Analogue age: an American couple read a newspaper at home in the 1950s. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Newspapers can make you look classy and stylish. What could be more perfect for a vintage revival?

Ditch the tablet and rediscover a love for print.

New technology does not always signal the death of the old. The rubbish dies; the good stuff receives a bounce from nostalgia. Pick up a style magazine, flick through the ads: you’ll notice how many of them are selling you a version of tradition. And it works. I write this wearing “vintage” jeans and a “vintage” shirt. I’m sitting on a mid-century chair. When the sun shines, I wear “vintage” sunglasses.

But none of these things is actually old. They all rely on new technologies; something of the essence survives, recast for a more demanding market. My shirt echoes the style of old-fashioned workwear but it is suspiciously soft. The sunglasses were produced by a company that has made eyewear in New York since the 1870s but mine are made with super-light acetate, not glass. They are authentic but not entirely authentic. And that’s a good thing. We like to indulge nostalgia in improved comfort.

That is the vintage sweet spot. My favourite (fairly) recent pop song, Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”, pulls off the same trick. The title line, very here and now, captures what people say about previous lovers whom they’d rather not talk about. But then we step back in time – “Have your friends collect your records” – as though we were living in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. After all, who wants a song about cancelling an ex-partner’s Spotify account?

Whenever something intrinsically cool loses its way, a vintage counterculture is just around the corner. So a technology on the wrong side of history can very quickly find itself on the right side of fashion. There are three preconditions for a vintage revival: a glamorous past, an uncertain present and a commitment to higher standards in the face of newer, cheaper means of production.

So how about a vintage newspaper? What could be more perfect for a vintage revival than newsprint? Something that retains the spirit of newspapers – the swagger of a disposable luxury – but without all the stuff that makes them seem directed at other people (or at parts of our own characters that we aren’t proud of).

The word “aspirational” often has negative connotations; it has become a subtler way of saying “social climbing”. But aspiration can be a hook to gain our attention, which, once captured, can be diverted to higher things. Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty secured my attention with its lavish, unapologetic celebration of Italian style but it left me considering a writer’s life and its wrong turnings.

In the 1912 novella The Unbearable Bassington, Saki presents the case that even religion relies on an aura of aspiration: “Once let the idea get about that the Christian Church is rather more exclusive than the Lawn at Ascot, and you would have a quickening of religious life such as this generation has never witnessed. But as long as the clergy . . . advertise their creed on the lines of ‘Everybody ought to believe in us: millions do’, one can expect nothing but indifference and waning faith.”

I can’t follow my own logic to such unblinkingly cynical limits but the newspaper and magazine industries back up Saki’s broader argument. At the top end of the market, the titles that have survived or bucked the downturn in print sales have one thing in common: they are confident and aspirational. Whether it is economic, social, intellectual, aesthetic or even moral aspiration – I will leave you to apply the appropriate adjectives to the Financial Times, the New Yorker, Monocle, the Economist and the New Statesman – they all talk up, whatever the language, rather than down.

True connoisseurs of demotic taste will always make the mass market work – but it is a congested market. Clothes retailers have long recognised that cheap modern technology makes the middle ground almost untenable: you’ve got to be right at the top or shifting a lot of stuff at the bottom. Look confused while stuck in the middle and you’re doomed.

Of the titles I listed, only one takes an old-fashioned newspaper form and, from Monday to Friday, it is dominated by business. What about non-business folk? Is there not a niche for an elegant, long-form newspaper written by people who would want to read something similar themselves? A publisher in Australia thinks so. The Saturday Paper has just launched; it is a pared-down 32-page weekly paper, with fewer articles, pitched higher. Let the internet be the internet; we do things differently around here.

It is a mistake to think of substance and style as being in opposition. Most of us can take a lot more substance when it is stylish. Newspapers should ditch the focus groups and read more Garrison Keillor. Here he is in 2007, despairing of people in cafés plugged in to laptops with headphones: “It is so lumpen, so sad that nobody has shown them that opening up a newspaper is the key to looking classy and smart. Never mind the bronze-plated stuff about the role of the press in a democracy – a newspaper, kiddo, is about style. Whether you’re sitting or standing, indoors or out, leaning against a hitching post or planting your brogans on a desk, a newspaper gives you a whole rich vocabulary of gesture.” True, but it’s so much harder when the front cover says: “Collect tomorrow’s coupon for a free latte at Costa.”

Industries do not travel in a monolithic block. There are always counter-rhythms. Everything I’ve written about newspapers also applies to another struggling pastime: Test cricket. Far from aping Twenty20 vulgarity, it should run the other way. The way to make Test cricket relevant is to park it so deeply in remembered time that we pine for its nostalgia.

Reading a vintage newspaper while attending a vintage Test match: heaven. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.