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.