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Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Way We Were - With Typewriters

The outstanding British foreign correspondent Richard West died in Deal, Kent, on Saturday, aged 84. The GuardianThe Spectator and The Telegraph have run interesting obituaries - or, in the case of The Spectator, a rehash of a 1989 profile (see the praise from Graham Greene for West's insightful review of The Quiet American).
Used as the prototype of the fictitious freelance journalist hero in the 1973 book Harris in Wonderful, West (Harris) was described as surveying "the contemporary scene with a sort of bemused wonder, conspicuously harmless until he gets near a typewriter".
The Telegraph obituary for West drew a fascinating comment from Adrian Lithgow, who worked with West on the Mail on SundayLithgow, now managing director of George Berkeley Public Relations, worked  for the West Lancs Evening Gazette, Sunday Mercury, Mail on Sunday, Sunday Business and BusinessAge and since 2010 has also been an editor at BastideLife. Lithgrow wrote about West's astonishing skill:
"I remember when West came in to the newsroom of the Mail on Sunday to write an article, sat at an old Remington and proceeded to type. He didn't look up, consult a note, go back to correct himself, but wrote the 1000-word piece without hesitation, repetition or deviation. Got to the end after about 20 minutes, assembled the copy and put it in the in-copy tray and then left without a word to anyone expect a five-minute detour to see the then editor Stewart Steven. And his article appeared in the next edition without any sub-editor's correction. That was doing it in style!"
I'd like to challenge any young would-be journalist today (Jasper?!) to do that:
1. One typewriter.
2. 20 minutes.
3. No hesitating.
4. No consulting notes.
5. 1000 words.
6. No stopping for corrections. No need for corrections later.
Go! (JL: I wouldn't ask you to do something I haven't done myself!)
Perhaps the budding journo could try something else West did: One-time North Country newspaper colleague Michael Frayne (Travels With a Typewriter) recalled that West once wrote an article on a sheep dog trial through the eyes of a sheep.
Richard Leaf West was born in Chelsea, London, on July 18, 1930, the son of Douglas West, a publisher and sometime journalist who was once literary editor of the Daily Mail. He was raised in North America during the World War II years. A reporter and author, Dick West will be best remembered for his coverage of the Vietnam War and Yugoslavia.
Neal Ascherson's The Guardian obituary points out that West claimed “liberal censorship” at home, the precursor of political correctness, was stifling his attempts to report that moral permissiveness – drugs, porn, “radical politics” – were a bigger cause of US defeat than military failure.
Far from being a big boozer by normal journalistic standards, West went for a drink one night in Saigon, woke up the next morning on the edge of a paddy field, thumbed down a lift and asked the driver what was the nearest city. "Singapore, of course" came the reply. Which is about 680 miles from Saigon, as the crow flies.
West started his newspaper career at the Manchester Guardian (where he was assigned to cover the sheep dog trials) and later the Daily Mirror in London. As letters editor at the Mirror, he tried to spice up the pages with letters he wrote himself, including one headed "Why can’t we have a teenage Pope?”, as well as the classified ads page with “Beaters wanted for budgie shoot in West Midlands”.
West soon got involved in far more serious matters and went on to work in Eastern Europe, Southern Africa, Central America and Indochina. He was married to a former colleague of mine, the Irish journalist Mary Kenny (who gave the world that wonderful Private Eye expression, "Discussing Ugandan Affairs"). In his later life West produced biographies of Daniel Defoe and Chaucer. He once wrote a controversial book (River of Tears) about Rio Tinto Zinc. Far from being offended, an Australian director bought up 200 copies to give to his executives. The book also inspired Harris in Wonderland.

1 comment:

Jasper Lindell said...

Now, that's the sort of journalist I look up to. Whether it's possible to do it these days is something I hope to test.

And as for the challenge, I'm thinking I should give it a go! (I don't have high hopes, of course.) I'll have a crack and report the results in a future blogpost.