Amazing Scenes: Adventures of a Reptile of the Press (The Fairfax Library, 1987) is a collection of Evan Whitton’s journalism. @EvanWhitton1. Willy-nilly, the pieces amount to a sort of how-to (or how-not-to) do it in various genres: sketch, celeb interview, pattern, travel, sport, politics, the law. One or two are in the style of the “new” journalism: reportage using the techniques of the novel. The book is on a section of a website maintained by Dr Bob Moles, an international authority on miscarriages of justice: netk.net.au/whittonhome.asp .
Who’s doing the jokes?
MY OLD MASTER, Sol Chandler, observed that the first task of the reporter is to interest the customer. Lord Francis Williams put it this way: ‘Newspapers exist to be read. If they fail in that essential, their failure is absolute, whatever other merits they may abundantly possess … The journalist is traditionally an entertainer; he must entertain or find another trade.’
Editorial conferences can thus be quite depressing. A few items on the menu will be inherently interesting, but there is never enough fun, either in life or newspapers, and many events, or non-events, that must be covered offer little more than paralysing boredom.
Still, the motions have to be gone through. For, say, a summit conference, the heavy artillery is wheeled up to take care of the implications for foreign policy, economics. trade, etc.
The editor knows in his heart that such matters are calculated to induce terminal catatonia in his non-specialist customer. So, peering gloomily through his binoculars at the serried ranks of reptiles in the news room, he will ask, if he is prudent: ‘Who’s doing the jokes?’
The term, it should be noted, is a catchall. It includes, certainly, jokes in the literal sense, if any such are happily available, but a good deal more. There are the insignificant details Chandler was always talking about, and you have to try to be the eyes, ears, nose etc. for the interested customer who can’t be present himself.
The task in fact is impossible and one is usually uneasy about the product, not to mention the circumstances, and the logistics of getting the stuff into print.
In the way of things, the job occasionally fell to your correspondent, and most of the pieces in these pages are more or less in that vein.
In spite of the problems of working in this mode, I still find it difficult to forgive Mr Richard Nixon for his failure, by throwing in the towel on 8 August 1974, to submit himself to the impeachment process; Max Suich had just assigned me to do the jokes at what promised to be quite a jolly event.
The earnest reporter will naturally take some care with the first and last paragraphs: they may be all anyone reads. Alas, I felt quite pleased with only a couple.
One was the echo – theft if you insist – of Grahame Greene’s Le Troisieme Homme in the ‘go first’ to the Ryan piece: One Friday in February 1967, 1 got a letter from the man I saw hanged a week before. A fortnight later, the quinella got up: the hangman sent a carping letter.
And the ‘go last’ to The Night of the Hearse:
‘What does it say?’ Peggy asked innocently.
‘“WE PAID OFF THE COPS”, Jack said, ‘by Evan Whitton’, f****ing mongrel bastard.’