SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024


Mouse droppings, cigarette smoke and grimy ceilings, ah, the romance
of the old Daily Express newsroom

I WAS captivated by the descriptions of old newsrooms from Christopher Wilson and George Dearsley in the Drone last week. Wonderful nostalgic stuff. This is how I remember ours, circa early Seventies …

‘Old green lockers stand like sentry boxes along the yellowing walls of the winding corridor that reaches a junction famed for the scent of the gentleman’s small, flooded toilet, with room for two standing and two sitting. The sentries hold coats and secrets … some from the past of journalists who have moved on to the greater newsroom in the sky and taken their keys with them. The keys are much sought after and prized.

Above you is a ceiling with bright, eye-blinking fluorescent lighting tubes, burned brown and black at each end of connection and you can hear the monotonous whooshing of dusty air blowing from the square ventilation boxes that have served the building faithfully since the war. A maze of tubes and pipes run over the heads of occupants passing below like the structure of a battleship. And little trays of mouse poison are tucked into corners.

A few paces across the corridor from the toilet is the opening into the Big Room where subs and reporters toil night and day, around the clock, around the year, the air holding the odour of sweat, cigarette smoke and alcohol. It is late in the evening. A long fleet of metal desks with black tops are pushed together to form a single line called the Backbench in the middle of the room where half-a-dozen executive editors sweat on uncomfortable typist chairs for hours deciding what story should go where, editing copy, drawing page layouts, or eating sausage and chips brought down from the canteen on the floor above at the end of the First edition- as the next edition goes on around them.

The news subs’ desks, three drawers in each, are strewn out in front of them at which sit 12 or so scribblers cutting and reworking stories from criminal court cases to an African monkey with three heads. Their desks are busy with spikes for discarded copy, some bent, some not, and lighters sit next to ashtrays, empty plastic teacups, books for spare moments, pots or tubes of glue and screwed up bits of paper with unused paragraphs on. Some chairs are broken, some not. On the wall behind them are boards showing the edition times. No one bothers with them, and they have not been changed for years. Only their monthly rota focuses their attention.

Messengers sit together nearby studying the next day’s racing pages between picking up the bits of handwritten copy from the subs and dropping them down ‘The Hole,’ using gravity to take them to the Composing Room on the floor below for typesetting.

Behind the Backbench is the News Desk, an oblong of eight desks pushed together where people sit with phones pressed to their ears. A couple of TVs show different channels and a man with a ginger beard is standing, shouting at the Backbench. 

To the left of the News Desk, depending on where you are standing, is the glass and metal dividing wall of the Reporters room, with the clattering of typewriters and drunken bellowing of late-night scribes who have returned from their stories and the pubs. A bit like the viewing gallery of a zoo. One reporter holds colleagues spellbound with a perfect imitation of Irish Protestant leader Ian Paisley while standing on a desk. Snappers look, or join in, from a desk at the end where they strip down and clean their cameras like cowboys and guns in the Hollywood movies.

Presiding over the ambitious occupants in the Big Room of this little city in the Street of Broken dreams, is a giant board on chains hanging from the fluorescent-lit smoke-stained ceiling reading: ‘Make it early – make it a curate’ … a rag has been slung over the second ‘C’ in accurate. It stayed there for what seemed like a lifetime. No one properly understood it.’



From the recruiting office in Fleet Street to the trenches, little did our patriotic lads know what lay in store for them … and the public were kept in the dark by the censor.

THE DRONE’S wonderful and nostalgic picture of Fleet Street in 1915 last week, prompted my memories of digging in the Press Association’s huge historic archive with the agency’s Chief Political Reporter Chris Moncrieff a while back.

We were researching the years of the First World War for a book to be published on the story of the Press Association from its birth in 1868 to the present day, as I have mentioned before, and needed the background on why the agency itself went to war with the British Government and its censors at that time.

The picture showed patriotic young men in bowler hats and cloth caps queuing at a recruiting office near Red Lion Court (where our old friend and Daily Star executive Nigel Blundell once had a flat), to enlist with the Fusiliers as The Great War raged. Little did they know of the horrors to come and some of them, or all, were queueing for the graveyard. For as we all know, nearly a million soldiers died in the blood-soaked trenches and waterlogged fields of that seemingly endless conflict. But as the bodies piled up in the early months, the British Press was gagged. The public didn’t know.

The PA records showed that The Press was a problem for Liberal Herbert Asquith’s Government. It was the first time that Great Britain had clashed with a European power for 60 years since The Crimea War with Russia.

Back then in the 1850s there was no Press Association and very few newspapers in Blighty. And the distance to the battlefield was so great, there was no danger that newspapers would publish information which could be of use to the enemy. By the time the British public read anything, it was weeks, even months out of date.

But with the fast-growing development of communications, distance between the front line and Fleet Street was no longer a censorship tool. Newspapers could now publish WW1 events, casualties, and battalion movements on the day they happened, thanks to the Telegraph wires. It was a phenomenon the government had never faced before and Cabinet meetings were called to find the answer. There were huge dangers if free and unchecked information flowed from the Front Line.

Even our own Press were worried. As war broke out, the management of the Scarborough Evening News reported to a PA Board meeting that the enemy might read British newspapers to pinpoint our positions on the Western Front and fire on exact targets. Something had to be done. A solution had to be found. The Press had to work closely with the War Office but needed to maintain some kind of freedom. A war of words raged.

Sir George Riddell of the News of the World, representing the London newspapers and Harry Robbins, chief of the Press Association were summoned to the Ministry. They were told by Sir Graham Greene from the Admiralty and top Civil Servant Sir Reginald Brade, that drastic measures would be put in place to protect the movement of our battleships and troops. But it became clear, that they didn’t have a clue what to do. It was stalemate.

As the two press men stepped back into the street, Robbins turned to Riddell and apparently said: “You know old chap, I think we are in for a devil of a mess.”

Robbins recalled the ruthless censorship of the Boer war in 1900. It was so strict that Reuters’ boss, Herbert de Reuter had said: “The censor’s action is a scandal. The censor suppresses everything which is not favourable. The way the British public are being misled and the honesty of the correspondents frustrated, is a disgrace to government.”

He was right. And now history turned full circle. The first few months of the Great War were difficult for Fleet Street. Everything was heavily censored. Every line. The Press were not allowed to send reporters to key battles. So, PA set up a regular service of telegrams from anywhere they could get battle news lifted from foreign newspapers. From Paris, Vienna, Rome, Petrograd, Athens, Cape Town and even India and Japan. Yet it was our war.

The reports were unreliable and costly. A description of a naval battle fought off the coast of Chile was telegraphed from Santiago at a cost of 1s.4d a word. Equivalent to around £4 today. After 18 months, PA had spent £50,000 on telegrams alone.

The agency and the regional and national press kept lobbying Ministers, MPs and the rich with influence, insisting there was a need, on behalf of thousands of British parents with boys and girls at the Front, for accurate and un-doctored news. The country was living on rumours and the metal name tags being sent home were growing.

At this time the government was putting through eyewitness accounts written by unnamed officers in the field (probably a civil servant at a desk in Whitehall) with the byline ‘eyewitness’. They were creating the war in their own words. If the British public knew or had seen photographs of the slaughter, there would have been a revolt and demand for peace.

Finally in late 1916, most of the public were smelling a trench rat. Reports from sea and land were too confusing and conflicting. Questions were being asked in the House. New talks at the War Office took place, and reluctantly the Government agreed that both PA and Reuters were allowed war reporters at British Military HQ in France, the Canal Zone, the Balkans and East Africa. They went to the trenches too, which stretched from the North Sea coast of Belgium and southwards through French territory, reporting on key flashpoints and battles for the national and regional titles back home. The stories were still censored but PA was free to report on all the action and were there to see it.

When the war ended two PA reporters suffered nervous breakdowns when they returned to Blighty where they received bravery awards.

The whole affair led to today’s creation of the D-Notice (an agreement between the Press and the government’s Defence Notice Committee), which is in force today, with trimmings.



DON’T ask me why but I woke up the other day thinking about the old days and how I have only ever had two things thrown at me in my life, other than balls at school. How sad am I?

One was a chip and the other was a cigarette packet with just one cigarette in. A packet of Guards, I recall. Both times were on the Express.

Of course, HR was unheard of in the early 1970s, but bollockings weren’t. And both times I was being bollocked, by the deadly duo back from a tipple or two … John MacDonald and Ted Hodgson.

Bespectacled MacDonald, a part-time, deep-sea fisherman, was Deputy Editor of the paper and his drinking mate, former fighter pilot and master mariner with a twitch, Ted Hodgson was Night Editor at the time.

They were so formidable, even the Messerschmitts would have turned back. Great journos but what they knew about HR wouldn’t fill a matchbox.

The cig packet came flying across the newsroom and hit me square on my head, as I kept it down after they returned from El Vinos and sat side by side to read the proofs on the Backbench. I knew it was coming.

“Who bloody well subbed Photo News,” red-faced MacDonald roared. There was no escape. I was a Newbie and put up my hand like schooldays. “Me!” Everybody had their head down and ears up like radar as I walked up to the Backbench to take my medicine. Hodgson, flushed from his refreshments, leaned over to MacDonald and loudly whispered in his ear: “Go easy, John, he’s new.” But a tirade of abuse followed. I had held up the edition with a stupid error in a caption. From then on, I double checked everything.

The chip left a tomato sauce stain on my white shirt after I was bonkers enough to ask Hodgson if he would sign my Late Meal Allowance expenses as he was eating his canteen meal at his desk. He nearly choked on one of those Diver sausages with rage, as he hurled the greasy chip, covered with sauce, at my chest. Ah well, learning curves, eh?


Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside!
I do like to be beside the sea!
Oh I do like to stroll along the Prom, Prom, Prom!
Where the brass bands play, “Tiddly-om-pom-pom!”


THE Victorian song still beats in the hearts of most of us and flicks a switch in our memories of buckets and spades, candy floss, and chips, Kiss Me Quick Hats and machines showing What the Butler Saw.

Sadly, though, so many of our beloved seaside towns haven’t moved on much over the past 50 years and are still awash with shabby amusement arcades, tatty hotels with glimpses of faded grandeur, broken glass, vicious seagulls, and deprivation, as Christopher Wilson and I have both written about in the Drone recently. Pour in the wet and cloudy English weather and it is a mix for bankruptcy.

Now the Great Levelling Up seems to be back on the rails with Rishi Sunak’s scrapping of the HS2 Manchester link, many regional editors will breathe a sigh of relief that at last our seaside resorts might have a sunnier future, particularly on the East Coast. For they are among the poorest towns in the UK. Consequently, ad revenue is down for titles and circulations are crashing. Shops and factories are closing.

The British public have deep affection for the seaside but places like Bridlington, Scarborough and Skegness have suffered political neglect. So, will the tide now turn? And with global warming, will we see a Costa coastline?

It’s not only the East coast that is suffering. Resorts from Clacton and Bognor Regis to Hastings and Minehead get shabbier with the tide of time. The future has never looked so bleak. Austerity, the pandemic, and the cost-of-living crisis has added to their plight. And of course, there’s the drug problem.

I read an interesting article last week revealing that 8,000 people move into Blackpool every year. Five thousand of them are on benefits and 44 per cent are single men. Most end up in hotels that have been cheaply converted into Houses of Multiple Occupation for treatment over mental illness or drug abuse.

If you’re a drug addict on benefits, then why not go and live by the sea? Much better than the high-rise gloom of Tower Hamlets. I can see the logic in that.

A reporter friend of mine in Scarborough told me: “Many people now are put off by plastic on our beaches and of course the sea is full of England’s shit. But in truth why spend money staying in England, when the Spanish Costas are virtually the same price with all their glitz, sunshine, bars and entertainment?” Plus, he added, the British are snobs and often hate each other.

“Many people don’t go on the beach any more because of others on it … in vests and tattoos with hairy armpits, swearing at their kids, who swear back,” he said. “Never mind the builder’s bums!”

So, will the Northern seaside towns again be left on the sidelines in Rishi’s new North-South Divide money bonanza or will they still be lost in the shadow of strengthening the economic centres of regional cities. Popcorn and ice cream is probably not top of the Treasury’s accounting thoughts. They don’t fit with office blocks and factories. And they probably don’t care about the productivity in chip shops. Or the renting of deckchairs.

As my friend told me: “We feature many stories of ill health in our community, particularly high obesity levels. Burger vans and chips are everywhere, here. It’s a fact that the mortality rate is lower in seaside towns than the rest of the country. Trouble is you can’t put things right with money for a few flower baskets on the seafront or some Christmas lights. It all goes deeper than that.”

As for new transport links, the Treasury probably thinks people only travel to the seaside to fill buckets with sand or play one-armed bandits, while eating a nostalgic supper of fish and chips from a newspaper. And they’re probably right.

As an example of the great Divide, Scarborough, the birthplace of stars such as actors Charles Laughton and Ben Kingsley, had the lowest average pay in the country at the last reckoning. Trouble is that the seaside economies are dominated by hospitality and care work. And with few quality jobs, graduates leave home to work in cities … so high-tech companies don’t set up shop beside the sea.

At last, the issue of poverty and imminent death of coastal towns is featured in the annual report of the UK’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, (remember him?). Let us hope he will be listened to, and aid will come.

At the moment, my big question is: What is there to do at the English seaside when the salty winds and sticky rain are battering the promenade and harbour. Answer, not much. You can put the snorkels away.


THOUGHT OF THE WEEK: I am finding it difficult to understand President Putin’s thought process after he announced in a Moscow speech last week that the war in Ukraine is a struggle that will underpin a new world order. Lasting peace, he says can only be achieved when everyone feels safe and respected. Eh? Oh come on Vlad, do the babies in prams and children in schools with their legs blown off in Ukrainian villages feel safe and respected as you watch TV in one of your guarded palaces? Is this how you earn respect?



HOW would you feel waking up to this fellah on your pillow? Spiders were making news last week as they came out to play and hunt for love in our houses during their creepy-crawly mating season. Screams all round. But now a company has designed a wallpaper featuring them. Imagine waking up to that! Apparently WallPapersforU is advertising it on the net, along with his hairy mates. 

Photo sent in from freelance Picture Editor Kristine Bogcanovitch to the Drone’s Department of Utter Bollocks. Note to Kristine’s relative, our former elusive Picture Editor, Chris Djukanovic: We have passed your kind regards on to her Chris.



Agnes, the tea lady in the Neasden Omnibus Company canteen in Dollis Hill, (not the brightest teaspoon in the cutlery) asked me why I looked so glum the other day as she plopped a brown sugar lump into my coffee at the counter.

“Just a bit down,” I said, “a bloke writing from a field has written to our Editor claiming we Daily Drone columnists are ‘up our bums’. Is that what you think of me, Agnes?”

“Oh, how hurtful Tel,” she said, “I’ve always thought you’ve got a pretty bum. I mean, it’s manly, strong, muscular and all that, but pretty. Why, only the other day my friend pointed you out and said … ‘that man’s an absolute arse!’”


“Down the orifice please, Harry.”


9 October 2023