It appears I am starting to get to the age where some aspects of modern life irritate me more than is healthy. I wallow in nostalgia with greater regularity than I used to, and find myself starting sentences with “Yes, but in the olden days…” I despaired at a recent retro-inspired Father’s Day buffet, where my youngest sibling not only admitted he had never seen a studded cheese and pineapple hedgehog before, but then had to ask what to do in order to eat it. That’s a child of the nineties for you.
But one of the very wonderful things about the modern times we live in, is social media, and in particular, Twitter. To be very brief, Twitter is a constant update of feelings, opinions, information and wider internet links, from whomever you feel like following. It brings people together instantly, and tends to allow the barriers between ‘famous’ and ‘normal’ people to slip once in a while.
Luddites opposed to such types of communication, often decry Twitter as being boring and irrelevant. Comments along the lines of “I have no interest in knowing what Simon Pegg is having for his lunch” give the impression that some people think that this is all Twitter can be. An ongoing, regularly updated account of the mundane eating habits of people they have never met. But it is SO MUCH MORE than that. Here are two reasons why.
• Having a limit of 140 characters encourages succinct comments, and little waffle. People have to be funnier, or demonstrate greater clarity and ‘cut to the chase’ quicker. Alternatively, they can post links to sites you would never have found but are glad you now have.
• You choose who you follow. They don’t have to accept you (unless they’re using the mostly unnecessary privacy settings) you simply follow them. You create your own community that is just for you. My own self-created community keeps me informed of breaking news stories, (@BBCbreaking) the death of any well-known figure via a fake Princess Diana account, (@DianaInHeaven) and all comment pieces in a range of daily papers, written by my favourite writers (@charltonbrooker, @caitlinmoran, @MarinaHyde, @KiraCochrane).
Occasionally it becomes apparent, however, that one of the downsides of Twitter is that it is easy to forget that the information and opinion with which you are regularly updated, can be a little one-sided. With the vast amount of left-wing articles and opinions I was reading in the run up to the General Election in 2010, it was obvious to me that the Lib Dems were going to romp home with a massive overall majority, and free University tuition would no longer be consigned to the history books. It was something of a shock to find that my Twitter timeline did not reflect the mood of the nation. Now, I have no intention of seeking out some BNP Tweeters just to provide balance, but now and then I just need to remind myself that perhaps I am not seeing the whole picture.
Yet, on Wednesday of this week, I really hoped I was being presented with the whole picture. It seemed Clive James had been speaking on a Radio 4 programme about his terminal cancer, and had stated that he was ‘getting near the end’ of his life. My Twitter timeline of journos, writers, comedians and general media types sprang into a Clive James love-fest. Famous people tweeted about the wonderful qualities of the man they knew; writers declared he was the reason they began their craft; mere mortals posted links to their favourite poems, or essays that they loved. His name was trending throughout the UK, and if you clicked on the hashtag, there was even more - a feast of word-meat into which to sink your teeth. It appeared to be, and I hoped it really was the case, that the world was grateful for the existence of this man. Not just a one-sided liberally minded collection of arty-farty people, but the larger world beyond my like-minded little collection of tweeters.
I think, however, that Clive James is more than just a brilliant writer, comedian, poet, scholar and all round good-egg as has been the picture created by this week’s Twitterverse. He symbolises a bygone age of media creativity. He was on TV and in the papers before dumbing down began, before reality TV became engrained, before TOWIE and its ilk became part of the vernacular and before twenty-four hour, easily accessible, hardcore porn was available to everyone. He was there when wit and intelligence were enough to be featured on prime time TV. New Year with Jools Holland is great but there was nothing like watching the year’s round-up when it was presented by Clive James. Belly laughs, satire, poignancy and Big Ben. (It pisses all over a seemingly bladdered Cyndi Lauper, who kept me company last New Year’s Eve.)
I question sometimes whether Twitter is part of the cause of this plunging common denominator. Has reducing everything to 140 characters - occasionally forcing even the linguistically puritanical like myself to write ‘R’ instead of ‘are’ (oh, the shame) – meant that the beauty of language has been lost? Has word-play and poetry become pointless and time consuming, creating an unnecessary barrier to the actual point? (Just like the realisation that it is much less faff to bung a bowl of mini sausages on a buffet table, than to spear them individually with a cocktail stick, arrange them symmetrically on a grapefruit and then watch people juggle a wine glass and potato-salad laden flimsy plate in one hand, whilst using their other to prise a stick of meat out of a citrus fruit.) Has Twitter contributed to the loss of the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the written and spoken word because people can't be arsed? Though at times it may feel as though this is the case, after clicking on #clivejames yesterday, I was led to link after link of virtuoso writing – too much to read all at once – but evidence of the treasure trove that is the body of his work – work that will ultimately outlive him. Twitter led me to this. Good old Twitter.
Taking the opportunity to read some of his TV reviews yesterday, (like this one about Beyonce) it is easy to forget how far the intellectual bar has been lowered in recent years. Clive James is a link to an era when it was accepted that the viewing and reading public had a brain, and that they were willing to use it to engage with material presented to them. If you want a reminder of that time, or if you have no concept of what that must have been like due to an almost force-fed diet of Mail Online and Cowellian gruel then you could do a lot worse than dip into the great man’s website. Just don’t be surprised if your brain kicks in and cogs start to whir. It happened to me yesterday. Don’t worry, you’ll like it. It’s retro.