In Praise of Newspapers

I read newspapers every day. In hard copy. In all their inky glory. I even read them when I’m on holidays. They offer a window onto my own society and culture, and that of others.

Cultivating a reading habit

The Age masthead (2018)

Reading the paper is a habit formed in my youth. Dad was a voracious reader of political news and, let’s be honest, any news relating to the Carlton Football Club. (Rest in peace, dad. Good times will come again.) Our breakfast tablecloth regularly disappeared under the sprawling broadsheet pages of the Melbourne Age. It was the era of Menzies and Bolte, of the Vietnam War and moratorium marches, and – to save us from utter despair – Carlton’s ascendancy.

When I left home to go to university, I immediately arranged a newspaper delivery to my residential college. If Canberra Airport was fog-bound on a winter’s morning, and the interstate papers couldn’t arrive by air, breakfast became a disappointing start to the day. Later still, when I moved to a tiny rural town in New South Wales, my request to have the Age delivered to the general store was met with equal measures of incomprehension and suspicion. (They were right to be suspicious.)

And so it continues…

Jump forward a few decades. I still subscribe to a capital city daily – now it’s The Canberra Times. In recent years,  this stablemate of The Age has turned from broadsheet to tabloid format and it’s no longer possible to split the main news section from the sports section so two people can conveniently read at once. That’s a frustration. My solution is to keep the whole paper for myself and not share it at all. At weekends, I sometimes treat myself to The Australian, a national broadsheet that has several separate sections (oh, joy!), as well as a glossy magazine that keeps me in ‘idle-hours’ reading all week long.

My commitment to reading the paper on a daily basis remains unchanged even when I’m on holidays. On a recent trip to the United Kingdom, I generally purchased The Guardian at some point during the day or, failing that, I snaffled a copy of one of the free dailies available on the London Underground. (As an aside, the reading of these gratis newspapers prompted the only rail-carriage conversations I witnessed. For the most part, travel was conducted in eyes-downcast silence, within private cocoons of ear buds and electronic devices.)

A window onto a culture

A newspaper provides a window onto a culture. It shines a light on what is important, and of interest, to a people. In the UK during my visit, Brexit machinations were trumped only by England’s World Cup heroics. (If you doubt my ‘heroics’ tag, you simply weren’t there.) Politics and sport. UK/Australia. Same/same. But … not quite.

While there are plenty of similarities between the cultures of Britain and Australia – the seeding of Empire in the Great South Land saw to that – there are differences, too.

Take the Guardian issue I bought on my first day in London. Filling page three was a review of a newly opened exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. A whole page given over to art, without even a single advertisement. I am old enough to remember when page three of a tabloid was reserved for shapely women in various states of undress. (Perhaps there are still papers like that, I wouldn’t know.) I have never seen a focus on a museum or gallery exhibition, comparable to that in The Guardian, in an Australian newspaper. Like Dorothy, I had a feeling I was not in Kansas anymore.

The Saturday Guardian revealed another cultural discrepancy. In the ‘Weekend’ section, I came upon a crossword. It was simply headed ‘Crossword by Sy’. Now, despite the best efforts of intelligent friends, I am entirely bamboozled by cryptic crosswords, but I do enjoy completing a daily ‘quick’ crossword. Of which variety would Sy’s be?

Opening clue, 7 and 11 across: ‘In what was Keats much travelled before looking into Chapman’s Homer? (6,2,4)’. I have no idea. The next batch of clues defeat me, also. I am about to give up when I read 16 across: ‘… Jones, Covent Garden architect (5)’. Ooh, I know this one. (If in doubt, when it comes to a question of construction in the UK, try Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Inigo Jones. You’ll be right  80% of the time.) I get to 21 across: ‘Where, according to Coleridge, Kubla Khan decreed his pleasure dome (6). I’m on a roll now. (Thank you, Olivia Newton John.)

I eventually completed Sy’s crossword, but only because the answers were given on a separate page. I cheated and looked them up.

The crossword included clues about the works of Shelley and Bryon and Rossetti and ee cummings. No Australian paper I’ve read has featured a crossword based on the English literary canon, let alone one centred on Malouf and Winton and Oodgeroo and Garner.

I was clearly a long way from my usual cultural milieu.

As the holiday spooled forward, and I continued to take my daily dose of print news, I often turned to the Guardian’s ‘Country Diary’, a natural history column. There I read, for example, about the tumps that populate the hillside near Kirkham Abbey in North Yorkshire. I hadn’t the slightest notion what a tump was – the word doesn’t even appear in my Australian Macquarie Dictionary. (In case you ever need to know, a tump is a little hillock, often home to moles or ants.) Again, there is no similar column that I’ve come across in an Australian newspaper. (I, for one, would read a regular piece about the ‘wide brown land’ in which I live.)

What’s the point of hard copy newspapers?

As I write, Fairfax Media, one of Australia’s longest-running newspaper organisations, is merging (subject to the required approvals) with an entertainment conglomerate. Fairfax publishes both the newspaper I cut my teeth on (The Age) and the one I subscribe to now (The Canberra Times). I want to keep reading a print paper. In turning the pages, I often pause to read articles I would never seek out online from their ‘clickbait’ headings. (Heavens, I sometimes even read columns in the business and finance sections as I turn the newsprint pages en route to the sport.)

I read more broadly and diversely in print. Although the papers I choose may reflect a particular ideological stance, they are well-rounded to the extent that they cover manifold aspects of life. As a consequence, I hope I am more well-rounded in my understanding and appreciation of the world. And when I travel, I hope to continue buying print newspapers for the insight they offer into lives other than my own.

Links and sources

Guardian mastheads, courtesy of the Guardian (UK)

On Researching London’s Frost Fairs

Frost Fair, Luke Clenell, 1814

Frost Fair, Luke Clenell, 1814

I have a new-found respect for authors of historical fiction. Well, perhaps not entirely new, but significantly heightened, deepened and broadened.

I have just begun my own research into London’s Frost Fairs; more particularly, the Frost Fair of 1814. If I step back in time, records show that, for many centuries, sections of the River Thames froze over during winter, sometimes for two or three months at a stretch. In 1410, for instance, The Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London states:

And thys yere was the grete frost and ise, and most sharpest wenter that ever man sawe, and it duryd fourteen wekes, so that men myght in dyvers places both goo and ryde over the Temse.

The Frost Fair of 168384

As the centuries passed, Londoners decided that the frozen river was a good opportunity for fun and frolicking—and for profit. By the seventeenth century, a tradition of Frost Fairs was underway. Possibly the mightiest one took place from early December 1683 to the beginning of February 1684. William Andrews’ Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs in Great Britain describes ‘another city’ that grew on the Thames at that time. There were, he says, a ‘great number of streets and shops with their rich furniture’, a variety of carriages, and ‘near Whitehall a whole ox was roasted on the ice’.

Wonders on the Deep, 1684

Wonders on the Deep, 1684

A 1684 broadside titled Wonders on the Deep; or, The Most Exact Description of the Frozen River Thames indicates the range of businesses and activities that flourished on the ice. As well as the horse racing and bull baiting, and the ninepins and skating, the broadside shows rows of shops stretching from Temple Stairs on the Thames’ north bank to the barge house in Southwark—there are coffee houses and beer gardens, toy shops and taverns, and booths selling knives and combs and hot gingerbread. (Hopefully, only empty vessels were available at the booth selling its wares under a flying chamber pot banner.)

The Frost Fair of 1814

Skip forward 130 years. London’s last Frost Fair was held in 1814. (The combined effects of the embankment of the Thames and the design of the ‘new’—and now replaced—1831 London Bridge put paid to further freezing of the river.) The British Museum holds a marvellous engraving, ‘taken on the Spot at bankside’, that shows the activity on the ice on 4 February 1814. Looking north, you can see St Paul’s, the Monument and St Magnus’s overseeing the revelry:

A view on the River Thames_1814

A View on the River Thames between London and Blackfriars Bridges (British Museum)

Frost Fair Keepsake_Jack Frost_1814

Frost Fair Keepsake (Museum of London)

As the frost that had settled in December 1813 rolled into January and then February of 1814, some Londoners’ ardour for their frozen river waned. In response to this disgruntlement, one witty soul printed a directive to Jack Frost (at right):

Historical Fiction

But, I digress. I started this post by acknowledging my growing respect for authors of historical fiction. As a reader, I started my foray into historical novels when I plundered my mother’s Jean Plaidy collection. My Intermediate (Year 10) History teacher allowed her students to bring history texts of their own choosing into class for ‘private reading’ at the end of the school year. I’m fairly sure that Plaidy’s Stuart Saga, beginning with The Royal Road to Fotheringhay, is not what she had in mind, but she indulged me nonetheless. Over the years, I’ve developed a real yen for fictionalised history—especially stories set in the UK. From Edward Rutherford’s London and Sarum to Rosemary Sutcliff’s tales of Roman occupation, from C. J. Sansom’s intriguing Shardlake series to Hilary Mantel’s absorbing Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, I have roamed across the centuries of England’s changing landscape. Seeing it built, layer upon layer.

My own research into the Frost Fair of 1814 may or may not lead to a work of fiction. It might depend as much on my stamina as my imagination. Although books and documents on the era abound (and they are increasingly accessible due to digitisation), I have at least one new question arising from every piece of information I discover. For example, the Frost Fairs took place in the area just west of London Bridge. I can visually position myself at the base of the bridge, looking south-west. Southwark Cathedral is on my right with Borough Market immediately behind it. But now I learn that the current location of London Bridge is about 55 metres west of the bridge’s 1814 location. (The 1814 bridge had stood since 1209. It was replaced in 1831 and again in 1973.) I need to find out where, exactly, the bridge met the north and south banks of the Thames in 1814. Did it abut the grounds of Southwark Cathedral (then known as St Saviour’s) or did it end closer to St Olaf’s Stairs? Fortunately, there are maps. I’ve even found one that seems purpose-drawn for me: Stranger’s Guide through London and Westminster 1814. At least I can be sure of one thing; Borough Market was not selling llama burgers and ostrich steaks in 1814, as it was on my visit two centuries later. It wasn’t, was it? … Perhaps I’d better check that, too.

Borough Market_1

Borough Market, with the Shard in the background, 2013

Links and Sources:

And for enough source material to last several lifetimes, visit British History Online.

The River Thames

The River Thames