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Longwinded? Dull? Are we really talking about the acme of new journalism? Yes, sadly we are - ain’t nothing as impressionable as impressionable folk. On the other hand: RIP Jim Innes

I have made no secret of the fact that growing up, with a very bright older brother who seemed to be able to master whatever he turned his hand and mind to, and generally being more of a slow plodder than a fizzing spark, that I had something of an inferiority complex.

I now realise, of course, that it wasn’t necessarily that bad at all, and that could I but have seen into the souls of my young friends at school and then at college, I might have been surprised, then astonished, that they felt pretty much the same thing. It was more a lack of confidence borne of a lack of experience and in that I was really no different to my peers. It didn’t help when you - that is I - came across, as one often did, as one of those young chaps who were the very personification of confidence. And I say ‘chaps’ because like most males of my generation women didn’t really ‘count’.

Although I think that attitude to women - which I most certainly no longer share - is less than admirable and that, thank the Lord, we have made progress in the matter of equality of the sexes (to the point where I believe some women are now fully prepared, despite deep and secret reservations, to regard men as their equals) I shan’t apologise for once owning it because now realising just how insidious it is; and, I hope, behaving accordingly, is worth far more than some easy, and easily forgotten, ‘apology’. Let’s be straight: words are cheap. Actions count far, far more.

There is a great song by Leon Russell, which I believe I have previously posted her, called Magic Mirror, the essence of which is ‘if only we could see ourselves as others do’ and the ‘subtext’ might be ‘perhaps we would worry less and perhaps we would treat them better’.

Well, I now, where I saw myself as the rather unconfident and fresh-faced lad, others who encountered me at Dundee University when I pitched up at the beginning of October 1968 might well have seen a noisy, talkative, quite cheerful, friendly public-school lad with a very nice accent; and as was the way in the late 1960s when Labour and Harold Wilson were on the up and many a middle-class chap (though not me, I wasn’t that bright to spot the advantage and it didn’t occur to me) dropped their ’aitches and slurred their words to fit in with the Zeitgeist (©Guardian/Observer and all other worthwhile serious papers), many will certainly have assumed the worst. But that is neither here nor there.

As it turned out I, who was and is lucky enough to rub along and make friends easily and who, although deep-down is quite shy, gets on with most - though not all people - became friendly with a whole range of folk. And one of them was a Jim Innes, two years above me (and a friend of Brian Wilson, Jim Wilkie and Dave Scott, who I only mention so that they can be added to the labels and if they google themselves might come across this blog entry - NB they went on to found the West Highland Free Press).

Jim introduced me to acid (as it was called) and with him I had my first trip, in the summer of 1969 on a sunny Saturday afternoon accompanying the Dundee University charity carnival procession though the centre of the city. (I had many more, often with Jim, one notable trip in the countryside in Aberdeenshire on a very early morning. We had stayed up and driven up from Dundee during the night to the farm where a friend of his live - she was with us and tripped with us - and as it was so early we didn’t disturb anyone but took off up a hill.

Later in that trip, lying in the heather on my back staring at the sky and marvelling at the geometric pattens the clouds were making I heard, from the sky and not in my mind - a perfect arpeggio played on piano. To this day I can’t for the life of me think what the fuck it was. But it certainly was not a piano arpeggio being played up in the sky.

. . .

This entry is, though, not a dull trawl through hippy memories and memorable acid trips, but to mention that Jim subscribed to Rolling Stone. Jim had very striking and very long red hair, and gave a stand-up turn as a Glaswegian Jesus Christ at the end of the revue I and a friend, Phil Welton, wrote and staged in 1971 at the Dundee Rep for three night.

NB Just looking up Jim, I came across a memoir of him by Jim Wilkie. It seems he died just over three years ago. And here’s another tribute, from Brian Wilson. RIP.

When I say ‘staged’, to be frank I did most of the writing but was grateful for his presence to facilitate it (and having ‘a writing partner’ gave me confidence; but Phil did most, well, all of the staging, directing the revue and undertaking pretty much all of the production work. I just did a bit of acting (and in one skit glorious over-acting - Christ I loved that skit. Ain’t nothing like over-acting for definite effect).

In those days, before its founder Jann Wenner discovered wealth, celebrity and social status and took to being invited to the Oscars (I don’t doubt), the White House and I don’t know where else, Rolling Stone still had a certain non-conformist, counter-cultural credibility and was regarded as something of a bible by Jim and others like him who subscribed.

I can’t say I ever read it closely but I did at some point look through it and was struck by how bloody wordy its features were. Christ they went on and on and on, saying very little. Now, I must be honest: I shan’t say that at the time (as I do now) think that it was distressingly longwinded, if not to say pretty bloody dull. No, not at all. Instead I thought that because the features didn’t interest me much - too much bloody reading - and being so long and apparently detailed, and because I thus felt no inclination to read them whatsoever, the fault was wholly mine. I was lacking. I was the dumbo.

If I was ‘cooler’, I felt, and if I ‘knew more’ and, I don’t know, were somehow ‘trendier’ and ‘hipper’, I would be able to appreciate those features and the brillaince which somehow eluded me. As it was I didn’t and so obviously I wasn’t. World 1 - Patrick Powell 0. Damn.

. . .

My thoughts on those long and longwinded Rolling Stone features came back to me when earlier today I tracked down and began to read Lillian Ross New Yorker profile of Ernest Hemingway. You can find it here. It was printed in the May 13, 1950, edition of the New Yorker, when Hemingway was still taken seriously, not least by impressionable Americans such as Ms Ross.

To find out more about her, I googled her name and came across an obit in the Guardian (here) It seems Ms Ross was something of a ‘respected writer’ (much like Ms Martha Gelhorn, she who started her career by fabricating and eyewitness account of a Deep South Lynching, although I’ll grant that she later might well have redeemed herself by some good war reporting. That last, at least, is a detail I feel obliged to add as a way of getting my retaliation in first if I am taken to task by Gelhorn drones who think, as apparently many do, that the sun shone out of her arse).

According to that obit - in the second line as luck would have it, so you don’t have to plough (US plow) through the lot to get to it - Ms Ross was ‘an early practitioner of the “new journalism” ’ but she ‘differed from its other flamboyant figures - Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson – in preferring a personal invisibility in her work. In plainer language, she wasn’t an egomaniac like the others who took her cue and who knew a good thing when they saw it.

‘New journalism’ has been defined as (yes, you guessed it, I’ve resorted to everyone’s lazy standby, Wikipedia, but as a definition it isn’t bad) ‘characterized [UK characterised] by a subjective perspective, a literary style reminiscent of long-form non-fiction and emphasizing [UK emphasising] ‘truth’ over ‘facts’, and intensive reportage in which reporters immersed themselves in the stories as they reported and wrote them’. And, it has to be said, also starred in, to make sure every cunt knew their name and was ‘impressed’ by whatever it was they hoped to impress with.

At first, perhaps, though certainly not in Ms Ross’s piece about Hemingway, the writer, although part of ‘the story’ was not centre-stage; but as ‘new journalism’ developed, and with Hunter S Thompson in the vanguard (was he actually mad? Discuss) it came to be known as ‘gonzo journalism’ after one of Thompson’s phrases, and the writer most certainly did take centre-stage (no doubt reluctantly).

It helped, of course, that ‘gonzo journalism’ and its name sounded hip, modern and up-to-the-minute. (Similarly, a few years ago, about 20 - at my age ‘few’ gets ever greater - referring to something as ‘cyber’ lent it a certain, though spurious, glamour and modern currency: ‘cyber’ this, that and t’other was ‘now’, and get on the bus, man, or get left behind! Today, of course, ‘cyber’ is a word most often used - and rarely by others - by the minutes; secretaries of parish councils up and down the land who venture - if they might, for a moment, be so bold - to suggest that perhaps, you know, thinking of moving with the times and, you know, attracting ‘younger people’ in the ‘community’ posting a copy of the parish council’s minutes ‘online’ (‘that is the word, isn’t it, ‘online’ I’m sure I’ve got it right?’) might be the war to ‘go forward’.)

Today, July 29, 2019 (I am now obliged to check the date as often as my blood pressure to make sure I know who, why, where, when and how I am) using the phrase ‘gonzo journalism’ will age you as much as (my son assures me) using the phrase ‘hamburger’ to describe a ‘burger’ or admitting that you think Love Island is cack of shit. Nothing dates faster than last year’s fashion. Even its most recent, and equally spurious, descendant ‘citizen journalism’ sounds, to my ears at least decidedly old-fashioned. (Let’s be blunt: it means fuck all. The phrase just sounds good. And that is its one virtue. It sounds, or sounded, good.)

. . .

When I found Ms Ross piece about Hemingway, a profile, apparently, I copied and pasted it into a Word file and printed it off. I still prefer reading from the printed page because I find it more comfortable to be lying back in my bed rather reading something sitting at my desk or having a laptop lying on my lap while lying in bed. I’m not saying it’s ‘better’, just that I prefer it.

So earlier today I printed off the piece - it is 11,589 words long - and began to read it. I haven’t yet finished it, but . . .

Is this the kind of stuff the celebrated New Yorker, the journalistic nirvana of so many college students, wants? To put it bluntly: for fuck sake get a grip! Now, I don’t doubt there are many who lap up this kind of crap. But I also don’t doubt that just as I, 51 years ago and a lad who lacked self-confidence, thought ‘hmm, I’d better not let on that I think this is dull bollocks, there are those who to this day read the a New Yorker feature and are considerably underwhelmed but who decide it best to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Here are a few excerpts from Ms Ross’s piece. And before I give them, please realise that I am fully aware that my selection might, given my views and thoughts on ‘new journalism’, be thoroughly subjective. But if that has crossed your mind, it’s best if you check for yourselves and follow the link above (and given here again and make up your own mind.

I have so far read only the first half and will certainly finish reading it tomorrow, but I can’t think it gets any better. The important thing to remember is that the celebrated Ms Ross - celebrated later in her career that is, when she wrote this she was just starting out - was deemed one of the best of the New Yorker’s writers, and so this kind of ‘profile’ was significant.

. . .

When I started reading it, my heart already sank with the intro:

‘Ernest Hemingway, who may well be the greatest living American novelist and short-story writer, rarely comes to New York. He spends most of his time on a farm, the Finca Vigia, nine miles outside Havana, with his wife, a domestic staff of nine, fifty-two cats, sixteen dogs, a couple of hundred pigeons, and three cows.’ So, it pretty much says, let me worship at his feet.

It gets even duller. Ms Ross (who, it seems, had spent a few days with Hemingway and his wife at their farm in Idaho and was already acquainted) goes to meet the couple at Idlewide [now JFK] airport:

‘Hemingway was wearing a red plaid wool shirt, a figured wool necktie, a tan wool sweater-vest, a brown tweed jacket tight across the back and with sleeves too short for his arms, gray flannel slacks, Argyle socks, and loafers, and he looked bearish, cordial, and constricted.

‘His hair, which was very long in back, was gray, except at the temples, where it was white; his mustache was white, and he had a ragged, half-inch full white beard. There was a bump about the size of a walnut over his left eye. He was wearing steel-rimmed spectacles, with a piece of paper under the nosepiece. He was in no hurry to get into Manhattan.

To which my reaction was simple ‘get on with it woman, who gives a fuck?’ Well, of course, New Yorker readers seem to. And on it goes, duller by the line:

‘We went into the airport cocktail lounge and stood at the bar. Hemingway put his briefcase down on a chromium stool and pulled it close to him. He ordered bourbon and water. Mrs. Hemingway said she would have the same, and I ordered a cup of coffee. Hemingway told the bartender to bring double bourbons. He waited for the drinks with impatience, holding on to the bar with both hands and humming an unrecognizable tune. Mrs. Hemingway said she hoped it wouldn’t be dark by the time they got to New York. Hemingway said it wouldn’t make any difference to him, because New York was a rough town, a phony town, a town that was the same in the dark as it was in the light, and he was not exactly overjoyed to be going there anyway.

‘What he was looking forward to, he said, was Venice. ‘Where I like it is out West in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, and I like Cuba and Paris and around Venice,’ he said. ‘Westport gives me the horrors.’ Mrs. Hemingway lit a cigarette and handed me the pack. I passed it along to him, but he said he didn’t smoke. Smoking ruins his sense of smell, a sense he finds completely indispensable for hunting. ‘Cigarettes smell so awful to you when you have a nose that can truly smell,’ he said, and laughed, hunching his shoulders and raising the back of his fist to his face, as though he expected somebody to hit him. Then he enumerated elk, deer, possum, and coon as some of the things he can truly smell . . .’

and on and bloody on. This is ‘new journalism’? Well, stuff new journalism. You’d have more fun reading the small print on a tube of toothpaste, and it would certainly be more interesting. But I can’t resist putting the boot in further:

‘I said that there was a tremendous amount of talk about him these days in literary circles — that the critics seemed to be talking and writing definitively not only about the work he had done but about the work he was going to do. He said that of all the people he did not wish to see in New York, the people he wished least to see were the critics. “They are like those people who go to ball games and can’t tell the players without a score card,” he said. “I am not worried about what anybody I do not like might do. What the hell! If they can do you harm, let them do it. It is like being a third baseman and protesting because they hit line drives to you. Line drives are regrettable, but to be expected.”

‘The closest competitors of the critics among those he wished least to see, he said, were certain writers who wrote books about the war when they had not seen anything of war at first hand. “They are just like an outfielder who will drop a fly on you when you have pitched to have the batter hit a high fly to that outfielder, or when they’re pitching they try to strike everybody out.” When he pitched, he said, he never struck out anybody, except under extreme necessity. ‘I knew I had only so many fast balls in that arm,’ he said. ‘Would make them pop to short instead, or fly out, or hit it on the ground, bouncing.’

As a profile it does capture that phoney Hemingway in all his bragging, vainglorious, conceited, pseudo-macho, self-important ‘glory’. On the way to the hotel where he and his wife are staying:

‘As we drove along the boulevard, Hemingway watched the road carefully. Mrs. Hemingway told me that he always watches the road, usually from the front seat. It is a habit he got into during the First World War.’ Never!

At the hotel front desk:

‘The Hemingways were stopping at the Sherry-Netherland. Hemingway registered and told the room clerk that he did not want any announcement made of his arrival and did not want any visitors, or any telephone calls either, except from Miss [Marlene] Dietrich. Then we went up to the suite — living room, bed room, and serving pantry — that had been reserved for them. Hemingway paused at the entrance and scouted the living room. It was large, decorated in garish colors, and furnished with imitation Chippendale furniture and an imitation fireplace containing imitation coals.

“Joint looks O.K.,” he said. “Guess they call this the Chinese Gothic Room.” He moved in and took the room.

Mrs. Hemingway went over to a bookcase and held up a sample of its contents. “Look, Papa,’ she said. “They’re phony. They’re pasteboard backs, Papa. They’re not real books.” ’ Well, yippee!

. . .

If I remember well, our own ‘serious Press’ in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s was seriously impressed with this style of writing, with ‘new journalism’, and copied it. Everything began to read like a short story, every sentence had a kind of portentous significance (as in, from the bits quote above, ‘Mrs. Hemingway told me that he always watches the road, usually from the front seat. It is a habit he got into during the First World War.’ Dear soul. Do you, dear reader wipe your arse from left to right? Or right to left? Or is it a simple, uncomplicated and authentic up and down? Jesus, give me a break.

The true irony is, of course, and here you can only accept what I am saying, that it is I, ‘mad Pat’, the noisy one, the tactless one, the indiscreet one, who thinks this and much other ‘new journalism’ is worthless cack and is prepared to say so.

Who are we do believe? That’s the question: ‘Mad Pat’ or the thousands who religiously bought and still buy the Sunday Times, the Observer (the ‘Obs’), the New Yorker, the weekend edition of the Washington Post and New York Times - all 155 pages of them - and and all the other newspapers and magazines whose real value is not what they write but that they are good to be seen with?

Click on the link to Ms Ross’s 1950 piece for the New Yorker, read it, then decide for yourselves. Sadly, this cynic still thinks most of you will opt for insanity (we all like to play it safe).


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