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TUESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2024
Farewell to Alfred Lee of the Sunday Express,
a man of many parts
ON THE SET: Film extra Alf Lee with actor Mark Rylance
By JEREMY GATES
Alf Lee, the legendary, globe-trotting reporter on the Sunday Express from 1973 to 1996 who tracked down the man who stood in front of the tanks in Tianenmen Square in 1989 as a world exclusive, died in the London Hospital early in the morning of December 30, 2023, nearly three weeks after his 86th birthday, following complications with an obstructed bowel.
He kindly invited me to drop by for a final chat a couple of weeks ago. When I reached the tenth floor, nursing staff trussed me up in plastic PPE equipment , rubber gloves and mask for our rather stilted farewell. Alf had sadly contracted Covid during his stay in hospital, which ensured he spent his final weeks in a magnificent room of his own probably costing around £2,000 a night, with spectacular views across London from the 14th floor.
“Nearly as good as some of the hotels I tested on Gates Tours,” said Alf, still with a ready smile despite being on the receiving end of far too many pipes for comfort. He looked rather like the Mongolian prisoner (pictured below), the part he played in a film which also starred Mark Rylance, as one of his retirement hobbies.
Alf asked that Express boys and girls should raise a glass in his memory when they heard his latest news and recall that he had had enjoyed an amazing life, with his Express years the greatest highlight. He had received 13 different diagnoses of serious medical conditions in recent years, and survived a major battle against colon cancer seven years ago. Finally doctors reckoned he was too weak to survive an operation this time, so his Sunday night trip into hospital a fortnight before Christmas would be his final journey. .
There are so many hilarious stories about Alf, who was actually born Ernest Lee, the youngest of seven or eight siblings in Ayr, Queensland. His family is still based in Australia.
Henry Macrory, former editor of the Sunday Express recalls: “His elder brother Alf made a name for himself in Hong Kong as a journalist. Ernie decided he’d like to be a journalist too, and nicked Alf’s scrapbook of stories, passing them off as his own to prospective employees. The subterfuge meant that he had to adopt Alf’s name when he was given his first job ... and Alf he therefore remained.
“Alf confessed all this to me when I was his news editor because he was worried about his pension rights. I can’t remember what I advised him, but I think it was all resolved.
“Alf joined the Sunday Express in 1973 as a news reporter, having facilitated a visit by John Junor to Hong Kong a year or two earlier. China was a no-go area for westerners at that time, but Alf took JJ to a border crossing, and legend has it that JJ took great pleasure in peeing into China. What’s certainly true is that Alf supplied JJ with a young female companion during the visit and later showed me the pictures to prove it.
“After Alf was given a staff job on the Sunday Express, he showed his appreciation by secretly hiring an artist at a cost of £100 to do a painting of JJ’s house — Wellpools Farm near Dorking. One Monday JJ returned from a game of golf and spotted the artist at his easel in the lane outside. He looked at the half-completed picture and told the artist it was extremely good, adding: ‘When you’ve finished it, I’d like you to do another one exactly the same for me.’ Which is how JJ came to possess two identical pictures of Wellpool Farms.
“I can vouch for the truth of this story, because JJ showed them both to me when I went for dinner there once. He had one in the hallway, and the other in an upstairs loo. JJ thought it was very funny, but insisted I was never to tell Alf. As far as I know, Alf never found out.
“Alf always used to stay awake until the small hours, watching TV. Shortly after midnight on January 1 1980, he saw that JJ had been awarded a knighthood in the New Year honours list. Alf didn’t know that the recipients of honours were told weeks in advance, and decided he’d be the first to break the news. JJ himself told me what happened: ‘I was woken by the phone ringing at half past midnight. It was Alf. He said to me: ‘I have amazing news for you. Arise Sir John!’
Henry Macrory said: “Of course, one of Alf’s great scoops was to identify the Chinese man who stood in front of a column of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 5, 1989, the day after the Chinese government had massacred hundreds of protestors. The story was followed up all over the world, and I believe the CIA confirmed the man’s identity three days later. No one knows how Alf obtained the story (I was his news editor and he didn’t even tell me) but Robin Esser used to say that it was the greatest story he ever ran during his three-year editorship of the Sunday Express. I’m pretty sure it won Alf an award.”
Former colleague Andrew Alderson, who like Alf enjoys a flutter on the horses, recalled: “Alf had two big weaknesses — girls and gambling. Whenever I bumped into him in Chinatown, he had a different young Asian girl on his arm. He was rarely far away from the bookies when he worked in Fleet Street but, as he got older, he moved on to online gambling very easily. In his very last email to me, he said this (and what a lovely farewell to a fellow gambler): ‘Hi, Andrew, Still in hospital. Just discovered I can use my data for bets. Please let me know by email when you have any special tips. Win or lose, no problem. Cheers, Alf’.”
Andrew Alderson remembered: “Alf was also pretty ‘hot’ on expenses. He also, possibly, became the first driver in the world to ask a dodgy garage owner to ‘clock’ his car forwards not backwards. This was the result of having a company car and putting in generous mileage claims week after week when, in fact, Alf hardly went anywhere (he was a reluctant driver at the best of times, and certainly never one to relax his passengers).
“When he got a company memo saying, ‘Your car has done 85,000 miles. It’s time to upgrade it to a new car.’ Alf had a problem: the mileometer showed only 10,000 miles. Of course, he found an East End garage willing to 'clock' his car forward by 75,000 miles. Job done.
“Small add to the story: Knowing it was such a good buy (as the car had only done 10,000 miles not the displayed 85,000 miles), I bought the car from the company, with Alf as middle man. A couple of years later, when Alf finally got made redundant, he emailed me and asked to buy the car back from me, cut price. I, of course, willingly agreed. Not many people said no to Alf!”
On financial matters, Alf was unorthodox, to put it mildly. He told me that when the local council offered him the chance to buy his flat in desirable St Katharine Dock, by the Tower of London, he said yes, and put the purchase on his credit card. He recalled that the credit card asked some tricky questions in the years that passed , until the debt was fully paid off, but Alf always managed to hold them at bay.
A couple of years ago, over lunch, he produced a passbook from the Abbey National showing a deposit of £30,000 paid in during the summer of 1996. It would have been at the time when Alf was made redundant, and financial advisers always suggested taking the first £30,000 in cash — and putting the rest into the pension fund. Alf crossed the road outside the Express office and duly did as he was told.
For 25 years Alf left the paying-in book somewhere in his flat without touching it or taking it into the local branch for interest to be added. I referred the story to Sally Hamilton, editor of the Sally Sorts It column on Daily Mail’s Money Mail, and she passed it on to the head of customer relations at Santander in Milton Keynes, which took over the Abbey National in 2010.
After a couple of weeks, the reply came back: there was no trace whatever of Alf’s money. Alf accepted the news with a shrug of the shoulders, Possibly the money vanished under the law passed near the end of Gordon Brown’s premiership, which allowed the financial institutions to give money to charity if the customer hadn’t been seen or heard of for ten years. Or possibly it went ‘missing’ as the computer systems of two giant organizations were merged together.
Alf’s final job, in retirement, was a film extra. Besides his role as the Mongolian prisoner who had been badly beaten up, he once played a dead body lying on the platform at Paddington Station. He told Henry Macrory: “I had to lie face down on the ground absolutely still for more than an hour. The director told me what a great actor I was and that I ought to win an Oscar.’”
During his brief film career, Alf befriended Mark Rylance and, if memory serves me correctly, was enchanted by Johnny Depp’s good manners and courtesy in another of his cameo roles.
Nobody raged against the dying of the light more strongly than Alf. Catherine Chok, his good friend since 1993, tells me she accompanied him on his last two cruises, largely because he couldn’t actually see very much in his cabin and needed her eyes to steer him round safely. But Alf was determined to go sailing, anyway.
“Alf did have so many girlfriends,” Catherine told me. “I was a friend after we met at a party." But it was Catherine who alerted the paramedics one Sunday evening after Alf had been suffering severe pain for several weeks and then sat with him through his final weeks in the London, unworried by Covid, looking high over the streets of the East London which Alf had made his home.
Funeral arrangements to follow. Catherine told me that Alf always rather liked the idea of a farewell in St Bride's.
1 January, 2024