Thu, 20 June, 2024

Len Tapper

Posted: March 22nd, 2019

Former Daily Mirror news sub-editor LEN TAPPER died on March 20 (2019) aged 88.  [His funeral is on Wednesday April 3 at 1pm at New Southgate Cemetery and Crematorium, Brunswick Park Road, London, N11 1JJ   Afterwards at The Ranelagh pub, 82 Bounds Green Road, London, N11 2EU. Instead of flowers, the family would like to suggest donations to either the British Heart Foundation or the Moorfields Eye Charity]

Tribute from Jonathan Cundy: Len was not only one of the most gifted journalists but also one of the great Fleet Street characters, outwardly brusque and even forbidding but inwardly kind and warm-hearted.

After a discussion on the drive back from a Badgers cricket match about our shared love of music he gave me a CD of Shostakovich quartets which I still treasure. I had no idea he had taught himself to play a Shostakovich piano concerto. On another drive down to Devon for a Badgers tour he kept up a running commentary on the changing geological nature of the landscape as we passed through it, causing me to call him my “Tapnav”. In the early days of the Badgers tours he used to pop up in shorts and walking boots at one ground or another, having hiked many miles along the coastpath to get there.

Len was much loved by his colleagues and the subject of countless oft-retold stories, some of which might even be true. (Did he really ring the library to ask for the second name of some singer called Madonna? Did he once say he had just been given a story by a 12-year-old he had never met?)
There was the newly promoted assistant chief-sub who gave Len a story very close to a deadline. Len launched into a loud peroration about why it was impossible to do the story in such a short time, in such a short space and with such a short headline count. “Can’t be done,” he said firmly, as was his wont. The assistant chief-sub pleaded and pleaded with increasing desperation, until Len finally turned on his heels and said loudly: “I don’t know why they give these young people the job if they can’t stand the pressure.” Two minutes later, of course, he returned the story in consummate order with a perfectly fitting headline.

There was the time when Len used to cycle to work. One day he arrived in some disarray and said he had been hit by a bus at a street corner. He told us at length how the accident was entirely the bus driver’s fault and quite a crowd had gathered. “That’s good, at least you had plenty of witnesses,” we said. “Oh no,” Len replied. “They all took the side of the bus driver.”

Then there was Len’s cricketing career. It’s fair to say he was a late developer as a player, although he had always loved the game. He played a couple of times for the Badgers without managing to make much contact with the ball. Then came the famous moment at Tewin, Hertfordshire, when there was finally the thwack of willow on leather (or to be more precise, the slight snick of leather on a corner of willow). Len’s partner called him for a single, whereupon Len took off his cap, raised his bat triumphantly to the dressing room and said loudly: “My first run in first-class cricket.”

Once his first-class playing career ended, he made history by becoming an umpire for one ball. This was part of a unique Badgers experiment of having an umpire who by his own admission had trouble seeing the far end of the pitch. As the first ball was bowled in a Mirror v Telegraph match, Len peered through his thick lenses and shouted “No ball!”, explaining that there were more than two fielders behind square on the leg side. When it was pointed out to him that the batsman was left-handed, so the fielders in question were in fact on the off side, he retreated to the pavilion and a consoling mug of tea. A huge character. A fine man. Happy memories.

From Len’s son James: Len Tapper’s career as a news sub at the Daily Mirror and Sunday People spanned four decades, and his colleagues nick-named him the “fastest sub in Fleet Street” for his ability to distill copy in record time. He was also an exceptional amateur palaeontologist whose collection of more than 10,000 fossils is now at Cambridge University’s Sedgwick Museum.

Leonard Joseph Tapper was born in Salisbury, Wilts, on January 24 1931 and his headmaster at St Thomas’s Elementary Boys’ School, Herbert Sainsbury, saw it as his duty to get jobs for all the boys. But he couldn’t decide whether Len should be a laboratory assistant at a grammar school, or a journalist. His view was swung by an essay Len wrote about a penny, which he told from the perspective of the coin travelling around the world and impressed the headmaster enough for him to read it out in assembly.

Len started as a copy-holder at the Salisbury Journal, but was soon writing stories about WWII veterans returning from Europe. He rose to become chief reporter, making various innovations along the way – he wrote the first match reports for Salisbury City FC when it was reformed in 1947 after the war. He was sent off to be relief editor for a paper in Weymouth for three months in 1959. When the editor returned he was aghast that Len had been handing out the paper’s first bylines and using full-page pictures for the splash. The editor was happy to accept the resulting awards, however.

After 15 years at the Journal, Len’s prickly relationship with the editor came to an end when he discovered that the paper was advertising a more junior reporter’s job for more money than he was getting. When the editor refused to give him a matching pay rise, he got on his scooter and drove until he stopped feeling cross. He reached Aberdeen, where he found the local journalists’ pub and was hired on the spot for the Aberdeen Press and Journal and the Evening Express.

But Scotland was too far from the ammonite-laden chalk quarries of the southern counties and the pavilions of Lord’s and The Oval, so by 1962 Len had moved down to London and switched to subbing, starting as a casual on Tit-Bits magazine, then the Daily Mirror. He commuted from Brighton for a while, spending his mornings fossil-collecting with a hammer and knapsack.
During one shift his fellow sub, Giles Wordsworth, a descendant of the Romantic poet, was desperate for some advice. Giles had a tenant in a London flat who kept calling his girlfriend in America, running up enormous transatlantic phone bills, which Giles had somehow been saddled with. Who would have a girlfriend in America, Len asked him. “He’s some sort of musician,” Giles answered,  “called Mick Jagger.”

Len’s itchy feet took him to Australia in 1967 where two of his brothers had emigrated. He joined the Sydney Daily Mirror at a time when the Aussie journos were in a bitter pay dispute with the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch. The proprietor had reacted to a decision by the Arbitration Commission to give the journalists a double digit pay rise – after years of pay freezes – by downgrading all the journalists. It wasn’t a happy place to work and the subs’ bench was understaffed. The volume of copy he had to sub is what made Len quick. So quick, in fact, that he began subbing one story before it had been filed – Neil Armstrong’s moon landing – with words flowing from the TV screen onto the page as the astronaut took his first steps, on edition.

There was enough time to watch cricket, and socialise at the Sydney Journalists’ Club where he was the wine buyer for a while, and also to indulge his passion for classical music – Len took a few piano lessons then taught himself to play a piano concerto by Shostakovich, his favourite composer. He also met his wife, Elise, shortly before returning to London and the Daily Mirror in 1970. His experience of working for a Murdoch paper meant that he didn’t follow the exodus to The Sun, and became a fixture of the news subs’ bench at the Mirror and the People. Between stories he would work on his fossils, devour science fiction novels, discuss cricket and classical music or memorise poems.

He delighted in his lack of knowledge about pop music and celebrity, once asking “Jerry Hall? Who’s he?” But his speed at transforming mountains of copy into tight, polished news stories made him a regular choice for a chief sub, assuming they weren’t put off by his grumbles that “this is utter madness – it can’t be done”.

He was also a regular member of the Badgers, the combined Mirror and Sun cricket team, which continued after he retired in 1995, scoring his first run several years later, looking like the reincarnation of WG Grace. His interest in fossils was ever-present, and Len went on long-distance walks with his collecting equipment and gave talks at the Amateur Geological Society. Len approached fossil hunting with a sub’s precision: collecting each specimen then polishing and presenting it, identifying and labelling it with enough detail for it to be scientifically useful. His diligence was recognised by Cambridge University’s Earth Sciences department which accepted his fossils in 2013. The Len Tapper Collection is now part of its research collection.

He is survived by his wife Elise and his son James.

Tributes from Mirror colleagues:

DAVE BANKS: ‘Tapps’ was the very essence of the London Mirror subs’ table of the 70s, the very best I ever worked on. He was talented, amusing and eccentric as well as kind and a thorough team player; and all that despite eschewing membership in the wild drinking set to which we colleagues belonged! A softly-spoken model professional, he will be missed as much for all of that as he is for his slow singles.

MILES HEDLEY: ‘Tapps’ greeted each story with the words “It can’t be done” and then – at the speed of light – proved it could be. What a star! And what a loss…

BERNARD SMYTH: Len and I were Mirror news subs together before emigrating to Australia, but were disenchanted with life on the Sydney Daily Mirror and returned to the UK at the same time in 1970. He then rejoined the London Mirror but I set up home in Bristol and worked on the Evening Post. Unfortunately Len and I lost touch over the years but I always remember him as a first-class sub and a good colleague.

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