Derek Jameson, the poor boy who brought riches to the Express and the Star

HANDS ON: Editor Derek Jameson giving instructions on the Daily Express backbench with night editor Lloyd Turner
and Tony Armstrong, far left

I always used to think that our late editor, Derek Jameson, was a bit of an act, trading on his poor London roots and East End accent. His bar side tales of growing up and never having a cup for his tea, just an old jam jar to drink out of, were part of his image.

‍ But as time went on, those who got to know him realised that he was a much-loved and talented journalist struggling with his own background, yet proud of it. And the more you heard about his growing up in poverty the sorrier you felt for him, or even admired him.

‍ He started life by sleeping in a bed with four other children that was stained with urine and infested by bugs and was sent out into the streets every day to steal food and money by a Fagin-like character named Ma Wren, who ran the home for waifs and strays in London’s Bethnal Green where he lived. There was no welfare state then. Everyone lived on their wits. It was a heartbreaking tale.

‍ “I switched religions like conkers,” he said, “one day pretending I was Catholic, to get money from them; the next Christian, Jewish, Orthodox anything etc, as the church people came in to give Ma Wren handouts. We needed the dosh to survive. There was no government money. Sometimes the girls were on the game, but Ma Wren’s place was never a brothel.

‍ Jameson also told how he quickly got used to being looked down upon by posh people, because of his accent. Even as a child. “It held me back when I was young and in later life,” he said, “even in Fleet Street.” But he didn’t do badly to become Editor of the Express, Daily Star and News of the World, let alone become a radio star with the BBC.

‍ Sadly, he never lost those growing pains. “My whole childhood was a bed of pain,” he once told Craig Mackenzie and I over a drink with him in the Printer’s Pie, during our days at News of the World.

‍ Perhaps the worst pain of all was discovering that a young laundry girl in the house, named Elsie who seemed fond of him, turned out later to really be his mother. He found out when he was just eight years old and from then on wondered if the kosher butcher down the road who gave him a few shillings now and then, was really his father.

‍ And in later life, he hated being called a cockney, because he wasn’t. “Just a London boy who speaks like this,” he would say, although he was born in Hackney within the sound of Bow Bells. He would imitate a cockney voice and then switch to his own rasping, foghorn tones, to show people the difference. But the myth persisted. And to me, he always did sound like an East End barrow boy.

‍ When he took the editor’s chair of the Express, bits of his reputation preceded him. He was a Victor Matthews appointment; I was told later. Jocelyn ‘Piranha Teeth’ Stevens had no idea it was on the cards until it was too late.

‍ Charles Wintour, running the Evening Standard, had taken Jameson to a supper with Matthews and the Trafalgar House chairman enjoyed his company so much, that Wintour went home early and left them to it. Jameson had his hands on the key to Christiansen’s glass memo case from that night. But they weren’t to stay close.

‍ The year was 1977 and Jameson had served 16 years with the Mirror group, ending up as managing editor. As northern editor previously, he was reputed to have beaten off the challenge from Murdoch's Sun in his own territory. In London, most of us Express hacks had never heard of him. But soon the stories came flooding down the Great Northern Line.

‍ The theme was always that he was a poor boy made good. He worked his way up from the streets of poverty to become a national newspaper editor, and all that. It was a genuine rags to riches storybook and we all thought so. When he arrived at the Black Lubyanka, he pushed that image … even on TV and radio, talking about his appointment.

‍ Everyone found him easy to talk to … and fun. From executives to down table subs, reporters and secretaries, even tea ladies, he had time for everyone. A sort of larger-than-life Brian Hitchen in many ways. But many of us then never realised what a complex person Jameson was. I always thought he seemed to be fighting his own demons sometimes.

‍ Even on music. He believed Harry Nilsson’s Without You was the greatest pop song ever written. But he never really liked pop and was always at pains to tell people that classical and opera were his thing. He listed Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, among his favourite pieces.

He also loved to listen to Tipperary, recorded by the Red Ensemble, (the Red Army’s own choir), because he was once moved by them at a concert at the Albert Hall, during the time he was a declared communist. It was this passion for communism that nearly stopped him embarking on his journalistic career, we later found out.

‍ I often wondered if his love of Nilsson’s song Without Her was because of his days in the Bethnal Green foster home without a mother. Remember the lyrics?

‍ I spend the night in a chair

‍ Thinking she’ll be there,

‍ But she never comes.

‍ And then I wake up and wipe

‍ the tear from my eyes,

‍ To face another day,

‍ Without her.

‍ Derek Jameson was born in Hackney Hospital in 1929. When the Second World war came, the young rebel was evacuated from Ma Wren’s to Bishop Stortford, as children were moved out of London into the countryside to escape the London bombing.

‍ But he was always in trouble. A juvenile court ruled that he was beyond control, and he was sent to Approved School (one step up from Borstal) for stealing a grinding stone from a flour mill and rolling it down a hill.

‍ At school he chopped up a gardener’s seed potatoes for fun. When his headmaster found out, he gave him a beating.

‍ “It changed my life,” he said, “I was beaten from one side of the room to the other, but it actually knocked some sense into me for the first time.” The beating turned into respect for the head by Jameson.

‍ From then on, the unruly lad from the streets got into books, using the headmaster’s library tickets. “I gobbled them up”, he said, “reading as many as six a week. On anything and everything.”

His first job was as a messenger at Reuters until he was called up in 1949. When he returned from the Army, Reuters wouldn’t take him back because of his communist membership. In the end he got the local Labour Exchange to threaten the news agency because it was his legal right to be offered his job back. They did. But they didn’t want him and told him he had just six months.

“That made me pull my socks up,” he later told a radio station. “I worked bloody hard, never stopped, night and day, and in the end, I just continued to work there, finally becoming a duty editor. Everything about communism was forgotten.”

‍ For a spell, Jameson edited the London American, a newspaper for our friends over the pond who visited the capital. Arthur Christiansen was consultant editor at the time. Incidentally, I do believe that my old mate Alan Frame, a Drone columnist, later bought the title and edited it.

‍ As time went on at the Express the rumours grew that Jameson did not get on with Jocelyn Stevens, and Stevens did not get on with Matthews either. Jocelyn’s days seemed numbered. They were.

‍ On Jameson’s first day we heard that Stevens told our new editor that he detested all journalists. And Jameson curtly replied that he had only been in the building for a few hours when he was told all journalists detested Stevens … and so the line was drawn in the sand.

‍ No two men could have had such different backgrounds as boys. Stevens was driven around London in a Rolls-Royce wearing silk clothes and Jameson with holes in his shoes.

‍ Meanwhile, Jameson made no secret of his Labour leanings and we all wondered how this would fit in with the Express right-wing Tory image, but it did for a while. He never made a thing of his politics in print.

‍ In one of his first news conferences, he asked what was around. He was told a few things, and then it was mentioned that Group Captain Peter Townsend was writing his memoirs of his love affair with Princess Margaret. Jameson burst into life like a fountain.

‍ “That’s it,” he said. “We’ll buy it. I can see it now: The royal romance of the century!” (Of course, it wasn’t. Edward and Simpson were). Everyone around the table was royally impressed though and believed this was the way things would go on.

‍ He paid £75,000 for the story without reading a word and put 165,000 copies on the Express circulation. Next, he gave £10,000 to Naomi James, who sailed solo around the world and sales increased by another 25 per cent.

‍ Richard Ingrams, who was involved in the Townsend deal said: “All Jameson really wanted to know was whether Townsend got his leg over Princess Margaret!” He knew that was what the public wanted to know.

‍ But nothing lasts forever, as my old mate Buffy Watkins was always telling me in his philosophical way, and although the paper might have been a little sexier both in stories and pictures, more needed to be done.

‍ And so, the Daily Star was born, and Jameson went north to launch the new newspaper as editor-in-chief, taking his by now, historical, Dickensian background with him. The editor at the outset was ex-Reveille deputy editor, Peter Grimsditch, with a small team of Fleet Street veterans, including the Sun’s former art director, Vic Giles.

‍ Just before he left, Jameson bumped into his old mate, Roy Greenslade, going into the Express for a shift in features. He wasn’t a happy bunny at the time.

‍ Jameson said something like: “’Ere Roy, I hear you’re unhappy. How about becoming features editor on a new paper for me?” The former Mirror executive didn’t think twice.

‍ Roy, who knew Jameson well, later told of a night in The Stab (the pub at the back of the Mirror) when sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney and Jameson rowed with each other over who came from the poorest background. Jameson won by claiming that he had been forced to eat dog biscuits.

‍ The launch of the Star was a huge success and Matthews split his production costs, making new revenue, at a time when the unions made it impossible to cut staff costs. Many London sub-editors climbed on trains north to do the famed Golden E-Shifts, as Lord Drone has revealed on these pages.

‍ Shifts were paid at the astonishing rate of three-eighths of weekly pay, plus expenses, travel, and food, for 6.5 hours work. Some journos would stay three days at a time.

STAR-STUDDED: Editor-in-chief Derek Jameson at a Daily Star post-launch event in 1978 with, far left, founding editor Peter Grimsditch and art editor Vic Giles. In the background is Nick Griffith, former chief sub of the Daily Express in Manchester

The entire print run of the first Daily Star issue on November 2, 1978, sold out and it kept selling well for a time.

‍ For some reason, we still don’t know what Grimsditch was removed as editor (some Jameson political shenanigans went on, Greenslade thought), and Jameson took the working chair, enhancing his downmarket reputation by launching Bingo, along with more bum and tit pics. Even though he was forever saying that was not what he wanted to be remembered for.

‍ Jameson still pushed his reputation hard, forever appearing on TV and doing radio interviews. We used to joke that he would be at the Palladium next.

‍ But somehow his story always harked back to its Ma Wren beginnings and stealing to eat. He never got away from it. People could never leave it alone. Interviewers admired him … rags to riches were his storyline and they pushed it. But he still wrestled with it. When Private Eye called him Sid Yobbo, he angrily told everyone he was an opera lover and told of all the books he had read.

‍ In 1980 he wanted to return to the Express editor’s chair in London but Matthews, for whatever reason, wouldn’t let him. Perhaps because his reputation now was tits and bums. Perhaps because Jameson was no fan of Maggie Thatcher. And so, they parted company.

‍ It wasn’t until nearly a year later that Rupert Murdoch offered Jameson the chair of News of the World and that is where many of us worked with him again and supped ale in the now defunct Printer’s Pie (RIP). His lovely and friendly wife to be Ellen was always with him.

‍ In 1984 the honeymoon with Murdoch was over and Jameson was without a job again. He struggled for a while and went through money troubles but ended up being a successful TV and radio presenter with a 10 million audience on Radio 2.

‍ His guardian angel had looked after him again. He later said: “I once sued the Beeb as everyone knows. But I lost and owed them £75,000 when I hardly had a penny. I knew I would never win. But they never asked for it. They just picked me up, dusted me down and started me all over again … I worked hard for them.”

‍ I last saw Jameson as I walked through a tunnel to catch a plane at Glasgow Airport when I was editor of Express Newspapers in Scotland, and he was coming the other way after flying in with Ellen.

‍ “Tel,” he shouted “nice to see you. I heard you were up here. How about lunch next time I’m up?”

‍ That would have been great of course. But I didn’t tell him I was about to have my head chopped off in London by the awful duo Boycott and Hollick. Why spoil this moment with him?

‍ Jameson died on 12 December, 2012 aged 82. At his funeral in Worthing, West Sussex, where he lived, a long way from Bethnal Green, his wife Ellen said: “The life force was strong in him up to a few days before the end … he was still writing newspaper articles and being interviewed for TV and radio.”


Anything but a yobbo

27 November 2023