Musings / Telephilia

In which the author recalls the humiliating evening in 1967 when he and his wife finally recognized they would have to capitulate and buy a TV set.

Circumstances rather than strength of character have tempered my susceptibility to most addictions. Having grown up before the drug culture took hold, not only have I never tried a drug, I would not recognize one if I met it in the street. It was ill health not self-discipline that compelled me to kick my nicotine habit. As for alcohol, my weakness for single malt Scotch and red wine has been held in check though not, I am pleased to say, eradicated by the discovery, early in my working life, that lunchtime drinking sends me to sleep for the rest of the day, a habit that would soon have put an end to my career and hence to my ability to acquire more of the stuff that gladdeneth the heart of man in general and of me in particular.

I can think of only one addiction that has a right to be included in my personal chronicle of wasted time. I am a TV junkie. I find it hard to tear myself away from the television set. Given my druthers (for British readers, a druther is a creature extinct in Europe but common as muck on the other side of the pond), I will watch virtually anything the programmers throw at me. I could never be a TV critic, because when it comes to that medium, I am shamefully uncritical. I have no easy explanation of why you will find me in my armchair totally hooked by shows - snooker, antique clocks, ballroom dancing, cooking demonstrations, political shoutfests - that I would go miles to avoid were they to be shown on a large screen in my local cineplex.

All that will prevent me from switching on at 6:30 tomorrow morning to see a show featuring one of my very favorite literary detectives, Nero Wolfe, is a still, small voice. The still, small voice belongs to Sheila, my bride of 50 years this month. She and I have a love/hate relationship with television: I love it, she hates it. Thanks to Sheila's telephobia we were by far the last of our circle to acquire a TV set.

The day that she relented is etched on our collective memory. It was in 1967, while we still lived in London. One evening the BBC was due to screen "Duck Soup." It is an article of faith in the Fox household that nothing but blind prejudice has permitted "Citizen Kane" and "Battleship Potemkin" to dislodge that sublimely chaotic Marx Brothers film from its rightful place as the best movie ever made. But without a TV set what were we to do? We frantically phoned friends and relations, but found nobody at home that night. I still find it hard to credit what we were reduced to.

Golders Green Road is the long thoroughfare that traverses the heavily religious Jewish neighborhood of Golders Green in northwest London. Studded with synagogues, kosher restaurants and bakeries, the road also contains a number of upmarket stores including, as we recalled, a shop selling television sets. The shop was closed by the time the movie began but displayed in its windows a variety of sets, virtually all of which were in operation and showing "Duck Soup."

Our home was not far from Golders Green, so we arrived in front of the store as the movie commenced and stood shivering in the street for the 68 minutes that the film ran. In effect we had our private, though silent, drive-in cinema, without the popcorn. The absence of sound was the least of our problems. We would have preferred to hear Groucho's wisecracks rather than to lip-read them, but we already knew the best lines by heart. What still wakes me at nights in a cold sweat is the memory of our conduct during the screening of "Duck Soup"'s famous mirror scene, indisputably the funniest five minutes in the history of cinema. As local Hasidim walked by, they were transfixed by the sight of two sober citizens clinging to each other hysterically in the middle of this staid suburban street.

That did it. We were lucky, I think, not to have been jugged by the local constabulary for disorderly behavior. We needed a TV set. But how in our descent from the moral high ground were we to avoid looking like the prigs we most certainly were? Buying a set would look as if we had surrendered to the enemy. Most of our friends viewed our lack of a television as an affectation, but we had one friend who went beyond that. He became incandescent with rage every time he saw our living room bare of what he regarded as the most vital item of furniture in a 20th-century home.

Our solution, contemptible but effective, was in the best tradition of the hypocrisy that is said to be the besetting sin of the English. We bought a tiny Sony black-and-white set, the smallest you could get at the time. When our friends came round, we would, in imitation of the Spanish Conversos concealing their Sabbath candles from the Inquisition, hide our newly acquired set in a cupboard. It took years before, as it were, we came out of the closet.

Sheila has never become reconciled to television. She also distrusts computers, electric can openers, microwave ovens, mobile phones, state-of-the-art corkscrews, automatic gears, electric car windows and digital cameras. We were the last people I know to acquire a cordless telephone because Sheila had heard somewhere that passersby in our suburban Israeli street could use our line for making hour-long calls home to Outer Mongolia or wherever else they hailed from. Still, she is no enemy of technology.

I can think of at least two 20th-century innovations that she has embraced with characteristic warmth: the telephone and the radio. Indeed her otherwise uninterrupted use of the former is only curtailed by her need to stay tuned to the latter. Unhappy to leave the affairs of the nation in the admittedly incompetent hands of the politicians, she finds it necessary to keep herself informed by checking the news broadcasts at least every half-hour. True I shall get the information secondhand, but I am comforted by the thought that if an asteroid hits the earth one day at 1:25 A.M., I shall be among the first to know.

As we enter our second half century, Sheila and I have achieved a reasonable modus vivendi. I find the telephone as abhorrent as does she TV. So she has almost exclusive use of the one and I of the other. At this moment she is providing one of her sisters-in-law with an up-to-the-minute report from the battlefront of our local supermarket. At the same time she is learning for the 17th time today that tomorrow will be partly cloudy and that seamen will find the height of the waves to their liking.

The fact is, I do not find our technology gap too alarming. Despite or even because of their differences, Jack Sprat who ate no fat and his unnamed wife who ate no lean clearly had an idyllic marriage. So have we. Another 50 years please!