Great truths of our time
By Donald Walker
‘Don, you don’t understand what I’m trying to do with this newspaper, do you?’ Anne Robinson said to me one afternoon.
‘No, Anne,’ I replied (though these may not have been my exact words), ‘I don’t understand. Does anyone understand? Do you understand what you’re trying to do with this newspaper?’
Well, all right, maybe I wasn’t quite that acerbic with the Queen of Mean as she wasn’t known in those days. But I never refrained from giving her as much lip as I could when I was chief sub and she was an assistant editor.
The myth that Anne ran us all ragged in the 1980s was far from true. I read in a Daily Mail profile that Mirror feature subs trembled at the sound of her footsteps. Rubbish. She was just one of the many crosses we had to bear and another good reason to drink too much. Don’t even get me started on Chris Ward and Vic Mayhew…
Anne put up with as much editorial persiflage as she gave. She certainly made a nuisance of herself and tried to nag me crazy by making up editorial rules that no-one had heard of before, as though they were on tablets of stone handed out by some bloke with a long grey beard and lightning bolts up his jumper.
‘Darling,’ she said to me, ‘the subs have written the headline from my last par.’
‘There’s no surprise for the reader if the last par’s in the head, now is there, darling? That won’t earn you brownie points.’
To be fair, Anne treated us well, took our insults with equanimity, frequently took us out for lunches on her exes (once, most of the subs’ table to the Savoy) and consulted me with a fair amount of humility on points of grammar, syntax and style.
But that didn’t stop her carping and uttering daft edicts. No sentences beginning with For… No trash in the TV pages… No stuff praising Joan Collins. (She hated Joan Collins.)
Making up new unbreakable rules was a terminal executive condition. Richard Stott, for example, who had never seen a dummy in his life before he was made features editor, started introducing all sorts of strange policy about what should appear where. His method of tackling any problem was to paw the ground, lower his horns and… CHARGE!
When he started to lecture high-mileage middle managers with lined, weary faces about ‘value-added extras’ and ‘high traffic-rate pages’ they pretended they didn’t know he had learnt these phrases in the Stab the night before and nodded wisely and encouragingly.
That’s the way newspapers were. If the boss said it, it must be true. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.
We all knew it was a way of asserting their egos… and fair enough. No doubt we would all have done something similar in the same circumstances. Yes-men agreeing with your every word is a powerful, addictive narcotic.
The problems came when somebody somewhere who ought to have known better let a drooling loony who wasn’t aware his hair was on fire into the executive ward. Then things could get really nasty.
The worst case I can recall was told to me by a reporter on one of the Mirror titles. I am not going to identify the paper, the reporter or his boss. If you read on you’ll see why.
The reporter covered a press conference about the abducted estate agent Suzy Lamplugh. The attractive 25-year-old had vanished in the summer of 1986 after leaving her office to show a ‘Mr. Kipper’ a property.
Despite the pain she must have been suffering, her mother, Diana Lamplugh, put on a brave face and, in the hope of locating her daughter or at least her body, kept a high profile. Eventually, she set up the Suzy Lamplugh Trust with the motto Live Life Safe to help and advise the vulnerable.
So the reporter checked his notebook and Biro, put on his jacket and started for the door. His news editor then called across the open editorial floor:
‘Are you going to the Lamplugh conference?’
‘Yes,’ replied the scribbler.
‘I’d like you to ask her a particular question.’
‘Okay,’ said the reporter fishing out his notebook.
‘Can you ask Diana Lamplugh,’ said the news editor before a roomful of journos who pretended they weren’t listening, ‘if she has considered there is a possibility her daughter has been abducted by aliens.’
In the stunned silence that followed the reporter could only manage: ‘What?’
‘Aliens, you know, like from Mars or Venus. Does she think they could have taken Suzy?’
The reporter looked deep into the face of his superior waiting for the gotcha line; he found only the deep, true gravitas of a loony dedicated to his work here among ordinary mortals.
‘What on earth did you do?’ I asked the reporter after he told me the story.
‘I asked the question.’
‘Yes. I was with a smudger and I didn’t want the word getting back that I’d choked. Everyone on the floor had heard him.’
‘Mrs. Lamplugh just gave me a long, cold stare and went back to the business in hand.’
I spent much of my career reading loonies’ letters, answering phone calls from loonies, going on missions devised by loonies and even interviewing the odd loony, but never met one to equal that.
Well, perhaps one.
P J Wilson was Mirrror news editor in the early 1980s and at the time one of his deputies was none other than my old pal Brian ‘Bosie’ Sutherland, the well-known superb and top newspaper designer.
P J gathered Brian and various other assistant news editors around the newsdesk one Friday in February and said: ‘Okay, I want at least five fresh ideas from each of you. Something visionary, something sparkling – and I want them by Monday.’
Muttering to themselves, the assembled crew broke up and set off for the usual weekend of drinkin’, smokin’ and funnin’.
Come Monday morning, somewhat bleary-eyed and hungover after too much fun, they reassembled at the desk.
‘Well?’ said P J, the new news editor.
‘Well what?’ said Bosie.
‘Five sparkling ideas – each. Where are they?’
The assistants looked at one another hopelessly; Bosie lit a fag and wondered how long it was before the Stab opened. He couldn’t even remember being asked for sparkling ideas the previous Friday and he certainly didn’t have any. After all, this was a newsdesk. It dealt with the news.
‘Christ! Must I do everything?’ said P J crossly. ‘Well, here’s the kind of thing I’m looking for: it’s Valentine’s Day this week and I want to get a laser gun that can be fired at the Moon.’
A clammy Monday morning horror stole into the hearts of all assembled.
‘I want,’ continued the imperturbable P J, ‘to get the laser gun to write “I love you” on the Moon and then surround it with a heart.’
No-one was quite prepared to tell him his hair was on fire, but some brave soul did say: ‘Don’t think it can be done, boss.’
P J flew into a rage. ‘That is exactly the kind of negative thinking I don’t want to hear. Just bloody find me someone, an expert, who can organise this. It’s simple enough. A laser gun. The Moon. A Valentine’s Day message, for God’s sake.’
Shoulders slumped, the newsdesks dispersed in despair to various points of the compass most of which seemed to be pointing at public-houses.
Bosie, however, applied science to this monstrous tumescence that had grown in the brain of his leader. When dealing with someone who is evidently barmy what is the answer? he asked himself.
Water extinguishes fire. Chalk abates acid. Oil settles troubled waters. One science correspondent draws the sting of a cuckoo news editor. It’s obvious… science is the answer.
So Arthur Smith was wheeled before the baleful glare of P J.
Arthur was a tall, mournful character who lived to shatter myths and shine the searing beam of true knowledge on hoi polloi. There was no common misconception Arthur hadn’t righted on the Mirror. Cold weather makes you ill? Nonsense! A dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s? Rubbish! You can’t get pregnant if you do it standing up? Bollocks!
‘If you aim a laser at the Moon, it will reach the surface but will be too small and weak to be used with any accuracy,’ Arthur intoned. ‘Remember the Moon is 250,000 miles from the Earth and this tiny beam would have to be able to dig trenches many miles deep: otherwise, the result would not be seen from Earth. It would have to shift thousands of tons of Moondust and deposit them – but where? Quite apart from the intricacy of such a task, it would take immense strength to wield such a device, quite beyond the capabilities of our technology and the power required to maintain such penetration would be…’
And so Arthur trundled on.
P J flew into another terrible rage. But, well, you can’t fight science no matter how important you are on Earth or how many yes-men tell you you’re right. It’s one of the great truths of our time.