Author Archives: Tim Lenton

Clive James: writing without the dull bits

Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humour are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.

I did not say that. I wish I had, but I didn’t. It’s rather like Christianity, in that you wish everyone would “get it”, because if they did, the world would be a better place.

It’s probably something to bear in mind when approaching the General Election. Does your candidate have a sense of humour? It’s probably a more important question than most we’ve heard so far.

The person who did say it was Clive James, who has just died. One day in the late 20th century I met him as I walked across the Barbican in London. I wanted to stop him and tell him what a huge inspiration he had been to me, in the way I wrote and what I wrote about.

But of course I didn’t. I thought, Why should he care? He looked worried enough already.

Some of you may be puzzled about my being inspired by a TV personality, but of course to me he was always a writer – more specifically, a television reviewer. His witty, beautifully written columns in the Observer in the 1970s led me to try my hand at the same thing. I got hold of one of the earliest video recorders, taped programmes while I was at work (in the evening) and spent a few priceless daylight hours writing a TV column for the Church of England Newspaper.

This later became a more general column, and I was eventually able to write a weekly page for the Eastern Daily Press, which lasted for eleven years, as well as many other pieces, including fiction and poetry. But that’s another story. Several other stories, in fact.

There are many things Clive James and I did not have in common. I could not be Australian – I have never even been there, because it’s too far, as Corey Ford almost said. And I could not share his lack of belief in an afterlife, because I think it’s an absurd position to take up in face of all the evidence. But you can admire someone without agreeing with them.

“All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light,” he said. He always caught the light for me. I may be the only person in the world who would say his three strongest influences as a writer were Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Clive James.

I hope this doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, but I suspect it might. You have to laugh, don’t you?

Edge of eternity

I stand on the edge of eternity:
a door opens, and I look back at the universe,
which sparkles and throbs with life

I know I must not touch
the angel at the door
of creation

If I do, I will have to go on
into the realm of angels,
but back there in the coruscating night
people are calling to me

I still belong
in that crazy fairground

I do not know why,
or how I can help,
or what I have done so far

I reached out,
but no-one responded

I like the look of the angel
at the door of creation, and
the angel smiles at me

I do not touch him:
all I want is beauty,
or is it holiness?

I do not touch the angel

I look again at eternity:
the nurse comes
to give me painkillers

When my father was alive

Sixty years on, the trains
still run at the bottom of my garden.

I return, expecting to see
uprooted rails, something for walkers,
a crazed cycle path,
but I hear the train, and I see
the track, though the meadows it ran through
have been shaved and smartened
into a blazered sports field, and a fence
blocks my old path to the dark woods.

I search for signs of my childhood,
marks I might have made.

Someone has thrown away the broken tooth
and the bicycle,
and the moon my father chased up the street
got away – as did the boy
who pulled his toy from underneath a moving car
while I stood transfixed.

But the numbers remain:
the pavements, the houses,
the steps towards school.

The scene of my first major crime
(grand theft marble)
has been wiped clean
like my sins.

No more lovely young girls,
no more shotguns,
no more holes in the ground.

Everything is neat now, 
except the forces’ club and its
car park in no-man’s-land,
leaking on to the street, as it always did.

Swinging on some railings by the iron road,
I dropped a magical red magnet
and could never find it.

Perhaps that is what draws me back
to this unremarkable street,
this shadowed and temperamental sky
under which strange things happened
to someone I almost knew.

Last Lenton of his generation dies

Last week saw a rather sad landmark for the Lenton family: my uncle Paul, the youngest of my father’s brothers, died at the age of 96. He was the last of his generation, and the longest-lived.

This of course means that I am now part of the oldest generation, and some time in the not-too-distant future someone may well be writing similar words about me, or one of my brothers or cousins. That, I have to admit, is a little unsettling.

Paul was a good man. He founded a church near Eaton Park and was decorated for his first aid work during the war. He played football till he was well over 50 – mainly in goal –- and I played against him on occasion. His team in those matches was Park Church. I played for Surrey Chapel. Games took place twice a year, on Boxing Day and Easter Monday, and were the forerunner of today’s thriving Norwich Christian Football League.

Paul was born in Norwich, but his parents came from further afield. His father was born in Norman’s Cross, near Peterborough, and his mother in Sheffield. I’m not sure where they met, but I suspect it was in London, where my grandmother was a hospital nurse. Her maiden name was Booth, and she always claimed that she was related to the founder of the Salvation Army, but no-one ever worked out how.

The family moved to Norwich from Mansfield in about 1908. Their two eldest sons, Leonard and Reg, had already been born, but the rest were born in Norwich. Leonard moved to Africa not long after he married, and I don’t think I ever met him, though I now know his daughter, who lives in Liverpool.

Reg was a good friend to us, particularly after my father died of a stroke at the age of 43. But eventually he too moved away, though not so far. His three children – all older than me – now live in South-West England.

The Lenton family continued to grow in Norwich and became stalwarts at Surrey Chapel free church. The next boy, Frank, became a manager at Colman’s, and my father David went into local government, eventually becoming assistant education officer in Coventry.

Ken followed in 1915. He was a company secretary, I believe, and probably because he lived fairly close to us in Norwich, I became friendly with his two children, one of whom is now dead.

Having produced five boys, my grandparents now came up with two girls – Dorothea, who was matron of Norwich School when it took boarders, and who was one of the nicest people I’ve met. Her sister Kathleen was rather more severe, but I got to know her better after she returned from Zimbabwe after many years as a nurse/missionary and lived in Norwich until her death in 2011. She had outlived two husbands. Neither girl produced children.

Paul’s birth in 1923 completed that generation of the Lenton family. His three children survive him – two of them living in Norwich and one in Lincolnshire.

I still have an aunt living just outside Norwich. She is in her 90s, but she is not a Lenton – she is my mother’s youngest sister; so her maiden name was Brown. But that’s another story.


Travelling back through the centuries
past standing stones
and hollow hungry mounds,
we arrive at Yesnaby, 
where cliffs and castles
fall into the sea, 

waves crash recklessly in
eating away at what is unseen,
giving us no warning
that soon we will be crashing too
struck down by a mystery,
inches from all those Viking footprints,
broken bones and bruising on the horizon
and all over the island

But that unpredictable beauty lingers
as my eyes close 
just for a second
until the real world breaks through 

And still I remember Yesnaby
where as usual I did not go far enough
and so missed the glory of it all
not once but twice

The glory is still there, though,
a thousand miles and a few yards away,
waiting for me

After-effects of plaster cast caught me unawares

It is now a week since I had the plaster cast removed from my left arm. It seems longer. The cast had been on for five weeks and was getting extremely annoying. It was mainly the itching, but also the weight of it, which was not doing much for the muscles in my chest and shoulders, such as they are.

It was a tremendous relief when they sawed and levered it off: I felt as if I had been set free, and I trotted off to the x-ray queue with a song in my heart, which is always the best place for it. When the doctor said the bone was healing satisfactorily, the future looked bright.

What no-one mentioned was how the disappearing cast would affect my arm. The skin started flaking off and itched like mad. That has reduced in intensity, but it hasn’t gone away. The arm and hand were extremely swollen (I couldn’t find my knuckles at first). They were also stiff, and annoyingly there was quite a lot of pain.

The pain was not so much in the area of the break, which was to my ulna – the smaller of the two lower arm bones. The pain was in the wrist, and still is. My dentist told my wife that this was because the wrist had been held stiff for a long period, and I’m sure he’s right, though I’m not clear on the mechanics of it.

Encouragingly, I was able to observe improved movement in my arm day by day. I found myself typing with my left hand as well as my right. I could put my trousers on without any trouble (think about it). I could hold things with my left hand, though I still can’t support much. I could open doors. If they weren’t too heavy.

Yesterday I had a bath – the first for nearly two months. Up to then my wife wouldn’t let me get in it, in case I couldn’t get out. Well you don’t want to be stuck with a husband in a permanent bath, do you? I should explain that I had been having showers. You can’t get stuck in a shower. Well, not easily.

The wrist pain is very annoying, though. I keep telling myself lots of people are much worse off, but this – although undoubtedly very, very true – doesn’t help all that much.

The other problem, of course, is that I’m terrified of falling over.

This is not home

Sun peppers the sea as we step like ghosts
down from the dark galleries
where the blood-red line between beauty and terror
is sometimes visible
behind the writing on the wall

Disintegrating tree-stumps
mark the ancient quay
long sucked away

We, lost children sent
on a forgotten errand,
look for the lingering paths,
watching the tides,
following old footprints
that fade away

We carry faint maps
between our shoulder-blades,
the mystical beginning
and the end

This is not home, nor looks like it
though there is something in the trees
and mirage hills
that hovers shining out of reach

No signposts here,
no memories: just
ripples of grace around our feet
and a muddy gate
that might be pushed open

What happened at the EDP – and why it changed

I discovered this week that Archant – formerly Eastern Counties Newspapers, where I worked for 30 years – is closing its print works at Thorpe St Andrew, on the fringe of Norwich. This was a bit of a shock, because I remember it being built. It opened in 1995, which is not that long ago.

When I joined the Eastern Daily Press in 1972, as a sub-editor working initially between 5pm and 1am, the printing press was still part of Prospect House – the proud city-centre fortress at the top of Rouen Road, itself still only 50 years old and due for demolition soon.

In 1972 the EDP sold close to 100,000 copies a day, covering Norfolk and bits of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. We had three editions: 1st, which covered King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, 2nd, which covered South Norfolk and North Suffolk, and 3rd, which covered Norwich and North Norfolk. This was a practical thing, governed by how long it took van drivers to deliver the papers. Obviously we could sometimes get later stories into the 3rdedition, and subs on the late shift, ending at 4am, changed several pages.

The EDP will soon be printed by contractors at Broxbourne, 100 miles from Norwich; so all that will no longer apply.

Circulation, by the way, is not the same as readership. A circulation of 100,000 could mean a readership of well over a quarter of a million. EDP circulation nowadays is about 25,000, but the paper is also available online.

This is obviously a massive change – but it’s just the latest in a series of changes at the company, the three most significant of which took place at intervals of exactly ten years from 1975 and were the result of technological innovation that affected all newspapers and prompted many premature predictions of doom.

The first was the switch from hot metal to computer-set printing. Before 1975 copy (that is, stories and advertising material) was created and subbed (edited) on paper and sent out to the works to be set by printers on Linotype machines. This came to be known as double keyboarding, in that the story was typed first by the reporter and then (after subbing) by the printer. 

A Linotype machine produced (not surprisingly) lines of metal type that made up the page. The page was put together inside a metal frame by a compositor – a highly skilled job that was completely and sadly lost in 1975. The type on the metal page (made mainly of lead) was back to front, because it printed direct on to paper (called newsprint). 

The lines of type were spaced out with thin strips of lead to make them fit tightly. Computers still use the term “leading” for space between the lines. They also still measure type in the traditional points (72 points = roughly 2.5cm).

In 1975 the company changed to computer-setting of type. There was still double-keyboarding, but now the mainframe computer produced type on photographic paper (called bromides). This was then stuck on to a base sheet (using melted wax) and photographed, making first a page negative, then a plate (made of aluminium), which was fixed on to the new press.  It printed on to a rubber roller (back to front) and then on to newsprint. This was (and is) called web-offset printing.

In 1985, just after I became chief sub-editor, journalists began using computers (dumb terminals connected to a mainframe) to input copy, thus introducing single keyboarding and eliminating the role of the printers who used to do the stetting. This was a big advantage for us sub-editors: we could call the stories up on screen, edit them and write headings. The big advantage consisted in knowing exactly how long the story was going to be, and whether the heading would fit or not. But the page paste-up and printing remained the same.

In 1995, when I was no longer a full-time sub, but standing in occasionally and doing some training of others, electronic page make-up was introduced, and the mainframe was replaced by linked PCs. Now sub-editors designed pages on screen using QuarkXPress, and the completed pages were sent by wire to the new press centre at Thorpe, where they made plates for us on the new web-offset press. 

This meant jobs lost again in the printing section, since paste-up of pages was no longer necessary. Pictures were scanned into the system and could be brought on to the page by the sub-editors. 

At the same time, we went from broadsheet to tabloid, which was much debated because it was usually associated with going downmarket. So it was decided to go a bit upmarket at the same time, to counter this feeling. And we didn’t call it tabloid: we called it compact. So that was all right.

Why did tabloid mean downmarket? Because there were more pages, and so you had to find more stories that would make a page lead. So you ended up making a lot out of stories that didn’t really deserve it and prompted one senior journalist to define the perfect EDP story as one that “had no substance but could be made to look good”.

This, of course, was quite unfair but undeniably amusing. It applies to all tabloids, of course. You might like to check.

Car crash despair – and the one factor I overlooked

I have broken my arm. Pause for “armless” jokes. Ok. I did it in a car crash that took place conveniently about 700 miles away from my home, on an island. Our car was virtually destroyed and we were stranded with bruised bodies, a useless ferry ticket and battered expectations. And lots and lots of luggage.

This was not easy to handle – especially the luggage. My wife did not have a broken arm, but she was so badly bruised that her lifting capacity was minimal. Seat belts and airbags may save your life, but they also beat you up badly.

I would have been close to despair, but there was one factor that I had overlooked – other people.

Jean-Paul Sartre is famous for his line that “hell is other people”. In certain circumstances that may be true, but in the circumstances we found ourselves, the opposite was the case. It is only through the kindness of other people that we got through the ordeal as well as we did.

From the outset, passers-by rushed over to comfort my wife, who seemed most badly affected. The Orkney police were extremely kind, as were the paramedics and hospital staff. From the hospital, the police drove us back to our B&B – a distance of over 15 miles and up a rough track.

But our B&B host was the star. She not only overwhelmed us with sympathy and TLC, but drove us to the garage where our wreck of a car had been deposited, helped us recover a large number of items and then helped us sort them out for transport back to Norwich. We would take what we could manage (my right arm was fine), and she would arrange for the rest to be packed up and sent off.

Then (as well as looking after six other guests) she drove us all the way to the airport at Kirkwall, made sure the airline, Loganair, looked after us – they did – and saw us off. What a star.

Earlier, I had rung the holiday company that arranged our customised trip. It was out of hours, but the woman on the end of the phone could not have been more sympathetic, or more helpful. She booked flights, contacted our B&B host and kept on checking that everything was OK.

In case you ever want this kind of holiday (without the car crash) I can recommend McKinlay Kidd. I’m sure legally they didn’t have to sort out these problems, but they pulled out all the stops. And the holiday was great too – as it had been, a couple of years ago, in the Outer Hebrides.

Back in Norwich, after a delightful couple of flights, we were met at the airport by friends and taken home. Happy ending? I’ll let you know. We’re both still in quite a bit of a pain, and I spent three days in hospital, but those other people got us through.

We told our B&B host she was a wonderful person. “No,” she said. ‘I’m just a person.”

I didn’t argue. I was too tired.

Boathouse stones

Those stones you used to dance on
by the boathouse at the head of the loch
are under water today

When the sun shines between showers
I see their shape
suspended like gold,

We shelter behind rough stone walls
from the intermittent wind:
earlier we balanced
like marionettes strung from the sky
tiptoeing on slippery logs
to cross a tumbling, unexpected stream

Now as we climb painfully home
we tread the edge of creation:
all that is here today
may be gone tomorrow,
or a shadow of what it was, 
just under the surface

We balance again – 
shadows trying not to fall