“Hey you, you long streak of piss. Do four pars on this as fast as you can.’’
It was Don Bentley’s introduction to Fleet Street, the place where he had always wanted to be. He had arrived.
“And I want a decent headline. Active verb. Not that shit from down your way.’’
The man was Ray Mills and “down your way’’ was a reference to where Bentley had come from, the Woking News and Mail.
Bentley had arrived in Fleet Street by not the route he had wanted, as a reporter, but as a junior sub-editor, or a downtable sub, to use a term from the lexicon of Fleet Street, the heart of the British newspaper industry – the street of adventure, the street of shame, the boulevard of broken dreams.
Arriving for countless interviews on Fleet Steet newspapers, determined to move up from weekly journalism in the country and suburbs, Bentley had been told the quickest way to get to “the Street’’ was as a sub-editor.
The term sub-editor might sound grand, but many sub-editors inhabited relatively lowly positions on a newspaper, the job description being on a par with the American term of copy editor.
The real decision makers when it came to production and display were what were termed the backbench team below the night editor, then the chief sub-editors of the newspaper sections. On the news side, sub-editors were neatly divided into two categories, top table and down table subs. Top table subs, as the title suggested, sat closest to the chief sub-editor on the long subs’ table. They were the most experienced, trusted wordsmiths and were handed most of the copy. The downtable subs received the crumbs, and were always attempting to write good headlines, to be noticed by the chief sub-editor and get promoted up the table.
Newcomers were always put on an early evening shift, which mainly required producing one and two-paragraph stories to be used as fillers when the main pages were put together later in the evening. Before the days of electronic editing, copy was set by printers in lines of lead type and the process made it difficult to “cast off’’ (calculate the set length of type) accurately. If copy ran short, a filler was invariably placed in the hole.
Although a menial task, writing these one and two-paragraph stories required great skill to tell the story, and it was fine training for the art of the wordsmith. An entertaining headline, of one or two lines, also required great talent.
On Bentley’s first night on the Sun newspaper, in the late 1960s, a fellow young sub sitting beside him had been given a brief item about a move to make motor vehicle insurance policies easier to read for motorists, by having them written in plain English without legal insurance jargon. The young sub-editor had come up with the headline “Fully comprehensible’’, and chief sub-editor Mills had roared with delight. Even though the headline did not quite fit in the space allotted to it, Mills allowed the sub-editor to take it down a size or two. The headline was that good.
“Follow that,’’ Bentley muttered to himself. He was in the real world of headline writing, of journalism, Fleet Street.
On another night, there was a succession of news stories about an outbreak of influenza. A football match had been called off because all the players were sick and although this story was an item for the sports pages its news value warranted a par or two in the news pages. Fulham was the team stricken by sickness and one of the young sub-editors had come up with the single word headline, FLUham.
Bentley had much to learn.
Mills was in fact the deputy chief sub-editor of the Sun and it was with some trepidation that the young sub-editors entered the newsroom, and saw him sitting in the chief sub’s chair. This was a frequent occurrence because the actual chief sub — a far more agreeable boss – frequently filled a position on the backbench.
Mills said few words to the downtable subs, mainly to berate them, but praise was forthcoming when it was warranted. He would call people “cunt-ee’’ in a thick northern English accent, and the word could be an insult or an endearment, depending on how heavily Mills put the emphasis on the last syllable.
One of the young sub-editors, a Scotsman from Glasgow, was prone to vanishing for long periods, time he spent in the staff canteen. One day when he returned to his desk, Mills produced a length of rope and tied the sub-editor’s legs to his desk.
“That a-fucking keep you in one place, cunt-ee,’’ he said.
Mills’ habit of exploding into laughter could mean one of two things: a brilliant headline like the “fully comprehensible’’ one that caught his eye or ridicule for a lamentable one, or a mistake he had spotted in the editing process.
On such occasions, there was unease among the lower echelons at the end of the table: had Mills seen something genuinely funny, or something he felt worthy of a bollocking?
One night, Bentley had edited a story about a flood, which called for a standard news headline without puns. There was an explosion of laughter from Mills, and Bentley braced himself for an onslaught, thinking he might have made a mistake in the copy or the headline. Bentley was already in Mills’ bad books, having made a hash of a rewrite of a story about a dangerous road. The story was a low-key one for country editions, to be dumped as more exciting news came in, but Bentley nonetheless had attempted to sharpen it up. Bentley had written “the pothole proved a problem until the mayor stepped in . . .’’
Bentley suffered the indignity of having the story cut from that morning’s newspaper and pinned to the subs’ notice board. He was a laughing stock all evening.
Regarding the flood, Bentley was in the clear. Mills was merely laughing at the name of the reporter whose byline was on the story: Colin Duck.
Ray Mills was a big, rolly-polly man standing about six feet and weighing a good 18 stone. He was how a chief sub should have looked in the myth and fable of Fleet Street, and if he had not existed it would have been necessary to invent him.
Mills came across as a tough, rough northerner but in truth it was an image he carefully cultivated; he was a professional Lancastrian. He liked to appear obnoxious and uncultured; his bulk spoke of a diet of best bitter and fish and chips and there were ostentacious displays of vulgarity, like drying his smelly socks on the radiators of the Sun newsroom. In truth he was a grammar school boy from the Lancashire town of Oldham and was well read, even if he did not want you to know it.
It was enough for him to have a way with words, especially words to discuss his beloved Lancashire Cricket Club, a topic of conversation even in winter when the season was not under way.
Mills may have been gruff and a bully at times but residing in that body was a big heart, although Bentley never heard it beating. Mills just demanded incredibly high standards, standards that the young Bentley, 22 years old, struggled to meet.
Despite his demonic behaviour towards sub-editors and reporters alike, on the Sun and subsequent places he worked, Mills made more friends than enemies. All the same, Mills’ attitude and behaviour resulted in him gaining some colourful nicknames, such as Docker, Dark Satanic and finally BIFFO (Big Ignorant Fucker From Oldham).
Long after Bentley had left Fleet Street to travel the world, he continued to hear word of Mills, although they were never friends and would never have kept in touch. Mills went on to be chief sub of the Sun when its ownership transferred to Rubert Murdoch and then had other senior roles in Fleet Steet. Before his death, in 2006, he had long been recognised as among the best chief subs Fleet Street had seen.
“Make ’em sing’’ was Mills’ catchphrase when it came to writing headlines, and, in his keenness to catch the chief sub-editor’s eye, Bentley set out to make his headlines sparkle. When he was handed a filler about a spate of deaths at an old folk’s home, Bentley took it upon himself to link it to the flu epidemic sweeping the country at the time. “Killer flu strikes again’’, read the headline. Mills, when he read it, exploded.
“What the fuck’s this?’’ he screamed, red in the face. “Killer fuckin’ flu? A good crap would have killed them.’’