TV binds us culturally, whether we like it or not

The box populi can tell us a lot about our current state. And I'm on TV's side.

Open Joe Moran’s new book about television, Armchair Nation, and – unless you’re one of those muddle-headed people who disdain TV (I will return to them shortly) – you will find a lot to love. Impeccably researched, it demolishes several myths: Kenneth Tynan was not, it seems, the first person to say “f***” on television; nor was Gilbert Harding the first man to grow tearful. As for the Morecambe and Wise Show 1977 Christmas special that we all remember so fondly, it was beaten in the ratings on the night by Mike Yarwood pretending to be Harold Wilson. Perhaps the most admirable thing about this book is that it treats television with proper seriousness.

Yes, TV is ephemeral – in Moran’s words, it’s “a lost world of spent effort, used-up enjoyment and forgotten boredom”. And yes, it has its share of sillinesses, though Moran, a professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, thankfully pays Neighbours, Rainbowand One Man and His Dog rather less attention than certain other TV “historians” do (he doesn’t mention Rainbowat all).

Nevertheless, as he recognises, it is still the nearest thing that we have to cultural glue: here is a medium that gives us not only pleasure but solace. You can make all the jokes you like about the hippie who used to present Fingerbobs, but the box in the corner – or the flat screen on the wall – was then and is now our library, our church, our town square, our friend.

I feel strongly about television. I’m on its side. I can’t understand it when people complain about the licence fee, which seems to me to be the greatest bargain on earth, and a sort of queasiness is apt to come over me should someone tell me loftily that they “never watch television”, that they allow their children to gawp within strictly limited hours only, or that they consider it the root of all evil (the clinical psychologist Oliver James regards TV as “the engine room” of a “psychic holocaust”).

I owe television so much. Far from taking me away from books, it brought me to them. Granada Television’s 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited changed my life. It wasn’t only that it led me to read Evelyn Waugh; it triggered a fantasy (which in the end became a reality) that I might one day apply to a grand university – me, the girl whose teachers insisted would be lucky to make it to a poly. (For the record, my husband says the same thing: it was the BBC’s adaptation of the Palliser novels that turned him into a Trollope-reading child.)

Moran’s book notes more than once that television is a balm for the lonely and unhappy. “I am a widow and live by myself,” an elderly woman once said to Peter Ling, the co-creator of the much-mocked soap opera Crossroads. “I have no family and I get very lonely, but every day I watch Crossroads. I live with Meg and all the others.” I have first-hand experience of this, too, because my granny was addicted to what she called, endearingly, her “stories”. Sometimes she and I used to watch them together, tutting loudly over our tea.

When I was a teenager, a war was going on in my house, rows it was best not to hear. So, by way of cotton wool in my ears, I watched television. This was soothing but it also provided a kind of sanity: what people now call “emotional intelligence”. I often think about a BBC series I watched in this period – Late Starter, starring Peter Barkworth as a retired lecturer whose divorce had left him penniless, with the result that he had to begin all over again in a bedsit. It was absorbing and so humane, the world of adult misery unpicked for me, like a knot. All I want, when I begin watching a new series now, is to feel as I did then: lost, transported, my scalp prickling distractedly.

It irks me to see how little some of our current critics seem actually to like television. No one would employ an art writer who loathed painting as a matter of principle, or an architecture correspondent who couldn’t care less about skylines and sprawl. Yet you can almost smell the dislike coming off the columns of certain TV writers; they’re glad to have the gig but they don’t love the medium, or not the way I seem to love it (with a certain old-fashioned solemnity).

Perhaps they worry about the company such a fondness would have them keeping but, if so, they are quite wrong. The thing I love best about Moran’s book is his roll-call of telly-loving intellectuals. Here is George Mackay Brown, the Orcadian poet, thrilled at the return of All Creatures Great and Small; and here is Paul Theroux, delighted to catch sight of the poster for the film of his novel The Mosquito Coast in Rita Fairclough’s newsagents; and here, best of all, is Raymond Williams enjoying Sportsnight With Coleman. Men after my own heart, all three of them.

Children watch television in 1988. Image: Getty

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

Vanessa Lubach
Show Hide image

Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth

Fiona Mozley’s debut novel digs deep into the psycho-geology of Yorkshire. 

In the autumn of 616 or 617 AD, one of the last remaining Celtic kingdoms of ancient Britain to withstand Anglo-Saxon settlement was conquered by its Northumbrian neighbours. Elmet, which covered what is now the West Riding of Yorkshire, was referred to by Bede as “silva Elmete” (“forest of Elmet”), with its devastation verified by the Historia Brittonum, which claimed that Edwin, the king of Northumbria, “occupied Elmet and expelled Certic, king of that country”. In 1979, several years before becoming poet laureate, the Celtic obsessive Ted Hughes collaborated with the photographer Fay Godwin on Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence, a book that evoked the “spectacular desolation” of the Calder Valley where he grew up, a landscape saturated with myth and memory.

There is more than a hint of Hughes’s shamanistic unleashing of the power of language in Elmet, Fiona Mozley’s debut novel, a work of troubling beauty that has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. At once spare and ornate, Mozley’s writing digs deep into what could be termed the psycho-geology of Yorkshire, much as Alan Garner’s work does with Cheshire: the intermittent glimpses of vanished lives from centuries earlier alongside those of the present day, the trauma of past upheaval and resettlement echoing along the dark valleys.

Elmet, for all its formality and ritual style, has a modern setting but appears to inhabit a space that is outside time. Opening with a ragged account from a survivor of a savage act of destruction, the narrative moves back to the events leading up to the routing of a smallholding held by the 14-year-old Daniel and his conspicuously small family: his sister, Cathy, and their father, John, always referred to as “Daddy” or “my Daddy”.

Daddy is a giant of a man, worshipped by both children, “more vicious and more kind than any leviathan of the ocean… His music pitched above the hearing of hounds and below the trembling of trees.” Far from being carried away on a crescendo of poetic whimsy, however, the book is firmly rooted in stark realities. Daddy is a violent man, who makes his living from bare-knuckle fighting.

Having removed his children from school, he sets about building a house in a remote copse on land that he does not own. Lawless, but then so is Price, the most powerful and ruthless of the unscrupulous local landlords who dominate this ex-mining area of subsistence-level existence. The battle between Price and John is decades old, with links to the children’s vanished mother, and is as much a battle for the soul of an individual as for a plot of land. It is this agonising constriction, like one of the hunter’s bows John stretches to tautness, that Mozley emphasises.

If John is the “Robyn Hode” of legend, Cathy and Daniel are his “scrawny vagrants”, running wild in the ancient forest that surrounds their home. It is a hard life but, in Mozley’s telling, an enchanted one: rich and gamey with dark cuts of animals hunted for food, cider and roll-ups, singing till dawn and “skylarks on toast, almost whole, with mugs of hot, milky tea”. Daddy has built a fortress and a flawed paradise, in which Cathy – a mixture of Brontë-esque wilfulness (the name is surely no coincidence) and fearless warrior princess, with hair as “black as Whitby jet” and eyes “blue like the North Sea” – strives to protect her younger brother.

However, even as their precarious shelter is under siege, Daniel and Cathy are changing. Cathy is most resistant to adaptation. Like Daddy, she had “an outside sort of head”; like him, she is a loner. Daniel, though, is drawn to the world of learning and culture, as demonstrated by Vivien, an unlikely acquaintance of Daddy who gives the children informal lessons. Vivien influences Daniel in other ways, too, for this is a novel about not conforming to stereotypes, be they gendered or otherwise. Daniel’s long hair and sense of curiosity and delight in his body contrast with Cathy’s awkwardness in hers, her fatalistic awareness that as a woman she is vulnerable, a target: “We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine,” she tells him, just before the book’s violent culmination.

Brutal, bleak, ethereal, Mozley’s novel combines parable with urgent contemporary truths about dispossession and exploitation. Reading Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth: centuries old, yet as fresh as today. 

Elmet
Fiona Mozley
JM Originals, 320pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear