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Date: 09/12/11

Still Not Watching

Well that five years went by in a twinkling, didn't it?

For 'twas five years (and one week) ago that I bade a not-too-fond goodbye to television, at least as far as having a set in the house was concerned.

I wasn't entirely sure at the time whether I would (or could) stick at it for long. After all, television is supposed to be the centrepiece of our cultural lives these days; its raves are our raves, its obsessions our obsessions, its priorities our priorities. It shapes (and is shaped by) the public mind (usually as promoted in those veritable Watchtowers of probity and civilised values, our newspapers).

So there I was on November 30 2006, willingly and wilfully cutting myself off from the society in which I lived. What hope could there be for me when I was so sedulously insulating myself from the mass of my fellow citizens? Surely I would go mad with the isolation?

Five long years: five long years without the stimulation of 'entertainment' beamed in to me by people who were deeply concerned about my being cold and lonely; five years without my being persistently enthralled by the sight of people of varying but generally low degrees of verbal fluency kicking, hitting or throwing balls in various arenas around the world; half a decade of missing the intellectual spark from all those wonderful documentaries provided complete with the essential celebrity presenter and ubiquitous over-loud soundtrack; an entire one-fourteenth of my promised three-score-years-and-ten without being challenged out of my apathy by the sight of the world's momentous events being presented to me in thoroughly unskewed and pure terms by those figures whom the late Dennis Potter called "glorified bus conductors".

How in the name of Paxman could I possibly have survived such an ordeal without becoming an ignorant, misanthropic recluse; you know, like the ones you see reported every week in our free and principle-guarding press as having threatened a six-year-old with a Howitzer for having kicked a ball into his garden, prior to pissing on the passing vicar's wife's poodle and being accidentally shot by the police when they turned up a few hours later mob-handed with a small armoured personnel carrier parked on the pavement and facing the wrong way in clear contravention of standard guidelines and established case law? The ones you see being described by their former neighbours as the body parts are collected up as being "quiet", "a bit of loner" who "kept himself to himself"?

Well, I have survived, Gloria Gaynor in excelsis. Part of it may well be down to being a bit like that in any case, so that the transformation described above may well be one simply of degree rather than kind (although in my case, the six-year-old may instead be a dachshund). But mostly because the 'experiment' has - to my way of thinking at least - been an almost universal success.

Although to have said this in the early stages of my cathodus interruptus would have been deemed to be nearer bravado than anything else, I can now honestly say that in five years (and one week), I have not missed television at all.

(If H M Bateman were alive today, he would doubtless have executed one of his famous cartoons - The Man Who Didn't Miss Celebrity-X-Factor-In-The-Jungle-On-Ice, perhaps).

No, the jury has reached its decision and has delivered its verdict: television is eminently missable.

So let me give you a brief overview of how things have been, from the standpoint of someone who has only seen television on rare visits to homes where the damn thing has been on (often in the background).

Whilst the first reaction of family, friends and colleagues was in the main a mild bemusement and an inability easily to imagine so wild a scenario, gradually they have come to accept my eccentricity - perhaps fearing that, if derided, it might be replaced by something even more worrisome, as described a few paragraphs ago. Indeed, in some quarters my ongoing tubelessness has engendered some kind of respect, if at times accompanied by a degree of joshing.

Amongst strangers to whom I have imparted my gospel of self-deprivation, there has been a hint - sometimes more so - of a raised eyebrow or two, but again I detected an undercurrent of respectful curiosity. In others, however, there has been a clear measure of surprise, even of suspicion at such non-standard behaviour.

That suspicion has been at its zenith (or rather, its nadir) in one particular location in the city of Bristol.

A word about TVLicensing plc: arseholes. Actually, I'll give you two words about them: arrogant arseholes. Three days after the Big Switch-Off, I wrote to that organisation - one which manages to combine in one place the sinister creepiness of the Stasi with the rhino-hide impenetrability of Readers Digest and the depressing persistence of a particularly stupid moth - to tell them that no equipment was being put to licensable use at Mental Towers, and that they should assume this would continue to be the case until such time as I informed them to the contrary.

I heard nothing from them for about six weeks. Then I received a letter claiming that they didn't understand what it was that I had told them. I sent a brief reply (not as brief as in the famous case of Arkell v. Pressdram, however tempted I might have been) enclosing a copy of my original missive.

Periodically since then I have been in receipt of a variety of communications ranging from a polite (computer-generated) enquiry, via a promise that one of their people would call to see me (none of them ever has, to date, although they have shoved their "We called but you were out" leaflets through my letterbox from time to time), all the way through to threats of legal action and the putting of my details into the hands of specialist investigators. I am not at all worried by any of this: I know that my position, legally speaking, is watertight, and part of me wishes that they would follow through (an appropriate term) and actually try bringing an action against me so that I could wipe the floor with them.

So, have I been under-entertained in the last five years? I don't think so. There are talents to amuse available at the click of a mouse out there which outshine anything I remember seeing on television in the latter years of my dependency.

Have I felt that the wide, wide world of sports was passing me by? Well, initially, I did; especially when my own technology failed to keep up with developments elsewhere. But then I upgraded and caught up a bit. However, Channel 5 stopped broadcasting baseball about three years ago, and I have gradually drifted away from the game, to the extent that I can now go whole months during the season without wanting to see what's going on between the lines. Baseball has joined other sports - even those to which I was once devoted - whose primary interests to me now are historical and/or statistical.

Have I become intellectually lazy and unchallenged because I don't get to see those fascinating products of television companies' occasional recollection that they are not just there to chase ratings like a whore in Chatham? No once more, if only because of the existence of the BBC iPlayer and its equivalents. Through it/them I have been able to see whatever it was which had piqued my interest. This holds true for 'entertainment' programmes as well, of course; QI still being - as I stated in my 2006 post - all but unmissable.

But there is - if there is one at all - The Rub. The only knock against my lack of daily awareness of what is on The Box is that I often miss things. Sometimes only after the event (and more than seven days after the event at that) do I find out about something I would like to have seen. I have missed parts of the last two series of QI, to take just one example, because I hadn't been aware that a new run had begun.

(As I hardly listen to any radio through the traditional means nowadays either, the same applies to Round Britain Quiz; I missed a full half of the last series and a good quarter of the one before that simply because I didn't keep up to date with the schedules).

And have I become hideously uninformed and ignorant through not having daily or more frequent injections of those ubiquitous news programmes? Hardly. To find your news and comment online is to broaden your scope and understanding of the world rather than to narrow it. There, a click or two away, is coverage of - and comment upon - stories which BBC News and ITN (does ITN still exist? As Slartibartfast said, I'm a bit out of touch) either will not or cannot cover, either through geographical bias, or political (I use the word in its broadest sense here) imperatives, or simply through perceived irrelevance to its target audiences.

It's worth not getting too starry-eyed about this, of course. All media sources - like all writing of History, as my A-level tutor Eric Earnshaw would always assert - have their biases and prejudices. And it is always tempting merely to stick with media sources which confirm one's own prejudices and assumptions about the world or any given subsection thereof. Mea culpa, for I seldom venture into the wilds of the Regressive media, prefering instead a daily or more frequent tour of the websites of the Guardian, the Independent and, yes, BBC News, augmented by non-corporate sources such as Counterpunch and various Indymedia sites. From these, I know that the tacit assumptions made by the mainstream, corporate media are often wrong, that "what everybody thinks" and "what everyone knows" - the basic premises of the mainstream - are not what many people are thinking and runs contrary to what many people know from their own direct experience.

A healthy scepticism is therefore warranted, but I would aver that a healthy scepticism is nourished by not confining oneself to the lines constantly being pushed upon the public by major corporations (of the private and public variety), and getting a somewhat wider spectrum of views than those shown - or even permitted - by the more customary outlets.

And it is this element of 'push and pull' which is central to why I feel better informed and better entertained than I did five years ago. For with television, radio and the print media, you are confined to what those controlling those channels wish you to hear, see, feel or believe. Turning one's back on relying primarily on those sources engenders a sense of empowerment (even if such a sense is to some degree illusory), and gives one a sense of being able to make real choices, rather than the illusion of variation given by most 'traditional' means of disseminating culture (using that word, too, in its broadest sense).

And so, I choose to get my entertainment via humourous websites, YouTube and the like, rather than being reliant solely on what those in charge of, say, BBC Two deign to give me; I choose to be educated by interesting documentaries placed online in various places rather than being reliant solely on what the commissioning editors at something like Channel 4 think I should be educated by; and I choose to be informed by a wider range of online perspectives on politics, economics and ethics than is made available by news editors at the standard television and print outlets, all of whose agendas seem to have a large - if not total - overlap of givens as to what is deemed discussable or even possible, and so the very antithesis of the 'choice' which those who have had effective control over our lives and lands for a generation or more now insist that we actually have.

Used judiciously, of course. Many cannot do so (and I don't necessarily count myself as being not of their number), and so we have a fragmentation, an atomisation, of that thing we insist - the dominant socio-economic narrative notwithstanding - on calling 'society'. Whereas in Olden Tymes audiences of twenty million or more would habitually crowd round the goggle box (and so dominant has the internet become that I actually typed 'google' there first time up) to witness major ceremonials, or Morecambe and Wise (and Eddie Braben)'s latest seasonal offering - the great State and national occasions, in short - now the audience per programme is smaller and less committed than before, even for soaps and those I'm A Wannabe Has-Been, Get Me On Screen Anyhow! shows.

And, corporations being corporations - as slow as the dinosaurs themselves to react to changing conditions - the broadcasters and newspaper publishers, much like their equivalents in the recording and movie biz, have continued in the face of all reality to believe that their business models need only the most marginal of tinkering with rather than wholesale change. That and trying to shut out - even to criminalise - those who are rather sharper on their feet. And so, more is less when more and more hours of programming have to be funded from a revenue pot - be it licence fee or advertising - which has remained static or has actually declined.

But enough about such trivia; I'm sure you really want to know what effect five years without cathode-ray bombardment has had on me.

Well, I've saved at least 140 per year through not having to pay the licence fee, so that's an immediate plus there.

Has it made me smug and superior? I should say so. That's part of the fun, although I try to be as circumspect as possible about it, if only for reasons of self-preservation. Whilst I willingly confess to a tiny feeling of being left out when family, friends or colleagues talk about what they watched (or rather, I would say, what they saw - the passive as opposed to the active) the previous evening - "Did you see 'Corrie' last night?", they ask each other anxiously. "Did you see so-and-so on 'Celebrity', then?", they whisper, seeking affirmation from others for their own views of so-and-so's behaviour; despite that, I still have the feeling that the full, rich inner life is not really being lived in their homes.

Not that it necessarily is in mine, mind. For what have I done with all the time which I would otherwise have spent gazing with various degrees of attention across the room at a television set? Have I read any good books? Well, yes, but I only read books in bed anyway, much as I did before. Have I written any good books? Sadly, no, good or otherwise; I don't seem to have the attention span and commitment for that. Did I ever learn to play that acoustic guitar for pleasure and profit? Frayed knot; the poor instrument stands there still, mute and unstrummed, much as it has done for five years and more.

So what, you may wonder, was the whole bleedin' point of it? Well, as I said in 2006, it was partly to see if I could do it, partly to see what effect doing so would have on my life, and partly to see if I could put my limited time before the grave to better use.

And now, five years (and one week) on, I've demonstrated that I can do it, and choose to keep on doing it; that the effects on my life have been on the whole positive; and that although I have not written the Great Novel or the Great Anything Very Much, I feel more in touch with what is really going on in the world, more engaged with the issues - great and small - of our Age, and much less passive and far more assertive when it comes to those issues. Which can't, taken all in all, be bad.

And, of course, I've had the time and energy to keep you regularly 'educated, informed and entertained' - and not necessarily in the right order - with this 'ere website. For which I think you should be duly grateful, you surly serfs!

We now return you to your regular programmes...