Robert Fisk: My days in Fleet Street's Lubyanka

Our readers' demands for an idealised Britain were met with a diet of dolly birds

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Almost every time I entered the Black Lubyanka of Fleet Street – yes, I really did work for the Sunday Express – I found my editor, John Junor, entering the same glass doors. We would walk to the gold-gilded lifts – an attendant lord was always on hand to operate this monstrosity to our upper floor – and Junor would turn to me and say, "And how are you today, Bob?" And I would say: "Fine, Mr Junor." And he would say "jolly good" in his fine Auchtermuchtie accent and then look at the floor.

Our book reviewer often received the same treatment. "One day, I'm going to tell the editor that I've just been diagnosed with cancer, that my wife is dying and that my house has just burned down," he once told us. "And he'll say 'Fine' and look at the floor, and that will be that." Yes, meaningless routine was the rule on the old Sunday Express in the late 1960s when our readership was in the unimaginable millions and the Beaverbrook family still ruled over the leading paper of what it thought was the British Empire.

Indeed, our readers' insatiable demands for an idealised, long-mythologised Britain were met with a diet of Second World War memoirs, dolly birds, English villagers "up in arms" over new motorways at Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, and Junor of Auchtermuchtie roaring on about the evils of socialism and the tiresomeness of film stars.

We even had an international desk – run by a single, middle-aged man – which specialised in man-bites-dog stories from France and tales of corrupt Spanish or Italian policeman trying to fleece British holidaymakers. There was only one page for the entire world and, at the top, it was proudly labelled "EMPIRE and foreign desk".

I worked on Town Talk, the diary column that provided readers with a carefully censored version of the smutty lives of the great and the good. I would regularly interview would-be Hollywoodettes. One of them was the mistress of a very, very senior member of the Royal Family (which is why we put her on page two in a miniskirt all the time) and I would even get to write the captions.

If our page-two girl was an airline stewardess, the caption would always begin: "High-flying Suzie, etc." If she was a computer analyst, I would always begin: "Here's a girl with a head for figures – and why not, with her 36-24-36 statistics."

The diary was run by Peter McKay who, like almost everyone else on the Express, was a Scot. He had an achingly brilliant sense of humour and had never really grown up. On my modest salary, I would buy lunch each day at an Italian diner down Fleet Street – a cup of milk, an egg sandwich and a Mars bar. But the moment I returned to my iron desk – the telephones, by the way, were chained to the floor in case we stole them, and it was McKay's conviction that Junor would soon attach the same chains to his reporters – McKay himself would pounce.

Brandishing a printer's steel ruler, he would hurl himself at my Mars and cut it in two – the slightly larger portion for himself, of course – with a cry of "Ha! Fisk, you're too bloody slow, man!".

I tried to vary Town Talk's gossip with more dramatic stories, usually involving spies or – this was in tune, of course, with the Express's own obsessions – the Second World War. When I discovered that The Times had run a full-page ad for East Germany's nuclear plant at Dresden, I noticed that one article was unsigned. I knew that Britain's imperishably named atom spy Klaus Fuchs now worked at Dresden and prowled through our clippings file. I read the records of his trial and even found reports of a mysterious friend of his, a "woman in green" who attended each court session.

International operators on both sides of the Iron Curtain eventually connected me to the man himself. "This is Klaus Fuchs!" he still shouts on the tiny cassette tape I made of our conversation. But my favourite passage on the tape is Fuchs's angry voice, demanding: "How on earth all these years later do you expect me to remember a woman in green at my trial?" I even got a rare memo of praise from Junor for this nonsense.

Another Fisk target was a former German Stuka bomber pilot called Rudel. He was secretly trying to buy up all the British and German aircraft used in that wonderful old blockbuster The Battle of Britain to use again in a German movie about the battle for Malta (which, I gathered, the Germans were going to win). McKay was overjoyed. "Not only have you uncovered Hitler's top-scoring Stuka pilot," he announced. "He's even got a horrible name!" A photo of a Stuka was procured and McKay ensured that it flew slap into the headline.

But on the Express, you had to have a suspicious mind, especially where Junor was involved. One day, he asked me to enquire into the love life of an MP's attractive daughter. My usual discreet phone calls elicited the fact that the lady in question had a handsome, wealthy, well-educated boyfriend. I wrote up my story on the six carbon flimsies on which we typed. A few minutes later, Junor's direct phone to our gossip column – a wood and plastic affair which purred ominously on McKay's desk – demanded my presence in his glass den near the door. I sat down beside Junor to hear the Beast of Auchtermuchtie, eyelids fluttering menacingly, announce quietly the following words: "I will not have on my paper dirty, yellow, crawling, gutter journalists." I was paralysed. I was only 23. And he was the editor of a Great Fleet Street Paper. For some reason, I thought of waves crashing on to the beach at Hastings. Then Junor turned to me with the seriousness of the forgiving God. "Now Bob," he said. "I don't want you to take this personally!"

I should have guessed. Junor nominally objected to me inserting a full sentence in my story instead of the one word "yes". But his real problem was that he was interested in the girl – and appalled to find she was already attached. Ye gods! I wrote desperately to The Times for a job – any job – and went through 13 interviews. The editors didn't even remember my hatchet job on the Fuchs story. Reader, I escaped.

Almost. Years later, I was picking up a press award from Margaret Thatcher and the old man from Auchtermuchtie chundered once more to me through his column. His complaint? "You'd think Fisk would have the manners to wear a collar and tie when shaking hands with Mrs Thatcher!"

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