Whenever I visited the late Raymond A. Jamieson, QC the first thing he’d ask is, “What’s the news?” Initially I fashioned the enquiry purely rhetorical. I have come to think otherwise. I now find myself asking the same thing of whomever I encounter in casual conversation. The query is perfectly genuine and not a formality. I have discovered that the seemingly inconsequential probe is code for deeper exploration. While its superficial meaning is bland enough to be passed off as mere gossip, if the person to whom it is directed is at all inclined to foster healthful dialogue (or even malicious slurs for that matter) then the door is wide open. Pretty much anything passes as news. I do however think that the underlying import of the term is more substantive than a chronicle of one’s recent agenda. To the sensitive listener the inherent point of the investigation is something with a bit of meat on it.
What, you might well ask, is the attraction of news? It is in my opinion an elemental feature of the condition humaine by which I mean not a reference to André Malraux but rather to the general state of human relations. When once we have exhausted the irrelevant dribble of materialism, spiritualism and philosophy as a whole, we’re left with the austere yearning to know how our companions have spent their time. All else by way of dialogue is susceptible to disguise and jargon. Small wonder the news is so often a reiteration of the facts. Indeed a clever account of the news will provide only the facts and leave the interpretation to others. That is the delight of the analysis. The object isn’t simply knowledge but resolving doubt and solving a problem. We learn from the experience of others and therein lies the substance of the question. Its open-ended simplicity corresponds to the basic nature of human relationships. It represents a chance to synthesize in an instant the sum of one’s latest endeavours.
Admittedly the person who sets the ball rolling by asking “What’s the news?” has an advantage. This effectively transfers the burden of meaningful communication to one’s respondent. Whether the ball is picked up and carried determines the outcome of this social sport. To the unlearned and unintelligent, the question may be lost though hopefully one is rewarded with digestible fodder. Certainly the willingness to cooperate in this venture is the secret to unlocking its resource. Though reciprocity is de rigueur it is far more than a prescription of fashion or etiquette. It is the very foundation of our social compact; viz., sharing. If people fail to rise to the occasion the moment slips away unnoticed. Too often we are willing to embrace the uninspired in place of the extraordinary. Like passing ships the convention may be unremarkable.
If on the other hand one is rewarded with the communication of the news there is no telling to what elevation the conversation may rise. Each particle of news builds on the other and ultimately one can be assured of a construct worth sharing. News can be both refreshing and enlivening; topical and dramatic; informative and expanding; awakening and stirring. Its obvious connection to the actors being described nourishes both intrigue and pleasure. Unlike commercial transactions there is never anything tangible exchanged. Yet how thoroughly enraptured we become to know “What’s the news?”