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Dyson at Large: Colourful tales and characters from regional media’s heyday

Anyone who’s ever worked in the regional press will love John Lamb’s rolling reminisces about the characters he’s met and stories he’s watched breaking during nearly six decades in the trade.

Telegraph People is a new book based on John’s journeyman career in journalism which included three spells at the eponymous Coventry evening, starting as a copy boy in March 1960 at the princely sum of £3.10s.0d a week.

He’s even unearthed his letter of appointment from 59 years ago which itself is a relic of how things used to be, with the assistant editor’s salutation of “Dear Lamb”.

The fascinating part of this story for former and present Coventry staff is that John’s first days on the paper were before it moved to its Corporation Street base later in 1960 – a base it left in 2012 and one that’s now being redeveloped as a £120 million boutique hotel.

Telegraph People

 

Here’s an excerpt on John’s beginnings: “On my first day, I flattened the diminutive chief sub-editor Harry Reader when he pulled open the other side of the door through which I was rushing with some late copy for the next edition. Not a good start, I thought, as I lifted the bloodied Harry, replete in a three-piece suit, onto a spare chair.”

John went on to become assistant editor at the Telegraph in a career that also saw him work on what were then both of Birmingham’s daily titles, London’s own two evening papers and most of Fleet Street.

And he’s still knocking out, subbing and crafting headlines for stories today as director of  press and PR at Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce.

But back to the early 1960s, and Telegraph People reveals some of the great characters the then teenaged John watched in awe.

People like sub-editor Barrie Clarke whose tea was one of 12 cups John had to brew on the hour, every hour: “Barrie Clarke took eight (yes!) spoons of sugar in his black tea. I learned that many years later his teeth did, indeed, turn black and drop out.”

And how about sub-editor Syd Fairlie, who tri-cycled into the office each day from Leamington, then freshened up by bathing naked in the large communal washroom supposedly designed for groups of printers to wash their inky hands.

Then there was deputy editor Donald Beese, a heavy smoker who would often set his waste paper basket alight, dial John’s number and shout “Fire!”, at which the youngster would have to dart into his boss’s office to douse it with a jug of water.

John went on to earn his reporting stripes and NCTJ Proficiency Certificate at The Kenilworth Weekly News, picking up tips from eccentric editor Charlie Porter.

Charlie loved punny, rhyming headlines such as: ‘Car in ditch – broken snitch’, after a driver who broke his nose when his car crashed into a ditch, and ‘Bear Virgins and Lion reach spicey finale’ on a report about three pub teams reaching a darts final (the comma after ‘Bear’ cheekily chipped off on the stone).

He also owned a free-flying budgerigar that would perch on John’s head during copy clinics, leaving its deposits all over his shoulder.

During his second stint at the Telegraph, John went to the canteen for lunch with sports desk colleague Charlie Tibballs who devoured a plate of fish and chips before taking out his false teeth and licking them clean.

At the time, the Telegraph had seven editions and sold around 120,000 copies a day, staffed by an editorial department of nearly 100 – and the stories that John saw being clinched and missed feature throughout his book.

From man’s landing on the moon to the day that John Lennon’s killing was underplayed, and from why The Specials were cold-shouldered by the paper to how a ‘Shots fired at the Queen’ sensation was missed – John tells all in great detail, but I don’t want to give any more away.

In short, John’s book is a bit like a real-life version of a David Nobbs’ novel, full of great characters and stories which I think will ring bells for older journalists everywhere.

• Telegraph People is published by Takahe and was launched on 7 September at the Royal Oak in Earlsdon, Coventry. Copies are available in Midlands bookshops and on Amazon for £10.95

3 comments

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  • September 11, 2019 at 8:59 am
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    Great memories and anecdotes from the glory days of regional journalism when fun and pride in the company, the papers and in doing a good job went hand in hand.

    I wonder how many of today’s young journalists will be able to relate to this long gone working environment?

    Good luck with the book John

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  • September 11, 2019 at 2:30 pm
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    As a close colleague and friend of both John Lamb and Steve Dyson over the years as well as a former Coventry Evening Telegraph journalist I read the HTFP report – and the book – with great interest. As well as wonderful newsroom anecdotes from a bygone era Telegraph People contains many nuggets of wisdom which should be required reading for today’s newspaper managements presiding over an alliance of much diminished print titles. To quote John Lamb on just a handful of issues raised in the book: ‘I don’t imagine print can last for much longer, with circulations plummeting and no-one seeming capable or willing to arrest the decline’ :Today’s regional newspapers are a shadow of what they were largely because they now print overnight and do not have enough staff, even to answer the telephone': ‘Digital coverage can never match the appeal of sitting at home or in the pub or club on a Saturday night with a pint and the PINK.. I believe that newspaper groups are running down the attraction of printed newspapers to prop up their own beliefs that they have no future. Digi devotees will claim that they have a “reach” of millions more readers than their hot metal predecessors. But what they don’t tell you is that the “reach” is only a potential readership and in reality a mythical figure….actual readership numbers are minuscule- that’s why advertisers still prefer printed newspapers. It’s easy to muddle figures in annual reports to.justify your prejudices but I have rarely spoken to an advertiser who prefers a digital platform. In fact, print media is still the most profitable element across all newspapers.” I could quote more but I would suggest that anybody with newspaper blood in his or her veins reads Telegraph People and reflects on a much changed industry.

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  • September 12, 2019 at 10:45 am
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    Two good reasons for going out on my bike tomorrow (Friday): to see the Tour of Britain cycle race when it reaches Atherstone – and to buy a copy of John’s Book. I’m really looking forward to reading it, especially as I was on the former Coventry Evening Telegraph, initially in head office, then at Nuneaton office and latterly covering Bedworth. I was with the CET from April 1979 to June 1997.They were great days prior to redundancy…much missed. When Leamington-based Tom Swain retired, I became the Telegraph’s long-serving district reporter.

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