Friday, 18 August 2017

A walk down Fleet Street

Hot on the heels of my guide to Lewis and Harris, a colleague has reminded me of a journey down Fleet Street we undertook several years ago. It just about stands the test of time, is a handy aide for journalism lecturers, and anyone else interested in a potted history of the Street of Shame.

Sunday Herald - 3rd July 2005
When a service was held to mark the departure of the last major news organisation to leave Fleet Street last month, the industry overlooked the fact that 40 Scottish journalists still remain there with Scottish publisher DC Thomsons. By Torcuil Crichton

THERE was a piquant irony in having the media baron Rupert Murdoch, the man who taught Fleet Street a lesson, reading one from the lectern of St Bride’s Church. But as Murdoch read the last rites for Fleet Street earlier this month the assembled media worshippers, if they had strained to listen, might have heard a tapping sound coming from the coffin.

That would have been the Sunday Post journalist James Millar and his colleagues knocking gently to remind the rest of the press world that journalism has not expired yet in the heart of London.

With the departure of Reuters news agency from its imposing home at 85 Fleet Street to that battery farm of journalism, Canary Wharf, the Street of Shame has been declared dead. Murdoch began the exodus of the national titles when he moved the Sun and the News of the World to Wapping in 1986 in the midst of an acrimonious and bloody industrial dispute that broke the power of the print unions. His empire and the rest of the national newspapers may be dearly departed, but they have definitely not gone to a better place.

DC Thomsons don’t make a big deal of it, but the Dundee publishers has been a presence on Fleet Street for more than 100 years. AFP, the French news agency, also maintains a staff on the Street of Shame but as far as Her Majesty’s Press is concerned, Millar, a clean-cut and healthy twentysomething, is the last representative of the British print media left standing at the bar.

Millar, still dawdling in his twenties, is probably one of the last recruits to the trade of journalism in Fleet Street. He rejoined the Sunday Post in its London offices a few years ago after a short sojourn into the world of magazines. He’s hardly the archetype wine-soaked hack in a trenchcoat.

Nursing a small glass of wine he’s dismissive of the hoo-hah that the London press made of the Reuters closure. “I don’t think we would have minded so much except that we weren’t invited to the service, “ he says.

Fleet Street has echoed to the sound of thundering presses, editors’ curses and clinking glasses since the first of Caxton’s printing presses across the city boundary.

In it’s heydey - considered to be any time after lunch and before the first editions rolled between 1920 to 1980 - every newspaper in the land was represented on Fleet Street.

According to Michael Frayn, the Guardian journalist who bottled the spirit of the street in his classic Sixties novel, Towards The End Of Morning, there is nothing left there now except “the dull, busy thoroughfare that connects the City and the West End”.

Millar may be one of the last journalists in Fleet Street, but the Sunday Post has no intention of turning out the lights just yet.

TOWARDS the end of the morning Jim McKillop, the Herald’s former London editor, leads a walk down the Ludgate Hill, in the direction of Fleet Street. We are in search of ghosts and if anyone can raise the spirit of the Street it’s McKillop, a journalist of the old school who has just laid down his notebook after 38 years with our sister newspaper, the Herald.

Before we cross the river Fleet, now covered by Farringdon Road, McKillop takes an almost habitual turn up towards the Old Bailey. The beauty of Fleet Street was its proximity to the courts, the City, the Parliament and the West End. Politics, scandal, crime and celebrity were a mere taxi ride away. The world revolved around Fleet Street, a global by-word for the fourth estate. And, like the song about Glasgow on a Saturday night, the world often whirled round and round Fleet Street.

“It wasn’t printers’ ink that flowed through Fleet Street, it was alcohol, “ says McKillop striding through the morning heat under the dapper shade of a straw panama hat, the current edition of Private Eye rolled up in his hand.

To prove the point we stop directly across from the Old Bailey, outside the site of the Magpie and Stump, the resident boozer for the court reporters. “Court reporting was different in these days, “ explains McKillop. “If there was a long, boring legal argument going on we’d all retire to the Stump and one of the policemen or court officials would give us a signal if things were livening up again or if the jury was due back.”

McKillop’s London career covered the late Seventies and Eighties, decades punctuated by reporting IRA atrocities in the capital, including the mortar attack on Downing Street and the bombing of Canary Wharf.

As a reporter he’s seen a lot of the inside of the Old Bailey, once taking the witness stand himself for one of the most notorious cases of recent years. The last time McKillop led me on a walk it was around the streets of Soham after the disappearance of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.

A reporter to his boots, McKillop had already re-traced the missing girls’ steps but wanted to do it one more time. Maybe something didn’t add up. Then, as now, he provided a dramatic narrative as he walked the rambling route.

“They went towards the sports centre . . . this is where they were seen on CCTV camera . . . then they crossed in front of the school . . . and they met the janitor who was washing his dog outside his house. Then they disappeared . . . I spoke to the janitor last night, strange chap . . .”

I ended up with a ready-made reconstruction of that fateful last journey and Jim, having covered every big trial at the Old Bailey since the Jeremy Thorpe affair, ended up in the witness box giving evidence at the trial of Ian Huntley.

McKillop didn’t come to journalism from a media studies course. He started as a copy boy on the Evening Times in Glasgow, aged 16, and finished his career, 45 years later in the Herald’s current offices on Cannon Street. His departure marked the real passing of the Fleet Street era, one of the legendary stories, larger than life characters, even larger expense accounts and booze-soaked afternoons.

“They did drink but some of the best columns ever written were by people who were well on, “ says McKillop. “One of the most famous journalists was Vincent Mulcrone of the Daily Mail. In 1966, on the day that England won the World Cup, he wrote a column for the Daily mail with an intro that began: ‘If Germany today beat us at our national sport we at least have the satisfaction of knowing that we have beat them twice at theirs. . .’. Remember, this was only 21 years after the war.”

The Mail’s pub was the Harrow, just across the road from the gargantuan print halls of Carmelite House just off Fleet Street. There’s a room there, a back snug, dedicated to Mulcrone. “He would begin his day by going into the Harrow, “ says Jim. “Waiting for him would be a fernibranker - a kind of cure-all - a glass of water and a half a bottle of champagne.

Yet he was one of the best.”

We walk on along the Holborn Viaduct, over what was once the stinking river Fleet, an open sewer that ran from Hampstead Heath to the Thames. The river is now piped under Farringdon Street and we’re looking for the liquid source of a different type. So we turn our back on the home of the Guardian and the Morning Star, whose staff drank up that way in the Hoop and Grapes, now called its old name once again. We turn into Fetter Lane, in the hope of sniffing out one of Fleet Street’s most notorious watering holes.

On the corner of Holborn Circus the old Daily Mirror building has been replaced with the steel and glass of Sainsbury’s headquarters. That should have been a warning. Down the side lane that leads to Fleet Street, the Stab in the Back is gone too. “Oh dear, this is very sad, “ says Jim, looking at the Pizza Express that has taken over the site. “I haven’t been here in years but this is the Stab. It was called that for obvious reasons - if you weren’t here you would get stabbed in the back and everyone got their comeuppance in there at one time or another.”

It was here that Keith Waterhouse, then columnist then of the Mirror, picked up the pet chihuahua belonging to the landlord’s wife and ordered two slices of bread for a dog sandwich. It was that kind of place.

When the Fleet Street journalists did go venture beyond the city limits to the provinces (the metrocentric navel gaze is nothing new to the national media) the whole thing resembled a travelling circus of mad hatters and fire eaters with monkeys and photographers in tow.

The ringmasters now are the television cameras, several of which were camped outside the Old Bailey this morning. The power to break news, that genuinely exclusive journalistic sensation, has been largely purloined by the hamster wheel of 24-hour television. The days of racing to file copy from phoneboxes - and then unscrewing the mouthpiece so that rivals were rendered mute - have been long overtaken by new technologies.

We bypass Dr Johnson’s house and come down on to the middle of Fleet Street.”This is it,” says Mckillop, brightening again, coining another quote.

“The first time I came down here from Glasgow as a trainee I really thought I’d made it. This was the beating heart of the newspaper industry but newspapers don’t have a heart any more.”

Fleet Street stretches from Temple Bar to Ludgate Circus and was for two centuries home to dozens of national newspapers and the London offices of most provincial titles. By the end of WWII most had moved to the alleys and streets around, but the title became the byword for the journalist community and a whole section of British national life.

Across the road is one of the Street of Shame’s venerable institutions, El Vino’s, immortalised in the Private Eye itself and still doing a roaring trade in strong port, fine wine and, having tasted it, some good coffee. It was a misogynistic institution and an exclusive gentleman’s drinking club until the walls of Jerico fell.

“Only people on really high expenses drank in there and they didn’t allow women in, “ says McKillop. “The law eventually caught up with them and on that day I went down with Anne Donaldson, who was then the London editor of the Herald. So she was one of the first women to drink in El Vino’s. Just to test them I took my tie off and I was nearly thrown out - but she was able to go in.”

Male-dominated as it was, some very able female journalists were able to elbow their way to the top of Fleet Street. We recall Jean Rook, for her journalism and because taxi drivers claimed she always inserted the number one in front of the total on any receipt they handed her.

Anne Leslie is another Fleet Street legend and bold international writer whom we remember, mainly for once trying to chat me up in the back of a Land Rover in Ghana, but that’s another story.

Back on the street the Sunday Post offices are on our right, shoe-horned into a narrow space in beautiful brown tiled bricks. DC Thompson’s titles will never leave Fleet Street, their names are wrapped in delicate mosaic around each floor of the building - the Dundee Courier, Peoples Journal, Weekly News and Sunday Post - all inscribed in a leitmotif around the elegant corner building.

The former Herald offices, in contrast, are unrecognisable and without McKillop to hand it would be missed. Purpose-built with columns of Portland Stone, the seven-story building at 56-57 Fleet Street, occupied the site of what was once the Green Dragon tavern, appropriately the haunt of generations of scribes.

Being so close to St Paul’s, Fleet Street was in the frontline in the Battle of Britain and in October 1940 the sandbagged Herald offices had a near-miss. But Fleet St took the war, like every other cataclysmic event, in its stride. When Cassandra, the Daily Mirror columnist, returned from the Second World War he began his column: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted...”

The saltire and the lion rampart are carved into the upper stories of the Herald building which now flies the flag of the Nigerian High Commission. In Jim’s day the Herald had 12 reporters in London as well as collection of sub-editors.

The Herald in Fleet Street used to drink off Fleet Street in the Clachan, a pub which no longer bears that name. The paper left the street in 1973 to Spitalfields, a move which coincided with Sir Hugh Fraser’s ownership of the company when the proprietor was donating generously to Ladbroke’s casinos each night.

Across the road we examine the most iconic of Fleet Street buildings, the Art Deco masterpiece in black glass that was the home of Express Newspapers. The Herald’s old Albion Street office in Glasgow was a copy of the Black Lubyanka and, before it closed, the smell of ink still rising from the hot presses in the morning, the rolls of newsprint arriving and the delivery vans speeding over the cobbles in the evening, provided a whiff of what Fleet Street must have been. The Express building still looks sleek and alluring, but McKillop reassures me it was a slum inside. The exterior is just a facade, part of the myth of journalism that makes up Fleet Street.

We go off-track down Bouverie Street, where the News of the World plied its trade. Down there is another of those endless alleys that connects to parallel streets. Somewhere round here, on Whitefriars Street, there was an old inn where that irascible Scot, James Boswell, later Dr Johnson’s biographer, managed to bed the actress Louisa Lewis after laying siege to her for the whole month of January 1763. Boswell’s London Journal in which all this, and much more is documented, puts lie to the myth that celebrity bonk-and-tells were a tabloid invention.

One of these passageways has been fantastically tiled with the entire history of Fleet Street from Caxton to the long goodbye. It makes for a diverting read on our way to Carmelite House, the old Mail building and the Harrow, a fine traditional pub with small, tiered drinking rooms that eventually lead to an upstairs restaurant.

It’s a delight to wander through and serves refreshing shandies away from the heat of the day.

After that we go to church, St Bride’s, the journalist’s church which has the inscriptions of some of the people McKillop worked with on the backs of the pews. We linger for a few moments at the Iraq War memorial in the east corner and then solemnly retire to the Old Bell, the traditional meeting point before and after funeral services in St Bride’s. The last time McKillop was here was for Arnold Kemp’s memorial service, the kindest of men and editor of the Herald during my stint at the paper.

In the churchyard he points out the City Golf Club, an entrance in a lane where journalists who’d never swung a four iron in their lives carried on drinking after the pubs closed for the afternoon. There were numerous private clubs with distinguished sounding names that provided after-hours drinking and a telephone number where errant journalists could be found.

Back across the road we have a quick shuffle around Peterborough Court, the former home of the Telegraph which lends its name still to the newspaper’s diary. It’s well after lunch by the time we finish our circular walk which takes us back to the eastern end of the street looking up at the polished clean facade of St Paul’s cathedral. There’s a plaque on the corner in the memory of Edgar Wallace, a reporter and founder of the company of newspaper owners. He was a famous writer, but he began as a reporter, a profession McKillop feels should still entail going outside the office to meet people who had experiences of what had happened. If that means going to the pub, then all the better, I say.

“It is the most honourable profession of all, “ he muses, reading the inscription on the Wallace plaque. “Look, it says here that he gave his heart to Fleet Street, “ chuckles McKillop. “Well, some gave their livers too.”

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