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News & views

Chilcot and other lovers of long reports

[16 July 2016] The report on Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry, published in July 2016 after an elephantine gestation that began in 2009, runs to 2.6million words. There are 12 volumes (cost: £767) and a summary (£30). One reason for the delay has been Maxwellisation, meaning a public inquiry has to put its findings to the people it expects to criticize, thus giving them an opportunity to delay and obstruct as well as reply and reshape. It’s an eponym of Robert Maxwell, the publisher, fraudster, philanthropist and Labour MP whom Harold Wilson (as prime minister and occasional wit) dubbed the bouncing Czech.

Length is often justified by thoroughness. This may well be Chilcot’s defence. After all, he’s an English graduate from Pembroke College, Cambridge and a former civil servant schooled in the doctrines of Ernest Gowers’ Complete Plain Words. 

Sometimes, though, length is just padding and waffle, faults that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has often been accused of in the USA. Robert Kennedy, when attorney general, once tasked it with investigating alleged obscenity in the 1963 hit song Louie Louie. The FBI concluded that the lyrics were ‘unintelligible at any speed’, meaning that the Bureau was ‘unable to interpret any of the wording in the record’. 

But it took them 455 pages and tens of thousands of words to get these simple points across. (Times: obituary of Jack Ely, singer with the Kingsmen, 30 Apr 2015) Not for them the one-page memo beloved of Ronald Reagan during his presidency.

Like many a pop song, Louie Louie is a bit thin on content: a man takes a three-day boat trip to meet his girlfriend in Jamaica, then says ‘ah’ a lot and doesn’t want to leave. The whole track – regarded as inspiring the later wave of punk and garage rock – was recorded for $36 on a boom mic suspended several feet above singer Jack Ely’s head. This and the fact that Ely had just had dental braces fitted may explain why the lyrics defeated the FBI and led the Governor of Indiana to ask radio stations to ban the song. Fortunately, the words have now been transcribed. You can read them and hear the wonderfully rough recording on YouTube (click here). There’s an alternative transcription here. [continued]

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