NORMAN GILLER pays tribute to another old friend, seemingly the source of the majority of the tales of old Fleet Street
All those of us who knew Fleet Street sports colossus Peter Batt will be wondering if he will turn up at his own funeral. He had a habit of “going missing” throughout his tumultuous life.
Peter died on Friday at St George’s Hospital, Tooting, aged 77, after heart and cancer problems. He was/is as big a legend in sports journalism as dear Henry Cooper was in boxing. To lose them both in the same weekend is too painful to bear.
Everybody has a Peter Batt story, the difference being that I was there as a disbelieving and often dismayed eyewitness at the birth of many of the anecdotes that have made him fabled.
I first came across Peter the Poet when I was a copyboy on the much-mourned London Evening News in the mid-1950s. One of the copytakers used to berate the reporters with such bellowed comments as: “Is there much more of this fucking crap …?”
The copytaker was, of course, Batty, recently off a building site where he had been a labourer following his National Service in the Army, which was largely spent in the glasshouse.
Our paths crossed next on the Stratford Express where I was sports editor and Batty came swanning in as a news reporter after being infamously given the tin tack (a Battman phrase) from a string of local papers in what were invariably drink-related incidents.
His reputation arrived ahead of him, and Peter did not disappoint us with his behaviour. There were hilarious scenes, with our Tom Thumb of an editor, Tom Bailey, continually giving finger-pointing lectures to gangling, 6ft 2in Batty about his conduct. Late for the umpteenth time, Peter was called into Bailey’s office for a final yellow card warning and he proceeded to explain that he had been to hospital “because I cut me old John Thomas while with a bird last night.”
Lay preacher Bailey made goldfish movements with his mouth as he tried to get his head around this improbable excuse. Uninvited, Batty unzipped and plonked his bandaged plonker on to the Editor’s desk. The evidence. Case closed.
The beauty of Peter Batt stories is that you don’t have to dress them up and embellish them because they are all true. He was finally escorted off the premises of the Stratford Express a few weeks later after turning up paralytic drunk. Dear old Tom Bailey was so intimidated by Peter’s booze-fuelled aggression that he called the police to make sure he left the building. Tin-tacked again.
Next, 1962, I was sitting subbing on the Daily Herald sports desk when, waving to me across the open-plan editorial floor with a hangar-size grin, was none other than Batty. My fellow Stepneyite had blagged his way into a news reporter’s job.
Enter another sports journalist legend, Colin Hart. At the time he was the Herald’s brilliant night news editor, and when it came over the wires that a London-bound plane had crashed in the Pyrenees he sent fireman reporter Batty to the scene. Battman being Battman, he got to the foothills in an inebriated condition, and when the taxi-driver dropped him as close as possible to the scene of the crash, he managed to fall over in the snow while attempting to walk up the mountain.
Rescuers coming down from the wrecked plane found him, picked him up and carried him to a nearby convent where he was put into bed and nursed by nuns, who did not help his condition by giving him copious shots of brandy to warm him up. Word got back to other reporters covering the story that a survivor had been found. They dashed to the convent to discover a pissed-as-a-pudding Batty sitting up in bed toasting their arrival and saying: “Thought I’d died and woken up in ‘eaven.”
Peter, of course, morphed into a sportswriter of supreme talent, but always with the bottle between him and convention. There are literally hundreds of Battman stories that we will be swapping at his funeral.
This one comes from Colin Hart: “When Winston Churchill was dying in 1965 Peter was one of the newshounds door stepping the hospital where he was into his last days. There was no PR machine in those days and nobody could get what Peter famously dubbed any ‘nannies’ (nanny goats: quotes).
“Churchill’s personal doctor, a man in his 80s and suffering from severe Parkinson’s disease, made a visit to the hospital and then prepared to leave by chauffered Rolls Royce. Peter dashed through the police cordon and shouted through the open back window of the Roller: ‘Is the old boy fading fast …?’
“The doctor said nothing but because of his Parkinson’s, he nodded his head. The rest of the press gang asked Battman what the doc had said. ‘He’s fading fast,’ he reported, and that quote shot around the world!”
Another classic from our fellow East Londoner Colin: “While on The Sun, Battman charged for a hospitality meal with racing trainer Vincent O’Brien. A sharp-eyed accountant spotted that the receipt Peter had pinned to his exes sheet was for four people, including two children’s meals. Sports Editor Frank Nicklin summoned Peter to his office, and asked him to explain the bill.’Well, boss,’ said Peter, adlibbing beautifully, ‘Vincent turned up with two jockeys and they were both making weight, so I ordered from the kids menu’.”
And another Battman/Nicklin story from the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department: Peter was getting one of Nicklin’s famed and feared bollockings for going missing and snapped under the verbal assault. He started throwing the four volumes of the London telephone directories at his snarling boss.
It is part of Fleet Street folklore how Nicklin – an exceptional all-round sportsman in his youth – trapped A to F, chested away G to K, headed L to R and volleyed S to Z back at Batty. The scene was so Pythonesque that they collapsed laughing and took their argument to the more suitable surroundings of the pub, where it ended with mutual back slapping.
Peter was a Dean Martin soundalike who could really belt out a song and the memory is clear in my head of him falling blind drunk off the stage at a Geoff Hurst testimonial dinner at the London Hilton while singing “My Way”. He bashed his head on landing and had no recollection of it happening, but the fact the police were called to sort out a rowdy press gang is proof of it occurring (Cockney Peter used always to say “What’s occurring …?” long before it found its way into the mouth of Arthur Daley).
Snatches of my personal anecdotes:
- Peter and I worked together on a Barry McGuigan biography that was pulped because he lifted his part from other papers …
- We wrote a betting shop sit-com for ITV that was dropped after he had turned up at a script meeting paralytic …
- Applied together to write for EastEnders before it hit the screens, he got the job but I was too busy working as Frank Bruno’s publicist …
- He wrote several of the first EastEnders scripts but then got the tin-tack because in a televised interview with Terry Wogan he gave the impression he was the sole writer …
- And how I managed to lose his autobiography (of which he had only one copy) in Mexico during the 1970 World Cup.
But he got round to rewriting it eventually, and I recommend you to beg, steal or preferably buy a copy of his story Batty, The Life and Wild Times of the Guvnor of Fleet Street (published in 2000 by Headline). I have rarely known anybody cut themselves open quite like Peter did in his book, and it acts as a stark warning to anybody who likes a glass or two too many. Watching him hitting the bottle was like being a witness to a slow-motion train crash. A lot of us tried hard to save him, but he continually broke hearts and promises in equal number.
He finished up a recluse, battling to beat the bottle and was miraculously dry for the last four years of his life, when he was reunited with his family and got to know his grandchildren. His beautiful, long-suffering German-born wife, Heidi, divorced him after 30 years of putting up with his Jekyll and Hyde moods.
If his daughters, Jenny and Caroline, or son Danny are reading this, please take it from me that your Dad was a genius of a writer, loved by his colleagues, the best company on earth when in party mode and a big-hearted man who sadly could not say “no” to that next drink. I was proud to have him as a friend, and am so sorry I could not save him from the self-destruct button.
In his sober moments (and also often while out of his head) he was a blinding master of the written word, and a credit to the east London school of sportswriters now so brilliantly represented by Martin Samuel. He used to be billed in the Daily Star as the “Biggest Four Letter Word in Sport”. Until he got the tin-tack. Again. He fittingly left behind a stream of four-letter words as he was shown the door.
As our mutual mate, Colin Hart, so accurately wrote in today’s Sun: “He was the last of the Fleet Street hellraisers.”
Peter’s funeral, pending a post-mortem, is scheduled for 11am Monday May 16 at the North East Surrey Crematorium, Morden. Will he show up?
Read Norman Giller’s previous columns for the SJA website by clicking here
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