The more you dig the more you find. What had been intended as one episode of Fuzzy Photos & Unreliable Tasting Notes (FP&UTN) has expanded into three (and probably even four, the way things are going). Some of the snippets are more interesting than the original stories so I will tackle them one by one.
Fleet Street Characters
In Act 2 I will shine a light on some of the participants across a broad spectrum of news production in Fleet Street. This leads to a question as to the appropriate generic noun for people involved in the production of newspapers? In the absence of anything more imaginative or original, I'll have to resort to the term Character. The newspaper world was made up of a multi-faceted population of editors, photographers, reporters, copy typists, copy couriers, sustenance providers, cleaners, the partners of all of the above and many more.
First, some feedback from and about some of these characters resulting from comments on "Act 1":
I touched briefly on Bob Kirwin, our pictures editor and somewhat of a guru in the ways of Fleet Street, London and British culture. At least he was to a bunch of Seffrikkin rookies, to whom Monty Python was the height of culture. Apart from his deportation order from Zambia that Lester corrected me on, Mr Venter also recalled: "I was struggling to remember the name of a minor classical painter who always included a tiny mouse in his paintings of busy scenes.
"Bob ventured, unhelpfully: 'Was it maybe Mickey Angelo?'"
And, when Bob commented thus on the English climate: "I missed last summer. I was in the kitchen at the time,” he couldn’t have anticipated the irony that 1975’s summer was only overshadowed for abundant sunshine by 1976’s. We would have taken Bob’s quip as gospel as we had not yet had our own experience in the ensuing months to refer to.
I have also heard from Alan Duggan and Neville Woudberg, both of whom, somewhat unhelpfully, made me realise how the Argus had lured secondees to the bright lights and paid them a pittance. Neville had been in the same office 10 years earlier and earning £5 a week more than me then. And Alan, bless his cotton socks was there at the same time, but under his own steam, and earning £25 a week more than me with 5 guineas a published photo as a bonus. No wonder he could fly to New York from time to time when I could just about manage a bus to Paris.
I wouldn't have missed it for the world, though, especially the Grand Tour with Lester and his family. I’ll devote the following episode to that particular escapade.
Neville and George Muller also confirmed my suspicions that Dirk de Villiers had been a formidable rugby player, having played centre for Western Province in the 1950s.
And now back to the narrative:
A titanic character in the history of 85 Fleet Street was Lil, combined sustenance provider and cleaner. Every weekday mid-morning our newsroom door would clatter open dramatically accompanied by an earsplitting shout of “TRAHLLLEEEEE". A few seconds later a laden tea trolley would enter the room, seemingly self-propelled. It was only after the tea wagon was fully through the door that it was possible to see the diminutive, ageless lady providing its impetus. I doubt the wares were exactly the pinnacle of culinary delight but a queue instantly formed and Lil smiled and joshed with everybody until the line had been satisfied and trolley and she disappeared as suddenly as they'd arrived.
This continued like clockwork for months and many of the seconded staff assumed that was all that Lil was about, a jolly purveyor.
Then, one day No. 85 had a bomb scare. There were a lot of them about in the mid-70s. We were all herded out of the building and on to the opposite side of the media artery that was Fleet Street.
The bomb squad swarmed into the building. A number of them had explosive detectors with which to sweep the building. Those things that look like long sticks with a handle at one end and and angled plate at the other. We all stood there wondering what would happen next. An explosion in this location would certainly be ideal for maximum publicity. The tension was palpable.
Suddenly the sturdy front doors flew open in a way that could have been the burst of air ahead of an explosion just in front of the fireball. Instead, a livid Lil was thrust from the building clutching a vacuum cleaner. An equally irate officer propelled her across the road to the safety offered by our midst.
"What's she done?" one of the journos asked the officer.
"We had completed sweeping the upper floors of the building with only the basement to complete. It was then we heard this humming, whining sound. We advanced with extreme caution only to find Madam here hoovering the floor.
“'Stop right there, what on earth are you doing,’ our senior officer demanded.”
"Listen you lot," Lil had responded, "If you get on with playing with your toy sticks, I'll get on with my real one."
"They didn't find nothing, did they?" was her parting shot before disappearing into the crowd.
The bomb squad has gone and our vantage point outside the Express deserted. Only the yellow car in front of 85 Fleet St remains.
Other unsung heroes were the guys who manned the heavy duty (for the 70's) communications equipment a few flights up in the Reuters engine room. Every now and then we had to visit them, either to ask for a last minute change to a story already submitted or to expedite an urgent story of specific South African interest. We had our own telex room that chuntered away all day sending news to Argus HQ in South Africa. I think we may also have had a slow old landline machine of our own for use during the day. Can't be sure of this but I do know that the fast stuff was upstairs.
When on night duty and a big story broke the reporter would have to type into a "blind" telex machine that output a paper tape of the kind used in early computer input. We'd then rush this up to the Reuters operators who'd feed the tape into their high-speed machine and start transmitting. In the mean time the reporter would be proof-reading the copy just provided (the telex machine out put a print version as well as the tape) and maintain a dialogue with the operator feeding the tape into the transmitter. If there was a mistake in the original typing of the story, and there often was, the typist would have to ask the Reuters operator to correct it. These guys could actually read punched tape and splice corrections in on the fly. That WAS a skill.
One morning in Summer I was up there at sunrise with St Pauls in stark relief. Rushed downstairs for my camera ...
St Pauls in all its glory at sunrise, taken from the Reuters telex room in 85 Fleet Street.
We talk about night shifts but there were two. I seem to remember they overlapped a bit. One started immediately after the day shift and the other ended some time around 5 AM. Getting home was a challenge. Fleet St to Ealing was well-served by public transport but not at that time of the morning. The quickest way for me to get home would start with a brisk walk up Shoe Lane to Holborn, jump on a night bus to Paddington and then grab a train to Ealing Broadway. This required skilful timing because there was a long wait between trains if you missed the ideal one.
The biggest feature of the night bus, a double decker with a conductor in those days, was the throng of cleaning ladies. Lots of them and all out of a similar mould to Lil, i.e. they were on a mission, didn't take any shit and weren't above a bit of ribald humour.
Usually, when I was on this bus, its inhabitants were: 24-year-old wet behind the ears me, a conductor, around 20 women of a certain age and the driver. The cacophony was tangible. There was a brief hush when I boarded the bus at Fetter Lane on the first morning.
“Ooh, ‘e’s a bit luvly, innit?" one of the bevy piped up. This was immediately followed by raucous laughter.
"Look at 'im blush," another remarked, "wot a bootiful colour!”
I was determined to keep my head down. “Good morning,” I greeted them with a smile, trying to make myself inconspicuous.
“Ooh, ‘e’s polite, too, and with all that long ‘air and ‘igh fashion clothes,” they went on. I grinned inwardly but kept my mouth shut.
Things continued in this vein until I had an inspiration: I would interview them on the rigours of working such an unsociable shift. The response was instantaneous: “But we choose it that way darlin’,” one of the group countered. “We makes the tea for the little ‘uns and then the ‘usband and then we sneaks off while ‘usband is watching telly.”
“That way ‘usband ‘as no time to demand them conjugal rights,” her friend chipped in.
“An’ then we gets ‘ome to make breakfast and get buggers off to work and school,” piped up another.
“Only way we gets peace and quiet for decent kip,” they all nodded in assent.
After that we got along smoothly. The only time they ever pissed me off was one morning when the night bus that intersected ours from Regent Street at Oxford Circus was late. Most mornings, a bunch of of the cleaners’ friends used to switch to our bus for the journey up Oxford Street. This morning the friends weren’t waiting for us.
The conductor was just about to ping the driver to continue when one of our ladies rushed up to him demanding: “‘old on, Sanjay … “
“But … ,” the conductor started, only to be cut short:
“Our Myrtle’s on the bus coming up Regent and we need to speak to her.”
You can guess how that went: we resumed our journey 10 minutes later. Sanjay was pissed off, you could tell but he wasn’t saying anything. I was fuming, too, but I kept my counsel. Of course I did.
There is one more character I want to mention in Act 2. At this rate there WILL be a 3 and 4, the former to relate some of the news assignments we covered as a team and the latter to round off after our grand European tour in Lester and Susi’s VW Kombi.
That person is Garner Thompson. Garner was openly gay, which already made him exotic to a bunch of Neanderthal Seffrikkins. But he also had a fine eye for witty moments and often regaled us with a kind of verbal reveille to jump start us in the morning. Mostly they were at the expense of his mother, with whom he lived.
One morning the subject of unwanted mice came up. The discussion was around humane ways to remove them from one’s abode.
“My Mum told me the other day that it was cruel to poison mice,” Garner related, adding that he’d quizzed her for an alternative, to which she had replied: “Well, what you do is prepare a meal for them and then shred a Brillo pad and mash it into the meal, thereby choking the little bleeders to death.”
Another morning he came bounding into the office and, before even taking off his coat, blurted: “My Mum thought cunnilingus was an Irish airline until I corrected her last night.”
Some of the more proper members of the newsroom coughed involuntarily.
And then one morning a new second arrived. She was a bit early and appeared to be looking for a relationship that would provide her and her small son with ready-made accommodation. At that moment Garner, a tall handsome fellow who generally wore only a turtleneck jumper on his torso.
“Who is that man?” Our newcomer gasped. Cowards to a man, the rest of us introduced Garner before retreating to observe from a distance.
There was a TV in the newsroom, a large one with those 1970’s protruding buttons that switched channels with a clunk.
In minutes our hero was backed up against the telly with our newcomer exercising her wiles. She was being very persuasive. Garner was nodding politely. She eventually let up and left the room, at which point Garner turned his back to his assembled colleagues and lifted his jumper to reveal an inverse relief map of the television controls. He didn’t need to say anything more.
The last Garner related anecdote involved the concentration of gay clubs in Earl’s Court. Some of us were intrigued by these and had been pestering Garner to take us to one.
“Well, there are a whole lot of specialities in Earl’s Court,” he related archly, “Which theme would you be looking for?”
This was a bit further than our imagination had extended but, after he had reeled off a list, the choice of a specialist bar for leather queens was pretty much unanimous. Some of us could even stretch to a leather overcoat.
On the appointed evening, the troupe went off to the club and, sure enough, our leather was fairly pitiful.
But, with drinks in hand and a comfortable place to sit we got into the vibe of the place. We’d been there a short while when the external door open and this fellow wafted in. He was as ripped as Arnie Schwarzenegger and clad in excruciatingly close fitting leather trousers and skimpy waistcoat.
“See that guy over there,” Garner whispered, “He’s got a black belt in flower arranging.”
Coming soon: Act 3 in which stories that got us out of the office are explored, including Lester's breakfast with Joshua Nkomo; Grand tour in which we explore Europe in the Ventermobile; Act 4 in which we enjoy the remnants of summer with friends before my secondment is completed.
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