A FRIEND and former colleague at the Daily Mail in Manchester, Robert Carson, has sent me this picture from a time when newspaper offices were actually a fun place to work.
It was taken in 1979 or 1980 when the sub-editors decided to hold a ‘hostage night’ to mark the siege of the US Embassy in Tehran, during which more than 50 Americans were held by militant Iranians for more than a year.
Those of us without beards hired facial hair from fancy-dress shops (that’s me in the middle in a white shirt) and we seized a copytaker named Pat (that’s her at the front) who was happy to take a break from typing and concentrate on her knitting.
We imprisoned her in the canteen, working on a scarf and drinking cups of tea, while an ultimatum was delivered to the editor. ‘Put £10 over the bar at the Press Club or face the consequences.’
He was happy to go along with the joke and stumped up the cash, causing a disappointed Pat to down needles and resume her duties.
This was one of a number of theme nights we held in the office, all of which were notable for their puerile humour. The funniest was ‘look like a reporter night’. To be fair, many of the reporters were sharp dressers but others were remarkable for their poor taste and it was these that we sought to emulate.
I was on a fairly early shift and caused mild amusement when I turned up in an electric-blue jacket covered in little stars, white trousers, a garish yellow checked shirt and a kipper tie with a pattern of hippopotami.
My efforts were soon surpassed and there were gales of laughter when a sub named Geoff Ward turned up in check suit and shirt, with cravat and monocle, earning himself for ever after the soubriquet ‘Bertie Wooster’.
The best, however, was yet to come. On the late shift was a Yorkshireman named Dave Simpson; very much a ladies’ man, a wearer of leather trousers, and a chum of the actor Chris Quinten, who played Brian Tilsley on Coronation Street. They were both regulars at a nearby nightspot called the Millionaires’ Club.
Dave rolled in at 7.45pm in a lime-green three-piece suit with six-inch-wide lapels and hugely flared trousers, set off by a bright yellow shirt, shiny gold tie and cowboy boots.
‘Brilliant, Dave, you win,’ we chorused.
‘Huh?’ he replied.
‘The fancy-dress contest.’
‘What fancy-dress contest? I don’t know anything about any contest. And anyway, this is my best suit. It cost me a bomb.’
At which point, Dave being quite a big chap, we thought it best to let the subject drop.
Don’t judge a cove by his Booker
I HAVE just read, for the fourth time, J G Farrell’s magnificent novel The Siege of Krishnapur, set at the time of the 1857 Indian Mutiny. Like my favourite films, for example This is Spinal Tap, Airplane, The Blues Brothers and Withnail and I, it gets better with every visit.
Based on contemporary accounts of the sieges of Kanpur and Lucknow, Farrell’s story concerns a small British community forced to hold out for four months against an army of sepoys – Indian soldiers. It is a tale of bloodshed, squalor and starvation. Yet although the subject matter is grim, this is one of the funniest books I know. Farrell has a masterly way of chronicling the absurd.
The story begins in stately manner, describing the daily routines of the District Collector, the man who runs Krishnapur for the British East India Company. Mysteriously, piles of chapatis begin to appear in odd places – four turn up in the Collector’s Dispatch Box – and there are reports of massacres elsewhere in the country.
To gauge support for the British cause, a young soldier, Harry Dunstaple, and a would-be poet, George Fleury, visit the Maharajah’s palace. As they are greeted by the Maharajah’s English-tutored son, Hari, Dunstaple feels faint so the other two men leave him lying on the floor while Fleury is given a tour of the buildings.
Hari asks him: ‘This English coat, is it very costly? Forgive me asking but I admire the productions of your nation very strongly. May I feel the material? And this timepiece in pocket, a half hunter is it not called? Yes, I see you are looking at my coat which is also of English flannel, though bought in Calcutta, unfortunately, and cut by durzie from bazaar and not by your Savile Rows.’
Hari offers to ‘show you my pater’ adding: ‘At this hour when it is so very much hot he is usually to be found “in arms of Morpheus” which means, I understand, that he is asleeping. It is best time to look at pater when he is asleeping . . . Correct!’
As the narrative describes, in the distance an oil lamp of blue glass casts a sapphire glow over a small, fat gentleman sprawled on a bed, clad only in a loin cloth. Beside the bed, a bearer holds an armful of small cushions.
‘Father is asleeping,’ Hari explained softly. ‘He has blue light for asleeping, green light for awaking, red light for entertaining ladies, and so on and so forth. To make comfortable he has cushion under every joint of body . . . bearer watch him to place cushion under joint when he move.’
Hardly had Hari given this explanation when the Maharajah, with a grunt, kicked out one of his short, plump legs. Instantly cushions appeared under knee and ankle.
My favourite scene in the book comes towards the end of the siege when the food has almost gone and the Collector spots a large black beetle on the stairs. Farrell writes: ‘He caught it between finger and thumb and took it out with him to the ramparts. There he generously offered it to the Magistrate, who was busy carrying cartridges to the firing step. The Magistrate hesitated. “No thanks”, he said, though with a note of envy in his voice.
‘The Collector popped it into his mouth, let himself savour the sensation of it wriggling on his tongue for a moment, then crunched it with as much pleasure as if it had been a chocolate truffle.’
There are innumerable moments such as these in this wonderful book, the best of Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, although the others, Troubles, set during the Irish War of Independence, and The Singapore Grip, set just before the Japanese invaded in World War II, are almost as good.
Farrell died in 1979, aged 44, drowning after falling from rocks in Bantry Bay – a huge loss to literature.
Don’t be put off by the fact that The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker Prize in 1973.
It’s a masterpiece.
Old jokes’ home
A group of chess players check into a hotel and stand in the lobby discussing their recent wins. After an hour, the manager tells them to disperse. ‘But why?’ they ask. He replies: ‘Because I can’t stand chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.’
A PS from PG
Besides, isn’t there something in the book of rules about a man may not marry his cousin? Or am I thinking of grandmothers?
PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves