I recently wrote an essay about the situation which young people face in the modern world.
It’s been a year and a half since I left university, firmly shutting the essay genre into the past. But then I saw that Bodley Head/The Financial Times were running an essay prize for “dynamic, authoritative and lively” non-fiction works, so I decided to submit.
You can download the final non-winning essay here: Mediated Crowd; perceptions of youth in modern times – by Jonny Aldridge
My premiss is that young people are a “mediated crowd”: all of our media (TV, radio, newspapers, social networks) are run by adults, and as such we can only receive inaccurately representations of youth. I look at
- One Direction – and how other young music artists are mouthpieces for adult nostalgia
- Foyles’ Young Poets of the Year – which is inexplicably judged by adults
- The 2011 London Riots – which I think was the biggest cultural moment for youth in the past 5 years
- BBC crime dramas – which since the London Riots have focussed on younger and younger offenders
If you needed more convincing, here’s a little taster!
If there were to be only one attribute to young people—fat or tall, pimpled or pudding-cheeked—it would be how unknowable they are to adults. Adults find it easier to understand the mind of the murderous psychopath, the experience of a dog who twitches while she sleeps, or easier even to empathise with a thirsty plant whose soil is parched for water, than they do to remember the needs and judgements of their own youth.
I’d love to know what you think?
John Kay’s article in the Financial Times (“It is time to end the oligopoly in banking”, 9th May 2012) is a masterpiece. If you haven’t read it, read it now. It’s about how the Co-operative shouldn’t be prevented from entering the banking sector just because it doesn’t have the “capital and governance structure” of contemporary banks. It also attempts to naturalise the banking sector into just another type of exchange, like at “grocery checkouts”.
The reason this article is so persuasive is because its politics and its poetics are complementary. We Prac-Critters are used to this in our literature (e.g. Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads has a poetic structure – stanza, rhyme, metre – which complements and is complemented by its political attention to “the real language of men”). But we are not used to it in our newspapers. Justifiably: the poetics of most articles we read are restricted by editorial standards.
But I hope to prove that John Kay’s article persuades the reader of his free-market politics through a deliberate naturalising – that is, demystifying – of the banking sector. I will prove this first through analysing how the narrative structure (poetics) of the article favours a ‘natural’ storytelling style. Then I will look at how the free-market, anti-intervention, anti-regulation politics of the article interact with this poetic structure.*
John Kay’s article differs from most newspaper articles you will read because its narrative structure is more akin to traditional storytelling (it is climactic) than journalistic explanation (which decrescendos from its beginning). It has a prologue, a first chapter, a climax at two-thirds/three-quarters through, and an epilogue. Instead, journalism imparts its most important information at the start and, as a generalisation, gets less and less important. This diagram explains.
Now see for yourself. His first column (pictured below) reads like a prologue to a Victorian novel:
The Co-op is a British institution like no other. It originated in the 19th century, its goals political as well as economic. Its members aimed to undermine capitalism, particularly rapacious shopkeepers, by direct collective action. Co-op shares won a significant share of retail trade, especially in food and in the north of England and in Scotland. In the 20th century, however, the stores were often badly run . . .
In providing a short interesting history of his protagonist, the Co-op, Kay is working poetically to enforce his naturalisation of the banking sector. This type of narrative is a ‘natural’ one for the reader to process because it is devoid of jargonistic language and low on explicit argument – like a novel. It contains a protagonist, a plot featuring success and failure, characterisation of “rapacious shopkeepers”.
Simplistically: Kay convinces the reader that banking is a simple process of exchange by describing it so simply. Imagine how dreary a straight essay on the need to evaluate banking oligopoly could have been. Any weaker journalist would have begun:
There is an argument that banking is different to other sectors. This argument won historic acceptance, with the result that banking has become over-regulated.
Do you see the marked difference between those two beginnings? It’s not an issue of differing arguments (in fact, the latter quotation is actually taken from Kay’s article, appearing about three-quarters of the way through). It’s an issue of narrative placement: when the writer chooses to reveal his argument explicitly, if at all.
After the prologue, the second column begins Chapter One: ” The Co-op also found a niche in financial services. Once again, the motives were partly political.” Now the plot is in action. We have a scene, as it were, set deep in financial district. The Co-op has become the star of an ‘underdog narrative’: it is “near the top of surveys of customer satisfaction” but regulators are preventing it from challenging the establishment because it is run by “a group of amateurs”.
Pertinently (see the diagram again) Kay’s narrative only reaches its crux in the fourth column of five, by which point the reader is wholly ready to accept his explicit argument. How much more convincing is this than an all-out baring of his wares, followed by a limp decrescendo! I will come to the epilogue later . . .
The banking sector is not a mysterious financial land where money-deals are executed by well-paid genii. That is the lay-version of Kay’s article. In the Prac-Critter’s terms, he is attempting to naturalise banks to argue that they shouldn’t be exempt from the free-market model (i.e. unregulated). You can see where he makes this point explicitly in my notations below (starred zealously). He says:
There is an argument that banking is different. It won historic acceptance [and] perhaps that was a good bargain, but it is a bargain that is no longer available.
The central issue seems to be that if the Co-op wants to be a bank, it must become a bank. It needs to put in place a capital structure and governance structure, impose a clear separation between the banking tills and the grocery checkouts, and recruit board members and staff with extensive banking experience.
Here Kay’s politics and poetics interact beautifully. His politics implies that because the Co-op is functioning well in its current state, it would be detrimental to artificially “put in place” or “impose” a “structure” onto it. His poetics agree: this is the first time in the article that he has used tricolon (or rule-of-three), a technique inseparable from persuasive rhetoric and fairly distant from narrative storytelling. This may strike a discord with the reader who has so far been treated to Kay’s Co-op story; all of a sudden we are in an essay. Banking regulations have disrupted the story, suspended the plot, and this discredits them via our aesthetic sensibilities. That the tricolon is punctuated by those three business-like verbs “put in place”, “impose”, and “recruit” serves to heighten its artificiality.
There isn’t a sentence in this short article which doesn’t flout this tension between natural and artificial, between politics and poetics.
We should conclude with the final sentence of Kay’s article. His epilogue is the keystone of the text, and I am very glad that he took the brave decision to place it as the end, not the beginning (for reasons depicted in the above diagram). It reads:
Plurality and diversity are generally sources of stability – in banking as in nature.
The Prac-Critter should notice immediately the lilting cadence of the three rhyming words (“-ity”). The vastly different concepts of plurality, diversity, and stability are bound together through their poetic resemblance. Similarly the repeated construction “in ____” links the nouns “banking” and “nature” better than a more verbose explanation could.
This sentence may remind us of Andrew Marvell’s line “Things greater are in less contain’d”, which demonstrates its point simultaneous to describing it.
Kay’s sign-off finally reveals his article for what it has been all along: a bold call for the re-evaluation of banking as a natural and free-market point of exchange. In fact, do you remember, this is exactly what his title said from outset? Ah but it is only the Prac-Critter who will read the article to the end and, in doing so, become privy to the powerful and subtle techniques employed throughout.
*I have a wider ambition: to explain that we Prac-Critters should view every situation that man has touched with rigorous attention to how and why it achieves what it achieves.
– Tom Margold’s BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘Inside the Bermuda Triangle: The Mysteries Solved.’
Practical Criticism #4: Well-employed sources make a text. They are working bibliography which shows not only that the writer has read widely about a subject, but also thought beyond it. Conflating here; diluting there.
In this sense, citations should also come with a health warning: CAN UNRAVEL ARGUMENTS. For example, quote Robert Conquest on 20th-Century Russia or Germany at your peril. Cite Dryden on Shakespeare with many caveats.
Similarly too, the advice for academics: reference pop culture—like the science fiction novels of the 1950s—rarely.
Tom Margold’s dryly cynical documentary into the origins of the Bermuda Triangle myths and mysteries is an exception to this advice. His show is an excursion into the formulation of frustrating pop-culture superstitions themselves; about how tales of the city of Atlantis, of UFOs, and government conspiracy theories, are propped against each other to create universally known—and believed?—tales such as the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness monster, David Hasslehoff, etc.
Margold takes a good ten minutes to interview the writer of the 1974 text The Devils Triangle. It’s a tug-and-pull moment of broadcasting where the sceptic meets the writer who says straight-faced: “It is an astonishing, baffling, fully documented true life mystery of the hundreds of helpless victims, sucked up by giant water spouts, sea monsters and flying saucers.” It is a dramatisation of what really happened, the writer tells us.
Fine. Margold proves his point. And he is a good model against which to pick at Tom Holland. The issue that is taken with citing science fiction—or ci-sci-fi as we could call it—is when it is used in academic discourse to demonstrate the permeation of a niche idea or text into pop culture. This is rarely convincing.
And here are the problems.
Holland’s chosen topic is already broad enough in scope. He is trying to show not only that the rise of Islam in the West in 800AD is causally related to the fall of the Roman Empire since year 0, but that Rome’s trajectory is the archetype of all ‘fall’ narratives since, influencing the Prophet Mohammad, Camelot, and The Gothic.
On top of all this is 20th-Century sci-fi.
And it is on citing Isaac Asimov’s 1951 sci-fi novel Foundations that Holland stumbles. He states:
“There were nearly twenty-five-million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said.” So begins Isaac Asimov’s Foundations, a self-conscious attempt to relocate Gibbon’s magnum opus to outer space. First published in 1951, it portrayed a galactic imperium on the verge of collapse, and the attempt by an enlightened band of scientists to insure that eventual renaissance would follow its fall.
None of this should be disputed in itself. It is what Holland evidences it with that is the problem. He ci-sci-fis to prove both the legacy of “gripping narratives” from Rome’s fall, and the “curious” happening that 1950s novelists had beaten historians to the realisations that Muhammad is key to Rome’s demise by some 20 years.
The predicament Holland is in is that sci-fi is probably the least impressive source of modern literature’s indebtedness to antiquity (think of Joyce’s Ulysses on dead epic, of McCarthey’s The Road on dead civilisation) but is required in his study to bolster the point that the Muhammad legend arose from Rome’s decline.
Holland is reduced to second-rate sources, and it shows. At times he is shifty-eyed and evasive. He admits that
unlike Star Wars and Battlestar Gallactica, Asimov drew direct sustenamce from his historical model
which translates as
most sci-fi hasn’t got anything to do with the fall of Rome.
He says too on this ‘power narrative’ legacy in general: “It can take an effort, though, to recognise this.” This means, ‘My links are tenuous’.
This slight self-doubt from Holland creeps throughout his article. I think he is aware that he is using the rise and fall of the Roman Empire as an analogy for all ‘rise and fall of power’ narratives. Other than Asimov’s Foundations being allied with Gibbon’s text, Holland’s use of sci-fi proves little more than the fact that readers love a good story, and that a good story needs power and antagonism.
Practical Criticism #2: This irreconcilable debate about the government granting homosexual marriages comes down to definition: what does the word marriage, not the act, mean?
Seeing as policy and practice play such a small part in the discussion, it can only be the job of the Prac-Critter to wade through the shitty swamps of rhetoric and find the golden nugget. The newspapers, MPs, the Church, vie for a voice. So how has Christina Odone, commentator on the issue for The Daily Telegraph, fared in this posturing farce of a word-flinging match?
Depending on how you read it, her article on Wednesday 8th March 2012 (‘Marriage is a blessing, not a fortress that must be stormed’) is full of gusto/guff. Her top-line is unequivocal: “The demand for gay equality threatens to undermine our most valuable institution”. Her two persuasive techniques are rudimentary:
1/ Easy generalisations. Easy to write, easy on the mind, all too easy to skim over and accept in a hurry.
2/ Clerical lexicon. Which shows us just how sacred religion must be, for us to have adopted it into idiom.
First, generalisations. Ms Odone is a bit of a sucker for these, writing in her second paragraph on the fact that “marriage matters”:
“After decades of rejecting the institution as old-fashioned and patriarchal, women and men are both waking up to the fact that it makes overwhelming sense.”
Excuse my ignorance, but which were the decades when all women and men “rejected” marrriage as “old-fashioned and patriarchal”? The ’80s and ’90s? The ’00s? Since 1945 when we all thought: ‘What’s the point in marriage if we’re all going to die at war anyway’? Sorry if I missed it, but I don’t recall the Great Marriage Rejection of 1972. I wonder if that makes chick-flicks the last bastion of religious conservatism? Hold strong, ladies, Patrick Dempsey is waiting down the aisle for you.
Sadly the writer’s flair for flippancy does makes her argument on marriage confused. Remember, this is a debate about the word ‘marriage’, not the act. And Ms Odone has got a little muddled as to what ‘marriage’ actually signifies: It is simultaneously “blessed”, “our most valuable institution” and yet “anything but natural”. It is responsible for “cementing the bonds”, “laying the foundations”, but it also “reins in our instincts”, “institutionalises our love” and inexplicably “thwarts the masculine impulse towards promiscuity and feminine self-interest”.
What a dynamic institution marriage is! If it were a person, it would definitely be a small, fat, tall, short, personable, hermit-like, sharply-dressed tramp of a person.
But her empty rhetorical suggestion that marriage is both “divine and artificial” is very illuminating. Because marriage has become either a religious or a civil act, its definition has been stretched across two essentially very different ceremonies, one “divine”, one “artificial”. Ms Odone’s understandable confusion comes from not noticing that while getting married is one or the other (in a church or a registry office) the word ‘marriage’ means both (putting a ring on your finger, wherever you are).
In this case it’s quite easy to answer one of her more speculative questions. She says rightly that the government’s plans to legalise gay marriage “will not affect religious institutions, only civil ones”, and then goes:
“But given that the gay marriage lobby seeks equality in this area, how long would it accept the ban on gays marrying in church or synagogue? It is bound to argue that exclusion from a religious ceremony amounts to discrimination, and will almost certainly campaign to force priests and vicars to celebrate gay marriages . . .”
Hang on! “Almost certainly”? Why isn’t Ms Odone using her prophetic powers to invest in next Sunday’s winner of the 15:43 at Chepstow?
It is an utterly misguided argument to suggest that gays would want to “celebrate” their love with an institution that thinks they are eternally damned. That would be like black people wanting to play golf, like a woman wanting to present Top Gear.
It all comes down to the writer’s inflated esteem for the church, something made clear by:
Second, her frequent use of clerical lexicon: that freedom of belief will “be sacrificed at the altar”, that marriage is a “blessing”, that the gay marriage lobby is the devil’s “advocate”.
Starting down the lexicon path is not a good one for her; it takes us to the houses of debt we owe the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Norse, but not the Catholics or Anglicans. You don’t see us rhetoricising with them like some selective sneak, do you?
I know James Joyce subtly deployed a military lexicon in ‘The Dead’, but if he jumped in front of a car would you do to too, Ms Odone?