Learning in the best school of all

As Reuters leaves Fleet Street behind,
Derek Jameson tells how the news agency put him on the road from East
End kid to national celebrity, first as a messenger boy and then as a
young trainee
 
OBVIOUSLY
Tony Cole was very taken with my Cockney cheek. He was a Scotsman of
awesome proportions who tended to issue orders in a kind of
mid-Atlantic Scots drawl. Well over six feet tall and weighing 18
stone, he put the wind up most of those that came under his steely
gaze. Lowly messengers kept well away, especially as he invariably
wanted cigarettes. That meant tramping the streets of wartime London to
find a tobacconist with some rare supplies and joining the inevitable
queue.

A piece of cardboard labelled “Editor” and shaped like a bell
would jiggle back and forth over the messenger desk when the big man
rang. Groans all round until someone decided to respond. Usually me.

The day came when he demanded brusquely: “Why is it, every time I ring the bell, you appear, laddie?”

What gratitude. I didn’t hesitate: “Because all the other lads say, ‘Let the old bastard wait – he only wants fags’.”

He loved that and roared with laughter. I was taken on then and there as his personal messenger.

To
me he was unfailingly kind and generous. Mr Cole – I never call him
anything else – lived for Reuters, sitting at his desk some 13 hours a
day when not travelling on business. In those austere days at the end
of World War II he more or less took charge of my life. How was I
getting on? Was I keeping up night school, as he had commanded? How was
my shorthand? What about spelling?

His devoted secretary, Joyce Hewlett, was always ready with her dictionary with a word he had chosen for me to learn.

On
occasion, editor and messenger boy would chat in low tones, usually at
eventide by the light of the single desk lamp at the far end of the
fourth floor editorial.

It was during one of these exchanges that
I told him the time had come for me to leave. I was desperate to become
a journalist and would have to find work as a trainee in the provinces.

“You
can’t do that,” he said. “Aren’t you giving money at home? You can’t
afford to go to the provinces and still send money to your mother.”

He thought hard, weighing me up behind his thick spectacles, and came to a quick decision.

“We’ll
train you here. There’s no reason why not. You won’t earn much, but
you’ll learn to be a journalist in the best school of all.”

And
so it came to pass. At 16, Fleet Street’s youngest trainee of all time.
It meant a seven-year apprenticeship, because the National Union of
Journalists didn’t recognise anyone in Fleet Street trained as a
journalist below the age of 23.

Nevertheless, I was on my way.

I LEARNED
my craft under the chief reporter, Ronald G Bedford, one of Fleet
Street’s best-loved characters, who went on to spend more than 30 years
as the Daily Mirror’s science editor. Just about everything I know is
down to this feisty little Yorkshireman.

Who, what, when, where
and why? Five honest servants and the essence of good journalism.
Ronnie drummed the mantra into my head. Remember, too, that truth is
everything. Always be fair, balanced and objective. A lifetime later I
cannot read a newspaper or listen to a news bulletin without noting
whether or not its reports are up to scratch.

We all recall our
first story. Ronnie insisted I should find my own. It turned out to be
a good human situation on the banks of the Thames alongside Tower
Bridge. The Port of London Authority proposed to abolish a stretch of
sand dumped there, the only kind of beach many East End kids like
myself had ever known.

He made me rewrite it 14 times. That’s right – 14.

Who
says the beach is dangerous to shipping? How did it get here in the
first place? How many kids use it? What do the locals say? Where are
the quotes from the Port Authority? And so on until he was satisfied it
was complete and of some interest to Reuters subscribers across the
world.

It took about a week to produce and in the process taught me to be true to the best Reuters traditions.

“Fine, fine,” Ronnie finally concurred. “Put it on the wire.” Would you believe, it was actually published.

A cutting turned up months later from a paper in Java. As for the beach, it disappeared never to be heard of again.

WE WERE part of the UK desk that put together a British news file serving adjoining regional desks.

Their
role was to edit global dispatches for their own areas of interest –
Europe, South America, North America, Africa, India, the Far East and
Australasia.

Hub of the operation was the General Desk, later
renamed Central Desk, where the world’s news flowed in by cable, radio,
telephone and teleprinter.

Tony Cole was the human dynamo who
took Reuters from a dull Empire-driven agency, rooted in the past, to
the highly professional outfit that became news centre of the world
through the war years. One reason for its success was that it remained
a neutral observer, never a participant.

By the time peace
arrived, Reuters had a staff of nearly 2,000, operating in 40
countries. Some correspondents found themselves left with no war to
report, while others had been displaced in the political turmoil of the
post-war years. Thus it was that chief reporter Ronnie Bedford became
mother hen to a bunch of odds and sods, each with a large question mark
hanging over his future.

I was the gawky kid, happy to sit at the
feet of these exiles who had been through six years of war and knew
most of the answers.

Men like Monty Radulovic, a tall and
powerful Yugosalv who escaped invading Nazi forces by stealing a
submarine and sailing it to Alexandria. He had never been in a sub
before. Now he had been forced to flee his country yet again by Marshal
Tito, its new communist ruler.

Then there was Alfonso Mauri, a
fiery Spaniard who had fled Franco’s fascist regime for Argentina, only
to be exiled yet again by dictator Juan Peron.

Here they were, side by side, communist and royalist, professional friends and political enemies.

They would go at each other hammer and tongs in halting English, while the rest of us fell about.

“Monty spit on communists!” he would roar and look if he were about to do just that.

“Monty, you very silly person,” came back the curly-haired Spaniard. “I think you nice man. In the head? Nussink!”

These
two were good for laughs, but my favourite was a quiet Irishman named
Jack Smyth, a hero to us messengers during the war when he parachuted
into Arnhem with British airborne forces and was captured by the
Germans.

Held prisoner for nine months, he was tortured by the
Gestapo. They wanted to know how many Allied paratroopers were
undertaking training back in Britain.

“There was I, a neutral
Irishman, demanding to see the nearest Irish ambassador,” he told us.
“Well they were having none of that. They gave me a hell of a pasting.
‘Jaysus,’ I’d tell ’em, ‘if I knew the answer, wouldn’t I be telling?
It’s not worth losing my teeth for. I’m an Irishman’.”

Liberated
by Allied forces, Jack immediately volunteered to cover the end of the
war in the Far East. In August 1945 he was the first to give the world
an eyewitness description of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Now he
was in London with the rest of us, kicking his heels and wondering what
was coming next. Our first major peacetime story was the protracted
negotiations leading to independence for India and the creation of
Pakistan. Jack, with his Irish charm, usually managed to outshine the
rest of us. It didn’t take long to work out that his mysterious female
contact on the telephone every day was Countess Mountbatten, wife of
the Viceroy of India.

MY BEAT
was Mohammed Al Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, whose rip-roaring speeches
may have inspired his Moslem followers, but left me in desperate
straits. He never finished a sentence, which played hell with my
rookie’s Gregg shorthand. I feared getting a quote wrong and pouring
fuel on the flames about to devour the Indian subcontinent.

“Don’t
worry, old boy,” said my fellow reporter, Monty Taylor. “Just get the
context. Long as it sounds right they’ll never know the difference.”

I
took unflappable Monty at his word. He had famously sent some of the
dispatches from the D-Day invasion using a carrier pigeon. He told me
later it was just as well that his unit found a relatively quiet
sector, because otherwise his feathered friend, Gustave, might never
have got through with the news: “First assault troops landed 07.50.”

Poor Ronnie Bedford had to make sense of us lot.

He
would stoop over his typewriter, his eyes inches from the keys,
knocking our reports into shape before they went on the wire. “You’ve
written this with the left boot,” he would grumble, though he always
forgave our errors and omissions.

Otherwise, God help us, we
might fall foul of Sidney J Mason, a belt-and-braces former docker in
charge of all correspondents. Sid, as everyone called him, had been
poached from a rival agency by Tony Cole and made chief news editor.

There
was no pleasing him where I was concerned. Every word of mine seemed to
come in for harsh criticism. I assumed he objected to a Cockney waif
like me daring to follow his footsteps, though in later years he
confessed he had been less than fair.

Whatever the merits of Tony
Cole’s decision to play Pygmalion in my case, never again would any
16-year-old Reuters London messenger be given the same opportunity.

In
the fifties the agency recruited a handful of Oxbridge trainees, though
most ultimately left to seek richer pastures elsewhere. Notable
exception was Cambridge graduate Gerald Long, who was to succeed Cole
as general manager after his premature death in 1963 – overwork and
overeating had taken their toll. He was only 51.

David Chipp,
first Western correspondent to report Communist China, was another
varsity entrant. Eventually he became boss of the Press Association,
Reuters’ domestic sister.

At one time the three of us beginners
shared a table at the far end of the Central Desk as we got to grips
with the art of sub-editing. We liked to josh each other about who
would make it in journalism.

In the event, each was to earn a place in Fleet Street’s turbulent history.

After all, as Tony Cole said, didn’t we learn our craft from the best school of all?

This
article first appeared in the book Frontlines: snapshots of history,
published by Pearson Education Derek Jameson is now retired and lives
with his wife Ellen in Miami, Florida. He would be delighted to hear
from former colleagues. He can be contacted at the following address:
derekjameson333@hotmail.com

TIMELINE

1944 Joins Reuters as a copy boy

1960-61 Works on the London American. Joins the Daily Express in the same year

1963 Moves to Sunday Mirror as picture editor

1965 Appointed assistant editor

1972-76 Northern editor of the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror

1976 Returns to Fleet Street as managing editor of the Daily Mirror

1977 Editor of the Daily Express

1978 Editor-in-chief of the newly launched Daily Star

1981-84 Editor of the News of the World

1986 Television and radio presenter, working for both BBC and Sky

1998 Columnist for The Argus, Brighton 2000 Retired

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