How do you play marbles with mercury? The genius of Bill Lovelace is that he did.
As a Daily Express reporter, I worked with Bill for 25 years.
And I have to say, with due respect to all the other brilliant Fleet Street photographers (and they were legion), the mercurial Lovelace was, in my opinion, the greatest of them all.
He was a proud man, genial kindly, sensitive, occasionally irascible, but a giant, not in stature but in character, personality and professionalism.
He was truly a joy to work with –an amazing professional, who valued all his assignments, from the topmost, such as Ronnie Biggs in Rio de Janeiro, to the lowliest, most boring doorstep, where some insignificant starlet might have been shacking up with a dubious lover.
No sneaking off to the pub for a quick one, on the latter type of story (only of there was a convenient hostelry with a window on that particular world). Bill would keep it covered. He would never miss a picture; indeed, never miss a story.
For that was the essence of the man professionally. The story was all. As a reporter, if you had an assignment with Bill, you knew you had an extra hand.
“Don’t you think we ought to go and see so and so,” he would say. It was an interview, a picture, you might not have considered. But Bill had, he was so aware and so thorough.
You’d be writing your copy. You’d share it with him. You’d say: “Do you think this is alright, Bill?”
He would pause in his slow, laconic way and say: “Mmm, well, don’t you think such and such might be a better intro? Or what about x, y or z?” –aspects you might have missed out. And he was inevitably right.
I remember sitting round a table in our hideout apartment near Copacabana Beach in Rio, when we of the Express were fleeing the Fleet Street hordes in those halcyon days of 1974.
We had Ronnie Biggs in our possession, so to speak, after being badly let down by the Express hierarchy who had bleated the story to Scotland Yard. The British Police, in the person of Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper (Slip-Up of the Yard) had tried, without success, to arrest him.
We were playing poker –Biggs, Lovelace, Colin MacKenzie, whose original scoop it was, and myself. That night I cleaned Ronald Arthur Biggs, Great Train Robber extraordinaire, out of every cruzerio he possessed, as well as taking Bill and Colin to the proverbial cleaners.
At the end of the session, Bill turned to me and said: “You lucky devil. But I really feel you ought to return your winnings to Her Majesty the Queen.”
The train robbers, you may remember, had stolen their money from the Royal Mail.
Bill had a difficult time in Rio. True professional that he was, he had taken fantastic pictures of Biggs and his coterie of nubile Brazilian girlfriends and sundry admirers, before Slip-Up arrived in the hotel room where Bill, Colin and the train robber were talking.
“It’s all right –they’re in the bag,” he told the anxious picture desk.
When Fleet Street eventually found our apartment and kicked the door in (did they say they smelt gas?), Bill laid into the invaders with great aplomb and, with my meagre help, repelled them. In true journalistic style, we ended up having a drink with them in a downstairs bar five minutes later.
I could eulogise about the talents of Bill Lovelace for ages and pages. But that would be doing him a disfavour. I would just say, that, with that rare gift of humanity, he would always help a fellow journalist, both personally and professionally.
One last thing. Bill was always sensitive about his age. He died aged 77. Shortly before his death, fellow Daily Express photographer Douglas Morrison ribbed him about his age.
“Bill,” he said, “why did you lie about your age?”
“I didn’t,” Bill replied. “I just never told anybody.”
Bill Lovelace had much to give the world. He gave it. And in return, the world gave to him.