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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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Writing a book’s no easy task for a journalist and only an elite few have triumphed









JUST because a man can write a thousand words, in prose as purple as a cardinal’s robes, lamenting the loss of the good old days, when coppers were on our side and villains loved their mums and only killed each other – it doesn’t mean he can write a book.


He might deliver a homily on a modern evil – Putin, say, or the dark rising of social media – or leave his readers chuckling over their Shreddies with a witty demolition of Boris’s latest idiocy. But it doesn’t mean he can write a book.


Books and journalism don’t always mix. Writers who try it sometimes find that they are sprinters who have been entered for a marathon. I know this to be true and, admit it, so do you.


Which is why I admire those who succeed, sometimes spectacularly, at the long form of this lonely craft of ours.


I envy their devotion and their single-mindedness, scribbling away at the book on the daily commute and then, when they arrive, well, scribbling away again, this time to pay the mortgage.


It’s that sort of application – or rather, the frequent lack of it – that makes this old joke funny:


Journalist 1: “What are you doing these days?”


Journalist 2: “I’m writing a book.”


Journalist 1: “Oh, really? Neither am I.”


Books by journalists fall into five categories: Memoirs; fiction; collected columns or reportage; ghosted autobiographies; curiosities.


The collected works are easy. All a writer has to do is pick out his favourite pieces and suddenly he’s an author. I have written here before about columns by Patrick Campbell collected as The P-p-Penguin Patrick Campbell, and the emotive reporting of James Cameron in Point of Departure.


I could have added Cassandra At His Finest And Funniest, also on my bookshelf, the best of William Neil Connor, who wrote the Cassandra column in the Daily Mirror for 32 years until 1967, pausing only to fight the Nazis.


In 1959, Connor cost the Mirror a then record £8,000 in damages after calling the pianist Liberace “… the summit of sex – the pinnacle of masculine, feminine and neuter. Everything that he, she and it can ever want… a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.”


Unsurprisingly, Liberace took this to mean he was homosexual, which was then illegal, and sued, insisting he was no such thing. Incredibly (at least to anyone who remembers Liberace) a court believed him.


When he returned from the Second World War, Connor began his first column with the words: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted…”


He died at 57, after a fall. At the foot of his final column dated February 1, 1967, under the headline “Plenty of time”, he wrote: “Normal service in this column is temporarily interrupted while I learn to do what any babe can do with ease and what comes naturally to men of good conscience – sleep easily o’ nights…”


He died on April 6.


I’m surprised I have got this far without mentioning Vincent Mulchrone, a legend on the Daily Mail and beyond. He too has a “Best of” book.


Mulchrone wrote with the pen of an angel and, covering the funeral in January 1965 of Sir Winston Churchill, came up with one of the most memorable intros of modern journalism: “Two rivers run silently through London tonight and one is made of people. Dark and quiet as the night-time Thames itself, it flows through Westminster Hall, eddying about the feet of the rock called Churchill.”


If only those who wrote their memoirs could turn a phrase like that. Alas, such books are often dull: a means for armchair generals to fight old battles while hoping for a different outcome. Occasionally, scores are settled; even more occasionally, a nugget of wisdom or insight intrudes, like a shaft of sunlight in a dungeon.


Harry Evans’s memoir, My Paper Chase, is 490 pages long in its paperback form and daunting in its detail. But it is enlivened by tales of unconsciously funny moments that we could all recognise from our own early days in newspapers.


As when his first News Editor, Mr J W Middlehurst, tells Evans: “Never let me see the word ‘I’ in anything you write for the Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter.”


Evans also wrote a series of textbooks for journalists (these are so rare that they don’t merit their own category) called Editing and Design. In the volume on picture usage, he printed a life-size image of Muhammad Ali’s fist.


It so impressed me that, years later, while night editing the Daily Express for Rosie Boycott, I used the same trick with a picture of a tiny premature baby and earned a grudging, thin-lipped nod of approval from La Boycott at afternoon conference – the first, last and only time I ever did anything she liked.


I have never tried ghost writing but I am pretty sure it is fraught with difficulties you can’t see coming. Imagine doing Gazza’s autobiography! Someone probably tried and is still suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.


This branch of writing involves organising the random thoughts of someone who is vain enough to want an autobiography but not educated or confident enough to believe he can do it alone.


So, they send for a professional, such as our own Terry Manners, a man of enormous energy and enthusiasm – and a much-loved member of the World’s Greatest Lunch Club (WGLC), to boot.


Among Terry’s seven books is a best-seller on the life of gambler Alex Bird, a man who won and lost fortunes in his lifelong high stakes duel with Britain’s bookmakers. The endeavour did not turn out quite the way Terry would have liked. But that’s another story for him to tell.


Fiction… where to start? Well, as good a place as any is the Night Newsdesk of the Daily Express, once the fiefdom of David Eliades, brilliant reporter, sympathetic and resourceful desk man and, though he now lives in Switzerland with his wife Lamar, still an emeritus member of the WGLC. (No wonder it is so called; who wouldn’t want to sit down to lunch with these guys?).


David, with his writing partner, Robert Forrest-Webb, who died last month, turned out uncannily successful books, such as And to My Nephew Albert I Leave the Island What I Won Off Fatty Hagan in a Poker Game (just writing the title has taken me over my allotted word count).


Under the pen name David Forrest, they also wrote The Great Dinosaur Robbery, which in 1975 Disney made into a movie called One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing, starring Peter Ustinov. It helped to set David up financially for life.


Rory Clements, once a Daily Express sub-editor and later the man who produced truly terrifying health pages for the Daily Mail, now writes thrillers. He began with the award-winning John Shakespeare series, set in Elizabethan times with a hero who is the fictional brother of the Bard and a spy-catcher.


His latest series, set around the Second world War has Tom Wilde as its protagonist, a Cambridge University professor and former MI5 man.


And finally, curiosities. Roger Bryan, my late friend and flatmate, when we both worked for the Yorkshire Post in Leeds, wrote one called It’ll Come In Useful One Day. It is a list of tips for jogging the memory. Mnemonics, mostly, but he does reveal that his pet hate as Night Editor of the Mail on Sunday was the misspelling of Beverly Hills (no third “e” in Beverly).


He set a rule that any sub-editor who got it wrong would be sacked on the spot and claims that no one ever did. The mere threat of dismissal worked as the perfect spell-checker.


30th May, 2023