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PETER STOTHARD, one time Editor of The Times and now Editor of the TLS, has advanced through the profession of journalism as does, say, a professional soccer player, reaching the pinnacle of his career in fine style. Before anyone castigates me for making such a crude comparison, let me say immediately that the difference between Mr Stothard and any professional footballer, is simply that all his brains are in his head and not in his boots!
This was evident when Mr Stothard stood in the middle of the nave of St Bride’s to deliver the Tom Olsen Lecture, using as his text the quotation God exists for Leader-writers. He pointed out that the words were not his, but belonged to Graham Greene. ‘Being a journalist, I have just borrowed them,’ he told his audience, ‘and will kick them about a bit before giving them back.’
Mr Stothard referred his audience to Graham Green’s Vietnam novel The Quiet American. Greene, a former journalist on The Times, did not cover Vietnam for the newspaper. He went there only after his success as a novelist. He did, however, meet one of the most fames Times correspondents, Louis Heren.
In the book, Greene’s hero, Fowler, is a self-consciously, fact-driven reporter for an English paper in the years before the Vietnam War had properly begun. The French had not fled. The Americans were merely observing, some more quietly than others. The title character, Mr Stothard recalled, was an American agent, Pyle, who knew, or thought he knew how the Vietnamise could be motivated away from Communism; how they could be changed and who could change them. He and the reporter are rivals over a girl. The reporter wakes one morning with the girl beside him and his rival dead. And with a typical Greene-world question: had man invented an understanding God because man was so incapable of understanding himself?
There is, Mr Stothard, recounts, a strong smell of opium in the air and it hangs there rather as the question hangs. Then Fowler remembers who he is: ‘Perhaps if I wanted to be understood or to understand, I would bamboozle myself into belief, but I am a reporter,’ he says, ‘God exists only for leader-writers.’
Was Greene mocking leader-writers, perhaps as overpaid, underworked, pompous teacher’s pets? Mr Stothard asked his audience. At the end of the lecture, and as one who was also a former Leader writer, one could only reach the conclusion, as Mr Stothard did, that Leader writers are, indeed, and very sadly, an endangered species.