I think that most journalists, like most people, are pleasant enough to meet, but few can write properly, few report thoroughly, many are frustrated at being chroniclers rather than the persons whose deeds and words are reported. – Conrad Black in The National Interest

Issue # 171

November 5, 2010


This Week

We’re indebted to Dermot – ‘there’s an awful lot of copy in Brazil' – Purgavie for drawing our attention to a piece by Conrad Black who has reviewed three books for a website of which he’s described as ‘publisher emeritus’.

It contains Black’s unique insight into the world of top American newspapers, and especially into those fairly famous people who run, or ran, them, and who helped fill the grey pages.

Want the lowdown on Rupert Murdoch and his sidekicks? Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, Walter Cronkite, John Gunther, Arthur Krock, and even Woodward and Bernstein and the Watergate affair? Read Conrad’s stab-in-the-Black book review. It runs to six screen pages, but it’s worth it.

Copy arriving in the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department reminds us of a Roy Spicer story about Allen Baird, picture editor of the Sunday Mirror in the 70s. Baird wanted a photo of Robin Knox-Johnson as he neared the end of his single-handed round the world voyage on the yacht Suhaili. He got on to the ship-to-shore to ask for his position:

Calling Suhaili, Suhaili, Suhaili… this is the London Sunday Mirror… are you receiving me? – Over.

Came the reply: Hello, Sunday Mirror. This is Suhaili, receiving you loud and clear – over.

Baird: Good morning. Can I speak to Mr Knox-Johnson, please?

But if the guy you’re seeking is actually rowing in mid-Atlantic, and if he doesn’t have a phone, you need to resort to other methods of creating copy, as Peter Laud, ex Daily Mail man who now farms in Tasmania, explains.

Philip Harrison remembers a new copy boy (from the days when you were allowed to call them ‘boy’ regardless of age or sex, and also, I suppose, when there used to be ‘copy’) and has a Churchillian V-sign encounter from the subs’ table of the Evening Standard.

And in the Ranters Magazine Section (or colour supplement), we introduce a cartoon strip. Well, it worked for Cudlipp’s Daily Mirror. It’s called Rudge and features… a cartoonist.

Set in the newsroom of a contemporary newspaper, it charts the on-going battle of the ever-diminishing staff to publish a daily paper in the face of cuts, endless meetings and management focus groups.

Featuring Osbert the news editor who continues to search for the perfect editorial mix (of scotch and water); Hartley the permanently bemused feature writer; Charles the editor; Dinah the only female member of staff; Myles the cub reporter and social media expert and Rudge the sardonic, cynical and dyspeptic... cartoonist.

James Whitworth is a freelance cartoonist who has contributed to a wide number of national, regional and online newspapers and magazines. He is the topical news cartoonist for the online magazine, Creative Boom.

‘Rudge is not an autobiographical strip,’ he says… ‘Except when it is.’

And (we always know where to find him), holding up the bar in the back corner, Bill Greaves embarks upon his crawl of the last pubs not in Fleet Street.

#

All at sea

By Peter Laud

During the summer silly season this website made mention of those disgraceful, irresponsible and unprincipled scribes who, in times of drought, had chosen creative writing and that put me in mind of the ocean hero Sidney Gender – the Suburban House Painter who Tamed the Atlantic – back in the seventies.

In the long history of seagoing adventurers the name Genders may not immediately spring to mind. Slocum, Chichester, Knox-Johnson – and, more recently, the teenage Australian Jessica Watson who sailed alone around the world – all have stamped their name firmly into seagoing folklore. But Genders?... Sidney Who?

For reasons best known to himself Sidney Genders, a house painter who lived and worked in Birmingham, decided at the age of 50 to row solo across the Atlantic. He trained by rowing for hours on Edgbaston Reservoir not far from the city centre and in time slipped almost unnoticed from a Cornish cove heading for the Bay of Biscay and Las Palmas, his first port of call.

He had taken few into his confidence and the first the Birmingham Evening Mail knew of this potential home-grown hero was a few lines of copy from a local freelance that was enough to put fire in the belly of the Mail news editor, Gerry Hollioake. Hollioake’s favourite instruction when handing out often improbable story ideas was:Can we get the jacks under this one?’ Putting the jacks under the Genders tale was difficult given that the man was already at sea and appeared to have few friends or relatives who, even with sufficient prodding, might have been able to flesh out The Quiet Hero.

As the days passed with no word of Genders’ progress from passing ships or Lloyds of London, Hollioake became even more restive. He needed copy and demanded that even more calls be made to shipping companies, ferry operators, even the Royal Navy who, he said, might, just might, have spotted the lone oarsman battling high seas in the Bay of Biscay and might, just might, have taken a few pictures for the Mail’s exclusive use, although how these images would have made their way back to Birmingham was never fully explained.

Faced with increasing pressure from a constantly hovering news editor it was time to dredge up some imaginary details of what life might be like for Sidney out there on a vast and wide ocean. Suddenly, after days of silence, the Mail had a fix on Sidney.

He was at that moment battling sea sickness in the Bay of Biscay but determined to carry on. For navigation he had a salt-stained atlas, a relic from his schooldays. His supplies of tinned food, cooked over a battered, second-hand primus stove, were supplemented by fresh fish, caught with a line baited with his old bread. He was alone, cold and tired but resolute and relying on the inspiration of the French fisherman’s prayer which runs something like: ‘The sea is so large and my boat is so small.’ All this information, relayed via a crackling ship-to-shore radio telephone to an anonymous shipping agent in Southampton, came courtesy of the crew of a homeward-bound but un-named British freighter who had spotted Genders’ storm-tossed boat.

Hollioake bounced around with delight at this breakthrough – and, like Oliver Twist, asked for more. To satisfy his demands I recruited a partner in crime. Fellow Mail man Roger Busby, who had learnt his trade at Caters News Agency in Birmingham under the legendary George Barnwell, was a fine reporter and all-round good bloke. Busby, who later went on to achieve his dream job – PRO based in Exeter for Devon and Cornwall Constabulary – had also written several successful crime novels and happily set his mind and imagination to the saga of the House Painter Who Went to Sea.

Thus there appeared in the Mail several days later a terrific story under a joint by-line about how a French seine-netter, the Claudette, had spotted Genders and helped him out with food – including French cheese and a bottle of wine. By chance the first mate of the Claudette had a trumpet and serenaded Genders with a moving rendition of Rule Britannia. For those involved – even two warm and dry blokes hunched behind a Remington back in Birmingham – it was a moving moment that left Genders misty-eyed but even more determined.

Some weeks later the Mail received a genuine agency report that a bearded Englishman had arrived by rowing boat in Las Palmas and the Mail, normally stingy in matters of travel outside the Birmingham CBD, sent me out to talk with the man whose exploits had gripped the public imagination. Sidney was thin, haggard, sunburnt and almost broke and reliant largely on the goodwill of other ocean adventurers in much bigger boats for his stay in Las Palmas. But he was still determined to press on across the Atlantic for Antigua.

With his arrival in Las Palmas the London nationals became interested in Sidney’s exploits and weaved references to the salt-stained atlas and the Claudette into their own versions. What they didn’t have was Sidney’s log book with its deep, dark passages of a lonely man desperate to salvage something from what had apparently been an unhappy life. He asked that these passages remain private and I respected his wishes. He also asked if I could help financially and I gave him what was left of my advance exes – about 50 quid – and when we parted company in Las Palmas I feared that was the last anyone would see of the bearded adventurer and his 20ft boat.

Back in Birmingham any lingering sense of guilt at embellishing his story was overcome by the challenge that lay ahead. Sidney, in a boat more suited to a quiet canal, was challenging the Atlantic. I faced the challenge of the daily demands of a news editor and a constant cry of ‘Any more on Genders?’

Busby (for it was him your honour, not me) came up with more tales of the Old Man of the Sea: storm-tossed seas, broken oars, blisters, giant jelly fish and visits from curious albatrosses. But the Atlantic is a big ocean and by now we were forced to plot what we imagined to be his course, using an atlas from the Mail library and a clip from a biro top – the bit you can chew into an interesting shape when gazing at a keyboard in search of inspiration.

From Las Palmas to Antigua is about 3,000 miles. By our reckoning the biro clip represented about 200 miles when placed alongside the scale of the map. So if Sidney could average, say, 20 miles a day he could in 10 days travel the entire length of the biro clip. After a month he could be 600 miles, or three biro clips, into his trans-Atlantic journey. So it was that about 12 weeks after leaving Las Palmas and with a little help from anonymous merchant vessels and keen-eyed but equally anonymous long-distance sailors in sleek yachts equipped with powerful radio telephones able to beam direct into Birmingham, the Mail announced that Sidney was nearing the half way stage of his long and lonely plod across the Atlantic.

There was just one problem. A few days later Lloyds of London received a genuine sighting of Sidney, duly relayed by the PA, that put Genders about 1,000 miles south of the Mail’s position. The ever-reliable Busby had an answer to a confused and bewildered Hollioake. The apparent discrepancy, he explained, was the combined result of a specific tidal current in mid-Atlantic and some unusual wind patterns, both of which the surging Sidney had been able to use to advantage.

Sidney finally made it to Antigua where for a while he resorted to his old trade as a house painter before taking to the oars again for the trip to the US mainland. In time he produced a manuscript of the voyage – he called it 100,000 Strokes – and sought my help in getting it published. Unfortunately it was a dull read and lacked any sense of terror, courage, white-knuckled fear and those chance encounters so necessary to a good story. The Mail version, for all its glaring faults, had been a much better read.

Now, many years later, I look back on our treatment of the Sidney saga with a mixture of guilt and regret. At the time it was fun, good for a laugh among that small band of Mail men who were in on the scam. Now I’m not so sure, for anyone who rows the Atlantic, for whatever reason, surely deserves some kind of respect. Sidney disappeared without trace after reaching the USA but wherever he is I have a short message and it is this: Sorry, Sid.

Peter Laud worked on the Birmingham Evening Mail, the Daily Mail in Manchester and freelanced for a while in South Wales before migrating to Australia in 1981 – his second trip to the country – where he worked for News Ltd in Perth. He now runs a small farm in Tasmania.

#

Stop press

By Philip Harrison

The London Evening Standard had a unique way of getting edited copy from the subs’ room to the typesetting department in 1964. In all the papers I had worked for, the copy was either taken by a copyboy from the subs’ baskets to the typesetters or was put into a container and sent by chute.

The Standard editorial department was on the floor directly above the composing room. A hole about the size of a dinner plate with a diameter-hinged cover had been cut into a desk near the subs’ table. Directly beneath was the ‘cage’, where the print room foreman stood to distribute copy page by page to the Linotype operators to set into metal. Chains hanging from the floor above around the circumference of the cylinder that led from the hole in the editorial room ensured that when copy was dropped from the floor above, it landed on his desk and did not flutter to the floor.

Enter a new copyboy, a cockney lad who was keen to show that he could work quickly, as befitted a newspaper with nine editions a day. Arfur’s first job was to make the tea for the subs. When he had shown he could do that satisfactorily, he would be elevated to high things, such as getting sandwiches for the staff. Arfur had made one pot of tea and the subs were thirsting for more. ‘Make us another pot,’ yelled the chief sub. Sharp-eyed Arfur had seen other copyboys going to a desk, lifting the hinged swinging lid and dropping paper down the hole. So Arfur picked up the teapot half full of cold dregs, went to the copy chute, and poured the contents down the chute, on to the desk of the foreman, drenching him with cold tea and tea leaves.

It was the first time I had seen a spontaneous walkout of all printing-room staff. It took nearly an hour of pleading by the editor to persuade them that it was not deliberate and to go back to work. By then, a whole edition had been lost.

So Arfur’s working day started and ended in a few hours. I wonder what he is doing now…

I was sub-editing on the Standard features desk in 1965 when the chief feature sub tossed me Randolph Churchill’s weekly column to sub.

‘Just put the printer’s marks on it and write the heading,’ he said. ‘We don’t edit Randolph.’

Churchill, unlike his father, was not a prose stylist. Much of his column was turgid and the Standard ran it mainly because of his name. The editor, Charles Wintour, was a great believer in ‘name’ writers. The trouble was, he would not let their output be edited, which resulted in a lot of the paper being almost unreadable.

I waded through Randolph’s column and encountered a paragraph so dense and devoid of meaning that I said to the chief sub: ‘There’s a bit here which is pretty obscure.’

‘Tell you what,’ he said, ‘why don’t you give Randolph a ring and ask him about it.’

He gave me the number. I dialled. Got his butler. Was put through. ‘Yes?’ barked Churchill.

I introduced myself and said: ‘Sir, I am subbing your column for tomorrow’s paper and there is a passage in it which seems to me to be a little obscure.’

I could almost feel the rage coming through the earpiece.

‘To the obscure,’ snarled Churchill, ‘all things are obscure.’ And hung up.

I carefully put the phone back on the receiver hoping no one had witnessed my humiliation.

Some hope. Suppressed sniggers turned to roars of laughter.

‘Just put the printer’s marks on it and write the heading…’ said the chief sub.

Footnote: When Randolph Churchill died, BBC-TV had a tribute in which Michael Foot, the Labour MP who went on to lead the party, said: ‘Randolph was a loathsome person, but his one redeeming feature was that he was loathsome to rich and poor alike, to lords of the realm as well as restaurant waiters.’

#

Colour supplement

Rudge

#

And did those feet, in ancient times…?

By William Greaves

Back in early working life, I spent a couple of years as a humble reporter on the Derby Evening Telegraph. Derby was an OK sort of place, full of Rolls Royce boffins and blokes – nearly always blokes – who were building things like carriages for the youthful British Railways.

But by and large, Derby was no good for girls. For girls you had to go to Nottingham. It was only a few miles away to the east but the big difference was that Nottingham was a university city and Derby was no such thing. And universities produced girls with brains – a very challenging combination for embryo journalists with intellectual ideas above their station.

There were two approved picking up points – a couple of landmark pubs called The Black Boy and Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem. The Black Boy – can you imagine a boozer with such a name in politically correct 21st century Britain? – had few irresistible architectural qualities but it was a swinging scene and in front of it was a statue of a guy called Samuel Brunts who apparently died way back in 1711 and bequeathed this chunk of land to be used for the benefit of poor local people who ‘had been industrious and of sober life and conversation and feared the Lord.’ Well, at least we were poor.

Alas, the dear old Black Boy, with its massive central tower with dark wooden gables and a Bavarian balcony of monumental awfulness, is no longer with us – it was, apparently, knocked down to make room for a Littlewoods store sometime late in the 1960s.

But the Trip to Jerusalem still survives and is still something else. In fact, it is a lot of things else. Apart from being a gathering place for lovely brainboxes hopefully seeking a night-time diversion from differential calculus or the dusty musings of Pliny, it has a date of 1189 on the wall outside and boasts of being the ‘oldest inn in England.’

What better place, therefore, on Ranters’ behalf, to begin a journey of enlightenment into the glorious history of the British pub? Is this really the oldest surviving home of that often anonymous army of journalists’ friends lovingly known as ‘sources closest to...’ and ‘neighbours yesterday spoke of...?’

And if so, what and where are the roadside watering holes that today fly the flag for a British institution that has somehow survived the ups and downs of more than eight further centuries?

At the command of the Chief Ranter, I am about to embark on a one-man mission of discovery around the highest pubs, the haunted pubs, the smugglers pubs, the waterside pubs, the pubs that have hosted historic moments, the coaching pubs, the pubs that don’t really exist outside the fantasy world of television and radio soaps and a load of other pubs that just happen to be dotted around the national landscape to satisfy the common thirst.

The Last Pub in Fleet Street is about to pay homage to its fellow survivors around the land.

Before entering its portals I went to have a chat with the ever-helpful Judith Edgar, keeper of community history at the Museum of Nottingham Life, which just happens to be in Brewhouse Square, right next to the Trip to Jerusalem.

Just what, I wondered, were the authenticated origins of the museum’s distinguished neighbour? Judith, bless her, laid out a magnificent array of reference books and photocopies of ancient parchments and manuscripts on the desk between us and admitted that she had been doing her homework ever since breakfast.

‘There are big gaps in what we know,’ she began, with admirable historian’s caution. ‘We do know that Nottingham Castle was rebuilt in 1068 by William Peverill for William the Conqueror and that the River Lean was diverted to provide a water supply and it would certainly have been reasonable to assume that the castle would have had its own brewhouse because in those days beer was regarded as the best way of making water safe to drink. Even children used to drink a weakened form of it, known as small beer.

(My old pal and Daily Mail colleague, Vincent Mulchrone, claimed that the entire reason for the invention of beer was as a water-purifier. And it is entirely for that reason alone, he asserted, that there are tombs dating back to 6,000BC that record the brewing of barley and water, fermented by bread. ‘Similar tablets from Mesopotamia,’ wrote the great man, warming to his theme, ‘show two thirsty-looking characters stirring away at a brewery vat. And Babylon we know had the world’s first barmaids. They gave good measure too. The penalty for a short pull was death by drowning.’ (Vincent’s sources were always fiercely protected but we must take his findings with all due respect.)

Anyway, back to Ms Edgar: ‘What we do have is a reference to “plague watchings” taking place at “the brewhouse under the castle” in 1609 to 1610 and it is reasonable to assume that, if it was here then, then that is where it would have been situated when the castle was first built five centuries earlier.

‘Usually a brewhouse would not only produce beer but it would also be somewhere where people could gather and drink it, but as this one was primarily for the benefit of the occupants of the castle whether they would have been encouraged to go outside the walls is open to question – I would have thought it more likely that the beer would have been delivered into the castle for consumption.’

And just how Jerusalem got into the act is equally clouded in mystery. In the language of 12th century Britain, a trip was not so much a journey as a stopping-off place during a journey, which accounts for the popular belief that the Trip to Jerusalem was a night’s stopover for the men already recruited by Richard the Lionheart for his various crusades of the period.

But the first reference to a pub on the site that Judith can dig out was in 1760 when it was leased to a William Marriott under the name of The Pilgrim – a name that nonetheless suggested similar Christian outreaching – and it was not until The Pilgrim was sold in 1785 by auction that it was referred to in the Nottingham Guardian on September 3rd as the ‘Jerusalem Alehouse in Brewhouse Square.’

But just to thicken the plot, contemporary references to its ‘nickname of the Trip to Jerusalem’ refer to it as being a meeting place for an obscure sect called the Philadelphians or Family of Love and of a defunct ‘Court of St John of Jerusalem.’

So maybe Jerusalem doesn’t refer to the crusades at all but to this mysterious court of St John of Jerusalem. All of which greatly amuses the current landlady of Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, whose name just happens to be Rosie St John.

‘All I know is that I’ve been in this business for 20 years and if it had been the Dog and Duck I was looking after it wouldn’t have meant anything but nowadays when I go anywhere in the world someone has always heard of the Trip to Jerusalem. And when visitors come here they’ve always done their homework and the first things they want to see are the Cursed Galleon and the Fertility Chair.’

OK, Rosie, be my guide. The cursed galleon, up in a little old bar on the top floor, turned out to be an awful, dirt-encrusted old warship in a glass bottle, crying out for the attentions of dustpan and brush. ‘We don’t know much about it,’ said Rosie, ‘but it was left here by a sailor and attached to the ceiling, which was apparently just as dirty as the ship itself – and the first three people who attempted to clean it all died gruesome deaths. So when it was finally moved, three priests of various religions were on hand to keep evil spirits at bay but the person who actually moved it had a car accident and died. From now on, it stays where it is.’

Near it in the same room stands a pretty ordinary-looking leather chair but the notice above it explains the fascination with which it grips its visitors: ‘Here sits the pregnancy chair. Legend has it that any female who dared to sit upon this ancient chair very quickly became pregnant.’

‘We do get regular emails from women who tell us it worked,’ says Rosie, ‘but I really wouldn’t know. What I do know is that our local MP, Graham Allen, sat on it about three weeks ago during Pregnancy Awareness Week but I’ve not heard of any remarkable outcome.’

But then, that’s the thing about pubs. If they can’t produce decidedly fishy stories and gloriously unprovable legends, what is the point of having them at all? In the 17th century, when stage coach travel in Britain began to grow in volume and inns sprang up solely to provide refreshment, overnight accommodation and change of horses, in the midlands town of Stony Stratford, the London-bound coach changed horses at The Bull and the Birmingham coach at The Cock Inn across the road. While this procedure was going on, passengers travelling in their different directions would exchange news, the accuracy of which was frequently found to be suspect. So suspect, indeed, that such travellers’ tales became known throughout the land as ‘Cock and Bull stories.’ It has been forever thus.

Anyway, not everything in Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is of fanciful provenance. The cellars, through which Rosie proudly took me on a conducted tour, really were once a cock-fighting pit, really are a hundred feet beneath the castle, really were once used as a condemned man’s cell and the old stone seat in the wall really was where the jailor sat and supervised his charges’ last walk to be hanged outside Shire Hall.

But even if that 1189 date on the wall is an authentic one it still comes pretty late in the piece. The story of the British pub began at least a thousand years earlier than that…

###


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


Issue # 172
November 12, 2010


This Week

We were taught to be wary of superlatives, so when I wrote a piece about a woman who’d married 75 times, even though it made the splash I didn’t suggest she might be Britain’s most-married woman. But that was only a woman and, as we know, they’re different animals. If anybody had asked about the most-married man, I’d have thrown former Hickey-editor Jimmy Pettigrew’s name into the hat – five, I think, that he could remember. And never paid alimony to any of them.

John Dodd knows a chap who can beat that. Seven wives, when he stopped counting. Beats Henry the Eighth. Another journalist, almost goes without saying. Doddy has written a piece about wanting to write a piece…

Recent copy on this website reminded Stan Solomons of an old chum. Where, he wonders, is Peter Price now? Still snapping, or doorstepping the Pearly Gates?

… In which case, he can get a collect of George Jenkins on the way in, this week. George had the chore of trying to introduce the Mirror group to New Technology. But he did it with such humour and grace that we never held it against him. Don Walker and Mike Hellicar share fond memories.

In our Colour Supplement, we have the return of Rudge. And, in his usual corner, propping up the bar, is Bill Greaves, back in The Last Pub In The Street after his search for The First Pub, Anywhere. Buy him a pint and he’ll tell you all about it.

#

Bobby dazzler

By John Dodd

There are many wall plaques to commemorate writers and artists but the one I want to erect on my old family pub would read: ‘Here lodged the most married man in England.’

Who was he? A hack, of course. What a lad. What charm. What a heart-throb. He was Lionel Birch, known to one and all as ‘Bobby’. Didn’t he dazzle. Didn’t he bob.

Six times married by the late 1950s and another coming up. On a quiet day, the old Daily Express William Hickey column would ring him. ‘Bit short of a bottom anchor piece, Bobby. Not getting married again, I suppose?’

‘’fraid not, old boy, give me a bell next year.’

Oh poor Bobby. How the girls loved him. How every man-jack of us would have loved to have been him but never have had a quarter of the nerve or a tenth of the charm.

He came into my life even before I was born. My parents lived in a village called Steep, which is up the road from Petersfield in Hampshire. Its main feature is a school called Bedales, the first co-educational boarding school in the country.

My father and my mother had both worked there. I would like to pretend they were part of the educated elite of the time. They weren’t. My mother was the daughter of the school gardener. My father was the boilerman.

Some fool invented the electric boiler. My dad was made redundant. No, that’s not right. We’re talking 1932 here. My dad got the sack.

But he managed to borrow a bit of money from John Haden Badley, the school’s founder, and he and my mother took the tenancy of the local pub, the Harrow Inn, which became an extension of the school staff room with half the staff imbibing and socialising there.

Bedales is an arty sort of school and doesn’t pretend it’s not. In 1932 Bobby Birch ‘came down’ from Cambridge with a first class degree in English. What a scorcher. Tall, slender, witty, sleek, passionate, committed, worldly, whatever it was, Bobby Birch was it. These days Bedale sixth-form girls would say he was fucking gorgeous.

Being Bedale girls, they probably did then, too. He only had to move and they fell over, including perhaps even more of the junior female staff.

He didn’t half move. His purpose for being there was the summer play, always put on at Ashford Chace, Lord Horder’s (then the king’s physician) little pile right under the Hampshire beech hangers.

This was where they did outdoor Shakespearian productions on a stage edged by cedar trees, the sweep of the lawns accompanied by the bubble of waterfalls from the passing stream.

Bobby told me 40 years later that all he did really was to carry a spear. Yes, I said, I bet you did. He kept it in his tent. This was the tent he pitched on the school grounds which, out of courtesy, the authorities afforded any passing recruit to the good cause of bringing Shakespeare to the rural masses.

Bobby and his tent didn’t last too long. Too many size-five feet beat a path to it. Bobby had a run-in with the school bursar, someone who felt it was his moral duty to the parents of daughters placed there to protect them a little from the follies of their young hearts.

And, of course, nothing damages the finances of a struggling private school, especially in those straightened times, than a mother’s announcement: ‘I’m afraid Cynthia won’t be coming back next term.’

Bobby was ordered off Bedales property and warned never to return. That’s where my family boozer came in. They had a room. Bobby rented it.

He was so tall that he could swing a leg over the window casement and be in it in one swift soundless movement. No one knew whence he came and went.

But his brush with the school authorities had given him a resolve to get even with them. Unlike the opposite sex, he wasn’t going to take this slur against his character lying down. He devised an ingenious revenge.

He became the Labour Party candidate for the Petersfield constituency in the 1935 general election. Under election law, no educational establishment could deny a candidate the right to hold a meeting on its property.

Bobby held one in the Bedales quad, right under the nose of his accuser. Didn’t those Bedale girls cheer. Of course, he didn’t win. But he did register the largest Labour vote Petersfield had ever returned, 6,061.

But there were other much greater causes to engage him and the rest of his generation of leftward leaning journalists. He was by then a writer on Picture Post, together with such notables as Sydney Jacobson, Ted Castle, James Cameron and the rest. In that milieu, he knew John Betjeman. Graham Greene was an old pal from Cambridge.

For a while after Tom Hopkinson, its editor, had been fired, Bobby took command. He was at the heart of Fleet Street’s post-war energy. In Paris, he was there when Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa and others established the Magnum photographic agency co-operative.

And he went on enchanting women. He married at least three who worked on Picture Post with him, among them Lyndall Hopkinson, Tom Hopkinson’s daughter, who was already engaged to the (later notorious) Lord Montague of Beaulieu.

His sixth was a photographer called Inge Morath, a heroic survivor of one of Hitler’s forced labour camps, who was then working for Magnum. She went on to carve a career as a set photographer in Hollywood, where she displaced none other than Marilyn Monroe in the affections of Arthur Miller.

But despite his many wives, Bobby maintained his occasional connection with my people’s pub, always dropping in out of the blue accompanied by the most glamorous, effusive, women I’d ever seen.

When I met him in Fleet Street in the late 1970s he was editing the Mandrake column on the Sunday Telegraph and was proud that his seventh, and last, marriage had endured so well. He told me he had a son older than me and a daughter younger than my own.

As usual, he was charming, amusing and elegant and delighted to hear that ‘the Harrow’ was being run by the second generation of our family, my sister and her husband. I didn’t blame Bedale girls one bit.

Note: I’m trying to put together an affectionate and more comprehensive magazine piece about Bobby. If anyone has other anecdotes about him, perhaps from their parents who worked with him or knew him socially, my phone number is 01730–825484 and my email john@jdodd.org.uk.

#

Right Price

By Stan Solomons

Anyone out there remember a great snapper by the name of Peter Price?

Recent references to the Sunday Pictorial, the forerunner of the Sunday Mirror, brought Peter to mind. I wonder whether he is still around or has long since gone to that great picture book in the sky inhabited by Fleet Street’s finest.

I ask because I have happy, though blurred, memories of working with Peter in the late 1950s. He worked out of Manchester, as a freelance doing a lot of work for the Sunday Pic which every week ran a picture strip called Pic Watchdog – five or six snaps with captions underneath exposing the activities of phoney dentists, doctors, chiropodists and others practising medicine without a licence or qualification.

On one occasion our agency in Huddersfield was asked to send a reporter with Peter to expose a man who was practising as a chiropodist from a terraced house in Leeds.

Peter’s firm knock on the door brought no response. We had no idea if this shyster was at home. Peter assumed he was and hammered on the door with accompanying expletives that turned the air blue. They would have shocked even the most hardened navvy. ‘Come out you f***ing b*****d, you piece of s***t!’ were typical examples.

The ploy worked, but not quite in the way Peter envisaged. Suddenly an upstairs window shot open. The face of a middle aged bald-headed man appeared and a gruff voice shouted, ‘F*** off!’

Almost at the same time a bowl of water – at least, I think it was water – cascaded down on us. We managed to dodge most of it and I can’t remember now whether Peter managed to get a shot of this very angry man before the window snapped shut.

I recall another time in the late 1950s when, accompanied by Peter, I had to try to expose a man posing as a professional with phoney letters after his name. As I was trying unsuccessfully to get this bloke to answer my questions he heard the click of Peter’s camera.

Peter was standing a little to one side behind me so he could just see enough to get a clear shot. His camera was slung across his chest as though he was not using it – an old trick used by reporters and camera men when doorstepping people who didn’t want to cooperate.

Suddenly with a roar he made a dive for Peter and tried to grab his camera. Peter dodged out of the way and as the man made for him again Peter tossed the camera to me. Within seconds the man rushed at me. I managed to escape his clutches before throwing the camera back to Peter.

We were both running down the street but couldn’t put too much distance between ourselves for fear of dropping the camera .We tossed it to each other three or four times with our angry pursuer closing in on one or another of us Being in my late twenties I was fairly fit and fleet of foot but kept wishing I had chosen to learn how to play rugby at school rather than football.

I was dreading dropping the camera. Peter, who was a few years older than me, also managed to stay one step ahead of our pursuer. We had the advantage over him. We were both fairly young while he was middle aged and noticeably panting. I think we had a run of about fifty yards to Peter’s car and had left the man behind but of course by the time we opened the doors and Peter got the car started he had almost reached us.

We roared away just as he reached the vehicle, both of us laughing like drains. Ah yes, happy days.

The last time I saw Peter was around 1960 when he was sent out by the Sketch to get a picture of my late partner Alan Cooper. Alan had been involved in a divorce case in Bradford where one of the witnesses made some daft but newsworthy remark which brought a stinging rebuke from the judge.

The local freelance in Bradford sent the story out and several papers wanted to get quotes from Alan who went to ground. He didn’t want to co-operate because the story involved the divorce of the lady he later married.

We could trust Peter… who spent the afternoon in a pub drinking with Alan and at intervals ringing the picture desk to report that he still couldn’t find him.

#

Gentleman George

By Donald Walker

George Jenkins was not one to compliment you readily. Being a typical, if not dyed-in-the-wool, Northerner, when you got a terse ‘Not bad, lad’ from him you knew you’d done brilliantly.

Not that he was a curmudgeon by any means: his dry, often playful and outspoken sense of humour enlivened many a tense editorial moment on the Daily Mirror.

One of my first encounters with George (who died this week aged 80), and indeed my first taste of the Mirror editorial culture, was when he was deputy chief sub on features. I had barely walked in the door, nervous as hell on my first day, when George cried out: ‘Right! Turn round, Walker. We’re all out. Barney’s upstairs, lads! There’s trouble at t’mill!’

I nearly swallowed my tongue with fright. But it was just a spat over an executive who’d had the temerity to fire a maverick photographer. Still, we all trooped obediently round to Barney’s hostelry into the large meeting room upstairs and there they all were before my widening eyes.

Marge Proops, Donald Zec, Felicity Green, Noel Whitcomb... names I’d held in reverence as a rookie: in the flesh, sitting in the splendour of the White Horse’s crumbling velveteen decor. I’d never been to a chapel meeting where the stars turned up and had their say.

George’s lively, indeed often frisky, behaviour belied his rather solemn mien. Sunday shifts with him were a delight. He’d take the whole desk out by taxi to some lavish restaurant in the West End. It was only tea and cakes, but he’d pay.

He knew the job backwards, stood no truck from printers and one always felt in a safe pair of hands.

He enjoyed, if that’s the word, a rather styptic relationship with the chief sub Roy Harris when he was deputy. Roy seemed to get a perverse pleasure from reconstructing George’s overnight pages for no good reason. We had time to do that sort of thing in the 60s.

I stepped into this acid swamp unwittingly one afternoon when, still new but now more assured if not full of myself, I strolled into the features enclosure.

I was the lone man on the late shift and everyone was back from the pub. They sat at the table, with George at its head, watching my entry closely as one watches a rabbit straying dangerously near a trap.

I noticed in the subs’ in-basket a pink-and-white memo envelope addressed to me in Roy Harris’s unmistakeable hand. Roy was playing the part of features editor that day, sat in passing glory in the editor’s office.

I picked up the envelope and the room fell silent. It was a memo from Roy of the kind we used to call hero-grams.

‘Dear Don’, it began. I looked around and saw every eye was on me, particularly George’s. What could this be all about? Some of my new-found confidence started to slip away.

‘I thought your subbing of the telly overnights,’ wrote Roy, ‘was brilliant today. An excellent headline. Good work.’

‘Oh, that’s nice,’ I said, much relieved.

‘Let’s see that,’ said George. He read the sparse contents and grunted: ‘Hmph! Well, you had to get a memo I suppose.’

I was mystified until one of the other subs explained that Roy Harris, obviously in the grip of naked power, had earlier memoed the whole table thus:

‘If the overnight subs cannot see their way to leaving the subs’ table tidy and clean I will not be able to see my way to granting their requests on the holiday rota.’

Stand back, Matilda!

George, as Roy’s principle critic and a solid man for the workers, had unleashed the full power of the union with dire threats of action unless the memos were withdrawn pronto.

They were. But Roy, ever cunning, changed mine for the hero-gram – drawing everyone into his subtly poisonous trap.

A good wheeze, but it took the edge off his compliments to me.

George went on to become chief sub and then deputy features editor and finally one of the very first editorial gurus for the new technology.

He was, of course, endlessly enthusiastic for this coming change of Sturm und Drang and knew it would happen while the rest of us sneered and even visionaries like Tony Boram said: ‘The subs inputting their own copy? Never going to happen!’

George sat through the endlessly boring meetings about the coming age that were to become my lot and pushed the enormous stone ball up the hill close to the tipping point.

My last personal encounter with him came in the late 60s when Pat Doncaster the features editor decided to promote me to writing.

George was incensed. ‘You cannot have him!’ he raged and the tense struggle went on for weeks with me in the middle. Pat won in the end and, upset and ragged with the tension, I made it to a section occupied by such giants as John Edwards, John Smith, Chris Ward and John Pilger.

I thought George unnecessarily possessive at the time. But now, of course, I realise it was, after all, his greatest compliment.

Michael Hellicar writes: With the passing of the Daily Mirror's George Jenkins, ex features chief sub, ex assistant features ed, ex New Technology guru, another legend dies. There are many better qualified, and with greater knowledge, than I, to write the obituary he deserves, but one story from the fifteen years I knew him is worth recording.

George always had a money-making scheme on the go, and almost all of them came to nothing. (I say almost all, because his best idea was to throw himself into what was known then as New Technology; he latched onto computer typesetting, saw its potential while the rest of us scoffed and yawned, and was justifiably elevated to an office on the 9th floor. A grateful Percy Roberts, the only person at 33 Holborn with whom George shared his vision of the future, gave him an enhanced pension).

The Sunday People used to run a Spot The Ball comp every week - its most popular feature. Younger readers will need to know that the reader was required to stick a pin in a large picture taken during a football match to mark where the (now erased) ball should be. The prize was an eye-watering £500.

George's idea was to divide the picture into one sixteenth of an inch squares and stick a pin in each one. 'Can't lose, old man', he would say reassuringly - that was his catch-phrase for all his schemes.

The picture duly riddled with holes, George proceeded to slide it carefully into a cardboard-backed envelope. Alas, it fell to pieces, leaving George's desk littered with tiny pin-picked shreds of newsprint.

Ken Eastaugh, of fond memory, thought this was so funny he wrote it into a TV sketch for Morecambe and Wise.

End result: George went back to more orthodox methods of trying to win Spot The Ball; Morecambe and Wise rejected Ken's script on the grounds that nobody would believe it.

Footnote: George died after collapsing in his Chingford home last Sunday. He leaves a widow, Nell, and his funeral is on Monday at 2pm at Enfield Crematorium, EN1 4DS. No flowers, donations to the Alzheimer’s Society.

#

Rudge

#

Early doors

By William Greaves

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

The roads and lanes of BC Britain might well have zigzagged wildly across the land in eccentric search of the next village but the wonderful G K Chesterton would have been the first to concede that this preferred route was probably due less to the alcoholic level of their builders than to the fact that they hated hills and swamps and preferred to follow kinder contours.

If there were drunkards among them, however, their thirst was certainly slaked by the hundreds of ale-huts they erected along the way. Ale – beer brewed without hops – was already a British way of life and such watering holes were invariably presided over by brutish old harridans known, perhaps ironically, by the gentle-sounding name of beldams.

We’d been at the booze for a few thousand years already, truth to tell. Ever since the Beaker People, immigrants from North Western Europe, had imported the necessary receptacles, Neolithic Brits had been filling them with a pretty potent blend of honey, water and yeast which came to be known as mead.

Cider, after a fashion, came next but it was not until the farmers learnt to cultivate grain that ale first appeared on the scene – and immediately dominated the drinking diet of perfidious Albion.

When the Roman invaders set about putting the British traveller on the straight and narrow in one respect, they certainly counter-balanced the effect in another by importing their beloved tabernae from back home and erecting them at generously frequent intervals along the route.

The taberna was, in reality, a shop that also sold wine. But Boadicea’s brood recognised a good idea when it saw one and, already favouring ale above wine recreated it as an alehouse and corrupted the unfamiliar Latin to tavern.

(The pub has always been deliciously associated with this kind of verbal evolution, of course. Way back in Berkshire schooldays, I remember becoming fascinated by the number of pubs encountered on bike rides called The Goat and Compasses. After some original research, imagine my delight on discovering that originally they had all been popular Puritan meeting houses called God Encompasses Us – obviously a bit too much of a mouthful as closing time approached. And years later, living and working in London, it was with similar pleasure that I learnt how that unlikely combo, the Elephant and Castle had started life, more logically if less memorably, as the Infanta de Castille.)

The new arrivals, of course, intended their tabernae to be for the exclusive refreshment of the long distance traveller but the natives quickly adopted their taverns as a bolt hole for nearby residents in search of a night out.

The local pub was up and running – and all set to play a key role in the next two thousand years of social history.

Although none of these early taverns survives in today’s Britain, some of their drinking vessels later unearthed in London have been dated to around AD300 and were of pint or quart size, further indicating a trade in ale or cider rather than wine.

Sweeter and stronger than modern-day beer, the ale of post-Roman Britain was often made privately for home consumption and the early watering holes were frequently nothing more than the front rooms of houses whose owners were better at making it than others.

Sometime around 970, the Anglo-Saxon King Edgar decided that the proliferation of such establishments was such that they should be limited to one per village, suggesting that these home brewers were getting much more skilled in their craft.

And it was during the same reign that over-enthusiastic alehouse indulgence was countered by a system of graded measures on the inside of wooden drinking vessels, with each quota marked with a movable peg. The accepted practice of the time was for a single mug of ale to satisfy the collective thirst of the denizens gathered in the bar and the idea, apparently, was to maintain a passable degree of sobriety by defining how much any one drinker could consume before the vessel was passed on around the table.

In the event of frequent drunkenness or other misbehaviour, the offending customer would have his permitted quantity reduced and the markers would be rearranged accordingly. He would be ‘taken down a peg or two’. The pub was already at the cutting edge of English phrase and idiom.

And if Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem [See last week’s Ranters] really did open its doors for the first time as a bolt hole on the long journey to the crusades, it would at that time have been only one of hundreds of such establishments spread out across the British landscape.

How appropriate, therefore, that Chesterton’s meandering tale of the Englishman and his rolling English road should eventually lead to the decent inn of death.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

###


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


Issue # 173
19 November 2010


This Week

You can’t have an after-dinner conversation these days, even here, without somebody mentioning house prices. But when the story includes a mention of Fred Redman, of immortal memory – as does this one from Harold Lewis (another blast from the past) – it’s perfectly excusable.

Harold was prompted, as happily is often the case, by an earlier piece on this site. On this occasion it was Tom Mangold’s review of Harry Procter’s classic book, The Street Of Disillusion. [It’s only fair to mention, because sometimes we forget to say, that Tom’s piece had originally appeared in British Journalism Review.]

Similarly, Phil Harrison’s memory of dealing with that miserable old sod Randolph Churchill (Ranters, November 5) reminded Plain John Smith about a brush with him on the steps of John Profumo (Whore Minister – remember him?)

We’re not sure what stirred the bottomless memory cells of Don Walker to recover the story of Bosie And The Blowfly. Don’s mind works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. But it was probably just a good lunch in Brighton.

In the colour supplement, we have another Rudge.

And Bill Greaves goes up the Thames in the wake of Jerome K Jerome. What a by-line.

#

Housey housey

By Harold Lewis

Mention some weeks back of Fred Redman – it's heartening to see such a well-respected and distinguished old warhorse accorded the same tap on the shoulder as the lunatic louche, the world-class topers, brawling boulevardiers and assorted mountebanks (and we all know who we are, don't we?) – brings to mind the most spirited conversation I ever had at the Sunday Mirror.

You might even delete the last four words of the previous sentence.

Astonishingly, it had nothing to do with polishing a story past the point of credibility, too many excursions to the Wig and Pen or even the eyebrow-lifting expenses accrued during one Cowes Week, spurred along to dizzy sums by the innate nautical knowledge of those redoubtable marine sages Paula James and Stanley Bonnet.

What they didn't know about capsizing (often without warning to the uncarpeted floor), sinking (one brimming glass after another) or heaving to (self-explanatory), could be written on the head of a belaying pin.

In short, and most importantly, they had accrued enough of the patois of the boating community through prolonged immersion and osmosis to give their exes that frisson of veracity the bean counters go nuts about. And they were more than willing to share their newfound and valuable knowledge. Naturally, I felt obliged to put their generosity to immediate use.

Fred Redman was the assistant editor then, poised, as I remember, for promotion to some high-powered ombudsman position within IPC, and when he collared me in the newsroom one morning after the usual heart-stopping trip to the office it was with a hearty greeting.

(Heart stopping, incidentally, because I'd invariably find Mark Kahn's freaking racing car in the last of the half dozen underground parking spots and that meant taking a half-hour tour around Smithfield Market. Not to savour the less than salubrious scenery or pick up a fine prime cut, of course, but to squeeze, with difficulty and desperation, my office issued auto into any space I could find).

Can't be bloody Cowes Week then, I thought.

Fred was in a most avuncular mode, practicing bonhomie in spades and dispensing wisdom left, right and centre, I imagine, for his new management role.

‘How's the house hunting coming along, my boy,’ he boomed, taking the wind right out of my sails. [Can't get away from this nautical stuff, can you?]

‘Fine Fred,’ I said. ‘I've found the ideal place down in Cobham. It's only twenty miles from the office. Be here in a flash.’

Extravagantly, he shot his cuffs to check his watch. I was probably only an hour late that morning.

‘And it's in Church Street, in the heart of the town, an historic house,’ I hurried on.

Then, putting on my best Knight, Frank cap, charged with aggrandizement, I gave him all the ‘stunning’ details about the ‘sought after’ four bedroom period property with a third of an acre of ‘manicured’ garden, opposite the parish church and within yards of the High Street.

Fred listened attentively.

When I offered no more details, he asked: ‘And the price?’

‘Sixteen thousand pounds,’ I told him expansively, like someone who had just had a field day in Las Vegas.

‘Sixteen thousand pounds,’ he exploded. ‘Sixteen thousand pounds! It'll take every penny you earn. You can't affford that.’

And on and on he went, spelling out the pitfalls of assuming too much debt, the snailpace rate of property seeing considerable gains, the difficulty of unburdening over-valued homes. On and on. And on and on.

It was his new persona and he was loving every bit of it.

‘I'll certainly take what you say into consideration, Fred,’ I told him. ‘But my wife's set on the place. It'll be hard to convince her.’

‘Sixteen thousand pounds,’ repeated Fred, morosely sucking his teeth. ‘I never thought I'd hear anything like that in my lifetime.’

As it happened, despite the warning, my wife prevailed and I did buy St Bridget's and lived there for a year before – as happens so often in this trade – my marriage hit a bump in the road and the property was sold at auction for almost twice what I paid for it.

The missus and I held a divorce party – talk of the town at the time, I even had a stranger glowingly and unknowingly relate all the hearsay details of the bash to me in the local pub – and then, out of the blue, I got summoned to the States. I was promised the opportunity of earning thousands of dollars, travelling around the world and living in Florida. It all came true and for six or seven years I indulged in a fantasy life.

The story doesn't end there, of course. Now that the hot weather is really with us, the temperature soaring every day towards triple digits, and the best place to be is indoors with the air conditioning clanking away like Battersea Power Station, I spend a lot of time on the internet taking trips down memory lane. There's the pubs and places of my youth, and, of course, the properties I have lived in, alone and with, well, other company.

Some are very grand, but none had as much a place in my heart as the little house in Cobham.

Last week, after discharging my most onerous task of the day, gingerly picking up his poop after letting Bogart, the miniature schnauzer, drag me around the lake, I settled down to check on life in the rolling shires.

The Red Lion lunch menu looked interesting, the tariff terrifying. I choked over manor house and cottage prices in the Cotswolds. The Daily Mail property piece about the despair of declining Prestbury, Cheshire, made compulsive reading. It was there that I once lived in a one-bedroom flat above the Chocolate Box, and it is there now, apparently, where mega-rich footballers and their WAGs (had to look that up on the internet), lay their scented heads in sprawling McMansions.

And in Church Street, Cobham, courtesy of John D Wood and Co, I found a very familiar house for sale.

I don't know if Fred Redman is still with us, but if he is I'm sure he would be as astounded as I was, nay positively apoplectic, that my former home was on the market for, wait for it, wait for it… ONE MILLION, THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND POUNDS!

Merde. Now I know if I'd kept my nose to the grindstone, my feet firmly to the pedals of my battered company car and my wandering hands away from forbidden flesh, I'd have been a fucking millionaire.

I know what you are going to say... it's one thing to ask a staggering sum for a house, it's quite another to get it. And I agree. The only thing is that when I returned to the same site today it had one of those red labels estate agents love best boldly posted across it – SOLD.

What Fred, in his wisdom, would make of all of this, I simply haven't a clue.

#

Churchillian gesture

By John Smith

Philip Harrison’s recollections (Ranters, November 5) of subbing Randolph Churchill’s column in the Evening Standard reminded me of just what an irascible, rude and arrogant individual Churchill was.

It took me back to June, 1963 when I was a reporter on the Daily Mirror and I joined the Fleet Street Flying Circus who were camped out on the doorstep of John Profumo’s elegant house just off Regent’s Park. The day before, Profumo had resigned as Secretary of State for War after admitting that he had lied to the House of Commons about his sexual relationship with Christine Keeler.

Immediately after quitting, Profumo had vanished and while various spurious sightings of the wretched minister were reported all over the country, Fleet Street waited round the clock outside the impressive front door for his return.

He turned up there a few days later, brushing his way through the media scrum in total silence, with downcast eyes.

About an hour later, Randolph Churchill arrived, presumably to offer words of comfort for his old Tory chum. Journalistic camaraderie obviously not being on the agenda for this Evening Standard scribe, he also had a few words for the jostling newsmen: ‘Out of my way, you bloody riff-raff.’

Some 30 minutes later, Churchill emerged from the house to be met by a solid wall of reporters, led by Peter Batt, a fearless Eastender with scant regard for rank or reputation, as several news editors knew to their cost.

‘Excuse me, guvner, could we ‘av a word?’ said Peter in pure Stepney.

Almost incandescent with rage to find himself in the middle of this heaving throng, Churchill glared at this impudent upstart and bellowed sneeringly: ‘And who, may I ask, are YOU?’

Batty leaned forward to within inches of the great man’s face and said calmly: ‘I’m Peter Batt from the Daily ‘erald. Who the fuck are you?’

#

Fly boy on the rota

By Donald Walker

No good deed goes unpunished. Take rotas. Rotas are a breeding ground for mischief, malpractice and mayhem. Good deeds, sometimes. And lashings of raw vengeance, certainly.

When Roy Harris was Features Chief Sub on the Mirror he saw the rota not so much as a list of sub-editors’ duties but more as the kind of schedule Stalin might have wielded, a dramatis personae with all the good guys on his side and the villains on the other.

He once threatened that if subs didn’t leave their desks tidy he would be unable to accede to their holiday and rota requests. This wrought a drama not unlike Hamlet where everyone ended up with a sword sticking out of his back. Take up the bodies, such a sight as this shows much amiss.

Of course, the most severe rota punishment, almost medieval in its barbarism, was to sentence an errant sub to a week on the stone. This was a big flat black thing where iron pages lay in disarray surrounded by printers baying for editorial blood.

The more talented and well-regarded the sub-editor, the more severe his servitude. My old pal Brian Sutherland, super sub and top newspaper designer, suffered much from this on several occasions due to his merry impudence; but more of that in a moment.

When I in my turn became chief sub, I saw the rotas as an opportunity to spread goodwill and sunshine. I paired buddy with buddy, drinking mate with drinking mate, and always made sure the night chief sub had a top man on shift.

Then, smiling beneficently on my new charges, I turned to the holiday rota. Waving a piece of paper– the holiday requests pro forma – in my hand, I declared peace in our time.

‘We’re all grown-ups!’ I cried (oh, how I was to come to rue that sentiment). ‘I am putting up the new holiday rota sheet for the year. Don’t trouble yourselves with coming to me and begging for this or that week off. Just put your name into the appropriate panel.’ A hundred pencils leapt into calloused hands and the art bench looked on, mouths agape.

‘But,’ I cautioned sternly, ‘make sure there are no more than two of you off during busy periods like August or Christmas. And no more than four off in any one week. First come first served.’

And, little ray of sunshine that I was, I beamed at the desk and went to the pub. As I left, whistling blithely, I seemed to hear the scuffle of many feet behind me.

When I returned – yes, you’ve spotted the flaw in my great plan – the new holiday rota was grubby with the latent prints of many arch criminals. The whole desk had put themselves down for the August school holidays and there appeared to be no subs available over the Christmas period at all; even the casuals were off.

‘Christ! Even [the stone sub] Bob Wilson has requested Christmas off!’ I cried, ‘And he’s off sick today.’

‘Bob rang in with his request from his bed of pain,’ said my deputy with what I suspected was a smirk.

Well, that was the end of the bloody sunshine. I tore up my new, year-long holiday rota sheet and substituted one that ran only three months ahead. When Wilson returned from death’s door he complained endlessly. ‘I must have Christmas off for God’s sake, Don!’ he said.

‘Wilson,’ I said, now stony-faced, unsmiling, my whistling days done, ‘it’s only sodding March. Come back to me in six months.’ It was Hamlet all over again. More bodies, more blood.

Still, I learnt to wield my rotas with grace and even humour I believe, and never sentenced a good man to the long drudgery of stone duty. Well, not often.

‘We used to call that a fortnight in the rigging,’ Brian ‘Bosie’ Sutherland said to me recently as we lunched in Brighton Marina.

A sub, whatever his quality, who overstepped the mark could expect this punishment: a fortnight down on the stone topping and tailing pages, trimming other men’s work to fit while clinging desperately to the ‘rigging’ in a noisy sea of confusion.

The stone wasn’t such a bad job, many subs quite enjoyed it, but to be knocked off your comfortable perch down to the inky depths was a way of reminding you who was the boss.

And the boss, as I have said before, was a man you had to put up with, cultivate, even study and learn like a body of knowledge.

When Bosie was in the northern reaches of the Mirror empire, his chief sub was a delightful fellow called Des Jones. Kindly, gentle, he seemed to be the paradigm of a boss.

Bosie lived some distance from the office, as did the CSE, and at the end of a long evening’s punishing work and a little drinking, Des would regularly drive Brian home. But Des, a tall, thin Liverpudlian, had one fatal flaw.

He was a bore. He droned for England. He had conquered the art of circular breathing so his sentences had no halt or pause... or interest come to that

‘We would pull up outside my house at three or four in the morning,’ said Brian, ‘and Des would start talking. The most chilling moment came when he reached forward and turned the ignition off, beginning a sentence like ‘When ah first went to Birkenhead...’ My heart would sink. There was no escape. After all, he was the boss. I had to listen. Sitting there, dying to get to bed.’

So came the day when Brian could take no more.

He stood at the bar of the Manchester Press club with Des and a handful of other subs lightly refreshing themselves after the edition. All were paying polite attention as Des emitted a long, pauseless whirr like a bluebottle in its death throes.

Perhaps it was this that inspired Brian.

‘Did you know that a fly has no lungs?’ he inquired brightly of the assembled crew. Eyelids stopped drooping. Men braced their shoulders. Several older members woke up and wondered whose round it was.

‘No, a fly breathes by vibrating its wings and drawing oxygen into its body through tiny holes.’ Bosie flapped his hands enthusiastically to demonstrate. Bosie was the fly. The fly was Bosie.

‘And do you know why you can never swat a fly?’ The audience tightened and drew in members from other parts of the room. ‘Because a fly takes off backwards as easily as it takes off forwards! And it can see in ALL directions!

‘Blowflies most commonly seen in the house are the bluebottle,’ said our man. He danced on the spot like a bluebottle and was aware that Des had finally stopped droning. But there was on his face a terrible fixed smile. Sincere smiles lit up the faces of those tightening around him.

‘Female blowflies,’ said Bosie warming to his subject and adopting a fly-like stance, ‘lay their eggs on dead animals, the smell of which they can detect from up to two miles away.’

Bosie buzzed like a fly on the hunt. Smiles broadened. But Des’s grin had turned to a rictus and he had finally fallen quite silent.

‘A fly’s eggs hatch in less than a day and the larvae burrow straight down into the food source. They grow very rapidly and will be full size in a week.’ Brian seemed to grow like the larvae before his audience. His eyes bulged. Were those antennae growing from his head?

‘A single dead rat will provide enough food for thousands of maggots. The creeping larvae may have an unpleasant appearance, but they remove the smell of a dead rat in a few weeks...’

And so our storyteller went on. As a finale, Brian lay on the floor of the Press Club and buzzed intermittently, shuddering and shaking.

‘And so – bzzz – the death – bzzz – of the fly – bzzzt!’ His hands and feet waved slowly in extremis until the fly’s final moment. Warm applause greeted his soliloquy.

The greeting he received in the office the following Monday from Des was far from warm.

‘Brian, you will have to work on the stone for the next two weeks.’

‘But I’m the glamour caption writer!’

‘Ah, Bill will do those for a couple of weeks. Buzz off.’

And so Bosie, cursing and clambering about in the unfamiliar rigging, was punished for his good deed in diverting the Press Club with his version of the Fly And I.

Bzzzzzzzzzt.

#

Colour Supplement

Rudge

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Up a lazy river

By William Greaves

The accident-prone expedition up the Thames of George, Harris, J and Montmorency, the belligerent fox terrier, is so hilariously timeless that it is hard to believe that 120 years have elapsed since Jerome K Jerome immortalised the adventure in Three Men in a Boat.

It was strictly in pursuit of academic research, therefore, that I embarked on a pub crawl along that most tranquil of waterways to discover what impact more than a century has had on the various taverns that were honoured by their patronage.

After all, there aren’t that many chances to record the evolution of the Great British Pub in such clearly defined detail.

I was sorry that Harris, in particular, could not have been at my side. He would have been in seventh heaven. (‘I wonder now, supposing Harris .... got to be Prime Minister, and died, if they would put up signs over the public-houses that he had patronized?’ pondered J so memorably. ‘No, there would be too many of them! It would be the houses he had never entered that would become famous. ‘Only house in South London that Harris never had a drink in!’ The people would flock to it to see what could have been the matter with it.’)

And the faces of all four voyagers would have been wreathed in wry smiles when they renewed their acquaintance with the Royal Stag in Datchet and the Manor Hotel opposite because the last time around they lingered only long enough to be turned away.

Harris had been undismayed to be told that some rooms in the Stag already contained three men in a bed and cheerfully told the landlord they would gladly accept ‘a shake-down’ in the billiard room – only to be told ‘Very sorry, sir. Three gentlemen sleeping on the billiard table already, and two in the coffee-room.’

Things seem to have shrunk a bit as the years have rolled by because Harris would be hard pushed to find room for a billiard table in the modern-day Stag – with or without anyone akip on its green baize.

But the whole party would be delighted to discover it is still very much a pub.

The low beams and ‘mind Your Head’ warnings are as evident as ever, the wood-planked flooring polished by the feet of ages, the bar and tables clearly welcoming drinkers only, a brass footrest beneath the stools at the counter and a menu reassuringly filled with smoked haddock and mackerel fish cake, royal Windsor sausages and old fashioned beef casserole – with tiger prawn pil pil the only suspicious assailant from outer regions of the world.

And Montmorency’s eyes would have lit up at the sight of Alfred, an English Staffordshire terrier, lying apparently asleep with his paws outstretched before him. A quick nip of one of those legs would surely have begun a thoroughly satisfactory piece of mayhem.

‘Actually they wouldn’t have recognised the wooden floor because it only went in a few years ago,’ said Jerry, shattering my architectural know-how. ‘We used to have terrific slate slabs, which the Three Men would surely have approved of, but then they took them away which was a pity. But these planks are probably quite old because they came from another pub.

‘And we used to have a Montmorency in the village. He was a Jack Russell who would take on anything. But Alfred used to see him off, didn’t you old boy?’ The merest flick of Alfred’s tail acknowledged the compliment. So no luck there, Monty.

Whatever the changes over the passing decades, here at least was a hostelry that had done its best to maintain its comforting feel of antiquity. Heavily framed pictures around the wall starred several fish, two or three horses, three grouse, a couple of pheasants and an inevitable stag at bay.

It is doubtful, however, whether our four heroes would even have bothered to wander across the road to the other scene of their rejection, then an inn called The Manor House. The ‘House’ bit has long since been replaced by ‘Hotel,’ carpets and soft furnishings – comfortable I’m sure but another loss to the great age of the British pub.

Next stop – and an even more evident loss. To Marlow and an overnight stay at the Crown.

Gone. No trace. After 201 years of pulling pints for the locals, The Marlow Crown gave way to a kitchen showroom on Saturday, June 28, 2008. ‘Dublin Dave’ was there at the death. ‘I always think it’s sad to see so many pubs shutting down in England. Unfortunately in life they call it change – but change isn’t always for the better.’ My sentiments entirely, Dave.

A mile or two upstream, they would have been relieved to see their favourite pub sign still in place outside the St George and Dragon a few hundred yards outside Wargrave village. One side of the sign, painted by a Mr Leslie RA, shows the fight between man and beast at its height, and the other, by Mr Hodgson RA, depicts the victorious George enjoying a well-earned pint.

Their mooring is still there but above it is a terrace full of modern, lightweight tubular chairs, and inside most of the antiquity has been revamped or replaced. Come to think about it, the sign itself has probably been saved only by Jerome K Jerome’s endorsement of its artistic merit.

But reawakening today into the early 21st century after twelve decades of Rip Van Winkle oblivion, J and co would surely find the Bull at Sonning one of the most reassuring oases on the route of their old boys’ reunion.

Back in the 1880s it was ‘a veritable picture of an old country inn, with green, square courtyard in front where, on seats between the trees, the old men group of an evening to drink their ale and gossip over village politics; with low, quaint rooms and latticed windows, and awkward stairs and winding passages.’

OK, so the green, square courtyard has sadly given way to the car park which caters for the Bull’s present-day clientele but local gossip is still given free rein in the ‘village bar’ within and landlady Christine Mason insists: ‘We’ve been here for 15 years and we have always said we would never turn the place into just another restaurant. The High Street used to have three pubs, now we are the only one, and the old Malt House, where they used to brew beer, is now a private house.’

Records show the Bull to have been an inn for more than 600 years and it boasts among its former visitors King John en route to signing the Magna Carta and Queen Elizabeth I, but J and his fellow boatmen would doubtless be modestly chuffed to discover that, despite such exalted royal patronage, four of its five bedrooms are now called Jerome, George, Harris and Montmorency.

And they would be equally pleased to find the ‘quaint little’ Swan Inn at nearby Pangbourne much as they remembered it, even though it no longer contains the bedrooms it did in their day and seems to have grown a little towards the river. They would also doubtless be amused to discover that at some stage between then and now and despite its quaintness and littleness, it actually straddled the counties of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, requiring some of its patrons nightly to carry their pint pots from one room to the next in order to comply with permitted licensed hours.

At this stage, I hope I might be permitted a small diversion. There is no record of our three heroes venturing into the John Barleycorn, a few strides from the river at Goring – a pity, because they would have loved its welcoming cosiness – but it serves as my very own yardstick for measuring the endurance of the Thamesside boozer.

Rather more than half a century ago a school some eight miles away had the dubious responsibility of having my less-than-good self as one of its boarding students and once a term I and a couple of pals would sneak off by bicycle to the John Barleycorn for a highly illicit couple of pints of foaming under-age ale.

(During my last term, my housemaster enquired what I intended to do with the morrow’s holiday. ‘A bike ride,’ said I. ‘Jolly good for the muscles,’ said he. ‘But a word in your ear. One of my fellow teachers has taken to using the John Barleycorn. Might be safer to try somewhere else.’ The blighter had known of my transgressions all along. No wonder I hated school.)

It was, therefore, an increasingly nervous approach. How would the passing years have treated this clandestine rendezvous? Would it indeed still be there? Would I be arrested for a string of age-old felonies? And, mirabile dictu, there it was, standing squat on a bend of the road, exactly as it always was. Once inside, the years simply fell away.

‘Nothing changes much here,’ said licensee Robert Hurst. ‘I only took over here as a retirement job but I was born just down the road and this is how I always remember the pub. We still have the same two bars that you would have remembered – we call them the Workers’ Room and the Suited ‘n’ Booted.’

And so to the village of Clifton Hampden and the Barley Mow – just about as far as Montmorency and his three companions ventured upstream.

Good news. Like the Swan further downstream, the Barley Mow has lost its bedrooms but the bar area, full of low beams and essential instructions to ‘Duck or Grouse’, is exactly as J and Co would have remembered it.

‘It is, without exception, I should say, the quaintest, most old-world inn up the river,’ was J’s enthusiastic, comma-strewn memory of the voyagers’ overnight stay there. ‘Its low-pitched gables and thatched roof and latticed windows give it quite a story-book appearance, while inside it is even still more once-upon-a-timeyfied.’ Those same low beams occasioned special mention: ‘It would not be a good place for the heroine of a modern novel to stay at. The heroine of a modern novel is always ‘divinely tall’, and she is ever ‘drawing herself up to her full height’. At the Barley Mow she would bump her head against the ceiling each time she did this.’

And even the inscriptions on the wall would surely be familiar to him: ‘Call Frequently, Drink Moderately, Part Friendly’… ‘Poor and Content is Rich Enough,’ and a rather obscure piece of history ‘Hops & Turkeys, Carp & Beer Came to England all in one Year (1520}.’ Even if accurate, that would have been over a century and a half after the date on the Barley’ Mow’s front gate – 1520.

‘We serve a full menu of food but for as long as we are here people will be more than welcome just to come in for a drink,’ said new licensee Paul Gover.

Not so bad then. With the Bells of Ousley (albeit now the Bells of Ouzeley) still going strong at Windsor as a Harvester Steak House, with plenty of outside tables for the thirsty, that makes one death (the Marlow Crown), one switch to out-and-out hotel (the Manor House at Datchet) and six pub survivors among the eight Thames watering holes that punctuated the intrepid threesome’s upstream row.

If only the rest of the country could say the same.

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


Issue # 174
26 November 2010


This Week

Breaking news, as we went to press, was that James Lewthwaite, wonderful all-rounder on the Daily Mail and the Sun, has left for the Great Newsroom. Ready and more than capable for any job – from everything you wanted to know about sausages and were sizzling to ask, to the big scandals of the day – Jim delighted in recounting the bizarre conversations he had with colleagues manning the desk.

When Britain was about to be subjected to a new tax called VAT, he was sent to interview the senior civil servant tasked with its introduction. Jim told the news desk he’d warned the Whitehall mandarin that the Sun was likely to describe the guy as Vatman, and that he’d had no objection to that. ‘Terrific,’ said the deskman. ‘Do you think he’ll dress up…?’

Told that they wanted early copy – and given a preferred deadline of noon – every day from a long-running trial, Jim told them that the only way that would work would be if he could persuade the judge to start the daily sessions at 8am. ‘Great. Do you think he’d be willing to do that?’ asked the desk, enthusiastically.

Hopefully some of his many chums will kick in with more reminiscences of one of the best reporters and most popular guys from the closing days of The Street.

Back at this office, more tales of days past.

Hugh Ash picks up on memories of working for a once-famous agency in Manchester, prompted on this site – months ago – by Mike Gallemore.

Sidney Rennert remembers the great days of the Daily Sketch, and warns that the 30th anniversary of its closure is upcoming next Spring. Many of its players are still with us, so it sounds like as good an excuse as any for a piss-up, presumably at the Harrow. Perhaps, in fairness, it should be added here that when the photo that’s referred to found its way into Private Eye, Mr French sent a letter saying ‘Sorry to spoil your fun but it’s not me.’ He always denied that he’d been a Mosleyite.

Mark Seddon, editor of Tribune (1993-2004) pens a brilliant review of Geoffrey Goodman’s book about the rise and fall of the Labour Party, but suggests that we might have misnamed it, slightly.

While in the Magazine Section we have our weekly dose of Rudge, and Bill Greaves – our man with a pie and a pint – continues his peripatetic survey of the last pubs outside Fleet Street, with a warning against relying on promising stories about animals.

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Living the high life

By Hugh Ash

Mike Gallemore’s reminiscences of the Manchester courts-and-sports agency, Stewart & Hartley (Ranters, March 2010), rekindled many hysterical memories of when I had the pleasure of working there in the early 1960s, though I’d hardly describe S&H’s offices off Cross Street as a ‘penthouse’ – Dickensian attic, only minus Bob Cratchit, would be more accurate.

However, as Mike pointed out, life there for national paper wannabes like him and me was a richly rewarding experience; surreal, arcane and bizarre at times, but never dull.

I remember both Bert Stewart and Gerry Hartley with immense affection – Bert, a former Royal Artillery major more at ease mucking out on his pig farm than in a chancery court, but expansive in girth and bonhomie; and Gerry, an ex-wing-co PR for Bomber Command, earnest and prodigiously productive, a Willing’s Press Guide forever to hand, just in case there was a weekly lurking in the Outer Hebrides ready to take a few pars about some Scottish miscreant with (possible) relatives in Stornoway.

Both were unfailing gentlemen of a (sadly) bygone age, who inadvertently ran a journalistic charm school for the national dailies by – as my and Mike’s experiences testify – throwing rookies in at the deep end in the hopelessly optimistic belief we could swim. Most of us couldn’t, but somehow learnt to, by hook or by luck.

As a dripping wet, par-boiled trainee, just turned 18, my introduction to the agency came via a third party, who said they were recruiting but don’t bother writing in, because they never wrote back. A phone call and bus ride a day later and I was in their august presence being interviewed as a prospective ‘coroner’s court bod’.

‘Any experience of courts?’ asked Gerry.

‘Yes, of course,’ I lied, tennis being my only hands-on experience related to a ‘court’.

‘Right,’ said Bert. ‘We’ll pay you six guineas a week.’

Momentarily gobsmacked – I was currently in receipt of less than half that from the most parsimonious local weekly on the planet and was thus rendered speechless by mention of such largesse – Gerry mistakenly took this as a sign of disgruntlement on my part with the job offer.

‘Ummm,’ he said, using his trademark expression when deep in thought. ‘OK, we’ll make it seven – but are you sure you’re any good?’

‘Yes’, I lied again, as all my birthdays collided at once.

Mike described Gerry as a ‘penny-pincher’, but I suggest he was merely uber-careful when it came to matters relating to lucre, reflecting in spades his make-do-and-mend generation’s values.

After all, he gave me my first pipe... having kindly spent four years breaking it in for me.

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Sketch writer

By Sidney Rennert

With the wave of nostalgia for papers long gone still filling the pages of Gentlemenranters, let us not forget to shed a tear for the Daily Sketch, which will mark the 30th anniversary of its demise in March.

Founded in Manchester by Sir Edward Hulton in 1909, its chequered history saw its ownership pass to a succession of press barons, including Lords Rothermere, Camrose and Kemsley, and back to the third Lord Rothermere.

At the time I joined it as its industrial correspondent after the closure of the Star in 1960 it was enjoying something of a revival under the editorship of recently appointed Colin Valdar. At 35, Colin had become Fleet Street’s youngest editor after succeeding Hugh Cudlipp at the Sunday Pictorial and had justified his appointment by raising its circulation to 5 million copies.

With his trade mark bow tie and ever open door, Colin was the most exacting, but also the hardest working, editor I ever worked for. He knew what he wanted and usually got it. Most of the leaders he wrote himself and he was not above consulting his specialists – and changing his approach – when they disagreed with his line.

At the Sketch he halted the losses and increased the circulation to just under a million. But that was not enough for his bosses. One Friday afternoon he posted a notice in the editorial room which said: ‘Having brought the Daily Sketch from losing £600 a week to breaking even, the directors have decided to replace me with an older man.’

The older man was Howard French. Colin’s final touch before leaving the office for the last time (and starting up UK Press Gazette with his wife Jill and brother Stewart), was to put in the top drawer of the editor’s desk a photo of French in the uniform of an officer of the British Union of Fascists.

The contrast between Colin Valdar and Howard French could not have been greater. French turned up at the office, complete with bowler hat and rolled umbrella, at 10 o’clock – long before most of the editorial staff were due – and was usually gone by 6 o’clock without waiting for the first edition to be ready for to go to press. Colin might not have come in until mid-day, but he was still there at 2 in the morning, still completely in charge.

The impact on the staff was exemplified by Keith Waite, the paper’s prestigious cartoonist: every day his cartoon contained, hidden somewhere, a little man in a bowler hat and carrying a rolled umbrella and we looked forward eagerly to find him.

That continued for several weeks before someone must have pointed it out to French. He called in Keith and asked him to stop including little men with bowler hats and rolled umbrellas. Unabashed, Keith, an outspoken New Zealander, retorted: ‘Is it true that you are still a fascist?’ French’s reply apparently was that he was only doing a job for Lord Rothermere.

Keith, not surprisingly, left not long after to join the Daily Mirror, but French’s views clearly had not changed. To me he summed up his views on industrial relations with ‘the unions are too powerful, Frank Cousins is too big for his boots.’

However, there can be no doubt about his skills in company politics. He became a member of the Associated Newspapers board and a close confidant of Lord Rothermere. It was he who nominated David English as his successor at the Daily Sketch and he who was largely responsible for closing down the Sketch and merging it into the Daily Mail with English as editor. The merger resulted in the loss of 440 editorial staff on the two papers. French himself wrote the sacking letters to the affected men and women and, inevitably, they became known as French letters.

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Mistitled

(or… What Hugh Gaitskell’s widow told Goodman about Nye and the Labour leadership and other revelations from a ringside view of history)

By Mark Seddon

I vividly remember the first time I met Geoffrey Goodman. As greenhorn editor of Tribune in the early 1990s, one of the longer serving members of staff suggested it was time that I not only learned to edit, but organised occasional lunches for prominent supporters of Tribune, probably in the hope that one of them might lead us in the direction of that mythical pot of gold. It was suggested that Geoffrey should be invited, and he duly turned up at the Spaghetti House at the top of Gray’s Inn Road sporting a belted mackintosh and black beret. This, as I was to learn, was very much the favoured attire of the Bevanites, and Geoffrey was – and remains – a committed Bevanite. Which explains why From Bevan to Blair, his recently updated autobiography, is thus titled. And what a rich seam of real gold is contained within its pages!

Aneurin Bevan’s last words to Geoffrey during the general election of 1959 were: ‘We are moving into a world in which smaller and smaller men are strutting across narrower and narrower stages.’ We shall come to Tony Blair later, but for the world of politics read also the world of journalism.
For there is a spectre which hangs over the later chapters as the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan begin to teeter, along with Geoffrey’s once monumental Daily Mirror. It is the arrival of Rupert Murdoch and his acquisition of The Sun. The cheerleading and raucous aggression of this newspaper, which was set to eclipse his own, helped herald the new era of Thatcherism and the end of the post-war Butskellite consensus.

At one level Geoffrey rejoices in his position occupying a ringside seat on history being made, which is why he states the case at least twice that ‘journalism is largely a career in self education.’ And what a seat! Here, for instance, is Dora Gaitskell, speaking to him shortly after her husband’s death: ‘You know, I never believed that Hugh was the natural leader of the Labour Party – the really natural leader was Nye. He ought to have been leader, not Hugh, but Nye threw away his chance.’ And here is Geoffrey being led, by his late friend Leo Abse, to a bewitching evening with the great Welsh bard Dylan Thomas: ‘He composed as he drank and drank as he composed. It was uncanny to listen to him sliding into a kind of poetic trance.’

There are many great vignettes such as these, as one might expect from someone who has had the good fortune to walk with the greats, because Geoffrey Goodman reported at a time when the bond between the Labour Party and the Daily Mirror was so powerful it was quite possible for a journalist of rare integrity to straddle both without being accused of being a posturing propagandist.

In fact, Labour leaders periodically turned to him for unleavened advice and received it, which proved to be something of a mixed bag, because for a year he became poacher turned game keeper, effectively running a special press unit for Harold Wilson to sell the idea of a prices and incomes policy to the masses. How ironic that it was Wilson who first hit upon outsourcing, and that the man he picked to do the job was the utterly unbiddable Geoffrey Goodman.

There are so many gems it is difficult to know where to start. I don’t have to thumb through the pages to remind myself of Harold Wilson, preparing to go to Buckingham Palace to be sworn in, wearing a pair of tatty red braces that had to be swapped for a smart black pair. Or the beleaguered Denis Healey seemingly at bay in the House of Commons at the hands of his own backbenchers over public spending cuts, when he turned to them and above the clamour bellowed: ‘And you can go and fuck yourselves!’

But my favourite has to be his depiction of Edward Heath, whom he clearly came to know and like – much as Heath in return ended up preferring the company of trade union leaders such as Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon to many of those in his own Cabinet. It probably also explains why the nascent Tory right came to dislike Heath so much, even if they may never have heard the tale of Heath, surrounded by union leaders at the piano, bashing out the Red Flag at their request.

Geoffrey provides another remarkable cameo of Heath, having been invited to ‘look around the place,’ the place being 10 Downing Street, and listen to a little Mozart. ‘He stood, as if militarily to attention, transfixed by the music and looking into the middle distance. At that moment he seemed to me a deeply vulnerable figure, albeit quite relaxed and at peace, set apart from the strange, tense, competitive, anguished world in which he spent most of his life.’

It would be entirely wrong to suggest that From Bevan to Blair simply comprises a string of interlinking reminiscences, observations and opinion. There is a narrative that runs from Geoffrey’s childhood days in a tough working class area of Stockport to his war time experiences over Germany in a Lancaster bomber, and throughout much of his reporting from the British political frontline, if not the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution; and it is that of a principled man of conviction. At his own admittance, and at Hugh Cudlipp’s insistence, he could have been but did not become a Labour MP. A fortunate escape methinks because, if he had become an MP, then this rumbustious but deeply serious book might have ended with a whimper sometime during the mid 1970s.

I mentioned that this is a second edition, and that we would come to Tony Blair. The only addition is a short postscript in which Geoffrey generously reflects that Blair ‘was not a serious politician.’ Enough said.

And here, for what it is worth, is my beef. Such is the general public distaste for anything vaguely political, I can’t help but think that the self-deprecation of the author should be forced aside and this book be simply re-titled Geoffrey Goodman: Fifty Years Reporting from the Political Front Line.

From Bevan to Blair: Fifty Years’ Reporting from the Political Front Line by Geoffrey Goodman. (Revel Barker Publishing, £9.99)

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Colour Supplement

Rudge

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Getting high

By William Greaves

I was on Daily Mail business when I checked in for a night or two with my old chum, Andrew Burrell, landlord of The Board in Hawes at the windswept top end of Wensleydale in the North Yorkshire Pennines.

At the time, the Board was the busiest of four pubs in one of the highest market villages in England – if for no other reason than the local vet was offered a free lunch every market day and Dales hill farmers flooded in behind him because they preferred free consultations to the ones you had to pay for. If you run a rural pub always make sure you look after the doctor and the vet and the rest of the business will look after itself.

(The vet practice has since moved a mile or two down the dale and nowadays it is Angus and Mandy McCarthy and their regular darts and dominoes nights at the nearby Fountains which rule the roost in these lofty parts.)

Any road, as we say thereabouts, I had a day off and asked Andrew where was my best starting point if I wanted to climb Ingleborough, one of Yorkshire’s famed Three Peaks.

‘You start at the Hill Inn,’ said he. ‘It’s run by an old mate, Alan Greenbank, and if you can’t find it, just ask anyone to direct you to the pub where the dog does the washing up.’

Where the dog does the washing up? Was I mishearing or was this the newspaper picture spread to end all picture spreads?

The next lunchtime I duly introduced myself to Alan and asked him whether there was any truth in what I had heard. By way of answer, Alan put eight pint beer mugs with handles into the sink behind the bar, placed a bar stool beneath the basin and turned on the taps.

As soon as the water began to flow, from behind us the kitchen door burst open and, in a streak of fur, a Jack Russell terrier shot by, leapt on to the stool, buried his head in the fast-filling sink and emerged with the first glass in his teeth, which he duly shook and placed on the draining board beside him.

Seven more times he repeated his task and, upon satisfying himself that the basin was now empty of glassware, dipped his head yet deeper to emerge with the plug in his mouth, which he wrapped round the taps and, without a backward glance, returned to his basket in the kitchen. Job done.

(The beloved dog’s younger brother or sister – I can’t remember which – was showing a keen interest in becoming a deputy washer-upper at the time. ‘I certainly don’t need two of them,’ said Alan. ‘I’ve offered a tea towel and suggested I could do with a dog to tackle the drying but so far it has fallen on barren ground.’)

Did that centre spread ever appear in the Daily Mail? It did not. Upon my request, a photographer from Manchester spent the next three days making daily trips to this remote pub only to discover the dog was strangely off colour. And his fourth visit was to learn of the dog’s untimely death.

(At about the same time, my colleague and chief football writer at the Mail, Jeff Powell, told me of the elephant, resident in the zoo at Monte Carlo, who never missed a moment of the action whenever Monaco had a home game. The zoo was immediately next to the football ground and the elephant would put his trunk over the dividing wall as the whistle went for the start of the first half and would remain transfixed until half time, when he would go for a quarter hour stroll but never fail to be in position for the start of the second half, which he watched intently throughout before accompanying the ref’s final whistle with a far louder trumpet of his own. I rang the curator who confirmed Jeff’s story. You’ve guessed it. Elephants live for a great many years but this one sadly passed away before I could reach the Principality. Don’t ever tell me an animal story – not unless you wish the poor creature a premature demise.)

The memory of what so nearly was a notable scoop was, however, more than sufficient excuse for me to return to the Hill Inn at the start of a tour of some of the highest and most desolate pubs in Britain, to see how they are adapting their historical purpose to 21st century survival.

Alan Greenbank had long since retired but current landlady Sabena Martin – known to all the faithful as Bean – listened patiently to my rambling tale of the washing-up dog. ’We’ve got two remarkable dogs here ourselves,’ she said, rather dismissively. ‘One of them, a 14-year-old springer collie cross called Maurice, has been awarded the National Park’s Ingleborough Medal for his amazing one-dog unaccompanied expeditions. He must have made at least 50 trips around the Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent mountainsides and he never comes home – but he never gets lost either. He just checks in at one of several favoured addresses where he knows we will be rung up to organise his collection.’

And the other remarkable dog? ‘Oh yes, that’s Peggy, our two-year-old Airedale. She sings.’

She does too. The duet she offered with her mistress was truly astonishing in its melodic range. You couldn’t make it up. No wonder I love pubs.

During the summer months, Sabena and husband Colin – a former chef and pastry cook at the Ritz Club in London, whose amazing sugar sculptures, on view around the pub, number the Queen, Michael Jackson, Elton John and the Sultan of Brunei among their collectors – are inundated with walkers, climbers and tourists but need all their ingenuity to keep going through the winter.

‘We have started doing special evenings like tapas nights to bring people in and we organise domino nights in conjunction with the Station Inn at Ribblehead, just up the road, where we collect money for local causes like the scouts and the air ambulance,’ says Bean. ‘We’re doing our level best to keep afloat.’

Set off in the opposite direction from Hawes, traverse the dramatic Buttertubs Pass into Swaledale and start climbing towards the head of Arkengarthdale along a road which stretches like borderless grey tape stuck to the undulations of those bleak but majestic fells and after a while, silhouetted against the skyline and several miles from the nearest other building, you get your first glimpse of the Tan Hill Inn, at 1,732 feet above sea level the highest pub anywhere in Britain.

Your car will never be alone in the car park. At any time of day or night it will be accompanied by at least one other vehicle – a bright orange articulated snowmobile with two sets of caterpillar tracks whose presence somehow defines the awesome hostility of the surrounding landscape more eloquently than any words could achieve.

But step inside and the warmth hits you amidships – and it does not only come from a roaring fire. Owner-landlady Tracy Daly’s irrepressible good humour somehow pervades every inch of the bare stone flooring, the wooden planked tables, the bar stools and the children’s paintings on the ceiling to reduce the shivers to a distant memory.

And the brass plates along the edge of the bar counter, adorned with unpunctuated capital letters, are guaranteed to bring a smile to the most reluctant face.

BULLSHIT CORNER.
FAULTS I MAY HAVE BEING WRONG ISN’T ONE OF THEM.
JESUS LOVES YOU EVERYONE ELSE THINKS YOU ARE A PRAT.
NO THERE’S NO F IN PARKING.
HOW TO AVOID A HANGOVER STAY DRUNK.
NO BLOODY SWEARING.
And my favourite:
A FRIEND IN NEED IS A PAIN IN THE ARSE.

‘They were all there when we arrived but at least we didn’t even think of taking them down,’ Tracy told me later.

It was a chance visit to Warren House, a similarly remote watering hole on top of Dartmoor (of which more later) which launched Mike and Tracy – both recently second-time-arounders – on to a pub crawl around the highest boozers in the land.

‘And It was in the November of 2004 that we got as far as the Tan Hill,’ recalls Mike. ‘We had both given away everything when our former marriages ended and were living in a caravan but Alex, the owner for about 12 years, had decided to sell up, was asking £500,000 and we borrowed the money to buy it. As a tunnelling engineer, I had a decent income but Tracy, who doesn’t drink and doesn’t like drunks, became the hands-on boss.’

They had no delusions about their new environment. In the winter of 1947 the Tan Hill Inn had been cut off from the outside world from early January to the end of March and still relies on its own water bore hole, Calor Gas and generators for all the utilities necessary for everyday survival. ‘When we were snowed in over New Year recently, we, our two members of staff who happened to be on duty when the snows came, and all the resident guests – we have seven letting bedrooms – clubbed together and drew up lists of volunteers every day to look after preparing the veg, washing up and even cleaning the lavatories,’ recalls Tracy.

The barn which was meant to house Mike’s small collection of historic 1920s tractors became the first casualty when Tracy decided it had to become a functions room – complete with licence to stage weddings.

And the pub that had begun life as the Beer House to attend to the thirst of 12th century coal miners and which much later became one of the many resting places for Dick Turpin after being chased out of York along the old Jagger Road, which happened to pass the Tan Hill, and, later still, fell into the hands of the legendary Susan Peacock, who ran it from 1903 to her death in 1937 – ‘She not only carried a gun but could shoot straight’ – entered a new phase in its fight to keep pace with changing times.

Nowadays, delighted visitors frequently find themselves passing the time of day in the bar with any one of Mike and Tracy’s five cats, four dogs, two pigs, eight hens, 5 alpacas, eleven sheep and two horses – ‘the health and safety people don’t like it much but you can’t stop them wandering in from time to time to warm themselves by the fire’ – and windscreen-ticketing operations around a radius of many miles bring in a regular supply of punters for a whole variety of special events, even including mediaeval recitals.

‘It began as a hobby but pretty soon became a business,’ says Tracy. ‘You can’t live on being the highest pub in Britain alone, even if we do have the added bonus of being a natural stopping-off place for walkers along the Pennine Way. However you do it, you have to strive to be unique in one way or another to survive in this business.’

(When Tracy advertised a Christmas ‘family feast’ and was astonished to receive a letter from Kentucky Fried Chicken’s lawyers, demanding a change of description because ‘family feast’ was a KFC registered trademark, she immediately rang them to point out that her business was at least 45 miles from the nearest KFC outlet and that ‘you have no right to hijack the English language anyway.’ ‘When they refused to back down, I invited the press to come and cover the dispute – we even got hold of a KFC bucket to shake in front of the cameras – and after it appeared on screen we must have got three thousand emails from all over the world congratulating us on our stand. KFC did back down after that and it certainly didn’t do our trade any harm. Once again we were back on the map.’ Not a lass to mix with, our Tracy.)

If missing out marginally on altitude, five other pubs certainly vie with the Tan Hill Inn when it comes to high level remoteness – The Cat and Fiddle between Macclesfield and Buxton, the Lion Inn on top of the Yorkshire Moors, the Kirkstone Pass Inn between Ullswater and Ambleside in the Lakes, the Warren House, perched in utter desolation near Postbridge on Dartmoor in Devon and the highest pub in Wales, the Sportsmen’s Arms, near Bylchau in Snowdonia. (The highest boozer in Scotland, the Wanlockhead Inn near Biggar, bucks the trend by being mostly brand new and sitting snugly in the middle of the country’s highest village, but then that’s typical of Scotland – it’s got to be different.) All in their different ways use imaginative enterprise to bolster their fight for survival.

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