My indecision is final

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In 2002, I interviewed Michael Moore, a strident, striding leftist, onstage at the National Film Theatre. He inspired me then, and he inspires me still, and you get the sense that he’s born to be in opposition, which suits him fine. His reputation solidified under George W Bush, and seems to be doing the same under Donald J Trump. One of the questions I put to him was about his apparent certainty. I asked him if he ever had any doubts that he was right. He said that if he discovered he was wrong, he’d change his opinion and he’d be right again. It was said lightheartedly but there is something profound about that willingness to be guided by events.

On January 6 last year, I wrote a blog entry on the morning after Jeremy Corbyn’s “revenge reshuffle” (as the rightwing press gleefully dubbed it). He was not yet a year into the job of leading the Labour Party and I was very publicly right behind him. The media was not; it threw up its hands in horror when Corbyn courted what they called “the hard left,” and threatened to cause a “lurch” in that direction. (You always “lurch” to the left; you never skip, or saunter, or waltz.) Kim Howells, a former union man turned Blair loyalist who stood down at the 2010 general election, helpfully described Corbyn’s reshuffled team as “superannuated Trotskyite opportunists” and “lunatics.” But you didn’t have to read the Standard or the Mail to find anti-Corbyn propaganda. Even the Yvette Cooper-supporting Guardian seemed hell-bent on sending him back to the back benches where he belonged. (Like Michael Moore, he seemed perfectly suited to being in opposition – that was his blessing and his curse.) I wrote this:

This was supposed to be the dawning of a new era for British party politics. The idea of a “left-wing” Labour party seemed like an impossible dream before Corbyn’s democratic ascent. It’s still within Labour’s grasp, but they have to stop fighting each other, unite under their leader or fuck off to the back benches. I am a potential Labour voter. I haven’t been one of those since the Bernie Eccelstone/Formula One back-hander and Blair’s pack of lies in October 1997. I can’t be the only one.

I felt that after the embarrassing farrago of Ed Milliband, the second of two consecutive “unelectable” Labour leaders – a description that was technically true, as both he and Gordon Brown had lost general elections – Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate signified hope for the future of the party, and his new style of doing business felt refreshing and honest. New Labour had tried everything else; maybe this “socialism” thing had swung back into fashion and relevance as the Tories tore up the welfare state and prepared the NHS for sale. What better time to have an old-school lefty in a woolly tie with a Lenin hat in charge? I almost considered re-joining the party (I’d last been a member in 1992, and last voted for them in 1997), such was the passion Corbyn seemed to inspire, especially in younger voters, who are literally the future.

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I reacted violently against the press war on Corbyn, the cheap shots, the Blairite bias, the obsession with his clothes. The alternative to Jeremy Corbyn seemed to be Owen Smith. I clung with perhaps unrealistic optimism to Corbyn’s mandate among the rank and file, the support he had in the unions, and the calamitous failure of those MPs who refused to work with him to field a candidate anyone took seriously enough to vote for. I wanted the Bennite right to shut up and knuckle down to the job in hand. But it was not to be. I wrote this:

He’s too quiet, too reasonable, too low-key – all qualities that should be refreshing in the bellowing Bullingdon that is Parliament, but do him no favours with so many louder voices around him. But I also despair of the Labour party. All we hear about are internecine struggles and knives in backs, petty bickering, negative briefing, unnamed moderates firing shots across their leader’s bows. I’m not sure what the answer is. Take better media advice? You don’t have to join them, but you must occasionally beat them.

Despite a number of reasons to abandon ship, I stuck with him right the way through the leadership contest in September 2016, which he won with 313,209 votes, increasing his share of the vote from 59.5% to 61.8% compared with the result of original 2015 leadership election. He received around 62,000 more votes than in 2015, in fact. What a loser! If Corbyn was “unelectable”, then Owen Smith and Angela Eagle weren’t even electable enough to find out if they were electable or not. Their combined failure to inspire repaired any doubts I had. It was clear that nobody within Labour was better qualified than Corbyn to lead. His enemies had had enough chances. But Brexit made failures of us all. And it finished Corbyn off, I think.

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Here is the news. I have changed my mind about Jeremy Corbyn. I stuck with him for way longer than most in the approximate vicinity of the Left. I kept defending him in heated arguments when deep inside I knew he was doomed to fail. In the end, I weighed up the facts and the evidence and I did what I knew Michael Moore would have done. I altered my opinion, which had become wrong, and I became right again.

I aired this revelation on Twitter last night, frustrated with Labour’s failure to even lodge a unified protest against the Brexit bill. At the same time I expressed my fond admiration of the noble 47 (out of 167) Labour MPs who voted against triggering Article 50, defying Jeremy Corbyn’s hypocritical three-line whip. For the record, here are the 47 in full. (This list includes Owen Smith, so I have to adjust my opinion of him, too. Try it – it’s liberating.)

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At the same time reassuring any Labour MP who resigned over the issue (stand up, Tulip Siddiq, Jo Stevens) that they could just come back afterwards was a parody of Corbyn’s woolly-tie style. On the one hand, he’s so reasonable he strays into passive-aggression, and on the other, he’s a dictator who seems to be dictated to by his media handlers. Maybe the media made him this way. Maybe he, too, wishes he was back on the back benches. He’s never seemed comfortable walking out of his own front door and discovering that the media outside seems to be interested in him, and he will not trim that climbing plant that always whacks him in the face, but I think a piece of me died when his aides prevented an ITV reporter from asking him a simple, unthreatening question in November. It’s worth watching again.

I wonder if there is an image of Jeremy Corbyn’s downfall more tragic or poignant than the sight of him hiding behind a glass door, claiming to have been “harassed.” I could no longer defend him after that. It was a dick move by him, and by his aggressive, high-minded minders. I had bigger political fish to fry with Brexit and Trump and a world in flames to worry about an old man’s feelings any more.

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I think it’s OK to change your mind. I didn’t like the first episode of period hospital drama The Knick when I saw it, but I returned to it and gave it another go, then changed my mind about it; and I now consider it to be one of the great TV dramas of all time. Someone Tweeted that it was “big of me” to admit I had changed my mind about Jeremy Corbyn, but it isn’t big, it’s just clever.

Oh, and please don’t ask me, “Who’s going to save us now?” If Labour continues to dig its heels in and refuses to form any kind of coalition with the Greens, the Lib Dems, the SNP, and rise from the ashes, it is doomed to fourth place, or worse. I look forward to having my mind changed on this.

A year in bullshit

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Another year of bad news, by which I mean news that was bad, and news that was conveyed badly, or with bad intentions, aimed at our lowest common denominators (fear, prejudice, envy). It’s sweet that the Daily Mail began the year calling the New Year’s Honours “TAINTED” because the Chief Executive of Ann Summers and Knickerbox, Jacqueline Gold, was given a CBE, and ended it with a bannered opinion by attack-columnist Sarah Vine in which the Honours were once again “tainted” by a successful woman being given an OBE, this time Victoria Beckham. It’s good to know that some things never change.

I won’t annotate all of these covers – I prefer to present them as a kind of “mood board” of the year, as viewed through the rheumy eyes of hate and business interests. When the Mail calls Tony Blair, after his chilling Chilcott testimony, “A MONSTER OF DELUSION,” the paper’s views coincide with my own; but on points, I generally feel nothing but revulsion for what the CAPITAL LETTERS spell out in the right-wing national press. Warning: even scrolling down this blog entry at speed and only glancing at the words might make you feel a bit sick in your mouth.

I tend to “collect” my favourite covers during the year, and it seems apt to hang them out to dry, not necessarily in any chronological order, just as they fall. Refrains will emerge, especially at the Express and Mail, which, on paper (which newspapers still are, for now), had a good year, with their preferred result on the EU and a rightwing president elected in the US. But still they wring their hands and clutch their pearls, oh, and hate women (especially the women).

Let’s begin with my nomination for the worst front page of 2016. It has it all: ideological self-interest, overstatement, a slogan that’s also an egregious pun (“BeLEAVE in Britain”), and a built-in full-page advert for itself, as the film Independence Day: Resurgence was released that very day and happens to be a 20th Century Fox Film Corporation production (whose parent company is 21st Century Fox, founded by Rupert Murdoch, who is it Executive Co-Chairman, as well as Executive Chairman of News Corp, which publishes the Sun). Talk about taking back control.

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The rest is wallpaper. They used to call it chip paper, but I suspect health and safety have put paid to that tradition. Maybe when we actually leave the EU sometime this century, we can repeal it and take back control of whether or not we can eat our chips out of newsprint.

Let’s start with a few damning indictments of Blair, one subject that seems to unite our entire printed media, and see where the capital letters take us.

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To finish, two delectable examples of the Sun failing to grasp the gravity of death, knocking out a truly pathetic and insulting vandalism of his own verse to mark the sad passing of Muhammad Ali, and hoping its “ordinary” readers would despise the hereditarily blameless son of the Duke of Westminster enough to treat him as a source of class-war entertainment while at the same time advertising his eligibility (“Good news, girls, he’s single!”), at a time when he will have still been grieving the death of his father.

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And finally … a rare instance of a national newspaper adjusting its prejudices in the full glare of publicity: when the Times was “advised” before its second print run that to completely ignore the victory of the Hillsborough inquest on its cover in favour of the paper of record’s “ultimate guide” to “status handbags” might be misconstrued as forgetful at  best, and at worst, a subliminal editorial line on the verdict.

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I fancy some chips.

Comment isn’t free

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First, a few unpaid words from Stephen Hull, UK editor-in-chief at the Huffington Post, the newspaper that was never a newspaper and always a website which empowers its writers by not paying them. He was being interviewed by media interrogator Steve Hewlett on Radio 4 (as reported on the New Statesman website). If you are a writer, or someone hoping to make a career out of writing, make sure you are not holding any hot drinks. Ready?

“If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.”

So, conveniently, payment robs comment of authenticity. All those words I’ve written for money – and indeed all those words written by Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling and Paul Morley for money – are in some way inauthentic. Oh, and paid writing’s only purpose is to attract advertising.

As an unpaid blogger, by choice, and a paid writer in other quarters – a line of work I have been pursuing for 28 years – this not only infuriates but saddens me. The Huffington Post is successful, innovative and decorated. It is a beacon for our times, when print, deserted by traditional advertisers, is choking on its own thin air. It offers a high-profile platform and shop window for its writers (it calls them bloggers to stop them getting fancy ideas above their station), and you can’t buy that kind of exposure. Except you are buying it. You are buying it with your time and your expertise; your ability to rearrange the English language into sentences. Writing is not a mystical art. All but the technically illiterate do it every time they fill out a birthday card or leave a note on the fridge. But increasingly, as those public outlets for writing dwindle – farewell, the printed Independent; hello, unloved piles of wafer-thin giveaway NMEs thrown back into cardboard gondolas at Sainsbury’s and railways carriages decorated in crumpled copies of today’s Metro as if in dirty protest – the once romantic idea of wielding a quill for money withers on the vine. People would rather watch a Vine.

I’m lucky. I was first paid to write my first ever review in 1988, a year out of college – and not a college where I studied journalism, or the written word: this was the 80s, a golden era of opportunity between the closed shop and the internet. I was paid £23.00 for this review by the publisher IPC, as quaintly typed out in the payslip above, which marks the day I became a professional writer. It seemed like an awful lot of money to me. I would have paid IPC to see my words in print.

ThisIsThisMy only qualification to write this review and see it published was a single copy of a fanzine I’d put together [left], and the skill of being keen enough to ask. This century, I’m often asked to give advice to people wishing to get a start in the media. I’m a media veteran. I’m always happy to tell people my own story, although with each passing year, it becomes less and less relevant to today’s literary and journalistic wannabes. For years I’ve been telling students that I envy them. In the mid-80s, I had to type up my fanzine on an electric typewriter, cut it out and Pritt-stick it down, and pay to have it printed at a high-street Kall-Kwik, then hawk it around in a shopping bag at gigs hoping to sell a copy for a pound. (I sold one by mail-order – it was mentioned in a magazine called Underground and two kids turned up at my flat to buy one, with cash. I was fucking cock-a-hoop.) These days, you need only a broadband connection to publish instantly to the world. No guarantee that a single soul will read it, of course, but it will look professional and you will by definition be a published writer. You can publish a novel in the same way. It’s liberating. It’s also demonetising.

I wrote about the curse of unpaid labour in the media three years ago. I wasn’t paid for writing it. I wrote it for free, here, on this blog. I commissioned myself to write it, sub-edited it myself and headlined it Keeping up appearance fees. If you have the time, you can read it here. Most of it is still true. I will precis the salient points here.

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When you see somebody talking on the telly, do you assume they have been paid? You are right to. Unless they are a member of the public whose opinion or testimony has been sought by a news crew, or an audience member doorstepped by the host on an audience show, or they are questioned in a news studio as a representative of either a political party or a private company, then they will usually be paid an appearance fee.

This will be nominal, but it covers their time and their expertise, and reflects the fact that – like an actor in a drama, or a singer or dancer in a chorus – they have helped to make a TV programme, and without them there would be a person-shaped gap, which will never do. TV programmes have budgets, and from those budgets, fees for actors, singers, dancers or contributors are found. (It goes without saying that there are many, sometimes hundreds of people you don’t see on the telly who are just as vital to the making of the programme, and they will be paid too. This will effectively be a non-appearance fee.)

However, it ain’t necessarily so. When, in 2013, James Gandolfini died, I was contacted on the day by email – via the Guardian as it happens – by a broadcaster who requested my presence on a live studio discussion about Gandolfini, to take place at 4pm the next afternoon. Having gathered my thoughts sufficiently to write a blog and be filmed for the Guardian video obituary, I felt confident I could make a good contribution to this TV show.

However, having agreed on principle with the producer to be at the studio for 4pm (which just happened to be geographically between the British Library, where I was writing, and 6 Music, where I was headed for an appearance on Roundtable, so it was all awfully convenient and meant to be), I was then told, “It’s not actually our policy to pay guests.”

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Without wishing to come across as some kind of square, I rather insisted that I would expect some recompense for my time and expertise, and after a couple more emails, during which the producer went to their editor and came back, we hit an impasse, at which the producer said, “We’re going to have to go with someone else.” This meant somebody who didn’t require paying. Fair enough. I had pushed for payment and they’d called my bluff. To be honest, it was one less extra thing to think about. I was at the time writing a second draft of a pilot sitcom script to a deadline, something I was being paid for.

I have a realistic view of my own importance. I do not delude myself. But I do believe the 28 years’ mileage on my clock gives me a degree of authority and I like to think I can string a sentence together on a good day. I cannot build a wall or fix a radiator but I can talk. A tradesperson is rightly seen as someone who is paid for their time and expertise. If you can plaster a wall yourself, you have no need to call in a plasterer; if you can’t, you must expect to pay a plasterer for the work, and they must be expected to do that work to a certain standard in return.

I once entered some provisional talks with a small, independent publisher about publishing my “selected works” in a book. It never happened, but I had a title: Punctual. I have always been proud to be reliable, to write to length, and to deadline, to turn up on time, and to call ahead if unable to do so. These boring qualities go a long way in showbiz. (I have heard of certain performers who are apparently a nightmare to work with – ones you would instantly recognise on the telly – but you have to be pretty bloody good at your job to get away with this.) I have never fooled myself into thinking I’m some kind of literary, verbal or televisual genius, to whose door broadcasters will constantly be beating a path, but to borrow a phrase, I like to think I’m never the problem.

Now, if I had accepted the no-fee for the Gandolfini appearance on the current affairs show and given my two penn’orth to the broadcaster that day at 4pm, here’s what would have happened:

  1. My face would have been on the telly.
  2. Some people might have seen it.
  3. The whole thing would have lasted a matter of minutes (which, when you build in the travel at either end, plus the buffer of some green-room waiting time, makes the appearance a tiny percentage of the time and effort expended).
  4. The broadcaster might have used me again in the future and on that occasion maybe even paid me.

Also, I suspect, if you’d seen it, you would have assumed I’d been paid. But I wouldn’t have been. It would have been voluntary work, except not voluntary work for a worthy cause.

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So I declined, politely, and wasn’t on. I wonder who was? It doesn’t matter. The world kept on turning. The broadcaster who wouldn’t pay my fee for talking about James Gandolfini offered a car there and back. What a waste of money. It’s nearly always easier, and quicker, to get about London on public transport. Why would I want to be in a slow-moving car? Think of all the money they could save by not running a private car hire service. Perhaps they could pay contributors with that instead? I’ve also been offered unpaid slots on TV and radio shows where my reward was to be able to plug something. This is actual bullshit. Literary festivals are currently under fire for not paying authors (and I mean really famous bums-on-seats authors, not authors at my level) for personal appearances, again, on the understanding that they will be able to flog a few books afterwards. I’ve promoted my books this way, and a) people who run festivals, bookshops and libraries where the event is likely to be tend to be really nice, and b) you do get to sell a few signed books. Should authors be paid a small stipend on top? Or is the platform – like the Huffington Post – enough? Are you being paid “in kind”?

Not all potential guests and contributors are egomaniacs. Given the choice between appearing as a pundit on Channel 4 News and getting home in time to watch Channel 4 News, I’d always choose the latter. I turn down roughly 75% of the offers I get to be myself on radio and TV. It may be more. Frankly, I don’t have anything to flog. And I have no deep need to hear my voice or see my face. I will always jump at the chance to be on Front Row on Radio 4, because I love the show and, oh, I will be paid. Not much. But enough to take a short detour via Broadcasting House and get to talk to the always amenable people who make Front Row.

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I was invited last week to mentor someone hoping to break into the media by an entirely admirable charity-based body that encourages that very thing. I’ve done unpaid work for them in the past. My choice. I like them. But I had to decline the mentoring gig, as I remain a self-employed freelancer and I don’t have the luxury of time to devote to this year-long commitment. (Others in the media who have taken it on seem to work for, or run, production companies or TV channels.) Also, I would, in a roundabout way, be training someone to steal the work that puts food on my table! After all, it may be tough to break into the media and earn enough to actually live on in a digital age where writers are called bloggers and comment is literally free at the point of sale, but at least the young have youth on your side. This is a valuable currency in the magpie eyes of a demographically myopic media. I was delighted to be asked to host the red-carpet coverage of the Bafta Film Awards for Bafta many years ago, the first time the august body had produced its own content for its own website; it was deemed a roaring success and as a result, the next year, I was replaced by a younger, more attractive and more famous host. It was the day I stopped dreaming of being a TV presenter. But even in this cruel Logan’s Run world, the one thing I can offer is something that money can’t buy – experience. It’s just that increasingly, broadcasters and content providers want it for for nothing.

DON’T WORK FOR FREE. UNLESS YOU CAN AFFORD TO. OR IT’S FOR CHARITY.

I will donate the non-existent fee for this article to myself.

 

When did it all go right?

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The result of Jeremy Corbyn‘s shadow cabinet reshuffle, a fairly unexplosive and routine one as it turned out, was not the issue. Reading about him doing what the leader of a party really ought to do, which is to say sort it out, you’d think he was genuinely behaving like Stalin and using elongated cutting equipment nocturnally. This makes a better headline. And there’s the rub. With a predominantly rightwing media – and even my beloved Guardian came out in support of Yvette Cooper in last year’s leadership race, a Toynbeean position it appears to have retained – Corbyn can do no right. If he acts, he’s running a totalitarian dictatorship. If he doesn’t act, he’s weak. Either way, he’s “unelectable”, which, if he was, is something he has in common with the previous two Labour leaders. I hesitate to say he can’t win.

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I have no love for the London Evening Standard. It’s free. I pick up a copy at the station, because I might as well, and flick through it in a matter of seconds, scowling as I do so. One thing that has always irked me about living in London, even when I liked living in London, is that the capital’s local newspaper is rightwing. But those are the breaks. The Standard reported on Corbyn’s reshuffle yesterday in a way that made clear the mountain he has to climb. He was, the paper wrote, in “open warfare with shadow  ministers”. He was “warned”, it said, of being “petty and divisive.” He would, it said, “tighten his grip” by moving those who “oppose him on key policies.” He would “award big promotions” to “left-wingers”. Pardon my utopianism, but isn’t the Labour party “left-wing”. I know what the media means when it speaks of “hard left” and “centre left”, but the papers are obsessed with the hardness of the left since Corbyn was voted in on an unprecedented 59.5% mandate. Presumably those who voted for him wanted something “harder” than Ed Miliband. (Having declined to vote Labour since 1997, I certainly did.)

As all newspapers do, the Standard quoted an unnamed source (a “leading Labour moderate”) who helpfully voiced the newspaper proprietor’s views for him, who called this a “revenge reshuffle” (which made the headline). Then, a comment from an actual “ex-minister”, Kim Howells, a former union man turned Blair loyalist who stood down at the 2010 general election, having been reshuffled himself by Gordon Brown; he’d helpfully described Corbyn’s team as “superannuated Trotskyite opportunists”. (He also called them “lunatics” but the Standard had run out of space it might better devote to house prices, food fads or Boris Johnson’s latest wheeze.)

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In a follow-up piece, it said Corbyn had “swung the axe” on Brownite shadow culture secretary Michael Dugher – in other words, replaced him – a chap who within seconds of hearing the news joined the ranks of useful idiots available at all hours to attack Mr Corbyn. His removal made a “mockery” of the “so-called new politics”. I personally think Corbyn should have “swung the axe” in Syria-bombing turncoat Hilary Benn’s direction, especially after his veiled declaration of his intention to stand against Corbyn in a future leadership challenge in the Commons.

It didn’t take long to get to the word “purge” (another handy allusion to Stalin, or Hitler if you prefer). “One Labour MP” said it was becoming “a war between Mr Corbyn and supporters of [Tom] Watson.” This is the narrative we are being sold. Another Labour MP – named, at least – called Graham Jones tweeted: “With the sacking of Dugher, traditional working class Labour is dying.” He also spoke of that old chestnut a “remote north London elite,” a slur that pretty much did for Miliband, although he also had two kitchens, which is careless.

Dugher is the one who implicitly warned JC not to make Labour a “religious cult”. The Standard added, “The reference to Mr Dugher’s provincial working-class roots was seen by MPs as a contrast with Mr Corbyn’s North London circle.”

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I despair of the rightwing bias in our press, but there you go, it’s a free market, and it’s run by people with a vested interest in the free market. The story of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise and prospective fall is being written by the eventual victors, and he appears to be able to do nothing about it. He’s too quiet, too reasonable, too low-key – all qualities that should be refreshing in the bellowing Bullingdon that is Parliament, but do him no favours with so many louder voices around him. But I also despair of the Labour party. All we hear about are internecine struggles and knives in backs, petty bickering, negative briefing, unnamed moderates firing shots across their leader’s bows. I’m not sure what the answer is. Take better media advice? You don’t have to join them, but you must occasionally beat them.

This was supposed to be the dawning of a new era for British party politics. The idea of a “left-wing” Labour party seemed like an impossible dream before Corbyn’s democratic ascent. It’s still within Labour’s grasp, but they have to stop fighting each other, unite under their leader or fuck off to the back benches. I am a potential Labour voter. I haven’t been one of those since the Bernie Eccelstone/Formula One back-hander and Blair’s pack of lies in October 1997. I can’t be the only one. But I keep thinking of the best line in Dr Strangelove, especially as bombs fall on Syria in the name of Hilary Benn and 65 other Labour hawks:

Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!

There at the New Yorker

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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.

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Whatever | September 2009

Whatever | Festivals and work/life balance
Why blanket media coverage of Glastonbury has puréed its spirit

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Thanks to extensive coverage in all BBC-hating national newspapers – ie. all national newspapers – we know that the Corporation dispatched “almost as many” reporters, presenters, producers, technicians and support staff to cover this year’s Glastonbury festival as it did last summer’s Beijing Olympics: about 400. Sky News described it as a “sun-soaked event” (counter to the newspapers’ preferred caricature of a “mud bath”), as if to underline the mealy-mouthed assertion that this was a massive “junket”; Matthew Elliott of the purple-faced TaxPayers’ Alliance announced, “All 407 staff can’t be there doing proper work.” Well, sorry, but I think providing three days of output across three channels and red-button interactive services as the festival’s worldwide broadcast partner probably counts as proper work, even when it’s sunny and Dizzee Rascal’s doing Bonkers. And I bet the toilets and mobile reception were better in Beijing.

The question mark hangs not over whether 400-plus BBC employees were working, but whether what they were working on is any longer worth the almighty faff. I find myself in a relatively decent position to judge: a moderate veteran after half a dozen working Glastonburys between 1989 and 1995, I had retired from the annual pilgrimage with no inclination to return. Then, after a rash, sherry-influenced decision at Christmas, I agreed to return, older and wiser and ready to be dismayed by how, hey, corporate and sanitised it had become. I camped for five days without the aid of a backstage wristband or freebie ticket. And guess what? It was just as vast, unfettered and bamboozling as before, the cumulative effect quite unlike either the family holiday or wartime conscription of modern shorthand. Having happily kept up in the intervening 14 years by watching Glastonbury on telly, I was struck by the vast sensory chasm which – more than ever – exists between the event itself and the way it comes across on BBC4, or Sky News, or in a pullout souvenir in the Observer. More Glastonbury coverage does not mean better Glastonbury coverage.

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The armchair music festival season now begins in early June with the Isle Of Wight – broadcast partner ITV2; hosts Fearne Cotton, Rufus Hound; Absolute Radio “set up camp [no they don’t] … to bring listeners around the UK exclusive live performances, interviews and backstage news and gossip.” Come September, the home festivalgoer will have “experienced” T In The Park (BBC3, Edith Bowman; Radio 1; Radio Scotland), Reading/Leeds (BBC3, Edith Bowman, Zane Lowe; Radio 1), V Festival (4Music; Absolute), Bestival (C4; 4Music; Radio 1), Latitude (Radio 2, Stuart Maconie, Dermot O’Leary, Claudia Winkleman, Janice Long; Radio 4; 6 Music), Cambridge Folk Festival (Radio 2) and T4 On The Beach (C4, Steve Jones, Miquita Oliver). Although “Glasto” – as even Andrew Marr now calls it – continues to occupy a regal place on the calendar, it too gets puréed into indeterminate, flag-and-kagoule mush by all this relentlessly upbeat, uncritical, blanket reportage of anything that steps onto a stage, or into a puddle. Festival season is to a certain type of thirtysomething, jeans-wearing, Ting Tings-loving presenter, what pantomime season is to dwarfs. For the rest of us, it’s a surefire way of growing bored of live music. I texted civilisation during Neil Young’s set on the Pyramid Stage and ascertained that he was “boring” on TV; in situ, on a warm evening in Avon, he was mesmerising.

The sad fact is, Glastonbury and the other major pasture-based gigs are now part of the arts furniture, slotted in between Glyndebourne, Hay, Edinburgh, Cannes, the Proms, even the non-horsey bits of Ascot: all subject to their own set of visual and written clichés. A glance through the Telegraph’s online “picture gallery” from Glastonbury is dominated by fragrant young ladies and apple-faced kids in the mud, despite the fact that it only rained once and the ground was bone dry by Saturday. I particularly liked, “Two girls walk through the site with blow-up airbeds.” Pictorially, Glastonbury is the new A-Level results for newspapers like the Telegraph with no real interest in the music or the vibe.

ACGlasto89In 1992, the NME made music press history by turning its Glastonbury coverage round by – gasp! – the Wednesday after the festival, rather than waiting a full week to call in all the copy. Why hurry? Nobody expected to read about it the moment they got home in those pre-enlightenment days. Nowadays, Q magazine comes out daily, onsite. And yet, if it didn’t, the festival would go on. When Michael Jackson died, reporters were desperate to tell the world that a grief-stricken hush had fallen across Worthy Farm. It hadn’t. We were a bit surprised, and then got on with eating a burrito and joining the queue for the Orange phone-recharging chillout tent.

In short, I shall treat all coverage of Ascot with extreme suspicion from now on.

Published in Word magazine, September 2009

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