In a glass of his own, the appalling John Marley, scourge of the Recorder


In 1980, after four years of indentures at the Brentwood Gazette, I secured a job at the Ilford Recorder. A year later I was running the newsdesk.

I made lasting friendships there with colleagues I am in touch with to this day. We bonded as comrades in the face of adversity as epitomised by deputy editor John Marley.

Marley was a cadaverous dipso who resembled Murnau’s Nosferatu on a good day. A closet homosexual with serious family issues — ‘nanny loved me but the captain never did’ — he drank more hard liquor than any other person I have known, filling pint glasses with gin or vodka-and-tonics, which he would down, often regurgitate immediately into the same glass, then down again, vomit and all. Really. Time after time after time.

New male reporters were lured by the limping Marley — reporters called him ‘the lizard’ for his habit of repeatedly flicking out his tongue like a gecko catching flies — to the cavernous Cauliflower pub next door to the Recorder print works on Ilford High Road, where he would ply them with alcohol and make clumsy suggestions about eloping with them to France.

“Come to Paris with me,” he pleaded with David Crossen, a Northern Irishman with a Belfast brogue thicker than a Californian Redwood. “Come to Paris and I’ll make you a super writer!”

“Fuck’s sake John, I’m a married man with two nippers.”

“LEAVE THEM!” screamed Marley, not a trace of humour in his voice. Naturally, a person so unbalanced by drink and personal demons was no honeymoon to work with. His moods swung like an epileptic metronome, casting a gloomy miasma over an otherwise happy newsroom.

I ran the newsdesk at the paper for nearly a year and didn’t like it for three reasons. Even power this minimal brought out pettiness in my character I didn’t like. I didn’t like doling out assignments either that I would rather have done, or that I thought I could do better. But most of all ... most of all I did not like sitting next to John Marley trying to anticipate his delirium tremens mood swings.

Therefore I was pleased when one particular Wednesday dawned — the week’s most frenzied day as Friday’s edition was finished ready for the presses — to learn he would not be coming in.

“John’s gone to the dentist,” said editor Tom Duncan, a burly, sharp-suited man, who flitted between editing roles in Ilford and the adjacent London borough of Newham. He preferred the Newham Recorder to the Ilford variant.

Duncan carried himself with the air of a gangster who never said much, but when he did it was always softly and often weighted with menace.

The dentist eh? Christ, I thought, he’ll have his work cut out among the cracked and leaning tombstones which constituted Marley’s nicotine-dyed molars.

The news was welcome because it meant an evening free from the enforced drinking marathon Marley insisted upon every Wednesday. He kept me back “in case there are urgent queries or legals before going to Press.” This was horseshit of course: the lonely old fucker just wanted company in the pub. And he was determined to make everyone in his orbit as joylessly pie-eyed as himself.

Before Tom had informed me of Marley’s appointment with the tooth fairy I sorted out the reporting jobs for the day: police calls, council meetings and Redbridge Magistrates’ Court, where all human life, mostly of the low variety, flitted across its stages. This job on this day fell to one Becky Waters.

Becky is a dear soul and 40 years on remains a friend. An American transplanted to the UK by way of marriage to Canadian-born TV director Dirk Campbell — son of noted Shakespearean actor Douglas Campbell whose mother-in-law was Dame Sybil Thorndike — Becky is a left-wing, vegetarian, peacenik Guardianista who wrote well (if a bit slowly) and who was sometimes a little highly strung. But I liked her enormously, editorial disagreements notwithstanding. She was pleased to be going to court: there was usually something titillating on offer and it meant a full half-day out of the office.

At 11.00am my telephone rang.



“Rebecca. What gives?”

“You fucking bastard!”

“Top of the morning to you too.”

“Why didn’t you tell me John Marley was up before the bench today?”

I glanced at Tom Duncan next to me, busy drawing lines on page layouts.

“Do tell....”

Becky said she was sitting in court waiting for the morning’s accused to appear before the beak when Marley shuffled into the dock. (It was rumoured he had one wooden foot, the result of an unintended interaction with an omnibus in his native Brighton, but this was never confirmed.)

“The brief facts of this case are ...” intoned the prosecuting solicitor. He relayed how Marley had been apprehended outside a fast-food shop in Ilford Lane in the small hours, trousers around his ankles with his member in his hand shouting to the customers of the American Beefburger Bar: “Who wants some then?”

Becky relayed how our bespectacled in-house vampire uttered profuse apologies, wanked on about the pressure of work, promised it would never happen again and fished inside his jacket pocket for his wallet to pay the fine. I think it was £50 but it could have been more or less.

As a junior reporter under the auspices of the NCTJ — the highfalutin National Council for the Training of Journalists — I attended two eight-week courses in consecutive years at the dismal Harlow Technical College. I learned little and forgot much, but I did recall a law lecture where some newsroom reject, having traded in the hurly-burly of The Beast That Can Never Be Sated for a comfortable, pensionable, teaching post in a drab Essex academy for life’s underachievers, made a salient point: if you are going to crucify others, prepare for your own. He stated it was incumbent on newspapers to treat their own staff as they would Joe Public when it came to transgressions.

After the phone call with Becky I asked Tom if I could speak privately with him in his office outside of the newsroom.

Door closed, I began: “It seems John detoured from the dentist this morning to Redbridge Mags.”

This lit the fuse for full-on Godfather-mode Duncan. His eyes narrowed. Through clenched teeth he managed: “FUCK! How the fuck do you know that?” He was one of those men who rarely swore, so profanities from him seemed to carry more weight.

I informed him of his own reporter’s presence in the palais de justice. Instead of admitting it to be a fair cop, he enquired whether reporters from rival papers were also in attendance. I had asked Becky this and the answer was no. I expected him to say he would clear a space in Friday’s paper to report on John’s transgression. Instead he said: “OK, thank God for that, let’s just forget this and move on.” I did manage to say that, had John been an assistant bank manager or car showroom assistant, he would certainly be gracing the crime-riddled pages of the Recorder. Duncan insisted that would not be the case and that was that. His decision left a sour taste in the mouths of all, and, while I considered him a good editor in many respects, he was diminished in my eyes with this decision.

As for Marley, he continued to confound medical science for years to come. Those who worked with him when he was on form called him brilliant, a master at popular journalism. He went on to sub-edit at the News of the World where, though his technical skills were applauded, his thirst was not. To be ‘Marleyed’ became accepted office parlance to return to the HQ one over the eight.

John Barleycorn gathered him in four years ago. RIP Marley — I doubt the woke world of today would have found a berth for you.

1 1 July 2024

The Ghost of John Marley


Sire, once again I spy a Drone over Memory Lane, spotting this time John Marley, a thoroughly shameless not-so-gay, gay.

He was once a valued member of Eric Price's Western Daily Press subbing team in the Seventies.

I recall that as a newcomer and during a moment of Bristolian trouble at t'mill, staff assembled after the first edition for an NUJ evening of rebellion.

Afterwards some keener imbibers left the Birdcage and the Famagusta and convened at my little flat in Whatley Road for a last tincture.

After seeing off Messrs Brooks, Phillips, Naylor, Copps, Denbon, Gordon, Johnson et al, I crashed into bed with my now departed wife, also then a Price galley slave.

At some point in my early slumbers I became aware of a rat-like scratching and mumbling from the only other room: the kitchen.

On investigation I encountered a stumbling mottled-skinned skeletal creature with a wooden gait and thin-lipped lisping alcoholic giggle. It was balancing a pile of toast on our teetering Baby Belling and waving a bottle of whisky.

I quickly dressed and guided the frail flailing figure downstairs and into my trusty Beetle.

There followed a seemingly endless drive up and down Gloucester Road to find Marley's flat, the location of which he seemed reluctant to divulge.

At one point, a hand crept round my shoulder. I looked round, but there was no one in the back seat.

As a young Fenman, I was not acquainted with the fellowship of homosexuals — possibly because in such remote parts of the country mammalian females of many stripes were more available and discreet.

Even so, I got the message that something a bit queer was afoot. I was aware that I was over the breathalyser limit and Mr Plod might well observe such disporting with disapproval, so I issued stern words. Suddenly and slurringly, a still toast-chewing Marley announced that we were outside his dwelling.

I leaned over him, opened the door and resolutely pushed him out.

He then turned round, issued forth a sobbing spasmodic laugh and, whisky-waving, leaned back into the car.

"I'm sorry," he burbled through his fumes.

I told him it was OK. Just keep going and I'll see you tomorrow. "We all do stupid things sometimes," I wanly reassured him, mainly to get rid of him.

"Oh, no," he replied. "I'm not sorry for that. I'm sorry that you didn't turn out the way I hoped you would."

The Beetle quickly burbled away.

The next afternoon, crafty glances from coldly perspiring red-eyed hungover sub-editors surveyed the newcomer: me, in the absence of day-off Marley.

"How did you get on with John Marley?" several of the scrutineers asked, to the distinct amusement of Eric Price.

In the silent moments that preceded the guffaws of mirth, it dawned on me that I had been what I later learned was "Marleyed" — and had passed the test...

12 July 2024