A little bit of Wimbledon History

wimbledon-tennis-logo1In the early 90s I was working for the Daily Mail in London and was fortunate enough to live in Wimbledon. The SW19 post code covers a vast area and contains both massive multi-million pound houses, situated in Wimbledon village, and modest red brick terraced houses close to the dog track. I lived in within earshot of the dogs, on the very edge of SW19. However, it was close enough to the tennis club, for me to be seconded to wimbledon for the entire fortnight. In those days everything was still shot on film and it was useful to have someone who could collect the films from the photographers, get it processed and wire the pictures to the office, rather than the photographers process the flms and wire after each match. Kodak supplied a processing machine and the staff to run it, the tennis club supplied a wire room and a restaurant and the paper provided me with expenses. It was almost a holiday.

At the time I was working on the electronic picture desk, which received all the pictures that were sent electronically to the paper. Everything was sent down standard telephone lines and the desk I worked on was similar to a receptionists switchboard with plugs and sockets. Naturally I knew all the photographers because I spoke to them when they wired their pictures in, but this was a great opportunity to work closely with them and get some insight into how they operated. Most of the guys had been going to Wimbledon for years and their was a great camaraderie between them with plenty of leg pulling and jokes. It was a ten day job for most of them and they spiced it up by bringing in cakes and beer (kept in the fridge which had been installed for the film) and applying strict dress codes – Hawaiian shirts one day, bermuda shorts another. Whilst we all worked hard, there was a very jovial atmosphere.

If you scan the media these days, you don’t often see a poor photo from a particular event. That is because the majority of photographers attending work for agencies who turn the stuff out on multiple feeds to as many media buyers as they can. When I was at the Mail, we broke the record once by taking in 74 color pictures in a single day. Now a picture desk can expect to receive thousands of photos. If there is a big sporting event, like Wimbledon or the Superbowl they might get three thousand or so pictures from that alone. However, in the 90s, it was still usual to get your pictures from your own photographers who shot exclusively for your title. This placed a huge responsibility onto the photographer. How do you choose the right end? Position yourself so that you can shoot a landscape and an upright? Where do you sit to get the best celebration picture? Being an award winning photographer was as much about luck as about photographic skill.

Of course you couldn’t be in the right place every time, yet the paper demanded the winning shot, celebration or defining moment and wouldn’t tolerate failure. And so, naturally, the photographers had an insurance system: They borrowed photos from each other. At first it only happened in times of emergency – when a film was fouled or a photographer actually missed an event ( I was once told that a photographer missed the first three weeks of a six week assignment because he was recovering from a broken arm and his office was none the wiser because his friends covered for him at all the jobs he was supposed to be doing). But after the photographers realised that the picture desks were more concerned about not missing a picture rather than getting an original image, the GANS ( Give us a Neg) system kicked in. It was particularly useful at Wimbledon, with the sixteen courts, celeb watch briefs and often having to shoot pictures for the features sections. Each title would only get a couple of photo passes and the photographers couldn’t keep up with the desks’ disjointed demands. Often the desk would call chasing a story that had originated in the wire room half an hour earlier, but had grown out of all proportion in those few minutes. Many times, even after a story was known to be completely untrue, a photographer would be dispatched to chase it up and then berated for missing something that never actually happened. So if a message came through that a Brit was about to win on one of the outer courts, the photographer ( who could only enter or leave his position at the breaks between games ) often couldn’t get there before the match was over. Then GANS would come to the rescue.

There were no laptops back then. Each paper had transported a couple of desktop Macs into the wireroom and squeezed them onto the narrow work tops. Although cutting edge technology, they were painfully slow by today’s standards. My first Mac at the Daily Mail had a 40 MB hard drive and could only run one software at a time. Once the negatives were processed, we had to scan them in on bulky kodak scanners one frame at a time, caption and crop them and save them onto a disk. We then swapped the disk into another mac, which we used exclusively for wiring into the office. The whole process took about 3 minutes per negative.

tennis player jeremy bates 1992   We were in full flow one afternoon when all the phones in the wireroom started to ring at once. It was the picture desks. British player Jeremy Bates had just beaten Micheal Chang, was our guy there? Why didn’t we know? When would we find out? When would we get the pictures? A couple of the wire guys set off to find out who was at Court No2 and if there was any film to bring back. We busily kept their scanners and wire machines going and the kodak guys held off developing any more film, anticipating a rush job.

A few minutes later they arrived, flustered, with two rolls of film. Two photographers were with Bates, one at each end. They arrived a few minutes later, to speak to their desks and monitor their film as it went through the machine. Other photographers started to come in, having seen the screens around the courts and knowing that they had some begging to do. They huddled around their two new best friends not quite asking for a negative, but making sure that there was something available to satisfy their picture editors. The two photographers pinned themselves protectively against the Kodak machine and the Kodak guys kept their eyes on their processor with fixed concentration. We wiremen just kept our heads down, having each told our desks that we were ‘ working on it’.

Finally the processing machines spewed out the films and the Kodak guys hung them up to dry. The photographers quickly took the squeegees that hung next to the machines, swept off the excess in a single movement and stepped to the closest lightbox, their colleagues hovering nervously at their shoulders. Between them they had it all – the winning shots, the celebrations and a desolate Chang.

Then it was a question of carving up the spoils. There were a dozen pictures, we had eight scanners. The two photographers ensured that their wiremen had the best pics and we had a share of the rest. Deadlines were approaching and we had to get the pictures in. The scanners all completed their frames within seconds of each other and we took out the negatives to hand them on in true GANs style. We had just loaded our new negatives into the holders and were swapping over our floppy disks between our scanning Macs and wiring Macs, when one of the Kodak guys cleared his throat and said ” why are you scanning them in again? Why don’t you just swap the disks?”

We just looked at each other for a moment and handed the disks over to each other, getting all the pictures away in half the time. The picture desks were happy, we shared the beers and GANs was now GADs and had entered the digital age.

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Long to reign over us…..

The Queen is quite rightly embarking on a year of celebrations to mark her 60 years on the throne.

Queen Elizabeth with her husband, The Duke of Edinburgh, and her heirs, Charles and William

The Firm : Queen Elizabeth with her husband, The Duke of Edinburgh, and her heirs, Charles and William

She has seen off eleven british prime ministers, attended thousand of sporting events, and probably covered every inch of the UK during her reign. Her consistency has been remarkable. Essentially at the beck and call of the government, she hasn’t put a foot wrong whilst those around her – politicians, family members and flunkies have burned in the heat of public admonishment. It would be fair to say that the monarchy in general and Queen Elizabeth in particular has been a steadying hand on the tiller of British politics and politics in the Commonwealth. She has been a constant in a world of revolution and disharmony.

The House of Lords, the epitome of the class system.

Hardly progressive - The House of Lords, the epitome of the class system.

Of course she shouldn’t really be there should she? The monarchy is the cornerstone of  aristocracy – the system whereby holding power is hereditary and the elite maintain themselves through control of Law, Church and State. The royal family is at the apex of this class system. When Hitler talked of the thousand year reich, he could well have been looking across the channel to England, where many of the most powerful families can trace their fortunes back to William the Conqueror. Whilst many of the trappings of aristocracy have been swept away, the fundamentals of the system remain, and the Windsors are the epitome of hereditary power. For whilst the Queen seems to be impotent, her influence goes through the heart of society like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock. Her constitutional powers may be limited, but she does have the right to dissolve parliament and dismiss the Prime Minister. Indeed, her official role now could be seen as to protect the people from any excesses of government. She is the defender of the people. Don’t think it couldn’t happen. Gough Whitlam was removed from office in Australia in 1975 by the Governor-General, the Queen’s man in Canberra.

So a hereditary monarch with such sweeping power should be the very antithesis of a modern democracy. Surely any right-thinking citizen should call for her removal and the destruction of all she represents. But that would only work if the system could be replaced by something better. Granted, if we were starting afresh with a clean sheet of paper, we wouldn’t contemplate such a system. An elected head of state would be an obvious choice, in a meritocracy with an informed and unselfish electorate. However, in a state where public opinion is formed by headlines and sound bites and the money in our pockets today trumps any thought of tomorrow, having a constant at the heart of government who can influence and restrain the fickle, attention-loving politicians is invaluable.

As a republican with a huge respect for the queen, I want to have my cake and eat it. We should abolish the Monarchy for an elected head of state. I think we should all vote for Mrs Elizabeth Windsor.


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Three cheers for Theodora Dallas


The Juror imprisoned for checking Google should be applauded

There is no surprise that the full weight of the law has crashed down on Theodora Dallas. A court of law is one of the few places where knowledge is still power. The ridiculous idea that the legal profession knows what is best and should be allowed to continue unquestioned and unchallenged must be maintained, otherwise where would it all end?

Henry Fonda in the film 'Twelve Angry Men'

Boy, would he have been in trouble....Henry Fonda in the film 'Twelve Angry Men'

I have been on two juries and I have been amazed at what the advocats are allowed the get away with. Essentially they are allowed to lie by omission. In the cases I heard, both prosecution and defence did their best to put their own points of view as unquestionable facts and reduce the opposing views by undermining and smearing. Neither seemed remotely interested in the truth or, for that matter, in their clients. Winning the case was the point. The only point.

So what is a juror to do? I sat there, bewildered, knowing less at the end of the cases than I knew at the beginning. Were they guilty? I don’t know. Fortunately both cases fell through, but I think I would probably just have gone with the flow…

This is a tragedy. Not least because in my experience jurors are desperate to take their responsibilities seriously. They may have resented the call and have done whatever to get out of it, but once selected, they see this as a very important civil duty and are determined to complete it to their best ability. Sadly, after only a few hours of advocacy, they start to realise what they are up against. These lawyers are not here to fathom the truth of the case, they are here to bamboozle and obfuscate. Disinformation rules. They call irrelevant witnesses, yet avoid ones who could establish facts that they do not want heard. They focus on elements which could not possibly have any bearing and skip over real issues. They control the distribution of knowledge as if it were gold in a miser’s purse.  That is their job.

The idea that justice would be tainted if jurors knew the full facts is both patronising and laughable. Justice is tainted by jurors being spoonfed half-truths by the lawyers. The idea that jurors should only be allowed to know what they lawyers tell them about a case gives the lawyers a power they should never have had. When the jury system began, there was no hint that the jury should operate in this kind of vacuum, because it would have been impossible. This was a time when a town might have 10,000 inhabitants, travel was limited and everyone knew each other. When the judge came to town and the court was established, the case would be well known, the victim would be known, the accused would probably be known and the jury would have good idea if he ( or she ) had done it. The main idea behind the British jury system was that people were being judged by their peers – that society as a whole was deciding their fate – not some whimsical monarch, or magistrate. Lawyers withholding facts from the decision makers was never the intention.

So three cheers for Theodore Dallas. An academic trained to question and probe, there is no surprise that she found being spoon-fed by these officers of justice intolerable. Let’s bring back the idea that the legal system should first establish the truth before moving on to justice. Allow jurors to do their own research, indeed encourage it. Then allow them to have questions asked on their behalf so that they can get to the bottom of a case. Juries are the sole representatives of the people in a court room. They should hold the most power.



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What is it about Star Wars?

Did George Lucas know what he was doing?


When he sold the idea to shoot a film of cowboys in space, did George Lucas really guess that his creation would last so long, burned into the psyche of western culture? So often parodied and belittled, it still holds together generations of film fans in much the same way a generation will always have Top of the Pops, Wham summer or the penny black.

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Tom Harris’s downfall

I am afraid Ego got the better of you here, Tom


I am sure it raised a laugh in the Westminster village where they have heard of Joan McAlpine, but it meant nothing to nearly everyone else. Too much navel gazing, I am afraid. Certainly not worth losing your position as the Labour party’s internet advisor. Still, I always find that if you hark back to the war, you are on pretty safe ground…..



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