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Tribute to Graham Noble (1942-2017)

Graham Noble  -  © private

13 July 2017

Patrick Welland

Graham Noble, one of Fleet Street’s most admired and well-loved sub-editors, has died from complications following heart surgery. He was 75. With his death, one more link to the vanished world of hot metal Fleet Street with its well lubricated hacks, truculent compositors, clattering typewriters, spikes, copypads and disputes in smoke-filled pubs is erased.

Scotsman Graham arrived in that world in 1970, joining the Daily Telegraph from the Evening News and Scotsman papers, in Edinburgh, a city close to his heart. He then joined the Western Daily Press, in Bristol, and the Portsmouth Evening News.

For someone with Graham’s highly developed sense of humour and appreciation of the ridiculous, the Telegraph then was a natural destination, although he never shared its political views. In notes for a book on old Fleet Street I and a colleague planned (needless to say, nothing came of it), he wrote to me: “The paper in the early 70s was full of eccentrics. They included Caradog, a Welsh bard, a real-life Baron who had been a Trotskyite ARP warden during the war and by now was a dyed in the wool Tory in full uniform of three-piece pinstripe suit, red braces and Homburg, and a former Spitfire pilot who shot down several members of the Luftwaffe but who went in mortal terror of the night editor.”

These eccentricities aside, the Telegraph then was an authoritative and respected newspaper of record, albeit happy to lift its lace curtain and report the seamier elements of life. In this environment, where both work and play (the Kings and Keys and assorted watering holes) were equally intense, Graham swiftly established himself as a consummate operator. A naturally gifted writer, he came to be relied upon to handle the biggest stories, cutting, shaping and re-writing with sensitivity, ever alert to pinpoint accuracy and the correct usage of words and grammar, upon the latter of which he cast a watchful eye for the rest of his life. To a harassed back bench and chief sub on a major news night with tight deadlines, he was indispensable.

Not only indispensable but, some would say incorrigible. Graham was never afraid to speak his mind and after a robust exchange of views with the chief sub in the late 70s he left the Telegraph for, first, the Daily Mail, then the Daily Express and, in 1983, for the Daily Mirror where I met him for the first time.

The Mirror then, as it had been for years, was as idiosyncratic a place to work as the Telegraph and equally famed for its own bibulous disorder. Former editor Mike Molloy has recalled in a recent memoir: “I had a motoring correspondent who was banned from driving, a gardening correspondent with no garden, a slimming editor who was a stone overweight, a travel editor who was barred from flying with British Airways, and a delightful feature writer who had not written an article in five years. Six years later, we gave him a farewell dinner at the Ritz Hotel – and he still hadn’t written anything.” Graham fitted in seamlessly, delighting in a fresh opportunity to observe the entertaining follies of fellow hacks. At the same time, he transferred his status as a top broadsheet sub to a top tabloid sub, fluidly adapting his talents to the Mirror’s tighter subbing and racier style.

After three years, by which time the robber baron Maxwell had imposed his malign authority on the paper, Graham regretfully upped sticks again. He was unimpressed by the then editor and found himself foxed by the celebrity stories he was subbing, not knowing if the tale was about the soap character or the real person. He was equally unimpressed by a youthful assistant chief sub wearing a leather bomber jacket who rewrote his splash intro to the double effect of making it inaccurate and incomprehensible. This was, perhaps, the final straw. Soon afterwards, Graham took over the night editorship of Maxwell’s European newspaper. However, not even his considerable skills could rescue this doomed exercise in Captain Bob’s vanity as he grappled to organise copy from a cast of Mittel European commentators for whom deadlines were either a novelty or an intrusion.

Thus Graham happily returned to his natural habitat of the Telegraph where he was greeted by Night Editor Andrew Hutchinson with the words “Welcome home, dear boy”. For a time, he was night editor of the Sunday Telegraph under the editorship of that colourful popinjay Peregrine Worsthorne. But, eventually the Daily lured him back as splash sub and this time, he stayed until his retirement in 2005.

By the late 80s, old Fleet Street was a distant memory. Joining the diaspora of national newspapers leaving their traditional home, the Telegraph had moved first to South Quay and then to Canary Tower on the Isle of Dogs. But what could replace the familiar haunts of the Kings and Keys, Albion, Punch, Stab and Harrow pubs of old? Certainly, the gin palaces of Canary Wharf crowded with 30-something drinkers downing lagers from bottles and lurid cocktails were not to the taste of Graham and his colleagues.

A lifeline, however, beckoned in the North Pole, one of the last genuine East End pubs and only a short walk – yet an entire world – away from the Tower. Here, landlord John and his wife Margaret jealously guarded their establishment against any infiltration by questionable elements of the modern world, such as the gin palace drinkers. As word of this discovery emerged, the Telegraph subs were joined each night by Mirror subs, recreating for a number of years the genial intercourse between journalists from different newspapers which was such a feature of happier times in the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

Graham remained as robust as ever. His union credentials were never in question. During an NUJ work to rule by the Telegraph chapel, he discovered the sports editor defying instructions and attempting to smuggle copy down to the comps via the back staircase.  The offender lost all his dignity as Graham unceremoniously upended him into a giant paper recycling bin leaving him with his legs impotently thrashing around in the air.
Yet such forthright behaviour went hand in hand with a mischievous sense of humour, and an unerring eye for life’s absurdities.Over the years I was in regular correspondence with him. His letters, beautifully written, always contained at least one or two hilarious vignettes. He had the gift of turning the quotidian into the remarkable.

A deeply kind man, Graham was also a lover of the arts, particularly the theatre. Telegraph colleague and close friend Ray Williams recalled: “On many occasions he would arrive late for his Page One shift, to announce ‘Sorry about that. I set off for work only to find that there was a very promising matinee at the National’. Then he would take his seat and proceed to sub twice as many stories, twice as well, as any grumbling neighbours.”

Lunch, too, was close to his heart and Graham initiated what became a regular gathering of hacks to discuss the great issues of the day at his favourite restaurant, Lucca, in Camden, an establishment which had changed little since it was founded by its owner after the war. Here, anecdotes of Fleet Street shame, cock-ups and infamous behaviour – buffed, honed and embellished to perfection over the years – were swapped to universal mirth. That everyone knew the punchlines mattered not a jot. 

Ray again: “Colleagues would be left feeling rather stupid after accepting an invitation to a pre-shift lunch at Lucca, preceded by a few liveners. After beer, pasta, wine and laughter they would arrive befuddled for an evening’s work at the Telegraph. They would look for Graham, find him absent, consult the rota and discover that it was his day off.  While they tried to focus on their first story of the day, he was at home having a peaceful early evening nap.  Yet none of these victims ever seemed to remember this when happily agreeing to turn out for the next invitation.”

Twenty years ago, Graham saw off against the odds a near fatal bout of necrotising fasciitis. When I visited him in Harlow Hospital, his small recovery room was already crowded with colleagues and alive with laughter. His bedside cabinet featured a selection of wines which were being generously distributed in plastic cups. I recall Telegraph sub Bill O’Hagan, the Sausage King of Fleet Street, grudgingly bowing to hygiene standards and smoking a cigar out of the window. It seemed impossible that the indomitable character of Graham would not also recover from the heart problems which he had borne with typical fortitude in the six months leading to his operation. But it was not to be.

Graham leaves Frances to whom he was devoted and who, since they first met 25 years ago, brought him the greatest fulfilment and happiness of his life. To Frances and to Graham’s two children, Gordon and Jacqueline, sincere sympathy. They, and we, have lost a remarkable man.

Tags: , graham noble, obituary, daily mail, daily mirror, daily telegraph, daily express, scotsman, edinburgh evening news, Western Daily Press, Portsmouth Evening News