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Thursday, August 16, 2007

In the line of fire

By Ian Skidmore
News agencies, weekly papers, evening papers, trade magazines, national dailies and Sundays, Kemsley Newspapers, J P Taylors Colour Printers, The Black Watch (RHR) – twice, which I think may be a record – one school and two clubs…

I have been sacked by experts.

My shortest period of employment was a day and a half, working for Jimmy Lovelock, proprietor of Stockport News Service, owner of the only fornicatorium in Cheshire and the only man to organise an abortion on the National Health, when abortions were not even legal.

Editor of a weekly newspaper in his early twenties, he had been crippled with polio as a child, but nevertheless became a mountaineer, a pot-holer and a member of the expedition that climbed Nuptse, Everest’s smaller sister.

A remarkable man.

Jimmy introduced me to the staff, which took up most of the first day.

The staff was an odd little chap called Mickey. First of all we had to find him, 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’.

Mickey 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 came from.

He suspected 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. Disposing was child’s play. Acquiring he never quite mastered.

He had one suit that he wore to the office, except on the days when he wore a mackintosh, in the hope that ‘Master’ would not notice he wore 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 Stockport on a transfer charge call and asked Jimmy to wire me my fare back to the office.

I was touched that he went further. He drove all the way to Crewe to collect me. I see now 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 options. 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 nearly 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 cops 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 pay docked from his shift money, but the linage department was obdurate. No amende honorable, not even when he made a fortune doing night shifts for six nationals outside a vicarage in Cheshire, in case the Vicar of Woodford sneaked back in the night.

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 was very cross. Picture editor George Harrop 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 tits fell out and 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 raincoat.