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the column of lasting insignificance...
—for August 8, 2015 by John Wilcock

Manhattan Memories

There’s a smartass wisecrack about how any newcomer to the West Coast loses one IQ point for every year he stays there and some people scoff that it’s more like ten. Of course, these skeptics are always New Yorkers who retain impregnable pride in living in what they think of as the center of civilization, they make it all but impossible for a real Noo Yawker to actually leave.

Why would anybody leave the capital of the world to step down in life, to live in some more inferior place? they ask rhetorically, and when you’re a denizen of Manhattan, that rules your thinking for long after your first impulse to get out.

Eventually, though, some of us do escape, even though—for ever afterwards—we still like to define ourselves as ex-New Yorkers rather than acknowledge our initial heritage which in my case is English. Life for most of us, me at least, just isn’t as stimulating in the West as in the East. It’s true that we hold fast to the probably erroneous notion that “if you can deal with New York, you can handle anything”. The Big Apple teaches you to be street smart, to watch your back, to remain hip to all new trends and ideas that might be useful and to bask in your (kept to yourself) superiority.

But it also reminds you that the amusing definition of “a New York minute” (the time between the light turning green and the guy behind honking his horn) is unarguable. And I always used to advise visitors that if they wanted to ask a New Yorker for directions, to be sure to be traveling in the same direction and at the same speed as their target. In other words, New York is as stimulating as all get-out. And a helluva strain at the same time.

Although I’ve written more than 30 books, and produced 800 half-hour television programs, I’ve always regarded myself primarily as a columnist. It was during my earliest days in New York that I had a failed tryout at the Daily News whose prime columnist, Walter Winchell, made a lifelong impression on me—not because of his column’s content but his style. He also invented such amusing portmanteau words as infanticipating.

There were nine dailies in Manhattan at the time and they all carried columns, but he was the master of the ”three-dot” technique which had the merit of not only brevity but irresistible readability. The idea is that you entice somebody into entering the column which instantly ensnares them into following it to the end. I liken it to pulling somebody into a boat with you and riding the white water rapids with all the rising and falling all the ebbs and flows that the trip entails. A good three-dot column has its occasional calm spells and its hidden rocks (inflammatory items are sandwiched between two bland ones), but by and large you must stay to the end.

The source for most of my weekly column has always been a variety of publications that I monitor, always in search of items with legs, i.e. incidents or happenings that would appear to have some implications, that might indicate a future trend. Coming events cast their shadows before as the old adage has it, and it might seem surprising that these indicators are more likely to come from magazines than newspapers. Time and again I have read a lengthy exposé in Harper’s or the Atlantic that breaks as a news story some time later. Such examples of this might have been such subjects as China, potential environmental disasters or some far-off country’s political future.

Trade magazines are virtually unseen by the general public and these frequently provide column items, especially publications devoted to the retail business or the media. There’s so much material of this sort that I could turn out a column every day if I had even more reading time available than the six hours a day I already devote to it.

So my first advice to budding reporters who want to document the zeitgeist would be to read a lot. You might think that being there is the most important way to learn about what’s going on, but you can only be in one place at a time, and in my view the collapse in reporting standards began when hundreds of young music fans with minimal or no writing experience got credentials to write about rock and roll and began to think of themselves as journalists. Some of them became damn good writers but they’d never really learned the ropes of being bona fide newspapermen.

Which brings me to the subject of travel writers, of which there are also two kinds: (i) the elegant stylists who write smooth-as-silk essays about places but give few helpful details, and (ii) the work-horse hacks such as myself who ferret out all the facts and figures, the hotel prices, the restaurant menus, the bus routes, where to get help. It won’t be necessary for me to tell you which group earns the big money.

When I first wrote this memoir, a decade ago, I was living for the summer in a quiet village in Ireland. I had asked my Irish friend, John Kennedy, to find me a really boring place where I’d have no distractions as I wrestled with what remained of my files after too many moves, converting them into a more or less chronological narrative. Carlingford (pop: 650) was ideal with its ruined 12th century King John’s castle, a fabulous bakery/mini mart, seven pubs in its six streets and, across the tidal inlet, the Mountains of Mourne slopin’ down to the sea. No movie theatre, no library, a handful of shops in a pint-sized town backed by Slieve Foy, a 1,900-foot peak forever associated with Ireland’s legendary (and possibly mythical) Queen Maeve. The only night life is in the lively pubs where the three-minute wait between the Guinness being poured and then handed over the counter seems to symbolize the patience of the Irish themselves. (Is this brief delay why Guinness is not more popular in America, the world’s most impatient society?)

John Wilcock and Amber
John & Amber, Sheffield, c. 1964

The biggest event of Carlingford’s year is the annual Leprechaun Hunt every May, when 50 statues (bearing money tags) of the mythical creature are hidden around town. Leprechauns have always been among my favorites, bearing somewhat of a resemblance to myself in the accompanying photograph of myself and my wife Amber dating to 1964.

At the end of the summer, with the files converted into 20 chapters, I returned to my mother’s home near London and began sending out the virtually completed ms. Several agents and a couple of publishers returned it fairly quickly, only one responding to my request for why it seemed unacceptable, although her criticism was eventually echoed by others who read it. “It’s not really an autobiography, more a series of interesting essays” was the gist of her comments. “There’s not enough emotion, confession, or whatever you want to call it, and no continuity”.

Yes, I could appreciate that. I’m definitely not an emotional or “confessional” writer, being a long time newspaperman—a hack some might say—more concerned with narrating the facts than emphasizing my personal opinions. The sob story Angela’s Ashes was big at the time, full of sadness, miserably unhappy childhoods and despair. (Why do readers revel in this stuff so much?)

At any rate, I put the book aside for several years, bringing it out of hiding only recently when I realized that my eventful life would never see the light unless I published it myself. I had paid Xlibris to produce another of my ‘un-publishable” works, Popes and Anti-Popes, subsequently putting it on my website for use as a reference. (It summarizes in less than 300 words each of the 263 popes, a factual document that I had compiled after reading 50 books and reference works in the subject).

Only this spring did I take a second look at my still unpublished autobiography. The critical early readers of the book may remain dissatisfied, I'm afraid, if they read the Manhattan Memories of today. It's still not the gloomy tale of a miserable childhood for which publishers seem to yearn; it has no dramatic disclosures, nothing you could define as a plot. In fact, apart from being chronological it doesn't even have a theme, being little more than an incomplete record of what an undistinguished reporter observed and remembered passing through some interesting times and places, during which he met many interesting people. Objective in my view, subjective maybe, as judged by others.

It has always been hard for me to write personally. All my life, I have been a journalist, committed to serious research and strictly separating facts and opinions. Thus, the book you are hopefully about to read is in the same genre, lots of facts but fewer opinions. This is partly because, although I can remember what happened, it’s difficult to remember what I thought at the time.

And, naturally, there’s no way I’m going to include my sex life in this saga. I probably had my fair share of the ladies and in retrospect admit that I was probably a terrible lover—impatient, inconsiderate and chauvinistic. Mass apologies are belatedly due to any of my former partners who might be reading this. The things that stand out ironically are the missed opportunities: the time in the middle of a house party when Miss X pulled me into a bathroom, flicked off the light anticipating my response. On that, and other occasions, I was frozen in fear and failed to act. And then there were the occasions with which we’re all familiar on which a woman makes overtures that are sadly not detected for one reason or another.

I spent ten years with the saintly Amber and don’t remember that we had bad times in bed although that isn’t necessarily her opinion. I haven’t thought about sex for years which is what one does when there’s almost no prospect of getting any.

Despite the difficulty of actually leaving New York, I finally wrenched myself away but not before all my friends expressed the smug belief that even somebody foolish enough to leave Manhattan for the West, would obviously head for San Francisco, not—goddess forbid—Los Angeles. I did try San Francisco for the first summer but found it too smug and fond of itself to attract me and not only because it seemed impossible to get work. The city, undeniably, is beautiful and in many ways a pleasure to be in, but in my case at least I found the old saw It’s a great place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there absolutely true. San Francisco always appeared to be a self-contained unit that resented outsiders, like an exclusive club that looked askance at outsiders who sought to join.

One of my closest friends, Sasha, lives in San Francisco and when I told him of my project, he was supportive of me, but skeptical of “self-aggrandizing fictions” as he called them. “Let’s face it”, he said, “most autobiographies are refined works of fiction or have huge holes in them where the truth is buried. Or, to put it mildly, are extremely selective”.

Some of the reason for that, he suggested, was that many people told their life story with the aid of ghost writers who—to use one my favorite Gilbert and Sullivan quotes—“add artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative”.

Well, I didn’t add any of that. I may not have told you everything about what happened, but that’s just because I don’t remember all of it. The 26 chapters that follow are all true. Honest!


Chapter 01. Beginnings
Jack Kent Cooke tells me to stay in Canada
Becoming a New Yorker
A new Village newspaper
The casual wisdom of Steve Allen
Chatting with Marilyn Monroe


Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.


comments? send an email to John Wilcock

also available on amazon.com...
Marijuana—The Weed That Changed the World

National Weed (1974, issue #3)


Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my book, and thank you. —JW


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Manhattan MemoriesManhattan Memories
An Autobiography
by John Wilcock

"A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego."

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