Every weekday I take (sic) two newspapers from the village shop. I suppose I could say I get, or acquire, or buy two papers, but the posh expression is “take”, even if it sounds as if I’m shoplifting. If I were serving you a cup of coffee I might similarly say, “Do you take milk?” But oddly enough it’s slightly posher to say “Do you have milk?” So in Glasgow I say “take” and in Edinburgh I say “have” so as not to be a cultural anomaly.
The newspapers in question are The Herald and The National. The National is subtitled, “The newspaper that supports an independent Scotland”. Its tone can be rather strident. Frankly, it can be an organ of propaganda. But then, nobody else is fighting for that particular political corner. The word propaganda, rather like pornography, has a pejorative connotation. We tend to think of propaganda in terms of “fake news”. When Mr Putin says he is ridding the Donbas region of Nazism in a “military exercise”, the west thinks this is propaganda. When the west says the Kremlin locks up Muscovites for 15 years for calling the military exercise a “war”, Mr Putin would I dare say call this propaganda. Mr Lavrov says that in arming Ukraine, the west is prepared to fight to the last Ukrainian; I suppose he must mean the west is prepared to carry out a military exercise to the last Ukrainian.
What exactly is propaganda? Where the devil have I put my dog-eared Chambers?
n. propagan’da a congregation of the Roman Catholic Church, founded 1622, charged with the spreading of Catholicism (de propaganda fide, ‘concerning the faith to be propagated’ – not a plural but ablative singular): any association, activity, plan, etc., for the spread of opinions and principles, esp. to effect change or reform: the information, etc., spread by such an association.
There is nothing inherently vicious in holding an opinion and expressing it honestly. I suppose we should only turn up our noses at propaganda if it is devious, if it pretends to be unbiased, or it propagates untruths. In constitutional matters The Herald purports to be neutral, but it is often accused of favouring the Unionist cause. I would say The Herald letters column is pretty even-handed. There are well-known correspondents on both sides of the argument who get a fair hearing.
I do the cryptic crosswords of both papers. I’m not proud of it. It’s a therapy for fretfulness. The National crossword is more challenging than The Herald’s. This was not always the case. But following the demise of the compilers MCC and MYOPS The Herald’s puzzle became anonymised and simplified, to the extent that any competent cruciverbalist can regularly solve it in less than ten minutes. It isn’t really a cryptic crossword at all. The National crossword is more difficult, but it doesn’t always play fair. I was bamboozled on Saturday by 23 across:
It’s a mess! (5)
I thought the answer was NAAFI (as in Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes) but it didn’t quite fit. The solution turned out to be “snafu”. Snafu? Where the devil is my dog-eared Chambers?
Snafu (U.S. slang) n. chaos. – adj. chaotic. (situation normal – all fouled or f***** up).
I must start using that. “How are you?” “Snafu.” As with the Inuit and their many words for snow, it says something about the state of our society and culture that there are so many alternative words at our disposal for snafu. I seem to recall that Jack Straw when he was Foreign Secretary once remarked about some political initiative, “We made a right Horlicks of it.” And somebody else said of the same thing, “It was a pile of pants.” Interestingly, snafu is indexed in my 1962 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, and refers me to two and half dense columns of synonyms under the heading “disorder”, including muddle, chaos, anarchy, disaccord, ectopia, disharmony, nihilism, littering, sluttishness, slovenry, neglect, discomposure, dishevelment, convulsion, welter, hugger-mugger, imbroglio, jungle, omnium gatherum, huddle, seething mass, shambles, farrago, mishmash, hotch-potch, Babel, bedlam, ravelment, Gordian knot, frenzy, pandemonium, hullabaloo, pudder, pother, Saturnalia, spill and pelt, bull in a China shop, draggletail, tatterdemalion, Mohawk, snafu, topsy-turvy, skimble-skamble, haywire, inextricable, orgiastic, Dionysiac, harum-scarum, pell-mell, higgledy-piggledy, helter-skelter, harum-scarum, at sixes and sevens…
Reading this litany gives one a flavour of The Herald letters page. Most letters take the form of a complaint, issued from one Disgruntled of Duntocher, draped in a Union flag, or Curmudgeon of Cumbernauld, draped in a Saltire, both dismayed at the general snafu of the nation, the nations, and the world. “Words fail me”, keens Disgruntled (though they seldom to). “I despair…” says Curmudgeon. Of Disgruntled, Curmudgeon says, “He should hang his head in shame.” But Disgruntled has no time for Curmudgeon, or “others of his ilk” (there is apparently a clan of Curmudgeons).
On the whole, I think the letters pages of The Herald are more satisfactory than those of The National, because you hear opposing views, while The National can be something of an echo chamber. This is not entirely the fault of The National, which I suspect would happily print Disgruntled, but that Disgruntled is unlikely to write in, because he doesn’t take The National. There is dissent in The National, but it is liable to be dissent about Scottish Government policy, or, especially last week, Royalists versus Republicans. But the constitutional issue is taken as read.
I read The Herald letters page every day (and occasionally contribute, as Bombastic of Breadalbane), but I have never seen Disgruntled argue so convincingly as to change Curmudgeon’s mind – or vice versa, just as I have never heard, nor expect to hear, a politician on Any Questions or Question Time confess to his opponent, “You know, I never thought of it that way. Thou hast persuaded me.” That is not to say that the whole exercise is futile. People do change their minds. They just don’t like to admit it. When I was in General Practice the management gurus afflicted us with the “Quality Outcomes Framework” (QOF), a grotesque Myth of Sisyphus designed to waste the time of doctors and patients alike. I put a sign up on my surgery wall saying “The QOF must be destroyed”, and, like Cato the Elder in the Roman Senate urging the necessity to annihilate the Carthaginians, I ended all my remarks at medical meetings with the mantra, “And by the way, The QOF must be destroyed.”
Well, in due course, it was. But I never expected its creators to own up to its uselessness. They said, of course, “The QOF was of its time. It has served its purpose. Time to draw a line, and move on.” Well, that was enough. Sometimes you have to choose success over victory.