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BOOK REVIEW

Thirteen years in the Grey Lubyanka 

By MICHAEL HELLICAR

As a features executive on the Daily Express, David Robson had survived the turbulent editorships of Richard Addis and Rosie Boycott and then found himself working for a new challenge and new proprietor — Richard Desmond.


‍ Such was Desmond’s unwholesome reputation as publisher of Asian Babes and other fine journals of record, Express staff queued up to take voluntary redundancy while others found themselves summarily defenestrated.  And such was Desmond’s charm that upon meeting Boycott for the first time after taking over, he looked her up and down and declared: “Not bad for an old boiler”.  


But Robson was soon regarded by his envious colleagues as having the safest job in Fleet Street because one afternoon he received an email from Desmond, telling him: “My mother really enjoys your articles”.     On another occasion Desmond told him his wife had liked something he had written.


‍ “Clearly”, writes Robson, tongue firmly in cheek in his entertaining autobiography (The Owner’s Mother Loves My Stuff) “the women in Desmond’s family had good taste.” But like all good things, — especially in war-torn Fleet Street back in the day — it wasn’t to last.


“In January 2009 Desmond’s mother died and the following year he was divorced”, says Robson. At some point round about then, but probably unrelated, he did seem to go off me…”  Although things never got unpleasant for him, it was the end of the good times, and soon after he reached his 65th birthday, along with others who had reached the same age, including then editor Peter Hill, he was firmly pointed in the direction of his pension.  His time in the Grey Lubyanka had lasted thirteen years.


Robson’s career began on the teenage magazine Honey and he went on to work as a senior editor on The Sunday Times, the Independent and the Daily Mail before pitching up at the Express in 1998, hired by Richard Addis and deputy editor Tessa Hilton.


They had taken on a woman writer from the Mail with a view to her becoming features editor, but soon found she wasn’t up to scratch so Robson was brought in to run the department for six months while she learned at his knee. However she was in the habit of telling people, “this isn’t how we would have done it at the Mail”, so she didn’t last.


Robson, pictured right in 1972, found himself working with the Express luminaries of the day. “Occasionally we sighted Peter Tory…who had been a witty and whimsical columnist.”  Then there was Paul Callan, “corpulent, bow-tied, well-wined. Never one to stint on  embroidering a story”

Peter Hitchens, “honest, passionate and indignant.  He once refused to give money to a homeless man begging near the office, saying ‘you’ll just spend it on drugs’,  The man hit him.  Seemed fair all round.  I think Peter said that too.”


Anna Pukas did excellent stuff, he recalls, “and stretched the deadlines a bit. When everyone else had filed there was still Pukas Time to come, but if that was a sin I had been and would be again, a much worse sinner.

‍ “There were plenty of good journalists on the Express but many of them were ill-served through circumstance. Lack of space in the paper, lack of budget, lack of manpower combined with lack of imagination restricted what they could do”  When his executive contract was up he was taken on staff as a writer.


As much as Robson enjoyed his writing role — and just being one of the boys — he seems less sanguine about his editors. Shortly after being taken on by Addis, he found Clive Hollick, chief executive of owners United News and Media, was calling in younger members of the Express editorial team “for a chat about the paper, which didn’t seem like a vote of confidence in the editor”.

Exit Addis a few weeks later and Rosie Boycott’s appointment in May 1998 as his successor could have been a wobble moment for Robson as not long earlier she had sacked him from the Independent.  However, on her first office walkabout she hugged him and told him they were going to “have fun”. It soon became clear, he says, “that she and I weren’t sharing the fun she had predicted”. She in turn was succeeded by her No.3, Chris Williams, who soon escaped to edit the Scottish Daily Mail and in December 2003 Robson found himself working under his fourth Express editor in less than five years, Peter  “Mentally” Hill, pictured left.

“Peter contributed very little in the way of ideas though he did impart useful tips on how to brew a perfect cup of tea and bulletins on what his young son was up to.   He was an intelligent man but if he had been a little more positive and somewhat less explosive he would have had a happier ship”.


Sadly, but not surprisingly, none of his Express editors make it into the top ranks of the twelve he worked for throughout his career.  “Fewer than half were much good.  One of them went into a funk and shrivelled into nothingness, one had serious concentration problems, one wasn’t much good after lunch and one had IDD (ideas deficit disorder sand so on on”.     Fill in the names as appropriate.


“Four of the others – Harold Evans and Andrew Neil (Sunday Times), Andreas Whittam-Smith (Independent) and Paul Dacre (Daily Mail) were outstanding.    Two of them inspired affection, love even, from their staff but the other two not so much”.


Robson’s book is a fascinating read for all veteran hacks.  The big names of the past fifty years – editors, writers, subs, designers et al - are paraded through the pages along with tales of hot metal, larger than life characters, long lunches,   sky-high exes, cock-ups, jolly japes, extravagances, excesses and journalistic genius.   And although he doesn’t say it, you get the impression that of all the places Robson worked, it was the Express that gave him the most fun.

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The Owners’s Mother Loves My Stuff by David Robson.  Published by Wrentham Books £10

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