THE town of Woking was not big enough for Alf James and his nemesis, John Bateson. The titans of tight deadlines were two old warriors on a collision course.
Alf James regarded Woking as his town, and Bateson the intruder. After all, James had worked there most of his working life, the last 20 years of it as editor of the Woking Herald. The town was comfortable and familiar, like the charcoal-grey suites he wore to work each day.
This happy state of affairs had been shattered a year previously when Bateson had arrived in town to take over the running of the rival newspaper, the Woking News and Mail.
John Bateson was a man with no experience of the workings of the town but with ambitions to make his mark.
The production of the News and Mail, along with its editor, had been transferred to head office in the nearby city of Guildford, but Bateson had been told at his interview that he was more like an editor than a chief reporter, with a budget and total control over his staff, a fact that swayed Bateson in his decision to take the job. He might not have the title editor on his calling card, but everyone in town would know that he had genuine status, he was a man to be looked up to.
All the same, Bateson resented Alf James being introduced by the title editor at civic functions, especially as James’ newspaper had a smaller circulation than Bateson’s. The roots of this resentment went back to the day Bateson first walked up Woking’s main drag, Commercial Road, eyeing the office of the Woking Herald, and the words ``editor’’ on the door leading from its reception counter.
Bateson’s slow walk along the street that day had been straight out of a John Wayne movie, and the staff of the News and Mail had watched his approach with trepidation. A former army officer, he had a reputation for instilling discipline in his staff. This was in marked contrast to the departing editor, Ronald Swatman, a man who, like Alf James, was comfortable in his surroundings, a man who had nothing to prove.
James and Swatman enjoyed getting the better of each other, with news scoops and promotions to boost the circulations of their respective newspapers, but nothing was ever done in a devious manner, nothing was underhand. On some occasions, when there were staff shortages caused by illness in winter, the two newspapers would even co-operate, pooling their resources to cover an event like a Christmas bizarre, or even the local traffic court.
Alf James may have had the title of editor on his business cards - in gold, embossed lettering - but he eschewed the status this brought in the town. He was not one for the business lunch, probably because he knew the real power of Woking resided with those not involved with the town directly, but those who worked in London 30 kilometres distant. They belonged to the mansions in private estates on Woking’s fringe, the stock-broker belt, where the town met open countryside.
Alf James could even be described as anti-establishment, an eccentric. Gardening was his passion as much as journalism, especially cultivating roses. He wore a rose in his lapel each day in spring and summer when his roses were in flower, and wore colourful ties to go with his charcoal-grey suit. In contrast, Bateson needed, even craved, to be the centre of attention, or so it seemed from his first day in Woking. He carried a military air, regimented and precise, so at odds with the chaotic, anarchic world of journalism.
Bateson and James might have been like chalk and cheese in personality but they had something in common. They were both superb journalists, skilled practitioners of their craft in not only obeying all the rules of objective, accurate and honest reporting, but with immaculate Pitmans shorthand notes as the tools of their trade.
Away from the editor’s office, roses were not the only interest of James. He was also a stringer, or local correspondent, for several national newspapers. This not only earned him a fair income beyond his editor’s salary to buy the most expensive of rose varieties, and have mushroom manure delivered to his door to help his roses grow rigorous and strong, but it also went some way to assuaging James’ frustrated ambition to be a Fleet Street reporter, an ambition interrupted and then quashed by the Second World War.
Batson had made it to Fleet Street but a career there cut short by war engendered a frustration of a different kind, a frustration that bordered on bitterness. After the war returning journalists had found Fleet Street positions increasingly filled by younger men, in what had become a young man’s, and woman’s, industry.
From day one Bateson had tried to pull rank; first with his own reporters and then with the reporters of the opposition; demanding to be given press statements and council agendas first as the most senior journalist among those present at the court or the council chamber.
James, on the other hand, preferred to leave much of the reporting to his reporters. He was editor after all and his only guaranteed appearance on a story outside the Herald office was at the Woking Magistrates’ Court on a Thursday, where he would put to use his shorthand for which he had won prizes.
Bateson eyed James with suspicion from the first day they met, when he caught a glimpse of a floral tie as they were introduced on the street outside the court. He sensed James was a libertarian and he was right, in the sense that the Herald editor gave his staff a relatively free rein. They could go and hunt for their own stories, especially if they might be of interest to the national press and James’ lineage payments. James, of course, would always give his staff a generous percentage of any profit, possibly too generous but James from his earliest days in newspapers, at the time of the great depression in the 1930s, knew how hard it was to survive on a reporter’s wage.
Alf James was also not too fussy about how his staff dressed. His dress code was a liberal one. Reporters were allowed to grow their hair relatively long, to wear flares and even denim shirts so long as they had a tie. It was the 1960s after all, as James would tell his staff.
James might have been a polite, undemonstrative and compassionate man, but his dislike of Bateson became obvious during the first few weeks Bateson was in town.
James never spoke of his war service, his life neatly divided into pre- and post-war and he didn’t take kindly one morning at the magistrates’s court when Bateson had asked him about it.
``I did my bit,’’ Jones answered irritably, before turning away from Bateson at the reporters’ bench, to run his eye over the court list.
It was clear James viewed Bateson as a supercilious bully but he kept his counsel. What happened within the News and Mail office was the affair of its staff and he kept his distance. Bateson, however, started to extend his bullying to James’ staff, berating their appearance and sloppy timekeeping, and keeping a close watch on the speed of their shorthand at council committee meetings.
It was time for James to speak out. James called in to see Bateson, to suggest he kept his criticism of young reporters in general to his own staff. It was a point, however, he was determined to make politely.
James also pointed out that he had given a young reporter, the latest object of Bateson’s criticism on a previous day, a pay rise, so impressed was he of his efforts.
Bateson laughed out loud before shouting: ``Just as I thought, army pay corps, that was the sum total of your war.’‘
Another man might have exploded but James maintained his dignity. He looked more hurt than wounded, He was clearly a warrior who would live to fight again. Now his own war had been declared.
James started an anti-Bateson campaign immediately. Bateson had already upset enough people in town for James’ initiative to take hold. He persuaded the political parties represented in the council, and even the local MP, to give Bateson press releases after the News and Mail’s deadline at the end of the week. James commanded respect in the town and it was accepted his campaign was not malicious but merely a ploy to give him some leverage to get Bateson to toe the line.
Bateson, however, did not get the message, or at least the one intended. He misread James intentions of ultimate harmony and co-existence, and read James’ actions as a plot to undermine him and force him out of town.
He hit back in the only way he knew how. He had discouraged his staff from being stringers for Fleet Street publications, believing it detracted from their work for his newspaper, but now he encouraged them to go to the national newspapers and offer themselves as local correspondents, especially the newspapers that regarded James as their man in town.
Bateson did not know, of course, that some of the News and Mail reporters were already engaged in lineage work, in agreement with not Bateson but Alf James, picking up work that was unprofitable for James, or not worth his time.
Despite his campaign to chastise Bateson, James had largely kept his powder dry until one day a story appeared in his main source of stringer revenue, the Daily Express, from Woking that James did not know about. And then another, and another: and after a week James realised that Bateson himself had entered the lineage market.
As James was to learn, Bateson might have become a figure of fun in Woking but he still had his contacts in Fleet Street. Each year the Daily Express sent out a representative to all the stringers throughout the country, and this year the man doing the rounds of south-west England was a retired chief sub-editor on the sports pages who knew Bateson personally.
``Well, I’ve got that James,’’ Bateson announced proudly after the representative had left the office.
James came over to the News and Mail to complain and Bateson set out to humiliate him in front of his staff. It was the first time anyone had seen James in an angry mood, and he raised his voice as he spoke to Bateson, declaring he had been the Daily Express stringer for 25 years, a position he had earned over that time.
``Don’t you raise your voice to me,’’ Bateson retorted. “And in future you might like to address me as Major Bateson. I’m not a man to pull rank but in your case I think it’s necessary,”
James turned without saying a word, and marched out of the office.
Bateson might now have the Daily Express but James still commanded the respect of the Woking establishment, those with authority on the ground: the police, the court clerk and the chairman of the urban district council.
Bateson found news more and more difficult to get, especially on the day he wanted it, and that was the day before his newspaper went to press.
One morning, sitting in his office reading a report he had managed to get into the Daily Express, the Express news editor phoned to ask him when he would be filing on a murder case set for an out-of-hours session of the court that day.
“What murder case?’’ Bateson asked, and it was left to the news editor to inform him that Ted Morris, a man sensationally charged with murdering his wife and blowing up their home earlier in the year, was appearing at a committal hearing, to send him for trial to a higher court.
A quick call to the court confirmed the case was indeed that morning, and was already under way. Bateson had not been alerted by the court clerk. Bateson ran out to his car, racing along Commercial Road to the court house and parking on a loading zone nearby, not worrying about possibly getting a parking ticket.
He barged into the court, pushing policemen and laywers aside, and took his place alongside James, Bateson still panting from the rush to reach the court.
``Been doing a little lineage work for the Express?’’ Jones said with a chuckle, before returning to his shorthand.
``James,’’ Bateson roared, ``You are a ‘orrible, ‘orrible little man ... ‘’
The prosecutor laying out the evidence against the accused stopped speaking, looking over his horn-rimmed glasses to where the commotion was coming from.
``You ‘orrible, ‘orrible little man. If this was the army I’d have you on a charge,’’ Bateson bellowed.
The accused’s lawyer leapt to his feet.
``Your honour,’’ he said to the magistrate, ``my client’s on trial for murder, he stands to go to prison for life, and we have this behaviour.’‘
The magistrate, Lord Sowerdon, banged his gavel and turned to Bateson, who by this time was standing over James at the cramped reporters’ bench, inviting him outside for a fight.
``Contempt of court. Take him down,’’ Lord Sowerdon shouted to the clerk of the court, without looking at Bateson.
The chief reporter of the News and Mail was led to the cells, to eventually be released next morning after apologising to the magistrate before the full court.
It was Alf James’ report of the trial of Alice Morris’ husband that appeared in the Daily Express next day. With a brief side story, about an unruly journalist being jailed for contempt of court.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 31 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