28 Mar 2014

A good, old-fashioned hack: Chapman Pincher at 100

When I was a schoolboy the only newspaper we were supplied with was the Daily Express. In those days it outsold all others and boasted 6 million readers. The star front-page scoop reporter was one Chapman Pincher. Even the name was redolent of Bulldog Drummond and Biggles.

But Harry Chapman Pincher did not make it up. His editor had wanted a posh name. Harry Pincher had a middle name of Chapman. He became, unforgettably, Chapman Pincher – the scourge of all who told him secrets. And very many did.

So bad were the leaks from Harold Macmillan’s cabinet that the prime minister wrote to his defence secretary: “Can nothing be to suppress or get rid of Mr Chapman Pincher?”

Harry Chapman Pincher was not “got rid of”. He is, perhaps surprisingly, still very much alive, and on 29 March he celebrates his 100th birthday. He has total recall: names, places, secrets and the rest. He has even penned an autobiography in his hundredth year, aptly titled Dangerous To Know.

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He remains remarkably spry, sitting bolt upright in a comfy army chair in his living room, with his 95-year-old wife, Billee, sitting a few feet behind him, supping her midday sherry. I’ve been to meet them both in their Queen Anne home in west Berkshire.

Harry seems to have set his mind some years ago on getting to 100. He hasn’t drunk alcohol since he retired 35 years ago, hasn’t smoke cigarettes ever, and abandoned his pipe upon joining the army in the second world war.

The litany of spies about whom Harry spilt the beans runs from Blake to Vassall. He’s a cold war correspondent. He sees Putin as a modern-day menace and Snowden “should be shot”.

His fear is of falling over – so he no longer goes out. But he is on his computer, keeping abreast of the world every day. He is by degrees lucid, funny, naughty and and unashamed to boast both of his luck and of his scoops.

I’m not going to spoil his story. My interview with him airs on Channel 4 News. It is rare indeed to be able to talk so vividly with a man born on the eve of the outbreak of the first world war, and who remembers seeing a Zeppelin dropping bombs on the Yorkshire town of Pontefract. And that’s not all!

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