I cried myself to sleep Tuesday night.
As I was winding down, checking the Internet before shutting my eyes shortly before midnight, I logged onto Facebook. It was from a post by his daughter Tash that I learned of the passing of my larger than life best friend of 40-plus years, Dave Banks, a legendary journalist in his native England as well as New York City and Australia. After a short hospital stay combating pneumonia, Dave died peacefully in his sleep at home Tuesday, nine days after his 74th birthday.
It was a miracle several times over he lived that long, a gift all of his friends, and he had many, cherished. No need to relate all the illnesses that would have toppled a weaker man over the last quarter century. Better to recall a life lived large with lots of humor and friendships.
In the composite manner of journalists the world over, he was at one time a prodigious drinker. A large man, over 6’4” and more than 280 pounds, or 20 stones if my assessment is correct, Dave never revealed to me an equally prodigious appetite. Indeed, to Gilda and me he was a dainty eater, very neat and cultured, a baker, soup maker, gardener of flowers and vegetables and even a chicken farmer in the cottage he and Gemma, his wife of 46 years, moved into in the quaint northern English village of Crookham, after he retired from the rush of London-based journalism.
Crookham is just miles from the Scottish border, an area where Dave spent part of his youth. He became part of the local pub scene, usually the Red Lion Inn in nearby Milfield, where he shared many a pint with an assortment of characters he lovingly and amusingly populated in his self-started Internet chronicle of Northumberland country life, Voice of the North.
Dave was not a high brow journalist. He had an intense understanding of what interests the common man and woman and how a newspaper could transmit to them the essential information they needed to evaluate politicians and happenings that affected them.
He displayed his talent on three continents. He held editors titles at Britain’s Daily Mirror, the New York Post, then back to England for The Sun. He returned to New York as editor of The Daily News before embarking on a five year stint in Australia at The Australian and the Sydney Daily Telegraph. Back in England he led the Mirror.
Dave branched out into electronic media in the 1990s. He hosted talk radio formats on LBC and Talk Radio UK. For a short time he also hosted a half hour cable show from inside a pub. Gilda and I appeared as guests for one telecast, providing an American take on the legality of shooting a home intruder.
We met Dave and the diminutive Gemma (maybe 5’3,” 115 pounds) when our son Dan was about 12 months old. Their daughter Natasha, (Tash or Tasha as she usually is called), was about six weeks younger. Though our back yards abutted, we were oblivious to each other until a neighbor, reasoning that two journalists might have something in common, introduced us at her daughter’s third birthday party. The party was a real bore, but the friendship she originated has lasted for more than 40 years across three continents.
Dave was one of Rupert Murdoch’s imports, brought to the States to spunk up The Post with tabloid tastes that now seem ordinary but back in 1979-80 were viewed as racy and sensational. Sitting in his living room drinking wine that first day after the party was over, I remember Gilda bemoaning the vulgarity of Post headlines. I commented that the one I liked best for its temerity and rakishness was, “Ted Campaigns Near Mary Jo’s Grave.” Still, I cautioned Gilda that we shouldn’t criticize The Post until we found out in more detail what Dave did for the paper. Without missing a beat Dave informed us that though he did not write my favorite headline, it was his job to compose, or approve, the headlines for the first six pages of each day’s paper!
What followed was a decades-long discussion of the merits of popular vs. elitist journalism and a friendship, a love, between two couples that has survived the Banks’ meanderings back to England, several years in Australia, a return to London, another stay in White Plains to help run The Daily News, a final return to London for a multi-media career in print, radio and cable television.
My mind is racing with stories about Dave’s exploits, both practical jokes and tabloid journalism exclusives. Dave’s claim to fame, or infamy, includes running pictures of a pregnant Princess Diana at the beach, for which his British paper, The Sun, had to apologize and did so by running the offending pictures again, and his authorizing the placement of a camera that captured photos of Princess Diana working out inside a London gym, a deed that led other news outlets to stake out his home with round-the-clock cameras. Gemma was not a happy camper after that turn of the camera lens.
As he was being rushed by ambulance to hospital in March 2002, Dave’s mobile phone rang. Inside the ambulance Gemma answered her husband’s phone. The BBC wanted to get his reaction to the death of The Queen Mother. Gemma calmly related it was not a good time for Dave to talk.
It was one of the few times Dave’s thoughts and opinions were silenced. Even when we toured Israel together Dave could not escape being part of the news. The telephone hacking scandal involving Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper had broken. As a former top editor inside Murdoch’s empire Dave was a much-wanted source. While Gemma joined Gilda and me atop Masada, Dave stayed back in our hotel so he could opine on the airwaves back home.
It seemed at times Dave’s knowledge was boundless. English history. Gardening tips. British politics. American politics. Baseball trivia.
Together we toured parts of southeastern England, Scotland, London, Israel, and, of course, New York. Our last trip together was in September 2019 to southern Scotland. Dave and I would fence with repartees that challenged each of us to outwit the other. Puns were our foils. Gilda and Gemma ignored us, content to converse on more adult topics.
Even with today’s communications technology it is not easy maintaining a friendship, a warm friendship, across oceans. Somehow we did. Each conversation by phone or FaceTime, started as if we had been interrupted just minutes before. We last talked right before New Year’s.
Across an ocean the loss is no less painful.
When you, your friends and family are in their eighth decade or more, death becomes a commonplace, not unexpected though surely not casually tolerated, part of life. It’s an unwelcome intrusion. It drives home our vulnerability. Our finality.
In the past year death has visited friends and family three times. I’d like to say, “Enough already!,” but I know tears will flow again, probably not as fluidly as they did last night, but flow they will.
A retired editor and publisher of Chain Store Age, an American trade magazine, Murray Forseter is a contributor to VoTN.
Lovely memories, Murray. I have passed them on to Banksy’s mates across Australia. Here’s the obit I wrote in The Australian last weekend. Please pass on my condolences and best wishes to Gemma. I have not met her for 30-odd years. But I did get Banksy to join some mates of mine on their radio show (in a London studio) when the UK hosted the Olympics. Sadly, that was the last time we spoke. Best wishes to you. Alan Howe.
David Banks: convivial giant of journalism helped reinvent industry from Fleet Street to Australia
David Banks pictured while editor of the Daily Mirror in London in 1994.
HISTORY AND OBITUARIES EDITOR
11:00PM FEBRUARY 25, 2022
Arthur David Banks
Journalist. Born Warrington, England, February 13, 1948.
Died Northumberland, England, February 22, aged 74.
David Banks was larger than life, but his Sydney doctor wanted him to be much smaller. It was 1988 and we were at Holt Street in Surry Hills at News Corp’s headquarters heading out to lunch. Banks liked lunch. He turned to me in the lift. “Howie, what do you weigh?” I said I wasn’t sure. “About nine stone (around 60kg) I guess,” I said, replying in the imperial measure those of our vintage preferred. Banks was aghast: “Christ, I’ve just been told to lose one of you!”
He did lose weight. Not sure how. But it was nothing to do with lunch.
Banks was big and loud and from a gifted and extrovert generation of editors who were shaped by, and then changed, Fleet Street, which back then was shorthand for Britain’s newspaper industry.
In the mid-1980s we worked together in a small team that trained in computer typesetting in the US, studying at newspapers in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis before returning to play a role in bringing about the end of “The Street” with the introduction of what was laughably called “new technology” and that had been resisted by London’s militant print unions for decades.
This was an extraordinary roll of the dice by Rupert Murdoch that changed newspaper publishing and in those first days the so-called Dirty Dozen, led by Banks, moved about from newspaper to newspaper effectively putting them out. In the morning we’d work on the News of the World, by the afternoon we were on The Sunday Times. The next day it would be The Sun. “Bloody exciting, innit?” was the Banks catchphrase that echoed about Wapping in the first months of 1986.
Banks liked noisy newsrooms, making much of the noise himself. He always thought that if you weren’t having fun on a newspaper, you weren’t doing it right.
For years he was understudy to the legendary, and even louder, Kelvin MacKenzie, whose lengthy tenure at London’s The Sun created an era of irreverent brilliance that tabloid newspapers aspired to match, seldom doing so. Both men were fans of ’50s comedian Tony Hancock and could quote slabs of Hancock’s Half Hour. Hancock had a fine line in the absurd and it was this Banks and MacKenzie brought to the newsroom.
The loudest part of the day was when they worked on the front page headline. These were bounced about the backbench as Banks and MacKenzie sought to outdo each other and it is how unforgettable – often daft – headlines sprang to life: “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”; or when pop singer George Michael was arrested for lewd behaviour in Beverly Hills, “Zip Me Up Before You Go Go”; and “Up Yours Delors” when European Commission president Jacques Delors pushed for greater political integration across Europe.
“We met (frequently) at the bar of the London Press Club in the early ’70s, me at The Mirror, he at The Express,” recalled Banks, describing them both as ambitious and “rather loud and foul-mouthed”. MacKenzie took Banks to the New York Post where Banks first met Murdoch and was introduced to the art of tabloid news presentation. He worked on broadsheets briefly, including a stint as deputy editor of The Australian in the late ’80s during which he brought to the staff Michelle Gunn, now this newspaper’s editor. He emailed the day after Gunn’s appointment, thrilled at her elevation – and his wisdom.
Banks was given the editorship of The Daily Telegraph where he worked alongside Col Allan who succeeded Banks as editor and worked for a long and legendary stretch himself at the New York Post. “He was a pleasure to work with – well read, funny as hell,” recalled Allan. “He was more than colourful.”
And he remembered that Banks was not just quick-witted, he was agile. When building works at the office disturbed a population of mice once, a lone ranger ran across the news conference desk. Banks rolled up his newspaper, struck and killed it and then held it up by tail, in the manner of a big game hunter. The chief-of-staff lost consciousness and slipped from her chair.
One day, Banks did not return from lunch. He had been called by the chief executive of Mirror Group Newspapers and offered the editorship of London’s Daily Mirror. For a working-class boy from England’s north to rise to such a position once held by Hugh Cudlipp, the most acclaimed of all British editors, was akin to being handed the Crown Jewels.
But it wasn’t the happiest of times; Robert Maxwell, better known today as the father of convicted sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell, had bankrupted the newspaper group, even stealing his employees’ superannuation. But Banks was stoic as the newspaper tried to recover.
He had a spell working in radio before spending later years in Northumberland near the Scottish border, writing for the UK Press Gazette, Newcastle’s The Journal newspaper, and a website he co-founded, Voice of the North.
Banks contracted leukaemia in the 2000s but was saved by a stem-cell transplant from his younger brother. Then last year, as Banks put it, both his brother’s cells and those he had donated “turned cancerous”. His brother died last year.
A few days later, underpants Banks had ordered for his brother belatedly arrived. Handily, the brothers were the same size. “They’ll see me out,” wrote Banks.