February 21, 2016

Confessions of a former British journalist

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2011

I lay claim to be the only person to get the word "fuck" into the Illustrated London News, which was - until it collapsed in the muck of media modernity - the second oldest continuously published magazine and which for more than 150 hundred years served the cause of empire and the better English classes. I was, during its declining era, its Washington correspondent as part of a futile effort to give rebirth to a publication so fusty that, according to my editor, the gardening correspondent had actually died in 1929, but the news had been successfully concealed from readers unaware that they were reading recycled columns well into the 1980s.

It wouldn't have been the first time the ILN had lagged behind reality. For example, on Saturday, December 21, 1861, it declared:

"Last week it seemed difficult to obtain attention for any subject save that of the American crisis . . . President Lincoln's Message, as a composition, is conceived in the same low moral tone and executed with the same maladroitness which have characterized the preceding State Papers of his Government . . . The North, in its excess of zeal for civilization, is also elaborately destroying harbors' in the South, thus by savage acts giving the lie to the profession of belief that the territory to which the harbours belong will ever again be a portion of the Federal dominions."

The ILN's view of its readers was well stated in the July 22, 1848, edition and did not change markedly over the years:

"As a people, it may be truly said of us that we are pre-eminent among the nations of the earth. our spirit rules the world. Our wisdom enters into the composition of everyday life and half the globe. Our physical as well as intellectual presence is manifest in every climate under the sun. Our sailing ships and steam-vessels cover the seas and rivers. Wherever we conquer, we civilize and refine. Our arms, our arts, our literature are illustrious among the nations. We are a rich, a powerful, an intelligent, and a religious people."

The top editor's view of me fit this paradigm well. The closest he ever came to a compliment was when he told my boss, "I didn't know Americans knew how to write."

My view of "fuck" was that it was a word like all words, to be used in the proper place and the proper way, particularly not to be reduced to a hackneyed phrase. One of those proper occasions occurred in an article I had written for ILN, and to my pleasure the associate editor left it in.

The top editor did not discover the affront until after publication when he demanded of my boss, "how the fuck" the word had defaced his jewel in the crown.

It wasn't the first time he had missed the boat. When a competing publication celebrated its 2,000th issue complete with a well publicized party and a program on the BBC, the editor told his associate that the ILN ought to consider something like that. "When's our next big issue?" he asked. My boss said he wasn't sure. The editor pulled out the current edition only to find it was number 5,000.

When my editor departed this strange corner of the empire, he left me with a year's worth of assignments. On completion, I sent the editor-in-chief a dozen ideas for stories. He wrote that he would be back to me but never was. Sometime later, I mentioned this to my former editor. "You should never have sent him a dozen ideas," he scolded. "It was clearly too much for him to handle. You should have sent him one good idea and one terrible idea and hoped he made the right choice."

My adviser was an improbable New Zealander by the name of Des Wilson. After dropping out of school at 15, Des arrived in England as a young man with only a few pounds and a lot of ideas. He subsequently started a housing program called Shelter; written for a number of publications; run for Parliament; and headed campaigns to get the lead out of gas, the secrecy out of information and the Liberal Democrats into office; chaired Friends of the Earth; and written numerous books including a couple of novels in one of which I appear as a harried homeowner in council housing and, in another, my wife is an environmental activist in Portland, Maine. Once, at Buckingham Palace, Des stepped on one of Queen Elizabeth's corgies. I suspect he said, "Bugger off," but he has never admitted it.

In 1970, I heard Des speak about Shelter at a meeting of a housing and planning group on whose board I sat. I invited him over for a drink afterwards and -- with a few interruptions for campaigns of one sort or another or for gainful employment - he never left. He has advised, entertained, employed, and insulted me in no predictable order and I have tried to return the favor.

Among his gifts was to guide me in the way of British journalism, which still regards power with proper skepticism, the media as a lusty trade rather than a pompous profession, and words as something to be enjoyed and not merely processed. Thus it was that when a British hack filed from Africa word of a colleague's demise, "Headley dead in uprising," his editor, with an eye on circulation, fired back a telegram: "Why you undead?"

Des knew a reporter for the Observer by the name of Fergie who frequently vanished for lengthy periods, wiring repeatedly for more expenses. Once he wired to London to say he had information about a tribe of 100-year-olds in Ecuador but needed funds to travel there. He received the money and disappeared. Weeks later he wired for more funds. Reply: "What about tribe of 100 year olds?" Fergie wired back: "Alas, died of old age."

Des was once in Ayachucho in the Andes waiting for his plane to Lima. The plane finally appeared but kept flying on without landing. "What the hell...?" snorted Des. "Its OK," said an Ayachuchoan, "It does that sometimes. It'll stop tomorrow." So Des re-booked into the hotel, returning the following day. The same. "Most unusual," said the local. He re-re-booked into the hotel and returned the following day. The plane finally landed. As the pilot stepped off the plane wearing 1930s style headgear, a crowd gathered around him and began arguing. Explained the Ayachuchoan, "Problem not over yet. Now it has to decide where it's going next." The ever resourceful Wilson plowed into the crowd waving his passport, pointing to the imprimatur of the Queen and her demand that her subjects be well treated by all and sundry. The pilot, impressed, announced that the plane would be going to Lima.

His later work led to a lot of speeches. Once he was speaking to a club in Lincolnshire. Before introducing him, the chairwoman bemoaned the small crowd and chastised the program committee saying, "We'll never get better speakers until we improve attendance."

On another occasion he was invited to speak to a dinner of county estate agents. The dinner dragged on and Des noticed that not only was a front table of agents getting drunk but they were betting among themselves on something.

Des finally got up to speak to a crowd that was half asleep and half inebriated. He was only a few minutes into his talk when one of the men at the front table held up a sign that read, "Please stop talking or I will lose my bet."

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