Hedley Perry Angelo O'Mant
In fact, he was looking awful, haggard and woebegone and I was startled to find the change in him. It was quite a while since I had seen him last and I was quite unprepared for the transformation. I can remember even now my surprise of that moment.
Of course, we soon got together to bring ourselves up to date, and the reason for his unwonted absence of bonhomie was duly revealed. He wanted to get a job - something less depressing, less soul-sapping than the one he had.
I should remark here that I have just been re-reading Memories of the MAGNET Office by my other friend of those days G. R. Samways in GOLDEN HOURS No.2. His admirable memoir makes mention of Hedley OMant as a fellow-member of the MAGNET staff, and prompts me to refer to it by way of amplifying the theme and continuing it to a moment beyond that when Sam and Hedley were still in contact. It is expedient to get events into historical perspective, and to set the record straight.
For the record as regards Hedley is slightly off-beam; and, because of a completely forgivable lack of memory after so many eventful years between, Sams times are out of joint and the sequence of events unclear. So I venture to give my own version but without suggesting that my own is completely free from rust.
The estimable Sam has already narrated how, by virtue of his felicitous facility for concocting happy jingles, he himself attracted official attention at the MAGNET office and eventually burgeoned into a full-blown writer of MAGNET stories. An invitation for him to join the regular staff came, in the fullness of time but meanwhile other things were happening to Samways and me, and to all of us.
The time was the months immediately preceding September, 1914 - a portentous date; though we were happily unaware of its significance then, for of course, it marked the onset of World War I. Sam and I were little more than schoolboys, both being recent candidates in the need of wrestling a living for ourselves from a not particular indulgent community. He was then in uncongenial servitude to a stockbroker in Southsea, Hampshire - writing MAGNET verses and substitute stories on the side and I was an inconsiderable cog in a semi-official section of the Government machine. It was an offshoot of the Home Office called the Central Office, discreetly named, and somewhat hush-hush. It may have had a longer title (I forget) but its job was the aftercare of convicts on their release from durance, and likewise of boys from Borstal institutions ... in which respect I had the edge on Sam, for even delinquents gave a greater human interest than soulless stocks and shares; and the work was not without interest.
Distance separated us now we had left school - where we had been rather special chums because of our mutual participation in amateur journalism in the shape of a colourful magazine more to the general taste than the sober-sided official one - and our friendship persisted at long range by mail. We wrote to each other much and often as I remember it and, on my side at least, rather style-consciously.
At its destined moment came the War.
There was no conscription or calling-up in those days and one of the war's first noticeable phenomena was an accelerating depletion of shop and office staffs as men won free of humdrum jobs by responding to the call of King and Country; and another, a new slogan gaining currency; 'Business as Usual' in the shape of showcards in shop windows.
Our 'Central Office soon began to feel the pinch of labour shortage, and, coincidentally, at about the same time Samways and stockbroking parted company as he decided to return and assault the citadel of London once more. In glad anticipation I slipped in a word on Sams behalf and got him a job.
It didn't last very long. 'Business as Usual' was beginning to lose ground to another bit of jargon, 'Redundancy'. So, last to come, Sam was perforce the first to go. However, he had a strategic line of retreat. The Amalgamated Press had been losing a lamentable percentage of its editorial experts, too, including those of the Boys' Papers Department. In the MAGNET office they welcomed such a rare, knowledgeable outsider as George Samways almost with a red carpet.
A few more weeks went by. I, in my turn, became redundant. Now Sam was the one to slip in a word, and got me a job. Like him, I joined the MAGNET. Like him too, I was thoroughly happy in the job. The life, the work, were so different, so congenial - even though I had hardly heard of the paper before, and certainly had never been one of its readers.
Sam had assuredly done his good turn for the day. It was one of the turning points of my life.
I suppose it was richly rash on my part; far from commonsensical, to put my spanner into this delightful turn of fortune's wheel -.but that is what I ungratefully did. By the most unlikely good luck and, through no cleverness of my own, I had fallen into the life I knew I was made for [but] in just a few months had abandoned it. Not enthusiastically, not with a Crusader's ardor, I must confess. Maybe I was hypnotized by a pair of penetrating eyes, and a pointing finger on a poster and the repetitious admonition KITCHENER WANTS YOU!
Anyway, I went. The moral pressures of those non-conscription days transcended legal compulsion upon such sensitive spirits as my own, such useful-looking military material as seen through the sights of a rifle. They were constant and relentless from dirty looks to white feathers and not to be denied by weak vessels like me.
Sam, in his memoir, says that my flair was for detective rather than school stories and that I soon switched from MAGNET to UNION JACK. The horrid fact was that nearly an entire Great War was to occur before that happened.
It must have been at about the time when I tore myself away from Fleet Street, without patriotic pretensions, that Hedley OMant entered it. He was probably my replacement whose arrival was likewise engineered by Sam, and I have little recollection of him at that period. We were like two people using a revolving door who, upon being ejected, were shot out in different directions without much chance to become acquainted.
The three of us - Sam, Hedley and I - were alumni of the same ancient seat of learning, if that is the word - King Edward VIth School in Surrey, Sam and I having been contemporaries there, and Hedley of a later generation. However, I had met him, though it was not till after the war and we had both returned to the Amalgamated Press that I made his better acquaintance as a MAGNET man.
I was fortunate in getting a fairly early discharge from the army though I was somewhat ahead of the pack [and] was not re-recruited on H.A. Hinton's Companion Papers staff. His first obligation was naturally to his older colleagues who had all survived but not yet been released. [I] was a kind of Johnny-come-lately, a wartime acquisition. Nonetheless, I was able to make myself useful in various, pottering, unnecessary ways to the Editorial Director, William H. Back, that good-naturedly kindly boss whom everyone loved, and whose A.P. history dated right back to the beginnings of Sexton Blake.
One day he handed me a wad of torn-up, folded newspaper and some vague remarks by way of general instructions, and behold, I was launched on a new line of endeavor - detective rather than school stories. The wad and the instructions soon evolved as my first paper DETECTIVE LIBRARY, an inconsiderable, small-paged unpretentious effort whose prime purpose was to make use of an unemployed printing machine, as I learned later. But I was quite proud of it, my first real responsibility. A small thing, but mine own.
This latest flowering of England's periodical journalism had been duly established and running for some months, and the department's personnel had finished trickling back from the war, when the incident happened that brings us back to the point where we came in and I met Hedley in Fleet Street that day.
YES, the gay, debonair, charming Hedley O'Mant was looking quite down in the mouth, even haggard as if he had recently recovered from some illness. He too had gone off to fight the King' s enemies, it appeared - and had emerged into the world again later than was good for him. He had found his predecessors - some of whom he had not previously met, except when they looked in at the office while on leave - sitting comfortably in their old jobs. Like Samways, before him, he had been the last in and the first out.
It was only fair, of course, but tough luck just the same. He had been vouchsafed a glimpse of a heavenly job, and. now he was in another that was well - not so heavenly. He was back in Fleet Street all right, but in the mood to get out of it.
In those days there was a fine, large, generous spirit about the Amalgamated Press, and it had spoiled him for anything less. He missed it acutely. He was now with the Aldine Press, running Dixon Hawke, detective. The conditions there, he told me with a flash of his old indignant irritations that was always accompanied by a sudden shrill rise in his voice, irked him. He couldn't stand the restrictions; the niggling economies, the long hours. And one of the men he worked with was the world's worst blister, a human hair shirt. What chance was there of staging a come back with the A.P., he asked. Hed been to see Hinton, but he wasn't very encouraging.
It was a rhetorical rather than a hopeful question. He
already knew the answer. Most of the fellows had come
back and reclaimed their old jobs, and others were
turning up at intervals on the same quest. I felt rather
useless, for all I could do was to undertake to put in
the good word if I saw a chance. There would be bound to
be a place for him sooner or later and it would be good
to have him around anyway.
Whether it was that his Caledonian impersonation eventually began to pall is speculative. However, by the time he had reached the requisite age to qualify as a combatant he got another idea and settled for airmen's blue. He signed on with the Royal Flying Corps, air crew, without losing much ground with the ladies.
Those were the days when aircraft wore little more than a novelty in warfare, contraptions of wood and wire and canvas, useful mainly in reconnaissance. Bombs and machine guns were a quite later idea. At that time conflict-minded airmen were, as likely as not, liable to shoot at each other with revolvers. Hedley had the job of observer located at the tail end of the plane and scared stiff - as he unashamedly told me.
And who shall blame him? He was no dull, stolid, slow-witted type, but a fellow of quick reactions and lively imagination, a youngster almost fresh from school in a strange and affrighting element. He described his vivid sense of isolation in a vast emptiness; his acute realisation of the flimsiness of a strip of canvas as protection from bullets; and the stomach-shrinking effect of a Boche aeroplane suddenly appearing from nowhere, diving on them out of a cloud.
Of course, by the time he came to tell me about such things, with his feet safe on the ground again, he could laugh them off gaily with no pretence of heroics and nothing but an attempt to convey the reality of the moment. But just the same one cannot but recognise the element of real heroism in youths of the same stamp as Hedley O'Mant - over-imaginative, hastily trained, facing fearful conditions in helpless solitude. Just doing the job.
He didn't collect any special decoration, but that is not to say he didn't earn them. Aerial warfare was something quite new then, and the stage of development primitive compared with what has been achieved since. Why, it was only a scant four years since the pioneer Bleriot had made history by crossing the English Channel in a machine not so very different from those of the early Royal Flying Corps and crossing it unopposed at that, with no fear even of revolver bullets. And if Hedley had such a thing as a parachute or an intercom phone to the pilot, up front for warnings or taking evasive actions I don' t remember his mentioning it.
So now he was in a jam of another sort - economic and
human. He had got married, it appeared, and his wife was
expecting. The Aldine people were not paying him what he
thought they should and worry at the office and trouble
at home were getting him down.
Hedley wasn't really star material as an actor, but he did have a good, pleasing tenor voice and a noticeably handsome appearance. It was those two assets which had doubtless helped him make the grade.
Later still he sent me a postcard. He had autographed
it and added the words 'The Chief Robber' - a jocular
allusion as will be recognised by those familiar with
Elroy Flecker's lyrics of his great musical play as one
of its best-known numbers:
It was pleasant to hear him; a nice change from the normal noises one listens to, in the unlyrical' circumstances - the cacophony of conversation and the jangle of phone bells of an editorial office. It sticks in the mind.
But I an quite unable to recall the circumstances of his return, or even the date. It must have been sometime soon after the mid-twenties. Anyway, he had by then become a firmly established and very popular member of the happy band whose happy lot it was to work together for the pleasure of so many thousands of boys they had never heard of, and who had never heard of them.
There were H.A.Hinton, the editor, and his first sub, Maurice Down, the somewhat sardonic Noel Wood-Smith, third in line, G.R.Samways - Sam to one and all - and the latest returned exile, romantically from the Stage, whose name might have shone out in lights except that no theatre could have afforded that many lights - Hedley Percival Angelo OMant. Also there were several minor characters, including a succession of office-boys and secretaries. There had been, too, another of our number who was missing from the new post-war line-up who had, likewise, been one of the technical producers of Billy Bunter. This was Reggie Eves. He hadn't been fired. He had been promoted to an independent paper of his own, and was on the way to building up a separate and complete department of his own. in recognition of the good work he had done throughout the war, which he could not attend for reasons of indifferent health.
His paper was The School Friend', and his star performer Bessie Bunter. But her stardom soon began to slip, and ultimately she occupied one of the back seats at the feminine equivalent of Greyfriars. Eves was mystified, for she should have had the spotlight, just as her brother Billy had it. Finally he realised what was wrong., as he confided to me. Fatness, to the male mind, is a matter of mirth. But to the female, it is a horror. Even young girls, with no danger yet of excessive vital statistics subconsciously dread it.
Useful knowledge, psychology!
And as to girls ... it was always one of the amusing things around the office to observe how the editor-in-chiefs secretary for the time being was attracted to the handsome Hedley. Each in turn fell for his irresistible charm. There were three of them from first to last over the period concerned and they all seemed to have frequent need for consultation with him as they flitted round to Room 59.
It is hard to decide whether the MAGNET owed a debt to them because of the exaltation and euphoria these visits produced in him, and the consequent improvement in his work; or whether it suffered on account of time lost from his too-amiable devotion to them instead of the Famous Five and Greyfriars.
However, we must give our Great Lover due credit. He
didn't just love em, and leave 'em. He married two,
Nos. l and 3 in the series -; one at a time, of course,
and quite legally. The Divorce Court was very
co-operative in this.
I feel I am not telling tales out of school, even if the Master were still alive, but it is a fact that we of the MAGNET staff were sometimes asked to feed' him with an idea or two, when, for the moment, he had drained himself dry. To me the wonder is that the marvelously multiple personality who was also Martin Clifford, Owen Conquest, Ralph Redway and others besides, and who gushed out stories by the hundred and words by the million did not need 'feeding' all the time.
So, having on occasions been one of his ideas men myself, I gave Hedley courteous attention and no disbelief. I do not disbelieve him even now, but an incident occurred some time later which made me ponder.
I had in some idle moment happened to hit on a verse or two of a comic song which fitted well the air of Dvorak's 'Humouresque and formed a lively little ditty. I gave a private performance of it to Hedley, which he picked up with professional promptness, improved on here and there as to the lyric, and sang delightfully in his better voice.
Time passed, and for some reason the discarded ditty
popped up again; by now I had almost forgotten the words,
but Hedley still had them in stock, and it was he who
gave me a private performance. As an actor he must have
been, what they call a 'quick study'; and with a good
memory. Concluding the show, he grinned in his usual
disarming way, and remarked:
Such an incident was not untypical of Hedley. Perhaps it somehow reflected an actor's temperament; an exhibitionistic desire for applause. Anyhow, he had put forward the Bunter Court idea, and never having received a pronouncement from the late Master himself to the contrary, we shall have to be content with that.
Hedley OMant was undoubtedly an accomplished actor, as proved on many an occasion on the Fleetway Dramatic Companys stage, and in straight parts as distinct from the stylised roles of a musical such as CHU CHIN. He was good in taut, roles, as in that of the killer in TEN-MINUTE ALIBI, for they reflected a marked aspect of his own natural character. Erie Parker, a man with an inborn knack of hitting off character if ever there was one; dubbed him 'Pin-wire, and the nickname conveyed the image of Hedley perfectly.
Whether a person of his high-strung, volatile type was in accord with Hamilton's Greyfriars background is a question that could arouse infinite debate, but it is fairly certain there was no-one around the department better fitted to handle the PILOT and RANGER, which presently came under his editorship - new papers bewilderingly similar to others of the kind put out by the A.Ps up-and-coming rivals, D.C. Thomsons of Dundee. Not to be too mealy-mouthed about it, they were a direct pinch', designed to siphon off some of the circulation enjoyed by the originators, 'WIZARD, SKIPPER and the like.
It is seldom that a new concept in boys' fiction (or any other) shows itself above the horizon, but someone in Dundee seemed to have turned the trick with stories of psychological fantasy. This is of course a well-known phenomenon in the young, and in boys usually takes the form of being imaginatively endowed with some super-boyish faculty- mentally, bodily, or even merely mechanical - enabling their possessors to perform marvels appropriate to the special equipment and limited only by their own wishful thinking.
The concept of Spring-Heeled Jack embodied one of the earliest examples of such equipment, which allowed Jack to leap enormous distances and thereby participate in adventures closed to the ordinary earth-bound individual. But that was way back among the Gothics of a former age.
The Thomson 20th Century heirs of fantasy and science are apt to have anything from X-ray eyes to built-in levitation as good as a helicopter's. All such conveniences naturally give plenty of scope, for unusual, boy-thrilling events to happen, and, it was believed, for plenty of profits to accrue. So the A.P. 'went after' D.C. Thomson.
I was never a student of this eclectic lore, so am unaware how far Hedley pursued it, or what success he had - such research is best left to the dedicated collector - but I do feel confident that his quick, pin-wire personality would have revelled in it, with the examples of D.C.Thomson's to outdo. He himself wrote for RANGER and PILOT, I believe, his pen-name being Hedley Scott.
In this belated and fragmentary effort at recall I have tried to put down what I can most readily remember of my friend and workmate of other days, treating him fairly and recognising his failings as well as vaunting his virtues. But he was a playmate too, at times, and when summer holidays came round we and others of the office contingent sometimes formed a syndicate and chartered a 10-ton smack-rigged yacht and found our fun afloat. Eric R. Parker was another of the company, and F.B.Harnack, cover artist of UNION JACK and designer of its inside decorations. But that is another chapter in the A.P. story, which may best be left to the future.
I had parted from the firm to 'go freelancing' while Hedley still remained to bring out his old love the MAGNET, plus his two newcomers, RANGER and PILOT. But the semi-separation that an ordinary business move had begun was fated to be made permanent by the coming of a second war.
Maybe we are all adrift on the restless tide of circumstance, little knowing where tomorrow's ebb and flow may carry us. Me it carried far from hailing distance of the sterling friends with whom I had laboured so long, including - worst-missed of all - Hedley OMant, while the papers themselves succumbed in the stresses of war and foundered altogether.
Peace came at last. There were gaps in the old company of comrades, and new faces. Hedley seemed to be lost trace of and no report of him had emerged from the fog of doubt as the years passed. There were rumours that he had gone to Canada - emigrated with his wife and family. Then, towards the end of 1955, the story came full circle and once again I met him by chance in Fleet Street. Once again I saw, not the oldtime handsome, gay, debonair Hedley I had known. That very morning he had been discharged from St.George's Hospital, near Hyde Park, after a long and almost fatal struggle against a weakened heart, and was now facing a complexity of monetary and domestic troubles caused by his absence.
But he was still in the ring, fighting. He had cone to the Street to get a typewriter. One of the A.P. editors had promised he would take a story.
He never lived to finish it. Before the year was out Hedley had passed on. He died on 30th December, 1955.
Rest in peace, good friend. We shall never see your like again. #
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