Alex Massie

Annals of Leader Writing

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Newspapers are comfortable places to work. True, you find yourself working with a disturbing number of misfits and socially inadequate neurotics. But there are compensations. For instance, there are few more comfortable berths in any trade than settling down to life in a newspaper leader writing office. Other pleasing stations - foreign editor, golf correspondent, restaurant critic - suddenly seem unpleasantly bustling, tarnished by contact with the great unwashed and the world outside the office.

Granted, there are times when, as the old saw has it, the editorial writers wait until the battle's over before slinking down form the hills to stab the wounded. It is not often a position that demands much courage. There is comfort, too, in anonymity.

Most editorials are easy to write too. After all, they grumble and chunter that something must be done even if the exact nature of that something often leaves something to be desired or, just as frequently, is not specified at all. In more serious cases, depending upon editorial and propriatary prejudice, there's good sport to be enjoyed when the occasion calls for the blunderbuss rather than the rapier. Denunciation and the high moral ground are the leader writers' stock-in-trade. Then there is the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger school of leader writing; this too offers amusing possibilities for wry resignation.

That's the easy part. More tricky are the editorials that demand lightness of touch, or whimsy. Typically these may concern abstract subjects or even, gasp, concepts. They aren't really necessary, but custom demands a lighter third editorial and custom must be honoured.

Worst of all, are the subjects that seem to demand a ponderous solemnity. I wince, for instance, at the recollection of an appallingly pompous, witless, leader I once wrote on the occasion of the death of Gordon Brown's first child. It would have been better by far to have avoided the matter entirely rather than print the sententious guff I produced that Saturday afternoon.

All of which, then, is by way of inviting you to enjoy this New York Times editorial celebrating the Fourth of July and the advent of "summer".

The early vegetables in the garden are over, and now is about the time when the lettuce thinks about bolting. The weeds along the lake edge are coming on thick and strong, and the ponds are nearly all covered with a solid mat of green. High summer is the time of black shade in the woods and black underbellies on the thunderheads that seem to billow up out of the muggy afternoons. The city streets and the asphalt rooftops cling to your feet as you walk across them, and the puddles from a sudden downpour rise up in steam. Pedestrians find themselves hoping for a wisp of breeze, and hoping that that wisp will be the leading edge of a cold front that will scour the city clean, a breeze blowing in straight from the Dakotas.

This is, you will agree, magnificently over-written nonsense. You can smell the all-but desperate perspiration. You may marvel at the overwrought weightiness of the prose. Chuckle at the pretensions to grandeur, the over-written straining for literary effect, the sheer ghastliness of the monumental excess (the "bolting" lettuce! The "black underbellies on the thunderheads"!) and wonder whether, just for fun, the writer could not have included a reference to "questing voles" and the "plashy fen" too...

But I do not mean to mock. I sympathise as must anyone who has strolled through these editorial fields and, were I able to do so, I'd buy the writer a beer as cool and purging as any breeze whistling in from the pure and innocent Dakotas...

[Hat-tip: Bryan Appleyard]

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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