Memories of Les the legend

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By ROGER WATKINS

Legend of Les Diver. That was the headline on a tribute to the Fleet Street superstar who helped shape the careers of many young journalists on the Daily Express in the Seventies and Eighties.  It appeared above a piece by Terry Manners, then assistant night editor but who later became night editor, assistant editor and editor of the Scottish Daily Express, in the house newspaper Crusader in October, 1987.

Les, who died after a short illness the previous month, truly was larger than life to whom Terry’s article, adapted from the eulogy I, as night editor, gave at the memorial service, was eloquent testament 

Those who thronged St Bride’s recalled the man whose merry banter included the threat:  “I’ll smash your chest in” for some minor misdemeanour or indiscretion. Those who had really erred and strayed were asked: “How would you like to be fucked with the rough end of a green pineapple?” 

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Yet, you knew you’d arrived when a good headline, a well subbed story or a crisp short were greeted with the question: “Have you ever thought of taking up journalism full time?”

Les was a dedicated rugby fan. To him, of course, that meant a dedicated All Blacks fan. I remember fondly a trip he and Dick Dismore made to Paris (“I slept with Diver,” became our proud boast) to see England play France in Serge Blanco’s last game and we were there (as Max Boyce would say) when Les’s beloved All Blacks suffered a rare defeat to England at Twickenham.

When Les went to the rugby he always wore a huge brass kiwi bird (with bottle opener, of course) on a chain around his neck. After he died, his son, Terry, kindly passed it on to me.

The death of someone who seemed to be indistructible came as a huge shock to his colleagues. When Tel Manners and I last saw him in hospital in Romford he was still pretty chipper. He joked that he was so full of pills (pils - geddit?) that he felt like a sub again. A few days later he died.


By TERRY MANNERS

Fleet Street paid tribute last month to a magical little man from the hills of Oamaru, New Zealand. Newsmen touched their hats to Daily Express journalist Les Diver, doyen of copytasters, who died, aged 58, after a short illness.

The list of those who attended his Thanksgiving Service at St Bride’s read like a Who’s Who of newspapers.

Men and women brought with then their own memories of the larger than life Kiwi who touched so many lives. There had been tears over the death of the fun-loving Expressman. But the memorial service and the traditional jar or six in the upstairs room at the Old Bell later was a time for warm smiles and reflections of his journey through the Street.

Les had come a long way.

Country boy Les was born in Otago in the South Island, the youngest of a family of 13. When his mother died he was raised by his sister. Things were not easy but from the earliest days he remembered being surrounded by things British.

Les was also a wordsmith and he also found that his talent for making friends with his impish banter could earn him a living, too. And so began his newspaper career as a reporter on the Oamaru Mail.

The job was interrupted by service in the New Zealand Air Force. Les was determined to be a pilot but, after he crashed two Tiger Moths in training, the top brass decided he was as big a threat to his native country as the Japanese.

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And so Les was assigned to the British Commonwealth Forces and, in August 1945, found  himself one of the first servicemen to walk the streets of Hiroshima after an American B29 Super Fortress dropped Little Boy, the world’s first atomic bomb.

The devastation and the look on the faces of people living in holes in the ground covered by wood or tin was to haunt him for ever.

When the war was over Les signed on as a fireman to work his passage to the UK. After six weeks of persistent seasickness he docked in Liverpool vowing never to travel on a ship again. He never did.

Les soon found himself in the scrum of things. Breaking into mainstream journalism was tough and he had to live. So came succession of colourful jobs: waiter, deckchair attendant and then his first stroke of luck, writing travel film scripts in Soho.

But that did not last long and Les found himself back in uniform as a commissionaire at the Lyons Corner House in Tottenham Court Road. As he stood, adorned in brown and gold, greeting customers with a cheery Gday, a girl caught his eye.

Her name was Eileen and she was to change his life. They married and, in 1953, Les, who had battered on the doors of nearly every provincial paper in Britain, joined the Grimsby Evening Telegraph as a reporter, later becoming chief sub.

Nine years later he was banging on the door of the Daily Express in London. He was so persistent that managing editor Eric Raybould agreed to see him.

And so in May 1966 the man from Oamaru arrived in Fleet Street bringing with him Eileen, his son, Terry, stepson John and daughter Linda. He joined the Express as a sub editor, becoming chief copy taster in 1970.

For years Les brought professionalism and sunshine into the Black Lubjanka, serving under nine editors. He had an instinctive feel for stories and was shrewd, wise, insistent and unflappable. A true professional.

No matter how much pressure Les was under during the mayhem of the big news nights he could always be approached for advice, a quick hello or for the fund of the new rumours whispered in his ear.

And he always made time for new sub-editors who might not know a running story from the rough end of a pineapple.

Les seemed indestructible.

His funeral in an Essex church was attended by family, friends and colleagues. Later that afternoon the Fleet Street convoy said its farewell during a long and emotional afternoon at his home, thanks to the lovely hospitality of his family.

But it was at St Bride’s that Fleet Street came into its own.

The service of thanksgiving conducted by Canon John Oates was an occasion not to be missed. As Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie, one of Les’s long-standing friends, said: “That was good, what’s on next week?”

Everyone who felt the warmth of the service and the spell of the choir said the same thing. They were fine until the last hymn.

It was chosen by Terry Diver, who, while rummaging among his father’s papers in the loft, came across an old crumpled scrap of paper with some words and music on it.

The piece was called Now is the Hour.  Les had scribbled next to it in brackets: The Maori Song of Farewell.


One of the highlights of Les’s service of thanksgiving was a poem of tribute written by Terry Manners which he read out. It went like this:


What mysteries now for the traveller brave?

No more chilly hours of morn

No more to see a wave

An English oak or an Oamaru dawn.

The body made weak by time and fate

Surrenders to the flow of day and date.

Only the spirit then to save

Or the weary traveller brave.

Onward across a new frontier

Where the hills of homeland disappear

But if by chance he looks behind

In his words and deeds he will find

That he touched many hearts along the way

Like a tide moulds the sand at the start of day

And so we can but stand and wave

Farewell and good luck to the traveller brave.


Other contributions came from Terry Diver, who read Kipling’s poem If,  Deputy Editor Leith McGrandle, who read from St Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians and Roger Watkins, who gave the address.

The finer points of Les Diver

© 2005-2017 Alastair McIntyre