Sunday, March 25, 2018

Two milestones, a new child (though not mine) and some throwaway comments on ‘art’

The next three weeks will mark certain milestones in my life.

First of all, I shall be hanging up my eyeshade, pot of glue, em rule and the finest collection of pencils known to mankind since Alfred the Great and drawing a line under my life serving in Her Majesty’s Press a week on Wednesday (that’s Wednesday, April 4, in those who still deal in new money). By then I shall have fought the good fight of keeping the public informed of the latest diets, a motley and substantial body of opinions held by some of the shallowest minds alive today and generally helping to preserve and protect the Public’s Right to Buy a Newspaper for almost 44 years.

If I had the strength and purity of heart to carry on until early June, it would be a round 44 years, but fighting the good fight does take its toll. And anyway I read somewhere that if you are to retire (and live in Old Blighty), you are best advised to do it before the turn of the tax year which this year is a day after my capitulation on April 5. I have no idea why that is a good idea, but I’ll – for once in my life – go with the flow.

That Wednesday would have been my last shift for the week, so I shall make it my last shift for the year and, well, for ever. A statistic which still amazes me is that by then I shall have been working shifts for the Daily Mail for well over 27 years. I worked my first in September 1990 (and until December 1995 was also working shifts on other nationals). Quite how I haven’t been rumbled, and they most certainly had their chances given my long list of dropped bollocks and cocks-up (only a sub-editor would be prissy enough to write ‘cocks-up’ rather than the far saner, though strictly incorrect, ‘cock-ups’).

As I usual, I am organising a leaving-do and am going through the equally usual distress over whether I have been too optimistic about the numbers who might turn up and have ordered to much food, or whether quite a few will attend and I haven’t ordered enough. The folk I work with cannot get away from work until after 10pm, but I have invited others around the building with whom I am friendly and who don’t work that late and so shall be in attendance from 7.45pm on. Will the scoff the lot? Or not? These things make for worries.

. . .

The second milestone will come on or around April 13, the following week, when, God willing and there are no complications, I shall become a grandfather. My daughter is expecting a baby girl. She will only be 21 in August, and although in times gone by young women began having their children from their late teens to early twenties, more recently the trend has been for having them later, so I pretty much expected never to be a grandfather.

Well, now I shall, and as I have always like children and as far as I am concerned they can never make enough noise the sails – God willing, again – see set for a fair wind. It is, of course, always silly to count your chickens before they have hatched, and who knows, when the young lass is hitting her tweens and might by then have a sibling or two, I shall be in my late seventies, so perhaps I shan’t be to chuffed to have youngsters running around disturbing what, I assume, will be my afternoon naps. Let’s see. But if you have a heart, wish my daughter well (and, of course, all other young women about to given birth to their first).

In keeping with modern times, she is not married, but I am pleased to say she is in a strong relationship with a hard-working man who is just a few years older than she is. Still, I do sometimes wonder whether after all the spoiling my wife has been handing out she will is quite ready for the hard work. But then, if she isn’t, there’s not a lot she can do about it now. (As for spoiling, I spoil both of my children, too, but in very different way.)

A week later my son, not 19 until May 25, is off – on his own – to take a look around Central America. I can’t claim not to be a little apprehensive, in that trouble in the countries he intends visiting if often in the presence of a firearm, which is not the case in Bodmin and Newquay where he has so far been spending a little time. But …

He was going to go with two friends, but for one reason or another they both bowed out and he decided to go ahead with the trip anyway. Well, God speed (and take care).

. . .

That is pretty much all my personal news taken care of. I haven’t bought any more laptops or phones, so there is nothing to report on that score. What, as I think I have pointed out before, my retirement will bring is confirmation either way or whether at heart I am really only one of life’s bullshitters or not. I like to think ‘not’, but it is up to me, and only up to me, to prove the point. In a way I am rather looking forward to it.

Quite how my wife will cope with having me around all week, every week remains to be seen. To be frank she all too often gives the impression of barely tolerating me, and I am, unusually, I grant you, for once not exaggerating. I shan’t here go into too much detail (for one thing she would not be able to give her side of the story) but our marriage has most certainly not been a Cornish rerun of Romeo And Juliet. But then I suspect hardly any marriage is. I do all too often get the impression that she regards me as little more than her means of making sure the bills are met, but maybe I am being too cynical. And maybe not. But what the hell. I shall be 69 on November 21 and with a bit of luck I could have a good ten years ahead of me, so it is up to me to put it to good use.

. . .

Driving back from The Brewers Arms in South Petherton where I usually drop off for two large glasses of wine before carrying on my journey, many different things occur to me which I think might be worth exploring in this blog. To explain that a little, I find that I am not a great thinker when it comes to ‘thinking’, and that I hone my thoughts and beliefs far more in debate (preferably with someone I don’t agree with) or by writing (as in this blog).

For example, last week I went to the workshop of a – I think rather good – potter called Paul Jackson, of Helland Bridge, to buy a wedding present for my niece and goddaughter who is getting married on May 26. In the event I didn’t buy something (it was to be a plate because plates are more easily carried in a suitcase than another piece, but a, well, jug). Here are a few images of some of his work.

Among other things, I like his colours.

I am that curious sort who prefers his art to be wholly useless and just something to be enjoyed. And unlike Seth Cardew, who I used to visit in Spain but who died last February, Paul’s pieces are just that: pieces which exist solely to be themselves and exist. Yes, there are other approaches to art, but that is mine.

I mention Paul because we spent some time (and were later joined by his wife) talking about ‘art’ and I found myself again expounding on my rather contrarian views on ‘what art is’. I think I might have mentioned this before, but my view, my conviction, in fact, though a conviction which flies wholly in the face of accepted notions, is that everything produced, from the plastic arts, to the literary arts to music is ‘art’. But that most certainly doesn’t mean that it is necessarily per se worthwhile.

The distinction comes when we consider individual ‘works’ in themselves. So I am far, far more inclined to making a distinction between ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’ as opposed to the current and contemporary view of ‘this is art’ and ‘this is not art’ and that the judgment is made by experts. If nothing else my approach if far more manageable and, if this doesn’t sound to naff, far more democratic. I do so hate snobbery in any and all of its forms, and the ‘art world’ is chock-a-bloc with such snobbery.

As a parting thought I shall leave you with the observation that a Picasso is only worth the several million it can command at auction solely because some sap or other (usually to show off how much moolah he has and that he can afford it) is willing to pay several million for it and outbid anyone who threatens to spoil is bout of boasting.

If the consensus were somehow to gain ground as to be the overwhelming consensus that Picasso ‘is OK, but most certainly not the great artist we have so far seen him as’, just watch those market valuations plummet. Here’s another example: we now know that the renowned sculptor Eric Gill was not just a paedophile but an incestuous paedophile. Does that have any bearing whatsoever on how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the art he produced is? Of course, it doesn’t, and it would be cant to suggest otherwise.

Several years ago, the British potter Grayson Perry (I’ve only seen his work in pictures and never in real life, and I can’t say think it is ‘better’ than Paul Jackson’s, i.e. I prefer Paul Jackson’s) gave the BBC Radio 4’s Reith Lectures, and in three on subsequent weeks, he tried to ‘define’ art. Well, by his own admission Perry didn’t manage it, but there was a anecdote he retailed which does slightly illuminate what I am talking about. He recalls how he was once talking to a New York art dealer who sold pieces to the very rich and asked him whether there were any works he found he could never sell. ‘Yes,’ the dealer told him, ‘ anything which is too big to get into the lift of an upscale Manhattan apartment block’. Seems like a throwaway anecdote but it on just a little reflection it does tell us rather more than we think about the ‘worth’ of art.

Pip, pip.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

‘Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock’. Funny, then, how folk still try

I was at primary school in Britain, the Sacred Heart School, in Station Rd., Henley-on-Thames, which moved to Greys Hill, both in Henley-on-Thames, from September 1954 to June 1959. I can’t remember being taught any history there. In fact, I don’t think any primary school teaches history, except, of course, at the Dick and Dora level of ‘the Vikings were a ferocious, warlike people from the cold North who drank much mead and wore helmets with horns, even in bed’. After that it was a year at Steubenschule, in Berlin-Charlottenburg, just down the road from where we live in the Olympische Straße, then three years at Das Canisius Kolleg, in Berlin-Tiergarten.

If we were taught history at the Steubenschule, it must have passed me by, because I can’t remember any of it, and all I do remember of history at Das Canisius Kolleg was that it was Ancient Roman history (though don’t hold me to that).

At The Oratory School, the Roman Catholic branch of Reading gaol and run by Her Majesty’s Department of Justice and Punishment in Woodcote, Oxfordshire, I arrived at 13, one of only two lads of my year’s intake of 42 who had not been to prep school (and who was thus wholly unprepared for the unmitigated discomforts which awaited me – cold showers, I can tell you, do not build your character, they are merely concrete evidence that most public schools would prefer to spend their cash on sherry, fine wines and a log fire in his study for the head than fuel for the boilers to keep the boys warm).

Crucially, they had all, I assume, been taught British history for several years and will have covered topics such as the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain, the invasions by the Vikings, William of Normandy’s grab for power, rule by his sons, Matilda and Terence (or was it Stephen? I can never remember) and the Plantagenets, because they weren’t half as baffled by lessons about Henry VII Star Court Chamber as I was. Baffled is putting it mildly, and this went on for a year, my first, in the fourth form. Then, when I began my second year, we all started the term by being asked whether we wanted to study ‘arts’ or ‘sciences’. ‘Arts’, Oratory School-style in the mid-1960s – it was not the paedagogic colossus it is now (at least according to its website and prospectus with its vague references, wholly unsubstantiated, that the Oratory is ‘the Catholic Eton’. Yeah, right) – consisted of Spanish, history and geography. ‘Sciences’ meant lessons in chemistry, physics and biology.

At 14, I equated chemistry with messing around with chemicals (and I was not entirely wrong on that matter), so I opted for ‘sciences’ without a word of advice or consultation from a parent, and that choice defined the course of the rest of my education. I have to say that studying chemistry, and in time coming across the concept of ‘entropy’, lead me to an interest in philosophy – I was rather taken with the possibility that you could discuss and debate ideas – but crucially there was no more history. There were a few brief history lectures in my first foundation year at Dundee University – there were, in fact, several history lectures a week for three terms, but I wisely very soon took to sleeping until noon, then idling away the afternoon in the students’ union coffee bar – so history played almost no part in my life until – well, there is no better way of putting it – I had grown up a little.

Our first year at Dundee was concluded with exams in all five foundation year subjects: methodology (a kind of philosophy for infants), pyschology, economics, political science and history, and as I had spent all year in bed, in the bar, in pubs, at parties and feeling sorry for myself, but had dedicated no time at all to my studies, I naturally failed all five. Those like me who failed were given a second chance at ‘resits’ and as far as I was concerned those resits were a lifeline. For one thing, and this frightened me more than anything else, dropping out of university would mean that I was to be obliged to forgo my grant cheque and ‘work for a living’, and I can’t stress just how much that put the fear of God in me. So I did something which to this day is for me a source of personal pride: as an achievement it might not rank up there with developing the Theory of Relativity or laying down your life for you country, but by Christ was I proud!

I didn’t go home that summer but stayed in Dundee and from scratch – and I mean from scratch - studiously learned the syllabus for each of the five subjects. And come the resit exams I passed four out of five. I missed out on psychology, but passed that at a second resit at the end of the Christmas term. My grant cheque was secured: three more years of ligging around at the state’s expense (or strictly the expense of Oxfordshire County Council). It was about this time that I discovered I was able to claim ‘travel expenses’. Why these, too, were being handed out I can’t even begin to guess, but claim them I did and very welcome, too, were the pounds which trickled into my bank account.

To sum up (a summing up which might please those who get rather fed up with my discursive style), until several years ago when I began to read up on history, all I knew was a few odd facts about Romulus and Remus - they were twins, brought up by a wolf and Romulus eventually murdered Remus - and that Henry VII (the father of Good King Hal/that murderous bastard Henry VIII) operated something called ‘the Star Court Chamber’ through whose offices he put the fear of God up pretty much everyone and then some, and kept the throne to which he was probably no even vaguely entitled.

By the way, I am no expert, but given what I know, I am far more inclined to the suggestion that Richard III wasn’t the nasty little bastard who stole the crown from his nephew, and that the story is most probably Tudor propaganda designed desperately to justify Henry VII own usurpation and the monarchies of his son and granddaughters. There is a related suggestion, which is quite plausible, that the princes in the Tower were not ordered by Richard but by Henry VII who knew that while they were alive, his position would always be insecure.

. . .

I can’t remember when I became far more interested in history, but I did. My subsequent autodidactic assault on the subject had nothing to do with ‘being ashamed’ of my lack of learning as my hang-ups lay elsewhere entirely. The fact was and is that I find history fascinating, though I am more one for reading of the actions and

behaviour of the men and women from history than the facts and figures. It is the psychology – I use the word in a more general sense – of historical figures and of their motives which interest me and how the affairs of state and not least the innocent deaths of tens of thousands might be a consequence of, for example, that so-and-so was a conceited, bone-headed fart who refused to take good advice ever.

Facts – the years when such-and-such took place – are important, yes, but broadly as far as I am concerned their purpose is to give context and to provide a framework with which the ever-growing body of historical knowledge you acquire can be ordered and kept comprehensible.

I am not too proud to admit that I am a minimalist when it comes to academic reading. My strategy is to get the bare bones in place and more and more of the flesh can come later as and when. So over the years I have read, taking a splatter-gun approach, slim volumes on the French Revolution, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans, the Plantagenet, Treveleyans very, very, very useful and readable Shorter History of Something Or Other, the origins of the First World War – well, you get the picture.

A very honourable mention should go to the left-wing historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States, which had a curiously profound impact on my thinking and which made me realise that intellectually I am a socialist. That I am not one in practice is down to the rather mundane, though serious, point that here in Britain the Left is as adept at fucking things up as the Right is at feathering its own various nests. (NB I suspect that were I German and living in Germany I would now be supporting the SPD, the country’s social democrats, though they, too, are, like Labour here in Britain, are going through a rough patch.)

. . .

I’ve just spent a few minutes trying to track down the exact quote, and finally found it. It is from the one-time reporter, playwright and scriptwriter (The Front Page is probably known to you) Ben Hecht who observed that ‘Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock’. Well, I am not about to launch myself on another rant against the press, journalism and all

the rest. I tracked down that quote because it does neatly, though obliquely, sum up a modern dilemma – and by ‘modern’ I mean contemporary to whatever the age, from the dawn of time to now, 16.18 (4.18) on Sunday, March 18. We know what has happened in the past, but to be honest our understanding of what is happening now, whether that ‘now’ is today, this week, this month or this year, is patchy at best. We need perspective and information to understand what is going, events must be put into context and related to other events before we can truly claim to know our age. That is why Hecht’s observation is pertinent.

Today Vladimir Putin is standing for election in Russia and no one doubts the the whole shooting match is rigged and that Vlad will be re-elected as president. That is a fact, but what the consequences of his re-election will be are impossible to know, and it will be several years, or more probably decades before we – well, not me, but others – can know and evaluate.

Six days ago in China, The People’s National Congress abolished term limits on the presidency and vice-presidency which means that the country’s current president, Xi Jinping, can call the shots until he dies in office, decides to call it a day or is forcibly removed. As Xi will be 67 in two months time and as Chinese men and women seem to live remarkably long lives, he might well be calling the shots for another 15 to 20 years. Putin will be 68 later this year, and although the life expectancy of Russian males is just over 64, Putin is a teetotaller and so might expect might also expect to live – and lead Russia – for another 15 years.

As I say, we can’t at all know what the future will bring – although there is always any number of experts being lines up by the media to tell us – but I suggest that in or around the year 2033 there might well be a great deal of unwanted trouble in China or Russia or both as murderous gangs of rivals fight for control of their country now that their dear leader has popped his clogs. And I can suggest that because throughout history there have been wars, both national and civil, when an all-powerful ruler dies and has not, often merely for reasons of self-preservation, arranged of his power (it’s rarely her power, isn’t it) to be passed on. While he is alive, any possible rivals will be culled or otherwise neutralised, so there is usually a free-for-all once he breathes his last.

The same rather shambolic ‘knowledge’ of what will happen to the UK come the end of next March when it leaves the EU is also threadbare in the extreme. Both the Leave and Remain sides have made and continue to make prognostications, but as far as I am concerned, no one has a clue who Britain will fare economically and thus socially. Yes, we can guess and call those guesses ‘forecasts’, but at the end of the day, stripped of their fine clothes and the reputation of those who are guessing, they are still nothing but guesses.

There’s the very well-known quote by the Spanish philosopher George Santyana, one which is so well-known, in fact, that it is in great danger relegation to the status of cliché, that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. I don’t doubt it is a very true observation, but I suggest it is also rather pointless, more the stuff of conversation at middle-brow dinner parties and first-year political science seminars than anything else. Why? Even those who do ‘remember the past’ still fondly imagine that they are the exception, that by repeating the actions of those who have gone before they will get away with achieving what others have failed to achieve.

Here’s a point in case: after World War II when the ‘British Empire’ was in its death throes, every one of its colonies demanded independence. And why not? But at the time there were many in Britain who counseled caution and patience. The colonies were not socially, economically or politically mature enough for independence, they said. I don’t doubt that many who spoke out along those lines did so merely from venal motives and wanted the white man’s good times to carry on rolling for a while yet. But there were others whose counsel was pure and impartial: they well remembered the past and did not want to condemn those colonies seeking independence to death, misery, famine, dictatorship and hopelessness. Their concerns went unheard and what did occur from the first years of independence for many subsequent decades? Why death, misery, famine, dictatorship and hopelessness for the vast majority of the people who weren’t in with the dictator and his cronies. The past was repeated anyway.

. . .

As I say, it is the human behaviour of past historical figures which I find most interesting: people are people are people. Kindness, hate, greed, love, altruism, self-sacrifice – everything we know about people is pretty much eternal. It matters not a whit whether they wore powdered wigs, covered themselves in woad, liked REM or Beyonce, eat with chopsticks. So if we try to understand the actions of people in modern terms, we are halfway there.

Yes, there were differences, for example, the stranglehold the Roman Catholic church had on Western Europe until the Reformation (though that stranglehold then merely shifted hands) was very much a factor in the political decisions, the what is possible and what is not. Then there is the gradual, the painfully gradual, emancipation of women, but at the end of the day, folk farted then, shagged then, got drunk then and laid down their lives for their fellow man then as now.

Plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose: accepting that has helped me enormously in my splatter-gun reading in history. As for Henry Ford’s ‘history is bunk’, that is best understood in that I don’t think he meant it literally. I like to think he was urging us to look to the future rather than ever delving in the past if we want to achieve anything.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Which finds me in Slovakia to get that gold tooth (or, to be frank the rather cheaper aluminium one, times being hard and all that). As for bumping off hacks, well, it seems Slovakia has a bit of form

Bratislava, Slovakia

I’m here in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, which was from 1918 until 1993 a part of Czechoslovakia, and is now a stouthearted member of the European Union and, bar the very occasional political murder (of which more later ©Geoff Levy) of a troublesome journalist or other, a bulwark of democracy and human rights in the former Soviet bloc. As those who have bothered to read my previous blog entry might recall, I am having trouble with a very loose front tooth, or rather was having trouble, so read on.

This morning I kept an appointment at the Smile Clinic (in the Heiniken Tower, honest) this morning for the first stage of having it replaced with an implant, which might strike some, though not all, as an unacceptable bourgeois luxury, but given that here it will cost me only around £1,334 to get the one tooth replaced whereas back in the self-proclaimed centre of civilisation known as the United Kingdom quotes I obtained ranged from £2,300 (from Denzil Tremaine of Tregillick, who also dabbles in car mechanics and installing gas boilers at keenly competitie prices, or so he told me) to well over £4,000, I think the case for travelling East makes itself.

To trip here got off to a rather fraught start after I thought I had set my alarm for 4.45am to get to Heathrow for 5.30 and the departure of my flight at 7.05, but had not. As luck would have it my brother, with whom I lodge in Earls Court and who for some reason rises at 5am every morning for his breakfast, roused me in time to dash to the airport. I made it to the departure gate with 15 minutes to spare after the usual hassle at security where I was instructed to strip twice and then explain why I has carrying a hunting knife strapped to my leg. My simple explanation that I always carry one, if nothing else to cut up birthday cakes with less hassle than the short 3in plastic knife folk at work prefer, was not accepted and I had to surrender it. Still, I can always get another.

As it turned out, our flight arrived at Vienna airport a full 20 minutes early, and why I really don’t know. Perhaps the pilot was on a promise. Who knows? At the airport I was met by a driver who took me the 63 kilometres to Bratislava. Why Vienna rather than Bratislava airport some of you might be asking. Well, simply because for whatever reason far fewer airlines attempt to reach Bratislava than Vienna and trying to obtain a return flight was far easier if I flew to Vienna.

After the initial work – I shall return in three months to get the gold tooth I have chosen to replace my wonky loose one inserted – I took a detour back to my hotel, and walking around Bratislava, Slovakia, this morning looking for my contact Vasily (I’m also here to swap Saturday Morning Kitchen secrets with those blackmailing bastards from the FSB, commercial secrets far outweighing military/intelligence secrets in the modern age as Putin’s murderous

henchmen are incredulous at just how successful the BBC is these days and want to know exactly why) I couldn’t help – really I couldn’t, as all signs, road signs, street names, shop signs and the rest are in some inscrutable language with all kinds of dots, dashes, accents, slashes totally alien to this son of Albion – recalling all those excessively cheesy 007 James Bond films from the 1960s until the present day.

Freedom came to the good Slovak folk in 1993 (which, in James Bond film terms is eight 007 films ago, rather as disaster areas are measured as how much they resemble the size of Wales) but still the past lingers on. In those films all women were either sexy, seductive, attractive twentysomethings who either betrayed 'James’ or fell in love with ‘James’ but either way were shot dead for doing so, or, far more likely, grumpy and dumpy babushka types.Well, I can’t comment on the women (or rather I could but shan’t) but Bratislava is a many ways rather like those cheesy films.

There some 21st century towers of all shapes, i.e. not just up and down and rectangular), quite few dull apartment blocks, some a tad shabby, many not at all, and then near my hotel, in Stefanikova) loads of 17th and 19th buildings which shout Central Europe and which make this son of Adam want to see far more of Central Europe. Just saying.

While writing this last bit a little earlier, I cheap joke did occur to me, that I for the duration of my stay, I should get my head shaved, put on a few kilos and wander round in a tracksuit to fit in with the locals. But even I admit that would be in poor taste, not to say a quip at least 20 years beyond its sell-by date, so please, dear reader, consider it ‘not made’ and that I am a man of morse sophisticated wit (well, on a good day).

Truth be told the little I have seen of Bratislava, which is just the walk from my hotel, the Loft Hotel, in Stefanikova to the clinis and back with that small excursion to the old town, reminds me on many ways of Berlin, and were it not for the, to me at least, rather alien spelling of Slovak words, what with the plethora of accents familiar and less familiar, I might be anywhere east of the river Rhine.

My return trip to have the gold tooth fitted will entail two treatments, one for a mould of some kind to be made of, well, I suppose my mouth and the part of my chops where the tooth will fit, and then another a week later to have the tooth put in. The decision to be made is whether to make two return trips or just the one, eight-day trip, spending the time between appointments (which has already been set for June 20, a day which appealed to me as soon as it was suggested in that on June 20, 1953, the folk of East Germany staged an uprising against their communist government.

(NB While looking up the exact year on Google, I discovered that there was also an uprising – also known as a demonstration - in Paris on that date in 1792 when the people peacefully tried to get their king to play along with the Legislative Assembly. That one didn’t work, either. The East German uprising lead to even more repression and the Parisian uprising lead to the Reign of Terror.) I think I’ll make it a week-long trip and see if I finally can’t hook up with Vasily (the head of the FSB’s Internal Cooking Secretariat, believe it or not, and if you ever met Vasily, you would realise how desperate they are to get good operatives. No wonder they made such a cock-up in Salisbury the other week!).

. . .

As for the murder of a journalist, Jan Kuciak, who was apparently getting to close to discovering the truth about corruption at high levels – take a look here – my comments have already been overtaken by the resignation of the prime minister, one Robert Fico, more here.

Kuciak’s colleagues were not just indignant and sickened but unfazed and, at risk to their own lives and some are now under police protection, they decided to go through Kuciak’s unfished story, check it all again and publish what they had. You can read an English translation of it here. And given what I have to say in my previous entry, you might care to bear in mind how I was careful not to apply my admitted broadbrush generalities about hacks to everyone (although I should stress that no hack has, as far as I know, been bumped off for writing dodgy punning captions to a pointless array of pictures. Well, not yet, anyway, perhaps standards will tighten a little lethally. Who knows. RIP Mr Kuciak.

Coincidentally, on my way to the clinic this morning from my hotel, I walked past a church and the array of candles and flowers you can see in one of the links I have posted, although I didn’t investigate.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The lowdown on hacks (or, at least, my lowdown, but if you come across others, remember: taste it, don’t swallow it)

It is often the little things which get you thinking, and a slight tiff with a colleague – an insignificant tiff at that – got me thinking about the many comments I have made about journalists, hacks, reporters and sub-editors. But first of all a little background.

A few posts ago, I wrote about my tendency ‘to rush’ (you can read it here, and looking it up just now to get the web address, I was surprised  by a long ago it was) and how it has caused me all kinds of problems, not least professionally. The essence of the job of being a sub-editor (US copy editor) is attention to detail, and a tendency ‘to rush’ mitigates against any such niceties. To be blunt, throughout my career – I like to think ‘career’ would be more appropriate as it has certainly not been a case of my diligently setting about climbing a professional ladder and the quote marks will make the word more honest – I have dropped bollocks, a great British phrase whose meaning, even though you might not be acquainted with it, I’m sure you can guess.

The practical upshot is that at work – on the features subs’ desk of the Daily Mail – those in charge have taken to treating me with caution: I am apt to introduce literals into copy as easily as spotting them and removing them. And that, I’m sure you will have gathered, is a professional Achilles heel. The irony is, however – and please bear in mind that I am making the claim, so I might well be kidding myself – I am in some ways a better, often far better, sub than many I have come across. The trouble is that all too often I shoot myself in the foot which obscures the good work I can do. Ah well.

It is down to ‘rushing’, and as I pointed out in the earlier post, that is to this day, to this moment writing this entry, ‘rushing’ is a tendency I have to fight all the time. All the time! It is ongoing. It is not just in the matter of writing – I am inclined to try to do everything sooner rather than later: when I walk, I now consciously try to slow myself down, because – well, what’s the rush? When I look up the chords to a song and set about teaching myself a song, I am again apt to rush it all, which means I create difficulty for myself and the process seems harder than I thought.

The ‘why’ I rush is irrelevant – perhaps it has to do with being the second-born. Perhaps there is another reason entirely. What is relevant it the fact of ‘rushing’ and how, when I am doing something I want to do well (such as writing) I very consciously have to work against it. Sometimes I succeed. Often I don’t. An example: I have just finished writing 1,800 words and thought it would be a good idea to read through what I have written to make sure it all hangs together. But, Christ, was it a struggle not to ignore that admirable suggestion and just post this crap.

The tiff, the disagreement, is rooted in the suspicion that although I might be good at some things, in others I can be – which means I am not necessarily always – a liability. There was a little more to it than that, but that, too, is irrelevant here. But that tiff got me to thinking and finally led to me sitting down and composing this blog entry.

. . .

We hacks, and by the way, on April 4 I shall be working my last shift and then finally retiring so come April 4, I shall no longer be one, I have often suggested are a strange breed. But now I shall come clean: I suspect we are no stranger than doctors, lawyers, accountants, office workers, dockers or anyone else. What, I think, marks us out is the nature of our work and industry.

For example, I have heard colleagues jokingly, of course, refer to members of ‘the public’ as ‘civilians’. By referring to them as such they are implicitly setting themselves apart from other members of the public and suggesting that they are, in some way, special, even though the description of the public as ‘civilians, is pretty much a joke. But the fact is hacks do in an odd way see themselves as apart and something special.

For example, a newspaper consists of many departments doing certain jobs, of which the editorial department – us – is just one. (I can only pontificate about newspapers and the newspaper industry because that is the one I know. I suspect journalists – hacks – in the broadcasting media are very similar, but I have never worked in radio or television so I shall refrain from generalising too much.)

Apart from the reporters, writers, sub-editors and photographers who supply copy and pictures or work on copy and pictures supplied, every newspaper depends on many other departments doing their job well: the advertising department, promotions, the circulation department, those in production further down the chain. Then there are the editorial assistants, the wages department, the personnel department and these days ‘systems’, the bods who make sure the computer system is working 100 per cent. And the whole operation would, to a greater or lesser degree, grind to a halt if something goes wrong in any one department.

If it were not for the adverts the paper carries, there would be no paper. The cover price brings in a comparative pittance. The ads bring in the money which pays for the whole shooting match. Related to them are the bods working in promotions. And if the computers go down, well watch out, and watch out well. It spells disaster. The Mail, for example, but this will be true of every other national paper, has contingency plans to move as much of the operation elsewhere if and when, for example, there were a terrorist attack on Northcliffe House.

To get to the point: all departments – though especially the advertising department, the money-bringers must work efficiently in tandem, must do its job well. But the editorial department has this odd, very odd, conviction, that it is the beating heart of the newspaper, without which, well, sine qua non. This is taken further and lead to the conviction that if the editorial department, or a member of it, wants something done, who is doing the doing is expected to drop everything and attend to the request from editorial. ‘We’, the bloody-minded conviction is ‘are in a position of primacy’. ‘We are what keeps this whole shooting match going. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Producing newspapers is, if only my colleagues would see the light and agree with me, a symbiotic process.

Without advertising, for example, there would be no papers. Certainly, there would be news sheets of a kind as some folk are addicted to scribbling – I am a case in point - but their circulation would be minimal and the price asked of the public to buy that news sheet would hardly cover costs.

What this editorial conviction that ‘we are the beating heart’ has means is that many, though not all – I propose myself as an exception – hacks are oddly self-centred. The profession, by its very nature, also seems to attract mavericks, and here I don’t claim to be the exception to the rule. Organising hacks is akin to trying to herding cats. Try it. Try herding four, five, ten cats. You will get the feline equivalent of two fingers (US one finger).

Hacks also have a tendency – the self-image they have is part and parcel of it – to what I can only describe as ‘bullshitting’. (NB It was an example of such bullshitting which caused the tiny tiff earlier tonight, but it would not just be pointless but boring for me to go into detail.) Now I am the first to admit that I love, just love bullshitting. But I must also add that one of the few principles I have, and one which is important to me, is ‘bullshit for fun, not for real.’ The trouble is that many journalists do not share that principle.

An example: journalism, journalists insist, is ‘a vocation’ and somewhere along the line was introduced the idea that we ‘break into journalism’, that it is supremely hard to land yourself a job working as a journalist (another NB: I have to this day never described myself as ‘a journalist. I always say, when asked what I do for a living, replied that ‘I work for a newspaper’. Just saying).

Well, tell me, do nurses ‘break into nursing’? Do plumbers ‘break into plumbing’. I don’t believe they do, but using the phrase ‘breaking into journalism’ is useful in that it somehow marks out the journalist as ‘something special’, something out of the ordinary, folk who are not like the ordinary joes who sells us bread, legal advice, bus tickets or who bandage a broken leg. We are assumed by the public to be ‘more in the know’ than they are, and as that assumption adds a welcome sheen to the otherwise drap life of many hacks, they are not inclined to contradict is and set the story straight.

. . .

I began a previous paragraph by promising to get to the point. Well, now I shall.

Journalists – some of them most certainly – to do a vital job, the job the world thinks we all do. They are most certainly not all ‘bullshitters’. A reporter visiting a refugee camp and reporting on the awful conditions there; a reporter trying to get to the bottom of a civic scandal, a story of bribery in political circles; a writer inveighing against the corrupt regime he or she is living in, the reporters ‘merely’ chronicling the doings of the local council, parliament, what really happened to cause a disaster deserve our respect. And many, many the world over often die trying to do a vital job. Take a look at this website, which I have often highlighted and drawn attention to.

But then there are the rest: the writers compiling lists of the newest ‘must-have’ espresso machine, face creams, sub-editors writing punning captions to a series of photographs demonstrating how some celebrities resemble this

or that vegetable (a favourite of the Daily Mail). There was talk on the desk today – and to be fair we were horrified – of how the Mail has published pictures and stories of a former soap actress who has fallen on hard times and taken to the bottle in a big way. She is a mess, but, the paper has decided, a mess which would entertain its readers.

The story even mentioned the several awful strokes of fate which have recently befallen her, but the paper had no compunction whatsoever in still parading her misfortunes for the benefit of many of its – let’s call a spade a spade – brain-dead fuckwits.

So tell me, how do the journalists working on this ‘story’ of an alcoholic actress stack up against their colleagues working in authoritarian and totalitarian states – in Russia, China, the Caucaus, some South Americn counties, in the Middle Eatss – who are often quite literally risking their lives trying to get ‘the news’ out? Answer: they don’t. But tell that to the hacks prepared to turn someone over without a second thought.

. . .

To be honest the main point of this entry is to allow me to let off steam. Actually, that is not the main point: the main point is that despite my poking fun at others in my profession, I want to make it clear that I do have a lot of respect for many earning their crust as members of ‘the Fourth Estate. They, though, seem to be working elsewhere in the world.

As for ‘earning their crust’, claiming working in journalism is ‘a vocation’ is all too often used as an excuse to pay provincial hacks working in Britain a piss-poor wage, and that practice has now spread to the national papers when it comes to re-imbursing newly recruited staff. Given London rents and costs, £20,000 a year is fuck-all, but that is what many of my younger colleagues are paid when they start. In years gone by landing a job on ‘a national’ was rather lucrative, however lowly your editorial position was, but no more, no more, no more.

So there you have it: a soon-to-be-put-out-to-pasture hack lets rip. Oh, I shall carry on with the bullshitting but please remember one of my few principles: bullshit for fun, but not for real.