In Issue 1/2022

First Contact

I wonder whether Tiro’s readers recall the first time that they encountered the form of reporting or transcription that now constitutes their job. Let us assume that most readers have become professionals in at least one such area. Was it when you began training which led to that job, or on the first day at work? In retrospect, this reporter knows almost exactly when he first read a form of Hansard, as official reports for bodies based on the UK Parliament system are usually known. It was in a novel called The Plague Dogs, at the tender age of 14. Rereading it, the book offers a sustained and detailed example of deploying an official reporting style within a fictional narrative. I hope it may prompt recollections of fictional examples that echo other readers’ own work.

The contributor’s cherished copy of the first paperback edition (Penguin Books, 1978)
The contributor’s cherished copy of the first paperback edition (Penguin Books, 1978)

What concerns me here are not mere references to anyone working in a reporting or transcribing role, as Charles Dickens famously did in the 1830s, summing up his experience in the novel David Copperfield. It is about using the style of an official report as part of the published narrative. The ultimate example of this is probably Verbatim: A Novel by Jeff Bursey, who has worked as a Hansard reporter in the province of Prince Edward Island, Canada. “Verbatim” is a pivotal word for many official reporters but Bursey’s innovative novel, first published in 2006, was printed using the side-by-side columns of the Hansard publishing format. He relates the majority of his tale of dirty tricks and procedural troubles in an unnamed provincial assembly purely through that format for reporting its debates, interspersed with memos and emails between its staff. 

A senior civil servant turned author

The author of The Plague Dogs, the example I read so long ago, may well be a surprise: it was Richard Adams, who redefined anthropomorphic children’s books with his novel about an exiled group of rabbits, Watership Down, in 1972. Until the runaway success of that publication, however, Adams was a long-serving senior British civil servant, attaining the rank of Under-Secretary in a government department. Working in London’s Whitehall, a stone’s throw from the UK Parliament, such a senior official would surely have needed to read the Hansard of any proceedings relevant to advising his department’s Ministers or responding to questions they received in Parliament. This explains why his fictional use of official reporting, while satirical, remains so uncannily familiar to a parliamentary reporter.

The central narrative of The Plague Dogs concerns the escape of two canines from a controversial animal research institution, where they were cruelly experimented upon, and their survival among the rugged hills of England’s celebrated Lake District. This is told realistically from their own perspective: no cute doggies but “Nature, red in tooth and claw”, as the poet Tennyson put it. Yet Adams’ parallel narrative is about the human response to the dogs’ escape, including the political fallout. At first, they present a local nuisance to sheep-farmers in the national park but later a national newspaper, the fictional London Orator, creates a full-on media and political storm. Its sensationalist reporting is based on the slight possibility that the dogs were in contact with samples of bubonic plague, no less, during their escape from the research laboratories.

Unusual layouts allow reproductions of reporting

Within this secondary narrative an early appearance is made by the senior civil servants of the Whitehall department responsible, including the Under-Secretary of Adams’ own rank, followed by their government Ministers.In chapter VII onwards, Adams includes samples of the Orator’s excitable reporting in a two-column newspaper layout, breaking the usual structure of a novel’s across-the-page text. Chapter X starts with one such newspaper report after a man falls to his death while tracking the dogs, followed by an editorial edged in black as a mark of respect.

Then suddenly, as we reach the point later that day when questions are being asked about the dogs’ escapades in Parliament, there appears another two-column layout—with a heading whose resonance I could never have guessed when aged 14:

OFFICIAL REPORT

(PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES)

For the next 10 pages or so of the novel, Adams’ uses the conventions of the Official Report to convey the debate and the Minister’s defensive response to it. What passed me by at the time, but seems a remarkable foreshadowing of my later career, was the range of third-person references to Members in true Hansard style. Each speaker is addressing—or is expected to address—the chair of proceedings (“Mr Speaker”), rather than each other, for example. Here was my first exposure, surely, to an “hon. and learned Member” and an “hon. and gallant Gentleman”—the abbreviation is required for a courteous reference to an opponent being “honourable”.

In reply, the Minister refers to “my rt. hon Friend the Secretary of State for Defence”. The UK Parliament has specific rules for how certain Members should be described by others and they vary between the two Houses (Commons and Lords). Incidentally, this is something that Hansard reporters will be expected to report accurately within each House’s conventions, even if a Member makes the wrong reference.

The opening section of fictitious House of Commons Hansard

So many of the little details that are bread and butter to my Hansard colleagues at Westminster—the time-stamp to start a new debate; the rare use of [Laughter.] to convey a reaction in the House, because the Member speaking refers to it; a reference to the Government being plural not singular; the phrase “from a sedentary position” to indicate a remark made by someone without rising to their feet—were included by Adams in those few pages. He also conveyed the arguments in grammatical sentences that should meet with editorial approval to this day. I had no idea what journey I had begun by starting to familiarise myself with such material, but it fascinates me to look back on it now and realise the long shadow it cast for me.

A second fictitious passage, showing different ways of referring to Members

It is my assumption that there will be other examples in fiction that readers of Tiro may be aware of, so this may be a subject that this journal can return to in due course. Please write in if you know of any.    

Mark Wyman began working for the Official Reports of the UK Parliament in 2004; he previously worked for various publishers and the BBC. He is currently a sub-editing reporter within the Hansard office for the House of Lords.

Comments
  • Jeff Bursey
    Reply

    Mark, hello. I’m the author of Verbatim: A Novel, and wanted to write a line or two about your article.

    First, I appreciate the attention my first novel is receiving in such an apt journal, 12 years after it was first published (in hardcover in 2010, not in 2006) and four years after it appeared in paperback with additional material (including a made-up transcribed ‘symposium’ on it by another writer by way of introduction). Second, I worked in Hansard in Newfoundland and Labrador from 1990-2000 and in Hansard PEI from 2003-2017. You, and others, may be interested to know I started writing V: AN in 1993 and finished it in January 1995. Yes, it took 15 years to see daylight. Over those years, and this is my third point, I never came across anything resembling Hansard in fiction except for a small portion of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which didn’t mimic the style of Hansard but did incorporate fictitious debates from India’s parliament.

    Lastly, you say “Verbatim”is a pivotal term for reporters writing down debates (of course, in many jurisdictions it’s verbatim in extenso, as Beauchesne puts it). For novelistic purposes, the _colon_ in the title is the pivot. The epigraph, from a writer of mixed background (Canadian and British), Wyndham Lewis, sums up the book: “Should we describe it as Satire (merely because it does not refine the truth) or should we call it realism?” Like a political debate, my novel’s content leaves it to the readers to decide that, and much else.

    Thanks, again, for the attention you bring to my novel.

    Cordially,
    Jeff Bursey
    author of
    Assume A Position: Considerations and Interviews (2022)
    an impalpable certain rest (2021)
    Unidentified man at left of photo (2020)
    Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (2016)
    Mirrors on which dust has fallen (2015)
    Verbatim: A Novel (2010, 2018)

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.