Express delivery on an overdue subs’ desk reunion

A blast from the past from NORMAN GILLER this week, after he attends a reunion of former colleagues from his days at the Daily Express when it had more than 4 million readers

Sports journalists of a certain age might get a little dewy-eyed as I revisit a lunch I attended this week, when I was sprung as a surprise guest. It could be headlined Look Back In Ongar.

It is fairly certain that many veteran SJA members will have worked with or for the two organisers of a reunion that bridged a 42-year gulf.

On my left, Tom Clarke, once a mighty Fleet Street force who was creative sports editor of The Times, Daily Mail and Evening Standard, and edited the late, lamented Sporting Life. He won the prestigious Doug Gardner award at the 1992 SJA British Sports Journalism Awards in recognition of his across-the-board achievements.

On my right, Alan Smith, who went from the Daily Mirror sports desk to become front-page columnist (yes, front page) of the Sunday People and deputy sports editor under the inestimable Neville Holtham.

They planned a get-together at the Queen’s Head pub in Ongar, Essex, in honour of a former journalist master visiting from his adopted homeland of Australia.

Meet Mike Pinnock, the man who used to have what he describes as “the privilege” of subbing Hugh McIllvanney on The Observer before going Down Under in 1969 to specialise as a financial journalist. He became such an influential voice on the Australian economic front that he was appointed executive director of the Queensland Mining Council, and was recently made a Member of the Order of Australia, which is about as close as you can get to a knighthood Down Under.

The common denominator is that Tom, Alan and Mike all started their Fleet Street careers as sub-editors on the broadsheet Daily Express when it had without doubt the finest sports desk in the business. And it sold 4.2 million copies a day.

Tom and Alan recalled that I was very chummy with Mike back in the 1960s Express days and arranged for me to join them for the lunch, without Mr and Mrs (Terri) Pinnock knowing. It would be our first meeting for 42 years, back when we were in our late 20s.

Alan Smith – a frustrated Neil Simon – wrote a script for me in which my partner, Jackie Jones, was going to pose as a foreign waitress, who would become offended by Mike’s failure to understand her unintelligible English, at which point I was to be summoned as a Basily Fawlty-style manager. My cameo role was to sack the waitress and make Mike feel guilty.

Just to confuse the issue Tom, making a late coup as director, decided to introduce Jackie and I as his friends from Scotland. So suddenly we had to adopt Scottish accents. I loudly complained that you could not get any decent subs anymore and Mike’s eyes spun like fruit symbols on a slot machine as I revealed myself as Norman Giller (not a pretty sight).

After the delight of being reunited after all those years, we got down to serious reminiscing. I played my party trick (which probably explains why I rarely get invited to parties) of reeling off the names of every sports staff team member in the order they sat …

Layout wizard Don Woodward was at the top of the table. As well as Mike, Alan and Tom, he was supported by subs of the calibre of Bob Moore (who moved to the Mirror), Ian Barnes (later tennis correspondent), Pat Gibson (who became the No1 Express cricket reporter), Bill Beckett (ex-Western Daily Press Sports Editor), David Emery (now running his own sports publishing business, including The Non-League Paper and The Rugby Paper), vastly experienced quartet Harry Pashley, Phil Hodgson, Marshall Fallows and Derry Meade, statistician Harry Cook and the legendary John “the Welsh” Lloyd, who was forever doing favours for down-on-their-luck fellow journos.

I can recall the subs’ desk as easily I would the line-up of the 1961 Spurs Double side. Forming a back bench behind them were Sports Editor John Morgan, PA Doris Bishop, John’s diligent deputy Norman Dixon and sports news editor Harry Langton, who had a brain the size of Mars but a tinderbox temperament.

To my left sat my football sidekick Steve Curry, and facing him pools expert Jim “The Banker” Gould, alongside rowing and features writer Patrick Robinson, now a renowned novelist. Ten feet behind me to my left sat racing gurus Peter O’Sullevan and Clive “The Scout” Graham, faced by Charles Benson, the British backgammon champion and allegedly the man who helped Lord Lucan disappear. Copy runner Jack Phelps, an ex-guardsman, would take their authority-heavy stories the 15 yards to the racing desk for the attention of subs Reg Bailey, Dennis Hughes, Derek Housego and Jack Holland.

The Express's renowned racing correspondent, Peter O'Sullevan, pictured in 1974 with his Triumph Hurdle winner Attivo

Immediately behind me sat secretary Cora Weston, who mollycoddled Sydney Hulls (boxing and athletics), Pat Marshall (rugby), Ron Heager (golf), Crawford White (cricket), Leslie Nichol (motor sport), Ron White (cycling), Julia Longland (equestrian) and Jack Knights (yachting). She also looked after Alan Williams (larger than life Midlands reporter), John Davies (Bristol and west country rover) and Jim Hill (Welsh correspondent) when they were in town.

Bill Bradshaw, the current Express sports editor, must count the staff numbers as listed above and wonder how he manages with his skeleton staff.

During the course of our three-hour lunch, we covered hacking (“didn’t happen in our day, unless you count listening at keyholes”) … the state of newspapers (“doomed, Cap’n Mannering, doomed…”) … the best columnists of our time (a tie between Hughie McIllvanney and Ian Wooldridge) … the internet (“makes life too easy for lazy journos who lift rather than get out and gather stories”) … office romances (censored because some of those having leg-over dalliances are still with us) … headline writing (anybody who busted a headline would have to wear an “I busted the type” tie throughout the following shift) … best newspaper today (a split school, but majority vote to the Mail – “because they know their audience while The Times in particular does not seem to know whether to aim for their old readers or the young executives”). It was unanimously agreed that we had seen off the best days.

Mike, with a discernible Aussie accent, revealed that he had become “one of them” to the point where he rooted against England in the Tests, a shocking state of affairs for a man brought up in the Kent of Colin Cowdrey.

He and the lovely Terri are today finishing an eight-week tour of Europe in celebration of their Golden Wedding.

I hope it’s not another 40-odd years before we meet up. Any of you going down Queensland way are welcome to look the Pinnocks up, nostalgia and noggins guaranteed

Meantime I have ground to repair. I introduced my partner Jackie to the wives – Terri, Elaine Smith and Meg Clarke – as a Welsh cross-dresser who recently had a sex change and no longer works down the mines.

Perhaps I should emigrate?

Read Norman Giller’s previous columns for the SJA website by clicking here


  • Thu Aug 18: Lunch with Sir Clive Woodward, performance director of the BOA, on plans for the 2012 Olympics with just one year until the London Games. For booking details click here.
  • Mon Sep 12: SJA Autumn Golf Day, Muswell Hill GC. Click here for more details and to book yourself in for the day.
  • Wed Dec 7: SJA 2011 British Sports Awards – Booking now open. For more details, click here.

All details subject to alteration. Keep checking for updates

One thought on “Express delivery on an overdue subs’ desk reunion

  1. What memories this article revived, especially when noting this paragraph: “…Alan Williams (larger than life Midlands reporter), John Davies (Bristol and west country rover)

    In the early to mid- sixties, I was the “Boy” at the Daily Express office in Fox Street, Birmingham, I can still recall the telephone numbers Central 1742 and Midland 2478. Alan Williams was my direct boss and interviewed me. The interview went like this. After knocking on the front door – it was Birmingham City blue in those days – and climbing a short flight of stairs; in response to the cry of enter, I first saw Alan sitting at his desk, the telephone receiver tucked under his neck and chin and a King Edwards panatella in one hand and either an Olivetti or Brother typewriter in front of him.

    He motioned for me to take a seat. During a pause in his telephone conversation, he asked: “Which football team do you support?” to which I proudly responded: “Birmingham City!” “That’s good enough for a laugh…you’ve got the job. Go and put the kettle on.”

    After I had been there for a while, John Davies came to Fox Street. My initial thought of him was hustle and bustle. I recall too that he used to write and take notes using only the centre of the page.

    The World Cup of 66 was upon us, I went with Alan to the Press Club where Alan always drank his favourite Pink Gin, on this particular day, as we climbed the long flight of stairs to the bar, two men were descending, so half way up we both stood inside a slight alcove to let them pass. After they did, Alan turned to me and said “Do you know who they were?” “No idea.” I responded. “Call yourself a football fan and you don’t recognize Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas!”

    The British Heavyweight Championship bout between Henry Cooper and Johnny Prescott was scheduled to take place at St Andrews, Birmingham. Alan said “Right now, I’ve got an important job for you, there are two big reporter men coming up from Fleet Street, Desmond Hackett and Sam Leitch, I want you to look after them, you’ll have a ringside seat with them, whatever they ask you to do make sure you do.” We had a wonderful night and their knowledge of sport was truly amazing. I learned from Desmond Hackett that the “Fixed” Clay – Liston fight was anything but: “The cameras that beamed the pictures of the fight appeared to show that Clay missed with his swinging punch” said Mr Hackett, “But, he caught Liston on the point of the jaw. His eyes rolled and we knew immediately it was the end.”

    I’ll conclude with this. We often worked late on Friday evenings. On this particular evening Alan sent me to the little Italian shop round the corner for champagne and cigars, we drank the champers from our tea mugs. From memory it was round about the time that Bertie Auld was moving from Birmingham City back to Celtic prior to their European Cup success. Alan had been talking to Bobby Charlton on the phone and busily typing up his notes that he intended to use regarding the interview a late night sports programme. He leaned back in his chair, sipped his champagne, leaned down to the one bar electric fire we had and lit a piece of paper from which he lighted his big fat cigar. He held the paper in his hand until it had almost burnt out and then with horror realized it was the notes from the Bobby Charlton interview!

    Hope I haven’t bored you. In conclusion, I had the job of phoning copy through to Fleet Street 8000, they had great difficulty in understanding my flat Brummie accent. That’ll teach ‘em to employ a Birmingham City supporter.

    Happy days.

    Lewis Roberts

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