My Discovery of England by Stephen Leacock
II. I Am Interviewed by the Press
IMMEDIATELY upon my arrival in London I was interviewed by the Press. I was interviewed in all twenty times. I am not saying this in any spirit of elation or boastfulness. I am simply stating it as a fact--interviewed twenty times, sixteen times by men and twice by women. But as I feel that the results of these interviews were not all that I could have wished, I think it well to make some public explanation of what happened.
The truth is that we do this thing so differently over in America that I was for the time being completely thrown off my bearings. The questions that I had every right to expect after many years of American and Canadian interviews failed to appear.
I pass over the fact that being interviewed for five hours is a fatiguing process. I lay no claim to exemption for that. But to that no doubt was due the singular discrepancies as to my physical appearance which I detected in the London papers.
The young man who interviewed me immediately after breakfast described me as "a brisk, energetic man, still on the right side of forty, with energy in every movement."
The lady who wrote me up at 11.30 reported that my hair was turning grey, and that there was "a peculiar languor" in my manner.
And at the end the boy who took me over at a quarter to two said, "The old gentleman sank wearily upon a chair in the hotel lounge. His hair is almost white."
The trouble is that I had not understood that London reporters are supposed to look at a man's personal appearance. In America we never bother with that. We simply describe him as a "dynamo." For some reason or other it always pleases everybody to be called a "dynamo," and the readers, at least with us, like to read about people who are "dynamos," and hardly care for anything else.
In the case of very old men we sometimes call them "battle-horses" or "extinct volcanoes," but beyond these three classes we hardly venture on description. So I was misled. I had expected that the reporter would say: "As soon as Mr. Leacock came across the floor we felt we were in the presence of a 'dynamo' (or an 'extinct battle-horse' as the case may be)." Otherwise I would have kept up those energetic movements all the morning. But they fatigue me, and I did not think them necessary. But I let that pass.
The more serious trouble was the questions put to me by the reporters. Over in our chief centres of population we use another set altogether. I am thinking here especially of the kind of interview that I have given out in Youngstown, Ohio, and Richmond, Indiana, and Peterborough, Ontario. In all these places--for example, in Youngstown, Ohiothe reporter asks as his first question, "What is your impression of Youngstown?"
In London they don't. They seem indifferent to the fate of their city. Perhaps it is only English pride. For all I know they may have been burning to know this, just as the Youngstown, Ohio, people are, and were too proud to ask. In any case I will insert here the answer I had written out in my pocket-book (one copy for each paper--the way we do it in Youngstown), and which read:
"London strikes me as emphatically a city with a future. Standing as she does in the heart of a rich agricultural district with railroad connection in all directions, and resting, as she must, on a bed of coal and oil, I prophesy that she will one day be a great city."
The advantage of this is that it enables the reporter to get just the right kind of heading: PROPHESIES BRIGHT FUTURE FOR LONDON. Had that been used my name would have stood higher there than it does to-day--unless the London people are very different from the people in Youngstown, which I doubt. As it is they don't know whether their future is bright or is as dark as mud. But it's not my fault. The reporters never asked me.
If the first question had been handled properly it would have led up by an easy and pleasant transition to question two, which always runs: "Have you seen our factories?" To which the answer is:
"I have. I was taken out early this morning by a group of your citizens (whom I cannot thank enough) in a Ford car to look at your pail and bucket works. At eleven-thirty I was taken out by a second group in what was apparently the same car to see your soap works. I understand that you are the second nail-making centre east of the Alleghenies, and I am amazed and appalled. This afternoon I am to be taken out to see your wonderful system of disposing of sewerage, a thing which has fascinated me from childhood."
Now I am not offering any criticism of the London system of interviewing, but one sees at once how easy and friendly for all concerned this Youngstown method is; how much better it works than the London method of asking questions about literature and art and difficult things of that sort. I am sure that there must be soap works and perhaps a pail factory somewhere in London. But during my entire time of residence there no one ever offered to take me to them. As for the sewerage--oh, well, I suppose we are more hospitable in America. Let it go at that.
I had my answer all written and ready, saying:
"I understand that London is the second greatest hop-consuming, the fourth hog-killing, and the first egg-absorbing centre in the world."
But what I deplore still more, and I think with reason, is the total omission of the familiar interrogation: "What is your impression of our women?"
That's where the reporter over on our side hits the nail every time. That is the point at which we always nudge him in the ribs and buy him a cigar, and at which youth and age join in a sly jest together. Here again the sub-heading comes in so nicely: THINKS YOUNGSTOWN WOMEN CHARMING. And they are. They are, everywhere. But I hate to think that I had to keep my impression of London women unused in my pocket while a young man asked me whether I thought modern literature owed more to observation and less to inspiration than some other kind of literature.
Now that's exactly the kind of question, the last one, that the London reporters seem to harp on. They seemed hipped about literature; and their questions are too difficult. One asked me whether the American drama was structurally inferior to the French. I don't call that fair. I told him I didn't know; that I used to know the answer to it when I was at college, but that I had forgotten it, and that, anyway, I am too well off now to need to remember it.
That question is only one of a long list that they asked me about art and literature. I missed nearly all of them, except one as to whether I thought Al Jolson or Frank Tinney was the higher artist, and even that one was asked by an American who is wasting himself on the London Press.
I don't want to speak in anger. But I say it frankly, the atmosphere of these young men is not healthy, and I felt that I didn't want to see them any more.
Had there been a reporter of the kind we have at home in Montreal or Toledo or Springfield, Illinois, I would have welcomed him at my hotel. He could have taken me out in a Ford car and shown me a factory and told me how many cubic feet of water go down the Thames in an hour. I should have been glad of his society, and he and I would have together made up the kind of copy that people of his class and mine read. But I felt that if any young man came along to ask about the structure of the modern drama, he had better go on to the British Museum.
Meantime as the reporters entirely failed to elicit the large fund of information which I acquired, I reserve my impressions of London for a chapter by themselves.