Although we have not yet passed its midpoint, 2011 must be accounted an extraordinary year already. Every day, it seems, brings news of another epochal event: the Arab Spring, student riots in London, a Royal wedding, the death of Osama bin Laden, and an era-defining election in Scotland. We are also aware that, behind the headlines, larger, slower, and, if anything, more potent, forces are reshaping the world. The economic outlook and the coalition government’s response to it is forcing us to think hard about what we expect of society, while technology spurs cultural and political revolutions. As a literary journal, the SRB, for example, continues to ponder the implications of e-books on reading habits and the publishing industry.
It is a measure of these tumultuous times (in this instance, no cliché) that stories that could be expected to dominate the front pages for some time slip from view within weeks, days even. A case in point is the aftermath of the earthquake and the consequent tsunami that hit Japan on 11 March. Coastal areas of eastern Japan were reduced to rubble while casualties are said to have now reached almost 15,000 with another 11,000 people still missing. The earthquake, the most powerful in Japan since modern records began, ruptured the cooling system at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The world watched as the authorities struggled to contain the emergency.
Even the greatest catastrophes must eventually fade from view, to become the work of historians rather than journalists. Nevertheless, one would be forgiven for wondering aloud about the speed with which the Japanese story lost its precedence. This downwards shift wasn’t because editors and readers had grown bored or callous. It was the consequence of a remarkable period in world affairs. NATO’s involvement in Libya displaced Japan as the story of the day, and although papers and network news glance back on occasion, Japan’s earthquake has climbed down the news agenda.
Stephen Phelan, a contributor to the SRB, has lived in the south of Japan for a number of years. He was in the country when the earthquake occurred. In this issue, he writes about his experiences of working as a volunteer in Onagawa, a small town that lost fifteen per cent of its population within minutes to the tsunami. One gets a sense from his essay not only of the apocalyptic effect the disaster has had on the landscape, but of how the people he encounters are coping, or not.
Phelan writes within the tradition of journalists who travel to troubled areas to act as witnesses. Sometimes they break stories; often, they remind us that the story continues once the camera crews and reporters have packed up and moved on to the next hot spot. Which is where the SRB comes in. In a period as troubled as our own, the SRB has the space between its covers to offer its readers, as exemplified by Phelan’s long essay, an opportunity to stop, read, and contemplate, to a degree other print and TV media cannot by the nature of the space it has available to report such sense-defying events.
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The world is changing, and so is the SRB.
In addition to new offices in Edinburgh’s Randolph Crescent, we have of late taken advantage of the opportunities provided by technology to engage further with readers. We now run a regularly updated Twitter feed (@ScotRevBks) where we report literary news, direct readers to past SRB articles linked to what’s happening in the world that day, make recommendations, or merely highlight things that take our fancy. On our web site (scottishreviewofbooks. org) we feature new blogs on a regular basis, and in our SRB at the Movies section, we review the latest cinema release every Friday. This weekend we’re live-blogging from Aberdeen’s Word festival, and in June, we will be live-blogging every day from the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Speaking of films, this issue features an essay by Colin Waters on the director Werner Herzog, the first in a regular series of essays on filmmakers and filmmaking. If you haven’t already visited our Twitter feed or our web site, please take the time to do so and to leave a comment.