Thursday 4 February 2021
The recent reminiscences of the London World Desk prompted memories of the idiosyncrasies of the New York desk in its early days (after the break with AP) of the late 1960s and 70s.
It was the guinea pig for the first use of electronic screens for writing and editing copy on Visual Display Units (VDU). They were quite easy to use, a vast improvement over paper and tape, but the early models had a major design flaw.
They had an Erase End of Screen (EOS) button next to the SEND tab in the top left-hand corner of the screen. The result of accidentally hitting the wrong button as you were about to transmit, irretrievably wiping all the work you had just done, prompted what became known as the EOS scream. They also had a key to lock the machine. When the late great Lars-Erik Nelson did this twice in short order, he ripped out the key, strode to a window and threw it out into the snow, declaring: “I’m not paid enough to do the same bloody thing three times”.
The General News editor was an old hand, Mike Charvet, freewheeling his way to retirement. He did not bother much with the file and I was a bit perplexed when, soon after my arrival, he assigned me to cover a darts tournament at a Manhattan hotel on a Saturday evening. Arriving there, Mike met me in the lobby, said forget the darts, and whisked me off to his favourite watering-hole, explaining that he had been short of a drinking companion. (His regular partner, Gordon Ditchfield, having been recently transferred to Washington).
Mike, and his diminutive, sparrow-like wife Peggy, who could also drink for Manhattan, lived in an apartment building near the office that was reputed to be owned by the Mafia. Peggy - in or out of her cups - was prone to approaching swarthy, burly men in the lobby and elevator, prodding them as she asked “Are you a gangster too”.
There were a wonderful cast of characters on the desk at the time, such as Arthur Spiegelman, George Short, David Nicholson, Kevin Cooney, Len Santorelli, Evelyn Leopold, Peter Kiernan, the great-hearted Wally McCabe who was kindness itself to all (but you must never put him on the roster for St Patrick’s Day), and an overtly-racist operator of Polish origin.
Arthur was a gentle raw-boned giant who wrote with the smoothness of silk and was given to bouts of girlish giggles. He was well remembered for an instance, on the Nordesk in London, when his wife arrived on the 4th floor with a babe in arms and thrust the child to him saying words to the effect that it was his turn to look after it. Arthur silently opened a desk drawer, lined it with newspapers, carefully laid the child down and returned to the story he was working on.
When you took over the slot and, in tidying up the mess, found some well-chewed chicken bones among the papers you knew that it had been recently vacated by Arthur. Or, if there were savagely-chewed biros oozing ink, that Evelyn had preceded you.
It was the first time that Brits had come across credit cards, whose reckless use proved painful for some, including George, whose unpaid bill left behind on return to London later kyboshed the visa he needed to attend a meeting in Washington.
One night on his way home in the early hours, stony-broke after a few hours of revelling with Cooney and Nicholson, George was stopped by a large, black gentleman just short of his apartment not far from Harlem. He was asked: “Hey man, you got a quarter?” Patting his empty pockets, George apologetically said he had not. “You’ve not got a quarter,” the man said incredulously, before adding as he strode off indignantly: “Well, you owe me”. ■