Reportage as News, History, Literature?

In the days, when there is hardly any news reported from on the ground, whether in print, or on television, and much of it not believable, one wonders whatever happened to reportage, as it used to be called. Now, I am not a journalist, though I do write – in my advertising and brand communications career as well as on my blog more recently – but news-gathering itself depends so much on news agencies as well as “stringers”. I was introduced to the latter term, while I worked briefly at Perfect Relations, Delhi, in 2006-07 and discovered that these are people who work behind the scenes to bring us the news. They report what they see and hear from ground zero, and provide news agencies as well as media organisations the news that finally reaches us in an edited and filtered form.

How about reportage as literature? I found a book in my father’s library which I had wanted to read for many years. It is an anthology of reportage compiled and edited by John Carey, a former professor of English Literature at Oxford University, and published by Faber & Faber. In fact, it is called The Faber Book of Reportage edited by John Carey. I was expecting to find a collection of reports of wars, conflict, natural disasters, famines, etc. The book is that to some extent, but these are a curious collection of reports dating back from the fourth century BC onwards. Actually, I didn’t even realise that the chapters were arranged in chronological order, until I was well into reading the book. What’s even more amazing is that many of these reports are by well-known figures as wide-ranging as philosophers, statesmen, administrators, knights, travellers, historians, scientists, writers and poets. For every one of these, there are also pieces by obscure, lesser-known authors but on subjects of some importance.

The sources of most of these pieces – which are extracts – are books, many of them written as chronicles, diaries, journals, memoirs, biographies and autobiographies and such like. Some are written as observations of an outsider, others as observations of someone very much involved with the event or incident being described. Many of these are accounts of war and invasions, some are accounts of strange customs in strange and new lands, and many others of natural disasters and diseases.

The book begins with an account of plague in Athens in 430 BC by Thucydides. I thought that the first incidence of plague the world had ever known was the one of the 14th Century, known in Europe as the Black Death. There is, however, a brief, two-sentence introduction to the extract saying that “The Athens plague has not been identified with any known disease. It had some of the symptoms of typhus fever.” And I might mention that such introductions to some chapters in the book are in italics, just the way I used to write my advertising film scripts in the old days.

This extract, taken from Thucydides History, goes on to talk of how the disease began in Ethiopia, beyond Egypt, and descended into Egypt and Libya, from where it suddenly fell upon the city of Athens and attacked first the inhabitants of Piraeus. Thucydides writes of how the people suffered intense heat and nausea causing them to throw themselves into cold water, and also of how so many who died could not be buried according to proper custom.

Capo Miseno, site of ancient Misenum in Italy; Image: Mlouns on Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to natural disasters, there is an extract from Pliny, the Younger’s Letters, describing the eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed the city of Pompeii on August 24, AD 79. In this account, Pliny tells us of how his uncle and his mother at Misenum were anxious about the strange “cloud of unusual size and appearance” and “ashes falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones charred and cracked by the flames”, while Pliny himself was engrossed in reading Livy and making extracts!

Some accounts of war and invasions of new territories are written with all the dramatic action and urgency of the moment, as if the author was in the thick of it all and so is the reader. The Battle of Agincourt, written by a French knight, Jehan de Wavrin is one of them. The Peasants’ Revolt (1381) by John Froissart is another. Even The Murder of Thomas Beckett by Edward Grim reads like an eye-witness account of what took place at Canterbury Cathedral on that fateful day in December 1170:

“When the holy Archbishop entered the church, the monks stopped vespers which they had begun and ran to him, glorifying God that they saw their father, whom they had heard was dead, alive and safe. They hastened, by bolting the doors of the church to protect their shepherd from the slaughter. But the champion, turning to them, ordered the church doors to be thrown open, saying, “It is not meet to make a fortress of the house of prayer, the church of Christ: though it be not shut up it is able to protect its own; and we shall triumph over the enemy rather in suffering than in fighting, for we came to suffer, not to resist.”

The Death of Socrates extract from Phaedo by Plato is also written as if the author was with him in his final hours. However, John Carey tells us at the start that Plato was not with Socrates throughout and had based much of his report on eye-witness accounts of others.

Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David (1787); Image: Wikimedia Commons

Pieces on observing customs in new and strange lands such as The New World (1502) by Amerigo Vespucci and Norwegian Fisherfolk (1432) by a Venetian traveller, Cristoforo Fioravanti, attempt to capture the contradictions and dichotomy in the lives of certain people at certain times. The former brings out the contrast between the peaceful existence of South American communities, with no religion, no laws to decide or govern their lives, and “the cruel and violent people that they were”, according to Vespucci. The latter tells us of the simple existence of Norwegian fisherfolk where entire families lived and roamed around in the buff, and of how they would dress for church, when women were covered head to toe with a strange headgear that forced them “to turn a yard or two from the hearer to see or speak”.

There are also some very short and obscure extracts like Newfoundland Mermaid by Richard Whitbourne in 1610. I had never heard of the author and when I checked online, I discovered that he was a British colonizer who helped set up one in Newfoundland. Anyway, he writes of his sighting of a strange creature in the waters at Saint Johns Harbour, which he describes as “looking cheerfully, as it had beene a woman, by the Face, Eyes, Nose, Mouth, Chin, eares, Necke and Forehead: It seemed to be so beautiful, and in those parts so well proportioned having round about upon the head, all blew strakes, resembling haire… for I beheld it long…” A few sentences later in the same paragraph, he writes, “where I beheld the shoulders and backe downe to the middle, to be as square, white and smooth as the back of a man…” and still later, he writes, “…the same came shortly after unto a Boat, wherein one William Hawkridge, then my servant, was, that hath bin since a Captaine in a Ship to the East Indies, and is lately there imploied againe by Sir Thomas Smith, in the like Voyage; and the same Creature did put both his hands upon the side of the Boate, and did strive to come to him…”

It struck me as strange that he was referring to the mermaid in three different genders; it, with a womanly beautiful face, but a man’s back and shoulders and hands.

What I found particularly strange was the description of Suttee (1650) by Jean Baptiste Tavernier, taken from his Travels in India. He describes three ways in which the act of sati (the practice of widowed Hindu women following their deceased husbands into the cremation fire) was observed in India. In Gujarat and north India, a small hut is created to house the body of the deceased husband, inside which his wife is tied to a post, and the funeral pyre is lit. In Bengal, the woman has to travel to the banks of the Ganges to bathe her husband’s body and herself, before the lighting of the pyre. And in the Coromandel, a large and deep pit is dug into the earth, in which the deceased husband’s body is placed and burnt. The widow circles the pit three times and with her back to the pit, throws herself in, or is pushed in by those around her.

Jean Baptiste Tavernier in Oriental costume by Nicolas de Largilliere; Image: Wikimedia Commons

What was in part amusing and revolting, however, is Tavernier’s report that for any act of sati, the “governor’s permission” had to be sought. Worse, when permission was not granted, the widow had to commit to living a life of penance, which included, among other things, “eating undigested remains in the droppings of oxen, cows and buffaloes and do still more absurd things.”

I am still reading The Faber Book of Reportage, but I thought it worth reflecting on the importance of reportage in this blog post. We consider reportage today to be news and journalistic in nature. Indeed, reporting any incident or event as it happens, or on its occurrence, is today the purview of TV journalism. We also read other more detailed and analytical reports in newspapers and news magazines. To report, is mainly to inform and to apprise, so its news value and news-worthiness is of great significance.

However, in this anthology, there are also extracts of observations of customs and practices, and travellers’ accounts, which do not strictly conform to the news-value criterion. Yet, they open our eyes to new lands, peoples and cultures and ways different from our own. The aim might vary, from arousing our curiosity, to recording events and observations, to promoting better understanding, but they invariably are reportage too, since they inform our world-view.

It is also worth considering the value of reportage as history. Indeed, so many pieces in this anthology are from centuries and millennia ago, that they almost qualify as history, even if that was not the original intention of the author. The recording of events based on facts and their sequence by eye-witnesses and those present has to be considered historical, decades and centuries later even if there are other reports in the meantime that contest these. Since I am also reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I find that Gibbon consults and refers to the views of so many other historians in his telling of the history, that I wonder if his job is not merely that of recounting to us, but of selecting and filtering the facts based on his judgement and the various sources.       

Facts, when reported or recounted later in time, become part of history. Also interesting, and worth exploring, is how reportage becomes part of literature. How do the extracts in this anthology, for example, become literature? Because they are compiled and edited by a professor of literature? Or is there something more intrinsic in the kind of reportage here that smoothly transports it to the world of literature?

According to what Professor John Carey himself writes in his introduction to the book, he says reportage is usually opposed to imaginative literature. He is of the view that reportage must deal with the particular, the facts as they exist in space and time. Reading reportage as fiction, Professor Carey writes, “represents a flight from the real, as does imaginative literature, and good reportage is designed to make that flight impossible.” He writes:

“It (good reportage) exiles us from fiction into the sharp terrain of truth. All the great realistic novelists of the nineteenth century – Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Zola – drew on the techniques of reportage, and even built eye-witness accounts and newspaper stories into their fictions, so as to give them heightened realism. But the goal they struggled towards always lay beyond their reach. They could produce, at best, only imitation reportage, lacking the absolutely vital ingredient of reportage which is the simple fact that the reader knows that all this actually happened.”   

Finally, he adds that while reportage and imaginative literature are quite distinct, reportage has the potential to change its readers in ways that imaginative literature is usually credited with. Carey writes:

“One would like to hope that reportage may change its readers, may educate their sympathies, may extend – in both directions – their ideas about what it is to be a human being, may limit their capacity for the inhuman. These gains have traditionally been claimed for imaginative literature. But since reportage, unlike literature, lifts the screen from reality, its lessons are – and ought to be – more telling and since it reaches millions untouched by literature, it has an incalculably greater potential.”

As I continue to read this book, I do wonder about its authenticity, of course (as has become quite a regular feature of any reading these days). For one thing, many of the extracts have inconsistencies that defy the very purpose of the writer, and come in the way of even considering it reportage. For example, in Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius, it begins with his uncle setting off with his fleet to rescue Rectina, wife of Tacitus, and Pomponianus, while Pliny and his mother stay behind for Pliny’s studies. In another section, it talks of the uncle dying and yet, it ends with Pliny and his mother waiting for news of the uncle. There are similar inconsistencies in other extracts as well, which seriously damage their value as reportage.

Then, there are tell-tale signs, once again of Perfect Relations’ idiot bosses’ meddling, like in Athens’ Plague, Norwegian Fisherfolk, Newfoundland Mermaid and Tavernier’s Suttee. The reference to cattle and the eating of excreta are just too revolting to even be fact, but these unprofessional bosses seem to be obsessed with such coarse and vulgar details, as I have discovered over the years. Remember the black nannies serving shit (literally) to their white employers in the film, The Help? I am sure it is no coincidence that the model in an advertising commercial that I wrote for a client during my first stint at Ogilvy Delhi way back in 1990, who plays the role of a journalist in the advert, was called Viola, same as the actress Viola Davis who won an Oscar nomination for The Help. That has also led many idiots to assume that I am, or might want to be a journalist; no thank you, I am quite content with my career in advertising and brand communications, which they have wrecked.

They are also obsessed with book writing and publishing, where they have meddled for decades. The Help had that too; a white lady writing a book about how black servants were treated in the days of slavery and segregation in the American South. Not to forget that the book cover was turquoise blue and white, since we are also into covers and colours these days!

And of course, they are obsessed with cleaning ladies, housekeepers and drivers! Any maid, whether housemaid, milkmaid, or mermaid as in the Newfoundland extract of indeterminate gender, going close to the boat of the author’s servant. Incidentally, my driver in Delhi was called Shiv, and having guessed that, the idiot CEO of Perfect Relations said something about Shibu once to me in the office. I had no idea what he meant, and thought he might be referring to Shibu Soren, a politician from Jharkhand who was in the news those days for all the wrong reasons, though. It was only later that I realized that he might have been referring to my driver – for what reason I wonder; insinuating a relationship with me, by any chance?! That would be the most ridiculous thing I ever heard, but with these unprofessional idiot bosses, almost anything they say or do is of such kind.

By the way, I also discovered that Professor John Carey has a website, johncarey.org, which you might want to check out.

Finally, the idea of an anthology based on extracts, some of which are no more than fragments, in a book that is otherwise the size of a tome, is weak and inadequate. Imagine Pliny the Younger too was making extracts, while Vesuvius was erupting! That said, I shall henceforth select the more important ones that I would like to read and provide an updated review soon. If nothing, the book at least got me thinking about reportage and whether it best fits the role of news or history or literature. Hopefully, your mind too will have been provoked along similar lines.

PS: This book, like many others, seems to have been thrust on my father like I have written before, as if we don’t have enough of our own already at home.

The featured image of Pompeii at the start of this post is by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

Note: If you find that recent blog posts of mine have headings in bold and appear patchy in grey and black on your computer screens, you must know that this is mischief by the folks at WordPress probably prompted by unprofessional bosses at Perfect Relations meddling. They have no business doing any of this, as no one has anything to do with my blog except I. From the beginning, India time on WordPress, for example is set to Kolkata, when I have nothing to do with Kolkata!

When I tried contacting WordPress customer care, I found that they seem to have discontinued the live-chat support and asked me to send an email. Several days later and after several email exchanges, I find that the problem is unresolved. They even tried attributing the problem to my copying and pasting from Microsoft Word, when that is how I have shared all my previous articles. Their customer care, I noticed over a year ago, has been completely ruined, when it used to be excellent previously.

My posts also appear on LinkedIn with a <strong> at the beginning and end of the heading/url, which should not be the case. On Twitter, it seems to be normal. This too, I suspect, is mischief by the same unprofessional idiots at Perfect Relations. If you happen to read the newly launched European Review of Books (I am sure these same crooks have something to do with it), you will find articles in which all quotes have this very same < > sign at the beginning and end of quote. And in double, if you please, like << >>.

Looking at the time it has taken to resolve the bold/patchy heading problem, I haven’t had the chance to even raise this <strong> issue with WordPress yet. I hope you will bear with me on this.

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