Image for The Chronicle (54): Butterflies on the semi-fast from Basingstoke

Don Bentley sat in the compartment of the train heading to London, thinking of murder. The smoke from the thundering steam engine wafted past the window as the teenage Bentley drifted in thought. Bentley was occupied not so much with the act of murder and its repercussions; the police investigation, the court case, the gallows. Bentley was imagining he was the reporter with a scoop; the journalist who broke the news of the killing first, the pressman whose byline was on the front page.

The whistle of the steam locomotive blew as it approached the tangled rails of Clapham Junction a few miles from the terminus at Waterloo and Bentley’s thoughts took a different track. What if he had solved a crime that had baffled police, had brought the murderer to justice?

Bentley’s mind raced in all sorts of directions on the semi-fast from Basingstoke each morning, after he had boarded the train at his stop. What adventures he had on the train but today was different. The adventure seemed real, it was within reach. Bentley was being transported to the West Coast of America during the 30-minute journey. He was John Wayne, or Cary Grant or Gregory Peck, one of his Hollywood heroes playing the honest and tough newsman on the silver screen at the Gaumont, the Odeon or the Ritz in his home town of Woking, last stop before Waterloo.

Bentley’s latest adventure had started at the Woking Public Library a few days previously, where the teenager had lifted a book on journalism, or more precisely how to become a journalist, from the shelves.
To this day, four decades on, Bentley could not recall what exactly prompted him to venture into the library to choose the book. It was a place Bentley never went. He was not a particularly avid reader, was hopeless at English at school (along with maths) and his only reading matter of choice during his schoolboys at been Boy’s Own comics and the Daily Express, the newspaper that at popped through the letter box of the family home each morning.

Perhaps reading that newspaper each day, not just the sports pages but its foreign coverage that took Bentley to the exotic places represented in his stamp collection, sowed the seeds for a lifetime love of newspapers. As an indication of how his passion for newspapers would grow, Bentley parted with some of his meagre earnings as a messenger boy in London’s Fleet Street to buy an evening newspaper, the Evening News, to read on the train journey home.

Bentley’s sudden interest in the written word, packaged in a newspaper, was perplexing. Instead of the three Rs, Bentley’s interests at school had lay in art and sport. He was in fact an accomplished artist and thought his destiny was to become a commercial artist. He gained acceptance to a leading art school in Surrey but at the last moment decided not to go.

In frustration, and disappointment in view of Bentley’s lack of academic success, his parents had packed him off to London, his father suggesting he take up a job with a public relations firm that was advertising for a messenger boy. His father assumed, wrongly, that this would give Bentley exposure to art studios and perhaps he might be able to take up an appointment as artist trainee, as an alternative to going to art school. The public relations company instead gave Bentley exposure to journalism, but what was it about this craft that inspired his imagination, gave him a thrill. Was it the occupation itself, or those who plied the trade, the journalists? Bentley would never know, but hooked he was and there would be no turning back.

The title of the book, and the name of its author, was long lost to memory, forgotten after Bentley had returned the book to the public library, well thumbed from two readings. He might even have received a fine for its late return. The contents were also vague after 40-odd years but the chapter on the author covering his first murder was implanted in Bentley’s memory, as heavy as the large type, slightly fudged, of late-breaking news printed in the stop-press column of the evening newspapers that, during Bentley’s long career in journalism, would vanish from the streets of London.

The young reporter in the book had gone to his local police station to inquire about a death and had been given a wink, a nod that it was just not an accidental fatality, an autopsy report had revealed foul play.

The reporter in the book described how he dashed to a telephone and phoned the news desk. Then filed his brief story, to be padded out later by more experienced staff when more information came to hand.

It was not quite “give me a rewrite man” as they said in the Hollywood movies, British reporters were required to write their own stories, but Bentley could picture the young reporter in the phone booth, struggling in his pocket for loose change, the excitement resonating in his voice as he hurriedly blurted out his story down the line.

The train had reached the buffer stops at Waterloo, the steam and smoke from the locomotive drifting across the wide platforms but Bentley remained in his seat. He hadn’t got to the end of the chapter and was desperate to find out if the reporter got his byline.  Passengers clutching for briefcases, umbrellas, newspapers; Bentley ignored them, transfixed, a tingle in his stomach, just dying to get to the end. Bentley had never forgotten that day, and over a period of 40-odd years, had felt that same indiscernible, indescribable tingle in his stomach - butterflies on the semi-fast from Basingstoke - every time he walked into a newspaper office.
After a lifetime in newspapers, a life at the typeface as Bentley would often joke, he had no regrets, even if he now lamented the demise of newspapers as he had known them all those years ago when he set out on his great adventure, an adventure that would literally take him to newsrooms around the world.
In 1963, Bentley had arrived in the Street of Adventure, Fleet Street, and adventure beckoned. Newspapers, though, were not merely a window on the world for a teenager cautiously making his way in it. The newspaper’s place in society, its role in the democratic process, its snapshot of history, of the way we are, and the way we were in bygone years, was not apparent to the young Bentley dreaming of adventure. That would come later. Meanwhile, Bentley was content to cruise Fleet Street and its byways, its snaking lanes and alleys, delivering parcels of samples and press releases, meeting journalists both at his own place of employment and in newspaper and magazine offices around central London. A trip to the sandwich shops to buy lunch for the secretaries, lunch for himself at a ``greasy spoon’’ cafe frequented by printers, of egg-and-chips with a doorstep of buttered white bread; pausing at the news vendor’s stand outside the Express offices, to be told the Scout, the Express’s horse-race tipster had just given him a sure-fire tip; and if time allowed, a detour to Leather Lane, to the north of Fleet Street, to a record shop that had the latest Beatles LP.

On his travels down Fleet Street, Bentley would always pause outside the Daily Express building, even if he did not have a delivery to make there. The building, in black glass, was in art deco style, dominating a corner of “the Street” close to Ludgate Circus at its eastern end. It could have been the place where Superman worked, in his guise as Clark Kent.

The 1932 building was dubbed the “black lubyianka” by those who worked there, for reasons Bentley could never ascertain. As he stood there in the building’s shadow, he was thrilled by the thought of all the journalists beavering away inside. From the time he had first learned to read, Bentley had each morning perused the words and pictures and cartoons emanating from this fortress of magic.

Mornings and afternoons Bentley made coffee for the whole staff at the public relations firm where he worked, about 30 people, and this would give him a chance to linger as he delivered the coffee to desks, to chat to journalists about their craft. And not only the art of the wordsmith. Bentley was taught the ancient journalistic art of being creative with expenses. And after this, underground trains were taken instead off taxis, and taxi petty cash was used to buy Beatles records.

The journalists employed by the public relations firm may have retired from newspapers, most of them a little long in the tooth for news reporting, but they had their finger on the pulse of the Street. They had much to tell Bentley and he had much to learn. There was a man who had been industrial editor of the Guardian, a former foreign correspondent with tales of Africa and an ex-chief sub-editor of the London Evening News. This had become Bentley’s favourite newspaper; in the fast-paced, exciting world of journalism there was nothing like a newspaper that recorded the daily story of a metropolis in a nine-to-five timespan. It was straight out of Superman.

The daily, slow-paced life at the public relations company might have brought Bentley down to earth, but he could still sense the heritage, the foundations, the bones of a newsroom. There were journalists who had once specialised in hard, headline news. As in their newspaper careers, in the public relations firm they sat alongside feature writers who could turn the electrical transformers of one of the company’s clients, South Wales Switchgear, into a thing of beauty as if described by William Wordsworth. The firm had its drunks, too, who would return from long lunches and breathe a combination of beer and whisky fumes on Bentley as he made them coffee to sober them up for meetings in the afternoon.

Bentley bought booze for the office drinks cabinet and was berated for buying the wrong sort of gin. Bentley didn’t know there was more than one kind, and different kinds of whisky and red wine. Bentley soon learned that journalism, more than any other professional, trade or craft, was not just about the occupation itself, it was a way of life, a social thing, a big family; it was about having fun, fun driven by alcohol, the spirit that fuelled it in mind and body.

It was at an office gathering, after being sent back to the off-licence to get the right kind if gin, that Bentley heard a definition of the newspaper and what it represented that he would never forget. It was given by a journalist in his 60s, seeing out his last days before retirement, who had lamented leaving newspapers too soon, joining the “dark side” of public relations, seduced by its higher wages, and weekends off.

The journalist had been sent a hamper by one of his clients, a hamper from Fortnum and Mason, delicatessens to the Queen, and he wanted to share its contents with the staff. Bentley was just grateful he wasn’t made to go and collect it. The hamper was huge, in a giant wicker basket. The journalist, with colleagues gathered around, slowly opened its lid, to reveal shelves, and then rows, of delicacies: Fortnum pickle, anchovy tapenade, Scottish wild smoked salmon, foie gras, Earl Grey tea and gamekeepers’ fruit cake. The journalist reached inside and slowly retrieved items, presenting them to assembled members of staff.

``Now, Bentley,’’ he said, giving the young messenger a tray of Belgian chocolates. ``A Fortnum and Mason hamper is like a newspaper. It comes neat and organised, in a package. You glance at it, admire it, but you don’t let anyone else touch it, not at first, not until you’ve opened it. It’s packed with goodies for you to reach in and grab, and when you’ve looked at them, you can share them, shout out things, what’s inside. There are spicy things, sweets things, pickled things, chewy things, things to chew over.

``That’s what a newspaper is, son, a hamper. And if it’s a good newspaper, it’s a Fortnum and Masons hamper. And there’s nothing like it, no substitute. Things may look like a hamper, have gaudy wrapping, grab your attention for a minute, be of no substance. But a hamper goes deep, there’s something for everybody, something to share.

``Don’t you forget that son.’‘

At that party, one of the journalists, who coincidentally came from Woking and had seen Bentley reading his book on journalism, suggested Bentley try the Woking News and Mail for a job. He said his son had a friend on the paper who had started out by writing wedding and obituary notices, together with making tea. It was a job Bentley could do, and get his foot on the first rung of journalism’s ladder.

Bentley would finally take his advice and apply. Bentley for the time being was not in a hurry. There was the Fleet Street atmosphere to soak up, to dream before dreams became a reality, and Bentley got what he wished for, with all the hard work, and knockbacks, that went with it.

Bentley had discovered the Street of Adventure. For many it also became the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, but Bentley would never know it by that name.