EVERYTHING was so relaxed in the old days. Yes, you had deadlines but in between stories and the rush there was time to chat, and wander for a drink at the office pub; time to talk journalism.
Don Bentley was thinking these things one night, looking across the newsroom to where the reporters sat. He had just crossed the floor to make an observation about an “intro’’ to a story written by a new recruit. The composition had been laboured and Bentley had sharpened the intro a little. It wasn’t a rewrite just a tweak and the reporter was happy that someone had taken the time and effort to raise from their seat on the other side of the newsroom and come and tell them why it had been changed, so they wouldn’t get a shock, and feel a little inadequate, when they saw it in hard type in the newspaper next morning.
That’s the way it had always been in journalism, Bentley was thinking, until the cost-cutting and rationalisation of the newspaper industry had made the concept of a mentor a thing of the past.
The senior journalists these days were just far too busy to give advice to juniors because they were under constant pressure of work, to hold down their own jobs. They just changed things without consultation and let the junior work it out for themselves.
Bentley, in his first months in journalism, was lucky to find a mentor, or the mentor found him.
There were bad and good influences in the newsroom of the Woking News and Mail. The bad came in the form of John Gerard, ace reporter and ace drinker who was to teach Bentley not only the art of writing an intro, but the craft of writing it 10 pints to the wind. Bentley at the time, and still today if he let it be known, thought the latter was not such a bad thing to learn in his first few days in journalism.
The other influence, the good one, came from a journalist in his mid-twenties, Mel Webb, who, though relatively young, had become chief sub-editor of the newspaper, an elevated position he would say had nothing to do with his marrying the editor’s daughter.
At risk of using one of the cliches that Webb frowned upon, the chief sub-editor took Bentley under his wing. Like all trainee journalists, Bentley, aged just 17, had two things to learn: what constituted news and how to write it.
Developing a nose for news, or news sense, fell under the tutelage of the chief reporter, who would send Bentley out on jobs and check his copy when he wrote his stories, to ascertain that they contained this mysterious, indefinable, abstract thing called news.
Once the story was written, the honing process – sharpening the intro and taking out extraneous matter – fell under the control of Mel Webb.
Because of his young age, Webb was more like an older brother to Bentley than a person of authority. There were no demands to call him “Mr Webb’’ or “boss’’, as he did the editor, but Bentley nonetheless called Webb “gov’nor’’ in acknowledgement of Bentley’s Cockney London roots. The Cockney accent that Bentley had brought to semi-rural Surrey from his birth place in south-westLondoncaused immense amusement to Webb, a grammar school boy from rural Hampshire. Webb might have heard the cockney accent before, but he had certainly never worked with a genuine Cockney. There were cultural differences, not least Bentley’s habit of using his hands to gesticulate when words would do.
“I’m doing an Eliza Dolittle on you,’’ Webb would say some days, stringing out the words slowly in his Hampshire burr.
Eliza Doolittle, of course, was the Cockney character in the late-1950s musical “My Fair Lady’’ who had been turned from an urchin into a lady.
It was not so much the ironing out of Bentley’sLondonaccent that was important in the Surreyof the Swinging Sixties, when regional accents, even those of Cockneys, were assuming a cache of their own. It was more to do with ironing about Bentley’s fractured and mangled English, and Bentley had much to learn from Webb; Webb had much to teach Bentley; and Bentley learned a lot.
After leaving the News and Mail to move on to Fleet Street, Bentley lost touch with Webb but heard of him from time to time from John Gerard, who had remained Bentley’s friend over the years. Bentley was told on the last occasion he saw Gerard, before he died of too many cigarettes and too much alcohol, that Webb had been working on The Times of London for a number of years, as first as a sports sub-editor and then a reporter specialising both in golf and fringe sports, including darts.
Towards the end of a working life, it is in the nature of journalists to look back over the years and to recall names and faces from the past. It’s usually prompted by a news event from an area, or country, where the ageing journalist has worked. More often than not it is prompted by news of another newspaper closure, possibly one on which the journalist once worked.
Bentley, looking back in his quieter moments at the Chronicle, had taken to keying in names on the Google search engine, quite possibly to one day contact all the people he’d always meant to contact. He would not say it, express it in words, but time was running out to find these people, many of whom would be older than Bentley, who himself was approaching the official retirement age.
One of the names Bentley Googled was that of Mel Webb and Bentley was saddened to discover that he had died a year previously, of a heart attack at his home. There was an obit to Webb in both The Times and on the website of the British Darts Organisation.
The Times gave a run-down of Webb’s career, saying that he had covered two dozen sports for the paper including that of darts.
Serious and straight, The Times obit did not give a clue to Webb’s affable and, in his advancing years, avuncular character. That was left to the darts website in its obituary.
Darts may be a working class sport in Britain, associated with pubs and pints of bitter (a darts player’s beer gut being as big a badge of honour as an Olympic medal in other sports), but Webb had clearly brought something else to the sport.
The obituary read: “In the backstage press office, he was noted not only for his knowledge and banter, but also his love of a good cup of tea.’’
A more appropriate tribute to “a master of the written word’’, as the obit put it, could not have been paid to Webb – the journalist, and mentor to Bentley, from country Hampshire.