In an article on European postal services (no, really, it was actually very interesting - chiefly because it explained to me how a lot of them are being out-sourced to home-workers, who are paid badly and cannot keep up with the number of deliveries they are expected to make) in the London Review of
Books, a rising star in the Post Office in Britain is described thus:
"Michael Fehilly, Gatwick's manager, strode around in a grey pinstripe suit, brown loafers and an open-necked pink shirt."
When I read that, I immediately thought, 'Why am I being told about what he's wearing?' The information adds nothing at all to the strength of the writer's argument that the changes in 'work practices' are not entirely positive for everyone. However, it is possible these details are meant to shape my opinion about one of the people behind the changes.
Leaving aside the fact that I'm not quite sure in what way my opinion is supposed to be shaped - should I disapprove of Mr Fehilly's decision to combine a grey suit with brown shoes (and from there should I make the leap to deciding that, if he makes bad dress choices, he is therefore going to make bad business choices?); is a pink shirt some kind of obscure code for 'irredeemably naff''?; or have I got things quite wrong, (is the description of his outfit actually supposed to indicate the man's excellent taste?) - I don't like being manipulated. The article is supposed to be about the consequences of a shift in the way business is being done across Europe, rather than about a particular individual, and I want to be presented with arguments, not ad hominem attacks through the medium of clothing.
The writer's defence for including these details would probably be that he was adding colour to his story. However, I think he's just trying to colour the way I think.
Another example, taken from a recent edition of the New Yorker, illustrates this even more clearly. At the start of an article about a woman who has been diagnosed as mentally ill but challenges the diagnosis, readers are told:
"A tall, athletic fifty-one-year old, with blue eyes and a bachelor's degree in art history from the University of New Hampshire, Linda had been admitted to the hospital in late October, 2006, after having been found incompetent to stand trial for a series of offenses."
Readers have to wade through three more pages before they are allowed to discover what the offences were that the woman had committed, even though that information, it seems to me, is far more relevant to an understanding of what she is like than the fact that she has an art history degree, blue eyes and looks athletic. However, being told upfront that she flipped her car while drunk, threw a cup of urine at a corrections officer and struck someone with a broomstick would be unlikely to make us enormously sympathetic to her cause.
But those are the things she did, however blue her eyes may be. Eye colour has nothing to do with mental illness (I hope, since I also have blue eyes.) Shoe colour has nothing to do with moral strength. The things that are worth reporting are words and actions. They provide genuine insights. For instance, later in that LRB postal article, the chief executive of UK Mail, Royal Mail's competitor, comments on the pre-tax wages - 20,000 pounds per year for a 40-hour week - of a Royal Mail postman:
"'That's a lot of money in current terms,'" he says.
There is really no need to tell us anything extra about his physical features, his higher education or his clothing. We can already guess what his salary is - or at least that it is several multiples of the one he describes as 'a lot of money' - and we can be certain he would not enjoy trying to live on a postman's salary, let alone working that physically hard. Without reference to cravats or cuban-heeled Oxford brogues or subtle, but bright green, highlights, the writer has conveyed the man.
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