The proprietor: a tale that chills the blood

Our hero returned from the fleshpots of Los Angeles to simple rural England. He had a stack of money and all he wanted was a newspaper. That was where his problems began. Neil Lyndon tells his own story
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An old friend, an excellent journalist, called last week to say that she and her husband were thinking about buying a local paper in the West Country. He would edit; she would run the business; they would buy a cottage, send their children to village primary schools and turn their backs on the cruel business of hacking a media living in London. What did I think?

"I think you ought to be locked up for your own safety," I said. "In my experience, you might as well chuck your money off Chelsea Bridge as put it into a local paper."

Ten years ago, I became the owner and publisher of The Deben Journal, a weekly paper in Woodridge, Suffolk where I have lived for nearly 20 years. Six months later, the paper had closed, the company was in liquidation and I had lost about pounds 70,000.

The wounds have healed now from the carving-up to which I submitted myself. The rustic dream that turned into a nightmare no longer keeps me awake at night. Even so, I would recommend any friend to choose three years in boot camp rather than fall for the fantasy of owning a local paper.

In the summer of 1986, after two years in Los Angeles during which I was earning more than the editor of the Sunday Times, I got paid off with a breeze-block of dollars for ghosting the autobiography of Dr Armand Hammer, Robert Maxwell's hero, Politburo agent and Great Satan of American capitalism. While the book went to Number One on both sides of the Atlantic, I took the wad home to Suffolk.

For the first time, at the age of 40, I had more cash than I needed. That made me, also for the first time in my life, a focus of interest for men who needed cash desperately.

The Deben Journal had started in the early Eighties as a fortnightly community newspaper, staffed by part-timers and equipped with an office pencil and a jar of Nescafe. In 1985, a new owner had installed a new managing director, a man in his late twenties who had previously worked for Anglia television. He liked to be called Johnny. His surname was Hustler. No fooling: that was and is his name. Johnny Hustler: it ought to be a song.

These two decided to make the paper a direct competitor with the free weekly produced by the East Anglian Daily Times, one of the most successful provincial companies in the country. Hustler hired full-time advertising sales reps and leased new cars for them and a Saab for himself. He kitted out the offices with computers and drove up an overdraft at the bank.

All flash, no cash. The Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise were both owed money, along with other weaker creditors, such as local taxi companies. Just when I came swanking along with my Californian boodle, Hustler and the other directors were at risk of trading insolvently and facing foreclosure from the bank on their personal guarantees.

I loved the idea of owning a local paper that my family might take over. Having travelled the world with Armand Hammer, the century's greatest con-artist, I did not feel I could come to harm in a sleepy Suffolk market- town. My accountant and solicitor warned me that The Deben Journal smelt bad. I ignored them, sure that I knew better and sure that Hustler was a brick. He told me so. He had a Union flag beside his desk and photographs of himself on hunters on his desk. He said that his business principle was "a gentleman's word is his bond". Doubting him would have been like distrusting Albion.

Hustler admitted that the paper had been making losses, but he produced sheaves of computer pie-charts and cash-flow projections showing how the business could be made profitable by changing from a free to a paid-for newspaper. Ten years ago, we did not all understand that a computer pie- chart can substantiate a fantasy as easily as it can show the truth. The figures looked fair. I believed them.

After I took over the company, paying off debts and giving the directors a penny each for their shares, Hustler remained for four months as manager, producing on his Compaq to show that more money was needed at the same time as the company's fortunes were improving - "about to wash its face", as he would say, "shame to spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar", all that low-grade commercial cant.

Only when he had been released from his contract and his bank guarantee, only after he had joined the East Anglian, our rival, as sales director, only when the accounts clerk and I got a pad and a pencil and added up all the company's routine costs did I see that his graphs were baloney. He had even taken the revenues from one issue into a month's accounts without including its costs. Within a week of his leaving the office, it was obvious that I would have to pay pounds 2,000 a week to keep the paper going. I would be bankrupt. I could even be at risk myself of prosecution for insolvent trading. The liquidator was called. He pronounced the company "hopelessly insolvent" within 40 minutes.

I crawled back to California to get another contract with Hammer. He ate up the story of my failure and, for the next two years, constantly asked me to remind him.

"What was the name of that son-of-a-bitch?" he would ask.

"Hustler," I would mutter into my hand.

"Hustler!" he hooted. "Tell me, do you think you might have hesitated if he'd been called Son of a Bitch?"n