Don Bentley sat in the Hobart Magistrate’s Court, waiting for his name to be called.
The matter at hand was a contested traffic infringement but, as on the day Bentley may or may not have committed the offence, the defendant let his attention drift from the road ahead.
Bentley was surveying the press gallery in Court No.1 and, more specifically, its empty seats. He was thinking of the time when the press gallery would be crowded, like the court itself.
The daily parade of petty thieves, burglars, prostitutes and their pimps, drunks and drug addicts was the staple of the local newspaper, along with the more trivial, non-criminal traffic matters that brought more worthy citizens in conflict with the law.
Many a reporter had cut their teeth on the goings on at the magistrate’s court. On newspapers of the past, being promoted to court reporter - usually under the guidance of a more senior hand - was a sign that the young, cub reporter had finally completed his or her initial training successfully, and was ready to move to higher echelons.
But no more. The newspapers of old might have provided a record of a day in the life of village, town or city – reporting on all events and happenings in minutiae - but now the press tended to focus on a wider sphere, and do it in less tabloid space.
Instead of the flotsam and jetsam of society at the courts, the ebb and flow of life at street level, newspapers now demanded that cases before the magistrate’s court had to be truly newsworthy, or unusual, usually including a celebrity on a minor misdemeanour where name alone gave the story currency.
Bentley was in no mood to speculate on the decline of the court reporter, or indeed those who reported on town and city councils, knowing that the debate with himself would always reach the same conclusions: the newspaper as he had once known it was dying, and with it the organ of public record. Bentley was living in the past.
Bentley was thinking of all those court reporters who once inhabited those empty places in the press gallery, and one name in particular, the price of court reporters, James A. Jones, of the now long-lost London Evening News.
Bentley first stumbled on Jones’ ``Courts Day by Day’’ column when he was a schoolboy, as he searched for sports news in the newspaper his father brought home each evening. At the same time, the other reports he found in the newspaper not devoted solely to sport taught Bentley there was another world out there beyond the football pitch. It might have even helped fire his ambition to be a journalist one day, for Bentley had never determined from where that spark had come from.
By the time Bentley had reached the ``Street of Dreams’’ in the late 1960s as a journalist after working there as a messenger boy and then cutting his teeth on a weekly newspaper, Jones had retired, slipping away virtually unnoticed without extravagant farewell, in much the same manner he had slipped in and out of the magistrate’s courts for more than for 30 years.
But a half century on from the last Courts Day by Day column, Bentley was delighted to find a homage to Jones on a website devoted to the glory days of Fleet Street, the Gentlemen Ranters. One veteran recalled Jones as reclusive, someone who would slip into the Evening News building briefly and then disappear as silently as he arrived. He was also described by others as an insignificant man in round glasses, You would have thought he worked in a chemists.
All the same he took his place in the pantheon of Fleet Street’s greatest writers during a golden era of the British press from the 1930s to the 1960s. The bald, bespectacled and deferential James A Jones wrote what was undoubtedly the best-read column in London. Every journalist venturing into a court tried to copy him, but no one could do it as well. He only covered the lower London police courts - Bow Street, Marlborough Street, Old Street, and Clerkenwell - and went in search of not the sensational, but the humdrum.
He brought humanity to the functional, staid interior of the courts with such descriptions of those standing before the bench: ``She was as insubstantial as a sigh.’’
In a column from 1947, he wrote:
In the 1890s, when hansoms jingled along the streets of London and every City clerk wore a silk hat, John was picking pockets in The Strand.
King Edward came to the throne and motors began to splutter in Piccadilly and John’s hands went on sliding into pockets. He thieved all through the four years of the Great War. Dictators rose to power and maps were altered overnight but John, white haired and venerable, was still standing with his itching fingers amongst the noise and bustle of The Strand.
A detective who had not been born when John picked his first pocket saw that round old figure in the throng by a bus stop. He watched him for a while and then tapped him on the shoulder.
`I’m arresting you, ’ he said.
`All right, ’ said John.
John turned resignedly, as he had so often in the years, towards the usual trial and inevitable sentence. He walked on old slow feet towards the dock at Bow Street, and he rested his slender old fingers on the wooden rail in front of him. His face was round and pink below the snow of his hair, his eyes had a dim kindliness in them, and his coat curved amply around him towards the ground. He looked a gentle but rather timid old man, an old man unworldly but benign, and he blinked at the solemnity of the court.
`You are charged,’ said the clerk briskly, with being a reputed thief, loitering to pick pockets in the street.
`Guilty,’ said John in an old voice.
`You understand the charge?’
`Oh yes,’ said John.
Mr Fry, on the bench, had been regarding John with his usual air of grave surprise. Now he spoke to the detective in the witness box. ‘Do you know anything about this man?’ he asked, rubbing his chin musingly.
The detective unfolded a massive sheet of documents. ‘Yes, sir,’ he answered. ‘Unfortunately he has a most appalling record of crime. He’s an expert pick-pocket and has 34 convictions’
`Thirty four,’ echoed Mr Fry dubiously. `You could hardly call him an expert, could you, if he’s been caught 34 times?’
The detective glanced at John’s white hair and venerable stoop. `He’s been picking pockets since 1896, sir,’ he explained.
The columns were so popular that a hardback collection of them was published despite wartime paper rationing.
Bentley’s first job, as a messenger boy prior to entering journalism, coincided with the tail end of Jones’ career. Bentley travelled to central London each day from his home in the suburbs and on the return journey he would see commuters with the Evening News turning immediately to the Courts Day by Day column, after only a glance at the front page.
All the columns followed the same style. No full names or addresses of the defendants, merely a first name and the outcome of the case left until the last.
It was the opposite of everything taught by news desks and journalism colleges. Jones might have broken the rules of court reporting, eschewing brevity and devoting precious column-inch space to detailed descriptions of defendants, police officers, magistrates and lawyers, but he had much to teach those wishing to pursue the art and craft of court reporting in which exponents needed not only an immaculate shorthand note, but a knowledge of the law and the structure and routine of the court system.
Jones had an ear for dialogue and utterance and nuance, as well-tuned as that of a playwright for stage or screen. In his shorthand notebook, and then on his typewriter, he bought to life conversations from different worlds - magistrate, police officer and defendant. A Jones story was a prism, capturing three impossibly different views of human existence.
Even Time magazine afforded Jones the accolade of running a profile of him at a time when the News far outsold the other evening newspapers in Britain and the United States with a readership of 1.6 million daily. At the end of the war the Evening News sent Jones to cover the Nuremburg war crimes trials.
Evening News crime reporters who worked with Jones said he would get to the courts before they opened at 10am, and sharpen his pencils for the now largely outdated Pitman’s shorthand note, in which different thickness of stroke, and place on the line, indicated different words and phrases. Crime reporters would only be in court for the big story, but Jones would choose his subjects carefully, to get enough colour from his morning stint to head to the office for a lunchtime deadline. But first he would call into the Press Club, have a stiff drink, and hit the Evening News office at about noon. His copy would be in the sub-editors’ basket by 1.30pm. It was as perfect as his shorthand note, never requiring any work by the sub-editors to hone and sharpen it.
After an hour, Don Bentley was still waiting for his case to be called. Road traffic summonses were left to last, the more serious offences of theft and violence going before, usually because defendants were represented by lawyers and lawyers’ time was money.
The parade before the bench included an anti-logging protester in dreadlocks charged with causing a public nuisance by lying in front a logging truck, a sad old woman accused of stealing underwear from a store, and a forger of cheques to pay a gambling debt.
James A. Jones would have been happy with this material, in a different age, as would the host of seasoned court reporters, shorthand notebook and sharpened HB5 pencils in hand, Bentley had known from the Surrey courts he attended as a young reporter.
Bentley was thinking of those times, and all the court reporters consigned to history as many a repeat offender had been consigned to jail, and Bentley was wondering what they would have made of a press bench with empty seats.