BY far the most larger-than-life character I ever worked with was Fred Shawcross – newspaper sub-editor, nightclub drummer, racing tipster and greyhound breeder.
When I arrived on the subs’ desk of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph in Blackburn, Fred had left some years earlier but they still talked of little else. How he would roll in an hour late after a night on the tiles, disappear in the direction of the bogs with a rolled-up Racing Post under his arm and announce to the chief sub: ‘Harry, I’ll be in Trap Three.’
How he would open the flap on the pneumatic copy tube to the composing room and shout: ‘Bridge here, give me more steam!’
And how he was one of the few journalists to have appeared on the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks, in a piano-and-drums duo named Bennett Shawcross. They didn’t win.
A former colleague, Roger Kimm, recalls how he and his wife Anita ‘went to see him at the Broadway Hotel in Morecambe where he was on the cabaret bill. We missed the beginning. When Fred saw me he stopped the show and said, “Come on in Roger, you’re a bit late.” The whole audience turned round to see who we were!’
The reason for Fred’s departure from Blackburn was the Inland Revenue. They discovered that he had been out drumming several nights a week as well as doing shifts on the national papers in Manchester while failing to declare any of the additional income. Fred was hit with a bill for many thousands, which he did not have.
He decided his only option was to work in cabaret on cruise liners, living on free food and drink while sending his pay home to his wife Judith and three daughters in Bolton. What they had left over after living expenses went to the taxman to reduce his owings. Meanwhile Fred was the life and soul of the ship. One day its celebrated French chef asked him: ‘Frred, Frred, what can I prepare for you to make you happy?’ He replied: ‘Cheese and onion pie, chips and marrowfat peas.’ An impossible demand, given the shortage of marrowfats in the Bahamas, so he had to make do with lobster thermidor.
His debt to society paid off after four years, Fred returned home and did subbing shifts on the Mirror and Sunday People, where he impressed colleagues with his ability to predict winning horses. When a vacancy for a stone sub (who dealt with the compositors making up pages in hot metal) arose on the Daily Mail, he got the job by the simple expedient of cracking gag after gag at an interview until the night editor, helpless with laughter, took him on for his entertainment value.
By this time I was on the Mail and my first sight of Fred was when he arrived for work in a Ford Motors shop steward’s overall, which he wore to keep the ink off his shirt and tie because after work he would be ‘going on’ to a club.
One memorable night just before Christmas he stood on the subs’ desk and announced he was going to tell us a joke. It concerned a man who is stopped by police and accused of having oral sex with a duck. He denies this so the officer says: ‘In that case, would you mind blowing into this bag?’ Fred had some feathers concealed in his fist and he proceeded to blow them over his rapturous audience. The Mail had never seen anything like it.
We were all invited to his 50th birthday party, held in a social club attached to an electrical goods factory in Horwich, near Bolton. Oh, the glamour! Highlight of the evening was a performance by Fred’s jazz band in which a virtuoso five-minute drum solo proved he really was no slouch on the skins.
My first wife and I went out for several meals with Fred and Judith, who were always greeted with joy by the restaurateurs. Fred once came over to our local pub in Fence, near Burnley, and turned out to know more of the regulars than we did.
He had not been with the Mail for long when he was approached by a former Sunday People colleague, Len Gould, then sports editor of the newly opened Today newspaper in London. Len offered him the post of racing editor and Fred nearly bit his hand off. He proved a great success in the job, heading the tipsters’ league and of course brightening the lives of everyone in the office, especially one day when he butted a recalcitrant computer.
In late 1986 I transferred from Manchester to the Mail’s HQ off Fleet Street and for the first few months shared a room with Fred in West Kensington while trying to sell my house up north. Dull moments were few and far between. One day I was with him when he went to pick up two pairs of trousers from dry cleaning. ‘Cen I help you?’ said the plummy-voiced lady behind the counter. ‘Yes love,’ said Fred in his best Bolton accent. ‘I’ve come for me trolleys.’ ‘Oh, Mr Shawcross, how marvellous to see you.’
I once addressed him as Frederick only to be informed that his given name was Alfredo. Whether this was true I never discovered but his mother apparently was of Italian parentage, giving him his sunny disposition.
On the strength of his prowess as a pundit, Fred was offered a high-powered role with a company which provided televised racing coverage to betting shops nationally. Talk about pigs in clover. He had a big salary, a flash company car to drive home to Bolton at weekends and all he had to do was talk about gee-gees all day long.
Sadly the job went belly-up after a while and Fred found himself back on the subs’ desk in Blackburn.
Roger Kimm tells me: ‘He had a habit when we switched to on-screen make-up of using rude words in dummy headlines to get the correct depth. There would be three lines of 72pt saying Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks. I pointed out that the obscenities could possibly get into the paper if, knowing the vagaries of the then-pioneering system, it didn’t save later changes. But he took no notice.’
At this point in his career, Fred also decided to open a greyhound stud and by all accounts (especially his) it was a great success.
The last I heard of him and Judith, they were moving to the Fylde Coast for health reasons and I do not have their address, so if any reader is in contact with him, tell the old feller to get in touch. In the meantime, here he is on the drums at his 80th birthday party seven years ago. His daughter Lisa put the clip on YouTube with the caption: ‘My dad, my legend’.
Old jokes’ home
A ROMAN ship arrives at the foot of a cliff in southern England. Caesar’s cohorts are about to disembark when they notice a near-naked Briton, face painted blue, waving his fists on the clifftop. ‘Come on, you Italian poofs!’ he yells. ‘I’ll take on any ten of you!’
Caesar selects his ten hardest men and they scale the cliff before vanishing from sight. Five minutes later the Briton reappears. ‘That was too easy,’ he boasts. ‘Let’s have a hundred of you.’
After half an hour, a gravely injured Roman crawls down the cliff and with his dying breath gasps: ‘Caesar, it’s a trick. There’s two of them!’
A PS from PG
I don’t suppose she would recognise a deep, beautiful thought if you handed it to her on a skewer with tartare sauce.
PG Wodehouse: The Code of the Woosters