Posted: April 30th, 2006
Bob Avery, one of the founding members of AMP died on Easter Monday 2006 of cancer. We have two tributes from ex-colleagues of Bob: Monty Court, former Editor of The Sporting Life and Bill Rowntree, ex Daily and Sunday Mirror photographer:
by Monty Court
There were two ways of getting copy into the subs room on the Evening Advertiser, Swindon.
Reporters like me took our local offerings along the warren of dark corridors to the smoky St. Bruno fug that permanently shrouded the Chief Sub’s desk and drop it into a green, wire basket marked: “Staff”.
National stories from Press Association and Exchange Telegraph appeared through a hole in the wall and was dropped by a shirt-sleeved arm into a red, wire basket marked: “News”.
It was some weeks before I met the man on the other end of the arm whose stories seemed to merit priority over anything I had to offer.
It was worth the wait. Bob Avery was a fair-complexioned , easy-mannered and affable Bristolean who seemed to be unaware of the awe that surrounded him – the office boffin in charge of our small battery of chattering tape-machines and the newly installed telephoto apparatus that received wired pictures from places as far-away as Westminster Press’s London office to present to our gob-smacked readership.
It was a long, hot summer in 1949 and Bob and his right-hand man Ben Brown stood no chance of getting fat in the sweltering cubbyhole that was their tiny, buzzing empire.
We didn’t see much of each other during working hours but our friendship blossomed at week-ends and in the evenings.
In those days the office cricket team merited a very respectable reputation in limited-over cup matches and lazy and very often hazy fixtures against village and country house sides throughout North Wiltshire. Never mind my bowling or batting figures, my most memorable performance was eating 9 (yes nine) pickled eggs to win a bet in a long and tiring night after one match in Festival of Britain year in 1951.
Bob didn’t play in every game, but enough for us to be able to josh each other about our performances.
I suppose it must have been some 20 years later after stints at the Birmingham Gazette, the London Evening News, the News Chronicle and the Daily Mail that as News Editor of the Sunday Mirror I walked into the sepulchral calm of the Mirror’s wire-room in Holborn Circus to check up on pictures we were expecting from some remote corner of the world, when a voice from behind a partition challenged:”And what do you suppose you are doing in here?”
It was that man again; the one on the other end of that arm: Bob Avery. The fair hair was thinner and receding and the face had a few more lines about it. But, unlike me, he was still slim enough to fit into the whites he was wearing the last time I saw him.
Another thing that was unchanged was his good-humour and modesty in an office where colleagues still spoke of him with awe because he was one of the few people who knew what he was talking about at a time when the Mirror was at the cutting edge of whatever new technology appeared on the scene.
No surprise of course that he enjoyed the title of Telecommunications Manager – a post he held until he retired.
There was to be another gap of a few years until I bumped into him again at an AGM of the Association of Mirror Pensioners – and we again became team mates some four-years later when I joined him on the committee. Sadly it wasn’t to last long.
I was able to recall some of these hugely enjoyable moments with Bob’s widow Alice at his funeral last week. This silver-haired Wiltshire girl who had shared Bob’s life for more than sixty years laughed as we talked about memories and places in her home county in what was, generally, a post-war austerity period.
“Somewhere at home” she said, “I’ve got a photograph of that cricket team. They were good time weren’t they”.
You can say that again, Alice.
by Bill Rowntree
I really got to know Bob, and appreciate his skills and ingenuity, in 1969 when I was with the Sunday Mirror.
The Sunday Mirror had sponsored Robin Knox Johnston in his attempt to be the first man to sail single-handed non-stop around the world. Several intrepid “yachties” , including Francis Chichester , had made the 24,000 mile voyage, but had stopped en-route for repairs. It was the biggest solo yachting challenge still to conquer.
Aussie reporter Bruce Maxwell and I had seen Robin and “Suhaili” off from Falmouth, making sure he sailed on a Saturday in good time for the first edition. But his return was not so easy to organise.
When he sailed Robin was one of several would be record breakers, the others all competing not just for the glory, but for the Sunday Times Golden Globe as well. The trophy to be awarded to the first solo, non-stop yachtsman home. Robin refused to enter the Sunday Times “race”. He had asked the Sunday Times for assistance, but had been dismissed as “not even a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron”.
But by the time of his return Robin was the only man still sailing, and there was intense competition for the first interview and picture. And being a Sunday paper we needed to get to him on Saturday, wherever he was!
So an intrepid team set out to sea from Falmouth on “Fathomer” a former RAF Air-Sea rescue launch. (We must have been mad.) Me to shoot the pictures, Mike to process the film, Bob to wire the pictures to London, and Bruce to write the words. The fact that something like this had never been done before somehow was completely ignored. We wanted to do it, we needed to do it, so it just had to be done.
We found Robin and “Suhali” in the Atlantic some 200 miles off Lands End on a Saturday afternoon , perfect timing , but difficult as that was, it turned out to be the easy bit. There was a 10-15 foot swell, so we only saw Robin and his boat when we were both on the crest of a wave. There were no auto-focus or auto-exposure cameras in those days, so keeping Robin in the frame and in focus, while making sure I did not get swamped by waves or washed overboard was quite an effort. But again, that was the easy bit!
Mike had set up his “darkroom” in the heads (lavatory to landlubbers) and managed to get my film developed and printed. An extraordinary feat when you remember that all the chemicals were sloshing about in open trays while “Fathomer” heaved up and done in a random and violent corkscrew motion. Now it was down to Bob to wire them.
Bob had completely rebuilt his equipment so as to wire the Muirhead picture machine into the boat”s radio transmitter. He had managed to patch a link through to Niton Radio Station and establish voice contact with the wire-room at Holborn Circus. But would the link work with pictures as well? Off went the first picture, fingers crossed.
“It”s okay” came the acknowledgement from London, (great rejoicing), “but there is a wavey pattern all over it, and it”s unuseable” (collapse of picture team). Bob then checked all his links and connections to make sure there was nothing loose or broken. “Okay” said Bob, “I know what the problem is. There must be electrical interference from the engines, so we will have to turn them off”.
And he was correct. So for an hour or so we bobbed around in the Atlantic like the proverbial cork while Bob nursed his machines and successfully got the all the pictures away to London. A remarkable effort as the rest of us had difficulty standing, or even sitting, upright. Restarting the engines, giving a farewell wave to Robin and “Suhaili”, and setting course for the Scillies was better than any champagne to celebrate a unique and successful mission.
In the 21st century with digital cameras and satellite telephones all this must seem very old technology. But at the time , almost 40 years ago , it really was a cutting edge operation, something that had not been done (even tried) before, and it worked, thanks especially to Bob Avery.
By chance Robin announced on Sunday (May 7) that he is to take part in another single-handed round-the-world yacht race starting later this year.
I suspect that this time we will have live TV and digital pictures from his boat every day. Progress, but it just seems too easy and without the same thrill of achievement that we enjoyed in 1969. Just wish Bob had been here to see Robin sail again.
Read a sumptuous look back at Fleet Street pubs in All Our Yesterdays
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