Rear-view review: Charlie

Nigel Williams
(Methuen, 1984)

The shorthand system I was taught at journalism school at the start of the Eighties allowed a certain amount of ‘cheating’ when a word or expression would have required a pukka outline of excessive complexity.

Thus ‘multi-storey car-park’ could be rendered as simply three M outlines on top of one another. Then we had ‘freecobing’ and ‘bosindy’, the former sounding like a Danish town and the latter like a hill station from the days of the Raj.

In fact, the first is a contraction of ‘free collective bargaining’ and the second for ‘both sides of industry’. For the benefit of anyone under the age of 40, ‘freecobing’ describes the absence of official wage controls, and ‘bosindy’ referred simply to management/owners on one side and trade unions on the other.

It was taken for granted that young reporters would be required to report on industrial-relations matters as indeed, for a few years, they were.

The eponymous narrator of Charlie is not a union official, or even a member, probably because he doesn’t have a proper job.

Actually, I am a journalist. Or was. I’m nothing really. I am a 38-year-old mess. But if it makes you feel better to describe me as a private eye, feel free to do so.

Charlie Alexander trades as a business called Information Services, offering clients factual backgrounds ‘tailored to their immediate “communication needs”’. Notes Charlie: ‘I was particular proud of the last phrase, combining, as it did, euphony with lack of meaning in a uniquely astringent way.’

The story opens with Charlie visiting a grotty block of flats in South London to meet a client but finding, quite separately, a dying man, Stanley Peace, who has been grievously assaulted. Peace, it emerges, had been a shop steward  for the Distributive Workers’ Union (DWU), an outfit with no obvious real-life equivalent at that time.

Charlie is drawn into a hugely complex plot involving potential pension-fund fraud, blackmail of people with ‘previous’ in terms of far-left politics, union rivalries and a plan to asset-strip a state-owned car manufacturer, Newlands, with clear parallels with British Leyland, as was. This is a first-rate book, and I’d urge anyone who can find a copy to read it.

However, I’d advise them also to invest in a cheap notebook and ballpoint, in order to keep track of the changing personnel and the twisting and turning plot. But even if you find the thread hard to hang on to, reading Charlie is worth it for the acute observations of a particular time in British life.

Maggie is my neighbour. We’re on good terms. She describes herself as a literary agent, but as far as I can see has no clients… We finished our coffee, and she departed for what she described as a ‘meeting’, or, as we say, a bottle of sherry.

Later, when snooping round a DWU conference:

I told the woman on the desk I worked for the BBC. She seemed to like that. Telling people you work for the BBC is a bit like arriving on a bicycle. They feel sorry for you and anxious to help.

As the plot thickens:

I’ve great respect for the police, mind you. I think they’re marvellous with animals and young children, but for anything requiring sustained intellectual effort I prefer to rely on myself.

On the surface, the trade union movement, or at least the part of it represented by the DWU, is as reassuringly dull as was the reality of that time, with besuited officials quoting the rulebook at each other and proposing assorted motions. Those were the days when union bosses would answer TV journalists’ questions about strikes and disruptions with rambling discourses about ‘decision-making through the established machinery’ and ‘reporting back to my executive’.

But in Charlie, the placid surface is frequently broken by outbursts of bizarre behaviour, as with the narrator’s first encounter with a full-time DWU official:

Ainsworth got to his feet.

Charlie has absolutely no idea what he is talking about.

He falls in with Smith and Tucker, two industrial correspondents for national newspapers, and makes as best use of them as he is able to navigate the frequently baffling highways and byways of the interaction of DWU politics, crime and big business. The two hacks are in the habit of discussing everyday occurrences in headline terms, as I and my mates did at the time – much to the irritation of more than one girlfriend:

As the car screeched to a halt, his face crumpled in pain.
‘HEADACHE CRISIS DEEPENS IN BRAKE-SHOCK HORROR,’ he said, in a slow, quiet, pained voice.

Smith and Tucker are well-drawn and historically spot on. This was a world when many an able and ambitious journalist would head for the industrial-relations beat. A generation did so – Peter Hitchens, Richard Littlejohn, Seumus Milne, along with departed colleagues Keith Harper and Tom McGhie – before moving on, in their very different ways, to greater things.

It was also a world that was already crumbling as Charlie hit the bookshops, a novelisation of Williams’s own four-part ITV series starring David Warner. The miners’ strike, the last great set-piece national confrontation, was under way and the strikers heading for defeat.

But the closing passages still resonate today, describing Charlie and Maggie’s very unofficial adoption of Peace’s young boy Tommy:

He was like some piece of lost luggage. All the people one would expect to know about him appeared to have forgotten that he existed. It was as if Maggie and I had claimed him and, until he committed some crime, the authorities had lost interest. I thought about how easy it was to die or disappear without anyone knowing about it, even in this protected little island.

Looking round, I don’t think a lot has changed in that regard.

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