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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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Fond farewell to David Laws sub of all trades, thanks for all the 4th editions and slip pages

DAILY EXPRESS middle desk legend David ‘Bunny’ Laws died on 9 October 2023, aged 84. He will be mourned by dozens of colleagues who worked with him for decades.


His many friends in the industry have paid tribute to their old chum and colleague.


By RAY KING


David was interviewed by BBC Radio Suffolk when his first book “Munich: The Man Who Said No” was published in 2017. 


But he also spoke about how he was inspired to become a journalist after reading another book – when he was about 12 years old – called “The Monday Story”.


Published in 1951 by James Leasor it was about a district journalist on a local paper. David said: “I suddenly realised that was exactly the career for me.”


When he was at school as a teenager, David produced his own magazine called “Opinion” with help from his cousin who worked in a government camp office which had a Gestetner duplicator. The magazine was stapled together and sold to schoolfriends and people who lived on David’s estate.


The “Opinion” was that David was against British involvement in the Korean war when virtually everyone else wanted to “back our boys”. His father warned him his opinion might get him in trouble but David ploughed on.


When he left school at the age of 16, his first job was working for the "City Press" which at that time was a newspaper for the city of London and based near Bank station.


He recalled doing the “occasional” bit of journalism but the job was mainly operating the telephone exchange, a really old-fashioned rosewood cabinet with jack plugs. He could not resist listening in to the confidential discussions.


From the City Press, he went on to work at the local paper in Ruislip as a district reporter for two or three years before being called up for Army service. He was one of the last groups to do national service.


In recent years, he often recalled the outrageous bullying of recruits by corporals and sergeants but he was selected for officer training.


He did not complete the officer training but he responded positively and made the most of his postings to British Army of the Rhine depots at Sennelager and Monchengladbach in North Rhine-Westphalia. He ended up loving Germany and it fuelled his interest in the Second World War and the historical events leading up to it.


His Army life improved dramatically though when he was posted to Paris working on a top secret project – contingency plans for what the allies would do if the Russians cut off Berlin. 


There were crib sheets for what a British tankie should say if he was confronted by a Russian tankie.


“As they did not speak the same language, I was never sure how useful it was,” concluded David.


After leaving the Army, David joined another local newspaper group and ended up at Wembley, a “fascinating place to be”, he said.


“I had done my shorthand training at Pitmans College years before,” he said. “But I got my real training as a journalist at Wembley. Most of it was on-the-job training but we were sent off to college on press day.”


Later David worked at the Wolverhampton Express and Star and lived with his first wife Barbara at   Coalbrookdale, near Ironbridge.


Barbara went to Manchester with David when he was summoned for an interview with the Daily Express editor at the black glass Great Ancoats Street building in Manchester.


She waited hopefully in Piccadilly Gardens until he came “dancing down the street”, enthusing about getting the job – and “film star wages”. At £29 a week, it was £5 more than he had been earning at Wolverhampton.


He said: “1966 was a great moment in my life when I started work at the Manchester Daily Express.


“But it was a very scary place to work. It was a vast open-plan office and there seemed to be hundreds of people there. 


“I was a sub-editor by this time so no typewriters. A pad of copy paper, a spike, biro, scissors and a glue pot were the tools of the trade.


“My colleagues were very competitive. I had been used to offices where people were friendly and called you by your first name. But I got no help from people sitting next to me at Manchester. I also had to address the senior sub editors as Mr. 


“I had seen American films where journalists wore green eye shades. At Manchester, the most senior sub had one.


“The back bench big cheeses sat in a row glaring at us junior sub-editors.


“There were three rows of benches with junior sub-editors – probably 30 of us. We competed to do the most minor things, labouring to craft a 27-word sentence or a headline with 14 characters. 


“The first piece I got in the paper was headlined “Bloom boom” about a record number of entries at the Shrewsbury flower show.”


He had to tell fibs (“a dead granny”) to get a day off from Manchester for his interview with the Daily Express in London. 


He found Fleet Street a lot more friendly than the Manchester office.


“I loved every moment of Fleet Street,” he said. “I was involved in the ‘mouse race’, as we called it.”


One of his proudest moments was covering the 1989 sinking of the Marchioness in the river Thames when 51 people died in the early hours of Sunday after a collision with the Bow Belle, close to the then Express offices in Blackfriars.


“It was an appalling story,” he said. “But I virtually did the whole job of producing special editions myself.”


David also starred when Princess Diana died on a Saturday night in a Paris car crash in 1997. 

David stayed so long in the office that when he went home at 7am, he found himself driving behind a Daily Express van delivering the papers he had been up all night working on.


However, by the time David retired aged 80 from the Sunday Express, the glory days of the paper had faded.


He said at the time: “When I go into the office now,  there are only four or five subs. It’s sad.”


He told BBC Radio Suffolk how he came to live at Lavenham. “My grandfather came from Suffolk but it was an accidental return for me,” he said.


“I was living at Harrow when my first wife Barbara died from cancer. I was a bit at sea and went to live with my son Richard in Grays and later Brentwood.


“Then I met another lady (Edith) and we got together to look for a place to live. We began searching and found Lavenham. What an amazing place. I feel privileged to live in such a wonderful county.  I love walking in Suffolk and Bury St Edmunds is a beautiful town.”

 

Suffolk and Suffolk characters feature in David’s books. So do trains and trams.

His love of trains took him to Poland where he drove the steam-hauled Blues Express from Poznan to a music festival in north Poland.


He recalled how people cheered when the train pulled into Poznan station where hundreds of people were dancing to a live band. Many climbed up on to the train, including a little girl in a pink fairy dress. 


His final expedition was to the North Yorkshire Moors railway steam gala where he was taken ill. 

*****

TERRY MANNERS: David Laws was an all-round kind, hard-working and decent man. And in all the years I knew him, he never spoke ill of anyone, even though there were times when I thought he had the right.


He suffered his share of tragedy, losing his lovely wife Barbara, his new-born baby and his son-in-law. And yet I never heard him once complain about anything. He would brush adversity aside and get on with life, keeping his thoughts and sadness to himself.


He liked to laugh and had an infectious giggle, a bit like a schoolboy, and he loved a good joke or a funny situation. Stories about his long hours working late into the night on the Express subs table before dashing off to do an early morning bread delivery to Heathrow Airport abound.


But he didn’t just do one extra job, he did two or three … subbing on magazines and trade papers across London, before starting his Flong shift in the Black Lubyanka, subbing pages for two days ahead and doing Saturday shifts in the Street.


He wasn’t a bloke to have a pint with. He rarely came to the pub. He was a loner that way. A couple of beers would make him tipsy. Ted Dickinson of our parish, gave him a lift home to his house late one night and told me the next day that he couldn’t believe the size of his cocktail cabinet in the front room. It was packed with every drink you could possibly imagine. David told him he never touched a drop. It was for guests.


David was fascinated by the Second World War and studied it intensely, dragging me to readings by actors of battlefield poems at the Imperial War Museum. He even took his notebook along.


In the Seventies, when David went to Gibraltar on holiday, he spent most of the time exploring the caves used by the German Army for gun emplacements to seal off the Mediterranean. After his visit and with all his knowledge of World War II, he wrote a fiction book centred around them.


He couldn’t get it published but never gave up … rewriting it over the years; attending book writing courses and battering down the doors of publishing houses. In the end his persistence paid off and it was published. He wrote others after that and at last he seemed content with his life, writing and walking hills, once even Hadrian’s wall.


At a time of hatred and resentment in our world, we need more Davids … who knew how to sail through.

*****

CHARLES GARSIDE: David should be remembered for his role the night of the Marchioness/Bowbelle tragedy on the Thames just down from the Express building in Blackfriars on the south side of the Thames.


David was lone back-stop sub and could not raise the very new Sunday Express Editor Robin Morgan so he called me. I was still the Deputy Editor although I knew my job had been offered to someone on the Sunday Times. 


I was only three minutes away so shot in having called Production boss Murdoch MacLennan and Wally Cowley, the circulation chief, we stopped the presses. Only time I ever got to “hold the front page.”


John Evans was the night news editor and Andrew Alderson was the one staff reporter on scene and David and I cleared the front page to splash 50 dead in Thames tragedy.


At the time we were still printing a little in Fleet Street as well as Isle of Dogs so at 5am I was able to see the new edition come off and as many Journos and even the advertising department recognised we scooped the Street with our late final. It was 20th of August 1989. The final death toll was 51.


I hope I thanked David, Andrew and John enough because it was a great team effort … but  I recall no herograms from above.


In fact, the Express Chairman gave me a bollocking for incurring reruns and a week or so  later I was finally told I was out of a job.


I am in LA at present but will raise a glass to David … a real pro. It was a helluva night.

*****

ROGER WATKINS: We are always told to avoid cliches like the plague but if anyone deserves the title ‘unsung hero’ it is David. Top man; excellent operator; privilege to know. 


On December 8, 1975, my first day as a news sub in the London office after Manchester, I went for a couple of cans of Swan in the Punch. My break was interrupted by a call from the late chief sub to return to the office for some rejig or other.


Fast forward to January, 2007 as I attended Bingo’s leaving do in a wine bar in Lower Thames Street, near the Express office. A conversation with a former colleague was interrupted by a call from the late chief sub for him to return to the office for some rejig or other.


No prizes for guessing the common denominator here. RIP, David.

*****

ALASTAIR MCINTYRE: Bunny and I shared a love of buses and trains. He was quite simply the hardest working sub on the Express for many years. He would be beavering away getting the third edition away while the rest of us were in the pub. It was a scandal that he was never given a title as he was rarely seen subbing down table.


David must hold the record as the longest serving employee of  Express Newspapers. He was already well established on the paper when I joined in 1974. After taking redundancy he immediately returned as a freelance to the Sunday Express where he remained until a couple of years ago.


As chronicled elsewhere on the Drone, Bunny also had a bread round based at Heathrow Airport. He would leave the Express after a late shift and drive to the airport to pick up his van and distribute bread to local shops. 


David’s life was beset by tragedy, losing two wives, a baby and a son-in-law.


His catchphrase when handing out stories to subs was “Are you available?” Sadly he no longer is. He was an incredibly hard worker and a lovely man.

*****

JOHN EDGLEY: Sitting at home, staring out of the window at the rain bucketing down, I was thinking ‘what an awful day’.


Then, opening up the computer for my daily dose of The Drone, it became so much worse. It was your news that David Laws had passed away.

It was shattering. It’s easy to go overboard when paying tribute to the departed, but I sincerely believe David was one of the nicest guys I have ever met.


I don’t call him ’Bunny’ because he wasn’t known by that nickname during our working days together. That would have been in the late 1960s (I think) on the newly launched Shropshire Star at Wellington (now Telford). As a young, entirely new staff, it was very much a learning experience and what we did learn was to band together as a team. Not just in the office, but really getting to know each other in the pubs, at parties, on outings …whatever came along.


I always remember Dave playing such a big part, probably because he was one of the few to have a car in those days.


Dave was a News man; I was on Sport. But I know he was so highly regarded for his work. A sign of things to come, he always put colleagues to shame with his work output.


We didn’t meet up again until my Daily Star days, when Dave was already a star turn on the Express. Even then it was brief encounters over a coffee in the canteen. After I left, I had to rely on the Drone to keep track of the now renowned ’Bunny’.


So I know little of his family life, but can only say that they were lucky people to have Dave. I offer them my sincere sympathies.


RODDY ASHWORTH: I know many people who'll have known David Laws; not only at the DX or SX but throughout his entire working life. He ploughed his furrow in, through and out of Fleet Street, during the "good old days" and beyond.


I'm sad to say he has died.


He did the long-haul at the Express, but popped up on the back bench of almost all national titles, as and when convenient.


Looking back from covering the graveyard shift as a reporter at the Sunday Express in the 90s to when I left as night news editor many years later, I'll never forget the phrase “one more par, please”.


Followed by the (almost inevitable) “Another par, please”.


David could come across as aloof, indifferent, and perhaps hostile to wide-eyed newcomers — a bit like an old-school headmaster — but on taking the time to know him, people would find a kind, generous man of good humour and gentle thought.


He worked the latest subbing shift possible at the Daily/Sunday Express through a number of owners and editors.


He preferred late nights to regular shifts because he disliked train travel (paradoxically, being something of a spotter) and wanted to drive in and out of London when the roads were clear. (From Suffolk, ffs!) 


During dull periods at night he would work on other projects.


He was often seen in the most stylish of cars. Somebody told me once in the canteen that he had been a  well-renowned motoring correspondent for one of the "rivals", operating under a nom-de-plume. To which another suggested he was The Stig.


Who knows? It was something I never asked him.


He wasn't too impressed when the then left-leaning Lord Hollick appointed Rosie Boycott as editor-in-chief and Amanda Platell as SX editor.


(On one occasion, just after the first edition had gone, he said to night editor Jeff Compton: “Let's kill the animal story for the second, can't we? Nobody's heard of it: I mean, is it endangered? It's a bloody shrew!”)


But after Desmond, when the paper jerked to the right, he often used to "rejig" stories at night, replacing the words "illegal asylum seekers" with "immigrant refugees". Just so they would fit in without too much notice.


("Has nobody on this bloody paper heard of Auschwitz?" he said to me once.)


Perhaps, given his general outlook, he might have been most at home at the Mirror (he juggled days and nights with his job at The Mirror, still doing news at the Express), but he fell out with Monty in the post Maxwell fall-out.


But whatever else he did at the rivals, he was an Express man,  through and through.


RIP David Laws.


FUNERAL REPORT

BY STEPHEN WOOD

Quite a day. Bun’s funeral was an extraordinary mix of heartfelt tribute, passion, tears and laughter.  Everyone at Lavenham’s Swan Hotel learned something new about David’s life of hard graft, professionalism, of triumph over multiple tragedies, his passion for journalism, of his tireless devotion to his beloved family.


His brother Bob, daughter Eleanor and son Richard delivered touching eulogies filled with emotion and peppered with anecdotes. We didn't need telling Dave was a great guy, a true one-off. We all knew that but it was nice to be reminded. Sadly missed? The words don't get near the sense of loss among Dave’s friends, neighbours, family and former colleagues.


Memento of Buns … in September, he was delighted to know on my next visit to Lavenham that I would be bringing a promised 'History of Ipswich Trolley Buses 1923 - 1963’.  He would have loved that!

THE BURIAL: David laid to rest. Lavenham, November 3, 2023

THE SERVICE: David’s daughter Eleanor delivers her eulogy

EXPRESS CONTINGENT: Ray King, Peter Steward, Nick Dalton, Deborah Stone, Elaine Canham, Katherine Whitbourn, Steve Wood

ABOVE AND BELOW: David’s family pictures

OLD CHUMS: Steve Wood, left, with David Laws in Lavenham, Suffolk, in summer 2023. Steve said: ‘Old geezers ignoring the traffic for a chinwag in Lavenham, summer2023. He loved showing folk around his beloved town’