Peter Steward's Web Site
Amid all the amusing stories there are always one or two designed to warm the heart of a country reporter. I will remember one such incident for the rest of my days. It was the kind of incident that makes a person like myself feel very humble and glad to be in the world of journalism.
I knew it was going to be a good day when I woke up to see the sun streaming through the window. It was June 30th and obviously the day designated as summer for that year. The problem with living close to the sea is that often a sea mist will keep temperatures low. On this particular day it was bright, sunny and hot.
"It's going to be a good day Robin," I said at breakfast as I sipped on a glass of orange juice. I had given up on the morning fry up for the summer.
"What's so good about it," replied Robin as the frying pan continued to sizzle away.
"Well it's bright and hot and I'm full of hope. Don't you feel that way as well? I really feel that something good is going to happen and that I'm going to get involved in a decent story."
"No I'm a bit cheesed off actually. I think I've got a touch of this Chinese flu that's going around. It's not bloody fair. What have I ever done to the Chinese. I eat their food and this is the way they repay me."
Well Robin wasn't going to dampen my spirits. When you wake up feeling good you have to seize the moment and hold it close all day. So I set off for the office and Louise seemed to be in a bright and cheerful mood as well.
"Hi Eric. Lovely day isn't it. Just the kind of day to sit in court in that stuffy atmosphere. When are you going to whisk me away from all this?"
"Anytime you like baby," I replied. "Come to think of it it's about time I took you out for a drink one evening."
"Okay we'll make it tonight. Pick you up about eight."
"Okay suits me fine. Anyway must get off to court. I'll see you later."
Gradually the remainder of the office began to arrive. By 10 a.m Shad Greene was firmly ensconced with the Guardian (The Times had gone on strike), Birkett was typing up council copy and everyone else from the advertising staff to front office were beavering away at some task or other.
Happy Harry the photographer was on what he called "a well earned holiday"
My slice of luck started when the internal phone rang through from the front office.
"Eric there's a gentleman here who would like to see a reporter."
"Okay I'll be straight down."
That call could mean one of three things. Firstly it could be a member of the public wanting to give details of a coming event such as a dance or jumble sale. Secondly it could be somebody with a complaint or thirdly it could be somebody with an interesting story. The third was the least likely, most people seemed to want to impart trivia. But this was my lucky day and it turned out to be the third of these.
Bill Senior captivated me for the next two hours with a very poignant story.
Bill was on holiday in the area on his third annual pilgrimage. But the reason for him being here was very different to that of most holidaymakers who seemed to return year after year.
Bill was a Londoner who at the age of 34 and for no reason had suddenly gone blind.
"It was just some mysterious illness. One day I could see, the next I couldn't. I had four operations and each time I was able to see slightly for a few days but then everything went again. In the end the doctors admitted they were baffled and there seemed to be little they could do. I thought at that stage that there was no hope for me. I was illiterate. I couldn't read or write and I soon got fed up with making baskets at one of them institutes for the blind places.
"Above all I couldn't stand other people's pity. I had enough pity within myself for the entire human race. Eventually I decided I would take my own life and end it all, but I failed to do that. I took a load of tablets but somebody found me and I was rushed to hospital and had my stomach pumped out.
"Eventually I returned to what they laughingly described as a normal life but inside I felt the same - full of pity and loathing. My wife understood what I was going through but she made it plain that she couldn't go on coping with my moods and negative attitude. I must have tortured her mentally.
"I decided I had lost my fight and I can remember sitting in the house wondering what the hell I could do. I was too miserable to live and too pathetic to die. I couldn't face the idleness, but I couldn't be bothered to do anything either. I was a blot on humanity - that was me in a nutshell. Nowhere to go - a less than successful past and no future.
"I woke up in the mornings, occasionally ate breakfast, occasionally ate dinner and occasionally ate tea and just slept. Then I found that alcohol provided a slight cure. It would make the day pass quicker. It also numbed my senses. I barely existed and to be honest I was just a drain on myself and everyone around me. All I could think about were the days before blindness and how I had pretty much wasted them as well. At least then I felt alive and could cope with things. Now all I could do was sit in a chair thinking dismal thoughts.
"Once I was part of a society I now hated and I blamed so many people for my blindness. At night I would have horrible dreams about scratching my eyes out. They were extremely vivid. I found it strange that during the days I couldn't see a thing but at nights asleep I could picture everything. My armchair virtually became my world and a bottle of scotch was my constant companion.
"In one last attempt to bring me round to having some kind of life, my wife tried a threat. She told me she was going away for the weekend and it was up to me whether I accompanied her. She told me that if I didn't come there would be nobody to look after me and she wouldn't be returning to me either. She was tired of my loathing self pity. She told me she would be saying goodbye to me for ever and wouldn't be coming back to live with a person who was in a filthy state both physically and mentally.
"To this day I don't know what made me go with her. I suppose I still loved her, somehow appreciated the fact that she had stuck with me. Or perhaps it was the fact that I couldn't even face a future alone. Perhaps I realised that in her was my only hope. It was a very small hope, but at least it was there. So I went and that week changed my life yet again. I went as a man without hope, clutching at straws and dependent on whisky and I returned as a man with hope.
"And it was all thanks to this." He pulled out from his pocket a shiny white pebble.
"That was my salvation. Doesn't look much does it. There's probably thousands identical to it on your beach now. But I can tell you this pebble means more to me than just about anything else. To me it's a symbol of life.
"Mind you I don't think there's anything mysterious about it. I cam to this town and I found the sea air helped my moods. I tried to keep off the drink and the first three days here I went down tot he beach with my wife guiding me. I felt that the sun and warmth were doing me good. At night I prayed for the return of my sight but never dreamt it would happen so suddenly.
"My miracle took place four days after our arrival. I had fallen asleep on the beach. I was still sleeping a lot. When I awoke I was lying on my stomach and I took no notice of the shiny round thing I saw glinting in front of me. After all I believed it was just another of those dreams in which I felt my sight had returned. Then I realised I wasn't asleep and I could see something glinting in the sand and the sun running off it.
"Marie what's that there," I said to my wife, pointing at the spot.
"My wife stopped reading her book and her hands closed round the shiny pebble - this pebble.
"It was a miracle. It wasn't much but I had seen something glinting. It was nothing more than a pebble but I had seen it. To me it was more valuable than all the jewels in the world put together. You can't imagine the joy and happiness or the renewed hope that suddenly surged through me. It was like being born again.
"The next day we returned home and I went straight to the hospital where the operations had been carried out. By this time I could see differences in areas of light but still couldn't make out any real shapes. But I lived with this feeling of renewed hope. Then followed a year of tests and further operations and by Christmas my sight began to return. As the weeks passed and I rested, my eyes seemed to continue to improve. Now some eight years later I can see with the aid of specially strong glasses and I can read the paper, because one of the first things I did when I could see well enough was to learn to read and write.
"When the doctors gave me the all clear and said I could lead virtually a normal life I vowed to make the most of it. I went to adult literacy classes and slowly began to learn the importance of words. Now I am so happy to be able to see that I read The Times every day just for the joy of being able to. When I come across a word I can't pronounce or don't know the meaning of I look it up in a dictionary.
"Every year we come back to this town and I sit on the beach and gaze at the pebbles. Every year I thank God I failed in my attempts to end my life and every day I polish this little pebble in order to continue my good fortune."
It was for me a heart warming story and Bill later showed me some poetry he had written.
"I wrote these just after I was taught to write," he said.
"They showed an insight into his world of darkness and his regaining of sight. At first the poems were simple as you would expect from somebody dealing in words for the first time. But then they became more advanced and my favourite was simply entitled "The Far Away Town." It brought a lump to my throat as it was about our town but the title also referred to his sight and his inner travels through depression to the enlightenment and from blindness to regaining his sight. The imagery was quite marvellous.
After Bill had left I set about writing the story. I had been tempted to ask Bill to write it himself as I felt there was no way I could do it justice. All I could do was try and he appreciated this greatly.
"You're very thoughtful today Eric," said Birkett midway through the afternoon just as I was finishing off the story.
I told him about the story and he seemed suitably impressed.
"Yeah good story, but do you think the guy was genuine."
"I'm as sure as I can be. I don't think this is the kind of thing you could make up.
"Yeah but don't forget the Olympic judo man."
"Oh that was different and Bill's given me the name and telephone number of the hospital that operated on me. They won't be allowed to discuss details of his situation, but at least they can confirm that he had operations there. Bill's going to speak to them and I said I would check it with them later today before I finally file the copy."
As far as the judo man was concerned, Birkett was referring to an embarrassing event of over four weeks ago when an Irishman came into the office to tell me he had just been appointed team captain of the British Olympic judo team for the coming games. He told me about winning a silver medal in the 1970 Olympics. I took it all down enthusiastically and was on the point of writing the story up when I decided to check some of the facts with a sports encyclopaedia. Lucky I did as there were no Olympic games in 1970 and nobody by the name of James Fox had ever won a silver medal in judo.
Later that week my suspicions were found to be correct when he came back to the office to apologise.
"Never done any judo in me life matey. Sorry about the trouble I caused but me mate had bet me a fiver that I wouldn't come in here and spin you this yarn."
I thought about the incident and it showed just how gullible young reporters can be."
"No I think this guy is on the level," I said to Birkett with regard to the blindman story.
"Okay I'll have a look at the story when it's finished," Birlett added.
I found it easy to write because it was a story I felt fully involved with - very much a human interest piece and those were the stories I enjoyed being involved with.
Birkett must have found it easy to read as well.
"You did a good job on this," Birkett said.
I just glowed with pride.
We dispatched another freelance photographer to take a photograph of Bill and his wife on the beach and of course the extra shiny pebble played a big part in that picture. The hospital confirmed the facts to me and the story became my first front page lead to actually be attributed to me rather than to Tony Willson or one of the others.
I began to feel that in weekly newspaper terms I had arrived.
Flushed with my success of that day I went home to find Robin in bed with the flu.
"Some bloody good day this has turned out to be. All I've done is sneeze, cough and splutter. Had to come home from work at lunchtime. Shad Greene said I should keep my germs to myself. I've always been taught that if you have something you should share it. I suppose you've had that good sunny day you were talking about."
"Well actually yes I have," I replied smugly.
I was still on cloud nine that evening when I picked up Luoise. What a transformation. Gone were the sack like clothes she wore for work and in their place was a pretty brown trouser suit. She had allowed her hair to flow freely, making her face rounder and prettier. Perhaps I had been taking her for granted all this time, looking upon her more as a mate and colleague than as a woman.
"Wow... you look great," was really all I could say.
"Thanks Eric you don't look so bad yourself."
We travelled out to a nice public house in the country.
"I've come out with you on one condition," she said.
"Oh yes what's that?"
"That we don't talk shop all night. There is nothing more boring than when two people of the same profession get together and talk about business all the time. It shows a lack of appreciation of anything else."
"Okay it's a deal. What would you like to talk about?"
"Oh the state of the communist party in Ceylon or the rate of inflation in Japan or how about the psychology of the young child."
"What all in one evening. We'd have to go out for months to get through that lot and there'd be a lot of homework in between."
"Yes there would wouldn't there." As she said this I'm sure I caught a sparkle in her eyes.
We got through the evening without even mentioning work or Ceylon or Japan or even young children. We talked about everything from families to music, art to cars that refused to go and at the end I drove Louise home.
"See you tomorrow then," I said.
"You promised you wouldn't mention work," she replied.
"I'm not. I'm talking about tomorrow evening when I'm taking you out for a meal."
"Oh that would be nice.
I can't say that I heard bells or saw white doves floating above us or anything like that. I just know that I suddenly had very strong feelings towards Louise and I believed she felt the same about me. During the day we were just colleagues but at night we saw a lot of each other and enjoyed ourselves, eating, drinking, dancing or just chatting. We managed to keep our business and private lives separate but obviously people were beginning to realise what was happening.
"Is there something going on between you and Louise 0 you dark horse,"Inquired Robin.
"We're just good friends," I replied.
"Yeah I've heard that before."
"No really Robin there's nothing in it. We just enjoy each other's company." I was probably sounding less than convincing.
"That's what Henry VIII said six times."
"Look Robin I am not going to marry the girl and I certainly aren't going to cut her head off."
"You may joke about it my old mate but I have seen plenty of young things go your way. Know a girl for years and then bang suddenly it's a full house."
"Oh come on Robin bloody well cut it out."
"You mark my words."
"Stop it you're sounding like Violet"
"Okay mate subject closed," Robin said with a wink.
So ended a flippant conversation that still had me thinking. Was there more to my feelings about Louise than I realised? The thing that worried me was that I was concerned about how she felt about me.
That night I offered to run Shad Greene home when he announced his car was in the garage. He was obviously touting for a lift. So far I hadn't been able to find out anything about the man. He was the kind of boss that kept himself some distance from his staff and, part from calling you in to give praise or admonishment, there was little direct contact with him.
He turned out to live in a quaint little cottage miles out in the country.
"They call this Indian country because it's so desolate. You expect an Indian with a bow and arrow to jump out at any moment. You'll need a map to get out of this place."
Shad's wife turned out to be a small homely woman and when we arrived she already had the kettle on. It was obviously a case of domestic bliss and Shad Greene seemed to change immediately. At the office he often appeared to have an imaginary black cloud hanging over him. Once he reached home this seemed to disappear. I have to say I was envious of the easy-going domesticity of the set up and the peace and calm that seemed to dominate.
As I left I couldn't help feeling that someday soon I would like to settle down with my own house and a wife to welcome me at the end of a hard day!
Ask a member of the public to describe a typical journalist and they would produce a picture of a hard hitting, no nonsense, big drinking man or woman. Well that might be typical of a national reporter but the majority of small weekly paper journos are as far removed from that portrait as it is possible to be. On the odd occasion, however, even a small weekly hack can succumb to the demon alcohol. In the 1970s much of this drinking seemed to be done during working hours because a considerable amount of reporting involved joining in other people's celebrations.
One particular day was a classic case of this. It all started at midday when I had to go to the town hall where the mayor was meeting and greeting some visitors from Denmark.
It was a jovial affair as none of the visitors spoke much English and none of the English spoke any Danish. In the end it was a pointless exercise of drinking toasts and smiling at each other. That meant downing at least three glasses of sherry. Then from there it was on to a golden wedding where the champagne flowed freely - and it was the real stuff. Of course it would have been rude not to accept the drinks offered. So that meant two more glasses and then it was on to a retirement presentation at an off licence of all places. There the wine flowed and I staggered back to the office feeling very unsteady indeed.
"Been to a boozy do have you lad?" inquired Birkett.
"No not really," I was making a huge effort to talk coherently but was not sure I was achieving my target.
"You're driunk aren't you lad. Never mind happens to all of us when we go on a boozy do," Birkett added.
By this time I was getting quite aggressive in my denial.
"I tell you I'm not drunk."
"Well if you're not drunk you'll be able to crawl in a straight line from one side of the room to the other," said Robin.
Not realising what was happening and being rather gullible thanks to the drink, I got down on my hands and knees and crawled across the floor before bumping into my desk and collapsing in a heap.
"Told you. That proves you're drunk. After all what sober person would crawl across the floor to prove that he's not drunk?" Robin inquired.
I gave in and pulled myself into my chair, lay on the desk and had a snooze.
The office practical jokers were in good form that day. A little later the mayor phoned up and while I tried to speak coherently to him Robin began to pull my chair away from underneath me and somebody else, and I was too far gone to even see who, started to write on my hands.
By the end of the call I was in a heap on the floor and when I was eventually able to regain my dignity and place the telephone back on its cradle I was able to see what had been written in pen on my hands. It was just one word "drunkard."
Shortly after this and probably as a punishment I was subjected to the rantings of another mad woman. It was the day after and I had been nursing a hangover which was once again proof to the office that I had been drunk.
We had received a letter from a Mrs Ethel Cook stating that she was having a book of poetry published and could we call on her to do a piece for the paper. So off I went. She seemed quite a reasonable woman. Her poems weren't particularly good but it looked like a typical weekly papare story.
I returned to the office and soon had the copy written, without giving it a second thought. A couple of hours later my phone rang and it was Mr Cook who had been at work when I called on his wife.
"Is that the reporter that came to see my wife this morning?"
"Yes," I replied.
"I would ask you not to take any notice of what she said."
"She's a nutter."
What a charming observation for a man to make about his wife.
"Listen, my wife is a complete hyperchondriac. She has 51 weeks of illness or supposed illness a year. Then for the other week she becomes hyper-active and writes poetry and other stupid things. She has no intention of ever having it published. Well you must have read how awful it is."
"Well they weren't that bad," I said weakly.
"Oh come on you're a literary person what about
We came to the brook at night
Afraid of our plight
So we kept out of sight
Until the morning light"
"I didn't actually read that one," I replied.
"No she wouldn't show you that one. It's her pride and joy and for some reason she only lets me read it."
"I bet she read you this one," he replied before quoting a few lines from a poem that was recognisable.
"Well yes, she did," I replied.
"Well I thought you reporters had more sense. That's written by John Betjemin. My wife can't write like that. All she turnes out is crap."
Needless to say we shelved the story.
"Why do I always get the nutters," I asked Birkett
"It's your natural charm," he said as he stifled a laugh.
That evening myself and Louise went for a quiet intimate dinner at rather a nice little restaurant. We hadn't been seeing so much of each other of late, mainly due to work commitments.
At the end we shared the bill - her idea - and went back to Violets - my idea. Robin was out and Violet wouldn't be in for some time. So we went to my room.
"No thanks I don't want to spoil the effect of that wine. I feel kind of light headed."
"Yep so do I."
"But how can you Eric, you drank orange juice all night. You haven't touched a drop of alcohol since that bender you went on last week."
"Louise I'm not light-headed because of the drink."
"Because of you."
This conversation seemed to be going nowhere fast.
"Look Louise you can't be blind to the fact that over the past few weeks we have grown very close. I have felt differently towards you. I feel different when I'm with you. I have never had this feeling with anybody else. I enjoy your company. I enjoy being with you and that's even taking into account the fact that we work together and see each other for much of the day. Oh hell this is coming out all wrong."
"How long have you felt like this Eric?"
"I don't really know. It sort of crept up on me suddenly but the feelings have been growing stronger for weeks."
There was a silence which seemed to last for an eternity before I spoke again."
"Haven't you anything to say?"
"No just kiss me."
I held her to me and we embraced and that was when Violet staggered in clanking beer bottles.
"Hello you two," she shouted upstairs. She obviously thought that Robin was in.
"Come on down and have a cup of tea," she continued.
"we'd better go down," I said to Louise.
"But doesn't she expect Robin to be here?"
"Yeah I suppose so but I'll put up with the embarrassment if you will. In fact it will be worse for you to meet Violet than it will be for her to meet you."
"I suppose I should meet her after all you've told me."
So we ventured downstairs.
"Hello there dear, " said Violet addressing herself to Louise "It's nice to meet you. I've heard so much about you."
I gave Violet a strange look.
"Oh it's okay dear. I know all about you and Louise from Robin. I can see you are very much in love. Well let's have a treat."
She pulled out a bottle of whisky and started to pour it into three glasses. I broke my no alcohol for a week pledge as I felt that I really had something to celebrate. The world was looking a good place and I was in love.