Call home

You can listen to my inexpert reading of this blog post here

Do you know Bill Forsyth’s film Local Hero? It dates from 1983 and centres on a remote Scottish community whose environment and way of life is threatened by an offshore oil project. The American company sends a confident young executive to scout out the prospects and he, of course, learns to value the seemingly out of date world the oil company would sweep away. The symbol of the distance between Texas and northern Scotland is the red phone box on the quayside, which is the only way the American can report to his boss. It comes to symbolise the distance in miles, time and culture between these worlds and plays an unforeseen role in saving everything in the end.

Recently, I’ve been thinking what it would be like to be living through this confinement in the 1980s. I had a phone in the house by then, but calls were expensive (at least on a community artist’s wages) and so were made sparingly. Love letters were still a thing, and on paper. Making art was equally physical: it depended on paper, ink, paint, wood, nails, PVA, musical instruments, sewing machines – hands and bodies, as much as hearts and minds. Even making a photograph involved swirling chemicals in trays while the image slowly emerged.

This isn’t nostalgia, just recognition of how much has changed. The past two weeks have seen an explosion of creative resistance to being forced to stay indoors (I’m avoiding the ugly term ‘lockdown’ with its aggressive connotations). The National Theatre’s production of One Man Two Guvnors premièred on YouTube last night and has already gained almost 900,000 views. You can now take virtual tours of the world’s great museums, watch famous orchestras play live, and, of course, stream just about any film to your home (probably including Local Hero). Clive James saw this nearly 15 years ago:

There was never the time like now to be a lover of the arts. Mozart never heard most of Bach. We can hear everything by both of them. Brahms was so bowled over by Carmen that he saw twenty performances, but he had to buy twenty opera tickets to do so. Manet never saw all of his paintings in one place: we can. While Darcey Bussell dances at Covent Garden, the next Darcey Bussell can watch her from Alice Springs.

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, 2007, p. xxi

This creative offer is not limited to consumption. Social media platforms enable people to share their creative ideas in a myriad ways, and there is endless encouragement for us to be creative in our own homes. One friend, in his 70s, has joined a neighbourhood choir, whose sixty members sing together via Zoom (he tells me the choirmaster says the standard has improved because he can now mute the poor singers). 64 Million Artists invites us to ‘Create to Connect’ through a programme of ‘fun, free and accessible’ challenges to do at home. And non-professional musicians, comedians and artists are sharing original work online that is sometimes of an exceptional standard.

But what if we still lived in the 1980s? What if our only connection was an unreliable landline phone? For many people, that is exactly how things are. In France, it’s estimated that there are at least 500 zones blanches without either mobile phone coverage nor broadband. It’s not just culture that is unavailable: teleworking, home schooling and medical consultations are frustrating or impossible here. Others have no access because they are poor or have no fixed address: the libraries and internet cafés that offered a safety net are closed. And still others cannot master the technology that most take for granted, for reasons of age, disability or other difficulties. This is a new form of cultural exclusion and it is no more acceptable than the old ones.

To their credit, the Fun Palaces team have launched #TinyRevolutions, a campaign to connect with people offline, with new ideas added each day. The work is online, but can be printed and distributed on paper: crucially, the activities themselves don’t depend on complex technology. Other things are happening too, as people turn their windows into galleries or organise dancing in the streets. Since the internet is my only way of knowing this, I’m sure there’s much more going on that I’m unaware of, small offline initiatives of every kind.

If this were the 1980s, I think I’d turn to the phone as a way to keep the connections open – after all, it’s physical not social distancing we need to observe. Story was our first virtual reality tool. Before the book, it had no physical existence at all. We all know stories, our own and ones we’ve heard, and we can all get better at telling them. So here’s an idea.

Invite people to join a storytelling circle: five or six might be enough to get started, but it could grow. Each day, one person calls one other person to tell them a story. It might be an old one (a fairy story or an old myth), one they’ve read or seen (a favourite book or film), something personal (a childhood memory or a first love perhaps). It might be entirely made up, with aliens, dragons or gangsters: it doesn’t matter. The second person calls the third to tell them the same story, in their own words, adjusting it as they wish. And so it goes round until the story comes back to the person who first told it, embellished, cut, transformed, renewed. Next day, the second person in the circle starts the story. It doesn’t have to be by phone, of course: it could be done over the garden fence, two metres apart. But there’s something intimate about the voice in your ear that might give us confidence to tell richer, better, truer stories. No one will overhear us.

In Local Hero story extends to the phone box itself, which was a prop brought in by the film company. The film was shot in Pennan, in Aberdeenshire, and when tourists started to visit the location, BT was persuaded to install a real phone box, which was subsequently listed. It can’t ever have had much used, except from tourists calling home to tell people where they were, and in 2015, the local MP was calling for its conservation. Thus does fiction become reality.