Magazine article The Spectator

Cheeky of Me to Say So, but English Journalism Is Getting Better

Magazine article The Spectator

Cheeky of Me to Say So, but English Journalism Is Getting Better

Article excerpt

A splendid Spectator 180th anniversary issue was published this year. Along with many readers, I fell upon a treasury of previously published columns: a selection of examples through the magazine's history of the wit, erudition and style of contributors since 1828. We found pieces by Graham Greene, John Buchan and Bernard Levin; letters from George Orwell, Winston Churchill and Nancy Mitford; and reviews from Kingsley Amis and Lord David Cecil. Hand poised above the tub, the reader could plunge into this lucky dip for a miscellany of prizes.

But there was a fair measure of sawdust awaiting him too. Not every column was as sparkling as the next. Not every ancient contribution surpassed the modern ones. Not every opinion was quite as clever, nor every insight quite as penetrating, as the generally cocky style of contributors down the decades seemed to promise.

And I ended a fireside evening with the past masters of British journalism tremendously cheered. The presiding spirit of Spectator commentary down the ages -- that we're all going to hell in a handcart -- is wrong in at least this respect. British journalism in the first decade of the 21st century -- commentary, report and review -- is as good as it's ever been. As good as 50 years ago; as good as 150 years ago. I'm even going to suggest it's better.

Of course, good journalism is current. It has the wind of its times in its sails. The canvas is taut with an invisible force: the interest and excitement shared between writer and reader; the shared knowledge; shared background; shared hopes, fears, passions and irritations; shared immersion in the news of the day. Take away that unseen energy we call newsworthiness, the unspoken assumption that this is what everyone's talking about, and the sails flap. However artfully framed, the mere words, sentences, even the arguments, lose energy because the subject is no longer of much account.

The late Bernard Levin, familiar in the pages of The Spectator and whom I followed in The Times, meant everything to me as a columnist when I was a young man. I would devour his writing, savour his delicious disdain for the things I, too, despised, and enjoy the flamboyant overstatement of his case. Thirty-five years later, I keep trying to find examples of the columns that seemed such masterpieces. But they don't read as I remember them. Now that hatred of the Gas Board or Harold Wilson is not a dominating feature of my life, all that huff and puff and indignation seems -- well, at times almost puerile.

But that's because Bernard was not writing for the Britain of New Labour's long sunset. The test, the only test, of a column about the stories of the day is how it reads to the readers of the day. We cannot be those readers now. How things seemed at the time -- the smell of an era -- is a delicate and evanescent thing. With that smell no longer in your nostrils you stumble around the apparent historical facts, missing one of your key senses. Perhaps the novelist can do more to bring back how it felt than can the journalism of the day, dug from the archive and served cold.

What was good about Levin in 1975 is what seemed good about Levin to 1975. No subsequent decade is entitled to discover that it isn't good after all -- it was good, that's the point. Journalism can't prove worse or better than it seemed; it can only prove more perishable. But it wasn't meant for posthumous examination. I don't expect so much as a phrase I've written to be remembered in half a century's time. …

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