The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times


Issue # 153
2 July 2010

This Week

Did anybody – I mean anybody apart from former Mail man Paul Bannister who now lives in Oregon – remember that last Sunday was a memorial day for the sainted Vincent Mulchrone and celebrate the fact? If you were a soccer fan, there was little else to celebrate at the weekend.

The occasion, children, was England playing (I use the word in its loosest sense) West Germany in the World Cup. Again.

On July 30, 1966 Vincent had an intro that has entered newspaper and sporting history. If you don’t remember it (and, especially, if you do, it’s reproduced here in all its glory. Click on his name or, if you’re coming in late, scroll down to read one of the most memorable intros in modern journalism.

Talking of quotes (like, ‘If the Germans…’), all his life Harold Heys has been collecting those that refer to newspapers. He’s kindly sharing some of them – old ones, new ones, loved ones, negelcted ones (as Semprini used to say).

Then, back to the You Couldn’t Make It Up series of stories (see Ranters, passim). Phil Harrison remembers his celebrated colleague Steve Dunleavy, while working in Hong Kong, getting scoops that rival papers found impossible to follow.

And to end as we started, with a Fleet Street classic, Keith McDowall recalls the occasion when Hugh Saker was poured onto a late night train after a session at the Press Club, and his ever-loving wife telephoned to meet him at the station…

Truly, you couldn’t make it up…

#

World Cup or World War?

By Vincent Mulchrone

been war. And a very valuable little war, too, if only because it showed us how nationalism can raise its idiot cry over a cowhide. And I’m not thinking of foreigners hanging trainers in effigy, or quaking Latin trainers suddenly finding they have urgent business in the Outer Hebrides. I mean us.

The Angelus, except that they were listening to their neighbours’ radios and their prayers were that Eusebio wouldn’t do it.

<‘Eng-land, Eng-land,’ Heil! or ‘Ban-zai’.’ But hysterical triumph in a crowd is much the same no matter what the cause, and I didn’t like the sound. They were not, I repeat, defending a freedom, they were kicking a cow.

been such a clean game in soccer’s temple? Had life ever tasted so good?

Win or lose, tomorrow’s papers are going to be sheer hell. The shame of a defeat will be exceeded only by the horrors attendant on a victory. The deductions that will be drawn about the future of the British nation are already terrifying. And what bothers me is – how the hell did I get mixed up in it?

This Mulchone classic – and many like it – appears in The Best Of Vincent Mulchrone (available from amazon, Waterstones, the Book Depository and on order from any half-decent bookshop). It costs £9.99 and royalties go to Leukemia Research.

#

The Dunleavy scoops

By Philip Harrison

I was working in Hong Kong on the South China Morning Post when Steve Dunleavy arrived in 1959. He was seeking new pastures after having worked on and been fired from three of the four Sydney dailies. Not, I hasten to add, for any perceived shortcomings in his journalistic skills, but for various escapades often involving alcohol and urination.

He had heard that the Post was looking for journalists, so he quit his last job at the national broadcaster, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) to try his luck. I had known Steve in Sydney and introduced him to the Post executives. He was hired and pretty soon had started to make his mark on the then colony.

Steve was put on the airport round at Kai Tak and came up with many exclusive stories from interviews with arriving and departing passengers. Reporters from the English-language rival Tiger Standard and the many Chinese-language dailies were in despair as they tried to follow-up the exclusive stories after bollockings from their news editors.

Funnily enough, the subjects of Steve’s stories were usually impossible to track down. The interviews typically referred to departing passengers whose aircraft left soon after Steve filed his story for the afternoon China Mail, the Post’s sister paper.

They included an American businessman who was going to spend millions opening a chain of espresso coffee shops throughout Hong Kong and Kowloon. However, efforts by various rival journalists to follow up the story were fruitless.

Another Dunleavy exclusive was an interview with a visiting American geological scientist whose research had proved that Hong Kong was sitting on a huge artesian basin containing so much water that, if bought to the surface, could supply Hong Kong for at least 100 years.

This was big news. Prolonged drought – and the refusal of China to make life easier for Hong Kong’s British rulers by building a water pipeline from the mainland – meant that for much of the year water restrictions were in force. Residents had two hours of water in the morning and two in the afternoon.

Again, though, the geologist was impossible to locate. According to Steve, this was because he had interviewed the man at the airport transit lounge and he had left for Europe.

But the most bizarre scoop of all was a story Steve filed just in time for the China Mail’s last edition for the day. It was 1960, only two years after Charles de Gaulle had been recalled to power and was struggling to try to find a way to end France’s Algerian war. Steve had discovered that a passenger on a flight which was in transit in Hong Kong had the same name as the French president.

It was a great interview. Mr de Gaulle, terrified of assassination attempts, told how he had to check in at hotels under a false name and be constantly wary. Many assassination attempts had been made over the years. Now he was returning to France after a secret trip to China.

Unfortunately, his plane had left by the time the Post airport reporter saw Steve’s story in the Mail, but half an hour later, there was great excitement when the airport announced that the plane had turned back to Hong Kong because of engine trouble.

Reporters from rival papers swarmed round the arrivals bay. Amazingly, though, the aircraft’s passenger list showed no one named De Gaulle on board. Another uncheckable Dunleavy scoop. Steve did explain later that he had not mentioned that Mr De Gaulle had persuaded the French authorities to issue him with a passport under an assumed name.

As one editor of a Melbourne daily once wrote on a rather bizarre story from a staff reporter: ‘Good story. Could be true.’

#

Quote, unquote

By Harold Heys

When I was a young reporter of 16 tender years I remember looking through books of quotations for something witty and pithy and apt about the job. Something perhaps inspirational or deep. Naive? Yes, of course. Anyhow, the only thing I could ever find was the line about not needing to bribe or twist the British journ-a-list by a character called Humbert Wolfe, whoever he was.

(If you aren’t conversant with this amusing bit of doggerel, you might as well stop reading this piece of whimsy now and get back to your twittering or your X-boxing).

More recently, and certainly before the tentacles of the internet gave everyone access to everything – much of it quite accurate – the only new arrival was probably Nicholas Tomalin’s wonderful line about ‘rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability’ of 40 years ago.

Nowadays there are dozens of web sites with quotations about journalism, most of it ponderous American pomposity, and none of which comes near to Tomalin’s excellent premise in the Sunday Times in late 1969. Ranters, to its eternal credit, maintains its standing with occasional mentions. Look up the whole article. It’s very good.

However, back to Wolfe. A few years ago I came across his book The Uncelestial City (which carries the ‘bribe and twist’ bit) in a dark corner of a dusty old book shop in Lancashire and I snapped it up for 40p, hoping to glean a little insight into a chap who obviously knew our game well.

I should have realised that anyone making a fin de siècle move as a youngster from the cosmopolitan delights of Milan to take up residence in, er, Bradford must have been rather odd. Even by our standards. It was indeed 40p thrown away. I made fewer than a dozen pages before beginning to nod; on Page 30 I threw in the towel.

As a critic once said: ‘What’s it about? About as much as I can take.’ It’s an afterlife fantasy written in the late 20s and now forgotten except for:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God, the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there’s no occasion to
!

Wolfe – for anyone still with me – was highly regarded in the 20s and was tipped to become poet laureate. He wasn’t an Oscar Wilde. Which brings me to some of my favourite quotations about journalism, gleaned over the years. Here’s ten to add to Wolfe and Tomalin. Let’s have your top ten (we’ll presume Wolfe and Tomalin are in your dozen). Incidentally, I’ve not used a quote from anybody I’ve never heard of. It seemed a good starting point. They aren’t in any particular order; cynicism is rampant.

In journalism it is simpler to sound off than it is to find out. It is more elegant to pontificate than it is to sweat.
Harold Evans

Laziness has become the chief characteristic of journalism, displacing incompetence.
Kingsley Amis

In journalism, there has always been a tension between getting it first and getting it right.
Ellen Goodman (Boston Globe)

Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation.
George Bernard Shaw

Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists.
Norman Mailer

Get your facts first, and then you can distort ’em as much as you please.
Mark Twain

The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.
Oscar Wilde

The Press can be seen as no more, surely, than a bunch of journalists. Fellows with, in the main, squalid and unfulfilling private lives, insecure in their careers, and suffering a considerable degree of dependence on alcohol and narcotics. These are not characteristics inseparably associated with discernment or fastidious taste.
Alan Clark

And, to close, a couple of takes on our proudly ‘open’ society. Here’s one from Hannen Swaffer (or Helen Swaffer as one web site calls one of the doyens of Fleet Street. Give me strength.):

Freedom of the press in Britain is freedom to print such of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertisers won’t object to.

Finally, these from Lord Justice Sedley(Redmond-Bate v DPP Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court in 1999):

Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.

One of Sedley’s lines from his excellent ruling (it’s worth a close scrutiny) was this:

From the condemnation of Socrates to the persecution of modern writers and journalists, our world has seen too many examples of state control of unofficial ideas.

#

Saker saga

By Keith McDowall

One of the biggest laughs in Fleet Street history was the one about Hugh Saker's journey home from his role as crime man on the Daily Mirror when he was certainly tired but unlikely to have been very emotional. They poured him onto a very late train to East Croydon.

The news desk rang his home at Addington, near Croydon and persuaded his wife, then in bed, to take the car to the station and collect Hugh.

Vivienne Batchelor was no stranger to booze In Fleet Street because she herself was a distinguished writer on the Evening Standard and prior to meeting Saker, also then on that paper, she had been married to Tom (Duncan) Webb of the People.

Not best pleased, Viv put a housecoat over her nightie and shot off quickly to East Croydon because the trains are fast from Victoria and there was not much time. With a grunt Hugh Saker got in the passenger seat and promptly went into a deep sleep while his wife drove.

But Viv had not had time to spend a penny – and realised she did not have one with her. So as her car reached the more rural Shirley Hills she pulled up and crossed the road in search of appropriate tree cover.

Just at that moment her husband awoke and found himself sitting in the passenger seat. He was surprised but not unduly phased by this discovery. He found the ignition key in place and he felt up to driving home, so moved over and set off.

It was before the breathalyser and cars did have rear view mirrors but, even so, Saker missed seeing Viv franticly running after him, waving and shouting.

It says much about a Fleet Street man's ability to recover rapidly from a skinful that he drove home to Featherbed Lane in Addington, put the car safely in the garage, went indoors and locked up. Within seconds he was in bed and fast asleep again.

Ever resourceful, Viv found a lit phone box which did little to alleviate her shivering but she had no money to call home. Only thing – dial 999.

‘Oh yes dear,’ replied the ever-helpful New Scotland Yard. ‘Lost your purse have you? Business not so good tonight?...’

It took all her resourcefulness – of which Viv had a lot – eventually to convince the two patrol car cops who eventually arrived, hardly able to keep a straight face, about what had happened. They had heard it all from distraught young women, many times over.

But eventually they agreed to drive her home to Addington where she could prove that her husband really had left her standing by the roadside. They were, however, bemused to find the car perfectly parked in the garage and no signs of life from within, even in response to loud knocking on the front and back doors.

Vivienne managed to rouse a neighbour who had a spare key to her home and could confirm her identity for the doubting policemen.

Once indoors, she reckoned there was little point in getting back into bed and trying to sleep beside her snoring husband. She decided, instead, to get showered and dressed and go in early for her shift at the Standard.

Her movement in the bedroom woke Hugh.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Getting dressed for work.’

‘Just a minute…’ said Hugh. ‘Where the hell were you when I came home last night?...’

###


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The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times


Issue # 154
9 July 2010


This Week

Justin Stares’ excellent debut novel (in fact it’s a lightly novelised biography), launched here on July 25, was being offered on the Internet this week at the somewhat astonishing price of £443.99. But you can buy it for a saving of £434 by clicking here or going to the Book Depository (free postage, worldwide).

The Moon At The Bottom Of The Well tells the story, based on diaries, letters and journals, of the affair between a Pulitzer-nominated war photographer and a famous BBC foreign correspondent. Gripping stuff.

There are reviews from the amazon-uk site in the column on the right.

Meanwhile Man Bites Talking Dog, Colin Dunne’s laugh-a-line account of his journey from the Dales to – and through – Fleet Street, has been reviewed by Penny Wark in the current edition of The Oldie, reproduced below on this page.

Then we have some odd bits of meandering down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, EC4 and points north.

Cathy Couzens (now Hollowell) writing with a glass or two of Merlot to hand, remembers ‘one famous drunk story – actually dozens of them but, since the men are all still alive and may well be readers, it may be better to pretend the name is forgotten…’

Gordon Amory recalls a type of life on provincial papers that will be totally foreign to the current inhabitants.

And Harry Nuttall remembers a vintage Bentley…

But first –

Tales of Old Fleet Street

By Penny Wark (The Oldie)

It's easy to romanticise the old days of Fleet Street, especially from the perspective of a newspaper production line where joy is as much a part of the daily life as hot metal. Where once there was a notion that if journalism was fun to write, it would often be fun to read, now there are rules about being at your desk and not spending money.

Man Bites Talking Dog is an unashamed celebration of the decades when newspapers had ludicrously deep pockets, valued mischief, and celebrated scallywags. In truth, many of those who skipped through the silliness were fine operators, Colin Dunne among them, though he denies it on every page.

He was, he says, a nine-stone Dalesman who grew into a ten-stone tabloid colour writer; he could never manage more than three drinks and wouldn't recognise a news story if he fell over one. But if the highlight of his news career was, as he claims, the talking dog of Drighlington Crossroads, this was because comic nonsense is his forte, and boy, could he spin a feature.

News reporters run in packs and ask questions, feature writers are the awkward ones sulking on their own in the shadows, he explains – and it's a perfect definition of the distinction.

Dunne began his career on a Yorkshire weekly and meandered to Holborn where he found himself incarcerated in the Mirror's infamous mink-lined coffin.

There forty writers snoozed, drank and invented expenses until called upon to write every three months. He covered such culturally significant events as the making of the Pirelli calendar in the Seychelles and the world's first naked beauty contest in Sweden, and he reprints his whimsical interview with Mrs Florence Capp, wife of the cartoon working-class hero, Andy. As he says, it was paid fun.

At the same time he observed the dismantling of the mills, pits, shipyards and the manufacturing industry that had provided a faithful following the Mirror's combination of japes and information. By the time he was freelancing for You magazine and The Times – and discovering a vigour that came from not having a fat salary and guaranteed expenses – the saucy postcard world of eccentrics, chancers and statuesque women had faded, replaced by the land of no lunch. Most of us were much duller than Dunne makes out, but as we look back from today's fiercely fiscal world we like to think that we had our moments.

Man Bites Talking Dog by Colin Dunne is published by Revel Barker at £9.99 and is available on-line from amazon and Waterstones or (with free postage, worldwide) the Book Depository; or on order from any half-decent bookshop.

#

Through a glass, deeply

By Cathy Couzens

Who else remembers the handsome Sun reporter who moved house but forgot to tell his brain?

He caught the train home as usual (we always wondered how that was accomplished) then got a cab to drop him off at the house. As usual, so as not to wake the wife, he slid open the faulty French doors and crept in… feeling a bit damp – it had been a rainy day – he started discarding his clothes as he went towards the bathroom. He had just got to his whitey tighties when the lights went on and a shout of alarm was heard. There he was, standing almost naked in the house he had sold just three weeks previously to a very nice young couple who stood staring aghast at his not so sexy undies.

Ah well, he got out of it, did his usual impersonation of a famous film star, scurried to grab his clothes and left in a hurry. Fortunately for him it was Britain, if he did it over here in Texas they would have shot first and put the light on afterwards.

Did the Prince of Darkness ever tell anyone else about the perfume he sprayed all over the tomb in a cemetery because he was mad about losing the front page to my better story? He had apparently bought the present for my birthday in a fit of madness and then found out I had displaced his crime tale so he sprayed it all away. Easy come easy go James!

Where are all the stories from Daily Express and Daily Star reporters, we have a cuzzillion of them – yes I know that isn’t a word but I have made up words before and got away with it. To be truthful I got away with a lot of things – like the story of the young woman teacher who seduced the 14 yr old son of a policeman… the Screws offered her money, the Sun offered her a sunshine holiday. I offered her nothing but the truth, got the story, got a massive headline and got a raise – you have to know more about women, sometimes you just have to be one to understand.

My first editor, John Hurren, said I would never be a reporter. He asked me for a job years later when I was the columnist on the Daily Star. Odd how the world turns. Another fairly well known Yorkshire reporter did the same thing, unfortunately I have the memory of an old elephant and remembered that she went to boarding school with me and cut up my swim suit and flushed it down the loo. Sorry, lady.

I cannot understand American reporters and unfortunately after nearly thirty years in Texas that is what I get… they take too long to tell the story and put too much extra stuff in which means you know whose side they are on! Come on, what happened to reporting, what is all this gabble about? Also their TV people shout! ALL THE TIME!

Ok we have a hurricane on the way so must be off to tie down the palm tree. Really. If you want to know who the piss head in the wrong house was… Send me an email!

cjhollowell@sbcglobal.net
#

All our yesterdays

By Gordon Amory

I didn’t know it then but I was socially advantaged to have worked for the Shields Evening News which must have been one of the smallest daily newspapers around at that time – and it had served the local community for a hundred years then. I know because I was at the centenary dinner.

It had originally been the Shields Daily News but the title was changed to the when upmarket trends seemed to change. During the last war the three evening papers serving the North East coast came to an understanding that if one of their printing plants was bombed out of action, each in turn would come to the other’s aid.

In fact all three papers, the Sunderland Echo, the Shields Gazette and the Shields Evening News had direct hits on their printing plants on the same night.

That was just before my time but it was still the big talking point when I joined the Blyth News-Ashington Post just up the road in 1944. I had got a Saturday job running copy from Blyth to South Shields on a Saturday when the editor asked me if I wanted to have a job there. My headmaster suggested I leave school then and take the job as ‘you will never get that chance again’

Apart from running errands, going to shorthand and typing classes, writing up the odd wedding and the church garden fete under the supervision of the rotund Victorian editor, I also assisted the staff photographer by carrying his bag, mixing developer, apart from adding the last ingredient: potassium bromide. He must have been thinking of my future sex life!

Although I carried on with my night schooling, I was getting more into pictures and when the photographer suddenly died falling down the steps of a hotel on the night of the Mayor’s Ball – I was in at the deep end, only to be replaced by one of their star men who had been in the forces. Sadly at thirty-six, he died too.

He was replaced by a more senior man – then two photographers suddenly left the Evening News, one to the News Chronicle in London and the other to Kemsley’s in Newcastle. I was to become their sole staff photographer for a fortnight at not much more than seventeen years of age.

Of course I had to do my National Service so two more replacements were quickly found. This is when I should say the Shields Evening News, with a circulation of not much more than 17,000 was run like a proper newspaper. There was the editor, Arthur Dickinson, his deputy who was also chief sub and not related, Bill Dickinson, known to all in those days as Shanghai Dick because he had worked in the thirties on the South China News and it was rumoured he would swing from chandeliers like a monkey…

There was the chief reporter and always at least five others including the women’s editor. The copy room was three young ladies. The creed room where the tapes would come through was just opposite the subs room where there would always be at least half a dozen subs and two on the sports desk.

Of course the printers were their own men. No jobbing printing, just linotype operators and comps getting the paper out six days every week. Downstairs was the large opulent front office with lots of polished brass governed by Miss Stark who also handed out pencils and note books. She was answerable to the two joint managers, Charlie Rae, who did the books and Albert Lough, a Flight Lieutenant in the ATC who looked after the transport. He had married well and he also owned his own car. Albert liked to have his picture in the paper and would often offer me lifts to various assignments if I would take a picture at one of his ATC parades.

The imposing offices at 52, Nile Street, North Shields, were then majestic, meaningfully built with a grand wooden staircase from the front office to the editorial floors. Miss Stark would often shout at me: ‘Have you always got to make so much noise when you run up those stairs two at a time!’ I wasn’t very fond of her then because she always wanted to know what I had done with my last pencil when I needed another.

So I go back to the beginning and talk about the privilege of being there in the first place. We had a magnificent staff who wanted to produce the best paper possible. I was there before my National Service and for some time afterwards and those who were there during my time could read like a Who’s Who? in newspapers.

Although the subs table had a sprinkling of old timers, such as Shanghai Dick, the chief sub, they had H.F. Pettengall, who had been on the old Evening World in Newcastle which closed down after three months and was one of those who struggled to find a job afterwards. He was really Frank Pettengall but no one called him that.

Readers of Ranters, however, will be more aware of better known names such as Norman Baitey, a very bright young man then just demobbed from the army as a sergeant – and those on the Sun knew how he could use his rank! Dick Parrack, became managing editor at the Sun; Charlie White subbed at the Daily Sketch when I first joined them; Jack Peart, the first sports editor when I was there, was the son of the old Fulham manager and became sports editor of the Sunday Pictorial. Dennis Brierley was for many years the chief parliamentary sub at the Daily Express.

Bert Stimpson, a reporter in my days eventually went to the Daily Mail in London and became chief copy taster. Terry Wynn, a Papal Knight now, was also at the Daily Sketch before other high profile jobs such as chief press officer to the Lord Chancellor. Neville Holtham, was sports editor of the People for a long time.

Alan Baxter, just seventeen when I came back from the services, eventually went to the Daily Mail and he and I worked together for a lifetime on the Daily Express and remain very close friends now after sixty years. We still meet up for the odd pint – and trips like this down memory lane.

Many more went on from Nile Street to the nationals, but they weren’t there when I was. Such as Bill Dixon at the Daily Mail, John Robson, who became the last Scottish editor of the Sunday Express, John Learwood at the Daily Sketch, John Wardhaugh, Daily Express.

And last but not least, William Hardcastle was a sub there in the late thirties, went down to London and became editor of the Daily Mail before launching the BBC’s World at One with his distinguished throaty voice. The editor, Arthur Dickinson would say: ‘He sat there next to me… not much of a sub!’

I also had a big exclusive before my eighteenth birthday. I was travelling on the upper deck of a bus which was passing the local golf course when I spotted three Newcastle United footballers playing there. One was Len Shackleton.

I got off the bus and they were delighted to have their picture taken. He was with goalkeeper Jack Fairbrother and winger Tommy Pearson. I raced back to the office, got a print to the chief sub – did a couple more prints and ran all the back to the golf course to get their autographs.

All put their autographs on the back of a print and Shack said to me: ‘You’ve got an exclusive there – I’ll be signing for Sunderland this afternoon at a world record fee’ He did, and the transfer cost Sunderland £20,050. ‘The fifty pounds extra makes it a record’ he told me. Could you imagine the £20m prima donnas confiding like that in a local newspaperman now?

Len and I remained friends for the rest of his life – he eventually joined me at the Express. Later we would meet up in Tenerife on holiday and he would always tip me off on stories he thought would make good pictures.

In 1958 after the Newspaper Society strike the Evening News became the paid-for Shields Weekly News and is now a give-away but for more than 160 years it had given many journalists an interesting start in life.

Gordon Amory organised the popular Pens and Lens Club lunch for nineteen years in Newcastle until last year when niggling health problems made it an arduous task. No one else has come up to take the reins but his address book is still available.

#

Vintage Bentley

By Harry Nuttall

David Baird’s amusing recollection of Bill Anderson getting a second bite at the wonderfully staged tale of trench vets sinking their pints in a hole in the road, reminded me of a pal of mine who got a dozen consecutive stories out of a pile of old clothes found on the moors above his patch of East Lancashire.

It was the start of Wakes fortnight and news was always going to be slow. Most of the lads and lasses from the mills and the factories and the shops were in Blackpool. The nobs were in Southport and St Annes.

In Darwen that Monday morning, nowt was moving as Norman Bentley, the Blackburn Telegraph’s local man, sauntered glumly into the police station. It hadn’t been a good weekend for Norman. His three-year-old son John, walking past the White Lion with his mum Nellie, had pointed excitedly to the pub and told her: ‘Look mummy. That’s where daddy works.’

Norman’s arrival at the cop shop woke the snoozing desk sergeant. ‘Sorry, Norman. Nowt. Not a sniff.’ And then the old boy remembered … some old clothes had been found in the shadow of Darwen Tower: a shirt, trousers, a jumper and a pair of socks. Best he could come up with, he said apologetically.

Manna from heaven for a man of Norman’s calibre. He quickly fired over: ‘Police have discovered several items of clothing …’ The Tuesday follow-up was: ‘Mystery surround the discovery of …’

On the Wednesday:: ‘Police are carefully examining clothing found high on the moors for any traces of blood …’

By the weekend various explanations were being put forward by our intrepid sleuth: ‘Police, puzzling over abandoned clothing on the moors, believe…’ and ‘Police are working on the theory that clothing …’

Norman chalked up the second Monday with an intriguing bit of analyses: ‘Could the clothing found on the moors belong to two people? …’

By the second Tuesday, warming to his theme, he introduced the possibility of a phantom nudist, but after eight consecutive days even Norman was struggling to keep it going: ‘Police last night appealed to…’ and by the second Thursday it was: ‘After two week, police are no nearer …’

On the second Friday, as bags were being re-packed all along the coast, he recovered his nerve a little and squeezed out: ‘Have YOU lost any items of clothing…?’ and followed with a more detailed description of the troublesome togs.

By this time the whole town, well, the few dozen who hadn’t been swanning around stylish Southport and St Annes or getting blathered in breezy Blackpool, was wondering what Our Man would come up with next as the Wakes holiday came to an end.

Norman Bentley, my boyhood hero, was up to the task. On the Saturday he presented his final dispatch on the moors mystery: his piece de résistance: ‘The pile of clothing found two weeks ago on Darwen moors is now believed to have been a hoax.’

A master craftsman at work. And to his dying day he denied scurrilous suggestions from younger, less imaginative, hacks that the clothes were actually his own…

###


Keep up to date with Ranters


If you are not already on our journalists’ mailing list, and want to be reminded when the site is updated, send your name and email address to

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Use the same link if you have recently changed your email address.


We do not send any other emails and do not share the address list with anybody.


REVIEWS


The Moon At
The Bottom
Of The Well…
















What makes a war photographer want to put himself in the line of fire, at risk of being captured, tortured and perhaps killed?

The Moon at the Bottom of the Well charts the real life of Ennio Iacobucci, from abandoned child in dirt-poor central Italy, through hustler on the streets of Rome to his rise to become an acclaimed photo-journalist.

At the heart of the story is Ennio's relationship with a gay older man, himself a BBC news reporter, and the very different demands the men make on each other.

Justin Stares fills this book about everyone's search for love and fulfilment with a strong sense of yearning.

It's tragic, funny and fascinating, like all the best life stories.

- Rodrigo Antes


And what a privilege it is to enter the world of the infant Ennio Iacobucci, especially when he has become such an articulate adult.
His description of childhood abandonment is heartrending in its sincerity.

The early days of his later friend and lover, Derek Wilson, are not described, but we can presume they were equally complex.

The author treats the material they have bequeathed to the world with great respect and sensitivity.

The reader becomes involved in the urge to explain and justify the story.

Such stark honesty is rare and revealing. Well done.

- Bronwyn Hughes


‘I do believe that as circuses, newspapers will die. We have to return to our role of providing information.’ – SIR WILLIAM HALEY, editor, The Times. June, 1957, quoted by Harry Procter in The Street Of Disillusion.


Issue # 155
16 July 2010


This Week

We passed our third anniversary as a website this week – a massive thank-you to all our loyal contributors – and celebrate the birthday with a string of stories about Harry Procter, one of the truly great reporters of distant memory.

Almost needless to say, there’s a book out, although that won’t bother most of our readers who are genetically unable to put hand to pocket and buy a book that (if they have even any passing interest in the trade) they should read.

They can probably make do with the website copy.

For those who don’t know, Harry was a terrifying rival on a job. Keith Waterhouse, on his first day as a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post, was sent to cover an inquest in Leeds. It was worth no more than a couple of pars so he wasn’t much bothered when Harry, working for the Yorkshire Evening News, beat him to the phone. But as he emerged from the kiosk Harry ripped the phone out of its socket, and passed the handset to him, saying: ‘All yours…’

Keith said: ‘I knew then that he would go far.’

He’d already been as far as Teesside (chief reporter of the Cleveland Standard at 18) before returning to Leeds, his home town. He’d started on the Armley and Wortley News after bombarding the paper with so many stories that the editor reckoned it was cheaper to give him a job. His mother, wise old lady, had told him always to carry a pencil and paper, and to write down anything he saw that interested him. He followed that instruction for the rest of his short but frantic life.

For a generation that’s heard of Harry Potter but not of Harry Procter, Revel Barker attempts to explain why Procter is genuinely entitled to be remembered as a Fleet Street ‘legend’.

Tom Mangold, who followed Harry to the Sunday Pictorial (before it rebranded as the Sunday Mirror) reviews the book.

And John Rodgers (Fleet Street News Agency) describes the Procter newspaper dynasty, most of which he employed.

If you want to read more, buy the book, The Street of Disillusion. It’s wonderful holiday reading and it’s available from amazon, Waterstones, and (with free delivery, worldwide) the Book Depository or on order from any half-decent bookshop.

All the pieces are on this page, this week.

To find them, just scroll down.

#

Harry Procter and the
Legends of the Lost Street

By Revel Barker

It is a disappointing sign of the laziness of what used to be called Fleet Street that journalists – whose craft, after all, is the use of words – when looking for an adjective to describe any former colleague (or, at least, any one that they actually remember) are frequently content to reach for ‘Legendary’.

Future generations may debate whether more recent names (Harry Evans, say, or Keith Waterhouse or David English) deserve the epithet. Meanwhile the newspapermen in living memory who can fairly and honestly be described in that way can probably be numbered in single figures.

Arthur Christiansen, long-serving editor of the Daily Express (The World’s Greatest Newspaper) in an age when editors would rather be seen dead than on the telly – although, remarkably, he played himself in a British movie, The Day The Earth Caught Fire, in 1961 – and Hugh ‘Publish And Be Damned!’ Cudlipp might be the only Fleet Street executives on the list.

Bill Connor, ‘Cassandra’ of the Daily Mirror (The World’s Biggest Daily Sale) would surely be on it; James Cameron, who is remembered and revered long after his paper, the News Chronicle, has folded and been forgotten, Hannen Swaffer and Duncan Webb (the People) and Vincent Mulchrone (Daily Mail) would probably make it.

Sir Linton Andrews, editor of the Leeds Mercury and the Yorkshire Post (1939-60), founder member and then chairman of the Press Council, an acknowledged expert on the Brontë family of authors, was certainly a famous name among journalists (by no means confined to the provinces) during the period covered by this book. But it’s a fair guess that his name has been forgotten, even in Leeds, now…

And then there’s Harry Procter.

Twenty-five years after he had left the Sunday Pictorial people were still talking about him in The Stab In The Back, the Mirror pub that hadn’t even existed during his days on the paper, and in El Vino, the Fleet Street watering hole. They carried their Harry Procter stories – about how they’d worked with (or, more likely, against) him – like a badge to signify that they too belonged to a special generation of newspaperman; that they, too, were part of the folk tale that was Fleet Street in its rapidly disappearing glory days.

The problem was that they didn’t tell the stories half as well as he related them in his own book.

Harry Procter believed that reporters on rival newspapers hated him for his consistent string of scoops. That isn’t the way they saw it. Or, anyway, not the way they remembered it. Certainly, they feared him – and the most disheartening thing a journalist on an opposition paper could hear on a job was that the Daily Mail (or, later, the Sunday Pic) was sending Procter along to cover it. And, worse, reporters on his own paper must surely have resented the fact that, after they had failed to get a story, their editor would despatch his ‘ace reporter’ to sort it out in full confidence that he’d return – and quickly – with the goods.

It wasn’t so much hatred, then, as approbation. And yet there was no secret about his technique. While whole teams of experienced reporters pussyfooted around on the periphery of a situation trying to find a way in to the story, Harry Procter got off the train or out of the car and stormed straight to the centre of it. Then he went to the phone with his copy and also, frequently, with the assurance that a full statement or confession, signed on every page by the elusive interviewee, was on its way to the office by registered post.

Anybody with what his old Mum would have called ‘the nous’, and with the self-confidence of a reporter who didn’t count the word failure in his vocabulary, could have done the same.

Harry Procter’s Street was a period piece that is totally unrecognisable today. Apart from the simple fact that it was an age packed by scoops – most of them home-grown, generated by contacts and conversations in the newsroom or in the pub, and never bought in from agencies or public relations people – it was a time capsule that can be opened only by reading this book.

New kids on the block who are on first-name terms with everybody from the Chief Reporter to the Editor (capital letters people, in his day) and even with the proprietor will smile at the way reporters addressed everybody higher up in the pecking order as Sir – even if they didn’t respect, like, or agree with them.

They will doubtless guffaw at the idea of phoning in to (‘politely’) ask permission to speak to the Assistant News Editor, then say, ‘Sir, I have a story to offer, would you be kind enough to tell me when I may dictate it?’

Or to plead: ‘I wonder if I can dictate at once, because, Sir, if you will forgive the phrase, it is rather hot stuff.’

It was, indeed, hot stuff and an altogether different world. But it was an era in which newspaper circulations were growing all the time.

In the end, it all became too much for our hero. He grew weary of writing the sordid details of murders and of exposing scandals and begged to be taken off crime and allowed to write light stories – what he called the ‘corn’. But his boss Colin Valdar, and his boss’s boss Hugh Cudlipp wouldn’t let him. How could they, when every story he wrote increased the sales of the paper?

He tired of intruding – even when, as was usually the case, he was invited to intrude – into private grief.

Even his mother, who had set him off as a youngster on the road to Fleet Street, thought he had eventually taken a wrong turning. His wife despaired of disapproval from neighbours about the yellow-press stories and death-cell revelations he was writing (but how would they know, unless they were among the millions who paid to read his articles every Sunday…?)

He was also (although half a dozen threats of libel writs ensured that he didn’t go into it in any depth in this book) clearly frustrated and dejected by the unsupportive and carping attitude of his immediate boss, Reg Payne, who criticised his stories but always used them.

His health was starting to suffer. Nowadays it would almost certainly be diagnosed as depression, but an over-indulgence in booze and cigarettes (occupational hazards in a generation of journalists that rarely lived to enjoy retirement), the adrenalin highs created by a relentless chasing of exclusive stories, lack of sleep on out-of-town overnight jobs, and rarely seeing his young family meant that, having reached Fleet Street at 22 he was burnt out before he was 40. And eventually that became his ticket out.

‘If this is Fleet Street, it’s time I left it,’ he wrote.

He returned to the north, to Manchester, and back to the Daily Mail. His disillusion with the great game in which he’d had such high hopes and made himself a household name provided the obvious title for a book.

He sent the manuscript to Philip Gibbs, author of The Street of Adventure – the book that had inspired him as a teenager – and Gibbs, by now a publisher, read it ‘with very great interest and with admiration’, wrote to the author saying he had done ‘magnificently well as a journalist’, and published it.

Harry Procter didn’t live much longer. The former virtuoso in the art of wheedling confessions and revelations from people who were otherwise afraid to speak, the man who had imposed himself between the King and the US President when they held ‘secret’ talks on an American warship, died of lung cancer in 1965 aged only 48.

But he had quit at the top, while still Fleet Street’s most famous ‘ace reporter’ and while the catch-phrase, applied to anybody with a story to tell, was still ‘Tell Harry Procter about it’. Thousands did.

And that’s why he was, and is, a legend.

#

Procter-land paradise

By Tom Mangold

I never met Harry Procter. I didn’t need to. When, shortly after he had left the Sunday Pictorial, I walked into the paper’s Geraldine House newsroom in Breams Buildings, off London’s Fetter Lane, his spirit hung over the desks like mountain mist. Besides, I’d read his book and knew him only too well.

R T (Reg) Payne had been Harry’s assistant editor, now he was the deputy editor. I was the clean-shaven, anxious, straight-man from the local paper. I’d studied shorthand, law, local administration… and I had three A-levels.

‘Come in, Tom,’ rasped Payne, known then as a rough diamond (ie, uncouth, vulgar and talented). I stood to attention in front of him. ‘The Pic wants to do a serious sociological [Payne had trouble with the word] experiment. Go out and dress yourself up as a fuckin’ nigger.’

Ah, I was in Procter-land at last.

Harry’s book Street of Disillusion was to be, for me and many others, the reverse of a warning exposure of the worst of Fleet Street; it was a red-top handbook on how to succeed and enjoy the best of tabloid journalism. I’d learnt much on the Croydon Advertiser, but they never taught me about buy-ups, chequebook journalism, stunt journalism, spending days and nights with the client, ruthless car pursuits of or by the opposition and 24/7 dedication. After I read the book, I didn’t just lust for Fleet Street, I frequently took the train to it from East Croydon, just to walk up and down and drink in an atmosphere headier than Hollywood Boulevard. It was Procter’s book that gave language and substance to my dreams.

So I blacked myself up for a week and showed how colour prejudice was alive in London, and I interviewed a sexy lady under water (‘Oh, water reporter!’ wrote the chief sub), and I bought up people in the news and repelled the opposition, and for three years copied nearly every move Procter’s book had taught me.

Not bad for a rookie who didn’t even know the meaning of the word ‘con’ when he arrived at the paper.

We had so much in common, my hero and I. He started on a local paper for 30 shillings a week; I started for seventeen shillings a week. Tommy Riley gave Procter his first real job up north; Riley was my deputy news editor on the Pic. Procter eschewed specialisation; I stayed a general reporter all my life.

‘I just worked and worked and worked to get to Fleet Street,’ wrote Procter. And I must have written 50 letters before being hired first as a humble Saturday shifter.

‘I was never off duty,’ wrote Procter. And I soon learnt there was no such thing as a private life or time off.

‘I don’t want reporters,’ my wonderful news editor Vic Sims told me. ‘I want operators. Any fool can write a story, not many can get it in the first place.’

Procter’s anecdotes are of legendary stories: a brother who married his sister; Derek Bentley’s (of the Craig and Bentley PC murder) final letter before he was hanged; an exclusive on the meeting between President Harry Truman and King George VI – an endless list of sensational journalistic achievements delivered to the most exciting and outrageous tabloid in Fleet Street. Fred ‘Red’ Redman was Harry’s news editor. By the time I joined he was an assistant editor. I couldn’t believe I was actually talking to this great executive and star of Harry’s book.

Red, who always looked as if he had just fallen out of a tumble dryer, lit a cheap cigar, leaned back in his chair and gave me the ‘welcome to the Pic’ briefing. ‘It’s nice here,’ he warmed, hurling the cigar round his wide mouth.

‘It’s not like the Croydon Advertiser. Here you can get drunk, I don’t mind. You can cheat a little on your exes.’ His eyes smiled. ‘You can sleep with the secretaries, but not the clients. There’s only two things you must never do or I’ll fire you on the spot. Never, ever make a single factual error in your copy, and never, ever try to stand a story up when it wants to fall down.’ My heart glowed. Harry believed the Pic had the most efficient newspaper team ‘the world has ever known’. Allowing for the touch of hyperbole, I agree.

One day, Colin Valdar (Harry’s editor and, briefly, mine) called a conference and asked for ideas for a centre-page picture spread. ‘We’re going for six million this week, Cudlipp’s on my back. I need a great spread with sex, violence and religion.’ Frank Charman, chief photographer and a great hero of Procter’s, took over.

‘What about a sexy nun, Colin?’

‘OK, Frank, where’s the violence?’ Silence.

‘Goddit,’ yelled Frank, ‘I know of a convent in the midlands where the nuns go pigeon shooting.’

‘Christ,’ shouted Valdar, nearly biting through the stem of his invariable pipe. ‘That’s it.’ He seized a layout pad and slashed at it with a red pencil. He gave the picture most of the space, with room for a tiny bit of copy, but it was the headline that glued eyeballs to paper: NUN WITH A GUN.

No wonder Harry loved it: he was so much part of it. And his book taught me the most important word in journalism… not Beaverbrook’s famous IMPACT, which hung over the reporters’ desk at the Express, but INVOLVEMENT. That was Harry’s secret. He didn’t just report the story, he infiltrated, then inhabited, it – it was so much more than the roses he sent to the recently bereaved widow, or half a pint of whisky in a pub with the major player.

Procter taught all of us that success in this type of journalism involved an emotional and physical dedication that transcended normality. It usually meant door-stepping, if necessary, all night; it meant lying, cheating, seducing, buying, horse-trading; it meant using rat-like cunning that can only be inherited from a defective gene. For the brother who married his sister exclusive, Harry quietly stole the sister away while 20 other hacks were bidding for her story at auction. He also bought up the entire Christopher Craig family and kept them from an infuriated and impotent opposition for months.

I took Street of Disillusion with me when I moved to the Daily Express and the Christine Keeler/John Profumo scandal. I bought up both Stephen Ward and ‘Miss Whiplash’, screwed the opposition, ruined my marriage in the process, and grew 20 years older in two years.

Harry would have been proud of me.

Tom Mangold joined the Sunday Pictorial in 1959 and was at the Daily Express 1962-1964 before moving to the BBC, becoming senior correspondent for Panorama from 1976 until his retirement in 2004. He is now a freelance broadcaster and writer.

Reprinted fromBritish Journalism Review.

#

The legend’s dynasty

By John Rodgers

My memory is not as sharp as it once was and I am probably not the best person to retell the adventures of Harry Procter but I did know his family as well as anyone.

I first heard of the author of Street if Disillusion from my friend and colleague Lynn Lewis when we were both cub reporters at the Orpington and Kentish Times in 1957.

Lynn was dating Valerie, a reporter on the opposition weekly and one of Harry's many daughters. Lynn told fascinating tales of his future father-in-law's exploits at the Daily Mail and Sunday Pictorial. On one occasion, he allegedly acted as best man at a wedding. Afterwards, he revealed to the couple that they were brother and sister. (At least, that's the tale as it reached me. Pub stories were not spoiled by factual accuracy.)

The opportunity to meet this legend was not to be missed and my chance came when Harry was between jobs. He allowed Lynn and me to buy him a beer following his visit to the dole office in Orpington. It was probably not the best time for him to make an impression. All I can recall of that first meeting was his geniality and a rumpled, cherubic figure reminiscent of the poet Dylan Thomas.

Phyllis, another of Harry's daughters, intrigued me much more than her father. Problem was she lived in Kent and worked at the South London Advertiser while my trip to work from Holloway took me in the opposite direction. Our steamy encounters on Orpington station were too brief to lead to greater knowledge of her father. He and I did not meet again until the early 60s when, by chance, he moved into my block of council flats in Holloway. He re-introduced himself with a request to borrow a coin for the gas meter. I was happy to oblige and catch up on family news at the local boozer.

Harry's glory days were now over and he was a bit down on his luck. He worked for Tommy Bryant at Fleet Street News Agency before I bought it. He fell out with Tommy when he could not remember where he had parked the office car after an evening of ‘reciprocal hospitality to necessary contacts’. It was some days before the car was recovered.

I was still living in the council flat when Lynn's newspaper venture in Corby folded. Regretfully, my freelance partnership with Lee Lester was not sufficiently established to enable us to employ either Lynn or Val at the time but I tried to make up for it later. In fact Lynn went to the Pic (or the Sunday Mirror as it was just becoming). He told me of Harry's advice: ‘Get yourself a desk behind the door on the hinge side where they will never see you when they come in to fire somebody. You'll be there comfortably for life.’

I came across Phyllis again when she and her new husband, Bill White of the Evening Standard, occupied a house in Muswell Hill and I had made enough money to move to nearby Highgate.

Before his untimely death in a road accident one Christmas, Bill and I conned our way to Prague to cover the 1968 Russian invasion. We chortled unkindly at somehow managing to upstage his usually wily brother-in-law Lynn, who remained kicking his heels at the border.

Bill persuaded the British Embassy in Vienna to issue him with a new passport, one that no longer described his occupation as journalist. Inspired by his father-in-law, I adopted a cheekier ploy. I altered the word journalist to philologist and told the border guards at Regensburg that it meant I dealt in lemons.

When I took over Fleet Street News Agency in 1972, I discovered I'd acquired another Procter daughter, Jane, who worked at the Kingston office. Her elder sister Valerie also came to my aid, covering Thames Valley courts in between bringing up her two children, Carol and Lindon.

In time, both Carol and Lindon did reporting apprenticeships with the agency. It was journalism's loss when they followed their father into Nauticalia, the successful marine business he set up on leaving television.

Lynn wanted to make more money, Carol wanted to get married while Lindon's disenchantment with Fleet Street followed undercover work for Derek Jameson at the News of the World. He found he'd become more in sympathy with the left wing group he was sent to infiltrate than his spymasters.

I never got to employ Harry's other daughters nor his only son, Barry, (Bob Procter) who remained a fixture at the Birmingham Mail and Post for so many years. Barry and I did our National Service in Egypt at the same time so we had that in common.

Harry Procter's flag in journalism is now carried by his great grandson, Dan Murdoch, Carol's son, now working for Channel 4 and BBC TV. If I was still fully in the game, I would relish the chance to add him to my team. At a recent Journalists Charity do, I realised he has all of Harry's charm, drive and nous but has yet to get me to buy him a drink.

###


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The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times


Issue # 156
23 July 2010


This Week

‘Lovely stuff today’… ‘Just what Ranters is all about!’… ‘Tip-top edition this week’… ‘These contributions took me back decades’… ‘Great pieces’…

We don’t normally get much feedback at Ranter House so it’s a pleasant change to receive messages like that about the website last week – even if only to prove that the people out there are reading the stuff.

Better still, it prompted two other stories, both about Harry Procter’s son, Bob (aka Barry).

Phil Finn remembered him joining the Yorkshire Evening News (South Yorkshire edition) office in Doncaster.

John Bell remembered working with him during a circulation drive for the Daily Express (and being fired, presumably for being the son of a man who had caused the Express so much grief during his working life).

And John Edwards told me about the story he’d heard when Harry had pinned down a guy who was a candidate for exposure as the Sunday Pictorial ‘Rat Of The Week.’ The miscreant broke down in tears and Harry looked at him convincingly and consoling and said: 'Just sign this piece of paper agreeing you have been a rat and I'm sure you'll hear nothing more about it'…

Indeed – that’s just what Ranters is all about, on a good week.

As is Peter Smith’s recollection – prompted by nothing more than the news of the hour – of Klaus Fuch’s defection from Wakefield Jail. The Daily Mail had a world scoop, on account of running the story a day early (or, according to how you look at it) on the same day…

And our recent series about wind-ups prompted Phil Harrison, down under, to recall a tale about pulling Garth Gibbs’ leg in South Africa.

But that’s enough from the prompt corner. It’s too hot to work.

#

Two-bob Procter

By Philip Finn

Loved my old colleague Tom Mangold’s stories of Harry Procter, but was especially interested in John Rodgers’ references to the Procter kids, principally Phyllis and Bob Procter.

Phyllis, an excellent, hard-worker, sat next to me while I was sports editor in the Doncaster office of the Yorkshire Evening News. She was more shapely and better looking than Brigitte Bardot.

But it was the arrival in the newsroom of her brother Bob that left an impression which lingers some 50 years on.

Bob, tall, gangly, cigarette-stained, and badly in need of a clean shirt, was introduced by the news editor.

He said a brief hello to all the reporters, photographers, subs, copy boys, cleaners, anyone who happened to be around.

Without being rude, I looked up perfunctorily to shake hands, and wish him well, pre-occupied at getting a lead for the afternoon sports page.

Bob disappeared to another part of the building to meet the editors, and the staff of the Doncaster Gazette. He must have been greeted by over 30 people.

And then he suddenly re-appeared at my desk, stammering: ‘It’s Phil, isn’t it?... Ah hum, you couldn’t lend me two bob until Friday, could you?’

If Bob and Phyllis are still around, I’d like to send my best wishes.

And yes, Bob, you can keep that two bob.

#

Sins of the father

By John Bell

What’s in a name? Poison if the name is Procter. I was one of the hacks on a Daily Express circulation drive in the North East in 1960 when a young reporter was sent to join us from Manchester. His name: Bob Procter, Harry’s son.

Bob, a personable young lad, about my age, 24, had been hired just a few days earlier by the news editor, Tom Campbell, and immediately dispatched to bolster the team in Newcastle upon Tyne.

We lodged together at the Rex Hotel in Whitley Bay and supped pints of Exhibition in the snug bar. Circulation binges were a riot. A time for hard work – and hard liquor.

The Express boasted a talented line up: Cyril Ainslie, George Gale, Vernon Armstrong, Jeremy Hornsby (William Hickey column) and Harry Pugh (for the Sunday), in addition to the resident journos, Alan Baxter, Jim Smith, Gordon Amory, Malcolm Usher and my recently retired football hero, Len Shackleton.

The idea was to push the Express circulation on to five million by bombarding Tyneside and Wearside with exclusives.

Bob Procter was doing fine until a human interest story cropped up. A young mother had to be interviewed in Newcastle General Hospital but all requests through official channels were turned down.

Resourceful Bob had other ideas. He borrowed a white coat, found a stethoscope, walked in unchallenged posing as a medic and spoke to the woman at her bedside. She didn’t object but the hospital kicked up hell and complained to the northern editor, Jack Fawcett.

Bob was hauled back to Manchester, we thought for a token bollocking and maybe a discreet word of praise for enterprise. Instead Fawcett fired him – to the disgust of Tom Campbell.

I never saw Bob again. A truly decent guy who had a promising national paper career cut dead – because his name was Procter.

Smith or Jones and he might have lived to enjoy a fat Express pension.

Fawcett was one of those editors who can be linked to the demise of the world’s greatest He offered little more than a smart suit and a smart mouth to his toadies in the Crown and Kettle.

His treatment of Bob Procter was disgusting and cowardly at a time when foot in the door did not mean you became instant Press Council fodder

I don’t know what happened to Bob. I do know his Express career was ruined by a gutless editor who thought Procter was a dirty word.

What the Express needed back then was a few more Procters.

Editor’s note: Bob, writing as Barry Procter, joined the Daily Herald and then the Birmingham Post and Mail from which he retired a few years ago as chief reporter. He lives in Rugeley, Staffs.

#

Fuchs up

By Peter Smith

The news that Russian spies – however ludicrous and ineffective – are back in the headlines has provoked memories of a saga from a much darker period involving a more successful and sinister spy and yet, with the help of Fleet Street, one that has about it just a hint of Evelyn Waugh. It was a tale that my old friend and colleague on the Daily Mail, the late Dickie Whitehead, loved to tell though, as far as I know, its details have never been made public.

It involved the notorious atom spy – or traitor according to your point of view – Klaus Fuchs. A brilliant theoretical physicist, Fuchs was born in Germany but fled to Britain when Hitler came to power. Here he worked at Bristol and Edinburgh Universities, was granted British citizenship, had a spell of internment, and was then recruited to take part in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos which resulted in those first nuclear bombs that were dropped on Japan. After the war, Fuchs returned to Britain where he worked at Harwell, Britain’s nuclear research centre. Amazingly, it had been known for years he was a communist yet the security agencies on both sides of the Atlantic seemed unconcerned.

That is, until the Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear test explosion several years earlier than the Americans had expected. There was no way the Soviets could possibly have achieved this, they reasoned, unless someone, somewhere, had handed them some very top secrets. The hunt was on.

It led, fairly quickly, to Klaus Fuchs, thanks to Britain’s expertise at breaking the codes of other nations. Faced with MI5’s top interrogator he confessed he’d been a spy for years – his codename was ‘Rest’ – pleaded guilty at a trial that lasted a mere 90 minutes and was sentenced to 14 years’ jail. There was much speculation about this jail sentence: why hadn’t he been sentenced to hang? Some theorised it was because, after confessing, he’d been extremely helpful to his captors, feeding them Russian secrets, others that he didn’t know many useful secrets anyway (which sounds suspiciously like secret service ‘spin’) while others said that 14 years was the maximum sentence for passing secrets to a ’friendly’ nation. At that time the Soviet Union was still deemed to be ‘friendly’, so jail it was. Which is where Fleet Street comes in…

Years later, in 1959, Fuchs was due to be released and naturally Fleet Street wanted to be there to record the event, but the Home Office and the prison authorities refused to give the slightest hint of the likely date. They were desperate to avoid a media circus – clearly unaware of the infallibility of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Since no hint of the date would be given out, the obvious happened: weeks before any possible release date a large contingent of Fleet Street’s and Manchester’s finest encamped themselves outside Wakefield Jail. The circus had indeed hit town. My friend Dickie Whitehead was in the Mail team.

One day an old lag emerged from the jail, was grabbed and questioned by the Mail hacks to whom he revealed – exclusively and no doubt out of the corner of his mouth and with hand outstretched – that Fuchs had actually been released, secretly, at the crack of dawn that morning. Not believing their luck the Mail rapidly ferreted him away to a secure hotel room where they interrogated him in very great detail. Everything he said seemed to add up, all cross-checks were positive. He certainly knew a very great deal about Fuchs and what had happened to him. The one big snag was that the Home Office and the prison authorities denied emphatically that Fuchs had been released. In London the Mail received the same emphatic denials. But the decision was made: the authorities were clearly lying and so the Mail went ahead and published.

You can imagine the panic, in London and Wakefield, when the Mail first edition dropped. Hacks in Wakefield were dragged out of their beds, or more likely the bars, to be asked what the hell they were up to, or words to that effect. In such circumstances night news editors are not noted for the temperance of their language. But try as they might, all they got from the authorities, in London and Wakefield, was that the Mail story was rubbish and Fuchs had not been released. The denials were so emphatic that no other paper followed the Mail. And they were right to do so, for Fuchs had not been released. But…

At around six the very next morning Fuchs did walk out of the jail. So by the time the Daily Mail was on the nation’s breakfast tables its story was actually true. Imagine trying to explain that to the day news editors, who are not noted, in such circumstances, for the temperance of their language. No wonder that, a decade or two later, my friend Dickie Whitehead was still chuckling about it.

#

Winding up Garth

By Phil Harrison

The recent stories of great wind-ups (Ranters, passim) brought to mind a classic perpetrated on Garth Gibbs in South Africa in 1963.

Garth had been sent to the Argus group’s Bloemfontein morning paper, The Friend, as a stand-in chief sub till the new permanent chief sub, Ed Van Olst, arrived from Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, as it then was. Now, of course, it’s Harare and Zimbabwe.

It didn’t take long before the subs’ desk noticed a particular trait of Garth’s: he had an infatuation with Brigitte Bardot. Of course, most blokes in those days did; but not everyone was in a position to make sure she was featured on the front page of a daily paper at least once a week.

He was ripe for a wind-up.

The teleprinter room was next to the subs’ room, so it was simple for one of us to talk the girl who supervised the three teleprinters into keying in a series of headline alerts we had written. She left the office after the first edition had gone to bed, leaving the prepared stories on her desk. The subs took it in turns to monitor the teleprinters.

Garth asked me to check for any late stories before preparing the front page about 10.30 pm. I wandered into the teleprinter room and came running out with a teleprinter tear-off in my hand: ‘Jesus, Garth, someone has shot Brigitte Bardot.’

There it was, hot off the SAPA (South African Press Association) wire – ‘Snap snap snap. French film star Brigitte Bardot shot at movie premiere.’

Garth nearly fell off his chair. ‘Get me every file pic of Bardot we have,’ he yelled.

Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State, was mostly Afrikaans-speaking and extremely conservative. This conservatism was shared by The Friend’s English-speaking readers. That is why the pictures of Bardot that Garth ran were usually confined to head-and-shoulder shots.

It was a stroke of genius, therefore, that one of the subs had prepared a second snap – Brigitte had been shot in the chest.

Was there ever a better reason for a front-page, three-column pic of Brigitte in a low-cut dress?

If so, Garth could not think of one. It would be the biggest picture ever to be placed on page one of The Friend.

Garth was beside himself with excitement.

Then it dawned on us that someone would have to break the news that it was a hoax.

Not an easy thing to do with Garth elbow deep in Bardot pictures trying to pick the most revealing yet reader-appropriate one.

Let’s say that Garth eventually took the bad news in reasonable spirits, but not until his echoing shouts of ‘YOU BASTARDS!’ had brought the guard one floor below rushing up to see what was going on.

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The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times


Issue # 157

30 July 2010


This Week

For his birthday next month I had promised to send Stanley Blenkinsop a copy of what’s probably the most fascinating, entertaining and amusing book I’ve ever read about newspapers. I know he’d have loved it, but the bugger died a week before publication day.

There’s more about the book – From Grub Street to Fleet Street, an illustrated history of newspapers to 1899 – by Revel Barker, Tony Delano and Bob Clarke, on this page.

For memories of Stanley from Gordon Amory, Tony Brooks, Brian Hitchen and Revel Barker, click here.

#

Captain Marvellous

By Revel Barker

Does anybody out there ever give any thought to what it’s all about, this great game that we glorify every week? Or how it came about? I suspect not, or not many.

But for those fascinated few, there’s a new book out today that helps explain what newspapers are (or should be) about. Our penurious brethren may be forgiven for giving it a miss the first time round, because it came in at £60 a copy. Now it’s been reprinted, revised, and extended and the newly produced paperback version (328 pages) is only £12.99 – that’s more information for a fraction of the original price.

The author, Bob Clarke, isn’t a journalist – although he could have (and maybe should have) been if he hadn’t found himself a proper job in the corridors of power. As a child, peeling back the lino in his bedroom, he discovered yellowing copies of the Daily Mirror reporting the Dunkirk evacuation, and became hooked. He started collecting historic newspapers, and now has more than 1,000, dating back to the English civil war. Eventually, it became obvious that there was a book in it.

From Grub Street To Fleet Street, An Illustrated History Of English Newspapers to 1899, is a joy to read, entertaining and enlightening at the same time.

From the broadsides of the 16th century to the broadsheets of the 19th, taking in the Royalist and Cromwellian ‘newsbooks’, the gutter press of the 18th century, the creation and rise of Sunday papers full of sex, sport and sensationalism, and the birth of the popular press, Clarke describes the journey of the English newspaper from the beginning to the middle. He vividly portrays the way the news was reported, to provide a colourful, if often gruesome, picture of the social history of the nation.

The current crop of editors and proprietors who are milking the money and the lifeblood out of newspapers could learn a few useful lessons by reading this book.

The Times Literary Supplement called it ‘a highly entertaining and informative introduction to English newspaper history.’

The Guardian said: ‘This buoyant account... is larded with choice examples of 18th century journalism... there are stories of crimes and body-snatching... bilious political vituperation, macabrely precise accounts of some of the daily tragedies of life... it has a relish for its subject…’

Tony Delano, reviewing the hardback edition for British Journalism Review [see below], used the word ‘marvellous’ three times. Not a man short of mots justes, is Delano (former chief foreign correspondent then managing editor of the Mirror, now a professor of journalism), so you might assume that when he says something’s marvellous, it’s a matter to be marvelled at. Don’t argue at the back.

It’s racy, erudite, amusing, sometimes salacious. Packed with wonderful characters who were the Ranters of their day. As early as the 1640s, journalists were seen as having a colourful reputation. Samuel Pecke, perhaps the first professional newspaperman, was described as ‘constant in nothing but wenching, lying and drinking’.

And with wonderful stories, too.

What wouldn’t the chief sub give for exclusives like Vampire Kills Four in Hungary; or Godalming Woman Gives Birth to Rabbits; or even Somerset Woman Married 14 Wives…?

Could even the Sun, at its zenith, have come up with a better military strategy than the Westminster Journal offered when Bonnie Prince Charlie and his lads were nearing Derby on their planned march on London in 1745…?

The rebels, we are told, are particularly fond of exercising their parts on the female sex; and being fellows of pretty keen appetites, commonly take up with whatever falls in their way: Wherefore methinks it would be no wrong policy to serve them up a dish, which, for taking its name and origin from their good friends the French, must therefore be the more acceptable to them. This may be done by providing as many ladies as we can conveniently spare from the hundreds of Drury, and other parts of the great metropolis, and see them safe convey’d to the places that are likeliest to be visited by the Highlanders; who, pleased with such fine ladies in silk gowns and large hoop petticoats, will take every one of them to be a Laird’s daughter, and think it no little honour to storm such illustrious forts; whereby they’ll contract a disease which will effectually stop their progress, and afford his majesty’s forces an easy and cheap-bought conquest.

As Clarke comments, it’s just an early example of germ warfare.

His book describes how the first journalists developed their newspapers into the early versions of the press that we know today. It shows how they informed and entertained their readers, their struggles for the freedom of the press, and the heroism of their war correspondents. It also shows how advertisements helped sustain the infant newspaper industry, including some hilarious examples of adverts for quack medicines.

It’s all our yesterdays, chaps. Marvellous.

From Grub Street To Fleet Street, An Illustrated History Of English Newspapers to 1899, is published by Revel Barker at £12.99 and is available on-line from amazon, Waterstones and (with free postage worldwide) Book Depository, or on order from any half-decent bookshop, anywhere.

#

Anthony Delano reviews the expensive hardback edition…

From Grub Street to Fleet Street

What dependable metaphors these are. Years after the diaspora Fleet Street remains an indispensable noun of assembly for the British national press. Grub Street, a rookery of London hack writers and publishers that is now buried deep beneath the Barbican, is not quite as durable a characterisation, perhaps because the distinction it made is no longer necessary. When it emerged as a synonym in the mid-seventeenth century no person of means expected to be paid for writing. The activities of those who did were judged to be as scandalous as ‘Whoring or Pamphleteering’. The reason was simple, explained Ned Ward, a Grub Street denizen whose work was less ephemeral than most: ‘the unhappy circumstances of a Narrow Fortune hath forced us to do that for our Subsistence.’

Much the same today: we all live on Grub Street.

The publisher of this handy guide to the evolution of our newspapers describes the author as an ‘independent scholar’. He is, in fact, a civil servant in the Cabinet Office and this is a labour of… well, infatuation; the work of a true amateur.

His romantic nature is given away immediately by the dedication of the book to ‘Lucille Bogan (1897-1948), who recorded a gloriously filthy blues in 1935’. That seems weirdly inapposite, until Mr Clarke invites us to see the penny-a-line proto-journalists scribbling to earn the next bottle of gin and get their possessions out of pawn as the eighteenth-century equivalent of the jazz musician. Not a thought likely to occur to – or at least be offered up by – one of the growing band of media academics who should otherwise welcome this book.

It is indeed a scholarly piece of work, well structured, comprehensive, impeccably end-noted and referenced and written in clear and unpretentious style. It is also generously and informatively illustrated. Pity that at £50 it cannot expect to attract readers outside the libraries for which its robust board covers have obviously prepared it.

And, actually, it is a romantic story. Clarke’s affection for the rag-tag scribes who, in his view, ‘laid the foundations of Fleet Street and the modern newspaper’ is contagious, even if some of his conclusions seem a little tenuous. The general narrative might not be news to serious students of the craft but it deserves more general attention. A look back at the Grub Street crowd and their output shows vividly that certain kinds of stories are embedded in the DNA of the trade – and probably that of the punters. The woman whose child had two fathers, another so worried about being robbed that she forgot she had been raped, the brigadier who died from a surfeit of cucumbers, might all find a place in the Sun even today.

Imagine what a splash sub might do on a slow Sunday night with the case of Robert Myres ‘who shit himself to death’.

Beyond the entertainment factor, however, Grub Street methods can be seen helping, however inadvertently, to shape the nation. Only rarely was it their main intention to foil the efforts of their rulers to prevent the populace from knowing what was really going on. Parliament’s principal interest (and, it goes without saying, that of the monarch) in the early publications was to suppress them, first by punishing their editors (often horridly), then by registering all presses, eventually by taxing publications out of the reach of most citizens.

Clarke shows that the embryonic newspapers of the sixteenth century, relations (or relacions) stuck to facts; factoids, really since verification was impossible, as were the corantos of the early seventeenth century into which they evolved. Tricks of the trade developed early, though, beginning with the stunning idea (back in 1621) that occurred to the fertile partnership of Nicholas Bourne and Thomas Archer that if they put the date on a run of weekly publications which effectively serialised news stories, no one would want to miss an issue.

Even those fairly anodyne newsbooks were disturbing enough to Henry VIII and other figures of authority. But in the Civil War period the next generation, the ‘mercuries’ discovered the power of political partisanship. Punishment, censorship, licensing, bestowing a monopoly on the brown-nosed Company of Stationers (although some of the most defiant ‘newsmongers’ – marvellous label – were really printers) were all used as forms of control. The culmination was the suppression of practically every form of the new black art apart from the government’s own London Gazette.

The Glorious Revolution established the right of free speech in Parliament. But neither the Bill of Rights or any legislation since granted freedom of the press in Britain. That was gained first by default when – to the chagrin of the prospering Stationers – parliament simply could not agree on how newspapers could be kept on message. After 1695 anyone could set up a printing press and hundreds did. From them issued a stream of Intelligencers, Posts, Spies, Scouts by the hundred. Marvellous titles.

Marvellous characters, too, abound in Clarke’s account, not all of whom one might want to share a newsroom with. Elizabeth Alkin, for instance aka ‘Parliament Joan’. In the post-civil war era of the mid-seventeenth century newsbooks were hawked on the street by Mercury Women, of whom Parliament Joan was one. She was also a Cromwellian spy. Once she had found the whereabouts of a moonshine press whose products she sold, she turned the owner in.

Clarke is only slightly less instructive when he moves from the Grub Street era to Fleet Street days, perhaps because the territory has been more extensively explored. Indeed, expeditions to the archives seem to be setting out every few months. Nevertheless, he ties up his package deftly enough with succinct sections on the development of journalists, heroes and villains and something he is aware of through the length of his narrative, the imperative of technology from the wooden press to the telegraph, high-speed rotaries and the internet – which will never have a history like this.

This article first appeared in British Journalism Review.

Anthony Delano is Visiting Professor of Journalism at the London College of Communication and a former managing editor of the Daily Mirror. He is author of two books about great Fleet Street scoops: Slip-Up (How Fleet Street found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard lost him), and Joyce McKinney and the case of the Manacled Mormon.

#

Goodbye Grub Street

By Bob Clarke

Old newspapers tell us more about the life and crimes of our ancestors than any other form of literature. Newspapers in the 18th century were full of tales of highwaymen and footpads; smugglers and pirates; Newgate and the gallows.

I’ve been collecting old newspapers for longer than I care to remember, to the extent that I now have more than 1,000 newspapers and news magazines printed before 1800. Through their pages, I can trace the career of Dick Turpin from his days as a housebreaker with the Gregory Gang and his subsequent activities as a highwayman, to his execution in York in 1739.

But the things that really fascinate me are reports about the nutcases who roamed the streets and lanes of 18th century Britain:

  • two contenders for the title of the World’s Most Inefficient Suicide;
  • the woman in Glasgow who was indecently assaulted and robbed of a few shillings and a bottle of whiskey. When asked in court why she didn’t mention the assault, she said that she was so concerned about the shillings and the whiskey that she clean forgot about the rape;
  • Mary Tofts, the woman who gave birth to rabbits
  • the desperate measures of the man who couldn’t afford a chastity belt for his wife (it involved the use of needle and thread);
  • and many more strange and amusing stories.

The adverts are great fun. In the early 18th century newspapers there is almost a symmetry of cause and effect with the sellers of aphrodisiacs like the Cordial Quintessence of Vipers, which claimed to give ‘an elastic Springiness to the Penis’, plying their wares next to cures for venereal disease ‘without Hindrance of Business, or the Knowledge of a Bedfellow’.

Their copy mainly consisted of long lists of symptoms: scaly Pustules, old Gleets, Buboes, Shankers, Tumify'd Testicles, Ulcers in the Privates (sounds like Connie Francis’ unsuccessful follow up to Lipstick on Your Collar). One advertisement promised to cure the pox ‘nay, even if you piss thro' a Dozen Holes’. (I can’t help thinking about this when I’m out in the garden with the watering can.)

In the 1750s there was a series of adverts for Doctor Henry's Nervous Medicine. Each week there would be a different testimonial from someone who claimed the medicine had cured their flatulence. There was the man with the exploding bowels (‘Something very frequently seems like live Mice running up and down in my Body; in short my Wind is ready to burst my whole Body to Pieces, my Breast and Bowels swell with the Wind to such a surprising Degree, and rise to my Throat and Head, that I am deprived of all my Senses, and am ready to commit an Act of Violence on myself.’); the woman with ‘a windy convulsive Disorder in her Bowels [who was] obliged to sit up in Bed to discharge the Wind’; and another woman whose ‘Convulsive Wind [was] so predominant in her Stomach and Bowels, as to put them in such Agitation as to appear like the fermenting of a Tun of Ale, and would fly to the Throat and cause her to foam at the Mouth, and her Tongue would hang out’.

One sufferer testified that Speediman's Stomach Pills, ‘by the blessing of God dispersed the wind in a very surprising manner’. It probably surprised anyone else who was nearby.

The story of how the newspaper developed from the broadsides of the 16th century to the broadsheets of the 19th century is equally fascinating. There are so many different factors that influenced that journey from Grub Street to Fleet Street: the struggles for the freedom of the press; technical and social changes; the growth of the provincial press; the birth of the Sunday paper and the popular press, to name but few.

And then there are the characters who gave us the news, including such Grub Street pioneers as Marchamont Nedham, editor of the two most successful newsbooks of the 1640s and 1650s, who was said to have had ‘a publique brothel in his mouth’.

Years of collecting old papers and studying press history meant that I wanted to share this with others. So I wrote From Grub Street to Fleet Street. It was published by Ashgate, the academic publisher, in 2004 at £49.50. When the initial print run of 600 copies sold out, Ashgate reprinted it at £60 a copy. The US Naval Academy bought a copy, presumably because it had the word ‘Fleet’ in its title.

The book was reviewed very favourably in the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement and in various academic journals, although one reviewer did say that, ‘Clarke has a weakness for anything scatological.’

But I didn’t write the book for academics. I wrote it for the blokes in the pub and the birds on the train who read newspapers and might be interested in history, and enjoy a jolly good laugh. Since the book was published, I have found loads of new material that gives an entertaining insight into the lives of our ancestors as seen through the pages of the newspapers. I have incorporated this fresh material into the revised and extended edition, which is now available at a price that people can afford.

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