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.
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.
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.