Albion Monitor /Commentary


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The Lost Art of Screed

For the second consecutive issue, we've received no letters from our readers. We're puzzled; this section consistently ranks among the most popular parts of the newspaper. Write us! Share your opinions on politics, articles you've read here or elsewhere, or issues of concern. We're listening.

Letters-to-the-Editor are somewhat of a lost art form. Once national leaders communicated to the public in this way, much as they now use Sunday morning TV interview shows. Citizens also used the letters page to communicate important ideas, but they reported the mundane as well:

It may be of interest to record that, in walking through St. James Park today, I noticed a grey wagtail running about on the now temporarily dry bed of the lake, near the dam below the bridge, and occasionally picking small insects out of the cracks in the dam.

Probably the occurrence of this bird in the heart of London has been recorded before, but I have not myself previously noted it in the Park.

P.S. For the purpose of removing doubts, as we say in the House of Commons, I should perhaps add that I mean a grey wagtail and not a pied.

That letter appeared in the London Times on January 24, 1933; the author was Neville Chamberlain. A few days later, Hitler became German Chancellor. Perhaps Mr. Chamberlain should have paid a wee bit more attention to events in Germany and less to birdwatching.

A wonderful collection of Times letters appeared in book form ("Your Obedient Servant," 1976, Methuen), reminding me that the British are great letter writers, particularly when it comes to screeds. This is another withering skill; the people who can produce truly brilliant rants are calling radio talk shows instead. Or even more likely, are the talk show hosts themselves.

Probably every newspaper editor in the country has a folder bulging with favorite screeds collected over the years; a good screed is a work of art. It has a beginning, middle, and -- especially -- an end. The writer usually begin with an innocent enough topic: "I noted with amusement your photo of the President's daughter with her friends..." This is often followed by a transitional non sequitur: "...with, of course, Socks, the first cat to reside at the White House in modern times..." And then, like a rodeo bull lunging from the gate, the screedist charges towards his true subject: "...but if the Congress weren't such sheep they would impeach her adulterous, saxophone-honking father and..."

The British approach is often gentler, but no less bizarre. A complaint over the judging at a cricket match in East Anglia might twist into an vicious attack on the Common Market; observations on lepidoptera could end by denouncing military strategy at the battle of Agincourt in 1415.

For a long time, I thought no American could ever approach English mastery of the form. Then I discovered a self-published cookbook by George and Berthe Herter, "Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices." Written in 1960, it begins with a recipe for corned beef and ends with "In Case of a Hydrogen Bomb Attack You Must Know the Ways of the Wilderness to Survive." In-between are 335 glorious pages that meander past "Fish Marie Antoinette," "Titty Sauce Yams," and a four-page essay on Wyatt Earp's preference for shotguns over pistols.

With a screed on every page, this little classic is the Fanny Farmer of rant. Some are short, piquant digressions: "Nowadays you can buy fresh tomatoes nearly everywhere as well as canned tomatoes. We live in a land of the greatest luxuries the world has ever known. A few hydrogen or cobalt bombs could however, put us back to wilderness times in a matter of minutes."

But the Master Screed can be found in the dessert chapter, wherein the Herters lament the problems of baking using standard, all-purpose flour:

Food editors of magazines, television, and newspapers, and cook book editors for the most part only know how to take pictures. They do not know how to cook and they have all been taken in by this flour and shortening racket. They keep printing recipes with beautiful pictures that will not work. The flour and shortening companies run enough advertisements in the magazines on television and newspapers to control anything that the food editors might print; in fact can actually pick the ones they want for the jobs. The flour companies even carefully get out cook books of their own with recipes that they know will discourage women from baking. The people who control the newspapers, magazines and television go right along on this racket and have cold bloodedly practically destroyed the woman's right to be a good woman and wife and do her own baking. This may seem like a small trifle but it is not. A woman is a natural housewife, cook and baker. Give her idle time from lack of being allowed to bake and even divorces can result. The television moguls, of course, want her to watch their idiotic contest and quiz programs with silly, stupid masters of ceremonies who think acting silly makes them a comedian. If a teenage child acted as stupid and silly as these masters of ceremonies you would question their sanity. Yet this is what the real powers in television have forced onto America.

If you can overlook the distasteful and dated references to women as "natural housewives" with a hormonal need to bake, you probably find yourself almost agreeing with the Herters -- that there likely is a "shortening racket," and Pat Sajack is a key player in the New World Order conspiracy, secretly engineered by Pillsbury.

That would explain a lot, you bet.

Jeff Elliott
Sebastopol, CA

Albion Monitor February 18, 1996 (

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