Dead ringer for Mr Tumnus, the faun in the original chronicle of Narnia, first seen carrying parcels and an umbrella through the snow covered forest. But this man first came to public attention amidst the blood and gore of the bombed Boston marathon. He is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of two brother bombers (Tamerlan the elder was killed in a shoot-out with Boston police) whose face – cupid lips and curly hair – currently adorns the front cover of Rolling Stone.
‘Looking like the cover of a 20 dollar magazine….’
A kind and gentle face, apparently. The kind of pristine pretty boy face that teen girls like to imagine atop the mangled body of a motorbike casualty.
‘You get the picture? Yes, we do.’
Although the same photograph of Dzhokhar had already been used by the New York Times, Rolling Stone’s cover shot has been singled out for ‘glamorising terrorism’. Hardly the intention of investigative reporter Janet Reitman. She contrasts this hardly-more-than-a-boy with the cold killer he-turned-out-to-be, and tries to account for the transformation.
If Reitman is in the wrong for writing this feature, then so was Truman Capote; so too is almost every instance of long form journalism on cold blooded killing. Crime reporting is only acceptable if it trains a laser on the killer’s forehead (like the Boston police pics leaked in response to the cuddly cover shot). Surely not. But Rolling Stone does get it badly wrong by saying that Dzhokhar ‘fell into Radical Islam’ because he was ‘betrayed by his family’. Betrayed by rock’n’roll, more like.
Rock’n’roll: the mythology which allows disaffected young men to ‘Paint It Black’. The platform for playing at ultra-violet Alex and his Droogs a la Andrew Loog Oldham-era Rolling Stones. The space to be The Outsider, up to and including ‘Killing an Arab’ (The Cure carrying on like Albert Camus).
He lacks the headline features which mark out Motor City’s most famous front men: the elegance of Smokey Robinson; Stevie Wonder’s wraparound modernism (woven into his sharkskin suits; signed and sealed by sunglasses the blind boy wore but never saw).
At the microphone, Kevyn Orr looks like a backing singer; but he is the ‘emergency financial manager’ who took the lead when the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy on Friday.
This is the city that built the cars that gave America wheels, and wrote the soundtrack to twentieth century social mobility in the form of Tamla Motown records. When he founded the label in 1959, ex-car worker Berry Gordy modelled his ‘Hitsville USA’ on the assembly line composed by Henry Ford and first aired at Ford’s Detroit factory.
Before the riots which broke out in 1967 – troops on the streets, 43 dead: with hindsight, the first casualties of early-onset deindustrialisation – Detroit City must have seemed like a fast track to the Great Society.
Tamla Motown’s Detroit sound had embodied the prospect of inner city blacks moving onwards and upwards; it also meant whites listening to black performers not for their ‘authenticity’ but because they were ‘mod’: more Mondrian than Mississippi (John Hurt).
But in 1972 Tamla outsourced itself to Los Angeles, city of suburbs. Released by Marvin Gaye a year earlier, ‘Inner City Blues’ (Panic is spreading/God knows where we’re heading) elegised the imminent demise of Detroit’s aspirations.
Though his home ground is a different Northern city – Chicago – Barack Obama serves as full realisation of the Tamla-World that Wasn’t-To-Be: the African-American president whose white shirts are brighter, his suits even sharper than JFK’s. Obama is Stevie-Wonder-in-the-White-House; he brings the elegance of Smokey Robinson into the Oval Office. But this is the West Wing transported into Dreamland. Detroit’s Kevyn Orr is the mundane reality – the stolid performer whose background in corporate revues and rescue packages should have condemned him to remain in the backline, instead of starring in Detroit’s farewell show.
Trayvon Martin was shot dead in February 2012 after George Zimmerman profiled him as a perp. Seconds later, according to his mother’s court testimony, Zimmerman was on the phone screaming for an ambulance: the shooter had modified the fatally wounded teenager’s profile from perp to victim.
Called as a prosecution witness in Zimmerman’s trial (on Saturday night a Florida jury acquitted him of second degree murder after a second day of deliberation), Rachel Jeantal, the 19-year-old friend that Martin was on the phone to shortly before Zimmerman shot him, testified that Martin had told her he was being followed by a ‘creepy-ass cracka’. Zimmerman’s Peruvian descent failed to show in Martin’s instant profile of him: the teenager already had him down as white fright, vigilante material.
Thankfully there are numerous episodes which overturn even the most prevalent profiles. The day after Zimmerman’s acquittal, in Pennsylvania a five-year-old girl was rescued from the clutches of a suspected paedophile by every cracker’s next worst nightmare – two black youths on their BMX-style bikes. But instead of everyone’s iPhone, they snatched Jocelyn Rojas back from the kidnapper and returned her to the bosom of her (pasty-white) mother.
In the UK the latest advert for McDonald’s plays on a similar role reversal. A black teenager and an elderly white man live in different worlds (from the music they listen to – dance band versus dancehall, to the way they hitch their trousers up or down). We are invited to profile them as cultural and/or natural enemies: mutual hostility is in their jeans if not in their genes – along the lines of ex-Marine Michael Caine warring with South London youth in the eponymous film Harry Brown. Only this movie, shot on an East London housing estate by advertising agency Leo Burnett, ends with a twist: sitting down at separate tables, teenager and pensioner clock each other enjoying their burger and fries. Across a crowded food outlet, their eyes meet in a moment of mutuality; against type, ‘we all have McDonald’s in common’.
He looked as if he was not fed very well but he’s got the perfect haircut’, observed Russian MP Vyacheslav Nikonov after ‘whistleblower’ Edward Snowden, late of the United States’ National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, appeared before an invited audience of lawyers and human rights professionals inside the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
Snowden’s ‘perfect haircut’ is short at the back and sides, longer out front and on top – the classic High School ‘sports cut’ grown up, grown out and gone wrong.
Snowden himself is a ‘perfect’ representative of the West’s disaffected middle class. Fine features in a WASP-ish complexion. Spectacles for seriousness-with-self-consciousness: rectangular lenses (antidote to the Vietnam-era aviator-shape), coloured, ‘creative class’ frames that speak supposedly sophisticated North European (parlez-vous Ikea?) in contrast to the allegedly crude dialect of Middle America.
Now 30, Snowden’s carrying a couple of days of apparently adolescent stubble. More beard (six months’ more, at this rate) and he could pass for Harold Shrinks, jazz musician father of cartoon-boy George Shrinks, who woke up to find himself three inches tall. Maybe that’s how Snowy will eventually make his escape from Moscow airport – as a miniature manikin in the pants pocket or hidden in the hand luggage of a human rights lawyer. Either that or send in Hollywood’s Edward Norton as a Snowden lookalike: stick a mole on Norton’s neck and roughen his pearly whites; the CIA won’t know which one to track.
Edward Snowden speaks like technical experts do when they expect to be listened to – quietly, confidently, a tad self-righteously. His self-righteousness is truly remarkable, and not only because Snowden’s CV contains a couple of discomfiting quirks (the distance learning MA he never completed; the computing course at John Hopkins which took place in a university building but wasn’t part of the main University).
By nailing down the unions, the Labour leader seeks to make his name: ‘Coffin Ed’. He hopes the Sun’ssub-editors won’t get away with writing ‘Red Ed Miliband’ in future. Needn’t have worried: they’re long dead, the Labour Party members who sought to be ‘grave-diggers of the bourgeoisie’; along with the blood-red life they shared.
Here they are, in amongst the newly elected members of Coventry City Council, photographed in April 1928 – nearly three decades after the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, a group of MPs (mainly Liberal) representing the interests of working people; seven years after the constitution of the Labour Party; two years after the General Strike.
You can spot the Labour men (and one woman) because they are the ones not wearing robes like other councillors, nor the wigs that mark out the council’s legal officers: they wouldn’t do anything to differentiate themselves from their electorate, the undifferentiated mass of working people.
Among them is the maternal grandfather I never knew. Not much to go on here: another man in a dark suit; collar and tie; short back and sides, parted on the left. From this you’d say there wasn’t much to get to know; but getting to know you wasn’t the point. Individual appearance didn’t come into the picture; my grandfather appeared for the great unknown. He was there to represent the collective interests of people personally unknown to him. Yes, he had a name, but in those days for ‘James Latham’ you were invited to read ‘Everyman’; or – only 10 years after the end of the War he refused to fight in – ‘the rank and file’.
Today’s unions – Unison, Unite – are named after the idea of collective interest; but only in the same way that children are named after their grandparents. The name changes, even when it stays the same; the union stays a ‘union’ even though it has already changed beyond recognition. And what’s already dead is now being certified by Coffin Ed, who seeks to demonstrate – but not on the streets! – that individuality is paramount, even in the party of previously undifferentiated Labour. Thus Miliband’s Labour-union reforms are couched in the form of a personal invitation, designed to offer ‘a more active and individual choice’ to ‘individual trade union members’ because this is ‘better for these individuals’.
I am approaching this grisly story in the spirit of the Roman playwright Terence, who declared:
Homo sum: humani a me nihil alienum puto. In English, I am a man: nothing human is alien to me.
Abu Sakkar is the Syrian rebel who was filmed eating the body of a government soldier. That is, he is seen dismembering the soldier’s corpse and pulling out a body part – heart, lung, liver? – which he lifts up and holds in his hands before his mouth closes round it in a cannibal’s kiss.
Take, eat, this is my body….
Not merely unpalatable, Sakkar’s action was widely condemned as barbaric and inhuman: an affront to all human beings; the desecration of our common humanity. In response, Sakkar insisted that anyone who had suffered like the people of his home town, Homs, would be prepared to do as much. He also maintained that his was a symbolic act intended to humiliate and terrify the enemy.
…. this is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
In the ritual act at the heart of the Catholic Mass, bread and wine are transformed – transubstantiated – into the body and blood of Christ. In the outward form of unleavened bread, the priest holds aloft the body of Christ – tinga-linga-ling goes the sanctus bell; eats him and drinks his blood before inviting the congregation to make a meal of it.
The avowed aim is the direct opposite of Sakkar’s depravity: to dignify rather than terrify; and so an end to enmity.
Instead of appearing to desecrate our common humanity, transubstantiation serves to consecrate ordinary things and everyday people in the name of Jesus Christ. As bread becomes body so Christians come collectively alive in Corpus Christi. They don’t see it as such, but composing themselves as one body is the real substance of their ‘God’.
Yet in order to achieve this, liturgy is obliged to become mythology. And it turns out that the myth of the Catholic mass is the mirror image of Abu Sakkar’s ritual display: both are peddling a memorable line in sacrificial victims; each entails eating the Other.
The sound quality of the secret recording of Rupert Murdoch speaking privately to Sun journalists arrested as part of Operation Elveden, is predictably poor. The effect, unless you’re looking at a written transcript at the same time, is to reduce what’s said to a series of key words; explosive consonants and metallic vowels surfacing above the low murmurings of an elderly monarch.
Music of a concrete kind.
The way he says it, Absolutely (meaning: my unqualified sympathy for your unfortunate position) cuts through like a serrated edge; gleams like aluminium. I’m just as annoyed sounds similar to the rhythm in Ravel’s Bolero. You guys is Rupert’s crash cymbal. For example: you guys were thrown out of bed in police raids; whereas when police question people from the BBC, they’re asked to come in softly softly for a cup of tea at four o’clock. Tss tut-tut-tss tut-tut-tss: you guys.
Sometimes he will Slap papers or Boom his fist down on the table. On the One, Funkadelic’s George Clinton would have said. Then the words that follow perform an offbeat role: Boom, the left-wing get-even crowd of George Brown; Slap, what they’re doing (in revenge for 38 years of the Sun).
Rupert Murdoch talks about News Corp having been close to panic: over-reacting to police and media pressure; setting up the infamous Management and Standards Committee, i.e. Internal Affairs. The people’s he talking to on the tape – you guys – seem to have been volunteered; sent in as a kind of suicide squad, and Rupert the newspaperman makes out that within the company only the lawyers were really responsible for sacrificing these other newspapermen. Whether or not this is true, from the rhythms and cadences of his speech it is clearly what the Old King needs to believe.
Illness has again interfered with my work schedule. So this first entry for July should have been my last word in June. In line with other last words at the end of previous months, it is a comment on what I’m doing here rather than a further example of me doing it.
There have been some changes. A couple of weeks ago I changed the title of my blog from Take 2: composing the news to Singing The News: digital ballads for the common reader. This because the fact that my pieces are re-writes or second takes – Take 2 – on information which has already entered the public domain, is not the most important thing about them; and since it is of secondary importance, I finally realised that this aspect ought not to occupy the top line. Duh!
In the change of title, my efforts to lift news out of its traditional register are now accorded top priority. I have also added a second deck: ‘reaching for the universal in today’s top stories’. In this additional line I declare my intention to re-constitute news events as part of the general or universal experience of being human, instead of constructing them largely as aberrations – odd things happening to peculiar people, as in the Shock! Horror! School of Traditional Journalism.
These two new lines are themselves aligned to the distinction between form and content. Taken together, however, they also suggest the essential relation between the two. Thus, it is suggested that striving to realise universal content requires a different register or form, in which news is not so much straight talking but more of a hymn sung to humanity.
Both form and content come together in the idea of the ‘common reader’ – ‘common’ as in the content of our lives which we have in common; which in turn identifies human beings/being human as the universal. This expressed in a particular form of words and arrived at, hopefully, on the part of the reader.