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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

*

STOP PLAYING SAFE!Memo to England’s rugby selectors, take a punt on 

a few mercurial rebels

QUICKSILVER: Marcus Smith covets Owen Farrell’s job

IMAGINE hiring Marco Pierre White to cook in your restaurant, then asking him to knock out egg and chips all night.


The man’s not just a master of his craft, he’s an artist. Egg and chips is a shocking waste of his talent and your money, right?


Yet that is what managements of England rugby teams have done with their finest fly-halves for decades. And they are still doing it.


Rob Andrew played 71 times for England between 1985 and 1997 but he was only the second-best fly-half in the country.


Andrew was a pragmatist, a game manager, a man whose talent did not allow for taking risks. A better, more exciting player by far was Stuart Barnes, who gained just 10 caps for his country.


Barnes was a wild card, a maverick. The Times columnist and Sky presenter understood that rugby was to be enjoyed, both as player and as spectator. No doubt he trained hard, but he was fond of a glass of wine, too.


England’s first-choice fly-half now seems to be Owen Farrell, who is serving a ban going into the World Cup this week for an illegal tackle. He is a fine player but not as good as the quicksilver Marcus Smith, the young tyro who covets his job.


He’ll probably get it eventually but the question is: will he be allowed to play the game that got him this far; or will he be knocking out egg and chips in a rigid game plan that doesn’t begin to make the most of his lavish talent?


Somewhere in between Barnes and Marcus Smith, there was another richly talented rebel who played at No. 10 – Danny Cipriani. He too was mistrusted and overlooked by coaches who chose safer, steadier players.


World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson, a close friend, summed up his fate like this: “Most coaches favour players who do damn fine stuff a lot of the time over players who do miraculous stuff some of the time.”


Cipriani was tabloid gold. He has been compared with footballer David Beckham but to my mind he was more like George Best.


Everyone knows the story of Best in a hotel room with Miss World and thousands of pounds in casino winnings on the bed and the waiter delivering champagne who asked: “Mr Best, where did it all go wrong?”


Well, Cipriani has written a memoir of his life as a rugby player and it makes Best’s cheeky capers seem almost staid. Both were sublime talents; both were deeply troubled men; both were self-destructive; and both had careers that were ultimately unfulfilled.


Extracts of Cipriani’s book Who Am I? are appearing in The Times and started in this week’s Sunday Times, which also had an interview with him by Hadley Freeman in the magazine.


It is one of the frankest, most honest, wry and curiously innocent interviews with a celebrity I have read since Donald Zec was writing for the Daily Mirror.


To say Cipriani was a ladies’ man doesn’t quite do his record justice. He famously romanced – and serially cheated on – Kelly Brook. Katie Price was a notch on his bedpost – “I didn’t go out with Katie Price. But I did sleep with her,” he says. She called him Danny Chipolata, as wronged women are wont to do.


Actress Lindsay Lohan and TV personality Caroline Flack were also among his conquests. He would sleep with three different women in one day, in relays, shooing one out when the next one was due.


How did he find the energy for rugby?


“I was very specific with how I did it,” he tells Freeman, “so it was three on my off days, one when I was training, and the night before a game I would have the night off.”


Then he adds: “Sometimes.”


The rugby tales are told in the sports pages and fascinating they are too for fans of the game. But also depressing, for they expose the fear, the conservatism, the control freakery of coaches.


Men like Cipriani and Barnes thrive by creating chaos on the field of play, and then exploiting it. But coaches don’t like chaos, they like statistics, order. They like egg and chips.


Brendon McCullum breathed new life into the England cricket team with his Bazball mentality – play your shots, enjoy the game and the results will come.


Not until a figure like McCullum coaches England’s rugby players will the team achieve what it is surely capable of. Mind you, it won’t look much like it does now.


*Who Am I? by Danny Cipriani is published by HarperCollins on September 14, price £22.

*****

I used to live in Notting Hill back in the late Seventies. I filed copy to the Daily Express from my living room, looking out of the window at the carnival riots taking place below.


Police would launch baton charges down Portobello Road, taking care not to be outflanked and isolated. It was a small war, every Sunday and Monday of Bank Holiday weekend at the fag-end of August. Every August.


It was almost formulaic. It reminded me of those mock Civil War battles fought by history nerds. But the violence was real.


Disaffected black youths would pit themselves against The Man, or at least his representative, the police. I used to drive my car to a safer area of London and leave it there for the duration. I knew there would be damage and destruction.


There was also robbery, rape and the odd stabbing. But nothing like what we witnessed this year. Youths waving machetes and zombie knives as onlookers smirked at the spectacle. Eight people were stabbed, two of them seriously, the worst tally for seven years.


Fifty-seven police officers were attacked with punches, kicks, headbutts. One was sexually assaulted. They were urinated on from rooftops and balconies. Officers arrested 275 people for the attacks and for possession of drugs or weapons.


Every year, local businesses are forced to bring down the shutters, costing them thousands. Old people who live on the carnival route are bussed to Eastbourne for a peaceful, three-day break from the chaos at Kensington Council’s expense.


Revellers leave behind 300 tonnes of rubbish. It takes 200 cleaners and 30 bin lorries working through the night to clear it up.


London Mayor Sadiq Khan calls the carnival “one of the world’s biggest and best street festivals, it’s part of the fabric of our city.” I heard one idiotic TV reporter call it “the most important cultural event in Europe.”


They’re both delusional. Gangs now use it as an excuse to bring savagery to the streets of West London. As for culture, if you like simulated sex – twerking and grinding – then the carnival is right up your street.


If it actually was up your street, you might think it was time to shut it down.

*****

I enjoyed Mailman Alan Ashworth’s reminiscences in his blog about the top bar of the Harrow pub. I too frittered away part of my life, liver and ill-gotten lolly in that den of iniquity.


But as I recall, you couldn’t just walk in at 1am. It was like a private club. You had to be introduced. So it was that Daily Express Night Editor Roger Watkins and I, his deputy at the time, climbed those rickety stairs in the company of Ted Daly, the dogwatch reporter and a former Mailman, who died in 2018 aged 87.


Ted presented us at the bar to the fearsome Jean, who fixed us with gimlet eyes. Satisfied at last that we presented no threat to the order of things, she growled: “What can I get you?”


Also propping up the bar that first visit was one of the biggest men I have ever seen, the size of a South African second-row forward. He wore a white shirt and dark trousers and on the bar next to him rested a City of London Police cap. How reassuring.


It may be that the landlord of the pub, who was reputed to be Jean’s lover, was a Mason, but this copper was there for a pint, just like the rest of us.


I never saw the landlord. He slept in the room above. Which accounted for the pantomime of Jean touring the bar, shushing everybody as the beer flowed and the mood cranked up accordingly. She was effectively running a speakeasy but everyone had to talk in whispers. Of course, they didn’t.


One night I went in and Jean had prepared a big dish of tripe and onions cooked in milk. It was on the bar with some plates and eating irons and we helped ourselves. It was delicious but it only happened once.


Women who ran Fleet Street bars were often formidable. They had to be. The Poppinjay had a woman guv’nor (a governess, I suppose – Ooh, Matron). And of course there was Mrs Moon, pictured, in the dive bar, who threw out anyone that crossed her threshold soon after nine o’clock. She assumed they were refugees from the Cheshire Cheese, which closed at that hour. She hated the Cheese.


I remember drinking in Mrs Moon’s with the Editor of this mighty organ. It was cold and dark and for once we had got in without any unpleasantness. There on the bar was a barrel of Winter Warmer and we availed ourselves of several pints.


As we left, I noticed his eyes – redder than a whore’s drawers. We stood at the kerb, waiting to cross Fleet Street to the Black Lubyanka while cars screeched to a halt, baffled drivers muttering: “Where the hell did those traffic lights come from? They weren’t here this morning.” (I was quite entertaining on the Stone that night … or so I’m told — Ed)


I liked Mrs Moon’s but even the Express’s legendary Late Chief Sub, David Laws, didn’t call anyone back from there. Easier to sub it yourself.

*****

Billionaire Mohamed Al Fayed, who has died aged 94, was a man with many enemies, both real and imagined.


It is unlikely that the former Harrods owner, who once tried to buy the Daily Express, was on Prince Philip’s Christmas card list. During a libel trial, Al Fayed accused Philip of masterminding the deaths of Princess Diana and his son Dodi. The couple died when a car driven by a drunken employee of Al Fayed, crashed in a Paris road tunnel.


Philip, he said, was “a murdering Hun with Nazi tendencies”.


There were plenty in business, too, who had reason to hate Al Fayed. It made him paranoid. He surrounded himself with bodyguards who had served with the SAS, the Parachute Regiment or the Royal Marines.


Anyone who went to see him at his office was routinely kept waiting in an anteroom. Former Daily Express owner Richard Desmond would visit to talk business with Al Fayed. His lieutenants were under orders not to discuss anything sensitive or confidential while they waited.


“It’s bugged,” Desmond warned.

*****

As my friend Dumpster reports, an American newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, has suspended its use of an artificial intelligence bot, which its website says can write “hundreds of unique news briefs in seconds”.


It ran a report of a high school American football game that was deemed to be “terrible” and “very bland”.


They should have given it to a sub-editor – a real one. That’s what we did … take dross and turn it into gold nuggets.


I must admit, though, the bot might have come in handy on the third edition.


5th September 2023