My Darling Nelli – Hitch’s poignant tribute to his wife 

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ASHLEY WALTON reports from Brian Hitchen’s Memorial Service at St Bride’s Church, London

THERE was huge turn-out for the service of thanksgiving for the life of Brian Hitchen, former editor of the Daily Star and the Sunday Express.

Fleet Street’s finest crowded into St Bride’s, the spiritual home of journalists, for the memorial along with members of Brian’s family.

Hitch’s life was suddenly cut short last December when he and his wife Nelli were killed near their holiday home in Spain by a car which careered out of control.

Tributes to the great man were given by Henry Macrory and Peter Hill, former editor of the Daily Express and Daily Star who referred to Brian’s “professionalism, generosity, cunning and sense of honour and fun”.

But of all the tributes paid to Hitch, the best was an article written by the man himself. 

At the top he had scrawled: “It’s probably too long, because I can’t locate my word counter. So feel free to cut whatever you like, and if you don’t like any of it, then sling it in the bin.”

It probably was too long, but when actress Nichola McAuliffe had finished reading it and the laughter had died down, the entire congregation gave it a resounding ovation. 

Nichola, married to the former Daily Star’s Don Mackay, had asked Hitch to write a “light piece” about the joys of a long marriage to be used in the programme for a play in which she was performing in Brighton.

“I don’t think Hitch knew how to write a ‘light piece’," said Nichola.

This is part of what Brian wrote: 

Anyone who believes that after 50 years of marriage irritations fade had been reading the wrong agony columns. One of my joys of my 50-year-old marriage to Nelli is that she irritates the hell out of me.  

I’m still never certain what she’ll do, or say next. Her likes are as irrational as her dislikes, and she  is unwilling or unable to explain why she hates someone. There is a whole lot of someones out there and most of them are my friends!

But after all these years, I still adore her, even more than I did as a young Fleet Street reporter.

I proposed to her three weeks after our first meeting. On the way back from our rain-lashed, mist-enshrouded honeymoon on the Isle of Skye – her idea, I wanted to go to Majorca, I cashed a cheque for the last £10 I had in the world. We were broke but we were happy.  

By the time our daughter Claire was born we were even more broke. Her arrival marked one of the happiest days of my life even though Nelli was in a Buckinghamshire nursing home and I was on a liner 3,000 miles away on the way to New York to cover a story. 

I‘ve only done two things in my life that I have been truly ashamed of, and not being there for Nelli was one of them. I was single-minded, selfish and ultra ambitious. During the years that followed Nelli was always there for me.

Hitch and Nelli

DEVOTED : Hitch and his wife Nelli

I started in newspapers as a messenger boy and wound up editing two of Britain’s major national newspapers and founding the second most successful newspaper in Ireland. I couldn’t have done any of it without Nelli. While I worked like the devil she brought up our two children and taught them right from wrong.

Nelli and I have a mutual dislike for most politicians. Politically we both march to the same drum, which is a good thing because if we didn’t there would be bloodshed at the breakfast table.

We despise money-grubbing MPs, and sticky-fingered Peers in the House of Lords and we hate crooked policemen, of whom personal experience has shown us there are far too many. We’d flog child molesters and hang child killers.  

At breakfast while Nelli reads Britain’s most popular mid-market tabloid with its daily diet of misery, pictures of gorillas and cures for every known ailment, I explode over the pages of a broadsheet daily for grown-ups where I read of the scroungers and layabouts who are living off the tax on my private pension.  

While I fume and butter my toast Radio 4’s Today programme is carrying the voice of a semi hysterical woman who is interviewing a chair that apparently speaks, which is quite a challenge even for the politically-correct, hopelessly biased BBC.  

I pray for the measured Welsh tones of John Humphrys to interrupt and stop the bloody caterwauling choking the airwaves. How can anyone be a chair, I rage? They can be a chairwoman, or a chairman, or if they aren’t sure what they are, can be a chairperson. But not a chair! For God’s sake woman. I throw marmalade at the radio!

Victor Meldrew’s One Foot in the Grave isn’t half as funny as growing old rebelliously is in real life.  When I retired friends said I’d be bored, that Nelli would become fed up of having me constantly under her feet. Well it didn’t turn out that way.  

Perhaps it was because I was often away for weeks at a time. We lived in New York for seven years and when I did come home to our apartment it was never long enough for the stork to land on the chimney pots. Which is why there are ten years between the arrivals of our two children. 

Whenever I read of two old crumblies celebrating their Golden Wedding and being asked what the secret of a happy marriage has been, I cringe when they reply “We’ve never had a cross word”. Maybe nobody’s had the heart to tell them they are dead. 

Nelli and I have had some magnificent verbal battles, but as we grow older we no longer want to hurt each other, it’s much more fun attacking the character of outsiders, like politicians. 

“After retiring I find I am best suited to supervisory roles, content to stand by and watch others do all the work. Who gave me this free character reading? Why Nelli of course, who after 15 years at the same address still cannot remember the postcode and can’t work domestic appliances if they have more then three buttons on them.

Now that there is more of our life behind us, than there is in front, given the chance, I’d do it all over again. Same woman, same family, same job, same decisions. 

Marriage to Nelli has never been dull.

Henry Macrory told the packed church that Hitch had trenchant views on everything from media courses, to Nelson Mandela. He told again the stories of Hitch’s cunning and professionalism like taking the entire Heathrow press corps for drinks so that Slipper of the Yard and the Express could slip through Terminal Three Rio-bound, unnoticed, in the hunt for Biggs, Fleet Street’s biggest real exclusive.  

What about the time he engineered a photo of Elvis in his coffin for the National Enquirer? The price went up dramatically as the story was told and retold but what remained unchanged was the circulation figures for the US supermarket scandal sheet. “I put on six and a half million extra copies," said Hitch, proud as anything.

His years editing, and rescuing the Daily Star, and editing the Sunday Express were recalled at length but the memory that stayed was the marmalade stained scattered copies of Britain’s daily newspapers thrown in disgust from the Hove breakfast table. 

ORDER OF SERVICE

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© 2005-2019 Alastair McIntyre