Malcolm gets spooky, and economical … about Dolly?
Long years ago, Malcolm found he had to leave University, and go out and get a job. He tried to postpone the inevitable by applying for a British Council scholarship to Eastern Europe. Somewhat to his surprise, he was summoned to an interview in London, at their expense.
Now, it was somewhat traditional for Trinity students to take the Mail-boat and the Irish Mail, but charge for the return air-ticket (which is why used ticket stubs were worth a round of drinks). The differential would cover beer-money for more than a week. One diligent soul (about to take a First in Maths) stacked up interviews with all the London insurance brokers and agencies, charged each one for Aer Lingus and a night in a hôtel, but slept on a friend’s couch. That was regarded as a coup, particularly when he then opted for a higher degree. It doesn’t work that way anymore, which is another strike against Ryanair.
A London day, circa 1965
So, a younger and greener Malcolm (What has changed?) headed off to the Smoke.
And found Davies Street. An imposing and very-official red brick and Portland stone building. He was escorted through the corridors and staircases by a uniformed functionary. And was subjected to a quite extraordinary interview.
Five minutes in, Malcolm realised there was a certain amount of cross-purposes here. He hadn’t taken the whole thing at all seriously (Indeed, how little has changed!). The panel included a ferretty person, seated to one side. He, rather pointedly, had not been introduced by name, but from the nature of his questions, was no mere ancillary. Malcolm sensed that the chairman of the panel, an avuncular headmasterly sort of person, seemed to be deferring to this one.
Nobody, except Malcolm, seemed greatly interested in what further studies he might be proposing: which, probably was just as well. Far more significant, it seemed, was Malcolm’s political attitudes and activities, with whom he consorted in Dublin (especially his political connections), and … his leisure reading.
Ferret probed hard on this one.
What newspapers did Malcolm read? The Irish Times and The Guardian.
And on a Sunday? The Sunday Times and The Observer.
Did he read any weeklies? Yes, New Statesman and Tribune.
A heart-beat’s pause at this. A slight furrowing of the ferret’s brow.
And did Malcolm take the Economist? Curious phrasing that: all the ferretty rest had been, “Do you read?”, but now “Do you take?”
Malcolm was rather tired of the whole thing by now, and came close to an expostulation: no, on a student’s income it was beyond his means. He tried to look at the magazine, “occasionally, when he could”.
What could all this mean?
Perspiring, perturbed and puzzled, somewhat shaken (if not stirred) Malcolm was delivered back to the street, again by the same closely-attending functionary.
In those benighted days, it would be the rest of the afternoon before the pubs opened, so Malcolm wandered the West End.
In his political years, Malcolm came to realise that the Economist was sound on facts, and consistent on opinions (which could always be spiced up from a quick scan of the leftist propaganda-sheets anyway). The admixture of the two threads served Malcolm well. And so Malcolm found he had gained a small reputation as an orator at Labour Party dos.
In his declining years, Malcolm still reads the Economist, more for delight than edification. The current issue, for instance, has a very nice opinion piece under the Lexington banner: Dollywood values.
One might expect a dour view of Ms Dolly Parton and her do-it-yourself theme park in the wilds of Tennessee. That, though, is not the Economist way:
Sophisticates sneer at Ms Parton’s theme park. The Daily Express, a British paper owned by a man who also peddles pornography, calls it “tacky”. But the values it represents are as American as a 3lb-pound slice of apple pie. Dollywood’s calorific abundance is quite healthy compared with Hershey Chocolate World in Pennsylvania. Its patriotism seems restrained next to the nearby Patriot Park, with its annual Patriot Festival. Its brand of Christianity is less in-your-face than, say, the Holy Land Experience in Florida. It is tolerant, too. Ms Parton has many gay fans, who hold unofficial get-togethers at her park. Her grandfather was a hellfire preacher, but Ms Parton has an empathy for sinners. As a girl, she thought the town hooker in her make-up and stilettos was the prettiest thing she had ever seen. “She was trash,” Ms Parton tells interviewers, “And I thought: That’s what I want to be when I grow up.”
So, Mr Ferret at the British Council (or whatever you really were), Malcolm owes you a debt. The experience of being taken apart by an interviewer was salutary and cathartic. You turned Malcolm on to a continuing lesson in English prose style, in weekly instalments, which has proved more pleasurably relevant, of greater durability, and extensive than any university course.
Now, if only Malcolm could emulate that model.