OPINION: Former colleague Peter was a brilliant, witty all-rounder

Peter March

Talented and whimsical, Peter March enjoyed an outstanding career on local newspapers .. with The Pink ‘Un his main passion throughout many Norwich City seasons - Credit: Bill Woodcock

Peter March mustered the audacity and talent to prove work, wit, whimsy and the odd grain of eccentricity could jog along harmoniously together.

A valued colleague, friend and mentor at the heart of my full-time sports- writing career, he died recently at 83 … just as his beloved West Ham satproudly on top of the Premier League.

We first teamed up in the late 1960s on the Eastern Evening News sports desk in the company’s old head office on Norwich’s Redwell Street. I soon appreciated Peter’s neat line in patter was designed to make you think twice before considering some sort of clever reply.

He was expert at filling pages quickly and effectively. He could hold court, organise the day, write headlines, sip coffee and answer the telephone at the same time. I was stung regularly by that waspish wit as I crept in gingerly after a demanding session the night before:

“Skip, if you come in much later you’ll have the rare distinction of meeting yourself on the way home”.

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Such chiding would soon be followed by a reviving cup of tea and a comforting revelation that the Lingfield and Sandown Park race cards had been sorted for me along with hefty batches of tenpin bowling and darts results plus league tables.

Peter’s high-speed mardling, industry and cheerful disposition sat intriguingly next to the stolid stance of our older colleague, the redoubtable Sid Steward, a squat, rotund figure with first-class degrees in muttering and moaning. Sid took obvious delight in my ignorance surrounding Rule 4 applying to all horse-racing results after a stewards inquiry and it took five blatant cigarette bribes to get a reasonable explanation out of the cantankerous old devil!

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I wasn’t the only one to feel the effect of Marchie’s deadly drollery. His flair for mimicry gave scope for a big collection of quirky features and mannerisms among folk throughout the building to find spots on his ever-expanding cabaret bill.

In an era when colourful characters were rarely subjected to the strictures of political correctness, the “Marchie treatment” was greeted by many as a badge of honour. Even so, I suspect only a select few had the chance to savour a party piece probably cultivated during Peter’s spell on National Service in Germany.

I recall with rare relish a winter’s day when sporting fixtures ground to an icy halt and we were left contemplating early departures home from an eerily quiet sports desk. I pulled on my coat, gave Surly Sid another fag for luck and headed for the door.

A sharp cry of “Liebchen!” halted me in full stride.

Marchie picked up a paper cup to use as a microphone, cleared his throat and presented a highly commendable impression of Marlene Dietrich warbling “Falling in Love Again”. It deserved a full house. Sid asked for the paper cup. Not as a souvenir – but as somewhere to deposit about three inches of dangling fag-ash.

The March-Skipper darts- playing combination took to the road on Friday evenings for impromptu combat ,with Wicklewood Cherry Tree and Thurton George & Dragon favourite watering-holes. It was at the latter we tasted prime Norfolk hospitality. A village character called Guinea took up our challenges. We bought him pints of mild when he landed the winning double. Then fortunes smiled the other way – and we were rewarded with fruit from his deep jacket pocket.

The Battle of Guinea’s Apple soon became part of sports desk folklore. Perhaps the most enduring – and endearing – image I hold of such an outstanding newspaper personality stars his Pied Piper role as mastermind of Pink Un production, culminating in a frantic Saturday afternoon race to get the popular sports paper on the streets by teatime.

Peter forged strong links with the Pink Un over 27 years, including my seasons as Carrow Road scribe keeping tabs on the Canaries and sharply contrasting managerial styles of Ron Saunders and John Bond. Highlights, of course, included an initial promotion to the First Division and two trips to Wembley.

My old chum who elevated office banter to unlikely levels of sheer quality once told me hanging was too good for someone like me constantly making excruciating puns. “.. “you should be drawn and quoted”.

That probably rates as the best line I ever heard while trying to come up with a good headline or awaiting for the 4.15 race result from Fakenham.

Skip's Aside: The Sudbury-based Suffolk Free Press, covering areas of south Suffolk and north Essex, was first stop on the road to an outstanding career on local newspapers for Peter March.

He recalled fondly: “Basil’s restaurant and snooker emporium was across the road. An indulgent editor was happy for me to play a frame or two during slack periods. He knew where to find me. It did little to boost my exam chances but I was probably the most accomplished snooker player to sit them”.

Next move was to the sports desk at the Leicester Mercury, then regarded as a shoe-in to Fleet Street for ambitious provincial journalists. Leicester had two evening papers so competition was intense and standards high.

In the 1950s, National Service shoved journalistic progress onto the back burner and the Cold War to the fore. Peter joined the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and spent two years in what was then West Germany not far from the border with the East.

He kept his pen flowing by covering British Army of the Rhine sporting events for the RAOC Gazette.

After demob. Peter returned to Leicestershire and was sent to the weekly Loughborough Monitor “to get back into the swing of things”. Frustrated over waiting for a return to the Mercury, he looked towards Norfolk instead and joined the Eastern Evening News sports desk

There he remained for best part of 30 years, many of them as assistant sports editor and Pink Un sorter–in-chief before a seven-year stint in the features department... He often described that Saturday afternoon rush to get the football special out on time 
as “an adrenaline junkie’s dream ..as minutes ticked down to the final whistle, last-gasp goals wrecked clever headlines and left hardly any time to come up with replacements.

Meanwhile, the league tables and pools check still had to be updated by hand.

Peter retired to hearty choruses of praise in 1998 ready to divide time between Norwich and Spain with wife Anne. He also made sure of blowing more bubbles of optimism at as many West Ham United fixtures as possible.

Peter kept in close touch with old colleagues, even those who supported other teams and still enjoyed the odd dreadful pun or three.

“Beware the chides of March” remained a constant catchphrase.

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