The Express Years: Newsroom life in the Black Lubyanka

terry manners

Strikes, a secret shopping arcade, visits by Maggie and general madness … TERRY MANNERS reflects on his extraordinary times on the Daily Express in London during the 1970s, 80s and 90s

                               

FREE holidays from Jeremy Gates tours; seeds and bulbs from Donald Farthing; Wimbledon tickets courtesy of John Lloyd and theatre seats from David Wigg … such were the ways of life on the Daily Express in the 70s and 80s.

But more bizarre perks came from the unofficial underground shopping mall three floors below The Stone in Fleet Street … a dark warren of  secret ‘stores’ where almost anything was available … Betamax videos; jewellery; TV sets; stereos; clothes; shoes. A thriving black market run by mysterious people disguised in printing overalls and paper hats.

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AND talking of metal type … these were the heady days when Linotype operators and guys on the Case setting headlines on Ludlow sticks, were earning a thousand quid a week. Not a single woman comp on the floor.

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express foyer

STRIKES were a way of life. A journalist only had to touch a comp’s metal page or pick up a line of type to spark a stoppage. But I shall never forget the one-armed lift operator in the hallowed Fleet Street Front Hall in his familiar grey industrial jacket.

I was a Newbie and had arrived late for my subbing shift to find several people standing outside the lift in the foyer, pictured right. The cage door was open and the attendant was making a cuppa somewhere. “What’s everyone waiting for? I’ll drive,” I said, getting in.

No one moved. As I went to pull the gate shut the Man in Grey pushed his way through the throng, put his finger almost up my nose and shouted: “You start this lift son and I’ll shut down every paper in the Street!” He meant it. He went back to making his cuppa and some of us chose the stairs. Others duly waited.

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MOUSTACHIOED Doug Mann. Gentleman sub Doug wore a trilby hat and the same old grey cardigan every day. He has a plaque on a seat somewhere in a park in Muswell Hill, North London, where he sat reflecting on life on his days off.

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“DOWN The Hole please!”"Down The Orifice please!” we would shout after writing another paragraph of deathless prose catchlined ferry 16. Or if you were really posh, like Ted Dickinson … Messengers like Old Jack in his grey waistcoat would stroll over puffing his pipe and take our work that we held up in one hand. Then he would stroll back and drop it down The Hole.

For years The Hole - an opening in the messengers’ desk where our copy floated down a metal tube to a basket on The Stone - was a way of life. When The Hole was blocked the messengers would use their best technology skills and drop an enormous piece of lead on a string down it to free the snarl up.

But one day this could not be done. A collection of union officials arrived … one for each task … and after ten minutes of debate The Whole Hole was taken away It was a 14ft black plastic tube and was slung over the shoulders of four messengers bearing it like the coffin of a loved one out of the newsroom. We were in disarray the rest of the night.

Roger Watkins tells a good tale about The Hole (or Gravity Feed Copy Distribution System as it was known on the editorial floor in the Manchester office).

"It was situated next to the slops bucket into which staff emptied their tea dregs," he says. "One night in the late sixties one harassed and unco-ordinated sub (rumoured to have been a youthful Arthur Percy Firth) dunked the splash (literally) in the bucket and threw his tea slops down The Hole!"

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KEN Weller was always proud to call himself a bearded Sussex yeoman. Ken preached the gospel standing on a box in the centre of Hove on Saturdays and liked a can or so of Swan lager in the Punch. The larger-than-life Splash sub put Editor Christopher Ward in his place along with Hampstead-loving Geordie and Olympic-Guinness drinker Terry Ryle one night in an outburst of frustration over the ailing paper. They thought they would be fired the next day. Of course they weren’t. They were too good. Terry’s proudest possession was his granda’s leather belt and buckle that he wore on the Jarrow March. Terry wore it every night.

*TERRY RYLE responds:  "Never a stranger to current trends, Terry Manners has, I fear, been tempted to join the post-truth generation re his recollection of my wearing a Jarrow March leather belt. I did have a Sam Browne with a glorious history; possibly the Jarrow tale arose when I was taking the drink-fuelled mick out of some stereotyping Southern git? On the other hand, although I'm not a transpontinist (some of my best friends came from Co. Durham) I wouldn't have then, and don't now, want it bruited among Express veterans that my people emanated from south of the river. Also, as I'm picking nits, I only drank Guinness when I couldn't get decent bitter.

"I'll raise a glass asap to Tel's continuing tales.”

From Stereotyping Southern Git TM … Never a stranger to controversy, Terry R in customary subtle style, has brushed aside references to his granda and the Jarrow march – and yet it was such an inspiring tale when he was telling it in full flow over a Guinness or two. The belt stuck in my mind all this time and always conjured up images of a proud man of the people marching against poverty. Another myth shattered. Happy to set his record straight. By the way Bings … is Jarrow north or south of the river?

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ducker

JUST after midnight I was returning from the canteen with a coffee looking forward to a couple of beers at our self-appointed Press Club – Vagabonds across the way from the Mirror building. It was here that several of us once watched velvet-voiced Night News Editor (and Wing Commander) Gordon Ducker, pictured left, perform the best version of Elvis Presley’s Blue Suede Shoes we had ever heard. 

Shortly afterwards we witnessed Sunday People reporter Frank Thorne effortlessly hold court clutching five large glasses of gin and tonic and a cigarette at the same time.

The Express Library was locked and as I passed I could hear mutterings and laughter. No one was usually there at this time of night and so I put my head around the door – to see two messengers with their feet up on the table surrounded by hundreds of cuttings.

They were opening boxes and files of clippings on everything from the sinking of the Titanic to the Yorkshire Ripper – and were deciding what to keep and what to throw away because everything was going electronic. I was gobsmacked – why didn’t they ask the journalists? Perhaps they thought we wouldn’t know.

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FOR years news sub Bill Montgomery, bless his tartan socks, did a Saturday shift for the Sunday Express but he discovered a rewarding sideline – selling scotch pies. One Saturday he threw a sickie, stomach pains, general giddiness and crippling headaches that confined him to his bed. Early that morning however business was brisk on his new stall in his local Surrey market.

He couldn’t take the dosh fast enough. Suddenly a voice in the crowd asked in a thick Scottish accent … “Any more of those pies left Billy? I’ll take one into the office!” Billy turned: “Aye, plenty more,” he said, staring into the face of Sunday Express Editor Sir John Junor. For weeks afterwards, Billy would bring a free Scotch pie into the Black Lubyanka for someone special.

The Albion cellar … what a chilling place that was. In the still of the early hours you could hear the roar of the River Fleet sewage crashing along on the other side of the wall. Never mind the rats running across your feet as you searched on your hands and knees for Mickey’s cat.

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THE Daily Star was launched to a fanfare of … Golden E-shifts. The Express was so short of subs in Manchester because of the rush of staff to join the new title that news subs in London were offered three eighths of their weekly pay to work a seven-hour shift in the North on their days off, along with ‘reasonable’ expenses, rail travel and overnight accommodation in the Britannia Hotel. 

What a slog! On one shift I went up with Paul McElroy … took in the new Superman movie, popped into the newsroom, subbed a brev par across two, went back to the bar of the Britannia where everyone else was … and got back home in the south for Friday lunch, collecting nearly half a week’s extra pay. Subs only needed to work a couple of shifts to virtually double their pay every week. Those were the days.

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PICASSO had a blue period … and so did the Express in the Eighties. For a long time Maggie Thatcher was never off Page One, no matter what story was against it. Splashes mostly began ‘Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher last night …’

And of course The Goddess visited the Express. When she did a great fuss was made of her impending arrival, perhaps rightly so … even a lift was refurbished with Tory blue Perspex walls and blue carpets were everywhere.

But in her early days of power French Perrier water was the in-drink. Those stylish and distinctive glass bottles adorned the desks on the Editorial floor. One day when on a tour of the newsroom she was affronted to see the Froggy product everywhere and said so in no uncertain terms.  

From then on Perrier was banned from the desks - and was never on sale in the canteen again.

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HARRY Dempster was a great photographer … and a rascal after a few bevvies. The British Press was chasing butcher Ron Tilley when I was in Tenerife. His wife had a baby prematurely and was stranded in a Las Americas hospital because they couldn’t pay the medical bills. I tracked him down and took him under my wing.

harry dempster (1)

Out came Dempster, pictured right, with deeply-serious reporter Mike Atchinson and a small medical team – but so too did a TV crew from Sky who tailed our every move. By chance their chief reporter, now a household name, sprained his ankle and we took him to hospital. How Dempster persuaded the Spanish doctor to plaster his leg up to his thigh when he didn’t need it, I will never know. But he did.

The Sky team spent the rest of the week pushing the reporter around in a wheelchair with his leg poking out like a tree trunk trying to keep up with us, unaware of Dempster’s wheeze. One night we took them and Tilley for a drink or two in the Mediterranean Palace, a hotel with glass see-through lifts in full view of everyone at the bar.  

When the presenter fell asleep after refreshing himself from a busy day in the chair, Dempster pushed him into the lift and the slumbering Sky star spent the next two hours riding up and down with hotel guests squashed in around him in full view of everyone. When we returned to London a complaint was launched by Sky to Victor Matthews and the shit hit the fan.  

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IN the roll of Fleet Street Pub Landlord honour we can include Mickey Barnett in the Albion; George in the Punch and Josie in the Poppinjay, among many others.

Out-of-hours drinking in all of them was a nightly occurrence for the Express hacks. But the Albion was a classic. It would be well gone midnight when the window tapping started … subs, reporters, top City cops, actors like George Sewell and even boxer Billy Walker rapped on the panes to come in.

albion

On one occasion a well-known and much loved news sub who finally left us to go to the Mirror was sitting on the stool at the bar for so long drinking Skol ‘white tops” that at 2am, when Mickey Barnet asked him to help find his cat in the cellar, he walked to the stairs with the stool still stuck to his bottom with the sweat. And didn’t notice.

The Albion cellar … what a chilling place that was, and probably still is. In the still of the early hours you could hear the roar of the River Fleet sewerage crashing along on the other side of the wall. Never mind the rats running across your feet as you searched on your hands and knees for Mickey’s cat.

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THE biggest rift between reporters and subs in those heady days of black-and-white newspapers, spikes and typewriters was all about money – especially when it came to the Late Meal Allowance buy-out.

The Allowance was a perk for working evenings – beyond 10pm. It was just under three quid a night. At first some subs, nervous about claiming expenses, just put in one or two a week. But within a year or so most were claiming it four nights a week – and the rate went up with each House Agreement (the annual pay round).

Then along came The Golden Goose – the management wanted to buy it out and a format was worked out for each person depending on how much they had claimed over the previous 12 months. What followed was near mayhem. The pay-off amounts were between two and three thousand pounds per sub!  A lot of dosh then. Reporters rowed with subs in corridors; subs rowed with subs; one Chapel meeting followed another and there was a never-ending queue outside Struan Coupar’s office of people arguing that their cheques should be higher.

In the end the subs got their money – and a few months later along came the Tax Man  - More mayhem. Ahem, that’s another story.

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IN the early days of 70s/80s life on the Express subs desk there were two revered subs … Peter Hedley and Jack Atkinson. Peter was of course Splash sub and Jack Foreign Splash sub. They were responsible for just one story each every evening (eh? What a life!) and they sat directly opposite across the desk – but they never spoke a word to each other, never even to say hello.

No one knew what their row had been about as the years of silence ensued. They would speak to each other through others around them only if they had to  … “kindly pass that copy to Mr Atkinson please.” Or “Can you give Mr Hedley this.” Whatever the row had been about was a mystery.

Then one day, 15 years or so later, they both began to say “good evening” to each other again and conversations began to follow. “Would you like a cup of tea Peter?” They both went to the great newspaper in the sky without anyone ever knowing what the years of silence had been about.

Footnote: Peter of course was given a Grace and Favour home at Windsor by the Queen Mother … and Jack was a well-off collector of antique duelling pistols whose house was fitted with automatic alarm gates that crashed down in every room if a hapless burglar stepped in.

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THE arrival of a new editor always sent a chill through the Back and Middle Benches. None more so than the austere Roy Wright who arrived ashen faced from the Evening Standard. He immediately acquired a reputation for his apparent lack of humour and after a couple of weeks it was clear that he was not winning many meaningful friends except the excitable Andy Carson, then an Assistant Night Editor.

Wright had a seemingly incurable nervous twitch across his left eye, so pronounced that it could be noticed from a considerable distance. One night Carson, dutifully standing guard over his half and half in the Albion, was defending the Editor’s honour saying what a friendly guy he was. When asked by fellow Scot Dan Macdonald how he had come to this conclusion he responded: “I always give him a big wink back. We always wink at each other. Nice guy.”

Some nights later Wright’s irritation and annoyance with Carson was on full display when Andy, jabbering excitedly in his usual high-pitched voice was trying to explain a story to him. Exasperated, Wright turned to Lloyd Turner and said: “What the hell is he saying? I can never understand this man!” Wright ignored him from then on. And Carson couldn’t stand him from then on.

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THERE was nothing worse on the Express in the days being a Newbie than getting ‘the freeze’ – sitting at the desk with nothing to sub while the colleagues around you were reading piles of hard copy from staff, stringers and PA for their page leads and spreads, given out by the Chief Sub. Paranoia set in.

It was an awful thing – you felt off the team and everybody knew it. Finally you might have got a brev across 2 or a short … which didn’t make you feel much better. But it happened to people who had been there years too.

Billy Montgomery had his perfect answer. He kept check on the Chief Subs and the stories he received. He would scribble the time he was given the story; its size and page number and the name of the person who gave it to him. Over the years he built up a picture from the piles of paper in his desk of who liked him and who did not.

When the desk was full he put the papers in his locker, when the locker was full he took the papers home for evidence, bless him.

Billy also had the perfect answer for perfect copy tasting too. Instead of spiking the story through the middle of hard copy he clipped it together with a paperclip and hung it over the spike on the end of the clip so that he could slip the story out if his judgement had been wrong and the Night Editor was wondering why other papers had a page lead he had never seen. Billy would then produce it from his pending pile with no hole in it.

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At around 4am Newbies would wonder why Bunny Laws was changing his overnight pages again and again. The penny finally dropped – he was waiting to pick up his bread delivery van

BEING a Newbie most of us went through an initiation process on the subs desk. Two of these tasks were The Weather and Weather Girl Iris and the Flong shift.

The weather was an onerous task everyone had to do in those early years. The Chief Copytaster, usually the late great Les Diver, would come over with The Book … a blue or red, hardcover foolscap, lined product with over 100 cartoon drawings of Weather Girl Iris, a sexy blonde bombshell with an umbrella; or in a deckchair etc and a caption underneath. “Looks like rain today.” Or “Time to get the deckchair out.”

The sub would read all the PA weather reports and decide which cartoon to pick. Not only that but he or she would then write up the complete weather report for the panel on Page Two along with high tides, low tides and lighting up times. Later in the year the snow reports were added for the ski resorts, thanks to lobbying from wandering art guru John Hill, who loved skiing. Ugh. No wonder the groans went up when you were handed the Weather Book.

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THE Flong shift was the other Newbie task. For a long time David (Bunny) Laws was in charge of producing the overnight pages to give the next day’s edition process a head start. Most of them never saw the light of day – stories about missing trawlers; village heroes and police gallantry were commonplace and so too was Photonews.

It was a long, sometimes tedious shift peppered with gallons of beer and tea and long chats into the wee small hours. But with nothing to do at around 4am Newbies would wonder why David was re-reading and changing the pages again and again until gone 5am.

Finally someone would tell them about his bread delivery round to Heathrow Airport – and the penny dropped. He needed to pick up the van by around 6am or so, bless him. No point in going early. What a grafter he was, and still is.

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WHEN the scholarly and spiritual Richard Addis was Editor he had the very sweet idea of producing a Beachcomber play at the Edinburgh Festival. Good on him – especially when he got Peter Tory to script it and me to produce it. What a time Peter and I had away from the daily toil. Actors were hired and a private school hall connected to Richard’s mother was used for rehearsals somewhere posh in England.

Then on to Edinburgh for the real thing … a church hall to stage it, the daughter of EastEnders’ Dot Cotton to do the lighting, and a top hotel to stay in. However, I spent most of my time as producer, sorting out the tears, tantrums and financial problems of the actors. (I guess it was a bit like Fleet Street).

beachcomber

But my most lasting memory of the whole affair, was the wonderful entrance of Mark (Biscuits) Palmer, (my favourite Richard Addis sidekick), into the Opening Night Reception Party at the Sheraton Hotel. The place was packed.

Sean Connery, who was opening the festival, had just arrived looking a million dollars. He was wearing a jet black suit, black roll neck, black patent shoes with gold buckles and a black belt with gold studs. He was suntanned and handsome and put us insipid hacks to shame.  The women flocked around him.

Suddenly through the throng came Mark in his expensive black dinner suit and black bow tie polished off - with two bare feet!

“Terry, Terry,” he shouted to our little party at the bar, “have you got any socks, I can’t find any!”

As Producer I went to my room and duly obliged. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had been wearing them for two days. Bless my cotton socks!

More, much more, follows later …

BILL WHEELER, who describes himself as Chief Executive (emeritus), Wonky's Wonder Tours (sadly expired. WWT not me!), comments:

A terrific piece Terry. Keep them coming. I couldn't stop laughing. It really was as you describe it. Essential reading for today's Wannabes. They will not believe a word.

And then there was the News of the World Saturday money mine... and the chance to meet the world's finest collection of complete Fruit Cakes and do one short for a vast amount of money.
I won't name them yet (all plastic accepted for bribes) but I well remember the fabulous body of Horizontal Hattie (not her real name) who specialised in turning over dirty old men who used contact magazines... you really couldn't make it up.

And then there was the late Bernard Shrimsley, a kind, generous intelligent man with a short-term temper like an atomic bomb. He broke new ground one week by allowing the phrase "hand relief" in the paper – he read every line of copy, even the crossword clues, dress patterns. I kid you not, there was one. (Don't you mean "Undress?". Ed). And Feed a Family For F**k All.

Anyway, I digress. Back to hand relief. Angry protests poured in, One probably from Big Roop. Bernard stalked up to the subs' desk grinning – that takes guts after a bollocking from  Big Roop – and said to the assembled company: "Easy on the hand relief chaps. Especially in the hot weather." And off he stalked with an even sillier grin on  his face.

 And then there was the future senior Daily Express executive who edited the Evening News while doing a shift on the Screws. Yes Alan, I have a very long memory. And then there was

More follows … in Part 2


 

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