The Black Museum


IN the days before newspaper production moved into the computer age and everyone had to sober up, there was ample scope for howlers. A combination of drunken and incompetent reporters and copytakers resulted in horrific errors always threatening to get into print. Fortunately, the vigilance of sub-editors such as myself and the missus kept these to a minimum, but the raw copy provided a wealth of unintentional laughs.

This led a much-loved Daily Mail colleague, John Stevens, to institute the Black Museum, a large envelope bulging with slips of paper representing gibberish, balderdash and crimes against the English language perpetrated by reporters. On his retirement, he passed it on to my wife and me.

Dating back 50 years or more, many of the specimens are so faded that they are virtually unreadable and certainly impossible to reproduce here. However in this and future columns I will feature pictures of still-legible material and copy out some of the prime candidates.

First out of the bag comes from a Fleet Street ‘legend’, the Ulsterman Ted Oliver, who laboured under the lifelong delusion that he could write.

Beneath John Stevens’s handwritten comment ‘Good grief’ comes Oliver’s intro, as follows:

A mist formed by 10million tears of grief shed in 10 years of agony shrouded the Mountains of Mourne yesterday (Mon) as they looked down on the scene of the terrorist outrage which pushed Ulster across yet another bloody threshold.

There’s only one thing to do with an intro like that. Throw it away and do another.

’Twas ever thus with thirsty Ted, who was working from the Daily Mail’s Belfast office when I joined its Manchester operation in 1978. Every night, he would dictate a screed of unusable drivel over the phone while holding a drink in the other hand. Fortunately for Oliver, copy for the Irish edition was always looked after by a top sub-editor who put it into English and made it sing.

This did not prevent him disparaging the subs during his visits to Manchester where, standing unsteadily at the bar of the Press Club downing quadruple measures of Cork Gin, he would call us ‘failed reporters’.

Such was the quality of these ‘failed reporters’ that Oliver won a coveted journalism award despite never getting a word of his own in the paper. On the strength of this he was moved to the London office but hastily shunted on to the Mirror when his shortcomings became apparent. There, his main claim to fame was being bitten on the nose by the footballer Vinnie Jones. He died aged 60 in 2007.

Another vociferous critic of the subs was a Mail reporter named Gareth Woodgates, an example of whose wit and wisdom is as follows:

The author of the next cutting is not recorded, sadly.

Here’s one from a West Country freelance:

Here’s one from a Nottingham news agency:

And finally, a little gem from Reuters:

Police today searched a leper hospital on the outskirts of the southern port of Larnaca, Cyprus, looking for hidden arms.

In later years the subs kept a computerised list of cock-ups but one of the specialist writers got wind of this and it was closed down by the management. We kept a master copy but this mysteriously disappeared. A great shame, because it was hilarious. However, there will be more from the Black Museum in future columns.

Rock of Aged

THE first time I saw the Rolling Stones was in 1976 at the New Bingley Hall in Stafford, a huge barn of a place more suited to cattle markets than rock shows. I remember watching Mick Jagger flounce about in a green satin onesie and thinking: ‘How much longer can these old men keep going?’

A similar observation had come to mind the previous year when I saw The Who at Belle Vue in Manchester. Pete Townshend’s windmill guitar moves already seemed terribly passé. Yet almost half a century later these superannuated rockers are still treading the boards and packing in the crowds. Good luck to them, I say, although I can highly recommend the joys of retirement.

One rather creepy example of ancient pop stars came about in 1990 when my better half persuaded me to accompany her to the Lewisham Odeon in south London, where one of her favourite 60s pop groups, the Hollies, were playing.

We both found it quite disturbing to see the aged, stooped figure of Allan Clarke, his thinning locks scraped back in a ponytail, stalking around the stage while singing of his love for Jennifer Eccles and other under-age schoolgirls. Yet the crowd lapped it up. And 30 years on the Hollies are still going strong, with my former drinking partner Bobby Elliott now in his ninth decade.

A smirk from the sports desk

HERE’S another story from our old friend and former Daily Mail colleague, the sports sub-editor Mike Stanford. In 1986 he was working on Eddy Shah’s short-lived national daily Today and tells me: ‘I recall a story from the racing desk. A pretty feeble joke was doing the rounds on the lines of, “Why shouldn’t you buy one of those Russian jockstraps? Chernobyl fall-out.” (You have to say it quickly and even then it’s not really funny).

‘However, a racing sub approached me one night and said, “I’ve heard a great one, Mike. Why shouldn’t you buy one of those Russian jockstraps?” To humour him I asked him why. Scarcely able to contain himself, he giggled, “Because your dick will drop off”.’

Old jokes’ home

Women only call me ugly until they find out how much money I make. Then they call me ugly and poor.

A PS from PG

The principle on which chairmen at these meetings are selected is perhaps too familiar to require recording here at length, but in case some of my readers are not acquainted with the workings of political machines, I may say that no one under the age of eighty-five is eligible and the preference is given to those with adenoids. For Boko Lawlor the authorities had extended themselves and picked a champion of his class. In addition to adenoids, the Right Hon the Marquess of Cricklewood had – or seemed to have – a potato of the maximum size and hotness in his mouth, and he had learned his elocution in one of those correspondence schools which teach it by mail. I caught his first sentence – that he would only detain us a moment – but for fifteen minutes after that he baffled me completely. That he was still speaking I could tell by the way his Adam’s apple wiggled, but what he was saying I could not even guess.

PG Wodehouse: Ukridge

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *