He did more farewell performances than Sinatra and, like Ken Dodd, refused to get off the stage while people were still laughing.
But – and I report this with a heavy heart – reporter, broadcaster, and author Ian Skidmore has finally left the newsroom. He died peacefully, aged 84, at home on Thursday, October 3 with his long-suffering wife, the journalist, and award-winning writer Celia Lucas at his bedside.
Skiddy and I never actually met in the flesh and yet became what he described as Great Old Friends. After a certain age, you don’t make new friends: you make only old friends. Ours was a purely electronic relationship, depending originally on the telephone, then on e-mail and finally on that miracle called Skype.
About five years ago, when he decided he’d like to collect all his old columns into what he’d heard was called a Blog, he asked me about it and my IT-savvy daughter created blogs for the pair of us. His became Skidmore’s Island (the name of the BBC radio ‘station’ he had invented on Anglesey); mine evolved into Gentlemen Ranters with Skiddy as its first mainstay contributor.
Perhaps because it was electronic, sparks often flew between us, for he was a cantankerous old bugger. But five or six years ago when he wrote an extension to his early crack at autobiography, Forgive Us Our Press Passes, and sent photo-copies to a few chums, I suggested he revisit and revise and republish the original. The problem there was that he’d done 24 books and had learnt to hate publishers. So, with nothing better to occupy my time, I rashly offered to do it for him. The process took a while to learn but FUOPP came out, toSkiddy’s total satisfaction and joy, and became the first of what has so far been a collection of 30 titles, mainly about, or by, newspapers and journalists.
[Hey… it wasn’t easy. For most of his life as a newspaperman, he had dictated his copy over the phone. Spelling and punctuation were, not his strong suits. He argued that Shakespeare had been unable to spell his own name, at least not consistently, and one of the great poets, I think maybe Wordsworth, had totally ignored punctuation. On the radio, he had needed neither. When I asked him whether the picture editor’s name was Harrap orHarrop, Skiddy replied: ‘He answers to both.’]
But he was delighted and proud to have been the founder member of a literary corps that included Cassandra, Vincent Mulchrone, Keith Waterhouse, Hugh Cudlipp, Geoffrey Goodman, Murray Sayle, Harry Procter, Colin Dunne, Tony Delano, Geoffrey Seed, and a host of others whose work he had admired.
So the very least we can do, this week is to revisit and revise Ranters.
Just for him.
And below we are re-publishing the edition that was originally produced to mark the publication (or republication) of that first book.
For those of you who want still more, you can use the search engine in the column on the left. And read some reviews and tributes at the bottom of this page.
Or look up SkidmoresIsland on Google.
Or buy one of his books.
March 14, 2008
Forgive Us Our Press Passes
No apologies for devoting this edition of our website to a single topic: this week Ian Skidmore (79 this year) celebrates the publication of his 25th book in as many years, and it’s about his life as a newspaperman.
To lift from the back-page blurb: Journalist, broadcaster and author Ian Skidmore collect rare books and fine wines by choice and unlikely anecdotes and engaging eccentrics almost by accident…
His first, hilarious, account of such encounters was celebrated a quarter of a century ago in the first edition of this book.
The Liverpool Daily Post said its publication identified him as ‘the successor to Tom Sharpe’ and actor Ian Carmichael described it as ‘a comic masterpiece’.
Wales on Sunday said it would be a ‘hard act to follow’.
It was chosen as BBC Book of the Year, had the highest listening figures on Radio Four, and was read twice on the BBC Overseas Service.
The Daily Post described Ian Skidmore as Wales’ funniest columnist, the Western Mail as ‘a great eccentric’.
Now, revisited, revised, and expanded to more than twice its original length it is being published in this special edition.
It is only right to declare an interest at this stage. Forgive Us Our Press Passes is published by a new house called Revel Barker Publishing (motto: If your friends won’t buy your book, what bloody chance has it got?)
It is possible – in fact highly likely – that more titles, for journalists, by journalists, about journalists, will follow.
Regular readers of this website will need no introduction to Ian Skidmore’s writing; he has been contributing to it from the very start. But in the past eight months we have picked up a few thousand new readers, and for their benefit, this week’s edition includes the editor’s choice of his offerings.
The only new item is the first one: a recollection that stems from a discussion after a long boozy dinner some 40 years ago. Its veracity in the original telling and in its recounting here cannot, therefore, be totally guaranteed but, as Ranters tend to say, if it isn’t totally accurate, at least it is accurate enough…
By Revel Barker
It was one of those bright brisk spring mornings when the day, or maybe at least half of it, was crying out to be written off. The schedule – the Sked – would look after itself. So where to go for a long lunch?
Bill Freeman and Leo White, in the pivotal positions of the Daily Mirror news operation in the north, decided that a trip in the office car to Chester would be about right. They could call on Ian Skidmore, and guarantee a jolly lunch.
They knew exactly where to find him. Skiddy was spending every day at Chester Zoo because he was awaiting the arrival of the first gorilla to be born in captivity in Britain. He’d been booked on regular daily shifts to maintain a permanent watch.
Just for once, Bill and Leo decided, they’d give the guy a break, and take him somewhere different, somewhere decent, to eat. All those lunches at the Zoo restaurant must be boring for a bon vivant like old Ian.
The car rolled up at the gate and they presented themselves at the kiosk with pound notes in hand – they knew the price of admission from Skiddy’s exes.
‘We’re from the Daily Mirror,’ said Bill. ‘We’re looking for the gorilla enclosure.’
‘Go straight in,’ said the gateman. ‘We don’t charge members of the press.’
Ian would have been easy enough to spot if he had been anywhere near the Ape House. There, sure enough, was the gorilla. Since Skidmore wasn’t there he would presumably be at the offices, where he regularly entertained his zoo contacts – his other regularly reimbursed item of entertaining was the purchase of chocolate ice cream cones and ice lollies for the pregnant gorilla.
The Curator of Mammals and the Zoo Director welcomed the visitors warmly.
‘Mr. Skidmore? Lovely man. Only I haven’t seen him for weeks. He’ll be at the Golden Eagle, beside the courthouse, right now, before moving on to the Symposium Dining Club for lunch. I have all his numbers, in case anybody rings here, looking for him.’
But what, they asked, if a baby was born to one of the animals?
‘Oh, if there’s anything that looks like a story, or a picture, of course, I would ring him.’
And what about the gorilla – suppose it gives birth…?
No worries on that score, the curator assured them. The gorilla was male.
No: if they were looking for Mr. Skidmore their best bet at lunchtime would be the Symposium.
As they turned towards the exit the Zoo director called them back.
‘You said you were from the Mirror… Before you go, do you need any blank bills from the restaurant?’
Gorilla picture: Edward Rawlinson
Button up your overcoat..
By Ian Skidmore
I worry when people, usually mothers, ask me how I got my start in journalism. And not only because the question carries a subtext: ‘If a prat like you can do it, it will be a doddle for a bright child like mine.’
Mostly I hesitate because everything that has happened to me in my career has stemmed from an embarrassing accident.
In this case, going to prison. Only an army prison and I was guilty of nothing – but then they all say that, don’t they?
I suppose I could explain the issue by saying, ‘It was because my greatcoat was unbuttoned, coming out of a pub in Thetford.’
We were a night away from a draft to Palestine and were celebrating in the last chance saloon called the Green Man.
I was a lance corporal in the Black Watch (RHR) who had somehow got mixed up with an RASC unit in the days when Englishmen dominated the Highland Division while the canny Scots all joined corps and learnt a trade.
In my unit, all the Scots came from Glasgow. None much more than five feet high. If you were any taller in Glasgow, you got posted to Edinburgh.
Because I was still fastening my greatcoat on the street, I was pounced on by the Town Patrol of burly corporals for being improperly dressed.
A diminutive Glaswegian ran up to one of the corporals and smacked him in the mouth for being impertinent to ‘a Highlander’ (from Manchester, as it happened).
In consequence, we were all charged with assault, taken off the draft to Palestine, and sent to Germany.
My charge – ‘in that he did assault six regimental policemen’ – preceded me to my new unit where I was summoned by the CO. He said: ‘I am a very bewildered officer; you don’t look violent to me.’
I didn’t. Indeed in the kilt, I looked like an undernourished reading lamp and I have a photo to prove it.
I explained what happened, but he said there was nothing he could do about it. It was a court-martial offense and he would have to remind me.
‘But’ he said, ‘a word of advice: plead guilty. Otherwise, they will have to adjourn the court and you will have wasted the officers’ morning. They will have to bring the witnesses over from the UK and they will be very cross with you. Plead guilty and your Prisoner’s Friend will explain the situation.’
I did. He didn’t. And I spent the next 56 days in 3 Military Corrective Establishment at Bielefeld.
When I was released and posted to Bad Oenhausen I decided to desert. On my way to the Bahnhof to get a train to the Hook of Holland I was pounced on by the garrison RSM, a Scots Guard called Graham.
He was very rude to me, suggesting that if I didn’t smarten myself up he would take the red hackle out of my bonnet, stick it up my arse and have me clucking like a Rhode Island Red.
I was very glad when he dismissed me.
To my horror, I saw him again five minutes later in the next street. Rather than face him I dodged into the first door I could open. As it happens it was the office of Army PR.
A CSM, Paddy Seaman, asked me what I wanted. I didn’t know what to say, so I asked him if he had any jobs going. I thought I might sweep the floor or make some tea.
He said: ‘Have you any experience of newspapers?’
I thought that’s a funny question – because, as a matter of fact, I had. I had been a printer’s apprentice at Allied Newspapers at Withy Grove.
I said I had worked on the Manchester Evening Chronicle and Paddy said: ‘Blimey, we haven’t had a newspaper reporter before. Come in and see Kenneth.’
Kenneth, it turned out, was the CO. At the time I didn’t know officers had first names, so I was a little surprised.
I was even more surprised when I met Major Kenneth Harvey. He was a touch fey. I later learnt he had transferred to the Royal Armoured Corps because the black beret brought out the blue of his eyes. What with one thing and another I was very relieved when he asked me to sit down.
All I remember of the interview was the bit where he said: ‘Here’s a chit. Go to the QM and draw your three stripes.’
‘You will join as a sergeant, of course.’
He bridled and his little shoulders shivered.
‘You cannot expect to be an officer straight away,’ he said.
That afternoon, with not the slightest idea what I was doing, I was on my way to cover the Berlin Airlift. Still the biggest story I have ever covered on my own.
But the army always did the unexpected. Some months later when I was Returned To Unit because of persistent drunkenness, another Guards RSM – Irish this time and called Kenny – thought PR was short for provost and appointed me Provost Sergeant of HQ 7th Armoured Division.
So if your child wants a career in journalism, tell him to try unbuttoning his overcoat in Thetford.
There Stands The Enemy
By Ian Skidmore
I saw I was down on the diary to cover the Miners’ Gala on Hexthorpe Fields in Doncaster and to interview the guest of honor, Mr. Aneurin Bevan.
I found him in the cocktail bar of the Danum Hotel, where in the future I was to sleep in a bath, to beat a UP man in interviewing Charlie Chaplin.
I knew it was the Great Socialist because of his Savile Row suit, the shirt from Thos Pink, the Lobb boots, and the Trumper’s haircut. A fragrance by Floris lay heavy on the air.
He was knee-deep in aldermen and I hovered uneasily at the edge until he summoned me to come forward and be identified.
‘The Yorkshire Evening News? I am honored. Come into the body of the chapel and tell me what I might buy you to drink.’
I asked could I have a half of bitter and he said, ‘A HALF OF BITTER?’ in that squeaky voice he had. ‘A half? Of bitter beer? You cannot dip the pen of eloquence in the watery ink of bitter beer… A large Scotch for my literary friend!’
In those days I had Scotch only at Hogmanay and I had never been anybody’s literary anything.
The minutes flew by in the sort of quiet content I expect you get by the yard in heaven. When the time came he put his arm around my shoulders and we walked together to the Fields. Hexthorpe? Elysian.
The miners parted like the Dead Sea and we strode through their ranks. As he climbed onto the dray from which he was to address them he was careful to plant me just where he could see me. He said I gave him confidence. I wasn’t surprised. I assumed that’s how it was with bosom friends.
The miners had been drinking Barnsley Bitter since dawn and it was a hot day. The sun on their heads sent the bitter a-thump and you could see it lifting their scalps. They were looking for someone to tear apart and Bevan gave them someone.
‘The enemy,’ he explained to them, ‘is not the capitalist in his Rolls-Royce and his Savile Row suit…’ (I thought: there is only one bugger here in a Savile Row suit, but the thought seemed unworthy and I banished it.)
‘No,’ he said in a triumphal squeak. ‘The enemy is not the National Coal Board in their swanky marble offices. No… There stands the enemy!’
And he pointed at me.
‘The prostituted press of our country – that is the enemy,’ he said.
They would have torn me apart there and then but they were transfixed by his eloquence. My notebook was all wet and soggy and I didn’t know if it was rain or tears.
As I shuffled off the field a pariah, I felt an arm around my shoulders. It was him.
‘Mr. Bevan,’ I said, ‘I will probably get the sack for saying it, but I think you are a right bastard.’
‘Oh, don’t be like that,’ he squeaked. ‘We both got a job to do. Come and have a drink.’
My Life And You Are Welcome To It
By Ian Skidmore
I won a Golden Microphone after thirty years as a ‘celebrity’ presenter on Radio Wales and a fortnight later they dropped me because I was English.
I took the BBC to a Race Tribunal and there was quite a lot of fuss about it. I had been rewarded with many by-lines on the splash of theDaily Mirror over the years. Now I was the subject.
The Head of BBC Wales told the paper I was a Victor Meldrew figure and the editor said I was too old. He didn’t say the same about Jimmy Young, Humphrey Lyttelton, or Alastair Cook, to name but a few.
But the BBC gave me a few grand to keep quiet and I did.
Within a month both the Head and the Editor had been sacked.
But as I sit by my pond, keeping herons off my koi, I do ponder a bit. My Manchesteraccent has softened on account of marrying above myself and marinating the throat muscles in the benevolent sweat of the juniper. But I hope and pray I have not lost it.
At the time I had 26 million listeners worldwide to my rants. Plainly my bosses at BBC Wales were not among them. Or they might have noticed that I seldom said Yachi dda (I didn’t even know how to spell it).
The best editor I had in my years of Taff-railing was called Bob Atkins. He was an Englishman too, so he was scuppered from the first day.
He called me to Cardiff and said he enjoyed a programme I was doing at the time.
It was called Skidmore’s Island and how it worked was a producer called Jack King knocked at my door with his tape recorder playing and for the next half hour, I talked. About books. About neighbours. If anyone knocked at the door I interviewed them and I played music on my radiogram. No scripts; no conception of what was going to happen.
Unfortunately, Bob, who liked a drink, took me to the BBC Club in Cardiff and as he carried me out and poured me into a taxi he said, ‘I won’t ask you to explain how the programme works now…’ (which was just as well; it took me ten minutes to tell the driver where I wanted to go).
‘…Do me a memo.’
I didn’t remember that until I was back home in Brynsiencyn on Anglesey and, still pissed, typed out the following:
‘Radio Brynsiencyn –
‘This is your smallest outpost. In the customary fashion of BBC bosses, I have slept with the entire staff. But since we have been married for ten years it may not count. Our Uher tape recorder is so old it has a pebble glass window and a thatched lid. Our music department is a wind-up gramophone and our record collection includes Teddy Bears’ Picnic and In A Monastery Garden. In fact, that is the extent of our collection.’
Then I sealed and posted it and it wasn’t until I sobered up that I realised I had probably dashed the prospect of a glittering career with an audience of sheep and men who wore clothes that looked as though they had been made from the covers of old prayer books.
What happened was that I got a letter from Bob: ‘Forget Skidmore’s Island. I want a series of twenty Radio Brynsiencyn.’
The trouble was I had forgotten by this time what I had put in the letter.
But… I had a title for my programme, twenty slots at a peak listening time, and an Uher tape recorder I bought for sixteen quid on the same stall at Llangefni market where I had found the wind-up gramophone that was my music department. I had an outside broadcast unit, a sit-up-and-beg bike with an errand boy’s basket on the handlebars. I had a wife with a posh voice… and not an idea of what to do with any of them.
It struck me that was par for the course in my ‘parent’ BBC, and decided to do what they did in similar circumstances.
Surround myself with a staff.
Anglesey being an island I needed a foreign editor to handle matters in the dark lands on the other bank of the MenaiStrait. Fortunately, a chap I had first known on a Bangorweekly paper had just retired. His name was Angus McDiarmid and he had some experience of the role. After brilliant coverage of the wrecking of a sailing ship in the Menai Strait, he was poached by the BBC and went on to become a distinguished foreign correspondent, covering Washington at the time of Watergate and various wars for the BBC.
Eminently suitable to look after Bangor.
Angus had interviewed world leaders but remained obsessed with his home town, where he was still ‘Gus’ McDermott (his name before being swamped by the Celtic Renaissance of the Sixties).
He used the job to indulge in secret vice. Wherever he had been in the world, however great the crisis, he always found time to visit any town called Bangor. Every week on Radio Brynsiencyn, until his sad death, he told an eager world about them.
The programme was beginning to take shape.
A cleaning staff is vital because broadcasters are a messy lot. Fortunately one was at hand: the love of my life, Rose Roberts, who already cleaned for us and ruled us with a rod of iron. I christened her Attila the Hoover and I was only partly joking. Dirt was terrified of her and dust disappeared at her touch.
Rose had a voice with the carrying power of a giant crane. She had appeared in the programme for only a few weeks when she took a day trip to London. She was queuing for the Palladium and passing pleasantries with her companions that could have been heard in Newcastle upon Tyne.
‘Blimey,’ came a voice from far down the queue: ‘It’s Attila the Hoover!’
No Welsh broadcasting station is complete without a choir. At a lifeboat charity evening, I heard a quartet called the Oscars and immediately recruited them.
A pal of mine, Derek Jones, was a bit worried about his teenage son whose singing voice had just broken.
He was keen on broadcasting so Derek asked if we would teach him the art of interviewing. I was a bit reluctant. Whenever I heard the lad sing, the hair on the back of the head lifted and I had a sense that he had been touched by God.
His name was Aled Jones. Done quite well since, but at that time his preoccupation was a sandwich toaster he had bought with his first earnings and he was forever thrusting toasted sandwiches at you.
But I thought, ‘Give the lad a chance’ and employed him at a fiver a week.
Aled did nothing by halves. He played tennis to county standard; a fine footballer, he was offered trials with professionals, and he was so keen to get his O-levels that in the interval of a concert before most of America in the Hollywood Bowl he sat in his dressing room swotting. Aled went out with my wife on a couple of interviews and picked the art up so quickly he was soon doing them on his own. His dad told me he nearly drove his parents mad practicing interviewing on them.
A remarkable boy. Never a trace of nerves. Singing for the Royal Family he forgot the lyric and made up one as he sang along.
He went to record Memories for Andrew Lloyd Webber. ‘Like to do a run-through?’ asked Lloyd Webber.
‘Can we go for a take?’ asked Aled.
They did and the first take was all that was needed.
‘Good God,’ said Webber. ‘It took Barbra Streisand a week to do that.’
His Dad told me: ‘I didn’t like to explain he was in a hurry to watch Match of the Day.’
Aled has been blessed with three gifts. The voice of an angel and his parents, Derek and Ness, who kept his feet firmly nailed to the ground.
When he was awarded his first Gold Disc the BBC planned a huge reception in Cardifffor the award ceremony.
‘Out of the question,’ said Derek. ‘He would have to miss school.’ The BBC had to hire a helicopter for the ceremony; it landed on the playing field of his school in Menai Bridge.
The programme was beginning to take shape: a ‘pirate’ radio station that parodied the commercial radio of the day. We had a signature tune; a group of producers and broadcasters sang the jingles to announce the items; Celia [Celia Lucas, ex Daily Mail: Mrs. Skidmore] did interviews and I headed the whole thing with a rant.
Wearing a dinner jacket, of course.
The BBC printed T-shirts, ties, and mugs with the station logo which started to appear in the oddest places all over the world. We had the highest listening figures on BBC Wales; a ‘club’ of listeners was formed in Boston in the USA and the daughter of a friend started a Radio Bryn fan club at OxfordUniversity.
Islands can be dull paces in winter. Anxious to get away, a neighbour toured the Loire. By the river one day, he switched on his radio as he unwrapped a picnic… and heard the signature tune of Radio Bryn doing an outside broadcast – from outside his house.
Celia recorded the programme in our kitchen, rough-cut it, and sent it to Dewi Smith, head of light entertainment in Wales, for final polishing and transmission.
Then a funny thing happened.
Everyone was convinced it was a real pirate station and I started to get applications for jobs. Women’s Institutes, youth clubs, and at least one school asked if they could tour the studios and BBC Controller Ulster heard it while driving across Anglesey.
He rang my editor to ask, ‘Do you have a studio in the cottage or does it come to you via landline?’
We were even a page lead in the Daily Mail.
The series ended seventeen years ago. It is still talked about in Wales.
Everything in what I laughingly call my career was an accident. This was the happiest of them all.
By Ian Skidmore
I am a connoisseur of bad temper. My father was in a perpetual fury, which I put down to being in the trenches at the age of fifteen in the First World War. After the war, he joined the police because, I firmly believe, of the opportunities it offered for hitting people.
In a siege in Manchester in the twenties, he was shot in the head by an IRA man who later ran a Dublin dog track. In the family it was widely believed he was shot by his own inspector, worn out by my father’s incalcitrance.
Certainly, the inspector had been heard to shout: ‘Take that bloody gun off Skidmore before he kills us all.’
Parades disgusted him. Every year Manchester police had a parade in a Fallowfield park.
The one year they allowed my father to take part he ruined the band’s first concert by shouting: ‘D’ye ken the Refrain from Smoking?’
Probably ill-temper swims in our genes. Last year I discovered a cousin, the daughter of a brother of my grandfather, who none of the family knew about. We are not a close family. Except in disputes…
Every Hogmanay we went back to Edinburgh for a family party.
Every year my father would light a cigar to taunt my socialist uncle Tommy, who invented Scottish nationalism long before it became fashionable and was more Scottish than Harry Lauder. Probably because he was born in Newton le Willows, about which my father reminded him every year.
The youngest brother, who tried to pacify him, was himself turned into a pillar of fury when my father told him: ‘I didna see you at Paschendale.’
There was always a fight in the early evening. The women placidly moved their chairs to the walls of the room where they sat nibbling shortcake and gossiping, while the six brothers rolled fighting at their feet. Fighting, that is, until 11.55 pm when my Auntie Jeannie would say: ‘D’ye no ken the time?’
The brothers would get up, dust themselves down. And we would all join hands and sing Auld Lang Syne.
My stepfather in law, another Scot, improbably called The Menzies of Pitfoggle, was a GP in the Fens. A luckless journalist who went to him for advice on a sexual problem was chased down the drive of the surgery by Pitfoggle, hurling obscenities and, for all I know, pillboxes and bottles.
Yet, compared with Maurice Thompson, a photographer I worked with on the Yorkshire Evening News in Doncaster, they were every one of them, tiny beams of sunshine.
The first time we worked together I was immediately rebuked for getting into his Morris Minor with mud on my shoes. Nervously I lit a cigarette and he launched another tirade about ash disposal.
How we ever became friends I do not know, but it came as a shock to discover he liked me.
Certainly, it was nothing he said.
So it was a surprise when years later he rang me and asked whether I fancied a day trip to Copenhagen.
I am not a traveler. When we lived on the Isle of Anglesey my wife claimed I needed Kwells before I would cross the Menai Strait and it is quite true I suggested a holiday once in Beaumaris, a pretty town about five miles from our home in Llanfairpwllgwyngoghchewernynllantisilogogogch. I never did learn how to spell it, much less pronounce it. And one of the reasons I was loath to leave it was the dread of getting lost and being unable to tell a taxi driver where I wanted to go.
But in my own defense, I did offer to break the journey at MenaiBridge and the draught Bass in the Bull in Beaumaris was ale that, to quote Beaumont and Fletcher ‘would make a cat speak.’ I digress.
Maurice had been hired to take photographs of an unusual PR stunt. British Ropes in Doncaster had been commissioned to make the huge ‘ropes’ from which a bridge was to be suspended over the Strait of Jutland. As a gesture of thanks, the workers who made the ropes were invited over for a day to see them, literally in post.
This happened in those earlier, happy days before they invented holidays abroad. When holidays in Scarborough or Whitby were permissible but Blackpool or Morecambe was considered a bit on the showy side. No-one who valued his place in Yorkshire society would go to Bournemouth.
Denmark? It was Star Trek country and everyone was very excited.
A busy day ended with a banquet in the Chinese Pagoda in the TivoliGardens. Maurice and I got there early in case there was a bar. There wasn’t, but we watched with interest as chefs patterned complicated devices in lumpfish roe over the salads that stood by every plate. Clearly, they hoped the roe would be mistaken for caviar. It wasn’t.
The first diner to arrive called his mate. ‘Bloody hell, Harry. There’s caterpillar shit all over this lettuce.’
One by one, the British Ropers scraped rigorously at their leaves.
The man who had discovered this evidence of the filthy habits of foreigners also singled me out. ‘Tha’rt bloody journalist, ist tha?’
I admitted I was. ‘Nowt fresh to you then, this Abroad?’
Now, I lied.
‘Sithee,’ he said, leaning over. ‘Thi ’ave a lot of that sex stuff abroad, doan’t thi?’
Thi does, I said.
‘Weer does it go on, then?’
I had no idea. I said near the railway station because that’s where it went on when I was doing national service in Germany, my only other experience of Abroad.
‘A’ll tell thee what,’ he said, ‘There’s three hours before t’plane. We’ll ’ave a bit of a dander, just thee and me. Just to see, like.’ So we did.
The sex shops were a revelation to both of us. He was particularly exercised by loops of stiff hair, designed for putting on penis ends, to stimulate partners. ‘Dear, dear,’ he said, profoundly shocked because he was at heart a God-fearing, respectable man.
He staggered off into the crowds. He was also a very tall man. I could keep track of him as he stumbled, horrified by the depravity and anxious to return to the safety of his world of darts and dog walking. A piece of totty detached herself from a wall and surged towards him like a determined trout.
I caught up in time to hear her proposition him and I saw the back of his neck deepen to vermillion.
‘D’yer mind,’ he said. ‘It’s the wife’s birthday tomorrow.’
No socks, please
By Ian Skidmore
I hate sharing rooms. In PR, in the army, I shared a room with a chap who was called, not unfairly, ‘Filthy Sykes’. Admirable in many ways, he amassed a collection of single socks, all indescribably dirty, that would have had any decent incinerator retching with desire. They festooned every surface, door top, window frame, and light fitting in the room and made cozy nests on most surfaces.
After the army, Sykes went to work for a newspaper in Canada and died, which is as near as life gets to an oxymoron.
My greatest regret, however, is the night I shared a room in the Westminster Hotel reporting on the ‘Mummy in the Cupboard Murders’ in Rhyl, with Terry Stringer.
I hasten to point out that Terry was the most fastidious of men, whose carefully matched and laundered socks were beyond reproach.
It was an unlucky room. I had it to myself before Stringer arrived and it was the scene of bitter humiliation.
From Rhyl, I was sentenced to being a northern night news editor of the Mirror, an experience much worse than my earlier incarceration in an army prison.
The assembled reporters gave me dinner and the management of the hotel were so pleased with us, they baked me a cake. Understandably – we had spent more behind the bar than they had taken in bookings so far that season.
The cake was topped by a tasteful mummy, wrapped in embalming clothes in a marzipan coffin.
One day I hope to identify the guest who sold the story – ‘shocked hotel guests appalled by gruesome cake’ – to a Sunday paper.
During the dinner, I sat next to a lady who had set up a slimming couch in one of the suites. When you lay face down on its moving panels, it gave erotic sensations of such intensity Tom Cooper of the Daily Telegraph wanted to get engaged to it.
The lady asked if there was anything I regretted about leaving the road and I said yes there was. I said everyone else came back from out of town jobs with tales of lovemaking that would make your hair curl.
She said well I will tell you what. After dinner go off to your bedroom and as soon as I can I will join you.
So I did. I bought a bottle of wine, I put on my silk dressing gown, scattered Old Spice about the room like May Blossom, and waited.
I leaped into bed.
Then she whispered in my ear. ‘You will have to hurry up. I am meeting [name deleted] at midnight.’
The last week on the road wore on. Terry Stringer was sent out to take over and we had to share rooms. Naturally, I gave him most of the work and I spent my last days wandering about Rhyl hurling gold coins at stall holders, winning teddy bears, sticks of rock, and on the last Sunday, a budgie.
In a plastic cage.
I was sitting at a bar table in the Westminster chatting idly with the budgie when we were joined by Reg Jones of the Daily Mirror.
‘It’s an ostrich,’ I said with heavy irony.
‘No. The cage. It’s disgusting. The poor bird can hardly move. You want to get it a decent cage.’
‘It’s Sunday, the pet shops are closed.’
‘Then find out the home address of one and get him to open his shop.’
So I did. It wasn’t easy. But I did.
‘Now are you satisfied,’ I said.
‘No’ he said. ‘It’s got nothing to play with. Budgies like little mirrors and see-saws and bells they can ring with their beaks.’
‘It’s Sunday and I am not getting the poor bugger out again. He’ll be having his dinner.’
‘Use your initiative. Go to an amusement arcade and win them on one of those grab cranes.’
So I changed a fiver into low denomination coinage, went to the amusement arcade, found a grab crane that offered various novelties on a hillock of liquorice torpedoes and set to work. Winning nothing but grabs full of liquorice torpedoes.
I had amassed enough torpedoes to sink the German navy when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I turned around and saw a man in a brown dust coat. At first, I took him to be the Mayor of Blackpool. But it wasn’t a chain of office he had round his neck; it was a string of keys.
He questioned me abruptly and I explained I was trying to win some toys for my budgie.
Pushing me to one side, he opened a window in the machine and collected a variety of plastic toys, thrust them in my hand, and said: ‘Now piss off and give these kids a chance.’
For the first time, I noticed the queue of impatient children, clutching their pennies.
That night in its palatial cage, surrounded by toys, the budgie passed a sleepless night.
I had to wake Stringer twice to complain that his snores were keeping my budgie awake and the next day I had to tell the desk to recall him. It was the only way the budgie could get a decent night’s sleep.
Two days after I got it home the budgie was eaten by the cat.
I think it was the cat. But, in those days, I had a very funny wife…
In the line of fire
By Ian Skidmore
News agencies, weekly papers, evening papers, trade magazines, national dailies and Sundays, Kemsley Newspapers, J P Taylors Colour Printers, The Black Watch (RHR) – twice, which I think maybe a record – one school and two clubs…
I have been sacked by experts.
My shortest period of employment was a day and a half, working for Jimmy Lovelock, proprietor of Stockport News Service, owner of the only fornicatorium in Cheshire, and the only man to organise an abortion on the National Health when abortions were not even legal.
Editor of a weekly newspaper in his early twenties, he had been crippled with polio as a child, but nevertheless became a mountaineer, a pot-holer and a member of the expedition that climbed Nuptse, Everest’s smaller sister.
A remarkable man.
Jimmy introduced me to the staff, which took up most of the first day.
The staff was an odd little chap called Mickey. First of all, we had to find him, and that was never easy. A year after his arrival no-one knew Mickey’s surname and I don’t think anyone ever found out where he lived.
He was invariably respectful and called Jimmy ‘Master’.
Mickey had a single purpose in life: to discover how millionaires made their first thousand pounds. Their memoirs said Mickey who had read them all, always included the phrase, ‘with my first thousand pounds I bought…’ but they never explained where the thousand pounds came from. He suspected they had nicked it; but, scorning that as being too easy, he tried dealing. He only really mastered the art of acquiring. Disposal escaped him. To Jimmy’s puzzled chagrin he used the agency’s office as his warehouse. There were racks of clothes of improbable sizes, a job lot of string-less violins picked up for a song, inevitably tuneless, twenty gross of heavily tinselled cards wishing A Happy Christmas for 1948, that he had bought in 1951, and other less saleable items.
You could never find a pen there, or even a typewriter; but anyone in need of a string-less violin was easily accommodated.
Next, he tried gambling, a curious reversal. Disposing of was child’s play. Acquiring he never quite mastered.
He had one suit that he wore to the office, except on the days when he wore a mackintosh, in the hope that ‘Master’ would not notice he wore only a shirt, tie, and underpants beneath, having pawned the suit. The gartered socks were a giveaway.
By the time I arrived Jimmy had taken to paying him by the day.
The second day there I got an out-of-town job; I was after all the only member of staff who could be relied on to turn up in a suit. Wilmslow magistrates court, which in those days could be reached from Stockport by train, was hardly outer space but Mickey anxiously took me for a couple of pints to stiffen the sinews. One pint led to another and by the time I got on the train I was exhausted, fell into a deep sleep, and woke up in Crewe. I had seen enough Hollywood newspaper films to know what to do. I rangStockport on a transfer charge call and asked Jimmy to wire me my fare back to the office.
I was touched that he went further. He drove all the way to Crewe to collect me. I see now that it gave him a greater opportunity for an in-depth character assessment, but at the time I thought it a charming gesture.
We were nearing Stockport when he ended his assessment.
‘Skiddy,’ he said. ‘We have two options. Either I employ you or we stay friends.’ Again I was very touched, it was my friendship he valued.
He generously paid me for a day and a half but despite the joint urgings of Mickey and myself refused to add the one and a half hours holiday money to which we felt I was entitled. After nearly sixty years the debt remained unpaid, though I had over the years mentioned it many times, even sent bills to his retirement home in Spain. He always copped me a deaf ’un.
In the fullness of time, he came to work for me, doing shifts when I ran the night desk on the Sunday Pictorial. I tried to have my holiday pay docked from his shift money, but the linage department was obdurate. No amende honorable, not even when he made a fortune doing night shifts for six nationals outside a vicarage in Cheshire, in case the Vicar of Woodford sneaked back in the night.
In fairness, he did bring me a kukri back from Nepal when he climbed Nuptse and I treasure it to this day.
I was especially touched because he was very cross. Picture editor George Harrop and I had sent him a telegram as soon as the news broke of his successful attempt. ‘Is their froth on the top?’ it read, rather cleverly we thought.
We didn’t know that it would take the Sherpa who delivered it three days to climb the mountain.
Mickey? No idea. The last time we met we were having lunch with Lord (Tony) Moynihan when his wife’s tits fell out and somehow, in the excitement of that, I never got round to finding out whether Mickey made his first thousand, but I was pleased to see he was not wearing his raincoat.
Founding a dynasty
By Ian Skidmore
Regular readers will recall that I became a reporter by not fastening my greatcoat in Thetford. My son, youngest daughter, and grand-daughter became journalists, turning me into a dynasty, because of something that happened to me in bed.
At my romantic best, my bed activities over the years would bring a smile to the face of an Easter Island statue.
Even on my own in bed I am funnier than alternative comedy; though, let us face it, I have seen acne eruptions funnier than alternative comedy.
When I was resting between marriages, and on nights when I was sober enough to make it to the bedroom the same night I started up the stairs, I had a ritual I used to perform.
About the only thing I had won custody of in my first divorce was the Teasmade, a combination alarm clock and tea maker; though even here I had to promise to bring it up in the Jewish faith.
I would activate the Teasmade, climb into bed, carrying with me a book to read and an apple to eat. Supine, I placed my false teeth on my stomach. Thus, if I felt the pangs of hunger, it was the work of a moment to pop in the false teeth and attack the apple.
Alas, on the night under advisement I neglected to put the pipe from the kettle into the hole in the lid of the teapot of the infernal machine. In fact, it hung like the sword of Damocles over what I laughingly called my chest.
Worse, I fell asleep with the apple, the book, and the false teeth in line ahead on the belly.
On the dot of 7 am the kettle performed its function, heating the water to boiling point before waving it off on its journey along the pipe, which, you will recall, was poised over my ‘chest’.
The jet of boiling water hit it, waking me and causing me to leap into the air for just long enough for the dentures to slip off my belly and position themselves beneath me so that when I landed I gave myself a very nasty bite in the backside.
I was dining at the Chester Grosvenor that night with my friend Long Langford and fellow members of the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs. (This has nothing to do with the story really but as a piece of name-dropping would be difficult to beat.)
Personal daintiness decreed that I should not put the teeth back in the mouth. The Ninth Baron was not best pleased.
‘Why haven’t you put your teeth in?’ he demanded.
‘If you knew where they had been, you wouldn’t ask,’ I said.
I was surprised a year later to open my daughter’s school newspaper and find she had written an account of the unhappy incident for the amusement of her peers. The response was such that she and my son both decided to take up careers in journalism.
Now my granddaughter is working for the PA. It’s an ill wind up…
IanSkidmore’s Forgive Us Our Press Passes should be made required reading for every child-in-a-suit populating what passes for our newsrooms these days.
–Grey Cardigan, Press Gazette
It’s theGreat Comeback… Ian Skidmore’s joyful account of the Golden Days of British national newspapers has been thoroughly revised and more than doubled in length since the first edition 25 years ago.
Effectively it is a new book – twice as entertaining and informative as its predecessor. No one will regret buying it again.
ForDaily Mirrorjournalist “Skiddy” muses on the changes in national journalism in recent years. His misgivings on the massive entry of university graduates are clear. And his erudition and sense of humour are apparent on every page.
Ian is truly a man of many parts and has worked as hard as he drank. He has now written 26 books – histories, biographies, fiction, comedy. For many years he was a BBC broadcaster with many millions of listeners around the world. His regular talks to Australiadrew record audiences down under.
– StanleyBlenkinsop, Daily Express news editor, 1969-86
When FleetStreet was demoted to a mere address, ‘time, gentlemen, please’ was called on a marathon binge that had produced some of the greatest stories in tabloid press history.
Stories that would never make the papers.
These unprinted legends circulated secretly among an elite handful of national newspaper reporters and photographers – colorful characters whose own outrageous tales often eclipsed those in the headlines they created.
Now that well-paid jobs and bumper expense accounts are no longer at stake, vintage scribe and broadcaster Ian Skidmore blows the whistle on the jolly jape that was journalism in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
Forgive Us Our Press Passesis a surreal yarn of the slapstick and wit shared by a crackpot but talented crew of hacks who somehow produced the greatest newspaper circulation figures in the history of the world press… between pub opening hours.
Only a Methodist, a tailor’s dummy, or a university journalism student could fail to split his sides at the anecdotes in this hilariously written,warts-n-all account of the media circus BEFORE they sent in the clowns.
I wonder how many old hands have bought this book… and carefully hidden it from their wives.
– Neil Marr
The Scallygwagis back – and twice as much of him. Ian Skidmore, doyen of national newspapermen, radio, and writing, relates his quirky anecdotes in his usual ebullient style ina new version of his original book.
He doesn’t pull punches as he talks about the Grand Old Days of journalism – as it was and should be. The cycle of fun and fact, hard news hunting and companionship come alive under the pen of Skidmore.
Written from the perspective of a journalist who worked in the days of typewriters, phoned copy, notes on cheque book stubs, and when media studies meant scanning the opposition for their take on your story – if they had it!
Forgive us our Press Passesshould be required reading for all journalism students, and journalists –but not their wives or girlfriends. Brilliant.
– Ken Ashton
I first met Ian Skidmore when I was an innocent young reporter making my way to national newspapers. My bosses warned me: Stay away from Skiddy. Of course, I didn’t.
He introduced me to enormous dressed Pimms served in enormous pots in the Bear and Billet and taught me that being a national newspaper reporter was about having fun. Lots of it.
There is no way the po-faced ‘media studies’ Gestapo training today’s young reporters would let them have sight of this marvelous tome in case it corrupted them. They should be made to read it.
He brings back to life some of the marvellous characters of my newspaper youth, men who taught youngsters how to be proper reporters.
Guardianistas reading this book will have all their twisted prejudices confirmed, others may not believe some of the tales, but for me, it was a rollicking good read.
And it took me back to the days sitting at his knee in the Bear and Billet and other taverns and listening to his tales. In some cases, the names have been changed or even omitted – to protect the guilty!
– Alastair McQueen
In the course of a fruitful and liquid life, Ian Skidmore has got himself into more scrapes thana potato peeler. He is large in body and spirit; a gregarious journalist of the robust school. His anecdotes are numerous, varied, and occasionally bizarre –
‘Informants were necessary because I was getting a great deal of aggravation from local linage pools. Things got so bad, indeed, that I used to go often to Chester zoo and play with a baby gorilla who became a fast friend. I would buy him the odd ice lollipop. He liked the ones that were chocolate-covered best, but friendship is never cheap, and we would play about and wrestle on the green lawn in front of his quarters on long evenings after the zoo had closed…’
‘When we walked down the aisle atSt Paul’s Church I was completely broke. Happily, during the reception rich relatives kept pressing money on me…’
He writes fluently and perceptively about the rigours of life, which have tended to congregate around his ample figure like a crop to be garnered in print at the right moment. In this turmoil of character and characters, he casually drops a name or two here and there to show his proximity to class as well as glass, but why not, indeed?
Anyone buyingForgive Us Our Press Passes should bend the covers back at page 75 for easy access in the future. For here is an account of his meeting with Aneurin Bevan, one of the towering politicians of our era. It is a Dickensian-like story of innocence, betrayal, and deception, and absolutely compelling.
Skidmore’s best, in my view.
– Geoffrey Mather