Thursday, September 27, 2012

Getting My Misery Fix from Hold the Front Page

One afternoon I returned to the newsroom equipped with about a quarter of my brain capacity functioning - either due to a long liquid lunch or a council meeting. I can't now recall.

There was a "post it" note by my phone. It said "Call Myra Mains" and gave a number. I finally called.

A voice responded: "St. Faith's Crematorium."

I said: "Can I speak to Myra Mains?"

There was a half laugh and a mutter on the end of the line. Then it hit me what I had just said and how I had been set up by my colleagues who were desperately tying not to wet their pants close by.

I only tell the story to illustrate what I sometimes miss about newspapers. The goofiness, the balls of paper being thrown around, the practical jokes and the characters.

Admittedly even when I joined the profession it wasn't like it used to be. It's hard to pinpoint a golden era with certainty but back in the 1960s and 1970s, I'm told newspapers like the Daily Mirror that are only concerned these days with Big Brother contestants showing cleavage, used to have dozens of correspondents working in Asia on stories such as the genocide in Cambodia.

Back on the course when we used to read the Guardian from cover to cover and talk in awed tones about journalists such as John Pilger, the golden age was already receding. But not like now. Alan C., one of the instructors on our course, typified the old school. He'd run around the class yelling: "Smoke smoke, don't you know everyone smokes in a real newsroom?" He was only one stage away from shoving cigarettes in the mouths of the recalcitrant ones. But the lesson when Alan got out a long wooden ruler and tried to teach the class how to measure copy, illustrated how he was already being cast in the role of T-Rex, with the ice age knock knocking on the door. We'd just started using computers that measured out the copy and informed us where it would fit.

Newsrooms were often fun, although veterans would tell you they were pale shadows of their former selves. Still I miss the occasional buzz I got from those days. Like the days the smug officials unveiled the damning official report into the fire that burned down the city library under strict embargo, only to open their newspaper to find my report of their findings on the front page because I had spent half of the previous day pleading with a friendly union official to get a glimpse of it.

American newsrooms had bigger staffs but I always found them subdued and half empty. People also took themselves too seriously. It's not as if they were being paid enough to do a real job.

Today I occasionally catch up with what's left of the British newspaper industry by checking out Hold the Front Page. The website is dominated with news of layoffs and deaths and peppered with the occasional low paying job. Even the site's name is a great big kick in the goolies with a pointy boot (the kind girls wear) because it harks back to the days when an excited news editor, usually with bad dandruff, would rush into the news room yelling "Hold the front page" because of a breaking news story.

These days because the local printing works has been closed down to save money and the newspaper is using someone else's 200 miles away, nobody will hold the front page for a small breaking story like an air crash, although you can probably get something on the website.

I was interested in a story about how Keith Newton, "entertainments editor of the Teesside Gazette for a quarter of a century, lost a four-year battle with cancer last week."

As someone who has come out of the other side of the profession I have to wonder why we always wrote like that. Was it really a battle against cancer? And if a cancer sufferer said to himself "I'm not going to fight this thing." would it still be described as a battle?

Keith had apparently worked on a national newspaper in London but returned to his roots in Teesside which can politely be described as gritty.

Wife Lyn said: “He adored the job, the camaraderie, going out and meeting people, working to deadlines, going to the theatre…. he was passionate about everything he did. “He’d often be on the phone, talking to famous people – the likes of Paul Daniel would often ring us.”

There's something strangely heart warming about this. The camaraderie. That's exactly what we lost somewhere along the line as we became obsessed with the bottom line. I do wonder if Hold the Front Page means Paul Daniels. And if so, I wonder why anyone would want to talk with him.

I'm guessing there's a brave new world out there and the ink of newspapers doesn't feature. There's something wonderfully sexy about my new Kindle Fire, although it would be a lot better if I didn't keep losing the switch to turn it on. Sure I can buy reports from the New York Times or whatever newspaper I want on my Kindle, although I doubt if I will. But I have to wonder if there will be anyone left to write the stuff soon.

PS - It would be remiss to write this without bidding a fond farewell to Daft Scots Lass who unexpectedly quit blogging for like ever after a couple of centuries of blogging on a daily basis. She also appears to have disappeared from Google+ as well as to have disabled comments so as nobody can say "don't be so daft." So no more shocking early morning blog titles which cause one to spill one's coffee on oneself. We'll miss ya. Although I have considered quitting blogging from time to time, I have discounted the idea as I always seem to find something to bang on about.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Escape to York River State Park

When I was younger I wasn't very comfortable with myself and my own company. When I took my first job in Plymouth I'd return to a shabby room every night, buy a few tinnies and look ruefully out of the window at the wet streets. I'd drive up to the moors and hang out by a mountain stream twisting and turning in my isolation as families wandered past and kids played in the river.

Of course it didn't last. Before I knew it I had inherited two room mates and a dining room full of people smoking pot on the table mats.

But the older I get the more antisocial I seem to become and the more I value my own company. On the day I visited York River State Park my wife had arranged some some kind of clutter expert to come into the house at an inordinate cost, to move a couple of boxes. I couldn't wait to escape to catch the sunshine and avoid the inevitable argument that would be brewing. It also made me think obliquely about a woman I once wrote a feature about known as "Clutter's Last Stand," whose methods included making me crawl under my desk so as she could wack my backside with a vacuum cleaner attachment.

Heading north with the blue water to the east and the west of me, I could hardly contain the soaring sense of freedom. One day, maybe I'll head west and I won't stop until I see the Pacific. It may be a let down, though. I saw the Pacific recently in Baja California and it looked rather like the Atlantic.

While I'd like to see soaring serrated mountains again, I made do with the forested hills and estuaries of Virginia. I had been to this state park before, but managed to miss the correct entrance. I followed a small road down to a boat ramp, walked around and scratched my head. There were no trail maps and no trails. I drove back up the narrow road and was somewhat alarmed to see a large white pickup following me closely. I associate pickups with McCain/Palin stickers and guys with hunting rifles hidden in their beards who'll shoot you at the first hint of a funny foreign accent and ask questions later.

I turned left at a crossroads and the pickup turned left. Then I got lost again and turned around in a gas station. The pickup followed me to the point of almost blocking me off. I lowered the window and found myself staring at an elderly gentleman.

"I saw you back there and thought you were looking for the state park. You've missed it again," said the kindly old gentleman, who proceeded to point me in the right direction.

I slowly replaced the magic squirting ink pen that I had poised to attack a thickset maniac.

It was hot at the state park but I persevered on a trail through the sticky woods. Then I hung out and read a book on the beach. Half a lifetime ago I would have felt ill at ease.

 Now I felt fine. I had the wilderness to myself. It couldn't have been better. Well it could have been but I won't go there.

Then on the way back I ended up on a small road to nowhere by some mean ranch houses. With a start I realized I had been here before but it was dark and mysterious. I didn't want to remember, but in a curious way I did.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Finding my Heart of Darkness

You see there's a river called the Barenga River and it flows through the heart of Africa.  It has swallowed up all of the blood, filth, mystery, romance and latent evil in the vast continent and pushed it out to the sea that once carried the despicable slave ships away to a distant land.

Over the next few weeks I'll have to swim in that river and lap up its depraved tide. I've only dipped my toe in so far.

The great unfinished novel has reached 40,000 words and while it's not great it's still unfinished. It has promise, probably. And, unlike with previous attempts, I'm certain it will be finished at some point. I can see where it's going, although the waters remain murky and dificult to manage.

It has taken 40,000 words to reach the banks of the great Berenga and the fictitious nation of Central Eastern Africa, a nation that has been closed to the world but now faces being split up like a skull by a bloody civil war.  Wars like this aren't uncommon in Africa. Once a newspaper I worked on plucked a little girl from Sierra Leone whose hands had been horribly mutilated by soldiers who had placed her on a barbeque. We paid for treatment at a British hospital before sending her back to the war zone.

Far from being the myserious continent of Stanley, Livingstone and Mungo Park, Africa remains, foir the most part, mired in an abject contemporary poverty. I recall a recent poll that listed the world's 10 poorest nations. Nine of them were in Africa - the other was Haiti. The Congo was the poorest nation in the world. It has also seen millions of a people killed - a death toll not exceeded since World War Two - in a conflict nobody understands or cares about.

A brutal template was set by King Leopold of Belgium who turned the Congo into a horrifying labor camp devoted to the production of rubber. Joseph Conrad spent six months there, providing the inspiration for Heart of Darkness.

Today the world is carefully mapped out and known about. My novel maps out something that doesn't exist anymore; a barely discovered heart of darkness. Europeans came saw and conquered centuries ago. We killed the mystery and shaped the world to our self serving ends.

I need to immerse myself in my own personal heart of darkness in the next few weeks to create anything meaningful. But this is not always easy when I find myself in protracted discussions with pen manufactuers on how we can incpororate the company logo.

It's not always easy to find one's personal heart of darkness given all of the distractions. Cue to slap the cat around.

There's the writers' retreat and the regular meetings but it can be hard to field questions such as "Why should I care about Moriarty?"

But then why should we care about anyone we read about in literature? Who gives a flying about Oliver Twist, some obscure orphan who asks for more gruel? Who cares about Robinson Crusoe hanging out on some island for years? And why are we bothered about Christian Grey going round spaking people senseless?

Anyway enough pontificating, more writing. Take me to the river, drop me in the water, Blah, Blah.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ayn Rand and the Seductive Power of Howard Roark

Although Ayn Rand has gone down in history as a scary old right winger with a funny accent, I have to confess her novel, The Fountainhead, has me transfixed.

Perhaps it's the feel of the roaring Twenties when the skyscrapers rose in New York City and flapper girls brought a new glamor to a society that had thrown off the shackles of war. But this is not more of the hollow yet fascinating society of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Fountainhead is a novel based on ideas rather than plot and its hero Howard Roark, is utterly alluring.

Roark is a gangling figure with a shock of red hair. He's not conventionally handsome. But it's his unwavering devotion to his principles that is his most appealing characteristic. From the outset we see an architectural student who has been expelled from his college because his designs are too outlandish and daring. In short Roark is too brilliant.

The Dean gives him one last chance but Roark doesn't care. In his conversation with the Dean he slights the trappings of the past and our slavish adherence to them, even daring to criticize the Parthenon.

While the sycophantic Peter Keating graduates top of his class and gets a position in one of New York's top firms, Roark persuades his hero, Henry Cameron - once one of the most promising architects of his era and an uncompromising post modernist, but now an alcoholic, to give him a job.

Roark relies on his brilliance and is totally uncompromising. When a developer offers to give him a contract if he will add a small classical feature to his building, Roark refuses. He loses his office and goes to toil in a quarry.

Roark is a bit like that person we all wanted to be when we set out. Before the world cut us gradually into little pieces with its constant drip drip of compromises and petty humiliations.

Rand contrasts Roark's dispassionism with the meddling and manipulative Ellsworth Toohey with his schemes, meeting groups and social programs. Toohey is loosely based on Joseph Stalin, the all powerful and brutal Russian dictator who represented all of the worst aspects of state intervention to the author who gre up in the Soviet Union.

Although Rand's ultimate championing of objectivism, selfishness, individuality and capitalism has its harsh aspect, there's something seductive about the life force of Howard Roark who is as natural a life force as a rock face, about the idea of not needing to rely on anybody else, of knowing your worth and standing on your principles.

There are few of us who can't say we haven't died a little inside at something we have had to do to keep our job or appease an unreasonable and powerful person. There's something seductive and satisfying about the idea of just walking away and being true to ourselves.

As anyone who has walked under the high glass ganties of Sir Richard Rogers' Lloyds of London building will realise, we don't have to live in someone else's past. We can dare to be different.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Day My Dutch Rabbit Mistook The Postman's Foot For A Love Partner

Good lord. Of course I never intended to blog about this. But then I thought....

1 - Do I want to be seen as someone who doesn't live up to their word?

2 - I am clueless about my next blog post.

The thing is people have the wrong idea about rabbits. They talk about fluffy bunnies and lop eared Belgium bunnies without realising they are talking a lot of Belgium waffle.

Rabbits are pure evil. Always have been. Always will be. Yet they don't get the bad rap they deserve. Spiders are always getting horror flicks made about them. Rabbits have to make do with Donnie Darko and Harvey the disappearing white rabbit. When did you last see a film about a 30 foot tall rabbit terrorising small town America?

When I was a teenager we had rabbits for while. Dandelion was purchased and Blackberry was found in a garden after a monumental chase in which he almost broke my arm off. He was a big bugger, although in many ways his temperament was less suspect than Dandelion's.

To set the record straight Dandelion did not mistake the postman's foot for a love object. He was premeditated. He seemed to be that the foot was indeed a foot and it included a show but he had a go anyhow. Again and again. The postman took to throwing mail over the hedge as 9 a.m. (or any time really) is too early for a near death sexual experience with a rabbit.

When it wasn't the hapless postie Dandelion had a go with Blackberry or next door's cat.

The woman next door was a particularly bad tempered specimen of humanity who would tut at his antics over the fence. We got her to feed him once when we were on holiday. As if sensing her disapproval of his sexual antics he bit half of her finger off.

As any Australian worth a XXXX, not to mention the harassed posties will know, rabbits are bad news for shoes. They also breed like ...

Stick to a normal sort of pet people...

Monday, September 10, 2012

Diary Entry June 2, 1974 - My weird childhood

I never kept a diary when I was growing up. I thought about it but couldn't be bothered. For a start my teenage years were so desolate it would be the literary equivalent of watching Eraserhead over and over again.

"The acne continues to spread like the Ebola virus. Parents sent back my school photo."

Eraserhead - like ET for meth addicts

People have sought to capitalize on this. Did this callous act of photograph return scar me for life? Not at all and certainly not as much as looking at the hideous thing on the wall every day would. It would have been like a teenage Picture of Dorian Gray thing except I never got the opportunity to partake in any of the exciting and devilishly evil acts of Wilde's anti hero. Unless you count the home made explosive thing that rendered next door's cat never quite the same again after he narrowly avoided becoming a feline firecracker.

I'm not quite sure why my childhood and teenage years were quite so miserable. The informed guess would be over closeting. The long shot would be never getting over Paul Stamp's theft of my Corgi Lamborghini.

Perhaps my parents did some kind of number on me for not sending me to get socialized at daycare at an early age. If you detect a theme emerging here it's blame. My penchant for blaming anyone else for being a weird child. But honestly I could make some great faces. I could make other kids turn away horrified. It was far better than talking.

I suppose I moved schools quite a bit. I spent a whole term being a human helicopter in the playground. I admired spiders in their great glistening webs in the hedgerows. I don't think school helped me become less weird. Particularly not Aldibonkers.

Aldibonker was the nickname given for the headmaster. I can't remember his real name anymore. I believe he'd been tortured quite a bit in a German Prisoner of War camp and he'd been too stupid to dig a tunnel under a wooden horse and jump the fence on a motorbike. Aldibonkers just took it on the chin and later in life doled it out on his charges.

Particularly my elementary school friend Fritz Schwarthoft for some unknown reason.

Aldibonkers insisted on taking time away from his disciplinary duties (involving a large wooden stick) to instill maths on the classes. Times tables was his thing. The whole class would have to chant times tables and would then be picked on to answer questions at pain of humiliation if and when they failed. Needless to say, even if you knew the answer it would freeze in your throat and the response to 6 x 7 would be "Dallas Cowboys" or "Prince Albert."

Fortunately I winged it and would escape the ultimate humbling of being lined up after class - firing squad style and yelled at. Oddly enough I can still remember any multiplication up to 12 x 12 off the top of my head.

Not so Bell - the new boy who I made sure to befriend because he was monumentally slow. Each Tuesday Bell would be lined up in the firing squad as Aldibonkers - a small red faced man, who was not dissimilar to Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army - would becoming increasingly red until you could see through his nose as he snarled: "Bell. You are an idiot boy."

I wouldn't blame Aldibonkers totally for the reason why I became an awkward teen. I listened to too much Japan and Kraftwerk and Visage etc. and read Stephen King. I became a fashion victim for a while. I had buckles and pointy shoes and studded belts that hung down my nonexistent backside. I didn't rebel totally but I was terminally weird.

That's why it's odd to see my daughter declaring breezily how much she loves school and making "best friends" in a nanosecond in any social situation. The contrast is so jarring I find myself seriously considering asking for my misplaced childhood back again so as I can have a happy, rounded, jovial one in which I was never a helicopter who lived in constant fear of a protractor clutching dwarf.

But, given that I am usually being told I have a mental age of 12, it doesn't seem to matter much. I am cheerfully regressing.

And as for that diary thing what's the point if nobody else is allowed to read it? When you have a blog it's like a diary that you can impose it on anyone who is crazy enough to still be reading - well stay tuned for Chapter 2.


Friday, September 7, 2012

Love in the clouds, on the silver screen and written in the wind

My old friend Debbie from south of the border - and I don't mean Mexico, either - used my cloud image in her recently set up blog.

It was yet another day when tornadoes were threatening the Virginia Peninsula and my mood was in keeping with the threatening clouds I photographed. I was at an intersection; I snapped a shot with my cell phone and posted it to Facebook. I thought nothing more of it. I was feeling grouchy at the prospect of having to write another weather story. Nobody at my newspaper liked weather stories, with the exception of one colleague who I informally christened "Weather Williams," who ate them for lunch.

I didn't think a lot more about my grouchpgraph until Debbie later pointed out the word "love" spelled in gaps in the clouds. To be honest, I couldn't see it. Maybe I'm not good at seeing love in everyday situations. When you are a journalist you get to thrive on hate in the same was as you need a caffeine fix.

"I hate journalists," one of my favorite poets William Butler Yeats once commented. "There is nothing in them but tittering jeering emptiness. They have all made what Dante calls the Great Refusal. The shallowest people on the ridge of the earth.”

I don't really agree with WB on this one. I find journalists are some of the deepest people on the ridge of the earth. But they are also apt to seek out conspiracy theories and deny the very existence of love be it in the clouds, the natural world or in those around us.

But to be empirical about it you have to ask what is love? Although more songs and poems have been written about love than anything else, it remains an elusive concept.

Perhaps the most common definition of love come courtesy of Wet, Wet, Wet and the film this song was the soundtrack to - Four Weddings and a Funeral. It seems a long time now since Hugh Grant was unleashed on an unsuspecting public as a foppy haired idiot, who we were all a bit jealous of.  For a start the blabbering prat proved irresistible to Andie MacDowell and later Julia Roberts - although it still confounds me how a bookshop owner can afford a place in Notting Hill. Still these kind of films, shamelessly marketed at Americans to portray a mythical kind of Brit, were certainly successful. And the mushy old Wet, Wet, Wet love is still popular.

I took this recent posting from YouTube. "Me and my husband love this song. He told me, the first day he saw me, he was listening to this song. This is my favourite song so when he proposed to me, he played it in the background. He said this song reminded him of when he had his love at first site of me so it was right to have it playing when he was proposing to me. It was so cute and romantic. This song means so much to me, I love you Honey, I always will!!"

Well I'm all for love at first site - would that be the building site?

Of course bands have been writing songs about love long before this. All You Need is Love became a classic Beatles hit. They even hired an orchestra to make the point. Does Mick Jagger make a cameo apperance in this vid. or am I getting old and confused?

In this respect, the Beatles are wrong. There's no consensus about what constitutes the greatest love story ever told although many people are apt to mention Romeo and Juliet. In my opinion it's Doctor Zhivago because it has all the classic ingredients - passion, snow, longing, Communism and ultimately tragedy. If anyone tells you love is possible without a good sprinkling of Communism they clearly have no idea what they are talking about. Julie Christie sparkled in the classic David Lean film and yet for me a more recent TV adaptation felt more powerful. It starred a little known actress called Keira Knightly, with a face that launched a thousand crushes among my friends, the Helen of Troy allusion only serving to remind us love is as old as the rocks.

But the fact Dr. Zhivago is so powerful suggests love is at its most poignant when it is whisked away. If the beautiful people had decided all they needed was love, and small things like eating were unimportant they would have got increasingly annoyed with each other and familiarity would have bred contempt and perhaps cannibalism.

And what if love needs to have an edge and a dark unpredictability to move us. What is it has to be a second cousin to madness? U2 appeared to think to. Love certainly has an edge in this video - and he plays solo.


Or maybe love is worse still. Love is a war zone, and its more like Stalingrad than Grenada too, if you listen to Pat Benatar. I love this video. it's so rooted in the Eighties it makes me want to go out a bash away on a big, old Space Invaders arcade game. Pat's hairstyle is certainly row 2 alien.


Love is a creature of contradictions and it tends to be fleeting. After the death of his friend the poet Tennyson wrote: "Better to have loved and lost than never to have lost at all."

We all know what he really wanted to write is: "Love is a stranger in an open car. To tempt you in and drive you far away." And if he shows up with a sinister hand puppet, so much the better.

But perhaps for long lasting love we have to look to the clouds or those who have lovingly crafted buildings.

The Taj Mahal is seen as the world's most beautiful monument to devotion. It was built the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan  in memory of his third wife. That's not to say it's proof of his undying love. If it was wouldn't he have built it for her when she was alive? It's not clear what was wrong with the first two wives. Maybe the emperor fell out with them and honored them with dog kennels.

When Diana, Princess of Wales posed alone for photos in front of this famous mausoleum to love with her marriage to her husband on the rocks, the symbolism was fairly clear. Even cynical journalists could pick up on it.

But surely love isn't all quicksand. There must be some easy answers. We all know the city of love is Paris as opposed to Newark, New Jersey - at least if we gloss over the unfortunate period 1793 to 1794 when the Terror reigned and heads were tumbling from guillotines in every square. Paris is also the setting for perhaps one of the most accurate songs ever written about love, accurate because Howard Jones has questions but no answers.

I only need to watch this video to realize I left something behind in Paris - a very long time ago.


Monday, September 3, 2012

Close to the Madding Crowd in Dhaka

There are few feelings more invigorating than waking up in a strange new city. More than 20 years later I can still recall that first morning in Paris. The smell of the bakery and the delicate morning sun on the high ornate windows and the long shadows cast by the trees in the Jardin du Luxembourg with its flower beds and pretty little palace set in a lake.

There's a quiet energy about a city in the morning that fills me with excitement for the day ahead.

But what happens when cities grow out of control? When those carefully planned boulevards are cut up by shoddy constructions, when people and cars belching cheap exhaust and haphazard buses choke the streets?

Not many people in America have heard of Dhaka, but the capital of Bangladesh is the fastest growing city in the world. By 2025 it will house more than 20 million people, according to the UN. Dhaka is a vision of the future and not a very pleasant one.

"The future is here, and it smells like burning trash," CBS news reported. In the slums and shantytowns that disgorge filth into the foul rivers, residents will get hold of whatever garbage they can to fuel cooking fires. Dhaka is testimony to the fact that the world has turned a corner and more than 50 percent of its residents have flocked to cities.

And maybe if you have tried to make progress down a teeming sidewalk in Dhaka, you'll think fondly of those days being shoved up some one's arm pits on the Metro of New York or London.

The future is one of mega cities. " By 2025 the U.N. predicts that Delhi, Dhaka, Kolkata, Mumbai, Mexico City, New York, Sao Paulo and Shanghai will all have populations of more than 20 million. Tokyo is projected to become home to some 37 million," CBS reported.

Yet how many of us even know where all these cities are?

And ironically they may be the only hope of a salvation of sorts. In 1798 Thomas Malthus predicted overpopulation would lead to collapse. He wrote: "The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race."

But once in the slums, the birth rate tails off, giving the earth a chance to recover. At least that's how the argument goes, although it's little salvation for those who live in festering heat and filth. On a fairly regular basis I meet people in America who have no interest in third world poverty or its alleviation. And perhaps these stark statistics reveal they are correct not to care. There's a form of Darwinian natural selection going on that's beyond our control. Children rise out of the slums and go on to great things, but many others are mired in poverty for their whole lives.

But there's a difference between being correct and morally right. I'm not sure how you can spend an hour or two every Sunday listening to the New Testament mantra about compassion for your fellow man and woman, only to renounce all interest in the Third World. I'm not sure what Host of the Seraphim means exactly but I can never watch this video by Dead Can Dance without being deeply moved. It's not easy to watch. It's actually less painful to watch Benny Hill. Which is saying something.

Lost by the Sea

 A tiny tragedy in an ocean of sadness makes barely a ripple. Still, I was taken aback to receive an email from a former wife (the one I nev...