The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times
Issue # 210
August 19, 2011
There will be no Ranters next week, as the entire editorial team takes a break. But we can of course accept copy during the shutdown (please use a new and unique subject line when you write, as you used to do for catchlines).
If you are likely to suffer from withdrawal systems, feel free to stroll through the Archive grove (in the column on the left), or play with the Search engine (ditto – it’s a bit slow, but it gets there eventually).
And if you need to be alerted when we resume play (in case we make it a two week break), please refer to the box on the right.
And so we said farewell, heartbreakingly, to Garth Gibbs, scourge of the Miss World circuit, dogged pursuer of Lord Lucan, diary editor, contributor to and supporter of this website from the start, and one of the nicest guys you could possibly meet in this business.
When he phoned in January to reveal that he had lung cancer that was spreading into his bones, and later to report that the doctors were describing his condition as ‘terminal’, he said that, all things considered, he ‘couldn’t complain’. And, bugger it, apart from saying that the chemo made him feel grotty, he never did.
Bryan Rimmer and Arnie Wilson, former diary colleagues, and others, pay tribute to their great friend.
Jimmy Kelly – sometimes known as the Father of Irish Journalism – also died last week, aged 100. He was already an ‘old’ man (to us) when we crossed the water to cover The Troubles. When somebody asked whether he covered Stormont, he said he’d covered the opening of it. Paddy Clancy provides the obit.
And then – sitting here it was beginning to feel like doing casual shifts for the Grim Reaper – came word that Jim Allan (Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard, paid off twice by the same editor: ‘I haven’t a bad word to say about Max. He fired me at the Telegraph with a fat cheque, and when he rolled up to the Standard he paid me off again... generously. Here’s to Max’) had left for the Great Newsroom. Colin Randall has written a tribute.…
He was swiftly followed by Bob McGowan (Daily Express). No obit, however, for him, yet. But hopefully one of his mates…
Then we heard that Keith Meadows (Daily Mirror sport and sometime Manchester NUJ FoC) had succumbed after a ten-year battle against cancer, aged 69. Mike Gallemore remembers a close friend.
God! It’s been a depressing week. Never known one like it.
So in an effort to lift your spirits, we are publishing an old-time favourite by Colin Dunne. This piece was one of the first he wrote for Ranters and has been lifted and reproduced elsewhere endlessly.
But our excuse (apart from trying to cheer you all up) is that this week sees the publication of his book, Man Bites Talking Dog, in e-form. Meaning that you can download the whole thing to your PC or onto one of those trendy e-book readers.
And then there’s James Whitworth’s Rudge cartoon, propping the whole thing up.
By Bryan Rimmer
The swamp that was The Street seethed with creatures of malevolence and mischief. Most hacks were about as trustworthy as a politician who sold double glazing in his spare time. The Stab got its name from its treacherous patrons. Yet in the 40 years that I knew Garth Gibbs I never heard one person bad-mouth him.
Of course there were a few tears from the ladies – usually AFTER bedtime – but eventually even they soon forgave. For charm came to Garth as easily as he chewed on a strip of biltong. And it was a charm that got him more than a few tasty tales as well as some tasty tail.
He came to Fleet Street from Port Elizabeth in South Africa and was soon turning on the ladies with his blonde good looks and NHS-free smile. But his travelling didn't end at Heathrow. His plausible manner and nose for news soon had news and diary editors sending him on his travels. Fairly quickly it became evident that he didn't need an atlas – his circle of Miss World friends were happy to show him their own back yards. And occasionally their hotel rooms.
I first met Garth while he was on the Evening News and I was moonlighting there from my job on the Sun. But we were soon together on the Daily Mirror, having a riotous time on Callan's diary. We were also living close together in Hampstead – Garth above a pub in Pond Street which was the local for doctors and nurses from the Royal Free Hospital. Nuff said.
We drank in the Sir Richard Steele with a motley crew of boozers including boxer John Conteh, actors Glynn Owen and Ronnie Fraser and Twiggy's first husband, Mike. The stories came as quickly as the rounds. Some of them printable. It was a diarist's dream and Garth soon became a star with a diary of his own. He and his liver deserved it.
But he was the most unselfish of hacks – best illustrated by this tale which I know he told often. I had dabbled a little on the side managing a couple of models/actresses (yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking). One of my charges, who shall remain nameless, was of royal descent in parts foreign. And it came to pass that one of her cousins was the Foreign Minister to a tyrant who threw her in jail for an alleged sexual encounter. Every hack in the world wanted the inside story and I already had an in with the family.
Garth, generous chap, offered his Pond Street pad as a meeting place and came along as a silent witness. There were two beds in his single bedroom, one of which I occupied with the subject of my enquiries while Garth hid under the duvet of the other. I entered into Ugandan discussions while Garth took notes of the pillow talk.
Greater love had no man for his pal and his paper. And far more fun than phone hacking. Farewell, ‘Hairy’ Gibbs.
By Arnie Wilson
Garth Gibbs, a former Daily Mirror stalwart, and a regular contributor to Gentlemen Ranters, has died at 75. His led a complicated but inordinately cheerful and endearingly self-deprecating life in which he made a great many friends – largely because of his devil-may-care optimism, disdain for petty bureaucracy and refusal to take anything too seriously.
This went down well with his Fleet Street colleagues but perhaps less well with his three wives, of whom he once said: ‘The only gift any of my former wives ever wanted from me over Christmas was a divorce, so I was often free for shifts or assignments over the festive season.’
Born in South Africa (he never lost his accent), along with two brothers and a sister, Garth worked on the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg and the Evening Post in Port Elizabeth before helping to launch a newspaper in Zambia in 1966. He moved to England in 1969 where he worked for Reuters, the Evening News and finally settled at the Daily Mirror where he worked for more than 20 years. He travelled extensively before becoming a Mirror royal correspondent and later a columnist, penning Gibbs’ Gossip. With his friend and colleague Sean Smith, he wrote a book about the Countess of Wessex called Sophie’s Choice.
Apart from chasing royals, he also chased various Miss Worlds. Garth was close to Julia and Eric Morley during their joint stewardship of the contest. As Revel Barker says knowingly: ‘The Miss World pageant was one of his successful specialities, and he and photographer Kent Gavin invariably tipped the winner.’
Garth also managed to spend much of his time chasing various ‘sightings’ of ‘Lucky’ Lord Lucan, who notoriously fled abroad after apparently mistaking his nanny for his wife and bludgeoning the ‘wrong’ woman to death. Of this colourful period in an almost continually helter-skelter career, Garth himself wrote: ‘As that brilliantly bigoted and crusty old columnist John Junor once cannily observed: ‘Laddie, you don’t ever want to shoot the fox. Once the fox is dead there is nothing left to chase.’
With a wonderfully fertile imagination – a prerequisite of any good tabloid journalist – plus a good deal of chutzpah, Garth relished the challenge of keeping Lord Lucan alive – but never finding him.
‘I regard not finding Lord Lucan as my most spectacular success in journalism’ he said. ‘Of course, many of my colleagues have also been fairly successful in not finding Lord Lucan. But I have successfully not found him in more exotic spots than anybody else.
‘I spent three glorious weeks not finding him in Cape Town, magical days and nights not finding him in the Black Mountains of Wales, and wonderful and successful short breaks not finding him in Macau either, or in Hong Kong or even in Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas where you can find anyone.’
Revel Barker put it more realistically: ‘Whenever Garth thought winter was getting too cold, he'd receive a tip that Lucky was somewhere south of the equator...’
As well as three wives, Garth had 13 grandchildren. His first wife, Beth, was the mother of his two sons, Gary and Warren. Both live in Australia where Beth went to live when Garth met wife No 2 (Christine) and the marriage broke up. Gary is a high-ranking officer in the Australian Air Force and Warren is a journalist on the Australian Sunday Telegraph. Garth and Christine had two more children, Juliette and Russell, before he married Louise Montgomery, a Daily Mirror colleague who among other responsibilities ghost-wrote the Mirror astrology column. Eventually (as always seemed to happen with Garth) he went off to pastures new.
Those pastures, however, were always near Fleet Street – or to be more accurate, the Daily Mirror building, where he was Peter Tory’s deputy on the Mirror diary, eventually getting his own column. Says Tory, a keen pilot: ‘He was a lovely man. And the best wingman you could have – as long as you could keep him out of the pub. If I ever felt I might be in trouble, in any circumstances, Garth would be the man I’d want at my side. In military terms, if I’d been in the Battle of Britain, I’d have wanted him as my wingman chasing Messerschmitt 109s. I trusted him completely.’
Mike Hellicar says: ‘I knew him at the Mirror and beyond, and I always regarded him as the archetypal diary writer. He knew everyone, and more importantly everything about everyone, had social and chatting-up and drawing-out skills that one could only envy, and while hilariously reeling off anecdotes and scurrilous gossip, he was also very discreet when required. A good bloke.’
Another ex-Mirror colleague, Neil Mackwood said: ‘He always seemed to be roaring around the place dressed hugely inappropriately. I remember when we toff-posing hacks dressed in suits, ties and boaters covered Henley, Garth was dressed in jeans and a a top with disgusting logo that had some crazed animal with its tongue hanging out and revolving eyes and its hands posed as if to dive into the water.
‘Imagine my annoyance at not getting into the hallowed Steward's Enclosure – not that I knew any of the silly boaty people in there – but Garth did (get in, I mean). Why? They thought he was the man who put up the marquee and was there to attend to a slack guy-rope.’
Alison Jane Reid, who lived with Garth for nearly ten years, said: ‘He had a god-given talent for writing, and a rare kind of charisma. Everyone loved him, and was changed by meeting him. I was also really thrilled that in the last few years he started to write some wonderful comment and opinion pieces for Gentlemen Ranters and the Independent. He taught me so much about the craft of writing, and made it seem effortless.’
For many of his last years Garth lived alone, in semi-retirement, in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. For a while his sole companion was a cat, which sadly got run over. He was never heard complaining about his lot, or being lonely. On the contrary, he seemed to enjoy his new lifestyle. One of his great delights was to cycle many miles across the island, usually stopping to feed the ducks on a rural pond a few miles from home. He was kind to most birds, most animals, and most humans. In his spare time he had fun editing a magazine called Quicksilver for a while – a sort of low-budget version of Saga magazine.
Living alone would have driven some men to drink, but Garth pretty much gave up drinking almost 20 years ago when – after recovering from pancreatitis – he was told that if he kept boozing it would kill him. But he always enjoyed washing his beloved biltong down with alcohol-free beer. Thus unbefuddled by drink, he had a formidable memory which almost made Google obsolete – especially for stories. He was never short of a quote or a joke, and effortlessly remembered every phrase and nuance.
Each May, he would unfailingly write in whichever diary column he happened to be working on (for years it was one of the many versions of the Daily Mirror diary), his all-time favourite aphorism:
‘Hooray, hooray, the First of May / Outdoor sex begins today’
He never got tired of that one, and when he no longer had a column to write it for, he would email this annual date to his friends, as if to remind them to get out there and enjoy a romp in the woods.
This was another of his favourites – poignant now: ‘If you think nobody cares whether you're alive or dead, try missing a couple of mortgage payments.’
And bearing in mind his three wives, another was this: ‘There are two excellent theories for arguing with women. Neither one works.’ And yet he adored women, and they him (at least until they married him, it seems). On meeting an attractive new woman, his reaction was almost inevitable. He would invariably tell his friends: ‘God, she’s f**king gorgeous!’
In spite of his roving eye, Garth was keen on this quote from Raymond Chandler. ‘I wasn't faithful to my wife out of principle but because she was completely adorable, and the urge to stray which afflicts many men at a certain age, because they think they have been missing a lot of beautiful girls, never touched me. I already had perfection.’
While he himself may not have been so good at marriage, Garth was loved by almost everyone whose path he crossed. As another Fleet Street colleague Nigel Blundell said this week: ‘Garth was one of life's delights. A rare breed.’
When he heard that his lung cancer had spread to his bones he rang a few of his closest friends to tell them he had only months to live. With typical Gibbs bravado and feigned nonchalance, he insisted that he wasn’t bothered. ‘That’s life’ he said. ‘I’m 75, it’s no big deal. It’s just one of those things.’ Said Louise, his last wife, who spent the final weeks looking after him with other family members: ‘He put on a remarkably brave face right till the end.’
By Paddy Clancy
Jimmy Kelly, known as the doyen of Irish journalism, died last week and probably held the unique record of writing his last opinion column for a newspaper on his 100th birthday.
Colleagues in Belfast reckon he could have continued but Kelly obviously decided when the Irish News printed his last column on his 100th birthday three months ago that it was time to call it a day.
He died at his Belfast home, surrounded by members of his family.
He once described his career as ‘following the tapestry of turmoil’ across Ireland, having witnessed, riots, the rise of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, the Troubles and the eventual power-sharing agreement at Stormont.
The former Northern Ireland political editor of the Dublin-based daily, the Irish Independent, Kelly covered the most significant moments in the history of the North, from the Belfast blitz to the Good Friday Agreement.
One of his first memories was travelling as a child with his father to Dublin after the 1916 Easter Rising.
In recent years, he refused to complain about stiffening limbs but admitted growing deafness made dinner parties difficult.
Kelly, born in 1911, started work as a reporter at the Irish News aged 17. He then joined the Irish Press (now defunct) in 1931 and, after that, the Irish Independent, where he remained for close to 50 years before returning to the Irish News to write a regular column.
His wife Eileen died aged 90 in 2004. They had three daughters – Grainne, with whom he lived in Belfast, Eileen and Pat.
Billy Foley, news editor with the Irish News said Kelly remained a popular columnist until the end.
Foley added: ‘He did his column on an old typewriter and it was taxied down to us.’
Irish News editor Noel Doran said: ‘He is a legend of Irish journalism beyond doubt, the longest-serving columnist on these islands, a person whose life story was closely associated with the history of the Irish News and the history of the entire country, someone whose like you will not see again.’
By Colin Randall
Twice in the last month or two, I have sat in my French bunker and written articles for the spoof front pages traditionally prepared at newspaper offices when colleagues leave to work elsewhere, join other redundant job-seekers or begin retirement.
Jim Allan's departure is more final and there will be no mock-up P1. Last week, he lost a long struggle against cancer and died aged 75.
Jim was a reporter when I first knew him, one of the best around but also among the most decent people you could hope to meet on whatever assignment you had both been sent.
His background was working class; his father was a Geordie, though his own accent was pure London. There were no airs and graces; there was, as one former colleague has observed, a self-deprecating aspect to his approach to life and work and, while he earned the admiration of those who worked with him, he was never heard to boast about his successes.
I wish no disrespect to the many fine people who still work for the Daily Telegraph, or to the more recent achievements of which it can be proud, but even broadsheet journalism has become a good deal more shrill these days.
Jim was a fixture of the paper at a time when it won great acclaim for its comprehensive but also thoroughly honest and measured treatment of news.
No one was ever in doubt about the Telegraph politics but these did not intrude on to the news pages and many prominent figures who opposed those politics rated its qualities highly.
Jim covered events in most of the world's trouble spots, from Belfast to Beirut and beyond.
In Tehran, during the revolution that toppled the Shah, he had to witness the ceremonial disposal of all stocks of the evil alcohol at his hotel. The story must have been painful to write.
In Lebanon, as Julian Nundy (former Independent and DT correspondent in Paris) recalls, there was ‘a great moment when Jim shamed a drunken US Marine major into handing his gun to reception in the Beirut Commodore hotel circa 1982-83. When the major protested that the gun (which he had been waving around in the bar) was empty, Jim said very calmly, Empty guns kill, Major. And the major gave it to reception for safekeeping.’
Later, he was the Telegraph news editor – and therefore my immediate boss – and an excellent one, too. If I remember correctly, he was added to the newsdesk team, in the ostensibly modest role of No 3, in one of the earlier decisions taken under the new editorship of Sir, then plain Mr, Max Hastings.
Greater things, clearly, were planned for him. The news editor, a no-nonsense but highly popular veteran called Mike Green, had taken voluntary redundancy (‘if you can't join 'em, beat it’ was the last line of his farewell speech) and Jim, aided by some careful behind-the-scenes manipulation designed to keep as many old ways intact as possible, was catapulted from No 3 to No 1 when the time came to decide who should take his place.
He took the same values that had served him (and journalism) well on the road into his new executive duties.
Reporters were expected to work hard and produce strong, compelling copy, but were also encouraged to play hard, as Jim always did. It was an age, now long gone, of long liquid lunch breaks and, invariably, further refreshment in the evening before homeward journeys were contemplated. It is a miracle that careers or marriages survived these habits, but somehow they did, with disproportionately few casualties.
Jim saw to it that the paper's quality of news coverage was not merely maintained but improved.
He never lost that decency. I have clear memories of taking a call from him one Saturday afternoon and being asked to go to Sheffield; the Hillsborough disaster had just occurred and Jim, if not actually in tears, was audibly distressed.
Plaudits for praiseworthy work were warm and generous, sometimes accompanied by the left-over trips from the travel section that were within Jim's gift. Rebukes, when merited, were delivered gently, almost apologetically. ‘This story is not quite up to your usual standard,’ he said to me once.
Eventually, Max wanted another set of changes. It may be that Jim was too old-fashioned, too hard-nosed for an age that called, in Max's judgement, for more gentleman reporters and executives and fewer of the old school. All the same, Jim was invited to stay on and name his own new role. However genuine this offer may have been, he chose to make a clean break.
Quickly, he found a new home at the Evening Standard, where another group of reporters, sub-editors and specialists came to appreciate his professional and human qualities.
And later still, after Max Hastings became editor of the Standard and once more dispensed with Jim's services in one of the mad, cost-cutting culls that have occurred over and again throughout our industry and others, he popped up back at the Telegraph. Past retirement age, he was nevertheless happy to take occasional casual shifts on the foreign desk, sharing his wisdom and experience with a new generation of correspondents around the world.
News of Jim's death, in the same week that I also heard that three other characters from journalism's better times (Bob McGowan, Garth Gibbs and Barry Wigmore) had also died, filled me with sadness, but also guilt. We had lost touch since the various departures from the Telegraph and my own moves to jobs overseas. It somehow seemed inappropriate to reappear just as the end was approaching; I now wish I had overcome such reservations and made contact in any case.
Jim's passing does not rob journalism of a great practitioner because he had given the trade all that it could fairly have expected of him, and more. It does, however, deprive the world of an exceptional man and I wish his beloved Deirdre bon courage. Thanks, oddly enough, to Max Hastings, she should at least have two spoof front pages, from friends at the DT and the Standard, to bring an occasional smile to her face.
This is lifted with permission from Colin’s website, France Salut!
By Mike Gallemore
Keith Meadows, former Daily/Sunday Mirror FoC and Daily Mirror northern sports writer died, aged 69, in his sleep on Monday night, having lost his 10 year battle against cancer. Keith will be remembered as a fine journalist and an enthusiastic football fan, particularly where his home town club of York City was concerned. But he will always be held in the highest respect for the unstinting work he put in on other people’s behalf in representing Mirror journalists and trying to save Manchester as a publishing centre against impossible odds.
Keith was one of newspapers great characters and a self-confessed oddball. He succeeded some of the most outstanding chapel officials and Focs in the history of the NUJ in the Withy Grove office of the Daily and Sunday Mirror. Mike Gagie and Harry King led the way in the battle for recognition by MGN management to secure the first house agreement and Keith carried the fight in later years in the attempt to keep Manchester alive.
The 1960s, 70s and early 80s were great days in Withy Grove. The camaraderie in the office made it a fun place to be and there were more characters than anyone would believe. We ran a Mirror inter-department football league playing weekly fixtures and Keith was one of the organisers who also ran the Manchester inter-newspaper league.
He was a great organiser and a fearless and fair FoC. The problem that very few people were aware of, including me, was that the considerable pressure of being a chapel official took its toll on Keith’s health. In an effort to overcome his increasing nervous disorder he was prescribed a course of medication that became virtually addictive. Keith believed it was the pills he was taking were the cause of his many illnesses that plagued his life.
He explained all this when I met him for a drink in the Wellington at the Shambles before we headed up the hill to a David Hepworth organised reunion at the Hare and Hounds on Shudehill about three Christmases ago. I hadn’t seen Keith for a number of years when he rang me to ask if I fancied going to the piss-up. I said, ‘Will I still recognise you?’ and he laughed. Then I saw the familiar leather bush hat through the window approaching the Wellington and in stepped Keith looking like a white hunter; it was just like old times.
It was a struggle for Keith to live from day to day but he hadn’t lost his sense of humour and his love of the absurd. We laughed until we were nearly thrown out of a pub more used to throwing people in as we relived some of the more ridiculous scrapes we got into. Those occasions where chapel negotiations with the management had reached deadlock and we’d made the threat of walking out if our demands were not met were real nailbiting moments. The fact that they were often settled by one member from each side making an impromptu visit to the bogs made it all the more ridiculous.
I’ve got a million memories of Keith and from the wide variety of scrapes we got into. I’ve crawled under the table at some of the best restaurants in the country as Keith has had a standing row with a waiter in trying to order double egg and chips. ‘If this is supposed to be a Michelin rated restaurants why isn’t your chef good enough to cook double egg and chips?’ was a regular Meadows lament. A gathering of chapel officials at a dinner at the Box Tree restaurant in Ilkley, Yorkshire, in the 70s where the food and drink bill had to split between around 30 of us brought the legendary cry from Keith: ‘Forty eight quid for double egg and chips? – it’s a rip off!’
Keith took the job of FoC seriously. He was one of the kindest men I’ve met. He wanted to do the best for everyone and rarely got the thanks he deserved. It was tough trying to be tough and Keith had to try to achieve the impossible at a time when everyone new the inevitable end of Manchester was in sight.
As a weapon against the arrival of Robert Maxwell Keith produced a ‘brochure’ entitled Wither Withy Grove, which was the definitive version of why Maxwell should not be trusted to take over the Mirror and why it made sense to keep Manchester alive. Keith knew it made sense newspaper-wise but that to the accountants who had taken over the asylum it made financial sense to operate from one centre.
I can proudly say that Keith was a great friend to me for more than 20 wonderful years and he was a great friend to so many colleagues who worked in Manchester. To my knowledge he never did anyone a bad turn and although he didn’t suffer fools at any price he could laugh his way through any harrowing situations – and there were any number of those.
Keith’s son, Mark, also a sports writer, with Reuters, has inherited Keith’s dry, northern humour. In informing us all of Keith’s sad death he wrote: “Keith had cancer for nine years so did very well to reach his favourite number (69). Those who remember my dad fondly will excuse the humour which he dearly loved to put into everything.”
Keith’s marital madness was incurable and his exploits were bizarre in the extreme. His succession of wives and lady friends often led to them taking him to the cleaners but he always came back for more. Like most things Keith did, he did them to extremes.
I’ll miss the crazy bugger but I feel all the better for having known him and for sharing so many of-the-wall adventures with him. We all owe Keith a great debt.
Keith’s non-religious ‘service’ will be held at Fred Hamer’s Funeral Home, James Street, Rawtenstall on Friday, August 26 at 1.0pm followed by drinks from 2.0pm in his local pub, The Black Dog, in Crawshawbooth village, close to where he lived.
I knew Eric Wainwright
By Colin Dunne
Goodness knows, my 30-odd years in Fleet Street produced very little by way of achievement, fame or trophies. All I’ve got to show for it are a few divorce court appearances, arteries as congested as Shoe Lane, and a collection of anecdotes that can never be told. Why not? Because normal people would never believe them.
But I do have one claim to distinction of which I’m seriously proud, and it’s one that very few old Mirror men can make… For I knew Eric Wainwright.
Oh yes, there are plenty who are familiar with the legend of Invisible Eric, the ghost of fourth floor features. But I doubt if any of them ever actually set eyes upon him. And fewer still who heard, first-hand, his explanation of why he found it necessary to wear his St James’s Street hat while seated upon the lavatory.
But I did. I knew him quite well. And his hat. And I’m glad I caught his show while it was still – just – in town.
It happened at a time when I found myself working in the features room on Sunday mornings.
I always had it to myself. Until one morning when in bowled this dapper chap. Although clearly startled at having to share the room, he gave a jovial wave and sat down at a typewriter. The telephone rang. ‘No,’ he said, with complete conviction, ‘there’s no-one here called Dunne.’
At this point I thought it wise to introduce myself. He apologised for not knowing me. In fact, he didn’t seem to know anyone. ‘Who’s the features editor now?’ I said it was Bill Hagerty. ‘Is he a little blonde chap with a moustache?’ I said no, he was a tallish dark chap with a clean upper lip. He nodded. ‘Bit out of touch these days,’ he said. ‘I try to keep out of the way.’
At that he was triumphantly successful. His contact with the office was his monthly visit, on a Sunday morning when the place was deserted, to do four weeks’ expenses. A little cautiously, I said that I hadn’t seen his byline recently. ‘No, old boy, haven’t had a piece in for six years.’
I murmured something about how upsetting it must be to have all that copy spiked. He looked at me as though I was insane. ‘Lord no; haven’t written anything for six years.’
At this point, we need a little history. In the mid-seventies, the Daily Mirror features department had reached its zenith with a splendid one-way employment policy: new writers were shipped in, but no old writers went out. One idle day (there were about 342 a year) I counted the number of feature writers and gave up when I passed 40. They were a mixed bunch. Former girl-friends of long-gone editors, executives who’d forgotten what they were executing, columnists who’d misplaced their columns, foreign correspondents returned home, and some people who I think just came in for the warmth. There were even one or two who wrote features. This wasn’t encouraged.
Passing the time could be a problem. Some took to the drink. Some took to adultery. Some took to both, and not always in the right order. Don Walker set up a music stand and taught himself classical guitar. Paula James made restaurant reservations. George Thaw was Scottish all over the place. Don Gomery sighed a lot. Occasionally we’d move the desks and have a badminton tournament.
Several of the writers, like Eric, became no-shows. His sports jacket – Daks, of course – was left over his chair, so that if anybody asked for him we could say he’d popped out to the bank and we would ring the number he’d left. The number, somebody said, was for a drinking club in Soho in which he was a partner. We never rang it. Nobody ever asked for him.
Years slipped by, and he became a sort of invisible yet indestructible folk hero. Once he put in a memo asking to be made Pub Correspondent. Tony Miles, the editor, asked somebody to check with accounts to see if he was still on the staff. He was. ‘What the hell does he do?’ Somebody said he spent most of his time in pubs. ‘In that case,’ said Miles, ‘he might as well have the title.’ So he achieved his ambition, and, true to the last, he never wrote a story.
Mike Molloy once called a conference that was a must-attend for all writers. Bars and bedrooms all over London emptied and by the time he’d begun, the room was packed. At that point in walked this distinguished figure with his rolled umbrella and perched himself at the front. Mike was saying the new policy was to attract young readers when Eric spoke.
‘Delightful little boozer just outside Guildford,’ he said. ‘Lots of young people in there. Shall I pop down and have a look?’ A minute later he’d gone. It remained one of the great unwritten stories of our time.
Over the months, I got to know him well. With his slick of silver hair, florid face and drawing-room accent, he was of a type that even then was rapidly running out of fashion. He was – there’s no other word for it – a gent: British warm overcoat, yellow chamois gloves and tightly-furled umbrella with a whangee handle, he was clearly an ex-officer from some smart regiment. Only he wasn’t.
The story was that he was a Canadian who’d come over here with the Canadian air force and stayed on. There were rumours of military heroics. At one time he’d made a living as a cartoonist (some of his cartoons were on the walls of the office pub, The Stab In The Back).
Even more incredibly, he’d dressed up as a huge half-wit woman called Cynthia who was the silent stage stooge for a northern comedienne called Hylda Baker. ‘She knows, y’know’, Hylda would say, elbowing Eric in the ribs.
It was the sort of CV that could end only one way – in the Mirror features department. Long before those Sunday morning meetings, he’d built up quite a name for doing first-person pieces under the by-line Danger Man. He was terrific. He rode a motor-bike through a hoop of fire. He went into a cage full of lions armed only with a chair. He even went to the photographers’ Christmas party… no, no, that was a joke, he wasn’t that crazy.
He was what he himself would have called a genial sort of cove. Full of good spirits, full of good stories. Around noon, he would slip over to the Stab, and return a couple of hours later, even fuller of good spirits. He would slump down in his chair and ring all his friends around the world. Occasionally, the odd snippet would drift over to me, and what collectors’ items they were…
‘Yerrs, still got the same old place out in Bucks. Thatched roof, y’know. Trouble is, bloody squirrels in the thatch. Gnawed through the bloody water pipe. Drips through the ceiling. Bloody nuisance. Have to wear a hat when I’m on the lav.’
With the writer’s true eye for detail, Eric knew this required further definition. ‘Y’know,’ he said, ‘the one I got at Lock’s of St James.’ There were stories that in his younger days he was an accomplished pub fighter. Someone who once saw him in action said he used the pub furniture like they do in cowboy films. To me he was never anything other than charming, apart from the day Roy Harris upset him.
Roy, who was, I think, deputy features editor, sat in on a Sunday, and when Eric presented his expenses, he ventured a mildly casual enquiry about one item. Eric was furious. He went immediately to the Stab. He stayed longer than usual. When he came back he was purple with, among other things, rage.
He asked my advice. What was the silliest story I’d ever done? A talking dog, I said. Where was the furthest point from the office? Land’s End. With finger-jabbing anger, he typed away, took it downstairs and slammed it down in front of Roy. It was for a trip to Land’s End to interview a talking dog. It involved well over a thousand miles’ travel, several overnights, lots of entertaining and taxis. All with no bills. The final, some might have said contemptuous, item was the one that caught Roy’s eye. ‘Bone for dog – £10.’
Roy, who was not a big man, shivered in the shadow of the figure looming over him. ‘Must have been a big bone,’ he whispered weakly. Eric slammed his hand on the desk and roared: ‘It was a fucking big dog.’
Roy’s signature fairly skidded across the paper.
Somebody somewhere must have let me back in, because my Sunday mornings in the office came to an end. I missed them. I missed Eric. With him, I felt as though I was catching the last act of a wonderful long-running comedy.
About a year after I left the Mirror, Don Walker rang me up. I knew it was some sort of spoof because he was trying not to laugh. Eric was leaving, he said. They were having a farewell party for him. And would I go along because I was the only person who knew what he looked like. Just me.
Sadly, Eric isn’t around any more. Any more? What am I saying?
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