My Discovery of England by Stephen Leacock
VI.--The British and the American Press
THE only paper from which a man can really get the news of the world in a shape that he can understand is the newspaper of his own "home town." For me, unless I can have the Montreal Gazette at my breakfast, and the Montreal Star at my dinner, I don't really know what is happening. In the same way I have seen a man from the south of Scotland settle down to read the Dumfries Chronicle with a deep sigh of satisfaction: and a man from Burlington, Vermont, pick up the Burlington Eagle and study the foreign news in it as the only way of getting at what was really happening in France and Germany.
The reason is, I suppose, that there are different ways of serving up the news and we each get used to our own. Some people like the news fed to them gently: others like it thrown at them in a bombshell: some prefer it to be made as little of as possible; they want it minimised: others want the maximum.
This is where the greatest difference lies between the British newspapers and those of the United States and Canada. With us in America the great thing is to get the news and shout it at the reader; in England they get the news and then break it to him as gently as possible. Hence the big headings, the bold type, and the double columns of the American paper, and the small headings and the general air of quiet and respectability of the English Press.
It is quite beside the question to ask which is the better. Neither is. They are different things: that's all. The English newspaper is designed to be read quietly, propped up against the sugar bowl of a man eating a slow breakfast in a quiet corner of a club, or by a retired banker seated in a leather chair nearly asleep, or by a country vicar sitting in a wicker chair under a pergola. The American paper is for reading by a man hanging on the straps of a clattering subway express, by a man eating at a lunch counter, by a man standing on one leg, by a man getting a two-minute shave, or by a man about to have his teeth drawn by a dentist.
In other words, there is a difference of atmosphere. It is not merely in the type and the lettering, it is a difference in the way the news is treated and the kind of words that are used. In America we love such words as "gun-men" and "joy-ride" and "death-cell": in England they prefer "person of doubtful character" and "motor travelling at excessive speed" and "corridor No. 6." If a milk-waggon collides in the street with a coal-cart, we write that a "life-waggon" has struck a "death-cart." We call a murderer a "thug" or a "gun-man" or a "yeg-man." In England they simply call him "the accused who is a grocer's assistant in Houndsditch." That designation would knock any decent murder story to pieces.
Hence comes the great difference between the American "lead" or opening sentence of the article, and the English method of commencement. In the American paper the idea is that the reader is so busy that he must first be offered the news in one gulp. After that if he likes it he can go on and eat some more of it. So the opening sentence must give the whole thing. Thus, suppose that a leading member of the United States Congress has committed suicide. This is the way in which the American reporter deals with it.
"Seated in his room at the Grand Hotel with his carpet slippers on his feet and his body wrapped in a blue dressing-gown with pink insertions, after writing a letter of farewell to his wife and emptying a bottle of Scotch whisky in which he exonerated her from all culpability in his death, Congressman Ahasuerus P. Tigg was found by night-watchman, Henry T. Smith, while making his rounds as usual with four bullets in his stomach."
Now let us suppose that a leading member of the House of Commons in England had done the same thing. Here is the way it would be written up in a first-class London newspaper.
The heading would be HOME AND GENERAL INTELLIGENCE. That is inserted so as to keep the reader soothed and quiet and is no doubt thought better than the American heading BUGHOUSE CONGRESSMAN BLOWS OUT BRAINS IN HOTEL. After the heading HOME AND GENERAL INTELLIGENCE the English paper runs the subheading INCIDENT AT THE GRAND HOTEL. The reader still doesn't know what happened; he isn't meant to. Then the article begins like this:
"The Grand Hotel, which is situated at the corner of Millbank and Victoria Streets, was the scene last night of a distressing incident."
"What is it?" thinks the reader. "The hotel itself, which is an old Georgian structure dating probably from about 1750, is a quiet establishment, its clientele mainly drawn from business men in the cattle-droving and distillery business from South Wales."
"What happened?" thinks the reader.
"Its cuisine has long been famous for the excellence of its boiled shrimps."
"While the hotel itself is also known as the meeting place of the Surbiton Harmonic Society and other associations."
"Among the more prominent of the guests of the hotel has been numbered during the present Parliamentary session Mr. Llewylln Ap. Jones, M.P., for South Llanfydd. Mr. Jones apparently came to his room last night at about ten P.M., and put on his carpet slippers and his blue dressing gown. He then seems to have gone to the cupboard and taken from it a whisky bottle which however proved to be empty. The unhappy gentleman then apparently went to bed . . ."
At that point the American reader probably stops reading, thinking that he has heard it all. The unhappy man found that the bottle was empty and went to bed: very natural: and the affair very properly called a "distressing incident": quite right. But the trained English reader would know that there was more to come and that the air of quiet was only assumed, and he would read on and on until at last the tragic interest heightened, the four shots were fired, with a good long pause after each for discussion of the path of the bullet through Mr. Ap. Jones.
I am not saying that either the American way or the British way is the better. They are just two different ways, that's all. But the result is that anybody from the United States or Canada reading the English papers gets the impression that nothing is happening: and an English reader of our newspapers with us gets the idea that the whole place is in a tumult.
When I was in London I used always, in glancing at the morning papers, to get a first impression that the whole world was almost asleep. There was, for example, a heading called INDIAN INTELLIGENCE that showed, on close examination, that two thousand Parsees had died of the blue plague, that a powder boat had blown up at Bombay, that some one had thrown a couple of bombs at one of the provincial governors, and that four thousand agitators had been sentenced to twenty years hard labour each. But the whole thing was just called "Indian Intelligence." Similarly, there was a little item called, "Our Chinese Correspondent." That one explained ten lines down, in very small type, that a hundred thousand Chinese had been drowned in a flood. And there was another little item labelled "Foreign Gossip," under which was mentioned that the Pope was dead, and that the President of Paraguay had been assassinated.
In short, I got the impression that I was living in an easy drowsy world, as no doubt the editor meant me to. It was only when the Montreal Star arrived by post that I felt that the world was still revolving pretty rapidly on its axis and that there was still something doing.
As with the world news so it is with the minor events of ordinary life,--birth, death, marriage, accidents, crime. Let me give an illustration. Suppose that in a suburb of London a housemaid has endeavoured to poison her employer's family by putting a drug in the coffee. Now on our side of the water we should write that little incident up in a way to give it life, and put headings over it that would capture the reader's attention in a minute. We should begin it thus:
PRETTY PARLOR MAID DEALS DEATH-DRINK TO CLUBMAN'S FAMILY
The English reader would ask at once, how do we know that the parlor maid is pretty? We don't. But our artistic sense tells us that she ought to be. Pretty parlor maids are the only ones we take any interest in: if an ugly parlor maid poisoned her employer's family we should hang her. Then again, the English reader would say, how do we know that the man is a clubman? Have we ascertained this fact definitely, and if so, of what club or clubs is he a member? Well, we don't know, except in so far as the thing is self-evident. Any man who has romance enough in his life to be poisoned by a pretty housemaid ought to be in a club. That's the place for him. In fact, with us the word club man doesn't necessarily mean a man who belongs to a club: it is defined as a man who is arrested in a gambling den; or fined for speeding a motor or who shoots another person in a hotel corridor. Therefore this man must be a club man. Having settled the heading, we go on with the text:
"Brooding over love troubles which she has hitherto refused to divulge under the most grilling fusillade of rapid-fire questions shot at her by the best brains of the New York police force, Miss Mary De Forrest, a handsome brunette thirty-six inches around the hips, employed as a parlor maid in the residence of Mr. Spudd Bung, a well-known clubman forty-two inches around the chest, was arrested yesterday by the flying squad of the emergency police after having, so it is alleged, put four ounces of alleged picrate of potash into the alleged coffee of her employer's family's alleged breakfast at their residence on Hudson Heights in the most fashionable quarter of the metropolis. Dr. Slink, the leading fashionable practitioner of the neighbourhood who was immediately summoned said that but for his own extraordinary dexterity and promptness the death of the whole family, if not of the entire entourage, was a certainty. The magistrate in committing Miss De Forrest for trial took occasion to enlarge upon her youth and attractive appearance: he castigated the moving pictures severely and said that he held them together with the public school system and the present method of doing the hair, directly responsible for the crimes of the kind alleged."
Now when you read this over you begin to feel that something big has happened. Here is a man like Dr. Slink, all quivering with promptness and dexterity. Here is an inserted picture, a photograph, a brick house in a row marked with a cross (+) and labelled "The Bung Residence as. it appeared immediately after the alleged outrage." It isn't really. It is just a photograph that we use for this sort of thing and have grown to like. It is called sometimes:--"Residence of Senator Borah" or "Scene of the Recent Spiritualistic Manifestations" or anything of the sort. As long as it is marked with a cross (+) the reader will look at it with interest.
In other words we make something out of an occurrence like this. It doesn't matter if it all fades out afterwards when it appears that Mary De Forrest merely put ground allspice into the coffee in mistake for powdered sugar and that the family didn't drink it anyway. The reader has already turned to other mysteries.
But contrast the pitifully tame way in which the same event is written up in England. Here it is:
"Yesterday at the police court of Surbiton-on-Thames Mary Forrester, a servant in the employ of Mr. S. Bung was taken into custody on a charge of having put a noxious preparation, possibly poison, into the coffee of her employer's family. The young woman was remanded for a week."
Look at that. Mary Forrester a servant?
How wide was she round the chest? It doesn't say. Mr. S. Bung? Of what club was he a member? None, apparently. Then who cares if he is poisoned? And "the young woman!" What a way to speak of a decent girl who never did any other harm than to poison a club man. And the English magistrate! What a tame part he must have played: his name indeed doesn't occur at all: apparently he didn't enlarge on the girl's good looks, or "comment on her attractive appearance," or anything. I don't suppose that he even asked Mary Forrester out to lunch with him.
Notice also that, according to the English way of writing the thing up, as soon as the girl was remanded for a week the incident is closed. The English reporter doesn't apparently know enough to follow Miss De Forrest to her home (called "the De Forrest Residence" and marked with a cross, +) . The American reporter would make certain to supplement what went above with further information of this fashion. "Miss De Forrest when seen later at her own home by a representative of The Eagle said that she regretted very much having been put to the necessity of poisoning Mr. Bung. She had in the personal sense nothing against Mr. Bung and apart from poisoning him she had every respect for Mr. Bung. Miss De Forrest, who talks admirably on a variety of topics, expressed herself as warmly in favour of the League of Nations and as a devotee of the short ballot and proportional representation."
Any American reader who studies the English Press comes upon these wasted opportunities every day. There are indeed certain journals of a newer type which are doing their best to imitate us. But they don't really get it yet. They use type up to about one inch and after that they get afraid.
I hope that in describing the spirit of the English Press I do not seem to be writing with any personal bitterness. I admit that there might be a certain reason for such a bias. During my stay in England I was most anxious to appear as a contributor to some of the leading papers. This is, with the English, a thing that always adds prestige. To be able to call oneself a "contributor" to the Times or to Punch or the Morning Post or the Spectator, is a high honour. I have met these "contributors" all over the British Empire. Some, I admit, look strange. An ancient wreck in the back bar of an Ontario tavern (ancient regime) has told me that he was a contributor to the Times: the janitor of the building where I lived admits that he is a contributor to Punch: a man arrested in Bristol for vagrancy while I was in England pleaded that he was a contributor to the Spectator. In fact, it is an honour that everybody seems to be able to get but me.
I had often tried before I went to England to contribute to the great English newspapers. I had never succeeded. But I hoped that while in England itself the very propinquity of the atmosphere, I mean the very contiguity of the surroundings, would render the attempt easier. I tried and I failed. My failure was all the more ignominious in that I had very direct personal encouragement. "By all means," said the editor of the London Times, "do some thing for us while you are here. Best of all, do something in a political way; that's rather our special line." I had already received almost an identical encouragement from the London Morning Post, and in a more qualified way from the Manchester Guardian. In short, success seemed easy.
I decided therefore to take some simple political event of the peculiar kind that always makes a stir in English politics and write it up for these English papers. To simplify matters I thought it better to use one and the same incident and write it up in three different ways and get paid for it three, times. All of those who write for the Press will understand the motive at once. I waited therefore and watched the papers to see if anything interesting might happen to the Ahkoond of Swat or the Sandjak of Novi Bazar or any other native potentate. Within a couple of days I got what I wanted in the following item, which I need hardly say is taken word for word from the Press despatches:
"Perim, via Bombay. News comes by messenger that the Shriek of Kowfat who has been living under the convention of 1898 has violated the modus operandi. He is said to have torn off his suspenders, dipped himself in oil and proclaimed a Jehad. The situation is critical."
Everybody who knows England knows that this is just the kind of news that the English love. On our side of the Atlantic we should be bothered by the fact that we did not know where Kowfat is, nor what was the convention of 1898. They are not. They just take it for granted that Kowfat is one of the many thousand places that they "own," somewhere in the outer darkness. They have so many Kowfats that they cannot keep track of them.
I knew therefore that everybody would be interested in any discussion of what was at once called "the Kowfat Crisis" and I wrote it up. I resisted the temptation to begin after the American fashion, "Shriek sheds suspenders," and suited the writing, as I thought, to the market I was writing for. I wrote up the incident for the Morning Post after the following fashion:
"The news from Kowfat affords one more instance of a painful back-down on the part of the Government. Our policy of spineless supineness is now reaping its inevitable reward. To us there is only one thing to be done. If the Shriek has torn off his suspenders he must be made to put them on again. We have always held that where the imperial prestige of this country is concerned there is no room for hesitation. In the present instance our prestige is at stake: the matter involves our reputation in the eyes of the surrounding natives, the Bantu Hottentots, the Negritos, the Dwarf Men of East Abyssinia, and the Dog Men of Darfur. What will they think of us? If we fail in this crisis their notion of us will fall fifty per cent. In our opinion this country cannot stand a fifty per cent drop in the estimation of the Dog Men. The time is one that demands action. An ultimatum should be sent at once to the Shriek of Kowfat. If he has one already we should send him another. He should be made at once to put on his suspenders. The oil must be scraped off him, and he must be told plainly that if a pup like him tries to start a Jehad he will have to deal with the British Navy. We call the Shriek a pup in no sense of belittling him as our imperial ally but because we consider that the present is no time for half words and we do not regard pup as half a word. Events such as the present, rocking the Empire to its base, make one long for the spacious days of a Salisbury or a Queen Elizabeth, or an Alfred the Great or a Julius Caesar. We doubt whether the present Cabinet is in this class."
Not to lose any time in the coming and going of the mail, always a serious thought for the contributor to the Press waiting for a cheque, I sent another editorial on the same topic to the Manchester Guardian. It ran as follows:
"The action of the Shriek of Kowfat in proclaiming a Jehad against us is one that amply justifies all that we have said editorially since Jeremy Bentham died. We have always held that the only way to deal with a Mohammedan potentate like the Shriek is to treat him like a Christian. The Khalifate of Kowfat at present buys its whole supply of cotton piece goods in our market and pays cash. The Shriek, who is a man of enlightenment, has consistently upheld the principles of Free Trade. Not only are our exports of cotton piece goods, bibles, rum, and beads constantly increasing, but they are more than offset by our importation from Kowfat of ivory, rubber, gold, and oil. In short, we have never seen the principles of Free Trade better illustrated. The Shriek, it is now reported, refuses to wear the braces presented to him by our envoy at the time of his coronation five years ago. He is said to have thrown them into the mud. But we have no reason to suppose that this is meant as a blow at our prestige. It may be that after five years of use the little pulleys of the braces no longer work properly. We have ourselves in our personal life known instances of this, and can speak of the sense of irritation occasioned. Even we have thrown on the floor ours. And in any case, as we have often reminded our readers, what is prestige? If any one wants to hit us, let him hit us right there. We regard a blow at our trade as far more deadly than a blow at our prestige.
"The situation as we see it demands immediate reparation on our part. The principal grievance of the Shriek arises from the existence of our fort and garrison on the Kowfat river. Our proper policy is to knock down the fort, and either remove the garrison or give it to the Shriek. We are convinced that as soon as the Shriek realises that we are prepared to treat him in the proper Christian spirit, he will at once respond with true Mohammedan generosity.
"We have further to remember that in what we do we are being observed by the neighbouring tribes, the Negritos, the Dwarf Men, and the Dog Men of Darfur. These are not only shrewd observers but substantial customers. The Dwarf Men at present buy all their cotton on the Manchester market and the Dog Men depend on us for their soap.
"The present crisis is one in which the nation needs statesmanship and a broad outlook upon the world. In the existing situation we need not the duplicity of a Machiavelli, but the commanding prescience of a Gladstone or an Alfred the Great, or a Julius Caesar. Luckily we have exactly this type of man at the head of affairs."
After completing the above I set to work without delay on a similar exercise for the London Times. The special. excellence of the Times, as everybody knows is its fulness of information. For generations past the Times has commanded a peculiar minuteness of knowledge about all parts of the Empire. It is the proud boast of this great journal that to whatever far away, outlandish part of the Empire you may go, you will always find a correspondent of the Times looking for something to do. It is said that the present proprietor has laid it down as his maxim, "I don't want men who think; I want men who know." The arrangements for thinking are made separately.
Incidentally I may say that I had personal opportunities while I was in England of realising that the reputation of the Times staff for the possession of information is well founded. Dining one night with some members of the staff, I happened to mention Saskatchewan. One of the editors at the other end of the table looked up at the mention of the name. "Saskatchewan," he said, "ah, yes; that's not far from Alberta, is it?" and then turned quietly to his food again. When I remind the reader that Saskatchewan is only half an inch from Alberta he may judge of the nicety of the knowledge involved. Having all this in mind, I recast the editorial and sent it to the London Times as follows:
"The news that the Sultan of Kowfat has thrown away his suspenders renders it of interest to indicate the exact spot where he has thrown them. (See map). Kowfat, lying as the reader knows, on the Kowfat River, occupies the hinterland between the back end of south-west Somaliland and the east, that is to say, the west, bank of Lake P'schu. It thus forms an enclave between the Dog Men of Darfur and the Negritos of T'chk. The inhabitants of Kowfat are a coloured race three quarters negroid and more than three quarters tabloid.
"As a solution of the present difficulty, the first thing required in our opinion is to send out a boundary commission to delineate more exactly still just where Kowfat is. After that an ethnographical survey might be completed."
It was a matter not only of concern but of surprise to me that not one of the three contributions recited above was accepted by the English Press. The Morning Post complained that my editorial was not firm enough in tone, the Guardian that it was not humane enough, the Times that I had left out the latitude and longitude always expected by their readers. I thought it not worth while to bother to revise the articles as I had meantime conceived the idea that the same material might be used in the most delightfully amusing way as the basis of a poem far Punch. Everybody knows the kind of verses that are contributed to Punch by Sir Owen Seaman and Mr. Charles Graves and men of that sort. And everybody has been struck, as I have, by the extraordinary easiness of the performance. All that one needs is to get some odd little incident, such as the revolt of the Sultan of Kowfat, make up an amusing title, and then string the verses together in such a way as to make rhymes with all the odd words that come into the narrative. In fact, the thing is ease itself.
I therefore saw a glorious chance with the Sultan of Kowfat. Indeed, I fairly chuckled to myself when I thought what amusing rhymes could be made with "Negritos," "modus operandi" and "Dog Men of Darfur." I can scarcely imagine anything more excruciatingly funny than the rhymes which can be made with them. And as for the title, bringing in the word Kowfat or some play upon it, the thing is perfectly obvious. The idea amused me so much that I set to work at the poem at once.
I am sorry to say that I failed to complete it. Not that I couldn't have done so, given time; I am quite certain that if I had had about two years I could have done it. The main structure of the poem, however, is here and I give it for what it is worth. Even as it is it strikes me as extraordinarily good. Here it is:
Title ...................... Kowfat Verse One .........................., ............... modus operandi; .........................., .................., Negritos: ....................... P'shu. Verse Two ..................... Khalifate; ............. Dog Men of Darfur: ....................... T'chk.
Excellent little thing, isn't it? All it needs is the rhymes. As far as it goes it has just exactly the ease and the sweep required. And if some one will tell me how Owen Seaman and those people get the rest of the ease and the sweep I'll be glad to put it in.
One further experiment of the same sort I made with the English Press in another direction and met again with failure. If there is one paper in the world for which I have respect and--if I may say it--an affection, it is the London Spectator. I suppose that I am only one of thousands and thousands of people who feel that way. Why under the circumstances the Spectator failed to publish my letter I cannot say. I wanted no money for it: I only wanted the honour of seeing it inserted beside the letter written from the Rectory, Hops, Hants, or the Shrubbery, Potts, Shrops,--I mean from one of those places where the readers of the Spectator live. I thought too that my letter had just the right touch. However, they wouldn't take it: something wrong with it somewhere, I suppose. This is it:
Distressed by these repeated failures, I sank back to a lower level of English literary work, the puzzle department. For some reason or other the English delight in puzzles. It is, I think, a part of the peculiar school-boy pedantry which is the reverse side of their literary genius. I speak with a certain bitterness because in puzzle work I met with no success whatever. My solutions were never acknowledged, never paid for, in fact they were ignored. But I append two or three of them here, with apologies to the editors of the Strand and other papers who should have had the honour of publishing them first.
Can you fold a square piece of paper in such a way that with a single fold it forms a pentagon?
My Solution: Yes, if I knew what a pentagon was.
A and B agree to hold a walking match across an open meadow, each seeking the shortest line. A, walking from corner to corner, may be said to diangulate the hypotenuse of the meadow. B, allowing for a slight rise in the ground, walks on an obese tabloid. Which wins?
My Solution: Frankly, I don't know.
(With apologies to the Strand.)
A rope is passed over a pulley. It has a weight at one end and a monkey at the other. There is the same length of rope on either side and equilibrium is maintained. The rope weighs four ounces per foot. The age of the monkey and the age of the monkey's mother together total four years. The weight of the monkey is as many pounds as the monkey's mother is years old. The monkey's mother was twice as old as the monkey was when the monkey's mother was half as old as the monkey will be when the monkey is three times as old as the monkey's mother was when the monkey's mother was three times as old as the monkey. The weight of the rope with the weight at the end was half as much again as the difference in weight between the weight of the weight and the weight of the monkey. Now, what was the length of the rope?
My Solution: I should think it would have to be a rope of a fairly good length.
In only one department of English journalism have I met with a decided measure of success; I refer to the juvenile competition department. This is a sort of thing to which the English are especially addicted. As a really educated nation for whom good literature begins in the home they encourage in every way literary competitions among the young readers of their journals. At least half a dozen of the well-known London periodicals carry on this work. The prizes run all the way from one shilling to half a guinea and the competitions are generally open to all children from three to six years of age. It was here that I saw my open opportunity and seized it. I swept in prize after prize. As "Little Agatha" I got four shillings for the best description of Autumn in two lines, and one shilling for guessing correctly the missing letters in BR-STOL, SH-FFIELD, and H-LL. A lot of the competitors fell down on H-LL. I got six shillings for giving the dates of the Norman Conquest,--1492 A.D., and the Crimean War of 1870. In short, the thing was easy. I might say that to enter these competitions one has to have a certificate of age from a member of the clergy. But I know a lot of them.