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I have a theory. Actually, I have a lot of theories and enough wisdom to know to keep most of them to myself. This is one which I’ll put out there anyway.
For my first novel, I must have bought about fifty other books. There were a few novels in there, but the books were mainly non-fiction across the whole gambit of East German society from food to design to political structures and a few books with photos (if you can’t actually visit the place, there’s nothing like hundred of photos to get the right images in your head.) But one defined the society:
Over 1,000 pages of detailed descriptions of pretty much every aspect of the way the country worked. Somehow it seemed to encapsulate the stifling control exercised over so much. And the book itself was very German in the way it was organised as well as the technical brilliance of the sentence structure. German seems to work beautifully for this type of theoretical analysis, with its compound nouns that save all the explanation English needs, as well as the way in which multiple descriptions can be nested around one main concept.
So my theory is that there is one (large and expensive, it seems) book which exemplifies the world my stories are set in. For East Germany, that was it.
Now we come to the next novel and my new obsession. 1930s Ukraine. I’ve never been there (and obviously I will never go to 1930s anywhere). I don’t speak the language. After a week, I’m still trying to get my head around the alphabet and the vowel sounds. It’s always the vowels that matter. I’m pretty sure there’s one vowel sound in particular that can help distinguish an American from a Canadian, but that’s another of my theories I’m not supposed to mention in public. Anyway, back to Ukraine. In printed Cyrillic, my main character’s name is written леся. Just that little thing is a constant reminder that I am stepping gingerly into a different world, where that writing is the norm, and the English ‘Lesya’ would look entirely wrong.
But I’ve found the one book that has helped me to gain a foothold in the world I’m beginning to explore from afar. And it’s a book of poetry this time, because it seems you can’t separate Ukraine from Тарас Шевченко. See my problem already? I’m too used to dealing with a language I can work in.
Not helpful. At all. The good news is that there is a (relatively) recent translation of Taras Shevchenko’s poetry which I can use, because otherwise it would remain inaccessible to me, at least in its complete form.
The Ukrainian version is available for free in electronic format. The translation is (quite rightly) not free – all 404 pages of it. From the introduction (excerpts):
‘Born as a serf in 1814 and orphaned by the age of 11, paras Shevchenko was taken by his owner to St. Petersburg, where prominent intellectuals recognised his talent as an artist. They bought Shevchenko’s freedom and he soon began writing vivid poetry that abounds with patriotic references to Ukrainian history, geography and culture, as well as devastating portrayals of imperial Russian authoritarianism. This led to his arrest and exile to Russia’s desolate Asian frontier. Czar Nicholas I personally prohibited the poet from writing and painting.’
Oh yes, Shevchenko was an artist as well as a poet.
This is where I confess I’m not big on poetry. There are some exceptions, but not many. Michael Rosen springs to mind. I tried Ted Hughes. Not my thing. Ditto a few others. But Shevchenko… I like him.
Here’s one of his poems from 1848:
Come on, let’s write some poems again.
Secretly, of course. Come on,
While something novel forms a basis,
Let’s refurbish God’s old tale.
Or… how to tell you,
Without lying. Let’s again
Curse fate and people.
People, so they’ll show respect
And know us.
Fate, so she won’t slumber,
So she may take good care of us.
But you see the fix she’s put us in:
Indifferently, she left a child
At a crossroads,
And he’s poor, young
But with whitened whiskers, —
Just a kid, of course, —
And he softly hobbled off
To live beneath a foreign fence
Far beyond the Urals.
He found himself amid a desert,
He found himself in bondage…
How, cruel fate, can one not curse you?
I won’t curse you, fate,
Instead I’ll hide behind the ramparts.
And I’ll secretly write poems,
I’ll roam the world,
And I’ll expect you, my fate,
As a guest in bondage
From beyond the mighty Dnipro!
I already have the ending of this next novel (all right, so the current ending, it will probably change). It’s basically a few lines of a poem of Shevchenko which, when I had Lesya say it and could picture where she was at the time, made me cry. I just have to figure out how to get her from where she starts the story to that place, but it seems it will be Shevchenko’s poems which accompany us along the way. Something I could never have imagined when I started this book with the thought ‘that would be an interesting story’…
Now back to that infuriating alphabet. Or Абетка.
A long time ago, when I was doing my PhD, my greatest fear was not that I would not finish it, but that I would suddenly find after a couple of years that someone else was ahead of me in looking into my area of research and what had seemed an original idea would suddenly be blown out of the water. Back then, checking such things on the internet was still in its relative infancy so there was an element of crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. It turned out that nobody else seemed to have been interested in East German journalists so I was fine.
Fast forward a couple of decades and now I’m just hoping that someone hasn’t had a too similar idea to me for a novel.
Then I came across Fiona Rintoul’s The Leipzig Affair.
East Germany in the 80s, a Westerner going there to university, an East German linguist desperate to escape to the West, and some pretty unpleasant Stasi people along the way.
Phew. Not even superficial similarities unless you think that every story set in the same country will be the same.
So, what of the novel?
The most striking element from the start was that half of it is written from the second person perspective. ‘You see this,’ ‘you walk there,’ and so on. It’s not for me and there’s a good reason it’s used so sparingly. Stephen King started Needful Things with the second person perspective and it stood out immediately. I’m struggling to think of anything else I’ve read which uses this perspective. But despite my personal preferences, after a while I got used to the language and it almost faded into the background.
I found it gratifying that Rintoul gives a more nuanced view of East Germany than the all too easy ‘East bad, West good’ cliche. One of her two main characters, Magda, wants to escape because her earlier enthusiasm for the East German system has turned into disillusionment, and she has enough minor characters who are able to argue for what was good in the country to give different perspectives. Her other main character, Robert (Bob), comes from Scotland to Leipzig to study and this allows Rintoul to give an outsider’s view on what the country was like, and what it felt like, including his constant faux pas. She based his experience on her own when she studied in Leipzig in the 80s, which came across as a good dose of authenticity and provided a very different narrative. Another big tick there.
The overall story contained a good number of uncertainties, doubts and machinations to keep me wanting to keep going. The fact that I knew pretty early on what the big reveal at the end was going to be is more because it was probably the one way it could have worked and I read novels with one eye dissecting and the other just reading. Sometimes the reading eye manages to cloud the vision of the analytical one (Gone Girl and Fingersmith spring to mind – both surprised me).
I enjoyed reading something on my home turf and seeing how someone else combined a few facets of the myriad possible stories and created characters and a narrative which worked for me. And which were entirely different from the strands I picked out to tell a different story.
For the non-pedants, you can stop here. For those who have any interest in dealing with writing in one language and setting the book in a country with a different language, I have a couple of additional observations.
Dealing with non-English language is always a question for the author. My impression is that there is an assumption that everyone speaks enough French so that dialogue can have entire sentences with no explanation or translation, even if they are important. I have to say that I find that annoying. When it comes to German, I think it’s right that we ensure the reader understands the German dialogue if we are going to use it, even if we use a phrase particular to an area or time that it hard to render exactly in English. I am less keen on translating street names (which Rintoul does). And if I were translating Edinburgh’s ‘Princes Street’ into German, I would not call it ‘Princes Strasse’ or ‘Prinzenstrasse’ because I think it is clear that it is the name of a place. But that’s my preference. So that’s just my preference. What does get to me is when the language is just wrong. If I’m using another language, I think it behooves me to make sure it is correct. Either I am absolutely sure it’s right from my own knowledge, or I check it with someone. And if I’m translating something into English, it also has to be right. And there was one thing which did annoy me in this novel.
You might know the German word ‘bitte.’ It normally means ‘please.’ But it also means ‘you’re welcome.’ As in, if I pour you a drink, you say ‘danke’ and I say ‘bitte.’ It does not mean ‘please.’ Rintoul has waiters putting a plate of food in front of someone and saying ‘please.’ No. ‘Bitte’ cannot be translated as ‘please’ in that context. What beats me is that Rintoul is a translator from German to English, so I have no idea why she would get this wrong, which means that I don’t think she did get it ‘wrong’ in the sense of not knowing what was correct, but that she consciously chose to use that translation. I just don’t know why because it makes no sense in English.
I’m planning on a trivial blog next week. I hope. But not this week. This week I am hopping mad and sometimes just writing about it helps.
Here’s my scenario for you. You need to buy a car. The ticket price is £1,000, but you are a good haggler (I’m not) and you get the price down to £900. You go home and tell your family. What do you say the car cost? £1,000 or £900? You might say, I did really well, it would have cost £1,000, but I got it for £900. But it didn’t cost you £1,000, so why would you say it did? This is not difficult. It is a matter of facts.
Last week, I wrote about Leni Riefenstahl and how she used her immense talent to promote the evils of Nazism and the persona of Hitler. I’m escalating it this week. And, like last week, this is not about politics, this is about truth versus lies. And yes, I’m going to be as black and white as that.
So, Joseph Goebbels. Minister for Propaganda and an absolute zealot when it came to Hitler and National Socialism. And a man of many contradictions. He had no hesitation in telling the German people what he wanted to be true, even when he knew it was false, if it served his aims. And from him we have the playbook of how to lie on a grand scale:
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.
In the current excuse for a debate about Britain’s future membership of the European Union, the Vote Leave campaign has been hammering home one figure and associated concept time and time again. This is how they word it in their campaign literature:
“The EU costs us over £350 million a week.
“We are still sending £350 million a week to the EU.
“We will keep sending at least £350 million a week abroad.
“Permanent handing over of £350 million a week to Brussels.”
Got that? Four times in one document (five, if you count the time they tell us we would stop paying that much if we left the EU).
It is a lie, pure and simple. A lie that follows the Goebbels playbook of making sure it’s big and keeping repeating it, even when you have been told (as if you didn’t already know) that it’s not true. Remember the car? We are being told, again and again, that the car cost £1,000. It didn’t. It cost £900. And it’s not even that the car cost £1,000 with some cash back later on. It only ever cost £900 (and, in the case of the EU, you then got a large proportion of that £900 back in grants and other money to spend on your home or garden, but at some point the analogy breaks down).
Does it matter? Morally, I think unequivocally yes, it matters. We are asked to place a degree of trust in politicians. Our system of democracy (stop laughing in the back) grants them the authority to make significant decisions on our behalf. And yet some of them, including cabinet ministers and wannabe next prime ministers, wilfully lie to us when it serves their purposes. In my opinion, lying to the electorate does nothing to serve democracy, nothing to further a meaningful debate, and it will have a lasting impact of reducing further what trust we do still have in politicians. I will be honest, I am keeping a mental list of the politicians who continue knowingly to peddle this lie. I will never be able to trust any of them in the future, knowing that they have no scruples about lying to me about something as straightforward as this – and defending the lie when challenged.
I’m not alone in being more than a little troubled by the promulgation of non-facts in this campaign. Andrew Tyrie, Chairman of the Parliamentary Treasury Committee, summarised his committee’s report by saying
Both sides in the referendum campaign have traded in outrageous claims and unsubstantiated assertions, masquerading as “facts”.
And on the £350m figure, the committee was incredibly clear:
Brexit will not result in a £350m per week fiscal windfall to the Exchequer as a consequence of ending the UK’s contributions to the EU budget. Despite having been presented with the evidence contradicting this claim, Vote Leave has subsequently placed the £350m figure on its campaign bus, and on much of its recent campaign literature. The public should discount this claim. Vote Leave’s persistence with it is deeply problematic. It sits very awkwardly with its promises to the Electoral Commission to work in a spirit that reflects its “very significant responsibility” and the “gravity of the choice facing the British people”.
What a very British way of saying “They are lying to you”. Now, Vote Leave are not alone in talking factual nonsense in this referendum campaign. Theirs is just, in my opinion, the best (that should probably be “worst”) example of a lie on such a scale which is being told in what we like to think is a more enlightened age than 1930s and 40s Germany was. But people haven’t changed. Some still lie to us, abusing their position for their personal aims and ideology, and some of us will always believe it, particularly when it plays to our existing views. Confirmation bias, anyone?
While I’m on my soapbox, here’s another parallel with German history that worries me, this time from my home patch of media ethics. When politicians are up to no good, we have the media to hold them to account, to challenge them, to ask the questions we cannot individually. Jump forward a few years from the 1940s to East Germany. The media are under effective state control, the flagship newspaper Neues Deutschland is required reading (or at least subscription) for Party members. And it was unashamed in calling itself “Organ of the Socialist Unity Party” (the ruling party – and at this point, let me just say that the Party and country were not socialist, they were parts of a Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship that was socialist in name only). I will give them this – they were honest about their allegiances. I think the Daily Telegraph should be equally honest and include in its masthead “Organ of the Vote Leave campaign” given the incredibly biased coverage of the campaign over recent weeks. I rather hope that, one day, someone will do what I did with East German journalists and ask some of the Telegraph journalists some difficult questions about their concept of media ethics and how their professed values could be considered consistent with what they wrote – and did not write. I would buy that book.
I was surprised to see an article about rowing in the normally closer to dull as dishwater tax magazine I need to read every month. So technically it wasn’t all around rowing, but there was a close to full page picture of a boat (quad skull for anyone interested) with the caption “Will it make the boat go faster?”
Unfortunately the article was only tangentially about rowing. It was really about setting goals based on what matters to you and some probably well-known exercises where the value lies not in saying “oh yes, I’ve seen that exercise before, people should do that” but in stopping and actually doing it themselves. Here’s one.
Imagine yourself at a dinner party in ten years’ time. What do you want to be saying about yourself?
Right, let’s forget the dinner party thing for starters. No, wait, that’s not the important part of the exercise. Strange how we can get distracted by the detail that we’re comfortable and miss the whole point.
And I knew the answer to this one. I think, I believe, that it’s the first time I do know, or at least the first time I can articulate it.
I want to have published five novels set in places or including subjects that matter to me. Now please don’t confuse that with the novel being “about” those places or subjects. I don’t think it works that way. Novels are, I currently think, about people (characters) and the choices they make in certain situations. Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but bear with me. What am I writing about? Easy answer is I’m writing about East Germany. But I’m not really. I’m writing about Natalie Dornbusch, who is a teenager whose mother disappeared when she was young, with a father who spends all his time working, grandparents who met on a frozen road in 1945 somewhere between Leningrad and Berlin when they buried a woman and her newborn baby together. And Natalie has to figure out her place in society, who she is, what she will and won’t stand for, who she loves and what that means when she has to choose between two things she loves. She happens to live in East Germany but what she wants is the same as all of us. To have a life that she can shape, to do something she enjoys, to love and be loved, and to find out who she is. Her life is shaped by those around her, some of whom she chooses to be with, some of whom she has no choice about. When I write that story, I am writing about Natalie. Last week, I was laughing so much at one point that I couldn’t finish writing the scene for a while, then the next day I was crying at another part. This is, I think, a good thing. Natalie matters.
I was reminded in this article that our brains do not distinguish between something that is real and something that is imagined. Well of course they can tell the difference, but here’s a thought. When we were last in Berlin, we walked along a road I had been along hundreds of time. I have memories of it from when I was living there, when I’ve visited subsequently, of being on a conference call on December 31st one year when we decided whether to implement a project I had worked on for the best part of a year. And on this particular visit, I found I had memories of when I was a child there. Of the gap in the hedge at the end of one of the side streets that we used to crawl through, of where my friend collided with me on his bike with the wobbly wheel because his brakes didn’t work. Wait. I didn’t grow up there, I was never a child there. But I have memories of all those things and although one part of my brain knows what did and didn’t happen, there’s a part of my brain that actually cannot distinguish between the two sets of pictures and associations in my head. They all feel equally real and I would struggle to say that they felt different emotionally. I was very conscious that one part of my brain was working overtime trying to tell the other part to shut up with its nonsense, but that other part was having a lot of fun with it.
So, back to this ten year thing.
Why 5 novels? Because it’s a number. One a year would be silly because it would be unachievable (if I want them to be any good anyway!). One in ten years wouldn’t feel worth it. So one every two years. Feels achievable and worthwhile and definitely challenging.
And along the way I want to keep running and have some fun with that. I rather think it will be in cycles of one year increased time and focus on running, one year more on the actual writing of pen (currently pencil) on paper. But I have no idea. Nor does it matter as long as I’m having fun with both. And there’s the other thing with this writing business. Of course I would like to find I can do it well enough that what I write is of interest to someone else other than those who feel morally obliged to say nice things about it. Although now I come to think about it, I can’t think of anyone who will consider themselves to be in that category. But I have now realised that I am going to do this anyway, that’s just what I need to do. And I want to do it. So I’m also remembering that it’s supposed to be fun. Not always, nothing is, but if I’m not getting something out of it that is more than spending the time doing something else (we economists would call that opportunity cost) then long term I probably shouldn’t be doing it. And I’ve now had a few weeks rather than days (holidays were a huge help) of experiencing spending significantly more time writing that I can say that I prefer doing more rather than less. It turns out that the odd five or ten minutes can start to add up and all you need in addition is a piece of paper and a pen. And just as, when I started running, I found it was something that I would get out of bed early for every morning, I now find that I will get up early every morning to write. And still spend a good hour in the evening doing some more. It just means I can’t do some other things in that same time, but seeing as I am about to be stranded waiting for dance classes to end four times a week, I have that time as well.
So I know what I want to be able to say at the dinner party in ten years’ time and I have a plan of how to do it. I might even show up to the dinner party. Although that’s the less likely of the two outcomes.
I should probably give a bit of background to my experience of Berlin, given that it’s where I keep returning to, with or without various family members in tow, and also where my novel is set, so even when I’m not physically here, my head still is. I use the present tense because I am writing this blog on holiday in Berlin – in fairness, I spend much of the time travelling around in trains, buses and trams just observing the place and we do end up going down an abnormal number of side streets in case we encounter something unusual I can use or that prompts a thought. Or a photo.
I first came here in early 1990, just after the Wall came down. I was living in Munich at the time, but as an 18 year old living and working away from home for the first time, I don’t have any real memory of the political events happening just a few hundred kilometres away from me. But a few of us decided to take what seemed like a new opportunity to travel to the East. Some memories of the trip:
– Driving along the transit route between what was still East and West Germany and seeing the Trabants and other Eastern bloc cars at the side of the road being or needing repaired. There were a lot of them. An awful lot.
– Leaving the transit route and ending up driving through the suburbs of Dresden. I’m pretty sure we weren’t supposed to do that, but my only regret now is that I didn’t have a camera with me. The Dresden you can visit today looks nothing like the outskirts did back then. End of understatement.
– Driving through a forest (we were fairly convinced we were lost by this time) trying to get into what was still Czechoslovakia in the middle of winter, with snow on the road and in the trees that rose up close to the road on both sides. Yes, it was exactly how you imagine a cold war spy thriller. We did eventually come to a border crossing and despite the lack of a mutual language managed to get whatever stamp we needed in our passports and continued on our way to Prague.
– The restaurant menus in Prague had two prices, one for the locals and one for the tourists. It was easy to ensure everyone paid the right price because we couldn’t have ordered from the Czech menu if we had wanted to. It was still ridiculously cheap for us of course.
– And then there was Berlin. We stayed in the West, in a grotty hotel over a bar. I think that’s what happens when you don’t think to book anything in advance because the internet isn’t something anyone has heard of yet. My memory of West Berlin is that it was loud, bright, and brash. I didn’t like it at all. The next day, our car had disappeared. We found it in a nearby street with no sign of any damage, but as one of our group had been in the British Army, he was convinced that we had to check for bombs under the car. Why I had to check instead of him might have been testament to my youth and his experience. The mystery was solved a few weeks later when the Berlin police sent us a bill for having towed the car that was apparently partially parked over a bus stop. In the meantime, we had to go over to East Berlin. We drove through, exchanged our money at the border, and were suddenly in a different world. Gone was the glitz of West Berlin, the familiar cars, the familiar shop names and brands. We walked around for a while, partly trying to find something to do with the Eastern Marks we now had. It must have made an impression on me even then because when I returned years later, I instantly recognised the streets we had walked down which at the time had seemed so forgettable.
The clincher for me was of course living in Berlin for almost a year. But that was almost twenty years ago now, and parts of the city are unrecognisable from the chaos I experienced back then. There were stations that had been blocked off for thirty years that were being not just reopened but rebuilt from the inside out. Just to change trains at those stations, we had to go out of the station building, walk around it to a different entrance and then go back in there. It took for ever changing at Friedrichstrasse, the station that had symbolised the division between East and West and then became past of the largest building site in the world that was Berlin.
Skip forward a couple of decades and it turns out that there are still things we haven’t seen in Berlin that are well worth a visit. More on that next week. I have four rolls of film to develop first!
The thing that my eye has been drawn to this last week has been the things that are still the same, caught in time.
Houses that could still be in East Germany:
Buildings falling apart between expensive villas (I said it was worthwhile going down the side streets):
And others whose exteriors look like they have missed the last 25 years, beside spectacularly renovated buildings:
And finally, the Glienecke Bridge, where East and West swapped spies.
The centre of the bridge marked the point those two worlds met, and today we could walk across it, see the plaques and tell the stories of when it was all so different. Because eventually the buildings will be gone, one way or another, and we will be left with the stories.
A thought that has been going through my head for a while now is integrity.
But I need to start somewhere else, with writing. I think that, for me, writing is in part a way of exploring something, of thinking through a question in my head that has been bothering me. And it tends to be something which has caused a strong emotional reaction in me, usually because it has run smack bang into something that I believe to matter. This is exactly what has happened today with this blog (one of the reasons it’s a lot later than normal!). I just went somewhere I had not expected to when I was writing it – East Germany and religion – and I now need to refine my thinking. But I needed to put it down in writing to get that far. So I am about to cut the next twelve paragraphs (a sure sign I’m working something out) and will come back to them when I’ve got it right. I might even put them in a later blog entry. [The subtitles to this film would now say “Sound of paper being cut”].
At the moment, my head spends much of its time in 1970s and 1980s East Berlin. But I also know that the questions I’m wrestling with about choice, about truth, about integrity, have another context for me personally. I’m spending time inside the head of people who had no safe way of escaping a situation which was not of their making. But what really interests me is the processes which caused that outward set of restrictions to become internalised, because that’s what can and does happen to us all – and it happens to my characters. We talk about becoming ‘institutionalised’ after being part of an organisation for long enough (and sometimes it takes no more than a few weeks). First our behaviours and then our thoughts start to change to conform to the way the organisation operates, or the way we perceive it as operating. If we are lucky, we catch ourselves doing this, but much of the time it goes unnoticed.
So the other place I am in my head is how I deal with a situation that feels somewhat like that experience of being trapped in East Germany, but where I know I do have a choice. And I find that the choice is intellectually easy but emotionally a lot harder. And that’s a place I have to stay for a while because it’s helping me to understand my characters a bit better. I do at least know how it ends for me, if not for my characters. I just can’t get to that point yet because I need it to stay real for a bit longer. And then I can write about integrity. But not yet.
So why have I included this jumble of thoughts today? Welcome to the head of a writer.
I have to start this week with an apology. Yesterday, I summarily dismissed months or even years of work from thousands of writers, purely on the basis of the state of the spine of their book, the picture on the cover or even, in one case, the font the book had been printed in. Even as I was doing it, I felt bad, knowing that my judgement of their work was totally unfair and not what I would have done if they had been standing beside me.
This might tell you why such an attitude was necessary:
That, and the fact that I had limited myself to one jute back (in fairness, the largest one I could find in the house), knowing that there was already not enough space for the books I have, and then there were a few in the back of the car already, and some in places nobody else in the family has yet discovered. Sounds like an addiction to me.
There was more than enough to feed the addiction:
This was the annual Christian Aid book sale in Edinburgh. It’s supremely well organised, staffed by lovely volunteers, and the outside stalls have long since been rain-proofed. Yesterday, that alone must have saved thousands upon thousands of books.
This scale of book sale is always wonderful. The sheer variety of books and subject areas means there really is going to be something for everyone there. They even had old dance programmes, but in the end we bypassed them in favour of a biography of Anna Pavlova, another dancer I had never heard of but LoLo knew all about when she saw the book afterwards, and some other dance-related books for her.
I came back with a few novels, a few on philosophy (don’t worry, the lighter end) and psychology (same caveat), and my star find – a huge photo book on East Germany:
As an aside, the white and gold building on the front was the Palace of the Republic which was later torn down after 1990, not least because of the amount of asbestos used in its construction. It had a ridiculous number of lights inside it, which gave it its nickname of ‘Erich [Honecker, the country’s leader]’s lamp shop’.
I suspect there will be limited demand for this book in Scotland, but it was close to a perfect book for me. It’s got hundreds of photos – the ideology is clear from both the text and pictures, but I would expect that – and even came with an insert about an extension to the University of Leipzig (I used some of their facilities, mainly the canteen, when I was living there for a few months a long time ago), and inside that insert was a stamp from 1980 in pristine condition:
The main thing for me was that the book was authentic from the time, it was how the country’s leaders wanted to present it and tells the story they told themselves in the early 1980s when nobody expected the Wall to fall. And all this for £2. In fairness, I suspect that if I hadn’t shown up, they wouldn’t have sold it at all so I think we all went away happy from that transaction.
The good news is that the book sale is on for much of next week – it’s at the East end of George Street (right beside Standard Life Investments if that helps anyone). It’s well worth a look if you like finding random books, but do spare a thought for the poor writers whose wares are being sold off for a song and without any of it going to them. Although I think there must be something about having several copies of your books appearing in second hand sales, it feels like a sign of success!
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:
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.
Imagine growing up in a country, being taught a history of that country, experiencing that country in a certain way, and interpreting your world through those lenses. Then, many years later, everything changes.
Yes, that was the experience of many people who grew up in East Germany and knew very little different, except what they saw on Western television or heard about from others. And with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall next Sunday (yes, I will be there – of course), that might be worthwhile thinking some more about. And my book on the experience of East German journalists shows how, while many things changed around them, a new normality soon set in which in some ways was not that different in feel and approach from what they had seen in communist days (and for the pedants, East Germany was not a communist state, it purported to a socialist one, but the end state of communism was never reached).
However, the experience I described above was one I had recently and was much closer to home. It starts with a book. Most things in my life do. But before that, there was the Snowden experience which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Remember how I believe less and less in coincidences? Here’s the chain of events.
1. Go to Book Festival event which Luke Harding is speaking at (about Snowden and the implications of what he made public) – incidentally, did you notice that GCHQ just last week admitted that they have been accessing data on UK citizens and others, collected by the NSA and other intelligence services, without court orders…
2. Read Harding book and realise that the Guardian has changed from the paper I remember it as when I was at university. In fairness, it’s been a while since then and it’s allowed to change.
3. Spend some time on the Guardian website and see that they have started a “membership” programme, including a free option which allows you to see what events are coming up (in fairness to me, most of the events are in London so paying to be able to go them really isn’t sensible).
4. The first event – streamed live – is with Naomi Klein, who has written a book on climate change, called This Changes Everything (I have it, it’s next on the non-fiction reading list)
5. The event is chaired by Owen Jones, who wrote The Establishment.
6. I read The Establishment (well, 90%, I’m in the last chapter at the moment. I probably should have finished it before writing about it. Oh well.)
The official blurb about it talks about a “powerful but unaccountable network of people who wield massive power and reap huge benefits in the process.” That wasn’t what I got out of the book to be honest. What I read was an account of how the events I remembered over the last thirty odd years could – and in Jones’s view should – be viewed differently. It’s persuasive. Is he right? I don’t know – there was one section in the book where my day job gives me some insights which I wouldn’t expect a non-specialist journalist to have, and which would lead me to different conclusions, so it did make me wonder what others closer to some of the other topics he covered would thing of them. But that’s at most a minor criticism.
One topic discussed at some length is the view of “scroungers” which is promulgated with a degree of relish by much of the media. By “scroungers” we mean of course benefit cheats/fraudsters/whatever other derogatory noun you can think of. One of the main objections against these people is that they are supposed to be ripping us all off – “us” being the hard-working, hard done by, families. And this is costing us all fortune, causing us to run up national debt beyond anything we would have believed just a few years ago. And this must be stopped. Politicians fall over themselves to tell us how much they will cut from the welfare bill.
What Jones does is remind us of the stories we don’t hear so much about. Atos, the French company which was paid millions (well, more like a billion apparently) to administer the new eligibility tests for disability benefits. The lack of human decency (and common sense) in the tests beggars belief. And Margaret Hodge, scourge of wrongdoers of all hues, said that
“Atos stated in its tender document that it had ‘contractual agreements’ in place with a national network of 56 NHS hospitals, 25 private hospitals and over 650 physiotherapy practices to provide assessments. This turned out not to be true.”
We are, according to Jones, being systematically told that the real “scroungers” are the individuals in receipt of welfare. But how about the companies and individuals who are being paid vast sums of taxpayer money to adminster what were government services, or construct and run buildings and operations which the public sector would previously have run? And then, when it comes crashing down, to walk away from it? Jones gives numerous examples of the scale of the “scrounging” going on at the top levels of society, funded by the taxpayer and part of the ethos of “public sector inefficient, private sector efficient”. To which one might say simply “RBS”. Or “HBOS”. Private sector companies which, absent the public sector rescuing them, could have brought down the entire economy.
Jones’s arguments are much more far-reaching than those examples could illustrate. But he does paint a picture of a direction of travel over the last few decades which we largely have accepted as “right” and which has been endorsed and promoted by the mainstream political parties, the media, and individuals in charge of a range of organisations.
So I saw today’s Telegraph headline (front page) “Dear taxpayer, quarter of cash goes on welfare” and thought “I’m reading that article with a different perspective now”.
Books really do change the way we think. And it’s good to challenge the way we think.
And finally, this article from the Guardian, tying up what I learned from The Establishment with the fall of the Berlin Wall:
Maybe it’s ironic that my eyes were opened 25 years after those of the East German population – although I might argue that their eyes were pretty open before then, they just didn’t know what they could do about it. And that’s the last 10% of the book I haven’t read yet. I did say I should probably have finished it before writing about it!
Doctor Who manages to appeal to both my generation (who remember it from “before”) and the current youngsters who don’t have to worry with really rubbish effects these days – everything looks very real. One of the episodes a few years ago was set in the world of the reality show Big Brother, in which the contestants are supposedly being observed day and night. The extent to which that is true seems to vary by country according to what is culturally acceptable, or at least possible. I can’t imagine anything worse than being observed all the time. And the film ‘The Truman Show’ was based on the idea of someone’s entire existence being a reality show.
All good entertainment (well, maybe not Big Brother now I think of it, I can’t see the attraction). And at least it couldn’t happen in real life, could it?
Some government organisations are familiar to most in the Western world. FBI, CIA and NSA in the US, the old KGB, now FSB, and the Stasi in East Germany. Can you imagine if any of those agencies could get anywhere near a Big Brother world, where they could monitor us all the time? If you saw the film The Lives of Others, you will have seen what now comes across as a lack of technological sophistication in the Stasi’s operations, but remember that this was now decades ago. And of course, that was a Soviet bloc country, so attempts to spy on its citizens was to be expected. Their values were completely different from the Western powers, for whom individual freedom was paramount. Or so went the narrative.
Then came Snowden. And, thanks to him, we found out that the US and UK governments have been running operations on a scale so vast it is scarcely imaginable. And something the Stasi could only have dreamed of (and probably did in their wildest imaginations).
One of the other authors at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival was Luke Harding. I confess that I didn’t really know a lot about Edward Snowden before the event and went along to find out more. It’s set me off on an unexpected journey of discovery into topics of which I thought I had a reasonable factual understanding. Last week’s blog was about more than running in sandals by the way, it’s also about how the things we thought we knew can be totally wrong. More on that another time.
Harding’s book, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man is the story of Snowden and the Guardian team that worked with him to reveal the extent of government surveillance of ordinary civilians. That bit’s rather important. You and me. Not terrorist suspects (the usual justification for any infringement of our rights), not people suspected of anything else illegal, us. Just because they can. No, it doesn’t mean someone is reading your e-mails, but our e-mail and phone data is apparently being captured and stored.
I can’t find that in any of the UK political parties’ manifestos. You know, ‘If elected, we will set up an elaborate system where we tap the major communications cables running through the UK and record as much as we possibly can on you, our electorate. We won’t need a court order beforehand, we’ll just do it because we can. We will assume everyone might be up to something we would want to know about, and we want to know about everything.’
Harding’s book lays out the extent of the information gathering exercise being undertaken, and the reaction of the US and UK governments to what Snowden revealed, including the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, lying to Congress about it:
‘In March 2013, Clapper told the Senate intelligence committee that the US government does “not wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans. The statement was untrue, as Snowden would reveal and Clapper would himself later admit. It was also perhaps a felony.’
And closer to home, what did David Cameron do about the revelations?
‘The prime minister […] chose to shoot the messenger. He dropped ominous hints that charges could follow if the Guardian carried on publishing. In a speech in Brussels, Cameron said that he couldn’t afford to take a “la-di-da, airy fairy” view of the work of the intelligence services.’
Harding goes into detail of the process which the Guardian followed to ensure that nothing that could harm intelligence operatives was published in the newspaper, dealing with the common assertion that the information in the Snowden papers compromised state security.
So why was so little of this covered in the other media? In the UK, according to Harding, the media were warned off (via a ‘DA’ notice which suggests that there could be national security implications). That seems to have been enough to trump the public’s right to know of what their elected officials were sanctioning.
So back to the Stasi and East Germany. Another of the scenarios I discussed with East German journalists (included in my book) was revealing secret government documents. What did they have to say about this one? Here are some of their comments, I’ll leave it to you to join any dots you might wish to.
‘I find that fundamentally OK, yes, definitely, because all governments tend, I believe, irrespective of whether in the East or in the West, left or right, only to expect of the valued population that which the government considers to be right and important, and that is not always what is really important and above all what the truth is.’
‘There is an unspeakable practice within politics of keeping things secret, for the simple reason of making politics easier. So the question would be whether that is even politics, of course it is politics, but not the understanding of politics which I have. My understanding is of course about making things as transparent as possible, in order to open precisely this access to society, to let them participate in social decisions. The whole reason for there being media is really that politics has failed in this question for hundreds of years.’
‘The majority of government documents classified as secret serve to cover up some mechanisms of power which deserve to be made public.’
You might remember the storm that erupted in Germany when it transpired that the US had been bugging Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. Germany has learned lessons from its past which the US and UK appear not to. There is a wonderful irony towards the end of Harding’s book when he notes that many of those involved in bringing to light Snowden’s information now live in Berlin. Not just Berlin, though. East Berlin. The former home of the Stasi.