The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times
Issue # 176
December 10, 2010
Drinks all round this morning as Arnie Wilson’s memoirs burst into print, just in time for Christmas.
As his book, Big Name Hunting, reveals, Arnie was the master of the unasked question. When you interview Michael Winner about money, are you supposed to ask him about the current state of his bank account? If you meet former Mr Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger should you ask him about his health?
Arnie didn’t. He read the answers in the (other) papers a couple of days later.
It didn’t do his career – if gossip columnists can be said to have anything as serious as a ‘career’ – any harm. He went from strength to strength (or at least from paragraph to paragraph). And now he reveals all in his book.
Current generations of hacks, glued to desks and drinking Evian, aren’t likely to have much opportunity to follow in his footsteps (in Arnie’s case, his ski-tracks, for the bugger had another job as ski correspondent of the Financial Times). But they could learn much from reading it. And those of us who lived through it with him could take pleasure out of reliving some of those great days and magical memories.
We have more such memories this week from Harold Lewis. What they’ll make of it all down Canary Wharf is anybody’s guess. Some of us, the lucky ones, did some of it. Nobody will ever do any of it again. It all revolved around… what was that word? – ‘Expenses’. No questions (or very few) asked. Thing is, though, it worked. It produced stories. It sold papers.
Millions of them. Ah yes… newspaper sales measured in millions… Ask yer granddad.
You could have asked Jimmy Lewthwaite, one of the great operators of our time (whose life was celebrated here last week), how it all worked. Jimmy knew the plot. Gilbert Lewthwaite, his brother and another notable name from the Great Days, has sent a short message of thanks, for the memories. And Bill Lowther has added a note.
Meanwhile, still propping up the bar at the bottom corner, Bill Greaves stands elbow-to elbow with cartoonist Rudge and asks whether anybody knows that the pub called The Polite Vicar was actually named after a former door-stepping hack.
Nope. You couldn’t make it up…
Big Name Hunting
By Arnie Wilson
They don’t call me Scoop Wilson for nothing. In fact they don’t call me scoop at all. Well, I ask you, who else would get to ski with Arnold Schwarzenegger and fail to discover that he was having open-heart surgery the very next day?
Who else would sit opposite Prince Caroline of Monaco for lunch and not recognise her? Or sit with his back to Ringo Starr all evening at a posh Aspen restaurant without realising he was there? Or knock the Prime Minister’s daughter Carol Thatcher off her skis?
Who else could have enraged Peter O’Toole on the steps of St Paul’s, but still manage to misappropriate a pair of his socks for a charity auction? Or have the phone slammed down on them by Patrick ‘Danger Man’ McGoohan, Laurie Lee, Harold Macmillan and Michael Winner before any interview had even started? And, having finally got to chat to Winner about his millions, find out a day or two later that he was technically £9 million in the red?
Who else would chat to Lord Mountbatten’s daughter without realising who her dad was? Or be dismissed as a ‘rogue’ by our future-king? Or be turfed out of John Arlott’s commentary chair at the Oval? Or bring tears to the eyes of the Carry On film star Charles Hawtrey?
Luckily I have got over these little setbacks in my ‘career’ as a showbiz writer and still managed to make a living out of chatting to celebrities – even though it could well be argued that in spite of spending a considerable number of years as a news reporter and acting night news editor, I didn’t always have a nose for scoops.
And I did have some success, after all – bullying Buzz Aldrin into having breakfast with me for the FT; persuading Clint Eastwood, in Sun Valley, to write a foreword to one of my books; gate-crashing David and Iman Bowie’s lunch; and running out of petrol (genuinely!) with Joanna Lumley in the passenger seat…
Maybe they felt safe with me. Or sorry for me. Perhaps they sensed that I wasn’t the kind of writer to dig for dirt? So not many scoops – but plenty of chat. Hours and hours of chat, some of it quite moving, with the likes of David Lean, Peter Ustinov, Terry Wogan and Eric Morecambe. Most of it on tape. Some of it on film, with Paul McCartney, Reggie Bosanquet, and Charlie Drake. Some interviews verging on the tragic, with Harold Wilson, Spike Milligan, Imogen Hassall and Jack Hawkins.
I chatted to (and sometimes skied with) film stars, rock stars, astronauts, comedians, authors, government ministers, former prime ministers and the odd American president. And that’s how my idea for Big Name Hunting came about – an amalgam of tape recordings of the famous, much of it material that had never seen the light of day.
And yet… I was quite shy as a teenager, and never really thought I’d see the day when I would chat to anyone well known, let alone find that they thought me worth chatting to. But as Terry Wogan told me once: ‘If you’re shy you do amateur dramatics – or do what I’m doing on the radio or television. It’s almost as if you’re making yourself do things against your character.’
I was petrified of appearing on television – so although I hated the sound of my own voice, I got a job as a TV reporter, and during ten years appeared on screen as many as 1,000 times. I was scared of making speeches. So I made scores of them, and, as local TV ‘face’, crowned beauty queens, opened fetes, and even opened a shop (only an OXFAM shop, but still a shop) and a working men’s club in Margate. I became slightly famous in Dover and Deal, I was referred to as ‘Wilson of Deal’ by Nigel Dempster (fame at last!) on TV. I was even asked occasionally for my autograph!
So I tasted very minor celebrity, and understood, in a way, what a doubled-edged monster celebrity can be. I enjoyed it at first – of course I did. Who wouldn’t? But then it got to the stage that even in the towns where people vaguely knew who I was, I didn’t particularly want to be on parade, particularly on my days off when (with a curious mixture of arrogance and modesty) I walked around looking down at the pavement and avoiding eye contact.
In a very insignificant way it was a case of the biter bit. I was able to empathise a little with what REAL celebrities have to go through. Mind you, as the late ITN newscaster Andrew Gardner once told me, NOT being recognised can eventually be a little deflating. He’d gone to San Francisco and at first he was relieved that no-one knew he was a famous newscaster. After a while though, he started to miss being recognised. So he was quite pleased when a British ex-pat came up to him and said: ‘I recognise you!’ But he wasn’t so happy when the man continued: ‘Welcome to San Francisco, Mr Honeycombe!’ [Referring, of course, to his fellow ITN news reader who was also tall and balding.]
So what is this celebrity thing and why, oh why, does everyone crave their five minutes, five hours or even five years of fame? If EVERYONE can be famous, what’s the point of fame? It’s a cliché of course to say that celebrities ain’t who they used to be, but one of the reasons I gave up writing about them as my main source of income was that I no longer really knew who celebrities were any more.
When I’d started, at age 20 or so, they were quite a clearly defined breed (although even then lords, baronets and knights were regarded as interesting in the sense, I suppose that they were, rather like the movie stars of the day, remote and unknowable). And I suppose it was that ‘unknowable’ tag that made them interesting.
The job of a diary or gossip writer was to try to make them knowable. But of course, to state the obvious, as I do in Big Name Hunting, why this cult of celebrity? Who are these people? Are they so different? They quarrel, flirt and cry (real tears, sometimes), they bleed when cut, they have children, and their hair thins and they age just like the rest of us. Yet strangely their fame, when emblazoned in glossy magazines, seems to make them different. And less real. They may seem immortal, and immune to suffering. But of course they’re not.
And how does fame change people? Some become arrogant, vain, selfish, self-obsessed. Others, away from the spotlight, seem extraordinarily normal and modest. In my experience the really famous ones were often the nicest and most congenial because – although there were certainly exceptions – they had nothing to prove.
I found in my travels through Fleet Street and even across the mountains of the world (wearing my other hat as a ski correspondent) that many ‘hard-news’ reporters (and I liked to think that was another of my hats) found that the prospect of writing diary stories either beneath their dignity or beyond their comprehension. But then where does a good diary story end, and a cracking ‘showbiz exclusive’ begin?
Occasionally in every gossip writer’s career path a diary story can turn into a riveting news story. It happened to me, completely out of the blue, when I rang Spike Milligan to commiserate with him after the death of his utterly delightful second wife Paddy (I knew them both well) and to my utter amazement he poured his heart out to me in what the Sunday People later billed as ‘The most moving interview of the year’.
It wasn’t, of course – it wasn’t an interview, I mean. It was a magnificent and tragic soliloquy (a monologue if you want to be pedantic) in which very few questions were asked by me. It remains one of the most poignant half hours of my life. Such is the life of the not-so-humble gossip columnist. I suppose that WAS a scoop, but it was, tragically, handed to me on a plate.
Big Name Hunting – Confessions of a celebrity interviewer by Arnie Wilson is published next week by Revel Barker and is available for pre-order now from BookDepository (with free postage, worldwide), amazon, and Waterstones, in the US from Barnes & Noble, or from any half-decent bookshop.
Who wants to be a millionaire?
By Harold Lewis
While Arcadia has long been my destination of choice, inevitably it has been my luck to fall prey to episodes of spirited bushwhacking along the way and end up, more often than not, in darkest purgatory.
That's not to say the trip hasn't been sprinkled with monumentally hilarious, epically rewarding and delightfully lubricious moments and even though many were of the cardiac-arresting kind they are memories that will last the proverbial lifetime.
Indeed, David Wright thinks he and I might just have had the best of the Great Game.
The very best.
And I think he might well be right and that, although it pains me acutely to make this admission, he just breasts me at the finishing line because, after all, he slogged at it longer and undoubtedly with greater zest and deserves the laurel wreaths of the unvanquished marathon runner.
‘Thirty four years!’ I choked when we met at a reunion swill recently and he told me he had retired earlier this year from the National Enquirer.
That publication, like so many more, is a pale shadow of its former self now, poised, if recent press reports are to be believed, to declare bankruptcy soon with debts totalling more than a jaw-dropping billion dollars, the gross national product, probably, of many a small island nation.
But back in the day – before the celebrity content mushroomed to comic proportions and when its stories were not intended solely for desperate housewives and the more ingenuous of the lunatic fringe – it went out of its way to lure the cream of Fleet Street.
Hugh Cudlipp probably topped the list of those who took the bait and a trip through its revolving doors, spending most of his sojourn at the wheel of a hired gin palace breezing up and down the local waterways, but there were also dozens of others who were by-lined heavyweights on major dailies and nationals. They'll tell a different story now, of course, but the truth is many were out of their depth and didn't come up to scratch and simply couldn't make the cut. Funny that.
The rewards for the survivors, though, were mouth-watering: salaries that were three and four times those that were then being paid by major publications in the UK, and the opportunity to live opulently and extravagantly in sunny south Florida.
And in many cases the chance to travel the world in a first-class style to which it was all too easy to become magnetically accustomed.
Although we probably didn't realise it, the UK's golden age of tabloid journalism was on life support and rapidly shuddering toward extinction, but by then David and I had already known the best of times on the Daily and Sunday Mirrors. Company cars. Assigned parking spaces. Ten o'clock starting times. Three-hour lunches. Fat pay packets. Liberal expenses. Vintage Fleet Street at its munificent best.
It was hard renouncing it all, but giving it up was what we did, heeding the insidious siren call from across the pond and the tantalizing promise of another golden age of tabloid journalism in America.
What really prompted me to make the move was when I flew over for my obligatory try-out – everyone was subjected to one of these feet-to-the-fire ordeals, the failure rate almost matching the holocaust when it came to singling out who was going to clamber aboard the gravy train – and I was sent on my first assignment to Hawaii. Honolulu for God's sake!
Some days later, I continued my journey to steamy Singapore. And then took the short hop to Malaysia. Could I, I was next asked, then sort out an urgent, brewing situation in Fiji?
‘And would you mind, old boy, checking out a hot tip in Australia, if you can work it in on your way back,’ was, I think, the final request, although there's a stamp from Haneda Airport, Japan, in my old passport that still has me scratching my head.
I could have flown all day, I could have flown all night, and still have begged for more ...
All this in two weeks. Small wonder I was hooked as securely as a rainbow trout on an Adams Irresistible. In my dozen years on the Sunday Mirror my excursions abroad had been confined to a couple of downbeat budget overnights to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, if you can discount the time I banged on her door to beard the Dame of Sark and another when I staggered in a stupor around Belfast.
(Sandra, my invaluable fact checker and bride of thirty summers, sent to our modest library to substantiate the veracity of the statement, has just assured me ... Northern Ireland is incontestably foreign territory.)
Later, with the Enquirer, I went on to undertake so much foreign travel that I was the only senior reporter to be issued with a more-than-coveted green International Air Travel Card (if you had half a mind, you could wreak real havoc with one of those) and at one time I was vying with Henry Kissinger for logging the largest number of miles in a year around the world.
In fact, I hot-footed it so much to foreign parts I was invited to apply for membership of the prestigious and somewhat fusty Circumnavigators' Club, the refuge of many folk who genuinely are or certainly behave like Boston Brahmins.
For this, it was necessary to convince the selectors that, apart from being a candidate of unblemished character (laugh), I had in my travels passed through every meridian around the world.
‘Can you qualify?’ a snooty club official asked me pompously. ‘Three times over,’ I replied. In London, there's an earl who heads up the local chapter and with whom I still have a drink from time to time.
The Enquirer sent me on assignments to almost half the countries on earth, sometimes the duration dragging from weeks into months as I hopscotched across countries and continents, the longest odyssey lasting for sixteen weeks. Money was no object and largess was dispensed in spades in far-flung and off beat outposts around the globe – Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tonga, Sudan, Ethiopia, Senegal, Upper Volta, Chad, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Thailand, The Philippines, Iceland, Nepal, New Zealand, Israel, Guatemala, Iran, Lebanon, Niger, Kenya, Cyprus, Malta and Greece to name but a few. And the list goes on and on.
Everything was at my disposal then, first-class flights, on occasions chartered aircraft, sail and power boats, a stunning range of cars, helicopters and bundles of cash. I often withdrew $10,000 advances to supplement my office-issued credit cards (just in case I ran into any unforeseen problems overseas, I argued).
This I kept in a rubber band-secured roll in my front trouser pocket; safer, I thought, than a wallet but to my horror discovered one day on dragging my aching limbs out of a dilapidated taxi somewhere in the remote and hostile high mountains of Kashmir that the one-hundred-dollar notes were missing.
Fortunately I had, automatically, brushed my hands down the front of my pants and, after discovering my loss and before the agitated driver shot off again – he made it abundantly plain that he didn't want to stick around long in such a wild and inhospitable spot – wrenched open the car door and found the missing roll in the middle of the plastic-covered back seat. It had been squeezed out of my pocket by all the ferocious jostling over the rough and rocky roads on the dramatic and daunting journey from Srinagar.
Often, at nights, I still wake in a cold sweat, recalling how I barely escaped writing memorandums into eternity or, worse, easily losing my life in a region where a handful of dollars placed in the right grimy hands can guarantee that drastic result. And, of course, for far, far less than what I had lost and snatched back from the taxi seat.
There was also the time when I returned from Cairo. ‘As its Egypt, I know damn well what you have on your expenses, even before you hand them over,’ ventured Bruce Camlin, my then articles editor, in his dour Scots fashion.
‘Now what's that Bruce?’ I asked innocently. – ‘You've got hiring a bloody camel, haven't you.’
‘Bruce,’ I said. ‘You know me better than that. Of course I've got a camel down on my expenses, but there's also the camel-riding lessons…’
Then, warming to the occasion and stealing a page out of the great William Marshall's play book – I can still see him now chuckling away dementedly as he sat hunched over his upright in the Daily Mirror newsroom in Manchester, becoming an instantaneous legend in the annals of crafting expenses – I added very seriously: ‘Then, of course, we had to have a tether for the beast.’
Bruce shook his head in resignation. He knew what was coming. He had heard the same tale. ‘I know, I know,’ he sighed. ‘Money for old rope…’
Then there were the hero-grams, strictly in the domain of the often tyrannical owner Gene Pope. These he would send off sparingly, complimenting the gobsmacked recipients on major jobs well done and, in my case, on several occasions, enclosing tangible appreciation in excess of $1,000. Auspiciously, I must have got something really right on one assignment because, apart from the glowing words of praise, there was an enclosure large enough to send me into something akin to hypovolemic shock.
Invited to address a journalism class at Canada's University of Western Ontario, I happily regaled the students with stories of life in the trenches as it was practiced then by staffers on the Enquirer. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ I told them. ‘Welcome to the world of James Bond journalism… fast cars, fast women, world travel and lavish living.’
Gerry Hunt, I believe, even went so far as acquiring the mandatory Walther PPK 7.65 mm, I told them. Or it might have been a Beretta 418.
In any event, Gerry dragged me out to the boondocks one day and we flushed a party of terrified fishermen out of the water and sent them scuttling off down the road, their fishing tackle dragging in the dust (naturally, they didn't want anything to do with gun-brandishing hooligans who had shattered their peace and solitude, not to mention ruining their afternoon's sport) before setting up targets on the river bank.
The afternoon ended with both of us suffering severe powder burns. So much for 007.
One of the pebble-glass-eyed students, who had probably spent his morning immersed in something as engrossing as Essential Law for Journalists or top tips for covering inquests and council meetings, came up to his professor afterward and asked awestruck: ‘Is he for real?’
I wasn't even familiar with that avant-garde expression then, but I'll be the first to admit that some of the taller war stories were hard to swallow. Except, unlike a lot of the bizarre celebrity, adventure and other tales that did make the paper, they had the distinction of being totally true. Most of the time.
When in the US, which was not that often, I lived in Palm Beach – then as now playground for the uber-rich, often described as the wealthiest island in the world – and later bought a stunning, brand-new waterfront apartment that took my fancy just across the Intracoastal Waterway.
Inevitably, in the parking lot were a couple of racy sports cars and down in the wilds of Surrey, where I regularly lived in splendour with a friend who owned the sprawling local manor house, I kept an Italian exotic… just so I had something appropriate to run around in when I went back home.
Alternatively, I discovered by chance that Jaguars met the secret office criteria for renting cars overseas – it had something to do with the volume inside the interior – so it was often in an elegant XJ8 that I sped out of Heathrow to catch up with all the local gossip at the Stab. The Florida bean counters couldn't believe that a car they had on their approved and official list could rent for sums that took their collective breath away.
Ostentatiously squeezed into the kerb across the road, I often had to pinch myself, recalling that only months before I'd been garaging my trusty but worse-for-wear company Ford Escort in the nearby Mirror underground facility.
And it was on these trips that I took to buying my suits in Savile Row.
‘Gieves and Hawkes,’ I told an assistant in the office when she asked on the telephone one day where I was headed that afternoon.
‘Are they well known?’ Janice asked without artifice. – ‘Well, they're Royal Warrant holders and they made suits for Nelson,’ I reassured her, without mentioning she had told me she had been privileged on a visit to Greenwich's National Maritime Museum to see the blood-stained pants they cut off him.
As for David, he undertook many similar foreign forays and savoured the same, high profile lifestyle… and for many more years than myself.
And both of us know it was the paper we have to thank for it all.
‘I guess we were blessed,’ he said at the Blue Anchor, a 19th century pub that once stood near Chancery Lane and was dismantled and shipped to Florida by former Enquirer staffer Lee Harrison and Roy Foster, former art editor of the Sunday Mirror. ‘There were the glory days in Fleet Street. And then we had them all over again when we came here. Can't think of any others that can make that claim. Just you and me.’
A heady piece of oratory, but one not out of keeping with the history of this particular boozer.
According to the literature – and we all know that anything committed to the written page has by definition been imbued with unchallengeable veracity – Winston Churchill used to belly up to the bar in the evenings for his nightly snifter of brandy.
As an afterthought, David lamented: ‘Shame it's all over now.’
For better or worse, that's the sorry case. When David and I joined the paper it employed dozens of maverick swashbucklers beavering away in locations around the country and even had select staff men living upscale lives abroad.
Staffers went out in soccer-sized teams on stories, very often each in their own full size sedans, purring along majestically in cortege-like convoys to their various assignments. No compact cars then. No doubling up then. No sharing rooms. None of that nonsense.
Today, David tells me, there are two reporters in the head office in Boca Raton, eyes glued to the flashing screens in front of them, venturing out of the office only to take a breath of fresh air or a furtive drag on a fag. What a life.
You'll hear some folks tell a different tale, but for the two of us it wasn't just the best of times in the newspaper business.
It was absolutely, staggeringly, unequivocally, uproariously, bloody marvellous.
The pity is we will never see its like again.
Thanks for the memories.
By Gilbert Lewthwaite
On behalf of Jim Lewthwaite's family, particularly his widow, Pamela, I would like to thank the contributors to Gentlemen Ranters for their memories of my brother.
They afforded a few smiles through the tears. Jim was laid to rest in a simple, rope-handled coffin in a wooded field on a farm, owned by the Essex Wildlife Trust, near his home in Clacton-on-sea. The farm is now a dedicated burial ground, which will become a wood in perpetuity. A cherry tree will be planted over Jim in the spring.
It was, as Jim wanted, a private, family ceremony. In a brief eulogy, I recalled, ‘Jim had three loves in his life, Pamela and their family, his garden and his friends. When all three came together on the back lawn of 93A, with the sun shining, a bottle of wine open, the conversation flowing, and Josh and Ella-Rose (Jim's grandchildren) running around the garden he tended so fondly, never was there a happier man.
In hospital Jim said he knew every leaf on the trees in his garden, and wanted to be re-acquainted with them. That wish was granted. A bed was moved downstairs to give him a panoramic view of his beloved acre. And so Jim died, surrounded by the people and things he loved most.
But even as we mourn his passing, we should remember that Jim lived life to the full. He loved life… He was a born journalist, the consummate professional, the accomplished all-rounder. He could turn his pen to anything, be it a revolution overseas, a general election at home, a murder trial at the Old Bailey, or a scandale in the City. The goings on of the world, great and small, were Jim's grist.
And now one more memory of Jim, from Bill Lowther, long-time Washington correspondent of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday: ‘It is true that he went out of his way to help and reassure his colleagues. He bolstered my confidence just before I was going to the Paris bureau. Remember, I was part of the new wave that he had every reason to resent (when the Daily Sketch and David English took over the Daily Mail in 1971). But he didn’t. He knew I was concerned about being able to handle the assignment. We went for a drink in the Golf Club and talked about all kinds of peripheral stuff when he suddenly said: “Don’t worry, you will be able to do this job. Gilbert has been doing foreign for years and if he can handle it anyone can.” And then there was that throaty laugh to show he was joking but at the same time to indicate that I would be fine. It was an act of generosity.’
The pubs name game
By William Greaves
A week or so after I joined the Stockport Advertiser as a trainee and utterly bewildered reporter a plane carrying the entire Manchester United football team, its manager Matt Busby and a number of leading sports writers crashed on take-off at Munich Airport.
Nearly all the fatalities, including the wonderfully gifted Duncan Edwards, already popularly crowned as the finest footballer in the land, lived in our parish and among those of my colleagues immediately assigned the gruesome task of knocking on the doors of the bereaved families was Ian Gregory, rather older than the rest of us because he came to his new journalistic career with an unusual qualification – a BA degree in theology at Manchester University.
So what has this to do with the great British pub? Bear with me.
As the years rolled by, my former ally rose to become editor of the Solihull News before rediscovering his former vocation and being ordained the Rev Ian Gregory, with a ministry in Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Much more memorably, however, he became so upset by a diminishing standard of common courtesy and the resultant damage such incivility was doing to the fabric of community life that he formed an organisation – local at first but soon receiving national status – which he christened the Polite Society.
With no less a patron-in-chief than the Duke of Devonshire, the Society launched several annual Days of Courtesy – ‘Think of Someone to Thank’ was one notable battle cry – and Ian became a regular interviewee on such mass media outlets as the Today programme on Radio 4.
After 20 years leading his flock – ‘667 sermons, 93 marriages and 140 funerals were about enough for any man’ – he retired in 2002. But not before a disused local insurance office had been bought and turned into a pub and the new brewery owners, discovering the fame of one of its potential regulars, called it The Polite Vicar and invited Ian to pull the first pint.
And that’s where we were when we met up again recently to chew over our absent years. ‘A pint of Greene King for me, please,’ I said to the attractive young lady behind the bar, ‘and the polite vicar will have the same.’ When the story behind this strange request was revealed, the barmaid was so overwhelmed she almost offered us the drinks on the house.
It’s not often that anyone gets the chance to slake their thirst with the very man or woman who features on the pub sign outside and my chest positively heaved with pride. (‘I actually held two christenings over in that corner of the bar,’ revealed Ian. ‘One or two Christian organisations objected but many people who are a bit frightened of going into a church feel much more at home in a pub and if we can reach them there, so much the better, don’t you think?’)
So that’s how one Great British Pub came by its name and we’ve already disclosed the origins of the Cat and Fiddle (Caterine la Fidele, Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII), the Elephant & Castle (Infanta de Castille, Edward I’s missus) and the Goat & Compasses (God Encompasses Us) but how’s about the Drunken Duck, in glorious countryside at Near Sawrey, not far from the banks of Lake Windermere?
I was enjoying a quick pint of Cracker Ale, brewed on the premises and named after the family Jack Russell terrier, when owner Steph Barton told me the delightful story. Seems that way back in Victorian times the then landlady came across her ducks stretched out in the roads and, although saddened by their demise, set about plucking them in readiness for the oven. She had almost finished her task when one of them gave a pronounced wriggle of protestation.
‘A barrel had apparently slipped its hoops, allowing beer to drain on to the floor and then into the ducks’ feeding ditch,’ said Steph. ‘So her beloved birds were not dead at all but merely sleeping off the night before. Filled with remorse, she knitted waistcoats of Hawkshead yarn to keep them warm until their feathers were grown again.’ Gorgeous.
Climb out of Haworth, home of all those Brontes, and after a mile or two you come to a pub on a lonely crossroads near the village of Stanbury – just as the hotly pursued Bonnie Prince Charlie did way back in the mid-eighteenth century. The Young Pretender stayed hidden there for a few weeks, relying on the tight-lipped locals to keep his whereabouts secret – albeit additionally persuaded by the threat of having their tongues cut out if they breathed a word.
Which is why the pub nowadays bears the unlikely name of the Old Silent Inn.
(When he was finally betrayed, Charlie rode out into the sunset, leaving a band of comrades to watch his back. A fierce battle ensued and one of his loyalists was killed. And you are quite likely to come across him today hanging around the bar, dressed in a long dark coat.)
And the pub is further immortalised by a best-selling detective thriller by American crime writer Martha Grimes – ‘the Dorothy Sayers of the 1980s’ according to the New York Times – entitled The Old Silent and featuring superintendent Richard Jury, who just happened to be staying in the inn when someone got bumped off.
‘I wouldn’t trust any of the regulars nowadays to stay silent for any length of time about anything as juicy as that,’ said landlord Paul Stapleton. ‘But they are a very well behaved bunch and very supportive of their local.’
It was snowing a blizzard when I slithered to a halt in the car park of the Busby Stoop Inn, a few miles outside Thirsk, in North Yorkshire, adding an even more sinister atmosphere to the grim events of 1702 which gave the pub its name.
After bumping off his father-in-law, a local chap called Tom Busby was hanged on the gallows that in those days stood just across the road from the inn and his ghost has been a frequent visitor to the inn ever since, with head drooping and the noose still around his head.
‘A former landlord used to keep a stool free for him at the bar,’ says current licensee Chris Rowley, ‘but when he left he donated it to Thirsk Museum.’
And all you have to do when you get to the bar counter at the Shroppie Fly, on the banks of the Shropshire Union Canal at Audlem, is to look around you to begin to understand the origin of that most curious of pub names.
‘Fly’ boats were the high speed barges that used to ply the waterway, delivering the most important or perishable goods. Look at the bar and you realise it is made up of the colourfully painted bow and part of the oaken main body of the Shroppie Fly, a fine example of one of the elite craft once built hereabouts.
‘Although we are very much a local pub, we get a huge number of boaties, many of whom come back year after year,’ says landlady Kate Griffiths. ‘Some of them even return to us by car to join in our Saturday night live music and the folk sessions we have every Monday.’
Nathaniel Bentley, an ironmonger in Leadenhall Street, in the City of London, was so distraught when his bride-to-be died on the eve of the great day that he locked up the room in which the wedding feat was to be held, never to enter it again. Emotionally destroyed, he never washed or changed clothes again and even allowed his cats to rot away wherever they breathed their last.
Everyone loves an eccentric, of course, and Nathaniel’s business prospered, despite the pronounced pong of its surroundings. And when he finally retired in 1804, the landlord of the nearby Old Port Wine Shop in Bishopsgate, bought the room’s contents lock, stock and barrel – including the odd decomposed cat – and put them on display in his pub, promptly renaming it Dirty Dick’s.
Less well known, however, is the tale of how its metropolitan neighbour, the Widow’s Son, in Bow, East London, came to be. A widow’s seafaring son was due back to his cottage home on Good Friday, 1824, and sent word that what he hungered for most of all were hot-cross buns to celebrate his return.
Sadly he never made it home but his mourning mum never let a Good Friday go by without baking another bun which she added to the string hanging from a ceiling beam. In 1848 the cottage became a pub and successive landlords have ever since invited a Royal Navy sailor to add another bun to the ever hardening collection.
Charles I seldom passed a pub without popping in for a quickie and when he stopped to have his horse shod and discovered that Godmanstone in Dorset – horror of horrors – contained not one single pub he promptly granted a licence to the blacksmith so that he could provide him with the necessary refreshment. Not surprisingly, the Smith’s Arms is today a leading contender for the title of smallest inn in Britain – so small that, when I visited, I was amused that they had to paint the name on an adjacent building.
His adversary, Oliver Cromwell, although born in his grandfather’s boozer, the wonderfully historic George in Huntingdon (of which more later), was a bit of a puritan in his drinking habits and not nearly as beneficial to the licensed trade. But when he stopped over at Newbridge, just west of Oxford, for a night’s kip during the Civil War, he did choose an inn in which to lay his head.
While checking in, he noticed that the rose he wore on his tunic was decidedly wilted. The landlord enterprisingly summoned a pint of ale, into which he thrust the drooping flower, whereupon its petals sprang to life – hence The Rose Revived.
(Assistant manager, Vicky Leney, came up with two other theories when I called by. One, it was once called The Rose, had its name changed to The Crown and a later landlord chose to revert to its former name by calling it the Rose Revived. And two, when it was badly damaged by floods in the early 20th Century, all that survived when it was rebuilt was a single rose bush. It’s up to you, of course, but I know which version I prefer.)
And all those Swan with Two Necks up and down the land were never in reality such unlikely versions of Shakespeare’s beloved feathered residents of the River Avon.
In Britain, swans have traditionally belonged to the reigning monarch but back in the 16th Century, Elizabeth I granted ownership of some to the Worshipful Company of Vintners. In order to identify those which had passed out of regal command into the licensed trade, they were marked with two notches, or nicks, on their beak.
By pub standards, the leap from nick to neck over the years was little more than a hop.