I support a united Ireland Michelle but I doubt you can achieve it in 10 years

 FIRST MINISTER: Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill

People seemed to be surprised when Michelle O’Neill, the new First Minister at Stormont, said she believed that Ireland would be reunited within 10 years. Why the surprise? She is a Sinn Fein politician, ergo she is a republican. It doesn’t mean that she will not be doing her job representing all, as she said in her acceptance speech, ‘I will serve everyone equally whatever their beliefs. Let’s walk this two-way street and meet one another halfway.’


But is she right that reunification will happen within a decade? While I hope and believe it inevitable that it will happen, my guess is more like 20 years. I hope I’m wrong because the separation of six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster on May 2, 1921 was a ridiculous artifice aimed at keeping nationalists (mostly Catholic) apart from unionists (mostly Protestant.)


The six counties had a majority Protestant population because over the previous four centuries they had been ‘planted’ there by successive Protestant monarchs. And the Free State, as the republic was known then, had little industry, was an agrarian land dominated by the Church and became more so when Eamon De Valera (a New Yorker by birth) was elected, first Taoiseach and then President. He wanted nothing to do with the North and never stepped foot on its soil.


How different it is today; the Republic’s economy is buoyant and the Church holds little sway. Tourism is a huge contributor to the economy and the shackles on birth control, abortion and gay marriage are long gone. Much the same applies to the North; it is a leading IT centre and as the location for the filming of Game of Thrones has given birth to a sector of its own in the tourist trade.


Most important, peace after the wretched bloodshed of the Troubles, has brought a huge dividend. Sinn Fein is now the largest party in the province and there are as many people identifying as Catholic as Protestant. The two entities on the island of Ireland have never seemed more alike.


So why do I think reunification will take more than 10 years? First, there needs to be a majority throughout the island and I suggest that there are many in the Republic who, for the moment, would rather leave things be. Understandably they believe that as a thriving European economy, taking in the six counties of the North might, indeed probably would, be too much of a shot in the dark. And that it might spark a return to violence, this time from unionist paramilitaries? 


Then there is the factor that Catholics in the North, far from being the poorest of the poor they once were, are now better off. In fact a majority of millionaires in the province are Catholic according to a survey by the Belfast Telegraph.


There are many other considerations: there is no NHS in the Republic (though you could argue there’s not much of a one in the North) and education would have to be aligned. Schools in Northern Ireland are in the main superb and, thanks to the grammar school system, they are mostly free. In the Republic the leading schools are fee paying and are expensive. I also think that a simple majority victory might be unwise, much better to be sure (to be sure to be sure) with a 60 per cent victory so there can be no doubt.


I was born into a Protestant Irish family going back hundreds of years and educated at a  brilliant independent school founded by the Methodist church which now has a majority of its pupils identifying as Catholic


I dearly want to see reunification in my lifetime but with so many hurdles to overcome before a referendum can be put I fear it will come after I’ve toddled off. And that saddens me.



It seems to be the season for rewriting history, at least as far as Coco Chanel is concerned. The New Look, a 10-part series on Apple TV begins tonight and explores the rivalry between Chanel and Christian Dior while the V&A is running a huge retrospective on Chanel and her revolution in women’s fashion. What neither does sufficiently is to point up her time as a numbered Nazi agent. So let me fill in the gaps which I discovered while researching for my book on the brave Allied spy Toto Koopman and her former friend Chanel.


Chanel was born illegitimate and raised in a children’s home in Correze, Central France, run by nuns, where she learned to sew. She worked for a time in a sweat shop and sang in night clubs. And that is where she met her first rich boyfriend, Etienne Balsan. From him she upgraded to a polo-playing English aristo, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel. It was her entrée to the British upper class, many of whom were unreservedly anti-Semitic, most of all the stupendously rich second Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor.


Chanel  became his chatelaine until 1929 by which time she was almost as rich as he was thanks to her fashion empire and the eponymous Chanel No 5 scent. She was the darling of English society with Churchill in thrall to her.  


Then along came Hans Gunther von Dincklage, ostensibly another playboy, albeit a German one, but really a leading member of Hitler’s spy unit, the Abwehr, and working in Paris. When Paris fell in 1940, leading Nazis took over the Paris Ritz though one person was allowed to keep her permanent suite. Chanel lived there throughout the war and became Agent F7124, codename Agent Westminster.


 So why when liberation came for the French was she not prosecuted, at the very least for being a ‘horizontal collaborator’ as 200,000 other French women were? They had their heads shaved, a swastika stamped on their chests and made to parade in shame through the streets. Though she twice appeared in court charged with collaboration she was never punished, instead she stayed in her Ritz apartment until her old lover Westminster sent her an urgent message ‘Don’t lose a minute, get out of France.’


Three hours later she was on her way, her Cadillac full of the petrol no one else could find and she decamped in neutral Switzerland where von Dincklage soon joined her.


So enough of the feting of this great designer, let’s have the unvarnished truth which I hope will be seen in a proposed TV series based on my book. She was a wrong’un, a nasty piece of work, as simple as that.



My esteemed colleague Roger Watkins writes in the Drone of his schooldays with that great Welsh rugby stalwart Keith Jarrett. His memory seems a happy one. I, on the other hand, was at school with the Ireland and Lions scrum half Roger Young. He was head boy of my house and as such was allowed to punish miscreants like me. So after some minor misdemeanour (I can’t remember what) on my part, I was summoned to the small red-brick house where house prefects gathered and was given six of the best, whacked on the bum with a leather slipper.


I spoke to him a few years ago and Young, now living in splendour on South Africa’s Cape didn’t remember it. Well, I bloody did...



I’m a monarchist in so far as I can’t think of a better alternative. President Gove anyone or President Rayner? No I didn’t think so.


But what a ludicrous volume of gush we have had in the last few days following the King’s diagnosis of cancer. The Mail, never to be outdone, led the way on Tuesday with 11 pages and headlines like ‘Get well soon your Majesty, your country needs you’ and ‘He waited so long to be King, and now this.’


The next day it was seven pages and included Liz Jones unexpectedly masquerading as Barbara Castle. The headline on this tosh was ‘Charles, we need you to be OK so that we’re OK.’ Not to be beaten the Telegraph, which should know better, ran a piece by its royal editor who wrote ‘In a matter of hours yesterday the royal family’s world shifted on its axis, and Britain with it.’  


Man, 75, has cancer. I wish him well as I do all those suffering this awful disease.


(You can kiss goodbye to a knighthood – Ed)  



9 February 2024


Blog Post

Did Scobie name Charles and Kate out of malice
or was it just a cockup?

So, Omid Scobie. Do you believe him?


Was it really a mishap that the names of the two allegedly racist Royals – King Charles and the Princess of Wales – were printed in the Dutch edition of Scobie’s book Endgame, or is he being disingenuous?


Did his stomach “flip” when he discovered it had happened, as he claims in the i newspaper; or did he take another sip of his iced coffee and think: “Job done.”


Scobie had used the names in an early draft, which his agent reportedly sent to the Netherlands publisher Xander so that the book could be translated into Dutch.


A final approved version, without the names, followed but was not used. Conspiracy or cock-up?


Thousands of copies alleging that Charles and Kate speculated about the skin colour of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s unborn son Archie were pulled in the Netherlands and Belgium.


The Palace has said it is exploring all options regarding legal action. The King, however, has already seemed to shrug it off, so my guess is that Mr Justice Cocklecarrot will not be stirred from his slumber.


And anyway, does anybody but news editors give a toss? Most people I know think it perfectly natural to wonder what colour a baby of mixed-race parentage will turn out to be, despite the plaintive looks to camera of Meghan and her aghast interviewer Oprah Winfrey.


I haven’t seen the sales figures but if the naming was a stunt, it probably did its job. It gained some precious column inches in the newspapers.


Scobie, though, remains an enigma. Is he a smart, ruthless manipulator, operating as a lone wolf away from the Press pack, breaking stories they cannot; or is he being used by the Sussexes, a useful idiot to tarnish the Royal Family, into which Meghan never fitted?


And this is where it gets difficult to read. For between them, Meghan and Scobie – dupe, or not – have redefined the rules of the game.


Meghan the actress was cast in a Hollywood fairytale with her infatuated lover Harry. When they married, she would be a Princess, rich, famous and adored; they would have footmen and equerries and cooks and “people” (in Hollywood parlance) to arrange their diaries.


What she didn’t understand – and how could she? – was that her life would be dull, restricted and largely meaningless as the wife of The Spare.


She probably resented playing second fiddle to Kate, now the Princess of Wales. If Harry did not already feel the same way, she convinced him he should. And off they went, to seek vindication and fulfilment as well as fame and fortune in California.


They seem to have decided on a bit of payback, too. And this is where Scobie, 42 (but going on 12 to judge by the pictures) came in.


For a journalist, he has a curious modus operandi. He told broadcaster James O’Brien, formerly of this parish, that he liked to cultivate a long-term friendship, or relationship with the celebrities he wanted to write about.


“I’m always thinking, what story do I want in six months’ time, in 12 months’ time, how do I get there? So it lands you in positions where you end up that Kim Kardashian is your source and you’re emailing her directly and she’s helping out stories for US Weekly,” Scobie said on O’Brien’s Full Disclosure podcast.


“In fact, she was a great example of someone who really gets it, because she would send over an email and it would say ‘Kim says’ – which was her quote – and ‘a source says’ underneath.”


Scobie claimed this was how it worked in his dealings with Kensington Palace when he was writing Finding Freedom, his first book (with Carolyn Durand) on the origins of the rift between Harry and Meghan and the rest of the Royal Family.


“I remember those emails where there was an aide that would send us responses to all the questions and in red it was what you could use for sourced quotes and then in another colour it was just guidance,” he told O’Brien.


During Meghan’s 2020 privacy case against the Mail on Sunday, it emerged that she and Harry had told their then Director of Communications to brief authors Scobie and Durand.


This isn’t how real journalists work. It is how Hollywood publicity agents operate. It’s pure PR.


Our dear, departed friend Ashley Walton, would have been embarrassed by such sycophantic nonsense. He and his colleagues on the Royal beat, who included the Daily Mirror’s James Whitaker and our own Paul Callan, had an arms’ length relationship with the Windsor clan.


The older Royals were used to the scrutiny and seldom lowered their guard. But the antics of the two new brides, Lady Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson – the first people to blow the cobwebs off the Royal Family for a generation – provided solid gold copy.


So the pack would follow Charles and Diana and Andrew and Fergie from the Klosters ski slopes to polo fields to swanky restaurants, and sometimes even to romantic assignations, hoping for a story to justify their considerable expenses. They cultivated contacts among Palace servants, Royal aides, police close protection officers, childhood friends.


They were ever alert for the mask to drop, the slightest slip-up – a fall on the piste, a practical joke played on a friend, a marital indiscretion. These were all fair game.


Remember when Diana and Fergie prodded the bottoms of fellow racegoers at Royal Ascot with their umbrellas? Fergie and her Texan beau sucking her toes? Diana, alone and forlorn against the majestic backdrop of the Taj Mahal?


Or Diana dancing with John Travolta, star of Saturday Night Fever, at a White House gala dinner with President Ronald Reagan, which was surreptitiously witnessed by Ashley Walton crouching among the guests.


Or the interview with the BBC’s Martin Bashir when Diana revealed: “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”


Every one of these was 24 carat.


And now? Scobie’s inane insights into the carefully crafted brand that is the Sussexes.


Sun photographer Arthur Edwards, who snapped the Royals for 45 years, says: “It is difficult to believe anything in Omid Scobie’s scandal plagued book.”


So, Omid Scobie. Do you believe him?


12 December 2023

Ah, the old Crown & Kettle, haunt of villains, ladies of the night … and journalists


HOW lovely to see the gathering of former Sunday Express Manchester staff featured in the Drone at the iconic Crown & Kettle pub in their wonderful city.

By chance, my chum Roger (Buffy) Watkins and I were talking about the former drinking HQ of the Northern staff only the other day as we sat having coffee and cakes (yes, coffee and cakes, not ale) in a quaint tea shop in a Lincolnshire village.

Both of us have drunk in the Crown, once the haunt of villains, ladies of the night, coppers and, who would have guessed, journalists and newspaper folk, as Manchester Expressman Andy Chapman says.

Buffy supped there more than me because he worked in the Black Lubyanka of the North before coming to London. And I always supped there when ‘helping out’ in Manchester, especially in the era of those golden E-shifts when the Star was launched … and the week the London staff came up to produce the paper in the North in case of a bomb attack.

For those who might not know, the Crown & Kettle sits prominently on the corner of Great Ancoats Street's junction with Oldham Road in an area known as New Cross, and dates back to 1734, although it didn’t become a pub until the early 19th century.

It was refurbished in 2020 but still features a fireplace with a roaring log fire and a snug at the rear with wooden panelling, said to be timber from the ill-fated R101 airship, I was told. Sadly, it was closed for a while because some hooligan burned part of it down.

Sorry to hear from Andy that he is in a period of nostalgic mourning that the old pub has changed its drinks menu to a list of trendy craft beer with weird and wonderful flavours and the Wilson’s mild and bitter have gone, along with the Guinness.

They don’t know what they’re missing today, eh? Although some of those craft beers are pretty good … depending on prices. A bit more dosh than mild and bitter cost in the Seventies … 2s.3d.

A century ago, there were 18 pubs in a 300-yard stretch from Ancoats, and now sadly the Kettle is the last. Like so many pubs across the country, they have put up the shutters.

Those of us who went North to work on the Express, even briefly, would probably have popped into the Land ‘O’ Cakes in Ancoats too … a fine old pub from 1791, but that sadly closed back in 2005.

All that’s left is its signage which is on display in the yard of one of the new luxury flats in the old Northern Daily Express building across the road. I wonder what Andy and the lads and lasses think of the trendy hallways, coffee dens and work hubs there?

Today's new Glitzy Express apartment building in Manchester

Both Buffy and I always loved the feel of the Kettle, the ambiance … a real drinker’s pub, if you get my drift. The wooden floors, the exposed brickwork … and of course that wonderful ornate, gothic ceiling with chandeliers, described in Time Out as the “best pub ceiling in the world.”

Looking at the promotional pictures I could still feel its history from centuries long past, even though it has been ‘done up’ as they say. It seems to have lost little of its historical appeal. Even the chandeliers are hanging on wooden supports from over 200 years ago. But of course, Andy and his fellow drinkers who met there may have other ideas.

Buffy now goes North regularly as his daughter, journalist Leah and husband, former Express reporter Graham Dudman, live there, a stone’s throw from Ancoats Street and the Grade II listed pub where Express photographer Jack Kay once popped in for a pint with his pet duck, which was served water in an ashtray. Graham still pops in for a pint too.

For those people in London who don’t know, the Kettle building was originally home to a Georgian court house which had the power to hang people and the hanging chamber is still said to be under the men’s urinals, with a rumoured secret tunnel, now bricked over, that links it to Strangeways jail.

There are gruesome tales about the area of New Cross, some documented. And for Drone readers who never ventured to the area, I thought I would paint a picture of what it was like. Centuries ago, it was a meeting point for traders … and people with opinions. A kind of Hyde Park Corner where people often came to blows. In fact, it was also the site of rebellion … and even murders.

The Manchester City News said of it: “It a place where the poison of discontent could flow freely, where wrongs were proclaimed, remedies suggested, and hopes entertained of their realisation.” At the beginning of the 19th century, before the glass art deco building of the Express rose from the ashes of a warehouse, the first publishing businesses set up there to mass print ‘Penny Broadsides’ – the production of posters and public declarations, all printed on both sides of a single sheet.

A Penny Broadside

They were distributed by hawkers and pedlars in the area and eventually all over Manchester. They announced upcoming events; plays and songs; even political views. Like the rest of the country the city was benefitting from the mechanisation of the print industry and by the mid-19th century, the Broadsides were reporting murders and other crimes. They became the newspapers of the day.

Some of the ballads came from the theatres or music halls, but most were penned by prolific, yet little-known, ballad-writers. Authors’ names rarely appeared on the sheets and ballads contained lyrics only, with no musical notation, but a popular tune might be suggested to sing along to. Some ballads were related to current or historical events, national or local, while others cover universal themes such as love, poverty (and there was plenty of it in New Cross) or mortality.

Printers sometimes decorated sheets with crude woodcuts from their stock, but these were often little to do with the story and were just random choices trying to get as near to the storyline as possible.

It wasn’t long before cheap, four-page-newspapers produced in the area came along with masthead and the cheap novels nicknamed ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ burst on the scene too, as Ancoats quickly became the Fleet Street of Manchester, and the Penny Broadsides faded away. But they are still a wonderful document of the history of our country, and you can read some of them in public and university records today. I did and they are wonderful, especially some of the ballads.

Meanwhile, as the print works and publishing companies moved in and dug out foundations for their new buildings in New Cross, they made some gruesome discoveries from centuries before. They uncovered many bodies from murders, suicides, and hangings. Most were unrecorded.

Some had wooden stakes, or a village cross plunged through their chests to allow evil spirits to escape. This is why they were buried around New Cross which sits on a crossroads, providing routes for evil spirits to escape.

The whole area suffered from gang warfare, poverty, and deprivation for years, so people weren’t shocked about finding bodies. It happened regularly in life in the slums. And the newspapers were right in the middle of it. Plenty of news stories there.

Poverty in Ancoats Street

In 1823, a Manchester Chronicle reporter wrote of trouble outside the Crown & Kettle, and two pubs in the Oldham Road: ‘At the ends of many streets stand groups of Irish ruffians who appear to feel no interest but in ill-treating the peaceable and unoffending inhabitants.’

And it was at New Cross that the Army used cannons and rifles to quell the crowds during the Bread Riots of the 1800s when there was a shortage of flour and people starved.

Of course, there was a Press Club in Manchester as far back as 1870, where hacks and inkies let off steam in the early hours, I am told. It was in Queen’s Street, opposite the old offices of the Manchester Evening News on Deansgate and the grand old white art deco building of the Daily Mail — both since demolished for the creation of shiny new developments.

Back in the 70s, 80s, 90s and our own heyday of print, it was the perfect location for hacks to head straight over the road to sink a few and play some pool — one Manchester Evening News sub was reported to have played a drunken round with snooker legend Alex Higgins at 3am. Higgins won of course.

At the end of the 18th century, there were more newspapers in Britain than ever before, and they were bigger. By the 1930s the Express was the most circulated newspaper in the world with sales of 2.25million and needed to expand to reach wider audiences quicker.

So, Lord Beaverbrook commissioned three new buildings, one in London, one in Manchester and one in Glasgow to handle printing and news gathering across the country.

When New Cross, the Fleet Street of the North, was chosen as the Manchester site, the news was welcomed by dignitaries and politicians in Manchester who believed that the days of the slums would soon be over. The Express would bring jobs and prosperity to the area. It did, giving work to hundreds of new staff from the canteen to Editor’s secretaries and people tying up bundles of newspapers.

Beaverbrook wanted his buildings to be of high quality to enhance the reputation of his quality publications which screamed Empire, Truth and Justice! And so he hired renowned engineer Sir Owen Williams to create them. Williams was the principal engineer for Wembley Stadium and Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction.

But even though all three buildings had an Art Deco design the Manchester one was the only example of Wiliams’s work as he handed much of the design of the other two over to London architects Ellis and Clark. Art deco was the term used to describe 1920s/30s architecture that had bold, sometimes rounded shapes and strong colours used in glass and on the front of buildings.

At the time the world was in the aeroplane age which gave birth to the shape of architecture too. Everything new became streamlined and modern. It was all about long lines, curving forms, movement and technology. Trains, planes, cars and ocean liners took the style, even fridges and telephones.

The Manchester building was considered to be the best of the three Express works because of its position enabling the glass and black-faced cladding to shine in daylight, especially with the concave shapes. The printing presses in the Press Hall were given a shopfront window so that people passing by got a view of the paper running off the machines. It was like a restaurant throwing open the doors to its kitchen.

The London building opened in 1931, followed by Glasgow in 1937 and the Manchester building in 1939.

Today the Express is just a shadow of its former glory and its newspaper management a shadow of the Beaverbrook and Harmsworth dynasties. Even in our time, journalists were still reasonably highly valued but now there appears little regard for their work and love of their title. They were kingpins of their buildings and words were their pride. The Editor was the be and end all. Journalists didn’t work for management or HR, and certainly not for the advertising department. They worked for the Editor and the masthead.

We lived through a time of reversal. The acorn didn’t grow to become an oak tree. The oak tree shrivelled back to an acorn.


Ok, So I’m getting old. But why does the audience cheer, clap and stand as young singers murder classic songs from the past on TV’s The Voice, ignoring their haunting melodies and replacing them with just the tuneless words screaming at the high notes? A mystery to me. Moon River, that wonderful Danny Williams hit from the Sixties, bore no resemblance to the melody at all, like so many others these days. My God, even Tom Jones, seemed to like it. Good luck to the lad singing it, but such a shame.


I understand The Guardian has a political field to plough and hates the Tories, fair enough. But to say, as it did, this week, that most people in Britain have changed their minds and now want open borders and back rising immigration, even the boat invaders, because of the benefits they bring, is simply a porky! Where do these journalists live? The anger in the pubs, clubs, restaurants and behind the chintz curtains grows. Does the entire Guardian staff now consist of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s best pals?

"Copy down, please Jack ... when you've emptied your pipe!"


11 December 2023