"Fire watching?" said Frank.
I never did get to Fleet Street but I did get near it. During one visit to London some years later, after I had become a sub-editor on The Bulletin, someone told me that James Drawbell, managing editor of Woman's Own was always on the lookout for bright young men, especially Scots. He himself came from Edinburgh or thereabouts. I managed to get to see Drawbell, who was known as king of the women's magazines, and to my great surprise he offered me a job as deputy chief sub-editor. Drawbell had wrought miracles with the magazine, taking it from a circulation of 300,000 to 3,000,000 and making it one of the largest-selling women's magazines in the world.
Among the people who wrote for Woman's Own in those days were some who went on to even greater fame, Katherine Whitehorn, Correlli Barnett, who became a military historian and Keeper of the Churchill Archives, and author James Leasor. The Rev David Sheppard, later Bishop of Liverpool, was a popular columnist. One other person I remember, with good reason, was Philip Harben a well-known stage and television chef, whose recipes were said to be eargerly awaited each week by countless breathless housewives.
Within days of my installation at Women's Own I realised I had made a terrible mistake. I had been a hard-bitten Glasgow newsman and was expected to edit stories and articles that appealed to girls whose intellectual horizons were limited, to say the least. Although hundreds of letters came in each week for Mary Grant, the magazine's agony aunt, the theme of many of the letters were monotonously repetitive, "Should I let my boy friend do this and that.....Should I go on holiday with him....What do I do about my pimples...." and members of the staff, including myself, often had to think up something different for Mary Grant to pontificate on. I have to admit I was not good at thinking up problems for young girls.
Besides, I had enough problems of my own. By this time I was married and missed my wife Jacqueline and our two sons Harvie and Michael who were still in Glasgow. All the free time I had was occupied with looking for somewhere for us to live.
Some of the intricate page designs in the magazine made editing very difficult. Items had to be fitted into the most awkward little spaces. On one occasion I had to cut a few words out of a Philip Harben recipe to make it fit the space allocated to it by a designer who knew very little about cooking, or anything else relating to the printed word. Cutting a recipe by Philip Harben was a crime akin at the very least to the cutting job visited upon Mr John Bobbitt's vitals many years later by his wife Loretta. I went to the page designer and told him the Harben recipe wouldn't fit the space he had allowed for it and his reponse was to the effect that the problem was mine, not his.
No sooner had the magazine hit the streets when an irate Mr Harben phoned to talk to the "stupid fucking idiot" who had ruthlessly reduced his recipe to unintelligible rubbish. My defence that I had cut only three or four completely superfluous words did not placate the celebrated juggler of pots and pans. Jimmy Drawbell called me into his office and implied that Mr Harben was of more value to the world of women's magazines than me and please would I stay away from his recipes in future.
One afternoon I happened to leave the office at the same time as two very beautiful girls who had been in to be photographed. I walked between them in the Strand wishing like hell that some of my old colleagues in Glasgow could have seen me. I was swinging an umbrella nonchalantly when the point of the brolly went into a hole in the pavement and I fell flat on my face. The two visions of loveliness glanced disdainfully down and walked on, twittering brightly.
The crunch came one day when I was editing a story about a girl who had come into the office complaining that she could do nothing with her hair which resembled the stuffing in an old sofa. The magazine called in a fashionable London hairdresser who transformed the scraggy cockney waif into a beautifully-coiffeured cockney waif. Half way through editing this I murmured, "Why the hell am I doing this? This is not what I came to London for."
I dropped my pencil on the desk, put on my coat, and walked out the door. I spent the next few days being thrown out of various Fleet Street newspaper offices and at the end of the week I took a train home to Glasgow. I went into The Bulletin office and was hailed by my old colleagues as the conquering hero from the big city. Comyn Webster, the editor, wandered into the room and called me into his office.
"Did you jump or were you pushed?" he enquired. Bad news travels fast in the newspaper business.
"Have you got a job?"
"Do you want to come back here?"
Relief flooded over me. "Yes please."
"Start on Sunday."
I went back to the sub-editors' room and that was the last time I tried to break into the London big time. Eventually I became chief sub-editor, a very important job on a newspaper but one about which the public know very little. My salary was £1200 a year. About the same time a pupil barrister in London named Robin Day was making 200 guineas a year and another young man named Michael Heseltine was an undergraduate at Pembroke College, Oxford.
The job of chief sub-editor varies slightly from paper to paper but my job was to decide the page and position of stories that poured in all day and night. Sometimes the editor and I liaised on what the page one lead story should be if it wasn't blindingly obvious.
One night I gave one of my sub-editors a story from a news agency to edit about a doctor who had appeared before a disciplinary committee for some transgression of his profession's ethics. Asked by the tribunal about his qualifications he said he couldn't produce them because his dog had chewed them up.
When the first edition of the paper came up while everyone else was at supper I was turning over the pages to check that everything was in order when I came to a headline across eight columns which read DOG CHEWED DOCTOR'S TESTIMONIALS. I'm the only one I've ever known outside Hollywood who ever picket up the phone and shouted "Stop the presses."
In the report of a youth club meeting one of our reporters wrote: "The secretary said she hoped all the boys appreciated how lucky they were to have got so many lovely girls in the club."
The Bulletin ceased publication on July 2, 1960 after a life of 45 years during which it created an affectionate place for itself in Scottish journalism. A few weeks earlier Comyn Webster, the editor, told me that David Keir, his deputy, was retiring and asked me if I would like his job. This put me in a quandary. John Blackwood, a former colleague in Outram and deputy editor of the Scottish Daily Mail in Edinburgh had offered me the job of deputy chief sub-editor. Although I was chief sub-editor of The Bulletin the Mail job was a much bigger one. I had agonised for weeks over Blackwood's offer and couldn't make up my mind.
When Comyn Webster made his offer I told him about the one from John Blackwood and said, "You know there have been a lot of rumours about the fate of The Bulletin. Will there be any paper for me to be deputy editor of this time next year?" Comyn stared out the window for a minute or two and said, "Take John's offer."
Although many people looked on The Bulletin as a rather genteel picture paper more suitable to the tastes of elderly ladies, analysis of its pages will reveal that the men who ran it had a first-class news sense, not only for what was news at the time but for what was likely to develop into stories of significance.
Mind you, the paper did give prominence to some real trivia, which helped to generate its rather twee reputation. Page leads told its readers the best way to make tea, the correct way to carry a handbag, and what sex of budgerigar to buy.
Much of the credit for the more authoritative side of the paper must go to John Downie, chief sub-editor and later night editor, whom I've already described as one of the best journalists I ever had the good fortune to work with. He was chief sub-editor when I joined the sub-editors' table, unmarried and lived only for the job, and expected everyone else to do the same. One night I mentioned to a colleague that I was tired because I had been hanging wallpaper before I came in. John went off the deep end. "You should get someone else to do that kind of thing. You are supposed to keep your energies for the job that gives you a living. This job requires concentration, not people coming in tired from hanging wallpaper!"
None of us took any notice of that kind of thing for all the obvious reasons and because John had rather weird ideas about a number of things, women being one of them. That didn't prevent him from getting married in, I think his 40s. Understandably his attitude changed then.
The other daily newspapers were watching the situation closely and were determined to take advantage of the closure of The Bulletin. Donald Todhunter, editor of the Scottish Daily Mail, sent the following note to all his senior editorial staff:
This time it really looks as if The Bulletin is going under. I am drafting this memo so that you are all in the picture on what this move could meant to the Scottish Daily Mail.
Circulationwise out of its sale of roughly 100,000 The Bulletin appears to sell to 40,000 people who read no other paper. Therefore allowing for normal evaporation there could be at least 30,000 sale to be gained in the dogfight between the rest of the papers.
Apart from a publicity campaign to be accompanied by features and competitions extra effort is clearly needed on the news and sports pages in order to appeal to the kind of reader who for years has bought The Bulletin.
Primarily this appeal lies in the wider use of pictures, particularly the expressive, non-newsy kind, pretty girls, weddings, etc., women's sport, what is going on in the women's organisations and local society gossip. If the speculative closure date of July 2 proves correct we need to start slanting our appearance slightly towards The Bulletin reader right away. Obviously this does not mean losing our own character in the processs, but with an event of this size in the offing I would like you all to think along these lines and make your own contribution towards winning as much as we can of the extra sales which will become available.
From what I remember the Mail didn't make a very good job of catering for Bulletin readers and in the fulness of time its printing operation in Edinburgh closed down. Donald Todhunter was right on target on The Bulletin's closure date. The company said it had been losing money, which was probably quite true, but the way I heard it certain Herald and Evening Times costs were unfairly charged to The Bulletin making it uneconomic to sustain. Some of my contemporaries felt it could have competed successfully, at least for another few years, with the popular papers like the Express, Record and Mail if resources had been devoted to it but I don't think the Outram board cared about The Bulletin and a newspaper needs a certain attitude of mind, not just money, to make it successful in a highly-competitive business.
The fact that The Bulletin had a special place in the affections of the Scottish public was more than proved 20 years later when I brought back the title, with of course the permission of a totally different Outram board, as the newspaper of Glasgow City Council, but more of that later.
I was with the Mail in Edinburgh about six months when I decided I had had enough. We had five editions a night in an effort to compete with the Express and Record in Glasgow, and our five editions were produced in an unnerving atmosphere of frenzy. The chief sub-editor was a man named Jack Sutherland, a real eccentric, but a very clever technician. As his deputy I sat beside him and watched him design page after page at the speed of light. He worked so fast I couldn't even follow what he was doing. One night he didn't come in and I almost had a fit when John Blackwood told me to take over. One of my first acts was to put a fairly large picture story on two pages in the same edition, an easy thing to do if you're not careful.
One night I shouted across the crowded news room to a reporter, "Hurry up with that robbery story."
"Another few minutes, Harry. I haven't got all the facts yet."
"Never mind the f...... facts, just give me the story," I shouted back, a remark that is quoted back at me to this day.
One afternoon a telephone call from London asked me to book a room for a member of the board of Associated Newspapers, the company that owned the Mail, who was coming to Glasgow for a couple of days. I was in no mood for this kind of thing as I considered my job harassing enough but it was my own fault as I was the one who happened to pick up the phone.
I booked a room in the Central Hotel, one of the few half-decent hotels in the city at the time and, in a mischievous moment, told the London caller, "Tell Mr Thing to go to the Great Eastern Hotel."
The next evening our immaculate, bowler-hatted director came out of the railway station, swanned elegantly into a taxi, and told the driver loftily, "The Great Eastern Hotel, please."
"Eh?" said the driver.
"Great Eastern Hotel," repeated the director.
"Ur ye sure?" said the taxi driver.
"Of course I'm sure," said Mr Thing.
"Aye right, Jimmy," said the driver, and took Mr Thing to the Great Eastern Hotel, a model lodging house in the East End of the city.
Mr Thing took one look at the building, which looked like a prison, and said plaintively, "There must be some mistake." He phoned our office and after a few minutes of confusion was told he should have gone to the Central Hotel. Later I managed to persuade a secretary in London that she had misheard me.
During my months in Edinburgh I got home to see my wife Jackie and our two boys only at week-ends. I had an uncomfortable ride in a delivery van early on Saturday morning and another uncomfortable ride back on Sunday evening. I was living in a room in a large house in Bruntsfield. In the room through the wall there were two girl students whose record player started up at 7 a.m. As I got back to my digs about 4 a.m. I didn't get much sleep. Appeals to their better nature went unheeded.
Eventually I wrote to Roger Wood, editor of the Scottish Daily Express in Glasgow to ask for a job. Roger was a tough Londoner who had been brought north to liven up the paper. He certainly did that. His interviewing technique was novel.
"Why should I give you a job?"
"Because I need it and because even the Scottish Daily Express can use another good sub-editor," I said.
"Start on Monday," said Roger.
One night in the caseroom I was inspecting a rather uninteresting page when Roger looked over my shoulder and said in a voice that reverberated round the busy room, "I can get a f..... clerk to do that," meaning design a dull-looking page. As it had been designed by one of Roger's own bright boys he had brought from London with him I got a bit annoyed at the implication that it was me.
I crumpled the page, thrust it at Roger's clean white shirt, and said in my best cockney voice, "Then get a f..... clerk to do it," and strode off to the cheers of the caseroom staff. People just didn't talk to Roger like that and for the rest of the night I really expected to be fired at any moment, but nothing happened.
Another night I was editing a very lengthy story about a woman who was sent to a lunatic asylum by the High Court for dropping children out of a tenement building. It was hard going because I had to cut quite a lot of the copy to make it fit the space allocated to the story. I was getting very nervy because the edition deadline was fast approaching when Roger tapped me imperiously on the shoulder and said, "Are you nearly finished?" Before I could stop myself I swung round and said "Beat it, I'm busy." As soon as it was out I expected the ceiling to fall on me but again nothing happened.
A few nights later I was given a story to edit about every pupil in a primary school who had failed an English examination. I put a headline across six columns reading NOT WUN PAPER WOS RITE. Roger went pale when he saw the headline but after thinking about it he had a dramatic change of mind and gave me a £10 bonus at the end of the week.
It was during this period in my newspaper career that I could easily have become an alcoholic. Every evening when the first edition of the paper was being put to bed I went down to the pub next door to the office with some colleagues in what was supposed to be our supper break and put away several rum and cokes before going back to the strains and stresses of another three or four editions of the paper. Some wonderful editing took place as the rum and cokes took effect.
Most of the editors I've known liked to write memos to underlings telling them what a great job they were doing or that they had botched something. This is a sample from Ian McColl, who succeeded Roger Wood as editor of the Scottish Daily Express and later became editor of the Daily Express in London. It was dated 14th November 1962 and addressed to reporters and sub-editors.
I call your attention to a disturbing trend in the preparation of stories and headlines. While our main competitor the Daily Record is emphasising the human element whenever possible we are subordinating it. I want to see the trend reversed, promptly. I do not believe that readers are primarily interested in the fifth accident having taken place in six years on a stretch of road rather than in the fact that a mother was out shopping when she was told her toddler son had been killed on the way to nursery school.
On this basis, too, we should have re-shaped our story of the man who died four hours after starting a new job. We should have angled it on the wife. I wanted to know how long he had been unemployed, how difficult things had been for her and the family, whether she had been overjoyed to find that he had work again, how her happiness was shattered....
The memo ended, This newspaper has always had a reputation of maintaining a warm, friendly, kindly bond with its readers. When its approach to the news, whether in writing or headline seems metallic or clinical, it loosens that bond.
Thus are formed the policies and philsophies of our great organs of public opinion. Having said all that I enjoyed my two years with the Express and made many friends, including Ian McColl.
Letters to the editor are useful in that they tell a newspaper what its readers think about its contents and whatever else interests them. A full list of letters and their contents was compiled for the daily editor's conference which is attended by the news editor and other members of the editorial and circulaltion hierarchy to determine a rough outline of what the following morning's paper will contain.
This is a sample of the list of letters in my day:
Malcolm Sinclair, James Nesbit Street, Glasgow, feels the translation of the New Testament is of no importance.
G. Easson, Ullapool, wants the press to campaign for development of the Highlands.
Mrs Isla Nicoll, Craigie Road, Perth, dislikes sticking to the rules of grammar.
Mrs Adie, Kirkintilloch, says his wife felt cheated because the Paterson-Johnansson fight did not go 15 rounds.
Ellenor Lynch, Stepps Garage, is sure the Russians will beat America and the world into space.
D. Campbell, Bruce Street, Greenock, does not trust Dr Adenauer.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment of my life in journalism occurred early on the morning of Thursday, October 25, 1962. A couple of days earlier President John F. Kennedy had imposed a blockade on Cuba to prevent any more Soviet ships taking arms and missiles to the island from which they could have struck at the heart of America.
About 3 or 4 o'clock that Thursday morning I was in a little room with Ian McColl and one or two others listening intently to a small short-wave radio on which an American commentator was giving a minute by minute account of the progress of Soviet arms-carrying ships sailing towards Cuba.
I had pencil poised over a wad of copy paper ready to write a front-page story for a special edition we would put out if the Soviet ships tried to get past the American destroyers. All of us in that room knew that if the Soviets tried to defy the blockade there was every possibility of a nuclear war.
Eventually the commentator announced that the Soviet ships were turning back and we all sat back with a sigh of relief. I vividly recall sitting on the night bus home thinking how little the few other passengers knew of the night's events and how their lives could have been dramatically changed if we had been plunged into another global conflict. This was the kind of thing that journalism meant for me, the drama, excitement and suspense that few other jobs could offer.
But moments like these were few and far between and although I enjoyed my two years with the Express I decided that 20 years of unsocial hours, hurried meals, and fighting deadlines was enough. The fervour with which I had started in the glamorous world of newspapers had worn off. I wasn't spending enough time with Jackie and the boys and to get any farther in the editorial hierarchy of the Scottish Daily Express I would have had to spend even more time on the job to demonstrate my commitment to the paper. I wasn't prepared to do this.