Thursday, April 23, 2009

If they ever offer me a vice-regal job...

I love short pieces in newspapers. Sure there are times when I like to dig into a meaty, 10,000 word feature, but the pieces that are more likely to inspire envy and delight are often small, tight, funny, and sharp.

That's partly because, like all editors, I have spent many, many hours looking for creative little things that I can use to fill those annoying holes that appear when a story is too short or an ad gets pulled. As a result, I enjoy seeing what other editors do, and what good writers can achieve when asked to tell a story in under 200 words.

Movie reviewers almost always do it well (check out Peter Travers at Rolling Stone, who's often at his best when at his briefest). John Heinzl's Stars and Dogs column in the Globe is a series of delightful 65 words summaries of strong or weak stocks. E.B. White was a genius at the short piece -- sure, he's best known as the author of Charlotte's Web and the co-author of Elements of Style, but some of his best writing was found in the squibs he produced for the New Yorker: 150 words, unsigned, and almost always gems.

Then there are the pieces that are entertaining just because of what they are, because they reflect something odd about the community that reads them. Which brings me to the Vice-Regal report in the Brisbane Courier-Mail.

I like the Courier-Mail (and not just because they pay their freelancers very quickly, although that is most appreciated). It's a good, entertaining, well-balanced paper. But every good paper has its quirks, and the C-M's is found at the bottom of the comics page.

The bottom quarter of that page is given over to four features: On This Day, Today's Birthdays, Shipping News, and Vice-Regal. The first two you see everywhere, lists of what happened on this day in 1847, and which actress shares a birthday with which long-dead writer (great fun if you try to picture the birthday party that would be hosted by Immanual Kant, Aaron Spelling and Queen Isabella I, for example.)

The shipping news is less common, for obvious reasons, but it's usually found in most port city papers. But never before have I seen a regular Vice-Regal report.

Every day the paper faithfully reports what the Governor of Queensland did the day before. It's one long paragraph, written very formally, with everyone's title duly spelled out -- the Governor is always "Her Excellency, Ms Penelope Wensley, AO" on first reference and Her Excellency on second. And it's almost always insanely boring.

Today we learned that Her Excellency toured Roma House and Mission Australia, and was briefed on their mission to help the homeless, after which she had tea with the board. Very worthy work, no doubt, and probably somewhat interesting if you only had that sort of briefing and tour occasionally. But poor Ms. Wensley does that every day. On Monday she toured the Springfield City Development Project and was "briefed on education, health and technology aspects of the Springfield Project." Friday she opened the Distribution Centre and Office of the Mt Gravatt Meals on Wheels Service. On Thursday she was at the Brisbane Holiday Inn announcing the Queensland Mother of the Year for 2009, then hosted the annual awards ceremony for the Queensland Guides. If you want more you can see all the details on her web site.

She's often accompanied in her rounds by Mr Stuart McCosker, her husband. In a previous life, he was a vet, which I always thought had to be one of the worst jobs around. After a few weeks of being the Governor's companion, though, I might rethink it: sticking my arm up cow's bums for a living might not look so bad after all.

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