Bedlam at Bonhill Street

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For years Motor Sport’s home was a seedy block on the edge of the City, where integrity flourished among intrigue and slapstick
By Gordon Cruickshank

After 27 years with Motor Sport, you might expect me to say “things have changed”. That would hardly cover the distance between today’s airy white-walled offices on the Thames, with white computers on white tables, and the grubby warren that housed the magazine from the 1960s into the 1990s. This corner of London, north of Finsbury Square, had been a printing ghetto but by the time I arrived the only magazines left were us and Health & Efficiency. Motor Sport always had a tiny editorial staff – for many years only one Assistant Ed, apart from WB and DSJ – but Teesdale also included Motoring News and LAT Photographic as well as ads and accounts, so Standard House throbbed with activity. It did not, however, fit the picture of a slick publishing house…

Wesley J Tee

Wesley J Tee took on the mag in 1936 and presided over the Teesdale empire until his death in 1997, supported by his sons and daughter. Short, bald, charming, irritating, shrewd, tight-fisted, sentimental and crafty, the Old Man (right) was utterly unpredictable and quite likely to back both sides in a fight. He controlled everything from his lair at the end of a gloomy corridor, where people queued for an audience, waiting for the ‘Engaged’ light to go off. Sometimes he would stump down the corridor hoping to catch us out, but his slow progress (he was already 75 when I joined) and lopsided footfall gave plenty of warning. Often he did not recognise more recent staff and would make them explain themselves. One day he met a junior employee he had fought with previously.

“What are you doing here?”

“I work here, Mr Tee.”

“No you don’t. I sacked you.”

“No you didn’t.”

“Well, I’m sacking you now.”

“What about notice?”

“This is your notice. It’s backdated. Get out.”

The lad went, sued, and won compensation, but to Mr Tee it was worth it. The same applied to the staff member sacked over a parking conflict: it made the Daily Telegraph, where A Company Spokesman was quoted as saying “cheap at the price”.

Mr Tee could be tricky to handle: on one occasion he rejected a certain cover picture because, he claimed, there was a dog in it.

“It’s a bush, Mr Tee.”

“Nonsense, boy. Find another one.”

There was no point in arguing, but you learned to cope: once he argued that a certain photo was out of focus and told me to find a sharper one. I knew it was perfectly sharp; I came back later with the same shot and said, “you were right, Mr Tee. Here’s a better one.”

“There you are, boy,” he beamed. This could be manipulated to your own benefit: when I was trying to persuade him to buy me a TVR he prevaricated over the cost, saying “get a better deal”. I did. I found a better car and waved the paper with the higher costs in front of him saying, “you were right, Mr Tee. A much better deal.” I didn’t add, “for me”. He signed, and the car arrived two days later. I didn’t feel too guilty; my salary was feeble. On the other hand we did get Luncheon Vouchers – 15p a day. If you saved all week you could afford a sandwich.

It was not rare to hear shouting from Mr Tee’s office – he loved conflict. He looked forward eagerly to fights with the print unions, and the harder you argued with him the more his eyes sparkled. If you lost there was a compensation: he would feel indulgent. This was the time to feed him another request.

“Sorry I shouted, Mr Tee.”

“That’s alright, boy, I like a man who stands his corner.”

“Can I go to the Nürburgring?”

“Of course, boy.”

We were all ‘boy’, even WB in his seventies, mainly because WJT couldn’t recall any names.

He could change with the wind. After Mike Cotton had had another furious row with him, Mike was sitting at his typewriter hammering out his resignation letter when the Old Man stumped in.

“What’s that, boy?” When Mike told him, the Old Man pulled out the letter, threw it in the bin and turned with a big smile.

“Now, boy, what were we talking about?”

We all dreaded the interminable monthly meetings in the windowless boardroom, a stifling cell with an electric heater steaming under the table. WJT relied on positions to identify people; if you sat in the ads manager’s place he would ask you about advertising. It was easier to invent something than argue. Sometimes WJT would nod off. It seemed rude to wake him; we would talk quietly on until he rejoined us.

A keen driver, Mr Tee left a spectacular trail of accidents. A farmer in Essex, opening his door to put the dogs out one night, heard Vivaldi drifting through the gloom. Following the noise he found Mr Tee wedged in a ditch in a crumpled Alfa with the radio on. He had the devil’s luck: having pitched a Granada into an Essex dyke he was hanging upside down and helpless in his seatbelts as smoke rose around him. Deep in the ditch he was invisible to car drivers – but was spotted by a lorry driver who happened to be an off-duty fireman. The following car contained an off-duty nurse.

Another day I noticed that TEE 10, the Proprietorial Mercedes, had a damaged windscreen. “He hit a cyclist,” said his son Ian. I asked if the man had survived. “Oh, he was fine. It was only a small nudge but he was so angry he got up and threw his bike at the car.”

Once, a staff member was called to the Old Man’s office.

“Your car’s parked squint,” said WJT.

“No it isn’t.”

“It is now.” With which he reached under his desk and handed over part of a bumper. He hadn’t quite got the Mercedes lined up with the space, but he went ahead anyway.

Standard House

Though it was a 1960s building, the Teesdale floors exuded a Miss Haversham air of dereliction. Broken grubby lino, dangling blinds, half-height orange partitions plastered in ancient stickers for Yardley, STP and Wolf Racing, desks piled with tottering heaps of old press releases like an ancient desert city gradually submerged by dunes. It was such a fire trap that the firm above (Steel Supplies of Botswana Ltd, a cover if ever I heard one) couldn’t get insurance.

Some of us had huge Edwardian desks from previous offices; mine had locked drawers, and when I finally broke into them I found pre-war race programmes, unbuilt model kits and gadgets sent in for review 20 years before.

In my early days the Gatling gun rattle of typewriters filled the air, but I was off the day an angry journalist threw one through the window. No one on the pavement was injured, unlike the time an irascible editor broke a toe kicking a door in an argument.

The sole luxury in Standard House was a square of carpet in Coffee Machine Corner, a tight 90-right, 90-left going into Telex Room Straight. (Telex: for younger readers, think e-mail by typewriter.) This corner was the scene of several spectacular pedestrian shunts as an eager journo busy being Arnoux and making noisy down-changes failed to hear de Angelis from the other direction getting his Hush Puppies onto opposite lock. Some of the staff were brilliant mimics; sitting in my office I could clearly distinguish Ferrari V12 from Cosworth, or the pops and whistles of a turbo as someone hit peak revs going into the warehouse.

This was where my mate Alf lived – guardian of the back issues, and the sweariest man I’ve ever known. In those days we carried back issues from the 1940s, which Alf sent to collectors around the world. Most of these were dumped when Haymarket bought the magazine. Alf also oversaw binding, as we had our own bindery where readers’ issues were bound into volumes. And in the feudal spirit of Teesdale, when he retired his son inherited his job.

Every Christmas Alf would set up long tables in the warehouse for the office party (on the last afternoon of term so you couldn’t sneak away) where crisps and cider abounded. On the top table sat Mr Tee, his PA Miss Roberts and the Tee family. Below were the commonality, toasting the Old Man’s State of the Nation speech. All we needed was a jester to complete the medieval picture. But MN was full of those, and once the Old Man had retired to his office, the fun began.

The Regime

There was a pre-war code of behaviour at Standard House. Female staff, for example, were not allowed to wear trousers. Transgressors were sent home to change by Miss Roberts, the company secretary, who scrutinised your expenses with a gimlet eye through her flyaway glasses. She knew to the mile how far away Oulton Park was, as many an optimistic new boy discovered.

Economy was a religion: it was forbidden to ring out of London before lunch because in those days it cost more. If you wanted to send anything First Class you had to persuade Miss Roberts it was vital, and you had to get written permission to ring abroad, listing the numbers. Not that this proved anything; after having travel permissions rescinded I took to writing out my requests and making the Old Man sign them.

When he tried to cancel my plans to follow the Mille Miglia I stormed in waving my bit of paper. “You signed it, Mr Tee.” “No, I didn’t. You’ve forged that.”

Any inward mail marked ‘Personal’ went straight to Mr Tee in case it was a job offer; because of this one staff member missed a wedding. Still, they found another best man. Christmas presents to staff likewise vanished, including the salmon from Renault which lay forgotten in the board room until after New Year…

My first Christmas brought a shock. December’s pay packet included a surprise £70 bonus, which I soon spent. January’s pay packet said ‘minus £70 Xmas advance’. On the other hand, the Tee empire included turkey farms, so we all got a fresh bird at Christmas. Unfortunately one year mine was still full, and I had to gut it. When I got on the plane home to Edinburgh the X-ray official helpfully pointed out I had left a bit inside.

Technology

Almost uniquely, Motor Sport had its own printing presses. On press day the ground floor shook to the thump and hiss of the huge machines, overseen by Welsh firebrand Mr Jones. Often I had him at my elbow, literally breathing down my neck as I assembled the last pages, hissing “it’ll never come out, you know. It’s too late.” There was the occasional ‘stop press’ moment too, such as when, well into the run, Alan Henry picked up a proof sheet and noticed a photo of an elderly man shaking Nigel Mansell’s hand after a victory, with a dismissive caption about how anybody seemed to get into the paddock these days. AH recognised him as Nigel’s father. We pulped 17,000 sheets.

We also had our own hot-metal type-setters, though I never once entered the Linotype room – it was union territory. Demarcation was crucial: I once drew a circuit map and tried to hand it to one of the setters. He was as appalled as a Soviet dissident outed in Red Square – graphics were an NGA job, and he could be disciplined for handling it. Luckily we were pals; later we met furtively in the Gents where he illegally ratified my drawing with a union sticker.

There was no chance of a quick correction on screen like today; then we had long strips of galley proofs to be carefully marked and returned, followed by a two-day wait for a fresh proof. You had to plead for urgent turn-rounds, and overtime, even five minutes, had to be ratified beforehand. Any perceived transgression of union rules brought instant stoppage. Mr Tee liked that, however; disputes were his favourite hobby.

When I got there the MN reporters carried typewriters to race meetings to hammer out their report, handing it to one of the photographers to bring back on the first aeroplane with the rolls of film. Amazingly, Teesdale was a very early adopter of electronic publishing. Unfortunately no one had yet invented the laptop, so to feed the new system reporters got the latest hi-tech device – a beige plastic Amstrad PC. Lugging that to a race meeting was like taking a 1970s TV along for company.

To house the new system a section of the warehouse was partitioned off. This became known as The Games Room, where periods of intense concentration amid the furious hammering of keys would suddenly erupt into a game of office cricket with cardboard bat and ball. Deep in the slips someone conducting a phone conversation with Frank Williams would barely notice as a long drive smacked into the grubby wall above him and fell onto the dust-coated files of the 1963 MN Road Rally Championship. And when adrenalin was high there were chair races around the warehouse, where several now well-respected Formula 1 reporters honed their knowledge of castor-to-castor racecraft.

Staff

Mr Tee was generous with company cars – one secretary got a Golf GTi – but since MN was staffed mainly by eager young lads who thought they were the next Senna or Sainz, the vehicle toll was ferocious; we kept one bodyshop busy full-time straightening out Escort RS Turbos. One employee was so angry to receive a parking ticket that he did a handbrake turn into the office driveway, but was seen by a policeman who chased him inside. He was finally tracked down hiding in a lavatory.

Sad to say, there was one individual who was always the butt of some jape or other. The poor man’s lunchbox was often removed from the fridge, turning up in increasingly bizarre places, but the culmination was the day he found his box was for once still in the fridge – containing a photocopy of his sandwiches.

Off the warehouse lived The Frog (well, he looked like one), who guarded the stationery room with messianic zeal. To get a pen or sticky tape you had to show the empties. Once our secretary returned bemused from a foray for staples: having inspected the empty stapler, The Frog unlocked the room, opened a cupboard, undid a box and handed her – one row of staples. What he never realised was how easy it was to scale the room’s low walls.

It’s not widely known that MS and MN had stable-mates: there was Motor Cycle Sport, with, prophetically, a red version of the MS cover. It was run by Secret Cyril, who drifted in at noon and rarely spoke. There was Guns Review, edited by phone by an ex-policeman, which meant you might trip over an UZI machine gun in the studio being photographed. One morning the place was full of police because an escaped prisoner had broken in and stolen that month’s review guns. And there was the gloriously titled War Monthly, all about military history and run by a bandana-wearing, cycle-riding, married couple of hippy peaceniks.

At that time MS was the only place to sell interesting cars, but when annoyed readers rang complaining that cars had been sold before publication, it turned out that a member of staff was selling proof copies to dealers at £10 a throw. Another employee made use of the large basement to store the Art Deco furniture he collected, while for a period the ads department were puzzled as to why one salesman would often receive a call and disappear for an hour or two. It was only when someone else answered his ’phone that it transpired he was using his company car as a minicab. Somehow it seemed unsurprising in the strange world of Standard House, where in amongst the petty plotting, the horseplay, the bickering and the laughter, two respected magazines always reached the bookstalls on time.