Leslie Tunks, 92 at his death, was a journalist who established a wide footprint on Fleet Street, without having written a word in it. As news editor and editor manque of the Slough Observer, a mere 20 miles away, from 1947 to 1981, he directed a steady stream of well-honed reporters into the maelstrom of hire and fire it still was in those years. He was de facto editor long before acquiring the title from retiring owner-editor Frank Lawrance.
Kenneth Hord, remembered as an ascetic news editor of a 16-page Daily Mirror, counting four Leslie Tunks alumni in his newsroom, exclaimed to one of them: ‘I am surrounded by the Slough mafia.’
The sobriquet was adopted by an unofficial club of more than 20 journalists worldwide who met at random down the years to honour a singular teaching editor.
A fact on every line
Leslie – we were allowed the familiar – raised the Slough Observer to iconic status in the Home Counties, if not the entire country, and made it a must-read for many of journalism’s national stars residing in his parish. The press magnate Roy Thomson was a local reader at Fulmer, David Coleman and John Snagge in Wexham, while the polymath broadcaster and manager Leonard Miall with other BBC bigwigs could be found between Taplow and Stoke Poges.
Among five locations over the century, the Observer was most memorably housed in the former Halidon House School for Young Ladies – the newsroom appropriately in the music room, the newsdesk placed strategically on the orchestra dais.
It need hardly be said, failed copy culprits were called to face the music. ‘Davis, you should be an undertaker. You have buried this story in the last paragraph’– journalism and theatre combined. Robin Day’s ‘cruel glasses”, so memorably observed by Frankie Howard, were no match for Tunks’s turned up at full glare.
A stickler for accuracy, spelling and syntax, the words pruned on rationed newsprint to ‘a fact on every line”, it was not uncommon in a age of sparse telephones as well for a reporter to be sent back by bus to a village four miles away to turn an unacceptable ‘probably’into an ‘is”.
Ivan Leslie Tunks – ILT were the dreaded initials scrawled over rejected copy – was born in Eastbourne on 26 March, 1915, the youngest of four children in a middle-class family.
After matriculation from Eastbourne College, he joined the Eastbourne Gazette, moving to Slough as a reporter in 1938, his schooling getting him an RAF commission as Flight Lieutenant when the war came. He served in Northern Ireland and Italy as an intelligence debriefer of internees and released prisoners.
Allied internees in neutral Ireland, crashed airmen and washed up sailors, were treated at regular intervals to a Dublin cinema, inside which a waiting British agent, often as likely as not, John Betjeman from the High Commission, was waiting with a street map to the northern rail terminus and a ticket voucher to Belfast.
It was the Irish government’s response to the protesting German embassy that they had escaped in the dark when the big picture started. Waiting for them at the northern border with comforts, clothing and questions was Flight Lieutenant Tunks. He never spoke of his Italian service, though most likely it involved similar roles with prisoners released by the Allied advance.
Dr Tunks’ Academy
His own rejections of Fleet Street invitations were anchored by his private life and his companion, Dottie Doust, the vivacious divorced wife of Alex, a British colonial Lieutenant Governor. Iceland-born, she was gifted at throwing parties at their Edwardian villa in Datchet, which became a reporters’ mecca for food which defied the continued post-war austerity, while callow youths learned the social graces of dining and dancing.
Around a dozen journalists still refer to that period of their careers as Dr Tunks’ Academy, tumult in the newsroom forgotten.
After Dottie’s untimely death, Leslie was fortunate in finding a common chord of love and companionship with Judith Richardson, widow of Stanley, the editor who succeeded him, and now his surviving widow.
Most of his ‘stars’are agreed that by far the greatest was Kenneth Allsop, a pioneer of current affairs presentation on TV, a star book critic with the Daily Mail, an environmental ornothologist whose memorial is the nature conservancy island of Steep Holm, administered as a charity by the Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust.
‘Mafia’colleague Willy Wolff took rabbinical studies during the peak of his career as political-page editor and an own-name diarist at the Mirror. Now in retirement, but ministering ex officio to a flourishing Jewish settlement in east Germany, Rabbi Wolff flew from Mecklenberg to deliver a deep and moving panegyric at the funeral. Had it been delivered at The Times National Sermon Competition, he would have won hands down.
Willy, his perfect English grammar and sonorous delivery still magnetically tinged by the accent of his infancy in Germany before
his parents fled the Nazis, told us that Leslie never wore his heart on his sleeve, yet cared deeply about the work and lives of his
Leslie was saluted on his Final Journey by Derek Prigent, Douglas May and myself, who had all joined his newsroom in the Forties and Fifties, and now joined family and friends at Slough Crematorium.