I have just this moment finished reading Off the Road, the autobiography of Carolyn Cassady, where she tells in unrelenting detail tales of life with her writer husband Neal, novelist Jack Kerouac, and poet Allen Ginsberg in their prime, when their chief objective was ripping shit up, putting it back together, tearing it down again, and then gracefully elucidating the glory of it all just when they were about to become too insufferable to withstand any longer. It’s a fascinating book, not just because of her observations — as the most lucid, sane pseudo-participant, which was no great feat really — but also to see how the trio was a pack, the boys, like-minded in the important ways, fundamentally distinct in the tragic ones. The three of them pushed each other, farther, into the gorgeous nether of madness and chaos and beauty, and back again. They were each other’s muses, and burdens, and inspirations, and anchors. They struggled together. And it seems like they never really questioned themselves. But they did, because they must.
There’s something wonderful about the notion of a pack, particularly for literary folks. Who among us has not felt that our friends, ourselves included, are somehow the most enthralling people on the planet whose peculiarities and eccentricities must be chronicled for future generations to understand and appreciate? This is why we have friends. They’re interesting. I have met people in this world whom I would have thought it impossible to exist in real life. And yet, there they are.
These are the people we want to throw all caution to the proverbial wind with, the people with whom we just want to jump in a car and do something crazy. We just want to experience life with them, record their perceptions, expand on our own, try to make some sense of this constant pandemonium that swirls endlessly, find the absolute peace and splendour we all perceive is out there, somewhere, somehow, it has to be, right? And we love people just as nuts as us. People who see the world the way we do; as scary, beautiful, enchanting, aloof, full of awe, something to be tackled and dealt with, however we deem fit.
Man, I love these friends. Something about them makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself, that we are a troupe, that we are sages, seeing the world like no one else does. I’ve had many of them over the years, and just thinking of them gets me fired up. It’s the one aspect all my closest and dearest friends – male and female – have in common; they are all seekers. They are introspective, questioning, inspiring, alive. They are wild bulls of souls, unleashed, rampaging onward, trying to find the meaning, the truth.
But I am romanticising them, I realise now, as I sit here watching the bright, waxing moon. They were all those things. They are all those things. But they are not just all those things. They are real people. At the end of the day, Neal Cassady had to make a living. We live in a different time now. My friends are not in school anymore. They are grownups. They are married, or they are getting married, or they are worried about the mortgage, or the direction and financial security of their companies. I blinked, and they all became regular people. Somewhere down the line, they saw where they fit in in the universe, and they adjusted accordingly. They saw one path leading to mental destruction, and they chose the other, healthy, wise one. It is to be a visionary to question this whole existence; it is to be an adult to shut up about it and make sure the bills are paid and the trains run on time.
And I am still out there, adrift, wondering which way to go.
Can I simply be? I wrote a Facebook message to a group of old friends the other day, one of those impersonal, hey-look-you-were-included-on-my-closest-friends-list type of things. It was a pithy little comment on how I was doing something particularly domesticated that evening, full of self-mocking and look-at-what-it’s-come-to faux irony. One friend responded to the list saying, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that I was right, David had become a blissful little suburbanite, he’s going for walks and cooking and watching the Olympics and buying Nike and voting and all the things you’re not supposed to do if you’re the outsider doggedly resisting social mores. It was funny and played into my joke. Then another friend responded to him, hitting a little closer to home:
(I’m paraphrasing) “Which do you think he likes more? Being domesticated, or the fact that we’re all sitting here talking about him being domesticated?” And he was right, of course. I’d always enjoyed being the little ugly duckling that everyone looked at as the peculiar one. His words disturbed me greatly, because he was so right. Did I really still want to be that guy? Why didn’t I shut up and play ball, live like a normal person? Nothing all that special about me. Nothing all that special about any of us.
Another example to prove my rapidly shifting point: I was talking to another friend who knows me as well as anyone the other evening. She met me several years ago here in London, at one of my many self-congratulatory birthday parties. She was a friend of a friend, so on, and I was still relatively new to the city, not that long removed from island life. That birthday evening, I was the new guy in town, telling my tales of the Caribbean, of ex-girlfriends and beaches and journalism adventures and self-doubt and romance and transcendence and insanity and the loss of God and anything else that would make it more likely this gorgeous girl in front of me would continue to listen, and she was staring at me, weirdly fascinated. She told me the other evening that she was compelled that night not so much by my stories — who could be? — but the fact that I had been somewhere, that I had done things. “I was looking at Kim [her other friend] and was like, ‘Er… we went to Mexico for a week once. We live just down the road from each other.’”
And I had been nowhere, really. I had done nothing. It is all relative, and ultimately, like everybody else, I’ve sold out. Real curiosities, the true lost souls of this world, will forever be roaming, searching, struggling, dreaming, wondering. I’m beginning to feel I don’t have it in me anymore., that it is no longer worth it for me. That I want to play ball.
In the end, I was far more like my friend than the weirdo whimsical outsider I once wanted people to believe I was. I am a dreamer, but I am also a human being, one who just wants happiness and serenity and a comfy chair to prop my feet up at the end of the day. Calm.
I might never again just hop in a car with a cohort and drive across the country for assorted aesthetically realised misadventures, I will never be nuts again, I will never cut all ties and just go go go GO, man! Not anymore. I like my flat too much, I like my monthly salary too much, I like my comfort too much. I am tied to this world, in a way the true visionaries never were. I cannot step outside it all, pretend that I am Neal Cassady, just not giving a fuck, ambling about, seeking seeking seeking seeking seeking. No longer. My peace is to be found in a flat that’s clean, in bills being paid, in the overseas family I can call at the end of the week. I didn’t think that’s where it was found. But I think it might be. This doesn’t make me any different than the rest of humanity. It is who I am. It just took me longer than most to realise.
So where does this leave me, or any of us who are starting to understand that, after a while, it takes too much energy to try to be the special unique snowflake all the time? That being normal has its advantages? That there’s a reason people choose comfort and relaxation and playing the game the right way? That’s OK, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
But, Dave, you say, this whole series of incoherent ramblings seems to have been focusing on some sort of final goal, some sort of intangible Meaning Of It All. We want some sort of resolution. The answer to this whole thing, it’s not becoming a corporate drone, is it? Is that what this all means? Do you conquer the demons and figure out what it all means? Do you find a way to be yourself in this universe without becoming what you’ve always fought against? Well, I’m afraid, this story has a rather mundane, mediocre conclusion. I’m just a regular guy, a squirrel trying to get a nut. I have a boss, and rent due, and bills, and a recently-acquired goldfish that needs to be fed. I have visions of a life I go home to every night, with a girlfriend or wife, and neighbours from whom I borrow tools, and membership in the golf club, and maybe a dog. I hope to get there someday. I am not Neal Cassady. Far from it.
I recognise… What is pulling me back to earth here? What has made me see the notion of settling as something that ain’t nothin’ to run from no more? Is it an inherent islander’s desire to have a home, happiness, tranquility? If that was what was important, why would I have ever left the Caribbean in the first place? Or was I just fooling myself then, thinking there was something else out there? Does it even make a difference? I just don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to search. I just want to be normal. I want to work and go home and have a drink and relax and listen to music and watch sports and not be so damned peculiar and hungry for answers anymore. Is that so wrong? Is it? Seriously. Is it?
But no matter. Worry not. In a week, I’m sure I’ll feel the exact opposite. I am crazy, you know!
Tomorrow I turn 40.
There… I’ve said it!
For months, it’s been there, creeping up on me, peeking out from behind the corners of my consciousness, shimmering silver from beneath the receding black, etching a bit deeper into the smile lines. On the one hand, I’ve been dreading it, thinking, “Oh shit, here we go with this interminable passage of time thing. Twenty-two years since I left school? Seriously?” And on the other hand, I’m thinking, “Wahey! Hold on for the ride!”
Now, as I sit here in the final quiet hours, contemplating that today is the last day of my 30s before I tumble headlong into a new decade, the transition just feels arbitrary. Indeed, part of me rebels against the societal expectation that I should be feeling or doing something BIG. Counting the passing of days as meticulously as we do is so uniquely human. Yet, like New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day, I do sometimes wonder if birthdays were constructed to encourage people to consume. But equally, I know that if I don’t acknowledge this in a way that feels meaningful to me, I’ll regret it. Arbitrary or not, tomorrow I turn 40 and I need to process that fact in a way that makes sense to me, even as a flotilla of memories travel like logs down the river of my mind.
And so I write. I write because that is the way my soul makes sense of life. I write as I’ve always written – throughout my childhood in my little red school notebook, with poem titles like “Rover” and “The Flaming Immortelle”; throughout my angst-ridden teenage years when I was desperately trying to define myself by the externals of good looks and good grades; throughout my 20s – the thrilling journalism years – when I did it for love and a living even as the panic and anxieties of life grabbed me by the neck, before the diamonds inside the anxiety finally started to reveal themselves; throughout my 30s as I settled down in a new country, started a new career and a new way of life, loved deeply and lost bitterly… each time being turned inside out by the transition.
In my heart I carry all those people I’ve been before. I’m all those versions of myself, four decades of transition.
And speaking of transitions, as I turn 40 I can also feel myself shedding parts of my personality that are no longer serving me. For example, I was recently chatting with a friend about how people – ourselves included – often put up walls around themselves. I later mulled this over well into the night, and by morning I felt a palpable shift. The part of me that tries so hard to connect with people that aren’t open to connecting – work colleagues, acquaintances, neighbours or supermarket cashiers – fell away. I realised with total certainty that it’s not me. If someone isn’t open to connecting when I approach them with a genuine smile and real interest, it’s not because I’ve said something offensive or done anything wrong, it’s just walls. And just like that, I stopped caring so much about what others thought of me.
It was like stepping a little further into my true self, a little bit wiser, a little bit stronger and calmer than I’ve ever felt, a little bit closer to my calling in life, whatever that may be. It was like I suddenly recognised the freedom I had all along to choose how I “do” life.
Tomorrow I turn 40.
There is a pang of grief as I let go of a familiar number; a twinge of trepidation as I wonder what lies ahead. But mostly, surprisingly, I feel joy, gratitude and excitement. I have much to be thankful for. I’ve survived the challenges of my twenties and thirties and now know how to stay true to myself and what I hold dear. And that’s something worth celebrating as I continue to experience, to feel, this glorious thing called LIFE.
So farewell dear Thirties. Now bring on the next adventure!
It was a beautiful day in London on Tuesday, one of those days that reminds you why you’re here, one of those days when you feel like you’re a part of something bigger, something important. Apart from New York, no other city can make me feel like this, like I’m plugged into some massive generator, like I’m an essential part of a machine that never stops churning. It was one of those days when the sidewalks felt like they were vibrating.
So on my way back from the city on a rare day off work, I decided to get off the train early and take a walk.
Almost immediately after I got out at Pinner, some lady with a twin pram ploughed into me. Not only was she pushing the giant buggy, she was carrying four Sainsbury’s bags of groceries, wrapped around each of her arms like a straitjacket. She was so harried that she not only didn’t apologise when she almost knocked me over, I’m not sure she even noticed. One of her babies was wailing; the other was playing with a bag of frozen peas. The woman wasn’t being chased by anyone, but she might as well have been; she was so caught up in what was assuredly a stressful journey home, if everyone she passed on the street turned out to be wearing only their underwear, I bet she wouldn’t have noticed that either. And this seemed to be a regular thing for her, this pushing of children, this carrying of bags, this nonstop clutter and clamour. I wondered how long it had been like this. She was young; I bet it wasn’t more than five years ago that her friends were holding her hair back as she threw up in the back of a dingy drinking shithole somewhere in London. When did it switch for her? When did the tide turn? It was probably a gradual thing. She felt she was getting older, that the world was starting to close in on her, she met a nice guy, she settled down, she had children (twins!), and before she knew it, she was carting the sum of her existence down a fairly nondescript street in the suburbs, aware of nothing but this. She had the look of someone who had not thought about herself in a long, long time.
Because it’s a nice day, two women are having brunch outside a restaurant. I have been to this place before, and it’s exactly what you’d think: shitty service, overrated food and way too expensive. Places like this are always crowded for reasons that escape me. The two women, probably in their late 20s, are dressed in business suits and have leather handbags next to them. They are wearing a lot of makeup. They both went on dates on the weekend, and they’re deconstructing the dates, which is usually the most fun part of dates. One was going on and on about her date’s face; I guess he had a bad acne problem in college and still carries the scars. He’s in finance, it seems, and he kissed her good night, and she was a bit grossed out but kissed him anyway, and if he calls, she’ll go out with him again, sure, why not? The waiter comes by, and the two women complain to him about something, and he looks apologetic but probably isn’t, he probably hates them, he probably hates all of them.
In Northwood Hills, the same two kids as always are hanging out in front of the newsagents. They’re always here, whether the store is open or not. As always, their bikes, which seem to change all the time, are casually lying on the pavement and they’re passing headphones back and forth. They’re very bored. I once refused to buy one of them cigarettes, giving him a lecture in the process, and they’ve never forgiven me. When I went in to buy toilet paper the other day, they saw my purchase and said “Yeah, we knew you were full of shit.” I laughed, trying to show that I get it, I’m hip, and they scoffed at me, told me to “laugh it up, preacher man.” I’ve often watched these kids from the hairdressers across the street. Sometimes a third kid joins them, but I don’t think they like him very much, even though he clearly likes them, or at least wants their approval. He’ll stand there, next to them, talking more than they are, and they treat him like he’s not there. Occasionally I’ll see him standing there by himself, waiting for them to show up. He’ll wait a very long time, if necessary. I wonder if he considers them his best friends. I bet he does.
I continue down Joel Street. There’s a pub called The William Jolle which, every time I look in there, seems to have the same five people in it. They’re the types who come in at noon and just let the bartenders refill their drinks at their leisure. They don’t seem sad, or happy; they barely talk. They just look forward, sipping their drink, tired. I wonder how they got this way too. I wonder what their house or apartment is like. I imagine it is spare and dark. If the bar didn’t close, they’d never go there. I’ve been to this pub myself a few times, when I wanted the same experience of solitude among strangers. I’ve never talked to any of them. None of them have ever talked to me. It’s a comfort.
In front of me, a couple is fighting. They’re desperately trying to disguise their argument from the world of the street, and they are failing. I can’t make out the specifics of their tiff, but it seems that there’s something that he always does that drives her crazy, something that makes her feel she is making a mistake by continuing to be with him, and that he has little desire to stop doing it. She is saying, “I don’t know why you always do this,” and he is trying to ignore her, walking faster and looking away, but she is right behind him and she is speeding up, and I am speeding up to stay with them, and she is starting to yell now, and what had been his mutterings a few seconds earlier are starting to become shouts. He is waving his arms in a robotic manner, as if this is a conversation he has had too many times already and lacks the energy to give even the most feeble resistance. He says something to her that I can’t make out, and she stops and begins to cry. He tries to keep walking, wants desperately to keep walking, but he can’t now, and he turns to come back to her, looking sympathetic and guilty, and I speed past the both of them and know exactly how they both feel.
I see this girl I know walking toward me. It’s been a while. We once had some mutual friends so I’ve run into her a few times at parties. She waves and kisses me on the cheek, which I don’t like doing with her, since I don’t know her all that well and I’m not sure where those lips have been. She tells me it’s really good to see me but I don’t think she means it, since I no longer hang out with her friends. I nod and smile and say everything you’re supposed to say when you run into someone on the street and don’t really have anything to say to them but have to talk anyway. She asks me what I’m up to. I tell her I’m just walking. That’s all? That’s it. I’m just walking. It’s a lovely day.
I need to hydrate. I walk into Tesco, grab a bottle, then stand in line behind a man who is having trouble paying with his card. He is saying that this is impossible, that his card works just fine, let him try again. The cashier doesn’t really care and just wants her day to end; he tries the card again, and then another card, and none of them are working, and the guy is starting to get agitated now, and the woman never changes her apathetic expression. He throws his hands in the air, swears and storms to the door. He is moving too fast, though, and he smacks right into the automatic doors. The woman behind the counter smirks, looks at me and says “Next please.”
My mobile rings. It’s an overseas friend who is visiting London soon and is calling to tell me what airport she’ll be flying into, what day, what time. She asks how I’m settling into my new place, and I tell her about a flooding accident over the weekend. She says she hopes it’s all OK then asks why I haven’t updated my blog, that it’s been a while and she’s been hoping I’m OK. She says that she sometimes wondered what I actually did when I wasn’t at work or writing. I tell her I don’t do anything much different from her at all, that I walk down the street and pick up my laundry and pay my bills, go out with friends and drink too much, like I always do. She tells me I drink too much, and I agree, yes, I just said that.
It’s starting to get dark, and it’s time to go home. I buy some fruit and some batteries for my remote controls. I shut off all the lights in my flat, like I always do when I write, and sit down at my computer and begin to type. It is so simple here, so peaceful. I see so many people out there, who don’t know what they’re doing in this world, who are just like me. I wonder where they find their peace. I wonder where they go to slow everything down, to try to make some sense out of the chaos, to try to strip out some meaning from a planet that is doggedly determined not to provide it. I wonder where they step outside of themselves and relax, and think, and just be. This is where I often find it. On my own, shut off from the world, listening to clickety-clack of my keyboard with a backing track from my iPod to match my mood. This is the place I know to go to.
Writing is my time machine. It always takes me to where I belong. I fear that I might be lost without it. I feel it’s the one thing that’s truly mine.
Recently, I’ve been asked by a few people what advice I would give someone who wants to be a writer. They assume because I have a blog and once, as a full-time journalist, I wrote for a living, that I ought to be able to tell others how to do it. It’s a fair assumption. But the truth is, I’m still and always learning!
Asking me how to write is like asking directions from a blind man with a guide dog; I don’t know how to tell you the way to get there. I just follow the dog.
That said, here are a few tricks the dog keeps trying to teach me.
First, write about what you know, the thing that’s right in front of you, the thing you’ve been given to write about, the thing you can’t seem to get off your mind. Read a lot and, in particular, read everything you can find by the writers you like best; if you like them, it’s probably because their voice speaks to the voice in you. Develop that voice. It’s yours.
Write like yourself, the way you talk. Read what you’ve written out loud. If it doesn’t sound like you, rewrite it until it does. Learn the rules of writing and stick to them a long time before you dare start messing around.
Write between the lines; say more with less. And be prepared to suffer, not because writing invites heartache, but because it always insists on examining it. Never pretend to be what you aren’t, or to know what you don’t know. That applies more to life than to writing, really, but the two are not so different. And as for inspiration, I don’t need it to write. I just need a deadline. It’s the surest cure I’ve ever found for writer’s block.
If you want to write, if you feel called to do so, you should. And you will. Maybe you won’t earn a living at it. Few writers ever do.
But you can write cards to encourage the downhearted; and notes of condolences to comfort those who suffer loss; and crisp, compelling business letters that clearly explain why the item you received was not the item you ordered, and what exactly you will do if you are not reimbursed. You can write job applications and memos to colleagues and letters to the editor, or to your MP, or to God, to shed light and right wrongs and make the world a better place, or at least, to get stuff off your chest.
You can write for posterity the stories your grandparents told you, stories that will be lost if you don’t write them before you die.
You can write love letters to your children or to anyone, really, to say all the things that you could never say with your mouth.
You can even write in a diary or journal, if you are so inclined (and a lot more disciplined than I am) to get to know yourself better.
That, of course, is the real reason we read and write — to know and to be known. It has been that way a very long time and I expect it always will. It works like this:
You take thoughts and feelings from your mind and your heart, and occasionally from your soul, and you fashion them into words.
That is called language.
You put the words on paper, or perhaps on a computer screen, using lines and circles, marks and symbols, until you trust them to carry your meaning.
That is called writing.
Then someone — who perhaps has never seen your face or heard your voice — sees your lines and circles and symbols and marks, and recognises them as words.
That is called reading.
Sometimes, unpredictably, the words hold the power to recreate the writer’s thoughts and feelings in the mind and the heart and even in the soul of the reader.
That is called communication.
Some do it for love. Some do it for money. And some of us, if we are lucky, get to do it for both.
And that’s where I will stop for now. The dog has gone to sleep.
I found out a little over a year ago that my late grandfather liked to write. It is a failing of myself that I had never thought to ask.
It came up in casual conversation with my great-aunt, whom I’d dropped by to visit over a busy Christmas schedule in the Caribbean. I love Aunt Helen, who helped me land my first job in journalism and who, despite her years, is still a formidable force to be reckoned with in the field. I was telling her about my job in IT and how I’d been keeping up my writing through my blog and with the occasional piece I write for various publications, including hers. I don’t even know if she knew about this blog; the Internet is not something too much in her frame of reference. Telling her about the IT, I almost fell asleep myself. But her face just lit up when I talked about writing.
“Oh, your grandfather always knew you were going to be a writer, just like your dad.” I woke up immediately. What? My grandfather died when I was 11; the last thing on my mind the last time I had seen him was what I would end up doing with my life. (In retrospect, the only thing on my mind when I was 11 was, “I hope my parents don’t find out how often I masturbate.”) How in the world did my grandfather ever imagine that this particular grandson, out of so many, would end up writing?
“Your grandfather used to love writing. He said it made him feel calm.” My grandfather was a politician, holding several cabinet positions during his career. The only writing I imagined him doing was writing speeches. But his sister was talking about what he wrote in his spare time. “He raised four children, so he didn’t have much time, but boy, whenever he had time, he loved it. He was very funny. He just never had time.” I was stunned. Did anyone else in the family know this? “No, he kept it rather quiet. It was just one of those things he loved to do, like gardening. It relaxed him.”
I asked her if she had anything in storage that he had written. “Oh, no, I don’t think that ever occurred to him. Honestly, I think he would have been a little embarrassed. I don’t even know if your father ever even knew.” She paused. She is getting on in age, and her hands shake. Her signature always looks like an ECG readout. “But he always knew you would do something like that. He saw it in you when you were very young. You’re just like him, you know.” She then asked me if I wanted any of the black-eyed peas on the table with my lunch. I declined. Black-eyed peas are vile.
One time, I came home from university abroad, somewhat depressed, for those vague, completely stupid reasons people get depressed in uni. It was a lovely day, and I was supposed to meet my father for lunch to watch some cricket, so I drove to his office.
Barry, a guy my father worked with for more than 20 years, saw me pull in and told me Dad was stuck in a meeting away from the office and wouldn’t be back for half an hour. We chatted a bit and then he told me I should just wait in Dad’s office until he returned.
The first thing I noticed there was a picture of me and my siblings, all flashing bright smiles. Then there was a picture of Mum, that photo I knew he loves so much, and next to that was, to my shock, my most recent article for the Guardian. It was surrounded by several others. In fact, my father, a former journalist himself, had almost covered his desk with his son’s newspaper clippings. I sat quiet for a moment, then grabbed my backpack and headed out to my car. I’d wait for Dad there. I didn’t want him to see me seeing all that at his desk. It would have been embarrassing for both of us.
A few months ago, I did a reading from my Dad’s newly-published poetry anthology. My brothers and sisters were all there with my parents. While I was up front reading, apparently some women in the back of the room were carrying on a conversation. (I can never hear this when I’m on stage; I’m too busy concentrating on not urinating on myself.) People talking during a reading is nothing unusual, or even bad; readings are, on the whole, pretty boring, and I’m sure what they were talking about was far more interesting than whatever I was blathering about up front.
But one of my younger sisters would have none of this. She stood up, walked to the back, crossed her arms and stared at the chatty Cathies. “AHEM! Excuse me, but my brother is reading from my Dad’s book right now, and you need to be quiet. So be quiet!” She stared at them for another 10 seconds or so, then turned back around and sat down next to my father.
From what I’m told, they were very quiet from then on.
I was talking with a friend recently about my writing, specifically, the minute details of my life and of my family’s life I have included in this blog. Then she brought up something that, once again, I’d never even considered: “You ever thought just how fascinated your grandchildren are going to be reading your blog? It’s going to be like a time capsule.”
Imagine that. Imagine being able to read about your grandfather’s life, and his times, from when he was in his mid-20s and 30s and 40s. His fears, his hopes, his dreams; by the time they read these, they will know the ending of the story in a way the author does not. They will have a tie to their roots, a little sliver of understanding of what has helped make them who they are.
This was never the intention, but, truth be told, that might be one of the greatest gifts this blog could ever give, if I can keep it going.
When you strip it all away, we are lonely and confused and, all told, rather pointless. Our constant bluster must be amusing to whomever created this universe; nothing we do is important. In 90 years we’re all going to be dead, and whatever we have created during our short time here will be forgotten. Everything I’ve ever written, anything I’ve ever done, will, eventually, be the dead sea scrolls, relics, strange curiosities easily dismissed.
At the end, all we really have is family. We have the people who know how we used to cry whenever we lost a big game, how we would get scared and crawl into bed with them after listening to jumbie (ghost) stories, how we never could pronounce the word “denominator” without stuttering over the third syllable. They’re the people, the only people, who are with you at the beginning, the middle and the end. They’re the only people who, honestly, really matter. Everything else just occupies the time, gives us something to do.
My family is the reason I’ve been able to do anything, and they will be my only legacy. That’s just fine with me. I couldn’t ask for any better way to go down in history.
In recognition of World Press Freedom Day 2012
How good is the media? Which branches of it can I trust? Where will I find balance and substance instead of trash and sensationalism? How believable are the anonymous sources on the Internet? How can we trust the media amid the rapid pace of technological change and the apparent erosion of journalistic ethics? How, in other words, do I find truth?
These are always important questions, especially since no industry has felt the impact of technological change more significantly than the communications industry.
In the early days of journalism, reporters used to write their stories on typewriters. A long, unwieldy editing and production process followed before the final product appeared — a printed newspaper. Today, reporters and photographers produce their work on laptops and transmit them electronically and instantly to their offices. There, it moves from computer to computer, undergoing the editing process, getting headlines and captions written, and flowing into pagination ready for printing with the touch of a computer button.
In TV news, too, technology has made for instant coverage of major events around the world, and even in space.
Because news is now transmitted instantly, the consequences of getting it wrong are more serious. The responsibility for getting it right is much greater. The war in Vietnam was said to have been the first conflict that brought the horrors of war into people’s living rooms. That was true, but back then several days still elapsed, during which there was time for reflection and editing, before the footage actually appeared on TV screens.
By the advent of the first Gulf War, technology had changed all this. Correspondents, using relatively portable transmitting equipment, were able to broadcast from the middle of the desert live, and appear instantly on television screens. Thus we saw a network correspondent reporting that Scud missiles, reportedly carrying chemical agents in their warheads, were incoming. The initial report was false. There were Scud missiles, but not with chemical warheads. By the time the erroneous information was corrected, millions of viewers may have missed it.
The roles of reporter and editor are even more critical today in the rush to publish or broadcast without forfeiting integrity. While the media can be a significant force for good, there are also lapses from professional journalistic standards that are disturbing.
Any journalism student should have heard of Janet Cooke, the Washington Post reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for her moving story about a child crack dealer. It read beautifully. It seemed well documented. There was just one thing wrong with the story — the child crack dealer she wrote about didn’t exist.
You’d think such a scandal would put a serious crimp in journalistic invention but, sadly, such transgressions are still with us. Manipulation of the news is a problem, and an embarrassment to journalists of integrity.
Within hours of Osama bin Laden’s death being announced last year, some media organisations ran a picture showing his bloodied, lifeless face with a bullet-hole in the head. The picture was very quickly proven to be a hoax. Who was the source of the image? Was it checked or challenged? Or did media houses, in the rush to beat their competitors, simply accept at face value whatever was thrown at them. Worse yet, was it a news organisation that created the false image in the first place?
Take The Mirror’s 2004 account of British soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq, for example. The abuse apparently did take place but, to illustrate their story, The Mirror staged photos at a Territorial Army base in Lancashire and offered them to readers as the real thing. Rightfully, it cost then-editor Piers Morgan his job.
Too often we have tasteless intrusiveness: the cameramen up a tree, shooting through windows families who have pleaded for privacy; the TV reporter who holds a microphone in the face of an 11-year-old AIDS victim and asks how he feels knowing he’s going to die. And don’t even get me started on the scandal of phone-hacking!
When it comes to public figures, their private lives are not off-limits to reasonable scrutiny by the media. That’s the price that must be paid by those who seek our votes, demand our trust, and make significant decisions. However, this scrutiny by the media must be reasonable and purposeful, not merely prurient.
Around the world, thousands of journalists work honourably at their profession, striving to be fair and responsible, often under deadline stress. But the errors of others are used to impugn them all.
The Internet has also contributed to problems. Anybody can get on it, pretend to be a journalist, and publish a scurrilous rumour. There’s a 1993 New Yorker magazine cartoon I came across recently. It shows a dog tapping away at a computer keyboard and saying to the dog on the floor beside him: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It’s funny, but it makes a serious point. The Internet is often an anonymous medium. So while we embrace it and recognise the increasingly important role of the “citizen journalist” we still need to test the credibility of those who tell us things on it.
Even the best news organisations made mistakes and are often obliged to make retractions. But if we look for the real cause of media transgressions, we see that they were caused by inventing, manipulating, overstating, or misinterpreting the facts.
Why? In large part, it is because of the intense competition between media organisations. Hundreds of new cable channels are competing among themselves and challenging the traditional networks. TV news magazines are in fierce combat for audience supremacy. Print newspapers are competing for readers against supermarket tabloids, weeklies, and throwaway freebies. The Internet proliferates. Talk radio jousts with everybody.
All journalists should consider journalistic lapses and the effect they have on their credibility as a whole. Standards need to be constantly criticised and reassessed. News organisations need to ensure that mechanisms are in place to permit readers/viewers/listeners to air their complaints, or to rebut perceived misstatements and inaccurate reporting. The role of the Internet as a reliable news source needs to be questioned.
If all this adds up to a wake-up call for the media, and leads to better self-policing, that’s good. Journalism today could do with a little more attention to principle, a little more concern about ethics.
As a reader, you may be asking, “What can I do about all this?” You are on the receiving end of a torrent of information that will guide many of the decisions you make in life. Therefore, you must make intelligent judgments about what you read, listen to, and watch. You have a responsibility to determine the truth about what is going on around you in your local community, and the nation, and the world.
When some elements of the media offer up material you think is inaccurate, distorted, or distasteful, there is an opportunity to be heard. Editors listen. The good ones, at least. They get a daily flood of letters from the public on all kinds of subjects. They don’t always agree, but they pay attention to public reaction to what they published. And when mistakes are made, they generally correct them. So call or write your newspaper or TV/radio station when you think they’ve got it wrong.
The saving grace of the media is its incredible diversity — from the sleazy supermarket tabloids to The Times, from TV news magazines to Oprah. The media can often be very good, indeed. It sheds a spotlight on dark corners of our society. It topples public officials found unworthy of our trust. It is the voice and protector of those who would otherwise have no voice.
But when it is not so good, it needs individuals like you to help it be better, to hold it to higher standards.
I lied to a journalist last week. It was not a sneaky misdirection, not a subtle not-quite-the-whole story, wink, wink. I flat-out, bald-faced (where did the expression “bald-faced” come from, anyway? As a 30-something-year-old who looks a lot younger, I’m pretty much bald-faced all the time), between clenched teeth, lied. Bore false witness. A falsification, a fib, a pulling of leg.
Now, as a journalist myself, I’m aware that if there’s one profession you don’t want to lie to, it’s a journalist. When they’re not piss drunk, those guys are crafty buggers, and they’ll find you out. It’s a tough game, interviewing people, being interviewed, and to survive it, you need powers of manipulation that I’ll never have.
Mind you, it’s not like we were discussing cancer research or nuclear fission here; my lie didn’t hurt anybody, and it was inconsequential enough that I shouldn’t even be worrying about it. She probably knew I was lying, and she probably didn’t care. Yet still it bothered me. She was nice, had written something nice about me in the past, and I thanked her by lying to her, even making up details to cover it up.
My mother loves to tell the story of the first time that she realised her darling boy was, in fact, capable of lying to her. I was about five, and we were having a family get-together at my grandfather’s. There was this cat, you see, and this cat was bothering me, meowing too loudly, biting too harshly, scratching too fiercely. Sitting next to this cat was, of all things, a can of white paint, open, with a brush lying tantalisingly just to the side. When you’re five, you don’t think, oh, shit, this jar of goo is something I shouldn’t mess with, and you certainly don’t consider the possibility that taking that brush and spreading it all over the cat is the type of matter that might potentially displease someone. The idea must have dawned eventually, though, because when the cat came stumbling out of the garage, smelling of paint and more than a little petrified, and the mothers came out accusing their own and each others’ kids… the one no one’s eyes were trained on was me, because I said I didn’t do it, and Mum knew I could never lie to her, and she told all the other mothers so and that was that and that was all.
Of course, when my mom’s sister-in-law noticed a certain white substance dripping off my trainers and a certain embarrassed downward glance from a totally busted 5-year-old, the game was up. Mum says she cried for two days afterward, and she never quite looked at me with same trusting innocence again.
I’m proud to say my lying-to-my-mother skills improved considerably as the years went on. (No, Mum, honestly, I was pulled over by violent, drooling scumbags who forced me to put those condoms in my pockets. Seriously!)
One of my least favourite claims people make about themselves is that they’re terrible liars, as in, “I tried to lie, but I’m just rubbish at it. I couldn’t keep a straight face.” This is supposed to, in their eyes, clue us into the fact that they’re essentially honest people and just couldn’t mask their inherent sincerity. This is, of course, total bullshit; the only difference between them and everyone else is that they’re incompetent fibbers, not that they’re reluctant ones. We all lie, often, daily, most likely to the people we care about most and listen to us closest, because we’re human beings and, with the possible exceptions of nuns, human beings are amoral, hedonistic, self-serving arseholes.
This calls into question even our most dear friendships, because the people who are supposed to know us best, the ones we pour our hearts out to, have probably been lied to by us more than anyone else. They’re probably little lies, harmless ones, I got a 30 rather than a 27 on my scores, that sort of thing. No, I didn’t sleep with her until the second date, small stuff. We tell our friends lies because they like us, and we want them to continue to. We try to paint ourselves in the most positive light, because, well, it’s hard to find people who like you, let alone like you the way you actually are. It comes to the point sometimes that I’m more honest with you, the reader, in this blog, than I am with my closest friends. I already know you don’t like me; no need to try to impress you.
Yet one of the most common questions I’m asked about this blog is, “Is all that shit you write about true?” Now, ignoring the fact that such a question accuses me of the most base of journalistic ethical breaches — I mean, we’re talking about writing something that is not true — but, well, wouldn’t that take all the fun out of it? I mean, what’s the point of writing a blog about my own life if I’m going to make shit up? What kind of depraved, desperate-for-attention human being would fabricate stories about being an idiot? How unbelievably pathetic would a person have to be to scream for help in such a primal, degenerate way? (Don’t answer that.) Of course this is true.
But where do I draw the line? In one article some months ago, I mentioned being selected one of London’s “20 Most Eligible Bachelors” by GQ magazine. Now, that’s obviously not true, since I threatened them with a lawsuit if they published my name. What single guy wants to be considered one of the city’s top eligible bachelors, anyway? But you knew I was joking when I wrote that, right? Do I have to make that clear? Do I lose credibility?
I was thinking about all this after I hung up with the journalist. I just fibbed to her. If she knows I’m capable of lying on the phone, doesn’t that call everything I’ve written into question? How can she believe anything I say again? Plus, I started feeling quite guilty. It’s not fun to lie to people; it leaves that nasty ashamed aftertaste, like sleeping with a girlfriend you just broke up with. Like that keys-and-phone song from Britain’s Got Talent, I couldn’t make it leave my brain.
So I called the journalist to make amends. After leaving a message, at last I got hold of her.
“Hey, listen, Leah… you know that thing you asked me about earlier? Listen, I’m sorry, I wasn’t completely honest about that whole thing. I was trying to keep our secret going, but I didn’t have to lie to you to do it. I just feel like an idiot. So, outside of this interview, friend to friend, I’m just really sorry.”
“Oh, but, um, everything else I said… that was all true. Honest.”
“Yeah. I understand. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.”
Sigh. I haven’t read the story Leah wrote yet, but I hope it makes me look like a real prick. I figure I deserve it.