Don and I shared an office at The Sunday Times for two years. We were in charge of features when the paper, under Harry Evans, was perhaps just passing its peak of greatness but was still the best place on Fleet Street it was possible to be. We were, I think, a good team: Don the consummate professional, former chief sub, headline maestro, knew about typefaces, never missed a deadline. I was the rewrite man.
Don was probably the nicest journalist I ever worked with – funny, self-deprecating, a shrewd observer of other people, a fund of good anecdotes. He used to say that managing the front page of the paper on a Saturday afternoon was like brain surgery, with the minutes ticking towards deadline and a few final incisions to be made. Then, just as the scalpel went in, and the last caption fell into place, Harry would come up behind him, lean over to inspect the work and give him a nudge. “I think that headline should be in 72 point,” he would say. “And is that really the best picture we’ve got?”
Our week began with Harry’s Tuesday conference, as ideas were tossed around, none of which might ever come to fruition, but which gave the opportunity for some high-flown intellectualising by the paper’s eggheads. I still remember Harry’s exasperated intervention: “Yes, but what’s the story?” He always wanted to know whether we were on top of developments. “Have we got that covered?” he would ask. Sometimes we had, sometimes we hadn’t. Don, however, had the perfect answer. “Indeed,” he would say, a response that seemed to cover all bases.
Apart from more general features, Don and I had the responsibility for the Focus page – the kernel, as it were, of the paper, the place where the key story of the week would finally emerge after many hours of argument, deliberation, high drama and occasionally tears. The first four paragraphs would determine whether it worked or not. Fridays tended to be all-night affairs.
And then, one day, we were told that Rupert Murdoch would be visiting the paper, prior to his takeover of The Times and Sunday Times. He walked into our office. Don and I stood up. “So what do you guys do?” he asked. “We are responsible for the Focus page,” we announced proudly. He looked at us, witheringly. “Just the one page?” he asked. Somehow, we knew our days were numbered. – Magnus Linklater
I often wished I had been born a decade earlier. I had always regretted never working on The Sunday Times in the 60s and 70s, when it was blessed with a brilliant editor, Harry Evans, and a forgiving proprietor, Roy Thomson. I was a fan from the age of 11. My father bought me The Sunday Times – and The Observer – after church, while he took the Sunday Mirror and The People. We had The Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Express delivered at home. Heady days for newspaper circulation.
Two decades later, I was fortunate to work with one of Evans’s most able helpers, Don. By then, he was consigliere to Max Hastings at the Telegraph, amiably dragging it out of the 1960s. I say the Telegraph, because not long after I arrived at The Sunday Telegraph in 1989, it was merged with the Daily. And while I retained my position as night editor (an ambitious casting at the age of 30), I was told in no uncertain terms by a Daily executive that
Dad’s Army would have to fall in line behind the Brigade of Guards. At some point, Don was drafted into the Sunday. I got to work with a hero. Modest, kind, calm, considerate. And talented. A joy to work with.
After three years, I took the fast jet to Hong Kong. From 1992, everyone was dropping in for a last blast of the colony. I took Don and his wife Christine to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and they treated me to dinner at the Peak Café. Don spoke of a surprising but kindly gesture the proprietor, Conrad Black, overruling management to keep the canteen open for the subs. A small victory for the troops. Despite all the travails Don must have faced in reshaping the Telegraph, he showed no side. A rare gift in newspapers. – Andrew Lynch
I met Don, an impenitent Yorkshireman, in 1985 and persuaded him soon after to become assistant editor of The Daily Telegraph. He knew everything about news management, layout and typography that I, then a freshman editor, did not. We worked together for the next 16 years, and I loved as well as revered him.
Don had a stock of maxims such as every generation of journalists does well to heed. The first was “Give readers the facts before you comment”. He believed, rightly, that too many titles have abandoned a commitment to serve as papers of record in favour of mere barrages of opinions. Next precept was “Never pose a question in a headline that you do not answer in the copy”. Don also insisted that, before publishing any story, those in charge should ask each other “Is it true?” and “Would we be embarrassed if the means by which we obtained it appeared in Private Eye?”.
He was a good human being as well as a superb newspaperman, an unusual combination. – Max Hastings (writing in The Times)
A few years ago, Michael was assigned to write my obituary. Now, unhappily, it’s my turn to return the favour, not with an obituary, but more as a stream of good memories.
We first came across each other in 1966, sitting not far apart in the pre-Murdoch Sun newsroom in Covent Garden, when it was still an actual market garden.
Well, we usually sat not far from each other. Michael was far more important and had his very own desk; I was a 21-year-old holiday relief who hot-desked it around the office before “hot desking” was even a thing. He was the grandly titled deputy diplomatic correspondent. In those days, even the sinking Sun boasted specialists galore.
Michael was a ginger-topped gnome of a man, deceptively quiet and softspoken. He had a wicked wit for someone who seemed, at first, so easygoing. And his eyes, in any conversation, always gave the feeling he was way ahead of you, whatever the topic. I was still writing stories about such momentous issues as the latest postage stamp release when Michael became an award-winning star. He was the first journalist to expose the famine in Biafra. His story was headed “The Land of No Hope” and it caused a sensation.
So, naturally, when the broadsheet Sun was on its last legs and Rupert Murdoch loomed, Michael was snapped up by The Times. (My own application to that newspaper was met with a crisp note of rejection from John Grant, the legendary home news editor.) In the 1970s, Michael and I were neighbours on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan. New York City teemed with Fleet Street correspondents in those days. Michael was there for The Times and I for
Murdoch’s vamped-up Sun (Rupert had yet to nab The Times). We didn’t cross paths much on assignments, but we lived in the same apartment building and our wives and children were friends. Michael would tell with delight how he agreed to rent its “unluckiest” apartment – No 1313 – on condition his family lived the first three months rent-free as compensation.
Back in London, he became editor of the newspaper’s daily PHS diary, writing memorable pieces about his allotment by the walls of Brixton prison. I never knew anyone but Michael who could write like a poet about growing carrots. That Brixton allotment inspired the first of Michael’s many books – One Man and His Plot. Another he wrote caused mild tension between us; he was the author of the first biography of Rupert Murdoch.
It was the early 80s and I was deputy editor of the Boston Herald, which Murdoch owned. Michael was a guest at our house while doing his research. The book’s title – Bare-Faced Cheek – is all you need to understand that Michael was not a Rupert admirer. We remained friends, though it was a while before I admitted to harbouring such a strident, sharp-penned critic.
In later years, we would meet at “The Codgers” lunches at the Garrick Club, where Fleet Street old timers listen over their wine as guest speakers talk of the terrifying changes sweeping their old trade. He would invite me to the annual Christmas lunch he organised for the dwindling survivors from the old Sun.
Our last long conversation came when I agreed to sit for a couple of hours in Michael’s living room, pre-burying myself over tea and cake while he took notes for my obituary. I only did it because Michael could be so persuasive. He told me only two obit subjects had ever refused to be interviewed: David Frost and Chapman Pincher (“It would upset the wife”). And I remember what he told me as I left that day. “Chances are neither of us will ever see this piece in print,” he said, blinking as he smiled, in the way he often did. – Les Hinton
My father enjoyed a long and varied career in journalism. In the 60s, he exposed famine in Biafra, as a war reporter for the broadsheet Sun. In the 70s, he edited The Times diary, entertaining readers with tales of his Brixton allotment. In the 80s and 90s, he wrote biographies of Rupert Murdoch and Neil Kinnock, and books about the BBC and Fleet Street – among 18 books he authored.
I say he enjoyed his career because at each paper he worked on – these also included The Scotsman, Daily Express and Independent – he made lasting friendships. He and my late mother Olga were sociable characters and often entertained their wide circle of friends, mostly journalists, at our London home.
Michael’s career was a break from family tradition; we come from a line of Jewish shopkeepers. I, his only child, showed less imagination and followed him into his trade. He supported me through life’s ups and downs and was proud – although that’s not a Leapman word – when I became editor last year of the national prison newspaper, Inside Time.
In planning Michael’s funeral, I thought I should include a reading of his work – but how can one represent 60 years of writing with a single passage?
I chose an excerpt from his Leapman in America column, written for The Times in the 70s, in which he describes taking eight-year-old Ben for a haircut in an Italian district of New York. He asks the proprietor for a basic $3.50 trim, but another customer weighs in, enthusing about the barber’s skill and urging dad to pay for a fancier cut. Dad realises it’s an offer he can’t refuse, and upgrades to a $6 “style”. Even while I’m in the chair, another customer chips in: “He’s doing your boy’s hair real nice.”
Dad reflects that having such a loyal clientele is part of the Great American Dream and concludes that to cope in New York, you must go with the flow. I think the piece demonstrates my father’s skills: relating to people, observing detail, and writing with wit and empathy about pretty much anything. – Ben Leapman
Michael Leapman and I first met after founder editor Geoffrey Goodman added us to the formidable editorial board of the then-fledgling British Journalism Review. I knew Michael’s work, which I had admired as he skated across many aspects of the trade – if Michael Leapman didn’t cover a subject, it quite probably didn’t exist – whereas he might well have never heard of me. It didn’t matter; we established a friendship based mainly, but by no means solely, on watching cricket.
Pleasant days at the Kennington Oval, at which Michael’s supercook wife Olga would sometimes join him, accompanied by a loaded cold bag, led to the occasional proper lunch in the pavilion. No matter that often only a few hundred Surrey fans peppered stands capable of accommodating thousands; for me to be with Michael, accessing the scorecards’ facts and figures stored in his busy brain, meant I could pretend to be as knowledgeable as he.
We last spoke when he was about to be discharged from what turned out to be his last stay in hospital, assuring me he would soon be fit enough for us to resume our Oval visits. Yet when I heard of his passing, it wasn’t pure cricket that first came to mind; rather, the time he loaned me a book with the proviso that I was to be certain I returned it after a trip abroad. “I wouldn’t want to lose it,” he said. Of course, I lost it, leaving it in the seat pocket of an aeroplane on the way home. Efforts to recover it failed. I was distraught.
“Those things happen,” was all he said when I told him, simply turning his attention to the Oval game playing out in the morning sunshine. What a friend! With whom can I go with to The Oval now? – Bill Hagerty
I spent a month with Ann in 1979. Richard Arnot, a consultant at a hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and his wife Penny had been arrested after an alcohol-fuelled expat party in which two guests – one of them the young British nurse Helen Smith – were found dead beneath a sixth-floor balcony. There were rumours of sex and allegations of a cover-up designed to protect Saudi nationals who had joined the partying.
Richard and Penny were a good-looking couple with a reputation for being party animals. They were held in jail for four months and Penny was sentenced to a public lashing for alleged adultery. They were rescued by the Foreign Office, flown back to Britain and an old-fashioned Fleet Street hunt was on to get their exclusive story.
I was news editor of the Daily Mail and the editor David English decided I should track them down, offer £100,000 for serial rights and spirit them off to some distant, secret location. English was obsessed with the story: a good-looking middle-class couple, professionals with a veneer of sophistication that landed them right in the paper’s target readership, with the spice of wild sex parties and international politics (the Saudis were threatening diplomatic repercussions). Harry Longmuir, the Mail’s dour, tenacious reporter of the year, was to interview them and “get the truth”. Ina Miller, the editor’s secretary, was deputed to type up Harry’s notes. Ann Leslie’s role as the stylist was to write it up into five compelling episodes.
Mine was to file front-page news stories for each episode, keep the Arnots happy, and sort out any problems.
It seems incredible today, but we decided the place to “tuck them away” from our rivals was 500 miles north, in a small hotel at Crinan on the west coast of Scotland. I greeted Ann here after she had made a long car journey from Glasgow airport. You couldn’t see across the loch for the sea mist. The midges were biting, it was cold and the hotel had run out of cigarettes. Ann was a chain-smoker.
“Jesus,” she wailed. “How long have we got to stay in this hole?”
“Actually, when the sun shines, it looks like calendar country.”
“Yes, but when is it going to brighten up?”
Next to arrive was the lovely Ina Miller, sporting a Dusty Springfield beehive and enough mascara for a panda. Ina had been told to arrive incognito in case anyone got wind of us and called the Daily Express. She arrived in a white Cadillac. “It was the only taxi willing to come this far,” she said. Ina stepped out of the Cadillac in a daffodil yellow coat. “Christ,” said Ann.
“She looks like Danny La Rue. Every paper will know we’re here now.” Ann could be very cutting.
It went on like that for the month. We were all locked together. Richard Arnot’s wandering eye wandered only as far as Ann, and Ann knew how to get a story out of womanisers like Richard Arnot, softening him up for Harry’s questions and crafting beautiful copy. The weather brightened and there were nights we dined on lobster and champagne at the waterside while Ann played Arnot like a fiddle and Penny Arnot kept a very close eye on both of them.
It might not have compared to Ann’s triumphs welcoming Mandela out of prison or clambering over the Berlin Wall as it was being knocked down, but as a reminder of the helter-skelter, reckless, money-splurging, scoop-chasing, buy-ups heyday of old-school Fleet Street, it always had us laughing. – Rod Gilchrist
Ann Leslie was a fireman. Not a firefighter, let alone a fireperson. But a magnificent survivor of a swashbuckling Fleet Street generation when most roving foreign correspondents were blokes, few of whom wore mascara, lipstick and, on occasion, fur coats, as Ann did. She was as tough as her old well-made boots, but also very feminine, sometimes even vulnerable. In pursuit of the story, she used the assets she had, which also included an Oxford degree (English) and the commanding presence of a child of the Raj.
I first met The Dame on what must have been one of her cushier gigs, following Margaret Thatcher around Britain during the last three weeks of the 1979 general election. Jim Callaghan’s slim hope lay in a fatal Thatcher gaffe. Fat chance of that: great pictures, few significant words – telly with the sound turned off. The Mirror rang the Suffolk farmer every day to see if that calf Thatcher famously fondled had died. It didn’t.
Ann took it in her stride. I can’t recall a word she wrote for the Mail (nor mine), but she was a star who was also one of the lads, no airs and graces. Not awed by the future Iron Lady, of course, when she – occasionally – shared a G&T with the hacks on the plane. Unlike Maggie, she didn’t get grander, as do some media celebs, safe on their sofas. In a motherly way, she proudly fretted about her daughter, Katharine, and was devoted too to Mike Fletcher (her Oxford beau), loyal chauffeur outside the Garrick when she emerged from Fleet Street Codgers lunches she attended despite illness.
In a recent email exchange, Ann reported that she was getting fed-up with doctors, having “sailed happily through a huge surgical clear-out of my innards” years ago. Why couldn’t they fix it? But she was cheerful and feeling better. The Dame ended the email with her favourite line on “senescence” from Bette Davis: “Old age sure ain’t no place for sissies.” Ann Leslie died in her sleep that same night. – Michael White
When I was growing up in the 80s, my mum had “the best job in the world”. For her, this wasn’t so much a way of saying she liked her job, it was just a fact: Mummy had the best job in the world. There was none better. Mummy (as I always called her) travelled frequently, but never for very long, and when she came back, there was a cascade of stories, and interesting objects in the luggage. I got toy jeepneys from Manila; long-haired, beaded Ndebele dolls from South Africa; cuddly-toy penguins from the Falklands; a treasured piece of the Berlin Wall when it fell in 1989 (she was there, of course).
Another kind of parent might have kept the “best job in the world” to herself, compartmentalising family life and interacting with her daughter through Disney films and cake-baking. But there was very little cakebaking: Mummy welcomed me straight into the exciting, dangerous, and complex world she worked in. I was 10 in 1989, and my pre-adolescent self thrilled to the dramatic events of that year. I imagined myself in Berlin, jumping up on the wall, or in Moscow, debating with dissidents in an apartment kitchen. I knew about things other 10-year-olds didn’t – what an intifada was, why people were protesting in Tiananmen Square, how to pronounce Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
I remember being particularly thrilled one time, when Mummy came home from a trip and said she’d met Gorbachev. Gorbachev! I was a bit jealous, to be honest. Because of her, the Russian man with the red splodge on his head was my pre-teen pin-up – I thought I knew all about him and his perestroika, and I thought he was just gorgeous.
In our tight little trio of three – my parents and me – we were always talking, talking, “arguing the toss”, as Mummy would say. All we needed to be happy together were stories and ideas – about why there were no passenger trains in Albania, about how corruption fed famines, about why wars happened – with none of this off limits just because one of us was only nine. I suppose this kind of childhood could sound a bit unhealthy or precocious, but in my memory, it wasn’t, because my mum made thinking and talking so fun.
Because of my mother, I came very late to sexism. My childhood firmament of Mummy, Mrs Thatcher and the Queen kept me for a long time totally innocent of patriarchy. Mummy was so strong, so clearly her own boss, I really couldn’t imagine that women were in any way constrained. Of course, Mummy had no such protection herself, and met relentless sexism over the decades with toughness and humour.
I was lucky to have Ann Leslie for a mum. She always made life exciting, and I never doubted her intense, abiding love for me and my dad. You couldn’t ask for more. – Katharine Fletcher Wolstenholme