IN a room above a pet shop on Commercial Road, Woking, a writer was at work. No one ever saw him, either at the window or at the door on the ground floor leading to his office, but the tap-tap of the typewriter and steam from a kettle misting the widows indicated work in progress, art being forged in that austere, simple workplace.
Don Bentley often lingered outside the pet shop, looking up at the first floor window of the red-brick, two-storey Victorian building with blue slate roof. He would stand on the opposite side of Commercial Road to get a better view of what lie behind the thick curtains that were always in the same position, never pulled fully open for pulled fully shut, allowing just enough light no doubt to illuminate black type on crisp, white, fresh typing paper.
Winter was best for Bentley’s pavement activity. During the late afternoon, after darkness had fallen, the light in the room above the pet shop would be switched on. It cast an amber glow and any movement in the room would be revealed. Bentley only ever saw shadows but that was enough to confirm the rumour in town that up in that room above the pet shop and the model railway emporium next door a great writer was at work, and the fruits of his labour would one day be in hard cover and up there on the screen of the Gaumont cinema a few doors down the street.
In summer, when the window of the room was open, Bentley would cross the street and stand on the pavement, listening to the rhythm of the keys.
Every journalist Bentley had ever met believed they had a novel in them, and asserted that one day he or she would put ideas, life experiences or unfulfilled dreams and fantasies to paper. Even in his short career in journalism, and conceding he had not met a great deal of journalists, the teenage Bentley had already discovered there were two types of journalists with ambitions to write fiction. The first group felt an urge to write prose, even if it was only a temporary escape from the straitjacket of newspaper reporting. They recognised short stories and novels would not pay the rent, and writing to escape journeyman journalism would not result in total freedom. Their work, however, would announce to the world that they could really write, and a whole book at that, with story lines that were their own, and characters that were not the subject of that day’s news.
The second category of prospective author deemed writing and the craft of the wordsmith as a means to an end. They saw buried treasure in books, a treasure that could be extracted from between the covers with a neat story line and a neat turn of phrase. A successful novel, with film rights, represented wealth and, if the drudgery of writing became too boring and burdensome, escape from writing altogether.
Although Bentley had heard journalists talk of their great novel, and heard journalists tell of other journalists who were working on their own earth-shattering masterpiece, he had yet to meet a reporter or sub-editor who had actually written a novel, even an unpublished one. And as far as he could ascertain, nobody he had met so far could actually come up with the name of anyone they had ever met who had been successful in getting a book published, save for one who had written a history of the London and South Western Railway which, he was told, went down very well with trainspotters.
This latter book, oddly, stirred something in the young reporter, even if his mind at this time was firmly on fiction. Bentley, when a boy, had been a trainspotter himself, jotting down the numbers and names of giant stream locomotive roaring through Woking station from Waterloo station in London to the West Country, and this might be just the sort of book he might attempt himself, if the novel came to nothing.
Bentley had the urge to write, and it had nothing to do with money or fame. He wrote essays at school that were not on the school curriculum and when he had run out of ideas, he wrote nature notes after his rambles in the Surrey countryside, and from his train spotting days on Woking station he would jot down the fictitious diaries of engine drivers, recording observations along the route, braking to slow for a signals at one location and, with full steam, getting a run at an include to make up time at another.
As he paused some days to look up at the novelist’s office on his way to the Woking News and Mail office, Bentley thought it ironic that he should now be standing on the pavement on winter and summer days, as he had done with his notebook on the platforms of Woking station. Only this time he was spotting writers, with a power of their own.
It was not enough for Bentley to be captivated and inspired by books. As soon as he put a book down, he did not so much dwell on the plot and the general message of the book. Bentley dwelt on the writing process, and what inspired and motivated the author to put pen and then typewriter key to paper.
As part of a school project Bentley had been assigned H G Wells’ War of the Worlds, but it was not enough for Bentley to merely read and digest the book and write an essay on the possible consequences for mankind if aliens eventually invaded the planet, as Wells had prophesied. Wells was familiar with Woking and one of the battles described in his novel was set on Horsell Common just outside the town. Bentley found himself one afternoon tramping the battle scene, not to see if Wells had described the common’s woodland of Scots pine and silver birch correctly, but to put himself in the mind of the author, to follow a metal footprint that might lead him to the secret of creating parallel worlds built with a mere 26 letters on the typewriter key, or 26 strokes with the pen.
Wells was long dead, and now the excitement and thrill Bentley felt by walking Horsell Common lifted his stride when he walked Commercial Road. This was a living writer Bentley was out to spot, one of his favourites and perhaps now Bentley could determine how and why writers differed from other people; what it was about them that produced great works capable of stirring emotions. In a rumble and a shudder, they made perfect strangers sit up and blink, startled, like the great locomotives roaring through Woking station rumbled the earth, and spoke of danger and adventure and far-flung places.
That’s how it seemed to Bentley, as he stood on the pavement looking up at the window, or the door that led there from a passage between and the pet shop and the model railway emporium.
Bentley was not the only one to pay attention to the office window. Other reporters, too, would look up as they passed, joined some days by the manager of the Gaumont cinema. The reporters as such did not have an agenda attached to the writer who worked behind the window with wooden slash frames. They, like Bentley, were merely curious, and merely in awe of one who could create pictures with the aid of the typewriter and a cup of tea and possibly a drag of a Players Navy Cut cigarette, although there was never evidence of smoke drifting through the room lit by the window that opened onto Commercial Road. The manager of the Gaumont cinema was hoping that what was produced in that room might find its way onto his screen, so he could boast in letters on the film’s poster that the writer worked not a stone’s throw from his cinema.
Perhaps, the manager told the reporters, that the writer in question, John Braine, might see fit to attend a screening of his film at the Gaumont cinema. Woking could have a film premier of its own, with perhaps a search light lighting up the sky above Commercial Road, a searchlight that might even be seen from the rival town of Guildford six miles distant, a town that had had boasted a film premier of its own.
It was not out of the question that a film made from one of John Braine’s novels might one day grace the screen of the Gaumont. Braine’s first novel, Room at the Top, had been turned into a successsful movie. The Gaumont manager could not remember if it had been is own theatre, or the Odeon or the Ritz, which had had the pleasure of screening that one a few years earlier.
John Braine represented the “angry young man” genre of art that emerged in the Britain of the 1950s and 1960s, a movement of which Bentley could identify with and hoped one day to proudly call himself a part of.
The angry young men railed against Britain’s class structure, a culture of rulers and ruled, in which accent and environment determined where Britons would take their place on the rungs of the social ladder. Once that place had been fixed, often at birth, it had been virtually impossible to move upwards, at least that was what the British establishment thought until their notions of class were challenged by the literature, film, television and threatre of the angry young men and women of the time.
Bentley came from a working class background and identified closely with Braine and the central character of his first novel, Joe Lampton, who clawed his way from the lower rungs of the social ladder in the north of England to command respect in his community. Lampton did it partly by way of marrying into prestige and wealth, Bentley was doing it by gaining a handful of national education certificate results and ironing out his Cockney accent, learning to speak “proper” as he joked.
Room at the Top, and even more so the film of the novel, certainly helped change attitudes in Britain if, in truth, a post-war economic boom that brought relative prosperity to working class families and the determination of soldiers returning from the Second World War two not to be trapped in their previous occupations also played a major part in Britain’s social revolution.
Braine, despite the hero worship of those plotting an escape from the stigma that attached itself to being working-class, was not without controversy within the social class tensions of post-war Britain.. After being born and raised in the grim industrial towns of Yorkshire, amid coal miners and steel workers, Braine had brought his new-found wealth and fame to the genteel south, buying a home in what was termed the stockbroker belt of Surrey. His house was in the leafy, bucolic village of Pyrford a few miles from Woking, and it was from here that he drove daily to the office he rented in Woking, the office above the pet shop.
After a time Bentley began to see that his celebrity spotting carried an air of the ridiculous. What would he say to Braine if he saw him? Would he even recognise Braine from the grainy picture he had of him, cut out of a national newspaper and pasted to his ancient typewriter? Would Braine tell him to “fuck off” if he approached? Bentley hoped so, because that’s how northern writers were supposed to behave.
Bentley had read an account of Braine falling down drunk at a literary function in London, from where he was taken to Waterloo station and put on a train to Woking. It was a good image, one that fitted the bill, even if it did not fit another hero of Bentley’s, television playwright Dennis Potter. Bentley would have stalked Potter, too, if he had been holding out in Woking.
Potter had written two plays about a character growing up in the Nottinghamshire coalfields, Stand up Nigel Barton, and Vote, Vote Vote for Nigel Barton, the son of a miner who because a successful advertising executive and then a parliamentary candidate for the Labor Party.
When drunk himself, Bentley was apt to start quoting loudly from the script he had obtained of the second play, until one evening in the Red House public house a colleague of Bentley’s who had gone to private school tossed the book into the open fire of the lounge bar. Class war ensued, punches were thrown and Bentley learned that the products of private schools were tough. They played contact sports like rugby union as opposed to the working class sport of association football, boxed and were rowers, the latter a sport considered the biggest test of the human body.
The fight was a clean one, however, with pushes and punches. Bentley had never really mastered the art of the head butt or the well-timed kick to the genitals he had seen used countless times in the school playground and certainly was not into using ashtrays or bottles as weapons, something he had seen in the tougher working class pubs of the north when he had travelled that way to learn more of the culture that fueled the rage and spite in the art of the northern angry young men.
A minimum of blood was spilt. The old-tie private schoolboy had a bruised and swollen nose and Bentley a thick lip and black eye, and when the fight ended there was a handshake, and pints of bitter.
Two days later a Penguin paperback version of Bentley’s beloved Dennis Potter script was left on his desk and an enduring friendship cemented that crossed the class lines, very much as Dennis Potter, and John Braine, would have written it.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 24 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