A Hard Man With a Heart of Gold

By ASHLEY WALTON

It is too easy to dismiss the life of Michael O'Flaherty with a few drink-related stories, even if he really was a legend in his own lunchtime.

'Oafers', as he was known to the reporting team at the Express in the 70s and 80s, was considered one of the finest  reporters of his generation, a star of the Express team at the moment when the world's greatest newspaper was selling three million a day.  

His biggest story was flying down to Rio with rookie reporter Colin Mackenzie and photographer Bill Lovelace to find Ronnie Biggs. The Express team holed up with the Great Train Robber in a hotel room, playing cards as they tried to prise out the story of his escape from Britain.

'Ronnie Biggs was the worst poker player I have ever known,' said Oafers as he told the tale of the world exclusive back in Fleet Street drinking haunts.

It was the drink that finally topped this fine reporter who spent many months in Belfast during the Troubles. He went into the rundown and highly dangerous Twinbrook Estate to see the emaciated body of Bobby Sands the hunger striker surrounded by (in Oafer's words) 'a balaclava-wearing Armalite guard of honour'. Back at the Europa Hotel there was a sombre mood, 'relieved by gallons of Guinness'.

In the early Seventies I shared many a front page byline with Oafers and watched with admiration as he brought back beautifully-crafted colour pieces.  He was the first reporter to be allowed on the platform after the Moorgate tube disaster.  His words went in untouched on to a double-page spread. 

Beneath the hard man veneer Michael had a heart of gold. Despite the drinking it was hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about him. He was also extremely cunning.  Who could forget the morning Oafers came into the office around lunchtime looking very much the worse for wear.  'Where the fuck have you been?' bellowed the News Editor.  'Where's the story on Richard Burton?' Oafers sat down at the Remington and produced a sensational 3,000 words.  He had managed, with charm, to get into the Dorchester suite, spending the wee small hours matching the fallen star vodka for vodka and getting a fantastic tale.

When eventually he realised, after many hilarious drunken episodes we all know so well, that he had to beat the drink, Oafers owned up to being an alcoholic.  He forswore the demon and completely changed his life.   He volunteered to work in an African township in 2008 where he wrote to me. 'Everything is fine for me here.  I'm really enjoying the new life. It is wonderful how new life and hope arises amid the miasma of poverty.'

In his final article for the Mail in 2009 Oafers wrote 'I swapped five star hotels for a slum and my life has never been richer!'

It would be unfair on Oafer's life not to end with one of those stories.  On my first month in the Express team in 1973, doing the 'dogwatch' I was told, after midnight,  by Night News Editor Mike Steemson to go to the Cartoonist and tell Michael O'Flaherty to come back to the office.  'I don't know what he looks like,' bleated this rookie. 'He's the one wearing the Marks and Spencer pants." said Steemson without a glimmer of a smile.  

Sure enough propping the downstairs bar of the Cartoonist pub surrounded by thirsty hacks was a man wearing only underpants. 'Tell Steemson to fuck off ,' came the reply.  I scuttled away but before I could report back to the Desk (God knows what I was going to say) an immaculate suit-wearing Oafers was being given his briefing for the next day's beat.  

He just had a thing about drinking in his pants.  And why not?


21st February 2012 

© 2005-2017 Alastair McIntyre