Inspector Watts' route to fame

no11 bus

peter smith

PETER SMITH recalls how his old chum
 Michael Watts got a job on the Sunday
Express on the top of a No11 bus

The sad but inevitable news that Michael Watts, for many years a columnist on the Sunday Express, had died from cancer has provoked a memory of the unique way in which Michael had argued his way into Fleet Street nearly 60 years ago. I suspect not many people 
know about it.

Michael and I had both been reporters on the now long-since defunct Nottingham Evening News. He left to become the ‘London Editor’ of The Viewer magazine which covered TV programmes in the Newcastle area, a high-sounding title but in reality, he admitted, little more than a one-man-and-a-dog function. 

One day Michael was on the top deck of a No11 bus travelling along Fleet Street pontificating loudly, as was his habit, to a friend. It was a curious subject that day. He was arguing that the government should immediately increase the old age pension by a substantial amount and then begin reducing it each year until it had completely disappeared. This way, he argued, the Great British Public would learn to look after themselves.

Sitting behind him, fascinated by this conversation, was one of the great names of Fleet Street: John Junor, editor of the Sunday Express. (I wonder how many of today’s editors would travel on a bus?) They both got off the bus at the same stop and Junor watched carefully  to see which office the young man entered.

A little while later Michael’s office phone rang and he picked it up to hear someone claiming to be John Junor, editor of the Sunday Express. Naturally, Michael didn’t believe it for one second. As a long-standing  japester himself* he thought it was a jape; to be precise he thought it was me. 

Somehow, though, Junor managed to convince him and invited him over to the Black Lubyanka for an interview. No jobs were available at the moment, said Mr Junor, but he would certainly bear him in mind in future. He was as good as his word and only a few months later Michael began a very long career at the Sunday Express. I doubt anyone could get a job that way today; in all probability it would be illegal. 

In all the many years I knew him Michael hardly changed at all. It was neatly summed by a mutual friend, Gil Lewthwaite (ex-Daily Mail) who said the only change was that he moved from being a Young Fogey to an Old Fogey. This was a deliberate pose. 

In his younger days one of his favourite japes was to go up behind men in the street, seize the bottom of their trouser leg and shake it vigorously while emitting a loud growling sound. It  didn’t always end favourably though this didn’t seem to put him off.

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre