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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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Fond farewell to Hickey’s John Roberts, talented writer with so many more strings to his bow

HICKEY DESK: Neil Mackwood, Ross Benson, John Roberts, Mary Corbett and Jeanette Bishop

By ALAN FRAME

John Roberts, Hickey stalwart seemingly for ever, faux grumpy man, jazz band double bassist and all round delight has died at the age of 84. He left us on November 3 after two years fighting the cancer that had spread from his prostate to his brain. And he will be missed by so many, old Fleet Street pals, village drinking buddies, the hunting crowd he adorned and adored, and, most of all, by his loving family.


I had known him since the late 1970s when we shared the ‘refreshments’ carriage of our train home from Victoria, he to Sussex, me to the Kent/Surrey borders. The cry as we left the office was always ‘Are you getting the rattler?’ My reply, designed to infuriate him, was ‘Yes, are you heading for Crawley New Town?’ In fact he lived in the countryside of Turners Hill but it never failed to leave him red in the face with fury.


Geoffrey Levy (once of this parish) told me the greatest story about John. ‘He was sent to Ascot with the express aim of finding out if the rumours about the Aga Khan’s marriage being on the rocks were true. Nobody else could be relied on the have the necessary nerve to ask the question. As it happens the Aga’s horse won, so as he led the nag into the winners’ enclosure our man barged through the cordon and, walking backwards in front of both prize winner and Aga and clutching a pic of the alleged mistress, shouted: ’Is it true Aga, your marriage is over? Is she here ?’ (she being the mistress.) The ever resourceful hack, suitably dressed in top hat and tails, was bundled out of the ring and told never to return. Which of course he never obeyed. And for years the cry went up in the Hickey office: ‘Is she here, Aga?


John Roberts (also known as Jason as in Jason Robards — don’t ask me why) was the son of a wealthy colonel and sent to Allhallows, a now defunct public school on the Devon side of the border with Dorset. He didn’t enjoy it and when he escaped worked as a furniture removals man (I promise you, this is true). Then, thanks to his well connected father, he was briefly in the City which he hated and then came the first steps on the journalism ladder, working as a junior reporter in his dreaded Crawley.


When National Service came calling he tried every known excuse to avoid it, starting with the old favourite of flat feet and finally a brilliant attempt to claim that he was in the essential occupation of journalism. ‘I’m vital to democracy,’ he claimed!


But National Service it was and he joined the RAF because it meant he could play in the band and thus avoided parade ground inspections. He only stopped playing jazz when he became too ill. But before that he was a fixture with the New City Jazz Band which never played in a city, always in the countryside, and with chums on Horsted Keynes railway station greeting passengers in black tie and party frocks heading for a night out of fine dining on the Bluebell steam train. When the diners chuffed off the band would hot foot it to the pub and return to play for the returning travellers. Usually at a faster tempo and with more questionable timing than two hours before.


John was married to Sylvia for 60 years and they celebrated their last anniversary at his favourite Gravetye Manor. They met through their love of horses, hunting and point-to-point. Sylvia said: ‘He was a bloody good horseman, really good. But though he would dress for hunting he hated the uniform needed for Ascot and the Derby.’


Sylvia then told me of the day he was in the garden wearing budgie smuggler swimmers and a handkerchief on his head favoured by the lower classes in old black and white films. Remembering that he needed something from the village shop he set off as described and went a’shopping. I understand locals have yet to recover from the vision that came their way.


When John finally left the Express he did travel writing, also known as freebie journalism, and started a paper for workers at Gatwick Airport. Sadly he didn’t manage to make the 40th anniversary commemoration of the Philip Geddes Prize at the Commons which I wrote about elsewhere on this fine organ. He was very fond of Philip and like Theresa May was sure he would have been a great star. Jeanette Bishop, Hickey chief of staff, had this poignant email from John in February after she told him of the deaths of Ashley Walton and Jim Davies, ‘I’ve not kept up to date with anything but that’s terrible. I’m going slower than ASLEF. Sorry, just writing this has worn me out.’


John and Sylvia had one daughter Sacha whom he taught to cheat at chess(!) and three grandchildren of whom he was so proud, Maximilian, Benedict and Gabriella. His funeral, which has yet to have a date will be open to friends as well as family and will be led to his village church, appropriately, by his jazz band.


Maybe the last word should go to Bryan Rostron, his and our great friend and colleague from Hickey. He wrote from South Africa’s Cape:


Sorry to hear about John. He was a fixture. As soon as I read your message, I heard his distinctive greeting, "What ho!" Hope he's given a rousing hacks send off. Oh dear, even as I said that, I realise how few of us are probably left. Let me know of any plans or reminiscences. Our world is slowly vanishing. One day, when the last remaining codger, probably you, tries to tell young folk heroic tales of mayhem and mischief in Fleet Street, no one will believe such profligate anarchy was allowed. Do young people have fun any more? RIP Roberts. He always altered my intro to any story about huntin' folk by adding, "Tally ho!" So John, old boy, tally ho...


Sylvia’s address:

Rye Ashes,

Rowfant,

West Sussex,

RH10 4NH


6 November 2023


STEVE MILL writes: I recall a time when John had to refuse countless invitations to join colleagues for a glass or two since he had sworn off the firewater for a whole six months! I assumed this was on health grounds. It must have been Hell on earth for a dedicated Man Of Fleet Street, he heroically completed the full sentence if memory serves.


EXPLORERS: John Roberts, centre, with bearded photographer Richard Young set out on Peter Tory’s fabled Daily Express expedition to find Basingstoke

TOPPING CHUMS: John Roberts, far right, at Ascot with Nigel Dempster, James Whitaker, Peter McKay and Peter Tory