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.