multi-storied #1: Masks. Danger.

In reporting a Guardian Long Read about face masks, I ran into a problem that, I can only assume, will become more and more common for those of us forced into virtual journalism. A man in Hong Kong had bought a face mask-making machine, so I asked him to describe it. How big was it? What did it look like? He was flummoxed. I tried to help him. What other thing did it resemble? He couldn’t say. Finally he told me: Look, I’ll send you a photo, or better yet, a video of a very similar machine in action. (That’s the gif you see above.) With the video and some specs, I described it as…

…an eight-metre-long assembly line, which shapes and cuts sheets of plastic into masks... It can cut and hem 50 masks a minute; it has no casing of any kind, so a bystander can observe its innards as sheets of polypropylene pass through the machine’s automated rollers and slicers. "It needs just two people – one to load the material, and one to press the emergency stop button if necessary,” Olea said.

It wasn’t the only time this happened. In March, I asked a Cambridge scientist to describe the facilities in his lab, but the conversation went nowhere. Eventually, for the piece, I dug out this fascinating government document on how containment labs must be built, and used its details to convey what the lab was like.

Have we forgotten how to describe things to other people in casual conversation? It’s so easy to pull up photos and videos now—not just the ones we’ve taken, but the ones that exist out there on the Internet. I thought writers might use that muscle more, but when I experimented, trying to give a visual sense of things during phone calls with friends, I struggled too. On a podcast, the host asked me to describe the space around my desk. I looked blankly around, and ended up talking about the view from the window next to me. Weak sauce. Things like what colour the car was across the road and whether there were flowers in the garden. Kindergarten stuff. Nothing about the actual essence of the space. If I was writing about it, perhaps, I’d have moved my mind into another gear and captured something essential. But in the cruise mode of daily life, I failed.

Susan Sontag called it, of course. Photographs had become “a way of giving information to people who do not take easily to reading,” she wrote. The image diminished the consumption of the formal, printed word. Now it diminishes the production of the informal, oral word.

Sometimes when you read a terrific sentence, you feel a small sense of loss that the possibility of its creation has been extinguished. Or perhaps that you won’t ever create that sentence yourself—that it’s now out there in the world, with no help from you whatsoever. I felt that when I read Dwight Garner’s essay on slackers in literature. The full thing is lovely, but here’s the gem:

“Like Protestants, these books come in many denominations.”

Hot damn.

  • If you live in India, you still have a couple of weeks of lockdown to go, I reckon. Be a good fellow: Buy and inhale my biography of J. B. S. Haldane. I’ll give you the same reassurance I give anyone in person. You don’t need to know about, or even be terribly interested in, genetics to read this book. This has nothing to do with my writing and everything to do with J. B. S.’ larger-than-life life. It’s an adventure story, through and through. Or so I will insist unto my dying day.

  • Also, tell your friends about multi-storied. What else are they going to read while standing in line to buy groceries?

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Amidst all the generally unsettling items of news, I received a specifically alarming one, and it poses the kind of situation I haven’t yet had to deal with in journalism. I’ve reported and written a story. It’s being edited. In the midst of this, a key source of mine has been arrested, for no reason other than a vengeful, unscrupulous government. He’d spoken to me on the record—a rarity for this story: a long, brilliant conversation in his office, fuelled by rounds of over-sweet tea. We worry now that some of the things he told me might get him into further trouble with his authorities, so we’re scrambling to revise our draft.

The principle is familiar to every journalist: Protect your sources, the people who’ve decided to trust you. It’s non-negotiable. The mightiest temptation is to strip every particle of him out of the piece, to just make 100 percent sure that nothing can be used against him at all. But there might be ways to use the piece and his presence in it to protect him—to make absolutely clear how absurd his government’s allegations are. This is not a balancing act I’ve undertaken before: moving between him, his family, his lawyers, my editors, my fact-checker, and the underlying demands of the piece itself.

Never a dull moment, folks.