diamond geezer

 Monday, April 14, 2003

Time travel

For work-related reasons I'm about to spend my next three nights in the middle of the West Country living in university accommodation. As a result I doubt I'll be able to post anything on here until at least Thursday. And it's not just my computer I'll be living without. Three nights living in university accommodation means a enforced step back in time to a completely pre-technological world I thought I'd left behind years ago. It's going to feel just like...

...just like 1986 (Halls of residence)
University accommodation was never ever known for its luxury. Rooms the size of shoeboxes crammed together in ugly concrete buildings. Single beds that never felt comfortable, and paper-thin walls through which you could hear your neighbour and their partner feeling less than comfortable as well. Someone in a room three doors along who insisted on playing the latest Dire Straits album over and over again at all hours of the day or night. A shared bathroom that always seemed to be engaged, and when you did finally gain access there was an unpleasant mass of hair that needed to be removed from the bath before the plug would fit. Communal kitchens where your milk always got nicked from the fridge overnight and with an ever-present pan of congealed lentils stuck to the hotplate. A single payphone at the end of a distant corridor, with everyone else listening in as you recounted to your parents everything you hadn't really been doing. I thought I'd left that impersonal world behind. Looks like I was wrong.
For the next three days I get to spend my life in university accommodation. No doubt the rooms are half the size they used to be, just to cram in all those additional students. No doubt the single bed will be the right size only for a twelve-year-old. No doubt someone in a room three doors down will have brought an accordion or something equally frightening with them to practice. No doubt the bathroom will be permanently occupied by people whose daily adult morning routine demands thirty minutes in the en suite as an absolute minimum. No doubt a lack of kettles will mean the kitchen is the only place I can make a cup of tea, and that still without milk. And maybe there won't even be any mobile reception and I'll be forced to feed the payphone with more 20p coins than I actually remembered to bring with me. Ah yes, university's the best time of your life, it's true.

...just like 1974 (pre-hi-fi)
Your parents may not agree, but buying your first hi-fi is an important step along the road to adulthood. No longer do you have to listen to what the rest of the family wants to listen to, but they have to listen to what you want to listen to. Usually at high volume, usually an excessive number of times. Clearly one's musical taste is still at a very formative stage at this point, which means I probably forced far too many Wombles records on my family, just as today's parents are likely to be living in despair at their offspring's S Club Junior obsession. These days the invention of auto-repeat means an even worse onslaught on the ears of the long suffering parent, but the invention of headphones also means that pre-teens can keep their endless Gareth Gates at least semi-private. If only children would think to plug them in and use them.
For the next three days I get to spend my life without a hi-fi and without my record collection. I shall no doubt be reminded how important music is as a backdrop to my everyday life, because for three days it won't be there. I've got my Walkman of course, but somehow it's not quite the same as a CD player with loudspeakers. Still, whoever's got the room next to mine through the paper-thin wall will no doubt be pleased by the sound of silence, even if it sounds remarkably unnatural to me.

...just like 1983 (pre-television)
I saved up after my first summer job to buy my very first portable television set. At last I could watch what I wanted, when I wanted, even at (or after) bedtime. It was a black and white set, combined with clock, radio and cassette recorder. The clock was great because I could set my alarm to wake up to Selina Scott on BBC Breakfast Time rather than Mike Read on Radio 1. The tape recorder was great because I could record TV programmes while I was out. OK, so there weren't any pictures to watch when I returned but, in a world before video recorders, this was still a huge personal advance. Thankfully UK Gold has since come along to finally allow me to see what pictures I'd been missing. And, in the days before remote controls, a small television right next to my bed allowed me to flick between two, three or even four channels without having to cross the room and press distant buttons instead. The day I bought that television was independence day, no doubt about it.
For the next three days I get to spend my life without television. Not that this is impossible, you understand, but I'm not used to it. Even at university I was one of a very few people to have their own television set and people used to come round to my room to watch it. It aided my developing social life no end. On one occasion a medical student came round to watch herself get knocked out on Blockbusters, and on another a biochemist came round to watch Anneka Rice fly over his farm on Treasure Hunt. Now Treasure Hunt is back on BBC2 all this week, which just seems like really bad timing to me. And without television what else is there to do in a lonely student room for three nights? Before any of you dare to suggest alternatives, let me just say I'm taking a pile of unread books and the latest copy of Word magazine with me instead. Fingers crossed it's enough.

...just like 1984 (pre-video)
My family first bought its video recorder nearly twenty years ago. I was particularly delighted because I was isolated on a canal barge holiday in darkest Warwickshire at the time, and I immediately rushed down to the nearest rural payphone to get my parents to record Threads for me. No more did I have to miss watching a programme merely because the schedulers had conspired to put it on while I was out of the house. Now the Radio Times was mine to rewrite, and rewrite it I did. And I still do.
For the next three days I get to spend my life relying on, but not watching, my video recorder. I hope I've set it properly, otherwise I'm going to come back to Hollyoaks instead of Treasure Hunt and that would never do.

...just like 1991 (pre-telephone)
Before I bought my first flat I'd never had a telephone line (and telephone bill) of my own. I'd shared a telephone, but in the days before call itemisation this always meant trying to argue that the huge bill was because one person had been ringing Australia every night and had absolutely nothing to do with me, so that my fair share of the bill was probably £6.50 rather than £65. It was a joy to finally achieve independence in my own flat with my own personal phone number, and to discover I could let the bill go above £6.50 without anyone else poking their nose in and asking why. No longer was I a prisoner of the telephone system. I was a number, I was a free man.
For the next three days I get to spend my life without a telephone. OK, so that's not entirely true, because the advent of the mobile phone means that I will still have personal contact with the world, a level of contact that would have been considered impossible even twelve years ago. I really must remember to take my charger with me and use up some of those rollover minutes.

...just like 1996 (pre-internet & email)
I can just about remember a world before the arrival of the internet. It was so much harder to find the answer to questions in those days. I seem to recall that to find out information you had to visit a building called a library. Libraries were places only open for three days a week, containing large-print Catherine Cookson novels and a small non-fiction section that may or may not have contained a book containing the answer to your query, if only you could work out how the card index classification actually worked. I also seem to recall that when you wanted to communicate with someone you had to write something called a letter. Younger readers may not remember, but these were commonplace in the 20th century. Letters involved writing your important and urgent question on a piece of paper, surrounding it with 'dear's and 'sincerely's, sticking this in an envelope, finding a stamp that actually cost money, leaving your house to walk to a postbox, then waiting two or more days to receive a reply which probably didn't even answer your query in the first place. How did we ever survive?
For the next three days I get to spend my life without the internet. I won't have search engines at my fingertips. I won't be able to send or check my email. I won't be able to read your blogs, or contribute to my own. I won't be able to chat to people online. I won't even be able to find out what's happening in the news without relying on a paper-based broadsheet last updated maybe up to thirty hours ago. I'm going to feel very disconnected. I may just survive, but just don't you dare go writing anything interesting online while I'm away, OK?

So, eighty hours of enforced technological withdrawal begins this morning. No kettle, no CD player, no television, no videos, no computer, no internet, no email. Just a Walkman to plug myself into and the odd text message to keep me in touch with the rest of the world. I guess I'll be forced to end up in the bar because there'll be bugger all else to do. Ah well, might not be too bad then...


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