Thursday, 17 July 2014

Goggle Box

News just in: TV has eaten itself and it is still hungry. Actually this is old news. In the heady days when people spoke about postmodern this and postmodern that (the 1980s and 90s – such talk was probably killed off by the millennium bug) TV was always eating itself. Shows like Max Headroom on the newly convened MTV and films like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure seemed to be as much about TV as about the world. The wonderful Royle Family from the late 1990s seemed to herald the final move; here we – the audience – were positioned as if we were the TV watching a family that was looking back at us. A sort of mirror poking through the back of the TV into another room with a family looking back at the screen and getting on with life. Not a window on the world, then, but a mirror reflecting back the domestic setting of TV.
But the Royle Family was not the endgame of such self-reflection, it was merely the last time that it seemed exceptional. Now we have Goggle Box where couples and families offer commentary on TV programmes. They too are positioned facing the screen and we view them from the TV. And in case anyone was failing to get all the references to the Royle Family, Goggle Box is narrated by Caroline Aherne who wrote and starred in the Royle Family. What is significant about Goggle Box is not the strange tautological fact that you are watching people watching TV on TV, but that this seems perfectly fine, as if this is exactly what TV is all about. And TV does seem to be about the watching, about the chat, about the comfy sofa as much as about the programme. Friends always understood this: the characters always seem to be watching any-old-thing – the enjoyment came from the furnishings, from each other.
Goggle Box though doesn’t present a hermetic TV world. It offers us the pleasures of connecting to other ‘just like us’ who are also watching TV, chatting, poking fun at some of the shows, discussing others, sleeping through the occasional one or two. When you watch Goggle Box there is no need to think ‘but I could do that’ – you are doing it, already. Ta da. Goggle Box is the materialisation of TV seen under conditions of social media. What is odd about it is that people just seem to be watching TV and talking; where are the mobile phones? Where are the tablets? Goggle Box has incorporated the pleasures of social media into its format and returned it to us as something like a sit-com with the emphasis on the sit.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014


The Etch-A-Sketch toy came onto the market in the 1960s. I was trying to imagine what was going through AndrĂ© Cassagnes’ mind when he invented the device. The first thing that came to mind was that perhaps he felt that drawing, using pencil or some other mark-making equipment and paper, was just far too easy. What was needed was something to make it a lot tougher. Etch-A-Sketch is first of all an impediment to drawing. As a toy it is a drawing frustrater, an un-drawing machine. What makes those scenes so fabulous in Toy Story and Elf, where an Etch-A-Sketch is used to conjure finely-rendered images and maps is that in reality it takes ages just to write your wobbly initials.
My second thought was that this updated version of the ‘mystic writing pad’ plays on the glamour of the TV set. You have to cast your mind (or your browsing searches) back several decades to get to TVs where you had to tune them in to one of three channels using a dial. The dialling of knobs is the key. The endless twiddling as you run through the wavelengths is put to some sort of productive use in the Etch-A-Sketch. It is hard to see old TV sets as glamorous, but in the days of dial-tuned TVs, three channels and shut down at about midnight, a TV was an enchantment. We, as kids, tried to make our own by cutting holes in shoe boxes and sticking photos from magazines inside.
In the short history of electronic image technology it is perhaps fitting that a drawing device tried to look like a TV. Devices, electronic or not were always mimicking other devices – they still are. In the 1940s TV looks like giant cabinets, perhaps for holding drinks and glasses, for making cocktails. When microwaves came on the scene they took their look from the 1970s TV. Today it is not so much TV that is the form to mimic but the mobile phone, the laptop, and the iPad. The illuminated advert casings that you find at bus stops and along the street now look like giant iPads and iPhones. The Etch-A-Sketch anticipated the laptop and the tablet computer in the way that playing it felt like having a TV-like thing that could be used horizontally rather than vertically and was small enough to place on your lap. It is fitting then that one of the shells that you buy for your iPad is a shell that makes it look like an Etch-A-Sketch toy, and it seems right that someone would make a felt Etch-A-Sketch phone cover for their iPhone. 

Monday, 14 July 2014

Avocado Roulette

          For a while, in the 1970s, one way of recognising the signs of middle-class bohemianism was to spot sad looking wood-like balls, pierced with cocktail sticks, sitting over glasses of water, waiting to sprout or to rot, on windowsills. These were the seeds or stones of avocados. It was a practice driven by hope rather than experience. Perhaps some of these stones did sprout roots, and then perhaps a leaf formed, but as plants the avocado had little future in the inclement British weather. Someone somewhere said that 'knowledge, is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to include it in a fruit salad'. The fruit of the avocado tree is a berry (botanically speaking, or rather Wikipedially speaking) made up of a single seed. Someone somewhere played a mean trick on those new to avocados by calling the ‘fruit’ of the tree an ‘avocado pear’ and then laughing when you didn’t treat it as a salad vegetable. Apparently when the shop Marks and Spencer first sold avocados in the early 1970s people would buy them and eat them with custard and then complain that they didn’t taste very nice.
            Avocados in Britain are a hit-and-miss affair. As a regular purchaser of avocados I’d say that 30% of the ones I buy are inedible (either they’ve gone bad or are rock-hard); 60% are good-bad (they have bits of string in them, some black bits, but also some parts that look OK); 10% are perfect. That’s not good odds. But it means that when you’ve snagged a perfect one you feel as if you’ve hit the jackpot (avocadally speaking). We have a tea-towel with the legend ‘the Seven Stages of the Avocado’ written on it. Underneath the legend are seven identical pictures of avocados and underneath the pictures are the words: ‘not ripe, not ripe, not ripe, not ripe, not ripe, not ripe’, and then under the last avocado, simply ‘bad’. But buying an avocado is not just a gamble in trying to find an edible one, it is playing roulette with your taste. I love the 10% of perfect ones (I can’t think of any foods I love more), but the vast majority of avocados all have something that fills me with disgust, makes me shudder and nauseous and threatens to make me give up on them.
            But I stick with the imported avocado. My favourite avocado dish is very simple. For some reason in this house we call it ‘the taste of California’. It was passed on to us by old friends. It is made up of a simple dressing (white wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, good olive oil), some good oranges (skinned and sliced and pips removed), a couple of perfect avocados (peeled, de-stoned, and sliced) and a big clump of fresh coriander leaves (chopped). Just throw it all together, or arrange in a pattern. It is fresh tasting, and lovely. In the last months of my dad’s life the only thing he really enjoyed eating was avocados. Not ‘the taste of California’. Just cut in half, with some French dressing in hole where the stone was. Eaten with a tea spoon. Thanks avocados.