Pirates of Fleet Street, Chapters 9, 10 and 11



Strike Week 3 Tuesday March 18 

WHEN Cheryl finally tracked him down at the Berm-on-Sea Tea and Coffee Exchange Van jumped at the chance to meet her again, at an old pub in Fleet Street. 

The Transport Director of Port to Port was better off, financially, than he’d ever been. He’d moved from his room above a launderette in Whopping to a flash riverside apartment in a converted Tems- side warehouse. It was just a stroll from the Exchange and he rarely had cause to drive the Phantom, which was comfortably ensconced at the Exchange. Parked riverside of the expansive loading area, it appreciated the view of the Tower of Lundn; enjoyed watching the colourful tourist boats coming and going, and hearing the gentle sloshing of tide on gravel and screeching of seagulls over the muddy water. 

But, just like Van, the Phantom was bored. 

It had no complaints about its owner, and notional driver, though. For most of its working life the 1929 Rolls-Royce Phantom II had bounced around the Skootish moors carrying the drunken Laird of Lard and his posh mates. When they weren’t too drunk to load and aim, its odious passengers occupied their waking hours eliminating wildlife of any shape or size from the ancestral estate. When really drunk several of them managed to shoot each other, or themselves, which was some compensation to the remnant wildlife. The Phantom’s rural years ended when the destitute Laird managed to do a total, double- barrelled job on himself. His grieving widow donated the Phantom to a funeral parlour in Lundn’s Eestend, on condition they disposed of the Laird too, no questions asked. 

Van rescued the Phantom from Big Bertie Dooms’ cadaver disposal business but the journeys to the Lossit & Co secrets dump were less frequent now. So, as the bodywork wasn’t taking a regular gashing from the woods around HtnmWytht he’d spent a large slice of his new wealth on respraying and restoring the old Roller. He’d even managed to clean out the smell of dead stag. 

Van was an action man, ex-deep-sea diver, veteran of two navies, would-be writer of derring-do adventures. These works in progress were heavily influenced by his experiences above and below the ocean waves. 

His Port to Port working day was now all administration – and he hated it. Occasionally he would personally supervise the transport of barrels of port to Gouts, the gentlemen’s port-drinking club. Both his partners, Blankenberg and Jacob Lossit were members of Gouts and Jacob Lossit was deeply involved in the infamy and intrigue that had propelled Inglnd into the Yoorupian Economic Community (YEC). 

Van had first encountered the pair when they engaged him and the Phantom to carry ‘secrets’ down to HtnmWytht for disposal in the worked-out mines at Lossit & Co. 

Those trips were fewer now, but when he did drive to County Cant he never missed a chance to call at the village’s only pub, the Cantish Men. Septic Hangnail, the acknowledged worst publican in Britain, (or the world, probably) was rarely there. Van had heard that Septic was busy elsewhere setting up a chain of awful pubs with his business partner, Elphaba Hardboyl. 

It was comforting, though, to see Septic’s loyal spouse, Gorgy, keeping the Cantish Men’s standards down at rock-bottom. 

Part of Van’s distaste for Blankenberg’s Port to Port offices was the sight of the poor wretches working there like galley slaves. It reminded him too much of the Greek Navy, which he had departed hurriedly. 

Blanko, as he was known at Gouts, was now parsimonious to a fault. He had blown the family fortune on barmaids and showgirls – the remnant of one of these, his ancient secretary Gladys, still haunted him – and he now grasped tight to every quid. 

His income had grown enormously since Jacob dealt him into Port to Port. More clerks had been employed to deal with the booming business but Blanko maintained his family’s Dickensian-era approach to staff. His notion of a ‘job with prospects’ was one where overtime is available. Whereas most workers are paid extra for working overtime hours, overtime rates paid at Port to Port are slightly lower than regular, daytime working rates. Blanko reasons that if his employees work at night he, Blanko, has to pay for electric lighting. 

It’s even conceivable that, at certain times of the year when the temperature in the office drops to zero, he might have to unlock the gas fire. In such circumstances staff could hardly expect the same extravagant earnings they enjoyed in daytime. 

Often, in his cups following a lavish lunch at Gouts, the old man would outline his business philosophy to fellow members. 

“Don’t forget,” he would say, “every hour these people are at work represents a saving for them. Instead of frittering away their wages on food, drinks and ‘having a good time’, they are earning good money. My money!” 

Although much malignancy he undoubtedly deserved, nobody could accuse Erasmus Blankenberg of discrimination. All employees were treated equally badly. A single toilet was available for all to share. Its key was available from Gladys, for a modest deposit. In addition, employees enjoyed equal responsibility and shared cleaning duties for loo and offices. 

“The pub’s in Wine Office Court, off Fleet Street,” Cheryl explained when she called Van and arranged a meeting for lunchtime. “Our offices are just next door, but you don’t want to drag all the way up them stairs.” 

It wasn’t much of a drive from Berm-onSea. Anyone else would have jumped in a black Lundn cab and sod the expense. But Van knew the Phantom always appreciated a chance to turn its wheels over and he never had to worry about parking; or drink-driving come to that. 

The gleaming, two-ton, eight-litre vintage Rolls-Royce stopped opposite the narrow passage leading to the Cheshire Cheese, pulling in tidily behind a bright yellow news-van that was dropping bundles of midday racing editions outside a newsagent’s shop. It always seemed unreal, somehow, that on a street surrounded by newspaper offices and print-works ordinary people bought their newspapers in shops, just as they did everywhere else in the country. 

Van alighted and ducked through the constant traffic to cross the street. Just before he walked into the Court the sign on an adjoining doorway caught his eye. 

Blankenberg Building, it read. 


How’s Business? 

Strike Week 3 Tuesday March 18 

VINCENT X was in the Cheese early for the arranged meeting with the Van Man. The first hour after opening was always reasonably quiet and he wanted time to work out his spiel. Didn’t want to seem desperate for help, even though he was. And he wasn’t too sure about this bloke’s motives anyway, with a vulnerable young girl like Cheryl. Nothing personal of course, just concerned for his staff. Well, that’s what he told himself. 

“Mornin’, Vince, you’re early,” said Les, who was in his usual spot in the front bar, behind the jump. “Usual?” 

“No, better just ’ave ’alf for now, thanks mate. Second thoughts, I’ll ’ave a Weasel. How’s business then?” 

“Don’t ask,” said Les, pouring. “You?” 

“Don’t ask, mate. But there’s a bloke comin’ in later who I ’ope might ’elp wiv a little transport problem. Cheers. What’s your problem then, all the regulars goin’ to AA?” 

“Do leave off, Vince. This lot?” Les nodded towards the Baxter crew crowded around the passageway window that let into the bar. “They couldn’t spell AA, let alone find it.” 

“What then?” asked Vincent. He’d hoped to sit in the corner for a while and sort out his thoughts. But you had to take an interest. Les was a mate. 

“No, it’s not so bad down ’ere,” Les confided, leaning across the bar, keeping his voice down. “Upstairs, and across the passage,” he nodded towards the door, “the restaurants have gone very quiet lately. Bit of a problem.” 

There were plenty more pubs in and around Fleet Street. Some were old; some served food. None challenged the Cheshire Cheese’s combination of history, good beer and grub. 

As something of an ancient monument the Cheese had been a tourist trap for years. But most of the overseas visitors were more interested in rubber-necking around the building than buying drinks. So the pub capitalised on food, serving traditional ‘olde-Inglsh fayre’, and a range of national cheeses. 

Tourists were the pub’s mainstay. 

“We heard that some of the coach companies have put a new boozer on their list, other side of the street, down Dorset Rise, an’ I reckon that’s bitin’ us,” he said. 

Les was right. A small pub, due for demolition to make way for office development had been let short-term to a new operator desperate for a foothold in the tourist area around the City of Lundn. It was being promoted as ‘the worst pub in the City of Lundn’, selling the ‘worst beer in Inglnd’. 

Septic Pubs had established their first outlet in the capital.
“Didn’t that used to be Aunties, Les? Nice pub; titchy though,” 

remarked Vincent. 

“That’s right,” Les agreed. “Lost nearly all its business when the Daily Sketch packed up. It was closed and ready for knockin’ down, and now some bleedin’ madmen ’ave taken it over. Sign outside says ‘Lundn’s worst pub and terrible beer’. Can you believe anyone would want to go in there? You’d ’ave to be barmy.” 

“Yeah, I know what you mean Les, but I expect it’s just some gimmick. Novelty, eh? People think, what’s that all about? Can it be that bad? Let’s ’ave a look. You’d go once, then that’s it. I shouldn’t worry, mate, can’t last.” 

“Yes, well that might be the case for sensible, normal people like us. But we’re talkin’ about tourists here. You only get one go at them, then they’re flyin’ back ’ome to Tokyo or Texas or somewhere. 

“An’ by the sound of it, if they drink any of that bloody beer they’ll be in intensive care first.” 

Cheryl bustled into the bar.

“Is ’e ’ere yet Vince? I got ’eld up, just leavin’ the office when that Miss Rabbia phoned.” 

“Ah, she alright? Didn’t say anything about our little setback, I ’ope. Did you, Cher?” He sounded panicky. “Oh sorry, give ’er a drink Les. What do you want, glass of wine?” 

“Well, fing is; oh yeah, white wine please, Les; I think she wants ...” 

She stopped short, spotting a burly, bearded ex-sailor squeezed into smart dark worsted shouldering his way into the narrow entry of the Cheese. 

“That’s ’im,” Cheryl said excitedly. “I’ll tell you later, Vince ... Van, Van! In ’ere,” she called, waving him into the front bar. “Hi, fanks for comin’,” she said, not sure if a handshake or a kiss on the cheek was fitting, given their very brief acquaintance. So she did neither. 

“Oh, this is Vincent, Van; Vincent X.” 

Van was wearing business suits these days, and though he never looked totally comfortable in formal wear, he fitted into the lunchtime crowd reasonably well. He hated clichés and made a conscious effort to avoid the rolling gait affected by some matelots. The bushy beard was a bit of a giveaway though, a reminder of a long career at sea when shaving was a bloody nuisance that could only be avoided with permission of the captain. 

“Hello, Cheryl, nice to see you again. Pleased to meet you, Vincent,” he said, sticking out his hand. He made no comment on the ‘X’. 

“Yeah, you an’ all. Wotcha ’avin?” said Vince. 

“Ah right, beer good here, is it? Pint then, of whatever you’re having.” 

“Well, this is a Weasel, only comes in bottles. But the bitter’s alright. Pint of best, please Les.” 

“Let’s move over to that table,” he suggested, once everyone had a glass in hand. “Talk a bit easier over there.” 

The bar was filling up but the ground-floor restaurant room was quiet. In its doorway, visible from the front bar, Les’s co-manager Bill, dapper in his red jacket and black bow-tie, cut a lonely figure. 

Like Les, Bill was a Lundner; a little older, bit less hair, similar build. Both blokes were well-equipped to handle the rough and tumble of pub life, but in Fleet Street, which was relatively civilised, there was rarely any need for chucking-out skills. 

As Van, Vince and Cheryl squeezed around one of the bar’s small wooden tables, a short, colourfully-attired man made a noisy entrance. His shiny black shoes were buckled; white knee-high stockings gave way to knickerbockers; a billowing white shirt with puffy sleeves was partly set-off by an embroidered, black waistcoat. Andy was the best- dressed potman in Lundn. 

“Has anyone seen the Doctor?” he called. “Has Doctor Johnson been in the Cheshire Cheese today?” 

“Shut up, Andy!” chorused the crowd. 

“Leave it out, Andy,” advised Les. “All regulars in here today. You can pick up a few glasses while you’re here, though.” 

“What was that all about,” grinned Van, as the potman wandered off about his proper duties. 

“Ah, ’e’s a right character, Andy,” said Vincent. “Notice his hair, looks like a curly white wig? I recon that’s what gave him the idea, first. Dresses up like he’s straight out of the 1700s.” 

“’e does it for the tourists, Van,” Cheryl joined it. “Shows ’em ’round the pub, down the cellars an’ all. I think ’e does well out of tips. Gives ’em the old story about Doctor Johnson. Cos ’e really did used to come in this pub all the time, y’know.” 

“Yeah, lived ’round the back, Gough Square,” said Vincent. “Did you tell Van about parkin’, Cher? No meters there, Van; not yet anyway.” 

Through the open door Andy could be seen climbing the stairs to the first-floor restaurant. “Has anyone seen the Doctor?” they heard, faintly from above. 

“I think Andy’s gonna be unlucky today,” Vincent confided. “Les says trade’s well down.” 

He moved in closer to the table and lowered his voice. 

“That doctor routine’s usually a big earner for old Andy. You notice there’s sawdust all over the floors in ’ere? Same right through the pub.” 

Cheryl and Van nodded. There was nothing unusual in that. 

“Well, in the downstairs bar there’s this little old machine, on legs, that Andy reckons was used to clean the sawdust. In the old days, like. Now they just sweep it up and put fresh down every morning.” 

“Right, go on then,” said Cheryl. “Where’s the earner?” 

“Andy takes these tourists round the place, and shows them that machine,” Vince explained. “Tells them the pub uses it every night, cleans the sawdust and puts it back on the floor the next day. So, ‘this is the same sawdust that Doctor Johnson walked on 200 years ago’ he says! What a character.” 

“I still don’t get how ...? 

“I do, Cheryl,” Van chipped in. “So these tourists, I bet they’d be Amurikan women mostly ...” 

“Dead right, Van,” replied Vincent X. “They say, gee whillikers or some such Yankee cobblers, I really wish I could take some of that sawdust back to the folks in Tallahassee. And Andy says, oh I really don’t think I could allow that madam. But finally, ’e lets them twist ’is arm. Gives them a matchbox full,” said Vincent. 

“And they’re so grateful they insist on giving him something for his trouble?” asked Van. 

“Ah, if you insist, madam, he’d say. Two pounds is the usual figure.” 

They all laughed. 

“Let me get some more drinks,” said Van. “First I’d better go and move the Phantom around to that square. If some reporter sees a self- driving car parking itself it’s likely to start a bloody scare campaign.” 

“What’s ’e talking about ‘self-driving car’?” Vincent asked Cheryl while Van moved up to the bar. 

“I told you, it’s a very funny car, Vince. Van reckons it ’as a mind of its own.” 

“Some people will believe anything,” said Vincent. “Like what Les was telling me about this new ’orrible pub that’s nickin’ some of ’is business.” 

“Did I hear something about an ’orrible pub’?” asked Van, returning a few minutes later with two pints and a glass of white wine for Cheryl. 

“Cheers all,” said Vincent. “Yeah, I was sayin’ that some people will swallow anything, like Andy’s tourists. Les, the publican ’ere, was moaning about a pub over the road that’s pulling in the tourists cos it claims to ’ave ‘the worst beer in Inglnd’.” 

“Well, I should think that’s unlikely,” grinned Van, swigging at his own beer. “No, I’m not talking about this! Great this is.” He looked reassuringly across towards Les. “But I know a pub down in Cant which would give any place, or beer, a run for its money. In fact, the guv’nor was voted the worst publican in Inglnd.” 


Birth of the Bolshy 

THE GREAT, gullible public will consume what they are sold. Elphaba Hardboyl knew it so well. Her inspired creation of the Bolshiest Pub Landlord contest – which was dished up to feed the vicarious appetite of Sunday newspaper readers for the most vile, but titillating, aspects of human behaviour - emphatically 

proved the point.
Parlaying a short-term shock-horror story up into a nation- 

wide campaign and eventually, into a chain of grisly pubs for mug punters and tourists, was a tribute to her devious self- interest. 

First of the truly awful establishments – the pub that inspired Elphaba and became the cornerstone of her little empire – was the Cantish Men, the one and only pub in the poor, lost village of HtnmWytht. She bribed its odious landlord, Septimus ‘Septic’ Hangnail, by crowning him Inglnd’s Bolshiest Publican. Then she bullied him into a partnership .Their deal was straightforward. Septic would bring his name, his foul brews, and his misanthropic attitude to the party. The formidable Elphaba would do the thinking. The blight that struck the Cheshire Cheese was the first indication of her evil plan. 

ELPHABA was editor of No Fear, the country’s nastiest, sleaziest, national newspaper and she used the rag to search for the country’s worst, most miserable and all-round bolshiest pub landlord. 

No Fear was eventually closed down for tapping the phones of Gouts, the infamous port-drinking gentlemen’s club which arranged the dissolution of the UK. Less importantly, No Fear also tapped the top-secret, encrypted telephone lines of NATO headquarters, the Amurikan Embassy and Bukinm Palace. It specialised in exposés, sex scandals, bribery, corruption – all the staples of everyday life in Britain. 

‘We Don’t Make an Excuse – We Don’t Leave’ was No Fear’s motto, loudly trumpeted at every opportunity by the paper’s multi- millionaire proprietors, the Weasel Brothers. 

The motto was coined by No Fear’s dauntless Elphaba Hardboyl. It was a bare-faced slap-in-the face for No Fear’s Sunday-morning competitors, whose unimaginative ‘investigative’ reporters all employed the same limp pay-off to every in-depth exposé. Just as the scoutmaster was about to whip off his woggle – or the Madam unveiled her sex-toy – or even as the actress snatched at the Bishop’s mitre – ‘your reporter made an excuse and left’. 

Phew – what a relief! 

Sunday morning titillation was all fore-play and no conclusion until No Fear shockingly declared that its reporters were fearless. They would make no excuses and they certainly wouldn’t be leaving. 

Elphaba would have gladly rewritten the Journalists’ Code of Ethics, if there had been one. She was one of the very few women to edit, or reach a senior editorial position on any national newspaper in Britain. As such she was hated, envied and admired in roughly equal quantities, because her journalistic career had reached its zenith on the tackiest title in Fleet Street. 

Unlike their plucky reporters, Weasel Bros’ ever-changing editors were always leaving. They rarely held the post long enough to stand family pictures on the desk, or fetch their favourite coffee mug from home. 

They were the poor sods who carried the can through the continual parade of libel cases that dogged the Weasels’ stable of daily and weekly titles. At any one time at least one Weasel Bros editor would be tied up in court, on remand, or banged up at Her Majesty’s pleasure. 

No Fear editors were especially vulnerable and they rotated steadily through the revolving doors connecting Fleet Street with the High Court. 

The paper’s bold editorial approach was totally even-handed. Lies were given just as much coverage as truth. 

‘Liars are human too’ was another company credo. ‘We demand the right to be wrong!’ 

Unfortunately the courts often disagreed, and that meant the Weasels needed a continual supply of top class, fearless, money-grubbing journos to fill the editorial hot-seat at their best-selling Sunday disgrace. Six months in the job was a record. 

The publishing and printing empire of the odious brothers included national dailies, regional newspapers and magazines but No Fear was the tacky, fake jewel in its paper crown. Massive Sunday morning sales revenue from millions of ready-to-be scandalised readers was just a bonus, topping up the even more massive rivers of gold flowing from advertising. 

Small ads for dubious support garments and unlikely stimulants crammed a unique ‘sealed section’ printed on yellow paper. Searching for the worst publican in the country was right up No Fear’s Street of Shame. 

It began as another routine shock horror investigation stimulated by ‘a concerned reader’ who wrote to complain of rat droppings in his bitter. 

“Fank gawd I wasn’t on Guinness,” he said later, “or I’d never ’ave noticed. The missus alus’ drinks Guinness o’ course, and she’s gone right off it nah. Might be cycleogical they say up the ’orspital.” 

His letter won ‘Rat-droppings outrage Reg’ that Sunday’s five-quid prize for Shock-Horror letter of the week. 

The editor didn’t expect the spin-off to run for more than a week or two. With luck she might still be in the job that long. 

Female editors were rare in the Street but Elphaba Hardboyl was a legend. 

Known in the trade as the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba had survived strikes, shut-downs and take-overs up, down and around Fleet Street for more years than anyone dared count. 

Gaunt, angular, equipped with acid tongue and steely gaze she had earned the Wicked Witch nickname as editor (or principal enforcer) of Western Force. This was the Weasels’ weekly magazine cum mouthpiece for the Common Sense political party or Hang ’em and Flog ’em as it was unpopularly known. 

Her trademark red boots (‘they hide the blood’ said colleagues) completed the Wicked Witch persona. 

Tough as she was, Elphaba knew better than to say ‘no’ to a Weasels job offer. Editing No Fear would be a great way to finish her long career; and the money was outrageous. All she had to do was stay out of jail. 

The rat-droppings set-up had only cost the paper 500 quid to fix – ‘Creative journalism,’ Elphaba called it. Reg was her creation, a total fabrication – ‘whose anonymity No Fear will respect, out of consideration for Reg’s poor wife as she continues to fight for her life and sanity in an undisclosed sanatorium.’ 

So, no pictures needed of non-existent Reg. 

But ... candid, grainy black-and-white ‘evidence’ pictures were easily staged in a seedy pub run by a small-time villain, one of Elphaba’s old drinking chums and a life-member of Hang ’em and Flog ’em. He was all set to shut up the pub and do a runner to Spain’s Costa del Crime, leaving a tidy mountain of unpaid brewery bills and other debts behind. 

The ‘unknowing, hapless customers pictured supping contaminated beer’ photographed by No Fear were both in wheelchairs. One of the chairs had an oxygen bottle strapped to the side. 

‘this could be your mum and dad’ screamed the 18pt caption. That was unlikely as the couple were Elphaba’s own dear old mum 

and dad, rolled out on day release from the hospice. 

The clincher picture was shot in the genuinely filthy, murky cellar. It showed a few rats, acquired the same day from a pet-shop, scrambling over leaky beer barrels that had been sprinkled with ripe cheese. 

“Just make it a mild shock, health and hygiene piece,” the editor told her troops at that week’s editorial briefing. 

“Give it a splash on page 3, next to the tits, and let’s see what happens,” were her precise orders. 

Elphaba’s page 3 headline was a masterpiece. 

What Rat is Pissing in Your Pint? 

It subtly questioned whether, in addition to rodent infiltration, a human organ might be intervening in what should be the hygienic progression of beer from brewery, via the pub, to the customer’s gob. 

Who’d have thought so many readers would have a gripe about their local boozer? No Fear’s phones started their meltdown as soon as the paper hit the mats on Sunday morning. All across the nation ‘outraged’ drinkers thought twice about their Sabbath-ical visit to the local. 

Normally, Sunday was the best day of the week for a lunchtime drink or three, when even the humblest boozer put on a few crisps and knobs of cheese for the two-hour swill. Some of the flasher places opened a bottle of cockles and stuck little sticks in the cheese lumps. 

Granted, you had to wait outside for the doors to open at noon and then concentrate on getting enough down you in the next two hours to numb the burnt offering (otherwise known as the great British Sunday roast) that would be waiting in the oven at home. 

Suddenly that tradition was in peril. Pub trade dipped; churches, especially the ones handing out wine and wafers, reported increased attendance. 

No Fear had unnerved the population. 

In the following weeks disturbing stories of infamy in pubs across the land were told, retold, embellished and concocted. Scandalous accounts of beer-watering, short-changing and black magic ceremonies in pub cellars ran for weeks in No Fear. The other Sundays struggled to catch up. 

For the very first time No Fear’s Shock-Horror letters section was packed with genuine readers’ gripes. This was in itself a shock. But all stories lose their sparkle eventually and Elphaba knew she had to push the idea sideways for greater exploitation. 

Getting readers to nominate the worst – or Bolshiest guv’nor – was a stroke of genius. A local-radio travelling show followed, and monthly winners were chosen in preparation for a national final showdown. Tourist coach trips around the grisliest locations followed. This year Elphaba was even angling to sell the Grand Final as a TV special. 

Her flare for promotion also saved Elphaba from the inevitable end of Weasel editors – jail or the sack. She persuaded the money-grubbing twins that she could earn the company a whole new income stream by doubling as promotions editor. 

The Wicked Witch timed her move well. The careless editor whose chair she had taken over was back on the Street. For once the journalists’ union had dredged up some Dutch courage and threatened something unspecified if the Weasels wouldn’t reinstate their ‘courageous and principled member’. 

This pillar of the profession had served a slap-on-the-wrist three- month term in an open prison for contempt when he ‘nobly’ refused to name his sources in the Cabinet Minister’s Love-Child Tells All scandal. 

As he had invented the sources and most of the ‘facts’ in the first place ‘nobly’ wasn’t strictly accurate. The Weasels would have displayed their usual contempt for the union and countered the threat by sacking its few remaining members. But the spotty adolescent just happened to be the idiot son of the current chairman of the Hang ’em and Flog ’em party. 

He was welcomed back and given the title editor-at-large, which was fitting given his recent release from incarceration. It also meant Elphaba could send him off into the wilds on any wild-goose chase she fancied. His welcome party was doubled up with Elphaba’s appointment as Special Promotions editor. 


© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre