Whatever | November 2009

Whatever | Militant atheism
Please, Prof Dawkins, can I be a quiet, passive atheist?

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As a pacifist, and a coward, I’m really not looking for a fight. But argy bargy is brewing in the ideological playground, and rather than skulk off or adopt the scarf of the side most likely to emerge victorious, I propose we have a discussion first. What I’m actually saying is: I want to talk to you about God.

Does he/she/it exist, or not? That is the question at the heart of the 21st century’s most fashionable philosophical face-off – one that appears to have been artificially hotwired into life by a small but vocal group of deity-intolerant academics, writers and trendies, led by dashing evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, lapsed liberal and scourge of “the three great monotheisms” Christopher Hitchens and Jewish American author with issues Sam Harris. (I’d call them atheism’s cheerleaders were they not so palpably cheerless.)

Whether by accident or intelligent design, Not Believing In God has been elevated to a creed all of its own, with its own gospels – The God Delusion, The End Of Faith, God Is Not Great – and O-come-all-ye-faithless proverbs, plastered on the sides of 800 buses nationwide earlier this year (“There’s probably no God: stop worrying and enjoy your life”). The bus campaign, as inversely evangelical as any doorstepping Jehovah’s Witness, was funded by donations to the tune of £140,000 – a clear sign that the secular are taking up alms.

I should declare if not an interest, then certainly an anomaly: I don’t believe in God either. I sang O Jesus I Have Promised and learned cute Bible stories at school, but failed to make a meaningful metaphysical connection. At a base theological level, I’m with Dawkins. Bizarrely enough, I’ve even shared a variety bill with him: last Christmas’s Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, an evening of comedy, music and science curated by Robin Ince and New Humanist magazine. It was literally secularism as a bit of fun, like new toilet book The Atheist’s Guide To Christmas.

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My worry is the growing militancy of the atheist lobby, which is where me and it part company. As far as I see it, not doing something is by definition a passive activity. If anything, my lack of faith is an absence, a void, a missing jigsaw piece, not a soapbox from which to convert others to my non-cause. I don’t follow cricket either; but as long as cricket fans don’t come round my house and threaten me with bats, we can bump along without incident. I certainly don’t regard them as brainwashed numbskulls for their lifestyle choice. And yet, in The God Delusion, which I found compelling and repulsive in equal measure, Dawkins suggests that people “cling to religion” because “they have been let down by our educational system and don’t realise that non-belief is even an option.” In other words – idiots! – they’re too thick to be atheists. This is fighting talk.

I have no more affection for gay-hatin’, creationism-lovin’, suicide-bombin’ fundamentalists than you do – they give the Gods that go with them a bad name; the hardcore Morrissey fans of religion – but the “new atheists” can be just as actively belligerent and blind to reason, without spotting the irony. James Wood, writing in the New Yorker, asserted that the new atheism is “necessarily a kind of rival belief.” Christian theologian and author of The Dawkins Delusion Alister McGrath pictured Dawkins “preaching to his God-hating choirs … clearly expected to relish his rhetorical salvoes and raise their hands high in adulation.”

In his bracing tract Straw Dogs, political philosopher John Gray hits upon something that helps decode the virulent fundamentalism of Dawkins and his disciples: that their battle is not against God as much as it is for Science. Gray writes that Science, which brooks no wimpy notions of doubt, now claims the authority once commanded by the Church: “It has the power to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkers.”

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There seems to be a significant and meaningful crossover between the anti-God lobby and the pro-Science lobby, as if a faith in one is antithetical to a faith in the other – which leaves the majority of Christians who use hair dryers, read weather forecasts and take Ibuprofen in a vast grey area. But Dawkins’ actual title at Oxford until 2008 was Professor for Public Understanding Of Science, a chair funded by a software executive and space tourist. Even his academic post had the whiff of propaganda about it.

I propose a splinter group for quiet, passive atheists. We will hold no meetings, write no books, seek no voice, just get on with not believing in God, peacefully, in the comfort of our own homes. If we had a slogan on a bus, which we don’t, it would be: “There’s probably no God; when does Marple start?”

Whatever | July 2007

Whatever | Noughties indie
When did the indie bands get so damn greedy?

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It was a standing joke among readers of what used to be called the music press in the mid-80s that Prefab Sprout would reissue the single When Love Breaks Down every six months. They did so in the hope that the Great British Public would finally recognise it for the modern pop classic it so patently was and put it in the bloody charts.

The fast track to overground glory didn’t exist for a critically acclaimed fringe property like Prefab Sprout in those days, when “chart music” had a very specific sound: thunderous, sequenced drums, elephantine keyboards, Pino Palladino. With very few exceptions – Smiths, Depeche Mode, New Order – critical darlings had to be grateful to splash around in the small pond that was the Independent Chart and hope there was no Acid House that week.

Kitchenware, a record label of character and wit, actually only put When Love Breaks Down out three times: first in October 84, when it failed to worry even the Top 75; again in March ’85, politely remixed this time, but still no Woolworths action in a climate of Belouis Some and Go West; and finally, November ’85, when it clawed its way up to number 25 and got them onto Top Of The Pops in time for Christmas. It was all very proprietorial in those days, “us” and “them”, and for one of “ours” to be seen chasing Gallup was frankly unbecoming. Prefab Sprout had banked sufficient goodwill for this willful act of gamesmanship to be filed as a moral victory.

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How very different the playing field looks today. As I write, Jamie T, gifted Wimbledon street-poet and darling of the NME, is in the charts with the tremendous Sheila. But wait a minute, wasn’t Sheila in the charts last summer? Yes it was. It reached a healthy number 22 in July 2006. So why release it again? Vanity? Creative bankruptcy? For a laugh? Or might it be that Jamie T and his record company Virgin are greedy, greedy bastards who regard the kids as contemptible idiots? (Oh, sorry, it’s got a new live b-side.)

Nobody in the industry will bat an eyelid that a number 22 hit is being lovelessly reissued less than a year later just in case it can get a bit higher this time. Over the last five years, such craven acts of ideological surrender have become standard practice, with labels treating the Top 40 as a fairground Test Your Strength machine, returning time and again with a slightly bigger hammer.

Newcastle new wavers Maximo Park enjoyed their first hit Apply Some Pressure in March 2005: it reached number 20. Eight months and two further hits later, they re-released it. Same song. Same mix. Live b-side, no doubt. This time, it reached number 17. That’s three places higher. In a single chart that only requires sales of about five thousand to reach such lofty heights. Kasabian reached number 19 with Club Foot in May 2004; a year later, the reissued Club Foot reached … 21. That, ladies and gentlemen of marketing, is three places lower. Why bother?

Am I being horribly old-fashioned and prudish in expecting younger, more idealistic bands in the first flush of success to act with a little more dignity?

WhateverIndieMunich2It was Harry Hill who, in the mid-90s, said, “I like the indie bands. Pulp, Blur and Oasis, they’re the main three, aren’t they?” A decade later and everybody’s an indie band, a bottleneck that leads to desperate measures, and the “firework bands” phenomenon, whereby we see a glut of credible bands who enjoy disproportionate success with their debut album – Hard-Fi, Editors, the Kooks – but may struggle to keep the blue touchpaper lit as younger indie fans, who’ve turned out to be just as fickle as pop fans, wander off. Arctic Monkeys may endure, but then, they have never re-released a single song, ever.

The indie sector first bent over in the early 90s, when great white hopes were signed to majors for sums indexed largely on NME and Melody Maker coverage and then dramatically failed to recoup. Fontana, having paid £400,000 for the House Of Love, managed to secure a Top 20 placing for a reissued Shine On only by putting it out on seven separate formats. Follow-up The Beatles And The Stones came in ten formats. It reached 36. The kids, whom the band’s previous label Creation claimed to be “doing it” for, were not impressed. These days, the kids don’t give a fig for honour or principle.

Hence, aforementioned Birmingham gloom-rockers Editors, whose discography is so engorged with reissues it actually reads like a haiku: Bullets, Munich, Blood, Bullets, Munich, All Sparks, Blood. The reissue of Blood, I hardly need mention, peaked 20 big chart places lower than the original.

Mind you, Editors are signed to Kitchenware.

Published in Word magazine, July 2007

Whatever | August 2008

Whatever | US Election ’08
Barack Obama is redrawing the map of US politics. Can you imagine any of our lot doing the same?

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I did a double-take the Chuckle Brothers would have been proud of in the first week of June, when I glimpsed the front-page headline of The London Paper, one of our great capital’s three appalling free newspapers. It read: AMERICA’S FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT. Already? I know the run-up to the US Presidential Elections drags on for years, but as a keen student of primaries and caucuses, I found it hard to believe that I’d missed the Big One. On closer inspection, the announcement turned out to have a weedy question mark on the end. (Can a query actually be a newspaper headline? FIRST MAN ON MOON? SHEEP SUCCESSFULLY CLONED? MADDY STILL MISSING?)

Never mind the tantalising possibility of Barack Obama becoming the first black president, it’s thrilling enough that the Kenyan goat-herder’s son is the first black presidential candidate. This is, after all, a country where some folk still proudly fly the Confederate flag and consider lynching to have been just a bit of fun. Even if he loses to the ancient John McCain, tautological “liberal republican” and Vietnam war hero, Obama has made history. (Not something you could say about Kerry or Dukakis or Mondale or any of the other great losing Democrats of our time.) It’s a mug’s game for foreigners to get too caught up in the faraway pomp and tickertape of American politics, for when the time comes on November 4, we’ll be the ones turning up at the church hall and asking why we don’t actually get a vote.

Since the outcome affects the lives of, hmmm, let me see, oh yes, everybody in the world, wouldn’t it be fairer if we all received a postal ballot? After all, even as a two-horse race it’s going to be a hundred times more exciting than the general election that waits around the corner for us in two years’ time. A black man versus a white man. A young man versus an old man. Hawaii versus Panama. African blood versus Scots-Irish and a dash of English. A man who opposes the war in Iraq versus one who declared in 2003 that it would be “one of the best things that’s happened to America in a long time.” (Still, I like his oven chips.)

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Barring a major upset, such as a gormless coup in the Court of Gordon Brown by any number of Millibands, or Liberal leader Nick Clegg admitting an affair with the other Cheeky Girl, our next national polling day will be untroubled by Sky One’s Gladiators: a 57-year old white Scot against a 42-year-old white Englishman and 41-year-old white Englishman. (Add two years to their ages if that’s how long it takes for the Scot to stabilise the economy using all his powers and all his skills.) The Scot thinks we would all be better off with ID cards. The Englishman doesn’t, or at least says he doesn’t. The other Englishman doesn’t, but won’t get in so it’s hypothetical. One of them claims to have enjoyed The Jam when he was at Eton (“I don’t see why the left should be the only ones to listen to protest songs”). One of them claimed to like Arctic Monkeys (they would “really wake you up in the morning”, he told New Woman, but the Number Ten rebuttal unit later repositioned the Chancellor’s statement as hypothetical, although he had heard Arctic Monkeys). One of them claims to like Johnny Cash, although when discussing him on Radio Four’s Music Group programme, he got the name of Folsom Prison and Walk The Line wrong.

I don’t want my politicians to be cool. I don’t even want them to be interesting. I certainly don’t want them admitting to “no more than 30” sexual partners in GQ. I want them to be passionate advocates and belligerent ideologues with their own hairstyles and unconventional tastes, ready with an unscripted riposte and a gift for oratory, rather than kids enrolled at the London Oratory. While I accept that only an American could get away with land-of-our-fathers schmaltz like, “Hope is the bedrock of this nation … in this moment, in this election, we are ready to believe again,” but I wouldn’t mind hearing a few words from Cameron or Brown that might unite a few more people than some delegates in braces at the Confederation of British Industry.

It’s amazing how quickly you become blasé about seismic socio-ethnic shifts in mainstream politics though, isn’t it? I’m bored of the idea of a black US president already. I demand a gay atheist. An unmarried Muslim. Someone who’s had more than 30 partners. Come on, it’s time for change.

Published in Word magazine, August 2008

Whatever | April 2010

Whatever | 3D or not 3D
Will Avatar take Hollywood to the next dimension, or are those glasses making us blind?

WhateverAvatarApr2010 Just before Christmas in 1952, United Artists released a functional African jungle adventure called Bwana Devil. The first feature to be exhibited in Natural Vision 3D, its publicity made the famous promise, “A lion in your lap!” Advertising standards would take a dim view of the flimsiness of this leonine proximity claim today, but desperate times – as the 1950s were for Hollywood during TV’s first boom – called for desperate measures.

Just before Christmas in 2009, 20th Century Fox released a functional Pandoran jungle adventure called Avatar. The first feature to be shot in 3D using various bespoke gizmos in the field of motion-capture, its publicity revolved around special tie-in bottles of Coke Zero and director James Cameron talking the film up big-style at sci-fi conventions. No explicit promises were made, but Avatar might have been sold with the guarantee, “Little floaty specs of ash caused by an air strike raining down around your shoulders like dandruff!”

This is not meant as a facetious comparison, even though I have carefully written it as one. In actual fact, not that much has changed between the lion in the lap and the dandruff down the back, except that 21st century audiences are less gullible and more reticent to tear themselves away from small glowing boxes. Bwana Devil did well enough at the box office, as did the knock-on 3D flea circuses that propagated in its wake – House Of Wax, It Came From Outer Space, Robot Monster, The Creature From The Black Lagoon – at least until the sums stopped adding up. But none of them performed like Avatar, even if figures are adjusted for inflation, which they never are or else Gone With The Wind would always be number one and the all-time box office charts would cease to act as a team-building exercise for studio accountants.

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The tin-hat difference between Bwana Devil and Avatar is that the former was conspicuous by its absence at the 25th Academy Awards – it was all 2D confections like High Noon and The Quiet Man that year – while the latter scored nine nominations at the 82nd. By the time you read this, you’ll know whether or not it took home Best Picture. If not, having already shamed his last film Titanic into second place with a world-beating $2.3 billion take (at time of going to press), Cameron will be able to dry his eyes on hundred dollar bills and toss them into a waste paper basket woven from the eyelashes of angels.

The twinkling aura of success that fizzes and pops around Avatar provides a welcome firework display to momentarily distract from an inconvenient truth: that the movies are in trouble. In posh film journal Sight & Sound, Nick James made his own prediction: that the Oscar will indeed go to Avatar, because, as he foresaw it, “this year the industry will vote for the financial, not the aesthetic Best Picture … The business will cheer the money, because they’re scared and they hope that 3D can save them.” In the same issue, Nick Roddick, writing as “Mr Busy”, penned a de facto obituary for Hollywood as we know it: “the studio system is like a dinosaur in a tar pit.” With execs being fired on a daily basis – two of them, Universal co-chairmen Marc Schmuger and David Linde announced that we live in “an era where brands have become the new stars” just before they received their redundancy packages – the impression is of an industry in panic. Why? Didn’t some film called Avatar just make, like, more money than any other film ever except Gone With The Wind and who cares about that old thing? Yes it did. In 17 days. (Now there’s a block graph on an overhead projector that’s going to make up for the lack of croissants at the News Corps shareholders meeting.)

Just as the success of Nirvana led to the signing of Tad, post-Avatar, film studios are literally sending completed blockbusters back to the menders and ordering up an extra dimension, from Clash Of The Titans to the final Harry Potter double-bill Deathly Hallows. The Times reported that LA’s celluloid-to-digital conversion labs are fully booked (“We can turn an older film into 3-D in around 16 weeks,” said the man at one such, Legend Films in San Diego), while super-geeks Peter Jackson and George Lucas are salivating at the prospect of running their respective sagas through the machine, just as Pixar have done with Toy Story. “2D or not 2D?” – that is not the question.

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I wish it was a passing craze, like Sensurround™, Illusion-O™ and Vinnie Jones™, but with 3D tellys being rolled out, 3D Blu-Ray on the horizon and 3D football matches bringing new meaning to collecting up the glasses in pubs, it may be that the man from cinema chain USC was right when he told the Times, “It’s no longer a gimmick, but an expectation.” Not in my house. And I speak as someone who queued up to see Friday The 13th 3D as a teenager in order to experience a pitchfork handle in my face. Nick James is astute when he describes Avatar as “a film for 15-year-olds that grown-ups enjoy for its technological breakthroughs.” I also worry that all this tech-fetishism makes gawping idiots of us all.

Hey, I’m all for the industry being saved – I really like films – but Avatar is not exactly a quick fix. It took years to make and cost $310 million, plus $150 to market. It would be cheaper to release an actual lion into every punter’s lap.

Having said that, those wraparound 3D specs did create the dazzling illusion that Camerons one-dimensional characters were two-dimensional.

Whatever | November 2010

Whatever | In praise of print
The printed word is so last century. But you’ll miss the airport novel and the boarding pass when they’re gone

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I am against the Kindle. There, I’ve said it. As lightweight and graphite-cool as Amazon’s proprietary e-reader clearly is, I simply don’t want an electronic device designed primarily for the purpose of reading digital books. But please don’t equate my antipathy with Ned Ludd’s violent decommissioning of two mechanical knitting machines in the early 19th century. My aversion to the e-reader is rooted not in ideological proletarian revenge or technological nostalgia, but in the simple truth that choosing which paperbacks to pack for my holiday gives me an inordinate amount of pleasure.

One year I used up most of my Ryanair baggage allowance by selecting Ian Kershaw’s Hitler for a relaxing week in Ireland; it defined my stay as much as the choice of cottage or location, and you can see it in the holiday snaps – unlike whatever’s on a Kindle screen. I have no beef with progress. But with each incremental tweak of our eternally rechargeable daily lives by stubbled geeks riding scooters around a place of work they genuinely believe to be a “campus”, we inch further from culture’s moorings: tactility, intimacy, fallibility and, yes, its occasionally musty smell. My bullshit detector always starts to twitch whenever an electronic device is advertised as having the same qualities as previously adequate acoustic delivery systems, such as talking, reading or doing. (“iPad is … delicious … playful … friendly … literary,” lies the commercial.)

We live in a word that’s shredding its paper. We’re glued to touch-screens and reliant on the mystical power of unseen hard drives, mainframes and servers to remember everything; utility companies offer rebates for “paper-free” billing; album “artwork” is merely an unclicked file document; and we recently learned that the third edition of the voluminous Oxford English Dictionary, due for completion in ten years, will only be available online.

Meanwhile, last June I cancelled my subscription to The Ecologist magazine. Not in a fit of purple-faced pique – the decision was forced upon me when, with laudable eco-intent, its print edition ceased production after 39 years and moved exclusively online. I’m old-skool enough to consider a “digital edition” an option and not a fait accompli.

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It was Massachusetts doctor Duncan MacDougal who discovered that the human body instantaneously loses 21 grams when we die; hence the attractive hippy myth that the departing human soul weighs 21 grams. If you delete the “digital edition” of a magazine, or drag an eBook to the trash, your tablet computer’s weight remains constant. Ergo, the laptop has no soul.

This July, although he didn’t live to see it, Stieg Larsson became the first author to sell a million eBooks on Amazon, a milestone dutifully fanfared in the national print media, an industry staring down the barrel of extinction because of the cleverly marketed convenience and alpha status of, well, e-readers. I for one am in predictive mourning. James Brown, who made his name in the 1990s by selling a whole stack of magazines when that’s all we knew, talks up Sabotage Times, his new online venture, by denouncing what he calls “dead tree publishing”; the very phrase makes me sad.

I hope it’s not just my age, but in common I think with many of my generation I grew up in a home full of felt tips, pads and propelling pencils; my dad brought home carbon paper, hole punches and other exotica from work; and I was educated by way of chalk, red pen and whiteboards. When I wrote my dissertation for college, Mum typed it up for me; to be “printed” bestowed legitimacy – it was proper.

My first fanzine was furtively designed at the office photocopier and printed at Kall Kwik; with it, I secured a foot in the door of the NME, where my first job involved laying out pages – that is, sticking Letraset and Xeroxed pics onto paper grids with carcinogenic aerosol glue. Perhaps I am masochistically wedded to an outmoded ideal of inconvenience. I certainly equate what you put in with what you get out. Kershaw’s Hitler is available as an eBook, as easy to cart around and read on the train as an idea or a vibration. But where’s the commitment? And if you have every book at your 3G fingertips, where’s the fun?

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American business and IT expert Nicholas Carr wrote an essay for Atlantic magazine entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? It now forms the bones of a book, The Shallows, whose subtitle is less inflammatory: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. Never mind changing – according to Carr, who blames scrolling screens for rewiring our neural pathways, leading tocursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning,” it’s doing to our patience what Ned Ludd did to those knitting machines.

It will only be by active and militant conservation that printed matter will defy the dustbin of history. We must protect magazines, maps, documents and Post-Its as we do tracts of marshland and designated places of historic interest and natural beauty. I recently returned to Ireland – having booked my flights online but printed out the boarding passes on paper – and found myself blissfully out of wi-fi range. More grateful than ever for paperbacks to thumb and newspapers to luxuriate in, I started filling in crosswords, something I haven’t done since I was a boy. I even bought a propelling pencil.

Sure, you can pull up an infinite catalogue of crosswords online, enter and re-enter the answers without recourse to a pencil eraser, and even click on words to see if you’re right. But where are you meant to scribble out the anagrams?

Now, as is my idiosyncratic wont, before delivering this column electronically, I will print it out in order to read it back. Because only then will it be proper.

First published in Word magazine, November 2010

Whatever | April 2009

Whatever | Trying to choose a newspaper
Hold the front page! Newspapers still matter!

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I think my newsagent hates me. I regularly pop into his shop, but it is not to buy a Boost or a Lotto scratchcard; rather, it is to change my newspaper delivery order. Again. I fear he’s getting tired of re-inputting my latest fickle, print-based whim. I want to tell him … although I don’t think he’ll care … that I’m going through a media-life crisis. Those publications that have defined me for years no longer seem satisfactorily to do so.

I am a loyal subscriber to a number of publications, although I had to let the NME go last year when they stopped running anything over 250 words and, some years ago, I had to cancel my subscription to Your Cat when the same features about collars and worming started coming round for a second time. But I care passionately about which daily newspaper I take. After all, it says a lot more about a person than shoes or haircut in our increasingly promiscuous, mix-and-match age, especially when the only badges people now wear are company IDs round their Orwellian necks.

In London, with three separate daily freesheets in circulation, each as timorously gossip-weighted as the next, it’s a badge of honour to tuck a paper you actually picked out and paid for under your arm on the train home.

I was brought up in a Telegraph-reading household and have been a Guardian reader since the Miners’ Strike: as much a bid for undergraduate independence as wearing no socks or getting all the way through an Einsturzende Neubaten album. But I have, of late, been dallying with other dailies. Come the latest promotional period, when they all start to vie for the floating voter with booklets and Pizza Express vouchers, I began to shop around, weary of my beloved Guardian’s ceaseless manufacture of “personality journalists”, interns plucked from obscurity and offered a shot at the title, as long as they’ll mug for the lens and have wackily self-deprecating photos all over a light-hearted feature about whether haggling works in brothels or how to survive avian flu by living in a hole.

So, what the hell, I flirted with the Times for a few days – after first checking with Ben Elton that it was OK to buy a Murdoch title now. Altogether less concerned with attracting younger readers, I found it to be serious, literate, stimulating and non-hectoring, and its columnists more varied than the Independent’s (another fleeting ex of mine). But I wasn’t ready to commit.

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One Thursday in February, I bought all the papers, boosting their ABC circulation figures en masse. It made interesting reading. No surprise, the red-tops were identical, juggling that day’s two big celeb stories: the ghoulish Jade Goody Death Watch – cue: product placement of Hycamtin, the “miracle cancer drug” – and Carol Thatcher’s dismissal for comparing Congolese tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to a golliwog in mixed ie. not all racist, company. The Mirror led on gollies being sold at Sandringham’s gift shop, as, with zero glee, did the Mail, whose editorial line was that Thatcher was being witch-hunted because of her mum (“Revenge on Maggie”) and the golliwog was an “innocent children’s hero.”

But while the once-xenophobic Sun found space for the opinion of Sunderland striker Djibril Cisse (“as a black footballer I’ve experienced racism in many different countries”), the Telegraph gave burdened white man Charles Moore the floor. His conclusion: that the BBC had “revealed its contempt for those who fund it” and was “culturally target-bombing” innocent racists (“I think Carol should start a Golliwog Club to defy the BBC ban and I think we should all join”). Sometimes, they make it easy for you.

The Guardian lifted its skirts in my direction with an investigative piece on corporate tax avoidance, which was all their own work and an actual exclusive. The golliwog story was downplayed on Page 8, although I feared one of their journalists would be blacked up in the next day’s G2 to gauge the public’s reaction. I had narrowed it down to two. Or three. I ordered the Times, missed the Guardian, then cancelled the Times.

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All of which may be irking my newsagent, but whatever the outcome of this battle for my soul, at least it will have ink on its fingers. On election day in November, copies of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times were selling out as fast as vans could deliver them, and Nick Ferrari, reporting for London talk station LBC made this stirring speech: “It’s enough to gladden the heart of an old newspaperman. Whatever you say about the Internet and everything else, people still like to hold onto a manifest product of the news.”

You can’t make an impromptu rain hat out of the Internet either.

Published in Word magazine, April 2009

Whatever | June 2009

Whatever | Hero worship
Heroes, princesses and saints: how do we escape the age of the overstatement?

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I don’t wish to blow my own trumpet, but I recently performed a heroic act. A woman dropped her suitcase on the London Underground and got her foot stuck in the gap between train and platform. In one bound, I picked up the case and helped free her foot. I was like the gallant Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, rushing to Elinor Dashwood’s aid when she sprains her ankle in the rain. I must stress that it was no more than anyone else would have done. I must also stress that I didn’t actually do it.

I found out about my own heroism while listening to genial Jon Richardson on 6 Music; the grateful damsel had emailed his show in order to publicly thank me for my chivalry as part of an ongoing quest for “good deeds”. But it wasn’t me. I wonder if perhaps it was the left-wing comedian Mark Steel who freed her stuck foot, as I am often mistaken for him.

It was nice to be a hero, however fleetingly, although sadly the word itself – once the evocative preserve of Greek myth, Hegelian Volksgeist, or at the very least Victor Mature – has been overused to the point of meaninglessness. We live in the age of the overstatement, where Jade Goody can be a “princess” by dint of dying, and a “saint” without any of the tiresome red tape of investigation, exhumation, veneration, beatification and the corroboration of at least one miracle. You can be a “hero” in the Daily Mail for refusing to sort out your plastics and glass in the recycling bins provided.

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The rot started with Diana’s death on August 31, 1997, when Tony Blair coined “the people’s princess”, and the princess’s people struggled to express themselves without recourse to the iconography of playing cards. A similar thing happened on September 12, 2001, when the US media indulged in an increasingly deranged hyperventilation contest, invoking nothing less than the rhetoric of the Bible and/or Winston Churchill.

Feminist writer Susan Faludi catalogued the farce in her book The Terror Dream. The New York Times set the overstatement ball rolling in an editorial that read, “If one hero has come to stand for all, it is the New York City firefighter,” later using the phrase “knights in shining fire helmets.” Under the headline, “The Firefighter: An American Hero,” People magazine testified, “It is the valiant warriors on a flame-filled vertical battlefield who have taken on the mantle of legend, like the Spitfire pilots in the Battle of Britain, or Leonidas’s 300 Spartans holding the line at Thermopylae.” The Wall Street Journal claimed that firemen “possess a gene lacking in the rest of us,” speaking of a “godlike prowess, beneficence and divinity.” President Bush, posing with firefighters and waving a bullhorn at Ground Zero, said, “These are the men who will fight our wars.” Actual firefighters admirably resisted sanctification of this kind, giving testimony about “inadequate communications capabilities” and “no command structure” – but such inconvenient oral histories were buried for three years.

New York governor George Pataki went further. He proposed that every single one of the 2,974 who lost their lives on September 11 (2,992 if you count the hijackers, which, oddly, he didn’t) be inscribed a “hero” on a memorial plaque. Families of rescue workers actually demanded a distinction between “heroes” and “victims”, at which a semantic tug-of-sentiment ensued.

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The Sun would have us believe that every single man or woman who joins the armed services is a “hero.” The newspaper’s laudable charity for wounded personnel, Help For Heroes, hammers this home, even though many are injured in the mundane course of duty. On April 15, for instance, the US Department of Defense [sic] announced the death in Afghanistan of a US corporal due to “injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident.” He was more heroic than me, or any Sun journalist – to quote Woody Allen: in the event of war, I’m a hostage – but how are we to distinguish between a soldier and a hero if you apply the accolade to somebody just doing their job?

It’s the same kind of breathless but self-defeating overstatement that, from a random recent sample, speaks of “anarchy unleashed” at a largely peaceful protest, or a life “snuffed out” when it simply ends, or indeed that Kelly Macdonald is “cinema’s best kept secret” when in fact she is just an actress who’s not especially famous. Smooth Radio recently advertised concerts by the “legendary Neil Sedaka”. Where does that leave music’s actual legends?

How much slower the “Pugh! Pugh! Barney McGrew! …” bit would have been on Trumpton had each member of Captain Flack’s brigade been dutifully acknowledged as a “hero” by narrator Brian Cant. In the event of an emergency, I’m Mark Steel.