NORMAN GILLER reports on a sad week for sport and sports journalism, with the funerals for Sir Henry Cooper and Peter Batt
Between us, Hugh McIlvanney, Colin Hart, former Sunday Mirror sports editor Tony Smith and I have experienced more than most in chasing headlines and deadlines, but we are all agreed that 48 hours this week took us into new emotional territory.
On Monday we joined the journalists, recovering alcoholics, family and friends at the North East Surrey crematorium, saying farewell to our old pal Peter Batt, perfectly described by fellow East Ender Hart as “the last of the Fleet Street hell-raisers”.
On Wednesday we were among the specially invited congregation at the private funeral of Sir Henry Cooper, a national treasure whose fame and popularity transcended the world of sport and made him a Hero for All Time – the title of a personal memoir I am writing, and hopefully attracting a major publisher.
There was a staggering turn-out for Henry, who I was proud to call a friend for more than 50 years. Here comes some unashamed namedropping, just to capture the breadth and depth of Our ‘Enery’s esteem…
Sitting immediately to the right of me Bruce Forsyth and Frank Carson, just ahead of me to my left Sir Terry Wogan, Peter Alliss, Lawrie McMenemy, goalkeeping legend Pat Jennings, in the pew behind Barry McGuigan and Des Lynam, over there Sir Bobby Charlton, Cliff Morgan, Kenny Lynch, Kevin Keegan and Sir Trevor Brooking, and back there Russ Abbott, former Arsenal chief executive Ken Friar, Henry’s old opponent Billy Walker and, in front, Henry’s long-time golfing pal Jimmy Tarbuck.
It was Jimmy who spoke for us all in a suitably amusing yet respectful eulogy, simply yet so accurately calling Henry “a very, very nice man”.
Tarby brought laughter to go with the tears when he told how he was with a group of celebrities at a golf tournament in Devon when, at his bidding, everybody at their dining table in the hotel stood up and started singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Henry, who sat looking blankly because it was not his birthday. In no time bottles of champagne started arriving at the table from fellow guests. “See, Aitch,” Jimmy told Henry,”‘now you feel as if it is your birthday.”
After a moving service at the Corpus Christi church in Tonbridge, Kent, that reflected Henry’s devout Roman Catholic faith, I told his sons Henry Marco and John Pietro that they could be proud of giving their idolised Dad the dignified send-off he deserved.
Yes, a Hero for All Time.
The Peter Batt funeral attracted a congregation of more than 100 to an 80-seater crematorium, including around 20 of his old journalist colleagues, who at the wake afterwards shared dozens of Batty tales.
Among those I saw were heavyweight scribes Ken Jones, Jeff Powell, Ronald Atkin, Colin Malam, Alex Montgomery, Ian Todd, Terry O’Connor, Alan Hubbard, David Emery, Michael Hart, Steve Stammers, John Jackson, SJA chairman Barry Newcombe, Matt Driscoll (representing his Dad, Bob, who was in hospital for a minor op and so unable to see off his old drinking buddy), significantly Brian Scovell, and the inestimable Steve Whiting, making it despite now being confined to a wheelchair, plus former Sunday Mirror dynamo Dave Ellis and Sun administrator Jackie Hull.
Patrick Collins, temporarily knocked out by a coughing virus, sent apologies for his absence along with huge praise of Batty the man and Batty the writer, whom he succeeded as London Evening News columnist when laying the foundation to his exceptional career.
Ex-Daily Mail head of sport Bryan Cooney was another who could not make it for medical reasons, but he has written a must-read gem of a Batty memoir on the irreverent (but never irrelevant) Gentlemen Ranters website, fittingly billed as The Last Pub in Fleet Street.
The most rewarding sight for me at the wake was our old mate Alan Hudson sitting at the bar nursing a glass of orange juice. One of the most exceptional footballers of his generation, Alan has battled his demons and come through with his sanity and humour intact. Peter, who we learned during a warm address from daughter Jenny was known as The Don of the AA, would be very proud of Huddy.
For those who were unable to join us for the farewell to Batty, I reproduce here the eulogy I delivered on behalf of Peter’s many journalist colleagues – my toughest challenge was not using the “F” word that dropped from Peter’s lips like contaminated confetti, yet you could rarely take offence at his language because it was part and parcel of his personna:
We’re gathered here today to say a final fond farewell to Peter Batt – Batty, a legend not only in his own lunchtime but also in his own lifetime – a sportswriter supreme and a piss-artist of Picasso proportion.
I wanted to come up with the sort of unique intro that Peter would write – and I know he would approve of that alliteration … a piss-artist of Picasso proportion.
I am privileged – or Peter would say lumbered – with the honour of delivering this eulogy, but I’ve been told I have just seven minutes. It would take more like 70 minutes to do Peter justice. I have the permission of Peter’s family to make this a warts-and-all tribute. Batty would expect nothing less, as we remember a rare man who entertained, pleased, perplexed, amused and offended with equal measure.
First of all I’d like to say to you Heidi and the “gawdfordbids” Jenny, Caroline and Danny – in my many conversations with Peter, drunk or sober, he never spoke about you with anything less than deep love, affection and pride. It’s important that you know that.
Heidi, you deserve a medal for the way you kept the family together during turbulent times. But we won’t have your medal presented by Colin Hart, because he will want to make a Churchill-style speech. A quick explanation: When Peter took Heidi to meet Colin and his wife, Cindy, at the Hart home for the first time, Colin entertained his guests by playing an LP of Churchill’s wartime speeches. It completely escaped Colin’s attention that Heidi was German. Heidi later described it as the longest night of her life.
When in his closing years, finally dry and finding peace back in the bosom of his family, Peter came up with classic advice to daughter Caroline (or Curly, as he always called her). Turning Rudyard Kipling on his head, he told her: “If you can laugh and keep a strong will when life is kicking you in the arse, you can bounce back from anything, my girl …”
Life kicked Peter in the arse right from his birth on June 7 1933. He and I were born a few hundred yards apart in the slums of salubrious Stepney and always had a bond because we both had drunken fathers and slept four to a room with our brothers in Council homes. Talk about starting at the back of the queue.
Peter left school at 14 with barely half an education because of the lost years of the war. Imagine what sort of writer he would have been with a proper education! I always looked on him as the workingman’s Hugh McIlvanney, the master whose standards we all tried and failed to match. But I think Hughie would admit there were times when his good pal and long-time drinking partner got pretty damn close.
I first came across Peter the Poet when I was a copyboy on the much-mourned London Evening News in the mid-50s. One of the copytakers used to berate the reporters with such bellowed comments as: “Is there much more of this ‘effing crap …?” Only he didn’t say effing.
This, of course, was Batty, recently off a building site where he had been a labourer following his National Service in the Army, which was largely spent in the glasshouse. He had 120 words per minute shorthand and could touch type with machine-gun speed. But he hated taking down other people’s words. He knew he could do better. Much much better.
Batty’s rollercoaster career took him to jobs with a parade of papers, from most of which he got the tintack … one of the many Battyisms to infiltrate the Fleet Street vocabulary along, of course, with nannies (for nanny goats, quotes)
He worked for the Daily Mail and Evening News as a copytaker.
Then reporter on the Richmond Herald, the Windsor Slough and Eton Express, Romford Times, Walthamstow Guardian, Stratford Express,
The Scotsman, Scottish Daily Mail, Daily Herald, the old broadsheet Sun, Sunday People, the tabloid Sun (where he was Sportswriter of the Year in 1973), London Evening Standard, London Evening News,
Daily Star, The Times (freelance), Sunday Mirror, Daily Sport (ghosting Bobby Moore), Daily Express (freelance)…
Then back to The Star, where he was billed as “The Biggest Four-Letter Word in Sport”. He used a mouthful of four-letter words when they sacked him after a dozen warnings for his drinking escapades.
We all have unbelievable tales of the unexpected to tell about Batty that we can share afterwards at the wake. Peter just recently told Caroline that he wanted his wake to be the best party he never went to. We musn’t let him down.
Because of time restrictions, I’ve pruned my contribution here down to just the one all-time classic that helped cement the legend that is Peter Batt. The story has been told many times, but today it is particularly worthy of a repeat:
Enter another sports journalist master, Colin Hart. At the time he was the Daily Herald’s brilliant night news editor, and when it came over the wires that a London-bound plane had crashed in the Pyrenees he sent fireman reporter Batty to the scene.
Batty being Batty, he got to the foothills in, let’s say, a less than sober condition, and when the taxi-driver dropped him as close as possible to the site of the crash he managed to fall over in the snow while attempting to walk up the mountain.
Rescuers coming down from the wrecked plane found him, picked him up and conveyed him to a nearby convent where he was put into bed and nursed by nuns. They did not help his condition by giving him copious shots of brandy to warm him up. Word got back to other reporters covering the story that a survivor had been found.
They dashed to the convent to discover a pissed-as-a-pudding Batty sitting up in bed toasting their arrival and saying: “Thought I’d died and gorn to ‘eaven.”
Yes, the stuff of legend.
Peter, of course, morphed into a sportswriter of supreme talent, but always with the bottle between him and convention. Not only was he a prisoner of alcohol but also bitten by the betting bug, and stories are legion of him losing not only his shirt but also himself at dog tracks and racecourses across the world.
Life after Fleet Street was a rollercoaster of heady ups and, sadly, mostly painful drink-sodden downs. He had the world of television at his feet after writing several of the early EastEnders scripts, but lost that dream job when he was blamed for storylines being leaked to the tabloids.
Peter produced a beautifully written biography of racing trainer Mike Channon, a pal from his footballing days, and his own riveting autobiography called Batty is a must read for anybody who cannot say no to that next drink. The title had to be changed at the last minute because Meat Loaf claimed copyright on the entirely appropriate Batt Out of Hell.
He finally became disillusioned with the writing game when he had the heartbreak of having four of his finest works crash at the last hurdle … two television series, Side Saddle with Penelope Keith and The Bingo Boys with Michael Elphick hit the buffers, along with a betting shop sitcom that we wrote together … then, an ambitious musical based on The Pied Piper of Hamlin.
He teamed up with a top Austrian composer and I am sure there are several of you here who, like me, had Batty ringing at all times of day and night to sing the latest number down the line. I did not have the heart to tell him that it was unrealistic to try to follow the hit show Cats with their version of Rats.
Peter, who did not turn to sports reporting until in his 30s because he didn’t want to miss his beloved Spurs playing at White Hart Lane, was a Dean Martin soundalike who could really belt out a song. Several of us here will have memories of him falling blind drunk off the stage at a Geoff Hurst testimonial dinner at the London Hilton while singing his anthem My Way. He only managed to get out the first line: “And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain …”
Then c-r-a-s-h! Head first off the stage.
Now, this really is the final curtain.
Batty goes to what he always described as his Higher Power with our love and affection, greatly missed but never forgotten.
If any one of us were asked to name their most unforgettable character, Peter Batt would be near the top of most lists. He just did not fit into this more sanitised, sensible and, frankly, more boring modern world of ours in which Peter felt a man out of his time.
I can safely say that Fleet Street – any of us here – will never see his like again. To be continued at the wake.
Rest easy, Batty.
Read Norman Giller’s previous columns for the SJA website by clicking here
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