Two thoughts came to me while reading a collection of Bruce Chatwin stories in the bath on Saturday. Firstly, I don’t write letters anymore. And secondly, has technology made my life better.
When I lived and worked on the farm in Provence in 1994, I had no phone, no radio, no TV, and of course no internet. Only a guitar, cigarettes, wine and a cat, whose name I can’t remember (Pascal, perhaps), to entertain me. Receiving a letter was an incredible event.
I used to save it until the evening and open the envelope under the ancient olive tree in the yard, smoking, reading it many times over. Then I would go into the cavernous kitchen of the farm to cook some strange Anglo-French melange and settle down to the reply. Sometimes writing five or six sides of A4, which I would look forward to posting in the village the next day.
For my brother and sister, who are 15 years younger than me, the idea of communicating by letter with their friends belongs to a different age. But I am glad to have lived in a time, albeit briefly, when it was one of the only two ways of communication. So in answer to the question. Has technology made my life better? On the basis of this: clearly no.
I use the internet like everybody else. I use it as a tool. It’s useful. It saves time. But it also wastes time. Lots of it. Yesterday, I planned to go running before twelve o’clock, but spent an age reading the comment is free section on the stupid online Guardian despite my mind saying: GO RUNNING! The internet is not your portal to the world! GO OUT!
I finally left the doom merchants and the naysayers and hit the track needing a good time for my running book: if I can break 35 minutes for 10kms, it’ll be a good day for my lungs and prove ex-smokers can break records. Albeit their own.
I used to smoke a lot in Provence, but I remember cycling up Mont Ventoux on an ancient bike passing guys with all the gear as though they were stationary. Stopping at the top for beer and cigarettes. And then cycling the 40 km back with a bottle of wine slung into the water bottle holder. You can do anything when you’re nineteen. Fly to the moon and back. Barely a scratch.
I remember setting my foot on fire trying to kill ants by pouring petrol into their nest and lighting it. It hurt like hell but I didn’t howl. I was more fascinated on seeing my foot on fire than feeling the pain. Until I hit the threshold and ran flaming into the shower block for relief.
One night I drank too much wine and started up the old tractor and madcapped it around the fields pretending I was a tank pilot in the war. I hit a large rock and smashed my head against the steering wheel. There was blood. But it was the blood of battle so it was worth it.
It’s now 2013 and I’m in France again. But not sowing seeds into sun-burnt soil. Staring into a computer screen waiting for my mobile phone to ring to tell me I’m late for class. A long way from writing letters to old friends from Provence. Sitting under the olive tree in the sunshine looking at the ants crawl over the baked ground. Then I was nearly twenty. Now I’m nearly forty. Which, however hard I try, I still can’t get my head around. Any ideas? Answers on a postcard perhaps…