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September 9, 2006
John Wilcock - September 9, 2006

 

  The column of lasting insignificance
     


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July 15, 2006

 

 


September 9, 2006

JW is on vacation and instead of his usual column
is reprising something he wrote last year


My 50th anniversary


HOW DID I MANAGE to get so old? Soon it will be exactly 50 years since I wrote my first column for the first issue of the Village Voice (Oct. 26, 1955) Since Variety’s Army Arched retired last month, I’m possibly the longest-standing columnist in the country and I probably have the same number of readers today as I did then. But, apart from this column, the anniversary will doubtless go unnoticed.

I wrote 550 columns for the Voice before leaving to edit and publish “underground” papers in Los Angeles, Tokyo, London, Athens and New York. My column appeared in all those places as well as in the Toronto Daily Star, Sydney’s OZ magazine, Tokyo’s Mainichi Daily News, and Penthouse and High Times magazines. I have been appearing in the Montecito Journal since the first issue and although Jim is among my oldest friends he doesn’t print everything I submit, and declined to run a review of my recent book about the Popes. Well, that’s the prerogative of a publisher so I document such items in my own magazine, the Ojai Orange.

Responses have changed a lot since my early column days. Which is to say that today I don’t get any. Any visions of supporting somebody’s campaign, making new friends, or perhaps a romance or dinner invitation have never been realized. Although in the Sixties I used to get scores of letters every week, only two people in ten years have responded to my MJ column –and I already knew one of them. People today seemingly don’t respond to facts, only to personal observations or provocations.

Being a responsible journalist who has worked for five of the world’s biggest dailies, I’m a stickler for facts, although I did occasionally produce a little creative fiction in some of my early Voice columns. I recycled one of these ‘60s fantasies here in the MJ in March 1998. It was about the National Nonentity Service which, I wrote, “exists solely to enhance the humdrum lives of people who have nothing but money; the clients need only pay a handsome fee for the ego-building process to begin”. It went on to explain how NNS would pay authors to dedicate books to them, have them interviewed on radio and TV and persuade garden clubs to attach their names to new hybrids. This was one of the columns that Lyle Stuart reprinted in a collection, The Village Square (1961), which, sadly, didn’t sell very well.

Like most columnists I began by writing essays but after receiving huge input from readers, I began to emulate my (journalistic) idol, Walter Winchell, who invented the “three-dot column”-- which was once widely practiced. All my efforts to persuade the Los Angeles Times to revive this style, not necessarily by me, have been unsuccessful and, in fact, even my offer to provide the column free has been rejected by one paper after another, most of whom didn’t even condescend to reply (It ran for a while in the Santa Ynez Valley Journal and the Ojai & Ventura Voice).

Most of the interviews I have conducted for magazines—Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Billy Graham., Leonard Bernstein, Lenny Bruce, Billy Graham, Woody Allen, Rock Hudson, Tim Leary, Steve Allen etc—have ended up as columns and, of course, exploring Japan, Greece, Mexico, Venezuela, Britain, Italy, India, Brazil, etc to write some of my 30+ travel books, have provided me with lots of different datelines.

I love 3-dot columns. It’s a way to squeeze scores of pieces of information into a mere 800 words, defusing explosive items by sandwiching them between two blander ones. Such columns are not as random as they seem, the order and progression of items being carefully choreographed to grab the reader’s attention in a series of dips and rises as if plunging down a white-water river. The object is to ensure that no reader is capable of bailing out until the end (which is usually a timeless, philosophical piece of wisdom). The cable TV show I have been doing for 20 years covers much of the same ground, in similar style. It’s called Wait A Minute! , which is to say, “Don’t tune out now because in a moment or two something else will come along”. Almost nothing on my show exceeds 90 seconds.

Because I was trained on a tabloid newspaper, I have always tried to be economical with words, attempting to produce at least 10% facts in any story. A simple example from one of my travel books gets eleven facts into 80 words, as follows:

Some know Route 66 only from legend, others from their childhood when every mile with its weathered telegraph poles, its bizarrely-shaped, eye-catching gas stations and eating places were milestones on an exciting journey further into wonderland whose roadside attractions included snake pits, live buffalos and Indian dancers. Most old-timers remember fondly the serial Burma Shave signs--Your Shaving Brush/Has Had Its Day/So Why Not/Shave the Modern Way-- which dotted the highway in almost every state.

The column of lasting insignificance (my subtitle since the ‘60s) is information about the seemingly unimportant or trivial issues that catch my attention which turn out to have a surprising—and more meaningful-- second act at a later date. I’m always in search of items that seem prophetic. “Coming events cast their shadows before” somebody once wisely observed.

Where do all these fascinating tidbits come from? The already-printed word, in the 40 plus magazines I read each month ranging from the Skeptical Inquirer to the Harvard Business Letter and The Week. And, of course, political magazines from both sides of the pond. These are the sort of item most likely to be excised from my column before it runs in the MJ (“leftwing. socialist garbage” Jim calls them). Politics is the one thing on which my old friend and I will never agree.


SEPTEMBER 9/06

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