DON BENTLEY sat in the coroner’s court wondering what was about to unfold, what story was hidden in the brief item on the court list which merely mentioned the name of the deceased, age and date of death.
What was interesting in his case was the age of the person who was the subject of the inquest. He was 19 years old, just two years older than Bentley himself and the young Bentley already had a sense of foreboding about Item One on the coroner’s schedule for that morning.
Bentley felt a sadness and melancholy as he sat at the reporters’ bench, taking out his notebook and freshly sharpened pencils in readiness for the hearing to begin. He could not understand his mood. Bentley had covered a handful of inquests in his short career in journalism, following up on the accidents that had caused premature death He was relieved now that there would be no relatives to interview, no tissues to hand out and he wouldn’t have to pluck up courage to ask for a photograph of the deceased, usually one on a mantelpiece in a grass for silver frame.
Inquests always came well after the event and they dealt with death in a detached environment. They came months after funerals and relatives had had time to bury their grief and pick up the pieces of their own shattered lives and move on.
Bentley, too, had been able to move on after covering his first fatal accidents, and seeing his first dead bodies. He could now bring a journalistic detachment to death, a cynicism that marked out his reporter colleagues who had been in the business of reporting on tragedy, pain and suffering for far longer than he had.
What made this inquest different, however, was not just the young age of the deceased but the fact that the circumstances of the death had never been reported by Bentley’s newspaper, the Woking News and Mail.
It would prove an inquest that not only taught Bentley a lesson about his own mortality - life’s fragility and preciousness, and death’s cruel hand - but how death and the circumstances of it can often be misreported in the press.
When the case opened it soon became obvious why the teenager’s death had not been brought to the attention of the police reporter of the News and Mail. The victim had been pronounced dead outside the town’s boundaries, before his body was finally brought back to Woking for an autopsy, and then cremation. Bentley was puzzled why the death notice that would have appeared in the News and Mail had not alerted the newspaper to the story of unnatural death of one so young. This was a story that had slipped under the newspaper’s radar. Was the cause of death not revealed in the death notice? Was the age omitted on purpose, along with any other detail that might have alerted readers and journalists, to the true nature of the tragedy? Was this a death relatives were trying to keep secret? The inquest would reveal all.
Bentley’s curiosity and suspicions were clearly shared by the 12 members of the jury who would have to decide on a verdict. They, like Bentley, had no idea of the fate that had befallen the teenager and were eager to hear.
The coroner’s counsel began by giving a brief summary of events surrounding the death and listed witnesses to be called. Police, parents, the pathologist who conducted the autopsy and, curiously, the driver of the 11.20 am Bournemouth-London express on the day in question.
The brief life and times of the teenager, Ben Fletcher, unfolded thus before the jury, the public gallery and reporters sitting at the press bench. Ben, an only child, had enjoyed a model and relatively privileged upbringing in the leafy, secure world of semi-suburban Surrey. His parents may not have lived in Woking’s stockbroker belt but Mr Fletcher’s middle-management position with a bank in London ensured that they could live within the second tier of status that defines life in the dormitory towns surrounding London, the towns from which workers of all levels travel to London each day before returning home on commuter trains each evening for supper and sleep.
Ben Fletcher had passed his 11-plus examination at the end of primary school which ensured he would continue his schooling at Woking Grammar School and his parents would not have to consider sending him to a private school to escape the mire of secondary education, the bad influences and the bad accents of the local secondary modern schools. At Woking Grammar he had excelled in science and he had then passed the necessary examinations to win a place at university, where he had been reading physics and chemistry with a view to becoming an industrial chemist.
As Ben’s parents would reveal to the coroner and jury, his mood and disposition changed markedly in his first year at university. He had been a keen athlete and rugby player but lost interest in sport, and began to hang out with an alternative crowd that formed a social group away from the rest of the students.
``Hippies, they were,’’ his father told the jury. ``Long-haired chums, we called them.’‘
Ben brought his friends home at first but it soon became apparent they were not welcome in the Fletcher household. At about this time Ben grew increasingly neurotic and started to do badly at university. He withdrew to his room for days at a time, and his parents had difficulty communicating with him.
Then a policeman called, a policeman with a smiling, reassuring face that had told the parents that he had not come with bad news, not totally bad at least, but news to cause concern. Ben had been found sitting on a road at night, as if urging drivers to run him down. A motorist, after narrowly missing him, had driven to a phone box and called the police.
Ben was admitted to hospital, where he told doctors he wanted to die, he had made a decision to commit suicide that very night. He was taken into the care of the local metal institution, Brookwood Hospital, where psychiatrists diagnosed severe depression. With treatment, counselling and modern drugs, Ben would be fine, his parents were told, and within a week he was released from hospital and was soon back at university to continue his studies.
Ben did not tell his parents the cause and the extent of his problems, and it was left to the family doctor to fill them in. During Ben’s chats with the psychiatrist he revealed that he had dabbled in drugs, particularly LSD, at university and the doctor said this might explain the dramatic change in his mental state.
At the inquest, the family doctor spelled out his views on what he described as the modern culture of drug-taking at university, particularly hallucinogenic drugs like LSD that had the power to change personality in a way not yet fully understood by science. The doctor all the same was advised by the coroner to keep his views about the potential effects of drugs to himself, if they could not be backed up by scientific fact in Ben’s case. The coroner wanted an objective view put to the jurors, and the coroner wanted to hear of other medical conditions Ben might have had that could have influenced his slide into depression. The doctor assured the coroner he had known and treated Ben since he was a baby and there were no serious conditions, either physically or psychologically, in Ben’s past.
After the initial incident involving Ben, the police called on the teenager’s parents again a few weeks later, and this time the news was as worrying as the first time. They said Ben was in hospital after apparently leaping from a high bridge over the main railway line to London, where the tracks entered a deep cutting. It had been dark and it appeared Ben had not noticed the limbs of an oak tree overhanging the cutting. The branches of the tree had broken Ben’s fall and he had dropped a few metres short of the railway line. The guard of a passing train had seen him lying at the trackside, with a broken ankle. Ben had been returned to mental hospital.
Psychiatrists could not accurately diagnose Ben’s psychotic state; schizophrenia was ruled out, but manic-depression was in the frame. Ben told doctors he had a determination to leave this world. `He kept repeating he just wanted to go to another place,’’ said one of the psychiatrists called to give evidence. A permanent state of anxiety, fearing being killed by an unknown hand, or dying of incurable illness, drove Ben to believe that death was better than living in his tortured state. Ben was given medical programs to confront his demons, to demonstrate to himself that they were not real, but as soon as a specific threat was laid to rest, Ben came up with new ones. He could not grasp that is problems were in his head.
In between times Ben had been allowed home but within a day he had been found swimming in the Basingstoke Canal which runs through Woking. On this occasion he had been drinking all evening in a public house in Woking, and he told police after his rescue that he had gone to the canal to drown himself. The police, as if to reassure his parents, reported that Ben had not lost his sense of humour in his dire situation. When describing the events of the night, he had been able to laugh when telling his rescuers that suicide by drowning was not recommended for someone who could swim.
Ben was committed to a secure wing of Brookwood Hospital but being confined to the hospital compounded his troubles. Although only sporadically mentally ill, Ben was locked up with people who were seriously and permanently without their mental faculties. Some defecated and urinated on themselves and others, and some patients were aggressive and violent. Ben suddenly found good reason for his fears, there were people actually out there who wanted to kill him. He resolved to break out of the confinement wing.
He had been put under a special watch but one evening he managed to prise open the steel shutters on a window, with a crowbar or chisel that had been inadvertently left by workmen doing renovations to a part of the wing. Ben had vanished after lights out and before the alarm could be raised the next morning, the police received a report from a train driver that his express had hit something along the line on the London side of Woking station. There had been a thump but the train appeared to be working normally so the driver travelled to the next station closer to London to inspect the front of the leading coach of the electric unit. There to his horror he found a body impaled on the front coupling hook of the train, the body of Ben Fletcher.
The jury flinched as the details of the driver’s discovery were relayed to the inquest.
``And how fast were you going when you felt the impact?’’ asked the coroner’s counsel.
``About 90 miles an hour, sir,’’ said the driver matter-of-factly, as the jury gasped. ``At that speed this poor boy stood no chance.’‘
A policeman attending the scene on the night of the accident, and then walking a mile or so back towards Woking station, gave evidence of a shoe found by the trackside, the apparent place of impact. A matching shoe was still on Ben’s foot when the body was removed from the train coupling.
Mr and Mrs Fletcher bowed their heads as the worst of the evidence, that of the body being removed from the train and the pathologist’s detail of massive injury and sudden death, was outlined for the coroner and jury. There were no tears, no sobbing. They knew the details of the death, and the inquest and all the evidence presented before it could not be worse than the most devastating moment in the whole affair, the day they went to the mortuary to identify Ben’s body.
And there could be no doubt of the jury’s verdict: death by suicide, while the balance of the mind was disturbed. The jury foreman asked that the jury’s opinion that drugs were a menace to society be put on the record, but the coroner said that was a matter for him. The coroner duly recorded the verdict, and added that, although there was no direct evidence that LSD and possibly other drugs had altered the state of the young man’s mind, it was clear from is parents’ and doctor’s evidence that Ben had been a changed person after experimenting with drugs at university.
It was a great story for Bentley. This was the Swinging Sixties and drug culture was making an impact among the youth of Surrey, and other parts of the country. Drugs were all the rage, they were fab and groovy in the lexicon of the time, but they were Public Enemy Number One for parents and police. Pop groups sang of drugs, and church leaders and others warned of the consequences.
As Bentley was packing way his notebook and pencils ready to return to the office to write up his report, he was approached by Mr Fletcher. The dead boy’s father asked if the account of the inquest, or at least Ben’s identity, could be kept out of the newspaper. There was a pleading tone to Mr Fletcher’s voice, and Don Bentley resisted the temptation to state the view that perhaps the tragedy, and the newspaper account of it, might serve as a warning about the dangers of drugs to other young people. Instead, Bentley followed standard procedure and referred the father to the editor of the newspaper, who had the final say on publication. Bentley duly gave the father the editor’s name and telephone number, and told him to call.
Bentley was confident he had a front page story, even a front page lead for that week’s Woking News and Mail. He wrote the story at great length and in great detail: it was longer than usual because Bentley anticipated it would get a long run on the front page and turn inside.
Two days later, however, when the Woking News and Mail appeared, Bentley was surprised to find the story not mentioned on the front page at all. He looked inside and thumbed the pages in growing impatience, and anger. He finally found the story: at the base of page 15, cut to a mere seven paragraphs. The editor had been swayed by the parents, and their middle-case sensitivities to having a son on drugs. Bentley wanted to save young lives, but the editor would not accept his argument.
The story at least carried a warning for one person. When Bentley was offered LSD at a friend’s house a few months later, he remembered the inquest and the fate of Ben Fletcher, and declined.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 29 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