Commentary Magazine


Two Scenes of English Life

I had spent the day at the Old Bailey. Trevor, nineteen, was up on a charge of affray, of kicking a policeman in the head during a jazz riot in a local fair-ground. It was a small case, but some of the newspapermen wrote it up for the late editions.

Back at the coffee-house in Soho, after the adjournment of the trial for the day, there is a crisis. Mr. Mellish, the proprietor, takes me aside and says that Len, the accused's best friend, is worried sick. Tomorrow he is due to give testimony on Trevor's behalf.

It was Len, the six-foot fascist admirer, who got cocky little Trevor to go to the concert. And it was Len who, afraid the police would catch him with a weapon-belt, gave it to Trevor to keep. But it was Trevor who was caught, and now stands charged with assault and wielding a deadly weapon.

All day, in the face of police testimony, Trevor had stood his ground, with a cheerful, court-fool attitude, innocent and intelligent. It didn't look too bad for him. The judge had already cautioned the police about offering contradictory evidence. Trevor was lying, and the police were lying.

Trevor's a sharp dresser, has TB and only one lung after a recent operation, a good job, Mr. Mellish (a former Notting Vale social worker) to give character reference, and Len as witness that he was never there.

There's the rub, says Mr. Mellish. Len is thinking of changing his testimony. Twice, once to the police and again to a preliminary magistrate, Len swore Trevor was with him, at a movie (and somehow has the stubs to prove it) at the time of the fair-ground incident. The truth, as the entire coffee-house knows, is not that.

Originally Mr. Mellish agreed to testify that Trevor did not want to go to the concert and that he makes no trouble at the coffee-house. However, under pressure of realizing he may be involving himself and his establishment in a complex lot of perjury, he is cracking. He now wants to say it was Len who did the persuading and that anyway Trevor has a bad character. He says: “All I have to do is step out of line once and the cops will have me. They hate the kids who come here. You have to understand that.”

Neither Len, nor Trevor when he walks into the coffee-house after his day in court, is yet aware of Mr. Mellish's change of heart. But the moment Trevor sees Len's face he completely drops his gay, facile manner and snaps harshly, “C'mon down to the bog, Len.” They both ask me to come with them, to make it look good.

Down in the lavatory Trevor shuts the door. Then he gives Len the old comedian's smile. “Okay, m'boy, what's the trouble?” Len looks at the ground. He is at least a head taller than Trevor, and a year older. In common with the majority of Britain's working-class youth, both Len and Trevor left school at fifteen. Trevor is devoted to the Modern Jazz Quartet and Len says he wishes he had the brains to be.

Len clears his throat. “Dunno, Trevor, I'm scared.”

“Nothin’ to be scared of, Len. Tell your story, that's all. Tomorrow tell your story.”

“Dunno, Trevor. They'll strip me.”

Trevor glares. “You? Me they'll strip twicel”

Len says he doesn't want to go down to the Old Bailey to testify for Trevor. For two days and two nights he hasn't been able to eat or sleep. Today he slipped into the Old Bailey for an hour (I didn't see him), and that did it. “I can't stand up to that prosecutor, and those cops, Trevor. They'll know I'm lying.”

“Not if you tell it straight. Don't let them rattle you. Just answer yes or no.” Trevor's voice is suddenly professional, hard, Cockney. “If you get confused, ask to have the question repeated. Don't talk in long sentences. They've got you if you do. None of your long sentences, Len. That's how they sent you in on that car nickin’. Goddam, Len. I've got a good job now. And a girl. It was you who got me into the trouble.”

“I know, Trevor. But I didn't think of none of this, honest. I made two statements to the police, sayin’ I was with you. They'll remember different. Sure to.”

Trevor says: “They can't. It was crowded that night. It'll be your word against theirs. Just don't say nuffin’ in long sentences.”

“I can't, Trevor. It'll go bad for you if they find out I'm lyin’.”

“Don't worry about me. Just testify for me.”

“I don't know, Trevor.”

Trevor's voice rises. “Listen. You got £100? That's what it'll cost to square me. You got £100?” Trevor demands.

“No,” says Len, “you know I ain't got that kind of money.” He looks up and smiles sheepishly, frowns when he sees how serious Trevor is. Several boys from upstairs start to come in to use the lavatory. Trevor snarls, “Stay out!” One look at Trevor's face and they go out. “I dunno, Trevor,” says Len.

Trevor studies Len. Then he spits. “Listen. You want to snuff, okey. You don't have to do nothing. Nobody's forcing you.”

“I want to help you, Trevor.”

“Then you just get up there and say you was with me. It's your word against theirs.”

“But, Trevor, if they get me on perjury it's two years for me. I'm on probation.”

“Yeah, okay, so it's two for you and four for me. If we go down, we go down together.”

“I'm worried, Trevor.”

“What do you think I am,” screams Trevor. “You think I'm dancing in the f———g dock today. I got a job. And a bird. I don't want to go in for four years.”

“It'll be two years for me, Trevor. I'm scared. I don't want to commit no perjury.”

“Goddamn it, nobody's forcin’ you!” Trevor's mouth tightens and he flips his cigarette into the toilet, goes to the mirror and straightens his tie. He is furious but determined not to lose his temper and his witness. He says, “It's not as though I was sayin’, Len, that you'll get a knockin’ if you run out on me. Nobody's forcin’ you. Get that. Nobody's forcin’ you.”

“Trevor, they'll strip me.”

“Just tell your story. And no long sentences.”

A long, bitter silence between the two boys. Trevor straightens his Italian-cut suit in the mirror. Len leans against a bowl and stares at the floor. Neither looks at the other. We can hear Ray Charles's “Hit The Road, Man” played on the jukebox upstairs where, presumably, Mr. Mellish also is wrestling with his conscience.

“I dunno, Trevor.”

Trevor turns and walks up to Len. “You want to snuff out? Okay. Nothin’ to it. You were with me. Now you ain't. Simple. We either go up together or go down together. Now you don't want it that way, you wanna snuff out, it's your affair. I'm going to see my girl.” He walks out of the lavatory.

One of the boys from upstairs walks in and says, “Hey, Len, you don't look so good.” Len says, “I got to do some thinking. I'm on probation.” He walks out of the back way into the dark, foggy alley. I wait, because we have a date to go on over to the Flamingo.

Ten minutes later Len comes back in and says. “You go on to the Flamingo yourself. I think slow. This is gonna take all night. I'm on probation. And the way I think, it's in long sentences. You know that, don't you.”

The last thing I say is, “Len, why don't you go and have a talk with Trevor's lawyer?” Len looks up at me. There is the trace of a faint, forlorn smile on his mouth. “Don't you see,” he says. “No lawyer can settle this kind of thing. Not even God could.”

_____________

II

I was on my way out of London where, at least for the moment, I'd had a bellyful of the English. I had a second-class compartment to myself on the 10:10 to Sheffield, and I put a typewriter on my knees and worked for about an hour. Then a man stepped into the compartment and barked cheerfully, “Journalist, are you?” He was well-set, a bit on the short side, sporting a brisk grey mustache and a school tie. I explained what I was. He nodded several times, anxious for me to get over the preliminaries. He was an impatient, irascible man.

“Yes, yes,” he rasped, “you're too good to be true! You look so damnably American! You all do! Ha-ha!”

“And you, sir,” I said, “look like my idea of a man from the Colonial Office.” This one stared a moment, then burst into an astonished guffaw.

“Bugger me if you ain't right,” he exploded, staring straight at me. “Be damned! Exactly who I do work for!” Without invitation, he settled himself pugnaciously in the seat opposite and stared gloomily out of the train window.

“Bloody country,” he said. “Hate it. Can't stand the English, not really. Going up to Scotland to stay at my brother-in-law's castle.” He snorted. “Wife's sister lives in New Jersey. Know it? Married to a man got title to a store named . . . .” (He named a famous New York department store). He glared slyly at me. “Would that make her rich?” I said that the store was located in a fashionable neighborhood, and that would make her very rich indeed. He nodded cheerfully. “Have a standing invitation to go over there and visit. Take it up some day, too. You ever lived in New Jersey?”

I said yes, I had once lived in New Jersey. Again he nodded as though slightly irritated that I should reply. “Just come back from the Celebes. Eight years. Agricultural officer.” He gave a loud laughing bark. “No damn agriculture worth speaking of. Don't know why they sent me. But there you are. Had what you people call a frigidaire, worked with kerosene. Boat once a month. Newspapers, mail and all that. On leave now. Six months leave every few years. Generous allowance, have to give the buggers that. Nobody using me, don't know why I keep on, really.” I asked if he'd thought of working for the U.N.

He shrugged doubtfully. “Think they could use me? Well maybe I'll try one of these days. Got a friend, pukka sahib at U.N. in New York. One of these days. Really think they can use me? Well, anything is better than the Celebes. Eight years. Can't really believe it. Can't stand the English. Look at that church steeple, practically falling off, second one like it we passed, wished I had my camera with me, haven't been back in eight years. Castle isn't really that, just a big house tarted up by my brother-in-law, local boy made good, all that sort of thing, now putting on airs. Still. My wife? No, she didn't like the Celebes. Jungle not for her.” Here he smiled most fiercely. “No, didn't like it at all. She doesn't like to travel. Doesn't adjust very well, doesn't like to.”

Cheerfully he agreed that it wasn't easy for a woman to be married to someone who never was at a real home. “Oh yes,” he said, “she always comes with me.” He bristled a magnificent, conspiratorial grin. “Wouldn't dream of leaving her behind.”

He stood up and glared out of the window. “Clover that, rye over there, unusual that. From New Zealand. Consider it my home, though haven't been back in twenty-four years. Served in Royal Indian Army. Volunteered. Commando officer. You Yanks, have to hand it to you, the way you went in to Lebanon, and the way you're beginning to handle Castro. Parcel out the work. What we should have done at Suez, instead of you people having an election and having to bow the bloody knee to the New York Jewish vote, is parcel out the work, us together, you in Lebanon, Empire troops securing the flank, or the other way round.” I reminded him that the Empire was now the Commonwealth.

“Uh, Commonwealth. Rot. Empire. Don't know what's getting into the bloody English.” Here he stared out of the window even more intensely. “Rotting away. That's what I should have done. Gone into physical education. Train people to keep fit. But no, nobody's interested. Don't give damn’ all for their bodies. Their lookout. Could use some of your Yankee stamina, eh? No good men any more. Selling us all down the river. Macmillan, Home, Wilson, the lot. Not a man among them. Sandys mebbe. But born to the wrong time. Well, so this is your station is it? Good luck and all that. You writer fellows are a lucky lot. My tie? Cambridge. Went there after the war. Over-age student and all that. When I came out this Colonial thing came along and so, you know. Security. Yes, security. I'm lucky. My job helps people, doesn't hurt them. Still I wonder at times. I wonder. Here, let me help you with your bag. Goodbye, Yank.”

On the platform outside I walked past his window. He leaned out. “Having a Cambridge get-together eighteenth, later this month. Come. The eighteenth,” he called. He took his school tie in his hand, quite reflexively, and showed it to me as I waved goodbye. He looked wistful.

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