Note to reader: I wrote this review back in August and wasn’t too sure whether I cracked it. I came across this again, read it, still don’t think I cracked writing a book review, but declared it publishing worthy.
The front cover of the book reads a ‘short history of British Journalism.’ Halfway through one realises that perhaps Marr suffered temporary amnesia as his mission to convey a short history turns into a rather long one. This does not mean that Marr’s attempt at explaining his trade is wasted. The fact that he carried out meticulous research to write the book shows the utmost love he has for his profession. As a highly rated journalist, he lives up to his name and delivers some gems, although eventually the book does lose its shine. There’s just simply too much going in within the book.
“The British journalist is not altogether popular. National newspaper circulation is falling and has been for a very long time.”
Marr begins by painting an honest picture of the trade and those with a smidgen of interest in journalism would agree with this. It’s a grim outlook but one which is relevant. Whether there are dodgy issues regarding source confirmation or buffing up of quotes, in the end Marr unashamedly admits that he has ‘learned many of the dirty tricks of one of the dirtiest trades in the land.’ There is praise for his ‘own trade’ and rightly so, as it has brought him monumental success.
The chapters on the social history of British journalism and the history of news are by far the most exciting parts of the book and where Marr truly showcases his aptitude for writing. His attention to detail and knack for penning anecdotes in a wonderfully engaging manner is more prevalent in these sections. He dedicates a chapter to literary reviewers who he deems to have a genealogy that is different, and praises how the most influential journalists were ‘more literary than journalistic.’
A pattern of ‘booze and broken marriages’ seems to have encapsulated a typical journalist’s life and is frequently mentioned by Marr as he takes you back to the twentieth century. He succeeds in conveying how journalists were ultimately writing their life away by working under intense pressure.
Whether it’s diving deep into how journalists were made to carry out the death knock or how the founder of the Daily Mail, Lord Northcliffe went about securing better pay and longer holidays for journalists, Marr captures the struggles his peers and trade suffered and overcame exceptionally well.
Other particularly stand out parts are unsurprisingly, stories about investigative journalism. Marr concludes this topic by describing investigative hack Mazer Mahmood as someone who ‘works in the scrummy gutters of human life and entertains millions every Sunday by doing so.’ His own experiences and reactions to life changing events such as the 9/11 attacks is also a poignant moment.
Most of what Marr writes in relation to ‘news’ is taken from a purely philosophical but realistic angle. He understands the value of journalism and its effect on people around the world describing people who don’t read newspapers as those who have ‘disconnected themselves from the wider world.’ In an attempt to finding out what news is, he emphasises how it does in fact ‘colour your attitude to the world.’ Such key moments make the book a good read if you tend to fall into a pattern of musing.
Marr churns out some great stories to show the extent to which journalists would go to find a front-page lead as another story collapsed. With that, he also dedicates a section to the emergence of sex stories and how Murdoch’s Sun revolutionised the way sex was covered in the British press. It is if course of little value now with Marr likening the relevance of it to the Bayeux Tapestry. However, he still continues to write of the coverage recipe for red top tabloids and goes all out by revealing the ridiculous measures used by investigative journalists. Such occasional flashes of passages make ‘My Trade‘ a treat to read.
“It is not uncommon to leaf through four tabloids and four broadsheets and find exactly the same stories in every one.”
For someone who is interested in a career in journalism and PR, Marr appreciates the inevitable connection between the two. However, he expresses his frustration and worries that journalists are becoming ‘office bound’, considering the amount of stories that fall into the lap of every hack through the PR industry. For Marr, having a useful news agenda can only be achieved by getting out more often.
The saving grace of the second half of the book is the chapter on how to read newspapers. There is truth in Marr’s words and a genuine interest in teaching the reader how to appreciate a newspaper.
“..it is a human narrative, a reminder of our common interests, arranged to entice, excite and incite.”
Where Marr fails, is the unnecessary input of extracts of newspaper articles. It almost becomes an encyclopedia of British journalism. Ironically, Marr falls into a similar trap as reporter George Augustus who he includes and criticises for turning to long words when writing a column. As such the second half of the book withers away leaving behind few remnants of quality.
For someone who seeks a career in journalism, is immersed in the profession already or who has some link to this dirty trade, the book succeeds in satiating an appetite to learn more. The wittiness is there but the succinctness goes amiss. I assure you that any booze lying around will do little to hinder your life, rather providing a much needed escape when the snail like pace begins to surface.