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


Issue 224
December 9, 2011


This Week

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There’s a new book out tomorrow, and it evolved from scribblings for this website. Bill Greaves had penned a few pieces for us about newspaper pubs. He added some more about the favourite drinking places discovered while on the job – and, hey presto, a book was done.

There’s just time to order it for Christmas – that is, if you are interested in pubs. If not, you could buy it only to enjoy the odd tales that he uncovered on his travels.

Plain John Smith travelled more than most, for the Daily Mirror, then for the People. He recalls how he once went tits-up in the Sahara, in search of a dateline with a difference.

Back to pubs and Dan Wooding – there’s a blast from the past – has fond, or not-so-fond, memories of The Stab In The Back.

There’s the apparently nigh-on inevitable obit. This time of picture desk man Jonathan Snape. He was, wait for it… 41. Richard Stanley has fond memories.

And, as usual, cartoonist Rudge props the whole thing up.

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Doing the rounds

By William Greaves

As every journalist knows, it’s always a risky business to pass by a pub for fear of missing the career-enhancing story that might have been lurking within.

Regular Ranters addicts will perhaps already be familiar with my own lifelong love affair with the great British boozer, revealed in a series of reminiscences in these columns which positively oozed beer-sodden nostalgia and recalled just some of the unlikely stories to have emerged like genies from the mists of the saloon bar cigarette smoke of the good old days...

...Like the young girl whose first job on her first day working for Sainsbury’s was to unclip every copy of the Radio Times and remove the eight-page advertising supplement for Tesco’s before stapling each magazine back again, appearing under the headline: Good Magazines Weigh Less at Sainsbury’s.

Or the Leeds barmaid who came into work heavily bandaged, apologised for her appearance and explained to the hacks at the bar that she had just been bitten by a lion.

But enough of that – you’ve heard it, seen it, read it in these very columns.

What neither you nor I could have foreseen was how those few disconnected jottings, published here over a succession of weekly episodes last year, would lead me into the most gigantic pub crawl of my life throughout England, Scotland and Wales and end up as a slim volume, celebrating 2,000 years of the British pub.

I was goaded into it, of course, by the Chief Ranter himself but I freely forgive him.

It has been a wonderful adventure which began by following in the footsteps of George, Harris, J and Montmorency, the wicked fox terrier, on their hilarious voyage of 120 years ago from Thames watering hole to Thames watering hole as told by Jerome K Jerome in his unforgettable Three Men in a Boat.

And it swelled to take in the country’s highest pubs, its oldest pubs, its smallest pubs, its literary pubs, its haunted pubs, its smugglers’ pubs, its historic pubs, its newspaper pubs and even pubs like the Rover’s Return, the Queen Vic, the Bull at Ambridge and the Woolpack of Emmerdale fame which never existed at all except in the imagination of the soap peddlers.

It explored how the Drunken Duck, the Polite Vicar, the Bucket of Blood, Dirty Dick’s and a few other unlikely alternatives to all those Red Lions and Coach and Horses got their name.

And it even looked back to Roman times when the invaders merged their beloved tabernae, fore-runners of the wine bar, with Boudicca’s ale houses and spawned an institution that grew to become the trademark of Britain and the envy of the rest of the world.

There was, of course, a serious downer.

Because of the geography of the quest it could only be covered by car and I nearly drowned in tomato juice.

Now that would never have been the case in the good old days when we invariably got home but couldn’t quite remember how.

But at least I am alive to tell the tale.

It’s My Round – a personal celebration of 2,000 years of the British pub, is published tomorrow at £9.99. It is available with free delivery worldwide (and currently discounted by 9%) from BookDepository, and from Waterstones or on order from any half-decent bookshop.

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Going tits up

By Plain John Smith

Geoff Pinnington, editor of the People, loved an exciting, exotic or intriguing dateline. For 10 years he sent me scrambling around the world in search of them: Tahiti, Timbuktu, Mount Everest, the Amazon jungle, Robinson Crusoe Island, the Galapagos, Dracula’s castle, Hiroshima, Yellowknife, Siberia, Poona, Mandalay, Death Valley, Pearl Harbour, Guadalcanal, Copacabana Beach, San Quentin prison, the Bridge Over the River Kwai, the Great Wall of China and many more.

So it was that I washed up one night in the Algerian town of Tamanrasset, in the Sahara desert. Tamanrasset burst briefly into the headlines in 1982 when it was the centre of a search for prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s son, Mark, who went missing for six days after he and two team mates lost their way in the desert while driving in the Paris-Dakar rally.

Unfortunately, my arrival failed to coincide with any such entertaining diversions. The only signs of life were two spindly legged donkeys staggering down the main street loaded down with sacks of grain and a band of Tuareg tribesmen racing around in circles on horseback while firing off ancient carbines to celebrate a local wedding.

Idly glancing over a map of the area my eye was caught by a tiny black speck way out in the wastelands.

Tit.

Yes, there was a place called Tit. Intriguing? Certainly. And, apart from its obvious snigger value, it could make its mark as my shortest and cheekiest dateline. Geoff Pinnington would be delighted.

But how to get there? Tit was 30 miles away, across blistering desert sands with temperatures in excess of 100 degrees and no paved roads.

Local inquiries led me to an amiable Tuareg tribesman called Bechar who sported a single gold tooth at the centre of his ready smile and a fearsome looking dagger tucked inside his belt.

‘You go Tit?’ he inquired, with the puzzled air of a British tourist guide who had just learned that his party of American visitors wished to visit Slough rather than Stratford-on-Avon.

‘Yes,’ I ventured hesitantly. ‘I go Tit.’

The gold tooth gleamed. ‘You come.’ Clutching me firmly by one arm he guided me through a maze of dusty back streets until we reached a shambolic open fronted store selling everything from plastic buckets to second hand hubcaps. Stacked inside its murky interior were bales of cloth and a vast selection of Arab robes.

A barefoot assistant scurried across the filthy dirt floor, produced a ragged piece of cardboard for me to stand on and proceeded to attend to my sartorial requirements with all the aplomb of a Savile Row tailor. Fifteen minutes later, in a long white robe and matching multi-layered turban, I emerged from the shop looking like a cross between Ali Baba and Casper The Friendly Ghost.

Bechar’s gold tooth beamed approval. ‘Tomorrow,’ he announced triumphantly, ‘we go Tit.’

To avoid the desert heat we arranged a five am start and in the pre-dawn darkness, swathed in my Lawrence of Arabia outfit, I waited for the diesel rattle of a Land Rover, the vehicle of choice in Tamanrasset, an important crossroads for trans-Sahara expeditions. But then I heard a scuffling of hooves and an angry chorus of braying animals. In a pool of light from my hotel window, Bechar grinned up at me, desperately holding on to two cantankerous camels.

It was my first close encounter with a Ship of the Desert and the particular vessel that Bechar had chosen for me was obviously in mutinous mood. By way of introduction, the discontented mount pulled back putty-tinted gums to reveal a row of teeth the colour of old snooker balls. Then it spat in my face with admirable accuracy.

With loud Arabic oaths and much prodding with a short stick, Bechar forced the braying beast to its knees. I slid on to the small wooden saddle attached to its hump and then the unhappy animal stood up, heaving me giddily into the air.

With another gold toothed grin, Bechar set off at a brisk trot. I followed at a juddering jog, desperately clinging to handfuls of the camel’s fur to retain my lofty perch with one hand while using my free hand to frantically readjust the turban, which had fallen down over my eyes.

Four excruciating hours later, Tit emerged from a shimmering desert haze and I clambered to the ground in a perspiring heap, sun scorched and saddle sore.

Tit turned out to be little more than a nudge-and-a-wink in the middle of nowhere. A scattering of mud-built houses and rush-built shacks.

I was met by a reception committee consisting of the village chief, two goat herds and a chicken. Though obviously bewildered by my arrival, the natives were friendly. We sat cross-legged on the ground drinking endless cups of mint tea while two old boys with no teeth regaled us with stories of how their ancestors had fought the French colonialist forces in the great Battle of Tit back in 1902. And that was it.

The long trek back to Tamanrasset gave me plenty of time to ponder how the hell I was going to spin a readable piece out of this brief oasis encounter. ‘Rode camel – drank mint tea – rode camel again’ was hardly likely to put me in contention at the British Press Awards.

Still, at least I had the intro:

‘I have been keeping abreast of events in a town called Tit…’

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The stab in the front

By Dan Wooding

I was recently back in London from my adopted home in Southern California, where I have lived since 1982, and wanted to take my son Andrew to see the Stab in the Back pub, a place of gossip and heaving drinking, where I had spent so many hours during my years as a reporter with the Sunday People.

I had shared with him the strange mystique of this place and as we walked up New Fetter Lane, I was shocked to find it was no more, having been torn down and replaced by a pizza parlour.

So for those the few of you who never went to the Stab, I thought I would share some memories of this unique and often bizarre watering hole for (mainly) the Mirror group journalists.

My introduction to the Stab came after I had been working for a local paper in Ealing, West London, and was offered a job on the People reporting team after getting an exclusive series about the Kray twins in prison.

In between the hours of drinking at the stab, I was able to write up stories like Diana Dors’ ‘love affair’ with Elvis Presley; the life of Melody Bugner with her boxing champ husband; and the heart-attack story of Eric Morecambe; plus a host of stories with personalities like Carry On actress, Barbara Windsor and comedian Larry Grayson. Like so many others, I was involved in getting stories on Joyce McKinney, who is now back in the headlines having been featured in new documentary called Tabloid based on Mirror managing editor Tony Delano’s book.

Probably the worst thing that happened to me in the Stab was when one evening I heard the words ‘I’m going to kill you!’ issued by a Scotsman who had just ambled into the bar.

‘But why? What have I done to you?’ I asked.

The Scotsman gulped a double whisky, turned to me and said, ‘Because you know where Maurice O’Mahoney is and he put one of my friends behind bars.’

The O’Mahoney he was referring to was a London criminal mastermind turned super-grass. A criminal by the age of ten, he had been involved in nearly every type of crime known to man, from hijacking trucks and bank raids to highly professional burglaries and wage snatches. But when O’Mahoney was caught, he informed on more than 200 criminals involved in crimes totalling more than one and a half million pounds. Now O’Mahoney, who has since died, was facing life on the run. An underworld contract was out on him.

I had co-authored a book called King Squealer with this criminal who always carried a Magnum whenever we met at a series of secret hideouts. The story was serialized in the Sunday People.

‘There is only one thing that can prevent you from dying tonight… you have to tell me where that swine is. If you don’t, well I’ve got a knife in my car outside and I plan to get it and slit your throat.’

It was then that Sunday People crime reporter Trevor Aspinall said in his usual less than charming way, ‘Hey, why don’t you just go ahead right now. It’s been a quiet evening so far.’

I tried to ignore his comment and said, ‘But I… don’t know where O’Mahoney lives. He never told me where I could contact him… just in case of a situation like this.’

The arguments about whether or not I should die continued for an hour amid the smoky swirl of the executioner’s omnipresent cigarette. Drinks were bought and downed and gradually the atmosphere brightened a little. Another twenty minutes passed and suddenly, for some inexplicable reason, the granite-faced Scot crumbled and threw his arms around me.

‘Dan, I came here tonight to kill you. Now I really like you.’ He fished around in his pocket and produced a ten-pound note and handed it to me. ‘Here, have a few drinks on me.’ With that he stumbled out of the bar. I was shaking with emotion and ordered a drink although Aspinall certainly didn’t get a free drink that night.

Fortunately, it wasn’t always like that in the Stab, and in fact it was a magnet for celebrities. On one occasion, I was standing next to boxer John Conteh who, at the time was world light-heavyweight boxing champion, and he confided, ‘I can’t believe I am here with all these famous journalists.’

Each lunch hour, the People newsroom would empty out and go downstairs to the Stab and many would stay until closing time. One of our reporters would drink as much as he could and then, one day, he returned to the news room, went to the bathroom to put on a Batman outfit he had acquired, and then sat at his desk and if anyone called him, he would say, ‘Hi there, this is Robin, I’m sorry, but Batman’s not available at the moment.’

On the wall of the pub was a picture of American evangelist Billy Graham with the Daily Mirror’s Cassandra who had challenged him to meet him in a pub for a drink and discussion. When the preacher arrived, Cassandra ordered a beer, while Graham asked for an orange juice and then apparently won over Cassandra who days later wrote in his column: ‘Billy Graham has a kind of ferocious cordiality that scares ordinary sinner’s stone cold.’ The picture on the wall of the Stab, which showed Graham towering over Cassandra, had the caption, ‘You are slowly coming under my spell.’ It was typical of the kind of cynicism that permeated the pub,

The name of the Stab in the Back, apparently came from the fact that people came there to verbally do just that.

I can remember one lunch time bringing an American pastor into the Stab and, it was quiet as I walked in, except for Revel Barker sitting at the bar. He asked me, ‘Who’s your friend, Dan?’ I explained that it was a Baptist pastor from Southern California and Revel said him, ‘I’ve never been to Southern California.’ The pastor asked him why and he responded, ‘Because it’s full of bloody Yanks.’

However, after the three years of heavy drinking in the Stab, my life was beginning to unravel. I had been receiving death threats from various people I had written about and one night, as I was at my lowest ebb, a friend came to the pub to suggest I might like to now get out and start a new life in a different type of writing. He told me that Idi Amin had finally been forced out of Uganda after his murderous reign there where an estimated 500,000 people had been murdered by him and his thugs, and asked if I would like to go with him there to write a book about it.

So I did just that. The book was called Uganda Holocaust, and shortly after it came out, I was offered a writing job in America, which I accepted. I now run my own news service (www.assistnews.net) and have a radio show across America called ‘Front Page Radio’ and an Internet TV show called His Channel Live.

But somehow I could never shake the strange affection I had for the Stab and so recently I have featured it in my 44th book – my first novel – called Red Dagger. The pub is discovered by Arch Bishop, a New York-based journalist who had been sent over to London, who spends more time there than actually working on covering the ‘British Beat.’

By the way, the Stab wasn’t all bad, and I have to say that although I am now an insulin-dependent diabetic who is not allowed to drink, I would love to have gone back there one more time to see if my thoughts about it were all true. But alas, all I could do on my last visit was to buy a pizza.

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Jonathan Snape

By Richard Stanley

Few newspapermen will recognise the grim and sordid picture of our industry being painted at the Leveson inquiry; a different world from what most of us know, admire and enjoy. Old hands will recoil from some of the wilder excesses being thrown around; younger recruits to the game will be rather baffled by it all.

Last weekend I lost one of my best friends, Jonathan Snape, deputy picture editor of Express Newspapers’ production centre at Broughton, near Preston. He had suffered a brain aneurysm a week previously and never recovered. He was one of the good guys.

Daily Star Sunday editor Gareth Morgan said: ‘He will be a massive loss to the newspaper. He was here from the paper’s first issue more than nine years ago and was instrumental in helping it become the success it is today.’

Daily Star Sunday sports editor Ray Ansbro, who worked closely with Jon to give the section the picture power it is well-known for, said: ‘Jon was just a fantastic guy and nobody ever had a bad word to say about him. He was a consummate professional and a wonderful human being.’

Picture editor Barry Williamson said: ‘Everyone is just stunned. Jon had a superb eye for pictures, particularly when it came to sport. But, more than that, he was just a great person, devoted to his family, and his passing will leave a huge hole in the lives of everyone who knew him.’

Former International Express deputy editor and Mirror Group IT man Bob Mullett worked with him at Broughton. He said: ‘We had feared the worst but had all hoped for the best. A thoroughly nice chap, good at his job and always smiling.’

Most obits which Ranters carry seem to be in memory of grizzled hacks well on their way to their dotage. Newspapermen who had spent a lifetime boozing and staggering their way through colourful careers, pubs, small fortunes and marriages. Jonathan Snape was rather different. He was only 41 and left a widow, Sarah, and six-year-old Oliver.

I was with him just a couple of days before he was suddenly taken ill. We had a pint at lunchtime in the local boozer. As we often did. Conversation varied from the occasional annoying problem at work to what we would be making our respective families for their evening meal that night. The usual shit. Men don't go down the pub and just talk about football and tits any more. We'd begun to ‘evolve’ – just like our wives said we would!

I remember back to the summer of 2002 and the very early days of setting up the Daily Star Sunday in the ‘frozen North’.

I'm the IT guy there, by the way. For the first couple of weeks I sat in the corner of the office keeping to myself, waiting for someone to scream: ‘I can't get this fucking thing to work!' I would then step in before they began to kick the offending computer all round the office. The cries were all from the ‘wordsmiths’. I never got a call from the picture desk.

I watched from a distance and it didn't take long to see why. They had their own ‘techie’ on board. I wasn’t threatened, more interested. Who is this guy? More to the point, where does he disappear to at lunchtime? He's not in the canteen and there’s no sign of him at the local ASDA. I stood by the door one day and waylaid him. ‘Where are you off to, then?' I asked. 'The pub. Fancy one?' And that was the start of a beautiful friendship, as Bogart said at the end of Casablanca.

We struggled through three dummy runs and knocked out most of the kinks thanks to some extra tech support and hard graft from some great operators. But we got there and published our first edition on September 15.

Feeling pretty good about what we'd achieved we thought we'd organise ourselves a Christmas ‘do’. Jon, who had started his career as a photographer on northern regional newspapers, took the bull by the horns and offered up a venue with a great location, food, tipple and price that was too good to miss. The place: Nando’s at The Printworks, the former Withy Grove newspaper printing centre in Manchester. Jon’s wife was working for the parent company and we got a good deal on the food, beer and wine. Excellent! Most of the guys had worked out of Manchester on the nationals in the eighties and it seemed a fitting place to celebrate the successful rebirth of northern national newspaper production!

Suffice to say, a great night was had by all though not many remember the whole night. Just like the old days, I’m assured.

Over the last nine years we spent a lot of time working on technical issues, sorting out Christmas ‘do's’, Champions League football nights out. That sort of stuff. We celebrated together his fortieth last year and, only four months ago, mine. We didn't go more than a day without a phone call or text message. Helping each other in some way or another. I helped Jon's wife with her website and he had some great advice for my daughter on her college photography course.

A couple of days before he was taken ill, and with Christmas rapidly approaching, we were discussing Christmas presents for our families. 'Got something for Sarah?' I asked. ‘Sorted,' he said triumphantly, 'She's been after one of those “Parrots” for the car, you know, the hands-free mobile phone kits? I knew she was after one and just told her to order one and get it fitted as my Christmas present.’

The sort of things that pals talk about.

He had woken up a little disoriented and confused and with a swelling on his neck. Sarah took him to hospital near their home in Chorley where the medical team examined him before whisking him away to Preston for emergency neuro surgery. Sadly, he didn’t make it. and died after a week of intense medical care.

Jonathan Snape… My pal ‘Snapey’. One of the good guys.

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Rudge

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