Tuesday 25 October 2016

Fleet Street’s charms and chamber pots

The life of a journalist in London was fraught with dangers

Con Houlihan

Published 23/10/2008 | 14:05

Con Houlihan
Con Houlihan

When I was coming and going to London for The Evening Press, I used to stay in The Strand Palace Hotel but I never had breakfast there. The reason was simple: the sons and daughters of Japan always got up early -- and I didn't much enjoy joining a long queue.

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They didn't mind waiting: they are a great people -- and patience is part of that greatness. They work hard back at home -- and they work hard on holiday.

I have met them in many parts of the world, including Ireland. They are always determined to make the most of their holidays. That means visiting all the recommended places and seeing all the sights. They are to be admired. And so, long ago, I forgave them for taking over the breakfast room in The Strand Palace.

Anyhow, I didn't go to work hungry: around the corner there was a modest cafe, so modest that it hadn't a name. There two trueborn sons of London had reduced cuisine to classical simplicity -- indeed there was no cuisine at all. It was like a play by Samuel Beckett, only far more enjoyable. You could have tea and bread and butter and ham or cheese or both. So there was no cooking -- it was brilliant.

There were 12 small tables, all for two. You could find yourself sharing space with a stockbroker -- or worse still, a consultant. I loved that place: when possible, I sat in a corner and enjoyed the sounds of London coming alive outside.

My journey to work took me down the bottom of The Strand and then down almost to the end of Fleet Street. It was a hazardous journey in the days when Fleet Street was an open sewer and you could get the contents of a chamber pot on top of your head -- accidentally, but no less distressing.

There are hazards now of a different kind: about half-past eight in the morning it seems as if The Good Lord had ordained that all the attractive women and girls in England converge on those streets at that time. There were mornings when, as my heart fluttered hopelessly in all directions, I felt like saying: "Dear Lord, why do you torment me so. . ."

Life went on and by the time I had reached the Irish Press office, I had recovered sufficiently from cardiac exhaustion to do my work. When that duty was discharged, I usually went across the street to The Kings and Keys with a friend or two or three. Occasionally I went a little distance to The Sugar Loaf on Ludgate Hill for a special reason of my own. In that pub I had an experience that seemed trivial but which was unforgettable.

It belonged to a time long before I feared that I would become a journalist and when I was new to London. As I sat up at the counter in that friendly pub, I was joined by a man about whose profession there could be no doubt. His cap and his muffler and his hands marked him as a member of the good old English working class. I had a slight cough -- and the good man on my right hand side said: "Son, you're going to have a bad cold -- take this."

He handed me a lozenge that had seen better days. I took it and put it in my mouth. This was a form of the Anglo-Irish Agreement before that term was coined. This simple act of kindness exemplified for me what George Orwell called "The essential decency of the English people." My friend was a Cockney -- but some people confine this term only to natives of the East End.

Bill Owen, the wonderful man who played Compo in The Last of the Summer Wine, was proud to be a Cockney even though born in West London.

A Cockney is simply a member of London's working class. They are a special breed: physically they are very hardy and they are almost always cheerful; they know little about London outside their own township. They are also painfully honest: if you asked a Cockney in Whitechapel how to get to Highbury, he would apologise and say that he didn't know.

If you asked an Irish man, you could get two responses. An Irish man settled in London would say: "No problem" and give you simple accurate directions. An Irish man new to London would say: "No problem" and send you miles out of your way.

An old dictum says that a Cockney is someone born within the sound of Bow bells. That belief would exclude many people in the East End which begins not far from where The Sugar Loaf was located and hopefully still is.

The East End first made world headlines in the second half of the 19th century -- for the wrong reasons. Some person, popularly known as Jack The Ripper, murdered seven girls of the most unfortunate class over a short period. The East End was then an area of dimly lit streets and dark alleyways and great poverty.

At least two worthwhile books came out of that period -- A Child of the Jago and Limehouse Nights and a wonderful film, from a novel by Oscar Wilde, The Picture Of Dorian Gray, attempted to recreate the atmosphere of that world.

There was a considerably large Jewish community in the East End in the 19th century. They were refugees from mainland Europe. Many of them got involved in the clothing business, they excelled especially at tailoring. Out of this era came an oft-told story. Three friends came to London as refugees from Latvia and quickly set up business on The Mile End Road. Despite their new surroundings, they hadn't lost their spirits or their wit.

Abraham advertised himself as the best tailor in the world. Daniel said that he was the best tailor in London. David said that he was the best tailor on The Mile End Road.

The persecution of the Jewish people didn't cease when they came to London: a certain gentleman organised a private army to drive them out. A man who was to become a great friend of mine played a heroic part in the resistance. That's a story for another day.

Fogra: Regina Bartsch is showing her work in the McBride Gallery in Killarney from Friday October 31st until December 3rd

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