*Pic: Beatles by Stephen Luff, Flickr
First published December 14
A tear hung on Don Bentley’s cheek, refusing to budge, refusing to run down his face and splash on the floor of the No 34 tram to St. Kilda. Bentley could see a young Asian woman, a student maybe, looking at him, looking up from her scrolling on a smart-phone. He didn’t care, he willed her to come over to his seat from the far side of the isle, to ask him why a man in his early seventies, was riding the No 34 tram with a tear on his cheek, and more welling in his eyes.
It had been an emotional night, watching Paul McCartney on the latest leg of his Australian tour. A night deserving of a tear or two in memory of a time less complex and confusing than Bentley knew today, and the people – both friend and foe – who had inhabited it.
Life in the days of the Beatles, in the 1960s when Bentley cut his teeth as a reporter, had been so simple and certain then. In black and white like the newspapers Bentley had a hand in producing day after day.
There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
Bentley was now humming a song to himself as the tram passed the stop for Albert Park on the St Kilda Road, although it had not featured in the 40 or so Paul McCartney had sung that night.
As far as Bentley could remember it was a Lennon song. All the same it was appropriate. John Gerard, Bentley’s sidekick all those years ago, a partner in crime in the newsroom of the Woking News and Mail, had been a Lennon man. Bentley preferred George Harrison out of the “fab four”.
If the Asian passenger had asked, Bentley would have explained you chose your favourites those days out of a limited field. It was the same with the news outlets which provided the news about pop stars and, more importantly, the newspapers that Bentley and Gerard loved as much as the Beatles. Not like today, an age when anyone with a mobile phone could give a song an airing on U-Tube, and anyone who thought they had something to say could set up a website claiming to be an authentic news source.
Bentley was having a rant again, and it was just as well the Asian student, or whatever, wasn’t curious about the message, the reason, or reasons, for the tears.
It might be considered fanciful, or far-fetched, to draw a parallel between the newspaper industry and the Beatles. The Fab Four, however, had provided the soundtrack to Bentley’s teenage life which had meshed with his budding newspaper career.
He first learned of the magic of the Beatles and their music while still at school and the Beatles followed him on his rounds in his first job, as a messenger boy in Fleet Street, at the heart then of the British newspaper industry. He bought his first Beatles record, his first record, with his first week’s pay, hearing Please Please Me blaring out from a music shop. He was a little later to join his local newspaper in suburban Surrey as an indentured journalist, and already he was placing a foot in both memory and Penny Lane.
So clear cut then. Beatles or Rolling Stones, British rock or American. A newspaper that was tabloid or broadsheet, BBC or pirate pop radio. That was all you had to worry about in that part of the 1960s when Bentley had started his working life. And whether you listened to the staid old BBC or a pirate radio station anchored off the English coast, or whether, when it came to the printed news, you chose a newspaper of the left or right.
You knew where you stood in the Sixties, when the Beatles called the tune.
It was John Gerard who first said that – the Beatles calling the tune – one night as Bentley and Gerard and a few others whose names and faces were now lost in the fog of time strummed Beatles songs on battered and scratched guitars in the News and Mail newsroom after the work of gathering news had been done.
“It’s like the Beatles are reporters, reporting the news”, Gerard said, and Bentley and the faces he could not picture now looked on puzzled, bemused.
“Too many pints of Friary Meux bitter in the Red House,” someone had said between scratchy versions of Please Please Me and Twist and Shout.
“No, let me explain”, Gerard had protested, stopping strumming his guitar, but he was shouted down.
It was only later, years later, that Bentley twigged what Gerard was trying to say, Gerard without the command of English at that time to define teenage philosophical thought.
Yes, the Beatles’ songs might not have told the news as such – although one did start, “I read the news today, oh boy” – but they still evoked the feature pages of a newspaper of old, the ones Bentley remembered. The music brought to hard rock what feature articles brought to hard news, the human story. Beatles songs were about more than sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, although there was plenty of that.
The lonely Eleanor Rigby “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar” and a teenage run-away, who “shuts the bedroom door, leaving a note that she hopes will say more”.
There was a wider social message, too. The Beatles were from the provinces and spoke with a regional accent, at a time when the capital city dominated culture – pop or otherwise – and the people on radio and television still spoke English as it was meant to be spoken, with a refined accent to match.
Was it the scousers from Liverpool ¬– punctuating their songs with yeah, yeah – who made the regions and their accents fashionable, at a time when university cities were still divided into Oxbridge and red brick? Bentley thought so.
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends, I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all
Oh life was so much simpler then, Bentley was thinking to himself as the tram reached Fitzroy Street in St Kilda, the pubs and clubs humming and rocking, and the patrons spilling out onto the streets.
The media landscape of the old days was framed by accountability, ethics, honesty and truth. Now there were no defined boundaries to any of these concepts, creating an environment in which what had become known as “fake news” flourished.
Part of the reason for the melancholy, when Bentley should have been celebrating his lifelong ambition to have physical, flesh and blood connection with a Beatle, was that John Gerard was not there to share it. Paul McCartney live; Gerard, forever the wordsmith, the pun-smith, would have said better than seeing him dead.
The closest Bentley had got to that spiritual Beatles connection was the opportunity to attend a one-week course in journalism at Liverpool University as part of his training. Bentley had chosen Liverpool from a few other cities simply because it was the home of the Beatles and he divided his free time between visiting the Cavern where the Beatles had performed a few years earlier and the newsroom of the Liverpool Daily Post.
After their days working together, Bentley and Gerard had only connected spasmodically, mainly because Bentley had spent a large part of his life working abroad. Like all great friendships, when they did meet – sometimes after a decade – it was as though they had never been apart.
There were spur of the moment, urgent calls, though, through times zones, interrupting drunken nights or hangovers.
Bentley phoned John Gerard on the day John Lennon was assassinated in 1980. He remembered Gerard’s trembling, disbelieving voice as surely as he remembered the exact moment he himself heard the news; listening to the car radio as he pulled into a car park in South Africa, where he worked at the time.
And when George Harrison died 21 years later, with Bentley now living in Australia, the phone was ringing in the small hours of the morning, with John Gerard on the line.
Bentley wanted John Gerard to be with him on the tram, with him in AAMI Park as McCartney belted out 40 numbers but Gerard, like his hero Lennon, was now in the great recording studio in the sky.
He had died 10 years previously, just making it into his sixties, which was an achievement as great as McCartney doing a three-hour session, without a break, in his 75th year.
Bentley wanted Gerard to be on that rumbling, swaying tram with him but what would his friend, who never knew anything else but the newspaper trade, make of a tram – or bus or train – without a newspaper in sight. No one reading the morning paper at the start of the day, or the evening one at its end. The image of Gerard forever cemented in Bentley’s mind was of a scruffy, long-haired reporter with a rolled-up newspaper, or notebook, sticking out of the pocket of his overcoat.
Gerard had lived long enough to see computer terminals replace typewriters in newsrooms, to see editors’ desks free of pots of glue and razor blades to cut and paste stories by hand. He had seen the end of ash trays, a brutal blow to a man who had smoked 60 cigarettes a day since his late teens.
As they said in Gerard’s obituary, he had succumbed to the twin dangers facing life as a journalist, too much whisky and too many cigarettes.
And how Bentley missed him now, as much as the sense of loss, the pining over a pint in his current journalists’ watering hole in Hobart, in the weeks following the news of Gerard’s death.
What would Gerard have thought of Paul McCartney, a half century after the release of Gerard’s favourite Beatles album, Sergeant Pepper, still doing a marathon set covering the same period of time as those in the penniless years at the Cavern when fame and fortune was still to call?
And what would Gerard have made of the demise of the newspaper industry today, of assertions that the press might even die?
When Gerard and Bentley had ridden their office-issue push bikes through suburban and semi-rural Surrey all those years ago, covering village fetes and flower shows, and weddings and funerals, they were starting out in what would be a career for life, a job for life if you stayed with the same newspaper. It would have been inconceivable to suggest the craft of newspaper journalism, and those setting out on careers in it, had no future.
Although Bentley and Gerard over the years had seen the hot-metal printers, the men who crafted newspapers out of lines of lead, fall by the wayside, newspapers had kept on appearing on the streets, and on buses and trams, the economics of producing them was strengthened by the saving in production costs.
Bentley and Gerard, on the rare occasions they got together, had toasted the spirit of the printers, and the apprentices who had been their mates, in the printer’s traditional drink of rum and blackcurrant. Now Bentley shuddered at the thought that one day, possibly soon, he might be toasting not just the memory of Gerard but the craft he represented after the last newspaper had vanished from the streets.
It was enough to reduce an old newspaper journalist, and an old rocker at that, to tears. Although Bentley had always said newspapers would never die, it wouldn’t, couldn’t happen, in this confusing, troubled age he was now not so sure.
Yes, like the cover of a Beatles album – was it Revolver, Bentley couldn’t remember? – the news, the everyday life a newspaper portrayed, had been in black and white. Good and bad. The politicians of the time said the British populace had never had it so good, and maybe they were right. A teenager like Bentley didn’t have to worry about finding a job, and people were safe on the streets, to ride a tram without the fear of being blown to smithereens by a suicide bomber. There may have been a common enemy – the communists in the Soviet Union hiding behind their Iron Curtain or the Chinese further east reading from Mao’s Little Red Book – but it was a war of propaganda. It was a world without Islamic terrorists whose motives and rational defined reason, who brought death to the innocents on the streets of American and European cities.
And no global warming. Who would have thought of that, and all the attention it was to gain, in 1963, the year of the Beatles’ first number one.
It was so much simpler then, Bentley whispered to himself again, when he had stopped miming the words of In My Life as the tram travelled the St Kilda Esplanade, threading its way through streets lined in white light.
As Bentley jumped from the tram at the stop for Luna Park, the stop close to his hotel, he could see seagulls in flight illuminated by the street lights.
An hour earlier, he had seen gulls in a psychedelic formation, whirling and gliding above AAMI Park, the lights from the stage escaping into the night sky, and illuminating the birds in blues, and yellow, and greens and reds.
Bentley was having his own psychedelic moment without the drugs, and without the hard drink that had been his preference in the Red House in Woking, Montgomery’s in Hobart, and a hundred newspaper watering holes in between. A jumble of memoires clouding his brain, some in a mosaic of colour like the cover from Sergeant Pepper, some in black and white; of people and music and the printed word. In Bentley’s life, he had loved them all.
*Donald Knowler is a journo legend. He writes the On The Wing column in the Saturday Mercury.
• Robert Middleton in Comments: Words as good as gold, Mr Knowler. Writing at its finest. Powerful enough to be felt and savored here, on the other side of the world from you. Good as gold.