Issue 77

Lest we forget

This week

·Editor’s letter – Revel Barker

·Before he rocked around the clock Bill Haley rolled around the ping-pong table. Alan Whittaker reveals some little known background about the great editor of The Thunderer.

·‘He has been called the Keith Richards of tabloid journalism, but that’s half-arsed. It should be that Keith Richards is the Steve Dunleavy of rock music,’ writes Mark Day of The Australian in tribute to an old mate who is yet another legendary product of the Antipodes who made good in the northern hemisphere.

·Remember Fat Ron’s bar atop Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese? Jon Churchman attempts a nostalgic revisit and wonders, was it all just a happy dream?

·Audrey Whiting, Fleet Street’s first woman in New York, first person in Hollywood, first European correspondent, first female royal reporter, made her name (and her paper’s circulation) with a story that nobody – least of all her – believed when she wrote it, reports Liz Hodgkinson.

·Bill Hagerty interviewed Audrey for his Daily Mirror history, Read All About It! And an extract from it gives the Whiting story in her own words.

·Geoffrey Mather reflects on snapshots of a journalistic life from a parish church pew.

·Colin Dunne‘s professional peregrinations have at last brought him to the Street of Adventure, as a member of PA’s Special Reports Service on the magical thousand pounds a year. If you think the SRS might be the Fleet Street equivalent of the SAS, read on…


Lest we forget

It occurred to me, while reading Liz Hodgkinson’s obituary of Audrey Whiting, who died on Tuesday, plus Sue Bullivant’s letter on Liz’s tribute (Ranters, Dec 19) to Shân Davies, and then Geoffrey Mather musing in a church pew at the funeral of Alf Gregory, that we don’t do enough to recognise the LIVING.

True, some of us can care sufficiently to eulogise our colleagues when the Grim Reaper harvests them (although, even then, most of their friends can’t be bothered).

But most of us have been blessed by working alongside some great, even brilliant, professionals and good friends. And we have stories about them that are worth telling.

As we put Ranters to bed we heard that Bob Warren has died. Do people like Bob have to snuff it, before anybody can think of anything interesting to say about them?

Really, do we need to wait until they die, to relate these tales?

Liz’s entertaining new book, Ladies of The Street, celebrated both Shân and Audrey as pioneer and leading women reporters of their generation. Both were alive when she wrote it.

There are, thankfully, many more who are in the book and still with us. And many more entertaining colleagues who maybe didn’t make the book (some of them, without doubt, simply excluded from it on the grounds of gender).

It would be great – libels permitting – to hear about them while the subjects are still among us.

So it’s a pleasure, this week, to include Mark Day’s homage to his old mate and fellow Australian countryman, Steve Dunleavy, a New York and Fleet Street legend, who merely retired a few weeks ago.

Next week Colin Dunne will recall working with former PA colleague, agency founder and author Tony James, who is about to have another book published. And David Friend of Vanity Fair honours Harry Benson, the snapper’s snapper.

Far, far, better than waiting til people like this are summoned to the Great Newsroom.

This website is about celebrating the good old days, the best days, of Fleet Street and its tributaries. And even more about the people, the genuine characters, who made those days great.

Come on, gents, and ladies…

Get writing.


Tennis, elbowed

By Alan Whittaker

Bill Haley and Charlie Markus went back a long way. As far back as the early 1930s and Cross Street, Manchester. Bill was editor of the Manchester Evening News and Charlie was a messenger on the weekly Manchester City News.

Fast forward 40 odd years and Sir William Haley, ex-editor of The Times, former governor-general of the BBC, and top-man at Encyclopaedia Britannica was being feted by Fleet Street’s finest in the old Press Club in Salisbury Square.

‘We’ll pop in give him our regards’ said Charlie, now the irascible news editor of the News of the World, and my immediate boss. ‘I’d like to see the old chap again’. I was a reluctant recruit knowing the place would be infested by fawning executives, grinning sycophants and the usual covey of creeps who would not normally set foot in the club.

The association with Cross Street began when Charlie was the teenage dogsbody whose duties included delivering lineage copy from the reporter covering Strangeways magistrates’ court to the Evening News. And nobody could ever accuse Charlie of not taking his duties seriously.The first time he was entrusted with this responsibility he arrived at the Cross Street offices of the with the lineage copy in an envelope marked ‘ Editor, Manchester Evening News, by hand’.

‘Okay, I’ll take that’ said the uniformed commissionaire.

‘Are you the editor?’

An admission that the doorman was not the editor prompted Charlie to point to the addressee on the envelope. ‘For the editor’ he said. ‘By hand.’

The commissionaire spoke to someone on the phone and a few minutes elapsed before a shirt-sleeved man arrived. ‘I’m from the news desk’ he explained. ‘It will be copy for my department.’ Charlie ignored the outstretched hand as if it were a cobra and tightened his grip on the envelope.

‘So you are not the editor?’


‘My instructions are on the envelope’ he said firmly. ‘To be delivered to the editor’

‘By hand’ he added. The shirt-sleeved man disappeared and after a few minutes another much older man stepped out of the lift. ‘We are waiting for this copy’ he said. ‘ I’m from the sub-editors’ table.’

‘So you are not the editor either?’


‘ It says on this envelope to be delivered to the editor. By hand’. No amount of cajoling or reasoning could persuade Charlie to part with the envelope and after a hurried phone conversation the sub beckoned Charlie to follow him into the lift. He was whisked into a private office marked Editor just as a smallish man carrying a table tennis bat emerged from an adjoining room. He smiled as the sub-editor explained the problem and asked for the envelope.

‘Are you the editor?’

‘I am the editor’ the man assured him. ‘My name is William Haley and if you want further proof I have a passport somewhere.’ He seemed amused.

Satisfied at last Charlie handed over the envelope to the editor who promptly passed it to the sub. When he had gone Haley peered at Charlie with interest. ‘Do you play table tennis?’ he asked. Charlie nodded.

One of Sir William’s proudest claims – and it was mentioned in some of his obits – was that for many years he was the undisputed table tennis champion of the Evening News and Guardian. He led Charlie into the adjoining room where there was a table tennis table and explained that he had been busy banging a ping pong ball against the walls; a practice session the sub-editor had interrupted with details of the impasse in the front hall.

With a borrowed bat Charlie beat Bill Haley four games to nil and then said he had to get back to the office or questions would be asked.

‘If anyone queries where you have been tell them to telephone me” said Haley. ‘And next week don’t bother with the commissionaire at the front hall. Come straight to my office with the court copy and we’ll have a return match.’

For the next six or seven weeks Charlie collected the lineage copy from Strangeways court and headed for Cross Street where Bill Haley was waiting, table tennis bat poised. Charlie claimed to have won most of the matches played. His weekly trip to Cross Street ended went he became a junior reporter on the City News. He moved on to the East Ham Echo, the Morecambe Visitor, the Daily Telegraph and spent the war years on the Union Jack with the Desert Rats in North Africa

Sir William Haley was in good spirits when we arrived at the Press Club. A circle of bodies, three or four deep, had formed and he was holding forth, clutching a tumbler of gin. Quite obviously from the way he was weaving and waving about it was not his first of the evening. Charlie in his customary pugnacious way elbowed his way to the front row. The gentle swaying stopped as Sir William spotted him.

‘Charlie’ he cried with all the warmth that flows when old friends meet after a long absence. ‘I’ll tell you something. I’ll not be playing table tennis with you tonight.’


The old way of doing things

By Mark Day

It is difficult to summon the words to adequately describe the amazing life and swashbuckling style of Australia’s legendary newsman Steven Francis Patrick Aloysius Dunleavy. Outrageous, extravagant, inimitable and hugely successful don’t do it justice.

He has been called the Keith Richards of tabloid journalism, but that’s half-arsed. It should be that Keith Richards is the Steve Dunleavy of rock music.

The Dunleavy era of journalism, which began at the Sydney Sun in 1952, has ended. It kind of petered out a few months ago when Dunleavy’s legs gave out.

He said it was a vascular problem; genetic inheritance and all that, but it was probably the booze. It deserved to be, for few human beings have ingested the volumes of vodka to rival Steve and lived to tell the tale.

I heard that Dunleavy was farewelled at the Bourbon Street Bar and Grille on New York’s west side. No doubt the entire zone was secured by Steve’s mates, the New York cops, probably backed up by the city’s firemen and a platoon of US Marines, all of whom he has rabidly supported with his hard-hitting, between-the-eyes outpourings over the years. His views were right-wing, some would say in the extreme, but they were genuinely held, and they earned him the title of American of the Year from the good ol’ boys of the lunar right in the 70s.

They don’t make ’em like Dunleavy anymore. As Ken Chandler, a former editor of the New York Post said: ‘You put him on a story and he just goes until he gets it. It’s the old way of doing things. I wish I had a newsroom of Dunleavys.’

Dunleavy left Sydney in the late 50s and worked in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Spain, and London before arriving, destitute, in the Big Apple.

Dunleavy and I worked together in the News Limited bureau in the NY Daily News building from 1968 to 1970. Much of our work involved rewriting material to give it an Australian flavour, but that was too mundane for Steve. He got a scoop when he interviewed the notorious serial killer Albert DeSalvo, aka the Boston Strangler, in jail. The visit was approved because DeSalvo was entitled to have one visitor a month – and no one had asked. It is a lesson for all reporters: if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

In this period Dunleavy also put to test Teddy Kennedy’s story about the accident on Chappaquiddick that killed his campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne. He swam the swift-flowing channel that Kennedy said he had negotiated to call help. When asked why he did it, Dunleavy said: ‘Because I’m from Bondi and I can.’

Dunleavy was a reporter on the National Star, Rupert Murdoch’s first foray into American publishing. The editor, our old bureau chief Ray Kerrison, of Cobgogla, South Australia, recalls that the Star’s rival, the National Enquirer, had ‘paid a ransom’ for the exclusive serial rights to the hottest book of the decade – Judith Exner’s revelations about her affair with President Kennedy’.

Kerrison says: ‘The book was under lock and key, guarded tighter than Fort Knox. One day, I told Steve, “We’ve got to get a copy of the book and beat the Enquirer to the punch’. Steve said, ‘Boss, gimme some time and I’ll get it.”

‘He disappeared. A few days later he turned up in my office, clutching a copy of the Exner book. I couldn’t believe my eyes. “My God,” I said to him, “Where the hell did you get that?” Steve looked a bit sheepish and said, “Boss, don’t ask. You wouldn’t want to know.”

‘We “reviewed” the Exner book in the next issue. The Star circulation went through the roof. The Enquirer went berserk, threatening to sue us to kingdom come, etc. To this day, I don’t know how Steve got his hands on that book. I dare not ask. But it was just one of his scoops in a lifetime of working the streets.’

And then there was Elvis. Dunleavy met a pair of Elvis Presley’s bodyguards and worked on them with liquor and charm. They told stories of the excess and madness that had turned Elvis into a gross parody of his former self, which Dunleavy cobbled together into a book called Elvis: What Happened.

It was published the day Elvis died and spent 16 weeks on top of the New York Times bestseller lists. In typical fashion, Dunleavy just wrote the book, handing all rights to Murdoch as publisher. To his credit, Murdoch bought him a house on Long Island.

There are many such stories that contributed to the Dunleavy legend. But there were also moments when he was reminded that his world was not necessarily shared or aspired to by others.

Visiting Sydney in the early 70s, after more than a dozen years away, Dunleavy walked into the bar at the now-demolished Invicta Hotel. A photographer from his old Daily Mirror police rounds days looked up from his beer and said: ‘G’day Steve. Been on holidays, have ya?’

Just as it is hard to describe Dunleavy’s life without excessive superlatives, it is impossible not to mention sex. It is said Dunleavy would f..k anyone or anything for a story, and that is true.

He got a scoop for the News of the World when he wined, dined, seduced and ignobly reported the pillow-talk and tears of one of Teddy Kennedy’s ‘boiler room’ girls after the Chappaquiddick scandal. I visited him one evening in his New York apartment. He opened the door and greeted me, naked, before introducing me to a star witness in a police corruption investigation, also naked. They were engaged in an in-depth, probing interview of sorts – another scoop.

To many women, Steve was sex on a stick. They loved his bouffant hair, his salacious eyes and cheeky patter, as well as his reputation as a pants man extraordinaire. When his exploits became grist to the mill of Bert Kearns’ book Tabloid Baby, Dunleavy wrote in his Post column: ‘Of course, I normally would have sued the son-of-a-gun for what he wrote about me, but I can’t – it’s all doggone true.’

Now it’s sayonara, Steve. Wherever journalists gather for years to come, they’ll talk of his exploits. There’ll be tut-tuts about the booze and his Rabelaisian excesses, but there will also be agreement that he was the last of the old-school legends.

I couldn’t be in New York for Dunleavy’s farewell, but from afar I lifted a jar to one of the most enduring, generous, loyal and endearing friends of my life.

  • A version of this piece first appeared in The Australian
  • Photo: Michael Brennan


Hard cheese

By Jon Churchman

If you were lucky enough to be first, you had the pleasure and privilege of seeing it at its virgin best: deep and crisp and even. Over an inch deep in places, with drifts in the corners, and not a footprint in sight. Sawdust.

There are still folk tapping keyboards for a living who remember it.

Small, as bars go, about fifteen feet by twenty, dark wood-panelled walls and a yellowish nicotine ceiling.

The smell was unmistakable as Holland House or fresh cut grass; the result of floorboards being marinated for 200 years since the rebuilding a year after the Great Fire in 1666.

The stairs, the walls, almost everything – except the staff and the tourist-immobilising steak and kidney puds – seemed to be made of the same dark, beautiful, wood.

Fat Ron’s Bar was hidden near the top of an old (really, very old) building down Wine Office Court, an alley off Fleet Street and it was protected by the most challenging triple staircases known to man – complete with hidden steps, blind spots, and near-vertical hairpin bends: lethal.

Every weekday lunchtime – which meant from 11:30 through the 70’s and 80’s – a disparate group would converge from various corners of EC4 and make their precarious way upstairs for ‘morning conference’.

Conference was held at the top of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.

The staff, immaculate in white shirts, black bow ties, and slacks, not only served, they entertained their public.

They were the finest comedy act east of the Establishment Club. The tall thin one, tall bald one, short, animated one; Les, the manager. And Fat Ron.

The sawdust, long since banned, was spread early, before opening and intended to absorb spillage, but often served merely to cushion your head when your legs gave way.

Customers would nudge it into little castles as they chatted, rearranging walls with an idle toe, burying fag ends.

Then the tourists would come in and muck it all up.

God – Tourists! You could hear them the moment they edged their wary way in through the main door down below, following the huge overhead sign in Fleet Street, and by now inevitably clutching a guidebook. Most peered into the gloom of the first downstairs bar, up the narrowest stairs they’d ever seen, and then edged out again, having absorbed all the ‘history’ they could manage in one take.

Braver souls ventured further, to be rewarded by the joys of the cellar bars, a downward journey involving another, even narrower set of stairs. There was a white-painted beam over the top step, marked ‘Mind Your Head’. It had the effect of taking your eye off the second step so you fell the rest of the way. It was painted white to show the blood of those who had concentrated on the step instead of on the sign.

Back upstairs, Ron’s lunchtime regulars were an assorted bunch of serious and serial socialisers, most of whom are happily still around, if not all working.

The hardcore conference members, as I recall, included Bob Bedlow, Tony Hopkins, Ken Clarke, Jim Allen, and Tony Conyers, from The Telegraph; from The Evening Standard, Oliver Pritchett, before his son Matt became our funniest cartoonist, Phil Evans and Peter Atkinson; Brian Wesley, from The Star, and Mike Day, from PA.

Scores of others – hacks, subs, deskmen and snappers – made appearances and it became a sort of lowercase press club for a couple of decades. You’d have a beer, try and decipher some notes, give up, have another beer, toy with an intro… It was that sort of place.

And for those few hours it broke the day; The Great Attitude Reviver.

The summer months, obviously, were open season for tourist-baiting. A quick visit to the Gents preceded with [stage whisper] ‘Gotta rush – Amex’s gone bust…’

And Ron’s own favourite, in answer to the question ‘Whadda they drink?’


I never saw a fight there, nor even an ugly row, but there was violence: it occurred when the ‘headbangers’ of industrial corrs paid their occasional visit, normally led by the very sociable Bob Porter and his mates. Their favoured pastime then was bending metal serving trays over each other’s heads, Oliver Reed style. It was noisy, dramatic, and bloody painful. But it knocked spots of morris dancing.

The staff had their own amusements during rare idle moments – chucking surgically sharp knives at the panelled walls, or each other. One memorable afternoon Ron was dropping a slice of lemon into a G&T. He winced. When he turned to the till, there was a knife sticking out of his back. (He was persuaded to go to Barts, but only after closing time.)

Those suffering less dramatic injuries – the traditional ‘morning after’ – received special, if not sympathetic, on-site treatment. Assuming they had managed to negotiate the gravity, altitude and other hazards of the stairway, the really ill faced two choices, three if you include death: a Fernet Branca – an Italian invention sold in little bottles displayed amusingly in cowboys’ ammunition belts – or one of Ron’s special Bloody Marys, more realistically, Bloody Hells.

The former was allegedly 45% proof and tasted like a mixture of unidentified herbs and creosote. Far preferable was the Bloody Hell: this contained almost lethal quantities of tabasco and horseradish sauce, together with more traditional large measures of vodka and tomato juice. The first mouthful of either was frequently followed by a sharp intake of breath and sudden urge for the big white telephone upstairs.

To be fair, Ron’s concoction did produce an instant and not unpleasant tingling in the scalp, rapidly spreading through the central nervous system before detonating somewhere where the brain should have been.

Conveniently the cellar bars were often hired out for press conferences – and occasionally Ronnie and his colleagues would extend their bonhomie and overtime by manning the bar in the subterranean regions.

London Weekend and Thames were sporting enough to hold their ‘new Season’ programme launches there, saving us the bind of having to travel. And there were phones down there, which helped get the corrections across.

At one of the Thames do’s, I was joined in the cramped Gents by Hughie Green, who imparted a salacious tale in great detail: it was only when I left I realised he had pissed all over my new and very trendy Chelsea boots.

Another do was enlivened by the tragic Yootha Joyce bursting mistakenly into the gents and saying something so funny I wet my own boots for a change.

Another was marred by Bonnie Langford’s ghastly mother blathering unstoppably about her daughter’s undoubted talents until I really did want to ‘scream and scream!’

Also memorable was the press launch of a new [Pirelli?] calendar held in the wine cellar with an encouraging flow of champagne and exotic models, accompanied by a flouncing Japanese photographer. Incongruously Lord Boothby wafted among the throng, accompanied by Lady B, whose neck appeared to be festooned with clearly recent and very red love bites. A source of unsolved mystery.

Conference was, occasionally, followed by a shorter, less regular affair during the closed period of the afternoon in the PresScala club. This involved emerging into Fleet Street, and hailing a cab. The journey was brief: a simple u-turn and you were there. It was directly opposite.

The end of morning conferences preceded the end of Fleet Street itself by a couple of years. Anyway, Ron and his colleagues had left by then, and it was only a matter of time. Then the Cheese was redone, or undone, as some of us felt.

I wandered, tourist-like, in to the Cheese last week just to make confirm I hadn’t dreamt it all.

I’m still not sure. The stairs are still there, still lethal, the hairpin a bit sharper than I recall, the steps narrower. Where the door to Ronnie’s used to be is an apparently solid wood-panelled wall: Looks like it’s been there forever, like platform Nine and three-quarters at Kings Cross. Be nice to think it’s still there, behind the wall, fresh sawdust, fag ends, the odd knife. An echo of laughter.

I suppose I should have knocked: you never know.

And that was the real beauty of Fat Ron’s bar.

You just never knew.



Virgin queen

By Liz Hodgkinson

None of the feted legendary men of Fleet Street – no Cudlipp or Christiansen, no Edwards or English or Evans – could claim to have doubled the circulation of a national newspaper.

But one woman could and did.

Audrey Whiting, who died on Tuesday, took the circulation of the old Sunday Pictorial (now the Sunday Mirror) to an historic circulation of six million with a truly sensational scoop.

I read this story in 1955 when I was eleven years old and even now can remember the intro: ‘The least surprised woman in Britain today is…’

It was the story of a young German woman who claimed – in the days long before IVF or any form of assisted conception – that she did not lose her virginity until two years after her daughter was born. I didn’t know much about sex and reproduction in those days, but I knew that a man was needed to start the process.

The whole thing seemed completely incredible and as I read it, I became fascinated both by the story itself and the entertaining, racy way it was written. It seemed so clever that, unusually for an eleven-year old child, I also noticed – and never forgot – the name of the woman who had written it. That story by Audrey Whiting was my introduction to popular journalistic writing at its best, and the first newspaper story I can remember reading. At that age, I swallowed it wholesale but learnt much, much, later when I had become a journalist myself, that Whiting did not even believe the story she wrote.

However, it was one of the scoops of the decade and was reprised on BBC Woman’s Hour in 2001. It ran in the Pic for five weeks, and was the culmination of an investigation by Whiting and a team of doctors.

Whiting started reporting straight from school on her local paper, the Hull Daily Mail, moved rapidly to the Yorkshire Evening Post and was on the Daily Mirror in London at the – then – remarkable age of 21.

Even more remarkably, for a woman in the cut-throat era of the late 1940s, she was appointed the paper’s Paris correspondent at 23 and New York correspondent two years later, also opening up Hollywood as a base for Fleet Street stories and starting a trend that others were obliged to follow by staffing that city.

The English film star community, led by such luminaries as Elizabeth Taylor, and the Anglophile American stars loved her unfailingly polite approach and admired her professionalism as well as her accuracy in reporting and happily divulged what would became known as ‘the secrets of the stars’ to her.

Later, as chief European correspondent, she uncovered bizarre stories from the Benelux trading consortium about unusual tariff agreements which were the forerunner of the mysterious tales that would years later emerge from the ‘common market’ and the EU.

Her natural reporter’s ability had been honed to perfection by Ken Hord, then news editor, a ruthless master of his craft who had quickly realised that wherever in the world he sent her, she would produce great stories.

In 1953, covering the coronation, she had noticed the close relationship of Princess Margaret with Group Captain Peter Townsend, a royal equerry. The editor, Jack Nener, refused to print the story (which would become a cause celebre), telling Whiting that he was ‘not prepared to spoil the Queen’s special day.’

Whiting and Nener married the following year, to the great amusement, not to say bemusement, of their colleagues. Nener was a short and short-tempered foul-mouthed character – his initial greeting to Marje Proops, on being introduced by Cudlipp, had been ‘Pleased to fucking meet you’ – while Whiting’s deferential and charming manner masked her inner core of reporting steel. More importantly to the office wags, at 6ft 2inches tall she towered over her new husband. Editorial supremo Hugh Cudlipp described their wedding as ‘The night of the long wives’ and co-workers referred to the couple as Jack and the Beanstalk or ‘The Long and the Short of it’.

Celebration of the union went on for days in the pubs around Geraldine House in Breams Buildings, the Mirror HQ before its move to Holborn Circus.

After the marriage she was transferred to the Mirror’s sister paper, the Sunday Pictorial , as in those days it was not allowed for husbands and wives to work on the same paper. It was while working there that she stumbled across an otherwise unnoticed article in The Lancet reporting the claims of a young German woman that she had not lost her virginity until two years after the birth of her daughter.

Stories emanating from Germany then, as now, were often considered unlikely and were taken in Fleet Street with the proverbial pinch of salt. But the point of the Lancet story was that in spite of thorough medical examination doctors had been unable to disprove the woman’s claim, and the coverage in the medical journal added credibility to it.

Whiting not only wrote the story but had the inspiration to add a paragraph at the end asking readers whether they knew of anyone with a similar experience, and inviting them to write in.

Responses arrived at the Sunday Pictorial by the sackload. Women claimed to have conceived via contact with lavatory seats, the secondary use of towels and from shared bath water. Others simply claimed to have produced miracle virgin births.

With such reader reaction the story ran for five weeks, at the end of which the Pic had experienced its own miracle rebirth – doubling its circulation to six million, a record in its history.

Whiting also achieved fame as a Buckingham Palace correspondent. Again, she was the first woman in that role.

Former boxing writer (‘Mac of the Pic’) turned theatre critic Bernard McElwaine joked that she got the job ‘because she was the only one who could see over the wall’. In fact she had befriended a former royal nanny and governess called Marion Crawford, a young working-class Scot who had almost single-handedly been responsible for the upbringing of the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. ‘Crawfie’ had apparently been given permission by the Queen Mother to ‘leak’ suitable stories about the princesses to the American press in the belief that, if done discreetly, it would somehow improve Anglo-American relations. But when the former nanny was identified as an ‘official’ source, she was immediately ostracised by the royal family who claimed to despise what they then described as her treachery in selling secrets for cash. Whiting remained, almost solely, as the woman’s friend and confidante.

Through other contacts she was the first to hear of the pending divorce of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon, but when the Palace denied it, the Sunday Mirror followed the official line. Similarly, the Palace dismissed her enquiry about the imminent engagement of Princess Anne to Mark Phillips and the paper felt obliged to kill the story – two days before the public announcement.

Not surprisingly, then, she had little time for the mandarins and the internal machinations of Buck House. Nevertheless, she was one of the few journalists who were invited personally to attend the wedding of Charles and Diana.

Nener had been retired on the grounds of ill health in 1961. Rapid inflation meant that his once substantial salary became a relatively pitiful pension and Whiting continued to work to support him. Although considered by some to be the doyenne of royal reporters, she never went on a royal tour because she was unwilling to leave her ailing husband alone at home. Nener died in 1982.

Whiting suffered a stroke in August and died peacefully in St Pancras hospital on Tuesday, aged 81.

  • Liz Hodgkinson is the author of Ladies of The Street, an entertaining account of pioneer and leading female Fleet Street journalists; published by Revel Barker at £9.99 and available from all good bookshops.


In her own words

By Audrey Whiting*

When the news editor, Ken Hord, and managing editor, Cyril Morton, wanted me to go to Paris for the paper they asked what my French was like. I said, ‘Not bad’, but they sent me to language school for a week and when I was tested there I realised I couldn’t really speak French at all.

Bartholomew came to Paris and we went out dancing. Then in 1952 Cecil King sent me to the United States to ‘educate yourself’, but the trip was cut short when I was made New York correspondent. I was back in Paris in 1953 when I was told that the new editor was coming on a European trip and I was to collect him from the airport and arrange whatever meetings he wanted.

Jack Nener had been in Paris only a short while when I received a tip-off that there was to be a strike that would paralyse the city. I said he had better go back, but he refused – he wanted to see some of France. There was a strike, but he said he would like to see the Loire Valley, so I drove him there. We visited museums, I remember, and stayed in Tours.

When eventually he decided to return to London I took him to the airport. You could get right alongside the planes in those days and as he went up the steps into his he turned round and said: ‘Will you marry me?’ He had been divorced from his first wife for seven years by then. I said no and after three months of pressure from London I still said no.

But in the December I was in London and he took me to a drinks party at the Cudlipps’. When I went into this room, full of VIPs, Hugh said: ‘Congratulations!’ Jack had told him we were going to marry. I didn’t know what to do, but then I decided that I quite liked him really. Sure, he effed and blinded a lot in the office, but he was a highly intelligent and serious man. He could tear the arse off you, he could make you feel an inch high, but he also had that old journalistic ability to get on with anybody. We married in February 1954.

He was also intensely loyal. He had been with Cecil King on a trip around America and Cecil asked him if he would become the editor. Jack said no, because he felt a loyalty to Sylvester Bolam, who had been in jail following the Haigh murders story. He did become editor when Bolam left, not long after Cudlipp, who he didn’t know, returned from his stint at the Sunday Express. Jack was very much against the paper’s stance over Suez and he and Hugh had a stand-up row over it. Jack just knew it would lose sales. They were two fiery Welshman but a good combination – Jack was the brake that Hugh needed put on his enthusiasms every now and again.

By 1961 Jack had developed corns on his feet and walked rather badly. King said he didn’t look well and they retired him on the grounds of ill health, which just wasn’t true. He went without a fight and with a terrible pension. He was a man with no sense whatsoever of money – he never saved a penny. He’d put in the equivalent of £19.50 expenses when he had spent £22. When he left I did his final expenses, for about £80, and he tore them up.

We went to live in Cannes, from where I wrote features and series for the Sunday Mirror, until 1970, when he did become ill and we had to return to England. The paper didn’t have a proper royal correspondent then, so as I had been writing royal stories for both the Sunday and Daily Mirror during the 1960s and had a lot of royal connections, I asked if I could do that. It was very different then – the stories you sat on were more memorable than those that were published and every paper was quite obsequious towards the Royal Family. I covered the royals for quite a long period, but I never did a royal tour because I didn’t want to leave Jack at home alone. He died in 1982.

In 1985, not long after Maxwell had taken over the company, I met him in the lift. He said to me: ‘You’d better watch it or you’ll be out on your neck!’ So I walked out after almost 40 years with Mirror Group.

*This piece is an extract from an interview with Audrey Whiting by Bill Hagerty for his 2003 history of the Daily Mirror, Read All About It! (First Stone).


Snapshots from a funeral

By Geoffrey Mather

I had done it a thousand times or so it seemed: sat in a cold church with a lot of mourners staring at a preacher, then at the centre aisle where lay the departed, the mourned. And thinking. Thinking what?

On this cold day, it was Alf Gregory who had departed. Old friend, old colleague. A man with whom I shared many drinks, and laughs, and hardships. We all know how it is if we have many years behind us.

Until the mid-eighties, he was an assistant editor of the Daily Express in Manchester, and died at the age of 80 on 23 December after a stroke. He leaves a son, and two daughters. His wife, Ursula, predeceased him.

In the circumstances, you do not think so much of life apparently endless, but as of snapshots: I have several of Alf:

Sitting on a lounge floor, cross-legged, facing an editor, also cross-legged, party-goers swirling around them, late at night, and he declaring, with great emphasis, ‘Look, bugalugs.’ A point of order, I assume. Crossheads, perhaps. A lead story. A matter of principle. But journalism certainly. We talked of little else in those days.

Amazed look as a general manager flung open his office door and screeched without preliminaries: ‘AM NOT WASHING REPORTERS’ SHIRTS.’ Alf was signing expenses at the time.

Serious, on the backbench of the newspaper, suddenly erupting into an explosion of laughter that vibrated the air a cricket-pitch away.

Alf’s laugh was not so much joy as a miraculous event. He turned the waters of everyday existence into wine. People poor at telling jokes sought him out so that they could try one on him. Always, Alf responded from the soles of his feet to the ever-thinning hair of his head. The laugh defies description in print. it contained a number of very rapid de-de-de-de’s as if he were fighting for bodily control in the process.

Dull and tedious people could walk away comparing themselves to the very best of comedians. They lived with new confidence.

Alf arrived at the Express as a sub-editor in the mid-fifties, and retired in the mid-eighties, taking the Liverpool to Manchester route familiar to many. He had married the year before he arrived. His mother thought the new job a disastrous decision rather like moon-walking or becoming a target for a circus knife-thrower.

Indeed, there was danger. It was reckoned that if you survived a year on the Express you could get a job anywhere in newspapers. It was the first-class degree of its time, a rough and highly demanding place in a demanding trade. Those who failed the course were quietly told to find another job ‘within a month.’

The paper itself sold four million or more each day and Manchester turned out more than a million of those. So it was a confident office, a competitive office, a thinking office, and, for compensation, a drinking office. Some of those most committed to the place were almost monastic. They slept. They worked. They went to the Press Club. They drank there. They slept again. There were, of course, other papers like it, notably the Mirror.

Alf was committed, as we all had to be, but, unlike some, he had his own secure oasis: home, in the Manchester fringes, where many of us met often, casually, or on set social occasions. At the centre of his family strengths was Ursula, his wife: the rock holding it all together while he earned the family crust.

He was, in turn, sub-editor, deputy features editor, chief sub-editor and ultimately an assistant editor.

More snapshots:

Alf pounding down the office stairs to see an edition away, falling on the landing, breaking his ankle, and the editor, hearing the news, flinging his arms into the air and declaring vehemently, ‘Everything happens to ME.’

At his home… an editor (not the one above) who, incredibly, managed to sweat in the cold of January; Sir James Scott-Douglas, Hickey writer, overflowing a chair on both sides with the flesh inherited from his immaculate ancestry (Duke of Beaufort, et al); any and all subject to the laugh. Ursula, meanwhile, was ever conscious of what was about and would censure him for some minor failing. She gave fair warning. Her voice rose an octave and she squeaked.

‘Wisht, woman,’ he would reply in severe and dismissive tones. An odd word, wisht. I never heard anyone else use it. She took no notice and continued to monitor his conduct like a nurse with a thermometer in an unruly ward.

On a shared holiday abroad, he descended the hotel steps from his bedroom with Ursula, all decked out for dinner, the broad smile on his face. I knew that smile: it suggested a very good evening ahead. A break-out even. She knew it too. Sure enough, it came. But in the meantime, I thought: Here comes Ursula, and the accused.

He was very Liverpool. After a hectic night there, we travelled to Manchester in an office car in the early hours of the morning. He asked for a change of route so that he could go down the familiar streets of his birth. Tears came easily to his eyes. Sentiment was deep in him, as was loyalty. He might have sat cross-legged with aneditor declaring ‘bugalugs’but he always, more than most, gave editors support and respect.

‘THE editor,’ he would say when on duty,’wants this in the paper.’ Emphasis on the THE to show that there was none other.

If he had a drink or two, it overjoyed him, like a heavenly benediction. I once walked him from office to car park so that I could ferry him home. Mike Dempsey, sports editor, was already there, retrieving his car. ‘You carry on with Alf,’ he said observing the joyfulness of our mutual friend. ‘I’ll lock up.’ I forget which month it was, but for Alf, it was Christmas with trimmings.

I carried on. Next day, Mike said, ‘What a problem you gave me.’

‘Why?’ I asked since I had seen none.

‘Well,’he said, ‘Alf must have got the lock from the gate and thrown it as far as he could. Took me hours to find it.’

So that was Alf. Impulsive, committed, dedicated, joyous, a fine colleague and fine companion, a journalist above all, a friend, a husband, a father, a good man to know and to be with, loyal as they come. And loud. Very loud. A large party of us in Italy occupied the same corner hotel table each night. Alf’s voice carried across the restaurant clearly. The laugh probably reached Austria.

In the last years of his life he was in a care home and could not speak. His strokes were cruel. He read things. He understood events well enough, but he was locked inside himself, like a mirror that could not reflect an image, a prisoner of his condition.

His daughter, Kathryn, who did so much for Alf, sent some of us a picture of him taken on his birthday. He was wearing a straw hat, looked a bit fatter in the face, and behind him was a soaring balloon which declared him to be 80.

Only now dare I declare it: I never did like the moustache.

  • Geoffrey Mather tops up his own website weekly at


London calling

By Colin Dunne

The first time I went to London, I landed lucky. Maybe I looked as though I’d jumped on the train after finishing the morning’s milking. Maybe I gave off a faint whiff of sheep dip.

Whatever it was, the black-cab driver seemed to sense I wasn’t a native-born Londoner.

When I asked him to take me to Fleet Street – and what a buzz that gave me – he slid back the glass window and said: ‘Do you know, mate, for the life of me I can’t fink where that is.’

No use asking me, I burbled. Never been here before. Never been in a black cab before. He was very good about it. Pointed out all the sights as we went along from Kings Cross – Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s, Buckingham Palace, Harrods, Imperial War Museum, Hampstead Heath, before taking enough money to buy a new cab and saying: ‘Good luck wiv the job, mate.’

Job? What job? Well, after just over a year in Halifax, I’d seen this ad for reporters wanted by the Press Association in London. That was really what I wanted to be – a real reporter – and I wasn’t sure I was getting there. Much as I loved Halifax, where I first witnessed journalistic bad behaviour in all its glory, I never seemed to get near any big news stories. My older colleagues did those.

Ever since the Talking Dog at the Spotted Cow pub – or was it the Talking Cow at the Spotted Dog pub? – I’d been marked out for the nuttier end of the trade. All I got were chuckle stories. As soon as I heard either of the news editors – of the Yorkshire Post or its evening paper –chuckling down the telephone, I knew they’d found another yet another quirky, funny, oddball story for me. ‘You’re going to love this one,’ they’d say. I didn’t love it. The way my career was going, I was to journalism what George Formby was to the dramatic arts.

That wasn’t the plan. What I wanted to cover was the meaty stuff of which front pages are made: war, famine, pestilence and death – with the odd cricket match on a Saturday.

So when I saw the ad for the major national news agency which was famous for employing hard, fast, accurate newsmen who never even smiled, let alone chuckled, I saw my chance. PA would make me into a top gun.

And there it was. Fleet Street. St Paul’s in the middle distance. The black plastic of the Express, the architectural twirls of the Telegraph, the steamy windows of Mick’s Caff, and there, at No 85, the stately stone monument that was PA. I stepped through the huge double doors into a reception area lofty enough to admit Revel Barker with a giraffe on his shoulders.

The interview panel flicked through my cuts and asked me if I’d ever done any… well, big stories. I decided not to draw their attention to my exclusives on the Ladies’ Happy Hour.

‘Ah,’ said one of them, with that smile I’d come to dread. ‘You got a good show with the talking dog, I see.’

After the other three had lost interest, a tubby chap on the end asked me a few serious questions. I didn’t catch who he was, but he had strapped around his neck and resting on his chest what was either the western world’s first-ever hearing-aid or a full-sized encyclopaedia.

Deflated, I headed back to Yorkshire. Three days’ later, the letter came, headed Press Association and signed by L C McNae. He would like me to join his Special Reporting Service department. The pay, in 1959, was exactly £20-a-week. My brother, a newly qualified solicitor in Yorkshire, earned £14-a-week.

I’d hit the big time. And not just ordinary reporting. Oh no. This was Special Reporting. I was leaving behind those provincial newssheets like the Yorkshire Post, the Northern Echo, and the Craven Herald.

The second time I went to London I had no problems at all. Everyone told me I would. I was going to share a bed-sitter with another Yorkshire lad who’d moved south a year earlier. He lived in Sussex Gardens. Over the telephone he kept reciting directions. Everyone else asked me if I knew where it was. Had I got an A-Z?

Honestly. Why all this fuss? I’d been to Keighley. Alone. So London certainly held no terrors for me. With my new life in mind, I’d traded up from my £15 1935 Jowett, to a £20 1936 Morris Ten. At 50mph, it fairly gobbled up the miles on the old A1 (children: there was no M1 in those days), so that after six hours we were chugging into fair London town.

Halfway down a narrow, crowded road, the gallant little Morris, like Dick Turpin’s Black Bess, died. From long experience of terminal cars, I swung two wheels up on the pavement and looked about me. This was the Edgware Road. There, on my right, Sussex Gardens. So where was the problem?

The next day, I had a look around London. A trained observer, I could see it was bigger than Keighley. Perhaps there was a tiny trace of luck in my breakdown.

I also witnessed the dreadful poverty of the Londoners. In Yorkshire, we kept coal in cellars. Here they called them basements and put people in them. Cruel, but they probably knew no better.

At 9am on Monday I bowled into PA and there it was – hacks in shirt sleeves, every hand holding a telephone, a cigarette or the front page: unfastened ties, tousled heads, feet on desks, noise and rush all around. This was for me. Only it wasn’t. I was in the wrong place. That was the PA newsroom. Down the corridor I found Special Reporting, which was not quite the same.

It was the last redoubt of the Brylcreme Boys. Hair, some silver, was slicked back and parted. The average age was middle, the dress code was well-pressed suits, mostly with waistcoats, discreet ties and highly polished shoes. They were mostly called Stan or Albert or Les. They were all rather good at the Telegraph crossword and the only rush was for the 6-40pm from Charing Cross. I never saw one of them drunk, fighting or doing mixed press-ups. Their idea of outrageous behaviour was finding a new car polish. What on earth were they doing in journalism?

What I hadn’t realised was that the SRS provided a specific service to individual publications. Like the Yorkshire Post and the Northern Echo and the Craven Herald. I had travelled rather a long way to end up where I started.

We did cover the Old Bailey, but only on behalf of the Essex papers. The pleasure of writing ‘A Barking man was sent to prison today…’ soon fades. From the Restrictive Practices Court, we provided what was virtually a verbatim service for the Financial Times. A few days of that was the equivalent of being run over by a tram.

Then there were the lists. Almost daily, it seemed, we took delivery of all those who had passed exams for barristers, solicitors, nurses, accountants, and very possibly trapeze artists: all we had to do was to type them up and distribute them throughout the nation. ‘A Cleckheaton law student has passed the final exam…’

Surprisingly, some of their reporters did go on to shine in what Bill Deedes called ‘the mackintosh trade.’ As a schoolboy, Jim Allen had been evacuated to Somerset where the local schoolteacher mocked his ambition to be a journalist, because of his strong London accent. Jim, who was also one of life’s good guys, went on to become a star reporter and later news editor of the Daily Telegraph. Peter Pryke, I think, also went on to join the Telegraph parliamentary staff, and Tom Corby became PA’s royal reporter.

You, gentle reader, have almost certainly met L J McNae, or at least seen his name on the cover of Essential Law for Journalists. He was a kindly man who struggled with his hearing problem. I can hardly believe that some of his young staff, when bored, would mouth silent conversations which could easily suggest to a deaf man that his hearing aid had failed. Poor old McNae would start banging away at it and fiddling furiously with the knobs.

It was all disappointingly decorous, and it wasn’t helped by my domestic arrangements. My bed-sit companion was a man known as Batley Jack, because Batley was buried deep in his DNA. He thought nowt of London ale, which he described as maiden’s piss, and he demonstrated his contempt by drinking eight or nine pints of Charrington’s every night. He would then sit up in bed in his vest, smoking roll-ups until he fell asleep and the last fag fell from his lips. Sometimes I was able to rescue it in time. Yet his vest and the sheets were still covered in burn marks.

Occasionally, he would wake in the night and stagger over to the still-hot gas fire which, to a man confused by weak London beer, looked like a lavatory. He would then pee all over it. In endless floods. I would wake up to violent hissing sounds, clouds of steam and the unforgettable scent of boiling urine.

I had to leave before the ammonia destroyed my eyesight or I was incinerated in what the papers would probably call a roll-up inferno. To this day I cannot boil urine without thinking of him.

But then, to my delight, life in London began to get more interesting. I blame Tony James.

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