Yes, I tell my new farmer friend, I do miss The Smoke a bit. Especially on nights like these. It is chilly, beyond midnight outside the Tankerville Arms in Wooler and the steam is rising from shirts dampened by four hours of eating well, drinking deep, laughing long, singing and speechifying.
Being asked to speak at the 62nd Glendale Shepherds’ Supper is – I’m not kidding – as daunting as the time I was invited to address diners at the posh Royal Automobile Club HQ in Pall Mall. “Didn’t think you’d let me in,” I joked with the penguin suits on that occasion. “I’m with the AA!”
Shepherds’ Supper at ‘The Tanky’ had been a superb but lengthy night; my best-laid plans, frayed and finally filleted by a succession of wonderful toasts, music and humour, saw your columnist, the last speaker of the night, rise to his feet minutes before midnight.
Taking the air later, outside, my new friend extended a consolatory hand and said sadly: “I was told you were going to be really funny.” Perhaps sensing my pain, he moved quickly to heal the hurt. “I mean, the Duke gave one of those toasts a few years ago and he was very good.”
It didn’t help that deep in a pocket my fingers clutched four pages of abandoned notes that had been honed, first to two sheets of A4 then shredded further to a series of scribbled headings on the back of a menu card. Or that worried glances around my intended audience as the second of two intervals came and went reinforced my determination that only brevity would preserve my reputation.
More importantly, memories from the life I left behind in Fleet Street haunted me as the night drew long and my blue pencil flew across the pages of my speedily edited remarks, excising line after line, laugh by laugh:
And hadn’t I learned, shortly before leaving for Wooler in company with the Byreman and the Lawnmower Salesman, that yet another legend from my past had shuffled off to The Great Newsroom in the Sky? Not, for me, a great night for knockabout.
You’d have laughed at the late Leslie Toulson. We all did, at first. In an era when the red top tabloid agenda ranged wider than kiss-and-tell Les was The Sun medical editor whose appearance – lopsided toupee, thick pebble glasses and protruding porcelain teeth – made him ideal for the post: the unhealthiest man on the staff!
For all that, Les was the editor’s dream: a constant supplier of ‘Hey, Mabel!’ stories, particularly on sleepy Sunday afternoons when a Monday morning splash was always going to be hard to source. You might remember some of the stories he fished out of learned medical journals and remote scientific papers and laundered through The Sun into folklore:
Sardines Make You Randy, Scientists Prove… Sperm Swims Faster in Outer Space, Astronauts Warned… Cows Give More Milk Listening to Pop Music… Radioactive Fish Breed Better; every Toulson headline demanded an exclamation mark.
They were simplified from the scientific, for sure, and were written for everyday readers to understand; but they stood the Grain of Truth Test and defied the boffins’ denials.
That’s what I miss about Fleet Street and The Smoke, even given my perfect existence up here in The Godzone: days when sensible journalism was carried out by hard-working professionals with a quiver full of pencils and a nose for news rather than cheque books and a chancer’s talent to embarrass.