A naked woman on my knee


WHEN I started out in national newspapers 45 years ago it was still the custom not to publish on Good Friday. That left Maundy Thursday free for journalists and print workers to booze it up on an annual jolly known as the wayzgoose.

This began as a treat given by a master printer to his workers on or about St Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, but was adopted as a Fleet Street Easter tradition at some time in the last century.

I’d been at the Daily Mail’s northern office for a couple of years when the sports desk arranged a wayzgoose and invited the rest of us to join in.

It involved a leisurely cruise along the Bridgewater Canal from Manchester to Altrincham, with plenty of ale and some ‘adult entertainment’ promised on the return journey.

Having been picked up by coach from our home towns and arrived at the starting point, we set off at lunchtime in blazing sunshine, an all-male party some 30 or 40 strong, shirts off on the roof deck as we downed copious pints of Burtonwood bitter, straight from the barrel.

Being young and stupid, I had omitted to pack any painkillers and by evening was paying the price of toping in the sun, with a splitting headache. Two strippers boarded at Altrincham, along with a pair of fearsome bodyguards. The women took the stage at the front of the barge, and from the canned music accompanying them and the drunken roars of approval I deduced that they were soon in action. I was lying down in the stern, nursing my hangover and in no mood to witness their antics.

The evening seemed to last for ever and it was a huge relief to reach journey’s end, or so it seemed. As we disembarked, one of the sports subs, in a state of high inebriation, missed his footing and had to be fished out of the water. Someone wrapped him shivering in a coat and we all boarded the coach saying: ‘Let’s get him home soon.’

The strippers and their heavies had different ideas. ‘No, you’re taking us back to Altrincham,’ they insisted, making it clear they could and happily would make mincemeat out of a gaggle of staggering hacks.

So, after an interminable drive to Altrincham and back, thence home, it was well into the early hours before I finally got back to an ibufropen, paracetamol and Alka-Seltzer cocktail, vowing that this would be my first and last wayzgoose. And indeed it was – soon afterwards national newspapers started publishing on Good Friday, then on Boxing Day, leaving only Christmas Eve as a non-working day.

A much more embarrassing office event involving female disrobement happened in December 1986, a few weeks after I had been transferred to the Mail in London.

The news subs were holding a Christmas party at a sprawling basement function room near the office. Wives were invited and most attended, although my first missus was still up north looking after our baby daughter.

The drink flowed, the night editor proposed a toast to the ‘best subs’ desk in Fleet Street’ and everyone was relaxing around the table when a presence made itself apparent.

It was an extremely corpulent stark naked woman who had been performing duties as a strippogram at a neighbouring event. She surveyed the gathered throng, noticed I was on my own and moved in for the kill. First she tried to kiss me, then sat on my knee, transferring a large amount of baby powder to my smart new suit. I wriggled, tried to shake her off and briefly considered giving her an elbow in her ample belly only to be advised against it by a very large and evil-looking bodyguard. Far from joining in with my tormentor’s laughter, my colleagues and their spouses looked horrified at my mortifying plight.

The final act of this performance came when the fattogram grabbed one of her breasts and inserted the nipple in my right ear as if prospecting for wax. After a series of tweaks she buggered off at last, her burly sidekick holding out a hat inviting contributions, of which none was forthcoming.

The table remained in stunned silence, the women in particular giving me sympathetic looks. What could I say? In a moment of inspiration, I probed the lughole recently occupied by bosom and observed: ‘I think I’ve got gonorrhea.’

There was a round of applause and several blokes who had never spoken to me before slapped me on the back and said ‘Well done’. So it was a propitious start to my Fleet Street years but I would still much rather it had never happened.

Never knowingly underwritten

WHILE I’m on the subject of the Mail, one of my former colleagues in Manchester was a reporter named Oldthorpe, renowned for his loud suits and large, stinky cigars. His trademark was supplying stories with quotes which could never have passed human lips. My favourite was when he went to interview the ancient grandmother of a girl who had been apparently been seduced, then thrown over by the then world snooker champion Steve Davis. ‘Asked what she thought about Davis’s behaviour, Mrs Goggins, 89, replied, “The game’s a harsh mistress”.’

And the unnamed neighbour of a murdered teenager allegedly vouchsafed: ‘She was a beautiful young girl, budding on the verge of womanhood. Now she has been tragically taken from us. Who knows what wonders her future may have held?’  

The favourite tactic of Oldthorpe and his ilk, especially with elderly and hard-of-hearing interviewees, was to ask: ‘Would you say?’ followed by a pithy phrase. If the answer was the expected ‘Yes’, then this would be treated as a real quote. Oldthorpe once spoke admiringly of a competitor on the Mirror who asked an old dear: ‘Would you say he was more beast than man?’

Another of Oldthorpe’s characteristics was chronic overwriting. This was in the days when papers were still slender publications with lots of stories to cram into maybe six or seven news pages. The length of an average page lead would be six or eight inches, probably about 250 to 300 words. This did not stop Oldthorpe and others supplying well over 1,000 on the most trivial of topics. It ensured that they covered every possible aspect of the story and if a key point failed to make it into the paper they could always blame the sub-editor who had been forced to cut the copy by at least 80 per cent.

I brought up this matter one evening in the Press Club and Oldthorpe said: ‘It’s funny you should say that but the editor had me in his office only this morning saying the same thing. “This story you supplied about a minor argument between neighbours. How much do you think it will get in the paper?” “Half a column, perhaps”, I replied. “OK, well let’s count the number of paragraphs in today’s centre spread about an IRA atrocity.” “Twenty-two”. “And how many pars are in the story you filed?” “Forty-four”. “So do you think your little story is worth twice as much space as this morning’s spread?” “No, sir.” “So let that be a lesson to you.” “Yes, sir”.’

Oldthorpe added: ‘I hadn’t the heart to tell him I’d filed another 28 pars on the neighbours story.’

Old jokes’ home

I got my daughter a fridge for her birthday. I can’t wait to see her face light up when she opens it.

A PS from PG

Unseen, in the background, Fate was quietly slipping the lead into the boxing-glove.

PG Wodehouse: Very Good, Jeeves!

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