Diary of a somebody

Style, cheek and a nose for news: Sholto Byrnes raises a glass to the late, great Ross Benson

Long before the 3am Girls had eclipsed John Pilger, Paul Foot and William Connor as the public faces of the
Daily Mirror, before the newsagents' shelves began to groan under the multiplying bibles of celebrity trash, in the days (if one can believe they existed) when the English edition of
Hello! magazine was a mere twinkle in the Marquesa's eye, gossip had a more stylish face. Staring out of the pages of the
Daily Express, jaw tilting determinedly upwards, the face was that of Ross Benson, who died last week.

Long before the 3am Girls had eclipsed John Pilger, Paul Foot and William Connor as the public faces of the Daily Mirror, before the newsagents' shelves began to groan under the multiplying bibles of celebrity trash, in the days (if one can believe they existed) when the English edition of Hello! magazine was a mere twinkle in the Marquesa's eye, gossip had a more stylish face. Staring out of the pages of the Daily Express, jaw tilting determinedly upwards, the face was that of Ross Benson, who died last week.

Even then, in the late Eighties, the Express trailed the Daily Mail in the middle market, but the paper bearing the Crusader on its masthead was still a contender, and the two big beasts in the diary-column jungle were Benson of the Express and Nigel Dempster in the Mail. Other diaries had charm, such as The Daily Telegraph's Peterborough column, with its tales of ancient colonels in the country and mischief in St James's clubs: others paced a more metropolitan beat, like the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary.

But for proper society gossip it was Benson and Dempster. No footballers' wives, thank you (although Ross did ghostwrite George Best's autobiography). Titles were all, never mind how shadowy their lineage, and if there was a connection to royalty, so much the better.

In many ways it was a ludicrous world, populated by aristocrats of heroic obscurity such as Lord Teviot, whose only achievement was to be simultaneously an old Etonian and a former bus-driver. The slightest excuse - taking a cookery course, for instance - was enough to justify printing a few lines about a well-connected young lady if she was pretty enough to make a picture story.

Ross himself strutted about the office in his beautifully cut suits, openly preening and patting his hair. He was quite open about his vanity. One time, recalls his then deputy John McEntee, a friend saw Ross through the window of a restaurant. The friend thought that Ross was waving at him at his table, so he waved back. After a while, however, he realised that Ross wasn't signalling at him at all - he was using the window as a mirror to check his hair.

As a young reporter 10 years ago, spending a few months working on the Express diary, I thought Ross quite the most glamorous and louche journalist I'd encountered. His nickname, "the James Bond of Fleet Street", seemed very apt. Sure, other diary columnists called him "Dross Benson" (just as Peterborough became "Peterbore" and Dempster was known as "Dumpster"), but his name opened doors like no other. Queuing outside a then-fashionable Fulham Road nightclub which was celebrating its first birthday, I remember reporters from other gossip columns being turned away. As soon as I'd uttered the words: "I'm here for Ross Benson," the velvet rope parted and a glass of champagne was in my hand. Society hostesses of a certain age were fond of Dempster; they felt something more visceral for Ross.

Quite often when I'd go in, Ross would be giving an interview, either to camera or down the phone, usually about the royals. "Well, this will be very distressing for the Queen Mother," he would begin, producing a five-minute stream of immaculate phrases demonstrating his intimate knowledge of the Queen Mum's state of mind. I used to think: how does he know all this? It struck me after a while that maybe Ross didn't really know, but was very good at pretending he did. I was only all the more impressed. The pretence - allied, it must be admitted, to a degree of expertise - served him well. "Mrs Benson and I get down on our bended knee every night and thank God for the madness of the Princess of Wales," McEntee recalls him saying.

This was an old-fashioned sphere of society, where it was crucial to know who Roddy Llewellyn was, who else partied in Mustique, and just how Prince Ernst Augustus of Hanover was related to the House of Windsor. Attitudes on the column were similarly old-fashioned. One day, Ross made it clear that he had something to get off his chest. Referring to the picture stories, which were somewhat less delicately named at the Express, he announced: "It's been far too long since anyone on the diary shagged one of our caption-shags". The male reporters were left in no doubt what their duty as his employees was.

If all this makes Ross sound like a relic from another age (as James Bond was too, let us not forget), he had a saving grace - a sense of the ridiculous. He knew it was a game. This was a man who had covered the Russian invasion of Afghanistan for the Express, so was well able to put an altercation at Annabel's in perspective, no matter how dramatically he would write the story up.

I once put this sense of the ridiculous to the test, deciding to write up a tale he had given me, of a Marquess's daughter who had fallen out of a bunk bed while sleepwalking in the most ludicrous manner I could. "For Lady Alice," I wrote, by way of explaining this tragic accident, "was a somnambulist, one of that unfortunate army of souls for whom the distinction between day and night is eternally blurred." It went straight in. Although he never said so, I liked to think that Ross was in on the joke.

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