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GP 6 August 2008: Writers in Disguise; Knights of Civility

Pete Seeger.  For the past 4 years, Pete Seeger—songwriter and man of protest—has made his way over to Wappinger Falls and set up shop at the intersection of Route 9 and 9D, the “Hudson Valley P.O.W.-M.I.A. Memorial Highway.”  He flashes anti-war signs at passing drivers, while dipping down to pick up trash in idle moments.  Those for the Iraq War, across the road, “always have more flags,” Mr. Seeger said, “But our signs are more fun.”  Seeger’s as much a writer as singer, for he’s the man who gave us “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”

Asked whether he thought that protesting by the side of the road would help end the war, he said: “I don’t think that big things are as effective as people think they are.  The last time there was an antiwar demonstration in New York City I said, ‘Why not have a hundred little ones?’”  (See New York Times, June 22, 2008, p. 21) 

Most likely he’s right.  A million minute actions will probably get us where we need to go a lot faster than a lot of hoopla.  And people who can think up signs or write songs stand a better chance of moving mountains than flag wavers.  Chances are that we will pass the day with Mr. Seeger sometime but that we will never waste a moment with Pro Bono or Sister Streisand.  The task is to find thinking people who know how to shout softly.  The odds are they’re using pens instead of swords.  Curiously people of immense talent often put loud talk aside and do a fair amount of writing to express to themselves and to others the shades of meaning that are at the heart of substance.

Feynman and Coward.  The Broadway producer extraordinaire Hal Prince, addressing a convocation a few months back, commiserated with the assembled students over the great loss he felt they had suffered.  “You will not,” he more or less said, “have the joy of letter writing.”  He might have added that generally they would not have the pleasure of writing or thinking reflectively since they are caught up in the Internet Cellphone Digital Machine that has cast aside prose for the prosaic.  This is the affliction of our time.

In the last year, we have ample proof of this.  Correspondence once bonded together people in wonderful ways.  The Letters of Richard P. Feynman, who is everybody’s favorite Nobel prize-winning physicist, though we ourselves admit to a secret predilection for Robert Oppenheimer, have come to market.  As well, The Letters of Noel Coward, the entertainer for all seasons, has revealed his vast and elevated acquaintance.  Lord Louis Mountbatten, at a 70th birthday party at the Savoy in 1969, celebrated him as a man of innumerable masks:

There are probably greater painters than Noel, greater novelists than Noel, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater film directors, greater cabaret artists, greater TV stars.  If there are, they are twelve different people.  Only one man combined all twelve labels—The Master.

Not only could each put pen to paper, but both Feynman and Coward, we learn early in these volumes, had an extraordinarily close relationship with their mothers.  This is not uncommon with remarkable men.  The somewhat arrogant, and certainly imperious Robert Moses, who made and unmade New York City, nonetheless visited his mother with undying regularity.  Their copious correspondence provides us with one of their trade secrets: men of accomplishment cultivate a broad acquaintanceship with which they communicate everyday.  It is this kind of network that produces unexpected insights.

The Two Berns.  Where might the thoughts pour and writing happen?  We think unlikely locations ignite the mind and kindle the spirit.  It might be Berns Hotel in Stockholm, a gathering place for entertainers, bon vivants, and offbeats since it was founded by the confectioner  H. Robert Berns in 1863.  Curiously the restaurant is not great but good, the rooms are decent enough and rather compact but certainly not wonderful, and yet the composite Berns Salonger experience affords a lift from some of Sweden’s humdrum aspects.  The hotel’s Red Room provided a setting for August Stringberg’s novel of the same name. Someday we think places of style will want to be known as enclaves where writing gets done.

Bern’s Restaurant in Tampa does feature in some detective novel according to our sources, though author and title remain a mystery to the owners and us. Florida has such a flood of mystery writers that it is easy to imagine one tackled this eatery.  It was founded in 1956 by some Brooklyn expatriates—Bern and Gert Laxer.  The son now has it, and we understand he’s getting into the condo business.  No one part is extraordinary: the steaks are okay, and they may serve a 1,000 a night.  But all the ingredients are very good—good meat, vegetables grown under family supervision, one of America’s extraordinary large wine cellars.  We’re taken by the dessert room upstairs: in paneled quarters you play your own music, drink dessert wines, and feel a bit transported.  The incandescent light is just enough, and the windows of each compartment allow the mind space in which to expand.  Here, with a cigar, and the rest of a bottle from the cellar, you might at least get that novel going.

Adventures of Bystanders.  A fair number of the old-line industrialists we have advised do like the writings of Peter Drucker.  But Silicon Valley Captains find him to be a drag: they tend to have short attention spans.  To them we recommend his Adventures of a Bystander, autobiographical vignettes both of life in Austria and his career in London, where he correctly positions himself as an intelligent observer, and not a world historical figure.  Probably, we suspect, everyday leaders could learn as much or more from Drucker’s own telling about himself as from his ruminations about the practice of management which are often more helpful to institutional-type businesses than entrepreneurs.  He was, in many senses, a very high-class journalist, and it is pleasing when this Drucker shines through. Elsewhere Drucker has written of the experiences that have most shaped his life; writing has a good deal to do with many of them.

Journalists of the right sort are often quite entertaining when they get off the reservation and give up pontificating.  Certainly this was true of the late Johnny Apple of the New York Times. We carried a great deal more away from his food travel pieces than all his political writing out of the Washington bureau.  In this vein one can take up Harry Hurt III of the Times as well who plays spirited amateur at offbeat sports such as fishing and rowing, and most recently took at turn as chef at the renowned Le Bernardin restaurant.  In this role, he is acting as understudy to the more amusing and much richer George Plimpton who tried football, publishing, and everything else, and gave us smiles along the way.

Tunku Varadarajan, once an editor at the Wall Street Journal, has, sadly, gone onto other things.  His columns were the best thing about the paper, and fortunately he still turns out the occasional.  Most recently he recounts the pleasures in which spectators can indulge while watching cricket at Lord’s in London.  Alternately he may talk of how one finds a proper regular bar and what directions the conversation may take there.  The Economist, too, had written earlier about the elegant experience of cricket one might enjoy at Lord’s, making us think that writers at their best bring a richness to vicariousness that accords with their lives as mostly spectators.  Varadarajan is an Indian who has translated himself into an English gentleman living in America.  Both Hurt and Varadarajan use writing as a tool to convey civilized recreation.

Kevin Phillips.  Kevin Phillips, a terribly bright strategist who was at the heart of Nixonia, has since become disaffected with the Republicans.  He believes Republicans have totally lost their way, becoming, amongst other things, profligate in policy and handmaidens of the investment bankers.  Most recently he is out with Bad Money which again says the financial sector is driving policy, party, and precept, laying waste to America’s fundamental strengths.  We would say, in agreement, that Wall Street has overwhelmed Main Street, and that finance, which produces nothing, has made shreds of industry which produces everything.  Though a recent review of his book by a lesser light in the New York Times (August 3, 2008) lightly pans him, his conclusions seem inescapable. The author of 12 books, he is the theorist the conservative movement desperately needs, but now lacks.  It has run out of ideas, turning its back on men such as him who can argue cogently and get beyond ideology.

About Writing.  In Boston we once met an ex- priest who gave up orders and decided to teach principal executives how to write. He worked with many high-powered businessmen.  Most write poorly, incidentally, but think themselves to be masters of the word.  In his warm-up lecture, the ex-priest said the key thing about writing is good thinking.  If one can think through what one has to say with some clarity, the writing will follow and even rise to excellence.  If he’s right and writing is all about thinking, surely we need more of it.  Even in this age that proclaims writers to be quaint vestiges, and newspapers as unnecessary. 

Many of us think we are kissing the Gutenberg Galaxy goodbye.  But, without writing, we have no context, and, as flotsam in the stream, have no meaning in the past or for the future.  It still seems to mark the border between civilization and chaos.

P.S.  Newspapers are still doing pretty well in both China and India, countries with growth rates of 8% or so.  Could it be that newspapers and writing are sources of competitive advantage?  There are lots of English-language papers in India, so we will soon have to consider importing them, as we look for substitutes for our malnourished press.

P.P.S.  Bill Zinsser has authored a nice memoir of his days at the New York Herald Tribune, which was around when New York City was more of a fun place and when the writing at newspapers, particularly the Tribune, was immensely better.  The International Herald Tribune, which the Times has not entirely ruined, retains some of the joie de vivre. Zinsser, who says he has been a freelancer ever since he had to quit a dying Tribune, has done a lot of things since, including a term of service teaching at Yale.  You should consider his On Writing Well, the only easy, accessible, worthwhile book on writing we have ever read.  The apt word for Tribune writing is ‘breezy,’ which, to this day, captures the spirit of Zinsser’s handiwork as well.  Oddly, the best hope for the Times today is to become more like the Tribune.

P.P.P.S.  Nicholas Carr, who thinks computers have become commodities, asks “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”  See the Atlantic, July-August 2008.

P.P.P.P.S.  If you want your children and their school chums to write connected prose, you might take a look at The Concord Review.  Kids who write superb historical essays have a chance to appear in its pages, so it’s become a prod for high school and prep school strivers to strut their writing and research stuff.

P.P.P.P.P.S.   A hiring trick.  Corporations looking at candidates for the management team should see how well applicants can write.  Of course, in most situations, one would have to find somebody to look at the writing: most human resource, recruiting, and personnel staffers write badly and would not be able to sort out something done well.  Get rid of the bad writers and you will knock out a huge number of bad candidates in a hurry.  As well, look for bright lights with a diverse acquaintance—after the manner of Feynman or Coward.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  Sweden, we have found, often does not offer good accommodations.  Even the best hotels in Stockholm are a bit pinched, and travelers on the cheap who put up with Swedes find their rooms less gracious than those in Denmark.  Ikea, the furniture and housewares store originating in Sweden, fits right in with this penchant for offering less than at first meets the eye.  At first glance, its wares look neat, nicely frugal, and attractive, but they wear thin after a short while.  Ikea has created a billionaire many times over who uses overseas tax hideaways to spirit his wealth away from Swedish tax authorities.

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  We cannot point out often enough how many original minds came from Austria and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire but were forced out for one reason or another—to the great benefit of the countries where they originally settled.  On the way they frequently had a long stop in Germany and/or England.  This list of notables includes Peter Drucker, Joseph Schumpeter. Arthur Koestler, Sigmund Freud, Billy Wilder, Peter Singer, Ludwig Wittingenstein, Karl Popper, the list goes on and on.  We wonder if Vienna still produces some amazing people.

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  Autocrats the world over are still afraid of writing—in all its forms.  Beijing has turned away Jen Lin-Liu’s recently published food memoir Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China, a work hardly calculated to stir up trouble in China. Russell Brown, one of the best golfers at the Phoenix Country Club, was recently given the heave for talking to the New York Times about its silly policy of banning women from the main grill.  It has been noted, however, that Dennis Burke, chief of staff to Gov. Janet Napolitano, condemned the men-only rules at the Club in 2007 and has yet to be ejected.  But then, he only spoke to the Arizona Republic while the Times piece created national ridicule of the Club leaders.  Wags think the Club will take up the slack by giving Hootie Johnson an honorary membership.  Bureaucrats everywhere, even at country clubs, cannot tolerate obloquy and scorn.  Petty censorship is their futile gesture.

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