Diary: Sarah Sands

As a prelude to its relaunch, the Evening Standard cleared the air with an apology for taking London for granted. Journalists reacted jumpily to this, but everyone else took it in their stride. Those who have tried to get corrections into newspapers will know that they have to be extracted like teeth. Media lawyers are terrified by the implications and writers have their amour propre to consider. There are also more high-minded reasons for objecting. A correction for a technicality may negate a greater truth in the story.

Still, journalists could afford to be a bit less thin-skinned. The embracing apology can be a fine thing. A mentor of mine, Peter McKay, used to recommend sprinkling them into diary columns regardless of whether offence had been caused, on the grounds that they cheered up readers. Sometimes an apology is the easiest way to break a deadlock. President Obama is not yielding to Iran and other rogue states but he is suggesting starting afresh. It is tonal. It is slightly marital. I welcomed the idea of the Evening Standard apology because it reminded me of a husband coming home with flowers. I wanted the posters to say, “Sorry, darling.”

It has been a curious experience returning to a newspaper that I left more than a decade ago. In some ways change is revolutionary. Tracking pages on screen is very neat, and now that newspapers print full colour, we no longer have to search for editorial slots opposite colour advertisements in order to show off stories about paintings or animals or flowers.

Otherwise, there has not been a lick of paint so far as I can see and the spirit of newspapers is as I remember it. In the normal world, employment regulation and health and safety have a strong influence on office culture. People management is believed to be key to business. Leadership courses and performance goals and internal communication have a high priority, as does a tidy desk. In newspapers, self-examination is alien and my old paper still wallows in a pre-corporate squalor. We banter rather than communicate. I am so happy to be back.

I was reminded of the passing years at the opening of an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery the other evening. We were there to see the work of Luke Fowler, a young film artist. I had not realised quite how young until I found myself gazing at a Romeo and Juliet who turned out to be Fowler and his girlfriend. The owner of the Glasgow gallery that originally promoted Fowler explained that the artist’s purity of vision meant he processed his surroundings in a different way from us confused old clodhoppers.

Fowler turned to me with his searing eyes and said that his hero was the late film-maker Derek Jarman. At last I could look back at him. I had known Jarman slightly and could describe to Fowler the visual details of his world – the Tottenham Court Road, Tilda Swinton, the lurid lights of Soho, Patisserie Valerie, the film-maker’s flat with its solitary mattress and fridge, empty except for a small bottle of poppers. I had never noticed the beauty in all this (except for Tilda Swinton), but that is because of my prosaic eyesight.

An obstacle between generations is the form of the email greeting. Those of a more formal disposition prefer to start “Dear . . .” rather than the alternative “Hi . . .”. I like Dear but have followed the herd with Hi. A younger generation use Hey. When I am “reaching out” to a work experience generation, I use the perky “Hi”, but am unsettled if they reply with “Hey”. Meanwhile, our language continues to invent verbs. I have just received an email suggesting that “we coffee sometime this week”.

Next week, the judges of the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, of which I am one, meet to whittle down the longlist. I have found it easy to pick a favourite, less easy to settle on a shortlist. All of the judges are enthusiastic readers, which is not the same as being educated, funnily enough. I have a very clever relative to whom I send book tokens each birthday. This year I offered a lovely box of devoured books. He declined, saying that he actually hated reading. This was shocking to me, but after a relentless succession of books, even my fellow judges have confessed to weariness. Now that I have ticked off the last book on my list I am enjoying the passive pleasures of television.

But Britain’s Got Talent may soon cure me of that. I have admired Susan Boyle’s performance as much as the next man, woman and president. I liked the pizza deliveryman Jamie Pugh, who also defied expectations with his voice. Last week it was Greg Pritchard’s turn to reduce Amanda Holden to a goldfish by looking like a break dancer and singing countertenor. Simon Cowell said gratefully that it was like seeing a dog miaow. But if all the dogs are going to miaow on Britain’s Got Talent then it is no big deal. It is a formula.

The astonishing thing now would be for someone who looked like Angela Gheorghiu to sing like her, too.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom