My second editor, Ed Tranter, nicknamed me Trouble. Hed just
looked at a story Id been working on, which showed pretty conclusively
that a local councillor on the Housing Committee was bent in a big way and had
been funnelling contracts to his pals for years.
Nicknaming was a kind of initiation with Ed. He had a mind like a data
base when it came to remembering what was going on politically, socially and
economically, but when it came to names, he was lost. My name is Chris Mason,
but the only time he ever remembered either name was when he interviewed me. He
called everyone by writing areas like Theatre, Films,
Football, or by some usually unflattering characteristic; DD, as in
Dodgy Deadlines, FP as in Fancy Pants,
Sunshine for a guy known for his gloomy looks. When someone joined
up, people took bets on what name Ed would give them.
His big head, with its improbable profusion of red waves the guy
was in his forties raised and his eyes raked me.
Youre trouble, son, thats what you are.
It didnt sound like a compliment.
Sorry, boss, I muttered.
Dont be sorry, he said, without looking up again.
This is good stuff; youve got him bang to rights, son. I want you
to be trouble, Trouble.
Now he looked at me again, and he was even smiling faintly, a rare
expression for him.
When theres stuff like this going down this guy is a
crook - its your job to be trouble. Im going to splash this,
and if the bastard decides to sue, well take him and his bent mates down.
Well done, Trouble.
I stayed being Trouble for five years under the guiding hand of Ed
Tranter, and when I moved on to the big city, the nickname stuck; a leading
politician was even heard calling me it, off camera of course, on a current
But my apprenticeship goes back beyond Ed, all the way to my A level
years, and a lady my cheeky little so and so self first knew as Driftwood
I grew up on the south Devon coast, and I took up running partly to get
fresh sea air as a break from revision; working for hours in my room could
drive me to distraction, and it isnt too natural a thing for a seventeen
year old to be doing, necessary as it might be for careers and qualifications.
My home village was right on the coast, and sometimes we knew all about it when
the weather turned nasty. But there were long stretches of beach, mostly empty
outside the tourist seasons, and pounding along the sand in running kit
it didnt take long to warm up, even in chilly weather blew the
cobwebs away and gave me the spirit and determination to carry on.
Driftwood Dollys place was about a mile and a half out of my
village, in a cove on its own. It was on the lower banks of the gradual hill
leading out of the cove. A charitable name for it would be bungalow; less
kindly, it was a large shack in a sparse garden. A pre-fab type of thing, I
doubt it was ever intended to be a permanent residence, and folklore had it
that a prominent local family built it for one of their number returning from
the war with both physical and mental damage. For much of my childhood,
it stood empty, and we kids used to like just mucking about around it
you couldnt get in, it was pretty efficiently boarded up. We also used
the cove to skinny dip occasionally. Fancying a swim and remembering to take
costumes didnt always go together, and in deserted coves, who cared?
Then, during the summer when I moved from junior to secondary school, a
woman started living there. My pal Stu Pargetter and I dipped on a warm day in
late July; we were walking towards our clothes when this woman suddenly emerged
from the shack which now had an improvised wooden sign outside saying
Our nudity and the sudden appearance of this unknown lady did throw us
a little. She wasnt a stooping old crone or some story-like witch figure,
but she did have long sweeping hair on either side of a thin, rather pinched
face and she was dressed in a paint-bespattered smock over a pair of
jeans, which wasnt the way we expected old ladies to dress themselves.
She wasnt old, of course; she would then have been in her early fifties,
though to our ten year old minds, old was just about anything over thirty.
Our embarrassment was unnecessary - she didnt take a blind bit of
notice of us apart from a brief glance and a wave before getting on with what
she came to be identified with gathering wood. Assiduously and
carefully, she combed up and down the beach and the grassland around her shack,
picking up wood on mysterious selective principles of her own.
For a while, she took some stick from the local kids and occasional
tourists visiting the cove, who took her to be some kind of tramp, and the
nickname Driftwood Dolly stuck to her so convincingly that it never
entirely went away. But by my mid-teens, her place amongst us had become more
established. Her name wasnt Dolly, it was Judith, and she was directly
related to the returning soldier casualty, Tom Akerman. Rumour had it that he
was so disillusioned with humanity that he just wanted to live as remotely and
entirely alone as possible without actually being a hermit, and his wider
family, who owned that land and much more besides, respected his wishes, giving
him that patch and helping him arrange it as he wanted it. He had been a
carpenter before the war and he continued to make a living selling functional
furniture and more artistic objects. He lived there for just over twenty years
before his injuries and weakened heart killed him. For a while, the family used
the place as a holiday home, but then everyone started wanting to go abroad,
and the Akerman family boarded the place up, seemingly unable to make a final
decision on what to do with it. Until, that is, Judith Bridges, Toms
great nephew, decided it suited her purposes very well and took it over, with
the familys blessing.
No-one knew all this at the time, it came out of my poking about later,
but Judith had established enough of a link with the locals to admit herself,
even if loosely, into the community. And it turned out she didnt go out
collecting driftwood for firewood, she collected it because she was an artist.
When I was sixteen, one of the local papers reported that Judith was
putting on an exhibition in a larger town nearby, and it wasnt her first
one. Judith, it seemed, had a reputation, and those amongst us who still called
her Driftwood Dolly began to feel a little silly, that this accomplished artist
had moved into our orbit to be treated as a kind of eccentric tramp. A group of
us were curious enough to go and see the exhibition, and we were, in the main,
intrigued and astonished at what we found.
Judith Bridges used driftwood to construct disturbing visual images,
which shed developed partly from the kind of grotesque sights of broken
and blasted bodies her great uncle had described and even occasionally
photographed. Shed also made some figures representing aliens connected
with the science fiction writing she enjoyed, and a whole section was devoted
to seascape material, representations of the waves themselves, ingoing and
outgoing tides, and rough hewn wooden boats and ships sitting on driftwood
waves. The whole exhibition was extraordinarily varied and inventive and we
were all as gobsmacked as young people discovering new stuff can be. Judith
herself, at closer quarters, proved to be courteous, well spoken and pleased to
talk freely to people who took an interest in her work.
Not long after that, I became well enmeshed in A levels and started
training runs as escapes from revision and help with the competitive running I
did at school. On a three mile run, Judiths home was almost exactly
the half way point. I didnt want to disturb her and kept to the beach
some distance down from her place as I turned at a marking rock, but on one
occasion, she was collecting near to me. She recognised me from the gallery
visit and even, it seemed, from my skinny dip she clearly had a visual
memory like a reference library. I was treated to an inside look at what she
was working on, in her Aladdins cave of a place with benches and tools
spread around, particularly in the large ex-garage behind the house. I had no
pretensions to being an artist, but I had a growing curiosity about the world
around me as I pulled away from the upheavals of adolescence. We talked easily,
and she flattered me with a comment which set me thinking along career
You might not be an artist yourself, Chris, but you ask the right
questions in the right sequence to improve your understanding. This is my
world, and marvellous for me, but I suspect your mind is capable of opening up
all sorts of worlds.
Journalism had already been discussed as a possibility, and her remarks
made me think more seriously about it.
By the time I was in the last stages of A level revision and anxious
about whether Id make decent enough grades to get into the university my
parents seemed determined about, Judith and I were friends. We didnt
knock around together she was about three times my age but we did
usually have a cup of tea or a bottle of water on my running half way mark and
the occasional chat when I saw her in the village.
I was in the middle of the exams when I ran out one Wednesday afternoon
the English one was on the following day. I was disappointed to see
Judith didnt seem to be around. She had encouraged me to knock and come
in if she was inside, but she became involved in her work and I was wary about
interrupting something important. I was about to just go round the rock and
head back, when I heard angry voices emerging from Judiths place. I got
closer, and from a few yards away, it was clear that a major row was going on
between Judith and a couple of men.
Into a sudden angry silence, a lazy, cynical male voice spoke.
Miss Bridges, I can only repeat again; you know as well as I do
that the Akerman family has sold this land for a leisure development
Leisure development, Judith said scornfully. A lot of
so called holiday apartments flogged off at ridiculous prices to Londoners, no
doubt. But they have no intention of building this close to the water; you
could quite easily leave this place alone, and you know it.
We dont want this kind of dwelling cluttering up the
scenery, to be frank
How dare you!
The other man, younger and blunter than his companion, chipped in
It isnt your land any more! Dont you understand
Judith took several deep breaths, and then launched herself.
Listen, you besuited idiots. I know the Akerman family have sold
land nearby, but this part of it is no longer in their gift to sell; this part
was given to my great uncle on a separate deed, and that deed was made over to
me. This house and the patch of land around it belong to me, which means
it is up to me who enters it. I havent asked you in and I dont want
you here, so will you please go?
When weve made our position abundantly clear, Miss Bridges,
we will go. We have a duty to our employers, whether you like it or not
It was this point that I decided to shove my oar in. She had asked them
to leave her property and they had refused. Law was one of my A level subjects
and this seemed to me straightforward trespassing, apart from being extremely
bad manners. I walked into Judiths sparse living room where the three of
them were standing in front of her solitary sofa. The older man was leaning on
the mantelpiece, his face wearing an exasperated look as if he was trying to
talk to a deaf pensioner. The other man was young, dark and ferocious, if
somewhat undersized, like an aggressive midget.
Judith gave me a brief, startled look and then smiled.
Hello, Chris. Dont go, darling; these chaps are just
The two men looked me up and down. It was a warm day and Id tied
my top round my waist. I was somewhat under-dressed for Judiths living
room, and normally, I would have put my top straight back on, but displaying
the physique at that moment didnt seem too bad an idea. I wasnt
then and Im still not a muscle man, but the boy had just about gone, and
the running and other sports had given me an athletic build. They were clearly
trying to work out who I was, but it was clear that my physical presence was
giving them food for thought.
Miss Bridges is my friend and near-neighbour, and this is her
house, I said. She has asked you to leave it. If you dont,
Im going to call the police.
I unzipped a shorts pocket and took out the simple mobile I used to run
with at the time. The coast can be precarious, especially if you pull a
hamstring or turn your ankle over with the tide coming in, and my parents had
made their views clear.
The two men looked from me to Judith and back again for a few more
seconds. Then the older man nodded to the younger for him to go, and when
Junior made a gesture of impatience, the older mans eyes bored into him
until he left. Senior made to follow him, but turned to us on the
I will leave you two together, he said, with an insulting
inference which turned Judith red with anger. You will be hearing from
our lawyers, Miss Bridges.
And you, you ill-mannered oaf, will be hearing from mine,
Judith said, and the hardness of her eyes returned his stare.
Judith and I talked for a while. I had some knowledge of the
organisation behind these leisure apartments, as did many local
people by then, and we knew that they wouldnt just give up and go. I told
her I was studying law and writing for the school newspaper, and she agreed to
further conversations about it when my A levels were over.
Three weeks later, they were, and I turned 18. I didnt intend to
do anything over the summer but bar and café work during the tourist
season. As Id anticipated, the development company didnt give
up. Judith was threatened with eviction proceedings if she didnt
leave the house within weeks. The friends who had been to see Judiths
exhibition, apart from one who was going abroad, agreed to help, and we began a
two pronged action, one a media campaign publicising why Judith was a great
asset to the community and the other, left largely to me, looking into the
development company and finding out what information might be useful.
Judith, of course, did a great deal herself, by getting in touch with
several members of the Akerman family and tracking down their legal documents.
And I, for the very first time, started seriously sniffing around and
poking my nose in. The skills which some journalists abuse can also be used
constructively, and the burgeoning internet was more my generations
province than that of development companies. I was able to relate
situations and people to each other and dig into records and information
archives. The development company had a dubious history and a number of
unfortunate associations. I took it all to one of the local papers and they
checked it all out; the editor, Beatrice Lomax, alias Busy Bea, had the nerve
to go with it, and to this day, that company dont know where their
information came from. Local planning permissions were withdrawn and the
company went off to find easier pastures. Busy Bea was so impressed that she
gave me a job, initially as not much more than a tea boy, but the assignments
started only months after I joined the paper. I was rescued from the university
that Id never been too keen on, and my parents admitted that earning
money at eighteen rather than running up debts had its positive side.
Judith kept her house and land, even after a reputable building company
built a housing estate half a mile behind it. She fenced her place off and
carried on with her work. I moved to one of the larger locals after a few years
and the tender mercies of Ed Tranter, who eventually gave me a column simply
called Trouble. The big city took notice not long after, and off to
the Smoke I went, and Im still there.
Last month, I heard that Judith Bridges had died, still in her house by
the sea but, unfortunately, not taking care of herself as well as she should.
The body of work she left behind is awesome, and there is already a campaign
for her house to become a permanent exhibition. Im helping it and our
aims should be achieved before much longer.
Or therell be Trouble.