Not a 'proper journalist?' Peter Tory still ran rings around many who were

Peter Tory, who died on 9 October aged 73, had a way with words that few other writers could emulate.

Sometimes he said he wasn’t a proper journalist, which may be slightly true and could be why his columns on the Daily Express, Daily Mirror, Daily Star (when he once travelled across America interviewing celebrities including

William Shatner, Dudley Moore and Bo Derek) and the Sunday Express were so charmingly evocative and funny.

He was the son of a career diplomat (Sir Geofroy Tory, ambassador to Ireland and high commissioner of Malaya, who died recently at 99) a passionate light aircraft pilot who once flew a Spitfire (converted to accommodate a passenger), and an actor (albeit mainly a spear-carrier) with the Royal Shakespeare Company, when he travelled to Moscow with, among others, Julie Christie.

In true Fleet Street Style he could and sometimes had to make a story out of almost nothing. On one celebrated occasion, covering Ascot with Neil Mackwood, Tory (no disrespect – his closest friends called him that) asked

Mackwood what he’d noted from the day’s events so far. Neil winced, and – hardly daring to voice such a seemingly trivial observation – said sheepishly: “Well, Peter, I’m afraid not much. The only thing I noticed was a bug crawling up the Duke of Edinburgh’s collar.” Tory looked at Mackwood for a moment with that slightly mischievous look of his, and said: “Right. That’s our lead!” And it was. Only he could have conjured up such a story, tracing the bug’s progress up Prince Philip’s collar, coupled with the Duke’s expressions as it was happening.

No wonder Nigel Dempster, who sometimes had lunch in Fleet Street with Tory, and christened him “The Captain”, once said: “Does anyone understand Tory’s column?” It was perhaps Dempster’s loss that he didn’t. Peter McKay, another long-term friend and former colleague, certainly did, and memorably described Tory’s out of kilter Daily Star column as like a “piccolo in a Rastafarian band”.

The tale of Tory's trousers

Peter Tory’s early Fleet Street days were spent as a lowly reporter on the William Hickey column, where Dempster was for a while a colleague.

On one occasion Dempster, returning from a long liquid lunch, tied the column’s specialist “birthday reporter” to a chair in mid interview and, assisted by colleagues (but not Tory) hoisted him up to the ceiling. Once released, lowered to the ground, and untied, he lashed out at the first chin he could hit – which happened to be the only innocent man in the room: Peter Tory.

In 1980, Tory himself became the story once when his beloved two-seater Chipmunk aircraft was stolen “by a competent lunatic” from a hangar at Denham and flown to Heathrow Airport, causing a big security flap. Needless to say he wrote about it.

One of his finest hours on the Hickey column was to send an expedition, with himself Lawrence-like on the lead ‘camel’, to ‘discover’ Basingstoke in darkest Hampshire.

Tory explained it thus not long ago: “Basingstoke council had built a new ring road, and locals found themselves cut off from the outside world. Motorists could not find their way out of it. Food was thrown into passing family cars; pantechnicons, bread vans and milk floats simply disappeared.”

Tory decided to lead an expedition to investigate. Camels – actually, racing dromedaries borrowed from the Marquis of Bath – were to be the transport, and a team drawn from the Daily Express, including a bearer, a black employee from the accounts department who agreed to strip to the waist (wouldn’t be allowed today) and to carry Tory’s air rifle, was assembled. Pith helmets and other appropriate gear were to be worn for the occasion. Tory, protected from the fierce sun with a parasol, led the expedition.

A TV crew appeared. Police held back the crowds. Children perched on their fathers’ shoulders. Tory dismounted and strode towards the mayor, who was overjoyed at seeing Basingstoke finally ‘discovered’ and placed on the map. The pair shook hands. The huge headline on the Daily Express showed the picture across two pages under the headline ‘BASINGSTOKE, I PRESUME.’

But even Peter was out-Tory-ed in the most surreal way by his celebrated friend and colleague Keith Waterhouse.

One night, in a Blackpool restaurant during a Conservative party conference, Waterhouse inveigled Tory into a bet which resulted in Tory losing his trousers. Waterhouse made off into the night with them, and Tory had to borrow a chef’s pair. Back at the bar of the Imperial Hotel, Waterhouse made himself busy introducing Tory’s trousers to various Conservative party grandees. Tory would receive sinister, late-night calls, claiming to be from his missing garment, relating, in a falsetto, northern accent, the various risqué adventures the trousers were enjoying with their new master.

'Tory was born at the wrong time'

Tory’s links with the Daily Express were strengthened when he wrote four volumes of the cartoonist Carl Giles’ illustrated biography.

Recently he starred as himself in an amusing film, Tabloid, about  Joyce McKinney (who also played herself) the extraordinary true-life saga of the American former beauty-queen who in 1977, had abducted a Mormon missionary (the so-called Manacled Mormon) she had a crush on across the Atlantic to Devon where she chained him to a bed for three days of what she insisted was consensual sex. When she jumped bail and fled back to America, Tory – who had escorted her to various events in London during her time on bail – followed in hot pursuit, He accompanied her on further adventures (and reported them for the Daily Express) until she was arrested.

For a man who may not have been a “proper journalist”, he ran rings round many who were.

Tory was born at the wrong time, writes Brian Hitchen. Had the stork arrived earlier, he would have been an ideal Battle of Britain pilot. Craggy-faced, he even looked like a fighter pilot. He was in love with his bi-plane and whenever he took-off from the airfield at Denham, he wore an ancient leather flying helmet, which caused chums on the Daily Mirror to call him “Biggles”.

Robert Maxwell, the boss of the Mirror Group, had never heard of the legendary flying ace, and when he heard people calling Tory “Biggles” he didn’t understand, and always referred to him as “Boggles”.
Ghosting cartoonist Carl Giles’ autobiography meant Tory spending a lot of time in Norwich, Giles’ home town. 

It was, he said, the most boring assignment he’d ever had. Sitting in a church pew, at Giles’ funeral a year or so later,  he watched the mourners take their seats and said: “People fish in a very small gene pool in Norwich. Have you noticed how they all look like Carl Giles?”

Peter Tory 1938 – 2012. His wife Gwen pre-deceased him. There were no children. He leaves his partner Jacqueline Gouvier.

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