Some swinging truths delivered by a stranger on a train

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The Independent Online
'I FIRST saw the truth,' said the old man sitting opposite me in the train, 'when I was working in Fleet Street a long time ago.' This extraordinary, unlikely statement caught my attention immediately.

'I thought that people who worked in Fleet Street had extreme disrespect for the truth,' I said. 'All journalists are cynics, are they not?'

'Oh yes,' he said, 'but that does not mean they do not respect the truth. In fact, they respect the truth so much that they do not waste it on their newspaper readers. They keep it for their private conversations in the pub afterwards. The story a journalist is not allowed to print is always more interesting than what he was allowed to get away with. Mark you, a journalist also thinks that the way he got a story is generally much more interesting than the story itself, which is very seldom true.'

'And was this the truth that you discovered?'

'No, no. The truth I discovered is much more universal than that. And although I discovered the truth while working in Fleet Street, it was not a journalist from whom I learnt it.'

'From whom, then?'

'From a newspaper design consultant.'

'A design consultant? What on earth would a design consultant know about truth? Beauty, maybe, but truth? A design man is just a packager of other people's goods.'

'Well, maybe some truth lies more in the packaging than the product. Anyway, this man was called in to redesign the look of our paper. There wasn't much wrong with it, but the editor thought we needed a change. Or the proprietor thought we needed a change. Or the proprietor's wife thought we needed a change. Anyway, the design man was sent for, and he hummed and hah-ed a lot, and did dummy designs, and moved things around, and moved them back again, and put the backs up of all the department heads by suggesting that their favourite features be lost . . .'

'Is that the truth you were talking about? That if you threaten to get rid of people's favourite things - and it's only a false threat - you can get what you really want done by removing the false threat?'

'If you would just let me get on with this, I might be able to finish what I have to tell you before my station comes,' said the old man with dignity. I laid a finger on my lip to signify that I would never speak again uninvited.

'I bumped into the design man one day and I asked him how he was getting on. 'Oh, fine,' he said. Would he be making major changes? 'No', he said, 'just the usual ones.' 'What do you mean, the usual ones?' I said. And then he told me the truth.'

There was a long pause. I was about to press him for an answer when I remembered my promise and I realised that he was only indulging in a dramatic pause.

'What he told me was that if you found lots of rules in the newspaper, you took them out. But if the paper was full of white space, you put lots of rules in.'

'Rules?' I said.

'Black lines,' he said. 'Black lines, separating the pieces. Black borders, lining the pieces. Like scaffolding. What the man said was that if a paper had a nice, open, airy look, you stuffed it full of black shapes, and vice versa. Neither was good or bad in itself. What was good was the change-over. His change was always approved of. There is no such thing as progress, he said, only change, and there's no such thing as change, only the swing of a pendulum.'

'And was that the truth?'

'Yes,' he said.

I frowned; I didn't feel I was getting my money's worth. He opened his mouth again.

'You would be surprised how much this explains,' he said. 'For instance, it explains why people have started eating sorbets just before the main course. The pendulum should swing from sweet to savoury and back again throughout a meal, but it doesn't - in fact, we eat all the savoury things first, and then eat the sweet at the end. The introduction of the sorbet reintroduces the swing of the pendulum.'

'Is that why the French have the cheese last?'

'Indubitably. It also explains why we suddenly have a record called Eric Clapton Unplugged. People are so sick of amplified instruments that the pendulum has swung again, back to the acoustic sound. It also explains why the country is feeling so unhappy and out-of-sorts at the moment. Our morale depends on a swing of the pendulum between the two major parties. It hasn't happened for far too long. It also explains why Peter Mayle - oh, here's my station] Goodnight]'

And he got out, and I never met him again, and I never found out why Peter Mayle . . . I don't suppose I ever shall.