THE STAFF OF the Woking News and Mail assembled in the car park behind the office to inspect the new office car. It was quite an event because the weekly newspaper had never had a staff car before. The Woking New and Mail was moving with the times.
In the past the reporters had relied on their own cars and were paid an appropriate rate for petrol and wear and tear on the vehicle for business carried out in the name of the company. This had proven problematical at times because most of the reporters were young men and women, some still teenagers, who did not have driving licences.
The reporters without a driving licence had the option of a weekly bus pass paid for by the company or a bicycle allowance which, in 1964, amounted to 12 shillings a week. At the age of just 17, Don Bentley had settled for the bicycle allowance mainly in the hope he could save some of it to put towards a deposit on a new bicycle he had in mind as wheels for his new career, a flashy Raleigh Blue Streak.
Bentley soon found after he had joined the News and Mail that the 12 shillings, or any part of it, would not in fact go towards running any bicycle, either a Blue Streak or the one that he owned, an ancient Raleigh model dating from the 1940s that his father had picked up at a London street market some years previously, and had transported to Woking in the guards van of a train.
Instead of helping to realise Bentley’s dream of owning a Blue Streak, the 12 shillings was spent in the Red House, usually buying drinks for John Gerard, Bentley’s mentor. Gerard did not own a bike and chose a bus pass instead, only the cash drawn from petty cash to pay for it also ended up behind the bar of the Red House. For transport to go out on jobs, Gerard managed on most occasions to cadge lifts from photographers and staff of rival newspapers.
The momentous event of the unveiling of the office’s new car, if it could be described as such, held little interest for the younger members of the News and Mail staff but they gathered in the car park all the same, at the urging of the newspaper’s editor, Ronald Swatman.
The new car stood beside a Morris Minor which in previous weeks had been purchased by the woman’s page editor, an upwardly-mobile journalist whose husband worked in public relations.
The vehicle usually to be found in the three-bay News and Mail car park was a 1937 Austin Seven owned by one of the other young reporters. In later years this might have been considered a veteran car, or a car of historic interest, but in 1964 it was an “old crock” or a heap and not a piece of metal to grace the car park of the News and Mail, especially as the newspaper’s own brand new car was to make its appearance. The reporter had been told to remove it.
The News and Mail’s new vehicle had in fact created much interest long before the staff had been instructed to gather in the car park to view it. The car had been delivered surreptitiously by the dealer earlier in the morning so the editor would have his big moment unveiling it from under a sheet that covered it.
A gust of wind had removed the sheet a little earlier and passers-by had gathered to admire it. What made the car different was that it was not British, like the Morris Minor parked alongside it, and indeed the Austin 7, but one of foreign manufacture. It was a French Renault 4 stationwagon, a curious choice for Swatman because, apart from war service, he had never been known to venture beyond Britain’s shores. Swatman had also never been known to drive and the reporters surmised the advertising manager, who had booked a full-page advertisement for such cars from the local dealer, had been offered an incentive to purchase the car on behalf of the company, perhaps a considerable mark down on the price of a Renault 4 of his own.
Swatman, though, had clearly enjoyed reading all the glossy brochures that promoted the car, and had clearly listened to the salesman’s patter. The Renault 4, he told the News and Mail staff, might look like a stationwagon but it was what was called a hatchback, something new in automobile design.
The car was described as such in the brochures in Swatman’s possession, but to the assembled reporters it had a boxy shape with austere functional seats so unlike the plush ones that came with British cars. There were mechanical innovations, too. The gear-stick was on the steering-wheel column, something unusual in cars made in Britain at the time, and horror upon horrors, the car was painted red, when most British cars, at least for commercial and business purposes, still came in black or dark blue.
The editor might have been excited but his enthusiasm did not infect most of his staff, especially those that did not drive. The woman’s page editor, however, said she liked the colour and it would contrast nicely with her own pride and joy, her new Morris Minor, which was in pastel yellow.
“Fucking Noddy and Big Ears,” someone in the assembled crowd mumbled referring to the yellow and red car driven by the Enid Blyton children’s book character but the words were lost amid the gentle purr of the Renault’s engine, which had been started so that Mr Swatman could see its moving parts under the raised bonnet. There was some speculation that it was the first bonnet that Ronald Swatman had ever looked under.
Two of the assembled crew, who knew their cars, were paying very close attention to the workings under the bonnet and Swatman was pleased that at least two members of his staff would take an interest in the vehicle and ensure that it was serviced properly and on time.
The two journalists, Peter Harding and Paul Bright, had a track record when it came to cars, not so much on the race track but a record of indiscretions when using company vehicles.
Peter Harding had once worked in a branch office of a newspaper on Britain’s south coast and he had often taken liberties with the use of the newspaper’s Austin A40 van. His weekend jaunts across the British countryside had gone unnoticed for some years until the managing director of the company happened to be taking a holiday in a rather scenic part of the far north of Scotland one summer. Sitting at a picnic table, viewing the Cairngorm mountains and a scenery so markedly different to that of the rolling hills of the South Downs of Sussex, he had been surprised to see an Austin A40 van bearing the words “East Sussex Gazette” breeze by.
In Paul Bright’s case, officials of the Snowdonia National Park in Wales had written to the East Anglican newspaper on which Bright was employed at the time to inquire why a caravan being towed by a van belonging to the newspaper had become bogged down on a marsh which was the home of a nationally endangered species of orchid.
Harding and Bright were pleased that these alleged incidents of misuse of company property had not been brought to the attention of Mr Swatman when they had first sought employment at the Woking News and Mail.
Editor Swatman was not to know that the two reporters’ interest in what lie under the bonnet had nothing to do with the mechanical workings of the Renault 4, or at least those directly related to the movement of the car.
What interested them was the mechanism and wiring that controlled the speedometer and, more importantly, that which recorded mileage amassed by the vehicle.
Editor Swatman, when he had unveiled the car, had boasted that he might not know a great deal about automobiles but he knew a thing or two about moving with the times. He had read in The Times just that month that the French car manufacturers were setting the pace when it came to cars, and leaving the British motor industry behind.
During his unveiling speech, he had said, although there was much to be admired about the British imperial past and Britain’s pioneering of the industrial revolution, it was now time to think anew.
The empire, to his regret, was dead and Britain was now moving towards a European future in the European Common Market. The Woking News and Mail was not immune to these momentous changes, these momentous times, and so the News and Mail’s purchase of a French car was somehow a symbol that the newspaper, even in its own little corner of Surrey, accepted change was on the horizon and Woking was not afraid of it.
It was a speech that drew a round of applause, not just from the reporters but the passers-by who had stopped on the street to see what all the fuss was about.
Bright and Harding agreed with every one of Mr Swatman’s words and even led a second round of applause for the progressive, forward thinking editor.
Swatman was then taken for a spin around the streets of Woking and he said that his speech to the gathered journalists might make an ideal subject for his next address to the Rotary Club, of which that year he was proud to be president of the Woking branch.
The red Renault 4 was supposed to be parked in the newspaper car park at weekends, when it was not in use, but it was rarely seen there. Harding had a lover he visited in Sussex and Bright had a fiancee in East Anglia. They used the Woking New and Mail Renault to visit such locations, arranging beforehand a timetable of who would require the vehicle on a given weekend.
They were the only ones to use the car at weekends because the other reporters preferred to use their own cars to save them coming into town to pick up the office one. During week days the keys for the Renault were kept in Editor Swatman’s office and they had to be signed for in his presence. During the evenings, and at weekends, the keys were merely taken from a hook but the log of the car’s use still had to be filled out diligently. On Monday mornings, at 8.30 am without fail, Ronald Swatman checked the log against mileage on the clock, just to ensure that no one was taking liberties with what he considered his car, even if he did not possess the necessary licence to drive it.
Both Harding and Bright had established after that first peek under the vehicle’s bonnet that the Renault motor manufacturing company may have introduced much innovation to their vehicles, but their cars contained a flaw to be exploited by those who wanted to run up mileage without the car’s actual owner being aware of it.
As Bright and Harding explained it over pints in the Red House after the vehicle’s unveiling, it was easy by someone so inclined to detach the cable that ran to the speedometer and thus the mileage register.
When Bright and Harding wanted to use the car for their own purposes at weekends, they merely came armed with a spanner and an elastic band, the latter being used to hold the cable in place so that it would not fall into the engine.
In order to keep their secret, the two journalists offered driving lessons to the members of staff who did not have licences but this offer was only taken up by one of the young reporters, Kevin Sutton. He had recently fallen in love with a girl from an outlying village and preferred her company to that of his colleagues who gathered most nights in the Red House.
Kevin Sutton was very quick to acquire his driving licence, after what seemed just a few driving lessons in the company Renault 4, and we soon discovered there had been an added incentive beyond the convenience of visiting his girlfriend, and his desire to impress Ronald Swatman with his commitment to the company and the greater efficiency having a driving licence brought to his news-gathering potential. The teenage Sutton, along with his girlfriend, had discovered the joy of regular sex and they needed a place to make love, especially in the winter months when their secret spot in a local park became waterlogged.
The Renault 4 with its stationwagon configuration, in which the rear seats could be pushed down to make a flat surface, provided an ideal location for love making on winter nights, even if on one occasion a condom had been left in the glove compartment and Sutton was banned from using the vehicle for a month by Harding and Bright as a punishment.
This was kept secret from the editor until one evening he happened to be passing the office car park in a taxi, returning from a Rotary Club dinner. There was a full moon, and Editor Swatman looked eagerly towards the car park, excited by the prospect of seeing the Renault 4 bathed in moonlight. And it was, but there was something about the Renault this evening that perturbed Editor Swatman. The car appeared to be rocking from side to side and he instructed the taxi driver to stop immediately. He stepped from the taxi to investigate, believing someone had left the engine running in their haste to enter the News and Mail office. Swatman was not quite prepared for what he saw in the car: two bare breasts and a bottom white in the moonlight moving up and down.
He soon ascertained the bottom belonged to Sutton and from that moment the young reporter was banned from going anywhere near the red Renault 4, news gathering efficiency or otherwise. The car was also sent for fumigation and was out of use for a full week.
Swatman began to have doubts about his decision to acquire a company car. Its impact on the morals of the younger members of his staff had not occurred to him when the advertising manager had first showed him the glossy colour brochure of the model he was being urged to buy. Sutton’s sex-life notwithstanding, the general state of the car when he inspected it on Monday mornings also gave him cause for concern, and he had words with Harding and Bright.
On one occasion the car was coated with chalk dust, and there were certainly no chalk downs in the areas of Woking where the car was supposed to venture. Another time there was fine sand on the floor of the interior, the sort of sand that can be found on the beaches of western England. Another time there was a disposable coffee cup under the front passenger seat, from a company that only had franchises in London, 25 miles distant and certainly not on the route of any Woking News and Mail assignment.
When he had inquired about the coffee cup, Harding had reminded the editor that there had been an important inquest on the fringes of London. The inquest concerned a woman who had suffered burns injuries during a house fire, and had subsequently died in a London suburban hospital.
Swatman, this time, appeared satisfied with this reason for the coffee cup being in the car, even if the inquest had taken place some months previously and he had a vague recollection of signing a petty cash docket for a train fare. But Swatman was happy to let the coffee cup matter rest. His investigation into its source would serve to let the reporters know that he was not a man to have the wool pulled over his eyes. He was on the ball.
Swatman had the opportunity to show just how alert he was to misuse of company property a few months later when, checking the mileage of the car one Monday morning as he always did, he noticed that it was unusually high. The discovery of the sand, and one day a west country newspaper in the car, had led to Mr Swatman checking the mileage not only on a Monday but on a Friday afternoon prior to the weekend, and the mileage registered by the vehicle could not possibly have matched two trips to flower shows and a fete, the assignments listed in the newspaper diary for that weekend.
Paul Bright was the reporter working that weekend, and booked to use the car, and Swatman summoned him into his office for an explanation.
Entering the editor’s office, and seeing the total mileage jotted down on a pad lying on Mr Swatman’s desk, Bright had suddenly remembered an oversight on the Friday evening when he had taken the car out of the car park. He had forgotten to disconnect the speedometer, so eager was he to pick up his girlfriend in London for two nights on the Dorset coast at Bournemouth before returning on Sunday morning for his flower show and fete assignments.
``Bit worried about this mileage, Mr Bright,’’ Ronald Swatman started, unusally using the reporter’s surname. ``It’s a bit high for your jobs, even though they were out of town.’‘
``Well,’’ Bright replied hesitantly. ``Well, one trip to Chobham for the flower show, and I had to go back because I’d forgotten my notebook.’‘
Swatman looked at his pad with the mileage jotted down on it. ``That’s 10 miles, let’s make it 20 with a return trip then. And anything else?’‘
``That fete in Brookwood.’‘
``Brookwood’s got to be another 10 miles, maybe 12,’’ said Swatman, this time looking at a map of the district on his office wall.
``Oh, I’ve remembered. They had not written out a list of the raffle winners when I was there and I said I would return to pick them up later. Which I did, I’ve just remembered. And Saturday morning, I had to go to the police station.’‘
The door to the editor’s office was open, and Bright was aware that the entire reporting staff was crowded round it, listening to the exchange with Editor Swatman.
Swatman ignored the crowd gathered near the door, and continued to fix Bright with a piercing stare. He was resolute in his questioning, his interrogation, and his tough. uncompromising attitude might have had something to do with the fact he had become a fan of American courtroom dramas that had suddenly become a staple of British commercial television in the mid 1960s. Mr Swatman on this Monday morning, the rain washing against the windows of his office, carried the demeanor of TV lawyer Perry Mason, or that is what he hoped.
``Well, Mr Bright, now let’s say we have 40 miles accounted for or, let’s be generous, and say 50.’‘
``Now, Mr Bright. Let’s look at this little figure I have written in my notebook. Or shall we adjourn to the car and view the evidence there, in situ so to speak.’‘
Swatman finally looked away from Bright and eyed the reporters assembled beyond the door, Peter Harding ducking out of sight. ``And we can take the jury with us.’‘
Ronald Swatman was determined to get all his staff out into the car park, where he could make his point, his coup de grace, and win the case.
The reporters trooped along a narrow corridor that ran alongside the News and Mail building, the corridor squeezed between the redbrick wall of the newspaper and the Gaumont cinema next door.
Out on the car park Ronald Swatman pulled open the door of the Renault and leaned across the driver’s seat to inspect the speedometer, his eyes pressed virtually up against the glass. He was making a point, shouting the words from inside the vehicle.
``Two hundred miles, Mr Bright, and what have you as an estimate of mileage undertaken to complete your jobs. Fifty miles and that is being generous. And where I ask, where is the remaining 150 miles?’‘
Swatman emerged from the car. He didn’t say ``I rest my case’’ but he had a look of triumph that said it for him.
Bright stood in silence on the tarmac of the News and Mail car park.
``Half a week’s wages, that’s an appropriate penalty,’’ Swatman added.
Ronald Swatman began to lose interest in the office car, and the status it brought around town as the only one of its kind on Woking’s streets.
The accountants had also decided it was not as cost effective as they had hoped and the previous system of reporters using their own cars, and buses and their own bicycles was more beneficial to the finances of the newspaper.
The reporters also lost interest in driving the vehicle. Harding and Bright, without unofficial use of the Renault at weekends, had decided to buy their own vehicles and use these for company business, at the same time discovering a scam for charging for inflated mileage, a scam Swatman found difficult to detect because the odd 10 miles here and there could not be detected.
At the height of the Renault mania, Gerard and Bentley had shown an interest in obtaining driving licences, not because it would improve their news gathering capabilities but because of the sheer joy that magical piece of paper had brought to Kevin Sutton’s life, especially his sex life. They thought it might work in the same way for them.
When the Renault 4 was driven back to the dealers, Gerard and Bentley cancelled lessons they had booked with an instructor to prepare them for the driving test. They figured the money spent on lessons and eventually an old car could be better spent in the Red House, especially as the breathalyser test had just been introduced and this had put a stop to drinking and driving.
Bentley decided to stick with his bike. And Gerard could be seen some nights running for the bus.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 23 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … His musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler
The teenage Sutton, along with his girlfriend, had discovered the joy of regular sex and they needed a place to make love, especially in the winter months when their secret spot in a local park became waterlogged.