Rocking the sock drawer of history with Mott the Hoople

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LIKE MANY journalists, I suspect, I find it hard to throw old newspapers away. I can't quite pin down why this is. It's not that we think newspapers are repositories of truth - quite the opposite; more that the longer you keep a newspaper, the more interesting it gets, the more period flavour and redolence it acquires.

We have all experienced that frisson you get from finding an old newspaper lining a drawer and dipping into it long enough to rediscover names you had totally forgotten (Francis Pym, Hugh Scanlon, Zola Budd, Mott the Hoople) and being struck for a moment by the evanescence of fame. If you think about it for a moment, you then realise that all the names which crowd our newspaper headlines today will also be gone tomorrow, or at least lining old sock drawers: Mandelson, Pinochet, Jospin, Hurley, Madonna, Oasis, Chris Evans, will all come peeping up from under the fit-all-foot- size socks and underpants, and we will say, "Who on earth were they?" Whereas it will take longer for us to look at our underpants and wonder who Calvin Klein or C H Ilprufe was...

I have recently been disposing of some of the older newspapers in my collection, and it is wonderful to contemplate what we thought important in days gone by. Some things never change, of course - "England's batsmen fail again" and "Eurosceptics strike back" -- but other things go, never to return. The Lima siege, for instance. You remember that? Senor Fujimori, president of Peru, taking charge of the 54th day of the siege which turned the embassy in Lima into the longest diplomatic party of all time...

But the thing about the Lima siege was that it went on so long that people got bored with it even before it was ended. It had reached sock drawer status in its own lifetime. That was bad. A terrorist group should never stage an event that exhausts its publicity potential before it is over. The Lima siege might be going on still, for all we know or care. In fact, it's hard to know why we ever got interested in the first place, as nobody we knew was involved and it's hard to get worked up about the safety of diplomats you do know, let alone the ones you don't.

Other faded headlines flash past. "Outrage over Crash film" ... "O J Simpson trial to start next week" ... "David Willetts resigns" ....

Let's stop there for a moment. Who was David Willetts? Why did he resign? How did it embarrass John Major? Who was John Major?

The bitter truth, at least as far as politicians are concerned, is that they reach sock drawer status quicker than anyone. We groan now at the thought of having once had to sit through Mike Yarwood imitating Fred Peart, but the point is that although most of us still remember who Mike Yarwood was, nobody has any idea who Fred Peart was.

Nothing vanishes faster than the importance of party politics. That is one of the reasons I enjoy reading the International Herald Tribune. It contains very little about British party politics. It hardly admits to the existence of Peter Mandelson, Matthew Parris, David Blunkett, Alastair Campbell or anyone like that. It has applied the test of history overnight and instantly eliminated people who take years to vanish in the British press. It has an instant sock drawer effect.

Some of the items I have found in these old papers have a poignant effect, like the splash article shortly before Diana's death which had the headline: "Why Diana is now a PR disaster" and went on to say that, unless something dramatic happened to change it, her image was doomed to spiral down and down. Well, something did happen, and as Gore Vidal said of Truman Capote's death, it was a great career move, but it also reminds us how different was the treatment given to Diana before she died and after she was sanctified.

But the most thought-provoking item I have found on my trawl through yesterday's stories was actually something from March 1997, as follows: "Warrant For Galtieri Over `Dirty War' Killings - A Spanish judge issued an international arrest warrant for the former Argentine military president, Leopoldo Galtieri, for his alleged role in the killing of three Spaniards during Argentina's `dirty war'. Baltazar Garzon, who is investigating the disappearance of 300 Spaniards in Argentina between 1976 and 1983, said he was asking Interpol to take Mr Galtieri into custody if he leaves his homeland..."

If only I had taken notice of that last March, and drawn the correct conclusions, I could have seen the Pinochet thing coming, and would have had a major scoop. Well, at least I could have lined my sock drawer with my own story.