Every country has its self-image, which is more often than not is rather flattering. The French like to see themselves as intellectuals, folk who would far, far rather discuss ontology than developments in the latest soaps. The Italians are convinced they are the great seducers, although apparently Italian women are the first group to pooh-pooh that one. (It doesn’t help that for economic reasons - largely - Italian men often live at home until they marry and expect their new wives to carry on where their mothers left off.) The Brits like to see themselves as quirky, slightly off-the-wall, the exception which prove most rules (which is just as well because portraying themselves as great intellectuals or great seducers would do nothing but elicit hoots of risible laughter from every other nation).
As it is, you can find eccentrics in every nation, not least, counter-intuitively, Germany: my sister once had a neighbour who thought his water company’s charges were getting too high and began drilling his own well in is back garden. He had got about 40ft deep before ‘the authorities’ - it’s always ‘the authorities’ - told him enough was enough and what he was doing was illegal under several laws, including one which stated that ‘borehole drilling, drilling boreholes, drilling any hole which might be interpreted as a borehole and which meets the different criteria leading to or leading from the definition of boreholes is not allowed if the area of land in which the borehole is being drilled is less than 20sq m, if work on drilling the borehole takes place predominantly between the hours of 5pm and 8am or at weekends, if the borehole driller cannot comprehensively demonstrate the need for a personal borehole (but see the section below on the impact of proposed new EU legislation) and the borehole/borehole drilling do not meet the general criteria of Safety At Work, Environmental Concerns and Tighter European Integration.’ As it was, he took ‘the authorities’ to court which ruled in his favour on all of those official objections except the last which we all know overrules every other law known to mankind.
Where was I?
It has to be said that if not the wackiest nation in the world, Britain is up there with the wackier ones. An example: to date we have here in Great Britain TWO parliaments and TWO assemblies. Both parliaments can raise taxes, although the second parliament (in Scotland) can only do so in some areas (taxes on litter, billboards, kerbstones, that kind of thing). Neither of the assemblies can raise taxes. In fact the assemblies, one in Belfast and one in Cardiff can do very little except meet and complain about the main parliament, the one which sits in Westminster, although I believe they do have limited responsibility for certain bye-laws - when folk can hang out their washing, the number of times you can spit in the street on weekdays, that kind of thing. The members of both parliaments and both assemblies, however, are reasonably content with the arrangement, and very good salaries, very generous expenses, subsidised restaurants and bars, very generous pensions and the insistence that it is all very, very democratic go a long way to ensure they don’t rock the boat too much.
My thoughts turned to wackiness when I logged on and did my morning trawl through the websites of the Telegraph, the Guardian, The Independent and the Daily Mail.
The Independent front page was especially puzzling, which is to say it was more puzzling than usual. Under the headline ‘Victory within reach - but cuts could spoil it all’ there are pictures of Hillary Clinton (looking rather old), Carla Bruni (still looking youngish and they call her Carla Bruni-Sarkozy) and Elton John (looking rather old). The overnight news was that all the rich folk in the U.S. have decided to make it easier for European banks to borrow their money (so good of them), Iran has decided it wants to be invaded by Britain, and our Chancellor has released a single (‘You Think It’s Bad? You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ - quite catchy). What, I asked myself do Clinton, Bruni (‘Bruni-Sarkozy’) and Elton John have to do with any of that? The answer, of course, is nothing. For the Indy, as it is know to the few families in West London who still buy it, had decided to ignore the obvious news stories and lead on World Aids Day. Good on you, you might say, and I agree (after having read some of the pieces by the three involved) that it is timely to remember that aids is still a threat to many lives. But to splash on it in the run-up to Armageddon? That is eccentric.
But the Indy has form. It was launched in October 1986 to universal goodwill. It would be fair to say it hit the ground running. It’s design was fresh, clear and attractive, its use of photography was imaginative and its philosophy of political non-alignment very welcome indeed by many of the newspaper reading public who were thoroughly fed up with the entrenched attitudes of British newspapers, and its launch ad campaign - We’re independent. Are you? - very clever indeed, playing as it did on the conceit and vanity of potential readers. And from that high spot it began a slow, slow, painfully slow decline.
If I remember rightly, its initial circulation was more than respectable at around 300,000, although this was, admittedly, in the days before the internet when the Telegraph was still selling over one million, The Times far more than half a million and the Guardian’s figures did not look as sickly as they do now. So, off to such a promising start, the Indy decided to shoot itself in the foot: for no very good reason, it underwent a redesign. There was nothing wrong with the old design and at the time circulation figures were holding up, even though they were no longer as high as at launch. Redesigns (and ‘relaunches’) are usually the first sign that ‘things are not healthy’. Sometimes they come off (and as in the case of the revitalised Marks & Spencer chain under Stuart Rose, they come of spectacularly) but that is the exception which proves the rule. At the Indy, however, things were going rather well (as far as I know) and the redesign was entirely superfluous. Be that as it may, it unsettled some readers and circulation started drooping a little.
Its attitude didn’t help, either. Like many, I started reading it when I was launched but was soon turned off by an indefinable smugness. I once met a reporter, on The Times at the time, who told me he was headhunted by the Indy. He went for the interview and was seriously considering jumping ship until he was told the salary the paper was offering him. ‘But that’s several thousand pounds less than I’m getting now,’ he told them. ‘Ah, yes,’ they replied, ‘but you would be working for The Independent.’ That attitude seemed to permeate the paper, by then six years old. When I was living and working in London in the early 1990s, I worked regular shifts on the Indy in its City Road offices. It seemed to me the people I worked with were split right down the middle: regular, very professional sub-editors and then a gang of hacks who really thought they were the bee’s knees. It was rather odd.
Since then the decline has been inexorable. It has had ten editors in the past 25 years, including many who should never have been allowed near the editor’s chair in a month of Sundays. I shall name names: Andrew Marr (him again), Rosie Boycott and the ever delightful Janet Street-Porter. Circulations among the broadsheets have, admittedly, fallen dramatically all round: in October 2011, the Telegraph sold just 603,901 (in Oct 2010 it was 655,006, a decline of -7.80pc), The Times (another paper which thinks the sun shines out of its arse) 417,197 (479,107, -12.92pc), 230,541 (276,428, -16.60pc) and the Indy 133,449 (182,412, -26.84pc). To be fair, I should add that the Indy has recently launched the i, a kind of Indy lite (the main paper without the pretentious bit?) I gave up on the Indy when I found that all too often I simply didn’t understand too many of its feature articles, not a sign of my stupidity, but that the paper was badly written: the first rule of communication is Don’t Baffle The Reader), and one can assume that of the one in four readers who stopped buying the Indy year on year, almost all will have instead gone for the i. And this is selling rather well: 211,467 in October 2011, more than its older sister paper and just 19, 074 fewer than the Guardian. Now if that isn’t wacky, I don’t know what is. For a fuller account of these figures as well as those for the tabloids, you can go to this page.
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Here is the most succinct, clearest and best explanation of the euro crisis I have yet read. It explains everything.