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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

*

My wily mentor taught me more than the bare necessities of reporting

By RICHARD DISMORE

He was a rough diamond, Mick Condon. He smoked 40 Capstan Full Strength a day and drank so much beer that the hop growers of Kent must have been on overtime.


He was gruff and wily and suspicious of anyone in authority. All admirable qualities for a career in journalism.


I loved the guy and am forever in his debt. Mick was my first news editor and – though he would never use the word himself – my mentor.


He taught me the rudiments of the reporter’s craft: how to find a story, and then how to write it.


When I got it wrong, he would emerge from his broom cupboard of an office, brandishing the offending copy, and say: “Oi! Do you want anybody to read this?”


Then he would sit down with me and show me, with infinite patience, how it should be done. Typing at amazing speed – two fingers and a thumb on the right hand, forefinger only on the left – he would re-fashion the story until it sang. And yes, it was invariably a song I liked.


Mick was a big man – an inevitable consequence of his beer intake – and had a great sense of fun. One Thursday evening, he led the whole of the Rushden district office of the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph to see The Jungle Book at the local cinema.


Next morning, as arses were being scratched or winners picked, we heard him coming up the stairs, singing...


Look for the bare necessities

The simple bare necessities

Forget about your worries and your strife


As he reached the reporters’ room, he leaned against the door frame, wobbled his belly and scratched his back like Baloo the bear.


The whole room laughed and joined in. They loved him as much as I did. After that, when we heard his footsteps on the landing, we would spontaneously break into a rendition of that other Jungle Book classic that begins:


Oh, oobee doo

I wanna be like you…


Mick would start his day poring over the diary and assigning reporters to stories. The diary had its own lectern, as though it were the Holy Book, and standing there made him look like a disreputable parish priest.


Not that he cared much for diary stuff. On a slow day, he would demand to know why the morning calls had produced no stories.


“Something must have fucking happened, even in a place as boring as this! Ring ‘em back and tell ‘em I said so.”


Mick had a simple rule that he applied to all his reporters: you can leave the office whenever you like… but you must come back with a story.


As the newbie, I sometimes had to go out for his cigarettes.  I got them from the barber’s shop a couple of doors down.


Our local Mr Teasy Weasy would hand them over with a salacious grin and say: “That’ll be two shilli-bobs, please. Something for the weekend, Sir?” I’m pretty sure the something he referred to was him.


The first time, I returned from this mission, Mick said: “You’ve been out. Where’s your story?”


“But I only went for your fags.”


“Doesn’t matter. Go out again and this time, bring me a story.”


That reporters’ room was full of great operators. Mick’s deputy was Gerry, quiet and solid, great shorthand. He went on to work for the Press Association and they were lucky to get him. I can’t think of anyone more suited to that job.


Then there was Charles Amery. They said he was a scion of the prominent political family in the West Country. If so, he was the black sheep.


Well-spoken and charming, with the floppy hair that seems to mark out the upper classes, Chas was a drinker and a gambler, ever so slightly dissolute. I once saw him standing at a fruit machine, pumping in so many sixpences he must have lost most of a week’s pay.


Some Friday nights we used to go to RAF Alconbury, near Huntingdon, which was then a base for the US Air Force. If you could get in – a car full of women helped – then you could drink at giveaway prices in the PX bar.


After one evening there, Chas set off for Weston-super-Mare and drove his sports car off the road, finishing upside down in a ploughed field, miraculously unhurt. Police arrived and anyone else would have been arrested.


Not Chas, though. Somehow, the master of glib patter convinced them he urgently needed to be in the West Country. It’s 150 miles but they drove him there, aided and abetted by other forces. The name probably helped.


There were at least three other journalists in that single district office. It had more reporters than the Sunday Express did when I retired.


The ringmaster of this crazy circus was Mick. He knew everyone: the police inspector, the clerks of the court and the council, the President of the Rotary Club and – his best source – mine host at The Feathers.


He was a generous boss, with his time, his counsel and his contacts, which were often written on scraps of paper or Capstan packets and spilled from a gnarly old hardback notebook.


“Phone him,” he would say, handing you a number. “He’ll tell you everything.” And sure enough, the story would be nailed down.


Mick was a brilliant reporter and would have prospered on Fleet Street. But like many journalists on provincial papers in those days, he preferred to stay in his community, perhaps for family reasons.


I joined his team as an indentured junior reporter at £13 a week. The deal was: East Midlands Allied Press, then a powerhouse in regional newspapers, would teach me to be a journalist and in return I would be paid a liveable wage for four years.


Saturday was often a working day and evenings might be spent at council meetings, or union meetings or dinner-dances attended by local worthies.


I never felt hard done by; indeed, more than once I thought: “I would pay them to do this.”


Now, here’s the conundrum: who had the better education? Me, or the graduate trainee, who came straight to Fleet Street via journalism school, such as those at City, University of London, or Cardiff University? These are worthy institutions and I admire them.


But do they teach their students how to sneak past the Secret Service to get into a dinner-dance in Palm Beach, Florida, and watch Princess Diana dancing with John Travolta? (That was Ashley Walton, of this parish).


Or how to drink with detectives and come back with a story that was headlined: “Intruder in The Queen’s bedroom”? (Norman Luck, also of this parish.)


Or the nous to scour the telephone directories of Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama and methodically call all the listed gun dealers to find the one that sold the weapon that killed Martin Luther King? (Brian Hitchen, of this parish. He hit the jackpot on call No. 124 and later masterminded the Daily Express hunt for Ronnie Biggs.)


So, a First in PPE, or a whisky-stained diploma in kidology?


Journalism is a profession now, no longer seen as a trade or a craft.


Go figure.


*****

Did you enjoy the Coronation? We had a street party.


The council chipped in £500. The distillery round the corner gave us some gin. The butcher let us have sausages and burgers at wholesale prices. Domino’s provided free pizzas and Cook, the shop at the end of the road that sells lovely ready-made meals, chucked in a couple of cheesecakes.


It was an outstanding get-together. What wonderful neighbours! Who knew? Some brought Coronation Quiche and there was beer and Prosecco, literally by the bucketload. We pitched in to put up gazebos and watched our grandson dance in the street. Great moves, even if he was dancing with a bemused cockapoo.


But what amused me most about the Corrie was the supplement in The Times yesterday. They had Caitlin Moran in the Jean Rook role. Normally, I like Moran, she’s sharp and witty and a bit subversive. But whoever chose her for this job either had an agenda or a screw loose.


She wasn’t interested and barely engaged second gear. It was four pages of resentful tedium and barely disguised republicanism. Moran is entitled to her views, of course, but someone should have told her to make them interesting.


A few pages later, Robert Crampton, another terrific writer and a monarchy sceptic, showed her how it’s done. The headline said, “Yes, I love a royal street party and I’m a republican”.


That’s more like the tone… if you must devote most of a 12-page supplement to anti-monarchists. But why would you?


The only bright spot was Hilary Rose’s perceptive piece on the steely glamour of the Princess of Wales. “I look at Camilla and I think: ‘Well done, love – crack on, excellent diamonds.’ I look at Kate and see ‘Queen’.”


Jean Rook couldn’t have put it better.


*****

Expressman Christopher Wilson, who describes himself as a novelist and royal panjandrum, was hanging around outside the Palace at the weekend when he got an unexpected invitation to appear on Channel 4 news.


Matt Frei had spotted him and was convinced he was Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German President. “I happily agreed to be interviewed… but my decidedly English accent gave me away,” Wislon wrote on Facebook.


Oops, wrong silver fox!