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Martin Kelner, Journalist, Author and Radio Presenter.
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A little bit about me & Kingswood, Bristol
By Martin 'Obits' Kelner on Dec 31, 2021 - 11:59:59 PM

Unpublished piece, 2017


Bristol - memoir


I wanted to get some of this stuff down before I die, in case anyone is interested in an obituary.   I mean, 'DJ Dies' would probably cover it, with a brief resumé of career 'highlights,' because frankly people are dying all the time, and who cares?


It's just that I have a particular interest in obituaries having been an obituarist myself, of sorts.


My first job, after a spectacularly unsuccessful University career, was with Bristol United Press, who ran the Bristol Evening Post, and the Western Daily Press, a morning newspaper for the West Country, as well as a couple of regional weekly papers in the city's outer suburbs, on which they gave us junior reporters a six month probationary period, to see if we had the right stuff.


I was assigned to the Kingswood Observer, covering some of the suburbs North East of Bristol, which had been proper places in their own right before the Second World War, but were rapidly being subsumed into the city itself.  


On my first Monday morning I was introduced to Roy Alderwick, Kingswood's local undertaker.   Almost nobody else in this book will be mentioned by name, apart from one or two famous people I may introduce to add a little sparkle to a largely glitter-free story, but I googled Roy Alderwick and found that I had remembered the name correctly, and it's such a great name for a local worthy of the type who dominated our contacts books, I had to share it.   Roy Alderwick.  


(Unlike Sam and Josh, and those Thomas Hardy names that have been given a second lease of life, Roy for some reason remains resolutely unfashionable.   My late friend Caroline Aherne cleverly chose the name for the hen-pecked husband character in his sensible cardigans in the TV sketch programme The Fast Show - "What did I say, Roy?")  


I was introduced to Roy Alderwick by Tom, a chain-smoking old hack - he was probably about 40 but seemed old to me - who also took me round to the local vicars and Methodist ministers on my patch, showed me where to get an economically priced cup of tea and a bacon sandwich close to Staple Hill magistrates court, and passed on important life skills such as how to brush cigarette ash off an Olivetti portable typewriter without interrupting your flow.


Roy Alderwick was first call on a Monday morning, the very first person I ever interviewed professionally, leading subsequently to a career in conversation with people as varied as Jerry Lee Lewis's sister, a championship standard whistler, and Anthony Wedgwood Benn.


I remember Roy as a chubby fellow with a combover, which in the early Seventies was not the source of mocking humour it is now.   In fact, it was a very popular style for men in their forties or fifties suffering male pattern baldness.  


I may, of course, have misremembered, and be mixing Roy up with characters from sitcoms I've seen, or Leonard Rossiter's undertaker in the film Billy Liar.   That's the problem with memoir.   Unless you keep a diary it's hard to separate what really happened from stuff you've imagined or read about, or seen in the movies, and I should confess I wasn't paying attention most of the time.  


You aren't when you're younger unless you're a poet or something and I wasn't, so those of you who remember Kingswood's premier undertaker's dome being replete with golden locks have as much chance as me of being right.


My business at Roy's place on a Monday morning was to get names and addresses of any fresh corpses the Kingswood district was dealing with at the start of a new week, write the details down in my notebook, and turn up at the house of the dearly departed to quiz relatives on his or her (usually his) life and times.    It hardly seems credible now, but intrusion on private grief was not just an unfortunate by-product of journalistic endeavour, but in this case its very raison d'être.


This is how it worked.    Intrepid reporter rings doorbell.   Leaves suitably respectful gap before ringing again, and eventually door is answered.


'Hello, Mrs Bennett, I'm terribly sorry to trouble you at this difficult time.   I'm from The Observer, and we were awfully sorry to learn about your husband's death.   I wonder if you could spare me a few moments to talk about George so we can put a little write-up about him in the paper this weekend?'


'Ooh, I don't know about that.'


'It's just to make sure we get all the facts right.   We wouldn't want to put anything in the paper that's wrong.'


'Hold on a minute.'   (Shouting to daughter who's with an aunt or uncle in the sitting room.)   'Lesley, there's a chap 'ere, says he's from the Observer.   He wants to do an article about Dad.'


Lesley, blonde, plump, fluffy slippers, comes to the front door and looks junior reporter up and down.   'Ah, a Jew.   We don't see many of them round these parts.'


Not really, but thinking about those days I just remembered how very white, Christian, non-Metropolitan, that part of the world was back then.   Just a few miles outside the eighth biggest city in England, and it was like going back to a world of cycling midwives, Ealing comedies, and 'bobbies on bicycles two by two,' (a prehistoric reference even when Roger Miller used it in his 1966 chartbuster England Swings).


Anyway, a certain plausibility and a neatly knotted tie must have gone a long way in those days, because I was invariably invited in by the newly widowed.   They sometimes gave me a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit   (McVitie's Hob Nobs were still 15 years in the future, which gives you some idea of how different the world was back then) while we chatted about the latest occupant of one of Roy Alderwick's mahogany-style boxes.


Though actually we didn't much.   I was new to the business, and not entirely comfortable going into people's houses and asking personal questions.   For a start, their houses were so different from our suburban Jewish home back in North Manchester.


Our house was noisy, and smelt of food - and so did those of my (mainly Jewish) friends.   My mum always had some brisket or Hamishe (home pickled) cucumbers on the go, or she'd fried some fish, so there were food odours; garlic, caraway seeds (?), fried onions.   These houses in North East Bristol smelt of nothing.   Furniture polish a bit, I suppose, and boiled ham sandwiches with lettuce (limp leaves, if memory serves, iceberg never came in until after Channel 4) in white sliced bread.


So the conversation tended to be as neutral and non-committal as the ambience.   Despite the fact that many of the recently departed had seen service with the Gloucestershire Regiment, the so-called Glorious Glosters, an infantry outfit that played a key role in both of the twentieth Century's two World Wars, we rarely touched on the subject's wartime experiences.   


In many cases, I don't think the widows could have helped me in that area even if they'd wanted to.   This was an era when lips were almost universally stiff and upper, especially in that very English part of England.  


The returning soldier, I imagined, would place his boots by the fire, and after a cup of tea and a toasted teacake, and maybe in view of the circumstances a return to marital relations, would take up or resume peacetime life.   All that Ryan's Daughter stuff was fine for the Irish, and passed an absorbing couple of hours at the ABC in Bristol Centre, but had no place in the borough of Kingswood.


What the widows could talk about was the old man's work.   Kingswood was more or less a one-company town, with the boot and shoe manufacturer G.B.Britton expanding rapidly through the 1960s and '70s thanks to the success of its TUF boot, a 'light and flexible men's working boot' according to a 1960s catalogue.   My obit in the Kingswood Observer - 'Shoe Factory Worker Dies,' or 'Finisher at G.B.Britton Dies' - would at least give the boot and shoe community an opportunity to learn which of their former colleagues had fallen off the perch.


There was a good chance they might have played together at the G.B.Britton Bowls Club - still going in 2020, unlike the shoe factory - set up by workers returning from the First World War, encouraged by George Bryant Britton, one of those classic Victorian entrepreneurs with a social conscience, but who never lost sight of the value of a half crown.  


He was a councillor, an alderman, and later a Liberal MP and, unlike many other Bristol business titans, unsullied by connections with the slave trade as far as I know, not that the Kingswood Observer - or anybody else in Bristol in those days for that matter - would have bothered to mention it if he had been.


On the employment history of the recently deceased, we stuck to facts.   In truth, it was more a c.v. than an obituary.   Even when my awkwardness disappeared, and I relaxed more among the mourners, I tended not to broach interesting questions that might have given a clue to the character of my subject, like, "What was he like at the works' Christmas party?   Was he tongue-tied and ill at ease when he introduced you to his boss?   Did he ever spot a girl from the office he was vaguely aware of dancing with her boyfriend over the other side of the room, and did he think about her every single day for the rest of his life without ever seeing her again?"


We did ask about hobbies and interests, but there was rarely much of a story there.   The days of older folk retiring and doing a sociology degree at the Open University or hiking through the Hindu Kush were twenty or thirty years in the future, which meant less than captivating headlines like 'Keen Gardener Dies.'


I did wedding reports as well, where the family filled in a form from which I picked out a 'news angle,' and wrote up.   Machinist Weds, Honeymoon In Caribbean, Met At Local Youth Club; those were some of mine.


Both the chaps who sub-edited the paper were called Norman.   The head Norman was round about 60, I suppose, maybe a little younger, a chain-smoking veteran of Bristol journalism who must have done something awful in his career on the Post or the Daily Press to be imprisoned in a cramped local weekly office knocking the efforts of barely literate teenagers into a kind of journalese, two floors down from where the 24-hour newsroom action was.


I never remember this Norman sharing with us anything that could have been useful in our future careers, or really engaging with us at all.   On those occasions when banter flew round the office, his incessant two-finger typing would slow down to a low hum, and a faint suggestion of an indulgent smile would be just perceptible to us Norm-watchers.   I think he was a good chap, but I have little to base this on apart from the fact that he never lost his temper at some of the bilge I turned out like he did with some of the others, and I was signed to a three-year apprenticeship when my six-month probation ended.


The other Norm was thirtyish, keener to befriend his young charges than his boss and thus probably more likely to be treacherous as we scrapped for our indentureships.   He'd sympathise with us over our run-ins with Senior Norm, tut tutting and agreeing when we complained about SN being out of touch with modern times and so on.


He invited me for tea to his ramshackle, damp cottage in Oldland Common, a proper old school village to the North of Bristol, one of the last places to have coal mines in the area, probably all poshed up and desirable now, but in those days just somewhere to live if you didn't have much money.


It was all a little chaotic - I'm not sure Mrs Norm was expecting me.   While Norm prepared a disappointingly lukewarm mug of tea - as my dad used to say, 'What is it with the goyim and all the milk in the tea?' - I watched his two small scruffy children playing on a makeshift swing optimistically attached to a tree branch, but not in any way compliant with health and safety, had such a thing have existed in those days.  


Both the little ones had stinking colds so I had to manage their surprisingly abundant yellow-green streams, given the cute, tiny button-noses they were streaming from, while entertaining them with vigorous pushing, and simultaneously trying to keep bones unbroken.


If you were around in the early 1970s, you'd recognise Mr and Mrs Norm.   He was a little paunchy, thinning hair, full beard - out of the suit and into polo-neck jumper and corduroy trousers once home - and she was what back then was known as an Earth Mother type, again carrying a few surplus pounds, you should pardon me for saying, mid-calf length floral print dress, billowing - is that the word? - sandals, no make-up, hairstyle as much like Joan Baez as it was possible for an English grammar school girl with curly hair to achieve.


It was so much easier in the 1970s to find out what tribe people belonged to.   There was a Guardian, an old Observer magazine and a paperback of The Female Eunuch on the big wooden table in Norm's living room, and a shelf full of vinyl LPs; Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, early Dylan, Bert Jansch, Steeleye Span, Roy Harper, a lot of British stuff, folk and folk rock veering gently into psychedelia. You knew exactly where you were.


These days, unless you are Mark Zuckerberg - and welcome Sir if you have joined us, some liking and following or whatever the hell it is you do on your site would undoubtedly help - there's no way of knowing what people are listening to and watching, and where they are getting their news and opinions from.   Nobody's walking round with a paperback in their pocket, and where the long-playing records used to sit there are houseplants and a book on Thai cooking.


It occurred to me recently that if Norm had not stacked the albums on a rackety shelf in a damp room, not let his enfants sauvages crayon all over the covers, and most importantly not played the damned things, he would have had a nice pension.   But who knew?   If my mum had held on to the slum in Hackney where she was born just after the First World War, all of her grandchildren could have been privately and expensively educated.


As it turned out, I never really worked out how to make money - as was pointed out to me 40 years later, when a colleague said I'd always managed to earn decent money, but not make any, which was an important distinction.   I never really learnt to do anything of value as it happens; basic motor mechanics, home improvements, tantric sex, all remain firmly closed books to me.   But what I did learn - from hippy Norm with the snotty kids - was how to write a story for a newspaper.    


About two weeks into my job - I can't believe, incidentally, that at just 19 years old I packed a few clothes and a couple of Beatles LPs and travelled to a strange, virtually Jew free town to be a journalist - the first story I ever found, which wasn't about someone dying, getting married, or doing a sponsored swim for charity, was about a chap in a two-year stand-off with the council because the road he lived on was full of potholes.   I think it was something to do with the road not being properly 'adopted' by the council, and thus the vast cost of repairs falling on the residents.


The unfortunate who vouchsafed this scandal to me had folders full of correspondence about the issue.     He was a divorced chap who invited me into his not-too-tidy house, gave me another in a series of disappointing cups of tea, and treated me to a blow by blow account of his dealings with local officialdom until I was as fed up with him as the Council undoubtedly was.


In fairness, he seemed to have been treated fairly shoddily, but he was one of those guys whose lives seemed to be a series of hard luck stories.   Wife gone, hair going, and quite frankly the suspension on his 1965 Hillman Husky shot to bits thanks to the negligence of Warmley Rural District Council.


Back in the office, in a state of some excitement, I gave this saga the type of treatment Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman would later turn into Oscar-winning gold in the 1976 film All The President's Men.    I submitted the magnum opus to junior Norm, who duly submitted it back to me, suggesting the 1500 words I'd devoted to this tale of suburban revolt was a little excessive, and some of the more Wat Tyler elements I'd ascribed to its hero belonged on the spike (a literal spike in those days).


"What's the name of this benighted thoroughfare?" he asked.   "Grimsbury Road."   "Well, how about 'Grimsbury Road has been living up to its name these past eighteen months, some quotes from the residents, not too much with Che Guevara, he sounds like a bit of a loser, reaction from the council, and it's all over in 700 words, a crime with no victims."   


"It's a decent tale," he continued,   "But I doubt it'll have the editor of the…" Rival newspaper mentioned here, I want to say the South Gloucestershire Gazette but the Internet tells me that went out of print in 1935, which acts as a useful reminder that these fragments of memoir are not to be taken as gospel.   Anyway, he doubted that my very first page lead would have our rival driving up onto the Mendip Hills, attaching a length of hose to his exhaust pipe and filling his car with deadly fumes.


I would love to bring you that story, either in its original form or the new improved Norm version, but the Kingswood Observer long ago went the way of the South Gloucestershire Gazette, and I never kept any cuttings, either from that paper or the Western Daily Press, the regional daily paper to which I graduated.  


These days you might be able to rely on a parent keeping a scrapbook, but parenting was different back then.   Whereas my wife and I have kept every daubing, Girl Guide certificate, record of achievement, major or minor, of my beloved children, my parents were vaguely aware I had dropped out of university and gone to work in newspapers in the West Country, mainly because I telephoned them once a week to confirm I was still alive, and 'eating OK' - key query, I lied mostly - they were hardly archivists.


They may have been secretly proud I was learning an arguably useful trade and, more importantly (Jewish family), taking on board all the essential nutrients, but my professional life was not a daily concern, as my children's is to me, to the extent that when one of my daughters got a job at Sky News, I found myself locked into the channel all day, barely even considering the damage to mental health that 16 hours constant exposure to broadcast news can cause.


So, all the work you will read in the collection you are currently holding in your hand with such obvious pleasure, is post Internet, either on my own website or those of other organisations who have been good enough to employ me over the years.  


A lot of the content is from The Guardian for whom I wrote Screen Break, a column about sport on TV, which appeared in their sports section every Monday morning for around 14 years, and I thank them for the permission to reprint those pieces here.   There are also quite a few pieces from the glory, glory days of The Independent when my smarter brother was editor, and that title has been similarly indulgent in allowing me to reprint.   I'm grateful.


I also wrote travel pieces occasionally, mainly for the free holidays, columns for the Racing Post, the half-decent rugby league magazine 40-20, and I blogged a little when it looked like that might be a way to fool people into thinking I was some kind of media personality.  


In all, there are hundreds of thousands of words of mine out there littering the information superhighway, not exactly full of sound and fury (one of Shakespeare's gags) but definitely told by an idiot and signifying nothing.  











































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