The Burmese Conjuncture: My Failed Journalistic Career

Harry Goodwin 24 January 2021
Image credit: Creative Commons

I’ve been half-watching Roadkill, the ‘British political thriller’ on the BBC. As far as I can tell, it’s about prisons and the NHS and corruption blah blah blah etc etc. Everyone speaks in complete paragraphs but swears lots so that they sound like real bloody human damn beings. Like many human beings, they initiate sex with each other by delivering monologues about the Conservative Party. It’s like being stuck in a lift with a Varsity columnist.

As for her personality, she’s an alcoholic who enjoys pro bono sex with lawyers.

The show’s realism was faultless – except for its depiction of journalists. The show opens with the young journalist Hermione Granger (I think I got this right) getting sacked for losing her paper a million quid in a libel case. You see, Hermione had suggested that the Tory minister Ernst Rommel Blofeld was in fact somewhat right-wing. While dismissing her, Hermione’s editor – a bald cynical Cockney – makes a joke about short skirts. Hermione then threatens to sue him for being a jerk, so he rehires her. She then chases a story to the US, where she gets run over by Rudy Giuliani. As for her personality, she’s an alcoholic who enjoys pro bono sex with lawyers. And very virtuous lawyers they are too.

Having spent five terms playacting for Cambridge student newspapers, I can assure you that this not how serious journalistic procedure works in the real world. For starters, who cares about libel law? Varsity and the Tab might get pissy if you write something cruel and dishonest about a public figure, but at TCS it’s the essence of what we do. (See my article ‘Stephen Toope: Sweet and Sour Dork’.) Most of the time, we get away with it. It’s not like anyone actually reads our stuff.

I used to have a fair bit of historical impulse and political purpose, but I’ve now realised our Vice-Chancellor doesn’t care whether I think he’s a Chinese spy.

George Orwell thought there were four reasons why a person might become a writer: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. To judge by their prose, most Cambridge scribblers wouldn’t know aesthetic enthusiasm if it puked in their mouths. I used to have a fair bit of historical impulse and political purpose, but I’ve now realised our Vice-Chancellor doesn’t care whether I think he’s a Chinese spy.

In fact, no-one cares what I think about anything. When I share my articles on Facebook, I’m left questioning whether it’s sadder that no-one has liked it or that it bothers me that no-one has liked it. And I’ve finally stopped sending my friends needy pass-agg messages like ‘New article out’ or ‘What do you think about my essay on the political-theological conjuncture in Burma?’ (This latter question is equally useless as a chat-up line on Tinder.) Now I just write trash like ‘Surplus Sadboiz’ or ‘My Viagra Experience’ and wonder whether it’s too late to apply for a law internship. Then I recall that writing stuff like that is a good way to make sure I never land any internship, legal or otherwise.

Still, it’s nice when I get a ‘Good article’ text from that guy from my Year 10 French class or my mate’s ex-girlfriend. But there are some pieces which I wish people wouldn’t read – which begs the murky and elusive question of why I write them in the first place. It wasn’t great when five different girls asked, independently of one another, whether my satirical vignette about an unattractive drunk loner was autobiographical. Nor was it brilliant when one of them then asked whether the girl who said loner falls in love with was based on her. I changed the subject to football.

Rather, she’ll have a name like Maya Little-Pony or Verucca Cokington-Snorter and will always publish my articles without making a single edit.

Anyway, I digress. Roadkill also errs in its portrayal of senior editors. In Cambridge, at least, these tend not to be hard-boiled effin and swearin geezers. Rather, she’ll have a name like Maya Little-Pony or Verucca Cokington-Snorter and will always publish my articles without making a single edit. You can decide whether this is because she thinks they’re unimprovable or because they’re so obnoxiously awful she can’t bring herself to proof-read them.

The TCS Facebook feed provides wise counsel here. Most regular writers see their pieces appear at reasonable times of day with captions like ‘Millicent’s wonderful Foucauldian interpretation of Bridgerton’ or ‘Jasper’s pellucid analysis of Anneliese Dodds’ breakfast’. Mine, by contrast, will be posted at 3am with the tagline ‘Harry Goodwin on condoms’. When it comes to the print edition, my editor invariably informs me that my piece was amusing but for reasons of space she’s had to cut out all the jokes. Still, we have a nice pact where she turns a blind eye to all the bigoted and discriminatory views in my copy so long as I submit it on time. Which, after acting on my first half-baked idea for an article and without even trying to provide a link to the theme of Travel, I have.