You couldn’t make it up
After last week’s Australian extravaganza, we have Garry Steckles this week writing on how he avoided going there (he went to Canada instead, and thence to St Kitts, so he obviously didn’t much mind missing the boat).
But we seem never to be far from our Cobber mates at Ranters, these days.
We have yet another flashback on Australia’s own – before he became New York’s own – Steve Dunleavy, by way of a short from Phil Harrison,now in Narrawallee, New South Wales.
And of course we always have copies available of two of our classic journo books by Australians… Slip-Up (how Fleet Street found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard lost him – the story behind the scoop) by Tony Delano and A Crooked Sixpence by Murray Sayle about the anything-goes days of the red-tops, before they had even thought of using colour on the title-piece.
Details of how to find these and our other books are over there on the right.
And, no worries, NEXT WEEK we will mark (albeit a few days late) the turning of another son of the Southern Hemisphere, Phillip Knightley, into his ninth decade.
Filing from the other direction – from Aiken, South Carolina, where he is reduced to playing golf five days a week – Phil Finn responds to the suggestion (Ranters, last week) that there was a time, apparently, when you could make stuff up. It’s a denial on his part, natch.
Colin Randall misses a party for guys who would never have dreamt of making anything up.
And Colin Dunne makes it up to Tyneside, where he might not have learnt much about journalism, but at least he now knows the words of Blaydon Races.
How not to become Australian
By Garry Steckles
It’s more than 40 years since I set foot in the old Manchester Press Club, so this heartfelt thank you may be a little late. It’s not for the countless hilarious, drunken, occasionally profitable mornings (the club didn’t come to life until after midnight) I spent there. It’s not even for the many good friends I made at its unpretentious bar. It’s for saving me from a fate that might not quite be worse than death, but which is almost too awful, in hindsight, even to write about.
If it wasn’t for the club, a thriving establishment in the sixties when Manchester was one hell of a newspaper city, I might now be an… Australian. There, I’ve said it.
I had joined the sports desk of the Daily Mail in Manchester in 1966, but the decade was something of a blur. I had what I thought was a fair bit of experience in the business: three anda half years indentured at the South Shields Gazette, where I started at thirty bob a week as a junior on the sports desk, a year and a half on the Sporting Life in London, under the legendary editor Oswald ‘Ossie’ Fletcher, a job I landed partly on the strength of my Gazette training and partly because my father was a prominent Newcastle bookmaker and I’d grown up in a horse racing environment, and a year or so back in the north-east as a writer/sub on the sports desk of the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle.
Among the first things I discovered in Manchester was that my working hours at the Mail meant getting out of the office just in time for the last pint or two before the pubs closed, that the night clubs rarely tried to hit working journalists for their normal cover charge and stayed open until 2 in the morning, and that the press club routinely kept serving thirsty subs from the nationals until five, six, or, quite often, later.
I also discovered that the club had a thriving three-card brag school, and I quickly became a regular participant.
I’d grown up in a betting family, and had played brag regularly, and with a fair bit of success, in various night clubs in Newcastle and Whitley Bay, my home town, where there was a vicious and usually drunken game at a slightly seedy nightspot called the Pickwick Club. My technique was to stay comparatively sober, which meant limiting my intake to five or six pints, before assessing the relative state of intoxication of whoever was playing on a particular night, then joining the game and taking advantage of bets that were being made on the basis of total inebriation rather than the hand that had been dealt.
So I was delighted to discover that there was almost always a game to be found at the press club. I was also delighted to discover that the other brag regulars included some of the club’s most outlandish characters, including one legendary reprobate, whose name I had better not mention on the off chance he’s still alive and has a half-decent lawyer, who, when I first met him, had a major drunk driving court case looming in his not-too-distant future. It was talked about in somewhat hushed tones, and I soon found out why. He’d staggered out of the club, mortally drunk, around 7 in the morning a month or two before I’d arrived in Manchester, then, driving home, managed to mow down and kill a pedestrian who was on his way to work. It didn’t help that the carnage took place at a clearly marked pedestrian crossing. And the fact the victim was blind, with white cane, wasn’t a point his defense lawyers intended to dwell on.
The club itself was hard-drinking by any standards, whether your yardstick was a big, grimy northern industrial city or an era when journalists, in general, hit the bottle hard and often on and off the job.
Pay nights – Thursdays, as I recall – were particularly gruesome, and, as the beer flowed and the atmosphere got rowdier, the exchanges between drunks from different papers could occasionally become heated. Staffers from the Mirror and the Sun often crossed swords, and not only verbally. On one memorable evening, two particularly pissed subs decided to settle their disagreement with a bout of ferocious swordplay using tightly rolled up versions of their respective first editions as weapons.
It could have been passed off as harmless fun if they hadn’t set the papers on fire before engaging in combat.
The three-card brag players barely gave the fracas a second glance. It was an intense school, with the stakes getting higher as the evening progressed, and, on pay day, it wasn’t unusual to see a pot that was much higher than the average week’s take-home of the players.
After a few months in Manchester, I had pretty well decided it was time for me to see some of the world outside the UK, and I decided it might be fun to give Australia a try. This was in the days of the six o’clock swill and, looking back, I had clearly taken leave of my senses, but I found myself at the Australian Embassy in London being interviewed and, for some reason, accepted. I was given ten quid – a standard enticement in those days – and my passage booked on one of the many ocean liners that were sailing between England and Australia in the era before jet travel became commonplace.
I had managed to save almost a hundred quid myself, and, with the Aussie government’s tenner, figured I had more than enough to keep me going until I landed a job.
I handed in my notice at the Mail and, about three days before I was due to sail south, withdrew my precious savings from the bank – which happened to be just down the road from the press club. And a few hours later I found myself playing three-card brag. Around 2 in the morning, I was about breaking even. I’d been dealt a few half-decent hands, but nothing exceptional, and I figured it was about time for my luck to change. It did. I got one of those hands you relish in brag – a running flush. Something like a 6-7-8 of diamonds, the sort of hand you’ve got to put your shirt on. Which I did. The one with all my money earmarked for Australia in the pocket.
Before I knew it, it was in the pot, every quid of it, and I was starting to suspect that the only other player left in the hand – I’m about 90 percent sure it was Bernard Clarke, a sardonic sub from one of the upscale dailies who looked like a dissipated version of Peter O’Toole long before Peter O’Toole looked that way himself – just might have a better one.
He did – another running flush, but with higher cards.
I didn’t fancy landing in Sydney penniless, so I called the Aussie Embassy the next day, offered profuse apologies along with some fabricated story that I’m sure they didn’t believe, begged for my job back at the Mail, and, having decided that Australia clearly wasn’t meant for me, set my sights on Canada.
This time my interview was in Liverpool, and the Canadian government was so eager to get people over there in those days they even fronted my air fare (and hounded the money back out of me, much to my disappointment). So in December of 1967, four or five months after the night of the two running flushes, I was spending a couple of weeks with my parents in Whitley Bay before heading up to Glasgow to celebrate New Year’s Eve with my friend Bob Hely, a sports sub on the Sun with whom I’d shared a flat in West Didsbury for most of my time in Manchester (the other occupant of that den of depravity was Mirror news sub and union stalwart Crawford McAfee, another Glaswegian, and I was sharing the digs with them for about three months before I could understand a word they were saying). Then, on Jan. 2, I was to fly out of Prestwick to Montreal.
I’d again managed to save a few quid – again about 100 as I recall – and I had it all in my pocket when I found myself in another three-card brag school, this time back in the Pickwick Club.
A couple of hours into the game I was looking at a modest pair of jacks, a not-bad hand but not one you’d normally risk your future on. It was ten bob blind, a quid open, and I was encouraged when all but one of the players folded, leaving the proprietor of Whitley Bay’s first Indian restaurant as my lone opponent. He was playing blind – which, for the benefit of any youngish Ranters who aren’t familiar with brag, means he hadn’t looked at his cards – and I started to get nervous when he upped the ante to a quid blind and two open. But the odds were well in my favour, and, as a bookmaker’s son, I wasn’t about to fold my cards against someone who hadn’t even looked at his, so I kept on throwing in my two pounds. And on and on. Eventually, all my Canada savings were on the table, and I had to cover the pot, effectively ending the hand. And it was down to me to show my cards first. I turned over my jacks, and waited, trying to hide my anxiety, as he took his time about turning his. He had two tens, I had about 150 quid in my pocket, and, a few days later, after a memorable New Year’s Eve in Glasgow in the days long before that great city was gentrified, I was off to Canada for what I thought would be a year.
It’s turned into several decades. In fact, I still divide my time between Vancouver and a tiny Eastern Caribbean island, St Kitts.
Along the way, I became a fan of Caribbean music – it’s a long story, and I won’t bore you with it here – and ended up writing about it for whoever would pay me, promoting reggae concerts and hosting Caribbean radio programmes, and recently had my first book published, a biography of the late King of Reggae, Bob Marley.
But if Bernard Clarke hadn’t had a better hand than me in the press club all those years ago, I might now be an Aussie.
That’s why I owe the club this belated thank you. Thanks to you, too, Bernard. I hope you’re still around to read this, and I owe you a pint if we ever cross paths again. Anything but Fosters.
By Phil Harrison
I was working for the South China Morning Post as a reporter and witnessed the Steve Dunleavy salami-on-the-shoulder incident, as related by David Baird (Ranters, last week).
In fact, there was no sandwich involved, just the member.
The consensus among fellow diners in the Post canteen was that a well-aimed jab with a fork would have taken care of things.
Dunleavy was prone to similar acts.
One of them was to commandeer a tray of canapés at one of the many cocktail parties held in Hong Kong in those days, lay his member on the tray, cover it with nibbles and offer the tray around.
He enjoyed the reaction of the unfortunate person (often a woman) who revealed the horror lurking beneath the cheese and crackers.
In Sydney in the late 1950s, Dunleavy invented a game he called Dunleavy Roulette. He would enter the lift of the old Daily Mirror building on the ground floor, undo his fly and take bets on how many floors he could reach before the doors opened.
I have a China Mail cutting of Dunleavy, me and a female Post reporter dressed as geisha girls performing Three Little Scamps from the Post Are We at the Post Christmas party in 1959.
Never let the facts…
By Phil Finn
Your reference to make-it-up journalism (Ranters, last week) caused a minor stab of pain. Fortunately, the pang did not linger, and I was soon having a good old chuckle, about the one (and only) time someone actually accused me of that heinous behaviour.
It happened on the day of the New Jersey funeral of Malcolm Keogh, the great Daily Mirror correspondent in New York, who had died of a rare and mysterious blood disease (not, as Frank Corless reported last week, following a road accident).
Malcolm was a wonderful reporter/writer, a pal I first met in Manchester, who was prone to moaning about almost everything.
He was taken ill while covering the Charles Manson case in Los Angeles (he even complained before jetting to California about how hot the sun was going to be!). But once stricken there was not a brighter, more cheerful, more optimistic guy, telling us in great detail how this or some other treatment was going to work. He was an inspiration because my colleagues and I on the Express, and the guys next door in the Mirror office, knew his plight was desperate.
There was a period during his treatment when doctors banned all visitors, except Jenny, his wife. But that did not stop his cheeky Mirror mates, Brian Hitchen and John Smith, from paying him a highly unauthorised visit dressed in the garments of the highest ranks of the Roman Catholic Church, costumes they rented from a Broadway agency. They arrived at the hospital with a black suitcase, assuring the staff they wanted to give Communion.
They were received with much scraping and bowing, the kind of respect archbishops used to command in those days. And Malcolm was heartened to see them – the staff must have wondered about the laughter coming from his private room.
Sadly, Malcolm succumbed only days after buying a new car for Jenny, another hint of his optimistic outlook.
His funeral was held early one morning, and mid-way through the service I got an urgent message to call my office in New York. The bureau chief, Brain Vine, said I was to get to Haiti, as fast as possible, following the death of the old despot, Papa Doc Duvalier.
I had my passport with me, got a taxi to Newark airport, and within the hour I was en-route to the Caribbean. At Miami Airport I sprinted across the tarmac to catch an Air France connecting flight to Port au Prince (Imagine trying to do that today).
Mike Leapman from the New York office of The Times caught the same plane.
With nothing to declare at the airport, I hailed a rickety old cab, to take me the four or five miles to the famous Olaffson Hotel. All the way I was busy noting the abject poverty, chickens running everywhere, and trying to get some usable background from the driver. (Honest truth I did not quote the driver)
My assignment was to provide as much local colour as possible, to back up Brian Vine’s Papa Doc obituary, and when I burst into the Olaffson, I had only one concern: finding a phone. The hotel owner, Al Seitz, could see I was hot and very bothered, but using his local knowledge, he had me on the line to London, within a minute or so.
And for the next ten or fifteen minutes I breathlessly filed every ounce of what I had picked up from my notes.
The sense of relief when I eventually put down the phone was palpable. All I wanted was an icy cold lager, because I was wringing wet from perspiration in the 100 degree heat.
But I was shockingly brought back to reality, when Al Seitz said: ’It was interesting watching you, Mr Finn. Graham Greene spent weeks and weeks in this hotel (penning The Quiet American), and he never wrote fiction like you’ve just dictated… How did you think it up?’
His chief concern was a reference I had made to some anti-aircraft guns in Papa Doc’s Palace grounds, which I said were ‘pointing menacingly’ at the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola, with Haiti, and the two nations had been embroiled in bad blood for years.
Al assured me the guns were ceremonial, and had been at the Palace for 20 years, and their long ‘menacing’ barrels were in fact filled with concrete.
But he said my performance was ‘very entertaining’ and he insisted on me having the first drink on him. And it turned out my piece of ‘fiction’ was carried the following morning under a picture byline.
Al was a terrific guy and perhaps more colourful than any copy I could produce: he got married at the bar of the Olaffson, and when the local minister asked him for the bridal ring, he nonchalantly took off the paper band from the always-present cigar in his mouth, and put it on the ring finger of the new Mrs. Seitz.
And I swear, you can’t make up stuff like that.
It’s what sells papers
By Colin Randall
What follows is just a list of names, really. The names belong to some of the people who assembled in a London drinking hole to bid farewell to Paul Eccleston and Graham Tibbetts, until recently parishioners of the extended reach of St Bride’s, Fleet Street.
Both were casualties of the cuts that have been a feature of life at the Daily Telegraph in recent times.
But what names they managed to draw to their joint leaving party.
Journalists get a bad press. They sometimes earn it. But among those present at the bash for Paul and Graham, I recognised some of the best I have worked with. What is more, they are all real characters in a trade that desperately needs real characters; the party must have been a classic. (Sadly, I could not be there and, at a distance of more than 3,000 miles, I must rely on photographs taken by another former colleague, Kelly Scott.)
Paul, whom I have known for most of my 36 years in and since The Street, is an outstanding, all-round professional as well as being the uncle of a former Dr Who and a member of that rare breed – Manchester United fans who grew up in or near, or have even been to, Manchester. I know Graham, too, but less well; he is somewhat younger than both of us. I do believe, however, that he is an honest, tenacious reporter should such things still be needed anywhere.
And who was there to see them off?
Stan Blenkinsop was the northern night news editor who, responding to a reader’s tip, telephoned the home of the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, to be greeted by a male voice announcing: ‘West Yorkshire Police.’ The officer, Robert Waterhouse recounts in his book The Other Fleet Street, eventually realised with a horrified ‘f—!’ that he was talking to Her Majesty’s Daily Express. Not before he had babbled away for just long enough to ensure that news of Sutcliffe’s arrest would be shared with the world.
David Wooding was one of a great band of confreres and consoeurs brought together for the inquest in Gibraltar in 1988 on three IRA members. The deceased were martyrs, according to republican Irish folklore, gunned down by Maggie’s assassins in British-occupied Spain; to others they were would-be mass murderers. They had been killed by the SAS in circumstances that were questionable, whatever view is taken of their mission to blow up an Army band and anyone of any age and nationality who happened to be nearby.
Paul Harris I have known since I was the chief reporter of the Harrow Observer, a function some way short of the loftier heights of journalism, and he was a junior covering Stanmore.
Guy Rais is a giant of Fleet Street, a man who covered major events from the Great Train Robbery to coup d’etats in Africa and whose stage whispers from the press benches of the assizes, and the crown courts that succeeded them, still bear repetition when older reporters meet.
‘What’d the silly old wheezebag say?’ he was heard on occasion to ask (heard, once, by a judge who promptly invited Guy to sit with him so that he could follow the proceedings more clearly). ‘Anyone can tell the man’s a liar!’ – usually referring to the accused or any defense witness – was another favoured remark.
Syd Young was an exemplary district reporter, covering part of the West Country for the Daily Mirror (get the ‘part of’; the Mirror had a generous approach towards staffing levels in those days) though he also served in New York and, before that, Northern Ireland in the hairy early days of the Troubles. One of the Price sisters was the office secretary; dark humour had it that if she rang in to say she was poorly, it was perhaps a good day to keep away from windows and anything else that might shatter in a blast.
George Jones, as the Telegraph political editor, was an indefatigable provider of authoritative, often exclusive, reports from Westminster; Roger Highfield and Roly Gribben were the sort of specialists (science and business) whose expertise gave the paper’s news and features pages their distinctive strength and flavour. Roger, who won respect from as many academics and boffins as fellow journalists is now the editor of New Scientist. Matt Pritchett is Matt, his genius displayed daily in the Telegraph page one cartoon. Hughie Davies, David Sapsted, Will Bennett, Richard Savill, Nicole Martin, Caroline Davies, Sally Pook, Paul Hill, Mike Smith, Patsy Dryden, Richard Stickland, David Millward –faces I spotted when perusing Kelly’s pictures – are hero(in)es of the Telegraph newsroom and foreign desk of the present or relatively recent past.
It won’t have been the last such occasion (people thought that, when Syd Young retired from the Mirror, though it was a sign of those times that his paper paid for the party to be held at the Ivy).
But those still to come will do well to attract the sort of crowd that turned out for Paul and Graham: men and women whose talents and eccentricities still manage to slow the steady greying of Fleet Street.
A further look at Kelly Scott’s photo album forces me to extend the list to impossible proportions. In no special order: Sean O’Neill, Sandra Barwick, Pat Clark, Liz Lightfoot, Tom Utley, Keith Hoggins, Neil Tweedie, Andy Lines, Andy Young (son of Syd, failed brewer but hugely successful news agency boss), Mike Kerr, Paul Stokes, Ben Fenton, Nigel Bunyan, John Crowley, Chris Buckland, David Twiston Davies, John Steele, David Harrison, Thomas Penny, John Crowley, Matt Born, Christian Gysin, Rosie Murray West, Amy Iggulden, Dick Bates, Richard Edwards, Tracey Jennings, Dot Brown, Veronica Hale, Toby Helm, Catriona Davies. And there will be some that I have missed.
But it means that the following list of newspapers (in terms of people employed there now or previously) is also quite long, and includes the Telegraphs, The Observer, Sunday Times, The Times, Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, Evening Standard, Independent, Daily Mirror, Today, Sun and Daily and Sunday Express, plus the good old Press Association (and Harrow Observer).
- Some of the photos can be found on Colin Randall’s blog site by clicking here. Then click the back arrow at the top left of the page, to come back.
By Colin Dunne
Okay, I know I’m not unique. Bolder spirits than I must have experienced the same moment of shock when they first encountered the culture and customs of that odd corner of England, tucked away between the Yorkshire pudding and the haggis. Even so, it set me back, I can tell you.
Tyneside. First day. Visiting a council flat in Byker, which – I learnt later – is the heart of Howway country. Knock on door. Opened by chap wearing fashion statement of the time: shirt, collar-stud, but no collar. Big welcoming smile. No problem here. Opens mouth… what the hell was that?
There was a sound like a lorry loaded with pans crashing off a cliff, together with a few screeches from handbrake turns. It’s him. He’s talking. ‘Way-man-han-dan-moon-doon-hyeer-canny-wheesh-divvant-workid-like…’
Right behind me, Ivor Schaile, the photographer, smiles. ‘Have ye not heard Geordie before, Colin lad?’ And Ivor, a perfectly normal human being until now, begins talking back to him in the smashed-pans language.
For many journalists of my era, Geordie-land was an essential stop on the way to Fleet Street. Half finishing school and half borstal, this was the place where they knocked the last ounce of crap out of you, and quite possibly one or two teeth. There was a time in Fleet Street when, if you had stood up in any pub from the Stab to the Harrow and sung:
‘Whisht lad, ha’ad yer gobs…’
At least half the drinkers would have responded:
‘Ah’ll tell ye aall an aawful story…’
They’re probably all in retirement homes now, dribbling away as they sing snatches from The Lambton Worm and Cushie Butterfield.
I came upon Tyneside later than most. Via the Craven Herald, Northern Echo, and Yorkshire Post, I’d got to PA in Fleet Street, which wasn’t quite what I’d imagined. So I worked back to a weekly in Leamington, which didn’t seem to take. Then to the Evening Chron in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Why? Well, since the fast traffic of news reporting seemed to have swept past me, I thought perhaps I’d be happier in the gentler pastures of features. In Darlington, I’d always been singled out for advertising features (probably because I was the only one who didn’t protest). And at PA, Tony James had roped me in to write features for his embryonic agency.
So when I found myself in Peter Stephens’ office in the new Chron building in the Bigg Market, I was simultaneously tempted and daunted when he pointed at a page spread out on his desk and said ‘Do you think you could fill that?’ He was indicating about half-an-acre on the leader page, a space which would account for the entire output of the Mirror features department for a month.
Under the house name of Eldon, it had been written by an elderly gent who wrote charmingly about the visitors to his garden bird-table. What sort column did the editor want?
Peter shrugged. ‘Bright, busy, lively,’ he said.
Like? He shrugged. He didn’t know. I didn’t know. But what I could see was that it would need one main feature a day, plus bits and pieces. Six days a week, that was more than 300 pieces a year. One every day, two on Fridays, copy before lunch please.
It was madness. So of course I said yes.
It launched me on the best three years of my life. Three years of running everywhere, snatching ideas out of thin air, typing in my sleep, I lost a stone in weight (quite a lot when it’s one-tenth of the total), and on a daily basis I experienced editorial despair. Each morning as I drove in, I’d be trying to think of something to write. When someone said the station clock had stopped, I rushed out to do a piece on the accuracy of Newcastle’s public clocks: you can’t get much more desperate than that.
‘What is to be today then?’ asked Ian Jack, the deputy editor, with two hours to go.
‘No idea,’ I said. ‘Any suggestions?’
He moved quickly for a big man.
The news room was run by John Brownlee, ex-naval petty officer, a mighty figure and a great news man. On one occasion he suggested a possible piece. ‘Great,’ I said. ‘And what shall I do for the rest of the week?’ He wasn’t going to fall for that.. ‘I have every confidence in you,’ he said, moving swiftly on.
Indeed on the day my daughter was born there was four-foot of snow where I lived overlooking the Tyne valley. I rang John to say I couldn’t get in as I was digging the midwife out of a snowdrift. ‘I’ve no staff,’ he said. ‘Phone your copy in.’
The headline was The Blizzard and the Baby.
Somehow it always got done. As someone said, it was mostly crap, but it was high-speed crap, and the spelling wasn’t bad. It also taught me that you can write about nothing if nothing is all you’ve got.
It was my good fortune there to share an office with the man who introduced gamesmanship to journalism, the great Charles Fiske. To share an office with Charlie was to see a master craftsman at work. Small, with a bushy moustache, immaculate in his dark suit and Royal Artillery tie, he took on the system and beat it on a daily basis. He possessed invincible self-confidence. His job was to come in early and write the leader. This he interpreted as a senior executive position, and no-one quite had the nerve to contradict him.
He would assert his status by getting people to do things for him. Young reporters would find themselves running errands for him. ‘Pop and get me a sandwich, there’s a good chap,’ he would say, and off they’d go.
When they opened an executive dining-room, Charles was the first in. ‘Not bad,’ he said, as he returned to his desk, ‘but I’ve told the editor they’ll have to improve the service.’ No-one was quite sure if he should be in there or not.
His day’s work over by mid-morning, he would spend the four hours that straddled lunch checking on the social side of commercial life on Tyneside. Not a bottle was opened twixt Tay and Tees that Charlie Fiske failed to hear the cork pop.
Every so often, an editor would try to rein him in. When Peter Stephens told him that once he’d done the leader he could lend a hand on the subs’ desk, Charles put his own spin on it. He pulled up a chair beside the chief sub. ‘Peter thinks standards have been slipping and he wants me to sort it out,’ he said. He chucked copy and headlines back to subs telling them to try harder until he had to be withdrawn to prevent his own public lynching. ‘Soon licked them into shape,’ he said, as he came back to his desk.
Only once did he try to recruit me to his personal staff of attendants. He handed me a plastic coffee cup and suggested I should water his indoor plants. I handed it back to him and said no. He looked astonished. ‘But you have the pleasure of them,’ he said. ‘I hate plants,’ I said. ‘I hope they all die.’
He looked at me intently, and then a slow smile spread up his face. We were playing the same game.
He beat me in the end, of course. When I handed in my notice, Charles came back from the editor’s office. ‘Peter wants me to take over the column, Colin,’ he said. ‘Don’t take it personally but he thinks it really needs a massive improvement.’
There were some great people in that office. Joe, the little Irish reporter who didn’t like to be tightly tied to the office, had his response prepared whenever John Brownlee pulled him up. The news desk were always desperate for overnights, news-feature pieces for the early pages. So whenever Brownlee called him over, Joe would whisper furtively: ‘Will this help, John?’ and slip out of his pocket a couple of overnights.
Bren Halligan, a Journal writer, was second or third-generation Irish, but rapidly reverting. On the strength of my Irish father, he dragged me off to Clancy Brothers concerts to listen to those interminable come-all-yous songs (they start: ‘Come all yous gallant Irish lads…’). In the end he went to work for the Daily Mail in Dublin, and ended up editing the Limerick Leader. You can’t get much more Irish than that.
Tyneside exercised a powerful pull over those born there and over the casual visitors who still return regularly. Peter Fairley followed me up there from Leamington and stayed. He loved the place. Gordon Chester left to work for the Birmingham Despatch until it closed in 1963 (‘not entirely my fault’ he always claimed), when he set up a freelance agency in Worcester with Bill Newman and Vic Chappell. When they went off to Fleet Street, Gordon, who could easily have done the same, came back to Tyneside.
While in the Midlands, he formed a close working relationship with Sally Moore. This was the Sally Moore of the long black hair, the almond eyes and the wiggle, who later worked in Mirror features. Perhaps Gordon thought he had experienced the best that life had to offer, and went home. Who could blame him?
The happy result was that he was there to help me with my research into liver damage in the Printers’ Pie, the Post Office Buffet, and the Farmers’ Club which I seem to remember was above a pork shop.
Probably the best writer on the Newcastle papers was Eric Forster, a man with the golden touch. He went to Canada where he quickly established a high reputation, but he made the fatal mistake of coming back for a holiday, and popping into his local in Stanley. He never went back to Canada. The lure of Geordieland was just too strong.
I would probably have been there still, if I hadn’t bumped into Neville Stack on my one-and-only freebie.
Talking of which, the admirable Charles Fiske died on a freebie. We all agreed it was what he would’ve wanted.
Like many who left, I still carry a bit of Tyneside around with me. If provoked, and fed lots of Newkie Brown, I can still sing: ‘theor was spice staalls ‘n’ monkey shows and aald wives sellin’ ciders, ‘n’ a chep wiv a ha’penny roondiboot shootin’ no me lads for riders.’
Try saying it. Now try singing it. Now try it at double speed while balancing a roll-up on your bottom lip and washing a whippet.
There you go. You’re a Geordie.