It's finally acceptable to cast off the shackles of TV snobbery

Who knows, Bim Adewunmi might even give the next series Big Brother a go.

Oh, I don’t watch Big Brother.” A harmless admission, right? It looks like a simple statement of telly preference, a brief glimpse into the personal habits and quirks a person has formed over years of watching the box in the corner.
 
But lurking behind those words is an unasked question, hanging invisibly at the end of that sentence. It is laced with mild incredulity and it goes a little something like, “But you do?!” You know what that is? That’s basic telly snobbery and we all engage in it.
 
Before you begin to protest a little too strenuously, take a hard look at yourself. If you watch television, you will have a show that you love, a show that you hate and a show that you’re a snob about. Come on. I’ll start with one trio that fits: I love The Good Wife; I hate Britain’s Got Talent and I look down on Big Brother (and all those who watch it). There is always a programme on the air that we feel is the very nadir of human civilisation, an insult to the riches that technology has brought to our lives, a waste of time and effort and a stain on the televisual landscape. That’s TV snobbery at its finest and don’t you deny it.
 
Television is a tribal medium. Clear evidence springs up in our own lives: the adults who were not allowed to watch ITV as children, because it was “common”, what with its advertisements and sense of fun. Or those of us who will not watch Coronation Street until forced to by extended family consensus at Christmas. Or even those people who exclusively watch box sets of HBO dramas that feature lashings of sex and black comedy and death. You pick your tribe and stick with it, because it is deft shorthand for the person you are, or perhaps the person you want to be (or be seen as). If you watch the Elmore Leonard adaptation of Justified, what does that say about you? If you love a nerdcom such as The Big Bang Theory, what are you projecting to the world? If you enjoy Sex and the City so much that you unashamedly call yourself a “total Carrie” in real-life situations, what is the world supposed to think?
 
I once worked alongside a man who very proudly and somewhat sniffily told me that he didn’t watch television. He said it – just like that – in that practised way that suggested to me that he had come to expect an awed gasp and a request to elaborate on his charming quirk.
 
So I obliged him – why, I asked, do you hate fun? And he gave the usual spiel that people like him give: oh, there’s never anything good on, I’d rather read a book and let my imagination soar free, it rots your brain and stunts your mental growth . . . On he went, ad nauseum, emphasis on the “nauseam”.
 
I thought about arguing the point – there I sat, an avid viewer of television, having imbibed hours of it a day every day since I was a child, and I was no less engaged in the world, no more stunted than any child of the 1980s, holding down jobs and paying taxes – but then I saved my breath. If you don’t want television, I thought, then television doesn’t want you.
 
And that sentiment is largely true of the programmes I (and you) hate. They’re not specifically looking for you, hankering after you to love and adore them. Television as it was in the days of one channel, then two, then five channels is gone, replaced by hundreds of channels, DVR (digital video recorders) and PVR (personal video recorders) and the king of bingeing, the box set. Shows are finding their audiences and growing with them, content to have found one at all. Nobody is really pushing to the front, shouting “like me, like me!”
 
In turn, that frees us to watch more things and cast off the shackles of the TV snobbery. Every autumn for the last few years, I’ve found myself engaging in energetic bouts of tweeting about the singing competition, The X Factor. I used to get a few people expressing surprise, mild dismay and disappointment when they saw my tweets but that’s largely stopped now; I’m allowed to like Frasier and The X Factor. Earlier this week, I watched the former contestant Rylan Clark presenting Big Brother’s Bit On The Side. My snobbery was no contest for his charm – the guy was no singer, but as a presenter? Boy, can he work a room.
 
Who knows, next series maybe I’ll give Big Brother a go after all. Another one bites the dust.
The set for the finale of last year's Celebrity Big Brother. Photograph: Getty Images

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

Getty
Show Hide image

The Pier Falls is a skilful short story collection – and the glummest book I've read in years

There's no doubting Mark Haddon's talent, but if his stories are sympathetic, there's not much pity in them.

The unremitting bleakness of Mark Haddon’s first book of short stories seems to have stumped even his publishers, who have decided, in the blurb, to make the rather shell-shocked protestation that “his imagination is even darker than we had thought”. Certainly, anyone who came to Haddon’s work through The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and its Olivier Award-winning stage adaptation will get a shock from this merciless collection, which opens with a story about the death of 64 people in a seaside accident and moves on briskly to other tales featuring starvation, dismemberment, evisceration, euthanasia, suicide, amputation, shooting, poisoning and incineration.

Sunk in its amplifying gloom, I found myself thinking of a passage in Haddon’s last (also fairly grim) novel, The Red House, in which an eight-year-old passes the time on a disastrous family holiday by planning his own work of literature. “It would be called A Hundred Horrible Ways to Die,” he muses, “and it would include torture and killing but not cancer.”

There is a good deal of sympathy in these economical pieces, but not much pity. The title story, first published in this paper, sets the tone. It is told in the present tense, and describes the collapse of a pier at a fictitious British seaside resort in 1970, balancing the unfolding horror of its events with a coolly detached, observational prose that creates a mood of eerie calm. “If you look through the black haystack of planks and beams,” Haddon writes, “you can see three figures thrashing in the dark water, a fourth floating face down and a fifth folded over a weed-covered beam. The rest are trapped underwater somewhere. Up on the pier a man hurls five lifebelts one after the other into the sea.” Later stories describe lives at various extremities of pain or grief, and with similar austerity. “Bunny” is about a 30-stone man feeding himself to death, “Breathe” about a woman tending her demented mother, “The Weir” about a divorcé who saves a mentally ill young woman from drowning. All of them share a distantly compassionate, vaguely medical tone, as though the author is relating news you may not wish to hear: it’s perhaps no surprise that doctors pop up with such frequency in Haddon’s work.

Several stories pay indirect homage to mythic or literary forerunners. “The Island” offers a refracted paraphrase of the story of Ariadne on Naxos, picking up shortly after Theseus’s ship sails off into the distance. In Haddon’s version, where none of the characters is named, the Minotaur is a deformed teenager, the king a brutal murderer and Ariadne a helpless teenager incapable of surviving in the wild. In the myth, she is discovered on Naxos by Dionysus, who marries her: here, the god of wine and ecstasy is a towering monster, covered in excrement, who rapes the helpless girl and then lets his Bacchantes rip her to pieces. It is told unflinchingly, though I could never quite work out whether Haddon’s flustered prose (“He is the only man she’s ever loved, and he has dumped her like ballast . . . She is off the heart’s map and her compass is spinning”) was in imitation of a lovestruck girl’s thoughts, or a rare crack in his usually undemonstrative and practical style.

“Wodwo”, one of the longer stories, provides another twist on an existing tale, in this case the 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here, too, Haddon remains silent about the inspiration, though an epigraph from Gawain lurks in forbidding Middle English at the beginning of the book. It opens on Christmas Eve at the Northamptonshire home of a retired neurosurgeon, where a session of posh family bickering is interrupted by the apparition of a gigantic stranger who demands to be blasted in the chest with a sawn-off shotgun. The subsequent humbling of its central character, who is no longer “gode Gawan” but Gavin, a blusteringly awful TV presenter, is a tale of slow decline, homelessness and eventual redemption that loses none of its weird and ghostly sheen from being dragged into a later age.

Other stories play quietly with the reader’s assumptions about their elected genres. “The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear” uses a setting out of H P Lovecraft or Edgar Rice Burroughs to tell its own, strangely truncated tale of loss and abandonment, as explorers in the jungle find cryptic warnings scrawled by a bottomless cave near the corpses of their predecessors. In “The Woodpecker and the Wolf”, a colonist on a remote planet contends with a string of grisly hazards – botched appendectomies, suicide by her colleagues, the abandonment of relief efforts, an unexpected pregnancy – before being rescued. As she returns with her child to a spookily idyllic Earth, however, the suspicion grows that things are not quite as comforting as we would like to believe: “There is,” Haddon writes, “something wrong with all this but she cannot put her finger on what it might be.”

That sentence might apply equally well to every story in this impressive but forbiddingly lightless collection. There’s no doubt about Haddon’s skill, but I haven’t read a glummer book in years. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster