ON August 19, 1987, a gun fanatic named Michael Ryan went on the rampage in his home town of Hungerford, Berkshire. By the end of his murderous spree, 16 people were dead, including his own mother and an unarmed policeman. Fifteen others were shot but survived. He even killed the family dogs.
I was the acting splash (front page lead) sub that day on the Daily Mail in London, having transferred from the Manchester office a few months before. I was due to start at 5.45pm but went in early after seeing the TV news.
Ryan, a 27-year-old labourer, had claimed his first victim at 12.30pm. Susan Godfrey, 35, had taken her two pre-school-age children for a picnic in Savernake Forest, seven miles from Hungerford. As Ryan approached, heavily armed with pistols and semi-automatic rifles, she bundled the children into her car. He forced her at gunpoint to walk among the trees and placed down a groundsheet, apparently intending to rape her. When she tried to run he put 13 bullets in her back.
As a woman walking in the woods found Mrs Godfrey’s children unharmed, Ryan arrived at a petrol station where he filled a jerry can with fuel and tried to shoot the woman cashier but his gun jammed. He left and she rang 999.
Returning to his home in South View, Hungerford, Ryan shot his dogs then set the living room alight with the petrol he had bought. The house was gutted, as were three neighbouring properties. He headed for the town common, killing neighbours Roland and Sheila Mason on the way, and murdered a dog walker named Kenneth Clements.
He returned to South View, where two unarmed policemen had arrived. As PC Roger Brereton radioed for help, he was blasted in the chest and died. Ryan then shot a mother and daughter in their Volvo, although both survived their injuries. He killed another motorist plus an elderly man who was pruning his roses, and injured a pedestrian.
Ryan’s widowed mother Dorothy, 60, arrived on the scene to find her son brandishing a variety of weapons (all, incidentally, licensed). She told him to stop, and was dispatched with four bullets from a Beretta, two at point-blank range. More were to die before Ryan was finished.
At about 4pm, he holed up in John O’Gaunt secondary school, where he was a former pupil – thankfully it was empty at holiday time. Surrounded by police he told them: ‘Hungerford must be a bit of a mess’ and said: ‘I wish I had stayed in bed.’ He later shouted: ‘It’s funny, I killed all those people but I haven’t the guts to blow my own brains out.’
Shortly before 7pm, however, a shot was heard and an hour later police forced their way into a barricaded classroom to find Ryan had put a bullet in his head.
Back in the newsroom there was huge relief. While Ryan was alive we were subject to legal reporting restrictions which meant we couldn’t even name him. But with him dead we could describe the full, horrific events.
I had got my splash into shape when I was handed several sheets of copy paper. On major stories the editor, Sir David English, liked to write the first few paragraphs himself. I read them and was presented with a dilemma. I thought my stuff was better. But this was the great Sir David, and I was a young northern Herbert who hadn’t been there five minutes.
After a brief period of agonising I decided to go with my version, knowing that if it didn’t suit there were plenty of other papers in Fleet Street.
This was still the age of hot metal and the pages were made up by stonehands, supervised by sub-editors. I had to ‘stone in’ my story, i.e. cut it to fit, and was holding a proof of Page One when David arrived to have a look. By the way, it was a sweltering summer night and even if I hadn’t defied the editor I would have been sweating like a horse.
David’s customary smile disappeared as he read the story. I could see him thinking: ‘I didn’t write this!’ But he read it again and then put his arm around my sodden shoulders. ‘Brilliant!’ he said. ‘And well done for having the courage of your convictions.’
Fast forward to the morning of March 13, 1996, when former Scoutmaster Thomas Hamilton shot dead 16 pupils and a teacher at Dunblane Primary School near Stirling. In contrast to the Hungerford massacre, this all happened in the space of three or four minutes before 43-year-old Hamilton turned his (licensed) gun on himself.
So the story had already been extensively told on the TV news when we started preparing the following day’s edition under the editorship of Paul Dacre. Bearing that in mind, I wrote a short piece for Page One pointing out that from then onwards the name of Dunblane, like Hungerford and Aberfan, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aberfan_disaster would be associated with catastrophe.
By this time we were all on computers and could see each other’s stories as soon as they had been written. One of my colleagues, a mother, came up to my desk and thanked me for my ‘beautiful’ words which she said had made her cry.
When the paper came out, however, my efforts were unrecognisable. Dacre, or more likely one of his minions, had butchered the piece, reducing it to a clichéd, nuts-and-bolts, pedestrian piece of crap, telling readers nothing but what they had already heard many times that day.
And that was the difference between David English and Paul Dacre. If you wrote something good, David was delighted because he had employed you and he felt it reflected well on his judgment. Dacre, however, instinctively disliked and mistrusted everything his staff did, loudly and foul-mouthedly belittling them for it.
Dacre, who is said to be in line for a peerage from Boris Johnson, deserves to be termed a great editor because he boosted the Mail’s circulation by realising that features and opinions, rather than news, were now the way to sell papers.
However English, who died in 1998, was not just a great editor but a great man. RIP.
Old jokes’ home
I came up with a new word yesterday – plagiarism.
What did the pirate say when he entered his ninth decade? ‘Aye, matey.’
A PS from PG
The junior partner of Caine and Cooper, though a man of blameless life, had one of those dark, saturnine faces which suggest a taste for the more sinister forms of crime, and on one cheek of that dark, saturnine face was a long scar. Actually it had been caused by the bursting of a ginger-beer bottle at a YMCA picnic, but it gave the impression of being the outcome of battles with knives in the cellars of the underworld.
PG Wodehouse: Pigs Have Wings