I was Jean Rook’s human firewall

GEOFF COMPTON reflects on the First Lady of Fleet Street from his chateau in the south of France 

BACK in the stone age, my boss on the Daily Express, Alan Frame, saddled me with the role of human firewall between superstar Jean Rook and the unfortunates who edited her column (I forgive you, Alan). 

Splenetic memos from The First Lady of Fleet Street were the norm. These two stand out only because they arrived on the same afternoon: 

Geoff, I’ve just read my column over lunch and I don’t remember being more frustrated by the obtuse, unintelligent, patronising and alarming cutting by a sub.

Not only did he cut the William Blake comment but also the line “the best laid schemes o’ mice and Mafia gang aft agley”. When he can write a line like that, he’s in the league to cut one!

I want assurances before next week that whoever did last night’s job doesn’t get within 25 yards of my copy again! Jean

I’d just got back from a quick attitude-adjuster when this arrived: 

Geoff, yet further! It’s not often after 20 years that I read my own column three times! I do not want to have John Wayne’s riding off into the sunset lessened by the sub’s brilliant research that the date was “in 1979”!

I tell you, Geoff, I’m damned steaming about this, and I don’t intend to let it drop until you have personally sorted out the person concerned.

Give a sub of this calibre an inch and you’ll end up with the Barnsley Chronicle in three weeks’ time! Jean. 

Our first-rate subs were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. Jean’s raw copy was a million-dollar read but not without howlers. She also chose to ignore the column-inch limits of her page, making heavy editing inevitable. 

Remonstrating with her would not have been a great career move. Anyway, I was unlikely to change the habits of someone who parked her powder-blue Roller on double yellow lines outside the Black Lubyanka.

PS: Taking issue with the late and truly great Ms Rook, I’ve always understood the Barnsley Chronicle to be a very fine organ. 

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ROGER WATKINS recalls: Far be it from me to presume to compete with Geoff in a #MeToofirstladyfirewall willie-waving contest, but we who lurked on the Back Bench and were allowed to go to bed later than Features sometimes also had to hose down Jean in the early hours.

Once I was just about to repair for my first drink of the day (honest!) at about 12.30am when Bob Haylett passed me the phone. It was the FLOFS calling from Dallas.

“Hey, kid, whatever happened to that great exclusive spread I worked so hard to get?” (an on-set interview with JR, I recall).

I gently explained that it had been “held over” in favour of some wonderful full colour pictures of a (younger, blonde) feature writer (Adella Lithman comes to mind) swimming with dolphins.

Sharp intake of breath.

“Oh, she’s the coming girl then is she? We’ll see about that!”

Then she slammed down the phone.

*Jean Rook, who died in 1991 aged 59, was dubbed the First Lady of Fleet Street for her regular column in the Daily Express. She was also, along with Lynda Lee-Potter, a model for the Glenda Slagg column in Private Eye magazine. It is an acknowledged fact that her column always needed a thorough subbing job — Ed.


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