Booze, News and Nothing to Lose

Review: Mike Molloy, The Happy Hack: A Memoir of Fleet Street in its Heyday (London: John Blake, 2016), pp. 336, RRP £8.99 

Alas, for the changes of time! The Fleet, that little, quick-flowing stream, once so bright and clear, is now a sewer!

So wrote Walter Thornbury in 1878, an apt analogy – some may say – for the trades immortalized on the street of ink and drink. The written word burns deep. For it was on this very thoroughfare that the “poet Chaucer is said to have beaten a saucy Franciscan friar in Fleet Street, and to have been fined 2s.” Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton’s assistant, was the first printer to set up shop in Fleet Street during the late fifteenth century. The Daily Courant, Britain’s first newspaper, published on the street of shame from 1702.

Close to intelligence from both the City and the legal establishment, with the relocation of Reuters from Aachen to Fleet Street in 1851 (the year that the first cable was laid across the English Channel), the abolition of the penny newspaper stamp four years later and the scrapping of paper duty in 1861, the foundations of the future were laid. According to historian Jerry White, the appearance of the Daily Mail in 1896 “augured a new era in democratic journalism for the century to come.”

One child of this revolution was the Daily Mirror. By the time 15-year-old messenger boy Mike Molloy arrived at Fleet Street in the summer of 1956, the Mirror was approaching its heyday. Under the odd couple of Cecil King and Hugh Cudlipp, the left-of-centre Mirror hit a circulation of over five million copies. Journalist John Beavan said of the Mirror’s message:

to enlarge the knowledge, freedom and welfare of ordinary people. But to be effective the mission had to be carried out with fun as well as earnestness, with dramatic even sensational impact, as well as common sense. A good paper, Cudlipp wrote, must be an Open University. Yet it must destroy taboos and foment controversy.

Working on the Sunday Pictorial and the Daily Sketch, the dyslexic Molloy went on to join the Mirror in 1962, reaching the position of editor in 1975, a post he held for ten years.

In The Happy Hack, Molloy evokes the Ealing comedy chaos of his time at Fleet Street. Amongst the clatter of typewriters and the interminable din of phones ringing, hidden in a fug of tobacco, drowning in a Sargasso Sea of spiked copy, proofs and newspapers, were the journalists. One of Molloy’s favourites was sports editor Tony Smith:

who knew how to relax after a hard day’s work. One evening at about seven o’clock I saw him returning to the department.

“How’s this for a record lunch, Michael?” he asked.

“Only seven o’clock, Smithy. I’ve known longer lunches than that,” I replied.

“I went out yesterday,” he retorted.

Molloy’s memoir bursts with boozy anecdotes. Take the tale of Molloy visiting bomb-happy Belfast hack Chris Buckland, sent to New York for a change of scenery:

As we entered the bar I heard the strains of “Danny Boy” on the jukebox and I realized he’d taken me to a bar with a counter holding Noraid collection boxes, a jukebox of Irish songs of the Bing Crosby variety and a clientele of third-or-fourth-generation Irish cops.

I sat uneasily at the bar as Buckland ordered the drinks. When we were served he rapped smartly on the countertop and loudly proclaimed, “I’m going to sing you an Irish song.”

Immediately he had the attention of the whole bar. Raising his glass, he then sang them the anthem of the Northern Ireland Protestants, “The Sash My Father Wore”. To my amazement we weren’t instantly dismembered by the crowd. When he’d finished he even got a loud round of applause. 

“Are you trying to get us murdered?” I hissed when he’d finished. He just laughed. “These fuckers know nothing about Ireland. Tell them it’s an Irish song and they think it’s got to be attacking the English.”

The Mirror was, in words of Les Hinton, “a brilliant, highly-functioning alcoholic”. Boozers frequented included the Printer’s Devil (patronized by news sub-eds), the White Swan (known affectionately by the incumbent sports staff as the Mucky Duck) and the White Hart – the infamous Stab in the Back, where Keith Waterhouse picked up a Chihuahua, the landlord’s wife’s prized pet, and requested two slices of bread for his sandwich.

Situations satirized in Michael Frayn’s novel Towards the End of the Morning (1967):

Various members of the staff emerged from the Hand and Ball Passage during the last dark hour of the morning, walked with an air of sober responsibility towards the main entrance, greeted the commissionaire and vanished upstairs in the lift to telephone their friends and draw their expenses before going out again to have lunch.

Pleas in mitigation were given for the long lunch, in Molloy’s words:

Part of the reason people spent so much time in the office pubs, apart from the obvious pleasures, was that the hot-metal process involved long periods of waiting. It was a waiting game for everyone, and the pubs seemed the natural place to kill time. But, in truth, no one really needed an excuse. … “He was pissed” was always greeted with an understanding nod of the head.

Molloy’s business meant mixing with the likes of Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Roy Jenkins, JK Galbraith, Paul and Linda McCartney, and Rod Stewart. Working with Kingsley Amis, Jeffrey Bernard, Alastair Campbell and Delia Smith. And taking lunch with the Queen.

The music would not last forever. Intransigent print unions aside, Molloy and the Mirror faced two implacable foes. First, the Mirror failed to check the ascendancy of the Sun. Former Mirror sub Larry Lamb and new Sun owner Rupert Murdoch met for lunch. Journalists Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie write of this meeting:

The two men agreed immediately on the main point. The Mirror had grown old along with the wartime generation of readers who had taken its sales to five million. It needed younger readers, but it had badly misjudged the younger generation and left a huge gap in the market. The blame was laid on the paper’s “mission to educate”, which had let to it being said that Hugh Cudlipp would have made a good teacher for the Workers’ Education Association. For Lamb, the Mirror’s heavyweight three times a week “Mirrorscope” insert, a sort of tabloid Guardian containing in-depth material about science and the arts, summed up everything that was wrong with the paper.

Like the old Sun, Mirrorscope was a pet Cudlipp project, a journalist’s version of what a newspaper should be. It was patronizing and it irritated the readers. It was as though they were being told: “This is the important bit – the rest, the things you are actually interested in, is rubbish.”

Molloy concurs:

It was greeted by the media pundits as a breakthrough in popular journalism. It won prizes and was hugely popular with everyone – except most of the readers of tabloid newspapers, who found it too demanding. But it did serve a useful function for Rupert Murdoch. He became even more convinced that the Mirror was leaving an enticing slice of the readership to be snapped up by the Sun.

Bearing down too on Molloy was the oleaginous, orange-faced and overweight Mirror owner Robert Maxwell. Described by Molloy as having “the look of a music hall comedian” with a smile “like that of Richard III”, Maxwell was a complex character. Devoid of humour, yet unintentionally hysterically funny, possessing no manners yet aped the mannerisms of others, Molloy confesses

It took some months to realize that he was simply a street trader who was mortgaged up to the hilt. Maxwell had an astonishing memory and amazing skills of mental arithmetic, but he had no innovative abilities at all. He just had the compelling drive to imitate other successful ventures. His previous headquarters in the city had been named Maxwell House in order that fools would imagine he also controlled the coffee giant.

Tom Pitt-Atkins, a psychiatrist and friend of Molloy, observed of Maxwell prophetically:

“I’ve been watching him for some time now: the man’s off his head. He’ll end up bringing his whole empire down around him.”

The Happy Hack will be of interest to historians, journalists and lovers of biography. Psephologist and sociologist too may care to take note of Molloy’s personal journey from a Labour-supporting family to working for a newspaper supporting the so-called Common Market, the mixed economy and the abolition of Clause Four from the Labour Party manifesto, to a man backing David Cameron in 2010.


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