Two buildings on Fleet Street.


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

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.

Summertime Blues. Text assembled by Charles Jennings, photo: Tim Marshall.

Essex Road. Photo © Tim Marshall.*

Newspaper quotes from August 2011:

She knows what she has done.

In order to get people’s respect and get noticed, this mother brazenly walks out of the back door of an Argos store. As a Glaswegian I was relieved of course.

There was more. After being yanked away by a hooded looter, the son of an evangelist minister ‘stole from supermarket’, admitted burglary by looting a £7.49 bottle of wine, and left stupid messages on Facebook.

Trying to gouge out a policeman’s eyes, the teenager then blamed the police for his crimes, adding that everything he had worked for is destroyed.

But victims will be given the chance to speak out, clean up in an orange jumpsuit, sweep scum off our streets, and be rightly alarmed.

Modern-day Fagins, on the other hand, cannot have people being frightened in their beds, or running into their basement flat with electrical items. It is deplorable behaviour, leading to instant ‘no-go’ areas to tackle mob violence.

At last, though, there is a smell of fresh paint, as well as vicious infighting between politicians and senior policemen. The public is finally seeing proper medicine handed out. Residents cheered police as they carried out the operation!

Some would argue that this all smacks of headline grabbing; others, that the dehumanising epithets flew like bricks through a JD Sports window.

But what matters is that this kind of anarchy is never allowed to happen again.

Nurse accused of sending saucy underwear pics to schizophrenic patient.

(Taken from The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Daily Express, Daily Mirror.)

* Disclaimer: in the interests of full disclosure, I must point out that the photo above was not taken during this month’s disturbances, but some years ago (the date is uncertain) and forms part of Tim Marshall’s 38 Special project, which we have already featured on The London Column. Whilst the young men in Tim’s photo were not looting anything, we have posted some contemporary riot photos on our Facebook page. D.S.

Old and New Soho. Photo & text by Eric Hands, Adam Macqueen (5/5)

Christopher Booker, Richard Ingrams, Auberon Waugh and Barry Fantoni at the Private Eye office, Greek Street. Photo © Eric Hands

Eric Hands writes:

I arrived at Private Eye  as a token working-class boxwallah – Ingrams’ term of endearment for non-editorial staff – following a mystical experience on Clapham Common (the drugs were better in those days) and a subsequent introduction to Barry Fantoni by the local vicar. My first job was to write up the ledgers for the advertising sales and, such was the shortage of space in the Greek Street premises, I shared a small smoke-shrouded cubicle with Auberon Waugh and Paul Foot. Bron had a habit of throwing his cigarette ends out of the window and on more than one occasion laid waste to a few fancy hats. I spent my first decent wage packet on a camera and the rest of my life trying to use one.

Regarding the above photo, Adam Macqueen – who is working on a definitive history of Private Eye – supplies the following which sounds about right. I’d date it circa 1974 as the poster was being used as a prop – rather than the photo being taken to celebrate the poster (if that makes sense). It was from a series of shots I took for a feature in the New York Times. Lighting by Anglepoise.

Adam Macqueen writes:

As far as I can tell, the poster must refer to Wilson’s legal action against the Eye for a joke about the trademark Gannex macs he always wore: they were manufactured by a company owned by his friend Joe Kagan, and the Eye wrote that Kagan had “employed Wilson as a commercial traveller and male model for the last seven years at an annual salary of £5-£10,000.” His solicitor Lord Goodman – himself a regular target and sworn enemy of the Eye – brokered an apology that was printed in February 1973: “This reference was not intended to be take literally, and we apologise to Mr Wilson for any suggestion that he was employed by or received payments of any kind from a commercial concern whilst he was a Minister of the Crown.”

Kagan, who did provide funding for Wilson’s private office, later got a peerage in his resignation honours list – the ‘Lavender List’ – and was imprisoned for theft and false accounting in 1980. And Wilson continued his feud after his resignation as prime minister in 1976, when he started touting what he called a “Private Eye address book” around friendly journalists. It was presumed to have been compiled from information private detectives working for his friend James Goldsmith had acquired from the magazine’s dustbins during his epic legal battle that year.

… for The London Column. © Eric Hands, Adam Macqueen 2011