Blog 6 - Topol, Kalashnikovs and the Spirit of Lelaina

Blog 6 - Topol, Kalashnikovs and the Spirit of Lelaina

2nd February 2021

In Part Six of his Guest Blog, Journalist Terry Manners explores the risks and dangers of writing for publication in books and newspapers … and also reveals the rewards, personal adventures and fun that go hand in hand with researching and working on your subject to bring it to life. Is lockdown the time to think about writing your book or magazine article?

It was a dry and bright day as we sped through the winding country lanes of Ulster’s County Armagh, nicknamed Bandit Country, because it was a stronghold and hiding place of the IRA and most locals disliked the British. I was in the back of the black Mercedes with reporter John ‘Bomber’ Burns who was reporting on the Troubles for the Daily Express, when our driver and bodyguard Steve, an ex-SAS captain, slowed down and stopped at a single red traffic cone in the middle of the road.

“Stay in the car and don’t move a muscle,” he said. We didn’t need telling twice.

I will never forget that moment. Trees suddenly came to life around the Merc. Giant bushes appeared at our windows. The countryside stood up. It was a British Army patrol. I had read about camouflage leaves and combat gear of course, seen them in movies, but these soldiers were completely covered in twigs, branches and green summer foliage from head to toe. Six soldier trees all with the barrels of light support rifles pressed against the car windows. They signalled for us to wind the windows down and our ex-Captain did the talking. There is something quite sobering about reaching gently and slowly in your pocket for your Press card and authorisation document when staring down a metal tube that can deliver a bullet into your brain in a nano-second. The last thing you would see on Earth is a small black hole of a gun barrel.

I tell this story only as an example of where the pursuit of words and research can take you … from an adventure, travel and enjoyment to a sticky moment that could be your last. You can never tell, and this wasn’t to be the only time I was to stare down the barrel of a gun. We were on our way to a Catholic family recently bereaved in the Troubles, in the old town of Armagh. It was the other side of the coin. Two IRA sons had been gunned down by Protestant paramilitaries. The idea was to negotiate a feature with them which was to focus on the human, family heartbreak behind the warring factions. I was to capture that heartbreak and some money would change hands.

As we sat in the Merc, watching our documents being scrutinised by the squaddies, I can still remember the cold, glaring eyes of one of them staring fixedly at me through the leaves and twigs piled at least three feet high on his helmet and obliterating his face. His eyes were ringed with dye or mud. Finally, we were on our way and I remember thinking how bizarre life was. I could have been taken from the planet forever by a bloke I had never met or heard of, and who had been walking around all these years popping into pubs for a beer, just like me. Who knows, we could have once stood side by side never knowing.

That period from the 1980s to the early Nineties were turbulent times for Britain and the period in which I began to write my first books in my spare time from the day job … an executive journalist on the Express in Fleet St. There was no internet as such in the early days and all research was through newspaper cuttings, interviews, books, telephone calls and tapes. I was in a good position, lucky that I had a wealth of information around me in the newsroom … stories breaking about people, places, events and archives of extensive material at my fingertips from newspaper stories on the Yorkshire Ripper to UFOs and wars.

The 80s was a time of the Falklands War of course when Dictator General Galtieri’s Argentian Army invaded British territory 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic. The British fell into a frenzy of patriotism as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warned the ‘nasty’ Argie military to “get out of our islands or else!” A massive task force of British battleships, armour and troops were assembled, and the fervour was so great that hundreds of soldiers, who had recently left the Army forever, rushed to Portsmouth and Plymouth trying to sign back on again and ‘kill Argies’ as the Fleet prepared to sail. The Sun newspaper invited readers to sponsor Sidewinder missiles with the words ‘Up Yours Galtieri!’ painted on the side and gave away free ‘Sink The Argies’ computer games. It was surreal. Newspaper circulations rocketed. We were all caught up in the fervour especially The Daily Express, who’s Editor then was Sir Nicholas Lloyd (although not yet knighted). The paper was hugely political at this time. He would return to the newsroom from Downing Street and enthral us with stories of how he had been down on his hands and knees with the Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, crawling over a giant map of the South Atlantic in the drawing room at No.10, talking about strategy and pushing around little plastic battleships.

Meanwhile we had reporters and photographers sailing with every battleship and troop carrier going to war. Some of our news lads were later to write books that funded their pensions.

The experience made me alert and full of ideas for a book on the next war if one came along, which it did later … in the Gulf. The Iraq War and Saddam Hussein, but that is another story. So always remember to keep your eyes and ears open for events, happenings, news about people and ideas to develop, if writing is what you want to try.

It was with this background and book ideas in mind, that I agreed to go to Russia where the Express had a bureau and an apartment, staffed by political writers Will Stewart and Peter Hitchens, now with the Daily Mail. And it was in Moscow that I was to stare down the barrel of a gun again.

Britain was in the grip of winter when Sir Nick called me into his office and asked me to go to Moscow and whilst there; help in a clandestine meeting with former Russian spy, Captain Yevgeny Ivanov. He had been a naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy in London during the early 1960s and his affair with the notorious siren Christine Keeler had resulted in another of her lovers, Cabinet Minister of State for War, John Profumo, resigning from the UK Government in what became known as the Profumo Affair. It was one of the biggest scandals of the day and brought down the Macmillan government. But it was now around 1992 and cheque book journalism was at its height. Ivanov, who had fled back to Russia, had made contact with our Moscow office and was writing a book to reveal the truth behind this incredible Profumo chapter of British history. He would now tell all. But the Mail was chasing ‘the package’. With this in the background, I headed East from Heathrow.

This was at a time when the Cold War between East and West was thawing but we still regarded Russia as the Volga with rockets. (the Volga is the longest river in Europe, flowing through central Russia to the south and into the Caspian Sea, nearly 4,000 miles) The country was very basic and, in our view, had suffered from decades of communism. In Moscow, it took me nearly two hours to be allowed into the country, running the gauntlet of grim-looking soldiers with Kalashnikovs, who checked papers and cases and asked questions through interpreters. Yet more hours later, I was being driven in a battered old Zil 111 taxi, to the city. As I came down the hill overlooking the capital, the only thing that really stood out in the dark landscape of high-rise, dimly lit apartment blocks, was a huge, monolithic neon-lit building. It looked spectacular. It was McDonalds. They had just opened. But I was told by my driver never to bother trying to get a burger … the queue was always so long it would take up to two hours to get to the front.

Will and Peter were old mates of mine and so I was in good company during my stay in the apartment and they showed me the town too. I have never drunk vodka since … they even sold it from street machines like Coca-Cola. Russia was such a fascinating experience but a dangerous place too. It gets to you somehow. You always want to go back. And I eventually did, four times. Our office car was a battered old black Mercedes that we went everywhere in, being careful to keep off the Zilways, the centre lanes of the city centre roads, which were reserved for KGB, Government officials and the Mafia. Will had briefed me about our trips. I was not to engage in eye contact from the car with armed police or soldiers. They hated the British Press and could tell who you were because all British Press cars had to be compulsory registered with a K plate for ‘Korrespondent’.

The soldiers were everywhere. If the worst happened, I had further instructions. It did happen. One night our car stalled in snow in a dimly lit city back street, as two police officers armed with Kalashnikovs strolled towards us. Will kept turning the ignition and we both stared hard at the dashboard, praying the bloody thing would start. It wouldn’t. The cops rapped their guns on the windows, one on my side, one on Will’s. Will nodded to me and we got out either side. I was prodded one way down the road in the darkness with my hands above my head, he was prodded the other. I heard Will chattering away in Russian, but I didn’t think my new copper mate, who hadn’t bothered to shave for duty, would appreciate any cockney jokes. Under a streetlight that was leaning over, he poked my ribs with the gun barrel and demanded: “ID”. I had expected it and slowly brought out a readily prepared cardboard wallet with a Russian Ministry stamp and my Press accreditation. He held the gun against my nose as he took it. Inside was 50 dollars. The cop signalled me to stay where I was, and some 20 yards away Will was ordered to do the same. The two officers met in the middle and discussed God knows what. They seemed to take a lifetime, but it was probably about 10 minutes, nodding and grunting. Will had already told me it would all be fake. Finally, we were ushered back into the car and got it started as the cops walked off. They had made 50 dollars each. Not bad for an evening stroll.

The Ivanov rendezvous became another memorable adventure. We arrived at night in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of the city … just waste ground really, with about 10 tower blocks. Will had arranged a meeting with contacts on the 14th floor and the only way up was in a dingy metal lift … no bigger than a coffin for four. I hated it and wondered what would happen if it broke down. There was no visible alarm, ventilation or telephone. But we arrived at the 14th, and a corridor of shabby brown doors. Will knocked at one and we were ushered in. This was the first time I had ever been in a Russian home. I can best describe it as adequate and functional. A series of small, drab rooms crowded with old, dark wooden furniture too big for the space. Old tables, cabinets, chairs, beds and wardrobes everywhere. All very spick and span with heavy, beautifully embroidered curtains, lace covers and linoleum flooring. I felt I had stepped back into the Fifties. An elderly lady wearing a traditional scarf around her neck brewed what she said was tea for us and people kept scurrying out of rooms saying nothing. One man in an overcoat and scarf stood peering out of the half open front door. Will soon settled down into a broken-Russian conversation with a series of gentlemen who had weather-beaten faces and in the corner of what I supposed was the lounge, that had an old, black and white TV, an old man in a raincoat stood staring out of the 14th floor window.

We couldn’t have been there for more than 20 minutes, when the man at the door shouted something in Russian. The man at the window fled and Will grabbed my arm dragging me out of the apartment. I went to press the lift button. “No! The stairs, run for it!” he shouted. I could do it then, but I couldn’t do it now … I hit the stone steps at speed, and we raced down 14 flights, my legs almost giving way. But out in the snow we managed to keep running to the car and I only fell over once. On the drive back to the apartment, Will explained that the men from the Ministry, probably KGB, had entered the apartment block. They would not be happy that Ivanov was spilling the beans. Ivanov had been the old man at the window. I never had time to meet him and talk to him about the project. Will told me months later that he eventually asked for a small fortune for his story. The notorious spy died two years later, and his book was serialised in a deal with the Daily Mail. You can buy it on Amazon today.

The reason I tell these stories is to show how valuable words can be and how the pursuit of them paints a rich pattern in your memory. There are stories everywhere. You just have to look for them in daily life. Writing books and Editing newspapers opened a huge door for me … meeting people, dealing with big stories, experiencing things some people never do. Writing has taught me to ‘think books’, which if you want to write you should do too. It has taken me to many places, including Hawaii, Singapore, Alaska, Europe, Israel and many more.

My journey to Israel really began through my efforts to help sick and needy children and those in danger through the power of words. It has always been a cause of mine. One time as Editor of the Western Daily Press, the daily paper of the West Country based in Bristol, fate handed me the perfect opportunity. It was a normal, busy morning in the newsroom, and I was just about to hold News Conference when a story came in from one of our reporters on the Somerset coast. A little girl had drowned in the treacherous tides of the Bristol Channel at Burnham-on-Sea. We were shocked. This was the height of the holiday season and surely coastguards and lifeguards were everywhere? I sent a team of photographers and reporters to investigate.

The Bristol Channel was a monster. Lined with rock pools, dunes and sandy beaches it was a magnet to families. Trouble was the tide went out a long way … exposing the deadly mud flats, so deep it was impossible to walk across them. The glistening mud and little pools of water stretched for over a mile. When the tide came back, it came back at speed and before you knew it the waves flapped against the shoreline again. It is one of the most dangerous and fastest tides in the country. Little Lelaina Hall, aged just five, had wandered out … when the tide was out … and couldn’t get back. The vision of that little girl, alone and frightened, was in the minds of over 100 staff in the newsroom. I still picture her now.

What followed was a huge row with coastguards, councillors, mayors and public officials as I took the paper to war. Why weren’t there Danger signs along the Front? Why weren’t warning notices put along the beaches? Why were there no rescue services? I dragged in MPs, flooded meetings with reporters asking difficult questions; wrote heart-breaking features myself; supported Lelaina’s broken-hearted mother and father and launched public protests … even sending teams of reporters under cover of night to hang our own ‘Danger’ signs all the over the promenade, town centre, caravan parks and campsites to warn holidaymakers. Officialdom was furious. Even the Mayor hit out at me. But I couldn’t get the plight of this little girl out of my mind. No one was there to help in her hour of greatest need. A confused, frightened little girl just five years of age, stuck in the mud watching the water roar around her. No one could get to her because of the sinking mud – not even the lifeboat. Facing court action for putting up our own signs and being accused of threatening business trade, I burned the midnight oil with my executives, trying to find a way through. Then one journalist, my News Editor, Andy, came up with a ridiculous idea. He threw a Scandinavian magazine that sold Hovercraft on the conference table.

“That’s what they need,” he said. “It skims over anything, ice, mud, difficult terrain.” The price for one was mind-boggling but we flew him out to meet the builders. The news back later that they had one for us, was met with a cheer in the newsroom. Now we only had to get the money, a daunting task. Ughh! What followed was the biggest, most relentless media campaign ever launched by the paper to raise funds from the public. In the end, through meetings, features, publicity, TV, big events, VIP dinners, concerts, sponsorships and even street raffles, we raised over £500,000 … we were the heroes of Burnham.

We bought its lifeboat service the hovercraft; a boathouse to keep it; all the equipment needed and a jeep to tow it across the beach. It was blessed in a church service attended by hundreds and christened … ‘The Spirit of Lelaina’. Her parents and me were in tears. To this day ‘The Spirit of Lelaina’ still patrols the deadly mud flats of the Bristol Channel to save lives. The whole affair was a wonderful example of the power of words … and we won the British Newspaper of the Year Press Awards in London.

I am pleased that I have done what I could to help sick and needy children in my media work … and youngsters in danger. Another newspaper campaign that I used the power of words to full effect in, was the Children of Chernobyl. As Assistant Editor of the Daily Express in London, I managed to enlist the help of the Duchess of York (Fergie) in organising a huge convoy of lorries packed with drugs, medicines, clothes and food for the children.

Chernobyl was the worst nuclear disaster in history and happened outside the Soviet city of Pripyat in Northern Ukraine in April, 1966 when a Reactor Core exploded sending deadly, radio-active clouds for 20 miles over towns and villages for nine days. Over 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes and as time went on many died. Babies were born deformed and animals and fish mutated into monsters. Trees and plant life died. The children had to be helped. Writing words on such a subject is heart-breaking but really, I guess they wrote themselves. You would think that sending a convoy of aid lorries from London to a stricken area in a disaster zone in Europe would be fairly straightforward. Instead, it was a minefield of politics, suspicions, personal greed and all kinds of bureaucratic red tape. But the Express with the help of Fergie, Boots, No.10 and many others, came through. For this and other newspaper charity campaigns I was fortune enough to win the Variety Club’s World Media Award and invited to a presentation in Tel Aviv, Israel, nicknamed the ‘Capital of Cool’ by the West.

What a glitzy affair it was. The Hilton, near the shores of the Mediterranean, was packed with stars and the mega rich were hanging from the chandeliers. I was treated like royalty. I didn’t think I could ever face eating caviar again. The white sands were beautiful, nightclubs, bars, cinemas and restaurants were at every turn. As the wine flowed, I wondered what God was making of it all in such a holy place. But the highlight for me during this glittering time was a much simpler event … I was a guest at a very trendy Kibbutz overlooking the Dead Sea in the holy hills of Jerusalem. A Kibbutz is a commune where many Israelis traditionally live. Based around agriculture, orchards and home-grown produce it is a place of work, play, music and learning.

The coach ride to our evening venue was fascinating. Hill after hill of caves and little white rock houses. Jews and Muslims were scurrying around in traditional costume and I thought Jesus would walk down the slopes at any moment and turn loaves into fish. When we arrived, fat pigs roasted on barbecue spits; wine flowed from barrels and anyone who could play an instrument played. You would never think that every Israeli, and me, were never further than five minutes away from being able to pick up a gun at any time. They were stockpiled everywhere to defend yourself from terror attacks if the sirens went off.

The evening meal was a lavish affair, in a white marquee with 10 long wooden tables, each with 20 guests and a table at the top for the Variety Club hierarchy. I had teamed up with several other Award winners and was able to teach them some Fleet Street tricks … mainly to make big friends with the chief wine waiter. One hundred US dollars in his pocket secured us continuous top ups of the best wine for the entire evening. We were awash with the stuff. But the highlight of the night was when it was announced that Topol, the star of the world hit stage show Fiddler on the Roof had popped in to say hello. The Tel Aviv born singer suddenly appeared behind the top table, jumped up, kicked plates and bottles away and bellowed out an impromptu rendition of If I Were A Rich Man, from the show, backed by a walking orchestra of musicians who materialised from nowhere. He stomped his way from the top of the top table across to ours, kicking plates and bread rolls into touch. We just about saved our glasses. (Well, they were full). Wonderful stuff. And I guess came my way because words had given me a living.

The important thing is that the more we travel and experience things, the more we are able to fill in those missing pages of books with our knowledge … dialogue, description, geography and scenes. Some of the books I had published benefitted from this, even those reliant on a famous personality telling me a story. Remember that someone can tell you something that happened in their life which adds up to just 100 words … but you have got to turn it into 300 or more. You need to ‘put the raindrops on the window’. In other words, invent them putting another log on the fire and thinking about the problem while watching the flames, then perhaps walking to the window and staring out at the rain sweeping down the moors. Books need this colour … if you can’t get it out of your subject then you need to invent it.

Until next time, if you are still following, remember to keep notes in a box of your ideas … perhaps cut bits out of magazines and newspapers that you think would make a good plot or book idea to work on.

Terry Manners was formerly Editor-in-Chief of Express Newspapers in Scotland, Assistant Editor of the Daily Express in London, Editor and Director of the Western Daily Press and Associated Editor of the Press Association. He has written seven books for major publishes and was Deputy Chairman of the Variety Club’s Gold Heart Campaign.

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Terry Manners