“Then there was the Sitwells’ party at which it was proposed to read aloud a sentence of banishment upon Ottoline, but this of course meant no more than we withdrew to somebody’s bedroom in great numbers and left Ottoline, got up to look precisely like the Spanish Armada in full sail, in possession of the drawing room.”
Virginia Woolf in a letter to Lytton Strachey, 1918
I have embarked on an experiment that in a sense attempts to turn back time. I have been living without a television set for a few months. And that is how I came to spend a recent evening giggling helplessly as I made my way through Virginia Woolf’s letters in 1918 without knowing much about either the English hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell or the Sitwells. Woolf had written this soap opera to cheer up Strachey, who was suffering from shingles. Her letter is a wonderful throwback to another era yet somehow contemporary: there is both the childish pleasure of ganging up on someone and declaring them persona non grata and the worldly detachment of watching it unravel.
My rationale for living without a television is that in Hong Kong, where I moved a few months ago, there is not much on that I want to watch anyway. The decision was made easier because the city’s public radio station, RTHK, arguably does a better job covering the news. I also believed that I would read more widely if I did not have a television set. In London over the past few years, I often watched the news show Newsnight if I was home and then switched to another channel when that was over. And so to bed ... days would go by with either the book or the New Yorker I was reading untouched. TV is not just a reliable child-minder; it is often a mindless diversion for adults too.
Nowadays, when I am not being entertained by the antics of the Bloomsbury set, I am discovering the Asia Literary Review, where I chanced upon a poem, “You wait for me with dust”, by the Nobel Peace Prize winner, the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, written to his wife.
Nothing remains in your name, nothing
But to wait for me, together with the dust of our home
Those layers, amassed, overflowing, in every corner
You’re unwilling to pull apart the curtains ...
are the opening lines. They are made more poignant by the knowledge that his wife was placed under house arrest and round-the-clock police surveillance after the Nobel Prize was announced. It wasn’t the sort of thing a TV news anchor would read aloud, but more revealing.
Living without television is also a way of rediscovering the joys of listening to the radio. Unlike the characters in Woody Allen’s nostalgic salute to the medium, Radio Days, I am not addicted to it, but I feel better connected to the cultural scene in Hong Kong. Best of all, it has opened up the pleasures of listening to classical musicians on the radio speak about their upcoming concerts in Hong Kong.
One of the oddities about performances of classical music the world over is that there is rarely a chance to listen to what a performer thinks about a piece of music. The pre-concert talk is a terrific way around that, but is still quite rare. A couple of years ago, I listened to the British counter-tenor James Bowman paying tribute with dollops of humour to one of my heroes, Andreas Scholl, at one of Scholl’s concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in London. It added a great deal to the evening.
Although Hong Kong has a much more limited classical concert scene than New York or London, this almost always means that performers are treated like rock stars and interviewed at length for the local radio station before they arrive. It’s a neat twist on the pre-concert talk, which also jogs one’s memory to book tickets. It’s also a reminder that what radio does better than most television interview shows is the unhurried conversation.
By excluding TV from one’s life in the 21st century, one runs the risk of being out of touch. Like it or love it (and I do like TV despite my abstinence), it also functions as a social glue that binds us together in a way that blogs and books don’t. But it’s easy enough to end up watching the occasional episode at a friend’s place on DVD and thus still have an opinion on, say, the extraordinary intake of midday whiskies by the characters in Mad Men.
My very with-it Mandarin tutor recently scolded me for, of all things, missing Ricky Gervais’s send-up of Hollywood at the Golden Globes awards night. In the world of YouTube, this kind of sin of omission is easily rectified, however. I looked at Gervais’s 10 Bawdiest Jokes at the Golden Globes recently and you know what? He was funny – but I would rather read Virginia Woolf sending up Ottoline Morrell.
Peter Aspden is away