summarily dismissed for ‘conspiracy to assassinate the publisher’.
That sort of thing happened a lot, in those days.
It was all satisfactorily sorted out, in the end.
But it isn’t a story that is untold. Not, at least, by me.
There are – probably needless to say – plenty that are untold, though.
Jeffrey Blyth sent a short one, from the days when he was roving European corr for the Daily Mail, and he also suggested that there must be many more out there that would entertain our growing community (6,000 readers a day, at last count).
Stan Solomons reminds us that things happened in magistrates’ courts that somehow never made the papers.
Garth Gibbs has a lovely story from South Africa that never made it into print, because it was thought that there were more important things occurring in that country at the time.
While Ian Bradshaw merely points out that some of the stories that were told were not necessarily the same stories that he witnessed as a snapper. Ahem, possibly the less said about that, the better.
Colin Dunne, continuing his professional peregrinations, has now (after the Craven Herald and the Northern Echo) fetched up in Halifax on the Yorkshire Post. He mentions, in passing, a story from the town’s soccer ground that never made the News of the World, despite it being right up the street – almost literally – of two of that paper’s stalwart reporters…And a dog that talked The People news editor out of running a story.
SLIP-UP, Tony Delano’s account of ‘how Fleet Street found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard lost him’ is full of stories that never made the papers. Brian MacArthur. former editor of the Western Morning News and Today contributes an excellent review of the newly republished book in the current issue (out this week) of British Journalism Review. Read it on our Books site: ‘deservedly a Fleet Street classic.’
If you’d like to go one better and read an undelivered speech (by Ian Skidmore, not delivered to the Liverpool Press Club anniversary luncheon) you can read it on his blogsite at http://skidmoresisland.blogspot.com:80
And there is much, much more, in similar vein in his hilarious autobiography, Forgive Us Our Press Passes. Oh, sorry: that’s another book plug.
Perhaps the best story never told (never told, that is, to readers) was how the papers ever came out in the first place.
As Jack Irvine recalls, it wasn’t as if everybody thought they were on the same side; there was quite frequently a Mungo to contend with.
It wasn’t always easy.
But then, as Mike Molloy was fond of saying: ‘Nobody ever said it should be easy – but it should be fun.’
And there you have it.
BJR – Out this week
In addition to the SLIP-UP review, the journalists’ quarterly mag has a stonking interview with Piers Morgan, explaining his attitudes to just about everything, from journalists to share-dealing, via the abuse of prisoners of war to his new-found celebrity status.
And plenty about his editorships of the News of the World and the Daily Mirror.
…But it certainly took me two or three years to understand what the Mirror was all about. You know, there’s no other paper in Fleet Street that has the sheer volume of ex-journalists that worked there and that feel incredibly proud of the paper and almost feel a part-ownership of it. It seemed every media commentator in Fleet Street used to work at the Mirror, so you had an irrationally large amount of criticism, good and bad, because people felt this ownership. To start with I railed against that, then I began to ride with it and then I went and read the old Mirrors and began to understand it. A lot of it I thought was hypocritical guff. I remember the leaving party for Syd Young, a great character, when there was a real old Mirror turnout. So what I did was get the Mirror from the day Syd joined, back in the 1960s – 24 pages of light, trite shite, which made me laugh. Blue-rinsed spectacles can distort things, can’t they?
Best man at the wedding
By Jeffrey Blyth
Back in 1956 Anita Ekberg, the sexy Swedish actress, who starred in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita , and British actor Anthony Steel, decided to get married while attending a film festival in Florence. They were married in the Florence city hall, next door to the famous Uffizi gallery.
It was a small affair. Fleet Street show-biz reporter Donald Zec, if I recall, was recruited as best man. Peter Stephens of the Mirror and myself were ‘groomsmen’ and official witnesses
As we left after the ceremony the bride glanced at the life-size nude and well-hung Michelangelo statue of David which stands in the courtyard outside the City Hall and exclaimed ‘Wow! Almost as big as Frank Sinatra’s”.’
Needless to say, in those days, that never made print. And the marriage lasted only three years.
Court in the act
By Stan Solomons
In my early days as a freelance in Huddersfield we had a magistrate’s clerk by the name of Cyril Drabble who had come right out of the pages of a Dickens novel.
Short, rotund with thick, perfectly clipped moustache and his iron-grey hair parted down the middle he cut a comical figure in his winged collar and black tie taking notes meticulously with his quill-type pen which he dipped continually into the ink well on his desk (They had to wait until he retired or died – I can’t remember which came first – before a typist was used to record depositions).
I don’t think he ever smiled – at least I never saw him do so. Law was a serious business, nothing to laugh at. So nothing was to prepare him for the shock that awaited him one morning.
In those days, the late 1950s I think it was, our town hall was the venue for Friday night dances where we tripped the light fantastic to the big bands, including the Joe Loss, Geraldo and Ted Heath orchestras. The town hall also housed three magistrates courts which were supposed to be kept locked but… and thereby hangs a tale that was never reported.
The smallest of three courts was used once a week as a domestic or family court dealing with paternity orders and what were charmingly referred to as bastardy arrears. In those dark, distant days before DNA and Child Agencies poor young girls who had been deflowered sometimes had a hard job proving who was the baby’s father before the court ordered him to pay the 7s. 6d or ten bob a week to the mother until the child was 16.
Even though we were not allowed to report the proceedings reporters were allowed to exercise their right to stay. Appearing in front of three magistrates and Mr Drabble was a young girl who had recently given birth and was applying for an order against the man she claimed was the father.
As you can imagine it was quite an ordeal for her.
After the various preliminaries had been gone through Mr Drabble asked the girl, ‘Now Miss Ramsbottom will you tell the court where sexual intercourse took place.’
Now whether she knew what the term actually meant or whether she was too embarrassed to answer she started to cry. The kindly, woman chairman was sympathetic. ‘Would you like a glass of water,’ she asked. (I’ve never understood why water is a cure-all for upset emotions but there it is.) After a few sips of water handed to her by an usher she was told by the chairman, ‘Now don’t be afraid. We have to know the answer to these questions.’
Mr Drabble, ‘Now Miss Ramsbottom can you tell the magistrates where you had sexual intercourse.’
Girl: ‘Well er… I don’t really like to say.’
Mr Drabble, ‘Come, come. We’re all men and women of the world. There’s nothing to be afraid of.’
Then plucking up all her courage she thrust out her hand, pointed to Mr Drabble’s desk and exclaimed ‘Right there’.
‘Where?’ said Mr Drabble, not believing his ears.
‘There, right across your desk’, she whispered.
Well you could hear a pin drop. No-one dare laugh, not in Mr Drabble’s court.
I think I remember a slight twitch at the corners of the mouth of one of the magistrates. We reserved our laughter until later.
And poor Mr Drabble would never again view his desk in the same way, desperately trying not to conjure up a vision of two writhing bodies stretched across it.
Now a quite different story, only part of which saw the light of day. Sometime in the 1960s or 1970s a local gypsy called Bonny Lee was charged with being drunk in charge of a horse after galloping his steed through the Huddersfield town centre having consumed several pints. It made an amusing piece for the nationals next day and later we got a call from the News of the World asking us to do pictures of Bonny with his horse.
We tracked him down and our late lamented photographer Brian Worsnop arranged to meet Bonny at the Red Lion pub in Lockwood where four roads converge at a busy junction. Bonny hitched his horse to a hitching rail outside the pub and insisted on having a drink before Brian too his pix. Unfortunately it wasn’t just one drink…
Bonny drank several pints, but insisted that Brian match him pint for pint. My partner Alan Cooper and I were in the office when Brian phoned. He was almost incoherent. ‘Bonny’s had several pints and I’ve had to drink with him and I can hardly stand. You’ll have to come and fetch me.’
We set off in Alan’s car to the pub which was about a mile or so from the town centre. We soon got snarled up in a traffic jam – and then we found out why. When we eventually came in sight of the pub an amazing scene assailed our eyes. There outside the pub was Bonny on his horse which was rearing up on its back legs with a police sergeant trying to desperately to get him off.
Two other police officers were controlling the traffic which had come to a standstill at all four junctions. And there lying on his back on the ground, feet away from the horse’s flying hooves, was Brian, snapping away on his Pentax.
Eventually Bonny was hauled from his horse and arrested and charged with – yes you’ve guessed it – being drunk in charge of a horse. Why Brian wasn’t also arrested and charged with being drunk in charge of a camera or whatever I cannot remember, but we managed to hustle him away and take him back to the office where he found, after sobering up, that he had some great pictures.
Bonny appeared next day in court and I managed to get a word with him before he went in. ‘Don’t say a word about what happened and we’ll pay the fine’ I told him. He agreed. He was good as his word. Mr Drabble asked him, ‘Mr Lee, did someone put you up to this’? ‘No sir’, replied Bonny.
The prosecution never mentioned our involvement – I can’t remember but we must have a word in the right quarters – and Bonny was duly fined. We paid the fine and gave Bonny a few quid on top of the money he was given for posing for the pictures, all of which, of course, we recouped from the News of the World.
Bonny being charged for the second time in a few days with being drunk in charge of a horse made another piece for the nationals and the News of the World were well pleased with the pix which got quite a decent spread, though nothing was mentioned about the background.
So everyone was happy. Bonny made a few quid and we did well with two separate national paper stories.
There was, however, a tragic sequel. Some weeks later Bonny was found dead at the foot of a flight of stone steps. On his way home from a pub he had tumbled down them the worse for drink and broken his neck.
Wherever you are Bonny, I raise my glass to you.
The elephant we missed
By Garth Gibbs
Poignant pictures of gorilla Gana clutching the body of her baby Claudio at the zoo in northerm Germany recently sparked off a series of articles of whether animals, like people, truly grieve. They do. Categorical proof of this was provided in South Africa in the early sixties but, because of the turbulent political times, the story went mostly unreported. Articles on animals didn’t rate very highly.
This is the story of Hapoor, a dominant elephant bull in the Addo national park, about 80 miles north of Algoa Bay (now Port Elizabeth) where the first British settlers to South Africa arrived in 1820. Hapoor is an Afrikaans word; ‘hap’ means ‘bite’ or ‘nick’ and ‘oor’ means ‘ear’. Hapoor had a chunk missing out of one ear. But it wasn’t caused by a bite. It was caused by a bullet. And it led to a deep hatred of humans throughout Hapoor’s life.
Normally an elephant herd is ruled by a matriarch, but Hapoor was very much a bull and reigned unchallenged for 24 years. The game rangers and staff in the park gave him plenty of space and on numerous occasions had to run for cover when he appeared.
One summer’s day the game rangers spotted a young cow elephant in trouble. The rest of the herd was concerned about her health and Hapoor was always around, fussing.
Binoculars showed the cow elephant had a lot of open sores on her back and legs and wasn’t moving so well. The rangers decided they needed a closer look so they fired a tranquillising dart into her from a helicopter. But when she started to wobble, Hapoor misread what was happening. He thought she was dying and he decided to end her suffering.
He summoned two young bull elephants to hold her up and support her. He then mercy killed her by piercing a tusk into her brain through one of her eyes. They stood there for some time before slowly moving back into the bush.
Then began an incredible period of mourning and fasting. The elephants, with Hapoor in the lead, returned every morning at sunrise to the spot where the cow had died. There they would stand, still and silent for some time before throwing their heads back and trumpeting to the sky. Then they would move back into the bush in a slow and reverential procession.
Hapoor and his herd kept this up for several days, ignoring the feeding bins.
Word eventually spread about what was happening, but Addo wasn’t open to the public in those days. Hacks filed what they had heard but the reports weren’t given any great prominence.
Eventually everything returned to normal. And a few years later, in 1968 to be exact, another bull, named Lanky, reached maturity and deposed Hapoor. Hapoor’s last years were sad indeed. He became a loner and more and more aggressive. He was eventually shot when he broke through Addo’s ‘elephant proof’ Armstrong Fence. His magnificent head is mounted in the park’s restaurant and a waterhole in the south western section is named after him.
For the record: Addo was eventually opened to the public and is now the country’s third largest conservation area (the biggest is the Kruger National Park, which is the size of Wales). Addo is now home to the big five, elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo and leopard. And it is a totally malaria-free environment.
By Ian Bradshaw
My first ‘national’ job in the early sixties after leaving local newspapers was as a staff photographer on Reveille, the forces pin-up newspaper owned by the Mirror Group. I was reminded of those far off times this week when I learned of the sad recent death of Jack Pleasant, one of the funniest feature writers I have worked with, who was a staff writer at the paper.
Jack, who was, I like to think, an early day version of George Plimpton, was always doing first person pieces and would try his hand at anything. Reveille apart from having a reputation for pin-ups, was always looking for good animal stories and photographs and in the days before circus became a dirty word we often turned to people like the Chipperfield family to help with the ‘models’ in return for publicity for their shows. The glamorous Mary Chipperfield was an added bonus on many features and one day I noticed a small news item about their new attraction – a boxing llama.
Everybody had heard about boxing kangaroos but a boxing llama seemed to be a first so I mentioned it to Jack.
‘I could box it for a story! Yes: I see it now – Gentleman Jack Pleasant and the boxing llama.’ His infectious enthusiasm spread through the office and the job was duly given the go-ahead. The Chipperfields were more than willing to set up a boxing ring for a photo shoot.
Upon arrival we were directed to Mary Chipperfield’s caravan and the ex-Navy writer knocked confidently on the door. A voice called to come in and Jack fairly bounded into the trailer coming to a screeching halt as he found himself face to face with a bear.
Mary emerged laughing as the big bear towered over Jack who was not a tall man. It turned out the bear was tame – well as tame as a bear gets anyway. But this is not the encounter that a future boxing champion needs just before a big fight and Jack was certainly a bit shaken by the time his big moment arrived.
Chipperfields had set up a boxing ring with stools, a ‘referee’ and seconds to make the pictures look authentic. The llama was led in and took up its position in one corner eyeing Gentleman Jack in the other corner having his gloves laced. I was sensibly in a neutral corner wondering just what the big picture was going to be.
I didn’t have to wait long as the ‘seconds’ put the gloves on the llama’s front feet. Gentleman Jack rose from his stool and advanced confidently to the centre of the ring. The llama’s calm demeanour changed dramatically with the application of boxing gloves.
Not waiting for the referee’s instructions or even the bell, it rushed across the ring and landed a right hook on the jaw of the unprepared Pleasant. Down he went and I nearly missed the picture for laughing. In the end it was only the pride that was hurt and Jack faced his biggest problem – whether to write about being knocked out by a llama or to have it disqualified for hitting before the bell.
This is where the writer has the advantage over the photographer. The ensuing hilarious account sounded like a 15 round titanic struggle between man and beast. The photo showed a first-round knockout but nobody seemed to care.
I did many stories with Jack Pleasant and kept in touch for a number of years. My last story with him was about the most haunted village in England, Pluckley, in Kent. True to form we had agreed that we would get a girl dressed in Elizabethan costume at the bar of the local pub. I would double-expose the picture so that we could see through her to the landlord pouring a pint as she sat on the barstool among the locals. A local theatre group lent us the costume and it worked perfectly. Everybody thought it was great fun until the Pleasant sense of humour gained from years in the Navy could not be contained anymore.
‘Hey landlord’, he called holding out an empty frothy beer glass, ‘I can see right through this as well.’
The landlord, who had clearly had enough of the jollity by then, turned to Jack,
‘Well what do you expect me to do about it?’
‘Fill the f…er up!’ came the reply.
He was one of the funny men around Fleet Street and I’m sure many who knew him will miss him.I spent many happy hours with him and it is a shame that memories fade over the passing of time. It seems like yesterday but then you realize none of us is getting younger. Was it really 43 years ago when a llama landed that right hook on the man from the Essex marshes and a first round knockout photo became a story of a titanic 15 round points decision?
I have worked with the very best of the funny writers in my lifetime. I’m glad to say that some are still going strong and we keep in touch. There may be other boxing llamas out there but there will never be another Gentleman Jack Pleasant.
Does every office have a Mungo?
By Jack Irvine
In his Press Gazette column Grey Cardigan regularly refers to ‘Mungo, the peripatetic Scot who keeps a brick in his drawer should the need arise.’
Younger readers may find this a little hard to swallow but those of us who remember how to cast off a 30-inch spread lead without the aid of an electronic word count know only too well that there were many Mungos spread throughout the newsrooms of Britain.
However I have always felt that Grey had to have known about the real-life Mungo on the Daily Record. The similarities are startling.
In the seventies and early eighties there was a gentle giant on the Record sports desk when the paper was headquartered at Anderson Quay. This chap, we’ll call him Lurch for the moment, was the mildest mannered man in daylight but after the 9pm break an air of menace overtook the games department. One of the most frightening experiences known to Record boys and girls was when the night editor would tell his deputies or the chief sub to trot down to the sports desk and find out what they were doing for the later editions.
They would rather have been sent to the Falls Road.
When the night editor’s emissary returned he would inevitably report white- faced, ‘They won’t tell me what they’re doing, oh, and by the way, they said to tell you the splash is shite.’
Of course some (wise) night editors simply grimaced and got on with the paper or nipped through to the stone and had a shufti at the sports page plans.
Some hot-headed night editors who had also been out for the customary six triple vodkas refused to take this course of action and would thunder, ‘Right, I’m the fucking night editor and I’m going to sort these bastards out for once and for all.’
Leaping from his chair, said night editor would set off purposefully down the walk of death to sport. Half way down the floor one would become aware of a stirring on sport (many had been asleep after an energy-sapping two-hour break) as they saw fresh meat approach their lair.
The night editor would attempt a matey approach (his bottle having disappeared about ten feet from the sport’s editor’s chair)… ‘So, guys, anything good for Edinburgh or City? I could use a half-decent puff for Page One.’
The sports editor would smile in a Hannibal Lechter manner. That’s if he bothered to look up from his first edition, ‘Yeah, we noticed the splash was shite. Are the news desk all on fucking holiday?’
‘Luckily you have a night editor of genius on tonight,’ I would stupidly reply attempting to make light of a life-threatening situation (yes, you’ve guessed correctly: I was that soldier) ‘and the third edition promises to be a belter.’
The sports editor would slowly lift his eyes, not in my direction but to his evil henchman, Lurch, who was slowly uncoiling his six-foot-six frame not four feet away. Lurch would slowly reach into his drawer and withdraw a brick and place it gently on the desk in front of me. He would then say something, but not in a language understood by earthlings. It sounded like ‘oooooocuuunt uuuuuuurgfuuck,’ although that may not be the correct spelling. I took this to mean that negotiations were at an end.
At this point I would sober up very, very quickly and without actually breaking into a sprint manfully make my way back to the night desk pretending not to see the entire editorial floor pissing itself.
Happily I got my own back many times over on these bastards, especially at The Sun, where I would regularly stick tales of shagging footballers on Page One without bothering to tell sport. Oh, the look on their faces when they saw the first edition and realised that their contacts (who of course they never shared with news) were fucked for weeks. Such joy!
So perhaps Grey will put me out of my misery. Was Mungo based on our man at Anderson Quay or, more worryingly, was there a plague of Scottish, monosyllabic, brick-wielding sports subs dotted throughout the British Isles?
The gent from the Why Pee
By Colin Dunne
Do you think it’s possible that he’s still out there somewhere? Theoretically it is. He’d be only in his mid-seventies by now. Okay, he’d lived quite a life, but look at Dresden: that was bombed a few times and it’s still standing.
I’m talking about Peter Brooke. And if you are out there, Pete, I hope you’re okay, and if you’re having half as much fun as you used to, then you should be ashamed of yourself. Oh yes, any chance of that fifty quid?
Whoops, he’s gone again.
It was my great good fortune that Peter followed me into the Yorkshire PostHalifax office. This was my third job. In my first, on the Craven Herald, I had learnt how to write down names. Names of prize-winners at country shows, names of mourners at funerals, names of bridesmaids at weddings. In my second, the Northern Echo, it was pretty much the same, but without the Herald sense of urgency.
If it was going to be as dull as this, I might as well have been joined the SBS along with lots of my schoolmates.
By the way, that’s not Special Boat Service. That’s Skipton Building Society where life expectancy was 128, but seemed much longer.
Don’t get me wrong, I was really enjoying journalism. But, as I reached 20, I somehow began to yearn for something a little more lively. Where was the excitement? Where was the danger?
Then I found them. In Halifax. In the late fifties. Honest.
It was real reporters’ town with plenty of real reporters. A whole building full of them at the Halifax Courier, a couple of blokes from the Telegraph and Argus, the famous freelances Stan Solomons and Max Jessop, with occasional appearances from Alan Cooper. There was even a man from the News of the World, Jack Nott. All around were the local papers, Examiners from Huddersfield, Echoes from Brighouse, Observers from Morley.
It was a bustling town, buzzing with enough stories to keep us all busy. The Yorkshire Post (Why Pee, as we called it) was a distinguished paper of record. The Evening Post, with sales well over 300,000 was a slick, fast operation. Their standards were every bit as high as those of EC4.
And halfway down Horton Street in an upstairs room the Yorkshire Post team. Tom Dickenson, who I think would have described himself as the doyen of Yorkshire journalism. Tweed jacket over woolly waistcoat, smelling strongly of the peppermints which had replaced his cigarettes 20 years earlier. In his desk he kept his very last packet of Senior Service, with 17 fags still there, alongside his emergency mint ration. His shoes always bore a high sheen. On his allotment they said he grew a mean parsnip. Sound, sensible, reliable.
A few weeks after I joined, in breezed Peter Brooke as Tom’s deputy. He was certainly reliable in one respect: at any time of night or day, he always knew somewhere you could get a drink. But he’d need to borrow a tenner to buy one. That was Pete – charming, bright, one of life’s cavaliers.
Newspapers attract rascals. I always liked them, and I’ve got the liver and the overdraft to prove it. We all remember them. They’d drift in, knock off a few good stories, quite a lot of booze, several women, and move on, leaving a trail of delight and dismay, about evenly balanced. For fun they were the best. For sobriety, morality and the work ethic, perhaps not.
Peter and Halifax provided me with my first sight of the reckless rackety side of journalism.
On that first Monday, as soon as Tom was distracted, Peter caught my eye. He raised his empty right hand to his mouth, tilted his wrist and nodded his head towards…
Towards the Royal Oak, around the corner. At opening time, he could give Marcel Marceau lessons in mime. And in the Royal Oak, I had my first sight of the cast of extraordinary characters that you find in and around newspapers. This was what I’d been hoping for.
Who was that fair-haired, blue-eyed teenage reporter who was caught doing horizontal jogging with a cinema usherette behind the grandstand of Halifax Town FC? Gilbert Holroyd, the Courier sports reporter, congratulated him – ‘tha’s the only bugger to score at the Shay in years.’ Many years later, I asked Roy Stockdill, a Halifax lad who joined the News of the World, if he could remember who it was. His scratched his fair hair and blinked his blue eyes and said he couldn’t remember either. Shame, that.
Oddly enough, there was an NoW man in Halifax at that time. Jack Nott once filed a story about a fire at a sewage works with the catchline ‘Shit-hot’.
That same sports reporter, our Gilbert, used to write his match reports in a sort of parallel English that hadn’t been used since the early days of Dixie Dean – phrases like ‘The fearless custodian fisted the leather around the woodwork.’ After writing that, Gilbert would no doubt enjoy a transparent utensil filled with a product of fermented malt – hell, he’s got me doing it now.
This was a time when young men were returning from National Service. One of them, Trevor, who worked for the BradfordTelegraph, was so overwhelmed by his spell in Hong Kong with the army that he could talk of nothing else. One lunchtime, after six pints of Webster’s, he decided to write a book about it. At opening time that evening he returned with the first paragraph. I can remember every word of it…
‘As the ancient Hercules circled, I looked down at the hundreds, nay thousands, of lights that lay below. So this was Hong Kong, which was to be my home. ‘It looks brilliant, Trev,’ said my pal Ginger, little knowing that while I would go mahogany brown in the sun, he would go pink and peel all over.’
The second paragraph was never written. It’s just as well. It would only have been a disappointment.
Tom and Peter did the big stories, I was given the silly-frilly ones. Like the talking dog of Drighlington cross-roads. At the Spotted Cow pub (spotted cows, talking dogs – it’s not easy, is it?), the landlord teased his jolly little Corgi which would get excited and produce a growl which did sound uncannily like Corky, which happened to be the dog’s name (Christ, it’s getting worse). Now maybe this wasn’t talking in the conversation sense, I mean you wouldn’t ask Corky’s opinion on Boycott’s cover-drive, but you could certainly recognise the one word. I wrote one of those light hanging-indent stories for the YP.
This was picked up by Neville Stack, news editor of the People in Manchester, who immediately, and quite reasonably, suspected it was a con by the landlord to publicise his boozer. He sent Max Jessop, the freelance, to unmask him. Neville had him marked down for a slot in the paper which was labelled Rat of the Week (oh no, not another animal). And Max asked me to go along with him.
I told him it was true, but Max wouldn’t believe me. Corky the Corgi duly growled his name. Was the landlord a ventriloquist? Max asked him to leave the room while I played with the dog. It growled its name again. Max rang the People news desk and when Neville answered I got the dog to growl ‘Corky’ down the phone. ‘Who was that?’ asked Stack. ‘That,’ replied Max, ‘is the dog that can’t talk.’
‘Get back to the office,’ sighed a rat-less Stack.
Max was a wonderful character, who became a brilliant tabloid journalist within about a fortnight of leaving his public school. He’d sung in the choir at Malvern College and occasionally this ruined boy soprano, ruined even more by several pints of Webster’s, would attempt ‘The Ash Grove’ and even ‘The Wings of a Dove.’ Max is no longer with us. Perhaps it was this memory that inspired Stan Solomons, his fellow freelance, to take up choral singing some 40 years later. I’ve got his CD: ‘Songs My Mother Never Taught Me’. Very tuneful, Stan.
But among these colourful characters, Peter Brooke glowed iridescent. A slim, good-looking man, he carried with him an air of danger. Indeed, he was a martial arts expert and from time to time he’d do a shift as a nightclub bouncer to keep his hand in. One morning in the magistrates’ court, a d-and-d with black eye and missing tooth pointed at the press bench and said: ‘He’s the bugger that done it.’ Peter gave a baffled but forgiving shake of his head.
‘I hardly think so,’ said the magistrates. ‘That’s the gentleman from the Yorkshire Post.’
Poor old Tom could never get the hang of him. One week, Peter failed to report in on the Monday. Tuesday, the same. Wednesday, at 11 30am he breezed in and took an electric razor out of his desk. ‘Bloody hell, Peter,’ Tom protested. ‘You’re not only two days late, but you’re two hours late for today.’
‘I know, Tom,’ he grinned. ‘And I haven’t had a shave either.’
Women loved him. Whenever he was doing the night calls, he’d quite often take one into the office with him to help. Perhaps he was afraid of the dark. I’d never met women like them. They seemed untroubled by the Desert Disease (‘wandering palms’) which had distressed my earlier girl-friends. One night when I’d been to pick up one of Pete’s girl-friends – a teacher with a laugh like a gurgling sewer – she read out an illuminated factory sign. ‘Riley’s Tool Works,’ she said. ‘So let’s find bloody Riley, eh?’ His girl-friends seemed to feel little need for ambiguity.
He also had a wife and two kids he’d brought back from New Zealand and which he’d deposited in an old terraced house on a steep bank in the nearby village of Triangle. Since we were all either living at home or in lodgings, when the pubs closed we all headed back to Pete’s. His tall, long-haired wife didn’t seem to mind.
Those who stayed there overnight swore that the house was haunted. The Forgetful Ghost used to appear in the middle of the night, drifting dreamily among the sleeping, half-drunk young men sprawled on cushions and sofas. We called her Forgetful because, inexplicably, she always forgot to put on her nightie.
There was quite a cast of overnight guests – Roy, Max, Andrew Trimbee (later a Daily Telegraph sub), Jack Shaw, who went on to Spain via PA. We all stayed there and we all agreed not to mention the visits of the Forgetful Ghost to Pete, who was, we remembered, a martial arts expert.
In the end, his wife and children went back to New Zealand, and when Peter left town, so too did a flame-haired assistant cinema manageress. That wasn’t all that was missing. Tom’s historic packet of 17 Seniors had also gone. At least he left the peppermints.
Over the years, I heard reports of him from Hereford and Hornsey, and later up on Tyneside. The only time he contacted me directly was when I was in London and he rang me from Paddington. He’d just arrived. He had nowhere to stay, no job, no money, and a young woman.
That’s how I lost the fifty quid.