Knights of the King and Keys

Ian Aitken

  • A Dubious Codicil: An Autobiography by by Michael Wharton
    Chatto, 261 pp, £15.99, December 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3064 4
  • The House the Berrys built by Duff Hart-Davis
    Hodder, 299 pp, £16.95, April 1990, ISBN 3 405 92526 6
  • Lords of Fleet Street: The Harmsworth Dynasty by Richard Bourne
    Unwin Hyman, 258 pp, £16.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 04 440450 6

Practitioners of the black arts of journalism will universally acknowledge that the most accurate as well as the funniest portrayal of their profession is Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Scoop. No one who has ever worked for a paper with a baronial proprietor could fail to recognise Lord Copper and his bevvy of fawning executives. Equally, anyone who has ever been a foreign correspondent will admit that Waugh’s dreadful pack of war reporters is all too realistic. Indeed, the book has given journalists a phrase which they have adopted as their own. ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper,’ we say to each other whenever one of our number is getting the wrong end of the journalistic stick.

Not that all journalists have actually read Scoop. Once, many years ago, when I was immured in an un-newsworthy Latin American city at the insistence of my foreign editor, I tried to suggest that it was time to move on by sending him the immortal cable front Waugh’s novel: ‘Weather here lovely, no news today.’ I signed it ‘Boot’, after the novel’s innocent hero, only to learn much later that this had wasted much time on the foreign desk while they tried to discover if they had a stringer called Boot in Panama City. When I eventually got the order to move on, it, too, had a Scoop-ish quality. ‘Want you Honduraswise fastest,’ said the wire from London, and I obediently flew up to Tegucigalpa to discover that absolutely nothing was happening there either. It turned out later that the foreign editor had actually meant British Honduras but hadn’t liked to admit it.

No doubt similar things are going on right now in places like Ryadh and Dhahran, only faster because of the new technology. Perhaps somewhere among the rat-pack of reporters there is even a former author of his paper’s nature notes, blundering about with the electronic equivalent of a cleft stick. But there will, alas, be one major difference between the Gulf war correspondents and Evelyn Waugh’s immortal team: there is no booze in Saudi Arabia. Considering the traditional role of alcohol in lubricating the essential processes of newspaper production, this is a fairly horrific difference. We superannuated foreign correspondents can only shed a sympathetic tear for our successors as we contemplate facing up to Scud missiles, deadlines and people like General Schwarzkopf without a drop to drink.

Yet it has to be admitted that even without the help of the Koran and the Saudi royal family, the role of intoxicants in the life of journalism was already on the decline. Young journalists, many of whom are women nowadays, are quite as likely to ask for a Perrier water or a white wine and soda as to order a large scotch or a pint of bitter. In some respects, this is no less important a change in the ambience of our trade than the new technology and the mass migration from Fleet Street. Moreover, the combination of these factors has meant that the Fleet Street pubs now stand relatively empty. Many of the new newspaper offices exist in wastelands where there are few pubs within reasonable walking distance. It all represents a radical change of life-style for reporters, and even more for sub-editors.

One of the Fleet Street pubs which played an essential role in keeping the presses rolling was a peculiarly shabby, not to say tawdry, establishment called the Kings and Keys. It stood half-way between the offices of the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph, and served as the office pub for the staffs of both newspapers. Shaped rather like a railway carriage (i.e. long and narrow), it had a small spit-and-sawdust bar at the front, where genuine inky printers sank pints of bitter. Only one journalist was allowed into this bar, along with his guests. He was Mr Arthur Christiansen, the legendary editor of the Daily Express. To be asked to join him there was the ultimate accolade for an Expressman.

The long, narrow bit was reserved for ordinary workaday hacks from both the Express and the Telegraph. But the surprising thing was that it was the journalists from the pop paper who drank relatively modestly. The Daily Telegraph folk, by contrast, drank with an almost frenzied determination to get drunk. In this aim they were all too successful, so that a visit to the King (it was always singular in conversation, even if the sign over the door said otherwise) and Keys was liable to be hazardous for a relatively sober Expressman. Fights were frequent, bawling arguments were perpetual, and many of the participants were senior members of the staff of the grey, respectable, thoroughly reliable Telegraph.

This bizarre phenomenon is, in rather different ways, a central feature of Duff Hart Davis’s history of the Daily Telegraph under the Berry family, and of the second volume of Michael Wharton’s autobiography. Hart-Davis was a fairly junior member of the Telegraph’s staff for some years. As the author of the ‘Peter Simple’ column for thirty-odd years, Wharton must be regarded as immortal. As far as I know, I never met either, although I may have swapped punches or half-pints with one or other in the mid-Fifties, when I was one of the Daily Express interlopers in the back bar of the King and Keys. But what they both describe is the story of my life as well as theirs. Both books tell the story of a dead world, of the day-to-day routine of generations of journalists over a period of rather more than a hundred years, which is now just about as alien as the way of life of the headhunters of New Guinea. It is all over now, and will never be seen again.

That may well be a good thing, and reading Mr Wharton’s agonised account of his share in it certainly encourages one to believe that it is. By and large, it is the story of a lifetime of what he calls ‘serious drinking’, accompanied by painfully truthful descriptions of the hangovers which are inseparable from it. His awful honesty even causes him to describe a night when he fell into his own bath and was too incapacitated to get out of it until after dawn. I am not at all sure that I want to know things like that about Mr Wharton’s life. But that may have something to do with the fact that, as an incorrigible Leftie, I never took much to his Peter Simple column. Huge numbers of people in what we used to call Fleet Street regarded it as the ultimate hoot, rejoicing in his weird cast of satirical characters like Alderman Foodbotham and Mrs Dutt-Pauker, the Hampstead thinker. Being a bit of a Dutt-Pauker myself, I never saw the joke – especially as it was (is) interspersed with paragraphs expressing Mr Wharton’s lunatic right-wing views.

Mr Wharton’s book is in any case deeply depressing rather than funny. He projects himself as some kind of social cripple, rendered morally limbless by the depth of his own inverted snobbery. He is constantly aware that his send-up of eccentric upper-class right-wing attitudes in the Peter Simple column conveyed the impression that he was at least a retired admiral with a lengthy family tree. He records frequent occasions when he accepted invitations from admiring readers, knowing that they would be disappointed to find that he was only a Yorkshire grammar-school boy who got to be a Lieutenant-Colonel in the war on merit rather than the proper qualification – i.e. class. If that’s what working for the Daily Telegraph does for a man, I’m glad I never worked for it.

On the other hand, the depressing bits of his book are punctuated by moments of surrealistic comedy – above all, in his description of the cast of real-life characters who were his colleagues on the Berry-owned Telegraph. They are infinitely more comic and more fantastical than any of the characters he invented for his column. Most are, of course, extremely drunk for much of the time – like the man in the Fleet Street pub who was accosted by some American lady tourists asking whether this was the home of ‘your famous Dr Johnson’. He is alleged to have risen from his bar stool and replied: ‘Madam, I am Dr Johnson, so fuck off.’

At least Mr Wharton acknowledges the most significant peculiarity of the story he tells. As he puts it himself, capping a series of grotesque stories about the way of life in the King and Keys, ‘most Telegraph readers would have been shocked and incredulous if they had known that some of the hardest drinkers and most eccentric, even disreputable, characters in Fleet Street were members of the staff of what was to them one of the most respectable newspapers’.

I’ll drink to that, as they say. Indeed, Mr Hart-Davis’s book more or less confirms this picture, though in slightly less colourful terms. He too records the role of the King and Keys and describes the cast of loopy characters who nightly put together the capital’s most boring, reliable and pompous newspaper. Many of the people who figure in Mr Wharton’s memoirs also surface in Mr Hart-Davis’s formal history. But two characters who scarcely get a look in throughout the Wharton volume, thanks to his self-effacing class-consciousness, are really the central characters of Mr Han-Davis’s wonderfully readable book. They are the proprietor, Michael Berry, and his extraordinary wife, Lady Pamela Berry.

Mr Hart-Davis’s account of ‘Mister Michael’s’ crippling shyness, and his basic belief in dullness as a positive virtue in his newspaper, tells us almost everything we need to know about the old Daily Telegraph. It wasn’t that it achieved tedium by mistake: it actually sought boredom as the central feature of its character. Its journalists were formally banned from seeking to write well, or even entertainingly. If they lapsed from this high standard they were heavily sub-edited so as to excise the offending jokes, adjectives and colour-phrases.

The first breach of this wall of boredom was effected when the Peter Simple column was invented. It was evidently created to accommodate an incorrigibly funny writer who had a regrettable habit of putting jokes in his leading articles – a certain Colin Welch. According to Hart-Davis, it was the so-called Editor-in-Chief (the proprietor, Michael Berry) who first suggested that Welch should get off the leader page and write a satirical column. It first appeared in October 1955, with the signature ‘Yorick’. Alas, a provincial newspaper promptly complained that it already had a column called ‘Yorick’. Hence ‘Peter Simple’.

Almost in passing, Hart-Davis offers some interesting thoughts about the position of a newspaper proprietor and the behaviour of his employees towards him. He remarks that Michael Berry (later to become Lord Hartwell) did not actually require the kind of slavish subservience with which he was treated, and suggests that he didn’t realise how literally his lightest remark was likely to be attended to. But because of Berry’s shyness, says Hart-Davis, he wasn’t able to order his employees to be less sycophantic. As a result, the sycophancy went on for ever.

It may well be that Berry’s shyness was the ultimate problem. But ten years working for Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express suggests to me that shyness on the part of the proprietor had very little to do with it. The real problem was the absolute grovelling willingness of hardened journalists to do their master’s bidding – and where no explicit bidding was available, to guess what it might be, and do that, too. The outstanding example of this tendency was the late great Arthur Christiansen, the colossus of the Daily Express office but a cringing pygmy whenever he was summoned to his boss’s presence. Lord Beaverbrook certainly wasn’t shy, never told anyone to be less sycophantic, and enjoyed seeing how far he could push otherwise big men into slavish obedience. Perhaps Michael Berry wasn’t like that, but I doubt if he ever complained that anyone had been too obedient.

Why on earth should he? There has never seemed to me to be the faintest point in owning a newspaper unless its editorial opinions reflect its owner’s views. Great Fleet Street magnates like the first Lord Thomson bought newspapers as if they were Mars Bars, yet never showed any discernible interest in what they said. As long as the balance-sheet looked healthy that was good enough for him, and justified his continued ownership. My sympathies are entirely with the Berrys and the Beaverbrooks, who never had any doubt about the point of owning a newspaper. Moreover, for all their determination to be boringly Conservative, the Berrys can at least claim that on the great issue of our times they were on the right side. They were against Hitler, and encouraged their journalists to expose the truth about Nazi Germany. Neither the Astors nor the Rothermeres can make a similar claim.

Just how nasty it was possible to be as a newspaper-owner was made clear by the then Lord Rothermere in his explosive enthusiasm for Oswald Mosley’s Fascists, and his long-running support for Hitler. It would be an exaggeration to say that Richard Bourne’s book about the Harmsworth dynasty pillories the pre-war Daily Mail for this crime, but at least it records it. It recalls the Daily Mail’s leader of 15 January 1934, which trumpeted ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’, and described Italy and Germany as ‘beyond doubt the best-governed nations in Europe today’. It also records that the paper was still publishing anti-semitic articles about Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany after the outbreak of war in 1939. This history makes it all the more extraordinary that the Liberal Cadburys could bring themselves to sell the title of the News Chronicle to Rothermere in 1960. As Bourne remarks, the memory of the Mail’s pro-Fascist period probably prevented many liberal-minded News Chronicle readers from switching to the Mail after the merger.

In comparison to the Harmsworths, the Berry family is pure as the driven snow. But like everything else in life, the Berry saga ultimately turns into tragedy. Hart-Davis records in painful detail the way in which the Daily and Sunday Telegraph were eventually brought to the verge of bankruptcy by the patrician amateurism of Lord Hartwell and his business managers at Peterborough Court. The way in which Conrad Black took the papers away from the Berrys reads like an account of stealing barley sugar from a babe. And in the process, of course, the whole shooting match moved out of Fleet Street and down the river to the distant wastes of the Isle of Dogs. Leaving the King and Keys, El Vino’s, the Falstaff, the Punch, the Old Bell, Poppin’s, the Codgers’, the Albion, Auntie’s, the Dog and Duck and the King Lud to find some other serious drinkers to pay the rent. All we have left now is St Bride’s Church, where we attend each other’s memorial services.