“BUY ME BEER,’’ Peter Pigeon demanded with his clipped, cultured accent in the main bar of the Red House. More often than not Don Bentley would oblige. Ace reporter John Gerard merely told Pigeon to get fucked.
It was a lesson in the English social order that was not lost on an Australian backpacker journalist marking time on the Woking News and Mail before a better offer came along. He told Pigeon to not only get fucked but to do something unmentionable to a possum or its English equivalent, which Pigeon with his private school knowledge of Latin would take to mean Sciurus vulgaris, the red squirrel.
Pigeon had come to the News and Mail a year previously as a curiosity, if not an oddity. He was someone born to rule. Gerard and Bentley, graduates of the state secondary school system, had never met a private schoolboy before, save for the curates who gave out church news on the young reporters’ village rounds.
On the day of Pigeon’s arrival to start his career in journalism, Gerard and Bentley had walked around him, then prodded him to discover if he was human after all.
It was all quite unnerving for the fresh-faced private schoolboy, who carried the look of a cultured Mick Jagger, rubber-lipped large mouth on a large head out of proportion with a long, lean body. Pigeon also had a shock of unruly wavy hair, that fought to escape the furrow of a parting that Pigeon tried to cut into it with frequent sweeps of his comb.
Pigeon thought the prodding and the ribbing he was undergoing was some sort of initiation ceremony, but he was thankful this ritual was nothing like the one he had endured at boarding school. He didn’t want to go there, and nor did Gerard and Bentley, senior to Pigeon but still in their teens, They had heard all about private boarders and what went on at night in all-male establishments.
In those first days Pigeon had found himself on the defensive, or on the back foot to use one of his frequent cricket metaphors. The metaphors were born of the cricket fields so essential to his privileged form of education. Pigeon, however, soon managed to assert himself. Private schoolboys really were born to rule - even one without a double-barrel name - and it was not long before he was throwing his weight around in the newsroom, and demanding beers in the pub where he gathered with his colleagues after work.
The staff of the News and Mail took Pigeon in their stride. It was the Australian Bruce Forbes, however, who was the first to be angered by what he perceived as - rightly - Pigeon’s superior attitude.
“Got a plum in yer mouth, mate’’ the Australian would shout out when Pigeon was on the phone, when his accent was even more pronounced and exaggerated than usual. The Australian made it clear that the class structure at work in Britain did not apply to him.
“If the proletariat don’t kick you up the ass, that’s their problem,’’ he shouted out one day when Pigeon was bemoaning the fact that the products of state schools were becoming Cabinet ministers. Gerard, for one, took exception to being labelled a member of the proletariat, but the Australian assured him he was only talking in general terms and no offence was intended.
After a time Pigeon’s sheer arrogance, his obsession with breeding and class, made him a parody of himself, and he joined in the fun when the other staff members were sending him up. To the editor Ronald Swatman, however, Pigeon was far from a figure of amusement. In the editor’s eyes, Pigeon could do nothing wrong. The editor for one was impressed by Pigeon’s breeding, and the connections that came with it. When members of his staff were dispatched to cover funerals of the rich, famous and worthy at the sprawling Brookwood Cemetery on the edge of town which also served the dead of London, Pigeon was more often than not on the guest list.
Gerard once found himself jotting down Pigeon’s name among the list of mourners at an aristocrat’s funeral, for a report to appear in The Times of London the next day, together with the News and Mail. Gerard was not impressed when Pigeon refused to acknowledge him, and then spelt out his name as Gerard was jotting it down in his notebook.
“That’s Pigeon as in the bird, not p-i-g-i-n’’ as in the primitive English of local journalism,’’ he said, acknowledging the laughs and smirks of the assembled mourners.
Pigeon came from a family of merchant bankers, living in the stockbroker belt on Woking’s bucolic fringe. Members of the family appeared on television frequently when the state of Britain’s economy was being discussed and it was this name recognition that had smoothed Pigeon’s path on the road to journalism, and the road to the News and Mail. In truth, Pigeon had done badly at school, managing to scrape through his school certificate. He had fallen in with a crowd of upper-class, wealthy layabouts. They all were delaying the time when they would have to enter the workforce - usually in their own family-owned businesses - by attending at art or drama school. Pigeon had not even managed to obtain entry to one of these but he had good basic English and had been able to impress the editor at his interview, tossing in the odd Latin phrase.
“That boy will go far,’’ editor Swatman had informed the rest of the staff after hiring him. The rest of the staff knew that Pigeon would merely use the Woking News and Mail to get a basic grounding in journalism, and then use his family contacts to obtain a position on one of the broadsheets in London read by the upper and middle classes. The broadsheets like The Times and Daily Telegraph were littered with private schoolboys who had failed to enter what Pigeon’s friends termed a real profession, like merchant banking and law.
Pigeon certainly received favoured treatment in the office. He was given days off when he wanted them, and holidays at peak times when the staff roster was under pressure. The staff stationery cupboard was at Pigeon’s disposal when the other reporters had to sign for their spiral-bound notebooks and Biro pens. This rationing - one notebook and pen per person per week - was the cause of much resentment in the office and amusement to the Australian journalist who had worked on one of the biggest newspapers in Australia, where the cost of notebooks was not a budget issue.
The staff’s resentment towards Pigeon was especially noticeable when his friends would arrive and make off with notebooks for their studies. When the chief reporter pointed this out to the editor one day, after finding the stationery cupboard bare, Editor Swatman immediately sent out for a new supply.
“If I can help the younger generation of students with their studies, that’s OK by me and the News and Mail,’’ he said. “As for my staff, one notebook and one notebook a week. You’re earning money and you can buy your own. One notebook was enough for me in my day and that’s how it will be.’‘
The notebook issue, and the pens, were not the only measure of resentment. A bigger one was what could be termed lifestyle. Lifestyle to Gerard and Bentley was a pint in the pub, and the latest Bluestreak cycle that had just been brought out by the Raleigh Bicycle Company.
Pigeon had a lifestyle with a capital L, the sort that was featured in glossy magazines published in London that were sometimes to be found on the desk of the woman’s page editor, who had been to university and had a husband in public relations. While Bentley and Gerard were still riding bicycles, Pigeon had a car, a Mini Cooper at that, and he had a girlfriend with status and style. Both drew admiring glances from the other male members of staff, especially the girlfriend. She had actually stepped off, if not the cover of a glossy magazine, the social pages.
Tall and willowy, Caroline Eggarton swept about the Woking News and Mail office when she visited, like some exotic bird. Her delicate shape said much of the influence of a new model on the catwalks of the time, Twiggy, and dark hair cut in a mop and a fringe spoke of the Beatles. Hazel eyes sat in a sallow but healthy face, that spoke not of the sun and sport but of blues and jazz clubs at night, and coffee houses on cobbled streets by day. Caroline cultivated the early Sixties androgynous look of dark, striped clothes, of waistcoats with an Edwardian flair.
“Wow’’ the reporters of the News and Mail would utter after Pigeon’s girlfriend had passed, Pigeon in her wake.
“Like a fucking stick-insect,’’ shouted the Australian, breaking a hushed silence, the typing interrupted as the journalists gazed into the air dreamily, sniffing at the expensive scent trail Pigeon’s girlfriend had left behind. The Australian looked on in disdain: he liked his women full and rounded with a scent of perspiration or chlorine from a workout on track or in the pool.
“Now that’s a real woman,’’ editor Ronald Swatman had once remarked after one of the Australian’s outburst, after Caroline had left a Parisian scent trail in the office.
“Trouble with you Aussies - I know you from the war - the trouble with you Aussies, you want a woman with big shoulders who looks like she’s just swum the Channel. “Now Caroline, there’s an English rose ... ‘’
The staff of the News and Mail had never heard the 50-something Swatman speak so passionately about English womanhood, especially English womanhood that slipped with ease into a dress size eight. They had never heard of the editor speak of the wonder of women at all, except in jokes he had picked up from his weekly Rotary Club lunch. The staff were in shock, and they were taking a new interest in Mrs Swatman, who was certainly full and rounded like the apple pies she cooked and sometimes brought into the office for the staff. Had she been told, they wondered.
The editor may have been smitten by Caroline but it wasn’t just Miss Eggarton that attracted his attention, and indeed that of the rest of the staff. Caroline was the sister of the movie actress of the moment, a starlet from Woking no less who had been nominated in the past year for a best actress Oscar. Editor Swatman had even taken Mrs Swatman to see the film in question and hoped that one day Pigeon might persuade the actress to come into the office for an exclusive interview, on the lines of local girl makes good, Hollywood comes to Woking. Pigeon dangled such a possibility in front of the editor. It ensured a supply of notebooks and Biros and typewriter ribbon for not just himself but his posh friends.
Gerard, like the colleague who was now dubbed “Aussie Bruce’‘, boasted he could see though Pigeon and his machinations. He wasn’t impressed by Pigeon’s girlfriend at all. Gerard, who considered himself something of movie buff and wrote film reviews for the News and Mail, decided in his own warped way to bring Pigeon down to size by writing a scathing review of his girlfriend’s sister’s latest film. The pen would be mightier than the sword in his conflict with Pallot, and he would pan the sister’s film. Gerard’s “reviews’’ were not in fact reviews in the real sense of the word because the films had already been considered by the critics when they first opened in London. Gerard’s reports were designed to be merely a guide to what films were showing at Woking’s three cinemas that week and Gerard’s writings were largely compiled from information handed out by the cinemas themselves.
When Gerard announced behind Pigeon’s back his intention to pan Miss Eggarton senior’s film there was a certain disquiet and unease among the staff. This had nothing to do with upsetting Pigeon, or even the moral question of panning the work of artists just because the critic did not like them or their associates. It had more to do with the fact that the cinemas handed out free tickets to staff and their families, and gave a discount on hotdogs and popcorn.
There was no need for this trepidation over Gerard’s action, however. When Gerard’s review appeared it was glowing. Did the offer of free tickets, and the popcorn, finally influence Gerard and get him to see reason, or had he genuinely fallen under the celluloid star’s spell, as editor Swatman and the rest of the office had.
Bentley suspected the latter, and so did Pigeon. From the moment the film review appeared, Pigeon started to drop hints to Gerard that perhaps they might at some stage travel to London together in Pigeon’s Mini Cooper and have tea with the actress at her Chelsea home. Pigeon had described the house often. He had drawn a crowd in the newsroom, with editor Swatman coming out of his office, as he described how the spacious home was set on an exclusive square in Chelsea, just off the famous King’s Road.
By now, John Gerard had stopped telling Pigeon to fuck off when he demanded drinks in the Red House. Pigeon did not even have to demand them anymore. He merely raised his empty glass and Gerard was quick to replenish it.
The Red House had largely remained the province of the younger members of the News and Mail staff, a refuge from the hectoring and lecturing of the chief reporter and the editor and his deputy. It was a place for talk about journalism, stories written and stories that had gotten away, and ambition and dreams. Pigeon was tolerated there, even in the knowledge that he did not share the modest ambitions of the rest of the young journalists, which basically amounted to a byline in a national newspaper.
This uneasy state of affairs was further strained when Pigeon started to bring some of his snobbish friends to the pub. They dominated the conversation with topics that were not to do with the day-to-day business of journalism, topics that included the choice of new cars and holidays in exotic foreign parts. Gin-and-tonics, and expensive whiskies, did not mix with beer and the cost of Pigeons’s rounds, usually paid for by the other staff members, began to spiral out of control.
“Hooray Henrys’‘, “Toffs’‘, and “Upperclass twits’‘, , the epithets flowed when Pigeon’s friends were out of earshot. Aussie Bruce just called them “Pommie bastards”, as he did all English people with the exception of a close circle of English friends he had made in the News and Mail newsroom, an incomplete circle made up of just two people, Bentley and Gerard.
One of the “toffs’’ making up Pigeon’s set went by the name of Giles Hamilton-Smythe, and he eventually spent so much time at the News and Mail office and in the Red House that the staff wondered whether he bothered to go to art school at all.
From the day he chatted up the barmaid in the Red House, it became clear that Hamilton-Smythe had an eye for the ladies. Editor Swatman had noticed this too, on a rare foray to the Red House to celebrate Pigeon’s 19th birthday. He had put Hamilton-Smythe in the category of “cad’‘, but it was far from a pejorative term. The staff suspected the editor secretly envied the lifestyle of Pigeon and Hamilton-Smythe and their set. Perhaps Editor Swatman had dreams of being a cad himself.
The chief reporter, a hard-bitten northerner from a steel town in Yorkshire who had been a mere lance-corporal in the war, kept a level head under this assault from the ruling classes. The chief reporter dubbed Hamilton-Smythe a “bounder’’ but Aussie Bruce, cutting though the lexicon of the British class divide, termed him a sexual predator. The Australian’s dislike of Pigeon’s friend was palpable and the reason soon became apparent.
Hamilton-Smythe was prone to boasting about his sexual exploits. One evening after too many gin-and-tonics he had announced proudly that he had cracked a source of young women, and sex, at a nursing home in nearby Guildford. He said he had a cousin who was studying medicine and had used his cousin’s accounts of his studies to present himself to the nurses as a first-year medical student at a teaching hospital in London.
“Every nurse wants to marry a doctor, ask any doctor,’’ he said with a laugh in the Red House. “And in truth, nurses are pretty thick. I mean if they knew anything about medicine they’d be doctors themselves. But lovely tits.’‘
The remark drew guffaws from Pigeon and Hamilton-Smythe. Gerard and Bentley sat in silence, considering what Hamilton-Smythe had said, contemplating possibly posing as medical journalists to gain entry to the nurses home. Australian Bruce Forbes, however, exploded in anger.
“You two, you should be ashamed of yourself,’’ he said to Bentley and Gerard, rising from his chair and pointing at them wildly. “I can understand it from these parasites, preying on nurses, preying on the working classes, on the blood sweat and toil of the masses, but you…’‘
Forbes stormed out of the pub, as Pigeon and Hamilton-Smythe guffawed again. It only became apparent later that Bruce Forbe’s sister was a nurse back home in Melbourne.
Gerard had never been into cars, but he always looked longingly at Pigeon’s Mini Cooper in the car park at the rear of the newspaper office. The car carried a British racing green livery, with thick white stripes running across the bonnet and the roof.
Pigeon had taken the decision to buy it, or rather ask his parents to buy it for his 18th birthday, after he had seen the Monte Carlo rally start from a hotel near London’s Heathrow Airport. Pigeon had been assigned to cover the story because the rally involved a driver and navigator from Woking. A party from the News and Mail had also gone, travelling with Pigeon in another staff member’s car. Gerard had gone not to see the cars but to drink champagne that was on offer at the press reception.
After that visit to the Monte Carlo rally, the sight of Mini Coopers had a strange effect on Gerard, although he never expressed any desire to actually drive one. The sudden interest in Minis might have had something to do with another starlet of the 1960s who had been on hand to wave the rally contestants on their way. She had posed in one of the Minis and, later, was seen to drive off in one of her own, a red one with an extra row of chrome headlights mounted on a bar in front of the radiator, like the ones in the rally.
The actress had recently featured in a horror film, produced by the Hammer House of Horror, which had been the subject of one of Gerard’s reviews. Gerard one afternoon, on a free ticket with six pints of bitter in him, had dozed off in his seat in the back row of the Odean, dreaming of rescuing the actress from the bite of a vampire.
“Once bitten, twice shy,’’ Bentley joked as Gerard told him of his dream over yet more beers that night in the Red House.
“You wouldn’t understand, Bentley,’’ Gerard had said tersely. “You wouldn’t know it if a vampire bit you on the fucking arse.’‘
After the Heathrow outing, Pigeon soon got his car. Anyone else would have kept it spotlessly clean, washing and polishing it on a Sunday afternoon with expensive wax, but Pigeon let the car fall into a state of dirtyness, apparently on purpose. He had watched the rally on television as it made its way across southern England, and across France to Monte Carlo, and observed the Minis arriving battered and bruised, along with their crews, at the finish line. That, said Pigeon, was how Mini Coopers were supposed to look and from that moment he never approached his car with a sponge. He also set out to deliberately put a few dents in it to give it an appropriate appearance, even though the rally had long since finished.
The other members of staff were appalled by what appeared to wanton disregard for personnel property. The editor remarked so, and even Gerard one day offered to clean Pigeon’s car for him, but he would have nothing of it.
“But that’s the fucking rich for you,’’ said the Australian Bruce Forbes, and over pints at the Red House one evening the rest of the staff had to agree with his sentiments.
After a time Aussie Bruce made no attempt to disguise his contempt for Pigeon. Initially Aussie Bruce had disguised his criticism with cutting humour, expecting Pigeon to join in the joke. Pigeon in turn had referred to Australian convicts, colonials and remittance men. But their relationship reached a low when at the town’s only Chinese restaurant, where the reporters often met for lunch, Pigeon had snatched the plate of food being placed before the Australian because it had a bigger portion. Even Bentley and Gerard, used to Pigeon’s selfish ways, sat rigid in their seats, in shock, awaiting for the plate of chow mein to be emptied over Pigeon’s head. It was a seafood dish and Gerard had managed to diffuse the explosive situation at that moment by blurting out to Pigeon, “Now don’t be shelfish,’’ a quip that had the table rolling in laughter. Forbes laughed, too, but not before taking back the plate that initially had been placed before him, all the while fixing Pigeon with a steely stare.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Tragedy and death makes no distinction between rich and poor, those with breeding and those without. So it was when one of the reporter’s took a call for Peter Pigeon one morning.
Pigeon did not take the phone immediately, a habit he had that was another cause of annoyance to his workmates. There was a single desk with a bank of phones in the newsroom, a desk with earphones for taking down copy, and a ringng phone was generally answered by the closest person to it at the time. Pigeon from the first day he had started at the newspaper conspired to get a desk as far away from the ringing phones as possible.
“Phone, Pigeon,’’ Gerard called out, and Pigeon kept on typing the story he was writing, gesturing that he would get to the phone when he had finished his paragraph, as he usually did.
“Pigeon,’’ Gerard shouted out again, putting his hand over the receiver. “I think this might be urgent.’‘
Pigeon merely continued typing, gesturing again.
“Look Pigeon this sounds very important,’’ Gerard said again. Pigeon stopped typing and uttered an exaggerated sigh as he slowly crossed the newsroom to where the phones were situated.
“Good God,’’ he screamed immediately after being handed the receiver. “Giles is dead. I can’t believe it.’‘
A hush fell across the newsroom, a nervous silence as the tap-tapping of typing slowly fell away. Pigeon listened to whoever was speaking on the other end of the line, shaking his head.
“Christ,’’ he kept muttering, without asking any questions. He was being filled in on the details of his friend’s death.
Pigeon finally put down the phone and stood in the same spot, staring at the floor.
“I can’t believe it,’’ he kept saying.
Editor Swatman had emerged from his glass-pannelled office, the uncharacteristic silence in the newsroom signalling that something unusual was going on.
“Everything OK, son?’’ he said to Pigeon, who by now had slumped in a chair, tears rolling down his face.
Gerard took the editor aside, to explain that Pigeon had been given terrible news on the phone.
“Now you just take the day off,’’ said Swatman to Pigeon. “You just take as long as you like.’‘
Pigeon did not spell out the detail of Hamilton-Smythe’s death before leaving the office, and no one wanted to ask. But it was soon revealed in the pages of the London Evening News when the newspaper hit the streets of Woking late that afternoon. The report said that a young man going by the name of Giles Hamilton-Smythe had been found dead beside the wall of a nurses’ home in Guildford. Above the body was a broken drainpipe and police were investigating the possibility that the victim might have fallen while trying to scale the pipe to gain access to one of the nurse’s bedrooms on the third floor after dark.
Pigeon was back at work next day. Later the reporters took him down to the Red House and when he said “Buy me whisky’‘, no one - certainly not Bentley, not Gerard and not even Aussie Bruce - had the heart to tell him to get fucked.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 36 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 href=“http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/C77/” title=“Don Knowler”>Don Knowler