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I can't think why, but William Butler Yeats hated journalists

PUBLISHED: 14:00 20 March 2008 | UPDATED: 14:53 07 September 2010

I like William Butler Yeats but with a reasonable degree of certainty I can say that he wouldn t have liked me. Not because I have little time for indulging in the kind of Irish sentimentality that he often wallowed in. That s something we could have dis

I like William Butler Yeats but with a reasonable degree of certainty I can say that he wouldn't have liked me.

Not because I have little time for indulging in the kind of Irish sentimentality that he often wallowed in. That's something we could have discussed like grown ups - but he would surely never have forgiven me for the way I earn a living.

In fact, WBY, one of the first people to show me that a collection of ordinary words could become a thing of beauty when strung together in perfect order, was responsible for one of the finest professional put downs known to man.

''I hate journalists,'' he once pronounced. ''There is nothing in them but tittering jeering emptiness... the shallowest people on the ridge of the earth.''

Now I have to confess that I know more than a few journalists who would fit comfortably into that category. Some would be man or woman enough to wear the cap of disdain with a certain degree of pride.

Nor would the hacks in question be remotely phased by being the objects of such withering criticism, coming as it did from someone so removed from everyday reality that he spent most of his life writing what they would regard as meaningless and irrelevant drivel.

Personally speaking, I think the WBY slur a trifle hard on most of the journalists I've worked with. Still, as the great Mark Twain might have said, it was 'a mighty fine insult' by any standards.

The art of insulting people memorably is not as easy as it seems. But when it is done well, the effect can be devastatingly irreversible.

I once worked for many years in a town that has still to recover from being insulted by another poet of note, more than half a century ago. The town was Slough and the poet was one of Highgate's own, the late Sir John Betjeman. A lovely man by all accounts, but his lampooning 'Come Friendly Bombs and fall on Slough, it isn't fit for humans now' condemned the citizens of that town to a life of perpetual inferiority.

Twenty years ago, the people of Slough responded with a book of poems optimistically entitled: In Praise of Slough. As it happened, there wasn't quite enough praise to fill the pages, and a 'dissident's section' had to be hastily introduced at the rear.

My favourite offering was from one Kevin Lee, aged seven and a half. In its entirety it read: ''Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough - and make sure you give the Trading Estate a good pasting.'' Where is he now, I often wonder.

Geoff Martin

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