Friday, 7 June 2013


The great joy in our lives is our old gardener Hipkin. Alas, after fifty years with the family he retired this week, leaving us one of his fleet of lawn mowers (he is far richer than we are) as a memorial. He is the quintessential Fenman and a keen observer of his neighbours. This week he excelled himself. I wish you could hear his brogue, which, alas, is dying in the Fen towns in favour of Estuary English.

“Now,” he said, “Ahm goin to tell e somthin. This woman what I work for she sez to me, she says, 'Ahm gooin on oliday tomorrer and I dunno know weer to hide me money.' And er usband, he says, 'Ah'll bury it in't gardin an I'll stick a twig in so we'll know weer it is.' So that's what they do and they goes away.

“And what happened next day is along comes their son with his rotavator and rotavates the whole garden. And his machine chews up the stick. Took em a week to find the tin.”

Hipkin is 83 and seriously rich yet until recently he delivered papers every morning and on two afternoons. He still tends twenty gardens, making no charge for many of them. We pay him but he refuses to take more than £8 for a shift that lasts at least four hours. His great joy is to take his partner Miss Beart to “Skeggie” (Skegness) where he plays bingo and always wins. And he always takes his sagacious terrier Bailey, who can count, with him. “I says to 'im in the mornings, how many sausages d'you want for your breakfast and he goos 'Wuff, wuff, wuff'.”

Bailey has three meals a day of whatever Hipkin is eating. When they are going to Skeggie he gets very excited the night before because somehow he knows.

Miss Beart has seven rabbits which she keeps in seven hutches because she don't want no baby rabbits and Bailey likes nothing better than to go to their shed where he sits for hours looking at them adoringly. Hipkin adores Miss Beart who is 19 carat all through. He came one morning with a stone dog ornament which he wanted us to give a home. He explained: “Miss Beart cannot abear to look out of the window and see it sitting there in the cold.”


Many of you have asked to meet some more of the friends of my youth. Enter stage left....Kenneth Graham, my colleague on The People, who 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” , at which point a photograph would be taken by People photographer 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 today,” 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 Lucullan 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 was 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 Ministry 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.'

“And if you could add 'Over Here' it would be helpful,” Stack concluded.

At this point I think Graham’s nerve must have broken. He said to Mike was it alright if he took an early break. It was 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 Kiddey, without telling him about the transvestite bit, thus causing Kiddey 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.”

“But the jump is tomorrow,” 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.


Martin said...

Ah, dear Mike. Over a sumptuous lunch at the Theatre Royal, he offered me a column with the Plymouth-based 'Sunday Independent'. Apparently he was taken with my innate, if unschooled, talent! Cheeky blighter.

ian skidmore said...

Mike. Join the Club. Who paid for lunch? I took him for a day at Chain Bridge in Llangollen. A sunday when the pub was closed. Mike turned down offer of beer. Charlie Charlotte the owner gave him the keys to the cellar. He chose the most expensive. Later in the day things got a bit violent. I was wearing an expensive chantung shirt so as not to damage it, Mike stole it

ian skidmore said...

I took the shirt off so as not to damage it. The expensive bottle he chose was Chateau Latour