Friday, October 26, 2007


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


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?
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.’


© 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.