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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • 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

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

Guru Careers: Business Analyst / Digital Business Analyst

£50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Business Analyst / Digital Bus...

Guru Careers: Business Development Manager / Sales

£30 - 40k (£65k Y1 OTE Uncapped): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Business Deve...

Guru Careers: Graduate Media Assistant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an ambitious and adaptable...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before