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What’s told is news again

Not much has changed since Philip Gibbs’ forgotten classic lifted the lid on early 20th century Fleet Street

The Street of Adventure by Philip Gibbs

Editors might come in all shapes and sizes, metaphorically-speaking. But I doubt any reporter lately has encountered an editor who kept a blood-stained bayonet on his desk.

The Street of Adventure by Philip Gibbs (1909

That’s what happens in The Street of Adventure (1909), the classic (if now largely forgotten) semi-autobiographical novel by Philip Gibbs. In the opening chapter, eager young journalist Frank Luttrell has a job interview with the editor of a thinly-disguised version of the Tribune, a short-lived newspaper which Gibbs himself worked on.

Running his finger along the blade, “the Chief” tells Luttrell: “That’s blood and has killed a man. I drew it out of a Boer’s ribs at Colenso. I keep it for some of my men. When I am in a very murderous mood, I show it to them. It puts the fear of God into their hearts, I can tell you!”

Whether or not that happened to Gibbs a journalist and author who died in 1962 after working on the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Chronicle, as well as the Tribune, and was later knighted for his work as a wartime correspondent during the 1914-18 conflict we just don’t know, but either way The Street of Adventure offers a fascinating insight into the journalism of the Edwardian era.

The Domestic Servants’ Weekly has since given up the ghost

During his interview with the editor of “the Rag”, as staff jokily refer to the paper, Luttrell speaks proudly of having written for the Domestic Servants’ Weekly, a publication which has long since given up the ghost. The rather condescending term “lady journalists” as women writers in Fleet Street at the time were called because they were so rare a species has also bitten the dust.

The news agenda has naturally moved on, too. Back then women’s suffrage and tariff reform (a form of imperial protectionism championed by the Unionist politician Joe Chamberlain) were among the big issues of the day. Questions about Britain’s place in the world continue, however, behind issues such as the Brexit referendum.

Thankfully, the pay is somewhat better these days Luttrell joins the Rag on 90 shillings a week. It’s what hasn’t changed that might surprise us.

Then as now, Fleet Street editors were dismissive of flowery prose. “There’s more damned nonsense talked about style than anything else,” the Chief tells Luttrell. “Say what you’ve got to say in the simplest possible way. Give me the man who can smell out facts!”

Even then reporters were put on no-hope stories that were never going to see the light of day. In one scene, Luttrell “turned over the paper six times” without finding a piece he had written on “Clothes and the Man”, leading him to conclude that once again “he had made a vain sacrifice of his manhood and self-respect”.

Offices of the day had their resident dandy

Early 20th century writers also took umbrage when their stories were chopped about by a sub-editor. “Those, my boy,” veteran journalist Grattan tells Luttrell, pointing to a group of men at the Rag, “belong to that unhappy race of men who call themselves ‘Subs’. They are the butchers of journalism… and their souls have shrunk to the size of sixpenny bits.”

He warns the rookie newsman: “Never be drawn into a sub-editor’s room. Avoid it as you would the pit of hell. Rather starve, rather die with cold under Blackfriars Bridge than become a slave and a sub.”  You still occasionally hear such sentiments expressed by today’s newspaper reporters and feature writers, albeit not so melodramatically.

Offices of the day also had their resident dandy: among the cast of characters at the Rag is the foppish Christopher Codrington, who wears “a wide-brimmed tall hat, a long frock overcoat tight at the waist and peg-top trousers, with polished patent boots”. 

Lastly, our predecessors struggled to circumnavigate the gatekeepers who jealously guarded access to the celebrities of the day. In one memorable scene, Luttrell calls on a duke’s house in search of a comment, only to be dismissively told by his man-servant: “His Grace does not see newspapermen on any pretext whatsoever.” No matter how sugar-coated the answer, the only difference today is that the gatekeeper is more likely to be an agent or a manager.

Technology may have advanced, but the profession is much the same, with all its goods and ills. Thankfully for a humble hack such as myself who’s never been near a warzone, we can count at least the blood-stained bayonet as a relic of history.

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