Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Ambridge too far


It’s been a sad week for my mother. One of her beloved guinea pigs died (“We didn’t phone you,” she said, “because we assumed you would see our tribute on Twitter”) and in another cruel twist of technological fate, the BBC announced that it was closing its messageboard for The Archers.

The argument goes that they’re “moving away” from the forum set up, focusing their energy and budget on the bigger, generic social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, with blogs for the lucky few. The last remaining radio messageboard in the Beeb’s online armoury, The Archers’ lovingly-nicknamed ‘Mustardland’ (it’s yellow) attracts around 10,000 visitors and 1,000 regular posters every month. In general terms it’s not a huge audience, but its importance to that audience can’t be underestimated.

Threads reach way beyond the confines of rural Ambridge; every possible topic of modern life, culture and society have been dissected by the community of eager, opinionated listeners. There are regular real-life meet-ups with hundreds of attendees. There have been Archers messageboard marriages. Members of the Archers messageboard have joined forces to transport someone across the country to reach a dying relative. And I know all of this because for years now, my mum has been one of them. 

It’s taken her almost a decade to make the small but significant progress from “owning a mobile phone” to “turning on a mobile phone,” and yet she’s quietly become queen of the forum. She’s made friends, given professional advice, battled trolls and used acronyms I’ve never even heard before. It’s perfectly usual for her to start sentences with, “Well, they’re saying on the Archers messageboard…”. When the site closes at the end of this month, she’ll be genuinely a bit bereft.

It’s easy to assume that internet devotion is a young person’s game. Sure, our parents and grandparents have embraced it as a practicality, a means to book holidays, buy presents, do the food shop, trace the family tree… but surely it’s only those of us who came of age with the web who understand the comfort and community that can be found behind a bright, warm computer screen? 

After all, if I had a pound for every time one of my elders had made a sarky comment about digital followers not being ‘real’ friends and Facebook functionality hardly worthy of dinner table conversation, I might be able to afford better broadband. 

But just like the sarky elders, that attitude is both patronising and just plain wrong. From activism to craft lovers and fantasy fan fiction enthusiasts, wherever there are shared interests, there’s the potential for community – we’re just building it through the sparky, far-reaching realms of the internet rather than a draughty village hall somewhere.

Messageboards may not be the BBC’s imagined future, but who would have thought radio would be either? I’d listen to your fans if I were you, Beeb – they’ve got a keyboard and a wireless router and a nice cup of tea, and they’re not afraid to use them.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

In which love is not a marmalade sandwich

Happy Valentine’s Day, darling readers. You look wonderful, by the way. Did you do something new with your hair? Oh, you washed it. Well it’s working for you, keep it up!

Last year I received my first ever Valentine’s card that wasn’t from my father or a corporation wooing me as “Dear potential money-spender”, so forgive me for looking smug. After a shaky 23-year start, I’m pretty much on a Valentine’s roll. I’ve even taken the day off work to cook lamb shanks, the slowest of all food, and bought a dress with hearts all over it. Later I might put on some Sade and have a bath. Of course I haven’t had a bath since 2006, but if you recline dreamily in a shower, you fall over.

The Valentine’s Day before last was a disaster, of course. “But I didn’t even know you liked flowers,” he said earnestly while I wrestled with my tears outside the Odeon. “EVERYBODY likes flowers,” I spat back. “They’re flowers. That’s like, not liking a sunset. Or a kitten in a watering can. Or Judi Dench.”

“Do you want a kitten in a watering can?” he replied. “Is that what I’m supposed to have bought you?”

And that was how I discovered that I am not too cool for Valentine’s Day. Many of us try, of course, but few truly have the steely, ice-hearted resolve needed to look a day specially devoted to love and affection and snogging and being told you’re lovely right in the face and say, “Pffft. Lame.” Commercialised crap it might be, but so are Cadbury’s crème eggs and don’t try telling me you’ve never looked into their yellow and white fondant hearts and briefly thought, “this is true happiness.”

There was the Valentine’s Day at uni where I swore I was happy doing nothing, then baked a chocolate cake the size of my head and wept into my Collected Works of Chaucer alone at the kitchen table for three hours. There was the one where the object of my crush asked me out, only for us to end up eating marmalade sandwiches and playing Monopoly with his sister.

And then there were all the others; the juvenile years of hoping to find a pink envelope snuck into my desk or classroom tray (I never did, which is fine because looking back on it, I was… well, a child) followed by the four-year tumbleweed of high school, during which our likeliest male Valentine was the caretaker’s son, to whom we had never spoken and about whom we, naturally, made up a two-verse song.

But all along the way I must have known that at some point I’d get to make lamb shanks for a non-imaginary man, while wearing a dress with hearts all over it. Now I’m crossing my fingers for a sunset, a kitten in a watering can, Judi Dench or all of the above - but flowers will do.



Tuesday, 5 February 2013

In which Knowles bowls us over

image: alancross.ca

I’m writing this on Monday evening, having spent the day in a sort of Beyoncé trance. Or Beyoncé trancé, if you will. My knowledge of the Superbowl still doesn’t extend any further than “weird rugby with more adverts than action”, but I’ve watched Beyoncé’s half time performance five times in a bid to learn all the choreography.

It was a performance that made you want to go beyond the bounds of conventional description and use adjectives you would usually use to talk about a ship, or a particularly fine showjumper. Magnificent. Tremendous.  An absolute triumph of stagecraft, vocal gymnastics, and actual gymnastics. A rendition of Halo that made me cry at my desk. And thighs. A pair of thighs like no other, except actually enough like lots of other thighs to have women round the world sighing and reaching happily for a Twix.

As true, solid gold megastars go, they don’t come much finer than B – she’s the perfect recipe of talent, production, mystery (was she really flashing Illuminati symbols during that performance, or was she just having a nice stretch?), down-to-earth-ness (the Tumblr of home photos that featured at least three vaguely unflattering angles) and having shimmering skin that looks as if it would taste like a Werther’s Original.

But of course this means that just like all other solid gold megastars, for everything she does that you love, there will be another thing that makes you squint at a computer screen and go, “Whaaaa?”

This week, that trade off is Beyoncé storming the Superbowl (hurrah!) then announcing she’s coming to perform in the UK in April (hurrah!) as part of a tour called… The Mrs Carter Show. And there’s the “whaaa?”.

Mrs Carter? Oh yes. You’re married, we get it. He liked, it, so he put a ring on it. Sigh.

I’ll accept that despite being a celebrity of stratospheric influence, it isn’t her responsibility to personally empower each young female fan in the world. She didn’t sign up for that. Fine. But it’s frustrating to see someone who could be such a powerful force for feminism make so many odd concessions.

Like last month’s interview for American GQ, in which she declared, “I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men,” next to a seven-page spread in which she’s almost naked throughout. So near… and yet actually quite far.

Make no mistake, it’s not about saying what she should and shouldn’t do – just “wouldn’t it be fantastic if she did, and didn’t?” One day soon, perhaps, Beyoncé will push it further and make the kind of statement that really will help us Run the World (Girls).

But for now, at least we can sit back and enjoy the show.