When print ruled and booze and dodgy expenses flowed freely – Fleet St tragics will love this book. Newcomers will glimpse a lost time.

2 Jun

by Les Hinton

(published June 2016 in British Journalism Review @ BJR.org.uk)

The Happy Hack – a Memoir of Fleet Street in its Heyday by Mike Molloy (John Blake Publishing, pp336, £8.99)

From the age of 12, I wanted to be a journalist and it’s the Daily Mirror’s fault. I did not come up on the posh side of newspapers; ours was a Mirror house and the literature in my life was in the columns of Cassandra, Donald Zec’s zippy showbiz stories, and irresistibly florid sports pieces by Peter Wilson, who was called “The Man They Can’t Gag”, which made him seem intrepid, even though he looked like a suburban banker in his byline photo.

Cassandra wasn’t a fancy writer using big words and complicated sentences, but he was funny and angry, and weaved wonderful images with simple language. He watched an early hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific and wrote: “It was a dress rehearsal for the death of the world.”

Peter Wilson helped make a national hero out of the boxer Don Cockell, who was slaughtered in a famous title fight by a roughhouse American world champion called Rocky Marciano. Wilson wrote that Marciano’s savagery had given rise to a “kind of primeval mass sympathy and acclamation” towards Cockell, making it sound as if he were writing about the crucifixion. Cockell came home bruised and battered but a lionhearted loser.

There is no one now to compare with the fame and power of writers like Cassandra, Wilson and Zec. When I was a boy, they were eyewitnesses for millions when only one in three households had television and newspapers really did shape attitudes – 21million national newspapers were sold each day in a country with 14million homes.

When I arrived in London in 1965, I could not imagine a better place to work than the Daily Mirror. But the closest I ever came was with an invitation to its offices inside the towering slab of red and grey glass that once overshadowed Holborn Circus. It was one of London’s ugliest buildings, but it felt like walking into a temple. I was 21 and Roly Watkins, the news editor, told me to “go learn your trade in the provinces”. Lucky for me, the Mirror’s anaemic little sister, the broadsheet Sun, was less discriminating, although my chances might have improved when I lied about my age.

Mike Molloy was luckier and more talented. He began on the Mirror’s stable mate, the Sunday Pictorial, as a 15-year-old messenger boy, and was editor of the Daily Mirror by 34. He lived through the days when the Mirror was a soaring success, its devoted readers buying more than 5million copies a day. He was still there when a great newspaper’s luck began to run out.

Molloy has written a racy memorial to what people my age, possibly deludedly, think of as the golden age of journalism. He does so while managing to remain both wistful and cheerful, and nostalgic without being mawkish.

He does not linger on the dry details and travails of the newspaper business, except occasionally to decry “blundering … ramshackle … inept” managers. This attitude is congenital among all journalists, although there is plenty of evidence that Molloy’s complaints have special merit.

He concentrates instead on the assets that matter most in a newspaper – its journalists – and brings alive the glorious menagerie of people he worked with. A significant chunk of this book amounts to an impressive anthology of his tales about newspaper people. His name- dropping anecdotes about movie stars and royalty are not so much fun.

It would be churlish to wonder at Molloy’s miraculous ability to recollect long-ago conversations because the details of his stories are too good to be untrue. Most importantly, some of them are hilarious. Here are a few: the case of the love-stained desk blotter; the pint-drinking chimp that allegedly impersonated Frank Sinatra; the executive who believed he could make himself invisible; the New York bureau chief who avoided Americans; the editor who used his feature man’s forehead as a golf tee; Marjorie Proops’s cursing mynah bird; the made- up news story of the Liverpool surgeons who used nylon strands from a nurse’s knickers when they ran out of surgical thread; and the time Alastair Campbell caught Robert Maxwell putting on mascara – in the nude.

And that list leaves out any stories about drinking escapades – there are an alarming number of those. A man with one leg who was briefly company chairman declared: “In the land of the legless, the one-legged man is king.”

A reader might think the Mirror was drinking itself to death. If so, there is no denying it was a brilliant, high-functioning alcoholic. When he is serious, Molloy is unblinking about where the Mirror went wrong. He was there when Hugh Cudlipp celebrated with champagne after making the mistake of his career in selling The Sun for a song to Rupert Murdoch.

He is restrained in his respect for the Sun, but acknowledges Kelvin MacKenzie as a “formidable editor” who was the right choice at the right time. He is angry at his management’s flat-footed response to The Sun’s advance, but also confesses: “The fatal flaw… was that we (the Mirror) thought we had a mission to improve the country.”

His powerful account of the malign regime of Robert Maxwell reveals a black comedy of havoc and crazy schemes. A psychiatrist friend tells Molloy: “He’s mad… off his head… I’ve got people inside who are less crazy than him.”

Molloy was glad to escape and looks back forlornly on what has become of the romantic world he remembers. He thinks modern technology has drained the drama and energy out of newsrooms and turned them into “halls of boredom”. He is wrong about that.

The modern newsroom is a foreign country to people like Molloy: they do things differently there.

There is good and bad, but it is not boring. The muted nudging of computer keyboards has replaced clattering typewriters; email has reduced human contact and loud commands; falling revenue has reduced the population; the air is cleaner. But in the best newspapers there is as much energy and purpose and creativity as ever. Of course, there is also more anxiety.

Molloy has written an entertaining book. Old timers can relive the days when newsprint ruled and booze and dodgy expenses flowed freely. Newcomers can get an authentic glimpse of a lost time.

________________________

Les Hinton worked for 50 years as a journalist and executive in Australia, Britain and the US. He is currently writing his memoir. @leshinton

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