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Your TV or your life

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Defective by Design/Free Software Foundation

Talking to a friend on the phone the other day, we were comparing notes on procrastination viewing. “I keep watching Location, Location, Location,” she admitted. Hopes of moving and neighbour troubles have been on her mind of late, so obsessively watching a property show in which people are helped to find their dream home makes sense.

For me, it’s recently been Gilmore Girls, I confessed sheepishly. After she finished laughing, she asked, “So what do you get out of it?” In other words, what was missing in my life that I found in a show about a over-caffeinated mother and her journalist-wannabe daughter; their scarily close relationship in suburban America; and the men they fall in love with. And then out of love with. And then in love with again. (You get the picture.)

I hadn’t thought of it like that – that what we don’t have in reality we seek in fiction. But it makes sense.

We watch detective shows and CSI dramas not because we want to commit a crime or like seeing someone hurt (I would hope) but because eventually the perpetrator is caught, loose ends are tied up, goodness prevails. And perhaps that makes us feel safer, reassured, because real life is a lot more uncertain. Injustice happens on a daily basis, criminals are not caught, there’s rarely a neat resolution.

Romantic dramas and romcoms give us hope that we will find someone extraordinary, who finds us extraordinary and we’ll live happily ever after. There are declarations of love, long-thwarted kisses, passion, certainty… all the things which seem a long way away from the mundanities of dividing up household chores, waiting for someone to text back, scrolling through profiles on a dating app, or the indecisive falling in and out of love that Alicia Keys sang about more than ten years ago.

Fantasies and sci-fi take us far away from our everyday worlds to lands where magic happens, fortunes change and destinies are found. There we forget the earth as we know it even exists.

Action films fool us for a second that we’re living in exciting times, and we go on car chases, fight, run like the wind, jump, swim, attack – all while safely sat on our cinema seats and sofas. We may seek danger because our lives are a boring cycle of wake, work, watch – or because we identify with living on the edge, we experience it daily – just without the comfort of a stop, rewind or fast-forward button.

But it’s not a solution. How many times have you finished a programme or series and felt a sense of anti-climax? Felt like you were regaining consciousness as if from a coma? Or thought, ‘Well that was a waste of time’? Because it often is. We can fool ourselves into thinking we’re learning valuable life lessons. That it’s relaxation time that we deserve. But do we really need a screen to do that?

I often wonder what I could achieve without YouTube, Netflix et al. I imagine myself spending evenings writing novels, cooking delicious meals for friends, learning to play an instrument, cleaning the house, reading… but instead I press play and zone out. For an hour and a half, two hours, three if it involves Orcs, Italian godfathers 0r doomed ships… I am elsewhere. But time doesn’t stop, it carries on. And life does too. I can’t get back that time. I know all those other things would make me more happy but sometimes deadening the mind seems easier.

Doing the luddite thing and smashing up my laptop would be a bit counterproductive. So, as with everything in life, it’s all about balance and moderation. I’ll re-download that SelfControl app which has mysteriously disappeared from my computer. I’ll continue to not live with a TV. I’ll avoid walking close to DVD sellers. I’ll switch off after one show.

As Gil Scott Heron said, the revolution will not be televised. And, unless you’re Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, your life won’t be either – so unless you want to miss it, we better start switching off from time to time. And realising that we hold the power to do whatever we want.

African arts, culture + politics

Kingdom come

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(ARISE magazine, issue 14) “It’s the continent with the oldest Christian traditions, oldest earth-built buildings, oldest ceramic  traditions – it completely blows you away”. For historian and presenter Gus Casely-Hayford, Africa was the obvious subject for a documentary series. So in 2010 Hayford, whose family is of Ghanaian and Sierra Leonean descent, and his team travelled through Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mozambique into South Africa and Zimbabwe, and from Mali down the River Niger into Nigeria. The result of their explorations is Lost Kingdoms Of Africa. The four-part series aired on BBC Four in 2010 and received positive reviews (UK newspaper The Times called it “not only powerful but moving”). It’s now set to be released on DVD for the first time.

The series explores the long-lost kingdom of Nubia, Judeo-Christian influences in Ethiopia, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe and fine metalworking in Nigeria and Mali. “I’ve travelled a lot in Africa over some decades but what this offered was a kind of immersion, not just in local traditional practise but also African expertise,” says Casely-Hayford. “I spent most of the time with my eyes on stalks and jumping around in delight!” For the second series of Lost Kingdoms Of Africa, currently being aired on BBC Four, the team document the history of Zulus in South Africa, the royal Asante family of Ghana, as well as Morocco, Asmara and Uganda.

Lost Kingdoms Of Africa DVD [Acorn Media], out February 6.Lost Kingdoms Of Africa book [Bantam Press, £25], out February 16