The sausages and media villagers of old England
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Friday 30 July 1999
Addis's case, you may recall, was that England has become a dire, dull, self-absorbed country, dominated by management consultants, focus groups, spin doctors and football. Institutions are in decline, newspapers are obsessed by the cult of the personality - "or the `person without any character' as it has come to mean" - while the nation at large is intellectually insular and obsessed by the past. The economy is in good shape but "the age of contentment, of a people-carrier in the garage and sprinkler on the lawn, breeds its own sicknesses".
So he was off to Toronto, where he would be editing The Globe and Mail.
There was something odd and unconvincing about all this - and not just because, if there were ever a world capital of people-carriers and lawn- sprinklers, it would be Toronto.
Canada may be a marvellous place, with wonderful scenery, roaming caribou and wolves, a culture that has produced Leonard Cohen, Glenn Gould, Joni Mitchell, Robertson Davies, The Band, Margaret Atwood and the brilliant new writer Barbara Gowdy. On the other hand, it is not exactly the wild frontier. If Addis wishes to escape from the ease, blandness and smug contentment of modern life and live on the dangerous edge of things, becoming the editor of a solidly respectable newspaper in Toronto seems an eccentric career move.
In fact, without wishing to cast doubt on the judgement of an eminent media figure, the more we study his anguished farewell, the clearer it becomes that his decision was prompted not by our own failings as a nation but by the sort of profound mental crisis that often afflicts able men in their middle years. The personal animus in the prose evokes memories of AN Wilson's regular, public renunciations of book-reviewing, the Conservative Party, God, or whatever.
Of course, years spent catering for the taste of middle-brow, Home Counties England - Addis has been editor of The Express and of the review section of The Mail on Sunday - can have a harmful effect on a person's sensibilities, and there will be those who detect an element of self-loathing, possibly even guilt, in Addis's account of the decline of the British press. Under his reign, they will point out, one of the best book review sections of the Sunday papers was reduced in size, seriousness and scope, and its highly respected literary editor was given 24 hours to clear her desk after 17 years of service.
But more interesting than these matters of personal discomfort is the mindset revealed in Richard Addis's decision to leave England. As he solemnly enumerates the many and various ways in which our national life disappoints him, it becomes clear that he has succumbed to a way of thinking that is common among those who write for newspapers. His is a universe made of newsprint.
He is unable to see that, outside a tiny media village, the "Armani-suited purveyors of `initiatives'" are not that important; that the ascendancy of dead-eyed consultants in the offices of the BBC and national newspapers is regrettable, but no reason to run away to Canada. There are many millions of English people who would not recognise "that special substitute for conversation: endless discussions about property prices". In fact, these changes in society and the various debates that surround them make 1999 a rather interesting moment in our modern history.
Obviously, there are drawbacks to living in England - traffic, the domination of TV by Dale Winton and Carol Vorderman, mediocre West End theatre, giggling superchefs - but somehow the Addis view of Canada, where there is "a civilised agreement to disagree", makes it sound infinitely drearier.
It is possible, of course, that we shall soon be hailing the latest British journalist to find success on the other side of the Atlantic, the Tina Brown of Toronto. But there are other Englishmen - Peter Mayle, Michael Caine, Mick Jagger, Norman Wisdom - who seem to lose something when they live abroad. Tanned and rich, giving occasional interviews about how wonderful their lives are, they are somehow less themselves than they once were. One day, they find themselves dreaming about the English sausage and begin to realise that the mess and conflict that is England is what makes it worth living in.
Miles Kington is on holiday
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