The Duck Call

No 2 Dodgy quacks and fire extinguishers at midnight



One of the most inspiring – some would say most irritating – characteristics of the Express Drones was a cacophony of silly noises. A confession: I was the worst culprit by a large squeak.

The most notable of the noises was a quack, produced by The Acme Duck Call, which was presented to me by Bertie Brooks in a moment of madness. It got me into trouble more than once, the most notable of which was the Great Incident With the Night Lawyer. The Express hired this legal eagle at great expense each evening to check the stories and prevent us from being thrown into jail. One of these barristers, Robin de Wilde, would arrive at around 6pm and fall asleep fairly quickly following refreshment, no doubt at the Inns of Court. 

It was my self-appointed duty to sneak up behind him and rouse him with a loud quack and then run away and hide by the lifts, sniggering with the excitement of it all. M'learned friend got grumpier and grumpier at being awoken thus, in fact he became very de Wilde indeed. 

After a few months of these rude awakenings Robin decided one night to be ready for his tormenter. He fooled me by pretending to go to sleep. Not realising, I crept up behind him and let loose one of my finest quacks. The lawyer leapt from his chair, chased me across the office and tried to wrest the duck whistle from my hands in full view of a puzzled backbench. There followed an unseemly struggle in the middle of the editorial floor for possession of said instrument which I finally succeeded in stuffing into my briefcase. Robin retired defeated – and very red-faced.

Many years later I was invited to a lunch to celebrate Robin's last shift at the Express. The look on his face as I sauntered into the restaurant was a sight to behold but, inevitably, as the lunch wore on, his attitude was suitably adjusted.

Now, I'm not saying that Robin de Wilde was a failure in life, I believe he was a very successful barrister indeed. Suffice it to say that, in a triumph of hope over reality, he once stood as the Tory candidate for Merthyr Tydfil, one of Labour's safest seats. He lost handsomely.

Moving swiftly on, my proudest duck-call moment was during a Saturday freelance shift on the Sunday Mirror. Robert Maxwell was in the office with a television crew. They made the mistake of walking past my desk. As Captain Bob promenaded in great pomp along the editorial floor being filmed chatting to the editor, Eve Pollard, I produced for their edification a tremendous blast on the quacker. Amazingly, the incident passed without comment, although I often wonder what the TV crew thought when they looked at the unedited version of the film.

With such a collection of silly asses at the Express, madness was never far beneath the surface.

One day, Bertie and I were returning at about midnight from a longish sojourn in the Poppinjay pub next door to the Express when our bloodshot eyes alighted upon a fire extinguisher hanging on the wall near the lift. These devices had always excited Bertie and on this occasion, brimming with booze, the temptation proved too strong to resist.

Shall we? said Bertie. Oh yes, I replied as I banged the extinguisher's plunger

We looked at each other with like minds. The nearest office to us was features where a few subs were putting the finishing touches to some overnight pages. 

‘Shall we?’ said Bertie. ‘Oh yes.’ I said. I put up the hood of my anorak and grabbed the cylinder while Bertie took the hose. As we marched into features the subs looked up, saw what was about to happen, and dived under the desks.

I banged the plunger and out shot water and foam which, to our surprise, came out with great force, hitting a back wall at least 20 yards away. After emptying the extinguisher we scampered off back to the news department.

The following day all hell let loose. Our attack had just about wrecked the features overnights which had to be done again in the morning. Only Bertie’s name was mentioned over the attack as I had managed to cover my face with my hood but of course my name was well and truly in the frame. Bertie was interviewed by the editor and of course denied everything. Eventually the kerfuffle died down and no more was said but I think we were both very lucky not to have been sacked. (Many years later they inexplicably appointed me chief sub.)

I can’t remember who the editor was at the time of the fire extinguisher prank but if it was Arthur Firth, a former sub himself, he would have been quietly amused.

Arthur was no stranger to fun. One night just before Christmas Norman Cox, the sub in charge of the William Hickey gossip page, strolled on to the backbench to submit his page to the editor before sending it to the printer. Norman had made the mistake of failing to remove a paper hat that he had probably forgotten that he was still wearing following a boozy lunch earlier in the day.

As luck would have it, Arthur was in the process of lighting a cigarette as Norman strolled in and sat in a chair next to him. Arthur took one look at the hat and, not wanting to waste a lighted flame, set fire to it. It took Norman a couple of seconds to realise that he was on fire before he snatched off the hat and stamped the flames out.

Tell that to the kids of today and they wouldn't believe you...

How it all started

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