Kona’s column 4: TV or not TV?

January 7, 2010

So here we are in January, having transited from the media’s predictable end-of-year (or in this case, end-of-decade) orgy of late December retrospection to the media’s predictable start-of-year frenzy of early January prediction.  In recent years, I’ve managed to escape the worst of these breathless outbreaks of media navel-gazing.  You see, the Noughties were most notably characterised for me not by a presence, but by an absence – the absence of television.

Since 2000, I’ve been living a TV-free life (although 10 years on, I’m still receiving extremely rude and accusatory letters from the TV licensing people).  What does 10 years without TV mean?  It means I have no idea who the current TV newscasters are, or what Jordan’s voice sounds like.  It means no shouty advertisements blaring into my living-room, or hectoring the children into conformist desire for the latest glitter-spangled kiddie consume-o-crap.  It means I’ve never seen a single programme featuring a celebrity chef, or any episode of Big Brother, X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, Strictly Come Dancing (on or off ice), The Osbornes, The Apprentice or anywhere’s Next Top Model.  (The fact that I’ve heard of all of these programs – and could probably even tell you something about each of them – shows just how pervasive is the influence of TV on popular culture and casual conversation.  I’m living proof that you can keep your finger on the pulse of the TV universe with little more than the odd judicious glance at the covers in the supermarket magazine rack and some overheard water-cooler chat.)

It’s not that I’m fundamentally opposed to “entertainment media”;  we visit the far-off cinemas in Perth and Stirling on occasion, and at home we watch movies on DVD (on a laptop, I hasten to add – are you listening, boorish TV licensing letter-writers?)   We even take in the odd bit of DVD-distributed TV content (notably the complete oeuvres of both David Attenborough and The Sopranos – compelling representations of nature and human nature respectively).  I think the thing that galls me most about TV is its nonpareil combination of induced passivity and perpetual mild disappointment.

I’ve been a television user in the past;  I know what it’s like to sit down intending to watch one half-decent half-hour program, and to find yourself still slumped there three hours later, in that dulled, semi-hypnotic trance that the flickering screen brings on, passively watching whatever appears next. I also know what it’s like to look forward to a “quiet night in” with the telly, and yet come away at the end of it feeling unrested and mildly let-down, as though you’ve missed out on some indefinable consolation, some gratification that was promised but not delivered.  (As a teenager, I’d stay up far too late watching the ABC’s overnight music video program “Rage”, generally disliking song after song, but ever-hoping that the next would be a good one.)  In other words, I have to acknowledge that my “cold-turkey” rejection of the Idiot Box is not unlike the anti-smoking zeal of the reformed fag-puffer (and yes, guilty there too): I reject it because I know and fear my own weakness, my own susceptibility to its bad-for-me but pervasive attraction.

When I think about my TV-addicted years, two motivations for my listless consumption immediately spring to mind:  boredom and self-avoidance.  It seems strange to me now, when I could really make use of a 30-hour day and a nine-day week, but I spent quite a lot of my early life feeling bored and aimless, with no personally-motivated projects on the go, and no particular end-results to look forward to.  Watching TV gave me something to do, and favourite programs gave me something to anticipate.  Perhaps more regrettably, TV also gave me a way to avoid my own thoughts, to fill up empty hours that might otherwise tend towards introspection, to drown out the quiet but increasingly insistent muttering of long-suppressed emotions, those buried but still-sharp artefacts of childhood and adolescence that I had yet to uncover, examine and gradually come to accept.  (This is, I think, my essential grudge against television:  that it abetted me in avoidance behaviours that really weren’t in my own best interests.)

Roll on a couple of decades and it’s a different story:  I’m rarely bored, I’m at least marginally more self-aware, and I no longer own a TV.  These days, as I stumble disbelievingly into middle-age, the most obvious boon of TV-lessness is the additional sleeping time it brings. I’m no longer tempted to stay up and watch a lengthy film, or a late-evening series, and thus be awake (well, kind-of) long beyond the time when I ought to have gone to bed.  [Aside:  The media are often pointing out how nobody – kids included – gets enough sleep these days;  I would just love to explore the statistics and see if there’s any long-term, culture-wide correlation between sleeping less and TV-watching more…]   Additional sleep isn’t, of course, simply its own reward;  on the contrary, those extra slumbering hours have the knock-on benefit of helping me to “do my creative thing”.

I seem to need more sleep than many people (at least nine hours a night, more if I’m playing catch-up), and if I don’t get enough, I mooch through the next day with collapsed motivation, a zombie-like demeanour and the complete inability to extract anything resembling an original thought from the addled slush of my brain.  The ability to “be creative” on any given day has become such an essential part of my self-image that I now guard my sleeping hours with all the bloody-mindedness of a TV licence inspector searching a house for illicit items of receiving apparatus.  Right now the idea of re-introducing a time-thief like television back into my life is pretty much unthinkable:  life is just too deliciously productive without it.  I’m expecting the new decade’s first rude letter any day now.

Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland.This column is the start of a monthly feature. She is facilitating the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries. There will be a second batch of sessions here in the library on Wednesday 27 January 2010. You can now hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’ and  follow her on Twitter.

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