Wednesday, 29 August 2007


Ken Graham, my colleague on The People had a head apparently whittled from balsa wood. Superficially craggy but wont to crumble under pressure.
Graham was always under pressure. His supreme creative act was throwing the “future features” box through the news room window and into the Manchester Ship Canal. He survived that to be sent to expose a massage parlour. He was instructed to accept the ministrations to a certain point and then to sit up and say “ I am from the People and this is a disgusting exhibition” which would be photographed by Dennis Hutchinson, unkindly known as "the Poison Dwarf ".
Three times he struggled from a recumbent posture, only to fall back under the mesmeric fingers of the masseuse for a moment more of pleasure.
At last he struggled to a sitting position, cried “ Bugger the People” and abandoned himself to hedonism.
He was The Great Complainer . He stopped going to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous when a fellow alcoholic failed to buy his round of lemonade. When I organised trips to Sweden for a pal who was a director of Tor Line. Graham was my first choice. His reaction to any given siuation was always a joyful surprise
At Immingham we were shown in to a board room, handed G and Ts the size of crystal fire buckets and invited to make free of a lavish buffet
“It should have been my day off to-day” Graham said mournfully.
In his hotel room in Gothenburg he took an apple from a fruit bowl that was doing its best to be a Harvest Festival. An hour later when he returned to the room he rang reception to complain it had not been replaced.
On the voyage home the ship’s chef assembled a smorgasbord which had the Swedish passengers gasping with joy. I watched Graham , shovelling away at the dishes on offer in a lucullun buffet, like an under nourished JCB. As he staggered back to our table under the weight of his plate I said to the girl with whom I was lunching “ Bet you when he comes back his first words are a complaint”
She said; “ He couldn’t. That is a Christmas Smorgasbord. It has everything”
Graham did not disappoint.
“Trouble with these meals,” he told the table aggrievedly “You are spoilt for bloody choice”
I must not give the wrong impression. It ws impossible not to be fond of him. He had a terrible time living up to his craggy face and a voice that rasped with a thousand woodbines. Underneath his bluster, he was a gentle drunk and I would not have been at all surprised to find him talking to a six foot rabbit that only he could see.
A person so innocent was a natural butt for our news editor Mike Gabbert . Gabbert was to complex practical jokes what Cecil B. de Mille was to Hollywood spectaculars. His hoaxes had casts of thousands and we were all, at one time or another, grist to his malevolent mill.
Like the day he put Ken Graham down in the diary for a wholly mythical parachute jump
Graham went white when he read the entry, but did his best not to show it. Not even when a man from accounts rang and asked if his insurance was up to date and did it cover him for sudden death on the job.? Because,if not the paper would insure him for £50,000.
An Air Minstry PRO was the next one to call . He wanted to know if Graham enjoyed good health and sound limbs. Especially, he added darkly, limbs.
I thought Graham took it well. He was less successful when the picture desk rang from London to say they were putting a special helmet in the Manchester despatch box, The helmet had a camera in the front and a cable which went into the mouth. Graham was to grip it and jerk his head when he left the aircraft, and continue to do so during the fall, so that the paper would have a sequence of thrilling photographs.
I for one thought he was bound to break when Neville Stack who was news editing our sister paper the Daily Herald rang and said he had heard Graham was going to do a parachute jump. Stack said he wouldn’t do anything like that, not for a gold clock. But, he said, the daily was anxious to commemorate the event, so would it be OK if they photographed Graham as he landed ?
Graham said in a very small voice that it would..
“There is just one thing,” said Stack “ I gather you are jumping in a stick. How will we know which one is you?”
Graham said helpfully that he would wave, but Stack said he wouldn’t advise that. Graham would need both hands to pull on the parachute harness, or he would break his leg in landing.
“ I’ll tell you what “ said Stack. “We will strap a loud hailer to your chest and just as you are about to land you can shout through it ' I am Ken Graham from the People.' ”
Stack said “If you could add 'Over Here' it would be helpful”
At this point I think Graham’s nerve must have broke. He said to Mike was it alright if he took an early break . It ws only 11 am but he was over the road ,breasting the bar in the Chicken Grill, before Mike had time to answer.
I have always thought the ex-paratrooper at the bar was a plant by Gabbert.
Like the transvestite lorry driver he introduced to Mike Kiddy, without telling Kiddy about the transvestite bit. Causing Kiddy to make a very embarrassing discovery on a bomb site at the back of the office.
Anyway this “paratroop” got into conversation and when Graham told him about the parachute jump he pursed his lips and made the sucking sound that workmen make when you show them work done by any other workmen
“ Have you practised landing ?” he asked, and when Graham admitted he had not the “paratroop” said, “We had to practise for a fortnight rolling off the back of a lorry .Absolutely vital” the “paratroop” said
“But the jump is to-morrow” wailed Graham
“Well try falling and rolling here,” the “paratroop” suggested. I would have thought the joke had gone far enough with Graham falling and rolling on the floor of the Chicken Inn.
Not so.
By the time we got over, Graham was jumping off a table, bending his knees and rolling along the floor.
It was at that point Mike Gabbert said “Oh by the way Ken, the jump is off. The Air Ministry won’t wear it “
“ Oh Hell,” said Graham with a lack of conviction that fooled no-one “ I was looking forward to it”
My fall was simpler. I was happily night news editing the Sunday Mirror at the time and resisted Gabbert’s repeated urgings to move over to The People desk.
In the end I agreed to a contest. I would join The People if he could out drink me.
The day I joined The People he presented me with a brass plaque which still stands on my desk. It reads;
“In hazy memory of March 20 1963 when Ian Skidmore and Michael Gabbert drank 12 and a half bottles of Chianti and a bottle of brandy at the Chicken Inn, Manchester. Because they were very thirsty”
Looking back I think he cheated. I have never left half a bottle of anything in my life and that night I was in sparkling mid season form . Driving home to Chester I stopped off at the Farmers Arms in Huxley and had four pints of bitter with Curly Beard.


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