Waiting for the midnight train

A Little Overmatter

Nicholas Bagnall <em>Southover Press, 234pp, £13.99</em>

ISBN 1870962184

Most of us can remember big episodes in our lives. It's the small absurdities of life, the silly sayings of a master at our school, recollections of longing to do a pee while talking to some VIP, that gradually slip away from memory. Nicholas Bagnall is endowed with a retentive memory for such small details, which is what makes this sketch of his life in journalism such a delight.

Here he is in 1949, in his first job for the Church Times, interviewing a heavily bearded archimandrite of the Greek Orthodox Church.

"The interview took place in the St Ermin's Hotel in Westminster, a favourite venue of such visiting dignatories. 'Tell me, father,' I remember saying, 'What progress towards an ecumenical rapprochement between yourselves and Rome?' 'When God wills it, it will come,' replied the saintly man. It soon became obvious to me that I'd get no copy out of him."

The Church Times presented the aspiring journalist with challenges. Whereas newspapers thrive on bad news, on things going wrong, the Church Times was theoretically supposed to be about Good News, which gave little scope for scandal. And there was a banner headline stretching over five columns that had to be devised each week. "Many of them," observes Bagnall, "lacked the read-me touch. The feeblest of them that I can remember was CANON SMYTHE SPEAKS AT CANTERBURY."

Later on, after similar experiences, Bagnall joined the Daily Telegraph as a sub-editor under Colin (later Sir Colin) Coote, whom I also came to know well. "Coote was handsome and vain. If he agreed with you he said 'That is so,' if he disagreed he said 'You may very well be right,' and if you told him something he didn't know about he said 'I know.'" That is not far off the mark. There followed a stint with the National Union of Teachers. Then he came back to the Sunday Telegraph under its first editor, Donald McLachlan. Who but Bagnall would remember humorously that one of McLachlan's bright ideas, which fortunately never came off, was to appoint the talented T E Utley (who was blind) as television critic?

I have always thought that Walter Hagen, a great American golfer of long ago, offered sound advice when he said we should give ourselves time on a round of golf to smell the flowers. To find any flowers to smell in Fleet Street during the years described here, and which as an editor I remember painfully, seems an unlikely quest, yet Bagnall found a few. Quite a number of people have written penetrating obituaries of those final days of hot metal, ending in a tremendous firework display at Wapping. It is work akin to genius to be able to poke any fun out of those days.

Some of the judgements are pretty shrewd, too, sometimes comical, rarely unkind. His old colleagues who are still alive can leave this book about the house without trepidation. Here is the schoolmaster in Bagnall, pointing out that although it was Tony Crosland who threatened to shut down every grammar school in the country, he was not mainly responsible for their disappearance: "The minister who approved more comprehensive schemes than any other was not Crosland, nor even Shirley Williams, but Margaret Thatcher."

Bagnall saw two Margarets, the private one quite different from the public one. "Eat up your potatoes," she ordered Bagnall over lunch at the House of Commons after Ted Heath had given her the shadow education job in 1970. "They're good for you." Then, the meal over, "I'll get you a taxi" and "off she ran, high heels clacking, across New Palace Yard". No one, says Bagnall, had thought of calling her the Iron Lady in those days.

But this is not a book about grandees. It is about the people Bagnall rubbed shoulders with in his life as a journalist. His memoirs have persuaded me that for the past 15 years or so, I have been taking the wrong view of those days in Fleet Street. The final days, wrestling with rapacious printers, left me thinking the place was a nightmare.

So it was in the early 1980s, but not always. There were, Bagnall reminds me, some lovely pubs, where one found companionship, even between rivals. That has gone now that newspapers are scattered all over London, from Knightsbridge to Canary Wharf.

Fleet Street, after all, was where some of us started our working lives, learned the trade and first became acquainted with the human comedy that Bagnall so well describes. It is a mistake to block out all the old memories simply because it ended in tears. I feel grateful for this reminder of how much fun has run through so much of my professional life.

Bill Deedes is a former editor of the Daily Telegraph