No form of writing is so evanescent as journalism, unless it’s blogging. True to its etymology, most of it evaporates within a day. We can think of rare exceptions – Mencken, Liebling, Kempton. As a newspaper reporter I wrote millions of words, thousands of stories, columns and reviews, now reduced to moldering clips, stray electrons and unreliable memories. I recall none of this in sadness. I knew precisely what I was getting into.
In Innocent Merriment: An Anthology of Light Verse (1942), Franklin P. Adams includes a poem by J.B. Morton, “Tripe”:
“Come, gentle tripe, the hungry carter’s joy,
Drayman’s delight, conductor’s second course,
Passion and dream of every errand boy,
Vision of every rogue that holds a horse,
Bane of all titled ladies, bishops’ dread,
Doom of the softly nurtured, peers’ despair,
Was it for this the tall Achilles bled,
For this that Agamemnon tore his hair?
Was this the food that launched a thousand ships
And tore the heart of Dido, as she stood
Above the feast, wiping her royal lips,
And called her love again—was this the food?
“(The answer is, in a sense, no.)”
In a restaurant long ago, I worked with a Puerto Rican/Italian cook from Chicago. This guy was the Toscanini of the griddle, maintaining masterful control in the kitchen on the most frenzied of nights. He never raised his voice, never broke a sweat. We became friends and he was forever threatening to prepare for me a pot of menudo – pancita, as it’s known in Houston. It became a joke between us. I’m not a finicky eater but just the thought of certain foods triggers my gag reflex. My father relished unthinkable things – pigs’ knuckles, souse, head cheese – straight out of the Upton Sinclair cookbook. The toughest paragraph for me to digest in all of Ulysses is this:
“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
So when I saw “Tripe,” I had to read it. I knew nothing about J.B. Morton. His poem is about tripe, yes, but more about class-based food snobbery. The working people of England relish eating stomach of cow. The upper classes disdain it. My father was an ironworker. I inherited his contempt for “foodies” – ridiculous word – but could never eat most of his favorite foods. I don’t remember him eating tripe, but perhaps memory is being merciful.
Now, about J.B. Morton (1893-1979): He spent a year at Oxford and hoped to make a living as a poet. He fought at the Somme during the Great War. Like many of us when young and without direction, he became a journalist. From 1924 to 1975, he wrote the “By the Way” column in the Daily Express under the pen name "Beachcomber." Until 1965, he produced six columns a week. The most I ever had to write was two per week, on top of features, news stories and the occasional review, and there were weeks when that seemed impossible. I admire good writers who are industrious, so long as no one mentions Joyce Carol Oates, and journalism certainly remains the best boot camp for learning how to write.
Is anyone familiar with Morton’s work? He seems to have written some twenty books but I haven’t located any in the libraries where I have lending privileges. He sounds like a writer worth remembering.