Pirates of Fleet Street 


By VICTOR WATERS

In 1970, in our own world, US President ‘Tricky Dicky’ Nixon called out the US armed forces and National Guard to break a two-week strike by US postal workers. This was a dress rehearsal for the total cock-up he would later make of the Watergate cover- up. The ‘illegal’ strike began in New York City and dragged in America’s 210,000 post workers. The army made lousy postmen and the strikers won. 

A year later British postmen weren’t so lucky. They struck for two months but when their union ran out of money everyone went back to work with nix. The average postie lost 150 quid during the strike; the Post Office lost 25 million pounds and a million commercial customers. 

The public was stitched up too. During the stoppage the government slyly slipped in a switch to decimal currency and the cost of postage stamps and many other small items was bumped up. 

But not everyone was a loser. 

A noble rabble of entrepreneurs took it on themselves to uphold Britain’s proud traditions of private enterprise. Their endeavours kept the mail flying, floating and, very occasionally, dropping into letter-boxes. Unfairly dubbed ‘pirates’ by some, they were truly privateers – working on Her Majesty’s Service. And in the best traditions of their sea-going ancestors, they made a few bob wherever they could. 


CHAPTER 1 

The Cheese 

Strike Week 1 Wednesday March 5 

A VERY old African grey parrot squinted through the tobacco smoke wafting around his home, a cage hanging from the ceiling of the timbered front bar of the 400-year old Cheshire Cheese pub. 

The Cheese is located in the aptly-named Wine Office Court. At the Fleet Street end an arch leads out to the street of shame. At the other end is Gough Square, where the famous Doctor Johnson once dwelled. An habitué of the boozer, he was partly responsible for the well-worn, bowed front step of the Cheese which is today capped with a steel grille to halt its decline. 

Few journalists are numbered among current habitués of the old pub. The regular drinkers that clog up the entrance passage every day, to the exasperation of the pub’s cockney managers, are mostly from the dark side. They are advertising agency types, space salesmen from the numerous magazines and provincial newspapers that keep a presence on the street. More of them work in the dozens of other ancillary trades and agencies feeding off the newspaper industry. 

Scribes stay away, mainly because the famous Cheshire Cheese attracts inordinate numbers of tourists. Journalists have always preferred their own kind and there are numerous watering holes up, down and around Fleet Street to accommodate them. 

Every one of the national newspapers has its own favourite pub, generally the one nearest the editorial office. So if you were looking for someone from the Daily Excess you’d go the Old Bell. The Mirror’s team used the Stab in the Back. No Fear’s people shared The Bride’s Nightie with their Weasel Bros stable-mate hacks from The Daily Rage. 

Shortly after 5pm opening time on a pleasant evening in March 1975 a hard-core half dozen of the street’s most colourful ad salesmen hogged the Cheese’s passage-way, as usual. They clustered around the substantial bulk of their leader, genial Jim Baxter. 

From this prime position they could order drinks (mostly beer) through the serving hatch into the front bar. Just as importantly, they were well-placed to engage and sweet-talk any likely-looking, attractive young female tourists and direct them to the restaurant floors, the cellar-bar or back-bar. The chaps were extraordinarily helpful and had even been known to escort some tourists (if young, female and sufficiently attractive) to other clubs and bars in the City when the Cheese closed for the afternoon at 3pm. 

A thin young man squeezed through the throng, made a deft turn into the front bar and hefted a substantial cloth cash-bag onto the bar top. He was stronger than he looked. This came about from no exercise regime; but he habitually toted heavy bags of photographic kit around Lundn in order to take pictures for the country’s dailies. He was always more smartly dressed than most of the Street’s snappers and by looking half-way acceptable to the business community managed to snaffle a bit of commercial work too. In contrast to the older, sober- suited ad-men the snapper wore a wide-lapelled, nip-waisted light- green tweed suit. A multi-coloured kipper tie was at half-mast below the wide collar of a paisley shirt. 

“ ’allo, Vince; pint?” asked Les, the Cheese’s joint manager. Les was a born and bred cockney, younger than he looked, a pub professional who was always immaculate with white shirt and open black waistcoat draped around his substantial bulk. 

“Definitely, landlord. An’ whatever you’re ’avin’.” 

Pulling open the cash-bag he spilled some coins onto the bar. 

“Take it out of that lot, Les, and let us know when it’s gone, right?” 

Vincent X looked up at the parrot. 

“Evenin’, Perce; want some nuts or what?” 

The African grey coughed. 

“It’s not good for ’im, y’know, Les, all this smoking and drinking. You changed ’is water lately?” 

Climbing on to the bar via an old wooden stool, Vincent tipped a small bag of salted peanuts into the parrot’s cage, swiftly snatching his hand back as the ungrateful old beast snapped at his fingers. 

“Charmin’ that is, Perce,” he said, climbing down. 

Jim Baxter, noting Vincent’s contorted attempt of animal kindness, pushed his jovial red face through the serving hatch with a greeting. 

“Evening, young Mr X, how are you then?”
The chaps always enjoyed a dig at Vincent’s professional name. “Evenin’, Jim; alright? Drink?” 

He made the accepted international pub-goers gesture, right-hand raised, followed by a double-tilt of the wrist towards the gob. In a noisy boozer it was more effective than words. 

“No, no, thank-you, Vince,” replied Baxter, in a deep, rolling basso profundo. “Mustn’t extend the school.” 

Les rolled his eyes. 

“Bloody Baxter; surprised he recognises you at all. First thing in the morning he’s in here, soon as we open. ‘Done a day’s work by then’, he says.” 

“Yeah, nice life these ad blokes have,” agreed Vincent. 

“You ever noticed the way ’is voice changes, from morning to night?” asked Les. 

“Well, no. I’m not often here in the morning, am I? Got work to do.” 

“Yeah, yeah, I’m sure,” said Les. “Well, first thing in the mornin’ Jim’s bright as you like, all shiny-face an’ all. And his voice, it’s right up there, squeaks like a choir boy! By the time he’s back in here at five o’clock it’s dropped about five octaves.” 

“Must be all them Weasels, Les, stuck in ’is throat. Talkin’ of which, where’s yours?” 

“What’s this all about then; what you done, robbed a bank?” queried Les as he sorted through the pile of change. 

“Nah, post office, actually.” 

Les looked quizzical. 

“I’m kiddin’, mate! Don’t worry; all legit this is. Just happens to be that rare commodity ’round here, readies.” 

Les pushed a pint, in a straight glass, towards Vincent. 

“Oh yes? And how long have the papers been paying freelance snappers in cash, then?” 

“They don’t, mate, as you well know. This is today’s takings from the new postal business.” 

“Don’t tell me – that dozy idea about the letters: you mean there are mugs trusting you to take over the Royal Mail?” 

Vincent laughed and shook his head. 

“It’s a fact, Les: fortunately the great British public are a lot less cynical than the average publican. Here’s to ’em!” he said, raising the glass to the world in general, and his new clients in particular. 

“An’ if you don’t believe me, go an’ ’ave a look at the pickets outside our office. The union’s taking us seriously, an’ that’s a fact.” 

“Blimey! Alright then, as it’s legit,” said Les, pouring a bottle of beer into a half-pint glass and drawing a few more coins from Vincent’s pile. “I’ll ’ave a Weasel. Cheers!” 

Readers can be assured that the ‘weasel’ favoured by manager Les and his more discerning customers has no connection with the vile and totally despicable proprietors of the vile and totally despicable No Fear Sunday tabloid. The weasel featured on bottles of Marstons’ excellent product in the 1970s was a vicious four-legged beast of uncertain provenance. While the Weasel Bros were also vicious, and also had four legs, their legs were evenly distributed, just two per brother. 

“Good ’ealth, mate,” said Vincent. 

“Ah, ’ere she is!” 

A pretty, petite brunette girl in the fitted, mid-blue uniform and forage-cap worn by stewardesses flying on the D-UK’s BEA airline (BEA – Back Every Afternoon) in those days had squeezed into the front bar, avoiding the leering regulars in the passage with the well- practised skill learned in the narrow aisles of aeroplanes. She was carrying a large shoulder bag. Vince kissed her cheek. 

“Les, meet Sharon, from our transport division. What you ’avin’, luv?” 

“Aoh, just a small white wine, I fink Vince, ’cos I’m drivin’.” 

Sharon’s cockney accent was a match for those of Vincent X and Les. 

“Not the plane, I ’ope?” said Les. 

“Very droll, that, Les,” said Vincent. “White wine please; ’aven’t got any cold, I suppose, that ’asn’t bin open a week?” 

“Might be lucky: I’ll ’ave a look. Take it out of ’ere, shall I?” 

Les indicated the cash bag. 

“Course. Tell you what, though, better take for a new bottle. At least we’ll know it’s almost drinkable.” 

While Les struggled with a corkscrew at the back of bar Sharon took in her surroundings. 

In the early evening the small bar was filling fast. The floor, walls and ceiling had all been fashioned in dark timber centuries before. Sawdust was scattered on the floorboards. Benches were fixed to the wall behind small, robust tables. There were a few armchairs and wooden bar-stools. Yellowish light from hanging lamps struggled to penetrate the smoky air which was thickened further by fumes from an open fire in a cast-iron grate. The hubbub of raised voices was produced by an almost totally male clientele drinking real draught ale or strong bottled beer. 

“Nice ’ere, ennit,” said Sharon, diplomatically. “I can’t be too long though, Vincent. I’m parked in the street.” 

“Where?” asked Vincent. “On a meter?” 

“Nah, just at the end of the alley, through that arch, on wot’s it, Fleet Street? But I’ll be alright for a minute; I’ve got a copper watchin’ it.” 

Les, pouring Sharon’s wine, hesitated. 

“You what?” he gaped. 

“Yeah, it’s the uniform, see? It’s amazin’ ’ow blokes react to yer. Even rozzers. We’re a bit like nurses, I suppose?” 

Les and Vince each caught the other’s eye and shared a gape. 

“Go on,” said Vincent. 

“Well, I’ve got me top down see, and I could see ’im watchin’ when I pulled in. I stops, and he walks up – you know that way they walk, coppers, like their boots are too ’eavy? 

“An’ I get out and say – ooh, fank goodness you’re ’ere officer. I’ve just got to nip in ’ere to spend a penny; would you mind keepin’ an eye on the motor, just for a minute, as you’re ’ere anyway?” 

“And ’e said ...?” asked Les, incredulous. 

“ ‘Course, darlin’. ’urry up though, I’m off duty at six.’ Nice, wasn’t it?” 

“Bloody amazin’,” said Les and Vincent in unison. 

Sharon swigged her wine. 

“Right – can’t keep the plane waitin’, eh? Where’s the letters, Vincent?” 

Vince pulled out several bundles of mail that had been stretching out the slim-cut lines of his Carnaby Street jacket. 

“Ah, that’s better,” he said, with a grunt and handed the airmail letters to Sharon who stuffed them into her shoulder bag. She planted a kiss on Vincent’s cheek. 

“Ciao, Vince. Nice to meet you, Les!” 

Vincent escorted Sharon to the door and watched in some disbelief as she wiggled out of the pub, down the Court and under the arch into Fleet Street. A very tall City copper was keeping guard by a bright blue convertible sports car, which, as Sharon had said, was topless. Brief dialogue, then Sharon went up on tip-toes to give the copper a kiss on the cheek. He then walked to the middle of the street and held up traffic from both directions while Sharon made a screeching u-turn and drove west towards Heathrow and her flight to Yoorup. 


CHAPTER 2 

Cobblers last 

Strike Week 1 Wednesday March 5 

IT WAS a relief to see his first consignment of overseas mail hurtling towards Yoorup in safe hands, even though Sharon’s driving style did depend largely on the good wishes of other motorists. 

“It’s amazin’ ’ow they let you in when they see the uniform, an’ the little ’at, wiv the white scarf ’oldin’ it on,” she’d advise her airline mates. “You just ’ave to catch their eye, little smile and they can’t stop quick enough. Could cause accidents sometimes, I reckon. Never mind though, eh?” 

The third day of the great British postal strike was looking promising for Vincent X, despite a shaky start and a volley from Cheryl, his one and only employee. 

“I suppose you saw them two wallies wiv their bloomin’ signboards downstairs? That little one, bloody cheek, said I’d got scabby, black legs or suvvink!” 

Vincent X, still puffing a bit from dragging his camera bags up eight flights of stairs to the top of Fleet Street’s Blankenberg building, dumped them on the secretary’s desk. 

“No, I think you’ve got it wrong there, Cher. ’e wouldn’t say that – good lad ’e is, Elfie. Went to my school. He probably just called you a scab, or a blackleg p’raps. 

“Fair enough, really. He’s got a job to do, supportin’ his brothers in the union. Wouldn’t ’ave made a personal remark about your legs, not Elfie. ’e’s a bit shy, actually. Bin deliverin’ on the Fleet Street round a few months now. I think he’s gonna be real handy for us.” 

“You went to the same school? What’s this, the ‘Old Boy network’ then, looking’ after y’mates?” 

“Not exactly. It wasn’t Eton, Cheryl. Not that I’m takin’ anything away from Snowsfields, but in Berm-onSea there ain’t a lot of grace and favour on offer from the kids you met at school. But he’s alright, Elfie. I’ve told him and his mate to come up for a bit of a chat, once the shop steward’s been round to check up on ’em.” 

Cheryl sniffed. 

She did that a lot, even when she wasn’t nursing one of her regular colds. This was one of her contemptuous sniffs, the one that says ‘cobblers Vincent’. Hot on the heels of ‘the sniff’ she let out ‘the exasperated sigh’. 

This was code for ‘here he goes again, what’s this lot of cobblers gonna be?’ 

Cheryl Hitchfield had started working for the LPS – London Picture Service – almost a year earlier. Petite, blonde and pretty, officially she was a ‘Girl Friday’, the crafty job title Vincent had used often, and very successfully, in the jobs-vacant column of the Evening Standard. There was never a shortage of eager young women hoping for a break into the exciting newspaper world of Fleet Street. Unfortunately, prospects of advancement in Vincent’s one-man business were limited and the staff turnover swift. Cheryl had lasted longer than most and like her predecessors she was always on the lookout for something more interesting than making tea, filing negatives and answering the phone. She had last given vent to her exasperated sigh two mornings ago. Her boss had staggered in, dumped the cameras on her desk as usual, and announced they were going into the postal game. Here we go, said her sigh. 

“Yes, of course Vincent. Shall I go and pump me tyres up, then? Nip up to Mount Nice on the company bike and tell ’em – load me up, Vincent X is takin’ over the Royal Mail. 

“We’re gonna deliver that ’undred ton of letters you’ve got bunging up the sortin’ office. What were you on this weekend, Vince?” 

Cheryl was good at exasperation, having studied under her mum, who had practised it for years on Cheryl’s dad. 

“Why do you think all them postmen are on strike? It’s a lousy job, rotten money, and if you fink we can go runnin’ round ’ere deliverin’ letters ... What!” 

Vincent was flapping an airmail letter with the distinctive red, white and blue edging, trying to mesmerise her perhaps, or at least shut her up. 

“Alright ,smartarse, so you got a letter from America. From Alastair Cooke is it? So what?” 

“Dead right, Cher, you got it. That’s the point, a letter from abroad. There’s no money in deliverin’ the mail ...” 

“Well then ...” 

“In this country.” 

Vincent pulled his second exhibit out of the camera bag. It was a folded sheet torn off his captions notebook. He started flapping that at Cheryl. 

“All right, all right, I can’t read semaphore. What is it?” 

“An ad. Type this up luv, and nip up the Evenin’ Standard classifieds desk. Get it in today’s late edition if you can. Under the ‘Postal Services’ section if they’ve got one. If they ain’t, stick it in the Miscellaneous column wiv a big heading – 

WE’LL DELIVER YOUR OVERSEAS MAIL.” 

The brainwave had struck him the previous day, Sunday, over a heart-starting pint of warm mild and bitter in the Cobblers Last, his favourite backstreet local. Down in darkest Walworth the boozer was universally known as The Load – as in ‘load of cobblers’. 

The obligatory Sunday lunch session was roaring along nicely by the time he had pushed through the mob at the small bar. It was packed as usual, mostly with blokes in their Sunday best, anaesthetising themselves ready to face the burnt offering waiting at home. The big roast, loads of veg with gravy; it was the pièce de résistance of ’er indoors all over south Lundn. 

Plates loaded with cheese cubes and onions artfully arranged on cocktail sticks, the publican’s traditional, generous Sunday offering, were empty by the time Vincent fronted up, twenty minutes after opening. The cheese always went fast, generally cleaned up by the first regulars through the door. By the time they’d downed their first pints most of the seafood dishes were also bare, but for a few whelks. 

An acquired taste, whelks. 

“Pint of ’arf ’n’ ’arf, luv,” Vince shouted over the heads of the early birds, tenaciously holding their front-row spots near the grub. 

He squeezed between two of the more genial regulars, who’d already had a good whack at the cheese-plate, dropped eleven pence on the damp counter and grabbed a straight pint glass of murky, mid-brown beer. 

“Ta luv. You’re lookin’ lovely as ever. When did you get back, Florida wasn’t it?” 

This to the pub’s Missus, Lil. Vincent believed in keeping on the right side of pub landladies. 

“Thanks very much, Vincent. Here you are, there’s a couple of whelks left.” 

Lil’s multiple gold rings and an enormous charm bracelet rattled as her fleshy, mahogany tanned hand slid the tray across the beer- dampened bar. Lil’s unseasonal tan was fresh from Torremolinos, rather than Florida, topped up on her sun bed upstairs and amply displayed by a low-cut blouse. 

Several pounds of gold coloured chains and earrings made a welcome visual diversion from the ample treasure chest below. A platinum blonde wig topped the show. Below it, Lil was back to her natural mouse this year, after an unfortunate incident with a home perm and bleach job. While her head recovered, the wig hid most of the disaster area. 

“No, I’m alright thanks, Lil, don’t agree with me, whelks. Like your Barnet ... very ... bright. Gonna ’ave a drink?” 

“Ta, Vincent. Alright, as it’s you I’ll just ’ave a bob’s worth.” 

Lil retrieved her Paris goblet from the back of the bar and gave it short squirt from the Gordon’s’ optic. It was already half-full with gin and tonic but Lil believed it was only polite to take a drink when offered. A bob’s worth was just a token dash. So much for weights and measures. Fortunately the inspector rarely put in an appearance down Walworth way. 

“Cheers,” she said. “Here, hold on a minute.”  

Vincent knew the pub generally kept a plate of cheese and biscuits back, so the greedy sods who rushed in first wouldn’t get the lot. Lil returned with a small plate of snacks and swapped it for the tray of abandoned, rubbery whelks. 

“Oy, ’ands off, you’ve ’ad well enough,” she glared at Vince’s immediate neighbours at the bar. “This lad’s ’ad nothing yet!” 

“So, I suppose you’ve already booked the next trip then, Lil?” said Vincent, making a swift grab for a handful of cheddar. 

“No, can’t can we, Vince? We was going to see his sister on the Costa del Crime,” she nodded in the direction of mine host, Frank, who was getting steadily more pissed-off at having to serve single- handed while his trophy-wife ponced about flashing her tan. 

“You remember ’er, Elsie, doncha? She ’ad to move there after that big train robbery? 

“But we can’t get in touch, now with this bleedin’ strike. Can’t phone either, bloody Spanish phones are worse than ’ere.” 

“Oh. Yeah.
“Well what if ... you could get someone ... to ... go over ...” Vince was miles away, in Europe, posting letters.
Of course – overseas mail! 

Everyone down the Cobblers was talking about the coming strike. One or two were worried about how they’d get their pay cheques, or more likely, their pools coupons. On the other hand, a lot more had a good drink-up, ’cos they wouldn’t be getting any bills dropping through the letter-box either, for the foreseeable. So, not all bad. 

But people like Lil want to send letters abroad, thought Vince. There would be hundreds like her, thousands probably. So the Royal Mail doesn’t want to know? Well there’s plenty more post offices. Every country has loads of ’em. Trouble is they’re abroad. All you gotta do is get to them. 

Just get the envelopes over to the continent and stick ’em in the post! 

Easier than ever now that we’re in this bleedin’ Yoorupian Economic whatsit. 

Use the French post, probably. Give the Frogs a bit of extra business. Few more letters, they’d hardly notice. From France you could send a letter anywhere in the world. 

Except to Britain of course. 

Not that you actually take them to France yourself. Of course, top entrepreneurs like him were businessmen. You have to delegate, he knew that. You couldn’t hang around all those ponces at the Financial Times, go and take pictures at all those boring bloody annual general meetings, without picking up the basics. The geezers making all the money didn’t do a hand’s turn. Someone else did all the graft. 

So, how to get letters over to the Frog post office? And right on top of his first brainwave the next one hit home. He had someone in mind for that side of the game. He knew a certain bird with her own aeroplane ... sort of. 

“Lil,” said Vincent, “I reckon I can help you out here. You write to the sister-in-law, and I’ll get it delivered.” 

CHAPTERS 3 AND 4



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