John King, a journalist on the Daily Express for 32 years, has died, aged 79, after a short illness.
In the years when the paper was undoubtedly the leading light on Fleet Street, King held various editorial posts, including crime reporter, feature writer, assistant news editor, foreign correspondent and, finally, district reporter for the West Country.
King’s career in journalism began in 1939 on the weekly Somerset County Herald in his home town of Taunton, Somerset. But his training was interrupted by the outbreak of war and in 1941 he volunteered as a signaller in the Royal Navy.
In the following years he took part in the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and the Aegean Islands. Equally memorable, although perhaps less heroic, was his role in the near sinking of the destroyer on which he was serving. It happened when the ship’s batteries overheated, starting a blaze that caused extensive damage. At the time, King, the man responsible for the apparatus, was ashore enjoying the hospitality of local islanders.
He received a severe reprimand for the episode, which gave rise to his favourite catchphrase: "Don’t bugger about chum – the ship’s on fire." After the war, finding his job on his old newspaper no longer existed, King joined the Western Gazette in Yeovil, Somerset, before moving to the Evening World, Bristol, as a sub-editor.
In his holidays he worked, unpaid, for the Daily Express where he impressed the legendary editor Arthur Christiansen, sufficiently to be offered a staff job in 1952. On Fleet Street, King, known as "JK" or "Kingy" to his colleagues, earned a reputation as a consummate professional. After a spell as assistant news editor he was appointed foreign correspondent and covered, among others, the Cyprus campaign and the 1956 Suez crisis.
Returning to London as a crime reporter in the Sixties, he gained the trust of the criminal underworld – including the likes of the Kray twins – as much as the senior detectives investigating them.
In 1968 he moved to Bristol to set up the Express West Country bureau and although the plans were later scrapped, he remained as district man until he took voluntary redundancy in 1986.
Outside journalism, his interests were as wide as his circle of friends. In his early years, King was a boxing champion and a county water polo player. He was a keen golfer and member of the MCC, Somerset County Cricket Club and The University and Literary Club, Bristol. He became a Freeman of the City of London in 1972.
Sir Edward Pickering, executive vice-chairman of Times Newspapers, said: "John King served the Daily Express for 32 years under 14 editors – of which I was one. Quite recently he wrote to me about those years: ‘Being an Expressman was not a religion, it was a cult. We were members of an exclusive club, first on the story, last to leave. It was never a job. It was a way of life.’
"That says it all."
King, whose wife Freda died last year, leaves a son, Michael, daughter, Pat, and five grandchildren.