Posts by Cheryll Barron

Can literary, bacon-scented flies teetering on the brink of greatness — by 2016 standards — compete with a passage in, say, Orwell’s Burmese Days?

The seductive power of images can be tremendous, with the right image-maker, but they rarely tell us enough about being in the places they depict. Photographs: MIL22 (above); (below).

The seductive power of images can be tremendous, with the right image-maker, but they rarely tell us enough about being in the places they depict. Photographs: MIL22 (above); (below).

Sunset fm BigVM

Conjuring the sensations of actually being there in telling about sights, scents, flavours, and the effects of a place on its observer’s mood may interest only the dwindling ranks of magician-scribes — writers’ writers — in the 21st century. For evocation, most people seem content with receiving still and moving images anyone can capture — with no need to struggle with complicated camera-buying decisions because cameras come with go-everywhere telephones the way glove compartments do with cars. Fewer and fewer of us know what we are missing. Many have never known or forgotten how much deeper or how unforgettably a word picture can take a reader into the same scene whose story the most captivating photograph can only tell incompletely. Of course the most inspired literary description lacks what is uniquely in photography’s power to record. We have been taught that a picture is worth a thousand words. But it would be hard to accept a picture in place of those many words without a lot of questions and conditions. Which words, chosen and arranged exactly how? At post-Gutenberg we have been mulling over comparisons between our own records constructed from the alphabet and confections from light and pixels, tackling the same subjects.

If we were to prefer a particular passage of text to a picture, to what degree would our taste coincide with the preferences of those of us brought up entirely on description-lite contemporary prose, in this post-print Age of the Image? A startling fragment of praise in a recent Sunday book review in the New York Times was not encouraging. The critic applauded the author’s …

 … keen sense of visceral detail (“The air smelled like bacon from the flies that sizzled in the overhead lights”) that borders on sublime. 

We reread that fragment several times in the same browsing session, a few days ago, and have returned to it more than once since. Beyond our bafflement by the reviewer’s bedazzlement, we have been asking practical questions. Do flies, as small as they are, smell strongly enough of where they have been perching lately for human noses to detect that? Or would you need one especially acute nose, like this author’s? Or are flies being cured nowadays, the way pig-parts are? No, that cannot be right — if they were sizzling in overhead lights, they were partially alive and in the process of extinction. But could the passage mean to imply that they were partially cured, like chickens still running around post-decapitation? Fly bacon, for consumption by whom? … Hard to say. We shall return to that review — to which we are not linking, here, because it’s not really the author or book by which we have been mesmerised but the 21st-century reviewer’s taste and conception of what borders on sublime. We are determined to read that snippet over and over again and surely one day, with the right degrees of determination and open-mindedness, will see exactly what the literary critic wanted us to know.

In the meanwhile, mystification sent us running to our bookshelves, and lunging for a text, any text, that we think borders on sublime. We picked a paperback from the George Orwell shelf — a fair comparison, because this writer never accused of being flowery or prolix has long been considered a master of lean, spare, modern prose; is famous for his ‘style of no style’ far closer to contemporary taste than the surpassing descriptions of, say, Dickens.

From Burmese Days (1934):

He acclimatised himself to Burma. His body grew attuned to the strange rhythms of the tropical seasons. Every year, from February to May, the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one’s clothes, one’s bed nor even one’s food ever seemed to be dry. It was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat. The lower jungle paths turned into morasses, and the paddy fields were great wastes of stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell. Books and boots were mildewed. Naked Burmans in yard-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed the paddy fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water. Later, the women and children planted the green seedlings of paddy, dabbing each plant into the mud with little three-pronged forks. Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain. Then one night, high overhead, one heard a squawking of invisible birds. The snipe were flying southward from Central Asia. The rains tailed off, ending in October. The fields dried up, the paddy ripened, the Burmese children played hopscotch with gonyin seeds and flew kites in the cool winds. It was the beginning of the short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of England. Wild flowers sprang into bloom everywhere, not quite the same as the English ones, but very like them — honeysuckle in thick bushes, field roses smelling of peardrops, even violets in dark places of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that poured through the valley like the steam of enormous kettles. One went shooting after duck and snipe. There were snipe in countless myriads, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge. The ripening paddy, breast-high and yellow, looked like wheat. The Burmese went to their work with muffled heads and their arms clasped across their breasts, their faces yellow and parched with cold. In the morning one marched through misty, incongruous wildernesses, clearings of drenched, almost English grass and naked trees where monkeys squatted in the upper branches, waiting for the sun.

… What album of photographs could hope to compete with those not quite four hundred Orwellian word-choices?

Adapt-or-die advice for newspapers being squeezed out by Facebook: create symphysis with your reader-commenters!

>>>The Daily Mail>>Guardian<<<, which broadcasts news of its rival’s money worries

The Daily Mail, the world’s 3rd most popular newspaper site, reports on
the staggering losses of the even more popular Guardian, which broadcasts news
of its rival’s money worries

statvoo ED $8.95 centre, a mysterious publisher of statistical estimates on the net, reckons the value of many blogs — like this one — at $8.95 (surely much too high)


the process of growing together (Oxford Dictionaries Online)

syn– + phyein, to make grow, bring forth (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary)

Why are Facebook and Google sucking up most of the digital advertising revenue on the web – leaving newspapers far behind?

Shared control of ‘content’ makes visiting these sites compulsive and addictive. Their visitors are not a passive audience but ‘users’ with a big say in determining what they read and see — in effect, co-directors of content creation on their own behalf. On Google, they are looking at responses to search queries that they design themselves; searches as varied and frequent as they wish. The UK Press Gazette noted earlier this month that research by the Reuters Institute shows that ‘social media has overtaken print as a source of news in the UK and that Facebook is by far the most popular social network.’

How can newspapers steal some of Facebook’s thunder?

It is worth noting that The Guardian — in the first year or so after it launched its Comment-is-Free site about a decade ago — could have become far bigger and more powerful than Facebook is today if it had only stayed true to its original mission, in opening up its platform to readers.

What did the Guardian get right in its conception of Comment-is-Free?

It glimpsed the power and potential of symphysis. The newspaper’s leaders, notably Alan Rusbridger and the late Georgina Henry, invited readers commenting on its articles to create a community and virtual clubs with other commenters — by linking from Comment-is-Free to their own, personal blogs elsewhere on the web. This was symphysis put into practice. For example, someone passionate about cats could post links in a comment on a Guardian article about moggy ownership and mental health — to his Siamese cat blog, and perhaps his self-published coffee-table books of photographs on the subject. He could charm or challenge other Guardian site visitors, tempting them to click on his links with comments that amuse or annoy them — and, from their responses, gauge which segment of the paper’s readership, if any, contains his natural audience, and how large that audience might be. He would, in effect, be getting help from The Guardian with market research and publicity not easy to obtain in any other way. In return, cat-loving readers would boost the newspaper’s page views, magnetising new visitors and commenters who got wind of the discussion-in-progress.

Like the Siamese lover, serious professional writers, artists and scholars seeking to draw attention to their work and ideas could create and discover their own forms of symbiosis with the site.

What stopped Comment-is-Free from living up to its promise?

Making comment less and less free, through increasingly heavy-handed and intrusive comment ‘moderation’ by the Guardian — and even outright censorship — which drove away too many sharp, entertaining and irreverent commenters, who made many of us click on the site all day, hoping to read new contributions from them. Links to the blogs of commenters who disagreed with Guardian writers and appeared to be gaining the support of other readers were often broken by the moderators. There were two reasons for the rise of the moderators: a) The official one, ostensibly the only reason, was to reign in rude commenters — control combative rudeness, including incendiary personal remarks about authors of the articles being commented on, and ‘trolling’ by solitary or collaborating disruptors of conversations. b) The hidden and unacknowledged reason: Guardian journalists and writers resented not merely careful, well-reasoned challenging of their facts and opinions by readers, but their challengers’ ability to demonstrate their grasp of a topic comprehensively, on their blogs — to which they could lay trails of digital crumbs in the same way as the cat-lovers in the last paragraph. This point about resentment, rarely conceded by most traditional journalists, has been made over the years on post-Gutenberg, and other blogs. In a welcome surprise last weekend, Giles Wilkes, an editorial writer and contributor to the hugely influential Lex column of The Financial Times, actually underlined it:

[M]any of the faults blog are accused of apply as much to old media, where they play out in elephantine slow motion and with a tenured complacency symptomatic of a medium blessed with too much protection from competition. […] [W]hen the blogosphere is really on form, its interactions throw up insights of a depth and quality that the mainstream media simply cannot accommodate. [ See ‘How I learnt to love the economic blogosphere.’ The Financial Times Magazine (get a free trial subscription, if necessary, to get past the paper’s paywall) ]

In the blogosphere, Wilkes added, questionable or downright shoddy analysis that print journalists are used to getting away with is demolished with ‘ruthless and rude critique’.

The Guardian and other newspapers make gestures towards the inclusiveness of digital publishing by featuring or spotlighting comments by some readers, or by publishing the occasional ‘above the line’ article that they invite them to write. These are typically bland, in perfect synch with the publication’s politics and other agendas, and sometimes apparently selected for their simple-mindedness. They are soon forgotten by everybody.

What do we lose from obstructing symphysis on sites visited by well-read and keen debaters?

The chance to show old media on which we place a high cultural value how to adapt their modus operandi for the digital age, or how to ‘update their business model’. The essence of what they need is the form of cooperation that technologists long ago dubbed ‘interactivity’ — with essentially two classes of operators. Publishers have to become co-purveyors of content with their audiences, on the one hand. On the other, they will ideally collaborate with other publishers, joining audiences or potential customers (markets) through shared publishing platforms or meta-sites. In the first variety of collaboration, for a newspaper, commenters and their blogs would certainly not replace trained journalists and editors, but simply operate alongside in a loose association, neither group interfering with or directing the creations of the other.

Six years ago, the main blogger on this post-Gutenberg site published, as part of an Oxford Internet Institute series, a draft proposal for such an evolutionary route for publishing. The paper suggested a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’ as an economic structure for the future — a keiretsu being a sort of Japanese industrial club, made up of companies pursuing similar or complementary aims. For example, a newspaper publisher might create a meta-site with one or more book publishers, with which its audience overlaps — and these partners could share this site’s capital improvement and running costs. Six years later, we see nothing wrong with that idea.

Ah, finance! Where are newspapers to find the funds to support any such collaboration, with social media like Facebook and Google set to devour all digital advertising revenue in the future?

Certainly not by following The Guardian’s lead, and forcing readers either to accept being targets for advertisers — or risk of being shut out of the site as punishment for using ad-blockers. Grown-up readers will not put up with being told to eat their spinach: that the newspaper is well aware of the growing popularity of software designed to defeat hidden persuaders only makes this new policy more incredible.

What is the more promising alternative? Switching from advertising revenue to reader subscriptions as a source of funds. Not traditional subscriptions, but a new kind, that would make a deep bow to symphysis. They would be subscriptions that are also tiny financial stakes in the new collaborative or interactive publishing — giving readers something, in a way that The Guardian’s plea earlier this summer for readers simply to become ‘members’ paying £5 a month does not. We have also gathered that the paper’s leaders are opposing the proposal by some senior staffers that these members be allowed to elect a special representative on the paper’s governing board, the Scott Trust. (See ‘Readers’ Knives’ in Private Eye, No: 1422, 8-21 July, 2016) All this is a bit reminiscent of the protest and rallying cry of the early American colonies: ‘No taxation without representation!’

Even if the subscription-stakes are so small that they amount to mostly symbolic financial participation and ownership, this could actually give a newspaper an edge over Facebook. As we have argued before in this space, in a just world, Facebook would be a cooperative owned by its users. (‘A better Facebook — or why cooperatives run on the web should work better than the old hippie kind,’ 14 February 2012)

But how on earth can a newspaper be expected to handle hundreds and thousands — conceivably, millions — of individual subscriber/stakeholder accounts?

Anyone who has failed to notice that financial institutions have been doing this, by now, for ages, should read a piece that ran in the New York Times in April: ‘Billing by Millionths of Pennies, Cloud Computing Giants Take in Billions’. Of particular interest is this passage:

… This economics of tiny things demonstrates the global power of the few companies, including Microsoft and Google, that can make fortunes counting this small and often … As tech companies get better at measuring things, other businesses can pick up on the techniques, and the fine counting at the big clouds augurs for more precise measurements and pricing …

We have been talking about such micropayments for years, on this blog — but the new term is apparently ‘per-millionth pricing’. As the NYT author suggests, this is something newspapers hoping to stay alive should start doing immediately.

How are people going to get to the ‘truth’ without trained journalists to serve them their facts?

Newspapers still perform a crucial public service when they report methodically and doggedly on important and often unglamorous issues. But — especially as they feel free to be openly partisan in their reporting of politics, now — they cannot be relied on to give us information not distorted by special interests.

Intelligent readers recognise that other sources of information deserve to co-exist with traditional media — even if many conventional editors and journalists still refuse to concede this. With atypical honesty, on this score, the FT’s editorialist Giles Wilkes admits: ‘[I]n 10 years of trying to make sense of the economic blogosphere, I have found nothing as reliably good as the blogosphere. Some of its advantages are simply practical: free data, synopses of academic papers … But what is better is how its ungated to-and-fro lets a reader eavesdrop on schools of academic thought in furious argument, rather than just be subject to whatever lecture a professor wishes to deliver. ’.

Why not let a rising tide of symphysis lift all newspapers and blogs and other sites of readers and commenters — to save Western civilisation? Yes, we are joking. But not entirely.

P.S. How can the problem of rude and unruly commenters on newspaper sites be solved without moderators often maddened by their power?

We have a solution in mind — one we have actually tried out, somewhere else. Newspapers interested enough to arrange a meeting on the subject are invited to get in touch with us at

Jottings from revisiting A Distant Mirror, which shows history repeating itself in inchoate populist rage fed by miraculous new channels for communicating

barbara tuchman RETRO 2 cover


In 1978, the historian Barbara Tuchman published a book that had begun as an investigation into the question of how the Great Plague in medieval Europe had affected the course of history. Though she admits at the start that she never found a satisfactory answer, her book became a bestseller — partly a matter of luck; partly because of her brilliance as a writer; and mostly because of the impression of perfect timing she created through the parallels she drew between the particular era she chose for her focus, and contemporary travails in the world around her.

Four decades later, it is impossible to disagree that our own era would make an even better fit for A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century. The subtitle is misleading: her history does not colour strictly between the lines of the 1300s. It is — more broadly — about the Dark Ages becoming the prologue to the glorious Renaissance. The internet had yet to be born in the 1970s, which had no technological equivalent of the Gutenberg printing press. Here is a partial list of the parallels for the second decade of our century that we have been scribbling at random, as we read — of transformative forces acting synergistically in what Tuchman called ‘a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age, a time, as many thought, of Satan triumphant’. … But, do note the silver lining on the horizon at the end of the final extract:

  • Ÿmedia: the beginning of hugely expanded access to information
  • Ÿloss of faith in authority
  • Ÿthe trampled-on classes begin to rebel without really knowing how to improve their position – and are mocked and squashed
  • Ÿthe globe seems to grow, as people’s sphere of awareness begins to enlargen explosively
  • Ÿlanguage itself alters (switching to demotic forms, in literature)

Extracts from A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century:

Multiple copying of manuscripts was no longer the monopoly of lonely monks in their cells but the occupation of professional scribes who had their own guilds. Licensed by the University of Paris, supposedly to ensure accurate texts, the scribes were the agony of living authors, who complained bitterly of the copyists’ delays and errors …

The rise of a bourgeois audience in the 14th century, and the increased manufacture of paper created a reading public wider than the nobles who had known literature from recitation or reading aloud in their castle halls. The mercantile class, familiar by reason of its occupation with reading and writing, was ready to read books of all sorts: verse, history, romance, travel, bawdy tales, allegories, and religious works. Possession of books had become the mark of a cultivated man.

The times were not static. Loss of confidence in the guarantors of order opened the way to demands for change …The oppressed were no longer enduring but rebelling, although, like the bourgeois who tried to compel reform, they were inadequate, unready, and unequipped for the task … [E]very working-class insurrection was crushed.

Yet change, as always, was taking place. […] Seaborne enterprise, liberated by the compass, was reaching toward the voyages of discovery that were to burst the confines of Europe and find the New World. Literature from Dante to Chaucer was expressing itself in natural languages, ready for the great leap forward into print.

[…] Johan Gutenberg was born … The ills and disorders of the 14th century could not be without consequences. Times were to grow worse over the next fifty-odd years until at some imperceptible moment, by some mysterious chemistry, energies were refreshed, ideas broke out of the mould of the Middle Ages into new realms, and humanity found itself rediscovered.

[I]n 1453-4 the first document printed from movable type was produced by Gutenberg at Mainz, followed in 1456 by the first printed book, the Vulgate Bible. ‘The Gothic sun,’ as Victor Hugo put it with fitting grandiloquence, ‘set behind the gigantic printing press of Mainz.’ The new means of disseminating knowledge and exchange of ideas spread with unmedieval rapidity. Printing presses appeared in Rome, Milan, Florence and Naples within the next decade, and in Paris, Lyons, Bruges and Valencia in the 1470s … The energies of Europe that had once found vent in the crusades were now to find it in voyages, discoveries, and settlements in the New World.