How do you Watch?

My maternal grandmother measured around four foot six inches in height and looked about the same distance in width. She was a complex character, at once merry and childlike but also prone to emotional outbursts. As a young child I adored her and loved nothing more than to snuggle up in her bed [once my austere, child-hating grandfather was up] listening to her nonsense rhymes and the funny stories that caused her to laugh with an infectious guffaw.

She ate an appalling diet of cream cakes, sweets and puddings, never moved unless she had to and lived to a ripe old age of ninety-eight.

She was also addicted to television, watching it for as many hours as it aired, which in those days was not twenty-four/seven but test card to close-down, when the screen would diminish into a tiny dot and disappear. She loved to sit on the sofa munching her way through a bag of sweets and watch whatever was on, distracted only by the sound of an approaching ice-cream van tinkling its jolly, summoning tune, at which she’d reach for her bag, withdraw a note and send one of us out to get a round in.

Spending time with my grandparents became trickier as I got older. The nonsense rhymes lost their appeal along with the long sessions of lolling on the sofa watching endless TV. One of her favourite programmes was ‘Peyton Place’, an American soap opera of the sixties which kick-started the careers of such actors as Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow. We children were not allowed to touch the TV buttons, on pain of the wrath of my grandfather, who also considered that the court drama ‘Perry Mason’ was too ‘deep’ for us.

During stays longer than a couple of days I’d feel an urgent need to get out and away from the endless hours of television, although the soulless estate the claustrophobic bungalow occupied was not over-conducive to walking. I’d wander the identical streets and stare into the windows of the shops in a small row called ‘The Cut’. At last, in an area of wasteland near to the estate I discovered a diversion that would take me as near to heaven as a pony-mad child could be: a riding stables. Thereafter I spent all my pocket money riding and any other time cleaning tack, mucking out and volunteering my services.

Grandma would be astonished to see how many channels there are on TV now and even more amazed at the ways we can view; recorded, I-player, Netflix and the rest. But what astonishes me is that despite the plethora of footage of one sort or another, how little there is that is worth devoting any time to. Since we returned from travel we’ve watched a so-so detective serial, some historical drama and the news. We almost never watch anything on commercial channels except for the channel 4 news.

The future of TV is even more uncertain as the young turn away in favour of alternative screens, gaming and interactive viewing. So It’s unlikely I’ll follow in my grandmother’s footsteps, few as they were!

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Fiction Month: Renaissance.

      Fiction month concludes today with an extra story-dedicated to anyone who, like myself was a child of the fifties when television was in its infancy and children’s programmes reflected the times. This was an era that pre-dated political correctness, colour TV, children’s presenters and all that ensued and for all its crude presentation held a kind of naive innocence. One of my own childhood favourites was ‘The Woodentops’ which first aired in 1955. To view a sample, visit youtube.

Renaissance

                She stirs. Her eyelids part in a narrow slit although it is still dark. What has woken her? She shudders and feels a sharp intrusive dig on her left side, wedged as she is between two others.  There it is again; a blow to her ribs. Her eyelids widen as she gasps, feeling around with her right hand for the offending weapon. An elbow.

‘Jenny!’

She stiffens. ‘Get off me! What are you doing?’ Her small, high voice is thick and slurred from under-use.

‘There’s someone out there. I can hear sounds-steps. Listen.’

Jenny groans. ‘Leave me alone, Will. I’m asleep.’

‘You’re not asleep. You are talking to me.’

She lifts her head as far as the space will allow. In the oppressive darkness of their space there are rhythmic snores amid the sighing breaths and snuffles of sleep as well as an occasional whimpering yap from the dog as he dreams of biscuits and buried bones.

‘There!’

She feels her brother’s hissing breath as the sound of steps approaching and receding invades her consciousness. In the gloom she knows he is listening too just as she knows everything he is thinking. After a moment a thin strip of light appears below them along the floor. She takes in a sharp breath and needs to cough but stifles it, reaching instead for her twin’s hand. There is an abrupt rattle as the door knob is twisted which prompts rousing from the others and whimpering from the baby, who threatens to howl.

‘Did you hear the voices?’ Jenny can feel Will trembling. The dog is stirring, a low growl heralding what could become a tirade of barking.

‘Don’t panic. I’ve got him.’ It is their father who has wrapped a restraining hand around the dog’s muzzle.

They are all awake now and straining to hear. The footsteps have disappeared but the light remains. Jenny frowns, trying to think how long they’ve been here and what prompted them to have been banished to this dark, musty cell. She can remember someone saying they should be kept as she was brought in but none of them knew what they did to be banished and hidden away like pariahs. If the footsteps return they might find out. She allows herself to hope.

She tries to stretch her limbs but in doing so elicits an outraged ‘Oy! Watch yourself!’’ from Sam who is squeezed next to her other side.

Mrs Scrubitt’s voice is tremulous as she utters, voicing all their thoughts into the half- light. “What are they going to do with us? They might be having a clear-out, like. Will they be…doing away with us, do you think?’

Jenny trembles. Sam’s mum is right. They could be cast into a bin somewhere or thrown on to a bonfire. Mummy intervenes. ‘There’s no use in worrying what’ll happen. What will be, will be. Whatever they do we’ll be all together, like always.’

They are startled into silence then as the footsteps return, more this time. There are voices at the door and they hear a key in the lock. The door opens, deluging their small closet with blinding light, forcing them to wince and squint at the unaccustomed brightness.

Jenny swallows and lifts her chin as they prepare to face whatever fate awaits them. A large face looms into hers and she shrinks back into a space she does not have. There are two of them scrutinising, exclaiming.

‘Take care! They’re very old, you know-nearly seventy years!’ The voice booms like a fog-horn in the little cupboard until Jenny’s ears feel like exploding balloons.

‘They’re in good shape though!’ The second voice is softer. After a moment a warm, scooping hand envelops her and she is off the shelf, travelling outside the safety of the cubby-hole and along a bright, white corridor. She closes her eyes as the glare prompts tears to stream down her face. Then she is in a large room, comforted to be sitting on a surface she recognises as wood and mummy and baby are placed next to her.

The two giants discuss them. ‘Of course, if we’re going to remake it there will need to be changes. The show was made before political correctness was thought of.’

The other one chuckles. ‘Yes of course. We can’t have a Mrs Scrubitt and we’ll need to address the nuclear family issue. Plus the fact that they are all white, fully-abled and middle class.’

Jenny glances across at Mrs Scrubitt whose face has become an unnerving, chalky white and whose mouth is open in a silent cry.

‘I’m not so sure that they were middle class. He is a farmer.’

‘Yes but Mum doesn’t go out to work and they can afford to employ servants.’

‘OK. Well maybe we can use Mrs Scrubitt as extended family and Mum can be a farm worker, too? And how about giving one of the twins a disability? I don’t know about Sam Scrubitt though. There may not be a role for him.’

Jenny and Will exchange a stricken look as Mrs Scrubitt claps a terrified hand over her mouth.

 

Four months later they are on set. Jenny has become adept at the sign language she must use to communicate with her twin, they have all learned to call Mrs Scrubitt ‘Grandma’, Mum has had a new wardrobe consisting of overalls, has got the hang of the power tools she must use and they’ve all adjusted to their new, ebony colour as well as remembering to call Sam, who’s been given some exuberant dreadlocks, ‘Denzil’.

Pass!

One of the phenomena I’ve noticed in the process of getting older is the process of things passing me by. Some of them pass by from my not having noticed them, some from my not liking them and some from my not knowing about them in the first place.

Is this a natural part of ageing? In his dotage my father took impressive steps into the world of new technology when he not only mastered some elements of word processing but also managed email [albeit in a somewhat antiquated manner, beginning all mails with ‘Dear’-letter fashion, unable to quite take in the informality]. He never got to grips with surfing the net, fearing the exposure of his personal details, perhaps his previous role as secretary to the parish council or membership of the village history society.

The phenomenon of ‘Things passing me by’ has crept upon me despite efforts to keep up. I feel it is the tip of a large iceberg, the top of which is visible, the underparts carrying a mass of culture, technology and who-knows-what-else I cannot even dream of. But here are some of the items on the top-the visible-part of the obstacle:

  1. I know what a smartphone is. I own one. But aside from texts it is rarely used, or even switched on, except for an occasional look at internet, as long as it is not too onerous to access. Most of my smartphone is a mystery. I don’t use the camera. It took me over a year to be able to swipe to answer a call [my call-answering is still not reliable]. I haven’t been able to memorise the number. It has passed me by.
  2. I understand that apps are applications. I just don’t use them. It seems that as soon as I have made the effort to acquire one something else has superseded it. ‘WHAT?’ friends and relations cry, ‘You don’t use ‘Picsnap’ or ‘Instabomb’? How do you manage to live? Surely everyone does ‘Smype’? No, they don’t.
  3. Hit TV programmes. I like thrillers. I like corny, old-fashioned cop detective shows, [like soon-to-be-axed ‘New Tricks’]. I can’t get to grips with ‘Game of Thrones’-nor do I want to.
  4. Talent shows. X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent et al. Contrived, hyped and wearisome. The only exception I make is for ‘Strictly’. I recognise few of the ‘celebs’ but I like the dancing, although the programme, with its padding, pretend humour and feeble, contrived banter is nowhere near as good as it was in the beginning. I do not, however feel enslaved to watch every episode.
  5. Contemporary music. By which I mean Rapping [I know it is all social comment/poetry and all that, but I can’t conceive of the likes of Tiny Someone, Master Monotony or Kanter East as actual music], Plastic pop [of the ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ band kind] and that monotonous, thrumming, repetitive techno you are so often assaulted by in European bars. Give me a blast of Eric Burden delivering his stark rendition of ‘Bring it on Home to me’ any day of the week.
  6. Piri-Piri chicken, Nando’s etc. Where and when did Piri-Piri spring from? I went into a Nando’s for a coffee once.
  7. Dresses worn with leggings. No. Pass by. Please.

If all this sounds curmudgeonly it is probably because I am becoming a curmudgeon. Kay Sera.

The News, Les Nouvelles, La Noticia or Las Noticias?

We are at the end of our first camper-van trip of this year, an odyssey very much unplanned that took us to Portugal, Spain and France, depending on where the weather was best according to the forecast.

Unlike the many who rumble around the roads of Southern Europe in search of sunshine we have not succumbed [yet] to a satellite dish to give us the evening diet of TV that we would get at home. Ideally we would be near enough, when parked up to access a lively bar or two but circumstances don’t always work out this way and we are sometimes left with the choice of books, internet [if it is available] or local TV. Failing all this I am forced to write!

We are at the mercy of Portuguese, Spanish or French TV programmes; most often their news bulletins or the equivalent of our ‘BBC News 24’. While we are adequately equipped linguistically in French to inquire the whereabouts of the nearest ‘boulangerie’ etc neither Husband nor I have more than the sketchiest idea of what is going on in Spanish, less still Portuguese, so the results of our viewing are often confusing and down to guesswork using pictures and the running text along the bottom of the screen.

All this gives a sense of what it may be like to be a young child learning to decipher the squiggles and symbols of words when learning to read and makes you realise how crucial the pictures are as an aid. While I like to think it is improving my linguistic skills I somehow doubt this is the case, since we’ve no idea whether our guesses are correct.

One excellent benefit of watching other countries’ news is that the angle is no longer at UK degrees, the world does not revolve around our own country. At home, even world issues will only be dealt with from a UK viewpoint. The Alpine air disaster item will focus on any British passengers, a climate summit will centre on our own delegate; grim beheadings will be given scant coverage unless the victim is British. Elsewhere in the world the focus swings to their own delegates, victims or disasters. Here is an aspect of that broadening of the mind that travel is supposed to offer.

Another advantage is missing a huge chunk of tedious UK election coverage broadcasting which, judging by the un-edifying glimpses caught since our return has been a blessing. From the quality of their baby-kissing to their stance on pot-holes, is there any pebble left undisturbed in the relentless unearthing of new stories about the opposing politicians?

And what can they possibly write, spout, blog or tweet about once the entire circus has left town? They must be praying for a heatwave/earthquake/alien invasion-otherwise it will be back to road congestion and house prices.

What’s Cooking on the TV?

In its wisdom, the BBC has opted to schedule on Channel 2 a big, blockbuster ‘food season’. This is much heralded and promises to inform in ways we have never before been informed about-food. Yawn. Really? How many more programmes about food can we take? And how many more times must we be told that refined foods, salt, fat, fast food, takeaways, sweets, chocolate and the demon sugar will be the undoing of us?

Let me see. ‘Masterchef’, ‘Hairy Bikers’, ‘Nigella’, ‘Saturday Kitchen’ and on and on-the programmes exhort us to produce more, varied and extravagant meals using more, varied and exotic, unheard-of ingredients. We sit and watch, munching our takeaways or our toasted cheese sandwiches and nodding-‘mm, yes, that looks nice’. How many viewers rush out to the supermarket next day for Tahini paste, syrup of nasturtium seed or essence of wild boars’ scrotum? How many search online for a high temperature vacuum bath or a freeze-drying machine? Heston Blumenthal has much to answer for.

It was all vastly simple decades ago. My childhood diet followed a weekly timetable that varied little beyond which meat to cook for a Sunday roast or what was available in the back garden vegetable plot. Mondays would yield up something with the remains of Sunday’s roast, the remaining days repasts would revolve around Spam-with mashed potatoes, with chips, with beetroot or eggs from the hens at the end of the garden-omelettes, fried eggs and mash or chips. We children never questioned or grumbled. We had no dislikes and would clamour only for an orange or a banana since these were prized items [rationing was not yet a distant memory], although as I’ve mentioned before we were only permitted a banana if it was accompanied by a slice of bread.

If the first course was a little sparse there would be a vast rice pudding or a suet sponge for the purposes of filling us up. Meals always consisted of two courses. Not only did we survive on this regime, but we were relatively healthy and never became in the slightest bit overweight, still less obese, even though the occasional day out to the seaside would conclude with fish and chips wrapped in newspaper.

How ironic that the more elaborate and fiddly TV chef meals become, the more the population capitulates to fast food and fry-ups, snacks and sweet treats.

Here in Portugal, where we have fled to escape the UK’s wintery temperatures we de-camped on our first evening-after five days of driving- to the village restaurant where we were shown a box containing assorted, gargantuan fresh fish, from which we selected our favourites. They were taken away and grilled with a little salt and served with a salad, crusty rolls and a plate of fried potatoes. No sauces, ‘beds’ of anything, snotty-looking foam or those stupid drips and smears dotted around the plates. The result? Completely delicious.

TV-the opium of the masses…

                When you consider how long ago television was invented it is surprising how little about it has really changed, especially the world’s love affair with it. I imagine you could go into the most deprived, squalid hovel in the most impoverished shanty town on the planet, with ten people sharing one crowded room to sleep, cook, eat and bathe and there would be a TV rigged up somehow with scrumped electricity, the only prized item in the family. What will they be watching? Football, adverts for cars and reality TV shows; Botswana ‘X Factor’ or Delhi ‘Big Brother’.

                A month’s trip to traditional holiday destinations off season demonstrates how reliant so many are on television for their entertainment needs. No matter what nationality-Swedish, Dutch, German, British-one of the first items to be organised once they have positioned the motorhome within the emplacement is the aerial, or the satellite dish. Our own entertainment was partly addressed by watching the Austrian couple next door spending several hours attempting to place their satellite dish in a location that would offer them Austrian TV. Austrian TV? A version of ‘Masterchef’ with viener schnitzel, perhaps, or ‘Austria’s got Talent’ with lederhosen-clad dancers and an oompah band? Early next morning the Austrian couple voted with their wheels, presumably returning to their homeland in disgust and hopes of watching ‘I’m an Austrian Celebrity [?]-Get me out of Here’ in the comfort of their living room.

                I understand why this is. Much of the South of France is still closed, especially in the evenings. You can spend hours tramping the streets searching for a bar that has not yet pulled its tables off the pavement and closed its doors. We rely heavily on the PMU bars-open for gamblers; as long as the racing lasts. In the malls and the streets leading to the promenade the cafes and bistros sport faded scraps of paper scrawled with the same message: ‘Fermé. Ouvert Marche’. But none of them is. Elsewhere there are signs of opening-roofs being repaired and signs getting spruced up, though as yet no pressions getting pulled or vats of moules steaming.

                In our wondrous van there is a TV, a novelty for us and with an aerial that can access whatever local TV stations are broadcasting. In a rush of excited enthusiasm we sat down to watch French television, pretending that it would be helpful in improving our French conversation skills; but interest in the news channel’s grindingly tedious coverage of Nikolas Sarkozy’s inflammatory remarks comparing France with East Germany soon began to pall and we returned to our usual in-van activities of internet, novels, music, writing, cooking, eating and assessing the local wines-punctuated by forays into the neighbourhood to scour it for some evening life.

                Better. Better than slow death by TV. Maybe one day we will succumb…but not yet…

                 

               

Odious ads and Radio Balm

                I always consider we are lucky, here in the UK, to have a commercial free broadcaster. Yes, I know that the BBC has had to take some stick for transgressions lately, both current and historic, -but during periods of travel, when we have had to digest news alongside adverts, I’ve found the TV almost impossible to watch. You get one, aggressively hyper story, delivered in a full-on, excitable manner, followed by what seems like half an hour of fragrant persuasion on the subject of Durex condoms or haemorrhoid cream. The adverts are always much louder than the programme itself, which to me is a most annoying, cynical and patronising ruse.

                Though I seldom watch commercial channels, when I do I am able to appreciate the artistry, irony or wit of the entertaining advert. Many, such as the Cadbury’s Smash ads for instant mashed potato in the 70s, or the Guinness ads of the 90s belong to a kind of commercials ‘hall of fame’. Many, like the Meerkats ‘Simples’ begin by being entertaining and become increasingly tiresome as time goes by.

                One thing I find hard to understand is how advertising can possibly work. I cannot think of one single commodity that I’ve bought as a result of watching a TV commercial. I can see how children become ensnared by their wiles, but fully functioning adults should be able to resist, surely? Or are we all prey to some underlying, subconscious thread that works away when we are unaware or asleep?

                Then there are all the annoying, animated ads that dot the screen when we’re attempting to undertake a serious Scrabble move, share what we are cooking for dinner on FB, look at a news website, forward a funny email or put in a bid on Ebay. They are there, flickering and buzzing away off to the side or on top. Sometimes a little delicate scrolling can put them out of sight, or there is a chance to ‘hide’ them, but mostly they continue to blemish the screen. Heaven knows what any of them are for-I certainly don’t look and I don’t know anyone who does.

                Most of all I’m a fan of talk radio. I can get my regular dose of a ‘soap’, news updates, documentaries, comedy, comment and debate, magazine programmes, consumer programmes, quality plays and literature without any kind of interruption from anyone trying to sell me anything. And all of this can be delivered while I’m occupied, undertaking the sort of menial tasks that might otherwise be quite tedious, such as ironing, washing the floor or peeling potatoes. The visual image, I feel is overrated, just as books, for me are generally superior to their film versions. I expect it’s a generational thing, setting me, as usual, amongst the dinosaurs of the world!