A story of journalism, once! Number 49 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … His musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler
The “Stop Press Express” carried midnight’s children, journalists who shunned the nine-to-five masses, who would never dream of saying as they entered the front door, “Hi honey, I’m home!’’
The train left Waterloo station at 11.55pm sharp with Fleet Street’s finest, among them eccentrics, misfits and drunks who could never make their way in the real world.
The Stop Press Express was the service of choice for journalists who lived in the more far-flung suburbs of greater London’s south-west, Waterloo station also giving easy access to nearby Fleet Street. The express was not an express at all, merely running fast to Surbiton 15 kilometres distant then stopping all stations to Woking and Guildford, a journey of about 45 minutes. But that was enough time for a starry-eyed young journalist to conjure up all sorts of adventures, real or imagined; not only had the young Don Bentley arrived in Fleet Street, he was going home with some of its more bizarre practitioners ¬¬ at least as far as Woking.
After all the magic of the newsroom of the Sun newspaper, the excitement and entertainment was not over for Bentley when he set out on his journey to his parents’ home in the Surrey suburbs. And at times, too, he found himself a little the worse for wear if he had been rostered on an early shift and had lingered after work at the Sun’s watering hole. He was in good company at the station. Some of the other travellers having difficulty in not only finding their tickets, but finding their feet and faculties, Bentley recognised as being from his own place of employment. Others left their mark by editing the station’s public notices. The hand of the sub-editor was seen at work: “compared to” changed to “compared with”; “less” changed to “fewer” when dealing with numbers; “that” exchanged with “which”, or vice-versa, when the word was in conflict with Flowler’s Modern English Usage. A neat stroke at the start of the offending word or phrase, usually in H5 pencil, would point to the correction in the notice’s margin.
When not studying the proof-read notices, Bentley would look about him, trying to determine who were journalists among the crowd and who were not. It was not so very hard to identify journalists. They had a weary look about them, lived-in faces, after a long night at the typeface, the constant pressure of deadlines. It was not just about drink, but this fuelled some of the more bizarre behaviour.
One evening Bentley heard a commotion above the voice of the public address system and saw that the deputy sports editor of the Sun was involved in an altercation at the board displaying departure times. He was tossing coins at a railway worker - situated behind a wooden barrier - whose job it was to lift times and destinations in place on the giant board. The sports journalist had missed his train and the railway worker, under a hail of pennies and sixpences, was being blamed for its departure.
Bentley himself had learned of the dangers of missing his own train. The train after the 11.55pm was one at 3.45am that, coincidentally, carried newspapers to the coastal city of Portsmouth at the end of the line, and it was a long and cold wait on the draughty expansive platforms of the Waterloo railway station. Noisy, too, with vans descending onto the platforms from the offices of a dozen newspapers, to say nothing of the post office vans meeting the mail trains.
Besides the late-night production workers, and the late-staying reporters, there was another category of journalist on the 11.55 travelling south-west: the West End theatre critics, who rushed from newspaper offices after filing their reviews to make the last train home. Bentley had heard that, together with the seaside city of Brighton, the bucolic corners of Surrey were a favoured destination for theatre reviewers but he only discovered one of their number on the 11.55 in the two years he caught it.
He was Fergus Cashin, probably the most notable of all, notable not so much for his journalistic exploits as showbiz writer and theatre critic of the tabloid Daily Sketch, but for his wild lifestyle. Cashin mixed in circles that included hell-fire actors Richard Burton and Oliver Reed. The friend-to-the-stars Cashin was indeed more than a bit player, an extra, in the drama of their lives.
Bentley had never met Cashin but immediately identified him as the man who had staggered into his compartment as the train was about to leave the station. With his unruly hair, craggy face and broken nose, he looked like wild actor Richard Harris (a Cashin drinking partner). Bentley recognised him from his picture byline in the Sketch. Like an actor on stage, Cashin had made a dramatic entrance. It was a wild and stormy night and as Chasin wrestled with his trench coat, trying to take it off, he sprayed the rest of the passengers with droplets of rain, before crashing into his seat.
Bentley noticed one of the other three passengers in the compartment was hiding his face behind a copy of that night’s London Evening News. At the same time, still hiding his face, the passenger pulled his young female companion close to him. Cashin surveyed first Bentley, then the woman sitting facing him. And then he caught a glimpse of the man hiding behind the Evening News, and recognised him as an actor on the West End stage. Bentley recognised the actor, too. The thespian was the star of a play Bentley had seen that very week, a musical about miners called “Close the Coalhouse Door”.
Cashin immediately started lambasting the performance of the rest of the cast, adding the actor in the compartment carried the play on his own.
“Did you read my review?” asked Cashin and the actor nodded, looking a little nervous about the encounter.
“And who’s this lovely lady?” asked Cashin, eyeing the woman from feet to fringe. The actor spoke her name softly, explaining that she was another of the cast.
“Well didn’t notice you,” Cashin said unapologetically. The actor wriggled in his seat as he gazed out of the window, at the driving rain washing against the side of the carriage, as if willing the train to reach his destination, Surbiton.
There was tension in the compartment of the 11.55pm. Cashin eyed both the actor and his companion now, contemplating possibly a juicy story. “Was the actor married?” Bentley asked himself, “and the young actress with the fringe not his wife?” Cashin seemed to know, and seemed to be weighing up the news value of them being together, on a stormy night, on the Stop Press Express travelling into the darkness. In about 10 minutes the station lights of Surbiton arrived and the actor and his companion vanished rapidly into the night.
Cashin looked at Bentley, and didn’t say a word. Bentley, a callow lad trying to make his way in Fleet Street, clearly was not worth the effort of conversation, and Cashin drifted into sleep.
Cashin stories, and indeed those of the exploits of other notorious journalistic wild men, constantly made the rounds of Fleet Street pubs. Shortly after his encounter with Cashin on the 11.55, Bentley heard a Cashin tale and wondered if it had actually happened on the same night.
It appeared Cashin had got home and discovered that there was something wrong with the lock on his front door, because his key would not fit. He banged on the door and then remembered his wife was away. There was nothing for it than to break a window and climb in. Next morning Cashin awoke with a giant hangover. As he lay in bed, contemplating getting up, he looked about him and noticed that not only was the furniture in an unfamiliar setting, the furniture had been changed. Going downstairs, the general layout of the house was familiar but there were things about it that weren’t. Looking for where his wife had hidden the coffee, he suddenly remembered they had moved house three months previously and he had returned to his original home. Lucky the new owners were away on holiday, and Cashin made a hurried escape.
Bentley had forgotten all about Fergus Chasin until three decades later when he came across an obituary notice recording his death. Bentley was amazed that not only had Cashin lived to the age of 81 he had ended his career on Bentley’s first newspaper, the weekly Woking News and Mail, after exceeding his sell-by date in a Fleet Street growing younger by the day in the electronic age. Punching out the editor of his last Fleet Street employer, the Sun, had hastened his departure from his 30-year career in the Street of Dreams.
In Woking he now swapped liquid lunches for liquid dinners at the paper’s watering hole, the Red House in Commercial Road, where he would regale juniors with his accounts of not only the glory days of Fleet Street, but the glory days of English theatre and cinema.
Cashin was the newspaper’s chief sub-editor. Initially, he refused to acknowledge the presence of eager recruits to the newspaper but after a time invited them for a jar at the Red House. There, like in the hostelries of Fleet Street and London’s West End theatre district, he remained true to his mantra: “Other people do jobs. Journalists have fun. Then they go for a jar, and have more fun.”
At his favourite table in the saloon bar, he would recount Fleet Street anecdotes, downing pints of London Pride and then doubles of Bushmills Irish whiskey. He liked to talk about his old mate Richard Burton and once silenced the pub by announcing loudly: “Liz Taylor quite fancied me but she showed me her tits once and they were covered in pimples.”
Regulars would hover around the table but recognising them as not of the journalism clan Cashin would scowl and tell them: “Fer koff, why don’t you?”
The Red House sessions were valuable classes in journalism for the assembled young journalists, though, and Chasin had much to teach those lucky enough to be mentored by him.
The regulars in the pub, although frequently being told to “fer koff’‘, became good sources. Cashin told the reporters that everyone had a story: “You just have to catch them at the right time.” Drinkers would be grilled for information as they stepped into the pub. They would be questioned again on their way out because, Cashin reasoned, “They’ve been here so long, they must have heard something.”
The obituary from his later Woking days read a little differently from the one that appeared in the London Daily Mail. That recalled in detail the days when Cashin had prowled a different beat. Opening hours were any time he was awake. There were no proper days and hours in his life during his reign from the early Fifties into the Seventies.
Cashin always carried the air of a wild Irishman about him, not least because of his Irish name and his favourite tipple, Irish whiskey. But he was in fact Welsh and played rugby as a schoolboy in Cardiff, a fact that endeared him to rugby-loving Burton. Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were enchanted by him. He lived with them on and off on the couch in the Oliver Messel suite at the Dorchester. Then it would be Richard Harris’s couch at The Savoy. He shared a house with Oliver Reed, and Otto Preminger put him in a movie.
Although he was fun to be with, his antics could be hard to handle for those with him when he was out and about.
One night he walked into Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho after midnight. Black American saxophonist Roland Kirk was on stage. Kirk wowed his audiences with a novelty act of playing four saxophones on stage and by this time Cashin was seeing four Kirks. He started barracking, and pointedly and loudly came out with, “Aw Jaezus. Why do these jazz musicians always have to wear dark glasses?”
Ronnie Scott told him to shut up. “Have some respect, Fergus, don’t you know he’s blind.”
Cashin didn’t and was full of remorse. He stopped the musician at the bar when his set was over, apologised and insisted on buying him a drink.
“My usual,” Kirk told the barman. Green Chartreuse was layered in the bottom then blue curacao, yellow Italian Galliano and more coloured liqueurs. The glass began to look a rainbow. Fergus watched and was amazed. The drink cost five pounds, ten shillings, a shattering price for a drink in the Sixties. Cashin held the glass and took Kirk’s groping right hand. He brought them together. “There you are, Roland” he said. “No wonder you’re fucking blind.’‘
Cashin was soon on his way to Waterloo, too late for the 11.55 but in time for the newspaper train in the early hours of the morning. And by this time it didn’t matter if he overslept the Woking stop. The National Union of Railwaymen had made him an honorary member so he could use their all-night canteen in Portsmouth, to save him sleeping on a bench on the quayside in the cold, bleak hours of dawn.