Aeroplanes and television: how they change our world

I was thinking the other day about our internal geographies and the changing relationship these have with the world. In particular, i was musing on the effect of modern forms of transport – and to a lesser extent the effect of the modern media. A few centuries ago most people would have spent almost all their lives in one location which they’d have known very well indeed; their knowledge would have faded away gradually as they moved from this ‘centre of the universe’ until they reached the boundaries of the known.

Of course it wouldn’t have been quite that simple. There would be little irregularities – market towns they made a special journey to perhaps or pilgrimage sites – and there would have existed a vague map of other places too: lands mentioned in the Bible for example (i’m thinking of people in Britain as my example), cities from which luxury items came, the lands of myth and legend.

Still, it was a very different situation to today. Nowadays a person may live in one small district of a town, and know the way to and the location of a shopping complex on the edge of town and a few other locations but be otherwise ignorant of much of the place in which they live. They may commute by train every day passing from one small area of ‘known world’ to another, the one in which they work, through a desert of meaningless place names. How many of us have felt panic when our train breaks down en route and we’re turfed out at some station ‘in the middle of nowhere’? Even when the middle of nowhere is often the middle of somewhere, some district of the city we just don’t happen to know?

But trains have only a mild effect compared to aeroplanes. Consider for a moment those people with holiday homes in Spain or Portugal – or even Florida. Each year they migrate hundreds of miles to these places, even if only for a little while. At both ends of the journey they know precisely where they are. Those two small areas, so distant from one another, are next to one another in their internal geography. One goes from one to the other. The space in between, those miles of sea and land which they fly over, has no reality for them. Indeed, modern planes fly so high that for much of the trip travellers don’t even see the places over which they’re moving.

It’s very strange when you stop to think about it. I live maybe fifty or sixty miles from France. There are people just that distance from me living lives in towns i never see and can’t name. I never go there. Why? Well, in part – and quite a big part – because there’s no quick or easy way to get there. Far easier to get a plane to the other side of Europe or even beyond. The other reason i don’t go is because i imagine i’ve already seen these towns – or more accurately that being so close to me they can’t be sufficiently different from what i already know to make the journey worthwhile. Yet as a child even the south of England seemed like a foreign country. The first time i visited London (as a fourteen year old) i was awed and disoriented – far more so than when i later visited Istanbul or even Dhaka in fact.

It’s all about exposure. And that brings me to the other way in which places can come to feel too familiar to be worth bothering about: the constant exposure to images of them in the media. This is probably why i’ve never visited America. Why go to it and when it comes to me practically every time i turn on the telly? Of course that’s only a little sliver of America, but then, thinking about it, i’ve only ever seen a little sliver of my own country. Still, the illusion of familiarity takes root. The Internet only worsens this. You spend hours chatting to people on another continent, on the other side of the ocean. You live in your global village of far-flung contacts separated only by meaningless ‘uninhabited’ hyperspace.

One day i suppose we’ll be living in ‘virtual worlds’ spread across different planets, perhaps different galaxies. Imagine.

Beautiful voices (or how i fell in love with extension 1147)

I have spent the last couple of days lying in bed and on the sofa feeling sorry for myself. Yes, i have been ill. It has however allowed me to finally finish off the Doctor Who box set i blogged about last month. As i noted in that post the real highlight for me has been the commentaries with Tom Baker and Mary Tamm. Tom Baker, in particular, still has that marvellous voice, which to me has changed very little since he played the Doctor. In fact often i found myself imagining that he still was the Doctor, or still looked as though he was the Doctor, which with Tom Baker is almost the same thing.

And that got me onto thinking about how important voices are. We often talk about human beings as being influenced by how other human beings look, but how they sound can also be critical. I remember seeing a rock star i was crazy about interviewed for the first time on television. He had quite a craggy face and i’d always assumed his voice would be of a piece. When he opened his mouth and began to speak in a high-pitched whine… well, i was devastated. My feelings for him were never the same again. I suppose it must have been similar for those filmgoers in the early years of cinema when silent movies gave way to talkies. They would all have had their cherished notions about how their favourite stars spoke. Many, maybe most of them would have been disappointed.

Of course it works the other way too. In my early days with my current employer i used to liaise with another organisation over data. My counterpart there had a voice to die for: soft, breathy, dreamy. How i used to love to ring her to query possible duplicates or investigate possible errors. I prayed for duplicates and errors. I also prayed that no-one ever noticed me almost fainting with pleasure as she read back dates of birth or spelt out surnames – ah, the magic of it all! When a colleague did notice however he thought my besottedness was hilarious. Apparently the ethereal princess as the other end of the phone was an extremely plain lady in her 50s. Even now i can’t quite believe it.

In fact, as long as i never meet her i never will believe it, because she will always be her voice. Likewise, the Swedish airline secretary with the most deliriously sensual tones who i rang up one day during a brief stint with a telemarketing firm. Extension 1147 i call her. I never found out her actual name.

If i did meet either of them their visual image would take precedence of course. A bad auditory impression can break the spell of a beautiful visual image, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Not in my experience. And that saddens me, not least because, as i noted earlier about Tom Baker, people’s voices tend to last far longer than their looks; but also because the voice is much more a product of the personality, much less an accident of genetics.

Mind you, i’m damned either way as neither by sight nor sound am i handsome. But can you imagine an audio-only world…?

Pictures of happiness

I’m currently reading Camera Lucida*,  a kind of meditation on the meaning of photography by the French philosopher Roland Barthes. It’s rather a mixed experience: one minute i’m thrilled, the next exasperated. Let’s leave that aside however; what i’d really like to talk about is a passage on page 10 where he writes:

… once i feel myself to be observed by the lens, everything changes: i constitute myself in the act of “posing”, i instantaneously make another body for myself, i transform myself in advance into an image. This transformation is an active one: i feel that the Photograph creates my body or mortifies it, according to its caprice…

Do you recognise what he’s talking about? Maybe it made you smile? Well, for me, reading those lines was like being struck by lightning.

Instantly, i remembered how in the years before i transitioned, i would smile as brightly and as widely as possible whenever i was photographed. This was truer than ever during the years of my marriage. I beam like a sun in practically every picture taken of me in that period; i gleam ecstatically. Yet that was the beginning of the long, slow unravelling that brought me to the point where i finally understood that i had to transition. It was a time when turmoil, pain and confusion reigned inside my mind.

So why the smile? The reason is simple: i believed that if all the pictures of my life showed me to be happy, then i would have been happy – not simply seemed to have been happy, but actually been happy. It was one of those beliefs that possessed me so deeply that i wasn’t aware of its existence.

Now it shocks me: not just the power i ascribed to photography, but the thrall that i was in to images in general. It’s as though i thought that they were realer than reality itself. My life at that time was a constant parade of impersonations of the female sex: i was ‘earth mother’, ‘sophisticated lady’, ‘out and out tart’ – sometimes all in the space of an afternoon! Even after my marriage broke down i didn’t abandon the attempt. It was only after i’d exhausted every version of ‘female’ i could think of that i gave in and bowed to the inevitable.

My naive belief in appearances reflected my own inability to understand why i couldn’t be a woman. I didn’t – couldn’t – recognise that gender identity has to have its roots inside a person. I thought it could be planted on the outside and cultivated till it flowered within. It also showed how deeply ashamed i was of my own unhappiness, the misery i didn’t understand and couldn’t name. What better way to hide a big, big sorrow than with a big, big smile?

* Camera Lucida (ISBN 978-0-099-22541-6; publisher: Vintage Classics)

A remarkable panorama

Yesterday i visited the British Library to see an exhibition of 19th Century photography. From my notebook:

Remarkable panorama* at the British library. Photographed in two halves in what looks like a back garden. Some of the people are in both parts. Doubling, mirroring, halving. The repeated figures are both more present and less. Are ‘they’ aware of one another? Alarming if they are, sad if they’re not – disturbing either way.

At first i found the idea of the Victorians playing with identity anachronistic. Could it really be the case? Perhaps they weren’t aware of the effect of multiple instances of the same person in what purports to be a single image. Was it just a matter of convenience? Was i only assuming that the violation of reality was deliberate?  Techniques like these are often used by artists in the 21st Century because we’re so conscious of our uncertainty; whereas in the 19th Century people’s sense of themselves was surely as solid as their furniture.

Yet when i thought again about the Victorians i began to wonder: in what way was their experience one of certainty and stasis? They were in the midst of the Industrial Revolution – has there ever been anything more disorienting or disruptive? If anything, the pace of change may have felt more dizzying than is the case today because we have habituated ourselves to instability. We have trained ourselves to throw away, to upgrade, to relentlessly move on. Were the Victorians the sure, stolid figures of our imagination or is our image of them as illusory as Fox Talbot’s panorama?

* The panorama was the work of photography pioneer, Henry Fox Talbot. The figures who people it are his employees. Unfortunately, it’s not among the photographs in the online slideshow which the British Library has created for the exhibition.