Advice well past its heed-by date

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The Independent Online
For the past few weeks in our village there has been an outbreak of premature senility. People have gone around humming songs from the war and talking through wartime recipes. They are, of course, not truly deranged, just partly, because they are all members of the committee organising the VE Day celebrations, and if it is true that some survivors of the war are still suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms, then we may well see members of VE Day committees suffering the same sort of thing for years to come.

Why do they all look so troubled in mind? Well, organising things is horrible at the best of times, but it can't be much fun trying to find out exactly how bouncy castles were powered in 1945 and then finding out that they didn't even have the blasted things then. It can't be much fun committing yourself to organising an exhibition of wartime artefacts and then finding how few of them are left. (I offered our local organiser my two prize possessions bequeathed to me by my father from his time in the Royal Welch Fusiliers - a genuine copy of Mein Kampf and a startlingly large swastika flag, about six feet by eight, which he swiped from some town hall in Germany in 1945 - but our organiser thought people might look askance at the swastika flag as not being the sort of thing that was widely displayed on the original VE Day. As for Mein Kampf, he asked somewhat sniffily if I had the same thing in English ... )

But what makes it even more galling, if you are organising your own village or community VE Day party, is the way articles come out in every newspaper a day or two beforehand called ''How to throw a street party!" or ''Twenty ways to make VE Day go with a swing!" What on earth is the use of telling people how to organise a street party two days before it happens? Don't they know that all this has to be organised weeks, months in advance? Why on earth do the press throw advice at the public when it is far too late?

And yet this is a besetting obsession of journalists, this urge to give advice when it is past its heed-by date. Have you noticed that the day before the Budget comes out every newspaper has an article entitled ''What we want the Chancellor to do tomorrow"? Does the Chancellor really pick up the paper the day before the Budget and pick up some handy hints, saying to himself: ''Ah, petrol and fags, I'd forgotten them"?

How do you think, to put it another way, Winston Churchill would have felt if the papers had been filled with articles the day before D-Day headed: ''How I would invade Normandy!" or ''Where you should land to catch the Germans napping", or even ''Don't do it, Mr Churchill, you'll never beat the Boche"? I think there is a small chance that the politest reply he might have growled would be: ''Well, if you were going to give me advice, you might at least have offered it at the planning stage, not now

I suppose the only rational explanation for this rush of belated advice is that editors feel they have to do something on VE Day parties, and can't think of anything else. Hence conversations like this:

Editor: Jim, do us 800 words on the history of VE Day street parties, will you?

Jim: Not much point. There is no history. There haven't been any since 1945.

Editor: Well, that means people have forgotten how to throw them then. So do a piece on how to organise one.

Jim: But it's only three days away! Far too late for that!

Editor: Just go and do it.

I think a journalist's defence would be that if you did print a piece on how to organise a street party at the right time - three months ago - anyone actually running a street party might thank you, but the vast majority of the readers would think you were mad. Nevertheless, when I am dictator of Britain, I shall be introducing some pretty stringent press censorship rules, and the first one shall be that there shall be no articles:

- telling the Chancellor how to do a Budget;

- telling the Prime Minister who to put in his Cabinet or when to have a reshuffle;

- telling anyone how to pick a touring cricket team;

- telling the United Nations how the editor of the paper would have solved the former Yugoslavia problem;

- by Edward Heath, telling anyone how to do anything;

- telling the Oscar people who they should give prizes to;

- or the Nobel people come to that;

- telling people to stop the spread of the Murdoch empire;

- by David Mellor on opera;

- or anything else;

- telling the National Lottery who to give its paltry 5p in the pound to ... unless the advice offered comes well before the event. Full list on request.

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