By Stanley Blenkinsop
In the wordy world of newspapers a unique volume, printed 25 years ago, still takes pride of place on the bookshelves of former Expressmen and women throughout the world. Its title: The Best of Blake.
The 208 pages, now well thumbed and dog-eared, are devoted to the words of Robert Blake.
Now 89, Bob is a Member of the Order of the British Empire for ‘services to journalism’, holder of the British Empire Medal for WWII service, and a retired Daily Express man who in 35 years filled every position on the news desk.
In that time news desk secretary Jean Kershaw kept a verbatim – and secret – note of the lugubrious Robert’s remarks to staff.
A few examples:
‘…Bottle washing. That’s what you university graduates have got to do here. And I’ll certainly see that you get a few dirty bottles to wash. Especially you women graduates.’
To a reporter who had gone into town for lunch: ‘So what would I have done if Martin Bormann [once wrongly ‘discovered alive’ in the Brazilian jungle by the Daily Express] came to the front lodge and asked to see a reporter - give him a taxi chit and send him down to the Danish Food Centre to find you?’
Commenting on pictures of a young Princess Anne leaving a London night club at 2 am: ‘No, well, I don’t hold with it, do I? If my taxes are going to be squandered I don’t want them squandered in swinging Soho clubs, do I? I want them squandered on pomp and panoply….I mean that’s what we pay for, isn’t it?’
Questioning a reporter on her expenses claim: ‘I’m told that you didn’t go to that fire in Bradford but did it on the phone… or to Sheffield for the three drowned children… and the nearest you got to Liverpool for that court case was the Crown and bloody Kettle. Please try again.’
To a reporter claiming ‘breakfast for friendly dustman’: ‘Are you asking me to believe that you went up to this chap in the middle of his round at 7 am and said: “Hello, friendly dustman, come and have bacon and eggs with me?”….’
To reporter regularly claiming afternoon tea allowance: ‘No wonder we can never get hold of you from four o’clock – you’re always eating bloody crumpets and drinking pots of China tea.’
On facial hair: ‘I always think people with beards have something to hide; and I always think people with moustaches have something to hide too.’
To new reporter sent from London: ‘You do realise that you're surplus to my requirements. I didn’t ask for you. You were foisted on me...’
‘Judging by the number of expenses claims about tanker crashes on the M6 I reckon we're getting pretty close to a national petrol shortage.’
‘I have no objection to women on newspapers, I think women on newspapers can be a good thing for us. Just so long as they are on other newspapers.’
On eventually raising a district man and being asked to hold on: ‘No, that’s all right… If I can wait five hours for a call from you, five minutes more isn’t going to make much differences, is it?’
On not hearing from a Belfast staffer till early afternoon: ‘We thought you’d been kidnapped.’
To mark Blake’s 1982 retirement, picture editor John Knill had the secret collection of quotes printed. They were illustrated with cartoons drawn specially by the legendary Giles, Bill Caldwell, political cartoonist of the Sun, and Tom Dobney, deputy art editor of the Express.
The Best of Blake went to the then Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Lord Carver, who had been Bob’s tank commander in the WWII North African desert campaign. Bob was his tank driver in the Battle of Alamein of which Churchill wrote: ‘Before Alamein we never had a victory - after Alamein we never had a defeat.’
His Lordship wrote back to Ancoats: ‘I have never laughed more in my life. The Giles cartoon of Rommel and Bob was first rate.’
Another copy was sent to the Burgomaster of Düsseldorf, son of the Afrika Korps leader Erwin Rommel. Although Bob had fought long and hard against the forces of the Desert Fox, he held him in the highest personal regard and a framed picture of the field marshal was among Bob’s retirement gifts.
Young Rommel, fluent in English, replied to the Express: ‘Very funny - father would have been delighted by the cartoon in which he appeared with Herr Blake.’
And more fragments from the BoB…
After hearing that a man due for arrest in a major crime had gone on a fortnight’s holiday: ‘Yes, well I expect they’re giving him an opportunity to shoot himself. After all, an inquest’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a trial.’
‘There is no cure for a hangover…’
To reporter complaining of a shilling cut in his expenses claim: ‘Ah well, we do have to wield the axe somewhere.’
‘When I was a boy we threw pennies to the veterans of the Great War who begged in the streets of London. My father told me that on a clear day you could also see the queues of starving miners in South Wales. He advised me not to be a war hero or a miner.’
‘Yes, I went to King’s School at Canterbury – England’s oldest public school. I got there because my father said we were an Anglican family. It wasn’t true - if we’d been anything we’d have been Congregational. So I said I thought religion must be pretty cheap if you could change it just to go to school, and he laughed.’
And after going to a ‘forward planning’ meeting only to find the room deserted: ‘What’s become of the think tank then? It’s like a sort of journalistic Marie Celeste in there. And there’s still a cigarette burning…’
FINALLY a footnote – too late to make the book - from Bob in a letter to The Times about the Iraq war in 2003:
‘When I was in the Army I worked briefly as a reporter on the four-page Iraq Times run by the British military public relations unit in Baghdad in 1943.
Three pages were in English, the fourth in local Arabic. As none of us could read Arabic, the back page was produced by an Iraqi sub editor
Production was stopped one day by a man from the British Embassy who pointed out that the headline on the back page report read: ‘Death to Churchill – British go home!’
# Picture research by John Knill
Stanley Blenkinsop was northern news editor of the Daily Express from 1969 till he took early retirement at 54 in 1986 to study at Manchester University. He graduated in 1989 with a BA Honours in modern history and politics.