Tuesday 27 October 2009

He Said, He Said

I was watching the BBC News just now. They had a story about crime in London. When it was finished Huw Edwards leaned over the desk, looked at the camera and said, 'Tony Blair must not become the President of the EU'.

He then added, 'Said David Cameron today.'

I can understand why a newsreader would make a statement before revealing that it was all in quotation marks. If the headline had been phrased the other way it would have been 'David Cameron said, "Tony Blair...."'. The viewer would have thought to himself, 'Well he would say that, wouldn't he?' and relapsed into a deeper slumber. The same habit applies to print journalists.

"People will need to consider turning vegetarian if the world is to conquer climate change, according to a leading authority on global warming," said The Times today on page one.

Its second article, on page three (this being The Times), began, "A helicopter crash that killed three servicemen today was caused by inadequate "administration, airmanship and discipline" on the part of the Royal Air Force, a coroner ruled today."

Neither statement means a thing until one knows who has made it. With the wearisome patience of a perturbed parent one can see why the sentences were so strangely inverted: they wanted your attention. Like so many perturbed parents one must secretly mourn Herod's death.

However, before I jump, shrieking, at the throat of journalistic syntax, it is, perhaps, worth noting an oddity of novelists.

In spoken English the name of the speaker almost always precedes what is said. I said, 'Hello.' He said, 'Oh hell.' Yet in novels the inverse applies. At least, novelists never begin with the speaker's name.
I have just reached, without getting up, for a novel - The Death of Ivan Ilyich, since you ask - opened it at random and found:

'No,' he answered briefly.


'No,' he repeated. 'I am grateful for it.'

Novelists do not write as people speak, or people do not speak as novelists write: I cannot be sure which. The speaker is at the end or is inserted, sometimes after only a word, so long as he does not begin. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the pulp crime novelists, are the only exceptions to this rule that I know. Novelists, though, maintain this inversion through a lazy convention. Their motive is different to that of journalists.

The overcast gloom of certainty tell me that neither Huw Edwards nor his autocue writer were gesturing towards the verbal glories of early twentieth century American prose. They are only hoping for your attention, for a few seconds' attention, only until the end of the sentence. For that pittance, for that twitch in the eyelid of the somnolent viewer they are prepared to sacrifice all future attention, for like most tricks this inversion can be used only once and then we tire.

There seems to be, below this, a problem with newspapers in general. Newspapers believe that nobody wants them. They believe in their own irrelevance, beating on the ground like the old man in The Pardoner's Tale. No editor seems able to say with confidence, 'The idiot has shelled out 90p for my paper. He must want to read articles so we don't need to trick him into doing so.' Instead he acts like the girl who is still desperately trying to get your attention after you've bought her a drink. I was watching the news. I was not going to switch channels before Mr Edwards had finished his sentence. But maybe that's only because my reactions are too slow.

(For anyone who wants a sample of Dashiell Hammett's dialogue here is a man addressing the woman he loves:

He said, 'I'm going to send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means you'll be out again in twenty years. You're an angel. I'll wait for you.' He cleared his throat. 'If they hang you I'll always remember you.')

Too quick for me

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