The Last Pub in Fleet Street - A Reporter's notebook by Revel Barker
London's Fleet Street area - where just about every major national British newspaper was compiled and printed for many decades until the 1980s - was virtually a village on its own. A village and a veritable institution in the City of London's EC4 area once populated by journalists and members of the legal profession, who often drank in the same hostelries, like the legendary El Vino. Then the newspapers moved, almost en masse, to other areas of London, mainly to Docklands, leaving their Fleet Street haunts to the lawyers. "The end of an error" as some wit described it, says Revel Barker in a new book, who also quotes the celebrated writer James Cameron describing the demise of Fleet Street thus: "It suffered a massive thrombosis...which means a healthy circulation, impeded by clots".
And yet the phrase "Fleet Street" lives on among the journalists who once pounded typewriters there. Like many of my former colleagues, I still consider myself a Fleet Street journalist, even though I haven't worked there since 1990. As do men like Revel Barker, who became Mirror Group Newspapers' managing editor before moving to warmer shores in Gozo, Malta. His book - "The Last Pub in Fleet Street - a Reporter's Notebook" is packed with nostalgic tales about Fleet Street before its journalists' sad diaspora, and will surely help keep "The Street's" memories alive.
Barker gets to work with some true gems right from the start, including the day the then picture editor of the Sunday Mirror, Allen Baird, made a ship-to-shore radio-link call to the single-handed round-the-world yachtsman Robin Knox-Johnston on board his vessel, Suhaili. "Hello Sunday Mirror!" replied the great man. "This is Suhaili. Receiving you loud and clear. Over."
"Hello" said Baird. "Could I speak to Mr Knox-Johnston please?" - forgetting perhaps that by definition Knox-Johnston was, er...the only man on board. And when Knox-Johnston finally arrived in Falmouth, he was asked by customs officials where his last port of call had been. "Falmouth" he said.
Barker also gleefully reports a classic story about Roy Spicer, one-time northern theatre critic of the old News Chronicle, who once wrote a review which began: "Slick, sparkling, spectacular and with some of the most brilliant dancing seen on the English stage, this colourful musical drama has a weakness - its songs. It has no songs to hum or remember."
The front page headline re-enforced this unfortunate aspect: "A HUMDINGER" it said - "WITHOUT A TUNE TO HUM."
Says Barker with his typically dry wit: "So much for the European premiere of West Side Story". Adding: "Shortly afterwards he (Roy) was made motoring editor".
There's another gem about one of Fleet Street's most ancient watering holes, The Cheshire Cheese. Barker recalls popping in there with a colleague to be told they should have booked. The place was full.
But then a friendly head waiter led the two journalists to a table in the corner, and addressed one of the customers on a bench seat, saying "Excuse me sir, but did you notice there's a plaque on the wall behind you saying this was Doctor Johnson's seat?"
"Gee, I'm sorry" said the tourist. "Has he come in?"
"No sir. Sadly he is dead but before he died he bequeathed it to Mr Barker, and now he has come in." Everybody shuffled round and made space.
Another famous hostelry, the Printers' Devil, was on the receiving end of a clever stunt by the celebrated playwright and Fleet Street columnist Keith Waterhouse. "He once ventured to ask the manager to turn down the volume on the juke box" writes Barker. "He was told that was impossible - because 'the staff like it'. So Waterhouse asked him for some change, then fed ten coins into the machine, pressed Amazing Grace ten times...and left the pub."
Barker illustrates the old Fleet Street truism that "names sell newspapers" with a nice anecdote about Hugh Cudlipp, the distinguished Daily Mirror editor in the 1950s and '60s. One of Cudlipp's first jobs as a reporter was to cover a performance of Handel's Messiah by the local choir. "Though he knew nothing about the oratorio" writes Barker, "he managed to scrape together two thousand learned words by diligent research in Grove's Dictionary of Music. But his editor asked for more.
"Cudlipp had an inspiration. Opening a new paragraph, he wrote: 'The names of the choir were...'"
And the names of Fleet Street's finest? Oh, if only I had room to list them all. But Revel Barker is undoubtedly one! And many of the others' names live on in The Last Pub in Fleet Street!
The Last Pub in Fleet Street is published on October 6, 2015, but available for pre-order from the Book Depository at a discount and with free postage worldwide.