In the summer of 1999 I did something radical. Spurred on by my husband’s universal loathing of television I took our TV set to the landfill and I haven’t owned one since. Twenty unrepentant years without the demon box, and alive to tell the tale.
My family long ago accepted this stubborn eccentricity. They’ve grown used to the silence, the missing screen, the brutal fact that they won’t be able to watch the final of Strictly round at my place. A few friends have taken a different line, still hoping to sell me the benefits of owning a TV, particularly since my husband moved to a nursing home and I live alone. ‘It must get lonely,’ they say. ‘Get a cat, get a goldfish, get a telly.’
Other people’s reactions to this decision — I hesitate to use the words ‘lifestyle choice’ because I don’t really have a lifestyle, so let’s just call it a decision — have been at least as entertaining as anything I might have watched had I kept the beast.
First there are those who pay me completely undeserved homage. ‘Aren’t you good!’ they say, as though they’ve discovered me wearing a hair shirt. ‘I’ll bet you spend your spare time much more sensibly.’
Well, yes and no. It is true that if I had a television I’d rarely play my piano or sew, and I’d read half as many books, but I’m as capable as the next slacker of frittering away an hour. Being weaned off the telly teat doesn’t make you more noble or serious-minded, though I’m quite willing to bask in the mistaken impression that it does.
Then there are the defensives who get ruffled and tell me they only watch documentaries. Yeah, right. The fact is, television is addictive. You earmark an hour to watch something worthwhile and come midnight you’re still on the sofa.
I know this only too well. When I stay in a hotel, I watch television. I could claim I only do it in the interests of research, to bolster my argument that TV is 90 per cent rubbish, but the truth is that it hooks me back in. I may sit there revelling in the sheer direness of it, but it’s still an evening wasted.
To be clear, I don’t live like a stylite. I have DVDs that can be played on my computer. I have a subscription to an online concert hall. I am aware of the many websites — Netflix, Prime, Now TV, the list goes on — which allow you to watch TV on your phone or tablet.
And I do get exposure to television. There are houses I go to where the set is rarely turned off. The joke used to be that you could fry an egg on the top but TVs are too slender to cook on now, and enormous. It’s like living in a multiplex. And because of their size you can’t ignore them. They draw your eye, even in the pub where you surely go to enjoy the craic.
So I encounter the awestruck and the defensive, and then there are the sceptics, among whom I number the licensing authorities. They hear you say you don’t have a television, but they don’t believe you. Once a year, without fail, I’m warned that I face prosecution and a hefty fine because records show I haven’t purchased a TV licence. Sometimes I just append a DON’T HAVE, DON’T WANT codicil to the official letter and post it back to them. Last year I was required to sign a solemn declaration.
Four years ago an inspector came to our door in Dublin and asked to check the premises. Credit to the man, embarrassment soon got the better part of thoroughness and he only peeked briefly into the two most likely rooms before he left us in peace. It’d be something for him to tell the grandkids though: ‘I was in a house once that had no telly.’
But I’m not for turning. Watching predictable, lazy dreck would make me miss my discerning and opinionated husband more, not less.
I’m perhaps not the best person to judge the impact having no TV has had on my life. Am I smarter, fitter, more productive? Not necessarily, though it’s a very seductive idea. I think it has fine-tuned my bullshit detector so that when I do occasionally see a programme, I’m more likely to swear at the screen. It has certainly made me intolerant of gratuitous atmospheric music, of hand-flapping presenters and tick-box casting.
Unavoidably, it has also made me something of a social edge-dweller. I’ve been at dinner parties where much of the conversation has centred on shows I haven’t seen or celebrities whose names mean nothing to me. I don’t mind it at all. It’s quite fascinating. I feel like an anthropologist observing an alien tribe. Maybe they should make a documentary about me.