4 September 2008

From Our Own Correspondent

THE REPORTERS' MAGAZINE (Sept 1894-Dec 1896)

This is a solid block of a book bound in what's known as half Morocco with green boards embossed with a kind of thin fernlike pattern, leather spine and leather corners. It's seen better days - some of the spine binding has come away and those corners are heavily bumped.

First thing on a random opening is a page headed 'Right and Left Curves' in normal type, below which are several rows of shorthand script before a florid, but readable, headline announces an article entitled 'Shorthand Typing and Cycling'. Without being able to read a word of what follows, I am left with a Pythonesque vision of a po-faced gent in sideburns wobbling down Ludgate Hill as he tries to balance an ornate lump of cast iron bristling with keys and levers on the tiny handlebars of a penny farthing.

Leafthrough. Well, it's a sea of shorthand squiggles punctuated by illustrations, subheadings in normal type and article headings in a variety of 19th century decorative fonts. There are regular breaks for the title pages of each individual issue. This bound set comprises volumes XV and XVI of the magazine.

The front bits. The Reporters' Magazine was published monthly by Isaac Pitman & Sons. This makes sense as Pitman was a pioneer of shorthand techniques, the inventor of by far the most successful system and the publisher of instruction manuals in the art of speedy note-taking. The editor, Edward Nankivell, was a member of the Institute of Journalists and a founder of the National Phonographic Society.

Looking into it. It is said that shorthand is easy to learn and easy to read, so I've had a quick look at some of the basics in an attempt to shed some light on the deeper content of this intriguing volume. But, apart from a few glimpses, I'm not getting very far with it.

It could be that there's a double barrier here. The shapes still look like some kind of Arabic writing to me. The whole idea of the system is to cut through the complexities of spelling and grammar to give graphic equivalents to how words sound when they are spoken. This is why it's known as phonographic writing.

It's probable, though, that while these phonographers were keen to cut to the chase when it came to the individual words, they were less concise when it came to making sentences out of them. This is a Victorian magazine. With a modern writer using shorthand, it would be easier to anticipate what certain words might be even if I couldn't actually decipher the squiggle. And though I am not so lacking the faculties of finer comprehension that the apparent verbosity of our forefathers, whose literary circumlocutions resonate with an altogether lost eloquence, that I fumble to ascertain even so much as a crumb of meaning from them, yet I feel some justification in declaring that the task before me is rendered that little bit more arduous by their mode of expression.

Which is a shame, because some of the articles look quite interesting. On the face of it, a publication devoted to the intricacies of shorthand technique might not sound the most riveting of reads (even if you could decipher it), especially not when its editor Edward J Nankivell's other obsession was the less-than-dynamic hobby of stamp collecting. But Nankivell was also a journalist and his magazine did not ignore some of the more fascinating news stories of the day.

Of course, there are the reports from the Council on Outlines (which attempted to regulate and develop the shape of shorthand marks) and pieces on the latest typing equipment. But this still left plenty of space to talk about, for example, the arctic explorer Nansen and his ice-breaking ship the Fram. Or Stepniak, the Russian nihilist, who after murdering the chief of the Russian secret police on the streets of St. Petersburg, plugged himself into the network of revoutionaries and anarchists in London that inspired Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent.

Apart from not understanding the content of the magazine, perhaps the biggest frustration is not having any sense of the angle it is taking. There appears for example to be very little in here about the mighty Empire and it's impossible to say how sympathetic the piece on Stepniak, or another headed 'Socialism', might be. Not that Nankivell and his probably pedantic readers were likely to have been closet Bolsheviks. But it's nice to think that - in a spirit of mischievous anarchy and just to show that phonographers know how to have a laugh - the double page spread on the wedding of Isaac Pitman's son Ernest might actually be heavy with sarcasm and finely honed insult. But I guess I'll never know.

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