Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Why this ‘newspaperman’ is not in the slightest embarrassed not to be regarded as a ‘newspaperman’. Chuffed, in fact; or to put it another way: fuck deadlines, embrace discipline. Then there’s why John O’Hara deserves to be better known, at least as well as once he was

This entry needs (and will get) a rewrite.

Well, I’m doing the honourable thing, the thing that has to be done on any last day of a holiday in a ‘Med country’ and that is to sit outside a bar and watch the world go by. I happen to be sitting outside the Teyma (or perhaps Bar Teyma) in Albocasser, district of Valencia (thought the exact nomenclature eludes me and I’m really not anal enough to look up exactly what administrative part of Spain Albocasser (or Albacasser, Albacacer or any number of different spellings I’ve seen) is in.

It’s not quite as romantic as it might seem as, now the lunch/siesta period has finished (it’s now 17.45), and they really do shut down for most of the afternoon, though the weather is not extraorinarily hot, everyone and his truck/tractor /car/moped has come alive and decided to roar, quickly or slowly depending on the tractor/truck/car/moped up and down the main street where I am sitting. But, well, who bloody cares, because I don’t.

I am also on my own, but that is no reflection on my host. It’s just that as I have got older, I am beginning – well, not even beginning – to ensure a little time on my own and I couldn’t even tell you why. I just do. For a hack (though surely I have long made clear that as ‘newspapermen’ are concerned) I am the least likely candidate to get the long-service medal – ‘newspapermen’ are supposed to ‘care about news’, be ‘news hounds’, be ‘first with the news’, regard it as a ‘privilege and an honour’ to serve the Fourth Estate. If what passes for ‘news’ really is ‘news’ – Kim Kardashian is still shagging Kanye West, but he’s already losing interest (you can tell by how, publicly, he’s still ‘deeply in love’); the unions warning Ed Miliband that unless he toes the line, it’s curtains as far as dosh is concnerned; Mary Berry was a real goer when she was a lass, but the BBC is saying nought – I don’t five a flying fuck about news.

Yes, there is news, and there are very admirable reporters and hacks out there doing a very good and often very dangerous job. But they are a distinct minority. As for the rest of us, all this brave talk about ‘needing a deadline’ is just pap for the suckers: the deadline my employers care about is 10pm because just a minute over getting the stuff down to the printers costs hard cash, and that, my hearties gets a lot closer to the beating heart of journalism, past and present, than any amount of waffle about ‘getting the story’.

Let me elucidate: in the golden age of print journalism, before TV and radio and latterly the net, which last about 100 years from the mid-nineteenth century, newspapers had real rivals. Each city, whether in Britain, the US, or in Europe, had at least two evening newspapers and it was a cuthroat business. The amount of advertising cash being spent was limited so, just to survive, let alone make oddles of cash to keep the proprietor happy, each newspaper had to grab as much of that cash as possible. That meant asuruing the advertisers that 1) more people read your paper than read the opposition; and 2) making sure you got your paper out onto the street first to make sure more people read your paper than the opposition. And that was where this ‘be first with the story came from’. No one is going to buy the Evening Beast to read about what’s happened if they have already bought the Evening Brute and already know what’s happened (and the names aren’t my joke but Evelyn Waugh’s or at least a variation of it).

There were once, of course, times when ‘the governing classes’ were dead against newspapers getting even a sniff of what they were up to and passing it on to the hoi polloi. That’s why, here in Britain, they imposed a duty on each paper to ensure it was too expensive for the plebs (for that was how they were regarded) to buy. And that is why one copy of a newspaper would be read allowed to a group of people, in libraries and taverns: at least the cost could be carried by a group. That is also why one element of the ‘governing classes’ fought tooth and nail agains each and every Education Act, to ensure the great unwashed would never learn to read. (That was the same reason why the Roman Catholic church, often on pain of death, wanted only Latin copies of the Bible to be allowed and did not want it translated into any of the vulgar languages, vulgar not here meaing quite what you think it means.)

But on the Tweedledum and Tweedledee principle, another segment of the governing classes, although in no way more disposed to ensuring the well-being of the great unwashed than their opponents, supported each and every Education Act on the grounds that ‘the others’ were opposing it (except, sadly, it really wasn’t all that simple – there were good men on both sides, but don’t let that delay a chap in full rant).

So at one time part of what newspapers were printing was worthwhile – the decisions of government, the debates in the Commons – although even then it wasn’t half has hi’falutin as Newspaper Romantics would have you believe: years ago, I went for an interview for a reporter’s job on the Northampton Chronicle, which was already in those days based in some soulless industrial estate. While I was waiting to be shown in, I spotted, under a protective glass cover a copy of the paper from the end of the 18th century and read parts of it. I happened upon the classified ads and there I came across two things: a lonely hearts column and an ad for wasing powder, which – believe it or not – included a ‘blue whitener’. Pluc ca change . . .

Yes, newspapers had an important role in ensuring a beady eye was kept on the goings on in parliament and in our courts, but arguably it is no longer a role they fulfill. Other media outlets do so.

Some still do, of course, but there is always more than half an eye on what might make money. Even the saintly Guardian, as Private Eye repeatedly records, is not above acts of utter hypocrisy, decrying dictatorship and the rest on one page while further on graciously accepting a dictator’s shilling for carrying what are euphemistically called ‘advertorials’, but should be called ‘advertisements’. But let them all plough their own bloody furrow.

Any hacks reading this might well object that I’m an em rule short of a layout, but what they hell. To get to the point (if I remember it, which somehow I doubt), ‘newspapermen’ are supposed to relish deadlines. I don’t. I like to try to get things done and dusted long before the deadline is reached, which, if nothing else – and there is a lot else – means you can go over what you have written again and again and try to improve it.

To be frank, which is not the same as honest, that is sadly something I don’t do immediately in these blog entries and it doesn’t surprise me that quite often a reader might ask her or himself ‘what the bloody hell is he on about now?’ Once posted, I will look through an entry and correct the spelling howlers I spot, and, if necessary, try to rewrite a passage to make sure it makes more sense.

But as a rule I sit here, waffle and pointificate, then post. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought about what I am writing, and, for example, what I have written above I what I thought about for years, partially to explain to myself just why my journalistic ‘career’ has been about as outstanding as Eddie the Eagles in ski jumping. If I can leave you with one thought, it is this: when next you hear a hack, whether a retired old fart reminiscing about his or her career, or a young turk pumping up the PR volume and trying to make out what a keen blade she or he is banging on about ‘needing a deadline’, just remind yourselves that it is so much bollocks. They don’t ‘need a deadline’, they just need a lot more discipline.

. . .

I am now well over halfway through re-reading Butterfield 8 (see, I remembered), and it is well worth it. In a sense I am reading the story for the first time because I can now take in the slight details and no longer be stalled and snared by those bits which snared and stalled me the first time round. Re-reading a novel – re-reading a novel just as soon as you have got to the end – is something I have done several times now and I can recommend it, especially if you do so immediately you have finished the novel (or short story or novella) for the first time.

As I said earlier, I had seen the film starring Elizabeth Taylor several years ago, and although I liked it then, I now realise, despite Taylor’s Oscar, that it is no more, and possibly even less, than just another piece of Hollywood schlock. In it Taylor, in keeping with the utterly hypocritical morality of the time, dies at the end because she was when all was said and done, and in Hollywood terms, a bad girl. Not so the protagonist of O’Hara’s novel, Gloria Wandrous. I have read that O’Hara was an alcoholic who was not just difficult to get on with but ‘impossible’. Perhaps, but he is also a very honest writer. Wandrous shagged around, took drugs, drank the city dry and had even dabbled in lesbianism (shock horror!) and – apparently – stole a mink coat.

Yet she was by no means a ‘bad girl’. She had been sexually abused at 11, and then again, for a far long period at 15, and it destroyed her. She is a bright, intelligent, savvy and very likeable young woman and when she dies (in the wheels of a paddle steamer after falling overboard – and it is really not clear whether it was an accident or whether she turned and jumped overboard), it is the sad end to a young and sad life.

There are other likeable characters – Eddie Brunner, a true friend who most probably has fallen in love with her in the best possible sense, but who decides he will settle for a more conventional woman because, well, it is safer; and Jimmy Malloy, another character who is at heart honest and has no illusions about the city he lives in. But there are also some deeply hypocritical characters, Weston Liggett, who more or less rapes Gloria and thinks he has fallen in love with her. O’Hara is merciless in his portrayal of they hypocrisy of conventional morality, conventional marriage, conventional love, the unthinking and odious racism of the well-off – even Gloria is not immune to that – and the mad and manic drinking and spending culture of the post-1929 crash era.

And Christ he can write well. I have already said how much I admire the ‘looseness’ of his writing but which is not in the slightest bit ‘loose’ in any other sense. Here is a bit, by no means typical, of his prose. (I copied it out a few days ago to post here. To be fair the passage goes on much further, but I think it makes my point.

Check him out, possibly again. You will not be disappointed.

The excerpt (Emily is Liggett’s wife:

Liggett was not quite one of these men; Emily certainly was not one of these women. For one thing Liggett was a Pittsburgher and Emily a Bostonian. That was one thing, not two. Liggett was precisely the sort of person who, if he hadn’t married Emily, would be just the perfect person for Emily to snub. All her life she seemed to be saving up for one snub, which would have to be delivered to an upper-class American, since no foreigner and no lower-class American could possibly understand what she had that she felt entitled her to deliver a snub. What she had was a Colonial governor; an unbroken string of studious Harvard men; their women. Immediately and her own was, of course, the Winsor-Vincent Club-Sewing Circle background. She had a few family connections in New York, and they were unassailable socially; they never went out. It came as a surprise which he was a long time understanding for Liggett to learn, after he married Emily, that Emily had never stopped at a hotel in New York. She explained that the only possible reason you went to New York was to visit relations, and then you stopped with them, not at a hotel. Yes, that was true, he agreed – and never told the fun he had had as a kid, stopping at New York hotels; the time he released a roll of toilet paper upon Fifth Avenue, the time he climbed along the ledge from one window to another. He was a little afraid of her.

If I have time, I shall add the rest of this passage. It doesn’t quite stand as it is here.

No comments:

Post a Comment