“Do you have to be against that backdrop, Martha? You look as though there is a light sabre coming out of your head.” Not the image I was necessarily trying to project as I chatted my way through eight back-to-back interviews with regional ITV channels to herald the arrival of the UK’s first “get online week”, which starts on Monday.
While 30m of us regularly use the internet, there are still more than 9m adults in the UK who have never gone online. I was offering myself up to the media to encourage friends, families and colleagues to help others take their first steps onto the web. I am lucky enough to hold the slightly grandiose title of the UK government’s Digital Champion – and as such, often meet people who are not online or who have recently started using a computer.
One of the more daunting things I have had to do was to help a very old lady through her first experience of the web – scary for her of course, but also for me as we were live on radio and couldn’t see each other. It seemed to go well after the initial confusion about what she wanted to search for. She wanted “craft work” – rather than the German techno group Kraftwerk, as I had initially understood.
And getting online has changed lives. I’ve met people such as Darryl in Leeds, who fought drug addiction and mental health problems by learning how to make digital music. He sells it online for small amounts of money, giving him both confidence and freedom. There are touching examples, like Cath in Birmingham who told me that when her social housing landlord put broadband in her block and set up a room for people to learn, she thought she would give it a try and was amazed to discover that despite “dropping out of education, working for 20 years in a factory and never really thinking I could do much, I really do have an enquiring mind”.
Getting people to engage with the internet is not only a weapon against poverty – it’s a fundamental skill that everyone needs to have if they are to get the same opportunities as those who use the internet every day.
Having gone on television to ask everyone else to help get their family and friends online, I faced up to some home truths. Yes, Robin Lane Fox – my amazing father and your very own dedicated gardening correspondent of 40 years – is yet to embrace fully the magic of technology. This refusenik hasn’t softened much since 1997, when my business partner Brent Hoberman and I had written our initial business plan for the website lastminute.com. I gave it my father to read, but the only comment I got back was that “there are 15 split infinitives in this document”.
An opportunity to try and tempt him online arose this week, as it was his birthday and in a moment of rashness I agreed to his demands to go and see Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. This was an unlikely choice of birthday treat for someone whose brain easily spans “what flower to plant in any space or season” and “Alexander the Great” – but little this great brain suggests surprises me.
I only agreed to the film on condition that he lets me give him a web lesson. Despite already having found a Facebook group dedicated to him, I am still not sure I have convinced him that getting online will improve his life. I think he will regard the whole hour with the same suspicion that will engulf me as I sit through his choice of movie.
The portfolio life is generally fantastic but occasionally I find the range of meetings surreal. One day this week started in the Cabinet Office in my role as Digital Champion, talking about my review of government websites, and then moved quickly into the world of karaoke and Lucky Voice, the karaoke company I cofounded and now chair. In that office, every day (and often every meeting) starts with a song. It is hard to remain frazzled, grumpy or downbeat if you have just belted out a tune badly and at maximum volume. I felt very old when I walked into the Lucky Voice meeting. The team was abuzz with a new deal with the TV talent show, The X Factor. I felt very out of it when Gamu-gate had to be explained to me [this involved the dropping of a popular contestant at an early stage]. Later in the day, in one of my other roles – on the M&S board – I discovered that the Percy Pig sweet line has far bigger revenues than Lucky Voice. I consoled myself by deciding that if Percy Pig ever released an album I would make sure anyone could sing it.
And so to Wales, to talk at an enormous local government conference. Perhaps I should have been bolder and livened things up by suggesting a song at the end of my keynote speech. I have yet to mix up my dual roles as karaoke evangelist and digital champion – and I am not sure it would have been appropriate to bring out the microphones at this event – but it might have worked. Speaking in the unenviable last slot of the day, I could see the crowd looked desperate to rush to the bar.
Still, I am tempted to put together a song list for the coalition – quick rendition of “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention)”, anyone? I was reminded of a time when a broadsheet editor told me that he had taken his top team and a group of people from the Cabinet Office out for a karaoke evening in a bid to repair relationships that were becoming frazzled. It worked brilliantly, apparently – nothing builds bridges over troubled water better than a bad rendition of Simon and Garfunkel.
I travelled by train to Cardiff and loved the trip as I was completely engrossed in (the print version of) Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom. I didn’t notice a long delay on the way home, or the fact that there were none of my favourite biscuits in the buffet car. I was far away with Patty and Walter and the extremely compelling family drama that unfolds before you. I marvel at the way in which Franzen creates characters I would not want to spend more than 10 minutes with in real life, and yet cannot leave alone on the page.
I will be taking Freedom with me to Bridlington as I set off at the crack of dawn this coming Tuesday morning. This part of Yorkshire is one of the most digitally and economically deprived areas of the country and the whole “get online week” team is going up with me. The local people may, quite understandably, run a mile as we try to showcase great websites. Still, we can always try to win them over with a good old singsong.
To find out more about ‘get online week’, go to www.getonlineweek.com