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Friday, July 27, 2007

Gentlemen, that reminds me

By Revel Barker
Peter Morris emailed from Chad this week (honestly: we have readers everywhere) to share a quote that might have been intended as a warning to both ranters and rantees.

Franklin Pierce Adams, famous New York columnist and a member of the Algonquin Round Table – a man who reputedly advanced the careers of both Dorothy Parker and James Thurber – once wrote: ‘Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.’

Is that true? Is that why childhood days always seemed to be sunny? Is it why we remember only the fun and forget the frustration of trying to get stories, and then searching for a working phone box, dictating to an uninterested copy-typist, fighting to get good stuff into the paper, and the constant anxiety of working against deadlines?

Thank God that nobody had yet invented what’s now known as ‘stress’, because if we’d been put wise to it I guess most of us would have been on permanent sick leave.

[Which reminds me… Think about that for a moment. We hammered away for years on old Remington Uprights. They were replaced by keyboards that responded to an almost feather-light touch; and only then did anybody come up with something called Repetitive Strain Injury, caused by typing. But I digress…]

I don’t pretend to have a clue how memory works. But I know how it jogs. It typically goes like this:

Somebody mentioned the name of photographer Bill Rowntree the other day, which started me reminiscing – from among many experiences with him - about Bill’s world scoop photo on the imminent return of Robin Knox-Johnston from his single-handed round-the-world voyage, and that got the old grey cells working about a silly story behind the scoop.

See what I mean? I was already mentally interrupting my own stories.

Well, not all of them were originally mine. Roy Spicer told me this one, so I believe it.

Nobody had sailed single handed, non-stop, 30,000 miles around the world before 1969. Francis Chichester had tried two years earlier with Gypsy Moth IV, and was famously knighted on his return, but he’d been forced to put into Australia for repairs.

So when the Sunday Mirror calculated that Knox-Johnston, on board Suhaili, must be getting close to home and to a place in history (in a challenge entirely organised by the Sunday Times) the picture desk decided to make contact, and Rowntree prepared to scoop the opposition by the simple ploy of finding out where he was and chartering an aircraft to fly over him and take pictures.

[‘Aerial pictures are easy,’ Johnny Robson used to say.’ ‘You just set the camera on infinity, point it and press the tit.’ But back to the story:]

Picture editor Allen Baird got on to the ship-to-shore operator and asked for a radio link with the yachtsman. After a while he was put through. ‘Hello Suhaili, Suhaili, Suhaili… This is the London Sunday Mirror calling. Are you receiving? Over.’

[He’d been in the forces. He knew how to do two-way radio on a maritime network. You have to call the ship’s name three times… Oh, sorry.]

Back came the reply: ‘Hello Sunday Mirror! This is Suhaili. Receiving you loud and clear. Over.’

Baird: ‘Could I speak to Mr Knox-Johnston, please…?’

This story was often lost on drinkers in the Stab In The Back who had already forgotten, even during the brief (if uninterrupted) telling, that the entire point of the tale, and of the voyage, was that it was single-handed.

But luckily Roy Spicer was a man of infinite patience, and of good yarns.

I recall there was even a fine journalistic postscript, missed at the time by most reporters covering the yacht’s arrival at Falmouth. The customs men dutifully went on board and asked: ‘Where you from – what was your last port of call?’ And they were told: ‘Falmouth.’

Mention of Roy always reminds me that before joining us he’d been northern theatre critic of the News Chronicle.

He once wrote a piece for them that began: ‘Slick, sparkling, spectacular, and with some of the most brilliant dancing seen on the English stage, this colourful musical drama has a weakness - its songs. It has no songs to hum or remember.’

And the headline, across two columns on the Front Page was: ‘A humdinger – without a tune to hum.’ So much for the European premiere of West Side Story, at Manchester Opera House.

Shortly afterwards they made him motoring editor.

When we shared an office in the Mirror Holborn building I’d often walk in singing Maria, or Tonight, or When You’re a Jet, America, or even Gee, Officer Krupke. And Roy, unphased by this intentionally irritating habit, would just shrug and say: ‘Sorry, but I still don’t think they're good songs.’

But that also reminds me of the time when Bob Edwards offered him the chief reporter’s job, and Roy said that if it meant a pay-rise, he’d take it, but only on condition that he didn’t ever have to speak to the news desk, and that his life-style would remain unchanged.

He didn’t want the job, you see.

In addition to motoring – which meant he got to drive a brand new car every week – he also organised the Great British Beer Competition which brewers competed for as if their careers depended on it, and had Roy constantly driving around in search of The Perfect Pint.

We called him our drink & drive correspondent.

Which reminds me that Patrick Mennem, Roy’s counterpart on the Daily Mirror, spent months warning readers about the impending threat of the breathalyser, then was arrested within 48 hours of its introduction, becoming the first person in that job to be banned from driving.

Pat, by the way, was in El Vino one lunchtime when the wine correspondent of the Telegraph announced: ‘I am going to Bordeaux tomorrow.’

Mennem – a man who always looked as if his face was about to explode in anger – told him: ‘One already feels sorry for poor old Doe, whoever he is. But it’ll be a blessed relief for the rest of us, in this place.’

And that stroll down Memory Lane, or at least down Chancery Lane to the Strasse, was all prompted by a bloke in darkest Kome [8º28’ 4.265”N; 16º43’19.058”E], 40 miles south-east of Moundou, reading our recollections in the middle of the night and remembering a quote from a guy on the New York Post who retired in 1941.
Revel Barker’s own compilation of rant and reminiscence can be found at