ADRIAN RUSSELL: Fleet street hell raiser lived a life as dramatic as the stories he wrote

IF Fleet Street was still filled with the sound of clacking typewriter keys and the industrial whirr of print-rooms, they would have fell silent this week for a moment.

That ink-smudged world is long gone of course and this week another wonderful anachronism was lost to the newspaper world.

Peter Batt was an East End boy of Irish extraction who laid down a shovel in a 1970s building site for the last time, blagged his way on to a newsroom floor and made a name for himself: Peter the Poet.

In the most vivid of colourful lives he would develop a famous alcohol problem that would ultimately scar his life, go through jobs quicker than ring notebooks and write the first episodes of a TV a series that became Eastenders — before losing that job too.

When his former colleagues, friends and family fill the pews of the church in Molton on Monday week for Batt’s funeral, a former workmate will offer the eulogy.

I interrupt Norman Giller, who is working on his 89th book when I ring him this week. A London journalism legend in his own right, ‘Uncle Norman’ – as he signs an email to me — reported on countless top-flight English football games, proudly compiled the celebrated annual Times Sports Jumbo Crossword for 27 consecutive years and wrote the scripts on This is Your Life for over a decade.

“Peter won’t mind me telling you about all this,” he says generously, “he loved being known as a character.” And he was.

“Everybody has a Peter Batt story. The difference being that I was there as a disbelieving eyewitness. I first came across him when I was a copyboy on the (now defunct) London Evening News in the mid-1950s. One of the copytakers used to berate the reporters with: ‘Is there much more of this f****** crap …?” Meet Batty.”

Giller says his friend literally couldn’t utter a sentence without a ribbon of obscenities.

“But he got away with it. His reputation arrived ahead of him, and Peter did not disappoint us with his behaviour,” he remembered.

The pair’s paths crossed again in London’s swinging ‘60s.

“I was sitting subbing on the Daily Herald sports desk when, waving to me with a huge grin, was none other than Batty.” When a plane crashed in the Pyrenees the new reporter was dispatched.

“He got to the foothills in an inebriated condition, and when the taxi-driver dropped him as close as possible to the scene 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 carried him to a nearby convent where he was put into bed and nursed by nuns, who 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, saying: ‘Thought I’d died and woken up in ‘eaven’.”

By now crippled by drink (though Giller says Batty couldn’t get going without one) he made a name for himself as a wonderful sports writer. Colleagues said his balletic turn of phrase was testament to his Irish blood.

He needed the poetic licence when filing expenses claims as well as columns.

While working at The Sun, Batt charged for a hospitality meal with racing trainer Vincent O’Brien. An accountant noticed that the receipt that was pinned to his expenses sheet was for four people, including two children’s meals. When the sports editor queried him, Batt ad-libbed: “Well, boss, Vincent turned up with two jockeys and they were both making weight, so I ordered from the kids menu.”

Giller says his old friend was estranged from his long-suffering, German-born wife Heidi of 30 years when she at last grew weary of his alcohol-sparked mood swings.

He eventually, thankfully, clambered aboard the wagon and was reunited with his family – including now some grandkids – before his death aged 77 in recent days.

His old sportsdesk colleague said that friends from the old beat tried to help him with his drink problem but failed every time.

They eventually decided to stop socialising with him as socialising meant drinking to Batt. They’ll have one in his absence one more time however.

Giller recalled many episodes of a career riding shotgun with Batt which could fill a best-seller.

But Uncle Norman laughs quietly down the phone at the recollection of one night out many years ago: World cup hero Geoff Hurst’s testimonial dinner.

“Peter was a Dean Martin soundalike who and the memory is clear in my head of him falling blind drunk off the stage at the London Hilton while singing “My Way”.

“He got as far as ‘And now the end is near...”

“He bashed his head on landing and had no recollection of it happening.”

The police were called and the night ended in a brawl.

Yes, he did it his way.

- Contact: Twitter: @adrianrussell


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