On the first page of “Jeeves Exerts the Old Cerebellum,” written by P.G. Wodehouse in 1921, we overhear this exchange between Bertie Wooster, still abed, and his redoubtable valet:
“How’s the weather, Jeeves?”
“Exceptionally clement, sir.”
“Anything in the papers?”
“Some slight friction threatening in the Balkans, sir. Otherwise, nothing.”
Jeeves’ digest of the news constitutes what journalists know as a “standing head” – an ever-green, endlessly reusable headline never in need of revision. “Some slight friction” is always threatening somewhere – dependably in the Balkans, of course. It also constitutes the reason the news seldom holds my interest though I remained a journalist for a quarter-century. The profession’s first attraction was a regular paycheck in return for words. Second, a degree of independence unmatched in, say, ladies’ apparel or the Coast Guard. Finally, I'm seldom bored so long as I’m able to listen to and observe my species.
I thought of Jeeves when an anonymous writer accused me of being a “dilettante” and (speaking of standing heads) “fascist” because I possess no “sympathy for the oppressed,” no “political zeal.” “How can you ever have been a journalist?” my reader asks, echoing a question I often ask myself. Honestly, I can’t come up with a convincing answer. The best journalists I’ve known –misfits with a taste for ink – have always represented an endangered species and most fell into the business by accident, not foresight.
In every realm of human endeavor I’m increasingly attracted to the informal, amateur, self-driven, wayward, unregulated and independent, particularly in writing. In 1977, six years before his death at age eighty, Eric Hoffer writes in his notebook:
“Disraeli felt that `nothing could compensate his obscure youth, not even a glorious old age.’ Practically all writers and artists are aware of their destiny and see themselves as actors in a fateful drama. With me, nothing is momentous: obscure youth, glorious old age, fateful coincidences--nothing really matters. I have written a number of good sentences. I have kept free of delusions. I know I am going to die soon.”
I most admire Hoffer’s freedom and the way he revels in it and uses it so productively.