Friday, 14 June 2013


The civilised world may be tumbling round our ears, World War 3 may be sharing our Christmas, the Government may be alone in not realising that Britain is broke. There remains one crumb of comfort. Stephen Fry, nibbling at his aspirin butty, perennially peddling his gobbets of knowledge, is not equipped to breed with Mary Portas, of whom I cannot catch a sight without every quality of mercy dropping like a gentle monsoon from heaven and gurgling down the plug hole of consciousness.

It is her boast that she decided to crusade for shopkeepers when she read that shops were closing at the rate of 100 a week. Judging by the advice I heard her giving on a dire Channel 4 show, she has easily improved on that figure. She told a charity shop that it would improve its sales if it increased its prices. In less prosperous days I bought my clothes at charity shops BECAUSE THEY WERE CHEAPER. At twenty stone and five foot eight, I had achieved dimensions at which people were dropping like flies so there was no shortage of gentlemen's light and casual.

I put my permanent poverty down to a friend I made early in my career. Search hard enough and there is always one word which exactly describes a person. In the case of Bill Marshall that word was 'outrageous'. I did not know what trouble was until I met Marshall, the Daily Mirror district man in Liverpool. He was a library of opposites. Lanky without being tall; a Lincolnshire lad with an American accent; immaculate blazer worn with stained trousers; cowboy boots without socks; wild hair and an occasional beard.

That was the picture I had when I saw him for the first time in the Liverpool Press Club a week after I joined the Daily Dispatch. Though we kept in touch until the weeks before his death and I loved him like a brother, we did not see each other for 30 years. Which may explain why I was able to have a successful career as an author and broadcaster. Had Bill still been around there would not have been time and I could well have been in prison.

I should have been warned when his wife invited me to a party at his flat at Formby and said, “Don’t bring Bill.” Getting barred from your own house takes dedication and a lot of effort.

There was the time he sold my passport and used the money to buy drugs for re-sale. But he wanted to be sure they were genuine. In those days Bert Balmer was Head of the CID in Liverpool and his deputy was a man called Jimmy Morris. They were both members of the Press Club. This night he passed me the drugs and said, “Go and ask Bert what it is.” So in his thrall was I that I went to the head of CID and said, “Bert, what are these?” passing him some curled-up leaves.

“Bill sent you?” asked that excellent man, and then passed them to Jimmy. “What do you think, Jimmy? Rhododendron or Azalea?”

"Azalea," said Jimmy as he handed them back to me. "But tell your mate Bill they'll never grow.  He'll need seed for that, not shredded leaves."

There was the time he bought a roulette wheel and made me go out and buy a black shirt and white tie and be the croupier. I thought they looked silly with a sports jacket but I always did what he said. Even when he got me to shave off half the beard of News Chronicle reporter Jackie Yeadon as he slept drunkenly on the club sofa and then prop him up still asleep on a parapet whilst Bill shouted: “Roll up and see the midget with half a beard!" at the Saturday shoppers below in Lime Street. Yeadon was small - and majestic with it. During the war he had got extra meat by telling the butcher he was the captain of a midget submarine.

Anyway, I stood behind the wheel of a game I did not understand in the Press Club annexe and lost £45 in ten minutes - and that was in 1953 when I was paid £15 a week.

He made up stories for the Mirror that nowadays would have got him an overnight declaration in the Booker Prize. Like the one about the girl who couldn’t afford the cruise her doctor ordered so she bought (or, to be more truthful, Bill did) 45 round-trip tickets on the New Brighton ferry.

Then there was the dog he tied to the railings of the Bridewell with a note attached to its collar which read: “My daddy says he is going to shoot my dog when he comes home because we cannot afford to feed him, though I have given him my tea every night. Please give him a home.” The story he wrote produced so many offers of a home the Daily Mirror phones were blocked for three hours.

It was catching. Even Balmer, the Head of CID, caught it. Every Saturday he would make up a story for us so we could claim a shift from the Sunday papers in our group. My favourite was a spin off from a fashion among criminals who had been in prison to have a swallow tattooed on the joint between thumb and forefinger. Bert told us the CID was worried the fad was being copied by juveniles. Having a sparrow tattoo (the juvenile version of the swallow) showed that they had been to reformatories, Bert claimed, and all our offices fell for it.

Marshall struck when you weren’t watching. Years later when I lived in Chester he rang me from Liverpool to say another of his many wives would be coming through Chester. Would I meet her off the train and give her dinner? “She is pretty upset,” he confided.

I met her and we had a jolly meal. Over coffee she admitted she needed cheering up and I said, “Yes, that’s why Bill suggested I meet you.”

I thought she was going to explode. “Do you know why I am upset?” she said. “We were divorced this morning and that ******* turned up in his oldest clothes, pleaded poverty and I have got peanuts for maintenance.”

When I heard some days later that Bill had turned left at a level crossing and driven several miles along the Liverpool-Formby railway line I felt a pang of regret he hadn’t shared the experience with an oncoming express. But the feeling didn’t last. You could only dislike him for about five minutes.

There was this time when I was sleeping on the newspaper files in the Daily Dispatch office, where I worked, because I had no money for digs. He rang to tell me that Hoagy Carmichael was in town and we should go and pay him homage at the Adelphi, where Hoagy (who for some reason he called Hoagland) had a suite.

Hoagy could not have been kinder. He invited us in and although it was a little after 10am poured us both giant Scotches. Inevitably Bill asked him to play the piano. Characteristically, this very nice man agreed: but he wouldn’t play his signature tune “Stardust”. He said he couldn’t stand the damn thing and HE wrote it. So for an hour or so he plied us with Scotch and entertained us on the piano with tunes for which, he said, he had not been able to find a publisher.

A yelp from Bill brought the performance to an abrupt end. He had remembered that he should have been across the city covering an Assize trial.

“Anything I can do?” asked Hoagy, before I had a chance to warn him.

Bill said, yes, there was. He knew Hoagy didn’t like Stardust but he asked could he ring his news editor Roly Watkins and when he came to the phone, hold the instrument over the piano keyboard while Hoagy played a few bars of “Stardust” and say: “Hello Roly, this is Hoagy Carmichael. I am afraid I have detained your reporter Bill Marshall.”

Good as gold, Hoagy did as Bill told him. He played the opening bars down the phone and said his piece. There was a pause and then a suddenly angry Hoagy said: “No, this is not Bill Marshall, I am not pissed at half past eleven in the morning and I have no idea what is on at the Assizes.”

After the show that night, one of only two he did in Britain, he came over to the Press Club and once again at Bill’s command (by his time Bill saw him as his property) he played for the members.

After an hour or so he wanted to stop but Bill commanded him to play on. “Look Bill,” he said, “I get a thousand pounds for a concert.” ”Oh, it’s money you want?” sneered Bill, and promptly wrote a cheque for £1,000, which Hoagy pocketed and then played on.

The next morning there was another call from Bill who wanted to know if he had cashed any cheques because one had gone from his book and his bank manager had warned him if he cashed any more cheques he would close his account.

I said: “Only the thousand pounds you paid Hoagy,” and enjoyed the panic I could feel down the phone. “We have to get it back,” he said, and off we went to the Adelphi.

Hoagy was full of apologies. “I cashed it with the hotel half an hour ago,” he said. In the minutes that followed I was repaid for all the indignities Marshall had heaped on me. And then Hoagy relented. “I haven’t cashed it,” he said, “but you cannot have it back. I am going to have it framed and put in my den to remind me of a great night.”

Bill knew how poor I was.  I was getting fifteen quid a week and sending ten of it back to my family in Doncaster.  The fiver I had left paid for my digs.  But if I wanted to eat as well I had to play poker.

Fair play, he was always very worried about my poverty and constantly thought of ways of making us both rich.  Like the roulette game he set up in the Club.  I had taken a few quid off John Edwards, who was working – but not very often - at the Daily Post at the time. Marshall allowed me to put most of my winnings in the bank.  He even left me enough to buy the black shirt and white tie he said I would need for my part as the croupier.

I realised why when at the first spin of the wheel we lost £75.  Most of it to Les Clare who was not famous for benignity.  Which is probably why we couldn’t find Marshall anywhere.

My favourite memory of Liverpool concerns the minesweeper the Admiralty forgot.  It seemed to be welded to the dock wall.  The crew had honorary membership of the Press Club and we enjoyed membership of the Ward Room.

I was there one day when a messenger came on board from the office.  He said: “Mr Wigglesworth says not to hurry with your copy.  The paper has been bought by the Mirror and closed down.”

I must have paled because the skipper asked: “Bad news from home?” in the In-Which-We-Serve voice used by naval officers.

“My paper has closed down,” I said.

“Is this the first you’ve heard?”


“If their Lordships of the Admiralty had taken a ship of mine out of commission in such an ill mannered way I would send them a pretty snotty signal.”

“And if I knew Lord Kemsley’s telephone number I would give him a piece of my mind,” I retorted.

At this point Hugh Medlicott from the Daily Mail (Harry Slime or the Turd Man, as he was known to Les Clare) broke in:  “It’s Mayfair 1111.,”

“If I was near a telephone…"

“Use our ship to shore,” the skipper offered.

Several large gins later I plucked up the courage, rang the number and, thank God, a footman told me his Lordship was out but he would be glad take a message.

Brave now, I gave him a very abusive message indeed.  When I finished the skipper begged to be allowed to come on the phone.

“And that goes for Her Majesty’s Royal Navy,” he told the footman.

The footman seemed very pleased.

Predictably Wiggie, who was the news editor of the Daily Dispatch and a man with favourites, had left me off the list of those transferring the Mirror.  The Editorial Director Hugh Cudlipp heard the story and insisted I should be employed.

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