23 SEPTEMBER 1978, Page 46

The spirit lives

James Fenton

The Taller, the Guardian and the Spectator all bear the names of periodicals written by Addison and Steele. Not one of them has any connection with its predecessor, but the Spectator comes closer to the spirit of itsoriginal than either of the others. The choice of title, one hundred and fifty years ago, was rather presumptuous. In those days, the collected volumes of the original Spectator were still popular reading. Today they fall to pieces in the bookshops. On Macaulay's calculation, the original Spectator collections had a contemporary readership equivalent to that of Dickens or Scott. When Addison died; a four-volume memorial edition of his works was published by subscription. The subscribers' list, as Macaulay notes, includes the Queen of Sweden, Prince Eugene, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the Dukes of Parma, Modena and Guastalla, the Doge of Genoa and Cardinal Dubois. The other day in Hampstead I bought these fine volumes for eight pounds. It appears that nobody now is much interested in Addison.

The original Spectator enjoyed more than a century of extreme popularity. At around the time when the present Spectator was founded, Macaulay could still read the original one with his sisters in much the same spirit as they read popular novels together. Indeed Macaulay thought that the whole run could be considered as a novel. Today this is not true. The humour of the original Spectator has become difficult to appreciate. The points are too often lost. And it would take a historian of style to explain precisely why the style of Addison was so highly prized. There is much to admire, but the admiration itself is an effort.

Addison thought that of all the arts, writing was the post permanent. He was familiar with the idea that great works would be destroyed: Statues can last but a few thousands of years, Edifices fewer, and Colours still fewer than Edifices. Michael Angelo, Fontana and Raphael, will hereafter be what Phidias, Vitruvius and Apelles are at present; the names of great Statuaries, Architects and Painters, whose works are lost.

But he thought that books would last through reproduction: As the supreme Being has expressed, and as it were printed his ideas in the Creation, men express their ideas in books, which by this great invention of these latter ages, may last as long as the Sun and Moon, and to perish only in the general wreck of nature.

What Addison did not see was that a printed work might remain legible and available, and yet fade like a fresco before the eye of comprehension.

And if great works of art can fade, how much more so can a periodical? The most familiar questions about the weeklies today are: Can they survive? has their time passed? are they anachronisms? Mr Anthony Howard, on relinquishing the editorship of the New Statesman, delivered himself of the opinion that the age of the weeklies was indeed drawing quietly to a close. Well — a man who holds such a view is right to leave such a job, since a prophet has an inevitable and natural interest in the fulfilment of his prophecy. But Ido not think that Mr Howard need be right. If, instead of putting the problem in its normal form, one asks, 'Is Fleet Street so superb that there is no longer any function for the weeklies?' the question answers itself at once. Not only is Fleet Street not superb. It is also a disgrace.

I ought to add that even if the serious daily and Sunday papers were performing brilliantly, they would not exclude the weekly reviews, but encourage them. In Germany there are at least three excellent daily papers, two excellent news magazines and one excellent weekly review, for starters. Oddly enough, there are no good Sunday papers. But it is difficult to find time to read everything one would like to — particularly if one includes those paperback books which have a function half-way between book and magazine, and which in Germany are much commoner than in England. It appears that when the general standard of the press is high, this helps rather than hinders the individual magazine. Conversely, bad papers have a habit of dragging their competitors down with them. An illustration of this process was provided over the year's by the Observer's futile attempt to emulate the Sunday Times.

The way forward for the weeklies then can only lie in a fierce independence of approach. They must guard jealously those special qualities which they, and no other papers, possess. There are certain of these that are so obvious they hardly need arguing for. In book reviewing, for instance, it is almost exclusively_the weeklies which keep the art alive. The closure of the TLS, the New Statesman and the Spectator would be quite simply a literary disaster for the country. In this connection there is one general point about weekly journalism which I think distinguishes it from the productions of Fleet Street.

If the Spectator comes close to the spirit of its original, it is in its freedom of approach to the subject. What Addison was able to write on a daily basis, the short essay, has provided the model for the weekly press. In the best of this kind of journalism, the writer uses the freedom he enjoys in order to present his subject from an unusual point of view — like those photographs of familiar objects from unfamiliar angles. It is this creative obliquity which enlivens the characteristic weekly essay. It is difficult to reproduce in a large daily paper, because of the pressure there to produce an immediately recognisable type of article. In the weeklies, the writer has a much closer control over his own work."It is his. He does not have to oversell a personality in order to succeed. Nor does he have to suppress a personality. The typical weekly essay seems far more natural a production than those in the daily paper, which have to be placed in certain categories. There are, simply, more opportunities for good writing in the weeklies. As soon as one says 'good writing', of course, heads begin to nod. Good writing, yes, not enough of it around, good idea to have more of it. So I Want just to mention what I do not mean by good writing—that is, what I call the Wig and Pen Club style. This is a form of writing which considers itself 'good', because it thinks it is old-fashioned. It bears the same relation to real style as the oratory of the barrister to real oratory; the barrister, I mean, who throws the expression 'm'lud' like scatter cushions around the court, imagining that this and a few antique gestures will put him in communion with an august tradition. The Wig and Pen Club style imagines that it derives from Dr Johnson. It is not however based on a reading of Johnson. For instance, the style imagines that long sentences are good sentences. Johnson did not think so.

If we look to tradition in journalism, it should be to find new ways of presentation from among the old models, not simply to provide ourselves with 'antique' decorations —a journalism hung with horse brasses. And yet it is odd how some people fall into just this trap. That guardian of good English, Mr Philip Howard, produced a Times column recently in what he clearly imagined to be the 'Mercurius Oxoniensis' style. This involved the embarrassing use of `hath' and 'cloth' at irregular intervals throughout the piece. A final word on tradition. The New Statesman and the Spectator have recently gone their separate ways after years of similarity. The Statesman seems to me like a burst chrysalis, from which some as yet unidentified butterfly is struggling to emerge. The Spectator remains on the old lines. If this is from conviction, well and good. If it is a matter of mere habit, the paper should beware. Addison tells a story, culled from Dr Blot's History of Staffordshire, of an idiot who fell into the habit of singing along with the chimes of a clock. After a while the clock broke down. But the idiot continued singing the chimes, every hour, on the dot. Such regularity is a remarkable thing, just as the ability to appear every week is a remarkable thing. But suppose it became the only remarkable thing about the paper?