Ghosts staying alive on Fleet Street Traditions survive departure of papers

January 13, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- The street is rich in splendid clocks that overhang the sidewalks and ornament abandoned newspaper palaces, water stained, and here and there streaked by pigeon dung.

The clocks tick on, not always in tune with one another.

The ghosts of all the past contributors to the legend of Fleet Street lurk in the courts and alleys that run into the main artery like tributaries to the greater stream. They are cold presences, these ghosts, in offices now held by correspondents for foreign and provincial journals, by accountants, by lawyers and their callow clerks, or by others who do prosaic but important work.

The spirits are ever there. Joan Graham, employed 33 years in The Baltimore Sun's London offices, wrote of them when the paper abandoned its quarters up the street from where we are today.

They were the ghosts of correspondents past coming "out of the filing cabinets, the closets, dusty drawers and fading photographs of 40 Fleet St., home for the past 31 years of the London Bureau of The Baltimore Sun."

Those words were written in 1956. We have been here a long time. Much has changed. Not everything.

Fleet Street is still choked with black taxis of archaic design and double-storied red buses that look like large toys. It remains noisy on this street that travels hardly 600 yards, down from the Strand and into the Ludgate Circus, where the Fleet River once poured by and into the Thames.

The pubs and wine bars of Fleet Street still host men determined to remember the most unexceptional occurrences as having been world-altering events, and ordinary lives as having been bright, exciting, full of adventure. The purposes of Fleet Street's denizens were always mixed: They were evangelical, radical, anti-monarchical, republican, romantic.

Fleet Street is the pantheon of the trade of journalism in Britain. An editor of the Observer, J. L. Garvin, is buried in the Church of St. Dunstan of the West. Three feet from his grave marker is a flattering bust of Alfred C. W. Harmsworth Northcliffe, founder of the Mail and the Mirror. Both were personages, sharing, as they are, their sepulchral dark with the likes of Lord Calvert.

There is a blue plaque on a new building housing lawyers on Bouverie Street, which intersects Fleet. It reminds anyone who is interested that William Hazlitt, the great 19th-century essayist, once lived in a house there.

He may have been the first to use the expression "the fourth estate," when he referred to radical journalist William Cobbett, a contemporary.

(They always did that, wrote about each other. Hazlitt wrote about Cobbett, who argued in the prints with Tom Paine. Today a fading Peregrine G. Worsthorne -- one of Lyndon B. Johnson's favorites because he endorsed his Vietnam policies -- defends himself in the pages of the Telegraph against allegations he is a snob and suggests that the editor of the Sunday Times may be one, too.)

(They rarely say anything pleasant. Consider this from Beryl Bainbridge, a columnist for one tabloid, the Evening Standard, writing about another, The Sun: "The proliferation of cancerous cells, supposedly caused by smoking and leading to allover death, is arguably preferable to the brain death caused by the reading and ingestion of such an absurd, inaccurate and ignorant tabloid.")

Ray Boston, who worked for the Manchester Evening News, below The Baltimore Sun's offices at 40 Fleet, was so angry when they tore down Hazlitt's house, he wrote a book fetching up all the old stories. He told of how people on this street became addicted to the vice of exaggeration, a hazard not peculiar to the trade of journalism.

"The Fleet Street interpretation," said Mr. Boston, "was the worst interpretation. News had to reflect the pictures and stories already in people's minds. If people think that Paris is ooo-lala, you give them ooo-lala. If people think only of gangsters in Chicago, you give them stories of gangsters."

This is exactly what they do today in the Mirror and the Express.

Some things never change.

Fleet Street, said John Francis Gore, an editorial writer of the 1920s, was a place "of hasty judgment, of distorted truth, of elastic morality, of easy conviction."

So why would anybody be proud of a tradition like that?

Because there was more to it.

Charles Lamb essayed from this neighborhood. Benjamin Franklin learned the printer's trade here. Paine's voice was heard in these streets before it echoed through the colonies in America. (Paine's bones were dug up from a Brooklyn, N.Y., cemetery and brought back by that fellow Cobbett again, who planned to deploy them as a symbol for something or other. But he lost them in a Liverpool rooming house and never even bothered to go back to look for them.)

Then there were Samuel Johnson, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell.

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