Thursday, November 23, 2006

Notes on the tweaked Times

It has taken me four-and-a-half days to get my thoughts together on this one, which in blog terms might as well be never, but it's worth looking at some of the ways The Times may have learned from the Guardian redesign. The wedge serifs on its new headline font, Times Modern, are coincidence: we have it from the designer that the inspiration is an old Times titlepiece, and you can see the family resemblance. (All these links, by the way, are from the excellent Newsdesigner and its commenters -- go there for an overview of what's been done, and links to the official Times explanations.) But consider these:

The top one is the Guardian, the bottom one The Times. Now, lots of papers are trying to give their readers more summary information on stories, and more 'entry points' for reading - but settling on a pair of double-line subheads in the first column, separated by hairline rules, and with extra space under the second line in each one, seems a bit too coincidental. It's not a theft or any kind of misdemeanour, but it does suggest that the Times redesigners, Research Studios, read the Guardian pretty closely.

The next case shows more divergence:

This is one of the little breakers the G now uses to lift text-heavy pages, next to one of the grey boxes the T is putting to similar purposes. The T's are bigger and more flexible and less inclined to appear in the middle of text, which suggests they're the result of shared pressures rather than direct inspiration.

The third case is actually trumpeted in the T's description of its new style -- greater differentiation for comment bits on news pages:

Again, G followed by T. Ragged-right text for comment, once a G eccentricity, seems to be becoming an industry standard: the T is going about it much more beefily, however, adding bold to the text and using a radically different headline type rather than just a slightly lighter one. The result looks like something out of the G from before its latest redesign -- except that it used to use serif headlines on comment and sans on news, whereas the T follows the opposite policy.

The G, then, continues to wield design influence beyond what its circulation performance would lead you to expect. (That may be because so many designer types read it, rather than because of simple merit.)

General T redesign verdict? I quite liked the tabloid as it was; this wouldn't put me off, and has the potential to draw me in to pages I'd previously have skipped. The feel is a tad more conventionally tabloid, though, because busier and, in places, more tightly spaced -- not sure they've fully compensated for the bigger X-height of the new headline font, especially in single-line headings.

Hats at war

George Orwell, as previously mentioned here, made the threat of the reappearance of the top hat -- portending the reappearance also of pre-war snobbery, Tory government and mass unemployment -- a running joke in his "As I Please" columns. Max Beerbohm, over in England from Rapello for the duration of the conflict, turns out to have had the equal and opposite thought. Here is Orwell, responding in October 1944 to a rote expression of conservatism in a writers' correspondence course:

I had the same feeling that the pre-war world is back upon us as I had a little while ago when, through the window of some chambers in the Temple, I watched somebody -- with great care and evident pleasure in the process -- polishing a top hat.

And here is Beerbohm, in 1940, mourning for an earlier lost world -- the London before 1910, when Piccadilly was crowded with fascinating horse-drawn carriages, rather than terrifying motor cars, and the artistic rebels in Chelsea had a proper respect for medieval precedent, and his crustiness was only a young man's act:

Perhaps after the present war the top hat will never reappear at any function whatsoever, even on the head of the oldest man. Perhaps it will be used as a flower-pot in the home, filled with earth and nourishing the bulb of a hyacinth or other domestic flower. I hope, in the goodness of my heart, the housemaid will not handle it untenderly, and will brush it the right way. For it is very sensitive. Its sensibility was one of its great charms. It alone among hats had a sort of soul. If one treated it well, one wasn't sure that it didn't love one. It wasn't as expressive as one's dog, yet it had an air of quiet devotion and humble comradeship. It had also, like one's cat, a great dignity of its own. And it was a creature of many moods. On dull cloudy days itself was dull, but when the sun was brightly shining, it became radiant. If it was out in a downpour of rain, without an umbrella, it suffered greatly: it was afflicted with a sort of black and blue rash, most distressing to behold, and had to be nursed back to health with tender and unremitting care. Nature herself was the best nurse, however, during the early stages of the malady. The patient was best left to grow quite dry by action of the air, before being ever so gently brushed with the softest of brushes. Gradually it became convalescent, and seemed to smile up at you while it was rubbed slowly with a piece of silk. And anon it was well enough to be ironed...

I don't say the man at the Temple had been out in the rain. But I'd like to think that's what he was thinking.

[Mainly on the Air, by Max Beerbohm, 1946. The once-famous war broadcasts, with a once-famous note apologising for the infelicities of his spoken style: "I would therefore take the liberty of advising you to read these broadcasts aloud to yourself -- or to ask some friend to read them aloud to you." Imagining his toying with the radio audience ("I am, in fact, a genuine Cockney (as you will already have guessed from my accent)") turns out to be one of the big pleasures of the book; by the later talks he is taking off announcers' quirks, and gesturing sarcastically towards the next programme as if he were John Peel on Home Truths. The ironic humour of his grumpy-old-man schtick is sometimes strained by the completeness of his grumpiness, but the context must have been transforming. John Updike, in Assorted Prose, talks of the broadcasts as a symbol of blitz stoicism. Max could moan about about "ferro-concrete" buildings without so much as acknowledging they were at that moment being bombed into ferro-concrete dust.]


I've bought a stack of old Pevsner guides in honour of the fact that I am likely to be moving in the next couple of months. It seems a considerable step from Notts -- opening sentence: "Neither the architectural nor the picturesque traveller would place Nottinghamshire in his first dozen or so of English counties" -- to London, which merits two fat volumes even on its 1950s boundaries and under 1950s Pevsnerian asperity.

The best way to narrow the tread may be to live in Lewisham -- opening sentence: "A large borough, but little to see, and nothing of first-class importance." That would make for better reading, too: Pevsner's sniffs of disapproval please me more than his catalogues of approbation.

Lewisham is honoured with two further section-opening insults. "The borough has been singularly unlucky in its architects", under "Public Buildings", is not at all singular -- in casual browsing, I am yet to come across a town hall Pevsner likes -- but the opening of the "Perambulation" is no-nonsense even for him: "There is so little of note that it is hardly worth working out an elaborate itinerary."

[The Buildings of England: Nottinghamshire, by Nikolaus Pevsner, 1951; London Except the Cities of London and Westminster, Pevsner, 1952; London: The Cities of London and Westminster, Pevsner revised by Bridget Cherry, 1973. Not to be assessed in one shot, at least by me; hated by most people with favourite buildings, particularly of a Victorian kind (he dismisses one of mine in Nottingham with two words: "fancifully ignorant"); full of dry amusement.]

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Where was I?

London, and away from computers I felt safe blogging on. Sorry for the gap in transmission. In any case, it turns out that the Glorious Revolution doesn't have much to say about the arrival of a Democratic Congress, unless you count this:

The amity of the Whigs and Tories had not survived the peril which had produced it. On several occasions, during the Prince's march from the West, dissension had appeared among his followers. While the event of his enterprise was doubtful, that dissension had, by his skilful management, been easily quieted. But from the day on which he entered Saint James's palace in triumph, such management could no longer be practised. His victory, by relieving the nation from the strong dread of Popish tyranny, had deprived him of half his power.

Our text remains Chapter 10 of Macaulay's History of England; who gets to be William III -- and who you accuse of being James II -- are questions left to the reader.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Sors Vergiliana, Nov 6

"It was on a Sunday, during the time of public worship, that he was conveyed under a guard to the place of his confinement: but even rigid Puritans forgot the sanctity of the day. The churches poured forth their congregatons as the torturer passed by, and the noise of threats, execrations, and screams of hatred accompanied him to the gate of his prison." -- Macaulay, History of England, Chapter Ten.

The official rules of the game are here. I'm not really playing it, preferring the less rigorous exercise of making a note when a few sentences in what I'm reading anyway happen to chime with the day's news. This technique has worked once before in three years, so perhaps I should abandon random retrospective commentary in favour of proper Vergilian prediction.

On the other hand, we're in the middle of the Glorious Revolution here in the History of England. Lord M. is gathering the constitutional convention that will set out the Bill of Rights. I'd like to think he'll come up with something to match the mid-terms -- or rather that the mid-terms will come up with something to match him.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

More "just got a camera" nonsense

Here are two key cliches of Nottingham amateur photography -- sunsets and the castle -- held together in a single hastily cropped frame. I like it because it's mine. You don't have to, of course.

Ask a fictional journalist

Minor characters from old novels guide you along the bleeding edge of blue-sky thinking. Episode two in what, at this rate, might actually be a series. Episode one and rules of the game here.

This week: Press baron George Roads on the role of editorial judgment in decision-making. No questions needed; he speaks far too well for himself:

You mark up the daily net sales of your paper -- on a curve -- a diagram thing. And then, some time when sales seem pretty average, you try a new feature -- 'Turf notes and notions,' or 'Books that have Pep,' or that thing we're trying out now in The Day -- 'The Bread of Life: the Christian's Daily Crumb.' You keep it up every day for a fortnight and watch the curve on the chart. Then you drop that feature for a fortnight; then you put it on again; and all the time you keep on watching your sales on the chart. The chart may show nothing at all -- the feature hasn't mattered a damn, either way. But now and then the curve goes up a little bit during the second week of the fortnight the feature is in, and down again during the second week of the fortnight it's out. Then you may -- though it isn't sure yet -- have yourself a winner; so you feel round a bit more, just to eliminate possible causes of error. And then, when at last you've got a dead cert, you back it, all in, like a man. Science and guts -- that's all there is to it. Simply keep your hand on the pulse of the nation.

Taken from chapter five of Rough Justice, by C.E. Montague (1926). Compare Yahoo's homepage redesign process. For an earlier appearance of Roads, and notes on where he came from, go here.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Two depressing thoughts for the weekend

From David Remnick's Reporting (£6.99 in hardback from the bookshop below), Philip Roth's entertainingly precise sketch of literature's route to hell in a handcart:

"Every year, seventy readers die and only two are replaced. That's a very easy way to visualise it," Roth said. By "readers", he said, he means people who read serious books seriously and consistently. The evidence "is everywhere that the literary era has come to an end," he said. "The evidence is the culture, the evidence is the society, the evidence is the screen, the progression from the movie screen to the television screen to the computer. There's only so much time, so much room, and there are so many habits of mind that can determine how people use the free time they have. Literature takes a habit of mind that has disappeared. It requires silence, some form of isolation, and sustained concentration in the presence of an enigmatic thing. It is difficult to come to grips with a mature, intelligent, adult novel. It is difficult to know what to make of literature. That's why I say stupid things are said about it, because unless people are well trained they don't know quite what to make of it."

And, via Obscene Desserts, a fragment of Iraq news from The Times that reads like the grimmer parts of Ryszard Kapuscinski's African reporting:

The morgue classifies victims according to their injuries; if a victim has been beheaded, he is a Shi’ite killed by Sunnis. If he has been killed by a power drill to the head, he is a Sunni murdered by Shi’ites. Most victims have been tortured. Bodies are dumped by the roadside and lie there for hours.

J Carter Wood couldn't find anything to say after that, and nor can I.

Service announcement

I have fiddled around with Blogger's new "Layout" system, and as a result this blog now has categories (see sidebar). They show that I read less fiction than I'd like to believe, wander around the margins of politics more than I thought I did, and spend way too much time picking nits. All of these were probably obvious to anyone else.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Explanation required

From my nearest bookshop, a strange little remainders specialist:

Is this supposed to be some sort of display? Is there a short member of staff who gets dangerously cranky when denied instant access to high shelves? Is it a conceptual art project? Or is it just an attempt to look lovably eccentric? If the last, it's succeeding.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Typographical balloon animals

They're what your life is missing. Really.


Ask a fictional journalist

Let minor characters from Victorian and Edwardian novels guide you through the bleeding-edge world of new media. A new series! One that may have more than one part! Interviews are conducted on a Wired speak to Rockefeller basis, not a Zembla speak to Henry James one: that is, I am decontextualising quotes, not attempting to use my imagination. Opinions may be selected for resemblence either to conventional wisdom or actual wisdom, cuts may be concealed without remorse and quality of transcription may, as ever, be crap.

This week's interviewee is Mr. John Rorrison, the sole Fleet Street contact of the hero of J.M. Barrie's When a Man's Single. Rorrison is certainly probably possibly "practically editing a great London newspaper". He explains How to succeed in blogging.

Rorrison, I've got this great new political blog. Will you link to it?

You beginners seem to be able to write nothing but your views on politics, and your reflections on art, and your theories of life, which you sometimes think original. Readers don't want it.

I know what this is about. You only link to your powerful mates, right?

Don't believe what one reads. Men fail to get a footing on the press because -- well, as a rule, because they are stupid.

All right, all right. So there are too many of us trying politics.

Yes, and each thinks himself as original as he is profound, though they only have to meet to discover that they repeat each other. The pity of it is that all of them could get on to some extent if they would send in what is wanted.

And what's wanted?

They should write of the things they have seen... readers have an insatiable appetite for knowing how that part of the world lives with which they are not familiar. They want to know how the Norwegians cook their dinners and build their houses and ask each other in marriage.

But I'm in Aberdeen. I'm hardly ever anywhere exotic.

Neither was Shakespeare. There are thousands of articles in Scotland yet. You must know a good deal about the Scottish weavers -- well, there are articles in them. Describe the daily life of a gillie: 'The Gillie at Home' is a promising title.

But must have done all the big topics by now.

Of course they have, but do them in your own way... new publics are always springing up.

So I'm not to write about politics at all?

Write about politics if you will, but don't merely say what you yourself think; rather tell, for instance, what is the political situation in the country parts known to you. That should be more interesting and valuable than your political views.

And what if I don't want to write all this personal bollocks?

If you have the journalistic faculty, you will always be on the look-out for possible articles. The man on this stair would have had an article out of you before he had talked with you as long as I have done. Once I challenged him to write an article on a straw that was sticking out of a sill of my window, and it was one of the most interesting things he ever did. Then there was the box of odds and ends that he promised to store for me when I changed my rooms. He sold the lot to a hawker for a pair of flower-pots, and wrote an article on the transaction. Subsequently he had another article on the flower-pots; and when I appeared to claim my belongings he had a third out of that.

The Grey Lady's light basement*

The New York Times "home page" feed just gave me this intriguing bit of fluff about politicians using hand-sanitiser after long bouts of handshaking. It has some of the falseness of all trend stories: to be news it has to suggest or imply that this quirk of behaviour has just come into being, or just become more prevalent; in fact, the reporter has just noticed it, and decided we might be interested. He's right, though. It is interesting. So fine.

The most interesting thing is that no politician is quoted as santinising to protect the public from their germs, rather than themselves from the public's. Maybe one of them tried that line and was dismissed as a flatterer; but surely they could have been profitably mocked as a flatterer in the text? So maybe they all are that egotistical.

I'd feel more sympathetic if the pols were French. According to a friend who should know, but may have been winding me up, the French cliche equivalent to "kissing babies" for political glad-handing is "feeling cows' arses". (And the key fact about Jacques Chirac, apparently, overlooked outside France, is that he's the greatest cow's-arse feeler in living memory.) Hand sanitisation after that? More than excusable.

*Apologies if this headline was even less comprehensible than usual. I believe a 'light basement' to be a human-interest story put in at the bottom of a broadsheet page; I'm going by a Julian Barnes piece collected in Letters from London, where Simon Jenkins says he insisted on having them as editor of the (London) Times. And the Grey Lady's the other Times, obviously, which having never fully accepted post-1930 conventions of newspaper layout probably finds the equivalent space half-way up a left-hand column, or on page K1 of a special weekly section called "Fluff". Forget I mentioned it.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Fun with juxtaposition

One of the nice features of the Guardian website is the little block of related links it gives you at the end of each piece. But this one seems unfortunate on a story about a man who leaves his own excrement in train carriages:

Monday, October 16, 2006

Tom Lehrer does stencil graffiti

...and in a rather swish part of Nottingham, too. For location guide, see here and click on 'aerial' or (better) 'bird's eye view'.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Adventures in pleading

His lawyer, Joe Tacopina, says of his client, “He’s a genuinely really sweet individual” who “has been demonized because he’s the guy who was cutting off the limbs.”

-- from New York's take on the Alistair Cooke body-snatching scandal, via Jenny Davidson.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Orwell overdose in progress

Reading a book of newspaper columns is like eating a whole bag of boiled sweets. The first one is refreshing. Your taste is whetted. Your juices run. By the tenth or fifteenth your mouth feels stiff with sugar and the flavour is all aftertaste, but some vestige of the original pleasure drives you* on. By the last one you are nauseous, and you get sicker at the very thought of the Fox's polar bear.

Last Wednesday I went to an interesting pub in Fitzrovia, met one of my favourite journalism tutors, and gave him £20. In return he gave me several drinks and the most gigantic bag of barley sugars, concealed under the title Orwell in Tribune. I'm more than halfway through the binge now; so far it's pure "As I Please" - that is, pure George Orwell newspaper miscellany - cut with just one pseudonymous Christmas article. And yet my appetite feels healthier than I could have imagined.

There are some things that start to cloy. The anti-Catholicism gets a bit old - it's not just Spain or even Spain and Beachcomber. The "brain-ticklers" were annoying even in the heavily selected Collected Journalism version. But the accretion of literary personality makes good all irritations. He toys, quietly, with the sort of leftist jargon he is more famous for flaying ("I am objectively anti-Brains Trust, in the sense that I always switch off any radio from which it begins to emerge"). He has an excellent running joke about top hats. And there is a care about epithets, preached and practised, that his admirers at the Daily Telegraph might have to call politically correct. He may enjoy winding up Catholics, but he never calls them Roman Catholics.

From the second "As I Please":

It is an astonishing thing that few journalists, even in the left-wing press, bother to find out which names are and which are not resented by members of other races. The word 'native', which makes any Asiatic boil with rage, and which has been dropped even by British officials in India these ten years past, is flung about all over the place. 'Negro' is habitually penned with a small n, a thing most Negroes resent. One's information about these matters needs to be kept up to date. I have just been carefully going through the proofs of a reprinted book of mine, cutting out the word 'Chinaman' wherever it occurred and subtituting 'Chinese'. The book was published less than a dozen years ago, but in the intervening time 'Chinaman' has become a deadly insult. Even 'Mahomedan' is now beginning to be resented; one should say 'Muslim'.

From the 36th:

Now, it seems to me that you do less harm by dropping bombs on people than by calling them 'Huns'. Obviously one does not want to inflict death and wounds if it can be avoided, but I cannot feel that mere killing is all-important. We shall all be dead in less than a hundred years, and most of us by the sordid horror known as 'natural death'. The truly evil thing is to act in such a way that peaceful life becomes impossible.

'Selective quoting of George Orwell' is not a contest that deserves prizes, but that aspect of him was new to me.

[Orwell in Tribune: 'As I Please' and other writings 1943-7, compiled and edited by Paul Anderson, London, 2006. Oh, just read it. Or just buy it and then read it.]

*I mean me, which is shaming.

A cyclist pays for stereotyping drivers

A suited man in a BMW 3-Series stopped to let me turn right today. I was so confounded I forgot to nod thank-you. The next second, I was nearly kebabbed by the Volvo estate that overtook him.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

National Lampoon conservatism

"Imagine a guillotine, on which a kitten is strapped, connected to a bicycle that must be predalled ever more quickly to keep the blade aloft. Slow down, and the kitten gets it." -- Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute explains the relationship of happiness to economic growth, in the October issue of British Prospect. If your response is "Free the kitten!", you are presumably some kind of dangerous pinko utopian.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Mixed metaphor of the day

In full, the intro of this morning's Press Association Tory conference story:

Pressure was growing on key planks of David Cameron's reform agenda today amid growing evidence of dissent among the Tory grass-roots.

It would be nice to think someone wrote that for a bet.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The man they couldn't bar

This morning, someone asked me what I was laughing at. It was The Unfortunates, B.S. Johnson's novel-in-27-unbound-sections on grief and the vagaries of memory. Specifically, the bit that follows. 'Tony' is Tony Tillinghast, the friend whose death from cancer a chance visit to Nottingham has prompted B.S. Johnson to remember. The pub is one near B.S.'s flat in Angel, from which he and his friend Jack had been banned after scribbling obscenities in the 'virginal urinal', smashing the odd pint glass, and so on. A pause of three em spaces in the original is represented here by a paragraph break, because my HTML isn't all that. Anyway:

...Tony suggested going into the pub, on this occasion, it must have been the second time he came to the Angel, not the first, now I think of it, because I had worked at another pub, and I was barred from that one, too, or did not go in there, anyway, or something, but he said Let me go in first and order one for you to come in and drink, after a few minutes. And it worked perfectly, I stood outside and counted a hundred, then went in to him and took up my drink, and they were astounded, confounded, the woman and the barmaid, who were both there, it worked well, they muttered amongst themselves, or together, but there was nothing they could do about it, it was so well timed. But they would no serve us with another drink, I remember asking Why not? very aggressively, and them staring back, angrily, and saying You know why! And I think threatening to call a copper. But we left victorious despite, Tony and I, with some dignity, too, as I remember. The beauty of it was that Tony was so polite, gentlemanly and friendly in buying the drinks, had formed a relationship with them, they being very pleased at new custom in an area where it was not common, I think, and they therefore had this friendliness thrown in their faces, so to speak, but could do nothing about it. Ah, the beauty of that!

And then Tony suggested doing the same thing the next evening, only sending two friends in to set up drinks for four, and then both he and I would walk in, and after that they would surely never serve any drinks to anyone unless they saw who it was first, they would be that unsure that they were not going to see the two fat guys walk in again.

[The Unfortunates, by B.S. Johnson, London, 1969, reprint 1999. More readable and less affecting than I expected, although that may be my shallowness. It is an excellent portrait of what the mind does in a stretch of waste time -- kinships with Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, which again I wasn't expecting. The precise observation of Nottingham detail was a pleasure for me, although knowing the geography of his wanderings tugs against the randomness of the form.]

SILLY IDEA BONUS: Thanks to Jonathan Coe's biography of Johnson, we now have a pretty good idea of when The Unfortunates took place: Boxing Day, 1964, when The Observer assigned the author to watch Forest play Spurs. A city that took its literary heritage seriously, rather than just arranging random volumes in the shape of an N, would declare Boxing Day to be B.S. Johnson Day, on the model of Bloomsday, and have hordes of tourists buying quarters of ham from a deli near Old Market Square, drinking two marsalas in Yates's Wine Lodge, and then watching a disappointing Forest match. Of course, in the spirit of the book, you would have to let your visitors do these things in an order of their choosing, or maybe gather at the railway station and then draw lots to decide the schedule. I may write a letter to our tourist authorities, and see how politely they give me the brush-off. And I may then try and do it myself anyway.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A Dickensian character

"Charles Chaplin, Charlie, Charlot, the Tramp, the little man, kiss-kiss, was the most important and dynamic figure in the early days of cinema. In defeat and glory, pathos and aplomb, he was an inspiration to many, ammunition for the rest, and someone who never knew boredom with himself. Indeed, following Chaplin's slapstick career, reading the Autobiography that could have been co-written by Micawber and Heep, is to have the sense of someone watching his own show. Surely that is a clue to filmmaking, direction, or whatever: the ability (or the curse) of being in life while directing the act at the same time." -- David Thomson, The Whole Equation.

The purpose of this post was to applaud that 'Micawber and Heep' quip. But I was unable to stop myself typing out the rest of the paragraph, and I reckon my first reading missed the real insight (and insult): "never knew boredom with himself". That really is worth applauding.

[The Whole Equation, by David Thomson, London, 2004. Celluloid's own John Aubrey turns from biography to history, and proves as blessedly idiosyncratic in his new form. This is a four-chapter verdict; I'll be surprised if I'm less happy at the end.]

Monday, September 25, 2006

The insult in history

"The multitude was unable to conceive that a man who, even when sober, was more furious and boastful than others when they were drunk, and who seemed utterly incapable of disguising any emotion, or keeping any secret, could really be a coldhearted, farsighted, scheming sycophant. Yet such a man was Talbot." -- Macaulay, on Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnel. I don't think historians get to write sentences like that any more.

I've just passed another chunk of Macaulay's comments on the Irish in general, and the level of blithe racism is stunning. A man of his time, yadda yadda, but still -- his remarks on the moral evil engendered by eating potatoes must have been particularly welcome at the end of the 1840s.

[A History of England, by Thomas Babington Macaulay, London, 1849 to 1861. Only three-and-a-half volumes to go! I shall press on. I had forgotten the pleasure of reading small, old-fashioned hardbacks on public transport. All your fellow passengers assume it's a Bible. The sympathetic ones conclude you are at your devotions, the unsympathetic fear you might try to convert them -- and either way, you suddenly have personal space.]

Friday, September 22, 2006

Bonus for enduring excuses

While we're in London (see below), please accept as a peace offering The Tomb of the Unknown Yuppie, which gave me a right start when I ran across it. Official title, date and so on here, which is also the source of the photo; all courtesy of here, as ever.

Excuses for absence

The reason there's been nothing here for a few days, over and above the usual laziness, is that I've been away in London in conditions not conducive to blogging.

On the other hand, I have had a chance to catch up with the Evening Standard's 'Save our Small Shops' campaign, which yesterday detected supermarkets making dastardly use of "bargain beer and spirit offers" to crush their rivals. I'm sure it's true. What added intrigue was the choice of examples:

Tesco sold Pavlov vodka for £6.23, but when VAT and excise duties are excluded this is the equivalent of just 17p a bottle. This was half the lowest wholesale price available to other retailers.

A bottle of Tesco value whiskey cost £6.86, or, before taxes, just 36.8p or £4.42 per case of 12.

Tesco Value Whiskey? Yes, they're coming after our winos. For when a corner shop loses the custom of its local alcoholics, how can it go on? You should see the offers Aldi has on meths these days.

'Pavlov' is a marvellous name for a dirt-cheap vodka, though; the kind of detail Martin Amis might once have come up with.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Hospital canteens and the "duty to protect"

Agnes was gentle and indecisive generally, a dove if ever there was, but had flown out hawkishly over the war. Her brother-in-law had been in his prisons, and, though she would not say what had happened to him there, Agnes thought even war was better than letting such things exist.

But if we remove one tyrant, then why not another, she'd said to Agnes; most of the staff at this hospital could give ample reason for us to go to war with their country of origin - every single one of them, if you asked the cleaners.

True, said Agnes; and maybe that's the way ahead.

-- from "The Phlebotomist's Love Life", in Helen Simpson's collection Constitutional. The driver of the story, and the emotion we're probably meant to identify with, is anti-war rage; but I like the opening up of another option.

Commercial note: On the evidence of Amazon, Constitutional's out in paperback on October 5. I hereby claim to be a month ahead of the curve, rather than eight months behind it.

[Constitutional, by Helen Simpson, London, 2005. Seriously accomplished comic stories. The plots flick round like second-hands, but each has the rest of a clock behind it. Adulterous, au-pair-employing suburban London appears to have literary life in it yet.]

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Disturbance at Weekday Cross

Some time in 2008, Nottingham will have a large and potentially splendid new art gallery. Until then, we have a large hole in the ground. To reconcile us to what's going on - that hole used to be a park - the creators of the gallery are staging a series of sweet little art happenings at the point where the hole meets the street. I am increasingly enchanted. There hasn't been this much fun at this particular crossroads since we got rid of the municipal bear-baiting pit, not to mention the bullring and the stocks.

Here, anyway, is the point -- a relic of today's happening:

The set-up was two women at a slightly dodgy-looking stall: sweets, a raffle box in red smoked plastic, and decorations in the same jeweller-meets-pawn-shop trim you see above. They were offering any quantity of time in exchange for written details of use and price. My year and a day was to hunt a dragon; I offered the traditional half a kingdom plus one hand in marriage. Should a fairy tale enter your life, you have to embrace it properly, no?

(The artists involved were called CoLab, but Google can't find my any more about them; may report back if I manage to get to one of their unveilings.)

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Origin myth

Two short scenes from David Peace's Clough-at-Leeds novel The Damned Utd. There are three more scenes between them, all in the space of two pages.

First this:

The cleaning lady is cleaning my office, under the desk and behind the door, whistling and humming along to the tunes inside her head --

'You know, I once sacked all the cleaning ladies at Derby.'

'What did you do that for then, Brian?' she asks me.

'For laughing after we lost.'

'Least you had a good reason then,' she says. 'Not like Mr Revie.'

'What do you mean?'

'Well,' she says, 'Mr Revie once sacked a lass here for wearing green.'

'Wearing green?'

'Oh yes,' she says. 'He thought green brought bad luck to club.'

'And so he sacked her?'

'Oh yes,' she says again. 'After we lost FA Cup final to Sunderland.'

'Just like that?'

'Yes,' she says. 'Just like that.'

The telephone starts to ring. I pick it up. I tell them, 'Not now.'

Then this:

I have been in the kit room. I have been among the socks and the straps, the shirts and the shorts, but I have found what I was looking for. I have changed out of my good suit and nice tie into my tracksuit bottoms and this old Leeds United goalkeeping jersey.

Down the corridors. Round the corners. Through the doors and into the car park. The team and their trainers are already sat on the bus waiting for me. I climb aboard and plonk myself down next to Syd Owen at the front of the coach --

'What do you think of this then, Sydney?' I ask him.

'Of what?'

'Of this?' I ask him again, pointing at this old Leeds United goalkeeping jersey.

'I think if the team have to wear suits when they travel, so should their manager.'

'But what do you think of the colour, Sydney?'

'Green?' he asks. 'I think it suits you, Mr Clough.'

You'd call that cinematic, except the final reveal would be extremely difficult to do on screen. The writing has other hidden sophistications, too: I hadn't noticed the cleaning lady's dropped 'the's ("bad luck to club", "After we lost FA Cup" -- the tic of Yorkshire dialect cliche represents with a "t'") until I had to type her out.

For the significance of that green jersey, if you don't already know, try the picture at the head of this BBC obituary or the logo of the Brian Clough Statue Fund.

[The Damned Utd, by David Peace, Faber, London, 2006. A first-person account of the manager's nightmarish 44 days in charge of Leeds United, the most powerful and hated club in Britain, intercut with a second-person account of the rapid rise that took him there. The structure could be hubris and nemesis, or a reflection of the curse -- "first with gift and then with loss" -- that an unknown Yorkshireman is casting on our anti-hero. Builds an impressive sense of grim inevitability, although that could be something to do with me already knowing what's going to happen. No idea how far from documentary it is, but it feels original and fully imagined.]

Sunday, September 03, 2006

After the war

Macaulay on why the politicians of the Restoration were such Bad Men. Long (I forgot how long -- I'm a hundred or so pages south by now) but sadly unlikely to lose resonance:

Scarcely any rank or profession escaped the infection of the prevailing immorality; but those persons who made politics their business were perhaps the most corrupt part of the corrupt society. For they were exposed, not only to the same noxious influences which affected the nation generally, but also to a taint of a peculiar and of a most malignant kind. Their characters had been formed among frequent and violent revolutions and counter-revolutions. In the course of a few years they had seen the ecclesiastical and civil polity of their country repeatedly changed. They had seen an Episcopal Church persecuting Puritans, a Puritan Church persecuting Episcopalians, and an Episcopal Church persecuting Puritans again. They had seen hereditary monarchy abolished and restored. They had seen the Long Parliament thrice supreme in the state, and thrice dissolved amidst the curses and laughter of millions... One who, in such an age, is determined to attain civil greatness must renounce all thought of consistency. Instead of affecting immobility in the midst of endless mutation, he must always be on the watch for indications of a coming reaction. He must seize the exact moment for deserting a failing cause. Having gone all the lengths with a faction while it was uppermost, he must suddenly extricate himself from it when its difficulties begin, must assail it, must persecute it, must enter on a new career of power and prosperity with new associates. His situation naturally develops in him to the highest degree a peculiar class of abilities and a peculiar class of vices. He becomes quick of observation and fertile of resource. He catches without effort the tone of any sect or party with which he chances to mingle. He discerns the signs of the times with a sagacity which to the multitude appears miraculous, with a sagacity resembling that with which a veteran police officer pursues the faintest indications of crime, or with which a Mohawk warrior follows a track through the woods. But we shall seldom find, in a statesman so trained, integrity, constancy, any of the virtues of the noble family of Truth. He has no faith in any doctrine, no zeal for any cause. He has seen so many old institutions swept away, that he has no reverence for prescription. He has seen so many new institutions, from which much had been expected, prodeuce mere disappointment, that he has no hope of improvement. He sneers alike at those who are anxious to preserve and those who are eager to reform. There is nothing in the state which he could not, without a scruple or a blush, join in defending or in destroying. Fidelity to opinions and to friends seems to him mere dulness and wrong-headedness. Politics, he regards, not as a science of which the object is the happiness of mankind, but as an exciting game of mixed chance and skill, at which a dexterous and a lucky player may win an estate, a coronet, perhaps a crown, and at which one rash move may lead to the loss of fortune or life.

You can choose where you want this applied or argued with according to political taste.

Ian Hamilton on Larkin's afterlife

The Larkin fun in the sidebar here (it points here and here) sent me scurrying back to Ian Hamilton, who I rememembered being good, and angry, on the post-biography change in Larkin's reputation. Sure enough:

A couple of weeks ago, there was a write-up in the Independent about a rap performer name of Ice Cube, author of 'A Bitch is a Bitch' and 'Now I Gotta Wet'cha'. Ice Cube, we were told, is notorious for his misgyny and racism and for whipping up his fans into ecstasies of loathing: he has them 'grooving to a litany of hate'. Only one of Ice Cube's lines was quoted - 'You can't trust no bitch. Who can I trust? Me' - but the reviewer did attempt to pinpoint his subject's characteristic manner of address. He called Ice Cube's language 'incessantly Larkinesque'.

Larkinesque? Did this mean that Ice Cube, for all his appearance of commercialised aggression, was secretly a somewhat poignant type of artist, wry, subtle, elegiac; that his dignified, distressful lyrics were likely to linger in the memory for decades? It seems not. In this context, 'Larkinesque' signified 'foul-mouthed'. And the Independent's readers were supposed to know this. Oh, Larkinesque, they'd think as one, that means Cube uses the word 'fuck' a lot.

And who can blame them if they do so think? After all, in the week before the Ice Cube notice, these same readers were treated to a daily dose of Philip Larkin's more repulsive apercus: sexual intercourse is like having someone else blow your nose, women are stupid, kids should be sent away to orphanages more or less at birth, and all the rest of it. At the bottom on one page, in a little box, we would get the Independent's 'Daily Poem' - usually some workmanlike concoction without a flicker of inspiration or originality - and on another, similarly boxed, there would be the ugly mug of Philip Larkin, together with a line or two of his off-the-cuff plain-speaking. What a busy newspaper: encouraging les jeunes and les no-hopers even as it chips away at the repute of the best poet we have had since Auden.

That's the introduction to a review of the Motion biography. The start of his review of the letters gives one notable reason why fashionable literary London (as the phrase goes) might have turned against Larkin:

There is a story that when William F. Buckley Jr sent a copy of his essays to Norman Mailer, he pencilled a welcoming 'Hi, Norman!' in the Index, next to Mailer's name. A similar tactic might happily have been ventured by the publishers of Philip Larkin's Letters: the book's back pages are going to be well thumbed. 'Hi, Craig', see p. 752, you 'mad sod'; 'Hi, John', see p. 563, you 'arse-faced trendy'; 'Hi, David', see p. 266, you 'deaf cunt', and so on. Less succinct salutations will be discovered by the likes of Donald Davie ('droning out his tosh'), Ted Hughes ('boring old monolith, no good at all - not a single solitary bit of good'), and Anthony Powell, a.k.a. 'the horse-faced dwarf'. There is even a 'Hi, Ian': he calls me 'the Kerensky of poetry'. Not too bad, I thought at first. Alas, though, the book's editor advises me that Larkin almost certainly meant to say Dzerchinsky, or somebody - some murderer - like that.

(It seems the letters were out first, by the way, at least in England.)

But Hamilton does not follow the approach of defending Larkin by attacking his executors. He had written about them sympathetically (in the greatly to be recommended Keepers of the Flame) before the Letters and the life came out. He jibs at Motion's style -- "too solemnly intrusive... The teacher in him is often at war with the narrator and, in the early sections of the book, where he is guessing, he slips easily into an inert biographese"; but he does not cricitise the handling of Larkin's sex life and his primary reactions seem to be shock and (for Larkin) something between anguished empathy and pity, with a dash of irritation. I'm going to take him as my guide, for now.

You see, I've never actually picked up the Motion biography, having heard so much bloody about it. But a good sample of Larkin's hates and rages come through in his poems. We don't have to live with them on the basis that his feelings against women, black people, lefties, rivals, everyone, were first and deepest feelings against himself, although probably they were. We have to live with them because he forged them into poems that are lasting and memorable and touching and draw echoes from us (me, anyway) even of their most shaming admissions. If we can't cope with that, it's our problem -- not his and not even (I suspect) his biographers'.

(The Hamilton reviews quoted appear in the The Trouble with Money, which is apparently still just about in print, and in Walking Possession, which isn't. I'm afraid you still need both.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Only secondhand books give you this

Tipped inside the inside cover of the first volume of Macaulay's History of England:

It's a five-volume edition, in all, so it would have been a handsome present, especially when books were scarce. This one is half-wrecked from reading, or at least handling; the others would be at least one condition category up. The text of the dedication, as you might just make out, is:

To Stan.

"I cannot allow other common friendships to be placed in the same line with ours. I have as much knowledge of them as another and of the most perfect of their kind, but I should not advise anyone to measure them with the same rule; he would be much mistaken. In those other friendships one has to walk with one's bridle in one's hand, prudently and cautiously: the knot is not tied so tightly but that it will cause some misgiving --- --- But in the other kind where we exhibit the very depths of our heart and make no reservations, truly all the springs of action must be perfectly 'clear and true'." (MONTAIGNE)

from Dicky, APRIL '45.

The date finishes it off nicely, I think. You can imagine some sort of pilot-and-rear-gunner scenario -- in comments, if you like.

[Macaulay, History of England From The Accession of James II, London, 1849-1861. Shameful to admit, but I'm just reading back to the point I'd reached last time I mentioned it. It'll be clear soon enough whether I've jinxed it again.]

Monday, August 28, 2006

Bank holiday cat picture

Meet Hodge, a very fine cat indeed. Explanation, location, inscription, photo credit etc here. Previous incoherent enthusiasm for source here.

Arnold Bennett as Edwardian QVC presenter

I think it will be agreed the cost of this library is surprisingly small. By laying out the sum of sixpence a day for three years you may become the possessor of a collection of books which, for range and completeness in all its branches of literature, will bear comparison with libraries far more imposing, more numerous, and more expensive.

Send no money now. Return within 90 days for a full refund.

This is Literary Taste: How to Form It, published by Bennett in 1909. It has gone through seven editions by my copy, dated February 1914. It suggests that, quite apart from his novels, Bennett could have made a fortune writing self-help books or flogging Chambers' Cyclopedia of English Litearature door to door.

On the one hand, he is too scrupulous to suggest a single path. His first warning is: "People who regard literary taste simple as an accomplishment, and literature simply as a distraction, will never truly succeed either in acquiring the accomplishment or in using it half-acquired as a distraction". His first advice is: "Buy! Surround yourself with volumes, as handsome as you can afford. And for reading, all that I will now particularly enjoin is a general and inclusive tasting, in order to attain a sort of familiarity with the look of 'literature in all its branches'." He takes pleasure, extracted with effort from acknowledged classics, as his guiding pedagogical principle.

On the other hand, he is too canny to pass up the sales potential of "DETAILED INSTRUCTIONS FOR COLLECTING A COMPLETE LIBRARY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE". The justification is peremptory: "I began by urging the constant purchase of books -- any books of approved quality, without reference to their immediate bearing upon your particular case. The moment has come to inform you plainly that a bookman is, amongst other things, a man who possesses many books. A man who does not possess many books is not a bookman."

With the help of a tame retailer, "my old and valued friend, Charles Young, head of the firm of Lambley & Co., booksellers, South Kensington", he compiles "a library containing the complete works of the supreme geniuses, representative important works of all the first-class men in all departments, and specimen works of all the men of second rank whose reputation is really a living reputation to-day", specifying editions and prices. It runs from Chaucer (and a little before) to George Gissing, excluding translations and works not in English. For 337 volumes, the cost is £26 14s 7d, of which £14 17s 7d is the copyright-heavy 19th Century. "I am fairly sure," he says, "that the majority of people will be startled at the total inexpensiveness of it."

£26 14s 7d comes out at about £1,800 in today's money using the RPI inflation calculator at; and many of his volumes are one-shilling Everymans, for which you might struggle to find an equivalent at £3.50 today. Dover Thrift and Wordsworth Editions could take you some way, I suppose.

I love Bennett's tone -- intimate, clairvoyant and stern -- although there's every chance another reader would want to throttle him. He's your friend; he knows what you're thinking; and he can fix it. And I take some comfort, decline-of-literary-culture-wise, in his description of the crapness of the market for poetry in his time. "If the sales of modern poetry, distinctly labelled as such, were to cease entirely to-morrow not a publisher would fail; scarcely a publisher would be affected; and not a poet would die -- for I do not belive that a single modern English poet is living to-day on the current proceeds of his verse."

Given more enterprise I'd work through the list -- two volumes a week for three years, I'm fairly sure that most people will be startled at the total unambitiousness -- but enterprise is not something you'll find much of around here.

Literary Taste is available as a Project Gutenberg e-text.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Service update

My clippings file blog now runs up to this March, and has a whizzy new highlights selection linked down the right hand side. You never know who might have an eye on you - especially once you've deleted the stats counter for being too depressing.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Another book I'll have to buy

While classical texts and Guardian headlines are the subject, I appear to have missed a good one yesterday, despite enjoying the article it was meant to attract me to: "Honey, I'm Homer", for David McKie on Samuel Butler's The Authoress of the Odyssey. McKie hits off Butler's can-this-be-serious tone excellently, and this bit seems horribly plausible:

Today, to judge from the Notebooks, he would have probably made a fortune, perhaps as a house vituperationist for the Daily Mail, or as a telly pundit. He delighted in snappy inversions of popular tenets - "An honest God's the noblest work of man" - and overheard oddities - "At a funeral, the undertaker came up to a man and said to him: 'If you please, sir, the corpse's brother would be happy to take a glass of sherry with you'."

I'm not sure, though, that his account captures quite how funny, or how cuckoo-bananas, The Authoress of the Odyssey is.

Butler almost certainly did think Gladstone used Homer as as basis for "excessive pontification". After all, he hated Gladstone. He boasts in his notebooks of turning a servant against him. But this didn't stop him drawing largely from Gladstone's already archaic scholarship, in place of later writers who didn't moralise so much.

In Authoress, he accepts serenely many of Gladstone's moralising readings, but blames them on the writer having been young, female, priggish and without real knowledge of the world, the ancient-Sicilian equivalent of a vicar's daughter. (Of course, Butler was a vicar's son.) He makes her speciality jokes -- delightful little feminine ironies at the expense of masculine heroism. He is breathtakingly sexist, even in his praise.

The drive that made Butler's Homer criticism fun to read is the same one that stopped it connecting with the scholarship of his day, even as a provocation. It rests on intuiting a character for the author of each book (the Iliad was by a cynical old Trojan gentleman) and then remaking everything to fit the intentions, secret biases and flaws of the writers he has invented. David McKie credits Butler with pointing towards the "compound" Homer, the by-committee version already fashionable in his day. But that was completely against his way of reading.

One final revelation I'm deeply grateful for: The Authoress of the Odyssey is back in print, and has been for two years, with a university outfit called Bristol Phoenix Press. That's another £20 gone, and when I finally get to reread the bugger doubtless everything I have said above will be wrong. Now can we have The Humour of Homer, please, Bristol Pheonix Press? Please...

(There's no Project Gutenberg version of Authoress, if you were wondering, despite a full set of his not-very-religious religious works.)

A "Neophiliacs" moment

The headline on page 29 of today's Guardian asks: "Has Coke become the new McDonald's?"

The answer, according to the text, is no:

When self-described anarchists interrupted the carrier of the Olympic torch on route to Turin ahead of this year's winter games, it was not the athlete's running shoes they objected to, it was the presence of Coca-Cola, which had spent $66m (£35m) to become the main sponsor. Coke is the new Nike.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

At long last Loeb

Slate has a late but good addition to the hoopla surrounding the 500th volume in the Loeb Classical Library, the venerable series of Latin and Greek texts with facing translations. Good because the author, Emily Wilson, actually has something amusing to say about Quintillian's Lesser Declamations, with facing translation by H. Shackleton Bailey, and because (not unrelatedly) she's a working classicist with intelligent doubts about the sort of dilletantism the series enables:

I still wonder whether we really should be welcoming these splendid new translations with open arms. I, for one, would be extremely wary of recommending a Loeb in an undergraduate class in which the students were expected to read the original Latin or Greek. The temptation to rely too heavily on the translation would be all the greater now that the translations are so much better than they used to be.

This is surely a decision that makes itself. You don't have to recommend Loebs. Where there are undergraduates expected to read Latin and Greek, there will be at least one bookshop with a wall of the things. Even if your classics department is too small to make your town a Loeb-rich environment, word will get around. Some things are too useful not to hear about. Your students will find them and crib. And if you haven't recommended them, then any moderately conscientious student will crib thoroughly enough to give the impression that they didn't crib.

The worse worry, well expressed higher up the article, is that the Loebs can serve a culture with no place for the more than moderately conscientious. Mastering the crib is as far as you're encouraged to go. Indeed, you may receive a gold star for getting that far. Googling around this point, I found that the Weekly Standard considers Loebs to "certify seriousness". It's the handsome covers that do it, apparently.

Back when I dreamed of being serious about such things, it was the Scriptorum Classicorum Bibliotheca Oxoniensis that certified seriousness: hyper-reliable texts, no English even in the notes, and a cover style that makes a Loeb look modernist. I never managed them. But even a straight English translation was more heavyweight than a Loeb, provided it wasn't a Penguin.

Loeb bonus: Harvard UP's publicists, otherwise pretty hot on this one, seem nonetheless to have missed the 90th birthday of one of Latin literature's most-used cribs: H. Rushton Fairclough's Virgil. Or maybe they're saving the champagne for the second volume's 90th, in two years' time.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Question of the week

"...when did you last enjoy a thriller you thoroughly understood?" -- Michael Wood

Grudging steps towards convention

The New Yorker does not permit itself a masthead listing editorial staff. That would be unconscionably vulgar, and perhaps uncomfortably long. It does now venture a brief collection of notes on contributors, which mainly act as the same sort of status indicator. Result: some of the most sublimely circular and uninformative sentences in print today. From the August 7 and 14 issue, I particularly like...

Sasha Frere-Jones (Pop Music, p. 90) writes the pop-music column for the magazine.

The birth of modern political journalism (with a note on how it might die)

The text of today's sermon, like so many of the others recently, is from C.E. Montague. In this case, A Hind Let Loose (1910), his first novel, a farce about crappy provincial journalism. George Roads, a rising press baron, is talking to an unimportant interlocutor about the town's two newspapers, the Tory Warder and the Liberal Stalwart. I have made a snip in the middle, indicated by three dots.

"Still at it, ain't they?"

"At what?"

"Readying folk to read anything else they can get, to be rid of 'em. Bless you, these old party papers! Party! Good Lord!"

"'Party!' says Burke, 'is-'"

"Burke! I dare say. Some Fenian. Tell you, the thing's played out. Why, look about you; take a business man, average business man. He's got no party; not such a fool. He's fluid, not frozen all up. First this way a bit, then that way a bit - that's him. And d'you tell me he doesn't get up, every morning, fair itching to be rubbed a way no paper in this place has ever rubbed him yet? Kept in touch with - that's what he wants to be."

"What's 'kept in touch with'?"

"Told he's right." Roads' audience grew; his audiences had a way of growing...

"What would you pay," Roads pursued, with a corresponding rise of voice, "to be told, first thing when you got down to breakfast you were drunk last night, or you revoked, or ate with a knife, or something? That's what they call the game, I s'pose, these party papers. Why, look at the last war. Do you folks really want to be told a war's wrong when their blood's up? Or right, a year after, when they're sick of it? That's what they do, between 'em, these papers - blackguard their own customer, turn about; soon as one shift knocks off work at saying the country's a fool, t'other'll come on."

If you detect a pre-echo of the Daily Mail's Iraq policy, you should be warned that "Roads" is not a synonym for Harmsworth; the early career Montague gives him is much closer to the Hulton clan, which would make the half-penny morning paper he's planning the Daily Dispatch. And no one needs to make satirical points against the Daily Dispatch any more.

On the other hand, Roads' reader-frottage approach to editing is the foundation of much modern journalism; papers and writers vary according to who they try to rub. This may be an underestimated driver of newspaper resentment of blogs; it is galling to hear populist rhetoric from writers who can get away with rubbing far smaller groups of people than you. Anyone can be a blogger, true; but good blogs, good political blogs particularly, tend to assume a level of knowledge and a precision of partisanship that no one who needs to appeal to a newspaper-sized audience will dare. Homework assignment: rework the Long Tail thesis to fit what's happening to political writing, bearing in mind that the money's more in the patronage and commissions attracted by blog reputation than it is in AdSense, assuming there's any money at all.

Monday, August 07, 2006


On Sunday, Test Match Special had a series of distressed e-mails from readers who had found themselves seated in the West Stand at Headingley, had discovered that it was neither quiet nor sober, and had come over all Feedback about it.

They followed up by sending a reporter into the stand to interview several families and peaceable spectators -- all of whom said they loved it -- and a couple of pissed men in fancy dress, who expressed an unsurprising enthusiasm for dressing up and getting pissed. Then back to the commentary box, where Jonathan Agnew declared in his most serious voice that both lovers and haters of the stand would now be more convinced.

The next morning’s Guardian over-by-over also discussed the issue. It produced somewhat different findings. First this:

"I saw my first live Test match yesterday and really enjoyed the day," writes Nicky Glover. "The atmosphere was fantastic and I was impressed with the good atmosphere between the English and Pakistan supporters - there was the occasional dodgy chorus of 'Stand up if you wear a dress' which I couldn't help chuckling at - I was just wondering if the Pakistan supporters who were there thought this was a bit of fun/ good natured banter or if they found this offensive?" Well?

Then this:

"I'm Pakistani and was up at the match on Saturday, great day out," says Sayed ZA Shah. "Three of us were the only Pakistanis in the whole West Stand, but the fight between Hulk Hogan, Mr T, the Hulk and David Hasselhoff was one of the finest moments of comic genius I have ever witnessed. Fancy dress day well worth checking out at a Test match."

Lots to be said for both outlets, obviously, but which would you rather have ten pints with?

Death, sex, sandwiches

John Harvey's Resnick novels had proper characters, convincing and involving police-procedure plots, and an acute sense of place. They had, in general, good clean prose. (True, the first page of Rough Treatment has a fat man move with surprising lightness, but what else is a plus-sized burglar to do?) For Nottingham readers, however, they had one other decisive virtue: cafe recommendations. In almost every novel our finicky Polish detective would disappear into some little place in the inner city or the Victoria Centre market. Many of them proved to exist and to be as good as billed.

I've just had my first encounter with the new Harvey series character, Frank Elder -- his second appearance, Ash and Bone. And I must say I was worried. He conducts many of his meetings in Starbucks. But we are saved. There is a cameo appearance for Resnick, with this outcome:

The cafe was French, a small patesserie set back from the main road that ran immediately south from the station. There were a few tables on the pavement, maybe a half-dozen more inside. Bread, criossants, baguettes and a gleaming espresso machine. Two women of a certain age, smartly dressed, sat near the rear window drinking coffee; a silver-haired man, camel coat folded over the back of his chair, was reading Le Monde and eating a croque-monsieur. Elder, who had used St Pancras enough over the years, had no idea it was there...

'How did you know about this?' Elder said, looking round.

'Charlie told me about it.'

I think I know where he's thinking of, and I haven't gone in, and I will.

[Ash and Bone, John Harvey, London, 2005. More thrillerish than the Resnicks -- that's the way the market's going, apparently -- with what seems like a greater number of splashy plots, and more sex. But that could be my faulty memory. The structure resists tidiness nicely, and the social set-up feels more solid and plausible than any policeman-out-of-retirement novel has a right to. I'll be reading the others.]

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sorry, but this imaginary relationship is doomed

Consecutive adverts in the present LRB personals column:

I celebrated my fortieth birthday last week by cataloguing my collection of bird feeders. Next year I’m hoping for sexual intercourse. And a cake. Join my invite mailing list at box no. 14/04. Man.

No beards. F, 38. Box no. 14/05

Monday, June 12, 2006

How to pass a UK citizenship test

If you can't remember Britain's second emergency number, or the details of employment law w/r/t trade-union membership, you might write this in any space provided for additional information:

I don't give a hang for all the sound intellectual reasons for devotion to a country -- pride in its greatness or its blasted 'rough island story', or the pedigree of its kings. I would as soon love it for its imports of jute. As far as I can tell, my own regard for England is almost wholly sensuous, or at any rate broad-based on something sensuous. My England is the Strand and Waterloo Bridge and all the Thames and the Pennine Hills here, and the crowd at a League football match, and Midland farmers talking like Shallow and Silence about the price of beasts, and the look of the common soldier in France at anything new, and the special kind of good-temper and humour and relenting decency that the man of the working classes has here. It's always something visible or audible or tactible, and there's not a scrap of a sound intellectual reason why I should feel any affection for it, any more than there is why most of us should be loved by our wives. In fact it is love and not judgment or wise criticism, which are much inferior affairs.

That's C.E. Montague again, inevitably, in a letter reproduced in the only full-length biography of him. It's here because I declaimed it aloud to a very knowing American of my acquaintance and he seemed to like it.

[C.E Montague: A Memoir, Oliver Elton, London, 1929. An old-fashioned praise-filled life and letters, always looking for an appropriate place to insert another of the subject's unpublished poems. Impressively thorough, though.]

Service note: Many apologies, dear reader, if you were on while something was triple-posted a few minutes ago. Wireless connection on blink + my stupidity = result you saw. And this blog will get back to quoting something other than journalism and books by old journalists soon, I promise.

Beams, motes

Perfection is for no one, least of all me, but I couldn't help being pleased at this coincidence. Here's the introduction to the sixth edition of the Guardian stylebook on the problems of the fifth edition:

The confusion was typified by the rather wonderful "amok, rather than amuck"; followed, two entries later, by: "amuck, not amok".

And here's two entries, separated only by "homeopathy", in the sixth and the current online version:

but home town

homepage, hometown
one word

My italics, obviously.

[The Guardian stylebook, David Marsh and Nikki Marshall, London, 2004. Ranks among the newspaper style guides amusing enough to be read for themselves. Not as essayistic or pungent as Waterhouse on Newspaper Style (nee Daily Mirror Style), but more comprehensive, and impressively short on false conventional wisdom.]

Lord Russell, tear down that wall

Simon Jenkins, in Landlords to London (1974), on Bedford Square in Bloomsbury:

The Estate's officers, with the experience of the haphazard development of south Bloomsbury behind them, went to inordinate lengths to ensure that nothing would mar the quality of their new neighbourhood. The conditions imposed by [the Bedford estate's agent Robert] Palmer on the builders went into mind-boggling detail. The proportions were all laid down, as were the quality of materials to be used -- 'best Memel or Riga timber' with floors of 'good yellow seasoned deals free from sap'. No trades were permitted nor was any change of use from residential allowed. Even the lesser streets which were built north of the Square -- Chenies Street and Store Street -- were banned to traders. Servants were expected to patronise the shops south of Great Russell Street, and strict limits were placed on through traffic. Gates guarded the entrances to Bedford Square from the south and Gower Street from the north and a shopkeeper was not even allowed to send his boy to make a delivery. He would only be admitted if he came himself, lest the tone of the neighbourhood should in any way be lowered.

He appends a remark about "the fortified suburbs of Los Angeles", but things have moved on. We have our own super-rich to mock these days.

And a bonus liberal London snobbery quote, did you know the cachet of your postcode depends on the price of a ticket there in 1870?

For the most part South London failed to develop the social prestige attached to the new northern suburbs. Certainly, especially on higher ground, pockets of eminent respectability survived into the twentieth century, for instance in Wimbledon, Dulwich and Blackheath. But none of them exerted on their surrounding estates the economic attaction of a Highgate, a Hornsey, a Hampstead or later of a Harrow or a Wembley Park. One thesis is that the railway companies were stronger to the north and had less need to court suburban traffic with cheap tickets, which in turn tended to drag down the economic tone of a neighbourhood. The LNWR, the Midland and the Great Western absolutely refused to introduce any workmen's fares throughout the nineteenth centur, thus neatly preserving a ninety-degree arc of north-west London from working-class colonisation.

He later uses the inverse -- financial troubles at Liverpool Street, and a resulting rush of cheap tickets -- to explain the "tone" of the Essex suburbs.

[Landlords to London, Simon Jenkins, Constable, 1975. The history of a metropolis considered as one long frenzy of property speculation -- an approach that fits London very well. Some repetition and loose editing, but if it was a 'quickie' book (preface says much of it comes from research for the Evening Standard, which he was about to edit) then it's a remarkably coherent one. His declared purpose -- a memorial to private land speculation, now that London is under the total grip of municipal development power -- is another for the hindsight file.]

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

How the wheel turns

This is the bitterest stroke of satire in 'Owd Yer Tight, Emrys Bryson's 1965 A-Z collage of Nottingham life. It's filed under J, for "Jack - I'm All Right":

"Guardian Journal", June, 1964. - A tumbledown block of five outside lavatories is shared by 18 adults and 19 children in Little John Street. All the nine terraced houses are more than 100 years old and are without bathrooms or even hot water. Every day the occupants have to disinfect the drains in the middle of the yard where children play between the dustbins. They spoke of damp walls, crumbling plaster, pigeons nesting in the attic, falling chimney pots and woodworm. Last year health officials had to be called in to deal with an invasion of cockraoches and ants.

The area is not due for inspection until 1966.

November 19th, 1964. - Mr J.J. Dunnett, Labour MP for Nottingham Central, told the House of Commons that in Central Nottingham alone there were 15,000 houses more than 80 years old which lacked inside sanitation, a fixed bath and a heating system. Six thousand of them not only lacked basic amenties but were so terrible that they had been condemned. Houses were sometimes so terrible that they could not be sold and were being let at rents which were exorbitant - £3 a week instead of 17/2; £4 5s instead of 16/11.

Nottingham has a housing waiting list of 5,340 families.

In 1964 Nottingham Corporation built 508 houses.

In the first six months of 1965 Nottingham Corporation completed 268 houses, and an exactly similar number was provided by private enterprise.

Nottingham is now building at the rate of 750 dwellings a year.

Since April 1945 - over 20 years - the Corporation has built 17,246 houses, a yearly average of 862. There are between 15,000 and 20,000 slum houses in the city.

January, 1965: Nottingham's No. 1 civic car is now a £10,000 Rolls Royce...

Completely justified indignation, of course, although given a sly push in the original by following a series of extracts on Victorian and Edwardian slums. What's sad is knowing that an equivalent work in 1980 would have vented its anger on tower blocks; and that the anger of the sixties would have helped raise them.

['Owd Yer Tight, by Emrys Bryson, staged Nottingham Playhouse 1965, published Nottingham 1967. A pageant-cum-guidebook-cum-scrapbook, almost entirely quotation, that ranges at will over Nottingham's history. Witty and learned and enough to make you nostalgic for the time of its writing, for all the pettinesses and injustices it describes. It's named after "the mating cry of the city's bus conductors" - these have died out, and the tram conductors who eventually came in their place have not taken up the call.]

Balance of coverage

The Google News selections for my home town are usually eccentric, but this morning's was depressingly acute:

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Pub food, 1961

For this blog's inaugural picture, an encouragement to make sandwiches for your husband's pub. This spread is from The Guinness Guide to Profitable Snacks, a handsome hardback book apparently given away inside the trade. It eventually ended up in my surviving local secondhand shop. They manage to fit 11 bottles or glasses of Guinness into a compact cover image, but the inside is scrupulously soft sell; it ends with a hopeful remark that "Good beer, dark or light, and good food are complementary".

What's most notable about it now, though, other than the tiny space given to hygiene regulations, is its confidence that every pub is a family unit. The section "CATERING H.Q. - your own kitchen" begins "Like most licensees, you and your husband are busy people". And on the subject of poultry, you get: "An occasional turkey, bought when prices are lower than at Christmas, can be enjoyed by your family and provide tasty sandwiches for your customers."

You are to use your domestic kitchen, and your own utensils, because of course it's all "scrupulously clean", and just take a little extra care when washing the dishes because (this is unspoken) that's where the public can actually see you slipping up.

Monday, May 22, 2006

War correspondents vs tipsters

Some newspaper-bashing for balance. This is a soldier's cogent explanation of why horse racing ceased during the First World War. Unfortunately, because of C.E. Montague's way with non-RP dialogue, it appears to be spoken by Dick Van Dyke:

The pipers done it. Want to get aht o' pyin' a fair wige to a taht for 'angin' abaht Noomawket 'Eath. It tikes a man o' skill to watch a maw'nin gallop. Not like war correspondin'. Naow use feedin' backers a bag of emowshnal bilge abaht 'eroes an' cheery wounded an' any old muck. A taht must know 'is job. An' wiges accordin'...

-- from "The First Blood Sweep", in Montague's short story collection Fiery Particles.

[Fiery Particles, by C.E. Montague, London, 1923. Scarcely better than the Montague Cockney is the Montague Irishman, distinguished by his fondness for apostrophes and anti-semitism. This collection gives you him at war and at peace. It still manages some penetrating writing, though. The best story is probably "Honours Easy", in which two privileged officers far from the front compete to collect medals. One hunts blue ribbons, the other red. Montague despises them both, but he would never go so far as to transcribe their accents phonetically.]

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Home Office vs the media

The Criminal Records Bureau will "make no apology for erring on the side of caution"; or, to put it another way, for giving 1,500 people the criminal records of those with vaguely similar names. A newspaper that made this kind of mistake -- sorry, "mismatch" -- would expect to grovel publicly and hand over thousands of pounds, perhaps tens of thousands if the namesake's crime was serious.

Now, you can argue that the CRB has a civic responsibility on these matters and the press does not. But the existence of libel exemptions for reports of court cases would suggest the law disagrees with you (look here and scroll down to "absolute privilege").

These exemptions do not, of course, cover accidentally besmirching the innocent. I'm not a lawyer; for all I know, the CRB may be luckier on that one. But it would be nice if they had any requirement to examine the facts and check them with rigour.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Premodifying for class

Language Log appear to have Mark Steyn bang (and bang and possibly bang) to rights on the question of unattributed inspiration from this post by Geoffrey K. Pullum.

But Mark Liberman's latest consideration of the matter raises a potential excuse for some of the apparent echoes in Mr Steyn's piece: that he got his idea from an editor at the Daily Telegraph, who may of course have lifted it first. In an update, Prof Liberman quotes a paragraph from the Telegraph's Sam Leith pointing to the omitted "the" in the first sentence of the Da Vinci Code ("Renowned curator Jacques Saunière" and so on) and says he

might have come up with this idea independently, or he might have gotten it from Pullum and thought it didn't rise to journalistic standards of sharing credit, or he might have gotten it from someone who got it from Pullum.

There's no heavy accusation against Leith -- Liberman goes on to call it "a small thing" -- but I'd like to suggest a reason why a Telegraph editor would be disposed to notice this point independently.

In British newspaper journalism, what Geoffrey Pullum calls the anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier isn't just a thing that crops up from time to time; it's a form with connotations -- in particular, one associated with more downmarket newspapers.

The Guardian's online style book specifically bans it (look here and scroll down to the entry for "the"), calling it "beloved of the tabloids" into the bargain. I can't find an equivalent proscription in the Times style guide, but a glance over the first seven pages of May 17's paper produced no AONPs and 30 forms doing the same job: premodifiers with "the" or a possessive pronoun, or job titles or affiliations given parenthetically between commas after names. I tried the same exercise for the Telegraph (seven broadsheet pages this time, rather than tabloid, but two of them adverts) and found four AONPs against 36 similar constructions.

The picture changes as you go downmarket. The Daily Mail, considered a midmarket tabloid, had 22 AONPs to 18 other constructions. (There's a particular rash of the parenthetical ones in a story about a prize for its sports columnist, which may support the idea of them as a "prestige" form.) The Daily Mirror, downmarket again, ran 37 to nine.

This is not enough to suggest the Telegraph actively discourages AONPs, but I do think they're a class signifier in British journalism, and style-conscious British journalists -- Sam Leith included -- may be expected to notice them.

That would get Mark Steyn off his first hook. Like Dave, however, I'm afraid I can't help him with the others.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The art of taking offence

Working on a regional paper changes the way you read. You begin to scan each text for references to your circulation area; and, although you probably try not to be conscious of it, you prefer the disparaging. Drawing your readers' attention to an insult and then loudly defending them from it promotes the togetherness on which local journalism thrives.

(This may be one reason why maligned and misunderstood places - shitholes, if you want to take the outsider's view - tend to nourish newspapers. Think of Wolverhampton and Dudley, with their paper bigger than the two Birmingham ones combined. Think of Aberdeen, with its two papers each larger than the prestigious Edinburgh equivalent.)

Also to be considered, especially if you're in a shithole, is the frisson of agreement some of your readers will feel at the insult. When I worked in Aberdeen for a few months, a friend told me to read Christopher Brookmyre's A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away, which gives the place several pages of full-on comic crying-down. I tried the local library, but all 23 copies were on loan.

There are five copies of Geoff Dyer's riff on DH Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, in all Nottingham and Nottinghamshire's libraries, and only two of them are in Eastwood. A shame, because his curses upon Eastwood and Notts are first-rate: "Lawrence country - north of Shakespeare's county, south of the Bronte country, bang in the middle of motorway country... there is no getting away from the fact that Eastwood is an ugly little town in an ugly little county".

Perhaps Dyer's whitewater-rafting version of the stream-of-consciousness narrative has kept Eastwoodians out. Perhaps it prevented filleting of the book by the people who would tell them to be offended. Or maybe the gatekeepers were distracted by the quality of the other jokes - this is a man who gathers momentum even as he describes depressed inactivity:

It went on for a couple of months. Laura went to work while I stayed home and did nothing. I read nothing and did nothing. I spent most of the time watching TV which may not sound so extreme but this was mornings and afternoons, it was Italian TV and - the clincher - the TV wasn't even turned on.

Something must be done. Do you think we could start a campaign to ban Out of Sheer Rage in Notts? I regret that I have come to the question so late, but the publicity would still surely bring others to the pleasures of this book. We might even get the libraries up to 23 copies.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Monday, May 08, 2006

Balls: Divination

is the official title of the art happening I mentioned some time ago. It has now happened. This Saturday, in fact. It drew more people into Bromley House than would normally go in a week, which is an excellent thing: a crowd of, say, 100, with what seemed like 120 cameras.

The pantomime of preparing and anticipating and buzz went on about ten minutes longer than was comfortable, but the result was worth it. The ping-pong balls were luminous yellow, which I hadn't expected, and delivered by the artist, Phillip Henderson, from an adorable little lavender-blue suitcase. He declared himself more concerned about the sound than the appearance, so the librarian asked everyone not to clap; there was a few seconds' pause before we cracked. As it turns out, a hundred people applauding sounds very like 360 ping-pong balls descending a spiral staircase. I hope Mr Henderson enjoyed the echo.

Other people have blogged this first, of course. One also put a video on YouTube. Bless them.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Matthew Norman reveals his lead time

He must be delighted with the pay-off to his Independent media diary this week:

ALSO UNWONTEDLY reticent, finally, is Jonathan Pearce, the football commentator who appeared on BBC1's sadly doomed Grandstand recently to reveal exclusively that Alan Curbishley would be appointed as England coach in a tripartite arrangement involving Trevor Brooking and Stuart Pearce. Now that the job has been offered to Luiz Felipe Scolari, a public apology must be imminent.

It will be interesting to see how much reticence Mr Norman goes for next week.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

My new favourite notice

was on a Transpeak bus from Nottingham to Cromford this morning:



Please note that smoking of any substance is not allowed on College Transport.

For better reasons to visit Cromford, see under Scarthin Books.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Today's major discovery

at least for me, is the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association's National Recording Project. You probably knew about it; it's been there for years, by the looks of things. It's a geographically arranged list of most of the public sculpture in "65% of the UK". It's wonderful. Best of all, many of the entries have photographs, so if you want to know what a real tourist trap looks like (description) or how all seaside railings should be (description), you can.

Today's minor irritation

is a sentence in most of the initial reports of the John Reid picoscandal, which presumably spawned from PA. It concerns Mr Reid's first wife, Cathy:

She died in 1998, and the couple had two sons.

How "and"? I didn't need that mental image. Neither do you.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Cocktail recipe

Combine the New York Times approach to sourcing and balance, a Finnish heavy-metal Eurovision entry, and a sense of humour, and on a good day you might get an sentence like this:

Some Finns say that Lordi is right at home and that the band's use of flaming dragon-encrusted swords and exploding baby dolls expresses the warrior spirit of the Vikings.

From here, via.