Friday, 27 January 2012

Our household gods

Lares et penates; the household gods. We think of God as a single, omnipotent presence; but if you were Roman, you had your own gods, the gods of your household. Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, were all very well, but it was the household gods who had to be propitiated every day, and the ancestors, whose masks were kept in the house.

In India, too, there are household gods; Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, guards thresholds and ensures wealth, or Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune and learning. Near me in Norwich, an Indian cafe has a little Krishna shrine in it, just the way it might have a Cats Protection League calendar on the wall. In a house just outside Aleppey, where I waited for my canoe to pick me up, I took tea under the watchful eyes of two Krishnas and a hologrammed Shirdi Sai Baba, as the portable TV flickered.

That's the great thing about household gods. We worship them but we also take them for granted. They're not distant, transcendent gods, but involved with the business of our lives - the baking, the banking, the sweeping of the floor, the joys and the sorrows and even the frustrations.

In Russian Orthodox homes there's a 'red corner' for the ikons. Protestantism, alas, offers no household gods, but instead an all-seeing eye to watch for and punish transgression. It's unforgiving in that way. Nor is a pious text a household god; you can't go to a text and ask it for help, nor weep in front of it. You end up making your own little shrines, of dead butterflies or airfix skeletons or collections of shed cats' claws, whatever it is, some kind of magic like the mummified cat built into the wall in the Aitre Saint-Maclou, in Rouen.

I suppose the Athena poster of the girl in tennis whites scratching her arse would be understood as a household god by any earth-visiting Martian with half a degree in ethnology.

But the days of our household gods are numbered. There's a new shrine on the block. The television first replaced the hearth; it became the centre of the household - so obviously where people have excavated the chimneybreast to put a screen there instead. (O tempora, o mores: I remember sitting in an inglenook in a friend's home in Somerset, reading in the warmth for an entire afternoon, undisturbed.) Now, it's replaced the household gods, too. We give our lives over to Big Brother instead of Ganesh, Nigella Lawson instead of Lakshmi.

We need better gods.

Friday, 13 January 2012

The anti-technology backlash

Technology is a wonderful thing. But from helping us to achieve what we wanted to in life, it has started to fill our lives with things that it wants us to do. Facebook is useful when you want to organise a rehearsal schedule, or communicate with friends in another country. When you end up sitting in the pub looking at Facebook instead of talking to the person next to you, it's stopped assisting and started taking over.

Mobile phones. Wonderful things, except for people who expect me to have it turned on at all times and take calls at three in the morning. Except for marketers who want to send me relentless texts flogging some damn crap or other.

It's perhaps not surprising that we have something of a technology backlash. For instance The Artist has looked at James Cameron's idea that 3D is the future of cinema and said "I don't think so" - let's go back to the silent screen, to black and white, to simplicity. There's a real wilfulness in this - it's partly looking back to a more innocent and simple age in the way of recession-driven nostalgia through the ages, but also I think it's a refusal of technological capabilities that have come to seem too fussy, too overwhelming. (I really hated Avatar; it made me feel seasick, and my eardrums were simply crushed by the overdone soundtrack.)
Vinyl fans are pushing sales of vinyl records back up to levels last seen in the 1980s. A number of photographers and film makers are also heading back to the old tech. There are even those who are adapting their digital cameras as pinhole cameras, to work with the potential of a very limited technology indeed; blurry photos, often in greyscale, where the smeary, blurred nature of the image enables them to focus on atmosphere, to create photographs of incredible abstraction, like Chinese calligraphy.
I have no intention at all of reverting to longhand for my travel writing or novels. The computer has become part of my writing practice; I draft the plot within the document, then start writing the chapters within that plotted structure, gradually replacing the sketch by the worked-out version. But when I'm working on poetry, or thinking out vocabulary and characterisation, for some reason I naturally want to do that on paper. Journal keeping, too, wants a pen; on the PC I can't doodle, play with calligraphy or form, put little drawings in the margin.
And I utterly abhor technology in writing implements. Felt tip and ball pen are alike abominable (except when I'm travelling, and even then I'm picky about the pens I use - either one-euro mauve transparent plastic fountain pens I bought in a sale at Carrefour a few years back, of which I have about twenty, or little Rotring-style disposables). But at home, it's fountain pens; Waterman or Cross, since though I might aspire to a Duofold, my stingy Puritan heart won't let me pay three hundred quid for a pen; or sometimes, an ancient calligraphy pen with a broad nib, that makes swash capitals just the way I like them...
The anti-tech backlash is definitely with us. It seems to be driven by the same desires as the craft and the slow food movement; the desire to feel the real natural material in your hands, not to be alienated or distanced from it, the desire to disintermediate oneself, in a way. The act of writing and the writing itself are linked in a very intimate way by the stream of ink, in a way they aren't when you type on a keyboard.
And I think there's also a desire not to be distracted; to liberate oneself from the flickering fascinations of Facebook and Twitter and Perez Hilton, from the excessive photo-realism of the Photoshopped three-dimensional oversaturated picture, and be able instead to focus on the essence - a mood expressed in a haiku, the silhouette of a mountain, the monochrome lines of a sculpture, the effect of light shining on a grey day.
This of course has nothing to do with real tech refuseniks such as the Amish, or Jehovah's Witnesses who eschew blood transfusions. It's not a religious principle but an aesthetic one; but having been part of some art cultures for a while, I'm wondering whether the anti-tech backlash is now becoming mainstream.