Was mysterious Hickey reporter a fifth columnist?

By CHRISTOPHER WILSON, former editor of William Hickey

He was called Nigel. Or maybe he wasn’t.

He turned up in the Hickey office one day to do a shift and instantly fitted in. Impeccable shorthand, commanding interview technique, crisply delivered copy. Lovely to talk to. And at the day's end, the first in the Poppinjay buying the drinks.

Nigel was too good to be true.  It was a time when we had a rolling retinue of freelancers helping to turn out what we called the Daily Mirror-cle, and they came in all shapes, sizes and abilities. Vanessa Feltz, straight down from university, was one of the more brilliant ones.  Another, immediately dubbed Patti O’Dors (surname Dormer, work it out for yourselves) eventually fledged into the distinguished historical biographer Leanda de Lisle.

And then there was Nigel – not, by the way, to be confused with Hickey’s ‘so-called rival’ Nigel Dempster.  This one was bespectacled, tidily dressed, unobtrusive, and with a face which was almost instantly forgettable.

The stories he turned in were remarkable – so good, in fact, I felt I had to apologise for the miserable pittance he got paid for them.  But then when we got down to the pub at the end of the day he’d blow most of what he’d earned buying drinks for everybody — “I’m having such fun doing this Hickey lark!” — he’d throw over his shoulder as he ordered another round.

His private life was a puzzle. Unmarried, in his late thirties, self-contained.  I asked him what he did for a living when he wasn’t Hickeying. “Oh, a bit of travel writing,” he said vaguely. “Have another drink.”

Who for? “Oh, you know… anybody really.  The Economist, the FT, people like that. Pint, was it?”

Been anywhere interesting recently? “The Isle of Wight.”

Not abroad?  “Well I did Iran a few weeks ago.  I really must be going now.”

Nigel carried on at Hickey for about three months.  He was a conscientious researcher, spending loads of time at the library and hanging round the Foreign Desk. Then one day he just disappeared, never to be seen again.

Not, that is, till the day of William Hickey’s funeral, after Nicholas Lloyd canned the column (“end of an error”) and appointed Ross Benson as the official Daily Express diarist.  There was a mock procession, complete with coffin, from the Express building across Fleet Street to St Bride’s.  Dempster, the so-called rival, danced on the coffin and then we all went down to Scribe’s for the usual.

Somewhere in the middle of the large crowd I spotted the anonymously-featured Nigel, laughing and joking with John Roberts. I hadn’t seen him for maybe a couple of years.  And in that moment of clarity which comes when you’re halfway down the second bottle, the penny dropped.

“A word, Nigel.”


“You’re a spy. A spook.”

“I wouldn’t call it that.”

“You work for the Government, then, is that how it’s usually termed?  You came and made your nest in the Express and you utilised its resources – its library, its contacts, its phones, the people on the Foreign Desk – your being a reporter was just a cover-story.”

“I wonder why you would say that.”

“Because, Nigel, you’re just a bit too bloody good to be a shifting freelance.”

“And you’re a bit bloody cleverer than you appear to the outside world,” said Nigel with a smile. “Must be off.”

He left uttering his customary farewell — “Kissee kissee” —  and that was it.

Sometimes I wonder whether he actually existed, or whether I just made him up after a bit of extra overtime in the Old Bell.  But I checked the other day with Jeanette Bishop, Hickey’s remarkable  generalissimo, and she confirms that Nigel was real.

Or sort-of real.

The day they buried Hickey

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre