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“We should not hold current states accountable for what happened in the distant past”

But consigning events to history should not preclude the need for apology for ancient wrongs: they can help heal rifts. 

Spring is a time to start again, and that may involve deliberately putting out of one’s mind what has gone before. The discomfort and dark of winter should be forgotten. Many years ago a friend of mine lent somebody his tent. This was in Scotland, where tents – and everything else – will inevitably get wet. The borrower used the tent and then stored it in a damp state before giving it back. The owner was a tolerant man but was nonetheless outraged by the mould he discovered, and we all got to hear a great deal of the incident. This all took place more than 30 years ago, but I am not sure whether he has yet forgiven the borrower.

I had occasion to think about the mouldy tent on a recent book tour of Australia. I was reminded of the issue by the custom of prefacing public occasions – such as talks at literary festivals – with a reference to the original inhabitants of the place where the meeting is being held.

Not everybody likes it, and some regard it as irritating tokenism, particularly where the original inhabitants have long since dispersed. The main argument in its defence is that it reminds us of a past that has not entirely lost its capacity to determine who has or gets what today. In the case of Australia, it underlines the fact the continent was not terra nullius when Europeans first settled in it, but was already inhabited by people who had been there for a very long time. What happened to those people is something that today’s Australians are prepared to face up to, even if there are some who would prefer that the matter be ignored. So even if it is a form of tokenism, it is symptomatic of a healthy assumption of responsibility for what our ancestors did.

But the problem with this is deciding the limits of historical responsibility. When should history be deprived of its impact on how we see ourselves and how we conduct our lives? This year it would be impossible to ignore the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. That war was an appalling disaster, but is it still “potent” history, in the sense that it affects the modern world? The answer to that must be yes: many of the contours of the modern world are the discernible result of that conflict. Going back into the 19th century, one will find plenty of historical events that still cast their shadow today, but the further one reaches into the past the safer it is to relegate matters to “inactive” history. This distancing of ourselves from the past is necessary if we are to face the world without the clutter of too much historical baggage.

Of course the idea of insulating oneself from the past suits those who are unwilling to redress injustice. Slavery is an interesting example. In this country we like to think that history remembers us as the abolitionists. Actually we were a major part of the problem in the first place, and amnesia cannot let us off the hook quite so easily. If one travels to some of the poorer parts of the Caribbean, one can still see the scars of slavery. This is what fuels the current calls for reparation. We may feel that it is just too long ago – ancient history. It is, perhaps, for us – but it is not, quite understandably, for them.

Should we have some sort of 100-year rule, akin to the rule that allows official papers to be opened to historians after a certain period? That would relieve Britain of current blame for the concentration camps of the Boer war but not for the treatment of prisoners during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.

This is not to say, though, that we should forget entirely; rather it is to suggest that we should not hold any current states or groups accountable for what happened in the distant past. As a Scot, I rather doubt that the Highland Clearances can be laid at the door of anybody who is around today, although I know that there are those who would put the spotlight on those descendants of landowners who still enjoy ill-gotten gains. Nor do I think that we should invest too much emotion in Bannockburn, another anniversary coming up this year. We have a referendum in September at which we do not really need to think too much of William Wallace.

Consigning events to the past should not preclude the need for apology for ancient wrongs. It may be absurd to expect today’s Scandinavians to issue an apology for the behaviour of the Vikings, but the Queen’s bowing of her head in Ireland was a helpful gesture, even if it did not amount to an explicit apology. National apologies can heal rifts, just as failures to apologise in sufficiently unambiguous terms may prolong friction. Japan has discovered that in the reaction to its various official, often rather half-hearted statements of remorse over atrocities committed during the Second World War.

Back to the referendum. I have a friend who is, quite astonishingly, still sore about the Stuarts and the failure of attempts at their restoration. Whatever one’s views on
Scottish independence, perhaps we should move on from whatever ancient baggage we lug around with us – a resounding cliché, and yet a good one, as is the proposition that wherever the future lies, it is not in the past.

Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel is “The Forever Girl” (Polygon, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

Photo: Will Ireland
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Rock solid-arity: how fans and bands helped save Team Rock's music magazines

“It was purely helping out friends in a time of need.”

A little over 25 years ago, a journalist friend let me in on the secret of publishing success. He cut his teeth in the Sixties as an editor in the Yippie underground press, wrote for Rolling Stone, Associated Press and the Chicago Sun-Times, then went on to teach at one of America’s most prestigious journalism schools.

The big secret, he had concluded, was community. No more, no less. Get to know your community and serve it well.

A quarter of a century on, it’s sometimes hard to remember what community looks like in newspapers and magazines. Carefully crafted pages have been obscured by a haze of clickbait, engineered to sucker everyone and anyone into donating a drive-by page view for ads. Community has given way to commodity.

But occasionally, there are glimpses of hope. Six months ago, TeamRock.com, built around a group of specialist music magazines including Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and Prog, went into administration.

The Christmas closure came brutally quickly. The Scottish Sun reported that stunned staff in the company’s Lanarkshire headquarters were told they had been made redundant “as a joiner changed the locks on their offices”. In total, 73 staff were laid off; nearly 30 in Scotland and more than 40 in London.

At the close of 2016, the future for the Team Rock brand and its stable of magazine titles was bleaker than a Black Sabbath album. But last month, in an extraordinary reversal of fortunes, TeamRock.com was named the most influential rock music website in the world.

Bargain-basement buy back

Just a fortnight after its shock closure, the brand was bought by former owners Future Plc. In a no-brainer deal, the Bath-based publisher re-acquired the three magazines it had sold to Team Rock’s founders in 2013. It bought back assets sold for £10m at the knockdown price of £800,000 with the bonus of TeamRock.com and Team Rock Radio. The deal rescued large parts of the Team Rock operation – but its soul was saved by the rock and metal community.

Oblivious to any discussions going on to rescue the magazines, readers, music fans and bands came together in a stunning display of loyalty. Hearing that Team Rock staff wouldn’t be getting paid their Christmas wage they took to social media to pledge their support and raised almost £90,000 for redundant staff.

Ben Ward, the organiser of the crowdfunding campaign and frontman for heavy metal band Orange Goblin said he started the appeal with no thought for the business. “It was purely helping out friends in a time of need,” he explained.

He had read all three Team Rock magazines for years, socialised with their staff and promoted his own and other bands in their pages. “To think of a world without any of those magazines – it was devastating,” he said.

The response to the campaign brought him some cheer, with members of bands such as Queen, Rush and Avenged Sevenfold all posting about it on their social media pages. He added: “The whole Christmas period, my phone just wouldn't stop beeping with notifications for another donation.”

Show of solidarity

Though the fundraiser blew up all Ward's expectations, beating his initial target by more than 400 per cent, he didn't seem completely surprised by the scale of the response.

“Heavy metal and hard rock, people that are into that sort of music, we've always been sort of looked down upon. We know it's not commercially the done thing, we know it's not the norm to walk around with long hair and tattoos and dirty leather jackets. But when you see a fellow metal head in the supermarket, you always give them an approving nod. There's a kind of solidarity.”

While favourable capitalist arithmetic has kept the presses rolling – and the online servers going – for Team Rock, it was the music community – empowered by social media – who delivered the real resurrection. With a combined Facebook following of more than 3.5million and a total social media audience of almost five million, it was no surprise TeamRock.com was soon number one in its field.

“What's brilliant about this is that it's based on what music fans share with each other,” explains editor-in-chief Scott Rowley.

TeamRock.com became the most influential rock site based on social media sharing, and came fifth in the top 100 sites across all music genres. The site above it is a hip-hop title, again featured for the strength of its community, according to Rowley. “Those people really know what they're talking about, they want very specific content, and they're not getting served it elsewhere,” he said. “When they get it, they love it and they share it and talk about it and that's their world.”

Responsiblity

Following the outpouring of support for the rock magazines, Rowley now feels a heightened sense of responsibility to do “the right thing” and steer clear of cynical decisions to get clicks or put certain bands on the cover just to sell copies. He believes future success will come down to trust. “Sometimes that feels precarious, but equally I think we're in good hands,” he explains. “We're a business, we've got to make money, but we know what smells fake and where the limits are.”

Zillah Byng-Thorne, CEO of owner Future, recognises the need to balance the realities of running a listed company with the authenticity needed to maintain trust. “What Future is interested in is the passion that underpins specialist media,” she says. “I don't really mind what your passion is, what's important is that it's a passion.”

“No one is sitting around thinking, 'I wonder what bands sound like Thin Lizzy?',” says Rowley. “We're much more a part of their lifestyle, interrupting their day to tell them someone’s just released an album or announced a tour.”

“But it doesn't have to always be about fishing for clicks,” he adds. “I remember [Classic Rock online editor] Fraser Lewry saying, 'Sometimes on social we should just be being social'.”

Being social. Listening. Contributing to the conversation. Sharing the passion. That old-fashioned notion of serving the community. It seems Ward would agree, as he offers the new owners of the magazines he helped to save some advice: “Don't make the same mistakes, investing in things that weren't really necessary from the magazine’s point of view. I'm in no position to tell anyone how to run their business, but on behalf of the rock and metal community…keep it interesting, keep it relevant.”