Let us go back. Why did I waste two hours, or maybe three, reading those idiotic manuscripts? Why, in the first place, did I answer her opening request the request, so inherently absurd, that I meet her in her father’s office? For a very plain reason: she accompanied it with flattery. What she said, in effect, was that she regarded me as a critic of the highest talents, and this ludicrous cajolery sound, I dare say, in substance, but reduced to naught by her obvious obscurity and stupidity was quite enough to fetch me. In brief, she assumed that, being a man, I was vain to the point of imbecility, and this assumption was correct, as it always is. To help out, there was the concept of romantic adventure vaguely floating in my mind. Her voice, as I heard it by telephone, was agreeable; her appearance, since she seemed eager to show herself, I probably judged (subconsciously) to be at least not revolting. Thus curiosity got on its legs, and vanity in another form. Am I fat and half decrepit, a man seldom noticed by cuties? Then so much the more reason why I should respond. The novelty of an apparently comely and respectable woman desiring to witness me finished what the primary (and very crude) appeal to my vanity had begun. I was, in brief, not only the literary popinjay but also the eternal male and hard at the immemorial folly of the order.
H.L. Mencken, “Scientific Examination of a Popular Virtue”, Prejudices: Second Series, 1920.
March 1, 2014
February 20, 2014
Anton Howes says that the recently released film is sheer individualistic and capitalistic propaganda:
The Lego Movie shows us a compelling dystopian world of conformity, regulation and authority where everyone “must follow the instructions” or be “put to sleep”. It is a tale of the battle between the chaotic, creative destruction of freedom, and the rigid, forceful regulation of bureaucracy.
The run-of-the-mill protagonist Emmet is blatantly shown to be brainwashed by repetitive and generic tv shows, corporatist celebration days like Taco Tuesdays, and a perpetually playing propaganda anthem called “Everything is Awesome” with clearly collectivist undertones: “everything is cool when you’re part of a team”. He works with other construction workers to tear down the “weird” and diverse buildings and replace them with generic ones.
But it gets so much better. The dystopian dictator’s position as both the CEO of the Octan Corporation and President of the World perfectly encapsulates the problems with corporatism and monopolies on force. Indeed, his evil plan is stultifying regulation taken to the extreme: he wants to use superglue to literally stick everything permanently into the “perfect” position, relying on a robotic army of “micro-managers” to make sure that everything is exactly how he wants it to be before being stuck into place. There could be no clearer metaphor for the perils of intruding technocrats.
February 4, 2014
Why, oh why was Twain’s unpublished work turned over to these jackanapes to paw through like illiterate raccoons looking for rancid bits to eat? Yes, yes, I know they style themselves “The Mark Twain Project,” and have devoted their mortgages, if not lives, to Twain, or at least to raiding his intellectual larder to stock their shabby ivy-stricken midden over at Berkeley. So what. The mental contortions needed to adduce that their name and their sinecures makes them capable of understanding such a writer is like saying that a dog has ticks so the ticks should inherit the dog’s estate. Haven’t you drawn enough blood from the man already, you stooges? You’ve been carving out a living carving your initials, likely misspelled, into the outside of Twain’s bier for a century. Who allowed you to climb in there with him and start carving away on the inside?
There’s Twain inside this book, don’t get me wrong. It’s exactly, precisely what you always get from Twain. His laundry list is a Dead Sea Scroll. His lunch order is a Rosetta Stone. He has more intellectual horsepower under his fingernail after a trip to his ear than Berkeley has in a building, and that’s if the building is full of janitors. At least janitors know how the world works. The buildings full of these scholars need fumigating. Lock the doors, first, from the outside.
It was easy enough, if annoying, to tread across the minefields of intellectual delirium tremens these invertebrates have made of Twain’s writing, leaving their little piles of brain droppings here and there like badly behaved dogs, explaining Twain. I put on heavy shoes and plowed ahead. Then I got to page 468, the glimmer of a tear still in my eye over SLC’s description of his older brother, Orion, filled with pathos and love and respect and affection and a wistful, unspoken wish that his brother wasn’t doomed by his nature to miss the life Twain got by the thickness of one of Sam’s famous whiskers — and then I turned the page, and there on page 469 was text as terrible and incomprehensible as the writing on your own tombstone, delivered early: The rest of the book, almost 300 more pages, was entirely comprised of the stark, raving drivel of these toads, with only bits of Twain embedded in it like reverse carbuncles. Good God. I’ll hold my nose and run through Twain’s Elysian fields, keeping an eye peeled for your intellectual Beserkley cowpies the whole time, but I’m not treating myself to a one-man Easter-egg hunt in a sewage treatment plant.
Explaining Twain. Think of that. Why not send a cigar store indian out on a speaking tour to explain smoking. He stood outside the shop for a hunnerd years. He must know something about the topic by now.
Sippican Cottage, “Sippican’s Greatest Hits: The Autocoprophagy Of Mark Twain”, Sippican Cottage, 2014-01-29
February 1, 2014
The BBC television show Blackadder is arguably one of the funniest and finest comedies of the late 20th century. Achingly sharp, with jokes that are still funny to this day, it was a four series show which finished with Blackadder Goes Forth set in the First World War. Watching the show today, one is struck by how funny it is, and also worryingly how its anti-establishment jokes aimed at undermining the social structure of the time has become the accepted historical record of the First World War.
The UK has a very strange ‘love hate’ relationship with its military officers — junior ones are portrayed as incompetent (Lieutenant George), Captains are seen as possibly okay (Captain Blackadder), Majors are usually seen retired and with a snifter in their hand (the Major from Fawlty Towers), while Colonels or heaven forbid Generals (General Melchett) are usually seen as inept, incompetent, who do not have a clue about their profession or what it involves. They are seen as people without a clue until the point when they retire, at which point they suddenly become military geniuses, whose angry letters to Broadsheet newspapers warrant being printed on the grounds that they are military commanders who know what they are talking about.
January 30, 2014
Steve Muhlberger is between major history projects right now, so he takes a bit of time to find out why so many of his friends are fans of the original Star Trek TV series.
So what about the original series? My memory of the original series is that it was not really very good. I was only about 15 when it came on, but I’d already read a lot of high-quality science fiction in print, and I thought that the TV show was not really giving the best selection of science-fiction ideas available. The series was better than most of what was on TV, but most of what was on TV was pretty lame.
Part of me wondered why the series had such a tremendous impact. I knew plenty of people who really loved it.
I’m a bit younger than Steve, so I didn’t watch the original broadcasts on NBC from 1966-69. For me, it was an after-school show in the early 70s that so far as I can remember was not shown in any kind of order. It left me with no sense of how the show changed over time (improving, in some respects). Steve points out one thing that didn’t improve:
A good half of that season focused on exactly one idea, which is not really much of a science fictional idea as much as a horror genre idea. That idea is that universe is filled with things that look like human beings that are actually monsters; or alternatively things that started out as human beings have turned into monsters, sometimes only moral monsters. There’s a lot of betrayal and menace in those early episodes, and they’re not really very good episodes otherwise.
But about halfway through that first season, what people have loved about this series begins to emerge. By that I mean the characters and the interactions between the characters on the ship and particularly on the bridge of the ship start making you really care about what goes on with them.
What really surprised me was that I liked the first season James T Kirk. I have always been someone who put James T Kirk down as a borderline maniac whose prominence in Starfleet reveals a weakness in their whole system, especially the recruiting efforts. My image of Kirk is a rather smug character who relies on his physical charisma (which did not really speak to me) to get his way. But the first season Kirk is not really like that. He’s trimmer, fitter, handsomer and — can’t believe I’m saying this — more intelligent and more philosophical than he was later on in the series or in the movies. He says a lot of things are actually smart. He looks smarter than Spock!
January 23, 2014
At Techdirt, Timothy Geigner recounts the potential PR disaster facing Machinima after they attempted to buy positive coverage from their own contributors for the Xbox One:
It began with a thread on NeoGAF that included text from an email Machinima was sending out to their partners which offered bonus CPM (cost per thousand views, the standard way advertising is priced) payments on videos covering Microsoft’s new console. Their requirements for this “promotion” in the email were already problematic, including gameplay footage from an Xbox One game, a mention of playing the game on the Xbox One console in the video, and a vague reference to following the “guidelines listed in the assignment.” Just in those lines, most journalists would find deal-killers. While the line on whether or not YouTube video makers covering games like this being journalists may be a bit blurry, there’s little doubt that thousands of YouTubers look to these folks for help on their purchasing decisions. In other words, they’re fame rests squarely on their reputations for honest reviews. Minus those reputations, these people have no following.
Which is what makes the details in those “guidelines” mentioned above so misguided.
Now here’s where we enter really sketchy territory: Ars Technica tracked down a copy of Machinima‘s contract for the promotion, and there’s one line that stands out: “You may not say anything negative or disparaging about Machinima, Xbox One or any of its Games in your Campaign Video.” What’s more, these YouTubers can’t even be transparent about this arrangement, according to the contract:
“You agree to keep confidential at all times all matters relating to this Agreement, including, without limitation, the Promotional Requirements, and the CPM Compensation, listed above. You understand that You may not post a copy of this Agreement or any terms thereof online or share them with any third party (other than a legal or financial representative). You agree that You have read the Nondisclosure Agreement (attached hereto and marked as Exhibit “A”) and You understand and agree to all of terms of the Nondisclosure Agreement, which is incorporated as part of this Agreement.”
Hear that sound? That’s the sound of this entire promotion exploding with enough payload-force to also take out both the guilty and innocent Machinima video-producers. What this does is put everyone under suspicion. Given what we said about the importance of reputations above, this could be the meteor that destroys Machinima‘s world.
Yes, if you’re following along a home, the post title is a Blackadder reference.
January 21, 2014
The British Library has posted an interesting short item on their Untold lives blog about George Orwell’s pamphlet collection:
George Orwell’s collection of mostly political ephemera was an important barometer of the social changes of the 1930s and 1940s, and a measure of his influences during those decades. While Orwell’s personal papers went to University College London and the National Archives, his miscellaneous materials are held by the British Library. Totalling over 2700 items, a full inventory of Orwell’s collection of pamphlets is now available via the British Library’s website.
Orwell was not a writer of ‘bestselling’ books until the end of his life, after the Second World War. He became known as a journalist, a critic of other people’s writings and a word-portraitist of the landscape of politics. It is likely he never passed up the opportunity to acquire pamphlets of any persuasion. He wryly observed in The Tribune that the pamphleteer’s road was paved by a “complete disregard for fairness or accuracy” (8 December 1944). Perhaps the most appealing aspect of his pamphlets collection is that he wasn’t Hoovering them up to form a George Orwell Archive; he considered them as a spectrum of thought that was deserving of preserving.
Orwell’s heaps of pamphlets informed his writing, both fiction and non fiction. He took pride in his squirrelling-away of pamphlets, “political, religious and what-not”. In 1949, he estimated that this hoard numbered 1200-2000, but even the higher figure was an underestimation. He wrote that “a few of them must be great rarities” and they were “bound to be of historical interest in 50 years time.” In line with most of his considerations, he wasn’t wrong.
December 30, 2013
A very common way of thinking in literary criticism is not seen as a consequence of Communism, but it is. Every writer has the experience of being told that a novel, a story, is “about” something or other. I wrote a story, “The Fifth Child,” which was at once pigeonholed as being about the Palestinian problem, genetic research, feminism, anti-Semitism and so on.
A journalist from France walked into my living room and before she had even sat down said, “Of course ‘The Fifth Child’ is about AIDS.”
An effective conversation stopper, I assure you. But what is interesting is the habit of mind that has to analyze a literary work like this. If you say, “Had I wanted to write about AIDS or the Palestinian problem I would have written a pamphlet,” you tend to get baffled stares. That a work of the imagination has to be “really” about some problem is, again, an heir of Socialist Realism. To write a story for the sake of storytelling is frivolous, not to say reactionary.
The demand that stories must be “about” something is from Communist thinking and, further back, from religious thinking, with its desire for self-improvement books as simple-minded as the messages on samplers.
Doris Lessing, “Questions You Should Never Ask a Writer”, New York Times, 1992-06-26 (reprinted 2007-10-13)
December 27, 2013
At the Smithsonian blog, Rachel Nuwer talks to some Tolkien scholars about the latest installment of The Hobbit:
Die-hard J.R.R. Tolkien fans, however, likely side with that first review, as shown in some blog posts, Reddit threads and Tolkien forums. Jackson strayed from The Hobbit book in his first movie but those additions largely borrowed from Tolkien’s broader lore. In this film, however, the director has taken more liberties, beefing up the action and introducing invented characters such as Tauriel, the “she-elf,” but sacrificing some development of beloved characters in the process.
To stretch The Hobbit — originally a light-hearted 300-page children’s story — into what, in the end, will likely be a nearly nine-hour epic trilogy, Jackson again relied on three main sources: original material from The Hobbit book, including expanding on minor elements that were mentioned only in passing in that text; details that Tolkien revealed in The Lord of the Rings books and their Appendices; and things he just made up himself. The sly allusions to Tolkien’s broader world are still there, but they are even more obscure than before. In some ways, however, this makes picking out those hidden gems and Easter eggs all the more appealing for fans.
Last year, we consulted with two Tolkien experts, John Rateliff, an independent scholar, and Michael Drout, an English professor at Wheaton College, to help us sort through the cinematic noise and identify true Tolkien threads. We’ve returned to them this year to get their take on the new movie and help us navigate the sliding scale from unadulterated Tolkien to Jackson invention.
December 23, 2013
Psychiatry does not seek “to colonise everyday life – rather, everyday life now invites colonisation by psychiatry”
In Spiked, Sandy Starr reviews Gary Greenberg’s recently published The Book of Woe:
There is an inevitable contingency about diagnostic categories, particularly when it comes to psychiatry. Greenberg argues that for all the useful work that goes into constructing these categories, psychiatric diagnosis has a ‘self-validating nature…by which once you’ve created a diagnostic category, the fact that people fit into it becomes evidence that the disorder exists’. Greenberg reminds us that ‘while many diagnoses are made on clinical signs and symptoms rather than on lab tests or other external validators, only in psychiatry are all diagnoses made that way’.
It’s worth adding that this may be changing. As psychiatry seeks to predicate itself more and more upon genetics and neuroscience, there are expectations in some circles that biochemical diagnostic tests for psychiatric disorders will follow ineluctably. This prospect does not reassure me. Psychiatry is attempting the difficult feat of relocating its foundations without toppling its façade, and this involves elisions — several of which are discussed by Greenberg — that leave me feeling less persuaded of the profession’s credentials, not more.
That said, one can certainly appreciate the need for psychiatry to appear coherent and confident, given the far-reaching consequences of the DSM’s contents. Greenberg explains, for example, how the use of a single ‘and’ where an ‘or’ might have been used, in the definition of ‘paedophilia’ that made its way into the fourth edition, inadvertently made it far easier for US authorities to detain indefinitely (on psychiatric grounds) people who had been convicted of sexual offences against minors. In other words, a single use of the word ‘and’ in the DSM led to a complex domain of morality and law — the culpability (or otherwise) of people charged with sexual offences in various circumstances, and proportionate sentencing for their crimes — becoming subordinate to the considerations of psychiatry.
‘Once you start to think of your troubles as a disease, your idea of yourself, which is to say who you are, changes’, warns Greenberg. But while psychiatry gives a diagnostic imprimatur to our expectations of ourselves and of one another, psychiatry is not solely capable of bringing about a wholesale alteration of these expectations. To understand what else might account for a psychiatric turn in society, one needs to recognise that we live in a culture in which our adult capacities are constantly denigrated, in which victimhood has become one of the few widely recognised sources of authority, and in which we are constantly encouraged from all directions not only to put our problems on public display (rather than addressing them within the intimate confines of trusted friends, family or — in extremis — psychotherapists or even psychiatrists), but also to assume that our problems will most likely afflict us in perpetuity.
It’s not so much the case that psychiatry now seeks to colonise everyday life — rather, everyday life now invites colonisation by psychiatry. In circumstances such as these, even the most well-meaning and scrupulous psychiatrist might struggle to parse the suffering and idiosyncrasy they encounter, so as to partition it sensibly into the pathological and the normal. Greenberg’s barbs against psychiatry may be well deserved, and are certainly grounded in tantalising insider detail and no small amount of wit. But they represent an incomplete picture of the dynamics he sets out to get to grips with, which lie outside the institution of psychiatry as much as they lie within.
December 14, 2013
Despite the tone of many reviews, I’m still looking forward to seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug soon. Here’s Kurt Loder in Reason with his views on the movie:
Part Two: In which we rejoin Bilbo and Gandalf on their way to Erebor in company with the questing dwarves Thorin, Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy — you remember. Once again they’re menaced by fearsome orcs and snarling wargs as they gamely transit glorious New Zealand. Some familiar faces pass through: the mind-reading Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), the mushroom-addled wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). Orlando Bloom’s fiercely blond Legolas is dragged back from the Lord of the Rings series (no word from Tolkien about this), and even the fiery Eye of Sauron gets a quick peek in.
Okay, okay. The Desolation of Smaug is actually a lot livelier than the first Hobbit installment, An Unexpected Journey. For one thing, there’s nothing in it as fun-smothering as the endless hobbit-hole chow-down that opened the previous film. There’s a lot more action this time, and at several points director Peter Jackson exceeds even his own very high standard in designing and executing it.
The story is so simple that we wonder once more why it should take nearly three friggin hours to tell it. Bilbo (amiable Martin Freeman) is slogging along with the 13 dwarves en route to the ancestral homeland from which they were long ago expelled by the dragon Smaug. Their leader, Prince Thorin (Richard Armitage), has recruited him to join in re-entering the stony innards of the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug still sleeps, and, once there, to find and secure a glowy artifact called the Arkenstone, which is…I don’t know, really important. Gandalf (Ian McKellen, crinkly as ever) is intermittently absent, but Bilbo is still secretly in possession of the One Ring he snookered away from Gollum in the last film. Maybe that’ll help.
Entering the dark, broody forest of Mirkwood (where “the very air is heavy with illusion,” Gandalf mutters), the party is attacked by a very real army of giant spiders — a scary scene that allows Jackson to flex his low-budget-horror muscles. Before long the hardy band is imprisoned by a tribe of unfriendly elves. But then they manage a spectacular escape — the movie’s most thrilling sequence – in which Bilbo and company, each squeezed into an empty wine barrel, plunge down a churning waterway as warrior orcs pursue them, leaping from bank to bank, and an intervening band of friendlier elves wades in to fend them off. Blood gushes, limbs fly, and the action builds in endlessly inventive ways. Only when this sequence finally concludes do we note that it’s gone on too damn long.
December 13, 2013
Ethan Gilsdorf reviews the second film in The Hobbit trilogy:
If you are resigned to the idea of Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro cribbing from other source materials in the Tolkien legendarium to expand the world of The Hobbit, then Smaug might sit right with you. But if you insist on even moderate fealty to Tolkien’s book, then Smaug might feel overlong, bloated, and unfaithful.
Once again, Jackson’s art team has done a mesmerizing job visualizing the various stops on this Middle-earth tour. The Elvenking’s Hall, an intricately carved wood and rock dungeon, is magnificent. Mirkwood and its tangle of paths, tree-trunks, toadstools and spiderwebs feels like a mushroom trip gone bad. The Tombs of the High Fells and the crumbed fortress of Dol Guldur would be any D&Der’s wet dream. Set on piers and walkways over the water, Lake-town resembles a Renaissance-inspired Venice made of wood. The secret mountain stairway to the back door of Smaug’s lair, which the Company must ascend, proves to be a masterpiece of design. All are jaw-plummeting environments where I wanted to linger longer. In fact, I’d wished PJ had told his editor Jabez Olssen to let each shot linger a little longer, and asked cinematographer Andrew Lesnie to please hold his shots steady and in place — sans some swooping camera move — for more than five seconds.
Let me set my biases free. As a fan of Tolkien and a fan of Jackson’s first trilogy, it’s difficult to distance myself from my desire for movie that I’d hoped The Hobbit would deliver. This Hobbit Peter Jackson is less impressive than the Peter Jackson I came to know, respect and love in Lord of the Rings. This is an undisciplined director on display, showing no restraint. To me, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is too too loud, too fast, too much focused on action and distracting plot threads. I prefer the relative simplicity of Tolkien’s first Hobbit to the over-inflated, overblown, over-the-top epic Jackson aims his bow at here. Even if you accept the liberties Jackson and Company take with the script, to my mind, the movie as a movie experience, independent of the book, is not well served by all this extra material.
The question remains, how much of this can audiences withstand? How hard can Jackson pound on their armor before their defenses of patience give way? My suspicion is that chink in their dragon scales, if there is one, will be revealed when the final film in the trilogy, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, hits us with its Black Arrow next December.
December 11, 2013
In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout comes not to praise Leonard Elmore:
… It used to be that we didn’t take popular culture seriously, but now we don’t take anything else seriously.
Do I exaggerate? Consider the endless encomia that greeted the airing in September of the final episode of “Breaking Bad,” which the Daily Beast described as “a perfect, A-1 piece of televisual filmmaking…an unparalleled valedictory achievement.” Or Tuesday’s announcement by LA Weekly that it’s cutting back its theater reviews from seven per issue to two. Or the fact that no classical musician has appeared on the cover of Time magazine since 1986. Or…but why go on? You know as well as I do that in postmodern America, pop culture gets most of the ink. It always has, but nowadays it also receives the kind of dead-serious critical attention in the academy and elsewhere that used to be reserved for high art — and increasingly it does so to the exclusion of high art.
Once again, it’s not my purpose to demean pop culture. I think that most of the best movies made in America in the 20th century were crime dramas, screwball comedies and westerns. But there’s more to life than getting your head blown off in a drug deal, and more to be said about love than can be crammed into a 32-bar ballad. Novels like Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, plays like Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,” ballets like Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering,” paintings like Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” musical compositions like Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata: These are large-scale works of art that aim higher than their popular counterparts. (In fact, that’s not a bad rough-and-ready definition of high art.) Mere ambition, mind you, is not in and of itself a good thing, any more than bigger is by definition better, but we’re cheating ourselves when we direct our attention solely to less ambitious art.
H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.
November 23, 2013
Tom Slater thinks it’s time we had a quiet word with the good folks who produce the Oxford Dictionaries:
What this year’s Word of the Year — indeed, the mere existence of this nine-year-old award — reveals is something equally as toxic: the cult of relativism that is laying siege to modern culture.
In recent years, a sentiment has emerged that the concept of ‘proper’ English as something precious which needs to be upheld and protected is painfully old hat, if not vaguely authoritarian. Those who speak out about the youth’s poor grasp of grammar or increasing ineloquence are deemed snobby, elitist and unduly judgemental. Even as universities continue to complain about undergraduates’ increasingly feeble grasp of the English language, many academics have said we should just give up. ‘Either we go on beating ourselves and our students up over this problem or we simply give everyone a break’, argued one such professor.
The reluctance to defend the English language against the whims of slang and contemporary standards of literacy is always garbed as a freewheeling acceptance that language is always changing, and the idea that enforcing standards only replicates a kind of linguistic class divide: placing well-spoken aristocrats on one side and slang-spouting serfs on the other. But in truth, this relativism about English belies a crisis of judgement in an elite riddled with class guilt. As Brendan O’Neill has pointed out previously on spiked, the outcome of all of this is that children, especially the poorest, are prohibited from mastering a language in its full richness, the mechanism by which they can best engage with society and, more importantly, change it.
Oxford Dictionaries’ celebration of a glorified slang word, that few people had even heard of a year ago, represents another strange development in this trend. Over the course of its nine-year run, the Word of the Year award itself has become little more than an exercise in dictionary compilers ingratiating themselves with the youth. The award seems to have begun life in the form of Susie Dent’s 2004 book, Larpers and Shroomers: The Language Report. Published by Oxford University Press, it offered a potted history of buzzwords, some of which had faded from use while others had established themselves in the everyday lexicon.
The current issue of History Today includes an interesting article by Adrian Bingham on the British newspapers (especially the Daily Mail and the Times) during WW1:
When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914 the widespread feelings of fear, uncertainty and patriotic determination were matched at the offices of the Daily Mail by a sense of vindication. The newspaper had been warning about the German threat for years, perhaps most notoriously when it serialised in 1909 a series of inflammatory articles by the journalist Robert Blatchford, which, when reprinted as a penny pamphlet, sold some 1.6 million copies. The Mail had, moreover, consistently demanded that the Royal Navy be reinforced. It was soon styling itself ‘the paper that foretold the war’. For its critics, the Mail’s irresponsible stoking of anti-German sentiment, driven above all by the paper’s owner, Lord Northcliffe, actually helped to create the conditions that enabled conflict to break out. ‘Next to the Kaiser’, wrote the esteemed editor and journalist A.G. Gardiner, ‘Lord Northcliffe has done more than any other living man to bring about the war.’
It was not long, however, before Northcliffe became frustrated with the strict censorship imposed on the British press when reporting events in Europe. ‘What the newspapers feel very strongly’, wrote Northcliffe to Lord Murray of Elibank, ‘is that, against their will, they are made to be part and parcel of a foolish conspiracy to hide bad news. English people do not mind bad news.’ Such censorship was particularly worrying when it risked hiding failures in the prosecution and management of the war. Drawing both on the experiences of his visits to the front and on private sources of information from his many correspondents, Northcliffe became increasingly convinced that several men in leading positions were not up to the job, including the prime minister, Asquith, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, and the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener.
The episode that crystallised this concern, over which Northcliffe put both his and the Mail’s reputation on the line, was the Shell Crisis of May 1915. Northcliffe had received letters from the front claiming that British military operations were being undermined by the lack of the right kind of shell and, after the Allies failed to capitalise on an initial breakthrough at Neuve Chapelle due to a lack of munitions, these criticisms began to be publicly aired. On May 15th, 1915 The Times (also owned by Northcliffe at the time) published a telegram from its respected military correspondent, Lieutenant-Colonel Repington, highlighting the problem and Northcliffe decided to go on the offensive. After some critical editorials, on May 21st the Mail published an incendiary piece written by Northcliffe himself and headlined ‘The Tragedy of the Shells: Lord Kitchener’s Grave Error’. Northcliffe pinned the blame for the shells scandal directly on Kitchener:
Lord Kitchener has starved the army in France of high-explosive shells. The admitted fact is that Lord Kitchener ordered the wrong kind of shell … He persisted in sending shrapnel – a useless weapon in trench warfare … The kind of shell our poor soldiers have had has caused the death of thousands of them.
This direct public attack on such an esteemed figure at a time of national crisis was shocking and generated fury among many of Northcliffe’s critics. Members of the London Stock Exchange burned copies of both The Times and the Mail and anxious advertisers cancelled contracts. Thousands of readers stopped buying the papers. Northcliffe, though, was undaunted: at this point he was concerned not with circulation but with what he perceived as his national duty. ‘I mean to tell the people the truth and I don’t care what it costs’, he told his chauffeur. It was clear even to Northcliffe’s opponents, moreover, that there were indeed problems with Britain’s munitions supply. Northcliffe was soon vindicated. Although Kitchener survived in the short term, the Liberal government fell at the end of May 1915, to be replaced by a coalition administration: Asquith remained as prime minister, but Lloyd George was appointed as minister of munitions to address the supply problems.