Who's doing the jokes?
My old master, Sol Chandler, observed that the first task of the reporter is to interest the customer. Lord Francis Williams put it this way: 'Newspapers exist to be read. If they fail in that essential, their failure is absolute, whatever other merits they may abundantly possess... The journalist is traditionally an entertainer; he must entertain or find another trade.'
Editorial conferences can thus be quite depressing. A few items on the menu will be inherently interesting, but there is never enough fun, either in life or the newspapers, and many events, or non-events, that must be covered offer little more than paralysing boredom. Still, the motions have to be gone through. For, say. a summit conference, the heavy artillery is wheeled up to take care of the implications for foreign policy, economics. trade, etc.
The editor knows in his heart that such matters are calculated to induce terminal catatonia in his non-specialist customer. So, peering gloomily through his binoculars at the serried ranks of reptiles in the news room, he will ask, if he is prudent: 'Who's doing the jokes?'
The term, it should be noted, is a catchall. It includes, certainly, jokes in the literal sense, if any such are happily available. but a good deal more. There are the insignificant details Chandler was always talking about, and you have to try to be the eyes, ears, nose etc. - for the interested customer who can't be present himself. The task in fact is impossible and one is thus usually uneasy about the product, not to mention the circumstances, and the logistics of getting the stuff into print.
In the way of things, the job occasionally fell to your correspondent, and most of the pieces in these pages are more or less in that vein. In spite of the problems of working in this mode, I still find it difficult to forgive Mr Richard Nixon for his failure, by throwing in the towel on 8 August 1974, to submit himself to the impeachment process; Max Suich had just assigned me to do the jokes at what promised to be quite a jolly event.
The earnest reporter saddled with the jokes job will naturally take some care with the first and last paragraphs: they may be all anyone reads. Alas, I felt quite pleased with only a couple. One was the echo - theft if you insist - of Grahame Greene's Le Troisieme Homme in the 'go first' to the Ryan piece.
'One Friday in February 1967, 1 got a letter from the man I saw hanged a week before. A fortnight later, the quinella got up: the hangman sent a carping letter.'
And the 'go last' to 'The Night of the Hearse':
'What does it say?' Peggy asked innocently.
'"WE PAID OFF THE COPS', Jack said, `by Evan Whitton,' "fucking mongrel bastard.".'
The art of the reptile
No one, except possibly Sol Chandler, has learned all there is to know about journalism, but the great thing is: anyone can play. No qualifications of any kind are needed: the basic mechanics of reporting can be learned in five minutes, of sub-editing in a day or two. Here are some technical notes on the pieces in this collection.
American magazine reporters of the 1960s called it the new journalism, but since, so far as we know, it was invented by Caius Suetonius Tranquillus in about 120 AD neo-journalism seems more appropriate.
The method is simply to apply the techniques of fiction to works of non-fiction. As set out on pages 46 and 47 of Tom Wolfe's book on the subject, they are: scene-by-scene construction, lots of dialogue, and yards of description in the style of BaIzac or, come to that, Raymond Chandler.
Wolfe had a fourth technique: the third person point of view. You went back and interviewed the other people as to what they were thinking at the time. I never got round to this, but it ought to be possible with people who are not too uptight.