'Master wordsmith' John Dodd: 'In a world of extraordinary characters, he still managed to stand out'

Former tabloid journalist John Dodd died last month aged 75. Here former colleague Colin Dunne pays tribute to his friend

Whoever first conjoined the words legend and lunchtime had almost certain met John Dodd. He was a star of old-time Fleet Street, highly regarded for his skill as a writer and reporter, a man who, in a world of extraordinary characters, still managed to stand out. 

Now he’s died, one of the last of the old Fleet Street boys, and certainly one of the best. 

There are dozens of Doddie stories, but it’s an anecdote from his early years in newspapers that tells you the most about him.

Back in the fifties, John was a promising young reporter on the Manchester Evening News – then one of the biggest  papers in the country.  When a new and very inexperienced girl reported for work, the news editor tossed her the keys to the office car and told her get out on a major road crash.

She’d never covered such a big story before. What’s more, she’d only passed her driving test the day before. She went white, and John noticed.

“They won’t miss me for an hour or so,” he said, “I’ll come with you.” He guided her successfully through both the traffic and the story for which she received herograms.

In a trade where a helping hand is usually holding a knife, and where one newspaper pub was called, with some reason, The Stab in the Back, it was probably without precedent.

But John was above all a gentleman journalist.  A true gentleman and a fine journalist.

He started out on his local paper at Petersfield, Hants.  A passionate cricket lover even at 15, he had written an essay about England winning the Ashes back from Australia that was so good that the editor of the local paper gave him a job.

His gift for writing – always warm, often either funny or moving – was soon spotted and he was grabbed by the old Daily Herald, which later became the pre-Murdoch Sun.

He was their international reporter. He covered wars in the Middle East and Pakistan and as their man in New York, he reported on the glamorous Kennedy regime, the battle for civil rights, riots in Detroit, and the funeral of Martin Luther King.

John Smith, ex-Mirror and People - where he was known as “Plain John” - was sitting beside John Dodd when he filed his piece on the funeral.  Over half a century later, he can still quote his favourite line from Dodd’s report…

“It was some measure of the man that his final journey was on a humble wooden plantation cart drawn by six mournful mules.”

Six mournful mules – the other hacks would have given their right arms for a phrase like that.  As John Smith, himself a talented writer and columnist,  said: “As a foot soldier in the army of wordsmiths, it was a privilege to have worked alongside a master of the art.”

Everything John Dodd wrote reflected his own character: intelligent, sensitive and generous, which was why he was respected and liked by his fellow hacks.

On his return to London, he worked as a feature writer on the Sun.  As the tabloids became more celebrity-obsessed, he found himself a little out on a limb. He became a freelance and returned to his roots, the Hampshire-Sussex border.

From there he produced a stream of  funny and charming stories, like the last wall-of-death rider (he had a lioness in the sidecar) and where to get the best bacon sandwich.

He did a humorous courts column for the Observer, wrote regular columns and features for everyone from the Express to the Independent, the colour supplements and even the Spectator. He was also the originator of two cartoon strips, one of which, Pub Dog, benefited greatly from his lifelong research.  Into pubs, rather than dogs.

One of his greatest reporting feats followed the death of Princess Diana.  John linked it to the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo which launched the 1914-18 war.  “It’s always the chauffeur to blame,” he explained. “With Diana he was drunk, in Sarajevo he took the wrong turning.”

It was true. And John managed to find and interview a descendant of the Sarajevo chauffeur over the telephone in Moldova.  A full-page feature in the Indie, all without leaving the Ship in South Harting.

He was very much the old-school newspaperman.  I can personally guarantee that no-one ever witnessed John eating a cress sandwich in front of a screen between the hours of noon and four.  Or indeed any other time. He believed that no self-respecting journalist would be caught at lunchtime without a glass in his hand. 

From the Cheshire Cheese to the Printers’ Pie, that’s where you’d find John. 

But it’s perhaps worth remembering that like all those old-time hacks, he could put the glass down and turn out a first-class feature without spilling a drop.  Or missing a comma.

His funeral is at 2.30pm on Friday, January 10, at his village church at South Harting, near Petersfield.

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