“What was that rather sordid pub called where your father used to hold court?”
Those were the words, spoken the other day, which led me to cast my mind back and remember an extraordinary institution, one which played a surprisingly large part in the development of what came to be known as “Thatcherism”.
I never thought of the Kings and Keys in Fleet Street as a “sordid pub”. I always found it comfortable and friendly. But I did spend a great deal of time, in my childhood and youth, there. It was a second home to me and to my siblings.
I had better explain.
The Kings and Keys was next door to the Daily Telegraph, indeed it was part of the same building. My father, T.E. (Peter) Utley wrote for the Telegraph for over thirty years. Almost every day, from about noon to three in the afternoon (being in the City of London the pub was allowed to stay open until three rather than two thirty) and from about six in the evening until my mother came to pick him up (usually at about eight o’clock) he sat in his usual place just to the right of the entrance as you walked in. The secretary of the day would generally be with him. But he would also have several other drinking companions.
You need to know a little more.
My father was blind (hence the need for his wife to pick him up and for his secretary to be on hand to go to the bar). During the 1960s, the 1970s and into the 1980s he was, as one obituarist put it, the chief political voice of the Telegraph (he wrote for both the daily and Sunday ‘papers). Of course, there were others (Colin Welch springs to mind) but my father, perhaps because he was also thought of as a sort of in-house philosopher to the Conservative Party, bore most of the burden. Not, it has to be said, that it was a great burden. As you have probably worked out already, the time he spent writing was not enormous. Shortly after returning from the pub at three o’clock he would attend the editorial conference. That would last about half an hour. He would then go to his room and dictate the leader he had been asked to write before taking it to the editor (in later years, once he became deputy editor of the daily ‘paper, that was not always necessary – because he was that day’s editor). Then he made his way back to the Kings and Keys.
In this horrid puritanical age, of course, all those hours spent in a pub would be thought appalling, unless nothing more than sparkling water (the preferred tipple of the modern journalist) was being consumed. But I think the puritans are wrong. The Kings and Keys played a large part in my father’s work, and also in his philanthropy.
Who were all those people who sat with him in the pub? There were all sorts. And perhaps I should say immediately that they were by no means all Tories.
There were, obviously, other journalists, though surprisingly few. Colin Welch (his predecessor as Deputy Editor of the Daily Telegraph and one of the finest mimics I have ever known) was a regular attender. Peregrine Worsthorne hardly ever came (he preferred El Vinos as being more suited to his station in life), but his wife, Claudie, who was Michael Wharton’s secretary, felt more at home in the Kings and Keys than in El Vinos and was often there. Michael Wharton himself (aka Peter Simple) was there pretty well every day, but he tended to sit on his own at the bar. Later, there were John O’Sullivan, Frank Johnson and Charles Moore (though I think it fair to say that Charles probably shared Perry Worsthorne’s superior attitude to a mere pub – in a very touching piece in the Spectator after my father’s death in 1988 he referred to the Kings and Keys as “that vile pub”).
But the journalists actually tended to be in the minority. Politicians, as you would expect (though not these days) were regular attenders. The Tories were in the majority (I got used to finding Sir Keith Joseph and John Biffen at my father’s side when I turned up for a free drink). But neither was it unusual to find Peter Shore there. And there were many other MPs or aspiring MPs. To be fair, I can’t remember seeing Mrs Thatcher in the pub, though her daughter, Carol, did take to turning up.
I mentioned philanthropy. My father was tireless in the help he gave to the young. Those who wanted to become journalists or politicians would flock to the Kings and Keys, and all would be given whatever help he could offer. As I look through our national newspapers today I often remember seeing their famous columnists as callow youths on the right of the entrance to the Kings and Keys.
And then there were the Utley children. We were amongst the most regular attenders from a very early age. Before adulthood we would come with our mother. Later, we would make our way there independently, I perhaps more than the others because I became a barrister and had chambers in the Temple. We always felt at home in the Kings and Keys. However illustrious my father’s drinking pals were, they all knew that his children were equal members of the company. I have particularly fond memories of the relationship between Colin Welch, then Deputy Editor, and Catherine, my youngest sibling, when she was about eight. Colin would buy her a lemonade and then, always addressing her as “CLA” (Catherine Lucy Ann), would solemnly commission an article from her, frequently ignoring the cabinet ministers eager for his attention.
The presiding officer was Mark, the publican. He nearly always succeeded in guiding tourists away from the Utley Corner, if they tried to occupy it before my father arrived. More importantly, he was always prepared to take a cheque from my father, even though it was touch and go whether it would be honoured by the Philistine bank (the prevailing left wing view that Thatcherism was created by millionaires is very far from the truth). I hope that, one day, Mark will be given his rightful place in the history of modern politics.
I googled the Kings and Keys today. Very sad news. It is now a Mexican takeaway restaurant. Still, even if the newspapers had stayed in Fleet Street, it could not have survived all those dreary teetotal journalists.