This is a book about the women who broke down the doors of ‘the gentleman’s club’ that was Fleet Street.
It’s written by the woman to whom every female sports reporter, presenter and editor in the UK owes more than they could possibly imagine.
In 1973 Julie Welch became the first woman in national newspapers to cover football.
When she entered the press box at Coventry City football club and phoned in to file her copy, the entire room of men fell silent.
She had stormed the barricades of sexism and discrimination in British journalism with talent and professionalism. This brilliant and entertaining book also shows she did so with wit, grit and a great sense of humour.
‘Women in the press box. So it’s come to that.’ Is that what they would call a micro-aggression in the 21st century? More like an invitation for a revolution.
Julie writes: ‘What gives men like him the right to say who’s allowed in and who isn’t? Why shouldn’t a woman be a sportwriter? Sport is for everyone. It’s playing. It’s belonging, it’s great deeds and huge emotions, it’s a natural expression of being human, part of life. I’ve been given the chance to show what women are capable of, and I am not going to let a dinosaur like him get in my way.’
This is a page turner. Julie Welch is a fluent and accomplished writer.
She was the screenwriter of the David Puttnam film Those Glory Glory Days, inspired by her childhood love of football and Tottenham Hotspur.
Her previous books include Too Marvellous For Words, a charming account of her education at the all-girl boarding school, Felixstowe College, in the 1960s.
Fleet Street Girls is not total autobiography. She interviews and blends in the experiences and struggles of other ‘pioneering and trail-blazing women’ who also broke down barriers in the 1970s and 80s.
They include Lynn Barber, Sue Peart, Emma Lee-Potter, Mary Kenny and Wendy Holden.
Chapter Five and ‘Making Mayonnaise with Kingsley Amis’ explains how the journey to Fleet Street really began in 1968 for a young Bristol University undergraduate called Julie Welch who had a go at the ‘Who will be the young writer of the year’ competition in the Daily Telegraph magazine.
She wrote about a friend’s dilemma over whether to have an abortion, a gay friend, ‘usual bed-hopping, lectures, thwarted pursuits of love’ and drugs.
The only prize she had ever won before was ‘a five-shilling postal order for drawing a pony in Riding magazine at thirteen.’
Seven years later at the age of 20, the Telegraph rang to say she was the young writer of the year, and going to be interviewed by Kingsley Amis.
It really is worth buying the book to find out what happens next.
Along the way she gets to meet Robert Maxwell who gives her a Paolozzi sculpture, is interviewed on Late Night Line-up by Joan Bakewell and visits The Telegraph building in Fleet Street to discuss the job that went with the prize.
There’s a lot of being brought back down to earth.
Any journalism course at any level should include this title in its core reading lists.
The hypocrisy of early trade unionism is laid bare. The National Union of Journalists nearly called a strike when she dared to write an article for the Observer.
This was because she was working there as a mere secretary. This was when men who were not journalists could write for the same pages.
The closed-shop operated well for men and not necessarily for women.
Even by the time she described herself as the ‘Middle-aged Matron in the Press Box’, when there were ‘more of us – Sue Mott, Cynthia Bateman, Louise Taylor, Amy Lawrence, Alyson Rudd, Vikki Orvice, the first to report the game for a tabloid’ this still did not go down too well with the dinosaurs.
She recalls ‘Wendy Holden wished she’d had a pound for every time she received a slap on the bum,’ and Julie adds she would have liked the same for ‘every time some scruffy lank-haired tosser with beer stains on his flying jacket joshed: “It’s all your fault.”‘
Throughout the book the atmosphere and indeed poetry of newspaper journalism is evoked with sharp and affectionate writing.
It was and still is a ‘life-consuming news factory’, though now without ‘the subterranean rumble’ of the printing presses.
Typewriters are no more. Keyboards and working from home mean the ‘dystopian clutter’ of the newsroom has been replaced with incoming emails and struggling with the mute button on Zoom and WhatsApp calls.
At the end of the book she returns to Fleet Street as it is now, somewhat forlornly chasing and searching for ghosts, but still appreciating the memory and the fun:
‘No one who hasn’t worked in Fleet Street when it was really Fleet Street can possibly know what it was like. To understand, you need to have stretched your limits to meet a mad deadline, or been one of the last exhausted stragglers in the news room when all the lights were still burning at one in the morning.’
The generations who worked like this are now pushing into their sixties, seventies and eighties and many have been banged out into oblivion.
The present journalism diaspora of online and digital smartphone and social media writers would do well to take time out to connect with the memory and thrill of their forebears.
Julie writes: ‘You need to have been part of the laughter and the jokes and the misbehaviour; to have walked into the pub as a young woman, satin-shirted, sexy, glowing, knowing that the men would turn to look, would make space for you to join them, because you were you. The point wasn’t really the big story. It was the way you were as one, working for the same end, that fat bundle of paper that smelt slightly woody and blackened your fingers when you turned the pages and went out in the world with your name, your name, in it.’