Mr Worsthorne doesn't come here any more

A Short Walk Down Fleet Street

Alan Watkins <em>Duckworth, 272pp, £18</em>

ISBN 0715629107

Halfway into this amiable book, it occurred to me that I might begin my review with a little gentle mockery of my old friend Alan Watkins's pretentions to be a genuine journalist like (for instance) me. After all, I was going to point out, Watkins has never been anything but a writer of opinion pieces in Sunday newspapers or political weeklies - including, for a happy period in the Seventies, this one - but he has never actually worked as a news-gatherer on a daily paper, the coalface of our industry.

Shortly after this perceptive thought came to me, I stumbled on the following passage: "After he had had a few drinks - or more than a few, for he possessed the strongest head of anyone I have known - Ian Aitken would poke me quite hard in the chest and say: 'I have known you for many years and am very fond of you, but I do not regard you as a proper journalist.' 'Why, Ian, do you not regard me as a proper journalist?' 'Because you have never worked for a daily newspaper.'"

According to Watkins, we have had this exchange roughly once a year. If so, it proves that my head is not as strong as he alleges, because alcoholic amnesia appears to have eliminated it from my memory. But never mind. At least he concedes that I am right about his lack of coalface experience, even if he questions whether this means he isn't a proper journalist.

I shan't argue the point. No matter whether he is a "proper" journalist, he is unquestionably a very good journalist. Churning out a weekly column 47 times a year for around 40 years is a pretty demanding occupation, as many erstwhile news- gatherers have discovered when they have tried it themselves. At least tracking down news has a finite timescale, reaching an end when the story hits the page. The columnist begins to brood about his next column almost as he types the word "end" at the bottom of his current one.

Watkins has been doing this virtually every week since he started writing the old Crossbencher column in Lord Beaverbrook's Sunday Express back in the early Sixties. God knows how many million words he has scratched out with his fountain pen (his preferred instrument, even in the era of the word processor), at around 1,200 words a week. But never mind the quantity, feel the quality - it is my conviction that, throughout his career so far, Watkins has been the most consistently readable of all political columnists in this country.

There is an affable common sense about his writing, in which he never attempts to beef up a story artificially, and sometimes actively plays it down. Seldom does he suggest that some happening or other is entirely unprecedented. On the contrary, events that send his rivals into adjectival frenzies lead him to rummage in his memory to demonstrate that something very like it happened in 1966, or perhaps in 1972.

This could easily become boring in a lesser writer. But Watkins's memory is like one of those wonderful lumber-rooms kept by a favourite grandparent, in which a curious child can turn up all sorts of fascinating objects such as old swordsticks, Edwardian wedding dresses and medals from the Boer war. They are all on display in this charming book, just as they are in his weekly contributions to the Independent on Sunday.

My only quarrel is over the book's title. This isn't a short walk down Fleet Street, but a series of unsteady rambles through its back streets - rambles that invariably fetch up outside El Vino's wine bar. Most of Watkins's cast of characters are, or were, customers of that fortress of male chauvinism: Paul Johnson, the former editor of this paper, Peregrine Worsthorne of the Sunday Telegraph and Geoffrey Wheatcroft of practically everywhere.

In fact, old Fleet Street divided neatly into two categories - journalists who liked El Vino's and those who didn't. I belonged to the latter group, which might have meant that Alan and I never became friends. But, happily, we had other watering holes in common, such as the Garrick Club (more male chauvinism) and Westminster's Annie's Bar.

Alas, the fate of El Vino's mirrors the fate of Fleet Street itself. Purely in a spirit of inquiry, I visited the old place one Saturday lunchtime shortly after the newspapers had decamped. The bar, which would once have been crowded with Sunday hacks, was silent. After a few minutes, a phone rang, and I heard the barman say: "No, sir, I'm afraid Mr Worsthorne doesn't come here any more." That might have made a good title for this book.

Ian Aitken is a former political editor of the Guardian