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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Australia vs New Zealand live
cricket Follow over-by-over coverage as rivals New Zealand and Australia face off
Sport
Hamilton runs down the back straight in the rain
F1
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
Life and Style
Researchers found that just 10 one-minute swill-and-spit sessions are enough to soften tooth enamel and make teeth vulnerable to erosion
health
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Regent Street Cinema’s projection room in the 1920s
film
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Ashdown Group: .NET Developer : ASP.NET , C# , MVC , web development

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits - see advert: Ashdown Group: .N...

Guru Careers: 3D Package Designer / 3D Designer

£25 - 30K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an exceptional 3D Package Designer / 3...

Guru Careers: Interior Designer

£Competitive: Guru Careers: We are seeking a strong Middleweight / Senior Inte...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing