A remarkable man you never heard of died last week. In a splendid obituary The Economist salutes the creator of its intellectual identity. As the piece says, Norman Macrae was both brilliant and batty–but mainly brilliant. In December 1988 he “retired”, insofar as people ever retire from The Economist. (“Enjoy your retirement. See you on Monday.”) He marked the occasion with a long article reflecting on his 40 years at the newspaper. He concluded:
I don’t know what I expected… When I joined The Economist in 1949 it seemed unlikely the world would last [this long]. But here we stand, 40 memory-sodden years on, and what have we done? What we have done, largely because the poorest two-thirds of people are living much longer, is approximately to octuple real gross world product. During the brief civilian working lives of us returning soldiers from the second world war, we have added seven times as much to the world’s producing power as was added during all the previous millennia of homo sapiens’s existence. That may help explain why some of us sound and write rather tired. It does not explain why anybody in the next generation, to whom we gladly vacate our posts, can dare to sound pessimistic.
Once in my my early days there I turned up to read proofs on a Thursday morning to find that Norman, as usual, had been busy during the night. A piece of mine had aroused his interest. He had left the first and last paragraphs untouched, and in between had inserted a whole new story on, as it seemed to me, an entirely different subject. “Is that all right?” he asked. I was new. I thought it was good of him to enquire.
On another occasion he told me about his experience of writing a piece for Time. (I think it was Time.) He said he wouldn’t advise it. They sent his copy out for fact-checking, he chuckled. The fact-checker wasn’t sure about one thing and sent it on to another fact-checker. The second fact-checker didn’t know and sent it on to a friend at Harvard. The scholar wasn’t sure and sent it on to a friend in the State Department. The official in the State Department–by this time, two weeks had passed since Norman had filed–wasn’t sure either, but he knew exactly whom to ask. He called his friend in London, Norman duly confirmed his own fact, and the information traveled back up the line. I can picture Norman, eyebrows raised, waiting for my reaction. He laughed, and laughed, and laughed.