Paper, scissors, tones
By Harry Eyres
Published: July 3 2010 00:18 | Last updated: July 3 2010 00:18
My father and I have what you might call an oblique relationship. Feelings tend not to be conveyed directly, but mediated through other things. We talk about wine or golf or music, and through those prisms the refracted light falls on other areas of life. When I turn up at my parents’ house in my elderly second-hand car, my father solemnly inspects the tyres and tut-tuts over wear to the inside rim. I used to find this annoying but now see it as an expression of concern.
Roughly once a week these days I receive an envelope addressed in my father’s hand stuffed with newspaper cuttings. Some relate to his particular areas of concern, for instance the lamentable state of the privatised British railway system. There are stories of people who have had to pay £200 for a ticket from Manchester to Birmingham, victims of a budget-airline-style pricing policy which fails to make any distinction between optional jaunts to Lanzarote and essential national rail travel. Then there is that other scandal of the ring-fencing of the Trident nuclear submarine programme in defiance of logic and ethics, opposed by many top military figures but shunted out of open political debate first by New Labour and then by the new coalition.
Not all the cuttings are about such serious matters. My father also sends scathing and funny cartoons by Peter Brookes and extracts from the newsletter of the Rex cinema in Berkhamsted. I have taken to returning the gesture and sending the occasional satirical jibe from Private Eye or a Matt cartoon: I loved the one recently of a woman at Ascot wearing a hat marked “BP” which spouted oil over astonished race-goers.
There is something touching about receiving cuttings that someone has taken the trouble physically to snip out with scissors, put in an envelope, stamp and post. The effect of e-mailing articles found on a website is entirely different: most of us are swamped with e-mails anyway and are itching to delete anything non-essential which dares to clutter our inbox. But I doubt anyone is annoyed by a cutting. The fragile, hand-trimmed paper calls for your attention in quite a different manner from the disembodied bytes.
The cuttings my father sends me are both a physical gesture on his part and a reflection of the physical reality of newspapers in paper form. Newspapers are a wonderful jumble, as mixed and impure as life itself; as Dr Samuel Johnson said in another context: “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together”. Like a Shakespearean drama, a good newspaper presents different perspectives and tones, from tragic to comic, from sober reporting to passionate invective and comic ribaldry; a free play of views.
This has a profound connection with democracy. The link between newspapers and democracy has perhaps become something of a cliché, but it didn’t appear to me that way when I lived in Spain in the early 1980s. The founding of El País as the first truly serious newspaper, free from the dead hand of autocracy, to emerge in Spain for generations was a key event in the miraculously peaceful Spanish transition to democracy – quite as important, in my view, as other structural reforms to the constitution, education and the judicial system.
El País in those early days didn’t just report on a country but helped to remake it. It was a beacon for mature democratic debate and for cultural renewal; one of the best ways of repairing the deep damage done to Spain’s soul by 40 years of repression. For me living in Spain in the early 1980s, it was a way of learning the language, the history and culture. I saw in it the late flowering of the enlightened liberalism cut down by the civil war; I remember in particular the wise essays by the non-conformist Catholic philosopher José Luís Aranguren.
El País became a rallying point not just for Spanish but for Hispanic culture. In its pages I encountered essential Latin American voices such as those of the Uruguayans Mario Benedetti and Eduardo Galeano. I have always liked the way international news comes before national news in El País.
Nowadays El País is not quite the paper it was; too closely linked to the Spanish socialist workers’ party (PSOE) on the one hand, lacking in its former philosophical reach on the other. But now also Spain has a more plural and less high-minded newspaper culture.
I linger over this particular case because of the current panic over the future of newspapers in their traditional form. It is discouraging to hear editors sounding the death-knell over their own product. They should have more faith in it, and enunciate its political and cultural value more clearly. The problem with an internet paper or journal is that you go directly to a favourite writer or section while ignoring the rest. How many people ever read the obituaries or readers’ letters or look at cartoons online? But all those are part of the folded microcosm which makes newspapers, despite their legion abuses, the most civilised way of mediating democracy that we have yet invented.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres