Against conformity

An Audience with an Elephant

Byron Rogers <em>Aurum Press, 256pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 1854107860

Hard to believe now, but you used to be able to write features journalism about people who were not necessarily beautiful, rich or famous. This all stopped in the early 1980s, when lifestyle came along, competition between papers intensified and advertising departments began to feel they could push features editors around. Somehow, Byron Rogers carried on, and here is a collection of his best articles, which should be lodged in every school of journalism in the country, just in case consumers of newspapers ever become readers again.

The first thing to say is that, for a man who contributes regularly to Saga magazine - as well as to the Telegraph and the Guardian - Rogers is a radically weird writer. Describing a singles weekend he attended at the Hotel de la Bere in Cheltenham, he observes: "My room-mate, a young solicitor from the north, lay glumly on his bed with his golf clubs all around him. The hotel course, so beautifully photographed in the brochure, had been closed." Later, this lawyer perks up, and Rogers watches as he applies unguents to himself before participating in a game of pool, "smelling like a large boiled sweet". In the course of profiling an octogenarian triathlete, Rogers mentions that the Leicester triathlon "is stopped at sunset, like social life in Transylvania". Triathlons involve cycling, and Rogers writes of his man that ". . . he keeps his teeth in his saddlebag. Not only is he the only living triathlete to do this, he is probably the only triathlete to have a saddlebag at all."

Very often, as if putting two fingers up to the kind of modern editorial neurosis that demands a news peg for every feature (that peg often being employed to justify articles of incredible dullness), Rogers plunges into the past. Included here is the story of a man who, a long time ago, fell off a church; another concerns a wallpaper salesman from Penarth who caught a 9ft-long sturgeon. That the wallpaper salesman is dead doesn't stop Rogers: he brings him alive through his writing. He also encounters a Mr Sparry, a man whose claim to fame (well, it'll do for Rogers) is that he has his friends round for tea a lot. Rogers says of him: "He walks and talks with a sort of silky stateliness so that the world you know is a long way off."

As is probably evident, Rogers trades in far more than just grotesquerie. He is a wonderful writer: droll, poignant and dreamy, but somehow tough with it, and never sentimental, despite a potentially dangerous taste for marginal railway lines, churches, Wales, Midland villages, the countryside, ghosts and the past in general. "It has been a bizarre career," he writes in the foreword to this book. "I doubt if anyone else would want to follow it, or could any more."

Well, if this review has an awestruck tone, that's because I myself had a go, sustaining myself by cutting out articles by Rogers and the small band of others capable of becoming depressed at the thought of interviewing Kylie Minogue. I was encouraged by a succession of editors but, at best, they would take my article on the mouse-fanciers in Cleckheaton who were trying to breed a blue mouse only if some twit who presented a TV programme could be connected to the project. Having failed in my attempt to forge a career in the Rogers line, I now take on any journalism that pays, and I suppose I can console myself that, if the brilliant Byron Rogers didn't get rich and famous doing this kind of unfashionable feature, there was never very much hope for the rest of us.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and rise of President Blair