Slaving on the Stone under the iron fist
of print union power

The wonderful piece by Dick Dismore on his troubles on the Stone in our early Express years, must have brought back memories to all of us at that time under the shadow of print union power. The journalists’ union, the NUJ, were a League of Gentlemen in comparison.

We were so fragmented and weak that writers and subs even brought their proofs into Chapel meetings to work on so the page wouldn’t be late, in the rare occasions when our union leaders stopped the paper and got a bit stroppy.

It was a time when ‘inkies’ (guys from the machine room and the van loading bays) would queue up the long winding stone staircase to the cashiers’ window to pick up bundles of dosh before they even agreed to press a button on the presses, or tie string around a bundle of papers.

I often wondered how Cyril, the cashier behind the glass screen, felt as he constantly handed over oodles of cash to men who signed on Mickey Mouse and Pluto every evening. Poor old Cyril. He told me once in the upstairs bar of the Wig and Pen, that journalists were rotting their socks with Fleet Street booze and faced early deaths, as he spoke proudly of his almost total abstinence. He fell off his house roof fixing his TV aerial and died a few months later.

Sometimes we editorial staff would sit in the newsroom clock-watching, as we waited for a signal from management that the unions had agreed to work, and the paper would come out that night … and it nearly always did. Securicor vans of cash would arrive at the building for the inkies in the last few minutes before it was too late to publish, and boxes of cash would be rushed upstairs for handouts.

Either that or phoney overtime payments were agreed. The vans were often the signal for the ‘ghost’ gangs to go home with their pockets full. These were the men who turned up for work under union staffing levels, not set by management, but by them, and mostly not needed. It was the same all over Fleet St. They didn’t exist on the management books.

As a journalist, being on the Stone could be tricky, as Dick said. You had to watch what you said … and what you touched. If you touched the lead type, you could stop the paper for hours as the union barriers came down and you would be held to account. You quickly learned never to swear at a comp (compositor) on the Stone in the middle of a heated argument – or else!

I remember as a Newbie, suffering Dick’s problem. I had a disagreement with a rather stroppy comp because I wanted more space under a headline and as I walked away, I heard him swear at me under his breath. I couldn’t help myself and turned, calling him a ‘c---‘ too. Within minutes, I was standing like a little schoolboy in front of the print room overseer, whom I liked and got on with. He warned me the floor would be cleared unless I did what he said. But it was up to me, of course.

I was marched back to the comp to whom I had to apologise. He denied swearing at me, naturally, and I gritted my teeth as he lied, then I apologised for disrespecting him. Ughh! I hated myself for the rest of the shift. That comp always smiled smugly to himself every time he saw me after that, and I wanted to stick his type where the sun didn’t shine.

Our editor between 1972 and 1974 was Scotsman Ian McColl who had great success as editor of the Scottish Daily Express. He took its circulation to a staggering 650,000 by the late 1960s, which meant that the paper was being read by one in every two Scottish adults. Management was impressed in London. The Scottish titles were Beaverbrook’s personal creation, in honour of his father, a former Church of Scotland minister.

And so, in 1971, McColl got the hallowed keys to Christiansen’s glass memo case in London, passed down and on by Edward Pickering; Robert Edwards; Roger Wood, Robert Edwards (again) and Derek Marks.

I always thought McColl looked rather churchy. Small, with white, short hair, and a distinctly pointed nose on which sat gold-rimmed glasses. He always appeared very serious and didn’t come on the Editorial floor much. 

It wasn’t until that fateful day in November 1972 when splash sub Peter Hedley was ushered in and out of McColl’s office for secret talks on a big scoop, that we began to get to see him more. The two of them were in and out of his office like Jack in the Boxes.

The scoop that wasn’t

The scoop of course was that Hitler’s deputy Martin Bormann, had been found alive and well in South America. Backbench executives, the editor and features people were soon rushing backwards and forwards with bits of paper, looking exceptionally busy, as the story and the page began to take shape before our eyes.

The headline said: “World Exclusive disclosure …


A standfirst went on:

“The Express has the proof and knows exactly where he is living … until this story reaches him.”

There was a large photo showing Bormann and Hitler in 1943.

Sadly, the scoop only had legs for six days, before it was discovered that the face in the photograph belonged to an innocent Argentinian school teacher. Red faces all round, especially McColl’s. The story had caused a sensation across the world and was covered in newspapers, TV, radio and magazines. Then it just went away. My pay grade didn’t open enough doors to find out what really happened. But McColl soldiered on, for a while.

These were the days when ‘man waste’ was there for all to see. I could never get over the doubling, even trebling of jobs under union power. It was the classic story of three men to fit one light bulb. I thought it was bad enough at The Guardian when I was there, but when I arrived at the Express it was far worse. Fair enough, people were defending jobs and employment. But we were duplicating things repeatedly every night.

Take the Readers, a whole department set up on the print side, to read and correct galleys and proofs of pages … which is what the executive subs did upstairs anyway. The Readers sat in a room packed with encyclopaedias; dictionaries and atlases and each man had a helper (copy holder) sitting with him. (Sorry ladies, never saw a woman, not even on the print floor).

The helper would read the story that had been sent for setting and the Reader would check for mistakes on the proof. Could be spelling, could be fact. But the bottom line was that the Head Reader was God in the composing room and his word was law. He was often brought in to arbitrate in rows with journalists about copy.

Any corrected proof would be sent to the Linotype operators for resetting. Meanwhile, upstairs the journalists did the same thing. In the middle of all this, the Linotype operators, who were paid oodles for correcting mistakes on ‘piece rate’, created new spelling errors either intentionally or by mistake … which would later come around on the same railway track to be corrected again by all and sundry.

Then along came the stone sub who cut in copy on the page from his own proof, often rewriting chunks, which would appear again with spelling mistakes on the page when proofed … and so the circus went on. Also, into the mix came the editorial Prodnoses and revise subs upstairs sending their corrections after downstairs corrections were done. They were all at it as well. Meanwhile, as the clock ticked on, the page might be completely redrawn, or the story dropped and so it all began again. No wonder literals appeared.

I remember later in Express life, when I was night editor, trying to explain to an editor who was on the phone in the bar of a hotel late at night, on why we had so many literals on a turn story from Page One to Page 5. Non-production journalists found it hard to grasp that if someone in the correction chain added a few commas, or words, then the turn sentence would be affected and create the need to re-edit two pages not one. The shift of reset type might be as long as four inches or more and have new spelling mistakes.

Union power was all around us from the time we walked into the hallowed Express entrance hall in the early Seventies to the moment we walked out. Even the tea ladies went on strike. Hardly a month went by without some sort of trouble. 

These were the days of the new Beaverbrook, his son Sir Max Aitken of course, who by all accounts had his head in the clouds and not on the earth he owned on Fleet Street. The World War Two fighter ace, who had gunned down 16 German planes, loved flying more than newspapers, we heard. He was a couple of floors above us, but we never saw him, and the ship soon became rudderless as he suffered failing health.

Dripping with medals, he may have given the enemy a bloody nose, but he was a walkover for the unions, and so we lurched on under the stewardship of Jocelyn Stevens, who had become managing director in 1972, he was Max’s gladiator in the ring. While Max was very remote to the editorial staff, Stevens, was the opposite, even negotiating NUJ and print pay deals. He lived up to his nickname as a posh bully, although dear old Lloyd Turner, who left us to join God’s parish early in life, told me he rather liked him, and it was rumoured the unions did too. Stevens was forthright, if over the top. He was rich, but a sad and lonely boy.

Jocelyn Stevens with the bite behind the smile

Stevens, who moved in royal circles because of his association with Princess Margaret, was at first brought in to save the Evening Standard from closure, which he did. Max said of him: “I hear that young Stevens bites the carpet, that’s no bad thing. He’s the man we need!”.

He was born into a life of luxury. His mother, Muriel, was the daughter of Victorian Press magnate Edward Hulton, who founded the Daily Sketch. She died, at 24, of sepsis a few weeks after her son’s birth and Stevens’ father, a career General in the Army, blamed him for her death, buying the baby Jocelyn a house to live in for life and be brought up by a series of nannies and family relatives. From there he went to Eton and Cambridge and on to Sandhurst. He grew up lonely and tells of forever being driven around in a Rolls-Royce while dressed entirely in silk.

Stevens did national Service in the Rifle Brigade and when he won the Regiment’s Sword of Honour, kept looking to see if his father was in the audience to see him get the award, hoping he had made him proud. But he never turned up.

Many said that Jocelyn grew into a ruthless man with a charming smile. But he was to later say that his bullishness was all an act. Private Eye nicknamed him ‘Piranah Teeth’ because of his rages. He once fired his secretary over the Tannoy; put a typewriter through an office partition window and cut the telephone cable of an underling who dared take a call while he was speaking. His rages always dominated negotiations with the unions too, even the gentlemanly journalists.

But at least they knew he came from a print background, having studied at the London College of Printing, and worked as a journalist on his family’s magazine, inheriting £750,000 in 1957, worth around £8 million today. He used part of it to buy the ailing society and women’s magazine Queen, saving it from closure. He also bought a large stake in Radio Caroline, the offshore pirate radio broadcaster. The first thing he did at the Black Lubyanka was to close the Scottish Express with the loss of 2,000 jobs.

But in London, circulation was dropping like a stone, and profits were slumping.

My all-abiding memory of Stevens was of him standing in the editor’s office window one morning with a champagne bottle and glass in his hands, smugly raising a rich boy’s toast to the future as 3,000 pitmen and inkies marched down Fleet Street during the miners’ strike. The marchers jeered and clenched their fists, looking up at him as they passed while he wound them up. Security guards had to be increased at our front hall doors.

For a brief period during Stevens’ reign, Lloyd Turner was Father of the Journalists’ Chapel and wily news sub, Ralph (Silver Fox) Mineards, his clerk. Ralph told me how Lloyd, sick of Stevens’ tantrums during pay negotiations one year, decided to give the MD a dose of his own medicine and they hatched a plot against him. Lloyd planned to pick a moment during boardroom negotiations, to lose his temper and flounce out. Ralph, ever the moderate voice of reason, would suggest that he would go after Lloyd and calm him down, then bring him back to continue so that talks did not break down and they could all reach a deal.

At the given moment in the boardroom, Stevens was midway through his dialogue of falling profits and the price of newsprint or something like that, when Lloyd stood up in a rage, kicked back his chair across the room, threw his notes and pencils across the table, banged his fist repeatedly down on it and shouted at the MD about journalists not being able to pay their mortgages and rents, ‘never mind the fucking price of newsprint’, before knocking a bottle of Perrier water off the table onto the floor and storming out. The tale grew into legend.

There was an uncomfortable silence. Stevens was gobsmacked as were his management team. Ralph quietly told him that Lloyd had been extremely upset about some struggling journalists for weeks. But offered to go out and try and talk reason to his FOC. Stevens agreed and appeared upset.

Ten minutes later Ralph met Lloyd in the canteen for a welcome cuppa before the two went back … and wrapped up the best deal the NUJ had been given for years.

As time rumbled on and editors came and went, sales kept going down and even the trick of going tabloid in 1977 (six years after the Mail), could not stabilise the Express. Nor could its editors. No wonder Stevens turned the job of editor down twice himself. (Not a lot of people know that). Even a new owner, construction boss Lord Matthews, who eventually fired him, couldn’t reverse its fortunes, even though he tried hard by splitting staff and resources and launching the Daily Star in Manchester.

From 1972 to when the Grade 11 listed Black Lubyanka closed its doors on our Street of Broken Dreams to become a banking hub in the new decade, we Baby Boomers were to serve under eight different editors. More followed after Sir Nicholas Lloyd took us ‘over the bridge’ to Blackfriars and new technology in 1989.

Jocelyn Stevens died On October 9, 2014, aged 82. The print room at the Express held him in such high esteem; they thunderously ‘banged’ him out with metal on metal when he was fired in 1974. Something they only usually did for their own.

For anyone who is interested, there is a fascinating recording of Desert Island Discs in which Jocelyn Stevens is interviewed as a Castaway in November 1992 by Sue Lawley. A very moving account of his life, and the music he loved. Compulsive listening. His most loved song was Begin the Beguine sung on 78rpm by Bing Crosby. Stevens was eight years old when he first heard it, and would play it to himself over and over again in the classroom after his teachers went home.

Many of us will remember it:

What moments divine what rapture serene,

Till clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted,

And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted,

I know but too well what they mean;

So don’t let them begin the beguine.

Jocelyn played this song throughout his life. Perhaps he was rich, sad, often lonely but a romantic too.

“Copy down the hole for corrections please, Harry.”


20 November 2023