Telegraph Building, Fleet Street. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
From Scoop by Evelyn Waugh:
The bells of St.Bride’s chimed unheard in the customary afternoon din of the Megalopolitan Building. The country edition had gone to bed; below traffic level, in grotto-blue light, leagues of paper ran noisily through the machines; overhead, where floor upon floor rose from the dusk of the streets to the clear air of day, ground-glass doors opened and shut; on a hundred lines reporters talked at cross purposes; sub-editors busied themselves with their humdrum task of reducing to blank nonsense the sheaves of misinformation which whistling urchins piled before them; beside a hundred typewriters soggy biscuits lay in a hundred tepid saucers. At the hub and still centre of all this animation, Lord Copper sat alone in splendid tranquility. His massive head, empty of thought, rested in sculptural fashion upon his left fist. He began to draw a little cow on his writing pad.
David Secombe: Scoop was published in 1938 and is, of course, a literary monument to the glory days of inter-war Fleet Street, drawing on Waugh’s brief 1935 stint as a Daily Mail war correspondent in Abyssinia. The novel’s monstrous Lord Copper is usually described as being an admixture of the proprietor of the Daily Express, Lord Beaverbrook, and The Times’s Lord Northcliffe, with the Mail‘s Lord Rothermere somewhere in the mix as well. The immense power of these men reflected the vast circulations and influence of the titles at their disposal; and, for all its comic genius, the paragraph from Waugh’s novel speaks of the glamour and excitement of old Fleet Street.
The Telegraph Building, designed by Elcock & Sutcliffe and finished in 1928, is a fine example of serious-minded Deco, with sculptural detailing typical of the era’s public buildings (e.g. London Underground’s 55 Broadway, BBC’s Broadcasting House), whilst the clock and detailing of the facade speaks of the 1920s’ infatuation with all things Egyptian. Alfred Oakley’s dynamic frieze above the main entrance depicts a brace of Mercuries flying from Britain to despatch news to her dominions and beyond; whilst, at the very top of the facade, two gravely portentous sculptural masks by Samuel Rabinovitch – ‘Past’ and ‘Future’ – offer further proof of the self-importance of the parties who commissioned the building. (However, Oakley and Rabinovitch were not as celebrated as Gill or Epstein, and their work on the Telegraph building was the high-water mark for both of them.) Together the elements add up to a rich, imposing and endearingly absurd edifice, entirely suitable for a sober, venerable newspaper keen to project an engagement with the hectic modern ‘scene’.
Daily Express Building, Fleet Street. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
A few years later, in 1932, and just four doors away, the new Daily Express Building opened for business and immediately made Elcock & Sutcliffe’s Telegraph design look like something by Augustus Pugin. A self-proclaimed icon of modernity streamlining down inky old Fleet Street, this sleek edifice is as characteristic of the 1930s as the suddenly obsolete Telegraph Building was of the 1920s. Significantly, the building was to a large extent the design of a structural engineer, Owen Williams, who had also advised on the Telegraph Building, and who went on to design Express offices in Manchester and Glasgow in the same fashion as their London prototype. The stark finish common to all three Express buildings - an aggressively moderne melange of black Vitrolite, glass and chrome - may be seen as an expression of the thrusting personality of Beaverbrook: the self-parodic press baron whose considerable political influence derived from the conspicuous popularity of his titles (during its post war zenith, The Daily Express was the biggest-selling newspaper in the world). Reading Scoop, it seems clear that Lord Copper’s Daily Beast is based in a building more like the Express than the Telegraph; quite apart from the architectural stylings, St Bride’s church stands directly opposite the Express Building, its spire reflecting darkly in the inscrutable facade of its upstart neighbour (however much Evelyn Waugh deplored the architecture of his time, he relished its capacity for inadvertent comedy).
Both the Telegraph and Express buildings are now owned by Goldman Sachs, their fabled Deco interiors available for inspection only on rare open days. And ‘The Street of Shame’ remains a street of ghosts, its pristine sense of purpose departing with the newspapers that gave it its unique identity. But for anyone seeking echoes of the giddy aspirations of the 1920s and 30s, these buildings remain evocative and potent, each epitomising the preoccupations of its decade. They are relics of a lost and dizzying world of inter-continental airships, Howard Carter and Tutankhamun, racing at Brooklands, the talkies, the Mitfords, the Blackshirts, Hollywood stars on the Queen Mary, Noel Coward’s Design for Living and Evelyn Waugh in his pomp … factories and temples dedicated to the latest news, expressed in architectural forms as up-to-the-minute as a Clarice Cliff tea-set.
Entrance frieze, Telegraph building, Fleet Street, EC1. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
Fleet Street Portrait – Charles Jennings:
New Life For Doomed Thoroughfare. It Takes All Sorts, Says Cockney. THE HELL OF THE STREET. ‘I was left for minutes on end. My thirst got the better of me.’ Starting today: her unique story. BANKERS WHERE ONCE WERE JOURNALISTS.My Secret Can Be Yours. FAMOUS ARTERY RUNS THROUGH BRITISH LIFE. ‘They were like savages.’ Can you name the missing ingredient? ‘A squalid, dirty and often pathetic affair.’In the space of ten minutes I saw no fewer than seventeen buses.RED-FACED MAN EJECTED FROM EL VINO’S. Why I Did It. ‘It took eight minutes for the police to arrive, by which time the thieves were long gone.’ To bring you this story I have crossed three continents under an assumed name. PREPARE YOURSELF FOR SMELLS GALORE. ‘He claimed it would change our lives’. Mersey House and a tale of neglect. Fantastic New Hunt Is On. Pasty-Faced Office Workers: ‘A Waking Nightmare’. Can 2/6 Really Buy Happiness? WORKSHY MAN CLAIMS TO HAVE FOUND SECRET OF ETERNAL YOUTH. He Was An Actor To The End. This Is The Gutter Press. And This Is The Gutter. Read my remarkable account.
Tennyson Street, Battersea. Photo © David Secombe 1982.
From Hill of Dreams, Arthur Machen, 1907:
It was not till the winter was well advanced that he began at all to explore the region in which he lived. Soon after his arrival in the grey street he had taken one or two vague walks, hardly noticing where he went or what he saw; but for all the summer he had shut himself in his room, beholding nothing but the form and colour of words. [. . .]
Now, however, when the new year was beginning its dull days, he began to diverge occasionally to right and left, sometimes eating his luncheon in odd corners, in the bulging parlours of eighteenth-century taverns, that still fronted the surging sea of modern streets, or perhaps in brand new “publics” on the broken borders of the brickfields, smelling of the clay from which they had swollen. He found waste by-places behind railway embankments where he could smoke his pipe sheltered from the wind; sometimes there was a wooden fence by an old pear-orchard where he sat and gazed at the wet desolation of the market-gardens, munching a few currant biscuits by way of dinner. As he went farther afield a sense of immensity slowly grew upon him; it was as if, from the little island of his room, that one friendly place, he pushed out into the grey unknown, into a city that for him was uninhabited as the desert.
At 11.30 a.m. (UK) today, Thursday 4 July, Radio 4 is broadcasting a documentary about Arthur Machen and his ‘disturbing’ visions of a world beyond our own.
Photo © David Secombe 1988.
The British Museum Reading Room by Louis MacNeice, 1939:
Under the hive-like dome the stooping haunted readers
Go up and down the alleys, tap the cells of knowledge –
Honey and wax, the accumulation of years …
Some on commission, some for the love of learning,
Some because they have nothing better to do
Or because they hope these walls of books will deaden
The drumming of the demon in their ears.
Cranks, hacks, poverty-stricken scholars,
In prince-nez, period hats or romantic beards
And cherishing their hobby or their doom,
Some are too much alive and some are asleep
Hanging like bats in a world of inverted values,
Folded up in themselves in a world which is safe and silent:
This is the British Museum Reading Room.
Out on the steps in the sun the pigeons are courting,
Puffing their ruffs and sweeping their tails or taking
A sun-bath at their ease
And under the totem poles – the ancient terror –
Between the enormous fluted ionic columns
There seeps from heavily jowled or hawk-like foreign faces
The guttural sorrow of the refugees.
[The Reading Room is now merely an exhibit, the centre piece of Foster and Partners' Great Court. The scholars now have to go up the Euston Road to the British Library.]
Tom Sharpe, Cambridge, 1992. Photo © David Secombe
Farewell Tom Sharpe … the author of Wilt, Porterhouse Blue, The Throwback, Riotous Assembly, etc. has died at the age of 85.
As an adolescent, I loved Tom Sharpe’s books. In his 1970s pomp, his fierce, majestic and paralysingly funny satires were a cause for great joy, and even made one proud to be British. But it can be a tricky thing to meet your heroes; and driving to Cambridge in the company of a nervous Spanish journalist (on his first ever visit to the UK) to interview the great man, I was fighting off my own attack of nerves. The interview started a bit awkwardly, as my colleague tried a line of questioning about the power of literature, during which he asserted: ‘Madame Bovary changed my life’ – to which Tom replied, ‘Well, you can’t have met that many doctors’ wives’. Things settled down after that, and we ended up going to a local pub – driven there at high speed along wild Fen roads by the author himself – where I finally got my chance to tell him that I thought Chapter 4 of The Throwback was the funniest thing I had ever read.
We discussed contemporary comedy and literature (he wasn’t much impressed), film version of his books (he hated the Smith/Jones version of Wilt but loved Channel 4′s Porterhouse Blue adaptation) and indeed photography, as he had once been a professional photographer and had pleasingly trenchant views on the subject. (When we came to do the photos, he insisted that I use his own tripod for the purpose of making the above picture, as he wasn’t convinced that mine was up to the task.)
The interview was for the Spanish edition of Elle magazine, as Tom had a strong following in Spain, and he eventually went to live there. He ascribed his popularity in Spain to the surrealism Spanish readers found in his books; but his own offering of an example of ‘typically English humour’, as requested on a Spanish TV interview, did not go down too well. He told the story of a troop of Tommies marching to the front line on the Western Front, and an exchange between a young soldier and a sergeant at a posting on the way. ”Ere, Sarge, when do we get to have a rest, been marching all day!’ ‘Don’t worry son, you’ll be dead in half an hour’.
My recollection of the day has a kind of glowing quality: it’s not often you an encounter someone whose work you love and in whom you discover someone who feels like a friend. He struck me much as he appears in the photo above: elegant, droll, mischievous, and as English as a Tudor manor house. We have lost another great one.
… for The London Column.