Star Trek Part 2
The Wolfman meets Bugsy Malone


         RARELY SEEN: Rear of the Star and Express building and George Leigh Street 

JEFF CONNOR continues his story recounting the early days of the Daily Star at the Daily Express Manchester offices in 1978

As we are all well aware the Express building in Fleet Street had (still has) almost identical twins in Glasgow (Albion Street) and Manchester (Great Ancoats Street). 

Private Eye used to delight in labelling it the Black Lubyanka, a title that still baffles me today. You could hardly call the Ancoats building a prison which is the main function of the Kremlin’s Lubyanka. We came and went as we pleased and often did, usually to the Crown and Kettle or the Express Club, both conveniently placed next door. 

Passers-by could eyeball us through plate-glass windows if they were that way inclined. What became of KGB staffers if they turned up to work pissed is unknown, but I’d guess it was more severe than the occasional tut-tuts we got for the same crime. The idea of ‘security’ at the Daily Express building was a Corporal Jones type wearing WW2 medals who opened the front doors to visitors in the lobby and closed it again behind them.  

The Manchester building may have resembled the Fleet Street version architecturally, but that was it. There was actually something of the Fort Apache about working as a journalist in Ancoats, a feeling that there were hostiles waiting for you somewhere outside. 

There were areas it was unwise to visit after dark. Victoria Square, a few hundred yards distant and George Leigh Street, which ran the length of the Express building, were housing blocks built for the unprivileged in the 1880s and little had changed since. Dickensian they like to call it. 

George Leigh Street was the only parking spot within walking distance and vehicles left there were stolen nightly and sometimes within an hour of getting out of the car. The thieves were quite discriminatory, too. A colleague, who should be nameless, regularly left his vehicle unlocked in the hope it would get nicked and he could claim the insurance. Nobody ever bothered; it wasn’t worth it to a local villain. On the other hand, I lost three Rovers (the poor man’s Jag back then) in five years and it was only then that it began to sink in and decided it was best to bus it in. 

As far as breaks (R and R if you like) went, there were no El Vinos or Poppinjays in Ancoats. The best available to us were the Crown and Kettle and the Land O’Cakes, both presentable but not pubs you’d take your wife to. The rest were either Yates’s (three on Oldham Street alone) or dozens of third-rate boozers, notably the White House on the corner of Laystall Street. This became popular with back bench news staff for two reasons: the hoi polloi never went there but the editor, Lloyd Turner, did. Lloyd was in full one-day-at-a-time mode and didn’t drink but he was heavily into horses and got all his racing tips from the White Horse landlord (an ignorant and thuggish Bill Sikes type).  

                           LLOYD TURNER'S FAVOURITE: The White House pub

The paper’s launch editor, the management-baiting Peter Grimsditch, was most definitely a drinker as anyone who had ever tried to follow him on one of his frenzied Friday night sessions will agree. These exhausting rituals involved not only large varieties of booze but manic indoor competitions like standing jumps on to desks and games of cricket using rubber bands for balls. 

Grimbles was like the mad inventor in Back to the Future: shabby, absent-minded, eccentric, bursting with enthusiasm, but occasionally fuming with rage. His most unforgettable ‘invention’ (or maybe it was Bob Coole’s invention) was ordering reporters and snappers out to tag celebrities and ask them to Stand on One Leg Only. Bizarrely, most agreed, Joan Collins among them. Ludicrous though it seemed at the time, it’s the sort of thing that would be trended today so you could say the Star was ahead of its time. 

Life under Grimbles (a Lancastrian incidentally) was interesting. He left sport alone but sacked me early on (something booze-led which I’d probably deserved) only to re-instate me two days later. He despised management, particularly the company’s MD, Jocelyn Stevens, and by all accounts the feeling was mutual. In the end Grimbles also fell foul of our benign editor-in-chief, Derek Jameson who sacked him. 

Grimsditch’s short spell on the Star turned out to be the prelude to a remarkable career that included ownership of a restaurant, motel and bar in Canada and editorship of the Lebanon’s Daily Star in Beirut which he left after a string of kidnappings of foreigners.

Although some might never admit it now, many notable careers began, or at least were extended at the Star including Peter Hill, Neil Wallis, Roy Greenslade, Peter Tory and super snapper Tom Stoddart. 

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Carole Malone, pictured right, (aka Bugsy or Piggy dependent on what you thought of her at the time) was one of a handful of female journalists. Forget the right-wing talking head of today, back then she was a popular, gifted reporter and, that rarity, one whose words never needed subbing.

There were a couple of notable twiddles, however. Sections of a memorable interview with Angie Best during which George’s missus described her blow-job skills and her husband’s fondness for it didn’t make it (a family paper you know). Nor did the best bits of Malone’s fabulous story about her infiltration of a Swampy-like environmental activist group (she was brave as well as talented). She had it written when it transpired that the father of one of the gang members was an executive at Express Newspapers. 

A good story could have been a great story — if The Sun or the Mirror had bothered following it up which Larry Lamb (Sun) and Mike Molloy (Mirror) never did, having decided that the Star could never be taken seriously. Such pomposity cost them circulation and, in Lamb’s case, job.

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There were plenty of nobodies bent on becoming somebodies when the Star was launched. Neil Wallis, pictured left, energetic and so ambitious he insisted on five-day shifts when the NUJ had negotiated us a nine-day fortnight (giving us what amounted to a holiday every month). Along with Carole Malone he was definitely one of the golden children of that era and he talks fondly of his time at the Star now. If anyone is still wondering where his nickname, The Wolfman, came from here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak: ‘Jeff McGowan (news editor) came up with it. You look a bit like a wolf, he said. I got to quite like it in the end.’

James Whitaker was our royal correspondent (one of the first to hold that title I believe) but the events that really made him were not his royal coverage, but something reporters seldom admit to: award-winning scoops are often down to flukes. 

In July, 1982, Whitaker happened to be strolling through Hyde Park when the IRA bomb that killed four mounted soldiers of the Blues and Royals and seven of their horses exploded nearby. So Whitaker was in the right place at the right time and the first journalist at the scene.

Naturally, within a year, the Mirror made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and he jumped ship. The Manchester news sub who totally re-wrote Whitaker’s original story (making the death of the horses as poignant as the death of the soldiers) got nothing, except the knowledge that he had done the job expected of every sub and a herogram posted on the wall outside the editor’s office.

PART 3 Bingo and Biffo

 

© 2005-2018 Alastair McIntyre