Chris Nawrat: man who brought Gonzo to Fleet Street

PETER WILSON remembers some good times with his friend Chris Nawrat, the former Morning Star reporter who became sports editor of The Sunday Times, who has died, aged 66

Chris Nawrat, holding forth in typical style, at his wedding in Spain last year
Chris Nawrat, holding forth in typical style, at his wedding in Spain last year

I flew into Barcelona on December 6, the same day that my great friend and sometime mentor Chris Nawrat died on the other side of Spain at his adopted home in Finisterre on the west coast of Galicia.

It was especially poignant for me because Spain was the country where we both had our most memorable reporting assignment.

Spain 1982 is considered one of the great of World Cups, so for two young journalists just starting out it was a dream tournament to cover. I went south to Seville, following first Brazil, Scotland, New Zealand and, of course, the Soviet Union – well, we were representing the Morning Star – then it was to Barcelona where the highlight was the grouping of Italy, Brazil and Argentina.

Chris went north to Bilbao to report on England’s hopes. We would meet up a month later in Madrid, to eat, drink, visit a couple of museums and watch Italy beat Germany at the Bernabeu. Chris, meanwhile, had fallen in love with the country and he and his wife Christine would eventually buy a home there. Christine would also die in Spain, in 1996, at the tragically early age of 44.

Chris and I met in the late 1970s. The first time would probably have been in The Metropolitan pub on the corner of Farringdon and Clerkenwell roads. He had just come to work on the Star’s sports desk; I was running the Star Market and on the editorial board of the Young Communist newspaper Challenge.

Chris was six years older than me, but we would bond over football and journalism. He supported Tottenham. I am a Gooner. Despite that rivalry, the bonding was quite easy. We had the same childhood footballing hero: Joe Baker. Chris had met the short, feisty Liverpudlian forward after watching Baker’s side Torino play Napoli in 1962. Chris, then 13, was “star-struck”, even more so when Baker told him he wanted to play for Tottenham. Quite rightly, Baker signed for Arsenal.

Chris received a first-class degree in North American literature from Essex University (he would bang on about The Great Gatsby being the finest novel in the English language until I read the damn thing). But our bible then was Hunter S Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt; I’m not sure, but I reckon all our friends at the time starting out on their careers – Richard Weekes, Mike Miller, Kevin Mitchell and Mike Collett among them – had copies.

How we wanted to write and live the life of the great Doctor. Well some aspects of it. Fear and loathing? I’m not sure about that for two strapping six-footers who stood holding a ladder while Christine climbed it to put a fresh coat of paint on the window frames of their flat in Chingford (“call yourselves men. I’ll go up”). At least I had the excuse that it wasn’t my flat.

We were much closer to the Harold Evans model, which is just as well because his books on journalism (Newspaper Design, News Headlines, Picture Editing, etc) were setting us back a small fortune.

Peter Wilson had plenty of joint bylines with Chris Nawrat when they worked at the Morning Star
Peter Wilson had plenty of joint bylines with Chris Nawrat when they worked at the Morning Star

There would be Gonzo-like moments, though, such as when, high on nothing more potent than adrenalin and looking for booze, we gatecrashed the directors’ lounge at Stamford Bridge on the night of a floodlit cricket match and we got to interview Mick Jagger, who we spotted standing at the bar with his younger brother Chris. “You’re from the Morning Star? I thought TASS wrote all their copy,” said the Rolling Stone when we approached him. Still, we got our copy, forked out for a midnight cab to Chingford, sat on the bed, woke up Christine and proceeded to bore her with our adventure.

Or the time when we – and this little ruse did not come from any Harold Evans manual – incorporated the titles of John Lennon and Beatles songs into every headline on the Morning Star’s sports page (they had only one back then) as a tribute to the recently slain musical legend.

That one sports page meant everything to us. We were so consumed with how the page looked that we would take a finished proof to The Met and stare at it for hours – with an obvious break to top up my pint of bitter and Chris’s lager – to see how it could have been improved.

It was about that time that Chris would start his infamous night-time phone calls, which would continue for most of his life. Then, it was maybe something he forgot to say in the pub; in the future it would be job offers, projects, the death of Christine and his second wife, the poet Julia Casterton, or just personal stuff. Chris’s sensitivity was maybe his best-kept secret. The calls would normally last for anything between one and two hours.

The Morning Star sports desk in those days was the domain of that great journalist and university lecturer Stan Levenson, with Dave Harbord making up a three-man department. But we wanted to inject into it our youthful enthusiasm. I was still working in the Star Market at the time, but Chris single-handedly co-opted me on to the sports desk until there was a vacancy – the irony was that vacancy would only come up when Chris left to edit National Student. Because of union restrictions I had to write under a cod name. Stan opted for Peter Leslie, using my middle name.

Chris Nawrat produced some awar-winning journalism at the Sunday Times, picking up a trophy here alongside Nick Pitt (centre)
Chris Nawrat produced some award-winning journalism at The Sunday Times, picking up a trophy here alongside Nick Pitt (centre)

On my days off I would come into the office to assist Chris or cover a football match: the Star couldn’t pay for reporters to go to games so it was usually down to the paper’s other staff members or Stan’s accountant (I had my eyes firmly set on his Arsenal beat) to write reports. Chris wanted to make the coverage more professional and if he couldn’t do that, he would go for the eye-catching approach, such as when he got Quadrophenia star, and future Eastenders actor, Phil Daniels, to be our Chelsea correspondent. Phil found it quite difficult controlling his Blues allegiance in his two-and-a-half years in the press box.

What thanks did Chris get? His name was misspelled in Daniels’ autobiography: “Chris Natrat”. It’s not even phonetic. At least Andrew Neil misspelled him “Navrat” in his memoirs. These Polish names, you just can’t get your tongues around them. Heaven knows what they would do with “Lewandowski”.

At times our naivety could have been stamped on our foreheads. I came back from a trip to Brazil with a story about two Brazilian footballers wanting to play in England (well Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa at Tottenham were making it open season for those types of yarns), so Chris suggested we – he was nothing if not collaborative – pitched it to The Sun. “Come in and see us and talk about it,” said the voice on the phone.

So the evening before the interview we sat in Chingford trying to compose a 250-word tabloid-style story, because that’s what we thought you did when you had a story to sell. It was probably the hardest thing we had done up to then – our admiration for red-top football writers increased tenfold. I dictated the story and Chris typed it out in his idiosyncratic (I’ve used that word as a tribute to my old friend. Whenever he knew a certain copytaker was on duty he would always use it just so he could hear the frazzled octogenarian say, “can you spell that please, Chris?”) way: left index finger on the shift key, right index finger pounding away at the letters.

We finished about 2.30 in the morning. The next day we went to The Sun and handed the copy to a rather perplexed Brian Woolnough. Wooly, himself much missed, was very diplomatic about our efforts. We both bought copies of the Current Bun for the next week to 10 days (even pre-Wapping there weren’t many, if any, copies of the paper floating around the Morning Star’s offices), but nothing appeared. I later received a letter with a compliments slip saying thanks for the story and “keep in touch” accompanied by a cheque for £30. That at least kept us in drinks for a couple of nights down The Met.

Spain 82, though, was really a last hurrah because life started to get serious. I finally had to prove my worth on the sports desk full-time, while Chris was getting more regular gigs at The Sunday Times. We did work together again: at The Sunday Times when he was its sports editor, and then for his own self-financed but short-lived magazine Eleven. But those days when we would wander down to The Met, Chris taking those small steps of his, with a cigarette in his right hand, newspapers in his left and that dreadful Afghan coat over his drooping shoulders, were long gone.

Unfortunately, so now are the pub and Chris.

One thought on “Chris Nawrat: man who brought Gonzo to Fleet Street

  1. Will be greatly missed – although probably not by my liver. He had a rare energy that drove him to the point of obsession. Chris totally was in love with the Sunday Times, more so than anybody else on the paper, probably – although not many people appreciated that.

    He made some inspired calls, in planning and on the hoof, and pursued stories all the way to their conclusion – as he did with a bottle of Mateus Rose. Some of the Friday afternoon lunches were brutal, but invariably they produced something that no other paper had that Sunday. That’s what he should be remembered for and judged on.

    Cheers, Chris.

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