Typewriters, teleprinters and a tea trolley
Saturday 6 February 2021
“What papers d’you read, chum?” It was my first week as a trainee in September 1962 and chief news editor Sid Mason was welcoming me to Reuters. He hooked his thumbs around his braces and stared at me suspiciously, waiting for a reply.
“Erm, the Guardian,” I said, and added untruthfully: “And The Times.” Sid looked me up and down, then shook his head. “No good,” he said. “Gotta read the pops, cock. Gotta read the pops.” With that, I was dismissed.
I had read “Scoop”, but the language of Fleet Street was outside my experience. “What did he mean?” I asked Lesley Haynes, my first Reuter boss who had been watching the brief exchange with Sid from his own desk a few feet away.
Lesley, short and skeletal with a skinny moustache and the catch-all title of editorial manager, grinned at my naivety. “He means the Mirror and the Mail and the Express,” he said. “Sid thinks they’re real journalism,” he added, then emphatically: “So do I.”
Reading Peter Gregson’s memoir of Reuters in the late 1960s (Reuters ‘Circus’ - more big top than Le Carré), I was reminded of this encounter and of other people, sights and sounds in General News on the fourth floor, where I spent my first Baronial years, 1962 to 1965.
It was a time of battered typewriters, clattering teleprinters and the afternoon tea trolley usually wheeled by the redoubtable Nelly, a middle-aged lady from Shoreditch with a nice line in blueish banter as she dispensed sandwiches, buns and, my favourite, jam doughnuts.
It would be a gross exaggeration to say all human life was there. For one thing, there were almost no women - just two or three behind partitions in the typing pool, Nelly and the other trolley ladies, Muriel Penn, and Lesley’s assistant Vanessa by the window on the St Bride's side.
(I remember Vanessa because her boyfriend sold me my first car, a cherry-red second-hand Mini which turned out to be one of Issigonis’ failures. One night it broke down in front of Buckingham Palace, leaving me and my future wife stranded in the rain, but that’s another story.)
Muriel Penn was indeed hot on spelling, as I learned when Lesley loaned me to edit Situationers and Mailers for her. Once, after many hours turning three rambling Spanish screeds from the Paraguay stringer into what I thought were top-class features, I was summoned to her presence.
I was greeted by a choleric Muriel waving a three-para mailer I had subbed the day before. “What is this?” she demanded. “No junior who can’t spell Mediterranean has a future in Reuters!” Her voice resounded around the desks, and my brilliant Paraguay pieces were forgotten.
Our evenings were sometimes spiced by visits from a dark-haired lady from France-Soir bringing her copy to Jacques Edinger’s French Desk. And around 1964, two younger English ladies joined Editorial, first Patricia Clough and later Lynne Edmonds.
A fixture in the typing pool was Vic Sullivan. Rotund, short-sighted and proud of his green eye-shade, Vic had a large appetite, demolishing doorstep sandwiches for lunch yet still at the front of the line for the 4pm trolley. He was said to be a keyboard whizz but I never had a chance to try him out.
Then there were the telegraphists. On Westaf and Carib, we had Ted Gulliver, gaunt chain-smoker of self-rolled cigarettes. He was often grumpy but as sharp on subbing errors as any senior editor. Droop-jowled Wally Tuffin, dubbed “the Bloodhound,” was the boss of the telegraphists. Rows would erupt around his tiny table weekly when he posted his duty skeds.
The messengers, bringers of cable copies, “blacks”, to the regional desks, were generally self-effacing. The exception was Elijah, a stubby Armenian with a foghorn voice and less than perfect English. “Hello, Mr Bob!” he would greet me piano voce. And delivering a black, he would sometimes drop the volume and whisper confidentially: “Izza big story!”
Ruling over operators and messengers was George Holden, pot-bellied class warrior, chief clerk and Father of the telegraphists’ union Chapel. Convinced that university graduates were sons of the idle rich, he treated me and fellow trainee Peter Smith with proletarian disdain - and on occasion with beer-fuelled hostility.
But he lost one battle with the class enemy after he posted a Labour Party leaflet on the chapel’s noticeboard ahead of the 1964 General Election.
Westaf editor (and my then boss) John Fawcus, a chronic worrier of normally pacific temperament, protested that this public display of political partisanship violated Reuters neutrality. After a verbal confrontation witnessed across the floor, George was forced to concede and the leaflet was removed.
Editor-in-chief Doon Campbell occupied an unimpressively small office behind a glass partition looking onto St Bride's. His sallies out to the floor, swinging his prosthetic arm, were energetic but brief. His one-hand typing was a legend, although I never actually saw him in action.
Doon’s deputy Ranald (Ran) McLurkin, a self-effacing Scot and a calming antidote to Doon’s adrenalin, had a smaller office alongside. Completing the four-man Politburo was Sid Mason’s deputy Jack Allen, who adopted the guise of a 1950s cartoon spiv but could make his typewriter keys produce the sound of a machine-gun blast.
There were other notable characters: Westaf sub Sammy Kye, giant son of an Ashanti chief; bulky South Africa Desk head Arthur Mulcock; Europe Desk’s Charlie Farmer, who later switched to Staff Department and for years set living allowances for Reuters correspondents; and John Camsell, who ran Eastern Desk with a light, some said invisible, hand, but was another trolley fiend.
On Eastern, across from Westaf, was another trainee, Andrew Waller, who like me had gone through a National Service Russian course. A year before me, Andrew was despatched to Moscow in 1964 to join the legendary, if occasionally explosive, East Bloc expert Sidney Weiland.
Once or twice in my first three years at 85 Fleet Street, the lift stopped on the seond floor, but I never got out. I had been warned off by Lesley: “They’re strange people down in Econ.” The remark stuck with me and long after I avoided anything remotely resembling a financial story. Only in Paris two decades later I discovered that Econ journalists were fairly normal.
General News had an adjunct in Hertfordshire, a former army camp called Green End where half a dozen East European exiles monitored broadcasts from the Soviet bloc - aiming to give Reuters a beat over its own bureaux which had to deal with censorship. I was taken into the Baron’s bosom after a three-day test there transcribing news on Moscow radio.
The operation was run by a tall, bald Englishman called Archie with a pronounced conspiratorial manner. He claimed he had been pre-war Times correspondent in the spy-paradise of the Balkans. The operation, closed down in the late 1960s. Its almost only legacy was Henry Zalewski, a Polish refugee from communism, who was transferred to 85. ■