Nicholas Lezard: Read between the lines, Arnie

The point about a concealed stunt is for as many people as possible to see it

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Arnold Schwarzenegger, we learn, has joined the ranks of those who have used the initial letters of a document to spell out a very rude phrase – a reply to a Democratic assemblyman who had heckled him received a veto whose initial letters on the left-hand margin spelled out "Fuck you".

Risky though this procedure is – often people fail to notice the message – it does have honourable precedents. Newspapers, are, of course, the best forum for this kind of thing; the whole point about such concealed stunts is that they should be seen by as many people as possible. It may be, though, that no one notices, and that the writer's subtlety is wasted – how does one alert the reader, let alone the recipient of the insult, to the fact that such a message has been concealed?

Editors pose another risk, in that they are anxious to maintain the high moral tone that traditionally obtains on the pages of a notionally respectable paper; they are, indeed, paid to be vigilant about this kind of thing. If subliminal vulgarity is allowed on to their hallowed pages, does this not sully and undermine the noble principles of informed comment?

Sadly, though, every so often something childish slips through the net. After all, writers are capricious, puerile creatures, often motivated by malice, and the urge to pull off this kind of stunt, which allows them to demonstrate their facility while also settling scores, once conceived, is hard to repress. Naughty, yes; but once the embittered hack gets going, the process is hard to stop – they proceed with a kind of insane glee, and indeed the very discipline of composing a piece to conform to a predetermined grid can actually aid composition, prevent said hack from rambling, or slapping down the first thing that enters his head.

And it has to be said that another duty of the columnist is to entertain; it's to be looked on as something like a crossword puzzle. Readers who notice these things can feel justifiably pleased with themselves, and, once the trick has been spotted, it stops them from having to read the article in its entirety; a 550-word piece can, essentially, be summed up in one pithy phrase of, say, 17 letters.

Stephen Pollard's final column in the Daily Express contained a memorable message to the new proprietor who had unwisely sacked him. Each initial letter, when strung together, spelled out: "Fuck you, Desmond".

How pathetic, you might think; yet how rewarding for the writer concerned. Ordering one's phrases in such a way is a demonstration of the journalist's skill, a rebuke to the very idea that they can be silenced or reined in by those nominally in control of them (and it has to be said that Pollard's message, concealed within a piece of otherwise dry reading about organic farming, of all things, is a model example of the genre, and should be taught as such in all schools of journalism).

Like it or not, such pranks will continue to be pulled off as long as people use the printed word, and as long as there are grievances to be aired. Every dog has his day.

n.lezard@independent.co.uk

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