Everything that has happened to me in my career has stemmed from an embarrassing accident. – Ian Skidmore
Forgive Us Our Press Passes
By Ian Skidmore
Revised and expanded, 2008
Publisher’s notes by Revel Barker
Skidmore’s ‘surreal’ characters from the Chester Chronicle
Skiddy Row – book review by Derek Jameson
Getting started by Ian Skidmore
Journalist, broadcaster and author Ian Skidmore collects rare books and fine wines by choice and unlikely anecdotes and engaging eccentrics almost by accident...
His first, hilarious*, account of such encounters was celebrated a quarter of a century ago in the first edition of this book.
The Liverpool Daily Post said its publication identified him as ‘the successor to Tom Sharpe’ and actor Ian Carmichael described it as ‘a comic masterpiece’.
Wales on Sunday said it would be a ‘hard act to follow’, although he went on to write two dozen more books.
It was chosen as BBC Book of the Year, had the highest listening figures on Radio Four, and was read twice on the BBC Overseas Service.
The Daily Post described Ian Skidmore as Wales’ funniest columnist, the Western Mail as ‘a great eccentric’.
Now, revisited, revised, and expanded to more than twice its original length it is being published in this special edition.
*Almost every reviewer, from the Cambs News to Start The Week on BBC Radio 4, has described the new version as ‘hilarious’.
By Revel Barker
It was one of those bright brisk spring mornings when the day, or maybe at least half of it, was crying out to be written off. The schedule – the Sked – would look after itself. So where to go for a long lunch?
Bill Freeman and Leo White, in the pivotal positions of the Daily Mirror news operation in the north, decided that a trip in the office car to Chester would be about right. They could call on Ian Skidmore, and guarantee a jolly lunch.
They told me this story over dinner: most business, like almost all anecdotage in those drink-enshrouded days, was conducted with eating irons or glasses (and usually with both) to hand. I hadn’t met Skiddy, although he was already (to pick up a cliché) a newspaper legend; it was sufficient that I knew his name.
They told me they had known exactly where to find him. Skidmore of Chester was spending every day at the city’s zoo because he was awaiting the arrival of the first gorilla to be born in captivity in Britain. He’d been booked by the news desk on regular daily shifts to maintain a permanent watch.
Just for once, Bill and Leo decided, they’d give the guy a break, surprise him with a visit and take him somewhere different, somewhere decent, to eat. All those lunches at the Zoo restaurant must be boring for a bon vivant like old Ian.
The car rolled up at the gate and they presented themselves at the kiosk with pound notes in hand – they knew the price of admission from Skiddy’s exes.
‘We’re from the Daily Mirror,’ said Bill. ‘We’re looking for the gorilla enclosure.’
‘Go straight in,’ said the gateman. ‘We don’t charge members of the press.’
Ian would have been easy enough to spot if he had been anywhere near the Ape House. There, sure enough, was the gorilla. Since Skidmore wasn’t there he would presumably be at the offices, where he frequently entertained his zoo contacts – his other regularly reimbursed item of entertaining was the purchase of chocolate ice cream cones and ice lollies for the pregnant gorilla.
The Curator of Mammals and the Zoo Director welcomed the visitors warmly.
‘Mr Skidmore? Lovely man. Only I haven’t seen him for weeks. He’ll be at the Golden Eagle, beside the courthouse, right now, before moving on to the Symposium Dining Club for lunch. I have all his numbers, in case anybody rings here, looking for him.’
But what, they asked, if a baby was born to one of the animals?
‘Oh, if there’s anything that looks like a story, or a picture, of course I would ring him.’
And what about the gorilla – suppose it gives birth…?
No worries on that score, the curator assured them. The gorilla was male.
But it looked pregnant… yes, said the zoo man, he suffers terribly from wind.
Meantime, if they were looking for Mr Skidmore their best bet at lunchtime would be the Symposium.
As they turned towards the exit the Zoo director called them back.
‘You said you were from the Mirror… Before you go, do you need any blank bills from the restaurant?’
Anecdotes reveal ‘surreal’ characters
Chester Chronicle, March 27, 2008
FOR two decades, writer Ian Skidmore was a familiar figure in Chester. He pounded a beat that took in the law courts, cathedral, and Army barracks, the Boot, Bear and Billet, the Swan, the King's Arms kitchen and the bottom bar of the Grosvenor, the police headquarters and the zoo.
He spent part of last summer on a nostalgic visit to his old stamping ground and now he has published a book about it – his 25th publication in 25 years.
Forgive Us Our Press Passes, published this month, is a comic biographical account of his career as a writer and broadcaster in the 1960s and 1970s.
Ian, 79, who used to live at Picton Hall, Mickle Trafford, and now lives in Cambridgeshire, said: ‘The memories immediately came flooding back to me – the people, the places, the stories.
‘A few of the landmarks, most noticeably and regrettably some of the pubs, the Garret Anderson Luncheon and Supper Rooms (the Chester Dining Club), had disappeared.
‘Some, despite my best efforts to support them, had actually disappeared while I was there. And some appeared to have been moved. But it was a wonderful visit, and I can't wait for the opportunity to return.’
After revisiting his old haunts, Ian revisited his book, revising it and more than doubling its length by adding more anecdotes about the surreal personalities – crooks and policemen, judges, bishops and bookmakers among them – that he encountered during his career covering Chester and the surrounding counties as a freelance journalist.
Forgive Us Our Press Passes was actually first written and published as a slim volume of biography in 1983. It was chosen as the BBC Book of the Year, had the highest listening figures of any book broadcast on Radio Four, and was read twice, in its entirety, on the BBC Overseas Service.
Actor Ian Carmichael described it as ‘a comic masterpiece’ and said he hoped it would be turned into a TV series so that he could play the role of Ian.
One reviewer described the author as ‘the successor to Tom Sharpe’, and another as ‘a great eccentric’.
Ian, married to award-winning children's writer Celia Lucas, has one more book coming out this year – a biography of the Welsh painter Sir Kyffin Williams RA – which will make his total 26 in 25 years.
He has a few more – at least four, he says – that he describes as ‘works in progress’. After that, says Ian: ‘I am hanging up my word processor.
‘The Royal Literary Fund has been kind enough to award me a pension for my contribution to Welsh culture – two of my books are on the curriculum of the Welsh universities, one for students of history, one for geography – and I will try to exist on that.
‘Thereafter my only activity will be to write my blog: www.skidmoresisland.blogspot.com.
‘I don't get paid for doing it, but I can write what I like, when I like.’
By Derek Jameson
Lest we forget, in the old days, before Wapping changed our lives forever, Manchester was a world leader in the production and distribution of newspapers. The nationals spent millions producing northern editions.
At the heart of this other Fleet Street was Withy Grove, Europe’s biggest print centre, owned in turn by the Hulton, Kemsley and Thomson dynasties. In its day this Victorian mausoleum turned out no fewer than 10 national titles. Forty years on I can still name them – Sporting Chronicle, Sunday Chronicle, Daily Dispatch, Daily Sketch, Empire News, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror (previously Pictorial) and News of the World.
These northern editions were unique. We had to serve the varied interests of readers in five countries – Ulster, the Irish Republic, Scotland, North Wales and England (north of Birmingham). That meant laying down as many as 14 editions in a matter of hours. Working at breakneck speed, fighting the clock to meet train times and shepherding relevant sport and news into the right editions were the newspaper equivalent of steering a clapped-out trawler – Withy Grove dated from 1873 – in a force eight gale.
It made Withy Grove the most exciting place on earth in journalistic terms and, by some strange alchemy, the staff involved turned out to be exactly the right blend of talent and lunacy required for life in a pressure cooker.
Ian Skidmore, celebrated northern reporter, author, broadcaster and wit, writes of that harum-scarum world in this book, originally published in 1983 and now revised and extended. It is reissued by Revel Barker, himself a former Mirror man in the north.
Skiddy, as he is universally known, is at his best describing the follies and foibles of hot metal days. Tommy Lyons, for instance, a photographer accompanying him on one of the Mirror’s excruciating fun days at the seaside organised by some special events genius miles away in Holborn Circus. Tommy, muffled in a bright yellow anorak and sporting vivid red socks, was glaring at the holidaymakers. As always, he was stoking the fires of inner resentment.
‘Dunno why the office sent out on this,’ he said crossly. ‘Never make the paper.’ It was the photographer’s standard greeting. Photographers say the same thing about mass murders and department store fires. A photographer on the Ark with Noah would have turned to him as the waters rose, and said: ‘Dunno why the office bothered. Never make the paper in a thousand years. And, anyway, the light’s wrong.’
Perhaps the greatest character of all was George Harrop, the Mirror night picture editor in Manchester. A master of the one-line putdown, George was a cinema organist in a previous incarnation. He died the day after his 80th birthday. When the funeral cortege of Henry Rose, a celebrated Express sports writer, killed in the Munich air crash, paused outside his paper’s office in Great Ancoats Street, George declared: ‘Just like Henry to go to the office on his day off.’
There was the occasion when Paul Roche, Mirror manager in Manchester, and editor Mike Terry bounced into the editorial after a heavy lunch. ‘Here they come,’ said George. ‘Roche and ricochet.’
George’s verbal sparring partner was night news editor Maurice Wigglesworth, a dour Yorkshireman who called everyone ‘Sir’. I can vouch for the best-known Wiggy story. One Christmas he took a young reporter home to savour his wife’s famous mince pies. To his guest’s horror, he took one bite and then sent the entire plateful crashing against the wall. ‘If I’ve told you once, woman, I’ve told you a thousand times – DON’T put sugar on crust!’
Not all the book is about Withy Grove. Skiddy was pitched out of a job in 1955 when his paper, the Daily Dispatch, was folded to make way for northern editions of the Mirror. He recalls his barmy life as a local man – Skidmore of Chester – before returning to Manchester to spend a decade as reporter and reluctant night news editor on the Mirror. ‘Reporters are compulsive embellishers as well as being collectors of apocrypha,’ he writes. Ian certainly practises what he preaches. His book is a good laugh, but I wouldn’t put a penny on half the stories qualifying as God’s truth. Some of them turn up again and again. Like the housewife, busy decorating the bathroom, who, anxious to get his tea, threw paint stripper down the loo when she heard her husband arrive home. You know the rest... cigarette-end down the bowl, whoosh, sheet of flame, hubby carried off on stretcher with injuries to his unmentionables.
The sad truth is that 25 years have passed since Skiddy first penned his reminiscences. In these pressurised, computerised days that story is likely to finish up as a page lead in at least three unmentionable tabloids.
- Courtesy of British Journalism Review
Button up your overcoat..
By Ian Skidmore
I worry when people, usually mothers, ask me how I got my start in journalism. And not only because the question carries a sub text: ‘If a prat like you can do it, it will be a doddle for a bright child like mine.’
Mostly I hesitate, because everything that has happened to me in my career has stemmed from an embarrassing accident.
In this case going to prison. Only an army prison and I was guilty of nothing – but then they all say that, don’t they?
I suppose I could explain the issue by saying ‘It was because my greatcoat was unbuttoned, coming out of a pub in Thetford.’
We were a night away from a draft to Palestine and were celebrating in a last chance saloon called the Green Man.
I was a lance corporal in the Black Watch (RHR) who had somehow got mixed up with an RASC unit in the days when Englishmen dominated the Highland Division while the canny Scots all joined corps and learnt a trade.
In my unit all the Scots came from Glasgow. None much more than five feet high. If you were any taller in Glasgow, you got posted to Edinburgh.
Because I was still fastening my greatcoat on the street, I was pounced on by the Town Patrol of burly corporals for being improperly dressed.
A minute Glaswegian ran up to one of the corporals and smacked him in the mouth for being impertinent to ‘a Highlander’ (from Manchester, as it happened).
In consequence, we were all charged with assault, taken off the draft to Palestine and sent to Germany.
My charge – ‘in that he did assault six regimental policemen’ – preceded me to my new unit where I was summoned by the CO. He said: ‘I am a very bewildered officer; you don’t look violent to me.’
I didn’t. Indeed in the kilt I looked like an undernourished reading lamp and I have a photo to prove it.
I explained what happened, but he said there was nothing he could do about it. It was a court martial offence and he would have to remand me.
‘But’ he said, ‘a word of advice: ‘plead guilty. Otherwise they will have to adjourn the court and you will have wasted the officers’ morning. They will have to bring the witnesses over from the UK and they will be very cross with you. Plead guilty and your Prisoner’s Friend will explain the situation.’
I did. He didn’t. And I spent the next 56 days in 3 Military Corrective Establishment at Bielefeld.
When I was released and posted to Bad Oenhausen I decided to desert. On my way to the Bahnhof to get a train to the Hook of Holland I was pounced on by the garrison RSM, a Scots Guard called Graham.
He was very rude to me, suggesting that if I didn’t smarten myself up he would take the red hackle out of my bonnet, stick it up my arse and have me clucking like a Rhode Island Red.
I was very glad when he dismissed me.
To my horror I saw him again five minutes later in the next street. Rather than face him I dodged into the first door I could open. As it happens it was the office of Army PR.
A CSM, Paddy Seaman, asked me what I wanted. I didn’t know what to say, so I asked him if he had any jobs going. I thought I might sweep the floor or make some tea.
He said: ‘Have you any experience of newspapers?’
I thought, that’s a funny question – because, as a matter of fact, I had: I had been a printer’s apprentice at Allied Newspapers at Withy Grove.
I said I had worked on the Manchester Evening Chronicle and Paddy said: ‘Blimey, we haven’t had a newspaper reporter before. Come in and see Kenneth.’
Kenneth, it turned out, was the CO. At the time I didn’t know officers had first names, so I was a little surprised.
I was even more surprised when I met Major Kenneth Harvey. He was a touch fey. I later learnt he had transferred to the Royal Armoured Corps because the black beret brought out the blue of his eyes. What with one thing and another I was very relieved when he asked me to sit down.
All I remember of the interview was the bit where he said ‘Here’s a chit. Go to the QM and draw your three stripes.’
‘You will join as a sergeant, of course’
He bridled and his little shoulders shivered. ‘You cannot expect to be an officer straight away,’ he said.
That afternoon with not the slightest idea what I was doing I was on my way to cover the Berlin Airlift. Still the biggest story I have ever covered on my own.
But the army always did the unexpected. Some months later when I was Returned To Unit because of persistent drunkenness, another Guards RSM – Irish this time and called Kenny – thought PR was short for provost and appointed me Provost Sgt of HQ 7th Armoured Division.
So if your child wants a career in journalism, tell him to try unbuttoning his overcoat in Thetford.