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The night Havel became president

December 18, 2011

New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1989. I am in Prague for Reuters to report on the inauguration of Vaclav Havel as president of Czechoslovakia. The single party rule of decades is finally over, after seven weeks of a popular revolt summed up by the slogan Havel to the Castle’. In the thronged streets, people walk through the chilly air with goofy looks on their faces.

It’s not a surprise that Havel died this weekend, given his age and health, but the loss feels personal, and I miss knowing that he is around. A public figure who was loved and respected in equal measure – that is a feeling that today’s crop of leaders do not inspire.

I returned to Prague for The Guardian in November 1990 and the following summer joined other correspondents at a picnic with the president at Lany, the Czech version of Chequers. Here is the story that was published on July 12, 1991:

How Havel’s spider is changing the Castle
The shirt-sleeved president sat on a bench by the lake, sipping beer and wrestling with a thick sausage which slithered around his paper plate. Assorted correspondents formed an intimate circle around him on the grass.

Around us lay the grounds of Lany Castle, traditional country residence of Czechoslovak leaders and currently in the service of our host, Vaclav Havel. Nearby, in the summer light, more journalists sat on the lawn with the president’s assistants, in clusters of gossip.

This happy band had been assembled for a PR job with a difference – to explain how things were changing at the main presidential office. The Castle, perched on the top of a steep hill above the city, is increasingly accused of being as remote as it looks, as tensions rise and memories of the ‘velvet revolution’ fade. What was first seen as a charming unconventionality is now painted as a problem; the place is being run by a bunch of amateurs, the president is being badly advised.

Gone is the ‘society of friends’, needed in the early days to ward off hostile communist ghosts. In comes the professional team, with a line of command and defined areas of responsibility.

Mr Havel started with a demonstration of ‘the spider’: a diagram of the new structure. ‘We found we needed to strengthen individual offices, because a collective body always leads to a collective lack of responsibility,’ he explained. ‘In the absence of structures I have had the feeling of being the object of developments, in a way that manipulated me and the whole office. The aim is to become the subject. To do things in the way we plan them.’

Another aim was to make sure the truly remote style of the old communist regime was rooted out. ‘People would send letters to the president telling their life story, full of the troubles they had been through under this regime and that one, and all they got back was a rude and nasty reply from an unsympathetic official,’ said aide Eda Kriseova. There was also an emphasis on improving links with Slovakia, where disenchantment with federal institutions is on the increase. The Bratislava office of the president is being strengthened.

Mr Havel observed that as institutions gained their footing, his own power diminished, a normal and welcome process. But in a transitional society there could have been room for a strong hand. He admitted to having erred.

‘My mistake was that in the early days, when in effect I had almost total power, I did not push through certain things which ended up taking much longer. For example, the business of removing the word “socialist” from the official name of the country. I could have got up in parliament and said, “I propose x and y,’ and it would have happened in 10 minutes, but I was persuaded it should go through all the official channels. It ended up taking three months. It need not have happened.’

Synchronised fires

November 29, 2011

The log fire in the lobby of Motel One in Leipzig is a simulacrum, a recurring loop of film on a flat screen, in which a large piece of wood near the front always breaks into ash embers at the same sequential moment. What’s more, all rooms in the hotel show the same fire, running off the same loop, while the human lives in each room play out their different dramas.


I was in Leipzig earlier this month for an Erasmus teaching exchange, one of the more enjoyable possibilities of a career in higher education. My hotel was right next door to the church where pro-democracy demonstrations helped bring in the democratic changes of 1989. The students spoke good English, and the faculty were warm and attentive.

I spoke about the lyric essay, a burgeoning form in English literature, and asked whether this was popular in Germany too. One class was put to work responding to the story title, “Things my father or mother never told me”. Afterwards, the thought struck that this standard writing exercise had another dimension in a country where, at one point, half the population might have been spying on the other half. Later, in the November chill, I stocked up on woollen tights and hats, and was struck by the kindness of the shop assistants.

A chair in digital humanities (joke)

November 20, 2011

A home for the new cushion sporting the UCL Centre for the Digital Humanities logo


Slow publishing

October 22, 2011

A few days ago, on Wednesday October 19, Julian Barnes won the Man Booker prize for his novel A Sense of an Ending. In his acceptance speech he thanked the book’s designer and explained why its appearance was important: ‘Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the ebook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.’

This blog has followed the concept of the ‘end of the middle’ and the tendency to find either very cheap goods and services at one end of the market, or  luxurious, distinctive ones at the other. Slow journalism and other things associated with the ‘slow’ meme come in the second category. An aspect of their distinction is the luxury of time and reflection they offer in a speedy world, and a high standard of information about sources, or provenance. A recent post on the subject rounded up some relevant mentions.

Is it stretching this concept too much, to say that Barnes is making the case for what we can now call ‘slow publishing’? Assuming you will all kindly say ‘no’, it is not too much, here are some other mentions spotted since the last round-up which also seem to fit:

Buttonwood, ‘Slow Finance‘, The Economist October 22, 2011
‘Gervais Williams, a successful fund manager, argues that the [finance] industry’s approach should change. In some ways his new book, Slow Finance, is in the tradition of Benjamin Graham, the founder of modern security analysis. Investors should have a “value” bent, looking for companies that are unappreciated by the markets. They should particularly seek firms with a strong dividend yield. They should focus on the long term. [...] Just as enthusiasts for slow food like to buy their meat from local farmers, Mr Williams thinks investors should have a focus on small, local companies.’

Alan Rusbridger, ‘The Guardian iPad app goes live’, The Guardian, October 13, 2011
‘You can now [...] literally follow [The Guardian] minute by minute around the clock as it reports, mirrors, analyses and gives context to the shifting patterns and rhythms of the world’s news. [But] we’ve consciously set out, with this version, to deliver [...] a reflective once-a-day Guardian, designed and edited for iPad.’

Matt Stempeck, ‘What If We Had a Nutrition Label for the News?’, Idea Lab, October 11 2011
‘Demand for international news has actually increased in recent years. It’s beyond clear that in this global era, we need to know what’s happening elsewhere. But we’re also living in an age where we’re overwhelmed daily by the amount of information and content seeking our attention [...] The Center for Civic Media, under the leadership of Ethan Zuckerman, is embarking on a project to build the tools to empower the individual, and the news providers themselves, to see at a glance what they’re getting and what they’re missing in their daily consumption. We seek to provide a nutritional label for your news diet.’

John Gapper, ‘Instant Messengers‘, Financial Times October 2, 2011
‘Intimate accounts of world-changing events are now well-established in non-fiction publishing, with numerous examples provided by the 2008 financial crisis and by political events such as this year’s Egyptian revolution. [...] This evolution raises big questions about the trade-off between immediacy and accuracy – or at least perspective.’

John Ellis, ‘Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation’, Routledge July 20, 2011
‘Innovations in technology can seem to offer greater realism but can at the same time frustrate attempts to achieve it. John Ellis therefore proposes the idea of “Slow Film” as an antidote to the problems of increasing speed brought about by easy digital editing.’

Minhee Cho, ‘Stephen Engelberg Shares His Thoughts on Long-Form Storytelling’, Pro Publica March 9, 2011
‘”I think in today’s world, what we’ve seen is that people are hungry for bits of information,” Engelberg said. “Mediocre long-form journalism falls by the wayside in this kind of world, but superb long-form journalism, I think, has a secure place in the future of writing [...] A daily newspaper, these days in particular, have significant limits on space and most of the stories are going to be produced fairly quickly. They are going to be related to news of the day. In long-form journalism, we hope to be telling a story and to take more time and more space to bolster the journalism and sort of deliver the narrative.”‘

Patrick Kingsley, ‘The Art of Slow Reading‘, The Guardian July 15, 2010
‘First we had slow food, then slow travel. Now, those campaigns are joined by a slow-reading movement – a disparate bunch of academics and intellectuals who want us to take our time while reading, and re-reading. They ask us to switch off our computers every so often and rediscover both the joy of personal engagement with physical texts, and the ability to process them fully.

Second Sight

October 14, 2011

On Monday I was interviewed by someone researching into women’s photography groups of the late 1970s and early 1980s. (She’s a historian. A historian! My past is history.)

I joined a women’s photography group in 1980, when starting on adult life in London. I was the youngest of five or six women. We called ourselves ‘Second Sight’. As a group, we only showed our work on two occasions: the first time, for a community project called ‘Hackney Creates’, and the second time – just before disbanding in the mid-80s – in a bespoke exhibition at Lauderdale House in North London.

Sitting now at a table in the British Library, the researcher asks me, ‘What was your group’s philosophy?’ I think: I dunno, we took pictures and showed them to each other in our kitchens. We were saying – at a time when that was still unusual – that photography, both as art and as a technical skill, was women’s work too (in a way, the Women Who Tech of our time). We were saying that women belonged in public spaces, not just private ones. We were interested in the stories of everyday life, not just the news ‘event’. The aesthetic was black and white, ideally with a black line around the image. (For those who care about such things, by the way, this was obtained by carefully filing back the edge of the enlarger’s negative carrier. Nowadays, you can get the effect in seconds on an iPhone app)

After the interview I dug out some prints. During the early 1980s, postcards were going through a revival and I had taken a photograph of mine to Walker Prints, to sell in London bookshops. One of my flatmates worked at Sisterwrite, but the collective wouldn’t stock the postcard because they thought cars were oppressive. On the back of the image still sitting in my personal archive, you can see the printer’s mark-up information, plus a sticker from the photography journal Camerawork, with a page number and issue date – the card was shown on its back page, along with a few others from that year.

The content of the image captures the political ‘graffiti’ art typical of the time. But it was the form, the physical matter of the image, that still gives the most pleasure. A gifted photographer had shown me how to develop film in a way that made every grain distinct, and the production of a print that might do this justice was the work of many hours in the foetal light of the darkroom. So was the experimentation with different photographic papers – the one shown here gave whites a beautiful luminosity – and grades of contrast. Every variation had to be tried on a separate piece of paper; exposed, dodged, burned, developed, stopped, fixed, washed and dried.

Personal experience, turned outwards

September 12, 2011

I have had some work published in Issue 62 of Free Associations. This is a long-established journal that explores psychoanalysis and its relation to culture, now under the new (and peer reviewed) editorship of Dr Caroline Bainbridge and Dr Candida Yates.

The article concerns the relations between facts and feelings in nonfiction writing, and develops the ideas sketched out in the THE last summer. One strand of argument is to show how reporting – finding out about the external world – can be understand as a form of personal experience, which is deliberately turned outward and tested by verification. Another considers the nature of demands for ‘authenticity’. I write:

If a text’s falseness or authenticity is no longer defined solely by its professionalism or stance towards objectivity, it becomes necessary to find a different way of distinguishing between the two [...] The possibility should exist of finding an alienated subjectivity not just in professional texts that manipulate the consumer, but also in those created by artisanal producers; and of finding authenticity not only in marginal practices, but also in professional, mainstream ones.

More about failure

September 5, 2011
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Text and links added September 7, 2011

Earlier in the year, this blog noted the launch of The Failure Files, a collection of essays about the uses of failure. A website called The 99% has now put together a fascinating list of stories on the same theme (nothing to do with the book) which can be found here. (Image courtesy of The 99%)

I also discovered that there is a website by a colleague, collating material on the theme and the book on a regular basis, which lives here. And in a comment below, a reader has pointed out an interesting artistic project called the Institute of Failure.

Since The Failure Files was published this spring, I found old files that show I have been following this thread for much longer than realised. For example, this article in Prospect back in June 1999 said that the public expectation of perfection can invite permanent disappointment. Why try to define an ethical foreign policy, when there might be inconsistencies? Why trust any profession, when some practitioners have erred? The Winnicottian concept of the ‘good-enough mother’ says that to develop, the infant must learn the mother is not infinitely controllable and the early, blissful illusion of perfect mother and baby cannot be sustained. ‘Societies that are rigid in finding perfection, like the former Soviet Union, get into trouble because mistakes go uncorrected. But so do those which rigidly find awfulness in everything. That way leads to paralysis, a refusal to make any diagnosis and take any action.’ We should argue whether a policy is right, but we should not expect it to be perfect.

I would add now, in response to a growing mood of paranoia, that rigidity also feeds the growth of conspiracy thinking, in which the messiness of life is not enough; everything must have a reason – the old choice between the conspiracy theory and the fuck-up theory.