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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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NIGHTMARE ON THE STONE

Comps hated the subs — it was mutual, especially when drink had been taken

COMPOSING: Sub Tony Armstrong, in background left, keeps an eye on a page with two comps with Night Editor Peter Johnson
Daily Express, London, 16th February 1967

The request was polite and seemingly innocuous.


“Can I have a crosshead in that second leg, please?”


“No.”


And so it began, another skirmish with a boorish, intransigent inky that almost, but not quite, sank the Third Edition of the Daily Express.


“Excuse me?” I asked.


“I said no. I decide where the crossheads go and I’m not putting one in there.”


“Why not?”


“Because it doesn’t need one.”


“I’ll be the judge of that. And by the way, you don’t decide where the crossheads go – I do.”


“I’m not putting a crosshead in there.”


“And I’m not signing off the page until you do.”


Everyone who has done a stone shift has been down this path, sooner or later. The print unions had enormous power and liked to flex their muscles, collectively and sometimes individually. It was my fate that night to run into a man who harboured a grudge against journalists.


RAT’S ARSE

He was big, about 6ft 2in and a walking advert for the perils of Young’s best bitter, of which he seemed to have consumed his share that evening. I can’t remember my alcoholic status but typically it would not have been much different from his.


Now, I know what you’re thinking: This is childish, pathetic. You’re right, it was. But nobody gave a rat’s arse about that because we are driven by imperatives.


And in a pissing contest, the only imperative is to win.


So, there we were, two rams butting heads, neither willing to back down or even blink. Our standoff was noted by the Head Printer, who sensed trouble and moved to head it off.


“What’s the problem?” he asked.


“He wants me to put a crosshead in.”


The printer looked puzzled. “So?”


“So I’m not doing it. It doesn’t need one.”


The printer shook his head wearily and wandered off. I went upstairs to warn the Night Editor of the impending crisis.

CHINK

Lloyd Turner, later to be Editor of the Daily Star, was Night Editor on the Express that evening. He was understanding, even supportive, and resigned to the loss of the Third.


“Okay, mate,” he said. “I’m right behind you.”


Buoyed by my boss’s backing, I headed back downstairs to resume hostilities. The stone hand, a skilled member of the National Graphical Association (NGA) with a long apprenticeship and many years of service behind him, was drumming his fingers and glancing occasionally at his watch.


Could it be, I wondered, that he is afraid of not catching the last train home? If so, it was a chink in the armour.


“The sooner we get this crosshead sorted, the sooner we can go home,” I said.


He shook his head, surly, still fight left in him.


Just then, the Father of the Chapel – the leader of the NGA in the Express building in Fleet Street – arrived to investigate.


After hearing the stone hand’s case, he asked me: “Does it really need a crosshead?”

PUB

I honestly thought so, though if a little goodwill had been shown we could have lived without it. The stone hand, however, had made it a matter of principle. Exit (left, of course) the Father of the Chapel.


Next on the scene was the Imperial Father, the capo di tutti capi, the boss of bosses in the union structure. He was rarely sighted. They must have hauled him out of bed. Or at the very least, the pub. He listened, too.


Then he asked the stone hand: “What does the Printer say?”


“Put the crosshead in.”


 Turning to me, he asked: “What does the Night Editor say?”


“Put the crosshead in.”


“And the FoC,” he announced, “says put the crosshead in. So put the f****** crosshead in and let’s all go home.”


The stone hand obliged and then left, muttering darkly about missing his train. Victory was mine, but a Pyrrhic one. I doubt the Third got as far as Croydon.

DOORMATS

I did not work on the stone often and maybe, all things considered, that was a good thing. But I had nothing against print workers.


The NGA men really were highly skilled and whenever a big story broke late in the evening would routinely see to it that, despite late copy, the paper dropped on to doormats at the same time as usual.


I had great respect for some of them. I remember one young stone hand who prided himself on being lightning quick. He would put the metal slugs of type in place, look up and say: “Twelve lines to cut.” If you weren’t ready with those 12 lines, he would shoot you a look of utter contempt.


Working with him became a duel, one that we both enjoyed. As the page progressed, I would gauge how much overmatter there was and when he stopped, hand him a proof with the cuts already done.


The stone was a minefield and some sub-editors took to it better than others. Bob Smith finally made the role his own but Terry Ryle was impressive there too on his rare appearances.


Terry was considered too valuable down-table to spend much time on the stone but on his occasional sorties the big, raw-boned Geordie, em-rule protruding from a back pocket of his jeans, earned the respect of the compositors, not least for his phenomenal ability to drink any of them under the table in the Poppinjay.

TAILCOAT

John “Bertie” Brooks did not care for the job and when he was lumbered with it once too often he came up with a typically flamboyant and unforgettable protest. He turned up in full morning dress, including white tie, tailcoat and white gloves. Bizarrely, it worked. He was never sent down there again.


It didn’t take much to get a sub into trouble on the stone. In my early days on the Express in Manchester, I was toiling there when a story fell short. I gave a crosshead to a Linotype man to take up the slack.


He was new, had joined the Express from Exchange and Mart, where the union conventions were more relaxed.


I was reading a page proof when I heard, “Here you are, then.”


I looked up and he thrust something towards me. I took it and glanced down. It was the crosshead. For a journalist to handle type was considered a cardinal sin and so, aghast, I looked around for somewhere to dump it.


Too late. I was confronted by the rotund, black-suited figure of the Head Printer in Great Ancoats Street. He must have seen everything and sensed my discomfort because his habitual glower turned to a small, avuncular smile.


“I’ll ignore that,” he said. “This time.”


*****

I know it’s dramatic, compelling and terrible history in the making. But I’ve got Gaza fatigue.


Such is the nature of news these days that the bestiality of war is beamed into our living rooms by people in flak jackets standing as close as they can safely get to the front line.


Back in London, sombre-faced newsreaders tell us that the following item “contains images that you might find disturbing.”


You’re damned right, I do. The sight of maimed and terrified Arab children being carried into shattered hospitals by their fathers is disturbing. So are survivors staggering around dazed in the rubble of an air strike. So too the knowledge that innocent Israeli hostages are enduring in the warren of tunnels below Gaza.


I know it’s news – I spent 40 years as a newsman. But this is beginning to verge on war porn. My wife can no longer watch it and leaves the room now.


Every really big story – and Gaza is certainly that – reaches a tipping point where the reporting becomes repetitive and futile and repels readers/viewers/listeners.


I think we’re there, guys.

*****

How refreshing to find a sportsman speaking to the Press without resorting to the usual cliches and gobbledegoook. Moeen Ali, the England cricketing all-rounder, admitted to The Times that the team was too old to do well at the World Cup in India.


“Everything good comes to an end and maybe the writing was on the wall and we just didn’t see it as players because we thought we’d be performing well.”


They didn’t, of course, losing six out of seven group stage matches – the last of them against the old foe, Australia – and catapulting out of the competition. Ten of the 15-man squad were over the age of 32.


I’ve always liked Mo, 36, a talented cricketer of genuine humility and deep religious beliefs. Once when the team won a trophy, he stepped away from the celebrations, knowing that it would soon be raining Champagne and that was not something a devout Muslim could be involved in.


To their credit, the rest of the team put the Formula One antics on ice and drew him back into the temporarily sober, innocent revelry.


RICHARD DISMORE


7 November 2023