Miles Kington Remembered: Heard the one about the tone-deaf professor?

So familiar did he become on the university music scene that he became president of a music society and spent many miserable hours listening to the stuff
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The Independent Online

(25 August 1999)

There are plenty of books giving advice to journalists and reporters, but not many telling editors how to do it. In fact, I had never come across one at all until this week, when I met a reference to a book called Reporting, editing and authorship: practical hints for beginners in literature. And this is what the author says about how a beginner should run a Fleet Street daily. See what you think.

"The principal rule in editing a paper is to insist upon every line being readable. The public want no solid cleverness, no prosy compilations, however good in their object; they require amusement. Men will read an 'Extraordinary Discovery in California' who would contemptuously pass over long speeches and dull leaders. With the vast flow of news that now comes in there is an increasing impatience of long accounts – a constant tendency to condense everything."

Amusement... impatience with longwindedness... soundbites rather than speeches... vast flow of news... It all sounds very modern, doesn't it? In fact it was written in 1873, by Richard Jefferies, the Victorian countryside chronicler, in his first published book, based on his experience as a local reporter. And I would never have been aware of it if I had not reopened John Chandler's Small Talk In Wiltshire, one of my favourite browsing books.

John Chandler is a young archivist, based in Wiltshire, who has spent his life in dusty local archives, discovering long-forgotten diaries, journals, newspapers, pamphlets, magazines and so on. Anyone who has sampled such memoirs when reprinted will know that although the good bits are always good, the boring bits outweigh them and you eventually give up, wishing that someone had filleted out the good bits and put them all together.

Well, that is what John Chandler likes doing, and that is why his books generally are a joy – a string of wonderful nuggets from the past. For instance, in Small Talk I also rediscovered a story about a Victorian farmer in Cherhill who was having firewood stolen, and decided to find the culprit by inserting a small amount of gunpowder in a chunk of wood. The wood was duly stolen, and "shortly after, the report went round the village that a cooking-pot was mysteriously blown off the fire at a house in Green Lane. The farmer then knew where his wood was going."

Then there is the story of the two Wiltshire highwaymen operating in 1782, from a Victorian scrap book.

"Wednesday evening three coaches were stopt between Devizes and Marlborough by two highwaymen. There being no passengers in the two first, they desired the coachmen to lend them a shilling each, for they were quite broke down, and they would pay them well for it another night. From the third coach they took about six pounds."

Whether they ever paid the coachmen back is not revealed. Whether there is any truth in such stories is also doubtful.

But such is the charm of these stories that we want to believe them, and it is quite extraordinary how even journalists, who know better than anyone how untrustworthy newspapers can be, believe what cuttings files tell them.

Here's a modern example. Someone once told me that Malcolm Muggeridge went to interview a Cambridge professor in the 1930s and, feeling that the interview was a little thin, added a few harmless, invented details such as that the professor was mad keen on music and very active in musical appreciation circles. This detail got stuck in the cuttings files and started being repeated in profiles of the man, despite the truth, which was that he was tone deaf.

Because of this newspaper-concocted reputation, the professor started getting invitations to musical events, and never dared refuse. So familiar did he become on the university music scene that finally, still tone deaf, he became president of a prestigious Cambridge music society and spent many miserable hours listening to the stuff – all because of one falsehood in the cuttings file.

Whether there is any truth in this moral and uplifting story, I have no idea. If any readers can supply me with evidence to support it, I would be glad to hear from them, though if they can disprove it, I would rather they kept quiet.

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