Why the silly season is a serious business...

Patricia Feehily


Patricia Feehily

Why the silly season is a serious business...

THERE were four distinct seasons in a single day last week, which should have made me feel like a woman for all seasons.

It didn’t do anything at all for me, to be honest, apart from exacerbating my seasonal affective disorder, which is not due to kick in until Halloween at least.

I’ve always associated August with the start of the autumnal season. The leaves are falling even as I write, and if that isn’t the Fall, then call me Davy. The Met office, however, insists that we are now in the final month of summer. And to add to the confusion, one amateur forecaster says that we won’t see the real start of summer until early in September, which means that it will be over before it begins. No wonder I’m sad and bewildered.

This, however, is nothing compared to the August syndrome that plagued me throughout my working life as a journalist. It started right after the Bank Holiday every year, when my resistance was low from a couple of days of carousing and by the time it came to an end on the first week of September, I’d be drained from the demands of improvisation imposed by the ‘silly season’. Any journalist worth his or her salt would have booked a holiday well in advance, but, like nearly everything else that hit me in life, I never saw it coming until it was on top of me.

The trouble was that I took the silly season seriously, which was probably even dumber than failing to get out of the way before it fell. The very title, which apparently was first coined in a ‘Saturday Review’ column during a news famine in 1861, suggested that frivolity was not only acceptable, but a welcome break from weeks of ‘hard news’ generated by district court sittings and local authority meetings. I have no problem being frivolous now, but back then I took myself very seriously and nearly went mad trying to fill the vacuum. I wasn’t exactly praying for a disaster, but something had to happen, I told myself solemnly.

I knew I was in trouble when I found myself, during a particularly bad drought, trying to put a banner headline on a missing dog story. The dog days of Summer for sure! Once I tried asking a few local politicians where they were spending their holidays and most of them told me to get lost. Now if someone had told me then that the silly season was universal in the newspaper world and that in some countries the annual slow news season was known, with great hilarity, as ‘cucumber time’, I’d probably have felt much better. Yo readers, it’s cucumber time. The gentry are out of town!

I spent my very first ‘silly season’ in a small newspaper, where the senior reporter – there were only two of us in the office – had taken the first two weeks of August off. Wise man!

I’d like to be able to say that it was the makings of me – being plunged in at the deep end without even a court in session – but, really, I think it left me unhinged. In all the silly seasons that followed, none could ever compare with the trauma of that first one.

It started ominously. There was an eerie silence around the place when I arrived into work that Tuesday morning, after the August bank holiday, and I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong.

First I thought I had been deafened by Big Tom who was playing at the Toomevara marquee the night before. Then it dawned on me. The re-assuring noise of the four linotype machines, which sounded, at full swing, like heavy rainfall, was absent, and the four compositors were standing around utterly starved for copy.

I ran upstairs, fished a few local notes from the post and fed them to the hungry crew, who looked at them disdainfully and didn’t even bother to switch on the machines. I was told afterwards that it was company policy to save on electricity when the copy flow dried up. I tried to write my weekly column ‘It’s a Woman’s World’, but my mind was so focussed on the news famine, that I couldn’t think of a single idea.

Looking back now, I suppose I could have written about the delights of cucumber sandwiches, but as I said, I didn’t even know it was cucumber time.

Shortly afterwards, the editor, who was then in his eighties came upstairs saying matter of factly - he didn’t do panic - “the printers have no copy”. “You’ll have to get creative,” he added.

Fulminating silently over the fact that there were four of them and only one of me, I thought of fleeing the scene altogether. But I was kind of transfixed. I searched the national newspapers for something with a local angle that I could cut and paste in a hurry. The French had just performed a nuclear test at Fangataufa Island and Hurricane Celia was raging in the Gulf, but the chances of anyone from our town being caught up in either event were slim.

Sometime later, the editor, still unruffled, told me that green algae had appeared on Lough Derg. I had no idea what green algae was, but it saved the day. In the days and months and years that followed, I wrote acres of columns about algae, even when it wasn’t present. I became an expert on pollution.

I also learned that the silly season was designed for trivia and that stories about quaint animals, weather signs, unusual manifestations of nature or anything my imagination could conjure up, would suffice to keep the linotype machines purring, whatever about the readers. “The Paper is gone to pot,” one reader told me in the middle of a silly season once, but it came out, didn’t it?

I don’t know if there is such a thing as a silly season any more. Nothing really grinds to a halt now and the local has become truly cosmopolitan. We’re no longer living in a time warp either.

How, for example, could I have envisaged, during that traumatic 1970 silly season, that a nine year old boy with roots down the road in Moneygall, was already on the way to becoming the first black President of the US.

But then why am I writing about the silly season at this particular time?