Sunday, October 1, 2017

It’s the little lad of four, sitting on a sofa trying to eat a fried egg with a knife and fork while a dog stood just feet away pissing which did my head in. Kidnapping was the best thing to do

I don’t know why this occurred to me an hour or so ago while I was leaving work and heading for here, La Pappardella in Earls Court, where I am settling in to a half-bottle of so-so to not very good house red wine, a cigar and, later perhaps, a meal, but it did. And it has nothing to do with anything which happened today, this week, this month, this year or – well, nothing to do with anything I can think of. It simply came back to me. NB This entry was actually written with the immediate bit below last, but I’ve realised that I took an age getting to it, so I have brought it to the top.

. . .

Only two stories found me while I was working as a district reporter in North Gwent, in South Wales, which were worth anything, and even one could perhaps be bullshit. But the second wasn’t.

The office phone rang, and I answered it.

‘Is this Patrick Powell?’ a low, very low and rather mysterious voice asked, one I could hardly even make out.

‘Yes, it is,’ I said, ‘why?’

Then he announced: ‘Social services have kidnapped my daughter.’

You get accustomed to nutters even when you are working for a very low-level, not very successful evening paper in the back of beyond in the South Wales valleys, but unless they are dangerous or, at worst, drunk, they help to pass the time. Oh, really I asked, give me more details. But the guy wouldn’t give any. Instead he asked me to meet him.

I went to the address he gave me. It was one of several very substantial houses in a very substantial avenue in Tredegar which had not only seen far, far better days, but which could not even remember them. There was a lot of empty housing in North Gwent and the terrace house could be snapped up for a song, but as no one had the dosh to buy the bigger ones, such as this, they were bought up by the local council and used to house those council tenants who had caused trouble everywhere else they lived.

These people were the utterly forgotten people, people who no one knew what to do with and about whom they cared even less. They existed on miserly benefits – not at all large even in 1977 – and everyone could pretend they were being taken care of. They had reached the end, an end you and I will, God willing, never meet. The house, like all the others in the row was wasted, falling down, a wreck, however grand it might once have been, almost an ex-house.

The guy who answered the door took me into his very large sitting room, and I mean the room was large. But there was nothing in it but a table and three chairs and a broken-down sofa on which sat a young child of about four. And the sight broke my heart. The child wearing very little was sitting on the sofa with a plate balanced on its knees trying, with a knife and fork, to eat a fried egg. I sat down in a chair to listen to the man’s story. But as I did so, something even more distressing occurred. A large Alsatian dog, a male, matted and ragged beyond belief, walked in, stopped, then without even cocking its leg as male dogs do, pissed, right there, not feet from the child. And then it walked on, leaving the puddle of piss behind it.

The man told me his story. It seemed that not a year or two ago, his wife had fallen pregnant and was taken to hospital to give birth. Then, once the child was born, it was whisked away by the nursing staff, never to be seen by the mother of father again.

I was astonished.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ he told me. And he gave me the family doctor’s name, the doctor he claimed was responsible for it all.

I jotted down various details, then took off back to Ebbw Vale. I rang the doctor and explained what I had been told.

‘It’s true,’ he said. He was very matter-of-fact, as doctors who do not aim for a celebrity career on TV usually are.

‘What, you took the child away?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘But why?’ I asked.

‘Well, you’ve met the father, haven’t you.’ That, he felt was explanation enough. He then told me the child had been immediately given up for adoption.

I kind of understood. And I never got in touch with the father again. Did I do the right thing by doing nothing? I really don’t know, but I’m certain that child had a slightly better life than he or she might otherwise have had.

. . .

Now the bit which initially came first: A few years ago, I decided to read some Somerset Maugham short stories, and then read the very good biography of the man by Selina Hastings (which I have written about before here). But this has little if anything to do with Maugham. I simply mention him because many of his stories, in fact a great deal of them, were based on incidents that occurred, anecdotes he heard or, very often, anecdotes his companions and partners, Gerald Haxton and later Alan Searle, heard and would relate back to him. In fact, Maugham is said to have relied on both heavily for ‘material’. Incidentally, both were very important to him, though Maugham described Haxton as ‘vintage’ but Searle as ‘vin ordinaire’.

Haxton had ‘breeding’, but I put the word in quotation marks because although I admit it does mean something, I dislike much of the snobbery inherent in the word. Maugham and Haxton were together for a very long time, but eventually their relationship disintegrated because of Haxton’s excessive drinking and druggery. He finally died, and although Maugham was inconsolable for a time, he also admits to something akin to relief. Haxton caused him all sorts of trouble. Maugham, a man essentially of the 19th century, was at pains to keep his homosexuality (although he was bisexual and had many female conquests) quiet, whereas Haxton, usually drunk, made no secret at all of his orientation, forever picking up rough trade and getting into all kinds of scraps.

After Haxton’s death, Searle, a working-class lad from Bermondsey, was taken on, ostensibly as his ‘secretary’, and he did, indeed, function more as an employee although he was also, most probably more in the early years, a sexual partner for Maugham. One of many, apparently.

When he was still quite young, Maugham developed a bad stammer, one which caused him quite a bit of social embarrassment, so he was grateful to Haxton who could act in his stead as host and being an ebullient sort take the spotlight off Maugham. Haxton, it is said, had the easy charm of a many to whom many would open up, whereas Maugham could be quite intimidating, although he never meant to be.

My point is that Maugham worked many of the tales Haxton and later Searle brought to him into stories, and the following account, although true, could well serve the same purpose.

. . .

In October 1976, what? 41 years ago? I left the Lincolnshire Chronicle where I had worked for 16 months as a reporter and joined The News, one of two weekly papers circulating in what was then called Gwent, in South Wales, as one of two North Gwent district reporters. As a ‘career move’ moving from one weekly in Lincoln to another in South Wales served no purpose at all, but then I didn’t much have a purpose and was simply driven by a desire to move on. Anywhere, really. It was most certainly not a ‘career move’ and wasn’t intended as one.

Life was simple and easy in North Gwent. Life as a reporter on a weekly is not onerous, not even if you have ambition, and I had none. I fell in with Julie Davis, the other district reporter who had taken a shine to me, and after staying overnight with her on the night of the paper’s Christmas party in her small cottage in Llangattock, just across the River Usk from Crickhowell, within weeks I was staying overnight seven days a week and we were living together. It was not love, but it was easy: a cooked meal every night, telly, then sex. But although I was not ambitious, I was conscious of still wanting to move on, and move on I did, to become on of the local North Gwent district reporters for the local evening paper, the South Wales Argus.

Apart from working for the local evening paper instead of one of the two local weekly papers – the other was the Gwent Gazette – life carried on as it did, except that I was now based in the Argus’s Ebbw Vale office. Stories came from meetings of the local district council, Blaenau Gwent, and the magistrates courts, Ebbw Vales, Tredegar, Abertillery and, until the closed both, Nantyglo and Aberbeeg. The routine was to stay in court or at a council meeting until I had enough ‘stories’ to file, then bugger off back to the office or even home, to write them up and then call it a day.

The job was quite lucrative, too, although indirectly, in a kind of abstract way. A district reporter’s job will not keep him or her in diamonds and pearls, ever, but my weekly wage was supplemented by – at The News’s request – submitting court stories. These were the same as I had phoned over to my paper, except that they were three or four times longer, because I was being paid ‘lineage’ – the longer the story, the more moolah would be added to my wage packet (the South Wales Argus and The News were in the same stable, so the wages office was the same). Then there were ‘expenses’ and Lord was I able to milk the paper.

‘Police calls’ could well be done over the phone, ringing up to get a rundown of local petty crime and road accidents. But for some reason we were ordered to pay each police station a visit in person. My local police stations were in Abertillery, Ebbw Vale, Brynmawr and Tredegar, so that is what I did. To same time, of course, I drove to Brynmawr, about four miles down the road, then on to Abertillery, then back to Ebbw Vale and on to Tredegar, and it was all done and dusted in just over an hour. That was the reality.

For expenses, I claimed mileage from the Ebbw Vale office to Brynmawr and back; then from the Ebbw Vale office to Abertillery and back (and before they were closed to Nantyglo and Aberbeeg and back; and finally from the Ebbw Vale office to Tredegar and back. My actual round trip was about 20 miles. The way I worked it bumped that up to about 50 miles. And this was claimed every day. I really can’t remember what my weekly wage was, but I do know that I was getting as much in lineage and mileage as my weekly wage.

The very, very odd thing was my expenses were never questioned, ever. Ever. Why, I don’t know, but there seemed no reason to find out why. It has long been a principle of mine to do something first and then be told to stop rather to go, cap in hand, to authority to ask whether, you know, is it OK if I do this. To which request the answer can all too often be, no, you can’t. So the moral of the story is: don’t ask in the first place.

. . .

But to get to the nitty-gritty. I did, once in a while, come up with a non-court and non-council story, but with one exception they all seemed to fine me rather than as a result of any diligent sleuthing on my part. (The one good story I came up with was so neutered – probably for legal reasons – as not to be much of a scoop when it finally appeared in print. At one court hearing, a man was fined for importing TV sets from the Channel Islands to North Gwent without paying customs duty. He was fined.

Then, about four or five months later, I was – unusually I have to say – looking through a report of one of the many ‘land regeneration schemes’ launched, paid for by Welsh Office funds, to try to do something about the economic blight destroying North Gwent, but also, and more purposefully, to show ‘the public’ that the Welsh Office was tirelessly beavering away on its behalf. As they say, perception is nine-tenths of the game.

Looking through a report on the latest, a one-million pound scheme to do something or other (and this was in 1977/8, so your £1 million pounds would now, 40 years on, be worth about £5.7 million according to the Bank of England I came across a name which struck me as familiar. What I did next I don’t recall, except that it was to establish that the gent behind the scheme was the very same guy done in the courts a few months earlier for not paying import duty on TV sets from the Channel Islands. What, I asked myself, is going one? How come a two-bit petty crook was being paid a find sum by the Welsh Office.

I did everything by phone, ringing up the Welsh Office, ringing up the company involved and all the rest. It’s not at all difficult, and just needs a little common sense. And the great thing is that people more often than not tell you more than they want to, especially as they don’t yet know that you know what you already know. I wont’ – and can’t – go into details except for one: I spoke to the guy involved and he denied he had anything or anything to do with the company concerned. I then spoked to several other people in the company who all gave me a slightly different story. And when I told one that the man he referred to as ‘his boss’ denied outright being ‘his boss’, he came out with the following great quote: ‘If my boss says he isn’t my boss, then he isn’t my boss.’

Given that there was some kind of scam going on, but given that those involved were low-level knuckleheads (and Lord knows what was going on at the Welsh Office), that about summed it up. I was very proud of my story and wrote it up. The subs then neutered it, and nothing, but nothing at all came of it.

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