SIDNEY BATESON marched into the office of the Woking News and Mail and straight to the chief reporter’s desk at the end of the newsroom. It was as though he had already reconnoitred the office for his arrival, and knew the lie of the land.
When he reached his desk, he put down his brown leather briefcase and then looked about him, surveying the landscape. He did not like what he saw. His eyes at first settled on John Gerard, and Bateson took note of his long wavy hair, before his gaze moved about the room, from one reporter to another. There were grunts of disapproval when Bateson saw long hair, a nod of approval when his eyes settled on one of the five reporters assembled whose appearance met Bateson’s idea of what being smart and presentable should be.
``Hello,’’ Bateson said finally. ``I’m Sidney Bateson. You’ve all heard of me. I’m your new chief reporter.’’ Each of the reporters moved forward in turn to shake Bateson by the hand. Gerard was last in the queue, as though resisting making personal contact with the new chief reporter, and when his time came he just said ``Welcome’’ coldly, looking Bateson straight in the eyes.
Word had reached the young reporters assembled in the News and Mail office that Bateson was coming to fill the slot of chief reporter created during a rationalisation of the newspaper that saw production moved to head office in nearby Guildford. The News and Mail editor had also gone to Guildford and someone of senior rank was needed in Woking, an older journalist to keep the young reporters in line. Bateson fitted the bill perfectly.
He had an impeccable record in various provincial establishments after World War Two had cut short a successful career as a sports writer in London’s Fleet Street. It seems that when he was demobbed from the army in 1945 he had been unable to pick up the pieces of his career and had moved into local newspaper journalism, editing newspapers across the length and breadth of southern England.
Why he had not stayed anywhere longer than about two years was never explained. It was probably his manner, with both reporters and management. Mr Bateson, as the staff of the Woking News and Mail would soon learn, was a difficult man to get along with.
Sidney Bateson had a military air and had clearly relished his time after he was called up in service of King and Country at the start of the war. He had reached the rank of major and in fairness to him he never mentioned this, but his nickname soon became ``Major Bateson’’ when we discussed him and his eccentricities behind his back.
``You will call me Mr Bateson,’’ he said that first day, ``None of this Sidney. That’s the way I like it. Am I making myself clear?’’ The assembled reporters nodded.
Bateson certainly carried himself like a military figure from World War II. The first thing I noticed about him was how immaculately groomed he was. He had combed-back Brylcreamed hair, a slick parting on one side dead straight, never wavering, always in the same position half way up the side of his head. He had a longish moustache, clipped like a suburban hedgerow, over his upper lip. His eyes, always sharp and gleaming, were framed by spectacles, their metal frames thin and oblong so they completely covered the eyes from all angles. Everything and everyone was constantly in focus. Bateson was determined not to miss a thing.
Bateson always wore a suit, a tweed one of a green colour not too far removed on the colour scale from kharki. His brown brogues were polished to a tee.
The world of journalism is a small one and word of Bateson’s iron rule in newsrooms had spread far and wide . The reporters of the Woking News and Mail had good reason to fear him. We had gone six months without a senior figure in the newsroom and discipline had started to slip, with visits to the Red House a little way up the road growing more and more frequent, and our stay there longer and longer.
Bateson was to bring not only discipline to the News and Mail but a return to what he described as ``the old ways’’ of reporting, where reports ran to great length and newspapers placed equal emphasis on being not only organs of record, but vehicles for entertainment. Gerard fell into the latter school of journalism and from the moment Bateson walked into the newsroom they were headed for a confrontation. Bateson also had strong ideas about journalists, how they deported themselves, how they behaved in public, how they carried out their role in society, how they nurtured and honed their craft.
Bateson came from the great Victorian tradition of English education in which Latin and Greek were learned along with science and history, where the rules of grammar took precedence over creativity and invention. The new chief reporter had gone to a top grammar school in the north of England. Gerard and myself had gone to secondary school, on a lower tier of the education system. Bateson had inquired about our schooling on that first day, and we had lied and said we had gone to Woking Grammar School.
``I have very strong rules about English,’’ he said that first day. ``I don’t like it abused. And I have very strong views about the presentation of news. I don’t like it exaggerated, not even in an intro. Facts speak louder than words.’‘
Gerard had become the dominant figure in the newsroom after the editor and his deputy had departed for Guildford. The chief reporter left in charge of the office had been a benign figure, a man from the Hampshire country town of Romsey, who was happy to get down to his own work and leave the other reporters to their own sources of news. It was better that way. Gerard always seemed to come up with stories far better than those assigned in the office diary, although the diary duties were important for routine news events like council meetings and the twice weekly sitting of the Woking Magistrate’s Court.
Gerard had ruled the roost in the News and Mail newsroom and his worse fears had been confirmed that first morning. Bateson, drawing on his science experience at school when a progressive teacher had introduced zoology and anthropology to the curriculum, considered himself the alpha male, the dominant figure in the office who had to be listened to and obeyed. Gerard saw himself as the leader of a rival pack and it soon became clear he would draw up a strategy to oust Bateson from not only his dominant position, but his job.
Gerard, during Bateson’s pep talk that first morning, felt he had to let the other reporters know that he was still a force to be reckoned with.
“About your views on writing news, Sidney, isn’t that something for the sub-editors and the editor,” Gerard piped up.
``Mr Bateson to you, laddie,’’ Bateson snapped back, his hedgerow moustache bristling. ``I don’t know what has gone on before, but I’m a chief reporter who reads all the copy that goes out from my office.’’ He pointed to a wire basket that he had placed at a corner of his desk, replacing one near the door where stories were deposited, to be collected twice a day by a messenger who put them on the bus to Guildford. ``All stories come into this basket, so that I can have a look at them. Do we understand each other?’‘
From day one there was tension between Gerard and Bateson. Bateson viewed Gerard as a rebel, an anarchist or even a communist. Gerard went against the norms of the society that Bateson had always recognised: stability and order. The rulers and the ruled, officers and gentlemen and the rest, the certainty and rigidity of the class system. If people wanted to step up the class ladder, to another rung, they had to work for it, but within the constraints that society laid down which meant, among other things, ironing out working class accents and dressing in a presentable way, always with collar and tie and short hair.
Gerard, born in Manchester, spoke with a well-practised northern accent to make himself stand out in the south, even though he had spent most of his life in Surrey. He sometimes went without a tie, and he let his hair grow long. Sometimes he didn’t bother to shave.
Bateson could just about tolerate the long, or longish hair. This was the age of the Beatles after all and Bateson was not averse to moving with the times, even if he preferred to move slowly. It was the reluctance to shave that got to Bateson and Gerard, when he learned that this was Bateson’s weak point, would purposely go for days without shaving, not merely forgetting to put a razor across his face after a hard night at the pub during the previous evening.
Bateson would comment on Gerard’s beard initially, but then let it pass. Clearly from early on, he had given up on Gerard and instead set out to cushion the other young reporters from Gerard’s subversive influence. Bateson made a point of sending out the younger reporters on night assignments when he knew Gerard had a music session planned for the pub, events that attracted all sorts of people - hippies even - that Bateson was wary off.
Bateson would also compliment reporters on their appearance when Gerard was in earshot, always saying: “You are the representative of not just the paper, but the profession. You’re its shop window.”
All the time Gerard plotted and conspired to bring Bateson down. He was particularly aggrieved because Bateson was a workaholic and worked until late into the evening most nights. This meant the office was out-of-bounds for Gerard’s jam sessions, and when the Red House closed Gerard and his music crew would often be forced to go home.
Like Gerard, Bateson didn’t appear to have much of a home life, and he never seemed to be in a hurry to leave the office. He had a wife somewhere, and teenage daughter, and some weekends he would travel to visit them, but details of his family were rarely revealed. It seemed a mutual separation, rather than a divorce, was in play.
Some evenings I’d return to the office from a night assignment and find Bateson sitting there, slowly typing away on the portable typewriter which he preferred to use instead of one of the bigger machines supplied by the newspaper.
His typing was immaculate, with never a crossed out word, or a spelling mistake, margins perfectly aligned, it was precision typing.
Once I found him asleep at his desk, his head resting on the return lever of his machine. He awoke with a start, and for the first and only time I saw a vulnerability about him, a man whose time had come and gone, a man trying desperately to rescue a career and a life.
Gerard’s first method of undermining the chief reporter was to conceal from Bateson the stories he was working on, beyond those assigned to him in the office diary. Gerard had a great nose for news, aided by his drinking in the Red House most evenings where rumours and gossip about the town could be picked up from an assortment of patrons that ranged from artisans in the public bar to the town’s business folk in the lounge and restaurant area.
Gerard would write these stories in secret and slip them into the hands of the messenger taking the day’s news output to the Guildford bus, bypassing Bateson’s in-tray. The first Bateson knew about Gerard’s stories - often making the front page of the News and Mail, if not the front-page lead itself - was when he saw them in the newspaper on publication day, Friday.
``Gerard,’’ he would bawl out each time, his moustache twitching. ``Why didn’t I know about this. There could be duplication.’‘
The reporters would chuckle to themselves, half hiding under their desks. They knew that duplication was not an issue. No one could get stories like Gerard, the News and Mail’s news hound.
Some days Bateson would open his beloved Daily Express and see a major story from Woking gracing its pages. He called the staff together, and demanded to know how the reporters of the News and Mail, his team, had let this one slip by, beaten on their own doorstep by a reporter from London. We all knew, if there was a story concerning Woking or thereabouts in the national press, in all probability it would have been generated by Gerard. Out of sight of Bateson, Gerard would wave a huge pile of pound notes, and give a thin-lipped smile; half snigger, half menace.
Bateson finally came to recognise that he could not win his daily battles with Gerard but he could win the war. He was confident he had won the allegiance of his staff and they would eventually choose him and his old-style, conservative journalism to the brashness of Gerard’s tabloid reporting.
All that was to change one night, on the eve of publication day, when a huge explosion rocked Woking. Bateson was still in the office working on a late report concerning the council, to be phoned to the sub-editors in Guildford just before deadline, and the blast stopped him in mid-sentence as it rattled the windows.
All the reporters were in the pub, as we always were on press night, the pressures of the week behind us. Gerard had his guitar out and we were tucked away in a corner, singing the blues. The explosion not so much rattled the windows of the pub, but virtually blew them out. Dust cascaded from the chandeliers in the pub’s lounge bar, and all the reporters ran out into the street, and then in the direction from where the blast had come from.
Just a few streets from the town centre, a semi-detached house had been completely split in two. It was like a scene from the London blitz, with one side of the building reduced to rubble and the other teetering but still standing, wallpaper flapping from exposed interior walls. The police where already there, holding the crowd back, but they let the reporters through their barrier. The fire brigade had just arrived and firemen were busy tugging at a huge pile of debris which stood where the house had been. The smell of cement and brick dust filled the air.
Bateson arrived shortly afterwards and started to direct his troops: there were neighbours to be found who might know the people who lived in the house. There were police officers and firemen to interview. All the white, Gerard kept out of Bateson’s path.
``Where’s that Gerard?’’ Bateson kept saying. ``I’ve got to give him his orders.’‘
Bateson, despite Gerard’s criticism of him and his news gathering skills and news judgement, was a seasoned journalist who knew how to act in the event of ``a big one’‘. He had phoned head office immediately on hearing the explosion, and warned them that a major story was coming.
``Hold the front page,’’ he shouted down the line to Guildford. Bateson was elated the explosion had occurred on a Thursday night, and not a Friday, because it would make that week’s edition, and in all probability double sales. The printers in Guildford would be ordered to print extra copies if the news warranted it, and on first impressions it certainly did.
Bateson did everything expected of him and under normal circumstances head office in Guildford would have been impressed. He marshalled his troops amid the cement and brick dust to cover just about every angle. There were the interviews with witnesses, as he had requested of his team, and speculation that a gas leak had been responsible. His staff had been able to identify a victim of the explosion, Alice Morris, and her injured husband, Les, who was now in hospital. A main report on the explosion and side reports on witness accounts and colour from the devastated scene were phoned through to Guildford in good time. Extra reporters had been called in to the Guildford office to act as telephonists to take down the reports filed rapidly from call boxes in the street.
Bateson had invited his staff to the Red House for drinks afterwards and the pub staff was happy to keep on serving well after closing time, with the doors locked. He was in jolly mood, a side to him that the reporters had not seen before. His mood might have been enhanced by the fact that Gerard was nowhere to be seen.
At the scene of the explosion, Bateson had finally given Gerard the relatively minor task of interviewing the fire brigade, when in fact the whole operation was under the control of the police. Gerard had slipped from sight during the course of the evening and Bateson had not been able to confirm whether he had actually filed any stories.
``That Gerard, can’t rise to the occasion,’’ he said smugly, believing that Gerard had finally been put in his place, had not been able to perform when it mattered, despite the swagger and bravado he showed in the office.
The story that appeared in the News and Mail the next morning, with the whole of Woking rushing out to buy the newspaper, was not the one that Bateson had filed. He had sent a sober report of the body being retrieved, the pending autopsy, the speculation that a gas main had burst and a resulting explosion was to blame for Alice Morris’s death and the injury to her husband.
The story that appeared in the News and Mail that morning had a headline that screamed: ``My poor Alice”. It went on to describe how firemen pulling the body of Alice Morris from the wreckage of the house had found a carving knife buried in her back. Her husband had confessed to police that he had killed her in a rage and had then put his head in the gas oven, and turned on the gas, to kill himself. The gas from the oven, seeping through the house, had in turn been ignited, probably by the pilot light in a gas water heater upstairs.
The explosion may have levelled the house, but Les Morris was saved from fatal injury because his head had been protected by the gas oven. Pulled from the wreckage he had immediately confessed to the murder, although this had not been made public.
Gerard, on the edge of the crowd of reporters viewing the rescue effort of Les Morris, had been taken aside by one of his firemen contacts who had found Alice Morris’s body and seen the knife sticking from it. All those mornings sipping hot tea with the firemen at the fire station, and playing billiards with them, when he should have been out on his village rounds, had paid off. A policeman contact gave him second confirmation that it was indeed a murder inquiry.
Bateson was humiliated over the Alice Morris murder, and this inspired Gerard to step up his subversion. He tried to recruit me to his campaign and I was torn between my professional regard for Bateson, and my hero worship of Gerard, and our close friendship.
Because Bateson had worked on the Daily Express in London, this fact gave him immense credibility in my eyes. It was my favourite newspaper, the one my parents took each morning and I always waited impatiently for it to drop through our letterbox. The Daily Express, established at the end of the Victorian era, was owned by Canadian businessman and Anglophile Lord Beaverbrook and for decades was Britain’s most successful and most widely read newspaper.
Everything about the Express and ``The Beaver’‘, as its proprietor was called, exuded journalism as every recruit to the profession wanted to live it. Even its famous editor in the pre- and post-WWII years, Arthur Christiansen, appeared like a caricature of how an editor should look and behave, down to shirt sleeves, braces and, on occasions, visor to shield the harsh light of the newsroom, the sort of headgear that editors wore in Hollywood films.
Christiansen had even played himself in a sci-fi film of the early 1960s, The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Unsurprisingly, Christiansen’s autobiography was titled ``Headlines All My Life’‘, a book I had read a dozen times over.
Because of his Express connection, I admired Bateson and looked up to him. Many journalists claimed to have worked in Fleet Street, but they often merely filled holiday relief jobs and had not held down permanent positions on national newspapers. Bateson had, and he had the bylines to prove it, which he would show to his staff, at times when he felt he was losing his reporters’ respect.
I may have held Bateson in awe, but I couldn’t shrug off my admiration for Gerard’s news gathering skills, and his punchy style of writing. While Bateson represented the old, Gerard was the new face of journalism, the young, brash reporter who wrote in a tabloid style. There were only two tabloid newspapers in Britain out of a dozen or so national publications and I was not totally impressed with them, but I liked the way they treated stories, I only wished they would run them a little longer and tone down the sensational headlines.
After the story about the explosion, in the knowledge that Gerard had deliberately set out to undermine him, Bateson decided to put his foot down and bring Gerard and the rest of the staff into line. Bateson might have detected subversion in the air, orchestrated by Gerard, from day one, but now the chief reporter could see it was evolving into actual rebellion. It was time for Bateson to act, and he did so in the only way he knew how: to instill some military discipline into the staff. Bateson may have largely given up on Gerard but still felt compelled to save me and the other reporters from Gerard’s influence. He had long complained to the advertising manager of the newspaper that Gerard was a bad influence. He described Gerard one evening, when they had both remained late in the office to plan a bumper edition of the News and Mail over the Christmas period, as a “Svengali” who held the other reporters, particularly me, in his spell. ``I’ve got to break that spell on those boys,’’ he had said determinedly.
Bateson concentrated on me, where he found hope. He could sense the respect, the admiration, I held for him. I wanted to learn and he had much to teach, from a wider world than that inhabited by Gerard.
As his frustrations with Gerard grew, Bates paid more and more attention to me, nit-picking my journalism, and my appearance. All the reporters were growing their hair longer by the week, as the hairstyles of the Beatles grew longer, and Bateson would pull me aside as soon as my hair approached my collar. He would walk up behind me and ask: ``Am I hurting you laddie?” As I turned, I would find him standing there like a sergeant-major on the parade ground, hands behind his back, his back ram-rod straight. Then he would lean forward slowly, so his mouth was just a few inches from my ear.
``Am I hurting you, laddie?” he would ask again, barking out the words louder now, the other reporters tittering in the background.
``No, Mr Bateson,’’ I’d say nervously.
``Well, I should be, laddie. I’m standing on your bleedin’ hair.’‘
On another occasion I had not had time to shave that morning, in a hurry to get to the office to phone the clerk of a local parish council after forgetting to go to their meeting the previous evening.
``Did you shave this morning, laddie,’’ Bateson barked, pressing up close to me and inspecting my chin.
``Yes, Mr Bateson,’’ I lied.
``Well, stand a little closer to the razor next time, laddie,’’ he said as laughter rang out across the office. Bateson remained standing close to me. Ram-rod straight, hands behind his back, his beady eye in the artificial light of the office fixed on my chin.
Bateson always appeared to criticise me more than the other reporters. Perhaps he wasn’t singling me out for special treatment but it appeared so. I think he genuinely saw a future for me in journalism, the journalism he had practised all his life, if only he could prise me away from the malign influence of Gerard.
Despite Bateson’s noble intentions, the resentment I was beginning to feel towards him was pushing me towards Gerard and his subversion. Gerard sensed this and played on it. He would niggle me, telling me to hit back at Bateson, something I could never do.
``Don’t know how you let him talk to you like that, treat you like a little kid. Worse, like a teenage army recruit, a squaddie. Why don’t you just tell him to `piss off’.’‘
Over the months the tension in the office slowly increased, and I found myself increasingly caught between Gerard and Bateson. I was the rope in a kind of tug-of-war for my allegiance.
One Friday morning, when yet another story had appeared as the News and Mail’s front-page lead without Bateson’s knowledge, the chief reporter officially announced he was going to run the office on military lines, as he had often threatened to do in the past. What this meant exactly, the reporters had no idea. None of us had done compulsory National Service which had ended in the late 1950s, and we were, of course, too young to have served in the war.
``I was in the army cadets at school, Mr Bateson,” Gerard volunteered with mock enthusiasm. And a smile crossed Bateson’s face. He could not see Gerard was setting him up and he saw hope in the statement and salvation for Gerard, and this was something that had come out of the blue.
``Yes, I was in the cadets at school, but I dropped my rifle, and shot the instructor by mistake.’‘
Gerard’s joke was the last straw for Bateson. He turned, walked to the end of the room and slowly returned, as if in a military funereal march.
``Right,’’ he shouted, his voice booming out. ``Stand to attention, quick smart, One straight line.``
We all shuffled into a line alongside one wall, hands straight at our sides and looking forward, standing to attention as Bateson ordered. Bateson walked down the line, pausing to inspect each individual. He started with the hair, to check length, then the chin to check whether we’d shaved and then his eyes dropped to our collar and tie, suit, and down to the shoes. The sight of stubble, cigarette ash on the lapel or a scruffy, unpolished shoe would cause a low grunt to be emitted from his mouth.
I was at the end of the line and watched Bateson out of the corner of my eye as he approached. I sensed a colleague standing next to me, Tony Miller, was stifling a laugh and I fought hard not to start giggling myself. I closed my lips tightly, held in my chest, and held my breath, anything to stop this giggle that was welling up inside me, bursting out.
As Bateson reached the colleague beside me, praising his appearance as a model of how a reporter should look, I erupted in an explosion of sound, a giggle-come-laugh-come-shriek, a sound that just came from nowhere, a sound I could not recognise as my own.
``I’m sorry, Mr Bateson,’’ I gasped, trying to catch a fresh breath. I looked along the line expecting my colleagues to at least have a smile on their faces, but they looked straight ahead in earnest, not a laugh, not a titter, this was serious business.
I felt betrayed and a fool.
``I’m sorry ....’’ I started again, but Bateson cut me short.
``Bentley,’’ he bawled out, so the words echoed along the walls of the newsroom. ``Fall out, I’ll deal with you later.’‘
My punishment for giggling on parade was a month covering the traffic court, as opposed to the general magistrates’ court that dealt with crime. The traffic court duty involved visiting the clerk of the court’s office before each sitting and writing down the names and addresses of scores of defendants and the summons they faced. The details of such traffic infringements as speeding and driving without due care and attention were all reported at length in that week’s newspaper.
As an added punishment, I was assigned a month of flower shows, again a task that involved little creative journalistic effort beyond writing down, and then typing out, the names of winners in sometimes hundreds of categories.
The biggest show was in the village of Horsell, a hamlet that had somehow managed to resist the tentacles of suburban London that had swallowed up much of Woking on its London side. The “old-world charm”’ of Horsell was a cliche that fitted nicely with the style of the News and Mail’s writing, and the chief practitioner of it, Bateson, but it nonetheless described Horsell perfectly. The village lived in a time warp that predated the Swinging Sixties. Here was the 1930s and 1940s when Horsell’s two greatest heroes, the cricketing Bedser twins, put it briefly on the map. The twins, playing for Surrey and England, were straight out of the Boy’s Own comics of the pre-war era, as was Horsell. It came as no surprise when I popped into the village store for a Tizer drink that essential equipment for the Boy’s Own manual - catapults, stink bombs and marbles - still found a place on the shelves along with Licorice Allsorts and humbugs boiled sweets.
Gerard and I often joked about visiting stuck-in-the-past Horsell with its flower show and its eccentric vicar who had a passion for birdwatching, and I bought a couple of stink bombs as a joke for my colleagues, rehearsing the cry “cripes,” “spiffing” or “gee- whizz” for when I would let them off in the Red House.
The standard commercial stink bomb comprised a chemical that smelled like rotten eggs, in a small glass tube that was designed to be thrown on the floor, or crushed under a boot, so when the glass broke it released the foul-smelling liquid.
The first one I let off in the Red House, under Gerard’s favourite chair; not that it had much effect. The Red House always had a strange smell about it, especially when the pub was cooking lunch.
Gerard looked at me, and said, ``Was that you?’‘, thinking I had merely farted. When I told him it was a stink bomb, a wicked smile creased his face. His eyes lit up. Bateson had come to mind.
After the humiliation dished out to me by Bateson, it was time for revenge. A stink bomb under Bateson’s desk should do the trick and it would give us all a laugh as Bateson stopped typing and sniffed the air, his moustache twitching. The prank fitted in nicely with the japes of the Boy’s Own comics. We are only teenagers after all.
Next day I crept up behind Bateson when he was on the phone to Guildford, Bateson arguing that somebody had changed his copy. He had written that a local government official had been ``grilled’’ during a council meeting over a planning proposal, and this had been changed to ``closely questioned’‘.
Bateson was arguing that grilled was the better word, and I found myself, standing behind him with stink bomb in hand, agreeing with him. It was the sort of phrase the Daily Express would have used, and even Gerard.
I couldn’t go through with the stink bomb jape, not today when Bateson had problems with head office. I could see Gerard gesturing from the far end of the office, ``Get on with it’‘, he was saying by waving his arms.
Finally, I dropped the stink bomb on the floor and crushed it with my shoe, and then headed towards the end of the room where Gerard was standing. Bateson had just put the phone down when the smell hit him. The News and Mail newsroom was a far more confined space than the Red House and the smell was potent. Bateson rose from his seat and looked about him, his head thrown back, his eyes wide open, his nostrils extended.
``Gas,’’ he bellowed. ``Gas leak, evacuate the building.’‘
Suddenly a fear overcame me. This was an extreme reaction I had not anticipated, an evacuation of the building was not in the script. It was time to own up. I went forward to Bateson’s desk to confess, but he had bent down and was sniffing what looked like a gas pipe running along the wall. I was anxious he might kneel in the fragments of broken glass that held the stink-bomb chemical, and I had to talk to him quickly.
``Mr Bateson,’’ I started gingerly. ``It might not be gas you know…..’‘
``Go away boy, ‘’ he shouted. ``I know gas when I smell it. It was the same in the war, when Jerry broke the gas mains with the bombing.’‘
``But ...” I continued. Bateson merely waved me away. Panic was overtaking me now, my job was a stake, the advertising manager had been called in and endorsed Bateson’s order to evacuate. I took myself outside, still intending to come clean, whatever the outcome. I walked around the block to clear my head, to think of how I would tell Bateson it was me. No excuses, no suggestion that it was accidental, a stink bomb designed for someone else that had dropped out of my pocket. It was time to be totally honest. Bateson might admire that.
When I rounded the corner, heading back to the office, I saw a fire engine, lights flashing, parked outside the News and Mail office, firemen in breathing apparatus entering the building. I retreated to the Red House and found Gerard there. He was sinking a pint with a satisfied look on his face. He didn’t say a word to me, just kept smiling and offering to buy all and sundry in the pub a drink. After a couple of pints I decided to venture back to the office. The fire bridge had departed, and staff at the reception counter in the front office were working normally. I walked down the corridor to the newsroom and paused at the door. Bateson was back at his desk.
``So what about the leak?’’ I asked of a colleague.
``Oh, firemen said it as just rotten eggs. Someone’s been throwing them at the front window again.’‘
Eggs, and once dog’s muck, were commonly thrown at the office at night, usually by readers aggrieved by the publicity their court case had received in the newspaper.
``Funny, though, ‘’ said Tony Miller. ``Couldn’t find any egg shells. But there you have it.’’
Bateson had looked for egg shells, too. And he had looked behind his desk and found tiny fragments of broken glass. Bateson was of the Boy’s Own generation. He knew all about japes and jokes and stink bombs. And he looked across the newsroom at me. I had been the one to show concern, to suggest it might not be a gas leak. And Bateson knew.
Bateson had not forgotten my giggling during his inspection parade and he still had a plan to bring me in line, Gerard or no Gerard. The Woking area was home to a number of military camps that always produced much news for the News and Mail. Bateson created a military beat, or round, to keep reporters busy on quiet news days and I was the first to fill the new position.
On my first assignment I was sent to interview a soldier who had been given an award for humanitarian work while on a training mission to one of Britain’s former colonies in East Africa. Bateson revelled in any subject involving the military because of his wartime background and, as he put it, prising stories out of the military, particularly the Guards Regiments stationed in the Woking area, would soon separate the newsroom men from the boys. My destination was the Guards Depot at nearby Pirbright - the Guards’ home and training base when they were not guarding Buckingham Palace in London, or training overseas, or at war - and Bateson had given me a full briefing before my departure. The soldier to be interviewed, a regimental sergeant-major, had served with Bateson during the Desert Campaign in North Africa during World War II and I should treat him with respect.
When I arrived at the soldier’s home, his wife led me into the front room, and I awaited the old warrior, settling into a plush armchair.
``You ‘orrible little man, you, stand to attention when I’m addressing you.’’ A voice boomed out, not unlike Bateson’s but a sergeant-major’s voice with a hard, uncompromising edge. ``You ‘orrible excuse for a ‘uman being,’’ the voice continued, “You salute when I’m speakin’ to you.’‘
The door opened and in stepped the sergeant-major, who looked a little surprised to see me standing to attention, with my hand raised in salute. The voice boomed out again and I turned to see an Indian mynah in a cage that had learned to mimic its owner, a bird I had not noticed when I entered the room.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 15 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