Cherry cake at the Ritz

Fleet Street lives again in Keith Waterhouse's affectionate memoir. By Jeremy Lewis; Streets Ahead by Keith Waterhouse Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Newly arrived in London in the early Fifties from his native Leeds, where he had started his journalistic career on the Yorkshire Evening Post, Keith Waterhouse soon found himself, rather to his surprise, working in the features department of the Daily Mirror. With its ceaseless bustle and pulsating presses, Fleet Street reminded the young Waterhouse of the Yorkshire mill town of his youth. Heavily-overcoated crime reporters were the monarchs of all they surveyed - with the abolition of the death penalty and the rise of commercial television they would soon be supplanted by showbiz correspondents - and the pubs were awash with red-nosed, rheumy- eyed hacks downing a last one before boarding the last train home to long- suffering wives in Petts Wood. As Waterhouse quickly discovered, not a great deal of work was done in the overmanned features department, so enabling one of his colleagues to run a wholesale confectionery business on the side. Dutifully clocking in on his first day, Waterhouse found one feature writer hard at work reading The Catcher in the Rye and another damping down the flames after setting his tweed jacket on fire with an unextinguished pipe, while the paper's agony aunt, a former cleaning lady, bustled from desk to desk handing out slices of home-made cake. Come 12 o'clock and it was time to adjourn for a three-hour liquid lunch at Winnie's, the features department's pub, before moving on to tea and cherry cake at the Ritz - unhappily regurgitated before staggering back to the office, pale and sweaty-browed. All this made for a fine, vigorous start to Waterhouse's London career - and, indeed, to the second volume of his autobiography.

Despite the long lunches, Waterhouse quickly made his mark - consorting with "Cassandra'' and the London editor of Beano, writing provocative readers' letters, tactfully adjusting the astrologer's predictions so as not to inflame a susceptible Mirror director, and chasing stories to fit headlines concocted in advance by the features editor ("CAN WOMEN BE TRUSTED WITH MONEY?"). Before long he was making trips abroad and, in his spare time, writing his first novel. After its publication, he decided to go freelance, and Hugh Cudlipp offered him a retainer to write a twice weekly column. It's still running in the Daily Mail to which he transferred during the Maxwell years.

Waterhouse's second novel, Billy Liar, was not only a success in its own right, but made its author a rich man after he and Willis Hall - whom he had known in Leeds - had adapted it for stage and screen; and from now on the two men, who referred to themselves as the Word Factory, were to produce a stream of scripts, from films (A Kind of Loving, Whistle Down the Wind) to Worzel Gummidge and That Was the Week that Was. As is so often the case, alas, worldly success, and the rather breathless world of showbiz, prove a good deal less amenable to autobiography than the early years of struggle and obscurity. We're treated to evocations of New York and San Francisco which add little to what one has read already; long forgotten shows are dusted down, and accompanying quotes exhumed ("It was back to mixed reviews again"); compared with the colourful Fleet Street pages, the second half of the book seems blander and more perfunctory. Waterhouse comes across as a likeable and congenial cove, all too easily lured into buying another round, but his private life receives as short shrift in print as in real life, and the years between the Sixties and Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell spin by in a couple of pages. That said, it's good to report an encounter with Walt Disney in Los Angeles. The meeting got off to a sticky start when Waterhouse slipped in a compliment to Mickey Mouse, provoking a diatribe about that "blanketty'' mouse; nor were matters improved by there being only one bottle of wine among five. Eventually, Disney took the hint from his thirsty visitors, slapped the desk and shouted "Hell, it's the weekend - why don't we kill another bottle!" That's the kind of stuff one wants to hear.