More column inches for your air miles

'Children write "What I Did in my Holidays "because they have to, journalists because it pays'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I remember once John Higgins, late arts editor of The Times, telling me that he would be away for a couple of weeks in Buenos Aires or somewhere equally Latin American. As he was my boss at the time, commissioning the jazz reviews I wrote for The Times, this was obviously good news for me, because it meant I could choose what to write about in his absence. Though looking back, I can see that I more or less chose what to write about when he was there - he knew nothing about jazz and cared little for it, and let me review most of the people I nominated.

I remember once John Higgins, late arts editor of The Times, telling me that he would be away for a couple of weeks in Buenos Aires or somewhere equally Latin American. As he was my boss at the time, commissioning the jazz reviews I wrote for The Times, this was obviously good news for me, because it meant I could choose what to write about in his absence. Though looking back, I can see that I more or less chose what to write about when he was there - he knew nothing about jazz and cared little for it, and let me review most of the people I nominated.

His thing was opera. He was a suave man who always looked as if he would rather be at the opera than at work, whereas I was a dishevelled, windswept figure looking as if I was just coming home from Ronnie Scott's at 1am.

"What takes you to Buenos Aires?" I asked.

"Oh, there's a new production there of Hans Werner Henze's opera Archie und Mehitabel," he said, "and Ursula Mannheim's taking the part of Mehitabel which she's never done before, so I thought we ought to cover it..."

I have, obviously, made up the details to protect the fact that I can't remember the real ones, but opera fans will recognise the kind of blarney used by opera writers. They really think that if an opera has a cast change, it is news. It's a bit like football, really, where if Luis Figo moves from Barcelona to Real Madrid as the new chief tenor, football fans genuinely think it's world-shattering. So off went John Higgins to Buenos Aires for a fortnight, and duly there appeared a piece in The Times about this footling opera cast change in Buenos Aires.

And a little while later there appeared a piece in the travel section on the delights of travelling in Argentina, by John Higgins, at which point I became a little less naive about journalism. I realised for the first time that all writers try to squeeze as much out of everything as they can. Higgins had got a flight to Latin America, a hotel and a free opera trip out of The Times, and had then written about this free jaunt for the same paper - and got paid for it again!

A little while later I learnt the same lesson a different way. There had been an underground strike in London, and I had started bicycling to Punch every day (from Notting Hill to Fleet Street). It was a most instructive experience, insofar as I found it quicker, and cheaper, by bike, and when the strike was over, I never went back underground. But the lesson came from Alan Coren at the office. "If Basil Boothroyd had been bicycling to work in London, Kington," he said, "he'd have got two articles out of it by now. You haven't done one. You're a disgrace to the trade..."

What he was saying, and Higgins would have backed him all the way, was that schoolchildren write "What I Did in my Holidays" because they have to, but journalists do it because it pays well.

It's not just journalists, either. Almost all travel writing is "What I Did in my Holidays" on a larger scale. A lot of Bill Bryson is "Where I Walked on my Holidays". Peter Mayle's book was "What I Did to my Holiday Home in France". Michael Palin has been doing "What I Did on my Round-the-World Holiday" for a long time...

And yet the most single-minded example of holiday writing I ever came across was not from a journalist at all, but from a schoolboy. I never met him, but he was a previous pupil of our English teacher at school, Mr Sylvester.

"He came from the west of Ireland, this boy," Mr Sylvester told us, "and his one passion in life was lobster fishing. That's all he ever wanted to talk about. Unfortunately, it's all he ever wanted to write about as well, which wasn't too bad if you set him an essay on what he did in his holidays, or life in the west of Ireland, but was fatal if he had to write about economic theory or some moral problem into which lobsters fitted only with difficulty. He just refused to write about anything that wasn't lobster fishing. On lobsters, he was brilliant. When he went off to do his English A-level paper, I knew he'd be fine if he could find a title he could link lobster fishing to, but disastrous otherwise. However, he came out wreathed with smiles and waving the exam paper.

" 'Guess what subject they gave us, sir!' "

" 'Tell me...' "

" 'Still Waters Run Deep - Discuss'!"

Comments