Is it possible to read the whole Mail Online in a sitting?

You have to admire Mail Online, as one might admire a giant omelette.

I’m a big fan of Man vs Food, the TV show ode to gluttony in which Adam Richman overeats his way around the US. A giant 12-egg omelette here, a massive steak there, a huge burrito, a giant breakfast, a gargantuan dessert – the man will take on any challenge.
 
One day, of course, he will die in a provincial eaterie, choking on the heart of a blue whale, as a hundred whooping fans roar their approval, mistaking his pleas for resuscitation as signs of triumph – but until then, it’s all fun.
 
I mention all this because the task I foolishly set myself yesterday in a moment of whimsy and boredom – to read every single item on the front page of Mail Online – is not an original one. It’s Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, but with stories about Khloe Kardashian instead of eggs – and they leave a far worse taste in the mouth. 352 stories, in total, I counted, including a few duplicates. By the time you read this, dozens of them will have changed, overlapped, been edited and rearranged. The world’s No 1 news website (fight back the emotion while you think about that) is an ever-changing, organic beast.
 
I went for the right-hand side of Mail Online first. Forget the in-depth "coverage" of so-called "news" or "columnists" writing about "opinions"; here’s the moneyshot. You can sum up the first few stories like this: Some people have had a baby. Someone went jogging. Someone had a hen party. Someone went to a beach. Someone has changed the colour of her hair. Someone went out to lunch. There was television. There was television. Someone is having a baby. There was television. There was an awards ceremony. A couple have separated. There will be television.
 
It’s not about the stories; it’s about the people in them. (Some of them are wearing bikinis, by the way. Some of them have tits.) The "someone went jogging" tale is about Susanna Reid, of BBC Breakfast fame, who has been jogging and who "barely looked out of breath" according to "bystanders". She’s running the London Marathon, apparently, so it’s important that we see the photos of her in training: Susanna Reid running from the front, the side and from the rear (oh yes, the rear).
 
A clue to why this appeared might be in a recent article about Reid in Mail Online, when a piece interestingly headlined “Yes, women have breasts!” appeared, and almost certainly dragged all kinds of web searches about the presenter, and breasts in general, to the site. A few smudgy screengrabs of Reid’s cleavage probably didn’t hurt, either, the pixellated sfumato effect only adding to the grubbiness of it all.
 
As I went down the column of showbiz/celebrity/bikinis, it was like drowning in a ballpit of tits. You’re barely beyond one story about someone you’ve barely heard of in a bikini before you’re swamped by another. Then there are the hotpants, swimsuits, monokinis, miniskirts and dresses. Hotpants that are so scandalous that you need to look at them seven times to work out if they’re appropriate or not. Tits! Bums! Cleavage! Curves! You might as well play the Benny Hill Show music while you’re reading it.
 
I made it to the end of what I shall hereby refer to as the "tit and tat" column (some call it the "sidebar of shame", others simply "the right wing"). I don’t know how I did it, but I did. I learned things: I learned that “PDA” is ‘public display of affection; I learned that, in contrast to the dead-tree Mail, not a lot of copy appears to be checked as there were errors everywhere; I learned that a lot of celebrities are on Twitter, and if you can’t be bothered simply following them on there, you’ll find out what they’re tweeting anyway; and I learned that hours can pass very quickly when you’re not having a tremendous amount of fun.
 
But this was mere displacement activity, for I knew what lay ahead: the rest of the front page. Heroic Prince Harry, beer goggles, It’s the Olympics, We’re sick of the lot of you, stealth tax, grubby dream for the left, Russian friend of Vanessa Redgrave, TEN-STOREY tree house, FINALLY evicted, plane crash horror, gay sex attack at Prince Harry’s base, diversity targets, I served SamCam a curry, abandoned to the vandals, black suspect taped PC, mein summer camp, revealed, human rights wrangles, Gandhi’s glasses, Billy the orphan badger, helium gas prank, retro fashion, beauty queen, more Tasers... I could go on.
 
I tried to go on, even if I felt like quitting. Like my hero Richman, I knew I would hit the wall sometime. I asked myself: what would the Man in Man vs Food do? He’d wipe his napkin, pat his belly and shovel more forkfuls of meat into his mouth, that’s what he’d do. So that’s what I tried to do. I dived back in to the mass of news, but I found myself struggling against news heartburn. I’d just consumed too much.
 
I tried. I started looking for morsels that would keep me going: a baby aardvark, a big treehouse, the kind of thing the Mail does so very well. But then I got bogged down again with the meat-sweats: OJ is innocent, a woman who swapped her truncheon for a tiara, and so on.
 
But it was an article about the happiness of a baked potato that proved to be my "waffer-thin" mint. I just couldn’t stomach it any longer. My conclusion? That it’s impossible to wade through everything on there. You’re not supposed to, of course; the ever-changing news matrix (I wrote that with a straight face) is there to entice you by throwing as much content at you and seeing how much of it will stick.
 
You have to admire Mail Online, as one might admire a giant omelette, a coffin-sized burrito or a burger that would have trouble fitting in a family car. The sheer scale of the thing is mightily impressive. Is it possible to digest it all at one sitting? No, but that’s not the point. Like any menu, you’re just supposed to pick at the things that entice you the most; by giving you an overwhelming choice it happens to make it more likely you’ll find something you want.
 
Will I be dining there again? Not for a while.
 

Doyennes of the Mail Online, Kim and Khloe Kardashian. Photograph: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage