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The day the Fleet Street lunch died

I think it was a Wednesday – certainly it must have been towards the end of 1985, because it was just before Murdoch moved his newspaper empire to Wapping. November, that would be my guess.

You’d think I’d have it pinned down to the minute, wouldn’t you? It was probably the most significant moment in the history of British journalism.

Forget about the Wapping riots and mobs of enraged inkies, they all came later, true enough.  But this was where the battle was won and lost.

It was the day that the Fleet Street lunch curled up and died. And the lunch was the heart and soul of old Old Fleet Street. Heart and soul – and possibly the liver.

I was there, on the day of the death blow, which was, as it happened, in the features room of the Sun newspaper, on the fourth floor of the old soon-to-be abandoned Bouverie Street building.

However, I do remember the time. Just after 1pm. Traditionally, this was the time for the great exodus, when the journos flooded out to the Harrow, the Poppinjay, the King and Keys, the top of the Tipp and the Stab in the Back.

Some of the fancier ones, men with A-levels who pronounced their aitches, slipped into El Vino or the Wine Press, to discuss the use of the transferred epithet.

A two-teaspoonful man

They all went, as they would tell you, to kick around a few ideas, to refresh their creative instincts, renew their motivation, and similar rubbish.

A drink? Only if you insist.

Sadly, I was disbarred from this merry band. You’ve heard about eight-pint men and three-bottle men?

Well, I was a two-teaspoonful man, the only man – so Jon Akass said – who could go to the pub at six, and still be home in time to hear The Archers, totally legless and having spent just under two quid.

I had the drinking prowess of a mouse, and a Methodist mouse at that.

At lunchtimes, I hid, which was why I was still cowering in the features room when Kelvin burst in. Kelvin, the editor, who even now requires no surname, did a lot of bursting. He never did entering.

In the middle of the features room, he spun to halt like a cartoon cat.

“Where the hell is everyone?” he said. He had a point.

The only people, apart from me, were a few subs, an ageing woman feature writer who was so afraid of losing her job that she daren’t leave the building, and a television writer who’d come back to ring friends in Australia.

‘Idle bunch of pissheads’

We knew where they’d be. Jim Lewthwaite in the Tipperary, Peter McHugh in the second-floor bar of the Cheshire Cheese with the other industrial boys. Akass would be in the Coach and Horses, Kenworthy in El V’s, Catchpole would be in the Wine Press…

We’d be wrong. Jerry Holmberg, the one-eyed chief features sub, answered Kelvin. “They’re trying somewhere new,” he said.

“Idle bunch of pissheads,” Kelvin muttered, as he slowed down to about 60mph, did a 17-point turn between the desks and set off out again. He moved at such speed you would swear he was on roller-blades.

He’d just reached the door when Gerry mumbled something about a new Chinese restaurant. “The Happy Wok,” he said, just clearly enough to be heard.

In the doorway, Kelvin froze. His skates must have locked. He didn’t move, but his shoulders rose up behind him. You could hardly hear his question. “It’s called what?”

Tapping away at his keyboard, quite unconscious of the tension rapidly building around him, Gerry casually repeated it. “The Happy Wok. They say it’s really good.”

Slowly, Kelvin turned to face back into the room. “So they’ve all gone to the Happy Wok, have they?” He was hissing the words now. On his day, Kelvin had real stage presence. It was obvious there was a real hurricane-strength rage coming on.

A Kelvin rage was a good time for tin-hats and sandbags.

The Unhappy Wok

I knew what had enraged him. It was the use of the word “happy” in working hours.

Kelvin was beginning to hit his stride now. “The Happy Wok, eh? Well any minute now it’s going to be the effing Unhappy Wok.”

He turned to Jerry and said: “Ring the Unhappy Effing Wok and tell them I want every one of them back here or they can go to the Happy Job Centre.”

For once in his life – possibly the only time – Kelvin had a  point.

In earlier days, when massive over-manning was deeply embedded into the industry, it made no difference.

The Mirror, the Express, all of them had such huge staffs that if half of them went for lunch you’d never notice. No – make that three-quarters.

When I was on the Mirror, I once counted up to 46 features writers of one sort or another.  Several never came in the office at all.  Others were discarded girlfriends of long-gone executives. Some were good writers who had somehow lost the habit.

Many of them were having affairs. Usually with each other, which saved on travelling. If you assemble a large number of lively intelligent people – people who are disposed towards adventure – fill their pockets with cash and their bellies with booze, and refuse to allow them to work, what do you expect to happen?

Lunch was for drinking

They were at it like merry little rabbits. Almost every executive in Fleet Street got an office mistress along with his office car.

On one major paper, the cleaning staff refused to do the editor’s office in the evening because every time they went in they saw an editor’s bum flashing up and down.

This situation grew out of the fifties when, before television came and mopped up the advertising, publishing a newspaper was like printing money.

They hired and hired, and nobody ever fired. That’s how you get an entire building packed with non-writing writers. Then the money and the rocketing circulations dried up. The journos, sadly, didn’t.

Murdoch wasn’t going to have that. He hired a tiny staff – seven in Manchester, as opposed to the Mirror’s 200 – and expected them to work.

But the hacks found it hard to break from the old traditions. Mornings were for making lunch arrangements. Lunch was for drinking. The afternoons were for yawning.

Kelvin hated it, and you could see why. When the Happy Wok tribe crawled shame-faced back to work, Kelvin gave them a brisk touch of the cat-o-nine-tails.

He didn’t leave it there. Everyone was warned. The drinking had to stop.

He told the paper’s best writer that if he ever saw him on licensed premises he’d be fired. He’d stop people in the corridor in the afternoons. “You pissed again?”

One enthusiastic red-wine man took to ordering a huge three-course lunch and hiding his glass behind it.

Egg-and-cress sandwiches

One exec, caught by Kelvin with a large whiskey in front of him in El V’s, denied it and moved it on to the man next to him, who was suitably grateful.

Kelvin’s teetotal terror worked. In the end, hacks didn’t dare to risk it. Beaten, subdued, spineless, sober for the first time for years, some of the newspaper world’s most famous boozers took to tea.

It was the Battle of the Happy Wok that revolutionized Fleet Street. After that, Wapping was a mere saunter.

Kelvin had won. A new era was born. The egg-and-cress sandwich lunch was born.

Yet I keep thinking of what Mike Molloy, editor of the Mirror said as he watched his Holborn Circus office decant into the pubs. “I like to think that if they’re having a good time, it will somehow spill over into the paper.”

It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. In between swifties and quickies and long lunches and early evenings, out of all this emerged some marvelous copy.

The tabloids were full of fun and merriment and the readers loved them. Now they are full of spite and anger. That’s what egg-and-cress sandwiches do to a man.

Colin Dunne is a former feature writer for The Sun and Daily Mirror.

Picture: Reuters/Toby Melville

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