One of the funniest pieces by that great American cartoonist and man of letters, James Thurber, is entitled “File and Forget”. By the way, it was Thurber who also gave us such titles as “My Family and Other Animals” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. I remember him best for a New Yorker cartoon in which a man is sitting comfortably reading his newspaper, while his wife sits disconsolately in a corner. The caption is “With you, I have found peace, and now you say you are leaving me.” It can hardly be bettered as an observation of how most marriages decay.
I came across Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by accident. I was teaching creative writing at the Ghana Institute of Journalism when some bold students asked me to stop talking about the topic I had selected and take them through a short story their English teacher had asked them to write about. “We can’t make head or tail of it, Sir,” they confessed. Now, it is not done, as a teacher, to “poach” the subject matter set by other teachers. But it seemed as if the students were really in a bind over the story. And since their marks in the final exam would be partly based on how well they did in that exercise, I took up the challenge, like one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Roundtable, and rode to their rescue.
It was Thurber’s writing method that had thrown them into confusion. The story is about a young man used to daydreaming. He would be doing one thing, say, walking past a shop, when his mind would suddenly put him into a match of American football, in which he would become the hero by running deftly past four, then five, then – most audaciously feigning to the left but running to the right – past a sixth man built like a mountain, to score a goal, or as they say in American football, “touchdown”.
The next moment, the guy was entering the shop, only to discover that he had entered the wrong shop and that they didn’t sell handkerchiefs there but tarpaulins. Or whatever. You get the picture. The technique employed by Thurber, which made the story amazingly funny, was that he didn’t demarcate any lines between reality and daydreaming, and this sudden inter-cutting was what was confusing the students. Once I had alerted them to the technique and tested them to see whether they could spot the incidents in which reality interchanged positions with fiction, it was plain sailing for them.
Afterwards, I was somewhat disconcerted to hear from the boyfriend of one of the most beautiful girls in the class that I was her “favourite teacher”. I swore under my breath and said to myself: “Why the hell didn’t she tell me so herself but choose the most unsuitable medium to let me know that? Obviously, she’s now a no-go area!” James Thurber would have loved to make something of that incident. But I want to limit myself to a discussion of his story, “File and Forget”. In it, he had the simple task – as it seemed to him – of ordering a book by post from a bookstore. He enclosed the bookstore’s own declared amount of postage, plus the full book price, and waited. A letter came in due course. It thanked him for his order and said he had forgotten to put money with the order. He wrote back to say that he had included payment with his letter. They wrote back to say that they had eventually traced his payment, but that it did not include postage. He looked for the counterfoil of his money order and enclosed it in his reply to show that he had paid for both book and postage.
The next time they wrote, they posted the book but to his neighbour’s address. Plus it was the wrong book … How was he to get them to take the wrong book back and send him the correct book to the right address? I swear, if you read the whole sequence of letters exchanged, you will fall off your chair laughing. I thought about it when I read about a book, just published in the USA, which shows that the errors Thurber wrote about could not happen in this age of computers. The book is entitled “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age” by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (Princeton University Press). The writer points out that not only do computers remember everything but because of their powerful “search engines”, everything written that gets posted on a website is stored on the Internet forever. For instance, if something one did in one’s youth as a prank gets posted on the Internet, whenever one’s name is “searched”, the incident will be there. In perpetuity!
I know from personal experience that what he says is true. For I found my name associated with an untruth in the Report of the Ghana National Reconciliation Commission (NRC), published in 2004. In Volume 4 Chapter 3 Paragraph 2.7.6, appears the following statement: “On 14th December 1967, the NLC (National Liberation Council) caused the dismissal of four editors, three of whom worked for the state-owned press… Their crime was criticising the Abbot Laboratory (a US pharmaceutical company) Agreement with the NLC regime. A new editor for the Daily Graphic, Cameron Duodu, was appointed… He was also later to be dismissed, ironically, by the civilian Progress Party government, for criticising Dr. [Kofi] Busia’s policy of ‘dialogue with South Africa’.”
Whoever wrote this for the NRC had completely stood history on its head! I was appointed editor of the Daily Graphic in 1970 and not in 1967 – three whole years later. So the impression given in the Report that I profited from the dismissal of a number of courageous editors by accepting an appointment from the government that had dismissed them, is totally and cruelly false. But it’s there on the Internet! Whoever wrote that paragraph for the Commission could easily have checked his or her facts, and thus saved me, by not writing such a lie. The Daily Graphic keeps bound copies of its editions in its library, and on the back page, the name of the editor is always to be found. That is required by law. Thus, it was sheer laziness that caused this error.
When I found out about the inaccuracy, I complained to a friend of mine, a former employee of the Commission. He told me that since the Commission had been disbanded, the only person who could cause the error to be corrected was the chairman of the Commission, Mr Justice Amuah-Sekyi. But before I could write to the eminent judge, he unfortunately expired. My only option is to complain to the deputy chairman of the Commission, Brigadier Emmanuel Erskine. But even if I’m able to trace him, can he technically correct the information in the Report, at this late stage? The bitter but funny thing about this story is that the episode of the dismissal of the editors, in which the Report paints me in a bad light, was the exact opposite of what actually happened. In fact, before the editors were dismissed, I was asked by the press officer of the NLC, Mr C. C. Lokko, to come and see him. When I went to the Castle (the seat of government) to see him, he took me straight to the office of the secretary to the cabinet, a Mr Apaloo, and left me with him. Mr Apaloo did not tell me anything about editors being sacked, but cleverly sounded me out on whether I would like to become the editor of the Daily Graphic. I had been criticising the standards of the media in Ghana and so I said yes, I would love to be editor of the paper, to show what a good newspaper could be like.
But something made me add: “I must warn you, Sir: if there is a conflict between the government’s interest and the public interest, I shall go with the public interest.” Mr Apaloo thanked me and I left. I never heard from either him or Mr Lokko again! Later, when the storm about the NLC’s dismissal of the three editors over the Abbott Laboratories controversy broke, I realised how lucky I had been in telling Mr Apaloo exactly what I would do in case such a conflict had broken out between the government and the editors. Had I accepted the appointment and later found out that the editors had been sacked, they would have become heroes while I would have been cast as a villain in the public eye. Only my instinctive determinations to tell the truth to power had saved me. But because I had modestly refused to boast about my prescience, someone had written the untrue, the opposite of what had happened, and that was what was on the Internet. How absolutely ironical!
The truth is that I became editor of the Daily Graphic – three years later – in completely different circumstances. A popularly elected government was now in power, not a military one. How that civilian government could not tolerate my views but sacked me, in a democracy, is one of the paradoxes of the age in which we lived in 1970. To me, my disagreement with Prime Minister Busia over whether our government should entertain “dialogue” with the apartheid regime of South Africa or not, was a chance to do precisely what I had told Mr Apaloo I would: promote the interest of the African people against that of the government of Ghana.