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)