The cultural riches online are seemingly infinite - will they be there forever? Photogragh: Erik Söderström on Flickr via Creative Commons
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What’s the rush? Why the internet means we never get round to doing anything

Speed is of the essence in the online world but faced with the Aladdin’s cave of cultural riches, one’s response is invariably one of sluggishness, of planning for a putative future that will never come.

Returning to Dublin last Christmas I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen in several years and who had moved into my old apartment when I upped sticks and went back to Paris almost a decade ago. I had left a few things “in storage” in the apartment, notably some couple of hundred vinyl records, most of them charting my various lurches and lapses in musical taste throughout the nineties and early noughties. I had intended coming back to collect them within a year or so. Of course, I left it for years and when I asked my friend Ivan if he had brought them with him on his last house move, he grimaced uncomfortably. Vincent, my former French flatmate, who also lived with Ivan, had claimed squatter’s rights on them and carted them off to the new home in the suburbs he had bought with his fiancée. They were gone but not quite.

After initially resolving to get them back – there were, after all, first pressings of The Who’s Magic Bus, By Numbers and Who’s Next, a gatefold White Album, copies of Blue Train, My Favorite Things, Sketches of Spain and Birth of the Cool, compilations of old Italian movie soundtracks, among numerous less exalted items – I desisted. Part of it might have been down to the embarrassment of calling, just to recover my property, an ex-flatmate I had never bothered contacting in the intervening years. Part of it had to do with my carelessness at what ought to have been precious cargo. In the main though it was because I was listening to practically all of those records in either mp3 form or on music streaming sites like Spotify or Grooveshark. So what if the sound quality is markedly inferior; so what if I had finally got hold of a turntable after years without one in Paris? I was able to listen to them and they weren’t taking up space in a small Paris apartment where the placing of every object entailed an ergonomic cost-benefit analysis before going ahead with it. Though I could well have reclaimed my records, I just didn’t see the point. For years I had figured there was no rush. And there still wasn’t.

Another friend, back in the late nineties, had remarked to me that buying a film on VHS or DVD signals the death knell for your interest in it. Freed of the impetus to watch a rental copy before you rack up a load of late fees, you never get around to watching the thing. It will sit on your shelf beside the TV for years, testament merely to your judgement, exquisite or wretched, when you have people round. The amount of films, music and books in circulation has exploded since the advent of Web 2.0 (I remember hauling home from the States NTSC copies of old films that were impossible to find on PAL as well as setting the VCR to record similarly elusive movies broadcast late-night on BBC2 or Channel 4). There is such an abundance of stuff out there, much of it hidden in plain sight of copyright lawyers on YouTube, that you don’t know where to start. I have discovered films by Chris Marker, Buñuel, and Fassbinder free to watch online, queued them up in a playlist for future viewing, forgotten about them and returned six months later to find them, not surprisingly gone, those copyright lawyers having caught up with them.

Speed is of the essence in the online world but faced with the Aladdin’s cave of cultural riches, one’s response is invariably one of sluggishness, of planning for a putative future that will never come. You become as dynamic as the Lotus Eaters blissfully wasted on the beach. Your attention span collapses alarmingly – you groan upon discovering that this interesting-looking online article goes on for five, six, seven, eight, nine pages; you look through your Twitter favourites to find links that you once starred and vowed to get around to reading but are already irrevocably dated; you clip articles you intend to use for work but never do, recipes you want to cook but that you will never taste; you download The Scarlet and the Black and The Brothers Karamazov from the Gutenberg Project, because, you know, they’re free. You have the best intentions but you think “what’s the rush?”

Years of moving between different countries have cured me of an earlier acquisitiveness for physical things, with only my book-buying being a residue of that habit (and, even then, I will gladly offload at least half of them next time I move). I’ve never felt the need to queue overnight for concert tickets (much less pay someone else to do it); it’s a long time since I went out and bought a new album on the day of its release; I was late getting to The Wire and Breaking Bad and have yet to watch any of Mad Men; though I watch many films on their cinema release (there’s no better city in the world than Paris for doing that), I rarely rush to watch advance previews during film festivals (and I really couldn’t be arsed subjecting myself to Cannes). I’m pretty sure this lack of urgency has been entrenched by exposure to the cultural bounties of the world wide web, though it may well be that the overwhelming array of choice has displaced any omnivorous cultural habits I might have into a harmless virtual space.

And then you wonder if it will be there forever? There are warnings that information stored online is subject to erosion, decay and physical obsolescence as much as anything in hard copy. There is already ample material that leads a lonesome existence out there in the online wilds – the web app, Forgotify will summon up at random one of the four million songs never before listened to on Spotify and play it for you. And what happens if the likes of YouTube, Dropbox, Evernote, iTunes or Spotify go tits up overnight? Will an entire generation of web users tell their children that they lost everything in the Great Cloud Computing Crash of 2031? Will we be left to go scuttling back to the handful of old CDs still knocking about in the attic, to the unwatched, undesired DVDs we received long ago as stocking fillers, to the last extant print editions of newspapers or magazines? I’m reminded of Patrick Kavanagh’s words, in his poem, “Advent”:

We have tested and tasted too much, lover
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.

I’m not exactly endorsing Kavanagh’s prescribed religious austerity but I do sometimes think that, given the abundance of online riches, I would be happy to settle for less. For a while anyway. It’d certainly make life easier getting round to watching it or reading it.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue