Artillery Row

Getting a television changed my life

Living without a TV had several notable side-effects: we’d read more, and sometimes, even have conversations

“I know quite intelligent people who don’t read,” my friend Frank wrote to me recently, from South Carolina. He’d seen a piece of mine about the dangers of bibliomania and attached to his message was a quote from a Chinese inventor, linguist, novelist, philosopher and translator: something syrupy about “the magic of reading”.

Wondering, as I often do, about the messy relationship between reading and intellect, I told him I go a bit nuts if I haven’t picked up a book for a day or two. My brain feels frazzled, and I have trouble keeping my balance, like I’m paralytically drunk. “Not reading affects my ability to walk,” I said. “I’m not sure if that’s normal.”

Frank declined to comment, and we got to talking about TV. “I would rather read than watch TV,” he said. “In the eight weeks my wife was in Canada this summer, I never had the TV on once. We have five TVs, but I just ignore them.”

Ignoring five TVs struck me as genuinely impressive, and I said as much. I know that I couldn’t do it, because I’ve recently allowed a TV into my life for the first time in three years.

When I moved to Buenos Aires in 2017, my girlfriend had travelled ahead of me and miraculously secured us an apartment. “We pay monthly, in cash,” she said on the phone as I waited by the gate at Heathrow. “Bricks of it. Just don’t ask any questions.”

I couldn’t help asking her what our new place was like, and she led with the rooftop pool and jacuzzi, playing on my weaknesses. “The shower’s nice and powerful,” she added, “we have a terrific bidet, and the building’s located in a pretty, if somewhat trendy, barrio.”

I could sense there was more, but I was busy picturing myself perched in the rooftop jacuzzi with a glass of Fernet-Branca.

“Wooden floors, decent balcony, a porter in the attractive, plant-lined lobby. Oh, and an elderly German gentleman in the next apartment who blasts Wagner operas and Beethoven symphonies at maximum volume. You’ll love that.”

“Sounds great,” I said.

There was a weighty pause. I felt my heart start to gallop. “So, a couple of things,” she said at length. “Firstly, there’s no sofa.”

“Who needs one of those?” I guffawed, breathing a sigh of relief. “They make you lazy and fat. What else?”

“TV,” she said. “We don’t have one.”

I thought this over. “Well… that’s a good thing—isn’t it? A fresh start. Besides, who the hell wants to watch Argentine TV?”

My fellow travellers were now staring at me.

“I thought you might,” Catherine said.

I saw her point. I’d miss the sport, for starters—though surely the big games could be watched in bars, with the locals. And the late-night erotica would be hard to give up. But I’d no idea how to speak Spanish, so the rest of the programming would’ve been wasted on me.

Living without a TV had several notable side-effects: we’d read more, and sometimes, even have conversations

One of the perks of living overseas is that it teaches you how little stuff you actually need. Much of that is born of necessity, of course—especially in a country like Argentina, where there’s no Amazon, bizarrely few shops, and consumer durables cost twenty times what you’d pay back home. But it’s comforting to know that one can, if needs be, live out of a suitcase. In three years, I’ve not bought a single item of clothing, and it turns out that one’s trousers and shirts don’t shrivel to dust if worn more than twice. Shoes, I confess, can be a problem, as size 13s simply don’t exist in South America. My trainers all have one or two holes in them, but so do everybody else’s here, which allows me to pretend I’m just blending.

When my flight finally arrived in Buenos Aires, I floated away the sweltering afternoons in my rooftop swimming pool, and whenever Catherine and I wanted to watch a TV show or a film, we had to do so on our laptops, with their 13-inch screens and inaudible speakers. Leaning forward in our rickety dining chairs, we’d angle our good ears towards the keyboard. “Did you catch that?” I’d say. “Maybe we should put the subtitles on—what do you think?”

Living without a TV had several notable side-effects. For starters, we’d read more, and sometimes, when the mood suited us, and the sun had melted over the horizon, we’d even have conversations. “What shall we watch tonight?” I’d say, and Catherine would ask, for the millionth time, what we had on our laptops. Too often, I’d be led into temptation. “Maybe I should buy something?” I’d suggest, a note of flirtation in my voice, and she would get equal parts excited and nervous.

“Yes, yes! But… what?”

The choices were plenty, although far from comprehensive. Many a time we’d think of some great old film, only to discover no one would sell it to us, at any outrageous price. “How bloody hard it is to digitise a classic?!” I’d scream at my laptop, but it’d just sit there on my marble-topped dining table, filing its documents.

The point, though, was that it was a choice. We’d have to really want to watch something to willingly pay money for it, which changed my relationship with a surprising amount of content. I’d remember a “cinematic masterpiece” or a “hilarious sitcom”, fork out astronomically inflated fees for the downloads, only to sit and watch the new addition to my ever-expanding library slack jawed with disenchantment.

“What the hell was that?” Catherine would shriek as the credits rolled, and I’d lie awake all night, staring at the ceiling, wondering how the old me could have been so thoroughly duped.

It was always our not having a Netflix account that really pushed people’s buttons

The only explanation I could ever come up with was that TV sort of counted as “free”. Channel surfing had warped my faculties, and whatever I chanced upon seemed alright in a sort of a limited way for a weeknight. Forced to make choices of my own, I was now watching more attentively, like a nit-picking critic. “The plot was ok,” I’d say, clearing away the wine glasses, “but it failed to atone for the lamentably subpar sequence shots.”

“I enjoyed the minority actress in the supporting role,” Catherine would add, “but the post-production sound mixing stank.”

Everyone thought we were insane. “How can you live without a TV?” they’d scream at us. “You’re missing… everything!

But it never felt that way. More like we’d side-stepped the hype and skipped straight to the moment you realise something’s not half as good as you first thought, back when it was exciting and new. Cynicism, some might call it, the suckers.

For whatever reason, it was always our not having a Netflix account that really pushed people’s buttons. They’d ask if we’d seen some crap-sounding latest release and when we explained why we hadn’t, they’d start yelling, spilling their drink over the floor. “What do you mean, you don’t have it?! Come on! You need to get Netflix, guys! It’s easy!”

Easy had nothing to do with it. It was their use of the word “need” that got me. “I need to drink water,” I wanted to say. “I need to eat beef five days a week. I don’t need Netflix.”

“Oh, we’re just fine,” is what I’d actually say. “We’ve endless podcasts to listen to, hundreds of Seinfeld episodes to watch, a bunch of Howard Hawks movies to catch up on.”

“Howard Who?” they’d say, before launching into a tedious summary of Stranger Thrones or Game of Things.

Catherine thought they were all just insecure. “Desperate for validation,” she’d call them. “Like it’s our job to reassure them they’re not wasting their lives away.”

“Yes, that’s probably it,” I’d say, before suggesting we watch Bringing Up Baby for the ten thousandth time.

Another worry was the hardware itself. It’s all well and good downloading movies and TV shows on iTunes, but arguably not the smartest move in a country where Apple products aren’t sold. “You mean, if our computers die, we’ll have nothing to watch at all?” Catherine panicked.

“Well… we’ll have my iPhone…” I said falteringly. She scowled at me, then three weeks later, my phone died.

Were there times I regretted not having a TV? Yes, there were. I think specifically of a night spent in a hotel room in Mendoza. Propped up against a mountain of lilac pillows, having decanted perverse quantities of Malbec down the hatch at dinner, I was lamenting lost lives and loves, as one is prone to in the wistful small hours of the morning. At the foot of my king-size, a wall-mounted TV was tuned to Televisión Pública Argentina and I remember thinking it was the single greatest thing I’d ever seen.

On the screen, in over-saturated technicolour, flocks of height-challenged gauchos in traditional costume were taking turns soaring off the backs of bucking wild horses. Their ponchos, bombachas and loincloths wafted in the breeze as their tiny bodies were tossed at spine-snapping angles into the air, before tumbling down into the pitiless dirt. The crowd cheered and the gauchos, somehow still alive, scrambled to their feet to take their bows and wave their felt sombreros.

Only a handful of our TV channels are broadcast in English, which you’d think might lessen the allure, but no

Best of all, though, was the commentary. On the face of it a conventional two-man team, in this instance the monotonal play-by-play announcer was joined in the booth by a colour analyst the likes of which I’d never heard. Every time a gaucho was flung from a horse, the colour guy would feverishly finger his guitar and proceed to crow an improvised folk song detailing the dramatic events that had just taken place. “He tried to be a hero / But his horse couldn’t be tricked / So he fell face-first to the dust / Now he lives to fight another day / This brave little champion of the Pampas.”

I reached over and shook Catherine awake.

“Huh? What is it?” she said blearily. “Is the hotel on fire?”

“We really need to buy a TV,” I told her.

On the flight back to Buenos Aires, I stared out of the window across the infinite fertile plains, thinking of those brave gauchos on the TV who were happy to risk life and limb for fifteen seconds of muted fame. Then I thought back to my childhood and the day my friends and I learned that the parents of a boy in the year below us at school objected to television on religious grounds.

The very fact of it amazed us. Here was a kid whose fanatically puritan mum and dad believed TV was a cesspool of devilish degradation and carnal filth. And here we were, wishing so badly that it was. How was it possible, we wondered, for people living in the same town to see the world so differently? Was it because we had TVs and they didn’t? Were they ignorant and narrow-minded because they didn’t know any better, having never seen an episode of Neighbours?

The luckless boy’s name was Tobias, and none of us had ever noticed him before, but the revelation of his callously strict homelife now made him something of a celebrity. At lunchtime, we’d form an orderly queue in the playground, waiting in turn to ask him questions. “What’s it like,” I asked, when my turn finally came, “living without Dallas?”

“Oh,” he said, blinking guilelessly up at me, “it’s OK, I guess.”

I shook my head in awe, laying a strong, compassionate hand on his feeble, dandruff-strewn shoulder. “You’re so brave,” I said, almost in a whisper. “So very brave.” And I walked away, feeling nothing but admiration for his courage, and nothing but gratitude for the fact that I wasn’t him. “Thank you, sweet Lord,” I said, crossing myself, “for giving me the gift of TV.”

Tobias ended up being transferred away from my school after his parents discovered how wicked the other children were. I can’t say I missed him, as he really had nothing to say for himself, being so hopelessly out of touch. But I thought about him every now and then, wondering how he was getting on in his new church school, where, it was rumoured, the children were forced to kneel in stone pews during lessons and eat miniature bowls of pounded swede at dinnertime.

Have I become Tobias? I wondered when we arrived back in Buenos Aires. From the window of the taxi, I saw giant TVs glowing blue inside the houses and apartments, and I half-remembered that thing Alan Coren said about television being more interesting than people, otherwise we’d have people standing in the corners of our rooms. We pulled up at our building, and I wheeled the suitcases through our doorway, staring into the corner of the living room, where an umbrella and a tennis racquet stood in place of a TV. I felt my eyes well up as I tried not to think of all the wonderful things I was missing out on. Then, like a sign from the heavens, the biggest spider I had ever seen crept out from behind the tennis racquet. Catherine gave a piercing scream and vaulted up onto the kitchen island before nearly fainting. “Get it!” she squealed. “Kill it!”

I threw off my jacket, and in one fearless bound, spanned the length of the living room, like a ravenous leopard ambushing its prey. To unzip its protective cover and unsheathe my Wilson Pro Staff was for me the work of a moment.

I’m reading less these days, and conversation doesn’t seem to flow quite as freely as it used to

There followed a frenzied sequence of chopping motions, like John McEnroe having a tantrum over a bad line call, with several of my weaker efforts leaving unfortunate dents in the slatted floorboards where the spider once was. This dance of death ensued for a longish while, before finally, in a breathless crescendo of gripping action, the villainous antagonist was splattered beneath the hem of a curtain, and the fair Catherine gave an admiring whoop-whoop from atop the kitchen island. Caught in a providential shaft of late afternoon light, the dashing hero struck an epic, chest-bulging pose. In what was surely now his signature move, he proceeded to twirl the graphite weapon of destruction around a victorious finger, the eyebrows bobbing, the chiselled features grinning in anticipation of his well-earned reward.

At least, that’s how I remember it. Catherine isn’t convinced there ever was a spider. “You’re having one of your fantasies,” she says. “Go and watch ESPN, or something.”

We moved into our new apartment a couple of months ago now. The place came with a Smart TV, plus a special room with a comfy sofa to watch it in. I felt it was time to join the 21st century after talking to a friend who’d lived with a family in the slums of Lima. “They had eight televisions,” he told me, “but one side of their house had no wall. It was just open, so every moment of the day there was someone home. They couldn’t leave the place empty, otherwise their TVs would get stolen.”

I’m reading less these days, and conversation doesn’t seem to flow quite as freely as it used to. Only a handful of our television’s six hundred and five channels are broadcast in English, which you’d think might lessen the allure, but no.

We sat and watched the US presidential elections together in real time, gaping in astonishment as we flicked back and forth between the partisan babble of Fox News and CNN. The clock crept towards 4am, 5am, and it occurred to me that, having no TV, we’d paid precious little attention to the 2019 Argentina general election. The whole thing just passed us by—our ill-advised obliviousness born, I suppose, out of reading too many damn books. “Eruption?” I’d have muttered in A.D. 79 Pompeii, my nose pressed against the latest stone tablet by Juvenal. “What eruption? Where?”

Now I’m up-to-speed again, a slave to breaking news about recounts in Georgia and ten-foot putts at the Sewage Recycling Open. I’ve stopped watching films, because there’s always another rerun of Magnum P.I. dubbed shoddily into Spanish, another furious anchorman pulling in forty million dollars per annum, another cute, oiled-up threesome getting jiggy for reasons essential to the plot.

And then there are the adverts, about which I’d completely forgotten. Grungy twentysomethings in sagging twill trousers doing skateboard tricks to hail the existence of a fizzy drink; saucy pensioners in white linen clamdiggers twerking because their bank offers a 24 per cent Annual Percentage Rate on credit purchases. I’ve never the faintest idea, literally or figuratively, what any of these people are up to.

There’s one advert in particular about which I’ve become mildly obsessed. It’s for Chocolinas, a popular Argentine biscuit, and it plays almost every commercial break. In it, a series of deranged lunatics gyrate around on their beds, or on rooftops, in a sort of body-popping style, because… I don’t know why. “What’s the connection between b-boying and chocolate biscuits?” I wonder aloud, and Catherine tells me to change the channel, if I don’t like it.

The maddening, upbeat ditty that accompanies the advert gets stuck in my head, and I find myself humming it at random moments throughout the day, like when I’m sat at my desk, trying not to think about chocolate or TVs or comfortable sofas. I stare into the perpetual whiteness of my empty Word document, knowing for sure that someday, when I no longer live in Argentina, out of nowhere the Chocolinas song will pop into my head, as vivid as it sounds today in Dolby Digital Plus on my TV, and that I’ll be transported back in time, aching with hunger for a place far away and long ago.

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