From agricultural shows to murders, John Bull covered them all in his days as a young reporter with The Evening News in the 1950s
If ever there was someone whose name fitted their chosen profession it’s John Bull.
Not the national personification of Britain, but the old children’s printing sets from which you end up covered in ink.
For John has had inky fingers all his life after a lifetime in journalism which started on the Evening News in the sepia-tinged era of the 1950s.
He has just published a highly-entertaining and endlessly nostalgic second volume of his autobiography charting his career from cub reporter in Portsmouth, Gosport and Fareham to London and the heady delights of Fleet Street.
For those of us in the business, the atmosphere John evokes in the old Evening News newsroom in Stanhope Road, in a city centre still ravaged by the blitz, conjures images of any 1930s film you’ve ever seen about newspapers.
But his wide-ranging memoir, The Smile on the Face of the Pig – Confessions of the Last Cub Reporter, is of much wider appeal.
John paints graphic pictures of life in post-war Portsmouth and the surrounding area, of the dying embers of music hall, of taking girlfriends for a night out to that mecca of Lee-on-the-Solent entertainment, the Lee Tower, and skinny-dipping by starlight.
At 76 he has returned to Gosport – Carlton Way, just a stone’s throw from where he grew up in Queen’s Road before passing the 11-plus and getting a scholarship to Gosport County Grammar School.
Softly-spoken, but still with a sharp memory for the countless stories which shaped his young life, John vividly recalls that dreadful winter of 1947 in Gosport.
‘My mother went about padded up: two cardigans under her coat and a scarf permanently tied around her head and face.
‘Even glamorous Elsie, the likely miss from the next street, began to look like a Russian grandmother,’ he recalls.
‘The lady next door was seen in the garden one day chopping up the kitchen table to burn on the fire and my father, who always prided himself on being well-shod, had the bright idea of burning old shoes. They actually did offer a surprising amount of warmth.
‘We shared this discovery with family and neighbours and by the time the long, long prayed-for thaw came in March, I don’t suppose there was an old pair of boots left in the town.’
Desperate to break into the world of newspapers by stories he had read in his ‘biblical’ Boy’s Own Paper, John got himself noticed by applying to the Evening News to cover matches at Gosport Park on Saturday afternoons. Yes, matches – several simultaneously.
‘I was expected to turn out every Saturday to cover the Gosport League games. There were never fewer than two and sometimes three.
‘I would take notes, phone in a brief report at half-time and then phone in again with the full-time score for Saturday evening’s Football Mail.
‘I had to submit a slightly longer report for Monday’s Evening News and a 100-word report for the Hampshire Telegraph.
I was paid 7s 6d (37.5p) plus a shilling (5p) for phone calls.
‘It came in the form of a postal order for £1 11s (£1.55) every four weeks.
‘I couldn’t believe it. I was on my way. I was one of those happy, happy people in the world who had found out what they wanted to do in life and were young enough to go for it.’
So how did John recall the countless stories he covered in the 1950s?
‘I spent ages going through the back copies of The News and the Hampshire Telegraph in the Discovery Centre at Gosport and the Central Library in Portsmouth, bringing it all to life again and jogging my memory.
‘But when it comes to the writing I seem to have got into a bit of a routine.
‘I take myself off to Malta with all my notes, book into the Imperial Hotel and write – in longhand – until I’ve finished. It usually takes about a month.
‘With all of Malta’s naval connections, it’s just like being in Pompey – apart from the weather.’
John gained a love of music hall, which was coming to the end of its days in the mid-1950s as television began to take off.
He and other reporters would head straight for the numerous theatres in the city centre after work to catch the top entertainers of the day.
These included, early in 1954, a legendary appearance by Laurel and Hardy at the Theatre Royal.
John says: ‘There was a sketch in the live show that hadn’t been done on film.
‘On stage was a hallway with a door at either end. Stan would open the door and look into the hallway. Seeing no-one, he’d tut-tut, look at his watch and vanish back through the door.
‘The second he disappeared, the other door would open and there would be Ollie going through exactly the same route.
‘It was a miracle of timing and expression.’
John Bull will be signing copies of The Smile on the Face of the Pig (£8.99, published by Chaplin Books) at The News office, West Street, Fareham (where he once worked), on November 15 from 9am-1pm.
The book is available to buy from News offices.