Peter Steward's Web Site
As the time marched on I began to get to know the characters I was working with better. We became more of a family, all striving towards the same end and the newspaper took on a set format with each of us responsible for certain aspects. I had always been interested in drama and music and gradually all those kinds of stories were thrown in my direction.
Through all this Shad Greene stayed aloof, but Willson and Birkett seemed to have taken to me and of course by now Robin and I were firm friends.
Life in a newspaper office can of course be as dull as it can be interesting and weeks would pass by with just mundane work. We went through the golden wedding season, the spring wedding season and the fete season. As winter turned to spring the garden parties started. It's almost as if there was a set circle of garden party goers. You would see the same people at each one. I am sure they hibernated during the winter and emerged anew each spring.
Reporting on garden parties could be both boring and annoying, but then again it helped me to find my way around and appreciate the countryside. On numerous Saturdays I had a tour of about six of these events to undertake in one afternoon. The main problem was not in fitting them in but finding some interesting or different angle from each one to write about.
Often to make things easier Robin would take a couple off my hands and I would do the same for him the following week.
Robin was proving to be quite a character in his own right. His main interest in life seemed to surround embarrassing gossiping women. If he thought somebody was talking about him he would suddenly contort his back into a hideous hump, stick his tongue out and mutter in his best Hunchback of Notre Dame impression. His theory was simple.
"If people think you are mad or interesting enough to talk about you may as well give them something to gossip over ."
I never did find out whether people actually talked about him or whether it was just his paranoia.
His classic coup de grass in this field (if you'll forgive the pun) occurred a few years before I knew him when he lived in a flat. It looked out onto a passageway leading to the largest hotel in the town. Every night two elderly women would pass and stare in at the used whisky bottles and records stacked high inside his flat. Robin collected LPs because he liked music and got the whisky bottles from friends. He didn't like whisky but seemed to have some fetish about the empty bottles.
Robin hit upon the idea of shocking these two ladies and bought a very large and evil looking plastic spider which he attached to the ceiling and allowed to hang down the window where the women passed. Every day after that when he was indoors he watched for them and would then push the spider from side to side with a horrible grin on his face.
"He's completely mad," one of the women was heard to say."
"But not as mad as you dear," replied Robin.
Robin was 10 years older than myself, although he still regarded himself as being about 16:
"I look 30 and act 16," he once said to me. I commented that it was a rather immature outlook to have:
"I can be mature when I need to be. It's just a matter of adapting to the circumstances you find yourself in. Journalists have to do that all the time. The point is that when I don't have to put on false airs and graces I feel more at home acting like a 16-year-old. Actually I'm thinking of downgrading it to a 14-year-old."
Robin very rarely seemed to go out with girls. He generally mistrusted women following a very unfortunate experience in his early 20s. At that time he had been engaged and, although it's difficult to imagine it, his fiancee was a female version of him. By that I don't mean that she was going bald but that she had the same kind of zany character.
From what he told me on the odd occasion about this Sue, I was able to fit the pieces together to form an impression of her. His favourite story surrounded one Christmas when he visited her complete with a 5ft 2in inflatable Father Christmas. She repaid him a few days later with a presentation of a full size cardboard cut-out of a model dressed in a bikini. Sue never did anything by halves and could match Robin at most things. In the end that was probably what caused the break-up. They would have violent arguments in their attempts to outdo each other. In the end Sue left the area and opened a massage parlour in London.
"Aye there's the rub" Robin joked, although I suspected that deep down he was very upset by the way things turned out.
From that day Robin had been a confirmed woman hater, despite Violet's attempts to marry him off with all her friend's daughters and even a number of her friends up tot he age of 70.
So Robin was a rather zany character. But at heart he was an honest and straightforward person, as was Louise. She was one of those quiet people who just get on with their jobs without making fuss. In many ways she was slightly naive to be a journalist and so it was both amusing and strange that she should be involved with the first streaker to hit the town.
The pastime of people taking off their clothes and running around naked in public places was at its height around this time, although our town was a little behind many others in experiencing the phenomena. I think it was a Tuesday when Louise had her unforgettable experience, although the day of the week is probably irrelevant.
Once again it was necessity that forced her to do the story. The rest of us had a pile of work to do. So when Gwen telephoned upstairs to tell us that a young man had just passed the office sans clothing we were all suitably shocked but not in a position to do anything about it... apart from Louise of course.
"Christ we'd better get after him," said Birkett who was standing on his chair to look out the window.
He looked round the room and saw Louise sipping a cup of tea and reading a magazine (well it was her lunch greak).
"Louise follow that bloke. Get his name and find out why the silly prat's doing it. There's no point getting Harry because the Editor wouldn't print a picture if we could get one and Harry probably wouldn't know where to point the camera anyway.
Louise grabbed her notebook and was off down the stairs in double quick time. Birkett laughed as he watched her set off down the street after the streaker.
"Right couple they'll look. Chap with no clothes on being chased by a bird with a pen and notebook. I bet if Louise caught him she wouldn't know which way to look or what to say. I don't think she's ever seen a dick let along had one." Birkett could be crude at times but on this occasion there was no stopping his flow.
"Yep perfect little wallflower, poor kid. Mind you that guy's got a cheek - or should I say two." He laughed at his own joke but nobody else did.
It was about 20 minutes before Louise returned to the office desperately out of breath and red in the face.
"He told me to fuck off," she said before collapsing into her chair. "He actually told me to fuck off. That's the first time anybody's told me to do that."
She seemed to be relishing this fact. I suppose she felt it was making her one of the lads. It couldn't be easy for a girl working in an all male domain, although she had Gwen in the front office to talk about all those interminable things women talk about.
"It was incredible," she said once she had begun to get her breath back.
"I bet it was," Birkett replied.
"No seriously. Do you know that main street is 800 yards long and he couldn't half run and of course he had a good start on me. Then there were all those people in the way as they stopped to watch and giggle. I must have looked a sight running after him. Anyway at the end of the street, close to the station, he went down the men's toilet and that's when he told me to fuck off because I had been shouting questions to him."
Later that day I heard what had really happened. A rather elderly lady came into the office and asked to see the young lady reporter who had chased the streaker down the street. Louise by that time had fully recovered her senses and gone off to court and so I asked the woman exactly what she wanted.
"oh nothing much dear. I just came to return this. She dropped it at the top of the toilets when she was shouting down to the streaker. It was then I realised she was obviously a reporter."
She produced a pen from her handbag and put it onto the counter.
"I suppose she told you what happened," said the woman.
"Yes I understand he rather rudely told her to go away," I replied.
"Oh there's more to it than that. Did she tell you why he told her to go away?"
"Well no not exactly."
"It was because she stood halfway down the steps shouting at him.
"What's your name? Can I have your address? Why did you do it? I'm staying here until you come out."
"Well I guess she was just trying to do her job," I replied.
"That's as may be but I don't think her job involves finding out the size of his cock so she can 'work out how many column inches to give him. hen he did come out and the police wrapped him in a blanket and arrested him he seemed embarrassed'" the woman replied.
From that day forth we all viewed Louise in a new light!
Willson was another kettle of fish entirely. Nobody would ever accuse him of being a shrinking violet. He was brash and confident. He seemed to care little for others and was the nearest thing to a calculating, hard newsman I would meet for a long time. He could be kind and helpful, but on the other hand he could be very rude indeed.
It was rather out of character, therefore, when he came into the office one day and announced that he was holding a party at his home the following Saturday and we were all invited and could bring as many friends as we wanted. The drink and food would be supplied.
This naturally astounded everybody. Willson had never been known for his generosity. Suddenly he was throwing his house open not only to us, but to virtually anybody in the neighbourhood who felt like going.
"Blimey what's up Tone. Had a sudden rush of blood to the wallet," asked Happy Harry, who was in the office at the time and obviously had no intention of going.
Willson ignored the remark.
"Starts about 8.30. I suppose you are all wondering why I'm giving this party?"
"Not at all mate it's just your usual generosity shining through," Robin said sarcastically.
"Well it's me and me missus," replied Willson.
"It's your wedding anniversary is it? asked Birkett.
"No we're getting a divorce."
"Getting a divorce," I spluttered " and you're celebrating? Aren't you supposed to become a psychological wreck when that kind of thing happens?"
"No my son. It's my third marriage, I'm always glad to get shot of them. Don't know why I keep on tying the old knot."
"I suppose you've already got another lined up to take her place," inquired Robin.
"Well actually I have. This one's a little cracker I don't mind telling you. I think it's my best yet, although I won't give her much more than five years."
"You callous bugger," said Robin who obviously had previous in this area.
"Just realistic Robin, just realistic."
"Yes but isn't it rather unsettling," siad Robin who was now well into his stride.
"Who for me or her?"
"Well for both of you."
The conversation seemed to be getting nowhere fast and so I left the room having no wish to hear the remainder. Five minutes later I returned and Robin and Willson were still at it.
"Yes but Tony you just can't go on like that. You'll be knackered before you're 40. You'll kill yourself."
"Yep it'll be a short but happy life."
Having said that Willson picked up his notebook and walked out of the office in search of news - unaware that he was probably making it himself.
Eventually the Saturday in question came round. I can't honestly say that expectations for the party had been building up over the past few days. A Tony Willson party I imagined was the kind of thing you went to if you had nothing better to do. On this particular Saturday it appeared there were a number of people with nothing better to do because Louise, Robin and even Birkett were there and even Harry had changed his mind and was sitting in the corner chatting to somebody I had never seen before. Shad Greene was nt surprisingly conspicuous by his absense. He was probably sitting at home reading the Times and demanding cups of tea from his wife.
I was met at the door by Willson himself and a tall woman in a smart trouser suit.
"Hello Eric lad," Willson was speaking in his most condescending tone.
"Good to see you lad. Make yourself at home. Robin and Louise are inside. Oh by the way this is Joan." So saying he put his arm around the trouser suit and gave it a big hug.
The red trouser suit held out her hand and I accepted this token of friendship before moving into the lounge and pouring myself a beer.
Eventually I saw Robin amongst the small crowd of "party-goers". He was leaning against the wall with his eyes closed and a pint of beer in his hand. It was only 9 p.m but already the room hung heavy with cigarette smoke.
"Hello mate. Sorry I didn't give you a life from Violets but I had a late job and things got a bit awkward. I'll tell you about it some time."
"That's okay I quite enjoyed the walk here. It only took about 30 minutes and it gave me an appetite for all this food that Tony's going to ply us with. Robin you know that creation in the red trouser who exactly is she?"
"That's Joan," he replied.
"I know that. She's the one that Tony's going to marry then?"
"No she's the one he's about to divorce."
"But they seem very close still."
"Oh Tony always remains friends with his ex wives. It's the month leading up to the decision when the plates fly. He still keeps in contact with all his exs if you know what I eamn. When it comes to marriage he's very immature but then so are all the women he marries. He goes for a certain tyle. Most of the time they really deserve each other."
"What about his fiancee," I inquired.
"Oh she's not here. Tony's rules state that she won't be invited to parties or be around until he's well and truly ditched the present Mrs Willson. I don't think he sees that much of the next one at present. None of us have seen her, but he'll unveil her when he's good and ready.
"You make her sound like a car."
"Well I suppose that's what they are to him. They're okay as long as the bodywork is sound and the engine turns over, but when they've done a few thousand miles round the block and need a service, he's straight down the garage to buy a newer model."
"This beer's flat," I said in an attempt to change the subject."
"Yeah it'll be left over from his last party."
"You mean he holds a party every time he ditches one?"
"That's right, one when he ditches and another when he unveils the new model."
At this point Louise came over to us followed by a rather strange looking man.
"Hello you two. This is Bruce."
Bruce nodded and began dancing on his own in the middle of the floor. He had obviously been drinking quite a bit.
"Don't worry about Bruce he's had a few," said Louise as Bruce turned round and said in no uncertain terms "I have not."
The party soon began to go with a surprising swing with two of Robin's friends proving to be the major talking point for a short while.
The first was everybody's idea of the perfect party wrecker. The quiet, studious type wearing the standard National Health specs. He tried desperately to have long drawn out political discussions with those present and then wondered why he was left on his own up a corner. Robin knew this and took delight in lacing his drinks with Vodka. Robin had been to school with this David. People used to wonder why Robin put up with him, but Robin insisted that there was a side to David that few people knew and he had found it out. He would never say what that side was but did admit that on occasions David was the only person that kept him sane.
On this particular night, however, Robin had been mixing David's drinks even more than usual and it was beginning to have an effect. After telling everyone that he was capable of flying and didn't really need his glasses, David had placed them on the floor and trodden on them before leaping into the air, fluttering his arms and falling into a crumpled mess on the floor.
David then passed out in the corner and for the remainder of the evening lay there snoring. Robin had a second friend who also turned out to be a disaster. Normally John was a happy-go-lucky sort. I had met him on a couple of previous occasions and couldn't help but like him. On this evening he had started off badly by drinking with Violet in the Conservative club. Robin had introduced him to her as his brother and she had believed the lie.
Consequently when John reached the party he was already partially drunk and a mixture of beer, rum and whisky was beginning to have a bad affect on him, The result was that John spent a great portion of the party in the toilet with his head over the sink. In fact his only action of the evening appeared to be a futile search for false teeth that he claimed to have misplaced somehere. Just who misplaces false teeth?
As midnight approached the party was building up in the main room. Robin and Bruce had been in earnest discussion in the corner. Bruce was a Geordie from Newcastle and spent most of the evening proclaiming his love for Louise. Robin spent most fo the evening goading him and Louise spent most of the evening ignoring both of them.
Suddenly the conversation became heated and one of Tony Willson's friends became heated and picked up a bottle and held it above his head and threatened to bring it down either on himself or somebody else. Tony was just a few feet away and saw what was about to happen. He pulled himself up to his not inconsiderable height and snatched the bottle form the man's grasp as if he was picking a fly off the wall. He then picked his mate up and carried him outside, turned him upside down and dropped him head first into a large plastic rain bucket.
"Sorry about that guys. I can't have that kind of behaviour when I'm celebrating," Tony said to everyone.
"Oh by the way I've worked everything out and it comes to around £3 a head if that's okay with everything. Joan will collect the money as you leave and I would just point out that it's getting rather late now. The drink's run out," Willson added.
This of course would have been funny if we didn't know that Tony Willson was serious. It was obviously expected by most of the guests as quite a few gave him cheques. I managed to find £3 worth of change and practically wipe myself out in so doing. It seems a lot of money to pay for a few drinks and some mankie sandwiches.
So the party drew to a halt just after 12.30 a.m, but not before we had said goodnight to Louise.
"Where's Bruce by the way," I enquired.
"Oh he's just gone to get ready," she replied.
"But I thought that the party is over. What's he planning on doing, cabaret/" I inquired.
"Well I suppose you could call it that."
At that point Bruce entered the main room. All heads turned in his direction.
"Right open the doors. It's time I left," he said.
Somebody obeyed and opened the front door.
"Geronimo," Bruce said as he took off into the night without a stitch of clothes on.
"Is that who I think it is?" Robin asked Louise.
"Yep 'fraid so. He came into the office to apologise for swearing at me and we seemed to hit it off. I know taking your clothes off in public is rather strange and not something I like him doing but I'll tell you something boys he's an amazing fuck."
And so saying Louise left in hunt once more of Bruce the phantom streaker!!
Robin decided that his two mates David and John should stay the night at Violets
We had to carry the prostrate David to the car and John had to spend the journey with his head over a washing powder packet as we couldn't find a plastic bag.
When we got home we managed to lay them out in the living room, one on the sofa and the other in a chair. I was glad that throughout the entire evening I had only consumed one pint of beer.
The next morning at 11 a.m David, John and Robin were tucking into a large breakfast of bacon and eggs. All three looked very healthy. I felt sick and had a splitting headache!
Unlike Willson, Birkett was a family man and some said he was rather henpecked, hence the fact that he tried to dominate the office. A Yorkshireman by birth, he always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder that he had never been accepted into the local way of life and always felt an outsider. I suspected that was because he always appeared to be withdrawn and he was a very difficult man to get to know. If he had been pleasant and polite to people he might have found himself becoming more popular.
Birkett's great problem in ht e world of journalism was a tendency to stutter when speaking on the telephone. When meeting people he showed a brash confidence and when dealing with problems in the office he behaved much the same. On the telephone, however, it was a different matter.
He had what he referred to as a code of conduct for complaints, particularly those surrounding court cases. Very often a person would come into the office complaining about their appearance in the paper following an appearance in court either by themselves or a member of their family. Sometimes they even threatened poor Gwen in the front office. She always referred such people to Birkett if he was in.
On such occasions he would march down the stairs in an authoritative fashion, puff out his chest in a manly way and immediately reduce the complainent to a heap of tatt.
I once heard one of these conversations and it went something like:
"Can I help you?"
"Yeah it's this bloody case here in the paper."
"Yes what about it?"
"It's a pack of lies thas what. It's slurring me character."
"I presume Sir that you are the Martin Coleman of North Street referred to?"
"I certainly am mate and it's slanderous."
"You mean libellous Sir. Slander is spoken, libel is written. In this case it is neither."
"It's a slur on me character. How do you think I can hold me head up with me neighbours now after this."
"But Mr Coleman it's only a parking fine."
"Thas as may be, but it's more than that to me. Everybody in the area will read this. I will be labelled the man that parks his cars on double yellow lines. The man who disregards traffic wardens."
"But that's exactly who you are Mr Coleman. You are that person. Mr Coleman I suggest we go through the article word by word. Will that satisfy you?"
"Well what about my ...."
"Okay here we go. You are Marin Coleman, the Coleman has an e in it and you live in North Street. Correct so far?"
"Well yes but ...."
"You are a long distance lorry driver and aged 46?"
"Well yes but ...."
"Your offence was parking your car on double yellow lines in High Street on April 15th and you were fined £10?"
"Well yes but ..."
"No buts Mr Coleman, the facts are correct. There is not one full stop or comma of libel in the entire two paragraphs. Just facts. Good day to you."
So saying Birkett turned round and marched upstairs triumphantly. Mr Coleman appeared dumb struck. He apologised to Gwen for causing her trouble and disturbing her and left the office. Meanwhile Birkett sat at his desk upstairs rubbing his hands.
"Another satisfied customer," he said both to himself and anybody else willing to listen. He remained in the same self confident state until the phone rang!
On most mornings Birkett was the first to reach the office and often he was the last to leave at night. I suppose he was more dedicated than the rest of us, although he tended to be a slower worker.
"He's just the same as all of us mate. The only difference is he's got no reason to go home. He only gets nagged by his wife," Robin said to me one day when I asked about Birkett's background.
"He's an open book. Nothing particularly interesting in it either. The proverbial small town hack who never made anything of his life and is now happy to sit around until his retirement comes up. His only other paper was a small weekly in Yorkshire. Then he met his wife on holiday down here and that was the end of his useful existence. When they were first married she went up to Yorkshire for a while, but never liked it there and after three years of continuous nagging they moved here. He's a good enough sort really. You don't want to take too much notice of him. He's quite harmless really."
Surprisingly it was Gwen in the front office who told me that Birkett was far from and open book and in fact a man with a shady past.
Over the past few weeks I had become quite friendly with Gwen. She was rather slow at catching on at times, but often I would join her for morning coffee when the others were out and it was rather lonely upstairs.
She obviously took to me because when I asked her about other members of staff she was quick to tell me about Birkett and knew I could be trusted not to pass on her information to anybody else, although I had a sneaking suspicion they knew anyway.
"Now don't go spreading this about because I have never told anybody before. That Jack Birkett is a bit of a dark horse you know. I know quite a lot about him from when he worked on the Yorkshire Post."
"I thought he worked for a small weekly paper in Yorkshire?"
"Good Lord no. He worked at their head office in Leeds. He was the local Government reporter and well thought of as well. Trouble was like all journalists up there he liked a drink. A friend of mine used to work with him in those days. Birkett started modestly with the odd pint or two at lunchtime, but things gradually got worse and he took to whisky. Bottle after bottle of the stuff. He went in drunk every day, but somehow he developed a way of hiding it and being able to carry out his work.
"He used to eat a lot of peppermints. Nevertheless his colleagues knew about it, but they were very good to him and kept it away from the Editor as much as they could. On numerous occasions they had to cover for him. Eventually of course something had to give and it came in the form of a monthly council meeting.
"It was the morning session and Birkett had got tanked up more than usual at breakfast and by the time he reached the council chamber he wasn't quite sure what he was there for or even what day of the week it was. Pure instinct had got him there in the first place. He propped himself up on the Press bench. Of course he was in no fit state to listen to the debate and didn't take any notes.
"It was apparently a long and boring meeting and by the end he had sobered up enough to get out of the council chamber and catch the bus home. Once there his conscience began to trouble him and he phoned up the Editor to say that he had been taken ill and had been unable to make the council meeting. The Editor thought nothing of it and told him to stay home the following day if he was feeling no better.
"Two days later the Editor was in conversation with the Chairman of the council who was a friend of his. The editor apologised for the absence of the paper's reporter, but explained that Birkett had been taken ill at home. The chairman seemed surprised because he was quite certain Birkett had been in his usual place in the press bench. Not only was he there but he made quite an exhibition of himself by falling asleep during the debate on a new ringroad and then snored loudly through it.
"The following day Birkett was called to the editor's office. He had been on a lunchtime binge and was in a worse state than usual. This time his colleagues couldn't cover up for him. The editor found out the truth and dismissed him there and then.
"That's why he got a job down here. He didn't have a reputation in these parts. Gradually he managed to kick the drink, mainly thanks to the support and efforts of his wife."
"Is that why she nags him?" I asked.
"yes she has to in order to keep him off the bottle. Mind you I think he's seen the error of his ways. He knows how important she is to him. I can't see him ever sliding back into drinking."
I cast my mind back to Tony Willson's party and remembered Birkett had been on orange juice all evening. So Birkett had something of a shady past, I thought to myself.
Never having been one to keep a nice juicy scandal to myself despite what others thought, after all I was a journalist always in search of gossip as well as the facts, I told Robin that evening. It's a journalists job after all to spread information far and wide!
"Robin you'll never guess what Gwen told me about Birkett," I began enthusiastically.
"Don't tell me she's told you about his sacking from the Yorkshire Post when he was an alcoholic?"
"Yes, but how did you know? I thought you said Birkett was a man with no particular past, an open book."
"Oh that. Well Gwen tells everyone eventually. We all know in the office. I suppose we do the same as the reporters on the Yorkshire Post did. They covered up for his present, we cover up for his past. It's all water under the bridge now, a mild shock when we first found out, but Gwen has made sure by telling everybody that nobody is interested any more. I suggest you join the cover up campaign. Birkett knows that everyone knows and I think that helps to ensure that he doesn't return to the bottle. He feels he let everyone in Yorkshire down and he doesn't want to do that here."
I nodded and continued frying the bacon.