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Martina Evans: My life without television

I saw very little television as a child for two reasons. First, Mammy didn’t approve of it

Martina Evans

When the Vandals entered Carthage, they captured it from the Romans without a struggle because most of the city’s population were attending the races at the Hippodrome. I imagine something similar happening in London today except instead of being at the games when the barbarians arrive, we’ll all be in bed wrapped in duvets, watching Netflix.

It would be a neat irony if it was the long-suffering Deliveroo bikers who delivered the news or even the coup de grâce along with the pizza. Or is it us, the pyjama-wearing binge-watchers who are the true Vandals? But weren’t the Vandals terrific patrons of the arts anyway who left behind stunning mosaics and beautiful bathhouses?

Television is rarely associated with culture even though the page-turning novel has played the same escapist role over the last few hundred years. When poetry was still recognised as the supreme fiction, novels were not so highly regarded. In fact they were blamed for turning young girls’ heads. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey reflects this brilliantly and subversively by telling a rattling good tale while simultaneously sending up the gothic novel.

I don’t even own a TV licence because for most of my life, I hardly watched television. This was not because my mind was on higher things but because my life just hadn’t been able to include it. And besides, I was obsessed with fact that I’d never get through my reading list before my death.

How I dreaded people’s reaction to my announcement though. Some stiffened like they’d been hit, said they didn’t watch television either or vowed guiltily to give it up. Others, narrow-eyed, told me that I needed to “have a knowledge of popular culture”. I never listened to the radio either for the same reason and the reaction to that news was very different, “Radio’s very good, you know”, I was told in an improving tone.

Although a fan these days of The Sopranos, The Wire, Treme and especially Twin Peaks, I saw very little television as a child for two reasons. First of all, Mammy didn’t approve of it: “There’s nothing like a good book,” she would say (preferably in front of the doctor or the bank manager) and I agree. Although thinking back on the books we shared when I was precocious child reader, I wonder just how “good” they were.

There was a tremendous excitement triggered by the sweet almost caramel smell of the coloured mobile library van (which I still associate with Urney chocolate bars), as I stretched my short legs over the deep steps to get at the Canon Sheehan and Annie P Smithson romances which Mammy loved. Annie Smithson was one of Mammy’s favourite things – a convert. Converts had everything. Being protestants, they had class but by falling in love with the one holy and apostolic church, they were beatified. It was utterly romantic and whenever Mammy said Convert! in that rapt voice, the pupils of her eyes darkened and I got a frisson.

I see that old 1960s television, high up on its left-hand corner shelf in the bar. I feel the old soft vinyl slightly-ripped seat under my socks because I had to stand on that seat to get to the buttons. Most of the time it was turned down or off. Mammy especially enjoyed turning it off at dramatic moments to shake us out of our stupor. Some tantalising scene would disappear into a point of white light – a dream never to return, like Henry VIII unbuttoning Catherine Howard’s gown on their wedding night. There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that was going to be allowed to continue and I wondered for years what might have happened. You really had to catch things as they were flying then because you rarely got a second look. Little did we know that our world of endless playback was not so far away.

The second reason I didn’t watch television was because it was bound up with one of the worst things you could possibly do which was to ignore the customers, “The height of ignorance” said Mammy. “Customers came in here for conversation not to look at ye staring at it!” The days of shop assistants serving you with one ear glued to the phone were years ahead. In my childhood, customers were not to be “left on their own” with their drinks and I was often sent down to “talk” to someone while my mother was busy. If I got my chance, I’d let rip with stories of the master’s brutality at my national school up the road and she didn’t like that either. Her veneration for the priest, the teacher and the doctor was absolute.

So despite all the talk of “a good book”, reading was considered very bad manners. Even solitaire was forbidden. My older brothers and sisters enforced these rules with gusto but I was deeply addicted to books from the age of three and couldn’t stop. When I read about the Victorian convict on a prison hulk who literally bit the finger off a lag searching his mouth for contraband tobacco, I understood immediately. Once, in that tense few minutes when Mass was over and “a funeral crowd” was galloping towards our bar and shop and I still wasn’t lifting my head from my Enid Blyton, a sister hurled it across the floor. Years later, a watcher spoke of how oblivious I was to blows and shouts until I’d carefully marked my page.

But, with the television perched above his head, it was rude to stare over Tom Twomey, our most faithful regular. He came every night of the week for his pint of Guinness and drop of Powers and sat in that corner, his face as mauve as a mallow, puffing on his pipe by the fire. He was often enraged by the News which was allowed to blare out loudly of course without censorship and along with Daddy, a fellow old freestater, they had plenty to complain about from Haughey’s skulduggery to Princess Margaret, an anathema after she called the Irish pigs. As for Jack Lynch, the sight of him just turned their stomachs.

While they were moaning, I could sneak in a bit of reading: Anne Frank, Maupassant, Alice in Wonderland were special favourites. I wanted to be horrified and didn’t mind being outraged too but it had to be elsewhere even though my vicarious thrills usually came back to bite me. Horror had a terrific draw and still does although I have seen little of it on film or TV for most of my life. They say we watch horror to prepare ourselves for death and I am too frightened perhaps after the trauma of seeing the film version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit in the Pendulum at the Savoy Cinema in Cork in 1968 when I was seven. Where are the censors when you need them? Maybe they thought terror was good for us because it was a truly hellish vision and I wasn’t alone in my fear: Stephen King has rated it as one of the most terrifying films he’s ever seen.

I was one of those annoying dormice who wake up halfway through a film and want to know what’s happening

My last year in national school, everyone was telling stories from an American late night horror series called Night Gallery. I listened, fascinated, safe in the knowledge that Mammy would never allow it. But my 18-year-old older sister decided she’d had enough censorship and insisted on watching it one night in the closed bar. Mammy decided to “leave her at it” as we headed up to bed with our “good books”. Half an hour later, my sister ran into my bedroom terrified, demanding and eventually forcing me to turn off the television because she didn’t dare approach it again. She pushed me down during the ads and while I was standing up on the seat to it turn off, I found myself suddenly cheek to cheek with what I thought was the devil. Whatever he was, I took him with me along with The Exorcist to boarding school at the end of the year.

Naturally there was no television watching at the convent apart from The Song of Bernadette, countless documentaries on Padre Pio, and incongruously, the Eurovision Song Contest, when in a pitch of hormonal excitement everyone flooded down to the study in their pastel quilted dressing gowns to rustle Mars bars and Taytos and admire Johnny Logan.

As I grew up without television, books tightened their grip. I read them covered in brown paper or stuffed into fake missal covers in study or Mass or during rosary whenever or wherever I could manage it. And when I left school, I read my way through my radiography studies at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. My greatest moment of shame was when Sr Patricia found me hiding in the shower during Prof Coakley’s anatomy lecture with Flowers in the Attic and a giant bag of Maltesers. I was doubly shamed because I adored Sr Patricia, my fellow Corkonian in the sea of Dublin 4. I wanted to impress her, not get caught with what could not called “a good book”.

There was even less time for television after that, working as a radiographer studying English literature at the Open University. And later in London working at the Whittington Hospital and Pentonville Prison while my daughter was a baby, I was trying to write the novels which I hoped would be the ultimate escape. And they were, although not in the way I envisioned. It wasn’t worth competing with my husband who watched wall-to-wall sport or whatever else “was on” and books always came first anyway. I loved their portability. They waited for me if I went off into a dream. I was one of those annoying dormice who wake up halfway through a film and want to know what’s happening. Later on, DVDs would change all that with their almost page-turning capabilities.

As my daughter grew up, I began to share TV with her. Sesame Street was a big favourite with the Four Tops’ traffic song a major highlight. Later, I became a devoted Simpsons fan. BBC at 6pm on Tuesdays was the sacred hour when we watched The Simpsons together and then I started cooking while she watched The Fresh Prince of Bel Air as I tuned in and out.

By now I was divorced and as my daughter grew up, the television sat silent. I was free to watch what I liked for the first time in my life. A friend gave me a DVD of Truffaut’s 400 Blows for Christmas and that was the start. A love of westerns and film noir was always latent. I must have managed to watch some of them above Tom Twomey’s head or maybe on a rare quiet afternoon in the bar. A widescreen colour 1950s western, something by John Ford, Howard Hawks or Anthony Mann with its graceful actors – both human and equine – its deep blues, sandy ochres and rusty browns, is so beautiful to me, can lull me into such a sense of peace, that I can only assume that once upon a time before I can remember, I must have been very happy watching a western.

From westerns, it was a quick step to Kurosawa. A friend at the National Film and Television School in London introduced me to Ozu, Renoir, Bresson. It was almost as exciting as learning to read. Doors sprang open in all directions as I discovered poetry in the most unlikely places like the Budd Boetticher’s B movies or Monte Hellman’s acid westerns. I was a visiting poet at the National Film and Television School for seven years. Every summer term, I went to talk to the documentary students before they made their film poem and left with a pile recommendations. I’d been aware of a connection between poetry and film and now it all made sense; the power of the image, how the freedom of the camera reflected poetry’s elasticity, the endless fascinating ways that film and poetry can wrap up time.

When our battered Sainsbury’s 22-inch TV died, I went to the John Lewis sale, searching in vain for “a TV that isn’t flat”. The assistant explained about the technological revolution which had happened while I was busy teaching or dreaming in Dalston. A flat TV needn’t be an expensive plasma model so we were excited when they delivered our 32-inch set. I walked miles to get rid of the cardboard box, convinced that if anyone suspected we owned such a luxury item, we were bound to be burgled if not killed for it. The TV was just for film watching and we could disappear into box sets too, turning their pages like a books.

One visitor gasped at the size of our bargain TV, his was “this tiny one that didn’t come out very often”, reminding me of the working-class girls at my daughter’s secondary school in south Hackney. They were never fooled, cannily observing that “posh people” had the smallest TVs. Soon after, I overheard two writers talking: one writer’s GP had a theory that his patients’ TVs were inversely proportional to the size of their brains. No doubt the brainy ones loved “a good book”.

When I worked in Irish hospitals in the 1980s, an anaesthetist warned the classier private patients they’d “feel a hint of garlic on the tongue” after a certain injection. The ordinary fellows who he preferred were told they’d get “a strong taste of onions”. Frenchy garlic was more acceptable to delicate dispositions while the clodhoppers never minded the onions. But garlic and onion come from the same family, the alliums. They’re both extremely tasty and pungent.

Does the medium matter? Stories, poems and songs drive us all, rich and poor, Vandal or Roman. Stendhal asserted “the essential thing about a novel must be that the reader who begins it one evening should stay up all night to finish it”. Emily Dickinson said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry”. I crave these two sensations and I don’t care if they come through poems, stories, film, TV, songs or that man in a van, screaming into his phone on Upper Street, “Listen to the Man! Listen to the Man!”

I’ve spent more time gobbling novels with bags of Maltesers than I will ever tear through on Netflix. I nearly fell off a train seat once trying to read The Mirror upside down. It said “Rev Devils” but when I saw it was about motor racing, I lost interest and in that moment, realised something about my relationship with the church. Dante believed we experience stories on four levels; literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical or relating to The End (that is one’s own death or the world’s end). Laughing or crying, on the edge of my seat or meditative, I suspect I’m always preparing for death – the miracle is that I’m allowed to do it my way.

Now We Can Talk Openly About Men (Carcarent) is the latest collection by Martina Evans