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Now to this week:
Once again, it isn’t exactly full of cheer. It may sound smart-ass to say that every newspaper we worked for lost circulation after we left it, but ain’t that the case? You don’t need to be in your dotage to remember the days when Leeds supported two evenings with something like 250,000 daily sales – each.
Now, according to Harold Heys, the sole surviving title in that city is selling 36,500 a night.
Harold concentrates on a report oft the depressing situation in the north-west of England – once home of the world’s biggest newspaper printing centre – and the troubled ship that is the Manchester Evening News.
And Robert Waterhouse writes about the failure of ambitious newspaper projects in the same region. And he should know. He edited three, launched two, and wrote the book about all the rest in The Other Fleet Street.
Then we have the now apparently inevitable obits.
MIKE TERRY, sometimes features supremo on both the Daily
Tom Brown remembers BOB MCGOWAN – ‘a reporter’s reporter’.
And Jim MacKenzie adds to the memories of GARTH GIBBS. And Arnie Wilson adds to his obit in our last edition. Incidentally – put a note in your diaries now – there’ll be a memorial service for Garth at St Bride’s at 11.30 on November 9. From deaths to near-deaths (or maybe not so near) we have a clip from the front page of a local paper that, oddly, the nationals all appeared to miss. Fortunately, our man Ken Ashton spotted it and brought it in.
And finally our cartoonist Rudge is also back from his hols, and trying to keep up…
Stars leave sinking ship
By Harold Heys
JMW Turner runs Sir Alfred Munnings close as my favourite English painter and his wild and scary Slave Ship, which shows slavers throwing overboard dead and dying wretches in a mid-Atlantic typhoon to claim the insurance for drowning and help keep the ship afloat, is one of my favourites.
I’m not too sure why I thought of the painting – scurrilously said by Mark Twain to remind him of ‘a cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes’ – when I decided to knock out a piece on the Manchester Evening News, once our biggest-selling regional newspaper by a wide margin.
Perhaps because the once-proud newspaper has now resorted to throwing overboard a handful of elderly freelances in the latest desperate bid to save a few quid.
Dozens of journalists were seen off a couple of years ago when most of the group’s weekly papers were sunk. And since then a few more hapless hacks have been jettisoned from time to time.
Now it’s the turn of the freelances. One poor sod got a short thank-you-and-goodbye note from editor-in-chief Maria McGeoghan after an association with the company, as staff and contract freelance, going back more than a quarter of a century. It was perhaps a sign of the times that he not only saw the boot coming but described it as ‘a blessed relief’ when it did.
Soon after taking over early last year from the Guardian Media Group, Trinity Mirror announced plans to merge editorial staffs at the MEN and about 20 weekly titles in the area as part of ‘a wider push to boost multimedia and user-generated content.’
Production was to be handled by a single team with ‘dedicated product champion’ roles to ensure that quality and local knowledge were retained. Trinity Mirror also said that there would be a single management structure to lead the newsroom ‘with a strengthened emphasis on content creation’.
I’m not too sure what all that meant other than a lot of hassle for the young kids and more aggro for long-suffering veterans. How has it been going? Swimmingly, I was assured. Through gritted teeth.
The MEN. was founded in 1868 and in 1924 John Russell Scott, elder son of the Manchester Guardian’s C P Scott, bought it and again brought the two papers under one ownership while maintaining their individuality and editorial independence.
By 1939, under the editorship of William Haley – later editor of The Times – the MEN. had become, in size and circulation, the biggest provincial evening paper in Britain. In 1963, the Evening Chronicle, the MEN’s struggling rival, was taken over and the combined paper had a daily net sale (including Saturdays) of close on 500,000.
Ah, the old Chron…! Bob Parkinson once told me about joining the subs’ table there in the late 50s. He noticed an old boy on the end of the desk, head down, bony hand draped around his work, writing non-stop. All-day; every day. Eventually, Bob wandered over and found him writing out his name in an elegant copperplate. Time after time after time. ‘Er, what you doin’ then? asked Parky, overcome with the curiosity of youth. The grizzled veteran looked up slowly and conspiratorially, eyes darting everywhere: ‘Keep yer fuckin’ head down – nobody bothers you,’ came the reply.
Aye, times have changed in the newspaper game.
In the days of the merger, the MEN was produced from Cross Street, but within a few years the whole caboodle had moved across Albert Square and set up shop down on Deansgate; editorial and advertising, composing room, and presses. Brian Redhead was in the editor’s chair.
Doug Emmett was the next editor, taking over in 1975, and he was followed by Michael Unger in 1983. Paul Horrocks took over in 1997 and held the job till he resigned last October. McGeoghan joined the MEN as an assistant editor in 1998, becoming deputy editor in 2006. She’d previously worked at the Liverpool Echo.
The MEN was acquired by Trinity Mirror from GMG In March 2010 and within a few months the Manchester Evening News operation had moved out of town to an industrial estate on the outskirts of Oldham about eight miles away. Its commanding presence in the city which had been its headquarters for nearly 150 years has now come down to a large sign and a small office on the edge of Piccadilly.
My first memory of the Manchester Evening News, incidentally, goes back more than 50 years to when I was a 16-year-old reporter on the Blackburn Telegraph. Brian Bearshaw, the chief reporter, landed a job on the News and it wasn’t long before he was off to Australia to cover the Ashes series. These days a MEN reporter might struggle to get an expense-paid trip to Blackpool.
Next move? Who knows, except perhaps for the Trinity Mirror chiefs. A production move down the East Lancs Road to Liverpool where TM produces the Liverpool Daily Post and Liverpool Echo has been rumored lately. And why not? If the Express and Star newspapers can be produced 200 miles north of the London HQ what’s a few miles across south Lancashire?
Circulation? That’s a tricky one. The paper has cut back on widespread free distribution to around the city centre, hospitals, railway stations, and the airport on just Thursdays and Fridays when extra advertising boosts pagination from 36pp to 72pp and more. The M.E.N. is now back in the ABC fold after pulling out and 90,000 is the official figure. One-third of that are give-aways, however.
The weekly titles that are still part of the evening set-up face an uncertain future as economic conditions continue to plague newspapers. Regionals generally have been trying desperately to slash costs, but most are still sailing in very stormy seas.
And soon, for many of them, there won’t be anything left to throw overboard.
• ABC figures for the last half of 2010 showed the London Evening Standard average circulation figures for the period at around 605,000 for July to September, 698,528 for October, 703,177 for November and 685,791 for December.
• Regional newspapers with audited circulations of over 50,000 in the first six months of this year were: Manchester Evening News 90,973 (two thirds paid-for), Express & Star (West Midlands) 113,174, LiverpoolEcho 85,463, Press & Journal (Aberdeen) 71,044, Dundee Courier & Advertiser 61,981, Eastern Daily Press(Norwich) 59,490, Belfast Telegraph 59,319 (four-fifthspaid-for), Shropshire Star 55,606, Newcastle EveningChronicle 52,486, Evening Times (Glasgow) 52,400, LeicesterMercury 51,150 and The Sentinel (Stoke) 50,792. Among those just below the 50,000 threshold are the Evening Express(Aberdeen) and the Birmingham Mail. The biggest sliders were the NottinghamPost (down nearly 17 percent to 35,361 and the Yorkshire Evening Post (down more than 14 percent to 36,512).
• Only three of the 86 regional daily newspapers in the UK put on a bit of circulation year-on-year in the period while over 90 percent of paid-for weekly papers recorded a year-on-year fall.
Going west, by north west
By Robert Waterhouse
I will be accused of special pleading, so I will try to speak plainly. In September 1988 I was the launch editor of North West Times (NWT), a daily newspaper for northwest England. In April 2006 I was launch editor of the North West Enquirer (NWE), a weekly newspaper for northwest England. Both newspapers ‘failed’ within a few months of launch, having run out of start-up cash.
Criticism of the two (quite separate) ventures has centred around two hypotheses. One, that there is no ‘regional’ readership because the northwest exists only in the minds of government departments. Two, that seasoned newspaper professionals throw sense out of the window whenever they have the opportunity of putting their names to a newspaper launch. Vanity publishing.
Let me take the second argument first. NWT was the product of more than a decade of planning on my part. When the Guardian halted Manchesterpublishing in August 1976 I started to think about the possibilities of a regional daily in its original core area – the north west.
During that time I launched– and sold on – a local weekly freesheet, the South ManchesterReporter. With the help of Manchester Business School and manchester professionals generously working on a no-result, no-pay basis I slowly put together a business plan and an executive team convincing enough to raise funding on the markets.
By a stroke of fortune, the funding announcement coincided with Robert Maxwell’s closure of Mirrorpublishing in Manchester. We had the pick of a pool of outstanding national newspaper journalists, not just from the Mirror but also from the Daily Telegraph and others who had taken redundancy in the great Manchester shutdown. It was then or never for the venture.
Was it also an ego trip for me? Interviewing seasoned Mirror backbenchers – and inevitably rejecting some of them – proved an unnerving process. I was well aware that many had better newspaper credentials than I since mine were mainly from casual and freelance work. Yet, having put my name to the project I had to go through with it.
I confided in my deputy editor, Jim Lewis, a vastly-experienced former Guardian chief reporter, that I’d much rather he took over as editor. He gave me one of his impenetrable looks. ‘Too late, Bob. It’s you.’
The day we were forced to close NWT was a hammer blow to many, but none more than me. I did not fully recover for several years. So why, when offered the opportunity to be part of the team putting together a bid to launch a north west regional weekly in 2005-2006 did I agree?
Circumstances were quite different. I was semi-retired, living in France, my northwest days already starting to seem hazy. I had no burning desire to be back in the region. I suppose there was an element of pride that, aged64, people thought me still fit for the start-up challenge. Perhaps I still had something to prove there for myself, too.
In the event, the demise ofNWE was even more humiliating than that of NWT, and I had personally invested far more cash in the process. I’m not abetting man at the tables or the horses, but betting on oneself is something else. I had finally lost.
What the likes of RoyGreenslade (in his 2003 book Press Gang) fail to understand is that involvement in such projects is not about personal aggrandisement. It is about the spur to create something many believe impossible. In fact, I’d made arrangements to hand over the editorship of NWEin the autumn of 2006 and return to France. My role was always to have been that of a start-up editor.
Now let’s consider the north west market issue. Both Greenslade and Peter Wilby, writing with metropolitan insight at the time of NWE, stated that whileManchester and Liverpool obviously exist, ‘the North West’ doesn’t. Well, yes. We had thought about that one.
When you live in a region for more than 30 years – and write about issues – you are hardly unaware of its dynamics. A region of seven million people with two major conurbations, which stretches from the Welsh border to Hadrian’sWall containing ancient cities like Chester and Lancaster, a rural hinterland strung between the Lake District and the Pennines, pockmarked by the Industrial Revolution, could hardly be more diverse.
I’ve always seen diversity as the north west’s strength. Areas have their own identity, or identities, and their own press. If you live in Carlisle you aren’t much interested in what’s happening to Crewe.
All the same, certain issues, services, and events concern a segment of the region’s newspaper readers. For example, the state of the West Coast Main Line and the national parks, developments at Manchester and Liverpool airports, environmental dilemmas like water pollution and waste disposal, shopping, theatre, music or exhibitions in regional centres, and so on. Regional readership is a niche AB market, of course, but it does exist.
When, during the 1990s, I edited the region’s leading business magazine North West BusinessInsider, our readers and advertisers knew we were based in Manchester but they also saw that we treated the Manchester business and professional community with the same irreverence as that of Liverpool or Preston.
Our two top freelance writers were Lew Baxter, from Liverpool, and Martin Regan, from Manchester. We staged events around the region and produced lists of its top 100 companies. Had we called ourselves the ManchesterInsider we could never have attempted that. Spinoff for the company(Newsco Publications) came in contracts to produce the MerseyPartnership’s magazine Quorum and Manchester Airport’s magazine Airside.
The main problem at NWTand NWE was under-funding. We went with the best we could secure, and obviously with enough to convince investors. When circulation and advertising figures fell behind (perhaps optimistic)targets the investors got twitchy. You can’t blame them for that.
Unlike the Independent, which negotiated refunding on several occasions (and lost its independence in the process) regional publications are unlikely to have the same luxury. They don’t enjoy the investor kudos of national titles.
If commercial success is the sole criterion, one would have to mark down The Times under Thomson and Murdoch, the Daily Telegraph under the Barclay brothers, and the Scott Trust’s Guardian Media Group. All have lost substantial amounts.
Currently, the only thing keeping the Guardian and the Observer on the streets is cash from selling, to Apax Partners, 50 percent of Auto Trader, the car sales magazine established by my friend Patrick Quinn in Warrington – of all places – during the early 1980s.
Soon after its lowly launch, Quinn was approached by the then-mighty Manchester EveningNews, concerned about any competition to its regional car sales advertising market. Sell or we break you, he was told. Wisely, he sold but stayed on as managing director with a substantial earn-out arrangement which made him a rich man.
He then proceeded to open up Auto Trader in other English regional centres, as well as in Scotland and Ireland. It is today, GMG’s one major earner and its one ace-in-the-hole.
London-based Jonahs who worry about regional identity has had little to say on this. If I had shown the ability to do a Pat Quinn (and I spotted the concept much the same time as he did, in Thames Valley Trader) we would not now be arguing the toss.
Where I do have a major regret is that, in 2005, I was not astute enough to realise that regional start-ups could and should happen digitally. That way you avoid most of the heavy fixed costs. Towards the end of NWE its enterprising website got an increasing number of hits, with comment snot just from around the region but from around the world.
Oh, one other thing. The scores of excellent journalists who joined me on the NWT and NWEventures were not dreamers. They believed that the propositions had legs – and some gave up jobs to prove it. Their commitment was total. You don’t do that to tickle management fantasies.
There are still a few copies left of the most recent print run of The Other Fleet Streetby Robert Waterhouse. Contact us and we’ll connect you to the source.
Editor’s note: Mike’soffice driver (who I think rejoiced in the name of Beaky) was too embarrassed to approach his Sogat committee, and anyway didn’t want to make his enquiry official, so he sought advice from the MirrorManchester NUJ FoC, Harry King.
‘I don’t mind hanging around outside pubs until the early morning while he gets pissed,’ he said. ‘And I don’t object to his singing in the back of the car all the way home. But what I want to know is this… when he takes his glass eye out to polish it and drops it, is it part of my statutory duties to have to scratt around on the floor in the back of the car and help him search for it?’
We loved ‘statutory duties’…
By Colin Dunne
Mike Terry was a lovely chap – or so he seemed to me. As for anecdotes, where to start?
On his first day as northern editor, Jane McLoughlin (who later joined the Guardian)rushed in late just as the lift doors were closing, banging on the lift button and swearing with lots of f-words and c-words. The doors jolted. Then they jumped and slowly began to open. There, right in the middle, stood the new editor, Mike Terry. She stepped quietly inside. When the lift reached the third floor, the doors opened, and Mike held out one hand and said: ‘Ladies first’.
He was an excellent blues singer – I seem to remember St Louis Blues as one of his better ones. And his favourite pub trick, after downing a few, was to put his glass eye in someone else’s pint. (Do you remember, at the Sun there were several people with one eye – each, of course – JerryHomburg, Mike, and one or two others, which led to lots of jokes about the kingdom of the blind.
When he was London he was noted as a big boozer, but of course he was constrained by his job as features editor.
He was sent to Manchesterapparently with the instruction to enjoy himself, which was a pretty stupid way to treat a man like him. In Manchester, where the editor’s job could be completed in 20 minutes, the result was inevitable. But he was an amiable and entertaining drunk, which is not always so.
He’d been my editor in Manchester and had promoted me as a feature writer. When it came to handling copy and seeing what it needed, he was first-class, as good as anyone I ever saw.
When I next met him, however, it was when I came to the Sun from the Mirror, and Mike, after his fall from grace, was a down table sub.
I was rather embarrassed about his changed circumstances and didn’t quite know what to say. I needn’t have worried. He waved my copy and called out: ‘I was this chap’s editor and now I’m subbing his copy…’ With a great roar of laughter, he added: ‘That’s newspapers for you!’ I thought that showed considerable grace.
And when he assumed responsibility for a bingo cock-up and Kelvin put his picture on the front page wearing a dunce’s cap, rather than take offense or be embarrassed, he insisted that it was all good fun.
By John Kay
A legendary journalist who went down in newspaper history as the Sun BingoBungler died last week of a stroke at the age of 86.
Features production executive Mike Terry was given the onerous responsibility of checking the bingo competition numbers every night before they appeared in the Sun the next day.
Due to an oversight on his part, the wrong numbers were published on Saturday, May 19, 1984. And instead of just one winner of the £40,000 prize, hundreds of Sun readers believed they had landed the bonanza.
Phones at theSun‘s then HQ just off Fleet Street went into melt-down on the Saturday and scores of ‘winning’ readers besieged the building. Police had to be called to control order and surrounding streets were sealed off.
The following day, as the Sun faced its biggest crisis since its launch in1969, and with the entire high command in the office on a Sunday, Mike offered to take the blame. He agreed to be photographed wearing adunce’s cap which appeared all over the front page in Monday’s paper under the strapline: The Paper That Shows You The Sinners.
As the self-proclaimed Bingo Bungler, he issued a personal apology to all the stampeding readers who ended up with a few pounds instead of the£40,000 bonanza – a fortune in today’s money.
Red-facedMike came completely clean and blamed his error on an uncharacteristic moment of absent-mindedness.
He said: ‘I apologise sincerely to all those readers who thought for a few hours that they had won a fortune. I wanted to say sorry because I know what a wonderful bunch of people Sun readers are.’
So genuine and heart-felt was his apology that the storm died down instantly andMike even received several sympathetic letters from disappointed readers thanking him for taking the rap.
It turned out that there were 3,000 winners so we doubled the jackpot to £80,000 as a goodwill gesture and they each received the princely sum of £26.51.
All 3,000names were printed in the Sun over three pages in the following day’s edition.
After Mike decided to own up to being the Bingo Bungler, I was briefed to write the story.
I told him: “We are great mates, great colleagues, and fellow members of the NUJ. If you don’t want me to write this story I will refuse to do it.’
InstantlyMike replied: ‘Nonsense. I AM the Bingo Bungler and I wish to take full responsibility in public for my howler.’
Sun editor Dominic Mohan said: ‘Mike Terry was a true Sun legend and a crucial member of the newspaper’s features production team. The way he agreed to be named as the Sun Bingo Bungler with such good grace earned him a chapter all of his own in the history of the newspaper industry.’
By Tom Brown
Bob McGowan, a genuine stalwart of Fleet Street and all it stood for, has died in hospital in Spain after a long and courageously-fought illness. He was a reporter’s reporter, staunch colleague, and a convivial companion.
Bob had his share of awards and commendations but what he prized most were his family – wife Pauline and children Emma and Doug – and the camaraderie of his fellow hacks and snappers. The abiding memories of‘Big Mac’ are his look of quizzical amusement at life in general and the antics of his workmates in particular and his ability to get the job done wherever it took him, whatever it took out of him.
Bob began his 33-year career as rookie district reporter in Grimsby before moving to the Evening Standard and the Daily Express, where he was a news reporter and assistant news editor. Especially for younger reporters, he was the model story-getter and news gatherer – not least in conflict situations.
He reported the Six-Day War in 1967, Northern Ireland, the Yom Kippur Warin 1973, the South Mollucan siege in Holland in 1975, the overthrow of Idi Amin in Uganda, 1978-79 and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in1979. His coverage of the Iranian embassy siege in 1980 won the Reporter of the Year award and the Falklands War from start to finish with 3 Para made him proud holder of the South Atlantic Medal with rosette. It seemed the big stories of the next 20 years were not complete without his reporting – the Brighton bombing, the Libyan embassy siege, the EgyptAir Flight 648 in Malta, the kidnapping and murder of schoolgirl Sarah Payne…
It almost seemed like light relief when he ran the New York office for six weeks in 1981 and was able to indulge his love of pop music at the Simon and Garfunkel reunion free concert and the Rolling Stones tour of America. When Oliver Reed was banned from drinking in New England, Bob tracked him down and got the interview because the bibulous Reed seemed to recognise him as a soulmate.
One of the few times he was lost for words was over lunch with Sophia Loren, whom he described as a ‘leaving home’ woman and she eventually asked him: ‘Shouldn’t you be asking me some questions?’
He invaded Afghanistan, unaccredited, with photographer Steve Wood and thought Steve pushed his luck a bit too far when he broke cover and had a long discussion with a Russian commander. When Bob demanded what he was doing, he was told: ‘I just asked them if they wouldn’t mind moving their tanks so I could go to F4 for a bit of depth of field, Bob.’
Heal ways said his oddest by-line was in the rival Daily Mail when a senior Hong Kong police officer was embroiled in a bribery scandal in1973. When he landed in England, the Mail splashed a picture with the caption ‘Peter Godber and one of his minders’. The ‘minder’, of course, was Bob whose face was cropped out of the second edition.
Some human stories he could not forget. He was so affected by the deaths of soldiers who had become comrades and friends in the Falklands that he wrote a book, Don’t Cry for Me Sergeant Major, with Jeremy Hands of ITN, a realistic account of the harshness, humour and,yes, terror faced by the ordinary squaddie. The sequel, TryNot to Laugh, Sergeant-Majortold of army life in ‘peacetime’.
He and his family lived the good life in the village of Benitachell on the Costa Bianca, until he was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. Up to the end, he kept up a blog that reads like a light-hearted report from the war front; he gave his cancers names so he could personalise the fight, the primary in the lung was Ralph and the two in the brain were The Boys.
As long-time friend and fellow-reporter MikeO’Flaherty said: ‘Bob was a reporter without parallel. He was also brave and resolute and totally unselfish. When he heard I was ill with a heart problem, he was more concerned about my condition and recovery than his own illness. This is the measure of the man.’
BobMcGowan left life as he lived it – with grace and good humour.
By Jim MacKenzie
Everything was ‘magic’ to Garth Gibbs when we first met in the late sixties. He arrived in the diary at the Evening News in London as a thin, gangly, curly-haired – seemingly ‘innocent’ –South African in awe of the big city. He was put under the fatherly wing of diary editor John Robbins. I was a features editor and setback-on to the diary desk.
Gibbs – for some unknown reason I always called him that – would often lean over and whisper tome: ‘I’ve got this story, Jimmy – all I need is the intro…’ When we’d worked one out he’d shout: ‘Magic!’
Gibbs settled in all too well and would turn up after taking ‘coffee’ at the Presscala before arriving at work scattering ‘magics’ freely. But even as a newcomer you’d get Lady so-and-so or the Hon Mrs. Hobnob asking John Robbins to‘send that nice Mr. Gibbs along to my luncheon at the Mansion House’.
To say Gibbs in those days was as sartorially perfect as John Rydon (another South African) of theDaily Express would take the best part of a bottle of The Glenlivet (incidentally, my grandmother’s father was the distiller there when my grandfather met her).
Gibbs’s everyday attire –to be honest, his only attire in those far-off days – consisted (top totoe) of a thick leather hat in the style of a Spanish picador, a tattyT-shirt proudly pronouncing ‘I’m a muff diver,’ a pair of ragged jeans, with flip-flops (no socks, even in winter) finishing off le tout ensemble.
Gibbs was down – invited –to attend a lunch to promote some worthy cause at some swanky addressin Belgravia hosted by a Lady who, as the saying goes, was all fur coat and no knickers.
Gibbs was dressed as above. But John Robbins began seething at this apparition and – completely unlike his usual genteel self – shouted: ‘Gibbs, come with me. NOW!’
Both disappeared. Perhaps an hour later Robbins reappeared, to be followed sheepishly by Gibbs. Robbins had taken him to a men’s outfitters in Fleet Street, had him stripped to the buff and refurbished with (toe to top) shoes, socks, underthings, shirt, tie and suit.
Puzzled stares focused on Gibbs before we realised it was the first time we’d seen him fully-clothed. Gibbs though his new outfit ‘magic’. However, his enthusiasm was curbed when John Robbins announced: ‘Don’t think you’ve got this for nothing. I’m going to dock you each month until it’s paid for.’
Arnie Wilson writes: More amusing and affectionate tributes have emerged about Garth Gibbs since Rantersfirst reported his departure. And who knows, now he has reported to theGreat Newsroom, perhaps he has finally fulfilled his great ambition –to find ‘Lucky’ Lord Lucan. Another former Fleet Street colleague, SeanSmith, who wrote his first book – Sophie’s Kiss – with Garth(and has since written 14 more as a full-time celebrity author) was the last chum to visit him in the nursing home where he died, ‘He was very very frail,’ he reports, ‘but he perked up and we still managed to have a laugh.
‘It was actually Garth who kick-started my new career as an author. He told me he was going to see the publisher John Blake to discuss book ideas, and I suggested SophieRhys-Jones, who of course married Prince Edward a year or so later. Before I knew it, Garth came back and said: Right, Sean, you and I are writing a book about Sophie together.’
After this Smith started writing books full time by himself, but there were no more royal books until his latest, about Kate Middleton called Kate. ‘Until he became too ill, Garth was my consultant on Kate’ he says. ‘Hewas the perfect helper. Nothing was too much trouble. He was amazing at finding people to talk to.
‘We had such a laugh doing Sophie’sKiss. We’d meet up in a restaurant and he would invariably have an attractive girl sat next to him who he would introduce as an old school chum of Sophie. I don’t know how he did it or where he found them.’ Smith’s current book Kate is dedicated to Garth. It says: ‘ToGarth – larger than life’.
‘Of course everyone knew that Garth adored women and they him, and I remember a lunch years ago when we were discussing our favourite sexual fantasies. Garth’s was‘women with no clothes on.’ I reminded him of it the last time I saw him and he was chuckling away. So simple and so Garth.
‘One thing Garth admired as much as women was his cricket. Graeme Pollock, the South African batsman who was deprived of much of his international career by apartheid, was his biggest hero. He was also a huge Barry Richardsfan – another South African great. And Garth was lucky because he had dual rights, as it were, over the England and South African test teams– he could support either. I suspect he was more loyal to South Africa.
‘But there was a lot moreto Garth than women and cricket. Garth was very good at DIY. He took great pride in woodwork and helped me do up my flat prior to selling it. It was like the Likely Lads at work. We would have to adjourn to watch sport, drink beer and tell stories. Garth had all the tools and would even bring along a wallpaper table which I still have.We weren’t so good at hanging wallpaper. Seeing us struggle, covered in glue, was hilarious. It took us about three months and it was only one bedroom flat. But, thanks to Garth, I sold it to the first person who came to view.
‘He took his work very seriously and took great pride in it – particularly his Gibbs’ Gossip column. He was very well-read, and was fascinated by astronomy and quantum mechanics. But he also liked a good book and loved American authors like Hemingway. I suspect that deep down he’d have preferred to go out with a bang, like Hemingway, with a shotgun.’
More fond memories of Garthcome from his step-daughter Daska, also a journalist, whose mother wasGarth’s third wife, Louise. ‘Garth and Louise met when I was nine,’ she says, ‘and he embraced being a stepfather with possibly more enthusiasm than being a father. He bowled into my life with a Snoopy radio which was wildly impressive to my tender years and never stopped giving in every sense since. Garth and Louise married when I was 11 and I tagged onto their honeymoon in South Africa, meeting his family and touring his homeland.
‘He would do crazy things like encouraging me to set forth around London to chase pop stars, much to Louise’s annoyance, and reap the rewards with titbits for his gossip column. In what became a tale of family legend, he once climbed into the loft – one of his great hideaways – and put his foot through my bedroom ceiling. Rather than confess to Louise, he sent me out to buy a poster to cover the gaping hole, not considering that the dust and rubble-covered sheets would be a giveaway.
‘And he snored – not just regular snores, but great big bellowing snorts that could be heard at least three bedrooms away. This was only punctuated by leaping from the bed with an exclamation of ‘Howzat’ whenever something dramatic was declared in the World Service cricket commentary on the radio that he clutched to his ear whenever South Africa was playing.
(Sean Smith confirms the snoring. ‘I remember once when we were flying back from South Africa where we’d been covering a Miss World Contest, he started snoring on the flight,’ he says. ‘And it was so loud that I think some of the passengers were wondering whether the plane was going to crash.’)
‘My family and I lived in Canada for two years,’ says Daska, ‘and while we all nagged him to visit, come for Christmas and holidays, he always defied convention and worked. In fact, he hated Christmas and, as a child, my memory is of him sitting on the sofa re-reading a Runyon or Chandler novel. January, we finally persuaded him that he needed to be close by and he moved to Norfolk. One of my last and happiest memories are of sitting with Garth, Louise, and my husband Matt in the garden of the nursing home with our two girls running around. It’s so much easier when it’s just with your family, he said… You don’t have to bother, just sit, chat, and relax. It was a moment of peace I shall always cherish.’
We’re slightly drink-fixated this week, which will no doubt annoy that Evian-swigging sub on the Indie, again. But we are, lest we forget, the last pub in The Street, and the tales we relate are the tales we’d be telling round the bar.
So, as George Brown might have said, or slurred, no excuses.
We kick off with a piece of long-forgotten political history – so long forgotten that it would probably count as a scoop, these days. A collection of Fleet Street clips from TV documentaries has been collated on-line into what appears to be the rough-cut of a work in progress for a potential BBC programme.
For Revel Barker it brought distant memories flooding back, as it will for many readers of this website.
Harold Heys had thought that we were in danger of losing the plot, so little was being written about drink. Then he got a round in and realised we were getting back on course, and wrote a piece to fit.
At the same time, Michael Morton-Evans had got the idea that stories about drinking appeared to be a common factor in our pub talk, so kicked in with a couple of his own reminiscences, from the early days, before he got used to it.
Even the sequel to our obit (last week) for Bob McGowan is set in a pub.
Brian Hitchen reports.
Meanwhile, cartoonist Rudge is keeping an eye on the beancounters in the new office.
For King and Cudlipp
By Revel Barker
In the mid-sixties, when the Labour government was urging everybody to holiday at home in order to shore up sterling, I accidentally discovered that deputy prime minister George Brown was spending a fortnight in Ibiza, and phoned his hotel to ask him to explain his choice of destination.
I knew him only slightly. I’d once caught him in my arms when he tumbled the length of the aircraft steps after returning to Heathrow from a conference in Geneva, and I helped pour him into his ministerial car. The next time we met, in Newcastle upon Tyne, he walked through his greeters towards me, saying: ‘Ah, there you are. Where can we get a drink?’ This at 10am on a Sunday.
I don’t remember his excuse for the vacation (maybe it was that he was foreign secretary, so why shouldn’t he go abroad), partly because when I wrote and filed the copy I was told that ‘George’ was a former Daily Mirror contributor, and ‘we don’t do knocking pieces about people who write for us’. That must have made life interesting for our colleagues covering Westminster because most of the current cabinet had written for the paper at some time.
But the ruling didn’t last. Within a year of so the Mirror declared open season on Harold Wilson’s government. Knocking stories about the cabinet it had helped to elect in 1964 suddenly became the only type in demand.
Editorial director Hugh Cudlipp even penned a piece – published during the Labour Party conference – accusing Brown of being ‘a clown’ and too often pissed in charge of the Foreign Office. Compared with this, a report of Our George’s brief truancy in the Med would have been as nothing.
Robin Day was quick to follow up with a TV interview during which Brown made an embarrassingly lame attempt to explain (but not to excuse) his over indulgence in what he referred to as alco-hole. Take it or leave it, said George, who was patently incapable of doing either.
The man behind this abrupt political about-turn was Cecil King, chairman of the company that owned the paper with the biggest daily circulation in the free world, along with around 200 other titles, and inheritor of the Harmsworth loony-gene. His company, the International Publishing Corporation, then controlled 40 percent of the press in Britain.
He was married to another barm-pot, Ruth Railton, a self-styled psychic who told him he possessed so much power he could walk invisibly down Fleet Street. In truth, there may have been some substance to her claim because nobody ever did see King walk down it. They were more likely to see him being driven to work in a Rolls Royce which – before his disaffection with Wilson – may have been the only Roller in the City of London with a Vote Labour sticker on its rear window.
Exactly what prompted his personal vendetta against the government may be difficult to identify now. Some said it was his sincere belief that Labour was lying about the financial situation and that the country was about to collapse ‘with blood on the streets’; others said it was because he was refused an earldom, which he wanted in order to outrank his ancestors, the Lords Rothermere and Harmsworth.
Many of us have experienced working for megalomaniac proprietors. But only one of them (so far as I’m aware) wanted to run the government, rather than merely to influence it.
That one was Cecil Harmsworth King. A series of secret (though not as secret as he’d hoped) meetings and dinners was held during 1968 at which he tried to form his own substitute cabinet. He attempted to recruit Lord Cromer (chairman of the Bank of England), Lord Robens (Coal Board), Tony Benn, and even Lord Mountbatten. Lord Louis, uncle of Prince Philip and with a reputation as a wartime commander, might have been the nominal head of government although his main task would have been to keep the forces in order when rioting hit the streets. But Cecil King would have been in charge. Mountbatten dismissed the idea as ‘treason’ and walked out of the meeting.
Tony Benn told Wilson what was happening, then he told the Guardian, and the secret was out.
Unphased by rejection, King wrote and signed a page one leader in the Daily Mirror, ‘Enough is enough’, calling for the resignation of Wilson’s government and its replacement by a ‘national coalition government’. He said the PM had lost all credibility and authority and had been faking the size of the financial deficit. Its publication caused an instant run on the pound.
Another secret meeting quickly followed – one to which King was not invited – and his board of directors voted unanimously to fire him. Cudlipp was elected to succeed him, and he despatched the company secretary to deliver the notice at 8 the next morning (when King, if I remember rightly, stopped shaving to read it).
It is fascinating and mostly forgotten history, and indirectly led to an opening for a new Fleet Street proprietor, a 30-something Rupert Murdoch. It is possible to follow the plot on-line in what appears to be the rough-cuts of a future BBC documentary.
While upstairs they were planning the overthrowing of the government, on the third floor the newsdesk was chasing a Miss World contestant, ‘the world’s best talking parrot’ and ‘a stewardess’ who was flying in by glider to open a pub called The Gliders which, news editor Dan Ferrari said knowingly, ‘could just be a publicity stunt’.
That was the Daily Mirror, in a nutshell.
The film is a bit scrappy in parts, and even a bit dodgy in some of its facts and possibly with some of its dates. It repeats, for example, the oft-quoted old falsehood that Cudlipp was editor of the Daily Mirror (he never was; he edited the Sunday Pictorial and was editorial director – admittedly a high-input, hands-on effective editor-in-chief – of the whole shebang).
The editor at the time, as is clear from the film, was actually Lee Howard (1961-71).
It also wanders off, totally irrelevantly, to snapshots from an hour or so in the life of the Sheffield Star, and to the launch of women’s pages in The Times.
I haven’t seen this technique – putting a work-in-progress on-line and inviting help and comment – used before. But, at least for readers of this website, it works.
Old Mirror staff will recognise many faces: Tony Miles (who succeeded Lee), crime reporter Tom Tullett and fashion editor Felicity Green, Bill Hagerty, Mike Taylor, Peter Thompson, Ted Graham, Geoff Pinnington, possibly Paddy O’Gara, maybe John Grewcock… There’s even a youthful Richard Stott and what must surely (if my maths is right) be a 15-year-old Len Greener on the picture desk. You can have fun trying to put names to some of the old faces, nearly 45 years on.
The footage includes an interesting moment when Wilson is interrupted to take an important phone call while rehearsing a TV address to the nation. What sort of VIP could have caused him to break off? The American president (that would have been Lyndon Johnson)? Or might it feasibly have been Cecil Harmsworth King, the man on whose newspapers Wilson had relied to remain in office? Irritatingly, we are not told.
It’s a long movie, nearly 45 minutes, but worth the effort. You can view it by clicking here.
By Harold Heys
I had thought that Ranters was rather losing its way. It was all getting a bit straight-laced. And then it suddenly hit a rich vein of recollections about various editors getting pissed and staggering around while some poor sods back at the ranch were getting a paper out. Great stuff!
So here’s a short tale to keep the pot boiling; a tale about the legendary Brian Caven, the former London Evening News and Daily and Sunday Express sub who could drink more than most. A lot more than most.
It’s just over three years since I wrote his obit here and some of his formidable drinking escapades were well to the fore. Here’s one I didn’t mention. I do so now as a cautionary tale to youngsters who perhaps like a drink: Don’t get the boss’s son rat-arsed when he should be working. It doesn’t go down well.
After Manchester closed in the late 80s I met up with Brian Caven at the Eddie Shah Post which didn’t last long. It wasn’t a great career move – and Shah still owes me and many others a couple of grand each – but it was memorable for my becoming pals with ‘Crazy’ as everyone used to call Brian.
He pitched up a few months later running a string of around a dozen lively and hi-tech newspapers in Lancashire and he dragged me along as his No 2 and IT man. I didn’t take much persuading, especially as I reckoned that Brian would probably be taking it a bit easier with the responsibility of rank and the onset of middle age. He would, I thought, be something of a calming influence on the youngsters who would be running around for us, still in the first flush of wild enthusiasm.
It quickly became apparent that Crazy saw his principal role as group editor – and later as editorial director – to be teaching the kids how to drink. Oh, he certainly taught them plenty about writing stories and kicking doors in and not taking ‘No’ for an answer. But they had to have something of a social approach to the job. Sinking a few with him in the local bars was a good start.
Anyhow. Back to the cautionary don’t-get-the-boss’s-son-pissed tale.
It had all started, as it always did with Brian Caven, in the most innocuous way. He never set out to get ratted. It just sort of happened.
I remember it as though it were yesterday; at least the start of it. ‘Fancy a coffee?’ he asked late one morning. It was a surprise as the pubs were open by then. ‘Let’s go.’ I replied, thinking that perhaps he’d had a road-to-Damascus conversion after a particularly rough night.
We were walking along a downstairs corridor, heading for the nearby coffee shop, when we met up with the boss’s young son coming the other way. He’d be about 19 and was doing a bit of work experience with our techies while off from university. Let’s call him ‘Gavin’ which, come to think of it, was his name.
‘We’re going for a coffee, Gav,’ said Brian. ‘Coming?’ Gavin explained that he was rather busy and was trying to sort out some technical problem down in the bowels. ‘Quick one,’ said Brian. ‘Ten minutes. Tops.’ And off we all went.
It was that innocuous. But there was a queue for coffee. Probably two or three people were waiting to be served.
‘Come on,’ said Brian. ‘Bollocks to this.’ And off we trooped back to, or at least towards, work. It was perhaps unfortunate that the quickest route to the back door of the office entailed going through the side entrance to the office pub and out through the front door. It saved about 18 inches.
In through the side door we went, Gavin – ah, the innocence of youth – heading off towards the front door. Poor sap. Being rather more worldly-wise, I reached into my pocket and was fishing out a crumpled tenner as Brian came to a full stop just in front of the brightly-lit and inviting bar. That bit of ‘colour’ isn’t important, by the way. The bar could have been pitch black and covered in shit. More importantly, at just after 11 o’clock in the morning, there was no queue.
‘One for the road,’ Crazy said cheerily, swinging sharply left. The ‘one we came in for’ and ‘it must be my turn, I got the last round’ and ‘the first Thursday of the week’ soon followed.
I don’t recall much of the rest of the morning, or the long afternoon, or indeed the evening. I do recall my son coming down for me some time after eight and pouring me into his car. Brian and Gavin, apparently, kept going till after 10.
Early the following morning I rolled up to work, bright and breezy. ‘Iain’s looking for you,’ said the bloke on the back door. We were part of a bigger group by this time and Iain was the boss; the Regional MD – and Gavin’s old man. ‘Iain’s looking for you,’ said some bird getting out of the lift. ‘Iain’s looking for you,’ said the lass on the technical help desk.
I suddenly remembered an urgent appointment up in Lancaster and did a swift about-turn. I really can’t remember whether Brian got a bollocking. He probably did, but equally probably he would have persuaded Iain to join him in a swift one so he might explain what had been a simple misunderstanding…
I finally bumped into the boss a few days later. By then he could smile at the memory of his wrecked teenage son crawling out of a taxi on his hands and knees at God-knows-what-time of the early morning.
‘He could barely speak,’ said Iain.
All they could get out of him was a mumbled: ‘We only went… for a… coffee.’
Drinking for amateurs
By Michael Morton-Evans
Since drinking often seems to be the sujet de jour may I retell two tales that pertain? One involves my early days as a junior reporter on the Evening Standard, placed in the care of Nelson ‘Sully’ Sullivan, our police roundsman (of whom I wrote in Ranters some weeks ago re the phone box).
Part of the job involved going with Sully to Scotland Yard where, in those days, there was a pub called The Red Lion, designed for police officers coming off duty.
As gentlemen of the Press, we were allowed to drink in there and as the pub was open pretty well 24 hours a day, we did.
At 17 I wasn’t very used to drinking (that soon changed!) and disliked the taste of beer. Not wishing to appear a wimp, I would order a gin and lime. The head barmaid in those days was a large lady by the name of Flossie, who had seen them come and go. She quickly got my measure.
After a week or so, she beckoned me to accompany her to the end of the bar. ‘I know what you’re about, young lad,’ said she. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll see you right. Go on ordering gin and limes, but I’ll put water instead of gin in them after the third…’
(You’re correct in your assumption about Flossie… but she charged the full price only when it was someone else’s round. She never charged me.)
All I can add on the subject is that some years later I volunteered to act as a clown at the annual Christmas Party which was thrown in those days by the Press Club for disadvantaged children in the city.
The position was of course unpaid, but the club put on a bottle of cherry brandy to assist one through the afternoon and Bertram Mills Circus sent round a professional make-up artist to present me in the correct fashion. The party went with its usual gusto, the children invariably thinking it hilarious to stick a fork in one’s bum and similar juvenile pranks.
The cherry brandy came in very handy. I couldn’t understand why people gave me such odd looks on the bus that evening going home to Putney. I was dressed smartly enough in suit and tie. It wasn’t until I got home, somewhat the worse for wear, that I discovered that I had forgotten to take the make-up off before leaving the club…
Bob McGowan (contd.)
By Brian Hitchen
Only the people who were there knew how many lives Daily Express man Bob McGowan, saved on that rainy afternoon in the Falkland Islands.
Among them is former Parachute Regiment Sergeant Bob Darby, whose finger was on the trigger of his automatic rifle, as he shouldered his way into the bar, at the Upland Goose hotel, in Port Stanley.
Two days earlier, Argentina had surrendered to British troops, after brutal and bloody battles for those lonely South Atlantic Islands.
In typical British Army fashion, triumphant troops had been warned not to go into Port Stanley, the islands’ capital, where the only weeks before, the governor, Sir Rex Hunt, had been humiliatingly forced at gunpoint to watch the Union flag of Great Britain being hauled down by invading Argentinean troops, and replaced with the blue and white national colours of Argentina.
When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher vowed to send Britain’s armed might to free the Falklands, Bob McGowan sailed from Southampton, with the liberating armada.
With several other Fleet Street correspondents Bob was aboard the P & O liner Canberra, which was packed with Paratroopers, each of them aching to kick the Argentineans back into the South Atlantic.
It was during the long voyage south, that Para Bob Darby and Bob McGowan became pals. After the Falklands landings, the Express man and the Para were often at each other’s side. The Paras shared their food with food with Bob, and at night, they sheltered side by side in ditches.
‘Bob was a great guy, who always saw the funny side of things – even when there wasn’t a funny side. He made me laugh. He was a good, steady, reliable, and absolutely determined chap – the kind that would always be welcome in the Parachute Regiment.’ said the veteran Para.
And now the battles were over, and the Islands liberated, Bob Darby decided to ignore the top brass order to stay out of Port Stanley, and go and have a look for himself.
He headed for the Upland Goose, the islands’ only hotel, which he’d heard about, but never seen. As he walked through the doors, he heard a lot of noise, coming from the bar.
Still in his mud-streaked battle dress, and cradling his self-loading rifle with a 20 bullet magazine, and with several other loaded magazines tucked into his webbing, he pushed open the bar door.
‘I could hardly believe my eyes,’ he said. ‘The place was packed with British officers, and civilians, which was fine by me, but among them, at the bar, were loads of Argie officers, all with a sidearm still strapped to their waists.
‘Only hours before, we had been trying to kill each other and now, here were the defeated Argie officers, still being allowed to carry weapons. I was so angry. I stood in the doorway and shouted: “You bastards, what the f**k’s going on here?”
‘I cocked my weapon, and pointed it towards the bar. Everyone froze. Nobody said a word.
‘Suddenly Bob McGowan emerged from the mob at the bar, he shouted “Bob!” and strode towards me.
‘He put one of his gangly arms around my shoulders and whispered: “Don’t do it, Bob. It isn’t how it looks.”
‘He explained that the captured Argie officers had been allowed to keep their sidearms because their own men had sworn to kill them. The hand guns were to protect them from their own side.
‘Nobody had moved, or said a word, apart from Bob. The rest could tell that I had been a heartbeat away from killing the buggers. Bob walked over to the bar, took an Argentinean Browning from one of the captured officers, and pressed it into my hand.
‘… “Take this, They want you to have it as a souvenir. Okay?”
‘I nodded, and backed out through the doors. Only Bob McGowan’s quick thinking, and our friendship, prevented a massacre that day in the Upland Goose. He was a brave man. I’ll never forget him.’
Bob McGowan, who was 66 years old, died in Spain, last month, after a valiant battle against cancer.
At the funeral, near his adopted home in Benitachell, 55 miles from Alicante, a palm tree had been decorated with more than 200 messages sent by friends, while he was battling the Big C.
The decorated palm tree was the idea of Bob and Pauline’s beautiful daughter, Emma.
Among those messages was one from Bob Darby, telling the family just how brave Bob McGowan had been.
Remember the days (we may have mentioned them before) when a celebrity meant more than somebody whose mother once appeared on Family Fortunes…? And when an ‘all-star’ occasion implied that its performers would be more prominent personalities than, say, a DJ from Radio Essex…?
It’s the so-called celebrity-interviewers who have given today’s crop of so-called celebrities ideas above their station. Unable to gain access to real stars – think (oh, I don’t know…) Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino… think Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – they might as well drag people in off the street.
Celebrity interviewers used to be celebrities themselves; Donald Zec and Roddy Mann spring easily to mind.
How many of today’s ‘celebrity’ interviewers, would you say, might merit being given the keys to the city of Las Vegas, in recognition of their star-studded writing?
Step forward former Daily Mail man Robin Leach, who has just been honoured in that way with a three-day party on the Strip.
George Gordon (formerly Daily Mail in Manchester, London and New York) was on Robin’s all-star guest list for the occasion.
Former foreign secretary and deputy prime minister George Brown was definitely a celebrity in the 60s. Derek Bellis adds a few of his own memories to last week’s story about the politician’s quirkiness.
Paddy Clancy (world famous in Ulster) celebrates 50 years on the job by continuing our series about how we got started in it.
And Andy Leatham remembers a once-celebrated regional newspaper in another follow-up to last week’s Ranters.
While our celebrated cartoonist Rudge has bought a Hack-Lit book for a bemused young colleague.
[Actually, you can all buy Hack-Lit (books mainly about newspapers and newspaper people, written mainly by journalists for journalists) by clicking on the Bookshop link in the column on the left.]
The real star-gazer
By George Gordon
In city of glittering excess and superlatives, it must rank as the birthday party of the year…
An extravagant, Champagne-laced three days capped with host Robin Leach being given the keys to the city of Las Vegas by a grateful mayor for his community work and relentless promotion of America’s rip-roaring gambling capital.
On hand were some of the city’s most gorgeous dancers, striptease artists, entrepreneurs, entertainers, investors and more than 100 old friends from London, New York, the Caribbean island of Antigua and elsewhere around the world.
At age 70 Robin, a graduate of the Harrow Observer – he joined it at 15 – and the Daily Mail, has proved, from the other side of the fence, that there is no business like show business when it comes to financial success.
Some 50 years ago he was convinced that celebrity journalism was a lot more than just light reading before you reached the sports pages.
He left the Mail offices in Deansgate, Manchester for the United States and rose through publications like the New York Daily News, the National Enquirer and the Star.
He joined TV’s Entertainment Tonight and then launched his own show, Life Styles of The Rich and Famous – a smash hit that went round the globe. It was a show that took him into the homes of celebrities ranging from Liz Taylor to Liberace. His booming British accent and inquisitive style brought him nationwide recognition. The show’s catch phrase ‘Champagne wishes and caviar dreams’, sticks with him.
His next enterprise was the Food Network and the celebrity chef shows. His good friend Wolfgang Puck sent seven of his top chefs to operate seven gourmet stations at his birthday dinner.
It was about ten years ago that he moved to Las Vegas, a city itching to exploit its expanding attraction of top-rated shows, international entertainers, and Hollywood stars.
It was a city made for Robin Leach and he embraced it with enormous enthusiasm and drive; bringing in celebrities and fund raising for good causes
By then his personal empire had propelled him into the multi-millionaire bracket with luxurious homes in Italy, California, Las Vegas and formerly the top Caribbean resort of Jumby Bay, Antigua where the wealthy neighbours include Lord Sainsbury and Ken Follett.
Despite the entrepreneurial success Robin Leach says he is basically the same reporter who knocked on doors, scooped the rivals and revelled in the victories.
He still walks the red carpets on The Strip for the TV cameras, grabbing sound bites from celebrities when the occasion demands. He has never stopped writing. It’s the journalism he really enjoys. He pounds out 3,000 to 4,000 words a day for VegasDeLux.com, a web site that rolls over to other outlets.
In a major interview in the Las Vegas Sun he said:’ I wanted no other job than to work in newspapers. I was fascinated by the process of collecting information, talking to people and having the story appear in a newspaper that would be delivered to your letterbox.’
Don’t say Brown…
By Derek Bellis
What a man – and what a politician… The first time I met George Brown was when the Daily Herald sent me to Dewsbury to try (for the party, of course) to extract him from one of his famous faux pas, which had been exposed by a Sunday.
A few years later, after I came to North Wales as a freelance, George featured again.
The victim was, Ednyfed Hudson Davies, who fought a desperate but unsuccessful fight to hold his seat as MP for Conwy, where he had the slimmest majority in Wales.
Because it was raining George withdrew to the Liverpool Arms on the quayside at Conwy for lunchtime refreshment. There he embarrassingly buttonholed an attractive girl student, and noisily composed An Ode to Cheryl. It made page one of the Sun, being reproduced verbatim.
Even worse happened at Bangor, and at a time when nationalism and the fight for the Welsh language were getting stronger by the day.
Heckled by a nationalist George shouted back : ‘I’m a Celt, an Irish boyo, and I recognise a little better than you do that what matters is what the little lady spends in the butcher’s shop, rather more than the bloody language.’
Predictably, Plaid Cymru asked Ednyfed Hudson Davies to disassociate himself from such blasphemous remarks. And equally predictably, Peter Thomas won the seat for the Tories. Elwyn Roberts, national secretary of Plaid Cymru, said : ‘We consider that Mr. Brown has put many thousands of votes in our hands.’ George Brown must have been the first and only politician to refer to the language of heaven publicly as ‘the bloody language’.
My late lamented pal Jim Price, Daily Express man in North Wales for many years, had a memorable encounter with George. He was sent to the Grand Hotel at Llandudno, where George was staying, for a ‘must’ quote. Jim bribed a night porter to lead him to his room. Out came an apoplectic George in his pyjamas – cursing the Express and promising to report Jim to the editor.
Jim didn’t get his quote, but how he loved recounting that story.
By Paddy Clancy
How time passes! I was at an old college reunion the other day, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the end of my secondary school days.
Then I remembered… That’s when I got my first job on my first newspaper, and 50 years later I am still working as a journalist.
What’s more, having exited the scene of my first job in a little town called Sligo in the north west of Ireland and then seeing the world courtesy of the funds of Lord Hartwell, Max Aitken, Rupert Murdoch and others, I am back close to my original base and still hacking.
It’s all my mother’s fault. When I used to bury myself in the Beano, the Dandy and Enid Blyton books she told me at the age of seven that I might someday end up in Fleet Street. I wonder if she realised how prophetic she was, when these days it’s difficult to tell the difference between certain nationals and the Beano.
I hadn’t a clue where Fleet Street was or what it meant. Most of my neighbours knew it as the Dublin headquarters of the company that supplied electricity for Ireland.
But then I discovered where the other, real, Fleet Street was – in London and that’s where you went if you wanted to write for newspapers and get somebody to pay for your trips around the world while doing it.
There were family attempts, first, to get me a decent job. Somebody thought the bank would be a good idea. Thank heavens I failed that interview. Bankers, at least those in Ireland, now rank some distance further down the gutter than disgraced news phone hackers.
Although I dreamt of the real Fleet Street, in the late 50s in my teens it was a place too distant to imagine I would ever reach.
But fate was already at work. My dear departed mum once went out with the chief reporter of the local paper, the Sligo Champion. She had a word with him and he didn’t seem too upset that my dad stole her from him. He had a word with his editor and, at 18 years of age, I was in the door.
I survived something of a horrendous start. Anybody remember when junior reporters read proofs of columns set in single-letter mono? I read the proof of a lead story when a county councillor was breathing fire at a meeting over the poor quality of the tar on the roadways.
I thought the Champion was being very brave to use his quote – ‘the taxpayer is paying very dearly for shit.’
It made the paper – and I was nearly out the door. Well, how was I to know that the ‘s’ and the ‘t’ should have been transposed in the last word of that quote? I probably survived only because around the same time something similar appeared in a Dublin evening paper when a proofreader missed an important letter in a wedding report that told readers the ride was given away by her father.
I lowered my Fleet Street ambition. I reckoned if I made a Dublin daily that would be fine. Then a news para arrived. ‘Maxi’s made it to Fleet Street’, said the editor, Tom Palmer. Maxi was Cyril McDermott who left Sligo to work on some local paper on the edge of London – and then he made it to PA.
He was the best journalist that ever worked on my first weekly. His arrival in The Street re-awakened dreams. I made a point of visiting him at work when I holidayed in London the following year. He showed me around PA. That was the first time I ever set foot in The Street.
I vowed it wouldn’t be the last. Maxi moved on to be a sub on The Times. Another ex-Sligo Champion reporter followed him to The Street when Sean Kilfeather became a sports reporter and sub on the pre-Murdoch Sun.
By 1968 I followed them, via a winding route that included the Donegal People’s Press, the Irish Press in Dublin, the Evening Argus in Brighton and then the Daily Telegraph.
I had 11 wonderful years in The Street, far too much of it spent, but not regretfully so, in the Cheshire Cheese, the King and Keys, the Poppinjay, the Old Bell, the Clachan, and other establishments were, a strange thing, my contacts were likely to gather around the time of the first daily news conference when the desk teams were in the editor’s office.
The first half of my years in The Street were on the Telegraph, the second half on the Daily Express, before I returned to Dublin to open my own freelance business and later help launch the Irish edition of the Sun.
My mum was right. Fleet Street bosses paid for me to see many parts of Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and North and South America.
Now I am back close to where I started it all, propping up the pension with a bit of freelancing from Donegal and neighbouring Sligo for the Irish nationals and the Irish editions of the British nationals.
It’s no longer the remote patch it was 50 years ago. Great Fleet Street names of the past now make it this far for a variety of reasons. Just a few weeks ago I shared drinks, mainly non-alcoholic, with Paul Eccleston, Chris Buckland and Sydney Young who were on a weekend visit to a nearby town.
Val McIlroy, widow of my old Telegraph mate, AJ ‘Mac’ McIlroy, this month dropped across with a copy of a book she wrote on him.
Other mates have also gone to the great newsroom in the sky, including Ken Clarke and more recently Jim Allan, both of the Telegraph.
Memory of Garth Gibbs recalls coverage of one of my favourite annual gigs, Wimbledon tennis, where I bumped into him in the late 70s. That’s around the time the Mirror’s John Jackson and I were so grateful on a quiet news day when John Lloyd remarked to us that he thought it was his legs that made him a sex symbol.
I didn’t know it at the time, but a year ago I passed close to the village in Spain where Bob McGowan lived before his death a few weeks ago. I would love to have dropped in, even if it was only to exchange the insults we regularly fired across our Express desks.
By Andrew Leatham
The Manchester Evening News office in Cross Street was everything a newspaper office should be. It felt like something of vital importance went on there. The atmosphere was redolent of bees wax, hot ink and, most afternoons, beer. You could tell what time of day it was by how much the floor was vibrating. There were long, dark corridors that seemed to lead nowhere and there were rooms bathed in brilliant, blinding light.
And then there was Jimmy Ross.
Jimmy, a diminutive Glaswegian with a bristling moustache and owl-eye-sized glasses, was the news editor and he carried a fearsome reputation. He also had a disturbing mannerism that made it feel like he was standing closer to you than you were to him.
When he interviewed me for a reporter’s job in 1969 he ushered me into the broom cupboard that passed as his office, sat me down and stared at me across the desk through those giant specs. After what felt like minutes but in reality was only a few seconds he stabbed a finger in the general direction of the newsroom and said: ‘Any of my boys out there could walk onto a national tomorrow. Are you that good?’
‘Er, y-yes,’ I stammered. It must have been convincing because a week later I walked across the threshold of the historic building to start work, just as Brian Redhead had done a couple of months earlier to take the helm.
At that point I hadn’t met him — he apparently trusted Jimmy’s judgement — but my new colleagues were quick to tell me that on his first day he sent every member of the editorial staff a short note in which he said ‘My door is always open.’ That was followed a few hours later by a couple of maintenance men who removed the handle from the outside of his office door.
But the Manchester Evening News in those days was a fantastic newspaper, selling close to a quarter of a million copies over four editions six nights a week. Its journalists went where the big stories were, wherever they happened. Staff by-lines popped up from all over the UK, Europe and farther afield. It had specialist reporters covering industry, politics, crime, aviation and health that were as good as any in Fleet Street. All the major political and trade union conferences were staffed.
More importantly, the paper was trusted, loved even, by its readers and there was a constant stream of ‘walk-ins’ who thought they had a story to tell. A few of them did but most didn’t and really only wanted a sympathetic ear.
There were regulars too, like Mr Eggars, who lived in a tramp’s hostel somewhere in the city but was fanatical about tram lines. Every time one of the service companies dug a hole in the street, Mr Eggars would be there salvaging lengths of tram track which he then brought into the Evening News and try to convince you it was the greatest story in the world. He was harmless but every time he spoke he sprayed enough saliva to drown a horse.
A couple of weeks after I started on the paper I was doing the day’s last round of calls and picked up a story from the Derbyshire ambulance service. They had sent an ambulance to the scene of a car crash in which a man had died. They had collected his wife and daughter and were rushing them to hospital when the ambulance hit a bridge parapet and overturned, killing the woman, the little girl and one of the ambulance crew.
The clock was ticking ominously close to deadline time for the final edition. After a couple more phone calls I had enough for about 10 pars, which were rapidly bashed out in one par takes.
When I walked out onto Cross Street less than an hour after my initial conversation with Derbyshire Ambulance, the story was the splash in the final edition and was on sale outside the main entrance.
Try doing that with New Technology.
Simple subs… how well those words slip together. This isn’t a reporter’s put-down, but a recognition that simple subbing (though it might not always be easy) is the best kind of subbing. The good sub, presented with that rare beast, good copy, simply ticks the stuff up and makes it fit. When it’s less than good, he simplifies it, and makes it look so good that the reporter thinks he must have subconsciously written it that way in the first place.
Which brings us to The Simple Subs Book, written half a century ago by Leslie Sellers. Sellers subbed (I think) for the Daily Mail, and wrote another volume called Doing It In Style.
I don’t know whether he’s still with us. Maybe somebody reading this will know, and will tell us.
Meanwhile, Kevin Duffy has been reading it and became impressed by the realisation that a story invented by Sellers (we’re talking about 1968) in order to explain a point, became a local and national reality this year. In other words, the invented story actually came to pass. As the man says… you couldn’t make it up. Or perhaps you could.
Steve Bishop continues our series about getting started in the job, realising, even today, how lucky he was to earn a living by simply talking to interesting people.
And Tom Brown recounts meetings with the very interesting person who was Britain’s foreign secretary in the 1960s.
Then our cartoonist Rudgeobserves a new guy trying to get to grips with the Glory Days…
Back to the future
By Kevin Duffy
Was Leslie Sellers able to foretell the future? Did the author of The Simple Subs Book [sic] have ‘the gift’?
For anyone familiar with Sellers’ classic 1968 title – reprinted several times since – these are entirely reasonable questions.
In the book, a combination of real and imagined examples are used to demonstrate the principles of good sub-editing.
But events in a sleepy part of East Anglia suggest that either author Sellers had the Third Eye, or the old journalistic saying: ‘You couldn’t make it up’ is a plain truth, not an aphorism.
Judge for yourself; first we go live – as it were – to a very real situation unfolding in Norwich, where, according to the Daily Telegraph, 72 year old Ivan Langley has just locked a Hotpoint delivery driver in his home.
Mr. Langley is angry because his new cooker has been delivered with a dent in it. Irritating, for sure, but this is a second replacement, after the original delivery and a first replacement were both faulty.
Now, turn to page 55 of The Simple Subs Book where Leslie Sellers has conjured up an astonishingly similar tale – decades earlier – to show how bullet-point sentences are a good way of making a complex story easier to digest.
Mr Sellers’ fictional story says: ‘At 10.15 Mrs. Belcher phoned the Gas Board and said she’s locked their fitter in the wash house and wouldn’t let him out until they fixed her cooker’.
Cue the wobbly vertical line trick from telly to mark a change of scene and time, and rejoin pensioner Mr Langley in the real world of Norwich where the Daily Telegraph reports, things are starting to get unreal: ‘As police attempted to diffuse the stand-off, the retired lorry driver, who is disabled, declared: ‘I don’t make a habit of this but I’ve had enough’.
Hmm…stand up, take aim, and dive Harry Potter-like, back into the action unfolding in the book where Sellers’ imaginary yarn continues: ‘At 10.20 the showroom manager phoned Mrs. Belcher and said the police would be called unless the fitter was released. Mrs. Belcher said No.’
Click fingers… and it’s back once again to Norwich where, the Daily Telegraph story reports that the ‘kidnapped’ fitter was a 34 year-old woman called Anna Hawes, adding: ‘Miss Hawes, whose bosses alerted police, appeared to take the incident in her stride’
Close eyes, clap hands, and back into the book: ‘At 10.25 the district manager phoned to tell Mrs. Belcher that she would be charged for all the time the fitter was detained.’
Clap hands twice and return to a sort of reality in Norwich; the Daily Telegraph reports that Mr Langley has moved from Hotpoint to boiling point, but says his ‘hostage’ is safe and well: ‘She has been treated with respect and we haven’t beaten her up or anything. We’ve even offered her a bed for the night.’
The good news is that the Hotpoint fitter/delivery driver in Norwich was eventually freed unharmed after police arrived at Mr Langley’s home. Sadly, the fate of the unfortunate gas fitter in The Simple Subs Book is an eternal mystery. As the fictional drama reaches its peak, Sellers decides that his point is now well made and concludes the tale mid-sentence with three dots…
This entertaining instance of life imitating art – and subbing is an art, even in today’s multi-platform publishing world – is a perfect opportunity to alert aspiring and practising journalists and writers to the existence of Sellers’ book.
Although written for its time – the book includes intriguing references to zinc photo blocks and how mixing typefaces causes problems for the composing room – most of what Sellers has to say about sub-editing is evergreen.
He talks in-depth about best practice when it comes to simplicity, accuracy, intros, headlines, captions, jargon, and much more; these are all journalistic first principles that will never be eclipsed by the endless march of multi-media-online-integrated twitterbook and face text.
Sellers’ book is not without its flaws, mind you; a couple of dodgy cultural and gender references which feature in my 1985 edition would – rightly – be purged today. The syntax and punctuation of the book title is an enduring subbing conundrum too – perhaps not accidentally!
Overall, the book, even with its references to Linotype machines and hot metal, is still worthy of shelf space for any actual or aspiring wordsmith.
The Sellers connection is also an opportunity to give three robust cheers for regional newspapers. Because although it was the Daily Telegraph account of the avenging OAP that prompted me to dig out his book and refresh my memory, the dramatic tale was first published a day earlier by the Norwich Evening News. Their reporter and snapper were even invited into the house to witness the stand-off in progress!
Kevin Duffy worked for ex-Mirror man Bill Freeman on the South Manchester Reporter and moved to the Middleton Guardian as a reporter, before becoming editor of the Oldham Advertiser (1999-2003). He joined the TV station Channel M as a TV news reporter and now lectures aspiring journalists part time at Edge Hill University and the University Of Central Lancashire.
By Steve Bishop
Flecks of spittle would fly with the curses as Frank Poulton and Cecil Catling argued about who was the more senior of the two reporters in the Tonbridge Free Press newsroom hierarchy. They were both well past their prime and had sunk from earlier glories, Cecil as a crime reporter on the London Star, for which he had covered the hangings of the Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg, and Frank, who had spent many years on The Times of India.
What made the frequent arguments particularly sad was the fact that there had only been one other – very young junior – reporter on the staff before I joined on March 1, 1965. Cecil was a short man with a comb-over hairstyle who always sported copious amounts of fag ash on his crumpled, stained waistcoat. Frank carried himself – and a brolly – with a certain bearing, as if he had been a member of the Raj rather than the fourth estate. Each had cultivated a sneering disdain and carefully-fashioned put-downs for the other.
Looking back, I suppose that each saw in the other a reflection of his own decline and either had to assert a superiority or admit that he was finishing his working life as the lowest of the low on an old-fashioned broadsheet newspaper with a circulation of well under 10,000 in an unremarkable town.
Me? I was thrilled to have stumbled into such a glamorous job.
I had a sense of guilt about this until Gentlemen Ranters came along. You see, I soon learnt that there were thousands of youngsters who had dreamed of becoming journalists almost as soon as they had learned to scribble (I know, I know, many of us have not advanced much beyond that stage) and even while still at school had written to the editor of every paper in Great Britain. The lucky few were overjoyed at finally being given a job at 1s 9d a week on the Penurial Times, where they lived hundreds of miles from home, family and friends in a hutch of a room, working 100 hours a week, thinking how fortunate they were.
Whereas I had wasted four years by clerking in the Civil Service and had even applied for a job as a cigarette salesman (thank God I failed!). Having just moved to Tonbridge I joined a young adults’ club to meet some locals. When no one volunteered to become secretary I took on the job and taught myself to type. And when no one volunteered to take on the role of press officer I took that on as well, sending in a couple of paragraphs to the Free Press each week. And here’s the ridiculous piece of luck that changes lives. The chairman of the club lived next door to Free Press editor Eric Maskell who leaned over the fence one day and asked who was sending in the club’s weekly reports because they were very good.
I had in all honesty never thought of becoming a journalist but this seemed too good an opportunity to ignore.
The job interview lasted about half an hour, of which some 15 minutes consisted of Eric, who had been with the paper since 1918, being wracked by violent, raucous
paroxysms of coughing which left him almost too exhausted to take another drag of the untipped Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes which he chain smoked.
Eric, a considerate, benevolent man when he could manage a word or two, offered me a job and said he thought I would enjoy the life of a reporter. What an understatement.
I had often suffered pangs of guilt at the way in which I barged to the front of the queue of all those desperate youngsters knocking on journalism’s front door and had nipped in through the back entrance. Then I read how Peter Laud and John Weinthal had also tumbled almost by mistake through that same door (but then again, perhaps finding back doors is an essential part of journalistic success.).
I now suspect that a good proportion of journalists of a certain age are akin to bastards in the sense that our entry into this world of journalism wasn’t planned. It probably couldn’t happen today. Only those who have gestated through A-levels and journalism degrees are likely to be granted a chance at this privileged life. Just call me a lucky bastard!
My training on the Free Press lasted two days as David Best, the office junior until I arrived, showed me where my daily rounds would take me. On the third morning came the total immersion, sink or swim, test of journalistic competence. I was sent solo to report on an inquest. I felt it wiser not to ask what an inquest comprised nor how it worked. I fathomed it out as it proceeded.
I also learnt that we had to sub our own copy and assess whether it was worth putting the intro across two columns in 8 point. Bigger stories might merit a couple of pars across two or three columns in 10 point and a real belter would get the 12 point treatment. My hazy memory suggests that Eric added the headlines. Once enough stories had been set in metal, pages were assembled jigsaw-style in the forme, without a layout, and on a Thursday afternoon the flatbed press would swing into action.
There was a moment when my new career almost came to a halt. I told the editor-in-chief of the Northants Evening Telegraph in May 1971 that I didn’t like the way the paper insisted on doffing its masthead to the local gentry and I was resigning forthwith. I had no job to go to and learnt later in the day that I would be competing for a job with the entire staff of the Daily Sketch.
But Dudley Moore – yes, the Dudley Moore, the famous Medway Towns freelance and Kent contributor to Wisden (not the comedian and actor chappie) – came to the rescue by inviting me to join him in his ramshackle Dickensian office in Rochester High Street and two years later I joined the News of the World, thanks to a tip from David Mertens about a vacancy.
Dudley could sum up a day’s cricket for BBC Radio Medway off the cuff to the second. He might be told that he had 60 seconds to fill and then, just as he was about to go to air, that it was now 90 seconds. Without an ‘err’ or an ‘ahm’ but with every significant statistic from the day, Dudley would finish with a flourish after exactly 90 seconds.
Dud’s mastery of the art of sporting summary was somewhat mitigated by the fact that he couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate ‘th’ – so that thirty three became firty free.
It was during this incarnation that I became (like many others, I suspect) Keith Miller for a day.
I was sitting in the wooden grandstand at Canterbury Cricket Ground reporting for PA and ExTel when one of the clutch of press phones rang. Being early in the morning (it was only 11.15) I was the sole reporter there. I answered it: ‘Hello old boy, who’s that?’ the Great Man asked.
‘Look, I’m supposed to be covering the game for the Express but l’ve been unavoidably detained by a lady in Kensington. Could you file for me?’
The piece, written by the Medway media XI’s number 11 batsman and right-arm donkey drop bowler, duly appeared next day under Miller’s by line.
In 2006, now living in Brisbane, my wife and I hosted old friends from Kent, including former BBC network radio foreign news editor John Brice and former Evening News chief sub and Sunday Independent editor Alan Cooper, in a box at the front of the upper tier of The Gabba for the first of the Ashes Tests of that season.
Cricket fans are adept at applauding statistical achievements as games progress but the packed stand behind us must have wondered what was going on as eight of us stood as one and raised a glass ‘To Dudley’ as the scoreboard ticked over to ‘free hundred and firty free for free’.
Eric Maskell was right. I never stopped thinking how lucky I was to earn a living for 25 years by talking to fascinating people. Then journalism opened another magical door and for 16 years I was privileged to join the role of newsmakers in the Queensland Government.
Thanks Eric. Thanks Dudley.
Steve Bishop was a staff reporter for the News of the World from 1973 to 1982 and worked for the Queensland Sunday Sun from 1982 to 1989. He was principal media advisor to Queensland premier Peter Beattie from 1998 to 2006.
George Brown – my part in his downfall
(and his part in mine)
By Tom Brown
It was headlined as ‘Brown-v-Brown at the Savoy’. But the sub-text was – thuggish reporter blunders into delicate diplomatic situation and goes toe-to-toe with Foreign Secretary.
Looking back, the night of November 1, 1967, was some kind of watershed in the previously comfortable clubby relationship between politicians and press, and things were never quite the same again. When a group of journalists marched up to the top table and goaded George Brown into making a spectacle of himself, it confirmed the death of deference.
It signalled open season on the foibles and private affairs of cabinet ministers. Because of the political repercussions of what the Washington Daily News predictably reported as ‘Stomping at the Savoy’, George Brown became the target of a Daily Express vendetta and I was detailed as his persecutor – to his eventual amusement and my ultimate disgrace.
Typically of George Brown, he had right on his side but that was lost in his hot-headed, drink-fuelled behaviour which gave rise to the immortal ‘tired and emotional’ euphemism.
It should have been a straightforward assignment, covering a dinner given by that unlikely media mogul Lord Thomson for 120 leading American businessmen and editors. There was a certain piquancy to the occasion since, to the embarrassment of the Foreign Office, Thomson’s Sunday Times had just started serialising Kim Philby’s ‘Third Man’ revelations.
Relations between the FO and the press had just hit a new low following ‘the Lausanne affair’, which threatened to derail Britain’s application to join the Common Market. It was a ham-fisted briefing by Brown’s No 2, Lord Chalfont, but Brown claimed it was a ‘betrayal’ and a breach of lobby conditions by political correspondents.
Then there was the Foreign Secretary’s own unpredictability which gave any social occasion the quality of the Mad Hatter’s tea-party, with the guests sitting round an unexploded bomb.
Brown (G) was going through a bad patch. A month earlier, there had been pictures of George ‘in festival mood’ on the dance floor of the Queen Mary. (It wasn’t the apocryphal occasion when he asked a vision in scarlet for a dance, only to be told it was a Cardinal Archbishop.)
He had to go on TV to defend himself against suggestions that he was making an exhibition of himself and drinking too much, then plunged straight into the Labour Party conference at Scarborough, where photographers hounded him from hotel bar to restaurant to reception. Naturally, Brown turned on his persecutors and created more headlines.
Prime Minister Harold Wilson was forced to defend his ‘first-class Foreign Secretary’, declaring: ‘He has shaken up some of the old-established ideas and people do listen to him abroad.’ Indeed they did, but often for entirely the wrong reasons.
The truth was that, despite Brown’s volatility, Wilson could not sack him nor accept his frequent resignations. Brown was regarded in Europe as a genuine symbol of Britain’s sincerity in the attempt to join The Six (as it then was) and represented the increasingly jumpy right wing of the Labour Party.
Before the dinner in the Savoy’s Abraham Lincoln Room, Brown was already in merry mood. Posing for pictures, he confided to a group of high-powered guests: ‘I am the only self-confessed failed economics minister in Europe.’
When he began his speech, he was nettled because the audience were still chortling over a clumsily-told joke by Lord Thomson about a George Brown advised by his doctor to give up smoking, drinking and women if he wanted to live to 100. He might not reach 100, but it would seem like it. It wasn’t that the joke was funny, but that the butt was the Foreign Secretary.
Red-faced, Brown told his host: ‘The only thing I will say in response to that is that you are the only man I have ever known who actually cheated me.’
When Thomson tried to interject, he pressed on: ‘I am not telling a joke, I am being absolutely serious. You actually once gave me your bond and broke it. My dear Roy, I think everybody here who has heard the jokes you have presumed to tell about me should know you broke your word.
‘I understand the Sunday Times is somehow in your control. If I may say so, my dear Roy, we would be much happier if you would exercise a little control instead of degrading the papers you reckon you are running.’
Publicly voicing the behind-the-scenes Foreign Office line on the Philby revelations, he accused Thomson of ‘doing a very great disservice to the country’: ‘Some of us think it is about time we stopped giving the Russians a head-start on what we are doing. My dear Roy, I ask you and the Sunday Times to take this into account and, for God’s sake, stop.’
When we pressmen went up to the top table to clarify his attack, Brown poured himself a glass of white wine from a bottle (Savoy service wasn’t fast enough for him) and told us truculently: ‘I have made my speech and you can comment on it in whichever way you wish.’ The retreat into pomposity, the rising excitability and the slight slur were vintage George.
He spotted film star Douglas Fairbanks Jr (whom I had been investigating as the rumoured ‘Man In the mask’ in the notorious Duchess of Argyll divorce case – it was, in fact, a Tory cabinet minister – but that’s another story) and shouted to him to join the fun.
Pressed to explain his unscripted preamble, he waved his script theatrically: ‘My speech ran from page one to 44 – print that. I am not used to being quizzed in this way.’
Robin Haydon, the chief of the FO press department, twigged something was happening to his minister and hove up alongside, a growing look of horror, pain and disbelief on his face.
By now, however, Brown was unstoppable and accused the press of breaking the rules with himself and Lord Chalfont. When I pointed out he had broken the rules with such a public attack and the press should be free to respond, he demanded: ‘Is this a declaration of war? I broke no bloody rules at all. If you break them, I will know where I am… d’accord?’
Reporters, he said, were free to break the rules – and we were paid £25 to £35. I made a mental note to ask for a raise.
In an attempt to be discreet (and expecting the exchange to be limited to a few short sentences) I was making surreptitious shorthand notes on the Savoy’s impeccably white linen tablecloth. However, it soon became obvious this was building up into a major confrontation and my colleagues and I got our notebooks out. I thanked my lucky stars for Miss Fyfe’s commercial college in Kirkcaldy in Scotland where I was the only boy pupil and reached 120 words-per-minute.
Brown began shouting the names of the press barons – Hugh Cudlipp, Cecil King and Lord Rothermere. Excitably, he recalled Aneurin Bevan’s description of Britain’s national newspapers as ‘the most prostituted press in the world’
Another George Brown farce was now in full flow. I was trying to figure out the shorthand outline for ‘d’accord’ when he snatched the pencil from my hand. ‘Hey, that’s a Daily Express pencil’ I chided him, retrieving it. (I later received a memo from the man in charge of stores at the Express, commending me for my care of company property).
Brown said he was prepared to break off unattributable briefings with the British press and we would have to rely on his official speeches and handouts. This Brown demurred: ‘If you don’t speak to the Press, you don’t speak to the country.’
The Foreign Secretary grabbed my hand and held it up, champion-style: ‘Quiet! Let’s hear this in front of witnesses.’
Succumbing to the Brown failing of pomposity, I repeated: ‘If Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs doesn’t speak to the British Press, he does not speak to the people and he will be the loser.’ He retorted: ‘I’m elected by the people and I’ll give up confidential briefings.’
Haydon belatedly got his chief under control enough to propel him through the crowd and we were left looking at one another. As he left, one of the businessmen shouted ‘You’re a disgrace,’ but it was unclear whether he meant the Foreign Secretary or the Press.
One of the US editors scrambling for phones said: ‘Wow! If Dean Rusk (US Secretary of State) did this, there would be hell to pay. Does that sort of thing happen often over here?’
I returned to the Express office in some trepidation. After all, it was not the done thing for a lowly reporter to have a verbal punch-up with a cabinet minister. The editor, Derek Marks who had been one of the great political editors, was beside himself with excitement and ordered me to write it up: ‘Every cough, spit and hiccup – especially the hiccups.’
Because of Marks’ enthusiasm for a row with the Wilson government, and my shorthand (honed at meetings of Fife county council, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the juicier High Court cases) my report was the most detailed to appear in the next morning’s papers. It brought letters of congratulation from rival editors (which, stupidly, I did not realise were invitations to join them) and I should have realised I was not on the side of the angels when Sir Max Aitken wrote personally with a £25 bonus.
Headlines exploited the incident with maximum embarrassment for the government… ‘How long will Wilson stand for it?’… ‘Grow up or get out, George’.
It made the New York Times front page and the Washington Daily News called on Wilson to sack his foreign secretary. Paris Presse said: ‘George Brown is at it again – again, well-lubricated, he threw one of his tantrums.’
The Tory front bench leapt aboard the ‘get George’ bandwagon. In the Queen’s Speech debate, Geoffrey Rippon deplored ‘the rapidly declining standards of public behaviour’ and Shadow Foreign Secretary Duncan Sandys demanded: ‘How much longer have we got to put up with George Brown? George may be a likeable chap, but he has shown himself totally unfit to be Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. For the sake of Britain’s good name, Mr Wilson has a duty to make a change.’
He tabled a question asking the Prime Minister if he would appoint ‘a minister to whom British newspapers may address questions about the government’s foreign policy’.
On sober reflection, the Foreign Secretary realised that a change which would have long-term repercussions was taking place. He told the Commons: ‘The lessons to be drawn… will weaken the basis on which political journalistic life has been conducted for a long time.’
Despite his clownish press portrayal, Brown was no fool. He had read the minds of the Fleet Street editors and his prediction was coming true as he spoke.
In the Express newsroom, I was put on ‘George Brown watch’ with orders to follow the Foreign Secretary and wait for the inevitable escapades, explosions and embarrassments. Thus began a bizarre period of my life, combining the high living of lunches, dinners and receptions with the drudgery of dogging the Foreign Secretary from doorstep to obscure political meeting to late-night debate.
When George Brown so much as stumbled, we were there (often tipped off by Westminster’s laughing policemen). When he fell down outside the Commons or crashed his car into the wall of his home while trying to park, the Express was on hand.
Before George started speaking at public meetings, he would make me squirm at the press table by asking: ‘Is my friend from the Express here? Right, we’ll begin…’
At official functions, he would raise his glass to me from the top table and I soon realised he was no drinker. It took only a couple of glasses to get him tipsy, whereas I – a graduate of the Glasgow ‘hauf-an’-a-hauf’ school of scooping it up – could easily outlast him. Or so I thought.
My overloaded system finally rebelled at the Lord Mayor’s dinner at the Mansion House – seven courses and seven different wines, lethally mixed with 100-proof boredom in white tie, starched shirt and tails. I went back to sleep it off in the most comfortable chair in Fleet Street, the Express news editor’s red leather throne.
Dawn broke to the discovery that some time in the early hours, after the last edition had gone, I had re-decorated the news editor’s office with the aforementioned seven courses and seven wines. Only thanks to the efforts of a security man and two kind-hearted Cockney cleaners, who hosed me down and removed the worst of the evidence, was the Express news room able to function the next day – with open windows.
It should have been the spectacular end to a promising career in Fleet Street, and serve me right for my part in George Brown’s persecution, but nothing was said when I shakily checked in for the late shift. Instead, I was given a menial assignment and told the ‘George Brown watch’ was being wound down. As he left, the most junior of the news desk clerks completed my humiliation by placing on my desk the menu for the Lord Mayor’s banquet, from turtle soup with sherry to Stilton and port, which I had incriminatingly left (in more senses than one) in the news editor’s room.
George Brown had seen me off, but only temporarily. He survived the reshuffle that followed the next month’s devaluation, but the next year he made one resignation threat too many and went to obscurity in the Lords after losing his Belper seat in the 1970 general election.
It was another ten years before I was allowed to return to political journalism in the more congenial role of making trouble for Tories. In time, my digestive system recovered but I’ve never been invited to another dinner at the Savoy.