Three somethings for the weekend

When I began this blog in 2010, at weekends I would occasionally do a post on a few pieces I’d read that I liked, good journalism well-written (and often contra-suggestive). These posts consistently received the lowest hit rates of anything I wrote.

I guess the reason was that people read blogs less at weekends, the posts didn’t contain strong opinion and you have to click links to see what I’m talking about (and you impatient lot don’t seem to like doing that). But I’m going to go back to doing it occasionally. Despite the endless threnodies for the End of Journalism As We Know It, there’s a lot of very good writing out there; sometimes I want to explain why in more than the 140 characters of a tweet.

The more writing there is being done, the harder it is to catch the good stuff. The quantity of words in circulation has increased by a colossal order of magnitude; the day is exactly the same length as it always was. The depth and quality that is present in the writing generated by the internet’s indiscriminate output is the subject of this excellent essay in optimism by Robert Cottrell, founder of thebrowser.com, who reads and selects long-form writing so that you don’t have to. He has better qualifications to judge the true noise-to-signal ratio of writing on the internet in English than most.

  • First recommendation is a piece in the current Prospect magazine on Nigel Farage and Ukip by Edward Docx. Millions of words have poured into the media since Britain’s fourth political party scared the other three with a strong performance in recent local elections. This reportage and analysis is one of the most perceptive I’ve read, slicing through a lot of cluttered thinking. As a taster, this is Docx on British bullshit detectors and why Farage connects with voters in ways that neither the Conservative or Labour leaders can:

“It is worth taking a moment to compare this [Farage’s] demeanour to that of the other main party leaders. Essentially, Cameron’s problem in public is that he has had to begin from a perceived position of disapproval and embarrassment—about Eton, his aristocratic family connections, the masturbatory glee of the Bullingdon Club and so on. From there he felt it necessary to present another version of himself—the metrosexual, metropolitan, multicultural man—in order to reach out towards the middle ground. Let’s leave aside what may or may not be real in these manoeuvres and observe that there remains for the public an authenticity issue.

Ed Miliband’s difficulty, meanwhile, is a different though cousin one—also expressed in the very visible enactment of unease. Perhaps because he has grown up in tight political circles, it can often feel as though Miliband’s pride, his personal dynamism as a man, is over-invested in the point-scoring of narrow debate; and that he lacks the wider suite of essential character traits required in a convincing leader—not least a tangible and receptive emotional presence that is alive to the heartbeat of all that is happening in the room, the studio, the country. He senses his deficiency, but when he seeks to correct—when he aims for more emotional registers such as passion or conviction—he winds up coming across as a querulous and absurdly het-up head boy.

Now because both Cameron and Miliband—for their different reasons—suffer from this distracting dissonance between public and private personality, neither is able naturally to connect with the public. And yet the characteristic that best defines the British people is that they have the finest bullshit detectors in the world. Go to any gathering in Britain—in a pie factory or in a palace, in Brixton or Brixham—and the one character trait that we most admire and celebrate is a person’s ability to inhabit their character as proudly and directly and amusingly as possible. It’s the contortions we cannot abide.

Doubtless, it’s easier when you’re not in government or opposition; but that’s not the point: the more Cameron and Miliband have to hedge and trim and twist their personalities to appear to be what they are not, the more Farage thrives with the public by being what he is. One of the main reasons for his success is that he enjoys that happy combination of being both an effective communicator and meaning what he says.”

  • One of the trickiest things in journalism is to find a way back into an issue which demands attention but isn’t getting it because it has remained unchanged for so long. China’s one-child policy is not new, but this angry piece in The Times (£) by Sarah Vine succeeds in reminding us just what a scale of misery it creates and why politicians shouldn’t keep silent about it.
  • I had never heard of the Italian cultural (and moral) revolutionaries called Wu Ming and I read this piece on them by Peter Aspden in the Financial Times with fascination. I have an unprovable feeling they may turn out to be important in the long run. Apart from anything else you will want to know why five Italian intellectuals use a Chinese name. I was caught by the first sentence: “It is a sunny spring morning and I am standing underneath an imposing statue of Neptune in Bologna’s magnificent Piazza Maggiore, waiting for a tap on my shoulder. This is my rendezvous point with Wu Ming 1.”

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