Monthly Archives: July 2010

Is it racist to hate seagulls?

Somebody recently arrived at my blog having Googled ‘hating seagulls is like being racist’.

I am unconvinced by this argument. I had never really thought about it before, but I will now say unequivocally that no, hating seagulls is not like being racist.

However, I do think that hating Canada Geese is a bit like being racist, which is a problem because I hate Canada Geese.

Although I don’t actually want to do this to them.

I hope this helps.

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Bullshit and journalism

Forget high-minded, rose-tinted commandments like these, journalism isn’t about integrity, objectivity or, lawd preserve us, education.

It’s about bullshit.

And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Necessarily.

A key part of what a journalist does is take a complicated story then condense, distill and edit it, before regurgitating it in a form that is accessible and interesting to the general public. And journalists are regularly asked to do this with subjects they don’t know anything about. They’ll research, of course, conduct interviews, ask experts, analyse and consider, but they’ll also, ultimately, bullshit. Because while journalists are not experts, they will end up having to pose as experts, or at least they will if the piece is going to be any good, because if it’s going to be any good it has to appear authoritative.

In an ideal world, journalists would only write about things they know a lot about, but – to take me for example – there are only so many articles you can write about tunnels, Chelsea Football Club, the 1968 American Presidential election and museum exhibition architecture.

So you have to diversify. In the last month, I’ve written about ballet, poetry and fashion. These are three subjects I know zilch – in fact, less than zilch – about, but that hasn’t stopped me writing about them. Why? Three reasons: because I was asked to, because I thought it might be interesting and because I needed the money.

All journalists do this to some extent, but features writers (such as myself) do it more than most, because we don’t specialise in anything – not in a single sport or art or type of business – and so turn our attention to whatever takes our fancy or whatever pays the bills.

This is both fulfilling and frustrating . Fulfilling because I have an inquisitive mind, so enjoy learning about new things and then translating this new information into a form that hopefully attracts the reader without pissing off the experts by making great clunking errors or hideous simplifications.

But it can also be annoying, especially when you end up writing articles on subjects you’re not really equipped to write about – equipped in the sense of having the knowledge that comes from years of reading and internal debate – simply because that is where your contacts have led you, while you can’t write about what you’re genuinely knowledgeable about because you haven’t made the connections.

On one level, this is a market failure, and comes down to the fact that you can understand the topic inside out, but that doesn’t help if you don’t know the editor or the PR or are beaten to the pitch by a canny competitor. And it works both ways. I bet one or two of my journalist friends are wondering why they hell I’ve been writing about fashion given that until last week I thought Manolo Blahnik was a Mexican superhero.

I think the public accepts this without fully understanding it. On one level, they know journalists have to bullshit – and it must be horribly obvious whenever a journalist covers the area they specialise in professionally – but at the same time, they would be genuinely shocked if they realised exactly how little we really know about some of the things we are entrusted to write about. They’d probably think it’s a bloody stupid way of doing things, unless their business also regularly employs people to work well outside their area of speciality, which might be the case if they are politicians. 

But that’s journalism: bluff and bullshit. And the best bloody profession on earth if you believe in knowing a little about a lot and making up the rest.

The Lambeth Country Show: vegetable sculptures and celebrity scarecrows

My eager anticipation of the annual Lambeth Country Show in  Brockwell Park is frankly ridiculous. But there is something about this festival, combining sheep shearing and donkey rides with jerk chicken and reggae, that really works for me. It is great fun and slightly surreal.

Where else this weekend, for instance, could you have seen the Mayor of Lambeth stroking a duck?

For many people, the best thing about the festival appears to be the lethal Chucklehead Cider, which comes in four pint jugs and, judging by Twitter, will be responsible for several thousand hangovers in South London this weekend.

But I disagree. For me, the annual highlight is the vegetable sculpting competition in which some of the region’s finest artists demonstrate considerable imagination and skill by carving cauliflowers and potatoes so they look like animals.

This competition is fiercely fought. This year’s winner was a pineapple owl, and as ever, its suitability was hotly contested.

Work of art, or waste of a pineapple? Opinion was divided. Others prefered the baby sweetcorn and butternut squash lion.

Then there was this simple yet gorgeous art deco courgette crocodile.

While the carrot and potato python drew some admiring glances.

Congratulation to all who took part. The real winner, I’m sure we will agree, is art itself.

But could the reign of the vegetable sculpture be coming to a close? Many onlookers seemed more impressed with the celebrity scarecrows this year, and who can blame them? Check out these beauties and see what you think.

Skin at the Wellcome Collection

My review of the Wellcome Collection‘s new exhibition Skin is in the New Statesman this week. Read it here.

Cunningly, I snuck the key phrase into the very opening paragraph:

‘Generally, museums put on exhibitions so that people can learn about things they don’t already know. The Wellcome Collection does almost the reverse: it prefers to start with something that is familiar – in this case, skin – and make it unfamiliar.’

Skin is another very good exhibition from the Wellcome, who stand almost unique among British galleries and museums as a body that is so rich they have no requirement to go cap-in-hand to the public purse or to private sponsors, and consequently have no need or desire to dumb down or exhibit tedious ‘blockbusters’ (I’m looking at you, British Museum) in a bid to pull a cash-and-existence-justifying audience through the door.

Few establishments are so fortunate and few curators would know what to do with themselves if given this sort of creative and intellectual freedom. 

Arts funding is going to take a proper kicking over the next few years. The Wellcome Collection will provide rare shelter from the storm, and one with free wi-fi, a bookshop and Peyton & Byrne cakes. What more can you ask for?

Do you have what it takes to be my slave?

Description
Magazine and newspaper intern wanted

Freelance journalist Peter Watts is looking for an enthusiastic and motivated intern to assist with finding stories for magazines such as Uncut, Prospect, New Statesman and many – but not that many – more.The position is based in a south London coal cellar and you must be able to commit for six weeks or you can just piss right off you time-wasting loser.

Tasks

  • Coming up with features ideas: scouring newspapers and online every day for great potential features to steal
  • Chasing stories, interviewing, transcribing, writing and taking cheques to the bank every week
  • Sending commissioning editors obsequious emails containing poorly conceived feature pitches and then ranting impotently when they fail to respond
  • Networking (ie having coffee with John O’Connell, where you will both gossip like old women about other journalists while trying to avoid paying the bill)
  • Experiencing general low-level resentment every time you see a peer’s byline in a newspaper or magazine
  • Pretending to be pleased for them
  • Finally mastering practice/practise and effect/affect
  • General admin duties (milk no sugar)
  • Liaising with girlfriend and daughter
  • Watering the potatoes
  • Monitoring Twitter, hoping this will be the day when @caitlinmoran finally retweets something of yours that is witty and pithy
  • Or failing that, @indiaknight
  • Look, even @gilescoren will do at a pinch
  • Coming up with witty and pithy Tweets
  • Taking crap photographs for self-indulgent personal blog
  • Getting three stars on tricky 5-7 level of Angry Birds

Experience required

Preferably a background in journalism or slavery. Otherwise, anybody lacking self-dignity and imbued with a lacerating self-loathing will do fine. Any applicant related to somebody already working in the media will obviously receive preferential treatment.

You need to have a hunger for wiping other people’s arses. We also need you to be highly organised, motivated, determined and really, really desperate – for you, no boot is too shit-encrusted to lick if there’s half a chance you might get another unpaid intern job in a dying industry at the end of it.

This position may give you herpes. You will leave this role without a soul or pride, making it a great position for anyone wanting to have a successful career as a freelance journalist. Previous experience in real life is probably not ideal.

Please submit an updated CV and a covering letter explaining why you’d be perfect to do my dirty work for me. This is initially a temporary unpaid position although for the right candidate there is the definite potential for it becoming a permanent unpaid position.

Based on an original idea by Tiffany ‘Chutzpah!’ Wright.

Update For some serious treatments of this story, see Graduate Fog, London Fashion Intern, Psmith and Siany Land.

My life as a spy

Spies have been in the news recently which got me thinking about my brief dalliance with the half-life of espionage.

I was asked to go undercover by the Sunday Times in the mid-90s. and this assignment opened my eyes as to how journalism really works, for good and ill.

I was 19 and working on the sports desk as a dogsbody, tea-maker, fact-checker and column-writer. The call went up from the sweaty suits in the newsroom – they needed volunteers who were under 25 and hadn’t been to university. My sports editor put me forward, so for the first time since the Lesbian Avengers broke into the building and chained themselves to the desks, I trundled into the office where the serious journalists worked.

The story went thus: the ST editor had been having dinner with an old friend, who told him that some universities – mostly former polys – made it far too easy for students to get their degrees. Some of the tutors practically wrote the essays and answered all the questions in exams. They did this, so I was told, to increase the pass rate, which meant the universities got more funding.

The editor thought it would be a whizzbang idea if he sent a couple of journalists undercover, to enrol as students at former polys and reveal this nefarious business to our readers. And on this flimsy basis, I was to be given a large weekly stipend, leave of absence from the sports desk and an unlimited supply of pink chits – the blank taxi receipts that were the most highly valued currency in the building.

So I did it. I went to the University of North London on Holloway Road and enrolled in the only course they had left: Irish Studies. I was comfortable with this. I had recently left a Catholic school, so I’d been surrounded by plastic paddies for the best part of a decade, drank Guinness and could name the Republic of Ireland first XI without flinching. I came up with a cover story about my dad being from Ballymena but never talking about his Irish heritage, and winged it from there. They probably smelled a rat straight away – nobody was shy of talking about their Irish background in the mid-90s, when the craic and Big Jack were all the rage.  

My brief was to get close to the students and ask them leading questions about the nature of the tutoring they received, so I went to lectures and then hung out with my fellow students in pubs, drinking on expenses and getting free cabs home. It was quite the thing. Who wouldn’t relish the chance to get to play at spies? 

I quickly discovered three things.

  • I wasn’t a very good spy. I kept forgetting to record conversations or got drunk and couldn’t remember what had been discussed. I couldn’t think of any leading questions and regularly forgot my cover story.
  • I wasn’t a very good student. Studying bored me senseless and I couldn’t write the sort of essays required by universities.
  • This wasn’t a very good story, and even if it had been I didn’t want to write it. My fellow students were all older than me and from a far more disadvantaged background. They were genuinely enthused about this opportunity to receive further education and many of them had left secure jobs so they could do so. I had absolutely no desire to stitch them up at the bequest of the public scho0l and Oxbridge educated bigwigs back in Wapping, not for all the pink chits in London.

Like a double agent, I strung both groups along for a few weeks – the students, cos I it was fun; the journalists, because my access to taxi receipts had made me a minor legend among the peewees in the corridors of Wapping. But the whole thing was making me increasingly uncomfortable – having to lie to everybody – and I was really very bored of studying, so I wrote a heroically non-committal wrap-up memo to the news editor and then got the sports editor to insist I was recalled. 

Another journalist had enrolled at a different University and he stuck it out. After he’d done a full year, he ended up writing a SENSATIONAL two page expose that amounted to a whole lot of nothing, as he freely admitted.

And what did I learn from all this? A few things, all chastening. One was that newspapers made decisions about stories based on whims or chance encounters, and would follow these through to the bitter end even when it was clear there was nothing to write about, and that I wasn’t very good at doing this. Even if it had been a good story, I wasn’t tenacious enough to exploit it.  

The other was that I would never be a successful spy.

Another childhood dream, dashed.

There’s honest, and there’s too honest

Spotted in Herne Hill. I’m not sure this is the best name for a reputable business.