Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Being Beastly in Fleet Street

Alexander Starritt’s novel The Beast is a savage satire on the tabloid newspaper. It’s a worthy successor to Evelyn Waugh and J.B. Priestley’s efforts. And it’s as timely as they were

About 40 years ago Punch published a cartoon strip in which a downtrodden journalist walks into his editor’s office.

Editor: Now, about that nun who was raped by the International Red Cross.
Journalist: But that was last week.
Editor: It sold six million, so we’re having her raped again. Dammit, do I have to do everything round here myself?

The cartoon was, I think, by the great J.B. Handelsman, whose work graced not only Punch but also The New Yorker. I found myself thinking of this strip while reading Alexander Starritt’s The Beast, a savage and funny satire set on the sub-editors’ desk of a British tabloid.

Starritt’s Beast is clearly the Daily Mail. Apart from anything else, its HQ definitely sounds like that of the Mail, in the old Biba building in Kensington; I visited it a couple of times when, as I young man, I had an abortive try-out as a feature writer. In fact, I bet its lawyers have given the book the once-over. If they have, they’ve likely told management to draw as little attention to the book as possible. I would, if I were them.

The story in The Beast is simple enough. Jeremy Underwood is a sub-editor; subs are the link between the reporter and the finished paper, taking the stories, hacking them into shape, headlining them and getting them ready for the page. Returning from holiday, Underwood walks past two women in burqas apparently hanging around near the building. Feeling he should tell someone, in case it’s a story, he tells the reporters. They do see a story and quickly “confirm” that there is a credible threat to the Beast. In fact, the two young women in burqas were looking for a branch of Wholefoods. But nothing can now stop the mayhem that starts to unfold, as the Beast embarks upon a string of stories about an alleged Muslim plot to destroy it. This starts a chain of events that has violent results in the country. The book ends with a slightly bathetic tragedy that you don’t see coming, but is entirely logical. In between, tabloid journalists scream and growl at each other and seethe with casual racism while people get killed in the world outside.

Scratch the surface of this book and you will find much more than satire. You’ll find a vivid picture of how a story comes together once it hits the sub’s desk, and it all has a ring of truth. Boring facts relayed by some reporter drudge in a county court can be quickly reassembled to support whatever theory the paper is pushing that week, whether it be on health foods or Muslim terrorists. It’s all done under a tyrannical, unstable editor who sees himself as the embodiment of British values. (In a neat touch, Starritt calls him Brython, which is a Welsh-derived word sometimes used to refer to pre-Roman Britons.)

The Beast is also a very shrewd depiction of who tabloid journalists are, and how their sub-culture has survived, insulated against a changing world. The older ones remember the world of Fleet Street as it was. It’s a world that I myself saw briefly, just before it ended; the hot-metal typesetters, the clatter of machinery, the great rolls of newsprint being winched from lorries in the narrow streets that ran from Fleet Street down to the Embankment. The subs also remember the legends who worked in the Street of Shame; the long liquid lunches, the tradition of boozy contempt for morality. And they proudly pass this tradition on to the young recruits who join them.

Yet it’s not a world that anyone should be proud of preserving. Lord Northcliffe, who founded the Mail, is alleged to have said “Give them something to hate every day”; in fact this is apocryphal, but that is certainly how the tabloids have been sold. The Mail whipped up alarm about Jewish refugees in the 1930s, and perpetrated the awful Zinoviev Letter hoax in the 1920s in order to discredit the Labour Party. As for the Daily Express, one remembers what Max Hastings wrote about a famous prewar journalist, H. V. Morton – that he had “the qualities of an outstanding Beaverbrook journalist of his period: masterly understanding of public taste, deployed in a moral void.” Starritt’s characters clearly do function in a complete moral void, and bad things happen as a result.

But the Beast, of course, predates Starritt. It first appeared in Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel, Scoop, in which it is widely assumed to have been not the Mail but the Express. Robert McCrum once wrote that Scoop was “the supreme novel of the 20th-century English newspaper world, fast, light, entertaining and lethal.” I can’t completely agree.  I think Starritt gets closer to the mark, and there’s a third book that I think is even better than either – more of that in a minute.  But Scoop certainly has its points.

It begins with a fashionable but bored writer, John Boot, persuading an aristocratic patroness, Lady Stitch, to use her influence and get him sent abroad on a newspaper job. Milady obliges by badgering press magnate Lord Copper, who issues the appropriate instructions to his staff. Unfortunately they misidentify Boot as their own William Boot, their countryside correspondent, who comes from an eccentric family of impoverished gentlefolk in the West Country. This Boot is duly dispatched to cover an incipient crisis in an African country called Ishmaelia. This is clearly Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), where Waugh had just covered the brutal Italian invasion of 1935-36. Boot is widely supposed to be based on one of Waugh’s fellow correspondents, Bill Deedes, then a very young correspondent for the Morning Post.

Some of Scoop is funny, and acute. Boot has a long and uncomfortable trip down the Red Sea on a second-class ship (the era of sea travel was not always glamorous). In the capital, he joins a foreign press corps whose coverage of the war quickly declines into farce. When one correspondent is rumoured to have got a lead, excitement reaches fever pitch. Eventually, most of the press disappear into the country on a wild goose chase while Boot is smoothly swindled by Kätchen, the attractive mistress of the Fascist agent. It all ends with Boot being lionised for a dispatch that he did not write. Meanwhile in London no-one notices that the wrong Boot has been sent; all are too scared of the tyrannical press baron, Lord Copper, so do not question why he has sent a countryside correspondent to cover a war.

There are some lovely moments in Scoop. Boot’s non-romance with Kätchen is well done (there is a charming scene when they sit in a collapsible canoe together). Boot’s family seat in Somerset is lovingly described at night, white in the moonlight. The old Fleet Street and the Express building come nicely to life. Also, as critic Thomas Jones once pointed out, Scoop is a keen satire on patronage networks – the writer Boot can get an assignment because he knows a powerful society hostess; the paper gets its tips from the police; in Ishmaelia, William Boot is at an advantage over other correspondents because he has been to school with a senior staff member at the Embassy. As Jones reminds us, the media still works that way.

In some ways, however, Scoop has not aged so well. It lays on the satire heavily; The Beast also does that, but is near enough reality to get away with it. Scoop may have been too, when first written, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it. Lady Stitch is too eccentric, Boot is too naive, and Lord Copper never quite takes shape. Boot’s rural relatives seem to have escaped from Cold Comfort Farm.  

Bill Deedes, the supposed model for William Boot, was not impressed. Deedes went on to long careers in both politics (as a Minister under both Churchill and Macmillan) and journalism (he was a successful editor of the Telegraph, a role he filled as late as 1986). A few years before his death in 2007, he refuted his supposed role as Boot in a long piece for the Telegraph in which he claimed that few good novelists really caricature anyone; their characters, he argued, are composites. He also gave Waugh a kicking:

To some readers, Scoop confirms the impression that Waugh was a successful novelist but a failed newspaper reporter. Behind the banter, they reason, we find a man poking fun at a profession that humiliated him. He takes his revenge on those who outclassed him in the newspaper business by lampooning them and with a storyline that has them all outwitted by a country hick. It is not an unreasonable interpretation...

It isn’t. Waugh had, on graduation, had a trial in Fleet Street, and had failed. It was not the first time he had taken revenge on those who had found him wanting. He had not been a huge academic success at Oxford either and on that institution, too, he had sought revenge, through a series of attacks on the Dean and later Principal of Hertford College, C.R.M.F. Cruttwell. Waugh’s attacks on Cruttwell probably hastened the latter’s mental illness and death. Waugh may have forgotten this in later life, but Oxford didn’t. My father, who was an undergraduate at Hertford during Cruttwell’s final illness and was later a Fellow, had never read a book by Waugh and would not discuss him.

That, then, was what drove Scoop – not genuine anger at the newspaper world and its venality or the patronage networks it depicts. They don’t anger Waugh; they afford him a certain malicious amusement at a world that had rejected him. Starritt, by contrast, does seem angry.

So was J.B. Priestley.

Priestley’s Wonder Hero was published in 1933. It concerns Charlie Habble, a modest young night worker in a chemical works whose actions one night appear to have prevented a fire and an explosion that might have blown his drab Midlands town to smithereens. In fact, they were the actions of another man whose role Habble cannot, for honourable reasons, reveal. Meanwhile a feature writer for the Daily Tribune happens to be in the town, having come to chase an important story. Having failed to secure it, he is anxious not to return to London empty-handed, and fastens onto Habble’s instead. The hapless Habble is hailed as a hero. He is dragged to London, suited and booted, recorded on newsreel, given a substantial cash award by the paper and lionised in its pages. Moreover the Tribune gives him a taste of the high life, housing him in a luxury hotel, and insisting that he make an appearance at the theatre and at a fashionable nightclub in the company of another newspaper protégé, a beauty queen also from the Midlands, Ida Chatwick. They clearly wish to hint at a romance between their two creations.

Habble is a straightforward provincial working man but is neither stupid nor dishonest, and these events trouble him. His qualms increase when the proprietor of the Tribune, the tyrannical Sir Gregory Hatchland, decides that Habble is the sort of fine upstanding young man he needs to parade before his pet political party, the vaguely fascist League of Imperial Yeomen. As the meeting progresses, Charlie, waiting backstage, feels a distinct lack of enthusiasm. As he waits, he hears from his uncle; his aunt, who lives in a Northern industrial city called Slakeby, is very ill. He abandons the Tribune and the League without making his appearance, and goes north to see if he can help.

It’s a chance for Priestley to confront us with a terrible contrast. One moment Habble’s being wheeled from luxury hotel to nightclub to theatre, shown off like a prize pig to London’s glitterati. The next he is right in the very worst of the Great Depression – or as it was also called at one time, the slump. He uses the award from the Tribune to get his aunt the help she needs. When he returns to London, the paper has lost interest in him. Ida Chatwick, too, has been tossed aside. They are yesterday’s fish-and-chip paper and they know it.

Wonder Hero is an angry book. The slump, the unemployment, the arbitrary behaviour of Hatchland and the press, all are there. When Habble decides he must go to Slakeby, he takes leave of the cynical but friendly young journalist who has escorted him for the Tribune. The journalist warns him that he won’t be a story any more if he goes. “Perhaps they’ll send me up to see you at wherever it is – perhaps. Not much chance, though; we don’t like putting the spotlight on that part of the country. Your uncle could hardly have lived in a worse place. He’s taking you right out of the news.”

A few hours later Habble stands on the bridge across Slakeby’s river:

Where were the shipyards and ships he remembered all along the banks? The sheds were there and a crane or two, and that was all. Everything else – finished, gone.  ...Some of the towns in the Midlands had been knocked sideways by the depression, but this place had been knocked flat.

But that is not news.

There is no doubt that this did anger Priestley. The following year, 1934, he would publish his English Journey, in which he described his progress through a country in which the ravages of the Great Depression were all too evident. In a memorable scene, he describes a Northern reunion with members of his former regiment, who he has not seen since he was badly wounded in 1916. He is affronted that some cannot afford the clothes to attend the event. (He did not forget this incident, and mentioned it again in his much later book Margin Released.) It would be easy to conclude that Wonder Hero was a product of the same journey. In fact it wasn’t; it was published in 1933 and Priestley set off on his travels later that year. But it’s clear that his two books were driven by the same anger.

It is this anger that makes Wonder Hero memorable and I believe that is also true of The Beast. It is also why both books are superior to Scoop. Waugh may have been angry with the Fleet Street that rejected him, or with his friends, or with Cruttwell, but he seems to have felt little real anger at the abuses he was supposed to be satirising. Scoop is a good yarn, but as satire it is vapid.

There is no doubt that all this matters. It did in the 1930s, when Priestley’s fictional Tribune showed no interest in the state of the country, and when the real Mail was busy printing scare stories about Jewish refugees pouring into Britain; one wonders how many failed to obtain asylum as a result, and in due course died. The press still distorts the agenda today. In a much-admired feature in the The New Yorker in 2012, Lauren Collins described how in 2000 Tony Blair ordered his advisors to focus on several issues that, as it happened, the Mail had highlighted that morning. Collins also quotes a story that illustrates why the treatment of Muslims in The Beast  is so important. She describes a story the Mail ran of a “hardworking café owner” who had to get rid of an extractor fan because the smell of bacon was offending Muslims. But if one read carefully to the bottom of the story, one found that complaint had been made by a neighbour who said “Muslim friends” had not liked the smells when they visited. No Muslim had complained. It also turned out that the café owner’s husband was Muslim. Still, one should never let the facts take the edge off a good headline, and in Starritt’s book the subs make sure it doesn’t. And this does have consequences. As the distinguished journalist Ian Jack has said in a warm review of The Beast: “The real achievement of the popular press is to have played a part in making Britain, particularly England, the strange, febrile country we now know.”

But does all this matter as much as it did? The newspaper world Starritt describes is a dying one. Print newspapers have nothing like the circulation they did in the 1930s, or even 20 years ago. Starritt’s characters know that; they look over their shoulder at the online editions that they know will soon replace them. But what Starritt nowhere mentions is fake news; the bizarre websites that spread rumours – for example that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax, or that the liberal establishment was running a child-abuse ring in restaurants. The latter rumour, 2016’s Pizzagate “scandal”, which led to a shooting, was apparently spread (though not invented) by a site called YourNewsWire.com – the stories for which, according to a story in The Times, are allegedly made up by the site’s owner’s mum. I’ve written myself about this assault on truth, which bloody petrifies me (On truth and lies, June 2017).

Neither is this a solely Anglophone problem. In October 2017 the New York Times reported that in Italy, the Ministry of Education had been sufficiently alarmed to launch a pilot project in 8,000 high schools, teaching pupils how to tell fake news from real. It quotes Laura Boldrini, President of Italy’s lower house, as saying that fake news “drips drops of poison into our daily web diet and we end up infected without even realizing it.” Compared to the damage these “fake news” sites may do, tabloids are mild stuff. British newspapers are vicious and mendacious. But they always were, and we may soon miss them as we are hit with something much worse. Does this mean that Starritt’s, Waugh’s and Priestley’s books are no longer relevant?

I don’t think it does. The message that we can draw from these books is that every news outlet has its agenda, and that whenever we see anything inflammatory, we should ask the lawyer’s question: Cui bono? Who benefits? What was the story meant to make you believe, and to what end? Why is that news outlet in business anyway – what is its business model, and why is it there? The rise of fake news sites hasn’t made books like Starritt’s,or Priestley’s, irrelevant. On the contrary, they have invested them with more meaning than ever before.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

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