Peter Tory: Journalist and raconteur whose irreverent eye brought colour to Fleet Street

 

Peter Tory was a journalist and raconteur who worked at the Daily Mirror, Daily Star, Daily Express and Sunday Express during his long career in newspapers. His speciality was the diary column, where he excelled at irreverently documenting both the trivial and the important – but mainly the trivial – with a sharp eye for the humorous and the quirky.

Tory was born in 1939, a month after the outbreak of the Second World War. His father, the diplomat Geofroy Tory (later Sir Geofroy), was in command of anti-aircraft cover for London Docks and went on to become a General Staff Officer. He was later High Commissioner of Malaya and Malta and ambassador to Ireland.

Tory was educated at Malvern College and had not intended to go into journalism, and often later claimed that he was not a "real journalist" at all. He trained at Rada and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company as an actor. Finding it hard to make a living, he contacted his friend, Colin Mackenzie, who introduced him to the Daily Express, where he started on the William Hickey column and worked from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s.

Peter McKay, who wrote with Tory for many years on the column, told The Independent: "Peter was a joy. He had an especially sharp eye for absurdity. I remember him reducing a roomful of friends to helpless laughter describing a boating trip off Croatia with Bob Edwards, the famous editor who died recently. Landlubber Bob insisted on captaining their small craft, although Peter was an experienced sailor. Docking in Dubrovnik, Bob ordered Peter on to the bow, ready to leap ashore with the line. Without warning he threw the engine into reverse, and Peter into the filthy harbour."

Tory recalled: "Just as I broke surface, liberally covered with fish heads and other rubbish, Bob belatedly realised his mistake and threw the engine into full steam ahead, driving me back into the murky depths. Our families had to have separate hotels for the remainder of the holiday."

The columns were full of inside jokes and anarchic humour, to the extent that even some other journalists would have trouble getting it all. "Does anyone understand Tory's column?", a puzzled Nigel Dempster, who called Tory "The Captain", once remarked. Interviewed in 1979 about the Hickey column, Tory said, "In the old days, the status of the person who featured in the story was the most important aspect of the story... Status is still important but only in so far as there is a genuine story."

Tory was then hired by the Daily Star, edited at the time by Lloyd Turner, to run his own Peter Tory diary column. During the mid-1980s the column was written by a small team consisting of Tory, Neil Mackwood and Arnie Wilson. It was an unlikely feature for a tabloid newspaper, somewhat out of place, like "a piccolo in a Rastafarian band", as Peter McKay once remarked.

Wilson remembered fondly how Tory would begin work with the words "Let's write this together", and then how "...we would sit there like a couple of schoolboys and if we laughed enough we knew we had created something that worked".

He was, says Wilson, "...undoubtedly a one-off, with a great eye and ear for odd stuff, who was mesmerised by people and their quirky habits. We all absolutely adored working for Peter."

When the management of The Star changed while Tory was on holiday and he found they had shrunk his one-page space to a mere quarter of a page retitled "Psst", he decided it was time to move on.

During the mid-1990s Tory indulged his passion for the work and life of the cartoonist Carl Giles, who had been at the Daily Express until a few years before, and whose work, like Tory, documented the oddities of everyday life. The result was a biography, Giles: A Life in Cartoons (1992), followed by The Giles Family (1993) and Giles at War (1994).

One of Tory's most entertaining stories concerned Joyce McKinney, the former Miss Wyoming who in 1977 was accused of kidnapping a Mormon missionary, chaining him to a bed for three days and raping him. Much later, Tory and McKinney became the unlikely stars of the documentary film Tabloid (2010), directed by Errol Morris. In this account of love, abduction and scandal, McKinney relives her moment of tabloid fame at the hands of Fleet Street.

The interview by Tory recalls the lurid headlines about the "Manacled Mormon" story, for which the Express had paid McKinney £40,000. "I think it was ropes, but chains sound better," Tory comments in the film, in a wry observation on the journalist's dilemma of telling the whole truth or spicing up the story.

Anthony Quinn, reviewing the film in this newpaper, called it "...an inky-fingered mixture of sex, lies, manacles and mastiffs" which "exercises the sort of fascination that leaves you feeling vaguely unclean". He noted: "Of course it's engrossing, though the point of the story is unclear."

Tory had retired to Tetbury in the Cotswolds with his partner Jacqueline Govier. He died of cancer a few days after his 73rd birthday.

Marcus Williamson

Peter Geofroy Holt Tory, journalist: born 3 October 1939; married Gwen (died 1997); partner to Jacqueline Govier; died 9 October 2012.

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