Sunday 7 December 2008


No other way to put it - bloody awful news regarding The Herald, Sunday Herald and Evening Times this week. In brief: new editor-in-chief of all three titles, Donald Martin, has sacked the entire workforce, around 250 hacks, and told them to reapply for their jobs under new terms and conditions. Oh, and there will be 40 fewer jobs to apply for.

The owner of the titles since 2003 is Newsquest, a UK subsidiary of an American company called, unbelievably, Gannett. Newsquest owns 17 dailies, one Sunday (the Sunday Herald) and an absolute shedload of free weeklies; they also own the s1 series of websites. And the Exchange & Mart.

A bit of background: Scotland has what I'm told is a German model of newspaper production and reading - the main daily titles are strongly associated with the cities in which they're based. Glasgow has the Herald, Edinburgh the Scotsman, Dundee the Courier and Aberdeen the Press and Journal. Despite the claims of both the Herald and the Scotsman there is no national newspaper.

Since Newsquest took over there has, allegedly, been a marked decline in quality on all three Glasgow-based papers. (I say allegedly because I don't read the Herald, since it's a Glasgow paper.) Resources have been cut as well. In fact things got so bad in 2007 that the journalists went on strike; you can read a good account of it, as well as background, in a piece from the Independent.

It doesn't seem things got any better. Job cuts and new IT systems that didn't work have, unsurprisingly, led to over-stressed and under-motivated staff, according to a report by the NUJ. The Guardian covers the story here (28 Sep 2008).

Regarding the new editor-in-chief, it doesn't seem that he's done much of a job on the Evening Times. Contributors to this discussion board reckon he's driven readers away with front-page trivia and unquestioning support for Glasgow City Council, and then tried to win them back with bizarre giveaways. The discussion runs to two pages but it's mostly concise and well-written, and bang up-to-date.

It's deeply saddening and ironic, though not surprising, that the DTI report approving Gannett/Newsquest's acquisition of the papers made these key points:

1. The transfer is unlikely to adversely affect competition between newspapers in Scotland.

2. We do not expect the transfer to adversely to affect editorial freedom, the current editorial stance, content or quality of the SMG titles, accurate presentation of news or freedom of expression.

3. Nor do we expect the transfer to result in undue financial pressure on the titles acquired such as to reduce editorial quality.

Alex Salmond has said that he can imagine how The Herald would have covered the story if this had happened at another company in Scotland: in fact, they have. Google "herald" and "sackings" and you find this 2002 story about the Clyde & Forth Press Group sacking 11 editors and inviting them to apply for four new posts; also this one about SEPA sacking 600 staff who refused to sign a new contract.

The thing is, it simply does not make sense to treat staff in this way. The return you get from listening to and consulting staff and bringing them on board massively outweighs the expense, because a motivated workforce is more productive. I don't, I just don't understand why employers don't see this, unless it's the old story from Suetonius and The Twelve Caesars: people who are put in a position of power will abuse it. In other words, it's not because they have to - it's because they can.


Wednesday 3 December 2008

Bufo bufo, bufo bufo

I had the pleasure of going out for a drink with Joe fairly recently, which is to say a few months ago. The time-distortion effect of young children is not one which has ever made it into an episode of Star Trek, but I can assure you it exists. “Captain! The Borg have jumped back in time 500 years and changed something! Our present is unrecognisable!” “What’s your opinion, Mr Spock?” “Clearly we must follow them, Captain, even at the risk of being unable to return ourselves.” “No problem, Spock. I had Scotty lay in an extra kindergarten before we left dry-dock. Mr Sulu – set the parental-stress switch to maximum!” [Much more of this – Ed.]

As ever, I mused over Joe’s forced ejection from Wankerstone’s, nearly four years ago now, and through some kind of Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, have found a number of quasi-relevant quotations jumping out of recent reading.

First, and most lengthily, here is Vaclav Havel is considering the nature of what he calls the post-totalitarian system – according to the Wikipedia entry on Havel ‘a term used to describe the modern social and political order that enabled people to "live within a lie."’
No matter what position individuals hold in the hierarchy of power, they are not considered by the system to be worth anything in themselves, but only as things intended to fuel and serve this automatism. For this reason, an individual’s desire for power is admissible only in so far as its direction coincides with the direction of the automatism of the system.


If ideology was originally a bridge between the system and the individual as an individual, then the moment he steps in to this bridge it becomes at the same time a bridge between the system and the individual as a component of the system. That is, if ideology originally facilitated (by acting outwardly) the constitution of power by serving as a psychological excuse, then from the moment that excuse is accepted, it constitutes power inwardly, becoming an active component of that power. It begins to function as the principal instrument of ritual communication within the system of power.


As the interpretation of reality by the power structure, ideology is always subordinated ultimately to the interests of the structure. Therefore, it has a natural tendency to disengage itself from reality, to create a world of appearances, to become ritual. In societies where there is public competition for power and therefore public control of that power, there also exists quite naturally public control of the way that power legitimates itself ideologically. Consequently, in such conditions there are always certain correctives that effectively prevent ideology from abandoning reality altogether. Under totalitarianism, however, these corrective disappear, and thus there is nothing to prevent ideology from becoming more and more removed from reality, gradually turning into what it has already become in the post-totalitarian system: a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.
From his essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’ (1978), published in Open Letters.

Now here is David Simon, from his ‘Post Mortem’ in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets:
Struck, Wooten, Alvarez, Zorzi, Littwin, Thompson, Lippman, Hyman - some of the best reporters the Baltimore Sun had were marginalized, then bought out, shipped out and replaced with twenty-four year-old acolytes, who, if they did nothing else, would never make the mistake of having an honest argument with newsroom management. In a time of growth, when the chance to truly enhance the institution was at hand, the new regime at the Sun hired about as much talent as they dispatched. And in the end, when the carpetbaggers finally departed, their mythology of heroic renewal intact, they had managed to achieve three Pulitzers in about a dozen years. During the previous dozen, the newspaper’s morning and evening editions achieved exactly that same number.

Listening to Garvey over drinks that day, I came to realize that there was something emblematic here: that in postmodern America, whatever institution you serve or are served by – a police department or a newspaper, a political party or a church, Enron or Worldcom – you will eventually be betrayed.

It seemed very Greek the more I thought about it. The stuff of Aeschylus and Sophocles, except the gods were not Olympian but corporate and institutional. In every sense, ours seems to be a world in which individual human beings – be they trained detectives or knowledgeable reporters, hardened corner boys or third-generation longshoremen or smuggled eastern European sex workers – are destined to matter less and less.
Not long before, I’d read an interview with Hanna Segal in The Guardian:
[S]ince we tend to submit to the tyranny of our own groups, “speaking our minds takes courage, because groups do not like outspoken dissenters.” The battle now “is between insanity based on mutual projections and sanity based on truth”. And all we, as citizens, can do is “struggle to expose lies, and strive for the preservation of sane human values”.
Not that this is anything new. Thomas Wyatt (1503-42) lamented thus:
What vaileth trouth or by it to take payne
To stryve by stedfastnes for to attayne
To be iuste and true and fle from dowblenes
Sythens all alike where rueleth craftines
Rewarded is boeth fals and plain
Sonest he spedeth that moost can fain
True meaning hert is had in disdain
Against deceipte and dowblenes
What vaileth trouth
It should be noted of course that Joe did indeed vail, and Waterstone’s had to admit unfair dismissal. Finally here is Francis Bacon:
For these winding and crooked courses are the goings of the serpent; which goeth basely upon the belly, and not upon the feet. There is no vice that doth so cover a man with shame as to be found false and perfidious.
From the very first essay in the truly excellent Oxford Book of Essays, just reissued. Would that it outsells Clarkson this Christmas. One can, and should, hope.


Earlier in the same essay, 'On Truth', Bacon says that "it is not the lie that passeth through the mind, but the lie that sinketh in and settleth in it, that doth the hurt". One could take this to be an early description of foma, Kurt Vonnegut's term for those white lies which don't hurt anyone and make everyday life that little bit easier.

Saturday 29 November 2008

It's worse than you think

Graffito seen in Edinburgh:
I have considerable doubts about the police on all sorts of matters, but I'd never suspected them of being in league with Lovecraftian Elder Gods. Perhaps Hellboy should be informed.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Attack of the Castrati

Why space opera? A question I'd never considered until I began reading this:
'Opera', to an audience in the 1720s, meant the Italian opera which had first appeared in London in 1705 and which had been much in vogue ever since. Songs, of course, had been common on the English stage since Tudor times, and by the latter part of the seventeenth century plays containing within them masque-scenes in which the dialogue was sung rather than spoken had become fashionable and were called operas. The Italian opera took this development further and eliminated spoken dialogue altogether, the passages between the various arias being carried on in recitative [...] no amount of ridicule could dent the popularity of the form - seventy-five years after its first appearance in England, Dr Johnson was to write resignedly of Italian opera as 'an exotick and irrational entertainment, which has always been combated and always has prevailed'.
Which is by way of introduction, though admittedly much space opera, especially on film, can be considered as trivial and absurd as contemporary issues of The Spectator thought the newly-arrived Italian opera. But here's the relevant part:
As well as being musically novel, the Italian operas [...] were remarkable for the sumptuousness of the costumes and the sophistication of the stage machinery. The libretto of Handel's very popular opera Rinaldo (1711), for example, requires the heroine to be carried through the air in Act I in a 'Chariot drawn by two huge Dragons, out of whose mouths issue Fire and Smoke', while Act II calls for waterfalls as well as 'Thunder, Lightning, and amazing Noises'. With so much spectacle to engage its attention, the audience at an opera was unlikely to concern itself greatly with the details of the plot, which was in nearly every case if not manifestly absurd at least considerably remote from the concerns of the everyday.
Was the newly-formed equivalent of ILM involved in creating the special effects? I'd guess so. Finally, as proof that the star system (forgive the pun) is nothing new:
It was not the plots but the spectacle and, above all, the singers that brought fashionable London to the Italian opera [...] In 1721 the great castrato Senesino was lured to London and in 1723 he was joined by the famous soprano Francesca Cuzzoni; both were paid what was in those days the fabulous sum of £2,000 for the season.
Though presumably the London audience never had the egregious Jar-Jar Binks inflicted on it. The extracts are from Bryan Loughrey and T.O. Treadwell's introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Beggar's Opera.

Thursday 30 October 2008

Politely, Frank Muir says Francis Urquhart

Or possibly Felix Unger. Frank Muir was a writer, presenter and producer of comedy, satire and light entertainment programmes. In the early 1960s he was working for the BBC.
After a holiday abroad I returned to find a general election about to happen and the television schedules polluted with party political broadcasts. Incensed by these (and I take a bit of incensing) I wrote a letter to The Times, which they printed. I wrote:

Sir, when I was at school and we were coming up to the end-of-term exams I wrote a letter to my headmaster (in brown ink for some reason, which angered him) and gave it as my view that if the purpose of an exam was to test how much information and wisdom had penetrated our natural defences, then swotting to pass the exam was a form of cheating. The Head did not feel able to fall in with this theory, but I believe there is truth in it. By the same reasoning I believe that we should vote for a political party on its proven record not on wild promises for the future made in party political broadcasts which the party has a snowflake's chance in hell of fulfilling. Thus party political broadcasts are quite clearly only another form of cheating.

What I did not know, as I had just returned from abroad, was that a few days earlier the DG [Director General] had written a keynote letter to the papers saying how important party political broadcasts were to the political health of our democracy. What I also did not know, or had forgotten, was that BBC employees were strictly forbidden to write letters to newspapers expressing their personal views on television and political matters.

A memo emerged from the DG's office in Broadcasting House. The memo was kindly, mainly curious how I could ignore such an important rule as the one preventing staff from blabbing to the press. But the memo then descended from one management office to another, the file growing more threatening and larger as it went like a snowball rolling downhill. Eventually it landed with a thud on Huw Wheldon's desk. Huw passed the huge file on to me with a scribbled note attached saying:

You have an unusual contract but it states quite clearly that you will obey staff rules and regulations as laid down in the Staff Handbook, a copy of which you were given on joining. Full explanation, please. Immediately. (Or when you are not too busy.)

I replied:

Dear Huw,
I am so sorry to have wasted so many important people's time and I would certainly not have written to The Times had I known that it was forbidden so to do. The trouble is I did not read the Staff Handbook thoroughly and commit it to memeory as I should have done. In fact, I thought the rather slim booklet was my electric blanket guarantee and I filed it away at hiome under Domestic Items.
But I do think that you should get Mrs Mary Whitehouse to ban party political broadcasts. To this end could you not persuade the political parties to record their promises in the nude?

And that was the last I heard of the matter.
From A Kentish Lad, pp262-3.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Celebrity Deathmatch: White vs. King

Might as well get straight into it...

Kenneth White (1936- ) is an expatriate Scottish writer, now very much at home in France. Much-lauded there too, but practically unknown in his native country.
I read the novel [Robinson Crusoe] as a youngster, but I've long since preferred the brute document. Here, summarised, is the account of Wood Roggers, the man who picked up Selkirk from the island:

[A brief account of how Selkirk was abandoned on his island and how he survived follows.]

It's all there in that blueprint - the rest is padding, and an encumbering of the mind.

As is probably obvious enough by this time, I prefer, by far, real islands to imaginary islands, just as I prefer prime documents to novelistic remakes. That's because the real is richer than the imagination. The real demands investigation and is an invitation to sensitive knowledge, whereas the imaginary is more often than not just a collection of stereotypes, a soup of cliches offering an infantile sort of satisfaction. Then, a relationship to the real and its resistance requires changes in thought, in ways of being, in ways of saying, it leads to a transformation of the self. Whereas imagination is nothing but compensation. There's even something horribly autistic about sitting in one spot and spinning out invention by the yard. How much more interesting an open and poetic process involving contemplation, study, movement, meditation and composition!
I don't see an absence but a heightening of reality in the fictional prose which I can point to and call art with confidence: Tarka, Dubliners, Davy, The Leopard, Red Shift, The Stone Book Quartet. White makes the pretty elementary mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, something with which fantasy and SF fans are wearily familiar. Moreover, while I doubt that most fiction can claim to provide transformations of the self, any of it which is any good will provide transportations, which is no bad thing and no mean feat. None of the books I've listed deal in stereotypes - they deal in people, Tarka excepted. I have a theory that, once we're out of childhood, it's difficult for us to grasp or perceive anything new without having imagined it first. In that regard, fiction can be tremendously useful in breaking down stereotypes and other forms of preconception. I doubt that any of the terms in the final sentence could not be applied to Alan Garner's writing process - or even Barbara Cartland's.

Of course, it all depends how you read - whether you read to challenge your own opinion or confirm it. If, for example, you are locked into the French intellectual tradition which has given us the new novel and Derrida, you may well regard White as a savant of the first water; or you may see him as a self-regarding and rather self-satisfied pedlar of highbrow nonsense. In fairness, I think one of us has caught the other on a bad day.

The extract comes from 'Across Corsica', one of the chapters of Across the Territories, a collection of travel essays. He duly notes Napoleon, Paoli, Merimee and Boswell, all of whom belong to or are associated with the island, but he doesn't mention Dorothy Carrington, who wrote the definitive book on it, once.

In defence of imagination, Stephen King, who unlike White actually has some experience of being a novelist, has this to say:
I think that only people who have worked in the field for some time truly understand how fragile this stuff really is, and what an amazing commitment it imposes on the reader or viewer of intellect and maturity. When Coleridge spoke of 'the suspension of disbelief' in his essay on imaginative poetry, I believe he knew that disbelief is not like a balloon, which may be suspended in air with a minimum of effort; it is like a lead weight, which has to be hoisted with a clean jerk and held up by main force. [...] And whenever I run into someone who expresses a feeling along the lines of, ' I don't read fantasy or go to any of those movies; none of it's real,' I feel a kind of sympathy. They simply can't lift the weight of fantasy. The muscles of the imagination have grown too weak.
From Danse Macabre, pp120-121.