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


Issue # 186
March 4, 2011


This Week

It was (although you might have slept through it) Oscar Week. And the nominations in the Best Excuse For Not Interviewing Colonel Gaddafi category are:

Alan Dean, in I Missed Him In Three Countries and Didn’t Get Any Of His Loot…

David Baird, for Close, But No Cigar… and

Revel Barker, in The Get Out Of Jail Free Card.

In the ‘real’ world of what the show-biz writers called Tinsel Town (do they still call it that?) – and this week’s celeb scoop – Stephen Bates reveals how oft-nominated Kenneth Branagh nearly became One Of Us. He must be regretting it, every time he reads this site.

And we have had a card from the cartoonist, Rudge, who’s on holiday.

But first… Andrew Drummond was reading Ranters last week, and suddenly started to feel very old.

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God, I know them all…

By Andrew Drummond

Good heavens, now I KNOW I’m getting old. In your last edition you had Geoff Seed, who I worked with at Twenty Twenty Television (we went round the world together first class for Channel 4); Bob Warren who I worked with for nine years at the News of the World, and Derek Jameson for part of that time. Then there’s Revel Barker, who I crossed swords with when he was at the Daily Mirror, Arliss Rhind – well he was one of the many Scots Expressmen at the time including Brian Steele and Alan Cochrane, a great crowd.

I think some of the stories have blurred with age though. Bob Warren probably was indeed the smartest and most gentlemanly chap at the News of the World, but actually there were a few pretty close to him in those days. The newsroom was a bit like public school with our token East Londoner, Ron Mount (ex flying squad) holding the candle of the masses and meeting up with his doll in the Printers Pie after work.

Derek Jameson was right when he talked about the freelancers of course, run by features. I am sure he is aware of ‘the animals’ room’. The post office tent was acquired by Ian Cutler and was used more as a stunt for a documentary for ITV. At one stage it took off by itself down Mercers Road N19 – for the cameras of course.

For Derek to say that he did not know what was happening under him now I find a little difficult to believe.

I never had any moral difficulties working for Bob, but I did in the latter stages with other editors. Reporters with tumblers against walls? – never. Of course Derek doesn’t believe that. But I certainly remember ringing Koo Stark once on a private number and saying its Andrew here. ‘Yes. Darling’ – ‘No actually it’s Andrew Drummond here’. The conversation did not go far. I think there may have been an errant Post Office telephone worker involved.

Well back to Revel Barker. He was of course an old Mirror hand, but back in the late 80s he was controlling Maxwell’s Special Squad dedicated, I think, to trying to keep their boss out of the paper and Paul Callan in it.

I remember shortly after leaving the NoW offering Alastair Campbell at the Daily Mirror (yes: him) an exclusive with the family of a chap called Derrick Gregory who was due to hang in Malaysia for drugs trafficking (I had investigated the syndicate for C4). The Mirror were to fly the parents out and pay £1,000 towards his defence costs plus my fee. (Paying costs is all pretty much illegal now I guess. But Gregory had serious mental health issues and was a very sad case so there was no moral issue for me.)

Paul Callan flew out to Penang with the parents to join me, and announced that the £1,000 was no longer on offer.

While Callan was recovering from the flight during which I understand he had put on an entertaining cabaret for the flight attendants I collected the family from his hotel.

‘I’ve got the mother. I’ve got the father. Now hand over the ****ing money,’ I told Paul on the phone. He checked and indeed they were gone.

‘In all my years of journalism I have never been treated like this,’ said Paul. ‘You’ll never work again.’

Nevertheless deadlines were pressing and Paul and the wonderful photographer Nigel Wright (now in Australia) duly handed their advanced expenses to the lawyer and were issued with a receipt.

Business done. The rest of the week went fine with the Mirror making most of his buy up and me habitually pulling Paul (and maybe vice versa) out of those massive Malaysian drainage ditches on the sides of the roads, and sometimes out of the bars, too.

The Mirror even staged the victim’s last supper, buying a slap up meal from a five star hotel and wheeling the trolley into Penang Prison. There was however a long wait before officials let the Mirror team in and Callan was, well, hungry.

I did work again. I have not stopped. I’m still working. It’s still fun. As newspapers are not sending like they did in the good old days, I have sent myself. But it will never be the same...

Andrew Drummond worked on the Street from 74-86 at the Evening News, Daily Mail and News of the World before making TV documentaries and being a founding member of the Observer Film Company. He left in 1990 to freelance out of Bangkok.

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Gaddafi (nearly) and me

By Alan Dean

British mercs, Czech weaponry, a mystery boat on the Dalmatian coast and some nasty pieces of work from the Morrocan secret police. It was late 1971 and I was looking into a story about an abortive coup against Muammar Gaddafi, a bit of a mystery man at the time: he had overthrown Libya’s King Idris a couple of years before.

I had recently arrived in Belgrade as a stringer for Associated Newspapers, the Yorkshire Post, the San Diego-based Copley News Service and several other titles, and was thrown in at the deep end on the coup story, which had come from a whispered tip-off from a friendly attaché at the British embassy, who, it turned out, was the MI6 ‘resident’.

The coup attempt against Gaddafi, financed by one of the deposed king’s wealthy Libyan émigré friends and backed by Muhammed Oufkir, the hardline henchman of Morocco’s King Hassan, would have gone ahead had it not been for the intervention of some ‘heavies’ from MI6 and the CIA. They had been ordered to prevent the boat carrying the mercs and ammunition sailing from Dubrovnik. London and Washington backed Gaddafi at the time – it was all about the oil, of course.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if the mercenaries had sailed out of Dubrovnik and reached Libya. I’ve no idea why, though we can all guess, the story was ‘suppressed’ for some time, and it was to be a while before a Sunday Times crew exposed the plot. But it was a good yarn which earned me a fat fee and some very liberal Fleet Street-style expenses. All in all an excellent kick-off to my Our Man In Belgrade days.

Gaddafi was also responsible, in a way, for encouraging a ‘friendship’ between me and a member of the KGB, although Ivan preferred to be known as the Belgrade correspondent of Izvestia, or was it Pravda (time has blurred the memory somewhat). He was a small, portly figure, and he would roll up at my villa in Dedinje for breakfast, always with a fresh bottle of vodka, and from time to time a jar or two of Beluga caviar.

Ivan and I were both keeping an eye on an oil pipeline that was being planned to carry Libyan crude oil inland from a port near Rijeka on the Croatian coast. These were the chilliest of the cold war days. And the question was whether the pipeline was going to carry oil to the West, or would link up with a system taking it to the communist East.

Over vodka and bacon butties (an East meets West breakfast) we would discuss everything except the pipeline – until the vodka bottle was empty, and then the words ‘Jugoslavenski naftovod’ (Yugoslav pipline) would creep into the conversation. Ivan was about to justify his expenses for our morning talks in the villa conservatory… though he never did

When Ivan left Belgrade I threw a party for him (the expense claim to the Daily Mail read ‘entertaining a senior KGB official’). During the party, which was attended by a large bunch of journos and selected diplomats, I announced that the British government would like to recognise Ivan for his services to Anglo-Soviet relationships, but because he was Russian, he could not be awarded the usual OBE or CBE. Instead he was to be made a Knight of Great Britain, and I gave him a parchment scroll that had been made for the occasion. Knight of Great Britain? He would be entitled to put the initials after his name...

My next Gaddafi encounter came when I went to Malta for Copley News Service to report on Maltese-Soviet ties. I arrived at a time when Gaddafi was about to open a Libyan Cultural Centre on the island and was invited to the opening. Somebody told me that the thousands of books on Arab culture donated by Gaddafi had failed to arrive on time for the official opening event.

Luckily, a local businessman stepped in and lent the cultural centre enough books to make a good impression for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Gaddafi never tuned up for the opening. He sent Abdessalam Jalloud, the then Libyan prime minister. It was just as well the minister did not inspect the books stocking the shelves: they were lined with several rows of Jewish literature, including several volumes in Hebrew. Sabotage? Who knows. But whoever placed the books on the shelves may have had supermarket training – the more provocative titles proclaiming Zionism, were all at eye level….

Sometime later, while I was living for a while in London, Gaddafi came into my life again. I had been involved in the launch of a new Arab-Far East publication, working for Selim el-Lozi, the Lebanese publisher of Al Hawadess. Alas, he returned to Beirut for his mother’s funeral and was assassinated – leaving me without a job. A friend told me she had been asked to come up with a concept for a youth sports magazine, concentrating mainly on football. Not my scene, but I told her I would help her – the fee was too good to turn down. I was surprised by the venue for the eventual presentation: the Libyan Embassy. The potential backer of the new magazine was none other than Muammar Gaddafi.

The scene at the embassy was surreal. As we were shown up to the third floor office of the attaché we were to meet we had to pass a dozen or more armed Libyans, who looked as they had come from central-casting for the filming of Lawrence of Arabia – all dressed in djellabahs and armed to the teeth.

The pitch was made to what was a Libyan version of The Dragon’s Den. But our concept was not accepted. We were given silver-framed photos of the Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya aka the Leader and Guide of the Revolution and a four-figure cheque for ‘our expenses’ So it was not a complete waste of time

Alan Dean started on the Clapham Observer and worked as a stringer for the Daily Mail, Sun, Daily Mirror, Yorkshire Post, San Diego-based Copley News Service and the South African Argus group at various stages during the 60s and 70s based in Tangier, Saigon, Tel Aviv, Beirut and Belgrade. He was assistant editor of To The Point International and Middle East Events before setting up a publishing company to produce travel industry magazines. Now retired he lives in Antwerp, Belgium and is writing a book based on his stringing experiences.

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Dictation

By David Baird

Howard Baker, a witty New York Times columnist, once outlined his test of a good reporter.

‘You are put in a room with no windows and no reading matter and the door is locked. Six hours later a man enters the room and declares: No comment.

‘You have 10 minutes to write a 500-word report.’

Lucky fellow. That hack had it easy compared with the challenges a reporter is likely to meet when he ventures into North Africa and the Middle East.

In the drama of recent weeks information has exploded out of the Arab world as ‘the people’ have taken to the streets. It is not usually like this. ‘Impenetrable’ takes on a new significance when you find yourself attempting to dig up a few facts in the realms of potentates, as I know to my cost.

Take Morocco’s Ministry of Information where I once had the temerity (OK, naivety) to ask for well, er, information. This caused something of a sensation. The flunkeys gazed at me in bemusement (later I realised they thought I was taking the piss). Funny lot – stone-faced guys of above average height and width, with guns peeking from beneath their jackets.

Of course, their job was not to offer information but to control it. In most of those countries journalists are about as welcome as tsetse flies. They are whistled up when some official pronouncement has to be made. And swatted if they get out of line.

Morocco, ruled by an all-powerful monarch titled Amir Al Mumining (Commander of the Faithful), is relaxed compared to some other locations. Even so, on my visits I could never quite get out of my mind how his predecessors entertained themselves.

A century or so ago the so-called Lords of the Atlas had sophisticated tastes. One sultan would order a slave to hold his steed whenever he mounted. Then, in one graceful movement, as he swung into the saddle he would lop off the slave’s head with his scimitar. Just for laughs.

Now that may not happen today – scimitars are in short supply. But I could not help fingering my neckline nervously on more than one occasion as I sought to establish a few basic facts in the Arab world.

Take Algeria. Covering the election of a president there, I could only find a room in Algiers’ most expensive hotel (bring your own toilet seat). Instead of witnessing delegates picking the new man, the media were sealed off in ‘the press centre’, a concrete bunker in a sports stadium miles from anywhere. After three days they were bussed to the venue, for a 20-minute photo opportunity. Then it was time to go home.

A Spanish correspondent told me how on his arrival in Algeria he had sought interviews with several ministers, or their spokesmen.

‘I have still to receive an answer. But I live in hope. Only been waiting 18 months.’

Diplomats fared no better. One told me how, wanting to invite the president’s wife at his embassy’s national day reception, he had tried to check the correct spelling of her name. ‘We cannot help you. That information is classified,’ replied the president’s office.

Then there was Gaddafi, as crazy as a desert fox, ruling by whim and judged by a fellow Arab leader to have ‘a split personality, both evil’.

Years back I encountered the Teacher-Leader when Maclean’s magazine of Toronto sent me to Libya for a conference of African leaders. The media scene was reminiscent of that in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and some of the leaders present could have qualified for bit parts in The Godfather. You would not want to meet them in a dark alley nor for that matter on a well-illuminated highway. And they were running countries…

But they had been feted in London and other capitals. Politicians had warmly shaken their bloodstained hands, eager to share in their mineral wealth or to conclude profitable trade deals. They rationalise it – I believe – as ‘realpolitik’. (And they call us journalists cynics.)

One of the most sinister of these tyrants was Mengistu, the Ethiopian dictator dubbed ‘the black Stalin’. As he swaggered about surrounded by armed guards, I swear that evil emanated from this poison dwarf. Easy to believe the rumour that he had personally executed Emperor Hailie Selassie.

Initially Mengistu headed a 97-member revolutionary council. But not for long. Half of them were soon in the cemetery – and Mengistu allegedly pulled the trigger himself. When he finally fled into exile, he was welcomed in Zimbabwe by that other great humanitarian, Mugabe.

Gaddafi swept around Tripoli in a large Chevrolet limousine, attended by a cohort of young female guards, all nubile, all poker-faced, and all wielding Kalashnikovs.

Getting an interview could be easy or impossible. I met a British TV crew who had flown out specifically to talk to the Leader. After nothing happened for a week, they prepared to leave, but then came a message to go immediately to Gaddafi’s HQ. There, as they started setting up their gear, in walked the man himself. He smiled and nodded, then left the room. And that was the last they saw of him.

When I mentioned to the British ambassador that I was planning to visit Benghazi and the interior, he went pale and virtually begged me to forget such an enterprise. Months later I learnt why: the embassy was engaged in delicate negotiations to save a British businessman facing the death penalty for alleged spying.

The big conference never happened as most African leaders, unable to stomach Gaddafi, boycotted it. Lodged in a passenger ship parked in the harbour, we of the press filled our time embellishing rumours and relating anecdotes. An Associated Press veteran recalled the perils of annoying potentates.

‘Chatting to Bokassa once. Remember him? Lovely fellow. He crowned himself ‘emperor’ of the Central African Republic. All went well until I asked the wrong question. He flew into a rage and knocked me to the ground. The last thing I remember was the imperial boot descending on my face.’

High-level pressure was necessary to free him from prison. Other victims were less fortunate. Later it was revealed that Bokassa’s refrigerator was full of body parts. He scoffed them, believing they gave him supernatural powers.

Mind you, there were lighter moments. As when I found myself in the depths of the Sahara, reporting on a shindig organised by the Polisario rebel movement demanding independence from Morocco. Their war started in 1975 and continues – anybody remember it?

Into my tent came two Japanese women, carrying a mountain of equipment. They had flown all the way from Tokyo to cover the event for a major TV network. They spoke no Arabic or French and little English.

A few hours later they presented me with a tent they had lugged across the world and said goodbye.

‘But nothing’s happened yet,’ I gulped.

‘Have film. Now must go. Back to Tokyo. Sayonara.’

‘I see. In-depth coverage?’

They bowed out, smiling.

It reminded me of the tale told by Edward Behr (Time, Newsweek, and author of the the classic book Anyone here been raped and speak English?). He was in Brazzaville, resting up from covering mayhem in the Congo, when a puzzled Japanese correspondent approached.

‘Please, I am here two weeks but is happening nothing. Where is this war?’

Behr pointed across the Congo River.

‘Just over there, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is Congo-Brazzaville. You are in the wrong country. ‘

Another job, another country. In Riyadh a Filipino – one of thousands doing menial jobs there – gave me an idea of the welcome to be expected if you offended the Saudis. He said he had been imprisoned on a trumped-up charge.

‘My cell was a hole in the ground, so small I could not stand up. I was there for a year. In the end I confessed and agreed to convert to Islam. It was the only way to get out. If you’re a foreigner here and get involved in a traffic accident, don’t stop. Head straight for the airport – or you’ll spend the rest of your life behind bars.’

It’s different in the kingdom’s palaces, as I saw when I followed Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau – arrogance personified – around Saudi Arabia. The atmosphere of A Thousand and One Nights rules in those marble pleasure domes.

At a dinner in the royal palace, I found myself sitting next to the Saudi chief of police. Between knocking back sheep’s eyes and glasses of asses’ milk, the strongest stuff available, I tried a little light conversation.

What penalties, I asked, did Saudis face if they were caught drinking alcohol?

The police chief permitted himself the suspicion of a smile.

‘They go to jail.’

‘And if they’re caught again?’

Incredulity spread cross his delicate features.

Again?’ A chill went down my spine as he rasped: ‘Then they go to jail and they don’t come out!’

You know, asses’ milk isn’t so bad. You can get a taste for it.

Shropshire lad David Baird worked for the Daily Herald, the Sun, the Daily Express, the Yorkshire Evening News, assorted weeklies, before fleeing to Canada (Ottawa Citizen), Australia (Brisbane Evening Telegraph, Mount Isa Star), Hong Kong (China Mail, South China Morning Post, Far Eastern Economic Review) and a few other spots he prefers to keep quiet about. Now based in Spain, he tries to write and sell books. His latest, Typhoon Season, is due out this month. Available on Amazon. It is published by Maroma Press, http://maromapress.wordpress.com/

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News management

By Revel Barker

I’d moved into management by April 1986, when American aircraft bombed Libya. Editorial manager Ken Udall rang Daily Mirror editor Richard Stott the morning after the bombing and told him: ‘Revel’s on holiday in Tripoli.’

‘He does some daft things,’ Stott told him. ‘But he doesn’t go to Libya on holiday. Thanks for reminding me, though… The place you’re thinking of is Tunisia. That’s near enough.’

(And no – Tunisia wouldn’t have been my choice for a family holiday either, but my son, then 12, had won the trip in a raffle.)

So news editor Tom Hendry rang our hotel.

‘Been watching television?’ – No.

‘Seen the papers this morning?’ – No.

‘Then you don’t know the yanks have bombed Libya… can you get yourself there?’ He said he had reporters in Switzerland, Cyprus, Rome and Malta, but nobody could get a flight in to Tripoli.

Had the Yanks, perhaps, bombed the airport? That might explain the difficulty.

‘Ah…’ he said. ‘But you could drive there.’ It was, after all, only an inch away on the map.

I could try, I told him. I’d need to hire a car but I couldn’t imagine the folk at Hertz or Avis reacting kindly to the idea of one of their cars leaving the country and going into a war zone, so we’d have to be prepared to cover the insurance ourselves.

‘I’d need to get the ok for that,’ said Tom. ‘But the person I’d have to ask is you… can we cover it?’

I said I thought we probably could.

Then, I told him, there was the small problem that the border between Libya and Tunisia had been closed for 12 years, so I might not be able to get through.

And I thought I had an Israeli visa in my passport, which might be a bit of an obstacle.

The only other slight complication I could think of was that I was actually banned from entering Libya, because I’d described Colonel Gaddafi as a loony and the Libyans had taken offence, although if there was any security on the border I thought it was unlikely that they’d know that.

So, I said, I’d ring Hertz. I reckoned it would be about a ten-hour drive.

‘That’s great,’ said Tom. ‘Honestly, it’s a delight to be talking to an old pro. Most other people would just have put up a load of reasons why they couldn’t do it.’

Driving south I was stopped by armed police, arrested at gunpoint, taken to a police station and locked in a cell. I was interviewed by progressively higher-ranking officers who had possibly monitored the phone conversation because they wanted to know why I was driving to the border when I knew (they told me) that it was shut.

The interviews were going nowhere because the cops were insisting on speaking only French, Arabic or German and I was waving my passport and explaining that I was English and that was my preferred language. (After a while they took my passport off me to stop me doing that.) But I was going nowhere, either, and eventually they released me on condition that I returned to the hotel and stayed there.

I found a phone and rang the office. Night news editor Alastair McQueen asked why I’d been arrested. I told him they were blaming me – as the token Brit – for bombing Libya (our government had allowed the US Air Force bombers to fly from bases in the UK). And apparently among other things I was thereby responsible for the death of Gaddafi’s daughter who had been killed in the bombing.

‘Did they tell you her name?’

‘Hanna.’

‘That’s his adopted daughter,’ said Al. ‘Are you sure she’s dead?’

‘I didn’t ask to see the body but, yes, the cops were all pretty positive about that.’

‘Fine,’ said Al. ‘You’ve got the splash. I’m putting you over to copy. And thanks… I’ll buy you lunch when you get back.’

‘Great,’ I said. ‘And I’ll sign the exes.’

#

You will Oscar, you will

By Stephen Bates

It is not really on a par with the Man Who Sold The Beatles, but I suppose I can lay claim to a tiny theatrical footnote as the Man Who Advised Kenneth Branagh Not To Become An Actor. I thought he might make a better local paper journalist instead.

This is how it happened. It was back in my days as a trainee journalist on the Reading Chronicle in 1978 and, being at a loose end when there wasn't a parish council to cover in the evenings, I did a spot of amateur acting with local groups. That summer, the Berkshire Shakespeare Players advertised, as they did every year, for a cast to play Othello in the open air at the ruins of the medieval abbey in the centre of town – a strikingly atmospheric location were it not for trains pulling into Reading station a couple of hundred yards away, jets roaring low overhead on the descent into Heathrow and the close proximity of Reading prison, whose inmates usually objected vociferously from their cells to recitations of the immortal bard just beyond the walls late in the evening. Othello's dying speech – ‘Soft you, a word or two before you go...’ would accordingly be drowned by cries of ‘Shut the fuck up, will you?’ most evenings.

The Berkshire Shakespeare Players drew their cast each year from the cream of local drama groups, and not a few of the clots, such as myself, recruited to make up the numbers. I was somewhat intimidated at the auditions when the man obviously destined to play Othello stood up and announced that he saw the character as a Very Black Man Indeed before proceeding to give a startling impression something like Paul Robeson, no mean feat as he was a slender middle-aged white man. Even the worst of us got parts – I had a couple of brief speeches as a Messenger – ‘The Turkish preparation makes for Rhodes!’ – which was probably appropriate for a reporter from the local weekly paper.

By far the worst of us was a chap called Ted, who got a part every year despite being the world's worst actor. They'd given him a single line once, but he had forgotten it. This time, he played a clown (textual scholars will know there is actually no clown in Othello) serving as one of the extras at the back, dressed in a magnificent jester's costume, like a playing card with bells at every corner. Ted did not have to try hard to steal every scene, even while lurking at the back. All he had to do was shake his head slightly and the bells would start to tinkle. He had a habit of marching on first at the front of every crowd scene, even when he was supposed to be following in attendance to one of the main characters. That is, until one night as we prepared to march on Cyprus. Othello, by now in full armour and made up to be very black indeed, loomed over him. ‘Listen Ted,’ Othello hissed. ‘We've got two choices. Either I go on first. Or you go on first. But if you go on first, let me tell you, I'm not following you.’ ‘I don't know what you mean,’ said Ted, tinkle, tinkle. It was the only night he went on second.

Anyway, I had the use of the Chronicle office mini in the evenings – 200,000 miles on the clock and the footwells full of empty crisp packets and old coke cans – and they asked me to give a lift to the teenager playing Cassio, who needed transport to get to rehearsals and lived not too far away from me. As we drove to the sundry halls where the cast was gathering each evening, we discussed the future. Young Kenneth, 16 and at the local comprehensive, was undecided about whether he wanted to become an actor or a journalist – he had already offered his services as a teenage columnist to the local evening paper.

Flush with the showbiz experience of doing the Chronicle play reviews, I told him acting was a dodgy career – you'd never know when you'd be out of work, jolly uncertain, badly-paid. Whereas, local journalism: £23 a week and use of the office mini, life of excitement – magistrates' courts and golden weddings, maybe Fleet Street one day if you were lucky… I thought I sounded quite sage and convincing and he nodded politely.

The production was all good fun. The only glitch occurred when a rather curmudgeonly review appeared in my own paper. There was a certain froideur in the dressing room that night – the rest of the cast all assumed I'd written it; or at least should have kept it out of the paper. I hadn't of course, and couldn't have done. It was an early lesson in the power of the press reviewer.

I wish I'd realised that I was in the presence of a young star at the time. I and the rest of the cast just thought Branagh was a good schoolboy actor. Well, the show ended and we went our ways, me onto an evening paper and eventually the BBC where, some years later, I opened the Sunday Times magazine one weekend and found a photograph of my former lift companion lauded as Best Newcomer in the West End. He was about to play Henry V at Stratford at the age of 23, a year younger than Richard Burton had been when he played the role. I got in touch and he wrote back suggesting a drink before the show.

The thing was, he said when we met in the pub opposite the theatre, he'd auditioned for RADA and when he graduated had been offered two parts: a spear carrier at the Royal Shakespeare Company and a speaking part in a new play in Greenwich called Another Country, opposite another young actor called Colin Firth. He'd opted for the speaking part, the play had transferred to the West End to rave reviews, he'd won an award, and the RSC rang up – nine months after their offer of employment as an extra – to ask him what part he'd like to play.

With cast-iron self confidence he'd suggested Henry V and they had laughed and rung off. Then he'd gone off and done some television work and a few months later, the RSC rang back and said: ‘You know you said you'd like to play Henry V...’

He'd contacted Prince Charles when he got the part and went to see him to ask what it was like to be a prince because, coming off a council estate in Reading, he didn't know.

Luck and nerve, as well as talent – attributes that might have stood him in good stead as a journalist if he hadn't been seduced by the stage. The last time I saw him – except on the screen that is – was as I drove my daughter to her nursery in our family secondhand car. We pulled up in the queue at the Chiswick roundabout and there, in the next lane, was a stretch limousine with a chauffeur in a peaked cap in front and Kenneth Branagh on his mobile phone in the back.

Time was, I thought to myself, when you were happy to hitch a lift to rehearsals... you just never know, do you, why people choose not to become journalists? There's no accounting for taste. That production of Othello was the last time I tried acting –daily newspapers don't allow for such luxuries – but at least I can say I went out in the presence of a star.

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Rudge

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Buy it on-line from the bookstore page at BeWrite Books and it’s there for you to read and enjoy in about a minute.

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If you have been away on a desert island for the past three years and want to know more about the book, go to the Ranters Bookshop or direct to the Skiddy Page to learn what you’ve been missing.

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


Issue # 187

March 11, 2011


This Week

We start with a rant (it’s my party and I’ll rant if I want to) about journalism versus ‘churnalism’ – the practice of lifting press releases and slotting them, often untouched by human hack, straight into the newspaper. But Revel Barker also wants to know how many reporters it takes, not to change a light-bulb story. And he says it also prompts the question: How many newsrooms do we need?

From Fleet Street newspapers to Fleet Street pubs is a natural progression. In his public house peregrinations Bill Greaves (Ranters, passim) reported pubs used by journalists, and inns that were haunted. Remarkably, his old haunt, the Harrow in Whitefriars Street, escaped his attention. It appears to have been haunted (maybe it still is), not by an old feature writer waiting to be served but surprisingly by two unlicensed spirits – a tailor (possibly the building’s original occupant) who still toils at his sewing machine, and a woman who climbs a flight of stairs that no longer exists. Whatever, they kept landlord Alan Dove’s honorary niece, Charmaine Morgan, awake at nights when she visited him. A bit more of the back-story is that a Daily Mail photographer once took a snap inside the pub and the tailor appeared on his print – although the snapper never saw him through the lens. But then, we all knew photographers who did things like that. Anyway, she provides a different perspective on Alan Dove…

Another old Harrovian is John Dodd, who issues a warning (a bit late, for some of us) against coming up with editorial ideas for stunts for the publicity department. Doddy should have known it would all end in tears.

Nevertheless, when the Sked is sparse, the desk will go for anything. A last resort would usually be the ‘celebrity ring-round’. Monica Porter remembers getting the short straw…

And Rudge gets a writing job.

Oh… in case you forgot it, Rupert Murdoch is 80 today, prompting the Guardian – who else? – to do a ‘special’ on him. You can read it, if so inclined, here.

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Naming sources

By Revel Barker

There was a great story in the Daily Telegraph last week, headlined ‘Ministry of Defence pays £22 for 65p light bulbs’. Apparently the MoD also paid £103 each for Land Rover screws worth £2.60.

Disappointingly – if you’re one of those readers who likes a bit of meat in the text – there was absolutely no mention of light bulbs in the body copy.

But then, what more information do you need, than that they paid £22 each for items worth 65p each?

It’s wonderful how the Daily Tele still manages to turn up scoops like this, I thought, until I read, further down the piece (by former newsdesk man Andrew Hough), that these disclosures were ‘made in The Sun’…

As were the quotes that the DT used in its piece.

And even the headline (the Sun had: ‘MoD pay £22 for 65p light bulbs’).

While I think it’s admirably honourable for them to give another newspaper the credit, here’s the question – when did the Sun become a direct news source for the Telegraph?

I remember several occasions when the other papers came up on a Saturday night and the editor would summon one of us out of the pub to ‘match a good story in one of our illustrious rivals’, as he’d invariably phrase it. But what that meant was that we should use the other paper’s copy as a basis for our own story on the same subject. Maybe even follow it up and improve on it, maybe get better quotes. What it didn’t mean was ‘come upstairs and retype their story’.

The Telegraph version wasn’t even a good example of lifting. The Sun (by-lined Virginia Wheeler) went into great – and interesting – detail about the 100-watt bulbs. They actually had a copy of what appeared to be the MoD invoice for them.

So let’s regroup: it’s wonderful that the Sun still manages to turn up scoops like this.

But if one newspaper can cavalierly lift stories (and headlines, and quotes) from another, my thinking is that we possibly need only one newsroom for the whole of Fleet Street. Staff it with those gallant few who actually bring in stories. That team can get all the copy, and the others can just retype it and present it in a slightly different way. Or, if pressed for time, in an exactly similar way.

We could call it – this is just an idea off the top of my head – the Press Association. Or something like that.

It would be the perfect answer to the bean-counters who think that newsgathering is an unnecessary expense for newspapers.

And the newsroom that could supply all the others with stories? On current form that would probably have to be the Sun.

However the Currant Bun is not the only paper that the DT uses as a reliable source. Just dipping in, on one day this week, there was Nick Collins (a former PA man) quoting from a letter that had been ‘seen by the Guardian’. Well, that’s ok, then, so long as they say they’ve seen it. And Andrew Hough was riffling through the red-tops again and lifting from the Daily Mirror. Oh, the joys of late-shift life.

(It bears repeating, though, that they at least have the decency to credit the paper that actually found the story. But of course this is no more than a sop to the original source: what the office lawyer, still unsure about the laws of copyright, calls fair-dealing. What the paper is not saying – and what in any case matters not one jot to the Telegraph reader – is ‘it must be true, we read it in the Sun’. Although that is precisely what they are saying to each other.)

Last week John Blauth, tireless producer of an excellent weekly monitor called Media Digest, had highlighted something similar – ‘journalists regurgitating press releases without benefit of independent research, editing or thought’.

A charity you may never have heard of, called Media Standards Trust, which says it ‘aims to foster high standards in news media on behalf of the public’, had, said John, ‘launched a nifty tool called Churnalism.com which allows users to compare press releases with national newspaper articles to see whether the articles are churnalism, rather than journalism.’

People give to a charity and it spends money on a project like that? I hope they don’t come round here rattling a collecting tin.

‘On behalf of the public’…? Again, surely it doesn’t matter a toss to anybody – with the obvious exception of the editor for whom they theoretically bring in stories – whether reporters retype handouts or not.

I’ll declare an interest. I have written press releases that have appeared unchanged in dozens of newspapers, often with a staff byline at the top. Overworked (or idle) hacks these days don’t have the time or the interest for rewriting handouts if they look like half-decent copy.

What’s it got to do with the newspaper reader (who, more often than not, probably doesn’t even pay for the paper), who almost certainly won’t have read anything directly from a press release? Why does Joe Public need a charity to protect it from this practice?

I once had all the press releases counted that came in to one newspaper in a single day (I was preparing a talk to – as it happens – MoD press officers). There were more than 300, and most that I looked at were badly written. Nowadays, with more money in PR than in journalism, I assume they are generally better composed.

It’s an odd business, surely, to occupy the time of a registered charity. If its concern is ‘newspaper standards’, a better occupation (for my money) would be to compare newspaper stories and note which papers are getting a free ride on the backs of their rivals. Even then, I can’t see what it has to do with the readers.

But back to handouts. I’ve read a few. I can think of only one occasion where I used, or quoted from, one of them.

It was from the aforementioned Ministry of Defence and was intended to warn householders in eastern England that there would be an unusual amount of aircraft activity over the weekend. The MoD would be testing its foul-weather defence capability, the ministry PR said. But in the event of rain or fog the exercise would be postponed for a week…

And I couldn’t greatly improve on that.

Former Daily Mirror reporter Revel Barker used to do defence and foreign for the Sunday Mirror, and retired – early – as managing editor before discovering that Robert Maxwell had disproved the adage that you can’t take it with you. He now edits a website devoted to what The Times describes as ‘the great days of Fleet Street’, and publishes books, mainly about journalism.

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Retailing spirits, after closing time

By Charmaine Morgan

Alan Dove, my ‘Uncle Alan’, was not, in fact, my uncle at all. He was the husband of my mother's best friend, Aunt Peggy, who was not my real aunt either. But these wonderful larger than life people were to play a far stronger role in my life than any aunt or uncle I really possessed. They were 'honorary' in every sense. Uncle Alan and Aunt Peggy were the landlords of The Harrow pub, located in Whitefriars Street, London, EC4.

The pub still stands today, a monument to a time before the Great Fire of London, which it narrowly missed – or vice versa. The pub was in itself quite amazing. Its tall structure was like a large hollow column. Once, open balconies would have lined the inside, acting as corridors to the rooms that went around the walls. The balconies had provided a panoramic view of the ground floor bar below. In the 1970s this space was filled with unattractive safety glass. As a result of the rather flimsy structure, which left my mother trembling in fear of dying in a fire every time we stayed, it was possible to hear my honorary uncle bellowing out through several storeys: 'Honey, where are you Honey?’

He was not calling for my Aunt, rather his favourite dog, an excitable Jack Russell, who Alan would persist in taking for a stroll along The Embankment to ‘do his business’. Unfortunately, the nearest gardens to The Harrow just happened to be the Temple Gardens. It was fortunate that Uncle Alan was not only chief mason at the time but also a Freeman of the City of London. He played a vital local role. Like many pubs off Fleet Street, The Harrow was a watering hole for the journalists, printers and editors who would pour in every night, well after official closing time, to discuss the latest edition, and prepare for the next. They rubbed shoulders with the judges and barristers who did not want to be overheard at one of the pubs nearer Temple Bar.

I always used to say that it was a pub that 'never slept'. I certainly didn't while I stayed there. In addition to the usual controlled raucousness coming from the three bars below, the single glazed sash windows allowed every squeak and rumble of the massive lorries that brought in the paper each night to the Daily Mail, The Times and the Express to be heard. But it was the old tailor who was most likely to keep me awake.

The resident ghost was my Uncle's best friend. He provided the subject of many of Uncle Alan's late night sessions in the smoke filled bar, when Alan could be seen swishing a whisky in one hand while clutching a cigarette in the other. His semi-bald head would shine in the dim light of the bar, and his face would shine excitedly in the flickering light cast by the fire over which hung a huge cheap copy of a Dutch master depicting bread being carried by two servants to a table of debauched revellers. In truth Alan did not need the ghost to entertain anyone.

A staunch Tory, royalist and extremely patriotic, but with scant regard for the Inland Revenue, he had a strong opinion on almost anything. He loved the cut and thrust of a good bicker with anyone who had an opposite opinion. His wife had given up debating with him and would resort to ‘Oh, Alan’… supported by a resigned sigh, and a chorus of similar comments from the ladies who acted as bar staff, as his background accompaniment.

Despite his tough outer he was fabulous with us children. At Easter he could be relied upon to turn up at our home with the most outrageously large Easter egg. He also loved a trip to the West End, and we were fortunate enough to join him. My mother, however, still complains about his decision to go to an alternative venue one night, where a performance of Dick Turpin was taking place. Such was the gripping acting and plot, with special effects comprised of wooden mops with eyes for horses, that it had Alan snoring louder than the actors could shout. He awoke with a start half way through the first act, and declared in a voice loud enough for any of the audience to hear, ‘I've had enough of this rubbish – let's go to the pub,’ before walking out.

But there was more than just a touch of bravado to Uncle Alan. He was a real war hero. He had served as a petty officer in the Royal Navy during World War II, where he had been torpedoed on several occasions. Once he had been forced to tread water with fourteen other survivors.

His other distinguishing feature was his identical twin brother. He was a replica of Alan, from his round belly, that would poke out over his belt (straining the buttons on his shirts at the midriff), and up to his great bushy eyebrows, which reflected both Alan's large character and refusal to be controlled by anyone other than himself. It was only at Alan's funeral I met the brother. He was remarkably quiet in comparison to Alan although he still carried the twinkle in his pale blue eyes. He had moved to Canada and I believe was sorely missed by Alan, who often spoke of him proudly as he produced an old photograph.

When the time finally came for Alan Dove to leave us, he left a unique void.

I never really knew whether Alan died of a broken heart, having finally left The Harrow to ‘enjoy’ a life of retirement in Crawley with Peggy. I do know that I would not be surprised at all if The Harrow was still disturbed by the sound of Alan calling for his dog, while sharing a drink of whisky with the tailor, on a dark cold winter's night.

Charmaine Morgan (nee Jennings) used to visit the Harrow as a teenager, around 30 years ago. She now lives in Lincolnshire and is studying creative writing at the Open University.

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Horrible stunt…

By John Dodd

I blame myself. It was my idea in the first place, so if I hadn’t had it, none of it would have happened.

And the vanity at its core was the belief that if you have an idea, no matter that this was a Fleet Street tabloid in the late1970s, you could somehow manage to control it once it had been pitch-forked into the feeding trough of features, conferences, promotion departments, headline writers, photographic desks and splash subbing.

The idea was called: ‘Have you got a Hagar in your House?’ Simple really. For a few years the Sun had been running the highly successful, reader-grabbing, strip cartoon called Hagar the Horrible, about a mammoth-clubbing, axe-wielding calamitous Viking, drawn and written by Dik Browne.

Small correction. That headline was the first alteration. It was better than my original, which I can’t remember, and was the result of the features department coming in on the idea and claiming it as their own.

But the person who gave me the thought was a brickie-cum-builder of immense strength and flamboyance we should perhaps call Charlie Cooper, not only because that is as good a name as any for a Hampshire ale-quaffer of huge physical proportions but because it was also his real name.

Charlie, given a few ice ages, seemed to be a living embodiment of Hagar the Horrible, his exuberance, girth, and sunny good nature propelling him to feats of singing in more than half a dozen bars every weekend until, late on a particular Sunday evening, picking one up above his head and throwing its entirety at the landlord who owned it.

Charlie Cooper made me think that there must be many other Charlie Coopers who, given the chance, could well be called Hagar the Horrible wherever there was jollity and potential mayhem across the great British isles. So I had this idea about having a competition to find out who was a real-life ‘Hagar’.

I had one reservation. The last thing I wanted was for Charlie Cooper to win the competition. In fact I never even mentioned the idea to Charlie Cooper or anyone connected with Charlie Cooper. I did not want to be compromised. And nor did I want any competition organised by the Sun to be contaminated by that three letter word spelt f-i-x.

Charlie Cooper, being a Sun reader to his core, did find out about the competition and a pal of his and mine, a PR man, half Yorkshire, half Armenian and all mischievous intention, duly entered him as a candidate. At that moment I distanced myself from having anything more to do with who or what made a Hagar horrible.

By that time, anyway, the promotions department had taken a lead. There was a spick-and-span bow-tied man called Barry now in charge. Barry, such was his trade, knew all about business and commerce and what sort of company might promote Hagar competitions. His eyes swam towards the fiords and mountains of Norway.

Ah, said his business brain, Vikings meant Norway. Norway meant Fred Olsen. Fred Olsen sailed Viking ships, albeit in the guise of the Fred Olsen Line, conveyors of millions of present day Norwegians across the North Sea.

A Barry think-alike somewhere in Norway could see the potential of promoting the Fred Olsen line to millions of Sun readers (at that time, there was no equivalent Norwegian phrase for the term ‘Sun-yobbos’) about the delights of cruising along Norway’s astonishing fiords. The two bow-ties formed a business plan.

In the meantime the Sun features team had organised the competition for which, inevitably, there was half-a-sackful of entries. Of course, Charlie Cooper, pictured in a Viking helmet, was a reindeer shoe-in for the finals. I agreed to be one of the hosts on the understanding I had nothing to do with the judging, which was to be by the then Sun cartoonists and Jerry Holmberg, the features editor.

The venue was the top floor of the Cheshire Cheese, where half-a-dozen would-be Hagars drank copious amounts of beer and ate their way through lunch, occasionally using the knives and forks provided for them. I must say Charlie Cooper was the star turn, even though he wasn’t the only one in a Viking helmet. Then there was the judging. That was where the problems began.

The judges assembled the other side of the door from the dining room. This meant they were between the dining room and the toilets. A roomful of giant men all wanted to go to the toilet at the same time. The linking door was locked so that the judges could confer without being interrupted.

More beer was poured. The clock ticked on. A roomful of Vikings got desperate. They found another door. They wrenched it open. It led to a little iron-railed balcony perched four storeys high above a hidden alleyway somewhere between the Cheese and the Daily Telegraph building.

A mere 15 feet below and across the alley was a roomful of female Daily Telegraph employees wearing ear-phones and mouthpieces, busily taking small-ads for things like the court circular pages, engagements, births and deaths notices. In a trice, half a dozen Hagars cast an unexpected shadow over them. The small-ad girls all seemed to look up at the same time. I heard a combined shriek of horror as things began.

Streams of second-hand Marston’s best bitter arched over them, smacking the half-open windows, bouncing off the sills and splashing onto their gleaming desks. ‘Har-Har-Har,’ went the Hagars. Shriek, went the Daily Telegraph small-ads department. ‘Har-Har-Har,’ persisted the Hagars.

Trouser zips were still being adjusted as the locked door opened. Charlie Cooper was declared the winner. I felt deep forebodings of doom.

Charlie and his promoter, a man with the fairly innocuous name of Ken Chapman – the Ken actually stood for Vashken – had won a two week trip to an island in a fjord somewhere above Stavanager where they could both indulge their passions for fishing for a whole ten days before being transported back again by the Fred Olsen Line.

What the two Barrys and the Fred Olsen Line didn’t know about Chapman and Cooper was that although they shared a joint interest in sea fishing and angling, it was nothing like the joint passion they had for propping up bars and drinking huge quantities of alcohol in all its glorious forms.

So their delight at finding themselves on an idyllic island in a fjord was diminished after about 20 minutes when they noticed a distinct lack of neon signs winking at them and were forced to deduce that islands up fjords don’t have pubs or bars or clubs or even shebeens and if the residents did enjoy the odd slurp or two it was of their own making and was kept either in their refrigerators or locked away under the floor of their back sheds.

I got the first call three days into their trip. ‘No pubs,’ said a strangled voice from a phone box somewhere near Denmark. ‘Get us out of here.’ It was the man with the undistinguished name of Chapman.

‘You won. That’s your prize,’ I said.

‘But...?’ Tough, I said.

Two days later I got another. ‘We’re in Vjorveljoornesdtat (or something like that) and we’ve got no money.’ I went and saw Barry.

‘I’ll see if Fred Olsen can do something,’ said Barry. ‘No sweat,’ said Barry when I saw him later, ‘Fred Olsen’s agent is fixing it. He’s getting them to Stavanger.’

A few days later I got another call. ‘We’ve been abandoned,’ said Chapman. ‘The boat’s broken down at Bergen. Charlie’s very unhappy. He’s missing Suzie (his wife)...’

I checked. ‘Olsens are sorry, but they’ll be there in a couple of days,’ Barry assured me. ‘They.ve got the Stavanger agent onto it.’ And then he added... ‘He’ll fix them signing rights...’

Two days later Barry came to see me. ‘Your Hagar competition...’ he began...

I was suddenly aware that this was ‘my’ idea again, that the corporation that had taken it over, even wrested it from my grasp, was now distancing itself from its very engagement... ‘Fred Olsen’s agent is having a lot of trouble with your Hagar... (there it was again, ‘your Hagar’)...and if he doesn’t get on that boat he’ll have him arrested.’

Standing where I was in EC4, there was very little I could do about the events unfolding at a ferry terminal nine parallels and two seas away from me so I did what any Fleet Street hack does in such circumstances and went to the pub.

That weekend there was a familiar figure at one end of my local bar still wearing his Viking helmet. His pal Chapman was there, too. I didn’t want to talk to them. They did to me. They had a newspaper with them. It was obviously Scandinavian. The front page picture was Charlie Cooper wielding an axe with his helmet on. They told me what the headline said: ‘‘I’ll Kill Fred Olsen, says Hagar the Horrible.’

They seemed terribly proud. Charlie Cooper ran his tongue all the way down a Rizla cigarette and smirked through his beard, Chapman claimed it was he who had called a national Norwegian newspaper about their plight of being abandoned. I suddenly understood why it was Lankies hated Tykes, and Turks had an uncontrollable urge to slaughter Armenians every now and then.

A funny kind of atmosphere pervaded the features department the next day. Barry rang me. ‘I’ve just had Fred Olsen on,’ he said. ‘Because of your Hagar, they’ve had the worst publicity they’ve ever had in 130 years of trading history. They’re never going to have anything to do with the Sun again.’ He put the phone down.

He called again later that day. ‘Did you know that your Hagar couple have had over £1,000 advanced to them by Fred Olsen’s agents, plus all sorts of hotel bills they’re trying to clear up?’ He put the phone down again.

I inquired about the reputation of Fred Olsen in Norway. I found that it was viewed with a certain kind of national reverence unknown here in Britain, a bit like Walt Disney in Hollywood, Joan of Arc in France, St Patrick in Ireland and the Virgin Mary in Poland.

Later that week I went to see Barry in his office. A strange blonde woman was sitting behind his desk reading her way through files. I asked the secretary: ‘Where’s Barry?’ She made a strange sort of shake of her head, as though she didn’t want to say anything.

I asked again: ‘Barry?’

‘Gone,’ she mouthed.

Gone? She gave a little wave as though someone was disappearing into an unknown void. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Hagar?’

She nodded. ‘And something to do with the Telegraph small-ads department.’

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The run-around on the ring-round

By Monica Porter

During the nineties, when I worked in the features department of the Daily Mail, the paper was particularly fond of publishing what they called the ‘celebrity ring-round’. This is a harmless exercise in which celebrities are asked to opine on some topical subject, on the basis that the general public will always lap up the views of Famous People, however predictable or irrelevant. The Mail is seldom wrong about such matters.

I dreaded these ring-round assignments. The truth is, celebs only want to talk to journalists when it suits them. They don’t like being rung up out of the blue – often at home – and asked their opinion of the full English breakfast or the legalisation of marijuana. So they could be brusque and intimidating. As a newcomer on Fleet Street, the whole thing made me cringe.

However, I soon compiled a list of media-friendly celebs and, regardless of the topic, would ring them up first. They included the wonderfully dotty Barbara Cartland; reliable old Mary Whitehouse; Michael Winner, a raconteur made for the dial-a-quote business; Neil and Christine Hamilton, who came as a handy two-for-one package; Jeffrey Archer, who was always in his limo en route to an airport; and Jilly Cooper, who would cheerfully stop whatever she was doing – once she was in the middle of cooking dinner for twelve – to provide a witty quote. But the undoubted star was Jeff Bernard. Invariably sounding as if he was at death’s door – which he was – I worried that he might expire before the end of our conversation. Then, in that gasping, rasping voice, he would deliver a hilarious and apposite sound-bite and I knew my piece was made. His death, when it did come, was a huge loss to the ring-rounder’s art.

Unfortunately, the media-friendliness of the above rendered them somewhat over-exposed, and editors would exhort us not to keep calling ‘the usual suspects’.

That’s what led me one day, in a ring-round about why people love their gardens – a pleasant, uncontroversial subject that gave me a false sense of security – to phone one of my favourite old Famous Persons, Alistair Cooke, in America. Familiar with his warm, avuncular radio persona, I was shocked to find myself getting short shrift from a rude and grumpy geriatric. It was as if I had asked Scrooge about his plans for Christmas.

Next I rang another figure with an engaging public image, John Mortimer. I knew he had a big, wonderful garden in Oxfordshire – he had publicly waxed lyrical about it often enough. But when I inquired about it, he replied, gruffly: ‘My garden is my own business. Nothing to do with you.’ And hung up. Very disheartening.

As it happened, a few months later Mortimer came into the Mail offices for the day to write a piece for the paper, and sat opposite me. He couldn’t work out our computer system, and throwing me a bewildered look, asked for my help. A boot and foot reversal, if ever there was one. For a moment I wondered whether to mention his earlier unhelpfulness to me. Then I just ambled over and explained the system. Later I brought him a cup of coffee from the vending machine (which he also didn’t know how to use). What else could I do with the helpless old buffer?

One needed a smattering of politicians in the ring-round mix, and the Tories were, naturally, more amenable to the Mail than Labour. Edwina Currie, Teresa Gorman and Anne Widdecombe were generally good for a neat sound-bite. But woe betide you if you got Barbara Castle in full Socialist flow. Then there were the Great and Good, to be used strictly for more weighty issues, like capital punishment or European integration. Into this category fell the Lords Callaghan, Healey and Steel. I had to grit my teeth when calling them. They were haughty and impatient, and I imagined them picking up the phone in a draughty baronial mansion with footmen lurking in the background.

Only one of my ring-roundees ever brought me to the verge of tears, though. The question on that occasion was: what is your idea of Hell? It was the end of the day, I’d had a phone clamped to my head for eight hours, my brain was frazzled and my left ear felt as if it had been chewed by Mike Tyson. But I was determined to get one final quote. I chose Robin Day.

‘My idea of hell,’ Sir Robin blasted at me, ‘is being rung up by a damn fool journalist with a stupid question.’ He slammed the phone down.

Utterly humiliated, my eyes welled up and I buried my face in my hands... I was so depressed that even my colleagues on the Mail noticed, and some even expressed sympathy…

It all seems a long time ago, fortunately. But that’s not to say I regret my ring-round days. On the contrary, I owe them a lot. They were character-building assignments, and I now believe that all journalists should spend some time doing them. Once you have phoned Robin Day to ask about Hell and been given Hell in return, you know you can ask anybody any question at all. And that is a very useful thing for a journalist.

Monica Porter was born in Budapest and grew up in New York, but has been based in London since 1970. She has been a freelance journalist for much of that time and is the author of four non-fiction books, the most recent being Long Lost: The Story of the Newspaper Column That Started the Reunion Industry, about her long-running weekly column in the Daily Mail. For more information about her background and work, and to read some of her past articles, see www.monicaporter.co.uk.

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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 # 188
March 18, 2011


This Week

It’s how this site is supposed to work… John Dodd’s piece on newspaper promotions at the Sun (last week) reminded Philip Jordan of a similar (or totally dissimilar, depending on your point of view) promotions cock up at the Daily Sketch.

Harold Heys reminded himself that he’d mentioned before that sports writers were lousy (or idle) about reminiscences, unless it was about a leg-over situation, so decided to start the ball, so to speak, rolling himself.

God knows (and he’s not saying) what prompted Alan Dean to remember the Bulgarian ballet-dancing copper that BEA brought to Britain, but something did, and we’ve got it.

We asked for stories about journalists and pubs – surely there can be no shortage – but in the absence of anything better here’s a contribution from Revel Barker which proves, if proof be necessary, that… yes… they really were places where you could get stories.

And we remember Bob Greaves, newspaperman turned broadcaster, who died this week. He used to warm up audiences for sit-coms written by John Stevenson. That’s the sort of job you don’t often see advertised in Media Week. Ian Skidmore remembers Bob as being ‘lovable’. Which may explain why he was married five times.

And cartoonist Rudge reports a new agony aunt.

Oh, and if you were interested in last week’s rant about newspapers that lift other paper’s copy, you might care to read that the Washington Post has suspended ‘one of its most seasoned reporters’ for doing just that.

Plagiarism has long been one of the most serious ethical violations in journalism. Reporters often cite other news sources for information that they haven’t gathered themselves, but the standard practice is to paraphrase the material and attribute the information to its source,’ it says.

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Pyjama game

By Philip Jordan

John Dodd's hilarious essay on the Hagar The Viking promotion (Ranters, last week) reminds me of the Daily Sketch promotion of something called Soccer-jamas, just after I moved to the London office of the paper from its Manchester outpost in the late sixties.

They were pyjamas for kids and were to be made in the colours of each kid's favourite soccer team, with the number of their favourite player on the back.

You could get them by collecting coupons from the paper and then paying a small sum.

Naturally enough they were a massive hit. Circulation went up. But so did the pile of mail orders that were stacking up to mountainous proportions in a room in the Sketch building by the Embankment. At one point it was alleged, by people who claimed to have seen it, to have been 15 feet high.

No one had done the maths to work out what the number of teams in the soccer leagues multiplied by the number of players multiplied by the different sizes of kids' pyjamas could add up to. Or how popular soccer was at the time.

And no one had planned how to get the orders from the Sketch to the manufacturers in (I think) Manchester, or whether the manufacturers were capable of keeping up with the demand. As it happened, neither turned out to work properly.

The pile in the room at the Sketch got bigger and bigger. Each day someone went in, with a shovel as it were, and put some envelopes into a sack and sent it to Manchester. And the firm in Manchester failed to fill all the orders, or, in their haste, filled them wrongly.

Then the phone calls started. It got to the point where any ringing phone in the newsroom was more or less guaranteed to be a reader complaining about missing Soccer-jamas. The switchboard was swamped, the switchboard operators' union was threatening to pull the plug on the whole newspaper. The editorial staff couldn't make a call out to get any actual stories into the paper. People were either screaming at each other or hiding out in the back bar of the Harrow.

Editor Howard French came up with a masterly solution: whoever had thought of the promotion (step forward deputy features editor Alex Angeli) should be locked alone in the room with the orders together with a single telephone extension and told to fix it.

Angeli emerged some months later a chastened, and much thinner, man. And the entire promotions department and French had what I think is called in diplomatic circles a ‘frank discussion’ about their futures and future promotions.

#

There’s no F in Stenhousemuir

By Harold Heys

A few weeks back I pointed out that Ranters seldom attracted many contributions from sports hacks and I invited discussion on the topic. A forlorn hope, perhaps. One or two pals suggested it was because sports reporters had little thought for anything but sport; specifically football. Most would struggle to name the leader of the Opposition, while Tripoli could be near Fiji (wherever that is). Perhaps it is one of those tiny islands in the West Indies. Do they play cricket?

I thought I might try one last throw pour encourager les autres, as they say at the back of the book... Three or four tales involving reporters from the blunt end of the newspaper game in an attempt to stir some memories. I might just add here that my personal view is that sportswriters blanche at the thought of writing stuff for dissection and appraisal by other journalists, the majority of them newshounds who know about boring things such as subsidiary clauses and the correct use of the semi-colon.

The Ranters editor treats submitted copy rather gently and the thought of having something published that hasn’t been laughed at, sworn over, tidied up, tickled and generally rejigged by a veteran desk man before seeing the light of day is, well, just too scary to contemplate. Perhaps it’s just because most sport reporters’ tales revolve around piss-ups and dalliances with the opposite sex; the 50-year rule being firmly in force?

Anyhow, here goes…

The recent death of Nat Lofthouse, the ‘Lion of Vienna’, and a great centre-forward for Bolton Wanderers and England in the years after the Second World War, brought back a memory of one of the sharpest off-the-cuff cracks I ever heard of, certainly from a footballer.

Of all the goals Nat scored, probably the most infamous was the second of his two goals which gave Bolton the 1958 FA Cup against Manchester United who, three months earlier, had sustained grievous losses in the Munich air disaster. Matt Busby’s Reds were riding a national swell of sympathy, but Nat had little time for all that at Wembley.

As United goalkeeper Harry Gregg, a brave survivor of Munich, reached up to collect a high ball, Nat put his head down and charged! With a hefty heave he knocked Harry and the ball flying into the back of the net. He turned to celebrate without a backward glance. In these non-contact days of turquoise trainers and purple ‘pumps’; gloves, vests, undercrackers, mufflers and beach balls, he’d have been sent off. In those hard-man days it was a great goal.

Moving on a few years and the Sunday People northern soccer reporter Norman Wynne is on the way back from Blackpool with Harry Gregg. They decide to call on Nat who was then running a pub close to the centre of Bolton which I think was called The Castle...

‘All right, lads?’ said Nat as Harry ordered a couple of pints. ‘How much is that?’ asked Harry, fishing out a few bob. Quick as a flash: ‘Nah, you’re all right,’ said Nat. ‘I don’t charge goalkeepers.’

Brilliant.

Somehow I can’t see the current crop of England players coming up with a gem like that.

One day, probably in the late 70s, Norman called round to see Everton manager Gordon Lee. Back then you just walked in and knocked on a manager’s door. Norman was about to knock when he heard a low, groaning coming from inside. He tapped lightly and edged his way in to find Gordon, head in hands, moaning to himself softly and rocking gently.

I should perhaps explain here that Gordon Lee was renowned for his colourful turn of phrase; for swearing, actually; for swearing a lot. A hell of a lot. And if there is anyone reading this who is of a delicate disposition perhaps they should look away from the screen now…

‘What’s up, Gordon?’ ventured Norman, putting on his very best frown. ‘Seven … draws,’ came the hesitant mumble. ‘Seven fuckin’ draws. Seven. Seven fuckin’ draws!’

What do you say to someone who has narrowly missed out on a few hundred grand? ‘Er, what let you down, Gordon?’ inquired Norman with an air of studied concern.

‘Stenfuckinhousebastardmuir,’ came the anguished reply.

And for years afterwards in our office the gallant but lowly little football club, based just to the north of Falkirk, was always given its full and formal title as memorably coined by Gordon Lee.

It was about this time that Everton went over to the Republic of Ireland for a pre-season match against, I think, Waterford. The stout flowed freely and by kick-off time it was chaos. Everybody was rolling around trying to swing punches at whoever hove into misty view.

The club was run on rather strict Catholic lines and several local priests asked manager Gordon if he would go on the loudspeaker system and appeal for calm. Gordon, always ready to handle a mike, grabbed at the chance – before the handful of English-based sports reporters could jump him and wrench it from his grasp.

They knew what was coming and hid their heads as Gordon’s loud voice boomed out over the mayhem. None of this ‘ladies-and-gentlemen’ stuff. He went in with both feet: ‘Right, you fuckin’ lot,’ he barked. ‘Stop all this fuckin’ fightin’.’

It wasn’t quite what the local priests had in mind – but it worked. The Everton fans, who all knew Gordon, couldn’t swing a punch for laughing and peace broke out all over the ground. ‘That told ’em,’ said Gordon handing back the mike, convinced a persuasive appeal had averted a riot.

Bob Cass left the Mirror Manchester subs table to become a sports reporter on The Journal and was invited to do a report on the Sunderland match for BBC Radio Newcastle.

Just before the game got under way the studio linkman cut to Bob. ‘And what’s the weather like at Roker Park, Bob?’ All fairly straightforward, you might think. Except that Bob, new to all this radio stuff, thought the chap was just calling for a chat.

‘It’s fuckin’ pissin’ down,’ he said.

New to radio…? When a goal was scored he spelt out the player’s name – like you would when dictating copy. But he immediately realised what he’d done and said: ‘Yes! Remember that name.’ Terrific recovery.

More Cass…: when Sunderland played Newcastle the studio man said: ‘And now, let's see what's happening in the big North East derby. At Roker Park… Bob Cass.’

Bob: ‘Thirty minutes in and still goalless as Tommy Cassidy… 35 yards out… (Pause) … It's a long way out if that's what yer thinkin', bonny lad… (Pause)… Fer fuck's seark. It's gan in!’

Sports reporters. You have to love ’em.

#

The long legs of the law

By Alan Dean

Working as a stringer in Yugoslavia for the Daily Mail back in the late sixties got me involved in all sorts of escapades, some hairy and some hilarious – like the time I took a twinkle-toed ballet dancing Belgrade traffic cop to London to tackle traffic along Whitehall.

Jovan Bulj was not your average traffic cop. It was pirouettes all the way in his prancing Swan Lake approach to directing Belgrade’s traffic. When he died last year the one thing the local dailies got wrong in their obits was the background story behind his trip to London.

It all began when British European Airways (remember them?) upgraded its London-Belgrade route and sent a PR wallah and a very attractive young BEA hostie to Belgrade to promote the occasion. I caught up with them at a British embassy cocktail to mark the occasion (how the airline business has changed...)

I noticed on a press hand-out that the hostie listed ballet as one of her interests. So after one or two (it could have been three or more) gin and tonics I suggested her doing a duo dance routine in the heart of Belgrade with Jovan Bulj.

The PR man was over the moon with the idea and arranged for a local snapper who worked for Politika, a Belgrade daily, to record the performance. I was to get one of the shots and have it wired to the Daily Mail.

But it didn’t work out that way. The snapper somehow screwed up. Can’t remember how it happened, but no photos, just a dodgy reel of 35mm film. And as the BEA trio were on a flight back to London that evening there was no chance of a second bite at the ballet dancing cherry.

It was then that we hatched the plot to take Jovan Bulj to London, a wheeze well oiled over several slivovitzes in a local cafana. The hostie would tell her friends about dancing ballet with a ‘Commie cop’ in downtown Belgrade, nobody would believe her and she would personally invite Comrade Bulj to London. And that was the tale the BEA PR machine put about in London – with me ‘commissioned’ to get the show on the road in Belgrade.

The Belgrade police were having none of it. The embassy were none too helpful, either. But a friendly face at the ‘Ministry of Information’came to the rescue over a rather lavish lunch, on exes of course,and came up with all the necessary rubber stamped approvals.

The BEA PR man had arranged for the dancing policeman to spend a few minutes doing his Nureyev impressions while directing traffic on Whitehall – something that attracted a full posse of Fleet Street snappers. The more they snapped, the more onlookers cheered him on, the more elaborate was his performance. It was when he jumped in the air with his arms and legs fully stretched that a Met policeman from Cannon Row yelled ‘Get him orf of there!’ – and Jovan Bulj was accompanied to the station.

It was a great picture story for a slow news day and Jovan Bulj – who became ‘John Bull’ in some papers, found himself on the front page of most national dailies the next morning.

A couple of weeks after returning to Belgrade, I received a phone call from an Italian television producer. She wanted to take Jovan Bulj to Rome. OK, I said, but what did that have to do with me?. She replied, ‘Jovan Bulj told me you are his agent for these things…’

I would loved to have helped her, but I was about to depart for Split on the Adriatic -- a Daily Mail assignment to find Lady ‘Bubbles’ Rothermere’s missing yacht. But that’s another story.

#

Getting a story off Patt

By Revel Barker

In the glory days – which can be most easily defined by the years when circulations were counted in millions – all the national papers had staff in the north-east. And each of these ‘district offices’ had its own pub.

The Mirror titles – more than a dozen bodies if you counted circulation and regular casuals – used the Magpie (part of the brewery) and sometimes the Strawberry; the Express had the Crown Posada; the Mail and Sketch used the Forth in Pink Lane; the Herald (and old Sun) drank in the Marlborough… neutral ground was the Star where landlord Andy Rowell, mindful even in those days of health and safety, would put his cigarette, still burning, behind his ear when pulling a pint, and the Post Office Buffet, where we all met on Sunday lunchtimes.

On special occasions, such as visiting firemen coming up from the Smoke to do a special, or an émigré Geordie hack (of which there were hundreds) paying a visit to his homeland, we’d be invited to each other’s pubs.

Thus it was when Terry Pattinson, doing industry for the Daily Express, made a trip home. It was always good to see Terry Patt; he always had a tale to tell. And when Clive Crickmer and I joined the Express boys at the Posada to meet him the occasion was no exception.

Terry told us he had stopped en route for a freshener at a pub in north Durham. He’d ordered up a pint of best, watched it being pulled, then held it up to the light from the window to examine it.

The landlord asked him what he thought he was doing. ‘I’m admiring it,’ said Terry.

‘There’s nothing wrong with it. Put it down, or drink the bugger.’

‘I’ll have you know,’ said our Geordie chum, ‘that I am the chairman of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale. And holding your glass up to the light is a perfectly normal way to check the quality of a pint of bitter.’

‘I thought so,’ said mine host, reaching in to the drawer of his till. ‘I had you marked as a trouble-maker when you walked in. Here’s your money back. Now put it down and bugger off…’

‘Bloody hell,’ said Crick. ‘The chairman of CAMRA thrown out of a pub for admiring a pint of beer? I could make a page lead out of that.’

‘You’re right. You could,’ confirmed Terry. ‘Why not?’

Crick, who got around the local hostelries a bit, said he thought he knew the pub, and knew the landlord – ‘a little chap, like a jockey. Called Eric something.’

No, said Terry; he was what we hacks would describe as a burly six-footer, and he’d jotted down his name, which he obligingly read from his notebook.

Clive said he had to make a call and disappeared behind a partition where the phone box was installed. When he came back to the bar, and while the Express chaps were heatedly discussing some matter of internal office politics, he told me: ‘I rang the landlord.’

‘I know you did.’

‘He stands it all up. He admits he told Terry to piss off. He says he doesn’t like what he calls those clever dicks from CAMRA drinking in his pub.’

‘Great,’ I said. ‘And you’ve got quotes from Terry.’

‘You know Terry,’ said Crick, ‘that is a good little story…’

‘Too true,’ confirmed Terry. ‘A page lead on a quiet day.’

‘It is a quiet day,’ I told him.

It was time to check in with the office (we did that, in those days, every hour, or when we switched pubs). Crick disappeared behind the partition again.

He called back into the bar – ‘I’ll pass on your regards to the chaps on the desk,’ he said. Then… ‘One of the lads was asking where you live now, Terry…’ And Terry shouted back his home address. ‘And how old are you? About my age, I’d guess.’ Terry confirmed his age.

Crick rejoined us and ordered drinks all round. It wasn’t every day that you could justify pints at the Posada on expenses.

As he’d predicted, it was a page lead in the Daily Mirror by midnight, at which time Expressmen Alan Baxter and Phil Aris were got out of bed, bollocked for having missed a story on their patch and told to ‘match’ it.

The desk didn’t ring Terry.

It wasn’t an industrial story.

#

The elephant you never forget

By John Stevenson

I knew Bob Greaves, liked and admired him, and was always glad to bump into him because he was one of those life-enhancing people who left you feeling more upbeat than before. He moved from the Daily Mail news desk to Granada as reporter/presenter in 1964 I think, a few months before I joined the Mail in Manchester as theatre critic/ showbiz reporter (and general reporter if there was something big on and all hands were called in by Ken Donlan.)

In the 70s when I was by then writing sitcoms such as Nearest and Dearest, Last of the Baskets and How's your Father, Bob was usually the warm-up man at recordings, keeping the studio audience relaxed and clued-in, telling them a joke or three especially if there was some hitch or other (there usually was) in the proceedings. He was very good at this, and people responded to his warmth and outgoing personality.

Sample Bob Greaves joke that for some reason stuck in my mind: Girl 1: ‘I think I'm pregnant.’ Girl 2: ‘Have you had a check-up?’ Girl 1: ‘No, it was a little bloke from Bolton.’

There is a priceless film clip of Bob at Chester Zoo doing an interview in the elephant enclosure when one great pachyderm used its trunk to interfere with him – a shocking case of sexual harassment on the inter-species level.

[You can see it here – along with Bob’s claim that Granada scooped the world (or part of it) with news of the Kennedy assassination – plus his prediction that, when he died, it would be the elephant that was remembered.]

Peter Salmon, BBC Director North, said: 'Bob Greaves was one of the region's on-screen greats. I had the pleasure of watching him in the seventies and eighties as a viewer on Granada Reports before working with him in the nineties. He made live broadcasting look effortless and had a tremendous range – able to tackle the big story with authority and the quirky item with warmth. He brought great humanity to local news and we were lucky to have him at the heart of our regional broadcasting for so many years.’

Former Manchester Guardian reporter Michael Parkinson told Granada Reports Bob 'had a great charm…. He had what all great communicators had – he understood his audience, he spoke their language, which means to say he didn’t speak down to them at all, he knew which level to pitch it at."

BBC North West Tonight Presenter Gordon Burns, who was a colleague of Bob's on Granada Reports, said: ‘He was a fantastic character and had a great rapport with the job. I think people all over the UK and even the world will remember Bob because of that clip which appeared many times of him reporting from Chester Zoo, when an elephant, started – shall we say – investigating Bob with its trunk. It was typical of Bob that he was able to keep talking to camera and laugh about it.’

Greaves, who was 76, started his media career in newspapers, beginning with the Sale and Stretford Guardian. He also worked on the Nottingham Evening News and at the Manchester office of the Daily Mail, before joining Granada where he was both news editor and presenter.

Ian Skidmore writes:

Though I cannot remember a time when I did not know and like Bob I left newspapers when I was forty to freelance and become an author and broadcaster. He occasionally interviewed my wife Celia and me about our books as they came out and I did notice that he was becoming a personality rather than a person. He had been such a fine person that I thought it was a pity. But given the adulation he inspired it was understandable. He really was a household name and more than anyone else became the face of Granada.

In our reporting days there was only one word to describe him. He was lovable. When I saw him arrive at Stafford for the Assize I knew the next days were going to be fun. Practically alone in Mail men he did not go in fear of Donlan.

When he joined Granada as news editor of Granada Reports he used to send recruits to spend a day with me to learn the ropes. As at the time I only had a vague acquaintance with the ropes I don’t know that I did them any good professionally. Socially it was another matter I always gave them a decent lunch at the Grosvenor where the manager, Robin Wills was too much of a gentleman ever to give me a bill. I remember Bob once rang me and said: ‘I don’t know what you do with my young gentleman but they all come back desperate to be freelances.’

#

Rudge

###


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Forgive Us Our Press Passes, Ian Skidmore’s hilarious account of (some of) his time as a reporter, newsdesk man, freelance reporter and broadcaster, is now available as an e-book.

This means you can download it to read on your PC, your laptop, or your Kindle or any other e-reader machine.

Buy it on-line from the bookstore page at BeWrite Books and it’s there for you to read and enjoy in about a minute.

It’s also available from major on-line book shops, including Barnes & Noble, amazon and Reader Store, priced at the equivalent of $5.99, or maybe even less.

If you want the hard copy – the paperback – you’ll still find that version at amazon-uk, Waterstones and (with free delivery worldwide) at Book Depository.

If you have been away on a desert island for the past three years and want to know more about the book, go to the Ranters Bookshop or direct to the Skiddy Page to learn what you’ve been missing.

#


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


Issue # 189
March 25 2011


This Week

I’d been doorstepping northern politician T Dan Smith (‘The Mouth of the Tyne’ © Mike Gagie) for six weeks when Scotland Yard’s fraud squad eventually turned up to arrest him. Everybody else, including our own picture desk, had given up the ghost weeks earlier, but the Daily Mirror had come late to the Poulson Affair and was determined not to miss out, thereafter.

So there I was, on my Jack, watching the detectives enter his house, and wondering what the hell I was supposed to do about it (other than wait for them to come out with him). Then I noticed a car driving slowly across the end of the street. It was Daily Mail photographer Leo Dillon, returning from another job and looking up the street, like you would, in case there was any action. I waved frantically. Leo drove past then swung back and drove up to join me. I told him what was happening – that I had no snapper, but he had no reporter – and of course we immediately agreed to share the honours. So Mirror photographer Tom Buist and Mail reporter Roger Scott got front page honours, while Leo and I did the work.

What brings this back? Leo died last week. Another north-eastern stalwart gone to the Great Newsroom, in the wake of Johnny Learwood, Stanley Blenkinsop and Gordon Amory.

Roger Scott, his colleague for 20 years, remembers Leo even better than I do. But perhaps I can explain that the reason Leo drove slowly, as Roger mentions, was that he was usually fashioning a roll-up, with a pack of Rizlas in one hand and a wallet of baccy in the other, and the steering wheel was mostly left to its own devices…

We also learnt this week, a bit late, that Sue Hercombe died in January. Sue was a lovely writer on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. Here’s what Liz Hodgkinson wrote about her in Ladies Of The Street:

Sue Hercombe became the last-ever Woman Journalist of the Year while still working in the provinces, and wrested the title away from bigger names such as Jean Rook and Lynda Lee-Potter. The judges had liked her fresh, new approach, and Sue said in her acceptance speech that although she was honoured to be awarded the title, she thought it was an anachronism to differentiate journalists by gender. As Sue Frost (reverting to her maiden name after her divorce) she became the agony aunt on Woman magazine.

Last week’s obit of Bob Greaves reminded Inspector Watts about what can happen when observant reporters find stories (not the sort that they just lift these days) in other people’s newspapers.

And before we leave the gloom and despondency section, Allan Davies reports on the death of a newspaper. Happens all the time, of course. But when it’s your own local rag, you can take it personally.

Let’s cheer ourselves up with memories of busy days and mass circulations. Remember how we all had somebody (or six people) called the Industrial Correspondent? They recently realised that, although happily for the most part they’re still around, everybody’s forgotten about them. Time was when they were the only people who could get anything in the paper. Showbiz hadn’t been discovered yet. Trade union leaders were the celebs. Who were these reporters? Why were they important? ‘Slowly it dawned on labour and industrial correspondents that they were writing themselves out of the script; they had begun the task of preparing their own obituary notice,’ says Nick Jones who has edited a book, The Lost Tribe of Fleet Street, in their honour. Geoffrey Goodman remembers the tribe’s heyday…

And for those who remember Mickey Brennan’s, there’s a splendid interview with him in the Independent this week.

Plus Rudge, propping up the colour supplement.

#

Half a century of holiday relief

By Roger Scott

All the other reporters were envious of me. They worked the north-east district with outstandingly good photographers who were also very nice people. But none quite matched Leo’s combination of humour, calm, technical excellence and simple humanity which made working with him such an endless pleasure.

Leo was sent on a ‘temporary’ posting from his native Manchester to the Daily Mail Newcastle office in 1948. His return was delayed until his retirement nearly 50 years later during which he met and married Jean and raised four children. We were his other kids – the succession of reporters who worked, laughed and drank with him. Up to a dozen passed through the Newcastle office on their way to greater things in Fleet Street, all the better for the Leo experience.

He never preached or presumed to lecture (except once to counsel me not to drink strong cider and to avoid hangovers by drinking his own ‘bellywash’). Somehow, though, you absorbed his way of going about things – don’t ask me how and I had the privilege of working with him for 20 years.

He even had his own way of driving to a job, large or small, near or far from a deadline – and it was always at an annoyingly safe pace. While we tore off into the distance he would amble along and yet somehow arrive in the street just as we were getting out of our cars to knock on doors, where he also excelled.

His presence on the reporter’s stage - the doorstep – was always that of a supporting actor, never a spear-carrier. And those hours spent sitting in the office going through local papers were always eased by Leo’s special eye for a potential page lead, with pictures obviously, and I for one had reason to be grateful to him for some wonderful shows in the paper. His London colleague Mike Forster said that you could always tell a Leo Dillon picture by the happy smiles of the people in the frame.

Working with Leo was always entertaining – but quietly, especially when calming someone like the brilliantly furious John Learwood who was forever cursing the God in whom Leo devoutly believed and inviting Him to ‘come down here and fight fair!’

We lost Learwood and Gordon Amory, another friend and rival, last year. Now Leo. That will be an interesting flare-up in heaven – and I know from whence will come the voice of reason, accompanied by the characteristic ‘old lad’ and a chuckle.

A memorial mass will be held for Leo at St Teresa’s church, Heaton Road, Newcastle on Friday 15 April at 11am and the family would be absolutely delighted to meet any of his friends and former colleagues who are able to attend

#

An old friend calls...

By Michael Watts

Obits of Bob Greaves agree – as did John Stevenson in last week’s Ranters – that he was a likeable chap. Er, yes. But – while I won’t add ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper’, as that would be an implication too far – there was a day when one had cause to like him rather less than usual.

I first met Bob in the late fifties on the Nottingham Evening News. Then he left for the Daily Mail in Manchester, and we lost contact for years. Until...

There came a very lengthy national postal strike. It caused a variety of probs for newspapers, especially the nationals – and a particular challenge was how to fill the letters pages now that they were deprived of contributions from readers (no email option then, of course).

On the Sunday Express, some of us were urged to rally round and come up with a constant supply. To avoid obvious absurdity, however, we mostly used noms de plume, although we were asked to use our proper names occasionally.

All was well. Then out of the blue the telephone rang. It was good ol’ Bob Greaves. Hadn’t heard from him for yonks, yet here he was calling his chum for a chat.

The chumminess lasted for about a minute, during which he asked what I was up to these days, and I asked what he was up to these days – and he said he was no longer with the Mail, but with... Granada. Then: ‘You are the M R A Watts who writes letters in the Sunday Express, aren’t you?’

The swine. So that was why this old ‘friend’ was calling. Off top of head, all I could think of saying was: ‘I’d be very careful about that, Bob, if I were you,’ feebly repeating the mantra when the blighter kept pressing me (‘But you are, aren’t you?’) and, again, when he brought up the names of others – news editor, features editor, foreign editor and so on – who’d also appeared on the Sunday Express letters page in recent weeks.

But it was no good. ‘All’s fair...’ etc, and one had been well and truly turned over.

That week’s What The Papers Say gleefully concluded with an item about Fleet Street’s difficulty during the current postal strike. It then showed our efforts, reeling off their authors’ names – commenting that other papers, so short of letters, must envy us our contributors who, despite the strike, had somehow managed to get their missives through, and so well written to boot...

‘How those newspapers must wish that they, too, had such loyal readers. But, sorry – it cannot be. They’re all on the staff of the Sunday Express.’

#

Stopped press

By Allan Davies

We are in mourning this week here in suburban Surrey. The last copy of the Woking News and Mail (first published in 1894) dropped through our letterbox – with the news that we have also seen the last of its sister paper, the 78-year-old Woking Review, an excellent freebie. The owners, Guardian Media Group, say the closures have been forced by their unsuccessful search for a buyer for the two loss-makers.

This is surely a very worrying trend. If local papers are in financial trouble in the stockbroker belt what hope for those in less wealthy areas?

Trinity Mirror bought Guardian Media's regional papers (including the Manchester Evening News) a year ago in a deal worth £44.8 million. GMG received £7.4 million cash and were released from a £37.4 million printing contract. At the time, Trinity said the deal included all GMG's southern regional publications except those in Woking.

This week, a day after receiving their last copies of the Review, readers received a copy of another free paper, the Informer – which Trinity already owned. Hopefully, now that competition for advertising has been eliminated, Woking won't be left without a local paper.

But there are now fewer jobs for journalists. And if the trend continues where will tomorrow's Gentlemen Ranters get their basic training? Perhaps the Mirror Group was anticipating this problem when its training scheme was established in Plymouth but it is unlikely that any company will find the money now to emulate this. Taking names at funerals, making daily calls (and valuable contacts) at the fire station and the local cop shop, covering council meetings and minor cases at the magistrates court might have seemed like a pain in the backside at the time but it was all undoubtedly valuable experience. (If I sound old fashioned, it's probably because I am).

I learnt my trade with the Warrington Guardian series, which at the time was in effect running a free training school for Fleet Street and the Manchester offices of the nationals – Bob Greaves and Mike Taylor were among my colleagues there. And I can count at least five others from that newspaper group alone who ended up working at Withy Grove or Ancoats Street in Manchester.

In the 1960s I was lured from the Daily Mirror subs desk by the offer of a company car and more money to re-join my old employer, the Manchester Evening News where I became general manager of a new company publishing 16 free newspapers in towns around the city. They were edited by volunteers escaping the formal, regimented atmosphere of the Evening News office, old hands such as Fred Bannister, Doug Caville and John Lomax

The idea was to protect the Evening News from Murdoch, who had launched free sheets in the Liverpool area. I think the Scott Trust management was afraid he might progress to free evening papers. After a fairly short time I ended up closing the Post Publications series for the same reason GMG has closed the Woking papers now – insufficient ad revenue. Eventually,I was invited to re-join the Mirror. The Post editors returned to the Manchester Evening News.

After the closure, we just said a fond goodbye to most of the army of delivery boys and girls. The rest were transferred to a direct delivery operation for the Evening News. But how things have changed. The 13-year-old son of a neighbour here in Woking who has been delivering the Review to earn extra pocket money has received a two-page redundancy notice from Trinity Mirror Distributors Ltd, who handled delivery of the paper – plus a six-page ‘consultancy document’, including a questionnaire which starts by asking (strangely, I think) whether he has received the document. But he welcomed the news that he is to be paid until April 8 and that he has been invited to apply for a job delivering the Woking Informer.

#

The heyday

By Geoffrey Goodman

I can identify the moment when I first recognised that the world of industrial reporting as I had known it for some forty years was collapsing around me. It was toward the end of 1986 when I was being retired from my role of industrial editor of the Daily Mirror after some twenty years in that job. The then editor of the paper and I were discussing the succession and my nomination to fill the vacancy.

After I had made my point the editor leaned back and observed; ‘You know, quite frankly I don’t think I am going to try to replace you; the world you have been writing about is changing. Maybe we don’t need an industrial editor any more – certainly not one of your status’ (I was also an assistant editor of the Mirror Group). In fact the editor did appoint someone to do the job – though on a quite different basis and he didn’t last long.

At that time, in the middle of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, most national newspapers were starting to cut back on their industrial reporting staff. Some like the Financial Times used to have six in its team – all excellent reporters. Even popular ‘red top’ tabloids like the the Sun had three industrial reporters as did the Beaverbrook Daily Express and the old Daily Mail. Newspapers like The Times and Daily Telegraph varied between having three and four industrial staff reporters. It was, of course, then a major area of British journalism with the BBC (radio as well as TV), ITV, and Channel Four News always trying to match the national press. On the Mirror team with myself were three full time industrial reporters and another in our Manchester office.

All that was yesterday; nowadays it is unusual to find even one industrial correspondent occupying the same role as in my time (let alone an old-style industrial editor) on any of the national (or regional) daily newspapers. Why? What is the reason for this astonishing transformation?

Some in our trade would claim that everything has changed because the very nature of work itself has been transformed. They will argue that since we live in a dramatically different industrial society dominated now by new technology and a global financial culture old-style industrial relations and worker/management relations have been overtaken: that the old worker-boss relationship of mass production industries has disappeared.

In my opinion this is a superficial argument, containing a mere grain of truth but evading the basic issue that life and work in our ‘new society’ still demands analysis, explanation, revelation, good reporting and campaigning journalism – all of which was once supplied by some of the finest reporters in British journalism… old-style industrial correspondents.

So what was that scene like?

When I first started industrial reporting in the early nineteen fifties on the News Chronicle (which died in 1960) the status of the industrial specialists on all the national newspapers was near the top of the Fleet Street ladder – the equal of and sometimes more prestigious than the role of political (lobby) correspondents. The by-lines of these star industrial journalists were paraded in front of millions of readers every day. Their stories of strikes in the motor industry, coal mines, docks, shipyards etc. and of the social and economic problems affecting every sector of British industry were the daily ration of front page news and comment.

It was also a post-war time when Britain’s basic industries nationalised by the Attlee government of 1945 (coal, railways, gas, electricity, general public transport etc.) were frequently the dominant topic in every national (and regional) daily newspaper.

The by-lines of those who wrote these stories were familiar to most households – Trevor Evans (Daily Express) Ian Mackay (News Chronicle) Hugh Chevins (Daily Telegraph) John Anderson (Manchester Guardian) Harold Hutchinson (Daily Mirror) and several star women writers like Margaret Stewart who succeeded Mackay on the News Chronicle and with whom I worked.

Some papers like The Times and FT at that time abjured naming their star reporters, though The Times had a most distinguished labour correspondent (as he was by-lined) – Eric Wigham, who previously had been an eminent war correspondent. The FT man was Michael Shanks followed by John Elliott.

All of them were uniquely versatile writers and reporters. One day they would be at the dock gates in London or Liverpool reporting on a dock strike, or down a coal mine describing the scene; next day they could be interviewing a cabinet minister responsible for one or more of the nationalised industries; another time they would be reporting from the conference of one of the major trade unions; or, oft times, slipping across to France, Germany or Belgium to reflect on the industrial tensions in Europe.

Such were the norms of day to day reporting among the journalist elite who were by-lined ‘By our Industrial Correspondent’ [or ‘Labour Correspondent’, ‘Industrial reporter’ et al]. It was indeed the heyday of an exceptional breed of outstanding newspapermen.

Probably the most interesting and demanding period was during the 1960s. These were the closing years of Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government which introduced a new epoch of relations between a Tory government and the trade unions by launching of the National Economic Development Council (NEDDY). The industrial correspondents were the primary communication conduit in this pioneering development between government and organised labour (especially the TUC) and it laid the basis for subsequent close links between the industrial journalists and the Wilson government which took office in 1964.

From then and through a period of more than ten years of incomes policy, embracing the Heath government of 1970/4, and until Margaret Thatcher’s victory of 1979, the industrial correspondents were often regarded as the elite corps of Fleet Street.

The watershed came with 1979 – indeed a turning point in the fortunes and status of the specie. The birth of Thatcher-ism was indeed the close of a journalistic culture first started effectively in the 1930s, coming to full prominence during World War II and finally flourishing in the political climate set by the election of the first majority Labour government in 1945.

But from 1979 it was downhill all the way as the fashion of reporting moved from writing about the shop floor to the finance houses of the City. The financial editors gradually assumed a primacy once enjoyed by generations of outstanding industrial correspondents.

Geoffrey Goodman is a former Daily Mirror industrial editor, assistant editor and columnist and is the author of From Bevan to Blair, Fifty years reporting from the political front line.

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