This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM
It is a rare thing these days to find oneself at liberty to read an entire day’s newspaper in a sitting. “Distracted from distraction by distraction … in this twittering world” writes T.S Eliot in Burnt Norton, and he is not wrong. Alright, I skipped 11 other lines with that “…”. Plus: they hadn’t even got television news yet in his day, never mind Twitter. Nor did he have children. But still, he was a man ahead of his time, old T.S.
Printing newspapers will be done away with some day soon, you know. Either that or they’ll become a niche curiosity, like cars with steering wheels, or ivory cufflinks. Or cufflinks of any sort, for that matter. Either way, it’ll be your fault, blog reader – you, with your low attention span and gadabout reading habits, your social media and your windows and your apps. Newspapers are dying because you’ve stopped buying them. You’ve decided to spend the money on other stuff: hot milk blasted with coffee, Netflix, gifts for other people’s already-spoilt children. Frankly it’s a nonsense and you should have a talk with yourself. Just think of the money you’re saving by not smoking all day like everyone did not that long ago. And don’t imagine you’re excused by saying you never used to read the thing anyway. In the old days plenty of people bought a daily newspaper simply in order to leave it unopened on a telephone stand. They threw it in the bin the next day, or hid it under a carpet to be rediscovered years hence, or used it to wrap their grandmother against the cold in winter. And they did so because to buy a newspaper was the right thing to do.
In truth I am out of the habit of stockpiling newspapers under carpets and as guilty as anyone of not reading the ones I remember to buy. But, every so often, mindful of that thing Carl Bernstein said about good newspapers serving up the best obtainable version of the truth each day, I do make an appointment to sit down and read all of the South China Morning Post. It’s still the most therapeutic way, I find, of fathoming what’s what in Hong Kong. Instead of venturing online in search only of that which interests me then falling prey to all manner of bait-mongers, I’m effectively saying: gimme what you’ve got, warts, biases and all.
The snarl I’m coming to is this, though – the snapshot of the truth I gained from scouring the pages of the SCMP the other day was anything but therapeutic. It was, on the contrary, a vision of impending doom, catastrophe, unease, horror, pain, decline, dissolution, war and possibly apocalypse. Such, in fact, was my distress that I failed to take solace from the likelihood that non-newspaper readers are every bit as vulnerable to this tide of ruin as newspaper readers. And in that magnanimous vein, I think I perform a service by relating it.
In the news pages I learned the following: that there is a Cold War-style stand-off at the DMZ; that China is suspected of building a radar system in the Spratlys that may hasten World War III; that intimidation of journalists is being redoubled with a new threat of graft proceedings against state media workers; that the Communist Party’s revolutionary princelings are hunkering down for a “protracted war”. In the introduction to an Insight column, I discover: “One of the most talked-about topics these days is undoubtedly China”. It is an effort to read on.
In Hong Kong there is an alarming rise in HIV cases. There is rape, robbery and assault. Meanwhile, it is suggested financial secretary John Tsang’s budget handouts are having a “placebo effect” on a soon-to-be flatlining economy. Standard Chartered has reported annual losses and its top directors won’t be getting a bonus for 2015. Surely a public fund will be raised, you ask, not unreasonably. In America, a man has been fired from the staff of one presidential hopeful for alleging that another presidential hopeful said the bible did not contain all the answers to everything. (Relax, he said the opposite.)
I read some more about the fallout from the violence in Mong Kok the other week. Richard Wong writes that Hong Kong’s “growing socioeconomic divide… has deepened anxiety, insecurity and conflict in day-to-day life.” Expect more social unrest. In the Property Section, it’s all about property prices “sinking”. I briefly wonder if this is a good thing, at least for all the people who currently can’t afford to buy, but there is no mention of this. Instead, there is cause to worry that spending is down at Chow Tai Fook. It is “depressed”, you see. Draw up one of those keyword cloud things and you will have a picture of the toxic verbal traffic in my head: “economic woes”, “market volatility”, “bleak outlook”, “deeply divided,” “Senator Ted Cruz”.
Finally, there is some light relief as I turn to the sports pages. One of global football’s most dedicated mercenaries, Sven Goran Eriksson – now manager at Shanghai SIPG – says that China will win the World Cup “in a decade”. If you’re laying a carpet, make sure that one goes down nice and flat.