Brexit Blues (Part II)

Brexit finally came into effect on January 31, 2020 with a transition period due to end on December 31, 2020. It’s still not clear whether key issues such as the post-Brexit trade agreement between the EU and the UK will be completed by then (a major talking point being imports of American chlorinated chicken….). Nor is it clear which other areas of EU laws and standards will survive post-transition. Both of which continue to cause uncertainty for British businesses and local governments that have to operate within and enforce many of these rules. Add to that the recent UK storms and floods, the post-Brexit air of racism and xenophobia, plus the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting drag on global markets and supply chains, and maybe the UK will run out of more than just pasta, yoghurt and chocolate. Perhaps those promised post-Brexit savings of £350m a week really will need to spent on the National Health Service…..

The “Vote Leave” campaign bus, 2016 (Image sourced from Bloomberg)

The seeds of the Brexit debacle were sown in David Cameron’s speech of January, 23 2013. As I wrote last year, that set in motion a series of flawed processes. Despite the protracted Brexit process, it’s now unlikely that the decision to leave will be reversed, especially as the opposition Labour Party has just been trounced at the polls. Instead, Labour continues to beat itself up over the failure of its outgoing leadership either to make a solid case in support of the Remain vote in the 2016 Referendum, or to establish and maintain a clear and coherent policy on Brexit leading right up to the December 2019 General Election. The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has a huge Parliamentary majority, a fixed 5-year mandate, and a general disregard for traditional cabinet government and the delineation of roles between political advisors and civil servants. We have already seen that any form of dissent or even an alternative perspective will not be tolerated within government or within the Tory party, let alone from independent and non-partisan quarters.

Since that fateful speech of January, 2013, it’s possible to follow a Brexit-related narrative thread in film, TV and fiction. Not all of these accounts are directly about Brexit itself, but when viewed in a wider context, they touch on associated themes of national identity, democracy, political debate, public discourse, xenophobia, anti-elitism, anti-globalism, and broader popular culture.

The earliest such example I can recall is Brian Aldiss’s final novel, “Comfort Zone”, (published in December 2013), while the first truly “Brexit Novel” is probably Jonathan Coe’s “Middle England” (November 2018). Somewhat to be expected, political thrillers and spy novels have also touched on these themes – Andrew Marr’s “Children of the Master” (September 2015, and probably still essential reading for Labour’s current leadership candidates); John Le Carre’s “A Legacy of Spies” (September 2017); John Simpson’s “Moscow, Midnight” (October 2018); and John Lanchester’s “The Wall” (January, 2019). (For another intriguing and contemporary literary context, I highly recommend William Gibson’s introduction to the May 2013 edition of Kinglsey Amis’s “The Alteration”. Plus there’s an essay on the outgoing Labour leader in Amis junior’s collection of non-fiction, “The Rub of Time” published in October 2017.)*

Elsewhere there have been TV dramatisations to remind us how significant, important and forward-looking it was when the UK joined the EEC in 1973 – most notably the chronicling of the Wilson and Heath governments as portrayed in “The Crown”. Even a film like “The Darkest Hour” reveals the love-hate relationship Britain has had with Europe. More distant historical context can be seen in films like “All is True” and “Peterloo”.

No doubt, Brexit will continue to form a backdrop for many a story-teller and film-maker for years to come. And we will inevitably see recent political events re-told and dramatised in future documentaries and dramas. Hopefully, we will be able to view them objectively and gain some new perspective as a result. Meanwhile, the current reality makes it too depressing to contemplate something like “Boris Johnson – Brexit Belongs to Me!”

*Postcript: hot off the press, of course is “Agency”, Willam Gibson’s own alternative reality (combining elements of the “Time Romance” and “Counterfeit World” referenced in “The Alteration”) – I haven’t read it yet, but looking forward (!) to doing so….

Next week: Joy Division and 40+ years of Post-Punk

 

You said you wanted a revolution?

In terms of popular music and the “revolutionary” counter-culture, the Hippie Dream was born during the Summer of Love in 1967 (Haight-Ashbury to be precise) and died in December 1969 (The Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont). The tipping point was probably The Beatles’ “White Album” released in 1968, featuring “Helter Skelter” and “Revolution 9”. Along the way, we had the “14 Hour Technicolour Dream (April 1967); the Monterey Pop Festival (June 1967); the first Isle of Wight Festival (August 1968); the Miami Pop Festivals (May and December 1968); Stones In The Park (July 1969); oh, and Woodstock (August 1969). From visiting the current “Revolutions: Records + Rebels” exhibition at Melbourne Musuem, the most significant outcome from this era was Woodstock, even though it came close to being a self-inflicted human, environmental and logistical disaster. It was only saved by a combination of the emergency services, the military, local residents – and sheer luck.

This ambitious and uneven exhibition spans the years from 1966 (The Beatles’ “Revolver”, The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”, and Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”) to 1970 (Deep Purple’s “Deep Purple in Rock”, Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”, and The Stooges’ “Fun House”). Despite covering the peak psychedelic era of “Sergeant Pepper”, “Their Satanic Majesties Request” and “The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn”, the exhibition leaves you with the impression that Woodstock is the only enduring musical or cultural event from this time. Yet, the music portrayed in Woodstock is far from revolutionary – being mostly a bland collection of highly-derivative (and by then, almost passé) rock, blues and folk.

It almost feels like the curators of this exhibition set themselves up for failure. By trying to cover such a broad spectrum of political, social, economic and cultural themes, and then view them primarily through the rather narrow lens of popular music, the net effect is a grab bag of museum artifacts assembled with little coherence, all accompanied by a rather insipid soundtrack selection.

I’m not doubting the importance and lasting significance of the topics included (civil rights, peace movement, feminism, class war and gay liberation) – but the attempt to tack on some Australian relevance almost backfires. Let’s not forget that homosexuality was not decriminalised in Tasmania until 1997, and abortion is still not decriminalised in NSW. In fact, Australia was possibly more progressive on some issues in the early 1970s (anti-Vietnam War, ecology, feminism) than it is today with the current resurgence of populism, nationalism and religious conservatism.

Anyway, back to those “Records + Rebels”. I was surprised there was nothing about the radical developments in jazz or improvised music by the likes of Miles Davis (“In A Silent Way, “Bitches Brew”), The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Ornette Coleman, or labels like ESP, BYG and ECM. Absent also was any reference to the mod and early skinhead movements that were the antidote to hippiedom, embracing soul, r’n’b and reggae music. No mention of Soft Machine (who were contemporaries and colleagues of both Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix). Very little significance given to The Velvet Underground (probably the most influential band of the era in terms of inspiring the music that came after the hippie dream dissipated). And where were the likes of Can, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk (their first album came out in 1970….) to represent the German rejection of traditional Anglo-American rock and roll?

On a somewhat depressing note, apart from Woodstock, two of the other enduring “brands” of this era that were on display were Richard Branson’s Virgin empire, and Time Out magazine…. So much for the Children of the Revolution.

Next week: Top 10 Gigs – revisited.

 

30 years in publishing

It’s 30 years since I began my career in publishing. I have worked for two major global brands, a number of niche publishers, and now I work for a start-up. For all of this time, I have worked in non-fiction – mostly professional (law, tax, accounting), business and financial subjects. I began as an editor in London, became a commissioning editor, launched a publishing business in Hong Kong, managed a portfolio of financial information services for the capital markets in Asia Pacific, and currently lead the global business development efforts for a market data start-up in blockchain, crypto and digital assets. Even when I started back in 1989, industry commentators were predicting the end of print. And despite the best efforts of the internet and social media to decimate the traditional business models, we are still producing and consuming an ever-growing volume of content.

The importance of editing and proofreading still apply to publishing today…. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first company I worked for was Sweet & Maxwell, a 200-year-old UK law publisher. In 1989, it had recently been acquired by The Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters), a global media and information brand, and majority owned by the Thomson family of Canada. When I began as a legal editor with Sweet & Maxwell in London, Thomson still had newspaper and broadcasting interests (the family continues to own the Toronto Globe & Mail), a directory business (a rival to the Yellow Pages), a travel business (comprising an airline, a travel agent and a tour operator), and a portfolio of publishing brands that ranged from the arts to the sciences, from finance to medicine, from defence titles to reference works.

Thanks to Thomson, not only did I get incredible experience from working in the publishing industry, I also got to start a new business in Hong Kong (which is still in existence). This role took me to China for the first time in 1995, including a couple of private lunches at The Great Hall of The People in Beijing. The Hong Kong business expanded to include operations in Singapore and Malaysia – during which we survived the handover and the Asian currency crisis. I also spent quite a bit of time for Thomson in the USA, working on international sales and distribution, before joining one of their Australian businesses for a year.

Given the subscription nature of law, tax and accounting publishing, many of the printed titles came in the form of multi-volume loose-leaf encyclopedias, which required constant (and laborious) updating throughout the subscription year. In fact, as editors we had to forecast and estimate the average number of pages required to be added or updated each year. If we exceeded the page allowance, the production team would not be happy. And if the number of updates each year did not match the budgeted number we had promised subscribers, the finance team would not be happy. So, we had a plethora of weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, semi-annual and annual deadlines and schedules to manage – even today, I recall the immense relief we experienced when we got the CRC (camera ready copy) for the next release back from the typesetters, on time, and on budget…

This blog owes its title to something that senior Thomson executives liked to proclaim: “Content is King!” We were still in the era of media magnates, when newspapers (with their display and classified advertising) had a license to print money – the “rivers of gold” as some called it. But as the internet and online search came to determine how readers discovered and consumed information, the catch cry became “Content in Context!”, as publishers needed to make sure they had the right material, at the right time, in the right place, for the right audience (and at the right price….).

Of course, over the 12 years I was at Thomson, technology completely changed the way we worked. When I first started, editors still did a lot of manual mark-up on hard copy, while other specialists were responsible for technical editing, layout, design, indexing, proofreading and tabling (creating footnotes and cross-references, and compiling lists of legal and academic citations). Most of the products were still in printed form, but this was a period of rapid transition to digital content – from dial-up databases to CD-ROM, from online to web formats. Word processing came into its own, as authors started to submit their manuscripts on floppy disk, and compositors leveraged SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) for typesetting and for rendering print books as digital documents. Hard to believe now, but CD-ROM editions of traditional text books and reference titles had to be exact visual replicas of the printed versions, so that in court, the judges and the lawyers could (literally) be on the same page if one party or other did not have the digital edition. Thankfully, some of the constraints disappeared as more content went online – reference works had to be readable in any web browser, while HTML enabled faster search, cross-referencing and indexing thanks to text tagging, Boolean logic, key words and embedded links.

The second global firm I worked for was Standard & Poor’s, part of the The McGraw-Hill Companies (now S&P Global). Similar to Thomson, when I started with McGraw-Hill, the McGraw family were major shareholders, and the group had extensive interests in broadcasting, magazines and education publishing, as well as financial services. But when I joined Standard & Poor’s in 2002, I was surprised that there were still print publications, and some in-house authors and editors continued to work with hard copy manuscripts and proofs (which they circulated to one another via their in/out trays and the internal mail system…). Thankfully, much of this time-consuming activity was streamlined in favour of more collaborative content development and management processes. And we migrated subscribers from print and CD-ROM to web and online (XML was then a key way of streaming financial data, especially for machine-to-machine transmission).

Working for Standard & Poor’s in a regional role, I was based in Melbourne but probably spent about 40% of my time overseas and interstate. My role involved product management and market development – but although I no longer edited content or reviewed proofs, I remained actively involved in product design, content development, user acceptance testing and client engagement. The latter was particularly interesting in Asia, especially China and Japan. Then the global financial crisis, and the role of credit rating agencies such as Standard & Poor’s, added an extra dimension to client discussions…

After a period as a freelance writer and editor, for the past few years I have been working for a startup news, research and market data provider, servicing the growing audience trading and investing in cryptocurrencies and digital assets. Most of the data is distributed via dedicated APIs, a website, desktop products and third party vendors. It may not sound like traditional publishing, but editorial values and production processes lie at the core of the business – quality digital content still needs a lot of work to capture, create and curate. And even though the internet gives the impression of reducing the price of online content to zero, there is still considerable value in standardizing, verifying and cataloguing all that data before it is served up to end users.

Next week: You said you wanted a revolution?

Looking back on 6 years of blogging

It’s that time of year to reflect on the past 12 months, the season of lists and growing wistfulness (to misquote Keats). Time to think about the year that was, and what might have been. I have been writing this blog for 6 years, and it seems like a good opportunity to take stock, as Content in Context takes a break until the new year.

First, some facts. The most popular post this year has been “I’m old, not obsolete”, even though it was published more than three years ago. In a similar vein, my most popular posts of all time could both be regarded as evergreen articles: one about crate digging in Japan, and another about the new conglomerates (update here). This year’s most popular new posts were both about Blockchain (here and here). In fact, I have mentioned the broader topic of Blockchain, cryptocurrencies and digital assets more than 50 times in the past 5 years, starting with a reference to CoinJar in mid-2013. Not too surprising, given this is where I have been focusing most of my efforts over the past two and half years.

Second, as regular readers will know, I have tried to be very disciplined about the frequency and scheduling of my posts. Whether this is purely for my benefit, or whether it helps my audience, I don’t know – but it seems to work, as I need a regular deadline, and posting on a weekly basis avoids the risk of fatigue (my own and the readers’).

Third, I realise it took me a while to find my voice – and to gain confidence in sharing my thoughts and ideas in public. Some of my early efforts didn’t quite hit the mark, as I was either trying too hard or I hadn’t yet identified what made my content have impact. Over time, based on reader feedback, the more I express my own opinions (rather than regurgitating other people’s’ views) the more that people engage with the content.

Fourth, I have always maintained two key principles in producing this blog: 1) every word is my own; and 2) no cash for comment. Over the years, I have been approached by numerous freelance bloggers who want to produce articles for me (for a fee, of course); and by PR firms who want to push sponsored content on behalf of their clients. I have managed to avoid going down that path. Nothing wrong with either activity, but it’s not in keeping with what I set out to do, and it would undermine my desire to be authentic – plus, I think it would potentially compromise my independence.

Finally, writing this blog often helps me to work out my thoughts, and develop them into ideas that I can use for my consulting work. At the same time, this platform allows me to air my views on topics which don’t immediately relate to my professional life – but which are consistent with my personal perspective and tastes. And while this blog doesn’t define who I am, it does form part of my personal branding, and I also hope it is a true reflection of my beliefs and values.

On that note, my I wish all my readers a safe, peaceful and reflective festive season. Usual output will resume in the New Year.