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.