Have a Hart: Happy Hammer wins Variety award

NORMAN GILLER applauds an award for an old mate

A question for you: who has been the greatest all-round journalist you have worked with?

I mean somebody equally at home at a murder scene or a sports stadium, as comfortable in a courtroom as on the sports desk, and as competent at the trackside as the ringside. I have no hesitation in naming my Jack of all trades, master of all. Take a bow Colin Hart, the semi-retired Sun columnist and full-time great geezer.

Colin, he of the West Ham claret and blue blood and (I am sure) portrait in the attic, has cleared several forests while filling acres of pages in a reporting career stretching more than 55 years.

In my estimation, Colin — Harty to his many mates — should have collected an armful of awards for his journalistic endeavours, but it took the Variety Club of Great Britain finally to give him long overdue recognition of his talent.

He received the trophy for “Outstanding Contribution to Sports Journalism” at a celebrity-crowded ceremony recently in the Banqueting Suite at Wembley Stadium.

Colin and I go back a long way. We first met at East London juvenile court in 1957 when I was a skinny, schoolboy-looking junior reporter on the Stratford Express. In fact, I looked so young that the court usher sat me among the defendants until Harty, 21 and to my eyes a master of the universe, rescued me and took me under his wing in the press pews.

It was the start of a friendship that has lasted, gulp, 52 years. Colin was an exceptional crime reporter with the East London News Agency, on talking terms with the Krays and first with a series of stories passed on to him by his police contacts.

He made a national name for himself with a scoop that became known as the Limehouse Cinderella story. It was Christmas week 1958 and Colin was tipped off by a station sergeant that a 13-year-old girl had handed in a wallet she had found stuffed with fivers.

Colin’s news instinct took him in search of the girl, and he found that she lived in a hovel with her roadsweeper father. Harty composed a Charles Dickens-style piece that was fed by his agency to all the newspapers, and the story tugged at heartstrings across the nation.

He was snapped up by the Daily Herald to cover the London crime beat, and by the time I arrived on the sports desk in 1962, he had been promoted to night news editor.

A knowledgeable sports nut, he crossed the floor to become Herald sports news editor on the understanding that he never worked when West Ham were playing.

Non-smoker Colin had the habit of having a toothpick dangling from his mouth. Frank Nicklin, larger than life sports editor, considered him the pick of the bunch and chose him as the boxing correspondent for the new broadsheet Sun ahead of a queue of applicants, including me.

It was Nicklin who famously rollocked Colin when he was one of the few reporters to tip Muhammad Ali to beat George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle. After Ali had sensationally won in the eighth round, Harty expected a herogram. Instead, Nicklin’s tongue-in-cheek message was: “You predicted round nine. Not good enough.”

Colin became the Sun’s man for all seasons and all sports, covering boxing brilliantly, athletics and even show-jumping.

His news reporting skills shone through the terrorist attack on Israeli competitors during the 1972 Munich Olympics, and he was closer than many athletics writers to Seb Coe and Steve Ovett when they were monopolising the track in the 1980s.

But it is in the boxing world where Harty has gained most respect, counting among his personal friends the likes of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson and George Foreman.

In the cut-throat world of tabloid newspapers, Colin has managed to keep his dignity and integrity while writing about a sport in which you need to count your fingers after shaking hands with many of the peripheral personalities.

He has a deep admiration and affection for the boxers, and has earned their trust by always being honest and direct with his opinions, never punching below the belt for the sake of sensation.

Supported by his charming American-born wife Cindy, Colin has been a fine ambassador for sportswriters and he gets my vote as the greatest all-round journalist of my generation.

My adventure as author-publisher took on new life this week as my book The Lane of Dreams — the complete story of White Hart Lane before it is bulldozed into history — rolled off the presses.

I am kicking it off by selling exclusively online before launching in the shops at the start of next season, and the promising news is that I have already covered my costs for the first print run.

Anybody out there considering taking the self-publishing route must learn how to make the internet work for them. It is the greatest marketplace on the planet, and I can understand why no less a person than Rupert Murdoch thinks it will eventually knock newspapers out of business.

I have contacted hundreds of potential readers with personalised emails and one-on-one chats on Facebook, and have engaged in discussions on several prominent Tottenham website forums. The book has 90,000 words, but I have typed many more in my marketing role.

Next I will motor up to London from my home in dozy, delightful Dorset and try to sell to bookshops in the Tottenham area.

I wonder if Colin Hart, the ace all-rounder, could help? On top of everything else, I’m sure he would make a great salesman. But knowing Harty, he would only be interested if the book featured his beloved West Ham. Colin’s bubble has never burst.

Photograph of Colin Hart with his award courtesy of the Variety Club/Jim Keogh

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