Friday, 6 June 2008

Free Sheets To The Wind

I'm on my fag break. Exiled from the kingdom of pub. I’m suspended over the rail. Not quite reckless teetering as it might sound. After all, my feet are still in contact with the ground. My sternum is braced across the metal tubing, a handrail by the ramp for wheelchair users to propel themselves into the saloon bar like a low slung gunslinger. What the nanny state takes with one hand it bestows with the other – enabling me to pivot the top half of my torso over the bar. My hands are clasped together on the small of my back, removed from the balancing equation.

My gaze is levered down the street. If this were a boozer in Soho, it would be pimps pandering their white slaves. If it were Leicester Square, it might be scantily clad girls on roller blades importuning you to dance the night away. Pressing flyers into your pockets, subsequently to lie crumpled all over the Square. Oxford Street, and some sloganed sweat-shirted youth tries to wheedle money from you for a worthy cause. Bearing nowt but a manic grin, as if they are in a cult. Which I suppose they are. Far worse, is when a gaggle of them spread out across the breadth of the pavement like old fashioned British Bulldog, armed with clipboard questionnaires, stock blandishments and recruitment targets. And a barrel-load of guilt they are all too happy to try and ladle out smilingly. But here, apart from the odd artist trying to peddle postcard examples of his garreted wares, in the main it’s dicky bowed waiters, beseeching passersby to come dine with them. Quite endearing really. Food rating higher than sex.

As I perch perilously, both the London flimsy free newssheets spill from my outer pocket. I'd claimed them earlier in the afternoon from sellers (?) chartreuse clad or violaceously caparisoned, roving from their stacked stalls, though presumably tethered by an invisible chain so as not to stray into a rival’s terrain. Commission is all, after all and what all are after. With myriad copies perched like a multi-limbed Hindu deity, the vendors strike like fanged vipers, snapping a copy at your exposed flesh. The City’s commuters meekly accept them to unfurl against not rain, but further dealers down the road, til they reach the sanctuary of the Tube interior where their manteaus are cast off. Yet despite these throwaways paving London’s streets, not with gold but tissue paper and unfixed ink, these paper piles never seem to diminish at source, Like a promethean liver, they are self-regenerating inside their metal trolleys. What proof of free sales can these poor saps offer ? There must be some method, otherwise they could just duck out of sight, dump the pile, then return at the appointed time having seemingly sold (?) out their stock. What's the difference between dumping them en masse, or getting their customers to dump them by proxy one at a time ?

It was in this vein that I witnessed only the other day, a striking highlighting of the economic principles at play here. Some denizen of our fine metropolis, took it upon himself to conduct a spot of impromptu industrial sabotage. I’m conjecturing here, but I don’t think his outrage was either ecologically nor aesthetically motivated. Incensed at any deluging of London, beneath cheap newsprint and scuzzier merchandising offers. I think he was plain and simple bigoted and keen to seize the opportunity to pounce upon a recent migrant to our shores. For initially he passed a stall, in somewhat of an belligerent manner, batting through the wedding arch of papers canopying his path, before intentionally wheeling around, returning to the unguarded dispensary and ducking down beneath the meniscus of its perky parasol. The vendor, with seeming sunny disposition gave him a brief backward glance, before chalking him up to a self-server and returning to his marks. I suspect the aggressor was emptying lighter fluid on to the stack, for the next thing we know, a serpentine coil of flame dances upon the top of the stack and the edges of the parasol start drooping. With a whoop the arsonist darts backwards out of range of the licks of fire, his horribly contorted visage lit up to cameo his malevolence. Prometheus’ liver burned to cinders. A man’s labours gone up in smoke. Where there should have been a sold-out void, instead would rest ashes, once they had come to earth. Hot press, cold clinker.

The Unread Sea might have parted that day, but the mechanism is self-righting. I can see them back in their usual force. Their habitual numbers. Manning ziggurats of undigested editions. Identical copy layered on top of one another. Truly a press of words, but one that can’t hold a candle to the swathe cut through by the internet. For I ask myself, what need of newsprint and pulping trees, when you can just go online and track down the same words archived on the ether ? Single strata and yet simultaneously accessible to a boundless number of readers. Instantly translatable into any language of the world too. One set of words, not innumerable mimeographed hard copies. It’s a strange allocation of resources, creating a need for lightweight newspaper chain mail suits and inverted keel paper hats, purely in order to head off those selfsame people handing out the newspapers in the first place. The snake that eats it’s own tail.

But I’m dissembling. I know why a proper need for newspapers still exists. And I don’t mean these catalogues full of advertorial. My old man used to discourse with his daily. Well why not, if a Columnist can editorialise and opine, then does not my father in the putative audience not have a right of reply ? For indubitably they had built up a relationship, albeit at one remove. Over all the years and no matter the change of personnel at the paper, the two had yoked themselves together, though the harness was a tad lopsided, as the journalist always led and my father unfailingly took the bait. But it had to be said, my father knew each columnist’s views like the back of his own hands that were holding them up to daily scrutiny. Everyday I would scan them signalling how the land lay. For it always started with a ripple of non-verbal broadcast. The inhalations and exhalations of abridged passing comment. Appreciative whistling, stupefied insufflation, or censurious clucking. The emotional bulletins weren’t so much worn on his sleeves, but radiated down them to resonate the leaves of the gazette itself. A Richter scale of seismic stirring, from rustling with tremulous dismay, all the way through to a cracking detonation along the faultline of the fold in utter disbelief. But among all these reverberating reports, would also be an outpouring of words. When the tissue of the paper was no longer sufficient to contain the discharge. He actually conversed with it. To be sure, expostulating to no one in particular, other than the monochromal flat plane in front of him. He literally aired his views, perhaps so as to smell refreshed to himself. Did he ever write in to the letters page ? I don’t think so, the imbibing of the paper was a private realm, a domestic tipple. Though the arguments might later be decanted down the pub or over a dinner party, it was never discussed with others at home during the day. Though we were at liberty to pick it up and read it ourselves, subsequent to Dad finishing with it. Once he had dismounted from his moral high horse. Once his blinkered gallops were over for the morning.

Having occluded your face, the paper forms an extension of yourself at the end of your arms. That windblown tablet of wood pulp, no more substantial than a reedy reflection in a mirror. A membrane imprinted with social dialogue. Seeing as you might engage it in debate, or at least be provoked into response by its contents, it represents another torso. One you might entreat with, as if grabbing the correspondent’s forearms, or even his shoulders and giving them a good shake. Grappling with the issues, the very size of the broadsheet making you have to work for your nuggets of enlightenment. Of course, with the recent trend towards tabloids, this aspect has been somewhat denuded. However, all this is to say, you can’t possibly recreate this with via a computer screen. A desktop monitor remains resolutely detached from the rest of you. Even a laptop is perched no more intimately than a cat who deigns to sit on your lap and let you run your hand through its fur. Yes your fingers might palpate the keyboard, but only the steady tips, the farthest margins of your being, get to express any contact. The rest of you remains haughtily upright and perpendicular. There is a dearth of interaction at the nexus of a computer monitor. It remains steadfastly an altar upon which we leave our offerings and hope to be rewarded with oracular wisdom. We do not converse with it, but only through it, like a walky-talky. Scrolling down does not render it parchment. The computer remains little more than a swifter, cheaper form of telecommunication. A slightly more updated version of the penpal. Other than its one boon. Its sole opportunity for interface directly on to the screen. Being the free sheet edition of what the Soho pimps offer at extortionate cost. I'd like to say more, but my dog end has counted me out. I leave the freesheets to the wind as I recrudesce back inside the drinking establishment.

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