John Walsh ON MONDAY
IF YOU were looking for a picture of British journalism in the late Nineties, you'd have seen a fascinating snapshot or two at the Hilton Hotel in London's Park Lane on Saturday night. It was the Press Ball, the annual beano of hacks en fete for charity (proceeds to the Newspaper Press Fund) and was a characteristically restrained and cultured evening of discreet celebration, worthy sentiments and lightly-worn wisdom, in which...

Actually no, it wasn't. It was an extended display of chronic cynicism and loutish barracking seldom seen since they decommissioned the stocks and the pillory. It was the Fourth Estate at its most unlovely. The sight of the lovely Tania Bryer reduced, by the end, to pleading "I'll only be here for another couple of minutes, I promise" was a spectacle to wring the heart.

But that's what you get when you invite a thousand rivalrous and abrasive London journalists to come out on a Saturday night in tuxedos and part with their cash over half a gallon of Chassagne-Montrachet.

They are not easily impressed, these guys. They have seen it all - war, famine, elections, Chris Evans, the fall of Communism, the decline of English batting, Robin Cook, Viagra, the rise of Posh and Becks - and know the value of compassion and altruism, namely nil. They were never going to be an appreciative audience of any "entertainment", of the kind naively designed to amuse ordinary people. Piss-takers by nature, they are most amused by genial mutual insults. Rather than having an award ceremony with a stand-up comic, they rang the changes by awarding the worst headline, most embarrassing apology, most tragic misprint and so on, hosted by the stridently coarse-grained double-act of David Banks and Nick Ferrari from Talk Radio. The editor of the News of the World was given an award by a heavily-robed Egyptian, who turned out to be Max Clifford, while a pantomime camel wandered about the dance floor. I guess you had to be there.

A philistine indifference descended on the more artistic moments. The display of virtuoso stilt-walking from the Scarabeus troupe, designed to boggle the audience with its, you know, drama and spectacle, was greeted by a mass lighting of fags and scrutinising of the programme. During Nigel Kennedy's violin recital, the first editions of the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People arrived in the Grand Ballroom; the noise of turning pages almost drowned his rapturous account of Satie's Gymnopedies, as a thousand hacks silently digested the news that Vanessa Feltz once used strawberries and cream to revive her flagging sex life.

Things hit a climax of sorts with the announcement of the auction. With spooky timing, Jeffrey Archer had been slated to conduct it. Reasoning, however, that to appear at this particular turn of his career in front of an audience of pressmen in relaxed mood would be like Mussolini appealing for calm among an audience of partisans armed with butchers' hooks in 1945, Jeffrey stayed away. (His photograph turned up in the programme as one of the judges of the the "50 best front pages of the millennium", but with his name mysteriously missing from the caption). Instead, as substitute auction cheerleader (and substitute mayoral candidate) we got Frank Dobson.

Of all the misconceived, ill-judged and potentially fatal decisions ever taken by Labour's social secretaries or Dobson's minders, this had to be the worst. As crap plans go, this was right up there with the Light Brigade Tactics and Strategy Dept. Mr Dobson effectively threw himself to a pack of slavering hyenas. Looking more than usually like a Cleethorpes butcher auditioning to become the new Cap'n Birdseye, he told pointless little jokes about Archer ("He's Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, you know. He's the only seaside peer that Larry Grayson's never performed on - Hello?) and, emboldened by the gasps of incredulity, explained to the meeting why he should be mayor of London despite being from Yorkshire. Correctly noting that this was a ball not a political rally, the assembled hacks grew restless. Dobson ploughed on with a little joke about a train driver who always diverted his train via Halifax because "he were always one for t'bright lights". The hacks sat open-mouthed as they digested the fact that this smug and hairy government stooge was treating them like an audience at a working-men's club. "Get off!" yelled a voice. "Bring on Ken!" shouted another.

Dobson ploughed on with a charming tale about a urine-scented lift. The audience broke into open revolt. At Dobson's fourth repetition of the words "...which reminds me of a little story...", they banged their heads on the tables, shook their fists, screamed for his removal and summary evisceration.

It was nightmarish. Whatever chance Mr Dobson thought he had of charming the cream of Fleet Street over the petits fours and getting a ringing endorsement of his candidacy, he blew it in spades. Short of emptying the magazine of an Uzi into both his shoes, he couldn't have been worse. After that, things went downhill a bit. The auction passed in a blur of baffling offers. Lot 3 was "A private screening of film of your choice for 50 guests with champagne reception", a slightly pointless treat for journalists who attend private screenings all the time, with or without the bubbly. Lot 4 was a signed copy of Nigel Kennedy's new CD, "with a chance to meet Nigel in person", ignoring the fact that journalists are the least star-spotty of people precisely because they have met all the Nigel Kennedys of this world and know precisely how exciting it is to discuss the fortunes of Aston Villa FC with the violinist and be addressed as "mon-stah".

The naughty boys in the audience refused to take any of it seriously. Table 19 turned their table number upside down and won a charming watercolour by Prince Charles for the puzzled guests at Table 61. Rude men called out inappropriate things on learning that a gum-chewing Page Three girl called Tara O'Connor in a backless black number "has a late entry for you, gentlemen" in the raffle.

And then we hit the dance floor and did foolish synchronised aerobic moves to "Get Down Tonight" and threw polystyrene frisbees at each other until we could stand up no more. Ah yes, the dignity of the journalistic profession. I'll be back next year.

THE SCRIBBLERS' trade coincidentally figures largely in a splendid new commonplace book, entitled Voltaire, Goldberg and Others, (Quartet, pounds 12) put together by Milton Shulman, the legendary drama critic of the Evening Standard. It's full of anecdotes from the Golden Age of Fleet Street, which should by rights have been full of the decent and honourable pursuit of the truth, but in fact was just like the present one.

It was a time when Esmond Rothermere could explain to a friend, over lunch at the Beefsteak Club, why exactly he had fired William Hardcastle as editor of the Daily Mail and appointed Mike Randall in his place. "I tried a short fat one, and that didn't work. So now I'm having a long, thin one." His famous uncle, Lord Northcliffe, once tried to fire an editor but, unable to work out a pretext, sent him on a world cruise while he sought a replacement. The deputy editor turned down the job. No new candidates proved suitable. Three months went by and his lordship realised the editor would soon be returning. He rushed to Southampton docks. On board the cruise ship, the editor was surprised to see his proprietor waving to him and shouting on the quay, and went forward to the ship's rail to hear more clearly. "Go round again!" were the words he heard on the breeze.

Shulman also recalls the late Stan Gebler Davies, a talented but furious Irishman whom I met during my tenure at the Standard. Shulman recalls how the laconic Davies, summoned in to discuss freelance work, told the editor, John Leese, that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer and would soon be dead. "Would you like to do a piece about that?" grated Leese, equally laconically. "Yes I would," said Davies, "but I'd need to be paid in advance."

Shulman doesn't mention a later development. Davies discovered the cancer was confined to just one lung, had it removed and for a period was restored to health. A black-humour specialist posted a notice outside the Gents. It read: "The memorial service for Stan Gebler Davies, scheduled for 19 April, will not now take place, due to unforeseen circumstances." Journalists, eh?