John McEntee — ‘the Chancer from Cavan’, as he bills himself — has enjoyed a long career as a gossip columnist on various national newspapers. Gossip is thirsty work, and in the anecdotes that comprise the bulk of his memoirs he is almost invariably ‘well-refreshed’. That can also be dangerous.
He recalls, for example, attempting to introduce himself to Eve Pollard, who was then editor of the Sunday Mirror, in the bar of the Grand Hotel at the 1989 Labour party conference in Brighton. Pollard was talking at the time to Bruce Anderson, who told him, ‘Fuck off, potato head.’ McEntee responded by whipping off Anderson’s spectacles, and Anderson took a blind swing at him, which landed on Pollard’s bosom. This woke up Anthony Bevins, the political editor of the Independent, who threw a punch at Anderson which also landed on Pollard’s bosom, and began a mêlée involving Keith Waterhouse and a drunken Alastair Campbell, who had until then been playing the bagpipes.
Later, when McEntee wrote about the incident in the Oldie, ‘Brucie’, as he calls Anderson, denied having called him ‘potato head’: ‘I called you a famine dodger.’ This is a helpful clarification, but the story, though quite funny, is still not altogether convincing. Nor are many of his other stories, most of which are not remotely funny.
McEntee claims to have been a friend of the actor Richard Harris, who told him in an interview for the Irish Press that he had sent his teenage son to rehab, but asked him to keep it off the record. McEntee agreed, then sold the information to the Daily Star for £30. Harris sued, and in court McEntee made, as he remembers it, ‘a shifty and unconvincing witness’, which has the ring of truth.
When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979, McEntee was assigned to cover a Mass for the sick at Knock. The Mass was reserved for invalids and their families, so he rented a wheelchair and had himself wheeled to the altar, where he was surrounded by people on life support. He was blessed by the Pope, but — and this is the punchline — his bladder was bursting because before pretending to be disabled he had drunk half a gallon of Guinness.
Then there was the time he managed to get all the young women in Harrods perfume department sacked by suggesting in print that they might be moonlighting as prostitutes. Or the occasions when he annoyed the elderly and ennobled novelists P.D. James and Ruth Rendell with his rudeness and stupidity: ‘Good-time girls they were not.’ Or when he addressed Sir Trevor McDonald as a ‘little monkey’. Or when he was sacked from the Times diary after being discovered to have been billing for stories from a fictional contributor. Shameful stuff, even for the Street of Shame.
I’m Not One to Gossip, But… is relentlessly unedifying: ‘We had a snog and a fumble,’ he recalls of a youthful romance, ‘followed by full-blown sex up against the boiler in a shed at the back of our bedsit.’ It is astonishingly badly written: ‘He looked at John and I’; ‘chartered a course’; ‘lionised by the usual circling meteorites of literary female totty’. It contains factual errors too tedious to mention, other than that, shockingly for such a dedicated drinker, he thinks that ‘Châteauneuf-de-Pape’ [sic] is a claret. To price this mucky farrago at £18.99 is frankly outrageous.