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Farewell to the Past

The great characters of yesteryear are remembered as The Herald bids a fond farewell to its famous Albion Street
address writes ALLAN LAING

Moving office can be a dangerous business, particularly for a newspaper.

When The Herald first arrived at 195 Albion Street in July, 1980, a departmental editor (who, to save embarrassment, shall remain nameless) discovered a rather interesting news story lying on the floor next to his desk. He picked up the hard copy, subbed it, wrote a headline, and dispatched the whole thing for setting and printing in the next day’s edition.

The following morning he received a phone call from an old chum in the BBC Scotland newsroom. Bloody good story, said his friend, and word-for-word identical to one which had appeared in The Herald some three years earlier.

Old stories never die – they just lie about in drawers, waiting to be re-published by default when moves are afoot. Apologies in advance then to our readers for any sense of deja vu they may experience when reading next Monday’s Herald.

So, how do you write an obituary for a building? Well, first you make sure it’s dead. Yesterday, for old time’s sake, I took a final walk around 195 Albion Street, up its now silent stairwells and across its deserted floors. All that remained were vacant chairs and empty desks piled high in corners awaiting removal to their final resting place. Not a pretty sight perhaps but, then again, it never really was. After all, this was always a factory; never a fancy office block. It was a production house for the delivery of news and the expression of opinion for the best part of a hundred years.

But now it is nothing. When the last Herald sub-editor leaves the building shortly after 2am tomorrow morning, only a corpse of bricks and mortar will remain. A glorious and eventful life will finally be declared extinct.

If these walls could talk they would tell some remarkable tales. Through these doors have passed the good (in 1965 Muhammad Ali once famously held court in the Daily Express Editor’s office), the bad (the notorious killer Peter Manuel appeared in the front office one day in 1957, asking to meet a reporter), and the ugly (in 1975, at the time of the short-lived Scottish Daily News, Robert Maxwell wandered round as if he owned the place – and, unfortunately for the workforce, he did). Before the papers were delivered, the Albion Street site was home to a tobacco factory, manufacturing gaspers with quaintly peculiar names like Wild Geranium, Harvest Moon, and Morning Gallop.

That changed in the late 1920s when William Maxwell Aitken, the first Lord Beaverbrook, self-made millionaire, political fixer, and a press baron of no small repute (he had already reversed the fortunes of the once-ailing Daily Express newspaper in Fleet Street), set his expansive sights upon Scotland. He came to Glasgow, settled himself in a suite at the Central Hotel, and went about creating what was to become the Scottish Daily Express.

He engaged the services of poacher-turned-gamekeeper Sidney Long, a former print union official who became the Express’s production manager, and charged him with the task of finding suitable premises.

Eventually, they settled on the disused factory in Albion Street, purchased from Imperial Tobacco for the princely sum of £30,000. Having smashed the entire frontage in order to accommodate the massive presses, they replaced it with a plate-glass facade. A few years later they had cause to regret this particular design feature when, in protest, unemployed “hunger marchers” used it for target practice, literally throwing stones at people who lived in glass houses.

The first edition of the Scottish Daily Express rolled off the Albion Street presses in early November, 1928. It had a workforce of 380 people and a circulation of around 86,000.

Within a few years, however, the building was groaning under the mighty weight of the printing presses and Beaverbrook ordered the old tobacco factory to be pulled down and replaced. Architect Owen Williams was commissioned to design the new building.

His state-of-the-art creation (a clone of the buildings he created for the Express in London and Manchester) was opened in 1936 and here it still stands today – a structure of steel and concrete fronted by that famously familiar facade of glass and sleek black Vitrolite. A cathedral to pre-war modernism from the outside; a warren of poky, claustrophobic offices within the walls.

The Express, with a justified arrogance, barnstormed its way through the 1950s and the 1960s, trouncing its competitors in both the quantity and the quality of its scoops. It was touched by a wonderful madness in those days.

Like all good newspaper journalists, the Express reporters were the little boys and girls who never quite grew up. Unseemly scraps in the corridors and the occasional fist-fight in the street were almost regarded as de-stressing therapy at the end of a fractious week. Journalism was serious, combative, ruthlessly competitive . . . and a lot of fun.

But the fickle nature of newspaper economics finally caught up with it in the 1970s. Express Newspapers faced a financial crisis and some sacrifice had to be made to the god of commercial profitability.

On Monday, March 18, 1974, it was announced that the three Albion Street papers – the Daily Express, the Sunday Express, and the Evening Citizen – would cease publication from Glasgow. In the wake of mass redundancy, a workers’ action committee was formed. Out of that came the Scottish Daily News, a noble effort which kept the printing presses turning for an extra six months. It was ultimately destroyed by the odious Robert Maxwell.

The liquidators eventually sold 195 Albion Street to George Outram and Co, the then proprietors of the Glasgow Herald and Evening Times. The rest, as they say, is history. But it is our history.

From here we covered 20 years of all the news fit to print. (Is it really 20 years? My, doesn’t time fly when you are enjoying yourself.)

There were the little moments of joy and laughter (being journalists, the latter was usually at a colleague’s expense); and there were the momentous moments of shattering news and aching sadness (Lockerbie, Dunblane, the death of Diana, and now this week the Concorde catastrophe).

Personally, I suspect that among the Herald staff there is scant emotional attachment at least to the fabric of the place from which we depart tonight. Not many, if they are honest with themselves, will be that unhappy to see the back of it. In sick building terms, 195 Albion Street has not enjoyed the best of health lately.

What we will dearly miss, however, are the wonderful old friends we leave behind; the souls of the great characters we lost along the way.

The likes of Colm Brogan, one of the greatest writers The Herald ever had; George Duthie, a chief reporter small in stature but big in heart; Charlie Gillies, crime reporter and showbiz writer (hence the “murder’n’mirth correspondent” sobriquet he gave himself), the incorrigible Ian Imrie, the last of the great industrial journalists, and the inimitable and unflappable Andy Young, the man with the best contacts book in Scottish journalism. To all our dearly departed friends, we drink a toast tonight and ask that their kindly ghosts follow us up the road to our swanky new billet in Renfield Street.

In just a few hours from now that aforementioned late-night sub will place the final full stop on the final story from 195 Albion Street.

Then, in traditional last-man-to-leave fashion, he will switch off the lights. The Herald has left the building.

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