Whenever I tell people what I have done, some politely look away, others react with shock . . .
It’s just over 18 months since I made the decision described in the post: Farewell Unreal World. The decision which just seemed to evolve naturally as my tastes gradually changed, but which has shocked some people far more than anything else I have done in my long and colourful ife. The decision that I no longer needed a television.
If you read the piece I wrote at the time, you will see that this was not so much a sudden decision to do something radical, as the logical de-cluttering of my lifespace by getting rid of a device which I no longer regularly used. I thought it might be interesting to write about it, and I certainly never expected it to provoke the sort of reaction it did (and still does) from people I meet. But more of that later.
First: a quick catch up. Yes, I am still living without a television, and I so seldom remember or notice this changed state that I have forgotten to write this followup piece on multiple occasions. I was going to write a follow-up when a month had passed, but I didn’t remember, so then I told myself 6 months. But the next time my TV-less status came into my mind it was 9 months, so I resolved to wait for the year anniversary, and forgot again. The only reason I’ve managed to hit the 18 month date is because I put a reminder in my phone the last time the thought crossed my mind, back in February!
So, my life without the actual object in the room seems to be pain-free (I’m not saying “my life without TV” since I had gradually diminished and ceased watching before getting rid of the actual device). I noted in that article 18 months ago having a stack of unwatched DVDs ready in the corner in case I needed entertaining . . . well, quite a few of those are still unwatched, some have been gathering dust for a long time. I will watch the occasional old film, or the odd TV episode on DVD, but aqt a rate where it would take me about 3 years to get through one season boxset. When I got rid of the TV I reminded myself that I could, if I so desired, catch the odd really good TV programme online. 18 months later, my online viewing in that time consists of two episodes of a series on canals from RTE, and assorted video clips from news stories on the RTE and BBC News websites.
As I said, disposing of the TV set and doing without live TV just seemed pretty natural to me at the time, given that I had stopped using it. I imagined that others might find this a little off – people are pretty wedded to their TV after all – but even I was shocked by some of the reactions from people in my life who heard of my decision or read the piece.
There was a visceral, almost fearful reaction, from those around me.
People who had happily chatted to me about “crazy” stuff I had done in the past (such as doing a naked photo shoot for an album cover and Hotpress magazine article, or running away to sea to do offshore radio) declared that this was just too odd.
“You’ve gone too far this time, It’s not funny, just plain weird” one co-worker told me.
Some pitied me. “If you have an addiction to TV, you should just try cutting down a little – there is no need to over-react by getting rid of it altogether” another colleague tired to counsel me, totally missing the point that I had dispensed with the set because I was hardly ever watching it, not because I felt I was abusing it.
Many people seemed offended by my decision to get rid of the TV, seeing it somehow as an attack on themselves for still continuing to enjoy television. Some felt that I would have problems visiting other people’s houses who had TV, because either my hosts would have to turn off their set, or I would be “offended”
Nothing could be further from the truth. I have no problem visiting houses where there are TVs, just as I have no problem visiting people who have Black & Decker Workmates, Wii games consoles, or motorbikes, which also happen to be things which I, personally, do not use. Likewise, my personal preference in women tends to run towards dark hair, and I haven’t dated a blonde in 20 years, but no one would expect me to be offended by, or avoid visiting,someone just because they have a blonde partner.
To me, the way people feel so very personally challenged by my choice to do without a particular domestic accessory tells me more about their anxieties about the relationship with television than my own.
An interesting thing though. All those people, including the ones most vocally hostile when I wrote the piece, all seem to have blanked it out of their minds. They never bring it up, and in conversation will frequently ask if I saw such and such on television last night etc. It’s like I’ve made a choice which is too different for the mind to fully accept and record in memory.
Now, I’d love to tell you that my life is different and more full of time and interesting things since I got rid of the TV set, but that wouldn’t be strictly true, as my life had already become these things gradually, as my viewing declined, long before I got rid of the physical object.
But I can tell you that the space it occupied has been suitably filled with clutter.
After a short break from the live scene due to a hectic schedule last year, I am delighted to be returning to public readings as part of a special themed event at The Workmans Club, Wellington Quay, in Dublin City Centre.
Hosted by Seven Towers, this is a short evening event kicking off at 6.30pm, with writers and poets including Orla Martin, Phil Lynch, Eamonn Lynsky and myself exploring the theme of “Television“.
Full details at www.seventowers.ie
Those few of my friends who know about the personal choice I made at the start of this month don’t really understand it.
Even my friend and neighbour Oran, who is open-minded and welcoming of every possible lifestyle choice to the point of being impossible to shock, has his doubts about what I have done.
I could walk into his house carrying a purple minature elephant and proclaiming a newfound sexual attraction to holly trees and Oran would be thoughtfully accepting, rejoicing in my newfound desires and, possibly, willing to try it too.
But of this choice, while supportive, he is quick to assure me, gravely, that it can be undone at a moments notice, and that I only have to say the word and he will help me to return to normality.
You see, I’ve not only joined the estimated 1-2% of people who have chosen to live without television, but of that tiny minority I am not in either the “ultra religious wanting to protect children from TV sex” or the “I don’t want modern technology in my home” subsets who make up two thirds of the abstainers. Nor am I one of the people who moved into a house without a TV and never got around to buying one.
No, I had a perfectly good TV, and made a conscious decision that I no longer needed it in my life, and I took it down the stairs and out of the house, and waved bye-bye to it as it walked down the road*
(*dramatic licence – it’s actually in the shed waiting to be boot-faired)
So, what am I, some kind of weirdo? Some kind of anti-technology nut?
No, I grew up like everyone else of my era, with TV a big part of my life. Through my twenties as I moved from bedsit to flat to house, the TV was always one of those “must-haves” that had to be there on day 1, like the kettle, the duvet and the fan heater (those bedsits used to be cold drafty places!).
When my marriage came to an end in 2000 and I moved back home to Dublin after decades in the UK, I started afresh with almost zero possessions, but the first thing I brought into the first room I rented, when suddenly back in bedsitland, was a little black and white TV, which I propped up on a chair in the corner of the room.
And within a year it was replaced by a much better, colour, combi-DVD unit on a proper stand (indeed, I think, the very one pictured above).
But I’m a great man for radio, and I’ve a love of news and current affairs, and they do wonderful programmes on BBC Radio 4, so the TV was not always on. And as the noughties rolled on, and the X-Factors and their clones swept through TVland, it was on less and less. At first days would go by when it wasn’t switched on, and then, sometimes, weeks.
And I have a stack of unwatched DVDs in the corner that can be viewed on the laptop as easily as the TV, and as broadband improved, there is so much content on the web too.
But the TV was still a “must-have”. Or so I thought.
Until I began to think.
My first conscious moment (the waking from TV-enthralled slumber?) came, of all places, at Holyhead ferry terminal, at around 8pm on a cold blustery night back in February.
I had driven several hundred miles to catch the 10pm ferry, having spent a long weekend staying with a good friend and her flatmate who were, frankly, the most TV-obsessed people I have ever met in my life. In their home, the TV was on constantly, X-Factor, Dancing On Ice and I know not what else was constantly watched and analysed, every carefully choreographed tiff between presenters believed as true-life drama, no TV cliche or stunt too transparant to be swallowed whole.
While watching live TV their Sky+ box was constantly recording other material to be viewed later, the hard disk was always full, and the arguments over what should be deleted to make way for more of the same heated and bitter. But I could tolerate that, in small doses, for the sake of seeing my hosts.
But now, having driven like the devil and endured peak-hour tailbacks through the Midlands, I was being subjected to ferry company customer service at its finest. Having got through the initial checkpoint, and passed outbound customs, I was among many motorists now corralled in a holding area, where terminal facilities were available “for your comfort and convenience”
Entering the building, it became apparent to myself and many other motorists that the coffee and snack shop was closed.
The door onto the corridor leading to the toilets was locked.
There was not a single member of staff anywhere to help.
Children were crying, people wanted the loo, I wanted a warm drink in me, and everyone was vexed. All we had access to was a large waiting room with hard plastic seats, and a big, booming television.
And then Eastenders came on, and suddenly no one was vexed, everybody settled down and looked at the screen, and the locked toilets and the lack of “comfort and convenience” didn’t matter to anyone any more, as they were comforted by the ultimate complaint handler – a bit of telly.
At that moment, as the dum dum dum of the Eastenders theme crashed around the room, I felt my world spin, and it was as if I could suddenly see what TV does – drains the passion, the thought, the fight, out of a population, and makes them . . content.
I went back outside, and sat in my car. I knew it was not a plot, it was not deliberate, but yet, the effect was a visible fact – treat customers any way you want, as long as you give them a bit of telly, it will all be OK.
That played on my mind for a while, over the summer, and my spells with the TV off became longer, not so much as a conscious decision, but more because I was finding the endless promos and trailers and constant stripping of programmes such as The Simpsons and Friends and all the “real-life” dramas across many channels to be more and more of an irritation.
And I could see my own childhood favourite, Dr. Who, being sucked into this, with more and more flashy guest-stars, and less standalone, thoughtful and quirky episodes.
I thought about life without TV. Not a life without watching programmes or films, but without the actual set itself, sitting there consuming space and asking to be switched on. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that even the space the TV itself claimed was more use to me than the slim pickings I now got from it. And so the decision was made, the TV would go when my current Sky contract came to an end at the start of October.
A shocked Oran helped my carry it downstairs and out of my life.
It’s not as if I can’t watch things if I want to. I’m not a luddite, and I’m not anti-media. Anything I want is available on the Internet if I really want to get it, but that is more of an active and discerning choice, which I like.
And the very last thing of all that I had told myself I was hanging on to TV for, live news, is now accessible just as easily online as through TV.
RTE have their main news bulletins easily accessible, and the individual stories also, as featured videos (see above). And the BBCs online news video service is even more impressive.
I can still watch episodes of TV if I really want to, I can buy or download, and my stack of DVDs is still in the corner, but, still just as little viewed. But I find I’m not doing that so much.
For the first week that the TV was gone, I felt serious pangs. Which was ridiculous, as I had been going weeks at a time without turning it on anyway, but it more the absence of the ability to turn it on, the loss of an object which had been a focal point of every residence I had lived in through my adult life. Another week has gone by, and the pangs are gone.
I listen to radio (mostly speech), I often listen to downloaded podcasts of shows from Radio 4 and the World Service in the evening, I have extra space where the TV used to be, and I feel . . . liberated, awake.
You were good to me once TV, you coloured my childhood with Daleks and Liver Birds and Life On Earth . . but we fell out of love when it became too stale, and I gave you your marching orders.
And now I don’t miss you one little bit.
And when I see you with someone else, I won’t be jealous.
I’m an Archers listener, and despite lengthy flirtations with TV soaps including Eastenders (for most of the 90s), and Melrose Place (likewise), for the last many, many years, The Archers has been the only soap that I’ve actually followed.
The show celebrated its 60th anniversary this weekend (yes – it is the longest running drama show on either radio or TV in these islands, perhaps in the world, comfortably beating Coronation Street by nearly a decade) and it did so in it’s traditional and far more realistic style, the success of which is what has kept it on the air and popular for so many years.
Unlike the TV soaps, which regularly stage “‘spectaculars” to mark important events, or to grab audience share, which seemingly have few reverberating consequences, The Archers tends to use what I would describe as a “slow-cooker approach” to plotting, which I find much more believable and realistic.
In the extended anniversary episode, broadcast tonight, there were no plane crashes or tram smashes to bring spectacular destruction. The main inhabitants of the village of Ambridge celebrated New Year, a baby was born a little early after a scare, and a much loved husband fell (presumably to his death) from a high roof, upon which he had climbed with his brother in law to untie a festive banner.
The (presumed) death of Nigel Pargetter will not only play out in a series of consequences, slowly, over the next many months, but will amplify and re-stress storylines that have built over the last 10 to 15 years of on-off resentment between his wife/widow Elizabeth, and her brother David, who will now be perceived to be at fault for the calamity.
That’s how The Archers does stuff, slowly, at real-life speed, over long, long years or even decades.
Take for example Jack Wolley and his wife Peggy.
When Jack, one day in 2003 forgot that he had granted an employee a day off, but was discovered to be in the wrong, it was the first of many seeds of an Alzheimers storyline which would not even begin to become overt until a couple of years later.
This storyline has carried on, gradually, over the last 7 years, only recently progressing to the stage where he could remember so little, and had become so confused, that Peggy had to make the agonising decision to put him in a home. And he will live, in that home, for some time yet before he is killed off. Contrast that to the TV soaps.
About 3 years or so after Jack’s storyline began, an Alzheimers storyline was introduced for a regular in Coronation Street, who progressed from being totally without symptom, through the different stages at breakneck speed, and was dead within the year.
The slow, lifelike pace of The Archers imbues it with great depth, and often pathos, such as the way in which we could remember and contrast Jack’s memory and behaviour with Peggy over a number of successive wedding anniversaries, Christmases etc.
The fact that very often The Archers is a comforting slice of life in which “nothing happens” (because plots are not driven at breakneck speed, there do not have to be a million things going on in any individual episode) can make it strangely soothing.
I well remember, on the day of the London tube bombings, after hours and hours of broadcasts filled with doom and disaster, how refreshing that jangly theme tune sounded at two minutes past 7pm.
Somewhere, somehow, life was going on, and that was comforting. This even though the episode itself did include reaction to the events (as a radio soap, quick edits can be made, and certain pairs of actors are on call for quick response to major events in real life, so a disaster, or a royal engagement, or an election result from today can be slipped seamlessly into casual conversation in an episode)
The other great brilliance of the show is down to its medium – radio.
I’ve always believed radio drama of infinite superiority to television, simply because of it’s book-like ability to let me use my own imagination. I have my own image of what central couple David and Ruth Archer look like, my own mental map of the landscape, and the picture I imagined of Nigel falling from that high rooftop tonight was more vivid and scary than any that TV could produce.
The Archers is 60 – long may it continue.