I’m Not One to Gossip, But…


Having worked in the business of social diarist/gossip columnist myself for many years, there are a few journalists I would’ve considered the ‘Mr Miyagi‘ to my ‘Gossip Kid.John McEntee, who has worked at various times in his career for the now defunct Irish Press, The Sun, Daily Express and Daily Mail, is one of them. A book of his career as a social diarist, ‘I’m Not One to Gossip, But…’ will be published in London and Dublin, this week. This is an adaptation, published here, exclusively, John expected the Daily Mail would publish this week but it was withdrawn by ‘Mail editor, Paul Dacre, on the grounds that it gave journalism a bad name, a classic case of mistaken identity between Pot and Kettle.

I'm Not One to Gossip Launch Invite (Dublin)(1)


by John McEntee

The duty of every gossip columnist, however mischievous and trouble-making, is to tell the truth. So I cannot tell a lie and say that Sir Sean Connery is a generous man. He is never, shall we say, free with his money.

Just how tight he can be I discovered at a ‘first night’ party in 1996 for his wife Micheline’s hit play, Art. I was there as part of London’s cohort of freeloaders, and as such it was my duty to spout congratulations and praise to the stars’s faces, in exchange for the free drinks that are a crucial part of these shindigs.

I elbowed my way over to the actors Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, who should have been beaming, since they were headlining the play. But they were both scowling. ‘Can you believe it?’ bellowed Finney at me. ‘I had to pay cash for our drinks. Connery has installed a pay-bar.’

At first I didn’t believe him, but it was no exaggeration: Albert’s two sisters had travelled all the way from Leeds to see their brother in this production, and when he ordered a round of drinks for them he was told he would have to pay.

This could not go unreported. Seeking a comment from the host, I pushed my way over to Sir Sean, who was flanked by two po-faced hunks of raw beef in tuxedos. I introduced myself and told him, ‘Albert Finney is complaining that he had to pay for his sisters’ drinks. Why have you installed a pay bar?’

Connery blinked. His lips formed an unmistakeable sneer. He made eye contact with one of the jumbo tuxedos, and I felt firm hands under my armpits as my feet left the floor. The last thing I saw as I was propelled through the door onto the gravel outside was Sir Sean’s grinning face.

Such treatment was, I mused, an occupational hazard. My journalistic career had been peppered with dubious incidents from the start. There was Pope John Paul’s visit to Ireland in 1979, for instance: working for the Irish Press, I was sent to cover the Pontiff’s pilgrimage to the shrine at Knock in County Mayo. The whole country had gone Pope-crazy – a million people flocked to see him at Phoenix Park in Dublin, where a fortune was made by chancers selling folding canvas stools at outrageous prices.

I was assigned to cover the mass for the sick in Knock’s impressive, round Basilica, but the organisers decided that only the sick themselves, with their relatives, should be allowed to attend. No press.

In a bar, I acquired a wheelchair, a rug and a chauffeur for £20. Haggling took some time, during which my ‘carer’ and I downed four pints of Guinness apiece. I was wheeled to the steps of the altar, where I had my first shivers of self-doubt: to my right was a child on a hospital bed festooned with drips and other life support equipment, while to my left an extremely frail lady was slumped asleep in her chair.

I had another, more urgent matter on my mind, as the papal helicopter hovered overhead. Pope John Paul was already two hours late, and those four pints of Guinness were taking their toll. As the Mass proceeded, I squirmed in my wheelchair. Sweat appeared on my upper lip. If I hadn’t been unwell before the papal visit, I was now.

At last the service was over, and the rock-star Pope was down among the beds and crutches, embracing children and clutching hands. I felt my fingers being squeezed, and my discomfort was overcome by something even stronger – an overwhelming guilt. What on earth was I doing, masquerading as an invalid among so many genuinely sick people? The answer was: my job.

Not every story I investigated was quite so piously spiritual. My news editor sent me to Ambleside Avenue in Streatham, London, to interview Cynthia Payne, the brothel-keeper famously dubbed Madame Cyn. She answered the front door with a twinkle in her eye and before I had time to introduce myself slid her right hand, palm upwards, between the legs of my Prince of Wales checked trousers. ‘Oooh,’ she chuckled, ‘you’re a big boy, come in.’

What followed was a very raucous shindig with her working girls and curious customers, in a home of overwhelming suburban ordinariness, with nets at the windows, starched antimacassars and plenty of pretty china. It was 1982 and Madame Cyn had recently published a memoir, An English Madam, about her business: until her arrest and imprisonment for running ‘the biggest disorderly house’ in British history, she had provided mature clients (no one under 40 was admitted) with a lavish buffet, plenty of wine and the company of a young lady, all for £25.

Her customers, many of them members of the Houses of Parliament and captains of industry, usually eschewed conventional intercourse, and preferred bondage, whipping, spanking – one delighted in being stripped, covered in honey and having one of Cynthia’s ladies switch a vacuum cleaner from suck to blow, thus pebble-dashing him with household dust.

The girls received £8 for each sexual chore, and invariably finished their shift with a snack of poached egg on toast and a cup of tea.

We chose a quiet room for the interview but, by the time we’d finished chatting, a party was in full swing around us. I had noticed on my way in an ice-laden bath filled with bottles of wine, vodka, brandy, Pernod and sherry. I stayed far too long, talking to a PVC-clad man with a leather balaclava and pointed breasts, and a bewhiskered ex-RAF wing commander who told me his pleasure was to be tied naked to a tree in Epping Forest by Cynthia’s girls and abandoned till nightfall – the risk of discovery thrilled him.

In such distracting company, I failed to notice the winking camera in the corner of the room. TV reporter John Stapleton was recording a piece for that evening’s Newsnight, and by the time I arrived home the show was just starting on BBC2. My long-suffering wife was staring at the pictures. As John talked to camera, I was in full view behind him, throwing back my head with laughter at the bondage aficionado’s jokes. ‘That’s you!’ my wife exclaimed. ‘Where have you been?’ My answer was to mumble gibberish.

I didn’t always heap shame upon myself. At the Sun in 1984, I was despatched to secure an interview with Tommy Cooper’s widow, the day after he crumpled and died on the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End. Laden with flowers, not to mention the glow from four foaming pints of London Pride ale which I had imbibed as a precaution, I rang the doorbell in Chiswick High Street.

A Filipino maid answered the door and announced that Mrs Cooper was not seeing anyone, but behind her I saw a pair of red-rimmed eyes blinking behind enormous spectacles, and the grey hair of Mrs Cooper herself. ‘What lovely flowers,’ she said, and I asked if she would accept them as a token of sympathy from our readers.

She ushered me inside. At the foot of the stairs was a large wooden trunk bound with leather straps, containing Tommy’s props. On top of it was half a sliced loaf. Mrs Cooper – ‘Call me Dove,’ she said – pointed and explained, ‘It’s Tommy’s banana sandwiches. He always took a whole loaf of them when he was on stage.’ She dissolved in floods of tears and added, ‘He’s only eaten half of them.’

She asked me to pour her a large Gordon’s gin with Schweppes tonic water, and to have one myself. As I did, the phone rang. It was Tommy’s fellow comic Eric Morecambe, paying his respects. Dove shook her head: she didn’t want to take the call. ‘Mrs Cooper is indisposed,’ I told Eric.

Over the next few hours I fielded calls from Michael Parkinson, Eric Sykes, Ronnie Barker, Barry Cryer and a profusion of Tommy’s other acquaintances. Dove asked me to watch the video of his last performance from the night before, and she replayed the moment that he collapsed repeatedly, howling and babbling: ‘He never even finished his banana sandwiches!’

When I returned to the newsroom much later, the newseditor asked me how I’d got on. ‘She wouldn’t talk to me,’ I lied. I just didn’t have the heart to write it up.

No less odd, in its own way, was my meeting with the self-professed medium, and well-meaning charlatan, Doris Stokes. I visited her council flat off the Fulham Road where she lived with her husband, John. Their sitting room was dominated by a chunky armchair and a large sofa positioned before the TV, but what caught my attention was a square of cheap wood on the wall, topped with a triangle and a crucifix.

Inside the square was a noticeboard-style jumble of more than 100 snapshots, some culing upwards, others pinned down, many yellowing at the edges. All of them were of children. Pre-teens in Boy Scout and Girl Guide outfits. Others caught in the glare of sunshine on family hlidays in Clacton, Eastbourne, Spain, Florida and other places. All smiling, all happy… all now dead, I realised. I asked Doris who they were. ‘Oh, these are my spirit children,’ she assured me. ‘I am in touch with them all.’

Distraught parents, despairing of conventional religion, would send their photos to Doris, and she would ‘make contact’ and report back to the families that their offspring, cruelly taken from them before life could really begin, were fine and happy on the other side. As far as I know, no money changed hands. I don’t believe Doris did any harm, and she gave more comfort than a Vatican-full of monseigneurs waving rosaries ever could.

Sometimes harm could inadvertently be done by an item in the gossip column, however. Soon after I joined the Evening Standard, a story did the rounds that one of the Brink’s-MAT bullion robbers had been stepping out with a girl who worked in the Harrods perfumery department. We had heard other allegations that wealthy Arabs would sometimes come away from the Knightsbridge emporium clutching phone numbers scribbled on the receipts for jumbo bottles of Chanel, so I was sent to talk to the girls.

It was easy to strike up a conversation with the ladies in the perfume hall and, as we chatted lightly, it never crossed my mind to reveal to these attractive and delightful women that I was a reporter. But after my piece appeared, I received a telephone call: ‘My name is Ann. I used to work at Harrods – but we’ve all been fired and told to leave immediately because of you. I’m a single mother, I can’t afford to lose this job.’ By now she was in tears.

I was appalled, and so was the managing editor – Harrod’s had withdrawn their multi-million pound advertising account in protest.

But even that disaster was no match for an early assignment, in 1974, when I interviewed the oldest man in Ireland. His name was Jeremiah McCarthy, he was 107 and he lived in County Kilkenny. He had also, his daughter told me and the photographer, Ray, been confined to his bed for two years. He wasn’t suffering from any particular ailment, but age had slowed him down.

At my pleading, however, Jeremiah rose from his bed and joined us outside, in a starched grey woollen suit with creases in the trousers that were sharp enough to shave with. He was a slight figure, wearing a felt trilby and clutching a stout walking stick in each hand. He was also completely deaf, but we managed to persuade him to stand in the open doorway of his cottage while Ray snapped pictures from the roadway.

It was a winter’s day and, by the time we had finished, Jeremiah was turning blue. I helped him shuffle back inside and he took an age, with the cold wind whipping round us. The old man was muttering something. I asked him to repeat it: ‘I’d be a long time walking to Dublin,’ he said.

Two days later, I saw Jeremiah’s portrait on the front of the Evening Press. The headline said, ‘Ireland’s Oldest Man Dies.’ He’d caught a chill after leaving his bed for the first time in two years. To this day, colleagues point me out as ‘the man who killed the oldest man in Ireland’.

Such tragedies are less rare than you’d think. When a new clock was installed on top of the Express building in the Nineties, it was unveiled by former Doctor Who Jon Pertwee. Though it was perishing cold and the actor’s teeth were chattering, the photographer insisted he must pose for one more picture with a dalek on Blackfriar’s Bridge, with the clock in the background. The ex-Time Lord obliged, despite the cold, and was dead within a week.

With so many perils and pitfalls, you might think no one would ever wish to see their name appear in a gossip column. And you would be wrong – some are desperate for it.

One summer in the late Eighties I motored to the Grantchester home, just outside Cambridge, of Jeffrey and Mary Archer, for a book launch – not one of Jeffrey’s potboilers, but a privately published volume by his fragrant wife about the poet Rupert Brooke, who had once lived in the house that was now theirs.

Mary had chosen an occasion when her husband was away on the political campaign trail, because she didn’t want him hogging her limelight. She looked less than pleased when, a few minutes into the event, we heard the scrunch of tyres on the gravel drive. Jeffrey had come racing back. Mary’s face betrayed exactly what she thought about this.

Jeffrey was wearing a straw boater and striped blazer, and brandishing a painting which he announced to all and sundry was a surprise gift for his wife. Mary looked bemused, glanced at it briefly and placed it carelessly on the lawn. Then she resumed the business of publicising her book, clutching a copy as she posed on a bench for the photographers.

Behind her, Jeffrey launched into a shameless bout of attention-seeking. He was kicking his legs up, like Frankie Vaughan, and waving his hat about.

Mrs Archer turned round, mouthed the words ‘F*** off’ at her husband and returned to the camera with the sweetest of smiles.


Adapted from I’m Not One To Gossip But… by John McEntee, published by Biteback

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