Bryan Appleyard: Who are you calling gloomy?
Both the nature and scale of feature writer Bryan Appleyard's output have earned him grandee status. He just wishes people saw more of his funny side, he tells Ian Burrell
Monday 12 February 2007
Bryan Appleyard, the great sage of The Sunday Times who for two decades has pondered the meaning of life in his weekly analysis of the latest scientific discovery or cultural development, has momentarily clambered under his own microscope.
"The box I'm most commonly put in is right wing," he says. "This is completely incomprehensible to me. I certainly would have said I was conservative but I don't know what right wing means any more. I'm certainly not as far to the right as Blair. On some things I'm conservative and on some things I'm not. I completely believe in global warming which seems to be a left-wing thing to believe. I completely believe in the necessity of central government to regulate markets and I completely believe in markets. The only thing I'm sure I am is culturally conservative - the only way you have a culture is being conservative."
Appleyard, three times winner of Feature Writer of the Year at the British Press Awards, is sensitive to what others say of him. So much so that when the former Independent on Sunday editor Peter Wilby recently described him as "the most cerebral, if gloomy, writer in the industry", Appleyard went on to his website, bryanappleyard.com, to post an entry on his blog. Not only did he question the notion that his work was "gloomy" but he also admitted that Wilby's suggestion had so affected him that he had written an unjustifiably upbeat review of a book (Affluenza by Oliver James) in The Sunday Times. "I suspect that I was thinking about [Wilby's comment] when I wrote the review and, as a result, gave James an easier ride than he deserved," he blogged.
Appleyard is not only one of Britain's best-known journalists, but he is also a prolific author, and in both capacities he manages to get underneath people's skin. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks he wrote in The Sunday Times such a passionate defence of America and its place in the world that it prompted a deluge of letters from readers.
"That piece got up a lot of people's noses and got me pigeon-holed as bog-standard right wing," he recalls, speaking in his sixth-floor London flat. "Everyone assumed it meant I was a neocon. It didn't. America has guaranteed my freedom all my life and whether you like it or not we are protected by America."
Appleyard wrote the piece because he had been riled by a notorious edition of the BBC's Question Time, broadcast after the tragedy. "The audience howled down the ex-US ambassador when 3,000 of his countrymen had just been killed. They were dancing on their graves. There was a distinctly dodgy New Statesman leader saying these people weren't innocent. For God's sake! Disgraceful! I was very angry and probably overstated the point."
Considering his undoubted success, his forthright writing style and his naming of his website Thought Experiments, Appleyard is not without humility. "I remember thinking a few years ago that I've been writing for The Sunday Times since the mid-1980s and they've never published a favourable letter about me," he observes.
Within the scientific community, he is something of a bête noire, though he claims that some former critics have since become his friends. In 1992 Appleyard published a book called Understanding the Present, which questioned the positive histories of science and derided what he saw as the "crass popularisations of the subject". The publication coincided with a Tory government White Paper on science and was promptly denounced as right-wing propaganda. "Since then I have been known as this crazed critic of science which isn't quite accurate. These paranoid lunatics were convinced that I was an agent of the Tory government. I didn't even know there was a White Paper coming. I wasn't interested in that. I couldn't open a newspaper for about three weeks because scientists were queuing up to trash me."
The experience hasn't inhibited him and he has since published books on several other science-related themes, including Aliens: Why They Are Here ("Curious, cranky" - The Observer) and, most recently, How to Live Forever or Die Trying ("He doesn't understand science" - The Independent).
While the former showcased Appleyard's journalistic dedication - he underwent hypnosis in order to "witness" a space ship - it is the latter project that best reflects Appleyard's constituency. At 55, he is, as much as anyone in the British media, a voice of the baby-boomers. Appleyard doesn't think much of the generation in the media that came after him which he believes is blundering off in search of a youth culture it doesn't understand.
"There's a very self-conscious attempt by certain types of 40-ish executives to grab a hold of the internet, new technology, youth, everything. I don't think they're intuitively able to do it. I think older people are. I was marinaded in popular culture in the late 1960s and I completely get it. I completely lived it."
These self-conscious 40-somethings are not good for newspapers, he believes, turning them into audio and video-based media and turning reporters into bloggers. "I think blogging is blogging and newspapers are newspapers. They are different things. I strongly believe and hope it comes true that newspapers will suddenly rediscover what they do best - which is being newspapers. I don't believe that newspapers are iPods, which seems to be the thinking at the moment."
Appleyard, who is from Bolton, had an "old-fashioned gutbucket training" in journalism, starting out on the Wimbledon News, then working as a city reporter for the United Newspapers regional press group. He joined The Times but was glad to leave, going freelance just as newspapers began developing the multi sections that craved the long pieces that are his trademark. He has contributed to The Independent and once wrote an interview with Keith Richards for Vanity Fair. ("I didn't enjoy the experience; they overedit everything. They drained a lot of the blood out of the piece.")
But The Sunday Times - from the News Review section to the magazine - has become home. "It is unbelievably indulgent towards me. I get away with murder. I get some pretty obscure stuff in there."
To "expose folly" is a principal aim of an Appleyard piece, he says. "What I like doing best is pointing out what seem to me to be gigantic misconceptions, trying to expose patterns under arguments and the way they are presented." It was Appleyard who encouraged the former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil to establish its arts supplement The Culture, a response to the success of Julie Burchill and Toby Young's Modern Review, which he had partly inspired through his serious treatment of popular culture.
Though steeped in the ways of the press, Appleyard is anything but suspicious of new media. His website, nine months old, has become an obsession, and he monitors the origins of his web traffic to a level that the Mori founder Bob Worcester would be proud of. "China became the biggest country viewing it this week. There's a regular in Mongolia and one in Uruguay, who might be Martin Amis."
He walks down to his uncluttered study, which is decorated with paintings by his friend, the architect Will Alsop. He cannot resist another check of his site. Last week he was posting away furiously at the crack of dawn on such subjects as avian flu (Dead Turkeys and Rationality, 5.53am) and the maverick footballer Joey Barton (Footballer Talks Sense Shock, 6.13am). His blogging, he claims, is 30 per cent serious and 70 per cent funny. Leaving not much room for gloomy.
Bryan Appleyard's 'How to Live Forever or Die Trying' is published by Simon and Schuster at £12.99
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