Friday, 9 December 2011

The Maltese Cross Society

7/12/11 Mail on Sunday Christmas party.

It was the first paper I worked on when I somehow entered the magical kingdom of Fleet Street in 1984. I got a staff job at the paper in 1988 after an interview with the ladies who started the Greenham Common campaign. Then I quickly bought my first flat. Mrs Thatcher, say what you like about her, had opened a door for comprehensive school types like me, and we were all rolling in money. I didn’t use my own bank for years, just Lord Rothermere’s.
I was a little nervous as I approached the Brittania pub in Kensington, cranking myself up for seeing people from the past. I decided to make it a “no arse-holes evening,” avoiding anyone who’d gnashed their teeth at me or wanted to fill me with wrinkles.
The champagne was gushing like a faulty spigot, just like old times. A seamy old editor was leaning on the nearest bit of bar. He was much hated in his time but for some reason always liked me so I managed to survive just beyond the reach of his death ray. He grabbed me round my waist and I leaned on him, going into a kind of swoon of false bonhomie for a few minutes.
“You’ve got one really strong friend high up,” he said. Not him of course. I didn’t think he was talking about God either, and felt rather hopeful. He named someone on the Telegraph who hasn’t given me a lick of work since I left the Mail nearly six years ago. In fact we have no contact at all and he puts it about apparently, at least according to this old boy, that this is because I once quoted him on my blog.
I remember that, ages ago. The Mail had its first ever gay executive and he made a small joke about the Daily Mail being on Derry Street, calling it “derriere street.”
I think his reaction suggests just how much he wants to get back to the Nirvana that is the DM, at least if Lord Rothermere is still writing the cheques and he's terrified that anything might prevent it. This kind of neurosis, the clinging to a job, the thought of a career seemed almost quaint.
I unwound myself to wander down into the long bar, past Peter Tatchell, standing with the editor of the Tribune. This was a bit of a stumper, a clutch of lefties, as if I’d come to the wrong party. Peter is surely a modern day saint, he probably walks through walls into any party he chooses.
Attenuated with a kind of famished look, but burning within he reminded me of William Tyndale, the Protestant martyr. I tried to say this to him but it came out as William Caxton and he looked a bit puzzled. When I got the name right, he agreed he would die for his beliefs.
In the meantime he’s working on a feature for the Daily Mail. One of the few people who can say that whilst sounding quite innocent. But I was surprised as when I was there I arranged to interview him twice, with some difficulty as he didn’t like the Mail at all, and both times our meetings were cancelled at the last minute by Paul Dacre. Peter was on his hate list then.
At the other end of the bar I saw Chester Stern, now a little bent and crinkly. We share membership of the Maltese Cross Society; he once went there on a job, got as far as Valetta airport where they took one look at him and put him back on the plane. I went to Malta for the Daily Telegraph, spent a week there looking at the place, wrote what I thought was a fair piece, and got a letter from the Minister of the Interior telling me on no account to ever return. The bit about “on pain of death” was implied. The great Anthony Burgess once tried living there. He lasted three months before they put him in a taxi, took him to the airport and sent him back to the UK post-haste.
“You can go there now probably,” said Chester reassuringly. Who would want to? If I’m going to risk concrete sling-backs it has to be somewhere better than that lump of burning rock. I remember the black flies on what passed for the beach.
He started his career on a police newspaper, The Bill I think, in the days when Peelers were straight men who kept out of politics. He knows more about their doings than most. I told him he should use all this knowledge to write a book as most British people are strangely fascinated by the force, or perhaps puzzled would be a better word.
I trawled the room meeting people from the past, some I’d known only briefly but because it had been “on a job” it remained memorable. Leaning on the bar, large handsome and benevolent was Ron Johnson, as I called him, or Jon Ronson as he is. My memory for names vanishes with alcohol. When we were together on a job, about twenty five years ago, sailing around the Amalfi coast fruitlessly hunting for Charles and Diana, he had been rather lean and mean. I didn’t like the rat pack and felt rather scared of him. I remember sitting opposite him at a silent breakfast overlooking the Bay of Naples, feeling very uneasy.
“That photographer who was with us has terminal bowel cancer,” he said. “At least we are still going strong.”
Well up to a point. There were more similar tales to come; a snapper I knew when I first started work now has terminal cancer of the jaw, one of the really cruel ones. They’ve taken some of his tongue. Another has extensive prostate disease. But there are still quite a lot of us; thinner, fatter, written off but still hanging on. A few people seemed to be looking at me as if I’d come back from the dead, or was doing a turn as the pub ghost.
It’s not just the print media that’s dying, but many of us who made it what it was. The God’s have cursed us for our lippy, gabby hubris.
Above the increasing hubbub I could hear voices marvelling and mourning the expenses we used to get. It was the best of times, it was the worst. The journalist Nick Cohen reminded me about sub-editors as we used to know them, when they were also well paid and powerful: “Now look, Mr Dickens. It is either the best or it’s the worst, it cannot be both. The editor won’t like it.”
He also told a long joke, with a lot of arm waving about two subs in the desert who finally find an oasis of fresh water. One of them immediately pisses into it.
When his colleague asks him why, he says, “It looks so wonderful I just have to improve it.”
I spotted an MP standing in a corner, smiling. Couldn’t remember his name although I could clearly remember that he began life on a council estate. He often appears on Question Time, serving up the usual flannel. The person standing by me, a good diarist, couldn’t remember who he was either. We put this to him and he laughed happily, admitting that he is David Davis.
Eventually reaching a table of food I saw Anne Atkins, Christian polemicist. She has sprouted soft white curls, and dressed in a voluminous gown sprigged with jewels she looked like Elizabeth I without her red wig. She surprised me by saying she doesn’t like doing Thought For the Day on Radio 4.
“All so last minute,” she said vaguely. I wonder if that is because of her pressing demands as a wife and mother or something to do with the Today Programme ringing her up ten minutes before they broadcast.
The pub was bursting with women, of all types. There were youngish Russian looking prostitutes with elaborate yellow hair and tiny sequinned skirts, and older girls who’d been made famous by the papers; Nancy dell’Olio and a former mistress of Lord Archer. One of the dolls said she had been getting unpleasant letters from Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, known to us all as Sir Julian Fellowes, purveyor of Sunday evening comfort to the gentry.
“Mad,” she says, “utterly mad.” Fascinating, but I had missed the beginning of the story about how they fell out.
At one point just as I was getting fuzzy I was surrounded by women with the yellow doll hair and plastic faces, slit eyes, distended lips and airbrushed teak coloured skin. They seemed to be peering curiously at me and I was as puzzled by them as if they were a tribe from the New Hebrides. We had no way of communicating and I quickly escaped.
There were the ladies who made it into journalism by being pretty and posh. I spoke to one who’d lost her husband a few years back, when her children were small. She smiled down at me with the condescension of a Mitford, with no need of concerned kindness from the likes of me.
In the loo I listened respectfully to one of the Dimbleby gels grieving about her lack of pregnancy. She said she was about to start IVF, many rounds probably, with financial family support. She obviously really loves children as she said she would be happy to adopt.
“But as we are upper middle class and my husband is an army officer the odds are stacked against us,” she said.
Extraordinary that there are social workers who would prefer that a child stay in local authority care growing up to lead a life of crime, rather than let it become a prosperous little Dimbleby! It’s like a dark fairy-tale, a production of the Nutcracker or Oliver which begins and ends in the orphanage.
Then there were the old hackettes like me, slightly dusty, wasted and worn, wall eyed with clinging on to the last vestiges of work in the print medium. I can only hope that, in the words of Primo Levi, there will be a long, mild autumn for all of us.

Now that the time presses urgently,
And the tasks are finished,
To all of you the modest wish
That autumn will be long and mild.
Primo Levi

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