WHEN I started on the Daily Mail in Manchester in 1978, it soon became obvious that the messengers ruled the roost. Only they were allowed to transfer copy from one department to the other and if you fell foul of them and their union, which I think was Natsopa (parodied by Private Eye as Notsoba), you were in big trouble.
Apart from their official duties, their main purpose in life was to make money by other means. Older colleagues on the subs’ desk claimed that there used to be a messenger-run wet-fish stall in the print room on Fridays. There was always a ready supply of knock-off goods such as fake Lacoste polo shirts. And it was promised that whatever electrical goods you required, they would be in the office by the following day, no questions asked.
Ringleader of this nefarious crew was a chap named Fred Davies, small of stature but full of cheek, looking like a miniature version of the wrestler Mick McManus. With union power behind him he was afraid of no one, not even the editor, a stuffy old gent named Peter Clowes.
One day Clowes was entertaining a group of three civic dignitaries from his home town in Cheshire. Having given them a tour of the building and drinks in his office, he took them into the newsroom where he had the best seat on the back bench.
Assuming his lofty throne, beside which his visitors would sit, he called out to Davies: ‘Fred, three chairs please.’
Quick as a flash, Fred shouted: ‘Three chairs for Mr Clowes! Hip, hip!’
And all his sidekicks chorused: ‘Hooray!’
Clowes was succeeded by John Womersley, an affable chap sent up from London office to show us northern Herberts how a newspaper should be run.
One day early in his tenure he wrote an editorial and, wishing it to be dispatched to the print room, called out: ‘Copy, plee-ase.’
A messenger named Stewart, whose huge beer belly could be seen from outer space, was lounging about 6ft away but completely ignored him.
Again came the request: ‘Copy, plee-ase.’ And a third time.
Finally, Stewart stubbed out his cigarette, turned to the editor and said: ‘You what, pal?’
It was a measure of Womersley’s patience, and pragmatism, that he simply handed over the copy without comment.
As in Fleet Street, there was a huge drinking culture in the Manchester office, particularly on the newsdesk. Members prided themselves on completing what they termed a ‘double-througher’ – going out on a bender after work, boozing all night then straight back to the office for another shift.
One night Womersley fell among these thieves and got so paralytic that they summoned the office driver to take him home in the editor’s own car to Alderley Edge. Womersley slumbered all the way, waking as they arrived outside his house. ‘How are you going to get back to Manchester?’ he asked. ‘Oh, I’ll manage,’ said the driver.
‘You certainly will not,’ said the editor. ‘I’ll drive you back myself.’
Brooking no argument, he took the chap back to the office, had a quick one in the Press Club, then drove himself home without mishap, so far as anybody knew.
The last time I saw John Womersley was when he and his deputy Tony Hoare took me out for lunch on my final day in Manchester before transferring to Fleet Street. We ate at a posh Indian called the Rajdoot in Albert Square and John said something very complimentary which modesty forbids my repeating but which I have never forgotten.
He retired to the South of France where, driving at great speed, he attempted to reach an open railway crossing before an express train with fatal consequences. His memorial service at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, was packed. A good egg, JW. RIP.
A pair of stinkers
WHEN the missus and I lived in Shoeburyness, part of Southend-on-Sea, we were blessed with two excellent local restaurants. One, the Khan Tandoori, was within easy staggering distance of our flat and we spent many a Saturday night in there after a skinful in the Parson’s Barn and Shoeburyness Hotel. The lamb vindaloo was a delight. I’m not sure if Roger, the genial host, is still there but so far as I can tell the restaurant remains unaltered since the 1980s.
The second, Romeo and Juliette’s, was a little Italian family place in a row of shops about a mile from us, and well worth the walk. There Margaret would often have aubergine parmigiana and I would have a pasta dish with extra chillis but what we always started with was stinking salad. This was simply tomatoes, onions and lots of raw garlic in an oil and vinegar dressing. The following day we would arrive at the office preceded by our breath and colleagues would say: ‘Romeo and Juliette’s?’
Old jokes’ home
When I was young my mother gave us children a haircut on Christmas morning. Then we had turkey with all the trimmings.
A PS from PG
A certain critic – for such men, I regret to say, do exist – made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names’. He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.
PG Wodehouse, foreword to Summer Lightning.