Lucy Kellaway on Writing Right

Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times is my new literary crush. She writes acerbic, funny, insightful things about language and its (mis)-uses. Think George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ for the 21st century.

A brief excerpt from one of her recent FT columns on the troublesome issue of bios…

The other day I was invited to a dinner for non-executive directors to talk about women on boards. Even though I would much rather watch MasterChef on the television than go out and discuss this most worn-out of subjects, I said yes because I liked the person arranging it.

Before the event I had to send in a “brief bio”, so I dashed off something like: “Lucy Kellaway is a journalist at the FT, on the board of Admiral and has written various books.” It was short, to the point and based on a model favoured by Ronald Reagan. A friend told me he had seen his delightfully succinct bio at a grand do in the 1980s: “Ronald Reagan is President of the United States”.

In due course I received a list of the other guests’ bios and saw how outlandish my single sentence looked among the short essays they had submitted. I now see that there is a problem with the Reagan model: it doesn’t work quite as well if you aren’t president of the US. Indeed, the less important you are, the more words it seems you need. But looking at these bios – containing facts like “x played intercollegiate basketball three decades ago” or “y serves on the boards of 17 charities” – made me wonder about this trickiest of literary genres. How long should they be? What should they contain? It seems that the bio is trying to do two things: to say who you are and to show you are different from (and more interesting than) other people. Most overdo the first by being too long, and underdo the second.

News of the World an Overdue Downfall

Last year I wrote a column for Snipe pondering the continued existence of News of the World

How the News of the World avoids prosecution under the Trade Descriptions Act is one of life’s little mysteries. The venerable tabloid stakes its reputation almost entirely on elaborate entrapment schemes designed to catch gullible semi-public figures with their trousers down (often literally)…. People have, thanks to years of shoddy journalism and media navel gazing, been conned into the tacit belief that if something happens and is reported upon it is automatically “news.”

It is awfully satisfying that NOTW finally collapsed under the weight of its own mendacity.

Penn – the Social Ivy

I am amused to find a 1999 newspaper column (see below) that I wrote for The Daily Pennsylvanian preserved on the Harvard Crimson site. Did I write it at their request? Syndicate it? Damned if I remember but at least I can claim to have published at Harvard.

Joan Didion wrote: “We are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the poeople we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” I don’t think I’d find my 19-year-old self attractive company. Her politics are non-existent and the jokes are toe-curling. (The Fresh Prince! Really?) But bless her, she had chutzpah.

In West Philadelphia, The Social Ivy

Welcome to the University of Pennsylvania.

If you want to find out about that state school with the good football team, you’re in the wrong place. But if you want a school that offers its undergraduates a vast array of academic opportunities; great sports teams (well, for the Ivy League); and a thriving metropolis (if you can call West Philly that), then read on.

Here’s an account of the good, the bad and the toast throwing to help you see if Ben Franklin’s university is the one for you.

Academic Life

Before you applied to Penn, you selected which of the four undergraduate schools you wanted to be a part of: Wharton School of Business, the College of Arts and Sciences, Engineering or Nursing. What you probably didn’t know is that when you chose a school you also chose your academic reputation for the next four years.

Wharton is the best undergraduate business school in the nation, and the Wharton students will never let anyone else forget it. From their building in the center of campus to their computer labs from which everyone else is banned, Whartonites spend four years looking down on everyone else on campus.

The college, often referred to as the College of Arts and Crafts, is the largest of the schools with departments in the liberal arts as well as the natural and life sciences. The college also offers very popular interdisciplinary majors, such as biological basis of behavior and politics, philosophy and economics. Some college students have an inferiority complex, because they do not have a clear professional path to follow after graduation. But most enjoy the flexibility the college offers.

Students in the school of engineering and applied sciences (SEAS) are not known to be the most fun-loving people on campus. If you see someone in the library on a weekend night, they are probably in SEAS.

Nursing is by the far the smallest of the four schools with only 80 students in each year. But nursing students have the highest average starting salary of the four schools.

No matter what school you are in, you will find that your classes are almost always taught by professors. The only classes that teaching assistant lead are some of the introductory foreign language courses and many of the writing courses.

Penn has its share of the huge lecture classes, too. If you take introduction to economics, psychology, biology or chemistry, expect to be in a class with hundreds of other. All of these big classes break into recitations once a week to discuss the material in a smaller setting.

You will also have the opportunity to take small classes of under 18 students, especially if you are in the college. It is not unusual to have dinner at the professor’s house once during the semester. Many students have found themselves at past Penn President Sheldon Hackney’s house after taking his seminar on America in the ’60s.

The one thing that students in all four school agree on is the problems with the advising system–or lack thereof. Although all students get an adviser in their school and then one in their major, many students feel that advisers exist largely to sign innumerable forms and to give unsolicited advice based on precisely no prior knowledge of one’s skills or goals.

Out of the Classroom

The place where you will learn the most is probably going to be your extracurricular activity.

You can join the oldest all-male college comedy troupe in the country, Mask and Wig, or one of our many a cappella groups. You can write for a daily newspaper or go skydiving with our outdoor clubs. Whatever you choose, you will find yourself and other students completely in charge of running organizations that are among the best in their respective field in the nation. And who cares if that means no sleep?

Many students complain that Penn is a completely apathetic campus. This school is not the type where you will find students having many protests. Penn students this year were the only ones in the Ivy League not to hold a rally about sweatshop labor.

But Penn students do get excited about some things, namely our football and basketball teams. After the third quarter of every football game, students sing a song which ends with the line, “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn.” Back in the day, Penn students used to drink alcohol after singing that line, but many years ago the administration clamped down on the practice. As a protest, Penn students threw actual toast on the field, and the tradition continues to this day. Many Penn students also spend a whole weekend in October camping out at the Palestra, our fabled sports arena, in order to get season basketball tickets.

After the football team clinched the Ivy League title this year, Penn students stormed the football field, tore down one of the goalposts, marched to the Schuykill River and threw it in. And students loyally followed the basketball team to Princeton to see them capture the Ivy title and then tore down the Tigers’ own nets. Some students even flew to Seattle to see the team play in the NCAA tournament.

Housing

Last year, Penn decided to create a “college house” system, so its dorms would feel more like communities. Dorms, or college houses, now have senior faculty living in them and many programs based in the residence. Many students say they don’t notice the difference with the new system, but it is too early to tell how these will pan out.

As a first-year, you likely want to be in one of the four college houses in the Quadrangle. About half of the students decide to move off-campus. But most of the off-campus housing is directly adjacent to campus, so even if you live there, you are still close to everything. Many upperclassmen who decide to stay on campus move to one of the three high rises, apartment-style college houses.

Social Life

They don’t call Penn the “social Ivy” for nothing. Come Friday and Saturday nights (and often Thursday nights, too), you will find Penn students leaving their work behind to find a good time.

Much of your social life during the beginning of your first year will center around fraternity parties with cheap beer and bad ’80s music. However, only a third of people at Penn are involved in the Greek system. Rush occurs in the spring, so you will already have a group of friends and a better idea of how you fit into the school before you have to decide about joining.

Penn students do not confine themselves to campus, but rather take advantage of all that Philadelphia has to offer: from attending concerts at the Electric Factory to dancing at the many downtown clubs to dining out at Restaurant Row. You can easily reach downtown using the subway system, SEPTA, or taxis. But we warned, SEPTA, is dirty, slow and not so safe to ride alone at night.

Penn is also home to Spring Fling, the biggest party on the East Coast (or so they say). This year, however, the University implemented a new alcohol policy that slowed down, but certainly did not stop, people form drinking. A committee is still reviewing the alcohol policy, so it is unclear how is will affect future years.

The ‘Hood

Perhaps Penn’s most famous feature is its location: West Philadelphia. Everyone has heard the stories about the threat the neighborhood and the neighbors pose to the safety of Penn students.

However, while West Philly certainly isn’t Hanover, N.H. or Ithaca, N.Y., it is not half as bad as it is made out to be. In the past few years, violent crime has dropped dramatically. There have been a few major incidents, including an assault in the fall, and there are always the nuisance crimes, such as panhandling and bike theft. But overall, students, including the large number that come from “sheltered suburbs across the country, feel safe.

By now, you have learned almost all there is know about Penn. (You’ll have to wait until you get here to find out about Naked Dash through the Quad.) If you are looking for a school situated among rolling green hills with students who spend their free time discussing Anna Karenina, Penn is not the place for you. But if you are looking for an urban environment with students who study hard and party hard, then head on over to West Philly. The Fresh Prince is waiting.

Snipe ‘Everything In Media Isn’t a Downer’

As I mentioned before, I write a media column for London alternative newspaper Snipe . I’d sort of forgotten about writing this column, but reading it back, I quite like it, and repost it here to prove that, despite my incessent bitching about the evils of the media, sometimes there’s good stuff too — and I don’t even mind admitting it.

Off Fleet Street: everything in media isn’t a downer
Sunday 3 October 2010

For the most part, the media consists of slick sales-pitches. It wants us to buy something, believe someone, serve somebody. Occasionally, however, a piece comes along that offers more than platitudes and does more than prescribe. These magical little moments occur when, and where, they are least expected. Recently, I picked up the October issue of Red for a swift goggle at Vanessa Paradis and came across ‘Why Giving Up Is Good To Do’. A brief, but imminently sensible article critiquing the notion that whatever it is you’re doing, you have to keep doing it till the bitter end. Author Anna Pursglove’s remark that: “The sky… does not fall in when you admit that you never should have done it in the first place or that it worked for you once, but doesn’t any more,” was exactly what I needed to read at that moment.

Other chance encounters have radically altered my way of thinking, have given shape to half-formed ideas, thrown me a life-line. Once, for no good reason I can remember, I bought a copy of Hello! There, in a very small column, lay a quote that still echoes in my head. Tilda Swinton, when asked “Do you take life as it comes or do you try to arrange it actively?” responds: “There are only two questions in life: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How shall I live?’”

Those few words flashed like neon amidst the pages of consumerist nonsense and celebrity gossip. That was the first, and I think the only, time I’ve seen a philosophical question on the pages of a weekly glossy. I tore out the page, folded it up and stuck it next to my passport; it comes out when I start to drown in details need to be reminded that ultimately life is a creative act of self-definition.

Interviews can offer sublime moments. American style mag BlackBook ran a Q&A with Chrissie Hynde that has become a fixture in my scrapbook. In it, the great Pretender levelled on the ridiculousness of competitive consumer culture, saying: “I left the States when I was 22 [because] I saw that I was going to be trapped into buying a car so I could get to work so I could pay for my car, and I thought, that’s not for me.” Later, she remarks: “I just tread my path and stick to the plan. And if anyone wants to come along and be part of it, that’s fine, and if they don’t, fair enough. I’ve never left my philosophy to join someone else’s.” Hallelujah. “I just tread my path and stick to the plan,” is a sentiment worth digging through hundreds of hair tips and restaurant reviews to find.

Media is in a bind. The more people are exposed to radical ideas about self-realisation, creativity and shunning consumerism the less likely they are to spend time and money to gawp at TV presenters and philandering footballers. Luckily, media can be delightfully self-defeating. The powers that be want to sell, sell, sell (ad space, ideology, whatever) but they sometimes do good despite themselves.

Channel 4’s Faking It is a case in point. Though it unapologetically light entertainment, it conveyed the message that—given determination and the proper training—anyone can do almost anything. The sugary reality TV format coated the sharp political truth that most people are constrained not by inherent inadequacies, but by social and educational opportunity.

Ultimately, for all its absurdities, media can still be transcendent. There is a line in my favourite book—Franny & Zooey—in which the narrator refers to: “the rising of a truth, fragmentary or not, up through what often seemed to be an impenetrable mass of prejudices, clichés, and bromides.” Such moments of truth are rare in the popular press, but thankfully not yet extinct.

Snipe Media Column – Advance Notice

Posted by Cila Warncke

Snipe London


London is about to have its first dalliance with a North American-style free newspaper in the form of Snipe and — I’m pleased to say — yours truly will be writing a media column for the bi-weekly publication.

Check out their pre-release website. Then look for the launch issue, out 15 May. I won’t be home yet, quite, so grab me a copy please!

Daily Pennsylvanian: The Politics of Protest

Originally published in The Daily Pennsylvanian, Autumn 2000

Hirsute masses camped around Washington, D.C.’s Reflecting Pool. Stormy-faced libbers incinerating lingerie. Stoic figures reeling under the barrage of fire hoses. And perhaps the most horrific, memorable image of all: stunned Kent State students staring at their compatriots’ bodies on a day that will live in infamy.

Somehow, between the so-called idealism of the ’60s and the hustle-bustle/every-person-for-himself world of the ’80s and ’90s, the word “protest” became just a little bit dirty.

Dirty like an apple cart-upsetting urchin, a useless nose-thumbing at the powers that be, the value of which – if any – is both marginal and decidedly historical.

After all, didn’t the protesters of the ’60s settle down, cut their hair, quit smoking dope and – on their way to becoming our parents – turn into the respectable, law-abiding citizens of today’s USA? That is evidence, we are led to believe, that they eventually recognized just how foolish they looked with their flowers and peace signs.

Implicit in this version of history is the idea that the problems which confronted America in the ’60s – racial inequality, an unjust war, sexual inequality and all the rest – have no present-day counterparts. A dangerous heresy that hints that mass protest is a social relic, irrelevant to our modern age.

The subtle message is that protesting is something of an anachronism. Sure, we still have problems – there are still some social injustices and minor governmental cock-ups – but nothing worthy of making a big, noisy, grubby traffic-halting fuss. Demonstrating – with all the accompanying banner waving, fist pumping and commerce interrupting – is hopelessly naïve and out-dated.

Or is that just what the government and media would like us to believe?

In the backlash of the anti-establishment ’60s, it must have become the Establishment’s top priority to stop any further social upheaval. With women and people of color demanding rights and nice middle-class children standing up to the government and demanding to know what right it had to go bombing a poor Asian country back into the Stone Age, it must have been an ulcer-inducing epoch for the denizens of power in Washington, D.C.

So, how to forestall the upheavals? Well, the easiest way was to convince the next generation that all their parents did was waste a lot of time and look a little silly in the process. Remind them of the peccadilloes, the disorganization, the selfishness, the stubborn idealism, remind them that those hippies were all just doped up to their eyeballs anyway.

Most of all, remind them how inefficient it all was, how messy and unnecessary. Imply, if you don’t actually come out and say it, that the government would have sorted out all the social ills a lot more quickly if officials hadn’t had to waste their time trying to keep well-meaning but daft protesters from wrecking political conventions or getting beaten up by racist rednecks.

Apparently, this approach has succeeded. When was the last time you saw a massive student rally? A serious political protest of any kind? Chances are, even if there was one, the media systemically ignored or belittled it. Remember the Million Man March? Recall that rather than discussing the social and ideological implications the media focused most of its attention on the rather silly post-march controversy over whether or not there were actually a million men, imputing that the whole thing was merely a bizarre ego-gratification exercise for Louis Farrakhan.

More recently, in London, more than 15,000 students rallied to protest against expensive tuition fees. It was a peaceful, organized and generally serious demonstration — which the media just ignored.
It is inexcusable, though, that our generation should submit to such treatment, that we should allow ourselves to be indoctrinated into apathy. There are still battles to be fought for justice, equality and political accountability. All of us have different passions and it is of paramount importance that we educate ourselves to stand up for what we believe in — and to resist what we find objectionable.

Unless we learn, now, to band together and hold up a dignified middle finger to the establishment that would like to convince us of our collective impotence, we will someday find injustice being meted out not to others but to us — and by then it will be too late.

Daily Pennsylvanian: Taking Aim at Gun Violence

Originally published in The Daily Pennsylvanian, Autumn 2000

Columbine. I remember the day that name became a national byword, much in the same way I remember the day Princess Diana died or the way those slightly older than I remember the Challenger disaster.

They didn’t know, at first, how many were dead; estimates ran up to three digits. There were no commercials, I recall. And the images didn’t change much, as they obviously couldn’t get cameras inside the building. As the afternoon trickled on they began interviewing survivors, weeping schoolgirls, football players still trying to be macho through their residual terror.

Fifteen dead, including the two kamikaze killers whose innocent-seeming faces would stare posthumously from the covers of every major newsmagazine in the country. Faces whose secrets the world would try, too late, to understand. Blame TV, heavy metal, black trench coats, video games, lax parenting or poor social skills. Invoke the word “evil,” so long out of fashion until now.

Whatever you do, though, don’t blame guns. Guns don’t kill people, people do. To take the guns out of peoples’ hands, to prevent mere children from purchasing weapons, that would be an unreasonable — unconstitutional — infringement of civil liberties.

Americans are not the only ones, though, who have seen hell break out in their schoolyards. Just three years before Columbine, in the little Scottish town of Dunblane, Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school with four handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Minutes later, 16 kindergarteners and their teacher were dead. Hamilton committed suicide.

Stunned, shattered, the nation and the government were determined it would never happen again. The parents of the murdered children threw themselves into a campaign to ban handguns. “Impossible,” an American would say. “Unfair!” cried the sport-shooting lobby in Britain. Yet the government implemented a ban on high-caliber handguns, resulting in more than 100,000 weapons being surrendered to the authorities. By early 1998, the ban was extended to all .22-caliber and lower handguns as well.

This legislation was in no way universally popular. Shooting aficionados were outraged at having to give up their weapons. Gun enthusiasts rightly protested that they — the responsible sportsmen — were not the problem. But in the end, despite their feeling that injustice had been served, they handed over their guns and got on with it.

Nearly four years have passed since Dunblane and nearly two since the legislation banning handguns came into effect. The shooting fans are still grumbling, yes. There is still gun-related crime, yes. However, there has been no second Dunblane.

Will we be able to say the same thing four years after Columbine? I doubt it.

Because it wasn’t just Columbine. It was Jonesboro, Ark.; Springfield, Ore.; West Paducah, Ky.; Pearl, Miss. A trail of blood and anguish, the children with guns in their hands and blank eyes. And every time it happened we were horrified, the images running together in a montage of huddled parents, weeping children, stone-faced politicians.

Those were just the disasters epic enough in proportion to become catch phrases. In mild-mannered Portland, Ore., a boy was stopped outside my brother’s school, the trunk of his car full of guns. In South Dakota, my friend’s sister got the day off of school because of a bomb threat. Multiply that by thousands, the number of incidents that border on the knife-edge between near miss and front-page horror show.

This is all because Americans cannot live with the idea that their precious right to bear arms might be infringed. Even if it means that the litany of names will continue into a new century — the names of the dead, the names of the guilty, the names of the communities devastated by violence.

In Britain there is one name — Dunblane — and there was one reaction: banning handguns. A knee-jerk reaction, some have said, but since then no one has turned on the BBC evening news and seen blood-soaked children fleeing out of schools — unless they were watching the Columbine coverage, of course.

Like it or not, the ban seems to have worked, and it stands as a rebuke to America’s selfish unwillingness to make radical change in the face of tragic persuasion.