Writing that burns the eyes

Of how many magazine articles can you recall where you were and what you felt when you read them? If any occur, there’s a reliable chance John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ will figure among them, and not just because it will have been assigned at an impressionable age in school. For the first time in its history, the New Yorker cleared an entire issue in August 1946 to run the 30,000-word piece in full. In Mr Straight Arrow, his chronicle of Hersey’s career, the former Times Literary Supplement editor Jeremy Treglown relates an account of its reception among the international press corps in Rome — every one rapt, occupying their own cone

The bad cat of journalism

God, I wish I was Janet Malcolm. Fifty or more years as a staff writer on the New Yorker, reviews in the New York Review of Books, the occasional incendiary non-fiction bestseller (In the Freud Archives, The Journalist and the Murderer, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes), even the famous lawsuit. (She was sued for libel by the psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson.) If Janet Malcolm is the thinking woman’s Joan Didion, then Nobody’s Looking at You is her Slouching Towards Bethlehem: a lot less slouching. Nobody’s Looking at You collects just over a dozen of Malcolm’s articles from the past decade or so, ranging from some pretty stringent profile

There’s something about Mary

I think I probably qualify as the oldest fashion editor in the world, because in spite of my advanced age I am still writing about clothes (in the Oldie). This gives me one USP: it means that I was actually around — even wearing them myself — when the revolutionary fashion ideas that are now the stuff of museum exhibitions were being invented. Next month the Mary Quant exhibition opens at the V&A, and sure enough I have been asked to talk about those giddy times for a video that will be shown at the museum. I was 16 in the autumn of 1955 when Quant’s shop, Bazaar, first shocked

Brideshead revisited

Nicholas Hytner’s new show, Alys, Always, is based on a Harriet Lane novel that carries a strong echo of Brideshead. A well-educated journalist, Frances, becomes entangled with the wealthy Kyte family (the closeness to ‘Flyte’ is doubtless intentional), and she befriends the silly daughter, Polly, before setting her sights on the enigmatic father, Laurence, a famous scribbler who never gives interviews. This slow-moving tale is intercut with scenes from Frances’s day job at a failing newspaper where the staff keep getting the boot. But Frances, mystifyingly, retains her post. How come? Floppiness is her most conspicuous quality. She’s a watchful sponge with no wit, charm or intellect, and for most

‘They’re finally going to play my music’

According to his friend and fellow-composer Ernest Reyer, the last words Berlioz spoke on his deathbed were: ‘They are finally going to play my music’. It has taken time, but he was right. A century and a half later, Berlioz 150 is the watchword of the hour. That is as it should be. Berlioz was a devotee of the ancient world (‘I have spent my life with that race of demi-gods’), where it was believed that at the moment of death one might be granted foreknowledge of the future. Why has it taken so long? In his native France there were plenty of reasons. As a forceful, witty but sardonic

There’s something about Marie

A Private War is a biopic of the celebrated Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin who was, judging from this, brave, humane and utterly fearless as well as a drunk, lonely, traumatised and annoying. A complicated human being, in other words. And why did she do it? Why did she risk her life to get the truth out there? No easy answers are offered, thankfully. It may just be that she had to face death to feel properly alive. I can only say, with confidence, that the film features a magnificently fierce, alert and impassioned performance from Rosamund Pike, whose usual English rose delicacy is nowhere to be seen. It

Everybody hates you – except for me

It’s unusual for musicians to become writers. The trajectory of yearning is meant to be the other way around. When I was a teenager working at the New Musical Express I was bemused by the number of men there who had won the greatest prize on earth — being paid to write — but nevertheless dreamt only of being crooning cretins, singing the same songs over and over again. The fact that Chrissie Hynde (who once, pre-Pretenders, tried to recruit me to a biker-themed girl group, telling me that my stage name would be Kicks Tart) had once been their colleague only served to fuel the poor suckers’ self-delusion as

Another blessed Waugh memorial

Auberon Waugh was happy to admit that most journalism is merely tomorrow’s chip paper but, of all the journalists of his generation, his penny-a-line hackery seems most likely to endure. What made him so special? Like all great writers, it was a combination of style and substance. He had a lovely way with words — he could write a shopping list and make you want to read it — and his libertarian diatribes were wonderfully unorthodox, lambasting pompous humbugs on the left and on the right. Yes, he could be outrageous (and often gloriously rude), but even his most outlandish opinions contained a grain of truth. Above all, he was

The journalist as sleuth

Despite being well-travelled as the BBC’s world affairs editor, John Simpson doesn’t roam far from home in his spy thriller, Moscow, Midnight (John Murray, £20). Life and art intermingle, in both subject matter and character. The hero is named Jon Swift, a veteran journalist bristling under new media regimes. When government minister Patrick Macready is found dead — presumably from a solo sex game gone wrong — Swift takes it upon himself to clear up a few loose ends. Soon he’s under investigation himself, ostracised, and journeying to Moscow to work a connection to a number of Russians who have met similar ‘accidental’ fates. Swift is cynical, unreconstructed in his

Critical injuries

A decade ago, a publisher produced a set of short biographies of Britain’s 20th-century prime ministers, which I reviewed unenthusiastically. My wife reproved me: ‘What did you do that for? For a fee of a few hundred pounds you have made a dozen entirely gratuitous new enemies. If you don’t have something good to say about books, don’t write about them.’ Honest reviewing would grind to a halt if all its practitioners deferred to her advice. It is nonetheless true that victims of an unfavourable notice seldom forget or forgive. As authors, we commit our souls as well as our bodies. Memories of the most flattering reviews of my own

How to trap a journalist

Shortly before his death, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote that capitalism crushed the integrity of artists and intellectuals. Assessed only in terms of their commercial appeal, they became ‘a sub-department of marketing’. In a touching display of filial loyalty, Julia Hobsbawm seems to be proving her old dad right. The former head of New Labour’s favourite PR agency, Hobsbawm Macaulay, now runs an outfit called Editorial Intelligence, ‘a tool for… bringing together key journalists and PR professionals through networking clubs’. Journalists once had a vague notion that their job was to tell the truth whatever the cost, while PRs believed they must protect their institution whatever the cost. There

Let’s talk about sex | 6 September 2018

This week was bad news for fans of good television drama series — mainly because there’s now three more of the things to keep up with if you don’t want to feel left out of office conversations. The one that stirred up the most advance media excitement was Wanderlust (BBC1, Tuesday), on the traditional grounds that it promised to be unusually explicit about sex. And in that, it certainly didn’t disappoint. The first episode began with a flurry of masturbation (not a phrase I can remember using in a TV column before). First, Joy, a middle-aged therapist, slipped a hand beneath the morning bedclothes — until her teenage son came

In the eye of the storm

‘We are globalisation,’ a senior executive at the shipping company Maersk told me. ‘We enable it, and we have questions about it too, but we ask them in isolation.’ He then granted me leave to travel on Maersk vessels wheresoever I wished in order to write a book about shipping and seafarers, promising that Maersk’s lawyers would not vet the manuscript before publication. Maersk have little to fear from writers. The giant corporation is effectively public-relations proof (if they stopped their ships’ engines today there would be a worldwide supply crisis the day after tomorrow). Moreover, Maersk is among the industry’s leaders, confident that whatever I found would be better,

Trump’s meddling shows why Leveson’s critics are right

For people who are meant to be professional communicators, journalists are hopeless at explaining themselves to the public. Everyone I know assumes that when we oppose the Leveson report we are supporting the Sun, the Mail and peeping Toms who hack phones and point lenses into other people’s bedrooms. The fact that the Guardian and Private Eye, who exposed the hacking scandal, are opposed to state regulation has been all but forgotten. Here’s why I, they and many others worry. The New York Times reports today that FBI officers investigating leaks about Trump’s dealing with Russia had seized the phone records of one of its reporters going back years. Of

Katy Balls nominated for Political Commentator of the Year

At the start of last year, Katy Balls was assigned to the political beat for The Spectator. With the snap general election, she had a baptism of fire – and, before too long, a regular column in the national press (the i newspaper). This morning, she was one of the six journalists shortlisted as Political Commentator of the Year in the Press Awards, the Oscars of the UK media, alongside Stephen Bush of the i and New Statesman, John Harris of the Guardian, Dan Hodges of the Mail on Sunday, Marina Hyde of the Guardian and Rachel Sylvester of the Times. You can read her entry here. The Spectator’s political

What will Katie do next?

In her memoir Rude, the former Mail Online columnist Katie Hopkins reveals her true self. She does this by accident, because she has no self-awareness, but it is there, on page 233: It may we’ll [sic] be that by the time you are reading this I will be going through a dominatrix phase… a fierce bedroom warrior, nipples pinched tight by clamps, an orange in my gob, more buckles than a boot store, locked into a metal girdle with only my front bottom on show. Oh Katie! Don’t you know anything? The dominatrix doesn’t wear the nipple clamps; she doesn’t suck the orange; she isn’t locked into a metal girdle.

Art and aspiration

When Adam Gopnik arrived in Manhattan in late 1980 he was an art history postgrad so poor that he and his wife-to-be were reduced to sharing a 9’ x 11’ basement with a bunch of cockroaches. But everything was going to be all right because Gopnik had his guitar with him and he ‘knew someone who’d once had dinner with the sister of a close friend of Art Garfunkel’s psychotherapist’. Having sent a tape of his songs over, he settled down to ‘write jokes for comedians. It seemed like a plan for life’. In a way it was. Though Gopnik has yet to hear back from Garfunkel, his oratorio about

The right kind of dumbing down

Thanks to meteoric advances in computational power, it is now possible to take abundant data from a wide range of sources, and use statistical modelling to prove… um, whatever bullshit conclusion you hoped to prove in the first place. For all the excitement of the information age, we must remember that self-serving delusions like nothing better than large quantities of information. The internet was a gift to conspiracy theorists, for instance. But confirmation bias is also more pronounced among the educated. (No one measures the negative consequences of higher education, but a naïve faith in universals has to be one of them.) Back in the analogue age, people couldn’t avoid

James Graham’s Ink is riveting and, if they cut it by 30 minutes, even Sun readers might be tempted to pop along

It was most odd. Four decades after I’d walked into the Sun to start my first shift as a news sub editor, I was sitting in a small theatre in the heart of La La Labour-land (the Almeida in Corbyn’s Islington) watching a play where I knew all the characters, as I both worked with them and worshipped them. There was Rupert Murdoch. There was Sun editor Larry Lamb, his deputy Bernard Shrimsley, Page Three photographer Beverley Goodway, and even production supremo Ray Mills who, due to his northern background, was known as Biffo — Big Ignorant Fucker From Oldham. How much would that acronym be worth at an employment

Too much of everything

Arundhati Roy has published only one previous novel, but that one, The God of Small Things, won the Booker Prize. That was 20 years ago. Early success did not, however, block Roy into neurotic silence: instead, it offered her a platform for verbally intemperate political activism. She is an impassioned campaigner against globalisation, industrialisation and all forms of the arch-enemy capitalism, and a critic of US foreign policy, Israel and the government of Sri Lanka. Her Booker prize money was donated to the campaign against the Narmada Dam project. To Indian critics who condemn her hyperbole as ‘hysterical’ she retorted: ‘I am hysterical, I’m screaming from the bloody roof tops.’