The finest creative writing never published

Was Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s husband guilty of lacking a more imaginative approach to doing his exes? NORMAN GILLER believes so

Computer keyboards have been alive with the sound of hypocrisy this week as journalists lined up to jump on Jacqui Smith for, uh, massaging her expenses to include her husband’s porn films.

I wonder how many words would have been written if the edict had gone out: “Only those who’ve never fiddled their exes can comment on this story”? Methinks there would have been a lot of blank columns.

Back “in my day”, it was a given that inflated expenses were an accepted perk, and many journos stretched their imaginations much more than they ever did when writing their copy.

I remember in my first week on the Daily Express in the early 1960s, chief football reporter Clive Toye peering over my shoulder as I put together my expenses claim.

“Young Giller,” he said (to this day, he still calls me Young Giller), “you have got a lot to learn. Move over.”

He took my seat at the typewriter (a huge Remington beast that clattered like machine gun fire when I was in full flow). Now here was an artist at the keys, a Horowitz of expenses creation.

In no time, my claim for £9 had grown to £19 as Clive turned bus rides into taxi journeys and tea and sandwiches to a three-course feast.

“But how do I prove I had that meal?” I asked with a naivety that exposed that I was fresh off the subs’ desk.

Clive, the master of invention, reached into his desk drawer and produced a blank pad of restaurant bills. “Fill it out yourself,” he advised like a Fagin of forgers, “but make an effort to disguise your handwriting.”

He brushed aside my attempt at thanking him. “I’m not doing it for you,” he said, putting me in my place. “You’re letting the side down if your exes are too low. It makes me look bad if your expenses are one-third of mine.”

I learned quickly and within no time at all was putting more padding into my expenses than there was on Joe Namath’s shoulders.

But I was an amateur compared with our legendary columnist Desmond “The Man in the Brown Bowler” Hackett, who used to charge every month for a new hat, while wearing the same one all year. He once interviewed the 1960 Olympic gold medal-winning walker Don Thompson, who famously prepared for his 50km race in a steam-filled bathroom.

On the Hackett expenses claim that week was £10 for hire of a waterproof suit. He’d done the interview on the telephone.

It was Des who first came up with the phrase: “Don’t let facts spoil a good story.”

His classic was during the 1954 “Battle of Berne”, when the players of Hungary and Brazil clashed in a bottles and fists brawl after their World Cup quarter-final. Des gave a graphic account of how he got caught up in the fighting while going about his reporting duties, and he revealed that – trying to pull the players apart – he got his wristwatch smashed.

Sure enough, in his expenses claim on his return was a replacement watch. Press box colleagues swore that the over imaginative Des did not get within 50 yards of the battle.

His descriptive report was a front-page splash, and Express proprietor Lord Beaverbrook was so moved by it that he presented Des with an inscribed gold watch.

It was Des who got a “from the horse’s mouth” interview with 1967 Grand National winner Foinavon. In the entertaining column of his exes: a bag of oats.

Dear old Des lives on in modern rhyming slang. When somebody leaving a party asks for his Desmond, they mean their Desmond Hackett, jacket. That would have greatly amused him, because he was a Lancastrian who cultivated a terribly posh English accent to go with his bowler hat image. Rhyming slang would not have come near his tongue. He and handlebar-moustached cartoonist Roy Ullyett travelled the world passing themselves off as English lords, wangling their way into cocktail parties galore.

Our Sports Editor John Morgan used to turn a Nelsonian blind eye to the hey diddle diddling, mainly because he was something of a past master at the art himself. He once threw a champagne party for sports desk colleagues at the Cheshire Cheese to celebrate his birthday, and – a fiercely proud Gooner – put it down on expenses as entertaining Arsenal’s Double winning team.

Colin Hart, doyen of boxing scribes, reminded me of the funniest exes-fiddling story, and it features our mutual friend and fellow East Ender Peter Batt.

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 childrens’ 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 ordered from the kids’ menu.”

A quick story about Colin Hart and me. I can pinpoint the moment that we met for the first time, a little matter of 51 years ago. Colin was then a 21-year-old crime reporter working for Mitchell’s East London News Agency. I was 17 and on the first rungs of the journalistic ladder at the Stratford Express, doubling up as assistant sports editor and general reporter.

I was sent to cover East London Juvenile Court for the first time, and an usher showed me to a seat. Colin, sitting on the opposite side of the courtroom, noticed that I had a notebook and was scrawling away as the magistrate opened proceedings. During a lull, he came across and said: “What you writing, son?”

“I’m reporting for the Stratford Express,” I said, with some pride.

“Then why are you sitting with the defendants?” Colin asked.

I looked so young that the usher had thought I was on trial.

Now, all these years later, it’s Harty who looks ridiculously young when he makes his frequent appearances on Sky boxing debates.

Wonder if he gets exes?

Click here for more sports journalism links

Your SJA subscription was due from JANUARY 1 – click here for details of how to make your payment