The New Year Cow

On Christmas day I took 30-45 minutes out from gluttony and arguments to draw a cow.

A light brown cow stands knee-deep in long-grass, on a steep hillside. A pastoral vista drops away behind her, disappearing in the distance into some mountains. There are fluffy clouds in the sky, which is otherwise a deep bright blue. The scene is peaceful.
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Not only is this speed study a pleasant and relaxing image in the simplified style I’m working out at the moment (in part so that I don’t lose myself for over a year trying to do–as I currently am–a hyperrealistic study of some banana chips in a foil bag), it’s the first time I’ve managed to put together a piece of art that looks good on absolutely every single item in the Redbubble store’s offerings. Quite the Christmas miracle.

Cui Bono? What can we infer from press ownership, and who owns Britain’s news?

There is a well-known Soviet-era joke about newspapers. In Moscow, there were two papers. Pravda (Truth), and Izvestia (News). And as the saying goes: if it’s in Izvestia it’s not Truth, and if it’s in Pravda, it’s not News. Like most jokes, it reveals something about the culture it comes from, in this case a healthy distrust for press information in a society with infamously strong state control over newspapers.

In the UK, there is an apparently plurality of information sources, catering to a variety of different views as much as they shape them. We suffer from an apparent plague of trustworthy news sources, all contradicting each other.

There are a couple of stand-out offenders in the “not actually reporting the news” arena: The Daily Mail probably the most infamous. It has a low trust rating, a high level of complaints, and climbing profits because it figured out a hundred years before the internet how to monetize Outrage Clicks interspersed with cute dogs.

We shall take as a given that there is no such thing as unbiased reporting; even the choice to report or not on a subject constitutes a bias, long before we get into issues such as framing, language use, editorialising, speculation, opinion bleed and so on. In order to get a good idea of what biases we can likely expect from a news source, it’s a good idea to find out who and what controls the news.

In places like the former Soviet Union, this was easy. The Party controlled the Press, and the Press reported the truth as they determined it would be. In the UK, with much-vaunted freedom of the press* and litigant-favouring libel laws which in theory keep misinformation in check**, this is much harder.

* However, the UK remained one of the worst-performing countries in Western Europe, and a number of worrying trends continued, particularly in relation to national security, surveillance, and data protection.
** Daily Mail tops the list of Independent Press Standards Organisation Corrections for the third year running

  • The Daily Mail is owned by the Daily Mail & General Trust, of which Jonathan Harold Esmond Vere Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere is the chair and controlling shareholder. Harmsworth is a nom-domiciled citizen.
  • The Daily Express, Daily Star and The Mirror, as well as Scotland’s Daily Record, are all owned by Reach, formerly the Trinity Mirror group. The Mirror was originally a Harmsworth Publication, and the Express was previously owned by pornographer Richard Desmond; as part of the Competition & Markets Authority’s requirements for the acquisition of the Express, Reach (then Trinity Mirror) had to leave it as a standalone concern, effectively meaning its editorial policies have not changed. The CEO of Reach is Jim Mullen, and the chair is Nicholas Prettejohn.
  • The Barclay brothers, non-domiciled billionaries, currently own the Daily Telegraph, although as of October 26th 2019 it has been rumoured they are placing the title and its Sunday variant up for sale due to declining revenues.
  • The Times and The Sun are owned, ultimately, by News Corp. News Corp is run by Australian-born American citizen Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan. Murdoch inherited the beginnings of his media empire from his father, Keith.
  • The Independent and the Evening Standard are owned by Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev.
  • The Financial Times is owned by the Japanese company Nikkei. Chairman and CEO of the Nikkei group is Tsuneo Kita.
  • The Guardian is owned by the Guardian Media Group. The group is wholly owned by Scott Trust Limited, which exists to secure the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity.
  • The Morning Star, the UK’s only far-left newspaper of note, has been owned by the People’s Press Printing Society since 1945. The PPPS is a readers’ cooperative.
  • The New Statesman, technically a magazine rather than a newspaper although often treated as a newspaper, is owned by Mike Danson, who also owns Globaldata.

It’s not just who owns papers that matters, but how they get their money. The Twitter-based activist collective @StopFundingHate, for example, uses the interests of advertisers to “nudge” newspapers away from publishing racism, homophobia, and other forms of derogatory speech against protected characteristics by contacting the companies whose products or services are placed in juxtaposition with these articles, asking “is this what you want your brand to be associated with?”. In some instances this has led to companies pulling their advertising contracts from the offending newspapers, choking a certain amount of revenue. It is debatable whether this achieves the long-term aims of the group, that of removing the inflammatory use of bigotry to drive traffic to news sites and therefore pollute public discourse with unacceptable and usually fringe viewpoints. However, it is an example of the way in which capitalist structures do not have to solely serve one group of people.

The majority of newspapers draw their revenue from advertising, especially the tabloid press (a group usually comprised from UK nationals: The Mirror, The Daily Mail, the Sun, and the Daily Express, with The Daily Star as a lesser-impact tabloid) and some are supplemented through subscriptions and other sources, which are exclusive to broadsheets and periodicals.

Of the above list, The Morning Star, Times, Telegraph, New Statesman and Financial Times operate on a full subscription access model for their online versions to augment advertising revenues. The Guardian offers a voluntary subscription service modelled after Wikipedia’s donation drives, and the Independent offers a premium subscription with access to additional content.

With the above information, it is easy enough to find–in the public domain and accessible via most good search engines–conflicts of interest that may lead to altered reporting or the suppression of stories. Although it is advisable not to give too much credence to complex sociopolitical explanations for news publishing choices–the primary role of any news media agency is to sell papers (or, online, to drive traffic to its site and keep it there)–following the money can help to make sense of more baffling suppressions of inherently newsworthy stories, especially those wherein there is little-to-no risk of a valid libel suit*. Connections between properties owned or heavily invested-in by newspaper owners or indeed editors are therefore a reasonable starting place for understanding omissions and editorial distortions.

Some of these connections are highly visible: the Times is unlikely to criticise Sky News, another News Corp company; Lebedev’s Evening Standard editor, former chancellor George Osborne, is an indication of interest. However, there are more difficult connections to be sought out. Webs of connections between politicians, newspaper owners, and heavyweight donors may only be traceable by full-time journalists like Carole Cadwalladr; many companies’ true ownership are buried behind a string of shell companies. While these are usually designed for the purpose of limiting the amount of tax due to any given country’s administration, they do have the secondary benefit of concealing interests and promoting the view of specific individuals or news sources as disinterested third parties.

While less centrally financially-controlled publications such as the Guardian may appear to be less dictated by the interests of companies with direct shared ownership to the newspaper, it is worth considering that a the media trust’s investments must be nurtured to provide adequate funding to run the newspaper and pay its staff. Adversely affecting/prejudicing the returns of those investments would be counterproductive to the paper–even before considering the individual biases of editorial staff.

It may therefore be worth triangulating media consumption between economic biases to some degree. To my mind, a reasonable balance can be achieved by reading the Financial Times (biases: largely the making of money in a highly capitalist global society), the Morning Star (biases: Marxist), and a news agency of some kind–for preference Press Association/Associated Press over Thomson Reuters. This will still not necessarily give you an unbiased through line of fact, but it will at least ensure that all your information doesn’t come from the interests of one company.

* To understand what may constitute a libellous story, or one which can feasibly be sued over, I cannot recommend McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists highly enough.

Additional advice: avoid articles which report solely on an emotive reaction to something, or which are simply a reworded press release (“a source says”); be aware that “think tanks” or “pressure groups” are usually funded from uncertain sources and with unknown aims (The Taxpayers Alliance is a very good example of this). A think-tank with a clear mission statement is preferable to one which uses vague terms. Do not neglect local newspapers, but be aware that the majority are owned by one single company. And, where possible, seek out your own confirmation. We live in a golden age for access to journalists. Make the most of it: not all of them are corrupt.

Taken as a whole, the view on the UK’s print media is stark. Many newspapers are owned by individuals (usually via some tax-avoidance strategy boards), and those individuals are rarely, if ever, tax-paying UK citizens. For unbiased information on taxation effects, for example, I would not recommend a reader turning to the Telegraph, Times, or the Independent, even less so any of the tabloids. Connections between political parties and particular press outlets are also vexatious: the original intention of a free press was to hold Parliament and the ruling parties of the country to account. If newspaper owners are allowed to give large donations to specific political parties, it calls into question the lens of reporting from those newspapers. It will, however, be hard to win an election without the support of the major UK publications, particularly on a platform that explicitly threatens the model of donations in secret.

For the sake of remaining informed, rather than misled, I would strongly advise not reading UK newspapers, and concentrating on press agencies instead.


Fallow Periods

It’s now been ten years since I both started and completed my very short-lived comedy “career”, beginning with a workshop hosted by comedian & writer Natalie Haynes, and ending with me gently slithering out of the five minute slots under or above pubs with a general sense of disinterest in the whole business.

Looking back it seems like an aberration, but also like the culmination of a particular segment of my life. Now, at the end of another decade, the first year in over ten in which I don’t have a recently-completed first draft of a novel to look back on, I find I’m looking back on what may be another culmination, and I am wondering about the slow shaving off of self-expression, of language, of connection to other people that has been under way.

Comedy seemed like an aberration because I’d previously avoided the stage for about seven years in absolute totality, after spending my childhood and adolescence obsessed with it. Not to the extent of learning a single damn thing or putting in any effort, of course–that’s never been my approach to anything where I’m not immediately applauded or validated with grades–but from the age of 3 through to 18 or so I was firmly entrenched in whatever amateur dramatics I could get myself accepted into in the face of my total absence of acting skills.

I loved–and this is what came back with comedy–the tension between how badly I wanted to be the absolute centre of attention, and the complete horror of being seen. Theatre offered the perfect solution: everyone has to look at you, but none of them see you. A whole room full of people staring at a complete fiction who just happens to have your face. And it only worked if you could form connections within a group of people who would be your closest, your nearest, your dearest–intense friendships that could be instantly discarded once the show was over.

The problem for me was the transition between the emotional highs of performance and the complete nothingness that followed. The adrenaline–my entire body shaking all the way through probably didn’t help my performance–wearing off into the flat emptiness of being too young to have cast parties and too weird to have friends. It’s hard to have a polite meal with your parents after you’ve spent two weeks keying yourself up for an hour and a half of prowling around on a stage the size of a postage stamp and pretending to slap people you’ll never see again.

With comedy the situation was simultaneously better and worse. Better, because comedy excused and justified–elevated, even–all the bad conversational habits that I have. Talk too much, steamrolling over everyone else’s interjections, in pursuit of some point you feel you need to provide endless context for? Appalling for conversations but perfect for the stage. Endlessly spewing out things which are mean, ill-judged, outright lies, in sole pursuit of making people laugh? Again, this is an obnoxious way to conduct a conversation but the root of at least the most basic kind of pub basement comedy.

For those reasons it was also somewhat worse than theatre: it indulged my worst habits, encouraged me to disappear into my own self-mythology. I am not, after all, a particularly funny person, but I can make whatever gibberish meanness I’ve thought up sound like comedy because–learning from poetry, at the very earliest stage of my writing life–I know what rhythm a joke should have. It only works on stage, if people aren’t thinking. Pub basement stuff.

And the high and the low were both higher and lower. The reward is immediate: people laugh. Lots of them. And they’re all watching, waiting to be made to laugh, so the pressure is higher, and the adrenaline more powerful, so your body shakes even more, and your stage persona overrides the natural desire to run away. The problem with this is that comedy, even moreso than acting, creates a false connection to an audience, who want to talk to you afterward and are somewhat disappointed when it turns out that the reason you enjoy being in the magic circle of the spotlight is that you don’t want to have a conversation with anyone. And comedy, morseo than acting, creates these tiny bubbles of camerarderie backstage, where it is a requirement to be Mates with people you have never met before and never will again–but might, so you have to make a good impression. Switch personalities in seconds.

Given that I need a good run-up to have any kind of personality at all, it was inevitable that wasn’t going to work.

That was 2009. This is the end of 2019. The me of 2009 failed to finish a novel; the me of 2019 failed to finish a novel. The me of the intervening years (and at least three of the previous ones) has successfully written several. In the intervening time I have taught myself about structure in the most mechanical fashion I could, about character arcs, about pacing, and above all about perseverance: the one thing I have always been told that I lack.

The end of the year is traditionally the period for self-reflection, and the end of a decade moreso. I’m disinclined to put too much weight on the bland mathematics of things like decades, but there’s no time like the present for contemplating what remains to be achieved.

In listening to interviews with much more accomplished writers–people who I admire, rather than people who are perhaps wildly popular–I am beginning to uncover the root of some dissatisfaction.

In pursuing making books which work structurally, along the lines of the most basic, functional fiction–to show that I can write “properly”, write entertaining fiction, and not, hopefully, fall into the traps of unthinking bigotry that are the water we swim in while writing (mixed metaphors are one of the problems I need to iron out!)–I’ve effectively abandoned all interest in the things that brought me to fiction in the first place. Namely, an interest in getting up close and personal with compelling characters and moments from their lives, and the joy of using language to creatively build situations a reader could feel properly immersed in–doing interesting or intelligent things with narratives.

Instead, I’ve fallen into the same trap I fell into with comedy and theatre, of becoming so attached to pursuing a favourable response by following the rules, that I sucked all the fun out of the act itself. There should be more to what I’m doing than just chasing after instant validation; I should care about more than just finishing and avoiding anger or criticism.

Partly inspired by a Tumblr post exploring the rhetorical unity and construction of character voice in Shakespeare’s work (which is incredibly intimidating), partly inspired by the unabashed self-indulgence in Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, which I’ve just started reading and will now probably be reading until the heat death of the universe, because it is very long and I like to read several books at once where possible… and partly inspired by another Stewart Lee Q&A [VIDEO, be warned] where he talks, towards the end, about rejecting three-act structure and letting a good story find its own level…

I think it might be worthwhile to return to the creative influx of university, to get back to reading and acting on texts that encourage technical thought about the construction of sentences, about euphony and rhythm, rather than than solely getting into factual and structural research for novels; that it might be worth my while exploring exercises designed to bolster particular elements of writing, rather than viewing every instance of putting words down as something that has to be finishedpolished, and hopefully sold.

I’ll let you know how well that works out, and whether or not the allure of cheap applause beats the desire to be genuinely better at what I do.

Inspiration Station

Since my last book came out and chaos descended all over the country in its most unedifying of forms, I’ve taken a vow to spend more time looking at art (and promptly broken that vow by picking up overtime at work), I’ve started compiling a poetry collection, and turned towards trying to fill my brain back up with things, or what Terry Pratchett referred to as “blind research”.

Here, then, are a few of the things I have consumed or am in the process of consuming:

  • Foundation, by Peter Ackroyd; the first of Ackroyd’s ambitious histories of England. Charming and poetic in an understated way, it begins with the very first intimations of human settlement in England and ends up… with the Tudors. That’s a lot of scope. Currently I’m watching John I fuck things up repeatedly. Ackroyd has these subtly emotionally destructive turns of phrase and dry humour that I’m enjoying a lot.
  • Homo Britannicus, by Chris Stringer. The Ancient Habitation of Britain project’s findings, and also the history of the study of pre-history. Sometimes a bit overwhelming both in the sense of the sheer depth of time being surveyed, sometimes in the sense of the amount of numbers being used (I have this infuriating brain problem where I stop being able to read things if there are too many numbers in the text), but never in terms of the prose, which is highly accessible and occasionally quite funny, if only because 19th century scientists truly, truly were a bonkers collection of people.
  • Discovering Scarfolk, by Richard Littler. Some light relief in terms of the amount of mental energy required to read it, although not in tone. Scarfolk’s occult and folk horror stylings riven with 70s nostalgia & presented in the form of an exploration of a found document is a nice reminder of the different formats fiction can take, and also (possibly intentionally) mirrors some of the presentation of the somewhat more high-brow House of Leaves.
  • Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer. I tore through this in about two days–a very short book–and the film which is based upon it only really contains some echoes of what the novella is actually about. It’s an ambitious, cold kind of read with a narrator who is deliberately detached from the reader while being present and first-person. The relentlessness and complete alien nature of the discoveries being made makes for a very stressful read but they’re also part of what makes it so compelling.
  • The Construction of Homosexuality, by David. F Greenberg. A very dense and somewhat out of date (published in 1988) sociology text examining the history and global conception of “homosexuality” as a social category, using deviance & labelling theory, Greenberg’s book is in part a welcome return to long-ago learnt concepts from my secondary education-level sociology classes, in part a fascinating overview of (what was known at the time) about the history and anthropology of same-sex attraction/sexuality around the world and as far back as can be remembered, and in part a frustrating catalogue of the failures of a white cis man to get to grips with non-white gender identities and the concept of sexualities and genders not lining up directly with the penetrator/pentrated axis that permeates many conceptions of these things even now. It’s highly ambitious and very long.
  • The Mindscape of Alan Moore is an indepth narrated tour around Alan Moore’s concept of magic and consciousness; this was accompanied by multiple interviews (Stewart Lee & Alan Moore; Alan Moore & John Higgs; Alan Moore & Michael Moorcock; and this homely little chat for starters, which touch on a number of adjacent subjects; I had forgotten how laconic & genuinely funny Alan Moore can be)
  • Stewart Lee on writing — or rather on “not writing”; in an address to students Lee–out of his stage persona for once–talks about the history of stand-up comedy in the twentieth century, its relationship in the UK to fluctuations in arts funding and how that’s affected how comedians conceptualise themselves and their work, and his approach to writing, or indeed not-writing, a set. It is a genuine joy both in this and in other of his interviews to see how much thought he puts into the structure and pacing of his work.
  • The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen (read by Edward French).
  • Dr Euan Mackie’s lecture on the work of Alexander Thom at Megalithomania / Archaeastronomy and The Megalith Builders sees apparent archaeastronomological renegade Dr Mackie explain his tests, both planned and “accidental” of theories put forward by Alexander Thom on the function of megaliths in Scotland, and their accuracy as astrological clocks. As I knew approximately nothing about the subject going in, the immediate overlying narrative of academic warfare gave the whole thing an added layer of interest which helped augment the detective-story shape that excavations often have in the retelling.

Seasons Greasons

From me, my household, and the disproportionately large IKEA stuff bear currently straddling my lap while I type: I hope you have a pleasant 25th of December, whatever you are doing with it. I hope you have a relaxing festive perineum, whether at work or at home or on holiday or, I suppose, on the space station. And I fervently hope that 2020 is better for the majority of the people of the world than 2019 was.

And, since hoping is rarely enough, may 2020 be the year that we start acting to en masse to have a slightly more equitably-distributed Good Time.

Autopsy of a Failure: How Not To Write

Every year since 2006 I’ve participated in and completed NaNoWriMo. Using the month of concerted, frenzied activity to push myself into focusing and finishing, I’ve always used the challenge to get a solid first draft done for later editing.

This year, I didn’t, for the first time.

I started, but I didn’t finish.

(Alright, in 2006 and 2009 I didn’t finish my draft but did hit the word count; in 2006 I came back to the story and finished it, and the result is The Other Daughter, whereas in 2009 my attempted sequel to Pass The Parcel, tentatively titled Musical Chairs, stalled at 80,000 words and only the bare beginnings of a plot, and I gave it up as a bad job–but that doesn’t sound as dramatic).

In fact, I wasn’t even two weeks into the challenge when I threw up my hands and declared that I was, in the words of a familiar meme, straight up not having a good time, bro.

That, incidentally, was the deciding factor. Not time constraints (for the first time in several years I was trying to balance concerted full-time work with writing, as I couldn’t take any time off this year), but loss of enthusiasm. I can–and indeed have, when writing the first and second halves of Pass the Parcel–work around a full-time job to get a draft written in the time allotted to me. It’s tricky, but when the will is there, the way can be found. The challenge becomes a joy.

In this case, I was getting absolutely no joy out of the experience. I couldn’t get words out. Every single sentence was a walking nightmare: the motto of NaNoWriMo is usually given as just Get The Words Out, which is very liberating for a lot of people–not to have to struggle with concepts of quality, to uncork and unclench and just assure themselves that they’re capable of writing that much, that consistently,. on one project.

The problem is that if I see what’s coming out of me and know that it is complete sludge, no amount of “giving myself permission to suck” will erase the fact that future me is going to have to edit that. “Fix it in post” applies to factual research, names I can’t remember, individual words I can’t find at the moment I need to find them in–bits that can be blocked out in the original draft as I zoom past them in the joy of pursuing the plot and hanging out with the characters.

When, however, the language feels like lead pellets and the characters are pretty much lifeless and flat in my palms, there’s not likely to be a remedy short of throwing the whole book away.

I’m trying to work out how it came to this point. The portion of the year spent on world-building and exploration was fun and interesting. I just appear to have forgotten how to convey information about a world in a narrative. The portion of the year spent on writing things about characters was interesting; but I completely missed any attempt at writing with them.

Part of the reason I had dead characters with dead voices is that I never trialled them, and part of the reason that I didn’t trial them was lack of authorial acoustics. I’ve never subscribed to the Ivory Tower model; of bookwriting, and like to take lots of people along with me even for the first draft ride, to get plentiful feedback as I’m writing, to help me see where I might be missing things, or which characters aren’t developing in the way that I want them to. Even before the first draft, being able to talk out plot holes, advertise and expand characters to an audience, and wrestle with what themes are actually contained in my story at the planning stage with someone who is genuinely interested is a great help!

It’s also a great confidence-booster, and the sad fact is that since last year where–through no one’s fault so much as through bad timing and communication mishaps–I couldn’t find anyone to step into either the first draft readership or planning stages for my draft, I began to feel discontent with writing, and convinced nothing I was doing was any good.

The year that followed saw me writing even less, and planning less, and losing confidence hand-over-fist in what I was producing. Which is bizarre, because I was also being paid to write content for an app and a blog. The authorial ego is a very fragile thing!

How to undo this?

Well, there is a question! So far, having had a good response to the publication of Architects of the Flesh, and working on a private commission for a friend’s Christmas present, in which I’m genuinely freed from all judgment but hers (including my own!) has given me a little confidence back.

So has being straight-up hassled by a different friend about a project I’ve been putting off writing, and talking over that same project with a different friend and getting exactly the intelligent, critical questions I needed to work out one of the things I’d been getting wrong with it.

So I’m cautiously optimistic that next year will bring me a slightly better and more committed run at it.

For some people, “just let yourself be bad at it, but finish it” is what’s liberating. For me, haunted by the spectre of god knows how many “you give up too easily” complaints in my youth and therefore punishing myself into finishing things neither I nor anyone else enjoys me doing, it’s accepting that I’m allowed to quit when something’s not fun any more. Writing should be fun, at least most of the time, even if there are the odd off days when you’re not inspired and have to go sweat instead, or feel like a complete imposter and you’re sure that nothing that comes out can be at all good–if those days are all the time, it might just be that the project is not right.