Letter to Diane Petre
Oct 5 1977
I fear the editor is unlikely to answer your letter, partly because he is in America, partly because he does not often answer letters of that kind, so being intrigued by it (I know that is not the correct use of intrigued but I’m damned if I can think of a better word) I thought I would write to recommend that you investigate one very fruitful source of lies, excuses and deceits: journalists who have failed to meet deadlines. I blush when I think of the number of times I have said of an unstarted piece that it is being rewritten or isn’t working or is almost finished or needs retouching… Claud Cockburn once told me of a newspaperman who had got procrastination to such a fine art that he would ring his paper, tell them to send a boy round to pick up the piece, and then start it…
I once commissioned Hugh MacIlvanney to do a piece for a Scots issue of Punch, on the subject of Scottish drinking habits. Deadlines came and went, he promised it every day and produced nothing, until on press day itself I phoned the Observer in desperation, only to be told he had just gone on the grand tour.
- Meaning what? I asked
- He’s drinking his way up Fleet Street, they said.
I followed his progress from El Vino via pubs (everyone saying, oh yes, he was in here a while back) until at about 4pm I tracked him down in the City Golf Club. He blithely waved a full glass of Scotch at me and cried, Still doing research for the article, Miles!
We used the piece but not till a month had passed after the Scottish issue.
A thought strikes me. Cartoons. Mike Heath recently did a very good if sad cartoon set in a sex shop, where on the shelf there is a large talking sex doll. And she is saying “Not tonight, I have a headache, not tonight I have…”
RGG Price (who is a fund of such information) has a lovely story about a previous editor of Punch who had the task of firing a staff man but couldn’t bring himself to do it. So as a reward he took him on a world cruise, with the staff man not quite knowing why he was getting this special treatment. And as they were coming from the docks back home after the cruise the editor summed up his courage, said “Oh, by the way” and broke the news to him. Richard Price, care of this office, would tell you the names if you were interested.
Rereading the letter I have the feeling that everything I have said is either irrelevant or boring.
Sadly, as I write this letter, Vincent Mulchrone’s funeral is taking place. There was a man who could tell you stories. One he told me was a gem. It was about a gardening correspondent on a now defunct paper who was called in by the editor one day and told to gear his column from now on to the idea of My Garden Week by Week, describing what was actually happening in one man’s patch.
What the editor didn’t know was that the man had that very week split up from his wife, leaving her with the house and garden in Ashford and moving to a gardenless flat in London. So (he swore this was true) the gardening writer used to take a train down to Ashford once a week, late, and peer over the garden wall with a flashlight to see what was going on. The editor liked the column and started buying equipment for him – mowers, sacks of this, bags of that. The poor man had nowhere to stock them and after he departed several years later they gradually found the most amazing cache of garden tools and material hidden in the most unlikely places in the newspaper offices.
I suppose you have got the nicest excuse of all, Oscar Wilde’s refusal of dinner invitations on the ground that he unfortunately had a subsequent engagement. But I would like to suggest a child’s excuse, used by the son of an American friend of mine, whenever he was found fighting:” Jimmy started it all when he hit me back.”
I could go on rambling all day, when I should be milking the cows or cooking the dinner or something. I know I shall start thinking about this damned topic as soon as I have signed the letter so I will put an end to it now.
PS Another idea, dammit. What people say, backstage, first night, to actors who have just starred in terrible plays. How to sound nice without lying. Wasn’t it Noel Coward who recommended: ”Darling – you should have been in the audience!" ? Or “Only you could have played the part that way.” Or even “Darling!....” (stops, obviously lost for words and embraces the star).