Former Evening Standard crime correspondent John Stevens has died aged 86
With his lustrous handlebar moustache, natty line in blazers and slacks, mellifluous tones and weakness for a good ale, John Stevens could easily have been mistaken for an RAF veteran.
In fact he was crime reporter of the old school – one of the best – and immensely proud of both his newspaper and his profession.
In three decades at the Evening Standard, he covered every great event on his patch from the Great Train Robbery, through the IRA atrocities and serial killings of the 1970s and 1980s, to the Brink’s-Mat raid and its aftermath.
Interested only in breaking stories – which he acquired through an extensive network of police contacts and one or two on the other side of the criminal divide – he seldom bothered to cover court cases on the grounds that they were old news and such things as crime figures and police or Home Office policy stories and crime figures bored him to tears.
Stevens was a man of considerable culture. He had read the complete works of Shakespeare (in chronological order with notes), Dickens and latterly Thomas Hardy, and his love of Beethoven and Wagner bordered on obsession.
It was not unusual for him to be humming the Ode to Joy or mimicking the horns from Ride of the Valkyries while banging out an intro on his two-ton Remington.
He was a fine cook (a talent he claimed to have inherited from his grandmother who had been in domestic service) and knew all the words to all the songs from Oklahoma. Other recreational activities included swimming in the Thames early on spring and summer mornings near his wisteria-clad cottage at Walton.
Stevens adored the company of journalists and the atmosphere of the pubs they frequented. Most lunchtimes he would set up a bridgehead at the bar of the Cartoonist, behind the old Express Newspapers building in Shoe Lane and dispense drinks to all comers. In the evening he could often be found in the Cab House, the Albert or one of the other hostelries near Scotland Yard.
John was born in 1929 in Sunbury on Thames, the son of an Evening Standard cashier who later became a newsagent. He was educated at Kingston Grammar School and took up journalism after completing his national service in the army.
He joined the Esher News in 1954, where he met his first wife Marion, also a junior reporter on the paper. They married a year later and moved to Coventry, where John worked at the Evening Telegraph.
By 1958 they were back in Surrey, where John was hired as a general reporter for the Frank Woods news agency in Surbiton. When Woods sold his business to the Standard, he made it a condition that John was taken on as a junior reporter.
He arrived in Fleet Street in the age when cacophonous hot metal presses shook the pavements, newsrooms operated in a thick fog of cigarette smoke and beer fumes and reporters still addressed the resentful copy runners as ‘boy’ and the news editor as ‘sir’.
It was the summit of all his ambitions.
Macmillan was prime minister – yet to be brought down by that lethal combination of spies and society prostitutes – JFK was US president and two young gangsters named Ron and Reg Kray were just expanding their protection rackets from Bethnal Green and Whitechapel into the heart of the West End.
Competition between the Standard and the London Evening News was at its most intense. With five or six editions a day, exclusives and new angles on running stories were demanded by sometimes tyrannical newsdesks.
Being beaten by the opposition could bring down a terrible wrath. Conversely, a good scoop brought backslapping and plaudits – for a day at least.
Stevens got his first scoop during the train robbery investigation and was moved on to the crime desk soon after. He took over as chief crime reporter in the mid-1970s, in tragic circumstances.
His predecessor John Ponder had been arrested – along with Tommy Bryant, head of the Fleet Street News Agency – in connection with the theft and distribution of six police photographs.
Falling into a deep depression, Ponder shot himself in the abdomen with a 12-bore, destroying his spleen and damaging other internal organs but failing to kill himself. He was eventually acquitted but no longer deemed fit for work.
From then until his retirement in 1991 (pictured below), Stevens remained the Standard’s chief crime reporter and was unfailingly generous with his time and expertise to younger journalists. His cheery disposition and booming salutation, ‘My Dear Fellow’ are much missed.
Marion died from cancer in 1984, a disease John himself fought and beat in his late fifties. In 1987 he married again to Pauline Elliot, a former News of the World office manager. She died in 2000.
Stevens was one of the last of the generation of crime reporters whose lives were completely intertwined with those of their police contacts. His friend and colleague Tom Sandrock of the Telegraph was even a supernumerary driver for the Flying Squad.
The relationships would be considered wildly unhealthy today but they led to some riotous times, especially at annual conferences.
When chief constables or the Superintendents’ Association met at Torquay, Stevens and the rest of his cadre would stay at the Gleneagles Hotel, whose barking mad owner Donald Sinclair – the inspiration for Basil Fawlty – frequently threatened to throw them out and occasionally did.
One year at the ACPO dinner, Stevens regaled the chief officers with a word-perfect rendition of ‘I’m just a Girl who can’t say No’, sparking a general sing-song that lasted for most of the night. It’s somehow hard to imagine that being Bernard Hogan-Howe’s idea of a good do.
John Stevens passed away on 12 January at Kingston hospital after a short illness. His daughter and two sons were with him at the end.