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Blog Off (April 2006)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Our newspaper commentators are predictable, and nearly all metropolitan.


"A middle-aged Lord Byron, writing long, sensible letters to The Times about free trade." The historian G M Young's imaginary portrait of life after Missolonghi summed up a particular - and valuable - side of journalism in the age of reform: the savant gifting his professional instruction, away from deadlines and the hope of geld. Look through the Victorian newspapers and you'll find such proto-blogs from universities and shipping offices and foreign hotels - together with comebacks from those instructed or attacked.

Contemplating doing stuff for Comment is free, these seemed to provide a model. British journalism could recover what it had missed in a land far more varied and complex than London thinks. Lazy metropolitan omniscience would be energetically nailed, not by opinion but by fact. Anyhow, with several Harvie blogs apparently banged up by technical glitches, perhaps it's time to take stock.

There was another side of London journalism, which the greatest of autobiographers, Henry Adams, found while a young diplomat in London during the American Civil War: the dominance of British political-cultural life by what he called the country's "sacred eccentrics": leader-writers, review editors, scribes and pharisees of one sort or another: the people who got the American conflict almost completely wrong, but whose voices, marinated in port and prejudice, boomed out of the clubs. They're with us yet.

I am irredeemably provincial. I live in Germany and west Wales, and do transport, European regionalism, economics, political culture, Scotland and Wales. Since I teach these, in a seminar system that actually works, I get feedback, as well as connecting with what 18-25 year olds are thinking. This is a mutual benefit, as their ability to guide me round my computer gives us reciprocity. No one wants to read me on a subject I don't know much about, or where I can't improve study and communications techniques.

Hence my suspicion of the rule of The Commentator. Our sacred eccentrics are predictable, and nearly all metropolitan. I have had dealings with a few of them (usually being ripped off) as depressing as my occasional encounters with London literary life - too close to that sketched by Posy Simmonds. Roy Hattersley, Will Hutton, Max Hastings, Simon Jenkins: you know what you're going to get, and these days you get it strewn all over the posh papers and reviews, from left to right. Throw a stone, and you'll stun Andrew Motion.

It's like Harry Potter, absorbing if you find the genre comfy, but surely there are better uses for our time. Chiefly, getting through to the next generation, thinly represented in the political world, though cursed by its short-term calculations. A postgraduate's surveys showed things were a bit better in Wales: the "fate of the language" issue still concentrates minds: see the meat-cleaver assault on the Metros by Hywel Williams.

German students are better socialised and livelier to teach, mainly because they're two years older, have had a Zivildienst year working for old folk or the disabled, and have learned a language. British students, even if zoned as trainee customers, still do pretty well. But if the sacred eccentrics go well wide of them, I suspect that the rule of the Research Assessment Exercise, by putting teaching skills at a discount, plus the astounding tedium of British university textbooks, is making matters worse. Beckmesser bores folk stiff, while Hans Sachs hasn't apprentices. Perhaps Blogsville, as an informal Open University, can open things out. I hope so.

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