Recommended Read: "On Paris" by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's correspondence marks a lost generation of foreign journalism.

"There is nothing deader than a dead tiger and Georges Clemenceau was a very great tiger. Therefore Georges Clemenceau is very dead." So begins an article of 18th February 1922 in the Toronto Star, written by a young Ernest Hemingway, its Paris correspondent.

Hemingway's missives from the post-war western front have been collected for a recent Hesperus Press edition and are among his earliest published writings. Aficionados will recognise the nascent pith and verve of his writing, but these articles represent so much more than the baby steps of a future literary giant; they are the remnants of a lost generation of foreign reporting.

Today's newspapers must chase a shrinking market, and often paint a picture of the world that (they assume) might fascinate a modern consumer. The grim reality of faraway lands is represented through statistics of suffering, or humanised to appeal to the pathos of a distant domestic audience.

Worse still, such emotive content is frequently balanced by trivial vignettes of celebrity gossip and reality TV found in supposedly more familiar western cultures. Sunday newspapers present a weekly digest of selected world events, dictated by our current curiosities; we are so rarely asked to understand a foreign culture, merely to know about it.

By digging below the statistical and the salacious, Hemingway came to understand. His articles paint a vivid panorama of life in 1920s Paris. Whereas today's media is cripplingly averse to characterisation, Hemingway tells us how "the extreme provinciality of the French people" and "the gullibility of the French press" made Paris "the mecca of bluffers and fakers in every line of endeavour." We learn that "the scum of Greenwich village, New York, has been skimmed off and deposited" at the Café Rotonde; of how French wives buy their clothes for their husbands; of Parisian boorishness, wild nightlife and "homes on the Seine".

Yet Hemingway managed to be at once entertaining and informative. The gargoyles of Notre Dame, placed in position by Napoleon the Third before the Franco-Prussian war, "belong to modern history", says Hemingway, "and the commencement of French hatred towards the eastern neighbour." A trip to his wartime posting in Trentino reveals the detached desolation that was so prevalent in post-war Europe. The reconstructed town he finds, so typical of 1920s Europe, represents not "the great sacrifice" but rather "the new, ugly futility of it all": "Everything is just as it was - except a little worse."

Perhaps the perception of even a young Hemingway is too much to ask of our modern broadsheets. And perhaps it is futile to lament the passing of an age when consumers had the patience, and producers the funds, for such singular nuance. One fears, though, that Hemingway's is a lost art of journalism, at odds with contemporary coverage of international affairs that describes rather than explains; that panders to the fleeting attention of the fickle reader; that struggles to transcend the existing cultural, commercial or geopolitical interests of its domestic audience.

In his attempt to explain the atrophy of "the very great tiger" as a political figure, the intrepid reporter described his method:

If you catch a Frenchman when he has been in the café just long enough to come to a boil, and before he has begun to boil over and spill on the stove, you find out what he really thinks about Clemenceau or anything else. And if you catch enough Frenchmen in different parts of France, you will have the national opinion; the real national opinion, not the shadow of national opinion that is reflected in elections and newspapers.

In today's world, it is as important as ever that cultures understand each other. Our newspapers would do well to heed Hemingway's advice.

"On Paris" is published by Hesperus Press (£7.99)

NICOLA TYSON, COURTESY SADIE COLES HQ, LONDON
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Dave Haslam's history of venues makes nightclub walls talk

Life After Dark: a History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues reveals the ghosts of hedonism past.

“If these walls could talk . . .” The cliché owes its force to the notion that buildings are sentient – the suggestion that what happens inside them leaves a trace element. We feel the power of this idea in very different ways as we tour, say, Versailles or Dachau. It’s an idea very much at play in the best passages of this book.

There is a wonderful moment early on when the author tours the Dean Street Townhouse building in Soho, central London, along with a few young members of staff. The location is now an upscale hotel and restaurant but, as Haslam explains to them, back in 1978 the basement hosted Billy’s nightclub. Billy’s was run by Steve Strange and played host to the burgeoning New Romantic movement, with the likes of Boy George and Spandau Ballet all trooping down the steps off Meard Street. Later on, in 1982, the ultra-hip original Goth club the Batcave opened its doors on the top floor of the same building, and the elevator would have ferried the likes of Robert Smith of the Cure and Marc Almond skywards.

The twentysomething staff don’t seem altogether sure who these people are, but Haslam goes further as he tells them (no doubt to further head-scratching) that the building has in fact been a nightclub since the 1920s, when it was called the Gargoyle. The people who danced and partied there over the decades would have included Henri Matisse, Tallulah Bankhead, Fred Astaire and Noël Coward, he says.

It is a fantastic example of the deep vein of hedonism you sense thrumming behind the walls of many buildings in such areas as Soho, and Haslam extends this approach throughout the book as he travels across Britain, digging into the history of the likes of the Leadmill in Sheffield, the Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow, the Cavern in Liverpool and the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, often tracing the origins of the venues back to Victorian times. It makes for a fascinating read, especially if you have ever stood in an old music venue and wondered (as I have often done) about the many previous generations whose fights, fashions, frugs and frocks have played out on the very boards you are treading.

Along the way, there are in-depth, illuminating interviews with figures as diverse as the novelist David Peace (on Goth clubs in Leeds) and James Barton, the co-founder of Cream (on the problems of running a nightclub in a city rife with gang warfare), as well as less familiar names such as Hyeonje Oh, the current owner of the Surakhan restaurant on Park Row in Bristol. Haslam explains to the amiable Mr Oh (in a wonderful scene reminiscent of that visit to Dean Street Townhouse) that, back in the mid-Eighties, the basement of his restaurant played host to the Dug Out club, where the careers of Massive Attack and Nellee Hooper began. None of this means very much to the restaurateur, until Haslam points out that Nellee Hooper has worked with Madonna. Mr Oh has heard of Madonna.

On occasion, the book slides into potted histories of the youth movements that came out of the nightclubs it is documenting. So we get a few pages on the emergence of punk rock, a few pages on the rise of acid house – nothing, frankly, that anyone with a passing interest in music or youth culture wouldn’t already know. I’m not sure we need to hear again that “one of the people energised by the Sex Pistols [at the Manchester Free Trade Hall] was Tony Wilson, who arranged for the band to premiere their ‘Anarchy in the UK’ single . . . on his Granada TV show”, except in a book aimed at the most general reader (which a book with the subtitle of this one surely is not).

Haslam is on much more interesting ground in the basement of a Korean restaurant that once throbbed to the heavy dub reggae whose influence shaped a generation of music performers and producers. Or when he describes the progress of the Coliseum in Harlesden, north-west London, from cinema in 1915, to fleapit punk rock venue in the Seventies – where, in March 1977, you could have seen the Clash (along with three other bands, and a couple of kung fu films) for £1.50 – to the Wetherspoons pub that stands on its site today. In these pages he asks you to imagine Daddy G of Massive Attack working the decks where the crates of produce are now stacked, to see Joe Strummer’s right leg pumping just inches from where office workers now sip discounted Sauvignon. In these pages, he makes the walls talk.

John Niven is the author of the novels “Kill Your Friends” (Windmill Books) and “The Sunshine Cruise Company” (William Heinemann)

Life After Dark: a History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues by Dave Haslam is published by Simon & Schuster (480pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war