Mike Terry: 'The spirit of journalism ran in his blood'

Mike Terry, who died aged 86 on 29 August 2011, exactly a week after suffering a stroke at his nursing home near Oxford, was one of Fleet Street’s last great characters.

Even though the days of the hard drinking journalist have vanished, stories about him are still the stuff of industry legend. Many of them involved his glass eye – a legacy of the war – staring up from the bottom of someone else’s drink glass.

But alcohol was to prove his downfall and, in any case, mere drinking prowess would not have made Mike Terry the loved and respected figure he was.

Fleet Street has lost not only a man for whom the spirit of popular journalism ran in his blood, but also an immensely likeable figure of culture, wisdom, enormous talent, and a genuine, rather boyish old-school charm that tamed some of Fleet Street’s most fearsome editors.

He was, first and foremost, a brilliant newspaperman whose career reached its peak in the 1960s.

Mike Terry was the last surviving member of an inner circle of gifted young editorial figures on Hugh Cudlipp’s Daily Mirror, who took tabloid newspapers into the hitherto uncharted territory of in-depth news and features.

He did so, under Cudlipp’s revolutionary leadership, first as the Mirror’s features editor, a pivotal post in the paper’s determination to stake out more ground, and then as its Northern editor.

As part of Cudlipp’s editorial elite, Mike was instrumental in shaping the paper’s bold strategy to establish itself within the Sixties’ zeitgeist as the dailies’ circulation leader, using a new and unblinkered approach to tabloid journalism.

Writers and reporters led by charismatic anti-establishment figures like Paul Foot and John Pilger were given their head, and the new-look paper boasted an all-star cast of columnists such as Marje Proops, Cassandra and Keith Waterhouse.

The strategy may have died with the decade, but for a while the Daily Mirror was arguably Britain’s most influential newspaper.

Army years

Michael Dungate Terry was born in 1925 in Findon Valley, just outside Worthing at the foot of the South Downs.

His father Thomas, a barrel-chested Sussex yeoman who served in the trenches through most of the First World War, was a stained glass craftsman.

His mother Ella had been a nurse before her marriage. Michael, an only child, attended Worthing Grammar School before leaving when his father’s business went bankrupt, to start his career in journalism working on the Worthing Herald.

It was a career that was soon to be interrupted by the Second World War. As a Lieutenant with the Wiltshires, Michael was badly wounded in Normandy in 1944 in the fierce fighting around the village of Tilly-sur-Seules.

A patrol had been sent to investigate an apparently abandoned German trench, when they set off a booby-trap: a tripwire connected to an unmanned machine gun. The patrol was mown down at point blank range.

Leading his platoon across no man’s land to see if there were any survivors, Michael accidentally triggered a second booby-trap, a landmine, losing his right eye in the blast and sustaining shrapnel injuries so severe that doctors thought he would never walk unaided again.

He did, but continued to suffer from the effects, nearly losing a leg to infection in 1960. In spite of his wounds he managed to drag one injured soldier back behind the lines but the rest of his platoon was killed in the explosion, for which he never forgave himself.

His progress in the Army was curtailed by a scandalous incident after the war, when as a junior staff officer in India at the time of partition, he was cited as the co-respondent in the divorce of his Colonel.

‘Resourceful and charming’

He returned to the Worthing Herald but it wasn’t to be long, however, before London called on the talents of a resourceful and charming reporter whose glass eye seemed to add extra sparkle to the real one.

The South London Chronicle, the Evening News and that most famous newspaper finishing school of its time, the News Chronicle subs’ desk, followed in quick succession.

And at a house party given by a mutual friend he also met a beautiful young actress named Sheila Latham, who had captured many hearts at RADA but who soon fell for this dashing, dark-haired young journalist. They married in 1952.

An early piece of Mike Terry improvisation came when he was stringing for the Evening News gossip column.

Short of copy for the next edition Mike bought a box of live Billingsgate crabs and surreptitiously released them in Mayfair. ‘Crabs In Curzon Street’was the resultant story. Mike’s love of a pun never left him, nor did his sense of mischief.

Mike Terry was unusual amongst his contemporaries in many ways. Among the characteristics that set him apart, was an almost total lack of personal ambition.

Another was his deep love for and detailed knowledge of the English poets, particularly Kipling and Shakespeare.

He could quote at will but never boringly; and he read or recited poetry beautifully, his distinctive baritone expressive but never imposing on the verse. The gift for appreciating poetry was one he shared with his friend, the writer and cricket commentator John Arlott.

He also used his baritone to boom out songs by the likes of Jimmy Witherspoon and Big Bill Broonzy at the bars of packed and delighted pubs. He never lost his love of jazz.

There was undoubtedly a streak of rashness in Mike Terry’s nature. More than once his abiding love of lone country hikes almost ended in disaster.

On one occasion he fell while descending Great Gable after nightfall, coming-to in the pitch dark, bleeding from a cut head and not knowing if he’d landed on a ledge over a precipice.

Deciding that the safest course of action was to stay awake until daybreak, he set about reciting every piece of Shakespeare he knew. Several hours later, he still hadn’t reached the end of his repertoire when dawn enabled him to complete his descent in safety.

Mike’s alcohol-fuelled downfall at the Mirror came in the sort of palace coup that might have brought a wry smile to his former drinking friends in the old Daily Mirror pub on Fetter Lane, the Stab In The Back.

After a cure in hospital in 1970, eventually he moved his family back to London (and later, to Cambridge.) He also joined the Mirror’s main rival, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, as a lowly down-table sub.

Others were embarrassed for him to be in such a humble role – but not Mike himself, who roared with laughter as he said of one reporter: ‘I used to be his editor – now I’m subbing his copy! That’s newspapers for you!”

‘Bingo Bungler’

He became a respected elder figure as the Sun’s features production editor, during the paper’s runaway years of success under the editorship of Kelvin Mackenzie.

One occasion saw him thrust into public notoriety, when uncharacteristically he failed to check the paper’s Bingo numbers and allowed a misprint to creep through.

Thousands of Sun readers thought they’d won the jackpot, one even arriving at the newspaper’s Bouverie Street offices from Carlisle in a specially-hired Rolls Royce.

Mike agreed to go onto the front page in a dunce’s hat as the ‘Bingo Bungler”. Over the next few days he received hundreds of sympathetic letters from disappointed winners, and became part of the newspaper’s legend.

Mike retired in 1988 after helping see The Sun through its troubled move to Wapping, where he was among those employees who had to be bussed though the confrontational and sometimes violent picket lines.

His years at Wapping were comemmorated in that entertaining biography of the Mackenzie years, ‘Stick It Up Your Punter”, where he was portrayed inaccurately and rather cruelly as a doddery figure frequently the butt of Mackenzie’s savage humour.

Few employees escaped the Sun editor’s scathing tongue but Mike, who remembered seeing a photo of the young Kelvin in school uniform at the South London news agency run by Mackenzie’s parents, actually enjoyed a cordial and respectful relationship with him. As one colleague said: ‘Kelvin always had a soft spot for Mike, whose charm worked wonders on the fearsome Sun editor.”

‘Generous and humane man’

Mike’s retirement was marked by the traditional gift of a gilded negative of a dummy front page. The headline, “I Ate My Way Round Rupert’s House”, was a fitting tribute to his appetite for life that reached a famous peak at a party in the Sun owner’s mansion, where a different banquet was served – and energetically sampled – in every room. He was also made a Life Member of the NUJ.

With their children launched into their own family lives and careers, Mike and Sheila Terry moved to Hook Norton in Oxfordshire, where they enjoyed fifteen busy and fulfilled years together before Sheila died of pancreatic cancer in 2004.

It was a blow which plunged Michael into melancholy, though he passed his final two years in relative happiness at a residential home near Aylesbury, his effortless charm turned full blast on the delighted female staff.

He will be remembered by his many friends, at his best, for the sheer delight which marked his approach to life. By his family – myself, his son Timothy and his daughter Judith, and their own grown-up children for whom he was always their ‘Gappa’– he will be much missed as a courageous, generous and humane man, who prized the human spirit above everything, and for whom fairness was, above all, the principal virtue.

Michael Terry will be buried with his beloved wife Sheila in the parish cemetery at Hook Norton on 13 September 2011.

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