Industrial scale drinking, courting communists and winning the “Golden Bollock”
This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
A huge bearded man is slumped in a heap, deeply unconscious, on the floor of the telephone booth. The receiver swings to and fro above his head. Passers-by in the hotel corridor can hear an exasperated voice pleading from the earpiece “Hello! Hello! Why have you stopped? Hello! Hello!” It is late at night at one of the dozens of trade union conferences which then peppered the late summer calendar.
But behold, as Paul Routledge, Labour Editor of The Times goes hurrying past, he sees that the comatose figure is his old friend and rival from another national newspaper. Let us call him “John”. Seizing the telephone, he strives to imitate John’s voice and asks innocently “Where was I?”.
For he knows that John was in the middle of dictating a story to the copytakers at the other title’s headquarters, but has been overcome by drink before he could finish. Labour and Industrial Correspondents compete fiercely to scoop each other. But they are also a tight-knit society of, well, comrades, who look after each other in moments of crisis. This is one such moment. Paul knows what the story is, and how to write it in the style of the other paper.
My Spartan years at boarding school may have prepared me for Moscow, but not for the NUM
Swiftly and seamlessly, he completes the report, replaces the phone and manages to rouse John enough to reassure him that all is well. The following morning, their joint account of events appears in the newspaper as if nothing unusual has happened.
Enough years have passed for none of this to matter. John, once so ebullient and vigorous, has gone on ahead of us to wherever labour reporters go and would, I am sure, have enjoyed the story being told again. Paul Routledge, still an active journalist now writing for the Daily Mirror, confirms the event, long a legend among our small, intense, slightly mad, often hopelessly inebriated fraternity.
It was the place to be. Venerable notables such as Donald Macintyre, John Lloyd and Trevor Kavanagh, now distinguished princes of the journalistic trade, were among our number (all were sober, of course). So was Philip Bassett, later to be at the heart of the Blair project. So was Richard Littlejohn, future superstar columnist. We were merciless, we were raucous, we were, all in all, pretty good at what we did.
We were largely independent of editors and newsdesks, who did not really understand or like the world in which we worked, but knew the huge story had to be covered. But many of us were cursed by drink. Several of us were made very ill by it. Some died of it. Many gave it up after credible medical warnings of what would happen if they did not. I have always been physically unable to drink very much without being horribly, violently unwell for days, so was rather contemptuously excused from the worst of it, because there was nothing to be done about me. I had other faults too, which I will come to, so that I was only really ever a fringe member of this curious Cosa Nostra.
But the time of which I write, from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, was still a sodden one in much of Fleet Street, and most sodden of all among those who wrote about strikes. Reporters and union men were a deadly combination. Many of the trade unionists themselves drank ferociously, and the annual conference of the National Union of Mineworkers was known in the trade as “The Intergalactic Drinking Festival”. And so it was. If food was ever consumed on these occasions, it was after an interval for aperitifs lasting several hours.
My boss on the industrial desk of the Daily Express, the kind, thoughtful and conscientious Barrie Devney, once returned from the NUM conference so appallingly hungover that he could not even remember his own home telephone number, and had to ask me what it was, bless him. Barrie sensibly never let me near the miners’ union, rightly concluding that it would almost certainly have killed me, and that I would have been useless at it too. My Spartan years at various boarding schools may have prepared me for Moscow, Gaza and the Congo, which I would later endure. But not for the NUM.
I still remember the evening when he introduced me to his good friend and best source, Joe Gormley, the so-called “battered cherub” who led the Miners before the Scargill era. Joe was a small tightly-packed man who radiated power more than any other person I have ever met, far more than any British politician I ever encountered. And why not? He could more or less stop the economy, if he wanted to.
You had the feeling that he had won a lot of arguments by, well, sheer force of personality. It was an education just to see him. In fact, the job was one of the best educations you could get. We constantly met and dealt with men and women who were quite unlike us, who had fought their way from powerlessness to importance, who had far more backbone than the average person, and had got what schooling they had in hard circumstances, because they truly wanted to learn.
Among them were veterans of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. The Transport and General Workers’ Union leader Jack Jones had been wounded on the Ebro in 1938 while fighting for the International Brigades, and the Engineering Union official Ken Cure was likewise wounded as he went ashore at Ouistreham on D-Day, and would say only “rather a lot of sandflies that day” when asked about the experience. I knew both men, and despite their more or less opposite politics, I am still moved by their unquestionable personal courage and integrity. The idea that Jack, who lived in a council flat all his life and took his holidays in a caravan in Devon, took money from the KGB has always seemed laughable to me. No doubt he worked for the wrong side, but he did so out of genuine belief.
These were still times of hard manual labour. Barrie Devney insisted that I went down a coalmine and crawled through an 18-inch seam while there, because he had grown up in the Nottinghamshire coalfield and believed rightly that nobody should ever write about labour and union affairs without knowing, if only for a few minutes, what miners endured all the time. You had to know that, sometimes, strikes were justified.
In fact, as I had been an active Trotskyist in my student years, and we had spent a lot of time trying (and mainly failing) to recruit dockers, miners, car workers, dustmen, postmen and bus conductors to our cause, I wasn’t quite as new to this world as my rivals and colleagues might have assumed from my plummy vowels.
The Bollock, which when I received it was in the shape of a gold-painted lavatory ballcock on a small wooden pedestal
Most of the time, it was enormous fun and utterly absorbing. The story we were covering, a series of Armageddons in the dying industries of Britain, was endlessly dramatic. Late nights, in the office, in the pub or just leaning on walls outside deadlocked pay talks, were normal. When we did get home, the phone would usually ring at around 10.30pm, as the first editions of the rivals came up and we had to follow the various scoops of the other papers (and they had to follow ours).
Some reporters made this easier by giving their competitors advance briefings of what to expect, on condition that they kept quiet about it unless and until rung up. They expected the same in return. But Fleet Street was still genuinely competitive, in a way that I think has largely faded now. And there was a total absence of self-regard. In an age of incessant awards for journalism, at which the recipients have taken to giving long speeches as they clutch their baubles, I still think the best and most enjoyable Fleet Street prize was the Golden Bollock, handed out each year in the cellar of the Old Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street.
The Bollock, which when I received it was in the shape of a gold-painted lavatory ballcock on a small wooden pedestal, was presented to the author of the most hopelessly wrong story of the year. I am happy to say that almost everybody, from both the exalted and the raucous ends of the Street of Adventure and/or Shame, got it at one time or another. My own triumph is hard to explain (a naughty omission in a feature about elections in the Engineering Union).
But I only got it because the great and slightly grand Geoffrey Goodman, Industrial Editor of the Daily Mirror and all-round elder-statesman, angrily refused to accept it that year. All he had done was to proclaim the end of the great steel strike of the era. It did indeed end, but several weeks after the date on which he said it would, a pardonable error.
Geoffrey was always very kind to me, and claims made after his death that he was some sort of spy were ridiculous tripe. I am amazed people believe such stuff. He was a left-wing patriot who lied about his age so that he could fight — as an RAF pilot — in the Second World War. But he was, like so many of the labour and industrial correspondents, very much of the Left, and that zone of the Left which would once have been called the Popular Front, where Labour Party members and Communist Party supporters, fellow-travellers and Comrades mixed. Geoffrey had in fact been a Communist until 1951, before deciding he preferred Nye Bevan to Joseph Stalin.
If you were in the Industrial Correspondents’ Group, a formal lobby with membership and meetings, you pretty quickly came to see that, while France and Italy had huge working class Communist Parties, Britain had a Labour Party that was heavily, but covertly, influenced by Communism. And the trade unions were the main means of achieving this. Plenty of working-class Communists had been untroubled by the Stalinist show trials of the early 1950s, or even by the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
I don’t know and won’t speculate how many of the correspondents were themselves fellow-travellers with the Communists
Communists, barred from Labour Party membership, could still win office and power in many of the big unions. Or they could ensure the advancement of sympathisers such as Jack Jones, who had been careful not to join the CP, at least openly (though Jack’s wife was a retired Comintern courier).
When I was a labour reporter, the Communist attempt to take over the Electricians’ Union, smashed in a court case in 1961, was a lasting and bitter memory on both sides. Frank Chapple, a tough ex-Communist, brought up in the slums of inter-war Hoxton, had been among those who had exposed ballot-rigging by the Comrades, and driven the Communist Party out of one of the most important organisations in the Labour movement.
The continuing battle by Labour democrats against the “Broad Left” eventually shifted to the giant Engineering Union, led until 1978 by another former Communist, Hugh Scanlon, an overmighty baron once famously told by the Labour premier Harold Wilson to “get your tanks off my lawn, Hughie”.
By the late 1970s, newspapers had begun to take sides very emphatically in key union elections, in which most of the postal votes had until then never been cast. Now, alerted to the power they had by Fleet Street, Engineering Union members voted in large numbers for a new “right wing” led by Terry Duffy, a Roman Catholic veteran of combat at Salerno and Monte Cassino.
This development seemed to me to be a good thing. But the tradition among the labour correspondents had been to take the train down to Peckham each Tuesday and spend time in the pub with the remaining left-wing Executive members, who had plenty of wicked gossip about the new leadership, and loved to mock them. (Their favourite joke: Q: What’s Mickey Mouse getting for Christmas? A: A Terry Duffy watch. You had to be there).
Some of the other correspondents started to call me “Bonkers”, a name intended to damage me with contacts
One such Tuesday, I went instead to the Peckham Liberal Club, to make friends with the new right-wingers. Absurdly, I was nervous about taking this step. Looking back, I regret not doing it much sooner. Around the same time, I opposed a plan to affiliate the Labour Correspondents to a body called “the Campaign for Press Freedom”, which I thought looked like the opposite of what it said it was.
This was when some of the other correspondents started to call me “Bonkers”, a name intended to damage me with contacts, colleagues and employers alike (which it did, and continued to do, for long years afterwards, having most recently been adopted by the Prime Minister himself, according to Dominic Cummings). This, the battle for control of the Labour machine, was the point at which the jollity and fun became a lot less jolly. So much for the Golden Bollock ceremonies and the matey cricket matches against the Trades Union Congress (TUC) general council (at one of which I miraculously helped to get Hughie Scanlon out).
I don’t know and won’t speculate how many of the correspondents were themselves fellow-travellers with the Communists. One or two enjoyed interesting jaunts to the USSR, which they boasted about. Others, without much in the way of politics, knew which way the wind was blowing and joined in with the big gang. Beyond doubt, Mick Costello, at first the industrial reporter of the Communist Morning Star and later the Party’s Industrial Organiser, was well-liked by and on good terms with many. I did not get on with him.
The joy of it really ended for me in 1980, though I endured a few more years afterwards. That summer, a great and noble strike erupted in the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, Poland. The TUC were not completely enthusiastic about this act of courage. A leader in The Times noted drily: “There is a strand of opinion in the movement for whom socialism matters more than freedom.” Disgusted with events at the TUC conference in Brighton, I went instead to Gdansk, and there met Lech Walesa, scornful of Britain’s unions, and from that moment regarded him and what he stood for as a far better subject of study than Britain’s labour movement. Bonkers, I know, but I have not shifted since.
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