What’s the intro?
By Geoffrey Mather
Intros – now there’s a challenge, and a sure cause of wretchedness, and nausea and deep, deep depression. People have had trouble writing intros since… oh, at least since Job. How does the Book of Job begin?
‘There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.’
Which chief sub is going to accept it? There’s no action, no drama, no atmosphere, nothing. Yet you get to paragraph seven and there it is, all you need, all you ever hoped for: the real nitty – ‘And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.’
What is the chief sub to say to that? I can only imagine – ‘Hey, laddie, yes, YOU. Here you have God and Satan having a chat after Satan has taken a wander down Kensington High-street for all we know – not that they’d notice in Kensington. That’s an exclusive if ever I heard one, and you are on about Job being bloody upright in your intro? Buck up your ideas, laddie, or you’ll be walking up and down in it with Satan.’
A man who can write a book in a month can spend the first week on the intro. Journalists whose names are writ large in the great byline cosmos have spent much of their lives surrounded by crumpled sheets of copy paper, every one of them empty apart from half a dozen words.
You can feel the pain. Here, a contemporary example culled at random from the BBC website: ‘A tongue-tied Jeremy Paxman is about as rare as a unicorn from Manchester that supports Chelsea, yet this week’s Odd Box features just that. Paxman, not the unicorn.’
That might be the greatest intro you ever saw, but it is definitely, absolutely, not for me.
In 1620, the first permanent settlement was made at Plymouth, Massachusetts, by the Pilgrim Fathers arriving aboard Mayflower. William Bradford described it and from his intro I would suggest that he had given up the task by the time he began. It was too much for him. He was a broken man, blundering on in torment. It was a moment in history that might have employed a hundred Pilgers and a million sheets of copy paper plus a Remington typewriter for a week or more, but Bill was pole-axed by it.
‘About ten o clocke,’ he began, ‘we came into a deepe Valley, full of brush, wood-gaile and long grasse, through which wee found little paths or tracts, and there we saw a Deere, and found Springs of fresh Water, of which we were hartily glad, and sat us downe and drunke our first New England Water, with as much delight as ever was drunke drinke in all our lives.’
‘Drunke drinke?’ The Sun chief sub might have yelled past the three cigarette stubs adhering to what was left of his lips. ‘You been at the tincture, mate?’
A magazine long ago had a contest to find out how various big-byline writers would record the arrival of God on earth and ready for interview. Hannen Swaffer was a big name of the time with ego to match, heavy with inside knowledge, cigarette ash all down his bib to prove his journalistic qualifications. The best entry concerned him.
His intro was supposedly, ‘So I said to God…’
James Thurber recalled a student contributing to a college magazine who was told to jazz up his intros because the ones he regularly submitted were too tame. As I recall 30 years or so on from reading it, he began, ‘What is the cause of the sores on the tops of all the horses this year?’ My heart bleeds for him, even at this late stage.
Intro-writing produces a form of hysteria not known to the medical profession. Writers, reporters, suffer instant nausea, and the only cure is to reach the second paragraph, the equivalent of stepping ashore from a sinking ship.
The perfect story was said to require a strong intro, a good middle, and a strong end. I have no idea who thought up that one, unless it was a mischief-maker aiming at reducing strong men to tears.
Somebody else along the line thought: ‘No. I have a solution.’ And in came a vogue for the delayed drop. As in this example:
As Arthur Heckington walked along a road near his home yesterday nothing was on his mind beyond thoughts of a holiday.
He was due to go to Cleethorpes for a week.
But a stone coping fell from a three-storey building in Leeds and killed him.
The third-paragraph intro was prominent for some time, particularly in the Sundays. The Sunday Express danced at the sight of it, for the deadly first paragraph had been thwarted.
The thousand-word writers tended to have a technique. They set tranquil scenes before dissecting huge issues. Here is James Cameron, of the News Chronicle, in Israel:
Just now among the flowering groves the air is adrift with the pale scent of orange blossom; the place smells like a wedding. It is beautiful, for those who like their irony by the ton. That is the frontier. One long jumping nerve between Israel and the Arabs – 700 miles of anxiety, bitterness, frustration, anger and by now, very nearly despair.
A nice solution, that, because it suggests competence (‘I’m good with the words, eh? – just look!’) and omnipotence is implied by association. Omnipotence from a mortal man in a suit can be awesome. A Time magazine writer describing nothing more exciting than villagers in, I think from memory, Spain: ‘The dusts of isolation had settled on their lives and obscured their purpose.’
I had a small book once that recorded Time intros and I loaned it to someone who inconveniently died. It is years ago and his widow survives, yet I daren’t ask her whether she ever came across it. In it was a 1950s intro so memorable that I still recall it with confidence:
The old man puffed into sight like a venerable battlewagon steaming up over the horizon. First a smudge of smoke, then the long cigar, then the familiar, stoop-shouldered hulk that a generation had come to know as the silhouette of greatness. Prime Minister Winston Churchill scowled as he emerged from the Queen Mary…
(No purpose in repeating Mulchrone’s twin-rivers intro to Churchill’s lying in state because we all know it, all admire it.*)
Hilde Marchant was in pretty good shape when war began in September, 1939 – ‘It was not until Friday morning, September lst, that I really took the sharp, agonised breath of war. That day it began in a slum in London…’
And John Pilger was being Pilger with the veterans’ march on Washington DC in 1971:
“The truth is out! Mickey Mouse is dead! The good guys are really the bad guys in disguise!” The speaker is William Wyman from New York City. He is nineteen and has no legs. He sits in a wheelchair on the steps of the United States Congress in the midst of a crowd of 300,000, the greatest demonstration America has ever seen.
I always thought The Day of the Triffids had one of the most striking intros – ‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’ The whole, very successful, book hung on that intro. In retrospect, of course, it could equally have described any journalist after a bad night at the King and Keys.
Arthur Christiansen was one of the best-remembered editors of the Daily Express and his perfect intro, laid down in one of his bulletins, read:
Mr. Roland Beaumont was sitting beside the fire last night, recovering from flu, when he heard a radio announcement that he had been awarded the Britannia Trophy for the best air performance of 1952.
It appeared in the stylebook. Alas, the man’s name was not Beaumont, but Beamont. Not so perfect after all.
There are some stories that should begin and end at the intro; otherwise there is no room for the reader’s imagination.
My perfect example of that was in a short:
Firemen were tackling ablaze when a pig bit through the hose.
It was enough. I wanted it to end there. But of course, a sub-editor of the time probably ruined it. Where did the pig come from? Did it just stroll up from nowhere and start chomping away? And the fireman – what did he say when his mighty hose turned from torrent to trickle before his careworn and smoke-laden eyes?
I had a nightmare about intros. In it, there was this ordinary-looking street of terraced houses, and fire broke out in one. Six people were inside, four of them children, and they were trapped. As the fire brigade arrived, their engine hit a police car and overturned. Two policemen died. At No 14, a thief had been surprised by a householder. They fought and the thief was killed. At No 16, a woman, alone in the house, went into labour. There was a suicide at No 18.
I was, in this dream, the sub-editor required to assemble the facts from eight sources and write an intro. I warn you: don’t have nightmares like that. They can be the death of you before dawn reveals your sweated brow.
That particular night of fantasy was brought about by a chief sub-editor who grew tetchy because I took too long in subbing a story for him. ‘Give it to me,’ he said, and began to write. The story was about a ship that had gone down somewhere off South Africa. He wrote his intro very quickly and magically transferred the tragedy to somewhere off Greenland. I did not argue with him as I stood by his side. I assumed at the time that chief sub-editors had the right to move ships if they considered it typographically necessary.
Nowadays, some of the better writers have learnt from the Jack Kerouacs and Hunter S Thompsons to let the stream of consciousness serve.
Kerouak, intro to Lonesome Traveller: ‘Less begin with the sight of me with collar huddled up close to neck and tied around with a handkerchief to keep it tight and snug, as I go trudging across the bleak, dark warehouse lots of the ever lovin San Pedro waterfront…’
Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ‘72 (and note the pastoral link with Cameron):
Outside my new front door the street is full of leaves. My lawn slopes down to the pavement, the grass is still green, but the life is going out of it. Red berries wither on the tree beside my white colonial stoop. In the driveway, my Volvo with blue leather seats and Colorado plates sits facing the brick garage…
When a man gives up drugs he wants big fires in his life – all night long, every night, huge flames in the fireplace…
A quick dip reveals these:
Simon Barnes in The Times – ‘God, I hate politics. Besides, we don’t have politics in Suffolk Coastal. We have John Gummer.’
Caitlin Moran, same newspaper – ‘Of course I’m not going to be late to interview Gordon Brown. Don’t be ridiculous. He’s the Prime Minister, for goodness sake. I’m going to leave the house at 11.30 am.’
Keith Waterhouse in 2009 – ‘You’ve heard of the Nanny State? Yes, you have – you’re living in it. But there’s more to come, as soon as you’ve eaten your greens. The Granny State is on its way.’
The intro lives and mutates but remains, forever, and for most, a problem. And while it lives a million journalists suffer.
In the beginning, was the word…
But which word, for God’s sake?
* All right, all right – if you insist. Mulchrone describing the lying in state of Sir Winston:
Two rivers run silently through London tonight, and one is made of people. Dark and quiet as the night-time Thames itself, it flows through Westminster Hall, eddying about the foot of the rock called Churchill.
Geoffrey Mather, former Daily Express features editor and columnist, runs his own website at www.northtrek.co.uk