Posted: May 18th, 2018
It was worth the wait.
Preparations for the final mass gathering of staff on The Sporting Life (always a capital T) began in August 2017 and culminated in the biggest of bashes on May 12 this year – 20 years to the day that the paper was last printed in 1998.
Chief conspirator was ace greyhound photographer Paul “Hopper” Duffett, who has organised annual Sporting Life reunions at Christmas and every May for a number of years. He set about tracking down Lifers from across the UK and abroad, and found the perfect venue, the paper’s old staff pub in Long Acre, The Freemason’s Arms.
And more than 80 former staff joined the party, including many who moved to the paper’s arch rival, the Racing Post, when the Life was closed down.
As more than one person commented: “They closed the wrong paper.”
Former editor Monty Court is recovering from pneumonia and couldn’t attend, but his successor Mike Gallemore spoke warmly of “the paper’s most amazing camaraderie”.
Senior reporter Geoff Lester gave a moving and hilarious speech (**see below). Old stagers Danny Garrett and Malcolm Hanover were there, along with ex-MD George White, former greyhound editor Bob Betts, and founder of Racenews Mark Popham. Jim Sollis and Graham Labbett, from the Life’s ad department, made it too, along with many other members of a staff which maintains a fierce loyalty to its old paper.
Ben, nephew of the late and much loved Dave Cox, brought warmth and humour to the party – and his uncanny resemblance to Dave was a comfort.
The artwork above, (and with acknowledgements to Peter Blake/Jann Howarth and Apple Corps Ltd) was painstakingly created by Hopper from the famous Sgt Pepper album cover. He managed to find mugshots of nearly 70 Lifers, past, present and deceased, to make up the brilliant montage.
You can see/hear more of it here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/wak9pbyaz4zob5i/LifeSgtPepperManyCrops.mov?dl=0
Former Life executive editor and golf correspondent (and still the golf man on the Racing Post) Jeremy Chapman made it to the do, despite health problems, and tweeted: “Sensational turn-out and wonderful talk of the ‘good old days’ at the 20th anniversary reunion of the demise of racing’s bible, The Sporting Life, in Covent Garden last night. What lovely comrades they were! Congrats to Paul Duffett and team for superb organisation.”
Paul Duffett celebrates (left)
Former Life man Mike Cattermole, now a Sky Sports pundit and still at www.sportinglife.com, posted: “Around 80 former members of staff gathered to acknowledge the passing of time and remember the good old days. It was a lovely, nostalgic evening. Some of the names there included Geoff Lester, Steve Taylor, Eddie Fremantle, David Ashforth, Bruce Millington (now editor, Racing Post), Peter Thomas, Mick Connaughton, Jeremy Chapman, Gary Nutting and many others.
“The paper may be long gone but the Life remains very much alive in spirit and online.”
You can view a photographic record of the evening here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/uh25q7vc82upfwi/AAD1SsuTt01Tan41bC5QPXZaa?dl=0
For many years Bob Betts has been recognised as the guardian of The Sporting Life’s heritage, and now his collection of memorabilia and other records has been passed on – Paul Duffett gracefully accepted the role of chief archivist on that memorable night in The Freemasons Arms.
You had to be there… and I was – Caro Cluskey
**The Sporting Life by Geoff Lester
How fitting that Hopper should choose the Freemasons Arms to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the demise of The Sporting Life, still the greatest racing daily ever produced and known globally in the sport as “the bible”.
This was for many of us where it all started – just a hop, skip and a jump away – 93 Long Acre I think – in the building of Odhams Press on the corner of Endell Street.
For me personally, it was my first day’s work after leaving school – August 17, 1964, the same day that Geoffrey Boycott scored his first Test century against Australia at The Oval.
For those of you who might be interested Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, and number one in the charts that week was Doo Wah Diddy, by Manfred Mann, who is still touring at the age of 78.
Anyway, I digress. Twenty-two stops from Hounslow East to Covent Garden on the Piccadilly Line and this shy 16-year-old arrived at The Sporting Life offices, joining the team of messenger boys for the princely wage of £5.15s a week (£5.75 for the younger brigade).
We had the amiable Bill Turner rolling his own, and joining the eccentric Ralph Cook in trying to knock us squad of Artful Dodgers into shape.
Mick “Molly” Malone, who is here tonight, chaperoned me on that first day, and the camaraderie at the Life over the next 34 years was something I’ll never forget.
I was soon taught how to make a profit from the tea round. We had a morning and afternoon tour of the office, requesting tea and sandwich orders, but Molly told me that if I had 10 people wanting tea, I should ask the canteen girl for a jug for five and then top it up with hot water, making myself half-a-crown.
That was a lot of money in those days, and the likes of Alec Hayward, Danny Garrett, Percy Hanson, Mick Bass, Gerry (Hognose) Hughes, Chris Smith, Gary and Hamish on the current desk and Colin Simpson never complained.
Most of us would agree that working for the Life was more than just a job – we had fun, and everyone always had a smile on their face – well apart from Mick Bass!
You could always guarantee jolly old Danny Garrett bouncing to his regular seat right next to extension 860, singing “How are things in Glocca Morra – is the brook still standing there?!”
Ossie Fletcher was the first of five editors I worked under, and within a year he had promoted me to the page-two marker sheet, which he insisted was “the most important page in the paper” as bookmakers relied on the racecards and index of runners for accuracy.
Those were great days, working alongside first the much lamented Dave Cox – has anybody ever met a more genuine guy – and then my old mucker Chris Gundry, with John Watson, Steve Delve and many others following on.
I suppose we were all 7lb claimers, but opportunities were always there to climb up the ladder, and myself, Dave, Chris and Steve all graduated first to returns, compiling the day’s results, and then to the current table where we were part of the Man on the Spot team.
There were no computers in those days, we did everything on typewriters and the newspaper was printed hot metal – we had to take down our own copy from staff out on the racecourse and one particular day lives long in the memory.
Picture the scene – the typing room, the meat in the sandwich between Chris and I was Sue Wreford, prim and proper; if she was Mary Berry then we were Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver.
The three of us were bashing out copy on the typewriters, headphones working overtime, when Sue, who was taking the Newmarket gallops report from Tony Jakobson, came to the end of her A4 page and uttered those immortal words: “I’m sorry, Tony, you’ve slipped off the end – I will have to finish you off by hand!” Chris and I had to take a five-minute break to compose ourselves.
We worked hard but played hard, and at the end of our shifts we would invariably pop in to the Freemasons for a swift one and then maybe head off to the Cockney Pride in Piccadilly, usually accompanied by Mick Connaughton and Mike Roberts, and ending up in the infamous Rheingold club owned by Henry Zeisel, who won the Arc with its namesake.
Ron Allen and Geoff de Merville, also regulars there, have sadly passed on, while besides Coxy and Steve Delve, we have lost plenty of other loyal Lifers, including Graham Taylor, Len Poole, Alfie Richards, Bill Webb, John Santer and Ernie Dymock, not to mention my mentor from the outside staff Len Thomas, and my old pal George Ennor with whom I enjoyed so many great times both home and abroad.
From Long Acre we moved to New Fetter Lane, then Farringdon, and then back to New Fetter Lane, where our favourite watering hole was The Stab – so many great times in that boozer which was so convenient, maybe too convenient as it was bang next door to the office.
Graham was [my] editor number two, followed by Monty Court, Mike Gallemore, and Tom Clarke – Monty sends his apologies for not being here tonight – at the age of 89 he is about to move house.
Hopper is to be congratulated for getting so many of us here tonight, and it’s really great to see a few who are even older than me, with special thanks to David Ashforth and Jeremy Chapman, both of whom have had a tough few years, making a special effort to come up to London.
There was never any “them and us” at the Life – from the messenger boys and copytakers up to the chief himself, we were all made to feel part of the team.
And I end my own reflections with one story about the copytakers. I was in Chicago for the Arlington Million. NBC were holding a special press conference announcing they would screen what was the first $1m race for the next five years.
I was sent across the Atlantic with a tiny Tandy computer to file my copy. Well, you might be able to get your story across from Ascot by Tandy, but Chicago? No way.
So it was back to picking up the phone and dictating my story. The line wasn’t great, but without naming names the guy who picked up the phone wasn’t either.
He looked like Rod Stewart and probably typed and spelt like Rod, so when it came to opening up my story by telling our readers that Dick Duchossois, the boss of Arlington, had just agreed this massive TV deal, I knew I was in trouble.
“Dick”, I said, to which our copytaker replied: “Mick?” “No, Dick.” “Rick?” he asked. My voice was getting louder and clearly upsetting the Americans, one of whom walked across asked me to keep the noise down, and in any event where was my computer?
“I don’t have a computer,” I declared. “What! – everyone has a computer,” he said.
Carrying on, I tried one more time down the line: “Dick, Dick, Dick,” – to which another Yank stood up and said: “Fuck me, if he’s having trouble with Dick, wait until he gets to Duchossois!”
So that’s it for me. All that remains is to reiterate that on May 12, 1998, THEY CLOSED THE WRONG PAPER. Please raise your glasses to THE SPORTING LIFE. Thank you.
Read a sumptuous look back at Fleet Street pubs in All Our Yesterdays
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