Journalism, even of the more serious variety, is no more immune to fads and fashions than a blushing teenager.
So it is no surprise that the old-fangled profile piece, which used to be a coolly objective mini-biography of someone in the news, has been transformed into an exciting blend of journalisme vérité and nouvelle cuisine.
It works like this: the journalist invites his or her subject to lunch, usually at one of London’s trendier eating places, and tapes their conversation. Not much wrong with that; it’s good for the expenses and the digestive juices and, journalists being vain creatures, it’s a thrill to be seen in public with a “face”.
Where it goes wrong is in the printed result, which is not a profile as such but a piece of reportage that takes the reader from soup to nuts, and in extreme cases, to satisfied post-prandial burping. It is all maddeningly superfluous, rather as if a plumber, come to fix your lavatory, insists on telling you the route he took to reach your house and the means by which he came to grips with your ball-cock.
An especially fine example of the genre recently took up a page of The Daily Telegraph. Headed “Kirsty – the inside story”, it was an account of a conversation over lunch between Kirsty Young – “the coolest news chick in town” – and Jan Moir. (It was difficult to escape Miss Young in that morning’s paper. An ad on page one gave five facts about her including: “Despite his name, Trevor McDonald isn’t Scottish. Kirsty Young is.”)
Amazingly, Jan Moir contrives a brilliant new twist to journalisme vérité by spying on her subject before they actually meet. “Kirsty Young hurries through the wintry rain on Bond Street, turns into Nicole Fahri and clicks downstairs to the store’s basement restaurant.”
Stealthily, Jan follows Kirsty to the cloakroom. “She checks her coat and an armful of stiff, shiny carrier bags; fresh booty from the luxe emporiums which proliferate in this part of the world.”
By now the reader is gripped. Will Kirsty go into the powder room? Which cubicle will she choose? Shall we hear the sound of the cistern flushing deep beneath the wintry rain and luxe emporia above? Alas no.
When next we see Kirsty, she has chosen a corner table and ordered a glass of white wine. “Because, well, what the heck? There are more than seven hours to go before she’s scheduled to present the evening news on Channel 5.” One marvels at Miss Moir, who is not only gum-shoeing sleuth but mind reader too. But what’s Kirsty up to?
“She slips on a pair of thick tortoiseshell spectacles, reads a magazine and nibbles at a hunk of bread.” Thank heaven for the thick lenses. When you’re the coolest news chick in town there are few things more embarrassing than to be seen reading a hunk of bread and nibbling at a magazine.
Back to Jan, who at last drops her cover and slips into the open. “And this is how I find her,” she writes. “That blunt-cut, coffee and cream hair casting a shadow over a copy of The Spectator, her slim shoulders encased in the expensive folds of a charcoal wool jacket and sharply tailored shirt; she is a study in metro chic right down to her claret coloured fingernails.
We leave them briefly, seated at that corner table perusing the menu. Thoughtfully, while the waiter hovers in the background, Jan fills in the reader’s time by telling us something about Kirsty other than the cut of her shirt.
She has a fresh approach to news, which involves perching on her desk or striding about. Rather like those water skiers one reads about on car stickers, she does it standing up, even interviewing the Prime Minister with both on their feet “as if they were premature party guests”. She goes into a semi-yogic trance if things go wrong (which must be alarming for her interviewees), has a voice that sounds as if she gargles with buttered rum, and of course, has had to “withstand the acute hostility held in special reserve for successful women who have the temerity to be blonde and attractive as well”. (Which, though acute, is nothing like as severe as the seething, foot stamping, foaming-at-the-mouth, pickled-in-bile rage held in reserve for women with blunt-cut coffee and cream hair.)
Jan steers the conversation to Kirsty’s past. “You have had a rather colourful life and some, er, exciting boyfriends over the years.”
“Thank you for that kind choice of words. Now, I think I’ll have the roast pumpkin with mushrooms,” says Kirsty, with the kind of detached control accomplished by years of practice and polish.
Jan was fortunate that Kirsty was hungry. With an appetite less keen, she might have slipped into one of her semi-yogic trances, and who knows how long that would have lasted?
And that’s it, really. Time goes fast when you’re having fun, and before we know it lunch is finished and Jan and Kirsty go to get their coats.
Jan, observant as ever, notices Kirsty gathering up her pile of glossy bags, including one from Tiffany’s. “Not a huge diamond bracelet,” grins Kirsty, tapping the bag with her claret nails.
And so we leave them, clicking upstairs into the wintry rain and all the thrilling years ahead as media chicks about town.