IN my early years on the Daily Mail in Manchester I sometimes had to do the late shift, from 7.45pm to 3.45am. Everyone else went home by 2am leaving me and a reporter to do an emergency edition in the event of a major story.
This never happened to me, although a counterpart in London, Rob Freeman, covered himself in glory on October 12, 1984, when at 2.54am an IRA bomb ripped through the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet were staying during the Conservative Party Conference. Mrs Thatcher and her husband Denis escaped injury but five colleagues were killed, including Deputy Chief Whip Sir Anthony Berry, and 31 were injured.
Rob managed to get a 5th edition out which, although few copies were printed, made its way on to TV bulletins showing the Mail to be quicker off the mark than the opposition. His career was made.
Back in Manchester in the late 1970s, I had taken the train into work and when my late shift was over I went to the Press Club with the late reporter for a session. We drank until chucking-out time at 5am and then I staggered down Deansgate to Victoria Station to catch the first train home to Blackburn, shortly before six.
Having boarded said service, I immediately fell asleep. I woke with a jerk when I felt the train come to a halt and through gummed-up eyes saw a station sign beginning with B and decided I must be home. As the train pulled away, however, I discerned that I was in Bolton, not Blackburn. There was nothing to do but wait for the next one in an hour.
Having visited the loo I found a bench and decided I would be more comfortable lying down. Of course, I fell deeply asleep again.
Had I been a tramp I would have been moved on, but probably because I was in suit and tie I was left alone. It wasn’t until after midday that I finally awoke. Thanks to the ineptitude of the rota editor, I was down for an early shift starting at 2.30pm that day despite my late finish and there was no time to get home, have a shower and change.
So it was back to Manchester. I arrived at the office, having called in at Marks & Spencer for fresh shirt, socks and underwear. The reward for my conscientiousness came from the chief sub. ‘Bloody hell,’ he said. ‘You look as rough as a bear’s arse.’
My next emergency visit to Marks came many years later when, heading for the Mail office in Kensington, I called in for lunch at a Japanese café called Hare and Tortoise, where I had laksa, a dish of chicken and seafood with noodles swimming in a spicy coconut broth. I have never mastered chopsticks so I ate with fork and spoon but still contrived to spatter my shirt and tie with bright orange sauce. As I arrived in the menswear section at M&S, an assistant grinned and said: ‘Wagamama?’ – the name of another Japanese restaurant chain. ‘No, Hare and Tortoise.’ ‘Oh, that’s a new one,’ he remarked. ‘Between you and me, blokes who’ve slopped over themselves at Wagamama account for almost half the shirts and ties we sell.’
A note from the gallery
IN the days when we were still invited out for dinner, we were eating with friends one evening in a quite grand suburban mansion with a dining hall and a minstrel gallery off which there were seven or eight bedrooms. Our hosts had occasion to tick off their six-year-old son for playing with his food and picking his nose at the same time. When he refused to desist they sent him off upstairs to his room.
As the meal continued, a piece of toilet paper fluttered down from the gallery and landed in the middle of the table. Scrawled on it in orange felt-tip pen was the legend: ‘I HAT YOU YOU BUMHALLS.’
BY contrast, we never had any problems with our children at mealtimes thanks to a tactic learned from my mother. If they finished their food they would be entitled to line up against the wall in age order. As they stood to attention, I would invite each one forward to receive an invisible chevron drawn with a finger on the shoulder accompanied by the words ‘Big Mark’. They would swell with pride over this entirely imaginary honour, as indeed I did as a youngster. A masterful example of child psychology. Thanks, Mum.
Old Jokes’ Home
Here’s another genie-with-the-lamp gag which has always hit the spot with me because it is actually an anti-joke which eschews the customary excruciating pun.
Limousine pulls up outside a pub and out step three supermodels accompanied by a man with a head like a giant orange. They go inside and the man tells the landlord: ‘I know what you’re going to say. The answer is, yes, you guessed it, I found a lamp in the attic and when I polished it a genie emerged who offered me three wishes. My first was to ask for a billion pounds. My second was to make me irresistible to women. And the third – and you’re going to think this is really stupid – is that I asked for a head like a giant orange.’
A PS from PG
One of the first lessons life teaches us is that on these occasions of back-chat between the delicately-nurtured a man should retire into the offing, curl up in a ball, and imitate the prudent tactics of the opossum, which, when danger is in the air, pretends to be dead, frequently going to the length of hanging out crêpe and instructing its friends to stand round and say what a pity it all is.
PG Wodehouse: Very Good, Jeeves