Thursday, 6 January 2011

Brave, Weird, Heroic, Creepy

Story Worknotes: It was barely light, and he was just at the brow of the hill when a huge shadow overarched him and there was a stupefying thud. Puddle water sprayed his face and shook the red valerian in the wall against which he cowered. The wheel of a coach had crashed into the kerb.
Looking up he saw – “like an illuminated tableau” – the terrified faces of the children and the coach driver, dazed, dishevelled, apparently drunk, crouched over the wheel, one eye shut.
“I didn’t really think,” he said later – and observed how the Press used that line, but not the one that followed: “it only took a moment,”; used “anyone would have done it” (he said, modestly) but not, “anyway, it wasn’t particularly difficult.”
Not really thinking, he stepped up onto the running board, twisting his boot so he didn’t slip on the wet metal, pressed the emergency button, pushed through the opening door and, because the coach was beginning to gather speed and slalom downhill, he wrenched the driver from his seat, took his place, changed the gears down slowly and gently braked, steered the coach from the centre of the road into the side, stopped it, and removed the ignition keys.
He called the police. They came quite quickly, took his statement, thanked him, and he went on to work.
Then came the interviews, photographs, profiles, a court testimony and more interviews. “Friends,” sometimes anonymously, fleshed out the portrait. He’d given up lunch on Fridays at his comprehensive and donated the equivalent cash to Biafra’s poor (but that wasn’t his idea – so did everybody in class). He’d helped with meals-on-wheels (but that had struck him at the time as the least onerous D of E option). He’d once rescued a cat from a pond (had he? He didn’t remember that at all). As a boy his favourite book had been The Scarlet Pimpernel about “the archetypal hero who hides his light under a bushel”(well, he’d read it, but he’d preferred Biggles – easier prose and a less discreet protagonist).
He had to listen and respond to the headmistress’s thank-you speech at the primary school’s end-of-term assembly and collect an award at the Lord Mayor’s Parlour. There were invitations to address Rotarians, Round Tablers, the Women’s Institute and the Townswomen’s Guild.
“Is this the John we know and love or some other bloke?” joked a friend in the pub, pushing the local paper at him, page folded at his photograph, which was under the headline: “Brave Secrets of the Shy Hero.”
The space between the public persona and his understanding of his self widened and disconcerted him. He started to feel like his own body-double. He began one speech, “I’m sorry I can’t be with you tonight,” but the audience must have thought they’d misheard him.
Anyway, his disorientation overflowed one night when he was trying to watch a Freeview channel biodrama based on his life which culminated in his adventure with the coach. Without quite realising what he was doing, he finished the whisky bottle and fell asleep before the programme ended. A reporter woke him, ringing to ask for his opinion. He must have slurred.
“Are you alright?” the reporter asked. “Not really,” he said, and put the phone down.
Two nights later, already rather lit and on his way back from the off-licence, he was recognised by a couple of hoodies, who hooted and jeered. Rage triggered, he gave one of them a push, and the boy fell under an approaching bus.
... “a loner”... “a moody adolescent who had difficulties with girls” ... “a weirdo who fantasised he was the Scarlet Pimpernel.”
Closing Sequence: in the prison bus, approaching court. The sparkle of the stills photographers’ flashbulbs, the glare of video-camera lights.
My story-in-progress reverses and improvises around the story-so-far of Christopher Jefferies, 65, who was arrested last week on suspicion of murdering his tenant, Joanna Yeats, questioned for two days and then released.
It has, after all, been both instructive and depressing.
Scavenging through the private life of this retired Bristol schoolmaster, talking to “friends”, colleagues or ex-pupils, the journalists were only interested in material which pointed in one direction.
As Peter Preston wrote in The Observer, the purpose was to characterise Mr Jefferies as “Professor Strange,” aka “The Strange Mr Jefferies”, and a “suspect peeping Tom”. Peter Wilby in The New Statesman made the same point: the Mr Jefferies who came out of the media alembic was “weird, posh, lewd, creepy.”
“Innocent until proven guilty” was once a cornerstone of British liberty. Seems it ain’t no more.
Even the books on Mr Jefferies’ shelves were called down to denounce him. What leapt out at me at once was that poor, pious, lonely Christina Rossetti, in whose work he specialised and about whom I wrote in my last blog, was recast as a sinister, death-obsessed sorceress.
Another of his favourites, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, was described by The Sun as “a Victorian murder novel.” It isn’t. The plot hinges on a stolen jewel. And do you recognise this classic from a Daily Mirror headline?
That’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde.
We do not know what the next act of Mr Jefferies story will be, but in the meantime, the episode has given us the makings of a new library game in which our volumes are called as witnesses against us:
In his favourite novel, a “bachelor” felon kidnaps boys and grooms them for life of crime. Meanwhile his accomplice is a prostitute murderer: Oliver Twist.
This sordid tale of a raped and strangled woman: Tess of the D’Urbervilles .
A drunken amnesiac wills own death: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam .
Sick parents leave kids to risk drowning: Swallows and Amazons.
And so on. Were I young and free again, I doubt if I’d go into journalism. I could just about cope with the irresponsibility, but not the wilful illiteracy.
Footnote: Mr Jeffries was completely exonerated and released without charge on March 7, 2011.

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