BLOG 5 - The Krays, Daleks, a total eclipse and a message from the grave

BLOG 5 - The Krays, Daleks, a total eclipse and a message from the grave

19th January 2021

JOURNALIST Terry Manners continues his blogs on book writing by looking at the market for non-fiction and how Dr Who was the inspiration for his hardback publication Moonshadow, the story of a Total Eclipse. He also reveals how a world-renown psychic shocked him by revealing she had a vision of legendary singer Frankie Vaughan’s lost gold bracelet. And why it is so important to note down ideas for books that come out of the blue to you in everyday life, just by chance.

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THE traffic had stopped on London’s Blackfriars Bridge on a bitterly cold day in May, 1996. Passengers looked down from the top decks of red buses and taxi and lorry drivers honked their horns as former Dr Who, Jon Pertwee, resplendent in cloak and scarf and waving his cane marched across the Thames followed by six Daleks.

It was one of the coldest Mays on record and I had hired actor Jon and persuaded the BBC to lend me six Daleks to promote a competition for the Daily Express, of which I was Assistant Editor of at the time. We were giving away a Dalek to the lucky winner.

The Daleks had arrived the day before and I was shocked to realise how small they were. But they could be propelled along by people crouched inside them – so we set about finding six small secretaries in the Express HQ on Blackfriars Bridge. The stage was set.

The next day was freezing when Jon arrived. His runny nose was purple and he was shivering with a terrible cold. I whisked him up to the Editor’s office and topped him up with brandy, while photographer John Downing took his gear outside the building and the girls squeezed into their sci-fi war machines.

Jon was hoarse with a cough and I wondered if I would go down with whatever he had. Good job these weren’t the days of Covid-19. The brandy flowed and we chatted away about the awful weather. Then I learned that he was interested in an historic event happening over Cornwall in a couple of years’ time … a total solar eclipse, which he planned to experience. Such an eclipse is rare and happens when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun, blocking all direct sunlight and turning day into darkness.

Finally, we made our way to our little Dalek platoon where Downing was waiting. Now, the award-winning photographer was a perfectionist. He always went to great pains to get his pictures just right - from light settings and speed to backdrops and motion, everything had to be bang on. And so we set off over the bridge, Downing walking backwards, weighed down with a tripod on his back and thousands of pounds worth of camera equipment; Dr Who following, waving his cane as the Daleks shuffled along behind, making strange Dalek type noises from the microphones inside their metal and plastic prisons. I followed as the traffic ground to a halt for the show.

But what was supposed to take 10 minutes, took nearly an hour, as Downing kept stopping, checking the light; rearranging the Daleks for the shot; moving Jon from one side of the pavement to the next; moving his tripod and setting up again. Dr Who was blue. I kept pushing in and out of the shoot asking him if he was OK? Did he want me to fetch some more brandy? He was shaking from head to foot but the showman in him made him carry on. Finally I got him back inside, topped him up with strong alcohol and put him in the back of the company Jaguar to be driven home by our chauffeur.

It was with great sadness that the wonderful actor died a few months later of a heart attack while on holiday, taking a break from his work, suffering with exhaustion. But I am haunted by the thought that his march with the Daleks across the bridge that day must have also taken its toll.

The reason I tell you this tale is that with book writing, an idea can come out of the blue at any time. And Dr Who had planted a seed in my head that grew as the months went on. A book telling the story of the Total Eclipse. The more I looked into it, the more I was hooked by the thought that the coming Total Eclipse over Cornwall on the 11th minute, of the 11th hour, of the 11th day of August 1999 would be the last chance for the British people to view the event from the UK for another 99 years – on September 12, 2090.

My mind was working overtime … the book would have to be finished and printed by 1998 at the latest. And I had yet to get a publisher. So, I began work on the outline for my agent. Pictures and graphics would be all important. As the weeks went on, I discovered people were ahead of me. Hotels and camp sites in Cornwall were already being booked; farmers were renting fields for the caravans of amateur astronomers; caterers were planning outside restaurants in marquees and concert venues and dates were being arranged throughout the region.

The shape of the book began to form in the outline and synopsis. A forward from a renowned astronomer; maps showing the time and path of the eclipse as it moved across the Earth; myths and legends about eclipses; the story of the telescope; the birth of the Moon, Earth and the Sun; Man’s race to the Moon; the people who chased eclipses across the globe; how to view an eclipse safely and wonderful tales from famous people who witnessed this magical event throughout history … and more. Finally, my package was done, and my agent got me a deal with publishers Andre Deutsch and their imprint Chameleon Books.

The book was a tremendous success, and I met many interesting scientists, historians and astronomers along the way. One meeting I will never forget was at University College, London … not because of the scientist I was to interview but because of a gentleman I met in a corridor on the way to his room – philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He was dead. He died in 1832 but had left instructions in his will that his corpse be pickled, treated and mummified then clad in a black suit and hat and seated upright on a chair in a glass cabinet under a placard reading ‘Auto Icon’. He was to be displayed in the university and wheeled into all important meetings that might interest him. He still is to this day. As I stared at him and he stared back, he looked as if he would speak to me at any moment. My eclipse scientist told me that for 10 years before his death Bentham walked around with a pair of glass eyes in his pocket, so that embalmers could easily implant them into his head if he suddenly died on the street. Spooky but true.

The book also brought me several great adventures … one of them an invite from British Airways to fly on Concorde – and chase the eclipse! Two of the supersonic aircraft were to take off from Heathrow at 0700GMT on the big day, and fly faster than the speed of sound, 55,000ft above the Earth on the edge of space. I would experience ‘totality’ (a full eclipse) for six minutes instead of one minute or so on Earth in Cornwall. And no clouds. The great day came, and I joined other favoured guests in the VIP lounge at Heathrow to be presented with glasses of champagne and sticky goodies along with a pair of eclipse glasses. Fair to report that the 100 or so people, most of whom had paid £1,550 each to taste the good life that day, were more than a bit wobbly before they squeezed into their cabin seats, where more bubbly and breakfast would soon find their way to us down the aisle. I remember in the haze thinking how small the cabin was in this incredible English and French flying machine. And the windows were like little portholes, getting smaller by the champagne glass.

As the eclipse would only be seen from the right-hand side of the plane, there was a comical and chaotic cabin rehearsal of switching seats from side to side on the commands of air hostesses, who it turned out, really wanted to watch the event themselves.

Soon we were halfway out over the Atlantic and turning round to chase the shadow of the Moon. Excitement mounted. The sky went purple, but we could only see the sun by sliding down to the floor or turning upside down in our seats to stare up through the little ‘port hole’. In many areas of the cabin, it was bedlam with legs in the air; people forcing their way on top of others and hostesses giving up on the seat swap. It was every man and woman for themselves as the eclipse proceeded. One or two passengers just looked up at the ceiling with glazed, champagne-induced expressions. Some of the astronomers on board mumbled about getting their money back after catching just 10 seconds of totality. Back at Heathrow, chief pilot, Capt. Mike Bannister, gallantly announced that chasing a fast-moving eclipse path was never going to be easy. "But it was all about actually being there during the event,” he said. “People could see the drama of the Moon's shadow overtaking us and everyone I talked to really enjoyed it.” He hadn’t spoken to me.

This is what non-fiction book writing is all about though – adventures and experiences. The trail of research, interviews and adventures that can result from putting the work together – as well as the financial reward. Even a life story of someone who has died, will bring riches in experience as I have already mentioned in previous blogs. But of course, first you must have the idea; then work on your package – the outline, synopsis and sample chapters. Then you must get an agent. All that comes before you find a publisher who thinks the project is worthwhile – and they will make money from it. At the end of months of slog, you must be prepared for heartbreak.

One heart-breaking project I have already told you about that never got to print, was the life story of stage and screen singing star, Frankie Vaughan, called Behind The Green Door, a project I undertook with his lovely wife Stella. It never came off because after months of work, she wouldn’t reveal the spicy bits of his life with Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe. But the book was a tapestry of adventures for me and one involved a strange message from the grave I will never forget.

Stella had told me of the couple’s struggle as Frankie rose to fame from poor beginnings in Leeds. He was booked to appear at the City Varieties Theatre in the city in the early 1950s – home of Vaudeville (old time Victorian variety acts). The BBC later produced a TV series of them at the venue, hosted by presenter Leonard Sachs. The shows featured songs you may never have heard of but were part of British culture like: The Old Bull and Bush and Roll Out The Barrel. To bring Frankie luck, Stella had spent what little money they had on a gold bracelet and he was thrilled. It was something he would always cherish he said. But on his opening night he lost it and couldn’t find it anywhere. He was crestfallen. That loss haunted him all his life. He would often talk about his sadness over its loss.

I contacted the theatre manager in Leeds to get the background on Frankie’s performances and arrange a visit. He suggested I took in a show at the same time and we arranged a date. The only time that suited wasn’t ideal – it was psychic night, and it was sold out! But he did have a private box. I reluctantly took it, not sure what I was letting myself in for. The star was a woman named Yvette Tamara, a renowned clairvoyant medium. I had never heard of her. But, how would I? I had only ever tried the Ouija Board with a glass in the middle of letters in a darkened room with friends. I was sceptical to say the least. But I was doing this was for Stella and Frankie, I told myself. The big night arrived, and it was pouring with rain. I was drenched when I arrived at the little Victorian theatre in a back lane at the heart of the city centre. Time for a warm livener or two before the show. There was a little bar tucked at the side of the emporium and I went in … to face a saloon packed with widows in black dresses, all of a mature age. The penny dropped. They had come to try and contact their late husbands, loved ones … or lovers. The sherry was going down in abundance.

Hastily gulping down my drink I made for my seat in a rather plush little box draped in red velvet curtains with a balcony adorned in gold mouldings. In fact, the whole theatre was a feast of Victorian architecture and opulence. A wonderful little time capsule. The stage was draped in big red velvet curtains with fancy frills too and the seats below me were filling up. I counted just a handful of men of a certain age. The lights finally went dark and there was an eerie silence over the auditorium, which seemed to last forever. The stillness was creepy, you could have heard a pin drop. In the darkness I could just make out the curtains slowly opening. A single spotlight came on … and there standing like an angel in the soft glow, was Tamara, dark-haired and looking in her thirties – standing in a shimmering white Ball Gown with her arms outstretched as if embracing her audience. The moment was surreal, as if a spirit had materialised to visit them.

What followed was predictable and seemed to comfort most of the audience. It went something like …

Tamara: “I can see a colour, blue, I think. Yes blue. A jumper, some sort of clothing - a blue top. It’s a man I think, yes, a man. Does it mean anything to anyone?”

Silence. Murmuring. People fidgeting in creaking seats.”

“A husband perhaps, or father, or son …”

“Yes, yes,” a woman in the audience shouted out. “It must be Harry, my brother, he had a blue slipover he loved …”

You get the picture. And so, it went on with Tamara hitting the mark and people enthralled. They seemed convinced but I remained sceptical, although a couple of times I wondered how she would know such things. And then …

“I can see something glittering … something precious. A man is trying to explain something to me … I can’t make it out.” (Pause) “It is something gold, a neck chain maybe … a ring perhaps … no something lost. Has anyone here lost a bracelet?”

I nearly fell off my velvet chair. I wondered whether to yell out “Yes – Frankie Vaughan!” But I was too embarrassed to step up to the plate. How could Tamara know that the star had been heartbroken all his life about losing Stella’s gift? It was a private matter years before. I left the theatre that evening still going through every possible permutation of how she could have found out he lost it in that very theatre. But I couldn’t come up with one. I even rang Stella and asked if she knew Tamara. She didn’t. Days passed and I had to find out. I arranged to meet the psychic at her home in Maidstone, with a view to exploring the possibility of doing a book with her on her life and experiences.

When I arrived at her comfortable ‘pile’ at the end of a leafy Kent lane (psychics obviously did very well), I was ushered into a hallway waiting room with six chairs, where a woman was waiting for ‘a reading’ by the celebrity clairvoyant. Ten minutes later another woman came out of a room (obviously after her session) and I was ushered in by Tamara. We got on well and finally, towards the end of our meeting I asked her if she remembered her vision of the gold bracelet. She did and went on to tell me that it first came to her as she prepared for the stage in her dressing room. She thought she saw it on the floor. And the vision came again as she stepped out on the stage. Make of that what you will, but I always wondered if her dressing room was where Frankie lost the bracelet.

Book writing is a sweat, especially when you are ghosting another person’s story as I said in previous blogs. You can spend hours, days even, perfecting a chapter, only to have it torn apart by your famous subject if he or she is working on it with you. If you have an idea to do someone’s life story who is still alive, tread carefully. Not only must you have a good contract in case you fall out, but trust and friendship are everything. An example of this is the relationship between a friend of mine I have mentioned before, writer Robin McGibbon, who did the life stories of notorious East End gangsters the Kray Brothers and went on to produce tapes of them behind bars.

He often fell out with Reggie in Parkhurst and Ronnie in Broadmoor. Sometimes he would lose his temper and swear at Reggie. When asked by people like me if he was frightened or had a death wish, he would answer No! He had become friends with them, and they trusted him. They were to remain friends for over 30 years. That is the kind of relationship you should build for your book if you want to get the best – and the truth – out of your subject.

He often fell out with Reggie in Parkhurst and Ronnie in Broadmoor. Sometimes he would lose his temper and swear at Reggie. When asked by people like me if he was frightened or had a death wish, he would answer No! He had become friends with them, and they trusted him. They were to remain friends for over 30 years. That is the kind of relationship you should build for your book if you want to get the best – and the truth – out of your subject.

Robin told me the story of his first meeting with notorious gangster Reggie in Parkhurst. He had written down 11 questions in his notebook that he was going to ask, using large letters in green felt tip to stand out. He didn’t want to waste time just exchanging first-meeting pleasantries during the vital two hours. The large room at Parkhurst was full of wives, girlfriends and children of Category A prisoners and Robin was sitting at the table Reggie had assigned to him. He wondered then if Reggie ran the jail. At 2pm Reggie almost bounded into the room, the first of about a dozen high-risk inmates. Apparently, he was always first in and last out, Robin later learned. The noise from the visitors was deafening as children ran around, wives cried, and everyone was speaking at once. Reg, dressed in blue denim, was slim, well-muscled and looked younger than his 51 years. Everyone seemed to know who he was and kept looking over.

“Hello Robin, it’s very nice to meet you. Glad you could come,” he said.

“Hello Reg, good to meet you too, thanks for arranging it,” Robin replied putting out his hand. Reg took it and crushed the tips of his fingers in the strongest handshake the writer had ever experienced. He tried not to wince.

They made polite conversation for a couple of minutes, then Robin decided to get down to business. But the noise was almost unbearable and was getting on his nerves, especially as he had to ask some delicate questions and wasn’t sure how Reg would react. He needed to note every word the gangster said. Robin pulled out his notebook from his inside jacket pocket and flicked it open, fully aware that this would be a testing time, but he needed good stuff to get the book published.

“I have some questions Reg, is that OK?”

“Yeah. Go ahead.”

The Kray brothers had sprung Frank ‘Mad Axeman’ Mitchell, a mentally unstable criminal from Dartmoor prison and arranged to have him murdered when he proved impossible to control. His body was never found. And its whereabouts was never revealed in court. Robin looked at his first question written in green felt tip and was a little worried. But he went ahead. He glanced around the noisy room. He and Reg could hardly hear each other. He leaned forward and in no more than a whisper asked: “Can you tell me where Frank Mitchell’s body was taken?”

Reg stared at him, looking puzzled, as if he wasn’t sure he understood. Then he cocked an ear. “Eh?” Robin glanced around the room again, embarrassed. But everyone was chatting among themselves and the children were playing noisily. They all seemed oblivious to what he said. He leaned towards Reg again. A little louder this time, he asked: “Can you reveal where Frank Mitchell’s body was taken?” The ear cocked again. “Eh?” Robin took another deep breath.

“CAN YOU REVEAL WHERE FRANK MITCHELL’S BODY WAS TAKEN?”

Suddenly a deadly hush fell on the room. The words came out too loud. Robin didn’t dare look around, but he could sense all eyes on his table. He stared at Reg waiting for an answer, but he just stared back saying nothing. Finally, he shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about it! Next question!” Robin looked back in his notebook. The next question was “Do you know where Jack the Hat McVitie’s body is?” He didn’t have the bottle to ask it and so bottled out.

So, you see, writing can not only be a good living but an adventure too if you work at it. And lockdown is just the time to shape your ideas; do some research; make some phone calls; write a synopsis. If ever there was a time … it is now.

Next time: How a life story book on two children struck by tragedy took me on a journey to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where Israeli singing star Topol jumped on a table, kicked away the plates and wine glasses and did an impromptu performance of his song: ‘If I Were A Rich Man’ from the hit stage show Fiddler on the Roof.

Terry Manners was former Editor-in-Chief of Express Newspapers in Scotland and Assistant Editor of the Daily Express in London. He was also Editor and Director of the Western Daily Press in Bristol. He has written seven books for major publishers; won the World Variety Club’s Global Media Award for helping sick and needy children through his newspaper work and was a judge at the national and local newspaper awards.

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Terry Manners