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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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Sausage King Bill, purveyor of fine old-school bangers to the gentry of Fleet Street

PORK OF THE TOWN: The late, great Sausage King Bill O’Hagan

If you stood long enough at the bar of the Press Club in the late Seventies and Eighties – and Lord knows, I did – you would eventually be approached by a portly geezer carrying a blue cool-box.


For those of a certain age, and probably girth, he needs no introduction.


In case you are barely out of short trousers and enthralled by the lore of Old Fleet Street, this was Bill O’Hagan. Bill was the Sausage King.


That cool-box was a cornucopia of meaty delights. Bill (born William Bastard) was Night News Editor on the Daily Telegraph, with a sideline in bangers.


He made them himself, untainted by rusk or additives. “No artificial anything,” he would call out in a thick accent that betrayed his roots in Natal, South Africa.


It was there that he learnt to make proper, old-school sausages and when he arrived in London in 1970 he was so appalled at the local efforts that he set to making his own.


I bought some whenever I ran across him – usually wild boar and red wine. But there was always a huge variety from pure pork to Toulouse or spicy merguez.


Bill, who died in 2013, aged 68, would seek out old traditional recipes and went on to sell his wares to The Dorchester, Harrods and the Roux brothers’ Waterside Inn.


Food and Fleet Street have always been joined at the hip, whether it was the full slap-up at Joe Allen (on expenses, natch) to celebrate a promotion, or that mid-December page on how to make a Christmas pud.


I have often thought that if I had not spent my working life bringing out newspapers I could have been a chef.


In many ways they are similar jobs. Deadlines and stress are built in, the hours are terrible and the camaraderie forged in the heat of battle is both intense and long-lasting.


You don’t get to go home from either the backbench or the restaurant kitchen until the early hours, by which time there is little point and you may as well find a well-appointed bar.


Both lines of work attract wild and bizarre characters, sometimes with problems of alcohol and narcotics abuse, which can make the mentioned bars edgy or even downright dangerous.


Just as you wouldn’t want to enter into an argument with a disgruntled, coked-up cook who had a professional knowledge of knives, so it is better to steer clear of sub-editors with a grudge and a skinful, especially if they were once in the Parachute Regiment.


The cooks who have made a decent living from Fleet Street are numerous and often brilliant, from the fearsome Fanny Cradock, who with her husband Johnnie wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph in the early 1950s called Bon Viveur, to Delia Smith, the woman who taught us all how to boil an egg and make chicken chasseur.


Delia began her journalistic career in 1969 as a cookery writer for the Daily Mirror in its new magazine and later wrote a column for the Evening Standard. She skipped over the road to join the Evening News and when that was taken over by the Standard, she wrote for both.


Elizabeth David, posh and prickly and the doyenne of cookery writers, worked for everyone, including the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, the Spectator, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.


Restaurant critics prospered, too. The best of them were writers first, who also happened to have an appreciation of the craft that goes into cooking fine food. Think of Giles Coren in The Times and AA Gill, of The Sunday Times.


But my favourite cookery writer is American Anthony Bourdain, who sprang to fame with his book Kitchen Confidential, a blisteringly frank and funny account of life in restaurant kitchens. If some of the stories seem familiar, it is because it could just as easily be life on the subs’ table or in the reporters’ room.


Bourdain went on to carve out – see what I did there? – a career on television, making cookery shows that progressed into foul-mouthed travelogues. You can still see them on Amazon Prime Video. Think Rick Stein with Tourette’s.


A former heroin addict, Bourdain liked to approach his work with attitude. It was like gonzo journalism and he was Hunter S Thompson lite, downing shots with his chef buddies while he verbally trashed the programmes he made for such stations as CNN and the Travel Channel.


It had to end badly and it did. Those who worked with him noticed the decline in his mental health. Bourdain, as the addiction and a profusion of tattoos attest, was always in search of something.


He thought he had found it in Asia Argento, now 47, an Italian actress and writer. But she was photographed kissing someone else and Bourdain was deeply affected.


On June 8, 2018, aged 61, he was found dead in his hotel room near Strasbourg, France, where he was filming an episode of his series Parts Unknown for CNN. He had hanged himself.

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I’m the same age as Israel and the National Health Service and I’m not sure which of us in worse shape.


I was alarmed to read that one in four GPs now has private medical insurance. They blamed long NHS waiting lists, which now have a record 7.5 million patients on them.


But if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, the NHS is not quite as ailing as we all thought.


I have just heard that a dear old friend who has suffered agonies after some questionable treatment is finally beginning to make progress back to full health. A new procedure at a different hospital has, I am told, restored his faith in the NHS – and I’m delighted for him.


On top of that, two neighbours have been surprised by how promptly and successfully they were treated. And another friend not only saw a specialist at the height of the junior doctors’ strike but was then put on a waiting list for a cataract operation that is a mere three to four months long.


It’s not perfect, in fact it needs radical reform. But there’s life in the NHS yet.


Israel, by contrast, is tearing itself apart over an attempt by the far-Right coalition government to water down the influence of the Supreme Court. In a country without a second chamber, the court is seen as a pillar of the constitution and a vital check on the power of the Knesset (parliament).


It all seems like a desperate bid by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to hang on to office and so avoid facing trial on corruption charges, which he vigorously denies. But it constitutes an existential threat to the only democracy in the Middle East worthy of the name.


As for me, I can no longer run for a bus. But that’s okay. Thanks to that nice Mayor Khan, I can walk faster than the buses move down our high street.

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David Richardson, former Foreign Editor of this parish, posts on Facebook a picture of a Nikon camera, right, that once belonged to the great Daily Express photographer John Downing.


“Bought it from DX when he got new cameras and, in Express tradition, they never billed me,” David writes.


There is a note of awe when he adds: “Now has pride of place on our bookshelf.” 


Downing had this effect on his Express contemporaries – especially photographers.


In 2004, I went to the Falkland Islands with another great Express snapper, Tom Smith – as fine a companion as you could wish for on a foreign trip – to cover the 20th anniversary of the conflict with Argentina.


We hired a guide and his Land Rover and took a trip around Port Stanley harbour. It was in this long, narrow haven from the South Atlantic storms that Royal Marines were ordered to surrender as the invasion began.


And here that the SS Great Britain, built of iron by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and once the world’s largest passenger ship, lay rusting until in 1970 it was towed back to its home port of Bristol to become a museum and tourist attraction.


Our guide, much to Tom’s annoyance, kept stopping to suggest shots that he might like to take. “No, drive on,” Tom would snap. That is, until we came to the skeleton of an ancient hulk. “Stop!” cried Tom.


He climbed from the Land Rover and took pictures of the midday sun shimmering on the water behind the bleached, rotting timbers.


He flicked through the images on his digital camera, winked at me and said: “Eat your heart out, Downing.”

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Eyes slowly glazing over, I was reading a piece on llamas by Matthew Parris when the final paragraph jolted me back into consciousness.


It was a postscript to “my alcohol-abstaining, vegan researcher John”, who found the report in the New Scientist on which Parris based his article.


Eh? Researcher? My first thought was that journalists used to be their own researchers. Wasn’t that the whole point?


My second was: Why haven’t I got one?


I have written to Lord Drone, requesting that this oversight be remedied forthwith. I also made it clear that whoever he chooses for this key role should be neither alcohol-abstaining nor vegan.


Never trust a man who doesn’t drink.

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Guardian Media Group’s latest accounts show it made a loss of £15.7 million, despite an increase in revenue. At the same time, Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner was given a rise of £17,845 and took home a pay packet totalling £562,000. You might want to remember that next time you go on to their website and an irritating pop-up asks you for £9 a month to support their “independent” reporting.


1st August 2023