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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ones that got away

In the days when the Army understood the meaning of PR (press AND public relations), and in the days when Britain had something called ‘industry’ they – the Army – organised a conference for ‘foremen’. Nowadays they would call it a seminar. But, since nowadays it wouldn’t occur to them to organise it in the first place, that bit of incidental intelligence is irrelevant.

Perhaps I should explain for younger readers… ‘Industry’ is an old English expression, now lost to the vocabulary along with ‘manufacturing’ which, loosely, involved making things. Long before the UK hived, or ‘outsourced’, this responsibility to the third world, industry was what Britain did for a living.

I write of an era when Britons more or less made everything, from shoes to aeroplanes, and even cars. We actually made and sold refrigerators to Eskimos (even before they, the Eskimos not the refrigerators, were called Inuits) and prayer mats to Arabs. We sold instant curry to Hong Kong and ice (it was actually Scottish water – you had to freeze it yourself) to the Japanese to add to their Scotch whisky. I know, because I wrote stories about all those things.

This was all before we became a ‘service economy’ which, given a rapidly evolving language, I should also probably explain used to mean a system in which you could sort of at least half expect to get served.

A ‘foreman’, in those distant days, was the top man on the shop floor of a factory or mill. Perhaps, some other time, I should explain the meaning of the words ‘shop floor’, ‘factory’ and ‘mill’. Not part of management, but not exactly one of the workers, these people were most importantly the link between the executive and the workforce.

The foreman ran the industry from the bottom up; men in suits stayed in their offices and smoked cigars. The foreman was typically in a brown smock coat to distinguish him from the workforce that generally dressed in overalls or dungarees. He drank industrial-strength tea with three sugars, and usually smoked a pipe.

What had this to do with the Army? Well, they had foremen, too: they called them sergeant-majors. They had the brilliant idea that they could share knowledge of man-management with industry, each learning from the other, and discussing the pivotal role between management (officers, directors) and man-power (a word that included women, no argument).

What had this to do with newspapers? The Army, no slouch in those days, invited the press along. And I rolled up at Catterick Camp to listen, in case there was a story.

One came from an early speaker from ICI. It wasn’t where I’d been expecting it, in the stories about management versus man, or bosses against trades unions; rather – as happens most often at such events – it came when he wandered slightly off track.

It was this: ICI on Teesside had secured an impressively big export order, selling tons of chemical fertiliser to Chinese farmers. A triumph for British industry. This was the 1960s, and we were all Backing Britain in those days.

Just how much it was worth in sterling matters nothing now – but it was millions of pounds in today’s money.

In fact its sterling value mattered even less to the Chinese at the time, because they had no foreign currency with which to effect purchase.

They opted to pay ICI… in alarm clocks. And negotiation was not an option.
In the coffee break I interviewed the speaker, who told me the world’s biggest chemical empire now had more alarm clocks than it could find storage for. They couldn’t give them away, even to staff – for how many alarm clocks does a household need, at the end of the day? Or even at the start of one? They gave them away with every four gallons of ICI petrol. Then with every two gallons, and they still had clocks to spare.

So I did the story.

ICI’s press department, when asked for an official quote, asked me not to run it at all. They said it would damage international trade. I said trade seemed fairly pointless if it earned only alarm clocks. They said it would damage our relationship with China; I asked what sort of relationship was it that was repaid in bloody alarm clocks. Then I realised that I was arguing with a PRO, which was always a waste of time. I said I would pass on his message to my boss, but that we should expect to see the story in the Daily Mirror next morning.

The news desk told me it had duly ‘noted’ the misgivings of the PR guy in my attached note and that, thank-you, it was already an early page lead.
Oh no: it wasn’t.

The PR guy rang his chairman, Sir Paul Chambers, who immediately rang Hugh Cudlipp and convinced him that such a story would have an adverse effect on the industrial health of the nation.

Well, I was nobbut a kid then. I could not comprehend that the Mirror, of all papers, through Cudlipp of all journalists, could be so easily talked out of what anybody with a hole in his bum could see was a page lead.

If Cudlipp didn’t agree with that, how could I be so wrong?

It was the first story I’d had spiked, and – fairly obviously – it still rankles, 40-odd years later.

The second one followed fairly quickly.

For some reason I needed to ring George Brown (of immoral memory). We were still Backing Britain in those days and Our Harold, with his fortnight in the Scillies, was exhorting everybody to spend their holidays, and more importantly their holiday money, in the UK.

George, his office told me, was in Ibizia.
Well, that was a story. Wilson was telling everybody to stay home while his foreign secretary and deputy PM had gone off with the missus to Spain.

‘We can’t run this,’ said the news desk when my memo – did London want to handle this (and maybe check on the whereabouts of other members of Cabinet): if not, I would write it myself – bounced back up the line from London.

‘George Brown used to write for the Daily Mirror. Our policy is that we never attack our own.’

Bollocks, I argued. I knew George Brown quite well, I said. I had actually caught him when, pissed out of his brain, he’d tumbled down a full set of steps while disembarking from an aircraft. Many were the times I’d helped manhandle him into his official car. I could ring him and guarantee either a funny or a pompous quote to explain his choice of foreign holiday destination.

‘No,’ said the desk. ‘You’ve been told.’

This was the Daily Mirror, for God’s sake. We couldn’t attack any politician that used to write for us?

Barbara Castle, when she was Barbara Betts, had been our agony aunt and had married Ted Castle (who’d been our picture editor, before becoming editor of Picture Post).

Now she was Minister for Transport. We couldn’t criticise the Transport Minister because she used to be Marje Proops?

‘Put it that way and, no, we can’t,’ said the desk.

Staggering, because the so-called Cudlipp Edict, which every member of staff was required to read, and then sign in front of a witness to show that it had been read, said that we were even allowed to criticise the company that owned us – provided only that it was fair and accurate. But nowhere did it say we couldn’t censure politicians who used to write for us. Explain that, if you can.

I don’t know whether newspapers still have such loony loyalties.

But I suppose it’s unlikely that Boris Johnson lives in much fear of being panned by the Daily Telegraph when he becomes Lord Mayor of London.

Last day in the office

There was a second phone on my desk. It didn’t go through the secretary or the Mirror switchboard. It was an external number that only Maxwell, the editor in chief (who’d been fired) and the three editors knew. It was ‘the hotline’ – part of Bob’s paranoia about security.

Sixteen people had these phones; in the event that the shit hit the fan and the company folded, 13 of us (ie, not the editors) would be the ones kept behind to close it down, and hopefully to resurrect it. It never rang. But now it was ringing.

When I answered it, a familiar deep brown voice asked: ‘Who’s that?’

Between jabbing the button on a console with his fat finger, and the time it took me to reach over and pick up the handset, he had forgotten who he was calling.

‘Aw, for fuck’s sake…’

‘Ah… Revel… please pop up and see me. Now.’

He told me to get myself a drink, and there was a delay because there was no bottle opener, so I asked for his driver to be called, because I knew that he had one on his key ring.

While we waited he said that he had received my memo. It had amounted to a character reading, reminding him that in July 1984 he had said that he never told a lie, but would sometimes allow his mind to be changed, and that on that basis he had reneged on every promise he had made to me or in my presence in the seven-year interim, from ‘journalists will be on top, management on tap’ by way of ‘would you like to edit The Sporting Life?’ to ‘I am going to let Stott and you buy the Sunday People’.

When he’d looked at the first memo I’d written him, what seemed like a lifetime ago, he’d said: ‘Get one of those yellow markers from the secretary and just highlight the important bits, the bits that I need to read.’ And I’d said no, because I wrote only the important bits; if I sent him a note I expected him to read it all.

This one, he had obviously read word for word. It wasn’t on his desk, but he was able to quote from it. It listed the broken promises, the last one being his failure to inject any money into the People which was as near as it had ever been to being in the black. My last line was ‘Enough is e-fucking-NUFF.’

It came from the heart. I had written and sent it before lunch. Mike Molloy, to whom I had shown a copy after sending, described it as a potential suicide note. ‘But he’ll probably just ignore it,’ said Mike.

But when the driver had been and gone Bob asked how many times I had told him I wanted to leave, and I said there were five occasions that I could remember, and probably more, when I’d been pissed.

And on each of those occasions, whether pissed or merely pissed off, said Bob, he had persuaded me to stay. Now he said: ‘Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I am not asking you to leave. But if you are adamant that you want to leave, what I am saying is that I will no longer stand in your way.’

‘Great,’ I said. ‘That’s easy. I want to leave.’

He shrugged. ‘If that’s what you wish. Now I want you to go back to your office and write out your terms for leaving this company, and bring them back for me to sign.’

‘On the other hand,’ I suggested, ‘you could just sign this.’ And I produced a folded piece of A4 from my inside pocket and laid it flat on his desk.

Bob stared at the dog-eared, slightly crumpled, sheet of typing. ‘How long have you been carrying this in your pocket?’

‘Since Friday, July 13, 1984. Only I have retyped it, revising the figures, from time to time.’

‘Honestly, I had no idea that you were so unhappy all those years. I thought it was just you being awkward and obstinate.’

That as well, I told him. But I didn’t see how I could possibly have made my feelings more clear to him.

He worked his way down my bullet points, quibbling briefly about the deal on the office car because it was new, and asking why I wanted to take what I described with intentional vagueness as my ‘computer equipment’. I explained that it was because all my personal stuff was on it, and anyway the PC was old. I didn’t say that there was also a laptop, and a new ₤1,500 printer. But I bought the car and the technology for a quid each, and handed him two pound coins, which he pocketed.

When he got to the bit about a pay-rise, backdated to January, he said: ‘I will increase your salary, as you suggest, but from April.’

No, I insisted: from January.

‘There’s a problem in doing that, because it will affect your pension.’

I told him that thought had also occurred to me.

‘When you’re dealing with pensions,’ he said, ‘you are taking money from widows and orphans.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But we are talking about my widow and my orphans.’

[Now I know… with benefit of hindsight, this was a weird conversation. But only with hindsight. At the time it meant absolutely nothing, to me – although, possibly, it meant quite a bit to him.]

‘OK,’ he agreed. ‘We’ll leave it as January.’

The deal was that I would leave on December 31 (this was October 31). He initialled the paragraphs of the document with his strange pen stroke which, years earlier, I had pointed out to him was actually the Pitman’s shorthand outline for ‘charge’.

It was unusually, eerily, quiet in the office. Nobody came in; the phone didn’t ring. He told me to get another drink. His driver had left the bottle opener with me.

He looked down in the dumps. I asked him if he was ok. ‘Don’t tell me you’re suddenly depressed at the thought of my leaving.’

‘It’s not that,’ he said. ‘I think maybe I am going down with flu. But I mustn’t get flu. The doctors told me that one day flu would kill me, because of the lung thing. [Diagnosed with TB, he’d had a lung removed, but the surgeons removed the wrong lung and then discovered that the diagnosis had been mistaken in the first place.] So I’m going off shortly to the boat, to get some fresh air. I’ll be ok after that. Look… come back next week and we’ll go over your paper again. Maybe we’ll round up the figures a bit. Don’t make an appointment. Don’t tell the secretaries, just come straight in on Wednesday morning and we’ll do it.’

Business completed, we chatted about other matters, and other people. I helped myself to another drink while he called Ian and reminded him that he was standing in for a couple of his appointments while he’d be on the boat, and told him what to say, and to whom, on his behalf.

Finally he stood up. ‘Come on, I’ll walk you to the lift.’ Bob never walked anybody to the lift. He pressed the button and as we waited he put his hand on my shoulder and said: ‘You know, you’ve been a good friend to me, and you’ve never given me anything but good advice, even if I haven’t always taken it. But anyway… come and see me next week and we’ll take another look at those figures. And have a good weekend.’

He had no other appointments that evening. He left very shortly afterwards to fly off to his yacht, Lady Ghislaine.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Read what you like into it. But that's how it was.

When it was announced that he was lost at sea, the Stock Exchange had his office sealed. When it was eventually unsealed, so the records show, the only piece of paper on his desk was my departure deal.


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Bog Standards

The Times newspaper (August 25) described my weekly web magazine thus:

The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street.
It is perhaps not best form to bite the hand that feeds your website with new readers, but for evidence of the difference between my generation of newspapermen and the current lot, or between ‘the great days of Fleet Street’ and the present day, you need look no further than your TV screen which is regularly showing an advertisement for The Times, even in the former colonies.

If you’re fortunate enough to have missed it, you might like to finish your breakfast before reading on because it focuses on a reader of that newspaper sitting on the lavatory with the sports section in his hands…

When he reaches for the bog roll he finds it empty. No perforated Andrex. So he has a dilemma, cleverly acted out by staring first at the exhausted cardboard tube, and then at his newspaper.
A decision has to be made.

The verdict is obviously that the sports section of The Times is too precious to use for wiping his arse so… he hoiks up his trousers, and departs.

Tasteful advertising? Or crap advertising?

Whatever, this is presumably the accepted view of the newspaper’s readership in the minds of the advertising company that produced the ad, the promotions or publicity department that presented it to the editor, and the editor who (presumably) approved it.

These days, presumably, it is ‘clever’. Yes: Times readers need to crap too, but while the working classes always allegedly used pages of the broadsheet News of the Screws or The Sporting Life, torn into neat squares and hung on a nail behind the door of the outside lavvie, the sports section of The Times is no contest.

Its readers would rather… well, you can work it out for yourselves.

They used to be called the Top People. Now apparently they’re bottom people. Dirty bottoms, at that. Must be information that emerged from one of those focus groups. You’d think they might have wanted to keep that sort of reader information to themselves.

IT’S ALSO interesting how a definition of what’s funny can change overnight – literally.

Simon Hoggart was chairing The News Quiz (BBC Radio 4) before an audience ten years ago when Alan Coren said: ‘I don't know anything about landmines or Princess Di, but I do know you'd be mad to poke either of them.’

Bad taste? According to Hoggart, writing in the Guardian the other day, ‘there was a moment's stunned silence, followed by a huge howl of delighted laughter.’

However, the programme was recorded on a Thursday night. The show went out on Saturday lunchtime, and Coren’s joke – slightly to Hoggart’s surprise, he says – stayed in.
‘That night there was the fatal crash. The producer came specially in to Broadcasting House to lock the master tape in a safe so that it could never, ever, be broadcast again.’

Thursday, August 16, 2007

It's tradition, Jimmy..

When I was a newish member of my London Club I was having a drink with the Oldest Member who complained, quietly and sadly, about a move by some other youngsters to extend the club’s membership to include women.

He forecast, rightly as it happened, that the change wouldn’t be effected in his lifetime, but he asked my views.

Fairly diplomatically, I thought, I said that I could not, for the life of me, imagine why any women would want to join it, and – adapting the Groucho Marks theory on clubs – that I didn’t think we would want to elect any women who would look at us and decide we were the sort of club they wanted to join.

‘What we should ask all candidates when they are put up for membership,’ he said, ‘is whether this is the club they want to join – or whether they wish to join it with the intention of changing its rules.’

Can’t say fairer than that, I think.

Peter Ustinov told me once that the US immigration form included a question: ‘Is the intention of your visit to overthrow the democratically elected government of the United States of America?’ – And that he had written beside it: ‘Sole purpose of visit.’

But now, as Ben Elton might have said, let’s get political. Ooh, er, missus..

When refugees seek asylum and choose the United Kingdom, do they come because of its remarkable history of freedom of speech, expression, worship and lawful assembly?

Or do they come because they have looked around and found the one nation that they can adapt to be more like the place from which they have recently fled in terror?

Do they wish to integrate with their British hosts? Or to live peacefully in parallel lives with them? Or to make the Brits change to suit their own traditions?

Actually, what they want is fairly academic, because whether they want it or not the country is being adapted for them.

The Daily Express had a story from Scotland this week that you might have missed: Doctors and health workers have been banned from eating lunch at their desks - in case it offends their Muslim colleagues.

‘Health chiefs believe the sight of food will upset Muslim workers when they are celebrating the religious festival Ramadan. The lunch trolley is also to be wheeled out of bounds as the 30-day fast begins next month...’

I don’t want to sound like a London taxi driver here – honestly, I don’t – but didn’t the Muslim doctors who opted for greater freedom (and higher wages) in the UK know that the British, whether Christian, Jew or atheist, ate lunch during Ramadan? They must have been incredibly ignorant if they didn’t; any construction worker taking up a job in the Arab states knows about local and religious laws before he heads for the airport.

So does eating a sandwich, or having a vending machine on display, offend Muslims, do you think?

Or has some totally underemployed wanker decided that it MIGHT?

That’s my guess.

I have been in Muslim states during Ramadan and fairly gracious hosts have reminded me that, if I wished to eat during daylight hours, it was no problem but they would rather not see me do it. Simple as that. And it was their country, so I didn’t eat (or even smoke) in public view. Did they say that they would be offended if they actually saw me eating lunch in a Muslim country? No: they said they would just rather not see me, because it was not something that they did themselves.

So if a Muslim doctor told his infidel colleague that he was ‘offended’ by his snatching a sandwich at his desk, the answer would surely be: ‘That’s what we do here, Jimmy. It’s our tradition.’

He doesn’t even need to add: ‘If it offends you – boy have you chosen the wrong place to live and work.’

Balloons and hot air

Tesco booked a clown called Barney Baloney to entertain children for five hours at a supermarket in Leeds, then wiped the silly smile off his face by telling him that he couldn’t use balloons as part of his act.

A children’s entertainer performing without balloons? Difficult to imagine.

But according to Tesco it was just possible that some of the children in the audience ‘might be allergic to latex’ (the natural rubber from which balloons are made).

I confess that I had never heard of latex allergy and had to look it up.

How many people are susceptible to it? Nobody knows, say dermatologists, but it is certainly less than 1% of the population. Oh, and it’s something that tends to affect children far less than adults.

Nevertheless, part of Mr Baloney’s act was to twist balloons into shapes – like dogs and giraffes and aeroplanes – and hand them to the children to take home.

Tesco were taking no chances of that happening, and one of its customer’s kids possibly developing a runny nose (which, in an extreme case, is what we’re talking about here).

He’d already been warned, at an earlier booking, that it was unacceptable to fashion balloons into shapes that looked like guns, in case children were encouraged to commit violence, although sword shapes were apparently ok.

That’s how it goes, as we know. Blow up a balloon and twist it so that anyone with a really vivid imagination could think it looked vaguely like a gun, and next thing the toddlers will do is go down to the hunting supply shop to buy revolvers and shoot all their classmates. But nobody would be daft enough to think you could successfully stab anybody with a bendy rubber sword or dagger.

You might think that would be bad enough for a kiddies’ entertainer to put up with – especially one who is booked for a full five-hour gig – but balloons were only the latest blow to his routine.

He’d already had his bubble-making machine banned because he couldn’t get public liability insurance for it.

The amount of damage that a few aerated drops of soapy water might inflict on an audience might seem negligible to you or me but, then, we are not in the Elfen Sifety industry.

No: what happens to these bubbles, inevitably, is that they fall to the ground.

Youngsters might slip on the liquid and hurt themselves.

Why hadn’t you thought of that?

‘The way things are going, I’ll soon have no act left,’ complained the sad clown, who is more formally known as Tony Turner, and comes from Sheffield.

But Tesco says: ‘This is a health and safety issue. [See?] We have banned balloons because latex is used in the manufacture of them and this can trigger an allergic reaction in some children. We always have the welfare of children at heart.’

Of course they do.

And so next, no doubt, they will ban the sale of balloons for parties, and of all rubber toys as well as those things babies suck on that we used to call dummies but are now called comforters or pacifiers. And teats for babies bottles, and rubber bands (how will they pack asparagus?) and adhesive tape and stretch bandages.

Has it occurred to Tesco or the Health & Safety nazis, I wonder, what condoms are made of?

So much for safe sex, eh?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

My date with The Millionairess

I first heard the name of Bill Tuttle, who has died aged 95, when Sophia Loren mentioned it to me during an interview more than 40 years ago.

She was making a movie called Lady L co-starring Paul Newman and David Niven and was required by the script, written and directed by Peter Ustinov, to age from 18 to 80.

Looking 18 was no problem for La Loren (she was 30 at the time) but progressing through six more decades required all the ingenuity of Mr Tuttle, who was MGM’s top make-up man. He had been assistant make-up artist for The Wizard of Oz in 1939.

The ageing process on Loren’s face and neck took hours every morning as layers of rubber were overlaid and etched with wrinkles and crows’ feet, capillary tubes simulated prominent veins, and bags were created beneath her stunning brown, green-tinged, almond-shaped eyes.

How accurate his work was can be judged by comparing pictures of the 80-year-old Lady L character with recent pictures of the former movie star who will be 73 next month. To me – but I am biased – the basic effect was to make the then most beautiful woman in the world look like the most beautiful woman in the world with tons of stage make-up.

I saw her on TV recently and she looked less like the aged lady in the movie and more like she had looked when we met in 1965.

In those days there was no Oscar for best make-up – this wasn’t to be introduced until 1981 – but earlier in 1965 the Academy had created one just for Bill Tuttle – to commemorate his work on the 7 Faces of Dr Lao, starring Tony Randall in the title role.

Sophia Loren was born in the same month and the same year as Brigitte Bardot, and I don’t wish to appear ungallant, but…

Anyway, did I ever tell you about the date I had with Sophia Loren? No? You must be the only one, then.

I was working the airport beat mainly interviewing celebs, except that, in 1965, they were called stars and were, in fact, real celebrities who were recognisable on an international scale. We would meet at least twice a week as she flitted between home in Rome and the main set in Castle Howard, Yorkshire, and we’d chat in the departure lounge. All I had to do was provide a few lines to give the papers an excuse to carry another photograph of her. There was plenty of different subject matter: her marriage to Carlo Ponti had been denounced by the Vatican; she had a natural gift for one-liners (‘everything you see, I owe to spaghetti’); sometimes we even talked about the movie which was totally forgettable, except by me.

I can picture her now (ok, I have a photograph of us both on my desk).

She was not a conventional beauty: her nose was perhaps too aquiline, her nostrils too flared, her mouth perhaps a little too wide and her lips too prominent. She looked and moved (she told me this and I of course refuted it) like a giraffe – ‘a pretty dumb animal!’ – because she thought her neck and her legs were too long.

I was well qualified to argue because, as a schoolboy five years earlier, I had sat and gawped at her performance with Peter Sellers in The Millionairess. Well, not so much at her performance as at her figure, for she wore a basque. And a hat. And gloves. Stills from the movie were published in almost every newspaper and magazine in the western world. Like every kid of my generation I knew more about La Loren than about any other Italian from Julius Caesar to Garibaldi. She was 5ft 8ins, 120 pounds, 38-24-37. I had no idea what Garibaldi looked like.

Nevertheless she insisted: ‘I am not a sexy pot. Sex appeal is 50 per cent what you’ve got and 50 per cent what people think you’ve got.’

So there we were, sitting in familiar intimacy in departures, the most lusted-after woman on the planet, and your correspondent. On this occasion she had sent her driver from the Dorchester to the door of the Terminal Two press room to ask for me and invite me to join her in the lounge. She actually did that. She was about to appear on the front cover of Vogue and they’d given her all the transparencies of the shoot so she could choose the photos she preferred and eliminate any she didn’t like. She invited me to help her make a choice.

‘We’ve seen a lot of each other recently,’ she said, as she drew a chinagraph line across a photograph of her face. ‘But I am going to be in Italy for a few weeks so you won’t see me for a while.’ Sheets of trannies slid from my knees to the Cyril Lord carpet. I must have appeared crestfallen, for she immediately removed her glasses, fixed me with those exotic eyes, smiled with those luscious lips, and said: ‘But I am coming back!’ And she dictated the details of her return flight on Alitalia for me to enter in my notebook.

‘I’ll be here,’ I promised.

‘Great,’ she said. ‘So we have a date!’

And that was it, really. But look. I was a dreamy starry-eyed youth of 20 and she was Sophia Loren. And we had a date. She had said so herself with those fantastic fleshy lips.

I floated back to the press room and said: ‘Hey – who’s got a date with Sophia, then?’

I was greeted by a barrage of telephone directories, coffee cups and beer bottles. But the lads were just jealous. They could not destroy the magical moment.

When she returned she was on the arm of Carlo Ponti. She wore her sunglasses, like always, and he was so small I thought he looked like her guide dog. She introduced us and as we shook hands he just snorted, in that way Italian millionaire film directors do.

I guess she had decided that she preferred older men. But I’ll get over it, one day. I really will.

Monday, August 13, 2007

God save the Queen, from duff advisers

The Queen has instructed her lawyers to take action over the way a BBC programme trailer misrepresented her by suggesting she had stormed out of a photo shoot. – Sunday Telegraph

Reportedly the richest woman in the world – and how would we know, anyway, because she is not required to disclose her private wealth? – the Queen (described by BBC World Service as ‘Britain’s Queen Elizabeth’, to avoid confusion with all the others) wants for almost nothing.

All those houses, the royal flight, the cars, servants, coaches, the Brigade of Guards and Beefeaters, personal bodyguards, police escorts, aides and ladies in waiting, the crown jewels… the ability to close roads if she wants to make a trip out of doors. Her own train…

So what’s the qualifier in the intro? Why ‘almost’ nothing?

Because the one thing HM has been deprived of throughout most of her reign has been good advice.

Far worse, she was the recipient of a great deal of really bad advice. Worst of all, she was persuaded to accept it.

I think I can even put my finger on the pivotal event.

The Family invited TV cameras to record the Royal Year and at one stage – this was in 1969 – we saw them setting up a barbecue at Sandringham. Prince Philip had trouble lighting the thing and millions of other dads (and mums) watching his attempts to get the charcoal going smiled happily and said: ‘There you are. They’re just like us.’

And from that moment it was all downhill.

Because the whole point, the raison d’etre of the Royal Family is that they are not supposed to be like us.

They are supposed to be different.

It’s fine if we, the subjects, wish that we could be more like them. But suddenly the Royals had got the plot wrong. They are supposed to be the role models. The plebs sitting in front of the telly are not.

It’s certainly true that the first couple of decades of the last century suggested to their wise counsellors that some change was necessary if their heads were to continue to wear crowns.

The Queen Mother was still in her teens when the Family (she wasn’t yet a member of it) saw its cousins, Kaiser Bill and the Romanoffs, toppled in Germany and Russia, and the crowned heads of Austria, Turkey and Italy – all of them leaders of great empires – overthrown.

They reacted gently at Windsor. They allowed Prince Albert, Duke of York, to marry a commoner, daughter of an Earl, but a break from the stuffy tradition of finding and marrying suitable princesses from Europe who were, in any case, literally a dying breed. Fresh blood, but it was no big deal, really, for Bertie was not destined to be King: his elder brother had been reared for that job.

But, here’s the thing: big brother wanted to marry a divorcee. The Church of England, in those days, took the ‘til death do us part’ bit of the marriage vows seriously and did not allow divorced people to marry in church. As presumptive head of that church the potential King Edward had to choose between love and duty, and he chose love.

But that was not the beginning of the end, yet.

The Family recovered quickly with the coronation of Bertie as King George VI – apparently to his horror, because he had not been trained for the job and was basically a very shy man. But he had Princess Elizabeth at his side, and everybody loved her anyway, not least because she had been the first Royal ever seen to break into a smile.

They understood standards, however. And, diffidently or not, the new Royal couple took it all in their stride. They knew their duty, which is what took them out into the capital to console and encourage the victims of World War II bombing. When, a year and ten days into the war, Buckingham Palace received its first direct hit (there were nine, while they were living in it), the then Queen said: ‘I’m almost glad that we’ve been bombed. It means that I can go out and look those people in the East End in the face.’

Years later, now widowed and The Queen Mother, she told her daughter Margaret Rose that she could not marry a divorced man unless – like her uncle before her – she renounced her Royal status. Princess Margaret said she would choose duty over love, which may possibly have been out of respect for her mother (who presumably hated the thought of another divorce dilemma within the Family), although some critics suggested she chose only to stick with the money and the trappings.

Throughout this period little was known about the inner workings of life behind those high walls and gates. Photographs were taken by appointment and by arrangement. Nobody hid in the bushes around Sandringham to snatch pictures of the Family at leisure through the prying lens of a long tom. Indeed, royal photographs were so rare that many royalists of a now lost generation cut them out of newspapers and magazines and kept scrapbooks. It was all about respect and mystery.

‘The Queen sits on the lavatory, just like you and me,’ said the anti-monarchists. That may have been true, and was possibly why many people described the smallest room in any house as the throne room. But if she did, it was difficult to imagine, even if you wanted to.

Just before the 60s ended there was a strange stab at recreating the pomp and ceremony that made the Royal Family both a political and an economic (in terms of tourism) asset. Prince Charles, aged 20 but looking like a 12-year-old, was ‘invested’ as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle. Princess Margaret’s second spousal choice, a photographer by trade, was appointed Constable of the Castle and put in charge of the Ruritanian theatrical set-up that looked as if it owed more to Gilbert and Sullivan than to traditions that started with James II. It was overwhelmingly silly, with the new Prince pledging:

‘I, Charles, Prince of Wales, do become your liege man of life and limb and of earthly worship and faith and truth I will bear unto you to live and die against all manner of folks.’

But this was all too late anyway for somebody – and Prince Philip (described recently by a colleague as ‘the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus’) is widely suspected as the culprit – had already decided it was time for the family, in the vernacular of the 1960s, to ‘get with it’.

Hence that bloody barbecue, and photos of them lunching en famille - just like us - to balance the Caernarfon caper. The film, according to Radio Times, ‘covers a typical year in the life of the Queen and her family, and shows for the first time the behind-scenes existence of the Royal Family in both their off-duty moments and official engagements.’

About 30 million people in the UK – in other words, about 60% of the population – watched it, and it is still, after the 1966 World Cup and the funeral of Princess Diana, the most-watched British TV programme ever.

But the problem is, if they are just like us, why do we need them at all? A dozen years earlier it was virtually treason to ask. Malcolm Muggeridge was dropped by the BBC as a Panorama presenter for daring to ask, in the Saturday Evening Post in 1957, Does Britain Really Need a Queen?

Couldn’t we have just had an elected head of state instead? Mrs Thatcher as president (except that Denis had been divorced) or Tony and Cherie Blair (oh no: she’s a Catholic). An English George W Bush perhaps?

Need I say more?

The point is, I think, that we don’t trust politicians. We certainly don’t look up to them. Whether you approve of ‘royalty’ or not, it can be fairly said that they have a role to play. They are not supposed to be corruptible, for a start, and unimaginable and uncountable wealth is surely one way of ensuring that – for who could afford to bribe them, and with what? They are also understood to attract world tourism, something that they appear to achieve successfully for, if it’s pomp and ceremony that turns you on (and most countries don’t have crowned rulers of their own and for most of the rest the crown they have is the Queen’s) Britain is the place to visit.

What does all this cost the British tax-payer? About fourpence a year, each.

And, since we are paying for their duties and their upkeep, does that make us their boss? I ask because, if it does, I want a better sense of responsibility from them.

I expect the heir to the throne to know (to have known) from the start that, like any of his future subjects, if he intends to play away he must do it discreetly; I think it’s fine that Prince Andrew flew in the face of danger in the Falklands, but I didn’t want him to marry a slapper; I don’t want to learn from TV how Fergie files her knickers in drawers marked with post-it labels in a house that resembles South Fork, only without the touch of class; I don’t want Prince Edward (‘Hi, it’s Edward Windsor, here’) cashing in on the family name for commerce; I don’t (didn’t) want any of them to get divorced – there’s no shortage of accommodation if they can’t actually continue to co-habit after marrying and making their vows in front of millions of their subjects; and I don’t want Princess Anne travelling up to town on a supersaver ticket, which is apparently what she does.

Good grief, we’ll have the Queen on a bike, before you can say Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

I did not want the Queen’s children appearing on anything so mind-numbingly stupid as It’s A Royal Knockout in 1987, to show the world that they are just like us, and can get fun out of doing silly things, because I do not (did not) want them to be just like us. It undid, in an evening, any good that two Royal (if ill-fated) weddings had done in 1981 and 1986.

I want them to be different, distant, and mysterious, quietly doing good works and being wheeled out into public view only when necessary for the nation, or for sensible charitable causes, especially charities at home or, at a pinch, within the commonwealth.

So it follows that the Queen’s idea of doing yet another Royal Year for television was just another mistake.

Getting her royal knickers in a twist over a bit of cack-handed publicity-seeking footage suggesting, wrongly, that she stormed out of a picture session is yet another mistake.

Taking advice from the Royal solicitors, and threatening legal action is just the latest dumb idea.

It might be said at this juncture that what the Royals’ favoured firm is most famous for isn’t actions against newspapers (even though it is said they have something of a reputation for being able to apply pressure without necessarily resorting to the courts). It wasn’t divorce, either – although they have a specialist department, their solicitors managed to get the date of the Charles and Diana wedding wrong in the writ they issued: perhaps they were the only people in the realm who didn’t know it).

The firm is highly regarded for expertise on estates, income tax, wills… the sort of stuff you’d expect them to be good at with HM topping their client list.

The people who advise the royals worry me far more than the Family members themselves.

It’s now said that the Queen is pissed off with the idea of the TV film and wants it abandoned.

That would be an excellent plan. And the next thing she should do is sack the people who told her it would be a good idea in the first place.

And if there is footage of her anywhere walking quickly down a corridor with a bog roll in her hand and a copy of The Sporting Life under her arm, can they please keep it to themselves?

Thursday, August 9, 2007

What's in a name?

A couple has got over the disappointment of having their choice of 4Real as the name for their baby son turned down by calling him Superman instead.– Daily Telegraph

In a world where babies can be named Princess Tiaamii (Jordan), Moon Unit (Frank Jappa), Zowie (David Bowie), Rumer (Demi Moore), or Peaches, Fifi Trixibelle and Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily (Paula Yates), 4Real sounds relatively normal to me.

And I am something of an expert on the subject.

But Pat and Sheena Wheaton were told by the government registry in New Zealand they could not register the name because it included a digit. Mr Wheaton said he came up with idea after seeing the baby in an ultrasound scan and realising it was ‘for real’.

Can’t argue with that.

Forty years ago I went to a small town in France to write a feature for the Daily Mirror (in the days when that newspaper's commonly published by-lines might have been Don Short or John Smith) about the origins of my unusual given name – we called them Christian names, in those days.

An American psychiatrist had been researching the subject (academics were clearly as underemployed in the 60s as they are today) and had concluded that children with unusual names were more likely to become juvenile delinquents.

He cited one example of such a child who had been christened Fertilizer, in honour of the product with which his father had become a millionaire. I liked to imagine the child's mother explaining to a pastor at the font that Fertilizer had not actually been her husband's first choice of name.

For my part, I was happy to report from the Haute Garonne that Revel was quite handsome, modest, charming and generally law-abiding.

Better still, it looked good in print.

But 20 years later Mike Molloy, editor in chief, asked me about the origin of the name. I told him there were two versions: the romantic and the boring. Naturally, he opted for the romantic account and as we were on a 12-hour flight I ordered more champagne and told it to him.

George Barker [I said] had enlisted in the Territorial Army out of boredom. He was already in the local church youth club, and he played soccer for an amateur team on Saturdays – so well, in fact, that he’d been spotted by a scout and given trials for the Rams [Derby County] – but most of the week he found that there was little that was legal to interest a teenage boy in 1930s Derby. His elementary education – Mr Chetwynd, the French teacher, and the only one he’d liked, had told him, between fits of choking coughs that were his souvenir of mustard gas in the trenches of the Great War, that his mastery of the language was fluent, even if his vocabulary was lacking – had not equipped him for anything better than being a blacksmith at the Rolls-Royce works. But while he found the job interesting enough, most evenings he was at a loose end. The role of his local unit of the TA, the Terriers, was not especially exciting in itself: it was an anti-aircraft battery, tasked, ‘in the event’, with protecting the factory in which he worked, but it also offered two nights of drill, a summer camp, a uniform, lots of mates… so he signed up.

He took to the life like a duck to water. He loved every minute, even the bull. George’s father, who had been a batman in ‘the war to end all wars’, taught him to remove the grease in which army boots were always packed, to apply a bone to the knobbly toecaps and bring them up to a mirror-like shine, and how to use a button stick. He rapidly became the smartest man in the battery and, being also the tallest, was selected to represent the TA, marching behind the state coach, in the 1937 coronation. This required a specially tailored Number One Dress uniform in dark blue, totally distinct from the usual drab khaki, which thereafter was his to keep.

On the outbreak of war he was among the first to be called up and within a few weeks was sent a railway warrant and despatched to a place he’d never heard of in the home counties. Mr Chetwynd, he would discover later, had recommended him to an old comrade for a special task. He spent six weeks – they considered it sufficient – on an intensive French course, and three months acquiring even more exotic skills. The war was less than a year old, and he was already a captain, the first time he was parachuted into France.

If the medals he collected were any guide, I said, he must have been good at the job – which he would modestly describe in later life as ‘simply teaching the Frogs to kill Krauts’. He taught them how to put explosives into bicycle pumps, before deflating the tyres on a German soldier’s bike; how to detonate a sash window so that it would decapitate anyone who opened it to investigate an unusual noise outside; how to mine bridges, to use machine guns, to remove the tracks from tanks, and how to convert the sort of junk found in most people’s outhouses and stables into terrifying instruments of war. He also trained them in methods of evading capture – and in techniques for escaping if the evasion didn’t work. Of six years’ wartime service, he spent four living ‘underground’ and undetected in occupied France.

His last posting, in 1943, was to a small town in the Haute Garonne, called Revel…
The place had been established a long time when its open-sided, thatch-roof market hall was built in the 12th century. It was – still is – a pretty town with a broad square and an old coaching inn, the Hotel de la Lune, which had a gateway large enough for stage coaches to enter beneath a stone arch. It is more than likely that it was the birthplace of Hugh Revel, who was Master, and then ‘Grand Master’, of the Knights of St John from 1258 to 1277.

The corner of southwest France, where the Pyrenees meets the Mediterranean, was under Vichy rule, and here the prime task was to ensure the safe escape of members of the Maquis who were denounced by collaborators, and then to deal with the collaborators themselves. In 1944 he was told that he was to return home to train for a new task, which would be to assist with the invasion in the northwest.

As usual, he would be collected by a Westland Lysander, the tiny two-man aircraft adopted by the Special Operations Executive because it could land and take off in a small field, or even in a clearing in a forest.

By arrangement, members of the local Maquis group laid out strips of light fabric indicating the landing place and the wind direction on the slopes of the Montagne Noir and, within a few minutes of the designated time, they heard the sound of the Mark III ‘Lizzie’ approaching. It landed safely and George ran through the scrub towards it, dragging a young French woman behind him. He pushed her up the ladder that had been attached to the side of the fuselage specifically to ensure that agents could mount the aircraft speedily.

Above the sound of the single Bristol Mercury engine the couple heard the pilot ask them angrily what they thought they were doing.

‘We’ve got to take her back with us!’

‘But you know the score, old man – there’s only one seat!’ And that, he knew well enough, was cramped, because of the need for an extra fuel tank.

‘She’s my wife!… We’ve got married.’

‘Shit!’ said the pilot. He paused for a second, then told them: ‘Only one thing for it, get her on board and strapped in.’

Once that was accomplished, the pilot threw down his goggles and gauntlets to George, telling him: ‘You… you travel back on the wing.’

George Barker followed his wife up the ladder, shinned across the cloth-covered fuselage, and threw himself bodily across the high port wing, higher than the pilot’s eye line, and grasped the leading edge with his leather-clad fingers.

‘I’ll take it as easy as I can, old man. We’ll fly low and slow, probably not more than a hundred knots.’

‘You’d better take it easy,’ George yelled back to him. ‘She’s pregnant.’

They flew north through the freezing night, stopping once – he knew better than to ask where – to refuel, and landing at daybreak in Lympne, Kent, where they had to unhook George, now suffering from the early stages of hypothermia, from his frozen grip.

George’s next posting, with married quarters, was to a base in west Leeds where the couple’s child, a son, was born in December 1944. They had long ago decided that their baby would be called Revel, regardless of its sex…

That’s the romantic version, I said. The one we don’t usually talk about. The more boring version was that, well, my parents just heard of somebody with a child called Revel, and had agreed: ‘When we have one, we’ll call it that, whatever it is.’

‘That – the romantic one – is a fantastic story!’ Molloy exclaimed. ‘What’s more, I know it’s true.’

‘How so?’

‘The gauntlets… and Lympne… the light-coloured fabric marking the landing strip…’

‘Well, only in the movies did the resistance use burning oil barrels. Where would anybody have got oil barrels, at that stage in the war?’

‘Precisely! It’s the fine detail that only your father could have told you.’
I ordered another bottle.

‘Nah,’ I told him. ‘The reason the family never talks about it, is that I just made it all up.’

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Queen and I

Tomorrow (August 4) would have been the Queen Mum’s birthday. World War I broke out on her 14th birthday. It’s the sort of information that only those closest to her are aware of, I suppose.

I was in France when she died and learnt about it from the morning paper, which referred to her as ‘la Queen Mum.’

Not la reine mere, or even la reine maman. Such was her popularity, even among the Anglophobe Froggies, that she was The Queen Mum, world-wide.

Long before Diana, she was everybody’s favourite royal.

We had a chat, once. Well, not much of a tete a tete, but we conversed. She was about to board a Royal Flight and the photographers stood respectfully at the foot of the aircraft steps waiting for her to start posing or waving. She beamed, and the shutters clicked. Then her face fell as she looked along the rank of artists-in-light and asked: ‘Where is Mr Wallace?’

Tony Wallace, the Daily Mail resident photographer at London Airport was absent from the usual line-up.

In those days photographers knew their place. And it certainly did not include talking to their betters. They shuffled their feet a bit and re-checked the settings on their lenses, and shook their flash-battery packs, but none of them spoke. It fell to me, the token reporter in the company, the caption writer, to respond.

‘He’s off sick, today, Ma’am,’ I said.

‘Oh dear. I am sorry to hear that. Nothing serious, I hope?’

‘No Ma’am. I believe it’s just a cold.’

‘Then please,’ she asked me, ‘give him my best wishes for a speedy recovery.’

‘Certainly, Ma’am. I will do that.’

I thought our little conversation was getting along swimmingly. I was tempted to tell her that I had recently been at Gibside, in County Durham, where she had spent a significant part of her childhood, and maybe to tell her that the colliery railway wagons still bore the name of her family, which had owned the Bowes Colliery.

She might be pleased to know that, I thought. Then I thought better of it. Maybe next time; it would keep.

After we had exchanged our waves, I hastened back to the press room in Terminal Two and performed my loyal duty, as I had promised my sovereign’s mother – in whose husband’s coronation, I could have told her if the conversation had really got going or the subject had come up, my father had been proud to march.

The message had its desired effect. Tony Wallace made an exceptionally speedy recovery. But first he asked me to phone the Mail picture desk and pretend I didn’t know his home number, and ask them to pass the message from the Queen Mum on to him.

Of course I was delighted to do that.

‘The Queen Mum,’ you say… ‘She asked after Tony Wallace?’

‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘As you probably know, she thinks the world of him. She was really upset to find he wasn’t there waiting for her this morning. She told me so.’

‘The Queen Mum…’ said the Picture Editor. ‘Asking after Wallace. That is wonderful. Thanks awfully.’

But, as interviews go, not awfully significant, you no doubt reckon.

No? Oh really.

Listen. You will learn something.

When Tony Wallace returned to harness, miraculously cured, he bought me a drink and asked: ‘Do you know the last time the Queen Mum actually spoke to a reporter?’

Of course, I didn’t.

‘In 1923.’

1923… And then me.

‘She made a bit of a faux pas, you see,’ said Tony, ‘and vowed never to speak to a reporter again, about anything, for the rest of her life. She wasn’t even Queen then, of course, just Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – and a descendant, as you know, of the Thane of Glamis.’

Thane of Glamis... I said yes I knew, but I’d forgotten.

‘She was engaged to the Duke of York and while talking to a reporter during a photo-session for the engagement she referred to him, just a slip of the tongue, I’m sure, as Bertie. Yes: our future King George VI (although of course nobody knew that then)… Bertie! His father, King George V, was furious about what he considered to be lese-majesty – and she was upset that the reporter had dropped her in it, and not amended her quote more formally before publication.

‘So she spoke quite frequently to members of the public, but never to a reporter, after that.

‘All we’ve ever had out of her, since that day, was that smile. Her special smile…

‘But she spoke to you,’ said Tony. ‘...About me!’

So everything we have learnt about her, about her feelings, and even her quotes, we have got from third parties.

Hating her brother-in-law, briefly King Edward VIII, for not sticking to the job he was born into and marrying ‘that woman’, Wallis Simpson, and landing her sensitive, stammering husband with the crown he had never expected to wear, nor been prepared for.

As the last Empress of India (and indeed last empress of anywhere) she apparently believed that Mountbatten gave up India too early and that Britain de-colonised everywhere before the Commonwealth nations were able to cope.

Ringing below stairs and telling her staff: ‘When one of you old queens has a moment, this old queen would like a gin and tonic.’

Of Jimmy Carter: ‘That man was the only person, following the death of my beloved late husband, to have the effrontery to kiss me on the mouth.’

But none of that came from a reporter.

I know she spoke once to Hugh Cudlipp (but he doesn’t count as a reporter), at a Garden Party. She told him she was going to Balmoral that night and – sod security – said that the Royal Train always left Kings Cross but travelled only as far as Doncaster where it stayed overnight in the sidings. Whether this was so that she could have a more comfortable night’s sleep, or so that she could arrive at her destination in daylight for photos, was never satisfactorily established by Cudlipp, to my mind.

Anyway, he’d had a brainwave and sent Jimmy Wallace, the Mirror’s northern circulation boss, to Donny with a set of the first editions. Jimmy found the Royal Train and reached up to hammer on the door. It was opened by a (presumably surprised) lady-in-waiting, in a nightie.

He handed over the bundle of papers and told her they were for Her Majesty, with Mr Cudlipp’s compliments. She told him to wait.

When she returned she said: ‘Her majesty has asked me to thank you, and to ask you to pass on her gratitude to Mr Cudlipp. But she has also asked me to ask you – do you not have a copy of the Sporting Life?’

I wouldn’t have made a mistake like that.

But then, you see, our relationship was rather different.