Lesley Hall, former London editor of the Daily Record and a past chairman of the Newspaper Press Fund, has died, aged 59, a year after she was diagnosed with the rare small-cell lung cancer.
The one thing you could say about Lesley was that you knew where you were. As did the hapless executive at the Mirror Group office in Holborn where she and her Record chums occupied a grace-and-favour cubicle on the editorial floor. "May I speak my mind," he asked? Lesley fixed him with a gimlet eye and never missed the beat. "That won’t take long," she said, before taking off for a large Scotch in the Stab.
Lesley was, as the French would say, une femme de caractere, the kind of journalist you thought was a Fleet Street myth until you met her. On deadline duty she would prowl the night newsroom with The Times crossword, (to the mortification of fellow addicts, she was rarely stumped), brandishing the regulation king size cigarette.
As she puffed her way through her illness she forestalled the incipient raised eyebrow with a chortle: "I’ve got the only form of lung cancer not caused by smoking."
As usual, she had done her homework. To say Lesley didn’t suffer fools gladly would be wrong. What she didn’t suffer were fools she thought ought to know better. No mean writer, she was unstinting in her enthusiasm for the well-crafted piece which dropped on her desk.
She once startled Alastair Campbell, then Mirror political editor, by sidling up to him with the conspiratorial whisper: "Why were you ringing Peter last night?" She left a puzzled Campbell to figure out how she knew, omitting to tell him that, at the time, Peter Mandelson was sharing a house opposite her mews home in Bloomsbury. She had heard Mandelson called to the phone to speak to an ‘Alastair’, made the connection and couldn’t resist the fun.
Lesley was a natural for Holborn’s pre-Maxwell days. To those who did not understand the ethos, the set-up appeared irredeemably anarchic and, up to a point, it was. Journalists like Lesley were employed for their supreme ability to ask the deceptively simple question ‘why?’ And to be prepared to ask it over and over again.
If high-ranking executives tolerated the ritual bar-room ear-bashing it was because they knew that the Lesleys of this world would go out and apply the same forensic grilling to a Cabinet minister.
Her journalistic skills were honed at the Daily Record from 1970 to 1994. She freelanced for various newspapers, which included writing ballet criticism for The Guardian.
In 1973 she won an international journalism fellowship to the US and worked for a year at NBC TV in New York, radio stations in the mid-West and the Washington office of Senator Howard Baker, chairman of the Watergate inquiry.
The Seventies were the best of times for journalists like Lesley, as women broke out of fluff features and claimed the meat. Her tenure in Glasgow and Edinburgh was instrumental in setting her conviction that journalism had a unique remit to effect social change.
She was promoted to editor of the diary page and then chief feature writer before moving to London with her husband. They later divorced. There were no children.
In millennium year she was acclaimed the first woman chairman of the Newspaper Press Fund. A feminist to the core, she scorned arch political correctness and insisted on the title ‘chairman’.
Life for Lesley was about living, not storing up treasures for some opaque afterlife. She never failed to seize the day and it was a quality her friends found irresistible. She collected us from every decade of her working life, journalists and non-journalists alike, stretching over 40 years – and kept us.
A consummate wordsmith, she wisecracked us from the shadows which touched our lives and on to the high plains of laughter. To be Lesley’s friend was to feel immensely special.
Throughout the year following diagnosis she showed not a shred of self-pity, anger or bitterness. As the cancer began to close down her life, whatever her private fears, she displayed her inimitable gift for self-
mockery. She chain-smoked almost to the end and, as she lit another cigarette, couldn’t resist one of her insouciant one-liners: "I’m on the slippery slope, darling, so F**k it."
For her, and for us, the lease was all too short. Ciao bella.