Friday, October 26, 2007

I LOVED MYNE ENEMY


October 26, 2007

FRED WEHNER finds goodness in the bastards he’s been trained to hate even though those bastards keep him awake at night

I LOVED MYNE ENEMY

That Bloody Awful Newspaper never would allow me any sleep.
The closest I get to a nice lie-down is writhing on the floor of the Law Courts, clutching my solar plexus and cursing the Daily Express the way Prince Philip likely did under his breath. Only mine’s out loud.
If David English could hear me now he’d be proud. If he could see me he certainly would not: his Daily Mail representative felled by the paper HRH labelled “bloody awful”. The shame of it!
Through watery eyes I’m watching big John McCormick strutting along in the precise same spot I’d been in just moments earlier, on the arm of the Countess of Cleavage, enjoying exclusive chats. And, naturally, also spending some close-up admiration time with her celebrated bosom (A couple of perks of the job right there).
McCormick, you rotter!
It isn’t even much of a story. The Countess, promiscuous - and therefore eminently newsworthy - starlet Imogen Hassall, has two minor court appearances in one day. Short description. Couple quotes. Single column. Head-and-shoulders and, er, a good bit below... But now any additional juicy bits will be Big John’s, not mine.
As we’d ambled along, her ‘shoulders’ and I, he’d simply backed into us and placed an elbow in my midriff. A well-placed Scottish elbow.
That’s the way they did it, the Haggis Pack that made up the praetorian guard of the Express in London, a formidable reporting machine you could always trust yourself not to trust.
Bastards they were, but I loved the Express guys because to me they represented the last of the old-style journos, the no-nonsense just-the-facts all business door-kicker-inners. The real reporters.
Alan Cochran, Brian Steele, ‘Elbows’ McCormick and that ebullient Irish honorary-Scotsman Paddy Clancy to name but some. All bold and brilliant laddies from the Black Lublianka, hard as the rolls from Mick’s Cafe next door, yet with a Crowdie Cream centre.
If they got the story and you didn’t... better not to think about that. Especially on a foreign.
‘Have you read the Express?’ Without using bold italic underlined capitals flashing fire-engine red it’s impossible to convey the power and rage behind this inquiry from Foreign Editor Brian Freemantle.
‘No. I’m in Tunis’.
‘I know that!’ A most venomous vapour fizzes out of the handset. ‘Let me read it to you.’ The thunder in his voice causes me to sense that the rest of my day might just be beginning to show signs of shaping up to be less than wonderful.
But why? I got everything there was to get on this story, the hijacking of a BOAC VC-10. I didn’t sleep for three days. I got......
His tone then resonating like a Rolls-Royce Conway aero-engine just before ‘chocks away’, Freemantle reads off an exclusive interview with the captain, James Fulcher, who’s saying he may now be too frightened to fly again.
It’s by Mike Brown, the enemy’s Paris staffer who was here in Tunis. Wha..? Mike Brown? But I'd been the only reporter admitted to the celebration for freed passengers and crew, and the captain had been whisked off to Blighty after one quick drink as I shook his hand.
I have to hand it to the resourceful Expressman; how’d he get that talk, the canny blighter? None of that matters, of course. Only what’s in the paper.
‘Now,’ hisses Freemantle, ‘We have this to ourselves. Take the next flight to Rome and you have GOT to get an interview with Richard Burton. GOT to get that talk, you understand?’
From this I gather I’m to go to Rome and talk to Richard Burton
So here I am at the St Regis Grand in a fluffy room secured by some bribery lira just four doors along from Signor Burtoni. If he farts I’ll hear it.
Doorknocking never elicits a response. Room service? Pah! These occasions are so rare they could easily pass for tartare. The camerieri knocks, is sucked into Burton’s room and regurgitated within seconds. And then the little sod refuses to talk to me.
Our Man is definitely inside, so it’s the house phone, note after syrupy note under his door. Still nothing. Burton is dumped and crushed; he’s just been jilted by the beautiful Liz, not Taylor, the other one - ‘Of Yugoslavia’
Flowers fail, as does the bottle of champagne – both returned. And then into the hotel bar wheels Les Childe, the Sun’s Rome man, who says the Express are onto it too. That’s the quality of our ‘exclusive’.
So the gladiators meet. The Mail and the Express square up in the shadow of the Colosseum – okay okay, Romans, we’ll amend that to not a million leagues from the Colosseum. And no oiling involved.
This time my opponent is Robin Stafford, a man who mixes distinguished with roguish. This guy’s got to be watched. There follows a day and a night of Spy vs. Spy charade, sneaking, discovering, feinting, furtive, catching-out. Unrefreshed, the mind plays tricks, At times I envisage my opponent exiting the lift, fast-tiptoeing to piano arpeggios like a Warner Bros. cartoon character. Daffy Stafford.
Four days of it. I cannot live like this. Hell, I’ve already had three sleepless Arabian Nights. Why don’t we just agree to stake the recluse out until, say, 1am and then try again at 6am. Deal?
‘Deal.’
Lying on the bed fully clothed, wide awake, ready to move, I’m pondering Burton. But also Roman Robin, who’s now morphed into a far more sinister character: the masochist Daffyavelli, who’s just tortured the Sandman to death with sleep deprivation and is now working on me.
Should I trust him? Well, can he trust me? What is he, crazy? Of course he can’t trust me. If I could, I’d duff Daffy over in a Tweety Pie heartbeat, Les Childe into the bargain, and run off with an exclusive.
And that’s exactly what those two bastards are doing to me right now, aren’t they!
1:30am? Leap off the bed. Nip out into the hallway, and....
And there he is, Robin effing Stafford, knuckles bunched, a split second away from rapping on Burton’s door. He does a cartoon double-take.
I say: ‘I thought we had a deal.’ He says: ‘So did I.’
My adversary goes home for some shuteye. On a chair set right in front of the Welsh hermit’s door all night I get no kip again, just that awful dozy twilight. If Richard Burton decides to quack it’ll be to me, not Daffy.
But it’s soon clear he’ll never emerge. Is it time for one of those, shall we say, transcendental interviews? The kind I should have conducted with Captain Fulcher?
Not so sure. Wretched Richard is still reeling from being given the old Elizabethan elbow – arguably less painful than the McCormick variety – and might be sloshed, squint-eyed, looking for trouble. Meaning he could fight legally to deny the very quotes I’m hearing from him right now via telepathy..
So this Express match ends in a goalless draw.
As does the next, aboard the QE2, which is almost a nautical replay of the foregoing.
The first few words news editor Jonathan Holborow uttered had made it sound like a dream assignment. I’m to board the QE2 on its round-the-world cruise. Wa-hay!
‘Yes, so get a flight to Cherbourg and make the overnight passage back to Southampton.’
That’s it? That’s my world trip? Cherbourg to Southampton? Eighty-four nocturnal miles? And my brief is to interview these Hooray Henrys who’d paid enormous sums for the entire Big Ride, not just the final leg in the dark.
By pure chance I learn that also on board is a gentleman in whom Scotland Yard are interested enough to be waiting jut-jawed at the dockside, clenching and unclenching their nabbing tackle. A big-time City embezzler who’s decided on one last luxury round-the-world knees-up before coming quietly.
That’s the story, not the jolly-jolly featurette for which I was briefed.
Find his cabin. Rat-tat-tat. Nothing. Go away. Come back... and once more I find a distinguished, reserved-looking gentleman leaning nonchalantly in the gangway nearby pretending to be waiting outside another cabin, certainly not this one...
And wearing what I could have sworn was an enormous sandwich board proclaiming in big bold fluorescent type: ‘I AM A DAILY EXPRESS REPORTER’.
It’s Paul Dacre from their New York office, now editor of my old paper.
Oh no. Not again. Not another night-long battle of wits.
Once more the handshake pact to get a few hours’ slumber and meet up early, And once more this so-gentlemanly agreement broken in such oh-so-ungentlemanly fashion by both of us, each suspecting the other of skullduggery.
In the embryonic hours outside the cabin again...
‘I knew it,’ I tell him. ‘I thought we could trust each other.’
He says: ‘So did I.’

ENDIT

© 2007 Fred Wehner is a journalist formerly with the Daily Mail in London, who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Monroe 21 years ago.

Friday, October 19, 2007

GIANT CHEESE KILLS TWO


October 19, 2007

FRED WEHNER retrieves the back bench bibles from his bookshelf for a refresher about how subs were supposed to do it, when they did it.

GIANT CHEESE KILLS TWO: THE LESSONS OF LESLIE SELLERS

Leslie Sellers isn’t God. Yet to anyone of the journalistic persuasion then at the very very least he’s Heaven plc’s Mass Media Supremo (Print Branch).
He was Production Editor of the Daily Mail, whose style lived on not just through him at that one newspaper but all over the Street. Still does today among those who care.
Here’s one line of his: ‘The full stop is the greatest aid to simple English ever invented’. You can’t put a finer point on it than that!.
Here’s another: ‘Always try to make the first word do some work. Make sure it’s a strong one’. All of this man’s pronunciations were equally definite. Like a headline he proffers in a chapter on style: ‘Giant cheese kills two’.
Back in 1968 I wrote for Campaign magazine. But the page to which I always turned first was the one with the picture of this pipe-smoking gentleman wearing black horn-rimmed glasses and a determined look.
Here was the ‘Sellers On Style’ column, an enormously gratifying and fun read every week, guaranteed. The wizard of words also did three books on subbing and writing, details on which later.
Right now, however, bores and haughties beware! With his wand raised and sharpened, Sorcerer Sellers is out to pop you.
He rails against long-windedness, especially the tortured sub-clauses that put the reader through a mental mangle. ‘Say as much as is needed to make the meaning absolutely clear – and no more’. Therefore: ‘Nothing that can’t be absorbed at first reading ought to appear in a newspaper,’ he growls. ‘Yet day after day, week after week these jigsaw puzzles get into print’.
I will spare the reader his examples at this point.
And he hates pomp and posh. The bride wasn’t ‘attired in’ – she wore. It wasn’t ‘prior to the luncheon’ - it was before lunch. And he didn’t ‘endeavour to suborn the chief sub’ – he ‘tried to bribe the swine’.
In places Sellers is obviously dated, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. He mentions the ‘chairman’ of the British Women’s Total Abstinence Union, not, as the politically correct Nazis would force us to write today, the ‘chairperson’ or ‘chair’.
For reporters and writers, he outlines what is and isn’t news, though. For instance if the aforementioned Abstinence bigwigette (clearly a female who’d be no fun at all in bed) gets pinched for drunken driving – of course it’s news.
A lot of this is just common sense, just enjoyable to read in the Sellers style.
There’s a warning about the over-use of adjectives and a long list of misused words. His own much favoured word is ‘nadgers’; he christens a pop group The Nadgers and a blind fit thrown by the printer as ‘the screaming nadgers’
His favourite place is Oswaldtwistle and in general the names he uses in his various examples are often smile-inducing. There’s the mechanic Fred Slopstone, the clerk Charlie Slot, Brigadier Archibald Node, the Bugsworth Guardian...
Foreigners? In addressing Arabs, for example, have no consistent order of names, he says. But ‘large numbers of them are colonels or generals,’ easing the problem of how to include them. If still confused, best to wait for an established style to emerge from the country in question, which ‘should be within hours of the coup d’etat anyway’.
Also: ‘Far Eastern names have the surname first. That splendid Korean gentleman Lee Bum Suk, was Mr. Lee’.
Which brings us to double meanings. Here, he says, journalists need a dirty mind – in order to avoid the sniggers. He quotes two splashes in major newspapers: the Evening Standard smirker ‘Out Comes The Wilson Chopper’ and The Sun’s ‘Chichester Conquers The Horn’ about round-the-world sailor Francis. Plus a Sunday newspaper he doesn’t name censuring a naughty priest with: ‘Go Unfrock Yourself’.
All this notwithstanding, the pleasant-looking man with the Sir Geoffrey Howe look, the briar and the oh-so-Fifties parting on the left, abhors vulgarity and attacks it on several fronts. Wallowing in sex cases is a major no-no, with the exception of the News Of The World, but otherwise... can’t even use ‘crumpet’.
And yet; ‘French Push Bottles Up German Rear’. This heading from Sellers might send those politically correct Shtummtroopers reaching for the duct tape to shut him up. Can Frogs and Krauts still be insulted in this fashion?
Some of his pet hates: Three-deck splash headings, straplines, abbreviations in headlines that slow the reader down. Also ‘if’ intros, misquotations, circumlocutions, officialese... But he likes appropriate use of cliches and Americanisms.
Leslie’s lectures are illustrated with highly entertaining examples, sometimes pictorially. In his sermon about captioning he cites a story about a guy’s ‘hair-raising trip’ and then shows the accompanying picture. Sure enough, the fellow’s a baldie.
And a warning to reporters who like to juice up their prose. ‘Beautiful blonde Gloria Stretch’ then the picture: ‘an old scrubber with a navy-blue parting and one of her false eyelashes falling off.’
Great stuff on how to crop – even turn - a photograph to create a particular effect. Nine different ways, for instance, of treating a head-and-shoulders for ‘bringing out the features’ or the ‘gay tilt’ or ‘a bright come-on look’ – these latter not solely for radio’s Julian and Sandy.
Sections cover every possible aspect of subbing. How to keep marks neat for the printer, write headlines, choose the best font - ’Oh Mr. Univers are you the type for me?’
The drop intro? He doesn’t like them (gulp! because I like using them). Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s wrong, he says, because the average punter is reading it standing in a bus or in the 4 ½ minutes he’s waiting for a train and wants it quick. But then he’s really talking about news here, not features.
Sellers’ books weren’t cheap thirty-odd years ago at 45 bob up to L5.50 (Pounds 5.50). Today anyone fixing to buy one should be prepared to spend between 50 and 150 quid, although occasionally you might find a dog-eared copy of one for at a bit less.
That one’s The Simple Subs Book (1968 Pergamon) which I’ve seen for thirty nicker and here one should note the missing apostrophe in the title that, grammatically speaking, ought to come after Subs. It’s a beautiful omission that creates a sly little double entendre. A grammatical felony he would allow in, in certain extreme circumstances, to make a point.
His initial opus was Doing It In Style (1968 Pergamon again) which was probably God-the-Father to the other two, and the final tome is the 258-page Keeping Up The Style (1975 Pitman).
They were, all three of them, Back Bench bibles. Still are. A bit preachy, yes, but full of what one reviewer called ‘the roisterousness of behind-the-scenes in editorial offices’.
There was only one printing on all three, which is a sad thing because whatever Fleet Street has become today Leslie Sellers’ straightforward approach to subbing and writing will always be the guide. At the Daily Mail Chris Clark was keeper of the faith.
I am fully aware that we’re waiting for the full story on ‘Giant Cheese Kills Two’ - the murdering curd.
Yes, well he doesn’t explain whether it toppled and flattened the duo or whether the greedy bastards ate themselves to death on it, but none of that matters. The point he makes, by contrasting this with another in which ‘Giant ape kills two’ is about correct spacing and balance in headlines, ‘one of the most important aspects of newspaper design’.
Not even whether the French pushed it up the German rear. Sorry.

ENDIT

Copyright © 2007 Fred Wehner is a former Fleet Street journalist from the London Daily Mail who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Georgia 21 years ago. This piece was published on a website based in Malta.

Friday, October 12, 2007

BUNNY TALES: A BEACH BUMMER


October 12, 2007

Alone in an enclosed space with a not-yet notorious nine-bobber MP, FRED WEHNER insists propriety ruled.

BUNNY TALES

This is a sorry saga about an Indian Summer with ruined seaside fun and marooned media and lots and lots of beer. Oh, and about a very prominent politician I think I’ll code name Fourpy, 4P for short, in order to protect Jeremy Thorpe’s identity.
First I insist on making it kick-arse clear that there is no what you might call fervent male bonding in this story. For in 1974 at the start of September, 4P’s naughty homosexual he-nanigans might have been known to some, but not to the whole world. And certainly not to me. Got that?
Britons are enjoying a bit of a late warm-up this particular summer and have swarmed to the shores, most abundantly along the south coast. There is also a general election looming, causing somewhat of a blasted botheration, don’ch’know, to the hoity 4P, queer as a fourpenny bit, who... hell, let’s just call him by his right name.
The Right Honourable John Jeremy Thorpe, Member of Parliament for Devon North, leader of the Liberal Party, has a remedy: he switches his campaigning from routine inland venues to unscheduled stumping at the seaside. The speeches on the beaches. With a frightfully good chance this time around of some serious success, what-what, he intends to snaffle those votes. And the populace had better jolly well understand that they can’t escape him just by going on hols.
Thorpy also wants as much media coverage as he can get, and he believes he’s secured that with the time-honoured elixir used to superb effect to bribe Fleet Street’s pushover denizens. Beer.
So there, as my colleagues and I arrive at the start of this adventure, is a coach waiting for us, and on the back seat the Seductive Sauce of Ruination. Several cases of the stuff.
I remember feeling miffed right then. Knowing you’re a bunch of boozy old cynics is one thing but having someone else identify you as such... how dare he!
And just beer? We’re not all gutter-press guzzlers. Where’s my sipping scotch?
But anyroad, pop off some bottle caps and away we go
The whereabouts of the Great Man himself? All at sea, we’re told. His next appearance will be at Bournemouth, and, sure enough, as we huddle by the pier a hovercraft swiftly rounds the cove and runs up onto land. Panicked holidaymakers flee.
Sandcastles are flattened, deckchairs overturned. Anyone buried up to his neck gets a free blow dry, an industrial strength zephyr that almost hurricanes the hair right off his head. Little Johnny runs back to mummy, drops his ice cream and now his whine is louder than that of the hovercraft’s engine.
Out trips Jeremy looking fabulous in yellow oilskins, wearing a matching sou’wester and a great big political smile like the front of a 1959 Vauxhall Victor and waving a great big fabulous political wave. But only to the brave souls who didn’t run: The Few.
How to win over the electorate, eh, by buggering up their holidays.
Fast forward to a day in 1975 when a Great Dane named Rinka is shot dead right before her master’s eyes. He is Norman Scott and what follows is an icky tale of pillowbiting and attempted murder that grips the nation. The most oft-quoted line that registers top on Britain’s National Sniggermeter comes from a love note Scott has received from his paramour that reads: ‘Bunnies can and will go to France’. The sender? The Right Honourable Member for Devon North.
Thorpe’s khaki malarkey is out in the open now. I’m doorstepping his ritzy West London address along with the gang and it’s not a pretty sight. One of our number moons the house (remember, we’re the beer-belching oaves of the Low Press). When a telegram boy arrives another hollers out to him at full volume: ‘Tell him you’re fifteen and you’ll be all right!’
Poor old Jeremy, allegedly not in his home although everyone knows he is. He’s hearing all this. Must be doing some major-league squirming, and not the kind he enjoys.
Among our merciless Fleet Street rabble is snapper Mike Maloney from the Daily Mirror who’s just come up from Devon where another mob is staking out ‘Miss’ Scott. High jinks there too, it seems. The coquettish former male model has emerged from his cottage, Mike says, wearing a frilly blouse, cheerily and cheekily serenading the gathered newshounds. To the tune of You’re The Cream In My Coffee he’s substituted his own lyrics: I’m The Queen In Your Copy (You All Write About Me).
Enough already! Enough. I’ve had it up to here with homosexuals!
So re-enter the Time Machine, backpedal to the coastal campaign a year earlier.
We’ve bumbled along northward, stopping every few miles to witness each time afresh the shock and awe of unsuspecting holidaymakers as Thorpy executes his commando-style raids. Like wildebeest scenting a lion at the water hole, most quicken their pace, moving inland as he begins his speechification – and it’s the same rehearsed rhetoric every time.
Now we’re in Brighton and every one of us needs to file some kind of story, uninspiring though it is. Thirty minutes later we’re back, about to board our coach – but all that’s left is an empty space. It’s gone!
What happened? Did the hovercraft eat it?
My coat’s on that bus. And my briefcase. My long-time Daily Mirror buddy Ronnie Ricketts is very worried about his belongings - his passport’s among them. The others are dismayed: they could at least have been bequeathed the rest of the beer.
We call the coach company and learn that it’s headed back to base in Eastbourne, so two taxis are commandeered and the chase is on.
At the depot the driver protests it wasn’t his idea to discard us gentlemen-of-the-Press in Brighton, it was Mr. Thorpe-sir’s. The man had cared not a fig for his Fleet Street retinue. Having jettisoned his hovercraft, he had sashayed aboard and, over the impassioned pleadings our driver now claims to have lodged, given the command to drive on and the Press are such a hardy breed they can look after themselves and since Mr. Thorpe was the one paying for the bus etc. etc... Yeah yeah yeah. Where was he now? Gone to catch the London train.
Frenzied taxi rides again. We all make the station with minutes to spare. And there, lounging contentedly in one of the train compartments, we discover the Right Honourable Member for Devon North whose most recent action, wouldn’ch’say, has proven just a trifle less than honourable, what-bloody-what!
He peers over his half-moon specs, disguising his surprise at seeing us by announcing: ‘Find yourselves some glasses, gentlemen.’
He’s got a nerve. Here he is supping fabulous champagne with two rather better-class fellows whom I don’t remember seeing on the bus and who identify themselves, grinning, as The Taimes and The Telegrah-ph.
Oh la-de-dah. So, I see, Mr. Thorpe has chosen to cozy up to the conservative side and leave the hoi polloi in the Brighton dust. We have readers too, I remind him, quite a few. And that’s the story I believe they would care to read.
And where does he suppose our belongings might be? Up on the rack, he says, he was going to ‘make sure’ they were returned to us. Oh yeah? Well, at least he didn’t just toss our clobber into the sea – it’s there. I’m relieved-stroke-peeved.
To me, I suggest, still ranting angrily, it’s clearly a case of ‘a pox on the plebian press’. Ronnie frantically shoeing my shin at this point and muttering something semi-loudly about the Daily Mirror considering itself neither poxed nor plebian. Bung a couple of condescending cases of brewskis over to the wallies, I continue, because I’m on a roll now, and I don’t even drink beer. It’s an insult.
‘What do you drink?’ The well-rehearsed political smile again, and then quickly to one of his companions: ‘Can you find the Daily Mail a glass?’
Well, as it happens I’m not so easily bought, not with a glug of champers. ‘No thanks.’
‘My goodness,’ the MP sighs heavily and dramatically, rolling his eyes and sagging his already-low jaw down further in mock sadness. ‘We do appear to have upset the Daily Mail, don’t we. How can I possibly make it up?’
‘How about answering a few questions?’
In an instant, the Right Honourable Member proposes we go into the adjacent compartment and we do, just the two of us, Jeremy and Freddy and at this point it becomes rather imperative in light of future revelations that I stress once more loud and clear in the most emphatic and irrevocable of terms that we only talked, and talked only about his campaign and nothing else, you understand. Nothing. I am not now nor have I ever been (apologies to Senator Joe McCarthy, 1954) a member of the Libertine Party.
By the way, that train ride yielded a long, productive chat, all the way in to Victoria. Not France. No, he never called me Bunny

ENDIT

Copyright © 2007 Fred Wehner is a former Fleet Street journalist from the London Daily Mail who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Georgia 21 years ago. This piece was published on a website based in Malta.

Friday, October 5, 2007

PER ARDUA AD ASTRA


FRED WEHNER wishes a couple of words would fail him so he can answer the call of the scotch-and-limes at The Harrow

THROUGH STRUGGLES TO THE STARS

There had to be 52 words dead. Not 51. Not 53. And even an ‘a’ or an ‘an’ counted as a complete a word as antidisestablishmentarianism, even though that one never made it in at all.
The Stars, they were called, and they arrived in batches at odd intervals, which I always found, well... odd. Why not every day? Every week? Or was this the astrologer’s talent at its most transparent: sudden bursts of stellar inspiration giving birth to another constellation of horoscopic predictions.
That’s what these were. Horoscopes that arrived at the Daily Mail Features desk whereupon they were each to be fitted into a slot that someone with an anal brain had calculated years earlier to accept precisely 52 words. And this task was the sole domain of the lowliest sub-editor on that table.
Me.
Actually, when I show up the existing Mr.Bottom-Rung is a quiet fellow called Nick Gordon, a young staffer, who later rises to the editorship of You magazine. I’m a casual, newly recruited by Femail bigwig Gerald Rudge, and once I prove I can keep my head down lower than anyone else’s I’m in solid. Not a regular casual but the regular casual.
So now I’m the nether knave and I get The Stars, all of them, all the time. There’s a given that whenever Orion disgorges another clump of celestial wisdom it’s saved up and served to yours truly.
There’s other work too, of course, stuff to ‘knock into shape’, as they call it, and often to the annoyance of the feature writers, some of whom expect their compositions to remain untouched or they might elect to knock you into shape.
One time I get to sub Mike Kemp, the motoring correspondent, agonising over my myriad changes so much that in order to untwist my knickers I wind up making calls and rewriting the whole thing.
Let’s use a totem pole as the yardstick. I’m something lodged out of sight at the bottom beneath the salmon’s tailfin, while the eagle’s head at top is Bernard Connolly.
‘You rewrote Kemp?’ he asks. ‘Put in for a double shift.’
Twice the bunce just for doing that? I like Mr. Connolly. And I can see that my road to wealth lies in continuing to shave down the Saggies and pick up the Pisces, as many as they want. At times Orion’s offerings are too short, but mostly they require trimming, and I’m wielding the pencil.
What power! I sometimes reflect on the readers, imagining they plan their day around the Daily Mail’s zodiac. Coffee, toast with lemon marmalade, and then a quick 52-word read to determine what to do, or to avoid doing, until bedtime.
And I – the guy under the salmon – provide the guiding hand in telling them how to live.
It’s about this time that I’m passing by the Newsdesk and hear: 'Fuckin’ Fred Wehner!'
Ears akimbo, it’s Mike Borissow, Night News Editor on the Daily Sketch where I’d worked years earlier and he’s now the same on the Mail. Beside him, who has also made the transition, is Bob Hill, the Pancho to his Cisco, the Robin to his Batman, the Dick Cheney to his,... oh never mind.
‘What are you up to these days?’
Pointing to the Feature Subs’ desk: ‘Sitting over there. Counting my lucky Stars. Doing shifts.’
‘Well why don’t you come and do some for us.’
Thus begins a period of high tension. Yes I do come in each time Newsdesk secretary Joan Gabbedey calls and I get involved in major newsgathering again – a job I love. But there’s also the Feature Subs, those civilised fellows who book me in advance for large blocks of days. There’s bound to be a conflict, and it comes very soon.
Can’t do a news shift tonight because I’m subbing, so I offer up a very capable pal, John Sansom. But while he’s getting bylines covering Irish bombings, crime and politics and pulling mischievous Harold-Wilson-bashing duty I get The Stars once more.
‘You still here, Fred? Put in for a double shift.’
Bernard Connolly again in his sweet soprano voice. It’s only 10 pm and I’ve been at work a mere four hours. This is definitely the job for me. Not a staff one, just these mini-shifts that bring in double pay.
On the reporting side I’m kept way past my time on a doorstep, a human milkbottle, waiting for an ambush interview with someone who doesn’t want to talk to me. I’m cold, wet, famished, fed up...
‘Give it another hour.’
‘But I was off at midnight...’
Click.
So that’s the choice. On the one side you hardly have time to grab some nourishment amid your rabid quest for a story, you get into scrapes, have to shield your back at all times against office politics. On the other they throw money at you and applaud every stroke of the pencil: a cozy, sheltered, easy life with regular hours that they book in advance.
Which do I want? It depends on who I think I am. The feature subs discuss gardening and hobbies and mortgages and cerebral matters in a genteel way usually. The coarsest of them are into do-it-yourself projects. The reporters are a brash, carnivorous bunch given to boasting and carousing and getting into fights (although mostly only near-fights).
Apart from Cro-Magnon origins, the two separate species have one other thing in common – they all like a pint in the top bar of The Harrow. And yet even in this cramped, ‘watch it, mate’ environment where bodily contact guarantees beer slops on suits, the two groups maintain a strict apartheid.
Who are my peers? There’s the dilemma, the jungle versus the zoo. Danger or security.
Before moving over to News full time and taking a staff job, I provide Features with another pal to watch the skies as Orion’s Helper. It’s a sad farewell, but the lure of the outside world has just been too strong.
And, my starry links never severed totally, I have a lifelong friendship with the Mail On Sunday’s current astrologer, Sally Brompton, who warns that Mars is about to cross my Midheaven resulting in ruthless editing at the hands of someone in a position of authority.
One of my last stints as a Features Sub finds me not lost for words but unable to lose words.
The other subs have been in The Harrow for the last hour. David Loudfoot, Ernie McLaughlin, Dave Soulsby, John Ebblewhite, the entire gang. I’m on soothsayer duty again. They telephone: ‘Come on over, Wehner, your drinks are on the bar.’
‘Coming in a jif.’
Ten minutes later, the same. And then again. ‘The scotches are waiting. It’ll be your shout when you get here.’
‘Yesyesyes, OK Dave. Just got to get these last few Stars.’
I’m developing a powerful thirst just hearing about my liquor sitting there. Plus over the phone there’s the pied-piperesque music of clinking glasses and the warm, familiar buzz of animated journalistic conversation. Was that a near-fight in the background?
But The Stars, The Stars...
This time Orion’s really set me a right heavenly teaser: try as I might, I can’t get them down to 52. Here we have a couple of signs that I’ve pared down to 54 words, even 53 if I strangle English grammar to the brink of criminality.
I’ve already killed all the adjectives.
One more word. Just got to finish this, but how, when I can’t cut another without turning it all into cosmic gibberish. There will be people at the breakfast table unable to go on with their lives unless they read word-for-precise-word what their horoscope foretells.
Ring ring.
‘Right, Ernie. Four scotch-and-limes lined up now? I’m on my way this minute.’
And so, soddit. I snatch up my pencil and, for Aquarius and Capricorn, make the final cut. In each case just the one tiny word.
“Not”.

ENDIT

Copyright © 2007 Fred Wehner is a Fleet Street journalist formerly with the London Daily Mail who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Georgia 21 years ago. This piece was published on a website based in Malta.

Friday, September 28, 2007

BEAM ME UP, SCOTTY

FRED WEHNER misses an office party to go off, unwillingly, on a buy-up for the Daily Mail that's frustrated by a man from the Mirror.

DOORFOOTIN'

It’s the evening of the Daily Mail’s Grand Christmas beano hosted, but not funded, by Sir David English in his days as plain old mister.
Which, to the chagrin of my colleagues, makes this very much a pay-as-you-drink affair not a lot different from any ordinary night at our most-favoured gargling venue, The Harrow. Except that certain managerial types are going to be there also, making the byword “Steady!”.
Therefore, partaking overly of the “Fleet Street Water” with its ensuing effects on one’s behaviour could well have major repercussions regarding one’s job security. Oh dear.
My anticipated presence at this subdued rave-up is torpedoed when, an hour beforehand, Jonathan Holborow, the news editor, sends me off to At. Albans. I’m to “supervise” the handover of a child from the clutches of Harry Krishna (as he calls it) to its rightful mother who had just distanced herself from the father and from the cult. He says we’ve paid her for an exclusive.
I’d always hated buyups. When we’re the ones paying the money, that is. Nerve-wracking. You can actually feel the grey hairs taking over.
Quite different when the Opposition has shelled out the ackers and your job is to do a spoiler, get at the target somehow using charm, wiles and a generous helping of luck.
But this time it was our buyup and those involved – including me at the eleventh hour – are forced to protect our investment. Bummer, but what can you do.
My Manchester colleague Roger Scott, whom I’ve never met, is travelling down from t’north accompanied by his photographer and transporting the child along with a Krishna goon. We’re to meet at a hotel where the mother awaits. I’ve booked a room for all us Daily Mailers and informed both Manchester and mummy - but when I arrive there’s no sign of her.
I’ve been making regular check calls to our Northern News Editor, Pat Mullarkey, hearing that my cohorts are in Coventry, now Daventry, then it’s Milton Keynes...
Soon I’m keeping a solid vigil at the main entrance and when I see a pair of shifty characters march straight to the public phone I know I know. I wander over, ear’oling just enough to confirm my conviction that these two cowboys have to be reporters. Can’t one just smell a fellow hack?
One more quick Manchester call and Pat Mullarkey confirms his blokes are already in the hotel - they just phoned him. From the Reception Desk, whom I'd primed earlier, I learn a party has just checked into a different room from the one I’d booked.
Stub out the Players Navy Cut I’d just lit (what a waste! The price of fags had just gone up.) Race up the stairs because the lift has decided to dawdle. Belt along the corridor...
I knock. The door is cracked open. A face appears. I see the kid in the background. I ask for the mother. The door is slammed in my face – almost. A gnarled and oft-bruised foot (inside my shoe) is propelled into the jamb...automatic after years of Fleet Street footsoldiering, but it still bludiwel hurts.
There follows a shove-of-war twixt those inside and myself outside. Whenever I manage to barge that door open a little I catch a glimpse of other folks inside, but then in an instant the occupants shoulder it back again. And so it goes on for a little.
Suddenly instead of being pushed now, the door is pulled - yanked open and the two burlies come barrelling out. I’m flattened against the opposite wall. We’re wrestling, punches are thrown. Writhing and cursing again with these two demanding to know who I am and me not telling.
I hear one of them call the other Roger. I say I’m Daily Mail and who are you?
The moment is frozen in time. A knee stops short of my groin. Potential future Wehner generations are saved. And one of my opponents pants: “I’m Roger Scott.”
My Northern brother.
So let me in! And once inside I see there’s the mother, the child... and one other gentleman whom I already know. The ruddy cheeks, that farm-lad frame - It’s Roger Beam from the bluddy Daily Mirror!
What’s he doing here? Nobody seems to know.
But what we all realise is that while three Daily Mail stalwarts are pummelling each other on the outside, the Daily Mirror is getting the exclusive for which our rag has paid good money on the inside.
I quickly move everyone to the room I booked, telling Beamy his personage ain’t grata. He’s a persistent so-and-so and a big ‘un. But I’m forced to usher him out physically, summoning strength from the firm knowledge that two herograms from John Womersley years earlier would now likely be negated by a serious wankergram from Holborow, his successor.
Yes, we do get the story. But the Mirror also get their story for which the Daily Mail paid. In the restaurant that night nobody can explain precisely how the Enemy came to be inside our buyup, but Roger Beam tells me later. All he did was sidle up to the mother and keep his mouth shut, then saunter along with her to the reunion with baby while everyone else assumed he was mum’s friend.
The Mirror desk are calling his coup “a Mini Nice One”.
And the Daily Mail’s Grand Christmas knees-up? Judging by the complaints about booze prices voiced by many a luckless imbiber it seems I saved money big-time.

ENDIT

Copyright © 2007 Fred Wehner is a Fleet Street journalist formerly with the London Daily Mail who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Georgia 21 years ago. This piece was written for a website based in Malta.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A SCURRILOUS CONTACT SPORT


FRED WEHNER meanwhile, has lost his contacts book. Or, more likely, somebody has nicked it. How will he get quotes from the Beverley Sisters, now?

CONTACT SPORT

It was black and slim and when it left me I was devastated.
I had come to view its worn features as testimony to its pedigree. But that only after it disappeared; while we were together I confess I took it for granted. Utterly. Oblivious to the immense degree of dependency I’d developed.
My contacts book wasn’t huge but it was potent, a mighty giant packed with home phones. Eric Morecambe’s number – he was always good for a quick quip and he was almost always at home, no doubt waiting by that special little hall table by the front door on the offchance I’d call him.
There was a good direct way to get to Colonel Tom Parker in Culver City, California. A bunch of friends of Arthur Scargill (yes he had some). The popsters of the day – Marty Wilde; PJ Proby; Marion Ryan; Mickie Most; Brian Poole; Kathy Kirby...
There was Jagger and Richard before he added the ‘s’ and Sir Cliff before he was a Sir.
All pretty much reachable in an instant.
There were other Sirs as well: Ralph Richardson; Michael Redgrave; Cedric Hardwicke. Dukes like those of Richmond and Rutland, Earls, Lords like Mountbatten and Sutch, the Screaming one. And there was the Queen’s cousin, the Earl of Harewood, who got himself in a right royal pickle or two.
Two other numbers I cherished, AMB 1657 and HUN 3384, both for Christine Keeler. AMB was Ambassador but the full exchange for HUN is now interred deep in the time-hardened clay that was once my brain. (I was from POLlards, later STReatham, south of the river with all the second-hand car dealers)
La Keeler had been a favourite of mine ever since she’d allowed me to interview her at some considerable length through the fibula-high letterbox of her Marylebone knocking-shop home at 30 Linhope Street. For Mandy Rice-Davies I had only an address.
But these were all People Who Mattered and I needed to have them at my fingertips just in case. They were my shortcuts to fame and glory, but now they were gawn. Lawst.
Any minute I expected to hear the Great Voice From The Sky: “THIS IS GOD SPEAKING. I’VE DELIBERATELY HIDDEN YOUR CONTACTS BOOK BECAUSE YOU ARE A SOUTH LONDON RATBAG WHO NEEDS TO BE TAUGHT A LESSON.”
For months I’d pine. It was like a bereavement. I searched the drawers, the shelves, the pockets, the places... And when I’d done all that I searched the drawers, the shelves, the pockets, the places...
Without my contacts book I felt crippled. It was my treasure. Sure, there were oldies in there like Alma Cogan; Tommy Trinder; Wilfred Pickles. But also Sophia Loren in Rome and two Monaco entries for Maria Callas.
There were times when I missed that book in the worst way. Moments when its presence was required immediately, and these moments clawed at my insides. But also there was that gnawing general need that wouldn’t go away. A headache minus the actual physical pain, although in time I realised that re-revisiting its old familiar Possible Hiding Places was never going to surrender my prize. So where was it?
There were folks who stole their mates’ contacts books. It was prevalent and almost a sport. And by now I was convinced this is what had befallen my own dear treasure. Lifted. Taken prisoner by some scurrilous Other Reporter (and By God know I knew what bastards they could be because I was one of them). Abducted and held in some lonely spot and there, perhaps, torn limb from limb after first being debrided of all its important surface data.
Someone else, now, would be able to dial up directly Margaret Leighton and Eric Morley and Frankie Vaughan And all three of the Beverly Sisters, Joy, Teddie and Babs.
For months I harboured evil thoughts, thoughts of catching a fellow reporter red-handed with my little black book and what I would do to him. It had to be a him because had it been a her my terrible fantasy would have juddered to a halt right there and then.
But a him? Oh the screams of agony, oh the pleas for mercy from my perpetrator-turned-victim, the tears even after he’d confessed to the theft and returned my Little Wonder. But that delicious thought hit a Halt sign the moment my mind pictured some of the beefiest hacks with whom I worked. Maybe a polite request to return it would suffice.
Naturally, I embarked on a replacement by now. One had to. A pessimistic start from scratch. But this time I bought a big, bulky behemoth, a three-pounder, eight inches by thirteen with stiff covers and thick as a brick. Contactus Immensus. Bookzilla
Try and steal that, you bastard.
So in tiny increments the replacement volume grew in content. Yet big as it was in actual length and girth, it never matched up to its little predecessor. Never could. There were names and numbers in there that were impossible to replicate. Or were they? Contacts were contacts. Perhaps some of my fellow hacks had the same data that I had had.
Of course we’d all taken a peek at a colleague’s contact book when the colleague was up in the canteen or chatting with Maurice Dodd at the library window.
Who’re this guy’s contacts? Does he have home phones for all the Beatles? Some choice international names, perhaps? Nah. Only the two Eamonn Andrews numbers known to everyone and his pet parrot.
I got a few decent ones that way, but not many. And so, yes, I dreamed of appropriating someone else’s contacts book in order to supplement my own. Perhaps I’d be thieving from the very bastard who got mine. Hey - perhaps I would wind up stealing my own book back: that was the ultimate fantasy.
Of course I had a few main suspects. Surely I should target these guys first. Those I thought most capable of filching my contacts book were... but oh no, no. I’m not going to name names here. Suffice it to say my friendships with these fellows always contained that tiny element of doubt: you’re the one, aren’t you, you’re the bastard!
The loss continued to haunt me through my life. If no longer causing the same intense anxiety three decades on, it still hovered like a small storm cloud atop my soul. Over time my contacts book had grown steadily in status to become, eventually, the equivalent of a famed relic, much admired but never seen. My Holy Grail.
I had a great day last month. I found it.

ENDIT

Copyright © 2007 Fred Wehner is a former Fleet Street journalist from the London Daily Mail who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Georgia 21 years ago. This piece was published on a website based in Malta.