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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 June, 2005, 11:06 GMT 12:06 UK
Farewell, Fleet Street
By Bill Hagerty
Former Fleet Street editor

As Reuters becomes the last news giant to leave London's Fleet Street, one former editor looks back on the street's glory days.

The Fleet Street Orchestra had disbanded by the time I arrived, but the melody lingered on.

What in the 1920s was a 30-strong, classical ensemble had diminished into the Fleet Street All Stars, an itinerant trad jazz group featuring the film critic of the Daily Express on clarinet and a Daily Mirror sub-editor on trumpet.

That disappeared too but The Street itself, rather like Old Man River, kept rock and rolling along until the migration of national newspapers relegated into the background the rhythm that pulsed its pavements.

Where are they now? See London's new media landscape.

Now even that is gone. With a St Bride's service to mark the departure of Reuters, the last news organisation to vacate what Philip Gibbs famously christened The Street of Adventure, Wednesday is the day the music finally dies.

I spent around a quarter of a century in and around Fleet Street; 25 years roaming a film set of a workplace stocked with larger than life characters and larger than average drinks in The Stab in the Back or The Cock Tavern or El Vino.

Outside the buildings where the production of newspapers filled some 22 hours of most days of the year, The Street was one great watering hole, which, if you walked fast enough, could be traversed pub-to-pub during a rainstorm without getting very wet.

Sanctuary of leather

This is where the giants of the trade would gather at lunchtimes in El Vino to argue over matters of national importance and whose turn it was to buy the next bottle of claret.

Where the old Press Club, a sanctuary of leather and polished wood in Salisbury Court, was an after-hours refuge for those with an unquenchable thirst and possessing the gall to keep waiting for hours the office account taxis lined up outside.

Reuters building
Reuters: The last to leave

And where each newspaper would have its "own" pub or three to which, nonetheless, visitors were welcomed upon production of the wherewithal to pay for a round and a decent line in repartee.

The Mirror, which had crept another hundred yards from the actual Street when relocating from Rolls Buildings to Holborn Circus - after the Second World War, the Telegraph and Express were the only major papers occupying premises on Fleet Street itself - supported a cluster of such refreshment pit stops.

News sub-editors could be found in The Printer's Devil and members of the sports staff in the White Swan but, handily linked to the office by a bridge across Fetter Lane, the Stab was the Savoy of office pubs and a legend in its own opening times.

One giant party

It was in the Stab that Keith Waterhouse, then of the Mirror, picked up the pet Chihuahua of the landlord's wife and called for two slices of bread before attempting to make a dog sandwich.

Fleet Street
Life goes on for Fleet Street
Here pop music writer Harry Doncaster might play the piano, Errol Garner-style, on evenings when he wasn't standing at the bar with visiting chums such as the publicist Les Perrin or singers Matt Munro and Paul Anka.

Features chief sub Des Lyons, cigarette ash tumbling down the front of his worn blazer, was another Stab pianist, especially on Thursday evening "Nights of Magic" when songs were sung, insults and sometimes punches exchanged and marriages crumbled in the heady atmosphere of booze, news and nothing-to-lose.

My memory suggests that one giant, continuous party was roaring through the late 1960s and most of the 70s in the Stab - so nicknamed because of the early bloodletting after the paper's hike up Fetter Lane.

Livers were apparently constructed of concrete
Elsewhere in the village, similar shindigs were almost secretly enlivening a Street that to the intruders seemed outwardly respectable enough unless, that is, they happened to encounter such events as the Great Hopping Race of Christmas 1969 - won by Mirror editor-to-be Mike Molloy after pausing en route to swing from some building works scaffolding.

El Vino, with strict rules concerning serving women at the bar - it didn't - and the required dress code, jackets and ties essential, was Fleet Street's gentleman's club, even if the unruly behaviour of some gentlemen occasionally resulted in them being temporarily barred from the premises.

Express building
The Express's remarkable former building, nicknamed the Black Lubianka
Percy Hoskins, a great Daily Express crime man, held court here, as did Philip Hope-Wallace, the eminent Guardian critic.

Brian McConnell, who in 1974 lurched from a taxi in The Mall to stop a bullet meant for Princess Anne, was usually on hand to deliver gossip about cops and court cases.

El Vino was the melting pot for a trade where word-of-mouth was the favoured method of advertising jobs available, scoops obtained and reputations destroyed.

Nobody ever heard the phrase "number crunchers" applied to newspapers in the days when overstaffing was rife, expense accounts lavish - the queue waiting for hefty advances on Friday evenings at the Mirror was so long it's a wonder that production wasn't impeded - and livers were apparently constructed of concrete.

Yet somehow this disparate, largely dissipated band of brothers and sisters produced some excellent journalism.

Social excesses

That's not to say that the accountants and the dispersal of titles all over town have diminished journalistic standards - the best today is better than ever and other influences are responsible for the worst.

But those who weren't there must find it difficult to appreciate that the camaraderie, the social excesses and the sheer fun of Way Back Then were no more than by-products of a competitive, high-pressure trade in which the sharpest practitioners realised commercial success was only part of its raison d'Ítre.

Old newspaper building
Traces of a news heritage - Scotland's Sunday Post is still based here
Reuters' departure allows the completion of the jigsaw puzzle of a new Fleet Street, removing all traces of the thundering industry that made its name synonymous with the twilight world of the press.

The Stab in the Back is now a pizza restaurant. The old Cock made way for a bank. Brian McConnell still sometimes turned up in El Vino until his death last year - the brilliant Alan Watkins, God bless him, can sometimes be found there still - but the dress code has vanished along with those intellectually stimulating sessions when journalism, if not the world, was put to rights.

"Fleet Street is still my home," wrote Philip Gibbs in 1923, "and to its pavement my feet turn again from whatever part of the world I return."

But the footsteps we hear are only echoes now.

Bill Hagerty is a former deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and editor of The People. He now edits the British Journalism Review.

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