The Nineties? Not naughty, not nice and not worth thinking about

IAN JACK'S NOTEBOOK
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EVERY year around this time, newspapers and magazines fill themselves up with retrospective examination - of the year, of the decade so far, of the best films, of favourite books. Reporters call up "personalities" for their views, but since many have no views, or none worth recording, and since those who do have views are often not quite daft enough to give them, reporters resort to calling other journalists.

I got a call recently which asked me what I thought of the Spirit of the Nineties. This seemed an example of premature decade-ism but as I understood the call to come from that most intelligent of newspapers, the Independent on Sunday, I sat down and composed a few thoughts. "Spirit," I wrote, "seemed far too cheerful a word. It suggested good fairies, sprites, little chaps who'll put a girdle round the earth in 40 minutes, the symbol mounted on a Rolls-Royce bonnet. The overwhelming feeling of the years 1990-95, at least in Britain, seemed to me the opposite of such fancy. It reminded me," I continued to write, "of the music that documentary film-makers increasingly use when they want to add emotion to some perfectly neutral footage - a shot of a tower block, say, or of an ordinary-looking man walking down an ordinary-looking street. Enter on the sound track a synthesiser and some electronic chords played in the minor key, and the everyday scene looks ominous and fearful. That," I said, "was what the Nineties suggested to me - dread and insecurity, and lack of trust in all things from government to the family, and especially in the future."

I faxed it to this paper, which was completely baffled as it hadn't asked for it. My call had come from a rival Sunday. I felt like Dyson, the journalist in Michael Frayn's novel about newspaper life, Towards the End of the Morning, whose mixture of vanity and incompetence turns his life into a perpetual cock-up, which now I come to think of it, may be the truer mark of this decade, so far.

FAVOURITE books? What are the books that I've enjoyed most over the past year? Or rather, what are the books that I've enjoyed most over the past year that have been published over the past year? Here, in the offices of Granta magazine, we tend to know authors. What if you have read their books and not enjoyed them; or, more likely, because there are so many new books and there is, to quote Cyril Connolly, a pram (or two buggies and a dozen Waitrose carrier bags) in the hall, you have not read them at all?

Caveat emptor should be written in big letters at the top of books pages at this time of year. The purest and most disinterested book review, if not the most readable ones, come when the reviewer has never met the author, does not share the same literary agent or publisher, and is not himself or herself writing a book which (who knows?) may be reviewed later by the author presently under review. These are difficult conditions to meet at the best of times. And now, at the end of the year, the reviewer is given the chance to act like a divinity and bless just one or two books out of the two dozen he or she has read (the implication that book reviewers have some kind of global overview, that they have read hundreds of new books, is completely misleading).You will understand the difficulties and temptations. You may think, for example, that Simon Heffer's biography of Carlyle is a very fine book (which it may be), or you may think that he has some very loyal friends, or even that both are strong possibilities.

AN INCIDENT in Antarctica last week reminded me of the most memorable book I happen to have read this year, though it can't fit into the category above because it was first published in 1922 and the author is dead, which, on the bright side, means that at least my judgment has not been affected by the chances of meeting him on the 19 bus.

The incident was the rescue by aircraft of Roger Mear, a 45-year-old mountaineer from Derbyshire, who had been trying to pull his sled 1,650 miles across the polar ice cap. Mr Mear discovered after 500 miles and 41 days that his sled was not suited to polar ice and snow - "the wrong sort of snow" said the comic headlines - and radioed for help. A Norwegian adventurer, meanwhile, struggling along the same route may, unlike Mr Mear, become the first person to walk across the Antarctic alone and unsupported.

The comparisons with Captain Scott's expedition are obvious: the wrong equipment, famously Scott's pony-hauled sleds, and another Norwegian Amunsden, reaching the South Pole first and then, unlike Scott and his men, returning from it. The likenesses stop there. Scott could not he helped by radios or aircraft; Antarctica, outside its edges, had never been explored; he was blundering into the last of the unknown world. There were no comic headlines then but a different kind of literacy - "Dear God, this is an awful place" - and a gallantry which has now become difficult to imagine.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of Scott's 1910 expedition, later wrote an account of it called The Worst Journey in the World. Picador republished the book last year with a new introduction by Paul Theroux, in which he describes it as "about misery, starvation, heroism, exploration, discovery and friendship". It is, he says, his favourite travel book, and it has since become mine. "Polar exploration," writes Cherry-Garrard in his opening sentence, "is at once the clearest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised." He never got over the depression of the expedition's failure in a life that was deeply affected by guilt - he felt he should have reached Scott's dying party sooner - and nervous breakdown. We should wish Mr Mear a happier future.

LAST Sunday I wrote about Louis Malle, the French film director who died recently, and later got an earful for my pains at a party. Mrs Philip French, the wife of the Observer's film critic, said she had heard from the playwright David Hare and others that the piece hadn't respected Malle's memory and, worse, seemed to be part of an anti-Malle conspiracy at Independent newspapers; both Gilbert Adair and Sheila Johnstone in the daily Independent had written (though I didn't know this) with less than enthusiasm about Malle and his films in their appreciations after his death. Her husband - an authority on Malle - said he thought that "conspiracy" was stretching it, but it had made him wonder. What was going on?

Well, nothing of course. It was a coincidence. Journalists do sometimes conspire to "get" people or institutions - 30 years ago on the Daily Express in Glasgow we had a standard form of front-page presentation known as The Crucifixion, which would use a large picture of a shop-steward and run words such as "The man who has brought Hillman Imps to a halt" or "The man who is stopping your trains tonight". But conspiracies to attack things in the external world - even rival newspapers - are rarer in newspapers than you might imagine.

Most newspaper conspiracies (like most political conspiracies) have as their target people in the same newspaper (or political party).

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