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Happy 10th birthday Londonist!

Londonist is one of the few sites I actually check every day, along with the Guardian, Twitter/Facebook and the NHS’ alcohol unit calculator. If you’ve never visited it before, think of it as London’s front page; it has a shockingly high proportion of good content including:

Nearly every article is something you actually want to read, and how many sites can you honestly say that about?

Londonist’s tenth anniversary was this month, and I was very surprised and flattered when Ewan and I got an invite to the official party at the Bishopsgate Institute.

We’ve got to know the site’s editor Matt Brown in the past few years, mostly by turning up at London-y pub crawls and quizzes and being extremely competitive at both of them. (For those of you who don’t know me in person, I am an unpleasant quiz player. Matt recently ran a quiz on London pubs and beer, which Ewan and I won with a 9/10 score; I taunted the other teams for three minutes then spent the rest of the night sulking at the bar about the one question we missed. Last December, I scraped my knee running down stairs to argue with a quizmaster who didn’t accept our [correct] answer to the question ‘why did Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem?’. Four of us won a random bar trivia night in Portland in August, and I not only loudly taunted the other teams – all of whom were regulars – but put “Born to Run” on the jukebox four straight times in a row.) Despite this precedent, Matt, who is apparently a social masochist, sent us an invite as ‘friends of Londonist’ and we were IN!

And it was a great party! My favourite part was the game Pin The Station On The Tube, which gave you a blank version of Harry Beck’s London Underground map, a hat full of sticky-backed station names, and 60 seconds to stick as many of them in the right places as possible. What I love about Londonist is not just that it comes up with party games like that, but attracts the kind of people who will excitedly queue up for it.

Myself (right) and Ewan (hand far right) playing with host Tube enthusiast/Londonist contributor Geoff Marshall. Photo by José Farinha


(As you can see, the above picture was not taken by me, but by someone with a proper camera. There are some nice other photos on the Londonist site, including a hilarious one of us calling Matt a giant loser miming the site’s first initial.)

My second favourite part of the evening was the fact that there was free beer, thanks to Fuller’s. And in a very nice surprise we ran into our friend Ant, who came to our wedding and does the excellent Lost Valley of London serial. The rest of the evening was perfectly lovely: the speeches and the obligatory self-indulgent retrospective video were just the right length and tone, genuinely enthusiastic without being grating, quirky without being ‘quirky’, warm, informative without being dull – in other words a lot like basically everything Londonist does. And when we left we got goody bags. GOODY BAGS! I haven’t been to a party involving goody bags since I was in like sixth grade!

London is a wonderful city, and Londonist’s excellence is so easy to get used to that I rarely appreciate how hard it must be to pull off its consistent quality and low crap ratio. Thanks for the party and the site, guys.

Also at the end we found out Ewan and I won Pin the Station on the Tube!



Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Making friends in the day-ticket queue is such an excellent way to start a morning.

My friend Meg and I were in Manchester on Saturday, and decided to try for tickets to Maxine Peake playing Hamlet. We got to the Royal Exchange Theatre a little after 8am, where there were about 30 people in the queue for 34 pairs of tickets. The next people to join were a nurse who’d just come off the midnight shift, and a local man who comes to all the shows with his wife and queues so she doesn’t have to (we should all have such loved ones).

The nurse said she hoped there were tickets left for the evening performance, as today was her only chance to see the production but she wanted time to go home and nap first, since she’d been up for 28 hours, working a night shift, looking after her fussy child then working another night shift. She saw our expressions and reassured us, “Oh, that’s just being a nurse on the NHS, though!” (In TOTALLY UNRELATED news, on Monday NHS workers held a strike for a 1% pay raise, which for those of you keeping track at home is still below inflation, so still a pay cut, just marginally less of one.)

By 9:30am the queue had doubled, and a woman with a camera and a German(?) accent came up to me and said, “Excuse me, what are you all waiting for?”

“Oh – Hamlet!” I said. “Theatre tickets. There’s a Shakespeare play on and we’re hoping to get tickets.”

“Oh, a play!” she said.

When the box office opened and we got to the window, happily there were lots of tickets left for both shows, so Meg and I didn’t have to decide between Doing The Right Thing or Politely Fucking Over Nurse Should Have Got There On Time Don’t Give Me This ‘My Shift Ended At 8am, I Got Here As Fast As I Could’ Crap. We got two £10 seats for the matinee (front row!), said goodbye to our new friends and went off for a gorgeous breakfast at the Albert Square Chop House of grilled kippers and fried eggs on toast, and wonderfully strong builder’s tea, and after half an hour I even got some feeling back into my toes.


Even though there were a few small things that made me quietly go “oh no”, overall I walked away feeling like I’d just seen a brilliant production.


According to the programme and website, the text was taken from Michael Grandage’s production with Jude Law in 2009, which strikes me pretty shockingly lazy. I do actually like the edit, it zings up the play and moves To Be Etc. to a pleasingly surprising place. And it turns out the Royal Exchange did make its own changes. It totally cut out Fortinbras (including How All Occasions Etc.), which frees up a lot of room for the Elsinore conflicts to breathe, and probably did more cuts elsewhere.

But the text choices are such a huge part of the direction of any Shakespeare production that it seems bizarre to just pick an edit that makes substantial changes and change it a bit more, instead of developing the text as part of developing the whole show. Maybe a pre-existing edit was used to free up time and energy for other parts of the production, but why pick up a tool made to someone else’s measurements if you’re going to remake it anyway?


The audience entered to pieces of the set piled on a storage trolley – chairs stacked up, props boxes perched on top, promising an interesting start of deconstruction. But then ensemble members strode in, wheeled the trolley away, and wheeled on a set table laid with a nice white cloth, cutlery and wine glasses. What was the point of that? Otherwise the set design was strong: the Royal Exchange is in the round with no flats and just one curtain, so everything had to be taken on and off, or be there the whole time. For the gravediggers, a pile of jumble-sale clothes was dumped onto the stage, which they pushed away to form a ‘grave’ and in which Hamlet found a rolled-up woollen hat that had been Yorick’s. In a production that focused on people’s choices around self-presentation, I thought this was a really witty choice that was also a nice way to dodge the boringly iconic image of Hamlet + Skull.

Special mention of the design for the Ghost, which was smashingly good. A strung cluster of lightbulbs accompanied by buzzing humming noises, the lights dimmed and brightened to show the spirit’s movements, like an ominous Tinkerbell. When Hamlet dashed off to meet the Ghost the bulbs dropped to waist level, and the two actors wandered among them. It was as if Hamlet were somehow walking inside the Ghost, or enveloped by him, physically distinct but metaphysically subsumed. The lights spat him back out and he was shocked and transformed by the change, vulnerable and open.

Prince Hamlet

Maxine Peake was incredibly compelling to watch, which is good because she’s the main part, of course, but also because her Hamlet was often an overwrought dick (on purpose, that’s a compliment). I was reminded of Rory Kinnear’s observation that if you took out the soliloquys, Hamlet would seem like a giant asshole and Iago like a pretty nice chap: if you knew Hamlet in real life, he’d be a real pain to be around. Peake’s Hamlet came across as young, maybe around 17. His feigned madness was a pressure relief valve, that let him scream at people and let out his rage and anxiety without then having to deal with his mum going “Oh Hamlet, I’m not angry, just disappointed”.

The Royal Exchange’s Resource Extra pack for teachers says: “Maxine is playing Hamlet as a woman that “presents” as a man. This means that Hamlet will be referred to as a ‘he’ throughout the play, but that Maxine will be free to emphasise both the male and female aspects of the character at different points in the story. In a world that is gradually opening up to alternative perceptions and expectations of gender, this fresh approach aims to get audiences thinking differently about the play and transgender issues.”

So Hamlet may have been young but he was still confident and thoughtful enough for deliberate presentation. He’s incredibly intelligent and energetic, but with nowhere to aim it, since his path to kingship has been obscured and his uncle wouldn’t let him go back to uni. He’s confused about his feelings for Ophelia – possibly their relationship began before Hamlet started transitioning, and he’s working through what it means to start in a same-sex relationship with someone and transition to a heterosexual one? Not necessarily in a consciously thoughtful way, just as another thing on the list of Things That Are Shit About My Shit Life, by P. Hamlet, age 17 and eight months. Hamlet’s conflicted rage at her, especially his repeated focus on her genitals, comes from uncertainty about what his decision about his identity means for his sexuality, and he resents Ophelia simply for being around and reminding him about it.

(Also this is the first time I’ve really clocked how massively misogynist Hamlet is, obsessed with, frightened by and trying to control women’s sexual parts and activity. It’s all textual, and I don’t know whether I haven’t picked up on how unflagging it is because most productions cut it, or because Peake played it up, or because male politicians and commentators in real life say that kind of thing enough that it doesn’t register as much coming out of a man’s mouth, or what.)

…And the rest

Gertrude (Barbara Marten): A slightly fed-up mum who of course wants her son to be the best prince he can be, and all that, but also has a country to run and a hot new husband thankyouverymuch. She has patience for Hamlet but not endless patience, and was very unimpressed with his snotty smart-mouth act at the opening state dinner. As tension heated up in Elsinore, Claudius turned internal and started snapping at people, including her, and you could see her pulling away and going ‘excuse me, buddy, who do you think helped put you here exactly?’, though he was too flustered to notice. When she drank poison she was surprised, but when she realised what had happened, not surprised that Claudius had done it.

Claudius (John Shrapnel): Fab voice and one of the less coldly calculating versions I’ve seen. I got the impression he killed Hamlet to become king, of course, but then it turns out Gertrude is lovely and he actually does want his son-in-law to like him. He seemed to me to take Hamlet’s stroppiness a lot more as a personal slight than as a political threat until Hamlet actually killed someone.

Laertes (Ashley Zhangazha): Good arms, good crier. The text didn’t help him in his later scenes with Claudius; along with Fortinbras, the politics have mostly been cut, so Laertes breaks into the throne room as a disgruntled assassin, not a populist champion with a mob at his back. In his next scene he and Claudius are holding giant glasses of red wine, which a nice touch of his acceding and sanding-down, but later I didn’t buy that this physically impulsive, emotionally vulnerable young man would have calmly kept hold of that glass when Gertrude tells him Ophelia has drowned.

Ophelia (Katie West): Likeably stroppy but JESUS WHEN WILL DIRECTORS STOP HAVING HER STRIP OFF IN HER MAD SCENES, I’m honestly about to start selling Ophelia Underpants Countdown Timers or just standing up and taking a shot and yelling “BINGO!” or something. I started crossly expecting it when she came in wearing a two-piece version of her previous dress (ie clearly for easier peeling off), with the waist button undone and her pants visible. My hopes rose briefly when she talked for nearly four minutes without making a move to take them off, but then came Tomorrow is St Valentine’s and whoops there go my clothes.

Meanwhile everyone at court stood around awkwardly watching her wheel around, and while I buy that Gertrude wouldn’t make a move, because one of Gertrude’s most enjoyable qualities is her annoyance at having to deal with this raving young woman who someone decided is now apparently her problem, seriously none of the blokes would take off his suit jacket and try to help her cover up? One of the bodyguards standing around Claudius? Claudius himself? Horatio? It’s even worse when Laertes turns up later and half-heartedly tries to throw a cardigan at her before giving up and sadly hugging her. STOP THAT, EVERYONE. STOP. STOP MAKING YOUNG WOMEN STRIP OFF AS A PREREQUISITE FOR PLAYING A SUPER FAMOUS CLASSICAL PART. It’s boring and it’s rude.

Horatio (Thomas Arnold): Lovelily acted, wonderful voice, to me didn’t seem super close with Hamlet, or at least not significantly more so than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You could see why Hamlet liked having him around though, he was really calm and reassuring, like a gingery six-foot mug of chamomile tea.

R&G (Jodie McNee, Peter Singh): Children of important people going through their coke-sniffing Wild Phase who wore punk clothes like a costume but never questioned Claudius telling them to snoop on their friend. I bet there are a lot of real 18-year-olds like this at Russell Group universities and I probably hate all of them. Very entertaining to watch, though.

Gravediggers (Michelle Butterly, Jodie McNee): Hilarious, a pair of Scouse women in high-vis jackets on the night shift. Meg, who does not go to Shakespeare as obsessively frequently as I do, I think had one of those wonderful “whoa, hey, this is actually funny! Did anyone else know about this?!” theatre moments, and it was one of my favourite scenes in the show. Every joke landed, and how often can you say that about a Shakespearean comedy scene? The cuts elsewhere meant the two gravediggers’ conversation had time to play out, with long beats and facial expressions that would normally be sliced out or sped up. And although I always love seeing what productions do with Fortinbras (baffled diplomat? fascist opportunist? hot?) (only joking, he is always hot), it was really pleasant to have room for those beats without the whole play being four and a half hours long, KENNETH BRANAGH.

Polonia (Gillian Bevan): Genius. Possibly my favourite part, and the most radical change, who pulled the whole weft of the play in a new direction even more so I think than Hamlet.

The usual joke of Polonius is that he’s a rambly oldie who, like Hamlet, tries to control his female relatives’ sexuality; like Claudius, tries to get his son to fly straight and narrow; like King Hamlet, tries to instruct his offspring in how to act well; and like all of them, fails, unintentionally pressure-cooking Ophelia, shutting out Laertes and substituting his own body for the king’s.

Polonia was just as hilarious and tragic as the best kinds of Poloniuses, but in totally different ways. She was a frontbencher who looked like Julia Gillard and acted like a cross between Leslie Knope and George W. Bush. She was goofily enthusiastic about the players – a radical troupe of young people who entered singing David Bowie – wearing a blithe ‘I have no idea what’s happening but am very proud of you!’ school-play smile through the whole Mousetrap show (again, see Bush). Not an out-of-touch patriarch telling Ophelia to keep her legs together, Polonia was a middle-aged woman who has spent her life in the public eye and can tell her daughter from experience, “Oh honey I know he says he loves you and he probably believes it but believe me nude pics will follow you until you die do not sext him“.

Instead of being a foil to Claudius, Polonia mirrored Gertrude as a politically adept mother trying to manage uncooperative children (Can Working Women Have It All??). She subtly added to Claudius’ anxiety around control and legitimacy, since he was now the only adult male in court, but had gotten there illegitimately, while all the women had unquestionably earned their power. Her constant self-monitoring of her image – patting hair, checking the lines of her suits – were hilarious in a way that was totally textual and female. She opened up the play in a dazzling amount of directions, none of which would have been possible with a bloke.

Gender Stuff

Some reviewers have talked about the ‘confusion’ caused by the inconsistent cross-casting. Hamlet is played by a woman but remains a male character, while several other originally male parts – Polonius, Marcellus, Rosencrantz, the gravediggers – are played by women and changed to female characters. I note that none of these reviewers have been confused by the casting themselves, only worried about some potential playgoers who might be. This is idiotic. It isn’t confusing at all in the play – Peake’s Hamlet is who he is, the fully genderswapped characters are played by women and addressed as ‘she’ – and anyway I suspect playgoers who pick “Maxine Peake plays Hamlet” as a first or early Shakespeare outing will be more comfortable than confused seeing many women and genders represented on the stage.

It’s the same approach that has been true of ‘colorblind’ casting for several years, and I also note that no critic talking about the various-gender casting being ‘confusing’ seemed to mark at all that Laertes is played by a black actor and Ophelia a white one. We are already in a place where we accept actors of varying ethnicities in all kinds of parts in the classical canon. It can pass totally without comment, like the Laertes/Ophelia casting in this Hamlet, or open up a new way of reading the play, like the history of introducing postcolonial criticism to The Tempest by casting a white Prospero and a black Caliban.

I really can’t wait for more theatres to start exploring the plays like this without everyone making a huge fucking deal about it every time.


Rosh Hashanah 5775

Happy new year! The Jewish holidays don’t always map well onto the Gregorian calendar or London seasons, but I do love starting the year in autumn, when everyone’s returning from summer and ready to set out on a new cycle of school and work.

Rosh Hashanah was last Thursday, and I spent the morning like I usually do, standing in front of 200 children and their parents in a ’50s swing dress pretending to be a rock star. I play violin in the synagogue band, which does a musical service once a month for kids, parents and teens with particularly good taste, plus the Rosh Hashanah service, which usually packs out the main synagogue (for non-Jews – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are like the Christmas and Easter of the Jewish calendar, in that all the people who never turn up to shul turn up for them. The traditional service up the road in Finchley is even more packed). While it is a little harder to pretend to be a rock violinist than a rock guitarist or drummer, like the others, generally it’s a good time making goofy band faces at each other and doing mic checks and sorting out sound cables like we’re real musicians.

After getting to fulfil our college music star dreams, the best part of being in the shul band is the small children, who come in ideal portion sizes, ie their parents bring them to you for a few minutes, prod them to say nice things to you and then remove them. On Thursday, a dad brought his three- or four-year-old son up to the musicians’ huddle to meet me; he stared at me with big googly toddler eyes as his dad explained his name was Ben, and he was just starting preschool, and he liked the violin and lately had been asking if he could have lessons.

“That’s great!” I said. “Nice to meet you, Ben! Are you looking forward to preschool?”

Ben looked terrified and stuck his face into his dad’s armpit.

“He’s usually more talkative,” his dad said. Sure.

(Ben was nevertheless better than the 14-month-old girl a mother brought up to meet me – “She loves violins”, she said, jogging her slightly – who just sat in her arms gazing steadily at me with a faint air of disappointment. Well, it’s better you learned it young, kid, never meet your heroes.)

The service was especially good because the band has now been playing together for five years (!!). We rehearse exactly once a year, about a week before Rosh Hashanah since it’s our Big Gig, and as we’ve got to know each other and know what we’re doing musically slightly more, the rehearsals have become a little less stringent. In the first few years, we’d take three hours and sit down with photocopies of the liturgy and tunes, go through them very carefully, trying things a few different ways, picking the one we liked best, discussing how they fit into the structure of the service, making detailed notes and then doing a full run-through.

This year the rehearsal was more like:

“Okay, we’re doing this in D, right, and maybe that boom-shaka thing to intro?”

“Boom-shaka or boom-a-shaka?”

“I like boom-a-shaka.”


Our entire preparation for Avinu Malkeinu – a haunting, modal plea to ‘deal kindly with us, even though we have little to commend us’ that’s sung only at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and is basically the high point of the whole liturgy – was this:

“Avinu Malkeinu – schmaltzy shtetl?”


(It went beautifully, except for when I misinterpreted the rabbi’s finger-twirling of ‘going well, let’s repeat’ as ‘quick, wrap it up’.)

A few other things have changed since I joined the band: five years ago I was poor and living alone and didn’t have close Jewish friends in London yet. Since I was in full-time work, doing a full-time MA and spending any remaining free time at the pub playing in Irish music sessions, Rosh Hashanah and a handful of other festivals were the very, very few times I’d stop and make the time and space to simply not do anything. After the service, everyone else at shul would head off to big, celebratory family meals; I’d go back to my 15×7 studio flat in Kilburn, splurge on a curry takeaway and a £5 bottle of Sainsbury’s table red, sit on the bed in my pajamas and watch sitcoms on my computer. It wasn’t particularly Jewish, but for my life at the time it was one of the most festive things I did all year.

This year after the service, Ewan and I walked to the flat of two old friends who live near the synagogue for lunch. We met their new dog, a grumpy spaniel named Panda, caught up with each other’s lives and got sloshed on holiday-themed cocktails (apples and honey are traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah; we mixed apple juice and honey with rum and fizzy wine). After a long afternoon we ran out of booze and gossip, and in the early dusk Ewan headed off to his poker league and I wandered home via our local wine shop, where the manager handed me an open bottle of Aussie shiraz he wanted to get rid of, then I stopped to pick up a curry so I didn’t have to cook myself dinner.

When I got home, I poured the red wine into one of our nice glasses and set out the food. As I bit into the garlic naan I was hit by a disorienting sense memory – and I realised I’d accidentally managed to get dinner from the exact same curry chain I got my festival meals from in Kilburn. (Holy Cow, for the record, on the spendy side but extremely delicious.)

So I turned on my little computer, changed into my pajamas, sat on the sofa and pulled up a few Frasier episodes to watch while I ate and drank. A lot may have changed in five years, but you do have to keep up some traditions.


It’s Tax Day – that’ll be two Botticellis, please

I noticed something odd about the Holbein Henry VIII portrait today.

Henry VIII portrait

(No, not just his weirdly huge calves. Calves were considered very attractive on men, this is the 16th century equivalent of Photoshopped boobs.)

So the National Portrait Gallery has just started an exhibition on The Real Tudors (Action-Packed! Like You’ve Never Seen Them Before!), which is showing objects personally owned by the monarchs and all the famous portraits: Elizabeth with her hair down holding the sceptre and orb, Henry VII giving the side-eye out of the frame, Mary looking strained and unwell. Most of the paintings are from the gallery’s own collection, but some paintings (and all the objects) are on loan from other museums or private collections. I love reading where all the different pieces have come from, both so I can picture them in their usual homes and because it gives me a nice warm feeling to see museums collaborating to bring interesting art and history to the public. A large red wooden rosary that Henry VIII prayed with is now owned by the Duke of Devonshire; Mary’s devotional book is usually at Westminster Abbey; and a locket ring with Elizabeth’s picture inside is on loan from the prime minister’s country house, Chequers, which is not open to the public.

Then the label for the famous Holbein painting says this:

Acquired in lieu of tax by H.M. Treasury in 1957 and subsequently transferred to The National Trust.

Wait wait wait. Was this some chummy gentleman’s agreement between a duty-dodging lord and the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Or can you actually use art to pay your tax bill?

Yes, it turned out, that’s exactly what’s going on – I looked it up on my phone in the café and this wasn’t a one-off. The art-for-tax scheme, called Acceptance in Lieu, is still running and is managed by the Arts Council.

I mean, what a great idea!

The Acceptance in Lieu scheme was started in 1910 to allow posh people to pay inheritance taxes without having to sell off parts of their estates to raise the money. As you’ll remember from many PG Wodehouse novels, the British upper class is often actually fairly cash poor: they may own a £25m country house but that doesn’t mean they have money on hand to fix the pipes. Before 1910, people who inherited the family estate would be taxed on it, but because their wealth is in things rather than a bank account, they’d have to raise the money by selling some of those valuable objects to private collectors. The natural response to this is ‘oh, poor rich people, I hear your diamond shoes aren’t fitting too well either’, but the government was concerned that important collections were being broken up and great works of art were possibly being lost to the public forever. So instead of having people sell important art to get money to pay the Treasury, the Treasury started just accepting the art as payment instead, so the tax bill could be settled but the art would go to the public instead of being passed around private hands.

There are very stringent standards for art to be accepted as tax payment. There’s an annual limit of £30m total, and to be accepted, the art has to be ‘pre-eminent’ – “in other words, of particular historic, artistic, scientific or local significance, either individually or collectively” – and approved by the culture secretary and a panel of experts. Applicants must prove details of ownership between 1933-1945 (no stolen Nazi paintings). It has to be in “acceptable” condition and you must provide at least three high-quality colour photographs, both printed out in the application package and (and this is possibly the most onerous part of all) on a CD-ROM.

If the panel accepts your Holbein or your Ming vase, it also decides where it will go. Sometimes a piece is already on a long-term loan to a public museum – in the past two years, Acceptance in Lieu acquired a collection of Newcastle glass that has been in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle since 1981, and two Barbara Hepworth sculptures that are in the Edinburgh botanic gardens. They’re staying where they are; the only thing changing is the name on the ownership plaque. Collections from country houses and stately homes can stay in those houses, as long as they’re open to the public at least 100 days a year. Otherwise, pieces are sent to museums across the UK. (It must be so exciting to be a museum curator who wins a free piece of artwork! You’re just sitting there sifting through yet another pile of Roman coins when you get a call from the Arts Council saying, “Hello, would you like these Raphael doodles for no cost to you at all? Oh, and do you fancy a Rothko?”)

The stated aim is to prevent art works being sold abroad – the 2004 consultation report on it was somewhat melodramatically titled “Saving Art for the Nation” – and while there’s a bit of irony in British “Anything we can carry” museums trying to keep art works in the country, I do think public ownership of art is preferable to private ownership, no matter where it is. It’s not as if works sold to foreign private collectors are somehow more likely to be made available to the public.

I’m just so happy I found out this scheme exists. It seems to me to be a government policy working exactly like it should, for the public benefit in an efficient, good and non-obvious way. Since the Treasury doesn’t “give change”, the value of the art is usually more than the tax bill: in 2003, £16m of tax bills were paid with £40m worth of art, which is a great bargain for the British public. Cash can come from anywhere, but art is unique, and I think it’s wonderful that so much of it is being quietly nationalised, as it should be.



August reading

Here are some books I read last month! I reread a few too (Emma, The Pillow-book of Sei Shonagon – both still very fun, both recommended) but these are the new-to-me ones.

Augustus: From Revolutionary To Emperor, Adrian Goldsworthy: On the plane to San Francisco I polished off this new biography of Augustus/Caesar/Octavian/first hottie of the Roman republic, which was released to time with the 2,000th anniversary of his death on August 19. He’s one of my favourite historical figures: my birth month is named after him and I love his characterisation in eg Rome and Antony and Cleopatra as a placidly ambitious weedy sociopathic teenage politician (so hot). Goldsworthy sets out to break down the boundary history has created between the young ‘Octavian’ (above-mentioned teenie sociopath) and the older ‘Augustus’ (wise emperor who created aqueducts, firefighters, decades of pax Romana, etc.), and create a picture of one man, and he does it clearly and thoughtfully.

Goldsworthy is I believe a military historian and he focuses a lot more on Caesar’s campaigns than on the questions I really want answered about his life, such as: How accurate do we think was that scene on Rome where he talks to Livia about spanking her? Because personally in that relationship I see him as more the spankee. Do you think that Agrippa and Julia went to orgies together, or was that more something she did on her own? Tiberius: probably terrible in bed, right? That said, Goldsworthy does get into some comedy anecdotes, like when Mark Antony was taking petitions in the Forum and he was so hung over he had to grab a friend’s cloak to throw up in, or when a provincial governor decided that the best way to get into Antony and Cleopatra’s good graces was to strip nude, paint himself blue, affix a fishtail (…where?) and dance in front of the Egyptian court on a festival day. (It worked, apparently, the guy had a very successful career.) For his part, teenage Octavian was reportedly much sought after by the adulterous matrons of Rome and very, very understandably so.

After the gossip, I was most interested in Goldsworthy’s look at the way Caesar developed his iconography, the way he chose to present himself to Rome and the world. Despite being effectively a military dictator, Caesar never called himself emperor: he was princeps, the first citizen of the republic, and carried out this odd contradiction of amassing power and squashing enemies while apparently genuinely believing in the republican ideal. Possibly, and this is the really surprising part, not because he was lying or self-delusional like a lot of dictators, but because Rome, which had been going through a civil war every 10-20 years for nearly a century, actually did just need one guy working hard for a few decades to make sure aqueducts were laid and firefighters were paid for and grain routes were secure. Caesar delegated to competent friends and colleagues, and brought up his extended family to be committed public servants. After using his famous uncle Julius’s name to boost his teenage power smash-and-grab, he didn’t take on anything that resembled hereditary power or titles; only ones that were specific to his accomplishments and would die with him. He apparently tried very hard to ensure there wouldn’t be just one guy in charge after his death. It was apparently just extremely bad luck that his carefully brought up network of young civic-minded future co-leaders nearly all died young, leaving his former son-in-law Tiberius as the last one standing and creating the position of One Guy In Charge almost by default.

Anyway it turns out ancient Roman teenage sociopaths = hot, ancient Roman teenage sociopaths who grow up to become dedicated public servants = hotter, Julia remains my favourite, this was among the clearer and wittier works of classical history I’ve read. Recommend.

The Turk Who Loved Apples, Matt Gross: You know, I really wish that middle-class American white guys who go overseas, have sex with ‘foreign prostitutes’ and then publish a book in which they spend twenty pages waffling on about their [the middle-class American white guy's, not the prostitute's] feelings about said sex would put this fact on their book jacket so I can know that ahead of time and not buy it. This was actually a great book to read as a writer, because it reminded me that your work can be sharp, lyrical and funny (all of which this book sometimes is) but that still doesn’t mean anyone will care about you picking over the endless, tedious details of your emotional journey. Yes, some internal reflection is necessary so it isn’t and then I went here and did this and then I went there and did that, but jeeeeesus dude stop talking about yourself. And especially stop talking about how deeply sad you were about turning down a Cambodian sex worker who was so into you that she wanted to pay you for sex (yes, Matt Gross, you are truly the most desirable man in Phnom Penh!) and how you wish you “could have honored [her] humanity by accepting her offer” (JESUS, DUDE). THESE ARE NOT THINGS THE WORLD NEEDS TO KNOW.

A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain: Look! A self-indulgent middle-class American white guy who makes it work! Bourdain’s very funny, self-effacing but not insincerely humble, and writes well about good food without being samey (you know, ‘the oysters tasted like the sea, briny, snotty and wet. the other oysters tasted the same. basically, that’s what oysters taste like, sputumy ocean’), which can be difficult. I was ready to roll my eyes at all the macho Graham Greene cigarettes shots spliffs and Kalashnikovs narration but he’s so cheerful and goofy about it that I totally bought into it. I got some good writing advice at Book Passage along the lines of, “Make the reader to want to hang out with you”, which Bourdain absolutely does. He and Gross both sound like assholes, but Bourdain is the asshole who steals a bottle of vodka and splits it with you while he tells hilarious stories about accidentally giving food poisoning to Kofi Annan and then throws up on your bathmat. Gross is the asshole who spends all night making sad eyes at your breasts and then overexplains about his fiancé when you just asked if he wanted to split cab fare back to the hotel. Like, be an asshole writer, just don’t be a whiny asshole writer. Recommend Bourdain even though it made me constantly hungry.


Will internet journalism become fully automated?

I went to the excellent Book Passage travel writing conference two weeks ago, and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about Good Writing and What’s Happening With It.

I left my last job in news because it was becoming more and more thoughtless: skim copy for obvious mistakes, optimise for SEO, push publish button, repeat. Not only was it numbingly tedious, but upper management were always looking to ‘cut editorial costs’ – by which they meant get rid of editorial jobs by automating editorial work as much as possible.

Yesterday in the Colombia Journalism Review I read about a similar move from Gannett, a newspaper group in the south-east of the US, who are eliminating editorial jobs and basing editorial decisions on metrics:

“As the reporters become more attuned to their metrics and what readers are telling them, and become more expert at analyzing that data,” [Gannett's vice president for news, Kate] Marymont says, “the link between reporter and conventional assignment editor isn’t as necessary. Readers become the assignment editor instead of the more conventional assignment editor of the past.”
“Gannett cribs from Advance Publications playbook”, August 18, 2014

Actually, Marymont is wrong when she says “readers become the assignment editor”. The readers don’t become the assignment editor, the algorithm does. No human editorial judgment is involved – it’s all based on data. Readers being assignment editors would look something more like the Guardian’s daily Comment is Free suggestion posts, where readers suggest columns they’d like to see and the editors choose from those ideas to commission pieces from their staff writers.

The idea of journalists writing stories completely based on metrics reminds me of the hilarious mishap a few years ago, when two algorithms aimed at gaming Amazon Marketplace pricing unintentionally led to a book on developmental biology in flies being priced at nearly $24m. Two booksellers separately set their pricing mechanisms in such a way that they both kept adjusting up in response to the other. Eventually one of them hit $23,698,655.93, at which point some agent (possibly a human manager) stepped in and reset the price to a more reasonable $106.23.

It seems to me that the logical endpoint of automated editorial decisions is that the whole process of content production (what Gannett calls “journalism”) will become completely automated. As computers get better at sounding like people, the same algorithms that are currently being used to figure out what to write will also be able to generate that content and publish it. Basically, a parallel news world will be created, filled with computer-generated content that doesn’t involve humans at all: an online publishing industry populated by algorithms, for algorithms.

I do think algorithms have a place in people-driven online journalism: things like Twitter trending are useful and important. Ferguson became a story because thousands of people were talking about it, and might not have become one if it had been left up to editorial judgment. Media institutions have biases too, and in the case of Ferguson, algorithms were a corrective to those biases.

Fully automated content production would also obviously mean a large loss of writing jobs. According to that CJR article above, after currently planned layoffs, staffing at Gannett papers will have dropped 62% since 2001. If I were one of their employees left standing, I wouldn’t have high expectations for my five-year job security. At content farms, a lot of people are being paid to write articles aimed at search engines; if those sites begin completely automating content production, those jobs will go.

But I think the increased automation of mindless content will mean the people who are being paid for writing will be paid for good writing. Buzzfeed uses its clickbait to generate income to pay for longform investigative journalism, as does eg the Daily Mail (yes I know). Fewer people will be able to make a living as full-time writers, but actually I think there was an unusually high number of full-time writing jobs in the past 70 years in US journalism. So maybe we’ll be moving away from there being a lot of bad writing jobs to there being fewer, but better ones. Yay?


Header art by Tod Wills.