The Booze Of The News
Added: Tuesday, November 1st 2005
When Reuters news agency left Fleet Street in London a couple of months ago there was a vast outpouring of grief in the media about the end of the old newspaper industry in a road best known as the Street of Shame.
I suspect that most of the coverage was of interest only to those who had once worked in Fleet Street. But the general populace was not doubt gripped by the stories told by ancient hacks about the heavy boozing that went on when Fleet Street was home to most of the daily and Sunday newspapers.
None of the old Fleet Street hands exaggerated. The street was awash with drink. Interviews and stories were conducted and written in the vast number of hostelries that packed the street and the side roads that fed into it. In the 1960s and 1970s, when I worked on national newspapers, it was less a question of getting alcohol into your bloodstream, more a case of getting some blood into your alcohol stream.
My happiest years were spent not on a national paper but the Evening Standard. It was based in those days in Shoe Lane, a narrow road that linked High Holborn with Fleet Street. Almost opposite the Standard's building was a Watney's modern, split-level pub called the Globe. Journalists from the Standard drank there, often popping "over the road" between editions.
As the Standard in those times produced six editions a day, there was much popping over to the Globe. The paper's legendary chief sub-editor was called Cyril and he would visit the Globe several times during the course of the day to down bottles of Worthington's White Shield. I admire his choice of beer but the strength of his favourite tipple took its toll.
Once or twice a year we would hear that Cyril wouldn't be coming to the office but was in court, accused of being apprehended while sailing all sheets to the wind. It scarcely made him a legendary figure: he probably stood in a queue at the court with similarly inebriated colleagues.
A group of us would occasionally saunter down to Fleet Street to drink in the King & Keys. This was the Telegraph journalists' pub and the banter between the two sets of hacks would flow as swiftly as the beer.
My main memory of drinking in the King & Keys was being told one day I must try a new beer called Long Life. This was, I think, the first attempt to foist lager on an unsuspecting public. It was produced by Allied Breweries and, I suspect, was a pale warm-fermented beer served extremely cold. It didn't last long and ended its brief rather than long life as a cheapie canned product.
There were better beers to drink. Draught Bass was downed in the Punch Tavern where the satirical magazine Punch was launched in 1841 by a group of young, radical and no doubt pie-eyed journalists.
Half way up the street and almost hidden away in Wine Office Court, the Olde Cheshire Cheese, once popular with such literary luminaries as Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens, dispensed copious draughts of Marston's Pedigree in its maze of tiny wood-panelled rooms. Marston's once told me the company sold more Pedigree in the Cheese than in the rest of its London outlets combined. Why it gave up the franchise to Sam Smith's is a mystery. On Saturday evenings, you had to fight your way into and out of the Cheese, packed to the rafters with raucous reporters from the equally raucous Screws of the World.
The Globe was shared by journalists from both the Standard and the Morning Advertiser. The MA was then a daily and, in the manner of a Chinese wall newspaper, would place the pages from each day's edition in display cabinets on the wall fronting the street.
I would occasionally study the MA, marvelling at the trials and tribulations of the licensed trade, never dreaming that one day I would prop up a corner of its bar.
By some bibulous miracle, all the papers, from the MA to the mass circulations populars, managed to appear every day, awash with booze and the clatter of typewriters. Happy, hazy days.