Richard Littlejohn’s enconium on Keith Waterhouse reads like a list of the absolute minimum that could be expected of a professional writer. You turn your copy in on time. You write the appropriate number of words. You don’t fuck up the grammar. These are probably rarer skills than they should be, and reliably accurate writing deserves celebrating – all the same, Littlejohn’s praise for Waterhouse is a bit like greeting the death of a lifelong publican by saying, “He always had bitter on tap and never forgot to wash the pint pots.”
Presumably, if he hadn’t managed that much, he wouldn’t have been running a pub for long. And you really hope that a career in journalism would be founded on a bit more than the scanty essentials deified by Littlejohn:
Keith never missed a deadline, however poorly he was, however hungover. His column was always immaculate and written to length. Quality control worked overtime at the Waterhouse words factory.
“Language affects values so much,” he once said. “Your vocabulary includes everything you want, cherish, own or aspire to. Language is a great liberator.”
But then, the Waterhouse quote which Littlejohn uses tells us that the obiturist sees style as something of huge moral importance – and more than that, huge positive moral importance. The equally plausible idea that the journalist’s language can subject the user to harmful beliefs, ideals and systems is dusted away, although Littlejohn’s constant beration of political correctness shows that he’s painfully aware of the ways in which vocabulary shapes attitudes. In his screed against the National Trans Police Association, for example, he dismisses the validity of the PTPA by dismissing the word “intersex” – first of all by tactlessly turning it from an adjective into a noun (“intersexuals”) and then by asking the aggressively dehumanising question “whatever the hell they are”. (Incidentally, Littlejohn’s funny feelings about truncheons and knobs have given him a very productive muse throughout his career.)
Littlejohn generally claims to “merely report the facts” and uses post-publication reader agreement as proof to justify his position. But writing about Waterhouse, Littlejohn becomes abnormally open about the columnist’s persuasive imperative:
He once told me the art of writing a column is not to say what the man in the pub is thinking, but what he will be thinking once he’s read it.
Waterhouse didn’t go in for polemic. He knew that if you want to make a point, it’s best to make ’em laugh. Hearts and minds will follow.
Although Billy Liar, the hero of his seminal novel, stage play and movie, was his most celebrated character, his cast of comic creations was legion.
Clogthorpe District Council’s Ways & Means Committee, the National Guesswork Authority plc, shop assistants Sharon and Tracy and the wonderful Arnold, British Rail’s spivvy brother-in-law.
Through these caricatures, Keith parodied the nonsense and pomposity of petty officialdom and illuminated to devastating effect so many essential truths about society.
A comic caricature can be a wonderfully amusing thing. But a parody can’t illuminate anything – except Littlejohn’s delusion that “making it up” verifies the prejudices which inform such hilarious pen sketches as “Screaming Lord Mandy” (he’s gay, you see), Centaurs in the police service (they’re only half human, you see, which is a bit like being transgender) and ethnic minorities with their alleged “rights, privileges and lavish welfare benefits” (there are people in the world who aren’t from the same gene pool as Richard Littlejohn, you see, and that’s outrageous).
Here are some other journalistic qualities Littlejohn might want to look into the next time one of his own dies: factual accuracy, thoughtfulness, self-criticism, wit. And when Littlejohn himself pops it, we can be ready with the well-earned tribute: once a week, every week, Richard Littlejohn managed to write something that was both in sentences and made of words, and at least his syntax wasn’t disgusting.
© Sarah Ditum, 2009