Threshold events: The British press and the Paris attacks

As part of their rolling coverage of the horrific atrocities in Paris, the Guardian has published on its website a collection of newspaper front page responses from both the UK and France. This is, of course, a standard enough practice for many news organisations in the wake of significant world events—whether they be positive or, in this case, staggeringly negative—but there’s something about seeing these responses side-by-side that I find peculiarly troubling. And that’s that not one of the British newspapers has decided to forgo the inclusion of either product advertisements or ‘sneak peek’ hints at other (lighter) stories contained elsewhere in their publications.

From the French newspapers we’re soberly and emphatically informed of yesterday’s events: there’s nowhere to hide from the grim reality of it all, from the unutterable sadness and anger that such incidents inevitably produce. Indeed, what we see on the front pages of L’Équipe, Libération and Aujourd’hui en France today is a depressing reminder of that which we saw, previously, on the front pages of the British newspapers in the wake of 7/7: full-page images, unadorned headlines, a single, baleful story.

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This would seem to me to be an appropriate strategy, a responsible (enough) way of responding to a traumatic event that exceeds immediate response. Yet what we find on the front pages of the British newspapers on the morning of November 14 is something altogether different: a jarring hotchpotch of the barbaric and the banal, the hideous and the downright fucking fatuous.

Here, for example, is an early edition of this morning’s Daily Mirror front page, which combines the Paris massacre with I’m a Celebrity … Get me Out of Here and Jeremy Clarkson’s racist ‘steak row’.

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Impressively, the ‘Newspaper of Year’ also manages to make it seem as if the Paris attacks are a direct response to the death of ‘Jihadi John’, a causal impossibility made real through an adroit use of imagery and narrativising language (‘Shooting & bombs after …’, ‘Wave of revenge terror.’). Simplicity sells: Clarkson’s a racist, and—’Nurse! The screens!’—I think I’ve come down with jungle fever.

In fact, I must have done, since the Sun helpfully diagnoses me with the selfsame malady.

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The Sun’s ‘new-look’ TV mag also features a ‘new-look’ Ant and Dec, the pair having lost their Crusoe-fros somewhere in transit. But at least they still sit atop the same pared-down narrative and image of atrocity. At least there’s still that.

Bizarrely, Ant and Dec don’t feature on the front page of the Times (which, incidentally, is another ‘Newspaper of the Year’), but we do instead get the happy news that The Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain has written some recipes in a 124-page food magazine.

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The winner of Bake Off, some dessert recipes and an unspeakable massacre in Paris: the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. It’s just so entirely bewildering.

Still, at least no one’s advertising luxury Cartier watches.

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Oh.

Really, though, it’s the Guardian itself that wins the postmodern collage bullshit award, with a front page of genuinely impressive scope and ambition.

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This is a concatenation of sentences that wouldn’t be out of place on The Day Today, and the distressing thing is that each of these sentences must have come about through a series of conscious editorial decisions. Someone somewhere in the Guardian head office decided to run the story of the Paris massacre alongside glimpses of an interview with Captain Mainwaring actor Toby Jones, a cookery article featuring (another) Bake Off star, Ruby Tandoh, and a lifestyle piece about living with big breasts. And the effect of this miscellany is just unspeakably strange.

Now, none of this is to say that newspaper front pages should simply and sombrely state the biggest news story of each day, and nor is it even to suggest that the Paris massacre is necessarily more ‘important’ that other mindless atrocities from around the world (many of which, of course, we never even hear of). But it is to note that somewhere in the journalistic ether there must be a critical tipping point of sorts, an impact-factor threshold where a story becomes bigger than the publication that delivers it, where an event trumps even formatting and the lure of advertising cash.

Inevitably, this threshold is culturally, politically and linguistically situated, and will change from country to country, newspaper to newspaper. The point at which a story sells newspapers regardless of associated content is never static. 9/11 crossed this threshold in the British press, as did 7/7. But for one reason or another, the Paris massacre failed to do so, and what we’re left with is an event of unimaginable horror presented cheek by jowl with bubblegum nonsense, and this feels like a deep cultural failing, a flattening of both atrocity and inanity into cut-and-paste, switchable images.

Or as Ivan Vladislavic phrases it better than I ever could do in his 1994 novel The Folly:

The box brought nothing but unrest and disorder, faction fights and massacres, even blood-baths, high pressure systems and cold fronts, situation comedies and real-life dramas, hijackings, coups, interviews with VIPs, royal weddings, exposés, scandals, scoops, conspicuous consumptions, white-collar crimes, blue-collar detergents, epidemics, economic indicators, peace talks, heart-warming instances of bravery and kindness to strangers, advertisements for dogfoods and requests for donations. Each new atrocity struck Mrs like a blow, and she thrashed about in the La-Z-Boy like a political prisoner.

And don’t forget: the new series of IACGMOOH starts Sunday November 15 at 9 pm.

Wake(y) Wake(y)

It’s been far too long since I wrote anything on here. But now that my brain has started producing such high-grade academic horseshit I think it might be time to opt for some words with fewer syllables—even if these shorter words are used up mostly in describing the horror of the longer ones.

I’m writing a chapter on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake at the moment, and writing about ‘the’ Wake when you’re not a fulltime Joyce scholar is a frightening experience. The book is astonishingly good, of course, and worthy of the praise it receives, but I can quite understand the opprobrium too. A critic called Ruben Borg says somewhere that ‘the’ Wake teaches you that there are books you still need to learn to read, and that’s exactly what it feels like. I spend much of my time just stumbling about from word to word, like a drunk looking for his keys, and every time I think I’m getting somewhere close to unlocking a phrase, a sentence, a passage, I discover it’s just the change in my pockets, jingling about and confusing things.

The real absurdity, though, is that it can only be a single chapter. People spend their entire lives reading this bloody book, and I somehow need to say something interesting (perhaps even original) about it over the course of what really amounts to just 7 or 8 months. And having recently screeded several thousand words about the meaning of just one, it seems that this is a task with an unlikely and unknowable end, a bit like Finnegans Wake itself.

I do already have a contingency plan though. Should I be fortunate enough to make it to my viva exam and be unfortunate enough to be asked a question on this chapter, I’m just going to filibuster my way through and then knock up a homemade degree certificate on a passing Etch A Sketch. Ta da!

Twittertone

My relationship with Twitter began about two years ago when I was offered a prospective fortnightly column in TimeOut Hong Kong writing a series of 24-hour ‘tweet diaries’ about special events or daily life in the city. Not knowing anything about the medium I thought it best to sign up and get used to the thing, so I created a username, uploaded a picture and started writing infrequent updates about my mundane existence. The audience for these tweets generally consisted of a few friends who I knew used the service, various maniacal twitterers with upwards of fifty-thousand ‘follows’, and the odd pornography bot spouting on about butt-plugs and bargain-basement buggery. I think I lasted all of two weeks before the inanity of what I was doing struck me and I bailed out.

Recently though, in an ineffective bid to increase the readership of this blog (which wavers somewhere between nothing and barely anything on most days), I set up another Twitter account and started the whole sorry process again. Of course, nothing had really changed in the interim, other than slightly less people I knew were on it, and there seemed to be inordinately more sex-bots prowling the site in search of hapless sweaty clickers. I followed a few people of interest, was followed myself largely by marketing folks selling shit out of cardboard boxes, and idled away a few hours sending the odd tweet, chatting to friends and replying to or retweeting tweets which were funny or interesting, or both. But now I feel pretty much back to where I was just under two years ago, when I decided Twitter was pointless.

Having said all this, if you follow the right people, you can be directed to some very interesting articles, videos or online projects which you might otherwise have missed. It was through Twitter, for example, that I discovered the Top Documentary Films website, which has a collection of thousands of watchable documentary series available online; the Topsoil website, which is a sort of writing collective working towards equality and solidarity; and a fellow called David Kozin, who is looking to research a medical condition close to my heart known as HPPD. So clearly there are resources to be found if you look in the right places.

My main problem with the site, however, is that it seems largely to be populated (outside of the marketing folk and sex-bots) by people feverishly writing acerbic or witty one-liners about nothing at all. And more often than not, they’re not very good at it. In fact, most of the people I follow (which is probably where I’m going wrong), spend all day every day harping on about bugger-all in a certain withering tone of satire, farce, aggression and ‘oh my god I’d better write something’ desperation. Some of them make me smile, some don’t. All of them whiff faintly of futility.

None of this should be read as an end to my Twitter revisitation though. I think I just need to recalibrate my expectations, organise my feed a little better (by cutting the nitwits), and use Twitter for what it is evidently good at: exchanging information, disseminating knowledge and cultivating ideas (some of which can of course be acerbic and witty). Graham Linehan is perhaps best of all at striking this balance.

Whether I’ll write anything myself or simply use it as a dynamic resource for information is of very little consequence. With no followers or method for acquiring followers I may as well shout my opinions into an empty beancan.

Funny, huh?

Incidentally, my TimeOut ‘tweet diaries’ never got past the initial submission, which I blame solely on the format.

Juvenilia: 16th September 1996

On their 6music radio show some time last year Adam and Joe asked listeners to send in stories and poems which were penned during childhood. These efforts—dubbed “Juvenilia”—were then read out and generally marvelled at due to their ingenuity and inventiveness. Some of my favourites were a book of poetry called “Say it with Snails”, an Arnold Schwarzenegger magazine, and a mildly racist comic strip called “Judge Fred”. I think they put some of them up on their website.

Anyway, I say this by way of introduction to my own little piece of recently discovered juvenilia, “Escape from Fort-Socks”—a swashbuckling adventure yarn committed to paper by the fresh-faced 11-year-old boy that I once was. Remarkably, the (unedited) extract below is only 1/5 of the total story, and as far as I can make out, serves as the introductory chapter to the tale at large. I can still vaguely recall writing the thing, although my (slightly worrying) logic for calling the protagonist “Beer Garden” currently escapes me.

It seems I wasn’t much of a speller, and I appear to take a pretty cavalier attitude to grammar much of the time too (particularly in the final paragraph, which descends into a blitz of Joycean experimentation) …

Escape from Fort-Socks (extract)

It was a dark misty night, search lights scoured the pale, green grass at a rapid speed. Fort Socks is a high security jail in Dunstable. Down in the celler there are four brave men and their leader is the man called Beer Garden. Beer Garden is a brave warrior and will stop at nothing to get the plans back to Slinsil. There are two countries seperated by a river, Krasnir and Slinsil. Krasnir is planning on attacking Slinsil and the’ve sent the spies to see were there going to attack.

The other four men are extremely brave. there is Boxer who only has a blunt battle axe, but he has a magic bottle which only Beer Garden can use on Boxer because Boxers arms are to short to reach. He is knicknamed Boxer because he always wears a cardboard box so his arms can’t reach his weapons.

Suddenly they heard a click they all drew there weapons and darted to the door, the door opened, Crossbones switched on his automatic drill and his electric ball and chain. The others stepped back. Crossbones is a right hard nut and never gives up, his ball and chain had reached maximum speed of 909 mph. A guard opened the door. The ball and chain hit him on the armour and he flew through the air at a great speed and landed in the cat food bowl (knocked out). He shut the door and they got back to looking at the plans. Stretcharmstrong is a wizard, he is the main spy of the group he can stech to 19 metres 33 cm. He can turn evil people into stone but it only works for five minutes and it doesn’t work near water. He can turn invisible which is a great help.

Last of all there is Lollyman he is very quick on his feet but gets tired easily he has a little helper called Harry the hamster who is always there to help. Harry holds a missile launcher which fires hamster nuts, which helps alot. The cellar was dark and a musty smell filled the air. Harry was nibbleling on a piece of cheese in the corner when suddenly his fur stood up on end and he squeked. The walls rumbled and ten or so door ways appeared. Ten armoured men appeared all with a gleaming sword (the size of LollyMan). They surrounded the spies like wolves around a rabbit, nobody moved. “Get them” shrieked one of the guards they all charged and before the spies could move they were tied up with balls and chains on there feet. They were taken to the dungeon. Bread and water were slid under the door a strange man was sitting in the corner we tried to speak to him but he wouldn’t talk he was really getting on our nerves Crossbones went over to him and stared into his eyes he stared back and all of a sudden he slowly began to fade away slowly but surely he went until only one of his broken shoes was left on his bunk bed. “This is getting very, very weird and Lollyman and the rest of us fell asleep and only the gentle sound of snoring could be heard coming from the dungeon.

(Possibly) to be continued …

Greater progressive change

Given my long-distance relationship with UK politics—which, to be honest, has not been greatly affected by geographical distance—the upcoming general election in Great Britain would have pretty much passed me by were it not for the the Guardian plastering it all over their website like it actually meant something.

Apathy aside though, it’s worth taking a quick, virtual flick through the Labour manifesto when you get a moment. Never have so many words said so little.

“This is a Manifesto about the greater progressive change we need because of the tougher times we are living through.”

Nice one, language!

Read the Labour manifesto in full

It’s ‘buck naked’, you idiot!

For anyone else beset with near-debilitating levels of pedantry and grammar-induced obsessive compulsive disorder, this website has a pretty hefty list of wrongs, rights, dos and don’ts to wade through at your leisure:

Common errors in English usage

I’d like to meet the person who took the time to compile such a useful resource, but they’re probably locked in the their own house, too scared to leave in case they leave the cooker on by mistake.