Talk about irony, 24-years-ago when I first set my Los Angeles eyes on Fleet Street, its most amazing aspect, other than being home to a phenomenally dynamic and competitive press system, was the amount of time its members spent getting pissed at lunch.
Well, with the national journals long since gone, the only paper left in the immediate area being the "Jewish Chronicle," boozinghas become of such a low priority, this once sacred lunchtime practice can now get you sacked.
The Street of Shame, formerly the western world's greatest watering hole, where news was spread and dreams made into news over liquid petite' dejeuner has been transformed into an avenue of trendy coffee bars and sandwich shops designed for the enforced tastes its new 9 to 5"no drinking while on duty" City worker army. Just another example of American cultural imperialism?If so,I'm sure it won't be the last one. That's because Americans seem to be taking over the street.
I somehow find it hard to fathom people like the then "Daily Mirror's" Paul Callan or the "Sun's" Roy Greenslade nipping down to the Cafe Rouge or Coffee Republic for the standard two to three hour hack libation. "I believe its your round old man. Yes, quite...the same? Oh, garcon, cinq cappuccino, si'l vous plais. And can we have another round of those yummy croissants. Merci."
From a quick outward glance, today's Fleet Street looks just as dull and gloomy as its did when I first saw it. Of course bleak rainy winter days will do that to most places in London. Upon closer examination, however, evidence of the post media rot is everywhere, lowlighted by that universal symbol of America's internationalreach, a Macdonalds hamburger bar. It's true, Big Mac on the Street of Shame, an unbeatable combo available for an unlimited time. Too bad it came too late for the press crowd.
Sandwiched between the law courts and and the City, as the retreating Roman legions of hacks vacated the street, other more respectable people moved in...you know those whose only paper is the FT. But worse was yet to come---"Wall Street Journal" readers. That's right, Americans.
They took over and rebuilt the "Daily Telegraph" building into a sparkling and shining art deco edifice that Superman could mistake for the "Daily Planet," but whose real name is Goldman-Sachs. And, now this mega investment bank is set to, at long last rescue "The Black Lubijanka." Looking more gray than its former glistening black appearance, the old Express Newspapers building will get the complete American treatment, the finishing touches being no booze during working hours. Again, too bad it came too late for the press crowd.
Across the way, the old Bouverie Street headquarters of News International has been beautifully redeveloped by the Freshman legal firm into a British version of"L.A. Law." How appropriate that the former home of so much business to the legal community in the form of libel suits should wind up an office building for lawyers.
But these developments are still few and far between. The trendy snack bars can't conceal the widespread graveyard atmosphere, exhibited only a short distance down Whitefriars Street. Deserted and boarded up, the former home of the Associated Newspapers, Northcliffe House, looks more like the haunted house ride at Disneyland. But come to think of it, it didn't look much different when it was in use. The corner of Tudor and Whitefriars always seemed to have a dirty and seedy atmosphere. Maybe for me that was its romantic charm.
A dark brown Harris Tweed sports coat, matching hat, a cheap pair of dark green trousers, black boots, a traditional, but cheap Oxford Street, gents umbrella and a brief case full of showbiz and travel stories....in the mid 1970s this was my idea of a Fleet Street reporter. I didn't know I looked more like a bookie's runner. Yet, amazingly it opened doors for me to most of the national newspapers and several magazines. Or maybe it wasn't so amazing given the fast moving betting shop predilection of journos then.
First, its important to point out, to those not in the know, when I hit the scene, Fleet Street was already in decline. And, as is the case with Hollywood, it was more a state of mind and name-tag for an industry than the actual home to all the national publications. For example, the "Guardian" was about a mile away on Farringdon Street and the "Times"
and "Sunday Times" were about to move to their new home over on Gray's Inn Road, now the location of ITN.
But generally speaking, the area bordered by Blackfriars on the south, Holborn Circus on the north, Fetter Lane on the West and Ludgate Circus on the East was considered the heart and soul of British journalism.It's also an area in which I wore out several pairs of high street shoes as a literary Fuller Brush man.
It was a time when London had two daily newspapers, each selling more than the surviving one does today. The "Daily Mirror" was in the midst of a losing battle to hold onto its top selling position against an onslaught from the Murdoch transformed "Sun," then seen as an extreme right wing, often racist rag. Curiously it attracted loads of Black and Asian readers...the power of the Page Three Girl exposed I suppose.
As for the "quality" press, the "Times" was running third behind the "Guardian" and its Canadian owner Lord Thompson was dying to unload it on some sucker.
But more than anything it was a time when an outsider like me, not even working through an agent, could gain entrance to as many national publications as humanly possible in a single day.Without appointments I could manage see any number of editors and personally pitch stories, some already written others about to be written. Try doing that now.
I was an American journalist in London writing the kind of crap the British always maintained Americans couldn't write...pedantic tabloid human interest stories...highlighted, for example, by two simultaneous yet completely different Richard Gere pieces, one pop version in the "Sunday Mirror" and a full page straight splash over in Paris at the "International Herald Tribune." Or there was my interview with ballet star Rudolph Nureyev....one version running in the "Sunday Times" and another in the "Sunday People" showbiz diary.
What can I say other than I was hooked on it all. I used to think Los Angeles was the centre of the universe and that I probaby would find my ultimate destination to be the editor some little suburban weekly newspaper. And, to tell you the truth I wouldn't mind doing that today. But then, I couldn't adequately take in the size of the British national press . It was mind boggling, mainly because its was so huge, yet so centralized and, as far as the tabloids went, so accessible and personable.
Of course, thekey element was gaining entrance to the publications. And that was largely a matter of making the commissionaires, who I initially thought were part of some sort of paramilitary police force,believe I belonged there, which itself was mainly knowing where I wanted to go and simply going for it.
Very few guards would try to stop me. And if they did, my accent and some vintage bullshit would see me through every time.For example, I recall once being challenged in the Express Building. My response: "Oh! I wonder if you could help me. I was seeing Mr. Smith in features. I stepped out to look for a loo and got lost. I can't remember if I was on the first or second floor. The floors are different here than in America." The helpful commissionaire would not only let me pass, he would tell me where I wanted to go.
But the real beauty of the system was after I came and departed a couple of times, they thought I worked there and never gave me a second glance. In fact, my presence became so normal at the old Mirror Group Holborn Circus Building,I used to chit chat to the guards.
However, I soon learned most papers had more than one entrance, some which were easier to navigate than others. For example, with the Mirror Group papers, the trades entrance on New Fetter Lane was always awash with people and guards who could care less. Across the street, it wasn't much different for the "Sunday People" entrance.
For the the "Daily Mail" and "Evening News" the Northcliffe House often unguarded staff entrance on Tudor Street was preferable to the main entrance whose commissionaires seemed as serious the the newspapers being produced there.
Over at the Black Lubijanka not only were there two separate entrances on Fleet Street, but in an unlikely fit of desperation I could slip in unchallenged through the wide-open news print bay. News International was also a cinch as was gaining entrance to the old "Evening Standard" building on St. Andrews Place.
I could have never contemplated doing at the "Los Angeles Times" what I had been doing in London. Even then, the editorial offices of American newspapers were inaccessible to the increasingly troublesome and violent public.
However, today, I can say with a degree of certainty, what I did then couldn't be done now. The de centralisation and sterilization of the newspaper industry coupled with "information technology" makes multiple ad hoc business meetings impossible and, in fact,unnecessary.Now, trying to swan into the new ivory tower encased publications is about as difficult as a rag and bone man getting into Number 10.
But even more depressing is the effect the death of Fleet Street has had on the national press. The creativity and cross fertilisation brought on by a close knit journalistic community, its members mingling with each other and with the adjoining legal establishment, was unique.
Now it's lost, with the fax replacing personal contact, E-Mail replacing the fax and televised internet conversations about to replace the lot. Britain, once again, appears to be going American, with the quality of stories declining, giving more and more power to sub editors. And what's the hot industry debate today? Are women better editors than men?
The favourite hang-out for gossip and debate between the journalistic and legal professions was the "El Vino" wine bar, a place that was hit hard when the hacks left. According to manager Daniel Thorold, "The legal people really mourned the loss of the journalists. The combination of reporters and lawyers createdthe lively, conversational and amusing situation you get when good minds are at work."
He pointed out that old habits die hard. "We still get some of the older crowd dropping by here for dinner. But its not like it used to be." It sure isn't. For one one thing, women are now common in this spa where once they were barred.
How was it?It was busy, dynamic, competitive, exciting, frustrating and a system that was grossly over manned and inefficient. For one thing, I could never understand why papers with such big staffs needed so many freelance writers and casual shift workers. It wouldn't have happened it America, something the media bosses would learn a few years down the line.
Now, I just didn't get off a boat and start writing for the national press. Considering I was a traditional American "who, what, where, why, when and how" broadsheet reporter, writing for the tabs was something that had to be learned.And my school was Fleet Street News Agency, a legendary hack-paparazzi hang-out mainly for those on the way up or those on the way down, its honour graduate being the BBC's Anne Robinson.
Sadly, it too, recently closed. There I learned the one great tabloid rule: No matter how big a story, it only has one hook, based on one thing, human interest...something to be milked dry.
Most weeks I would make from two to four visits to the street.I normally had standard route that would allow me to hit as many publications as needed....the Chancery Lane tube to Holborn Circus, Fetter Lane to Fleet Street, Bouverie Street to Whitefriars, Blackfriars to Kings Reach Tower (home of IPC womens magazines) and returning to my tiny Finsbury Park flat via the Blackfriars tube station. Or I could reverse this route if I first had business with say, the "Daily Mail."
Retracing that route today, seeing the lifeless and weatherworn shells that used to be home to the national press, I can't say its sad. It's like something out of "The Twighlight Zone," as if no publications ever existed there, with all traces of past identification removed. Only the Telegraph's old building, with its listed clock, is there there to readilly inform a tourist of what this area once meant to the nation. Of course, Reuters corporate Hq. is still on the street, but all news services are keeping company with ITN over on Gray's Inn Road.
Thinking back, my first recollection was of gray rain soaked days, wet shoes and cold feet, punctuated by endless traffic jams on Whitefriars and Bouverie Streets.As usual the cause was an infinite numbers of newsprint trucks blocking roads originally laid for horse drawn beer wagons.
Once on my own, it didn't take long to realise which news rooms were more receptive to a loud and aggressive American with cold, wet feet. And of equal importance was which publications had large and anonymous gents rooms I could use.
On aggregate, the Mirror Group won hands down. Big secluded loos, you know the type you could camp-out in for a whole day if needed, and lots of friendly people...not neccesarily in the loos however.I'm sure this had a lot to do with the socialist bent of the papers, meaning the staffs were unprententious, less up-tight and less hostile to foreigners than some of the other sheets. Or, it could have been they were just trying to appear that way because that's the way they were supposed to appear.
My personal favourite was the "Sunday People." The staff members, besides being the most relaxed and earthy on Fleet Street, were basically Sunday people, having two or three days during the week when they could take time to bullshit with me.
I owe a debt of gratitude to people such as David Farrar and the late Bill Doran, Tony Purnell, Mervyn Pamment, Frank Jeffries and Graham Ball, just for letting me hang-out. And over at the "Sunday Mirror" deputy editor Chris Ward, womens editor Eve Pollard and a sub editor named David Montgomery bore witness to my frequent presence in their midst.
After all, it was just across the the street from the "Sunday People."
And the reason they and other editors wanted to do that was because they were hungry journalists in a tightly competitive arena. They were gamblers working for me, betting on me. They were waging every so often I would come in with a good story that no one else would have. And, thankfully I didn't disappoint them. Hell, I'm still here. Fleet Street is gone.