February, 2015

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Right and wrong – black and white?

The thing about black and white photography is that it isn’t really. Black and white, I mean. It’s shades of … no, I’m not going to finish that thought given the film (apparently) currently showing in cinemas. Black and white are just the ends of that spectrum, there is an infinite range of grey in between. Thanks to two very large books that recently arrived, I’ve been poring over some of the best photos from the last century, or at least some of the best black and white ones, trying to understand better what works in a picture and why. And I’ve also been out and about with my camera, experimenting a lot. I have no idea if any of the pictures are even worth looking at, never mind printing. But I’m hopeful that this coming weekend I will be able to develop and scan them and then we will know. For now, there are a couple of rolls of film lying in the fridge waiting for me to get to them. And I am very grateful for a wife who grew up with film in the fridge and who finds this entirely normal. Thank goodness for her journalist parents.

We often talk about ethical issues in black and white terms as well. Maybe it’s easier to take a firm position than recognise the nuances of the arguments for and against any proposition. I know that I have opinions on enough subjects where I am nowhere near as informed as I should be to have such  strong view, but there we are. And there are some questions where we don’t need to know every fact to have a sense of what we think a reasonable (if not ‘right’) point of view is. However… when it comes to politics, I was given something of a surprise when I looked at https://voteforpolicies.org.uk and selected which policies my views were closer to – without knowing which party they came from – and am now having to re-examine some assumptions I had previously made. It’s an excellent exercise to go through.

Despite the internet providing us with a range of opinions more than wide enough, we do still rely on the professionals working across the media sectors both to report and comment on current issues.

And that brings me on to the current debacle with the Telegraph and the reporting of the HSBC offshore tax disclosures. A quick recap – an allegation that the Telegraph didn’t report much of the HSBC story because of the amount of advertising the paper received from the bank, one of the paper’s senior reporters resigns and writes about his reasons in some detail, then we find out that apparently the newspaper’s owners received a loan from HSBC. And a general sense that all is not right in the world of editorial independence. Black and white, right? But this was, of course, the same newspaper that broke the story of the MPs and their expenses, and just today came the ‘revelation’ of two prominent MPs (for balance, one each from both the two main political parties) and the way in which they might be using their name, access or reputation to earn some extra money.

But back to the HSBC reporting issue.

Here are the front pages of the online newspapers of the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Telegraph on the day HSBC offices were raided in connection with alleged tax evasion:

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Clear cut, then. Only the Telegraph didn’t have the HSBC cover on its front page. Guilty as charged. Neither did the Independent. I just chose to omit that, because it wouldn’t have fit with the picture I was trying to paint. So sometimes it depends on what facts you include and which you exclude. Was there any agenda in my selection? No, they were just the three papers I tend to check. I only looked at the Independent to see if I could say that all the quality dailies except the Telegraph covered the story with the same degree of prominence.

None of this is new, the conflict between editorial independence and the commercial necessities of running a newspaper as a (profitable) business. I haven’t spoken with any of the journalists at the Telegraph and know no more about what really is going on at the top of that organisation than I read about elsewhere. But I did speak with journalists in Germany who went through a similar experience.

During the Soviet era, politics drove reporting of events in East Germany. Some areas were more overtly steered than others, but nowhere was immune. When the Berlin wall fell, the old system of media direction collapsed, the previous newspaper editors either resigned or were effectively fired by the rest of the staff. It was going to be a new beginning. And for a year or so, that was a reality. Thanks to continuing subsidies and without political interference, journalists could write about what they wanted, how they wanted to. And they did.

And then reality set in. Western publishers came along and the parameters of the reporting changed. Where there had previously been politically-driven dictats, now there were commercially-driven ones. Here’s what a few of them had to say about their experiences (you can, of course, read the whole story with all its nuances in my book – you can even skip the Marxist-Leninist theory and go straight to the fun parts where I shut up and let the journalists speak):

For those of us in the business affairs team the conflict is conducted between advertising customers and editorial work and there are conflicts there for me when advertising customers call the Berliner Zeitung saying the reporting of the opening of some shop was too limited and they buy so much advertising from this paper. Then the publisher impresses upon us that some reporter from the business affairs team has to go back there again and write about it again so that the advertising customer is satisfied, and I think that’s totally wrong – that so much influence is exerted by advertising customers – I think it’s increased as the number of advertising customers has reduced, business is bad, then you do something to counteract that, I think that’s somehow a betrayal of the reader.

And that is for me the biggest conflict of all, that in my opinion the profit that is made from this newspaper comes higher – obviously, because in this system it must come higher – than any ethics of journalism.

In the case of small advertisers you can bat it off easily and refuse, but when it’s a large, important advertiser who is close to the heart of our advertising department or the publisher, you don’t have much chance, you have to do it even if it tastes bitter to you, but we have got used to that.

There are limitations, so you can’t write a critical article about bad, overpriced goods in a supplement about homes and building if the same companies have adverts in the supplements. The freedom of the press ends with money, it used to be that it ended with political influencing, today it ends with economic goals.

So I wasn’t at all surprised to read that something similar has allegedly been happening at the Telegraph. For me, the more surprising thing was that we, as a population, didn’t think it was to some degree or other. What I haven’t seen (maybe I just missed it) is any suggestion for how to avoid this. We live in a world where we expect to get a lot for free, even our news. But we also want it to be produced by experienced professionals, with high standards of reporting and ethics, independent of external influences. If we aren’t willing to pay for that, how do we expect the newspapers to be able to continue to pay its journalists and other staff, if not through advertising? And if that becomes a vital source of income to allow the newspaper to continue to exist and report the cash-for-access, Snowden, MPs expenses type of stories, is it any wonder that the people paying for the advertising don’t expect to be lambasted in the same publication? I’m not saying it’s right or that I like it. But I don’t know what the solution is.

Did I mention that these kinds of questions are covered in my book? Now – was I influenced to write about this topic this week in the hope that someone might buy my book or because I thought it was important to write about it?

None of this is black and white.

Behind the scenes

One of the great things about a weekend in London is that you really never know what you’ll come across. We sat at breakfast on Saturday and wrote down a few things we wanted to see. We got as far as the Royal Albert Hall before the plan changed. We did see the photography exhibition there but in the process came across a “secret tour” with some stories about things that have happened there over the years. It was a definite hit and a lot more memorable than what a more traditional tour might have involved. But the thing which really struck me was what we learned about what happens behind the scenes. We saw this close up as the Cirque du Soleil is currently performing there and we saw them talking through one routine.


Unfortunately for us, they weren’t doing very much. But then we went upstairs and realised that everything we were seeing had been brought by the company with them from Canada. The Hall doesn’t provide anything for them other than a venue and electricity – and even for that, it’s a different voltage from their equipment so they bring huge transformers with them. We loved the ‘make up mirror’ cases, complete with random electrical cables.


The Cirque du Soleil is the longest running act the Hall has – most are for one night only – and stay for six to eight weeks a year, which is a good job because they bring with them 60 trucks’ worth of equipment – and we are talking the big trucks!


The loading bays can take three trucks side by side and it takes them four days, working 24 hours a day, to load everything back onto the trucks after the last performance, but as they are paying to hire the hall for every day it takes, there is a clear incentive to get the job done. In the meantime, the whole place is full of their equipment. They have 60 tonnes of it hanging from the Hall’s dome alone.

Getting some idea of the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes was a good reminder of how little we so often see of what has gone into anything of value. As I read a novel now, I am much more aware of how easy it is to skim over passages which might have taken an hour to read and longer to edit. I am reminded that photos we see might represent hours of waiting for the right moment which is over in a fraction of a second. After being here, I now have a load of pictures in my camera and have absolutely no idea what they will come out like. And I quite like that feeling again, the not knowing, and the surprise which always comes with seeing a print for the first time. And as I was out running along by the Thames (and getting lost, so I ran a few miles longer than expected) I saw a good number of crews out rowing at an equally silly time on a weekend morning, but they like I know that some things you have work on if you’re serious about them. And that’s irrespective of any talent we might have in a particular area, there is still no substitute for the hard work that yields the results.

We didn’t manage to see the Cirque du Soleil production but it’s on the list for next time we are in London – and it will be all the better for having seen some of what goes into these remarkable productions.

Good habits

In order to become good at anything, you have to do it, and as you continue to practice, it becomes easier and your ability improves. Car driving is a good example. The first time I drove a car was my 17th birthday. I stalled the car again and again and again. I can actually remember each time and where it was. But eventually I managed to get back home again and the next time, I probably stalled the car once less. And in time, not stalling stopped being the primary focus of my lessons. Basic driving skills became a habit.


Dancing is another area close to our hearts, helped by having two girls who cannot actually remember a time before they danced. To begin with, we were relieved if they managed to go in the right direction on stage. And doing the swords dance in Highland dancing was something so far into the future that we didn’t even think about it. Now it’s something they did a few years ago and are now returning to in order to work on very specific technical aspects. They’ve been doing this for about ten years now and it shows, even if I am a biased Dad. Seeing Coppelia at the weekend, performed by the Birmingham Royal Ballet (aka ‘BRB’ apparently), was all the better for seeing it through the eyes of two people who could recognise the different steps and routines.

The habit I’ve had to get into is writing every day. To begin with, it was a bit hit and miss. Then I started to write it down as a goal every day, and record how many words I’d written, where 1,000 was the goal every day (2,000 a day is a goal for the future, not right now). It took me about a month until it became a habit. I even wrote on Christmas Day (Stephen King does, so I figured I had no excuse). And looking back, I realised that was how I got into running as an ingrained habit. Just going and doing it when I didn’t feel like it, being glad I did, and finding the next time a bit easier until it was something I couldn’t imagine not doing. And in the same way, I now can’t imagine not writing every day. Just getting my 1,000 words done and stopping.

Getting out there with my camera and taking photos is the next habit I need to get into. I’m hoping a trip to London next weekend will help get that going.

As with many things, there is now a lot of research about habits and The Power of Habit is a great book if you want to know more about the science in a very accessible way, as well as how to get into good habits. Highly recommended, as it was to us.

One for the writers – and cat lovers

Warning – this blog contains photos of cats. No, you haven’t strayed onto some YouTube advert…

I’ve been laid up in bed for the last four days with some random winter bug that beat me this year, despite the copious amounts of Lemsip I managed to down. I decamped to the attic (aka my office aka the food storage area) to keep my germs to myself, which also had the advantage of being able to have the window open for some fresh air without everyone else complaining about the cold. I had the advantage of a warm duvet and a body that seemed to be struggling to regulate its temperature downwards. And I slept a lot. You would think you would come out of that feeling better than before, wouldn’t you? But it will pass. And it might explain my sluggish run the week before.

Right, sob story over.

Let’s talk about technology for a minute. Last week I wrote about my new mini photography project – one camera, one lens, one type of film, one year. Still waiting for the film to arrive… but it’s hardly life or death. It’s fair to say I have a few cameras of different types. Fully manual to fully automatic, very large and very small, analogue and digital. And my phone. And of course no camera that’s sitting at home while you’re out and about is going to give you a good photo that day. Sometimes, just having something in your pocket is all you need. These pictures were taken on my phone because I didn’t have another (dedicated) camera with me:

Out for a run in Berlin at 5am (seriously. There was a story. But when else do you get to see this without a single tourist in the way?). I had my phone in my pocket in case I got lost (I was running, not navigating). It’s a bit squint  – I was on about mile 11 at this point! – but I haven’t got round to sorting that yet.


And this is my favourite which I would have missed without having my phone with me:


And the cat photos (the cats actually live in different countries, two of them were tiny kittens and just needed to have their photo taken).



Amazing what you can do with a phone these days.

And when it comes to writing, I’ve yet to find how technology can help you write better. It might make books about writing more accessible (the US has a lot more which are now available elsewhere and probably wouldn’t have been ten years ago), there are more than enough tips about writing out there all over the internet. Some of them are even helpful. But none of it is ever a substitute for actually writing. There is a difference between writing by hand – cue list of famous writers who always wrote with a pencil, or a certain type of pen, watch sales of said objects rise – and on a typewriter and on a computer. My first book (that sounds good, as if there were lots more of them… give me time!) was written on that ancient laptop I showcased a few months ago, using WordPerfect (let’s discuss the benefits ten years later of using software that everyone else still uses…). It was great at the time. My current laptop weighs about half as much, is probably a thousand times faster and has more memory hidden under one of the keys than the old one had on its massive hard drive. But in the end, writing is one word at a time, again and again and again. And then editing it again and again and again.

But there are things which can make the process of one word at a time and later editing a lot easier. Word or one of its free or less expensive alternatives is great for some things. My experience is that it’s not great for long documents. Like books. It does the job, but it’s not really designed for that job.

Enter the answer – Scrivener. I’m not sure how exactly I came across it, but it will have been through a review I found from a search for ‘best writing software’ or something. Their website has a great title – ‘Literature and Latte’ – which appealed from the word go as a bit quirky and a bit ‘getting it’. And it comes with a proper free trial and isn’t expensive if you do want to buy it. And it’s simply brilliant. Here’s why:

  • It can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be
  • It allows you to chunk up your very long text into smaller, discrete sections, which you can then move around at will. That will be chapters, then. Or blog posts.
  • It saves everything automatically, and keeps copies of previous versions of the text somewhere in the background.
  • You can use it almost like an old-fashioned typewriter, blacking out everything else except the text you are working on at that point, no menus, no options, no distractions. And it scrolls up so that the line you are typing at that time is in the middle of the screen. Simple and brilliant. I have it in this mode all the time. All you have is a blank sheet of paper in front of you with your words on it. This is what it looks like – it’s the entire screen:


  • You know all those bookmarks you have in your web browser, the ones you know you should have categorised? All that research material you printed out and is now somewhere in that pile on the floor, or the desk, or did you file it in your cabinet? I am not very organised, I accept this. And Scrivener does it for me. It stores research material like nothing you have ever seen before. Web pages (not just links, it pulls in the page), character profiles, random scraps of thoughts, lines, words, whatever you want. So everything I have come across that I think might be useful, all saved with the actual text in the research section. For me, it’s almost worth it for that alone:


And, for me so far, that’s it. All I need at the moment, but everything I’ve needed. It does a lot, lot more if you need it to. I’m happy with the simplicity right now.

When I finally get to the editing stage, it will be so much easier, each chapter will be separate, can be moved around or simply wiped from existence. There are few that are already destined for oblivion, but no editing is taking place until I get to the end. Is Scrivener helping me to write better? No, I don’t think so. Is it making the process of writing easier? Definitely. And is it saving me from spending a lot of time doing things which are important but distract from actually writing? Most certainly. I can’t imagine ever using Word again for anything other than opening documents which other people send me. Scrivener does everything a writer needs much better. Oh, that will be because it was designed for writers. Funny that.