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The Editor's View Dec 04


John Jenkins

John Jenkins' monthly column from Writers' Forum magazine

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Let’s have a politically incorrect Booker . . .

Humphrys wages war on illiteracy . . .

the muted Thunderer

OF COURSE we all know now that the Booker was won by Alan Hollinghurst with The Line of Beauty and even the chattering classes who seldom read a book are saying how wonderful and original it is.

It’s the first gay book to win for 36 years. Wow! It decries the Thatcher years! Wow again! He read English and taught it at Oxford. He likes Wagner! Gosh! The author is friends with Andrew MotionEnglish poet, novelist and biographer; Poet Laureate of United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009; during his laureateship founded the Poetry Archive, an online resource of poems and audio recordings of poets reading their own work, the Poet Laureate, whom he thanked at the ceremony. Triple wow. A real live literary lion.

It’s enough to make a cat laugh but the book is not enough to entertain me.

I don’t know and don’t really care about an author’s sexual proclivities. Homosexual or heterosexual, asexual, bi-sexual, kind to children and small animals or a wife-beater and a slob. Neither do I care if he or she is white, brown, black, yellow or green. Is teetotal or a drunkard. Sips herbal tea or mainlines cocaine.

I pick up a book and ask two questions.

Can the author write?

Has he or she got something worthwhile to say?

As far as Hollinghurst is concerned the answer to the first question is yes. The manipulation and formation of words is fine.

Has he got anything new or worthwhile to say that’s not been better said elsewhere? No.

It’s a tired parable of an era half forgotten, eclipsed by an even worse one.

Not that the remaining short-listed titles were much to write home about. I thought Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor was a passable contender, politically correct in the right places as it took the period post- apartheid and firmly reminded us that white South Africans were the baddies and most Cape Coloureds and Blacks saintly souls. A sort of Wilbur Smith overlaid with political jam to the detriment of the action.

As for Colm Toibin’s The Master, a novel based on the life of Henry James: Why? If I want to know something about the great Henry I read his books or tackle the five volume biography.

* * *

LOOKING After the Queen’s English is a full-time job and it’s good to see that John Humphrys of Radio 4’s Today programme is joining the battle. He relates the general decline in standards with misplaced apostrophes and dangling subordinate clauses as a sign of our crumbling civilisation.

Who would argue with him?

You don’t have to go across the Atlantic to find that the language of Shakespeare can be mangled into gibberish.

Daily Humphrys confronts politicians, captains of industry, PR spokespeople for Quangos and lobbyists for single issue causes who disappear in a cloud of clichés and jargon.

Raft of options, range of opportunities, lessons will be learned, a line will be drawn in the sand . . . the list is endless. Absolutely and categorically have now become meaningless.

Humphrys’s book, Lost for Words, should be bought by every grandparent in the land for today’s 10 and 11-year-olds. It’s the least we can do in this losing battle.

Even Terence Blacker, who reviewed the book favourably, thought that Jay McInerney’s opening to his novel, Story of My Life, was one of the best opening lines of modern fiction. It reads: "I’m like, what is this shit?"

I wouldn’t put it in the top 100. And not because I’m a stranger to bad language.

Humphrys, like many other first-class broadcasters, Tom Mangold, Keith Graves and Michael Buerk, learned his trade in the harsh world of newspapers. I’d like to think there were successors coming through but I am not so sure.

Possibly the worst users are the people, presumably with a degree in media studies, who draft job advertisements for the quality press. Try this one from the Guardian:

We are looking for a self-motivated marketing professional to play a key role in developing and implementing strategic marketing and audience development campaigns to ensure the attainment of visitor targets and increase the Museum’s profile as a key regional cultural organisation.

And this is a job advertisement for the Manchester Museum. Translation: We want somebody with marketing experience to publicise the museum.

* * *

DO YOU like the compact version of The Times? Or do you think the old Thunderer is somehow devalued by going tabloid?

What may be good for the Mail and Express, even for the Independent, doesn’t suit this alleged paper of record.

I know the financial implications: a page of advertising uses only half the amount of newsprint therefore Mr Murdoch enhances his profit . . . it’s easier to handle . . . young people like it . . . women like it. Allegedly.

Of course the fact that the circulation has plummeted from 792,000 seven years ago to its current 661,000 has, I suppose, nothing to do with the quality of content. It will be interesting to see the circulation figures in six months’ time.


John Jenkins, Publisher, Writers' Forum


Read the article about setting up WritersServices which was originally published in Writers' Forum magazine.

© Writers International Ltd 2004. Reproduced from the December-Januray edition of Writers' Forum magazine by kind permission of the editor.