BILL WHEELER recalls an English invasion of the Scottish Daily Express
It was with some trepidation that I stepped onto the editorial floor of the once mighty Scottish Daily Express in Albion Street, Glasgow, for my first working day in August 1973.
It was the third of Beaverbrook's "black plastic" newspaper offices. The Scottish operation had been pouring out newspapers since 1928. The editorial floor was an imposing sight ... a cavernous room compared with the rabbit hutch I was used to at the Evening Post in Bristol and the proceedings were dominated by the booming voices of executives I did not fancy getting the wrong side of.
In fact they turned out to be a decent crowd in the main. The real problem initially was racial prejudice from the native Scottish subs. Some made it quite clear "we do nae like they effin' English". About six new English subs all turned up at the same time and were stuck on the same green lino-topped desk which the Scots referred to as Little England.
"Do you all know each other," I was asked by one hostile Scot. "No," I replied, pointing out we came from newspapers as far apart as Newcastle, Manchester and Bristol. "Why do you ask?" "Because you all speak the same," came the retort.
With the "genius" peculiar to Beaverbrook management there had been a generous, non-selective redundo scheme. Many of the best Glasgow Express subs had grabbed the money and walked into good jobs elsewhere, leaving very few people to put the paper out. Hence the influx from England.
Initially there was a lot of glowering and muttering from the hostiles who seemed to want to re-fight Culloden and re-run the 1966 World Cup. The cup, one of them explained to me one night, should have really gone to Scotland because Scotland had beaten England the year after the World Cup Final! Don't ask. I did not understand the logic of that either but decided to let the remark go.
After a few weeks the friction eased and GX was a good place to work although you had to be careful not to upset the copy boys. They would fetch teas and sandwiches mad with square slabs of sausage meat. We were warned early on not to upset this rough looking crew, who were summoned to pass subbed copy to the chief sub by shouting “boy”. They were rumoured to spit on your food and tea if they did not like you.
One night the copy boy was waiting with a knife for the sub
The new English arrivals never stood a chance. One sub was said to have upset a copy boy so badly that the lad was waiting for him with a knife as the wordsmith arrived home late one night. True or false, I took to getting my own tea!
Despite Glasgow's fearsome reputation in the 1970s I grew to love the country and its people. In the main they were warm, generous, never afraid to speak their minds and good company.
Journalism in Glasgow had a raw edge to it seldom experienced in the leafy cities of England. Stories of punch-ups on court house steps between rival reporters and photographers chasing buy-ups were legion. True or false they made great pub stories that enhanced Glasgow's reputation as a tough place to learn your craft.
I was told that one beefy Express reporter went to interview a man in a tenement building. All went well but the man refused to have his picture taken. "Now look," snarled the reporter, "my photographer has come a long way to take yer effin' picture so don't move". He was reputed to have grabbed the man by the throat and held him against the wall while his picture was taken.
The Press Council, its successors and modern journalism lecturers in ethics might have struggled with that one. Competition was fierce in Glasgow. The "purists" might have struggled with another story I heard.
Floods had swept the Highlands and stags were reported to have drowned in a Ganges of gunge. A photographer (I’m not sure which paper he worked for) was despatched but reported: "There's nae any effin' drowned stags and nae much effin' flood water either." "Well find some," barked the picture desk, slamming the phone down.
Off went the snapper, found a stag's head mounted on a piece of wood in a pub and borrowed it. He is then reputed to have set it up in a deep puddle, lay next to it with his camera and hey presto Stag horror in the Highlands. Rival snappers no doubt struggled to explain not finding dead stags all over the Highlands. I don't know if the story is true but why let the facts spoil it!
Despite the turmoil the Scottish Express sold 560,000 copies a day
Then there was the Glasgow Express NUJ chapel. It was dominated by a handful of lefties who made Trotsky look like a Young Conservative and Fleet Street printers seem like pussy cats. This was Red Clydeside in 1973 and the general mood of the area pervaded the editorial floor. After the Express's Albion Street operation closed I read that there had been 52 disruptive stoppages of work in the previous 12 months of production. One a week! Some printers blamed the NUJ for costing them their jobs. That has to be a first.
I remember standing at one tetchy meeting as we demanded a Christmas present from the management. Quite right too. They offered £50. "Are they going to pay they bloody income tax?" shouted a voice from the back of the meeting.
But the chapel could be manipulated, if you believed the Glasgow rumour factory. As I said, why let the facts spoil a good story.
One former editor, hoping for a pay-off, is reputed to have "accidentally" dropped a memo outlining his future staffing plans and his ideas on redundo. No doubt the head bolshies were top of the list with pay-offs kept to a minimum. Uproar. The chapel stopped work demanding the editor's head. He duly left with a huge cheque, bought the sailing boat of his dreams and called it The Golden Handshake! Game set and match to the editor.
Despite all the turmoil the Scottish Daily Express sold 560,000 copies a day out of Glasgow and it was a cracking paper with a reputation for getting the best stories first and being a training ground for other parts of ther Beaverbrook empire. The Albion Street team was convinced their Express was far better than anything "they fancy Dans in London and Manchester could produce". "Absolutely. Couldn't agree more," was the wisest response in the home of the Glasgow kiss.
But not everything went smoothly. One memorable night involved the tracking down of Ronald Biggs. A code had been posted to Glasgow and put in a safe. So when the full story came up by teleprinter the splash sub had to replace Brighton with Brazil and Clacton with Copacabana, or something like that. Simple, except the keys to the safe could not be found. The editor or one of his sidekicks was reputed to have phoned London for the code. He was told to go forth and multiply "because we know you are from the Daily Mail". Everyone knew the Express had a belter but not the details. Somehow the problem was solved.
Come Day Two and Biggs was all over the front page again in London and Manchester. But not in Glasgow. The IRA's M62 coach bomb had gone off killing 12 people. Glasgow splashed the bomb and had Biggs was a big second item. The deputy editor was reckoned to have made the decision. "Great decision," he was told from on high, "when did London decide to change the splash?" "They didn't," came the deputy's reply. Stunned silence. A very brave decision if the story is true. Alex Salmond did not invent the idea of Scottish independence, that's for sure.
The pub next door to office was embroiled in Scottish Express folklore. McEntee's bar, pictured right, was part of a huge three- or four-storey tenement building. The tenement flats had been demolished but McEntee's still stood there on its own, shrouded in a tarpaulin to keep the rain out. At 9pm sharp the Express editorial floor emptied and dozens poured into the bar for large whiskies (a much bigger measure than in England) and half of heavy (bitter to you and me).
If someone was wanted back in the office there was a phone on a small shelf just inside the door. It was an internal Express extension and someone had bashed a hole in the wall with a hammer and chisel so that a cable could be fed through from the switch board. Explain that to modern HR people.
When Albion Street closed (and that is another story I remember well. I was there that night) a workers' co-operative alternative was set up.The owner of the bar was reputed to have poured several thousand pounds into the project, pretty sure he would get it back by the end of the first week.
In 1973 pubs in Scotland had to close at 10pm but the Express staff could shift enough booze in that last hour to qualify for a national drinking team if there had been one. Oddly, pubs were not allowed to open on Sundays. And ladies who frequented public bars were definitely not ladies!
Today Glasgow is still one of my favourite cities but now has hundreds of sophisticated wine bars and restaurants. Women are welcome. An incredible culture change that emerged in less than 20 years.
*Anyone wanting to read the definitive story of the Scottish Daily Express will enjoy A Word for Scotland (Luath Press), the masterly story of the newspaper by the late Jack Campbell. A man of outstanding judgment – he gave a me my first job on a national – he rose from copy boy to managing editor during a 49-year career. His research is meticulous and his love of Beaverbrook's pet project shines through. It is available in paperback from Amazon HERE