City of Words: Introduction
Before blogs or tweets—a newspaper column from the 1990s.By John Ryle • 2015 • City of Words • Posted 2016 • 4,159 words
Since 2022, City of Words has been a publishing house. But it was born as a newspaper column. The column “City of Words” appeared weekly, from 1995 to 1999, in The Guardian newspaper. The idea came from Liz Jobey, then The Guardian’s literary editor; its godparent was the paper’s chief political columnist, Hugo Young (1938-2003). The name “City of Words” was borrowed from the title of a book by the literary scholar Tony Tanner (1935-1998), who took the phrase from a sentence in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire. The column continued for four years, the last appearing in March 1999. It may yet return.
City of Words never had a brief. It dealt with globalisation, information technology, literature, the arts, sexual politics, natural history–and a swathe of out-of-the-way subjects. I wrote about anything I liked, or, on occasion, disliked. Some columns were topical; some were timeless (or what, in journalism, passes for timeless). Some were serious; some not. I filed my copy—to use the terminology of the time—from wherever I found myself at the end of the week.
Commentators without portfolio—bloggers and social media mavens—are now legion; and publication is instant and unmediated. Back then it was uncommon to be given such freedom. For this, many thanks to Liz Jobey, and a tip of the hat to Alan Rusbridger (then the Guardian’s Editor-for-Life – or so it seemed – now Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford) and to the late Georgina Henry (1960-2014, Deputy Editor at that time, later Assistant Editor).
There are other acknowledgments to be made: the family members, friends and acquaintances who helped me write the column, the editors who ensured its readability, and the readers who read it and responded to it. These acknowledgments are followed below by some reflections on the column itself, and the years that spawned it—a time of transition from print to screen—and on developments in the global economy of digital information.
Be warned: the original published length of most of these columns was a sprightly eight or nine hundred words. That’s around thirty tweets. The present introduction comes in at a sprawling four thousand plus, which is more tweets than you can shake a stick at. The acknowledgments alone are as lengthy as the credits on a feature film. This is what happens when a writer acts as their own editor.
Editors and readers
City of Words appeared weekly, with a few breaks while I was engaged elsewhere. Many of the columns were revised or expanded following their first publication in The Guardian. Some were rewritten in longer form for syndication or republication in other places. In some cases passages cut for space in the first printed versions have been restored; many of the pieces have been given more fitting titles. The final versions of all published columns, up to 1999, are archived here. When revised or expanded since first publication this is indicated in the dataline at the head of each piece. The views expressed remain the same. Some of these views are reconsidered below.
In The Guardian’s then-perpetual design revolution the column was frequently moved from one part of the printed paper to another. A succession of editors and sub-editors shepherded it during its wanderings—most of them have now gone on to higher things, either at the Guardian or elsewhere. Here’s the roll-call: Giles Foden, Murray Armstrong, Jenny Turner, Charlie English, Stephen Moss, Matt Seaton, Fiachra Gibbons, Gertie O’Callaghan, Carrie O’Grady, Veronica Horwell, Sabine Durrant, Claire Armitstead, Simon Hattenstone, Roger Alton and Ian Katz. A number of the columns were re-edited by Patrick Ensor—to their benefit—for republication in the Guardian Weekly edition.
In writing the column I had the assistance, via telephone and e-mail, of the researchers at The Guardian and Observer library, an institution swept away, with others like it, by the rise of digital information—as printed newspapers themselves may be one day. My thanks to these researchers, and also to Guardian readers, whose responses to City of Words, whether sympathetic or combative, were a consistent source of encouragement. Among readers, particular thanks to Sarah McAlister, Alison Leonard and Pat Parris. Some readers’ letters are reproduced with the columns they were commenting on.
City of Words was the first column in a British newspaper to publish the writer’s e-mail address, a precursor of the free exchange between writers and readers now made possible a thousand-fold by the ease and ubiquity of online publication.There are further acknowledgements to be made, professional and personal. A number of the pieces were republished—shortly after their appearance in the Guardian—in longer versions in the New York Review of Books. These are the versions included here. Publication in the NYRB provided the opportunity to refine what had originally been written under the pressure of a weekly deadline. It exposed these pieces–and other articles commissioned directly by the NYRB–to the attention of two of the world’s greatest editors, the much-missed Barbara Epstein (1928-2006) and Robert Silvers (1929-2017), who coedited the Review during its first four decades. I am thankful for their encouragement and inspiration. (Other articles written for the New York Review can be found on the NYRB site and elsewhere on this site.) Later City of Words columns are available on the Guardian site; but these versions are unrevised, before expansion or syndication.
Writing City of Words, needless to say, was a part-time occupation. (As I recollect, The Guardian paid me £350 sterling per week.) I wrote the column in the interstices of a career as a research anthropologist and reporter in Africa and elsewhere. Most of the time I was based in London; but many of the pieces were written from places where I was travelling on other business, as a consultant to aid agencies or human rights organizations, or on assignment for publications other than the Guardian.
Over the four-year period the countries included Kenya, Uganda, Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo then), Ethiopia, Sudan (now Sudan and South Sudan), Senegal, Hungary, Scotland, Wales, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Chile, Brazil, the Bahamas, Cuba, Canada and the United States.
Acknowledgments to the following organizations for sending me to these places: Save The Children Fund (UK), The Open Society Institute (now the Open Society Foundations), the Media Development Loan Fund (MDLF, now MDIF, the Media Development Investment Fund), the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the New Yorker, the BBC World Service, and Condé Nast Traveller.
There’s more. The debts of a columnist are many; it’s a pleasure to mention them. During the years I wrote the column friends and relatives were an important source of advice, nurture, support and correction. I owe especial thanks to Nick Rankin, Maggie Gee, Emily Walmsley and Wesley Kerr; also to Ken Anderson, Ian Buruma, Isabel Fonseca, Darryl Pinckney, James Fenton, Tani Sumie and Jenny Hughes.
And to those beloved and now deceased, who died before their time: Tim Swales (d. 1991), Eduardo Guimarães (d. 1996), Ramadan Muchoki (d. 1998), Steven Mathews (d. 1998—see “The Death of Steven”), and Athos Demetriou (d. 1999).
Further thanks—for one thing and another—to the following: Sherman Hawthorne, Jok Madut Jok, John Gross (1935-2011), Carmen Callil, Claire Tomalin, John Hatt, Julian Barnes, Pat Kavanagh (1940-2008), Julie Kavanagh, Deborah Manzolillo Nightingale, Will Eaves, Sean French, David Jenkins, Melissa North, Tchaik Chassy, Lucretia Stewart and Michael Neve (1951-2019).
And to Fábio Araujo, David Keen, Paul Henley, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Aryeh Neier, Andrew Timpson (1950-2015), Khalid Nazir (1952-2016), Michael Rutland, John Shannon, Lincoln Reyes, Hamish Tristram, James Campbell, Sarah Spankie, Sarah Miller, Joan Wright (1951-2017), Tom Walmsley, and Clare and Alex Wilks.
Many of the pieces were written while I was away from London. Sometimes I was in Shropshire, at my childhood home, staying with my parents, John Creagh Ryle (1915-2000) and Melody Ryle (1917-2007), so much missed now. (See “Balancing stones” and “Move the UN to Gibraltar”.) Sometimes it was with one or other of my sisters and brothers-in-law: Caroline and John Walmsley in Hampshire, or Anne and Barry Robertson in Ontario, Canada (“The whales of Nunavut”).
Or with friends abroad: Philip Winter in Athi River in Kenya (“Moths on the verandah, danger on the highway”, “In the mirror of the dark”, “The satellite phone and the call of the wild”); Peter Fry in Rio de Janeiro (“Sore losers in the Sambadrome”, “Erotic engineering in Brazil”), Belinda Stewart-Cox in Bangkok (“Epiphany at Pantip Plaza”); Ken Anderson and Jean-Marie Simon in Washington DC; and, finally, my oldest friends, Gavin and Sarah Olney, in Mjimwema, Tanzania, and later in Cheltenham, England.
During the academic year 1996-1997 I benefited from a research fellowship at Nuffield College, Oxford. My thanks for this to the Warden and Fellows and staff of Nuffield, and to the trustees of the Scott Trust.
A final acknowledgment: to the numerous specialist writers and researchers I had occasion to consult, both in print and in person. Among those who kindly responded to my enquiries were Karyl Whitman (“The lion tracker’s packing list”), Manoj Duraisingh, Wayne Vos, A. R. Thatcher, James Boyle, Steve Goose, Bill Arkin, Julian Evans, Nicholas Shakespeare, Patrick Gilkes, Astier Almedom, Caroline Dakers (“Britannia descending a staircase”), Paul Jefferson and Terence Ranger (1929-2015). Would that I could blame them for errors that remain—but they are innocent.
Errors and corrections
Despite all this assistance there were still mistakes. These errors—and the wider issue of accuracy in journalism in the still unfolding age of digital communications—are discussed in several of the early pieces here: “In Praise of fact-checkers”, “An apology to readers”, “All Soul’s Day, looking backward”, “The famine that vanished” and “You can’t build clouds”. Some of the same issues are discussed at greater length in a Guardian lecture delivered at Nuffield College, Oxford, in 1997, “The hazards of reporting complex emergencies in Africa” (published in the Guardian and in Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems 10:1, Spring 2000).
Back in the 1990s City of Words was the first column in The Guardian—the first in a British newspaper, I think—to publish the writer’s e-mail address. At the time colleagues predicted that I would be deluged with messages from lunatics. This was not the case. Useful corrections, interesting observations and the occasional gratifying commendation were the order of the day. These exchanges were precursors of the back-and-forth between writers and readers that has been made possible a thousand-fold by the ease and ubiquity of online publication and that is now taken for granted. As mentioned, some readers’ comments are reproduced with the relevant articles.
In 1997, two years after I started writing the column—and not before time—The Guardian appointed a Readers’ Editor, Ian Mayes, who instituted a regular corrections column and a feature dealing with readers’ complaints and issues of journalistic ethics. Two corrections to City of Words appeared in this column. One was apropos Bertrand Russell’s spell in prison (“Writers as prisoners”); another concerned the Brazilian law on sex change surgery (“Erotic engineering in Brazil”). These corrections have been noted and incorporated into the articles concerned.
As for the column itself, eclectic though it was, it had a number of discernable themes. Sexual politics and body modification were among these. See, for example, “Sex in a box”, “Scary piercings”, “Symposium in Suffolk”, “Fast food, gay sex and the tearoom trade” and “Labour’s gay godfather”. Also “A cloud over Gorée Island”, “A great deception”, “The return of Deep Throat” and “D’ye ken John Peel with his coat so gay?”.
This list of recurrent themes could be extended. In the realm of information technology there were reflections on the early years of the digital era and the paradoxical survival of the book, some of which are now old hat (“In memoriam: The typewriter”, “Read more, live longer”, “Sweet dreams in the round reading room”, “The pixel and the book”, and “Five hundred arguments for the elimination of television”). There were discussions of the vagaries of language (“Tower of Babel, miracle of Pentecost”, “Logging on to pentecost.com”, “The imaginary empire of Francophonia”, “The X-Rays of V-Day”). And there were comments on communications technology and life in the age of surveillance (“A visit to the Panopticon”, “I am a camcorder”, “The satellite phone and the call of the wild”) and the nature of lists and filing systems (“The lion-tracker’s packing list”, “What a difference a drawer makes”).
Other subjects revisited from time to time included the symbolism of fire (“The phoenix in the burning season”, “Feasts of fire”, “In Angola, a kindling fire”, “A fire in Bhutan”), the nature of rhythm (“The power of the drum”, “The clave and the timbales”, “The last party at the Paradise Garage”) and the allure of Brazil (“A view across the bay”, “A Brazilian invasion”).
The UN remains unreformed. Cars and trucks rule the road. Societies and cultures on the global periphery are disappearing faster than ever. The great apes face extinction. The world is awash with small arms and other weaponry. Yet it’s too soon to say that these are all lost causes. The world is wide; the road is long.
There were numerous sketches of individuals, some living and some long dead. These included the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah (“A plague of locusts”), the actress and author Joan Collins (“An everyday story of potboiling folk”), the pioneering publisher John Hatt (“The typographical traveller”) and the mediaeval religious poet Jelaluddin Rumi (“Back to the mystic”).
Also the singer Cesaria Evora, 1941-2011, (“The nightingale of Cape Verde”), the artist and zoologist Jonathan Kingdon (“Testament of an African naturalist”), the wildlife film-maker Alan Root, 1937-2017 (“A hawk moth by moonlight”) and the aid worker Emma McCune, 1964-1993, (“The untimely death of the warlord’s wife”).
And the teacher and writer Willie Jones (“The craftsmen of Hokkaido”), the poet and playwright Heathcote Williams, 1941-2017 (“From Ladbroke Grove to Mars” ), the tag artist Drax (“Far Away is Near at Hand in Images of Elsewhere”) the anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, 1925-1998, (“Call Me Carlos”), and the late artist formerly known—and now known once again–as Prince, 1958-2016, (“Principia typographica”).
Although City of Words was not generally a campaigning column, it took a position on certain issues of the day. These included the civil war in Sudan (now Sudan and South Sudan), the campaign for a global ban on landmines and the attempt to preserve the standards of BBC World Service Radio.
Columns on the subject of landmines include “The pros and cons of the landmine ban”, “Out of step on the landmine ban”, “One weapon down; more to go”, “Aesthetes and mine-clearers at Cambodia’s temple of doom” and “Banning landmines—now for the hard part”. The latter piece, after it appeared in a longer version in the New York Review of Books, gave rise to an on-line exchange with Mike Croll, author of The History of Landmines, a book that was discussed in the article, an exchange that is reproduced with the article.
Did campaigning pieces such as these have any effect? In one or two instances they may have done. In 1997 City of Words proposed the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Landmine Ban Campaign (“On track for a global landmine ban”). This came to pass the following year. And after the appearance of a column on the threat to the BBC World Service (“Save the World Service!”), the growing campaign to preserve the standards of the World Service was taken up more widely in the pages of The Guardian, at least for a while.
The wider effort to maintain standards in broadcasting—and reestablish them in the expanding universe of new media—and the campaign to finally rid the world of landmines (and cluster bombs and whatever pernicious new weapons system is next to be devised) are struggles that continue in the twenty-first century. The outcome, in each case, remains in the balance.
The pursuit of peace in Sudan was the subject of City of Words on a number of occasions—“My African cow”, “Sudan: the perils of aid”, “The famine that vanished”, and “What Britain should do about Sudan”, though most of what I wrote at this time about Sudan and South Sudan appeared in other publications, or in technical reports. The column also touched on some other global political themes. These included the wider issue of arms control (“Oh! What a lovely gun”, “Arm wrestling on the North-West Frontier”, “A secret weapon in the airline security war”), the reform of the United Nations and international non-governmental aid organizations (“Move the UN to Gibraltar”, “The season of charity and the politics of aid”, “Remembering the heroes of humanitarianism”, “The fate of information in the disaster zone”) and the critique of human rights ideology and practice (“Why Pol Pot will never go on trial”, “Children at arms”).
What there can never be enough of is honest, accurate, responsible, detailed, diligent, shrewd, historically-informed, fact-checked, independent, fearless, first-hand news reporting.
There’s not been much good news on any of these fronts. In 2011 South Sudan gained independence after more than twenty years of conflict. But the new country is rapidly becoming a failed state, with unprecedented levels of governmental corruption, a renewal of civil war and, then, as of 2017, a rapidly eroding peace. Meanwhile the continuing strife in the north, in Darfur and in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, has come to rival the war in South Sudan in its interminability and the extent of human damage. Let us hope that the pernicious regime that has impoverished Sudan for the past thirty years will soon be consigned to history.
Finally, still in campaigning mode, City of Words championed, directly and indirectly, the introduction of restrictions on the use of motor vehicles in towns and cities (“A first blast of the hooter against the monstrous regiment of cyclists”, “Car wars”, “Brit crits nix car wreck sex flick”). It discussed the plight of ethnic minorities and the survival of pre-industrial forms of life (“Lessons from lost tribes”, “Getting to know Nunavut”, “It’s guns that do the talking, books that set men free”, “The joy of weaving”, “Postcards from the ice age”). And it mourned the fate of non-human primates and other endangered species (“Felling trees and killing chimpanzees”, “Orang-utans in Hollywood”, “Labour’s white rhino at London Zoo”, “Where the eagle flies”).
Today the UN, despite much talk, remains unreformed, and weaker by the day. Cars and trucks still rule the road in Britain, as elsewhere. Societies and cultures on the global periphery are disappearing faster than ever. The great apes face extinction. And the world is awash with small arms and other weaponry.
Yet it may be too soon to say that these are all lost causes. The world is wide; the road is long.
Facts are expensive; comment is cheap
In the latter days of print it was often said that newspapers had too many columnists. Today that number is reduced to comparative insignificance by the surge of online comment from self-mandated metacolumnists of the internet, on Facebook and in other social media. Those who bemoan this tsunami of views and opinion tend, like me, to be columnists or online commentators themselves—or else former columnists, or would-be (or would-have-been) bloggers. That is to say, we are hypocrites. Nevertheless, it is true: there are too many of us. Too many views. Not enough facts. And not enough editors.
Blogs and columns are not the only thing there is too much of in the media. There is too much lifestyle journalism, too much unquestioning endorsement of consumerism and celebrity culture, too much spin, too much carelessness and error. Too much of all of these—that is to say, too much of nothing. Some of the old-established vehicles of trivia may be on their way out, as print newspapers enter a global decline and web-based media take over. But the new digital genres magnify most of the defects of the old—and exacerbate many of them. Print-based or web-based, what there can never be enough of is honest, accurate, responsible, detailed, diligent, shrewd, historically-informed, fact-checked, independent, fearless, first-hand news reporting. Reporting of this kind is an endangered species.
There was certainly not enough of this kind of reporting in City of Words. Many of the topics I discussed would have been better dealt with as news or feature articles, and some merited serious investigative journalism—that is to say they should have been reported at greater length, with much more on-the-ground research and detailed fact-checking. But it has always been cheaper for a paper to hire a columnist than to put a reporter in the field. And these days citizen journalists, bloggers and online commentators often cost a media organisation nothing at all. Commentary, columns, op-eds, and opinion pieces continue to offer an easier and more predictable way to fill space, whether in print or online. That’s the reason there are so many of them.
“Comment is free, but facts are sacred” is the well-worn dictum coined by C.P.Scott, the celebrated editor of the Guardian at the turn of the nineteenth century. More to the point may be the variant on this phrase that was popular at the paper when I was there: facts are expensive, while comment – and fake news – is cheap.
Columnism, then and now
Nevertheless, in any medium, there are always commentators worth reading. At various times, in the Guardian, these have included David McKie, Alexander Chancellor, A.C.Grayling, Catherine Bennett and Ian Jack. And, in other British papers, Neal Ascherson, Mathew Parris, Simon Jenkins, Michael Bywater and Martin Wolf. A good number of these writers are still going. Some no longer write regularly; in their day, though, they wrote weekly columns—sometimes twice weekly—often for a decade or more. You didn’t have to share their views–which differ considerably–to admire their style, or their stamina.
Columnism, as practised by these luminaries, has a history of its own. And there are other former columnists who stand as evidence that the genre is not entirely negligible from the point of view of literature. As far as the British press is concerned, the foremost of these, in my lifetime, has been the playwright Michael Frayn. In my schooldays, when he was still working as a journalist, I read his columns—first in the Guardian, then in the Observer—with mirth and awe. Two decades later the poet James Fenton’s contributions to the Independent renewed this strain of high wit, bringing to it a cosmopolitan vision of world politics. In the 1980s the wild transports of the “Remainders” column in the Times Literary Supplement, written by the antiquarian bookseller Eric Korn (1933-2014), took literary and scientific erudition to a baroque level. And Eric Korn’s successor at the TLS, the poet Hugo Williams, practised, every other week until recently, in “Freelance”, a haunting and revelatory art of memory, while the back-page NB column, written by James Campbell (“JC”) has maintained a sharp edge of erudition. The work of these writers suggests that there is something in the form that’s worth aspiring to, something that may outlast current shifts of genre and transformations in the ecology of information to flourish again in new media.
Writers and their livelihoods
A final reflection on press freedom, intellectual property and the livelihoods of writers. In the late 1990s, when I was writing this column for The Guardian, the implications of digital media for the future of journalists and journalism were only beginning to be understood. At that time a number of freelance contributors, myself included, became involved in a long drawn-out dispute with the management of the paper over copyright and syndication. Thanks to the efforts of Carol Lee, Joan Smith, Maureen Duffy, Bernie Corbett, Steve Bell and others this issue was finally resolved, largely in favour of freelances. (But we should not be held responsible for the Guardian’s ever-increasing financial losses, which by 2016 had risen to £50 million a year.) Acknowledgments are also due, in this regard, to the good advice of my sometime literary agent, Alexandra Pringle, now Publishing Director of Bloomsbury.
Today all that has more or less been swept away. Despite the decline in the fortunes of newspapers, digital communications favour, in most respects, large media corporations, at least those that have managed to remain agile and quasi-monopolistic. It becomes harder for the individual content provider to keep control of his or her work, and harder for most to make a living from it. New forms of corporate control of media are emerging. On the other hand, as is now well-established, the internet has expanded every writer’s audience—including mine—lowering the cost of entry, narrowing the gap between author and reader, and making new kinds of publication and collaboration and literary performance possible. ★