Blether then bother, Twittter, news and whisky

Twitter is a useful tool for journalists, indispensable even. But as we all now know, because the New York Times has told us so, it’s not the best place to get your news.

Nor is anywhere else on social media, the paper’s tech columnist Farhad Manjoo concluded after an experimental switch-off of his new media news sources.

Two months relying almost exclusively on the print editions of his own paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Wall Street Journal left him better informed and with a lot more time on his hands.

“Turning off the buzzing breaking-news machine I carry in my pocket was like unshackling myself from a monster who had me on speed dial, always ready to break into my day with half-baked bulletins.”

Manjoo distilled the lessons learned on his trip back to the pre-digital age into an echo of Michael Pollan’s nutrition mantra.

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants – became – Get News. Not too quickly. Avoid Social (Media).

Sounds good to me. But,then, it would, wouldn’t it?

As a journalist in my early 50s, I’m reasonably open to the possibility that news is just better when reported, interpreted and packaged by people just like me in return for decent salaries, paid holidays, sick pay. Oh, and pensions.

If only it was not so difficult to get hold of print editions of the newspapers on Islay, an island in the inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, to where I have retired, for now, to enjoy five-hour trips to the nearest Apple store and rain-to-rainbow mood swings.

If all goes well over the Rest and be Thankful* the Menzies van might deposit the newspapers six days a week onto the 7am ferry. That means they hit Bowmore around 1000. If the ferry comes into Port Ellen, maybe you could pick up a copy of the Herald (the Glasgow disappeared from the title around the same time as investment in journalism left the newsroom) by 0930.

It is all too late. Now, more than ever, newspapers need to be consumed before the day has got going to have a chance of shaping how we see stories before the noise of social media can suffocate balance, context and nuance.

Being far from Fleet St did not matter so much in the pre-digital era. In the early 90s, when I mostly worked late shifts at Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Paris, I was fond of picking up The Independent, still close to its prime, around 1100 and reading it cover to cover before eating my one meal of the day in the then-ungentrified, workshop-filled district of Faidherbe-Chaligny, in the 11th arrondissement, east of the Bastille.

It was a good regime: Herring and potato a l’huile, onglet or some other chewy steak with shallots and salad (always salad), chocolate mousse or a cherry clafoutis and half a litre of Brouilly, chilled in summer, room temperature in cooler months. I was thinner then than I had been before, or have been since.

The food, still sometimes cooked by a grande-mere who had paid a dawn visit to the Place d’Aligre market, tasted better because all the other customers in the gambling-funded bistros down that strip east of then-brand-new Opera Bastille looked like Philippe Noiret’s gnarled and melancholic detective in the brilliant Les Ripoux films.

No such delight in Rome, when I finally realised a long-cherished ambition of working there in 2014.

A quarter of a century previously, an afternoon stroll around the Centro Storico offered the opportunity to pick up a copy of that day’s Daily Telegraph about once every 200 metres. If you were wearing a panama hat and a white linen suit, they would metaphorically iron it in their enthusiasm to sell it to you.

By 2014, the ubiquitous kiosks were filled with selfie sticks, models of Pope Francis smoking a joint and calendars of Italian priests who look like they could be in a boy band. Who buys them?

Newspapers had become an afterthought. Even those outlets that did stock foreign dailies tended to keep them tucked out of sight. Asking for that day’s edition of The Times could feel like checking whether this month’s edition of Dirty Latex had arrived. I imagine.

So I liked Majoo’s piece and its suggestion that, just maybe, reports of the demise of print are exaggerated.

I miss newspapers being a bigger part of my life than they are now. I feel nostalgic for the unknown worlds they enticed me into as a teenager. I miss sitting on uncomfortable cafe chairs reading them back to front and I particularly lament the lost luxury of having one rattle through the letterbox every morning.

At a difficult time of my life, that rattle provided a reason to get up and face the day. By the time I had picked up the paper and put the porridge on, the predawn demons had dispersed and something someone had ‘issued a warning about’, invariably, ‘last night’ had displaced the recurring cliches of grief temporarily from my mind.

So yes, in comparison to the experienced-hack essence of a well put together broadsheet, Twitter is a bit of a frustrating, time-wasting know-it-all youth.

But for all its shortcomings (finally getting to the point alert!), I do like how it can take you by the handheld device and and lead you to places you might not have otherwise visited.

Personally, I’d rarely read anything in the terminally long-winded, frequently boring-as-unsalted-beef NYT if it were not for tweets like the one that first alerted me to Majoo’s interesting column.

I went back and read it again after a serendipitous and typically twisty Twitter detour led me to Carol Ann Duffy’s Drams, a poem about whisky,  which, I was initially led to believe, referenced two of our most famous Islay distilleries, Laphroaig and Lagavulin.

That would be a good subject for a blog, I thought, back in March,  shortly after deciding to give up working full-time in pursuit of a better work-life balance.

It was a good decision, and the better I’ve felt since making it, the more time I’ve spent reading the kind of things I’d come to neglect. I now see why poetry in particular is enjoying something of a resurgence, perhaps in response to the kind of “shackled to a monster” feelings that Majoo nicely captures with respect to the suffocating tsunami of information many of us now contend with.

The picture and the text below come from the publisher MacMillan’s literary website —

The Bees by Carol Ann DuffyDrams

The snows melt early,
meeting river and valley,
greeting the barley.

In Glen Strathfarrar
a stag dips to the river
where rainclouds gather.

Dawn, offered again,
and heather sweetens the air.
I sip at nothing.

A cut-glass tumbler,
himself splashing the amber . . .
now I remember.

Beautiful hollow
by the broad bay; safe haven;
their Gaelic namings.

It was Talisker
on your lips, peppery, sweet,
I tasted, kisser.

Under the table
she drank him, my grandmother,
Irish to his Scotch.

Barley, water, peat,
weather, landscape, history;
malted, swallowed neat.

Out on Orkney’s boats,
spicy, heather-honey notes
into our glad throats.

Allt Dour Burn’s water –
pure as delight, light’s lover –
burn of the otter.

The gifts to noses –
bog myrtle, aniseed, hay,
attar of roses.

Empty sherry casks,
whisky – sublime accident
a Spanish accent.

Drams with a brother
and doubles with another . . .
blether then bother.

The perfume of place,
seaweed scent on peaty air,
heather dabbed with rain.

With Imlah, Lochhead,
Dunn, Jamie, Paterson, Kay,
Morgan, with MacCaig.

Not prose, poetry;
crescendo of mouth music;
not white wine, whisky.

Eight bolls of malt, to
Friar John Cor, wherewith to
make aquavitae.

A recurring dream:
men in hats taking a dram
on her coffin lid.

The sad flit from here
to English soil, English air,
from whisky to beer.

For joy, grief, trauma,
for the newly-wed, the dead –
bitter-sweet water.

A quaich; Highland Park;
our shared sips in the gloaming
by the breathing loch.

The unfinished dram
on the hospice side-table
as the sun came up.

What the heron saw,
the homesick salmon’s shadow,
shy in this whisky.



You can hear it recited by Duffy here: Neither of these versions explicitly mention the Islay distilleries but I’ve seen a slightly different version of the text that includes the lines

The love of the names,

like Lagavulin, Laphroaig,

loosening the tongue

Before “Beautiful hollow by the broad bay…” which is how the Gaelic place name  Laphroaig is usually translated into English.

Drams caught my attention because of the Islay connection but I think what I like most about it is how it weaves together thoughts about identity and reflections on whisky’s place in our collective psyche.

It is as much about “himself splashing the amber”, a grandmother who was “Irish to his Scotch,” and the “sad flit from whisky to beer” (Scotland to England) as it is about  “weather, landscape, history; malted, swallowed neat“.

The squillions now devoted to marketing whisky are largely spent on selling the narrative in those last two lines to the world. I wonder how many expats the modern Madmen have left feeling like homesick salmon, longing for the scent of seaweed on peaty air?

Duffy has placed whisky accurately in the landscape of Scots life: bitter sweet water for joy, grief and trauma, for the newly-wed as well as for the dead. Some things are made-up, others are made-up truth, as an Islay High School student once defined fiction, when he was lucky enough to have Bernard MacLaverty as his English teacher.**

Duffy is clearly an enthusiast but not one who is blind to the risk of our reinvented national drink  being tainted by pretension, reminding us that sherry casks being used to age single malts was nothing more than a  “sublime accident” of history.

No upmarket dram worth its salty nose is, these days, without some reference to the wood it matured in. Yet it is not so long ago that the industry scoured the world for the cheapest discarded barrels it could find. Oloroso or Bourbon finish? It was the pound-dollar and the pound-peseta rates that used to dictate that choice in the days before people started talking bananas at tastings.

Nor is she unseeing of whisky’s capacity to break as well as create bonds: “Drams with a brother; and doubles with another; blether then bother.

For Scots the transition from harmony to discord can be swift, as it can on Twitter, even without whisky.

Follow me on Twitter: @angusm1966

*The Rest and be Thankful is the lovely name for the bleak mountain pass between Loch Long and Loch Fyne on the beautiful, winding road that leads through Argyll to Kennacraig, the ferry port for Islay, on the road to Campbeltown.

**I heard that story when MacLaverty spoke at the Islay Book Festival in September and I am planning to write up his comments on writing and his time spent on Islay for another blog, soon I hope.

As a final footnote, I’d add that I had another enriching diversion just after the book festival when a tweet about Hugh MacDiarmid  prompted a couple of replies that sent me to Google wondering if he had been involved in a feud with Kingsley Amis.

That led me to a piece in the London Review of Books by Andrew O’Hagan about travelling with then LRB editor Karl Miller and Seamus Heaney. In it, I learnt that there is a place, Cairnpapple Hill in West Lothian, from where you can see both east and west coasts of Scotland, which I now want to visit.

That piece contains a recollection – striking in these Brexit times – from Heaney of being stopped at Birmingham airport during the troubles in Northern Ireland.

“Your man stopped me and he said, ‘What’s the purpose of your visit?’ and I said, ‘To educate the English,’ and that was it. Kept me there under the Prevention of Terrorism. I had to explain it was a joke.”

I also discovered that Miller once instructed Heaney to change a description of MacDiarmid’s “chattering genius” to “blethering genius,” on the grounds that that was more authentically Scots.  There was no bother from Heaney about the insertion of blether.

Ends: Updated on 17/10/2018 to fix some typos, expand final footnote

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