Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
There was the Lady in red - Pre-Raphaelite hair and a red flowing velvet cloak - enigmatically taking the money in the box office in the Carlisle City Picture House. And there was Hunter Davies, third-year Durham student and lad about town. And there was a group of four friends - Ian Johnstone, Mike Thornhill, Margaret Crosthwaite and Margaret Forster - patiently waiting at the front of the long, slithering queue. Hunter barged in on the foursome, sat behind them making an "inane rattle of chat" throughout the film.
And, when the foursome broke-up to make their own ways home, Hunter was ready to take or make his luck. Margaret let him walk her all the way to 180 Richardson Street. He persisted with his bright chatter - failing History in Durham, leading a dissolute life, playing the violin, listening to Sibelius - Margaret thought Sibelius was a novelist - then, talking about football, he discovered that Margaret was the girl so besotted by school that she had led the protest against Carlisle schools taking a half day holiday when United played Arsenal.
And afterwards, he walked all the way to his matching council house in St Ann's Hill "in a daze, a stupor, wandering in a dream. Talking to her had been so exciting, invigorating, stimulating. It had seemed endless, with so many strands and threads, jumps and bumps, that I could not wait to see her again to continue talking. I had never met or talked to or imagined a girl like her before."
Hunter's story is a story of the twentieth century, a boy from an impoverished northern background who rode his luck, went to university, became, in his case, a journalist and moved far away from the life of his parents.
The life is vividly recalled. His mother, Marion, always standing at the sink, distracted raising the four children - Hunter was the eldest - and caring for an ill-tempered, bed-ridden husband. One of the twins scalded herself with water from a saucepan and then, sometime later, Johnny, the youngest, repeated the accident. His Scottish mother read Dickens all the time but couldn't find her way round Carlisle.
She was able to get him a place in the Creighton School after the family returned from Dumfries, and then, a sixth-former, he spent two years in the superior Trinity. He filled his father's Treble Chance, delivered newspapers and groceries on his bike bought at T.P Bell's, had his first drink, with Reg Hill, at the Near Boot. He hated the taste of beer. "I used to force it down . . .slavishly following the others, feeling it was what men did."
Later, there was Durham, falling into the student newspaper and finding his feet writing comic pieces, learning the craft of finding the story, making the ordinary interesting and, after a pointless year training as a teacher, there was the News Chronicle in Manchester, being a cub reporter. And then the smell of London. "Not a nasty smell, just a hot, sticky, semi-tropical, cockney smell." He'd ridden his luck, found his feet. He'd married Margaret, clandestinely, after her Oxford exams and they found their house in Hampstead.
There is a clarity and immediacy about the telling that makes the drabness of '50s Carlisle as bright as if it were yesterday. There is an openness and honesty about the everyday concerns of a working class boy, and the life in the streets and the council houses, about his relationship with Margaret, that will tell future generations what life was like in Carlisle.
Above everything, this is Hunter's story, and everyone's story, told by one of the twentieth century's top journalists, a man, who, at the age of eighty, is still at the top of his craft.