Memories of John McDonald

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DO you remember John McDonald, former Deputy Editor of the Daily Express? If so his granddaughter Lydia McDonald would like to hear from you.

John, pictured, spent much of his time on the Express in Manchester where he reigned as Northern Editor before transferring to bigger things in London.

You can contact Lydia at lydiasian2@hotmail.com 

ROGER WATKINS recalls:

McDonald was northern editor when I joined the Express in Manchester as a features sub in 1970 (see report of my micro interview with him elsewhere in Drone).

I think it was fair to say he was "mercurial": it's even fairer to say that he liked the occasional sherbet.

Third editions (after Yates's and the Land O Cakes had shut tap) could be challenging. McDonald and the other terrible twin Ted Hodgson floated up to the back bench and often made life difficult for the likes of Tony Fowler, Alf Gregory and Claud Lescure by ripping out the first edition without mercy. 

We in features weren't immune. I well remember the night he ordered me to redraw the leader page. Trouble was I couldn't understand one word in three of my "refreshed" editor's instructions. After I had gone away to try to sort out what he had said he must have realised he hadn't made much sense because he later sidled up to me on the features desk with his preferred make-up scrawled on the nice white space of a Senior Service fag packet. 

"Let me have it back when you've finished with it," he growled as he negotiated his way back to the back bench. 

In those days Miss World was big news. Alas, the winner was chosen right on our first edition deadline. McDonald got around this by drawing a  space for a picture of the lucky lass on Page 1 and then ordering from Process (remember it was hot metal) 3col X 10ins blocks of ALL the contestants (more than 100!).The winner was slotted into the forme and the plates of the rest were chucked. What a waste!

Actually, Mac was a great character and a fine journalist so long as he was kept away from the production process. Someone once said that he should have been locked in his office so long as an inch was cut off the bottom of the door to allow room for him to shove his often brilliant ideas underneath. 

As a postscript, I also briefly worked with his reporter son Toby on the Scottish Daily Express when Terry Manners was editor. He was completely different from his father but also a good operator.

*****

RICK McNEILL has written in his yet to be published memoir:

One day news came in that Frank Sinatra had cut short a Berlin appearance due to poor audiences, and was flying instead to give a performance in London. Deputy editor John McDonald – known perhaps unkindly as McMumble because his conversation was often flowery to the point of incomprehension – was a fan of the singer and decided to run a story about him on Page One with the grovelling headline YOU’RE WELCOME, FRANK. To this I confess I contributed the deathless line that Sinatra’s concert would be held at the “Francis Albert Hall”. Ouch!

McDonald sat down and wrote a fan letter to Sinatra, craving a meeting. Then, around midnight, armed with the letter and early copies of the paper, he was driven with Jill King, the night news editor, to Sinatra’s hotel, the Inn on the Park. There John Bodell, the driver, was instructed to take the papers and the letter, deliver them to Sinatra’s suite, and wait for the response, which McDonald confidently expected would be an invitation to Jill to enter the Presence and be given the Big Exclusive Interview.

After 10 minutes Bodell, a big man not easily intimidated, came running out of the hotel and jumped, pale-faced, back in the car. He’d had a response all right -- one of Sinatra’s burly bodyguards had told him: “If you’re not out of here in one minute we’re gonna break your fuckin’ legs!” 

*****

JAMES DAVIES remembers a hugely entertaining man

I was a reporter in the Manchester office in the mid-sixties when John McDonald arrived as editor. One night I was asked to go to his office.

"Graft" he slurred from a position of almost total recline. Trying desperately to recall which expensively embroidered item on last week's expenses might have caught his eye I stalled for time.

"Graft, John?" I queried. "Graft", he repeated. "Sh'everywhere. Government, councilsh, sh'everywhere.  Take yourshelf off the roshter for ash long ash it takesh."

I reminded him that a week of dog watches was coming up for me - the one shift that was immutable.

"Shno matter," he said, "Go tell Blake."  He was referring of course to the legendary Bob Blake, the bullet-headed ex-drill sergeant who was deputy news editor and responsible for the reporters' roster.

Obediently, I went to tell Blake. One imperious eyebrow raised itself in that inscrutable face. "Leave it to me." he said.

An hour or so later I asked him what plans I should be making for the following week. "You're on dog watch – all week," he said.

I never heard about graft again, and nor, I suspect, did anyone else.

I have to say though that the man was hugely entertaining!

DAVID RICHARDSON recalls

John McDonald was the first of what turned out to be far too many Daily Express editors I worked for. I was into my second week on the DX in Manchester and was still without a byline. It almost appeared during my first week but John McDonald ordered the chief sub to remove it “as I had not earned it.”

I was on my first night shift when JM staggered back from the pub, or club, and ordered a reporter to ring Princess Margaret (for reasons I cannot remember). The night desk gave the task to me. 

Now, as a boy from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, I did not have a contacts book burgeoning with royal numbers. I asked around for help and Norman Luck – who else could it be? – came up with a number for her in Mustique which would have been useful but Margaret was in London.

Panicking, with the editor prowling around me, I did the only thing a reporter could do. I Dialled a Disc. For those who are too young to remember, Dial a Disc was BT’s first venture into pop music. You dialled a number and listened to their record of the day.

So while listening to the record I had a pretend conversation with whom I claimed was Princess Margaret’s private secretary. After a nervous few minutes I thanked the secretary and hung up.

"What did she say,” demanded John Mac. I told him that she refused to wake the princess up as it was almost one a.m. but promised that Margaret would call me back the following day. Fortunately by the time the following day arrived Mac had forgotten all about his midnight ramblings and, yes, he gave me a byline that week.

Dial a Disc became the last resort for many a reporter following up a JM post pub demand. The last I heard of him was his promotion to be editor of the Express-owned Falmouth Packet, a job many of us yearned for in our twilight years.

McMumble’s finest hour?

The yawning Gulf

© 2005-2017 Alastair McIntyre