Raise your glasses to the Street of Drink

NORMAN GILLER takes a sentimental journey through some of the famous old boozers on Fleet Street

Golden mermaid Rebecca Adlington’s appearance at the SJA lunch at Ye Olde Cock Tavern on Wednesday revived memories for this olde hack of liquid lunches in olde Fleet Street. Ahhh: those were the dayze, my friends.

The pre-breathalyser Street of Ink was as much the Street of Drink, operating on a sea of alcohol. Goodness knows how we used to get papers out on time, but we did and they were not only a damned good read but also literal-free.

The Street is much changed today, of course, not least because of the exodus of most of the newspaper offices. Even some of the pubs have changed, which does not make a sort of pub trawl through my memory any easier.

To make sure I did not miss any watering holes, I enlisted the navigational help of an old Express colleague of mine, Tom Brown, heavyweight political analyst who was once roped into writing a Raith Rovers book by his fellow-Raithian Gordon Brown. I am not going to make any jokes here about time to substitute the No 10.

Tom, now a political guru in his homeland, joined the Express at the same time as me in the early 1960s, and even this bottle-hardened Scot was astonished by the drinking culture of Fleet Street.

These were the days when iconic sports columnists like Peter “The Man They Can’t Gag” Wilson (Daily Mirror), Des “The Man in the Brown Bowler” Hackett (Daily Express) and the “Man at The Times” Geoffrey Green would think nothing of polishing off a bottle of wine a day before moving on to the strong stuff. At the Telegraph Don Saunders was nicknamed “Saunders of the Liver”, and Laurie Pignon and Roy Peskett at the Mail could drink most people under the subs’ table.

It was Peskett who made one of the briefest and most hilarious toasts in the history of after-dinner speaking. Responding to a toast at a liberally lubricated function following an England football international behind the Iron Curtain, he famously slurred, “On behalf of the British press …” before folding over into his soup de jour and having to be escorted from the table, toast left in the air as an aphorism for future generations of reporters.

So, on with the tour. I asked Tom Brown where he thought it best to start. He suggested: “At the bottom. It was always the best place to start in Fleet Street, whether on a pub crawl or a career climb.”

OK, so we walk down from St Paul’s to Ludgate Circus, nod to the bust of ace crime writer Edgar Wallace on the right alongside the King Lud, and on the left the Express nosh-pub, The Albion, next to the flower shop. The well-connected Mickey Barnett was mine host at the Albion, and provided whispered tip offs for reporters ranging from the worlds of the Krays to the politics of Profumo.

Around the corner and 50 yards into Fleet Street on the left was the Punch. This was my first local when I worked at Boxing News, then at 92 Fleet Street, bang opposite the Black Lubyanka Express building, an anthem to the best and worst of art deco when built in the early 1930s.

I can hear the laughter of ghosts from the Punch as I remember a pre-Christmas drinking session, when Editor Tim Riley, records master Ron Olver, freelance Dave Caldwell and I were joined by a sober, in-training bantamweight from Bermondsey, who called in on his way home from Smithfield carrying a giant turkey. Some three hours later he was cavorting drunkenly around the bar wearing the Christmas lunch bird on his head, all long before it became a Mr Bean sketch.

Just a short stagger further up Fleet Street to the Bell, with its back door into the alleyway and St Bride’s churchyard. This was used by PA subs, and Expressmen brave enough to cross the road, risking being knocked down by a flying newspaper van. If the News and Standard driver didn’t get you, then the odds increased on you going under the Star man’s wheels.

The Bell was where Hugh McIlvanney, when with the Express, made the mistake of inviting an “inkie” – one of our printer bretheren – to step outside to settle an argument. The inkie was armed with a steel printer’s rule and whacked it across Hughie’s face. It was a made-to-measure blow.

Dear old Hughie, one of the finest wordsmiths of his or any other generation, made a habit of getting himself into battles with armed opposition. I once led him out of my house during a boozy party with a breadknife to his throat. That taught him not to pick on a Cable Street boy from Kray territory.

Opposite the Bell was the unique Express pub, The Popinjay. Known to all as Poppins, it ran alongside the Black Lubyanka with the entrance from an alley leading to Shoe Lane. It was, as Tom Brown described it, “long, narrow, crowded and hell to get served, like drinking in the buffet carriage on a train going nowhere.”

I reminded Tom of the day Express reporter Keith Graves – who went on to become a distinguished television foreign correspondent for the BBC and Sky – broke motoring columnist David Benson’s nose during a fight in Poppins. Tom told me he took David to casualty at Guy’s and put the cleaning of his blood-stained shirt on his expenses. He put it under “entertaining”.

Next up the King and Keys, almost exclusively the Telegraph pub. This was a more genteel retreat, with as much wine as beer consumed. “The golden rule in the K and K,” explained walking guidebook Tom, “is that you never talked politics with the ‘inkies’ – because they knew more than you.”

Cross the road, down Dorset Rise, past St Bride’s and into Daily Mail, Evening News, Star, News Chronicle and News of the World territory to find Aunties, the Feathers and the Mucky Duck (that’s the White Swan to most people).

Back into Fleet Street for executive company and vintage wines and champagne at El Vino’s, then cross the road again for the best roast beef in town at the sawdust-carpeted Cheshire Cheese. I once took my mate Eric Morecambe (namedropper, moi?) there for lunch with Express editor Alistair Burnett, sports editor Ken Lawrence and king of the cartoonists, Roy Ullyett.

Eric made the mistake of keeping pace with heavy Scotch drinker Burnett, and when the Fleet Street air hit him as we left the Cheese his legs decided to betray him. There was a 15 minute farce of me holding Eric up against the wall of the Telegraph building while waiting for his chauffeur, Michael, who had been delayed in traffic.

We gathered a huge crowd, falling about laughing as they watched what they thought was a Morecambe and Wise sketch, with Eric clowning and playing to the audience. It took a long time for Joan, Eric’s lovely wife, to forgive me.

Wander away from Fleet Street down Shoe Lane and past the Standard to find the infamous Daily Mirror pub, the White Hart, brilliantly nicknamed The Stab. Yes, many journos were gabbed in the back there.

A final foray into the Street of Drink for a visit to The Tipperary, known as The Tip, and then down towards the Law Courts and the Wig and Pen and opposite, back where we started, at Ye Olde Cock Tavern.

If you’d still not had your fill of alcohol you could turn right off The Strand and walk through Covent Garden to Endell Street, where the Herald and People journos were always doing their best to drink dry the Cross Keys and the Radio Arms, so called because it was where so many rumours started.

It was in the Radio Arms that I had one of my most expensive rounds. My wife had gone two weeks over the date for the birth of our first baby when the barman held up the phone and shouted: “A good news call for Norman Giller.”

“Drinks all round,” shouted the excited father to be.

When I got to the phone it was my wife on the other end. “Weekend have bought your short story,” she said. “They are going to pay £15.”

The round came to a fiver. I was on the NUJ minimum of £21 10s per week. My lovely daughter Lisa arrived during the night.

Yes, “On behalf of the British press …”

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