Booze of the World


IN the days before technology took over and nerds ruled the world, national newspaper production was oiled, indeed well-oiled, by an ocean of alcohol. Daily Mail sub-editors and newsdesk staff would think nothing of nipping to the pub for a swiftie two or three times during an evening’s work. After the first edition it was break time, invariably spent in the boozer, and when the shift was over it was time for some proper drinking.

For my first casual double Saturday shift on the News of the World in Manchester in 1978, I arrived at about 12.15pm only to be sent out on a break with four or five other guys ten minutes later. We adjourned to the pub over the road, the John Willie Lees, and the ale began to flow in copious quantities. After an hour, and four or five pints, I asked the others if it was time we were getting back. ‘Nah, we’ve got ages yet.’

Stumbling to my desk shortly before 3pm, I felt in no condition to work. Not that it mattered – there was hardly anything to do. Most of the copy which arrived over the wires had already been subbed in London and merely required a few typesetting instructions to be handwritten on the paper. By 6.30 I had done only one story from scratch – a single-paragraph short. And now it was break time again. Thank heavens I had come in on the train and wasn’t driving home.

At 9pm, having returned from a heavy session in Yates’s Wine Lodge, I found myself with one eye closed trying to focus on the fellow opposite. At 10pm I and several others were given an early cut, as it was known. I felt a pang of guilt at having done so little for such a lot of money (almost £100, at the time about three-quarters of my weekly pay on the Mail) and thought the chief sub must not think much of me. However, I got the call again the following week and spent more than seven years of Saturdays on the News of the Screws, or just Screws, as everyone called it, until its Manchester operation was shut down. Talk about money for old rope.

I shall return in future columns to the newspaper drinking culture, including the Daily Mirror hack who was subbing a front-page story, put the copy in his pocket while he nipped to the pub over the road, and was hit by a bus. Not to mention the editor who vomited on a senior member of the Royal Family. Seriously.

Great northern comics: Tony Capstick

BILLY Connolly once described Tony Capstick as the funniest man he had ever met. Tony’s early death was a huge loss to northern culture, from comedy and folk music to film and soap operas. He was a hilarious stand-up who had a masterful way with hecklers. I well remember him compering the July Wakes folk festival at Charnock Richard in 1976. He kept the crowd spellbound with a story about a neighbour who had 14 children before her husband died. She remarried, to a bloke named Frank, and had a further ten kids before dying herself. ‘I was at the funeral,’ Capstick said, ‘and stood beside Frank as they lowered her into the grave. “Oh well, they’re together at last,” he said. “What, her and her first husband?” “No, her legs”.’

Tony’s wicked humour cost him a job as a BBC local radio presenter in his native South Yorkshire after he announced that sex shops in Barnsley were selling inflatable pit ponies.

He appeared as an extra in Emmerdale and All Creatures Great and Small, as the brewer Harvey Nuttall in Coronation Street and as a policeman in Last of the Summer Wine. Tony made several folk albums but his biggest recorded success was with Capstick Comes Home, a brilliant spoof of the iconic Hovis TV advert backed by a colliery brass band, in which he recalled his first 72-hour shift at t’pit after which he and his dad walked home 43 miles barefoot in the snow wearing clothes made of sacks. It reached No 3 in the singles charts and gave the world the expression ‘spawny-eyed, parrot-faced wazzock’. Here he is performing it on Top of the Pops.

Despite this success, Tony’s dependence on alcohol meant he never managed to realise his potential – he had five convictions for drink driving. He died in 2003, aged only 59. His final appearance on Last of the Summer Wine aired the following year. Here is an hour-long BBC Radio Sheffield tribute to Capstick, in my view one of our greatest comics. RIP.

Welcome to Essex

WHEN I transferred 35 years ago from the Daily Mail’s Manchester office to Fleet Street, I decided it would be nice to live somewhere by the ocean with good rail connections to London. In other words, either Brighton or Southend-on-Sea. A chap on the sports desk who lived in Westcliff, part of Southend, offered to show me round the area and I was instantly taken with it. Cheap, cheerful and sunny nearly every day.

I had an offer accepted on a house in Shoeburyness, a quirky place at the very end of the rail line east from Fenchurch Street. It felt 1950s-ish and quiet, almost tumbleweedy, and you wouldn’t have been surprised if Norman Wisdom came around the corner in a toy car. Unfortunately, the vendors were unable to move out for a couple of months but I thought this would not be a problem as there must be lots of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. There wasn’t – Southend at the time was strictly for day trips from London and not for holidays.

Accompanied by wife, baby daughter and Kevin the dog, I eventually happened on a caravan park out in the sticks at a place called Creeksea. The owner said he would sell me a static caravan for £3,000 and would buy it back when I no longer needed it. However, when it was time to move out, he said it had been a poor summer and he could no longer afford to take the place off my hands. In the end, I had to let it go for less than £1,000.

I related this story while having my hair cut in Shoebury, with the barber lending a sympathetic ear. ‘What a barstard,’ he said. ‘What’s his name? Do you want my mate Spike to break his legs for him?’

‘God, no,’ I replied. ‘I couldn’t possibly pay for someone to get hurt like that.’

‘Oh, you wouldn’t have to pay. Spike does it for enjoyment.’

A PS from PG

He was a Frenchman, a melancholy-looking man. His aspect was that of one who has been looking for the leak in a gas pipe with a lighted candle.

PG Wodehouse: The Man Upstairs and Other Stories


One Reply to “Booze of the World”

  1. I went to the John Willie Lees occasionally on Saturday afternoons in the ’90s with my dad. They had turns on singing favourite songs of the old folk of the day – the great hits of Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Paul Anka and others.

    The John Willie Lees was an unusual pub, stuck up above the grime of the Arndale bus station, but actually quite welcoming, clean and comfortable once you got inside. Good memories, shame it’s gone.

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