I’ve just finished the longest magazine article I’ve ever read – more than 12,000 unillustrated words in the London Review of Books on the subject of Grimsby.
Which doesn’t sound promising, even for people, like me, brought up in north-east Lincolnshire - a part of the country often overlooked, even by Lincolnshire standards. But James Meek’s article, headed, for reasons which are thoughtful rather than attention-grabbing, ‘Why are you still here?’ had me gripped right through.
This wasn’t because it was about Grimsby, although the town, like most towns if you look closely enough, is a very interesting place; it was because it introduced me, after more than 40 years writing and sub-editing for local and regional newspapers, to a new sort of journalism, one which doesn’t assume readers have the attention span of a goldfish - and if one thing’s for sure, it’s that some researcher will soon prove, or probably already has proved, that goldfish have the attention span of an elephant, so let’s amend that to the attention span of a Daily Star reader, or a very tired toddler.
Meek’s piece was clearly researched using the archaic method of spending several days in the town and talking to people seriously, rather than waiting for them to offer up 15-word vox pop quotes to be arranged in a racy design style which might make it look as though a newspaper has its finger on the pulse but are, in fact, quite useless, particularly when the on-line world is so full of people voicing their opinions that you long for a Monty Python-style foot to leave them all squashed.
The article was, I assume, occasioned by the approaching general election; the previously solid Labour constituency of Great Grimsby being a target seat for Ukip, even though it houses few immigrants.
How this came about can’t be told within the usual constraints of print journalism; it involves an examination of the dwindling away of a great fishing port and the economic and social effects of the town’s decline. The background story, which reflects the brutal de-industrialisation of Britain, becomes as interesting as the foreground story, which is about who might succeed the retiring MP, the entertaining and refreshingly consistent old Labour show-off, Austin Mitchell.
Meek includes many very readable asides, some of them as long as this blog, on, for example, working-class gender politics (Labour has instituted an all-female shortlist to replace the macho Mitchell), the role of the EC in the collapse of the trawling fleet (over-fishing being an equally-important factor), the withering of local authority power, the dullness of contemporary industrial architecture, the economics of the freezing industry and the state of contemporary political discourse (a lot more lively in Grimsby than in many other places, it seems).
He also uncovers an interesting, though not particularly important, story which would find no place in an average constituency-profile piece. Val O’Flynn, candidate for the radical left-wing party , the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, is engaged to Chris Osborne, campaign manager for Ukip in Grimsby’s neighbouring constituency of Cleethorpes.
The article records a conversation between the two which I found quite touching; the lefty and the righty both wanting things to be better for everybody and disagreeing in a civilised way over how this can be achieved. If only all politics could be like this.
You can find James Meek’s article on the interwebnet, but I think scrolling through 12,000 words would be task too far. I’m not sure about the future of print journalism in general but I think deeper and longer pieces may have more of a future than the jerky, patronising, visually-confusing efforts of the popular press.
The London Review of Books, which I only read because my daughter bought me a subscription to it for Christmas, costs £3.75 per issue, which makes it better value than Metro.