THE FADING MARGIN: serial 29Posted: July 7, 2013
Fleet Street came onto the horizon one afternoon in late September. A friend of long standing who had moved from London to New York, but had returned to Europe for a holiday, had come for a short visit. We had spent a morning on the beach before climbing back up to the cottage for a late and vinously indulgent lunch, followed inevitably by a long siesta. Some time before the village had stirred to life again there was an insistent knocking at the door. Half asleep still, dishevelled, I put a towel round my waist and went downstairs to be confronted by a complete stranger who nevertheless knew who I was. He was sorry to be disturbing me, he said, but he had been given my name by a mutual friend in London who had suggested that he look me up. “Disturbing” hardly covered the offence of the uninvited and unexpected visit at such an hour and I must have cut him short with an almost unrecognisable attempt at civility. Nevertheless, there was such an attempt in my own cursory apology and suggestion that he come back at about eight in the evening, when I would be more awake and we could have a drink. Chastened, he went away and I returned to the shuttered cool of the upstairs room.
Thus, the circumstances of my first hearing of the Sunday Telegraph. Richard, the intruder of the afternoon, joined us for supper. A freelance journalist, he said that he was hoping to join the City pages of a new Sunday paper that was being launched early the following year by the Daily Telegraph. I pricked up my ears. He knew the name of the editor designate and gave it to me. Next morning, I wrote to Donald McLachlan, care of the Daily Telegraph, saying I supposed that he would in due course be appointing a travel correspondent for the new paper, stating what I believed to be my credentials (which included having been published by the Spectator), and offering myself for the post. A week or two later I received a letter from a Ralph Thackeray, who signed himself Features Editor, suggesting that on my next visit to London I might care to give him a call.
Funds were running perilously low and the cost of a return flight between Palma and Heathrow was not trivial, but it seemed to me a moment for not hanging about either. Less than another week found me facing the letter-writer at his desk behind the great clock that hung (and still hangs) above the pavement in Fleet Street. It was still early days for the new paper, he said. Except for two or three of the key editorial chairs, the lists were still open and likely to remain so for a while. I gave him copies of the Spectator and other pieces of mine that had been published and we talked about Mallorca and Robert Graves. When I confessed that I had been trying without much success to finish a novel he smiled wryly and said that he knew the feeling: he had himself tried to write one about the war in Italy, where he had served, but had never got further than chapter five. After half an hour or so I left with the clear impression that I might at best have joined a bevy of candidates for what would unquestionably be a most sought-after appointment. Thanking me for coming, Thackeray said that he would let me know as soon as there had been any developments, which might not be for “a couple of weeks”.
Back in Deya, I worried about how well or badly I might have done. My hopes were sky-high, but far from counting my chickens it was a time to be contemplating my dwindling resources and asking myself what I would do if the Fleet Street bid should fail. Either way, it would mean the end of lotus-eating in Mallorca. Sadly, and not a little apprehensively, I began to wind up my affairs, warned the temporary occupant of my London flat that I would be back no later than the end of November and wrote to Ralph Thackeray to say that after that date it would be my London address that would find me.
So the Mallorcan idyll came to its close. Idyll it was. When before, when ever again, the quiet, the viscerally good smell of baking bread, the lemon tree on the terrace, the scent of the pines, the cicadas, the sun, the sea at the end of the hillside track, the food and wine with such zest and innocence of pretension, the time to work or swim or drink or sleep as only fancy willed, the laughter and the love of friends? Summer had gone. At the bodega on the Palma road the sale of tarragona had diminished to a trickle compared with the spate of July and August. At the restaurant on the Cala it was no longer necessary to supplement overnight catches in nearby waters with crack-of-dawn deliveries from the fish markets in Palma or Soller. On the beach itself there was little competition for what were judged to be the best spots to instal oneself for the day. The promising young men and their girls of the group photograph were once again fetching out black ties and long frocks for dinner engagements in London and the home counties and grieving for their fast-fading tans.
I had been back in London for almost three weeks before I heard from the Features Editor of the embryonic Sunday Telegraph again. He had been glad to have met me in October and had enjoyed reading the Spectator pieces. No firm decision regarding the travel appointment had yet been made, but if I was still interested it might be advantageous for me to meet the editor designate, and perhaps I would be good enough to telephone himself, Ralph Thackeray, with a view to making a suitable appointment. Still interested! Night and day, I had thought of little else: now philosophically prudent, rehearsing disappointments past and the means by which I had survived them; now fantasising that everything had worked out as intended by an intelligent and friendly fate and that I had a weekly, not a once-in-a-blue-moon byline and could stop scanning the Situations Vacant columns of the Times.
Interested? I telephoned the same morning that the letter arrived and forty-eight hours later was sitting with Ralph Thackeray on one side of a large desk in a sparsely-furnished room and a schoolmasterly man reminiscent of the Provost of Worcester College on the other. Which was curious: McLachlan had indeed been a master at Winchester College and both he and J.C. Masterman had been in wartime Naval Intelligence. We talked briefly about Oxford (he had been at Magdalen) and what I had been doing since, covering much the same ground that I had already covered with Thackeray. Almost offhandedly, it seemed, he came to what he called the appointment of “travel correspondent” (‘Travel Editor’ was a term not then current in Fleet Street) and volunteered the supposition that I would see myself doing it much as it was done on the Sunday Times and the Observer. Since he could not have known that I happened to have strong opinions on that precise subject, it was a remark owing more to a lack of genuine interest, I thought, than to an intention to provoke me. All the same, given the views that I held, provoke me it did. Not really, I said: in fact, I was hoping to do it as differently as possible from those two examples. “Oh!”, said McLachlan, a touch indignantly, I thought. “How so?”
I wonder still what might have happened if his telephone had not rung before I could reply, so that after listening intently for a few moments to whomever it was on the other end of the line he had looked up, apologised to Thackeray and me for the interruption and effectively dismissed us. Back in his own office, the Features Editor was apologetic in his turn. He was sorry that it was all turning into a bit of a cliffhanger, but Donald McLachlan himself was under a lot of pressure. Meanwhile, it might be worth my while letting him, Thackeray, have a note briefly embodying what I had obviously been about to say when the interruption had cut me short: how I saw myself handling travel if not in the way that it was handled by the Sunday Times and the Observer, and so on. I went back to the flat, spent all that evening and half of next morning in composition and typing and delivered the result to the reception desk at 135, Fleet Street before lunch.
In the yellowing, increasingly brittle and exiguous archive that I still possess relevant to my Fleet Street years I find the following memorandum, dated 15th October 1959.
THE EDITORIAL PRESENTATION OF TRAVEL
“For it (travel writing) is a literature not of facts, but of impressions. And yet these impressions may be facts of the highest order.”
The quotation that I dare to take as my maxim for the task that you set me is from the introduction to the 1943 Everyman edition of Alexander Kinglake’s classic of travel writing, Eothen.“Reader service” is today the almost universal editorial approach to such travel journalism as exists in the popular press. By far the larger part of it consists of so-called “objective” accounts of places, activities and facilities: whether the beach at – say – Cannes or Catanzaro consists of sand or of pebbles, whether the swimming is safe or dangerous, what the hotels are like. Assuming, as it does, the ability of readers to make use of the information and opinions that such articles contain, this seems to me a fundamentally wrong approach. It is probably safe to say that most people would like to travel if they had the money, the time and the physical ability to do so, but the great majority of any national newspaper’s readers (which is also to say the majority of the population at large) does not at any given time have the ability to travel abroad. They like reading about travel, but not if what is written is obviously intended for the practical benefit of someone who at that given moment does not happen to be themselves.
To be read (and therefore to be of any use to anyone) travel writing must be readable. I may eagerly read an account – say – of walking in the Rockies if (more likely than not in fantasy rather than fact) it allows me to identify myself with the experience. I am likely to resent it if, by largely consisting of ‘practical’ information, it excludes me from any chance of vicarious pleasure. In short, the more ‘factual’ and ‘practical’ a travel piece is, the more it rubs the reader’s nose in his or her present inability to get up and go.
In the very broadest sense of the term, to be readable, travel writing (as opposed to conventional guidebook material) should be entertaining : “a good read”. ‘Objective’ accounts of things done and seen are rarely entertaining. It follows that a travel columnist ought not to be content with anything less than an attempt always to write well. It is no good telling the reader (as a recent travel piece did) that “Greece is one of the most beautiful countries in the world”, or that “a journey through the Rockies is a never-to-be-forgotten experience”. It is futile to declare that “The view from the top was breath-taking”. All such statements shirk the writer’s proper duty. If Greece is beautiful, the writer’s observations, impressions and prose must themselves seek to convey beauty. If the journey was “memorable”, the account of it must be equally worth remembering. If the view was “breath-taking”, then the reporter must strive to take the reader’s breath away with the force of his description. If he succeeds in these objectives the reader will know a lot more about the subject of the piece than he did before.
Ten days after Christmas the briefest of possible letters from Donald McLachlan formally offered me the job.