"Hey you, you long streak of piss, do six pars on this as fast as you can!" Despite the rudeness I didn’t take offence. Nor did the other subs summoned in similar terms by one of Fleet Street’s greatest chief sub-editors, Ray Mills.
Few of the people who laboured under Ray in his days in charge of the subs’ desk at The Sun were much troubled by the insults, delivered in his gruff Lancastrian accent. The sheepish little smile that inevitably accompanied the abuse revealed the truth: his bark was far worse than his bite.
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Not that he wanted anyone to know it. He cultivated the image of a rough, tough Northerner who revelled in being obnoxious and uncultured. His bulk and a penchant for ostentatious displays of vulgarity — such as drying his smelly socks on radiators — certainly reinforced the impression.
It was hardly any wonder that he ended up with some ripe nicknames, such as Docker, Dark Satanic and finally BIFFO (Big Ignorant Fucker From Oldham).
In fact, they were all wide of the mark. Raymond Alan Joseph Mills was one of Oldham’s finest and cleverest products. At Hulme Grammar he regularly vied for top place in the annual English exams with another of the town’s late, lamented stellar journalistic exports, the Daily Mail theatre critic, Jack Tinker.
Ray began his career in 1956 at the Oldham Evening Chronicle and Oldham Press Agency, before spending two years in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) on The Chronicle in Bulawayo. A brief stint on papers in Bristol then led him to the Manchester office of the Daily Herald.
After that paper had been reborn as The Sun he transferred to the London office and, when Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1969, Ray was made chief sub.
It was a difficult desk to run with a mixture of inexperienced tyros, such as me, some talented, but rebellious, veterans and a posse of Australian mercenaries.
Ray rose to the challenge magnificently, as I discovered when I worked alongside him as his deputy a couple of years later. He got the best from his troops by combining belligerence with understanding, though I thought him a little too enthusiastic when playing games of office cricket with a vicious ball made from elastic bands. Ray tended to treat them like test matches.
He also had a streak of pedantry that proved helpful in his composition of The Sun’s style book, a generally sensible guide containing odd examples of idiosyncrasy, such as the delineation of which nations "ran amok" and which "went berserk".
In 1977, Ray was promoted to Northern editor of the News of the World, allowing him to live in style in Saddleworth, the beautiful village on the hills near Oldham that he loved so much. He spent four years with the NoW until joining the Daily Star as deputy editor.
It was to prove a bumpy ride because the paper was embroiled in a number of controversial situations, such as the illicit payments to witnesses in the Yorkshire Ripper case, the Jeffrey Archer libel action and the extraordinary period in 1987 when the Star was briefly merged with the Daily Sport.
Ray also wrote a weekly column famous for its homespun right-wing pugnacity, drawing heavily on supposed conversations at an Oldham pub, the Wellie. I hardly agreed with a word he wrote, but I cherish the line he supposedly overheard on a bus: "A friend is someone you wouldn’t shoot unless you had to."
After leaving the Star, the Express Group’s managing director, Andy Cameron, gave Ray the apparently thankless task of running the international edition of the Daily Express. He approached the job with typical determination and managed to boost overseas circulation to more than 120,000 copies, organising print contracts in Spain, the US, Australia and South Africa. Cameron recalls that the group’s then chairman, Lord Stevens, was delighted with the success, remarking: "We asked for an edition and Ray Mills has given us a newspaper."
His work was interrupted by a bad fall from a roof while mending a TV aerial at his home in Rickmansworth. The injury may well have killed a lesser man, but Ray recovered well enough to carry on until he later accepted a disability pension. Even then he refused to retire completely, working as a consultant at Associated Newspapers for its managing director, Murdoch MacLennan, one of Ray’s greatest admirers.
Throughout Ray’s illness with cancer, MacLennan — now chief executive of the Telegraph Group — maintained close contact with Ray and his wife, Joan. He also attended his funeral.
Among the mourners were several old Star colleagues, including the current Daily Express deputy editor, Hugh Whittow, and Star deputy editor Jim Mansell. Older friends included Nigel Blundell, Alix Palmer and Jeff McGowan.
One man unable to make it because he was abroad, was one of Ray’s greatest admirers, Ian Levac, who had visited him regularly in recent months. He and I are among a handful of survivors of Ray’s Sun subs’ desk from the early 1970s, and we often talk of our days under his tutelage, doing imitations of him to remind each other of the joys of working with a truly fine man.