Posted: March 3rd, 2017
CHRIS BUCKLAND, a Fleet Street great who worked on three Mirror Group titles, died of cancer on February 28 (2017) aged 73. His funeral is at 4pm on March 16 at Mortlake Crematorium (Kew Meadow Path, Townmead Road, Richmond TW9 4EN; www.mortlakecrematorium.org/) Further details about a St Bride’s memorial service, possibly in June, to follow. (Pic credit: Sunday Mirror.)
A giant of journalism whose life was saved by Mirror bosses in more caring times
By SYD YOUNG
Much has been written since the sad death of Fleet Street’s gypsy political editor Chris Buckland. Most of it true and free from any of the usual bar room hype and exaggeration.
His quip that “the first casualty of war is not truth but room service” was just one gem from the 73-year-old Burnley-born maestro’s fun book. It, and others, have already had a good outing in many obituaries and will not require embellishing.
His ability to out-drink many a Grub Street hack and his strength in successfully killing off his demons over three decades ago rightly got a good show following his death from cancer.
But an error in one about the manner of his drying out in the Priory brought home to me how Fleet Street has changed since the glory days. It was something Chris was grateful for and often talked about. He said it would never be repeated by the beancounters of today.
After working brilliantly as bureau chief in the Mirror’s New York office, aided and abetted by his love of M&Ms (Manhattan Martinis) and – following a successful drinking apprenticeship during the “The Trebles” in Belfast – the road to recovery organised by Mirror bosses was not as brutal as portrayed in one obituary.
He was not ordered back to London and told there was a car waiting to take him to the Priory on arrival at the airport.
The true story is much better than that and is, perhaps, an object lesson for today’s men in suits who try to be as successful in the saving of pennies as they are at snuffing out the careers of loyal journalists. In those happier and more caring times the bosses at the Mirror realised that Chris, although doing a competent job as foreign editor on his return from the U.S., had a drinking problem and it needed to be tackled.
Without any fuss a decision was taken by the editor and management. Chris was booked into the Priory. The Mirror paid and he made a successful and productive return to the Mirror with only close friends knowing. He was not the only one to benefit from their life-saving intervention.
From there he made a joyful return to the his natural home before the journey around the nationals as the leading political writer of his day. His sharp wit and limited patience for politicians’ pomposity made him popular – not least with the “honourable members” he lampooned.
Typical of his sense of humour can be found in Ann Morrow’s book, The Queen. He told Her Majesty at a reception how, during an earlier royal visit to Nassau, a local radio reporter described her arrival at the airport. Chris, imitating how the home-grown commentator described it on air, told her: “He said ‘Heah come de Queen and de Duke down de ayahkraft steps lookin’ quait smart and quait fit.’”
The laughing Queen called the Duke and said: “Oh, come and listen to this!” Her Majesty, an accomplished mimic herself, is known to have repeated this many times for the amusement of her friends.
In 1954 Chris took centre stage during a reception in Australia. Never one to miss a chance for a joke he was asked by an equerry to tell the Queen his oft quoted story of how he got into Albania through its then tough border controls. “I’m not sure I should tell you, ma’am, because as a British citizen I defaced your passport.” Encouraged by the royal interest he ploughed on to explain how his nickname became “the Albanian waiter”. “Where my passport should show ‘Writer’ I altered the R to an A.” The Queen joined in the joke.
If it raised a laugh Chris was always ready to tell stories against himself – when he wasn’t debunking the pompous and famous. Proud of his Northern roots he often recalled the time he played the piano at a school concert in the Mechanics’ Institute in Burnley. After the first piece Chris complained to his dad, Claude: “Not many people applauded.”
“Erm, yes lad, they fought you were just warming up,” said his doting dad.
Chris died peacefully on 28 February after an eight-year battle with cancer, mourned by many including the very people he lampooned.
He was only 5′ 6″ tall but was a giant in his profession as foreign correspondent for the Daily Mirror, their political editor and bureau chief in Belfast during the worst times of the Troubles where he was blown though a shop window during a bomb blast. He put down his survival to his diminutive size. “If I had presented a bigger target I would not be here now,” he said.
For a man of his height he cast a long shadow.
Christopher Robert Buckland. 4 January 1944 – 28 February 2017.
Author Syd Young is a retired journalist who spent 37 years on the Mirror and was a life-long friend of Chris Buckland.
With thanks to Jason Beattie (Daily Mirror), and Press Gazette. CHRIS BUCKLAND was regarded as one of the great political reporters of his generation. He covered Westminster for the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, The People and the News of the World. He began his career straight from Birmingham University, where he edited the student newspaper, joining the Daily Mail as a reporter in Manchester in 1964 before becoming the paper’s Belfast correspondent.
He later joined the Manchester staff of the Daily Mirror and was the Mirror’s chief reporter in Belfast and Dublin at the height of the Troubles. After a stint in the Mirror’s New York and Washington offices in the early 1970s he became The People’s political editor. He served in the same role at Today before becoming an associate editor and columnist for the Daily Express. He went on to write political columns for the Sunday Mirror and News of the World before finishing his career at The Sun.
Former Mirror colleague Syd Young said: “Chris bravely took on the establishment with his waspish humour and unbridled criticism.”
The Times Literary Supplement’s managing director James MacManus told Press Gazette that Chris had revealed he once ran away from his aunt’s house in north London, aged eight, to view a debate at the House of Commons. It was 1952 and Chris said he got on a bus on his own and got into the public gallery.
MacManus said: “The debates he witnessed that day shaped the rest of his life. Everyone knew he was a great political journalist with a real eye for the pomposities, absurdities and conceits of the political class, but what people didn’t always pick up on was that he had a real gift for friendship. These friends included David Blunkett, Christopher Meyer, Les Hinton and Paul Dacre. He was one of those people who had a magical quality about him and he was very, very funny.”
Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman said on Twitter that Chris Buckland wrote “the best intro ever from Baghdad in 1991: ‘The first casualty of war is not truth, it is room service…’”
Matt Nixson (Mail on Sunday) said: “Chris Buckland was a journalistic great. A lovely man full of stories; a loyal friend and possessor of the most wonderful joie de vivre.”
Former Sun editor David Yelland said: “He was an extraordinary character, and a nice man.” Ex political editor of The Sun George Pascoe-Watson described him as “a classy operator”.
Former Sun royal editor Charles Rae said he was a “lovely guy”, and former News International chairman Les Hinton also paid tribute to Chris on Twitter.
Current political editor at the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People Nigel Nelson Tweeted: “A great man indeed. Very sad. Not unexpected but still huge shock… he’d have had something pithy to say about being on Twitter!”
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