The scene is an ill-lit street in Worthing, a coastal town in West Sussex. The time: February 1966. A young reporter is walking back to his newspaper’s office after covering the proceedings in the local magistrates’ court.
As the reporter turns the corner, a bulky figure looms out of the shadows. The reporter immediately recognises the man as one of the defendants who’d earlier been standing in the dock at the court. He’d been found guilty of affray – fighting in the street after a booze-up the previous Saturday night – and fined five pounds, (£84 today if you take into account inflation).
“You’re from the paper, ain’t you?” says the bulky figure. “I was watching you scribbling away at the press table.”
“You’re point being?” says the reporter.
“My point being that if you print anything about me in your rag, you better watch your back. Know what I mean?”
“I have a reasonable idea,” replies the reporter.
It turns out the bulky figure works as a kitchen porter in one of the town’s hotels. If his bosses discover he’s just picked up a criminal record they’ll sack him. Hence, his aversion to publicity. The reporter nods agreeably to the bulky figure and continues on his way. The bulky figure scowls and slouches off in the opposite direction.
Fast forward to July 2014. The reporter has now become a freelance journalist after a career which has taken him to Fleet Street and on many foreign assignments. He’s planning to write a series of crime mysteries, a lifelong ambition. But he’s puzzling over who the central character should be. When it comes to detectives, other crime writers have covered every conceivable angle. Same with private eyes.
And then the light bulb comes on his mind as the memory of that incident in a dark Worthing street floods back. Why not make the central character a crime reporter? And why not place him in the 1960s? And why not set the stories in Worthing? No, on second thoughts, perhaps not. The reporter recalls interviewing a Canadian visitor to the town back in those days.
“What do you think of Worthing?” says the reporter.
The Canadian (looking dismayed at the geriatric population passing by) replies: “Back home, we bury our dead.”
So not Worthing. But if the scene is moved to Brighton, just 10 miles along the coast, that was a town that hummed with action in the Swinging Sixties. (Yes, I know that today Worthing is a much livelier town with more young people than it had in the 1960s!)
I bet you guessed several paragraphs back that the reporter was me. And those days in the 1960s working in newspaper newsrooms have proved to be more fruitful than I imagined at the time. They’ve provided a wealth of background and incident for my Crampton of the Chronicle series of humorous crime mysteries.
And so did I ever write a story about that kitchen porter? The irony is that I hadn’t intended to. The story was a feeble one by crime standards – not the kind on which the paper would use up valuable column inches.
But when I mentioned the incident to the editor, he insisted I write the story as long as possible – and we put it on the front page. “Nobody threatens the fourth estate and gets away with it, my boy!” For the record, the porter never carried out his threat and I never saw him again.
I haven’t yet fictionalised that incident in a Crampton book, but maybe it will turn up in a story in the future. But whenever I’m stuck for an idea, I take a trip down memory lane to those 1960s newsrooms.