Alcohol and journalism do not go together. Or more precisely the liquid lunch, the liquid supper or even the liquid snack at the desk to not mix with the computer terminal.
It has taken two decades or more for this simple fact to sink in with the people who deal with facts on a daily basis.
The management and proprietors of newspapers, of course, have known about the problem of alcohol since the invention of the typewriter a good hundred years before electronic editing, and the lead pencil, the fountain pen and the quill before that.
Don Bentley in his early days in journalism had accepted the notion that a whisky or a beer spilled on the typewriter keys oiled the creative process, but no one dared now take alcohol near a wired keyboard.
Alcohol and journalism was very much on the agenda of the nightly discussion and discourse during the Chronicle sub-editors’ break.
Management had sent round a memo reminding staff, politely and diplomatically, that the Chronicle frowned on the imbibing of alcohol within the building, although journalists were still free to indulge in the age-old tradition of retiring to the office pub at supper time.
All but one that is, and Thomas Butler’s confinement to the Chronicle’s newsroom, when his colleagues were over at the pub enjoying themselves, and the amusement it brought to the drinkers, was to serve as a allegory for the drinking journalist of old.
The Chronicle had not banned alcohol completely in the age of the computer, as many publishing firms had done following the much publicised lead of the Royal Navy that had put a stop to the rum ration on its computer-controlled warships. The Chronicle journalists had been free to exercise their own discretion but this tolerance to alcohol had been stretched to the limit, even abused, one evening when the sub-editors had celebrated a colleague’s birthday on a Saturday night.
Although production of the newspaper had not been delayed and no one was incapable of doing their job, the revise or check sub-editor on the newspaper (a kind of quality control officer) found himself working a little harder than usual on this particular occasion.
The entire episode, the rap over the knuckles by management, got Bentley and his colleagues to discussing one evening why drink had been so vital to the journalist process and for some journalists, like Bentley himself, was still a vital part of ``the job’‘.
Bentley no longer automatically took himself off to the pub during his break, but the thought of not being able to do so filled him with dread. The reason Bentley did not go to the pub on cue at 8.30pm was that there were fewer and fewer journalists over the years making the short journey out of the front doors and across the road to Mahoney’s.
So, Bentley reasoned, it might not be solely drink that prompted his visit to the pub, but the company of fellow journalists, their conversation and tales, scandal and gossip, and observations about their craft.
Thomas Butler, the office poet, certainly missed drinking with his colleagues and resented his confinement to the Chronicle building. As his colleagues left the front entrance, he would look longingly at Mahoney’s from a side window in the newsroom, and long to be joining them. It was all so cruel, he would tell them when they returned, because his misdemeanor was not related to him actually drinking at the office. He had merely enjoyed a long lunch, the length of which had resulted in him being late for work, and a little worst for wear, before the birthday celebration had even started.
As if the punishment handed out by the Chronicle was not enough, Bentley and his colleagues when they returned from the pub had taken to breathing beer fumes on the Chronicle inmate, the fumes of Butler’s favourite Boag’s draught bitter.
The Chronicle was unusual, in Bentley’s experience, that it did not have a practising alcoholic or two, and perhaps that spoke of a new reality in the industry, what Bentley described as a new dawn of sobriety.
Every newspaper of any size Bentley had ever worked on had had staff sent away for drying out at one tome or another. He had personally known many drunks and alcoholics in the industry but what set journalists apart from other heavy drinkers was that they tended not to drink alone. Journalists got drunk together.
But why did journalists need to drink at all, why had it been such an established part of the industry that Bentley had loved so much for 40-odd years?
Bentley had his theories, which he now espoused during those long and earnest discussions about drink, following the Chronicle’s latest warning. But Bentley also had a catalogue of wonderful stories to tell of drunks he had known, and what drunks had got up to, stories that seemed to make drinking worthwhile. What would the story of journalism be without drink and its consequences? It would be a story without passion and humour.
Some of these incidents forming the basis of Bentley’s tales had been witnessed by Bentley himself, other stories had been handed down by colleagues over the years. Many involved the fabled Fleet Street, where Bentley had worked at various times, even though Bentley admitted he had come too late for the halcyon days of ``The Street’’ in the 1920s and 1930s, days chronicled by Evelyn Waugh in his ``Scoop’’ satire, and been the subject of poetry by G.K.Chesterton.
Bentley had read much of the literature about Fleet Street and its characters of old but the question of why journalists drank, worldwide, had never been answered.
Clearly the nature of journalists’ work, reporting on pain and misery, if only at times, would drive sensitive souls to drink. Was it the exposure to the worst of human nature, more than the best, that drove journalists to find a safe haven, safe from the dangerous place that posed as life. The haven was drink and it gave protection against dark forces, the dark side of human nature, the frightening underbelly of what poses as the body of civilised society, of greed and corruption, cruelty, exploitation and inhumanity in war.
No doubt tensions were also created when individual spirits found themselves enslaved in a corporate, institutional culture. There was bound to be conflict when creative talents of a rebellious nature were embraced by an industry that ultimately demanded discipline and conformity. How many journalists, Bentley would say, did not wear a watch, as if in defiance and resistance to the dreaded deadline, even if ultimately these deadlines were met by getting the time from the pub clock.
Virtually every journalist Bentley had known had dreams of one day writing for themselves, away from these daily deadlines. Was the straitjacket of daily journalism too much for these talents, and the knowledge that in truth the bread-and-butter writing for the press would be their fate forever? Did frustration drive these journalists to drink?
Or perhaps it was the proprietors that they resented, people growing rich on their endeavours, “pimps to our prostitution’‘, as one of Bentley’s colleagues in Fleet Street had once put it.
Certainly the theme of enslavement ran deep in much of the literature of Fleet Street and American journalism, a view compounded by the fact that many journalists worked for organisations and proprietors whose political and philosophical views they might not share.
Journalists were often forced to take work where they could get it, especially in a contracting industry, and it was often a choice of working for a proprietor they did not respect or not working at all.
Thomas Butler, banned from the pub, had had more time to consider all these things, sitting alone with his green tea while the others were drinking Boag’s bitter. One evening he came up with another theory, and spelled it out on his colleagues’ return from Mahoney’s.
The answer was simple, he said, so simple it was staring them in the face all the time. There was a clear underlying connection between journalists and drink, but it took sobriety to spot it.
Journalism by its nature and history was a social industry. Newspapers were born of both business and social contact in pubs and coffee houses, merchants exchanging commercial information and gossip - what would become known as news.
Pubs and meeting places were as integral to journalism as paper and ink. The writer of literature might use the later but he or she was not in the business of gathering news and presenting it in a specific style and timeframe. This needed close human contact, and alcohol to lubricate the mechanisms of this dialogue, and to free tongues.
The simple act of mixing and socialising, usually in a pub, did not provide all the answers to why journalists drank but the sub-editors in the mess room at the Chronicle were getting there. The fact, remained, however, that drink was definitely a health hazard for journalists.
Once when Bentley had tried to insure his car he had been quoted an exorbitant premium simply because he had stated his occupation as a journalist, even though he made it clear he did not intend to use the car for work. Journalists, he was told, had the highest rate of drink-driving convictions and, when applying for life insurance, Bentley was told they had the lowest life expectancy.
Journalists’ lives might be shorter than most but the stories and anecdotes associated with them, stories fuelled by drink, would last forever.
“Did I ever tell you about a famous six-hour Fleet Street lunch when an editor was caught out by the Fleet Street press baron Lord Northcliffe,’’ Bentley started one night and the drunk journalist stories started to flow.
The editor in question had returned to his office but, reaching the double doors to the building that also served as company headquarters, he found his legs giving way.
A commissionaire opened the doors for him and helped him inside but the editor insisted on climbing the marble stairs himself. Pride was at stake.
The editor might have made it to first base in this Everest of a climb but he then stumbled about mid-way. He decided to crawl step by step but near the top he found his way barred by two highly-polished black brogues.
Looking up, with bleary eye, the editor saw Lord Northcliffe glowering down at him.
“There’s too much damned drunkenness in this office,” Northcliffe roared.
“Yes, sir,’’ said the editor,” and if I can get to the top of these stairs, I’ll fire the lot!’‘
A story from Bentley’s own time involved a well-known theatre critic who was apt to get drunk after first-night performance but, luckily, after he had filed his review.
One night he got home to find that his key would not fit the front door. In his drunken state, he thought he had merely picked up someone else’s keys, as he had done before, from the office, and decided he would break a small pane of glass in the bathroom window, which would enable him to reach inside and open a bigger window. It was something he had also done before.
Next morning, he awoke to find that someone had moved all his furniture from the bedroom and replaced it with their own. There were even different pictures on the walls, of people he did not recognise. It was only then that he remembered he had sold the house, when he and his wife divorced, a year previously. He now lived somewhere else. The theatre critic beat a hasty retreat, thankful that the family that now lived at his old address were away for the weekend.
A news editor of another Fleet Street newspaper was a cricket fan and spent much of his time listening to cricket matches when he should have been overseeing the gathering of the day’s news. One day his favourite team lost a match which could have secured the English County Championship and the disappointed news editor retired to the Press Club in Fleet Street to drown his sorrows.
There he fell asleep, head on arms, snoring softly at the bar. The news editor had been married three times and often appeared reluctant to go home. Near closing time, the head steward phoned for a taxi, telling the taxi firm that it was on the Press Club account. At the same time he copied the news editor’s address from the members’ book to give to the cab driver, because the news editor appeared incapable of speech.
They carried the drunk journalist down the stairs to the cab and the driver dropped him at an address in west London, refusing payment, saying “It’s on the club account, sir.’‘
The news editor found the key under the mat, dragged himself up the stairs and into the bedroom, where the lights were switched on suddenly and a voice called: “Darling, you’ve come back to me!’’ The Press club book was out of date. The steward had sent him back to his first wife.
Next night Bentley told another of his stories. This involved a reporter on a London tabloid newspaper. Having drunk more than his usual quota of red wine and then brandy, the reporter fell sound asleep in the early early hours of the morning on his desk in the newsroom.
There was no office car to take him home, so the night news editor telephoned the reporter’s wife in rural Surrey and asked her to drive up to London to get him. The long-suffering wife was accustomed to such journalists’ antics, as she was a reporter on a London evening newspaper. She had prepared two rump steaks earlier and when her husband had not returned home by the last train she had retired to bed. When she received the call, she flung on a dressing gown over her negligee and drove up to the newspaper’s office in a lane off Fleet Street, and the night messengers put her husband in the back of the car. Half way down the Kingston by-pass into rural Surrey, she felt the urgent call of nature, stopped, and went behind a tree just off the road. The reporter suddenly woke up, and wondered what he was doing in the back of his own car on the Kingston by-pass. He then got into the driver’s seat and drove off, leaving his wife running down the road waving, hoping he would see her in the rear-view mirror.
Trying to keep out of sight of other motorists, the wife in the negligee found a callbox and phoned the newspaper. And they sent a taxi for her. When she got home, she found her husband had cooked and eaten both steaks. And by now snoring was emanating from an bedroom upstairs.
Bentley also remembered drink stories from his first newspaper, the Woking News and Mail. A fresh-faced new recruit had arrived and been introduced to the magical powers of local Friary Meaux bitter by the other young reporters, a few years his senior.
The lad happened to be lodging in a house next door to the town probation officer, George Rimmer, who took a shine to the young newsman and promised to point him in the right direction when he came to cover the local magistrates’ court.
The probation officer, aware of the drunken behaviour of the News and Mail staff, frequently commented down at the court on the young reporter’s good behaviour, his respect for his neighbour by not playing loud Beatles music late at night, his neat appearance and his sober habits.
“That boy will go far,’’ he would say to the News and Mail reporters covering the court, obviously implying that the reporters he was addressing would not.
One night Mr Rimmer was awoken by someone on his doorstep. He put on his dressing gown and went downstairs to find the young reporter standing at his door, hardly able to stand. Full of drink, the reporter had gone to the wrong house and was trying to open its front door, not with a key but with a chip from the bag of fish and chips he had in his hand.
Bentley had stories from Africa and the United States, where he had also worked, and a few from the 10 years he had spent in AUstralia. But his favourites always involved Fleet Street and its characters, probably because from the time he joined his first newspaper he aspired to work at the centre of Britain’s newspaper industry.
Like many others before him, Bentley became disillusioned. He may have headed for the “Street of Adventure’‘, as it was described in some quarters, but Bentley also discovered its other epiphets, “The Street of Shame,’’ and the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams’‘.
In his literature on Fleet Street, Bentley had discovered a poem devoted to it by G.K. Chesterton, entitled “When I Came Back to Fleet Street’‘.
Bentley photostated it for poet Butler, to give him something to ponder when Bentley and the other sub-editors were over at Mahoney’s.
The poem read:
When I came back to Fleet Street, through a sunset nook at night,
And saw the old Green Dragon, with the windows all alight,
And hailed the old Green Dragon, and The Cock I used to know,
Where all good fellows were my friends, a little while ago;
I had been long in meadows, and the trees took hold of me,
And the still towns in the beech-woods, where men were
meant to be.
But old things held; the laughter, the long unnatural night,
And all the truth they talk in hell and all the lies they write.
For I came back to Fleet Street, and not in peace I came;
A cloven pride was in my heart, and half my love was shame.
I came to fight in fairy tale, whose end shall no man know -
To fight the old Green Dragon, until The Cock shall crow!
Under the broad bright windows of men I serve no more
The groaning of the great old wheels thickened to a throttle roar;
All buried things broke upward; and peered from its retreat
Ugly and silent, like an elf, the secret of The Street.
They did not break the padlocks, or clear the wall away.
The men in debt that drank of old still drink in debt today;
Chained to the rich by ruin, cheerful in chains as then
When old unbroken Pickwick walked among the broken men.
Still he that dreams and rambles through his own elfin air,
Knows that The Streets a prison, know that the gates are there;
Still he that scorns or struggles sees, frightful and afar,
All that they leave of rebels rot high on Temple Bar.
All that I loved and hated, all that I shunned and knew,
Clears in broad battle lightning where they, and I, and you,
Run high the barricade that breaks the barriers of The Street,
And shout to them that shrink within, the Prisoners of The Fleet.
When Bentley returned to the office from the pub Butler was stirring his cup of green tea, scowling. With Butler’s frustration at not being able to go to the pub in mind, Bentley had another anecdote from Fleet Street.
One summer day a journalist stood looking through an open window of the famous El Vino’s wine bar, tucked inside a medieval passage-way leading from Fleet Street. The journalist was a book critic who had been barred from El Vino’s for drunken behaviour.
“Sympathy, sympathy, where can I find sympathy?’’ shouted the book critic to a group of journalists inside.
To which a reporter on the Daily Telegraph replied: “Oxford English dictionary, old boy. Somewhere between shit and syphilis.’‘
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 28 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … His musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler