Thursday, September 12, 2013

Linda Duff RIP

2013 will for me always be a year of tragedy. I will never forget the terrible loss of my niece in Ireland – an event too painful to write about. I also attended another funeral in Ireland and have since heard of the death of the father of a close friend and lost two friends I knew in England. 

The latest is a remarkable woman and journalist, Linda Duff, with whom I worked for several years while employed by the Daily Star in the 1990s.
I became friends with Linda after she was appointed Pop Editor and Columnist. I had been running the Star’s Pop Desk for a bit, before moving to a job on the Showbiz Desk, while a full-time Pop Columnist was found.

I recall it was the then Radio One disc jockey Simon Bates who recommended Linda, and after she started she made a remarkable difference.

Like the other tabloid pop columnists at the time (Piers Morgan, Rick Sky and so on), I focused on interviewing charts acts (setting up the interviews through PR people) and, occasionally, featuring a Golden Oldie, like The Who, Status Quo or other pop veterans such as Elton John. 

When Linda Duff took over, she took a radically different approach, focusing on the “Next Big Thing” – unknown names who she knew personally and went on to become stars, Take That, Westlife, The Spice Girls, Blur and The Manic Street Preachers among them.
Simon Cowell was a friend of Linda and in a sense she was a bit like him in that she sought out new talent rather than focusing on one-hit wonders acts or the old boys. 

This was a courageous approach by a national newspaper. But it meant that when she was right, she was in on the ground floor.

I was a traditionally trained hack, having attended a post-graduate journalism course, been indentured to a local newspaper and passed my National Council for the Training of Journalists proficiency test. So, I was fascinated and astonished in equal measure by the way in which Linda Duff appeared to operate. 

I would watch her interview someone on the phone and observe her only writing the odd word, often on a piece of scrap paper or the back of an envelope. As someone who took a note in shorthand, this seemed incredible to me. Yet, from her handful of key words, scores of paragraphs of vibrant Star copy would soon flow.
She would come in with her photographer and then partner, a giant of a man known as The Bear, at around midday, produce her column and sometimes another feature by 6pm and then set off into the night to find new talent and stories. The Bear was essential to the operation. He kept Linda company through thick and thin and took some remarkable, unusual pictures of up-and-coming pop stars.
I sat about four feet from Linda in the Star’s office, then at Blackfriars Bridge in London, and there was a constant stream of repartee betwixt our desks. At one point, Linda stocked her desk with bottles of spirits and mixers and, after lunch, she would serve up gin and tonic – gratis – at my desk. 

Indeed, she was incredibly generous. On one occasion, I met her and her boyfriend in the Doggett’s Coat and Badge bar across the road from the office. When I entered, she said to The Bear: “Order a magnum of Champagne for Ollie”. A magnum of Champagne duly appeared and a very jolly time ensued.
When someone you know well dies, it is interesting to see what is written about them. One major piece that appeared online about Linda focused on her time before working for the Star. 

Of course I knew she had worked for the Daily Mirror, before joining the Daily Star, and I think she mentioned working for Smash Hits, but it was interesting to learn that she had started her career working for a Irish music magazine called Hot Press, starting as an advertising sales girl and becoming a writer. I was also interested to learn she was 53 when she died. I had always assumed she was younger than me. She was always so full of joie de vivre.
In those days, the Star was a bit Wild West in its working practices, but Linda was tough enough to thrive in that atmosphere. On one occasion, a senior executive was miffed with me for a reason lost in the mists of time and Linda espied him tearing down the office, clearly intoxicated. 

Quick as a flash, she said: “Get under your desk, Ollie!” I slipped under my desk and pulled in the seat. The ranting executive arrived and shouted: “Where the f*** is Ollie?” Linda replied that she had not seen me, and the executive grabbed her by the lapels and started shaking her. Linda quickly sent him into retreat and when I emerged from under my desk we fell about laughing like idiots.

And how could I forget the time when Linda introduced me at a party to a young musician called Robbie Williams with whom I took on like a house on fire. A wild drunken evening with Robbie ensued.

Linda adored her wine. I love the story told by one of her team who went on to be a big noise on the now-defunct Screws of the World. When he joined the Rave column, Linda took him out to lunch at a posh London restaurant. As is traditional, the wine arrived for Linda to taste. She ignored the glass and instead looked at the label. "Thirteen percent alcohol," she said to the amazed waiter, "that'll be grand. Two bottles please!"

Another memorable occasion happened after I complained to Linda that she was not taking the three to four hour boozy lunchbreak enjoyed by the showbiz team. She and The Bear came in early one day and took me out to lunch at a Jewish restaurant in London's jewellery quarter, Hatton Garden. 

Somehow or other, during the proceedings, I managed to completely split the trousers of my suit. The rest of the day was hilariously spent with me trying literally cover up this fact with Linda, upon our return to the Star office, making more and more improbable excuses as to why I could not leave my desk to attend meetings. 

I also fondly recall that Linda was very taken with a band called Sultans of Ping F.C. who had a hit called Where's Me Jumper? At her desk she would sing the chorus which went: "Dancing at the disco, Bumper to bumper, Wait a minute, Where's me jumper? Where's me jumper? Where's me jumper? Where's me jumper? Where's me jumper? Where's me jumper? Oh, no!" 

Linda and The Bear persuaded me to go to see the band in a clarty, black-walled venue in Islington. After the mandatory bucket of booze, Linda and I worked our way to the front of the crowd and were pogoing as the group played Where's Me Jumper? When the lead singer first sang the chorus, in a moment of inspiration I ripped off me jumper and threw it at him, yelling: "Here it is!" It landed on his head, shrouding his face. He kept it! It was a good jumper.    
Her passing brings back so many memories of a halcyon time in my life when everything seemed so care free. But nothing lasts for ever. I decided to take voluntary redundancy from the Star in 1995, wanting a change. 

Remarkably for a work colleague, Linda kept in touch. She was promoted to Features Editor – a role more senior and very different from her previous one. Even so, she spared the time to fax me cuttings to help with articles I was writing for other publications.  

After she was made redundant from the Star, we saw each.  We met at The Dome in Islington for lunch and she told me how disenchanted she was with her new role developing programme ideas for a pop TV production company. 
When that contract ended, she turned her hand to finding and managing talent. I was invited to dinner with her and The Bear at their penthouse flat in Islington and to meet a young singer she was had taken onto her books. The singer seemed very pleasant but I could not for the life of me think how I was going to help make her a star.
A little later, Linda took on a musical comedy double act who she persuaded me to put on at my outlandish Stoke Newington comedy club, Joe’s Comedy Madhouse. They were brilliant! It was an amazing evening. She ended up taking them to the Edinburgh Fringe.
I bumped into her in Edinburgh one August. She was promoting the act; The Bear was playing in a band. He was a remarkably good guitar player, I thought, after seeing him perform at Edinburgh’s Café Royal.
As time went on, I guess Linda found the going tough, as happened to so many of us Star redundees. The penthouse Islington flat went. She moved to a place up in Enfield or somewhere similar, which she told me was rough. 

The Bear, she said, was glad to have got a job as a night watchman at the Imperial War Museum. Her relationship with him eventually fell apart.
The last time I met Linda Duff she took me to a music club in London’s Tin Pan Alley – Denmark Street, a mecca of guitar shops and muso hang-outs near Centre Point. A great band was playing, she was drinking huge glasses of wine, looked happy. Linda was in her element. 

A cheeky stand-up comedian I knew, who later became pretty successful, happened to be in the club and made a pass at Linda, but she wasn’t interested. 
I heard later that Linda had gone back to Ireland. Someone told me was managing a nightclub with a sister. I often wondered what became of her but, as happens so often in modern life, I did not track her down or get in touch. Now it is too late.
She was buried in Dublin last Saturday. Linda will be remembered for her kindness and generosity, her love of life and desire to live to the max. 

Linda Duff was a one-off.

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Blogger The Poet Laura-eate said...

Sometimes I worry for stars that burn too brightly. Perhaps they just use up too much fuel and can't sustain themselves.

Friday, 13 September, 2013  
Blogger Steerforth said...

That's a fantastic piece and a lovely tribute.

Wednesday, 18 September, 2013  

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