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 | 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

Tomorrow’s chip paper

I was very sad today to learn that the Northampton Chronicle & Echo is to cease publishing as a daily paper and go weekly, starting next month. I grew up with the Chron, and even though I left the town it is published in 28 years ago (heavens, that sounds like a long time when you write it down), I’ve enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with it ever since, always providing a quote or a contribution if asked, while the paper has always been very supportive of not just my commercial ventures, like books and gigs, but also the work I do with Thomas’s Fund, which of course is Northamptonshire-based.

When I was 15, my friend Paul’s Dad worked at the paper in the print room, and it was through this contact that Paul and I had some cartoons we’d drawn together published in the Chron. This was quite a thrill for a teenage boy. Indeed, we were photographed for the paper, and its rival the Mercury & Herald, when our cartoons landed us on the local news show Look East.

I guess it was my first taste of the media, and my first taste of nepotism, for which I remain inordinately grateful, and although my jobs in print have been in specialist publications, either music or film, my first job was at a newspaper, the NME, which gave me an early taste of the industry as it emerged from hot metal and adapted to new technologies. (Ironically, the NME was a weekly, with its frankly languid production schedule. Some of my colleagues, Steve Lamacq and Terry Staunton notable among them, had come from local papers, and I always considered that “proper” journalism. Putting out a daily paper!)

The story of the Chronicle & Echo, whose parent company Johnston Press is downsizing five of its local dailies (also: the Halifax Courier, Scarborough Evening News, Peterborough Evening Telegraph and the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph), is one for our times. People aren’t buying newspapers the way they once used to before the internet and 24-hour TV news, and as such, the industry is in steep decline. I’m just glad the Chron isn’t being closed altogether, as has already happened to numerous local titles since the crash. Newspapers are having to go digital to survive, but as we know, advertising revenues for websites are way down on the sort of money you can charge for print ads.

I subscribe to the Guardian, which saves me money, and also, I hope, supports the print edition. I need it to survive, as I don’t have an iPad, or an iPhone, or any kind of electronic reader, and I demand an old-fashioned papery edition, please. It’s wise to subscribe to any paper publication you “take” regularly, as this kind of security helps the publishers to plan ahead and creates a better “story” for advertisers. (I spent the first ten years of my career in print, and it rubs off.)

Here is a photo of myself and my friend Paul with Sarfraz Nawaz, Northampton cricket star. It was taken for the Chronicle & Echo by the Chronicle & Echo at the offices of the Chronicle & Echo, where a reception for the team was laid on in 1980 after they’d won the Benson & Hedges Cup, and Paul and I were invited to attend as we’d drawn caricatures of the whole lot of them. It’s an event I look back on fondly. The closest I came to a Jim’ll Fix It, although I hated the turquoise suit Mum made me wear.

Of course, I now follow the Chron on Twitter. Follow them on @ChronandEcho, if, like me, you find local news about Northampton vitally important. The rub, of course, is that the paper makes no money from being followed on Twitter. Their website is here, and at time of writing, the lead story is about the potential collapse of Northampton-based Aquascutum, another local icon. The bad news is everywhere. (Stop press: since typing that, the Chron has broken the story that Aquascutum has indeed gone into administration. I found this out via Twitter.)

Apparently, redundancies will be in “single figures” across the reduced newspapers, but it’s a sad day nonetheless. The end of an era. The Chronicle & Echo, like many local papers, was a daily feature of my life in Northampton. My Dad had this letter printed in it, in 1980. We thought it was the coolest thing in the world at the time. I don’t imagine the young people of today would give much of a toss. They publish things all the time on Facebook and other sites – who needs a newspaper to do it?

I live in London and my local paper, the loathsome London Evening Standard (currently a Boris Johnson party political broadcast in paper form, wrapped in constant propaganda about the London Olympics), is given away for free. It is, literally, worthless. I miss pressing my 50p into the grubby hand of a vendor on my commute home, and I don’t even like the paper. I feel that somebody should play the Last Post on a bugle.