Saturday, January 13, 2007

What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage

Thrusting my aged features close to their spotty ones and temporarily stunning them with a gust of 40-year-old Laphroaig, I often say to aspiring young journalists, 'Nobody buys the paper to read you, sunshine.' In fact, discovering why people read newspaper can be a very shocking and lowering experience. This thought is inspired by an email I have received from the New York Times listing their most viewed articles of 2006. Top of the list is What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage. The first sentence of this milestone in contemporary journalism is: 'As I wash dishes at the kitchen sink, my husband paces behind me, irritated. "Have you seen my keys?" he snarls, then huffs out a loud sigh and stomps from the room with our dog, Dixie, at his heels, anxious over her favorite human's upset.' My knuckles are now white with the effort of not commenting on this. I shall content myself with a silent scream. Elsewhere in the top ten are two other lists - best American fiction of the last 25 years and best books of 2006. Where is the lists of lists, the supreme meta-list? Nothing on Iraq, though there is one story about climate change. All serious journalism seems to float on a sea of dogs called Dixie and dumb ass relationship babble like (number 3) Questions Couples Should Ask (Or Wish They Had) Before Marrying, which, of course, has the added bonus of an illiterate and ungrammatical headline. If only all these people could be persuaded to read grammatically sound books with excellent spelling like this one.


  1. As the character Daisy says in 'Spaced', when searching for journalistic ideas, "I can't just write another 'Winter skin-care: dos and don'ts'!"

  2. Just ordered my copy, Bryan. Though I admit to feeling a little uneasy regarding your claims regarding its exemplary spelling. Protesting too much and all that. I wonder have you read Huxley's After Many a Summer and its brilliant black humour regarding an American tycoon's scientific pursuit of immortality.
    Apologies to recidivist.

  3. According to an article in the Christmas issue of 'The Economist', Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University has analysed the happiness of people in different types of job, and concluded that journalism is a 'prototypically misaligned profession', populated by reporters who want to write important and influential articles, but work for productions read by a public interested in stories which are scandalous, sensational and superficial.

  4. Do we tend only to buy those newspapers that confirm our own worldview? I for one have a pathological aversion to some titles either for their fatuous content but especially for their political bias. And then within our chosen paper, do we only read those articles or news stories on issues which we already have an interest in - we just scan the rest? I think I may be guilty of this. I certainly have to make a conscious effort to read about some topics that I don't find particularly interesting but feel I should really know about. Of course, one can't read a paper from cover to cover. I always read the death notices and I love obits - is that something I should be doing at my age ( still under 40)?

  5. Alas, Mr Appleyard, newspapers exist in order to sell advertising space and to provide influence for their proprietors. On the other side of the equation we have a semi-literate population reared on a diet of television and soundbites. If one factors in the comfort to be derived from reading what one agrees with, one arrives at a formula which has spawned such publications as the Daily Mail.

    Whatever his talents and aspirations, the journalist is caught in the middle.

    Incidentally, I have belatedly just read your piece on The Last King of Scotland; thank you.

  6. Do we know each other, Dr Johnson?

  7. I believe not, Sir. I have long been a reader of your journalism, which I do not always agree with, but is enjoyable and informative. And I must say I share your generally pessimistic outlook for the ecosphere and hence for our own ridiculous species.

  8. Bryan, you'll hate me for bringing up Dalrymple again, I think, but while I have questions and know what I know is far less than what I do know, I think there are different kinds of people, and the minority are introspective, kind, and practice restraint. However, in the past, there were times that the 'environment' and teaching indicated the values of civilization, of excellence, of what is beautiful and good. Can anyone imagine Shaw's Pygmalion being written in the twenty-first century? I do not have name names of our celebrity 'courtesans', I trust, or athletes.

    The 'West', losing the value of its heritage, is I think heading into a downward spiral. I don't know the way out, and perhaps this helps to explain the conflicts we face now.

    I think your writing assists in the battle, the questioning, as I see it.

    The best selling books and most read essays are trivial at best, malicious at worst, reflecting this corruption.

    The clash of 'civilizations' is not the problem; do you not find the choices made by the 'leaders' of 'The West', the writers, professors, artists, not just politicians, a far greater source of peril?

    In this essay, What We Have to Lose , Dalrymple writes movingly, to me, on the topic, and I quote below a relevant excerpt:

    To paraphrase Burke, all that is necessary for barbarism to triumph is for civilized men to do nothing: but in fact for the past few decades, civilized men have done worse than nothing—they have actively thrown in their lot with the barbarians. They have denied the distinction between higher and lower, to the invariable advantage of the latter. They have denied the superiority of man's greatest cultural achievements over the most ephemeral and vulgar of entertainments; they have denied that the scientific labors of brilliant men have resulted in an objective understanding of Nature, and, like Pilate, they have treated the question of truth as a jest; above all, they have denied that it matters how people conduct themselves in their personal lives, provided only that they consent to their own depravity. The ultimate object of the deconstructionism that has swept the academy like an epidemic has been civilization itself, as the narcissists within the academy try to find a theoretical justification for their own revolt against civilized restraint. And thus the obvious truth—that it is necessary to repress, either by law or by custom, the permanent possibility in human nature of brutality and barbarism—never finds its way into the press or other media of mass communication.

  9. Drat - what I meant to type is:

    "I know what I know is far less than what I don't know."

    Hawking and Dawkins I am not.

  10. Sokrates, I have a cup of hemlock here you might be interested in....

    Otherwise, I loved the link to questions couples should ask each other before marriage. Well, there would be NO marriages if couples answered them all honestly. I find #12 the real dealbreaker: "Does my family do anything that annoys you?"

    I could tell you in-law stories! For that matter, so could my poor husband. But here we are after 23 years, so perhaps the true answers to those questions don't matter so much as the psychologists think....

  11. Susan, while Hemlock is questionable for me, I foresee a Burqa in your future.


  12. Susan, as Winston Churchill said to Nancy Astor, "If I were your husband, I'd drink it."

    Plato wrote "The only standard today is the pleasure of the hearers no matter what sort of men they are...but those are blind who have no standard, and the Divine is the eternal measure."