The Owner’s Mother Loves My Stuff: A Journalist’s Life as I Know It by David Robson - review by Wendy Holden

Wendy Holden

A Visit from the Editor

The Owner’s Mother Loves My Stuff: A Journalist’s Life as I Know It

By

Wrentham Books 256pp £10
 

Is there anyone quite so sentimental as an old newspaper hack? In his memoir, David Robson conjures up a lost world of hot metal type, endless lunches and larger-than-life characters. And, of course, legendary editors. The Sunday Times’s Harold Evans and The Independent’s Andreas Whittam Smith are recalled with warmth and admiration, Andrew Neil and Paul Dacre with admiration but rather less warmth.

Perhaps Robson is right to be wistful. His career began in the early 1970s on the empowering feminist magazine Honey and ended forty years later on Richard Desmond’s Daily Express (it’s Desmond’s mother who’s referred to in the title), when Fleet Street in its old, bold, freewheeling incarnation had more or less ceased to exist.

It was on its way out when I arrived there in the mid-1990s. After what seemed a lifetime in the trade press, I finally broke into the nationals. I just about caught the end of the legendary editors. I began at Harpers & Queen, the editor of which, Vicki Woods, was a diminutive powerhouse with cropped blonde hair and a stare that reduced strong men to rubble. But Harpers & Queen was still a magazine and I itched to join a newspaper. The chance came when another legendary editor, Alexander Chancellor, launched the Sunday Telegraph Magazine and wanted me on board. It was, at least, newspaper-adjacent, so I jumped ship without a second thought (but plenty of third and fourth ones) to the half-built Docklands. This was the period when editors were trying to manage the complicated transition to computer layout. With impeccable timing, I had joined the newspaper industry at the exact point it stopped being fun.

Robson had lots of fun. He writes about a happy time largely before computerisation, before the internet, before trolling and message boards – a time when people actually pick up the phone and speak to each other, when brilliant writers, photographers and section editors are given free rein and large budgets.

He mingles with legends like Hunter Davies, Jilly Cooper and Bernard Levin, a man ‘who does the work of two men for the pay of five’. He runs upstairs to keep pace with the famously fit Harold Evans. ‘Good, good,’ says Harry. He’s there when David Bailey photographs Cher, telling her, ‘move your arse, Mum’ (Cher loves it). He’s around for the birth of famous columns in the Sunday Times – Life in the Day, Relative Values – that are still running.

Robson writes with entertaining self-deprecation and recalls an amazing amount of detail. Non-journalists might find this occasionally overwhelming, but Robson’s pride in and love for his trade is endearing and infectious. He conjures up the prelapsarian press paradise that existed before all-powerful proprietors brought in a culture of terror that began with the editor and went right down to the postboy. Or maybe it was just that Robson was a man, so would always have had an easier time.

One chapter describes Robson’s stint at the Daily Mail, with which he came to the usual accommodation. ‘Irrespective of what you thought of its values, the Mail was undeniably a quality product,’ he writes. He’s interesting and entertaining on what that ‘quality’ was founded on: basically, limitless money, writers who wrote exactly what was wanted and an unflinching editorial line. The Mail ‘didn’t reason, it fulminated. Things were either very good or very bad.’ When he comes to its personnel, his tone verges on the sexist. Veronica Wadley, the most powerful of the paper’s rare female executives, had ‘something of the dominatrix about her’.

Having said that, when I got my big newspaper break as deputy editor of the Sunday Times Style section, I was too thrilled to land the job to worry about sexual politics, even when I had to dress up as all five Spice Girls, complete with skimpy dresses and bra tops. Besides, there were other things to worry about. The staff almost exulted in their terror of The Editor, a figure so intimidating that when they knew that he was coming down to their section, it was like the bit in Jurassic Park where the water shakes in the cups. Yet the actual editor wasn’t quite the same person as The Editor, who was probably a collective hallucination. Maybe we wanted a frightening editor so we could feel we were in the old Fleet Street. We on the Style section might also have wanted one because it made our jobs seem less silly.

My job was particularly silly: I was writing a weekly column for the celebrity socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, usually inventing the whole thing from scratch, as she was rarely contactable. The column, unexpectedly, became hugely famous and I launched my career as a novelist on the back of it (Simply Divine, my first novel, was about a downtrodden hack who writes a similar column).

I left Fleet Street as a result but still occasionally bore my family rigid with fond memories of my days on the nationals. I would perhaps do better to hand them this buzzy account of the last golden age of British newspapers and say that it was a little bit like that.

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