Sunday 07 September 1997
In the Preface to this collection of journalism, Gilbert Adair makes champions hacks as "the guardians of the living culture". This is presented as a wake-up call for reviewers who, unlike Adair himself of course, "churn out, week after week, month after month, the kind of article which could have been written ... 30, 50 or 100 years ago".
Unsurprisingly, it is the "screen", and particularly the Net, which Adair him most. He has no time for those who are "temperamentally incapable of abandoning the securities of certain ancient cultural harmonies which they alone will continue to deny have been forfeited forever". Newspapers, magazines and books will soon, he believes, be replaced by electronic data, and he draws a parallel between this and the 15th-century invention of the moveable printing press. This naive perspective is horribly elitist: in Adair's vision of the future only those with access to computers would be able to read - despite globalisation, this would exclude more than three-quarters of the world's population. It also ignores the fundamental relationship between mobility, relaxation and reading.
Some of the essays are well written, inventively structured and mildly amusing, but the tone is infuriatingly insiderish, with endless references to "an acquaintance of mine, the theatre critic of a national newspaper", and so on. Adair's self-congratulatory side finds its most consistently annoying expression in the love of all things French (especially films and authors nobody in England knows about). He explains in a footnote that a quote from Barthes' Mythologies is taken from "the English translation, ever so slightly amended, of Annette Lavers". What this means, translated, is "I read and write French superbly!"
Many commentaries now seem run-of-the-mill. Of the video footage of James Bulger and his kidnappers, Adair writes "there can be no doubt, no question, that it ... constituted a very special kind of torment for the rest of us, that our despair was intensified by the fact we were able to watch the crime being committed and unable to do anything about it". Indeed. Other essays just don't work. One that fails convincingly to link being anti- smoking to being anti-pop music ends with the feeble joke that on every record "there should be printed this warning from the Surgeon-General: Pop Music Can Seriously Damage Your Health". Elsewhere Adair claims that "the beauty of literary style is to the act of reading what the beauty of a face is to the act of making love ... as one proceeds in either situation, one's attention is liable to be more and more urgently solicited elsewhere". John R Bradley
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