It’s with a whimper, not a bang that I’ll end this column. There will be no fireworks, no dancing and no Spice Girls reunion atop a fleet of London taxis. Yes, this is my last column. After this week, I vanish into the wilderness of practically anonymous arts criticism. No be-pocket squared mug, just a simple byline. Will I miss it? Not really. Actually, not at all. Why? Because I hate this column. If you hate this column (god knows why you’re reading it) I probably hate it more than you do. Here’s why.
It’s difficult to say precisely when the newspaper column was invented. I’d say the basic mixture of opinion and ego that existed in the culture of Early Modern European pamphleteering after the invention of the printing press are antecedents of the column. If you permit this, then my column is merely the most recent incarnation of a literary tradition that stretches back for half a millennium. Many of these pamphlets exist in California, kept in temperature-controlled vaults in the Huntington Library in Pasadena.
A brief search will yield some undying classics like Matthew Hopkins’ “Discovery of Witches” from 1647. This takes the form of the popular “agony-aunt” style column in which the self-proclaimed “Witchfinder General” answers hypothetical questions. In one case, Hopkins cheerily responds to those who might be critical of his propensity to march into a province and summarily burning people’s wives and daughters for witchcraft. I know what you’re thinking: All of a sudden, my humble arts column doesn’t seem all that bad.
Many of the hallmarks of the contemporary news form have evolved from theses journalistic practices of the early newspapers, so it’s quite difficult to say when the first recognisably modern column was written. Journalistic impartiality, that ephemeral quality that distinguishes a column from a regular news piece, was not so much unimportant to early newspaper publishers, as it was unprofitable and unfashionable. Every newspaper article was in effect a column; they were often written by known authors and featured the publisher’s views and opinions of day’s news. Newspapers in the mid-19th century were, for the most part, unprofitable and so they generally toed the political line of their publisher-benefactor in their reportage. On the balance of the facts, I’m nearly certain that Rupert Murdoch is a relic of this era — one who was cryogenically frozen, thawed and then taught how to use voicemail.
The history of yellow journalism goes to show just how important and influential the press’ power has been in the United States. The simple task of a newspaper columnist is to write a few hundred words of opinion each week. If your column, like this one, is specific to a certain section than your piece must fall broadly within the parameters of that subject. Of course, it’s not that simple. Whether they be directed towards Romney and Obama or the much-advertised Steve Harvey show on NBC, we all have opinions, but are they necessarily publishable? In this environmentally conscious age, is your opinion unique or important enough to warrant the wholesale tattooing of precious trees to preserve it for all posterity? Will it provoke a war, or burn witches? Okay … so most columns don’t do either of those things, but a columnists’ opinion must, for whatever reason, be worthy of the reader’s time. Be that because it is unique or provocative, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, it is a perceptive and eloquent expression of the mood and mores of the zeitgeist.
So is my column worth all this? The short answer, in my case, is no. This, I think is my problem. Do I really have an opinion worth all that? Occasionally, I will permit myself to dwell on the immodest idea that yes, perhaps my columns are worth something; I know several homeless people who sleep in them. Other columns, I’m afraid, are decidedly less important.
Is there something in my make-up that is particularly averse to writing columns? Was it my upbringing? I think my national psyche is best expressed by its most well (and perhaps only) known cultural product, “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy. Befitting New Zealand’s status as a relatively young, still rather colonial country, it is appropriate that it was written by an Englishman, directed by the child of English migrants and performed by a cast of British and American actors. But behind the film was a small army of some 30,000 workers, who were mainly New Zealanders. The films are not recognizably New Zealand(ian-esque) and that invisibility is precisely what makes them feel particularly kiwi. So important are the films to the national psyche and economy that when the producers of “The Hobbit” threatened to move the production away from New Zealand in 2011, emergency legislation was rushed through parliament to keep the films in New Zealand. Like champagne to France or Parmesan cheese to Italy, these films have become so much a part of the national consciousness, that the government crushed due parliamentary process to keep them in the country.
The most common criticism of the series — the many endings of “The Return of the King” is, rather tellingly, one that few New Zealanders share. The film ends with Frodo’s impossible struggle to find peace in an anonymous, rural life. This after all, is what he was striving for all along. From half way through the first film, Frodo has wanted to go home. He hated his journey. It was thrust upon him after no more suitable candidate could be found and, whether he follows the directions of Gandalf, Gollum or Faramir he very rarely takes decisions on his own initiative. He listens, and then with no small amount of complaining, he does what he’s told to do. Is he modest? Not really. Many people wanted the film to end when Aragorn instructs the entire cast to bow down before Frodo in acknowledgement of his task. Frodo looks uncomfortable, yes, but he always looks like that. No, what Frodo really wants is to sit under a hill and write his book, and, failing that, to sail out into the sunset and do it out there — anonymously. And that, poor readers who have made it this far, is precisely what I plan to do.
Like Frodo, I write what I am told. Like Frodo, I whinge and complain about it while making a constipated expression with my face. Like Frodo, I’m immodest and I think it would be awesome to have people who bow down before me — and like Frodo (and unlike you) I still live under a monarchy where that might be possible — huzzah! But, like Frodo, all I really want is to sit in my chair under a hill and write what I’m supposed to write without it being about me. You can keep your wonderful, well-argued opinions, God knows someone has to, but for me, I’m afraid it’s time to head back to my earned anonymity! Sorry to Celine Dion for getting your Eurovision song wrong, but it was pretty terrible either way. Thank you very much if you have followed along. I have, for the most part, enjoyed what people have told me about my columns, a very fond namarie to all of you.
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