On Being William Hickey

WHO ME? Christopher Wilson attempts to refuse a drink from Daily Express editor Sir Larry Lamb. It did him no good and he was sacked anyway

CHRISTOPHER WILSON reflects on his uneasy career as a gossip columnist on the Daily Express. Forty years ago all careers on the newspaper proved to be chequered to say the least but Wilson’s tenure was longer and more successful than many of his predecessors 

JOCELYN STEVENS treated me no differently from any of the other Lubianka wage-slaves and when he told me to fuck off, I very nearly obliged.

But then the worm turned. “No, you fuck off,” I said, angrily feeling I was in the right.

“No, YOU fuck off,” he shouted, “this is my office!”

I couldn't argue with that and was ushered out by the wonderful Tony Fowler, who'd rushed in to see what the fuss was about. And quite soon after that I fucked off out of the Daily Express for ever, much to my lasting regret.

 It was never easy being William Hickey. Since Tom Driberg, curse him, dreamed up the column in 1933 there had been 52 editors  – I knew because I counted. Some lasted a year or three but others found the strain too great. One appointee came into the office on a Sunday morning, went home at lunchtime and never came back. Another, dear Peter Drake, was found sobbing on his office step at the end of his first (and last) working day there.

My predecessor Michael Leapman lasted five months, his predecessor-but-two Alison Miller six. Each new appointment as Hickey editor was hailed by the Editor as a brilliant choice but, always, it was only a matter of time before the incumbent found himself spat out like a piece of chewing-gum which had lost its flavour.

I knew Sir Larry Lamb was going to fire me when I walked into his office one evening to be greeted by a glass of whisky and a smile on the face of the tiger; it was the only time he ever offered me a drink or invited me to sit down. Later I learned that among my many sins Sir Larry thought I was too posh, which was a bit of a hoot since we were both northerners and his birthplace in Yorkshire (Fitzwilliam) was far ritzier than mine (Preston).

But in those days being Hickey required you to play the old-school-tie part, and one of the reasons why the otherwise brilliant Michael Leapman lasted such a short time was because he wrote about travelling on a Clapham omnibus and buying a tie which cost £3. It was an amusing piece, but Hickeys were supposed to come with a drawerful (Eton, Harrow, etc), one for each occasion, and they should never admit to travelling on public transport.

Hickey looked like fun but it was a newsgathering operation just like any other. And it did not come without its hazards – a young reporter, Philip Geddes, was duffed up by Richard Harris' minder for daring to ask a question or two as the actor lolled in splendour in Langan's Brasserie. (Later Harris was to congratulate the IRA on their planting the Harrods bomb which killed Philip, but that's another story).  Peter McKay, when in the Hickey chair, found himself being verbally threatened by Sir James Goldsmith for having written a squib or two about him, and when I and photographer Bill Lovelace found ourselves in Paris covering Goldsmith's wedding he sent out his henchmen to beat us up (I escaped but Bill got a working-over).

I would stand in front of  Christopher Ward’s desk at 6pm while, stoney faced, he tossed my copy page by page into his waste bin

We sat locked in a room all day and went to parties in the evening. After a bit I didn't go to the parties any more because I had a wife and children at home, and I developed an intense dislike of most of the people I was writing about – two good reasons not to be Hickey! – but then it had never been my intention to be a gossip columnist anyway. After I returned to Fleet Street following a brief interlude in TV I was expected to take over Chris Lee's job as dip corr, but he took his time about departing and I got sucked into Hickey pro tem. 

Once there I loved every moment of it. Whether I was any good others must judge but The Ritz did name a cocktail after me so all was not in vain, darlings.

Christopher Ward appointed me, but that didn't mean he liked what I wrote – I would stand in front of his desk at 6pm while, stony-faced, he tossed my copy page by page into his waste bin.  (At least it was a more enthusiastic response than his treatment of Ken Lawrence who, when he started to read out the Sports schedule in morning conference, was greeted by the Editor's sudden but ostentatious scrutiny of The Times).

I lasted nine years on the Express, five as deputy or editor of Hickey, and it was the best place in the world to be. To work among people you admire and aspire to be, as well as like, is a joy which lasts 24 hours a day. The Poppinjay was a wonderful melting-pot once you fought your way to the bar past the fat-arsed printers, but I loved the Bell best, its dusty starkness. El Vino's was only good for jousting with Nigel Dempster (though, just for a change, we once had a fight in the middle of the Derby). Which brings me back to Jocelyn Stevens.

The friends of Princess Margaret  – Jocelyn was one – decided she was having a rough time of it (as if) and clubbed together to buy her a birthday party at The Ritz. It must have been a slow news day because the Daily Mail ran the story on P1 with Dempster's name attached. I saw him that lunchtime and grudgingly acknowledged his scoop.

“Jocelyn told me at dinner the other night,” trilled Nigel mischievously. 

That night, for some reason, I was summoned to the Great Man's office. “This is a fucking useless column,” he began. “Fucking boring stories about people I've never even heard of. The trouble with you is you fucking don't know anybody! Fuck off!”

 You know the rest.

*After a lifetime of this and that following his dismissal, Christopher Wilson is now a novelist. The first part of his trilogy 'The Riviera Express' (no relation) will be published by HarperCollins in the autumn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2005-2017 Alastair McIntyre