Colourful, charismatic… there will never be another like Pignon
21:33 GMT, 2 April 2012
21:33 GMT, 2 April 2012
Laurie Pignon’s life in journalism, and his life in general, appeared to be guided by one simple principle: having survived a gruesome experience in the Second World War he was going to make sure he enjoyed every day of it thereafter.
He did that with immeasurable style and press boxes, mainly in the stadiums of tennis and football, were never quite the same once he vacated them to enjoy what turned out to be a long and happy retirement.
Quieter, definitely, without the projecting, Wodehousian tones of someone who belonged to a generation that needed no reminder of how trivial a missed penalty or wasted match point are in the grander scheme of things. While always a fine professional journalist, he plied his trade in an altogether less serious and less sober era than that of today.
Remarkable: Laurie Pignon was an astonishing man and will truly be missed
As his friend Ian Wooldridge wrote
upon Pignon’s retirement as tennis correspondent of this newspaper in
late 1983, ‘his enthusiasm and loyalty and occasional outrageousness are
the daily celebration of a life that nearly never was’.
Pignon, who died on Sunday, was born
in 1918 — his father Fred was a golf writer and columnist for the Daily
Mail — and after getting an initial job with Horse and Hound covered his
first Wimbledon in 1938 for an agency.
When war broke out he was dispatched
to France, where he was captured in the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940.
First robbed of his gold watch, he and five others were forced to dig
their own graves and then face a machine gun.
The bullets never came but he was
transported to Poland as a prisoner, spending much of his time close to
Auschwitz doing hard labour, a lot of it down the mines in appalling
Many did not survive and there was a
further test in January 1945 when he and fellow captives were forced to
set off from Katowice on a route march in the fierce winter.The journey
took two months to Austria, where finally their guards deserted and they
stumbled across an American platoon.
All his life Pignon found the cruelty he and friends had suffered at the hands of the Germans difficult to forgive.
Stories: Many people have fond stories to tell of Pignon (right)
A volume could be filled with
anecdotes about his subsequent career with the Daily Sketch, which he
joined in 1946 as a sportswriter covering tennis, football and other
Katowice happened to be the scene of
one of them, as recounted recently by the respected veteran journalist
Norman Giller. During an England football match there Pignon and his
equally colourful The Times colleague Geoffrey Green, in the days before
Solidarity, were arrested in the city centre for making an impromptu
public speech extolling the virtues of a free society.
They were marched away by two guards,
to the horror of their companions. ‘A few hours later, with their
worried colleagues on the point of calling the British Embassy, the pair
reappeared wearing broad drunken grins and, would you believe, a
fur-lined, ankle-length guardsman’s coat each,’ recalled Giller.
Pledge: Pignon endured a torrid time in the second World War and decided to enjoy his life thereafter
Pignon, who joined the Mail in 1971
when it was merged with the Sketch, reported the transition of tennis
from genteel amateur circuit to a fiercely competitive international
tour. Up until the late Sixties press and players were essentially part
of the same corps, eating and drinking together with friendships easily
Ann Jones, the 1969 Wimbledon
champion, tells how he helped her get over a painful loss at the French
Open. ‘I’d lost to Australia’s Lesley Bowrey in the semi-finals and that
night we went out in a group. Laurie had his car there and at around
2am he thought it would be fun to drive the wrong way around the Arc de
Triomphe, as if we were in Britain.
‘A furious policeman stopped us but
Laurie talked his way out of it, saying that nobody in the car could
possibly understand French. The policeman eventually walked away
shrugging his shoulders, muttering something about “Les Anglais”.’
Jones was joined by other champions
he covered in paying tribute. ‘I liked him instantly, everyone did,’
said French Open winner Sue Barker. ‘He was a larger-than-life
character, a great personality, a great journalist, but above all a
Press pass: Pignon lit up many a press box in his time
Virginia Wade, Britain’s last singles
champion at Wimbledon, added: ‘Laurie was a mainstay of the British
tennis fraternity and his long life left us all the better for having
‘I can still hear his robust voice,
“Hello young Wade!”. His moustache, bow tie, gold signet ring missing a
stone, his pipe, his velvet smoking jackets and his jocularity always
there as his signature. He will never be replaced.’ Twice Wimbledon
semi-finalist Roger Taylor described him as a ‘one-off’, adding: ‘He was
great fun to be around. Laurie had some amazing experiences during the
war and I actually found his stories quite inspiring, they made you want
to fight harder in matches.’
Pignon’s status in tennis eventually
was such that he became one of the few journalists to be offered
membership of the All England Club, and he was the long-serving
president of the Lawn Tennis Writers’ Association.
In retirement spent with his wife
Melvyn he grew award-winning roses, and was often around Wimbledon,
always happy to offer any help to his successors but never interfering.
Another original has gone and, truly, we will not see his like again.
Hugely appreciated: Pignon was a much-loved character
Sue Barker: My first memory of Laurie was as a 12
year-old playing at the Queen’s Club Christmas tournament. I think he
was one of the first press interviews I gave. I instantly liked him,
everyone did. At that age I studied and gauged the
reaction of older players to members of the press. Everyone liked and
trusted him. It was then he introduced me to his lovely wife, who he
called the Dragon, I still don’t know her by any other name.
By the time I was 19 I was through to
the final of the French Open. Laurie and his wife decided they wanted to
give me a relaxing evening and take away the nerves of playing in my
first (and only) Grand Slam final.
So the night before three of us went
out for a meal and a tour of Paris, Laurie took his new tape recorder
along, his plan was to record the sounds of Paris together with my
thoughts on the final. We walked and talked around the streets of the
city, he kept thrusting his tape recorder under the noses of Parisians
to get their thoughts 'to soak up the atmosphere'. This went on for hours. The Dragon and I tried to put a stop to it but he was on a roll.
It wasn’t until; we got back to the
hotel and rewound the tape that he spotted the record button for the
first time. We laughed and laughed, at least his plan of distracting me
had worked. I went on to enjoy many entertaining evenings at the Pignon
household. He was a larger than life character, a great personality, a great journalist, but above all a great friend.
Virginia Wade: There is only a handful of characters
on the British tennis scene, indeed the tennis world, that have been as
charismatic and colourful as Laurie Pignon. From my early days in competition
there was a large contingent of dedicated reporters from the many
British newspapers who travelled the globe as we did. It was always a
fairly dysfunctional relationship with the personal sensitivities of
players clashing with supposedly objective views of the press.
However there was always Laurie, who
transcended fluctuating feelings by dint of his unconventionality and
also because of his consistent respect of the players. His writing came from a place of
generosity towards the players and love of the game that distinguished
him from so many others of his cohort.
Laurie was a mainstay of the british
tennis fraternity and his long life left us all the better for having
known him. I can still hear his robust voice – “Hello young Wade!” – his
moustache, bow tie, gold signet ring missing a stone, his pipe, his
velvet smoking jackets and his jocularity always there as his signature.
There is no question about it: Laurie Pignon will never be replaced.
Roger Taylor: He was a great character and great fun
to be around. Laurie had some amazing experiences during the war and I
actually found his stories about it quite inspiring, they made you want
to fight harder in matches. We would often go out together in the
evenings because that’s what you did in those days, and confidences were
never broken. He was a one-off.
Ann Jones: While we were players Laurie would try
and be supportive and not kick us too hard if we messed things up. He
was a great laugh, one of a kind. Obviously in those days the press and
players were much closer, but while some off the record things were
respected you knew he always wanted the story as well, which was fair
Chris Gorringe, former Chief Executive of the All England Club: To my family Laurie and Melvyn made a
dear couple loved by us all and they loved their annual visits to the
Rye Lawn Tennis Club for the annual tournament. Laurie was the most
colourful of writers whether he was writing for a newspaper or for the
Wimbledon programme or any other publication he was asked to contribute
to. The All England Club rightly made him an Honorary Member in 1984, an
honour he hugely valued and respected.