NIGEL JARRETT ON SLOWLY BURNING | BOOKS GUEST FEATURE
Award-winning Welsh writer Nigel Jarrett wrote Slowly Burning about a washed-out tabloid hack, Bunny Patmore, who’s on the crime beat again. Buzz invited the author to say something about it, and the issues it raises.
As a former daily newspaper journalist who’d given up salaried work, I used to wonder why no-one had fictionalised the kind of scrapes some of my kind had become involved in.
You know the sort of thing: hacking phones, exaggerating, fostering half-truths, and sensationalising anything that made you look better than the opposition.
Not that in the provinces we were ever guilty of such behaviour. Publishing the information contained in a leaked document and taking the rap was about the extent of it. And always in the public interest, of course.
So I hit on the idea of a novel involving a former Fleet Street crime bureau chief ending his days on an obscure Welsh weekly. I called him Bunny Patmore. And I contrived to have him receive a mysterious letter in the will of a minor London gangster.
The letter claims responsibility for a notorious gangland double murder. It’s in a semi-literate hand, and its meaning is ambiguous. Investigating the ambiguity as well as the claim takes Bunny to the West Country, where he meets the gangster’s daughter, who possibly has her own reasons for helping him in his quest. But help him she does. On route, they partake of what used to be called ‘nooky’.
Bunny tells the story of what happened as well as recollecting parts of his own life – he had a Down’s Syndrome brother and his uncle was one of Mosley’s Blackshirts – and turns auditor as the daughter reveals details of her life with her father.
Sensational happenings ensue, the most sensational at the end. Bunny’s sort of story – except that he’ll never publish it.
The real subject of the story, though, is ‘the voice of Bunny Patmore’. We don’t often hear from the journalists trashed by the Leveson Inquiry. What sort of people are they? And do they have any redeeming qualities?
Bunny’s no pussy-cat. He’s probably third-rate and he’s a self-confessed liar. But he’s also complex. He can write, he likes the work of Thomas Hardy, and he hates cant and pomposity. Although tabloiders are supposed to be clannish, Bunny’s a loner. Maybe that’s why he was never top honcho.
I used to adduce camaraderie as the reason I liked working in newspapers, knowing it was a flawed position. Stalin’s death squads must have stuck together and enjoyed a knees up, ditto Hitler’s camp guards. Bonding would have been destroyed by moral doubt, so group friendship and loyalty, its offshoot, were unpredicated.
I could therefore say they counted for something even if what bonded friends got up to out of hours was questionable. Undermining the concept in my case was self-sufficiency – or what I thought of as such.
My allegiances never extended to defending incompetence or bad practice. In any case, on a newspaper, social behaviour was almost always pub-based, which, for a drinker of limited capacity, was always uncomfortable: my Non-Conformist upbringing taught me that little sense was to be found in bar-room banter or that the more slurred the speech of a ‘character’ became the more entertaining he was.
And the more I examine my position, the worse it gets. Although an official of the National Union of Journalists, my heart was never in collectivity and representation. Preventing ‘non-journalists’ from writing the odd article for a newspaper on the grounds that they threatened staff livelihoods seemed stupid to me at the time and I’ve never thought otherwise since, yet union members, in order to prevent it, were prepared to withdraw their labour. No journalists strike ever won much, and what it won was quickly eroded.
Newspaper print unions, emblems of greed and the abuse of power, almost brought the industry down with them when their dinosaur’s tail began thrashing at the replacement of obsolete, hot-metal typesetting by computers and digital means.
But if you’re waiting at the side of history’s railroad for the train to fly through, these estimations are irrelevant: come the revolution, and all would fall into place. Bunny’s father was a printer on the Daily Mail, though the impression is that the son always felt superior to the downstairs compositors.
Newspaper managements were even more beyond the pale as contributors to what was always barely-disguised disenchantment among the workforce: they were miserly, backward-looking and contemptuous of those without whom no newspaper could have been published.
So, although in all other respects I’m unlike him, there’s a lot of me in Bunny Patmore. If you’d told Bunny that he had to join a union because he worked in a closed shop, he would probably have been inclined to smack you in the face. Not that I would have.
He would also have seen the irony of having been fired for acting violently in the workplace and experienced the simmering hatred of having given in to petty dictatorship as the price for keeping his job.
But, like me, Bunny would have respected and befriended individual printers and deplored the low level of debate at the King’s Arms; unlike me, he would often have drank to incapability and ‘joined in’ simply to avoid awkwardness.
Actually, in all cases of the foregoing, including my stance on unions and the stuff about all for one and one for all, I often couldn’t decide. In creating Bunny as a newspaper ‘character’, I’ve given him attributes that most of his kind sadly lacked. Bunny knows there’s more to writing than hack work, and his love of Hardy is genuine.
But I guess he would mostly be found on the cliché-d horns of a dilemma, albeit in his earlier days the worse for drink. Anything stressful at the time will always with hindsight seem unmissable, especially when there’s a story to tell about it and detractors of the profession you represented are spitting on your boots.
The events recalled by Bunny took place mainly in the Sixties and his West Country adventure occurred in 1990, when he was 64. So when is he writing? Maybe ten years later, which means that he’s probably dead and that Slowly Burning is his last testament, a manuscript left behind, almost an ‘objet trouvé’
In order to make Bunny the unreliable newspaper scribe of notorious renown, I’ve littered the book with contradictions, misrememberings, inconsistencies, errors (he says Hardy’s centenary was in 1990 but that was the writer’s 150th anniversary) and other solecisms.
It was high-risk strategy, when most things like that are attributable to the author. But I got the impression while writing the book that I’d become a ventriloquist, mouthing the words of my narrator.
Basically, therefore, I didn’t care about details as long as the main whoosh of the story was correct. Is it? The reader must decide.
That’s the thing about newspapers, especially now that a gibbering moron has been elected President of the United States and only takes questions he likes. For all the flaws, we need Bunny Patmore and his ilk more than ever. If only he were more dependable. I think the lifestyle makes a lot of journalists what they are.
Slowly Burning, by Nigel Jarrett (GG Books), £8.95. Available from Amazon and on order from all good bookshops.