Ipswich was interesting as I look at it from its Wikipedia entry today, though not from my fun-loving perspective of a randy 22-year-old who sought only the joys of London on my fortnightly "sanity leaves."
But even then, it was intriguing to see street scenes that I had seen before but could not imagine how. It turned out that the Daily Express cartoonist Giles lived there and used Ipswich street scenes as backdrops of his highly detailed multi-joke cartoons, which appeared in Canada as popular annuals. It was always a test of our knowledge of British politics whether Alan and I could get all the jokes. The British military was often a subject of humour, and both Alan and I with our links to the Black Watch were very much au courant.
But it was only from reading Wikipedia that I learned Dickens set his Pickwick Papers in Ipswich, and Lord and Lady Nelson lived there. I was aware Cardinal Woolsey was born there and that Orwell Divorce Court was where Mrs. Simpson got her divorce to marry King Edward VIII, who was compelled to abdicate in consequence. Ipswich was also at the mouth of the River Orwell, whence Eric Blair, my favourite author, took his nom-de-plume George Orwell. Ipswich was also one of the main ports of embarkation for puritans leaving East Anglian towns and villages for the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 1630s and what has become known as the Great Migration. Hence Ipswich, Massachusetts.
Daily life as a journalist at the EADT usually involved a split shift, mornings and evenings, with yawning vacant afternoons with nothing to do. Senior men like Sam Browne, who came from the Island of Jersey, Mr. Harvey, the senior reporter, an old sea captain in his late 50s, and a couple of married men were spared the night work for the most part, which meant that the single men got the bulk of the split shifts.
As town reporters, our morning staple was courts, Ipswich Magistrates Court and Orwell Magistrates Court. There was also Coroners Court and Children's Court, which we attended less frequently.
Court coverage at the magistrate's level was mostly for the Evening Star or the weeklies. It did not matter how petty the offence, it could be overstaying in a 30-minute waiting area, and still be worth doing. It was just the sort of thing to start tongues wagging in a village like Felixstowe that Mrs Sally Crint got a parking ticket while shopping in Ipswich last week. And such tongue-wagging was meat and potatoes to the EADT, the Felixstowe Times and the Suffolk Mercury.
On that point, what can be codified as McCormick's Sixth Law of Journalism is this: Whatever the size of the newspaper, the reader remains the same size, and even a small event will arouse the interest of the reader of a large newspaper. So never overlook the trivial so long as it is interesting.
If you got Children's, Coroner's or Divorce Court you worked afternoons. Of course, it didn't much matter since there was little to do at night anyway if you were single. There were the free movies to see. In theory, they would change every two or three weeks, except when the "Sound of Music" came to the Odeon and stayed all year. We interviewed an old woman who saw it 103 times. Of course, you would exhaust the supply in three split shifts—well, two, considering the never-ending Sound of Music.
Thirty years later I came to understand the hold that movie had on old people with my still cool 78-year-old mother languishing in an old folks home in Westmount, declaring that if they forced her to watch the Sound of Music again, she would "start rooting for the Nazis!!"
Graham Wales, a short, nattily dressed young man who fancied himself a lady killer, jealously guarded his role as film critic. Graham, who was the soul of mid-60s cool, did not like the Sound of Music either, and it was his duty not only to greet the fresh incoming movie, or movies, with a full review, but give holdovers pocket reviews. However because of the longevity of the Sound of Music, he was condemned to write a two- or three-paragraph put-downs of the film week after week, month after month.
As it happened one day, Graham and I were stuck with a split shift one afternoon with nothing to do. With the pubs shut till six, we wandered about town aimlessly, having seen all the films long ago. So we dropped into an espresso bar—not my scene with its machinery that made making a cup of coffee sound like a rocket taking off from Cape Canaveral. After suffering through a half-hour of that as the only customers in the cold cafe, we plodded on. Then Graham got an idea to chat up an usherette at the Odeon. Having nothing else to do, I tagged along. This, of course, was where the Sound of Music was playing. Not that I minded. I had seen it once, but twice wouldn't matter, and I supposed it was a good way to kill time before night markings at the office at six o'clock. And if Graham wanted to wander off with his bird, I would not be missed or wanted.
As usual we were waved through, and Graham peeled off to talk to one of the usherettes and ask where his girl was. He told me she would be along presently and we were to wait in one of the private booths at the back and watch the movie. We walked in mid-film, something I was long accustomed to doing. I had always admired Christopher Plummer, a fellow Montrealer, the Captain von Trapp of the film, and Julie Andrews was good value and the songs were a delight. Of course, it wasn't cool to think that, so I did not challenge Graham's opinion on the subject.
But after a time, 20 minutes or so, I wondered when his girl was would appear.
"Not long, not long now," he said, as if it were none of my business.
So the film went on. I distinctly heard a sniff from him, not of irritation but of tenderness. I do it myself in movies, I am embarrassed to say. Then came night-time scenes followed by one in blazing broad daylight, and I turned to see tears streaming down Graham's cheek. He was weeping.
I said nothing but turned away, embarrassed for him, and thinking then, and intermittently since, how strange it is to be subject of the tyranny of coolness—recognising it in myself but seeing that Graham had condemned himself to write reviews putting down The Sound of Music when he thought it was marvelous.
Another quite different theatrical performance involved friend Twiston and my efforts at damage control. The Importance of Being Earnest was being staged by the local repertory company and it was thought, quite wisely, that Twiston would be able to appreciate Oscar Wilde more than Graham Wales would. And so it was that toney Twiston, with his classical education, was sent to review the play. Having the printed programme and knowing the play and the dramatis personae, Twiston did not think it would do much harm to have a few more drinks than he should. And having done so, he had a few more. He would be in reasonable shape by the time the play was over, and he could stumble back to the office and write the review. Journalism is filled with such tales.
By all accounts, Twiston managed to get to his seat without incident. It wasn't until the second act when the unforeseen occurred. He had fallen asleep in his seat. Which would not have been so bad had he not had the loudest snore I have ever heard. When he lived with me in Canada two years later, I had occasion to attest to its truly startling volume.
Ushers woke him up, but he promptly fell asleep again. They woke him up again, at which point he had lost consciousness of where he was, thinking that this was an irritating fellow trying to wake him from his own bed. With shouts of "bugger off" and the like, he went on, interrupting the performance. He was soon picked up bodily and thrown out of the theatre screaming things like: "You cannot do this to me. I am from the East Anglian Daily Times!!"
I first heard of this early the next morning when he came in sober, shamefaced and disheveled, ready to meet the headsman at the Tower of London. He was through and he knew it. Like most of the staff, we tended to use the modern works’ shower facilities with its generous supply of hot water. I kept a fresh shirt in a drawer together with a razor. Having heard the story in general outline, including the painful admission about him bellowing that he was from the EADT, I told him to get a shower and put on my clean shirt.
I asked him if he knew the story of the Importance of Being Earnest, and he said yes, enough to write a review. As he took off for the showers, one of the front office girls came up and said there was an angry man in the office who wanted to speak the editor. I told her I would take care of it. I went down just as Tonky was coming in, but he did not notice me talking to the haughty, faggy director and his diffident male companion who said little. The high-pitched fellow was threatening all sorts of things. "I will have that man's job!" he vowed.
I went on about how unfortunate it was, and how unfortunate it would be for the performance if the incident were to spoil the whole run. Being as diplomatic as I could, I said that I was speaking as the man's friend, and while I would not want to see any harm come to him, nor would I want to any harm come to what I heard was first rate production. Of course, I had heard no such thing. But my saying it softened his rage.
"It most certainly is!" he said emphatically.
"My point is that we have the programme and the names of the cast, and whatever the faults of my friend, he is the only one on this entire editorial staff who has the slightest notion of who Oscar Wilde is. I think you would find it more advantageous to have a rave review by someone who at least is familiar with the play, than doing him harm so that he could not do your production any good." I tried to sound a little faggy myself, mentioning that our colleagues were such "philistines."
Moving right along, seeing that I had him on the run, "Perhaps you might single out members of the cast who deserve special mention," I said. He did so and left angry, but essentially mollified.
I sidled up to Twiston's desk, told him what happened and who deserved special credit and to write a rave review. He did, and nothing more was said.
Most days began with Ipswich Magistrates Court, which usually started with a parade of prostitutes who made a decent living serving the needs of the men of the USAF 81st Tactical Wing, who picked them up often on the London Road, where I lived with Graham Wales. I had a flat in the two-roomed attic with a steep sloping ceiling. Not having nor wishing to waste a shilling on the electric meter when I arrived usually drunk the night before, I would disrobe, let my clothes fall where they may.
One might look out the darkened window and hear the Ipswich prostitute on the prowl, her high-heeled clogs dragging along the pavement waiting for cars to slow down on the approach. Once I saw a couple in open embrace talking to each other as if parting, then spring into action pouncing on the girl and driver, who in this case simply drove off. The couple were police officers on duty, who quickly radioed for a Black Maria and took the girl away.
Next morning I would awaken in the warm pocket provided by my body in the pile of damp blankets and scan the wall for the shaft of sunlight that came through the back of a chair and where the shafts fell on the wall near the old squat paraffin heater which together acted as a sun dial from which I could approximate the time as we moved from March into April. I then looked about from my warm pocket in bed, where poking a foot beyond it was a plunge into the cold. I saw where everything was—socks, underwear and in what order I would put them on.
The room was still cold and by the time the paraffin heater had any impact it would be time to go. I would wash shirts once a week and bring them into the office un-ironed. Because we either wore waistcoats or cardigans, there was so little of a shirt that was exposed, effectively concealing the lack of ironing or any need for it. As I said we showered at the works, where the facilities were the best most of us had ever seen.
One could be put on morning police calls, which still meant attending the dreary police press conferences which now encompassed other matters beyond the murder inquiry—by now even the Scotland Yard men had gone. Some matters were as petty as warnings about upcoming detours and slowdowns from various road works in the county.
The bulk of the cases through Ipswich Magistrates were prostitutes, stories about which were not welcome by the editors as it was not an image the newspaper, nor the powers that be wanted for the town. This was just like the Montreal Star's reluctance to make much of the fact that the city was the bank robbery capital of the world. The solicitor, Mr Skippen, who pleaded before the magistrates, told the same sad tale for each girl that came through. They were fined 15 to 20 pounds and did not even bother to remove their decorative ankle chains, which marked them as working girls. Mr Skippen would tell how the girl arrived in Ipswich with no money and could do no other but throw herself upon the mercies of the USAF 81st Tactical Wing. The magistrates were always unmoved by these tales and imposed the same fine. After that there were cases of pavilion breaking, shoplifting and a range of motoring offences.
There was Divorce Court, where Wallace Simpson got her Decree Nisi to marry the king. This was a rare treat, because it was entertaining with very little if any work involved. That's because one could write nothing about each case unless the judge summed up, which he rarely did. So the work amounted to listing the names and addresses of the parties who had received a Decree Nisi, a provisional divorce giving the parties three months to kiss and make up before it was final.
Typically, they were uncontested cases where upon the "inquiry agent," aka the private detective, would produce a picture for the judge's eyes only, showing the errant husband in a compromising position. These scenes were staged. A prostitute was paid to pose in her slip while the man posed in his pajamas. It was all phony and everyone knew it. What I remember about these cases was that if the woman who gave evidence against her husband was composed in the body of this very majestic courtroom made of old wooden timbers of long ago, she would break down sobbing on the stand. But another woman weeping in the body of the court, would invariably pull herself together and give coherent evidence on the stand. I only covered Divorce Court twice because another reporter made it his beat. He was said to follow up on cases and see divorced ladies at home ostensibly to clarify details in their cases, to see if they made any reconciliation, but also to see if he could be of further service, which, we understood, he frequently was.
Then there was Children's Court, where one could not identify the accused by anything but age. I don't remember much of note that emanated from my pen, but I do remember a 9-year-old girl who seemed to be the soul of evil, as I remember a kid in my grade eight class to be years before. All I remember about the case was that the offence was not of great importance, the case against her was overwhelming, but she resolutely stuck to her story of innocence. What made her appear guilty to me and the court was her lack of frustration that no one believed her. It was her complete calm in denial that seemed to me most damning.
Coroner’s Court came my way a few times as well. It was here that I discovered that a broken femur, the thigh bone, was a frequent cause of death for the elderly in old folk’s homes. And now at the age of 75, I am mindful of that lesson every day when I step gingerly out of the shower in Hong Kong.
There was also the coroner, who was determined not to call anything suicide. He would sum up like this: "It is true that the unfortunate Mrs. Jones was found lying on two chairs with her head in the gas cooker and the jets were turned on. One must also note that there were towels and carpets blocking the window and doors. Yet there remains a doubt in my mind. Could not the unfortunate Mrs. Jones unwisely been seeking to repair her faulty cooker. . ." etc., etc. And so he would rule it "death by misadventure."
Sundry events come to mind. Successfully drinking a yard of ale at the Ipswich Flying Club annual dinner. Being pursued by a tiny corner shop owner near where I lived and from whom I frequently bought things like cigarettes, and being furtively given five pounds. The shamefaced shopkeeper apologised to me as he handed over the money. "I thought you were an American, Sir. Canadians were good lads in the war, Sir," he said before sheepishly turning back to his shop. Another good friend, Bill Leader, got national coverage when he discovered a Battle of Britain veteran living in the abandoned fuselage of a Catalina submarine bomber. Twiston and I were with him when we found the fellow and walked on while Bill interviewed him. We were dumbfounded when his story received national attention.
I remember interviewing a retiring Ipswich policeman, who was your quintessential village bobby, a local Dixon of Dock Green, a popular police drama at the time. I liked him, though his views were going out of fashion even then. He hated the bureaucratisation of policing, the social workers, the insistence on complex procedures. "In the old days, I would find a lad pavilion breaking, I would bang him on the earhole, give him a good thump and take him home to his dad, who would likely repeat the process, and chances are I'd never see him again. Now it’s all social workers, who question his arrest and his treatment, sending the kid the wrong message. And by the time he comes to court months later, he's not sorry, he's just trying to get away with it."
Then there were my fortnightly weekend London visits. They would begin with the week-ending payday ceremony Friday at 5:30, when Mr. Wilson would enter the reporters' room with a black metal box and set it on Michael Horne's desk. We would line up behind Michael Horne. We had our expense chits itemising lunches we never ate and taxis we never took, which were all uniformly fraudulent to the sum of two pounds, a shilling or two over or under. Each one in turn would appear before Mr. Wilson and make a slight bow, at which point the founder of the feast would present us with a small brown envelope containing the folding money and coin that was left over from 20 pounds gross—which was 13 pounds, two shillings, thrupence, half penny. Mr. Wilson would then look sceptically at my fraudulent expense account and reluctantly peel off the pound notes and coins to cover it.
Then I would dash off to the railway station if it were my week away rather than my week in. A week in meant covering a Saturday gymkhana, recording for the EADT those children who scored highest in equestrian events with perhaps an interview and a picture of the winner. Or worse, having to spend all day in a damp tea tent hunched over pencilled notes in a distant Suffolk field recording the names of livestock that won events at agriculture shows. Each of the animals that participated was also worthy of note, and noted by yours truly, with its name and address. All of which appeared in tiny six-point type covering two or three broadsheet columns in the EADT. No one calls their prize pig George or Sally; it's got to be something like "Oxfordia's Empress CDVIII of Oakridge Farm, Woolpit Lane, off Needham Market Road, Shotley. And there were always complaints when you got it wrong, as I inevitably did, as there were so many names with each spelling entirely unfamiliar to me. Meanwhile, the amiable agricultural editor, Rintal Booth, did a fair imitation of a fox-hunting horn on the way out before he swanned about with the gentry, leaving me in the tea tent to take notes with only a plate of cucumber sandwiches to comfort me.
But if such a fate was not awaiting me, that Friday night I was in Liverpool Street Station within two hours and at the Cedars pub in West Ken when it was in joyous full swing. Alan had long given up his job with Prentice Hall after a trip to Sweden, where he did not excel in selling textbooks, and had taken up his duties at the Outdoor Activities Centre in Hybridge Basin on schedule. On two or three sanity leaves, I got off the train at Malden, Essex, well short of London and stayed with him on the demasted Thames sailing barge. On one occasion, we saw one of these glorious vessels under its great maroon sails, evoking visions of a Nelsonian sloop of 20 guns.
High schoolers under the London Borough of Education authority arrived on Mondays and departed Fridays, and the rest of the instructors and teachers were just as glad to get back to London at the end of a week as I was to get out of Ipswich. Alan and I enjoyed evenings in the officer's mess-like Jolly Sailor pub with its requisite major and sleepy pub dog, where one could get a free pint if one helped the two elderly sisters who ran the place bring in the coal and feed the fire in the hearth. Or one could choose the Old Ship across the way with its more raucous atmosphere complete with sea shanties at night.
With a goodly contribution from me, Alan had bought the Bolex 16mm. He made a scratchy test film developed in two sleeping bags with chemicals decanted into several Party Four beer cans, into which he would plunge the exposed film and then suddenly erupt from the darkened sleeping bags holding aloft in two hands, twisting and turning, the two balls of spaghetti-like film to expose it to the light before plunging back into the sleeping bags again.
This was my only participation in the test film, apart from discussing a plausible plot weeks before. I must say it was surprising how well it worked out. Technically, the projected result looked somewhat scarred, like old film from World War I, but Alan showed some real talent as a filmmaker. He got Tony Bright to act as the police detective trailing the fugitive Farouk. While they might have done better than Tony as a Special Branch man, Farouk with his trilby, goatee and trench coat was the perfect fugitive with something obviously concealed under his coat. It ended in suspenseful moments by the nearby and dramatic Hammersmith Bridge, the finale being Farouk playing in the Thames with the rubber duck he had concealed under his coat. It was just enough of a surprise to provide a truly Monty Pythonesque touch to the film two years before Monty Python was first broadcast.
I played a tertiary role in the film project after that. We were to do a documentary on punt gunning, a form of commercial duck hunting in Essex on the Thames Estuary. I saw a punt gun, it was a percussion cap shotgun, but looked something like a World War I T-Gewehr anti-tank rifle, though it was in fact a 4 gauge with a muzzle diameter of 2.19 inches. It was hardly a sport—it was anything but sporting. They were to be fired resting and often tied down to a small skiff or punt. And then in a group of a half dozen punt gunners they would sneak up on the ducks as they were sleeping and on the given signal, POW!! At which point the punt gunners divvied up the ducks to sell them in the local poultry market.
There was an idea that we would finance the film making by writing an article for one of the Sunday papers. To this end, we spoke to Harold Evans, then editor of the Sunday Times. Our conversation was fruitful, in that he thought it looked promising, but he would have to see a draft of the article. Which was fair enough, though I remember feeling uneasy about the project as I spoke to Evans, finding it difficult to figure how I could do it given my duties at the EADT. This was further complicated by a love interest, I having met and fallen in love with, and within a short time impregnated, my first wife.
Nonetheless, before the project fizzled and came to nothing, there were a couple of days of research at the British Museum. Our lack of singlemindedness plagued us from the moment we entered the front door on our way to the library at the back. The first thing we encountered was the Magna Carta in a massive glass display case. Well, we couldn't pass this by. After marveling at the exhibit and talking about it for 15 minutes, we moved on through the long exhibit-filled corridor to the distant library. Having once had a passion for stamps, Alan had to take in King George V's famous collection. After that, it was one thing after another to look at and talk about. Before we knew it an hour and a half passed getting to the library, and it was too late to start researching. The next day we came, we marched in blinkered and headed for the library, the magnificent domed Reading Room, which itself was a subject of much conversation, however muted. We did the needed amount of research, but that was the last I heard of the project, as I saw less of Alan and more of my fiancée after that.
Also in London was Leon Harris, whom I knew from the Montreal Star and who left the paper to put out a house organ for Shell Oil. He had also quit and, like Alan, come to England before me. I have described him as Eeyore the Donkey in the past and justly so. Although a good fellow, he was perpetually gloomy. He had the same bad luck I had in Fleet Street, washing out at Reuters, and ending up renting a cheap bed-sit in Gray's Inn Road opposite the Sunday Times, where I saw him frequently, often going around London with him with his friends watching Koreans in the park duel with razor-laden fighting kites, and once having the honour of being refused another turn firing .22 rifles at a fun fair, when I was about to win a third stuffed animal for one of the girls with us.
At first, I could not hit a thing. But having been on the Black Watch Shooting Team, that did not make sense. So instead of firing at one of the ping pong balls bouncing on top of a row of water spouts, I found a nail in the wall with a reasonably unblemished stretch of white wall around it. I found that my bullets hit at ten o'clock from the nail. I made short work of the balls by adjusting my aim and had won one stuffed animal, then another. When I was about to go for my third, the man pointed to a sign that said they reserved the right to restrict participation for any reason.
I did notice one thing about Leon, who will figure into this professional account in the next segment. Only when he was working in Selfridges pots and pans department and living in his horrid little bed-sit in Gray's Inn Road, surrounded by his many fun friends, did he cease to be Eeyore the Donkey. He was the happiest I had ever seen him, a full participant in the Swinging '60s London of which I was only an observer.
But he was to return to Montreal and get a job on the Gazette in the late summer. My intention to marry was known, and it was about that time that the EADT and I parted company. I got a letter saying that after a certain date, my services would no longer be required. The office was shocked as there seemed to be no reason for the dismissal.
But it was clear that I was thinking that to support a wife and coming child, £13s5 1/2d a week was not enough. As I was already dazzling editorial people with the salaries paid in Canada, there was a clear understanding that I would eventually be going home, and the EADT decided to speed me on my way.