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Calcutt’s Cartoons: an experiment in literary journalism

What follows is a small scale attempt at a different way of doing journalism – a new version of journalism which might have less difficulty distinguishing itself from the rest of the digital landscape.

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Andrew Calcutt

Proof Set 3, May 2012 The Reformation of Journalism

Introduction

What follows is a small scale attempt at a different way of doing journalism – a new version of journalism which might have less difficulty distinguishing itself from the rest of the digital landscape. However, the fact that the author of this experiment feels the need to introduce it, already suggests that it may not have been entirely successful. If his Cartoons really represented a new way of doing journalism, they would need no further presentation; speaking for themselves, they would be self-sufficient, surely?

But please note that nothing like the Cartoons experiment has ever been conducted before. Moreover, writing the Cartoons forms only part of the experiment; the other part consists of how you receive them. Accordingly, it seems reasonable to explain to you, in your role as Part Two of the experiment, what the author hopes you will receive from Part One. This in the further hope that something will be gained from the Cartoons experiment – perhaps enough for an improved version of it, even if the early results of the first iteration were not up to scratch.

Others among you will have recoiled at the prospect of ‘literary journalism’. Oil and water, some of you are saying. Again, please note that the current issue of Proof is primarily concerned with form; also that the Cartoons comprise an experimental form of words for potential use by journalists. Furthermore, following Cyril Connolly’s construction that literature is to be read twice and journalism less often, Proof’s Cartoons comprise a form of writing which requires the writer to read and re-read his own words, drafting and re-drafting in order to formulate them just so. Hence the hybrid: ‘literary journalism’.

Enough caveat; let’s get on.

The idea is to devise a new form of reporting which gets to the essence of what’s being reported. Not that previous forms of reporting have failed to do this. Formats such as the inverted pyramid were largely successful in their own way, for their own times. The problem is that their times and ours are not the same. Accordingly, at this time even old stagers cannot play the same part as well as they used to. New ways are needed for journalism to regain its essential character.

The argument that essence is essential to journalism – summarised as ‘the importance of being essentialist’ – is set out elsewhere in Proof, so there is no need to re-set it here. But why is this form – the Cartoon – thought to be of the essence? That is the question for this Introduction. Here is the Cartoonist’s first answer:

  • The Cartoon is designed to allow the reporter to shift instantaneously from close up to long shot, from particular detail to general observation. Working within one, and only one, format – the Cartoon, the reporter can move his material very quickly, reconfiguring his observations the instant he arrives at them; in much less time than it would take to make the transfer across a series of multimedia platforms.
  • The Cartoon caters for the reporter’s peripheral vision: it enables him to make sideways references to other, prior representations of human experience, such as advertising copy, pop songs, iconic images, as well as literary sources; incorporating these into what becomes a new composition. Thus the reported event is located not only in space and time (where and when, as of old); it is also positioned in the media landscape – today’s common land.
  • Timing is crucial: the Cartoon is based on the assumption that most of its readers will have already received the latest basic information, coming at them along different, digital pathways (text, Twitter, online TV). It does not attempt to compete with these on speed of information delivery. Its selling point is composition. It addresses the reader as follows: though you will already have seen or heard of this event in bits and bytes, its essence is revealed here for the first time, now that it has been composed into a Cartoon.

By way of a second answer to the same question – why this form now?, here’s how the cartoonist came upon the Cartoon as a form of writing.

On and off over the past few years I have worked on a comic novel about the attempt to generate a shared national experience by hosting the Olympics in London. This story of mine, Games Makers: a London satire, was eventually published on April Fool’s Day 2012 and is now freely downloadable at http://londonsatire.com. I won’t ruin the suspense by summarising the plot; suffice to say that panic breaks out among those in charge of London 2012 when the mega-event they’ve staked everything on, looks set to become the non-event of all time – the world’s first mega-non-event. Their problem is that the Games are not tangible enough to become truly memorable; still less a transformative experience. With the Olympics about to start, Londoners remain stubbornly unengaged. Meanwhile the Director of the Cultural Olympiad cannot bear London’s lightness of being any longer; he makes a last ditch attempt to give the Games weight, substance and tangibility; until it all comes crashing down around him.

Clear as mud? You are welcome go ahead and read the novel. But for now, please note that writing Games Makers was my attempt to make the intangible, tangible. By describing London-lite, I was trying to constitute it as something we can grasp. Not blowing the mist away, but thickening the air; making London foggy again. Similarly, Alex Cameron, the superb designer who worked with me on the finished product (if you download Games Makers from our site, be sure to click on his PDF version), developed a set of typographical devices – twists and turns in the use of type – so that the form in which the story is contained, also contains the very thing that is lacking in the lives of its characters: texture. This bears repeating: with this text, texture is what we were aiming to create.

As I finished the novel, I started to apply some of the same techniques in an effort to describe not just one event, visible on the London horizon since 2005; but a stream of events, as and when they appeared in the news. Again, the goal was to capture each event, to materialise it in the description thereof. In other words, to get at the essence of it; where essence is not to be confused with the basics, which, increasingly, can be obtained for free, and with decreasing reference to paid-for, professional journalists.

Thus the work which has gone into the Cartoons is a continuation of the work which went into Games Makers. In both projects, in much the same way, I have been trying to arrive at a form which allows us (the writer and his readers) to hover over the media landscape and touch base with the fine detail of human experience.

Whether this could work as a new way of working for journalists; moreover, a way of working that other people would be willing to pay for – I honestly do not know. I would like to think so. As a precedent, I have in mind the kind of photography which emerged in the 1930s in the work of Kertesz and others. At that moment more people than ever before were starting to take photographs, partly because of the increasing availability of cameras such the Kodak Brownie, and partly because of the proliferation of cars like the Model T, which transported millions of folk to new places where they were keen to take pictures of each other. However, just as the camera became generally available, instead of all photographs defaulting to the level of holiday snaps, there emerged a special form of photography – a higher form, and with it a new kind of photographer. Similarly, the moment – this moment of ours – when almost anyone can report the basics using digital media technology, may also be the moment when a special form of reporting emerges – a higher form, and with it a new kind of reporter.

But the Proof of the writing is in the reading: it is for you to decide whether the sketches I have come up with could form the template for a different kind of reporting.

You may think that the writing is just not good enough; or perhaps you will say this is simply not journalism; and even if you accept that the writing is not bad, and that it could be described as journalistic, it might also be the case that the form in which it appears, remains prohibitively idiosyncratic. If having read the Cartoons you come to this last conclusion, you are effectively saying that the experiment was a brave one, and its results may be worth looking at, if you happen to have the time, yet it is ultimately unreal, not serviceable, because it is not reproducible: nothing like this form of writing can be practiced by other writers. This would make me a far, far lesser version of L.S. Lowry, who was both a uniquely brilliant artist and a dead-end in the history of art. Whereas with the Cartoons my ambition has been – still is – to influence the history of journalism, by showing that journalism can become not the first draft of history (been there, done that), but history’s first composition.

Please read the following Cartoons and compose your responses, if you have any, to andrewcalcutt@gmail.com

Cartoons

(1)

Royal Preserve

Dateline: 2nd March 2012

Halfway between a wave and the brush-off, Prince Harry gestures to Caribbean photographers at the start of his first solo tour. He is ginger and slightly gauche. Back in London his grandmother, the elderly Queen Elizabeth, looks quizzically at the food hamper produced by Fortnum and Mason to mark her Diamond Jubilee (1952-2012).

Nestling among the preserves, 60 years of judgment reserved.

(2)

By A Nose

Dateline: 2nd March 2012

When injured journalist Edith Bouvier was brought home to Paris from Homs, Syria, she was carried off the plane sheathed in protective padding – only her nose poking out from under the red wraparound. On the runway, in attendance: President Sarkozy. But this homecoming was too intimate – daughters rush forward to hug their mother’s prostrate form – for Sarkozy to make a show of it. Like the estranged husband that no one finds time to acknowledge, the president of France was obliged to withdraw.

(3)

Anders Breivik: the fascist salute that hardly was

Dateline: 16th April, Central Criminal Court, Oslo

Enter the……disappointment

Fat face. Small eyes behind considerable expanse of flesh and forehead. Receding hair and a thin strip of beard with a patch that’s missing – either his beard is also balding, or he made a mistake when shaving. Bulky. Suit, collar and tie in a style that might be 1970s-retro; but isn’t.

‘Defiant salute,’ they said of Anders Behring Breivik’s far-right gesture to the Oslo court on the first day of his mass murder trial.

(Norway, summer 2011; 77 dead in a killing spree directed ‘against multiculturalism’ – Breivik’s description).

But the Reuters clip shows an understated movement. Breivik’s right arm touches the left side of his chest, grazing it lightly before unbending into the familiar, straight-armed gesture – only for a moment.

His arm has performed a cautious curve, not the absolute angles associated with ‘fascist salute’. Completing this modest arc, Breivik sits down with downcast eyes.

Perhaps he swore to himself he would salute, then lacked the will to tough it out. Perhaps that’s how he murdered his victims: diffidently.

Responding to the rattle and shuffle of countless camera shutters, Breivik half-smiles, his teeth kept hidden by thin lips. Although the cameras are keen, keen, keen to find something striking, exciting, disturbing, there is nothing to show for the extraordinary carnage caused by this seemingly unexceptional person.

A man ill-at-ease with himself, but so what? On that score, no different from a billion others.

(4)

Jason Russell: textbook study of arrested development

Dateline 10th March 2012, Reuters studio

Firm chin, full jaw, and a smile so wide a family of Mexicans could move in there. Of course his teeth are pearly white.

Raised in San Diego, graduate of the University of Southern California, Jason Russell’s face testifies to the expansive wealth of the Sunshine State.

Co-producer/director of world-renowned viral movie Kony 2012, and co-founder of the charity, Invisible Children, Russell is famous for bearing witness to the plight of African child soldiers pressed into Joseph Kony’s militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army. He has come in to a Reuter’s studio to respond to queries and criticisms of his film.

‘I had just finished my film degree at USC’, Russell recalls, ‘and I wanted that post-graduation globetrotting adventure. I figured instead of backpacking Europe, I’d visit an African genocide.’

‘Figured’ – early morning reruns of Wagon Train and Rawhide sure left their mark. ‘Visit an African genocide’ – is this Kardashian-style self-obsession? Or candid admission of same, which effectively cancels it out? Russell’s relaxed manner says: you decide; his self-confidence comes with 40 million internet hits.

He shrugs off the complaint that Kony 2012 is one-sided: ‘this video is not the answer, it is just the gateway to the conversation.’ But this self-confidence is only skin deep; super-facial. Having exposed the plight of particular children, Russell has to hide behind the condition of childhood in general.

‘When you get older, you get muddled and polluted by the way the world is supposed to work,’ he explains. Thus children respond unequivocally to his film because they ‘have very clear understanding’, not ‘muddled’ or ‘polluted’ by grown-up hang-ups; such as objectivity or getting the story right, right?

All that bone and muscle and gristle. So much protein invested in such a prize specimen of American manhood. But still Russell defers to a child’s ‘understanding’.

His kind of deference would make kids of us all.

(5)

Mourning Man and the Dissolution of Self

Dateline 20th April 2012, Jinnah International Airport

Eyes more than half-closed, mouth wide open; thick, upper lip stretched across the horseshoe arch of his top teeth. Whatever it is pouring out of this man’s throat, it clearly means an awful lot to him.

If it was his own hand caressing his right cheek, looking at this picture we’d put him in the midst of a vocal performance; and in our minds we would fill in the sound of him singing. But the hand in the photograph is someone else’s, reaching out to comfort this man whose wife, child, father, friend – who knows?, is presumed dead after an airliner fell out of the sky while preparing to land at Jinnah International Airport, Islamabad.

Microphones on either side of the mourning man, thrust forward to capture his moans and wails, serve to reinforce the idea of performance. For us, in a way, it is. The curve of his open mouth, the framing of the photograph – this is grief, perfectly formed.

But for the man we’re looking at, sheer loss has rendered him shapeless. His feelings are not framed at all. Right now, he does not even have a point of view from which to look back at us.

(6)

Sisters of Surprise

Dateline: 21st April Bahrain

Her head is loosely covered with a shawl, and a lock of hair has spilled out and splashed over the right side of the young woman’s face. The left side is obscured by the glare of bright sunlight shining through a police visor. Right, left – her face is effectively screened off on both sides. Thus the religious rules are more-or-less observed, if only by chance.

Without seeing right through this accidental screening, we are looking at the face of Zayban al-Kkawaja, daughter of human rights activist Adbulhadi al-Khawaja, stopped by helmeted riot cops on her way to the anti-F1 Grand Prix protest in the markets district of Manama, Bahrain. But Zayban is not the one wearing the visor; this belongs to a police officer standing directly in front of her.

Zayban is holding her hands at chest height. She has made them into fists, and although we can’t see her eyes, from the tilt of her head we can tell she is looking intently into the eyes of the officer blocking her way. ‘Are you going to cuff me, then?’, her look, which we can’t quite see, would seem to be saying. The officer’s thumb and forefinger are already wrapped around Zayban’s right wrist.

In order for the religious rules to be observed, however, the restraining officer must be a woman. The rules that dictate segregated protests in Bahrain (male protestors separated from women), also demand segregated policing – only female officers to manhandle female protestors.

Underneath the visor, therefore, a pert nose. Decked out in the stuff of Robocop (matt black padding and webbing), a small, human form. There is even a pouch beneath her helmet at the back of her neck, so that the female Robocop can conceal the rope of her own dark hair.

(7)

Pretend Answers and Real Questions

Dateline: 24th April 2012, Leveson Inquiry, London

Young James’ eyebrows are raised in a continuous, upward frown. Beneath them, his spectacles are fashionably large, the frames transparent like the Milky Bar Kid’s.

The Milky Bar Kid is coming to town. This Milky Bar Kid can’t help himself frown.

With his left hand he is holding onto the lower part of his right arm, which is resting – it’s being made to lie still – on the table in front of him. Meanwhile his right hand is tucked under his left elbow, so that the weight of his left, upper arm is keeping it down.

Hold on tight, he seems to be telling himself, lest extravagant hand movements lead to loose talk.

In town today is James Murdoch, son of, recently resigned from, due to the phone hacking scandal and related events at his father’s News International. At the current session of the Leveson Inquiry, chaired by Lord Leveson and commissioned by prime minister David Cameron to investigate ‘the culture, practices and ethics of the press’, James Murdoch is being asked to answer for a series of internal emails re: his thwarted attempt to overcome restrictions on UK media ownership and gain full control of BSkyB.

The question is: given that the (Liberal Democrat) secretary of state for business was not well disposed towards ‘the Murdoch press’, were you not jockeying for position with the (Conservative) secretary of state for culture, who was likely to look more favourably on a bid from your family firm?

Although James clearly feels the need to keep a grip on himself, he seems to be handling the pressure. He maintains that he would not conduct business in a directly politicised manner. While it is hard to credit such a clear cut distinction between business class and the political elite – as if they only ever speak to each other through formal channels, as he makes this distinction and elaborates upon it, Young James’ voice becomes more insistent; he appears to gain in stature.

Not for what he is ostensibly saying in response to his inquisitors (the flat denial simply sounds flat), but for the tacit questions underlying his answers:

Don’t you people know better than to wash this kind of linen in public? In the tired, old country that you guys live in, have you forgotten what it takes to get anything done?

(8)

Messrs Rueful

Dateline: 1st May 2012

His hands on the table are the mottled hands of an old man, though his eyes are sharp as pins. Pausing between sentences, his mouth defaults to a downward curve – a pictogram of sadness and regret.

Last week, giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, Rupert Murdoch kept his composure, managing to maintain his stance as a newspaperman. Particular answers to detailed questions (so much detail from all those emails) were generally a way of saying: that’s who I am – a newspaperman.

In front of Lord Leveson, Rupert was careful to regret the damage done to others, ruing the day he allowed himself to be compromised by corporate concerns.

If I hadn’t let myself be corporatised, none of this would have happened, Murdoch seemed to be saying. And the way he said it: so much the cartoon he could have been Roger Hargreaves’ latest character, Mister Rueful.

This was a more positive performance than last year when, quizzed by the parliamentary select committee for Culture, Media and Sport (a group of senior MPs), Murdoch Snr had seemed like King Lear upon the blasted heath: lost.

Days later, he killed a newspaper; akin to suicide for a man like him; or, for the man he wants us to think is him. But then, by launching the Sun on Sunday to replace the News of the World (deceased), he was seen resurrecting himself. In his shirtsleeves among the newsmen of Wapping, Rupert rolled the stone away from his own tomb.

Two months later on 1st May, with their announcement that ‘Rupert Murdoch is not fit to undertake the stewardship of a major international company’, members of that select committee are trying to roll it back on top of him; punching his lights out; shutting him out of the corridors of power.

They looked nervous, conscious of the whole world watching, even while making their pronouncement. However much they want to be the MPs who dethroned Murdoch, there’s no guarantee that the British government – or even the British people – will let the old king go down.

In months or years to come, those MPs may be rueful about what they said today; just as Rupert has come to rue the day he looked the other way.

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