"The Prime Minister's fly is open," I whispered to my companion as Winston Churchill passed us in the House of Commons corridors. "I think we should tell him."
"You tell him, you're young and brash," said my friend.
I padded quietly after the great man, hummed and hawed and coughed until he eventually turned round to see what all the row was about.
Mr Churchill stared at me, looked down, and said in that slow, commanding, slightly lisping voice that had thrilled and inspired millions throughout the war, "My boy, there is no harm in leaving open the door of the cage when the bird is dead."
I hurried back to my colleague to report this piece of Churchilliana and before I knew it I was in the bar of the Mother of Parliaments telling the story to an ever-widening audience. Eventually I think there were more Members of Parliament in the bar than in the debating chamber.
I was in the bar for a fortnight being plied with whisky and I never did send a story back to my newspaper, the Glasgow Herald. Maybe that's why I was never sent to Parliament again. Not by the Herald anyway but I did go back in later years for meetings with members in connection with Public Relations work. Maybe it was unsophisticated but I always felt slightly awed at the thought of walking among the ghosts of people like Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone, Asquith, and Lloyd George.
Lord (Denis) Healey, one-time deputy leader of the Labour Party among many other things, told my story about Churchill, with a different punchline, on a radio programme in March 1994: "A dead bird never flies out of his nest." Healey told me later that he couldn't remember who told him the story but he heard it when he was a young Member of Parliament in 1952, the year of my encounter with Churchill. It's always possible that the young M.P. was one of those who crowded into the Commons bar to hear me tell the story.
If I was brash that day in 1952 I certainly wasn't on the autumn day in 1944 when I walked through an old oak door on the third floor of a building in Buchanan Street and became the youngest reporter in the history of the Glasgow Herald, the oldest English-language daily newspaper in the world.
I was 17, pale-faced, skinny, and wore a brown velour hat with a wide brim like a refugee from an old Hollywood gangster film. The world was consumed with indifference at my elevation from telephone clerk and editorial messenger.
The war in Europe was going well for the Allies Forces and Prime Minister Churchill, before he was defeated in the 1945 general election (he made a comeback in 1951) was in Quebec talking with President Franklin Roosevelt of America about a master-plan to defeat Japan.
Another event took place in 1944 which caused no great excitement at the time but about which millions of words have been written since. Sir William Burrell, a Glasgow shipowner, gave the bulk of his art collection to the city, but more of that later.
I reported to the assistant news editor James Ross, a large, stout man who hurrrumphed and mumbled like an Ealing Studio version of an Indian army colonel and in whom the thrill of the chase had long since slowed to a crippled stumble. "Take a desk somewhere," he hurrrumphed, waving his hand vaguely in the air.
I settled down at a heavily-scarred wooden desk in the middle of the vast reporters' room and waited for my first assignment. As I waited hour after hour for someone to acknowledge my existence I tapped at the ancient Underwood typewriter on the desk....... the quick brown fox jumped.....now is the time for all good men..... smoked cigarette after cigarette, made designs on the desk with a bundle of pencils. Every half hour I walked to a window and watched the pigeons battering themselves at the glass and cooing at each other, "What's he looking at."
The atmosphere in the reporters' room was not like the films I had seen. No-one rushed round the room making wise-cracks, waving scoops, shouting into telephones, and flicking fag ends and half-eaten sandwiches out the window.
I consoled myself by congratulating myself that I was there at all. After all, there weren't many half-educated, timid Jewish boys from Gorbals getting the chance to work for one of the world's great newspapers. I was inclined towards hyperbole even then.
I had been promoted because all the able-bodied reporters were in the armed services and there was an acute shortage of staff; so there I sat dreaming of sudden and dramatic stardom, and terrified in case it came.
What if something happened to one of our war correspondents, Charles Lynch, Eric Philips or David Woodward? Nothing serious of course. I didn't wish that on them. Maybe a slight touch of 'flu from a damp dugout or a wee bout of bronchitis from the dust of battle. Just enough to have him replaced for a week or two by a star-struck cub reporter.
I had been awake from 4 o'clock in the morning worrying about whether I should take a packed suitcase to the office just in case. As I sat listening to the sound of distant drums carrying the news of my exploits from continent to continent I heard Jimmy Ross calling my name through the haze.
Now at last I was to benefit from all the quiet studying in the light of the narrow sunbeams playing on the oak-panelled walls of my alma mater, Abbotsford Public School, Gorbals, that great hall of learning which had nurtured and encouraged men and women who had gone on to distinguish themselves in so many fields of human endeavour....housebreaking, arson, serious assault, fraud, prostitution.
I walked nervously the few feet to Ross's desk like Hercules on his way to confront Cerberus, guardian of the gates of hell. Here was the assignment that would launch me on the way to Fleet Street and beyond. Ross shuffled through some papers on his desk and handed me an envelope (not to be opened until I reached Calais?) and said, "Pop over to the gas office and pay this bill for me son."
Later that day as British bombers flew out to pound factories in Stuttgart and Nuremberg, Jimmy Ross called me to his desk again. Right, this time. This is it. "Here, see what you can get out of this," he hurrumphed without looking me in the eye. A scrap of paper told me a woman had been knocked down by a runwaway horse in West Nile Street and been taken to the Royal Infirmary.
To the Glasgow Herald that day this ranked on the Richter scale of news events somewhere between a rise in the price of llama's milk in Tibet and a tramcar breakdown in San Francisco but I had been looking so miserable Ross just had to give me something to do.
I got the lady's name from a friendly switchboard operator at the Royal Infirmary and went to her home in the Townhead district of the city. I groped my way up a dark, dank, evil-smelling close and came to a door with a brass plate which said that J. Brady lived there. An overweight, unkempt Mr Brady with a face like a battered cardboard box and wearing an off-white undervest and baggy trousers, answered my knock .
"Good afternoon, I'm from the Glasgow Herald...."
Crash. Dust and plaster fell from the ceiling as Mr Brady said, "Fuck off" and propelled the door at me at the speed of light. Fearlessly I knocked again. "Fuck off ah'm telling ye or ah'll bash yer heid in." Crash.
What's this? Phillip Gibbs didn't tell me about this in The Street of Adventure. Leonard Moseley and Alan Moorehead, two of my heroes of the printed word, had never been told to f... off up a dark close in Townhead, or anywhere else as far as I knew. I couldn't go back without my story, a prospect which frightened me more than Mr Brady did.
Knock, knock. The door opened and a three-ton truck hit me full in the face. I shot across the landing, bounced off a wall, and slid down 14 stone steps, bleeding profusely. I counted them later.
Hey, what the hell's this? It's not supposed to be like this. None of the books I had read about the glamour and excitement of newspaper work mentioned this kind of thing. Mr Brady had gone too far. He was now standing between me and the fulfilment of my function in life, to bring back the story. I walked painfully back up to Mr Brady's door and this time attacked the old-fashioned pull-type bell knob. As Mr Brady opened the door ready to kill me this time I held my hand up, palms outwards.
"Right, pal, you've had your fun. You're tougher than me. You can batter my head in but I'm not going away without my story," I said. Mr Brady stared implacably for a few seconds wondering whether to pull off my head or one of my limbs. Then he grinned. "Yur a persistent wee bastard, urn't he" and pulled the door open wide. For the next 20 minutes he dabbed my battered face with a damp dishcloth, gave me a cup of tea in a dirty cup, and apologised repeatedly for "hangin' one on me."
He told me his wife had gone out to buy a birthday gift for a grandson and the next thing he knew was when the polis came to the door to tell him she had been knocked down by a runaway horse. "Stupid bitch." All good human interest stuff. "Ye canny trust anybody these days," he said. I don't know whether he meant his wife or the horse.
Eventually the blood stopped flowing and we parted on the friendliest terms although we didn't promise to write. I went back to the office to write a gripping drama about Mrs Brady's encounter with a runaway horse.
Ross wasn't at his desk so I handed my story to Jimmy Harrison, who was second in command in the reporters' room. Harrison was rumoured to have spent three weeks in the army before being discharged with flat feet or some similar fatal disease. I remember him as a gaunt, granite-faced man whose soul had transmuted to iron filings.
"What happened to you?" he said when he saw my battered face. I was surprised he even asked.
Harrison muttered something that sounded like stupid bugger, read my story, looked impassively at me and grated, "Not quite our kind of material, is it?" and dropped it into the waste paper basket.
I didn't get any more assignments that day so at the end of my shift at 10 p.m., I went home to commit suicide but I thought better of it when I got there and decided to give it another go next day.
The second day wasn't a whole lot better although I do vividly recall two things I was sent to cover. One was the annual general meeting of Glasgow Foundry Boys Religious Society presided over by Bailie Edwin J Donaldson. The Herald didn't miss anything of social significance in those days.
The other was Mr John Agnew's 100th birthday party. Not many hard working men reached their 100th birthday when I was a young reporter. Of course I asked him to what he attributed the fact that he had reached 100 years of age. A far from doddering Mr Agnew put down his pint glass, took the stained clay pipe out of his mouth, and said, "To the fact that I haven't died yet, son." I'm not sure I ever heard a better come-back than that for the rest of my journalistic career.
I had had a couple of jobs before I joined the Herald group. One was in the office of Mr Reginald Oliver Elderton, stockbroker of Queen Street. Mr Elderton was a tall, thin, round-shouldered man who rarely smiled and laughed only once in the year I worked for him although he was not unkind, except financially, to me.
On the last day of the month he strode purposefully in the front door of the office and, without pausing, placed three pound notes on my desk and raced into his own office as if he felt guilty about paying me such a lowly sum. That's how it looked to me, anyway. Some months had five weeks but I still got the same £3. A canny man was Mr Elderton. I know I gave the £3 to my mother but I don't remember how much I got back. I do know I never really went short of anything, perhaps because I didn't smoke or drink or go with women. There wasn't much else a lad could spend money on.
One of my jobs was to type contract notes for clients. One was for an elderly widowed lady in black lace who was driven to our office in a large limousine despite the war and shortage of petrol. I was always amazed at the number of widowed old ladies in black lace who were driven about in limousines. I used to wonder what had happened to their menfolk. I had visions of cellars full of their corpses wrapped in tarpaulins.
I laid the contract note on Mr Elderton's desk and left. Moments later I heard the cackle of laughter from his room.
"Harry, son. Come in here a minute." My real name is Henry but I was called Harry all through my working life. I don't know why.
Mr Elderton handed me the contract note and said, "Read it." I had typed 100 Ordinary Shares of Phillips Rubber Souls.......
In the year I was in Mr Elderton's office I read every book about journalism I could get my hands on. Many of them made the point that a reporter needed a good knowledge of shorthand so I studied Pitman's shorthand in the evenings and by the end of about three months I could take down most of a radio talk, but I also had to get glasses as I nearly went blind.
A job came up in the office of Mr William Campbell Balfour, who ran a tiny news agency up a close in West Nile Street with the rather pretentious name of Scottish Newspaper Services. When I told Mr Elderton about it he asked me not to go. He told me he had no family and when he could no longer carry on the business it would have to close because there was no-one else there He did have a clerk but he was older than he was.
Mr Elderton said if I would stay he would propose me for membership of the Stock Exchange when I was old enough and I could carry on the business. I was too young and stupid to appreciate what Mr Elderton was offering me and my mother and father didn't even know what a stockbroker was so they couldn't advise me and I left.
Mr Balfour, to whom I referred disrespectfully as W.C., was also a tall, thin man but with absolutely no sense of humour. His main income was derived from stealing the more salacious court stories from the daily newspapers in Scotland and sending them by teleprinter to the News of the World in London with which he had some agreement.
He also insisted that I had to have at least one idea for a news story every morning gleaned from voracious reading of the dailies. Mr Balfour looked unmoved by any human emotion as morning after morning I produced the most bizarre ideas for stories, none of which came to anything.
The only other employee at the time was Cliff Hanley, who later achieved fame as an author, broadcaster and wit. Cliff was very encouraging to me in those early days and is still a friend of mine even if we don't see each other all that often. He lasted longer than me in Mr Balfour's office. I was fired after a few months for, among other things, not ensuring there was a warm, welcoming fire in Mr Balfour's room when he arrived in the morning.
Mr Balfour called me in one day and made the longest speech I had ever heard him make. "Harry, son, I'm afraid I have to let you go. Through no fault of your own you are just not the stuff that journalists are made of. That's no reflection on you at all. There are many successful men who would not make good journalists. I think you should go into a shop and work yourself up to be a business tycoon."
This was just about the most insulting and wounding words that one could make to an aspiring James Cameron. Mr Balfour didn't approve of tycoons, never having become on himself.
Cliff Hanley told me later that the real reason for my departure was that Mr Balfour wanted to employ the son of a friend. Some years later I met a rather run-down Mr Balfour in a coffee shop. He didn't recognise me so I sat down at his table, introduced myself, and told him about the advice he had given me.
"Did you take it?"
"As a matter of fact, no. I'm chief sub-editor of The Bulletin." (another morning newspaper in the Herald group). Mr Balfour was unimpressed.
Somehow or other I had known I was not going to spend much of my young life in Mr Balfour's office so every lunch time for months I went round to the Herald office to ask for a job. At one point I was asked into the office of an accountant who asked me to add up a column of figures. I added three columns of figures three times and got nine answers. "Don't call us, we'll call you," was the gist of his parting comment.
The day after I was fired by Mr Balfour I went to the Herald office again. The lady in charge of office boys, Miss Charlotte (Lottie) Anderson took me to see Mr T. P. Inglis, editor of the Evening Times, who for some reason was the only man authorised to take on office boys.
"This young man has been coming in every day for months asking for a job," said Lottie. "I don't know what to do with him."
"Give him a job, then" growled Mr Inglis, and I was on my way. The job description was telephone clerk, which embraced quite a number of functions, including running to the canteen for cigarettes and bags of chips for eternally ravenous sub-editors. The main function though was to take stories in shorthand from reporters on the phone, transcribe them, and give them to the chief sub-editor.
After the stories were emasculated or otherwise distorted (I'm writing as a one-time reporter now!) by one of the sub-editors he would shout "up" and one of us would put the small sheets of copy paper in a carrier and insert it in a pneumatic tube which carried it to the caseroom to be set in type. In those days I had a tendency to run everywhere like Sammy Glick to prove how enthusiastic I was. Once I grabbed a story from a sub-editor and thrust it into the pneumatic tube without a carrier. Minutes later the story that was to have led the front page floated gently over the rooftops of Buchanan Street. The loose pages had filtered out through a grating.
A substitute story was found on the spike which was used to impale discarded stories. John Downie, a night editor under whom I once served and who was one of the best journalists I have ever known, used to park his sandwiches on the spike.
My newspaper career was nearly cut short one day when I raced along a corridor, slammed open a door of the sub-editors' room and hit the editor full in the chest. He sat heavily on the floor with his pipe half way down his throat. Miraculously I survived. Mr Inglis was a tolerant man.
Soon I was allowed, along with other of the brighter telephone clerks, to cover police courts in the morning where the lesser dramas and comedies of the human dilemma were played out. One magistrate, a local councillor who had a liking for Scotland's national drink, was still suffering from the effects of a reception he had attended the previous night.
Staring with blood-shot eyes at a wee man who had been found drunk and disorderly after his own version of a good night, the magistrate mumbled, "You're sentenced to death." The normally dignified, soft-spoken assessor who was sitting with the magistrate turned pale and exclaimed, "For Chrissake, you can't do that. Fine him half a crown."
"Er..sorry...fined half a crown," repeated the magistrate dutifully.
Another time a group of thugs who had terrorised their neighbourhood were told by the magistrate, "This type of behaviour cannot be tolerated in the streets of our city. I shall make an example of you all. You will each pay a fine of half a crown" (12½ pence in today's money). Thus was law and order restored to our unruly streets.
More than once I was threatened with a cement overcoat and dumping in the Clyde if I published the name of some villain who had appeared in court but I always survived to write another day. I was a telephone clerk for only a few months when I was promoted to reporter.
My first few weeks as a reporter were less exciting than my months as an editorial dogsbody. The paper was thin, much of it filled with the progress of the war, and at home the Herald seemed to concentrate on covering meetings of one kind of another. I got the less interesting ones to cover, which rarely saw the light of day. A few months later I was called up for the army and was away for more than three years.