Posted: June 30th, 2015
Former Sun night editor and senior Daily Mirror executive VIC MAYHEW has died, aged 77.
Obituary by ROY GREENSLADE
It is after 1am on a cold January day in early 1970 and I’m on my first visit to the London Press Club. A man with a strong Liverpool accent, the spitting image of the pop singer Billy Fury, is swearing at the barman who refuses to serve him.
The problem, it appears, is that he isn’t wearing a tie. The rules at a club with flexible opening hours are inflexible on this single sartorial point. So, after more curses in which he questions the parenthood of the barman, he walks out. Within seconds, he reappears wearing a tie: “Pint of bitter, please Sean”. The barman, Sean Dolan, scowls at the beaming man who is applauded by a group of his rowdy friends and I am soon introduced to Vic Mayhew, chief sub of the Daily Mirror.
Over the following years, I worked with him on three different newspapers, drank with him in a score of pubs and clubs and wondered at the extraordinary way he survived a succession of reverses in what, even by the standards of Fleet Street’s alcohol-fuelled culture, was a haphazard life.
On Thursday last week, it finally came to an end when Vic died, aged 77, from lung cancer. Within hours, his many old friends and colleagues were referring to him in their tributes (as did the Sun) as “a legend”, an overused epithet that, in Vic’s case, was deserved.
Many Mayhew anecdotes – like those about renting a mansion and keeping a donkey in the kitchen; being frozen to the seat of his motorbike; night-editing the Mirror while spending four hours in the pub; taking “a break” to move his car and failing to return to the office until the following day – were quickly retold.
The fact is that no-one got into as many scrapes. No-one burned as many bridges. No-one exasperated as many of his bosses. And no-one, surely, had such a crazy career? But who could not be won over by that boyish, dazzling smile? And who could not fail to enjoy, albeit vicariously, his devil-may-care attitude towards anything smacking of authority?
He was barely 16 when he started out on the Bootle Times but, oddly, decided to join the police force and then, having completed the training, abandoned the idea to accept a reporting job on the Wakefield Express.
He moved on to the Yorkshire Evening Post in Doncaster and it was there he met a young trainee, Ann Crowe, and they instantly fell in love. When her father made it clear that his 17-year-old Yorkshire lass should have nothing to do with the 19-year-old Liverpudlian, they eloped to Gretna Green to get married.
“We drove all the way on Vic’s BSA Bantam,” Ann recalled. She didn’t know, of course, that it would be the beginning of a 57-year roller coaster ride.
For a couple of months after that, Vic sold vacuum cleaners before securing a job on the Sheffield Telegraph, a stepping stone to a subbing post on the Mirror in Manchester.
His ambition to work on the Daily Express was finally realised when he was offered a job on the subs desk in its Manchester office but, after just six weeks, he was fired for making an almighty gaffe with a headline that said something like “Murderer charged”.
He was saved by a friendship forged in his Mirror days with another sub, Larry Lamb, who had since moved down to the Mirror in London. He helped Vic join the staff of Britain’s best-selling paper. Vic prospered at the Mirror and, after promotion to the chief sub’s role, was beloved by many of the subs for his tolerance towards their indiscipline. One of them, Phil Bunton, once told how he arrived for work and said: “Can you excuse me, Vic? I’m drunk”. Without showing the least annoyance, Vic replied: “I’m sorry to hear that mate. Why don’t you go down the pub and, if you feel better, come back later”.
He was funny too, though this is an anecdote only old subs who worked with em measurements will understand. Sitting between two junior executives for whom he had little time, Vic told the assembled subs desk: “Look at me – a nut each side”.
In 1971, Vic got another career-changing call from Lamb, who had become editor of the new Sun launched by Rupert Murdoch. In what was regarded as a brilliant coup at the time, he was poached in company with two other Mirror production executives, Roy Pittilla and Fergus Linnane, and became the paper’s night editor.
As Patsy Chapman, then a Sun sub-editor (and later editor of the News of the World), said with due hyperbole: “He had rock star presence. He conducted a newsroom like it was an orchestra.
“He worked so fast . He was mesmerising and sometimes a bit scary. He forgave and forgot mistakes quickly and was always funny and quick witted. He would shout at you then say, ‘that’s that – consider yourself bollocked. Now fuck off and do some work’”.
In 1973, Murdoch sent Vic to New York to start up a paper in the city. But they fell out within a year and Vic joined what was to become a long line of British tabloid journalists by taking a job with the National Enquirer, run by Generoso Pope in Florida. He soon fell foul of Pope’s failure to secure green cards for his employees and decamped to Canada to work on the Reader’s Digest in Montreal.
Back in England in late 1975, he wrote a novel while living on the dole in Northants and supposedly launched a publishing company. He called a long-time friend, Nigel Blundell, and told him: “The money will be amazing and there’s a pub across the road from the office for conferences.”
The conferences were fun. The income was slight. So he did occasional work for the Digest before the Sun took him back. Then it was off to the Mirror yet again, this time after Robert Maxwell’s takeover.
Maxwell handed Vic the task he was least suited to do – to close down the Mirror group’s Manchester operation. He hated making people, including many old friends, redundant and, as a result, had a mini-breakdown. It was a reminder that behind the facade of the laughing pub raconteur he suffered from bouts of depression.
He was to spend another year on the dole before a subbing job opened up on another Murdoch daily newspaper, Today, where we worked together for the last time. After Today’s closure in 1995, he subbed on a casual basis for both the Sun and the News of the World. He loved subbing and he loved the company of subs.
A motorcyclist all his life (and a columnist on the subject), he turned up unexpectedly at my house in Donegal a couple of years ago during one of his many prodigious bike journeys. The evening wasn’t long enough to cram in all the memories.
He is survived by his wife, Ann, and their four children – Stephen, Elizabeth, Susan and Jeremy – 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
*Henry Victor Mayhew, journalist, born 22 May 1938, died 18 June 2015
Vic Mayhew’s funeral is on Friday, July 3 at 1pm at Kidderminster Crematorium. Family flowers only, please.
Read a sumptuous look back at Fleet Street pubs in All Our Yesterdays
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