By JAMES HUGHES-ONSLOW,
writing in The Spectator
on December 21, 1974
PERHAPS the thorniest problem to confront Alastair Burnet as he settles into the editor's chair at the Daily Express will be: What can I do about the dwindling appeal of the once prestigious William Hickey column?
The failing health of the Express's man-about-town has been a matter of concern for some time. Earlier this year Jocelyn Stevens, the new managing director, sacked his fellow Old Etonian, Richard Berens, who had been running the column as long as most can remember. Since then things have got worse and worse.
If he is adventurous, Mr Burnet might well walk round to the back of the building to the remote office where Hickey operates. But no editor in recent memory has ever attempted anything so dangerous, and very few other people have either. The Hickey mentality has eluded all the hard-boiled Glaswegians who usually make up the top Beaverbrook staff so it should be even less comprehensible to the almost academic ex-editor of the Economist, trying to adjust to Fleet Street from St James's Street.
The best school common room image of Hickey is that of Richard Berens loosening his tie and taking off his jacket while other heads of departments tidied themselves up for the editor's morning conference. It showed that they were not only out of touch with the rest of the world but also with the rest of the paper.
Veterans of Hickey look back with nostalgia to the long days they passed victimising their colleague David Pitman. Pitman finally broke under the strain of practical jokes. He was reported to be the only journalist to interview a member of the Royal Family (Prince Richard) while being tied up with Sellotape and suspended upside down from the central heating pipes with his head in a waste-paper basket.
After elaborate provocation, usually involving ink, glue, drawing pins and paper clips, and the Pitman pipe smouldering on the pavement outside the window, the victim would utter from clenched teeth, "I've never been so angry in my life," to the delight of the assembled company.
Pitman retired at an early age to run a grocery shop in Dervaig in the Isle of Mull and rarely leaves the place, although I did see him once with his van on the quay at Tobermory buying crates of kippers.
I was employed by William Hickey because I happened to buy Richard Berens a brandy and soda one afternoon while he was watching the racing in Boodle’s. He was so impressed that he brought me back to Fleet Street in his taxi.
As I followed him along the corridors to the office I noticed that he had a way of lifting each foot a good six inches and putting it down sharply at the end of the stride for fear of loose planks, lino, paving stones or anything that might compromise him in returning from lunch at six o'clock — it had become a habit even though he was sober. His sharp monosyllabic speech served the same purpose in concealing long exhausting afternoons in London's clubland.
"What's this? Where's Levy? Levy's fired!" he said, swinging the door open and shouting at his deputy (Levy). I later learned that this was the standard way of announcing that he was back from lunch and wanted his chair back from Levy who had been running the column in his absence. "I see very very little evidence of Levy. Is he on a very long holiday or is he very small indeed?"
I soon learned that Hickey's main purpose was to find someone to fill the role of David Pitman and that the chosen successor was James Whitaker, a racing enthusiast recently recruited from the Daily Mail. Whitaker would breeze into the office of a morning sweating and snorting like a horse in such a way that if any obstacle had intruded between door and desk he would have flattened it like a hurdler. He approached all professional inquiries in the same way even if it concerned the most delicate aspects of private life. But his main attribute, either through extreme worldliness or extreme gullibility, is his ability to believe anything.
When I arrived for my first full day — a Sunday when Berens was off and Levy was editor — a story had been invented about a 17-times married Welsh Eskimo over from Alaska doing his Christmas shopping in Harrods and looking for an English 18th wife because he had heard that Englishwomen were best for warming igloos.
With every detail making the situation less likely it was arranged for an actor with a Welsh Eskimo accent to answer questions over the telephone. Whitaker swallowed it all, wrote it with enthusiasm and complained some days later when the story did not appear.
When told that he was the victim of a massive con-trick Whitaker did not explode as Pitman would have done. It rolled off his back. "What a brilliant practical joke. I would never have thought of that." Impossible to bait, Whitaker has been the butt of no further jokes. Instead he has been promoted.
In any case, on that particular occasion, Whitaker's gullibility was made to look insignificant. Distracted by Eskimos, Levy had published a story about Charlie Chaplin's son Michael singing There's No Business Like Show Business out of tune in Welsh miners' clubs. Only after the Chaplin family had started legal proceedings was it realised that the young 'Chaplin' was an imposter and they had all been taken for a ride. Seventeen-times married Welsh Eskimos suddenly seemed all too real.
Bridgstock was a round figure known as Moley for his ability to bury himself in mounds of earth
Such are the embarrassments of people who have lost touch with reality. Far from being always in the right place at the right time, William Hickey never goes anywhere except to the NUJ representative whenever the column's demise is rumoured.
When Berens was editor his staff were able to spend much of the day discussing his idleness — and the Stock Exchange — because he was seldom in the building. However, when Berens returned from the outside world and lunch, late at night, he usually had more stories than the rest of his staff of six had written, from contacts, all day. And he generally managed to save the column from publishing a staggering variety of solecisms and untruths.
Since the notoriously well-informed Nigel Dempster defected, out of frustration, to the Daily Mail, William Hickey is perhaps best epitomised by one Graham Bridgstock, a round figure known as ‘Moley', for his ability to bury himself in mounds of earth rather than for his digging prowess.
He dreams of H E Bates, Cole Porter, tinned spaghetti, his expenses, fishing with a worm in the village pond in Hampshire at the end of his four-day week, and seldom noses his way out of the small corner of the office pasted with thank you letters from lucky people who have received Hickey's birthday greetings — Ogilvy, the Garter King of Arms, Sir Basil Smallpeice among them.
Bridgstock is Hickey's 'birthday editor' and comes in early because he goes to Mass at Westminster Cathedral. Sometimes he is moved by a good Mass to come in rubbing his hands saying: “I feel like a good marriage break-up story today", and meaning it.
He fell ill this year on being told to do a story out of the office — covering Henley. The sedentary four-day week does not prevent Hickey people from putting in expenses well over the national average wage, an activity that is perhaps even more creative than most of Hickey's gossip.
I was frequently aroused by Bridgstock, asking me whether he should describe someone like, say, the Aga Khan as "green-fingered ... roly-poly, bespectacled, sun-tanned, wealthy, an Old Etonian.”
Alastair Burnet will soon, no doubt, find Hickey a suitable adjective to describe him.