Even though I don’t necessarily disagree with Oscar Wilde, who said that we write ‘to impress the ladies’, I can claim with a fair amount of honesty to have never written anything with the sole intention of bigging myself up. CVs accepted.
What follows is a particularly shameful episode from my past. I won’t bore you with the details but in a nutshell the year was 1989 and I’d just become the most unlikeliest boxing correspondent for that truly awful newspaper The Sunday Sport.
I can’t say I was particularly proud at the time to be employed by them but I’d spent the last three years penniless and living in a London squat. I needed the money badly. But even so I wasn’t aware just how far I was prepared to go to keep the job. To this day I am ashamed that I allowed myself to be manipulated in the way that I did. There’s no excuse really. At 28 I was certainly old enough to know better.
See what you think in the excerpt from my book 1999 Rope Burns…
At ten o’clock on the morning of 7 March 1989, wearing the first suit I had ever purchased in my life, a dark blue polyester effort which had cost the princely sum of £30 and looked like it could well have numbered Norman Wisdom among its former owners, I finally began my new career as the boxing correspondent of the Sunday Sport. My responsibility was to provide boxing-related features of an appropriate length and atheistic quality to nestle comfortably between advertisements for 0898 numbers, baldness remedies and battery operated sexual implements that the Sunday Sport’s proprietor, one David Sullivan, elected to adorn his newspaper with.
Sullivan, a small man who liked to dress in white, endowing him with the appearance of a kind of miniature Marty from Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, had built an empire on soiled tissue paper. He had once been the lover of the late Mary Millington who, before her untimely death in 1979, had starred in a number of soft porn flicks, including the semi-legendary Deep Throat. Whilst still at university Sullivan had allegedly served notice of his entrepreneurial tendencies by starting a mail order business which supplied pornographic bubblegum cards to anyone with a taste for such exotica. Within a decade he had become one of the richest men in the country.
Sullivan’s success owed little to quality, the appeal of his publications was distinctly below waist level. Almost single-handedly he had been responsible for taking away the soft focus and airbrushing of traditional American sex magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse and replacing their idealised view of womanhood with images of a decidedly meatier nature. If you bought a copy of one of Sullivan’s soft-porn mags the term ‘centre spread’ had an entirely different meaning to the one used by its American counterparts.
Sullivan was also a boxing fan and liked to entertain top fighters and managers among the elegant marble columns and lush white interiors of his airport-sized country mansion. Accompanied by a fanfare of naked flesh, he had launched the Sunday Sport in the mid-eighties but despite the diet of oversized breasts and celebrity exposés that the paper served up for its readers, Sullivan had seen circulation figures dwindle until the Sport’s editor, one 28-year-old Drew Robertson, had hit upon the idea of following the example set by America’s National Enquirer. Headlines such as: ‘WORLD WAR II BOMBER FOUND ON MOON’, ‘KILLER PLANT STALKS QUEEN MUM’, and ‘GIRL CHOKES ON BLOWJOB’ soon provided the publication’s unlikely salvation and even went so far as to attract a more middle-class, trendier readership who, instead of discreetly concealing the newspaper between the pages of the Sunday Times when they picked it up at the newsagents, could now reply ‘Because it’s a laugh, isn’t it?’ when asked why they were carrying a newspaper that contained an average of six naked breasts per page (currently the average ‘nipple count’ is around 60 per issue).
Now David Sullivan was my employer, and although I very much doubt that he even knew who I was, along with boxing he was indirectly responsible for the quite unprecedented transformation in my recent fortunes. For the first time in years I now had a steady job with a regular income. All of a sudden I could afford to do things that only few months ago would have been quite beyond my scope; simple things – things that everyone takes for granted like going to the cinema or eating at a restaurant, taking the occasional cab ride, buying clothes. It was like a whole new universe had been opened up to me; one, it has to be said, that was surprisingly easy to grow accustomed to. However, I was soon to discover that holding down the position at The Sport held its own particular kind of price.
Upon entering the newspaper’s offices, which were close to the Old Street tube station in North London, I was immediately hit by that deep sense of disappointment which often grips visitors to the Sunday Sport’s offices when they realise that the reception desk is not manned – or womanned – by a possé of semi-naked busty blondes ready to ‘do it five times a night’ with an assortment of textile magnates, politicians and grey-skinned extraterrestrials. In fact, the majority of my new colleagues would not have been out of place sitting in an accountant’s office. One or two even appeared to be asleep at their desks.
Soon I was introduced to my fellow reporters in the sports department and given a short lesson in the newspaper’s journalistic etiquette:
“At the Sunday Sport,” I was told by a Northern accent that was destined to become gratingly familiar to me, “we don’t use commas, we don’t use semi-colons, all our paragraphs are once sentence long, we use lots of exclamation marks and we like lots of capital letters.”
Or, in other words:
We DON’T use commas!
We DON’T use semi-colons!
All our PARAGRAPHS are one sentence long!
We use LOTS of exclamation marks!!!!!
AND we like lots of CAPITAL LETTERS!
(In reality, however, working as a reporter at the Sport required no journalistic ability whatsoever; the real bulk of the writing came from the subs’ desk, who took whatever they were presented with and magically transformed it into Sportesque whether you liked it or not. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the article that appeared in the newspaper on Sunday morning with your by-line beneath it bore little or no resemblance to the copy you had originally supplied.)
The owner of the Northern accent was called Tony Livesey. Strangely enough, he also hailed from Burnley and, like myself, had moved to London looking for work a few years earlier. At twenty-four-years-of-age his ambition was matched only by his aggressive pursuit of anything that remotely resembled a story. Although he was by no means an expert on sport he was employed by the newspaper as its sports editor; he was in charge of a team of three full-time reporters and a network of freelancers that, as well as the great Bobby Moore, included a number of retired footballers such as Frank Worthington and Stan Bowles. Livesey, as they say, drank with the right people and ate with the right people. By the time he was thirty he would be editing a national newspaper; two years later he would be at the helm of The Sunday Sport’s daily incarnation, before going on to minor celebrity status with a surprisingly accomplished appearance as panellist on the BBC 2 satirical quiz show Have I got news for you?
“What’s happenin’ in boxing this week?” was the first question that the Northern Accent asked me that morning when we had finished my Sunday Sport grammar lesson.
“Nothing much, really,” I shrugged, it being a relatively quiet week in the world of boxing – no major fights, no minor controversies, no real stories floating about on which I could cut my ‘journalistic’ teeth. “There’s a heavyweight named Derrick Williams fighting soon but that’s about it.”
“What’s he like?”
“He’s not bad,” I replied, “probably good enough to fight for the British title one day.”
“Give him a ring, then,” said The Northern Accent. “See if you can get him to say something interesting.”
Before starting at the newspaper I had been advised to purchase a small portable tape recorder and a sucker microphone that could be used to record telephone conversations. This instrument was fairly essential: not only was it far easier than trying to write down what the subject of your interview was saying, it also acted as a fail-safe in the not-uncommon event of the newspaper being sued by the subject of your interview. Feeling surprisingly professional, I took out my new toy and prepared to record my first ever interview with a boxer for the Sunday Sport. I called Williams’ number and a sleepy voice with just a hint of Jamaican answered.
Derrick “Sweet D” Williams lived in a council flat in Hackney; it had been Michael Watson and Eric Seccombe who had first introduced me to him on a visit to the Carnaby Street Gym, where he was sparring somewhat unsatisfactorily with a fighter named Proud Kilimanjaro. Since then I had bumped into Williams a couple of times at fights and was on nodding terms with him. He was an impressive physical specimen: standing some 6’4” tall and weighing over fifteen stone; in a dark alleyway he would definitely be one to avoid. He was, however, largely ignored by the public and, though still at a relatively early stage in his career, had already lost a fight to a nobody. Although he would eventually hold the European heavyweight title for a brief period in 1991 before losing it to Lennox Lewis, as a prospect Williams was perceived by those in the know as not so much hot as mildly lukewarm. Despite appearances, however, he was a very gentle man, politely spoken and friendly to anyone that came near him. However, so few reporters had bothered to talk to him that he immediately recognised my voice.
“Hi, Derrick,” I called down the telephone. “How’s the preparation for your next fight going?”
“Good,” he replied. “Yeah – good.”
“Listen, Derrick the Sunday Sport want to do a feature on you for Sunday’s paper – would you mind if I asked a few questions?”
“Not – go ahead.”
“Okay – let’s start by asking you the name of your next opponent?”
“I dunno, my manager hasn’t told me his name yet.”
“Oh, right. What about after this fight – who are you looking to fight in the future? Mason? Bruno?”
“Yeah, I’m gonna be fighting those guys sooner or later.”
“Do you think that you could beat them?”
“Yeah – I’ll beat anybody that they put in front of me. Mason… Bruno…”
“What about Mike Tyson?”
“Yeah, I could beat Tyson. No problem.”
This line of questioning continued unabated for several minutes. Until it began to dawn on me that unlike some fighters, who were able to make going to the bathroom sound like a some kind of superhuman feat, it was not within Derrick ‘Sweet D’ Williams’ powers to say anything that might come across as even mildly interesting on the printed page. He was not a natural self-promoter in the way that Naseem Hamed is today, nor did he have the deep, cloying voice that was the trademark of housewives’ favourite Frank Bruno. I was beginning to understand why most reporters had steered clear of him and gone off in search of more compelling quarry. It was, however, my first day in a new job and, naturally, I wanted to come up with something that would impress my employers. In desperation I tried another approach: I would simply keep him talking, make him relax: get him to speak about anything in the hope that something vaguely printable might emerge. “What about fans?” I asked. “Do you have a large following?”
“Yeah,” answered Williams, suddenly growing more animated. “I have hundreds of fans – I get girls queuing up outside the dressing room after my fights.”
This apparently innocent comment, I was soon to learn, was to be a BIG mistake for Derrick ‘Sweet D’ Williams and myself in more ways than one.
“What de say?” said the Northern Accent when I finally got off the ‘phone.
“Not a lot, I’m afraid,” I replied, deciding that honestly was the best policy. “He doesn’t know who he’s fighting next and didn’t have anything remotely interesting to say.”
The Northern Accent frowned; his nostrils flared and he eyed me with a look of deep suspicion. “Do us a favour, will you?” he announced. “Type out what he said and let us have a look at it.”
With a shrug I followed my instructions and turned my attention to the battered old manual typewriter that sat gathering dust at my newly-appointed desk. About twenty minutes later I handed a transcript of my interview with Derrick ‘Sweet D’ Williams to The Northern Accent.
It was not long before I felt an urgent tapping at my shoulder and hot breath on my neck.
“This stuff is dynamite!” exclaimed The Northern Accent, visibly shaking with excitement. “You’ve got to get him on the phone again!”
I cannot really recall what my exact response to this comment was as I tried to find some means of comprehending my sports editor’s words. Was I really so naive? Was I missing something? How could the Northern Accent possibly conclude that there might be anything remotely exciting in my nondescript interview with Derrick Williams? Surely all I had produced was just a bunch of banal questions accompanied by equally banal answers. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for my new career.
The Northern Accent drew closer to me and spoke again. This time his voice was almost a whisper. “Ask him if he ever sleeps with any of his fans,” he said conspiratorially.
I looked at my watch. It was 11.15 am. I had been working in my new job for just seventy-five minutes and already here I was faced with my first moral dilemma. “I can’t do that,” I stuttered awkwardly.
“Why not?” asked the Northern Accent.
“Because it’s…” I searched my mind and tried to procure an answer to this question. “Because it’s got nothing to do with boxing,” I said blandly.
“What do you mean it’s got nothing to do with boxing? Of course its about boxing. It’s boxing news isn’t it?”
I quickly concluded that there were two ways in which I could react to this statement. I could do what the Northern Accent demanded, get back on the phone and ask Williams about his sexual habits, or I could stand up in front of the whole office and tell my sports editor to go fuck himself. There is little doubt that the latter reaction would have made me feel a whole lot better about myself, but images of North London squats and drink-crazed wrecking sessions were still fresh in my mind. I wasn’t ready to return to that just yet and so, to my eternal shame, I did the dishonourable thing. Yet even as I was picking up the phone and pressing redial, my mind was already seeking hasty justifications for my forthcoming actions. In common with every journalist that has ever picked up a notebook I was looking for a way to lie: except on this occasion the person I would be lying to was myself. However, before I could find the excuse that would exonerate my future sins the voice of Derrick ‘Sweet D” Williams could be heard once more.
“Yeah. Hello,” he said.
“Hi Derrick – it’s Ian,” I declared jauntily.
“Listen Derrick, we’ve been talking in the office about the piece I’m doing about you and I need to ask a few more questions.”
“No problem,” replied the boxer, obviously feeling flattered that a boxing writer working on a national newspaper had called him twice in one morning.
“It’s that bit you mentioned about your fans,” I continued.
“What about them?” asked Derrick.
“You did say that most of them were female?”
“Yeah – that’s right.”
“Would you mind if I asked you a question?”
“What sort of question?”
“It’s nothing really,” I lied. “It’s just that my sports editor would like to know if you ever end up in bed with any of your fans.”
“What’s he want to know that for?”
“Well, he just feels that our story on you would have more impact if we could tell everyone how popular you are.”
“So do you?”
“Ever sleep with any of your fans?”
“Yeah – now and then.”
It was not the kind of conversation that I’d anticipated holding in my new career, I could feel my face redden and the anxious silences that followed this staccato line of inquiry were even beginning to unsettle Derrick Williams. I decided to hang up as quickly as possible.
“Okay Derrick,” I said hastily. “I think I’ve got everything I need – good luck with your fight.”
I put the phone down and caught my breath; I stole a glance at my colleagues seated beside me: Kevin a large Scot who was responsible for putting the words on the football pages; Nich, a Charlie George lookalike who was a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades. I wondered if they were aware of what I had just done, I wondered if they even cared. How many times had they been forced to do something similar themselves.
“What de say?” said the Northern Accent as I slumped into my chair and attempted to regain some dignity. “Did you get him to say that he beds his fans?”
“Yes,” I said weakly. “I got him to say it.”
“Fantastic!” said the other man as a broad smile spread over his features. “Type out the quotes and let us see them.”
Once again I did as instructed and returned to my typewriter and the bottle of Tippex that stood beside it. From the corner of my eye I could see that one of the reporters on the newsdesk was now slumped over his typewriter, snoring heavily.
It was over an hour before I saw the Northern Accent again. This time he made his way to my desk holding the transcript of my second interview with Derrick ‘Sweet D’ Williams; there was a heavy frown on his face.
“I’ve been talking to Drew,” he explained. “We both think these quotes aren’t bad but they’re just not good enough to go really big on.”
“But I got him to say that he sleeps with his fans,” I spluttered. “Surely that’s enough?”
“Not quite,” said the Northern Accent. “We want you to call him back and ask him if they ever suck his dick.”
For a moment I thought I’d misheard The Northern Accent. By the tone of his voice he could have been telling me to call Williams back and ask him if he ever flossed his teeth. He spoke the sentence like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“You’re kidding!” was my numbed response.
The other man shook his head slowly. “No, I’m not kidding,” he said, “go on – give him a ring and ask him.”
“I can’t do that!” I protested.
“Why not?” said The Northern Accent.
“I can’t do that!” I repeated stubbornly, hunching my shoulders. “I just can’t.”
“Course, you can – its not going to do any harm is it?”
“But what has it got to do with boxing?”
“It’s a story innit? Everything’s a story.”
One more I considered the situation and those same two options immediately sprang to mind: Stay or go. Stay or go. Should I stay or should I go? I knew what the moral thing to do was but I had already discovered my price: it had taken less than a morning at the Sunday Sport for me to realise that I wanted the job – in particular, the salary that came with it – much more than I valued any principles I’d imagined I possessed. I rang Derrick ‘Sweet D’ Williams for the third time.
“Another question for you, Derrick, I’m afraid,” I said nervously.
I cleared my throat: “Remember when you told me that you occasionally slept with your fans?”
“Well the sports editor… Well, he wants me to ask you a bit of a personal question about them.”
There was a silence.
“Are you still there, Derrick?”
“He wants me to ask you if these girls, well, if these girls ever perform oral sex on you.”
“Yes, you know… oral sex.”
“You mean blow jobs?”
“Well, yes – I suppose I do, actually.”
“Do they ever give me blow jobs? Is that what you’re asking?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Yeah, they do sometimes.”
Once again there was a silence as I tried to take in what had just happened. What did Derrick Williams think he was doing? Didn’t he realise that he’d just admitted to an almost complete stranger that he allowed his fans to perform fellatio on him after fights? Was he mad? Did he have some kind of death wish?
“Are you sure about that, Derrick?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he replied, “they give me blow jobs.”
Then for a few moments Derrick Williams seemed to lose all sense of reason. His voice raised in pitch and his words became more urgent, there was no stopping the boxer as he proceeded to provide graphic detail about his amorous extra-curricular activities. Williams left nothing to the imagination; frequency, duration, size of – no aspect of his love-life remained untouched. When his soliloquy was finally over I felt that I knew more about Derrick ‘Sweet D’ Williams than I’d ever wanted to know about any man.
By the time that I had said my goodbyes and put the telephone down on Williams, the Northern Accent was already standing at my shoulder. As I turned to face him, his hands were shaking in anticipation. “What de say?” he asked again.
I looked down at my feet as I answered the question. “Don’t worry,” I mumbled sullenly. “He said what you wanted him to say.”
“Did he?” chortled the Northern Accent, his face lighting up like a magnesium flare. “Did he really say that his fans suck his dick?”
“Let me hear the tape!”
I wound back the cassette and replayed the part of the conversation that the Northern Accent wanted to hear.
“My God!” exclaimed the other man. “He really did say it! Hold on a minute!”
With that The Northern Accent sailed off in the direction of the editor’s office and disappeared for about half an hour or so. When he finally returned he grasped my hand in his and shook it firmly. He was smiling as he told me: “Me and Drew think your story’s superb!” he gushed. “You’ve done a great day’s work!”
It was lunchtime and I’d seldom been so confused in my life.
After this episode things seemed to quieten down slightly. It was as if the whole event had been some kind of strange mind game; the more I thought about it the more I came to believe that The Northern Accent had actually been testing me, seeing how far I was prepared to go when pushed, attempting to mark his territory and establish who was boss. If this was indeed the case, I had proven to be a bit of a pushover; I had lost that particular battle of wills in unequivocal fashion – a first-round knockout. Still slightly dazed, I was left more or less alone and allowed to get on with the job that I assumed I’d be doing prior to beginning my term of duty at The Sport. I interviewed boxers, went to press conferences, visited gyms, went to more press conferences and attempted to write about boxing.
By the time that Sunday’s paper came out, the publication, I might add, which contained my inaugural efforts as a professional tabloid sports journalist, I had almost forgotten that awkward and bizarre Monday morning. However, when I turned to the back pages and found my story nestling amongst a menagerie of pink nipples, I was forced to take in a deep gulp of air. Set in 120pt lettering that dominated a whole page was the headline: ‘My gals call me Sweet Dick!”
Beneath a photograph of Derrick ‘Sweet D’ Williams was a picture of myself and the words: “Exclusive report from Ian ‘The Truth’ Probert”. Such was my debut as a boxing writer – it had taken me less than a week to become the lowest of gutter journalists.
Back in the office on Monday, it was not long before the telephone rang and I once again heard the voice of Derrick Williams. This was the part that I’d been particularly dreading. How was I possibly going to defend my betrayal? All that Williams had wanted was to see his name in the paper and I – along with a little help from The Northern Accent – had turned him into the laughing stock. He wasn’t going to be happy about it.
“Hi Derrick,” I said timidly, “did you see the paper on Sunday?”
“Yeah,” he replied.
“What did you think?” I asked.
“I thought it was a good article.”
Now, once again, it was my turn to be lost for words.
“Still there, Ian?” asked Derrick Williams.
“Yes. You mean you liked the article?”
“Yeah. It was good – all my friends liked it.”
Then Derrick Williams said something that was infinitely worse than any of the howls of outrage, unprintable curses or threats to my personal safety that I’d been expecting from him. “The only person that didn’t like it was my mum,” he muttered softly. “I showed it to her and she got all upset about it.”