Stanley Blenkinsop, 1931-2010
Below, Gordon Amory mourns the loss of a close colleague and a cherished friend for more than half a century.
Revel Barker celebrates Stan the ‘perversely puritan’ gambling man, the military historian, English gentleman, inveterate letter-writer and self-styled cantankerous old bastard.
Tony Brooks remembers his boss on The World’s Greatest Newspaper and a classic scoop.
Former Express editor Brian Hitchen recalls the amiable eccentric at the other end of the phone.
Derek Hornbyremembers Stanley the reporter.
And Clive Crickmerhas fond memories of Stan the Man.
Larger than life
By Gordon Amory
Stanley Blenkinsop, a great eccentric and the longest-serving news editor of the Daily Express in Manchester, died last week. He had been ill for a long time having suffered a stroke a few years ago but he never let it get him down.
After that set back I kept in touch every day to make sure he was all right. He would tell me of hair-brained schemes he had late at night and by the time next morning came around they went into Futures and would never come out again.
In June every year he would enjoy a front seat at the Trooping the Colour. And every July he would go with show business reporter Gerry Demsey to Paris for Bastille Day wearing his bowler hat and with his monocle in place. One year, on the Champs Elysées, a French policewoman stopped him to ask: ‘Are you an English milord?’… The following year a gendarme approached and asked: ‘Milord, where is your titfer?’
I first met him when I went to Ancoats Street in 1957. We were both from Northumberland; he had joined the Express a week earlier from the Newcastle Journal and was quickly back in the North East again when staff reporter Reg Butler died. After a couple of years he joined the News Chronicle and when that closed, moved to the Daily Mail but Tom Campbell, then news editor who he had fallen out with earlier, wanted him back and he rejoined the Express.
In 1969 he went to Manchester taking over from Bob Blake as news editor of what he always boasted was ‘The World’s Greatest’. He master-minded so many big stories over the years in the North and Northern Ireland, got his own exclusive on the Yorkshire Ripper, and was a genuine character with his team of devoted and excellent journalists. He was always a good reporter and made friends very easily.
He could be very stubborn too. If he didn’t like an editor or a colleague they would soon get to know about it and it could take a long time for him to acknowledge they were really decent blokes after all.
He enjoyed going out with Bert Horsfall, the Newcastle freelance, in their earlier days because Bert couldn’t help being devious and posing as a policeman was second nature to him. Newcastle in those days had the ferreting newsman Syd Foxcroft digging and top reporters like Alan Baxter, Rupert Morters, Roger Scott, Mike Gay, Revel Barker and so many other good all-rounders.
Everybody’s favourite was of course Clive Crickmer, who let it slip one day that after his wedding he had booked into a hotel on the Military Road at Chollerford. As luck would have it, Stanley and I were covering a police murder in the Lake District and returning home late at night, stopping off at hostelries along the way. As you did in those days.
We got to the George at Chollerford and I said: ‘We’ll have the last one here.’ We walked into the hotel and I asked if they would tell Mr. Crickmer his guests had arrived. A few minutes later the red-faced Clive and his wife Yvonne came down from the bridal suite and joined us at the bar. The unexpected guests.
Stanley Blenkinsop was a larger life character. His friends were largely from newspapers although he tried respectable things like being chairman of Age Concern in Cheshire and vice chairman of the Hospital Trust and was a former chairman of the Old Boys Club (a gentlemen’s drinking club) in Macclesfield, where he spent a lot of his time and of course he leaves a gap in many of our lives…
When he decided to leave the Daily Express in 1986 he went to Manchester University to read modern history and got his degree. Like other students, he would ride there on his bike until one day when a smart new Jaguar came out of a side street and knocked him down. When he came round, the driver was looking down at him: ‘Oh it’s you, Stanley, I’m sorry about this…’
It was the former chief copy taker in Manchester who had spent his redundancy money on a bit of style. Stanley wasn’t amused.
On the day we celebrated the 50th anniversary of our joining the Daily Express we invited a group of close friends to join us for lunch at Sam’s Chop House in Manchester where fish and chips were provided, wrapped in copies of an Express from May 57 – dusted down a bit of course.
Stanley married Margaret in 1969 at a ceremony performed by her mother Kath, the registrar at Newcastle Civic Centre, and they had a daughter Jill, the mother of his three young grandchildren. Margaret recently retired as the director of education for Bolton.
Most who knew him will have their own tales to tell. He was a very good friend. The last note I had from him was sent after he stayed with me for a couple of nights for the first time after my wife Beatrice died. It said simply:
When I have stayed at Modasa, I’ve always enjoyed sending flowers, thank you. I will do so for the rest of my life in memory of Beatrice. Very sincerely, Stanley.
That was only six weeks ago.
Another fine mate, Stanley
By Revel Barker
For a couple of years in the 60s, we were the only bachelors in the national press corps covering the north-east of England – on call 24 hours, doing police calls until midnight (when the Manchester desks took over) and ready to ‘match’ any other paper’s exclusives in the first editions. So it wasn’t surprising that Stan Blenkinsop and I spent a lot of time in each other’s company.
He came out to Ranters Island for a visit just over a year ago and entertained my chums with wonderful reminiscences of our youthful nights of magic and mischief (and with full-length renditions of the Blaydon Races, Cushie Butterfield and the Lambton Worm – a rare sighting of an elderly English gentleman sporting a monocle and a bowler hat and wielding an oversize countryman’s walking stick).
Newcastle in our youth had been at the forefront of the blossoming night club industry and when the pubs shut, that was where we fetched up together, at La Dolce Vita, the Cavendish, and later at Grey’s Club which was more or less devoted to gambling.
As, for a time, was Stanley. He had read Scarne on Gambling cover to cover and could recite the odds on any set of numbers in any game of chance. But he didn’t need to, for he had an amazing amount of luck. In the days when we were probably earning around £1,500 a year, and a roulette chip cost half a crown, it wasn’t unusual for him to leave Grey’s with £400 in his wallet.
Such was the perverse puritanism that on more than one occasion he insisted on my staying with him an extra hour or so – for we lived in neighboring Tyneside villages and I’d be his lift home – while he endeavoured to lose some of his vast winnings, a task he invariably found impossible to achieve.
When colour TV was introduced, he bought his mother a new set with a single night’s winnings but was wracked with guilt about lying to her that he’d saved up to buy it because she wouldn’t have approved of his gambling.
He also misled her – indirectly – when she called the plumber after finding a pool of water beside the emersion heater in the airing cupboard in his bedroom. Unaware that Stanley had woken in the middle of the night and pissed in the cupboard instead of in the bathroom, she’d obviously assumed there was a leak. When she asked the plumber for his bill he told her: ‘It’s all right, missus – your son has already paid me.’
His mother died of dementia and for most of his retirement years Stan believed he had inherited it. Although his memory usually appeared pin-sharp, he certainly became increasingly irascible. I say increasingly because he was always a cantankerous bugger.
A Newcastle solicitor once hung up the phone while being interviewed by him. So he called him back and when the lawyer answered Stan said: ‘Please hang on for a moment,’ then he ran out of his office, down in the lift, across Dean Street, up in another lift and into the man’s office where he shouted: ‘A professional man should be aware that it is the height of discourtesy to hang up during a telephone conversation – especially when speaking to a representative of the world’s greatest newspaper!’
That’s all he ever called the Daily Express. Whether in the Newcastle district office or when running the Manchester news operation, he always answered the phone with: ‘This is the world’s greatest newspaper…’ However, shortly after he retired in 1986 he started to refer to it as ‘The once-greatest’, and gradually switched his allegiance to The Times.
He read the Letters Page – ‘best written bit of the paper’ – first, partly to check whether they’d used any of his stuff. He had more than 100 letters published – although at least five of them were repeated corrections when the paper had mistakenly referred to the Tomb of The Unknown Warrior as ‘the tomb of the unknown soldier’ (for, as he pointed out, it was not officially known whether the body was that of a soldier, sailor or airman, and it honoured all the armed services)…
[Apart from his near-total obsession with the Daily Express of his day, his only other abiding interest was military history. He was delighted, and considered himself ‘immortalised’ when, in a novel I wrote about Hitler’s doctor, I renamed the Hugh Trevor Roper character ‘Professor Stanley Blenkinsop, head of military history at Durham’.]
He also relished the obits, and the euphemisms employed as part of The Thunderer’s style of not offending anybody, even after they’d died. He particularly enjoyed: ‘His plain speaking never cost him a friend, which he said translated as ’He was an argumentative cantankerous old bastard with a vicious tongue’.
And that, he once told me with a wink from behind the monocle screwed into his right eye, probably summed up Stanley J Blenkinsop.
Probably it did, sometimes. But all my memories of him are happy and enjoyable, about excellent off-the-wall companionship, even – especially – as fierce rivals, mainly totally occupied in doing the only thing we knew how to do.
The world’s greatest…
By Tony Brooks
I know it sounds corny but they genuinely don’t make news editors like Stanley Blenkinsop anymore.
Is there one out there in these days of ciabatta-and-a-bottle-of-mineral-water lunches who would order a reporter, as he wrestled with a high-up on the schedule page lead, to take time off to drink far more than was good for him?
A young and still green reporter can’t say no to the boss so off I went across the road from the Daily Express Black Lubyanka in Manchester’s Great Ancoats Street to Yates’ wine lodge for a lunchtime ‘quickie’ but ended up with others downing copious amounts of Bismark port.
Needless to say I had no recollection of returning to the office, completing my copy or driving home.
The following day the story was there, complete with by-line. When I told Stanley how amazed I was that all had turned out well he said: ‘You can do it Brookie – that’s what this job’s all about. Work hard, play hard and have fun.’
That just about sums up Stanley James Blenkinsop, passionate Geordie and son of a car mechanic, and northern news editor of the Daily Express from 1969 to 1986.
There was never a more dedicated newsman who lived and breathed the Daily Express where he would pick up his telephone and greet callers with: ‘This is the news desk of The World’s Greatest Newspaper.’
His distress was obvious as the circulation of the Express declined and latterly he would refer to it as ‘the world’s ONCE greatest’. But such was the esteem in which he was held that the paper still did him proud with an eye-catching obit.
Current Express editor Peter Hill said: ‘Stanley was a great bloke and an Express man through and through. He was respected and admired by all who knew him.’
Stanley’s eccentricity was legendary. He delighted in wearing a monocle especially when he went abroad where he would complete the image with a bowler hat.
When he lived in Wilmslow neighbours would watch in amusement as he went through the daily ritual of hoisting the Union flag from a pole in his front garden.
But along with that eccentricity you got a hard-nosed operator who gloried in doing things properly while at the same time passing on his knowledge to an army of young reporters many of whom are now enjoying success in the newspaper business.
Born in 1931 in Wylam, Northumberland – birthplace of George Stevenson (the original ‘Geordie’, who invented the first miners’ lamp and the Rocket locomotive) – Stanley joined the Daily Express in 1957 as a young reporter and was soon transferred to Newcastle following the death of district staffer Reg Butler.
But his relationship with then news editor Tom Campbell, himself one of the game’s ‘characters’, didn’t work out and he left for the News Chronicle, moving when it folded to the Daily Mail.
However in 1962 he and Campbell kissed and made up and Stanley was enticed back to become a member of the Express’s formidable North East team of Jim Smith, Alan Baxter and snapper Gordon Amory. He moved to Manchester in 1969 where he took over from Bob Blake to run the northern newsgathering operation.
He was heavily involved in all the region’s top stories for the next 17 years with the arrest and conviction of Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe among the most notable.
One tale Stanley told about Sutcliffe has been repeated, to roars of laughter, countless times in pubs everywhere to this day.
For those who may have missed it the desk took a call from a Bradford reader, at a time when Sutcliffe had yet to be identified, suggesting a neighbour could be the mass killer because there was a lot of police activity at the house.
He said the man was called Sutcliffe and Stanley asked him to look up his name in the telephone directory and pass on the number, which he did.
When Stanley dialled it the call was answered, obviously, by a copper and – adopting a voice of authority – Stanley asked how everything was going and was told three hammers, four chisels and three knives had been recovered.
The exchange continued:
Police officer: ‘Being fingerprinted now, sir. May I have your name, sir?’
Police officer: ‘Rank and division, please, sir?
‘Blenkinsop: ‘News editor, Daily Express, Manchester.’
Police officer: ‘Fuck.’
The receiver is slammed down. Blenkinsop redials.
Police officer: ‘No comment to make. No comment at all.’
But by then it was too late, Sutcliffe’s whereabouts were established and the hounds were let loose.
Stanley, who died in Macclesfield General Hospital – he lived in a canal-side house in the town – had fought ill health for four years after suffering a stroke but retained his humour to the end.
He had visiting cards printed proclaiming: ‘Geordie Hinney Unlimited – Stanley Blenkinsop, retired and happy.’ He became a bit of a local road hog in his motorised ‘cripple trolley’ wheelchair which he dubbed Shitty-Shitty-Bang-Bang and often figured in stories in the Macclesfield Express. He also became a regular contributor to the letters pages of The Times and Daily Mail.
And before his health started to deteriorate he also contributed to the local community as a member of the board of the local hospital trust and was a tireless worker for Help the Aged.
I last saw Stanley in hospital on July 3. He was quite poor and had decided that the end was near.
‘I’ve had a great life and I am not afraid. I do not believe in God so I have nothing to worry about there,’ he said.
I told him he was talking a load of bollocks and gave him a real expletive telling off saying I expected him to be around for his 80th.
‘You wouldn’t have talked to me like that when I was your news editor, Brookie,’ he said. ‘But I won’t even make my 79th at the end of August.’
Stanley died on July 22. He was sporting his monocle and as usual, he was well ahead of his predicted deadline.
The best of the best
By Brian Hitchen
Stanley’s death will sadden all who knew him.
I had enormous respect, and admiration, for the eccentric old bugger. And I was desperately sorry to hear of his passing.
Stanley and I had some wonderful rows because, as northern news editor of the World’s Greatest Newspaper, he wasn’t about to let those ‘Fleet Street pansies’ beat his northern scallywags to a story, anywhere. And, as I happened to be the Daily Express news editor, the clashes were inevitable.
He refused to recognise boundaries with the result that blanket coverage, for the Daily Express, could mean upwards of 25 reporters and photographers chasing the same runaway heiress and her fortune-hunting Chelsea playboy, anywhere between the Lake District and Paris.
The editor, like most editors, never really knew what went on. And we didn’t tell him. He tended to worry about money (the editor, not Stanley). In those days, the Daily Express was a newspaper that employed the best of the best.
And up there, among the very best, was Stanley Blenkinsop.
He was fiercely patriotic and went to war with his local council for refusing planning permission for a giant flagpole in his front garden. By the time Stanley had finished with them, the mayor was seeking sanctuary in a funny farm, and half the council had quit. But Stanley got his flagpole.
While still northern news editor he enrolled in a night-school cookery class. One morning I called to flesh out some vague line he’d got on his editorial schedule, and he sounded unusually down in the dumps. When I asked what the problem was, he explained: ‘I’m so cross with myself. Last night, I really fucked-up my kipper paté.’ He was wonderfully, delightfully, mad.
I remember, after he was smitten by a stroke, his terrorizing the people of Macclesfield by riding his electric buggy, flat-out, on the pavements. Apparently, the police had to speak sharply to him. Not a good idea. They retreated to their panda car, while he triumphantly straddled his buggy, and polished his monocle.
When he felt that the local paper in Macclesfield wasn’t paying enough attention to Poppy Day ceremonies, Stanley, suited and booted, rode his buggy into the office of the editor, and told him that the previous year’s coverage was inadequate, and what he expected in the future. And he got it.
To the editor’s horror, Stanley became a regular visitor, bringing helpful suggestions as to what poor the guy should be putting in his newspaper.
I’m in Spain, and I won’t be at Stanley’s funeral. But, on Monday August 2, I’ll raise a glass of champagne to the old warhorse. Good luck, Stanley. It was great knowing you. We will miss you.
Stan the reporter
By Derek Hornby
We’ve seen tributes to Stanley Blenkinsop the news editor, but little of Blenkinsop the reporter.
So… it’s 1964 and I’m with the Border Press Agency in Carlisle, having moved across country from the hell’s kitchen that was Hartlepool, and there’s a press conference in a Carlisle hotel, something to do with an MP who has quit his party and is going independent (yes, big news in 1964).
The Newcastle mob turn up – they always seemed to travel together – and everyone is hanging around in the hotel grounds when Stanley, wearing a Gannex mac, announces: ‘Has anyone got a football?’
One is brought from the hotel and a kick-around begins. There is, of course, no intrusive TV camera team to capture this off-duty activity. There’s Border TV, but they can’t afford to waste film on anything that won’t be appearing on the screen.
When the press conference begins, Stanley changes tone and starts asking questions like a lawyer (he revealed to me years later that that’s what he wanted to be, having done a stint in a solicitor’s office after school).
He asks very basic, let’s-start-at-the-beginning questions, giving the impression of not knowing the first thing about the story or the MP in question. In other words, he plays dumb – and by doing so, the quotes and the facts come pouring forth because they are thinking he doesn’t seem all that bright, and everything had better be spelled out to him.
I’m sitting next to John Bell, who at that time was the other – and more successful – Carlisle freelance. ‘He’s always like this,’ says John. It’s meant as a tribute, not a put-down.
During the conference, there’s a mention of the MP’s car. ‘What sort of car is it?’ asks non-driver Stanley. The MP’s agent waves the question away. One of the other reporters (not one of the Newcastle lot) starts tut-tutting. ‘Oh, really,’ he says in a loud, mock-military voice, as if trying to distance himself from such trivia.
Stanley persists, gets his answer and, guess what, every paper, including the ‘Oh, really’ one, carries the make of car next day.
Fast forward and after four years on the Daily Sketch in London, I’m on the Daily Express in Manchester with Stan as news editor; I’d arrived there a few months before he moved down from Newcastle. One day, out of the blue, he praises me for having what he describes as a good eye for detail.
I tell him that I learnt the trick from a reporter asking a load of what seemed like daft questions at a press conference in a Carlisle hotel…
Stan the man
By Clive Crickmer
How wonderfully and so accurately did the fond recollections of the Editor, Tony Brooks, Gordon Amory and Brian Hitchen last week [above] portray that nonpareil of newspaper characters Stanley Blenkinsop.
And I felt somehow honoured that Gordon recalled how he and Stanley had ‘invaded’ the wedding night of Yvonne and myself – March 20, 1965, as it happens – at the George at Chollerford, then a modest riverside inn in deepest Northumberland, now much extended and far grander.
‘Invaded’ was the word Stanley always used when on so many occasions since he apologized. ‘My dear Crick,’ (never Clive), he would say, ‘what a dreadful thing for us to do.’
Stanley and Gordon – who, happily, I am still in close contact with – had been on a story in Cumberland (this pre-dated Cumbria) for the Sunday Express and The George was on the old Military Road about half-way back to their Newcastle base. They decided to drop in and buy us a celebration drink which, as it turned out, was several drinks.
‘We were a bit inebriated,’ Stanley would say by way of mitigation. He and Gordon would never know the scramble to get dressed that ensued with the message: ‘Two of your friends are at the bar and would like to buy you a drink.’ But it was such a spontaneous and fun occasion; how could it be otherwise with Stanley in full throttle? Yvonne has often said that those drinks and laughs were the highlight of our wedding night. Make of that what you will.
In his latter years Stanley became a close friend of a Jesuit priest who told him he admired his avowed atheism. ‘At least you are honest,’ he said, ‘most of my flock just pretend to be believers.’ I do so hope there is a God, if only for the moment when he and Stanley come face to face, doubtless captured on ethereal CCTV. I bet The Almighty comes off second best and might even now be deposed. Stanley as ruler of the Universe; boy oh boy, that would be something. Watch out Bin Laden.
And what a superb journalist. I didn’t know him as the revered news editor of his beloved Daily Express in Manchester but, before that, as head of the paper’s Newcastle bureau against which the legendary prolific Sydney Foxcroft and I had to compete as district men in the city for the old Odhams Sun. His intros were delicious (in my experience in the northeast only Mike Gay and Doug Watson could compete) and his turn of phrase had the Midas touch. Just to read his copy was a joy and an education.
For a few years the Express office in Newcastle was in Dean Street, the main road sloping severely down to the River Tyne just a couple of hundred yards away. Stanley, a non-driver because of either his myopia or disinclination, used public transport or taxies to commute to and from his home in the village of Wylam about eight miles upriver as the fish swim.
He actually made a feasibility study of making the journey by boat. Zany, of course, as was his welcome to his home in Macclesfield to his daughter Jill when upon her arrival he leapt out to greet her from a wheelie-bin. But that was the utterly unique man we loved, are so glad we knew and will never forget.
It would have surprised nobody if he had stipulated that his body be cast, Viking style, in a blazing boat into the Tyne from Wylam. And how somehow appropriate that would have been.