The Drones

    How it all started on a slippery slope

                               Partners in crime: Bingo, Algy and Bertie in their sloping heyday

By ALASTAIR 'BINGO' McINTYRE

OH I say, what-ho! The Daily Express Drones Club began life in around 1974 when a group of young sub-editors all joined the paper within a few weeks of each other. I was one of them.

We had been hired as a result of a fine Fleet Street tradition – The Redundo Operation. The management had offered generous terms to existing staff, a group of  bored middle-aged and elderly men in the news subs' room. The money was too good to resist so they trousered the cash and legged it up the road to well-paid jobs with the competition, leaving plenty of room for us.

To say we were overstaffed would be an understatement. There were 18 desks down table and these were nearly always filled. Sometimes when the late men came in at 5.30pm (there were strictly no women in the department at that time) they would have to find a seat with the reporters, who were also not exactly deprived of manpower. 

So you could imagine that with all those sub-editors and only six broadsheet pages to fill things could get a little boring. Some fun needed to be had. It soon became clear that we all enjoyed the works of P G Wodehouse and his tales of the exploits of Bertie Wooster and his upper-class silly-ass chums between the wars. The new Drones Club o' London was formed.

It was a natural progression to give ourselves silly names. Yours truly became Bingo and my two main partners in crime, John Brooks and Bob Smith, became Bertie and Algy. Dick Dismore was easy to name – he was Dizzy, although he was occasionally known as Sodmire or Dimrose (anag). There were others – Barty, Kipper, Biffo, Cocky, Bunter, Pongo, Buffy, Snooks and Stiffy (the only woman in our midst) – to name but a few.

As I have already mentioned, we didn't have a lot to do in those early days, although this changed a lot later. We would start work at 3.30pm and seldom be given anything much to sub before 6pm.

That was how the tradition of the Five O'Clock Slope started. It was so timed because the evening conference began at that time and all the bigwigs on the backbench filed into the editor's office to discuss the shape of that night's edition, leaving us to our own devices, or rather, vices. 

The sloping began very furtively. My first was with Terry Manners who, seeing a kindred spirit, invited me to sneak over to the Crown and Anchor, tucked behind the Telegraph building, for a very swift half. We were out for no longer than five minutes and were nervous of repercussions, but the tradition had begun.

Things became more and more anarchic over the coming months until the Five o'Clock Slope became to be seen almost as a right. As the backbench exited right, the Drones slinked out left … to the pub next door, The Popinjay. Soon a five-minute break became 10 minutes. Then 20, 30 –  anything up to an hour. Sometimes we would return more or less drunk, having sunk five or six bottles of strong lager. But the backbench, big drinking men themselves, turned a blind eye.

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Soon sloping was part of the Express tradition to the extent that a trophy, The Lopés [anag] Cup, was awarded to the sub who sloped the most. There was strong competition, particularly from Bunter Benfield, Bertie Brooks (who famously sloped from St Thomas' Hospital in his dressing gown) and Kipper Keeling. Both Bertie and Kipper are now dead, but the author of this piece can proudly boast that he won it every year for nigh on 15 years. 

I still have the trophy, a pewter beer tankard, pictured left, inscribed with the words: 

THE LOPES CUP, Pils ad nauseam. Winners: 1977 Bingo.

The plan was, of course, to inscribe the cup with each year's winner. But this never happened. Nobody ever got round to it. We were Drones after all.

Melanie Whitehouse sends a runner bearing urgent news in a cleft stick. She writes to remind us all of the Sloper's Revenge. Rain could be a terrible giveaway when a chap nipped out for a snifter. The Popinjay was only a couple of paces from the Express foyer (described to me once by Daily Express editor Alastair Burnet as 'Essoldo-style') in Fleet Street but a sharp shower could leave its imprints on one's shirt. So it was agreed that it would be best to wear light-coloured clothing because this would not show the rain spatters quite so clearly. Slopers could obviously not wear their jackets as these had to be left hanging on the office chair to indicate that one had not left the building and was merely getting the teas in.

Sloper extraordinaire Brian Thistlethwaite, who is now sadly no longer with us, was the foremost exponent of this little ruse. I can well recall Thistle staggering back to the office after an extended absence, ruddy-faced and carrying a steaming tray of tea. Of course, we all knew where he had really been but the tea was welcome.

NEXT: The Duck Call

Frame takes the blame

What do you remember of the old days in Fleet Street? Contact dailydroneuk@gmail.com


© 2005-2017 Alastair McIntyre