January 10th, 2009


Bono replaces Momus at the New York Times

Back in April I ran an amusing piece on Click Opera entitled The Sting. It detailed a request -- one I was convinced at the time was a hoax -- for me to write a weekly column for the New York Times. For The Moment, the blog of their style magazine T, to be more precise. As I wrote at the time, I proposed a regular slot called The Post-Materialist. The American economy was sliding into recession, I reasoned, and soon the kind of bling featured on The Moment -- rooftop pools, watches as expensive as houses, a wine review column about perfume -- would be painful to read about. It would have people jumping off roofs rather than bathing in rooftop pools. Instead, I said, why not stress eco and ethical design, and make cheapskate lifestyles look glam? That way, people could lose everything and still feel they were gaining.

My analysis proved uncannily prescient -- five months later the American economy melted down more suddenly and catastrophically than anyone had expected. Ironically, the advent of real austerity made it increasingly difficult for the cash-strapped New York Times to afford a column of austerity chic. In late December they proposed halving my weekly fee. I said thanks, but no thanks. As a result, yesterday's column, A Pattern's Math Magic, may well be my last for The Moment. (You can read all 37 Post-Materialist columns -- on subjects from virtual water to the Large Hadron Collider -- here.)

The effect of real austerity on austerity chic wasn't the only irony involved in writing for The Moment. There was also the fact that the more I wrote about sackcloth and ashes, the better I could personally afford to splurge on Wii machines and Technics turntables. The more post-materialist I was in my writing, the more materialist I was able to become in my life. I didn't earn enough writing the column to be able to afford the kind of glitzy celeb lifestyle other columnists (paid better, or just masochistically "aspirational"?) described, but I was certainly able to make my apartment as nice as the shabby-chic ones seen in excellent interiors magazine Apartamento, which I covered in June.

Scrapping my Post-Materialist column just when post-materialism seems most relevant is a bit like being a staunchly Democratic op-ed columnist booted out when Obama comes to power -- there's something perverse about it, but also something logical. Post-materialist values are no longer oppositional, and may have lost some of their contentious glamour. By early December -- when I wrote to my editor wondering if we should hit the column on the head -- I'd begun to feel I was moving in ever-decreasing circles. There was a month or two when everyone I covered for The Post-Materialist turned out to be a friend of Mark Borthwick. I also felt that I was writing way too much journalism, and began to prioritize the design press, which pays about a dollar a word, over newspaper blogging which... doesn't.

The final irony -- reminiscent of the fact that Oasis signed to Creation literally a day after I was dropped from the label -- is that tomorrow Bono will start writing a regular column for the New York Times. In an article not entitled Bono replacing Momus at New York Times? the U2 singer is quoted as saying "I've never been great with the full stops or commas. Let's see how far we can take this."

Asked how much Bono would be paid, New York Times op-ed editor Andrew Rosenthal is quoted as saying "nothing". The moral of the story? No, it's not that those hungry Irish navvies will always undercut you on price, the bastards. It's -- surely -- that the New York Times, in Bono, have found a true post-materialist -- someone just too damned rich to give a damn about money.