Wednesday, 21 August 2013


Me and Voltaire have just won the most important argument in our lives. It took him the thick end of three hundred years but my new great grand-daughter managed it in six weeks.

We all thought the answer was prettily summed up  by Voltaire: "Everything is for the best in the best of of all possible worlds."

"What about death?" sneered Most of The Rest of the World. "The end of everything", "All Great Love Affairs End in Death", "The Dying of the Light". Most compelling was the insistence of Christopher Hitchens, the mind I admire most in all the world: "Religion is Rubbish, indeed a Force of Evil."

All of which is true. Then Upspoke The Tiny Presence, fittingly by Internet, more often Evil's most obvious manifestation.
Everything they say about death is true. There is no arguing IT has legs. But they can be knocked from under it with, ironically, its most often used medium, the Internet.  Witness a recent exchange of emails with a grandson:

Have been trying this morning since 7 am to send you £30 quid by alternatively pay pal and various vouchers and gifts for the Bean to mark her first six weeks of life. I have had responses varying from £30 to £60 from both. As you know, I have only 12 months left to get it right. This is just to let you know I am trying.....

He replied:

hey! please don't worry about doing all that, you don't need to get me anything - an email is more than enough. (hey grandad, I re-sent the emails. I hope you manage to do with them what you wanted!! you're far more tech savvy than me! wouldn't know where to start with a blog and not even on Facebook anymore so don't lose hope in your online skills) lots of love to you and granny xxx

 the emails from yesterday and today's picture of Ellie (plus a little extra one from right now) lots of love!  Alex

I'd like to say thanks to my old chum Neil Marr who I met as a near child reporter and and have come to know over half a century as the online beggeter of every good quality. Certainly the only publisher I have ever met who would write to his former partner, who let him down badly, in defence of his cherished authors: 

"BeWrite Books’ unpaid authors, editors and I have now utterly lost patience with you and all confidence in your repeatedly broken promises of full royalty payments to everyone. Also some authors are having great difficulty in placing their work elsewhere because, contrary to agreement, you have allowed BeWrite Books titles to remain displayed at some retail outlets, including Google Books (in their entirety), and stray paperback copies at other sales websites.

"To avoid swift and serious legal action, matters must be put to rights IMMEDIATELY......."
Thanks, too, to Dewi Smith, my radio producer and friend of friends who discovered me, nurtured me and put up with my Rabelaisian ways, making with me a series of programmes including "Radio Brynsiencyn" which had so many loyal listeners.  It was certainly the only programme from Radio Wales to have a fan club with its own ties and jerseys in both Oxford and Yale Universities.
We created this little bit of rollicking heaven and the people who took part gave their roles a vivid life of their own. Especially Rose Roberts who became a frightening Attila the Hoover.
Everyone thinks I am taking death lightly. I am glad this isn't TV. As well as the star of the show, Rose was our housekeeper on Anglesey. She nursed my mother on her death bed and treated my wife and me like unruly kids. I have known RSMs who were lambs in comparison. She became a radio star of comet size. She in turn introduced us to Goronwy, an old sweetheart, who joined Radio Brynsiencyn as the man who, we claimed, powered the radio station by bicycle pedalling.  We called him Goronwy Generator
Rose and Goronwy used to go off of together on trips to theatres in the West End. Rose had a voice twice as famous as Bryn Terfel. Think I am kidding? Once in the queue at the Palladium she gave it full throttle. From far up the queue came: "Bluddy hell, it's Rose Attila the Hoover.  Where's Goronwy Generator?"

A couple of years ago the Welsh Language Radio station Radio Cymru asked her to recall her memories of Welsh island life. She was so good she was picked up by Welsh TV and, at 85,went on to become the star of a TV comedy show.  At nearly 88, she is still a regular weekly guest. 

I have just taken a call from her.She still calls me Mr Skidmore.

"I just come back from bliddy Liverpool," she said. "That specialist says if I have the operation I am too old and I might bloody die. I told him to bugger off. I am having a good life and I am going to enjoy what's left. He might cut the bloody cancer out and next week I have a heart attack."

I have just had a good skreik for both of us and that is the last bliddy one. BUGGER 'EM.

The only woman I have been in love with longer is my wife Celia who has allowed herself in to be known to radio millions round the world as the Head Ferret. She is the summing up of all the qualities after which loyalty was named. I love her utterly, irrevocably, passionately and have done from the moment we met 44 years ago on a bridge over a Welsh mountain river.  She is clever, glamorous and stylish. She wrote award- winning books about the cats, whom she resembles, and she walks like Winnie the Pooh - it's the merry bounce that does it.  For nearly half a century she has been my best friend.  And with not even a single conviction of casual waywardness by either party.
My kids? I cannot think what I love mostly about them. The eldest, Gay Heather, was named after a racehorse which cost me a packet at the Grand National. She has forgiven me for giving her a forename that no longer means the qualities of happy laughter and debonair manner it was intended to convey and has a heart big enough to make a race course.

Her sister Lynn Charmain, the next in line, was so named because she is. She was Campaigning Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards and for years ran, with her husband, a hugely successful Crisis Management Consultancy for NHS  Hospital Trusts. As a reporter she covered Royal Tours, flew with RAF jets and righted more social wrongs than a battalion of Don Quixotes. She is modest with it. As I typed this she came into my study to remind me: "I am a touch typist, sixty words a minute, so I could type that for you....faster."
Happily they all married spouses of whom I approve. And even better,bred well. 

My son, Nicholas St John, I named after the only other St Nick in the calendar who earned his nickname. And incidentally, casually, almost in his spare time, he became an award-winning writer, top TV foreign editor and senior producer of Granada TV, whose boss flew to Italy to recruit him because it was the only way he could get him. 

We have all had a lovely, stormy time together. Choked with admiration of ourselves and each other. With Gay, I fought a losing battle to prevent her from becoming an artist, which is probably why she finished her career as a department head at an Art College, a sort of stormy Mrs Chips who was sent round the world recruiting.
Mostly I love them all because they are all so lovable - and the women are superb cooks. Since I declared Wakes Season the girls have arrived with fabulous frozen dishes of homemade food and have produced banquets for our delight. Particularly brave in Lynn's case as she herself is following a strict diet and is confined to a disgusting menu.
Begone dull care?  I am having such a magic life it would be too ungracious not to enjoy it in such company down to the last heavenly Malt. 

Thanks, everyone, for the memories. Sorry you can't all be at the various wakes. As I said before, glad I will be.

THIS IS THE LONGEST ISLAND I HAVE WALKED BUT NOT THE LAST. JUST THE LAST ON THIS SUBJECT. One last writer's joke. Literally the moment I finished typing this long essay I got an error message on this infernal machine which has been behaving so perversely in recent weeks.

"There has been an error. Please type this again."

Must He always have the Last Word?


Friday, 2 August 2013

skidmore's island: I am one with Socrates. When the time comes for my...

skidmore's island: I am one with Socrates. When the time comes for my...: I am one with Socrates. When the time comes for my Wake I want to be there. After all it's the last party I am going to throw and I will...
I am one with Socrates. When the time comes for my Wake I want to be there. After all it's the last party I am going to throw and I will be paying the waiter. I don't want to be the only one without a drink in my hand. I have established the precedent. When we were married I had a Best Woman, the lovely Lady Langford, and, the bride apart, she was the best looker in the room.

After all, Socrates did it, though the guests at my going away will not be offered hemlock. I am offering single malts and, thanks to my generous American friend Jerry Jasper, I will die an authority on the subject.  My mouth mewed with delight this morning when the postman arrived with a collection of tastings of the finest malts and most noble blends from "Master of Malts".  Let them roll off your tongues:

Ardbeg Uigeadail,  Glenfiddich 18 Year Old,  Ballantines 17 Year Old, Old Pulteney 21 Year Old,  Highland Park 18 Year Old,  Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Year Old,  Auchentoshan 20 Year Old,      Chivas Regal 18 Year Old (3cl 53.20%).

Americans are legendary for their generosity. I know of only one Englishman who approached them.

Freddy Brabin was a wealthy chemist with a shop on a prime site at The Cross in Chester. It was his misfortune to look like Freddy Frinton, the comedian who pretended to be a drunk. Freddy wasn’t pretending. When it came to being a drunk, Freddy was very serious indeed.

He was tiny but drove an enormous Cadillac. When it ran out of petrol he left it where it was and went home by taxi. But not always. Once he was so far gone in the little club we used that I had to drive him home, where he plied me with so much drink he had to get out his Cadillac and drive me back to Chester. But for timely intervention by a third party we might still have been going to and fro.

He was a kindly man. He told me one day how worried he was about the starving children in Africa. He said he had been reading about something called War on Want where people gave public dinners and wondered if I could fill him in with the specifics.

I explained you invited all your friends to dinner, gave them dry bread and water and sent the money a good dinner would have cost to the starving children.

He said, “You must have got it wrong.” He wouldn’t dream, he said, of asking his friends, or for that matter any enemies he might have, to drink water when it was his round. “Besides,” he said, “I thought I would have it at the Country Club and I have never seen bread and water on the menu there.”

So I suggested a compromise. “Give them a decent meal,” I said, “and, whatever it costs, give the equivalent to War on Want.”

Accordingly, about 40 of us sat down to a four course dinner, which followed a champagne reception and ended with vintage port. After the meal Freddie spent a few hours and about a thousand quid downstairs in the Casino.

He didn’t fancy driving home because he kept falling over, so he stayed the night.

The next morning he woke up around six o'clock with a mouth like the floor of a budgie’s cage. In his nightshirt, he wandered down to the kitchens where the early morning chef was still scratching himself and said, “Make us a cup o tea.”

The chef said he didn’t start work, not till seven, so Freddy could …… off.

At seven o’clock Dennis Ewan, the manager, came in and the chef complained to him about drunken guests invading his kitchen. “Just a minute,” said Dennis, “can you smell burning?”

They rushed to the dining room where they saw a crescent made of blazing dining chairs. In the centre stood Freddy, haloed in flames. “Now will you make us a bloody cup of tea?“ he said.

He was quite proud of the fact that he was the only member barred from the Chester Country Club the night after he had spent around two grand there. But, good as gold, he sent the starving kids a cheque for the same amount.


From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: “In 1867 Rossetti decided to put Swinburne (the shy flagellating poet) in the hands of “some sensible young woman who would make a man of him”. He solicited the aid of Adah Isaacs Menken, a stage performer, to seduce him. Needless to say, the attempt failed, and Miss Menken returned the £10 fee to Rossetti as unearned. “I can’t make him understand,” she explained, “that biting’s no use!”

Saturday, 27 July 2013


 Jury back. Guilty advanced lung, bone and re-run of bowel cancer. Retrial on kidneys. Suspended sentence 12 months.

But the good news is that I can have a drink and am about to pour a single malt which I raise to you, my friends, with thanks for your support and all those years of friendship.

I don't recognise the NHS I have been enjoying recently in the lurid stories I am reading. Our hospital in Peterborough offers one-person luxury wards with TV and a bigger bathroom than we had in the Ritz. Tested for everything bar Fowl Pest. Indeed I have to go back for an examination of the kidneys. I think they are entering me for a competition. Cosseted by a succession of nurses and jolly doctors. All Free.

Meanwhile the dog, who saw that for once I was getting more attention than he was, threw a sickie. Vet seized the opportunity to test for every sickness known to science, plus a night in a dog's dormitory. Bill £700 and there is nothing wrong with him.

I was an expert on being poor. When I came out of the army I took a job with a news agency, got married and was sacked the week after we returned from honeymoon.

The only work I could get was a casual Saturday shift on the News of the World, which paid £4 and 10 shillings in real money. My rent for two rooms in a very smart house was £2. I had married a Jewish princess who knew nothing about laundry, even if we had hot water. So we had to pay 2/6 a week to get the washing done. Didn’t cost a lot because I only had two shirts. We could do what we liked with the remaining £2 7s. 6d. which meant we ate every other day.

I had to keep half a crown back to buy myself into a lunchtime drinking school every Thursday at the Waldorf in Cooper Street, Manchester, where John Milligan, the News of the World editor, drank with the news editor, Graham Haslam.

At some time during the hour that followed the news editor would say: “Doin’ anyting on Saturday, Skiddy?”  “Don’t think so, Graham. Why?” “Wonder if you would do the late shift for us?”

It meant a ten mile round walk to the News of the World but for a year that was our only income.

We were in the house one day sharing a cigarette we had made from the week’s collected dimps. The front door bell rang. I was wearing my good suit and my one clean shirt ready to go to the Waldorf, so I went down. There was a tramp at the door.

He said he had just come out of prison and did I have the price of a cup of tea. I said I was broke, and saw him look at the smart house in which I lived, the well cut navy suit and polished shoes I was wearing and then he looked back down the long drive to the road.

The look he gave me, utterly defeated and totally disbelieving, went straight to the heart. Halfway back upstairs I remembered the half crown I had put on one side to buy my way into the round. I ran after him. He looked terribly guilty but I pressed the half crown into his hand and returned home rejoicing.
My wife asked, while I was at the front door, why didn’t I pick up the washing from the front step?

I went back. No wonder the tramp had looked guilty. He had stolen it. For the next six months I had to sit in my vest whilst my shirt was washed under a cold tap so I could go to the Waldorf and get my Saturday shift.

Things gradually got better as the years staggered by. I was once a Chevalier de la Chaine des Rotisseurs or, to use plain English, a Knight of the Brotherhood of the Chain of the Turning Spit, a gourmet club which did things in fine style. Once we hired a dining coach to be put on the end of the Crewe to Bournemouth express on an occasion when we were eating away from home. My friend, the 9th Baron Langford, who was our Baillie and was kindly contributing several bottles of ’47 port, insisted the pair of us interview the station master at Crewe to ensure all was hunky dory. Station masters love a lord and this one donned morning dress and a topper to meet us. At the baron’s request, he introduced us to “our” engine driver.

“My grandfather,” confided the baron to the startled driver, “always maintained there was no greater pleasure than making love in a sleeping car as the train went over a set of points.” (The Brotherhood was very strong on such niceties. One elderly brewer assured me that no kisses were more erotically charged than when the girl had been drinking yellow chartreuse and the man green. An estate agent called Ramos declined a dessert that was served in a cocoon of spun sugar on the grounds that it would be like eating the pubic hairs of a fairy.)

“However,” the 9th Baron told the engine driver, “what might be an aid to lovemaking is very bad for port. So I would be grateful if you would slow down as you approach any set of points on our journey.”

The extraordinary thing was that the engine driver did.

 On another occasion we had been to a Normandy banquet at the Piccadilly Plaza in Manchester where our guests had been Louis Edwards, the Lord Mayor of Manchester, and Sonny, the then Marquis of Milford Haven. After the meal, Geoffrey Langford and I took them to the champagne bar where Edwards ordered a tankard of Moet, the 9th Baron, Mumms, and Sonny, Louis Roederer.

To this day I do not know why, when it came to my turn, I asked for a chip butty. The waitress took the order without demur and soon returned with the champagne, followed by a waiter bearing the finest chip butty I have ever seen. The bread was home made, the butter runny and the golden chips had hard crusts protecting inner potato, soft as a baby’s cheek. The silver platter on which they were served also carried salt, pepper and vinegar. Interspersed ‘twixt chip and plate was a neatly cut, and probably ironed, square of newspaper.

“By God,” said the 9th Baron, “that looks good. Bring me one!” “And me,“ said the Marquis of Milford Haven. “And me,” said the Lord Mayor of Manchester.

I have achieved little in life but I did introduce the aristocracy to the chip butty. Which, on a point of information, goes very well with champagne and is as good a way as any to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Other members included restauranteurs who took it in turns to host our banquets. One, Roland Genty, had come to Manchester during the war to train as a parachutist to be dropped in occupied France. Roland was frighteningly tough. Quiche Lorraine was his signature dish. Naturally it featured on the menu when he hosted. Alas, there was a delay which seemed endless in the serving of his Quiche. He went to the kitchen to remonstrate. He returned and addressed us gravely:

"My Lord and messieurs, I fear there will be a delay. Unfortunately the waiter dropped a tray of the Quiche...and, naturellement, the chef has stabbed him."

Alas, my appetite has diminished but happy memories remain.  My favourite chippie was the Sea Waves fish and chip emporium in Menai Bridge on Anglesey.  We usually had a table in the window, in the spotless tiled restaurant bar, furnished in bright white and yellow plastic. Rashid, the Turkish chef-owner, came to Menai Bridge via the Piccadilly Hilton and the Gleneagles Hotel.  Much was expected and we were never disappointed.

Rashid was a consummate artiste whose fish and chips went through purifying fires of very high temperature to emerge with the lightest of sun tans, crisp and mouth watering. His haddock was so fresh I swear it was singing sea shanties. Rashid his skill with the mushy pea was legendary.  He scorned to mush to viscosity, as lesser fish fryers do. His peas, though pliant to the palate, retained their traditional shape and texture.

A happy substitute has, I'm glad to say, been found in Dave, of Snappers in March, from where the dog also enjoys a tasty sausage. Oh, for the appetite of yesteryear...

Friday, 19 July 2013


........ And God spoke unto Adam and He said, "Why does it take you so long to come to the phone?"

Adam said: "Have you seen the size of this garden? Also I wish you would have a word with that angel you sent with a blazing sword. I've got scorch marks on the dahlias and the heat is bringing on the chrysanths too early..."

God said: "The angel is Security and outside my remit. But there has obviously been a mistake.
He shouldn't be there till apple picking... "

"I wanted Dobermans,” He continued, “but Finance estimate an overall saving with flames that is very impressive. It's something they picked up from the Competition.

“We are working on garden staffing levels. Research and Development were going to let you invent the plough, then we planned electricity, which I personally am very excited about and cannot wait to
create Faraday."

Adam said: "Talk is cheap. When do I get to invent the plough?”

God said: "R and D have come up with this new concept. Run it up the tree trunk and see if it flaps."

Adam said: "God, sometimes you say things which are a mystery to me..."

God said: "Goes with the territory. But about this R and D idea. It will do the gardening; it's an
entertainment concept and does home nursing.

“R and D are working on a modem called sex which completely does away with the spare rib method I originally planned. It will need a User Manual. I'm thinking of calling it the Ten Commandments."

Adam said: "Does this machine have a name?"

God said: "What's in a name, as Shakespeare is going to say. We were going to call it a slave and then a skivvy but Marketing said names like that give off the wrong vibes, consumerwise. So what we finally came up with was Woman. What takes the Woe out of Man - Woman. Neat,eh?
Copywriting and Graphics reckon we could achieve a 98 per cent penetration of A and AB markets."

Adam said: "I want an assurance from management that this woman machine will never be programmed to take executive decisions..."

And God spoke and He said: "Thursday already? I have to go. I have two days' creating before my rest day..."

And He rang off. It was only later when Eve harvested the apples and there was this leak from
Head Office about relocation that Adam remembered he had been given no guarantees about negative parity for the woman machine. And Adam was sore afraid........

Always enjoyed medical humour.

On Anglesey the doctor sat behind a curtain in the village hall and patients went behind for confidential chats. He said he heard some very odd things like: "Ello Mrs Williams, you didn't come to surgery last week." "No Mrs Jones, I wasn't well enough."

Tricky sort of chap is God. I think those Commandments had a bad effect on Him. Go to any lengths to get me to do as I am told. You may have noticed the way he hired a very iffy bunch of unemployed angels to dominate the tele this week, coughing in the most unhygienic way and bullying folk into having an early tip off on lung cancer. I fell for it even though I have had some very unpleasant experiences on being scanned. The first rectal scan I had was ruined by musak in the clinic. I suppose He thought it was funny to play the Beach Boys singing 'Good Vibrations'. The nurse said I was lucky: last week it was 'I'll be glad when you are dead, you rascal you'.

The next visit was even worse. Tipping the scales at 21 stone, I couldn't fit in the tunnel. They suggested in all seriousness ringing round the zoos which have tunnels big enough to test elephants. I declined with icy politeness.

The hospital rang to ask how I felt about putting on a doughnut. I thought they were having me on but it turned out to be a giant hoop. You lie on a bed and this circle passes up and down your body. I said my old mate Whimsical Walker used to do that years ago in Billy Smart's Circus to great acclaim.

When I went for my blood test this week a battalion of nurses asked me how I was. I said: "That's why I am here, so you can tell me how I am." I seem to have spent a life time  in Dracula's pantry.Yesterday they had difficulty finding an arm that still had blood in it. I suggested they tried the throat. It always worked for Vincent Price. They obviously have his blood lust.

I had not been home five minutes when I was recalled to the hospital because my blood was abnormal. Worst half hour in my life followed and I cannot even pronounce the name of the test. The upshot was I have got lung cancer and will not bother making plans beyond next summer. I could easily drop off the twig next year.

I say nothing of the sheer unfairness of loading me with lung cancer when I haven't had a fag for a quarter of a century. Pick me up time won't be the same. It used to be G and T and malt whisky. Now it's paracetamol and a morphine mixture that tastes of bananas.

Busy time for St Peter. My good friend the Marquess of Anglesey died on the day I got the Black Spot. He gave me a home when I was having a bad time, got me a pension when the Welsh Establishment was giving me a kicking and did lots of kindnesses. He was 90. I lost another friend, Elaine Morgan, on the same day. Elaine, who died age 92, was a leading Welsh writer who was named Columnist of the Year at last year’s Regional Press Awards. Until earlier this year she was still writing for the Western MailShe wrote her final column for the paper in January and decided to retire after suffering a stroke. She was a good pal and a terrific broadcaster but that is the first peaceful thing she has ever done.

How do I feel about joining them? Rather like Damon Runyon when he got a similar diagnosis. He wrote a very moving column on the subject of  "Why me?" The last words were "Why Not?"

Friday, 12 July 2013

They didn't believe me........

Thanks to Jimmy Lovelock's lady for finding this proof of anecdote. That it still exists is a tiny miracle.

We used to live in
LLANFAIRPWLLGWYNGYLLGOGERYCHWYRNDROBWYLLLLANTYSILIOGOGOGOCH. Living in a Welsh village, the name of which you cannot pronounce, plays havoc with your social life. Pub crawls are impossible. Imagine ringing for a cab at closing time and trying to tell the driver where to take you. I have had trouble in the past with Oswestry; and Llanuwchllyn is out of the question. Dwygyfylchi is worse but it is shorter. It reminds me of the English writer at the Hay on Wye Literary Festival where I interviewed Rowan Williams, then bishop of |Monmouth and later Archbishop of Canterbury. It had as its Green Room an infants’ schoolroom in which all drawers were  labelled in Welsh.  “Is that where they keep the vowels?” the writer asked, with persuasive innocence. A great place to live but a constant humiliation.

I used to know a colourful line in archbishops but my favourite is Dr Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales, who relieves stress by baking unbelievably rich cream gateaux. I met him just before my Hay appearance and told him I was interviewing Williams on the Disestablishment of the Church in Wales and I hadn't the faintest idea what that was.

"Don't worry," he said. " That has never bothered you in the past. Anyway, I am meeting him at the Synod. Tell him if he is rude to you it's Croziers at Dawn."

Another old chum was the Bishop of Hereford, the only non-royal with the power vested, in the time of medieval Welsh rebellions, to raise an army and to nail the skin of any Welshman he found in the city after dark to the door of Hereford Cathedral.

When I lived in Wales I used to do a weekly broadcast on Australian radio and always signed off
“...good night from Llanfairpwllgwyngyll.............”

Every week without fail after the broadcast went out, an expatriate Taff would ring me in a rage from Brisbane: “If yer caint pronounce the name why don’t you move to f......... Rhyl?”

He was lucky to get through.  An Australian fan tried to write to me for nearly a year but his letters all came back from the Australian post office marked “No Such Place”.   I know about this because he rang his sister in Derby to check with a friend in Mold if he had the address right and she rang me to find out.

It is not just the Australians who had trouble. The vicar of the parish church in Upton Scudamore in Wiltshire sought a contribution to the restoration of my ancestors’ tombs.  He sent the letter to the Isle of Anglesey - by air mail.  It  came by road from Manchester airport across one of the two bridges which linked us to the mainland.

For some time the Post Office in Chester refused even to put Isle of Anglesey on its database. Whenever I asked for a Welsh number a Query Page flashed up. “Do you mean Wales, Yeovil,” it asked, “or Wales, Sheffield?”

I used to drink for Wales so I was well known there. Bit surprising then that at a computer shop in Wrexham my application to buy a PC on the drip was turned down. The manager was surprised too.  He rang his finance office in Leeds. They said: “It’s the address. There is no such place." The manager said: “There must be.  He's just come from there.”

The trick is to make up a name. My credit card statement from the Royal Bank of Scotland was always addressed to me at Virgin and Childs Cottage at Brymsitmoy, which, so far as I know, is the
Welsh Brigadoon because it does not exist.  But the bill arrived every month.

The whole Llanfair etc., etc. name is a con. I do not know a Welshman who couldn’t give Machiavelli six blacks and still beat him off the table. They invented almost their entire history. Outsiders are not told the Great Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr was a general in the English army, married to an Englishwoman, or that his half-Welsh legitimate children married into the English aristocracy. Only his nine bastards married Welsh people. Edward I  invaded Wales with an army of 15,000, of which 11,000 were English. Even the Welsh 'Not' is not. Though the English Not is widespread.

Our village was for centuries called Llanfairpwllgwyngyll.  A lovely name which means the “Marychurch by the white hazel pool”. When Stevenson brought the railway to Anglesey there
were no plans to build a station here. But no station would have meant the lucrative tourist trade passing us by and we weren’t having that. A local cobbler added a description to the name and wrote it on slips of paper which he then put in plain brown envelopes and sold as a cure for lock-jaw. We became overnight and irrevocably the village with the longest name in the world:
Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwryndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. The addition means “near the fierce whirlpool with the church of St Tysilio by the red cave.”

As a result we became so famous our local draper’s shop was - and still is - the size of a bus depot, visited by coachloads of visitors from all over the world.  So much so the shop has a sign post which shows the distance from Llanfairpwll to the North Pole and cities the world over, including New York and Tokyo, all the homes of customers.

I just wonder how Japanese coach drivers cope when they got lost. I suspect a lot of our oriental business ends up as day trips to Bangor.

When I said Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch English listeners found my command of language impressive. Welsh speaking listeners shuddered. That was my problem. I lived in a place I could not  pronounce.

The Welsh can do things with their curious assemblies of letters that in other cultures can only be achieved by musical notation. Welsh is not just a language: it is performance art. "Becod" is pity carried almost to the point of tears and no girl, surely, can resist the sweet blandishment of "cariad", against which sweetheart sounds like a lump of toffee.

In Wales pronunciation is the key to acceptance. It is phonetic freemasonry and it is planetary.
As I said, I used to broadcast every week to Australia a newsletter about life in Britain. I was a sort of Alistair Coookaburra.

Because - as it sometimes seems - the entire population of Australia is either Welsh or from Liverpool, which is  much the same thing, my producer insisted that I call it "A Letter from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllandysiliogogogoch". I tried not to because of the previously mentioned irate Welsh Australian who telephoned me from Brisbane to complain. His telephone bill must have been longer than my address. Not only can I not PRONOUNCE  Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogh; nor even act it. I cannot write it down  except with great difficulty. Mail order purchase, the mad lottery of the glossy magazine bargain offer, was forever closed to me. There was never room on the coupon for my address.

To live in a fictional island in a village you cannot pronounce is to know despair. Though to be strictly ecumenical I have had some pretty bizarre postal experiences in England. When we lived on the City Walls in Chester I worked under the window in the sitting room (I will write in a future column about bitter injustice and how whenever we move my wife gets a study and I write on the corner of a table). Through the window I could watch the postman coming, a mixed blessing when you owe as much as I did in those halcyon days of determined debauchery. Mostly I watched the advance of the daily sheaf of bills. One day a month I looked forward to his visits. That was the day he brought my selection from Records With Pleasure, recordings of potted versions of Shakespearean plays put out by the Daily Express. On this occasion I hurried to the door to take the precious recording from his hands. Too late. He had already folded it neatly in half and posted it through the box.

There was a certain cachet in having the only crescent-shaped production of Macbeth on record, but playing was not easy. No sooner had the warrior tones of Macbeth boomed questions at the three witches than Birnam wood was galloping to high Dunsinane hill as the needle slipped down the inner slope of the crescent like a demented skier.

The man the Post Office sent to process my complaint was dressed to intimidate.Why else should a man who arrived on a red bicycle wear a crash helmet and black leather gauntlet gloves? He clearly did not believe my story. Indeed he seemed convinced I was the Mr Big of an international ring of record benders. Finally he conceded my complaint. But he was not done. As he left he uttered a sentence that has lodged itself in my mind: "Do not dispose of the record without permission," he warned. "It is now the property of the Post Office and we may need to call it in."

For God's sake, tell me. Does the Post Office run to crescent-shaped gramophones?.

Thursday, 4 July 2013


I have had a tip off from the doctor. There is a shadow on my lung. Provokingly he won't say which lung, nor even describe it so that I can take the necessary action. Is it a Bogart shadow, all trilby hat, upturned Burberry collar, a wisp of cigarette smoke and the tell tale pocket bulge of a Luger, or  worse a Gluck. Or is it one of those merry shadows of a rabbit, a giraffe or a crouching lion which you can create on a sheet by manipulating your fingers. I would prefer that on the whole. I could never tell what Bogart was twitching.
I do hope its not one of those formless clouds so beloved of ghost stories. If they are formless how do you know what they are? Do they have a beginning and where do they end ? It would be nice if they were Siamese Temple Dancers one can operate by sticks of Balsa wood.
I do not see how it can effect me. How curtail my life? I don't have a life outside "Lewis" and endless repeats of  "Morse" and "Midsomer Murders." Something in the way of a web would be fetching. Bad call. Just back from the doctors. Its Bogart. More tests than Botham. Hope it doesn't end with a jar full of ashes.............................


My garden is my favourite thing although I am not, and never was, an obsessive gardener. When I lived at Tattenhall on the Welsh border I had to remonstrate with an enthusiastic neighbour whose
flower seeds blew over the fence and choked my weeds. At a subsequent flat on the Rows in Watergate Street, Chester, the single window box was tended by a firm of jobbing gardeners which was also responsible for the hyacinth bowl.They were also charged with maintaining the level of sugar and water in my pet spider's food bowl.

So there is no need to warn me that lawn mowing brings on heart attacks. More active gardeners may wish to know that it is the first cut of the season that is the unkindest cut of all and does the damage.
Doctors call it 'lawnmower angina' and I can take a hint. When my doctor said I was so overweight the slightest exertion could kill me, I acted at once. I gave up exertion.

Now I leave the garden to Paul. At our property on the Isle of Anglesey I was proud of my traditional
cottage garden. You would have loved  it. Right in the middle of my land I grew this traditional cottage; the rest was nature, red in tooth and claw. I am sure Conan Doyle had my bindweed in mind when he wrote "The Speckled Band". I wouldn't go out after dark in case it had me by the throat and dragged me off to its lair in the ivy that was gradually dismembering the garden wall.

The dog wouldn't go near the place. After the summer she was so covered in burrs she was four times propositioned by kerb-crawling hedgehogs. And the cat was mugged by a robin. I had convolvuli that could bring down a running rabbit in its own length and dandelions that were bred from real lions.
When you pulled my nettles they pulled back. I had nettle-strengthened soil so vitamin choked you could plant a seedling in the garden and by the time you reached the back door it was six foot tall and waving at you. Tendrils from my peas plucked passing pigeons out of the sky.

The real trouble with gardening is that whatever you grow you always have two hundred over.
Especially lettuce. Breed like triffids and there is no sight in nature more terrifying than a lettuce gone to seed.

Mind you, I love gardens. Other people's, where someone else does the weeding and you can
stretch out on a lawn without that nagging worry that it is growing so fast you are levitating and if you don't rush in for the mower you are going to have an angry giant fee-fi-fo-fuming at you. Also you don't have to buy packets of seed which cost you more than the Indians were paid for Long Island.
Can you understand it? Every year you weed away annuals that have sown themselves. Every marigold has enough seeds on its stem for the deposit on a house. Yet when you buy a packet the only variety you get is King's Ransom because that is what it cost.

And now we have something else to worry about. Killer tomatoes from outer space. American schoolchildren projected 12.5 million tomato seeds into space. After six years they came back and no sooner had they been planted in schools across America than NASA warned that their exposure to cosmic radiation meant they could be toxic. Lethal tomato butties. On top of which I do not understand why grown men want to float around on their backs doing unmentionable things into plastic bags just to get to the Moon. I would almost rather go to the Costa Brava.

All this recent TV talk of pigeons reminds me that my chum William Cross has been delving further into the colourful life of Evan, Viscount Tredegar, who, you may remember, was court martialled for disclosing the secrets of the Army Pigeon loft he commanded to two ladies who came to tea. Cross has discovered the diaries of the late Robin Bryans, who at the age of sixteen became one of the Viscount's army of male lovers, which included our former prime minister Harold Macmillan and Winston Churchill's brother Peter. In fairness, Cross insists that readers must make up their own minds about the veracity of Bryans' extraordinary account of the Viscount's hidden world. The book is entitled "Not Behind Lace Curtains". It is worth saying that the stories in it are backed up by a considerable catalogue of sources. I found it fascinating.

Saturday, 29 June 2013


First an apology. I now find everyone but McQueen did get the blog. Sorry. Here in recompense is a letter from Peter Reece:

Of course we received the blog last week.McQueen was obviously pissed. Loved the piece on Harrap, but particularly the memory of Bill Marshall.

Back in the early sixties I was wandering through the backstreets of Istanbul (dont ask why) when I came across an old Land Rover with UK plates. In a nearby tea shop I found its owner, a very handsome English lady, somewhat older then myself, but very desirable. I knew I was in luck when she asked me to escort her to Southern Iran where she was a nurse at an oil refinery somewhere across the Shatt al-Arab river. It’s a bloody long way through Turkey, the Lebanon, Syria and across the desert pipeline route through Iran (or was it still Persia then?) but a single woman had no chance of driving alone through Moslem countries.

Well anyway, we were somewhere near Damascus when the lady enquired if I actually had a job.

“Journalist,” said I proudly, having just been fired from the Sandbach Chronicle for landing a fantastic exclusive about Jodrell Bank without telling the editor first. He claimed I wasn’t qualified to find such a great story, and certainly not senior enough to write it. “Fuck!” said the lady at my side, which obviously left me wondering why she harbored a deep distrust of our species. “I was married to Bill Marshall,” she admitted with very obvious regret.
That would be Kathy, his first wife who threw terrific parties, from which her husband was barred


I spent my childhood nights in an air raid shelter whilst Nazi bombers did their best to shorten my childhood. We were a nation of Burrowers, in turn cowering and exuding relief  in pits covered with corrugated iron as bombs exploded. Yet every  night we listened eagerly to the Berlin Radio from whence a phony Englishman we called Lord Haw Haw warned us that Hitler was going to annihilate  us. We thought it hilarious.

The Ministry of Information plastered the walls with posters warning us that spies were listening to our every unguarded word. Wisely the Ministry had them drawn by a talented cartoonist called Fougasse. We thought them hilarious too.

In his book on Stalingrad Anthony Beevor writes: "When a winter-campaign medal was issued the following year, it quickly became known as the ‘Order of the Frozen Flesh’. There were more serious cases of disaffection. Field Marshal von Reichenau, the commander-in-chief of the Sixth Army, exploded in rage just before Christmas on finding the following examples of graffiti on the buildings allotted for his headquarters: ‘We want to return to Germany’; ‘We’ve had enough of this’; ‘We are dirty and have lice and want to go home.'

"In Berlin, a city all but flattened by our reciprocal bombs, the humour was typically more dark and gothic than ours. 'Buy a useful present this Christmas," their comics advised. 'A coffin'."

Hardly a joke that would make it to ITMA, our weekly radio laugh-in. The programme was produced in Bangor by a man called Worsley whose son was to become a broadcasting chum of mine. He came home from school one day demonstrating a schoolboy jape. If you talked into the rim of a glass you could deepen your voice. His father was delighted. There was a new character in the show that week. It was a German spy called Funf who spoke into a glass darkly. It swept the nation.

If you look at any photographs taken in the Fifties everyone is smiling yet in contemporary photographs there isn't a happy tooth to be seen. Our media resembles nothing so much as the Fat Boy in the Pickwick Papers 'who wants to make yer flesh creep.'

This week we have reacted with horror to the news that the Government is reading our emails. It came as no surprise to me.When I was suspected of being a Welsh terrorist, Special Branch detectives showed me album after album of processions and demonstrations taken by Plod Photographers.
Today most of my email consists of bewildering pictures of naked women, sent to me by friends old enough to know better, and jokes so venerable one wonders they make the journey unaided. I feel sorry for any luckless terror-taker who has to read them every morning.

There is admittedly diminishing cause for glee. Although we are among the 'rich' nations we are closing libraries and lavatories, the roads are a disgrace, respectable people are queuing at soup kitchens and the disabled are being evicted because they cannot afford to pay an iniquitous bedroom tax. The cream of our warriors are being taken from the front line to be thrown on the scrapheap. In the past century our Leaders have launched 165 wars in which 180 million have given their lives at the cost of 350 million dollars. The Ministry of Health plans to strip 135,000 elderly and disabled survivors of basic care such as help with washing and dressing, yet despite protests they do not need it, we continue  to hurl gold coins at the heads of Africans, Chinese and Indians who are much richer than we are.

Rather than cheer us up the Government is intent on wiping the smile off our collective faces. They have set up a watchdog, the Efficiency and Reform Group, to house keep. It costs £72 million a year to run but it apparently hasn't noticed £500 million spent sending the children of senior officers and diplomats to public schools. Members of the Civil Service, which complains of cuts, get two and a half privilege days off a year, £75 evening dress allowance, loans to buy bicycles, as well as £912,000 a year subsidized flying lessons, diving lessons and trips to Barbados. Members of Parliament, of course, are preoccupied negotiating a massive pay rise for themselves. No wonder we cannot take life as light heartedly as when we were only being bombed.We are living in a world where in two years we are likely to be plunged into darkness. We are tied into a Europe which is going bust, country by country, where one in four young people cannot find a job. I wish it were yesterday.

When my good friend Jimmy Lovelock died few believed it. Death must have had quite a struggle because Jim was the stuff that old boots are made from.

Editor of a weekly newspaper in his twenties, he was crippled with polio as a child yet nevertheless became a mountaineer, a pot-holer and a member of the expedition which climbed Nuptse, Everest’s younger sister. Working for the Daily Mail, he once scaled the south face of the building and climbed through the window into the editor’s office.

He was also my boss for a day and a half when he was proprietor of  Stockport News Service.

Jim was a remarkable man who collected oddities. The rest of the staff of Stockport News Service was an odd little chap called Mickey. We had to find him to be introduced - and that was never easy. A year after his arrival, no one knew Mickey’s surname and I don’t think anyone ever found out where he lived.

He was invariably respectful and called Jimmy 'Master'. He had a single purpose in life: to discover how millionaires made their first thousand pounds. Their memoirs, said Mickey who had read them all, always included the phrase, 'with my first thousand pounds I bought…' but never explained where the thousand pounds had come from.

He thought they had nicked it; but scorning that as being too easy, he tried dealing. He only really mastered the art of acquiring: disposal escaped him. To Jimmy’s puzzled chagrin, he used the Agency’s office as his warehouse. There were racks of clothes of improbable sizes; a job lot of stringless violins, picked up for a song, inevitably tuneless; twenty gross of heavily tinselled cards wishing 'A Happy Xmas for 1948' which he bought in 1951; and other less saleable items. You could never find a pen there, or even a typewriter; but anyone in need of a stringless violin was easily accommodated.

Next he tried gambling, a curious reversal. This time, disposing was child’s play: acquiring, he never quite mastered.

He had one suit he wore to the office, except on the days when he wore a mackintosh in the hope that 'Master' would not notice he was wearing only a shirt, tie and underpants beneath, having pawned the suit. The gartered socks were a give-away.

By the time I arrived, Jimmy had taken to paying him by the day. The second day there I got an out of town job - I was, after all, the only member of staff who could be relied on to turn up in a suit. Wilmslow Magistrates Court, which in those days could be reached from Stockport by train, was hardly outer space but Mickey anxiously took me for a couple of pints to stiffen the sinews. One pint led to another and by the time I got on the train I was exhausted, fell into a deep sleep and woke up in Crewe. I had seen enough Hollywood newspaper films to know what to do. I rang the office on a transfer charge call and asked Jimmy to wire me my fare back to Stockport. I was touched that he went further: he drove all the way to Crewe to collect me. I see now that the reason was that it gave him a greater opportunity for an in-depth character assessment, but at the time I thought it a charming gesture.

We were nearing Stockport when he ended his assessment. “Skiddy,” he said, “we have two alternatives. Either I employ you or we stay friends.” Again I was very touched: it was my friendship he valued.

He generously paid me for a day and a half, but despite the joint urgings of Mickey and myself, refused to add the one and a half hours’ holiday money to which we felt I was entitled. After over sixty years the debt remains unpaid, though I have over the years mentioned it many times, even sent bills to his retirement home in Spain. He always copped me a deaf ‘un.

In the fullness of time he came to work for me, doing shifts when I ran the night desk on the Sunday Pictorial. I tried to have my holiday money docked from his shift money, but the linage department was obdurate. No honorable amendment, not even when he made a fortune doing night shifts for six nationals, on one occasion sleeping in his car outside the vicarage in Cheshire in case his prey, the naughty Vicar of Woodford, sneaked back from his love-nest in the South of France.

In fairness, he did bring me a Kukri back from Nepal when he climbed Nuptse and I treasure it to this day.

I was especially touched because he would have had every right to be cross. George Harrap, the picture editor, and I had sent him a telegram as soon as the news broke of his successful attempt. “Is there froth on the top?” it read, rather cleverly, we thought. We didn’t know that it would take the Sherpa who delivered it three days to climb the mountain.

Mickey? No idea. The last time we met we were having lunch with Lord (Tony) Moynihan when his wife’s breast fell out. She was a tassle dancer and was very kindly demonstrating that antique art. Somehow, in the excitement of that, I never got round to finding out whether Mickey made his first thousand, but I was pleased to see he was not wearing his Mac.

My American chum Jerry Jasper brought a smile to my face with this:

"The Skidmore Fountain was dedicated September 22, 1888, in memory of Stephen G. Skidmore, a wealthy Portland druggist who died in 1883,[1] and partly financed by his willl.  It is styled after fountains Skidmore viewed at Versailles on his visit to the 1878 Paris Exposition and intended for "horses, men and dogs" to drink from. Henry Weinhard offered to pump beer into the fountain at the dedication.[1]
The open area around the fountain attracts street performers and entertained spectators. The fountain also serves as a gathering point for several Portland events, such as SantaCon.,Plunderathon and the Zombiewalk and several protest/activist gatherings."
You see, our idea of fun is to walk like Zombies. Come back Henry Weinhard we need you badly.

Thursday, 20 June 2013


A great week for fecundity. I went today for a test of my foolish heart, foolishly.

"What are you going to do?" I asked nervously.

"It's the test we give pregnant ladies," the nurse told me.

Now I know the Good Lord has in his lack of wisdom designed me on circular lines but this was altogether too much. Over the near century I cannot tell you the number of clumsy jokes I have suffered. Not only jokes. The last time I went to the dentist I was required to fill in a form denying I was pregnant.

The nurse reassured me. All she was going to do was rub cooling ointment on me and send exciting little charges coursing through my eager body.

"I won't bring the wife, then?"

"Oh bring her," insisted the nurse,"she will be interested."

By the time we arrived the little heart was pounding. The wife was reserving her options. Reassuring myself that there were no three-king-carrying camels in the car park, I hurried to begin what sounded like a merry meeting. It wasn't. The nurse just took pictures which came up on a screen which I couldn't see because my face was turned to the wall. The nurse was right, though. My wife WAS interested. But my tale of fecundity was not done.

First Great Grand-daughter. Now I have full set!!!


Not all meetings have been so trouble free:

Harrop by Ed Rawlinson

When Oscar Levant was conscripted, the recruiting sergeant asked him if he would be able to kill the enemy. Levant replied: ‘The enemy? No. A friend? Yes.’

His friends felt much the same about George Harrop.

George was Night Picture Editor of the Daily Mirror in Manchester when I ran the night news desk, a job I would have held much longer had someone else run the picture desk. A former cinema manager, wartime Chindit and PR man, he had the fastest tongue in the West - and also the loosest. Predictably so, since he incessantly lubricated it with whisky. He was even shaped like a Dimple Haigh bottle.

The telephone was his straight man, and his conversations with it were endless. On one occasion, the Sports Editor Peter Thomas tweaked his phone line out of its socket. George went on talking for a full five minutes.

His tongue frequently got him into trouble, but it feared no man. Not even an editor, a wartime Commando major whose nickname was ‘Strangler’ and who had once held a junior executive by his ankles out of a fourth floor window.

"George, get off the bloody phone," he raged one night.

"Have to go,’ said George, in a voice everybody in the room heard, "the editor wants permission to change a crosshead."

A photographer who fell foul of him was ‘a panchromatic Judas Iscariot’. Describing the foremen’s Christmas lunch at a smart hotel, he said: "They rushed through the swing doors in their suede clogs shouting, 'Where is the foremen’s lavatory?”’

Once, returning home, he could not find his front gate. He hacked a great hole in the hedge, assuming he was back in the Chindits. It would be dishonourable to him to call him predictable.

I was not the only man to suffer from his friendship. Another martyr, the Night News Editor of the Daily Express, was on his way to a Christmas party when he discovered George asleep in the back of his car. Something which quite often happened to many of us.

Good sense dictated dumping him at the earliest - or nearest – convenience, but foolishly he took him to the party. In quite a short time, the host was so keen that my friend should take George home that he gave him the keys of his car.

The years have not diminished the horror of that drive. Distracted by George’s seamless monologue down some imagined phone, my friend drove over the bumpy flowerbeds of a roundabout. This startled George who demanded to know where he was and how he could open the steamed-up passenger window. A few moments later, my friend felt a breeze and assumed George had opened the window. But his seat was empty and in the rear mirror my friend saw a bundle of rags rolling down the road. George had opened the door and fallen out.

Numb with fright, my friend knelt in the road beside the rags, fearing the worst. To his relief, George`s head emerged. He got to his feet, dusted himself down and insisted on being taken to a pub 500 yards down the road. The pub was in darkness but George hammered on the door until the bedroom lights went on and the landlady appeared in her dressing gown and curlers.

"Madam," said George at his most courtly, "I am sorry to have awakened you but there has been a terrible accident. The victim is in shock: a large medicinal brandy would help."

Still half asleep, she only began screaming for the police when George explained that he was the victim and that he preferred his brandy without ice or soda…

My friend eventually shook George off, which was never easy, and got home on Boxing Day to find his wife had left him. The party host subsequently attacked him with his crutch when my friend told him he could not remember where he had left his car.

Alas, George has long ago gone to the Great Saloon Bar in the Sky. Somehow R.I.P seems inappropriate.

Friday, 14 June 2013


The civilised world may be tumbling round our ears, World War 3 may be sharing our Christmas, the Government may be alone in not realising that Britain is broke. There remains one crumb of comfort. Stephen Fry, nibbling at his aspirin butty, perennially peddling his gobbets of knowledge, is not equipped to breed with Mary Portas, of whom I cannot catch a sight without every quality of mercy dropping like a gentle monsoon from heaven and gurgling down the plug hole of consciousness.

It is her boast that she decided to crusade for shopkeepers when she read that shops were closing at the rate of 100 a week. Judging by the advice I heard her giving on a dire Channel 4 show, she has easily improved on that figure. She told a charity shop that it would improve its sales if it increased its prices. In less prosperous days I bought my clothes at charity shops BECAUSE THEY WERE CHEAPER. At twenty stone and five foot eight, I had achieved dimensions at which people were dropping like flies so there was no shortage of gentlemen's light and casual.

I put my permanent poverty down to a friend I made early in my career. Search hard enough and there is always one word which exactly describes a person. In the case of Bill Marshall that word was 'outrageous'. I did not know what trouble was until I met Marshall, the Daily Mirror district man in Liverpool. He was a library of opposites. Lanky without being tall; a Lincolnshire lad with an American accent; immaculate blazer worn with stained trousers; cowboy boots without socks; wild hair and an occasional beard.

That was the picture I had when I saw him for the first time in the Liverpool Press Club a week after I joined the Daily Dispatch. Though we kept in touch until the weeks before his death and I loved him like a brother, we did not see each other for 30 years. Which may explain why I was able to have a successful career as an author and broadcaster. Had Bill still been around there would not have been time and I could well have been in prison.

I should have been warned when his wife invited me to a party at his flat at Formby and said, “Don’t bring Bill.” Getting barred from your own house takes dedication and a lot of effort.

There was the time he sold my passport and used the money to buy drugs for re-sale. But he wanted to be sure they were genuine. In those days Bert Balmer was Head of the CID in Liverpool and his deputy was a man called Jimmy Morris. They were both members of the Press Club. This night he passed me the drugs and said, “Go and ask Bert what it is.” So in his thrall was I that I went to the head of CID and said, “Bert, what are these?” passing him some curled-up leaves.

“Bill sent you?” asked that excellent man, and then passed them to Jimmy. “What do you think, Jimmy? Rhododendron or Azalea?”

"Azalea," said Jimmy as he handed them back to me. "But tell your mate Bill they'll never grow.  He'll need seed for that, not shredded leaves."

There was the time he bought a roulette wheel and made me go out and buy a black shirt and white tie and be the croupier. I thought they looked silly with a sports jacket but I always did what he said. Even when he got me to shave off half the beard of News Chronicle reporter Jackie Yeadon as he slept drunkenly on the club sofa and then prop him up still asleep on a parapet whilst Bill shouted: “Roll up and see the midget with half a beard!" at the Saturday shoppers below in Lime Street. Yeadon was small - and majestic with it. During the war he had got extra meat by telling the butcher he was the captain of a midget submarine.

Anyway, I stood behind the wheel of a game I did not understand in the Press Club annexe and lost £45 in ten minutes - and that was in 1953 when I was paid £15 a week.

He made up stories for the Mirror that nowadays would have got him an overnight declaration in the Booker Prize. Like the one about the girl who couldn’t afford the cruise her doctor ordered so she bought (or, to be more truthful, Bill did) 45 round-trip tickets on the New Brighton ferry.

Then there was the dog he tied to the railings of the Bridewell with a note attached to its collar which read: “My daddy says he is going to shoot my dog when he comes home because we cannot afford to feed him, though I have given him my tea every night. Please give him a home.” The story he wrote produced so many offers of a home the Daily Mirror phones were blocked for three hours.

It was catching. Even Balmer, the Head of CID, caught it. Every Saturday he would make up a story for us so we could claim a shift from the Sunday papers in our group. My favourite was a spin off from a fashion among criminals who had been in prison to have a swallow tattooed on the joint between thumb and forefinger. Bert told us the CID was worried the fad was being copied by juveniles. Having a sparrow tattoo (the juvenile version of the swallow) showed that they had been to reformatories, Bert claimed, and all our offices fell for it.

Marshall struck when you weren’t watching. Years later when I lived in Chester he rang me from Liverpool to say another of his many wives would be coming through Chester. Would I meet her off the train and give her dinner? “She is pretty upset,” he confided.

I met her and we had a jolly meal. Over coffee she admitted she needed cheering up and I said, “Yes, that’s why Bill suggested I meet you.”

I thought she was going to explode. “Do you know why I am upset?” she said. “We were divorced this morning and that ******* turned up in his oldest clothes, pleaded poverty and I have got peanuts for maintenance.”

When I heard some days later that Bill had turned left at a level crossing and driven several miles along the Liverpool-Formby railway line I felt a pang of regret he hadn’t shared the experience with an oncoming express. But the feeling didn’t last. You could only dislike him for about five minutes.

There was this time when I was sleeping on the newspaper files in the Daily Dispatch office, where I worked, because I had no money for digs. He rang to tell me that Hoagy Carmichael was in town and we should go and pay him homage at the Adelphi, where Hoagy (who for some reason he called Hoagland) had a suite.

Hoagy could not have been kinder. He invited us in and although it was a little after 10am poured us both giant Scotches. Inevitably Bill asked him to play the piano. Characteristically, this very nice man agreed: but he wouldn’t play his signature tune “Stardust”. He said he couldn’t stand the damn thing and HE wrote it. So for an hour or so he plied us with Scotch and entertained us on the piano with tunes for which, he said, he had not been able to find a publisher.

A yelp from Bill brought the performance to an abrupt end. He had remembered that he should have been across the city covering an Assize trial.

“Anything I can do?” asked Hoagy, before I had a chance to warn him.

Bill said, yes, there was. He knew Hoagy didn’t like Stardust but he asked could he ring his news editor Roly Watkins and when he came to the phone, hold the instrument over the piano keyboard while Hoagy played a few bars of “Stardust” and say: “Hello Roly, this is Hoagy Carmichael. I am afraid I have detained your reporter Bill Marshall.”

Good as gold, Hoagy did as Bill told him. He played the opening bars down the phone and said his piece. There was a pause and then a suddenly angry Hoagy said: “No, this is not Bill Marshall, I am not pissed at half past eleven in the morning and I have no idea what is on at the Assizes.”

After the show that night, one of only two he did in Britain, he came over to the Press Club and once again at Bill’s command (by his time Bill saw him as his property) he played for the members.

After an hour or so he wanted to stop but Bill commanded him to play on. “Look Bill,” he said, “I get a thousand pounds for a concert.” ”Oh, it’s money you want?” sneered Bill, and promptly wrote a cheque for £1,000, which Hoagy pocketed and then played on.

The next morning there was another call from Bill who wanted to know if he had cashed any cheques because one had gone from his book and his bank manager had warned him if he cashed any more cheques he would close his account.

I said: “Only the thousand pounds you paid Hoagy,” and enjoyed the panic I could feel down the phone. “We have to get it back,” he said, and off we went to the Adelphi.

Hoagy was full of apologies. “I cashed it with the hotel half an hour ago,” he said. In the minutes that followed I was repaid for all the indignities Marshall had heaped on me. And then Hoagy relented. “I haven’t cashed it,” he said, “but you cannot have it back. I am going to have it framed and put in my den to remind me of a great night.”

Bill knew how poor I was.  I was getting fifteen quid a week and sending ten of it back to my family in Doncaster.  The fiver I had left paid for my digs.  But if I wanted to eat as well I had to play poker.

Fair play, he was always very worried about my poverty and constantly thought of ways of making us both rich.  Like the roulette game he set up in the Club.  I had taken a few quid off John Edwards, who was working – but not very often - at the Daily Post at the time. Marshall allowed me to put most of my winnings in the bank.  He even left me enough to buy the black shirt and white tie he said I would need for my part as the croupier.

I realised why when at the first spin of the wheel we lost £75.  Most of it to Les Clare who was not famous for benignity.  Which is probably why we couldn’t find Marshall anywhere.

My favourite memory of Liverpool concerns the minesweeper the Admiralty forgot.  It seemed to be welded to the dock wall.  The crew had honorary membership of the Press Club and we enjoyed membership of the Ward Room.

I was there one day when a messenger came on board from the office.  He said: “Mr Wigglesworth says not to hurry with your copy.  The paper has been bought by the Mirror and closed down.”

I must have paled because the skipper asked: “Bad news from home?” in the In-Which-We-Serve voice used by naval officers.

“My paper has closed down,” I said.

“Is this the first you’ve heard?”


“If their Lordships of the Admiralty had taken a ship of mine out of commission in such an ill mannered way I would send them a pretty snotty signal.”

“And if I knew Lord Kemsley’s telephone number I would give him a piece of my mind,” I retorted.

At this point Hugh Medlicott from the Daily Mail (Harry Slime or the Turd Man, as he was known to Les Clare) broke in:  “It’s Mayfair 1111.,”

“If I was near a telephone…"

“Use our ship to shore,” the skipper offered.

Several large gins later I plucked up the courage, rang the number and, thank God, a footman told me his Lordship was out but he would be glad take a message.

Brave now, I gave him a very abusive message indeed.  When I finished the skipper begged to be allowed to come on the phone.

“And that goes for Her Majesty’s Royal Navy,” he told the footman.

The footman seemed very pleased.

Predictably Wiggie, who was the news editor of the Daily Dispatch and a man with favourites, had left me off the list of those transferring the Mirror.  The Editorial Director Hugh Cudlipp heard the story and insisted I should be employed.

Friday, 7 June 2013


The great joy in our lives is our old gardener Hipkin. Alas, after fifty years with the family he retired this week, leaving us one of his fleet of lawn mowers (he is far richer than we are) as a memorial. He is the quintessential Fenman and a keen observer of his neighbours. This week he excelled himself. I wish you could hear his brogue, which, alas, is dying in the Fen towns in favour of Estuary English.

“Now,” he said, “Ahm goin to tell e somthin. This woman what I work for she sez to me, she says, 'Ahm gooin on oliday tomorrer and I dunno know weer to hide me money.' And er usband, he says, 'Ah'll bury it in't gardin an I'll stick a twig in so we'll know weer it is.' So that's what they do and they goes away.

“And what happened next day is along comes their son with his rotavator and rotavates the whole garden. And his machine chews up the stick. Took em a week to find the tin.”

Hipkin is 83 and seriously rich yet until recently he delivered papers every morning and on two afternoons. He still tends twenty gardens, making no charge for many of them. We pay him but he refuses to take more than £8 for a shift that lasts at least four hours. His great joy is to take his partner Miss Beart to “Skeggie” (Skegness) where he plays bingo and always wins. And he always takes his sagacious terrier Bailey, who can count, with him. “I says to 'im in the mornings, how many sausages d'you want for your breakfast and he goos 'Wuff, wuff, wuff'.”

Bailey has three meals a day of whatever Hipkin is eating. When they are going to Skeggie he gets very excited the night before because somehow he knows.

Miss Beart has seven rabbits which she keeps in seven hutches because she don't want no baby rabbits and Bailey likes nothing better than to go to their shed where he sits for hours looking at them adoringly. Hipkin adores Miss Beart who is 19 carat all through. He came one morning with a stone dog ornament which he wanted us to give a home. He explained: “Miss Beart cannot abear to look out of the window and see it sitting there in the cold.”


Many of you have asked to meet some more of the friends of my youth. Enter stage left....Kenneth Graham, my colleague on The People, who had a head apparently whittled from balsa wood. Superficially craggy but wont to crumble under pressure.

Graham was always under pressure. His supreme creative act was throwing the “future features” box through the news room window and into the Manchester Ship Canal. He survived that to be sent to expose a massage parlour. He was instructed to accept the ministrations to a certain point and then to sit up and say: “I am from the People and this is a disgusting exhibition” , at which point a photograph would be taken by People photographer Dennis Hutchinson, unkindly known as "the Poison Dwarf ".
Three times he struggled from a recumbent posture, only to fall back under the mesmeric fingers of the masseuse for a moment more of pleasure.

At last he struggled to a sitting position, cried “Bugger the People” and abandoned himself to hedonism.

He was The Great Complainer. He stopped going to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous when a fellow alcoholic failed to buy his round of lemonade. When I organised trips to Sweden for a pal who was a director of Tor Line, Graham was my first choice. His reaction to any given siuation was always a joyful surprise.

At Immingham we were shown in to a board room, handed G and Ts the size of crystal fire buckets and invited to make free of a lavish buffet. “It should have been my day off today,” Graham said mournfully.

In his hotel room in Gothenburg he took an apple from a fruit bowl that was doing its best to be a Harvest Festival. An hour later when he returned to the room he rang reception to complain it had not been replaced.

On the voyage home the ship’s chef assembled a smorgasbord which had the Swedish passengers gasping with joy. I watched Graham shovelling away at the dishes on offer in a Lucullan buffet like an under nourished JCB. As he staggered back to our table under the weight of his plate I said to the girl with whom I was lunching: “Bet you when he comes back his first words are a complaint.” She said: “He couldn’t. That is a Christmas Smorgasbord. It has everything.”

Graham did not disappoint. “Trouble with these meals,” he told the table aggrievedly, “you are spoilt for bloody choice.”

I must not give the wrong impression. It was impossible not to be fond of him. He had a terrible time living up to his craggy face and a voice that rasped with a thousand Woodbines. Underneath his bluster, he was a gentle drunk and I would not have been at all surprised to find him talking to a six foot rabbit that only he could see.

A person so innocent was a natural butt for our news editor Mike Gabbert. Gabbert was to complex practical jokes what Cecil B. de Mille was to Hollywood spectaculars. His hoaxes had casts of thousands and we were all, at one time or another, grist to his malevolent mill.

Like the day he put Ken Graham down in the diary for a wholly mythical parachute jump.
Graham went white when he read the entry but did his best not to show it. Not even when a man from accounts rang and asked if his insurance was up to date and did it cover him for sudden death on the job. Because, if not, the paper would insure him for £50,000.

An Air Ministry PRO was the next one to call. He wanted to know if Graham enjoyed good health and sound limbs. Especially, he added darkly, limbs.

I thought Graham took it well. He was less successful when the picture desk rang from London to say they were putting a special helmet in the Manchester despatch box. The helmet had a camera in the front and a cable which went into the mouth. Graham was to grip it and jerk his head when he left the aircraft, and continue to do so during the fall, so that the paper would have a sequence of thrilling photographs.

I for one thought he was bound to break when Neville Stack, who was news editing our sister paper the Daily Herald, rang and said he had heard Graham was going to do a parachute jump. Stack said he wouldn’t do anything like that, not for a gold clock. But, he said, the daily was anxious to commemorate the event, so would it be OK if they photographed Graham as he landed? Graham said in a very small voice that it would.

“There is just one thing,” said Stack. “I gather you are jumping in a stick. How will we know which one is you?” Graham said helpfully that he would wave, but Stack said he wouldn’t advise that. Graham would need both hands to pull on the parachute harness or he would break his leg in landing.
“I’ll tell you what," said Stack. “We will strap a loud hailer to your chest and just as you are about to land you can shout through it ' I am Ken Graham from The People.'

“And if you could add 'Over Here' it would be helpful,” Stack concluded.

At this point I think Graham’s nerve must have broken. He said to Mike was it alright if he took an early break. It was only 11 am but he was over the road, breasting the bar in the Chicken Grill, before Mike had time to answer.

I have always thought the ex-paratrooper at the bar was a plant by Gabbert. Like the transvestite lorry driver he introduced to Mike Kiddey, without telling him about the transvestite bit, thus causing Kiddey to make a very embarrassing discovery on a bomb site at the back of the office. Anyway, this “paratroop” got into conversation and when Graham told him about the parachute jump he pursed his lips and made the sucking sound that workmen make when you show them work done by any other workmen.

“Have you practised landing?” he asked, and when Graham admitted he had not the “paratroop” said: “We had to practise for a fortnight rolling off the back of a lorry. Absolutely vital.”

“But the jump is tomorrow,” wailed Graham.

“Well, try falling and rolling here,” the “paratroop” suggested.

I would have thought the joke had gone far enough with Graham falling and rolling on the floor of the Chicken Inn. Not so. By the time we got over, Graham was jumping off a table, bending his knees and rolling along the floor.

It was at that point Mike Gabbert said: “Oh by the way, Ken, the jump is off. The Air Ministry won’t wear it."

“Oh Hell,” said Graham with a lack of conviction that fooled no one, “I was looking forward to it.”

My fall was simpler. I was happily night news editing the Sunday Mirror at the time and resisted Gabbert’s repeated urgings to move over to the People desk. In the end I agreed to a contest. I would join the People if he could out-drink me.

The day I joined the People he presented me with a brass plaque which still stands on my desk. It reads: “In hazy memory of March 20 1963 when Ian Skidmore and Michael Gabbert drank 12 and a half bottles of Chianti and a bottle of brandy at the Chicken Inn, Manchester. Because they were very thirsty.”

Looking back, I think he cheated. I have never left half a bottle of anything in my life and that night I was in sparkling mid-season form. Driving home to Chester I stopped off at the Farmers Arms in Huxley and had four pints of bitter with Curly Beard.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

skidmore's island: A MOTLEY CREW

skidmore's island: A MOTLEY CREW: Jack Paterson , the Northern Night Editor of the Daily Mirror in Manchester in the Fifties, was the archetypal newspaper man. He wore red br...

Friday, 24 May 2013


I wish to right a wrong. No one dismisses, as I did last week, Joe Minogue in a paragraph.

Joe Minogue was a giant cloth cap, a cigarette and a pronounced Manchester accent. It was possible to know him for several weeks before realising that beneath the cap lived a face like an angry nut and the body of an apprehensive leprechaun.

He had been a tank driver on D.Day and possibly the only tank driver to be wounded in the backside, that part of the body covered by the tank. He had dark suspicions the bullet had come from inside the tank, but nothing was proved. After the war he was translated from being a penny-a-line municipal correspondent at Manchester Town Hall to foreign editor of the Manchester Guardian. He said there was little difference in the two jobs, except that as foreign editor he was much bothered by coups in parts of the world you had to look up in an atlas. Though he said the politics in Manchester Town Hall were often much bloodier. When he was appointed, the cap toured the world visiting the Guardian's distinguished foreign correspondents. Alistair Cooke - which he pronounced with three ‘o’s, as he did coups - was particularly fond of him.

I worked for him for nearly three weeks in the Fifties before he was forced to sack me. He didn't like to tell me, so he gave me a letter for my wife asking her to tell me but to be sure to add there was nothing personal in it.

He did feel a little out of place in the rarefied Oxbridge atmosphere of the Manchester Guardian (never the Guardian despite what the masthead said). He was surprised when he took office to find his telephone was kept on the floor near the door. He never moved it in case it was a tradition. If you went to his office, the desk would, like as not, be unoccupied but you would find him curled up on the floor, settling a coup on the telephone.

Ever subversive, Minogue formed an Anti-Culture group at the paper which he invited me to join when I was a very senior reporter on the Mirror. Alas, the editor Alastair Hetherington refused to have me anywhere near the paper when he learned I hunted foxes although I had a pretty impressive cuttings book.

It must be admitted that Joe and I were among Nature’s subversives. When we could not work together we set out to undermine the industry with a series of improbable “Letters to the Editor” in which his boss, the news editor Harry Whewell, joined. I have written about how I wrote to the editor of the Manchester Evening News recalling how, as a boy, I had hunted my uncle’s pack of Rochdale Flock Hounds over the Lancashire moors and wondered what had happened to the breed.

Minogue responded by saying that although he remembered the breed well he was never convinced they had the true nose which one only found in the Doffcocker Dandy Dinmont, though for tongue he had always preferred the Chowbent terrier.

What was very odd was the spirited correspondence this produced from other readers until we began to believe in the breed we thought we had invented.

Tiring of this subject into which others had introduced an acrimonious note, Whewell wrote to the Oldham Chronicle to enquire whether there were any photographs of his uncle, a Sioux chieftain who had come to the town in the mid 19th century as part of a delegation of American Indians to examine the cotton industry.

I wrote to say that I couldn’t help with a photograph but I did have a fragment of a war bonnet picked up in the eighties in Ashton under Lyne market by a relative of mine. Though it was a much treasured relic in our family, I offered to pass it on if the writer could give some proof of ownership.

Watching a TV broadcast of the “Antiques Road Show” some time later, I learned Lancashire was afloat with Indian chiefs in the mid 19th century and my daughter Gay, who looked after me this weekend, tells me that many districts in Lancashire have their own strain of dogs, such as the Ormskirk terrier. So Oscar Wilde had it right. Nature does imitate art.

Readers' Letters once ruined an editorial power lunch. Hugh Cudlipp, who ruined the Mirror, was in my view a foul-mouthed bully of little talent who did irreparable harm to the paper. From time to time he would descend on Manchester and inflict lunch on his executives. The better to enjoy tearing them apart, he always invited two reporters. It was not a pretty sight. The Mirror also owned the Glasgow- based Daily Record so when Cudlipp invited his executives for ideas to increase circulation the executive who suggested we do more Scottish stories was unwise. “Isn’t that a bit like Mr Marks out-voting Mr Spencer?” rasped Cudlipp.

Gerry McGee, the sports editor, was not falling in any traps. When Cudlipp said, “I now call on Mr McGee to give a short address”, he replied, “21 Washaway Road, Sale.”

It was not original but, by God, it was brave.

Cudlipp was bested only once and that was by my friend Bill Barton, who sadly has since gone on his lunch break in the sky. (For Bill, a lunch break that only lasts for eternity will seem sadly curtailed).

Besting executives was what Bill did best.

Cudlipp had been saying that everything in the Mirror was true. “Nay, nay, Mr Cudlipp,” roared Bill, whose “nay, nay” had the illuminating force of the Edison Light, “what about readers’ letters?”

“The readers’ letters are genuine despatches from the good people who buy our great newspapers,” answered Cudlipp.

“Nay, nay, Mr Cudlipp,” said Bill, “I had to write three before I could come here this morning.”