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That Reminds Me – Newshound savaged by dogs

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WHEN I started out as a reporter on the Burnley Evening Star, the news editor was an irascible cove named Ray Horsfield, renowned for furious high-volume telephone conversations with his wife when the packed lunches she prepared failed to meet his approval. ‘You bloody well KNOW I don’t like kippers!’

Ray was based in Blackburn, where the paper was printed, so I seldom saw him face to face. But we would speak several times a day and I swear the phone rang in a different, angrier way when it was him on the other end. He would always begin with a harrumph, followed by ‘It’s Ray.’ I would try to say ‘hello, Ray’ immediately post-harrumph before he had a chance to speak and often succeeded, to his intense chagrin.

When it came to creating and following up news, he was like a dog with a bone. Many was the time I called to say a story had not stood up, only for him to send me back to the source with a volley of new questions. Often it didn’t work out, but not for want of trying.

One day I was sent to a terrace in a less than salubrious part of Burnley which had an adjacent patch of open land where a bomb had hit during the war. A gaggle of caravans had gathered there overnight a couple of weeks previously and the occupants of the houses complained that they were being burgled every time they went out. I spoke to several and they accused the police of standing idly by while their homes were emptied by the invaders. Moreover there was a pack of mangy mongrels which barked day and night, and attacked anyone walking by.

I approached the encampment hoping to speak to the travellers’ leader but the dogs made me take to my heels.

I duly filed a story on the lines of ‘burgling gipsies are making our life hell say Burnley residents’. Cue angry ringing. Cue harrumph. ‘It’s Ray. One problem with this story. It’s one-sided. You need a quote from that lot on the bombsite. Go back and get one.’

‘But Ray, they’ll set their dogs on me.’

‘I don’t care, get a quote.’

So I went back, the dogs duly did their job and no quote was forthcoming although some blood was.

After treatment in casualty and a tetanus injection, I returned to the office bandaged and with my sleeves in tatters, and called Ray to say what had happened.

‘Great!’ he said. ‘File me an add, and make sure they take a picture of your wounds.’

After a year or so in Burnley, I was dispatched to one of the paper’s district offices, eight miles away in Rawtenstall, after a senior reporter there went on long-term sick leave.

At the time the main story in the national news was the dreadful murder of Lesley Whittle, a 17-year-old heiress who was snatched from her bedroom in Highley, Shropshire. A note was left in the house demanding a £50,000 ransom. It later emerged that the poor girl was imprisoned in a drainage shaft at Bathpool Park in Kidsgrove, Staffordshire. She was kept on a ledge with a wire around her neck and her body was found at the bottom of the shaft having fallen or been pushed from the ledge. The so-called Black Panther, Donald Neilson, would eventually be jailed for her murder and three others.

With the Whittle investigation in full flow, Ray received a tip that a staff member at the Rossendale Valley dry ski slope had been interviewed because he was working at Kidsgrove Ski Centre at the time of Lesley’s kidnap. ‘Pop round to the cop shop and get the story.’

Off I popped to Rawtenstall police station and eventually reached the office of an avuncular detective inspector. He confirmed what Ray had been told but stressed that the ski bloke was treated as a witness, not a suspect. ‘He was extremely co-operative and told us all he knows about Kidsgrove at the time. There is no question whatsoever that he is involved in the case and to suggest otherwise would be completely wrong. There is NO STORY HERE.’

I relayed this information to Ray and he said: ‘I’ll decide what’s a bleedin’ story and what isn’t. File me some copy in the next half hour.’

That evening, alas, the paper came out with the banner headline: LESLEY MURDER: POLICE QUIZ VALLEY SKI SLOPE MAN. The story was accurate in every way but the treatment misleading, with heavy detail of the horrific killing.

Next morning I was summoned to the police station where the previously friendly detective had a face like thunder. He put me in a cell and I thought I was in for a beating, but he contented himself with shoving me against the wall a couple of times. ‘I told you there was no f***ing story! So what’s this?’ he roared brandishing a copy of the paper.

‘I’m sorry but you’ll have to take it up with my news editor,’ I replied. ‘His name is Ray Horsfield and he’s in Blackburn.’ ‘Well get the bastard over here!’

I returned to the office and called Ray. Sure enough, he appeared a couple of hours later and I took him to the police station.

He was magnificent. All of 5ft 4in, he jabbed the 6ft detective in the chest and said: ‘Who the hell do you think you are, chucking my reporter in the cell? This is a Gentleman of Her Majesty’s Press. And you – you’re only one step up from a bloody commissionaire! Let this be a warning.’ With that, he turned on his heel and stamped out. His finest hour.

Old jokes’ home

Sir Alex Ferguson is on a safari holiday in Africa when he strolls into a jungle clearing and sees a young native juggling a coconut with his feet. He performs all manner of tricks before volleying it unerringly between two trees eight yards apart. ‘Jings’, thinks Sir Alex, ‘I’ve got to have this lad for Man United.’ At pre-season training, Fergie introduces the African to the rest of the squad, then picks up a ball. ‘This, football,’ he says. ‘These, goalposts. Kicky bally in the goaly. Hurray. Lots of money.’ ‘Excuse me, Sir Alex,’ says the African. ‘I’m fully aware of the rules of football.’ ‘I wasn’t talking to you,’ replies Fergie. ‘I was talking to them.’

A PS from PG

You know how it is with some girls. They seem to take the stuffing right out of you. I mean to say, there is something about their personality that paralyses the vocal cords and reduces the contents of the brain to cauliflower.

PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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