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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Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.