Posts by Cheryll Barron

Does copyright law turn art into commodities? part 2: copying China, here, is hardly the right road to take

‘Nonna’s teacups’ – the original (below, by MIL22) displays the Chinese colour sense, something missing from this uncomprehending adaptation

‘Nonna’s teacups’ – the original (below, by MIL22) displays the Chinese colour sense, something missing from this uncomprehending adaptation

chinese cups disarranged 22luckyseeds 9287353120_2a9a94b6cc_b

Surely America, supremely the land of individualists, is the most unlikely destroyer of copyright?

In the home of Thoreau, Walden Pond’s immortal hermit; of Gertrude Stein, so original that she revelled in her incomprehensibility – also the country that reveres the hard act to follow of a Janis Joplin flaring up, dying young, and leaving behind an inextinguishable brilliance – you might expect to read that copyright law is …

… concerned with the moral rights of authors, which are based on the author’s creative sense of self. Moral rights are the author’s right to protect his or her personal relationship with their work.

But no, those thoughts of a lawyer, Anna Spies, were published on an Australian website dedicated to discussions of intellectual property law. She was referring not to the American perspective on copyright, or the antipodean one, but to the historical view of ‘civil law countries in continental Europe.’

Today’s America — or certainly the one envisaged most enthusiastically by its youngest adults — apparently looks forward to adopting Chinese practices that do not, by long-established tradition, place any value on the shaping of work by a distinctive sensibility and the quirks in the exercise of a particular individual’s talent and skills.

This is not a little ironic. As post-Gutenberg’s last post showed, rich countries outside Asia have been showing scarcely any interest in digging down into the roots of Chinese culture and philosophy. Yet intelligent thinkers, with Americans in the lead, are making a case for replacing the glorification of creativity and originality that sparked and drove the Renaissance with deeply Chinese arguments in favour of wholesale imitation, extending to wide-ranging intellectual and commercial piracy. Last month, a Reuter’s blogger with a following among power-brokers was citing a respected scholarly journal when he rallied his fellow copyright opponents:

[L]ook at the Chinese YouTube, Youku, which is displacing television in large part because it has no copyright verification. As Chinese media companies evolve to take advantage of Youku, they will be much better placed to compete in the 21st Century than US companies which rely on copyright laws to keep consumers boxed in to increasingly-unnatural modes of consumption. […]

Chinese piracy also brings innovation within the grasp of a huge population of poorer Chinese, with long-term positive effects for all … [… from …] shanzhai — low-cost copies of items which would not be affordable otherwise.

Like so much else in China, the meaning of shanzhai is undergoing a drastic change. As The Wall Street Journal recently noted, “Once a term used to suggest something cheap or inferior, shanzhai now suggests to many a certain Chinese cleverness and ingenuity.” Indeed, Beijing seems to believe that shanzhai is something to cultivate. In 2009, an official from China’s National Copyright Administration declared that “shanzhai shows the cultural creativity of the common people.” He added, “It fits a market need and people like it”…

Might ‘Yay, shanzhai!’ … have replaced ‘The East is red!’ for sinophiles among those U.S. intellectuals bent on aligning themselves with the future? Anyone interested in reading the curious case for that in the blogger’s source, Foreign Affairs, is blocked by a paywall protecting …well, could you ever have guessed, copyright? This is so absurd, and what we have gleaned of Foreign Affairs’ endorsement of shanzhai so underwhelming, that we see no point in handing over $5. 

‘How the World Benefits from Chinese Piracy’ is the Reuters blogger’s title. Fine, bring it on … if – as he and some of his commenters (below his post) agree – the Chinese pirates’ targets are multinational pharmaceutical giants, or other obscenely profitable and dishonest corporations or business sectors. Unfortunately, it does not stop there, and both the Reuters blog and what we have gleaned of the Foreign Affairs essay fail to impress, for at least two reasons:

• Benjamin Franklin, the American founding father most admired for his inventiveness, is dragged in to sprinkle holy water on intellectual piracy because he ‘made a substantial sum from republishing the works of British authors without permission or payment.’ Surely that has to be reckoned as an act of aggression, not a feat of commercial genius? Franklin’s dislike of his transatlantic cousins is notorious. (See  ‘The fine and noble china vase, the British Empire …’ — or, for a contemporary perspective, ‘Ben Franklin Really Fucking Hated the British …’ in

•  Once again, it seems, the greed of monster corporations in the music business has been spotlighted to justify depriving, of even their token crusts, the majority of artists and musicians getting by on their equivalents of Grub Street.

Foreign Affairssummary of the essay says:

Traditional music labels have decried the copying of recorded music, arguing that it discourages the composition and performance of new music. According to the authors, that is simply not the case: it is the traditional business model of the labels that is under threat, not the production of music. And copyright was conceived to protect creative activity, not particular business models.

By now, this line of attack on copyright is not merely unconvincing but verges on lazy and boring. Why not pour the mental energy into finding ways to separate the needs of creative artists from the exploitation of copyright by large corporations selling copies of works of art?

The ‘author’s creative sense of self’ to which Anna Spies refers in the Australian blog post at the start of this entry encapsulates what we sensed about an outstanding friend of this blog, as we watched Crofters, a marvel of documentary film-making about a small crofting community in the Scottish Highlands, shot in 1945.

Screenshots from the film ‘Crofters’ (1945) about everyday life in Achriesgill. Seated woman (below) is polishing an oil lamp, her source of night light. Director: Ralph Keene. National Library of Scotland.

Screenshots from the film ‘Crofters’ (1945) about everyday life in Achriesgill. Seated woman (below) is polishing an oil lamp, her source of night light. Director: Ralph Keene. National Library of Scotland.

Screenshots from the film +++Crofters+++(1945) about everyday life in Achriesgill. The seated woman is polishing an oil lamp, her source of night light. Director: Ralph Keene. National Library of Scotland.

Writing movingly about losing his mother, Agnes, in May, John Logan (or, to avert Google-fusion, John A. A. Logan) said on the Authors Electric  site that she was ‘the best person I ever knew’. She is the smallest girl in the party of schoolchildren following their teacher in our still photograph (above) and, her son has told post-Gutenberg, gave his work her enthusiastic, unqualified, unstinting support.

Listening to the lovely concision in the language of folk in Achriesgill, where she lived at that age, you realize that you have heard their echoes in the dialogue in John’s finest short stories, of which we have featured samples, here. In the film, someone is heard speculating about the destination of Nurse McKay, also the local midwife: ‘I wonder, now, where will it be she’s off to in her wee car this morning?’ A female voiceover, in footage of a woman cleaning a lamp: ‘I wonder, now, when will we get the electricity that there’s been so much talking about?’

The anti-copyright crowd insists that all art is ‘remix’ or ‘mashup’ trickery – a bizarre and anachronistic re-definition based on capacities for simulating artistic creation that were impossible before we were given today’s technological equipment. The words of long-dead artists are misconstrued for credibility (of the inattentive):

Although remix has always been an aspect of human culture the phenomenon takes on more significance in the digital age, because of the ease with which a creator of a new cultural artifact can “steal” to use the term from Stravinsky’s observation that all composers steal and the great composers steal the most. Music, text and images are easily transferred from one digital device to another especially because of the Internet which allows this phenomenon to take place on a global scale.

This remix culture means, apparently, that no artist deserves to expect to make anything like a living from his art (a subject that goes unmentioned in the movement’s manifestoes). But, like John’s, any work of literature or art is both saturated with and dictated by family and place – or their rejection; with psychological inheritances and consequences – indistinguishable, in other words, from personal experience and individuality.

It is from studying the techniques of artistic forebears that most arts workers learn how to shape this raw material, which bears the stamp of its influences. That is not the same as puffed up cut-and-paste exercises or shameless copying. Both the ability and opportunity to make use of gifts of personal history and talent are almost always hard-earned – or, as so many biographies testify, when seemingly effortless, can extract the steep price in misfortune that often follows success.

There are Chinese cultural traditions worthy of surpassing respect and even imitation. Why conflate bringing consumer goods — manufactured commodities — and prescription drugs within the reach of poor Chinese, with rights of artistic ownership, depriving all artists of the means to earn the occasional soupçon of calories – if not, as the internet pioneer Jaron Lanier insists, the chance to grow rich?

Why not distinguish between copyright protection for individual creators and corporations hawking the fruits of creativity? Why not help to make micropayments for artists routine — as unremarkable as online shopping? (See: ‘Do we need a campaign for micropayments to support “lyric perception”?’)

Who’s afraid of getting intimate with Chinese philosophy and world views? Nearly everyone Western, apparently

Traditional wooden Chinese lunch box. A far grander bronze cauldron is anciently symbolic of civilisation -- cultural and spiritual nourishment - photograph by

Traditional wooden Chinese lunch box. A far grander bronze cauldron is anciently symbolic of civilisation — cultural and spiritual nourishment
- photograph by

The ting (cauldron), cast of bronze, was the vessel that held the cooked viands in the temple of the ancestors and at banquets [… and … ] refers to the cultural superstructure of society.

- oracular philosophy in the I Ching (3000-2000 BCE); trans.: Richard Wilhelm (Chinese to German); Cary Baynes (German to English)

If a rival for economic and military supremacy is always potentially a foe, could a diluted version of the old adage, ‘Know your enemy’ – from Sun Tzu’s 6th century BCE classic, The Art of War — still be sensible advice to follow?

Obviously, yes.

So you — or certainly anyone paying attention to world affairs – might suppose. Bizarrely, though, adults in the West seem to be leaving the job of understanding China to future generations, starting with the one in junior schools today. In an interview seven years ago with America’s National Public Radio, a headmaster of a British public school and biographer of two recent prime ministers said, ‘I think, within 10 years we need to have as many children in Britain learning Mandarin as are currently learning French.’

But what if one of those little brows perspiring over her ideograms was a grandchild of, say, Dennis Overbye, the fizzing, often very funny, New York Times science writer? In a brief aside in his column yesterday, sketching the big questions now perplexing physicists – every bit as much as they have for the entire history of philosophy and science — he asked:

The latest cosmological wrinkle is dark energy, which is speeding up the flight of galaxies from one another. And the great question is whether this dark energy is going to suck the light and energy out of the universe so completely that some day billions of years from now nothing is left: no memory even of Homer, Jesus, Mozart, Elvis or Nelson Mandela, not to mention the rest of us.

Especially as a light-hearted throwaway remark, that was proof of stunningly unconscious and blinkered Eurocentricity, never mind his token tossing-in of Mandela — or any pedant who cares to bark that Christianity’s founder was Middle-Eastern. If Overbye were to insist to a school-going relation of his that a C+ grade in Mandarin was simply not good enough, there could hardly be a more discouraging example of the admonitory, ‘… not as I do, but as I say.’

If members of the intelligentsia were paying proper attention, Chinese Dreams, a revelatory short book or long essay by the Indo-American writer Anand Giridharadas – whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times – would have been reviewed within an inch of its life by every high-profile current affairs publication in the English language, for a start.

It should have made no difference that Chinese Dreams – containing critical information distilled from a series of interviews with mostly young Chinese thinkers in the urban elite, ranging from academics to entrepreneurs – was self-published two years ago exclusively as a post-print e-book. As scores of reviews on the Amazon sites testify, though it is acutely disturbing, in parts — because of its implications for philosophical principles the West holds most sacred – it is a completely engaging fast, lively read that slips down as easily as dim-sum prawn dumplings.

Large, mainstream Western publishers have long shrunk from publishing books that delve into the roots of Chinese and Indian cultural traditions and perspectives – claiming that their readers have no interest in these, so perpetuating, if not setting up, a circle of willed ignorance. In no general-interest publication has post-Gutenberg heard from Chinese voices like the ones Giridharadas coaxed into his recording device.

A sample, from post-Gutenberg’s Kindle ‘notes and marks’:

Eric X. Li is a successful and well-connected venture capitalist in Shanghai. He was once a believer in the American Dream, he now wants to help create a Chinese Dream all its own.


While Westerners focus on how China has failed to measure up to Western principles – for example, its resistance of democracy or the capriciousness of its legal system – Li believes that China is inventing ‘an alternative set of organizing principles for human affairs that are fundamentally different – not in opposition – but fundamentally different from what the world has been looking to the West for in the last three-four hundred years.’


[T]he ideas of Li’s circle are now referred to as the ‘Beijing Consensus’ in some quarters, to rival the Washington one, and are, at the least, taken seriously in some of the countries that have struggled to implement Western political and economic formulas in contexts very different from the West’s.


These were the four core principles I was able to glean from Li, Jin, Rao, and others.

1. Individualism isn’t universal.

[…] The West … does not understand societies – for example, Iraq – where tribal or sectarian or neighbourhood loyalties overwhelm simple individualism. […I] n Li’s view, China has, at a minimum, shown the world something new: that a large society can be successful and bring peace and prosperity to its people without an understanding of the individual derived from the European Enlightenment. […]

2. Pragmatism over abstraction.

… [A]s the members of this circle view it, it is China that lives by pragmatism as a way of life and the West that believes, and is defined by a belief, in abstract, universally applicable truths.

In reality, of course, no one has a monopoly on either pragmatism or principle. But it can be observed that the culture of China, like that of India, is generally less comfortable with the kind of sweeping, true-in-all-cases ideology of the kind you find in the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. ‘Our framework is more down to earth,’ said Fu, the political scientist. ‘We lack metaphysics. We are not interested in idea-based searches. We practice first.’ [...]

3. Meritocracy over democracy.

[...] The members of Li’s circle are also seeking to revitalize the Confucian idea of meritocracy over democracy as the fount of political legitimacy. ‘Americans believe in election; the Chinese, if I simplify, believe in selection,’ said Zhang Wei-Wei, an international relations scholar who divides his time between Geneva and Beijing and once served as a translator for Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who opened China’s doors to the world in 1978. [...]

4. Representing the future.

… China’s senior leadership, for all its other faults, has struck a healthier balance between the country’s short- and long-term interests than many Western democracies


China’s relationship with the environment … is on the one hand, ravaging the planet … It should be excused, its leaders say, because they have to secure economic growth for its people. But China has also pivoted more speedily than many democracies toward building a renewable energy industry – something for which the short-term payoff is minimal, as Western politicians know, but the long-term societal benefits potentially massive.

… and to fill in the gaps and glean everything else Giridharadas’s book has to say, we suggest a quick hop over here, after which we hope readers will ask: why haven’t I read about any of this in – The New York Times? The Economist, … ?

[ For the record: no, post-Gutenberg does not know this author, and we have no acquaintances in common, as far as we know … ]

Does copyright law turn art into commodities? part 1: an answer with help from Albrecht Dürer, ARTICLE19, Salman Rushdie and Anthony Storr

Artists who can control copying with copyright have more creative freedom - photograph by

Artists who can control copying with copyright have more creative freedom
- photograph by

Albrecht Dürer: self-portrait, aged 13

Albrecht Dürer: self-portrait, aged 13

How does newness enter the world?

Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie, 2012

Dear Copyright-Haters,

How about picketing Tupperware?  Yes, … we are perfectly serious. Imagine the Facebook updates of yourselves holding giant sock-it-to-‘em placards shouting, ‘STOP COMMODIFICATION NOW!’ … What’s that? … Right. How, you ask, would you store your left-over microwaveable meals in this post-cooking age without plastic boxes so much alike that, even with brand names, they are virtual commodities? You could try porcelain bowls covered with plates or tin foil for an alternative – but no, you say, no one does that any more … muttering to yourselves, inaudibly, ‘Idiot!

We’ve been hearing that you hate commodification. After last week’s post with Jaron Lanier warning about the consequences for other professions of destroying artists’ rights to control the use of their work, a friend emailed us to say that enemies of copyright are not playing Scrooge when you refuse to contribute even micropayments to enjoy art. (Most of you agree merrily with, eg., the blithe prediction by the editor of Wired: ‘ I think most music will soon be free, …’).

The problem, this friend explained, is that you fear the commodification of the arts. We have heard similar thoughts expressed as, more or less, this: ‘Why should a musician get to charge every time he or she sells a replica of a single performance on cheap plastic CDs over and over again – and get obscenely rich from the proceeds, in some cases?’ Well. Just as a thought experiment, how about putting music CDs lower down on your hit list and starting with obvious horrors – those containers made of processed petroleum, clogging landfill in their millions? One day last month, Tupperware’s share price went rocketing into the heavens – hitting ‘a new 52-week high,’ we noticed. Now, that’s encouragement for commodification!

Why pick on artists instead of finding some way to hijack the profits from  (comparatively) mindless replication elsewhere? The new digital technologies were supposed to relieve some of the pain and hardship behind the centuries-old ‘starving artist’ cliché. They introduced the possibility of financial independence for more artists than ever before — linked to their ability to control how they work, and own the results. By, for instance, recording and distributing their own musical performances; or publishing or exhibiting their e-books, paintings, sculpture, and so on.

On the blog of The New York Review of Books, there is a perfect example from medieval Europe of an artist using new technology as an aid and spur to artistic independence, creativity and an evolutionary leap in drawing and painting. About the sublime German, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), whom the Wikipedia reasonably pegs as ‘the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance,’ the NYRB blogger Andrew Butterfield writes:

Dürer was perhaps the first artist in history to work primarily at his own direction, rather than on commission and at the pleasure of princes and other exigent patrons. The change was made possible by his concentration on printmaking rather than painting as his main artistic and commercial endeavor. Most paintings of this time, such as altarpieces, were made for well-established religious or civic purposes, and the patrons and other viewers had specific needs and strong expectations regarding both what was depicted and how it was represented. But printmaking was a completely new medium, little beholden to tradition. Even when treating Biblical themes, Dürer was comparatively free to pursue a more personal investigation of subject matter.

The painters of Dürer’s time who specialised in portraiture worked like – shall we say, analogue precursors of photo-editing software, who did all the retouching in the act of image-creation rather than after it. The most talented of them could grow rich themselves by following the conventions for flattering their powerful, wealthy subjects in oils – but with their creativity as constrained as the ‘lotus feet’ tortured into existence by foot-binding. Printmaking allowed Dürer  to flout those rules to develop an entirely new, realistic style in portraiture:

Typically portraiture was honorific and meant to represent the exemplary virtues of the person shown; Dürer instead often sought to capture the idiosyncratic and psychological characteristics of the people he portrayed. He was fascinated with the close scrutiny of dark and brooding emotion.

The Wikipedia explains the effect of his independence:

Dürer exerted a huge influence on the artists of succeeding generations, especially in printmaking, the medium through which his contemporaries mostly experienced his art, as his paintings were predominately in private collections located in only a few cities. His success in spreading his reputation across Europe through prints were undoubtedly an inspiration for major artists such as Raphael, Titian, and Parmigianino, all of whom collaborated with printmakers in order to promote and distribute their work.

Copyright laws were one invention that accompanied the replication that the printing press and printmaking introduced. Before reproducibility could be taken for granted, only the wealthy could afford to adorn their walls with the work of painters; after it, peasants could have their own woodcuts of saints and angels.

This makes your association of copyright with elitism, o copyright-smashers – and your attempts to cast artistic ownership as stifling or destructive of creativity — alarmingly batty, to say the least.

ARTICLE19’s excellent prescriptions for bloggers’ rights — putting them on a par with those of professional journalists — were recently the subject of a post in this spot. This same organisation has also made thoughtful recommendations for the evolution of copyright laws in another paper. Perfectly in keeping with what copyright allowed Durer to do, this document says:

Freedom of expression and copyright are complementary inasmuch as the purpose of copyright is the promotion of literary, musical and artistic creativity, the enrichment of cultural heritage and the dissemination of knowledge and information goods to the general public.

Some of us can only pray that protecting copyright as its rules are revised for the digital age will free arts workers from paymasters. From the domain of musical composition, the psychologist Anthony Storr offers in The Dynamics of Creation (1972) an elegant example of what financial dependence costs creativity:

Some very good music has been written for film … but the limitations imposed by having to tie the music strictly to the action means that the composer cannot choose for himself a vital dimension of the composition, its length. Most composers, therefore, rate film music as ‘incidental’ music, and separate it sharply from original compositions which truly reflect their own creative personality.

… In the last few days, we have learnt from Salman Rushdie’s riveting autobiography, Joseph Anton, about ARTICLE19’s crucial support in his years of enforced hiding from assassins trying to carry out his death sentence, the Iranian fatwa. Curiosity about this organisation’s backers led us to discover that these include Britain’s Foreign Office, the Department for International Aid (DFID) / UKAID, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Commission, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Open Society Institute (OSI), the Ford Foundation, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and in Silicon Valley, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

That was a real comfort – knowing of the existence of an organisation with international financing that advocates both blogging as a form of free speech and copyright protection.

Now about your Tupperware march …

… over to you,


Jaron Lanier, a web pioneer, recants the ‘information-wants-to-be-free’ doctrine: parallel thinking about rescuing ‘the creative class’

The clay will be wet for a long time yet in the digital revolution

The clay will be wet for a long time yet in the digital revolution

unfinished spools

Why are the dreadlocks of the computer scientist Jaron Lanier a 21st-century counterpart of 1960s bra-burning (or rumours thereof) by women desperately seeking justice for women?

Because a snaky Medusa hairdo can help to draw attention to a cause whose importance too many people fail to understand.

Lanier’s super-hairy look long preceded his campaign of the moment: he wants remedies for the internet’s decimation of the ability of musicians, one tribe to which he belongs, to earn a living. By empathetic extension, he is just as worried about what the net has done to the livelihoods of artists, writers, and the rest of their unworldly kin. Like Carl Djerassi — the chemist and birth-control inventor recently mentioned on post-Gutenberg – his unusual creativity spanning art and technology has taught him how much arts-workers need the help of practical scientists.

Why should other non-artists care? Because, as he warns shrewdly – and, we suspect, accurately – without defensive action, the net could prove just as destructive to other professions, including some too smug to see themselves ever sharing the insecurity of the traditionally bohemian occupations.

Summarising the new Lanier book, Who Owns the Future, on the blog of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Eric Allen Been says in his introduction to an interview with the author:

[I]t places particular emphasis on the ways digital technology has unsettled the so-called “creative class” — journalists, musicians, photographers, and the like. As he sees it, the tribulations of those working in such fields may be a premonition for the middle class as a whole. It’s “urgent,” he writes, “to determine if the felling of creative-class careers was an anomaly or an early warning of what is to happen to immeasurably more middle-class jobs later in this century.”

Particularly welcome is a grand mea culpa from Lanier – in which he offers artists the best possible defence against all those technologists bent on depriving them of the protection of copyright. In January, the Smithsonian magazine recorded his appalled witnessing of some tragic effects of removing that shield in the music world:

[A]ll of a sudden there was this weekly ritual, sometimes even daily: ‘Oh, we need to organize a benefit because so and so who’d been a manager of this big studio that closed its doors has cancer and doesn’t have insurance. We need to raise money so he can have his operation.’

And I realized this was a hopeless, stupid design of society and that it was our fault.

His confession to his Nieman interviewer was a model of forthrightness:

Eric Allen Been: You were one of the early advocates of the notion that “information wants to be free.” […] Could you talk a little bit about why you changed your mind […]?

Jaron Lanier: Sure. It was based on empirical results. The idea sounded wonderful 30 years ago. It sounded wonderful in the way that perfect libertarianism or perfect socialism can. […] Empirically, […] there is an absurdity to the way it’s going.

Or, as he put it to Salon:

If you go way back I was one of the people who started the whole music-should-be-free thing. You can find the fire-breathing essays where I was trying to articulate the thing that’s now the orthodoxy. Oh, we should free ourselves from the labels and the middleman and this will be better.

I believed it at the time because it sounds better, it really does. I know a lot of these musicians, and I could see that it wasn’t actually working. I think fundamentally you have to be an empiricist. I just saw that in the real lives I know — both older and younger people coming up — I just saw that it was not as good as what it had once been. So that there must be something wrong with our theory, as good as it sounded.

Like the most inventive thinkers, he knows that many of the best ideas in any sphere have a long trail of discarded bad ideas behind them – and he might have been shaped by Samuel Beckett’s famous advice in Worstward Ho: ‘No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

So, how does he think can we stop the damage from the information-wants-to-be-free – ‘freemium’ – movement?

Been: […] [A] lot of what you’re proposing strikes me, in some senses, as a freelance economy.

Lanier: That’s right. What I’m proposing is actually a freelance economy, but it’s a freelance economy where freelancing earns you not just income but also wealth. That’s an important distinction to make. What I think should happen is as you start providing information to the network, it then will become a part of other services that grow over time.

So, for instance, let’s suppose you translate between languages, and some of your translations provide example phrase translations that are used in automatic translators. You would keep getting dribbles of royalties from having done that, and you start accumulating a lot of little ways that you’re getting royalties — not in the sense of contractual royalties, just little payments from people that are doing things that benefited from information you provided. […] What should happen is you should start accumulating wealth, some money that shows up because of your past as well as your present moment.

Been: So if I simply shared a link to a New York Times article on Twitter, for instance, would there be a payment exchange? If so, who would it go to?

Lanier: It would be person-to-person payments. Right now, we’re used to a system where you earn money in blocks, like a salary check, and you’re spending on little things like coffee of something. And in this system, you’d be earning lots of little micropayments all the time.

Ah, micropayments. … Lanier is singing in the same key as post-Gutenberg was in March of last year, in our entry titled, ‘Do we need a campaign for micropayments to support lyric perception?

Because Lanier’s cross-cultural sympathy so perfectly confirms our speculation in that mini-post – that artistic copyright could be saved by growing numbers of amateurs beginning to use the freedom of the net to start selling art themselves – we hope to be indulged in this re-blogging:

photograph by MIL22

photograph by MIL22

As more writers and artists without formal qualifications but with undeniable gifts find audiences for their work on the net, will micropayments finally take off?

By micropayments I mean fractions of euros or dollars – or their equivalent – paid through a transactional service like Kachingle or Flattr to look at an image or video, read a text, or listen to a musical performance or composition. These are payments so minuscule that they barely register with our pocketbooks, but do earn their creators some measurable income in the aggregate.

Popular writers and artists would still far out-earn rivals who cater to more specialised tastes, but some of those appreciated by smaller audiences might be able to retain more of the earnings that they must give away, at present, to middlemen they cannot really afford to pay at all – intermediaries who rarely have the time or inclination to spend much time promoting their work.

So far, so-called Millennials – the generation in their twenties and early thirties now shaping our experience of the net — have shown little enthusiasm for micro-transactions. Their complaints about feeling cheated by corporate middlemen in the music business, when obliged to pay for the pleasure of ‘sharing’ a song, are not completely incomprehensible.

But why are they so unenthusiastic about experimenting with micropayments — direct transactions between buyers and sellers?

Many ardent campaigners for the so-called ‘Freemium’ economy willingly pay small ransoms for the latest gadgets – even when these are only minor improvements or enhancements of last year’s versions, and are designed to fatten the profits of the hated capitalists. Few of them learn to cook simple meals from scratch: they are happy to pay huge mark-ups for bland microwaveable fare cooked and packaged by giant corporations, or to patronise fast-food chains.

Why is it seemingly only art that turns them into Scrooges?

If more Millennials come to see themselves as artists, writers and musicians in years to come – using the democratic new publishing tools – will they become less unsympathetic?

The message from ‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ about blogging’s future status is encouraging. As for its transformation of computer (in)security – bah!

One lovely child of flawed software: poster in an office of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Bern,

One lovely child of flawed software:
poster in an office of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Bern,

Seven years ago, Elinor Ostrom — a winner of the 2009 Nobel prize for economics — cited an article on computer unreliability in a paper on knowledge-sharing that she wrote with Charlotte Hess. The angry essay they mentioned ran in late 2000 in an e-zine, the online magazine Salon. Their thirty-nine citations included only one other in a general-interest publication, a decades-old New Yorker piece by E. B. White.

More on that in a moment …

Long before print journalists shrank from crediting or citing blogs as sources of good ideas and information, they refused to acknowledge debts to e-zines and other online-only publications. If they gave them any credit at all, it was for being brave enough to dip their toes in the digital future – in which, from print’s Olympian perch, it seemed as if these pioneers were bound to fail. Their cold-shouldering will soon have to end, thanks to the example set by unprejudiced, fair-minded thinkers.

In post-Gutenberg’s experience, intellectual greatness is in direct proportion to the trouble a powerful brain worker takes over acknowledging useful information or inspiration found absolutely anywhere – whether or not the source meets old-fashioned, conventional criteria for respectability. Only shallow snobs care about labels.

With a quotation of just three words about a growing ‘culture of carelessness,’ Ostrom and Hess directed readers of their paper about obstacles to sharing research findings to the Salon article — ‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ (‘HTMOS’) — whose subject has been making front-page headlines, lately.

For instance, yesterday’s ‘Chinese Hackers Resume Attacks on U.S. Targets’ followed by only a few weeks a long profile in the same newspaper about the über-Cassandra on this topic, an octogenarian computer scientist called Peter Neumann who is leading a team of researchers trying to make computers less vulnerable to security breaches. His interviewer noted that

… the increasing complexity of modern hardware and software has made it virtually impossible to identify the flaws and vulnerabilities in computer systems and ensure that they are secure and trustworthy. The consequence has come to pass in the form of an epidemic of computer malware and rising concerns about cyberwarfare as a threat to global security …

We would name the newspaper we have quoted in linking to it, as we usually do, except that we are trying to make a point about the churlishness of print journalists’ tendency to – shall we say, forget to credit e-zines and blogs as sources. In April, the same daily ran an opinion piece by a hacker-turned-security-consultant, Marc Maiffret, who made our eyes pop in one paragraph (our italics):

The unspoken truth is that for the most part, large software companies are not motivated to make software secure. It’s a question of investment priorities: they care more about … developing the latest features and functions that consumers and businesses are looking to buy.

Unspoken, eh?

‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ certainly spoke, twelve years ago:

A culture of carelessness seems to have taken over in high-tech America. The personal computer is a shining model of unreliability because the high-tech industry today actually exalts sloppiness as a modus operandi.


American companies accept “good enough” quality for the sake of speed. Being first to market with new products is exalted as the highest goal here, and companies fall back on huge technical support and customer service staffs to cope with their many errors of commission and omission.

“Don’t worry, be crappy,” was how Silicon Valley veteran and pundit Guy Kawasaki expressed the same idea two years ago, in a speech that won him a standing ovation.

Programmers, hackers, and technologists of every stripe were incensed by the Salon essay. After a link to it was posted in the week of its publication on — then the most popular computerists’ chat-forum – they swarmed aboard, so furious that at least a third of the posts denounced the author of ‘HTMOS’ as ‘he,’ in spite of her unambiguously female name. The explosion was partly owed to the genius of Andrew Leonard, the Salon editor on the job, who barely scratched the piece’s text but wrote its headline and dreamt up a standfirst borrowing none of its actual words, which read,

Computer companies specialize in giving consumers lousy products — it’s the American way of techno-capitalism.

Maiffret and his editors might simply have failed to check the antecedents for his condemnation of Silicon Valley’s lack of interest in safe computing. A lone editor from the print world, Simon Caulkin – renowned in British journalism not just for his talent but peerless integrity (and a former colleaugue of the Salon contributor) – did cite ‘HTMOS’ in one of his Observer columns on management, titled, ‘Software must stop bugging us’.

For the most part, it is in books and university curricula that the essay has been marked for attention. Even if the world is still a long way from curing computers of their flaws, the citations that come up on the first page of Google results for the essay’s title are in, for instance:

Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change, Sue Roaf, David Crichton and Fergus Nicol, Routledge, 2012

Why Programs Fail – A Guide to Systematic Debugging, Andreas Zeller, Elsevier, 2009 [also a Google e-book]

Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software, David Rice, Pearson Education, 2007

Quality software project management, Robert T. Futrell, Donald F. Shafer and Linda Isabell Shafer, Prentice Hall Professional, 2002

‘HTMOS’ also continues to find its way into arguments between technophiles, as in 2007, on the site of the ‘Central West End Linux Users Group’ – where it was used to slap down a debater who declared airily, ‘Every OS [operating system] has its faults. Pick your poison.’

That Ostrom-Hess paper with which this post began was, as it happens, about tribalism getting in the way of sharing information critical to human life – in microbiology research. The authors noted, in their abstract, that ‘there are many, diverse participants in producing and consuming information who often have conflicting interests …’.

Conflicting interests indeed. It is obvious from the rarity with which print journalism acknowledges good work published online in e-zines and blogs that its workers are afraid of their new competitors. And then, of course, programmers are not particularly fond of that article. We at post-Gutenberg are not much interested in conspiracy theories, but could not help smiling when we noticed that someone at both The Observer and Salon appeared to have gone to pains to make it harder to find ‘HTMOS’ and the Caulkin column on flawed software. The London newspaper misclassifies his eloquent jeremiad with the work of a political writer, Madeleine Bunting. And for years, the Salon essay has been indexed not with its collections of pieces on computers, software or Silicon Valley but under ‘AUTO INDUSTRY, ENTERTAINMENT NEWS’.

Of course we imply no conspiracy… the culprit could only be a dear little sloppiness gremlin piling up overtime hours.

Bloggers’ rights, and blogging vs. traditional journalism: let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend

'Let a hundred schools of thought contend'

‘Let a hundred schools of thought contend’

'Let a hundred bloggers bloom'

‘Let a hundred bloggers bloom’

Blogging as one of our rights to free expression was the subject of an important and excellent ARTICLE 19 paper published earlier this month. ARTICLE 19 ‘is an international human rights organisation, founded in 1986, which defends and promotes freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide.’

Highlights — to some of which we have added extra emphasis, in italics:

Who is a blogger?

In the most basic sense, a blogger is any person who writes entries for, adds materials to, or maintains a ‘blog’ – a web log published on the Internet. Blogs allow anyone to self-publish online without prior editing or commissioning by an intermediary (e.g. someone like a newspaper editor). They can be immediate and also anonymous if the blogger so desires.

What matters most about the right to blog?

Blogging plays an invaluable role in the free flow of information worldwide. It enables a true exchange of information in ways that traditional media did not in the past. It also allows an immediate sharing of information with its audience and immediate feedback. It represents a valuable form of alternative journalism and is an example of the Internet’s ‘democratisation of publishing.’

In the 21st century, many bloggers will take their place as watchdogs, alongside traditional media. The international community and individual states must develop protection for bloggers, just as they have developed protection for traditional media, despite the many constraints. Throughout history, the traditional media have obtained protection as a group although, at the individual level, many members of the media are not concerned with advancing public interest. Similar protection must be provided to bloggers.

How are bloggers different from journalists?

ARTICLE 19 has long argued that ‘journalism’ and ‘journalists’ should not be defined by reference to some recognised body of training, or by affiliation with a media entity or professional body.5 We have argued that journalism is an activity that can be exercised by anyone, and that it is important that any legal standards and principles applicable to the activity should reflect this.

In particular, the definition of the term ‘journalist’ should be broad to include any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication.

At the same time, any person who seeks to publish information on matters of public interest should benefit from the same protection and privileges given to professional journalists under existing case law, including prohibiting any requirement for journalists to be registered, requiring the authorities to investigate attacks on them, and protecting their sources.

Key recommendations

– Relevant legal standards should reflect the fact that ‘journalism’ consists

of disseminating information and ideas to the public by any means of communication. As such, it is an activity which can be exercised by anyone.

– Any definition of the term ‘journalist’ should be broad, to include any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication.

– Bloggers should never be required to obtain a licence to blog.

– Bloggers should never be required to register with the government or other

official bodies.

– Accreditation schemes must meet international freedom of expression standards and should ensure that:

– all applicants, including bloggers, who meet the minimum requirements defined in the law should be automatically issued with a ‘press’ facilitation card;

– press cards should only be required to get access to events or premises where there is a clear need to limit attendance based on limited space or the potential for disruption;

– the conditions for obtaining a press card should be based on the overall public interest and not on considerations such as affiliation with a professional association or degree in journalism.

– Legal commentators, including bloggers, should be allowed to use social media from court rooms if the hearings are open to the public.

– To the extent that they are engaged in journalistic activity, bloggers should be able to rely on the right to protect their sources.

– Any request to disclose sources should be strictly limited to the most serious cases. It should be approved only by an independent judge in a fair and public hearing with a possibility of an appeal.

– State authorities must guarantee the safety of bloggers using a variety of measures, including the prohibition of crimes against freedom of expression in their domestic laws.

– States must take reasonable steps to protect bloggers and other individuals actively engaged in online communities when they know or ought to know of the existence of a real and immediate risk to the life of an identified blogger as a result of the criminal acts of a third party;

– State authorities must carry out independent, speedy and effective investigations into threats or violent attacks against bloggers or other individuals engaged in journalistic activity online.

– The laws governing the liability of bloggers, including defamation law, incitement and other speech-related offences, must comply with international freedom of expression standards.

– As a general rule, bloggers should not be held liable for comments made by third parties on their blogs in circumstances where they have not intervened or modified those comments.

– For certain types of content, for example content that is defamatory or infringes copyright, consideration should be given to adopting ‘notice-and-notice’ approaches whereby bloggers would be required to pass the complaint to the original maker of the statement at issue, without removing the material upon notice.

– The term ‘duties and responsibilities’ in Article 19 of the ICCPR and Article 10 of the European Convention must be interpreted flexibly to take into account the particular situation of the blogger in question.

– Bloggers should not be forced to abide by the ethical codes or codes of conduct developed by traditional media and should not be coerced or given an incentive to join self-regulatory bodies for traditional media.

– Bloggers may decide to follow the ethical standards of traditional media of their own accord. They can also develop their own code of practice either for their own blogs or for associations they voluntarily join. Alternative dispute resolution systems should also be encouraged.

– When bloggers produce a piece for a traditional newspaper, they should be subject to the newspaper’s editorial control, and abide by the ethical standards of journalists.

How Lord Justice #Leveson let down everyone who cares about the practice of journalism ‘without fear or favour’

Partisan press = blinkered view + distorted facts photograph:

Partisan press = blinkered vision + distorted facts
Reichenau Island, 2011, by

A few days ago, The New York Times columnist David Brooks, arguing from first principles, made the case against a partisan press incontrovertibly. Like all the best essayists, he did this by also constructing the best possible case for the opposing side, listing all the disadvantages of detachment.

That was not long after a Leeds scholar, Paul Wragg – speaking at a workshop of Oxford’s Foundation for Law, Justice and Society on the 12th of April –  expressed his dismay at Lord Justice Leveson’s failure, in his report, to explain or justify adequately his support of press partisanship. This, said Wragg, was inconsistent with the judge’s own repeated reminders of his mission — to find ways to stop the  ‘real harm caused to real people’ resulting from the ‘cultural indifference to individual privacy and dignity’ on the part of the British press.

This blog’s worst fears for the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and behaviour were expressed in a headline last May:

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th estate?

We had not quite given up hope before our earlier blog entry on the same subject, in February, when we had begun to sense — but not believe — the drift of the judge’s sentiments on partisanship, from his remarks during the hearings:

Leveson hearings: can a “blind and unreasoning” or partisan press censoring citizen-journalists be good for democracy?

We are dismayed by the proof that our pessimism was so fully justified. At the Inquiry’s inception, a speech by the Lord Chief Justice – who selected Leveson LJ for the job – had given us every reason to hope for a diametrically opposite outcome:

Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?

Everyone should have a chance to weigh what David Brooks said about the virtues of detachment – of non-partisan journalism:

… The detached writer also starts with a worldview. If you don’t have a philosophic worldview, your essays won’t even rise to the status of being wrong. They won’t be anything.

But the detached writer wants to be a few steps away from the partisans. She is progressive but not Democratic, conservative but not Republican. She fears the team mentality will blinker her views. She wants to remain mentally independent because she sees politics as a competition between partial truths, and she wants the liberty to find the proper balance between them, issue by issue.

The detached writer believes that writing is more like teaching than activism. Her essays are generally not about winning short-term influence. (Realistically, how many times can an outside writer shape the short-term strategies of the insider politicians?) She would rather have an impact upstream, shaping people’s perceptions of underlying reality and hoping that she can provide a context in which other people can think. She sometimes gets passionate about her views, but she distrusts her passions. She takes notes with emotion, but aims to write with a regulated sobriety.

There are trade-offs, no matter what spot on the continuum you ultimately choose. The engaged writer enjoys a tight community and a powerful sense of commitment. The detached writer enjoys more freedom and objectivity. The engaged writer emphasizes loyalty, while the detached writer emphasizes honesty. At his worst, the engaged writer slips into rabid extremism and simple-minded brutalism. At her worst, the detached writer slips into a sanguine, pox-on-all-your-houses complacency and an unearned sense of superiority. The engaged writer might become predictable. The detached writer might become irrelevant, ignored at both ends.

These days most writers land on the engaged side of the continuum. Look at most think tanks. They used to look like detached quasi universities; now some are more like rapid response teams for their partisan masters. If you ever want to get a political appointment, you have to be engaged, working on political campaigns and serving the team.

But I would still urge you to slide over toward the detached side of the scale. First, there is the matter of mental hygiene. You may think you can become a political partisan without becoming rigid and stale, and we all know people who achieve this, but the risk is high.

Engaged writers gravitate toward topics where they can do the most damage to the other side. These are topics where the battle lines are clearly drawn, not topics where there is a great deal of uncertainty. Engaged writers develop a talent for muzzle velocity, not curiosity. Just as in life, our manners end up dictating our morals. So, in writing our prose, styles end up shaping our mentalities. If you write in a way that suggests combative certitude, you may gradually smother the inner chaos that will be the source of lifelong freshness and creativity.

Also, detached writers have more realistic goals. Detached writers generally understand that they are not going to succeed in telling people what to think. It is enough to prod people to think …

[ … Read the whole column here … ]

Why art needs more scientists like Carl Djerassi — not just as patrons but for visceral understanding

'DO NOT DISTURB:  Cultural transmission in progress'

‘Do Not Disturb:
Cultural transmission in progress’

'Sun in the mist' Claude Monet, 1890

‘Sun in the mist’
Claude Monet, 1890

To know a thing by its parts is science, to feel it as a whole is art.

– Lewis Mumford (1895-1990 — American critic most admired for his commentary on architecture)

We tell ourselves stories in order to live…

– Joan Didion, The White Album, 1979

… and one more thought for the mill: ‘We don’t treat artists well in this country.’ That was Margot H. Knight – talking to post-Gutenberg about the gap that arts foundations like hers strain to fill in America. She directs the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, a retreat on a converted cattle ranch on six hundred-odd idyllic acres of rolling uplands looking onto the Pacific Ocean, about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco.

In spite of her remark about the lack of respect for arts workers in the U.S., she had startling news. This was in her impression – from, she said, recent conversations — of an explosion in approaches to organisations like Djerassi for advice on turning farms, ranches, and other property in inspiring settings — some of them urban — into places for artists to make temporary or permanent homes. She considers the trend she perceives as a sign that many of her fellow-Americans are recognising, better late than never, how hard it can be for even outstanding artists to endure the struggle for time and money to make art. She predicts that the word eleemosynary – ‘meaning, the impulse to be generous, is one we’re going to be hearing a lot, soon, because of the huge transfer of wealth between generations that has begun.’

Why does this surprise us – even as an observation by just one alert cultural curator that we do not have time to compare with the impressions of others? No matter how clichéd mentions of starving scribblers or daubers in garrets are, there has always been a shortage of people willing to do more than throw them the odd crust – and nothing, not even the noise about Kickstarter and crowd-funding, has shown us any real evidence of a change. We would love to be mistaken.

We wish someone would study how attitudes to artists have been evolving. In a popular post here last summer, we suggested that audience jealousy of artists, of which we reproduced some hair-raising expressions, could explain why those in favour of destroying copyright protection apparently outnumber all of us anxious to defend artists’ right to eat – and why these opponents pretend as if the fight is all about preventing conglomerates in the music business from reaping obscene profits from selling millions of copies of the same CD.  The success of the anti-copyright campaigns is hard to reconcile with Margot Knight’s trend, unless there is a generation gap – with most anti-s belonging to the age-group after the one that might, or might not, contain growing numbers keen to focus their eleemosynary on artists.

Which of us know consciously how much human beings depend on art to get through life – that it is as indispensable as oxygen and calories?

Not many, in any generation, we suspect. It is still rare even for people with the wherewithal to acknowledge in tangible, practical ways, the extraordinary gift from, say, a musician, in the musical composition that ‘draws the sorrow out of you,’ as one sweet friend of this blog put it, the other day — or from a novelist, in the story or fictional character into which some of us made a habit of disappearing, imaginatively, in childhood, to survive or improve reality; or from a painter, in the alchemy capable of rendering joy on canvas with paint through a depiction of, say, light exalting a haystack, as Claude Monet could.

Carl Djerassi – born in Vienna in 1923, educated in the U. S., and still sprinting between continents at eighty-nine, lecturing and attending conferences – gave humanity chemical contraception in the form of ‘the pill,’ from whose manufacture he made a fortune. He proves how right C. P. Snow was to bewail an educational system in 1950s England that reflected a ‘two cultures’ divide in which workers at the literary coalface were seen as deeply incompatible with those in science – a prejudice that persists, especially in the Anglophone-Anglophile universe, to this day.

In his own life, Djerassi has demonstrated that operating in both spheres can be a perfectly natural switch between mental states (or neurocircuitry), and by no means as improbable as balletomane pigs dancing Swan Lake. He has published five novels, several short stories – and, with sculpture strewn across the grounds of his artists’ retreat, could hardly identify with the technologists complaining in the New York Times earlier this month about finding the arts community unwelcoming and intimidatingly clubby.

His ease in it is partly because he reacted to a family tragedy in the late 1970s by setting off on a quest to understand the lives of artists, and their realm. His daughter Pamela Djerassi, a painter and poet, died by suicide in 1978, and the Artists-in-Residence scheme is a memorial dedicated to her.

Reflecting on artists and scientists, Gustave Flaubert wrote, in an 1852 letter to his lover, Louise Colet, that ‘[t]he time for beauty is over … The more Art develops, the more scientific it will be, just as science will become more artistic. Separated in their early stages, the two will become one again when both reach their culmination.’

Flaubert could be wrong, but something important about the split has altered. In the England of C. P. Snow’s day, scientists were the underdogs. When British cultural influence was at its zenith, Britain was mostly run by clever people educated in the humanities.

Today’s heroes are rich American technologists and scientists, and one counter-complaint in the NYT article we mentioned – ‘Does Anyone Here Speak Art and Tech?’ – came from an art expert asking, ‘If these are our next Rockefellers, Carnegies, Fricks, … our wealthy American elite, why aren’t they supporting culture?’

A social media entrepreneur confessed that he would never mention collecting art to his fellow-technologists, who are ‘all so business-minded.’

Other techies fumed about being treated as nouveaux-riches trying to buy their way into acquiring reputations for taste and discrimination – and were appalled to encounter galleries selling works of art to people offering smaller sums of money than they had.

We know people like these technologists, even likeable ones, and their behaviour is consistent with the shift in social status that – to our alarm, and on both sides of the Atlantic — has led nearly all the highly-educated children of post-Gutenberg’s friends into careers in some branch of finance. We have begun to think of ‘quants’ as people who see themselves as being at the top of the social pyramid – not using the word exclusively in the sense in which it was coined in 1979, to mean ‘an expert at analysing and managing quantitative data,’ (Merriam-Webster) but also covering those most attracted to work whose value is easily quantifiable in numbers preceded by currency symbols.

That would leave out most artists and writers, as well as … well, mothers, or people including men who now do the essential, life-sustaining ‘home-making’ that only women once did.

If what we think of as art today is to have a future, any quants who care might look to Djerassi as a model for supporting its continuation — as he has had the intelligence and good luck to also prove himself a super-quant. A recent study confirmed the power of ‘monkey-see-monkey-do cultural shifts’ – certainly for Vervet monkeys. A Swiss primatologist commenting on it in the NYT said,

[I]f you define culture as socially transmitted knowledge, skills and information, it turns out that we see some of that in animals …

Personal proof from watching Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: the time of passive, captive, media-gazing has passed

Procession arrives at St. Paul's Catherdral

Procession arrives at St. Paul’s Cathedral: the most graceful onlooker

The irresistible pull of old turf

The irresistible pull of old turf

In our age of pixels, one versatile midget-screen is worth more than cable television with two thousand and one channels on a hulking, high-definition display. This dawned on us as we said a silent, heartfelt thank-you to the BBC last week for the banner at the top of every frame of its ‘red button’ broadcast of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: BBC LIVE. NO COMMENTARY.

Post-Gutenberg has not owned a working TV set for decades, by choice. But we were grateful to be lent one last Wednesday, hoping for deep absorption by London’s farewell to the steely, scrappy baroness, and the chance to imagine why people insist that Winston Churchill’s funeral was the most sublime, moving event in British public life in recent history. As she was accorded the military honours he was – in spite of a clinching argument against doing so by the right-wing political journalist Peter Oborne – we knew we would be observing similar, if not identical, rites of homage.

No sooner had we begun to watch the large screen than we felt irritable, as if we had ants crawling up our sleeves, anticipating the artificial voices of commentators bent on pre-digesting everything we saw. Because of these maddening intermediaries, the Beeb’s religion correspondent, Robert Pigott, would ordinarily have been quite right to say as he did – after the service in St. Paul’s – that no one outside the cathedral’s walls could have experienced the extraordinary ‘sense of occasion’ there. Yes, the talking heads have always had an annoying habit of proclaiming, ‘You really have to be here to know what the atmosphere is like’ – never acknowledging that this is at least in part because their chirping gets in the way. This time, Pigott was wrong. Possibly because his employer was savaged for its commentary on the last royal wedding, there were no all-knowing chirps at all.

In the great hush broken only by music and ceremonial words, occasional shouts of protestors, clumping horses, saluting guns, crunching military boots and church bells, any viewer of the BBC feed was free to get lost in personal trains of association — verses of hymns remembered from school assembly halls; watching someone close and dear on a parade ground when tiny; other memories and imagery. Just like anyone in the congregation. Bliss! … When we found the definition on our tablet screen crisper and truer to life than the one on the television display, we switched to viewing only the small screen.

This also had something to do with seeing the procession skirt the edge of our old London neighbourhood, a street ten minutes away on foot from the flat that was home – and in a flash, realising that we could take a screen shot on the tablet computer for a personal reminder of grey spring mornings in Holborn. After that, we captured images from every angle, of every scene in the funeral service that interested us – and except for the frustration of being constrained by the exclusively horizontal orientation of the feed, were delighted by the perspectives Auntie offered us from her staggering twenty-four cameras inside St. Paul’s, alone.

We loved the active watching on the small screen, so much better for noticing. We love having our own visual records to inspect at leisure, blowing up details for closer deconstruction.

Other people probably listened to the drone of interpreters in war paint and plastic styled hair, switching back and forth between their TVs and laptops; followed the textual explanations of what we were looking at, on the BBC site, even as they tweeted reactions to their friends, and updated pages on social networking sites throughout the ceremony. And why shouldn’t they have done what suited them?

We only listened to a single stream of sounds; reflected; and made a scrapbook, from which this idiosyncratic selection of images comes – each screen re-touched to remove the BBC logo. At the funeral of Britain’s first and only woman prime minister, it was chiefly women’s faces that we found most engaging.



Mrs T's daughter-in-law, flanked her son and grandson

Mrs T’s son, daughter-in-law, and grandson

Marvellous eyebrows: the carving competes

Marvellous eyebrows: the carving competes

Young woman, officiating

Young woman, officiating

MT going where we all do -- to 'the cloud,' as the Bishop of London (not pictured) put it

MT going where we all do — to ‘the cloud,’ as the Bishop of London (not pictured) said

Cameras of every kind

Cameras of every kind

Gustave Flaubert’s multitasking score: 0 — and ‘flow,’ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s secret of happiness

'Flow, don't freeze'

‘Flow, don’t freeze’

Of all the anxieties related to the effects of digital culture on our brains – the way people reason, comprehend, do cerebral work, create and invent – the only one that we at post-Gutenberg truly share is the worry about attention. Especially, sustained attention. We have long found one facet of this – closer to immersion –  the most dependable font of happiness. It has been studied and named ‘flow’ by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose book on the subject was a birthday present to us from a vanished friend (Dessa, where are you?). Over to the Wikipedia:

In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove.

Everyone accepts that our attention is being chronically, woefully, and hopelessly fractured by mobile telephones, email, tweeting, blogging, Googling, Binging (as opposed to bingeing) and so on – no matter how successful some of us are at glamorising the e-jitterbugging as ‘multitasking’.

How would a Gustave Flaubert write a novel of the depth and (depressing) intricacy of Madame Bovary? Whatever you think of the book – p-G sympathises with the critics who complain that the story lacks a single likeable or, we would say, engaging character – it probably deserves its renown, and its author his place among les immortels.

We have no answer to that question, but we do believe that no one has described the ‘flow’ state and its joys more gorgeously or entertainingly (definitively ‘over-the-top’) than Bovary’s inventor. The other day, opening our copy of The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857 – only because we happened, for the first time for a decade and a half, to both look at and see it on its shelf, we entered a flow state ourselves, completely absorbed by the novelist’s words, beautifully translated and edited by Francis Steegmuller. The proof of the addictiveness of ‘flow’ is in these extracts, as is evidence that it is not always a picnic.

Highlights might be all most of us have time for, soon, the literary equivalent of what is well on its way to becoming the most popular convenience food, worldwide — sushi:

[ … to his friend -- the lawyer-turned-dabbler/dilettante -- Alfred LePoittevin; 13 May, 1845, Milan …]

You are wasting away with boredom, you say? Bursting with anger, dying of depression, stifling? Have patience, oh lion of the desert! I myself suffered a long period of suffocation, the walls of my room in the rue de l’Est still echo with the frightful curses, the foot-stampings, the cries of distress I gave vent to while I was alone there. How I roared in that room! And how I yawned! … Think, work, write, roll up your sleeves and cut your marble, like the good workman who refuses to be diverted from his task and keeps at it with sweat and good humour. … The only way not to be unhappy is to shut yourself up in Art and count all the rest as nothing. … I do not regret the absence of riches, or love, or the flesh, and everyone is astonished to see me behaving so sensibly. I have said an irrevocable farewell to the practical life. … From now until a day that is far distant I ask for no more than five or six quiet hours in my room, a good fire in winter, and a pair of candles to light me at night.

[ … to Louise Colet, a writer of recognised ability, also Flaubert’s mistress and – as most, though not all, authorities agree, the model for his tedious adulteress; 24 April 1852, Croisset … ]

… I have been in a great fit of work. The day before yesterday I went to bed at five in the morning and yesterday at three. Since last Monday I have put everything else aside and done nothing all week but sweat over my Bovary, disgruntled at making such slow progress. … You speak of your discouragement, if you could see mine! Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brain doesn’t melt away. I am leading an austere life, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent frenzy, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but never abates. I love my work with a love that is frantic and perverted, as an ascetic loves the hair shirt that scratches his belly.

Sometimes, when I am empty, when the words don’t come, when I find I haven’t written a single sentence after scribbling whole pages, I collapse on my couch and lie there dazed, bogged in a swamp of despair, hating myself and blaming myself for this demented pride that makes me pant after a chimera. A quarter of an hour later, everything has changed; my heart is pounding with joy. Last Wednesday I had to get up and fetch my handkerchief; tears were streaming down my face. I had been moved by my own writing: the emotion I had conceived, the phrase that rendered it, and the satisfaction of having found the phrase – all were causing me the most exquisite pleasure. At least I think that all those elements were present in this emotion, which after all was predominantly a matter of nerves. There exist even higher emotions of this same kind: those which are devoid of the sensory element. These are superior, in moral beauty, to virtue – so independent are they of any personal factor, of any human implication. Occasionally (at great moments of illumination) I have had glimpses, in the glow of an enthusiasm that made me thrill from head to foot, of such a state of mind, superior to life itself, a state in which fame counts for nothing and even happiness is superfluous.

Could a pope getting respect on atheist blogs make co-operatives his weapon for fighting poverty?

Might co-ops help to correct Rupert Murdoch’s delusional prediction and become Pope Francis’s silver bullet?

Might co-ops end the reign of press barons like Rupert Murdoch and become Pope Francis’s silver bullet?

It began as a lament about the disposal of a mountain of spring weeds, the conversation that got us thinking about the new Vatican leader’s inaugural promise to ‘embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest,’ and his wish expressed elsewhere to see ‘a church that is poor and for the poor.’ He sounds remarkably like someone on an Occupy soapbox. But unlike members of that well-meaning but chaotic movement, he has a massive organisation behind him to help point followers in the right direction.

We have been astounded by the evidence search engines supply of wide interest in a Christian spiritual figure among so many typically secular intellectual institutions – The New Yorker, for instance — and stretching as far as blogs like one called Non-Prophet Status declaring, ‘Why this atheist is (tentatively) optimistic about Pope Francis’. Soon, he could win a popularity contest with the Dalai Lama, among non-believers.

There was even a surprise for us close to home. Though there have been no Catholics among our blood relations for three generations, one scrupulously apolitical member of our family about the same age as the pontiff, and paying close attention, insisted last week that the papal mission was doomed. ‘Because,’ he explained, ‘most of the world is poor and always will be. As he won’t be able to make any difference to the impoverished far outnumbering everyone else, why choose certain failure?’

While we considered that opinion, a question occurred to us: what single lever could Pope Francis choose to concentrate on, to prove the pessimists wrong? What might be his equivalent of the Lone Ranger’s silver bullet?

Unexpectedly, an answer suggested itself not long after we heard from a grizzled, kindly Greenlander living on the edge of San Francisco about his reason for being incensed by an argument with his local garbage collector. This rubbish-disposal engineer, on his weekly round, had haughtily spurned, then left behind, several giant plastic bags into which the Greenlander’s neighbours had taken pains to squeeze a towering weed-pile. No bags, he said. Nothing but greenery.

When the Greenlander appealed for mercy — an exception made for neighbours who were still newcomers, the haul-away man said it was time that they learnt the rules.  No, the Greenlander said later, shaking his head, the smelliness of the work did not excuse the man’s unfeeling intransigence. ‘Don’t you know how much money these garbage guys make? A fortune!’

The next person to enter the conversation filled in some fascinating details. He said that the average income of a rubbish collector working for Recology, the dominant garbage company in the region, is $80,000 – or roughly twice the salary of the average American schoolteacher or policeman. Though we have not, so far, been able to check the precise accuracy of that number, we suspect that it is correct, or nearly so, because it was part of a case handled by our informant, a lawyer with a good memory.

We thought this salary fair, and said as much. Imagine the stench for mile after mile, working on a trash-collecting truck in summer heat! But then came a bigger – and even more welcome – shock. Recology is entirely employee-owned. Historically, its workers had ancestry in common with Pope Francis. This cooperative’s website says :

Our company’s roots have always been in recycling and employee ownership.


The original Bay Area garbage men, or “scavengers”, came to San Francisco from Italy in the late 19th century. At that time, scavenging in San Francisco was a disorderly and inefficient business. Hundreds of independent collectors competed for business. The 1906 earthquake and fire temporarily improved business, but did little to bring order to the chaos of garbage collection.

The website boasts that Recology has an outstanding record for innovation, and one item on the list it offers as proof suggests a startling interest in the radical 1960s Arte Povera (art from poverty) movement in Italy:

The world-renowned Artist in Residence Program in 1990 allowing local artists to find materials in our processing facilities to create art.

… Anyway, we were, as we said, reminded by this chat of Pope Francis committing himself to helping not merely the indigent but ‘the weakest, the least important, …’. Could there be a better salve for the lowly status of garbage-collecting than a bank balance honestly earned through joint ownership?

Post-Gutenberg began as a spinoff of a paper setting out a detailed proposal for saving journalism from the machinations of press barons like Rupert Murdoch through a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’ – owned by workers and customers.

Pope Francis, being a Jesuit, a member of the religious order famous, for centuries, for being frighteningly intelligent, would know about the remarkable success of huge cooperatives in, for instance, Switzerland. He would certainly stand a far better chance of pushing a new cooperative movement than any blink-and-you-miss-it blog like ours, or any of the pundits making the case for employee ownership on newspaper sites often, but to little avail – so far.

Of an orange pig, a wolf, and using literary clips to rescue literature from hyperinflated praise

'Ritorna il sole, ritornano i colori' photograph by MIL22

‘Ritorna il sole, ritornano i colori’
photograph by MIL22

When the currency of literary praise has been so debased as to be all but worthless, returning to a form of barter is long overdue.

What are we saying?

Before some wily genius invented money – which too often earns its reputation as the root of all evil — people traded in actual things other people wanted, not in symbolic representations of the value of those things. So many of us are fed up of being misled by book jacket hyperbole and dishonest reviews dressing up mediocre or shoddy work as ‘brilliant,’ ‘masterly,’ ‘luminous,’ and ‘stunning’ that it is time to melt down the defunct adjectival coinage, shelve it, and return to the actual substance of literature. We mean that we would love to see a trend for favouring clips of the writer’s own arrangements of words, in drawing attention to works of literature — over the encomiums of word-floggers and other tricksters.

Still making our slow – savouring — way through Storm DamageJohn A. A. Logan’s collection of short stories mentioned on this blog in January — we came across one accorded the rare distinction, in our reading over the years, of being read more than twice by us.

Like our photograph in honour of early spring – a gift of the eyes of generous MIL22 – this story, ‘The Orange Pig,’ is the work of an artist interested in satisfying nothing but exacting, deeply interior aesthetic standards. And if that sounds too serious – well, this is a tale that had us shaking with amusement as often as it left us rapt from the recognition of wisdom dextrously confected as a soufflé.

Without further ado we leave you, dear reader, to consider these extracts chosen to avoid giving away too much – and to let you marvel at a publishing revolution that makes it possible to acquire the thoughts that link them together on your e-reader almost instantaneously. All for no more than what it would take to put a frothing coffee into your hands.

‘I only want to walk to the top of the hill,’ said the orange pig.

‘No-one is stopping you,’ said the wolf. ‘But surely you can see that we can’t let incidents like these go unexamined or unreported. I assume you are from the farm.’

‘Where I am from is my own business.’

‘I understand,’ said the wolf, ‘but …’

The wolf waved a paw in the direction of the dead bird.

‘In circumstances like this,’ said the wolf, ‘we all must account for ourselves, our actions, our motives. It may be in the next world we will all be free to move where we wish like phantoms in the mist, but you are from a farm. You know the meaning of a fence, or a gate, a sty or a barn, a wall or a door. Do not pretend to be naïve. I find you here, and then I find this. What am I to think?’

‘The only time is now,’ said the wolf.

‘It is very late.’

‘Not so very,’ said the wolf.

They walked past the dogs like ghosted whispers and soon they were beyond the limits of the farm, their legs working hard against the steep hill’s power.

‘Under the moon there is no market day,’ said a deep, bass voice from further to the orange pig’s left than his thick neck could twist to let him see. ‘No lorry to take us away, no slaughterhouse, no scheduled death.’

‘For scheduled death is dishonour,’ said the black wolf.

‘Amen,’ said all the wolves in a clear chorus.

Somehow, though, the orange pig’s personality had not attracted fame, only a non-profitable cache of oddity. Good enough to bring a few of the farmer’s friends around the orange pig’s sty to stare at him awhile, but nothing solid to build a business on. The newspapers had come once, and taken photographs, but interest had not been ignited in the public.

‘To hell with farms and farmers,’ said a bitter voice the pig had not heard before.

Amen,’ said the wolves.

‘It is here in the moonlight things are shown truly,’ said a quiet voice from among the sea of silver heads. ‘With the sun in the morning comes all the illusions and divisions. Here in the silver shining, we are our truest selves, is it not so my brothers?’

‘Amen,’ said a strong chorus.

‘No farm could ever be thought of or established in the moonlight. It is an idea of the day, born of heat and dazzle.’

‘I told this pig I would take him another night to wash in the salt of the sea,’ said the long wolf.

‘The waters of the sea are great, its waves caress and cool us,’ said the quiet voice.

‘That pig’s legs are too short to run with you to the sea,’ said a voice.

‘We will all go,’ said the black wolf. ‘We will go to the sea another night and we will go at his pace. There are thoughts that come when we stand in the sea and feel the waves lap at our legs that can come in no other way. It is time we did go to the sea again.’

[ … continues …]

Writers, writing

yellow road

Once, long ago, before we we were old enough to vote, before we could have applied for a driver’s licence, we read Henry Miller for the first time with round, shocked eyes. Then — quite soon — he struck us as a bit of a bore. Now, it seems as if his oeuvre could define repetitiousness.

Still, we have never found a more amusing or accurate listing of the challenges to productivity, or to balancing life and work, than in these instructions Miller apparently wrote to himself — to make faster progress with the manuscript of Black Spring (1936). They have been reproduced in more than spot on the web and appear here to explain why post-Gutenberg will be taking a week’s break — which could become an absence of a fortnight if we find ourselves fighting more than the expected headwinds.

1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.

2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to Black Spring.

3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!

5. When you can’t create you can work.

6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.

7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.

8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.

9. Discard the Program when you feel like it–but go back to it the next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.

11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

How Swiss audience inclusion and a certain sort of nudity might be the key to success for post-Gutenberg media

Diccon Bewes, a member of's five-man Public Council

Diccon Bewes, a member of’s five-man Public Council

Swiss Watching NEW ED

Naked hiking is alarmingly popular, even in winter … Public nudity is not a trauma in Switzerland. Many Swiss bathing areas have FKK (Freikörper-kultur or free body culture; that is, nudist) sections … It’s still not on the German scale, where you never know when the next naked person might appear. Have a picnic in the wrong section of Munich’s English Garden and you’ll never eat another Scotch egg.

Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and MoneyDiccon Bewes, (2010)

The dispenser of advice on hazardous unclothing, Diccon Bewes, has written the wittiest, most elegantly informative and indispensable manual on today’s Switzerland for English-speaking foreigners. His whirling outline of Swiss history at the start of his book is spliced into an account of a winding walk chosen for historical associations, which gives a reader mnemonic imagery for its highlights. Bewes knows better than to frighten the Swiss, restraining what the glowing review in the Zurich paper Tages-Anzeiger called ‘typically black English humour.’

Yet encoded in his skipping prose is the style of such unforgettable thought-capsules, in 1066 and All That — the unsurpassed (1930) parody of history text-books – as, ‘[King] Alfred noticed that the Danes had very long ships, so he built a great many more much longer ones, thus cleverly founding the British Navy.’ This is specially admirable in a practical guide so astute at gauging what outsiders need to know to survive in a place where English is missing even from multilingual train announcements and museum placards, that every new visitor touching down on a Swiss tarmac could use a Bewes-on-CH (Confoederatio Helvetica) mobile app spun off from Swiss Watching.

Our overview of the visible talents of Diccon Bewes is not offered from any interest in boosting Swiss tourism, or encouraging expatriation to the Alps. He has caught our attention for an entirely unrelated reason. What we outside CH most need from him is a detailed, step-by-step education by an insider in how the Swiss make extreme democracy work, or what Beppe Grillo and the Occupy movements must do to realise their dreams. Specifically, it is media of the Gutenberg era baffled by — and resisting the transition to — post-Gutenberg inclusiveness who most need his assistance. As we have said before –

Techno-optimists are sure that our egalitarian internet that brought you to this blog will flatten power structures in organisations, both online and offline, and usher in an age of extreme democracy. Cynics say that they are wrong. Whisper to them tentatively about, for instance, reorganising the media to make readers and viewers part-owners and managers, and they will roar at you, “Ridiculous! Disastrous! It could never work!’

You must then reply in calming tones, ‘True, if you do it like California, but not if you copy Switzerland.’

So, how exactly do you copy CH? Few English-speakers have either Bewes’s hands-on experience of working with Swiss colleagues inside Switzerland – his home for the last eight years – or gift for cross-cultural explanation, backed by a degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics.

What would make his counsel particularly valuable to future-focused media people is his experience as the English-language specialist on the five-man Publikumsrat or Public Council of – the internet adjunct of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) founded in 1999 that specialises in news about, and of special interest to the Swiss, and crisply-written features that illuminate foreigners. All this, every day, is translated into ten languages.

The style of government that makes Switzerland the world’s most democratic democracy is replicated in organisations of every size and kind in CH – including its many businesses run as cooperatives, two of which make the list of the world’s top twenty-five in sales.

The Publikumsrat gives Swissinfo’s editors and journalists detailed feedback on their choice of subjects as well as on the way these are tackled. It makes suggestions for new topics. It also defends Swissinfo from its detractors.  More than once, in the last ten years, it has led  campaigns to protect it from accountants wielding budget-slashing axes – inspiring ‘Save Swissinfo!’ petitions from as far away as New South Wales, in Australia.

Post-Gutenberg has been browsing on the Swissinfo site for three years. The experience of reading there has been hugely surprising – nothing like the teasing love-letter to CH that Swiss Watching’s tone suggests, but equipping Swiss-bashers with ammunition. Its coverage of the most embarrassing, even humiliating, topics for the Swiss is frank enough to suggest that, more than a mere pastime, nude hiking in glacial cold could be a metaphor for … well, the naked honesty in the conversational style of the Schweizerdeutsch, the German-speaking Swiss who dominate the population. In our experience, they express themselves freely and with graphic precision on almost any subject, even chatting to strangers (unless these are identified as journalists, a reviled profession in CH), as long as they respect basic standards for civility and friendliness.

Part of the reason why Swissinfo’s coverage of topics is startlingly direct is that there is no room for subtle and idiomatic expression in any text that has to scan as well, in the language of its composition, as in its Portuguese, Chinese and Russian versions. Of course, this is also true of the work of the BBC World Service – but the unflinching Schweizer style does seem to make for extra-bluntness.

Readers of this blog can wander over to and see for themselves. We have been stunned by some reports there on the Nazi Gold scandal – in part of which Swiss banks were accused of conspiring to deny descendants of Holocaust victims access to their families’ Swiss bank accounts, or about academic studies blaming lax gun control policies for Switzerland ranking, with America, at the top of the statistics for gun-related suicides. Far from any cover-up, there is a relentless succession of articles quoting critics of gun ownership. This is especially brave in a country in which every referendum on the subject shows the Swiss refusing to be weaned off weapons ownership. (We cannot conceive of a cowardly Swissinfo blackout of news about press reform, if this had the attention of Swiss government leaders.)

Forthrightness – and audience involvement, through the Publikumusrat — could make Swissinfo a model for news coverage in the UK and US, where, as one poll after another shows, public trust in the media has never been lower.

Until recently, the point of having Swissinfo was to help Swiss nationals living abroad stay sufficiently well-informed to make the best possible decisions when they vote remotely in referendums and elections. This part of its charter is no longer as important as demystifying Switzerland for foreigners, because free online editions of so many Swiss newspapers give Swiss expatriates the facts they need.

But doing a good job of serving Swiss voters abroad meant that the information the site supplied had to be politically neutral, or carefully balanced across the spectrum of political opinions. That this approach has not changed, even after Swissinfo’s staff and budget were each cut back last year by roughly a third, only adds to the attractions of the site – since, as this blog has underlined in the past, the reading public prefers to be served news undistorted by politics.

The British press ignores this preference. Both during and since the Leveson hearings on press ethics, one editor after another insisted – invoking  time-hallowed tradition as frantically as the Catholic Church fighting for respect, in recent weeks —  that political slanting has always been part of its lifeblood.

Though mockers of the Occupy movements keep insisting that extreme democracy could never be either practical or realistic, Switzerland, the über-democracy, is proof to the contrary. With its tiny population of not quite 8 million, CH can boast of being not just one of the world’s richest countries but the one at the very top of economists’ table for individual wealth – per (adult) capita.

Here is some food for meditation from Swiss Watching’s chapter titled ‘Ask the audience’:

Walking through the centre of Bern means running the gauntlet of clipboard-thrusting pen holders wanting your name. These aren’t charity muggers desperate for your cash … And the papers are not futile petitions that will be delivered to the government without any prospect of anyone taking notice. This is not Britain. This is Switzerland, where the people have power, and they use it. Collecting signatures is the first step towards a referendum, the basic tool of the direct democracy system. Don’t like a government decision? Then collect names to change it. Want to create a new law? Then collect names to initiate it. Hate minarets? Then collect signatures to ban them [ … ]

For outsiders, it’s hard to imagine how a country can function if every law and government action is subject to a government vote. For the Swiss, it’s hard to understand how any country can be run without just that. […] The Swiss people can initiate legislation or destroy it; they can force the government into new policies or reject decisions it’s already made. No one person or party ever has complete control – the people do. Forget China and North Korea; if any country deserves to be called a People’s Republic, it is Switzerland.

Swisscellany 300 dpi for web

The press is telling hair-raising porkies about ♯Leveson: true or false? A media scholar settles the question

Adaptation of photograph by MIL22 --

In his popemobile, Pope Benedict XVI, whose church once held the reins of ‘mass media’
– adaptation of a photograph by MIL22

@5th, a stimulating visitor to this site with a particular interest in open-access online education, said in a comment on a recent ♯Leveson post here:

[A]s long as the press establishment is tightly connected to politics and politicians it seems rather pointless to regulate it by political means. … I think you are quite right that it’s up to all of us to hold the press accountable, but it’s hard to see how this change will come about. Traditional newspapers (including their online editions) have a tremendous advantage in that they are already popular, and their popularity leads to a kind of positive feedback process where popularity generates popularity. It’s convenient for people to read what everybody else reads (and links to!). … I think it’s hard for citizen-journalists to really reach out to the public in part because […] they are simply scattered all over the web.

The essence of post-Gutenberg’s reply to 5th is: indeed, the famous names in print are still powerful. They could be for a long time, yet. But in diving into any news that matters to us, we now spend only as much time with them as we do on sites that did not exist ten years ago – and we use these new sources to check the truthfulness of what the papers say, and neutralise their biases. We are sure that we are not alone in this attention shift. Already, the key to finding the most reliable and enlightening information – and the right people to discuss it with – is using search engines well. These tools get cleverer by the week (never mind if Google’s picture-indexer often attaches to results for this site a sultry, dark-eyed blonde we regret we do not know).

On some days we, too, feel pessimistic about things changing too slowly – but change they will. On The Atlantic’s blog the other day, the headline for an entertaining – and accurate — post by Rebecca Rosen about the imminent departure of Pope Benedict XVI was, ‘The Last Time a Pope Resigned, Mass Media Was Called … Mass’.

Her point was that for much of Europe in the Middle Ages, the chief – and virtually, only – authoritative source of news about the wider world was the Catholic Church.

Then that was all turned upside-down. It was, of course, the Gutenberg press making it so easy for dissenters to disseminate texts exposing the Church’s lies and disinformation that broke religion’s monopoly on knowledge and learning.

Okay, we will concede that the Catholic Church still has over a billion adherents. To this day, the resignation of a pope is as liable to create a tweet storm as to sprout headlines wherever people read newspapers. But in its original European homeland, it has lost so much of its sway and credibility that less than half of all the world’s Catholics live there. The next leader of the Vatican could be Latin American or African – and arguably, should.

Memories of this church’s corrupt ancient past passed down from generation to generation, in Europe, have something to do with European disenchantment.

What we have been wondering lately is, … will the deliberate warping of the truth about the misuse of power by today’s print media be just as famous, in retellings of its story a hundred years from now?

With the kind permission of INFORRM, we are re-posting below the first part of a meticulous analysis of the scale of that distortion by Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism at London’s Kingston University, and the director of Hacked Off. We urge you to follow the link beneath our extract and read on.

Leveson: The Latest Press Disinformation Campaign

Brian Cathcart

Three weeks ago the great former Sunday Times editor Sir Harry Evans accused the national press of gross distortion and staggering misrepresentation in their coverage of Lord Justice Leveson’s report. Well, since then it has got a lot worse.

The papers have turned their megaphone up even louder and, using a range of distortions, misrepresentations and downright lies, they are trying to drown out all reasoned discussion of the Leveson report in the hope that it will vanish for good.

Most of the noise is not about regulation, which is the core of the report. Instead it is about other supposed Leveson outrages relating to whistleblowers, journalistic sources and other matters.

The aim is to muddy the waters around press self-regulation. Editors and proprietors want to conceal the fact that they are engaged in disreputable secret negotiations with ministers for the purpose of sabotaging Leveson.

Before looking at the misinformation campaign, we need to look at what is happening about the Leveson recommendations on regulation.

You may remember that the judge offered papers the chance to set up their own independent self-regulator. But to protect the public and ensure that this self-regulator did not just turn out to be another Press Complaints Commission, he also proposed the establishment of a ‘recognition body’ which every three years would check that the self-regulator met various basic standards.

Although Leveson said this recognition body must be totally independent of both the press and politicians, and must be backed by statute, David Cameron promptly threw a spanner in the works by coming out against any legislation. So now instead Conservative ministers want to create the recognition body by royal charter.

They published their draft of this charter last week and it was a scandalous document, because ministers had secretly allowed editors and proprietors to rewrite it to suit their own interests. If that royal charter were adopted, the press would escape accountability.

If you were an editor you would want your readers looking elsewhere while you engaged in such a disgraceful political fix, and this is what is happening. The megaphone has been turned up, and we are having distractions shouted at us.

Now let’s deal with the distractions in turn.

1. Whistleblowers.

We are told that Leveson’s proposals mean it will be harder, or even impossible, for whistleblowers to bring stories of wrongdoing to the press. This is completely false, and you can read a full explanation here. In brief, Leveson in his report declared that whistleblowing was ‘justified and legitimate’, although he pointed out that in the case of the police service it might be a good idea if staff also had the alternative of reporting misconduct internally, rather than their only option being to go to the press. That’s it.

[ … continues here …]

Why have The Economist and The New York Times gone silent on ♯Leveson — since 2012? Why is a media columnist writing about manholes, instead?

photograph in honour of the Chinese Year of the Snake:

photograph in honour of the Chinese Year of the Snake:

Abdication of responsibility is a serious charge.

Even as we type, we are close to fainting from disbelief that The Economist and The New York Times deem the deliberations about press reform in a leading democracy – negotiations in which a prime minister is directly engaged – unworthy of either reportage or commentary. Neither of these leaders in print journalism has run a single piece about the Leveson Inquiry since they recorded the publication of its report.  Unless Google is mistaken, the scintillating newspaper in St. James’s last pronounced on the subject on 8 December; the grey lady, proud of treating the world as its oyster on other subjects, on 5 December

For reasons explained here in two earlier posts – passing on advice from the Chinese sage Lao Tse, and pointing to the pointlessness of making new rules for a dying institution – post-Gutenberg sees press regulation as wasted effort. But over 75 per cent of the British public does seem to want the recommendations of the Leveson report put into practice. Surely this, and the haggling over Leveson’s conclusions by the British government, politicians and media, merit analysis and debate?

Skilled and eminent doctors have to treat and be treated by other doctors, when they fall ill. Judges are not above the law; lawyers must be prosecuted and defended by other lawyers.  The equivalent, for the press, of ‘Physician, heal thyself,’ has to be ‘Journalist, your work is not above dissection and condemnation by colleagues, without fear or favour.’

We once admired the NYT’s media columnist David Carr for his apparent fearlessness and perspective (see ‘Why not occupy newsrooms?’ 23 October 2011). For over a year, most of his columns have left us wondering just who tied and gagged him. Yet none of his timid recent work has been as alarming as his bizarre focus yesterday on the lengths to which an energetic Midwestern newspaper columnist went to trace the hands that took a photograph of an exploding manhole cover in Omaha. That’s right — not a column about, say, media coverage of  the responsibility for the explosion; just a mildly entertaining ramble about the origin of the image. There have been reports over the years of infinitely more ingenious sleuthing that has, for instance, united the finder of a camera lost in one country with an owner thousands of miles away in another – by altruistic amateur detective work by strangers that entailed uploading pictures from the device to the net and posting requests for help on social media.

As for Carr’s subject, surely it was the photographer with the fast reflexes of a citizen-journalist who deserved his praise, and not ‘[gums]hoe leather’ that, according to this NYT columnist, ‘never looked or smelled so good.’  The reader is left baffled by his conclusion: ‘And it’s a useful reminder that even though daily newspapers are a threatened species, they continue to have value in the informational narrative.’ Phew.

More to the point, what is Carr doing, writing about manholes but not ♯Leveson – a subject of keen interest to the planet, judging by the attention the Inquiry has been getting on every continent? (as search engine analysis of traffic brought to this blog, for one, confirms). Was his upgrading of an amusing dinner table anecdote to the focus of a whole media column actually an encoded scream for help – a demonstration of the humble scraps that a good reporter like him is obliged to offer his readers because barred by someone (precisely who?) from doing his job?

If the NYT did not anticipate reactions exactly like ours to its media columnist’s disappearance down a manhole – façon de parler — why is the column closed to comments? (or certainly was, when we last checked a few hours ago?)

But as for the infinitely more critical cause for anxiety, what vital information is that newspaper, like The Economist, failing to give audiences?

Go to the website of the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) – run by lawyers – and look up:

Hacked Off responds to the draft Royal Charter: “a surrender to press pressure”’, 12 February 2013

… and …

Leveson: It is impossible to overstate the Daily Mail’s fear of proper press regulation’,  17 February 2013

You will be afraid, very afraid, when you read what highly regarded publications do not want you to see — and of what there would be no record of at all, without blogs like INFORRM’s.

… Only psychologists, Chinese mystics and lovers of poetry will want to know that as post-Gutenberg awoke last Sunday, the exquisite final lines of a D. H. Lawrence poem came floating to mind, out of the blue, on an unexpected wave of the sort of happiness with which we witness beauty:

And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

They belong to ‘Snake,’ poetry at its greatest, for more reasons than we have time to suggest. As we puzzled over the mysterious reminder of them, fingers tapping into a search engine box, we found that the poem had been the subject of a lovely meditation by Jacques Derrida.

The ‘I’ in the poem is overwhelmed by admiration for the way the reptile looks and moves, but, obeying ‘the voices of my accursed human education,’ throws a stone at it – and

… suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.


And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.


And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life …

… About which Derrida proposes, with Gallic convolution, that

‘It is indeed on the side of chance … and toward the incalculability of another thought of life, of what is living in life, that I would like to venture under the old and yet still completely new and perhaps unthought name democracy.’ [his emphasis]

The Chinese Year of the Snake began either on the 4th or 10th of this month, depending on which authority you consult. Did the dream-like entrance of the ‘Snake’ lines have more to do with the private or public sphere? Was it something like a parental warning not to descend to the pettiness of a particular someone whose physical bulk is in direct, inverse proportion to a tendency to small-mindedness and jealousy? In the wider realm, a snake might easily be symbolic of all the forms of competition from citizen-journalists and bloggers so hated and feared by the old press establishment – unwelcome power-sharing.

Yes, democracy.

And that is as far as we will get with de-mystification – for the present.

Surfer, passing by: will you pause to list the three Beatles songs you like best, today?

‘Happy Birthday, MIL22!’Photograph by

‘Happy Birthday, MIL22’

Elderly intellectual Parisian piano teachers married to each other in the latest Michael Haneke film, Amour, are exercising their right to musical snobbery when they sniff disdainfully at the idea of someone playing a tape-recording of Yesterday’ at the funeral of a member of their elevated social set. It takes less than two seconds to realise that this exchange could easily have been stolen from real life — the Beatles having been, arguably, the 20th century’s most irresistible agents of cultural democracy before the internet took off.

The letters of Samuel Beckett starred in last winter’s reading at post-Gutenberg — and made our blog’s most popular entry. This winter, the essays of a fastidious, spinsterly Cambridge don psychologically married to his mother for much of his life (or so it always seemed to us) have been our special delight. It hardly matters how E. M. Forster came by his understanding when, in 1940, he answered his own question, ‘Does Culture Matter?’:

Culture is a forbidding word. I have to use it, knowing of none better to describe the various beautiful and interesting objects which men have made in the past … Many people despise them.


I know a few working-class people who enjoy culture, but as a rule I am afraid to bore them with it lest I Iose the pleasure of their acquaintance. So what is to be done?

It is tempting to do nothing. Don’t recommend culture. Assume that the future will have none, or will work out some form of it that we cannot expect to understand. … The difficulty here is that the higher pleasures … rather resemble religion, and it is impossible to enjoy them without trying to hand them on. The appreciator of an aesthetic becomes in his minor way an artist; he cannot rest without communicating what has been communicated to him … It is therefore impossible to sit alone with one’s books and prints, or to sit only with friends like oneself, and never to testify outside.

… So, reader surfing by, this month, this year, or as long as this blog is alive … are you moved to testify on behalf of the Beatles oeuvre – put your three most beloved songs from it into a comments box below, with or without an explanation or any expectation of a reaction? … A message in a bottle cast out to sea?

Marcel Proust, punk rocker avant la lettre (… a post about, well, … language)

Fasnacht in Switzerland's MittellandPhotograph by

Fasnacht in Switzerland’s Mittelland

In some lucky, freezing parts of the world, this is a time for the licensed collective madness called winter carnivals. In German-speaking Switzerland, the prelude to Lent named Fasnacht or Fastnacht gives the famously orderly Swiss an excuse for escaping their usual selves in ritualised abandon and disciplined bacchanals – all dressed up in fantasy.

We suspect that it was in this state of mind that a Swiss correspondent of post-Gutenberg’s sent us a link to one of the most unlikely obituaries we have ever read. It might have been written specially for Fasnacht – in deepest sympathy with the spirit of this celebration – even if it is an actual encapsulation in a London newspaper of the life of a 1960s English rocker we confess we had never heard of.

What is it about the life of Reg Presley of the Troggs that makes us especially ashamed of our ignorance? These extracts (below) will explain, to anyone too busy to read the original — who will want to know that the Larry Page mentioned in our first clip was the group’s manager.

Two conclusions occurred to us when, frantic for oxygen, we reached the obituary’s end:

(i) It would seem that long before the villainous internet killed culture — if you believe some of our fulminating, fuddy-duddy, cultural guardians — our era’s counterpart for sumptuously graphic Chaucerian language, describing essential functions of the human body, entailed using a single word beginning with the sixth letter of the alphabet a lot. Okay, an awful lot — through mindless, spontaneous repetition.

(ii) It was not some ignorant online – Amazon! — reviewer but a professional dead-tree critic in faraway 1971 who pronounced rocker Reg the equal of the most venerated writer in the French literary canon.

Page dressed his protégés in loud striped suits and urged them to maintain an impeccable image offstage. Presley, a moderate drinker who smoked, by his own estimation, an average of 80 a day for most of his life, never took illegal drugs. But Page was also particularly insistent that the group refrain from swearing. With time, the musicians found this stricture more difficult to adhere to.

In the late 1960s, a studio engineer secretly kept the tape rolling while The Troggs were airing musical differences between takes. The recording begins on an optimistic note, with one member explaining that: “This is a f—— number one. It f—— is. This is a number f—— one, and if this bastard don’t go, I f—— retire. I f—— do. Bollocks. But it f—— well won’t be unless we spend a little bit of f—— thought and imagination to f—— make it a f—— number one. You’ve got to sprinkle a little bit of f—— fairy dust over the bastard.”

Later in the discussion (ironically the song in question, never released, was entitled Tranquillity) a note of disharmony begins to creep in. Presley offers some advice to Ronnie Bond, the band’s drummer. “You can say that,” Bond responds, “all f—— night. Just shut your f—— mouth for five minutes. Don’t keep f—— ranting down that f—— microphone. F— me, Reg. Just f— off and let me keep going f—— through it. I know it ain’t f—— right. I can f—— hear it ain’t right you —-. F— me. When I f—— hear it in my f—— head, that that’s what I’ve gotta f—— do, then I’ll do it. You big pranny.”

“The Troggs’ Tapes”, as the bootlegged session became known, became one of their most enduringly popular recordings. Parodied in a scene of Rob Reiner’s 1984 comedy This is Spinal Tap, it was eventually issued legally, as a bonus CD in Archaeology, a 1992 boxed set of the group’s collected works. “I was a bit annoyed about the tape at the time,” Reg Presley said, “because it was a while before we knew it even existed. We found out in a pub, in west London. This bloke came up to us and said: ‘You’re the Troggs, aren’t you? Have a listen to this.’”

Presley was informed that pirated copies of the 11-minute tape, unpurged of its 114 expletives, had been eagerly purchased by his rivals in the music business, and that black market vendors were reporting a more satisfactory level of customer feedback than was usual with a Troggs recording.

This was unfair. For Wild Thing, With a Girl Like You and Any Way That You Want Me were outstanding singles which inspired a host of performers, including Iggy Pop. The late American writer Lester Bangs even went so far as to publish a 25,000 word eulogy to The Troggs, which hailed them as the godfathers of punk and called their music “holy”. At one point Bangs, whose critical instincts occasionally betrayed his prodigious consumption of narcotics, compared Reg Presley to Marcel Proust.


When discussing space travel, Presley tended to depart from the standard vernacular, referring to interstellar craft as “the bugger” or “the bastard”, and to interplanetary communications systems as “tackle”. In 1994 he claimed to have obtained footage of a metallic disc seen hovering over crops, an object which, he said, was “nosin’ around at corn height”, and “sniffin’ around the field”. This, he argued, was “one of the little fellers – the ones with the big cow eyes, which in UFO circles we call the greys. I’ve got a sneaking feeling that they are engineered by aliens who can see the future; if they know a woman is going to lose a baby they take it and they convert it. They put in a bit of extra brain. Maybe no vocal. But they can mind-read you.”

If an alien craft landed and offered to abduct him, Presley reflected in 2006, “I hope I would have the bottle to go. Because I’d like to ask them a lot of bloody questions. And they’ve probably got all the answers. These beings may be 20 million years in advance of us. What kind of technology must they have? You could come back to earth and not know a soul on the planet. But perhaps you would have seen something that would help save the whole human race. And maybe some people have done that.”

Note at a publishing crossroads: is it time for Ian Rankin to move over and let younger Scots writers take his place?

They’d said it would take me 105 days to get to Mars in Unicorn One. I’d only been going for eight days. The window was facing away from the sun but a glint of refracted light must have found its way through the thick quartz glass. I saw my image reflected amongst the stars. My hair looked terrible.

Now, who on earth could that be?

Ah, … the main character in a delectable short story, ‘Unicorn One’, in a collection titled Storm Damage. Any reader who tests works of fiction by sampling random paragraphs is immediately compelled by this e-work to scroll back a few pages to learn that

 … within ten years of standing on that hill with Tommy, I would be selected as Scotland’s first astronaut. Not the first Scot to go into space, of course, but the first one to be chosen for Scotland’s Independent Space Program. The world’s media had regarded our endeavour as a joke. Too long had we been seen as England’s or America’s poodle. The German press had shown photographs of our most dilapidated, forsaken housing estate ghettoes and asked what kind of people would begin a Space Program with this kind of poverty rampant in their back yard.


Even within the Space Program, I had not been a popular choice for first astronaut. They had turned down pilots and scientists, Marines and arctic explorers, mountaineers and deep sea divers, only to choose me, a hairdresser from a remote Scottish town.

‘It’s necessary nowadays,’ they had told me, ‘to find people the public can relate to …

When we reached that sentence, at post-Gutenberg, we were not simply shaken out of a mood best described as chiaroscuro-verging-on-dark. Soon, we were reading all the way back from the beginning – an opening that we would have found just as irresistible, had we started where most people do:

There was a beautiful bird on the branch, singing. It was small with brown wings and perfect white chest feathers. Its tone was too shrill and its eyes darted. Its whole manner was erratic. The sunlight was salmon-pink among the trees and I knew something was wrong, something was going to happen. I didn’t hear a sound, except the bird singing, until the shot went off and chips of wood sprang towards my cheek from the tree I was standing near …

To think that in the old days of traditional print publishing, we might never have had the luck of reading John A. A. Logan — a marvellous writer happily undaunted by chronic cold-shouldering by literary gatekeepers. His success in e-publishing turned him into a lodestar for anyone publishing unmediated e-books as independently as Virginia Woolf once released her own experimental novels in print.

When we wrote about him and other young literary Lochinvars a few weeks ago, we did not mention that we had been thinking of how wonderful it would be if Ian Rankin could only award John his latest monster advance from his publisher in recognition of the e-book writer’s infinitely fresher perspective and fizzing imagination. The once-unique Rankin creation, the boozy, crusty and jaded police detective, John Rebus, has suffered, in recent years, from his inventor’s all too-obvious irritation and boredom with being forced to spin yet another tired yarn about him.

In November, this trend earned poor Ian Rankin the gimlet-eyed attention of a contributor to Private Eye’s books section (issue no: 1328) reviewing his latest novel – described as

full of reliable Scots wisecracking and people saying ‘Back in the day’, and … clearly written at one hell of a lick. Like many a previous Rebus outing, its final effect is to call the whole basis of Ian Rankin’s career into serious question.

Ouch. The Eye did not mince its words, fingering the culprit for this apparently lazy and self-indulgent offering by a writer who has by now grown accustomed to having an overstuffed piggy bank:

Brought to a waiting world amid a flourish of publishers’ trumpets, attended by wall-to-wall publicity … Standing in Another Man’s Grave can be marked down as a triumph for the old-style trade-book model …

Of course old-fashioned publishers are still capable of surprising and thrilling us with new discoveries, but at today’s publishing crossroads, you would have to be a fool to look only in their direction for the best new work.

Which is worse: fantasy presented as fact by a high-ranking veteran journalist — or by film-makers not in the documentary business?

Third view of 'The Mysterious Baths,' Giorgio De Chirico (see the last two posts)Photograph by MIL22

Third view of ‘The Mysterious Baths,’ Giorgio De Chirico (see the last two posts)
Photograph by MIL22

Surrealism. Surely, the art movement for our time.

What other tradition in image-making supplies better backdrops for recent events in — say, the dance between media and human life?

On that subject, we are making quick notes about what we know we will find impossible to believe without them, at some future date:

Item 1: a well-known columnist and ex-editor, Simon Jenkins, howls in outrage about facts twisted to heighten the drama in two feature films inspired by recent history.

His opinion on the subject matters. He has been chosen as a special adviser on decisions related to future press regulation, the focus of governmental negotiations with newspapers in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry. This is an appointment that, for reasons deducible below, amounts to giving the machine-wrecking Ned Ludd of Luddite fame a job as factory foreman.

Simon says, about two new films, Argo, whose subject is the escape of U.S. diplomats from Iran in 1979, and Zero Dark Five, a dramatisation of the military operation that killed Osama bin Laden:

Makers of films captioned as “true stories” claim either that fabrications do not matter as they are “just making movies”, or that they are justified in a higher cause. Yet they can hardly be both. Cinema in my view is the defining cultural form of the age. It deserves to be taken seriously, and therefore to be criticised for shortcomings. If the most celebrated of “docudramas”, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, could go to lengths to authenticate its storyline, why should not any film claiming truth to history?

This is an intrinsically odd objection. The tradition of pretending to tell the truth in the service of art goes back as far as the book considered by some authorities to be the first novel, in the West, Don Quixote (originally, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha; 1605). Miguel de Cervantes, the author, pretended to be merely the translator of an actual historical record of Quixote’s adventures by a Moorish scribe, Cide Hamete Benengeli. The exhausting true title of the book most of us know as Robinson Crusoe (1719) is The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was delivered by Pirates.

A delightful essay about Daniel Defoe’s winking invention of Crusoe — unrelated to the subject of this blog — appeared in The Wall Street Journal a few days ago. It describes critics complaining about Defoe ‘going too far in in creating the novel’s solid sense of actuality’. But that is irrelevant to its status in posterity. The essayist, Danny Heitman, is hardly isolated in declaring that ‘the book’s most abiding message is its affirmation of literature itself.’

Item 2: the same journalist, Simon Jenkins, foists a bizarre reality-distortion field on readers every time he writes about internet culture and our increasingly computer-permeated lives.

Against ever-longer odds, he strains to persuade us in elegant prose that we are well on our way to post-digital life. Is he joking? Apparently not, as he goes to pains to present curious factoids for substantiation — for instance, these:

A mild sensation was created this summer by the revelation that Google, Apple and Yahoo executives were sending their children to California’s Waldorf schools, where computers are banned. The masters of the e-universe appear convinced that computers “reduce attention spans and inhibit creative thinking, movement and human interaction”. Classes have reverted to using blackboards, chalk, pens, paper, books and even teachers.

Post-digital is not anti-digital. It extends digital into the beyond. The web becomes not a destination in itself but a route map to somewhere real.

Really? How many children were involved in this trend supposedly sweeping Silicon Valley? An inconsequential sub-fraction — according to one blogger’s good humoured evisceration of the non-evidence in an excellent post on Papyrus News about the rather less overblown report in The New York Times on which Simon was apparently leaning:

The article [mentions] four Silicon Valley firms: Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Hewlett Packard. Between them, those firms have tens of thousands of employees, with tens of thousands of children. A total of 294 children go to the Waldorf School (not all of whose parents work in high-tech industries). Does that mean that 99% of employees in high-tech firms believe that computers do have a role in education?

Nowhere are classrooms ‘reverting’ to chalk and blackboards. In the very week in which Simon wrote his screed, the most-discussed news in education was the explosion in disembodied learning through online courses offered by universities like Stanford and internet tutoring in maths and science for school children.

Nor has he yet produced a single convincing argument or anything resembling a fact to support his prediction of a transition to ‘post-digital’ existence — now mentioned by him in at least three columns.

In 2009, he announced — and was congratulated by several naive commenters for his revelation — that there was a reason why ‘the ghost of Gutenberg’ was about to ‘die laughing.’ And why was that? According to Simon, a new venture was downloading text from the internet and selling on the streets of San Francisco a publication called The Printed Blog. Lo! he crowed triumphantly, ‘[F]or the Jeremiahs who tell me that I and my medium are doomed to litter the fish-shop gutter, I have news. . .’.

If nothing was heard of this thundering victory before he wrote his column or since, it is because there never was any such publishing exercise in San Francisco. You might imagine that either he or his editors should have discovered that themselves — simply by checking, a basic act in journalism — for the column grandly titled ‘Old is new. Even Gutenberg’s ghost has returned to live in Silicon Valley.’ (N.B.: a detail: San Francisco is not and never has been considered a part of the cradle of high technology.)

Yet, last weekend, there was Simon himself playing scolding schoolmaster,

Fiction may be free and facts expensive, but film-makers are not short of researchers. Commentators may be accused of choosing facts to prove their opinions – plague the thought – but that is different from falsification. Nor do they excuse lies as higher truth. The licence to report carries responsibilities.

Well. Erm … yes.

Item 3: a judge cites the fictional spy James Bond’s wide renown to justify a real-life decision unfavourable to chiefly female petitioners treated by undercover police as sexual prey. Some of these policemen had children by the women, even five-year relationships with them, then disappeared without a trace.

In a column last week, Jonathan Freedland recorded with fully-warranted fury that

Mr Justice Tugendhat […] ruled on whether a case brought by 10 women and one man duped into fraudulent relationships by undercover police officers should be heard in open court or in a secret tribunal.

The decision hinged on whether the law governing agents of the state allows them to form sexual relationships with those they spy upon. The good judge believes that when MPs wrote the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) in 2000, permitting undercover police to form “personal or other” relationships, they must have meant it to include sexual relationships. After all, the legislators were bound to have had one particular secret agent in mind. “James Bond is the most famous fictional example of a member of the intelligence services who used relationships with women,” Tugendhat declared, lending “credence to the view that the intelligence and police services have for many years deployed both men and women officers to form personal relationships of an intimate sexual nature”.


Those involved tell of deep and genuine attachments, the men integrated into their lives as partners, living together, travelling together, attending family gatherings, sitting at a parent’s bedside, even attending a funeral.


[T]his was the hacking of people’s lives, burrowing into the most intimate spaces of the heart in order to do a job, all authorised by the police. It is state-sanctioned emotional abuse …

Such horror was nearly as hard to believe as Simon Jenkins’s assertions that print was on its way to re-capturing eyeballs lost to screens, or that computers were on their way out of education — only it was actually inflicted on real people.

Item 4: a teacher of the storyteller’s art complained in The New York Times, a fortnight ago, that most of his students were no longer capable of constructing narrative fiction that made sense of the world.

That will hardly surprise any reader who has reached this paragraph of our post. The teacher, Steve Almond — whose splendid essay deserves to be read in full said, in part:

About 10 years ago, in creative-writing classes I was teaching, I began to encounter a particular species of student story. The hero was an unshaven man who woke in a strange room with no idea where he was or why. Invariably, something traumatic had happened to him, though he didn’t know exactly what. The rest of the story sought to reconstruct his arrival in these dire circumstances, via scenes that had been chronologically mutilated for maximum profundity.

My standard reaction to such pieces was to jot earnestly flummoxed queries in the margins like “Where are we?” and “Is it possible I’m missing a page?”


The underlying … question is whether the story of our species — the greater human narrative — has simply become too enormous, too confused and terrifying, for us to grapple with. This might explain why so many of us now rely on a cacophony of unreliable narrators to shape our view of the world and ourselves …

… So, to summarise these jottings in reverse order: people whose job is to tell stories have given up on trying to make sense; judges justify police mistreatment of citizens, citing figments of a novelist’s imagination as proof of societal sanction for it; a journalist prone to presenting wild invention as fact admonishes spinners of screen fantasies for not doing what is supposed to be his job — strict adherence to the truth.

There is an ancient Hindu conception of the world as all-maya — which means, illusion.

There was a time, not long ago, when it was hard to understand.

Forget #Leveson. Journalism’s future is about being held to account by us, not judges or statutes

Pop Art tribute by the surrealist Giorgio De Chirico from another another angle (see last week's post)Photograph by MIL22

Pop Art tribute by the surrealist Giorgio De Chirico from another another angle (see last week’s post)
Photograph by MIL22

Lord Justice Leveson believes — or must now pretend that he does, for political reasons we explained in a recent post:

[B]loggers and tweeters … have no real reputation for accuracy or reliability but are, in many ways, no more than electronic versions of pub gossip […O]n the other hand, the established media and established journalists … have a powerful reputation for accuracy …

 – lecture at Melbourne University, 12 December 2012

… and …

The internet … does not trade in gossip. It simply publishes it online, […I]t does so without, as yet, any general standards of behaviour, such as those to which the media is held.

 speech at the University of Technology in Sydney, 7 December 2012

The truth is that without thoughtful, diligent bloggers — and other agents of free speech — this trenchant perception from nine decades ago would still apply with full force:

[J]ournalism is supposed to tell us what is happening. It actually serves up a mixture of true facts, false facts, and comment … ‘The high mission of the Press.’ Poor Press! As if it were in a position to have a mission! It is we who have a mission to it.To cure a man through the newspapers or through propaganda of any sort is impossible: you merely alter the symptoms of his disease. We shall be purged only by purging our minds of confusion. The papers trick us not so much by their lies as by their exploitation of our weakness.

– E. M. Forster, 1925

Here is the concluding sentence of an exposé of serious misreporting by the press of an important government reaction to Lord Justice Leveson’s report — a warning by the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, about just one of the judge’s recommendations, in a favourable overall assessment of them:

Unfortunately, the press has once again, sacrificed balanced and accurate reporting of facts in order to promote its own political agenda.

Of course that would hardly surprise Forster, a subtle and deep social observer (whose perspicacity we have alluded to before, in the very different context of the British Raj in India). The blog post from which we clipped that grim conclusion is reproduced below with the kind permission of Hugh Tomlinson at the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) — which, as far as we can tell, is run not by members of the media but lawyers with a social conscience.  Its subject is the distorted newspaper reports of the Information Commissioner’s reservation about Lord Justice Leveson’s suggestion on ‘subject access’ — that the subjects of news stories be permitted to examine the information about them in the files of journalists (with the 1998 Data Protection Act as his context). This is an eminently reasonable objection: opening journalists’ records to their subjects would make it it impossible to protect vital confidential sources. … But that is no excuse for the comprehensive misrepresentation by the press of what the Commissioner said about the Leveson report — as the INFORRM post explains in the fine and somewhat technical details it must, to justify its condemnation beyond any possible defence.

Independent voices like INFORRM’s are exactly what Forster wanted — members of the public, us, purging press lies from society’s store of critical information, without fear or favour, and treating upmarket broadsheets like The Guardian no differently from downmarket tabloids like the Daily Mail, when they are guilty of the same offences against the truth.

News: Leveson Recommendations – the Information Commissioner responds and the Press misreports


The Information Commissioner has published his response to the Leveson Report.   His response was overwhelming positive, agreeing with the large majority of recommendations including, in particular, the recommendations about tougher sentencing for data protection offences.  This would not, however, have been clear to readers of the British press.  Newspaper reports of the response concentrated on one sentence of the 20 page document dealing with one part of one recommendation.

The Recommendation in question was number 49 – concerning the removal of the right of subject access from the “journalistic exemption” in section 32 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (a recommendation qualified by reference to the need to ensure the protection of journalist’s sources was not affected).  The Information Commissioner commented (on page 11 of the Response) that

“The area of subject access is particularly problematic in that there are legitimate concerns about the ‘chilling effect’ Lord Justice Leveson’s proposal might have on investigative journalism. This area will need very careful consideration. This again is a matter of balance of interests and is ultimately a matter for Parliament”.

This comment was transformed into the “Daily Mail” headline, “How investigative journalism ‘could be harmed by Leveson’, says Information Commissioner”.  The words “could be harmed” do not, in fact appear in the Information Commissioner’s response. The opening paragraph of the “Daily Mail” story is wholly misleading

“Key proposals in the Leveson Report could harm investigative journalism, the Information Commissioner warned yesterday”.

The Commissioner gave no such warning and did not cast doubt on “key proposals” – but rather, raised a question about one small part of one proposal.  The “Daily Telegraph” had the headline “Leveson could have “chilling effect” on journalism, Information Commissioner warns”.  No such warning was given.

The Guardian did not do much better with the headline “Leveson data protection plans ‘could have chilling effect on journalism‘.  Again, the words “could have a chilling effect” do not appear in the response.  The “Guardian” also, wrongly, states that the Commissioner said he would “actively oppose” changes to the role of the ICO in relation to the press.  What was, in fact, said was that the ICO was “not actively seeking” a wider role.

None of the newspapers mentioned the fact that the Information Commissioner had welcomed the overwhelming majority of the recommendations – and in particular, the one relating to section 55 (which, as Julian Petley’s recent series of posts have shown, the press has been campaigning against for many years, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4).

The Daily Mail and Guardian stories have been tweeted on several occasions and the disinformation is spreading.  In order to assist our readers who do not have time to read the full response we will endeavour to provide a more balanced and accurate account.

The relevant recommendations fall into three areas: ones directed to the Ministry of Justice concerning the press and data protection, ones made to the Information Commissioner directly and ones with data protection implications generally.

First, there are those directed to the Ministry of Justice (Recommendations 48 to 57). These concern various amendments to Data Protection legislation in relating to the press.  As a general point, the Commissioner says that

“Taken as a whole package, Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations on reforming the DPA would, if implemented, move the ICO closer to becoming a mainstream statutory regulator of the press. The significance of the proposed changes should not be underestimated. It is clearly for the Government and Parliament to consider what role the ICO should ultimately play in regulating the press“.

The Commissioner makes it clear that the ICO is not actively seeking such a role but that, ultimately, this is involves “public policy decisions” for the Government and Parliament to make (p.9).

In relation to the specific recommendations under this head

Recommendation 48 – amendment of the exemption in section 32: The Commissioner says that this has merits but the key is creating the right balance which is a matter for Parliament.

Recommendation 49 – narrowing of the scope of the section 32 exemption:  The Commissioner says this requires careful consideration and, as already mentioned, that there are “legitimate concerns” about the chilling effect of the proposal in relation to “subject access”.  It is noteworthy that he does not add any example or analysis or express a view as to whether these concerns can properly be met in amended legislation.

Recommendation 50 – right to compensation to cover pure distress – The Commissioner strongly supports this recommendation.

Recommendation 51 – repeal of certain procedural provisions in the DPA – The Commissioner supports this recommendation

Recommendation 52 – provision relating to “balance” of freedom of expression and data protection regime.  The Commissioner sees no difficulty with this but questions whether it is necessary.

Recommendation 53 – provision to have regard to a recognised system of regulation.  The Commissioner, again, sees no difficulty with this but suggests that it reflects existing policy and practice.

Recommendation 54- bringing into force amendments to section 55 of DPA (custodial sentences and enhanced public interest defences).  The Commissioner hopes that “there will be no further delay in implementing this recommendation”

Recommendation 55 – extension of ICO prosecuting powers -The Commissioner agrees that there is some benefit in an express power to prosecute for related offences although believes that its powers should not be extended to cover all crimes in which personal data is processed unlawfully.

Recommendation 56 – a new duty to consult with CPS –  The Commissioner has no difficulty with this recommendation but wonders whether it is necessary to introduce a formal duty.

Recommendation 57 – reconstitution of ICO as an Information Commission –  The Commissioner agrees that the opportunity should be taken to consider this option but mentions a number of alternative models.

The Leveson Report makes then makes nine recommendations “to the Information Commissioner” (Recommendations 58 to 66).  These recommendations are all substantially accepted.

Finally, there are three recommendations that impact on the work of the ICO (Recommendations 67, 69 and 70).  The Commissioner “welcomes” or “agrees with” all these recommendations.

In short, the balance sheet is that of the 22 recommendations relevant to the ICO, 17 are agreed with, welcomed or strongly supported.  In relation to the others, the Commissioner believes that some require further consideration or should be accepted in part and that some (those relating to the journalistic exemption) require careful consideration by Parliament.  None of the recommendations are said to be “harmful”.

So, a more accurate headline would have been “Information Commissioner welcomes Leveson Data Protection Recommendations”.  There could be no proper complaint if newspapers had reported the Information Commissioner’s response and then added their own comments.  Unfortunately, the press has once again, sacrificed balanced and accurate reporting of facts in order to promote its own political agenda.

Book publishing’s future: a distinguished Spanglish record of a catastrophe foretold

 Giorgio De Chirico, the founder of the Metaphysical school of painting -- a forerunner of Surrealism -- created this sculptural work, 'The Mysterious Baths,' in 1973 -- when he was eighty-five. Photograph by MIL22

Giorgio De Chirico, the founder of the Metaphysical school of painting — a forerunner of Surrealism — created this sculptural work, ‘Fontana dei Bagni Misteriosi’ (‘The Mysterious Baths,’) in 1973 (aged 85).
Photograph by MIL22

A dig through papers stored in cardboard boxes on a freezing day in silver January light yielded a forgotten scrap of treasure. Who would deny that there is a touch of divine Borgesian surrealism about the circular below, from July, 1994?

Two years ago, we found ourselves arguing with a handsome Swiss nineteen year-old, the son of a novelist, who haughtily condemned the efforts of Google Translate — and was impervious to any suggestion that the translator-robot might be better than nothing, and improving steadily. What, we wonder, would that Adonis make of our vintage circular from the Spanish publisher of the likes of Octavio Paz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino? This relic, though unsigned, was clearly the work of one of those gentlemanly, perfectionist luminaries of the old print-book publishing world who could — at the drop of a sombrero — have summoned any number of helpers capable of a more straightforward rendering of Spanish thoughts into English.

It is astonishing to read this author complaining about excessive haste — the hurried new tempo being born, for people in his trade — even though no literary proletarian of the time was obliged to answer email around the clock, or multi-task, or check thought-streams in social media.

Still, we are delighted with our discovery. No text we have read, for days, has lifted our spirits to quite the same degree. This is not so much because it reminded us of the high comedy of our own inept attempts to communicate in, say, rusty French. It is the writer’s gung-ho, embrace-the-future-or-perish sentiments about the future of publishing — and eagerness to join forces across cultural borders, for the transition — that we find both moving and endearing.



the 5th July from 10.00 to 13.30 hours
at the Museum of Science (Museu de la Ciència de la Fundaciò de ‘la Caixa’)

The perplexity of the publisher at the end of the century
Proposal for a debate

Our starting point is the fact that we have been living, on last years, great, swift changes which depthly affects the habits in publishing within the field in which we usually work, which is essentially the literary one, under whichever its forms. I think that all of us, now and then and in one way or another, have plunged into perplexity when faced to some of these changes, sometimes rude. From a special way of working, in which time was that of reading and the mechanisms of making contracts, of production, distribution, advertising and selling were relatively clear and simple, we have gone over to a new way of working, mastered by a hurried tempo and increasingly more complex mechanisms. This has often been generating into us doubts and hesitations concerning the future of our very activity as literary publishers and editors, whose activity, fundamentally based on risk, is to discover and experiment, both of them functions which need most of all, at first sight, different manners and time from those of an uniformised and accelerated production, distribution, advertising and selling. I suppose that this approach is valid, although very different nuances, whatever might be the kind of company in which usually works a literary publisher or editor, either an independent one, or a national or multinational group.

Therefore I suggest to divide our contributions into two interacted blocks:

1. Considerations on the present situation and analysis — avoiding as far as possible useless nostalgias — of those aspects from the past which we consider indispensable to safeguard, and even to fight for and maintain, and which complement or come into conflict with the steps each of us has been taking to grapple with the changes of these last years.

2. Reflections on how and what could be done in forthcoming years for the survival of this vocationally cultural activity, intact in its original purpose and spirit, but integrated into the new habits of both publishing and new reading communities, which already became unavoidable and are a part, like it or not, of our everyday task.

The contributions and the debate will be held either in English, French or Spanish, and we’ll have at our disposal, whenever needed, a simultaneous translation service to and from the three languages.


lee to cb

Should Babette’s creator have been expected to ask for permission to be a writer?

Drawing by Sascha Juritz

Drawing by Sascha Juritz

Dear Reader, our wish for a Happy New Year comes in the spirit of the lovebird mentioned here, in this set of advance instructions:

When a baby budgerigar died in a cage adjacent to the lovebird’s the latter grieved horribly for three days. She sat on her perch with her eyes squeezed tightly shut and ignored all attempts to communicate with her. She ate meagrely — but after three days, she put the matter firmly behind her and would entertain no reminders. She had returned to her usual vivacious self. So there you are, the animals are ahead of us. Humans are always uncertain about the policy in any situation, but animals …possess an answer to all problems.

The witty, magisterial line of Sascha Juritz, about whom we posted earlier this year, accompanies those thoughts of ACB’s, an ardent admirer of feathered creatures, whose flashing communication about an iris we recently recorded in this spot.

What came to mind when we revisited Sascha’s sketch yesterday was the title of a short story, ‘The Old Chevalier,’ from the Seven Gothic Tales of Isak Dinesen, to whose incomparable oeuvre post-Gutenberg was introduced by that same ACB — one of the two most significant forces in our existence — to whom we had no choice but to say a final good-bye last week.

Reflecting on her life, we find ourselves thinking often about Dinesen’s ideas about redemption through literature and art for all those who feel more thwarted than not; who can justify seeing themselves as victims of implacable, virtually lifelong, opposition to their hopes, dreams and plans.

Our woolgathering inevitably led us to Google, where we found, first, an appreciation by Susan Hardy Aiken of the most famous Dinesen story, ‘Babette’s Feast,’ whose theme the critic considers a reprise of another tale by the same genius, ‘The Supper at Elsinore’ — ‘a story of failed flight, of “all the betrayed and broken hearts of the world, all the sufferings of weak and dumb creatures, all injustice and despair on earth” …’ …

Of the later story, Aiken tells us:

… [T]he haunting presence … is … a revolutionary woman. At once ‘beggar’ and ‘conqueror’, benignly maternal and bewitchingly seductive, a festive, unclessifiable figure who makes ‘righteousness and bliss kiss one another’, Babette is also … a ‘great artist’ with ‘the gift of tongues’ whose concoctions can transcend and transform the confinements of culture and the misdirections of history. … Writing ‘Babette’s Feast’ in her old age, at a time when her own body was consumed by incurable illness, Dinesen would enact her artistic transcendence of that carnal confinement, offering her readers a ‘celestial’ feast of words, a ‘blissful’ feminine Eucharist able to redeem those who are failed or thwarted …

Then we found, in Susan Brantly’s book about Dinesen, a reminder of the reason why this author was first published outside her Danish homeland:

Dinesen’s reception in the United States was enthusiastic beyond all expectation [ … but her… ] misgivings about how the Danish audience would receive her book proved to be well founded … [Her] imaginative tales set in the previous century were quite different from what most Danes were reading. Svend Borberg described Dinesen as a flamingo-red orchid in a cabbage patch … The most notorious of the Danish reviews accused Dinesen of ‘snobbism, the fantastic, and perversity.’ The negative Danish reviews upset Dinesen. Svend Borberg, with a good dose of irony, suggested one reason for Dinesen’s being subjected to such a beating by the Danish critics: ‘It was naturally very cheeky, not to say brash, of Isak Dinesen — alias Baroness Karen Blixen — to conquer the world first with her book Seven Gothic Tales and then come to Denmark with it. As a Danish author she should have felt obligated to ask here at home first if she was worth anything.’

Ah, gatekeepers … We have posted about these beings before, when we considered Samuel Beckett’s opinions of them in a post here last winter. No doubt we will revisit the subject in 2013, if we can keep this blog going.

How high ambition hobbled Lord Justice Leveson’s chance to be a shining model for guiding media evolution and put new muscles on democracy

MIL22 + p-G leggitrice

Comrades across time: a scholarly girl of the 19th c. and a debater-netizen at a university today. (See our last two posts)
Sculpture by Pietro Magni, 1861, Villa Reale, Milano
Photomontage: MIL22 and post-Gutenberg

In social situations I try and leave telling people I am a lawyer to the end. I would much rather they see me first as an innovator, explorer, change agent, problem solver or entrepreneur.

– excerpt from article by Geoff Wild in the Law Gazette, selected for Private Eye‘s ‘Pseuds Corner,’ 14 December 2012

Why has Lord Justice Leveson turned against free speech on the net, after wisely refraining from doing any such thing during his hearings on press ethics and practices? His report and the aftermath of its publication, subjects of our last two entries in this blog, confirmed our grimmest expectations. The header of a post in May actually read:

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th Estate?

Though honest, incisive journalists and editors of the highest rank justified — at the Leveson hearings — the public’s perception of the dangers of a fact-bending partisan press, the Leveson report said:

We want the news in the press to be true and accurate; we do not want to be misled or lied to. But we want, or are content for, it to be presented in a partisan way. We want a measure of balance and context, but we also want a perspective. We want the truth, but we understand that there are many versions of the truth, and incompleteness in all versions. […] [‘F]act’ and ‘comment’ […]  are by no means distinct and watertight categories. The very act of describing a fact is to comment on it. All forms of recording are selective.

As we interpret that, hair standing on end, the judge now fully supports newspapers and proprietors of the likes of Rupert Murdoch in their wish to protect their power base  — no matter what damage partisanship does to the presentation of the truth. In our May post in this spot, quoting the Leveson testimony of Alastair Campbell, the famously Machiavellian political adviser to Tony Blair who deeply regrets his own manipulations, we explained:

Why is the press so desperate to convince us that media partisanship is a good thing? Because, if the public approves of the press siding with particular political leaders and parties — instead of preferring press impartiality,  as it actually does, at present – the 4th Estate can continue to assume king-making powers.

Politicians will continue to put themselves at the beck and call of newspaper proprietors and editors in the hope of winning their nominations in elections. As Campbell pointed out yesterday, Murdoch’s is not the only press fiefdom involved in […] ‘a co-dependent relationship between politicians and the media’.

And then, just as we feared in early summer, in remarks made earlier this month, the judge has disappointed everyone who understands the internet as our best hope of accelerating and refining democracy — the steady trend across centuries, in the world’s free societies, towards making one human being more fully the equal of another in, above all, the right to unfettered expression.

Where did he go wrong?

It is clear that this happened at the very beginning.

The judge’s big mistake was in announcing at the start of his excavation into press misbehaviour that he did not want his recommendations for improvement to gather ‘dust on an academic’s shelf’ — along with the reports of several failed 20th-century attempts at tackling the job he was handed by David Cameron in 2011.

If Lord Justice Leveson only knew that he stood no chance of being a force for the good if he showed how much he cared about putting his ideas into practice.

This is because turning his conclusions into policy is the work of politicians. A politician sees getting re-elected as his or her most important duty. Politicians still believe that the support of the famous names in the newspaper business is crucial to winning elections — in spite of the internet’s destruction of the financial viability of these mouthpieces and readers’ growing reliance on other, net-based sources of information.

If only #Leveson LJ — who so impressed many of us watching the hearings with his intellectual rigour, meticulousness, and scrupulous disinterestedness — could have realised that in revealing that his supreme aim was to make his mark on history, he had fallen into the role of the hapless innocent in fairy tales who blindly promises the evil wizard his first-born child tomorrow, in exchange for magic that lets him slay dragons today.

During Tony Blair’s testimony at the hearings in late May, the judge implored the ex-prime minister to help him make his dream come true. What this lofty witness said proved that politicians fear falling out with powerful old print media to an unimaginable degree — as France 24 reported:

‘With any of these big media groups, you fall out with them and you watch out, because it is literally relentless and unremitting once that happens,’ Blair, looking tanned and smart in a navy suit and white shirt, told the Leveson inquiry.

‘My view is that that is what creates this situation in which these media people get a power in the system that is unhealthy and which I felt, throughout my time, uncomfortable with. I took the strategic decision to manage this and not confront it but the power of it is indisputable.’

What should the judge have concluded, from that remarkable, quaking confession of intimidation? That committing himself to being steered by politicians would mean losing his ability to offer wise, objective counsel about rules for fair combat in the evolutionary struggle between fading old media and their digital successors.

Which is how the Leveson Inquiry shows every sign of sinking ever-deeper into the muck of political bargaining and infighting in which politicians — now the main actors — will use every delaying tactic they can think of to ensure that the Inquiry’s clear demonstration of what needs to be repaired, discarded and replaced in British media comes to naught.

But then, isn’t the point of the Law to ensure that the behaviour of people and institutions conforms to rules and standards wrought from yesterday’s ideas? In that sense, lawyers and judges are innately, unavoidably, conservative — preoccupied with conserving the values of the past until forced to do otherwise.

So of course Lord Justice Leveson’s speeches in Australia earlier this month amounted to threatening the internet, or mass communication’s future, to please his new friends — the fogeys of the old print press.

Forget the debates now droning on about choices for self-regulation by the press, with or without statutory support. The judge has become the chief protector and champion of that same institution he seemed bent on purging, sanitising, and returning to the marvellous ideal of an incorruptible and deeply moral 4th Estate, mere months ago.

Will sic transit gloria do, for a Christmas message?

Quick screen grabs: the internet generation reacts to #Leveson LJ lecturing about laws on the way for online life

SUPER sceptical blonde student Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 00.06.54

Watching Lord Justice Leveson speak to a predominantly middle-aged audience at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advanced Journalism four hours ago, post-Gutenbergers were struck by the extraordinary scepticism and disengagement on the few young and youthful faces among his listeners. The yawning gap in perspective is unsurprising. How could someone who has never blogged, tweeted, or commented on articles online understand the power and glory of communicating on the web? How could he be expected to do more than issue grim warnings about freedom’s end?

We rushed to take some fast-and-dirty screen shots.

In a future post — before the new year, time thieves permitting — this blog should have rather more to say about the judge’s speech.

tweet tries boring int into submission Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 00.59.18

sceptics, 2, young, small scr Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 23.58.52

lev S sceptical pink Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 23

sceptical or sleeping aud members Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 00.11.29
sceptical yng mn wmn Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 23.40.14
sceptical blonde girl (b) Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 00.06.51
LJL warning Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 23.42.19

tweet lev pedestrian + BLOGGERS NOT NECESS A DANGER Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 01.02.11

Lord Justice Leveson in Australia, fear of ‘mob rule’ on the internet — and a case of wobbly telepathy?

Barbarians on the net? A blogger, even a putative 'troll,' could easily be a civilised, cerebral girl like this one'La leggitrice' -- Photograph by MIL22

Barbarians on the net? A blogger, even a putative ‘troll,’ could easily be a civilised, cerebral girl like this one
‘La leggitrice’ — Photograph by MIL22

Zounds. The original header for this entry, first published a day and a half ago, was:

‘Congratulations, #Leveson LJ, for leaving the blogosphere and online publishing alone — and for declining to succumb to neurotic fear of the “mob”‘

We linked to an announcement of Lord Justice Leveson’s speaking engagement in Sydney, at a symposium held there today. And … guess what we have just found on Google? A BBC News report, still warm from the oven, with this fragment from his speech: ‘Laws are needed to prevent “mob rule” on the internet and “trial by Twitter”, Lord Justice Justice Leveson has said … .’ This is the first record we at post-Gutenberg have ever heard or seen of him mentioning ‘mob’ in the same sentence as ‘internet’, even though we would hardly be surprised if he did so in some exchange in his Inquiry. Might telepathy explain this astonishing development — or (but, no, surely not) did an aide to Leveson LJ draw his attention to re-tweets about this post by the two most constructive blogs on the Inquiry, Hacked Off and INFORRM (the International Forum for Responsible Media)? 

If it was indeed a telepathic connection, it was a bit spotty, because, according to the BBC bulletin, the judge is every bit as worried as the rest of the Establishment about the lawlessness of the net. What we said in our post (below) is still perfectly accurate. He deserves high praise for not warping the evolution of the internet as a radically democratic medium with poorly conceived and premature rules for online publishing. He could have used his Inquiry to do the wrong thing and copy King Canute commanding the sea to roll back — as so many newspaper proprietors and obtuse columnists had hoped he would. 

He did not.

We should note, here, that post-Gutenberg is as keen as anyone else on the arrival of the day on which we finally have a wise and far-sighted set of rules for online life — not least because we care passionately about protecting artists’ and writers’ right to eat, through reasonable copyright enforcement. (See ‘Might audience jealousy of artists explain why copyright is being officially destroyed on the internet?‘)

As for our apparent anticipation of the Inquiry leader’s interest in the topic of ‘mob rule,’ we hope that he reads all the way to the end of this post. 

Quel wheeze. 

Many journalists are worried about the impact of the Leveson report. […] What I’m worried about is about how Leveson will empower the people who lurk below the line […] How will Leveson empower these people? […] The scum below the line will mobilise and use the regulatory system to complain online, and en masse. Plenty of people already dedicate their time to making the lives of journalists a misery …

Columnist ranting in The Telegraph about reader comments on newspaper websites

Like certain unwitting colonisers from the Northern Hemisphere in the late 1700s, the eponymous judge leading the Leveson Inquiry into press behaviour and standards has gone to Australia. Never mind if he is a willing transportee serving the aims of H. M.’s government, whereas so many English who travelled the same route two centuries earlier were not. In the hostile unease in today’s Establishment that Lord Justice Leveson went to pains to pacify in his report published last Thursday, there are echoes from the past — from Establishment debates and anxieties that inspired the founding of the penal colony Down Under.

Judging by what we at post-Gutenberg have been able to read of the Leveson report, so far — in a true annus horribilis leaving us scarcely any time for blogging — his execution of the judiciary’s task of restoring calm and order to society has been thorough and careful.

But especially commendable is this: he did not let the hysteria of the ruling class — especially the segment of it that the press represents — force him into any unwise, premature attempt to draft rules for the blogosphere, or indeed any online publishing competing with old print media.

Lord Justice Leveson appears to understand perfectly that it is too soon to check or discipline a medium so new that it still has slippery fragments of afterbirth clinging to it, and will not be mature enough to be teachable for a while. ‘If we wish to compress something,‘ — for instance, constrain online publishing — ‘we must first let it fully expand,‘ was the advice we ourselves relayed from a sage of long ago, in answering the Inquiry’s request for public comment and suggestions.

The traditional press, railing at the Leveson report, sounds like online publishing’s envious, vengeful sibling, demanding that a parent impose equal punishment on all offspring regardless of culpability. Why must newspapers face new controls and rules, with or without statutory underpinning, when the Inquiry made no such recommendations for, eg., bloggers? Under the headline, ‘Leveson angers press over internet control,’ The Financial Times recorded this fury:

Lord Justice Leveson has angered UK newspaper bosses …

In an editorial on Friday, The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s flagship tabloid, wrote “an over-regulated press in parallel with an unregulated internet spells chaos and will be the nail in the coffin for the newspaper industry”.

Yet again, newspaper reporting on the Inquiry has been wickedly selective. Leveson LJ notes in his findings that ‘the work of very many bloggers and websites … should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional’ — but scarcely anyone in old print media was brave enough to record that statement.

Only Private Eye and a few blogs like this one have been drawing attention to such omissions and distortions over the eighteen months of the Inquiry. How has the traditional press been getting away with this crime against honest journalism?

Irrational fear of ‘the mob’ is the answer we suggest. In the past, this sanctioned rank injustice actually codified in law. Robert Hughes’ references, in his magisterial history, The Fatal Shore, include the habit in Georgian England of referring to the masses beneath the elite as ‘the mobbish class of persons’. You could easily substitute ‘bloggers’ or ‘the internet’ for ‘mob’ where he notes,

The ‘mob,’ as the urban proletariat was called, had become an object of terror and contempt, but little was known about it. It was seen as a malign fluid, a sort of magma that would burst through any crack in law and custom, … easily inflamed…

and especially, here:

The ‘mob’ was Georgian society’s id — the sump of forbidden thoughts and proscribed actions …

The irrational terror meant that no one in any position of responsibility went to the trouble of doing any research into the factual basis for the elite’s misconceptions of the proletariat. The actual rise in crime that followed the population explosion that in turn followed the Industrial Revolution was vastly exaggerated, and used to justify ever more unjust laws that especially victimised the poor:

One could be hanged for burning a house or hut, a standing rick of corn, or an insignificant pile of straw; for poaching a rabbit, for breaking down ‘the head or mound’ of a fishpond, or even cutting down an ornamental shrub; or for appearing on a high-road with a sooty face.

What made all this particularly dire was that there was, increasingly, no competing authority to keep the judiciary in check. Eighteenth-century England, Hughes observes, witnessed

the growth of the Rule of Law … into a supreme ideology, a form of religion which, it has since been argued, began to replace the waning moral power of the Church of England.

That is even truer today, in an officially secular society in which the upper crust is free to speak of religion with spitting contempt. We should be all the more grateful to Lord Justice Leveson for his resistance to Establishment pressure to recommend legal controls and disciplinary action for the expression of thoughts and ideas, and dissemination of facts, on the internet.

Perhaps, in his time in the Antipodes, he can congratulate himself on his moderation as he is reminded, simply by being there — haunted in his dreams, perhaps, by the clanking chains of convicts — of the excesses of his predecessors in judicial robes:

The belief in a swelling wave of crime was one of the great social facts of Georgian England. It shaped the laws, and the colonisation of Australia was the partial result.

On the threshold of ♯Leveson’s d-day, The Guardian shuts reader-citizens out of the debate

 should be king in a democracy, but are being denied free speech on press regulation — by the press.
Photograph by

In the autumn of last year, in the prelude to formal hearings for the Leveson Inquiry, Baron Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, said:

It is the birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent. It is therefore not a right of one section of the community, not just a sectional right. It is the right of the community as a whole. It is, if you like, our right, the right of every citizen.

Reporting on the curious omission by newspapers of any mention of that warning to the press, post-Gutenberg asked:

Why … is no one in the British media mentioning the prohibition by a leading newspaper of free discussion – by ordinary citizens – of the future of the press, on three separate occasions last week?

On the last Sunday before d-day — the 29th of November, when Lord Justice Leveson is due to deliver his report – The Guardian belatedly opened to comment by readers two vital contributions to the press regulation debate from Observer writers. Reader commenting had been barred for most of the day after these pieces were posted in the (ahem) Comment-is-free section of the web site shared by these newspapers but administered by The Guardian (which bought its rival several years ago).

That must have been quite a fight behind the scenes, before The Guardian relented and, by mid-morning on the 25th, let justice and common sense prevail.

Read the excerpts from these opinions The Guardian found so threatening, and be amazed. Better yet, follow our links, read the rest – especially the few reader comments permitted before commenting was once again closed, after less than half a day – and be astounded by the usual categorisation of The Guardian as a ‘liberal’ newspaper.


– from the Will Hutton column, ‘Why I, as a journalist and ex-editor, believe it is time to regulate the press’ [24 November 2012]:

The precious freedom of speech of an individual is different from the freedom of speech of a media corporation with its capacity to manipulate the opinions of millions, which is why it must take place within the law and within a framework of accountability. Freedom is not only menaced by the state; it is also menaced by private media barons and their servants, …

An avalanche of highly spun journalism to serve partisan interests has become habitual. The public realm has become degraded. The trade and craft of journalism has been abused; the journalists who work in newsrooms, where standards are routinely sidelined, need protecting.


– from an editorial in The Observer, ‘Leveson report: do we need a new law to rein in the press?’ [24 November 2012]:

The press – as anachronistic as that term now sounds in a digital age – have not, on the whole, been a great advert for plurality in the last month. In that time, they have fixed Leveson in their cross hairs and unleashed a ferocious ordnance in his direction.


There are reasonable, cogent arguments to be made about regulation or the lack thereof. There is a proper debate that we need to have post-Leveson, one characterised less by tribalism and more by reason.

As we wondered, last November:

[The] question no one in the media apparently wants to face is, will the public grant professional journalists a continuation of special privileges in the digital age if they no longer adhere to the traditions of fairness, neutrality and dedication to the truth that won them those privileges in the 18th century? Earlier this month, this blog mentioned the media’s refusal to acknowledge – or indeed discuss at all – the public’s dismay about an increasingly partisan press.

There are other alarming silences …

Now you see them, now you don’t …

Structural priming — or why you can’t put an arts career on hold to get rich, then become Van Gogh or Nabokov

Conversational sketch, at lightning speed, by ACB
Photograph by Louise Dumitriu and Drew Collins

Photograph by

A lawyer and the doctor practice their callings. The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin their work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out, to the public gaze.

Daybook, Anne Truitt

‘Artistic people aren’t respected.’

Such was the sorrowful reason given to a mother by a mid-twenties daughter for abandoning the drawing and painting garlanded with praise by teachers at her school. Post-Gutenberg hopes that this daughter, a newly-discovered second cousin, was only having a temporary fit of the glooms and has yet to donate her 2B pencils to the Salvation Army.

We are reluctant interventionists. We are unlikely to collar this cousin and warn her about one common, possibly universal, form of pressure indiscriminately applied to young people with artistic talent.

It comes in the form of this advice: just build a secure nest egg, first, by chopping off the mental equivalent of arms and legs in the service of a Procrustean accommodation to conventional expectations – by working in (say) plumbing, podiatry, linear programming, or as a technology entrepreneur. Get a mortgage. Pay off most of it. Then, and only then, allow yourself to yield to your daemon – or whatever wonderful madness compels people to sculpt, write musical scores, etch, scribble, and so on – ‘and become successful and world-famous.’ That last part is often laced with irony the advisers like to imagine they have successfully concealed.

Ignore this well-meaning counsel, we would tell anyone with a true vocation. Toss it into the nearest circular file, because it amounts to dispatching someone on an impossible mission. Where are the ex-financiers and former Silicon Valley stars rocking and reshaping the arts world with their surpassing contributions, in second careers? (as even post-Gutenberg fondly imagined, long ago: see ‘Literary Capitalism’.)

That’s right. There is virtually no life that fits that arc.

Why not?

Once, we could only have offered a hunch based on years of watching lives unfold. Now, we can point to possible support for our intuition in speculating about the wider application of findings in psycholinguistics – of which the gist is that what we do strengthens and biases our neurocircuitry towards doing more of the same; also, that this can become a sort of mental rut not easily escaped.

For example, someone churning out executive memos day after day is unlikely to be capable of writing with the freedom and literary finesse of, say, a Sean McNulty (Murray) – recently featured on this blog – on nights after work, or years down the road, in retirement. Sean, judging by what he has told us over the years, chooses jobs for the time and brainpower they allow for writing – that free as much mental circuitry as possible for polishing risky, high-wire prose like his new novel, Twentieth Century Transmissions.

Post-Gutenberg would recommend Sean’s solution, working in the time-honoured tradition of ‘day jobs’, to anyone else young, talented and patron-less —  as far preferable to the ‘art as second career’ option that is really not realistic at all. Some means of keeping a talent alive by practicing it every day must be found, if only in the chinks and crannies of a life.

ACB, for example – someone as militantly anonymous as MIL22, whose photography frequently graces this site – has never stopped drawing, sneaking it in much like Jane Austen shoving her manuscripts under a blotter every time a family member entered the drawing room. When she mentioned bearded irises to us last week, in just the minute and a half it took post-Gutenberg to hunt for our photograph of one specimen, she had sketched – from memory — the flower she was referring to in the notebook she keeps at her side. ACB, we might add, is 81 and a half years old, and still, despite the acute arthritis in her hands, the multi-tasker she learnt to be long before whizzy digital technology filtered down to the public.

We had never seen so clear a pointer to the advantages of keeping your hand in, to preserve a talent, as the one we found in the implications of this explanation of ‘structural priming’ – in the way we all use language – in a recent column in The New York Times:

[Y]our brain’s activity in one part of the day shapes it in another, especially when it comes to creating sentences. This is a real phenomenon, described by psycholinguists, who call it “structural priming” or “syntactic persistence.” Basically, earlier patterns in what you say or read or write “prime” you to repeat them when you’re acting automatically. Our tendency to say the same sorts of sentences as those around us was first studied by someone looking at, of all things, walkie-talkie conversations between burglars. Our words and sentence patterns are also primed in the same way, such that the words we chose are the words we will choose later.

If I write Kevin gave Sally a pen, I’m more likely later to write John sent Tim the files than I am to write John sent the files to Tim.


Each time you sit down to write, you should cleanse your linguistic palate by reading some things that are vastly unlike what you’ve been writing.


Also, it’s imperative that you shut off the Web and don’t look at e-mail while you’re writing. Each time you look at Facebook or Twitter, you get primed with another kind of language, whether it’s your friends’ or your own. But maybe you want to write like you tweet. In that case, prime away.

We make no claim to being neuroscientists, at post-Gutenberg. We have no official license to speculate as we have about the critical importance of priming not just as a sort of mental conditioning for scribblers, but a guide to managing a life in the arts. Even so, we suspect that many readers here will find all this cod obvious.

The Leveson Inquiry: rumours and batty arguments abounding, and a cautionary tale from Australia

We know that Lord Justice Leveson is pondering mightily; we hope that he is still pondering well
Photograph by

Google reminder: it’s the birthday of Auguste Rodin, the original Thinker’s sculptor

If the rumbling from the leaks-and-rumours mill is right, Lord Justice Leveson is going to recommend, in his report expected any day now, that the press needs statutory regulation.

Tant pis – if true.

As we have argued in a series of posts (for instance, this one), the transition to post-Gutenberg publishing makes all such rule-making pointless – the 21st-century equivalent of rewriting the regulations for monks hunched in scriptoria when the clattering, new-fangled presses of Johannes Gutenberg had already doomed to virtual irrelevance not just hand-lettered manuscripts but religious authority over human life.

If the editors of any leading newspaper are convinced, as we are, that the best way to keep journalism honest is to open the doors wide to online competitors, they are being awfully quiet about it.

In the ever less exciting wait for Leveson LJ to part the kimono on his conclusions and recommendations, the arguments being used to oppose the rumours we find so disappointing grow curiouser and curiouser.  Even The Observer appeared to have noticed this, in a column at the weekend, but when we read below the sniffy standfirst — ‘In an exploding digital age, arguments about press regulation are simply becoming silly’ — we found that Peter Preston  did not mention the decidedly odd shape of one missile launched at ♯Leveson (a Lunchtime O’Booze-grade weapon?) by another newspaper. This was in an unsigned editorial — ‘Telegraph View’:

One argument often advanced in its favour is that since the broadcast media are controlled by a statutory body, why should the press be different? The answer is that if people don’t like a newspaper, they need not buy it, whereas TV programmes are beamed directly into most people’s homes whether they want them or not. This distinction has long been recognised in law. To seek to bring the press under statutory regulation will impair freedom of speech and the liberties of the subject, however much MPs try to gild the lily.

What?… spluttered post-Gutenberg, all but choking on an apricot-and-almond brekky bar, during an unexpected visit to the Southern Hemisphere. No on-off buttons on British tv sets, then.

A quick check online confirmed that the real reason why broadcasting media are regulated but newspapers are not, is rather different – as Eve Solomon records in her excellent UNESCO paper on the subject:

[W]hat is the overriding rationale, the reason for regulating broadcasting as distinct from other media, say newspapers and magazines, or the internet?  The main justification argued by governments is that broadcasting uses spectrum, and spectrum is a public resource, allocated to nations  in accordance with complex international agreements.  As such, it is a scarce resource: there is only so much spectrum available for broadcasting use in each country. And therefore, because it is a scarce resource, it is valuable. Even though digital broadcasting is increasing the number of radio and television channels which are  available, there is still not an infinite supply. It is therefore reasonable for the State, as the owner of spectrum, to place obligations on broadcasters who use that resource.

The mechanism used for placing obligations on broadcasters is generally through licensing.

And the reason why the Telegraph editorialists do not know this is — ? Hmm. We can only guess. Perhaps they do, but the trauma of anticipating statutory regulation has befuddled their brains.

Australia shows exactly what is likely to happen in Britain if the scriptorium –- sorry, we mean, conventional press, is handed new rules for proper behaviour, and threatened with legal consignment to a grim and sunless naughty corner:

‘Light touch’ media reform could still spark fight

[The Australian, 8 October 2012]

AS the Gillard government finalises its overhaul of media laws, division between ministers and Julia Gillard has led to a watered-down set of proposals …

There has been no cabinet deliberation on a submission dealing with media reform; nor has there been any discussion as part of the regular strategy sessions within cabinet on substantive proposals.


While the Finkelstein inquiry proposed a statutory-based and government-funded industry super-regulator to be known as the News Media Council, the government is likely to reject this proposal. A senior government source describes the proposal for a media regulator as “all but dead”. …

… In other words, fight or no fight, the Finkelstein Inquiry seems most likely to be written off as a complete waste of time. It would be sad indeed to see ♯Leveson come to an equally sorry end.

Post-Gutenberg literary dilemmas: trick or treat?

Photograph by Mark Barron

Halloween is not part of our tradition at post-Gutenberg. Never mind, we feel uniquely privileged, posting this text and image sent to us as unsought bounty – yes, a surprise, in each case.

What are the most interesting arguments about literature’s transition to the post-print world? The extract from Sean McNulty’s Twentieth Century Transmissions – the novel he has just completed — came in email with shades of one debate for a preface:

I’ve attached the opening pages but FYI have taken out of copyright works by Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Bruno Schulz, Nathanael West, Virginia Woolf and others and remixed them into my own story, pretty much as China Miéville was talking about here just as I was finishing the novel:

The language of Sean’s text struck our inner ear as exceptionally fine — suggesting that the pessimism in our last post might not be entirely warranted. We found his manuscript original in the best way, as well as acutely disturbing. As a Halloween offering, it is the equivalent of the original Grimm’s fairy tales – galaxies removed from the sanitised, saccharine revisions commissioned to protect the tender psyches of 20th- and 21st-century children.

Before we leave you to read it, we have a message for regular readers here who have admired our clip, two posts ago, from The AdorataThat was by Sean Murray, a pen name Sean McNulty says he was forced to use when he wrote that first novel – to avoid upsetting his employer at the time. As we have never met either Sean in person, we can only take him at his word.

Perhaps Halloween will in the future be celebrated as commemorating not just ghosts but the remembrance of indecipherable pseudonyms past.

Twentieth Century Transmissions

A novel based on works by

Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Bruno Schulz, Nathanael West, Virginia Woolf and others.

Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and iron-clad.

Jorge Luis Borges

We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?

Samuel Beckett

Bad Friday

Lenny’s Austin followed the Moray Cycling Club, the same half mile behind it had kept all morning. He watched through the windscreen’s muck as the Great Comet rose pale blue over the mountains, half earthly, half heavenly banners with slits of blued snow in the peaks. It felt almost supernatural, this world about to end.

The Club’s fanatics were allowing themselves one last ride before the Comet hit. A blonde woman brought up their rear, ringing her bell and grinning till she caught her reflection in a farmhouse window. She’d glimpsed fine enough features there but they were also red with lack of breath and gaudier than they ever were, the features that had shed those masks – Maglemosian, Egyptian, Greek, Spanish, all the way down to this last reality, the final mortal mask of the thing now called Maggie Guthrie.

Well, nothing endures, does it? Without this Comet Pessaria business, without big Lenny to kill her off and send her on to pastures new, she doubted she could have faced more masking on this Earth and not felt sick to the pit. Once it had been wearying to think of yet more years of masks of skin and bone keeping hidden her essentials, but now with the Great Collision here at last she wasn’t sick or sorry, not sad at all, just too much time to think as she pumped away at these pedals.

With the sun the Comet went on rising through the sky, one going southward from the east, the other northward from the southwest trailing its colossal tail. And now Maggie’s bike slowed as she caught her breath and took in the sights around her. Roadside birds swerved up when they heard gunfire in the direction of Kingussie, then swooped back down and sat silent on the trees and fence-posts, highly conscious of one thing or another. For some it was wild flowers or stalks of grass casting double-shadows, their sun-shadow and their Comet-shadow. For others it was dewdrops with the entire sun or Comet trapped inside.

Other birds sang in the warming sunshine. They sang on the twigs of bushes and perched in trees’ upper branches, letting the chirps and whistles burst out of them. Their eyes bulged and their claws gripped twigs and they sang to the Comet as though releasing all the pressures of its long Approach.

When the cyclists got off for a break Lenny’s exhausted head began to revolve slowly, rhythmically, and to hum at his bruised temples. As he parked the car something moved into his line of sight. In her sweat-soaked vest and shorts Maggie’s figure was the glamorous thing that attracted all the morning light, casting curving shadows left and right. She walked her bike into a wood. He left the car and followed.

His head blazed as he plodded between the trees. He saw her wipe mud from her bike and legs, leaves’ double-shadows dancing on her hair and skin, woodchips littered beneath her like splashed light. A pulse passed through his bruises and he ran toward her.

She let her bike fall and backed away. Her foot caught on a root, then she went down backward and her spine thudded against a stump.

He got his knees on her chest, pressed her chin back over the stump’s edge and with the base of his palm shoved it hard. She wheezed out, ‘Nothing endures.’

As he kept on kneeling there and shoving, everything blurred for a moment and became a painted film-set, the blue Comet and golden sun its glaring spotlights. Memories came of Maggie with his father, Maggie desecrating his dead mother, Maggie sneering as he came. He wondered how his contorting face might look on camera.

Though the base of his palm pressing at that upturned chin, that woman wheezing there and gurgling – that wasn’t acting. He heard a little cluck and crunch and his head turned to vapour as convulsions shook her body. The limbs twitched and sprawled and blood brimmed from the nostrils, hesitated and ran back into her dead eyes. That was fine. That was as it should be.

He found himself brushing leaves off the body as it lay with a strip of Comet light along the chest. He sat beside it, surprised that the leaves were glittering and the woodchips reflected blue. In the glare he imagined he saw the glowing hair of his murdered wife.

He looked around and tried to remember where he was. Not a film-set. He got on Maggie’s bike and rode it along the nearest path. A doe, a moving bit of reflected light, went running through the shade. Lenny, transfixed by it, went crashing into a tree and fell.

He stayed there on the ground with his temples throbbing, his mind busy with delirium. His mouth was dry and hard and blood was darting in his head. There was something knocking. Trees and other greenery, streaks of weird light across the ground, something knocking. He saw something creep up a treetrunk, a whistling bird that rapped on the trunk and then ran out of the shadow, its head bobbing and its white legs twinkling. Its build was neat, compact. Well, that’s birdlife for you, Lenny thought.

So I have done it, he thought. I have murdered Maggie Guthrie.

A kind of wonder came on him, followed by low animal exultation at that cluck and crunch and those sprawling, twitching convulsions. A little grief came too, but it was all right, he told himself, it wasn’t really Maggie. That dead husk with blood pooled in its eyes wasn’t Maggie and never had been. Whatever dark spark constituted Maggie Guthrie, it wasn’t that. And he wasn’t really Lenny Uath either. Wasn’t that what she always told him?

Something scuffled and he sat up and watched a squirrel run in bounds over the ground. It flew at another squirrel and they chased each other until he had a coughing fit and sent them up a tree. One peered round at him halfway up a trunk, clinging to the bark.

Darkness fell like a shutter. He had killed Maggie as she said he would and the Comet was here at last. He was arriving on the real dark bottom but it was all fine, fine.

He thought he saw lightning flutter around the rippling, shimmering Comet and visions came of tonight’s Collision and the last few minutes he’d now have to face, priests and ministers gazing upward and wailing psalms, some tearing off their clothes and sending up curses or hallelujahs, some scourging their backs bloody and collapsing on the ground in fits, prostitutes flicking tongues and blowing the Comet kisses, tramps gossiping about last-minute escape rockets and rescues by Archangels. The delirium went on and on, his mind flickering like the lightning.

Then a hunt for water, and surges of now pointless hate for Maggie. Then moments of calm and ease and his father’s voice somewhere, approving of her murder: ‘Fine, boy, fine.’

His brain was flaming with thirst. There the Cairngorm mountains ranged across the pale edge of the sky, double-shadowed and solid with blue snowy markings. He was twisting in a paroxysm on the grass.

His thoughts had split from him. There was also the clog of his body, another splitting thing. He was dividing. There was maybe some connection between the different parts, or maybe not. Either way all the shapes were going. Pale blue rays were drilling through their bonds.

The year was 1943. So was the Comet real? Was Maggie real?

These are not simple questions. Others who’ll tell this story may answer them conclusively, but for now we’ll just say this. Certain events, entities, things, lack what might be called precision. They’re too large to be contained by the world of facts, and occur partly to find out if that world can bear them. Think of those strange gaps in the history of your own world, those Marie Celestes and Tunguskas that manifested and then quickly faded.

Normal events are strung along time like carriages on a railtrack. They have their causes and their effects, pushing and pulling one another forward and forming all our stories. But what about events too large for that railtrack, that maybe need a different gauge? Well, time has many parallel tracks, my friend, and the fact is that down certain secret tracks these larger events await us all. And in this sense they are real.

We must come to terms with the Great Comet. We must come to terms with Maggie Guthrie. We must not let their reality embarrass us into silence.

Och for God’s sake, let’s shut up and get started.

The Broadcast  


The Reverend Don Uath’s next ministry after the Western Front was in the Shaugh, the village of his birth. His family made the flit from Tomintoul in carts. Lenny was two years old.

The going was wild the night they set out, and several times they skidded badly in drifts of sleet before the horses brought them to the hills. Don watched his wife Willa in her nook in the leading cart with Lenny at the breast, her skin cold and blueing and strands of her red-gold hair draped into the light of the swinging lantern. When the horses skidded again she held off Lenny with milk dripping creamily from his lips.

Don called out to her, ‘We’d better get beds at the next village and not try the hills in this weather.’

But Willa called out at that, ‘Beds? Think we’re made of money?’

‘No,’ Don answered, ‘but maybe we’ll skid again and all die this night.’

A bellow arose where old horse Mo had halted, tail to the wind and refusing to pull his cart any further into the hills and sleet. Willa laid Lenny on his back and climbed down and went past the head of Mo, and there she uncoiled the length of hide she used as a whip. It crackled through the sleet and made the hair rise across Mo’s back, and he began to neigh and fall into a trot, the younger horse Tod following after, slipping and sprawling on his hooves.

So, creaking and bending beneath their loads, the carts plodded into motion again, full of gear and furnishings for the manse the family would occupy in the Shaugh. Head down to the wind went the horses in the moonlight, in this mile and that Don calling, ‘Fine, you two, fine. Come on then, boys.’

The road kept winding up and sometimes he sat huddled in his nook as the sleet went past in the darkness, and sometimes he climbed down and walked beside Tod and watched the lights across the moors where folk lay dry and warm. Then the road would swerve and the wind would be at him again and he’d climb back on the cart with freezing feet and hands, urging Tod on to their new home.

In a few hours the carts had cleared the hills and through the sleet Don saw the Shaugh’s scattered points of light. Willa stood on her cart holding Lenny and took in the nearby lochs, where night fishermen in cockleshell boats were braving the weather and casting out their nets. On the banks others carried baskets full of flapping catch and looked up at the northern sky.

Tiny smears swirled and floated up there among the sleet, an enormous flock of swallows. The scene looked like some old fresco, full of birds not intended for the Moray sky in the depth of winter, criss-crossing it in graceful climbs and swoops.

A few hundred roofs stood out clear below them, and yews around a steepled church and manse set round with gravestones and grass in tufts that a fox slunk through shedding sleet.

Maggie Guthrie watched the same scene from the standing stones, then rode down toward it on her bike.


Private Eye on the death of literary culture

How long before literature in print begins to seem as mysterious as cave paintings – its preoccupations and the culture around it approachable only by conjecture?

Readers who do not drop in here regularly – and some that do – might have read the last two entries on this blog with exasperated harrumphing and disbelief.

Professional book reviewers deserve to be going the way of the dodoGet away with you! Publishing houses have been declining to publish manuscripts lauded by their own editors, that have even excited film consultants with a proven instinct for spotting bestselling and screen-friendly material? Codswallop! (That would be bull dookey, for Texans.)

O sceptics, here is substantiation from a source whose remorseless objectivity about its own world of print publishing and journalism has been praised by no less than Lord Justice Leveson, of the Inquiry – and which is not notably a lover of online publishing, even though it is organised and run in ways we think the best digital publishers will approximate closely in the future .

The extract is from a review of the memoir of a London book editor, Miriam Gross, An Almost English Life, Literary and not so Literary Recollections, in a late September issue of Private Eye (no. 1323) that we have only just seen, owing to one thing and another.

At any time over the past half-century it has been possible to earn a few pounds by writing an article on ‘the death of the novel’.

Just lately, what with the rise of the internet reviewers, E. L. James and celebrity memoirs, more alert commentators have been able to expand this topic to accommodate the death of literary culture per se.


The really surprising thing, in these circumstances, is the torrent of books about literary culture that continues to spring from the nation’s printing presses. Publishers from Tom Maschler down pop up to regale us with memories of their time in the trade.


Ms Gross, it has to be said, is the grande dame of her profession: a Jerusalem-born bluestocking, who arrived in England in 1947, married the late and very much lamented John Gross first time around, […] and was successively arts editor of the Torygraph [Texan trans.: The Daily Telegraph, traditionally the upmarket Tory paper] and books editor of its Sunday sister. […] On the other hand, to call this elfin volume – bulked out to 200 pages by the inclusion of some old Observer interviews – ‘the remarkable story of one of the great observers of our time’, as Alain de Botton does on the cover, is ever so slightly pushing it.


[O]f what, on this admittedly partial evidence, does ‘literary culture’ actually consist? Dare one say that the whole thing eventually betrays itself as a delightful private club, where all the members are simply wonderful and incompetence is habitually excused on the grounds that the defaulter is one of us: sad to contemplate here on its downward spiral … but, really, impossible to mourn.


Testimonial to the curious state of commercial publishing: literary young Lochinvars locked out despite high praise from gatekeepers

John A. A. Logan poised to evoke the touch of evil in The Survival of Thomas Ford – and below, less alarmingly, with his mother, Agnes Logan
Photographs by Alasdair Allen (above) and

‘We sly women are the world’s only hope,’ said Jan, ‘And not just any old sly women either. You can forget about yer Jews and Protestants for starters. And of course any woman who dabbles in atheism.’

‘You get them, man,’ said Bathsheba. ‘It happens.’


‘Still in deep denial about the Counter-Reformation, yer Prods.’ Bathsheba beeped the horn again. ‘The most comically perplexed souls of all time, poor things.’ Beebeep. ‘The ne plus ultra of human… Of human whit? Thingummibob. Whit’s the word? Cartoonishness? Am I toasty warm? Get us the thesaurus.’

Jan found it in the glove compartment and gave it over.

The Adorata, Sean Murray

What is the point of thrillers – the noir kind, especially?

Er, … entertainment, do you suppose? you suggest drily, stifling a sardonic ‘D’oh!

To which post-Gutenberg’s answer would be, but what is the point of this sub-genre of entertainment?

Yes, yes … we know, an absurdly ambitious question for a funny little blog.

But this hardly rules out suggesting a line of enquiry for an answer: might the point of blood-and-gore electrified by crackling suspense be to fight horror with horror? That is, neutralise real-life horror, shock and sadness, with the imagined and invented kind? Nothing supplies temporary relief for the agony of witnessing the suffering of someone beloved in extremis – helpless to do much to relieve it – as well as a story so powerful that it takes control of your brain and entire nervous system, whether read in snatches or all the way through.

Events of recent weeks have shown us that a well-written thriller violent and gripping in direct proportion to the unbearable, in actual life, works better than any other literary form – particularly for a reader who loathes violent films and literature, and often resents the manipulations of narrative suspense.

The book is set aside, and the reader feels inexplicably stronger and ready to face down the monsters again. Some process less akin to catharsis than to Freud’s idea of displacement is surely at work – which, in a Wikipedia definition,

operates in the mind unconsciously and involves emotions, ideas or wishes being transferred from their original object to a more acceptable substitute. It is most often used to allay anxiety …

The book – or rather, e-book — that worked this strange magic for us is The Survival of Thomas Ford, about which we learnt from a Twitter link by its author, John A. A. Logan, to a detailed history of the manuscript’s long string of rejections that we would call staggeringly unbelievable and absurd if we did not know it to be an impeccably accurate record of the state of conventional publishing in 2012. We began to watch John’s tweet stream after we found ourselves on the same side in an online debate about copyright in the age of the net; among the not-terribly-popular lobbyists for paying artists and writers for work in the age of e-pirating.

Soon, we were reading arresting sentences and sequences like these:

 Jimmy sipped Coke and watched Robert out of an eye’s sly edge.

 Robert believed that it was sometimes possible for the universe to overlook certain misdeeds, even serious ones. He had believed from an early age that the universe made errors, usually errors of omission. He believed, in fact, that Jimmy’s very existence was evidence of such an error.

  If Jimmy was a vacuum, then Robert had been sucked in.

We registered something indefinably Scottish in the observations, the styles of expression, and marvelled at the absence of the too-familiar props in mass-market thriller-writing – glamourising brand names and settings – and clichéd ‘middle-class’ attitudes to people on less fortunate social rungs, or the reverse. A hospital cleaner, finding herself for the first time in an urban garden thinks,

This garden was like a machine for escaping the city.

After weeks of reading in tiny sips, for a lack of time, we reached a scene in which a father punishes his adult son for mistreating immigrant Polish bricklayers by flinging him into the mud with a feral twist that all but breaks his neck. Soon, there are characters bleeding from kitchen knives stuck in their sides and … For fear of the spoiler effect, we’ll stop there and say that we usually go to extremes to avoid sustained violence in any form, and were able to endure no more than a half-hour of The Silence of the Lambs. But we could not stop reading Survival.

John Logan is certainly not trying to be Muriel Spark, the grand priestess of modern Scottish literature, but as real life trouble intensified and spun out of control for us, we grew increasingly impatient with audio recordings of still gritty but tired recent books by Ian Rankin to which we had turned – because they were sitting on our library re-shelving cart – to make sure that we stayed fully alert on long driving expeditions on featureless roads. We longed to listen instead to the fresher writing voice and inspiration of the next chapter of the Logan thriller with its endlessly surprising perspectives and frequently excellent prose.

That last attribute is something John’s work has in common with other young Scots writers, too many of them unpublished, or self-published and unnoticed because of hair-raisingly nonsensical sagas of rejection – like his. The extract from a modernist — Barthian, Bellowish, (William) Burroughsian – novel by Sean Murray in the epigraph for this post came from a discussion of misogyny in the work of male novelists on Donkeyshott and Xuitlacoche, the domain of a blogger, Philip Hall, who has a head crammed with stimulating, cosmopolitan ideas. The guest-post on his blog spotlighting the Adorata remarked, ‘If your life depended on it, could you imagine Mailer creating a female character with a thesaurus stored in her car?’

In disembodied cyberspace, post-Gutenberg has had more than one encounter with these Scottish scribes — whose energy and dauntlessness recall ‘O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west/Through all the wide Border his steed was the best …’. We have been honoured by bracing and uplifting encouragement from them – which might make our motives for writing this post suspect. Fear not. We have … ahem … credibility to protect, as obscure as we are, in this patch of the net.

Before we leave you to read a clip from John’s account of his well-deserved — but hard-won — success with publishing Survival as an e-book, we have a question. Can we — those of us who care about the absurdity of neither John nor Sean Murray finding a conventional publisher with conventional marketing muscle — do something to finance the efforts of writers suffering from the disappearance of editors capable of nurturing unpublished writers? Or sustaining the efforts of those who already have stellar publishing credits, but have run afoul of the salespeople promoted to über-gatekeepers at some of the most famous literary imprints?

We have made suggestions before, about how this might be done – using micropayments, something better than Kickstarter and a new way of organising publishing as a massively inclusive, subscriber-based ‘co-owned’ medium.

That post-Gutenberg — thousands of miles from Scotland, with no real-life acquaintance with any of these scarcely-known Scottish scribblers — should care so much about helping them find support surely means that something can be done, and soon.

Over, now, to John himself – although you will want to read his entire record of the death of common sense. The last page of Survival says that John has been published by Picador, Vintage and Chapman – all in the loftiest tier of the serious end of the book business.

… In December 2010, the literary agent phoned me for 90 minutes, to tell me he was sure a major publishing house’s editors had wanted to take my book, but then at the meeting with the sales dept the sales folk for this publishing house had said that I “reminded them of someone they had had high hopes for two years earlier but then had lost money on”. And that ended that house’s interest in the book.

A little later, the senior commissioning editor at another major UK publishing house wrote to say “I think John Logan is a hugely talented writer. I love books like this that have the pace and excitement of a thriller but the voice and emotional depth of a literary novel”. But again when it came right down to it, no sale!

Then my agent passed the book to a film consultant who worked with him. She told him my novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, was the best book she had read in that literary agency in the last 4 years. This was taken very seriously, as this film consultant had discovered Slumdog Millionaire as an unpublished manuscript and was responsible for it getting developed into a film …

Harry Potter Politics for Dummies — or why professional book critics forced Joanne Rowling to write The Casual Vacancy

Mystery portraitist: write to for credit, please

Once upon a time, a few decades ago, no self-respecting novelist or aspiring or actual literary star spoke of writing book reviews except as work dashed off to pay the grocer, replenish a wine cellar, or finance the abortions of a careless mistress. Editors doled out book reviewing assignments to support writers they believed in, who got drunk in the same watering holes or clubs, or had long ago been cricket or baseball-playing mates.

Some book reviews might have been incisive and elegant enough to be described as lapidary, but what mattered infinitely more than fairness to the book and writer under inspection was showing off well. Showing off about what? The speed at which a charming prose confection was constructed – the ideal result being the literary equivalent of iron claws in a velvet glove; an attack on a book that every chatterer who cared about remaining a member of the chattering classes was obliged to buy, boosting the circulations of book-reviewing publications. Complaints by authors about mistaken characterisations of their books, misquoting, abysmal incomprehension of them or other consequences of arrogant or desperate skim-reading, were treated as unsporting and ungrateful.

Now, that was book reviewing in the glory days of literary print culture, when its power was at its zenith. It has not lost all its sway yet. There is still a literary establishment and, as the example we will soon supply demonstrates, it was sufficiently self-confident a decade ago to imagine that its judgments would pass unchallenged.

That establishment is feeling rather insecure these days, as anyone following the spate of recent attacks on ‘citizen-reviewers’ and blogging book critics will have noticed.

Some of its arguments are eye-popping in their hollowness. We quote, for illustration, the tack of one of the most likeable old print pundits – Robert McCrum, the former literary editor of The Observer, who has endeared himself to many a commenter by replying politely to ferocious attacks on his credibility, even when addressed as ‘McCrumble’. Imagine post-Gutenberg’s astonishment at reading on the books-blogging site of a newspaper, last week, this McCrumbly description of a professional book review:

Before publication, it will be subjected to a prolonged and intense process of subediting. Crucially, it will be signed, and usually paid for. Compared with the raw material of your average blog, it has been refined and distilled to within an inch of its life.

None of this guarantees that such a review will not be savage, destructive, ad hominem or partisan, but it will be considered, …

Considered? … Really? That would mean putting the actual reading of subjects of reviews, and pondering, weighing and reflecting, above dashing off – cloddish clog-dancing by comparison with the impeccably executed, once-over-lightly pirouette still sanctioned in many a respectable home for print.

… Which brings us to the subject of Joanne Rowling, who has just published The Casual Vacancy, her first novel for adults, to deafening fanfare. The print literary establishment, discovering that she has, in spite of her success, written a better than respectable novel campaigning fiercely for have-nots, might have been a lot less astounded if its members had gone to the trouble of reading the books that made her famous. Because so many of them only deigned to notice her at all when she became odoriferously rich, they fell into the error of confusing her work with dim and, or, absurd mega-bestsellers, like the one built around a witless ‘code’ poor old Da Vinci would have choked on – which could only have been invented to make Dan Brown the agreeably tweedy and self-deprecating fat cat author he has become.

By contrast, any actual — adult — reader of the Harry Potter series might, like post-Gutenberg, have been most amused not by either the wizards or monsters but the social commentary at the edges of J. K. Rowling’s picture. Could any Londoner who has ever visited, say, the Department of Industry in Victoria Street, fail to explode in laughter, meeting its perfect fictional twin in Rowling’s Ministry of Magic – not just because of her descriptions of its atmosphere, its corridors and the attitudes and work ethic of the dispirited bureaucrats shuffling down them, but because of the delicious wheeze of including such an institution in this particular story?

At the start of the Harry Potter mania, one book-reviewing journalist and essayist, Pico Iyer, was given enough space in The New York Times to hang himself comprehensively – having managed, somehow, to read Rowling’s cod obvious political sympathies back-to-front. The most obvious point of his contribution in the dashed-off tradition was boasting about his educational pedigree. In his eagerness to use a consideration of Harry Potter’s success as a peg and excuse, he forgot to check that the parallels he drew were justified by any part of the boy magician’s adventures, or their framing.

As a boy, I went for many years to the Dragon School in Oxford. The rooms in which we lived were called ”Leviathan” and ”Pterodactyl” and ”Ichthyosaurus”


I mention all this because, as Harry Potter’s adventures conquer the nation … readers on this side of the Atlantic may not appreciate how much there is of realism, as well as magic, in the exotic tales of young sorcerers being trained at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The classical boarding-school process favored by the English middle classes is esoteric […]and Friday nights would find us bouncing up and down in our pajamas, reciting the principal parts of Greek irregular verbs. Every Sunday night, in our flowing black robes (we were known as ”tugs”), we would gather in a classroom dating from 1441 to sing hymns in Latin …


When I was at school, it was always assumed that all the years of quasi-military training (”Hard work and pain are the best teachers if you ask me,” the Hogwarts caretaker says) were meant to teach us how to rule the Empire and subdue the natives around the world.

Well done, you!  the weary reader of that extended exercise in feather-fluffing is liable to have exclaimed, as it ran on … and on. To the credit of the NY Times – never mind that it failed to vet Iyer’s reflections on Rowling the way Robert McCrum claims professional book reviews do — it promptly published, the following week, this deflating reaction:

October 31, 1999

To the Editor:

In his essay ”The Playing Fields of Hogwarts” (Oct. 10), Pico Iyer reveals a blinkered — i.e., thoroughly Mugglesian — misreading of J. K. Rowling’s intentions. Her Harry Potter books don’t ”recast” the elitist English boarding school experience ”in a positive light”; they are gloriously subversive.

Whereas English public schools have traditionally subjected their pupils to lives of Spartan deprivation, the food at Hogwarts is delicious and abundant. Students sleep in four-poster beds hung with velvet curtains. More telling than these details is that Hogwarts resembles a conservatory or any other meritocratic school for gifted children, not an establishment designed to train the children of the elite ”to rule the Empire and subdue the natives around the world.”

Belonging to old magical families confers no special advantage on Hogwarts pupils; only talent counts. Both Harry and Hermione, one of his two best friends, receive letters inviting them to attend the school — and are plucked out of Muggles families because their innate talent for wizardry has mysteriously been discerned by Hogwarts administrators.

The prodigiously gifted J. K. Rowling is doing a great deal more than tweaking Iyer’s Etonian experience ”in a magical direction.” Contrary to his assertion, her theme is absolutely universal. She tells about both the vulnerability and the protective insulation that come with artistic talent, about the escape route that an imagination offers from the horrors of real life. To say that the charm of the Harry Potter books lies in ”their fidelity to the way things really are” is to grievously shortchange Rowling’s brilliance.

The writer of that old-fashioned, mediated citizen-review known as a ‘reader’s letter to the editor’ – the only chance a member of the public once had to draw the same reading audience’s attention to mistakes or idiocy inflicted on it – has scrupulously avoided becoming a professional assessor of books.

We could not agree more with Robert McCrum, pronouncing,

[T]he citizen journalist’s review is not the same as the professional critic’s.

Indeed not. As the woman who brought Potter to life said, in a BBC interview on her reasons for writing The Casual Vacancy:

Ultimately, the people who have read the book, who are not paid to have an opinion, are generally the best benchmark of whether you have done what you set out to do.

#Leveson, as anticipated by Elie Wiesel, 83 – in his turn, trailing fellow-activist Zhou Youguang, 106, in the blogosphere

‘Giant pawn’ MIL22

Earlier this month, a post-Gutenberg entry on the Leveson Inquiry had the honour of being put in the Twitter ‘favourites’ queue of Hans Peter Lehofer – an administrative law judge and former head of the Austrian Communications Authority, which decides the rules for broadcasting in that country.

No, we did not interpret our inclusion in his list as a gold star of approval. He almost certainly uses the ‘favourites’ button on the glorified e-notice-board the way we do – as an online bookmark. Never mind if, exactly like us — making the same point to #Leveson the other day — he doubts that merely passing laws affecting the way the press works can guarantee our getting what we need, which is ‘broadcasting’ representative of society as a whole.

What did please us is that Herr Lehofer’s interest bears out our forecast in May that Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations on press regulation would influence the debate about media policy around the world. Austria is lucky to have such a curious and progressive rule-maker. Anyone in Britain worrying about bloggers and citizen-journalists being treated as mere pawns in the chess game the Inquiry is being forced to play with politicians in the final weeks before it delivers its report is bound to be heartened by this judge’s grasp of the size of the leap in thinking about media that we need from the judiciary. He has a blog of his own, and also blogs collaboratively on more than one site.

Gerard Hogan, another intelligently au courant judge — a specialist in constitutional law at Ireland’s High Court — recently accorded the blogosphere a right traditionally reserved for professional journalists. In what the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) reckons as ‘the first Irish judgment to consider the position of bloggers,’ the court allowed Mike Garde, the blogger-director of an Irish organisation helping people brainwashed by cults, to protect his sources of information.

Hogan J’s judgment read, in part:

Part of the problem here is that the traditional distinction between journalists and laypeople has broken down in recent decades … Mr. Garde’s activities fall squarely within the “education of public opinion” envisaged by Article 40.6.1. A person who blogs on an internet site can just as readily constitute an “organ of public opinion” … [T]here is a high constitutional value in ensuring that his right to voice these views in relation to the actions of religious cults is protected.

How much longer, we wonder, will it take Elie Wiesel – twice quoted on this blog in recent weeks, and cited yet again, below – to join the unmediated conversations in the blogosphere? He has used every other medium in his extraordinary record of ‘bearing witness’ to the murder, torture and terrorisation of European Jews in World War II – after surviving Auschwitz, where he was dispatched as a 15 year-old.

His age today, which is 83, hardly explains his failure to start a blog. Last spring, The New York Times ran an inspiring profile of a Chinese human rights activist, 105 at the time, using a blog to broadcast his thoughts. This astonishing Zhou Youguang – still blogging at 106, if the net is to be believed — is the inventor of the Pinyin or ‘Romanised’ system for converting Chinese sounds into the English alphabet. For his transmissions on the net,

Mr. Zhou … uses a typewriter that converts Pinyin into characters to deliver ever-more pointed critiques of the party in essays and on his as-yet-uncensored blog.

The explanation for the deep hooks sunk into post-Gutenberg’s brain by Elie Wiesel’s short 2010 novel, The Sonderberg Case, is the startling correspondence between this author’s reflections on the role of the press in society, and the actual debate over the Leveson Inquiry. He also uses the trial at the heart of his story to weigh the relative worth of the work of lawyers and journalists – most engagingly.

Our final excerpt from the book is about a fight at a dinner party in New York. It seems uncannily prescient about the precise arguments being used in real life by the media’s old guard – here presented by the main character, Yedidyah, a journalist, and the hostess, Emilie, his only ally – as opposed to those of the public, on whose behalf Yedidyah’s wife Alika, an actress, spars victoriously.

There seems no doubt whatsoever about which side the author is on:

We talk about journalism. Is it useful to a democratic society? Honest or corrupt like everything else? A reliable source of information, a necessary tool for forming an opinion? Emilie and I stand up for the media, primarily because they represent an indispensable element in protecting individual and collective liberties. Alika is our most violent opponent. I’ve rarely seen her as fierce in her opinions. For her, even the best daily papers disgrace their readers. And she goes on to quote and appropriate the remark of a big British press baron concerning a well-known magazine. ‘It isn’t what it used to be … and actually it never was.’ And this applies to all publications, she tries to convince us, with no exceptions. Alex agrees with her. So do their guests. Emilie and I valiantly stand up to them. Alika flares up.

‘How can the two of you stick up for all those miserable newspapers and weeklies? I’m prepared to think you don’t read them! Even the cultural pages are over-politicized. As for the literary supplements, what do they tell us except ‘long live the buddy-buddy network’? What kind of moral rectitude is that? And what about the right to truth?’


Calm and resolute, Emilie pursues her counterattack and cites the facts: Can we really suspect such and such a writer, at such and such a newspaper, of dishonesty? And can we honestly question the integrity of such and such a professor, who writes in such and such a journal?’

Without the slightest compunction, Alika answers with a shrug of the shoulders. ‘Yes we can. And we should.’

‘In other words,’ Emilie says, ‘they’re all guilty until proven innocent, is that it?’

‘No,’ Alika concedes. ‘I wouldn’t go that far. But I maintain that as a reader, I have the right to wonder about their conception of ethics.’

… Happy birthday, tomorrow, Elie Wiesel.

Untranslatable poetry, part 2: show, don’t lecture

Painting of a Bengali beauty by Jamini Roy (1887-1972)

part 1 is here

Dance with the language. There’s a saying that “The English hoard words like misers, the Irish spend them like sailors.” Those ancient storytellers were drunk on words. … For encouragement, I would naturally suggest you look to Irish examples.

Frank Delaney, Irish novelist, in the Word Craft column of The Wall Street Journal, March 2012  

A. A. — not the do-gooder organisation but a poet of rare gifts and post-Gutenberg’s most supremely articulate friend — emailed this reply to a request for his reaction to last week’s excerpts from a debate about poetry in translation:

I feel disinclined to join this fray, going on at least since the Battle of Hastings (more archers!), where, it could be argued, The Translation Question first enters history on English soil. For the record, though, I am, I suppose, innately suspicious of what we might call The Proprietary Position, always couched in some preposterous notion of accuracy, or worse, fidelity, that any real artist would find objectionable. All poetry is inaccurate, in a sense, to begin with — its bewitching power of distortion, revealing deeper truths by traducing apparent ones, being the very reason for which Plato denied poets a place in his Republic: their ability to undermine by subversion and misrepresentation.

In any case, no poet worth his reduced sodium could forget that even the word translate is a metaphor: carried across. So, if “Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle … ” is carried across, delivering something like, “When you are old and grey, and full of sleep/And nodding by the fire…”, I’ll sign for the package.

We answered that we did not disagree with him,

… except on the question of who is guilty of bullying from the Proprietary Position. It’s the self-appointed Authorities in academia and other parts of the literary establishment, like C.A. …  There is such a thing as direct translation … ‘La plume de ma tante,’ … no ambiguity whatsoever about an object belonging to an ink-stained aunt. … If literary translation could be universally understood as galaxies removed from that straightforwardness and even better, if it were to renamed, called something like ‘approximation,’ that would be the infinitely preferable truth.

In a perfect world, poetry would never be taught – we mean, garotted — in any classroom. There might be poets on tap, willing to supplement published appreciations — as opposed to academic deconstructions — by answering questions from, say, a reader intrigued by the difference between Shakespearean blank verse and John Donne’s (controversial) version of it in one of his masterpieces, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. But there would be no one laying down laws for interpretation, no pompous pontificators on language as idiosyncratic and – as A.A. says – subversive, as poetry.

Anyone seeking to introduce a poet across cultural borders could stimulate an instinctive and intuitive grasp of a poem’s intentions by interweaving, rather than explaining – that is, showing its lines threaded into a reader’s stream-of-consciousness. It is the happy fate of all the best verse to become woven, subconsciously and unconsciously, into our depths. But who can demonstrate this special capacity of the form? Do it, for instance, for the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore – about whom, as our last entry demonstrated, critical opinion in the English-speaking world is still divided, a whole century after the Swedes gave him their famous literary prize?

A good novelist might be up to the task — a wordsmith capable of transcending the language gap. For instance, Sunetra Gupta, writing in English in Memories of Rain (1992) about the doomed love affair of Moni, a young Bengali woman, and Anthony, an Englishman visiting Calcutta that her brother introduces into their family circle. In a scene that made post-Gutenberg wish Satyajit Ray were alive to adapt the book for the screen, her brother embarrasses her with a halting reading to their guest of impromptu translations of his own short stories, through a long night rent by relentless monsoon winds and rain. Years later, in England, where she is now unhappily married to Anthony, who is besotted by his new English lover, her recollection of Tagore is enlaced with remembered details of their romance’s first chapter:

… From such a land Anthony had rescued her, a land where the rain poured from the skies not to purify the earth, but to spite it, to churn the parched fields into festering wounds, rinse the choked city sewers onto the streets, sprinkle the pillows with the nausea of mould, and yet the poet had pleaded with the deep green shadows of the rain clouds not to abandon him, the very same poet who wrote,

You, who stand before my door in the darkness

What is it that you seek?

It has been many years since that spring day, when there came a young wanderer

And immersed my parched soul in an endless sea of joy;

Today I sit in the rain-filled darkness, in my crumbling shack

A wet wind snuffs my candle, I sit alone, awake;

Oh, unknown visitor, your song fills me with sweet awe

I feel I will follow you to the depths of uncharted dark.

But it was not this song, not yet, that ran through her rain-ravaged mind as the grandfather clock in the living room struck two, interrupting the awkward flow of her brother’s translation, the grammatical mistakes she shivered at, why was his English so terrible, and she stood in the bathroom, splashed icy cold water out of the drum onto her feet, she caught a ghost of herself in the cracked mirror, and a sudden embarrassment overcame her, she switched on the lights and took in the cracked plaster, the dilapidated water closet, long since choked with lime, suspended over the Turkish toilet, the cracked mirror, the shelf cluttered with bottles of coconut oil, toothpaste tubes, rusty razor blades, and she compared it to the bathroom at Amrita’s, where she knew Anthony was staying, marbled to the ceiling, with Western commodes and bathtubs, he cannot be used to any of this, she thought …

Tagore on rain again, in a later passage, in which Moni wakes from a dream about death and marigolds – and in this one, his lines taker her soaring above earth-bound domesticity:

… [H]ere she found a deeper silence than even the quiet before a tropical storm,  the still rushes, the frightened birds, once, she had lingered, in a field of mustard, in the windless core of a storm, in such an hour, a dark village maiden had lifted her ebony eyes to the poet,

like black clouds gathering at the corners of a May sky

like soft black shadows descending upon June forests,

in this way the mirth of a July evening fades suddenly away.

The rain whipped around her as she fought her way back to her aunt’s house, inside, rivulets of water forced their way through closed shutters, trickled through the whitewash to collect in chalky puddles on the floor. She watched the heavy hips of her aunt as she bent down to mop up the rainwater  … And, shivering with sweet sorrow on that fateful winter morning, Moni had wondered, as she studied the wooden grace of her aunt’s arm sweeping in complicated arcs across the red floor, what she had gained by leaving a home, an indifferent husband, a cruel mother-in-law, to live alone, among the blunt banyans, to sit in her bamboo rocking chair on her veranda and read endless novels, did she not, on some still summer evening, lift her eyes to a glorious sunset, and feel, like the poet

If you did not give me love

Why paint the dawn sky with such song

Why thread garlands of stars

Why make a field of flowers my bed

Why does the south wind whisper secrets in my ear?

If you did not give poetry to my soul

Why does the sky stare like that upon my face

And why do sudden fits of madness grip my heart?

I set sail upon seas whose shores I know not.

Sunetra Gupta’s prose veers frequently into shades of deepest purple, but her emotional intensity, dial turned up all the way, perfectly fits Tagore’s. This really is quintessentially Bengali. In cultures that prefer strict emotional continence, this form of extremism is often frowned on as a sign of stupidity – of giving irrationality permission to take over.

But intense emotionality and exemplary analytical intelligence are hardly mutually exclusive. Consider what this novelist does today, in addition to writing fiction. She is a professor of Epidemiology at Oxford, where she describes her work on the site of the Department of Zoology.

My main area of interest is the evolution of diversity in pathogens, with particular reference to the infectious disease agents that are responsible for malaria, influenza and bacterial meningitis. I use simple mathematical models to generate new hypotheses regarding the processes that determine the population structure of these pathogens. I work closely with laboratory and field scientists both to develop these hypotheses and to test them.

Post-Gutenberg did not know that she existed until a postman delivered in the mid-‘90s a catalogue of remaindered books whose offerings included  Memories of Rain. Why has this author had less attention than other writers of Indian origin — Salman Rushdie, Anita or Kiran Desai, or Jhumpa Lahiri? We suspect, for part of the explanation, that she writes first to please her own sensibility, rather than Western literary tastes. See an earlier entry on this blog: ‘Gatekeepers I: in defence of Rachel Cusk — let cross-cultural flowers bloom in simultaneous international e-publishing’.

For gatekeepers alarmed about so-called ‘multi-culti’ — appreciating foreign cultural traditions — corrupting the mother-culture, does enjoying the Gupta-Tagore duets by this novelist diminish in the smallest degree a passion for the great works in the English canon? Of course not. Here is John Donne feeling exactly as Moni does, by the end of Memories:

Yet nothing can to nothing fall,
Nor any place be empty quite ;
Therefore I think my breast hath all
Those pieces still, though they be not unite ;
And now, as broken glasses show
A hundred lesser faces, so
My rags of heart can like, wish, and adore,
But after one such love, can love no more.

Poetry, another word for untranslatable; Rabindranath Tagore — and is rain happy or sad?

Moghul girl-as-poem: is she translatable?

part 1; part 2 is here

‘That day, the sun rose in the west.’

Fogeyish old media hacks in every age bracket — for instance, Mic Wright of the Telegraph, who looks as if he might be waiting to turn twenty-one — treat as equally unreal the idea that reader-commenters on newspaper sites can offer rare, crucial insight. ‘Comments are the radioactive waste of the web,’ the Telegraph blogger said.

Do these bigots ever stop to consider that because commenting on the web crosses national and cultural borders it has become an innovation no thinking person would want to live without? That is one reason why the logistical impossibility of also maintaining a comments section in this spot has been cause for real grief, at post-Gutenberg.

To experience the high-wattage illumination that spontaneous, trans-continental commentary can supply, consider the subject of poetry in translation.

An email notice from The London Review of Books the other day about a series of translation master-classes in honour of International Translation Day (30 September) gave us an excuse to re-read a four year-old debate in the comments about a blog post on the site of a London newspaper.

The commenters’ fight began with opinions about the appeal of Edward Thomas, the World War I poet, whose emotional restraint and sparing use of adjectives and adverbs had been lauded in the post. Later, joining the discussion, the post’s author implicitly compared the Welsh sensibility of the poet’s ancestors with her own English cultural tradition. In tones of thinly-veiled disapproval, she characterised as ‘typically downbeat’ the two Thomas poems about rain to which her text was an introduction.

The critic is an academic of strikingly conventional views whom we will call C.A. in highlights of the discussion that we are featuring below.

A particularly incisive commenter we will refer to as S.A. took exception to the assumption that painting in emotional pastels was necessarily a virtue. He insisted that this preference should be acknowledged as an English cultural bias — of which C.A. appeared to be oblivious. Furthermore, rain — he argued — was not universally perceived as depressing: far from dampening spirits, in hot, dry regions in the tropics, it is experienced by those who live there as poetic.  To that, post-Gutenberg would add that its associations in India with romantic love and passion are easy to see in the many Moghul miniature paintings on these themes in which thunder and clouds appear in the background of pictures depicting lovers, or maidens lost in romantic reverie.

S.A. went on to make a series of comments on the rain poems, their author, and his academic critic on the newspaper’s site that were far richer and more engaging than any literary criticism post-Gutenberg had read for years. He offered, for comparison, a snippet of ‘Varsha Mangal,’ verse about a monsoon deluge by Rabindranath Tagore, India’s most revered poet — who has, in his native Bengal, the same standing as Shakespeare does among English-speakers.

S.A. was known by regulars among his fellow-commenters as a descendant of English and Central European stock, but born in South Africa.  He said that he and his Mexican wife enjoyed listening to recordings of Tagore reciting his own verses – even though neither of them spoke, or was literate in, Bengali.

He was challenged, in this commenters’ debate, by I.P., our initials for an Irish writer of minimalist, experimental poetry. Arguing from much the same academic orientation as C.A., I.P. endorsed virtually all her prejudices.

Among C.A.’s and I.P.’s opponents were two debaters offering no biographical information, whom we have renamed M.W. and S.E.. After S.A. playfully posted a re-translation of ‘Varsha Mangal,’ omitting its many adjectives, the proudly chauvinistic C.A. said that she much preferred the stripped-down version as a serious, not just larky, translation – to M.W. ‘s horror.

M.W.  What you propose would be like rewriting Joyce to read like George Orwell. Both excellent styles and writers — but ridiculous, no? The verbal excessiveness and flourishes you mention are quintessentially Bengali.

S.A.  Is simplicity of language an English Reformation thing. Is it Calvinist, I wonder. Were British poets more rococo before the reformation? Perhaps in eschewing the florid we are just scared of the Epicurian.

C.A. Oh dear, I rather liked the pared-down Tagore. The elaborate language, however fine and right it is in Bengali, is heavy-going in English. I always avoid him.

I.P.  Would Edward Thomas have cheered for England or Wales?

C.A.  I think he’d have supported Wales before 1914, and England after. […] Perhaps relevant to the ‘which side would Thomas have supported’ question: ‘I do not believe in patriotism, in times of peace or war, except as a party cry, or the result of intoxication or an article in a newspaper, unless I am in Wales.’

[ A commenter posts an impish parody of Thomas’s verse – in the spirit of S.A.’s doctored ‘Varsha Mangal’. C.A. turns livid. ]

S.A. You didn’t mind simplifying Tagore, whereas I am sure had my wife read my smudged Tagore, she would have been really pissed off too.

C.A.  No, the Tagore simply altered the adjectives, nothing in the contents or context. I defend Thomas’s right to believe in what he believed in and not have it re-written by silly twats.

M.W. Since we’re on the subject of comparisons, do you have any basis for comparing your understanding of how Tagore’s poem should read with the translation [S.A.] posted originally — which retained the poet’s ultra-Bengali adjectives? Do you know enough about Bengali literature to pronounce those adjectives dispensable?

You’ve spent a lot of posts analysing what a foreigner might consider sub-microscopic distinctions between Englishness and Welshness, even if we know exactly what you mean. Don’t the differences between the equally distinct cultures of India – and between any of them and Englishness — deserve as much respect? . . . And while we’re discussing criteria that might be anachronistic, how about reflecting that Tagore won the Nobel prize in 1913 when flowery prose had many more admirers everywhere?

… Sorry if I’ve over-interpreted you, but you have argued more than once — apparently in earnest — for turning Varsha Mangal into Varsha Mangle.

C.A. The Tagore was a translation … It’s accepted that translations will be of many degrees of fidelity. There’s one big proviso, of course, which is that the translator explains honestly what he or she is doing with the original and why. […] I believe it’s important to create versions of foreign-language poetry that work in modern English, at least if you really care about that poet and want to introduce new readers to the work. […] Perhaps it would win Tagore more readers if modernised versions of his work made by contemporary poets were available.

The whole point about translation is totally missed in your notion that you have to stick to the quintessence of the language you are translating from. You must stick to the quintessence of the language you are translating into, be it English, Bengali, Russian. [post-Gutenberg’s emphasis]

M.W. Ah, yes. The results of what you propose are perfectly summed up in this remark by the young Chinese pianist Lang Lang in today’s Observer:

‘[O]ne composer said to me, ‘I want Bach meets tango, and hip-hop meets Beethoven’ – both great ideas, but then I heard the music. Where’s the Beethoven? It’s like fusion food: mix French and Chinese dumplings – and it tastes like cat food.’

[ A wicked commenter ]  French ‘dumplings’ are called quenelles. Let’s show our Gallic friends some respect.

M.W. I certainly agree with you, … but if you follow [C.A.]‘s rules for translation, I suspect that both dumplings and quenelles become meatballs.

C.A. If I wanted to make quenelles but couldn’t get (let’s say) the right kind of fine flour or oil in my benighted English village, I might well end up making meat-balls.

I.P. I’d suggest that the Joyce/Tagore comparison is one of the clearest examples of the Nobel crowd getting it very, very wrong. Personally, I find Tagore (in English at least) unreadable, almost a joke. Is anyone here qualified to comment on the Bengali originals or the fidelity of the “original” translations?

As an aside, I’m not sure that respecting the author’s intentions should be an ambition for the translator of poetry, or at least not when translating anything more than, say 50 years old. Translation works best, I think, when it is an act of renewal. [post-Gutenberg’s emphasis]

S.A. But it was an Irish poet, Yeats, who made Tagore internationally. He is the one who gave Tagore, in translation, his poet’s baptism.

The key here, I think, is the word “international”. Try and translate Joyce’s wordblends impressionistic syntax into another language and maybe you can understand why the Swedes didn’t get it.

I.P. I remain to be convinced that Tagore’s writings demand anything like the same degree of respect that Joyce’s do.

M.W.  Who are you to judge? You don’t read Bengali.

‘I’m not sure that respecting the author’s intentions should be an ambition for the translator of poetry, or at least not when translating anything more than, say 50 years old. Translation works best, I think, when it is an act of renewal.’

Just FIFTY years. Really? Time to renew/rewrite Joyce, then? — so that he’s accessible to, say, people who text more than they read or write?

S.E. [ a commenter pretending to be a Spanish-speaker struggling to communicate in English ] The Tagore’s Bengali should be retranslated perhaps into another Baroque version, that would mean more fidelity to the Baroque quality of the Bengali original… I think Juan R. Jimenez and wife retranslated Tagore into Spanish with huge success, since these versions keep been republished.

M.W. This is genuinely interesting.

It could be that Bengali is deeply incompatible with English but much less so with other languages — and there might be even a particular sympathy between Spanish and Bengali. I was trying to find a book of Octavio Paz’s on my shelves to quote … , so wasn’t surprised to find him on this wiki list of scribes apparently influenced by Tagore:

‘D.R. Bendre, André Gide, Yasunari Kawabata, Kuvempu, Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz’

. . . not a single writer in English among them.

S.E.  I mean, translating Tagore is regarded as a greatest challenge, as worth of merit as Finnegans’ [sic] Wake.

[ … A few days after her ferocious defence of a translator’s right to chop off Tagore’s verse at the knees, the academic authority on poetry returned to the subject. Surrendering to her opponents, she announced a grand mea culpa. ]

C.A.  Just quickly on translation again – it was (in connection to [S.A.]’s re-write) the use of the word ‘translation’ that confused the issue (shame on me – for falling into a lexcial gap). I liked the piece of writing that [S.A.] produced, based on the Tagore translation, would have been a more accurate way of expressing it. I couldn’t and shouldn’t judge it as a translation of Tagore’s original, not knowing Bengali, but I can judge is as a piece of writing in English, and that was all I intended to imply.

How much more did that delectable scrapping about Tagore enlighten readers than the standard Western regurgitations of his poetry’s defects – judged by Western standards?

Even the instructor learnt something, and had the grace to admit as much.

In our next post, we will demonstrate an even better — not remotely scholarly — tack for demystifying part of Tagore’s appeal to discerning readers of Bengali literature.

Why attack ♯Leveson, our best chance to save real journalism?

The coercion which the police state exercises on thought and art is indeed appalling. Yet the damage done may, in the final analysis, be no greater than that caused by the absolutism of the mass market. … The censorship which profit imposes on the media is as destructive, perhaps more so than that of political despotism.

George Steiner, My Unwritten Books, 2008

That Fleet Street editors are once again ganging up to attack the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and practices — concentrating their salvos, this time, on its as-yet-unpublished first report and recommendations – could turn out to be a great good thing.

Their aggression is inviting attention. It is giving everyone who cares about getting reliable news and facts undistorted by hidden agendas and special interests — for instance, the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) — a chance to remind the 4th Estate that public opinion is firmly on the Inquiry’s side.

But, …

as the INFORRM blog warned, last week,

… there is an important case to be fought in the court of public opinion over the next couple of months. A careful eye needs to be kept on press attempts to distort and manipulate the arguments to support the self-interest of its proprietors.

The self-interest to which it refers is, of course, the profit motive. That is true despite the longstanding tradition in which most of those proprietors have supported newspapers losing money decade after decade, as if red ink were simply natural for them, as intrinsic as spots for leopards or nuclear scent for polecats. Hardly anyone needs to be told, any more, that the reason why these proprietors have long competed ferociously for the privilege of owning papers is because of the fantastic levers they are for piling up profits in other spheres, and buying political influence.

We have quoted those words of George Steiner in this post’s epigraph before and we will quote them again – as often as necessary. That is, until it becomes common-or-garden wisdom that, just as the Wikipedia has brought us closer to the ideal of what an encyclopaedia can be, we need to refine forms of collaborative journalism. It has to be universally understood that journalism at its best has to be divorced from the profit motive. Just as the excellence of the Wikipedia has no connection whatsoever to improving any corporate ‘bottom line,’ there is no reason why journalism has to be directly or indirectly wedded to it any more.

The reason why no leader at the head of any prominent newspaper has risen to post-Gutenberg’s challenge – ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders‘ – is because they are  beholden to the old system of organising the dissemination of facts. They are well-paid indentured servants of the profit motive, enshrined as the ‘advertising-based business model’ for running papers.

The best possible outcome of the Leveson Inquiry is not in the least complicated. It would be an evolutionary restructuring of journalism to restore as its fundamental and only raisons d’être:

the quest for truth


forcing transparency in the exercise of political power.

It is this parallel with the Wikipedia that matters. The co-ownership of media and various forms of collaborative operation, in the practice of journalism, are simply the most logical means to that end.

Until we reach it, passages like this — from The Sonderberg Case, an Elie Wiesel novella about the harm that Nazism inflicted on the Nazis’ own descendants – will seem depressingly unattainable:

Actually, I had discovered journalism well before working in the field. My uncle Meir, early on, considered it the finest profession … He ranked the committed journalist as the equal of writers and philosophers.

A boatload of words, part 2: new media experiments suggest how lost languages might be saved

‘L’Arsouille’, Rennes, Brittany
Photographs by Mark Barron

Owing to chronic disruptions beyond our control, our usual timetable for new posts – roughly every six to seven days – must regrettably be abandoned for a while. ]

[ part 1 of ‘A boatload of words …’ is here ]

We are experimenting again — this time, with 21st-century ways of long-distance literary exploration. We are doing this in a multi-media collage — additions to some lines of poetry that we featured here last month.

Suppose that you discovered a beguiling poem that was a call to arms on behalf of an endangered language — lines saturated with the emphatically anti-glamorising spirit of a place, and adding up to a sort of love letter to its culture? Suppose that this place was Brittany, and that before you found the poem, you had only ever read the same clichés about its resilient, courageous, resourceful and fiercely independent people and been served, ad nauseam, the same images of its rugged coastline, its boats, its mizzling North Atlantic skies — without ever having heard a Breton speak?

Language arguably is culture.

Its sounds contain revelations inaccessible except by listening — a thought that came to mind playing back a recording of Roy Eales’s exemplary, playful-yet-serious reading of his own poem in its English original, then hearing his friend Fañch Peru recite his translation of it into his native Breton in ringing tones that are somehow both gritty and embracing. You can almost feel the inhospitable roughness of rock on your skin and taste acrid brine, halfway through the Breton version.

Beneath audio clips that any visitor to this blog can compare is the Breton text of Peru himself, a scholarly authority on the language – offered for listeners curious enough to read along. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post.)

( … The audio files that follow work on some machines; not on others. … We are still digging to get to the bottom of the mystery. )

Roy Eales reads ‘A boatload of words:

Fañch Peru reading his translation of the poem into Breton:

Near relations of ours were in Brittany earlier this summer, and to one of them we are indebted for the photographs at the start of this post. They were taken in Rennes, where the native people speak not Breton but Gallo, the other regional language of Brittany, but whose look and mien — in the images we were lucky enough to receive — do fit Roy Eales’s descriptions of the preference for substance over style in the culture of this province.

The correspondences between sound and meaning in Breton are so unexpected, to these post-Gutenberg ears, so captivating, that we consider ourselves enlisted in the cause of saving a language we have never heard in its own home – ‘virtual’ allies. In our last post about Breton and ‘A boatload, …’, we proudly displayed a drawing by the artist Sascha Juritz, another foreign campaigner, but one who considered Brittany a home for years before he died in 2003. It has taken a while for the photograph of him that we requested to reach us, but here it is – an image well worth waiting for:

Portrait of Sascha Juritz by Ursula Leipold

The Wikipedia entry for this region – Europe’s northwestern corner — says, in part:

In 1956, Brittany was legally reconstituted as the Region of Brittany, although the region excluded the ducal capital of Nantes and the surrounding area. Over this period the Breton language declined precipitously. Children were not allowed to speak Breton at school, and were punished by teachers if they did. Famously, signs in schools read: “It is forbidden to speak Breton and to spit on the floor” (“Il est interdit de parler breton et de cracher par terre”). As a result, a generation of native Breton speakers were made to feel ashamed of their language and avoided speaking it or teaching it to their children.

Victor Hugo (Les Misérables), who had a Breton mother he adored, unfortunately identified with the French capital’s prejudice against the place. As one of his biographers, Graham Robb, has explained:

According to Hugo, … his mother was a half-wild royalist Amazon, chased through the Breton undergrowth by republican soldiers, risking her life to rescue persecuted priests. Brittany itself, in Hugo’s Parisian view of the country, was an antediluvian land inhabited by hairy, tattooed peasants, squatting in their cottages or holes in the ground, surviving on milk and chestnuts, fanatically loyal to King and Church, their worldview bounded by the horizons of the ancient forests in which they hid, bristling with Druidic superstition and mindless animosity — a contrast, in Hugo’s personal mythology, to the mountain-born genius. Only the `wash-basin’ of the Atlantic Ocean was equal to the filth of Brittany, he wrote on a visit in 1836.

Oh, the obtuse pointlessness of prejudice … Here, two centuries after Hugo was born, is an extract from a Breton poem – Fañch Peru’s rendering into English of his eulogy for Sascha Juritz:

The black knight of summer

Every summer

The black knight

Came galloping to our country.

In clothes of velvet corduroy

And leather boots

He rode his white horse

Along green paths,


To meet friends

And talk together

With fervour and passion

Of art,

Of poetry,

Of the force of words,

Of Brittany, its language,

Of black and of white,

His chosen colours,

Of the wide world

Which turns the wrong way.


And we were happy.

[… continues in What matters most is what you make ]

En ur porzh-mor kozh e Breizh un den, ur gasketenn martolod gantañ war e benn harpet war e c’har zehou a selle pizh ouzh un dra bennak a bouez bras.

Treiñ a reas e benn hag ober a reas un hanter tro war e c’har gleiz evit cheñch plas hag e chomas aze war e c’har zehou adarre.

Tanañ a reas e gorn ha kontañ a reas ur marvailh. Setu petra ’ oa c’hoarvezet.

Ur beurevezh yen er goañv en hevelep porzh-mor e kludas un evn mor du war e skoaz hag e kontas dezhañ e brezhoneg penaos ul lestr bras tre ruilhet ha diruilhet e-maez da Vreizh war ur Mor Atlantel rust a reas peñse abalamour d’un taoldispac’h -eus e lestrad – ur sammad gerioù, e gwirionez, holl c’heriaoueg yezh ar ro.

Richanañ a rae an evn du en ur ziskleriañ penaos ar gerioù a oa da vezañ diskarget er mor, ul lev vat er-maez e seier du krouget start merket warne e ruz: DIEZHOMM dre urzh Ministrerezh ar C’hontrollerezh Diharz.

Evel-just ne voe ket laouen ar gerioù gant se. Bet e oant trec’het kent met biskoazh ken gwazh kinnig marv n’o doa bet.

En ur brezegenn nerzhus, Gwendal, e-penn al lestrad gerioù a c’houlennas digante sevel da stourm. Ijinañ a reas ur mod d’en em zifenn. Dieubiñ an holl a rafe an ampartañ gerioù, kas al lestr d’ar strad a rafe ar re bounnerañ. Goude e tistrofe an holl c’herioù war-varin d’o bro c’henidik.

Evned mor o nijal a – us d’al lestr a glevas dre guzh komz eus difennerezh ar gerioù. Goulenn a reas ar re-mañ digante skignañ buan ha buan kemennadoù e brezhoneg e touez ar bobl.

Evel-se e voe embannet prim ar c’heleier a-dreuz ar vro ha prestik holl aodoù Breizh a virvilh, beuzet a don hag a son hag a dud o koroll hag o kanañ dirak ar mor hag al lestr o vont d’ar strad en dremmwel.

Hag o tont davete ul liñsel eonenn gwenn war ar mor, un eonenn gerioù, yezh ar vro en he fezh a voe charreet gant lorc’h betek an aod gant ar gwagennoù evel un harozez.

Adalek an deiz-se e touas ar bobl ne lezfe biken ken he yezh he-unan da rentañpenn da n’eus forzh peseurt degouezh arvarus war ar mor pe e-lec’h all.

Translation, English to Breton : Fañch Peru, Breton poet and professor of the Breton language. From the book, What matters most is what you make … 

Audience jealousy of artists, part 2; & what this has to do with Sisyphus and rock ‘n’ roll


Stills from Jankovics Marcell’s ‘Sisyphus’ (1974)

[ part 1 is: here ]

And what about the collective memory of artistic creation? For every Prometheus and Sisyphus haunting scholars, how many of their former equals are barely stirring and covered in dust?

The Sonderberg Case, Elie Wiesel (2010)

Our screen shots from a short Jankovics Marcell animation, Sisyphus (1974) — a work of genius in nearly every frame — could be depicting the struggle to change the monetary terms on which artists make art. We would like, in this lifetime, to see that accursed rock stop and stay still, where it ought to. By that, we mean that some self-sustaining way of letting artists and writers keep up with plumbers must somehow be put into practice.

Presumably Marcell, a Hungarian, earned enough from licensing a giant US multinational to adapt his haiku-like video for a (comparatively crude and clod-hopping) tv advertisement to make the world a gift of his original, so that anyone can watch it, free. But only a sub-microscopic fraction of creators can afford such generosity.

We still shudder, remembering the relentless succession of hostile posts in the discussion on a newspaper site we quoted extensively the last time we wrote on this subject, last month. Artists have starved and suffered throughout history, ran the argument – if we have to dignify rants with that word. So what? … the ranters raged.

It is asking for nearly inhuman self-control, to suppress the vituperative and scatological reply that comes immediately to mind, on hearing that question. People all over the world were actual serfs for aeons, but then became merely virtual serfs – wage-slaves – a few centuries ago. Being a baby-making machine, year after year, and – as someone once put it, ‘tied by their tits’ to their broods – was seen, for most of humanity’s time on earth, as the unavoidable fate of women. If injustice could be defended merely by precedent, and by precedence extending to pre-history, how odd that we no longer accept chaining and whipping our fellow-beings like defenceless animals.

Poverty was once universally accepted as the inevitable lot of most scholars. The great 17th century Dutch rationalist-philosopher Spinoza – whose idea of God, Albert Einstein said, was closest to his own — is known to have lived on porridge, groats and milk, or was certainly obliged to eat that diet more often than most of us would think endurable. Then someone invented tenure, and certainly in rich countries – even after years of budget cuts – few contemporary academics share the abject insecurity, at the level of penury, that too many artists among their fellow-citizens do.

We have returned to the subject not to say anything new as much as underline the importance of change – and because we forgot to mention, earlier, that thoughtful interpreters of Greek mythology consider the fates of Prometheus and Sisyphus to be allegories for the life of inventors and creators. What most of these theorisers have in mind, in drawing their parallels, is not money and financial survival but the interior, psychological struggles of creative people — and the punishment for extraordinary talent, in both stories.

This post ends with a semi-non-sequitur, an extract from an essay by Rollo May (1909-1994) – a disconcertingly perceptive, often poetic, writer on the psychology of workers at creativity’s coalface – for which our excuse is simply that we have been admiring the passage for a very long time.

It earns its hopefulness; is as far as possible from Pollyanna optimism. As May explains to the uninitiated in a terse footnote, ‘Sisyphus was a king of Corinth condemned by Zeus to roll a large stone ceaselessly up a hill.’ (Alternatively, as Nick Pontikis claims in an irresistible, fleshed-out version of the legend on his Thanasis blog — we are indebted to the stoical monarch for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.)

… Are we doomed to live in a world no one can make sense of? …

… Out of that … despair is born this myth which is new but eternally old, the only myth that fits this seemingly hopeless situation. This is the myth of Sisyphus. The one myth which … goes no place at all, seems to be a repetition, every day and every act being forever the same in perpetual monotonous toil and sweat.

But that is to omit its crucial meaning. One thing Sisyphus can do: he can be aware of each moment in this drama between himself and Zeus, between himself and fate. This – because it is most human – makes his reaction completely different from that of the dark night of the mountain up which he rolls his rock …

… The myth of Sisyphus is sometimes interpreted as the sun climbing to its apex every day and then curving down again. Nothing could be more important for human life than these circular journeys of the sun. …

… [W]e face monotony in all we do; we draw in and exhale breath after breath in ceaseless succession through every moment of our lives, which is monotony par excellence. But out of this repetitiveness of breathing the Buddhists and Yoga have formed their religious meditation and a way of achieving the heights of ecstasy.

For Sisyphus is a creative person who even tried to erase death. He never gives up but always is devoted to creating a better kind of life; he is a model of a hero who presses on in spite of his or her despair. Without such capacity to confront despair we would not have Beethoven or Rembrandt or Michelangelo or Dante or Goethe of any others of the great figures in the development of culture …

Sisyphus’ consciousness is the hallmark of being human. Sisyphus is the thinking reed with a mind which can construct purposes, know ecstasy and pain, distinguish monotony from despair, and place the monotony – the rolling of the stone – in the scheme of his rebellion, the act for which he is condemned. …

Sisyphus … must have noticed in his trips some wisp of pink cloud that heralds the dawn, or felt some pleasure in the wind against his breast as he strode down the hill after his rock, or remembered some line of poetry to muse upon …

… [In t]he myth of Sisyphus … [w]e are required … to recognise our human state of consciousness in progress or without it, … with the disintegration of the world or without it. It is this that saves us from destruction when our little rules prove unavailing.

This is what led Albert Camus to conclude his essay on Sisyphus, ‘We must consider Sisyphus happy.’

… Rollo May does mention money in a passage before that extract, not in connection with artists who have too little of it, but showing us why their poverty so often elicits self-righteous scorn. He says, in a profoundly intelligent dissection of greed, focused on America, but applying widely on every continent:

There has been in America no clear-cut differentiation between right and wrong ways to get rich. Playing the stock market? Finding oil under your shack in Texas? Deforesting vast tracts of Douglas fir in the state of Washington? Amassing piles of money for lectures after getting out of prison as a Watergate crook? The important thing in the American dream has been to get rich, and then those very riches give sanction to your situation. The fact of your being successful is proof that God smiles on you and that you are among the saved. It is not hard to see how this, in true Calvinistic tradition, drifted into getting rich as the eleventh commandment.

[ part 1 is: here ]

Would the Nobelist Elinor Ostrom have agreed that women are naturally more cooperative than men?

Bukidnon women of the Philippines island of Mindanao — Hans Brandeis

Norwegian women:
Minnesota Historical Society

Are women instinctively more cooperative than men?

Annoyingly, post-Gutenberg cannot seem to get off the fence, on that question.

There is no equivalent, for the other gender, of Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman — a blood-curdling, too often accurate, book about the scope of this category of unkindness by a respected psychologist, Phyllis Chesler. On the other hand, women have never fashioned whole careers from bludgeoning each other, the way legions of men did for most of human history — serving both noble causes and evil ones.

Nor has highly organised, male-dominated aggression disappeared. Our eyebrows went shooting ceilingward when we discovered, the other day, that in the country proud to think of itself as the land of Gandhi, elite business school students gather as rapturously as American hipster-cultists at Burning Man for a contest in strategic capitalist thinking called the Mahindra War Room. Om mane padme … oh dear, … we thought.

We would like to know whether there is any substance in the idea that women involved in running organisations tend naturally to a more consultative and collaborative style. Should women be encouraged to lead in promoting cooperative ownership as the fairest and most engaging way to organise people working together, wherever coops make sense?

We care about the answer because we have been obsessed by coops for some time. As we explained in a February post, the internet — used as both frame and engine for cooperative organisations — could vaporise many of the handicaps and inefficiencies that plagued failed coops of the recent past. More than once, we have linked to an outline of a scheme for making readers and commenters co-owners of media – a collection of ideas marinated in 2009, then lightly grilled and put on the table in January of 2010.

We could all be witnessing the start of capitalism’s evolution into an array of highly motivated, updated cooperative workplaces. It hardly matters that beady-eyed commenters spotted the questionable logic in one specific comparison in an otherwise accurate Guardian piece, last week, on the growing enthusiasm for cooperatives: ‘Co-operatives and mutuals keep outperforming the UK economy’. A reader, @johnjm, remarked acidly: ‘Comparing co-operatives, which are largely in retailing, with GDP is spurious and arguably financially illiterate.’

If @johnjm is honest, he will concede that some eminent economists find the concept of GDP itself unsatisfactory.  Scrolling down all the reader comments on that article by Greg Rosen does suggest that its premise — that a ‘cooperative renaissance’ is underway — is warranted. Growing numbers of us see coops — warts and all, without any expectation of being led to paradise on earth — as the shrewdest solution to the problem of the 1% that Occupy campaigners turned into high drama. Even if Rosen’s is a flawed comparison, it was intriguing to see these numbers side-by-side – and the next sentence rang deeply true:

While the real level of GDP in the UK in 2011 was 1.7% lower than in 2008, co-operative sector turnover has grown 19.5% over that period.

Some parts of the co-operative economy have been resilient for the past 40 years – but without public recognition.

That said, how are we to get more people to demand cooperative organisations? Could women hold the key to that galvanisation? If forced at gun point to guess either way, a few months ago, post-Gutenberg might have ventured, with cringing reluctance, that females are probably somewhat less adept at friction-free collaboration than men are (see Phyllis Chesler, above).

But lately, these scraps have come floating to the front of our mental screens — on eddies of serendipity:

• Elinor Ostrom, the first and only woman ever to win the Nobel prize for economics (2009), made her name as a specialist in ‘examining the use of collective action, trust, and cooperation in the management of common pool resources’ – such as irrigation networks and fishing grounds — working closely with her husband, Vincent Ostrom.

Our introduction to this radical but self-effacing thinker came from Howard Rheingold’s new book, Net Smart. Like Howard, a cyberspace pioneer and writer, she stood out for putting her ideas into practice in her own life. Shortly after her death in June, he kindly answered our question about their brief acquaintance by explaining that they met at a conference in Bali, through another woman academic interested in the same subject …

… Charlotte Hess, whose work I had been following. In my research on cooperation theory (compiled at I had become familiar with the foundational work of Elinor Ostrom. Hess had co-authored with Ostrom a key paper on information as a common pool resource. […]  Lin Ostrom, as everyone seems to call her, was gracious enough sit down with me and talk about our shared interest in informing policy decisions about common pool resources with real empirical research. Then, as she often did, Ostrom voiced her concern about all the decisions being made at the political level without a shred of knowledge of the significant body of scientific research about what worked and what didn’t work with commons governance issues. […] I came away […] understanding that I had met one of the few great people I had the good fortune to encounter in my lifetime.

• A paper by an economic historian, Beatrice Moring, ‘Female Networks and Cooperation in the Nordic Past’. She delivers an important reminder of how women once excelled at cooperative tasks – ‘[c]ommunal activity without payment, lasting one day or less, aimed at performing tasks needing many participants.’ She argues that after the industrial revolution, the specialisation and commercialisation of work destroyed strong and indispensable female networks which — in Finland, Norway and Sweden — had once milked cows, collaborated in weaving and making clothes, communal baking, and heavy-duty housecleaning.

Elinor Ostrom’s animating spirit, or what can be gleaned of it in an excellent obituary in The Economist, was in close sympathy with those toiling Nordic women:

[C]ollaboration was her watchword. Neighbours thrived if they worked together. The best-laid communal schemes would fall apart once people began to act only as individuals, or formed elites. Born poor herself, to a jobless film-set-maker in Los Angeles who soon left her mother alone, she despaired of people who wanted only a grand house or a fancy car. Her childhood world was coloured by digging a wartime “victory” vegetable garden, knitting scarves for the troops, buying her clothes in a charity store: mutual efforts to a mutual end.

• A light-hearted April 23 column by the science journalist Natalie Angier taking an extreme position also, incidentally, at the furthest extreme from Phyllis Chesler’s – and extended to include non-human females:

In animals as diverse as African elephants and barnyard mice, blue monkeys of Kenya and feral horses of New Zealand, affiliative, longlasting and mutually beneficial relationships between females turn out to be the basic unit of social life, the force that not only binds existing groups together but explains why the animals’ ancestors bothered going herd in the first place.

• A blog post about Elinor Ostrom by the president of the International Cooperative Alliance, founded in 1895 and representing 248 co-operative federations and organisations in 92 countries, according to the Wikipedia. And who did that turn out to be? Yet another woman – Pauline Green.

… Might these scraps amount to dots describing a larger, highly significant pattern – even if they do not quite add up to proving a greater female affinity and aptitude for working in cooperative organisations?

We have no idea. We would like to have asked Elinor Ostrom that question but, sadly, learnt of her existence too late.

Summer, 2012

Photograph by MIL22


1553, “indulging in wandering fancies and purposeless thinking,” from the lit. meaning “gathering fragments of wool torn from sheep by bushes, etc.”

Online Etymology Dictionary, Douglas Harper


This week’s plan for post-Gutenberg.

Quiet levity at ♯Leveson, and some thoughts on the film version of the Inquiry for Robert Redford’s scriptwriter

Leveson’s subtle cerebral swordsman, Robert Jay QC:
is he Hollywood material?

Robert Redford in 1976, playing
the Watergate reporter-hero
Bob Woodward.

Nowhere in the commentary about the winding down last week of Part 1 of the Leveson Inquiry into press practices have we seen the lines we expected some old print publication or other to throw in for leavening. Only in the blogosphere have we found mentions, in this context, of …

You cannot hope to bribe or twist

The honest British journalist

But seeing what the man will do

Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

There are minor variations of those four lines in circulation. They are the wittiest and best-loved summing-up in verse of the British tradition of journalism – at its best, still the world’s finest, in our opinion, which might have been influenced by sprinkling with  baptismal water in this branch of the craft. Long before then, the poem was on a page of a school poetry textbook to which some of us, at post-Gutenberg, often turned for relief from galumphing deconstructions of poems unfortunate enough to have been put on the syllabus.

Will Robert Redford find a way to include Humbert Wolfe’s 1920s quatrain in his script — if there is any substance in the speculation about him giving Leveson and the phone hacking scandal the Hollywood treatment? A Redford film about the Inquiry — showing us what an outsider makes of the Icelandic saga it has become — could be a treat. A clip from a BBC interview with the actor-director in April is irresistible. His tone becomes wondering, almost awed, answering a question about his impressions on a first visit to London for 30 years:

I come here and I watch the Leveson Inquiry. And whatever’s going on — I’m sure there’s some savage stuff going on — but it’s done in such a dignified, calm, graceful way that I think, gee! this is really fascinating. Somebody’s killing somebody, here, but you’d never know it.

Italian-born Humbert Wolfe
wrote the most famous poem
about British journalism.
Photograph: National Portrait Gallery

The poet Humbert Wolfe also had a stranger’s acute powers of observation. He was born in Milan. His mother started life as Consuela Terraccini. His pen strokes captured the journalism and journalists of his adopted country while he worked at a day job in its civil service.

But even if one of Redford’s most famous roles was in All the President’s Men (1976) — playing the Woodward half of Watergate’s heroic ‘Woodstein’ partnership at The Washington Post – it is not the British press but the lawyers and gracious conventions of British law in action that captivated him. At a press conference on the same trip, a reporter asked if he was watching the proceedings and ‘hoping for the return of proper investigative journalism’ – following his complaints elsewhere about the increasing ‘triviality of media’. He replied:

I’ve been very impressed with the dignity and elegance with which the process has gone forward. People take their time speaking. And in my country, things have become so accelerated and … so hyped up. … It’s sad for me to see because it blurs this more important part, which is, where are we going to find the truth? The democratisation of the internet has actually made truth harder to find — along with its positives.

Somehow, that vital qualification of his disappointment with democracy on the net was dropped from the Independent’s report of his remarks, with no indication of any omission. That paper, like the other broadsheets, never stops copying King Canute straining to command the sea to roll backwards – in its case, the evil digital sea of change obliging the 4th Estate to share its megaphone with new rivals.

Actually, Lord Justice Leveson and his chief counsel for the hearings, Robert Jay, have often struck post-Gutenberg as a brilliant pairing. In their uncannily well-coordinated forensic interrogation, they function like a legal Woodstein – even if not technically working as partners but in their distinct and separate roles. The background to their bravura performance could be an engaging part of the story, whenever Redford or someone else digs into it.

Admittedly, that is most likely to be a someone else – since the cinema only rarely conveys intellectual, as opposed to emotional, subtlety and complexity. Just as nearly every film ever made about the lives of artists and writers has failed to illuminate the mechanisms of their creativity, let alone uncover its secrets, there seems little chance of the cinema tackling judicial tactics and strategising of the highest sophistication.

Unless the presiding judge or some other senior member of the Inquiry’s legal team writes a completely frank account of its hidden dramas, there is just as little hope of our learning any details of the hearings’ behind-the-scenes manoeuvring – the pressure from vengeful old 4th Estate tigers distraught about the prospect of their de-clawing; the wily manipulations of politicians. We can only discern their effects – in, for instance, the ever more drawn and tired face and hoarse voice of Leveson LJ, in the concluding weeks of Part 1.

Would a Redford film explain the sort of thing keeping us hugely amused at post-Gutenberg? – the private joke we read into the judge thanking ‘the press who have reported on the inquiry, for keeping everybody informed,’ which made broadsheet headlines. Taking what he said strictly at face value (Lord Justice Leveson ends Inquiry by thanking journalists), those news reports missed his point entirely. To grasp what Leveson LJ was actually saying, you would have to know about this exchange between him and the admirably non-partisan Peter Oborne, chief political commentator at The Telegraph — and by far the most enlightening and accurate senior journalist testifying at the Inquiry:

P.O. : … [T]he reason why rival newspaper groups were unwilling to report phone hacking […] It’s only my views as an informed spectator, that … there was a reluctance of one newspaper group to embarrass another.

LJL : … If that is so, is that inevitable?

P.O. : I don’t know if it’s inevitable or not, but it has been a very, very — it has been a feature … [A]nd I think it’s been weakened a little bit, or even quite a lot, by blogs, and Private Eye has played a fantastically important cleansing function in the last 30 or 40 years. […M]aterial which has not found its way into mainstream publications has found its way into Private Eye.

LJL : Private Eye has also been publishing during the course of this Inquiry what the newspapers don’t publish. In other words, they’ve gone through a number of stories and said, “Actually, it’s rather interesting that this story appeared in this paper but it didn’t cover another aspect.”

Had the judge not been teasing huffy 4th-Estaters for their selective and misleading reporting on his hearings, he would have thanked all reporters and commenters – including bloggers, whose legitimacy and importance he has scrupulously underlined.

On that subject, we have a message for Robert Redford.  It is only because of the internet’s democratisation of the media that post-Gutenberg learnt that he acknowledged the constructive aspects of the rise of the net, even as he blamed it for the growing scarcity of good traditional journalism. As we have already noted in this entry, The Independent only printed the portion of his remarks that suits its agenda. But, thanks not only to a BBC video but a YouTube clip from his London press conference, we could all watch him speak his unedited thoughts and interpret them for ourselves.

And that is just one more tiny scrap confirming that expand and include; don’t compress and exclude should be the principle directing anyone powerful who has a say in shaping the media’s future – for reasons we recently explained here.

A poetic boatload of words and a foretaste of e-publishing as bringer of light and joy

Cover drawing by Sascha Juritz
What matters most is what you make
Roy Eales
Blackbird Editions, Pawel Pan Presse, 2004

Sit up and pay attention, all you change-resistant bookworms who see no good in e-publishing; nothing but the prospect of avaricious conventional publishers charging readers more than once for the same text repackaged in different media – and witless self-publishing writers drowning us in e-drivel.

This week, post-Gutenberg offers word nerds everywhere an example of the littérature-sans-frontières that the net could – will – soon give us as a matter of course. Undeniably, no e-book could replicate the pleasure of handling the slender volume printed on luscious, textured paper from which our extract comes. Never mind, read on. See proof in many dimensions of how the net could – conceivably — help to save literary culture.

These poetic, fanciful lines with something critical to tell us about real life are introduced by their writer, Roy Eales. In his book What matters most is what you make (2004), they appear translated into Breton – the language of the French province of Brittany – as well as in French and German, alongside the English original. (Only the second translation is reproduced here, but we hope to find time to transcribe the other two.)

Roy is a fine, original, unpredictable and unclassifiable English writer and poet living in Brittany who was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by official France in 2004. He is that rare scribe not born a ‘digital native’ who has leapt from print-only to blending literature with other art in readings of his work interwoven with musical performances by members of his group. A selection of his poems in five languages has been recorded on a CD, ‘Just in Case’ by Roy Eales and his friends (2010), with original music by artists in Brittany and Wales.

Beneath Boatload, on this page, is another excerpt from the same book– the first verse of a wicked, delicious, posthumous tribute to Sascha Juritz, the artist and friend whose drawings accompany Roy’s poems, prose meditations and vignettes.




A note from Roy Eales:


A boatload of words came to me in the middle of a night sometime in late 2003. Legend, mythology, mystery abound in Brittany, Bretons and their literature, and I searched for something satirical in which I could use these elements to castigate the French, heavily, for their stern, backward attitude towards other languages in their national space, and to challenge the Bretons, lightly, for not fighting back enough.

[ from the book’s introduction: ]

Boatload and the other poems in this book were dedicated to Sascha Juritz, brilliant artist, my friend and publisher of this and other books over the years. He died in 2003 as this book with his exquisite drawings was being published. He saw Brittany as a twin for Lausitz, his own Slav country locked into the Czech and Polish borders and colonized by Germany some centuries ago as independent Brittany was by the French. Like the Bretons, the people of Lausitz have sought to protect their culture and language despite the inevitable forces to conform to the ‘master’ French and German cultures and languages. 


[ If you are reading this on the blog's 'front page,' please click on the title of this post to be taken to its own separate part of the site to read the following words set out as they are meant to be. WordPress's automated layout software tends to destroy certain types of special formatting, such as spacing for poetry. ]


A boatload of words: a fable for Brittany


At an old port in Brittany a man wearing a peaked black cap was

leaning on his right leg staring capital in the face.


He turned his head and swivelled on his left leg to an alternative

position, and rested there on his right leg again.


He lit his pipe and told a tale. This is what happened.


One cold winter morning at the same port a black seabird

perched on his shoulder and told him in Breton that a huge boat

heaving off Brittany on a strong Atlantic sea had been wrecked

by a mutiny – of its cargo – a boatload of words, in fact, the entire



The black bird twittered, in revealing that the words were to be

dumped at sea, three miles out, in black stranglehold sacks stamped in

red: SUPERFLUOUS, by order of the Ministry of Absolute Control.


Naturally, the words didn’t like this. They had been beaten before,

but never, so overtly, threatened with extinction.


In a mighty speech, Gwendal, their leader calls for a rebellion, and

draws up a plan. The cleverest words would free everyone, and the

heaviest words would sink the boat. Then all the words would float

back to their homeland.


Seabirds flying over the boat learnt secretly of the plan from the words,

who asked them to speed messages in Breton back to the people.


So the news spread quickly across Brittany, and soon all the shoreland

bristled full of music and people, dancing and singing, facing the sea

and the sinking ship on the horizon.


And coming towards them a sheet of white foam on the sea, a foam of

words, as the entire language was carried proudly ashore by the waves

like a hero.


From that day on the people vowed never again would they leave their

language alone to save itself from any perils at sea, or wherever they

may be.


Roy Eales, 2003 



Une cargaison de mots: fable pour la Bretagne


Sur un vieux port breton, un homme portant une casquette de marin

noire s’appuyait sur sa jambe droite, fixant du regard un point d’une

importance capitale.


It tourna la tête et pivota sa jambe gauche pour changer de position

et se tint là de nouveau sur sa jambe droite. It alluma sa pipe et raconta

une histoire. Voici ce qui s’était passé.


Un froid matin d’hiver sur ce même port un oiseau marin se percha

sur son épaule et lui raconta en Breton qu’un énorme navire se soulevant

au large de la Bretagne sur une forte mer atlantique avait fait naufrage à

cause d’une mutinerie – de sa cargaison – une cargaison de mots, en

fait tout le vocabulaire de la langue du pays.


L’oiseau noir gazouillait, alors qu’il révélait que les mots devaient être

jetés à la mer à trois miles au large, étranglés dans les sacs noirs sur

lesquels était tamponné en rouge: SUPERFLU, sur ordre du Ministère

du Contrôle Absolu.


Naturellement, les mots ne furent pas contents. Ils avaient déjà été

battus, mais jamais, si ouvertement, menacés d’extinction.


Dans un vibrant discours, Gwendal, leur chef appelle à la rébellion

et établit un plan. Les mots les plus habiles libéreraient tout le monde,

et les plus lourds couleraient le navire. Puis tous reviendraient en

flottant jusqu’à leur terre.


Des oiseaux marins volant au-dessus du navire furent en secret mis au

courant du plan des mots, qui leur demandèrent de faire rapidement

passer un message en breton au peuple.


Ainsi les nouvelles se répandirent vite à travers le pays, et bientôt

tout le littoral grouillait, repli de musique et de gens qui dansaient

et chantaient, face à la mer et un bateau coulant à l’horizon.


Et venant vers eux, drap d’écume blanche sur la mer, une écume de

mots, toute la langue du pays, était portée fièrement au rivage par les

vagues, comme un héros.


Depuis ce jour le peuple fit serment de ne jamais plus laisser sa langue

toute seule faire face aux périls en mer, ou n’importe où ailleurs.


Roy Eales, 2003

Translated into French by Nanda Troadeg and Susan Eales ]


And here is a snippet of Roy’s tribute to Sascha Juritz, ‘Don’t Overdrive, my dear‘ … you can read the rest in your own copy of What matters most is what you make:


This time

Is there only the reality?

.  So don’t overdrive, my dear.

Where this genius is concerned

reality is irrationality.

The black lines

send off the normality

and poetry is just

.  a little shit

after which you feel better

and lose a bit of yourself.

.  It doesn’t matter, my dear.

.  They hear nothing

.  Say nothing

.  See nothing — scheisser — .

But every man is always

.  a Grand Poète,

has something to say,

. a small bird in the head.


[ ... continues ... ]



♯Leveson must protect citizens’ rights to comment alongside a 4th Estate incapable of self-regulation: see Private Eye No. 1317

Photograph by MIL22

One after another, members of the 4th Estate have been parroting some version of the same frightful cliché – don’t throw out the baby with the bath water! – as they warn Lord Justice Leveson about the risks of imposing any form of regulation on the press.  Google offers roughly 21,200 search results for the terms ‘baby + bathwater + Leveson’.

You might suppose that someone would have the wit to find a new metaphor after this year’s revelations about decades of collusion between politicians and the largest 4th Estate empire by far, the one run by Rupert Murdoch – disclosures that have shown us that the wretched baby is being bathed skinless to divert attention from its reeking, putrid condition.

Last week, in another part of this site, we posted a mention of an important study by a London School of Economics researcher about comment moderation policies on the websites of newspapers. We found it only by accident, on the day we wrote the post. For reasons obvious from five minutes spent reading the study’s findings, no newspaper has given it any publicity whatsoever. We hope that the Leveson Inquiry’s team of investigators has copies of the LSE researcher Sanna Trygg’s paper, ‘Is Comment Free? Ethical, editorial and political problems of moderating online news‘, which underlined in various ways these observations:

In the past, ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ media have been considered as the main public forum for free speech, critique and discussion. Today, readers are also invited to participate in the debate directly online. The main platform for this is the comment field attached to news articles published online.


Comment fields on newspaper websites offer great potential for participation in democratic dialogue. […] It is important to continue to strive for real engagement between people with different viewpoints, even when those views are marginal. The danger remains that people will not learn by having their views challenged.


Readers’ participation is still not a priority in the newspapers organization. [Comment] [m]oderation is being performed on the terms of the newspaper and is a product of a relatively narrow policy. This issue matters if it drives people away from ‘reasonable’ moderated discourse. […] It is a central problem for the creation of a truly networked journalism or Fifth Estate.

Trygg — whose work experience includes a stint as web editor for Skånska Dagbladet, a newspaper in her Swedish homeland — was pessimistic about the likelihood that the Inquiry will address the most vital media-related issue that needs resolving. That is not simply to note the 4th Estate’s replacement by the 5th , but firmly discourage today’s still-dominant print media from suppressing the voices of citizens who disagree with its positions and expose its flaws in newspaper comments sections. She surmised:

At present it does not seem likely that Leveson will deal with news website moderation directly, but surely it should be considered in any investigation into newspaper editorial practices and their contribution to British public life?

As we keep saying here, there is only one widely circulated print publication in Britain writing ‘without fear or favour,’ the way a real newspaper should – and as only bloggers and other unmediated writers publishing on the net do. In late June, Private Eye supplied a detailed contradiction of misleading testimony by David Cameron at the Leveson hearings that the rest of the 4th Estate either ignored or mentioned glancingly.

The Eye’s evisceration of that testimony referred to Jeremy Hunt, a culture-minister-in-waiting who in 2010 had boosted his party’s chances of winning the election by securing the support of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun – through spouting, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, all the positions on media policy that Rupert’s son James had outlined a few days earlier in delivering the annual, high-profile MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

“THERE was no overt deal for support, there was no covert deal, there were no nods and winks,” David Cameron told Leveson, dismissing the suggestion that the Tories agreed to back the Murdochs’ commercial interests in return for the support of the Sun before the 2010 general election. Hmm…

As the Eye pointed out before Cameron gave his evidence, there was, however, an uncanny resemblance between James Murdoch’s MacTaggart Lecture on 28 August 2009 and an article that the then shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote in the Sun three weeks later on 19 September – just before the paper switched its support to the Tories.

Hunt echo

In the MacTaggart, Murdoch complained about a “land grab” by the BBC, claiming that “the scale and scope of its current activities and future ambitions is chilling”. Hunt echoed that in his Sun article, warning that “something is going wrong at the broadcaster”.

Murdoch declared: “Rather than concentrating on areas where the market is not delivering, the BBC seeks to compete head-on for audiences with commercial providers.” Or, as Hunt wrote three weeks later: “The BBC needs to focus on what it does best – great family entertainment and programmes the market will not provide.”

Murdoch rant

Murdoch complained that “the BBC’s income is guaranteed and growing”. Ditto Hunt: “We should not be having inflationary rises in the licence fee.” Murdoch then ranted about the “particularly egregious” expansion of the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. Lo and behold, Hunt argued: “It’s time to rein in the activities of its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.”

Murdoch’s fury extended to the BBC Trust. “You need deep pockets, sheer bloody-mindedness and an army of lawyers just to make the BBC Trust sit up and pay attention,” he fumed. Hunt promptly “pledged to replace” the BBC Trust “with a truly independent body”.

Perish the thought that any of this might amount to evidence of a mating dance between the Tories and the Murdochs.

We hope that the Leveson Inquiry will do all it can to ease the way for more media of every sort to fill crucial gaps in mainstream reporting as only the Eye does, at present.

Appearing before the Inquiry last Tuesday, Lord Hunt (no relation to Jeremy), the present head of the press-run Press Complaints Commission all but universally acknowledged to have failed at the job of self-policing, failed to melt Lord Justice Leveson’s heart when he begged for a second chance for his organisation. Every month brings fresh evidence of the hopelessness of any claim that the press is capable of regulating itself.

Two such scraps on our minds at post-Gutenberg today:

• Last summer, even with the whole world transfixed by emerging details about phone hacking by Murdoch’s minions, the media tycoon announced his intention of mucking out his corporation’s stable with an internal investigation that struck critics as woefully unconvincing. It was led by Joel Klein, a New York lawyer and education expert, freshly hired by News Corp.. The New York Times noted earlier this year:

Shareholder groups have expressed concerns about Mr. Klein’s independence in leading the investigation. His compensation package at News Corporation was more than $4.5 million last year, according to company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“His salary was a huge bump, so he’s clearly beholden to Murdoch and should not be running an internal investigation,” said Michael Pryce-Jones, a spokesman for the CtW Investment Group, a shareholder advocacy group based in Washington that works with pension funds for large labor unions.

Last month, Joel Klein handed over that smelly job for a head groom to another senior News Corp executive – but that was someone hired at his behest, and his having been entrusted at all with the sanitising task did not inspire confidence in the likelihood that Britain’s heftiest media conglomerate is capable of putting the public interest above considerations of narrow commercial advantage.

• Newspapers ignore complaints about the suppression of citizens’ comments about their policies and behaviour  — even censoring, with peerless irony, a post about an opinion piece by the chief executive of Index on Censorship, a British watchdog group chiefly concerned with spotlighting censorship outside Britain.

One reason for starting this post-Gutenberg blog last September was to draw attention to comments censored by newspapers. Obviously thinking on closely parallel lines, Sanna Trygg suggested in her paper, published in January:

[W]e would argue that in the long run it is worth newspapers continuing to push for more transparent moderation … For example, would it be worthwhile making records of deleted comments public? Since no publicly available records exists, all we know is that comments are being deleted, but not which ones and why.

The latest tactic by old print media worthies determined to neutralise the Leveson Inquiry is to claim that neither the presiding judge nor any of the lawyers assisting him – all educated at élite institutions — are capable of looking after the interests of ‘Joe Public,’ since none of them are part of the tabloid-reading majority of customers for Britain’s newspapers.

This will be seen as a particularly ill-judged attempt to ensure the unchallenged reign of the 4th Estate if the Inquiry acts on what Lord Justice Leveson plainly understands well, which is that ordinary citizens are best served by any newspaper that gives its readers a chance to freely express their opinions.

A source quoted by Sanna Trygg encapsulated why this is exactly what members of the public need:

Research by the Swedish survey Institute Sifo in 2011, showed that workers, unemployed and less educated people think that reader comments in themselves are more important than civil servants, self-­‐employed, private employees and highly skilled:

“A qualified guess is that people with higher education and status in society feel that they already have the opportunity to be heard. For people with lower status are comment fields however, an important platform to make their voices heard.” 
Sofia Mirjamsdotter (Swedish journalist, blogger and social media expert.)

Might audience jealousy of artists explain why copyright is being officially destroyed on the internet?

Do artists deserve to eat?
Photograph by Mark Barron

In a March post, post-Gutenberg asked,

As more writers and artists without formal qualifications but with undeniable gifts find audiences for their work on the net, will micropayments finally take off?


So far, so-called Millennials – the generation in their twenties and early thirties now shaping our experience of the net — have shown little enthusiasm for [...] experimenting with micropayments — direct transactions between buyers and sellers [...]

Many ardent campaigners for the so-called ‘Freemium’ economy willingly pay small ransoms for the latest gadgets – even when these are only minor improvements or enhancements of last year’s versions, and are designed to fatten the profits of the hated capitalists. Few of them learn to cook simple meals from scratch: they are happy to pay huge mark-ups for bland microwaveable fare cooked and packaged by giant corporations, or to patronise fast-food chains.

Why is it seemingly only art that turns them into Scrooges?

For people working in the arts, the grim news last week – ‘European Parliament Kills Controversial ACTA’ — marked surging public support for depriving them of any protection from online piracy:

The European Parliament rejected the controversial global Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement in a crucial vote on Wednesday. […] ACTA, abbreviation for Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, mandated that signatory countries implement legislation to criminalize certain types of downloading content such as music and movies, from sites not sanctioned by rights owners …

ACTA was killed by a vast online social network expressly formed to oppose paying creative artists for downloading copies of their work. There were some eye-popping attempts at justifying this European vote in the comments section of a furious protest against ACTA’s defeat by the Scottish novelist Ewan Morrison: ‘Throwing out Acta will not bring a free internet, but cultural disaster’.

To study that thread is to pick up a persistent undercurrent of jealous resentment – whose real target is not, as so many of those commenters claimed sanctimoniously, the ‘content conglomerates’ or multinational music publishers and film studios charging inflated prices for CDs and DVDs. It is the musicians, actors, and other ‘content-producers’.

One commenter seemed to speak for many in this post:


Culture is shared and owned by everyone.

Floggin plastic discs, is a business, and nothing to do with culture.

A flurry of comments belaboured the point that artists must simply accept that technological change has made it difficult or impossible to prevent people from helping themselves to art free of charge.

At post-Gutenberg, we wondered why these stalwart defenders of freeloading have yet to form a movement against paying farmers for food. As tillers of the soil use air, earth, and knowledge of crop-growing ‘owned by everyone’, why not risk arrest and imprisonment by ganging up to pirate vegetables, eggs, milk and poultry from fields and farms unprotected by fences or other low- or high-tech barriers?

As heatedly as they insisted on freedom for themselves, the commenters crowing about ACTA’s defeat demanded that artists – especially musicians – work on their terms. These go beyond requiring musicians to ‘share’ recordings of their work for nothing. Never mind if they are brilliant composers with crippling stage-fright, or who would simply prefer not to perform live, these audience members know what is best for them … and some wrote strings of posts making essentially the same demands:


The world has changed, and it has been changing for well over a decade now. A generation have grown up expecting free music and it’s nothing to do with being ‘radical’ or ‘hip’, it’s just the norm.

I suggest becoming a renowned performer rather than relying on CD sales.

To put it bluntly : adapt or die.


This little rant is of course based on the assumption that the grotesque wealth that has, in recent history, accompanied success in music or acting or writing is in any way desirable. 


Pirating is wrong, but […] maybe the artists need to perform more. Those “used to be musicians” might still be if they’d got out of the studio and into the pubs and clubs like their predecessors did.


So music will once again be about artists performing live, instead of corporate fatcats presiding over billion dollar industries.

What a tragedy. 


Most of the people you are talking about and their businesses, those in the creative industries, willingly use and exploit the free internet to give a wider audience a taste of what they are about and to use its capacity as free advertising for their events. The bonus of this is that live events which had been dying have now been invigorated.



[Musical artists must] do what most musicians have always done, flip burgers during the week and live for the gigs on Friday and Saturday night.



… [U]nregulated web will lead to musos having to play guitar solo on street corners for thrown coins. can’t see anything wrong there. 



If you create something outstanding and expect to live off the work for the rest of your life, and your family for 70 years after your death, then you must charge a sufficient amount to invest the proceeds and live off the investment income.

Otherwise you need to continually produce new works, or perform existing works.

We did not have more than a few minutes to test our impression of artist-envy in a search engine trawl. Two results – not enough to prove anything, but admirably frank, and revealing:

From a post titled ‘Why we are insanely jealous of artists’ on Jason Kallsen’s Vinethinking blog:

At a certain point, usually in our youth … we stand alone in front of the mirror with thumb raised and sing along to a song that is pounding out of the stereo.  And during our dream sequence, we see thousands of screaming fans before us, cheering us on.  Yes, deep down, at some point, we all want to be that person.


We love artists, and we are jealous of them for two reasons: they live their life doing what they want to do without permission or apology, and their career creates legacy projects naturally. [his bold type]

From Momus’s click opera blog:

I’m jealous of artists especially when a shiny new copy of ARTFORUM arrives. I flick through the pages looking at the ads.

It’s important to be jealous, without rejecting. Jealous and full of desire.


I’m jealous of the super-elite art tribe who ride the global flow from one biennial to the next.

And I’m ultimately jealous of the fact that our society has evolved to such a level that we indulge people as if they were children, and let them act out the whims and games of children in public, and pay them for it. It seems that being an artist — in the West, or in China — is the ultimate evolutionary point of the individual. Perhaps it’s a point we’ll recede from as times get tougher later this century, but a world without these selfish, clever, silly children isn’t a better one.

Jason Kallsen points the way to the right solution – which is most definitely not to deprive artists of copyright:

[W]e can all live fuller lives than we probably do.  Even if you are chained to a desk (for now) find an outlet that allows you to creatively do whatever the hell you want to do.  A painting class, doing more personal writing, visiting museums more often, taking the camera around town on a daily mission to make one great photo, etc.

It is only a small leap from there to the reason why this post-Gutenberg blog was started last September – to campaign for changing the ownership structure of media to let members of the audience become co-owners, and give them the chance to perform and publish themselves. See, for instance: ‘Co-owning media is on the horizon …‘.

Julia Hobsbawm and a few more reasons to be wary of social networking

The New Yorker explains the ‘structural holes’ theory of social networking.
21 November 2005.

We are indebted to Ian Jack, writing in his latest Guardian column, for justifying our extreme suspicion of coercive social networking — and especially, of academic theorising about the value of something people have always done supposedly being on the verge of dominating everything else that we do.  (See footnotes for links to earlier entries on aspects of this alarming subject.)

Reflecting on a speech by Julia Hobsbawm, the new Honorary Visiting Professor in Networking at the Cass Business School at London’s City University – in which she pronounced ‘Facebook and Twitter … de facto, the new water cooler,’ but warned that extra-powerful networking takes place in ‘grassroots, lateral, face-to-face networks,’ — he noted,

The better people were connected, she said, the more they flourished. At the bottom end of the scale, “the completely un-networked” were often the unemployed. At the top end, networking away like barn dancers, were people who gathered at places such as Davos for the global events Hobsbawm always found “hugely stimulating and enjoyable” but regrettably confined to the same old elite. As I understood her talk, which may not be perfectly, the trick was somehow to open up these conclaves to less privileged people. Thus “social and intellectual plurality” would lead to “social and professional mobility”.

He came to this sad conclusion:

The Cass Business School should adopt a motto and paint it over the entrance: non quae sed quem cognoscis, not what you know but who. And thereby recognise the return of this unfortunate reality.

The New York Times, just as sceptical in its report of Julia Hobsbawm’s inaugural lecture, also emphasised her own splendid family and social connections as the key to her success – that she is the daughter of an eminent Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, and was once the business partner of the wife of a former British prime minister in a public relations company.

Why do social networking theorists like her make their ideas so hard to understand?

Like Ian Jack, the New York paper quoted tiny snippets of her talk to convey deep bafflement – but post-Gutenberg did not really grasp what they were hinting at until we followed a link to a recording of exactly what she said. This longer segment of her lecture makes it easier to see why they found her — erm, ‘meta-concepts,’ is the way she and her fellow-theorists would probably put it, so elusive. We hope we have punctuated her words correctly in this transcript: it is not easy to decide how that should be done when struggling to make the ideas themselves fit together. After asking whether knowledge might be ‘more valuable when it is loose rather than tight,’ she continued,

The global workplace is itself becoming looser. Our graduate children are shadow-boxing hidden counterparts and hidden competitors on other continents. The Silicon Roundabout worker in London must be mobile and fluid because they may end up in Silicon Valley or someone from Silicon Valley may pinch their job. The garment producer in Mumbai may come from Mombasa. That’s because knowledge moves in a kind of diaspora now, uprooting from a fixed position and travelling. In fact, The Economist – again – noted in an article about diaspora networks last year that there are 215 million diaspora migrants in the world now. That’s the equivalent of 3 per cent of the world’s population taking ideas from over there back home. China’s growth may have more to do with the fact that over 500,000 people have studied abroad and returned, mostly within a single decade, bringing a huge brain surge through the ranks of think tanks and government.

The best expression of very loose knowledge that I can find is the sociologist Ronald S. Burt’s term ‘structural holes’. He describes the way ideas often form between formal [her emphasis] network nodes than in them. As Burt put it, and I quote, ‘Structural holes are the empty spaces in social structure. The value potential of structural holes is that they separate non-redundant sources of information, sources that are more additive than overlapping.’ And I’m minded to quote from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which she describes freedom as coming from ‘the blank white spaces on the edge of the print.’

‘Loose knowledge’, it would seem, is a stunning sequence of non sequiturs that could sink anyone listening for too long in a bottomless black hole.

Or, we might simply say, to encapsulate our yokelish incomprehension of the Hobsbawm networking spiel, very Swedish chef  … – in the hope that a few readers have come across this sublime Muppet Show character whose recipes could kill you, if you followed them – but that would call for understanding his directions.


How would introverts like Beckett — and Wittgenstein, Kafka and P.G. Wodehouse — have survived social media?

Google, bowing to social media, is letting down tomorrow’s Samuel Becketts

The Muppet Show’s Swedish chef in a meditative pause between utterances.

Advice for Lord Justice Leveson from Lao Tse: how to shape the afterlife of the 4th Estate and assist the birth of its successor

[ On 10 July 2012, The Independent, a ‘liberal’ London newspaper, declined to publish a comment on press reform linked to this post. That polite comment is here. ]

Niklaus Manuel’s ‘Dance of Death’ (‘Totentanz’, 1516-1519) was a hugely popular theme as Gutenberg presses proliferated and the Renaissance was in full sway. It could have symbolised a coming-to-terms not just with death but the dying of old ways.

Presiding over an Inquiry whose conclusions will shape the afterlife of the British press – doomed to extinction by digital media and the new voices of the 5th Estate – Lord Justice Leveson keeps reminding us of the contradiction in the difficult job he has been given. What mechanisms can he recommend to the government for the enforcement of ethical behaviour by the 4th Estate without ‘imperilling the freedom of expression or our free press’? – as he put it during Tony Blair’s testimony in late May.

Post-Gutenberg would like to recommend a fragment of ancient Chinese philosophy as a frame for thinking about a solution to his quandary. Lao Tse reportedly said, in the 6th century BCE,

If we wish to compress something, we must first let it fully expand.

Lao Tse

Rule-making can be seen as a sort of compression – in the sense of limiting, constraining and controlling. It is too soon for anyone, even the admirably wise men at the summit of Britain’s judiciary today, to draft rules for media being turned inside-out by the digital revolution. As perspicacious witnesses have pointed out, any new regulations that minutely specify what the 4th Estate can and cannot do must inevitably pronounce on who should be considered a journalist. How can that be done when the profession’s boundaries are being obliterated by the arrival of the 5th Estate?

It would be disastrous if the Inquiry were to lead to any blocking or impeding of this successor to the 4th Estate. What the arrival of the 5th Estate means for the press is that it has to share the megaphone it has so far had all to itself.  This succession is directly in line with the evolution and improvement of democracy – something that people everywhere want dearly, a yearning that events like the Arab Spring have dramatised.

To watch the Leveson hearings is to see the presiding judge agonise over too many details that an unimpeded 5th Estate will soon make irrelevant or outdated. They take up too much of his time, even when he understandably declines to deal with them in an Inquiry being criticised for taking on too much. As Dan Sabbagh noted in a good summing-up in The Guardian last week,

Leveson has so far showed little apparent desire to get into the question of the ownership structures of newspapers: when invited … to set a cross-media ownership limit that would force a Murdoch sale of the Sun or the Times, Leveson fought shy, “because that involves all sorts of competition issues which would require quite detailed analysis”.

Instead, Leveson went elsewhere to debate some practical solutions. The judge has been surprisingly consistent in the views he has espoused, taking the approach of testing out ideas periodically with witnesses he likes. Leveson is clearly sceptical of the PCC [Press Complaints Commission], telling Financial Times editor Lionel Barber in January that the body was not “really a regulator” but a “complaints mechanism” – and that it needed to be supplemented by another body, a new kind of court, “some sort of arbitral system” to cover libel and privacy claims – an imagined body that the judge said would be designed to be low cost – or to use a phrase he repeated many times “not make extra work for lawyers”. Its nearest analogue would be the industrial tribunals, or the arbitration system used in the construction industry. 

Post-Gutenberg likes the way the judge is thinking about  a replacement for the defunct and essentially toothless Press Complaints  Commission. We would also be happy to see the criminalisation of a small set of completely unacceptable infractions, such as extraordinary invasions of privacy by phone hacking and other underhand means.

But instead of pointless brain-cudgelling about precisely what percentage of which communication medium newspaper conglomerates like Rupert Murdoch’s should be allowed to own, Lord Justice Leveson’s highest priority should be to open the way to the largest number of competitors for the 4th Estate.

In other words, expand, don’t compress should be the principle guiding his recommendations to the government in September.

Check bad behaviour on the part of today’s media elite by maximising  opportunities for the outsiders of the 5th Estate to offer alternative presentations of facts and unfamiliar opinions, and to challenge and expose the biases and mistakes of every sort of media, new and old.

There is no shortage of good ideas for the democratic licensing of access to sensitive information by both professional and non-professional disseminators of facts. In a post a few months ago  on the blog of the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM), Hugh Tomlinson QC made an excellent suggestion about ‘benefits for public interest journalism of creating a category of “accredited journalists”’.  These would be …

… a sub-category of those writing for publication [who] should be given specific privileges to assist them in their work. […] [P]rivileges should not be granted to journalists simply because they are employed to write or because they work for a media organisation.  Neither should the privileges be granted to any “citizen journalist” who claims to be writing public interest stories. Rather, the privileges should be made available to those who pass through a gateway policed by a voluntary independent regulatory body and sign up to an enforceable code of responsibility. [post-G’s ital.]

There are new ways of organising and financing journalism that could use Lord Justice Leveson’s support – even if that only means he will be careful not to hobble the reorganisation of the media as, for instance, a set of cooperatives in which readers and viewers could be offered the chance to become co-owners. In recent months, proposals for setting up and running these have been increasingly detailed and specific. (See, for instance, the mention of Paul Smalera’s suggestions in ‘Why a keiretsu-cooperative is a gentle transition for old media …’.)

The mere existence of the Leveson Inquiry has already had salutary effects. To give a small but critical example, the moderation of comments in The Guardian’s popular comments sections has become far less trigger-happy. Commenters are not being censored quite so reflexively for opinions or factual posts that conflict with that newspaper’s views and political positions, or criticise its friends. Last weekend, it was heartening to see a post about the Inquiry itself opened for comments after months of prohibition on grounds that made no sense – and to be able to read contributions to the debate about Ian Jack’s illuminating comparison of Leveson with an earlier government investigation of press practices.

As for the Leveson hearings, per se, their radical transparency — with a presiding judge confident enough to muse aloud and react spontaneously to testimony —  goes far beyond what many of us could even have imagined as a model of open government. (The best demonstration came an hour after this post: here). American lawyer friends looking on in awe tell us that nothing in the US system would permit Americans to copy the form of these proceedings.

Most amazing has been the discovery that the conduct of the Inquiry is characteristic of an exceptionally progressive judiciary. Utterly unlike the notoriously slow-moving and stodgy legal system wickedly satirised in Dickens’s creation, Jarndyce and Jarndyce — a court case that grinds on for generations – Britain’s top judges are not just acknowledging the implications of new communications media and adjusting to them, but doing so faster than the professionally nimble 4th Estate.

Post-Gutenberg only recently came across a news report from the spring of last year about a speech in Israel by the Lord Chief Justice, Baron Igor Judge, who put Sir Brian Leveson in charge of this indescribably gratifying investigation into press culture and practices. He explained that in Malta, where he was born, one of his grandfathers owned and edited a tiny newspaper. His sympathy for the press’s problems is, in a sense, inbred. But he favours the transparency and inclusion that are more the defining characteristics of the 5th than the 4th Estate – even for keeping his own legal system honest:

His “fervent hope” was that new technology would make it easier for the media to be “present” in court, reporting the proceedings, and “the present trend of fewer and fewer reporters in every court would come to an end”.

In an apparent reference to “virtual” courts based on video-conferencing, Judge insisted that justice should be done “in a public forum to which the public, or the media, has access”.

He continued: “Technology must not lead to justice done in secret, or some form of hole-in-the-corner justice.

Post-Gutenberg wishes to offer just more one scrap of advice to Lord Justice Leveson – who has invited everyone, however obscure, to contribute thoughts to his hearings: please do not allow political partisanship by the press to be conflated with press freedom. As we observed in a recent post in this spot, sanctioning political one-sidedness means licensing powerful media owners to be king-makers, with all the compromising wheeling and dealing that goes with that. It means condoning the skewed reporting of the facts so essential to the functioning of a genuinely democratic government.

With a fully licensed 5th Estate in full cry, media conglomerates trying to run Britain, with lots of help from British prime ministers – or what the Economist appears to dismiss nonchalantly as the inevitable ‘proprietor problem’ —  should be shown their proper place. And where would that be? If not oblivion, then as far below the salt as possible.