Tour guide Ian McDowell takes a nocturnal walk along Fleet Street in search of the ghosts of the news industry.
My unlikely adventure started with a man called Paul, from Cardiff. I was holding forth on City history to some poor unfortunate in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, and Paul joined the conversation.
Paul — who worked on Fleet Street in the early 80s, before Rupert Murdoch picked it up and dropped it on Wapping — painted an irresistible picture of the Street in 1980. Baleful, it was. Full of bales, that is. Bales of paper. Fleet Street was an all-night bale fest.
Bales were terrifying two-ton cylinders of paper. They were trundled down lanes. They were dropped through roofs. They were winched from lorries through high windows into chattering, clattering print rooms. The whole cacophony reached its climax around 5am. My Mission Impossible Challenge — which I chose to accept — was to compare Paul’s account of 5am in 1980 with 5am today.
In 1980, those who didn’t work at machines with green visors strapped to their heads, made their names with stories picked up after-hours in the great circuit of smoky pubs. Upending endless pints. The ones who could take it became booze legends. Those who couldn’t rolled home to the 'missus', hats pulled over bloodshot eyes. Four o’clock stubble, chewing gum, Embassy Regal. Images that clung to my half-awake brain like cobwebs to a junk shop typewriter as I pottered down Ludgate Hill at 4.45am, dressed for Farming Today. It was cold. Farmers know how to dress for it.
The King Kong connection
The first thing I saw was the bronze monument to Edgar Wallace, Roman in profile. The creator of King Kong, one of his agents used to claim that a quarter of the books in England were written by him. He chronicled the Second Boer War for the Daily Mail, and exposed Belgian atrocities in the Congo. Born into poverty, the plaque informs us, he had 'walked with kings'.
Mainly, this was at the races. Everyone on the Street lived hard, and Edgar was no exception. Harder, when he swapped London for the Sunshine State in pursuit of a life of martinis and flying boats out of Southampton Water. It was 1932. Awash with gambling debts, he swapped Hollywood for a coffin at the age of 56.
The last journalists on Fleet Street
Darryl Smith and Gavin Sherriff were the last journalists to clock out of their Fleet Street jobs on a sweaty August afternoon in 2016. Their Dundee-based paper, the Sunday Post, still has its name spelt out in tiles on their old HQ. At 5.20am their high window wears an unearthly glow, as if aliens from outer space are writing stories for the Alpha Centauri Enquirer, or setting up a Kubrick-style monolith.
The street’s first occupants were aliens of a kind, a new secular legal class who multiplied in the no-man’s-land between the City and royal Westminster after Henry VIII had evicted its educated, decadent priests. They whiled away their downtime in the same drinking holes, and curious strangers would fill their pots in exchange for a scurrilous story. By 1702 faster printing and a newly permissive censorship regime had made the world’s first newspaper, the Daily Courant, a bit of a no-brainer.
Most of the Street’s upper storeys today are dead-eyed garrets, tenants not wanting to climb six flights for a square of bare floorboard and a grimy window. They look haunted, but are they? At some witching hour do the hacks stand up again like haunted brooms and descend the stairs? Sadly not.
What atmosphere there is remains aloft. No cheeky Cockney sparrows at street level to greet me with a Cor Blimey. No Dick Van Dykes bearing the Morning Edition on their heads. Just sandwich shop key holders, plus a quickstepping posse of mysterious men in deep hoods holding limp banana skins. My good mornings to delivery people were answered by glum silence. It was more than unfriendliness. It was some unwritten rule of the night time economy, and I had broken it.
Warm ports of comfort
The magic that is left at street level haunts the vicinities of the pubs: the George, the Bell, the Tipperary, the Olde Cock, with its fairy-tale pinnacle and Tudor footprint, all with some hint of life, even at this hour. In the back, by Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Roxy Beaujolais’ four-hundred-year-old Seven Stars has a single bare lightbulb glowing in an upper room. Beyond it, Charles Dickens’ frail old Curiosity Shop wears a splint of girders to stop it falling back into the black hole of a new development.
Black was the colour of Fleet Street in its heyday: black ink, black cars, black hats, black hearts. 'Street of Shame' — Private Eye’s name for it — was stolen from a movie about a Japanese brothel. It was a world that took care of you, but it was also a world that could spit you out. For those who needed them most, the pubs were warm ports of comfort in the cruel sea of journalism, an amber necklace on a pinstriped pig.
The only place open on Fleet Street
Give thanks for these pubs. Even in repose they take the edge off modernity. And give thanks for McDonald’s. Nowhere else, not even a sandwich shop, was open. Fingers numb with cold, I slipped inside, and permitted myself a small feast of bacon and egg in a sugary bun. Beverly, a cleaner from Brixton, gave me a lovely smile and told me her family stories. There was even background music. Tom Chaplin, of Keane, was walking across an empty land: “O simple thing, where have you gone/I’m getting old, and I need something to rely on”.
McDonalds is something to rely on, a dot of hope in modernity’s tundra. The bacon and egg lady was frank. They could open at five. But they open just before six, because at five there’s nobody here. Sad, but true. The first unsleeping hive of news has become a pale set of clues to past glories. The presses are gone. Edgar Wallace, honest chronicler of wars, churner out of countless words, rests in bronze profile. Trust McDonald’s to deliver the truth unvarnished.