Man Bites Talking Dog

by Colin Dunne

A reminder of a better, happier, funnier journalistic era

- Alastair Campbell


Publisher’s Notes – Revel Barker

The Dalesman – Terry Fletcher

The Writing Elite – Geoffrey Mather

Street of Fun – Roy Greenslade


Daft, I call it

By Revel Barker

Part way through his book, Colin Dunne recalls a commissioning editor telling his chum John Sandilands that his copy was so good it read even better on the second time of reading, to which the contributor perhaps predictably replied: ‘Couldn’t you have read it for the second time, first?’

We know the feeling. Desk men who read a piece for a second time always think they’ve read it somewhere before, so it must be old. Standing up to a second read-through means that the copy is exceptionally good.

And here’s the thing. I read each piece of Colin Dunne’s Ranters copy as it came in, typically once a week; I re-read it as I subbed it for the page; then I read it again as part of the whole site before putting the edition to bed (such diligence, I know; and no doubt a surprise for those underemployed readers who play spot-the-typo with our website every week). Early this year I read all Colin’s offerings again, before suggesting to him that we collate the majority of them for a book; then I re-subbed the articles we had chosen together; I read them again when making up the pages for the book, and finally at proofreading stage.

Then I re-read the whole damn thing when it arrived hot off the press.

Guess what? The words were as fresh at the end of that process – and as funny – as they had been on the first time of reading. There aren’t many writers about whom you could say that.

Elsewhere he says he could never understand how our hero Vincent Mulchrone, using the same 26 letters as the rest of us, could compose words that glowed. Colin didn’t need to understand it; it came naturally to him, too. And after they worked against each other Vince sent him a note demanding: ‘How dare you write a better piece than me?’

He says that when he was being considered for a move from news to features on the Daily Mirror in Manchester, I was his competition for the vacancy, generously adding that the news desk wanted to keep me, but was prepared to lose him because they preferred the hard news that I wrote to the froth that he produced. In those days I would write the occasional feature, partly for the better space (and bigger by-line) but in truth it was no contest.

I would write the jolly; Col would write the daft. Nobody could touch him on that. And the Mirror had virtually cornered the market on daft stories. A reputation built on interviews with talking dogs was not seen as a drawback on the world’s best-selling newspaper. Colin doesn’t mention it (although Cudlipp does and quotes the entire piece in Publish And Be Damned!) that the great Noel Whitcomb had secured a job on the paper, years earlier, on the basis of an interview with a dog.

So Colin was typically self-deprecating about his ability with ‘real’ stories. And yet I remember having to follow up his stuff when I was a Mirror district man and he was writing Eldon’s Gossip, the diary on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle.

And, yes, some of them were daft. He and a gallery owning mate, Scott Dobson, thought it would be fun to create an exhibition of people’s doodles and talked Ted Short, then deputy leader of the Labour Party and a local MP, into collecting doodles from people attending one of Harold Wilson’s cabinet meetings. It was going well until Short heard that the Tories were planning to submit the doodles for psychoanalysis and publish the findings…

Front Page stuff all round. And when Wilson accused the Tories of having doodled away 14 years, everybody knew what he meant. Thanks to young Dunne.

When he discovered Basil Bunting, lost to sight but being hailed as the World’s Greatest Living Poet, working away quietly at the end of the subs’ table at the Chronicle – the tale was in Ranters, and it’s in the book – it went everywhere in the heavies, including the colour supplements. It changed Bunting’s life, securing him jobs at two universities which wanted him to work only on poetry, and sod the city pages.

This is Dunne on Bunting:

A shabby, baggy figure, with NHS pebble-specs barely visible through an explosion of greying hair, bushy eyebrows and overgrown moustache, so he looked like a Morris Minor bursting through a hedge.

All this was before Colin fetched up at the Mirror where, clearly, he had a ball but moaned constantly that they didn’t use enough of his stuff. He complained to Mike Molloy, the editor, that he never knew what to write when filling in a form that asked for his occupation. So he started freelancing on the side. He flipped over to the Sun – more happy times (until Kelvin arrived) – then to the Daily Record, then to freelancing full time.

He couldn’t be stopped. YOU magazine (more fun, brilliant employers), Good Housekeeping, Radio Times… He even created his own magazine.

And he didn’t stop in retirement. Scribble, scribble, scribble. Between rounds of golf he wrote rounds of gold (sorry, that started as a typo, but…) for the Ranters website.

We can all be grateful for that. And we can now read the stuff in his book.

Buy it.

Man Bites Talking Dog by Colin Dunne, published on April 1 by Revel Barker at £9.99 and available on-line for order now from amazon-uk or Waterstones; in the US from amazon; or worldwide with free delivery from Book Depository.

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Mr Dale’s diary

By Terry Fletcher

Like spent salmon returning from the deep ocean, world-weary hacks are supposed to yearn to end their days editing the weekly paper where it all began. So perhaps I should have been a little more wary when Colin Dunne turned up in my office bearing a lunch invitation. In fact, Colin had already driven past the door of his own launch pad at the Craven Herald and Pioneer in Skipton’s High Street to reach us. At that time I did not realise that mine was the job he truly coveted; editing The Dalesman, a small pocket magazine that gives the Bible a run for its money as Holy Writ across the Broad Acres.

Despite the Tykes’ legendary ‘care’ with brass we still managed to persuade enough of them to buy it each month to make it the country’s biggest selling regional mag. And, to be fair to Colin, it is a job to kill, if not actually to die, for.

Combined with editing its sister magazine, Cumbria, it demanded a glorious monthly progress through the Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors and Lake District national parks. Over and over again. Envious colleagues regularly reminded me I had the best job in journalism.

Not surprisingly, it’s a vacancy that does not come up too often and I, a refugee from rough trade journalism, who down the years had variously freelanced masquerading as ‘Howley of Barnsley’ and run the Yorkshire Post news operation, was only the fourth incumbent in more than 60 years. Colin had finally lost patience waiting for me to give it up but, being the all-round decent chap he is, had decided that rather than push me under a passing tractor he’d start his own version in the deep south, which he called Downs Country.

He’d turned up hoping for some tips on the publishing side – obviously the writing was already taken care of – though he ignored my key piece of advice: Don’t Do It! Regular Ranters have already learnt of the six fun-filled if financially less-than-rewarding years he had creating and wrestling with the title as it steadfastly refused to leave home and pay its own way.

I’m still not sure what he got from our encounter. I know I got a long hilarious lunch and a foretaste of the many tales that have enlivened almost every edition of Ranters and have now been gathered together into a book.

Man Bites Talking Dog charts Colin’s rise from the Raving Herald (what other way was there to go but up?) via a string of publications as varied as the Leamington Spa Courier, the Newcastle Chron, the Mirror and YOU magazine to his forlorn foray into life as a press baron.

Some join our trade to save the world. Colin admits he just wanted to lose his virginity and simultaneously escape the clutches of the Skipton Building Society, the other employment choice in this small market town. To this end the Herald offered not only a life free of double entry bookkeeping but the irresistible allure of a key to the office. It was intended to allow keen young reporters to put in some unpaid overtime.

Colin’s heart was set on a rather different kind of night work. In those days, he says, before trainee reporters could afford a place of their own or even a car, an apprentice Lothario with access to an empty warm dry office had the fifties equivalent of a penthouse flat and an Aston Martin at his disposal in the seduction stakes.

What he also got, though he did not realise it at the time, was a first class preparation for his future career. Skipton, for all its other charms – mediaeval castle, Gateway to the Dales, Best High Street in England (official) – is not the newsiest of towns. The area is so quiet that until a few months ago the Herald itself acknowledged this almost total lack of incident by stolidly devoting its whole front page to adverts. A former editor once defended the design by admitting that in a close knit town like Skipton the ads were the only bit of the content the readers did not already know about. As for the rest, the Herald’s job was merely to confirm what they had already heard.

It may not have set a young reporter’s adrenalin racing but it proved the perfect training for a career in which Colin admits he has never actually covered a serious news story. Instead his life has embraced the daft ones, the barmy tales; the ones that, whether serious papers like it or not, people talk about in the pub. Like a lost budgie given its own BR train home and, yes, Corky the Talking Dog of Drighlington Crossroads.

But when it also leads to fame setting British lawn mower racing records and untold gastronomy accompanying a Barnsley black pudding magnate to France, it does not seem a bad life. Throw in interviewing Brigitte Bardot and mingling with affectionate Icelandic ladies while covering the world’s most cerebral pantomime – Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky’s cold war chess match – and who could ask for more? Certainly not Colin as he ambles self-deprecatingly and sometimes bemusedly down the bits of Memory Lane the post-match booze ups have not entirely erased and accompanied by a cast that Damon Runyan would have been proud to have invented.

He might have claimed his career spanned the glory days of British journalism but Colin prefers to consider it one of the silliest times in one of the silliest industries, when newsrooms were packed with characters, mostly disreputable, and journalists didn’t have jobs, they had fun. And Man Bites Talking Dog mounts a pretty overwhelming case.

Whichever version you choose, whether you’re a misty-eyed hack or a gimlet-eyed bean-counter, this compilation thoroughly deserves its downloading from cyber space into the real world and, like all the best yarns, his stories deserve re-telling. If you were there, buy it to remind yourself of the good times but, more importantly, if you weren’t, buy it to see what you missed. Between the chuckles, the guffaws and the belly laughs you’ll find most of the important stuff they’ll never teach you on your Media Studies Course.

Terry Fletcher ran Howley’s News Agency in Barnsley before going on to be assistant editor (news) of the Yorkshire Post and editor-in-chief of Dalesman Publishing and Country Publications.

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The writing elite

By Geoffrey Mather

I don't know how you define a Colin Dunne. He sits inside his latest book, Man Bites Talking Dog, displaying that mysterious and elusive ingredient found only in exceptional writers. It is a mixture of humour, observation and word-dexterity.

Thurber had it but no-one could analyse it. Patrick Campbell had it. The Algonquin crew in New York, led by Dorothy Parker, all had it as they met for lunch at that celebrated round table long ago.

And we now have a newish generation of writers displaying their own brand of it. Caitlin Moran and Daisy Waugh of The Times. Zoe Heller. But what is it? The obvious answer – talent. But what makes the talent exceptional?

If gunge-writers heavy with big words, long sentences, and adjectival suicide knew what it was they would be writing it. But they don't. So the few, with their heads above the clouds are the elite.

Colin Dunne moved with modest distinction from life on a country weekly in the Yorkshire Dales to Fleet-street: a longish progression in which the raw tumult of daily journalism retreated before the massed ranks of accountants, computers, carpets and no-smoking signs. He writes in his book of ‘the glory days of journalism’. But that is the excuse. His chore. His reason for writing. The chore quickly transcends its reason as it soars with humour, observation, and a feel for language that is simple, direct, yet smooth and deceptively effortless.

I would be sorely depressed if his email name – dunnewriting – were true. He should be writing all the time. That is what he owes both us and his talent.

I ordered three copies of this one book and will probably read all of them.

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Was Fleet Street really a fun-filled village of philandering hacks living off expenses? Oh yes it was

By Roy Greenslade

A majority of today's national newspaper journalists – and, most particularly, their proprietors and managers – intensely dislike veterans' memories of old Fleet Street.

They cannot bear to hear stories of an overmanned, profitable and successful industry that appears to have been run entirely for the pleasure of underworked reporters and writers gathered daily and nightly and, sometimes, over-nightly in a string of public houses.

In fact, throughout the century, the young entrants to journalism have generally despised the tales told by ageing hacks about the good times in the past. I can understand that because I think I've lived through a succession of mythical golden ages.

Similarly, the old Fleet Streeters, now turning from their sixties into their seventies, refuse to accept that papers selling so few copies compared to the many millions of the 1960s have any virtues worth defending.

So, despite the young turks turning their backs on them, they like to remind each other of an era of uninhibited debauchery, funded by fictitious expenses and punctuated by occasional bouts of work.

Step forward Colin Dunne. There are few better than he to record the history of a lost world of the non-stop fun enjoyed by so many of us who, though we did not recognise it at the time, were truly blessed.

His new book Man Bites Talking Dog is a romp through his own chaotic life from the Craven Herald and, via several regional dailies, to the Daily Mirror and The Sun and beyond into lucrative freelancing.

Every anecdote may not be strictly true. He gaily mixes the apocryphal with the factual, but I blushed as I read one reference to myself because, damn his memory, it was rather too close to the truth for comfort.

Indeed, Colin's memory is extraordinary. From half a century and more ago, he recalls hundreds of names and the odd incidents in which they figured. But it isn't so much the stories that carry one through the pages as his wonderfully witty style.

Colin was what we call a 'colour writer'. By his own admission he wouldn't know what to do with a news story if it sat up and begged. He was, instead, able to conjure 500 magical words about a talking corgi or a female molecatcher or the phenomenon of lawnmower racing.

‘I was cast as the candy-floss writer who would have a shot at any old rubbish,’ he writes, adding that it ‘was a fair summary of my talents.’

Comparing himself with foreign correspondents risking their lives to file stories of earth-shattering significance, he notes: ‘It wasn't so much the last helicopter out of Saigon for me, as the last bus out of Stockport.’

He is ever candid and self-deprecating. ‘I came into journalism because I wanted to make a difference,’ he writes. ‘The only difference I wished to make was more personal than global... The only poverty I wished to make into history was my own.’

His turns of phrase are memorable. On the drinking culture in Manchester's Withy Grove: ‘Go in any pub and you'd find people speaking fluent Pitman's.’ On Paul Callan, a Mirror man who now writes for the Daily Express: ‘He spent a lifetime combating celibacy wherever he found it.’ On how the ferocious Norman Baitey managed to become an editor: ‘Because there were no vacancies for guards at Auschwitz.’ On the Mirror's Canary Wharf office: ‘It had all the atmosphere of a Swiss euthanasia clinic.’

I don't expect many of the Wharf's young staff will identify with Colin's view of journalism: ‘It never occurred to me that you could call it a job. Other people did jobs. Journalists had fun. Then they went for a jar. Then they had more fun.’

Rightly, Geoffrey Mather writes that Colin has ‘a feel for language that is simple, direct, yet smooth and deceptively effortless.’ Quite so.

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