The Media Column: 'I wouldn't have missed it for the world. But you've got a marriage - and a liver'

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The Independent Online

Can one be nostalgic for someone else's past? These past few days, I have been enjoying Read All About It! 100 Sensational Years of the Daily Mirror, in which Bill Hagerty recalls a past that has disappeared for ever.

Hagerty, a former deputy editor of the Daily and Sunday Mirror and editor of The People, has written a wistful letter to mark the end of a love affair. His beloved was a thoroughfare on the western edge of the City of London. Yes, he knew she had her faults and that eventually she would have to mend her ways. But Fleet Street was stolen from him before he was ready to say goodbye.

Fleet Street today is a dismal, lonely road, with its compulsory branch of Starbucks. Journalists like to sneer at money men - we are, as a rule, jealous of men (and women) with money - and so it is the ultimate humiliation that bankers now inhabit the buildings that once housed newspapers.

Hagerty's book is touching and funny, but ultimately sad. It is set in a world that can never return. The Mirror of the Sixties and Seventies was a place where reporters battled to win the "lunch of the year" award - a prize judged purely on duration and picked up one year by an enterprising hack whose meal finished at 3.45am the next day.

It was a place held together by booze, in which the pub was not an optional extra but a central part of the working day.

It was a place of excess. For a short while, the Mirror's morning conference - the meeting at which newspaper executives kick around the ideas for tomorrow's paper - was held at the Savoy, largely so that the hacks could stock up for free on cigarettes and drink.

It was a place where anyone above the rank of assistant editor was entitled to a drinks cabinet in his (rarely, if ever, her) office. If the booze ever threatened to run out, all it took was a call to the catering department, and a few minutes later a trolley would be wheeled round with new stock.

It was a place where expenses were "fun money" - seen as part of one's wages. Hagerty recalls being told by his boss, in 1968, when his salary was £47 a week, that he ought to submit an expenses claim each week for £30 - in effect, a 60 per cent tax-free income supplement.

There is no "fun money" any more, not anywhere in Canary Wharf, Kensington or Clerkenwell - or any of the other parts of London now home to the Fleet Street diaspora. There are no wine and whisky trolleys. There are not many lunches that go on beyond 3.45pm.

If I sound nostalgic, I have no right to be. I never knew the old Fleet Street. That's not quite true. Once, as a young lad, I was shown around the old Express building by a family friend who was an executive there. (Thanks, Robin. I could have been an accountant otherwise.) I was thrilled by the glamour of the people and their surroundings. I knew this is what I wanted to do.

Of course, by the time I started work, all of that had disappeared. I was faced with computer screens, ergonomically designed desks and chairs and, in time, no-smoking offices (which, as a smug ex-smoker, I now heartily applaud).

Do I yearn for the days I never knew? Well, probably. I asked a few colleagues of my generation whether they feel they missed out, too. We commiserated with one another: we were born 10 years too late. Perhaps our more experienced colleagues are suffering from selective memories. If only we could have sampled the old newspaper life, we could now reach a considered judgement on which one was better. Weirdly, I had never admitted that feeling out loud before. It was a relief.

Hagerty, reflecting on the old days and the fate of some of his colleagues, tells me: "I wouldn't have missed it for the world. But you've got a marriage - and you've got a liver."

Actually, although I missed out on Fleet Street, there was a brief window of opportunity in my career when "proper" lunching was - very occasionally - possible. There is nothing big or macho about enjoying a long lunch. So you will not find me bragging about what would have been my own entry to the lunch-of-the-year award. It was about 10 years ago, at another newspaper. A lunchtime interview with a group of former bunny girls began at 12.30 and just didn't feel as though it was finished when the waiter collected the plates. I eventually departed at around 8pm - alone, I stress - and just a little the worse for wear.

I must have eaten a dodgy prawn. For the next day I was hit by the most appalling food poisoning and was unable to go to work.

On my return to the office a day later, a friendly colleague was intrigued to learn more about how my bunny-girl lunch had gone. He was particularly interested in the details of my one-day sickness. "What was wrong?" he asked sympathetically. "Myxomatosis?"

v.graff@independent.co.uk

'Read All About It! 100 Sensational Years of the Daily Mirror', by Bill Hagerty, is published by First Stone on 4 November, priced £19.95

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