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

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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