Ah the joy of country life. Cockerels crowing, sheep baaing, ducks nesting, wheat growing. It’s much nicer than The Archers would have you believe and some days it almost seems like a peaceable kingdom. But there is one aspect of city and suburban life that I hanker after: newspapers delivered to the doorstep at the crack of dawn.
If you live outside a village nowadays you might as well live in Timbuktu. Freckled-faced boys on bicycles delivering papers before school are a thing of the past. Even their replacement, sleepy mothers in dressing gowns, driving their sons along their paper rounds, have disappeared. Maybe mothers all have full-time jobs now and provide their 12-year olds with generous pocket money, but if you want an early-morning paper in the country, you have to drive to the village.
Getting dressed and driving to collect the paper seriously punctures the pleasure of sitting with a cup of coffee and editing the world at the kitchen table. Still, once the papers are in front of you, you are in control. Skim the news about whose who in the cabinet, read Simon Jenkins’s last column (I’ll miss him but not enough to track him down at The Guardian). Study carefully the ideal breakfast on the GI diet: the day is so much more digestible with a morning newspaper.
But in the category of ‘America today, Britain tomorrow’ (think hypochondria, litigation, malls) newspapers over there are suffering from their sharpest decline in circulation history. Some of the blame falls on to television news and internet sites, and most newspapers have free online sites offering much of what is in the printed paper. Under-25s rely almost entirely on the internet (my 24-year-old nephew calls newspapers the voice of middle age), and news that arrives via text message.
The sharpest fall is apparently in the gargantuan Sunday papers, which is understandable. The Saturday papers are more manageable and more reliable, and they spread out quite nicely over a weekend. They also take up less space in the recycle bin. From time to time we decide to stop getting the Sunday papers and feel intellectually and ecologically virtuous. Then we start getting anxiety attacks and creep back into the habit, usually after spending a weekend in a house that has five Sunday papers on the sideboard in the dining room, along with cooked breakfasts, a style of life that Sam yearns for us to emulate.
When I visit friends who don’t read newspapers I find myself becoming irritable. It’s as though we don’t speak the same language or share a common culture. I even get cranky when my friends (more and more) say they prefer reading The New York Times online, relieved of the hassle of recycling the papers. ‘But you can’t distill the news looking at a screen, you can’t feel the enjoyment, can’t tear out the article and stick it on the fridge. You don’t linger the same way, study the photographs, smell the ink!’ I rant but do not convert.
Still, I guess it would be wise to prepare ourselves for a world in which newspapers will become a piece of nostalgia, like glass milk-bottles, naps and radios with dials. Civilisation moves on, ever less civilised. But when the newspapers are a relic of the past I’m damned if I know what we’ll use to stuff in our wet shoes to keep their shape, line the floor of the chicken house, keep out the drafts in the farmers’ market, and housetrain puppies.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on May 19, 2005.