Kent Barker | Country Matters
After taking a leap from London, the plan was to start a new life in the countryside and a career as a famous author. Instead I acquired a dog and part-time work managing a community orchard. You can read these experiences on my blog: www.kentcountrymatters.blogspot.co.uk
It was rather an odd question. Or at least so it seemed at the time. On reflection, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. There’s no reason why he should have known. He’s 20, so grew up in the digital era. But analogue has something of a fascination for his generation.
Personally, I think it’s wonderful that the music from my entire collection of LPs (which still takes up two hefty shelves in the cupboard) is now contained on an iPod smaller than a handful of playing cards. And there are no irritating scratches, and you don’t have to get up and turn the record over halfway through, and you can take it anywhere. (Though I do remember, while on a school camping trip, lugging a battery-operated record player and half-a-dozen 12-inch albums on a ten-mile hike and setting it up next to the tent.)
Anyway, my son isn’t particularly worried about vinyl, but he is interested in ‘old school’ 35mm cameras and photography. Hence his question: “Can you tell me how this SLR camera works?”
Well, of course I can. After my first camera, a Kodak 127 Brownie, I acquired a Pentax lookalike and used it for more than 30 years until I got my first digital camera in the late 1990s. So obviously I knew all about shutter speeds and ‘F’ stop ‘depth of field’ and split ring focusing, and ASA and ISO film speeds. Didn’t I?
Well, I thought I did until I tried to explain them. No, it was all too much, so I referred him to Google and YouTube for assistance. But at least I was able to show him how to load the film in the camera, which is still second nature to me but a complete mystery to him.
It got me thinking, though, about how utterly reliant we have become on digital technology. I’m typing this on a computer and will shortly email it to the editor who will sub it on screen, before copying and pasting it into a slot in a desktop publishing programme which will then be sent electronically to the printer.
My father was a newspaper man of the old school, and I remember him bashing out stories on an elderly Remington typewriter. Then he’d phone them through to a copytaker at the Evening News. This newly typed sheet of paper would go to the subs and then would be handed to the linotype operator, who sat with a keyboard in front of a massive mechanical contraption which produced a mould for a whole line of type into which molten metal was poured. When it had cooled, this line (o’type) would move automatically down to the ‘stone’, where whole articles would be assembled line upon line ready for the press.
Printing a photograph was an equally complicated process, requiring a special screen to translate a picture into a series of different sized dots (half tones), which would then be transferred to a metal plate.
When printed, the dots would trick they eye into thinking there was black, white and many shades of grey (though probably not as many as 50!)
The point about the old hot metal printing was that it was massively time-consuming and labour intensive, with the printers and their unions holding huge power over the newspaper management. A sudden strike would mean the loss of an entire edition of a paper and all the advertising revenue from it.
This was the rationale behind Rupert Murdoch’s decision to take on the unions in what became known as the Wapping dispute – exactly 30 years ago. After violent clashes on the picket lines almost nightly for 12 months, the print unions were defeated and all major newspapers moved to offset litho printing and eventually wholly digital compositing.
Despite the financial savings this brought, newspapers have been in decline pretty much ever since. As they adapted to the new technology so, too, did TV and social media and the portability of the devices we view them on.
Fewer and fewer people seem to want to hold pages of paper in their hands, and are happy to get their news electronically or online.
But with ever-cheaper production methods, newspapers can increasingly be produced ‘in house’. And that means proprietors are less able, or less prepared, to employ freelance staff or outside contributors.
Which is a roundabout way of saying this is my last column for this paper. This is sad, but I enjoy the irony that it’s digital technology that seems finally to have done for me.
Sadly this is the last column from Kent Barker – Our thanks for all the fine words he’s given us since the Times was launched in March 2015.