Thursday, 7 April 2011

Champagne cocktails and an unexpected spring pleasure as we recall the long gone glory days of a Fleet Street paper now in its death throes

The Germans say Vorfreude ist die schönste Freude (‘anticipating pleasure is the nicest pleasure’, though the German it’s a damn sight snappier and to the point, and ‘nice’ is horribly weak). But I would add that an unexpected pleasure is up there with the anticipation of pleasure as being one of life’s glories. And I had an unexpected pleasure today.

It was a lovely spring day, sunny and mild, and I dropped in on my stepmother down the road as I always do on Thursdays to see whether she needed any shopping. I had quite forgotten that one of her oldest friends would be staying for a few days, and as my stepmother has only just moved back home after her stroke four years ago, and as this was the first visit by her friend when she was back home, it was decided that we should all treat ourselves to a champagne cocktail.

The great thing about champagne cocktails is that, however pleasant a drink they are, they are not half as grand or expensive to make as the name makes them sound: a chilled bottle of Cava for £4.99 and a common or garden bottle of supermarket own-brand brandy is all you need. In fact, it would be rather silly to waste an expensive bottle of champagne and a dearer brandy on making champagne cocktails.

The only other ingredient is sugar lumps: one sugar lump in the bottom of a champagne flute or ordinary wine glass, something like a tablespoon of brandy on it and both topped up with chilled Cava. It is one of those drinks where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and it really will not break the bank. (I went for a pint with a friend last Sunday to a pub called The Dove, which is up the river from Hammersmith Bridge in London, and two pints set me back £6.80, so that bottle of Cava, which is sufficient for three with being in the slightest mean, really is good value.) But that was only half the unexpected pleasure I am describing.

As the weather was so pleasant, we decided to have lunch outside in the garden. So I nipped into Bodmin (I got back home to Cornwall last night) to buy whatever took my fancy and returned with an iceberg lettuce, radishes, cucumber, mini pork pies, Thai chilli crisps, brie and jarlsberg, and a bottle of Dijon mustard to mix with olive oil for a very nice salad dressing (which I learnt from my aunt in Bordeaux). So that was it: champagne cocktails and a simple, though extremely tasty lunch on a day off – no obligation to be anywhere soon – sitting outside in the garden on gloriously sunny spring day, chatting about everything and nothing. A unexpected but fine pleasure.

. . .

There has been speculation on the business pages of the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times that the Daily Mail and the Daily Express are to ‘merge’. Well, the very first thing to point out is that there is no such thing as a ‘merger’ in the newspaper industry. What a ‘merger’ really means is that of two arch-rival newspapers, one is on its uppers, hasn’t long to go and knows it, so the other uses the opportunity to kill it off once and for all, hoping that it will grab a reasonable chunk of the departing newspapers advertising market. It is only referred to a ‘merger’ by both sides to allow the owner of the dying newspaper to depart the scene with some apparent dignity.

In this case the Express owner, by all accounts a notorious pornographer who made his millions selling beaver shots to all and sundry, has recently bought Five, one of Britain’s national TV channels and now wants to dedicate his time to that, fancying himself as a bit of a player. He screwed as much money as he could out of the Express (even obliging his readers to use premium rate 0900 phone numbers when they wanted to contact the paper), but most recently, with circulation, once in the millions, now bumping along at rock bottom, he has been flogging a dead horse. So the time has come to ‘merge’ his paper with any other paper which feels it would benefit from such a ‘merger’. In this case, it seems the Mail does.

A more recent development, however, throws all this (and especially my blog entry) back up in the air. Barclays is talking up the value of Desmond’s newspapers to make then more attractive to potential buyers. Obviously if Dicky Desmond (the ‘Dicky’ being an allusion to his pornographic interests rather than the short form of his Christian name) can get more moolah by selling off the papers than by ‘merging’ them with the Mail (Lord knows what he would do with the two Stars if that is the course he follows), then that is what he would do. Why take 2p when with no extra effort you can make 4p. A no-brainer, really.

. . .

One of the oddest snippets of film I have seen was one of Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken) standing on the steps of Birmingham Town Hall just after the war giving a speech in which he exhorted his audience to ‘support Stalin’. It was odd because Beaverbrook was a far from being pinko or a fellow traveller as you could care to imagine, and the Daily Express, the newspaper which he finally bought in 1916 and transformed into the biggest what at one time was the best-selling newspaper in the world is always identified as being right-of-centre.

I’m glad to say that World War II ended before I was born – it’s always good to make these things clear – but I gather that in the euphoria following VE Day, Stalin will briefly have been regarded as a friend. What makes it all rather odd, though, was that Beaverbrook (pictured right, and don't doubt that like all men, he became uglier as he got older - me, too, I'm afraid - though searching for a piccy to add to this blog, I was struck that he was not bad looking as a younger man and his looks and money will most certainly have ensured a steady supply of women to his bed), who served in the wartime government, would have been privy information which would have left him in no doubt as to what an unsavoury character Stalin was.

The Daily Express was Beaverbrook. Almost as soon as he died, its sorry decline began. At one point it had the largest circulation of any paper in the world, selling more than 3.7 million copies daily. Now, owned and run by a man who made his money publishing cheap pornography, it sells just under 700,000. The Aitken family hung onto the paper for a few years after Max died, but its arch-rival the Daily Mail – the two papers were immortalised by Evelyn Waugh as the Daily Beast and the Daily Brute, run respectively by Lords Copper and Zinc, and I can’t tell you which was which and, anyway, it hardly matters – took pole position.

This was ironic because under Beaverbrook the Express wrote the rules of what a successful paper should be and the Mail always tagged along in its wake. But at the beginning of the Seventies the Rothermere family decided it was make or break for the Mail. Under – it has to be said brilliant – stewardship of a guy called David English, the Mail was transformed from a broadsheet into a tabloid and its target readership was realigned to cater for women. It streaked ahead, while the poor old Express was a pale imitation of its former buccaneering self. It was eventually bought from the Aitkens by a building company – which says it all, really – and run by a chap who knew bugger all about newspapers.

Circulation carried on falling. Then it was bought out by United Newspapers in a hostile takeover, and at least United Newspapers was in the business. But the decline carried on, with United more or less asset stripping what was left. For example, the Express had moved from Fleet Street into a purpose-built block at the far end of Blackfriars bridge, complete with its presses in the basement. When United took over, the building was sold off to a separate company owned by United and then leased back to the Express.

As I said asset-stripping. I worked shifts on the Daily and later the Sunday Express and the Daily Star, and we all knew things were going wrong when the in-house pub, The Poppinjay, was closed. You know newspapers are going to the wall when that kind of things happens. They shot themselves in the foot. Until then, we could all be found downstairs in the bar and if we were needed, we could be back at our desks within minutes.

Once the bar was closed, everyone dispersed to various pubs around Blackfriars and could never be found when they were needed. Finally, that scruff Richard Desmond bought it, and it really is a very sorry and very pale imitation of its former glorious self. But he is now off to play with his latest toy, the TV channel, so the time has come for a ‘merger’ to put the Express out of its misery.

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