The Express Years: Part 3


There are some lovely pieces about Tim Holder in the Drone and we can all see him now in our mind’s eye, especially during his time in the Street of Shattered Dreams, EC4. But one of the most endearing memories I have of him was when I was learning to play the guitar – for the umpteenth time. 

I was inspired again when the late great Les Diver and I watched Tim, pictured left, play jazz with Ian Christie at The Rumbo pub in the shadow of the Old Bailey. As the talented art director quenched his thirst between numbers I told him of my daft rock ambitions. The following week he took time out at in his study at home to draw me a wonderful picture of a fret board showing every musical note of the instrument right down to the bridge. It really was a work of art and I have it on the wall in my study to this day. 

But when it came to Express guitar greats you would have to go a long way to top legal beagle Justin Walford. When he heard Tim had been teaching me he invited me to a jam session in his office. I stupidly agreed and have never been so embarrassed as I navigated my way appallingly through The Shadows’ Apache and he finger plucked one number after another like Eric Clapton at Abbey Road studios. Ugh!  I was laughed out of court and didn’t pick the guitar up again for months. 


Guitar stardom aside, Justin was always helpful and supportive to hacks. Never more so when as Editor in Scotland I faced being jailed by three judges at the Court of Session in Edinburgh for Contempt of Court over the publication of a story that nudged the boundaries of identification. It had not been my mistake but I was clearly going to pay as an English Editor in Scotland. I went through weeks of sleepless nights and worry over the case and on the day of the hearing went to court with my bags packed. The outcome was a £50,000 fine for the paper and a personal fine of £5,000 for me. Justin was supportive all the way, a great comfort. All I got from Rosie was a boycott! 


But on another string … for 40 years I have been envious of one potential guitar great on the news subs desk … a budding Jeff Beck named Brian Izzard, who always reminded me of Brian May in his early days. In 1972 long-haired, willowy Brian told me that he was the proud owner of an original Fender. Wow! But he never touched it. Today in 2017, he still never touches it. I’m waiting for it to turn up on eBay.


Hacks’ hobbies, interests and loves have always fascinated me on the Express … Stone sub Roy Anderson and his obsession with the White Star Line; subs Nick Pigott and Ray King hooked on steam trains; Bill Monty and his passion for Great White Sharks; Chief Sub Dougie Orgill and World War Two tanks; Managing Editor Peter Beardsley and hybrid tea roses; sub Joe Barrett and his violin; stone sub Joe Neal and the pet squirrel that lived in his lounge; Deputy Editor Paul Potts and Tudor history; Editor Christopher Ward and the Titanic; David Laws and the German fortifications of Jersey; Robin McGibbon and the Krays; Ken Weller and his preaching; Bill Wheeler and his vegetable patch; Editor Nick Lloyd and Arsenal; Editor Richard Addis and Mahler; Night News Editor David Eliades and playwriting; Foreign Splash sub Jack Atkinson and antique duelling pistols.

Then there was Associate Editor Alan Frame and vintage top-of-the-range cars; Assistant Editor Roger Watkins – badminton and Monmouth; sub Reg Cooper and antiques; Dave Hardy and Labour politics; Bill O’Hagan and sausages; Night Editor Pat Pilton and Shakespeare; Assistant News Ed Gordon Ducker and the RAF Reserve; Deputy Night Ed Bobby Cocksworth and his Crusader weather vane; Editor Arthur (Percival) Firth and his Friday night curries, Night Ed Phil Walker and ornithology … the list rolls on and on. 


Express Deputy Editor Ted Dickinson was always proud of being fired in style – over kippers at The Savoy. He had been invited to breakfast by rakish Editor Christopher Ward, who like Marmite you either hated or loved. “Well Ted, this isn’t working out is it?” said Ward before the first cut of kipper reached his deputy’s lips. “No, I suppose it isn’t,” Ted replied. “What happens next?” What happened next was an extremely generous ‘loss of office’ pay-off for Ted arranged by his biggest fan Sir John Junor who immediately signed him as No.2 on the Sunday Express. What a result. But years later whenever someone was on their way to The Savoy, Ted always boomed: “Remember - don’t order the bloody kippers!” 


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Ted Hodgson and John McDonald, pictured right, were a formidable duo … especially when the sun was over the yard arm. As a Newbie I had already had a handful of chips thrown at my feet by Ted in a whiskey rage because I approached him on the Backbench as he was eating his dinner and asked him to sign my late meal allowance expenses. But worse was to come from his seafaring mate John. Strangely enough they were both to become friends later towards the end of their lives.

The McDonald incident started with my fuck-up. I had joined the paper from The Guardian only a few months before and never worked on a picture key. In front of me were reams of staff copy, PA and freelance on a trawler tragedy for a PhotoNews page, carrying the picture of the full crew. Chief Sub Dougie Orgill, renowned for picking up bundles of finished stories and headlines without looking at them and throwing them in the basket at the last moment shouting “Down the Hole!”, had scribbled out his setting instructions on the story … Pica, LP, Brev and Min and all that … along with caption styles, timelines, credits etc. I waded into the copy. Polished, honed, sweated, all those kind of things we used to do. Finally, job done. Not bad, I thought.

It was around 9.30pm and most of the edition was away when McDonald’s voice rang out loud and clear across the Editorial floor. He was sitting next to Hodgson and his face was puce with anger and a few liveners: “Who fucking subbed the Trawler story?” he roared. 

Heads were down along the Backbench and around me. I remember looking at bright young thing Ricky McNeill but there was no eye contact. I didn’t exist. Everyone was apparently deeply engrossed in their work. “I did!” I said putting up my hand. Suddenly a crumpled up Rothmans’ cigarette packet rocketed across the floor just missing my head. 

“Where’s the fucking key?” Key, what did he mean? I quickly looked at the instructions and layout in front of me. Right at the bottom was a scrawled instruction 1in black key. I had written a generic caption and not as I was later to discover a list of numbers left to right with names of all 12 or so crew. Ugh!  The deadly duo summoned me up to stand between them. I remember to this day the thoughts I had on that long journey to the Backbench … mortgage, kids, the bank … I didn’t know it then but these were the sort of thoughts I would have many times on the Express in the future for one reason or another. It was that kind of place. And this was years before I fell foul of so-called socialist Lord Hollick.

I stood next to McDonald as he thumped on the Backbench time and again and went into one. Being politically correct was not a phrase in the English language at this time. I was about to get my coat when Hodgson leant over and gripped McDonald’s arm: “John, it’s sorted, let the boy go. Terry go and have a pint, now.” He nodded at me to get the hell out of it. I did and never heard another word about it. But I never forget what Hodgson did and many years later I was able to repay him for that moment.  

As for McDonald, some years later I spent a great evening with him just before he died in Flushing, Cornwall, where he part-owned a trawler. He lived in a little fisherman’s cottage a stone’s throw from the sea. And later when I was Editor in Scotland his son Toby, who lived in Dunblane and was a feature writer on the Scottish Express, became a good friend.


When Nick Lloyd left the Express one of new Editor Richard Addis’s first jobs was clearing out his office and conference room of all pictures and other memorabilia of the Old Guard. Upside down in the waste bin I found the giant Gold Heart that had been presented to the Express by the Variety Club of Great Britain. I was heartbroken. I had flown to Tel Aviv to pick up the award for the paper at the World Variety Club’s annual convention in Israel, paid for under my own steam because of the dried-up budgets. Tea stained and chipped it now proudly hangs in my study. Oh, and in my loft is the 1969 front page of Man is On The Moon with a cracked glass frame that I must get repaired. Someone had trodden on it. One foot on the Moon stamping in world history … and another foot stamping out Express history.


And talking of Neil Armstrong. The year 1994 saw the 25th anniversary of the historic lunar landing. A big fuss was made of it in America and Britain. Stamps were issued; parties at NASA and the White House; tours by astronauts and hero telegrams from Downing Street. Newspaper pull-outs and TV documentaries planned. Nick wanted ideas. “Why don’t we see if we can get Neil Armstrong to meet Express readers?” I stupidly piped up. More nutty blue sky thinking from me. “Go on then Tel!” I could feel the mocking of a few others around me. And those little conspiratorial glances between others around the conference table you sometimes got.

Knowing America’s obsession with Freedom of Information I rang the NASA Press Office – a shot out of the blue. Daily Express here in England and all that. “I’m sorry sir, Mr Armstrong is not around for a couple of weeks. He’s taking a vacation before the celebrations begin.”  Well, it was a good try. And then … “Would you like his home number?” I nearly fell off my unstable editorial chair. (Struan Coupar had obviously been saving money again. I used to wonder if his chair wobbled. Doubt it.) “Yes please.”

I rang the number in the States … “Hello, Neil Armstrong’s residence, his housekeeper here.” 

I was gobsmacked of course. I followed up with Daily Express, England and all that. And then … “I’m sorry sir he’s not here at the moment he’s gone to the supermarket to get some bread and milk …can you call back in an hour or so. I’ll tell him you called.”

I have never got over the fact that the man who flew 250,000 miles through space to make human history still went down the road for a loaf of bread. And so I got to have a long conversation with the Man on the Moon that day … and he agreed to fly over and meet Express readers too … but his fee was out of this world … and I mean out of this world. 


Another of my ideas for Nick on the Express which didn’t go strictly to plan was a competition for readers to win a Dalek. “Go for it Tel!” he said.

 I persuaded the BBC to give us six. 

 “We need someone to give them away, some sort of ceremony,” said Nick. So off I went and hired former Dr Who, Jon Pertwee. Everything was set and award-winning photographer John Downing was standing by. The Daleks arrived to the delight of everyone who passed through the Express reception area that day. But I hadn’t realised that Daleks were so small and I needed people to climb inside them and walk them across Blackfriars Bridge for the photo shoot. We scoured the building for the smallest secretaries we could find and amazingly came up with six. 


It was a miserable, bitingly cold day with an icy wind when Pertwee arrived at the Express in the limo I had hired. And to make things worse he had a stinking cold. His runny nose was crimson and his eyes were the same colour. He looked about 106. I got him into Nick’s office and much brandy and sherry were poured down his eager throat. Nick definitely warmed him up. Next was the bridge. 

Six shivering secretaries squeezed into the Daleks and lined up outside the building waiting for the Doctor. When he appeared and walked down the steps in his cloak and checked trousers, waving his silver-top cane majestically in the air, Dynamic Downing, bless his wide-angled lens, went into class photographer mode and moved people around, checking the light, background and even the wind probably as Pertwee coughed and spluttered. Finally on to the bridge.

“Are you sure you are OK Jon?” I asked. “Fine Terry, don’t worry about me. How long will this take though?”

I went to chivvy up Downing but he was already well ahead on the bridge - crouching, turning, moving to the left and then the right, putting his hand up for us to stop walking and staring at us through the lens. The traffic was slowing to a halt … taxis hooted, people pressed their noses against the windows of buses and some car drivers pulled over to park on the pavement as the Doctor and his Dalek army marched on triumphantly. I banged on a couple of Dalek heads and asked the girls if they were OK – they were frozen solid. The shoot went on and on and we were out there performing for the slow-moving traffic for over half an hour.

Finally I got Pertwee back inside.  More brandy and sherry followed but he wasn’t a very happy bunny by the time we sent him home and he looked awful. He was off to a Dr Who convention in America or something in a few days time. While he was there we got news that he had sadly died of a heart attack and had moved on to another time.


Funny isn’t it, but for all the big stories, the air crashes, the wars, the tragedy and heartbreak … for all the great pictures and world changing moments, the thing I remember most about the Express is the people I served with and lost on that great battleship. Although there are one or two I would rather forget.


© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre