Fleet Street, as I noted in the previous post, is the historic home of the newspaper industry in London. The papers left in the 1980s, for reasons we’ll touch on momentarily. But there’s still plenty to see in that area and we start the first of a couple of media-focused days with a walk around this historic area.
Fleet Street is still the home of the legal profession and many of the former newspaper buildings now house law firms or other businesses. My favorite one is this Art Deco classic built in 1932, and formerly the home of the Daily Express. My own photo didn’t turn out so great so click here to see it.
Our guide for the morning is a knowledegable woman named Joanne Lee, who gives us some insight on newspaper culture in London, where media outlets have historically been upfront about their political affiliations and biases. The aforementioned Express, for example, is sympathetic to the anti-immigration UKIP party. They’re also notorious for publishing conspiracy theories about Princess Diana’s 1997 death in a car crash in Paris, earning the nickname of the “Daily Ex-Princess.”
Joanne gets booed by a passerby as she holds up a copy of the paper to explain all of this to us.
The beginning of the end for Fleet Street came in the late 1970s with advances in printing technology which made many veteran linotype operators “redundant,” as they say over there. Union-busting activities by many of the owners, led by future Fox Network founder Rupert Murdoch, also played a role.
Our two stops on the Fleet Street walk are among my favorites on the tour — first, a visit to St. Bride’s, the “Church of the Press.” Its tiered spire is the model for many a modern-day bride’s wedding cake. There’s a lot of history here from the time of the Romans through the total destruction of the church in a Nazi bombing raid on Dec. 29, 1940. It was rebuilt and reopened 17 years later, with the Queen in attendance. The church still has a strong connection to the media industry and there are touching tributes here to English and other journalists who have been killed or gone missing while doing their jobs.
Hidden in an out-of-the-way alley off Fleet Street is the last home of Dr. Samuel Johnson, author and lexicographer and one of the towering figures of 18th century British literature. He’s also the originator of one of my favorite quotes: “He who is tired of London is tired of life.” So true.
Our afternoon stop is the literally awesome Westminster Abbey, which always leaves an impression on students and this time is no exception. Here’s the group about to go in.
In addition to being a working Anglican church, It’s the home of important artifacts of British history, from the Coronation Chair in use since 1308, to the tombs of Queen Elizabeth I and other monarchs.
But for the purposes of my course, I like the memorials to English notables from a variety of disciplines, from music (Georg Friedrich Handel, who lived in London for a time), to literature (Geoffrey Chaucer) to science (Sir Isaac Newton). They are meaningful points of reference for students from a variety of majors.
This year, I can finally say that I’ve personally seen one of the people who is memorialized. Maybe I’ve just missed it all these years, but in the scientists’ corner is a floor plaque for British physicist Paul Dirac, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics. (Look it up… ) As a Clemson student in the early Seventies, I attended a lecture he gave on a visit to our campus. He was teaching at Florida State at the time. Didn’t understand a word, but it was cool to be in the presence of greatness.
Unlike the Abbey, our next day’s stops won’t be on the itinerary of many tour groups. It’s a day for us to visit media sites, a newspaper called City AM in the morning, and The Economist in the afternoon.
I’m not sure there’s an equivalent in the U.S. to City AM, which is a free newspaper covering business whose readership of almost 400,000 comes from its distribution near Underground stations. Its editor, Christian May, talks with us about the business model and how they cover London and U.K. news. May came to the paper from the world of political communications.
He talked about the challenges of keeping a free print paper viable in a city with a lot of competition. (In our course we talked about the fact that most U.S. cities have only one daily newspaper while London has almost a dozen, including several free ones.) He didn’t seem overly optimistic about the business prospects of London papers. “We’re all headed for the same car crash, just at different speeds,” he said.
The Economist may be more familiar to readers of this blog, as the magazine, which celebrates its 175th year in print in 2018, has significant circulation in the U.S.
We had the opportunity to talk with several editors and reporters from the magazine and were impressed with the amount of time they spent with us. I couldn’t resist having one of the students take a photo of me with the iconic logo.
The students had good questions for the journalists, especially for a couple of reporters who cover the U.S., and whose names, in a journalistic lapse, I didn’t write down. They were asked whether British media outlets were as blindsided by the Trump victory as American media seemed to be (answer was essentially yes), and what they found interesting about our country.
One reporter said he was attracted to American politics because of its “sheer bare-knuckle nastiness,” which seems about as good a description of the last few years as any I’ve heard.
The last few days go by quickly. I always like to include a day trip outside London to show that there’s more to England than its largest city. That destination is usually Oxford, but this year I chose Cambridge. The students find it interesting that the University of Cambridge is not one campus, but 31 separate colleges which date from as early as the 13th century. We have a fish and chips lunch in the Eagle pub, where scientists James Watson and Francis Crick compared notes on their research on the DNA double helix. One of the beers on tap, a lager called the Eagle DNA, is a nod to that history. Many British and American airmen also left their mark on the roof of the RAF bar there during World War II.
Our final day includes tours of a couple of key sites related to World War II. The students take the train out to Bletchley Park. the home of British codebreakers who intercepted and “translated” Nazi communications. In the afternoon, another one of my favorite stops in the course — the Churchill War Rooms and Museum in Westminster.
It’s been a turbulent 2017 in the UK. Not exactly the existential threat that the English people faced down during World War II, but five terror attacks in London, one as recently as September, have the city extra vigilant. To be honest, I didn’t think all that much about it during our visit, but the presence on a Saturday afternoon of two machine-gun toting soldiers in the Westminster tube station — near the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street and numerous government departments — is a reminder.
The War Rooms were the below-ground command center for the British government during the war and have been preserved essentially as they were when the Germans surrendered in 1945.
The photo is of a makeshift BBC studio from which the prime minister broadcast to the English people. There’s also a museum chronicling the entire life of Winston Churchill (1874-1965), who’s front and center in popular culture once again these days as the subject of the movie “Darkest Hour.”
We end our time in London with a farewell dinner at a Nando’s, one of my favorite London restaurants which — in addition to spicy grilled chicken — offers a couple of things Americans tend to miss at most eating places here: lots of ice for drinks and free refills. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our guide for the week, Clive Fuller, whom the kids recognized at dinner for his service to us. I have no idea how old Clive, who looks the part of an older English gentleman, is. But he has an easy manner which quickly gained the trust and affection of the students.
He’s with us all the way to check-in at Heathrow the following morning. An uneventful flight, and when we get back to Charlotte we’re greeted by the Arctic weather we’ve been lucky enough to miss during the past week-and-a-half. (It’s been in the 40s most days in London.)
It’s good to be home, but I can’t wait to do it again.