Saturday, 15 September 2007

Having your portrait painted is being interviewed in Technicolor. So when the Beaumaris, Anglesey, artist Ishbel McWhirter sought to paint mine, I hovered between being flattered and being frightened. I had spent a lifetime constructing a caricature behind which to hide. Bit late now to break cover.
Nothing, however, succeeds like flattery. So I went to her superb glass-walled studio overlooking the Menai Straits at Glyn Garth. In less time than it took to tell my life story she painted not one, but four, two of which I bought. Not out of conceit but because the portraits were such perceptive interviews I did not want them falling into the hands of strangers. Like the African tribesmen who will not be photographed because they fear the camera will capture their soul.
The first surprise was how quickly McWhirter works. At the end of the two-hour sitting I was already there, trapped on the canvas, spinnaker belly and all. She was attracted to me, she said, because of the flowing silk handkerchief I wear in my top pocket. Not the noble brow, the classic profile. Clearly the lady has much to learn about flattery though nothing about painting.
She was taught by the best. She was the favourite pupil of the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka, a founder of the Expressionist movement and in post-war Europe a name as revered as Picasso and Matisse. Kokoschka's talent as a portrait painter was frightening. In his day he was said to have manipulated a psychological tin opener to prize out the recesses of the soul.
So well did he teach McWhirter that after his death in 1980 she was the only one of his pupils to be invited to exhibit in a retrospective of his work at the archive museum at his birthplace Pöchlarn, outside Vienna.
But I paint in the background too early. The outline first. McWhirter was born in Prestatyn in 1927 and Kokoschka was the second genius she met. Her first was the pioneering educationalist A.S. Neill who founded the controversial Summerhill School where she was educated. He thought so highly of her he used the portrait she painted of him as the cover for his autobiography.
I think of myself as one of God’s more obvious jokes, a sort of walking Baboushka doll, with a face not so much lived in as trampled upon by time and deep self indulgence. The only time I have ever been complimented on my figure was by a lady in our Welsh village, Brynsiencyn. “Never mind Mr Skidmore,” she consoled me one day, “you are very thin, from the back.”
Perhaps that is why I have fourteen caricatures and two pot statuettes of myself. The pencil and the potter’s wheel plainly find me irresistible.


In 1950 Roly Watkins, the news editor of the Daily Mirror and a close friend, described me as unemployable. I have fulfilled that early promise by having been sacked from trade magazines, news agencies, weekly and evening newspapers, provincial and national dailies, a rival blog, TV and the BBC.

Will it never end? At 78 I have been sacked yet again. This time by my doctor from his “Fitness for the Future” Clinic. Well, not so much sacked. I failed the entrance examination on grounds of lack of motivation. When he put my name down I wrote to him to say I would be very glad when the future is over and what I was looking for was parole not an extension to my life sentence.

The first time I was out of work it was Christmas time. I met Bob Ashton, then doing the gossip diary for the Manchester Evening News. He said, "Do not suppose you will be having much of a Christmas?"

I said, "If I wanted a mince pie I would have to buy it on H.P. We will be out on Xmas Day because it is warmer out than it is in the house and I have promised the kids we will go to Curry’s to watch the Queen's Speech through the window. Then we are going to a park to mug robins for their breadcrumbs."

"Not having a bird on The Day then?"

"Not unless I can grab one of the robins as we steal their breadcrumbs."

He said, "Why don't you nip down to the poultry market at Shudehill just before it closes on Xmas Eve? They practically give birds away.

"Then," he said, "come to the Press Party at the Continental Cinema on Market Street. I will wait for you in the foyer and smuggle you in.”

So I did.

I picked up a chicken with my last half crown and went to the party, where I set up a record for drinking free scotch and eating vol-au-vents unbroken for many years.

Then this guest said, "Let's play rugby."

Another guest said, "We haven't got a ball."

A third guest said, "Yes, we have," and grabbed the parcel of chicken from where it had been roosting under my arm. Everyone but me applauded the skill with which the next guest, a rather showy chap, executed a back pass with my parcel between his legs.

I was less pleased than anyone when the next guest followed through with a drop kick.

It was powerful, I will say that.

It sent the parcel soaring across the foyer, out into Market Street, over the heads of the passers-by, to drop, perfectly positioned, under the tyre of a passing bus.

They were all very apologetic. The manager of the cinema particularly. He said he hoped the parcel hadn't contained anything important. I said, no, it was just a chicken I got for tea on Boxing Night.

For the rest of the party I was a bit thoughtful, though I did manage to clock up a further freeloader's record of eight scotch and a round dozen vol-au-vents.

At the death, the manager came up and gave me a parcel. "I hope you will accept this replacement with our apologies," he said.

It was a twelve pound turkey.

Which would have been nice... but we didn't have an oven at the time, just a gas grill. So we had to cook it a leg at a time.


Sunday, 9 September 2007


As an aspiring Buddhist I live in the world of Perpetual Present. There is no death in my world, so the news of Pavarotti’s demise has not saddened me. Indeed, thanks to technology, immortality is available at the turn of a switch. Whilst his body lay in state in Modena Cathedral I was able to watch, and more importantly hear, his 1993 concert in Central Park, New York, on my TV set. Not that the watching was unimportant. I was able to see on his face the enjoyment he was getting from the act of singing and the tears of joy running down the face of a woman in the audience, briefly immortalised by the camera.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius described life as a river, the past flowing away and unclaimable, the future yet to come. Only the river at your feet is real.

Not any more.

In truth, there is in this wonder full (literally) world, six realities: the record, video, DVD and cassette cabinets, the library and the photo album. Memory is drawn up in ranks, awaiting the order to parade.

There is a dark side to this glittering, golden coinage. In earlier times the Sin Eater, though a pariah, was one of the most important people in the parish. It was his job to eat bread from the bare chests of corpses because in doing so he took on the sins of the dearly departed.

Nowadays we have the media. No longer pariahs, but frequently ennobled.
Reporting the death of Pavarotti the Daily Mail described him thus:
“..six feet tall, weighing 25 stone, by nature a clown, a sadist, venal, petulant, often a pain in the backside to fellow performers.”

Though some are slim, the same words could be usefully employed to describe every proprietor and most editors I have worked for over the past sixty years.

The Mail quoted Pavarotti as saying: “I do not sing for love, I sing for lira.”
This was manifestly untrue of the Central Park concert and many other performances by that gifted voice. But again I cannot think of a fellow practitioner of this inky trade who does not endorse Dr Johnson’s view that no one but a blockhead writes except for money. I believe the Editor of the Mail is paid a million pounds a year.

The same is true of sexual congress. High talent in art, commerce and politics is very often accompanied by a high sex drive. It was said of Julius Caesar that he was every woman’s husband and every man’s wife; Napoleon all but conquered the world but is remembered by “Not tonight, Josephine”; American presidents impregnated their slaves but created a country which was, until recently, the envy of the world; Clinton did more good than either Bush;as did Kennedy. But one is remembred for a casual act of oral sex and Kennedy for saying, “I will do for sex what Eisenhower did for golf”; Gladstone pursued prostitutes. According to his son Randolph, Winston Churchill, who was involved in a homosexual scandal whilst a young cavalryman, from which he was extricated by his wondrous mother (who herself, according to George Moore, had 200 publicly acknowledged lovers), slept with Ivor Novello in Leeds Castle and described the experience as “musical”.
Lloyd George won World War One and was the founder of the welfare state but is better known for sexual athleticism.
Not by my granny, I hasten to add. That famous “Welshman” was born round the corner from our house in Moss Side in Manchester. I passed it every day as a small child accompanying my granny to the shops to change her wireless accumulator. As we approached it, she bade me remove my cap in respect. “That is the man who gave me my old age pension,” she explained.

Ernest Hemingway, of all unlikely people, put it best in a letter to Robert Cantwell in 1950. He wrote: “Please do not repeat, do not put anything about how many times I have been shot at. I asked both Cape and Scribners not to use any publicity about my military service and it is distasteful to me to mention it and destroys any pride I have in it. I want to run as a writer, not as a man who had been to the wars, nor a bar room fighter, nor a shooter; nor a horse-player, nor a drinker. I would like to be a straight writer and be judged as such…

“What difference does it make if you live in a picturesque little out house surrounded by 300 feeble minded goats and your faithful dog, Black Dog?

“The question is can you write?”

Or sing, or paint, or write music, or decorate a room, plumb a house, mend a TV?

I have been touched by greatness. I was in the audience at the Llangollen Music Festival which acclaimed the choir from Modena. It was the first experience of international public acclaim for a schoolboy called Luciano Pavarotti and it decided him to become a professional singer.

I was Moura Lympany's house guest at her festival in Rasiguere in the South of France, Victoria los Angeles ws a great chum, after I interviewed her at the Beaumaris Festival on the Isle of Anglesey.

I employed Aled Jones as a junior reporter and felt my hair stand on end whenever he sang.

I am glad Pavarotti enjoyed sex. Most of us do. I once asked a chum of mine, the baritone Sir Geraint Evans, how it was always the tenors who got the girl.

“Not when I am in the cast, they don’t,” he told me.



When my friend Andre Auckland was married in Maidstone the speeches from the bride’s side were gloomy in the extreme. The most optimistic began: “I suppose they might be happy…”

At length a small man of military appearance stood up and said, “I have known Andre for five years and have always found him friendly, co-operative and a social asset.”

His defender proved to be the Governor of Maidstone Prison and Andre’s host for half a decade.
Like many of the legends that hung from Andre’s ample belt, this may be apocryphal. Though why anybody made up stories about this benevolent Belgian is beyond me. The reality was terrifying enough.

Andre was my minder on the Sunday Mirror and without him at my side I would have got into far less trouble than I did. How he got to Eccles,Lancs, where he ran, amongst other more nefarious things, a taxi service, he never disclosed. But he did reminisce about his days in a unit of the Belgian Resistance in Brussels, which met regularly in the café which was the local of the Gestapo. As he explained: “It was the last place they would have looked for us.”

He was introduced to the Sunday Mirror by the news editor Harry Ashbrook at whose side corkscrews miraculously appeared rapier straight. Andre was ecumenical in friendship: confidence tricksters like Ashbrook, who sold Jack Stoneley, one of his reporters, a car without wheels; out and out gangsters, prominent businessmen and two hangmen, were all members of Andre’s fan club.

I met one of them, Harry Allen, the deputy hangman, who said, when he learned I lived in Chester: “Let’s see… that’s Shrewsbury nick. Don’t get much work down there. But the very next time I’ll break the journey at Chester and we’ll make a night of it.”

If you were a friend of Andre’s………..

We were doing a job in Leeds when I foolishly remarked that it was Race Week in Doncaster where I used to work on the Evening News. Indeed the St Leger was being run that weekend.

“We’ll go,” said Andre, and instructed me what to tell the desk and to be sure they wired £50 to Doncaster post office. There was never any doubt who was in charge when I worked with Andre.

We had a great time in Doncaster. We lost most of the fifty on the course, but all my friends loved him. One of them, a very attractive lady, vigorously in the back of his car. It was midnight on the first night before I had the chance to point out to him that we had nowhere to sleep and that every hotel bed in Doncaster was booked weeks before the Leger.

Nothing to a man who was almost certainly on the Gestapo darts team in that pub in Brussels. He hammered on the door of the Wellington in the Market Square. When the landlord opened it, he explained in broken English that we were from “Paris Match” and had been diverted at the last minute from Morocco to cover the St Leger. We had not slept for two nights and were exhausted.

The landlord was very sympathetic. He said he didn’t do B & B but he did have a single bed in a spare room that one of us could have and the other could sleep on the settle in the snug. You will not be surprised to learn who got the settle, but when the landlord asked me, “Are you sure you will be comfortable?” Andre broke in to explain, “Alas, my friend does not speak English.”
Alas, his friend did not speak French either, apart from four remembered words “Sur Le Pont d’Avignon” which do not go very far in conversations in a Yorkshire pub, even when orchestrated with what I hoped were Gallic shrugs and a vocabulary of grunts.

So for two days I could not say a word, which for a gabby guy like me is not easy. I only remember fragments of the last night but the next morning is etched on my soul. My stomach seethed, my mouth was as rough as a tram driver’s glove, my left lobe was not speaking to my right lobe and my eyes felt like hot raspberry jam.

An aged crone was polishing glasses behind the bar.

“Pour us a white label Worthington, love,” I gasped.

“By ‘eck,”she said, “not taken you long to pick up the language.”