Monday, December 22, 2008

The best book about journalism - ever

That's how Phillip Knightley described
A crooked sixpence now actually available, 47 years after it was pulped.

I have actually held it, but never been able to read it. The legendary journalist Murray Sayle put his only copy into my hand in the little village he lived in out of Tokyo in the year 2000.

"This is my novel about journalism," he told me, or something to that effect. "But it is the only copy I have." And with that he took it back, perhaps wisely, given my prediliction for mislaying things.

It was pulped because the real-life equivalent of one of the minor characters in it threatened to sue for libel. The surviving copies become collectors items.

Five decades on that person has died, and the book is back in print. Apparently better than The Front Page on which many movies have been based, it itself was going to be a movie, but the libel threat killed that.

This article in the Sydney Morning Herald explains the history.

I've ordered my copy from Amazon UK - but they seem to have only 9 other copies left.

But other outlets seem to be selling copies online - type in Crooked Sixpence and Murray Sayle into Google and you'll probably find them.

Below the fold is a real treat - an extract.

But first some words about Murray. Genius would be a fair description, also: a total intellectual completely without bullshit, a tireless investigator with a keen eye, and an artist with the pen.

Murray Sayle is a genrous mentor and a great friend. And he has happened to be in just about all the right places at the right times - Ern MalleyVietnam, Bloody Sunday, Ché Guevara, `Philby', the shooting down of KL007 in 1983, Japan as it came to terms with its past, etc.

An editor of the Sydney University student newspaper before heading overseas, he never lost his Australianess. On returning home he was last year was awarded an honourary doctorate by Sydney University, 64 years after leaving the university without graduating.

The piece of writing he is most proud of is Did the Bomb End the war?, in The New Yorker, July 31, 1995.  It makes a persuasive case that it did not.

Anyway, here's the treat. And consider buying the book....

‘Tell me about [your branch of journalism],’ said the girl. ‘I’m fascinated.’

‘I don’t believe that either,’ said O’Toole. ‘But you asked for it. You have to understand that newspapers are all, more or less, in two distinct kinds of business.

There’s the intelligence side. You know, meat will be dearer tomorrow, the president of Peru just shot himself, bond-holders beware. That sort of thing’s supposed to be true. The other side’s the one the money’s in.’

‘That’s what you’re in.’

‘Right. It’s called human interest, and it’s really a branch of show business. Non-stop vaudeville, changed every day, and always leave them laughing. If you can write revue sketches and begging letters and you can clean up dirty jokes, you’ve got what it takes. The only difficult part about it is to get members of the public to take part in your productions.’

‘This is the side that doesn’t have to be true.’

‘Not in the pedestrian, literal sense, no. But it has to be true within a set of conventions called “a nose for news”. All women under fifty-five are attractive. All Frenchmen are hair dressers. Every time an aeroplane crashes someone had a dream warning them not to go, a broken doll was found in the wreckage, and priests gave absolution to the dying. That’s what people want to read, so that’s what I write. It’s of no importance that the mill-girl doesn’t exist, except that it saves me the trouble of convincing some deluded little girl that the things that have to happen to her really did happen. It also saves my employer some money.’

‘You really despise it, under your big tough act, don’t you, James?’

‘You may be right about my act,’ said O’Toole. ‘But you’re quite wrong about my attitude. Most of the time, I love it. It’s got the warm friendliness of clean, uncompromising dis honesty. None of your barrow-boys polishing up the apples on the front of the stall. Mind you, I’ve got to admit that everyone I ever knew who was in a dirty racket said exactly the same thing: what I like about this game is it’s good, clean dirt.’

‘But it’s such a waste of ability.’

‘Oh, I don’t know. We’re entertaining people, too, and T S Eliot would use exactly the same line of defence for his racket. It can be a very congenial atmosphere to work in. The one thing you don’t have to be is sincere.’

‘Except with the public.’

‘I forgot them. Around the office there are one or two people you have to keep a straight face with, of course, but everyone else knows the whole thing is balls. And they know you know it, too, and so on.’

‘But it must be terribly unsatisfying, isn’t it?’

‘You have to remember we’ve all got something wrong with us,’ said O’Toole. ‘Booze, wrong class, hungry for power, can’t do anything else. There’s always a psychological club-foot or a nasty secret somewhere.’

‘What’s wrong with you, for instance?’

‘Oh, I’m lazy. I need some bastard cracking the whip over me before I can write a line and then some other bastard telling me what great stuff it is as I go along. I like the sensation of power, phoney as the power is. Also, I’m an honest man.’

‘Making up stories about mill-girls?’

‘I’m too honest for business, let’s put it that way. I don’t have to convince myself people like their milk watered.’

‘Couldn’t you be just ordinary old-fashioned honest without all these excuses?’

‘You’re making me uneasy,’ said O’Toole. ‘Tell me some more about yourself, if the subject hasn’t become irrelevant by now.’

I can't wait to read my copy.