It was a wish so far from the probabilities of life

scoopScoop
by Evelyn Waugh

I had been meaning to read this novel for many years, as its satirical truth-telling about journalism is legendary. Despite the almost 80 years that have passed since its first publication, a lot of what it has to say still rings true.

The plot centres around young William Boot, an impoverished young country gentleman who is happy living in his country manor writing a weekly nature column for London paper the Daily Beast. Thanks to a farcical opening act, the paper’s management mixes him up with his distant cousin John Boot, a fashionable novelist who is eager to be sent abroad as a foreign reporter, and a reluctant William is sent instead to a “promising little war” in the fictional African republic of Ishmaelia.

I found the opening, covering London society and Fleet Street proper, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. I may even have snorted a few times. Waugh’s first-hand knowledge of having written for the Daily Mail means that this is truly observational humour, and it’s easy to recognise the journalistic traits being picked apart. It isn’t subtle – the Daily Beast is housed in the Megalopolitan Building opposite its nearest rival the Daily Brute – but that doesn’t stop it from being cleverly done.

Continue reading “It was a wish so far from the probabilities of life”

Leaving a vacuum in the air where his voice had been

My-Turn-to-Make-the-TeaMy Turn to Make the Tea
by Monica Dickens

I have been looking forward to reading my beautiful if slightly fragile copy of the 1962 Penguin reprint of Dickens’ memoir of her year working for a local newspaper. Though it’s the first printing from this classic orange-and-white edition, it’s too tattered and stained to be worth anything. But I do love the knowledge that this has been read by a series of people over 53 years. That’s pretty cool.

Dickens is funny and open, delighting in revealing the details of her life as a “cub reporter”. This includes life in her rented room, and the relationships between the building’s various tenants, as well as the intricacies of a hokey local newspaper.

“I put away my things and tried not to feel bleak. My first night in that room stretched before me with too many hours, and I found that I was looking forward to going to work tomorrow. At the Munts’, I had often craved solitude, and dreaded hearing the creak of the stair and the whimsical tattoo on my door that meant Mrs Munt had come up for a pow-wow, but up here on the top floor, a stranger to the rest of the house, I felt unwanted and alone.”

Continue reading “Leaving a vacuum in the air where his voice had been”

Some heavier sensitive reality

paris was yesterdayParis was Yesterday: 1925–1939
Janet Flanner

I chose this book as my next read for the Classics Club on the back of an article Siân Norris wrote last year on For Books’ Sake about the women of the Left Bank. I’m one more of the many people fascinated by Paris of the early twentieth century but I’m also a feminist, so the idea of finding out more about the women writers and artists of that time greatly appeals to me.

Janet Flanner was an American journalist who moved to Paris in 1922 with her lover, actress Solita Solano. In 1925 she began writing the Letter From Paris column for the New Yorker, under the pen name Genêt. This book is a selection from the first 15 years of those columns. It’s a combination of gossip, reviews, obituaries and day-to-day reporting. It’s an at times uneven mix and I don’t know if that’s an accurate reflection of the column or the way this book has been edited.

The book starts strongly, really making me feel the setting and wish I could have experienced it. Flanner clearly wasted no time in getting to the centre of social life in Paris, recounting a series of breathless parties and still-notable first performances. She was there for the première of the Stravinsky ballet Oedipus Rex, with lyrics by Cocteau and costumes by Picasso – can you imagine?

Continue reading “Some heavier sensitive reality”

Holiday in France: the reporters memorial

A friend suggested I blog about this after it was almost all I talked about when summarising our holiday! It certainly made a big impression on me.

A Robert Capa Memorial des Reporters

It started with a small memorial outside a museum in Bayeux to Robert Capa, a photographer whose work Tim and I are familiar with and admire, so we were interested to see something about him but also curious what claim Bayeux had to him. We continued along the path in grounds opposite the Commonwealth war cemetery and next we came to two marble slabs that said they were the entrance to a memorial to “journalists killed all over the world since 1944”, a joint project between Bayeux and Reporters Without Borders. Which seemed like a very good idea, and I walked on expecting just a peaceful garden of some kind. I hadn’t read the text properly (I think I’d tried to understand the French rather than looking at the English) so I wasn’t prepared for what came next.

Too many names

A long, tree-sheltered footpath flanked on both sides by marble slabs listing the name of every journalist killed under the year of their death (the photo above shows only a small section). It’s simple and powerful and heartbreaking, because there are so many names, and the numbers seem to be increasing. So much so that a second path has been started.

I’m not sure why this moved me more than the thousands of graves of soldiers just over the road (which was also pretty disquieting), but somehow it did. I could argue that soldiers sign up for the possibility of death, but of course in World War Two most of them didn’t get a choice. In fact, reporters have more choice about whether or not to go to a war zone, but then not all of these deaths were in a war zone. For those who want more than a list of names, there is an online archive.

Untitled

I suppose I can relate to the reporters, to their decision to tell the truth about the world. Not that I in any way consider myself worthy to stand alongside the men and women who risk their lives to make corruption, injustice and other important news known to the world, but I admire them in a way I just can’t admire a soldier. I can be (and indeed am) sad about the massive loss of life during war, but it’s not the same thing.

I don’t understand war, how anyone could take a fight to the level of massive loss of human life, and it is only through writing, both journalism and fiction, that I can at least try to comprehend. For anyone interested in what it’s like to be a reporter on war zones and other dangerous regions, I highly recommend the work of Joe Sacco, who is honest about the draw and the thrill, as well as the need to tell the stories of the real people affected.

(Back to more cheerful things, and maybe another book review, soon I promise!)

The earth had become a strange and placid panorama

Over the Front in an Aeroplane

Over the Front in an Aeroplane
and scenes inside the French and Flemish Trenches

by Ralph Pulitzer

I spotted this piece of journalism when I was browsing Project Gutenberg for books to add to my Kindle. I’m not a big fan of novels about fighting wars but for some reason wartime journalism interests me. (It might be because for a while in my youth I aspired to be Kate Adie.) As far as I can tell this book is sadly now largely forgotten and I’m sure there are better accounts out there of the First World War, but I liked this and thought Pulitzer did a good job of describing the war to the folks back home in the US.

“‘So far,’ an English staff-officer remarked to me, ‘we English have been bungling amateurs in the art of war contending against trained professional specialists. But with a couple of years’ more experience I believe we shall know as much about it as they do, and then we shall win.'”

This Pulitzer, by the way, was the son of Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper magnate who bequeathed money to Columbia University that became the Pulitzer Prizes. In 1911 Joseph died, making Ralph the head of a major news corporation aged just 32. Which perhaps explains why in this book Pulitzer is not treated just as any other journalist. In fact, he devotes a whole chapter to the average journalistic experience of the frontline, which he makes sound quite cosy, if also frustrating (good food and hotels, not much access to the action).

“With a snap and a roar the battle plane started slowly forward, gained in speed till we were running along the big field like a racing automobile, then suddenly the people standing around dropped away from us as if on a gigantic express elevator leaving one standing on the upper floor of a skyscraper, and in a moment more the earth had become a strange and placid panorama with which we had no connection or concern.”

Pulitzer spent a month – August 1915 – in France and Belgium visiting various sites on or near the frontline. The book is structured in a slightly odd way that feels as though it may have been a series of columns before it was a book, or perhaps that was just his ingrained writing style. Each chapter details an experience of some kind, from the first and title chapter of flying over the frontline near Paris, to a grenade-throwing lesson, to a comparison of the French and Belgian trenches.

Each experience necessarily begins with making nice to the relevant generals and in early chapters the many levels of command to be met and receive hospitality from is detailed perhaps a little more than necessary, but it certainly gets the point across that no journalist, even Pulitzer with his extra special access, can truly claim to have experienced the frontline like any soldier. There are descriptions of meals that had me salivating, including plenty of wine, champagne and brandy.

“The officers of all the armies feel that it is infinitely more important to prove to you that they can give you a good cup of coffee and a good cigar than it is to show you the most beautiful battle that was ever fought.”

It was genuinely fascinating to read an account from so early in the war that was nevertheless aware that this fight would continue for a few more years, from an American whose country was not involved in the war but knew it almost certainly would become involved. Pulitzer shows boyish excitement about technological advances in weaponry (i.e. fancy new guns) but also talks about the human cost of war, both in lives lost and in homes/villages/ways of life lost.

“One must realise that [the Belgians] are practically an army without a country. One must understand that when they get furloughs they cannot spend them with their families in their homes, getting comfort and encouragement. They either stay within sound of the firing or spend a bleak six days among the strangers of England or of Northern France.”

Published 1915 by A L Burt.

Source: Project Gutenberg.

It’s all about getting people to talk

The Men Who Stare At Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats
by Jon Ronson

This book was chosen for my book club and I am glad on two counts – it has made me want to watch a film that I dismissed out of hand at the time, and it has introduced me to a writer and journalist I now really really like – and yet I would never have picked it up myself.

The book follows Ronson’s investigation into “psychic spies” within the US Army. The events he unveils run from the 1960s to 2003, when he was writing the book, but the story is not told chronologically, it is told in the order in which he discovered the information, which is a little confusing but also creates the opportunity for Ronson to leave teasers and hints about what’s coming.

But what exactly is he investigating? Well, it begins with the rather bizarre rumour that a secret army unit kept a barn full of goats to train themselves in the art of staring a man to death. Ronson digs and digs and speaks to a LOT of people and discovers that the story is both sillier and far more sinister than it at first sounded.

Essentially, it all begins with Jim Channon, whose experience of war in Vietnam affected him for life. Essentially he became a hippie, but rather than leave the army he stayed and even rose in its ranks, while espousing a new philosophy to his superiors. He suggests that soldiers learn meditation, martial arts, spiritualism and other “non-lethal techniques”.

“It was heartbreaking for Jim to realize that Private First Class Shaw had died because his fellow soldiers were impulsively guileless and kind-hearted, and not the killing machines the army wanted them to be…’The kind of person attracted to military service has a great deal of difficulty being cunning. We suffered in Vietnam from not being cunning.'”

He even wrote a treaty, The First Earth Battalion Operations Manual, a strange combination of inner peace and unusual torture techniques that news reports reveal were being used in Iraq in 2003.

Which is where the book turns from quirky to serious journalism. Not that it is any way tough or hardgoing; Ronson is a very entertaining and engaging writer. He digs out the key details, the anecdotes that bring a person to life.

The book is funny yet disturbing. The concept of “non-lethal” stretches very very far, in fact at one point there’s a conversation about whether it can include something that leads to death a few weeks later.

The shocking part is not that the US Army employed terrible methods of interrogation/torture in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay; that’s pretty much common knowledge. The surprise is that many of those methods have their roots in hippie pacifism, the same roots that led General Albert Stubblebine III to be convinced that if he could just concentrate hard enough, he’d be able to walk through walls.

“‘That’s what the First Earth Battalion did,’ said Jim. ‘It opened the military mind to how to use music.’
‘So,’ I said, ‘it’s all about getting people to talk in a…in a what?’
‘A psycho-spiritual dimension,’ said Jim. ‘Besides the basic fear of being hit, we have a mental, spiritual and psychic component. So why not use that?'”

Through all the disparate details unearthed by Ronson, the line from crazy hippie to crazy evil is definite if occasionally fuzzy, but the crazy is ever-present. And these aren’t random outliers but respected career professionals within the army.

I loved this book but the reaction at book club was more tempered. There was some frustration at the muddled timeline but also at the lack of any clear conclusion or final revelation. To some extent I think that’s just the nature of this particular beast. The book was published in 2004, while US activity was at its height in Iraq and Guantanamo. The revelations about what really happened there were already appearing in the press and have continued to come out. That’s not the story Ronson is telling, it’s just one facet of it, but because it’s the most awful part it feels a little like a dropped conclusion. If anything, though, the revelation would be whether any of those original founders of the “psychic spies” really were pacifist hippies or if they were just extremely odd and possibly dangerous. And whether the secret unit still exists.

Published 2004 by Picador.

Source: Amazon.

Life wraps metaphors up in little bows

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
by Susannah Cahalan

At the start of this year I made a vague promise to myself not to buy any new books or request any advance copies from publishers, and within two weeks I had failed on both counts. The first was a hopeless case anyway, but I really thought I’d manage the second. Until, that is, I read about this book in the Penguin Press Newsletter and absolutely had to read it.

Susannah Cahalan is a reporter for the New York Post, one of those annoyingly talented people who got her break as a journalist before she even left high school, but when she was 24 she suddenly descended into mental health hell. Her symptoms escalate quickly from lack of concentration and paranoia to mania and seizures, to the point where she has to be hospitalised, a time that she cannot actually remember so she has had to piece it together from doctors’ notes, interviews with family and friends, hospital video and her intermittent journal entries.

Cahalan’s journalism training serves her well. She tells her story with a fluid, gripping style, while doing a good job of explaining the medical facts. She comes across as intelligent and likeable, as well as remaining confused by her illness and how it has changed her life. To an extent, you can tell that she is a tabloid journalist, as she is both easy to read and prone to a few too many soap-opera/cliffhanger-style statements, but she doesn’t shy from the more complicated side of trying to understand her illness.

“Sometimes, just when we need them, life wraps metaphors up in little bows for us. When you think all is lost, the things you need the most return unexpectedly.”

It is a frightening story. Cahalan has no history of mental illness and yet is diagnosed in quick succession with bipolar disorder, alcoholic withdrawal, schizoaffective disorder and then psychosis but all attempts to find a medical explanation for her catatonic state initially fail. Her family is desperate to keep her out of the psychiatric ward and it is their tenacity, plus a little luck/good timing that finally gets the ball rolling toward diagnosis, treatment and recovery.

“It had cost $1 million to treat me, a number that boggles the mind. Luckily, at the time I was a full-time employee at the Post, and my insurance covered most of the exorbitant price tag…Unfortunately, there’s often not the same safety net in place for those with lifelong psychiatric conditions.”

I hesitate to compare my health problems with Cahalan’s, obviously our situations are totally different, but there were definitely moments I could empathise with. “I began keeping to-do lists…including insignificant things like ‘walk to town’ or ‘read the papers’ so I could experience the satisfaction of crossing them off.” I do that all the time. I hate to not do something useful every day, but fatigue and brain fog can make that tough. And Cahalan’s final diagnosis is an autoimmune disease, as mine is, so we have both had to figure out how to react to the idea that our own bodies are attacking us. Plus of course an autoimmune disease never really goes away. While Cahalan is currently in complete remission, she will always be waiting for the next flare up, always wondering if a sudden fit of jealousy or deja vu is genuine or a symptom.

It’s a very insightful, moving book. I was a little frustrated by the repetition of the question of whether she was the same person as before. I get that she felt she lost herself for a few months, that people who saw her during that time barely recognised her, and therefore getting her sense of self back was hugely important. But of course it will have changed her. Even if she is 100% medically recovered she has been through a huge experience. She was young, outgoing and driven and then she had breakdowns at work, lost interest in the world, accused her nearest and dearest of horrible things – of course that would change a person, at the very least as a huge knock to the confidence.

But minor quibbles aside this is a well written, brutally honest account of a life that falls apart and has to be painstakingly rebuilt. Plus it’s an important reminder that a person experiencing a manic or psychotic episode isn’t just crazy or even possessed, they’re a human being whose brain is sick, or as Cahalan’s doctor explains it, whose brain is on fire.

Published February 2013 by Penguin Books.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

These are some of the things I know

I Remember Nothing and other reflections
by Nora Ephron

I wasn’t planning to read this. I visited my good friend H last weekend and saw it on her shelf and remembered H had said good things about it. So I read it.

In the light of Ephron’s very recent death, it was horribly poignant to read her memoir that begins with thoughts on memory loss and ends with thoughts on cancer, but in-between there is a charming, funny story of a life lived fully and happily.

Not one to be entirely conventional, Ephron tells her story in a series of essays. Some are very much memoir – how she began her career in journalism, for instance, an intriguing study in the sexism of the 1960s – while some are more rants on a topic – online Scrabble, the pointlessness of certain diets, e-mail – and others are really anecdotes. Which were perhaps my favourite bits:

“This is one of the things that drives me absolutely crazy when I see movies that take place in the fifties and early sixties: people are always saying ‘fuck’ in them. Trust me, no-one threw that word around then the way they do now. I’ll tell you something else: they didn’t drink wine then. Nobody knew about wine then. I mean, someone did obviously, but most people drank hard liquor all the way through dinner…These are some of the things I know, and they’re entirely useless and take up way too much space in my brain.”

Ephron’s writing style belies her early days in magazine feature writing. It’s a friendly, chatty style that drops in facts and cleverness without appearing to do so. Not that she hadn’t moved with the times. It did not feel like the writing of an “old person” at all:

“Alcoholic parents are so confusing. They’re your parents, so you love them; but they’re drunks, so you hate them. But you love them. But you hate them.”

There are some sweet quirks of the book. Three or four recipes are included, for example. Though after the chapter about how her friends don’t like her cooking it may or may not be worth following said recipes. There are also some lists. Mostly very funny ones but, on a bittersweet note, the book ends with “What I won’t miss” and “What I will miss”. However, my favourite part was the essay on journalism:

“It was exciting in its own self-absorbed way, which is very much the essence of journalism: you truly come to believe that you are living in the center of the universe and that the world out there is on tenterhooks waiting for the next copy of whatever publication you work at.”

Ephron comes across as a wonderful, astute, funny woman who was well loved and had lived well. What more could anyone want?

First published in the US in 2010 by Alfred A Knopf, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

Happy Dickens Day!

Night Walks

Night Walks
by Charles Dickens

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Dickens, so in preparation I thought I should read at least one of his works that have been sat on my TBR far too long. This is a collection of his essays, most of them from his journal Household Words, which I have a beautiful old boxed set of in my library. They give great insight into Dickens the man, as well as Dickens the writer.

The essays are mostly about Dickens’ forays around London, particularly poorer areas. His social conscience comes through strongly. In fact, he almost seems to be a bit of a busybody, inviting himself into workhouses and people’s homes, dragging children out of the gutter and throwing accusations at the police and government. But in the context of the time, writing such as this was hugely important. He described the real, actual conditions that people in London lived and worked in to spread the word, to spread awareness.

The writing is the Dickens familiar from his novels but with a single theme at a time making him a touch more accessible. There’s a definite sense of humour and a love of people in all their variety, as well as a need to know London thoroughly, at its best and worst. I found myself touched, amused, surprised and informed. Anyone interested in Victorian London would find something here for them.

Dickens Day

Some Dickens Day reading

First published 1850–1870.
This collection published 2010 by Penguin Books in the Great Ideas series.

Non-fiction in fiction’s guise

War is Boring
story by David Axe, artwork by Matt Bors

I am starting to acquire a collection of this “graphic novel style journalism” and I’m really liking it thus far. If anyone has any recommendations for more titles, let me know!

That said, this is not my favourite of the bunch. It’s a slim volume by war correspondent Axe and flits quickly through Chad, Iraq, Lebanon, East Timor, Afghanistan and Somalia, with really only a few short scenes in each place. Which is the point of the book but still not what I was expecting. I suppose I was hoping for a little more background behind each war; in fact I say “more” but in some cases we learn no more than “it’s a war zone”.

But I’m being unfair. Axe’s actual journalism about all these places was published elsewhere. This is not that. This book is about the effect of war on him, on his way of seeing the world. Or perhaps it’s not about war itself but solely about him and the type of person he is. You see, from the start his maxim is “War is boring, peace is much worse” and despite coming perilously close to bullets, explosions, rockets and deadly knives, this view of things doesn’t change.

While he calls himself a war junkie, Axe doesn’t seem to get a thrill from war, it’s just that a direct attempt on his life is the only thing that makes him feel alive. I can’t really understand that but then I’ve never experienced it; I suspect my whole world view would change.

I do empathise with Axe’s aim, which is to bring world conflicts and the people affected by them to wider attention. He genuinely cares and is deeply upset by what he sees when he travels to these places. His website, warisboring.com is part webcomic, part blog from the warzones that he continues to travel to and, with all the space of the internet, it seems to get deeper into the minutiae of each conflict visited, or even just Axe’s experience of each. There are photographs of soldiers in action and straight journalistic accounts alongside the panels of the comic and this combination works better, for me, than the comic alone.

As with previous examples of this genre, the artwork is excellent – detailed and illuminating without showing a lot of graphic violence. And the depiction of Axe himself is self-deprecating and self-aware and more likeable than not. Maybe he has since struck a better balance in life, but the book ends with a frighteningly bleak statement about the awfulness of humanity and the senselessness of violence that made me want to tell him to go see some beautiful things in-between wars – but then, I’m an optimist.

First published August 2010 by Penguin Books.