WHENEVER my better half and I were forced to admit that we worked for the Daily Mail, the first response would be: ‘Do you know Nigel Dempster?’ Swiftly followed by: ‘Do you know Lynda Lee-Potter?’ Answer, yes and yes.
The flamboyant persona that Nigel displayed on television was no invention. He really was larger than life. Yet he had time for everyone, however humble their position. Unlike many senior figures on the Mail, who would avoid your eyes in the lift or on the street (one editor was said to know the carpet tiles better than his staff), he always greeted you with a smile and a cheery hello. One of his bosom buddies was a little chap who worked on the racing desk. They would spend hours discussing who would win the 3.20 at Goodwood.
Nicknamed the Greatest Living Englishman by Private Eye, until a falling-out after which it referred to him as Pratt-Dumpster, Nigel edited the Daily Mail Diary for 30 tumultuous years before ill-health forced his retirement in 2003. He converted to Catholicism the following year and was just 65 when he died of progressive supranuclear palsy, the same nerve disorder which killed Dudley Moore.
Lynda was also taken from us early, dying of a brain tumour aged 69. We became friends after I took her to task for writing in her column that she could never like anyone who grew cacti. She often chatted with Margaret and me, or rather listened to us. Lynda had an extraordinary knack of asking a simple question then saying nothing as the other person wittered on. It was impossible not to volunteer personal information to this charming woman who simply smiled and nodded as you revealed your secrets. That, along with a great memory, was what made her a brilliant interviewer. I recall once telling her about my family (she too was a Lancastrian, from Leigh) and years later she said: ‘Oh yes, you have one sister don’t you.’
In a Guardian obituary, Roy Greenslade wrote: ‘Lynda Lee-Potter loved being a journalist. For her, working on a newspaper was never simply a job, but – as she often said – a privilege. Despite her long career and her fame as a columnist, she retained the kind of youthful enthusiasm that few, if any, veteran hacks could match.
‘She became the Mail‘s star columnist after Jean Rook went to the Daily Express, and managed to surpass her. Lee-Potter was never able to match Rook’s clever wordplay, but she became the most widely read of female columnists because she had a coherent outlook on the world that she was able to get across to her many thousands of avid readers in a clear and concise manner.
‘She upset many liberals, but her copy was convincing because she wrote from the heart. Her candour often led to accusations that she was bitchy, but she dismissed such criticism by saying, with her trademark wide smile, “I just write what I think.”
‘She could wound, but she never did so without cause. No one has ever been able to emulate the woman who was, deservedly, regarded as the doyenne of her trade.
‘She did indeed see journalism as a trade: she laboured at the task, enjoying a long career because, until her very last column, she went on trying. She is irreplaceable.’
Lynda Lee-Potter and Nigel Dempster, much missed. RIP.
The Manneken Pis of Blackpool
WHENEVER she was introduced to a new girlfriend of mine, one of my aunts could not wait to embarrass me by regaling her with the story of our visit to Blackpool’s Derby Baths.
Families from throughout the North West would flock to the baths, built in 1939 and at the time housing the only Olympic-sized swimming pool in the country.
One Sunday afternoon, when I was three or four, I piled with my cousins into the sidecar of their parents’ motorbike and off we went to the coast. Derby Baths, as always, was heaving, with more than 1,000 swimmers packed like sardines in the main pool.
‘I need a wee.’
(Whispers) ‘Well, just do it in the water.’
At which point there were gasps of horror as I climbed out of the pool, stood on the edge, dropped my trunks and began to produce a perfect parabola of pee between the bobbing heads below. Think of the Manneken Pis in Brussels. That was me, until I was dragged into the water and severely chastised.
THE current success of Emma Raducanu reminds me of our own years as tennis parents. Our daughter Elizabeth showed great promise from the age of five and trained, as did Emma, at Bromley Tennis Centre and the Parklangley Club in Beckenham, with some of the same coaches. Unfortunately, unlike her 6ft brother, she inherited her father’s short stature, failed to grow beyond 5ft 2in and retired in her teens. However, her tennis career was definitely character-building and provided some exciting and hilarious moments. Some of the latter came courtesy of a mum from somewhere in eastern Europe whose daughter was named Nadia, Nads for short. We derived much merriment from her courtside encouragement: ‘Go, Nads!’
RESPONDING to my selection of tunes last week, reader Michael Fahey said: ‘If you were kidnapped and left in a dingy cupboard for a month before you were rescued, and your kidnapper left an album that played repeatedly, what do you reckon you could hear and never get bored with?’
The answer would have to be the almost-entirely instrumental Hot Rats by Frank Zappa, preferably the six-CD version, or perhaps Live in Stuttgart 1975 by Can. Ever since my little sister’s endless playing of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water I have hated hearing vocal tracks repeated ad nauseam. Even my very favourites now receive only an occasional airing and that’s late at night when I’ve had a few.
A PS from PG
I marmaladed a slice of toast with something of a flourish, and I don’t suppose I have ever come much closer to saying ‘Tra-la-la’ as I did the lathering, for I was feeling in mid-season form this morning.
P G Wodehouse: Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves