The frustrated dreams of ordinary people

The Guardian, April 6 1996

It was a dark day in Lewes Crown Court, and the man in the dock looked guilty. He was a shabby little guy, probably in his early 50s, with a balding head and a black leather jacket and he was accused of making threats to kill. While he sat frowning to himself, his own barrister started hanging him out to dry, telling the jury that he understood that they were bound to dislike his client whose behaviour, he said, had been disgraceful and ungentlemanly, that of ‘a predatory male obsessed by getting what he wanted’.

The woman he was said to have threatened was looking no happier. She was around 35, tall and well turned-out with glossy brown hair and well-manicured nails and she, too, was being cut open by the barrister. He was talking about her sex life, saying she had sold herself for pornography for a handful of tenners, reminding her of some video she had made where she lay on a sofa with no clothes on while some man told her what to do with her hands, guessing out loud about the meaning of the bruises on her body. She was, he said, a desperate woman.

So there they sat, two miserable-looking people entangled by lust, publicly stewing in their sordid past, obviously weak, obviously bad, obviously deserving the humiliation they were receiving. And yet, it wasn’t quite like that. The truth was more subtle and more sad than that, a tale of dullness and monotony in ordinary life and of two quite different people who shared a simple idea, that maybe somehow life ought to offer them a tiny bit more than it did, that somewhere along the line they should be allowed to be different, to be themselves, to do something with their dreams. It was a story that had started nearly 20 years earlier, on a stage in a theatre in the middle of Brighton.

She was 16, she had long brown hair and bright blue eyes and a swimsuit that gripped her like a fist and she had just been crowned Miss Brighton. The little crowd clapped and she smiled and the photographers burrowed around her, shouldering each other for a better view – “Here, Jane. Over here, Jane.”

He was in amongst them with his camera, a quiet, modest man in his black leather jacket. He thought she was a real looker and, as the cameras calmed down, he popped forward and he told her that if ever she wanted to make a career of this modeling business, she should get in touch, he might be able to help her with her portfolio. She should remember the name, he said – “Ken Peyton, photographer.”

It wasn’t quite true. He wasn’t really called Ken Peyton. His real name was Ken Bartels, but ‘Peyton’ sounded better. And he wasn’t really a photographer. He was a communications engineer – something he’d learned in the Royal Navy – but he liked photography and he dreamed of making a living out of it and only last year he’d had a bit of a break-through: he had sold a picture to Reveille, his first ever national publication. At least, he hoped he’d had a break-through. There hadn’t been much in the way of national work since then, and today he was just turning out on the off-chance that one of the locals might take something. Still, he had his hopes, and a girl like this was certainly something special.

She didn’t notice him. She didn’t need to. All her life she had been nothing more than a little girl and not a particularly happy one at that. She had watched her dad drift away from home and take up with a bottle and another woman. She had struggled through school and done her best and then left without an O level to her name, but now, at this precise and precious moment, smiling over the satin sash of Miss Brighton, Jane Upperton had just stepped over the threshold of a dream.

This was all back in the summer of 1976 – years before everything went wrong. Back then, she soared upwards so fast that it was hard to believe it was real. Within a month, she had abandoned her little job behind the perfume counter in Hannington’s store in the middle of Brighton. Within six months she had signed on with a top modeling agency in London and started working on calendars and magazines. Within a year, she was flying off to sun-soaked beaches for fashion catalogues, turning out for boat shows and car shows and, most of all, she was stripping off her shirt and flashing her pleased-to-see-you smile from the pages of the Sun and the Daily Mirror.

They liked to call her the English Rose, the model with the face of the girl next door and the body of an old man’s dream. Week after week, she was there, lying naked except for her necklace in a field full of summer grass, smiling in a Santa Claus suit that was far too small to fit. She was one of the first Page Three regulars and when her backside was picked for the front cover of Jilly Cooper’s novel Riders, she became a prestige property. Along the way, she changed her name and re-invented herself as Jane Warner – not a Sussex school girl anymore, but a star.

Ken Bartels watched her soar away. From time to time, as the years went by, she turned up in the local paper, opening a conference centre, posing on the pier, being interviewed about her jet-set lifestyle and how she still preferred to come home to dear old Brighton. He saw her posing for Kent Gavin and Sam Haskins and all the top Fleet Street boys, saw the tabloids call her Britain’s Top Bottom, saw her enjoying the glamour of it all, while he still commuted from Crawley with his shabby leather jacket and his slightly crumpled dreams.

It wasn’t a bad life that he had. He had a home and a wife and two kids and a car, all the things that were supposed to make you happy. All he wanted was a little more, a little glamour. Other people seemed to drift through their routines without ever expecting anything to happen to them. The worst of it was that they didn’t expect anything to happen to him either, no matter how hard he tried to convince them.

The truth was that people sometimes laughed at Ken Bartels and all his big ideas. He used to say that he’d just been off to Bahrein on a job, working on computers, and they’d nod and smile and wonder why he had no sun tan. He’d tell them he’d been off abroad for Christmas and then after he’d gone, they’d say it was funny how his Christmas cards were all posted in Crawley. And they’d chuckle. They weren’t angry with him for his stories. They all said he was a harmless little chap, really. Some of them had heard him say that he had been in the marines but so far as they knew, the truth was that he had once been on a course with them and it wasn’t even a combat course. It was in communications. Ken Bartels was trudging slowly through his middle years with no hope of excitement beyond that which was supplied by his imagination – and by his camera.

He might feel a little jealous as he watched Jane Warner glide through a world that was beyond him, but he could also feel an attachment to her. He could boast that he knew her and, no matter what his friends might say, it was true that he had photographed her, in a way. And they might not believe him when he told them that he was still doing a bit of glamour work himself as a matter of fact, but in a way that was true, too. There was this studio place he used to go to, not far from the London road just outside the centre of Brighton where you could hire a model for as little as £10 an hour and you could set up the lights and tell the model what to wear and how to stand and how to look at the camera.

It wasn’t much of a place, to tell the truth. It looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned or decorated since some time in the early 1960s, the sort of place where you opened the front door and found it sweeping a log-jam of junk mail up against the wall of the hall. It belonged to a man who was a keen photographer. He was about 60 with a gravelly voice and a balding head and a belly that had lost its grip on his ribs. He had kitted out a first-floor room as a studio – lights, coloured backdrops, a few room sets, some props . And he’d filled a plastic binder with portraits of the women that were on his books – a few housewives who were short of cash, some single girls who thought maybe it might lead to some thing, all of them a little weary, none of them exactly glamorous.

This was the place where Ken Bartels used to come, once every month or so, with his Pentax ME Super around his neck. He would pick out a model from the plastic binder and book her for an hour in the studio and he’d go through his photographer routine. He was happy to obey the rules, which had been laid down by the owner in language as coy as a lace doily. For £10 an hour, you did ‘portrait’, which meant she kept her clothes on. For £12 an hour, you did ‘glamour’, which meant topless. For £15, an hour, you did ‘figure’, which meant she was naked. “But no O-level gynaecology,” he used to rumble. “No Lay-Back-Lady-With-Your-Legs-Open, if you get my meaning.” It wasn’t much – it was a long way from Ken Bartels’ dream of glamour – but at least it was real.

He had been a regular visitor for several years, practising his technique, building his portfolio, when one day late in 1991, he turned up and he saw a new model. It was Jane Warner. It was like seeing a thoroughbred in a donkey show, but it was definitely her, the Queen of Brighton beach, the girl on the end of the lens, the face on the end of his fantasy – here in this graveyard of dreams. She had changed. There was no denying it. It was 15 years since he had seen her in the flesh. There was a little tiredness around her eyes, an ever-so-slight sagging of the skin on her cheeks, perhaps a little extra weight around her limbs. But she was still a beautiful girl, a wonderful model, and now, she was here, working in this very studio, where he could hire her, where he could have her all for himself.

But why was she here? Bartels had no idea, but the owner knew. She said it was just because she’d got married and had a baby and she didn’t want to commute up to London any more. But the owner knew better than that. He knew the truth was that her age had taken her down: she was 31 years old, much too old for the big time. Page Three of the Sun was a young woman’s game. And, by the Sun’s standards, Jane’s face was worn out. She’d been kicked out of her dream world. But why was she working at all?

It couldn’t be for the money. She was well-dressed, her husband was working – the owner knew him slightly – and they owned a house without a mortgage. And anyway what was £10 an hour to a woman like this? No, it wasn’t that. And it certainly wasn’t for the fame: most of the stuff they shot here would never see the light of day. There was something else that had brought her here – all the way down here to this dark and shabby place – and the owner had seen it before with models. Her problem was that she couldn’t stop. You could call it what you liked – excitement, adulation, adoration, the feeling of being wanted, the feeling of being beautiful – but, whatever it was, she wanted more of it. She loved that lens. And now, it was Ken Bartels who was behind it.

Years later, looking back from that dark courtroom where all the errors of their ways were pulled out for public display, they might have looked back at the day when they first met in the studio and realised that this was the turning point. He was taking a small step forwards towards his dream; she had taken a long step backwards, away from hers. Both of them were kidding themselves that this was the real thing, and both of them were about to discover that their dreams were dangerous. The danger wasn’t physical – no matter how desperate they might become, these were never violent people. The danger was simply that they would be skewered on the painful reality that when you are trapped by dullness and monotony and all the claustrophobic mundanity of English provincial life, you are not permitted to escape.

As soon as he saw her, Bartels went to the owner and booked her and suddenly, he was face to face with her and something about the excitement of the encounter – the sheer unreality of it – went to his head and on the spur of the moment, he invented a new name for himself. “I’m Keith,” he told her and shook her firmly by the hand.

He spent an hour with her and, when the session was finished, he went straight out and booked another hour with her for the next week. And once that session was over, he booked her again. Every week, he booked her, sometimes more than once. When he wasn’t shooting pictures of her, he was planning how to shoot them.

At first he told her all sorts of extravagant tales about himself. He wasn’t married and he didn’t live in Crawley. He had a nice place in Horsham, he told her, where he ran his own business and then he did the photography as a side line – a lot of catalogue work, some magazine covers – and he reckoned he was earning about £12,000 a year from that alone. He had a couple of pretty good cars – a Rolls Royce and a BMW – though his stupid secretary had smashed up the BMW on the M25. But after a while, he dropped all that. And he told her the truth: real name, real life, everything. And she didn’t seem to mind.

It was some time soon after that that he started to want her very badly. The trouble was that he couldn’t tell her. When they were in the studio together, she was naked and intimate and compliant and she belonged to him. But not really. She was a professional model, she was there to create an image, and she would smile her pleased-to-see-you-smile and tilt her head or bend her body, just exactly as he wanted, but she wasn’t really there.

He did his best to break through to her. He offered to baby-sit her son. He said if she was ever short of money or anything, he’d be more than willing to help. And a couple of times, she did let him pay her car tax and her phone bill. It wasn’t enough. He tried harder to make her see how he really felt. One day, at the end of a session, as he was packing up to go, he opened his wallet and pulled out a picture he had taken of her, peaking out of a sailor’s suit, and he looked at it and turned to her. “That’s my girl,” he said. She smiled politely and said she’d see him next week.

He began to get desperate, and clumsy, too. He told her about this couple he knew who owned a hotel just down the road in Hove. It was a nice place, he said, and he’d booked a room there. For the two of them. She didn’t smile. She wasn’t interested. And, the next time he tried to tell her what he felt, he massacred the moment, started talking about her body and about sex and about the things he longed to do with her and the more he talked, the more of himself he spilled out in front of her in sordid spurts of fantasy. She walked away.

Then suddenly, just as all his hopes were drowning in frustration, her own attempt at life exploded. On September 5 1993, the Sunday Mirror published a double-page spread about her ‘sex shame’, all about how ‘the best known bottom in Britain’ was secretly offering sex for sale. Two reporters described how they had found her working in a flat in a tower block in Brighton, with a vibrator by her side, charging £50 for ‘explicit’ photos and a further £30 for sexual favours. They had carried hidden tape recorders: “I normally only give hand relief to people I know, but I know you now… I do everything except full sex.”

Ken Bartels suffered the rage of the betrayed. All along, he had been pursuing a figment of his imagination, a model of a perfect person, but really she was only Jane Warner, formerly Upperton, frail and fallible, longing for something that she could see in his lens but not in him.

She seemed to crave the adulation that had once been hers by right of natural beauty, and now that she could no longer claim it as her own, now that the real world had swallowed her ambitions, she had started padding her performance with sex, like an old actress padding her face with pink powder – there, just as lovely as ever.

He phoned her that day, full of bitter anger. He told her he was going off to Saudi Arabia for four months on a job and, for once, there was no doubt that the trip was real. She would go back to her studio, he would go back to his work, both of them would do what they had to do. For both of them, the carefully constructed life of fantasy had collapsed around their shoulders.

But Ken Bartels couldn’t forget his brief taste of excitement and when he returned from Saudi, in January 1994, he asked to photograph her again. She refused; she’d had enough of his attention and his anger. He insisted. She still refused. He started ringing, leaving messages on her answering machine, pleading with her for the return of his dream. “You might as well as have cut off my right arm when you said I couldn’t photograph you any more.” Then he sent letters and more messages, many many more, bargaining with his misery like a limbless beggar waving his stump. He lost all control. His feelings began to curdle inside him and he became sour and angry.

Instead of pleading, he started to pose as a threat. He would tell he was following her, that he knew her every move, that he was going to wring her neck or crash her car or burst in on her studio in the middle of a session. It wasn’t frightening so much as irritating: he never did any of it. Once, instead of speaking to h machine, he managed to speak to her live, and she simply told him he was a little jerk. Once, he waited outside her house until she left for work and then he followed her in his car, wearing the uniform of a bad guy, dark glasses and a cap pulled down over his forehead. She lost him round the first corner, accidentally caught up with him and then led him straight to Hove police station where two detectives came out and told him to behave himself.

Finally, in April 1995, after 16 months of messages and letters, of threats and pleadings, her patience snapped and she went back to the police, who arranged to interview him at Hove police station. It was one of the days when he was posing as a threat. He admitted making the calls. He was told it was an offence but he said he would carry on regardless. He was all bravado.

The detective looked at him. “You have one thing inside your head, don’t you?”

“Yes,” came the reply. “It’s hate. You can put me behind bars for as long as you like. What address would I go for when I came out?”

If he couldn’t get to her himself, he said, he would arrange for someone else to bump her off. “The care I had for her has now turned to hate. You look into my eyes and you will see revenge. She is a very lucky women. As an ex-marine, I could break her, break her neck.”

The detective paused, cautioned him and charged him with making threats to kill. For once in his life, Ken Bartels had managed to persuade someone to believe his story. It didn’t last long.

On a dark day in Lewes Crown Court, his barrister told the jury that Bartels was disgraceful and ungentlemanly and predatory, too, but he asked them to consider whether these threats were really to be taken seriously. The jury thought about it and decided it was just another fantasy. Last month, Ken Bartels pleaded guilty at Brighton magistrates court to the lesser charge of making malicious phone calls. His lawyer told the court that he had gone astray. “He is a perfectly normal man.”

In the course of the hearings, Jane Warner admitted that she had been reduced to posing on an old settee while men with video cameras made do-it-yourself porn. The judge watched one of her tapes, where she lay with her fingers inside herself, while Van Morrison played in the background and the disembodied voice of the male behind the camera urged her on. “That’s it Jane. Look over here, Jane. That’s good, Jane.”

So the dreaming ended. Ken Bartels never made it to the world of glamour which he craved. Jane Warner was locked away from the admiration that she wanted. They weren’t rich or well-connected, they had no power and no possible hope of escaping – not really. They were damned just as much as most of those around them, ensnared by circumstance and forced to live their lives in quiet desperation, never really to be the people they wanted to become.