There are advantages, after all, in being an old lag, one who has been over and under the hoops, one who has been around the block perhaps too many times. The counter side of having one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel is that you advise the newcomers, counsel the pups, dispense wisdom to those still wet behind the whatever.
This discovery of the joys of being in the state of decrepitude comes with contemplating the new career path of Mikhail Gorbachev, the instant newspaper columnist. The chap who has been designated terminally redundant by Boris Yeltsin, obviously without either an RRSP, a pension plan or a gold watch, has graduated into the black hole of filing 725 words of type regularly.
The New York Times is distributing this miraculous conversion of a statesman into a typist. The Toronto Star is carrying it, The Vancouver Sun is carrying it, hundreds of otherwise sane newspapers around the world are carrying it—the editors of which obviously never having read it first.
It is mindful of the experience of every columnist in the world who, as night follows day, is apprehended at a cocktail party by some doctor who allows that, when he retires, he plans to be a writer. And the columnist, having had a scotch or two by then, confides that when he retires he plans to do brain surgery. It’s the same. They never get the joke. But you go home feeling better.
Gorbachev, a man I respect enormously, did more than any statesman to change the world since Churchill. He is a more worthy recipient of his Nobel Prize than anyone within memory. However, that does not convert him into a columnist—a calling, as we know, only slightly short of the angels.
This scribbler blushes to have to advise Comrade Gorbachev. But I have read his early efforts. I am only trying to help. It is not that I suggest he should not abandon his day job, because he doesn’t have a day job anymore. He is like Abraham Lincoln put out to pasture, with a computer to play with. The mix is not happy.
One hesitates to be condescending to a Nobel Prize winner, but this shy condescension comes from being old in the saddle. This typist has been typing a newspaper column for 24 years, back when the man who ended the Cold War and killed communism was an agriculture apparatchik in Russia. This here epistle has been saving Canada on the back page for 17 years (with the obvious blissful results). The man should listen.
Gorby, some advice. As a newcomer to the field, you should hearken up. Avoid certain subjects. At all costs, do not deliver certitudes on (a) abortion, (b) gay rights, (c) capital punishment, (d) feminism, (e) Newfoundland seal pups, (f) Madonna or (g) the monarchy.
None of this will come to any good. There are some arguments you can never win. There has never been a reader in the history of mankind whose opinion has been changed because of the vast wisdom/logic/brilliance con-
tained in a 725-word column that, as we all know, should be carved in stone and carried down from the Mount.
The second-best piece of advice, Gorby— this is all free, mind you—is that you should be wary of fan mail the envelopes of which are written in red crayon. I once had a secretary, Miss Framsham, who on days—especially after a full moon—would bring in the mail (unopened and separated into two piles) and predict which pile would designate her boss a slobbering jerk and which a non-anointed saint.
She was invariably correct, the feverish scribbles and spittle decorating the letters that thought the scribbler a raving idiot immediately discernible.
Gorby, pay attention to the full moon. The New York Times is the most prestigious platform in the world, especially for instant columnists, but you will find—sifting through your fan mail—that more than wild dogs bay at the full sheen of a white orb. Check the suicide rates. Listen to the hotlines. Read your mail. You will learn amazing things about human nature—far more than in the certainties of the Five-Year Plan—by glomming the letters you receive when the moon does its thing.
Gorby, lighten up. I’ve read your early stuff. I am quite aware—and I sympathize with you—that you have never had the advantage of having a city editor in a small-town newspaper who has ordered you to go out and snatch a photo off the mantel of a family drenched in tears by the death of an innocent who has just been left in a waterfilled ditch on account of his being encumbered by the weight of lead overshoes.
This disadvantage, we all realize, is something not your fault. However. You’re in danger of becoming a bore, the only ailment fatal to a columnist. We know the coup was a trauma. Have you thought of giving us the details of when you and Raisa go bowling on Thursday nights?Do you have a dog? Readers don’t give a damn about Olympian overviews. They want to know if you suffer from gout. Trust me.
As a practitioner of the second-oldest trade, Gorby, you’ve got to realize that the readers don’t really want to know what you think, they want to know about you. The Toronto Star, the largest newspaper in the land, recently had public memorial services for an expired columnist who wrote about his family, his dog, his kids, his wife, his walk to work, his life.
People are bored, Gorby, with lofty solutions to problems. Leave that to the editorial writers, since no one ever reads them. Tell them about your sex life, Gorby. Phone Barbara Amiel. She knows.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.