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


Issue # 199
June 3, 2011


This Week

Another week, another book. Another Keith Waterhouse classic, in fact, resurrected for your edification and delight. It’s the third of Waterhouse’s own favourites, following Waterhouse on Newspaper Style and The Theory and Practice of Lunch.

This one is The Theory And Practice of Travel, and it has little, directly, to do with newspapers – except of course that it was this business that generally picked up the tab for his perpetual peregrinations. As you’d expect, it’s a delight. Ian Skidmore has had a sneak preview.

Alan Shadrake also had a book out this week – it was actually published on Wednesday, the day he started a jail sentence in Singapore for writing it. Joe Mullins tells the story behind Once a Jolly Hangman

But enough of news, what about history?

Plain John Smith’s obit of Arthur Brown last week prompted Mike Kiddey to apply fingers to keyboard again (an achievement in itself, methinks) with memories of Arthur’s predecessor as northern editor of the Daily Herald, and of the drinking traditions in that once great newspaper hub.

Better still, the very byline reminded Mark Day, keeping up with his Ranters reading while otherwise engaged on a European tour, of another Plain John Smith – only in Sydney. And that, in turn, reminds this correspondent of a story about Bill Shakespeare (one of the more memorable by-lines on The Times), allegedly stumbling through the hedge of Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford and being asked by a policeman… well, you can guess the rest. If that isn’t a true story, all we can say is that of course it should be…

Chris Roberts continues our How I Got Started series with the disclosure that his introduction to journalism possibly involved a dodgy handshake.

And Kevin Jesson reveals How He Got Finished… with what is surely a unique farewell to the print.

All that, plus Rudge, holding the whole thing up.

And here’s a reminder that the memorial service for Terry Wynn will be held in St John the Baptist RC Church, Annitsford, Northumberland on Saturday, June 11 at 10.30am, followed by drinks at The Hind in Cramlington where old chum John Bailey is threatening to display, among other treasures, Terry’s Daily Sketch cuttings books and even some old school reports…

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Dunroamin

By Ian Skidmore

My settled view is that is better not to travel than to arrive, which is hell. It is a view I share with Socrates of whom Plato said ‘…Never made a trip abroad as some men do, nor were you seized by a desire to know another city, or other laws, but we and our city were enough for you.’

For two decades I hosted a radio programme called The Armchair Traveller and when my doctor warned me that moving about at my weight was dangerous, I stopped moving about.

Sadly this places me at at odds with one of my revered masters, Keith Waterhouse, whose book The Theory and Practice of Travel has nonetheless enlivened my summer.

Waterhouse admits it is the very foreignness of foreign places that captivates him

‘New York smells of Danish pastry, Athens of sweet coffee, Venice of drains, the entire Middle East of barbecued kid,’ he maintains. I hate baking smells because I am on a perpetual domestic induced diet. I dislike sweet coffee and barbecued kid. Venice? – The raddled old queen of the Adriatic where everyone has terminal catarrh and the hills are alive with the sounds of hawking throats.

After the war I spent two years in a Germany that contained one bar of soap; Bruges is a bowel movement made flesh. I do not know what Paris smells of, but I wish they would find it and remove it. For me abroad smells. Full stop.

Add that abroad is a long way off, even when it is round the corner .

Admittedly even if like me you disagree with every word you will have to admit the book is a joy to read, By the same token, a prescription written by Waterhouse would contain more laughs than the average comic novel. Even the better than average comic novel. Oh, lets face it, any comic novel not written by Waterhouse.

He knows his stuff when it comes to armchair travelling. Could be me talking;

Ideally there should be a Sherlock Holmes fog without and Billy Bunter muffins within. There should be an atmosphere of leather armchairs and warmly glowing lamps, and the floor should be littered with maps, guides and brochures.(These are optional -ed.)

What is travel for, he asks.

What indeed…

I was seized with a burning desire to cross the Atlantic from the moment when, at the age of ten or eleven, there fell into my hands an American comic book containing a mouth-watering advertisement for a caramelised confection known as Turtles, so called because they were fashioned in the shape and size of terrapins. To one confined to a diet of aniseed balls and sherbet dabs – and even these were in short supply with wartime sweet rationing – these exotic boxed candies were as a mirage. I yearned to go to America and stuff myself with Turtles.

The book also contains A Concise Dictionary of Brochurese. Or put it another way: A good reason to buy an armchair:

ALL WITH BATH OR SHOWER – yours is with shower.

AMENITIES – noun used to make what is singular sound plural, eg, shopping amenities = shop.

BRAND-NEW COMPLEX – unfinished.

BUFFET-STYLE – queues.

BUSTLING HOTEL IN ONE OF THE LIVELIEST AREAS – conga line under your window at 3am.

CLOSE TO NIGHTLIFE (OR NITELIFE) – over disco.

COLOURFUL – fruit and veg.

COMMANDING VIEWS – up a steep hill.

COMPLIMENTARY COCKTAIL ON ARRIVAL – ill-printed voucher on arrival, which may be exchanged in bar for foul green drink.

COURTESY COACH TO POINTS OF INTEREST – out in the sticks, no buses.

EXTENSIVELY RENOVATED – concrete mixer on sun deck…

For a traveller Waterhouse is particularly sound on Those Who Don’t:

…there are those who genuinely and literally cannot stomach foreign parts. Abroad makes them ill. It brings them out in a rash. It plays havoc with their alimentary tracts. Arriving thankfully back to the sanctuary of Dun-roamin they speak feelingly of food that was ‘swimming in oil’, which to their delicate systems is as if it had been covered in axle-grease. If there is a tummy bug around, they get it. If there is sunstroke around, they get that too. Foreign travel affects their health and they should be excused it as servicemen with bunions used to be excused boots, with a special chit which they could carry as their anti-passport.

There are several sub-categories such as the never-agains (beach was polluted, plumbing didn’t work, place was full of Germans) and the never-befores (nearly got run over, couldn’t understand what they were jabbering about, didn’t like all this tipping business), but we are not going to make converts there either…

Mind you, some people love travel. Or do they?

They like the weather, the cobbles, the garlicky smells. It is the company they do not take to. They believe that foreign parts are too good to waste on foreigners.

They would concede that arrogant Frenchmen have every right to barge around their own cafes with their coats draped over their shoulders, shaking hands with all and sundry, kissing one another on both cheeks, shrugging in Gallic manner and generally making an exhibition of themselves. But wouldn’t it be nice if Les Deux Magots were in Kingston-upon-Thames? And yes, Italians little better than Venetians are fully entitled to disport themselves around St Mark’s Square – but how much more seemly if the Grand Canal flowed through the Wirral.

Apart from being a rollocking good read, apart from being written with style, wit and wisdom this book is unique of its kind.

It is the only travel book ever written that persuades you that to holiday at home is a far, far, better thing to do than you have ever done before… And we all know what happened to him.

The Theory and Practice of Travel by Keith Waterhouse is published today by Revel Barker at £9.99, and is available from the Book Depository (with free postage worldwide), from amazon, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble and any half-decent bookshop.

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Hanging around Singapore

By Joe Mullins

When Alan Shadrake left Las Vegas and went off to Singa-bloody-pore a few years ago, I wondered if he’d be OK. He’d more or less recovered from colon cancer, had a bit of a dicky ticker but loved to put in a few disciplined hours down at the gym trying to keep in shape. He was 70-ish, had a good voice and loved to sing karaoke.

Without much encouragement, he did a mean My Way or Mack the Knife. Out there, way south of Mandalay, I could see him wooing almond-eyed women with Rose, Rose I Love You, Flower of Malaya, you stole my heart, and all that.

He always liked the ladies. Confession: I thought that cherchez-la-femme was the east’s real attraction for Alan.

What I’d completely forgotten, of course, was the fact that he was such a terrific reporter with a dogged tenacity and a wonderful track record. A compulsive newshound, he attacked stories like a terrier goes after a bone.

But at 70, who the hell goes out slaying dragons and tilting at windmills, journalistically speaking?

Well Shadrake does, did and is now making the news as well as writing it. By the time you read this, Alan will be in jail starting a six-week sentence for contempt of court and ‘scandalizing the judiciary’ of Singapore in his book, Once a Jolly Hangman.

He told me at the weekend in an email, ‘I check in to the jail at 9am on June 1 – the same day the British edition of my book is launched.’

Because he can’t pay a fine of 20,000 Singapore dollars he’ll probably have to face another two weeks inside… although he’s hoping he’ll get some time off for good behaviour and might be out in about five weeks total.

Alan had the temerity to get an exclusive interview with Darshan Singh, Singapore’s chief executioner for almost 50 years. It is estimated that he had personally dispatched over 1,000 men and women, once hanging 18 people in a single day. Compared to Mr Singh, hangmen in Britain like Albert Pierrepoint and Harry Allen were just learning the ropes.

Even getting to Mr. Singh was a direct challenge to the Singapore authorities. They would prefer that their judicial system remain in the shadows. A 2001 UN study showed the city state has, per capita, the world’s highest execution rate. Alan’s big exclusive interview, splashed in The Australian (Singh was about to hang an Aussie citizen) and then round the world, caused a furor.

Despite knowing that he could be in big trouble, he didn’t leave it at that. Larger questions remained. Who were these 1,000 people sent plummeting to death by Mr. Singh, often for drug offences? Alan began to investigate and did the reporting that made his book, subtitled True Stories from Singapore’s Death Row, such a compelling read.

His conclusion was that politics, big business and international trade often determine who lives and who dies on Singapore’s gallows. Alan wrote, ‘My own research confirms that justice in Singapore is patently biased against the weak and disadvantaged while favouring the wealthy and privileged.’

If you’re a penniless drug mule, it’s almost inevitable that you will get to meet Mr Singh. But if you have connections or come from a valued trading partner of Singapore, you might just escape the drop.

Alan’s book essentially called for reform of the judicial process.

The morning after a party to celebrate its launching in Singapore on July 17 last year Alan got the knock on the door that reporters dread but seldom experience. He was arrested by officers from Singapore CID.

He spent almost two sleepless days at the Central Police HQ answering questions. After that – his passport confiscated – Alan had to report back daily for a while, often for up to 12 hours of intensive interrogation. He was ordered not to leave Singapore. The nightmare has gone on through a trial and an appeals process. He now he has to serve his time.

Alan has always refused to apologize or admit any fault. He just did his job as a reporter and wrote what he dug out through solid investigating. In his email at the weekend, he poured scorn on the Singapore authorities. ‘Amazing that they would do this and draw so much attention to themselves again… helping to promote the book. I’m not afraid of them and they know it and they have finally lost face… while giving me ‘hero’ status.’

That made me smile. When Alan left Las Vegas seven years ago, I told him that he was my hero for starting a new life at nearly 70.

I’ve known him for nigh on 50 years. He’s a tough old bird. But a Singapore prison is no spa. It will doubtless take a toll on his health.

His book is a testament to his reporting cred and a great read. Well worth the thirteen quid in paperback.

#

Life on Mars

By Mike Kiddey

Arthur Brown was a gentleman journalist of the old school and while I remember little of Norman Wilson, his predecessor as northern editor of the Daily Herald, I’ll never forget Norman’s farewell.

It was shortly after I’d joined the People in London when news editor Laurie Manifold sent me on a temporary basis to Manch.

Barely out of my teens, working for a fantastic news editor on a paper with a circulation of more than five million, here I was, off on my first foreign trip – that’s how London hacks viewed the northern metropolis in bygone days…

And I discovered there WAS a distinct continental feel to Manchester. Less prosaically, there was total disregard of normal licensing hours.

There was no Fleet Street stampede for a five o’clock conference drink. No need to rush to the pub. Up North you could drink at any time of the day or night – at pub prices.

In the evening and into the early hours clubs such as Dino’s and Mr Smith’s featured big names of the period including Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones and Freddie Starr, but it was the bistros that fascinated me.

OK, bistros might be pushing it a bit. Most were just rooms with a bar, blacked out windows and unmarked doors with a spy hole, but they mushroomed throughout the city and opened from around midday until everyone went home.

Here reporters shared aperitifs with detectives who kept an eye on villains who cavorted with perfumed ladies who flirted with well-dressed gentlemen who had no visible means of support – literally and figuratively.

The Daily Herald and the People relaxed in one of the more respectable bistros – a converted shop as I remember near the Rogers and Lamonte School of Ballroom Dancing in Oxford Road and just round the corner from the office. Here Ray Mills and his fellow subs would gambol and gamble the afternoons away before starting their shifts.

Pubs also took a relaxed attitude to closing time – which brings me back to Norman Wilson’s farewell.

It was held on a balmy summer evening (told you there was a continental feel to Manchester) in a pub where now stands the equally redundant New Broadcasting House on Oxford Road.

The pub was crowded. Inkies (do we still call them that?) relaxed in their overalls supping pints in both the bars and on the kerb outside.

Sometime after what would normally be considered closing time, People northern news editor Mike Gabbert suddenly thrust his drink into the hands of a surprised customer standing next to him and beckoned for me to follow him rapidly towards the exit.

Simultaneously one of the ‘inkies’ bellowed for silence and then announced ‘This is a police raid.’ The hapless customer with Gabbert’s drink was among those nicked.

In the saloon bar next door Norman Wilson was thumping the piano keys, unaware of the drama, until another policeman in overalls tapped him on the shoulder and said: ‘Excuse me sir, are you drinking?’

‘Yes thanks, I’m fine at the moment,’ replied Norman, who was also promptly nicked.

The raid was one of many ordered by a chief constable who had his eye on the top job at the Met but needed first to make a name for himself in Manchester. His ferocious campaign, which even included raids on his own police social club in Platt Lane as well as the Manchester Press Club, brought chaos to our café society.

With no bistros, reporters missed out on stories from their contacts, detectives moaned because they couldn’t keep an eye on the villains and the perfumed ladies complained of financial hardship.

The clamp-down didn’t last of course. And afternoon drinking eventually resumed, albeit more discreetly.

The now long-forgotten chief constable didn’t get the Met job. Norman Wilson, having been fined ten shillings along with everyone else for drinking outside licensing hours, moved on to run a bar in Spain.

And I learnt a valuable lesson from Mike Gabbert. If your boss thrusts a free drink into your hand – look over your shoulder before accepting.

#

Wordsmith

By Mark Day

The lead item (or was it the splash?) in last week’s Ranters carried the by-line of Plain John Smith. I have not had the pleasure, but the name reminded me of what could possibly be his antipodean cousin, John Smith.

John Smith was the chief photographer and photographic editor of the Sydney Daily Telegraph for many years until the late 80s. He’s retired now and boasts his role meant he did not pick up a camera for 20 years.

But there was a time, he used to tell, that he was on the road making pictures for the Tele and making merry hell after the paper had gone to bed.

One such occasion was a royal visit to Canberra, the Australian bush capital, in the late 50s. Smithy and his sidekick John Jones drove the old picturegram truck from Sydney to Canberra – three hours on a freeway these days, but a full day’s drive in an old tub that rattled itself to pieces at more than 30 mph. This was not a good idea when the back of the truck was filled with darkroom chemicals (remember film, children?)

After Her Maj and Phil did their bit, Smithy and Jones developed their negs, blew up their prints and grammed them lickety-spit to Sydney. Assignment finished, they opted for the one at the Wellington Hotel. As these things do, one became a few, but not so many that they couldn’t manage to wrestle the old truck to their digs a few miles away at the Ainslie Hotel.

The few did, however, take their toll. Smithy announced he would like to stop for a leak.

Jones, at the wheel, thought he had a better idea. ‘Why stop?’ he asked. ‘Why don’t you piss in the sink?’’

Smithy declined, citing hygiene issues. Jones thought he was a wuss, and kept driving.

‘I was busting,’ says Smithy. ‘So I opened the rear door on the truck and, hanging on to the ladder that ran up to the roof, I proceeded to evacuate the old bladder.’

But during this exercise a VW Beetle came up behind the lumbering truck and the driver began honking his horn. ‘I was half way through my endeavour, but the Jones boy thought it would be a jolly lark to see if he could shake me off the truck,’ says Smithy. ‘He started weaving and accelerating, which rather agitated the driver of the VW who pulled alongside and waved us over.’

It was then that Smithy grasped the true enormity of his situation. He looked down and saw there were four Federal police in the car. One of them went to the drivers’ door, pulled it open and confronted Jones.

‘What’s your name, son?’ he demanded.

‘John Jones, sir.’

One of the other cops grabbed Smithy, shoved his arm up his back, and said: ‘Yeah and I suppose you’re John Smith are you?’

To which Smithy, a man with a rapier wit and a gift for the quick quip, replied: ‘Yes, officer.’

At this stage Jones produced his Press pass and established his identity. Fed 1 said to Fed 2: ‘Hey this one is John Jones.’ And when Smithy produced his pass an incredulous Fed 2 said ‘And this one is John Smith.’

Fortunately, this amused all parties. The cops told both lads they were bloody idiots and lucky they were off duty otherwise they’d both be in gaol. They told them to get off the road ‘and don’t let us see you again.’

‘You can imagine,’ says Smithy, ‘that we did some deep breathing and of course went home to our pub for a few more jars. Fortune favours the brave… Or the stupid.’

#

A mason grace

By Chris Roberts

Think Phil Silvers as Ernie Bilko, minus the glasses, and with wisecracks delivered in a booming Welsh accent. The US army uniform is replaced by a bus inspector’s smart navy blue suit with a civic crest in gold on the lapel. This was another Ernie -- my uncle, Ernest Teague, ex-wartime London copper, part-time concert party impresario, and… freemason.

The wartime history and the showbiz connection I knew about. His masonic links divined only years after he had launched my journalistic career (invited to do so by his baby sister, my mother). So now, more than half a century on and in the spirit of Nick Clegg, I blush to reveal that I was probably a beneficiary of what the Pythons used to satirise with rolled-up trouser legs and secret handshakes.

The lodge Uncle Ernie belonged to also entertained some senior editorial figures from Kemsley’s morning Western Mail and evening South Wales Echo, then in their old Cardiff building on St Mary Street before they moved to Thomson House near the city bus station after Lord T took over.

One of them was Walter Grossey, the short, stout and fearsome Echo news editor who smoked a fragrant pipe almost as big as his head. He was the one who called me in for interview and organised my indentures. For years afterwards, whenever I caught a whiff of Balkan sobranie, I was back in his office, summoned to buy a replacement tin at the tobacconist next door to the Echo building (during my days as a copyboy) or about to receive a bollocking for some misdemeanour (as a junior reporter).

That was how I started. For the why: the careers master at the grammar school where I scraped a few O-levels suggested I could be either a librarian or a journalist. It’s my fancy that I was nudged toward the inkier option by a tangential connection on my father’s side of the family. A cousin was a darkroom technician in PA or one of the big picture agencies and during childhood holidays in my grandmother’s house I was given boxes of his high gloss prints, mainly rugby, football and cricket, to keep me amused. My knowledge of the verbal side of the business was absolutely zero. At 15, I was a fast reader and good at English and French précis. That was it.

As it turned out, the masonic intervention might have been unnecessary because my great pal Norman Rees, a year ahead of me at school, was also wondering what to do with himself. He applied directly to the Western Mail because there were, er… no more vacancies on the Echo and was rewarded with a copyboy’s job on nights. The day/night clash was more than inconvenient for us: we were part-time musicians, which not only made practice difficult but forced us to turn down many paid gigs.

Within two years of the end of my indentures, I was in The Street, albeit as an imposter – writing for Melody Maker, then shaking off its rather severe Odhams image as the jazz-lovers’ bible to give me a few memorable years at Mirror Group, socialising with the stars and covering 1960s rock’n’pop. I also played guitar with, among others, the MM All-Stars. Our pianist was roly-poly Mirror showbiz writer Pat Doncaster, who craftily featured the band in a picture spread for his own column one weekend. Other visitors from real newspapers included the journalist-poet Adrian Mitchell, one of many left-wingers drawn to our bohemian world, and the Mail cartoonist and Django-worshipping guitarist Diz Disley.

After that (several chapters in fact), I became a bomber pilot among Ranters’ fighter aces – a damned snivelling little sub – and apart from a couple of pieces in the Mail and Indie in the 90s, never wrote again.

Among my copyboy contemporaries who, as far as I know, were not given a parental leg-up, Peter Tate (SW Echo) retired a few years ago as executive editor of Bournemouth’s Daily Echo, and the late Con Atkin (Western Mail), who worked elsewhere in MGN and shared many of my London escapades, returned to his home town of Swansea to edit the Herald of Wales.

And only a couple of years after I left Cardiff, Norman was recruited by ITN following his brilliant Aberfan coverage for the local TV station he had moved to, and within a few years was ITN’s Washington correspondent and thereafter a fixture on our screens.

So much for secret handshakes.

Chris Roberts (not the ITV reporter of the 80s, nor, spookily, the doppelganger on the MM in the 90s) made a slight return to the SW Echo and went on to work for The Times Business News, the Evening Echo (now the Daily Echo) Bournemouth, the Mail on Sunday, the FT and The Sunday Times.

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Pools winner

By Kevin Jesson

Derek Jameson must hold something of a record for being ‘banged out’ – the ritual newspaper farewell. He was banged out in London and Manchester by Mirror and Express comps.

But even a legend such as Jameson can’t match my banging out… Of which, more later…

The first time I came across it, I was 14-years-old and working on the People in Manchester as a Saturday messenger; the year l959. The last time, I was 64 and still working on the People; the year 2009.

I had been sent to the stone, the area where the compositors set and made up type, for some page proofs. The comps’ area was always very noisy but as I picked up the proofs the noise stopped completely for what seemed like minutes but was probably only seconds. A totally eerie silence. I hadn't a clue what was happening.

And then it began. Slowly building up to an ear-splitting crescendo of metal on metal. Long galleys (they held slugs of type) were being banged on the tops and sides of the metal ‘stone’. If there were no empty galleys to hand then the base of a heavy spike came in handy. Mallets and planers; anything! There must have been at least 150 men in that room all creating an enormous din – apart from one chap.

Wearing an overcoat and carrying a bag, he was walking slowly through the room on his way home for the last time. It was the end of his final shift before retirement – and he was being banged out in the old printing tradition. It was a kind of standing ovation from his colleagues; a collective goodbye to one of their own that expressed what they felt but would never have put it into words. It was very moving.

Fast forward to November, 2009. The only person working a shift on the People in the Oldham office is me. And it's my last one. It's home time so I ring Mick Walsh, the chief sub in Canary Wharf to check he has everything he needs. Is it OK to leave? He asks me to hang on a little longer; he’ll ring me back.

Shortly afterwards the phone rang. I picked it up and at first I couldn’t hear anything – and then it started, quietly at first and then the noise built up. Mugs and rulers, flat hands and fists. Anything to make a racket.

I was being banged out over the phone.

I listened, said ‘Thanks,’ at the end, turned out the light and closed the door on 50 years of working in various People offices.

The emotion the banging out ceremony arouses can be compared to listening to a certain piece of evocative music or hearing a brass band play; the hairs standing up on the back of your neck. Or, as in my case, being told you have just won the Xperts Trophy pools competition in your retirement season.

After I finished working a Saturday shift in 2009 I still continued to provide the People, from home, with their forecast which I had been doing since l990.

The Xperts Trophy is a competition organised by The Football Pools open to pools forecasters working on national dailies and Sundays. On a weekly basis they monitor the tipsters' predictions and calculate in percentage terms the success rate of their tips for pools matches that result in draws and translate this into a league table.

I managed to reach the top of the league in October last year and remained there through the last day of the season on May 21. I'd never won the competition before but I’ve come second twice and third twice. The last person to win it for the People was Len Poynter in the l966-67 season. My prize - the Xperts Trophy and a cheque for £1,000. A grand finish to any career!

The Pools isn’t the game it was. The man in the street used to think it was an easy way to land a fortune. After all, you only needed to fill in a coupon and predict eight draws. Someone would call at your house to pick up your entry. You didn't even need to post it.

Filling in a coupon became a ritual every week for millions of people. And at around 5 o’clock on a Saturday they would be glued to the radio listening to the results. Their coupon could have been with Vernons, Empire or Zetters, but the big one was Littlewoods.

Hundreds of women were regularly shown on black and white newsreel film, checking the millions of entries. You knew that if the Man From Littlewoods knocked on your front door it was likely to make all your dreams come true.

Newspaper forecasters would be followed slavishly by thousands of readers. It was a very responsible job.

On Monday last week, the Man From Littlewoods knocked on my door – well he rang me up. The first words I heard were: ‘Choose your restaurant.’ It was Phil Watkins, product controller of The Football Pools which, basically, used to be Littlewoods. ‘You've won the Xperts Trophy!’ he told me.

It's true – when the Man From Littlewoods calls you do feel as if all your dreams (well, some of them) have come true. Phil said it was ‘most fitting’ and a tribute to my perseverance that in my retirement year I had finally made it. He could have said ‘about time’ but is much too nice.

#

Rudge


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Reviews


Ian Skidmore’s book, The Man Who Painted In Welsh, has received enthusiastic reviews by Ranters readers on the amazon site this week.

It’s also available from BookDepository, with free postage worldwide

By Ken Ashton: Ian Skidmore’s elegant prose and ability to relate an anecdote have not withered with the years. He draws on many years of friendship with Kyffin, a friendship nurtured on Anglesey, and produces a real insight into the artist as a person.

The Man Who Painted in Welsh is the latest in a long line of successful books from the pen of a writer who learnt his trade on weekly newspapers and honed it on the Daily Mirror in its hey day.

This second version of the author’s biography on Kyffin is a much polished work of literature and the skill of the narrator is evident. The biography skips along so fluently that even if you’re not interested in art, the story of the artist is entertaining. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read that shows us the man behind the brush.

By Anita Dunne: Why would you be interested? I wasn’t. Then I read Ian Skidmore’s biography of Sir Kyffin Williams, the great Welsh artist, which is so rich in incident and wit that I found myself resenting those irritating breaks for sleep and food.

Kyffin was gifted, entertaining, eccentric, and humorous. So too is Skidmore, which does make you suspect that there must be an introduction agency for such people. They can’t just bump into each other, can they? Apparently so.

Skidmore, an acclaimed writer-reporter and broadcaster, as well as a close friend, is exactly the man for the job: as a reporter with a sure ear for the revelatory phrase; he’s interviewed all those who knew Sir Kyffin. It’s the asides that make it for me. Like the Anglesey farmer who was disappointed when the artist had problems doing his portrait. ‘Everything’s going wrong,’ he said. ‘My motor is broke down, my tractor’s big end is gone, my milking machine won’t work, and now you can’t paint my face.’

Those who know Skidmore’s writing won’t be surprised by his usual sublime touches... ‘from 1970 until his death, honours gathered like swallows on a wire.’ Best of all, the whole book glows with Skidmore’s love, respect and admiration for his friend. It made me sorry I never enjoyed the pleasure of the two of them together. Luckily, the book does that for us, and what a joy it is.

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


Issue # 200
June 10, 2011


This Week…

… is our 200th edition (yes, and they said it wouldn’t last, sigh…)

Age is only a number, but in the past (nearly) four years we have carried well over 1,000 pieces – between five and a dozen, most weeks, which probably accounts for something like a million words.

What it shows must confound the nay-sayers of the past, who actually did forecast that it would fairly quickly, naturally, run out of steam. Recent weeks’ content has surely proved that there are still stories out there that haven’t been told (or haven’t been told recently). All that’s required is a prompt for the memory cells, plus the ability or willingness to put fingers to keyboards, again.

We try, as often as possible, to provide the prompts. The activation largely depends on the idleness (or rather the lack of it, where possible) among the majority of readers who don’t just believe that they are entitled to the sort of free ride they enjoyed for most of their working lives.

Whatever, the anniversary has prompted Revel Barker to muse on what it’s all about. So there’s a departure from the system (insofar as there’s ever been any system) this week.

Only one piece. Plus of course the Rudge cartoon, propping the whole thing up.

It means we can save some good stuff for next week.

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Gentlemen, that reminds me

By Revel Barker

Are you one of those people who hate it when somebody tells a story after dinner – or, more likely in this context, around a pub table – and somebody else immediately says that reminds him of the time when… and embarks on another story; then, before he’s finished somebody else is ready with a tale to follow, or even to interrupt, it? Because, if that’s the case, then, boy – have you landed on the wrong website.

That’s how it works at Gentlemen Ranters (the dot-com in this format being superfluous): somebody tells a story and somebody else is prompted to produce a follow-up, not necessarily connected to it. Possibly hoping to beat it.

It started with a blog (a web-log, for the uninitiated); Ian Skidmore, former freelance reporter, columnist, sometime night news editor, award-winning broadcaster and compulsive author – a couple of dozen books published to date – found a disk with some of his old columns on it and thought he might make them into a blog. The problem was that he couldn’t cope with the technology so he asked me for help; I somehow sorted it and suggested that our small email forum of maybe a dozen fairly regular correspondents could use a place to deposit our rants, and include the Skidmore columns on it. Slightly amending a lyric by Rudyard Kipling, and otherwise faced with the situation that with 120,000 blogs being created every day there were not many names available, I called it Gentlemen Ranters (Skiddy later additionally created his own and called it Skidmore’s Island).

Two dozen colleagues were alerted to its existence in mid-July of 2007 and by the end of the first week 200 people had read it. At the end of the second week (revised on Fridays) it was being read by 200 people a day. After six weeks the blog was becoming bogged down and we converted it into a website. By the end of October, if the site-monitor was accurate, we had 5,250 regular readers. By the following February it had nearly 5,000 clicking on an average day. It currently has slightly more than three million a year.

In the meantime The Times had been kind enough to review the site and report: ‘The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street.’

Those great days of Fleet Street were the glory days. The site’s readers are aware that they had enjoyed the best of times out of the entire history of The Street Of Ink, The Street Of Adventure, The Street of Shame, The Street of Disillusion, Grub Street… The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

They were days of indulgence by proprietors and of self-indulgence by the perpetrators.

Incredible as it may seem today – and, in fact, most of life was incredible in hindsight – money was hardly a factor. The likely truth was that most of the operators would have done the job for nothing; wages, in any case, were not always particularly great but it didn’t matter because if you wanted to spend money the bosses provided it for you. Expenditure was encouraged; if you wanted to go somewhere you said so, and you’d be given a ticket; if you needed money for the pub, they issued you with a chit to draw pound notes from cashiers.

People who owned the newspapers were more interested in power, prestige, publishing and printing propaganda than in producing a profit.

It was surreal. It was bizarre. But that’s how it was.

When Bob Edwards edited the Daily Express – the World’s Greatest newspaper at the time (‘a bloody awful newspaper’, according to Prince Phillip) – in the mid-sixties he had the biggest team of foreign correspondents and home based journalists in the history of British newspapers with famous names like René McColl, Chapman Pincher, Peter O’Sullevan, Desmond Hackett and Percy Hoskins among them, in addition to a vast staff working for the William Hickey gossip column. When they published a group shot of the entire photographic staff to illustrate ‘the picture power in the Express’, Beaverbrook counted them over breakfast and was immediately on the phone. ‘Sixty-two photographers? You’re all quite mad on the Express!’ But privately, said Edwards, ‘the Old Man’ was delighted with the presentation.

When Mike Molloy took over the Daily Mirror – the World’s Largest Daily Sale, at the time – in the mid-seventies he inherited an all-star cast including Donald Zec, Keith Waterhouse, Don Wise, John Pilger, Marje Proops and Kent Gavin, but also a motoring correspondent who was disqualified from driving; a gardening correspondent with no garden; a slimming editor who was a stone overweight; a travel editor who was banned from flying on British Airways, and at least one feature writer who hadn't written anything except his expenses in five years.

Some of those characters have appeared in these pages. But otherwise those people, like those days, are gone, now, and we’ll never see their like again, that’s for sure. What’s even more strange, to some of us, is that they don’t get the stories that we used to. Presumably they still occur, but nobody seems to uncover them.

We’re left only with our memories. And Gentlemen Ranters is where we are logging them for ourselves and perhaps for posterity. And maybe to remind newcomers to the inky trade of the romantic and sometimes lunatic history they are inheriting.

And that’s how the gentlemen-that-reminds-me factor works.

Are these memories reliable?

A few weeks into the Ranters site a reader emailed from Chad (honestly: they get everywhere) to share a quote that might have been intended as a warning to both ranters and (to coin a word) rantees.

Franklin Pierce Adams, once-famous New York columnist and a member of the Algonquin Round Table – a man who reputedly advanced the careers of both Dorothy Parker and James Thurber – once wrote: ‘Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.’

Is that true? Is that why childhood days always seemed to be sunny? Is it why we remember only the fun and forget the frustration of trying to get stories, and then searching for a working phone box, dictating to an uninterested copy-typist, fighting to get good stuff into the paper, and the constant anxiety of working against deadlines?

Thank God that nobody had yet invented what’s now known as ‘stress’, because if we’d been put wise to it I guess most of us would have been on permanent sick leave.

[Which reminds me… Think about that for a moment. We hammered away for years on old Remington uprights. They were replaced by keyboards that responded to an almost feather-light touch; and only then did anybody come up with something called Repetitive Strain Injury, caused by typing. But I digress…]

I don’t pretend to have a clue how memory works. But I know how it jogs. It typically goes like this:

Somebody mentioned the name of photographer Bill Rowntree one day, which started me reminiscing – from among many experiences with him – about Bill’s world scoop photo on the imminent return of yachtsman Robin Knox-Johnston from his single-handed round-the-world voyage, and that got the old grey cells working about a silly story behind the scoop.

See what I mean? I was already mentally interrupting my own stories.

Well, not all of them were originally mine. Roy Spicer told me this one, so I believe it.

Nobody had sailed alone, non-stop, 30,000 miles around the world before 1969. Francis Chichester had tried two years earlier with Gypsy Moth IV, and was famously knighted on his return, but he’d been forced to put in to Australia for repairs.

So when the Sunday Mirror calculated that Knox-Johnston, on board Suhaili, must be getting close to home and to a place in history (in a challenge entirely organised by the Sunday Times) the picture desk decided to make contact, and Rowntree prepared to scoop the opposition by the simple ploy of finding out where the yacht was and chartering an aircraft to fly over it and take pictures.

[‘Aerial pictures are easy,’ Johnny Robson used to say.’ ‘You just set the camera on infinity, point it and press the tit.’ But back to the story…]

Picture editor Allen Baird got on to the ship-to-shore operator and asked for a radio link with the yachtsman. After a while he was put through. ‘Hello, Suhaili Suhaili, Suhaili … This is the London Sunday Mirror calling. Are you receiving? Over.’

[He’d been in the forces. He knew how to do two-way radio on a maritime network. You call the ship’s name three times… Oh, sorry.]

Back came the reply: ‘Hello Sunday Mirror! This is Suhaili. Receiving you loud and clear. Over.’

Baird: ‘Could I speak to Mr Knox-Johnston, please…?’

This story was often lost on drinkers in the Stab In The Back who had already forgotten, even during the brief (if uninterrupted) telling, that the entire point of the tale, and of the voyage, was that it was single-handed.

But luckily Roy Spicer was a man of infinite patience, and of good yarns.

I recall there was even a fine journalistic postscript, missed at the time by most reporters covering the yacht’s arrival at Falmouth. The customs men dutifully went on board and asked: ‘Where you from – what was your last port of call?’ And they were told: ‘Falmouth.’

Mention of Roy always reminds me that before joining us he’d been northern theatre critic of the News Chronicle.

He once wrote a piece for them that began:

Slick, sparkling, spectacular, and with some of the most brilliant dancing seen on the English stage, this colourful musical drama has a weakness – its songs. It has no songs to hum or remember.

And the headline, across two columns on the front page, was: a humdinger – without a tune to hum.’ So much for the European premiere of West Side Story, at Manchester Opera House.

Shortly afterwards they made him motoring editor.

When we shared an office in the Mirror Holborn building I’d often walk in singing Maria, or Tonight, or When You’re a Jet, America, or even Gee, Officer Krupke. And Roy, unphased by this intentionally irritating habit, would just shrug and say: ‘Sorry, but I still don’t think they're good songs.’

But that also reminds me of the time when Bob Edwards offered him the chief reporter’s job, and Roy said that if it meant a pay-rise, he’d take it, but only on condition that he didn’t ever have to speak to the news desk, and that his life-style would remain unchanged.

In addition to motoring – which meant he got to drive a brand new car every week – he also organised the Great British Beer Competition which brewers competed for as if their careers depended on it, as, perhaps, they did, and had Roy constantly driving around in search of The Perfect Pint.

We called him our drink-and-drive correspondent.

Which reminds me that Patrick Mennem, Roy’s counterpart on the Daily Mirror, spent months warning readers about the impending threat of the breathalyser, then was arrested within 48 hours of its introduction, becoming the first person in that job to be banned from driving.

Pat, by the way, was in El Vino one lunchtime when the wine correspondent of the Telegraph announced: ‘I am going to Bordeaux tomorrow.’

Mennem – a man who always looked as if his face was about to explode in anger – told him: ‘One already feels sorry for poor old Doe, whoever he is. But it’ll be a blessed relief for the rest of us, in this place.’

And that stroll down Memory Lane, or at least down Chancery Lane to the Strasse, was all prompted by a bloke in darkest Kome [8º28’ 4.265”N; 16º43’19.058”E], 40 miles south-east of Moundou, reading our recollections in the middle of the night and remembering a quote from a guy on the New York Post who retired in 1941.

Anyway, that’s how the conversations used to go in the pubs, and there were some of Fleet Street’s finest who never strayed further from the office than the nearest bar.

They are all lost to us now, the pubs.

There was the King(s) and Keys, Ye Olde Cock Tavern, The Punch, The Tipperary and the Old Bell; the George, the Devereaux, the Coach and Horses, the Cockpit and the Haunch of Venison; the Viaduct, the Harrow, the Witness Box (formerly the Feathers) and the Black Friar; the Hog’s Head, Blue Anchor, Printer’s Devil and the White Swan; Peel’s, the Prince of Wales and Winnie’s (or Number Ten); there was the Clachan, Popinjay’s, the Red Lion with a Chinese restaurant upstairs (before Soho had a Chinatown) and the Rose and Crown, known as Aunties…

When Fleet Street relocated to docklands The Stab in the Back (known only to the brewers as The White Hart) became a gay bar, then a branch of Pizza Express…

The Cheshire Cheese has been totally overtaken by tourists; it was going that way a long time. Bill Greaves has told the story on this site… I fetched up there one lunchtime with news editor Ken Bennett, to be told by the friendly head waiter that we should have booked, for the place was full.

‘Just a minute,’ I said. ‘Why is it full?’

‘Because it’s the most famous pub in Fleet Street.’

‘So your punters come in here expecting to see what, exactly?’

‘Oh… point taken.’

He led us to a table in the corner and addressed one of the diners on a bench seat: ‘Excuse me, sir, but you know there’s a plaque on the wall behind you saying that this was Dr Johnson’s seat…?’

‘Gee, I’m sorry,’ said the tourist. ‘Has he come in?’

‘No, sir. Sadly he is dead but before he died he bequeathed it to Mr Barker and now he has come in…’

So everybody shuffled round and made space. And Ken, purely for the entertainment of our fellow diners, opened with: ‘Did I tell you about that time with Princess Anne…’

Up opposite the Law Courts was the Wig and Pen Club – not exactly a pub but part of the same culture. Its fame didn’t travel well outside the city and I remember somebody expressing surprise that Wigan had enough journalists to support their own club.

Further still – about as far as anybody could actually walk – was Simpson’s In The Strand where another head waiter apologised for the presence of a customer taking lunch without a tie. ‘I don’t know how he even got in. He’s an American. They’ll be letting women in next. Or Japanese tourists.’ And now they do both.

And, of course, the famous El Vino, now lost completely to barristers and other merchant bankers, where women were famously banned from standing at the bar and where George Martin, being told that his guest, a coal-black editor from one of the Mirror’s then African outposts, could not be served because he was not wearing a tie, told the manager: ‘You tell him it’s because he’s not wearing a tie.’

What is it, then, this thing about journalists and pubs? Some say simply that it’s mainly about unwinding from the stress of a hard day. But not everybody, by any means, had hard days – certainly, at least, not every day. Nor was it the alcohol, for some drank a little, most drank a lot, but only three or four people in my long acquaintance were definable medically as alcoholics.

George Gale once said that journalists needed to rub off each other, that it was their conversation that inspired the best ideas for stories, and there was more than a grain of truth in that. Better still, they actually relished each other’s company – fiercely competitive though they might be. ‘Journalists need other journalists, to survive,’ George explained.

That is how the agendas were set for tomorrow morning’s newspapers. We didn’t rely on press officers or publicity agents to put stories our way, nor on television programming to decide what was news.

And pubs, truth to tell, were often where stories were to be found. I learnt the value of this at the feet of Sir Linton Andrews, legendary editor of the Yorkshire Post, who had signed my indentures as a journalist. (Bill Greaves has nicked this one, too.) While he had been editing the Leeds Mercury a young barmaid in the city had gone to a local music hall and been mauled by a lion. Francis Boyd – already on the Manchester Guardian while I was at school and the paper’s political correspondent and a director – had been the Mercury late duty man and had missed the story.

Nobody else on the staff would have missed it. But Boyd didn’t go on his break for a drink in Whitelock’s Turks Head, the office pub where the barmaid worked. He was that odd animal, a non-drinker.

Heigh ho. It was a different age, then. And a different world.

Daily sales of five, six and even seven million copies – and readership figures two or three times those numbers – might suggest that, whatever we were doing, we were getting some of it right.

So Gentlemen Ranters styles itself The Last Pub in The Street. It’s where Fleet Street’s old elite meets, these days. Much of it is in its dotage now: certainly it is in its anecdotage.

There’s still good conversation to be had there, provided only that you like old stories.

Just be aware, though, that it’s your round.

And understand that – although Fleet Street as a geographical area and as a calling may be much maligned and misunderstood – this collation is not intended to change the opinion of those who malign or misunderstand it. It isn’t written for them: it’s written for us.

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Rudge


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The Gentlemen Ranters site … wallows in nostalgia and is unashamedly self-reverential – Roy Greenslade, Media Guardian


Issue # 201
June 17, 2011


This Week

Former Daily Mirror editor Roy Greenslade (see top of page) was the first of a handful to write and congratulate Ranters on reaching its 200th edition last week, prompting an anonymous member of the Evian-and-cress luncheon club to respond:

But every Gentlemen Ranters article is the same

Each one begins: ‘I remember when...’ before going on to describe how everyone stitched each other up and then got pissed, yet again, on newspaper expenses.

I can hear precisely the same stories in any dead beat’s saloon bar.

We’re not exactly sure what point was being made there, but… yes. That about sums it up. Going out on stories, eh? Beating the competition (or being beaten), and getting pissed at (usually) the end of the day…. And doing it all on exes… Oh, and selling five million or more copies a day (the Guardianista forgot to mention that bit.)

‘Unashamedly’, as Professor Roy might say, there’s more of the same this week from this dead beat’s (only one of us, apparently) saloon bar.

But first, a public service announcement.

#

To celebrate our 200th anniversary, here’s a gift for you.

We don’t do advertising (although we toyed with the idea in the early days but abandoned it when we failed to discover anything that tight-fisted journalists and penurious pensioners wanted to buy) but we do believe in passing on free goodies.

Everybody reading this has a computer. Everybody is open to virus attack and infiltrations of ‘malware’ that can mess up the system, even if it doesn’t destroy it.

We were experiencing internet problems at Ranters and eventually resorted to our brilliant computer-savvy daughter who directed us onto something called Malwarebytes.

It took about five minutes to perform a quick scan and in the process turned up and removed 244 nasties that had not been spotted by (paid-for) AVG/McAfee anti-virus technology.

Here’s the thing. It cured the problem.

Here’s the other thing. It’s available on a free trial. But even to buy it, and keep it, costs only £16.00, for life. You couldn’t get a chap out to look at your computer for that money, but this piece of kit will check it as often as you like, then keep checking.

And… it may be the only bit of software we’ve ever installed that didn’t bugger up something else or just cause complications elsewhere.

Give it a go. You know it make sense. A full scan takes about 45 minutes. You can run it while you’re composing a piece for Ranters.

#

But we were talking about getting pissed in a deadbeats’ pub – like, as some of us knew it, the Manchester Press Club. Garry Steckles remembers the night of the infamous police swoop (which reminds us of the night when a landlord asked: ‘Gents, would you mind finishing off your drinks – only we’re expecting a surprise raid in a few minutes…’)

They wouldn’t, of course, have known about that sort of palaver on the Posh Papers. A different world, there, as David Baird discovered when he was accidentally recruited to work for The Thunderer. Jeeze, they didn’t even swear…

Still on a serious note (we can do this), Geoffrey Seed watched Panorama last week and was reminded of the times when journalists could actually make a difference to society.

But, enough of this. Everybody was wondering how on earth Harold Heys ever got into newspapers. He reveals all. It was reading the wrapper on his chip supper, that done it. His piece is the latest in our running series on How-I-Started, initiated by Walter Schwarz’s excellent memoir, The Ideal Occupation, which is still getting rave reviews all over the place. First prize for the best article is either a million pounds or a copy of the book (the editor’s decision will be final). Submissions are still welcome; non-contributors can just buy the book.

And, as usual, propping the whole thing up is Rudge, the cartoonist. This week he’s looking at the still-topical subject of super injunctions…

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Surprise raid

By Garry Steckles

Mike Kiddey's recent Ranters yarn about Manchester in the sixties, in which he recalled the new chief constable who thought that clamping down on late-night drinking would help get him a top job in London, instantly transported me back to that city's wonderful Press Club.

I happened to be there the night Mike (we never met, but I'm sure we've got so many friends in common he won't mind my using his first name) mentioned, when the police raided the club early(ish) one morning. The chances of my not being there after midnight on any given evening were remote in those days, when the nightly drill on the sports desk of the Daily Mail was beer break (three to four pints) around 7:30, back on the desk for the final couple of hours of your shift, catch the pubs for an hour or so before closing time, another two or three hours at a night club in forlorn pursuit of female company, then off to the Press Club after 2 until throwing-out time... usually anywhere from 5 to 7 in the morning.

Not all of the habitués of the club were journalists. A smattering of policemen, always in plain clothes, were among the regulars, and their presence seemed to preclude even the remote possibility of the enforcement of licensing laws, which would have been a disaster; at a guess, I'd say at least 80 per cent of the drinks served at the club were dispensed after the night spots turfed us, and without that income the institution, which like most press clubs was always short of money, would have been in even more desperate straits.

So we were all somewhat taken aback when, around 3 one busy morning, we noticed four or five policemen in the club... in uniform. A bit naughty, we agreed, as we glanced up from the three-card brag table, then got back to a decent-sized pot.

‘They've got their notebooks out and they seem to be taking names,’ one of the school members muttered as he raised a quid, a substantial bet in those days.

‘Holy shit, I think it's a raid!’ another player announced.

And it was.

The police, somewhat sheepishly it has to be admitted, went about their business quite affably, taking down all of our names and addresses and warning us we might get a summons in the mail before telling us we had to vacate the premises immediately.

We did. And, faced with the alarming prospect of not having anywhere to drink after 2 in the morning, the club's members started plotting how to outfox the chief constable.

Within 24 hours, the scheming had been turned into action, the key being that the law stipulated only that alcohol couldn't be dispensed after 2 in the morning; there was nothing to stop the sale of non-alcoholic drinks. So, it was decided, the doors of the club would be kept locked, and getting in would be by way of a rarely used side door, in case the main entrance was being watched. We were to use a special knock known only to members. As an added precaution, the deal was that drinks would be promptly hidden if a knock was at all suspicious – a rat-a-tat short would be enough to raise the alarm. Within a couple of days, we'd all found a favourite hiding spot –mine was in a hollow stool beside the snooker table, the lid of which could be swiftly raised and a half-consumed pint stowed away snugly under it. And we had it down to a fine art – one suspicious knock, and 20 pints would disappear as if by magic, with decoy glasses of soft drinks left on the tables and bar counters. ‘Of course we're not breaking the law, constable, it's only coke and orange juice,’ was going to be our response if the police turned up.

Defiance and naughtiness had a distinct appeal. Somehow, the beer tasted even better with the element of danger and the possibility of police breaking down the doors at any second. If anything, the club did more business after the raid than before it, and the clientele even included some of the aforementioned plain-clothes coppers, who were embarrassed about the raid and, they told us, not particularly enamoured of their new boss anyway.

The novelty, such as it was, wore off after a few weeks and the club gradually returned to what passed for normal in those hard-drinking days: a high-stakes three-card brag school that would often be carried over to someone's flat, raucous conversation at the bar, the occasional drunken row over a perceived journalistic slight, and, on one memorable occasion, an evening of superb music as visiting members of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, who had been invited to relax at the club after a performance and had been bought many pints, burst into song and serenaded the members with Gilbert and Sullivan favourites for about an hour. Even the brag school was put on hold.

I can't honestly remember the year of the infamous raid, but it must have been around 1967, as I emigrated to Canada in January of '68 and, sadly, lost touch with most of my friends from the club – with the notable exception of Robert Hely, a long-serving stalwart of the Sun sports desk. I still have fond memories from those days of Crawford McAfee, Mike Ramsbottom, Tom Kelly, Len Bell, Bernard Clarke, Scott Gormley, Geoff Whitehead and, from the Mail sports staff, the legendary Joe Hoy and Jimmy Shipton (the horse-racing subs who sat side by side and didn't speak to each other for something like 20 years after a row over who'd handle a racecard), Derek Marshall, Frank Jones, Ron Crowther, Bryan Webster, Ian Archer, Brian Batty, Ray Longhorn, Peter Johnson and Noel Winstanley.

Garry Steckles is a Geordie who has worked for – among other papers – the South Shields Gazette, The Sporting Life, Daily Mail, Newcastle Evening Chronicle, Newcastle Journal, Toronto Star, Montreal Gazette, Toronto Globe and Mail, Vancouver Province and the Chicago Sun-Times. He is the author of Bob Marley: A Life, a biography

#

Quality street

By David Baird

Ever considered working for one of the heavies, you know… what they call the ‘quality press’?

Once upon a time that was my dream. I could see it clearly: the byline followed by ‘Our Own Correspondent’, filing from Ulan Bator or Rio de Janeiro.

Never quite made it – although I came close when I somehow landed a summer relief job editing foreign news on The Times in the early 70s. Now that was an eye-opener.

Suitably awed by sitting at the same subs' table where Graham Greene had once toiled, I soon discovered that working in Printing House Square bore little resemblance to my previous experience in rowdy newsrooms.

No emotional outbursts, slanging matches or floods of obscenity here. Instead a sepulchral calm prevailed over the Foreign Desk. Of those inferior beings, the reporters, there was neither sight nor sound. Those newfangled monstrosities, typewriters, were nowhere to be seen. Nor were the wire machines. We lived in splendid isolation.

Olde-worlde courtesy ruled. Conversation was subdued. It was all terribly serious and everybody was terribly polite. Pencil and paper were our tools. The chief sub handed me a piece of copy and asked if I would mind reducing the wordage and concocting a headline, if it was not too much trouble.

When I said I needed to check a fact, he told me: ‘Ah, you need to consult Intelligence.’ Baffling, until I learned this was Timese for the Library.

I was in a time warp. It was only in 1966 that The Times had suffered a revolution. Yes, it had started printing news instead of adverts on the front page. But it was still living in another age. I recalled the time when disaster befell one of the country's most famous cricketers. While the Mirror screamed the latest news about ‘Our Len’, The Times reported it in exactly one sentence, thus: ‘Mr L Hutton, a Yorkshire opening batsman, may not be available for the next game due to illness.’

At six on the dot every evening the distinguished-looking gentleman sitting opposite me – he turned out to be a Polish emigré, long exiled – rose from his seat and asked if anybody cared to join him in taking a glass of wine in the canteen. As was the custom in Fleet Street.

At 8pm the chief sub turned to me.

‘Play chess, by any chance? I usually have a game in my break, if you're interested.’

Somehow I could not imagine Jim Pennington or Stanley Houghton on the Yorkshire Evening News coming up with that sort of invitation. Nor Neville Stack or Ken Tucker on the Sun.

One rather pompous sub managed to ignore me entirely – well, we hadn't been introduced. That changed however one evening when he shared the lift as we went up to the canteen.

‘Like it over here, do you?’ he asked, in his most patronising manner.

‘Er, how do you mean?’

‘Well, compared to Down Under, I mean.’

‘Actually I come from Shropshire.’

‘Good heavens! So sorry, old man, thought you were a colonial. Well, bless my soul!’

And after that he treated me as an equal, almost.

It couldn't last, of course. The pay was so lousy I had to decamp to the real world, if that's what you'd call the Daily Express.

Also I had a guilty secret. Being rather short in the cash department, my wife and I were of no fixed abode. If anybody asked me where I lived I would struggle to remember. It could be Wimbledon, Putney or Hampstead. It all depended on where I had parked our Volkswagen camper van.

So, every night when I knocked off work at The Times, I would take the Tube to a leafy suburb, wait until the coast was clear, knock on the van door and be admitted by my wife.

If only Lord Rees-Mogg had known – he might have given me a rise.

#

First principles

By Geoffrey Seed

Well done BBC Panorama for its old fashioned investigation into the torture of people with learning disabilities in a private care home in Bristol.

If more newspapers invested in undercover campaigns like this instead of running acres of banal celebrity gossip, circulations might not be slumping and they would be held in higher regard.

Two years ago, I appeared in court on behalf of a learning disabled woman after carrying out para legal research into her assault by a carer.

Even for a moderately unshockable hack, the exercise was an object lesson in never believing what one is told by any official and how, despite notional safeguards, the most vulnerable people in society can still be subjected to the cruellest behaviour.

The person I helped – Miss A – was in her late forties, very slightly built and had been in care since her early teens. She had language and memory but her accounts of events could be jumbled and mistaken.

Despite this, her care team believed she’d been physically abused for three months by a new and heavily built female member of staff, Miss B.

There were tell-tale signs - sudden bruising, incontinence, fear of being with the abuser. This was reported to their manager. She didn’t believe it and said these allegations were made to spite Miss B because her arrival had cut their overtime pay.

Then Miss A herself found enough words to persuade two carers she’d just been slapped across the face while alone with Miss B moments before. They immediately wrote statements and got her to repeat the allegation in front of the manager.

But because Miss A couldn’t give this same account a third time to a duty social worker twenty four hours later, no meaningful action was taken. But soon after, a relief manager saw Miss A in the bath and noted how bruised she was.

I was alerted to this case and, within a day, got into the home, interviewed key people and photocopied Miss A’s relevant records, including body maps showing alarming clusters of bruises on her torso, legs and arms. One carer said Miss A had looked like she’d gone ‘…ten rounds with Mike Tyson.’

I received anonymous letters alleging Miss A and another resident were suffering side effects from what were believed to be inappropriate drugs.

A senior figure from the local authority running the home assured me they would ‘leave no stone unturned’ in their investigation. To help them, I submitted ten detailed pages of complaint and evidence on Miss A’s behalf.

Some six weeks later, I was invited to a meeting with a second senior council official, the man and two women who’d investigated the case and prepared a formal report, a police inspector and a secretary to take notes.

I was told – in all seriousness – the injuries to Miss A were either self-inflicted or had been committed by her profoundly disabled flat-mate who could barely walk. I felt myself being splashed with whitewash.

Not everyone around the table had even read my complaint. The ‘investigators’ appeared not to have asked obvious questions of those involved, were largely unable to answer mine and seemed to have been set on a pre-determined course to show abuse hadn’t taken place rather than discovering if it had.

Indeed, Miss A’s long term carers had been interrogated as suspected whistle blowers (which they weren’t), not as decent employees worried that potentially criminal assaults on a defenceless, handicapped person had taken place. As a result, they felt intimidated and in fear of losing their jobs and being unable to pay their mortgages.

Everything that had happened from start to finish was against the authority’s own voluminous internal and multi lingual guidelines. The police officer began to understand why I said this was a cover up. I insisted only a police-supervised enquiry would establish the truth and he agreed.

So a second and far more rigorous inquiry ensued which corroborated everything I alleged. The authority duly sacked Miss B, the incompetent manager resigned and I believe another responsible individual was moved sideways.

Recruitment, training and management practises were changed. The police set up special courses to teach investigators about basic techniques in asking questions and supplementaries.

In court, Miss A received significant damages and costs. But the psychological damage of being beaten by a carer she should have been able to trust is not something for which she could ever be compensated.

The voices of people like her are often too faint to be heard – even by those who say they’re listening and are paid to do so. If hacks don’t join with others of good will to speak on their behalf when circumstances demand it, then I’m not sure what the point of journalism is.

I’m pretty certain it isn’t wall to wall celebrity rutting… but then again, what the hell do I know anymore?

Former Daily Mail and TV investigative journalist Geoffrey Seed is the author of A Place of Strangers, a novel based on facts acquired from his old contacts…

#

Starter’s orders

By Harold Heys

A fish and chip shop queue set me on the rocky road to a career in journalism.

It was the early spring of 1956 and I was a 14-year-old, meandering my way through my local grammar school in Darwen, Lancashire. Rock ’n’ roll was about to burst on to the scene. I rather think I was still in short pants.

It was late on a damp and drizzly Wednesday and I was in my usual position, waiting patiently in the London Terrace chippy, glancing through the pile of newspapers that were waiting to perform sterling duty as wrapping paper (ah, happy days!) and found myself glancing at what must have been the following day's card for the opening of the Grand National meeting at Aintree.

I hadn’t much of a clue what I was looking at – strange names and lots of figures – but my eyes came to rest on the name ‘John Jacques’ which I presumed, after careful study, to be a horse. I thought: That'll win!

‘Next!’ And off I shuffled down the line towards my fish and chips. Plenty of salt and vinegar, please…

The scene moves forward a couple of nights and there I was in the chippie again, in my usual position, glancing at the pile of newspapers. And there it was. A big headline:

John Jacques
wins at 13-2

It took my breath for a moment. I thought: I'm a natural. This is the future.

I went to my first race meeting - Manchester - that year. My mum took me and we went on the bus. We went in the cheap ring: 3s 6d – and all the colour and excitement you could pack into a grey day. The first bet I had that magical afternoon was two bob on a horse called Ocarillus and it went in. I was well and truly hooked.

I became the school bookmaker and regularly relieved the poor sods of their dinner money. At least until a lad called Frank Starkie had a shilling on Babur in the ’58 Lincoln. The horse had won the race the previous year and was humping over a stone more. I couldn’t see it landing the double so I laid him 33-1. It duly won and broke the book.

I paid him every penny – eventually – but I realised that my career path wasn’t going to lead to bookmaking, especially as my maths was a bit suspect. I was too big to be a jockey, the family was too skint for me to become an owner and I was too clueless about horses to think of becoming a trainer.

I’d ridden since I was a kid, but apart from knowing one end of a nag from t’other – both highly dangerous – I was no expert on horseflesh. Then it struck me – I’d become a journalist and write about ’em.

In August 1958, after a week in the sixth form of Darwen Grammar School, I wrote round to three or four local newspapers and, to my surprise, was invited to an interview with the Northern Daily Telegraph editor, Percy Hoare. He was obviously a chap of great discernment because a few days later he offered me a job. Early that September I started my career as a 16-year-old wet-behind-the-ears junior reporter on the Blackburn evening. It was that easy. Get a general grounding and then think about specialising, was the good advice I’d been given from the NCTJ.

I went on to the sports desk of the Sunday People in Manchester a few years later and covered races such as the Grand National and the St Leger and for more than 20 years settled back into subbing and production and helped to spearhead the Mirror Group move into ‘new technology’.

I’ve always maintained my interest in horse racing. I have a collection of more than 800 racing books and all of the ‘Spy’ jockey lithographs. The sport has taken my wife and me round the world; from Venezuela to Rhodesia, from Dubai to the USA and throughout Europe and the British Isles. We’ve seen Breeders Cup meetings in Belmont Park and Churchill Downs, the Dubai Classic, the Pardubice in the Czech Republic, the Italian, Irish and French Derbys, several Prix de l’Arcs and the Maryland Hunt Cup and I’ve been to well over 40 Grand Nationals. I’ve even backed a few winners along the way.

So many happy memories – and all because I was kept waiting in the local chip shop on that wet and windy Wednesday some 55 years ago.

And one final thought. When was the last time a 16-year-old walked into a reporter’s job on an evening paper? Or a weekly for that matter?

#

Rudge


###


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


Issue # 202
June 24, 2011


This Week

We have a movie clip this week. It’ll come as a boon to all those Ranters readers who are still experiencing difficulty in getting to grips with the printed word.

This one’s actually a trailer for a movie that’s currently doing the rounds of film festivals in Europe and the States and the reason we’re showing it is that it’s about one of the best stories ever covered by Fleet Street (and the rest of the world).

The title is Tabloid. And the plot is based on Tony Delano’s brilliant book, Joyce McKinney and the Case of the Manacled Mormon. Remember it now?

As Peter Tory says in the trailer, ‘It was in all the papers…’

The guy who made the movie paid $300 for an out-of-print copy of the book. You can buy it – back in print and updated – for a mere £9.99. Or, from today, you can download it onto your screen or e-reader as an e-book for something like half that price. You can find it here, or at the usual e-book outlets.

But the trailer’s worth watching – if only because it’s so badly made. It includes short interviews with a couple of Fleet Street worthies, as well a quotes from the now-raddled old whore, Joyce herself.

For those who don’t remember the story – but more especially for those who do, but who never look at our book pages – Derek Jameson sportingly reviews the book and outlines the plot…

We’ve been running (some of you have noticed) a series about how people got started in journalism. The contribution from Judy Ward doesn’t quite fit that category – she’s writing about her third start, at the Express, writing for editors whose names she can’t remember. Well, it’s not as if they were important. But she does recall trying to fry eggs on the pavement, a summer job regularly reserved at the London Mirror for reporter Ron Ricketts.

Ian Watson, however, fits the bill perfectly, but with a big difference. At the age of 35 he was offered a move from the comps’ room to the editorial floor as a sub. Young readers might find his story difficult to follow; they were doing 96 pages, seven or eight editions, plus a couple of regional slips. Also, much of the vocabulary will appear to be in code… It was the late sixties, a world away.

Then there’s Rudge, and it’s back to where we started – trying to fathom e-books…

But, before we start, let’s not forget our mission statement; the raison d’etre of this site (as described by a Media Guardian reader last week) is about getting pissed.

In olden days, the first Christmas party every year was organised by the staff of the Sunday People – usually in February. This year’s, billed as the Absolute Bloody Final event, breaks with tradition and takes place on July 5.

So you might wish to raise a glass or three as former Mirror group staffers get together for a home-grown cabaret night which promises to be a cross between Fleet Street Has Never Had Talent and Last of The Summer Whine.

Promoter Lew (David) Graves, a former People snapper, has assembled a senior-studded cast of the usual suspects eager to shuffle (few of them strut any more) their stuff.

They include the low-kicking chorus line ‘Les Girls’ (arthritis permitting), velvet voiced adman Jim Sollis, pithy (yes, we did spell that right) performer Plain John Smith and photographer Mike Maloney whose near-perfect Elvis impersonation will guarantee that EVERYBODY leaves the building.

The venue is the appropriately named English Martyrs Club in Prescott Street, London E1 on Tuesday, July 5 from 7 to 11.30 pm. There are a few tickets (£15, in aid of the Journalists’ Charity) left. Contact Lesley Hutchins at Lesley@Robertguy.co.uk or phone 0207 232 3046

#

The real McKinney

By Derek Jameson

It was a tabloid editor’s dream come true. Thirty years on and the pulse still quickens at the thought of Southern belle Joyce McKinney abducting her former lover, Mormon missionary Kirk Anderson, shackling him to a bed and Having Her Way with him. In a Dartmoor cottage, of all places.

Joyce herself reckoned it was the Greatest Love Story Ever Told. Under arrest on kidnapping charges, she told Epsom magistrates that such was her love for Anderson, ‘I would have skied down Mount Everest in the nude with a carnation up my nose.’

Released on bail, she made whoopee on Fleet Street expenses while frenzied picture editors plotted how to get a shot of her on skis, preferably naked. ‘No waayy,’ she said, ‘No way would Ah ever take off mah clothes before a camera. Ah am a religious person.’

Shortly before she was due in dock at the Old Bailey, she was taken to the pictures – Joan Collins in The Stud – in a Daily Express Roller and later escorted home to her lodgings. Then she disappeared.

Mirror executive Anthony Delano, having given us the hilarious story of the bungled attempt to bring train robber Ronnie Biggs home from Brazil (Slip-Up, Revel Barker Publishing, £9.99), subsequently produced a blow-by-blow account of the McKinney saga under the title Joyce McKinney and the Manacled Mormon.

It was a rush job, produced for Mirror Books in 1978, and in recent times has become a collector’s item selling for more than £100. Now Delano, who these days has given up daily deadlines for a university professor’s chair, has plugged gaps in the earlier book, tidied up the text and adjusted the title to Joyce McKinney and the Case of the Manacled Mormon. He has also binned 16 pages of tacky pictures, which I rather missed, but the book still promises to be as big a sensation as the first version.

The basic facts remain unaltered. In September 1977 Joy, as she liked to be called, and her faithful and supposedly platonic acolyte Keith May, were charged with kidnapping Anderson, a missionary dispatched from Utah presumably to escape the attentions of McKinney. He told police he was grabbed outside a Mormon church in Epsom, bundled into a car and driven to the rented cottage in Devon.

There he was held for three days, shackled to an iron bed. On the third night May appeared with chains, ropes and padlocks. Anderson was tied to the four corners of the bed and McKinney then forced him to take part in a sex session, claiming she wanted to conceive as she had miscarried his baby in America.

What makes Delano’s superbly told story unique is his detailed reporting of Fleet Street tabloids at work and the thinking of the two editors principally involved, Mike Molloy of the Daily Mirror and yours truly, Derek Jameson of the Daily Express – not long before that, Molloy’s friend and deputy at the Mirror. Delano is the man who knows allat the time he was the Mirror’s chief correspondent in America.

The essence of the story was the way in which Joy managed to persuade the Express – so triumphant to have found her in hiding in Atlanta – that she was a God-fearing innocent whose only crime was her obsessive love for Kirk Anderson, while the Mirror’s parallel investigation discovered that this former beauty queen with the surgically enhanced breasts actually made her money as a massage parlour queen touting weird sexual services in Los Angeles.

Peter Tory, then of the Hickey column, had escorted Joy to the movie premiere on the night before she did her vanishing act. His pride severely wounded, he subsequently found her hiding in Atlanta with Keith May. It seemed only fair to me that Tory should handle her exclusive story, for which I paid her the princely sum of £40,000.

The highly experienced, ebullient Brian Vine and chief photographer Bill Lovelace were dispatched to assist Tory and the Express team hit the road, never staying Iong in the same place. Joy was afraid the FBI was after her; Tory and Vine were more worried about the competition.

Delano writes: ‘Along the way Tory and Vine debriefed Joy, shaped and polished the story of her life before and after Kirk…The series was to run for a full week. It was fragrant with innocence and maidenly pride. The Mormons had been beastly, so had the British. It would have been impossible for her and Keith to get a fair trial because no one in Britain could understand what she had felt for Kirk.’

Back at the Mirror, Molloy and his team – notably photographer Kent Gavin, who had acquired 300 sleazy photographs, and reporters Roger Beam, Frank Palmer and Jill Evans – were chuckling. They learnt from bookings for TV commercials that the Express was about to publish. That would let loose the Mirror bombshell. Molloy had been sitting on the sensational revelations for weeks, fearing to publish in case he was held to have influenced a jury. In the event, the CPS dropped all proceedings.

Molloy unlocked his safe and handed out his layouts. ‘Only one headline on Page One,’ he instructed: The Real McKinney.

It was the tabloid scoop of the decade, says Delano. The Express presses were still spilling out the anodyne version that Vine and Tory had concocted while a few hundred yards to the west Mirror vans were pulling away with bundles of papers that displayed Joy in all her nakedness.

Hearing the news in a shabby hotel in Myrtle Beach, South Caroline, Joy went berserk. Tory recalled: ‘She rushed for the windows, clawing her way up the curtains. She was dressed in her nun’s habit. She looked like a giant bat.’ Eventually she was restrained, taken to hospital and sedated.

Delano concludes: Jameson took it like a man. He made his way to the Mirror’s favourite pub, appropriately named the Stab in the Back, took in the riotous celebration going on there, and thrust both hands in the air. ‘I surrender!’

‘What else could I do?’ he asked afterwards. ‘They are all my mates. They had done a marvellous job, much as it hurt me to say so. What could I do but buy them all a drink.’

Delano recounts a strange sequel to this tale of tabloid tears and laughter... Joy turned up in Seoul earlier this year with a scrap of the ear of her late pit-bull terrier, Booger. She later produced five puppies she said had been cloned by Korean scientists. Using the name Bernann McKinney, she denied she was Joyce – but the game was up when her picture made the papers. True to form, she disappeared again, leaving behind five puppies – and a bill for £25,000.

Joyce McKinney and the Manacled Mormon is published by Revel Barker and is currently available with free delivery worldwide from The Book Depository

#

Scoop? – What’s a scoop?

By Judy Ward Bradwell

It was in the early 1960s that I took the lift to the editorial floor of the big black building in Great Ancoats Street, Manchester, the head office of the northern edition of the Daily Express. It was a large editorial floor, well lit by a wall of windows letting in the bright light of the city.

I’d been told to report to an editor, whose name I don’t recall. I tried, as best I could, while clutching an elegant but carefully-closed long umbrella as a walking stick, to stride manfully across to the office at the far end of the room. As a woman I knew I had to stride out manfully across editorial floors, even in high heels. I had put my knee out two days earlier and I need the umbrella for help.

I later discovered it was thanks to a conversation over a drink in a Manchester bar that I had been phoned by the paper and asked if I’d like to be interviewed for a job. As a subdued minion working on the Manchester Evening Chronicle for the ferocious red-headed news editor Harold Mellor I was all too delighted to look for a change. I was on my way up in the journalism trade. ‘Remember we make tables and don’t do art work,’ an editor once told me, but that was many years later.

When I took the lift to the Express editorial floor I was still engulfed with the wish to change the world through my writing. I was offered a job, and there was space for some creativity after all. I remember trying to fry an egg on the pavement outside the Daily Express on a hot day just so I could write a story about it being warm enough to fry eggs on the pavement. There was room for such artistic culinary license on the Express: the cooked egg was a failure.

I worked for three or four editors during the three-and-a-half entertaining years I spent on the paper. Don’t know entirely how I survived – perhaps because I was young (early twenties), blonde (well, fairish but should hair colour have anything to do with this?) and a northerner (I could understand the local accent, not always apparent to editors from the south). Some of the accents used by those we had to interview ‘up north’ were a bit tricky, and I did get by except among the miners of the North East where I found I didn’t do Geordie. I accepted the northern tag with pride. I had other interests and didn’t wish to go to London. I would leave eventually of my own accord but I did wonder why I was kept on.

The Express news editor Tom Campbell always seemed to ensure I was kept busy, even if I was being dispatched by boat to Ireland. Most days there was a story, often overnight away from Manchester. You could sit round the office for seven hours and then within an hour of going home be sent to a story in Yorkshire.

Although these weren’t, let’s be honest, always of the foot-in-the-door demanding kind I survived change after change of editors, both in Manchester and London. It was Eric Raybould, one of my Manchester editors, who said being an editor was a bit like being pushed along the plank on the edge of a pirate ship. ‘There’s just the long way down, and the water below.’ Such was the scene back then.

The great Bob Edwards on a visit from London strode into the editorial area. ‘And what scoops have you provided?’ he asked me, as I was the nearest reporter at the end of the line of desks and typewriters. As others fumbled in their mind for exclusives I looked at him blankly. I wasn’t sure what his sort of ‘scoop’ was as it wasn’t a word much used in Manchester back then.

He passed me by. Somehow I survived. Other journalists like (Dame) Ann Leslie and (Sir) Michael Parkinson would travel south, as would Derek Taylor, on behalf of The Beatles, and in the end I travelled many miles. I married the late Paul Bradwell, a New Zealander and news editor of the Manchester Evening News. I ended up in magazines, newspapers and book publishing in Wellington, New Zealand.

Judy Ward grew up in a pub: the Hesketh Arms in Southport. She began her career as a reporter on the Southport Visiter, moved from there to the Manchester Evening Chronicle and then to the Daily Express in Gt Ancoats Street. After ten years as London correspondent for a group of New Zealand newspapers she moved with her husband Paul Bradwell and their family to Wellington, New Zealand.

#

Baptism of fire

By Ian Watson

Normally, I’m a passive, laid-back Ranters reader. However, the account by Garry Steckles last week of his early days as a young scribe in Manchester brought memories of my first day on a news desk flooding back. You see, Garry was there…

It was Tuesday, October 7, 1969 and I was beavering away in the Toronto Globe & Mail composing room – ‘the works’ as Canadians called that hallowed place. I was a Glasgow Herald-trained straw-boss 'printer', the Canuck's tag for a time-served compositor-Linotype operator of the old school. It was 3pm and I had just begun laying up heavy steel chases on the stone to block in adverts for the ‘bulldog’ (first edition, for those too young to remember). As I recall, we had 96 pages planned for that night with the usual seven or eight editions plus a couple of ‘slips’.

Anyway, a tap on the shoulder straightened me up as I was about to place a mitred 6pt column rule around a brassière advert, the identity of which I had pencilled in on the layout as ‘Stopsemphlapen Gesellschaftsvertrag Co Ltd’ for the enlightenment and amusement of the women’s section editors.

‘Can you hold a pencil, Ian?’ asked managing editor Clark Davey. ‘Do you still want to be a copy editor?’

‘Well, yes, I guess so.’ I was a bit taken aback because I had been knocking on his door for years. ‘When and where do I start?’

‘Right now, 5th floor main rim,’ said Davey, a tough, but hugely popular newsman, nowadays in his 80s and living hale and hearty in Ottawa.

I shed my Goth-like dustcoat, parked my tweezers and splitter, and took the back lift up into the brave new world of cocktails instead of beer, expense slips laced with lies, and a ‘screw-you’ attitude if you weren’t a Maple Leafs fan or at least a member of sports editor Jim Vipond’s curling team.

‘Sit there,’ Davey indicated the huge horseshoe-shaped main rim (sub-editors’ table) and ‘I’ll catch you later,’ he said, hurrying towards his room overlooking the Lord Simcoe Hotel at the corner of King St West and York.

The slotman (chief sub) Martin Lynch introduced me to two downtable colleagues, Lois Scott and A N Other. Baffled, I wondered out loud: ‘Where’s everyone else.’

‘Oh, that’s all of us for now,’ said the bearded giant, who had vowed never to shave until the newspaper's owner, R Howard Webster, divested himself of his Schick Razor Co shares. Marty's greatest, though unnerving attribute, was total recall, a photographic memory that proved a massive blessing over the years. ‘Everyone else is off with Hong Kong Flu. You three are it, I’m afraid. So here’s something for you, Ian,’ said Lynch, handing me my first ‘live’ story, ‘but keep it under your blotter, because it’ll likely develop later.’

Thus began, at 35, my baptism of fire in the breechblock of major Canadian journalism. I toyed with my five-graf filler, the demand for a three-deck s/c head pencilled at top. I wrote on a sheet of copy paper: Montreal police, // firemen threaten // mass walkout.

Next up, to howls of laughter from Lynch et al, the first six-column head created by this ‘instant journo’ had been rejected by the caseroom Ludlow operator; it was ignominiously dumped into Lynch's in-basket by his soul-less Lamson-Paragon pneumatic tube carrier. My carefully worked title had bounced by a country mile and I was mortified. As a Lino op, I had never sent a bounced head back to the chief sub without offering an alternative 'fit'.

And so Montreal's 'Night of Terror' began to develop hour by exciting hour. The city's police force, firemen and taxi drivers all withdrew their labour over various complaints – pay, conditions and territorial parameters. While the Globe’s 16pp Report on Business section (Garry Steckle's bailiwick in those days) was being put to bed as an airmail spinoff, all hell started to break loose in Montreal. By dusk, the number of bank robberies in that quintessentially French city – custodian of all things financial in that restless Quebec province and overlord of the St Lawrence River trade – had doubled.

When full darkness descended, Montreal sources began reporting a major crime every few minutes – arson, looting, shooting, robbery with violence, muggings, unprovoked assaults as well as sheer vandalism on a grand scale. There was unrest along the waterfront, too, as maritime and transport unionists took advantage of the situation to settle old scores, battling it out ship-to-shore and vice-versa.

Montreal was in a state of shock for 16 long hours… as was yours truly, subbing running copy, rushing downstairs two-at-a-time to the caseroom to intercept the still-hot slugs on the bulk, opening up the front and other working pages already on the moulding presses or on trolleys, updating the flare, making sure the inserts were properly placed while reading proofs upside down (easy for me), and then checking the inter-edition plate changes in the press room far below ground.

With a staff shortage of some 17 subs evident in all corners of the newsroom, at the start we were hard pushed to get the self-styled 'national' paper out on time, far less do justice to a huge breaking story. Earlier, the newspaper's bean counters had failed to stump up enough 'readies' to get our pen and notebook guys in the air. We held a hasty whip-round in the office and raised sufficient cash to put two reporters and a cameraman aboard an early-evening flight bound for that beleaguered city 500km away.

As time went by, however, the pressure eased a bit as 'sportsies' and business subs came over with offers of help. News editor Alan ‘Big Guns’ Dawson (he was saddled with the nom-de-guerre because as a maritime command airman protecting Canada's eastern coastline, he was reputed to have flown with twin-.45s tucked inside his flying boots) started subbing, too.

Dawson's sidekick and deputy, Fred Egan, pitched in with some pithy advice. Egan had come to national daily prominence because he had scooped the continent's reporting elite in the aftermath of the 1958 'Springhill Bump', a coal mine disaster in which 74 men had died the day before. Egan had been wooing the small Nova Scotia mining community’s switchboard operator who, it was rumoured, pulled the plugs (literally) on incoming calls from newshounds all over North America in favour of Egan's open line to the Globe.

Around 5 next morning, it was all over bar the shouting and I fell into bed in a hotel room provided by a grateful management. Next day, Clark Davey called me and said: ‘I hear Martin gave you a good workout last night. You've got the job.’

Forty-two years and three continents later, I'm still battling deadlines… thank goodness.

Ian Watson left the Toronto Globe & Mail in 1971 and returned to the Glasgow Herald as a sub-editor. He resettled in the then Rhodesia before moving to Hong Kong where he’s lived for 30 years.

#

Rudge


###


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If you are not already on our journalists’ mailing list (or if you used to be on it and have mysteriously fallen off) and want to be reminded when the site is updated, send your name and email address (in the body of the copy) 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.


Superb read

Anthony Delano brings 60 years of high-voltage journalistic experience to his books on stories that fired the imagination of newspaper readers, worldwide. In Joyce McKinney and the Case of the Manacled Mormon, he has again struck gold. His research, and attention to detail, is faultless.

Any journalists who were involved in the Joyce McKinney story will nod their heads in approval of Delano's meticulous investigation into what really happened when McKinney manacled a Mormon to her bed. And any journalists who were not involved will for ever wish they had been. A superb read. – Barnes & Noble, New York.

#

Your PC

Republished from last week:

We don’t do advertising (although we toyed with the idea in the early days but abandoned it when we failed to discover anything that tight-fisted journalists and penurious pensioners wanted to buy) but we do believe in passing on free goodies.

Everybody reading this has a computer. Everybody is open to virus attack and infiltrations of ‘malware’ that can mess up the system, even if it doesn’t destroy it.

We were experiencing internet problems at Palazzo Ranti and eventually resorted to our brilliant computer-savvy daughter who directed us onto something called Malwarebytes.

It took about five minutes to perform a quick scan and in the process turned up and removed 244 nasties that had not been spotted by (paid-for) AVG/McAfee anti-virus technology.

Here’s the thing. It cured the problem.

Here’s the other thing. It’s available on a free trial. But even to buy it, and keep it, costs only £16, for life. You couldn’t get a chap out to look at your computer for that money, but this piece of kit will check it as often as you like, then keep checking.

And… it may be the only bit of software we’ve ever installed that didn’t bugger up something else or just cause complications elsewhere.

Give it a go. You know it make sense. A full scan takes about 45 minutes. You can run it while you’re composing a piece for Ranters.

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