Saturday, 22 September 2007


In the 1880s two young American salesmen-cum-pharmacists, Silas Mainville Burroughs and Henry Wellcome, invented the ‘tabloid’. It was not originally a cut-down newspaper but a form of compressed pill — the name was an elision of ‘tablet’ and ‘alkaloid’ — which they imported to Britain. Helped by its sales, their company Burroughs Wellcome achieved huge success: insulin was another of their inventions; while Henry Wellcome created the first proper medical bags, giving them to Stanley for his trips to Africa and Scott for his walk to the Pole.
Tabloid writing is designed to be an easy pill to swallow.
At its best, it is concise and composed of non-obscene short words. A story is never longer than two folios. It is always black and white. Colourful writing is for journalists.
Is there a difference? There is, and it was best expressed in an old Hollywood film: a journalist is a guy who bums drinks off reporters.
Content in a tabloid is important. There are certain essential ingredients. A very good tabloid reporter called Frank Howitt, whose son Peter is doing quite well on TV, once wrote the ultimate tabloid headline: “Glamorous dog-owning granny elopes with Vicar.”
Animals are important. The Daily Mail sacked a reporter for not including the death of a rabbit among the thirty people killed in an air crash.

I overheard the best lesson in tabloid writing in the fifties in the Mirror office, which I had just joined with another Kemsley reporter called Arthur. Brooks. Arthur was clothed in the invincible Armour of Vanity. I once heard him tell another reporter: “You supply the facts and I will do the word artistry.”

He invariably, and oddly, greeted you by rubbing his extended hands along the wings of his highly polished hair, straightening an already rigid tie, and saying “No danger” out of the corner of his mouth.

Bizarre greetings proliferated. A reporter called Rosenfeld always began a conversation with a request to borrow your comb and tuppence to ring a friend. He was cured by another very good tabloid reporter called Terry Stringer who pressed a silver coin in his palm and said, “Here’s sixpence. Phone them all.”

On the occasion of the lesson of which I speak, Arthur had handed in his account of a murder which contained sufficient words to be published in paperback. He was called up by the news editor who always resented people bringing him stories and so interrupting his study of the Sporting Life.

“Arthur,” he asked, “are you familiar with the Bible?”

“No danger,” said Arthur with a sideways sweep of the glittering hair.

“Then you will have noticed,” said the news editor, “that the story of the Creation is told in four or perhaps five paragraphs?”

When Arthur nodded, his hair caught the light and flashed like sunlight caught in a mirror.

“Then why does it take you five folios to tell the story of a tatty murder in Liverpool?”

Damon Runyon and Ernest Hemingway between them changed for ever the language of journalism when they fathered tabloid reporting.

Runyon was the Media Studies degree of an earlier generation. Few of us have resisted the temptation to plunge in at the deep end of the present tense; several have made a living from it.

When the critic Cyril Connolly praised Hemingway for killing the Mandarin style of writing he was referring to literature, but it also applied to Hemingway the Foreign Correspondent.

“By Line”, a collection of his early journalism, shows the emergence of the style which was to make him the finest short story writer of the twentieth century. The tragedy of Ernest Hemingway was not that he shot himself, but that he got his timing wrong. Had he shot himself in 1953 when he won the Nobel Prize for literature with “The Old Man and the Sea” his place in the World of Literature would have been assured. As it was, he lived to become a comic self parody in a cruel farce. As Freud points out, all novelists are fantasists with an end product. Alas, not all fantasists are novelists, which may explain why so many men one meets claim to have been in the SAS. To accommodate them all the regiment would have to be the size of the Salvation Army.

If Runyon did not invent the style he certainly brought it centre stage. His stories of life on Broadway and the Great White Way, both of which terms he invented, are classics. Sadly he did not use it in his newspaper reports, which are sadly overwritten.
Those who condemn my inky trade are perhaps unaware that it stands on the shoulders of giants. Dr Sam Johnson and Charles Dickens, Addison and Steele were practitioners. My present vehicle, the blog, was the child of a sixteenth century, retired diplomat Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the essay. He explained that he wanted to devote his life to writing on the subject of which he was the greatest expert - himself.


WE “celebrate” the 60th anniversary of the bloodiest act of criminal ineptitude in the History of Empire, the Partition of India. It was the work of three lawyers, Ghandi, Jinnah and Nehru, assisted by a fourth who, without any knowledge of the country, decided the line of Partition in a month and then fled the country in fear of what would happen to him if he stayed. A senior civil servant minuted his Department Head: “I sometimes think,” he wrote, “that the worst disservice we have done to India is to take their best sons and turn them into lawyers.”

As, with the inevitability of Greek Tragedy, the ordeal of the McCann family reaches its denouement, it is perhaps timely to inquire why they should have been faced with hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal costs in their efforts to clear their name.
I wonder with Omar Khayam what they buy,these lawyers, which is half so precious as the stuff they sell


Newspapermen don’t come much better than Vincent Mulchrone, a friend since weekly paper days. The last time we met before his too early death, I had been hired by the Brewers’ Society to argue the case for Sunday Opening of pubs in Wales. A cause close to my heart.

The most graphic way to illustrate the anomalies, it seemed to me, was to hire a coach and get my friend Robin Wills, the manager of the Grosvenor Hotel in Chester, to make a massive, extravagant picnic, because Robin did extravagance better than anyone I knew, as befitted a tobacco company heir
I would invite Fleet Street’s finest to join me in a tour of the Welsh border, visiting pubs. Pubs where you could get a drink in the snug, but not the lounge, the bar but not the dining room, and in once case where the boundary between England and Wales ran through the centre of the pub, on the left hand side of the bar but not the right.

Mulchrone was first on my list.

Late in the afternoon we left the main party and settled down to have a comfortable drink in the Crown in Denbigh, which had never closed in living memory. It was there that Vince told me the story of the time he hired a man to wear a Flook suit at a seaside promotion by the Daily Mail.

Flook was a very popular furry bear, star of the paper’s cartoons page. Vince said he found a reluctant candidate at the town’s labour exchange.

“A fiver,” Vince wheedled, “just for a morning’s walk on the sands.”

“Deck-chairs?” the man asked suspiciously. “I couldn’t give out deck-chairs. It’s me back and I can’t stand heat.”

“It’s not the bloody Sahara,” Vince said, “and we’ll throw in a water bottle. All you’ve got to do is be nice to a few kids.”

The man’s eyes blazed with panic. “It’s not Father Christmas, is it? I couldn’t do Father Christmas; not again. I ‘ad to do it three years ago. Horrible it was. I give out the wrong parcels and a little girl hit me wiv a bleeding train.”

“It’s mid-summer,” Vince told him, “you don’t have Father Christmas in summer.”

“They had me in September that year,” the man countered. “I wouldn’t have to give anything out, would I?”

“Lollipops. In a tray,” Vince told him quickly. “Round your neck. When you’ve given the last one out you’ve finished.”

“They wouldn’t have to sit on my knees, would they? I couldn’t have kids sitting on my knee. They all have wet drawers, you know. It’s the excitement.”

But he was weakening. “How many lollipops?”


He made up his mind. “OK!” he said. “But not a word to this lot. I don’t want to lose me amchoor status.” “And no sitting on bleeding knees,” he warned. “I ain’t ‘aving a conviction for that. Definite.”

“Flook has no knees.”

When they got to the Entertainments Shed on the prom and saw the Flook outfit, the little man changed his mind. “I’m not getting into that bleedin’ thing,” he said. “It’s horrible.”

He agreed when Vince doubled the fee but not even the lure of a third fiver, which Vince had to give him to put on the plastic head, would induce him to remove his cap.

The incessant electronic barking of Flook obviously unnerved him, Vince told me. With a sudden, desperate jerk, the little man tore himself away from the grips of a Circulation man and, banging and dipping his plastic head, shot through the hut door and out into the Great World.

Colliding almost at once with a group of holiday-makers, he tumbled and rolled down the promenade steps to the beach where the weight of his head sent his feet shooting into the air. In a moment he was up and running, little gauntleted hands waving wildly as he struggled to unfasten the head. Zigzagging across the beach, terrifying holiday-makers.

“Look at him!” A Circulation man fumed, “he’s ruining the whole bloody thing leaping about like that. He should be walking slowly, chatting up the children.”

From that day many readers of the Daily Mail were able to get instant obedience from their young by threatening them that Flook was coming. He emptied that beach faster than rain, or even a deck chair attendant. At first the children had been delighted. You could hear a concerted shout of ‘OOOOOH’ all over the front as a horde of children threw away the spades with which they had been burying their fathers and made for Flook. No doubt it was the lollipops that attracted them, for the trail of red toffee which charted his progress down the beach soon became a line of struggling, laughing children. But the mood changed dramatically when, brought to bay at last, the little man turned on his pursuers and started throwing lollipops at their heads.

“It’s all wrong,’ said the man from the Circulation Department pettishly, “there should only be one lollipop to each child. That little girl has been hit twice.”

Vince said he admired the man’s aim: he could not see and was directed solely by sound. Under the circumstances Vince thought he put up a creditable performance. Even when the last lollipop was discharged the man in the Flook suit fought on, hurling pebbles and even rocks of a respectable size. When he finally put the children to flight and sent parents scuttling for the protection of the promenade wall, the little man stood for a moment whimpering, a lonely figure on a deserted beach.

He threw himself down on the sand, kicking at the air as he struggled to pull off his head which by now was dented badly. Finally, he scrambled to his feet, skidding in the wet sand at the sea’s edge. Soon he was paddling, if you could so describe his nervous leaps and surges, as the water washed first round his ankles, then his knees, his little furry thighs and finally his middle as he floated further out to sea.

The Circulation man must have had a sticky few moments on the phone calling out a lifeboat to a man in a bearskin. When he came back he wore the air of a man who has known suffering. “They wanted to know, if they tow it in, do they get salvage money?’ he said.