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A Short Walk Down Fleet Street

Alan Watkins <em>Duckbacks, 311pp, £6.99</em>

ISBN 0715629107

The old stories, it is said, are the best ones. And most of the stories in this book are familiar to me: from Alan Watkins's own lips, from his newspaper columns and, indeed, from his previous books. Yet so engaging is his style, so acute his judgements, so idiosyncratic his views, that I am still entranced. "He had a face like a Stilton cheese," writes Watkins of a former NS literary journalist. Only Watkins could put it like that. Another journalist "gave the appearance of being some small denizen of wood, field or hedgerow". Me, actually. I was Watkins's editor for several years at the Independent on Sunday (where his political column still resides). We didn't, as this book records, get on well; our relations were soured by pedantry and expenses. Yet I have read him with pleasure for more than 40 years. In truth, this book is a very slight collection of ancient anecdotes, many of them about minor, long-forgotten journalists and politicians, and Brian Walden's judgement quoted on the cover - "the finest account of journalism I have ever read" - is quite preposterous. But Watkins lures you in with his wit and charm.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The war that Bush cannot win