November 19, 2017

About The Chronicle

The Dancing on the Edge of the World website was intended to give my articles on birds and the threat posed to them in modern times a bigger audience, but it has evolved to consider the plight of another threatened species, the newspaper journalist.

I plied my trade as reporter, foreign correspondent and then copy editor for nearly 50 years and I have sought to record my observations, in short-story form, in newsrooms on four continents during the golden age of print journalism. To tell the tales I use an imaginary journalist and newspaper, The Chronicle, in Hobart and the “Don Bentley Chronicles” have been published regularly on the tasmaniantimes.com.au website. As explained when they first started to appear there, I have set out to explore not only journalism as it was but the sacred covenant we “hacks” have with our readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so.
The entire Chronicle series, with more than 60 articles, will be uploaded to this website over time, with additions. Each story stands alone, but the whole series is best read from the bottom.

The spirit of the press room

A SHADOW drifted across the far end of the long, dark passageway and Don Bentley stopped, surprised that someone else should have been down there in the printing works at this hour.

Bentley strained his eyes to identify the shape in the near darkness, at the far end of the passageway where the light from a single light bulb at its entrance barely penetrated. The shadow moved out of sight and Bentley called out, softly at first as if not wanting to disturb the silence down there. His words were lost in the still, cold air. He called out again, louder this time, so the words bounced down the passageway, echoing off the walls at its far end, before dying away.

“That you, Henry?’’ he called out again. “It’s only me, Don Bentley, on my walkabout as usual.’’

There was still no reply and Don Bentley moved forward towards the darkened end of the corridor, somewhere he had not ventured before on his travels through the works at night, looking for evidence this had once been the printing hub of the newspaper, with hundreds of printers toiling away, amid hot metal and ink and oil, and rising steam from tin tea mugs. The coldness down there now chilled Bentley to the bone, and he was keen to return to the warmth of the newsroom, but first he had to explore this part of the works where he had not been before.

Off the main passage ran a series of alcoves with low ceilings, propped up my iron beams on red-brick pillars. Don Bentley had once gone down a coal mine in his reporting days and this is what this forgotten part of the works resembled, but with a symmetry of red-brick and iron boxes unlike a mine’s pit-pole chaos of tunnels that put it in nature’s world, like a cave. This section of the print plant, abandoned for 20 years, was very much a part of man’s environment, and his history, and there were artifacts of a bygone age to prove it, like discarded printers’ trays and metal clips to hold galley proofs. It was clear that the main passageway at its far end, and some of the alcoves, led to other areas of the works in a labyrinth of passages, but these entrances had been sealed off long ago, some with the original, heavy fire doors, not unlike those Bentley had seen in the mine, that were chained shut.

Don Bentley had had a long, hard night at his own coal face, the sub-editors’ desk of the Mercury. A round of autumn flu had left the desk two staff short that night and during his break Bentley had been pleased to get away from his terminal and take his weekly stroll through the old works. Using the cliché of a newspaper man, he would say it was his weekly jaunt down memory lane, reliving the experiences he’d had in printing works of old.

Don Bentley looked about him now, expecting the night watchman Henry Thompson to appear from some doorway, or sub-passage. Henry had his own office of sorts down in the old works, separate from the maintenance men who were based nearer the administrative and advertising offices. Henry’s hideaway was known to only a few people with a knowledge of the lost world of the old works but it had a phone and Henry could be summoned on this.

“That you Henry?” Don Bailey repeated and his call was met with silence again. After six hours staring at a computer monitor, and thousands of words, Bentley reasoned his eyes were playing tricks on him, confused by the murky near-light down in the works maze. There was clearly no one there. No one could have been in this part of the works, or even been hiding, without Don Bentley seeing them. And no one would be down there anyway, at this hour; only Henry and Henry would have shouted out.

Henry combined the roles of watchman for the printing works and odd-job man, assisting the two-man maintenance team working in the Mercury’s art-deco building on Macquarie Street with minor jobs, like changing light bulbs, which were hardly worth the team’s valuable time. Henry worked from mid-afternoon to about one in the morning when the giant press in the section of the works that was still active was shut down after the print run of that day’s Mercury. The watchman-come-handyman had once been a printer at the Mercury and was pleased not to have been made redundant with his 300 or so colleagues when the old hot metal process of producing newspapers was phased out in favour of computer-generated electric editing, which did away with typesetters and compositors in the early 1980s.

As an apprentice Henry had suffered a leg injury and from that time he had walked with a pronounced limp. When the day arrived for the electronic editing system to be installed, and the redundancy notices started to be handed out, a decision was made by the Mercury’s management in favour of Henry, then aged 50, staying on, in whatever position could be found for him. The Mercury had a responsibility for him, and there were concerns that he would struggle to find another job with his limited mobility. This suited Henry. Unlike most of his colleagues, who had lives outside the printing works and welcomed a generous payout for a craft that was dying anyway, Henry’s life had been wrapped up in the Mercury. He joked he did not like fishing, hunting or footy, so there was nothing for him out in the world beyond the Mercury’s walls. Henry had hoped the Mercury would establish a museum to tell its history and the old ways of printing when hot metal finished but this never materialised. Instead, he had his own museum down there in the works, with discarded printing equipment and even a few of the linotype machines that once set the lead type. If anyone cared to look into the past, to delve into the history of the Mercury beyond the bound volumes of the newspaper in the basement archive, Henry would show them.

Don Bentley did not give his experience down in the old works that night a second thought until a few nights later when he passed Henry on the stairs that led to the newsroom, where Henry had been summoned to change a failing fluorescent light tube.

“Henry,” Don Bentley said. “I had a scare in the works the other night. Well not a scare, just a funny experience. Thought I saw someone. I thought it was you but of course it wasn’t.”

Henry stopped immediately, frozen in mid stride going down the steps.

“What you mean?” he said, a hint of annoyance in his tone.

“Thought I saw someone in the works. Thought it was you, but it was just shadows, That’s all.” said Don Bentley.

“And why you telling me this?” Henry Thompson said sharply.

“Well, it’s just conversation, you know Henry,” Don Bentley said, taken aback by Henry’s belligerence, when he had always known Henry to be friendly and full of chat. Before Bentley could utter another word, Henry had vanished round the curve of the stairs and was lost to sight

Don Bentley sat at his desk a few nights later. The chimes of the Hobart Post Office clock were sounding beyond the windows of the Mercury newsroom. It was midnight and Bentley was waiting for the press to start up so he could feel that distant rumble coming from the works that told him another paper was about to hit the streets. A face appeared at the window of the door leading from the back of the newsroom to the works, and Bentley could see it was Henry. The caretaker glanced about the newsroom as if looking for somebody, and Don Bentley waved at him, ushering him to come in. He was keen to establish contact with Henry again, and was troubled that their last encounter had been so frosty.

Still looking about him, Henry approached Bentley’s desk, this time with a broad smile. “Hi cobber,” he said. Henry always used the term cobber when he wanted to make conversion with Don Bentley because Bentley had told him that Henry was the only Australian he knew who used the word. It was the way Don Bentley thought all Australians spoke before he came to the country from England. It was quaint, eccentric and fair dinkum Australian and Don Bentley liked it.

“Sorry about me being a bit short on the stairs the other day,” Henry continued. “Thought you was taking the piss, to be honest, been talking to the other journos, who all take the piss from time to time. I suppose those fuckers have told you about me and my ghost. Fuckers. Took me years to get that monkey off my back.”

Don Bentley had never heard any story about a ghost and he told Henry so.

“Well, there’s supposed to be a ghost down there,’’ said Henry. “People don’t talk about it now, with the printers all gone and all. Not much demand for ghost stories now. Whoever goes down there? Other than you Don. Who wants to know nowadays about printin’, the old ways, starting out as an apprentice, getting a whack over the knuckles with a shiny steel em rule, in a hard lesson learned.”

Don Bentley assured Henry that he had not been joining in any piss-taking, as Henry put it.

“I’ve know a few printers in my time,” said Bentley, keeping the conversation going. “Been to a few initiation ceremonies for apprentices, and banging-outs for retirees. I used to love the works, the stone and all the printers’ fucking nonsense.”

Bentley had purposely used the term “stone”, the metal tables on which lead type was assembled into pages by the compositors. It was from a lexicon that said Bentley had been there and done it, and knew printers and their ways.

“Tell you what, Don,’’ said Henry quietly, looking about him as though he didn’t want anyone else to hear. “I got stories aplenty about the works, all the old characters. And I bet you’ve got a few, from Pommie-land and all. We should get together over a beer and have a few laughs. What you reckon?”

Bentley immediately began penciling in the coming Thursday evening, the night he had off, even though his wife might complain that his two nights off each week were precious for the family. But Bentley reasoned his wife would understand, and his teenage son whom he helped with his homework, if it was a story about the Mercury’s past, especially as the Mercury’s present was such a vital part of their lives.

Bentley met Henry not over the road from the Mercury, not at Mahoney’s, but at another pub, one he didn’t know, the Ocean Child, on Henry’s suggestion. Henry had said he wanted to be away from, as he put it, “the prying ears of the Mercury’’, and when Don Bentley arrived at the Ocean Child Henry was already there, seated at a window and drinking a Cascade draught.

“Thought you’d like to chat about the old days, Don,” said Henry after ordering another drink for himself and Bentley. “All your stories of places you’ve worked, I bet you have a few.”

Bentley had been invited to tell his stories first, and he obliged.

“Well, I love the printing business, or should I say loved it because it’s all gone now, except for the guys who operate the presses, ’’ he started. “I don’t need to tell you that. I always wanted to be a reporter, never thought about sub-editing and the link with printing and the printers and I learned all that during my training.”

Bentley explained that during his indentureship with the Surrey Advertiser in Britain, part of his training had involved going into the sub-editors’ department, primarily to improve his writing skills, from a perspective of how sub-editors viewed reporters’ copy.

“You can learn a lot in the subs’ room,” he said. “Not just about bad writing and punctuation and grammar, and getting facts straight, but about the whole business of printing, or you could.”

Bentley said that when journalists described their craft as a “people business” in the old days, they were not simply talking about the public. One side of journalism, the business of actually producing a paper and getting it out on the streets, involved dealing with the printers.

“I’ll never forget my first editor,” said Bentley. “The day I went into the subs’ room he called me in to explain what sub-editors actually did, although I knew of course, or said I did. But he then said, ‘I must warn you about the printers, they’re funny people and you’ll have to get to understand them if you want to be a sub later on’.

“He never explained why or how they were a funny breed,’’ Bentley continued, “but I suppose he just didn’t get on with them. He was a bit of an intellectual and I suppose he looked down on the printers, thought he was a cut above. I don’t know. But they gave him a hard time.”

Bentley said that after about a month in the sub-editors’ department he was told that he was going to be allowed to go down to the stone.

“I didn’t even know what the stone was,” he told Henry. “But then I was led into the printing works and there was one of the subs standing over a page, the type all laid out back to front. Couldn’t touch anything, of course. Couldn’t even lean on the stone. That was printer’s territory and we soon learned that print unions were powerful and any touching of lead type and the paper wouldn’t come out.”

Henry laughed in acknowledgment. “Very protective of their trade,” he said of the printers. “Five-year apprenticeship and not going to have some pimply kid handle type.”

Another beer was ordered and Henry leaned forward, eagerly waiting for more of Bentley’s observations about the old days of printing.

“Well, an old hand on the Surrey Advertiser, who had been a stone sub up in London, told me that the best stone subs were those with empathy with the printers, supported the same football teams and all that sort of thing. And sought out the printers’ pubs to go drinking with them. He preferred the company of printers over journalists anyway.”

Henry Thompson was taking note of every word, his brow creased in concentration, nodding his head as Bentley went along.

“Always had a lot of respect for the stone subs,” Henry said, cutting into Bentley’s story. “Fucking hard job, rewriting headlines that busted and cutting stories to fit in lead type. Fucking amazing some nights. Not like today when the computer tells you a story will fit – and a headline.”

Bentley cast his thoughts back to the days of editing hard copy, of marking up stories with the print size and width for the linotype operators setting the type, of consulting a chart that gave the count of the various headline sizes so that headlines would fit to the column width. It all seemed so long ago now. Computers, as Henry had said, told the sub-editors the exact length of a story, and indicated if a head would bust, the old term for a headline that didn’t fit.

“Fucking long time ago, now,” Bentley said, gazing into his glass.

“Bet you got on with the printers, Don,” said Henry, “I know you must have, loving the old works so much, wandering down there at night. I don’t know.”

“Well, it was a part of my life,” Bentley continued. “I got to know all the apprentices on the Surrey Advertiser, we were all the same age. After work I’d go drinking with them. They all drank rum and blackcurrant in those days, it was the traditional printer’s drink.”

Henry thought for a moment about the drink Don Bentley had mentioned. “Never heard of that one. But then that was England and they were different over there. All the boys ever drank at the Mercury was Cascade, or maybe Boag’s for the boys that had come down from the north. Not many of these, though, but we had a few Poms over the years. And they were whingers, always going on about England.”

“Yeah, rum-and-black,” Bentley continued. “Got so pissed one night, I was throwing up on the street outside the pub. Never drank rum again for what must have been 10 years after that. Could never stand the smell of rum. Makes me feel sick even today.”

Bentley then told of the first time he had gone to work in London, accepting a junior sub-editor’s job on a dying broadsheet newspaper in the hope that it might lead to a reporter’s position.
“Worked there about two years, never bloody got into the reporter’s room though,” he recounted. “There was a whole team of stone subs, well three, and when one went on leave they always let me go up there. No one else wanted to do it and I always volunteered.

“There was this crusty old sod who was the chief stone sub. Pissed half the time but the printers loved him. He knew what he was on about and never mucked them about. And if there were fuck-ups from the subs, like something totally overset or something that was set to the wrong measure, he could rearrange the page without any resetting. The linotype foreman was happy, the comp foreman was happy, and fuck the chief sub and the editor.”

Thompson laughed out loudly and went for more Cascade draught.

Bentley recounted going up to the stone on a winter’s night, the stone on the top floor of the newspaper’s Victorian red-brick building just off London’s Fleet Street, and crossing a narrow bridge linking one part of the printing plant to another. The bridge, enclosed in glass, spanned a narrow cobbled lane which was coated with virgin snow. As he reached the stone, the craggy old stone sub, a little the worst for beer, was throwing open a window, letting flakes of snow billow in.

“It’s stone cold’, the stone sub shouted out, and the comps and their hands burst into laughter.

“Greatest honour I ever had was on the Johannesburg Star in South Africa, where I worked once as a sub. Went there on my travels, got a sub’s job in the hope I’d fit into a reporter’s position – sub’s jobs were always so easy to get – and this time I got out of subbing. Great times. Anyway, worked on the stone for a time there. Got on with those guys really well. Some of us used to drink in the printers’ pub and talk cricket and rugby. Well, one day one of the comps came down to the subs department and called me outside. He was inviting me down to the comp floor to see an apprentice initiation ceremony. Great honour.”

Bentley described how two lads, who had just signed their apprenticeship papers, had been taken on to the comp floor and told they must be able to complete a little trick before they could start work.

“They were told it was all to do with testing their dexterity, but it wasn’t of course. The kids should have known they were being set up by the number of printers gathered about.”

Bentley explained the boys were shown a gold coin and told to balance it on their forehead. At the same time a printer placed a funnel used for pouring ink in the boys’ belts so the narrow end pointed inside their underpants.

Bentley started to laugh himself, telling the tale.

“Now’, said one of the comps, ‘you got to get this coin to fall off your forehead so it goes into the funnel. Do it three times and you have passed and the coin is yours’. The trick was not so hard and the boys managed to do it the first two times with ease. But just as the coin was being balanced on their foreheads the third time, with the boys having to look upwards to keep it level, someone dashes forwards with a can of freezing water, with ice cubes in it, and pours it in the funnel.”

Henry Thompson did not merely laugh now. He let out a bellow, an explosion of sound. He was in the middle of sipping his beer and it sprayed out of his mouth and all over the table where they were sitting. It was too much for Bentley, too. He was bent over double. He was laughing so much it made him struggle for breath. “What days,” he shouted finally, throwing back his head and laughing again.

“Can’t play a trick on a computer,” Bentley added, embarrassed now that he and Henry were attracting attention from the other people in the pub. The landlord was looking from behind the bar, half hidden behind a row of clean, sparkling glasses and had sent someone across the clean the table.

Henry Thompson had fallen silent, and Bentley was disappointed because he thought that Henry might have some stories of his own. Bentley also had a suspicion that the reason for their get-together, and especially Henry’s insistence on it being private, was not just about hearing Bentley’s stories from print works far and wide.

“Well,” said Henry after a while. “That thing a couple of days ago, when I was a bit short with you on the stairs.”

Bentley nodded, saying “go on” without uttering a word.

“Well, it wasn’t all good times was it? We can look back and laugh at the good times, but it was hard in the works, wasn’t it?”

Bentley said that indeed it was. It was dangerous work, type was hot and heavy, to say nothing of all the lead the linotype operators and compositors and their hands inhaled. He often wondered what damage that daily intake of lead fumes had done and whether former printers had a life expectancy lower than men in other trades.

“I’ll always remember my first time on the stone, and drinking with the printers, ” Don Bentley started up again. He felt Henry Thomspon was building up to something and, like a good reporter, he was determined to draw it out of him. Putting Henry at ease, in the comfort of his memories, recreating a familiar environment, good and bad, warts and all, was the way to go about it.

“I can always remember noticing how many of the printers had fingers missing. It was quite a few. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Thompson nodded. “And toes,’’ he said. “Don’t laugh but known of blokes who had whole pages of type dropped on their feet. How it happened I don’t know but it happened. And look what happened to me. Pushing a fucking trolley of lead, when one of the comp hands should have been doing it, and the whole thing comes off the rails and rolls onto my leg.”

Bentley looked back to his first days on the Surrey Advertiser stone and how he was surprised at the heavy nature of the work, especially in pushing the trolleys with lead to the linotype machines and the even heavier flat carts that were used to ferry the formes holding completed pages of type. These were pushed from the stone to the press that created the mould to make the half cylinders that went onto the presses.

“There was this old guy on the Surrey Advertiser, stone hand he was,” Bentley said. “He always had a brown, long storeman’s coat on, you know the ones I mean, and a fag dangling from his lips which never seemed to be lit. ‘Stay out of his way when he’s pushing a page’ one of the old comps told me that first day on the stone. ‘He’ll cut you in half with that thing’.”

Henry Thompson gave a nervous half laugh. He was looking at the floor, and he started talking again without looking up.

“They had a bad one at the Mercury, an accident, ” he started. “Before my time, in the Thirties to be precise, Young boy, a printer’s devil.”

It had been years since Don Bentley had heard the term “printer’s devil”  and he was eager for Henry to say more.

“Printer’s devil he was, in the days you had such things. Only a lad. He was 15 and being tried out for an apprenticeship, as the devils were.”

“Only a kid and there was a loose bit of paper on the rotary press, not the one down there now but an earlier one. And he was sent up there to pluck it out as the press was rolling. Should never have been up there, don’t know what they was thinking, but there he was. He always wore these leather boots with elastic sides, but this time someone had stole them and he was wearing these old shoes with laces. And they says a lace wasn’t tied and it caught on the steel decking alongside the press and in the boy went. Crushed between the rollers. Bloody mess it was, well they say.

“Heard all about it from guys from that time, who I worked with when I started. One of the stone subs made a joke about the boy ‘certainly making an impression’, smart arse, the sort of journos the printers hated, and he got taken outside and had the shit kicked out of him.”

As Henry spoke, Don Bentley now saw there was more to the ghost story, or at least the suggestion of something strange in the works, and that was why Henry had acted so out of character when they had met on the stairs.

Something had told Don Bentley, a gut feeling, his reporter’s instincts, that Henry’s invitation for a drink was more in the context of what Bentley had seen that night than recalling tales of the craft and art of printing.

“Well some guys say they used to see him, the boy, after he was killed,’’ Henry continued. “They described him. Always wearing these baggy old pants, and a check shirt and a hat;  he always wore a hat which was strange for the time for a boy in the works. A working man’s hat, a flat cap type of thing like the working men always wore in the 1930s, you’ve seen them in pictures. I suppose wearing the hat made the boy think he was grown up.”

Henry stopped talking for a moment. He looked straight at Don Bailey and appeared to take a deep breath, as though summoning the courage to ask him a personal question, which indeed he was.

“So what did you see, Don? Was it a boy, all sad eyes and just staring straight at you. Like there’s pain in that stare that you can never imagine. Not pain, pain but a pain about losing your youth, your future. Like you know what you’ve lost, because you see people every day enjoying the life they’ve still got. Do you follow?”

“I saw nothing, Henry. I swear,” Don Bentley said gravely. “It was a shadow, that’s all. No boy, no hat, nothing.”

He tried to switch the conversation from his own experience to what others might have seen.

“So when did they last see him, or say they did?”

“Oh this was right up to the time when hot metal stopped and there were still men working down there in the works. Some saw him, some just said it went cold some nights, like a cold wind or draught blowing through the works.

“Some said the boy was always seen on the night that we printed the footy guide, he was mad on footy like all the boys. Like everyone in the works. Dreamed of playing for Carlton. He was good, too, so they say. Always appeared on the night the footy supplement appeared with all the teams and fixtures and the prospects for the new season, round about this time.”

Don Bentley looked at Henry, and the laughter had vanished from him, the sparkle and fun had gone, but it was time for his own question, the one he felt he must ask, even at the risk of ruining what had been a wonderful evening of reminiscences.

“And have you seen him, Henry? You can tell me. I won’t laugh. Those walls down there hold the smell of lead and ink, they probably still hold the laugher of the printers, so who says they don’t hold more?”

“And all the cursing, and all the fucks,” Henry was laughing again at the thought of those days, the camaraderie, mateship. “Well. I saw something one night. Don’t know what it was but I’ll tell you something, and I don’t care if you want to take the piss, or any of the others of you, I saw something. It looked like a young fella in an old cap, but I can’t be sure. He had this stare, and that’s what I remember, the stare of someone pissed off at losing his youth, even vengeful.”

“Did he say anything?” Don Bentley ventured.

“Cause he fucking didn’t, ” Henry replied, “He’s a fucking ghost, and I can’t be sure of that. But I’m telling you, Don, it was pretty creepy that night. I haven’t been down that part again, well not after the press has stopped running and it’s quiet and still down there. Too creepy.”

Henry Thompson’s words trailed away and Don Bentley could see he was troubled by what he had or hadn’t seen that night.

Don Bentley didn’t believe in ghosts. During 40-odd years as a newspaperman Don Bentley had heard countless ghost tales in and out of newspaper offices, had covered ghost stories and interviewed people whose insistence at what they’d seen had impressed him to the point of wanting to believe them. But Bentley, with the journalist’s air of cynicism about him, didn’t believe in ghosts and to prove it he told Henry Thompson a few weeks later that he was going back down to that part of the works where he had ventured just once. He was going down in the dead of night, after the rumble of the presses had stopped reverberating through the building, and after the distant laughter of the casual staff who inserted the supplements into the newspaper had died down.

Don Bentley did not believe in ghosts and he urged Henry to come with him to bury this tale of ghosts once and for all. To Bentley’s surprise Henry agreed, and said he would bring a high-powered torch because they would need it down there in the dank dead of night.

A few nights later, they reached the start of the passageway and at the far end they suddenly saw a shadow of sorts, a strange shape that waved and billowed and then vanished. They ventured forward, Don Bentley in front and Henry a few feet behind aiming the beam from his torch over Henry’s shoulder so it lit the way ahead. The dingy, ink-stained walls were white in the light, throwing up shadows of hooks and loose wires. When they came near to the end of the corridor the shape appeared again, moving and waving. Don Bentley thought he could see the shape of a boy there, with a cap and shoes with laces that flapped and floated. Henry had dropped back a few feet and peered around Bentley’s body.

Don Bentley continued to move forward, slowly, and then let out a laugh. “And there’s our ghost,” he said. He had stepped forward quickly now and was bending over a pipe that ran along the floor at the end of the passageway and vanished into the wall on each side.  Wisps of steam rose from the pipe. Henry moved alongside Bentley and gazed at the pipe and where it vanished into the walls.

“It’s hot water, and it’s leaking. It’s the pipe to the generator, the generator’s water cooled,” Henry said, still looking at where the pipe vanished into the walls, his head turning from side to side rapidly.

He was now wearing his hat of maintenance man.  “Generator must have been running tonight. They test it sometimes. I’ll tell them about the leak.” Henry was already walking back along the passageway. The rising steam had reinforced how cold it was down there and Henry was keen to get to the warmth of the maintenance men’s office where he would enter the leak in a book of work to be done in the building

As Don Bentley turned to follow him he noticed a half-folded newspaper in one of the alcoves leading from the main passageway. It was still fresh and new, just of the presses, and when he stooped to pick it up a supplement fell out – the coming season’s footy guide

Bentley quickly kicked the newspaper and its supplement back into the alcove where he had first spotted it, out of sight of Henry Thompson. The ghost had been laid to rest and Don Bentley wanted to keep it that way.

– See more at: http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php/article/chronicle-67-the-spirit-of-the-press-room#sthash.54R5rbSK.dpuf

Doors close on the past

Donald Knowler celebrates more than half a century in the newspaper business. He started work as a messenger boy in Fleet Street in September 1963 before writing his first words six months later on the newspaper that gave him his start in journalism, the Woking News and Mail, in Surrey. He usually looks back, and forward, through his alter ego, Don Bentley, but in two articles first published on the Tasmanian Times website lamented the demise of the office pub.

 

The death in the family came so suddenly I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I was racked by guilt and regret. I should have paid more attention in the final days.

The warning signs, the draining of life, had been there for some time, since the staff of the Mercury in Hobart forsook its art deco building on Macquarie Street for a shining chrome and glass headquarters in the more upmarket Salamanca Square.

The death certificate for Montgomery’s, the pub over the road which had been the journalists’ and printers’ watering hole for more 150 years, had been signed at that moment just over a year previously although no one at the time realised it.

Pubs aren’t supposed to die – at worst they are turned into poker-machine venues or pole-dancing joints – but here I was standing on the corner of Macquarie and Argyle Streets looking at a “closed” sign in a brutal black typeface pinned to the front door.

I, like current and former Mercury employees, had deserted Montgomery’s when the newspaper moved office. I had been back only once in more than a year, after seeing a retired Mercury sub-editor pushing open the pub’s main door one afternoon. Although he lived over the river on the Eastern Shore, he still regarded Montgomery’s as his local, and home.

Six months on from sinking pints of cold Cascade Pale Ale with my former colleague in the corner of the bar the sub-editors always called their own (the reporters took up station at the other end of the bar a little earlier in the evening), I stood on the corner outside Montgomery’s on a late summer’s afternoon feeling a very serious thirst coming on. But the locked door and the sign that journalists and printers of old would say was in 60 point, Century Bold barred my way.

I looked through the window and saw that the Montgomery’s I knew of old, knew for 12 years, was still very much intact. The high stools for the island tables in the main bar were awaiting patrons to plonk down on them, spilling beer from 10 ounce, schooners or pint glasses in the process. The taps with beer labels of Cascade draught, pale and light were waiting to be pulled. The television above the bar was primed to show the Friday night footy at the flick of a switch. The old, historic beer bottles, and cans, still lined the shelves above the windows, along with a battered typewriter that was the only indication that this was the journalists’ domain.

Everything was in place for a night of fun and craic, followed on a Friday and Saturday night by revelry and fights.

All it needed was people. It was the Marie Celeste and instead of sea-salt air, the joint still carried the smell of stale tobacco still drifting from the curtains and stale beer from its carpets.

I strained to see a collage of photographs of former patrons on the wall. Yes, Guy “Parsnips” Parsons was still there, a wicked smile on his lips from no doubt playing a “jape” on one of his colleagues (probably me) earlier in the evening, and there was Mike “the Duck” Power who seemed to spend his whole non-working life in Montgomery’s.

Both Parsnips and the Duck have moved on to the great newsroom in the sky but they lived on in Montgomery’s, in the Duck’s case a model of a yacht above his favourite spot in the bar, placed there at his wake in recognition of his love of the pub, yachts and the sea.

“If those walls could talk” might be a cliché but it seemed appropriate all the same when I looked through the window of Montgomery’s a week after it closed earlier this year, a pane of glass still embossed with a Tasmanian tiger symbol of the Cascade brewery from yesteryear, in a style that vanished with the Victorian era.

Words of anger and rage from reporters when a story had been cut, or left out, or a reporter’s name had been spelled incorrectly in a byline. Laughter from sub-editors at a spelling mistake or misprint – “cunt” for “cut” springs to mind in a sports story caption – and plots to outwit management during newspaper strikes. And words of poetry, love and lust from a journalist who left newspapers for the world of the web.

I came late to the Mercury, and all its stories, but for me the end of Montgomery’s is placed in a wider context. Standing on the steps of the now closed pub, I suddenly realised that it was a few weeks short of the 50th anniversary of my discovering journalism, and discovering the institution that was the journalists’ watering hole.

I emptied my first pay packet – six English pounds I think – on the bar of the Red House, in Woking in the English country of Surrey, and went on for fifty years to spend much hard-earned cash in such establishments on four continents.

I won’t list the continents, or the pubs, but I have no regrets. I loved every minute of it and I have a million stories to tell.

Not all stories from journalists’ watering holes are funny or happy ones, though. Journalists, my parents warned me when I entered the profession all those years ago, had the lowest life expectancy of any workers, and the highest divorce rate. And over the next 50 years I knew too many journalists who either ended up divorced, alcoholic, or penniless, or a combination of all three. There were many who ended up in an early grave but, I might add, I never knew of a suicide. The fraternity of the journalists’ pub would never allow that.

The watering hole was at the centre of a rather special community for all the years newspapers were put to bed before the age of computers. It had to end, of course, and the closed doors of Montgomery’s are symbolic of what we in the trade might describe as an end of an era in which the old ways of producing newspapers, indeed news content, have changed. Along with the age-old traditions, the watering holes have also vanished. Some had official names reflecting the printing trade, like the Printer’s Devil pub I once frequented in London’s Fleet Street; others unofficial ones,  “the branch office” or “the stab in the back”.

Alcohol and producing newspapers were indelibly linked, they were symbiotic.

Now the link has been broken. It is not modern social norms that frown on cigarettes and alcohol in the workplace, or near to it, that is responsible. Modern technology is also to blame. The computer is very unforgiving of alcohol either imbibed or spilt on its keyboard, unlike the typewriters of old that demanded to be greased with beer and cigarette ash. And armed with smartphones, reporters do not have to go to pubs for their gossip, and stories.

Stories from the pub involving the journalists themselves, though, will live on as long as there are journalists to tell them.

Standing on the corner outside Montgomery’s I remembered one about myself.

Feeling that thirst coming on late one afternoon I decided to sneak out of the Mercury building for a “quick one” before my official break after the first edition went to press.

Waiting for the traffic lights to change, on the other side of Argyle Street from Montgomery’s, I suddenly saw the editor of the time emerging from the pub’s entrance, with rage written on his face.

He had been in dispute with a member of staff, who had stormed out of the newsroom a short time previously, to take refuge in the pub. The editor had gone to threaten him with the sack if he did not return to work.

Slamming the pub door behind him, the editor’s eyes settled on me across the street. I was obviously heading for the ale house.

With quick thinking that even surprised me, I put my hand in my pocket and retrieved a 20c coin, which I then placed in a parking meter close by.

“Just feeding the meter” I said to the editor, as the lights changed and he walked by.

 

 

 

 

Beermat of memory and loss

It’s not much to look at, the beermat from the former journalists’ watering hole, Montgomery’s in central Hobart. It’s not as striking as the fiery red one from the Coopers brewery in Adelaide, with a beer barrel at its centre, or the shield-shaped one from Fullers in London, in ochre, advertising a bitter called London Pride.

The Montgomery’s beermat is in monochrome, with a simple line drawing of the pub on the corner of Macquarie and Argyle streets, as unpretentious and understated as the pub itself.

I found a collection of beermats in my study recently, the beermats taken at random from pubs and bars up and down the country, and beyond, as you do.

I don’t know why I take them, drunk I suppose, wanting some souvenir of a night of revelry. Over the years they serve no purpose other than to add to the junk which accumulates in the top drawer of the desk in my study. I toss them out when I eventually find them because I have absolutely no recollection of the nights and events which somehow led to the beermats ending up in my pocket.

So here I am in the process of tossing a Coopers beermat collected in Adelaide into the bin. The London Pride one also flies through the air along with, ironically, a beermat depicting a World War Two Spitfire acquired from a pub in Kent.

Lastly I hold the Montgomery’s beermat in my hand, and glance at the picture. “It wasn’t even a good picture of the pub,” I mutter to myself, looking at it critically. All the same I can’t let go of the beermat and let it fly towards the bin. It conjures something emotional, visceral in me. It’s as though it’s got a life and condemning it to the bin is to condemn it to die.

Just a simple black and white picture on a beermat and I feel just a little teary. Sitting in my study, an arm’s length away from tossing a beermat into a waste paper basket, I struggle to determine if it is tears of loss, or laughter, that threaten to run down my cheeks, or legs.

Montgomery’s was the last “official” watering hole in a working life spent at the typeface, as a newspaper journalist. I use the word “official” because I can’t think of another to describe a place which was part workplace and part a scene of relaxation and recreation, if playing pool and darts can be described as recreation. Montgomery’s was a place to escape from the tensions of work in official, and unofficial, breaks and then a place to relax, to chat with colleagues – reporters and sub-editors – and friends not in the newspaper trade after the work was done.

When Montgomery’s closed about four years ago I wrote on Tasmanian Times of its demise, not only expressing shock at the “closed” sign on the door but the demise of the institution, worldwide, of the hangout for journalists which had been the watering hole.

Montgomery’s closed simply because the Mercury had moved its office to another location in Salamanca Square but the writing had been on the wall for a number of years, as staff numbers at the Mercury shrunk and the new breed of journalists found less interest, or less time, to go to the pub during their break, or at the end of their shift.

I was talking of working journalists at the time.  What had escaped my recollection of press pubs I had known on four continents was the role they played in the lives of journalists who had retired. Together with being a bridge between work and play, these pubs also served as a meeting place, a point of contact between the working journalist and those who had left the industry.

That connection has gone, and this becomes apparent when you retire yourself and lose that link with a profession which has sustained you in income, camaraderie and laughs for a working life, in my case more than 50 years.

I can’t think of a pub from the old days in which wordsmiths put out to grass didn’t at one time or another turn up at their former watering hole, usually on a Friday when journalists still on the payroll had been paid or were flush with the weeks’ reimbursed expenses.

It provided a great meeting of minds and anecdotes. The new breed of journalist could learn from the experience of the old-timers, not only experiences to share but tales of caution. How many times did I hear of the dangers of drinking too much free booze at civic functions, of the reporter who threw up over the mayoral chain or, worse, who goosed the mayor’s wife.

  *                  *                  *

I’m sitting in my study, flipping a Montgomery’s monochrome beermat between my fingers, putting it down, picking it up. What brings on a melancholy, a sense of loss, is that I have been robbed of the chance to tell my stories to a younger generation pursuing careers in what I still call a craft. And no doubt the younger generation would have stories themselves. The new Mercury watering hole in the Barcelona bar and bistro over the Salamanca Square from the newspaper’s office does not lend itself to old hacks pointing out journalists are the first recorders of history. And anyway, one of my older crew complains he is always ignored when trying to order a drink at the crowded bar, especially during happy hour on a Friday night. I don’t believe him of course; he simply remembers the press bars of old where it was in the interests of the management to look after the interests of their established, big-spending clientele.

I actually like Barcelona, and I like the new breed of journalist I find there on infrequent trips to the square. I say infrequent because I don’t want to appear like some old fossil dug up from the past, or worse a new media groupie. And I never get to tell my stories which is just as well; I’d keep on talking until well past happy hour.

So I’m sitting in my study on a Friday night ignoring invites to go to Barcelona, studying a Montgomery’s beermat, thinking of stories I’ll never get to tell, at least in an environment I consider not conducive to them. And so I start to tell stories – three of them – to myself.

  *                  *                  *

Early one Friday night the editor of the Sunday Tasmanian strode into Montgomery’s and ordered drinks all round for his colleagues. The early, feature pages of the Sunday newspaper had been put to bed, and a riveting front-page lead was ready to be processed the next day.  It was time to celebrate, although it must be said that during the course of the week there had been many a reason to take ale.

The editor was in his customary black, dating from the days he had studied theology and for a brief time entertained the notion of being a Church of England minister.

In his enthusiasm to describe what was in store for readers on Sunday morning, the scoops ready to be put to print, he backed into the pub’s blackboard advertising the specials on the menu that night.

The editor’s shirt was a linen one and the chalk from the blackboard stuck to it readily, forming a perfect outline of the words and prices advertising rump steak, fish of the day and parmigiana, chicken or beef.

Although the menu on the shirt read back to front, when the editor stood in front of Montgomery’s main window opening out to Argyle Street, it could be read perfectly reflected in the pane.

As the editor, arms flaying like the sails of a windmill in a high wind, excitedly regaled his audience with the daring-do of his news gathering team during the week, customers in Montgomery’s were persuaded by his colleagues to quietly peruse the menu reflected in the window, and then order.

“Steak, please, medium rare, no sauce. Table Three”

“Fish, no tartar. Table six”

“Parmigiana, chicken, salad instead of chips. Will take it at the bar.”

The editor looked nonplussed, confused, believing that the customers merely thought he was bar staff, a waiter maybe, seeing he was dressed in black. He told them, politely even if he showed a measure of annoyance at being interrupted in his story telling, to order at the bar, before continuing with his paper’s news gathering exploits over the week, especially as he had a growing audience apparently hanging on his every word.

Then some wit, and a few jokes.

The editor’s colleagues, gathered around him, were convulsed. I laughed so much I couldn’t breathe.

Instead of twigging what was going on, especially as those ordering from the menu kept glancing at the window with Cascade Ale embossed on the glass, the editor continued with his stories, no doubt convinced his qualities as a raconteur were holding an audience beyond the newspaper fraternity which was growing by the minute.

It was my Alf Garnet moment, a scene from the British comedy Till Death Us Do Part, in which the bigoted, loud-mouthed Garnet discovers he is the life and soul of his own local in the London Docklands. When he gets home he boasts that he is the most popular person in the pub, until he glances in the mirror and sees that his son-in-law has painted a smiling face on his totally bald head while he is asleep in front of the fire.

Not that my former colleague was bigoted, or a big mouth. He just supplied a moment to treasure in the best tradition of the journalists’ pub.

  *                  *                  *

The singing trout incident was kept hush-hush within the Mercury for a time, before its details leaked out over several pints of Cascade Draught one Friday night.

The journalists switching their attention from the Mercury to the Sunday Tasmanian on a Saturday night tended to take their business to another pub further down Macquarie Street, because Montgomery’s hosted karaoke sessions at weekends. The noise during these occasions were not usually conducive to making conversation about journalism, but from time to time journalists from the Mercury had been known to take the stage for renditions of such karaoke staples as My Way, orThe Green, Green Grass of Home.

Saturday nights offered the chance to linger in the bar of the Hope and Anchor because the Sunday Tasmanian had an earlier first edition which went to press an hour before the Mercury’s. One Saturday night, when the staff learned there were minimal changes for the second edition which the night editor was attending to, more ale than usual was consumed.  On his fourth or fifth pint, one of the sub-editors took a shine to a novelty plastic trout attached to the wall, a kitsch representation of the kind of thing which decorates the walls in hunting and fishing lodges. Only this plastic rainbow trout turned its head sideways when a button was pressed and sang a 1970s pop song, Take me to the River.

So much mirth and fascination was engendered by this trout that the journalist who couldn’t stop pressing the button decided to take his interest in the trout to the next level. He lifted it from the wall when it had stopped singing for the last time, and hid it under his coat.

He had decided Montgomery’s was lacking without it, and the pub would never be the same if it did not grace its walls, and provide competition for the karaoke singers.

So there we were, staggering up Macquarie Street late on a Saturday night with one of our number hiding a singing trout under his coat.

The trout was not to be silenced on its liberation from the Hope and Anchor. It popped its head from under its new owner’s coat, and merrily sang Take me to the river, drop me in the water to two young women who happened to be passing, giving them a shock they were not expecting on a Saturday night.

The journalist entered Montgomery’s with his prize and a barmaid who had learned of what had gone on at the Hope and Anchor, shouted above someone singing an Abba song: “Is that a trout in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me.”

The laughter had barely died when the miscreant realised the seriousness of his deeds. The trout spent a night on the wall of Montgomery’s before, discreetly, being returned to the Hope and Anchor next day. The Hope never noticed its trout had done a runner.

  *                  *                  *

A sub-editor on the Mercury was nicknamed “the Duck” for reasons I never established. He hailed from Sydney originally and, being a keen yachtsman, had washed up in Tasmania in the wake of the Sydney-Hobart yacht race many years previously. I also never established if he had sailed in the blue ocean classic, or had merely come to Tasmania to report on the event for a yachting magazine.

Nonetheless, he had never raised his anchor again after reaching Tasmanian shores, and this at the end of his shift was planted firmly at one specific spot in Montgomery’s, close to the taps and in a little alcove in which he was never disturbed by passing traffic.

The Duck was known for his bad temper. He demonstrated a general dislike of people unless they were Montgomery regulars, or journalists of about the same age as himself, which was late 50s. Most of all he hated young reporters and would berate individuals both in and outside the office about their reporting, grammar and spelling. Needless to say, the young reporters avoided him, and took up station at the other end of the bar.

The Duck was of grizzled appearance with a salt and pepper beard and he could have fitted the stereotype of an old salt, or the ancient mariner but no one would call him such to his face. The nickname “Duck” was as far as the monikers were allowed to go.

Friday nights were difficult occasions for the Duck when end-of-the-week revelry and happy-hour prices attracted people to the pub who were not regulars.

“Fuckin’ once a week drinkers,” he would bawl out when waiting to be served longer than usual, and the crowd spilled over into his spot at the bar.

On such occasions he would give anyone invading his space a rigorous nudge to the ribs with his elbow, something he had learned from junior grade rugby league in New South Wales.

If Fridays were difficult for the Duck, that certain time of the year when Hobart was invaded by end-of-season Australia rules players from the mainland were far more disconcerting.

For some reason, over several weeks, the post-season footy booze tours always made Montgomery’s their first stop, before forays into pubs closer to the waterfront and along the Salamanca Strip.

On one such occasion the Duck had left his corner of the bar to order the revellers to turn down the volume on the juke box. Protesting angrily, they agreed after the landlady intervened. A little later one of the footy players encountered the Duck in the lavatory and gave him a not so playful kick up the backside while he was standing at the urinal. One of the pub’s bouncers, reporting for duty at the start of karaoke night, had been in the lavatory at the same time and was about to order the footy player off the premises when the Duck took matters into his own hands. In a flash, he gave the young man who was probably a third of his age, a right hook to the mouth. The footy player responded, punching the Duck in the eye before he was wrestled out into the street by the bouncer.

Next day, the Duck’s day off, he sat at his favourite spot in Montgomery’s, something he usually did when he was not working.

He nursed a black eye, the hand which had delivered the right hook was swollen and the Duck had difficulty holding his glass. The knuckle which had hit the footy player full in the mouth had been cut my one of his teeth and the landlady ordered the Duck down to the Royal Hobart Hospital for doctors there to have a look it. By this time the swelling in the hand extended to under the Duck’s arm. The wound had become infected, poison was swilling through his veins and the Duck was ordered to a hospital bed, where he stayed a week while the wound was drained constantly.

The Duck returned to Montgomery’s something a hero. Even those who didn’t particularly like his company, liked the invasion of the footy players and their raucous behaviour even less.

For the Duck it was drinks on his colleagues for a week, but not on the house. The landlady was less than pleased with his behaviour. Nonetheless, she ignored a suggestion from the bouncer that the Duck be shown the door; he was more trouble than he was worth.  Anyone else would have been banned for life but different rules applied to journalists misbehaving themselves at their watering hole.

*                  *                  *

Montgomery’s reopened a year or so after its closure, with a new proprietor, a new décor, and new clientele. But one of the old gang, from the old days, still couldn’t pull himself away.

I see the retired sub-editor when I pass the pub with a new name, the Fluke and Bruce, although these days I have a more virtuous destination in mind, the gym at the Hobart aquatic centre. The former sub-editor stands in the spot the Duck inhabited before the Duck was called to the great newsroom in the sky. After the Duck’s funeral the proprietor of Montgomery’s placed a model yacht above the place where the Duck used to sink his 7oz glasses of Cascade Draught but when I pass I note the yacht has gone now, cleaned out by the new landlord along with the other paraphernalia of the pub’s past, including a battered old typewriter.

Sometimes the sub-editor who now regards the Fluke and Bruce as his local – coming in from the suburbs once a week to drink there – is not in the Duck’s domain, he is seen standing on the steps of the second of the pub’s entrances, having a “smoko” Wednesday afternoons, sometimes Monday.

He’s big and stoic, standing motionless except for the slow movement of his hand as he puts a cigarette to his lips. He takes a slow draw, and just as slowly tweaks his finger, so it sends ash to the pavement.

Strangely, he reminds me, slow and lugubrious, of a male African elephant I saw once, standing on an island in Lake Kariba, in Zimbabwe.

The building of the Kariba Dam and lake in the 1950s flooded ancient elephant migration routes through the Zambezi Valley, denying elephants seasonal movement from one part of the African bush to another. The old elephant was still trying to make the crossing, finally giving up when he realised his destination of old was now several kilometres out of reach.

On Macquarie Street on a Wednesday afternoon there’s a metaphor for an elephant waiting for a crossing of the Zambezi River which will never come. I drive past the Fluke and Bruce, but never stop and never go in. The pub under a new name, without its past clientele speaking in headlines, represents a destination of craic and memories that are on some foreign shore, out of reach.

Going out in style

Bruce Leyland picked up the Chronicle style book, looked briefly at its ink-stained and worn cover and tossed it into the rubbish bin. Another piece of detritus from the past, the flotsam and jetsam of a life spent in newspapers, a life coming to an abrupt end.

Leyland had been at his desk all morning, clearing out the set of draws and cupboard that supported the desk’s flat, polished top on which sat a computer keyboard and monitor.

An ink well at one corner of the desk revealed it had been witness to another age in journalism, as had Bruce Leyland. He didn’t want to dwell on that though. He didn’t have time to dredge history, the past. He was concerned with the immediate present. Deadlines had dominated his entire working life and now he had another one. He had half an hour before he was to be logged off from the computer terminal and he had to clear files, both electronic on the screen and the physical ones in his drawers and cupboard before his password expired, as did the code which give him access to the Chronicle building on one of Hobart’s main streets. After the latter expired, it would be difficult to enter the building to collect anything he had left behind. And he didn’t want to be “signed in” by a security guard like a stranger at some later stage. Not after 40 years, he didn’t want that.

There was not much to salvage from those drawers, and especially from his electronic files on the screen. Faded cuttings with stories carrying bizarre and blazing errors, headlines misspelt, a sports one with the word “cunt” instead of count. They had been handy to show other “hacks”, as Leyland referred to his journalist colleagues, or to cub reporters being taught the pitfalls of sloppy reporting. To whom would he show them now?

So the cuttings and clippings along with the faded style book and union leaflets announcing work-to-rules and strikes, were consigned to the bin.

As he approached retirement at the age of 65 years, Leyland had hoped he would be able to see out his days as a sub-editor at the desk he had sat at for nigh on 30 years, from the time he had stepped up to the role of sub-editor from that of reporter. Even so, all around him in recent years colleagues in the sub-editors’ corner of the newsroom had vanished into redundancy or retirement as the Chronicle cut staff. It was like that across the whole industry as the impact of the internet hit newspaper circulations.

Many journalists of the old school were happy to be going, especially as they neared retirement age. Although younger sub-editors with families and mortgages might be bitter about having to start afresh, in all probability in another career, the older journalists nearing the end of their working lives had a generous redundancy package to contemplate, before drawing their pensions.

“Well, we saw the best of the newspaper years,” was a common refrain, and Bruce Leyland would agree. Over 40 years he had held a solid, secure and well-paid job in an industry he had been proud to serve.

He should have had no complaints when he was called into the editor’s office to be told be was being made redundant. Although just short of retirement age, he was receiving a severance payment equal to a year’s salary, covering the period until he could dip into his superannuation and also draw the state pension. He shouldn’t feel bitter, resentful, he should be content with his “pot of gold”, as the editor had described it.

All the same, Leyland still considered he had a contribution to make at the Chronicle and had always hoped he could continue at work beyond retirement age. He loved his work, and had no desire to retire.

As redundancies among the Chronicle’s production staff became more and more frequent, Leyland had marshalled himself into a position in the sub-editors’ department which he considered the company could never phase out.

Leyland had made out a case for what was termed a check-sub-editor to go through the work done by the increasingly overworked sub-editors, to double-check for mistakes.

To initially press his case to be the newspaper’s check-sub-editor, Leyland had started a clippings collection of errors appearing in the Chronicle, showing them at week’s end to the editor. This to the chagrin of some of his colleagues.

The errors made the newspaper look amateurish, and silly, he pointed out. A check- sub-editor was vital for the newspaper’s credibility. The editor finally agreed and Leyland now thought his position secure into the future.

Perhaps Leyland’s advocacy for the position of check-sub-editor was an unspoken acknowledgement of his sense of frustration with his career. When he had set out to be a journalist all those years ago he had reporting in mind, and like so many keen and eager reporters he was lured into the sub-editors’ department in the hope editing the work of others would improve their own writing. He had never escaped.

Set hours, increased penalty rates for night work; sub-editing made sense to a young man newly married, with a mortgage and a wife employed as a nurse, who could arrange her shifts to mesh with his.

Over the years, though, being deskbound and not being out there at the frontline of journalism nagged at Leyland. Reporters always came back with not just stories to appear in the next day’s newspaper, but stories of their own about their adventures out on the road. And they had cuttings, with their bylines, a trigger to recall those happy, adventurous days when it came their turn to retire. Leyland noted when reporters retired they were always given a scrapbook of their best stories; sub-editors went quietly into the night. No one ever mentioned a sub-editors’ headlines.

There were compensations. He may not have been a reporter, a witness to the news, but he was still part of a vital team. He would argue over the years to those in and out of the newspaper trade that the employees of no other occupation invested so much time in its product. It wasn’t literature but it could have been. Literature was about stories after all, and how many tales detailing the human condition, of tragedy and triumph, were contained in a single newspaper edition? A newspaper also set impossibly high standards for accuracy and English grammar, even if each edition produced over a 24-hour period – comprising possibly a million words – was destined to fade and die in an even shorter space of time. Unlike a classical work of literature, a newspaper, the result of all that blood, sweat and beers, had a bookshelf life of just 12 hours before it was recycled as wrapping for fish and chips.

And all the time, for four decades, Leyland played his part in this great and good endeavour. Each night he’d take raw, unpolished copy and give it a burnish and shine, often with a witty headline and caption to match. And after each piece he would sit back and read it again, taking a quiet pride in how he had made a solid, industrious effort on the part of the reporter even better.

Sometimes the reporters noticed, and thanked him. Leyland might not have won prizes for scoops and exposes, but a beer bought by a grateful reporter in the pub after the shift was reward enough, or so he thought.

The bylines Leyland had added to stories over the years – being careful to spell the author’s name correctly – also gave the reporters a status that Leyland increasingly came to regard with envy as he approached the end of his career.

In his new role as chief check-sub-editor, as if that did not carry status enough, Leyland hit on an idea to advance his position. He canvassed the editor about updating the Chronicle’s style book, something he said he’d do in his spare time, as long as his role was acknowledged.

Leyland was at pains to point out he would not approach the task as a pedant; unlike so many sub-editors he had known, adherents to the strict rules of grammar which sometimes did not mesh with the realities and practicalities of news reporting. Leyland believed language was a living, evolving thing and sometimes formal, precise grammar did not result in syntax which was clear and understandable.

The same with style, but there were one or two things that irked him in the Chronicle style book, small things which just didn’t seem right. They remained blemishes to the perfection which Leyland increasingly strove to apply to the news stories he edited.

The value and role of the style book in the halcyon days of newspapers, Leyland and his older colleagues often recalled, could not be dismissed. Every newspaper has its own style book, something handed down and updated from the birth of the newspaper itself, in the Chronicle’s case 150 years or more in the past. It was the journalists’ “bible” from those days of old but in modern times the myriad reference sources accessible through the internet had made the style book increasingly redundant. A younger generation now regarded Google as their bible, and what it said on grammar and style went.

As could be expected, the Chronicle style book contained anachronisms linked to the past. Why should the village of Bagdad be spelled without the “h” in Tasmania? Who beyond the state’s shores would recognise the term “rum’un” for what might be termed a “larrikin” on the mainland? And a “piner” for a logger, the former cutting down endemic huon pines. The greatest eccentricity in the Chronicle style book was represented by a chart giving distances by rail from Hobart, even though Tasmania had not seen a passenger train for 50 years. Conara and Parattah Junctions on the Hobart-Launceston mainline were there in black and white, even if they hardly warranted an entry and mention on current maps.

Leyland in his style book revision could not bring himself to excise the railway routes, arguing to the editor that one day passenger trains might return. And besides, there were memories etched into those tangled routes of steel. When once posted to the Chronicle’s northern office in Launceston as a young reporter, Leyland had discovered the steaming meat pies served in the then extensive dining rooms at Parattah Junction, where passengers travelling on the mainline were invited to take a break during the long journey. The smell of a hot, juicy meat pie rose from the style book every time Leyland opened to the “R” in the alphabetical index signalling the rail routes.

“Let’s keep an element of the past,” he argued. “This is not the internet, where they don’t even have a style book. Let’s not kick out the baby with the bathwater – let’s promote what the style book advocates and presents: brevity, clarity, discipline, training and, most importantly, accountability and tradition. None of the internet sloppiness, of overlong, badly edited stories that take hundreds of words to make a point.”

He knew, like the editor, the demands of writing for newspapers with limited space involved its own kind of discipline on the writer, in which surplus words had to be trimmed.

The style book, except for minor changes which ironically reflected the electronic age of the internet with additions of words like “cyberspace” and “byte”, was kept largely intact. Leyland had even written a brief introduction in which he said newspapers might be derisively referred to as ”dead tree media” by bloggers, but they were not afraid to acknowledge the future.

There was one addition to the new style book, though, or slight correction, which Leyland felt particularly proud off. It made a stand for the past, for uniqueness. There had been a tradition at the Chronicle from the time Leyland was given his first style book that ship’s names be in roman letters, as opposed to the general newspaper and literary style of placing them in italics. Much to Leyland’s chagrin, more recent editions had decreed they revert to italics, to confirm to the national practice.

“Ridiculous”, Leyland had argued, to the point of ridicule from his colleagues, especially in the pub during the dinner break when they would announce his arrival with sounds reminiscent of a ship’s siren. They had noted that Leyland’s attention to detail in his style book mission had increasingly bordered on the obsessive.

“It’s like saying a ship, made of steel and iron, has the same status as a work of art, a great novel, an opera, a play. Or even a newspaper, which is a work of art in itself.”

Over pints of Cascade draught in the pub, ignoring cries of “ship ahoy” from his colleagues, Leyland would not let the subject rest. He was like a great ocean liner set on a steady course, going to great lengths to explain the peculiar history of the previous decision at the Chronicle not to italicise ships’ names.

In the days of hot metal in which every word in a newspaper was set in lead type, to italicise a word required a special effort by the linotype operator, with more complex key strokes on the heavy cast-iron linotype keyboard. For this manoeuvre, the linotype operators were given a bonus. It was a small sum, perhaps only a faction of pence in pound days, but at times when boats and ships were in the news it amounted to a considerable sum, not only for the linotype operators but for the company. Such a time was the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race, when linotype operators lined up to set yachting race results. With the Sydney-Hobart field growing over the years, and more and more yachting events attracted to Hobart, the company had decided to eschew italics to save itself money.

On the surface, reverting to roman type in ships’ names was not a dramatic change but to Leyland it represented a victory for tradition over the modernists who sought conformity, sameness, homogeneity.

So many newspapers today looked the same, read much the same and were obsessed with popularity, superficiality and celebrity. That’s how Leyland termed it in recent years as his frustration with his career and the state of newspapers grew. But he had regained his enthusiasm with the style book project. Leyland had made the Chronicle, at least when it came to ships, an italic-free zone.

The ageing redundant journalist had brought in a large cardboard box to the Chronicle newsroom to pack his things from the desk, forty years’ worth, but found he didn’t need it. A plastic bag would do.

What use would he have for a steel em and point rule with printers’ measurements for column width and print size? He had also found a chart with headline sizes with which to gauge if a headline would “fit” or “bust” in a certain type. Computer programs did that measurement now, as they measured, or “cast off”, lines of type in a given space.

Leyland had no time for thoughts of the past, of the smell of hot lead, of hot pies in a railway cafeteria, the camaraderie on the composing stone where printers and journalists came together for a noble purpose and in the newsroom, where reporters and sub-editors did the same, of cold pints in the pub during the evening break, the distant rumble of the rotary press when it started up in the basement of the Chronicle building.

Only one thought held his attention as he looked at the style book lying open in the wastepaper basket. He bent to lift it and thumbed through the alphabet to the “S” section, then looked down at “Ships: ship and yacht names do not carry italics.”

Forty years in journalism, tens of millions of words under the bridge, stormy and calm seas. Thousands of headlines, and Leyland now felt compelled to recall its best moments and his moments of triumph in this craft that had occupied such a large part of his life.

Making a difference, making his mark, changing the world. Logging off now, and returning the style book to the bin, Leyland was all too aware that after a life in print he had only one thing to show for his toil.

The revised style book with its instruction that ships’ names be in roman characters.

Rivers of gold

Don Bentley was one edition behind the times, lost in a world of newsprint and ink.

The term “new media” was as foreign to him as the name they now gave the swaying trams in Melbourne. What was it? Urban mass transport? Light-rail? He didn’t care, and he didn’t care when people he knew in journalism, those who had embraced these new ideas, spoke of “dead tree media”.

Newspapers could never die, they were dependable and certain like the wonderful old No. 35 trams that still plied a central circuit of Melbourne, the ones of wood and yellow paintwork, of leather straps and a strange pumping sound at each stop.

These trams were meant as a tourist attraction, for free, but Bentley always let the more modern trams pass to ride them, even if they tended to be overcrowded with excited visitors to the city, and rattled and vibrated. They were comfortable to Bentley in more ways than one.

And the same with the newspaper. The broadsheet ones might have been a little inconvenient on the tram, passengers wrestling to fold them, nudging people in the next seat, but everyone nudged everyone else with a newspaper on the tram. And once the wrestling was over, the paper neatly folded in quarters at the page being sought, everyone was happy.

That’s the way it had always been and Bentley thought that’s the way it would stay. True the Age, the newspaper Bentley bought each day in Hobart, had transformed to a tabloid on weekdays – a format making it easier to read on bus, tram and train – but it still had the same content, and he could still revel in its broadsheet acres at weekends when, in truth, Bentley only found time to read it from end to end, from front to back.

Bentley was not entirely opposed to progress, and perhaps the tabloid format seemed better suited to those modern, gleaming plastic mass transport units which seemed to Bentley to have more standing room and narrower seats.

On his most recent trip to Melbourne Bentley had stayed further out of the city, to give easier access to Melbourne airport from where he was seeing his son off for university studies in Britain, so Bentley was forced to spend a little more time on trams than he would normally. There, amid the clank of the tram bell and the gentle whir of modern, efficient motor and the wheeze of gently applied brakes, he saw for the first time this electronic media revolution everyone had been talking about for years, or at least became aware of it.

Gazing down the aisle at travellers young and old, after finishing reading his Age, Bentley realised that he was the only person among the 40 or so passengers in his carriage with a newspaper.

Most had smart phones, and they were busily tapping messages into them (texting he believed it was called) or scanning minute screens with deft swoops of the fingers, turning over page after page of brightly coloured images with hardly a glance. It occurred to Bentley the “swoop” movement was a kind of finger displacement activity, like rolling cigarettes without smoking them, or packing tobacco into a pipe which Bentley remembered from an earlier edition of his past.

Those without mobile phones had iPads or laptop computers. On Bentley’s trams it appeared everyone was doing it, at least the young.  And when he looked out of the window at tram stops, they all seemed to be doing it there, too.

Not a newspaper to be seen, Bentley stood alone.  A man on a tram with a newspaper, either opened or folded and tucked under an armpit, standing alone amid flashing and pulsating of screens, small and large. If not a precise metaphor, it formed an appropriate image of  Bentley. Hadn’t that been the way his friends, his journalist colleagues, had viewed him for years, especially as it was only in recent months he had bothered to get a mobile phone, the cheapest one he could find which merely enabled him to speak and send messages. He didn’t need to Google on the run, or use an app to see where Saturn was in the sky.

The trip to Melbourne had had an added significance for Bentley, one which would not occur to him until he had got there, and had safely put his son on a plane to London.

Melbourne seemed for once strangely familiar. Bentley had never worked there, been part of its hustle and bustle. He had wanted to join the Age but had come too late to Australia from his native Britain and found jobs for locals, let alone foreigners, were vanishing by the day.  Instead he had had to settle for Hobart.

All the same there was something in the air in Melbourne, a tingling sense of déjà vu.  The lanes with coffee shops between Flinders Street station and the shopping district appeared cosy and welcoming, like the old trams; full of friendly faces and optimism. The winter was gone, and in the first week of September Melbourne was experiencing the first warm day of the new season, although the sky overhead was dull and grey.

To Bentley it was like a typical English day in September. Similar weather conditions, and mood, had converged at different ends of the world, blurring the northern autumn with the approach of spring in the southern hemisphere.

Bentley entered the Journal coffee shop, an establishment in a former library that contained biblio-remnants within its Victorian gothic walls. Coffee and cake was taken on stout wooden benches, under low, swaying light fittings that served as both sources of light and hanging bookcases with yellow strained-glass bookmark ends.  Bentley had been taken back to the Fleet Street of the 1960s, where he walked tight, cobbled lanes between main thoroughfares in search of old-style coffee houses that had survived from the days of Dr Samuel Johnson, for lunch and the study of Pitman shorthand.

All those years ago Bentley had been employed as a 17-year-old messenger boy for a public relations company, with dreams of finally working in those newspaper offices where he daily delivered press releases and shiny black-and-white photographs.

Television had arrived a decade previously, the new electronic wonder after the radio, but no one talked then of the total demise of newspapers, of dead-tree media, even if it was accepted that the evening newspapers, those most undercut by the evening television news, would be in for a rocky ride.

Sipping coffee, after a tram ride that sort of confirmed what Bentley’s colleagues had been saying all these years, Bentley could only be grateful he knew the passion of his life,  his true love, the newspaper, in her prime; voluptuous and beautiful.

In those early days, mingling with public relations men who had turned their backs on the newspaper industry for more generous salaries and weekends and public holidays free of shift work, Bentley had been excited to plug into the culture of the journalist. They may have joined the “dark side”, as Bentley would later learn newspaper journalists described the public relations business, but all the same Bentley enjoyed being exposed to this array of bizarre and unconventional people, with bizarre and unconventional stories, this strange clan, this tribe that practised the ritual that had at its heart the mystical, magical thing called “news”.

A newspaper, he was told then by an old timer, was like a box of chocolates or, at the top end of the scale, a Fortnum and Mason hamper. It contained all sorts of delights, which you explored layer by layer, item by item. The notion of the box of chocolates or hamper never left Bentley, and when people asked him to describe his craft, his trade and the product that it produced he would talk of the tabloid Daily Mirror being a box of Rose’s milk tray, or The Times being a hamper with caviar and champagne.

Now, on a modern tram, the No. 96, that ran on tracks that once formed the branch line from Flingers Street to St Kilda, a tram in a livery of black and yellow stripes called the “Bumble-Bee”, light-rail, Bentley at least could see the laptop, the iPad, the smartphone in the context of what had been the newspaper. Across from him, a young Asian woman had opened the lid of her laptop, a shiny thin box, and with the press of a button and the flick of a finger, had opened up a box of chocolates, the shiny wrappers lighting up her face.

The newspaper had been a package, containing not just news but everything a reader would need to navigate the day. There was not just hard news, but background stories and what people in the journalist trade called “think” or comment pieces. There were editorials, letters to the editor, and then features, and women’s pages and sport. There were TV guides, horse racing guides, and even guides for specific events so readers could plan ahead.

The thin black box on the Asian young lady’s lap had all these things and more.

It was silly of Bentley not to have realised this before, but it took a ride on the gleaming four-car Bumble-Bee for it finally to sink in.

Bentley had argued for the survival of newspapers, from the pointless point of view that they were too precious, especially for democracy, to fail. But even democracy, Bentley was to concede, needed a business plan.

Bentley had always held strong views about his beloved newspapers, in a field he had ploughed for half a century, save for a three-year period working in broadcasting for the BBC. A world of journalism without the smell of newsprint and ink and, in the very old days, the lead used in the typesetting process, was not to Bentley’s liking.

Bentley loved newspapers and it hurt him deeply when he saw the latest circulation figures of all newspapers registering staggering declines but he still refused to agree with what seemed a majority of people, including both readers and journalists, who said the newspaper was doomed.

The decline of newspapers had to be viewed in perspective. The newspapers of the past had produced “rivers of gold” –  as  the classified advertising content of the Age and Sydney Morning Herald was once described – and owners had grown fat on their profits.

The proprietors now expected the same profits in changing circumstances. Bentley was always amused to read in the business pages that companies had made a “loss” in the financial year, when in fact their profits were merely down on the previous year’s.

For newspapers to survive, and for owners not to panic, it might be a question of lowering expectations, settling for a lesser profit and trimming expenditures, and staff, to compensate.

One cost-cutting measure had been to outsource editing, and although this had been strongly resisted by the journalist fraternity – especially sub-editors losing well-paid jobs in newspapers – by some strange irony it had helped maintain standards of editing. The journalists now working for the company with the editing contract were by and large the very journalists who had taken redundancy payments. Many of them were now working from home, working hours that suited them for salaries which compared with those that had been paid by the newspapers, but without fringe benefits like paid holiday and sick leave.

Looking at the magic black boxes held by the passengers on the trams, Bentley tried to determine if any were reading the online editions of the city newspapers. Some were. And what were they reading? It might not be the TV guide – so easy to download or read from a  website – but the one devoted to racing seemed to be holdings its own, a turf guide which punters still preferred to take out of the newspaper, roll up and put it in their pockets to take to the Tote or to the races themselves.

The racing guide might still be helping a newspaper maintain its circulation, but how long before such information, perhaps under voice control, was applied to a mobile phone?

No, Bentley said to himself on the 96 tram, newspapers of the future should concentrate on their specific brand, their writing and writers, their comment and opinion and the voice they gave readers on the letters’ pages.

The internet now covered the popular landscape with sites devoted to showbiz news, and shock news, but there was still room for newspapers to take the high ground.

Three hundred years of newspaper tradition and heritage was too precious to be thrown away, cast aside – dare Bentley say it – like yesterday’s newspaper.

That tradition might not now include the variety of views that had once been the domain of newspapers, but there was still room for fine writing and the standards of journalism that came with years of training and scholarship.

Bentley had been excited initially by the advent of the internet, and the voice it gave citizens outside the diminishing number of newspapers. He had seen the internet as the new Grub Street, the area of backstreet printers in London that in the early 19th century spawned independent newspapers and pamphlets, and much fine literature, before mass circulation newspapers began to be centred on Fleet Street.

What hurt Bentley most when he considered the new journalism of the internet was its lack of emphasis on editing, on good grammar and respect for the English language, and its often slapdash attitude to accuracy. Bentley also had an issue with the length of internet stories. The economy of space on newspapers – the straitjacket presented by its layout – had forced journalists to say what they had to say in a clear and concise manner, but now an internet report could run on forever.

The internet sites also lacked accountability. This might be the age of the citizen journalist, but who set the standards for citizen journalism? Who decided what was fair comment, and what was a rant?  How were citizen journalists trained, and where were the mentors, the craggy avuncular figures who prowled newsrooms of old, teaching cadets about balance and the right of reply, and how to hold their drink.

It wasn’t perfect in the heyday of newspapers. Proprietors imposed their political views on their publications, reporters bent facts to improve a story, but there was still a measure of control, and most of all the readers demanded it. They demanded good grammar and they demanded accuracy, it was part of the brand. And the sheer variety of newspapers, along with the variety of news contained within their pages, ensured that, overall, they represented all shades of political views and opinions.

Bentley had started the day in pessimistic mood, riding the tram on a journey to the past. After a few stops, however, the sun broke through the cloudy, grey skies and Bentley realised he had not returned to the London of the 1960s to lament the past.  He was in Melbourne in the 21st century among people prepared to fight for their newspapers of old and all they represented. Indeed newspapers might rise again in the internet age through the anarchic political and economic freedoms represented by the new media.

The newspaper was here to stay, and a newsstand on Collins Street converted to a flower stall would not convince Bentley otherwise.

 

 

Looking for the past

He could be found on Elizabeth Mall in the centre of Hobart any weekday afternoon, lost and lonely looking for the past.

David Mooney had retired from his position as horse racing writer on the Chronicle a year previously and didn’t know what to do with himself during the afternoons and evenings when the horses were not running at Hobart’s track.

Horse racing, in fact, held little interest for him, something he had discovered the day he walked down the stairs of the Chronicle building, never to return. He had not wanted to retire and the move had been forced on him. David Mooney had never been the same since his mother had died a few years previously, the mother he had shared a house with for his entire 63 years up until the time he found her dead in bed.

And for most of this time, certainly from the time he started work as a young clerk in the newspaper’s racing department, Mooney had had two homes and two families: the cluttered racing desk, in a cramped corner of the Chronicle newsroom were friends and colleagues came and went day by day, and his mother’s modest, three-bedroomed home in Hobart’s northern suburbs a short bus ride from the Chronicle headquarters.

Mooney said he had never wanted a wife and a family of his own. Girls from a romantic point of view held no interest for him, they got in the way of his racing, and his study each evening of the form guide. He had his mother and his family, the newsroom, and that was enough for him.

Mooney in the entire 45 years he had worked for the Chronicle had cut a portly, bumbling figure in the style of the American comedian who pre-dated him, W C Fields.

He spoke like Fields, too; slow and ponderous like his gait, dishing out wit and puns as he threaded his sentences together. Generations of reporters and sub-editors said he would have made a great husband and father, and grandfather. His avuncular air would have lent itself to being a perfect uncle but he did not have brothers and sisters with children to be an uncle to.

David Mooney paced the ElizabethMall most afternoons, strolling its entire pedestrian length until it because the Hobart bus station at its southern end, on the corner near where the grand art deco façade of the Chronicle building stood.

In days gone by, David Mooney and those like him wanting to connect with former colleagues from times past would have merely strolled into the office for a chat. But security checks, the issuing of identity cards strung round the neck, made it easy for receptionists to decline entry.

Initially David Mooney did not need a card at all, he was known to the receptionist who just waved him through the doors that led to the lift, that in turn led to the first-floor newsroom. Mooney, however, had become a nuisance, had interrupted colleagues who were trying to get on with their work, to edit or write stories. They had no time for chit-chat about the past, because David Mooney did not have a future. His life had been bound inseparably with not so much racing but the life of the Chronicle and the lives of its combined staff.

Not only did Mooney have increasing difficulty engaging with staff within the Chronicle building, he now found it increasingly difficult to meet them on the street.

He’d say to himself “They must be working hard these days, with no time for coffee breaks and trips to the pub” as he pounded the streets, from end to end of the mall looking for his friends from the past.

In truth, the Chronicle staff avoided him. Slowly the good will and bonhomie had evaporated. What’s more Mooney had not just become a bore, recalling time and again events that had happened in the past, of picking winners for the staff, and losers. Also concern about his deteriorating appearance, the soup stains on his once dry-cleaned silk ties, his once impeccably ironed shirts caused disquiet among staff. It was not enough, though, for them to cross to the other side of the street, to feel embarrassed in his company, until David Mooney didn’t bother to dress at all to come into town from the northern suburbs. Increasingly he was seen in pyjamas and slippers looking for his former friends in the ElizabethMall.

Finally the staff of the Chronicle stopped going into the mall and took elaborate detours to reach where they were going, the coffee shops and restaurants on adjoining streets. It would not have occurred to David Mooney to look there for his former colleagues.

That place ‘over the road’

Frankie Allen stood in the lift, his back to the wall, facing the mock-Tudor bar he had just left.

He had not looked back when he had pressed the button to summon the lift to the first floor of the Elizabeth Hotel in Johannesburg. Perhaps he didn’t want to look back at the colleagues remaining in the bar, carrying on with their drinking and chatting, carrying on with their lives. But in the split second it took for the lift doors to close Frankie Allen turned around and surveyed the scene for the last time – the laughter, the smell of spilt beer and stale cigarette smoke, of perfume, of sweat from what he would never describe as honest toil.

Pressing the button to summon the lift Frankie Allen had turned his back on journalism and the mock-Tudor upstairs bar of the Elizabeth Hotel. The moment was not lost on one of the younger members staff, the deputy news editor of the Star in Johannesburg who still had his career ahead of him.

“Christ, those lift doors are closing on Frankie’s life,” perhaps not realising the wisdom, the irony, the metaphor in those words.

From that day in the early 1970s Don Bentley could not see a lift’s doors closing in front of him without thinking of Frankie Allen. He also thought of a journalist described as Frankie’s partner in crime Barry van Rensburg and all the others who had carried a look of trepidation, of anxiety at leaving the great family of journalism and steeping out into the real world they had viewed from behind their typewriters, and later computer screens, to contemplate the unknown.

In many occupations, retirement is something to be eagerly anticipated, something to be relished and cherished, something to work towards.

The journalism Bentley had known operated in a parallel universe to the real world beyond the newsroom and the joys of that world did not necessarily apply to that trade, where different rules and a different perspective came into play.

Every profession has what sociologists call an “occupational mythology” to sustain it, a mix of workplace conventions, dramas, gossip and socialising. These conventions usually only touch on socialising out of hours, of golf days and office and works outings, but in journalism work and socialising with contacts and colleagues comes as part of the job. The office watering hole is as essential to journalism – particularly newspaper journalism – as the newsroom, a place where introductions to stories are honed and headlines written and re-written.

The coffee machine or tea trolley might suffice as the meeting point in other offices, but journalists gather to talk their business in that universal place “over the road”, because a watering hole is always over the road, but not too far to walk.

Drink fuels the mythology of journalism, in which journalists make their profession glamorous and glorious to themselves and others. In what other occupation can the alcoholic be celebrated and regaled, and divorce be seen as an occupational hazard? Journalists have to be larger than life.

Frankie Allen left the Elizabeth Hotel watering hole, and indeed the Star, for a life of retirement living on a sheep farm as far from the city of gold, Johannesburg, as he could get.

The farm was situated among blue mountains in the semi-desert Karoo in the Eastern Cape and the office gossip posed the question what would Frankie do in such a place, the home of relatives near the historic town of Graaf-Reinet. For a start it was at least 15 kilometres from the nearest pub, in the Dutch pioneer governor’s residence, the Drostdy House, now an upmarket boutique hotel on the town’s dusty main street.

Barry van Rensburg, like the others in the Elizabeth Hotel watching the lift doors close on Frankie’s life, defended his friend and his decision to cut all links with both the Star and Johannesburg. Van Rensburg was picture editor of the newspaper, and Allen the caption writer who sat between Van Rensburg’s desk and that of the chief sub-editor in the newsroom. Van Rensburg and Allen were inseparable, both in the Star building and over the road at the Elizabeth Hotel.

Van Rensburg had a romantic view of Graff-Reient and the area’s Valley of Desolation. In recent years he had taken to swinging a camera again as opposed to directing photographic coverage and choosing pictures and had just returned from holiday to the Eastern Cape where he had photographed the last of the steam trains crossing the Lootsberg Pass, threading through the flat-topped mountains above Graaf-Reinet, before they were phased out in favour of diesel traction.

“Oh the mix. Steam and smoke and the early morning Karoo light, blue cranes flapping by the trackside, a photographer’s dream,” he had announced to those assembled in the bar when he returned.

Frankie was not into photography, someone interjected to point out. He was more at home in a betting shop up on the hill above Johannesburg, in Hillbrow.

Barry van Rensburg didn’t reply, but a few days later he had news for his photographic team, and the rest of the newsroom. He had made a decision to retire after 40 years in journalism, and follow his good friend Frankie out the door.

“I’ve been picture editor for so long I’ve forgotten why I entered this business, to actually take pictures not to bollock or praise other people for theirs. I’m going back to being a photographer, to freelance, and take pictures of what I want to, without pressure to meet a news schedule.”

Van Rensburg had done the sums and realised that he had enough in his pension after a working life-time with the Star to pay his way.

And van Rensburg, one of the most popular people in the office who would hold court in the Elizabeth Hotel for a few hours every evening after work, said he was not leaving town like Frankie, and he would be calling into the Elizabeth Hotel from time to time.

After van Renburg’s lavish send-off in the Star building, he was indeed scarce about town – for about a month. Then he began to be seen more and more frequently in the mock-Tudor bar of the hotel across the road from the Star building.

Sometimes he would be seen with his camera bag, but most often not. Sometimes he accepted assignments from the Star for feature articles and sometimes not.

One of the Star’s sports journalists, who had returned from working in the company’s New York bureau, was looking for a photographer for an important, freelance assignment that might aid his dream of returning to America to work there permanently.

While in New York he had made contact with Sports Illustrated magazine and had agreed to supply some features for them about South African sportsman, as part of a wider campaign to compile a resume to be shown to prospective American employees, Sports Illustrated included. The sports journalist knew the golfer Gary Player personally and had arranged to write a feature about an aspect of his life that was not common knowledge, a passion for raising horse racing on a stud in the Karoo town of Colesberg.

Van Rensburg was to go with the sport writer to take pictures.

The photographer’s drinking had become a source of concern for the patrons of the Elizabeth Hotel for some months after his retirement. Worse, Barry van Rensburg was out of step with the craic in the pub, not working at the Star he had little to contribute in conversation about day to day journalism, and the issues that concerned.

It is a common problem for retirees – in all trades and professions – who meet up with former, working colleagues, trying to maintain contact.

Van rensburg, when asked, couldn’t even tell of his adventures as a freelance photographer, his assignments and travels, simply because he did so little.

The trip to photograph Gary Player promised to be an opening for not just the sports writer but Barry van Rensburg, perhaps proving to his ex-colleagues back at the pub that he still had it. It might even give him a new direction that would keep him out of the watering hole, where most afternoons he was to be found waiting for his former colleagues to cross the road from the em>Star.

Barry van Rensburg and the reporter drove for a day into the hot and hostile world of the Karoo. There was Gary Player to meet them with a cup of tea. The interview commenced and when it came to take pictures the trio encountered a problem. Barry van Rensburg had forgotten to bring any film for his camera.

After about a year in the Karoo, Frankie Allen retuned to Johannesburg, not to visit his former colleagues in the Elizabeth Hotel but to frequent another bar well away from the Johannesburg business district, a bar in the apartment-world of Hillbrow where rents were cheap.

Within 16 months of retirement, Barry van Rensburg was dead aged 59, after being declared an alcoholic.

A date that defies destiny

The assignment was not the one reporter Lucy Archer wanted when she looked at the newsroom diary that morning. Courts were sitting, there might be a juicy case and here she was presented with the prospect of joining a dating agency with the eventual aim of writing a feature article about this growing social phenomenon.

She came to Bentley to complain, who always provided a sympathetic ear for reporters with a complaint, a grouse. Bentley always listened, and understood.

He’d been there, done it, and understood. What’s more, as Bentley observed more and more frequently with advancing years, nothing seemed to have changed much in the business of news gathering. Stories, and issues, and a reporter’s response to them, came round again and again. Lucy’s complaint took him back to years ago, to the English military town of Aldershot where he worked as a sub-editor briefly between Fleet Street jobs, looking for a quick buck to see him by.

The news editor of the Aldershot News had taken note of the growing number of advertisements for dating agencies appearing in the classified pages and appearing on radio and television.

In the old days as Bentley remembered them it was all about signing up to a physical agency with modest offices on the High Street, presenting a form with personal details to a friendly intermediary and handing over a black and white photograph of yourself and a modest fee.

Now the friendly intermediary, the “counsellor” had vanished and the internet had taken over. Lucy Archer was signing up online, attaching a carefully selected colour photograph in PDF form to her email.

Instead of waiting in anticipation for a letter giving details of a “date”, as in days of old, and possibly their telephone number, now it was instantaneous. An email with picture would arrive and an assignation could be arranged online.

“Shit,” said a reporter from the 1970s with the same assignment, as Bentley remembered it 40 years on. Sally Ritchie sat not in front of a computer terminal, but a sit-up-and-beg Royal typewriter.

“Of all the stories I have to get. This could be so embarrassing. I’m not looking for love, well not in that way. Why me?”

The news editor explained that among his staff Sally Ritchie appeared the perfect candidate for this assignment. She was unmarried, and unattached, and in her late-twenties, which might appear a perfect age for someone looking for love.

“Are you saying that all women in their late twenties are on the shelf, can’t find a man?” she had said indignantly to the news editor, a man in this late 50s, and happily married to the woman he met in the newsroom 25 years previously.

“No, Sally, didn’t mean it that way. I meant to say, you, unlike my younger staff, are experienced in journalism, have a nice touch with your writing. If anyone can do this story, bring interest to it, empathy maybe, explain why in this age people have to advertise for someone to share their dreams, you are the person to capture that in words. Know what I mean?”

The news editor was going overboard in his praise of Sally Ritchie, partly to make up for the clear error of judgment in suggesting she might be incapable of finding a partner on her own, and in desperation to find a female member of staff to tackle the assignment. He didn’t tell her that two staff members had already refused to do the story, which no doubt she would discover, hopefully after she had gone on her date and written her story.

Obtaining money from petty cash, to pay the dating agency fee, Sally dully signed up. One of the photographers took her picture and she carefully went through the form in which she was required to give details about herself.

A requirement of the assignment was to conceal the fact she was a journalist, and not to give any details that might reveal her real identity. She was given a fictitious name.

Age was easy, no need to lie on that point, as she suspected many people do, but her occupation proved a problem. She couldn’t put down anything that hinted at working for a newspaper. Secretary, maybe, but too boring. Sally thought long and hard about what occupation she could pursue outside of journalism. Nurse maybe, but what if her date asked questions about medicine or medical procedures – what if he was a doctor. Air hostess would also pose problems about describing the foreign places she had never visited.

Sally Ritchie settled on being a librarian, a safe occupation in which she would not be required possibly to discuss her work.

In truth Sally Ritchie was looking for love, and she had become more and more aware of her age as her thirtieth birthday approached.

The town of Aldershot might be full of soldiers as the biggest military garrison in the country but it was not a happy hunting ground for women seeking a partner. Troopies looking for sex filed into the town centre at weekends where they took over the two night clubs there, or the handful of pubs.

They were invariably drunk, aggressive and only looking for a quick lay. Any local girl looking for a serious relationship tended to avoid Aldershot on a Saturday night and head for the more cultured environment down the Hogs Back towards London, or the country town of Farnham in the opposite direction.

Sally Ritchie had been in an unfortunate office relationship with a young reporter who had recently secured a position on a Fleet Street newspaper. Sally was aware that the word among her office colleagues was that she had been dumped by the reporter moving up the journalistic ladder in London, but it was more complex than that. Sometimes the lives of two journalists, with all the pressures of the job, simply could not run together.

One thing was certain: Sally Ritchie would never resort to signing up with a dating agency or indeed placing an advertisement in a newspaper seeking a companion. There was something not only contrived in that, but something unnatural, as she would put it. Romance, and finding someone to share your life with, might be a lottery but she believed in fate, that that certain person was just round the corner, waiting to be discovered, bumped into, sat next to. Love was not meant to be mail order, and in her view dating agencies carried a stigma about them, as did those people who used them. And how, when people asked how you met your partner, could you confess it was through a dating agency. And worse, how could you tell your children.

All these thoughts ran though Sally Ritchie’s head as she filled in the questionnaire to be dropped in at the dating agency on the High Street.

In a few days a letter arrived from the Happy Moments agency, with details of a young man interested in meeting Sally Ritchie. Twenty-nine-years-old, Sally’s prospective suitor looked very presentable in a dark, pin-stripe suit, if a little unkempt. His hair was long and wavy and clearly had not seen a comb on the day the picture was taken.

He gave his occupation as chartered accountant and Sally Ritchie thought Robert Jones looked anything but an accountant, with that long hair and slightly wicked smile. Perhaps he was one of those international accountants who travel the world, add up columns of figures in exciting places, the ones she had seen presented in an advertisement on commercial television for the accountancy profession.

She would ask him about it, quiz him, and perhaps her probing and questioning, at length, might prevent him from finding the time to ask her about her life as a librarian. On that score she had decided she would just avoid the subject, say she preferred not to talk about work on social occasions. She had a problem in that she did not know any librarians and could not determine what they did apart from putting books on shelves. There must, however, be a great deal to cataloguing. The information about her date did not indicate where he lived and she decided if he used the Aldershot library, and said he had never seen her there, she would say she worked in a back office.

A assignation was arranged for a restaurant in a city hotel, not in Sally’s home town but Guildford. In consultation about how the story would be approached, the news editor and Sally had agreed that it was best not to do it in Aldershot itself, because it was a small town and she would be bound sooner or later to bump into her “date” if he came from the town or surrounding areas. Lucy had had qualms about the story, masquerading as someone else, being devious and it was partly on her insistence it was done outside of Aldershot. The news editor also gave Sally the name of Adele, Adele Smith.

To her surprise, Sally Ritchie enjoyed the encounter at the restaurant and her story later was not an understated, disguised condemnation of this approach to finding a partner as she feared it would be. She now acknowledged that agencies and even newspaper advertisements placed by individuals had their place in a fast-paced world where people were too hard-worked and busy to meet anyone outside their family or workplace circle.

Without naming him, the story said that her date appeared kind and personable and had gone to a dating agency because he had had difficulty meeting the right women socially who might share his interests. He had had dates, had girlfriends, but nothing ever lasted and the women he met in life never seemed to fit the bill of what he looked for in a woman, something he told Sally he didn’t know himself.
He was looking for someone special, someone who might join in adventures in the outdoors, of hiking, and canoeing and the girls he had met had not wanted to do this.

“So why not try a dating agency?” he had told Sally over dinner, trying to explain, excuse himself for advertising for love, because in truth that is what he, and the woman he knew as Adele, were doing. “And who’s to judge if this is the right or wrong thing. Perhaps it’s just an extension of fate, two people writing to the agency at the same time, say. You meet people in all types of strange and unexpected ways. Why not this way?”

Despite Robert Jones’ defence of this approach to love as the dinner went on they both seemed intent on giving excuses for turning to advertising for a partner, and unspoken words said that they might have preferred to find love in different ways, and this was a last resort.

“And yes, we can find ways of love in all the strangest places. I once went out with a bloke who came round to buy my car,” said Sally Ritchie with a smile. Robert Jones laughed.

“Well that’s strange,” he said. “I once went out with a girl whose car I had run into. I was tuning the radio in the car, wasn’t paying attention, and I ran clean into the back of his Morris Minor. Actually I had also been drinking, but not too much. Just a few at the pub after work. Man was she angry, jumped from her car – it was her father’s – but the anger soon subsided when I apologised repeatedly and said I’d make good all the damage.

“We exchanged notes about my insurance company, and then addresses and it just took off from then. But her old man never liked me, always mentioned his pride and joy, his bloody Morris Minor when I went around there.”

On first dates, dating agency dates, participants are supposed to be on their best behaviour, perhaps present a sanitised version of themselves that wasn’t necessarily true to life.

Robert Jones, telling the story of the car-crash date, appeared to be letting his hair down. Sally Ritchie might have been new to the art of agency dating but she thought that one of the cardinal rules would have been to steer clear of mentioning you enjoyed a drink, and make sure you did not consume excessive alcohol first time out.

Robert Jones did not appear to be adhering to this rule. One bottle of good red turned to two, and Sally Ritchie was surprised that the accountant was so readily prepared to abandon the sobriety rule. Likewise, with nothing to lose, knowing this was going to go nowhere, was an exercise merely in the interests of journalism and a good story, Sally Ritchie joined the young accountant in a celebration of alcohol.

Sally Ritchie was quickly changing her mind about accountants. Perhaps that advertisement was right, the accountant of today was a high-flying, high-living man about town.

Looking at the unkempt Robert Jones, and his fondness for a good red, Sally Ritchie thought that he could easily pass as a journalist, perhaps he was in the wrong profession. She didn’t know any accountants, but she knew of many journalists and Mr Jones fitted the bill perfectly.

About his profession, he was critical, satirical and dismissing. The wicked smile that Sally Ritchie had detected in his photograph certainly mirrored his personality, it was not strained and rehearsed and put on for the camera and for whoever might see it on his personal file put out my the dating agency. Sally Ritchie liked the accountant who said he came from Woking down the tracks towards London.

The staff of the hotel restaurant were eager to close. It was 11pm and Sally and Robert were still deep in conversation, two empty bottles of red on the table and two brandy glasses.

Sally Ritchie had dreaded this story, had complained to Don Bentley about it, but now found herself reluctant to leave Robert Jones’ company. She agonised how to tell him that this was a one-off, and there would be no more dates. How could she say that? Eventually she just said she had had a great evening and would be in contract. She would leave it for a while, however, because she had other men recommend by the dating agency to see.

As she mentioned the others, she suddenly felt somehow insincere and shallow. The word “unclean” even sprang to mind. She was giving the impression she was road-testing prospective partners, and what would the young accountant think of her? If this was for real, she had really joined the dating agency to find a partner, the Robert Jones would be her instant choice, she couldn’t think of a more appropriate person to meet, even if he was an accountant from Woking.

The manager of the restaurant phoned for a taxi and Sally Ritchie was soon on her way to a mythical suburban home where she said she lived with her parents. She looked back to the restaurant as the taxi sped away and she could see the accountant standing on the pavement, looking in her direction and giving a weak wave.

Sally Ritchie thought daily about the young accountant in the days after their meeting.

She was attracted to him, felt comfortable in his company, loved his sense of humour and his tall, handsome looks, even if he was slightly ruffled and unkempt at the edges. He could have been a journalist, the people whose company she felt comfortable with most. Accountancy? She couldn’t see how there could be creativity and excitement in that.

At one point Sally Ritchie felt the urge to phone the accountant, to arrange to meet him again. Finally she would have to confess the reasons for their original meeting. How would the accountant handle that? Would be feel betrayed, humiliated, a subject of derision, or would he take it in good heart, see the point of their encounter. She suspected the latter.

Sally Ritchie never phoned Robert Jones. However much she felt attracted to him, she couldn’t shrug off the stigma she attached to the dating agency game. Two people, as they had discussed over dinner, could meet in strange and bizarre ways, a someone buying your car, a victim in a rear-shunt, but an advertisement for love? She never did phone Robert Jones

Robert Jarvis was not happy. When he went to the diary in the Woking News and Mail newsroom he expected to be dispatched to the Oval cricket ground 25 miles down the track in London, where a player from Woking was making his debut for the Surrey Cricket Club first eleven.

Instead, Robert Jarvis had been assigned a story about dating agencies. The news editor had taken note of the growing number of advertisements for such agencies in the Surrey newspapers and thought that it would make an appropriate story.

He cast around the office for suitable candidates and came up with the name of Robert Jarvis, a young man without family ties, who certainly needed a good woman to give him a love interest and keep him out of the pub.

The story had been sprung on Jarvis without warning and immediately on seeing it
entered in the diary he marched over to the news editor’s desk to protest.

“But, boss, I don’t need no agency to find a woman, this stinks.”

“This isn’t about finding a woman, at least for you, it’s about a story, discovering what drives people to sign up with these agencies. Are there not really enough people seeking partners to go around, or why are they so hard to meet. Now snap to it.”

Jarvis duly signed up with an agency, providing a picture that the News and Mail’s lone photographer had taken for him. He made no effort to smarten his appearance for the photograph and thought it fortunate when it was taken that he had been wearing his only suit, a blue pin-striped one, that morning after returning from a funeral for a distant relative.

Filling in the dating agency application, Jarvis struggled with the notion of putting down an occupation that was not journalism, the only occupation he knew and the only career he had wanted to pursue.

He settled on chartered accountant, an easy option because his father and his brother were accountants, and he at least knew something about the profession.
His father had assumed he would follow a family tradition – his grandfather was also an accountant – and was surprised that his son had resisted the pressure to pursued this career, and had gone into the uncertain and unpredictable world of journalism instead.

Jarvis, though, anticipating the encounter coming his way, decided to be an accountant for the evening, cut down on his fondness for alcohol and at least present an acceptable appearance, in the name of journalism.

Jarvis, thinking over his new role, also realised that he might be in for a bonus. What if his date was crying out for sex? He could end up in bed, on company expenses.

Ending up in bed on company expenses was very much on Jarvis’ mind when he received a letter from the dating agency with particulars of a rather attractive young woman, named Adele Smith. They were to meet for dinner at a restaurant in the nearby city of Guildford – paying their own way – and, as it said in the dating agency literature, see how things progressed from there.

Robert Jarvis aka Robert Jones – “Just call me Bob, everybody else does” – found Adele Smith charming and engaging. She hardly fitted the description of the librarian that was given as her occupation.

He had decided to go easy on the drink during the dinner but, excited about being in the company of someone so lovely and witty, found himself pouring drinks hurriedly and ordering a second bottle. He was surprised that the librarian who didn’t want to talk about her job, but wanted to talk about politics and art and sport and good food, and having fun, matched him drink for drink. Two bottles of good red were quickly consumed and then some fine brandy followed.

Jarvis enjoyed the company of Adele Smith so much that thoughts of sex, an easy lay, fell by the wayside.

Looking into her blue, sparkling eyes, he felt guilty, ashamed, he should have contemplated such a thing as luring her into bed.

“If she’s so desperate for love, she might be desperate for sex” was the thought upper in Robert Jarvis’ mind when he entered the restaurant for his date, acting on the notion that she might be prepared to sleep with him first date in the hope that she might keep him. Adele Smith he soon decided was not a woman for one-night stands. She was that sort of woman who would make a man wait for it. She kept her body and the promise of it under lock and key until she decided the time was right.

And what a body she had. But the more Jarvis drank, the less he concentrated on the curve of her breasts under a loose-fitting, green jumper, and her lithe legs tucked under the table, but on the quality of her conversation, her jokes, her self-deprecating humour.

“Tell me about life in the library,” he said at one points to which she replied, “That’s a closed book.”

If he didn’t know better she could be a journalist and perhaps that’s the way it should have been, the career she should have chosen. He wanted to mention this once, suggest a career change but felt it would sound facetious. And, anyway, why should an accountant be advocating she make a career change to journalism? He might give the game away. But surely she would have considered that, if she loved books, and perhaps there was something about not journalism but journalists that repelled her, the drunk, the unsocial hours, the cynicism, an unkempt life. He doubted it, though, felt she would fit nicely into a newsroom, especially with a near-bottle of good red inside her, followed by a brandy whose glass she swirled in her hand to warm it.

“Fuck,” said Jarvis to himself, “she’s lovely.”

When it was time to go, he asked if he could call her again. “No,” she said firmly, “wait for me to call you.” She said he had some other men recommended by the agency to go out with.

Outside the hotel, Jarvis watched her climb into back seat of the taxi, her slender, sculpted legs neatly swivelling and swung sideways so her dress was not pulled up above the knees, for her ride home to the Guildford suburbs.

“Fuck me,” he said giving her a weak wave as the taxi made its sway down Guildford’s ancient and cobbled High Street. “She’s road-testing men.” He was thinking of a beautiful, demure young woman trying out all the models to find the best one, as though she was buying a new car. The dating agency had just been the start of the process, the new car catalogue, and Robert Jones did not want to be a part of it, even if he struggled to repress a primal instinct buried deep inside him that told him otherwise.

Jarvis was now beginning to feel the effects of the drink in the cold night air.
He felt a sense of melancholy, and loss, which he merely put down to the drink, the alcoholic remorse he knew so well, striking at an earlier stage than the hangover next morning.

He thought of Adele Smith next day, felt an urge to phone her, but all the while the thought of her road-testing men came home to him. Where was the spontaneity, the notion of fate, the sense of two lonely souls in an alien and unfriendly world finding each other, coming together against all the odds.

Twenty-four hours on, Robert Jarvis felt that the drink was still talking, he was talking and thinking like an agony aunt in a newspaper, or the writer of women’s romance novels.

In truth, Robert Jarvis had just come out of an unhappy romance, and was looking for that special person the authors of women’s fiction always laid on for their leading men and ladies.

He was tired of one-night stands, of doing the rounds of night-spots and pubs that played rock and the blues as weekends. He wanted a partner, a soul-mate, someone to share a good bottle of red with. Adele Smith might have fitted the bill, but here was a librarian road-testing men, like she would dip into and out of new novels looking for a good read. Robert Jarvis decided Adele Smith was not the woman for him, although he conceded that in the words of the romance writers she had stolen his heart.

Sally Ritchie wrote her story, and was pleased with it, as was the news editor. She asked that the newspaper not use a picture byline. Woking might be eight miles distant but she didn’t want anyone there, namely a young accountant with a wicket smile, to see who Adele Smith really was, and their encounter had been merely a means to an end, not finding love but finding a good angle to a story.

Robert Jarvis typed the final full stop to his story. He gave it a quick read and then rose from his seat and crossed the floor to where the news editor was sitting.

“Finished that dating agency story boss, but do you mind if I don’t have my picture on it. Sort of grew attached to that girl, we got on really well and I’d hate her to know it was all for a story. Know what I mean?”

“Sure,” said the news editor without looking up.

All the world’s a stage

Don Bentley was so engrossed in his book on journalism and that he didn’t notice the young woman looking at him. Not at first. She sat facing him on the Basingstoke semi-fast and her eyes shifted from the cover of Bentley’s book, and its title, How to be a Journalist, to Bentley and back to the cover again. After a while, looking up as the carriage rocked and swayed as it crossed the points at Clapham Junction, Bentley sensed that he had attracted someone’s attention. He looked up briefly from the book, saw the girl, and looked at the book again. Only this time he had difficulty concentrating, on a chapter extolling the virtues of learning Pitmans shorthand. Bentley looked up again and caught the young woman’s gaze. She gave Bentley a smile before turning her head to gaze out of the carriage window, at the rows of dreary red-brick houses in Battersea on the approach to Waterloo.

It was only a brief encounter, the name of a black-and-white film Bentley had seen that very week on television, but the image of the lovely girl with the beautiful smile stayed with the young messenger all day. He carried the picture of her face as he carried his briefcase on his rounds through the backstreets and alleyways leading off Fleet Street, and a portrait stayed with him as he ventured further afield, past Ludgate Circus into the City of London business district, and during one sortie late in the afternoon to the office of a glossy magazine based in London’s fashionable West End.

Bentley was not just thinking of the friendly face, but thinking of how and when he might get to see the girl again. And perhaps get to meet her.

Bentley had taken much in during that brief encounter. He thought as much on his rounds. It was as though he had taken a picture with his Brownie Box camera, only this picture was in colour not black-and-white. The girl had not uttered a word, but she oozed sophistication. She was certainly not from the council estate where Bentley had grown up, any council estate, but she made no pretence about being posh. She wasn’t “up herself” as Bentley’s Cockney school friends would say.

She spoke of the Sixties, was a tune with a magical age that the Beatles and the Stones had brought to Britain’s youth. Bentley and the other teenagers who held the rock stars and fashionistas in awe knew of no other age, but knew this one to be magical all the same. Their parents decried the Swingin’ Sixties, and so did vicars and bishops on television, and that was enough for Bentley and his Cockney mates to believe they lived in “fab” times.

That girl stayed in Bentley’s thoughts for every minute of his waking day. She wore a sleeveless frock with a pattern of tiny, brightly coloured daisies on this summer’s morning. Under the frock was a white T-shirt, a style that set the girl apart from the other young women riding the semi-fast from Basingstoke each morning. They dressed in regulation starched white blouses during the summer months, blouses covered in jumpers in blues and black when the autumn arrived and then the winter chill set in.

The girl sitting across from Bentley had a faint tan on her bare arms, and a face kissed by the sun. It glowed. Bentley could not describe it in any other way. The face was long and narrow, framed in fair hair that fell down the face on each side of a parting in the centre of the head. The hair tried to fall straight but hugged the contours of the girl’s head until it curved inward at the point of her chin.

The eyes were a sparkling blue – Bentley only had a glimpse, but he registered bright blue – and on that smile he saw a faint smudge of lipstick, a delicate shade of red, the red of the breast of the male chaffinch that Bentley had seen that very morning he had seen the girl.

Bentley just had to see that girl again. Just to look. He might not pluck up the courage to go and talk to her, or open up a conversation if she was seated again across from him on the train, but he felt compelled to seek her out, just to look, to convince himself his eyes were not paying tricks on him, beauty could be found amid the routine and the mundane and the dreary on the Basingstoke semi-fast.

Bentley was not to know it at the time, but that fleeting image of a girl in a floral frock would stay with him forever.

For a week Bentley searched the platforms at Woking at the start of his journey seeking out the girl’s face among the passengers of his usual train, the one the girl had travelled on, the 8.15am originating in Basingstoke. And he searched the train itself, walking from one end to the other, pushing past standing-room only passengers.

Each day he asked himself, why had she been looking at him? Was she just bored because she didn’t appear to have something to read herself? Bentley tried to picture her again, sitting there in the seat across from him on the Basingstoke semi-fast. He had only a series of fleeting glances to go on but Bentley had a firm image of the young woman in his mind. She had certainly made an impression on the young messenger boy with designs on being a reporter.

The girl was young, about Bentley’s age, 17 perhaps. Perhaps older. Fair hair, maybe blonde. Blue eyes, definitely blue eyes, and a warm smile.

Each morning for months Bentley looked for the young woman, peering up and down the platform at Woking while he waited for the Basingstoke semi-fast. He had assumed she had got on the train at Woking, but then thought perhaps she had joined it down the line. That possibly explained why he had never seen her before.

He reeled off the names of all the stations down the line. He had heard them a thousand times, reeled off by the station announcer. There was a rhythm to the words, like the rhythm of wheels on track, the beat, the meter of poetry. Basingstoke, Hook, Winchfield, Fleet, Farnborough, Brookwood, Woking, Waterloo.

The stations where she might have joined the train, and the towns where she might live, flashed through Bentley’s mind like the Basingstoke semi-fast picking up speed on the last leg of his journey, non-stop to London.

Bentley stuck to the same routine when he arrived at the station. He quickly scanned the platforms looking for the girl and then looked down the shiny, silver tracks, for the train; smoke above the distant treetops at first, then the first sight of the locomotive, side on at first before it swung around the bend into a straight stretch of track leading to Woking station. With each puff of steam and smoke, with each wobble and sway of the mighty locomotive as it cross the tangle of tracks at the station’s throat, Bentley felt the excitement welling deep inside him. Would this be the day he saw the girl again.

Finally, after a month or so, Bentley had his lucky day. As the train came into the station Bentley saw the girl, standing in the corridor of one of the carriages. He hurried along the platform to join her carriage, moving along the corridor to where he thought he had seen her.

Bentley squeezed past a portly woman, folding her Times to let him pass, and then he saw the young woman. He stopped for a moment, and then thought it wise to push on. Several passengers were moving thorough the corridor, hoping to find seats at the head of the train, and Bentley joined them, trying to hide the fact the girl was his target.

Bentley was now just a few feet away and as the girl pressed against the corridor window to let the passengers past she caught sight of him, and turned towards him, blocking his progress.

“Hello again,” she said. “And how’s the journalism? That’s want you want to be, right? Sorry but I couldn’t help notice, the book on how to be a journalist. That’s just fab.”

Bentley was speechless for a moment, but then found the courage to speak up. He had not been mistaken in recalling her appearance. She was indeed fair haired, straight hair parted at the middle and falling down the sides of her face, gently curving around her chin. A face encased in two crescent shaped moons. Bentley could now see she was slim and tall. She wore a white blouse with a floral pattern on its collar, and washed blue denim jeans.

He said finally: “Oh, yes, that’s what I want to be. I’m thinking about it, but I dunno, I’m a bit low on the qualifications.”

“But that’s what you want to be, right? That’s your desire in life?” she continued, as the steam train picked up pace, the pounding, puffing, pulling locomotive drumming in the background. She seemed to tie her words to the rhythm of the steam engine exhaust beat.

“Yep, I think so. Well, I know so but I gotta long way to go. Who’s going to take me on for a start?”

Bentley suddenly thought he was talking too much, revealing too much, and, anyway, would the young woman want to hear what he had to say? Perhaps she was just being polite, felt it appropriate to indicate that she remembered him. She had obviously done so, and remembered his book on journalism. Bentley noticed that the girl also had a book this time, which she had been reading as the train pulled into the station. He decided to leave it at that, and he now looked out of the window, at suburban Surrey flashing by, to give the girl a chance to get back to her reading.

“But why journalism?” the girl persisted, “And what do you do now?”

Bentley felt embarrassed about being a mere messenger boy. He thought of lying, and saying he was a commercial artist who wanted to switch professions, but she would no doubt ask him what firm, and what he drew. He decided to be honest.

“Oh, don’t laugh. I’m a messenger boy of sorts. I wanted to be an artist and I was going to learn all that stuff in a studio, instead of art school, but I’ve now had second thoughts. I dunno but this journalism has sort of gripped me, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be.”

Bentley looked at the book the girl had in her hands as he spoke. At first he thought it was a book of poems, but he then saw that it was a book of plays.

“Well, you’ve got to follow your dreams,” the girl said, lowering her head and looking at Bentley. “You know, I know it sounds strange, but we are all born to do something. It’s like what we were born to do, what we are here to do, but so few of us discover it, or know of it but never do it.”

The young woman held her book up and showed it to Bentley. It was a Harold Pinter play, The Dumb Waiter.

“You want to be a journalist, I want to be an actress. Please, don’t you laugh at me now. There’s a million young people out there, with dreams, who want to be actors, want to be on stage or in the films. I’m going to do it. I’m going to succeed because that is what I was born to do. That’s what I was put on the planet to do. I feel it in inside me.”

The girl’s enthusiasm as she spoke, her words now a rhythm of the rails, revealed that she was perhaps younger than Bentley. Her enthusiasm betrayed a shyness that suddenly emerged with a nervous giggle.

She giggled again after she told Bentley she felt she had acting inside her, and now looked down at her book. She held in low in her hands with her head bowed to read it so Bentley could not see her face. Bentley thought she might have been blushing and looked away, not wanting to embarrass her further.

An silence descended on them amid the clank and roar of the train, the pitching and rolling and passengers streaming along the corridor, forcing both Bentley and the girl to press themselves against the rail.

Bentley couldn’t resist continuing the conversation. He plucked up courage to speak again

“Know what ya saying, know it exactly. I got that same feeling. I think I was born to do this, as you say. Yeah people born to do things.”

Waterloo approached and the young woman put away her book of plays.

“Well, great talking to you,” she said as she made her way to the nearest open door.

“We’ll talk again, exchange notes. See how we are both getting on.”

As she hurried down the platform, she looked back at Bentley and paused.

“Sorry, never introduced myself. Lilly Thomas,” she shouted.

“And I’m Don …” Before Bentley could finish Lilly Thomas had vanished around the end of the platform, behind a ticket booth and onto the main concourse of the station.

Bentley was to see Lilly one more time on the Basingstoke semi-fast. He had wondered why she came to London on the days he saw her, and she offered a clue when she said she had been trying to enrol at drama school, which was proving difficult.

“ ‘Come back next year’, they keep saying but I don’t want to come back next year. I want now,” she said with a weak smile, a look of disappointment. She stayed silent between stations, Surbiton and then Wimbledon whipping past, before she looked at Bentley, a stern, intense expression replacing the smile.

“Have you ever seen a film, The Red Shoes?” she asked. Bentley hadn’t been prepared for the earnest tone. The Red Shoes? He thought for a moment, hoping that he might recall it, recall seeing it, might even have heard of it, to impress her, but he hadn’t. He thought about lying, trying to wing it, but he came clean.

“Sorry. That’s new on me?” he said.

“Well it was a long time ago, before our time I suppose. There is this scene in the film. This young girl wants to be a dancer and a dance teacher turns her down. The girl, instead of just leaving the stage, like with her head bowed, she turns and confronts the teacher. And she says, ‘I was born to do this. It is what I was put on the earth to do.”

“And how about you and getting into journalism?” Lilly Thomas asked Bentley, as if suddenly realising the conversation had been all about her. Bentley had been pleased to let it go that way.

“Oh, I’ve written to a few papers, telling them all about me. No outright rejections. Funny, but that ‘come back next year’ line also keeps coming up in my world.”

Bentley and Lilly walked to the ticket barrier and Bentley hoped that perhaps Lilly would suggest they meet again, by design and not just by accident on the Basingstoke semi-fast. Bentley was too shy to suggest it himself, leaving the ball in Lilly’s court and she did not run with it.

“Well, gotta dash. Nice to chat, hope we’ll meet again,” she said making not for the tube station, where Bentley was headed, but turning to cross the concourse in the direction of the Old Vic Theatre.

The budding theatre reviewer

Riding his cycle along the lanes of Surrey, well on the route now to becoming a journalist, Bentley had much to occupy his mind but his thoughts, at least in the first few months of his new career, never strayed too far from Lilly Thomas.

He wished now he had asked for her telephone number, just to keep in touch, but was aware that it would have sent the wrong message. The ball had been in her court and she had not responded.

At the time he was confident he would see Lilly Thomas again, somehow they were destined to meet. Doing the rounds in suburban and semi-rural Woking with no reason to venture further afield to London that now seemed improbable.

Would Lilly Thomas ever come to Woking, her lithe and beautiful body swaying as she walked the High Street? Bentley doubted it and would he have reason to catch the 8.15am semi-fast to Waterloo in the faint hope of perhaps bumping into her again? Although it had crossed his mind to do just.

Bentley had been accepted as a trainee reporter – for a sixth-month trial period – by the Woking News and Mail and if he was eventually taken on to the staff the town of Woking would be the only world he would know for the next three years.

He hoped Lilly had found her world, was at the centre of it now, and Bentley vowed over the next three years to scour the entertainment pages of the London evening newspapers for any mention of Lily Thomas in fringe theatre productions, the ones that occupy fledgling actors starting out in the theatre business.

The editor had noticed Bentley’s eagerness to be the first to read not only the London evening papers when they arrived late afternoon, but also be first to grab the more serious national newspapers each morning.

“This boy will go far,” the editor would mutter to himself, returning to his office, especially noting Bentley’s interest in The Times, Telegraph and Guardian, beyond his orders to scour them for obituary notices that might involve Woking residents, to be clipped and followed up for a local story.

For some years there was nothing, then Bentley came across the name of Lilly Thomas in a production of an obscure play written by an equally obscure London playwright.

Bentley bought himself a train ticket to London one night, and went to see the play. He was tempted to linger afterwards, to try and see Lilly and congratulate her. He stood by the stage door which led from the reception area where the box office was situated and hoped that she would come out. After 10 or so minutes an usherette asked what he was doing, and Bentley’s nerve ran out. He was waiting to see Lilley but how could he say that when Lilley was not expecting him.

“Oh, just waiting for a friend to come out of the loo,” said Bentley to the usherette. “She seems to be taking quite a time.”

As soon as the usherette had entered the stalls again, to check for stragglers among the audience, Bentley made a quick retreat through the main doors, and headed back to Waterloo.

Bentley saw Lilly again, a year later. This time at the Yvonne Arnold Theatre in Guildford. She had a minor part in a play there which, coincidentally, Bentley had been sent to the theatre to review. The review formed an assignment as part of his part-time journalism studies at Guildford Technical College. Bentley had given Lilly a glowing review. He was marked down, however, by his lecturer in journalism for concentrating on a minor part and not directing the thrust of the review to the main characters and the actors playing them, and the direction of the play overall.

Bentley had hoped that Lilly might recognise him in the audience, might come running into the theatre foyer directly after the curtain fell to seek him out, but it was not to be.

The play had run for a couple of weeks at the theatre, a fill-in between major productions and Bentley thought about sending the review he had written to the theatre, marked for Lilly’s attention. This would be silly, he decided. It had not appeared in a real publication, just as an assignment for journalism studies and what would it prove?

Bentley’s professional reviewing, and the chance to perhaps advance Lilly’s career with his work, would have to wait.

Wheels of fate

After four years on the Woking News and Mail Bentley stepped several rungs up the career ladder when he landed a position as a holiday relief sub-editor on a national newspaper, the Sun.

Within a week Bentley had doubled his salary, to a princely $30 a week, with a promise of a full-time job if he made the grade during his four-month contract that covered the period when most staff journalists took leave during the months from June to September.

On the Basingstoke semi-fast back to Woking wanted to announce his arrival in the Street of Adventure, Fleet Street, not first to the parents eagerly waiting to hear how the interview had gone but to tell the girl he had met on the train four years in the past. Lily Thomas would be impressed, he told himself as the train sped towards Woking. He looked about him, at the scattering of other passengers in the carriage, searching for the face of Lilly Thomas. Bentley had a romantic notion that she might be riding the train that day, romantic in the literacy sense of two people with a passion for life coming together, meeting by chance, the wheels of fate and fortune carrying them on the next stage of their journey. A young man finding his feet in Fleet Street, the street of adventure, a budding journalist looking to a world written in headlines and bylines and datelines was entitled to think that way, however clichéd these thoughts might be.

Bentley so desperately wanted to meet Lilly Thomas that day, by chance, and share his news and hear of hers.

Bentley continued to scour the Stage theatre newspaper, and study the entertainment pages of the London Evening Standard and London Evening News for references to Lilly Thomas, and one day found a brief item which mentioned her name.

What was described as an experimental play, a “kitchen sink” drama about the impact of lost jobs in the London docklands on families of dockers, had opened at a theatre club in North London and an actress named Lilly Thomas was among the cast.

Bentley’s job on the Sun required him to work nights and he pencilled in his first available day off later in the week to travel on the Northern tube line to see a performance.

Bentley had intended to book in advance but was told that this would not be necessary because there were plenty of seats available for each performance of the play’s four-week run.

Bentley felt a growing sense of excitement as the days passed before the performance, even though a brief review in the Evening News described it as “kitchen sink filled with dish water”.

The reviewer spoke of a confused plot, murky plot that drifted from the lives of dockers to those of playwrights trying to prove their working class credentials. The message of the review was lost on Bentley, but a reference to Lilly Thomas was not.

“A docker’s wife who is a delicate yacht when the script demands a tug,” said the review.

Bentley never got to see the play for himself. The Evening Standard reported on the night Bentley was about to travel to see it that it had closed.

The review appeared not to harm Lilly or the playwright, Adam Wright’s careers. The London newspapers reported over the next year that he had written two new plays, each with starring roles for a young, up-and-coming actress, Lilly Thomas. The Stage also reported that Lilly and Wright had become “an item”.

Lilly Thomas appeared more frequently now. Beyond her new partner’s productions there were small parts here and there, once a part in a Harold Pinter play at the Hampstead Theatre Club. Generally, though, the plays were by obscure playwrights, most in the provinces.

But one day, walking down Drury Lane on his way to the Sun, Bentley was halted in his tracks by the sight of the name, Lilly Thomas, on a billboard. She had a small part in a musical about miners, Close the Coalhouse Door, playing at the Fortune Theatre. Bentley went alone one night. Lilley had a singing part and Bentley thought she was impressive. He did not linger afterwards, however. Lilly was an emerging star now, with a West End part, and what would she want of him? Bentley may have been a journalist, in Fleet Street, but could be describe himself as a writer. The job of sub-editor would certainly not fit Lilly’s job description of what a journalist should be. When he had chatted to her on the train a few years previously writing had been central to the dream. How could he explain he was now merely a sub- editor, it would take too much explaining that editing was merely a means to an end.

Apartheid’s stage

Bentley looked out over the railyards from his desk in the sports department of The Star, Johannesburg. The puffing and chugging of steam locomotives provided a backbeat to the rhythm of a newspaper office, the clatter of telex machines and the chatter of typewriters, the squeak of the tea trolley wheels echoing down the passageways and corridors.

The beat of the steam locomotives, wheels spinning when they took hold of a full loads of trucks, reverberated against the windows of the sports department situated in an office at right angles to the main newsroom. It overlooked the city abattoir and meat and vegetable market, and the railway lines serving them, and Bentley was constantly drawn to the window to watch the locomotives at work.

It was not only the rugged but magical beauty of the shining black locomotives, harnessing steam and fire for power, that fascinated Bentley. The locomotives carried memories of his start in journalism, dreams forged behind the power of steam as the young messenger travelled to London each day with his book, How to be a Journalist. It was a dream she shared with Lilly Thomas and each reverberating beat of steam exhaust brought memories of Lilly with it.

Bentley worried at times about what appeared to be an obsession about a girl he had hardly met, hardly knew; someone he had merely had a brief conversation with on a train all those years ago.

It was not about sex, as obsession and infatuation so often were, but these stirrings also played a part. Bentley would be foolish not to admit it. Along with Lilly’s face and personality, Bentley remembered her form. He glimpsed the shape of her pert breasts just once, moulded in a green woollen jumper under an unbuttoned coast and they caused a sensation deep within him that he had never felt before. Like the memory Lilly Thomas stirred often in his mind, something stirred in his body that he had no words to describe.

A tingling, a trembling, a floating? The thought of Lilly Thomas left Bentley speechless, and he would merely sit in silence, trying to find words for a sensation that washed through his body.

Steam trains were not the only throwback to the past. Bentley’s interest in film and theatre brought with it a connection, a link, with an actress whose image straddled the present and past. Because there was no television in South Africa in the early 1970s, the movie theatres were a vital part of South African lives, at least for the white population. They were a vital part of Don Bentley’s life, too. The movie house was at the heart of both suburban and rural communities, much like the dream palaces had been in American villages and cities in the 1930s and 1940s, before the arrival of the television set to people’s sitting rooms.

A visit to the cinema was not just an occasional night out, it formed a routine as regular as two or three times a week. Cinemas dotted both the Johannesburg city centre and the suburbs and because of the demand for films they could cater for different audiences. Bentley generally eschewed the cinemas and drive-ins showing the latest mass-appeal releases and went to a movie house in one of the older suburbs that showed art-house films, mainly those produced in Britain.

Living in Africa as part of his first overseas adventure after leaving Britain, Bentley enjoyed films that took him out of the continent, and back to his homeland. Bentley always lived in hope he would see Lilly on the screen in one of these generally low-budget movies, because he had long given up looking for Lilly’s name among the cast of a film on general release.

Lilly’s name might not have featured in the world of popular entertainment, but it suddenly emerged in a news story that came across Bentley’s desk, now that he had moved from the sports department and was general news reporter.

The South African Government was financing a television series, Nguni, and this had become big news in Britain. British actors signing up for parts in the series were accused of sanctions busting, of supporting the apartheid regime and were being urged to reconsider.

There were several big-name theatre and movie starts reported to be travelling to South Africa. Among the names listed in the newspapers were some minor actors, among them Lilly Thomas.

Over the weeks the controversy swirled. South Africans were all for it, of course, along with segments of the British population who believed cultural ties with South Africa should be maintained. The actors heading to South Africa also argued for cultural ties and pointed out film and theatre was above politics. Black and white actors working alongside each other would do more for integration than any ban.

Bentley made moves to be assigned the story, to fly to Cape Town where the film was being filmed to interview Lilly Thomas himself, to show her that he had made it as a reporter pursuing his dream.

And he already had an explanation for his decision to work in South Africa. It was merely a stepping stone, he was certainly not a supporter of apartheid; he worked for an anti-government newspaper. It was an adventure, as no doubt Lilly Thomas would describe her own odyssey.

Bentley lobbied hard for the assignment in Cape Town. His reporting beat was now the black African countries to the north, exploiting his British passport which allowed him to get to country’s his South African colleagues could not travel to, but his pleas to be sent to Cape Town were rejected. It was a story for both the entertainment writers on a sister newspaper in Cape Town, and the national political staff based in the city because it had a political dimension.

Bentley’s friend Peter Simpson had more luck with the assignment. Simpson worked for a British television news channel and his head office in London determined the film story was firmly on his diary of events to be covered in the coming weeks.
Bentley even thought about asking Simpson to sign him up as his sound man for the assignment. He then reasoned this would be silly, if he actually got to meet Lilly Thomas and Lilly Thomas recognised him. How would be explain that away, him standing there with microphone covered in fluffy jacket to cushion the wind. It would be a ridiculous, surreal moment, worthy of some of the avant guard films be had been watching at the Park Town Cinema in Johannesburg.

No, the Lilly Thomas encounter would have to wait until another time, and Bentley would have to content himself with viewing the latest instalment of Lilly Thomas’ struggling acting life from a thousand miles away in Johannesburg.

It was clear Peter Simpson planned a hard-hitting, confrontational approach to his story, The notion of sanctions busting would be prominent in his questioning, not one of harmony and advancing the black cause through art, in this case film.

“They’re taking the South African Government’s money, it’s as simple as that,” he would say when Bentley tried to argue the actors’ part.

“Don’t be fooled Bentley. This is about money and furthering their own careers in a big production which will get an airing in America and Britain, just as all the anti-apartheid campaigners say.”

Simpson pointed out that there were only one or two recognised, big-time actors and the rest were acting journeymen and women, “hacks,” trying to keep their careers afloat, to stay in the public eye. The publicity over the film might even be doing them some good.

Bentley mentioned a young actress in the film, someone who had great dreams of making stardom who had not seemed to have made it until now.

“There are people who just need a leg up, to steal their chance,” he told Simpson. “They may not support apartheid, they might really believe in multi-racialism and this is the way. And at the same time advance their careers.”

“We’ll if they’re so great why haven’t they made it before now. Why come down here and take the South African’s Government’s money?”

Bentley decided not to pursue the matter any further. Simpson had a story in mind, exposing what he called hypocrisy and that was the news line he would pursue.

“Look here Bentley, the story is about actors breaking sanctions. There’s sanctions in place, South Africa is a pariah. People avoid coming here. And these people are taking the money. That’s all there is to it. And I will ask them why. They can defend themselves, say it’s not about apartheid or whatever. Don’t worry, Bentley, I’ll give them their say.”

Bentley remained silent about knowing, or at least being an acquaintance of a little known actress called, Lilly Thomas.

Bentley had already made up his own mind about Lilly’s motives for coming to South Africa. It was not just about money, getting her name in credits but also about principle, looking at the bigger picture, proving that blacks and whites could work together, could break down the rigid rules of apartheid that divided races.
Yes, that’s Lilly’s motive, Bentley decided.

A few years previously he had interviewed Arthur Ashe, the black American tennis star who had defied the sporting ban on South Africa by playing in the South African Open. Ashe had told Bentley he could achieve more by coming to South Africa, by showing black people that a black man would rise to be a star, than by staying away.

Bentley watched television over the coming days, South African Government television, which gave a favourable treatment to the stars arriving in the country. How they were just pleased to be part of a great production, which was about art and not politics

The newspapers followed the same line. It appeared the actors had been schooled to say certain things, to avoid politics and just to speak of contact and dialogue, and art.
Peter Simpson’s news report told a different story. He had nailed the lead actor with the questions, “How do you feel about breaking sanctions and appearing on apartheid’s stage?” The lead actor handled himself superbly, was as quick on his feet as he would be if he had forgotten his lines in a West End play momentarily and had to ad-lib.

A young actress interviewed was not so sure-footed. She jerked back her head in surprise to be asked such a leading question, when she thought it would just be about her part.

“Well that’s an unfair question,” she said immediately. “How dare you bring politics to art.”

Peter Simpson rolled back in his chair, looking at Bentley smugly, when he showed Bentley the tape.

“Got that actress,” she said. “Unfair question indeed.”

Bentley studied Lilly closely in the interview. She was indeed beautiful. The hair that had fallen around her face in two inverted crescent moon shapes was straight now. It was still parted down the centre of her head, but it was longer and fell in yellow cascades on to her shoulders. Before the direct, penetrating questions about apartheid, she had engaged in banter with Simpson. She giggled at one point, and as she did so the laughter sent ripples through her hair.


Off-Broadway

Don Bentley sat in a darkened theatre off-Broadway in New York waiting for the curtain to rise.

The term “waiting for the curtain to rise” was not entirely correct in the context of Bentley’s meticulous attention to detail, and accuracy, when performing his profession of reporter.

There was in fact no curtain in the small, cramped theatre that in a previous life had been a clothing factory south of Houston Street, in SoHo.

Bentley was not paying too much attention to detail, however. He was not working, did not have his mind firmly focused on the play to come as a theatre reviewer would do. They might say a journalist’s mind never sleeps, but Bentley’s was sleep mode. He did not have to put a journalistic cliché to what he faced in the theatre as the non-existent curtain was to rise – and that was a dilemma.

Bentley was in the theatre not so much to see a performance but to see a specific actress performing, and then possibly to go for drinks with her afterwards.
Bentley’s dilemma stemmed from the fact that he could not remember what the actress looked like.

He had met her at a party, had subsequently spoken to her on the telephone but he couldn’t for the life of him remember what she looked like.

He arrived at the theatre, after racking his brains for a picture of her all the way downtown on the Lexington Avenue subway line, confident that the programme for the play would contain a picture of her to prompt his memory. Unlike his usual stamping ground of Broadway this theatre did not issue a glossy programme with pictures, any programme, and Bentley was no nearer registering the image that had made such an impression on him at the party.

Perhaps the set would hold a clue, because the actress as far as Bentley could recall had gone into great deal of detail about the play, and her role within it. Although none of this, like her face, could be retrieved from recent memory.

Bentley scanned the stage, merely a raised platform a few feet in front of the first row of seats, trying to make out features of the set. This remained as big a mystery as the circumstances of Bentley’s being in the theatre far to the south of the neon lights of Broadway, Bentley’s usual environment in the world of theatre.

The set appeared to be a jumble of wooden packing cases and cardboard boxes and Bentley could just make out the shape of what looked like a sofa draped in blankets at one end of the stage.

The jumbled, chaotic state of the stage could have been a metaphor for the state of Bentley’s mind at that moment. His predicament was put down to too much drink on the evening of the party – the source of most of Bentley’s predicaments – and this predicament was compounded by the dilemma that Bentley was now mulling over in the near-darkness of the off-Broadway theatre which went by the name of the “Sweat Shop”.

Bentley had vague memories of the evening in question. He had met the actress and in order to impress her had gone on at some length about theatre and plays, and how he loved them. The frequency of his visits to the theatre was somewhat exaggerated as was his stated preference for experimental plays, something he detected might be in the oeuvre of the actress he had spent so much time talking to.

“Off-Broadway, that’s where it’s happening. Forget the musicals in Times Square, all that glitz and sing-along tunes,” he said joyously after yet another glass of red wine during the party.

Whose party it was, and for what, was also something of a mystery as Bentley thought back to the evening. He was trying now to picture the actress. He had a vague idea of what she looked like; small and petit, blonde with grey-blue eyes, bubbly, enthusiastic. She spoke with a trace of a southern accent, which Bentley put somewhere between Virginia and Georgia. Her outgoing personality, in fact, had distinguished her from her sister, an identical twin, who seemed to Bentley to be more reserved.

Perhaps it was the sister’s party. She was a journalist after all and perhaps they had mutual friends, that’s how Bentley got to be there.

The evening was still a blur when unexpectedly Bentley received a phone call from the actress twin. She was confirming that he still wanted to see a play she had opened in, at a little theatre on the fringe of Greenwich Village.

“Seeing and all how you said you just loved experimental theatre I thought this might be just up your street,” she said to Bentley on the phone, adding, “That’s what you say in England, isn’t it? Just up your street.”

Bentley said indeed it was.

After putting down the phone Bentley racked his brains to picture the caller and to determine why she said he was so interested in experimental theatre. As it happened Bentley quiet enjoyed the musicals playing just over the road from his office in Times Square. Bentley also loved the buzz of Times Square, and the exposure it gave him to the world the theatre. It was a world that had opened to him the morning he met Lilly Thomas on the semi-fast from Basingstoke all those years ago and without that meeting he wondered if he would have paid actors and acting, and plays and the theatre, and film, so much attention.

Plays in village halls in Surrey, in provincial theatres in Britain and Africa, small cinemas screening “art house” films in the sultry heat of Johannesburg on summer nights, slow fans swirling steam and cigarette smoke… Bentley had a wonderful string of memories and experience and it was all down to a chance encounter with an aspiring actress named Lilly Thomas. And now New York. This was the beating heart of theatre, as he knew Fleet Street in London to be the beating heart of journalism.

At lunch times Bentley wandered from his newspaper’s bureau on Times Square to mix with the people of the theatre in bars and delis. He stepped aside to let hurrying gypsies pass, dancers rushing to rehearsal, or audition, in summer wearing floppy T-shirts and shorts, in winter denim jackets with fur collars, and track pants. It was not just slim athletic bodies that identified the gypsies rushing along side-streets and alleyways, before vanishing into stage doors; the young women carried giant canvas bags slung low over the shoulders, bags that always appeared too heavy for them, bags that dragged them down.

Stage hands, producers, directors, front of house staff, actors the public could recognise, and many they couldn’t; they strutted the stage what was Times Square and its environs.

All the while the stately headquarters of the New York Times towered over the comings and goings, and bore witness to hopes dashed and dreams realised. There was a tradition that actors and directions gathered in Sadi’s over the road from the Times to read the first reviews of a new production after the lights had dimmed, and the newspaper’s first edition hit the streets just after mid-night. When Bentley could afford it, when his pay cheque had been cleared by the bank once a month, Bentley would visit Sadi’s himself, eschewing his usual “shrimp with mayo to go’’ sandwich for a lunch of fillet of beef, washed down with a good Californian red.

Gazing down at him from the surrounding walls would be the cartoon depictions of famous actors Bentley had seen so many times in films and television – actors gathered in Sadi’s, plotting and discussing and urging, had become as strong a cliché for the acting professions as a journalist agonising over a story in a smoky bar was for journalism.

What Bentley loved about Times Squares was that the worlds of journalism and acting collided. It was almost a metaphor for the lives of Bentley and the budding actress he had met on the Basingstoke semi-fast all those years ago. The thought brought a smile to Bentley’s face.

This collision of two seemingly romantic careers had never occurred in Fleet Street. The area of newspapers offices just a little too far – a hard walk – for there to be an intermingling between the two in pubs, bars and cafes. Like journalists, actors would not endure a walk beyond the nearest pub for a drink, time was too precious.

Bentley, however, had been lucky that his first Fleet Street newspaper, the Sun, gave him exposure to actors and the acting profession. He didn’t know it at the time when he wrote for a job but the Sun was not based in Fleet Street at all, but the theatre district of Drury Lane and Covent Garden and the journalists’ haunts – the appropriately named Sun pub and the Cross Keys a little towards another theatre district, Shaftesbury Avenue – had a sprinkle of theatre people on any given night, both before curtain up and after curtain down.

Bentley rode the Lexington Avenue Line, express to Grand Central, where for once he would not change for the connection to Times Square. He was headed downtown to 4th Street and a theatre called the Sweat Shop. The name of the actress he was supposed to see just would not come, though, even when he collected the tickets at the box office, which were contained in an envelope with his name neatly written on it.

No clues in any program, no pictures on the wall of the current cast, but as the lights slowly began to illuminate the stage, Bentley felt more confident now that he would recognise the actress immediately. He couldn’t have been that drunk otherwise she would not have contacted him and invited him to the performance.

As the lights came up, and members of the cast drifted onto the stage, dilemma turned to predicament for Bentley. The play was clearly about street people, hobos on the Bowery, and all the cast were dressed as such, most in caps or floppy hats, with their faces blackened to resemble dirt and soot. There was no hope for Bentley that he would recognise a face among them.

As the actors made their entrance Bentley studied each face to see if one stirred recognition. It was not to be for the entire performance. What was more, Bentley could not understand what the play was supposed to be about, there was no clue to plot in the rambling speech of the actors. This presented another problem, one looming for Bentley with every word as the play progressed. If he did finally identify the actress, and went for a drink with her afterwards, what would they possibly talk about. The point of the play was entirely lost on him.

After what seemed Bentley’s own lifetime on the mean streets of New York the play drew to a climax, ending in some sort of fight between two of the protagonists.

Bentley could only sense that it had actually ended because the handful of people in the audience leap to their feet and applauded rapturously. The actors line up across the stage to make numerous bows and Bentley hoped that one would look in his direction and wave or smile or do something. It was not to be.

Bentley pondered his next move. Was the invite designed just to let him see the play and there would be no meeting afterwards? He decided to linger in the foyer anyway, near the box office just in case a drinks were intended, and after a whole a petit woman emerged with a heavy shoulder bag, a gypsy dancer bag, and gave Bentley a greeting. Now Bentley recognised her at last.

“Well…” she said, with what appeared to be a deliberate pause. She was starting conversation with an expansive gesture of the arms, making an entrance as she would start her lines when she took the stage.

“Well… what you think?”

“Well… I thought it was good, thought-provoking. Brave, yes brave.”

Bentley struggled with words to describe the play, words the actress would want to hear. He only hoped he would not have to explain what it was about.

“Brave, yes brave. Don, that’s a wonderful way to put it. Summed up in a nutshell.”

The actress said the rest of the cast, along with the playwright, were going for drinks in a Greenwich Village bar and she wanted Bentley to join them.

It was a difficult evening for Bentley and he avoided having too much to drink. He had to be in commanded of his senses; be quick on his feet mentally in case someone should ask him to discuss the play in depth, and explain its meaning.

He could see now that he was not so much attracted to the actress but her sister, the journalist. He had found it difficult to connect with the sister, however, and so turned his attention to the actress instead.

It was going to be a long evening but there was a sub-plot that would give Bentley an early exit. Although it wasn’t said, Bentley soon gathered that he had been invited not because the actress was attracted to him in anyway, but to make up numbers, and to provide at least one male in the audience.

The playwright was male and had been concerned the play – whatever it was about – would only appeal to women because of its female cast, although he indicated that its “message” applied equally to men. As the playwright expanded on his message, Bentley merely nodded his head in agreement.

It also turned out the actress had designs on the playwright and Bentley was only too happy to praise the writer and give him a boost in the eyes of the assembled cast.

“Brave, that’s how I’d describe this play. Brave when uptown they play safe, they’re cowards in the face of pandering to public demand,” he said.

Bentley received a round of applause for his “brave” pronouncement, repeated just one more time before he made a dash for the Lexington Avenue Line train heading uptown.

The art of obsession

Bentley had returned to London from his travels and found it easy to keep tabs on the career of Lilly Thomas. Parts in British-made films here and there, parts in West End plays; never main roles but consistent, regular ones, work all the same. Lilly might not be a star but she was working and for that she must be grateful. It was now 30 years since the time they had met on the Basingstoke semi-fast and Bentley scratched around for details of her family life: had she ever married and had children? What did her husband do?

One day, reading an edition of the Woking News and Mail someone who lived in the town had brought into the BBC World Service newsroom, Bentley was delighted to find an interview with her. After all those years Bentley discovered that Lilly Thomas lived in the Woking area after all and was not from somewhere along the line towards Basingtoke, Farnborough, Fleet or Hook.

Bentley now felt he should have looked harder for her. Made inquires about her after he joined the News and Mail. He might have discovered she lived locally and perhaps got to meet her again. He could have interviewed her about her budding career. There was regret, of opportunities lost. He had yearned for all those years to be part of her life, in any way, and had missed the opportunity for that to happen.

The News and Mail story was on the lines of local girl makes good although by now Lilly was a woman in her late forties. The actress had been starring in an English television soap for the summer, in a character part as a cockney barmaid, and this had given her some exposure in the British popular press. She was a star, of sorts, at last and had perfected a cockney accent. Bentley remembered the newspaper review of years past when, trying to play a working-class docker’s wife, Lilly Thomas was described as a delicate yacht when she should have been a tug.

There was no hint of marriage in the article. The interviewer noted that she had been linked with various actors and directors over the years, but Lilly would not give much away about her private life. She remained single, however, laughing off one description of her as a spinster. And she lived in Brookwood, one station down the line, in the house where she had grown up. Her parents were long dead and, according to the article, she shared the house with two cats.

“Yes, travelled, lived in many places for short times, but always came back to Brookwood,” she said in the interview.

Bentley tried to determine if she was just saying that for the local press. Bentley had spent his whole life trying to escape the town but perhaps for someone in the theatre it was different. They wanted a quieter life, one where news didn’t happen.

Many film and theatre people, and music stars, had chosen to live in Woking and its environs, including writers of old who included George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, the latter setting his War of the Worlds on Horsell Common at Woking’s fringe. The newspaper took great delight in naming the famous people who had come to live in Woking and its more leafy outer areas dubbed the stock-broker belt, in more modern times the biggest names in pop music taking up residence in Victorian mansions.

Woking and its drab suburbia had held no such attraction for Bentley when he had returned to Britain from his adventures overseas. The leafy reaches of Woking’s rural, western side might be a sanctuary and refuge of sorts for stars of music, stage and screen but for Bentley and his journalist’s salary it could only offer a slice of drab, garden-fence suburbia.

Bentley chose a small apartment in north London from which to build a career with a British news organisation. Bentley had arrived back in Britain at a time when jobs were hard to find in newspapers because of an industry restructure and decided instead to accept a position as a news script-writer with the BBC World Service. Bentley preferred newspaper journalism but the BBC all the same offered an adventure of its own, a chance to work in broadcasting.

What’s more the daily newspapers were moving from their traditional home based on Fleet Street, to offices and printing plants away from the city. Fleet Street as an entity of print and ink, and craic in smoky, noisy bars was no more and much of the romance attached to it had died. A romance of a different kind lingered in the cramped, wood-panelled corridors of the grandiose BBC building on the Strand, a building with echoes of broadcasting’s past.

The BBC World Service headquarters was also at the heart of the theatre district, with two major theatres literally a stone’s throw from its front door.

Walking to work one afternoon, Bentley noticed Lilly Thomas’ name had appeared on the billboard of one of these theatres in the Strand. She had a small part in a Anton Chekov play and Bentley bought tickets that very afternoon to see her on his night off. He had looked forward to the evening for days, a feeling of excitement and anticipation building from deep in his stomach. Would she look the same? Would he recognise her immediately she came on stage? Would she have the same warm, shy smile?

When Bentley got to the theatre there was disappointment. A note pinned in the program announced Lilly Thomas was unwell, and an understudy would take her place.

For thirty years not a week had gone buy in which Bentley did not think of Lilly Thomas. Now he worked in theatreland, she entered his thoughts daily. Sometimes it was just an impression of her, sitting in the train, the smoke and steam drifting by the carriage window. The backbeat of the chugging steam locomotive, the rhythm of steel wheel on rails. Sometimes it felt to Bentley like a heart beat, his heart pulsating in his chest when he thought of Lilly.

He confessed to a girlfriend once about this girl he had met long ago, who had never left his memory.

“How silly is that,” he would say. “We never went out, we never had sex …. Just this lovely girl I met once, on a train, and she is still with me, like on my own journey through life. Does that sound strange? Am I talking clichés and nonsense? We’re still riding the train of hope and dreams, rolling and swaying through life. Signals stopping us here and there, straight stretches, uphill climbs, tunnels of turmoil…..”
Bentley tailed off. He worried at times about what appeared to be an obsession about a girl he had hardly met, hardly knew; someone he had had a brief conversation with on a train all those years ago.

Not that Bentley actually used the term “obsession”. It was more profound than that. Lilly Thomas had entered Bentley’s life at an impressionable stage, when he was moving from being a boy into manhood. Infatuation might be more precise. Even that did not tell the tale. Bentley – with all his writing skills – could not put a word to it, it was an emotion beyond etymology, syntax and grammar. It was part of growing up, the moulding of his personally, his aspirations. His place in the world, and the place of other people in it.

Bentley had never mentioned Lilly Thomas to anybody, not even his friend Peter Simpson when Simpson went to interview her in Cape Town. That was until he met Charlene Peters, a colleague on the Star in Johannesburg who shared his interest in films and introduced him to the Park Avenue Cinema that showed art house movies.

It was Peters who persuaded Bentley to see what she described as the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane. They had gone not to a cinema but the United States consulate in Johannesburg which had arranged a special screening for South Africans are part of its cultural program.

All Bentley knew was the film was about newspapers, or the life and death of an ambitious man who owned newspapers, and he didn’t think beyond that story line until near the very end.

Bentley had followed the progress of the narrator of the story, a young reporter trying to determine what “Rosebud” , the dying words of the central character, meant. The reporter was interviewing a friend of “Citizen Kane” and in the process expressing doubt on one theory that Rosebud could be the pet name of a lover, that someone from the past could have such a hold on the present. The old man had a story of his own.

“When I was young I got the ferry once from New Jersey and there was this young girl in a white dress, carrying a parasol. Over all the years that girl has never left my memory. Not a week goes by without me thinking of her,” he said.

Moving on from the BBC World Service Bentley had worked exclusively on the foreign pages of the Independent but with the move to Canary Wharf, and cut-backs, editors on the foreign pages were also required to edit domestic copy. Bentley dreaded the late evening when, the foreign pages out of the way, he would be assigned domestic stories on crime, punishment and politics. Having spent a third of his working life overseas, domestic Britain did not hold much interest for him.

One night he dipped into the sub-editors’ basket on his computer screen and there was the name of Lilly Thomas. He clicked on the story and it burst onto his computer screen.

The actress was accused of assaulting businessman and the news agency wire story merely carried a brief mention of the charge, and the date that Lilly Thomas was to appear in court.

Next day the popular press, the tabloid “red tops”, had a more lurid account, fanned by Lilly’s past fame as a star of a soap.

The victim of the alleged assault, the successful businessman, had been her lover and the incident had occurred after he had told Lilly Thomas that the affair was over. According to the red-tops, the businessman’s wife had learned of the affair and she, backed by her grown-up children, had given her husband an ultimatum – he had to choose between Lilly Thomas and his family.

Later when she appeared in court Lilly Thomas had told the magistrate she was suffering from depression. The magistrate bound her over to keep the peace.

The story of the court case had carried a picture of Lilly Thomas arriving at court. Bentley was surprised how she had aged, basing this assessment on billboard pictures he had seen of her in recent years in which she has still appeared to retain her looks. He could still see a trace, though, of the smile that he remembered from all those years ago. The court case, and picture, would be the last mention of Lilly Thomas’ name Bentley would see for 10 years or more.

A fading memory

Bentley now thought of Lilly Thomas less and less – certainly not daily. He was married himself now, to an Australian, and they had started a new life together in Australia, with their son. Perhaps distance played its part in the dimming of her memory but one day while booking seats for a play at the Theatre Royal in Hobart a metaphor of fading ink on newsprint occurred to Bentley when Lilly fleetingly crossed his mind, and it troubled him. It was as though Lilly and her memory were slowly dying in Bentley, like fading ink on newsprint, ink that had once been sharp and clear and now resembled a blur. Words and images were lost to a faint impression within the loose, tatty structure of the newspaper itself, yellow and parched and creased with age. Bentley wanted his first memory of meeting Lilly Thomas to endure, it was a part of him as much as all the experience acquired and accumulated through a lifetime, of discovering senses and emotions and the power to articulate and express them.

That tingle, that trembling, that thing that welled in the pit of his stomach and coursed through his body. It flowed to his extremities so his fingers twitched as though pricked by a blunt needle. Bentley had felt this sensation for forty-odd years and now it was dying. Not only his memory dying, but his whole ability to feel? He had entered his sixties and other sensations, and memories, seemed blunted like the needle that once pricked his finger tips, when the smiling face of Lilly Thomas entered his thoughts.

Bentley had taken a holiday to Sydney with his family. As part of the tourist routine a trip on a Sydney ferry had been booked and Bentley and his family had chosen the longest one, to Manly where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sydney bay. And there sitting on a seat, alone and with a book, was a young woman of 18 or so, in a sleeveless, flowered frock. Bentley tried not to look, to stare but his eyes were drawn to her innocent beauty, her wind-kissed skin and sun-bleached fair hair falling down both sides of her face. And Bentley thought of the old man in Citizen Kane recalling the beautiful girl on the New Jersey ferry whom he would never forget, and Bentley thought of the young, aspiring journalist sitting on the Basingstoke semi-fast, and he thought of that first day he saw Lilly Thomas.

When he got home to Hobart after his holiday Bentley started to search again for all references to Lilly Thomas. Bentley had now embraced the age of the internet, of Google, and Bentley did not have to visit the Hobart State Library to read the British newspapers on file there, to glean information about the theatre and film world in Britain, always in the faint hope that there might be a mention of Lilly Thomas reviving her career.

Bentley searched the internet, but in vain, apart from previous references to the actress, which were scant and few and far between.

At the Chronicle in Hobart one of Bentley’s duties in the twilight of his career was concerned with compiling and editing the foreign pages, a task that gave him a bigger perspective than that offered by the close, tight world of Hobart and Tasmania.

It was obvious when Bentley was editing the foreign pages, and his colleagues often commented on it. Instead of the tittle-tattle, the showbiz gossip of the red tops, Bentley chose stories about the more serious actors of the British and American stage, or films.

Some of these actors might not be known to the people of Hobart, but Bentley was always careful to attribute his stories to a source, like The Times, to reassure the readers that these were important people they should know of.

Bentley secretly looked for the name of Lilly Thomas and lived in hope that he would one day find it among the thousands of words coming over the wires, and hoped there would be good news about a major part reviving her career.

Bentley knew that if he found such an item, it would be given more than its news worth on the foreign pages of the Chronicle, and all the staff, and readers, would know that Bentley was editing the foreign pages that night.

The name of Lilly Thomas did one night appear amid the flotsam and jetsam of foreign news, washed up on a tide of a bigger event, a tsunami of news about the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York City.

The Chronicle needed some other news to go with its blanket coverage of the New York disaster, what were termed fillers to spread the news coverage from what was shaping up as a one-story edition of the newspaper.

The night editor had been trawling the wires for some light, possibly showbiz coverage and found a brief reference to a former British film and stage star, an item missed by Bentley who was scanning the hundreds of thousands of words on the Twin Towers being transmitted from the United States.

“Seen that story on the British actress?” the night editor shouted to Bentley.
Bentley shook his head.

“Yeah, Lilly Thomas. Remember her? In some film in the ’70s. Give us two pars, quick as you like.”

Bentley hurriedly keyed in the letters L-I-L-L-Y T-H-O-M-A-S and the story flashed on his screen, her name in bold where the search engine had picked it out.

Bentley scrolled down and began to read. He turned away after reading the first few lines, and then went back to the pulsating electronic waves on his screen.

“Tragic actress dies” said the headline, and then “Former film star Lilly Thomas found dead at her home”.

Bentley read on. Lilly Thomas had been found dead in bed, with an empty bottle of sleeping pills and a bottle of bourbon on her bedside table. An inquest would be held but the report said the police were not treating the death as suspicious, police speak for a suicide in such circumstances.

The report was brief. Just the plain details of the death and a list of films and plays that Lilly Thomas had appeared in. The list was a short one.

Bentley then added a line himself to the story he was compiling: her fans were in mourning.

The popular, red tops in Britain made much more of the story than the brief report carried by the news wires. This was the tortured tale of a once beautiful actress always on the fringe of fame, but somehow never making it.

Bentley thought of Woking now and how a young reporter on the Woking News and Mail might write the obituary. Things had changed from his days, when obituaries ran to great length, but there would be more than enough to give the obit a bit of depth. They’d be no relatives, though, to call on for anecdotes and colour. No door to knock on, no husband, or grown-up children gathered for the funeral, no pictures on the mantelpiece to be given, or to steal.

Bentley looked for details of a funeral. Lilly Thomas was to be cremated in a private ceremony. Newspaper reports did not say who had attended, and he presumed that her partner from the 1970s, the playwright, would have been one of the few mourners.

Then three months later Bentley found another story on Lilly Thomas for the foreign pages.

A group actors she had worked with at Shepperton Film Studios in the Thames Valley in the 1970s had remembered her and had decided to pay their own tribute.

A week later they hired a motorboat and sailed abroad it to scatter the ashes of Lilly Thomas on the Thames.

Referee with goals of his own

As a football referee, Tristan Turner flouted the convention that the man in the middle should be unobtrusive and anonymous in ensuring the smooth passage of play.

During games, Tristan Turner would dig the toes of his Adidas football boots into the muddy turf and fling up his arms in an extravagant gesture in the style of Rudolph Nureyev.

Turner brought ballet to soccer, explaining that the game was ethereal, it floated across the turf untroubled by physical contact, unlike those rough and tumble games of rugby union and rugby league.

Most frequently the beauty of ballet was represented by a pirouette performed in the penalty area, often at the start of play, or it might be a petit allegro, an arabesque or even a chasse near the centre circle. The pirouette usually denoted a goal, petit allegro a free kick and croisee, a corner.

Indeed, as Tristan Turner often pointed out, there was nothing in the Association Football rules to forbid the saut or even the petit saut; he was free to bring his own flourish to the bureaucratic role of the man in the middle, the man with the whistle, the man in black.

Turner’s performances on the pitch during schools soccer games did not win over all the audience, however, and soon there were moves afoot to banish him to the wings forever.

Don Bentley, as a reluctant observer of schools football, also found himself an unwitting witness to the unfolding events on and off the football field that ultimately had nothing to do with sport and more to do prejudice and discrimination.

Bentley had only recently been appointed sports editor of the Woking News and Mail, a position each trainee journalist had to fill for about a year, basically to learn newspaper editing and layout skills. Games in the Woking and District Primary Schools Football League did not usually require the attendance of the sports editor whose main focus, besides editing the sports pages, was to report on the team representingWoking in the nation’s premier amateur league. Bentley was not entirely happy when he was instructed by the editor to attend some of the school matches in the mornings. The newly established league had been seeking a local company to donate a cup to be presented to the season’s top team and the editor thought that this might be an ideal way to raise the newspaper’s profile among schoolchildren and their mothers and fathers. First he wanted Bentley to check out the league and its officials, to see if they were worthy recipients of the company’s largesse.

“I see picture spreads in this Bentley, and parents and grandparents buying the paper in the hundreds,” said the editor, always looking for a way to boost circulation.

Bentley was under firm instructions when it came to the cup. It must not cost more than 10 pounds and he was pointed in the direction of a local jewellers, which had over the years been a big advertiser. There he might get a discount. No money could change hands, though, and no commitment to supply a cup be made until Bentley had satisfied himself and the News and Mail’s accountant that the new league could be ongoing, and properly managed, so that year after year the good name of the newspaper, and its commitment to the community, would shine as bright as the polished, silver-plated cup.

The snow lay heavy on the ground as Bentley arrived at the village green in the hamlet of Horsell, on Woking’s fringe, where the children’s game was to be played. Bentley surveyed the surroundings grumpily: a huddle of parents at the touchline, eager boys and girls chattering and laughing, stretching, some stamping their feet in the winter chill to keep them warm. It was much like the scene being enacted at that moment at a thousand soccer pitches up and down the country, in rain or snow; let play begin.

And then the referee appeared or, to be more precise, made an entrance and Bentley immediately realised that this would be a game like no other he had seen.

As required and mandated by the rules of the Woking and District Primary School League the referee was in full referee’s uniform, of black shorts and shirt. Only this referee’s kit had been neatly pressed, with creases down the front of the shorts, crisp creases that looked more like pleats. To Bentley’s untrained eye in the fashion field, the uniform also appeared to be custom made and not one bought from the catalogue of sporting wear that came with the rules of the football league when individual players, their parents and officials signed up. The uniform carried embellishments and refinements not seen before in any league, even at the highest level in the Woking soccer universe, the Isthmian League. This uniform had a white trim to its black shirt and shorts, and the referee’s whistle was attached to a lanyard with an intricately knotted cord.

The children, stripped down to the kit of their respective teams, had already taken to the field and were kicking several balls around in practice. The referee strode to the centre circle and solemnly summoned the captains of both sides, Horsell and Woodlands primary schools. He then produced an impossibly burnished penny for the toss to determine who started play, and from what end, before launching the coin in the air with an exaggerated flick of the fingers of his right hand.

A pirouette and a blast of the whistle, and play was under way.

It was difficult for Bentley to keep his eyes on the passage of play. He was transfixed by the antics of the referee: his precise and carefully controlled steps when measuring the distance of a defensive wall during a free-kick; outstretched arm in frozen pose when awarding a corner; an exaggerated look of disapproval at the sight of a blatant foul like tripping.

The reports of matches in the schools league were usually sent to Bentley’s office by teachers or parents, then typed up in a neat précis to be published in the Woking News and Mail on the following Friday. For the Horsell game, simply because he was in attendance, Bentley decided to write the report himself, and give it a little longer space than was usually afforded by the newspaper to school games.

Despite his annoyance at having to attend the game, Bentley afforded himself a little fun when writing the report, including all the sporting clichés he had been trained not to use. His name would not go on the report and the column inches would provide space for an experiment in sports journalism satire.

According to Bentley’s report, at the start of play the captain winning the toss bad kicked off the sphere and it was not long before the beaten custodian in one of the goals was picking the ball out of the union bag. Horsell Primary had found their winning ways, as one-nil victors, but it had been a game of two halves, with both sides dominating during each half-hour spell before and after the half-time break, or “orange time”.

The game in fact had been marred by an ugly tackle, with the culprit sent to the dressing room for an early shower. That might have been disturbing enough for the parents watching the beautiful game, especially played by youngsters who should be out on the pitch for the pure fun of playing and not be concerned with brutal physical contact, but there was a different kind of menace in the air, one that brushed Bentley like the chill air rustling the collar of his duffle coat.

Although the snow had stopped falling before the game, a black cloud hovered, threatening a blizzard that defied journalistic cliché, sporting or otherwise. Bentley had a meeting planned with the senior officials of the league to discuss the donation and presentation of the Woking News and Mail trophy. The clubrooms at the Horsell recreation ground proved an appropriate venue because the president of the league was also a parent whose young son captained theHorsellPrimary Schoolfootball team.

The clubrooms themselves had an attraction and aura for sports enthusiast Bentley that went beyond the game of Association Football: the Victorian pavilion was also the headquarters of the Horsell and Woking Cricket Club, two of whose members were firmly cemented in the history and legend of the county side, Surrey. They were the famous Bedser twins and Bentley had had the pleasure of meeting them while reporting on the annual general meeting of the Horsell andWokingclub, of which they remained members.

It was difficult to be in the clubrooms without the names of Alex and Eric Bedser featuring somewhere in the conversation, whatever the occasion and whatever the sport so implanted were they and their exploits in the folklore of  Woking  sport. The pavilion and sports ground were the closest that Woking, a Victorian town that grew with the expanding railways servingLondon30 kilometres away, had to a sacred site. Just in case anyone was left in doubt that this was Bedser territory, the pair looked down sternly from countless black and white photographs on the clubhouse walls; their names also embossed in gold leaf on the honour boards for bowling and batting, from the time they first played for Horsell and Woking in the early 1930s.

“I don’t know what the Bedsers would make of it,” said Archie Miller, the president of the Woking and District Primary Schools Football League, to a gaggle of parents and officials grouped around him.

“Well you can be liberal, but this is kids. And what do they make of it all.”

Bentley stood at the sidelines listening to the Miller. He didn’t need to be told of the subject of conservation. It was the referee.

Bentley pushed forward to introduce himself.

“Ah, the News and Mail. Thanks for all your help and I hope you enjoyed the game,” said Miller.

“Good standard of play,” Bentley said politely.

“We were just discussing the referee,” said Miller.

“Well, I mean it’s all right for up inLondon, in the North Circular League, but it’s inappropriate here.”

Bentley feigned ignorance. “Sorry?” he said.

“The referee, all that ballet dancing. Well, I mean, it’s not the bloody Bolshoi. Can you imagine that on the cricket pitch? Umpire would be lynched by the fast bowler.”

The parents and officials standing around Miller nodded, laughing nervously

“Oh the referee,” said Bentley again. “Eccentric, that’s how I would describe it.”

“Bleeding eccentric? Downright disgraceful. He’s got no place on the pitch with kids.”

Any pretence to pull punches, to restrain from open criticism of the referee and his display of dancing had now been jettisoned.

“Well he’s a homo, no doubt about that,” said another parent on the fringe of the group. This was the 1960s and the adjective “gay” had not entered the lexicon to describe a homosexual.

Back at the office on the following Monday, Bentley endorsed the league as worthy of support from the newspaper. It was popular with parents and well organised and he could hardly raise the question of an eccentric referee as being a cause for disquiet. All the same Bentley knew he was going to be drawn into the politics, mores and machinations of the Woking and District Primary Football League. For Bentley it was going to be a long, cold winter.

Because of the newspaper’s involvement in the league, Bentley was instructed to attend at least one game each weekend, fitting them in with his coverage of the major Isthmian League side. He preferred to go to the home games of Horsell Primary, mainly because Horsell was the best team in the league and the team’s games were usually thrilling encounters with a high standard of play from those so young. The parents, under the guidance of Archie Miller, whose son was in the team, saw to that with intensive coaching sessions at least twice a week.

Contact with Archie Miller also served another purpose which improved Bentley’s standing with the editor. Miller was managing director of a new car dealership in north-west Surreywhich was a big advertiser in the News and Mail. The editor told Bentley on more than one occasion that it was the sort of contact with the community the newspaper should be making.

When he was officiating, the antics of referee Tristan Turner remained a problem for the Horsell parents, and slowly opposition to him spread through the league to other teams. There were even letters to the newspaper about him, letters that the editor declined to print. References to homosexuality were oblique and disguised, though, with a frequent theme being the advisability of combining ballet with soccer instruction out on the football pitch.

At the same time the parents of Horsell Primary, led by Archie Miller, did not hold back from direct criticism and matches at which the referee Turner officiated became increasingly tense affairs.

The referee was aware of the controversy that was increasingly surrounding his ballet displays, but he laughingly shrugged them off. It was clear the focus of the disquiet, the children, had no problems with referee Turner or his antics on the pitch. With the children, he was always the preferred referee. He was fair and tolerant, unlike some of the other officials – some of them school teachers – who brought the harsh regimen of the classroom to the pitch.

Bentley suggested to the editor that he write a profile on the referee, to go with the profiles he was writing on each team in the league, building up to the last weekend of the season when the cup would be presented. The editor warned him off the idea.

“Let’s let sleeping dogs lie, lad,” he said one morning. “I’m not having ballet in my paper.” Bentley could not determine if he was joking or not, but he was certainly wary of bringing the schools’ soccer league into disrepute and its locally powerful president.

Bentley decided to meet the referee, anyway. They shared coffee and cake at a local bakery and cafe the next day, Rose’s Tearooms, a favourite haunt of Turner when he was not at the day job, that of a pastry chef at a hotel in nearby Guildford. The question of sexuality never came into the conversation, but ballet featured strongly.

“I just love to dance; dance, dance and dance,” said Tristan Turner, his eyes wide and sparkling as he spoke. He was a fit-looking man in his early 30s, who cycled to games on an ancient blackRaleighbicycle, his long blonde hair and fawn scarf flowing behind him. “And what’s wrong with that, and what’s wrong with a little flourish on the soccer pitch? We’ve got to be free. This is the Sixties, We got to be free, free, free.”

The notion of freedom on the soccer pitch did not cut any ice with the officials of the primary schools’ football league, especially as Archie Miller was outraged one afternoon to see his son Alex, captain of the Horsell team, doing a pirouette after scoring a goal. Another parent, a burley butcher, had dragged his son off the pitch and taken him home for doing the same routine, the son crying as he went.

Towards the end of the season, the name of Tristan Turner began to be omitted from the fixture list issued each Monday ahead of the Saturday or Sunday games. Sometimes referees went without a game, to give new recruits a chance, but when several weeks went by without a game Turner began to suspect he was being squeezed from the roster.

Bentley noticed, too, and phoned Turner to see if there had been official word about his apparent axing. No contact, no explanation, said the referee, but he added that he knew that sooner or later he would suspended from the league.

Bentley realised he was on to a good story, a scoop, if it could all be confirmed. It might even make lineage in the national newspapers. The referee, however, was not about to complain, he did not want to make an official protest and expose the league to any potential embarrassment.

He knew full well that ballet could be used as a metaphor for homosexuality.

His disappointment, though, was palpable when Bentley met him again at Rose’s Tearooms.

“I just love to referee, and I just love to dance. Does that make me different?” he asked Bentley.

“I told you, stay clear of this one,” the editor said to Bentley went to returned to the office, in what Bentley sensed was an admonishing tone. The banishment of a referee, who may or may not have homosexual tendencies, might be a big story for the nationals but, without a complaint from him or an official confirmation from the league, the issue would only do damage to the Woking News and Mail and its reputation in the town. It would remain rumour.

“The lesson in this is that if the referee complains about discrimination, and writes letters to his MP or whoever, then it’s a yarn but if he doesn’t then we’ve got to let it go,” he said. “Pursuing this sort of thing makes it look like we got an agenda.”

“But,” Bentley protested, “Haven’t we got an agenda to stamp out discrimination, to give homosexuals a fair go.”

“Has he told you he’s a homo?”

“No,” said Bentley.

“Well, you might end up looking as though you’re the one saying it. Being effeminate, anancyboy or whatever, is a long way from being a homo. You remember that son, and make sure you don’t go saying it or implying it yourself, in spite of all your good intentions. You don’t want to be the one calling him a homo, because that’s what it is going to look like if you don’t watch out.”

The editor was drawing on all his instincts honed as a reporter and editor over 40 years. This story promised trouble, the editor had a gut feeling about it but how could he define a gut feeling to Bentley. There were some instances and situations and issues that even a wordsmith of 40 years standing could not find words for.

“Leave it alone, son. When you got some more experience under the belt you’ll be able to spot the ones that are likely to rear up and bite you on the arse, and this is one, believe me.”

Bentley may have seen his prized scoop slipping away but events were to unfold to give him an even bigger story, one not only touching on the subject of discrimination against people perceived to be homosexuals, or “different” in the parlance of the officials of the primary schools’ football league, but one of a nascent tolerance of those who might not fit the social norm or convention.

The absence of referee Turner from the weekly fixtures had not been lost on the players, who muttered among themselves that games were not quite the same without pirouettes and petit allegros. Parents were questioned on the journey to and from games, and between spells of homework during the week, and it became clear that the schoolchildren were not happy with the answers.

Reference by some parents, behind hands held to the mouth, with muttered breath, might have been made to “shirt-lifters” and “bum bandits” , but at the same time schoolchildren were openly and loudly asking where referee Turner was, and wasn’t it about time he refereed one of their games.

Because Tristan Turner was the most expert and experienced of the referees it had been assumed as the season approached its end that he would be the one to referee the final match, involving Horsell and Woodlands again, and the one that would determine   the champion team. But his name did not appear on the roster and a retired and ageing former teacher, who could barely cover the pitch when games were in full flight, was assigned the game.  It also appeared the referee did not have a full appreciation of the off-side rule,  so many contentious goals on break-aways had he awarded, or disallowed, in games under his control during the season.

Bentley had been at home on the eve of the match, polishing the cup he was to present and writing a brief speech in which he was to praise the endeavours of each team. He was a little nervous about his first exposure to pubic speaking and had left a blank space at the end of his speech so that he could quickly insert the name of the winning team just before he presented the cup. He was determined not to confuse the teams and present the trophy to the wrong side.

Bentley’s preoccupation with the speech and cup presentation had taken his mind of the major issue of the day, not the season-ending match itself but the absence of a referee who had won the respect and support, and hearts, of the players.

When he arrived for the game he found the muddy ground mired in crisis.  Archie Miller could be seen running up and down the touchline, urging players from each side change into their kit. The young players, though, sat sullenly on the steps of the Horsell and Woking Cricket Club pavilion.

“We want Tristan,” chanted Archie Miller’s son.

“I had this all last night, I’m not having it now,” Miller told his son angrily. “Get into your kit and play. We got a big match here.”

“Won’t,” said Alex Miller. “We want…”

“Leave it to me,” said the referee rostered for the game. He made the 22 players of both sides stand in front of him and proceeded to give a lecture about endeavour and sportsmanship and listening to, and showing respect for, and obeying, parents.

“Won’t,” the schoolchildren, from both teams, shouted in unison.

“We want Tristan and we are not going to play without him. He should be the referee. He’s fun,” said Alex Miller. “And he knows the off-side rules.”

The stand-off persisted, with Archie Miller finally saying the game was to be called off.

“But perhaps we could find Mr Turner,’’ said another parent, stepping forward hesitantly at first but then raising his voice so everyone could hear. He was a local plumber, who had not been entirely happy with the muttered “backdoor” jibes he had heard increasingly throughout the season but had gone alone with the criticism all the same.  “It’s the last game after all. We’ve all looked forward to it. The kids have and it’s their day and their say.”

“Yeah” said another parent, a mother of one of the girls in the Horsell team. “If myAlicesays she wants Mr Turner to be ref that’s fine with me.”

Bentley, still clutching his polished cup, stepped forward with a possible solution, if it was required. When he had practised his public speaking the night before he hadn’t realised he would be making an impromptu statement.

“Everybody,” he shouted. “Perhaps we could invite Mr Turner to come and referee the game. There would be a little delay but it could be played.”

Bentley said that he might know how to contact Tristan Turner if so required. Archie Miller, in a brief consultation with the other parents, instructed Bentley to try to contact referee Turner and report back as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the children were instructed to run around the pitch to warm up, and the stand-in referee took off his football boots and left for home without saying another word.

Bentley had Turner’s home telephone number and his heart sank when he received no reply there.  He then phoned Rose’s Tearooms, and was told Turner was sitting in his favourite window seat .

“Hi, Tristan,” Bentley said breathlessly, for the first time calling Turner by his Christian name.  “Glad I found you. The kids are rebelling, they won’t take the field without you for the final match. You gotta come quick.”

Referee Turner was soon furiously peddling his cycle to his home, to snatch up his referee’s kit.

“Damn”, he said to himself when he realised he had not pressed it the night before, there had been no need. He looked towards his iron, but realised a spot of ironing would result in added delay. There was no time to lose, crease or no crease.