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 She should, everyone assumed, have been replaced by modern, telegraph-based electronic synchronisation.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.

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