Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Signs of ageing, newsprint edition

When the New York Times worries about mystifying young people, it now means people younger than me. This is reassuring and depressing at the same time - although given that my twenties fit its anomic, nomadic template (several jobs, periods of return to education and living with parents, failure to marry and have children) not all that reassuring.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Running away from Radio 4

From a discussion on Woman's Hour, just now, on life after retirement:

"I loved being a district nurse. I hated the thought of staying at home and listening to the Afternoon Play."

Oh, madam, it's worse than that. If you don't fill your days with purpose, you could end up listening to You and Yours.

The district nurse in question went and volunteered abroad, which eliminated the risk of hearing even Quote Unquote.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wolverine: just bad, or criminal?

A background sentence from a New York Times story on a man who bought a pre-release bootleg of the film Wolverine from a dodgy bloke in a restaurant, uploaded it to the net, and had the FBI turn up on his doorstep after the leak became a national news story:

In 2003, a New Jersey man was fined and put on probation after uploading an unfinished print of “The Hulk” before its release. But last year, a man who took a copy of “The Love Guru,” from a tape-duplication company was sentenced to six months in prison.

Unresolved issue: was the more severe sentence because that guy physically stole a tape, or because he was causing additional dissemination of The Love Guru? I believe there are critics who would have imposed a harsher sentence.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Bicycles, snow

This isn't the kind of place where people buy - or, so far as I've seen, sell - studded bicycle tyres. The few days a year of proper winter weather mean moving from seeking quiet roads to seeking busy ones, where there are gritters and hot-bellied cars and the ice doesn't set in so much. It also means avoiding hills, so that if the ice has set in I can be relatively under control when things go wrong. Peckham is better for this than Sydenham, which was the far side of a very big hill. The problem is that any weather bad enough to make cycling on main roads really unwise will probably also stop the trains and buses, and my boots aren't great. Tomorrow will be the test. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Theatre note: Blind Summit's Nineteen Eighty-Four

Last night a friend's spare ticket took me to an adaptation of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four at the Battersea Arts Centre. It was sold to me as a puppet version, which sounded irresistibly unwise. In fact, although there are a couple of puppets, what you mainly see are people, in overalls, performing the story as Brechtian didactic theatre - as if Brecht were a member of the Ingsoc Inner Party. Chunks of the original narration are delivered with a sort of ironic sarcasm, which I suppose cancels out to sincerity. The framing device works brilliantly in the first half, sinister and funny; it helps that you're not wholly certain at first it isn't real bad Brechtian theatre. In the second half, when the company are required to evoke soul-annihilating terror, the frame starts to get in the way. But if soul annihilation isn't your idea of a fun night out, that might be just as well.

Weather note: when I came out of the BAC, the saddle of my bicycle had a thick coating of frost. Not lock-freezing cold yet, though, thank God.

Monday, January 04, 2010

End-of-season's greetings

They will keep the feast in Stepney. The angel's wings are moved there; he wants to keep them, till there is another child in the house of the right size. He sees them going, shivering in their shroud of fine linen, and watches the Christmas star loaded on to a cart. Christophe asks, 'How would one work it, that savage machine that is all over points?'

He draws off one of the canvas sleeves, shows him the gilding. 'Jesus Maria,' the boy says. 'The star that guides us to Bethlehem. I thought it was an instrument of torture.'

From Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which having just finished it really does appear to be that good. Time is required, though, to certify the level of praise it has received, and time can be particularly hard on historical novels. As the main points of your new year emerge from under canvas, may they turn out to be decorations, rather than instruments of torture.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Parting shot

Stephen Glover was one of three journalists who founded the Independent, in 1986. He went on, in early 1990, to become the founding editor of the Independent on Sunday, from which post he was rapidly ousted amid cost-cutting and acrimony. This is from his description of the board meeting at which he ceased to be an executive director:

I arrived back in the boardroom and sat down. Marcus [Sieff, venerable chairman of Newspaper Publishing plc, the parent company of the two papers] had the air of a man brought in to settle a dispute which he did not really want to understand. He said that there had been a consensus that I should be asked to stay as a [non-executive] director, but there were conditions. In the first place, the arrangement would last for a year, and would be renewed only if the board and I wished it to be. I would get no emoluments (the annual fee for a non-executive director was £12,000) since I had received a year's salary on termination of my contract. So long as I remained as a non-executive director I could not write for any other newspapers, but if I wrote for the Independent or the Independent on Sunday I would not be paid. Finally, I would not be released from my undertaking not to sell any shares before March 31st 1992. That was it.

I was getting the impression that some members of the board were not deperately keen that I should become a non-executive director. Andreas [Whittam Smith, editor of the Independent and chief executive of Newspaper Publishing] was sitting to Marcus's right looking red-faced and ruminative. I imagined him at the board meeting, allowing its sillier members to build up this list of conditions, saying nothing when a word from him would have brought an end to all this foolishness.

"Well, thank you Marcus," I said. "Can I think about it for a day or two? I hadn't expected any conditions and I will need to think about them. Some of them don't matter, but I might want to write for other newspapers, and if Christopher Barton was allowed to sell his shares when he ceased being an executive director I don't see why I shouldn't be. Andreas, you said that you would recommend that I should be able to sell my shares."

"Yes," said Andreas, "but the mood of the meeting was that in the circumstances it would be better not to alter that undertaking."

"I see. Well, I would like a few days, if I may."

"Of course, take as long as you want," said Marcus generously. "I hope it will all work out."

As I walked down the stairs it occured to me that there was one condition that they had not thought of. They had not said I could not write a book.

From Paper Dreams (1993), the memoir that Glover's former colleagues failed to stop him writing. By this point in the penultimate chaper they would probably have regretted the omission. Paper Dreams is an entertaining book, vivid and witty and languidly readable, but is also an act of vengeance, chiefly against Whittam Smith, and a little too openly vengeful to be effective. The era it describes - when a newspaper could be an exciting start-up business capable of attracting £200m in City capital, and when the Independent could feel disappointed at selling a mere 300,000 - seems almost more remote than that in older Fleet Street memoirs.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

More endurance

About 10 years ago, I saw a takeaway in Hyson Green, Nottingham, with a name that suggested the area might have something of a drug problem. But over time I started to think I'd imagined it, or subconsciously improved it. Then I visited some kind friends in the area for new year, and it's not only real but still there:

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The handpainted sign is also very cute, no?

Friday, January 01, 2010

"Stuff endures"

One of the books that has most stuck in my head in the past year is Ruth Belville: the Greenwich Time Lady, by David Rooney. It's a biography, charming but stretched at less than 200 pages, of a woman famous for one thing. And it's a useful parable for anyone who finds themself in a rapidly, scarily changing industry (hi, fellow journalists!).

Ruth Belville inherited from her mother the business of going once a week to the observatory at Greenwich, having a fine 18th-century pocket watch set to the precise astronomically determined time, and touring the jewellers and watchmakers of London selling them time-checks. Her mother had taken on the task when she was widowed, in the 1850s; Ruth took her place from 1892.

By 1908, when she was the subject of a flurry of press interest, Ruth Belville already seemed an anachronistic curiosity. She should, everyone assumed, have been replaced by modern, telegraph-based electronic synchronisation. But that was expensive, and of variable reliability. Miss Belville, by contrast, charged very reasonably, and always turned up. Her market niche still existed.

The surprise is that Belville continued to make her rounds until 1940, well into the age of the radio and the speaking clock, supported by tradition-minded jewellers. David Rooney draws from this the moral I have taken as the title of my post. The past is still with us, just unevenly distributed, and for the best of reasons. "Stuff endures" - Rooney's nice phrase - because of the inertial power of human affection, and because arrangements can continue to yield rewards even if their original rationale has disappeared.

I have come to suspect that my own job, as a subeditor, is another example of the phenomenon. Subediting - the cutting, polishing and headlining of journalistic text as a separate job - was a natural corollary of hot-metal publishing, in which it was an essential gearing mechanism between reporters and the intricate, inflexible machinery their work drove. Ever since hot metal went, managers and consultants have sought to abolish subs; and yet subs have endured. They have been too useful and too well-established to be easily dispensed with. Those final corrections, that last touch of polish on the writing, all that minute coordination of detail and timing - it's hard to suddenly do without.

Which might give me new hope for my career, except for the fact that stuff doesn't endure for ever. We can't know whether it's 1908 or 1940. But it feels increasingly like 1940. That's what haunts me about Ruth Belville.