Don Bentley left the table tennis players at the Chronicle to their game one night, tired of ping-pong.
He wandered across the road in his break to Mahoney’s pub and sat at the bar.
The juke-box, which usually filled the pub with music, was quiet this night and when Don Bentley looked about him he saw that he was the only patron in the bar. The barmaid was new, she didn’t know Bentley, and so there was no one to make conversation with. A pub without conversation, a pub without gossip and fun, was almost as bad as a pub without beer. It was an unfamiliar environment for Bentley. He felt a quiet melancholy come over him, remembering all those pubs of yesteryear, those jolly faces, the spilt drinks, the fights.
Bentley wandered over to the juke-box to make a selection, to fill the pub with sound. Trawling through the index of songs, he came across a number that he had never seen on a juke-box before, a blues song called “Going Down Slow”. And as it played he was taken back to his days as a cub reporter in Britain 40 years previously, and the first newshound he ever met, John Gerard. All these years later Gerard remained perhaps the biggest influence on Henry’s journalistic life.
Don Bentley would tell the story of John Gerard the next time the sub-editors of the Chronicle gathered in their leather armchairs in the room that housed the table tennis table, and he would call his tale “Gerard’s twelve-bar blues”.
Have had my fun if I never get well no more,
All of my health is failing;
Lord, I’m going down slow.
ANY evening of the week you could find John Gerard either in the Red House pub or at the office of the Woking News and Mail a little way further down the road, in the direction of London.
Two things always set Gerard apart: a spiral-bound reporter’s notebook that bulged from the pocket of his dark-blue dufflecoat and a scratched and battered guitar that always seemed to have a string dangling loose from it. He also had long, slightly curly hair that fell over his collar but not long enough to mark him out as alternative in any way. This was the mid-1960s and everyone was supposed to have longish hair, especially if you were a Beatles fan, as John Gerard was.
“Henry, your round, ” he would always demand, and I would always oblige, losing another 20 pence or so from my meager six pounds a week pay to keep Gerard supplied with booze. To be fair, Gerard always bought drinks for me: it was more the pace at which we drank than buying drinks for Gerard that would deplete the contents of my brown, square pay packet that fitted neatly into my back pocket.
I had met John Gerard the day I started at the Woking News and Mail in 1964, and he was to become my mentor, and hero, of sorts. Even at the age of 18 he was a brilliant journalist, at least brilliant at sniffing out the sort of stories that could be sold to the national mass circulation newspapers in London as lineage and pay for Gerard’s drinks when there were no other junior reporters around like myself who held him in awe.
John Gerard obtained most of his stories sitting in the bar of the Red House, or another favourite haunt, the Railway Hotel nearer Woking station, and I can see him now prising a story out of one of the regulars, and then running to the lavatory to scribble down all the details in his notebook.
Woking was situated in a part of Britain noted for its military bases and stories with a military theme were bread and butter to Gerard’s lineage trade. Once, waiting for Gerard to reach the Red House from an assignment he was on out in the country, a local had told me of a young lad who had lied about his age to join the army, and then been awarded a medal for bravery in one of the far-flung places where Britain still had colonial possessions, or was trying to extract itself from them. I shared the story with Gerard when he arrived, because I did not have contacts in the national press, and he shared the spoils in a riotous night of celebration after he had received the cheque for a story that made a page lead in the Daily Mail. Gerard had hit the big time, and so had I.
Our time at the Red House, and the Railway Hotel, was not just spent discussing journalism, this great world I had entered when I had walked through the doors of the Woking News and Mail a short time earlier. If the notebook announced to the world that Gerard was a journalist, the guitar Gerard carried most days also announced he was into music. Into the blues, to be precise, although he also remained loyal to the Beatles when so many other young people had turned their backs on pop music and discovered the blues, jazz and folk. Surrey was most definitely blues country. The music from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta had flowered and bloomed in the art colleges of Britain in the later 1950s and early 1960s and there were plenty of those in the well-heeled greenbelt towns on the fringe of London’s urban sprawl. This was the stockbroker belt and this is where the blues struck a chord.
Like Gerard, my introduction to pop music had been through the Beatles and when there was no one about to sing the blues in pubs that encouraged music-making, even on an impromptu scale, we’d go back to the News and Mail office and sing Beatles songs together, Gerard always strumming what appeared to be the same chords on his old guitar doing what I called his John Lennon impersonation. Lennon was clearly an early influence and Gerard would sing nasally like the Beatle, and strike a Lennon pose when standing with his guitar.
“Keep up Bentley, ” he would shout at times when the amount of alcohol we had drunk during the course of the evening got the better of me, and I’d forget words, song or forget where I was.
Assorted people would be invited to come back with us to the News and Mail office, with assorted alcohol, and there always seemed to be someone with a mouth organ, who came with the name “Smokestack Smith, or “Jim Junction” or “Kenny Caboose”, always with a name that signalled American railways, an essential of the blues and jazz, and the pain of poverty, segregation and dispossession in the American south, of riding freight trains in the great black migration to Chicago. Not that there was much poverty, segregation and dispossession in suburban Surrey in the 1960s, a land in which Tory Prime Minister Harold McMillan had said we had never had it so good.
The blues at the time did not mean much to me, it didn’t do for me that it appeared to do for the others gathered in the News and Mail office at night, banging tables, and tapping typewriter keys in time with Gerard’s basic chords played on his battered guitar, or with his mouth organ. There was one song, however, that stood out. It was a blues standard called “Going down slow”, about a character who had lived life to the full and was now paying the price for his hard-living . I didn’t know it then, but in later years, when I developed a love of the blues myself, I would always think of Gerard when I heard the song, especially when sung by Eric Clapton. It was to become Gerard’s anthem.
The names of noted local blues musicians would be thrown about at those jam sessisons as though they were great buddies, but I never saw and met any down at the News and Mail those nights. They were up in “town”, as London, 25 miles distant, was termed, playing the blues clubs and trying to find fame. Among them was a young lad from the nearby village of Ripley called Eric Clapton , the members of a band called the Nashville Teens who had a hit called “Tobacco Road”, and the Rolling Stones who had played the dance hall at Eel Pie Island in nearby Richmond before becoming famous in the wake of the Beatles. The lead singer of the Teens, an eager lad called Art, worked in a record shop in Woking and Gerard would drag me round there to interview him about once a week, some of the interviews Gerard selling to the national press in London. Art was always invited to our jam sessions at the News and Mail and always politely declined, saying he had an engagement in town, and Gerard always said his absence was understandable.
On one occasion the Nashville Teens were booked to perform at the Atalanta Ballroom in Woking and Gerard again dragged me along, to interview them in their break. When the lead guitarist recognised me, and asked how my mother was, Gerard was taken aback, and fixed me with an angry stare. Only he was supposed to be on first name terms with the Nashville Teens. Explaining that the guitarist was a near neighbour on the housing estate where I lived didn’t temper Gerard’s annoyance, well at least for a time.
Gerard was a bit of a bully, at least towards me. Not physically, but he used his intellectual clout against me when he felt I was getting above myself. I was after all only 17 and he was a year older, nearly a man. My respect for Gerard might have bordered on fear, but it didn’t stop me from mentioning my friendship with the Teens guitarist when Gerard bullied me. To drive home the message that I knew the guitarist well, I’d explain that he was an apprenticed upholsterer and music was merely a means to an end - to obtain enough money for a mortgage so he would get married, settle down and return to his trade.
Gerard hated the thought that one of the Teens, his heroes next only to Eric Clapton and John Lennon, could possibly have ambitions to be a furniture upholster.
``But perhaps he wants to do it in Nashville,’’ I’d say, putting the boot into Gerard, usually with the false courage derived from eight pints of good English bitter. I had allowed myself a little mischievousness, even cynicism in the Gerard mould, but Gerard could not see the hold, or influence, he held over me.
``That’s bollocks,’’ he would say angrily. ``And you now it Bentley. That might be for you but that’s not for a Teen.’’ I would then slink away and have a little chuckle ot myself.
Gerard was then, and still is, the wittiest person I have ever known, and he used his wit to devastating effect as a put-down. All the pompous people junior reporters came across, like local councillors badgering the young news hounds to print their names in the paper, were fair game for Gerard. They would not so much be destroyed but humiliated by a cutting one-liner. His wit, however, was so incisive, so sharp, that many of the recipients did not release they had been hit, and were puzzled by the laughter all around them.
Once a councillor, known to be gay and rumoured to have a fondness for flagellation, complained to the young reporters gathered before a council meeting about other councillors being late for committee meetings.
“So you want to whip them into line,” said Gerard, and the councillor was left wondering why everybody else thought the serious matter of council business was so funny.
Gerard used to try out his put-downs on me. I was a shy, gangly teenager, lacking Gerard’s self-confidence but I was tall and relatively handsome and I sometimes felt that Gerard harboured a resentment about my apparent good looks. He was handsome in his own way, dark and brooding behind brown eyes, but his old-fashioned horned-rim spectacles with thickish lenses took away some of his mystery for women, especially as the arms frequently came off and these were fixed to the main frame with cellotape. He was also prone to pimples, something no doubt inflamed by the poison oozing through his skin from too much alcohol and nicotine. In all the years I knew him, I only remember Gerard owning one pair of spectacles, and over time the corners became stained with nicotine; not that that mattered so much in an age where almost everyone smoked.
One time at the Red House, Gerard had taken a shine to a new barmaid, but after a few nights it became apparent that she was interested in me; constantly asking Gerard when I was not in the pub if I was likely to be arriving before she ended her shift.
Gerard would growl when I leaned over the bar to chat to her, and I knew that sooner or later he would set me up for a fall, or fool, in her eyes with a one-liner. And so it happened. I bounced into the pub wearing a smart new suit to impress the barmaid, and ask her for a date. I was proud of the suit, my first which was not a hand-me-down from a cousin who was a little older than me. I was always inheriting his clothes. My mother had paid for the suit, saying that now I was a reporter I had to look nice, in pinstripes. And at Burton’s tailors one afternoon my mother had sat there while I was measured and then had helped me go through the catalogue of material. The suit I chose, with my mother’s nod of approval, was a charcoal-coloured one, with a faint white pinstripe.
Into the pub I bounced, wearing my smart new suit with white shirt and blue tie, arriving at the bar to order a drink for myself and Gerard.
“Nice suit,” Gerard said as the barmaid poured the drinks within earshot. “When you going to get it finished?”
From our first meeting in the News and Mail office on the morning I started as a reporter in April 1964, and our first drink together in the pub that night, Gerard had laid the foundation of a bond that would last 40 years. We could go for years without making contact but always got in touch again: usually after an event related to the Beatles. I always knew where or how to find Gerard when I needed to. The first time I contacted him after an extended separation was on hearing the news of the violent death of John Lennon in 1980 and later, after periodic separations in between, the death of George Harrison from cancer in 2001.
Although Woking was at the very heart of the stockbroker belt around London, it was dotted with council housing estates for the not so wealthy. Gerard lived on an estate administered by the Woking Urban District Council, where his single mother struggled to raise two rebellious teenagers and a younger boy, approaching nine. Gerard never spoke about his father, but I gathered he had left the family to return to the north of England where the family had initially hailed from. Gerard never spoke about life pre-Woking, either, and I only knew he was from the north because he spoke with a slight Lancashire accent, and fervently supported Manchester United football club.
Vital cement to our bond was the fact that I, too, lived on a housing estate, this one administered by the London Country Council which had been built just after World War Two to house families displaced by the destruction of London during the blitz. In the words of John Lennon, Gerard saw us as two working class heroes out to change the world.
Besides being a cult figure, John Lennon possibly had the biggest influence on Gerard’s music making, and so those evenings spent at the News and Mail always featured a fair sprinkling of later John Lennon sings, among the blues and a few early Beatles numbers, the latter usually at my request.
As John Lennon grew more individual and eccentric, with songs like “I Am the Walrus” , so Gerard would play more and more Lennon songs. At this time he also branched out into song writing, but Gerard’s creations were usually reserved for my ears only, partly because he couldn’t write music and he needed someone to work the primitive tape-recorder to make a permanent record of his achievements.
Most of the songs were nonsense to me, especially the nonsense lyrics that Gerard assured me was the way pop music was going at the time, but I could never pluck up the courage to tell Gerard so, to say: “But John this doesn’t make fucking sense, not just the lyrics but the music. It’s just strumming guitars and noise.” I never had the courage to say that, but that’s what I thought.
Gerard’s guitar playing was a bit like the shorthand we were required to learn as cub reporters. It was never finished. Writing in one of the notebooks that were always poking out of his pocket, he used a squiggle that gave the impression he knew Pitmans, light and heavy strokes, dots above and below the line, but he didn’t know shorthand really. Likewise, his basic chords, strummed with the professionalism of a guitar player who does not have to look at his hand on the fret, or plectrum stroking the strings, gave the impression that he could actually play the instrument properly.
Above the News and Mail offices, situated in an old Victorian red-brick shop with an extension at the rear that housed the newsroom, was a small flat and the inhabitant was the elderly mother of the News and Mail’s editor. She was deaf, which was just as well for the noise coming from the News and Mail late at night was so loud it could often be heard from the street. Policemen on night patrol, however, never intervened because there were no other people living nearby in this commercial part of town to complain about someone creating a disturbance, or a breach of the peace. It was only Gerard, the ace reporter, playing his music and the police, after pausing on first hearing the racket, would be on their way.
One night during an impromptu recording session, Gerard was so preoccupied with setting up his tape recorder that he forgot to light the gas I had turned on for the office fire. The editor, arriving for work the next morning, smelt the fumes and rushed upstairs to rescue his mother. Luckily, she was revived in hospital, but it put a stop to our recording sessions, at least for a time.
Gerard never drove a car and relied on the other cub reporters who had a driving licence, or friends from the pub, to drive him around, usually to a distant pub that had a blues band playing. When I eventually passed my driving test and bought a mini I became Gerard’s unofficial chauffeur. When I complained that he never gave me money for petrol, he would always reply: “You’re my chauffeur, and what you got to chau-ffeur it.”
For the task of going out on stories for the newspaper, Gerard relied on public transport, that’s if he could not cadge a lift with a photographer who might be going out to take the pictures for the report. Leaving the office some nights I’d see Gerard sitting on top of a double-decker bus, puffing away on one of his cigarettes and jotting down something in his notebook, usually a tidbit he’d picked up in the pub that would need some further investigation down the track.
The bus companies operating in Woking also served Guildford, where the News and Mail had its head office, but Gerard never used the bus for what became frequent trips to the offices of the parent Surrey Advertiser group, where we were required to learn sub-editing, or stand in for reporters there who might be on holiday. To reach Guildford, Gerard took the train on the main line from London to Portsmouth that travelled via Woking and Guildford, buying a first class ticket in the process for the 15 minute journey. It wasn’t that Gerard one day dreamed of being rich and was practising for the big day, riding in style on the plush upholstered first class seats even if it was only for a few minutes. It was Gerard’s way of snubbing his nose at authority, and convention.
“So why shouldn’t a $10 a week reporter ride first class, ” he would say. “And fart in the compartment?”
The trips to Guildford put a strain on Gerard’s drinking time. He lingered in the pubs and invariably missed the last train home, phoning one of the young reporters in Guildford and asking if he could sleep on their floor. Once, when he couldn’t arrange a bed, he slept in a park, telling me about it next day after extracting a promise that I would not tell anyone else, even though he often looked dishevelled and unshaven in the morning and people assumed he must have slept rough after too much drink. He described how he had slept under a fallen oak tree that was being cut up for firewood. “So you slept like a log, ” I joked. Gerard fixed him with menacing dark brown eyes, behind glasses yellowed with nicotine. Only he was allowed to crack puns.
To witness Gerard walking beyond the 100 yards to the Red House from the News and Mail, or a little further to the Railway Hotel, was a rare event, the buses providing his means of getting around town, even if it was only for a short distance. He had an amazing memory and I’m sure that he had learned all the bus timetables by heart. Gerard in full stride, however, was a sight to behold. He walked at a particularly fast pace, and I always struggled to keep up, calling out “Wait for me, John” like some schoolkid being left behind by his big brother. Because he had obviously never walked any appreciable distance, Gerard never learned about pacing himself. His walk was an all-out affair. He hunched forward, the kind of hunch a smoker has from frequent coughing, but in Gerard’s case, although he was a heavy smoker, he had to lean forward to cut through the winds’ resistance. In winter, he would angle his body into the cold wind, dufflecoat billowing because it never seemed to be buttoned up.
Gerard and I worked in tandem for about five years before our careers took separate courses. Eventually, I headed to Africa looking for adventure. I had largely concentrated on reporting but Gerard had become a sub-editor, now preferring marshaling and laying out the content of a newspaper to going out to get the hard news himself.
Gerard had clearly always been destined for the top when I first knew him, and I had no doubts that he would one day get there - possibly editing a London mass-circulation newspaper - if only he could keep a lid on his drinking, and his health generally because from the time I had first met him he was smoking about 40 cigarettes day.
While still working at the News and Mail, Gerard secured a job as editor of a new newspaper being launched in Colchester in Essex and he took this up with great enthusiasm, explaining to me that he could put in place all the innovations to newspaper design that he was convinced would propel him to Fleet Street. The Colchester Evening Gazette would be his showpiece. He had become Britain’s youngest daily newspaper editor, a fact trumpeted by the UK Press Gazette trade newspaper. It also brought a call one day from his long-lost father, who was working as a printer in Manchester and had read all about his son’s success.
Although living overseas in South Africa, I had returned in the mid 1970s to Britain to visit my parents, and during this time had decided to spend a weekend in one of my favourite areas of the country, Norfolk. On the spur of the moment, driving back to London, I made a detour to visit Gerard in Colchester. I didn’t have an address for him but knew vaguely that he lived in a village on the London side of the town. Finding him would be easy. I’d visit every pub and, if he was not out of town, he’d be in one of them. I found him at the second pub I entered. Gerard’s eyes lit up as I walked through the door. He had been in a boring conversation with an airline pilot taking time off from long-haul trips, and here was a mate from the old days to talk journalism. Our reunion was a cause for celebation and from the moment I saw Gerard sitting at the bar, I knew I wouldn’t make it back to London that night, finally sleeping on Gerard’s living room floor in a Tudor half-timbered cottage he rented.
The cottage was reputed to be a former brothel in the days of Henry the Eighth. It had a female ghost of easy virtue and Gerard said if I played my cards right she would climb into my sleeping bag. “But then again,” he added, “you don’t touch spirits.”
Gerard got out his guitar, of course, and our music-making went into the small hours. He had bought a new tape-recorder - well a second-hand one from a country market - that still had a tape in it of two farm labourers with rich East Anglican country accents talking about their sex lives.
In the years away from Britain I constantly thought of Gerard, what he was up to, and then came the death of John Lennon and I felt compelled to phone him. I was working as a corresponment in Johanessburg at the time and I heard of Lennon’s assassination on the morning radio news as I drove to my office. Towards the end of our period working together, at the end of the 1960s, Gerard had become a John Lennon disciple, and I think he saw in Lennon’s troubled, even tortured life, a mirror of his own.
It was good to talk when I had phoned him that morning in Colchester. “I just can’t believe it,” he kept saying and I knew he was hurting, like he had lost a brother, but the journalist got the better of him. “How the papers treating the story down there? Is it front page lead?” I said indeed it was, complete with a picture of Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, buckling at the knees as she emerged from the morgue. Gerard seemed satisfied his hero had been given an appropriate send-off by the newspapers, as I am sure his own newspaper did that evening.
John Lennon’s death had been a milestone in my own life because the same week that he died in New York I had been offered a position there as a correspondent reporting on the workings of the United Nations. I had told Gerard that I would take some flowers into Central Park, over the road from the spot where Lennon was shot outside the Dakota Building and say a prayer. The gesture met with derision immediately. “Take a bottle of bourbon, Wild Turkey, and get pissed,’’ he said. “And sing Strawberry Fields, because that’s where his heart is.” Perhaps Gerard had a heart, too, and a soul, and a thing deep inside him that other people call emotion.
I was only in the United States a short time when I had to return to Britain briefly because of the death of my father. Amid arranging the funeral, I decided to take a time-out and call Gerard. There was no need to visit Colchester because Gerard was coming down to Surrey to stay with a former colleague of ours, Nick Maskery, who, appropriately, now ran a pub in the village of Shalford, a few miles from Guildford. I rememberd Maskery’s pub well from a time I was seconded to the Guildford office and had to do the country rounds.
Please write my mother and tell her the shape I’m in.
Tell her to pray for me,
Forgive me for all of my sin.
Gerard’s career had not taken the course he had hoped, and I gathered he was using Nick Maskery’s pub more and more as a refuge from the pressures of journalistic life. I learned that Gerard had left the Colcheser newspaper and was now the editor of the UK Press Gazette in London. It sounded grand but I knew it was not what Gerard would have wanted. The hard living was beginning to take its toll on his health and he was simply not up to the pressures, physical and mental, of daily newspaper journalism, especially as an editor. Gerard was older now and not the whizz-kid he had been, but that did not worry the UK Press Gazette. The publication had described the Evening Gazastte as “youthful and brash” and noted it had picked up several newspaper awards under Gerard’s stewardship.
Gerard lasted two years on the Gazatte, and then took a sabbatical in the United States, not to study newspapers there as one would have expected, but to revel in the blues, happily spending nights in Chicago blues clubs and bars.
On his return to Britain, Gerard was given a job as a sub-editor on The Times. He was back in newspapers, but it was not the Fleet Street he had dreamed of entering all those years previously when he had set out on his journalistic career covering fetes and funerals for the News and Mail.
The Fleet Street of legend, with the newspapers grouped around a single street alive with journalists and their chat, no longer existed. The newspapers had migrated to offices and print works out of the city centre where rents were not only cheaper but new buildings catered for the new demands of computer-generated editing, buildings with open plan offices and ductng for cabling.
The half dozen Fleet Street pubs that once served as in informal labour exchange for journalists seeking a new direction were now filled by bankers and advertising executives, and now closed strictly on time instead of locking the doors and waiting for the tap of late night sub-editors looking for a drink after hours. Gerard would complain of having to walk a whole block to get a drink, outside the docklands print and office complex where The Times was produced. Gerard would lament when I caught up with him that he had arrived too late, the time had passed for him to produce a newspaper the way he wanted to, with visits to the pub, and camaradarie and fun.
I didn’t wait until Gerard’s arrival to visit Nick Maskery’s pub in Shalford. And, escaping the pall of mourning hanging over my family’s home, I took with me a nephew from New Zealand who was visiting England on a working holiday. As Maskery and I spoke of the old days, my nephew was drawn to a large picture frame holding a gold disk. He studied it for some time and then rushed over to me, pulling at my shirt sleeve.
“Uncle Don, Uncle Don, it’s signed by Phil Collins, Phil Collins drinks here,” my nephew said excitedly.
I struggled to recall the name Collins. Was he a journalist we had known, who had worked on the Woking News and Mail or the Surrey Advertiser? I didn’t think so. Then I remembered he was a pop singer but I was not so sure of the band named on the god disc.
“But it’s Genesis,” said my nephew incredulously, incredulous that I had never heard of the group,
“But I have heard of them, ” I reassured him. “But only just. I’m a Beatles man, that’s when my interest in pop music ended. Sorry. Now I’m into jazz, and some of this blues that Gerard was always talking about.”
“But it’s Genesis,” my nephew kept repeating. “And Phil Collins drinks here.”
“See you’ve been looking at the gold disc,” said Maskery to my nephew, after serving another customer. “Yeah, Phil brought it in one night. He lives in the village.”.
He pointed to an inscription scrawled across the mounting for the gold disc: “To Nick and Liz, For all the nights I remember at your pub and some of the nights I don’t - Phil.”
It appeared the days of Gerard’s jam sessions were not over, and this time he could boast “names”, unlike our days at the News and Mail office. The venue for the sessions was now Maskery’s pub on a Saturday night when Gerard was there, and they had become something of a local attraction.
“And Phil Collins comes down,” said Maskery describing the scene. “He sings a bit, plays a bit of guitar, bangs on a makeshift drum. And John plays his guitar. Of course, Gerard has got to be the centre of attention. It’s his band and Phil Collins has to know his place, pay deference to Gerard.”
When I arrived at the pub for our reunion a week later, Gerard was seated with a new wife. I vaguely remembered hearing that Gerard had married for a second time, but couldn’t remember who had told me.
Towards the end of our News and Mail days, Gerard had married a secretary from Guildford. I had met her a few times, but thought then the marriage would not last. If Gerard was a magpie who stalked the Surrey suburbs and countryside for stories, picking up shiny gems of news to sell to the national press, his wife was a doormouse; a harmless, pretty creature with sparkling eyes who was looking for nothing more than to build a secure, warm nest and have babies. It promised to be a difficult marriage because Gerard’s wife did not smoke, drink to excess or share Gerard’s taste in music. Instead of the hard edge of the blues, often cynical in tone, she liked folk music, especially the music of Bob Dylan, which carried with it the optimism that comes from wanting to change the world. Dylan left Gerard cold.
Gerard’s first wife endured for a number of years, before finally leaving one night, taking her Bob Dylan records with her. His current wife had been a sub-editor on the Colchester Evening Gazette, who now also worked for the Times.
“Here’s my new wife,” Gerard shouted as I walked in, laughing wildly, “I traded in the other one”. The new wife laughed. She had no doubt heard it all before.
Knowing how much alcohol I’d be drinking that evening, I had taken my nephew along as my driver, selling him the line that he might meet Phil Collins. Gerard sunk into stories of old, his wife tossing in a few of her own from her days as a reporter. Hopes of Phil Collins arriving did not materialise for my nephew and he was pleased to take me home at around 1am, long after the pub had officially closed although there were still people in the bar.
On another visit to Britain a year later, to check up on my mother and attend to some family matters for her, I called in on Maskery. As usual, the stories we told centred on John Gerard, some old, most new. I recalled a football match that had taken place in this very same village years previously when Gerard and I worked together. The reporters on the Surrey Advertiser and News and Mail had formed a joint team to play on Sunday mornings and we travelled to various villages around south-west Surrey for games. Gerard loved these matches, not because he was athletic in any way or good at football, but they were always followed by a drinking session at a country pub.
On this occasion the beautiful Victorian public house at which we were to gather after the game was situated a little too close to the soccer ground, at the top of a small rise with the pub sign clearly visible. At half time, Gerard grimmaced as we sucked on slices of orange. He looked longingly towards the Friary Meux brewary sign fixed to the pub at the top of the rise and glanced across to the village clock, counting down the minutes to 12 noon and opening time. Mid-way through the second-half, when our team was trailing 2-1 against old rivals Shalford Rangers, the village clock struck twelve and a wisp of smoke started to rise from the pub’s chimney. Gerard made his way slowly towards the touchline, hoping no one would notice. We played the rest of the game with 10 men, but our annoyance with Gerard’s desertion from the field of battle soon subsided. He had set up a round of drinks when we eventually reached the bar, showered and groomed. Gerard still had his muddy soccer boots on.
At one of the regular jam sessions at Maskery’s pub, Phil Collins announced he wanted to bring a friend along for the next one.
“He more or less asked if he could bring his friend along, you know what John’s like with his jam sessions, possessive of them, they are his creations and he calls the shots.” said Maskery.
“And Phil Collins said, ‘Can I bring a friend along?’ and John replied: ‘What’s he play?’
“Phil Collins thought for a moment, and John looked at him quizzically”
” ‘Well he just plays the spoons, that’s it, the spoons’, Phil Collins said.”
“‘That’s a funny instrument, but he’ll do’, said John.”
On the night of the jam session, Gerard went down to the lounge bar from the Maskerys’ apartment upstairs in the pub. Sitting there with Phil Collins was Eric Clapton.
“So this is your mate,” Gerard said to Phil Collins, trying to hide the expression that journalists in the popular press would describe as “awe-struck”, trying to be cool. “So where’s his teaspoons?”
“Well I forgot them,” Clapton replied. “But I’ve brought a guitar. Perhaps I can play that. Only rhythm of course, I understand you’re lead.”
Maskery laughed at the memory of the encounter. “So there was Eric strumming along to John’s nonsense. trying to do Leila and John wants to do one of his own compositions. Trying to get Eric to follow him, shouting out what key it’s in. And playing some of the Beatles but John steered clear of the blues. And he kept calling Eric Clapton ‘EC’ and saying, ‘Come on, keep up EC, keep up’.”
Years later after drinking in Maskery’s pub, 12 years later, I’m in London again. I’ve emigrated to Australia a year previously and have had to return to England to get some money coming in while waiting for a job to come up. I phone John Gerard directly this time, knowing he is still at The Times and we arrange to meet at his office pub during his break. But he warns me that he won’t be drinking, he has sworn off alcohol after warnings from his doctors, but he will fill me in with the details when he sees me.
When I enter the pub I receive a shock. Gerard has ballooned in size and carries a massive ring around his stomach, not so much the proverbial tyre but a floatation device for a shinking ship, something he did not have in the past. Like many heavy drinkers, Gerard drank but did not eat a great deal which kept his weight down. He tells me that his drinking had got so bad TheTimes had rested him from work and sent him to a rehabilitation centre to dry out.
In recent years he had worked on the foreign desk of the Times, and had become the copy-taster, the sub-editor who keeps an eye on the wire services and looks out for stories that might have been missed by the news editor and specialist writers.
“Things got so bad some nights, I just couldn’t keep up with the wires, updating stories and such and I got sent home,” he told me.
The Times booked him into a rehabilitation centre in the west of London and shortly after his arrival Eric Clapton had visited the clinic. Clapton had beaten both drug and alcohol addiction and now spent part of his time visiting people recovering from addiction: giving them a pep talk, using his own experience and recovery as an example.
“And so the door opens and who should come in but Eric Clapton,” Gerard tells me, sipping a coke-cola and screwing up his face in obvious distaste. “And Eric looks at me, and he says, ‘I know you, now where do I know you from? And Eric says immediately, ‘The pub and you telling me to keep up’, and he laughs. ‘Your Phil’s friend’.”
Gerard, sitting at a table in the office pub, still sipping a Coca-Cola, gives me a sheepish look, an expression I have never seen worn by his face.
“Well, Eric sits down next to me in this sort of sitting room they got there at the rehab centre and he looks at me and says ‘You can do it. I did and there’s no looking back’.”
Gerard was in the home for about a month and on the day before he was due to leave Eric Clapton returned.
“And Eric looked at me, and he remembered my name and I knew he was not full of bullshit, like I feared he might be. ‘Well I tell you John, you look a damn sight better than when I first saw you a month ago’, he said.”
John Gerard thought for a moment, looking down at the floor. Then he raised his head slowly and added: “You know, that was the best thing he could have said. It raised my spirits and made me able to go on. He gave me hope and that’s a cliche, I know. That’s trite, but it’s true.”
I visited John Gerard at his home in Colchester before leaving for Australia where I had finally received a job offer. He had now divorced his second wife and was married for a third time, a pleasant local woman far from the world of journalism. He had also adopted the woman’s teenage daughter and spoke lovingly of “his” child. He was still off the booze and the cigarettes, but had developed a virtual addiction to chewing sweets on the foreign desk of the Times at night, which explained his weight problem.
Gerard had lost none of his sharp wit. We recounted all the fun times, and the jokes and puns Gerard had cracked. Surprisingly, I remembered more of our experiences, especially Gerard’s quips, than he did. I was impressionable, soaking up every experience, every word connected to the great world of journalism I had discovered. I’d never met anyone like Gerard before because I had just emerged from the sheltered world of school, and to this day I can remember most of his more memorial witticisms. Gerard had forgotten most of them. I suppose witty lines were two-a-penny to him and when the context and moment passed, so did the memory of them.
His third wife hung on every word, relishing this picture of her husband as a young man, even though most stories would start “Remember, Bentley, you waking up with that billiard cue in your bed….....” or “How about the time you stole the brass doorknob from the Duke’s Head and no one could leave the pub ......”
Why events happened, and how they unfolded, did not have to be spelt out, because we knew them, but Gerard’s wife wanted more information on the door knob, even though Gerard was eager to press on with more stories.
“Well,” I said. “Don’t ask me why but I took a shine to this giant doorknob on the pub door. I was prone to cleptomania after a few drinks, collecting souvenirs from all the places we’d been. So when it came to leave the pub, last orders and closing time, we were stuck in the bar because someone had stolen the doorknob and no one could open the door. The landlady’s wife said: ‘Now who’s stolen the doorknob’. Everybody looked about them, and I stood there innocently, but there was a great bulge in my overcoat pocket. ‘Is that my doorknob, or are you just pleased to see me?’ said the landlady as I tugged the doorknob from my pocket.”
I recounted another story from that night. After listening to the blues in the Duke’s Head, in the town of Addlestone, we had gathered in a tree-lined suburban street near the pub, too excited to go home after all that magical music. We sat on someone’s low wall singing and strumming guitars. The angry owner of the house had come out, the woman threatening to turn her dogs on us. Gerard looked up casually in mid song, saw that one of the dogs was a Dalmatian, and said: “I’ll knock spots of it.”
Out came the guitar eventually, that evening I stayed with Gerard and his new wife in Colchester, after we had had dinner. Gerard strummed the old tunes, mostly Beatle ones. I sang a few numbers that I always sang in those far off days and then I recalled that our most popular song had been one that Gerard had written himself, for once not a bad one. The song was more in the style of a country and western number and when I first heard it 30 years previously I wondered why Gerard had ventured into this genre.
Perhaps country and western numbers, predictable with mushy lyrics, were easier to write. This song, like most country and western numbers, was about love. It was all about mending broken hearts, and the song started “String can’t mend a broken heart…” and went on to list all the things used to mend things. I remember thinking when I first heard it, and now, that it might make a good commercial for a hardware store, but I didn’t mention this to Gerard of course. And I didn’t mention it to his new wife, who took great pride in the song, which in truth was Gerard’s sole musical achievement. As a birthday present Gerard’s wife had booked a recording studio in London, with professional musicians, to record the number. Gerard had sat on the side-lines. his guitar playing not quite up to what was required.
On The Times, although Gerard had accepted the lesser position of sub-editor to the executive role he had been used to, he still managed to make his mark. This time it was Gerard’s headlines that stood out. In his early days, a Soviet espionage story that broke at Christmas inspired the headline “Minsk spies” and a story about a Humphrey Bogart commemorative stamps was topped, “Here’s licking at you, kid.”
Gerard would not dwell on his career in journalism, and what he had achieved in his own small way. As far as he was concerned the past was the past and it was a place he did not want to revisit, for good times or bad. Although I could not tease anything out of him about the workings of the journalists’ trade paper, I did manage to focus his attention on life as a provincial editor. For all the years he spent in Colchester, starting an evening newspaper from scratch, I got the impression that Gerard’s most memorable achievement was organising a train - or was it a plane? - to take supporters of Colchester United football club to an FA Cup game against a major First Division side. No matter that Colchester United were involved in a potential giant-killing act, the biggest game in the club’s history, I think Gerard had in mind some gigantic piss-up for the supporters in foreign parts, the memories of which brought a proud smile to his face.
Ten years passed and I always expected to see John Gerard again, to swap notes about the Beatles, to talk journalism, as had always happened. Gerard would tell me of a song he had written and, if he had his guitar with him, would play it. And I would tell him, only half joking, that it was amazing what he could do with three chords.
Instead came a telephone from another friend, who worked on the features desk of The Times and knew of my friendship with Gerard.
John Gerard had died a day previously. His body had finally given out, succumbing to the journalist’s age-old weaknesses - too long hours, too much whisky and too many cigarettes. There was an obituary in The Times that morning, paying tribute to his career. “John Gerard was also a keen musician,” the obituary said, “playing both guitar and mouth organ. After a jam session in a Surrey pub with Eric Clapton one night, Clapton was heard to remark that Gerard played a pretty fine harp.”
On the next train south,
Look for my clothes back home.
‘Cause all of my health is failing;
Lord, I’m going down slow.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
The seventh 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.