Oh what a lotta zlotys

zlotys.jpg

ROGER TAVENER, recalls his adventures in Poland as a Press Association reporter

3.23 am. Tenth floor corridor of the Hotel Intercontinental, Warsaw, Poland.

During Martial Law…

“Rog, Rog, come ‘ere I need a hand…” 

It’s that rasping, guttural, northern accent I’ve become familiar with over the past couple of days.

Joe (Joe Melling, big-name soccer writer for the Mail and great bloke) is poking his head round the door. I’m on my way to bed, but I stop off at his room, 1021.

“Fuck me Rog, I’ve got a couple of girls and need some fucking help.”

Bollocks. I don’t need this. But I’m the new boy on the block and I might need a favour down the line. And I do have a bottle of brandy in my hand and ten packs of illegal cigarettes. 

We’re in Poland for a crucial England U21 European cup semi-final and, for some reason, all the top football scribes are here. Melling, Mike Calvin, Nigel Clarke and co. And me. Daunting to say the least.

Not just that this is my first Fleet Street foreign assignment, but I’m actually a news reporter and Poland under Martial Law has only opened its borders for a few hours to legitimate sports reporters for this big game. 

So I’m undercover. Already several Western hacks have been jailed after sneaking in. Like Greg Miskiw, and he’s bloody Polish.

Mine’s a particularly rough dyed-blonde, but with goodish English. I delay the inevitable talking about the political situation. I’m sure she’s fucking fascinated. Yawn.

Maybe PA (Press Association) chose me because I’d been a small-time professional footballer and could do the double; a match report AND news/features about life in Poland.

Joe’s enticed a couple of hookers to his room and he’s run out of fags and booze. And maybe the stamina to do two …

Not surprisingly I get the call because out of Fleet Street’s finest I’m the only one with any money. Zlotys.

As member of the National Union of Journalists I had the foresight to get in touch with Solidarity, the independent union only recently formed by Lech Walesa.

I made contact with Michael, a sports reporter for a Warsaw news agency.

We arranged to meet in the toilets at the airport and I’d swap sterling for local currency. Millions of it. It was worth nothing in real world, but here it was gold.

He also supplies me with dozens of packets of contraband Benson and Hedges. There’s rationing and nothing is available. This could see me banged up for years.

He needs my 50 quid to get to London for the second leg. 

Michael was sweet-as and delivered.

So we get to the so-called five-star hotel and they’re not allowed to accept foreign currency. Neither do they have anything to eat but wild boar and drink? Just brandy. No wodka? In Bloody Poland?

I become the paymaster for all the hacks on huge expenses. No problem. These zlotys are going a long way.

We’re lounging on the twin beds in Joe’s quite palatial suite and I’m feeding the girls fags and booze.

Joe’s nodding off. Fuck me, don’t leave me with these two.

Mine’s a particularly rough dyed-blonde, but with goodish English. I delay the inevitable talking about the political situation. I’m sure she’s fucking fascinated. Yawn.

She must have chain-smoked her way through a pack. Then I hand her another ciggie and forget to light it. 

She goes absolutely mental.

“Just because I am from the street you do not have to treat me like a whore and disrespect me, son of a bitch…”

Fuck me, I only forgot to light your 28th fag because I was talking to Joe.

Then she whips out a blade from under the pillow, flashing ominously in the low-powered light from the bedside lamp. I reactively grab her wrist.

She’s gone nuts. I throw a dummy and am through that fucking door in nano-seconds.

“Don’t fucking leave me Rog,” Joe wails. Bollocks to that mate. I barricade myself in my room.

I didn’t know it, but I was to be properly knifed by my colleagues 24 hours later. It was a back-stabbing I’d never forget and would be a lesson I’d never forget.

Somehow Joe survives his threesome. We don’t discuss it.

The trip had started in some style at shiny new Stansted airport. I hate flying, so always get thoroughly pissed before boarding an aircraft.

I’m at the bar with some cabin crew. Captain and deputy and some cute hostesses. They’re all knocking vodkas back faster than me. Fair play, that takes some doing. We talk.

They say they have no vodka in their country and things are bad under rationing. So they make the most of any away days.

lot airlines

They fly for Lot airlines. The Polish national carrier and they’re crewing the 7.20 pm to Warsaw. Fuck me. What a coincidence. I’m on that one.

Then it hits. A bunch of drunks are flying a bunch of drunks (and a few young soccer starlets plus fat cat FA blazers on a freebie) into the crisis-torn country.

We have a clear day before that match.

I sneak off to secretly interview Lech Walesa and Archbishop Glemp. All good. World exclusive stuff. 

Next day is the game in a frozen stadium packed with a rent-a-crowd. Soldiers conscripted to freeze their asses off in this drab grey ground.

The authoritarian communist government of the Polish People’s Republic government has allowed us just one hour of outgoing phone calls and the electricity is switched on temporarily to power the floodlights.

Fucking boring game. 0-0 at 85 minutes. I’ve sketched out my piece which is going to go to everywhere the next morning. I can barely move my fingers in this fridge of a press box.

Then it goes mental. Four goals in the last few minutes changes everything and I’ve got to get the Polish scorers names right.

Stress.

Pick up the phone. Dead. The PA direct phone link is down.

My colleagues say they’ll file quickly and patch me through on their lines. I wait. And wait.

Then there’s a huge CLUNK and the fucking lights go off. Fucking Poland hasn’t got ten bob for the electricity meter. Pitch dark.

Obviously I’m the last to file. Somebody hands me a phone which has somehow been re-directed to PA. There is a fucking God.

My colleagues are literally tearing up their notebooks and setting fire to them so I can see my notes. Typically it’s the slowest, deafest fucker on the books taking my copy. “Cap E: England’s young lions roared …Yes England. England. Fucking England. Can’t even get the first word across.

Then we get to the Polish names…fuck me.

Croker F.A. Secretary

I’m near the end and the devilish figure of Ted Croker, pictured right, power-broker and head of the FA, looms over me, illuminated spectacularly by the glow from burning notepads to interrupt my filing.

“I knew you weren’t a fucking football reporter. You’re a fucking newsman. And now you’ve fucked the whole thing up.”

It's not my fault Mr Croker. The fucking PA line didn’t work and I had to wait…

Copytaker: “Is that fucking with a cap F or sucking with a cap S ?”

Oh fuck me …

The next day. It’s OK. Story made everywhere. Nobody knows the pain.

But there’s far worse to come.

I spend the rest of my zlotys buying the gang pre-flight drinks.

We get off at Stansted. One of the guys comes across and pulls me aside.

They’ve cobbled together a story about Ron Greenwood to quit as England manager, which they filed when I was with Walesa. Some “insider” quotes. And they couldn’t tell me because I was PA and didn’t want the national agency to put it out. 

We were poles apart.

It was going to be the back page lead in all the nationals. Maybe a bit on the front. 

Bunch of c**** had burned me at the stake.

A baptism of fire in so many ways.

I had a few minutes to put something together from the bare bones of my belated tip-off and file and keep my job. 

I vowed never to get stitched up like that again. I’d make sure that I’d get stuff that would always top anything the rivals could come up with.

I’d survived. And shortly afterwards got THE world exclusive interview everybody wanted with Lady Diana Spencer revealing she would marry Prince Charles, have loads of kids and age didn’t matter if one was in love et al.

That story holds the world record for the number of splashes around the globe, beating even the first moon landing and JFK’s death. 

The only paper to knock it was … the Daily Express. Near neighbour Peter Mason (he now lives a couple of thousand miles up the Australian east coast in beautiful Noosa, Queensland) authored the hatchet job and proudly Facebooks it to this day.

A week later I got a call from the Express to see if I was interested in working at the Black Lubjanka, Manchester, before moving back to Fleet Street. 

*Joe Melling died in 2004, aged 58


© 2005-2018 Alastair McIntyre