Articles Modest Proposals Television Travel USA

Travellers’ Tales

Saturday, September 27, 1997

The way you see the world largely depends on the stories you’ve been told about it.

Places you’ve never seen exist in your head as reflections of the things you’ve learned from tv or films or books or magazines.

While we in Europe might be sitting down to episodes of ER and Seinfeld, we are watching them in a completely different way from our American cousins.

There are arguments that if we don’t see ourselves on TV, then we lose some sense of who we are, and it’s certainly odd that more Irish people watch British soaps than our own (admittedly dodgy) home-produced fare.  The current furore over the portrayal of the Irish in a British soap shows how much this matters.

This cultural schizophrenia affects the way we see our own country, but the major effect is in the way we see America – a culture to which we do not belong, and yet in which we feel so comfortable.

When I first went there, there was a curious feeling of homecoming. As I wandered around, I recognised the telephone booths, mailboxes and even the fridges from staying up on childhood Saturday nights to watch American shows like Starsky and Hutch.

My experience of the country, even having spent some time there, is conditioned by the stories I watched as child, and those I continue to watch.

However, while today many of these stories come from pop culture, this is just the latest incarnation of a much older story-telling urge.  Travellers’ tales, complete with weird and wonderful creatures, fantastical cities and their exotic inhabitants are as old as language.

My favourite uncle was a sailor, and his postcards from far-off places showed us that there was a world out there. During his stays with us on his way to or from his ship, he’d tell us of restaurants in Genoa, or driving trips across the desert in Saudi Arabia. He’d travelled to cities that were only names on the map for us, and his brown eyes twinkled as he recalled another scrape or adventure.

His stories brought the world alive for us – we’d picture him sunburnt in Sydney or shivering in Stockholm, drinking in a harbour bar in Tokyo, or buying a little keepsake for us in Cape Town.

Watching NYPD Blue might not seem to have much in common with this, but in fact it serves the same purpose: from it we learn both how different people are in different parts of the world, and also how fundamentally the same.

This access to other cultures (however it comes to us) does not dilute our own, but rather enriches it – for example, Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments and the music of U2 both show Irish people’s ability to take the influence of American music and make something uniquely Irish out it. Combining ideas and values is the only way to keep a culture alive.

So while the tv schedules might smack of cultural imperialism, and another McDonalds opens in Shanghai or Moscow, I’m still optimistic about the survival of a range of ways of looking at the world. The tv shows are like my uncle’s travellers’ tales: helping us to learn about ourselves through glimpsing a different life. 

——— In Memory of Ray Dinsmore, 1946 – 1997 ————

(First published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 25th September 1997)

Articles Modest Proposals Television

Caught in the Act – Reality TV

Thursday, September 18, 1997

You switch on the TV to see a camera follow a policeman as he chases down a corridor and kicks in a door.

‘LAPD! Stay where you are!’ he bellows, as the flashlights play around the room.

Is this real drama or is this drama real? It’s hard to tell, until you see that the suspect’s face is pixellated out – it must be real.

I’ve had lots of detailed comments from readers on the subject of tv cop shows of both a fictional and a real-life nature, and so this week, I’ll leave most of the talking to you all.

The almost anonymous ‘rlittler’ from the UK gives us the British perspective on the shift from fiction through re-enactment of real crimes, to the showing of real police work:

‘Crimewatch UK was one of the first shows to smudge the boundary between fact and fiction with its reenactments of real life crimes – in my mind an insane cocktail for a nation of television watchers who write to characters in Coronation Street, unable to distinguish between character and actor. (An actor friend of mine who appeared in a Crimewatch reconstruction as a rapist was beaten in the street after one broadcast.)

‘Now, with Murder Squad and Police, Stop! et al we have spurned the reenactment for the actual crime itself.

‘Of course, the relevant production companies will deny any charges that their programmes are intended to either amuse or shock with gratuity. .  . [but] whatever the intention of the programmers . . . can the ultimate question be pointed only at ourselves?

‘Are we enraptured by seeing a police chase through the streets? Are we glued to the screen when the graphic account of a murder is outlined?’

This question of our own complicity is very valid. Why do we watch this stuff, and what might we be getting out of this voyeuristic experience?  Teddi Dempner from Lincoln, California has some blunt ideas:

‘. . . these “real life” shows indicate to me that America is growing numb to the “pretend violence” of movies and TV shows and they want to see REAL violence. I feel like we’re moving towards shows that will be the modern version of the ancient Roman gladiators – people must REALLY be dying before our eyes before our bloodlust is satisfied – these actors pretending to die just isn’t enough.’

Jennifer McAllister from South Carolina raises some interesting questions on our expectations of the police as a result of this confusion of fact and fiction:

‘As the adult daughter of a policeman, let me join all of the other families of the men and women who actually are law enforcement officers in crying out:  “Please, no more cop shows.”

‘. . . Despite the fact that society tries to teach children that police are our friends and are trying to protect us, it’s hard to convince anyone that real police are not always the hard drinking, hard loving, trash-talking bullies portrayed on tv.

‘My 3 year-old nephew expressed it best.  Due to even his overexposure to TV law enforcement, he just can’t be made to believe that his granddaddy is a policeman. After all, how can he be a real policeman if he didn’t shoot anyone at work last night?

It might be argued that the real life cop shows redress the balance, showing us how the police really are. But what we’re given is carefully-edited highlights and excitement (chases and nocturnal raids) rather than balanced journalism.

There’s always been a certain celebrity to being on either side of the glamorous cops vs robbers divide, it’s just that now you don’t have to wait to be played by Warren Beatty – you can be caught in the act yourself (so to speak).

Maybe, as a result, we won’t need the fiction any more. But with real crims and cops knowing they’re going to be on TV, the fiction must have an influence on the fact. Picture policemen practice in front of mirrors, saying ‘Go ahead, make my day,’ and hoods rehearsing their Oscar acceptance speeches.

On the one hand, this is classic postmodernity – it hasn’t happened until it’s been on tv, and we’re consumers before we’re citizens.

But while real life is dished up as entertainment, and entertainment affects the way we see real life, the result could be criminal.

How a country polices itself is a valuable marker of its maturity and well-being, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get a clear picture of what’s actually happening – the truth is being pixellated out. 

(First published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 18th September 1997)

Articles Life Modest Proposals

Camomile Tea vs Motorbikes

Thursday, September 11, 1997

‘Those who go through life prepared for every eventuality do so at the expense of much joy’, runs the (half-forgotten) quote.

Camomile tea has with it the air of preparedness. For some (few), there’s an immediate attraction in the taste, and for most, a welcoming calming effect, but it still smacks of being over-cautious.

You’re not living in a great big way drinking the stuff – it’s not shots of frozen vodka or even a good nerve-tingling espresso.

As such, it ties in with other obviously healthy elements to make a lifestyle that is faultless in its logic. But not smoking, going to the gym and eating the right food all express a certain degree of fear: it’s a tough world out there, and you have to look after yourself, and you’ll be in better shape to cope with life if you’re in better shape yourself.

This is not to deny that there isn’t an inherent pleasure to be gained from staying healthy. Both the endorphin rush of pushing yourself hard on a run or on a bike, and the more measured feeling of waking up and not feeling like death are worthy ends in themselves.

It makes sense, but how does it fare when stacked up against the glorious nonsensical nature of life, not to mention the platitudes of teenage rebellion – ‘burn out, not fade away’; ‘live fast, die young’?

What camomile tea is to the careful approach, the motorbike is to this more expansive way of life. Freedom, danger, life on the edge – it’s all encompassed by the two wheels and leathers. As reader Paul Sotrop from Florida remarks: ‘There is no visceral thrill in tea. It reminds you of the times you were ill. A really cooking motorcycle reminds you of a totally kinetic existence. How many webpages out there wax about the joys of tea?’

All those years spent living within safe limits, preparing yourself for events, looking after yourself – how much are they worth when compared to getting out there and experiencing a visceral thrill? Excuse the literary quotes, but D H Lawrence’s argument was designed with bikers in mind: ‘Life is ours to be spent, not to be saved.’

And this gets to the heart of it – if you live too carefully, you might wake up one day to realise that you’ve been waiting around for your life to start, and all the camomile tea in the world won’t help calm you down then. Live too big, however, and you might not wake up at all one day, just when it was dawning on you that dying young was losing its appeal.

The lesson of The Who should be remembered – no doubt Roger Daltrey believed it wholeheartedly when he shouted: ‘Hope I die before I get old’ on My Generation. But now he’s running a fish farm in the countryside, wearing green wellies and doing ads for American Express.

He was lucky enough to live big first and survive the excesses, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do things the other way round, if that’s what takes your fancy.

A recent UK newspaper article on the increasing sales of motorbikes to people of more mature years included the statistic that more than 70 per cent of people who took their motorcycle test last year in the UK were over 30.

These are guys with cars, who are buying superbikes to ride at the weekends, and while this might smack of mid-life crises, at least they’re doing something.

Ideally, though, we should be able to combine the two approaches to life concomitantly. Live in a reasonably prepared fashion, while at the same time allowing room for immediate joy. 

While that sounds like deciding to be spontaneous, it also sounds like Aristotle’s golden mean. So make mine a camomile tea as I storm off on my Harley. 

11th September 1997

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsLife