1 FEBRUARY 1963, Page 7

Confessions of an Odd-Job Man



LIKE most New York journalists, I have been living since December 7 with the newspaper strike, that Germinal of the affluent society. The newspaperman is lower middle class—one ex- cepts Mr. Adzubei—wherever he lives. But where, except in America, does a member of the lower middle class find himself on strike on Christmas Eve?

My reflections on this condition will have to be in the first person; nothing seems quite so private as one's experience with collective disaster.

First of all, you lose every sense of place and function. Through most of December and into January, I have simply not had the confidence to Write about my country for the readers of the Spectator; what do I know about my country now that I am no longer paid to look at it? There is the radio, of course; it tells me what happened, but I still know nothing about what happened. I know where the circus is from one day to the next, but these are not my circus animals any longer. One is a journalist, I think, not to com- municate but, occasionally, to discover; and when one has so suddenly and strangely become the public, one can discover no longer, but only Comment.

And so I have become an odd-job man, weed- ing other people's gardens, cleaning other People's windows. I do not mean this literally, of course; the odd jobs accessible to the declassed lower middle have a higher labour rate than washing windows. But I was required for one odd job to read every extant memoir of a Participant in the Eisenhower administration; can the labour of porters be so much more onerous'?

Since all occupations have their standards, I an) sure regular odd-job men draw the line some- Where; but temporary ones, having no rules to guide them, take whatever is offered.

The television industry is, of course, the largest odd-job agency available to us in these weeks. Now 1 am aware that Bernard Levin and Mal- colm Muggeridge have made do with television; and perhaps it is different in their country, although I cannot see how it could be; or don't "lel' have to put that stuff on their faces that

Would seem a little too much to Sadie Thomp- son?

1 assume, of course, that Levin and Mug- Reridge only have to talk in natural flow, a grace and skill few Americans share with them. t mericans are either shy and do not finish sen- ences at all or they are bold and do finish them, M which case most of us come out merely porn- pous and fatuous. I find it strange that Americans are thought to write the way they talk. This seems to have been true in Mark Twain's case; and I am sure it is true in Henry James's; he must have written precisely the way he talked, only without the suggestive pauses.

But Hemingway is only written; what conver- sation of his survives leaves the impression of a series of grunts. Only American sociologists and bureaucrats have the confidence to open their mouths and begin a sentence with no guarantee that they will have a chance to read and revise it before allowing it the open air; and they do write the way they talk.

I have been forced to talk a little on television during my term as an odd-job man. Once, for $25, 1 was called in on an emergency to discuss a book I have not read for twenty years. I was congratulated for my performance afterwards; but the television people—even educational tele- vision people—always congratulate you after- wards, although it might be even better next time if you wore a slightly darker shirt. I have no doubt that this desperate mash of hesitations and evasions will be embalmed and shipped out to the young for their enlightenment, the inarticulate improvisations of a man who needs $25 more than he does his pride in himself being definable as education.

I have also twice appeared on a programme where journalists sit and answer questions tele- phoned in by a public which feels deprived of the wisdom newspapers dispense. One question was: `Should I quit school?' I reflected at first that this might come from some New Jersey Arthur Rim- baud, in which case the answer would obviously be yes. But I reflected second that Arthur Rim- baud would hardly seek the opinion of a tele- vision station, so that the answer was obviously no. It was certainly the safer; no odd-job man can afford to be an adventurous gardener; television, while generally in bad taste, is always orthodox.

[hat is informal television and quite depress- ing enough. Formal television is inexpressibly worse. I was invited one Sunday morning to render some reflections—no more than two minutes and forty-five seconds long—on a petty instance of civic corruption for the Columbia Broadcasting System, perhaps the most rational- ised and best ordered of our television establish- ments.

The system requires its casual labour to come to the studio an hour early for rehearsal. I had already built my empty little structure and read it aloud to myself six times for timing and the minimum discomfort in delivery, after which it had been sent to the system's cannery for pack- aging and processing. I arrived at eight on a Sun- day morning to find myself in a great cavern where nine of my fellow unemployed sat, each behind an office desk. I was lacquered and escorted to the last empty desk, where, to my em- barrassment, I had to read my poor script aloud for the director; thereafter, to my worse em- barrassment, I had to listen to each of my poor brethren rehearse his performance.

Television thinks to put us at our ease with the teleprompter, a device just over the camera which sets forth the script on a continuous roll, so that the speaker need only look straight ahead to attempt the illusion that his is an informal, improvised discourse. This insurance produces an effect far worse than any accident it could prevent.

First of all,.only private detectives conduct conversations while looking fixedly at the person addressed and private detectives do not set their eyes on the subject's forehead. To me the saddest spectacle of the newspaper strike has been the sight of so many of my old friends on television, head up, eyes front, body sagging, attempting spontaneity in the pronouncement of words they composed two days ago and have read over seven times since. Ravenna is sad in the same way; the frontal Byzantine position fills you with the sense of loss; the face seems always to be looking at nothing.

Yet there are advantages; the worst methods have their uses in an environment so alien and irrelevant. If you look straight ahead while talk- ing on television, you avoid that terrible moment when the wandering eye confronts your own un- easy ghost on one of the dozens of monitors that stand around you.

I was on formal television for just two minutes; yet I sat there a whole hour as part of this stage set. I grew, after a while, so embarrassed for my fellow-prisoners that I thought I might avoid further invasion of their private disgrace by writing a letter, and automatically moved to open a desk drawer to find some paper. It was locked and would certainly have been empty.

And so I sat the hour out, an actor who was not an actor, behind a desk that was not a desk, and for two minutes pretended to improvise words already soggy in the mind from being rained on by repetition. Afterwards I was con- gratulated for my performance—one always is— and invited to return. I shall return, of course; odd-job men do not live in a world they made.