The Express Years: Part 2

By TERRY MANNERS

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THE Daily Drone picture, right, of Editor Sir Nicholas Lloyd in a red base ball cap having fun (or not) at the Variety Club/Daily Express Sky Telethon takes me back to those bizarre days.

Money was tight as always but Nick wanted to do something for sick and underprivileged children. Bravo Nick.

“What can we do Tel, any ideas?”

With the Variety Club I arranged a huge kids’ party at the Bonnington Hotel in Bloomsbury and went in search of a star guest, finally hiring Rod Hull and Emu. It was not as expensive as I expected. Rod was down on his luck and had just moved to a small cottage in Sussex. Nick agreed the fee but baulked at the Rolls-Royce Rod wanted to be picked up in.

The great day came and around 50 kids were waiting – but no sign of Rod. I contacted the driver. Rod had insisted on doing a pub crawl on the way. Finally they arrived at the Bonnington with Rod much the worse for wear.

An hour later Nick called me in. He’d had a call from the hotel manager. Rod was locked in his office. He and Emu had run amok in the kitchens and Emu had been seriously goosing screaming waitresses!  “Sort it out Tel!  Do what you have to.”

I got down to the Bonnington pronto and shoved red-faced Rod and Emu back into the Roller with strict instructions to the driver not to stop on the way home. Then I pacified the management by making a donation to the Bonnington’s favourite charity on behalf of The Express.

Sadly Rod died shortly afterwards – after falling off the roof of his cottage mucking about with his TV aerial.

***

But back to those early days when the Dark Forces of life on the editorial floor were the accountants. As the management struggled with the finances of the paper, a closure or a merger with the Daily Mail were the main topics of bar talk at The Punch, along with nightly debates about when our pay-offs would come. 

But our real outrage was the pending closure of the tea bar – a short trolley push away from the Library. We saw the writing on the wall when tea lady Doris got her marching orders, closely followed by Maureen and the shutters came down. 

These were matters of great concern and messengers Harry and Jack took a petition to the Imperial Father but alas to no avail. The management dismissed everyone’s heartfelt plea that liquid refreshment was vital to the health and well being of night workers.

***

The closure of the tea bar did work in some subs’ favour. If they wanted to buy a round of tea, they would have to make a long journey along the corridor, through double doors, up a stone staircase and down another corridor to the canteen, a journey that could take considerable time, especially when queuing for eight teas at the end of it. 

Much-loved and brainy Oxbridge news sub Brian Thistlethwaite, now sadly departed, was a keen buyer of the tea round. He would disappear from his desk and a good half an hour or so later materialise in the doorway to the newsroom with a satisfied Poppinjay smile and a tray of steaming teas for his table. He blazed a trail for others.

***

Headlines were a real art form in those days and were often stressful. When the extremely affable Tony Armstrong (who always nestled his half of lager close to his chest in his left hand and his pipe in his right) was in the Chief Sub’s chair or in charge of the Foreign Page, he would reject nearly every headline many of the subs put forward from shorts to page leads. On the nights he was on duty a competition would take place on the desk to see who would get the most rejections. The figures were staggering … anything from seven or eight to 20!  I achieved around 15 one evening before I lost the will to live. The headline that went through was the first one I had submitted. To be fair he was being professional, a perfectionist in pursuit of his art. A decent bloke.

***

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The yearly pay round was always accompanied by a bun fight with the management and between the hacks themselves. For it was at the chapel meetings that the old tensions between subs and reporters flared up. The reporters were bitter about the subs’ four-day week and the subs were resentful about the reporters’ generous expenses. But somehow a claim was formulated that suited both and put to the management. On one occasion when Lloyd Turner was FOC and legendary news sub Ralph (Grey Fox) Mineards was in his team, they were due to negotiate with the unpredictable Jocelyn Stevens, pictured left, upstairs. But first there were preparations to make.

Lloyd and Ralph went to a little office down the corridor and wrote a script for the main part of the claim, which they rehearsed like a double act in a film scene at Elstree Studios. Lloyd bought up the subject of inflation and the cost of modern day living. Ralph practised measured, reasoned comments, acting as if he was trying to understand the management’s point of view. This went on for a while until Lloyd got angry. Ralph gripped his arm and tried to calm him. But Lloyd banged his fist on the desk, stood up, grabbed his papers and slammed out. Ralph immediately became the voice of reason to the empty seat where the imaginary Stevens was sitting and promised to calm the tensions because he had an idea how they could settle matters as gentlemen in such difficult times and help the management reach a deal.

He then went outside too. After a decent absence they both stepped into the empty room again and came up with a formula which Lloyd had ‘reluctantly’ agreed in order to keep the peace and avoid a strike. All they needed on the day was the right moment to launch their plan when negotiations moved to a climax. And that’s exactly what happened. Jocelyn thought he had won the day – but Lloyd and Ralph got what they set out to get. Ralph beamed with pride every time he revealed how Jocelyn later privately thanked him for his intervention. 

***

These years saw the dawning of the tabloid Express; the first colour pages in the paper (colour will never catch on moaned many) and new technology. But one thing that would never change was the ‘Friendly Fire’ that always came with the subs and reporters at war. Claims of missing bylines, wrong bylines, creative lines cut from copy, intros rewritten and spoiled, the list of grumbles from the reporters was long. 

Guns blazed from the other side too … subs claimed reporters got their facts wrong; missed the best intro, overwrote with boring copy and couldn’t spell. But like MPs of all parties they were always friends in the bar … until Christmas when frustrations on both sides boiled over into drunken bread roll raids at Christmas parties in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.

The subs would storm the reporters’ room in the middle of their turkey and port and hurl a salvo of crusty rolls that would cascade off the heads of Luck, Bomber Burns, O’Flaherty, Willshire, Walton, McGowan, Symons, Gill and others. Twenty minutes later the reporters would raid the subs. One Christmas I was attacked with a gooey Christmas spray that stuck in my hair for the rest of the week as the Christmas battle spilled over on to the staircase. Amazingly, most of the diners would return to the newsroom and produce some of their finest work.

Hollynote: The Gents on the editorial floor, virtually a cupboard with two cubicles and two urinals, was nearly always the resting place of those who couldn’t quite take the pace of Christmas parties. Only their legs were seen sticking out from under the cubicle doors for the rest of the night.

***

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When you came out of The Gents you walked across the corridor of lockers into the Newsroom - a huge musty and messy engine room with walls yellow from cigarette smoke … subs, reporters, The Backbench, Art Desk and Newsdesk and Picture Desk lived here. Turn right and keep going and you came to the Sports Desk where such greats as Desmond Hackett, Don Woodward, Dave Emery pictured right, Harry Pashley, John Morgan, Norman Dixon, John Lloyd and others were in residence during some of these years. 

Turn left in the newsroom and you came to The Editor’s prestigious office that overshadowed the corner of the building and looked down on Fleet Street where Jocelyn Stevens once stood and raised a glass of champagne to mock a protest march by striking miners who jeered up at him on their way to Downing Street. Outside this office in the hallway was the famed, grubby magnolia Arthur Christiansen bulletin box. Amazingly it was to stay in that spot right up until the end of the Eighties.

Come out of The Gents and turn sharp left and you walked down a short corridor to the Features Department with all its nooks and crannies … home to Ross Benson, Geoffrey Levy, Peter Hitchens, David Benson and so many more greats during this time. This was soon to be presided over by the triumvirate of Alan Frame, Geoff Compton and Chris Williams. What fun they were. This was the time when loyal and much-loved secretaries such as Jeanette Bishop and Esther Harrod spent hours listening to stressed journalists bleating about their promotion setbacks.

This Features Room was always where the chapel meetings were held on serious issues like money. Everyone would be told to gather here and stop work during House Agreement talks to send a warning shot across the bows of the management. But some writers and subs couldn’t help themselves and would often bring in page proofs to edit. No wonder the gentlemen journalists were never taken as seriously as the NGA and SOGAT. They would just go home and that was the end of it. The management always caved in to them.

More follows … in Part 3

 

© 2005-2017 Alastair McIntyre