IN THE late 1970s and early 1980s I used to do casual sub-editing Saturday shifts on the News of the World in Manchester. The night editor was a virtually spherical chap named Ollie whose idea of a light lunch was to send a messenger to the chip shop for double chicken and chips, twice (four lumps of greasy chicken and two portions of equally lard-laden chips). In other words, keen on his belly.
Several of my colleagues were Jewish and I remember Ollie once saying to two of them, in all apparent seriousness: ‘I could never take a faith seriously which denies its followers the unparalleled solace of the bacon butty.’ Answer came there none.
I’m with Ollie about bacon. Preferably on a white bap. Or, as we used to call it in Nelson, a plain teacake (as opposed to a currant teacake, which you would consume toasted, with butter).
When I moved to Blackburn for work reasons, I was forced to get used to referring to plain teacakes as barm cakes, or barrrm cakes, as the locals would say – a request for a teacake would produce the sweet variety.
After three depressing years in the godforsaken town I decided to leave and announced my departure while drinking in the Rose and Crown with a tiny couple named Bob and Dottie, whom everyone suspected of being brother and sister.
‘Oh no!’ said Dottie. ‘Where are you going?’
‘You don’t want to go there!’ she protested, her eyes full of panic. ‘They call barm cakes muffins!’
Fleet Street heroes: Gordon Greig
Of all our former colleagues, the sweetest was the great Gordon Greig, who started out as a Glasgow copy messenger and rose through the profession to become the Daily Mail’s political editor in 1976. I’ll never forget General Election nights, when Gordon would stand behind the back bench dictating copy while his loyal deputy John Deans hammered furiously on a typewriter (later computer keyboard). He was a great stirrer, delighting in mischievous stories that irked the Great and Good. If the news editor was short of a splash on any given night, he’d phone the Westminster office and Gordon would make one up. Possibly a secret Labour sympathiser, he made a point in his copy of calling the Prime Minister simply ‘Thatcher’, leaving the subs to insert the ‘Mrs’, if you see what I mean.
Some years ago I tried to write a comic novel about politics and Gordon welcomed me several times to lunch at the House, regaling me with gossip and introducing me to larger-than-life MPs such as Anthony Beaumont-Dark and the then Tory chairman Sir Marcus Fox. Everyone, from whatever party, loved him.
In a speech at the Grosvenor House Hotel in 1992, at a party to mark the Mail’s 21 years as a tabloid (or compact, as David English preferred to call it), the then Prime Minister John Major said: ‘I not only read Gordon Greig every Thursday morning at 10 o’clock, I lift up the cloth over the Cabinet Room table to make sure he isn’t underneath it.
‘Gordon has so many skills as a legendary lobby journalist – in determining what the Government has done, is doing, and should do – that he is in severe danger of being offered a job in the next reshuffle.’
‘He would have turned it down,’ one of Gordon’s proteges Anthony Bevins would later write. ‘His great love was journalism; the unpredictability; the excitement; the gossip; the joy of a good story. But journalism also gave him the privacy that he so cherished. Spurning the limelight that he cast on others, he refused all the broadcasters’ pleas for punditry and knee-jerk interviews. He was also so sure of his prowess that he allowed his juniors to spread their own wings under his protection. Never jealous, always encouraging, he was a delight to work for.’
Not long after the Grosvenor House do, Gordon was struck down with leukaemia. It is one of my eternal regrets that one day in the office I failed to recognise a shrunken, grey figure in the corridor. ‘Alan,’ he said. ‘It’s me, Gordon.’ It was pitiful to see him in such ill-health. I hugged him as gently as I could, and wept.
Gordon Greig was a mere 63 when he was taken from us. On November 1, 1995, a memorial service was held at St Margaret’s, Westminster. Margaret and I were in a pew behind Tony Blair and Michael Heseltine. We heard Gordon’s great friend Ian Aitken, of the Guardian, pay tribute to ‘a truly superb reporter’. Afterwards Margaret was so tearful that Gordon’s widow herself had to console her.
In a bookcase at home we have a bottle of House of Lords whisky given to us by Gordon the Christmas before his illness. It is too sacred ever to be broached. Thanks, old fruit, for everything.
Football’s charmers, Part 2
FOLLOWING my item a few weeks ago about Burnley’s Jimmy Adamson refusing to autograph a piece of paper because it was too small, here’s another unpleasant soccer memory.
It is November 22, 1975, and non-league Rossendale United are playing Shrewsbury Town, from Football League Division Three, in the first round of the FA Cup. A record crowd for Dark Lane of 3,450 are there, with the home fans hoping for a giant-killing act. I am also present, reporting on the tie for the Burnley Evening Star.
Shrewsbury are managed at the time by Alan Durban, a former Welsh international and star player for Derby County under Brian Clough, from whom he probably learned his manners.
As kick-off approaches I hang around the visitors’ dressing room ready to take down any last-minute team alterations before phoning over my first chunk of copy – you did it in stages in those hot-metal days. The players emerge, followed by Durban in the sheepskin coat that was de rigueur for the 70s manager. ‘Afternoon, Mr Durban, any team changes?’ I ask.
‘Give us your programme,’ he replies, and disappears with it into a nearby lavatory. He is in there for ages while I hang about like cheese at fourpence, the match already under way. Finally he surfaces. ‘The programme?’ I ask. ‘Oh, that,’ he says, striding briskly away. ‘I wiped my arse on it.’
Final score: Rossendale Utd 0, Shrewsbury Town 1
A PS from PG:
Bertie Wooster, discussing Madeline Bassett: ‘She had risen and for perhaps half a minute stood staring at me in a sad sort of way, like the Mona Lisa on one of the mornings when the sorrows of the world had been coming over the plate a bit too fast for her.’
PG Wodehouse: The Code of the Woosters