Wednesday 8 February 2023

The recent past is . . .

 . . . a foreign country. They do things differently there. For the last ~35 years [half my life], I've been a stranger in a strange land by virtue of not owning a television. It caused my family some problems with social integration. The Boy turned 10 in 1985 more or less at the same time as we moved house and went TV-less. Through the end of the 80s he might have been handicapped during lunch recess because he hadn't seen last night's episode of what ever floated the collective tween boat at that time. With commendable chutzpah he decided that the best way to address this was to invent episodes of Star Trek which nobody else had seen - but sounded exciting.  His peer-group at the time were mad about choose-your-own-adventure books and played CYOA games of remarkable subtlety and imagination in the back of the car driving to swimming. They took turns being story-master and seemed all equally able to articulate an entirely credible and internally consistent fantasy world of tunnels and turnings to challenge their mates.

For reasons, I never went to the staff tea-room twice a day at work in Geordieland in the late 80s. So I rarely experienced FOMO actual missing out when grown-arsed adults could think of nothing better to talk about than what they'd seen on the telly the previous night. I can remember one time when I experienced a sense of curiosity (and bemusement) about how colleagues behaved normally / amused themselves of an evening. That was when, in 2000AD, I started working one-day-a-week at StVs Hospital in Dublin and everyone had lunch at a big round table on the landing. My colleagues spent several weeks talking about nothing else but Big Brother Season One. I really felt like an anthropologist peering out of the jungle watching an animated group of people acting in ways that were completely alien. Except that, I just couldn't be arsed to understand why they were so excited. Television is not without its uses, and edutained me quite effectively through my minority . . . but Big Brother seemed like an exercise in performative cruelty: which I gather got worse in subsequent seasons

This sense of curiosity about an alien culture has flushed back over my mind  while listening to my latest audio-book: Watching Neighbours Twice a Day... how ’90s TV (almost) prepared me for life by Josh Widdicombe. Widdicombe was born in 1983 and lived through the 1990s in a remote village in the West of England. His book is a memoir about how television set his compass and those of all his friends. They'd watch crap TV rather than no TV: ads, jingles, catch-phrases, serials, sport and pop music; it was all hoovered up. Not without some critical evaluation but 4 channel TV was a great leveller: everyone in his class at school would tune into the same programmes every evening and discuss them the following day.

Widdicome is about 30 years younger than me, so would have been more susceptible to Telly's blandishments in the 90s. Certainly, his hippie Dad preferred to be in a different room reading the paper when Big Brother was on. The other incident which brought me up all standing was prefaced as being the most significant event of the 1990s, in the Summer of 1997. I paused the tape, racking my mind for the answer. It turned out to be the death of Diana PoW. I remember that happening, of course, but I had the distance of a) no telly b) the Irish Sea to give perspective. So many bouquets! Ian Hislop of Private Eye was one voice pointing out the humbug of the response. More recently, the Brits have experience similar para-social catharsis over the death of Diana's MiL. Dunno, but I was never a boy-scout, despite liking knots, because I rebelled against the idea of being in a group all doing things together. I'm not making a judgment on the intrinsic value of TV (Big Brother excepted) but the core is uneasiness about everyone getting the same information at the same time. I've written before about watching a beer ad in the cinema and finding it freshly funny.

As Widdicombe points out, the 90s was the only complete decade in which this uniformity of cultural experience occurred. the 00s saw the birth of multi-channel Cable, FB, YT etc. which effectively gave access to infinite variety and made the wallpaper of the mind much less monolithic.  If you were born on these islands in the 1980s, you'll probably find Watching Neighbours Twice a Day pleasantly nostalgic.

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