Gossip, especially if true, keeps the world turning, says Paul Finch
The last gasp of the Silly Season takes place at a Negroni Talks event in Hackney next week. The subject is ‘Gossip’, that favourite demi-monde of journalists and public alike (even posh papers all have a gossip column).
Why is gossip of interest to anyone other than the highest-brow philosopher? Partly because it is about people, not organisations or ideas. As people ourselves, we are interested in the activities of fellow-humans, particularly if they are important, well-known, or personal acquaintances
Gossip often fails the stricter tests needed to publish news (at least in print) – that the content is verifiable from more than one source.
An example would be a short obituary of my father, published in The Guardian online. A regular attender at the Aldeburgh Festival, he would lodge at the home of Benjamin Britten’s sister, Beth. She told him that Britten had talked to her about the pair of them adopting children in the family home. The Guardian declined to include this story in the obit because it could not be independently verified (good for them). Had the story been published as gossip, I don’t think there would have been any problem.
Thus gossip is a sort of secular Apocrypha. Not, you might think, proper territory for the ‘professional’ press, including architecture. Nothing could be further from the truth, not least because architects are tremendous gossips. This is why the oral history of architecture, where it exists, is so important.
To give one example: a University of Westminster homage to Will Alsop gathered together most of the team involved with designing and delivery of his competition-winning regional government building in Marseilles, Le Grand Bleu. The stories, some very funny, came tumbling out, and you realised how limited the formal recording of the building in the professional press had been.
James Stirling was another architect who liked gossip – and a laugh. A newspaper cutting once arrived through the post concerning a court case in Runcorn. The resident of a Stirling housing project, overlooking a railway line, had been convicted of indecent exposure; his unsuccessful defence was that porthole windows in the project had turned him into a flasher. I later found out that the cutting had been sent in by Stirling himself.
Anonymity is an essential element in a successful gossip column, not necessarily because the author is anonymous, but because the sources are. One of my favourite stories had a headline which claimed: ‘World’s favourite architect sues himself’ or words to that effect. It didn’t really matter what the details were, it sounded funny, mysterious, and possibly true.
I don’t suppose the now-retired Bill Jacob (29 years at the RIBA, mostly running reception) will mind me naming him as a source for my all-time favourite ‘Astragal’ item. It concerned obscure flags being flown above 66 Portland Place in an apparently random fashion. This, said Bill, was on the instructions of ex-Navy man Alex Reid, then director-general of the institute.
Certain flags have specific meanings to seafarers, for example: ‘My vessel is stopped and making no way through the water’; ‘Stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals’; ‘Keep clear of me; I am manoeuvering with difficulty.’ It was a narrative description of Alex and RIBA Council.
A brilliant critic
Waking up to the sound of Radio 4 Today presenters barking up the wrong tree is irritating. But just when you think it is time for the BBC to pack it all in, along comes the ultra-brilliant Jonathan Meades and his TV programme on Franco’s architecture, Franco Building. I would have happily paid my annual licence fee for this alone – provided it continues to be available on catch-up. And that there are sequels.