'I have bought turf online, but do very little of the stuff you're supposed to'
On a winter’s afternoon late in 1994, I sat with two friends in the attic bedroom of an old terraced house we were renting together on French’s Quay in Cork and we listened, rapt, to the gurgle and hiss of a dial-up internet connection inside a gigantic desktop computer.
It sounded like a beast trying to take form in there, and we smiled excitedly through the brownish fug of dope smoke – we were using the attic room also to grow cannabis plants under lamps mounted in the eaves. Memory perhaps elaborates the picture but I seem to remember that it took miles of cables, doorstoppers of computer manuals and weeks of hair-pulling complication to bring us to this moment.
The connection hissed more loudly and sputtered hard, and we held our breaths as the great network that we knew was out there tried to snag its digital hooks on the virgin nodes of Cork city, but it failed, and the room went silent, and we turned off the computer and got on with our lives.
Which, in 1994, largely involved slithering bug-eyed around the walls of Sir Henry’s nightclub until the small hours, sleeping till mid-afternoon, and then trying to lure passing college girls into the house with promises of free dope, playtime with a cute black rabbit called Fluppsie we had bought in a pet store on North Main Street, and (we lied) access to “the Web”.
I was 25 years old and at this time operating fitfully, and at a very stoned level, as a freelance reviewer, writing up notices of gigs and plays for music magazines and newspapers. I would bash out my judgments on a Singer electric typewriter perched on a wardrobe laid on its side to function as a desk. Sentences of Faulknerian complexity would be employed to tear strips off a Frank and Walters show at Nancy Blake’s, or the latest Corcadorca offering at the Triskel.
The Singer, quite snazzily, had an eraser function. I would go to a stationery store off Washington Street to replace the white-out ribbon; Tipp-Ex was history, and the eraser was essential for the obsessive redrafting of my killer intros. I recall a sub-editor at The Irish Times asking whether a notice on some Corkonian indie act at the Phoenix Bar really merited an opening sentence that came in at something like 136 words.
I would carry the typed pages as though they were tablets of stone across the river from French’s Quay, past the hoppy belching of the Beamish plant, to what was then Jury’s Hotel, on Western Road, where the receptionist would fax them through to Dublin for a pound the first page and 50p thereafter.
Sometime towards the end of that winter, just before we all moved to London, we did finally get the internet connected, at least to some primeval degree. I do not remember exactly what I saw when I gazed for the first time into that fateful portal, or what I expected to see, but I do recall that the first thing we did on the internet was look for a recipe for ecstasy.
From screen to screen
Autumn 2003 – the era of the digital quickening, and I am living in a basement flat in the New Town of Edinburgh. My girlfriend is doing her PhD at the university and I am attempting without landmark success to revivify the short-story form. Most evenings, as dusk trails in from the Firth of Forth, carrying on its skirts a near-Baltic chill, I go for a walk around the elegant New Town streets.
Edinburgh has always had a great culture of apartment dwelling: it’s a city that’s properly lived in, that doesn’t clear out after dark, and as I walk along I can see down into the basement flats of the Georgian manses. As it is the custom here for the high sash windows to be left uncurtained, all the domestic scenes are lit and presented to the observer in a sequence of unfolding tableaux.
I have lately been flabbergasted by a report in a newspaper that suggests that people are now spending approximately as much time online as they spend watching television. But the evidence of this is clearly presented in the basement flats in the autumn of 2003. The most typical scene displays a young couple. She is on the couch, watching TV; he is at a slight remove, perhaps in an armchair, or at a dining table, and is staring into a biggish laptop computer, most likely a Dell.