I was a Fleet Street journalist during its golden age. I am known for what the UK Press Gazette nominated as one of the top ten scoops of the twentieth century – finding escaped great train robber Ronnie Biggs in Brazil in 1974 while I was an intrepid reporter on the Daily Express. My memoir, Pressing My Luck, written in lockdown and released in November 2020, reveals a truly varied and fascinating career in which I worked on gossip columns, as a foreign correspondent and on the news desk. I spent the last 23 years of my work life combining my two passions and became a horse racing correspondent, first on the Racing Post when it launched in 1985 and finally on the Daily Mail.
A bit of my background. In 1964 I graduated from Oriel College, Oxford, and landed a trial on The Daily Express (the top selling middle market paper of the day). Having been turned down by fifteen provincial papers this was my last attempt at securing work as a journalist. Cut to ten years later and I had the scoop of the decade. I found Ronnie Biggs in Brazil – published in ‘The Express’ newspaper – and told his story in a best selling book: Ronald Biggs THE MOST WANTED MAN which was translated into ten languages.
This is me at 40.44 on a BBC documentary talking about Biggs https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b036tln3
Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber who escaped from Wandsworth prison in July 1965, came into my life courtesy of my neighbour Constantine Benckendorff. He had been back packing round South America in 1973 when he chanced upon a man calling himself Michael Haynes. This was the identity Biggs “borrowed” from a friend when he eluded the Australian police four years earlier. By now he was running out of money and ideas. It was stressful not having legal papers. So he asked Conti to find a journalist willing to do his story. It is bingo for the me. Until it nearly went wrong – thanks to Daily Express Editor Iain McColl and Scotland Yard.
As a New York correspondent for The Daily Express in 1973 I went on tour with Led Zeppelin. I can be seen in the film The Song Remains The Same, about to get on their private jet with them. I’m the only man wearing a tie amongst all the hippy rockers. I fear this assignment was wasted on me!
I met the members of the Led Zeppelin group in July 1973 when I was invited onto their Starship Boeing 707 to fly from Newark, New Jersey, to Pittsburgh where they were performing in the Three Rivers baseball stadium. The plane was full of jacuzzis and double bedrooms and it was an astonishing experience of rock stardom. On the plane I chatted to Robert Plant who was eloquent and charming. I was in the sixth (of 12) stretch limos as we made our way from Pittsburgh airport to the stadium. It was like being in a Presidential motorcade. I liked Robert Plant, the lead singer, even if I didn’t care much for their music. This was largely because I was marooned on stage with them for three and a half hours, unable to escape the enormous sound systems looming 100ft above me.
Racing and the Queen and the Queen Mother
During my racing years met Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the sport’s keenest fans as well as the Queen and the Queen Mother. I had the great privilege, through my job as racing correspondent for the Daily Mail to rub shoulders with the Queen and the Queen Mother. My wife Linda and I had a ten minute chat with the Queen Mother in the dining room of the Ascot racecourse Trustees. She was 91 and yet very aware of everything. For example she blocked the entreaties of a Channel Four executive who was begging her to use her influence to ditch the BBC contract at Ascot in favour of his employers. No joy. She and discussed how expensive it is to have racehorses in training.
Double page feature in The Racing Post 7th March 2021 about Pressing My Luck.
The Field review.
The Daily Mail’s Roger Alton gave me a fabulous review for my book. Click on Bathtub to read the review.
The Daily Telegraph review by Marcus Armytage who won the Grand National as an amateur jockey in 1990. He is now their racing correspondent.
Tales from the halcyon days of Fleet Street and tracks around the country never fail to entertainA few weeks ago I was bemoaning the fact that one knock-on effect of the pandemic was a lack of racing books this Christmas but Colin Mackenzie who, for the last 20 years of his career as a …www.telegraph.co.uk
Also Mike Cattermole gave the book a favourable review https://www.sportinglife.com/racing/news/symonds-frankie-and-moore-success/187518 on the Sporting Life.com website.
The Sun’s Lorraine Kelly said the book was a great read https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/13518967/tom-cruise-rant-lorraine-kelly/
Lovely review from Emily Horan from Hello Magazine Dec 2020.
I spoke comedian Matt Forde and presenter Alice Levine on Wordery’s “British Scandal” (on most podcast sites) about Ronnie Biggs on 29th March 2023.
I spoke to Daily Mail crime writer Stephen Wright for the Beyond Reasonable Doubt podcast on 19 August 2021. Listen to the episode Finding Ronnie: The hunt for the Great Train Runner.
Howard Huges from Talk Radio interview on 25 April 2021.
This is my interview with Russ Kane & Phil Dave from The Daily Show. 30th April 2021
This is my interview with Olly Smith with The Media Lunch Club on my stories throughout my career.
This is me being interviewed by my three daughters, Tara, Georgia, and Cate. Part 1.