Edition #79

The golden age

The golden age

This was the golden age of investigative journalism, writes Bill Harcourt, reviewing Murray Sayle’s book, A Crooked Sixpence for the prestigious Australian magazine, Quadrant.

It was also – if the book is to be taken seriously – the age of make-it-up journalism. (In fairness, everybody to whom I have spoken who was around at that time insists that they never made anything up, nor were they expected to, nor would they have been allowed to. But that obviously was not Sayle’s experience.)

In fact, investigative journalism as we came to recognise it, with the formation or Insight and Newssight and all their imitators, came some years after Sayle’s time with Duncan Webb on the old People. Webb’s stuff was more exposé than investigative; a fine line, perhaps. Some people have argued that all reporting is “investigative”. Of course it is not – some of the very best of it is just reporting.

Murray Sayle just happened to excel at the different forms of the craft.

And you might add novel-writing to his talents.

The more penurious (or tight-fisted) readers of this website may feel that there’s no need to shell out the readies after reading the Quadrant review. They’d be mistaken.

As Phillip Knightley – another Australian and who introduced Sayle to the Sunday Times (writing church notes) and thus to investigations – wrote in a review of the book the first time round, A Crooked Sixpence is the best novel about journalism – ever.

He’s just reviewed it again. This time for The Oldie.

Crossing the Pond, we have two follow-ups to our recent piece about Steve Dunleavy which stirred the memory cells of a couple of old colleagues, David Baird and Alan Fayette.

Then back to blighty Frank Corless was reminded (by Peter Laud, filing from Tasmania last week) of life with Ken Donlan and doing shifts on two daily newspapers, for which somebody else pocketed the money.

And Colin Dunne follows up his own reminiscences, quits Fleet Street and finds himself in Leamington Spa as news editor and chief reporter. Perhaps he is finally being taken seriously – albeit not, thankfully, by himself.

So basically all follow-ups, this week.

To which the only response can be: follow that…

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The reek of authenticity

By Phillip Knightley

Remember when Fleet Street was full of newspaper offices instead of wine bars, electronic shops and Japanese banks? It really was the Street of Adventure. O D Gallagher, of the Daily Express, said you could be interviewing a talking dog in Croydon in the morning and on your way to Shanghai that afternoon.

In the fifties, this thirst to be at the centre of things brought many a young colonial fresh off the boat, knocking on news editor’s doors seeking a trial in the reporters’ room. One of them was Murray Sayle, an Australian, pursuing simultaneously his ambition to change the world and reconciliation with his showbiz girlfriend who had made it big at the BBC.

He got a start on The People, as assistant to that brilliant crime reporter, Duncan Webb, who was in the middle of exposing the Messina brothers and their collective of prostitutes. Webb’s face had become too well-known around the West End, so Sayle became his front man, masquerading as wealthy Australian in London for a bit of fun.

Sayle would enter the premises that Webb had identified as a Messina brothel and establish that the occupants were indeed ‘working girls’. He did this by getting them to disrobe and agree that they would accept money for sex. For legal reasons he had to do this without removing his trousers. Then, as he wrote many times in The People in what was to become a catchphrase in journalism, ‘ I made an excuse and left’ .

The People was typical of Sunday tabloid journalism fifty years ago. All British life in its complexity, humanity, class consciousness and hypocrisy were paraded across its pages. Its editorial staff faced ethical problems that today would fill a journalism text book. Sayle has fictionalised them but they reek of authenticity.

Should a spoiled priest from an African colony who had fled to London with his wife and sold his story to the paper be allowed to change his mind and withdraw it when the Church had offered to forgive him? Answer: No. ‘A deal is a deal is a deal’and it would cost too much to remake the page.

Should the paper run a pop star’s life story, as glamorised by his press agent? Or his estranged father’s rival story that the star treated him like dirt. Answer: the pop star’s version because ‘it’s a good inspiring read and who cares if it’s been touched up a bit here and there.’

The fictionalised Sayle thrives. Headlines like RUNAWAY PRIEST BEGS YOUR FORGIVENESS by JAMES O’TOOLE attracts the attention of the paper’s editorial executives and he is told he might have a big future. Then fiction and fact collide and are his undoing.

In the novel, a girl in a fur coat is found strangled in an alleyway near Marble Arch. PARK LANE SOCIETY STRANGLING. SHE KEPT HER LAST BIG DATE – WITH DEATH.

O’Toole’s editor remembers that O’Toole’s landlord and friend is a playboy called Michael Macedon and it is possible he knew the murdered girl: ‘He’s one of these deb’s delights, moving in high society circles and all.’

So in the novel, the editor sends O’Toole to accuse Macedon of killing the girl. ‘I want you to put it right on him – get his full denial, with his alibi. What I have in mind is something like ‘Society Playboy’s Angry Denial – Peer’s Nephew says, I’m No Strangler.’ O’Toole cannot bring himself to do it and walks out.

When Sayle came to write this very funny and perceptive novel, he unwisely used his own real-life landlord, Michael Alexander, to create the fictional Macedon. Alexander picked up the similarities and sued for libel, brushing aside Sayle’s protests by saying that it would not cost Sayle anything because the publisher’s insurers would pay. Instead, the publishers withdrew the book and pulped all the remaining copies.

Alexander’s death in 2004 ended the libel risk and a new publisher has re-issued A Crooked Sixpence 47 years after it first came out. I wonder how O’Toole would have handled the story.

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Life on the Crooked Mile

By Bill Harcourt

The lunchtime Freethought Society meeting in the Philosophy Room at Sydney University was proceeding as usual. Professor John Anderson was summing up his views on the ‘New Journalism’, the subject of the meeting.

The door banged open and a tall figure appeared behind the small audience. Anderson paused. ‘Ah, Mr Sayle.’ The glance was baleful. The audience stirred. Anderson would face opposition from ‘Sidney Man’, the Daily Mirror’s front page, man-about-town columnist.

In the late 1940s Anderson was frequently attacked in the daily press: often on smaller issues, such as not standing for ‘God Save the King’, opposition to war memorials and so on. His usual answer was to hold a Freethought Society meeting. At this meeting Anderson argued that the decline of newspapers had started with the introduction of the British universal education acts of the late nineteenth century, leading to the rise of Northcliffe and the penny press. The press had an obscurantist, provocative, sensation-mongering function and was the enemy of truth. Journalism put issues in their least discussable form, and its place in relation to the university —or to any body of enquiring men — was outside. Journalists were sophists denying at one time what they asserted at another.

Sayle stood up. A university was more than a bottle of Scotch, a haggis and a garret. It had an important role in a democracy that could not function without a literate electorate served by a popular press. The so-called ‘yellow press’ was vital to modern, industrial society. Politicians were treated with the derision they deserved. Police corruption was exposed. The press ripped open huge publicity machines devoted to building up the image of film stars and other celebrities.

The meeting ended in an impasse.

In later life Sayle often referred to Anderson as the ‘Old Scots adulterer’. When hearing that he would receive an honorary degree Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, from Sydney University Sayle researched why, after he had topped first-year Psychology (awarded Lithgow Scholarship and a bursary) the Professorial Board cancelled his scholarship and bursary as well as refusing to allow him to sit for his second-year examination.

The ostensible reason was for not attending the required number of lectures. He had spent most of his second year editing the university student newspaper, Honi Soit, where he redesigned the layout and launched an editorial column called The Lifewant, a quote from Finnegans Wake. In one 1944 lead story he was half right in claiming, ‘Ern Malley is Harold Stewart. Ethel Malley, Ern’s naïve sister, has the same address as the poet.’

Sayle’s research found no other reason for the Professorial Board’s decision that ended his university days. He also found that only two members of the Board had supported his appeal: Clunies Ross and John Anderson.

As Sidney Man, in his early twenties, ‘boy-about-town’ to his critics, Sayle became a habitué of Sydney’s nightlife. He got to know Joe Taylor, who ran the Celebrity nightclub, where he met and formed a friendship with singer and zither player Shirley Abicair. One song he wrote for his friend included the lines, ‘I want that Ernest Hemingway kind of love’.

Sayle followed Shirley to the UK, where she and her zither almost immediately became a BBC television success. Sayle later wrote: ‘I sailed from Sydney, my birthplace, aboard the old RMS Otranto, on August 8, 1952. I left a good job that, alarmingly, looked like getting better: I felt the Australian emptiness closing in on me and I had to get out. There was the business about a girl to trigger me, but I had planned to come to London for years, and anyway she’d gone there too.’

Sayle, like so many intellectual boundary riders of his generation, headed for the centre: London those days rather than New York.

His novel, A Crooked Sixpence, recently republished, is based on the next episode of his life. In the frontispiece is the nursery rhyme:

There was a crooked man.
He walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence …

Sayle added, ‘It wasn’t enough.’

One can still hear the bells of St Clemens at the top of Fleet Street, which winds down from The Strand and Australia House towards St Paul’s. El Vino’s wine bar (‘El Venereal’) is still there with its sawdust and port barrels but largely empty. Gone are the Lunchtime O’Boozes and overmanning. Beaverbrook’s black-and white art deco monstrosity is now a Japanese bank. The crooked mile is long dead.

The Guardian recently described A Crooked Sixpenceas one of the twelve best novels ever written about journalism, and although it dates it should be read by anyone interested in the trade.

In the novel James O’Toole (Sayle) arrives in London, contacts Jennifer Taylor, now a BBC personality, who rejects him. He lands a job on the mass circulation Sunday Sun.

Recently Sayle, now quite ill, but with a mind as sharp as ever, described his style: ‘Make them laugh. Humour is a powerful weapon.’

The novel describes newspaper tricks of the trade.

Interviewing suspects in murder cases, who may or may not be guilty, how does the reporter evade libel laws? O’Toole is sent to cover a murder in Liverpool. Mrs Green has been found at home with her head bashed in.

Barr, the news editor, briefs the reporter: ‘Just a routine murder, both husband and wife were keen golfers and the golf angle lifts it out of the rut.’

‘A full-blooded iron shot.’

‘Anything you like.’

‘Suspicion naturally favours the husband. Murderers seldom pick people they don’t know. It’s the family who have to look out when Dad cuts loose. The police have been grilling Hubby without result.’

‘I grill him some more?’ asked O’Toole.

‘Not quite. If we accuse him of doing his old lady in he’ll sue us for millions. We can’t even say gossip accuses Mr Green: that’s highly libellous, too. However, if Mr Green himself says that gossip accuses, that’s altogether different. A man can’t libel himself. Prior consent. We’re completely in the clear.’

O’Toole finds Mr Green and wins his confidence, telling him the mighty Sunday Sun believes he is innocent, making sure he initials every page of the story O’Toole has typed—’just as a guarantee that not a word will be changed, of course’.

The story is prominently featured the following Sunday with the liberal use of capital letters. ‘GOSSIPS DRIVING HIM TO THE GALLOWS’. ‘I DID NOT hurry home through the darkened streets of Liverpool. I DID NOT BATTER MY LOVELY WIFE TO DEATH WITH A GOLF CLUB’.

Later O’Toole covers the story of the fallen priest.

A spotter gives the Sun a tip-off. At the airport O’Toole meets a couple and their child expelled from Tanganyika. ‘I was given two hours to leave the Colony. We were married an hour or so before we left. The bishop put the authorities up to it … I am a Catholic priest.’

‘You mean you’re a proper, regular priest?’

‘There’s only one kind of priest, Mr Towell.’

Penniless Father Sweeney signs up and O’Toole writes his story.

It was the searing destroying flame of LOVE that scorched the lives of this tragic couple—LOVE and HATE that brought them 6,000 miles from tropical Africa to find refuge in BIG-HEARTED BRITAIN.
He a Catholic PRIEST, a man bound by the most solemn promises known on EARTH, but a man still under his robes.
SHE is the beautiful daughter of an AFRICAN CHIEF…

The next day the priest returns to the Sun’s office and asks if his story can be cancelled. The church has been in touch. ‘You see, they have a procedure for cases … like mine.’ O’Toole goes to Barr:

‘…and he says we’ll wreck his welcome back into the fold if we go ahead, Mr Barr.’

‘Oh he does, does he? said Barr. ‘The chiseling crook. The story has been wired to Manchester. He could build a couple of churches on what it would cost us to remake the page at this stage. Tell him we’re sorry, no dice.’

The Sunday newspaper that employed Sayle was the People, circulation 5 million. The climax of his career there was as legman for crime reporter Duncan Webb, described by Time magazine in 1955 as ‘the greatest crime reporter of our time’. In the 1950s Webb was investigating the Messina brothers, who controlled most of London’s brothels and pornographic trade.

His modus operandi was to identify buildings that contained brothels and expose the owners of the buildings, often the Messina brothers.

In the novel James O’Toole is legman to ‘Norman Knight’, an ambiguous character with a touch of Graham Greene. They become friends.

O’Toole’s task is to play the role of a customer, establish that the building contains a brothel, without making any body contact, excuse himself and leave.

Later O’Toole has another assignment.

He is asked to write a human interest series. He learns from Barr a series is the lifeblood of a Sunday. People read news stories and forget them but, ‘people can’t forget a story when they don’t know how it finishes. Get that.’

O’Toole writes a series, supposedly by a mill girl down from the north seeking to be a model, who ends on the London streets but is rescued by her schooldays boyfriend, down south for a soccer final.

The novel ends with a sex-change story—very much in the news in those days. Areader has undergone a sex-change operation and writes asking to tell his story. Barr tells O’Toole: ‘Go and con him or her that we’re going to use the heart-rending story about his courage. I see the angle like this: This disgusting pervert has had himself mutilated to get money from the innocent British public … you ought to be in prison or a mental home … you contemptible beast.’

O’Toole finds ‘Miss Marsh’ telling him what it was like to be a human being in distress. He cannot take this angle back to the office.

He resigns. ‘Passing through the waiting room for the last time O’Toole thought of all the people he had seen there, and for some reason the pale, collarless, crucified face of Father Sweeney lingered in his mind.’

A Crooked Sixpencewas an instant success and set to be published in the United States, with the film rights about to be sold to Hollywood, but it proved to be a tragedy for Sayle and caused him to abandon writing fiction.

In the novel O’Toole is assigned to offer the Honourable Michael Macedon £12,000 to reveal details of his affair with a Czech film star. They become friends.

Macedon was, in fact, Michael Alexander, a close relative of Field Marshal Harold Alexander. Sayle’s friend Alexander, penniless at the time, threatened to sue, assuming that as all publishers had libel insurance he could collect without seriously harming anyone.

Instead of paying up, or even contacting their insurers, the publishers panicked and recalled the book.

A Crooked Sixpencelay dormant for forty-seven years, but with Alexander long dead it has just been republished as part of a series of the best novels about journalism.

Sayle subsequently moved to Paris where he worked for Agence France Press and later on to Geneva working for Fund of Funds magnate, Bernie Cornfeld,

who inspired his many hundreds of sales people preying on US servicemen overseas, with a classic book on salesmanship, Do You Sincerely Want To Be Rich?

Returning to London, Sayle was introduced to the Sunday Times by Phillip Knightley, then doing a Saturday casual shift writing the golfing notes. Sayle was also employed for a casual shift doing the church notes.

Shortly afterward, Sunday Times features editor Ron Hall walked into the newsroom one Saturday and casually mentioned that he was starting a new investigative feature to be called Insight, which would be a take-off of Time and Newsweek.

Sayle looked up. ‘What about the fungus that eats aircraft wings? Half the Indonesian air force has been grounded.’

‘Get onto it,’ said Hall.

This was the birth of one of the world’s most famous teams of investigative journalists. Knightley exposed the thalidomide medical scandal. Sayle’s greatest scoops included tracking down Che Guevara in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967, probably himself being tracked by the CIA, and he was the only journalist to interview Kim Philby shortly after he defected. It was forty years before Philby gave another interview.

At the time no journalist could get a visa to visit Moscow. Sayle flew to an obscure outpost of the Soviet empire and from there took an internal flight to Moscow. Knowing Philby was interested in cricket, he waited outside the Moscow General Post Office until Philby arrived to collect his Times.

Philby agreed to be interviewed the next day in a Moscow hotel. When Sayle arrived and took the lift to the obvious KGB floor he found Philby sitting in a bare room with a table and two chairs. On the table was a bottle of Scotch, two glasses and a revolver. ‘One can never be too careful,’ said Philby.

This was the golden age of investigative journalism.

In 1959 Roy Thomson, a modest, self-made man who started his working life as a radio salesman and became the richest man in Canada, bought the Kemsley Group of newspapers that included the Sunday Times.

Thomson said he did not care what went between the advertisements and let his journalists have a free rein editorially and financially. In 1964 he was made Lord Thomson of Fleet. The title is significant. Newspapers were his pastime, not his income source. He owned Scottish Television, which he described as a ‘licence to print money’. He had none of the paranoia of Northcliffe, or the arrogance of Beaverbrook, or the hubris of Conrad Black.

Sayle went on to win many awards, including Journalist of the Year for his coverage of the Vietnam War, and Magazine Writer of the Year in 1973 contributing to the New Yorker and the London Review of Books among other publications.

He gave evidence at the last Royal Commission into Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday and covered every Arab-Israeli war, concluding, ‘Here we are again on the banks of the Suez Canal. Where do we go from here?’

Sayle also took part in the 1970 International Mount Everest Expedition and was the Sunday Times entry in the Observer’s single-man trans-Atlantic yacht race.

He made a BBC television documentary on his voyage entitled Alone on a Wide Wide Sea.

Based in Japan from 1975, Sayle returned to Australia in 2004 and has been a frequent contributor to Quadrant, the Griffith Review and the ABC.

In his address when receiving his honorary Doctor of Letters degree, Sayle concluded that, in his last student editorial at the age of seventeen, I wrote, rather wistfully: ‘Only when I am a long way off from Honi Soit will I be able to say

whether it was worth it.’ Today’s proceedings suggest that on the whole the choice that life made for me was not such a bad one, after all. I hope that life makes interesting choices for you young graduates, too.

Bill Harcourt writes an investment column for the Canberra Times and several other newspapers.
A Crooked Sixpencehas been republished in England by Revel Barker at £9.99.

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Hell-raiser

By David Baird

Raising hell seems to have been, and surely still is, a way of life for Steve Dunleavy, whose retirement you recently reported.

His legend lives on in various spots across the globe. A Hong Kong friend informs me that his stint on the South China Morning Post in the 60s was not without memorable moments.

Dunleavy fell foul of the editor, a solemn, colourless type, when he decided to cool off in the newsroom by taking a shower — by pouring a bottle of San Miguel beer over his head. He also failed to charm a reporter who had ordered a club sandwich in the canteen. Dunleavy approached him from behind, saying: ‘Here you are, sport. One club sandwich coming up!’

The reporter turned to reach for his sandwich and was confronted with two slices of bread. Wedged between them was the very virile member of Steve Dunleavy. The young journo, a serious, studious fellow, never really recovered from that.

The neon-bright streets of Wan Chai with its girlie bars and marauding GIs on R & R from Vietnam became markedly tamer after Dunleavy’s departure from Hong Kong, which came about rather abruptly. After some alleged outrage, the British authorities apparently ordered him to leave the colony forthwith.

What’s the story behind that? Shurely we should be told. Maybe, now Dunleavy has time on his hands in Florida, he can reveal all to Ranters.

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A gift for medical research

By Alan Fayette

I first met Steve Dunleavy 40 years ago at Louie’s East, behind the Daily News Building – an in-between-editions hang out for the News’ very boozy staff. He had just interviewed the Boston Strangler in jail, thus becoming an overnight celebrity among newsmen.

He was working in the News building for News Limited. One night he introduced me to a fellow Australian named Rupert Murdoch, a rather chubby, balding gentleman, who let Steve do most of the talking, at which he always excelled. (Only my late wife could debate him into silence. He avoided her at parties.)

I didn’t see Steve much until the call went out that Murdoch was starting up a tab, the National Star. Steve began to round up a staff, shanghaiing people from the News and other sheets in town.

I had left the News in 1971 to write a play, but when I got the call, I came aboard as a sub editor. Steve was there in all his glory as the star reporter, Bond Street suits and all.

During that period Steve developed pancreatitis, a very painful malady, he admitted. Not supposed to drink.

He did. I’ve always said Steve is a medical miracle and he should leave his body to researchers. They might find a cure for alcoholism.

Steve recovered. Murdoch’s next big move was to buy the New York Post, Steve went along, but stayed in the wings at first. Roger Wood was the executive editor. Dear Boy suffered a gall bladder attack and was sidelined for his first edition command post. So, who else but Rupert himself? Dragged himself in a 4 a.m. to watch the store. I was cable editor and he sat across from me, asking about the foreign stories.

One morning about 5 a.m. I spot Dunleavy weaving across the city room. He came up to Rupert’s desk: ‘Hello, Boss,’ was all he managed to get out. Murdoch looked up at him and allowed: ‘Steve, you’re drunk.’

Steve paused a moment and replied, ‘Yes.’ Murdoch then said, ‘Steve you’re going to kill yourself if you know don’t stop.’ Steve nodded in agreement, turned and wandered off down the hall.

Two hours later, the miracle man returned, shaven, clean shirt, hair in place and a big smile. Murdoch just shook his head in wonder…

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Pool reporter

By Frank Corless

Peter Laud’s reminiscences of Ken ‘Walk Tall’ Donlan reflect some of my own experiences of a man who could strike fear by just lifting the phone and saying ‘hello’.

From his days at the Daily Mail in Manchester in the early 60s, Peter remembers Ken as ‘The Man I Came to Dread’. Steely eyed Ken, says Peter, was the most terrifying man he met in a career that spanned more than 40 years.

Well, I had my own run-ins with KD, but was he ‘the most terrifying?’ I don’t think so. As much as anything, I remember that he could be kind and considerate. In fact, if it had not been for him – and the equally legendary Maurice ‘Wiggy’ Wigglesworth, the then news editor at the Daily Mirror in Manchester – I might never have achieved my ambition to work on a national.

After I left the Prescot and Huyton Reporter at 19, it was Mercury Press Agency founder Terry Smith who gave me the grounding – or should that be grinding – to make me think I could make it.

Terry came from a long line of bluff Yorkshiremen running successful agencies at that time (was it Tetley Tea or something else they mixed with water?). A hard-nosed reporter and businessman, he went on to launch Radio City in Liverpool, made millions, and is now vice-president at Liverpool FC.

As you might expect, Terry made you work hard to earn your corn and, occasionally, that entailed working back-to-back shifts at the Mirror and the Daily Sketch.

No one was spared, not even the late, great Malcolm Keogh. One of many terrific journalists who started their careers at Mercury, Mal eventually rose to become Mirror bureau chief in America, sadly losing his life after a road accident in New York.

Whoever got the short straw at Mercury had to report for a 10am to 6pm duty at the Sketch, usually working alongside Les Stringer and Mike Kiddie, before racing along Deansgate to report for a ‘six-while-one’ shift at the Mirror.

Routinely out of breath, and soaked in sweat, I was always the butt of friendly ‘stick’ from other shifters such as Les Duxbury (who went on to write scripts for Coronation Street), or Ron Kennedy, his partner at the Star news agency in Blackburn. ‘Frank, you must be making a bloody fortune’, Les said to me during one of the long, long stints. As an agency boss himself, he knew full well that the bunce I earned went straight back to Terry.

After one of these daunting double-headers, I was so dog tired on the drive back home along the East Lancs Road that I fell asleep at the wheel. My snooze was shattered by an almighty crash, and I found myself sitting in the middle of the Greyhound island at Leigh. Amazingly, I came out of without a scratch, and the car had only lost its bumper. With not a soul in sight, I did a runner, leaving the bumper behind as well as a mazy tyre track across the island’s flower beds.

A job eventually came up at the Mirror and, after what must have been the shortest interview on record – lasting less than five minutes – Wiggy offered me the job. Over the moon? You bet! But then… silence. I didn’t hear another word. Weeks went by before I plumped up the courage to ring him. ‘Sorry, Frank, there’s been a problem,’ he growled (Wiggy did a lot of growling). ‘We’ve been trying to sort it out, but I can’t give you the job. But, I promise I’ll put in a good word elsewhere.’

It was months before I learnt that I had been the piggy-in-the-middle in an internal dispute over who did the hiring and firing at the Mirror.

But it was no consolation, especially since it was a case of lightning striking twice. Just months before, Stan Mellor, news editor at the Manchester Evening Chronicle, had invited me to an interview and given me a job. That was at 4pm on Thursday. At 9am the next morning, the Chronicle announced that it was closing down!

Losing one job was bad enough, but two? And, at 20, I was ageing fast.

Resigned to spending a lot more time at Mercury, I returned to the ‘coal face’. Back I went to the round of St Helens magistrates court, inquests, turgid council meetings. Finally, salvation arrived. Out of the blue, I got a call from Ken. ‘I’ve heard a bit about you,’ he said. ‘Do you fancy coming to the Mail?’

I knew then that Wiggy had kept his word. Good old Wiggy, a man with a heart as big as Barnoldswick.

After a few months indoctrination at the Mail office in Manchester, I was despatched to Liverpool to work alongside another legend, the mercurial Arthur Redford. Arthur had several nicknames, one of which was ‘Braces’. Normally, he would write his copy with his jacket on but, if it was a big job or an exclusive, Arthur would remove the jacket to reveal a stunning pair of scarlet braces.

Slowly rolling up his shirt sleeves, he then set to work. ‘It must be a biggie,’ everyone reckoned. It was enough to put the fear of God into the opposition and, at that time, there was a lot of opposition. At one stage, the Express had four men in Liverpool, including the never-to-be forgotten Les ‘Old Horse’ Poole, and Les Clare.

All the nationals worked a shift system but, as the Mail ‘junior’ in the city, I got to work most of the nights. I didn’t mind too much because Beatlemania and the Mersey Sound were in their stride. When things went quiet, usually around 1am, I would slope off to the Blue Angel or the Jacaranda to catch up with the Mersey Beat gossip and what was new on the scene.

Working nights also got me out of the clutches of the morning check-in to KD, a particularly daunting experience if there wasn’t much on the news front. ‘What the hell are you doing over there?’ was a typical response.

Inevitably, on one of the rare occasions I worked days, I fell foul of the great man.

It was during the lead-up to a national postal strike, at a time when Reginald Bevins was Conservative MP for Liverpool Toxteth. Sadly – for me, anyway – he was also Postmaster General.

‘I want you out at the crack of dawn,’ KD snapped. ‘Get the full hit on the postman who delivers to the Bevins house. Chapter and verse, the works.’ ‘Yes, Ken,’ I stammered.

Come 6am, I attempted to park as close as I could to the MP’s large, detached house on Queens Drive in Mossley Hill. One of Liverpool’s main thoroughfares, it was – and still is – virtually impossible to park anywhere on the road without risking an accident. ‘Try to keep a low profile,’ KD had told me. Low profile? Not in a turquoise coloured Mini 1000.

My first attempt was an absolute disaster. Spotting the postman, I jumped from the car, and dodged the traffic, only to fall flat on my face just as I reached I the MP’s driveway. – ‘ I’m from the Daily Mail,’ I mumbled to the postie as I shamefacedly started to get to my feet. ‘I want to know what you think about the strike.’ ‘I don’t care if you’re from Mars,’ he replied. ‘….off.’ With that, he walked off.

My worries over my failure matched my fear of ringing KD with the bad news. I knew I wouldn’t be let off lightly. ‘Go back tomorrow,’ he said. ‘Try again – and only ring me when you’ve sorted it.’

Next morning, I was back in position as ordered, only to face the same sort of scenario, albeit without crashing to earth. This time, I didn’t even merit a response from the postman, apart from a glare that would have frozen the River Mersey.

‘Go back again,’ barked KD when I rang in. ‘Don’t take no for an answer. Walk tall – I want a result.’ That’s what I thought I’d got – a negative one!

In position for a third time, and totally resigned to failure, I skipped sitting in my car and waited in the drive of the house next door, ready to pounce just as the postman emerged from the Bevins drive. Big mistake. He took one quick look, flung his bag on the floor and raced towards me.

I turned on my heel and fled into the early morning mist. Just 21, and a former professional soccer player, I still had a fair turn of speed and stamina, and I left him behind fairly quickly. Anyway, I knew he couldn’t go far without his bag.

But KD still wasn’t having it. This time, I was ordered to forget the postman and ‘front up’ Mr Bevins. Thankfully, I never did get a reply at his door and the mission was eventually called off.

A couple of months later, the Mirror man in Liverpool, Chris Ward, who had taken over from Bill Marshall, left for London and I got his job.

I left with KD’s best wishes – and a parting shot. ‘Arthur will stuff you over there,’ he said.

It was the start of my 37-year stint for the Mirror in the Pool. And, eventually, I got to meet ‘The Man I Came to Dread’ – the person who I consider was ‘the most terrifying’. Ken Donlan wasn’t in the same league. That man was Robert Maxwell. But that’s another story….

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Ever decreasing circles

By Colin Dunne

It took me seven years to reach Fleet Street. Then I left, and it took me another seven years to get back there. In between, I did a sort of national tour, first the Midlands, then the North East, followed by the North West, and, hey ho, back to London again.

To the analytical mind, this could suggest a man who is incapable of forward-thinking beyond tomorrow lunchtime, and I certainly wouldn’t quarrel with that. When it comes to a life-plan, I have always believed that the heads-or-tails system gives you all the precision you need. It saves all that painful thinking.

So when it became clear that the newly-appointed Mrs Dunne the First wasn’t going to stay in London, I went straight back to the Friday morning flick… flicking the pages of World’s Press News (precursor of the Press Gazette) whose jobs page was a place of dreams. I loved doing this: every ad was a fresh place and a fresh start. I remember being tempted by a job in Oban on the grounds that Somerset had a good cricket team: someone pointed out it wasn’t in Somerset. A district man in Diss sounded good until I realised it’s so far east you’d need to speak Dutch. And Dudley? Did ever a place-name hold such promise?

But Leamington Spa was right bang in the middle and, what’s more, I’d never been there. Two good reasons to chase up the ad for a chief reporter on the Courier.

When I look back on it, it does seem that the decision-making process was… well, a little lacking in detail. Tell me, dear reader, when you were making your way in the mackintosh trade, did you follow a carefully researched route to the top? Or did you go just because it sounded like fun? I’d really like to know how others made their moves.

Now John C Algar knew exactly what he was doing. He was a sub on the Yorkshire Post who decided that he wasn’t going to reach the top in daily journalism. He was right. He didn’t have the showbiz-style flair, the outrageous personality, the indomitable drive, or the will to sacrifice his domestic life and liver to get to the top. He was too bright for that. He was an excellent journalist; he was steady, reliable and intelligent. So he very sensibly opted to be a big fish in a small pool and traded down to weekly newspapers.

In fact, I can think of only one mistake that Jack Algar made in his career. I’ll come to that later.

By the time I joined him in Leamington he was producing a sophisticated paper with the highest standards in design and content – he won awards later – with a staff of a dozen or so journalists who were a match for anyone, anywhere. Jack Algar could certainly pick ‘em.

My first day in the office – like all proper weeklies, over a shop in the main street – was also first day for a 16-year-old from the grammar school. In his flannels and sports jacket, Pete Fairley was a tubby little chap who walked like a penguin. Shy? Address one word to him and his face lit up like a traffic-light. His first job was to write a few pars on a health committee report on the reasons for lost dentures. He spotted that one unfortunate tooth-loser had sneezed his out of the car window.

‘If you live in the Tachbrook Road,’ he wrote, ‘beware of flying snappers…’

It wasn’t a bad start for a schoolboy. But Pete always had the magic light touch.

For me there was the great pleasure of seeing him grow through the colourful stages of late adolescence. There was the folk-singing phase when he and his pals – guitar-owners but, inexplicably, not guitar-players – would sing about shoals of herring with all the salty, sea-going authenticity that you find only in grammar school boys 100 miles from the cost. Next, the Oscar Wilde phase. For this he had a plum-coloured velvet jacket, a cigarette holder, and lots of witty things which never quite got said. Then there was the Marxist in denims which was a bit tedious. But he was a lovely chap.

Most mornings, Pete’s first job was to go round to a flat in Rugby Road and throw stones at the window. Waking up Mike Stares, our ace reporter, was too much for a mere alarm clock. Mike was one of those wonderful reporters who regarded stories in much the same way as a Jack Russell with a rat: he’d never give up until he’d got it in his jaws.

The office smoothie was Tim Hurst, a lanky young man who had that indestructible charm and self-confidence that you get only from a first-class public school. When it came to reporting, Tim kept his nose well clear out of the grindstone. He didn’t do solid plod: what Tim did was brilliant moments, and they were always worth waiting for.

We also had a bright young trainee who’d had to drop out of university because of a fertility problem: his girl-friend got pregnant. Unlike most graduates, he was delighted to have the job, and damned good at it.

Cheery and beery as you would expect of a landlord’s son, Roger Draper wasn’t the sports editor for nothing. When our scratch cricket team played a smart town side, big Roger wandered out in jeans, ragged sweater and one pad, and hit 50 in 30 minutes. He was in charge of office fun. Our slender girl reporter Hilary, who at a union meeting once shrieked: ‘I’m getting the minimum!’ was forever known as Thin Min.

Was Denis Morgan, Roger’s trainee, known as Nod because he was a Mod? I’m not sure now. But in the early sixties, when Mod was in vogue, with his little pork pie hat and shortie coat, he was always up to the minute. Sometimes literally. One Friday, the shirt he’d bought at 4.55pm for a party that night, went out of fashion 15 minutes later. ‘I’d’ve looked a right berk if I hadn’t found out in time,’ he said.

Now he was an interesting young man. Polio had left him with only one working arm, but his five good fingers could type faster than anyone I ever saw. It also made him unswervingly determined. When someone bet him he couldn’t drink ten pints of beer, he did it – by making himself sick after each one.

The team Jack Algar pulled together produced some pretty good papers. Goodness knows, I had little enough to do with it. I enjoyed every minute of it, even though it taught me that I had no gift for leadership. The truth was that I wasn’t fit to be in charge of a budgerigar let alone a room full of talented youngsters like these. As a boy on holiday, I had always been the boy who stood on the edge, watching. I hadn’t changed. I was still the outsider. I always was. At least I learnt that in Leamington.

Because he was totally focused on the paper, Jack Algar would have nothing to do with freelancing. His predecessor, Bob Knight, still a distinguished figure around the town, had been lineage king, but he surrendered his title with retirement. Inevitably it came my way.

We had so many good stories that the national boys in Birmingham used to ring me on a Thursday so they could plan their visit the next day. I knew that Ray Hill (Mirror), Jack Hill (Express) and Keith Colling (Mail) would never jump the gun, until one day they did. The story, I think, was a woman councillor who’d got into trouble by posing naughtily in a bubble bath – ‘Double trouble for Mrs Bubble’ seems to ring a bell. I tipped them off just before Thursday lunch, and, to my great surprise and annoyance, the whole Birmingham pack was in town by mid-afternoon. Trevor, a freelance stand-in, simply said he didn’t give a damn about me or the Courier and he was going to do the story that day. Rather shamefacedly, the rest of them followed. Fortunately, Jack Algar was his usual understanding self when he found our exclusive plastered all over the nationals the next day.

I had to wait 15 years, when the Mirror sent me on a PR stunt story to New York with the suggestion that I could do it or ignore it. The PR man in charge was the admirable Trevor. I was his only chance of national coverage. He paled when he saw me. ‘Wasn’t there a little misunderstanding when we last met, Colin?’ he said feebly. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I understood it perfectly.’

I did do the story in the end, and it got a page lead. But I let him sweat for four days first.

In Leamington, I learnt again that hacks are rarely boring, and neither are their private lives. Long before the bunny-boiler, we had a bunny-drowner. A Birmingham Post district man – called Bill, I think – was a keen breeder of prize-winning rabbits who was having domestic problems. He came home late to find his wife had drowned his star rabbit and left it on the draining board.

And we had a West Country boy who tried to pick up every woman he met, even on the telephone. ‘You sound noice,’ he said, to one anonymous female. ‘Oi’ll bet you’re one of them little blondes? No? Well you must be a lovely little redhead then? Wrong? In that case you’ve got to be a gorgeous little blackhead…’ That was the one that got away.

On the town’s tiny daily paper, the Leamington Morning News, there was a tall, skinny, pale young man who seemed too nervous to be a good reporter. But he became one of the Sunday Times’ most celebrated investigative reporters… unless there are two Paul Eddys, that is.

What happened to them all? Mike Stares went on to work on the Yorkshire Evening Post with… Revel Barker. Then he started his highly successful freelance business in the Cotswolds. Before Leamington, Jack Algar had edited a weekly in Pudsey where he hired (on three-halfpence a line)… a kid still at school called Revel Barker: I told you he’d made one mistake. Later Jack Algar crowned a distinguished career by becoming editor-in-chief for the group. Tim Hurst, of course, prospered as a TV journalist. The unstoppable Dennis Morgan went to Canada and ended up on the Toronto Star. When Roger Draper, who became sports editor of the Coventry Evening Telegraph, died last year, the obits described him as a sports legend. Pete Fairley, the best of them all, followed me to Tyneside; sadly he had to hide his shyness in a bottle, and it did for him.

Years later, in the Stab, I mentioned that I’d worked in Leamington and knew Bob Knight. The man next to me burst into tears. It was John Knight. He was Bob’s son.

And me? I did enjoy myself there. It was a great paper, smashing set of people, a good job. But to go on doing it for the next 40 years? Whatever that takes, I didn’t have it. So, one Friday morning, I was looking down the jobs’ column of WPN

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