There at the New Yorker

WordNYcover

Thanks to an enterprising gentleman/scholar called Gavin Hogg, and his ongoing blog project to log all issues of the much-missed Word magazine, I have just re-read my autumn 2005 article on the New Yorker, which is my favourite current magazine and I suspect always will be. I don’t get commissioned to write “long-form” articles that much. The occasional meatier piece for Radio Times (I’m working on a Star Wars story right now, and I’m going on the set of Peaky Blinders this week), and the even more occasional feature for the Guardian or G2 (although the newspaper’s filo-pastry-like commissioning process is sometimes as impenetrably layered as the BBC’s!), but I mostly, these days, I seem to talking again – on the radio, on the Guardian website, on further talking head shows – and my writing work is all beneath the surface, in script form, in development. So, it was an education to re-read what turned out to be an educated three-page feature in its original – and rather fetching layout. I reprint it here, as – what the heck! – I’m rather proud of it. It was from the heart, and decently researched, and comes from a place of genuine love, which is always a good place to start. I wish Word magazine still existed, but remain truly thankful that it ever did.

WordNY1WordNY2WordNY3

Advertisements

An education #1: The Supreme Court

Here’s the deal. Two thoughts have conflated. One occurred while watching the excellent final of Euro 2012 last night, before and after which we were invited to look back upon what has been a memorable tournament. It was at this point, as if to illustrate the deficiencies of my non-footballing brain, that I realised that I can’t even remember the scores, or the goal-scorers, from most of the matches I have watched over the last three weeks. This is not just my 47-year-old mind going, as I can remember the names of actors from way down the cast of films that I shouldn’t even remember. It’s just that my brain isn’t tuned to football the way serious football fans’ brains are. (When I sat down to watch this one, after my traditional two-year sabbatical, I seriously couldn’t remember off the top of my head who’d won the 2010 World Cup, or Euro 2008. Both are imprinted there now, but ask me in a year’s time.)

The other thought was this: with the sad closure of Word magazine, a couple of people looking down the barrel of a dystopia with less printed words in have asked if a subscription to the New Yorker (one of a number of influences on Word in its prenatal stage) might help ease the pain. I have been a subscriber to the New Yorker since March 2005, when Stuart Maconie thoughtfully bought me a year’s subscription as a 40th birthday present. Once it started arriving on my mat once a week, I became quickly hooked. I can’t imagine a world without it. (It’s particularly handy at Presidential Election time, but not just, as I sincerely believe that to be disinterested in US politics is to be disinterested in global politics. And if anyone’s going to report from the frontline of American life, I’d prefer it to be a bunch of die-hard liberals.)

Anyway, it’s a struggle most weeks to get through the whole magazine. (I recycle mine by passing them on to a friend at Radio Times, who, when she’s done with them, passes them on again – I rarely give an issue up to this value-added cycle within a week of receiving it.) As such, I’m always in intellectual arrears. There’s enough brain food in a single issue to last a month. This means serious reading, and serious staying power. If you don’t know already, the pieces in the New Yorker are long. And detailed. To put them into context, the cover story I wrote about the Stone Roses for a recent issue of Word, which by definition will have been about the longest story in the issue, was 4,000 words. The double-page spread I write for Radio Times most weeks comes in at around 800. The New Yorker doesn’t have a cover story (it doesn’t even tell you what’s inside the issue on the cover), but its longest pieces can be more like 12,000 words. That’s a tenth of Where Did It All Go Right?

The New Yorker article I’m about to disseminate is about 5,000 words.

So, in order to counter the erosion of my memory, and to perhaps pass on some interesting information from a magazine that is jam-packed full of information (its fact-checking culture is legendary), I have decided to run an occasional series on this blog of articles about articles I have read.

This one, by Jill Lepore, was tucked away at the back of the Jun 18 issue (cover image above), and entitled, with typical elan and economy, Benched. It’s about the Supreme Court and was written before this august and powerful institution voted for “Obamacare” and surprised everybody. (I can’t wait to read this week’s New Yorker and its editors’ thoughts on what might be a turning point for Obama’s re-election chances.)

Essentially a history of the Supreme Court of the United States, forged in New York (then the nation’s capital; still the nation’s capital according to the New Yorker!) in 1789 when George Washington appointed six Supreme Court Justices, Lepore’s end-point is, clearly, the Affordable Care Act and whether or not today’s bench of nine decide that it violates the Constitution or not, vis-a-vis “commerce.” (Can the government constitutionally force its citizens to take out health insurance? Spoiler alert: yes it can.)

As Lepore states early on, “under the Constitution, the power of the Supreme Court is quite limited.” Its executive branch “holds the sword”, the legislative branch “the purse”, and the judiciary, neither; “no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society”. It’s tough for us Limeys to understand the Supreme Court, as we don’t have one, but if there’s one subject that comes up more frequently in the New Yorker than baseball and/or whatever Malcolm Gladwell is thinking about, it’s the Supreme Court, so it’s as well to do some homework, which is what this feature turned out to be, and why I ploughed through all 5,000 words of it.

I discovered that, under George Washington, the Justices of the Supreme Court were expected to “ride circuit” (one of those great phrases that make reading this magazine such a thrill), in other words, they were expected to judge ordinary cases as well as supreme ones, as it were. But this was scrapped. It’s basic stuff to American history students, but I now know that in 1800, the capital moved to Washington, D.C., and the following year president John Adams (Paul Giamatti) was the first to live in the White House, while Congress met at the Capitol. His Chief Justice ensured that all the Justices rented rooms at the same boarding house, “so that they could at least have someplace to talk together, unobserved.”

Under Adams, the 1801 Judiciary Act reduced the number of Supreme Court Justices to five. I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch when this was engorged to the present nine. Under Jefferson, the Supreme Court was granted the right to decide whether laws passed by Congress are constitutional. (“This was such an astonishing thing to do that the Court didn’t declare another federal law unconstitutional for fifty-four years.”) Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution: “Congress shall have power … to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” During the New Deal in the 1930s, the “power to regulate commerce,” along with the definition of “commerce” itself, became the chief means by which Congress passed legislation “protecting people against an unbridled market.” (In 1964, the commerce clause formed part of the basis for the Civil Rights Act.) As you can guess, the solid Democrat base of the New Yorker means that the Supreme Court’s power to fiddle with commerce – that “unbridled market” which gives Republicans such an under-the-desk hard-on – is taken on trust as a good thing. To the right, it’s bad.

There are lots of landmark rulings cited along the way – Lochner v. New York in 1905, where the Court “voided a state law establishing that bakers could work no longer than ten hours a day, six days a week”, on the grounds that the law violated a “liberty of contract” (cue: sound of employers rubbing their hands in glee); U.S. v. Lopez, in which it was decreed that gun ownership is not commerce, “because it is in no sense an economic activity”; U.S. v. Morrison, in which parts of the federal Violence Against Women Act were judged unconstitutional; and one that is enshrined in US lore: Dred Scott v. Sandford (“Dred Scott”), which in 1857 voided the Missouri Compromise by arguing that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories, and effectively put slaves and their descendents outside of the constitution.

Lepore’s thesis, neatly woven through this chunky history, is simply that the Court is getting more political. Under game-changing arch-Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall’s 35 years in office – that’s six administrations from Adams to Jackson 1801-35 – we learn that the Court struck down only one act of Congress; by comparison, in the seven years since John G. Roberts, Jr. (a Bush appointee) took the job in 2005, the Court has struck down “a sizable number of federal laws, including one reforming the funding of political campaigns.” She describes it as “the most conservative court in modern times”, its rulings under Roberts pleasing the right 60% of the time, according to figures, which is way up basically.

We go back to the early American colonists, “who inherited from England a tradition in which the courts, like the legislature, were extensions of the crown.” Over here, a “defiant Parliament had been challenging the royal prerogative, demanding that judicial appointments be made not ‘at the king’s pleasure’ but ‘during good behavior.'” (This phrase “good behaviour”, which means, effectively, for life, recurs.) The Justices are chosen by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and it’s a gig for life. But who judges the judges?

Since it successfully rubbed out a “labor” law protecting the health of employees in favour of the employer, the aforementioned “Lochner” (known by just the one name) is said to have become “likely the most disreputable case in modern constitutional discourse.” (From where I’m sitting the American right are all for the individual, as long as that individual is an employer, not an employee.) In 1906, legal scholars rounded on it, one of them writing, “Putting courts into politics, and compelling judges to become politicians … has almost destroyed the traditional respect for the Bench.”

As ever with a New Yorker piece, you learn some things off the bat, and you have to do a bit of further reading to understand others. It’s casually referred to, but I had no idea what Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose campaign” was, for instance. So I checked. It was the nickname of a political party (the Progressive Party) he set up in 1912 after a Republican split, and after he’d been shot but claimed to be as fit as a bull moose. The building that still houses the Court across from the Capitol had its cornerstone laid on October 13, 1932, by Herbert Hoover and marble was shipped in from Spain, Italy, and Africa. Three weeks later, Franklin Roosevelt was elected in an actual landslide and those battles between Congress and the New Deal began. Exciting trivia: by June of 1933, less than 100 days after his inauguration, FDR had proposed 15 legislative elements and each had been made law, passed by the Court, whose four-out-of-nine conservative Justices were known as the Four Horsemen. During the passing of the 16th, one of the horsemen is said to have burst out, “The Constitution is gone!” (“a comment so unseemly that it was stricken from the record”).

The Supreme Court’s new building opened for business in 1935, described in the press as “a classical icebox decorated for some surreal reason by an insane upholsterer.” In the following 18 months, the newly-housed Justices struck down more than a dozen laws. “Congress kept passing them; the Court kept striking them down, generally 5-4. At one point, FDR’s Solicitor General fainted, right there in the courtroom.” You’ve got to love the way the best New Yorker writers humanise otherwise husk-dry material. It’s a detail like the fainting Solicitor General that could help you remember the trouble FDR had in the mid-30s.

Lepore sums up beautifully. “The Supreme Court has been deliberating in a temple of marble for three-quarters of a century. In March, it heard oral arguments about the Affordable Care Act. No one rode there in a horse and buggy.” She goes on, “The separation of law from politics for which the Revolution was fought has proved elusive. That’s not surprising – no such separation being wholly possible – but some years have been better than others. One of the worst was 2000, when the Court determined the outcome of a disputed Presidential election.”

I started reading the New Yorker in 2005, when Bush was into the second term of that “disputed” election. His presidency gave the magazine’s liberals something to push against. They do not, though, let Obama off the hook, and a 9,500-word piece by Ryan Lizza in the same issue about what the President might do if re-elected (again, written before the Supreme Court judgement went Obamacare’s way) is, although hopeful, honestly argued and superbly contextual. But that’s enough learning for one day.

The full, six-page Supreme Court piece is available online. So have a read. The 12-page Obama re-election piece also happens to be online, in full. (They aren’t always, so this is a bit of luck.) The New Yorker is available in full, digitally, to subscribers and as an iPad edition. It’s almost 90 years old, but it moves with the times. However, with such a lot of words to read, I couldn’t possibly read it offscreen. I need my paper copy. And long may it abide.

Whatever #1

Here – elliptically illustrated by another nice photo I found from the good old days – is the first Whatever column I ever wrote for Word magazine. It’s about the craze for giveaway wallcharts that was, in October 2006 when I wrote it, sweeping Fleet Street. The specifics may be dated, but many of my worries at the time, and the protectionist warmth I felt for the printed word, seem entirely relevant, and depressingly prescient. I’m not going to reprint all my columns, by the way, but I thought, for old times’ sake, the first one would be OK.

WHATEVER by Andrew Collins [originally published in Word, issue dated December 2006]

Why are newspapers going to the wall?

Back in that faraway age we now call “the 90s”, the newspaper market was still divided along the following time-honoured lines: tabloids generated their revenue through copy sales, broadsheets through advertising. One traded in quantity, the other quality. One played bingo, the other didn’t.

But the times – and the Times – were a-changing. While circulation across the board had been in decline since the 80s, “pagination”, as they say in the print trade over a bun and a roll-up, was up. (Spinal injury units were backed up with paperboys disabled by the Sunday Times, up from 178 pages in 1984 to 362 in 1994. That’s a lot of unread articles about the lost tribes of the Amazon and Zandra Rhodes.)

It couldn’t go on like this. Hence, the great price war. In 1993, a master of the blunt instrument, Rupert Murdoch slashed the 25p cover price of the Sun to 20p (undercutting the Daily Mirror by 7p) and the Times down from 45p to 30p. When the Telegraph responded with a drop from 48p to 30p, the Times plummeted to 20p, and so it went.

Three years of this grubby huckstering only proved that editorial excellence is irrelevant; that most punters will take their news from the lowest bidder (the knockdown Times had doubled its circulation by 1997, the self-anointed TV Quick of Fleet Street). Meanwhile, aggregate newspaper circulation was only up by 0.4 per cent. In other words, for all the deckchair-rearrangement, tabloids and broadsheets were still basically chasing the same bunch of readers.

The Guardian, lest we forget, did not lower its price during the 93-97 conflict, and yet its circulation held steady, proving that some readers are more brand-loyal than others, even those to whom “brand” is a mucky word. Which is why, as a dogged loyalist – and occasional contributor – it pains me ideologically to see “my” paper reduced to giving away CDs and DVDs as free gifts. But since broadsheets went tabloid, creating one big no-man’s land in the newspaper war, there is no room for ideology.

I think we can all apocalyptically agree that these are the last days for traditional electronic software delivery formats. Thanks to their ubiquity in bagged-up national newspapers, silver discs are even more devalued than when AOL used to post them through your letterbox. And just in time, since we’ll all be downloading our music and films next week anyway. It’s the entertainment sector’s closing-down sale. Fact: if the Mirror are giving you Carry On Christmas for free, it’s either old stock or an incentive to buy further titles in a range of reissues, usually advertised off the page as part of the tie-in deal. There’s no such thing as a free Naked Lunch.

If you can put up with the cardboard sleeve and the fact that you’ll never be able to find it again, The Wild Geese is indeed yours to keep for nothing. And if you don’t normally buy the Mail but did so exclusively to add this geriatric war movie to your collection, your custom has been successfully bought.

The irony of this “sampling” exercise (ie. grab for new readers) is that demographic bets are always hedged by the choice of film. Thus, the Independent preaches to the choir by offering its captive metropolitan trendies Roberto Rosselini’s Francesco giullare di Dio; the Sunday Times sums up its readership with Howards End (middle-class aspirational), and Ring Of Bright Water the Mail (would join Countryside Alliance if actually lived in countryside).

Like the arms race, the Great Silver Rush won’t stop until one of them blinks. In May, the Guardian switched tactic, inspired by the “roughage effect” of all those teach-yourself language CDs in rival rags. Its educational wallcharts – birds, sharks, fungi – proved promotional gold: new, dirt-cheap to produce, and no need to bag.

So what if the posters looked a bit murky and were educationally flawed, thanks to being bought in from a Danish company, The Scandinavian Fishing Yearbook. Birds Of Sea And Shore lacked a lapwing, one of our most common waders, pictured a Scandinavian eider and showed the speckled female Pochard rather than the more distinct adult male, with its beautiful chestnut brown head and pale back and flanks. (By the time of the Guardian’s second batch, a pathetic disclaimer was added: “This is a selection of species and not a definitive collection. It may include species that are not or no longer indigenous to Britain.”)

But we birders quibble over detail when cash registers are ringing. The Guardian was the only “quality daily” to increase circulation in May. The wallcharts worked their blu-tack magic, shifting 130,000 extra copies during birds-sharks-fungi week. Scenting money, the Independent did a blatant copycat set: British Trees, The Human Body, A Guide To The Weather – no, really – and a “life size” human skeleton (whose completion depended on you getting all five – clever!). The Mail was next to go to the wall.

Do these wallcharts say anything profound about us as a nation? That learning is the new rock and roll? No. Parents collect them for kids who’d actually rather cheat their GCSE coursework off the Internet. They are simply the spoils of war. But do as I do, and keep buying them, because the actual print apocalypse is being rehearsed in London right now, with two new “freesheets” locked in battle, forcing the Evening Standard to lower its price to … nothing. They can’t *give* it away.

Editorial excellence will count for nothing in a world where the newspapers themselves are the free gifts. Make a wallchart out of that.

Goodnight, sweethearts

 

A very sad day. The Word magazine, which I never called The Word magazine because I knew it when it was just Word magazine, has closed. The staff found out last night, just after “passing” the latest issue, Word 114, which when it comes out in a week or so, will be the last issue, also. The announcement by David Hepworth came this morning. It was a shock to us all, reader and contributor alike.

I’m kind of guessing I don’t need to spell out what was so unique and warm and special about what was, to all intents and purposes, a music mag but, to many other intents and purposes, was so much more than that. I suspect the crossover between the readers of this blog and the readers of Word is pretty substantial, and not just because I’ve written for the magazine since its inception, nine years ago.

It was launched, along with the independent publisher that published it, Development Hell, by people I’d known and worked under and alongside at what was once called Emap in the 1990s: David Hepworth and Jerry Perkins, with Mark Ellen as editor. Mark and another key launch figure Andrew Harrison had been my editors at Select when I first defected from the NME in 1993. Dave, an editorial director at Emap, subsequently interviewed me for my first job at Q. The four of us attended the same awards ceremonies, conferences and meetings for all of the five years I worked there. When they themselves defected, it was like coming home being asked to write for Word, which was their dream project. (For further crossover, gentleman scribe Paul Du Noyer had been there at the launch of Q and Mojo; “Seventies” Mike Johnson had worked as a sub at Q when I was editor; Jonathan Sellers, art editor, had been art director at Select when I was features editor; contributor Barry McIlheney had been all of our bosses, MD of Emap; contributor and creator of the always-excellent trivia page at the back, John Naughton, had been a key man at Q; other contributors with Emap form included Stuart Maconie, Jim Irvin, Mixmag‘s Joe Muggs and David Quantick. You can see why Word felt like a nine-year, post-grad PhD for so many of us.)

Thanks to its enviable address book, the mag was also able to get legends of the calibre of Charles Shaar Murray and Danny Baker regularly onto the page. And let us not overlook the writers and editors that Word magazine did not bring with them in the boot from the world of Emap, but who became in many ways even more vital to the constant turnover of ideas and wise prose, some staff, mostly freelancers: Rob Fitzpatrick, Jude Rogers, Kate Mossman, Matt Hall (now my boss at the Guardian, then the only man who could work a podcast), Nige Tassell, James Medd, Chris Bray, Graeme Thompson, Ali Caterall, and the mighty Fraser Lewry, an icon in his own way. Sorry if I’ve forgotten anybody.

I don’t have the first issue to hand, with Nick Cave on the cover, but I have a funny feeling I didn’t have anything in it. Certainly, a long piece about how to write for EastEnders was my maiden contribution. It was in 2004 that Mark gave me my own column, a TV review initially, called Telly Addict (hmmm, nice title), but this transmuted into a column about whatever was on my mind in late 2006, called Whatever. No one had ever given me a regular column before. It occasionally attracted criticism and ire in the letters pages and in the forums, but it’s better to be noticed than not. It was an education. (It taught me to keep some of my views to myself.)

Although Word was aimed at a demographic too old to worry about being cool but not old enough to kick the habit of loving and purchasing music old and new, it embraced technology (not least because of Andrew Harrison’s magpie instinct for such stuff), and its website and podcast helped to grow Word, or The Word, into a brand, a community, a way of life. It rewarded subscribers, stretched to an iPad edition, put on its own splendid gigs, carried a not-quite-but-almost-NewYorker-esque amount of words, and – perhaps its most significant badge of honour, for me – put illustrations on the cover, some as sublimely beautiful as this one.

I was lucky enough to be part of the circle of trust, from which regular podcast guests were plucked, although if they hadn’t invited me up to Word Towers in Islington for a while, I had no qualms about asking to be invited. If you heard me shooting the merry breeze with Mark, and Dave, and Fraser, and Kate, it was generally because I’d emailed Dave and said, “Hey, if you’re short of a podcast guest … ” (I expect other regulars felt the same way.) But you didn’t have to work for the magazine to be in its club. The “Massive” were brain-picked from very early on, and often held shoulder-high and paraded around the place, whether as forumeers or gig regulars or providers of citizen copy. In many ways, Word had to stay small (or “niche”) to survive – a bit like 6 Music, which seemed to chime with the magazine’s attitude and plurality and launched at roughly the same time. But being small also means you’re vulnerable.

Development Hell survives. It publishes Mixmag, which is perhaps even more niche, but niche enough to attract niche advertisers and tick over. Long may it support the company, which remains essentially independent, and run by good people. The printed word? We all know it’s an endangered concept. But we don’t wish to see magazines we’ve grown to look forward to arriving on our doormats, and which we cherish, and fondle, and interact with, and rely upon for sustenance in an increasingly vanilla, pasteurised, market-led world, disappear from view.

As a writer, I think I might have possibly done some of my best writing for Word. If so, it’s because a) they gave their writers the freedom to stretch their legs, but not to overindulge and only to a clear brief, b) you were always sensitively but firmly edited (Mark may seem like a soft touch, and he kind of is, but he’ll also let you know if you’ve gone wrong, or created a cul-de-sac of solipsism, and has spiked at least one of my columns for this reason in the past), and c) you were mainly asked to review things you thought you might like. Since very little of what we all wrote was published online, it is for collectors of the magazines to look back on. I might publish a couple of my columns on this blog, just so they’re out there. But maybe not the one about squirrel racism, or the one about militant atheism. (I only wrote two covers stories for Word, pictured above, and they both made me feel inordinately proud, and a bit like a journalist again.)

We must raise a glass to this great institution. It’s like a library has closed, as I wrote on the Word forum this morning (and where a condolence book is expanding faster than Prince William’s bald patch), but a library where you knew all the staff and they knew you, and where there was a bar, and live music, and a quiz, and you never got charged if you brought a book back late, as long as you were prepared to sit down and have a constructive and tangential dialogue about it over a pint.

 

 

Together again, at last

After a punishing 14 months in the wilderness, I was called up for prattling duty on the Word Podcast on Friday. It’s available here. I don’t mind telling you: I asked. As what a rare treat it always is to shoot the breeze, trade quips and occasionally draw breath with David Hepworth, Mark Ellen and Fraser Lewry (who took the pic above). We covered all sorts, including Marley (which I hadn’t seen on Friday), Levon Helm’s name, the intricacies of Christopher Guest, South-East Asian cuisine and … sorry, I’ve just remembered, you have to be a Word subscriber to hear the whole thing, but there’s a free 15-minute taster for all. Why wouldn’t you subscribe to Word anyway? You can do that here. Tremendous value, tons of benefits etc. Not only would you be helping to keep a thinking person’s monthly magazine of the old school alive – one that’s published by a small, independent publisher, lest we forget – you’d be allowing middle-aged men (and one younger woman) like these the opportunity to exchange hoary old rock anecdotes and dismiss entire modern conventions with the phrase “all that palaver” in a cupboard on a weekly basis.

Incidentally, the photo above refers to a story Mark tells about Lucinda Williams. I won’t spoil it.