Fleet Street’s ‘glory’ days are long gone
The news and current affairs magazine Private Eye still publishes a Street of Shame column in reference to it and a certain demon barber also helped to make it famous, but nowadays Fleet Street lacks the verve and buzz that once existed there.
The days when it was either home to, or the centre of, Britain’s national press are long gone.
I think that that’s sad, but fully understand there are many out there who might disagree and would prefer to see Fleet Street disappear both in name and nature.
There are several reasons one could point to regarding the demise of Fleet Street in newspaper terms. Many believe the rot started to set in when Rupert Murdoch decamped from Bouverie Street (a side-street off Fleet Street) to Wapping with his Sun and News of the World titles. The Times and Sunday Times also moved from nearby Grays Inn Road.
Since then, of course, we have seen to proliferation of what you are reading this on now – the internet. The net is threatening to knock a final nail in the coffin of national newspapers. But the papers aren’t giving up without a fight. Is there room for both? Personally, I hope so.
Newspapers in general – and journalists in particular – tend to provoke wildly different reactions. They are loved by some and positively hated by others.
Six years back in a Gallup survey only 21% of respondents said they had a favourable opinion of newspaper journalists – not far removed from used car salesmen said the research (TV journalists scored 20%).
I don’t intend to waste a lot of space (I almost said column inches) trying to convince you that journalists are pillars of society. But, I spent about five years working at the Black Lubyanka (Private Eye’s description of the Daily Express building) and loved just about every minute of it.
At the base of the Lubyanka, just to the right of the entrance there was a pub called The Poppinjay. As our picture confirms, it’s not there any more.
Because it was so lacking in atmosphere some wag dubbed The Poppinjay The Beer With No Pub – a wordplay on a popular Aussie song, The Pub With No Beer by Slim Dusty (no, I hadn’t heard of him either).
But it was close – literally part of the premises – and the sub-editors at the Express used to delight in disappearing down there for a very swift pint while pretending they were off to the loo. They called the practice Sloping or going for a Slope.
It got out of hand to the extent that they started an unofficial competition to see who could Slope the most and bought a trophy for the winner and called it the Lopes (anag) Cup!
One time a sub got out of his hospital bed at St Bartholomew’s where he was having treatment about half a mile away (close to the then Smithfield Market) and walked into The Poppinjay in his dressing gown and slippers. No one felt they could compete with that and he was awarded the trophy outright. A sloper par excellence!
But I get ahead of myself in my Fleet Street memories. The story started when I was still at school. My Irish aunt and uncle – May and Sean McNamara – ran a pub in the street called the King & Keys which used to be visited mostly by journalists from the Daily (and Sunday) Telegraph just a few yards away. It, too, is no longer there.
I spent most of my school holidays at the Keys. My mum worked as a cook there. Really, there was no way I would follow another profession. I had been brought up on Fleet Street, what else was I to do?
My first job in the Street (anywhere actually) was as a reporters’ telephonist at the Press Association. The job was pretty much as it says on the tin – one of my main roles was to go out with trained journalists and read their stories over the phone to a fast typist back at HQ.
There were no mobile phones and no laptop computers. The reporters had to write in longhand and give me the sheets of paper to get to a phone and dictate it back. Sound antiquated? It was!
One of my dubious “claims to fame” was that I phoned back the story from the commital proceedings at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court (now being converted into a luxury hotel) when the Kray twins were about to be put on trial for conspiracy to murder. Trust me, for a lad of 16 being in the same room as those men was a frightening experience.
But, fast-forward to today or, rather, a couple of weeks back. I took a walk down the Street of Shame for old times’ sake.
Not a single newspaper office survives there. The last two journos to leave had been with the Dundee-based Sunday Post. They got out of 186 Fleet Street in 2016. By coincidence, the building was said to have housed Sweeney Todd’s barber’s shop.
At one time just about any newspaper worthy of the name had an office there or thereabouts. Some “offices” were little more than a nameplate on a building entrance. Some had working journalists based in them. Others just handled ad sales and admin as many of the big ad agencies were London-based.
But to be taken seriously as a paper your name had to be there. I used to think that an address within a certain distance of Fleet Street was some form of prerequisite to being registered as a newspaper at the Post Office (if you were registered, you had access to cheap mailing rates). But I can’t confirm this. Maybe I’m making it up.
There are still reminders here and there about the Street’s newspaper heritage. Plaques and small busts are dotted around such as the one pictured showing Edgar Wallace who became a prolific writer and is credited as creating King Kong, though he died in Hollywood during the drafting of the film from undiagnosed diabetes.
If there is an appetite for more plaques in the future can I put forward the names of Keith Waterhouse who wrote Billy Liar and Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell in addition to his work on the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. Also, how about the great sports writer Hugh McIlvanney? To be best of my knowledge is there is no plaque of him in the Fleet Street area although there is one on the wall of the Legends bar at Aintree racecourse.
As stated earlier, I’m sorry that the term Fleet Street epitomises newspapers in name only.
Former Guardian hack Michael Frayn, who penned a novel about the street called Towards the End of the Morning, once wrote: “Fleet Street now is just the dull, busy thoroughfare that connects the City to the West End.”
It’s difficult to disagree with his assessment.