Peter Paterson, the author of an engaging memoir (Much More Of This, Old Boy…? Scenes from A Reporter’s Life, Muswell Press, £12.99), has had a successful career as a London journalist lasting more than half a century. Although he writes of it in a lively enough fashion, the world he describes has already ceased to exist. It is as distant today as the London of Pepys or Johnson.
What was conveniently referred to as “Fleet Street” was in fact a community, embracing not only that particular thoroughfare but also its neighbourhood. There, in a network of lesser streets and alleyways, a variety of newspapers, periodicals and magazines was produced — and there the journalists who created them worked and drank and lived their (often irregular) lives. Although it has all gone now, swept away by the invincible forces of new technology and trade union blackmail, Paterson’s enjoyable account brings that whole scene back to life.
It certainly had its disreputable aspects, but it was unquestionably fun to belong to that world, something which probably cannot be said of very many working communities today. It was peopled by a ripe assortment of characters, some of them brilliant, others decidedly not so; all of them, it has to be admitted, were inclined to drink immoderate amounts of alcohol, either in the fabled wine bar El Vino or in the numerous old-established pubs of the district. An easygoing camaraderie prevailed, spiced by keen rivalries and exuberant conversation. Paterson clearly enjoyed the environment as much as anyone.
His entry to that world came about in the old-fashioned manner, by way of a spell on a local weekly paper. He had the talent and versatility to flourish subsequently in a variety of roles, not always in his chosen category of reporter. He was the Sunday Telegraph’s industrial correspondent at a time when Britain’s industries resembled a battlefield. Later he switched to political punditry for the New Statesman and the Spectator. He ended up as television critic for the Daily Mail, an abrupt change of direction by no means surprising in what is an often comically unpredictable environment.
Paterson writes informatively about the inevitable disappearance of that world. He describes the gangster-like customs of some print workers who conspired to squeeze the newspapers of their last penny, using threats of wildcat strikes and blatant corruption as their weapons, while resisting the new technology which had transformed the publishing world away from Fleet Street. When the old state of affairs was finally ended, and Fleet Street was abandoned by the newspapers, there was a sense that a long-overdue cleansing had occurred. For many of the scribblers and the pundits of print, however, it was a melancholy end.
It should be noted that Paterson depicts in this book one other, entirely different kind of existence which has also (or so one hopes) now vanished into history. His own childhood had an almost Dickensian flavour. Abandoned by his mother as an infant, he was shortly afterwards abandoned by the aunt to whom he had been entrusted. She placed him in a London orphanage where a harsh regime of praying and thrashing was enforced. That he emerged from that incarceration to embark with gusto on the life here recorded is something of a marvel.