TOM BROWN takes a liquid
trip down the Street of Shame
RIGHT, we start at the bottom. It was always the best place to start in Fleet Street, whether on a pub crawl or a career climb.
Ahead of us is what the cliché merchants called the ‘Street of Ink’ or ‘Street of Shame’, but Street of Boozers might be equally applicable.
We’re in Ludgate Circus. On your right, the King Lud. Because you have to cross a busy street, it’s where journos go to hide from news desks and have clandestine meetings with contacts. On your left, the Albion, the place for Sunday roasts and shady characters up from the East End for muttered dealings with mine host Mick.
A few paces up Fleet Street proper, there’s the Punch with cartoons round the walls and a brass figure of Mr Punch on the bar, a steady gas flame burning from a tiny cigar – nobody needs to bum a light in the Punch.
Then the Bell, with its back door into the alleyway and St Bride’s churchyard. It’s the PA pub, used by Express types who want to avoid the editor if he’s drinking in the pub across the street. George in the Bell pulls the best pint of Guinness in London, perfectly-cellared and served in the days when publicans took a pride in such things.
Now cross the street for another drinker’s delight, a bottle of Worthington White Shield in Poppins – actually, the Red Lion in Poppins Court – which started life in the narrow side-street which was part of the Express building and was run by a classically formidable landlady before it was taken over and moved on to Fleet Street. The old Poppins was long, narrow, crowded and hell to get served, like drinking in the buffet carriage on a train.
Poppins was where Keith Graves, later a BBC foreign correspondent, whacked the motoring correspondent David Benson and broke his nose. I took David to casualty at Guys and put my blood-stained shirt on expenses.
Heated arguments and toe-to-toe glaring matches were constant, but actual punch-ups were very rare. Mind you, when football and boxing writer Hugh McIlvanney invited a fellow-belligerent to step outside the Bell, Hugh was caught unawares when the cowardly sub pulled out his steel rule and laid it across Hugh’s face.
Just one bottle now, we’ve a lot of stops still to make and we can work our way back again if you have the hollow legs for it. Next, the King and Keys – the Telegraph pub, avoid the red wine drinkers and leader writers who stand near the door and argue about ‘important’ things (like how much longer will the management allow drink to be served in their office canteen), and the Guy who always asks fellow-reporters on a job ‘What’s your intro?’.
Do NOT talk politics with the ‘inkies’ from the composing room and the press-room because they know more than you.
Down Dorset Rise, past St Bride’s and into Daily Mail territory are Auntie’s (which must have had a real name and who was Auntie?), the Feathers and the Mucky Duck, whose sign actually showed The White Swan.
Over towards Holborn, is the haven for neurotics, narcissists, claw-your-eyes-out columnists and sharp-witted foot-in-the-door men who work for the Mirror Group. It was never known by any other name but the Stab In The Back, for obvious reasons.
Up another alleyway to the Cheshire Cheese, reeking then with cigarette smoke, beer fumes and history. The jug bar, served through a hole in the wall, was the journo’s choice until the tourists took over.
Back onto Fleet Street, for another half of Guinness in the ‘Tip’ aka The Tipperary. There’s also a Peter Evans steakhouse that does a passable bottle of wine and a fine glass of port.
Perhaps we’ll skip that and go straight to El Vino, a legend in everyone’s lunchtime. I hear they’re even letting females stand at the bar, instead of accepting their station in life and sitting demurely in the back room. Something to do with sex discrimination legislation and that demonstration staged by the Glendas.
On my first day in Fleet Street in 1964, fresh from the quick-sinking ‘hauf-and-a-hauf’ drinking culture in Scotland, I was placed in the care of namesake Mike Brown, a lovely big man just back from the Congo. He took me up to the cashiers, drew a fiver in my name (big money in those days) and we bought a bottle of champagne in El V’s.
As I stood there among the giants of journalism, champers at my elbow, I thought of my mother, still a cinema cleaner back in the linoleum town of Kirkcaldy, and, like Cody Jarrett in White Heat, toasted: “Made it Ma – top of the world!”
Over in Fetter Lane, there’s Shortlands for a plate of roast beef and a helping of pease pudding, highly effective as blotting paper for the drink. Of course, the best joints were served on Sundays at the Albion – beef, lamb and pork with crackling, but don’t ask questions about how they got there from Smithfield. The tattooed bloke behind the bar uses the carving knife like a razor-wielding gangster.
If the Albion was too crowded for Sunday lunch, we could always jump in a car to Blooms in Whitechapel for salt beef and latkas or Soho for dim sum in what later became Chinatown.
As long as you put the name or phone number of the pub on the blackboard in the news editor’s room, drinking and dining during working hours was condoned and accepted as part of the game.
How could we eat and drink so prodigiously? Expenses, old boy. Not lavish, but damned good – ruined countless livers and many a marriage.
You didn’t even need cash in your pocket; you could always sign an IOU and draw money from the commissionaire in the front hall, as long as the float lasted or until the editor or managing director took the lot for a night up West. These IOUs were known as ‘drinking vouchers’ ...
Don’t get the impression the drink was out of control; it was merely the lubricant
Where was I? Oh, yes. It’s often said that Fleet Street was a village. Our village may have had a surfeit of pubs, but they were the social clubs and neutral meeting-places which held our ferociously-competitive community together. They were also creative workshops where ideas were exchanged, crash courses in current events were held and angles evolved. The done-it-all old buffer in the corner was not a waste of space because attentive young cubs could learn a lot from his stream of reminiscence. And the crack was great.
The Street was such a hotbed of village gossip that a few mates and I started an unofficial organisation called Rent-a-rumour, the forerunner of Media Monkey. We’d start a rumour at the Express end and see how long it took to get up the Street and back down to us. It got so that ambitious types would ask us to start a rumour linking them with a promotion or a move to another paper – amazing how often it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Don’t get the impression the drink was out of control; it was merely the lubricant. Great newspapers couldn’t have been produced and we couldn’t have lived up to the banner across the Express newsroom ‘Make it early, make it accurate’ if we’d been even half-cut.
Of course, some of the more hardened drinkers would slope off for a ‘heart-starter’ at opening time in the morning. There was the two-jacket trick, one over the back of the chair to make the boss think the wearer was in the library and another to wear to the pub.
And one occasionally went too far. I was once so bombed that my colleagues stripped me and put me in the shower – and ever since, one of them has had this recurrent nightmare about a pink hippo being hosed down in the second floor rear of Beaverbrook’s Black Lubyanka.
Look, I’m feeling a bit …er … weary. Nothing to do with the drink, of course; must be my age. You just get another one in and carry on by yourself to the Wig and Pen opposite the Law Courts.
I’ll just rest here and remember a bit more … Ah, happy daze!
*Lord Drone recalls: Ah the Make It Early, Make It Accurate sign. There were two jolly japes connected with this. One was to sub to make it read: 'Make Early, Make It A Curate.’ The other was to add the words: 'Make It Up'