Brought to book

Vexed by Insta videos and impressed by Venice

Woman About Town

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The BBC recently repeated a documentary series I made some time ago, which provided a lovely opportunity to hear from members of the history community. One lady emailed under the suggestive subject line “inappropriate handling”. She continued:

I’m just watching your mini-series To Kill a King and I cannot believe you pawing King Charles 1’s book in the library.

Surely the librarian (and everyone else who has seen this) was appalled seeing your mishandling of such a historic book and leaving your greasy prints all over the pages, no doubt which will cause damage …

Why on earth they allowed you access to the book when you surely could have used a copy is mind-boggling. You should have known better.

I immediately wrote back to the concerned viewer, explaining carefully that a facsimile had in fact been substituted for the original text for the close-ups, and hoping this information would allow her to enjoy the rest of the show. Then I regretted not asking her whether she was such a complete cretin that she didn’t understand that telly is not real.

Did she think that we waltzed into the Rare Books Room of the British Library with a film crew and began randomly seizing priceless volumes from the stacks? Moreover, why does she think it is acceptable to write to perfect strangers without so much as a “Dear” or a “Yours faithfully”?

* * *

The train has left the station

So now I’ve become that person who tuts about bad manners. An early train to Milano provided three hours’ worth of huffing, between the child playing a noisy video game opposite me, everyone else in the carriage making pointless Zoom calls or watching Insta videos, the woman who changed her baby’s nappy on the seat across the aisle and the announcement repeated every twenty minutes in three languages as to the procedure for making a complaint on the company app, followed by a similarly intrusive request to consider other passengers’ need for quiet. 

Impossible to work or read; but when did this become acceptable? Have smartphones entirely dissolved the barrier between public and private? When did subjecting others to strident inanity become a right? 

• • •

Whether technology has also fundamentally altered the way we interact with the written word is the question posited in David Samuels’s brilliant article “The Chained Reader”, which I set for my students as a reading assignment. 

Samuels’s thesis is that “humanistic” reading, the unique relationship of sovereign imaginative authority between the individual and the page is being challenged by the relentless colonisation of our inner lives by digital platforms. None of the class finished the article, as they explained ingenuously that at 30 pages it was unfeasibly long. 

One student had posted it onto a spoken word app which he said allowed him to “save time” as he could get AI to summarize its salient points. I asked whether this didn’t perhaps prove Samuels’s point. They looked at me pityingly before making the unassailable argument that the writer was born in 1967. 

I devoted the rest of the lesson to telling these wannabe writers about their financial future. According to the latest survey from the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society and the University of Glasgow, the median wage for authors has declined by 33 per cent since 2018 and is now £7,000 per year. That took the smiles off their smug little digital faces.

The age of miracles

Majority illiteracy might have an upside. Back home in Venice (decaying, perpetually misunderstood, so much more my speed), a glorious evening hosted by Venice in Peril at the Scuola dei Carmini celebrated the restoration of the Miracles of the Carmelite Madonna panel series by Antonio Zanchi. Following a Monteverdi recital by disquietingly brilliant countertenor Alex Simpson, the audience repaired to the Tiepolo-frescoed salone to survey the miracles. 

Designed as visual aids to faith, the paintings transpose everyday disasters into the sublime by portraying their protagonists as everyday Venetian folk — the crowd surrounding the maiden rescued from a well could have been picked from any vaporetto stop today. Might the ascendancy of the emoji be the dawn of a new Renaissance?

• • •

Going, going, gondola

A wedding breakfast on the island of Torcello marked the end of an era. After mass at San Giorgio Maggiore, guests zoomed across the lagoon for a golden autumnal celebration in the garden of Locanda Cipriani, which has been one of the nicest places in the world to have lunch since 1934, and which has just been acquired by the Belmond group. 

Perhaps the sale might improve the notoriously bad manners of the waiters, but I hope they leave the surrealist artichoke walk by the basilica alone. Rumours are circulating that the whole island — current population: 14 — is to be developed as a resort. Exactly what Venice needs. 

There are now more beds for tourists in this city than there are for residents. In the lead up to the festival of Salute at the end of the month, protests are planned to publicise the seemingly relentless drain of resources away from Venetians and the potentially devastating return (yet again), of the hated cruise ships. Venice’s fate hardly feels like a priority on the international agenda at present, but once gone, its loss will be irrecoverable.

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