This is another article I wrote to be translated for my monthly column in the Swedish Göteborgs-Posten.
Last week while reading Samuel Beckett’s Company, I came across the phrase ‘a block hat’. Beckett describes his solitary protagonist lying on his back in the dark remembering the times when he walked in the countryside or the coast, with his father, as a child, and as an adult, alone. He is sartorially a perfect Beckettian character wearing an ancient decrepit ‘greatcoat’ that comes down to his boots which sink into the snow or sand, and a black ‘block hat’. It is the outdoor apparel of all the figures who tramp Beckett’s world. Except that it occurred to me that I didn’t know what a ‘block hat’ was. It was, I supposed an Irish name for some kind of very familiar hat. But which? I pictured all manner of black hats on top of the greatcoat and boots, but Beckett is not a writer that offers the reader imaginative choices. There has never been a writer more careful and specific in his words and descriptions of people and things. His stage directions constrain the action precisely to what he intends, and his prose prescribes exactly what the reader is to see in her mind’s eye. You don’t get options when you read Beckett.
So I looked it up. Time was, I would have put the book to one side and gone to the shelf containing my limited number of reference books, and if I couldn’t find it in my own dictionary or encyclopaedia, I’d head off to the local library to search. When I found what I was looking for, I’d come home, after possibly doing an errand or two while I was out, and return to my reading later that day or if I had something else to do by then, the following day. But last week I put the book down, turned to my computer (the small portable beside my reading chair) and put the phrase ‘block hat’ into Google. It’s a bowler hat. Of course, like the ones worn by all four of the characters in Waiting for Godot. Mystery satisfactorily solved in about 15 seconds. I continued undisturbed, reading Company to the end.
When I finished I tweeted my ignorance and the speed of my discovery. Within a few minutes someone tweeted back that in Liverpool, foremen on Liverpool docks were called ‘blockers’ because they alone had the right to wear hats to work. And that as a aggressive child in Liverpool in 1953 he was often asked ‘Where’s yer blocker?’ meaning ‘Who made you foreman?’ meaning ‘Don’t be so bossy’. Looked for and unlooked for information. Instantly getting the information I wanted and getting extra with hardly any interruption to my activity. It’s what has changed most dramatically in my lifetime between the decades before and after the easy availability of the internet. It is the essence of the information revolution: measurable and personal. An even vaster and more beneficial change than, say, from candles to the invention of the electric light which enabled only more and better conditions for work and reading after the sun went down, rather than a completely new way of doing things.
Also last week, I had a conversation with a friend. ‘I don’t know who *** is. There’s a video of her doing the rounds, through email and Twitter. She’s ignorant and prejudiced. Dreadful.’ He was genuinely upset. I’ve put the woman’s name in asterisks because I don’t want to tempt anyone to look her up. You know her, one way or another already, even if you’ve never heard of this particular person. She is a woman (and could be a man) who has been on reality television and got a taste for cameras and newspaper headlines. She has no obvious talent of her own, but has discovered that by saying ‘shocking’ things dressed up as frankness or ‘telling it like it is’ as she puts it on her website, she gets the attention of millions of people. Her words are spread around the world instantly mostly by people quoting or linking to them to convey their disgust and disapproval. This time it was about not letting her children play with other children with ‘working class names’ because their influence will be lackadaisical and dire. Of all readerships, you will know the word ‘troll’ which has been stolen to mean just such a person. The point is that my friend would never have come across her. He doesn’t watch the programmes she is in, he doesn’t read the newspapers she is headlined in. But he does access the Internet, and now there is no escape from such people. They are referenced in all their awfulness by other people who had never heard of her, to their community of like-minded contacts. The videos go viral, and it’s almost impossible not to click on a link. The thrill of disapproving, and of sharing that disapproval is irresistible. My friend, who otherwise avoids what he doesn’t like about the world, is unable to ignore it. ‘There was a time,’ I said to him. ‘When you could have remained completely ignorant of her.’ ‘I wish I had. People should stop sharing all these dreadful videos and headlines.’
But this is the other side of the joy of finding out about the ‘block hat’. Remember the scene in The Clockwork Orange, when in a terrifying attempt to ‘recondition’ Alex, the murderous gang leader, he is strapped into a chair in a straight jacket? His head is clamped so that he has to look directly ahead at a screen, and his eyes are held wide open with clamps on the lids so that he can’t shut them or even blink. (Interesting and neither here nor there that the film was made by Stanley Kubrick, whose last film was Eyes Wide Shut). Alex is forced to stare at films of extreme violence, beatings and gang rapes, and on the second day, newsreels of the Nazis during World War II during which Beethoven’s Ninth plays in the background. He wants to vomit, and eventually screams out that he shouldn’t be made to feel sick while he is listening to the Beethoven’s sublime music.
We are confronted with a similar dilemma. We can no longer look away. The internet and it’s miraculous search engines are everywhere and unavoidable. They hold our eyes wide open, not with clamps, but because we dare not look away. We can see unimaginable marvels and access the most recondite information, but nevertheless our ever-open eyes have also to take in some of the cheapest, most trivial and ugly manifestations of human doings. Not silliness (that’s fine and fun, and another great boon of the internet), but the viciousness and stupidity that abounds beside all the goodness brought to us by the neutral world wide web. One day, perhaps, we will get better at discriminating and dare only to take from it what we want. Yet so much of what we find on the Internet is by happy accident. If we don’t click, what joys will we miss? It’s a new temptation, I think, and our ability to resist is very low.