Fleet Street was so male-dominated in those days, she says she barely spoke to another woman from one month to the next. But for this book she has interviewed many of the women who were there at the time, and recalls other women journalists such as Anne Sharpley who advised them: ‘Always sleep with the Reuters man.’ Sharpley was a serious foreign reporter, notorious for sabotaging phones once she’d filed her story so that other reporters couldn’t use them; but many women journalists were only used for stunts — one of them had to phone the Archbishop of Canterbury at 7 a.m. to ask what side of the bed he slept on.
As I read The Fleet Street Girls, I wished Julie Welch had fictionalised her own experiences too, rather than putting them down in a memoir. Her book is interesting and will no doubt be a valuable reference tool, but it could have been the Mad Men of journalism. Perhaps it still will be. Her story is original, dramatic and brave. Even though she had to struggle with what Radio 4 likes to call ‘the language and attitudes of the time’, the point is that she triumphed. She became Britain’s first female sports reporter and beat the sexists at their own game, as it were. I would have put that in a headline once, and Mr Chancellor would have struck it out.
Chapters covering the background of the female reporters of Welch’s day (often as not a father already in the news business, and a mother who wept when the daughter declared her chosen path), schooling (or not) and first rungs on the ladder (sample interview question: “do you like the occasional drink?”) are interesting, if in some cases overly detailed, but things ramp up several notches when Welch gets to the real meat of her book – the newsroom.
Oh, this section of the book alone is worth the cover price. The antiquated systems, hierarchies and squalor; the urchin messengers who responded to the summons of “Boy!”; the four-drawer filing cabinets that are empty but for a bottle of whisky, the clouds of cigarette smoke, overflowing ashtrays, cupboard snoozers, telephone mouthpieces that smelt of the breath of the person who last used them; the beaten-up Remington typewriters and chittering Telex machines. Welch gives us a ringside seat to it all.
Welch’s book is imbued with nostalgia for a time in her life that was, while difficult, also fun. The Fleet Street Girls is as much an obituary for the “glory days of print” as it is a story of pioneering women. Fleet Street, Welch says, was “a place where you bashed out your words through clouds of cigarette smoke, among overflowing ashtrays, on a beaten-up Remington, to a soundtrack of chittering Telex machines”, which stood for “glamour, fame and opportunity”.