The Lion of Fleet Street is a novel about a British tabloid newspaper reporter – one of the ‘big beasts’ of Fleet Street – the centre of the newspaper business at the turn of the century.
It is written by Patrick Symes. He worked as a freelance reporter for national newspapers, radio and television for forty years, specialising in sport. He also ran a news agency covering news and sport throughout the South of England.
So he knows the inside stories.
He has written (as Pat Symes) 12 non-fiction books about international sportsmen.
The Lion of Fleet Street is his first novel.
JOHN: You’ve written factual books before. Why a novel now?
PATRICK: I just wanted to see if I could do it. I got to a stage in my career where I was winding down. I had sold the news agency and I did a wee stint as a lecturer in Journalism at Solent University in Southampton which was also coming to an end… and I was having cancer treatment.
I was fit and happy and looking forward to my dotage and then suddenly I discovered I had prostate cancer and then kidney cancer. I’ve had one kidney removed. Then the cancer moved to the lungs, which is where it is now. I’ve got a few nodules there.
JOHN: And, at the moment…?
PATRICK: I’ve had numerous scans. I’m never going to beat it; the tumours are there. But it can be contained and coped-with, I hope. So you just plod on in those sort of circumstances.
I had started a book. I don’t even know why. But I thought: Well, I’ll continue it.
JOHN: Why this plot?
PATRICK: One of the good things about journalism is you meet so many people and come across so many incidents and you store them away. I got this idea based on, I think, the funeral of one of the ‘big beasts’ in Fleet Street. I remember that time – the turn of the century – quite vividly.
It was a massive turning point in the world of the media and how news was disseminated.
Most of my career, if I was covering a football match, I would have to pick up a phone and dictate the report to a copy typist. That was also the way these ‘big beasts’ in Fleet Street operated too; they had these huge, inflated reputations because theirs was the only conduit for news.
But suddenly there was a twist and a change and the internet came in, though it wasn’t much good to begin with. I remember thinking: Well this is never going to catch on.
Now, of course, we all live by it every day.
It wasn’t just that, of course. Radio and television were becoming more sophisticated and news was being blasted at us all day long.
JOHN: How were radio and TV becoming more sophisticated in news coverage?
PATRICK: It was more instant. TV had taken over the role of newspapers. There was regional television, regional radio stations with quite sophisticated news production. During the day we would know instantly if the Prime Minister resigned. There was no point newspapers printing that as ‘news’ the next day.
I think I got the tail end of Fleet Street in its pomp. And there was more money around.
“I think I got the tail end of Fleet Street in its pomp…”
News (in newspapers) has become softer now; it has to be very showbiz orientated.
Many of the ‘big beasts’ took hefty pay-offs and disappeared off to their gardens,; one or two others – like my man in the novel – stayed but didn’t really know how to adapt. Their salaries were quite large. New, younger, management came in with new, fresh ideas and decided that the old type of journalism was largely redundant.
My man, with redundancy hanging over him, teams up with a phone tapper – although many of the journalists of that time did it themselves. He comes up with a couple of stories that give him a front page lead and he seems to be restoring his reputation, but redundancy is still very much hanging over him.
In desperation, he listens in to a police tape – this was at the time of the Milly Dowler murder.
A certain person is going to be arrested, but my protagonist mis-hears it
When his story appears on the front page of his tabloid, the Sunday Argus, it becomes obvious fairly soon afterwards that his story naming the wrong man had been obtained by illegal means. My protagonist’s life is in ruins but he finds another story which involves… There was a hotel in Eastbourne, near Beachy Head which specialised in giving a ‘last night of luxury’ for would-be suicides.
JOHN: This was real?
PATRICK: I don’t know. Beachy Head is a very spooky place. The wind whistles there and there are all these crosses on the edge of the cliff where people have jumped…
JOHN: You went there?
“Beachy Head is a very spooky place. The wind whistles there… where people have jumped…”
PATRICK: Yes. And I was standing there minding my own business, taking in the atmosphere when two people from a church vigilante group came up to me and said: “Can we help you?”
I said: “Why do you think I need help?”
They said: “Number one, you haven’t got a camera. Number two, you’re standing there with your hands in your pockets, deep in thought… If there’s anything we can do to help you…”
JOHN: So you said “I’m a journalist”… and they said “Jump”…?
JOHN: All first novels are autobiographical, so…
PATRICK: Phone tapping WAS rampant throughout Fleet Street at that time. It was so easy. They were all expected to do it – on the tabloids anyway – and some fairly prominent people in the newspaper industry of that time got away with it. News International are still paying off victims of that nigh on 20 years later.
JOHN: Have you an idea for your next novel?
PATRICK: I went to a school that had part-boarders and there was a very encouraging English teacher there. He got sacked because he was fiddling around with some of the boy boarders.
He became an actor. His name was Roland McLeod.
He never rose to any great prominence, but he was in Worzel Gummidge and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and The Goodies and so on. He tended to play the bank manager or something similar in sitcoms.
He suddenly got the gig of his life when he appeared in Coronation Street – a 6-month or a year’s contract – and there was a big, big build-up when he was going to propose to Emily Bishop (one of the central characters). A huge build-up. It was in all the papers.
Eileen Derbyshire (as Emily Bishop) and Roland McLeod (as Bernard Morton) in Coronation Street
I didn’t know he was in Coronation Street at first, but you couldn’t avoid it. I mentioned his background to some colleagues in the office and they said: “You ought to put that up to the News of the World. They’d love that!”
Walking behind the newsdesk at the time, by coincidence, was a guy who heard the words Ryde School and he said: “Oh! I went there! I was a boarder and I had ‘difficulties’ with teachers.” So it suddenly became a revenge mission for him and it took me over, really.
I thought: Well, he didn’t do ME any harm…
So it was a real crisis of conscience for a day or two but, in the end, greed overcame my conscience and I rang the News of the World and, of course, they loved it.
I went back to my parents’ house to see if they had any school reports signed by him, which they had. It became a front page lead in the News of the World, I’m afraid to say.
I was well-remunerated, as you can imagine.
The News of the World found him on the day before publication, boarding a plane at Luton Airport. They tapped him on the shoulder and said “Roland McLeod… It’s the News of the World” and he said “I’ve been waiting for this for 30 years”.
It was an astonishing admission when you think about it.
JOHN: What happened on Coronation Street? Did they pull him as a character?”
PATRICK: I think his role was finished anyway; he had proposed to Emily Bishop and she had said No.
He still got bits and pieces of work afterwards, so I didn’t feel that bad about it. I could justify it by saying to myself that, in many respects, he…
JOHN: …got his comeuppance.
PATRICK: Yes. He did deserve it.
JOHN: Kiddy fiddling is serious stuff…
PATRICK: Once the News of the World revealed it, he had a speech ready and he said something along the lines of “Homosexuality is a curse. It’s not what I wanted to be.” He tried to justify himself. He had a prepared statement.
JOHN: Over your 40 years in the business, you must have encountered lots of stories which never got published… Did you think of putting them into the novel or future novels?
PATRICK: Little bits and pieces. You knew about people who were on the fiddle. There were stories which suddenly ‘died’; they just didn’t appear.
JOHN: I mean, Jimmy Savile. There would have had to be real, solid, cast-iron evidence to print a story while he was alive.
PATRICK: Yes and he, too, gets a mention in the book. Every newspaper tried to nail him at one stage or another. But they never had solid proof and, if he thought they were getting too close, he would always say: “Well, I’m a national treasure. I’ve raised £50 million through my charity walks and things. Do you want people to know you stopped me doing those?”
… Some of Pat(rick) Symes’ sports books…