Don Bentley had always tried to keep the long arm of the law at a safe distance during his young life but every Friday morning, down at the magistrate’s court, the law came a little too close for comfort.
It was not that Bentley was a villain in any way, or harboured criminal intentions. He just happened to know people who sometimes strayed from the path of righteousness, only to find their new path led directly to the dock of the Woking bench.
Bentley would groan when he went through the court list at the court clerk’s office on the eve of each sitting of the magistrate. There was often a familiar name there and Bentley knew next morning he would have to keep his head well down at the reporter’s table at the back of the court in case a defendant recognised him.
It may have been only petty crime, like fighting outside a pub or vandalism, but the last thing Bentley wanted was for a defendant to call out to him, or wave, or ask him how his mum was.
Bentley had grown up on a public housing estate, built immediately after World War Two to house Londoners displaced by the war-time bombing.
The estate, Sheerwater, was not a bad place really but it had an inflated, exaggerated reputation for crime.
The people of Woking had never wanted Sheerwater to be built on common land to the east, the London side, of their town; and they would never let the people of Sheerwater forget it.
The three local newspapers, too, reflecting the opinions of the majority of the community, also came down hard on anyone from Sheerwater convicted by the magistrate, or worse, committed for trial to a higher court.
It always appeared to Bentley that court cases featuring Sheerwater people were given greater prominence in the newspaper than those of “locals’‘, but then that might have been Bentley’s sensitivity about being working class, of coming from a London overspill estate populated by Cockneys, revealing itself.
Certainly at his interview for a job on the Woking News and Mail the editor Ronald Sweatman, a man who had spent his entire life in Woking, showed no prejudice towards the boy fromLondon.
And at the magistrates’s court, where Bentley frequently shared a bench with the editor of the rival local newspaper, Alf James, Bentley was never given the impression he might be inferior in anyway to Jones or his reporters, who were all locals.
James, in fact, had taken Bentley under his wing, giving him hints and tips about court reporting, praising Bentley for his shorthand, and sometimes sharing Mrs James’ butter scones with Bentley, if Alf James had enough, during the lunch break.
Bentley had decided to leave Sheerwater behind but he still felt empathy with its residents. The court list, and what it represented, held a mix of pain and embarrassment for Bentley. After all, he knew these people, had gone to school with some of them, some had been his friends; and here they were in the dock.
All the same, some of the Sheerwater miscreants, and their deeds, could raise a titter in the solemn confines of the court. Reading the court list one afternoon Bentley had been horrified to see the name of a former classmate facing a charge of public indecency. Despite the apparent seriousness of the crime, the defendant defended his right to show his “meat and two veg”, as he put it, to whoever he wanted; in this case a woman police officer trying to arrest him for drunkeness and rowdyism.
The magistrate, Lord Sowerdon, would have none of it. He fined the defendant heavily before declaring gravely: “You’ll have to take yourself in hand.’’
The odd bit of vandalism, attacking a no-parking sign, stealing a road-works warning lamp, or urinating in someone’s letter box, could be put down to drink, the foolishness and rashness of youth. Even the odd theft, stealing a record from a record shop, did not mean that the people in the dock had set out on a course of crime. It’s just that Bentley did not want to be associated with such people at this time, and to undergo the tut-tuts of James, the raised eyebrows, when Bentley’s connections were revealed.
When it came to more serious criminal acts, and even serious acts of vandalism, there appeared to be an underlying reason: drug use. What was particularly troubling for Bentley was the number of his former and existing friends who appeared before the court on drugs charges.
Bentley had lost contact with many old-time mates, simply because he had stayed on at school to sit exams when they had gone out into the world, early, to do labouring jobs or to sign up for apprenticeships. And Bentley had foregone the main pub on Sheerwater, and the estate’s social club, where he might have kept up some sort of contact. He now drank in theWokingtown centre with his new-found friends in journalism, the reporters on his newspaper and those of the other newspaper in town, the Woking Herald.
Drugs had arrived on Sheerwater as Bentley was leaving school. A bit of dope here, pills there; nothing too dangerous, just a little experimenting. Although he was now a newshound, supposedly with his ear to the ground in his search for news, the extent of the drug menace had slipped under his radar. This may have been the Swinging Sixties, when caution and parents’ mores were thrown to the wind in youthful rebellion, but the drug experimentation had got out of control. Casual drug use had become a drug epidemic, and Bentley’s friends, as he discovered from the court hearings, were falling victim. Why even the local policeman’s son could be found one morning with his head bowed in the dock.
It was all brought home to Bentley when one day a great friend from his schooldays, Mervyn Gardiner, appeared before the magistrate, with his anxious parents sitting in the public gallery. Gardiner had been caught with heroin in his possession, a drug normally out of the scope of the trade and use going on at Sheerwater. This was hard stuff and Gardiner’s physical appearance, his sallow complexion and the ulcers on his arms, indicated he was a user and not looking to sell.
Bentley was shocked. He had not seen Gardiner for a number of years and he could not believe this was the same person who had joined him on expeditions into the open countryside surrounding Woking. Growing up, Gardener and Bentley shared an interest in wildlife and they had gone in search of bird’s nests in spring, indulging in the popular schoolboy hobby of collecting birds eggs, Out of the bird-nesting season they caught trains toSurreybeauty spots and spent the day hiking with packed lunches and bottles of Tizer in their knapsacks.
Gardiner had been a wild child, all the same, and had been in trouble with the police for minor offences but Bentley had never believed it would come to this. Gardiner told the court how he had become hooked on narcotics after experimenting with soft drugs. He was now injecting heroin obtained in Londonfrom the proceeds of petty crime.
His father, the man who had driven Bentley and Gardiner to the station for their boyhood country rambles. addressed the court, pleading with the bench not to refer Gardiner to a higher court which could confer a prison term. Gardiner was now off drugs, the father said, and was undergoing rehabilitation.
The magistrates showed compassion for Gardiner and sympathy for his parents, recording a conviction with probation. Bentley kept a low profile. He did not want to catch Gardiner’s eye, and especially that of his parents but all the same Mr Gardiner saw him at the back of the court and, as his son was being being led off to fill in some court papers, he came over to the reporters’ bench. Bentley shifted uneasily as Mr Gardiner approached. He was hoping Alf James would walk outside to take a break, as he often did between cases, but he remained at his seat.
“Well, Don,” said Mr Gardiner. “This is a sorry state of affairs.”
Bentley nodded in silence, aware James was listening to the conversation. Bentley waited for the usual response from parents of defendants he knew who approached him. They usually asked if the names of their sons or daughters could be kept out of the newspaper. There was no such request from Mr Gardiner.
“Well, if only Mervyn had taken your path, Don. Steady job, career; always stayed out of trouble. Christ, Don, remember those times you and Mervyn hiked in the Surrey hills. Breaks your heart.” Mr Gardiner’s voice was also breaking, he was close to tears.
“Well, Mervyn will come right,” Bentley started, now finding the courage to look Mr Gardiner in the eyes. “Mervyn appears to be on top of his problems.”
“Let’s hope so,” Mr Gardiner replied, turning to join his son in the probation officer’s office. Mrs Gardiner had left the proceedings before sentence, and Don Bentley was grateful for that. She was a large, emotional woman and there had already been loud sobs during the hearing.
Alf James had pretended to read his morning newspaper during Bentley’s conversation with the defendant’s father but it was clear he had listened to every word. After a few minutes, he looked up from his Daily Express and said quietly: “Mrs James tried her hand at some date scones last night. How about we give them a try at lunch time?”
The cakes and ham, chicken and cheese sandwiches came thick and fast after the Gardiner encounter. It was late summer and the pride of Alf James’ garden – crisp lettuce, juicy cucumber and ripe sweet tomatoes – could be found between the slices of bread. The summer didn’t last, however. Bentley’s image was to take a dent into the autumn and, not coincidentally, into the football season.
Bentley had largely severed his ties with Sheerwater except for an important connection. The young reporter was a soccer fanatic and he had remained a member of Sheerwater United football club, which played in theWokingand District Wednesday League. Why there should be a league that stipulated its matches must be played on a Wednesday was easily explained. Shop workers, and employees in ancillary businesses, were given Wednesday afternoons off to compensate for the Saturdays they worked. On a Wednesday afternoon, with shops closed, Woking was a virtual ghost town and it was a convenient time for the reporters to also take an afternoon off, although most were inclined to spend it in the Red House, the watering hole forWoking’s journalists.
Bentley always looked forward to Wednesdays during the autumn and winter months. and his exploits on the football field. He was tall and gangly and played at centre half where his height could be taken full advantage of by his coach to defend the goal from high crosses from the opposing wings. The position of centre half was honest and workmanlike without glory and Bentley sometimes saw it as a metaphor for how his life had played out. He was a team player in this great outfit called society, as Alf James had once put it.
The glory that attached to the Sheerwater United football team, winners of the Woking and District Wednesday League title for the past two seasons, was reserved for star centre forward Herbie Taylor, even if Herbie Taylor had a tendency to be sent off, if not for violent conduct, for swearing at the opposition, at rival supporters and even at the referee. Herbie ran of a gang of sorts, a lose group of rebellious teenagers who largely worked on building sites as casual labourers and so found it easy to take time off to play soccer in mid-week. Their money was spent on fast, suped-up cars and they sped around town at night, paying little heed to the strictures of the Highway Code, especially its references to speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
Individual members of Herbie Taylor’s gang were often before the magistrate and this is when Bentley was particularly careful to keep out of sight. Most of Herbie Taylor’s gang were in fact in Bentley’s soccer team and Bentley knew them all.
One afternoon, checking the court list for the next day’s sitting, Bentley was mortified to find virtually the entire Sheerwater United football team had been summoned to appear next day. Summoned was an understatement. These were fully fledged charges for indictable offences that carried jail terms. Herbie Taylor and his gang were charged with affray.
After a game one afternoon and yet another victory, the team minus Bentley and the goalkeeper – a clerk with Woking Urban District Council – had visited an afternoon drinking club. The club was part of Woking’s first and only casino and the drinks had continued into the early evening and into the night when the roulette wheels started spinning.
Bentley knew the club well. He had covered its opening for the News and Mail, when it had been named in a competition run by the newspaper as part of an advertising feature.
The club was called Telstar after the first telecommunications satellite that had been launched a few years earlier, in 1962.
Something had happened at the tables on the night of the extended visit by Herbie Taylor and the Sheerwater United football Club. No one could remember what (a dispute over a late-placed chip after the wheel was already spinning, perhaps?) but violence erupted. The roulette wheel was overturned, punches thrown and the police called. All members of the team present, nine players and a reserve, were arrested and fights resumed as they were being taken to waiting police cars. The police had to call out reinforcements to subdue the gang.
As far as crime inWokingwent, this was serious stuff. It was front page headline material. It confirmed all the suspicions the decent and law-abiding folk ofWokinghad about Sheerwater residents. The court hearing was a brief one. The scope of the crime went beyond the magistrate’s sentencing powers in the event of the defendants being found guilty, and there seemed little doubt about that. Herbie Taylor and his gang were committed for trial to the Surrey Assizes in the nearby town of Kingston.
Taylor made it clear he was not happy about the proceedings, and indeed being remanded in custody. He kicked the dock and called Lord Sowerdon a “nancyboy”. Taylor, separated from the others who occupied the front row of the court because the dock was not big enough to take them all, looked beyond the confinement of the dock’s rails. Herbie knew Bentley was a reporter for the News and Mail, covering the courts, and he looked about him, looking for Bentley, a mate in the hostile environment of the court. As Herbie’s eyes scanned the court, Bentley tried not to be seen. He could read Herbie’s thoughts and knew what Herbie would shout out to him: “It’s a fucking high price to pay for scoring a hat-trick and a little celebratin’ afterwards.’’
Suddenly Herbie saw Bentley, trying to hide behind Alf James.
“Oy Don,” he shouted out across the court room. “You missed one hell of a piss up. And as for that quid I owes you, I’ll give it to you when I get out the nick.”
All eyes were on Bentley now, including those of the police prosecutor, Lord Sowerdon, the owner of the casino, and Alf James. Bentley gave Herbie Taylor a weak smile, a wave of the hand, as if trying to announce to all in the court that his relationship with Herbie was only a casual one; give the impression they had merely met in a pub once, perhaps when Bentley was out on a story.
Bentley quickly returned to his notebook as Lord Sowerdon confirmed there was a case to answer and Taylorwould be remanded to the higher court. Alf James did not say a word, diplomacy was in place as in the case of Mervyn Gardiner and his father. Only this time Bentley accepted his supply of ham sandwiches with freshly-picked garden vegetables would dry up, along with the scones that sometimes came with little pots of cream and raspberry jam. At least for a while.