Going local


This has been a bad year to be in the blue-fox business, according to the Jakobstads Tidning, which is my proof that there is no such thing as a boring local paper providing it comes from a district far enough away. Jakobstad does not sound terribly interesting: it is a small town in Finland, in the coastal plain where they have spoken Swedish for thousands of years. If you had to live there, you would probably chew through your own leg to get free (or so I feel, having once lived in a small town in Sweden and chewed through a marriage to escape from it). But when you don't feel trapped in them, these places are deeply charming, and now that their newspapers are on-line it's possible to dip into the lives of innumerable strangers.

Most of the newspapers that make a splash on-line are large and want to think themselves important. The Washington Post, the Daily Telegraph and the New York Times are the sort of thing that we are meant to be reading on-line; and to some extent this is true. I only ever read the Sunday Times on screen, for example, because I know it will contain at most three things I want to read, and these are much easier to scan for on-line than on paper. Besides, it's tidier: all my electrons are automatically recycled when I'm through with them. I don't have to store them in a bin for a week till the council comes to collect them.

The admirable site of the American Journalism Review, at, lists 4,925 papers on-line, and hardly any of them matter in the wider world. That's their charm. The diversity of the world is maintained less by ignorance than by self-centredness, which keeps things in their proper perspective; and there is nothing like the daily doings of a small-town newspaper to give a vivid sense of how very foreign foreign countries are. Often, these surprises are completely pleasurable. In Bozeman, Montana, the local paper solemnly reported the theft of six empty paint cans from a back porch. In Stockholm, Svenska Dagbladet once had as the lead story, in its web edition at any rate, the news that the mushroom crop was going to be phenomenal that autumn. It's nice to know that nothing more important was happening in the world that day.

But this is the great truth about journalism. Nothing more important is happening for most people than that the mushrooms are going to be abundant and tasty. It's at least as interesting as the result of any football match and a lot more important to readers, in the sense that they can act on the information and go out and pick mushrooms, which seems saner than getting noisily drunk.

Staying in Finland, I have just found a leader discussing the new bylaws on public order in Helsinki. These forbid both noisy prostitution and beating your carpets on the balcony except at prescribed times. Silent or nearly silent prostitution remains legal in public and it is presumably illegal to beat your wife on the balcony at any time of day. The justification for both these prohibitions is that the respectable citizens of Helsinki have the right to silence. No British newspaper would bring you news like that. They're all much too serious. But it's only in the small, gritty detail of municipal regulations that we can actually catch a glimpse of how the rest of the world really lives.

Often the web seems to be a homogenising medium almost as terrible as television. There seems to be no one there who does not want to be American and famous. So it's wonderful to discover all these quiet professionals toiling away to show us that the world is stranger than we can imagine. It won't stop, either, because on-line databases are the perfect medium for classified advertising, and the smarter papers know that they must either lead their readers on-line or be left, forlorn, behind. So just for once globalisation will sustain a diversity of perspectives and make it possible for anyone to look through different telescopes.

That's how I found the reason for the glumness among fur farmers in Ostrobothnia: the collapse of the Russian economy has removed the market for their foxes. Now here is a wonderful perspective. A former superpower, still armed with nukes, sinks into bankruptcy and despair. It's one of the greatest and most important things to happen this century. But it's also a line of farmers' faces at an auction ring 600 miles away, falling silent because not even the Russian mafia can afford fur coats this year.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Europe grows after Kosovo

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.