Cocks of the north

Ever get this feeling that something is following you around, chortling as it wipes out one after another footprint of your career? Sure, I ought now and again to be grateful for that, but St Bride’s memorials are quite enough of a reminder that nothing and nobody in Medialand is forever.

Hardly out of the church porch, the first wiped footprint of mine is 85 Fleet Street, where I began as a human carrier pigeon for the Press Association, before heading north to learn my trade on the Southport Guardian, now also just another exfootprint along with the forsaken Victorian offices of the Liverpool Daily Post, which I edited from a chair bearing the wide bumprint of Lord Russell, who had sat in it for half a century. Imagine.

I remember the PA newsroom as full of demobbed young heroes who had bombed MannheimLudwigshaven, hit the Hun for six out of Africa or built the bridge on the River Kwai. Some subbed in battledress jackets with punctures where a captain’s pips had been, or went on jobs in RAF greatcoats with epaulettes now minus a squadronleader’s insignia. Across the street, the shining citadel of the then allconquering Express, through whose doors revolved the most glamorous figures in the game. Epstein’s foyer bust of Lord Beaverbrook beamed as taxis disgorged exquisitely-groomed women in hats and gloves carrying handbags big enough for brides’ mothers. Into the cabs leaped tanned men bearing portables smothered in exotic stickers. Gawping alongside me was Derek Jameson, a fellow messenger at No. 85, who could identify all the great byliners: Sefton Delmer Eve Perrick, René MacColl, Basil Cardew, Chapman Pincher, Anne ScottJames, Peter O’Sullevan…

Oh, and under the big clocks in the Express newsroom, as on every bridge in the Fleet Street fleet, were notices imploring: REMEMBER MANCHESTER. The northern editions had trains to catch. Where’s the bloody page one centre column? The leader headline? The Osbert Lancaster cartoon?

Electronics and the Shah/Murdoch triumph over the union dinosaurs wiped out the need for mighty Manchester set-ups. These employed 1,000 journalists and grew northern editors destined for Fleet Street glory. Most seemed to be called Arthur (Christiansen, Brittenden, Firth) but the roll of fame included Larry Lamb, Geoffrey Pinnington, Roger Wood and my old mate Jameson (who chirped that coming from “Norf London” surely qualified him as a northerner).

Now it’s FORGET MANCHESTER. The market-leading Sun last month shut its base there. Northern lass Rebekah Wade’s unsentimental announcement coincided oddly with the revelation of new Mirror editor Richard Wallace’s braveheart dream of reconquering the north, where readers “have been wilfully ignored or taken for granted in pursuit of a blinkered London agenda”.

Ee ba gum to that. Wallace is on to something. For a massive northern push was how the Daily Mirror got to 5m. In a two-year blitzkrieg, it overtook all rivals in one after another northern city and town.

The champagne moment as the Mirror’s cocks of the north toasted victory is spotlighted in Bill Hagerty’s centennial history of the paper, Read All About It!

The central figure is the northern editor, a 30-ish incarnation of the last-of-the-summer-wine bloke in the big picture on this page. Yeah, it was that long ago.

The Mirror had 150 journalists in Manchester to battle the even bigger teams fielded by the Express (its principal rival: there was as yet no Sun around) and by the Mail, and two now-wiped footprints: the Daily Herald and the News Chronicle. The sole tabloid competition was the Daily Sketch, fairly dismissed by Hugh Cudlipp as “clean but not very clever”.

Nor had the Mirror been very clever in the north. It was the last to get itself a Manchester print centre, doing a deal with Kemsley to take over the Withy Grove plant along with the staff of the Daily Dispatch, which was killed off to make capacity available. Cudlipp wryly remarked on the versatility of journalists, producing a Tory broadsheet one day and a Labour tabloid the next. What tarts we are.

Progress was sluggish until Chairman Cecil Harmsworth King installed the unsubtle Percy Roberts as northern manager. Roberts (second left in the picture) introduced me to King over dinner, and within days I was promoted from night editor to northern editor. It was my first big footprint. I worked like mad, fuelled by the immediate surge in northern sales. I was in the office by 9am and left around 2am when there were no more northern editions to northern edit. I slept in the station hotel across the road, getting home to Southport only for short weekends. Night after night, I put out opportunistic local slip editions. Pullouts for the Isle of Man TT. Eisteddfod spreads. Specials produced by sports editor Peter Thomas, features editor Jack Stoneley and the unleashed news and picture teams. I would slip page one to flag them up, along with an entertaining Pilger piece (what a bundle of fun he was in his Manchester days) or Proops, Zec or Whitcomb focusing on a northern subject.

To the Manchester team (motto: Fuck London), the long-lunch wankers down south appeared to believe “The North” was a place rather than an assortment of places. Editing the northern editions for the north changed all that. When Richard Wallace digs out those Manchester editions from the archives, he will see what we did night after night with both scheduled and impulsive slip editions to targeted areas.

Could Wallace do from Canary Wharf what we did from Withy Grove? Sure he could, but not without a dedicated and adequate young task force free to trawl the north for stories and pictures, and the Wharf for opportunities to exploit. In my time, it was heresy to believe that hitting 5m was principally the triumph of the Mirror’s northern setup. Wallace could not embark on any such campaign unless CEO Sly Bailey and MD Ellis Watson programmed the requirement to isolate slip editions for target areas varying from night to night and during the night – and night after night.

Last Saturday, for example, the Mirror led on the second Paula Radcliffe collapse, with a cross-ref to the Amir Khan semi-final victory inside. In Bolton, an Amir splash, with cross-ref to Paula inside, would have sold more Mirrors. Slip for such opportunities 300 nights a year, and watch the success spike erupt again through the top of the sales graph.

Next week: Alison Hastings

guest columnist Bernard Shrimsley

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