Issue # 143 – Fun with phones

Fun with phones

By Anthony Peagam

Don Walker’s tales of the wonky telephones in Room 404 of the Mirror building brought to mind a lovely chap for whom I worked in the early 1960s and who had the wit to commission the likes of Alan Coren, Michael Parkinson, Maurice Wiggin, Simon Raven, Patrick Campbell, Kingsley Amis, Clement Freud, Peter Carvell, Nick Tomalin, Ron Bryden, Basil Boothroyd… and just about everyone in Fleet Street’s then motoring corps, even the anti-Ford Bill Boddy.

He was Bill Patten. Not a journalist but a Ford Motor Company manager who found himself responsible for external publications, notably the innovative monthly Ford Times.

Bill Patten’s boss was John Waddell – happily still with us, but then an ex-Fleet Streeter (said to have given half his name to ‘John London’ of the Evening News) recently engaged as Ford’s public relations manager. And John Waddell’s boss was the redoubtable Walter Hayes, even better known to Fleet Street and not long before appointed PR director of Ford of Britain. (In case you’re wondering, I edged into the picture, not much more than a kid, and thanks to Denis Hackett, because the newspapermen didn’t know how to put magazines together – or so they claimed.)

When I joined Ford (from the subs’ room at Woman’s Mirror) we all worked at the River Plant in Dagenham, in the original, grimy UK headquarters building alongside the production line: sheets of paper were spread over desks and chairs at lunchtime to catch a fall-out of airborne manufacturing debris not unlike Icelandic volcanic ash – you could write your name in it after half an hour. And there, too, the telephone system was a riot.

Bill Patten’s cleverness in attracting some of Britain’s best writers to take Henry’s shilling and contribute to Ford Times is not the only reason why he is remembered. He was also a devil with the phones. Many were the misrouted calls that he took with enthusiasm and authority. To the skipper of a tug, upstream of the Dagenham wharf, bringing a barge loaded with pig-iron to the Ford furnaces: ‘Rrrrright! Bring her in NOW!’ To a widget supplier’s enquiry, passed from extension to extension: ‘Yes, of course. Twenty tons of ’em, please – and fast!’

Best, perhaps, was Bill’s habit of politely answering ‘Women’s Medical’ before a caller could utter a word, leading to some of the weirdest and funniest exchanges I’ve ever heard.

Bill Patten died young, probably not even 50. He took a stroll in the Hyde Park before lunch on the day that Ford introduced its latest big saloon to motoring journalists at the then-new London Hilton. And never came back to glad-hand the mojos.

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