No advertising today please…

penI had not realised until recently how much I dislike advertising. I have always been averse to it, but in my youth took very little notice of it and prided myself in believing that I was completely uninfluenced by it, that I had never bought anything because of an advert; most of it seemed completely idiotic to me; I found it hard to believe that anybody could be taken in by it. But it must work; otherwise we would not be so inundated with it.

Until a few years ago, I suppose I ignored it. I rarely watched commercial TV and somehow managed to avoid noticing the adverts when I did. Six years ago I bought a DVD which could edit recorded programmes, so now I very rarely have to put up with adverts – I simply pre-record, edit out the adverts and watch. On the occasions when there is something too good to miss though, I do sit through them. In 2011 Ofcom announced an increase from 7 minutes to 12 minutes of adverts allowed in an hour. Now, there was certainly more than 7 minutes before the increase and since the increase there is more than 12 minutes. Perhaps the seven minutes was manageable; it was possible to stay with a programme despite it; it was not too intrusive: two short breaks an hour or three very short breaks were just about acceptable.

Now the amount of advertising is definitely intrusive and there is much more than 12 minutes an hour. One example is the US import, Homeland. It is scheduled at one hour and five minutes, but my edited version (adverts removed) comes out at 41 or 42 minutes. Although the second and third series are pretty silly, it’s just about watchable. But it is impossible to watch live; the adverts are just too intrusive. After the lengthy introduction which is shown every week and the lengthy recap of what’s been happening, the first break comes after about 8 minutes, barely longer than the break which follows it. It is impossible to get involved in the storyline, the breaks come too often and are too long – all narrative flow is lost.

The extended breaks were originally proposed for a trial run. I doubt if there was any intention for this to be temporary; the breaks have continued and, without any announcement or permission, extended. It is claimed that broadcasters would invest more money in drama. That may be true, all commercial drama is now sponsored by somebody, but the dramas produced are just vehicles for advertising. I can’t think of one memorable drama that has come from ITV, despite an increase in production. Broadchurch was probably the best, but it was spoiled by being too long with a ridiculous and sentimental ending; it contained the same amount of adverts as the US imports with only 42 or 43 minutes of actual programming.

Broadcasters get around the new laws by starting programmes late and finishing early. They tag on adverts for their own programmes so that each break is 5, 6 or 7 minutes, fifteen to twenty minutes in total. I think the new laws have rendered commercial TV unwatchable. The fact that it is watched by millions says rather a lot about the people who watch it. How they allow themselves to be subjected to the advertising, I don’t know. Presumably a great many are influenced by it.

I remember twenty years ago that programmes had two breaks per hour. I can’t remember how long they were, perhaps three or four minutes. It was bearable. I also remember more adverts containing humour, so that even if you were not interested in the product, you could have a laugh about the ad. Adverts now seem consistently puerile, as if the advertising people are assuming that the audience are idiots. One has to assume by the size of the audiences that most of those watching probably are idiots. I find it amazing that people still complain about the BBC licence fee. Every argument against it has people moaning about having to pay it when they don’t watch it. Firstly, I don’t believe that they never watch it, and secondly, if you object to paying less that £3 a week for an advert free station, including radio, a world service, BBC 1, 2, 3 and 4 and the red button, you are probably mad.

I know it is another era and before the time of most of you, but one thinks back to 1981 when Granada serialised Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, with a magnificent cast. It was interrupted briefly twice. Practically the whole country stayed in to watch it, every week. It is unthinkable now that any commercial station would attempt such a thing. The nearest we have had is the recent run of Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2 and Henry V on the BBC. They were appreciated and discussed online, but I suspect it was a very small audience.

Advertising for the new products (phones, laptops, iPads, flat screen TVs) seems to concentrate on their coolness, with dozens of happy but vacant teenagers desperate to replace what they bought six months ago. The ads are beautifully put together but absolutely empty. The same goes for cosmetics and car ads: empty cool; either that or half-wits being persuaded to bet or enjoying their TVs exploding or shooting at them. One after another they are stultifying. I dread to think of the American mind, where they have been subjected to this for much longer with less choice. Last year it was said that the average American was exposed to 3000 adverts per day. I think it is impossible to say; it depends on the individual, but for the incautious viewer or internet user, it is certainly a lot. This country is not far behind.

I would like to think that I have been subjected to no advertising today. Nothing when I get up because I don’t watch anything until I get to work. Since then I have glanced at Facebook but did not look at the ads down the side; I have bought some food but I’m pretty sure that I did not look at any of the many Greggs ads plastered all around the restaurant; I did not register whatever ads my email providers tried to tempt me with; when I get home I may watch some TV but it is very doubtful that it will be a commercial station, if it is I will probably record it and edit the adverts out; I will be subjected to the BBC advertising its own programmes (far too much); their many links are unnecessary and must be exorbitantly expensive. But that’s about it. My dislike of advertising is such that when I do watch something like Homeland, I have to turn the sound down and even turn away or leave the room during the breaks – I can’t even stand to see the images. They are horrible: disgusting, sentimental, unrealistic, very clever garbage. I have become immune and allergic to advertising.

I am off to Cuba this Christmas. Whatever else you might say about Cuba, they do not allow advertising – five channels with no adverts – ever. How long they can hold out I don’t know, but more power to them. And thank God, thank Buddha, thank everyone for DVD players that can edit. I may have to buy a few of them for the future. I’m sure the Americans will ban them some day.

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Victor Hugo did it Naked

Victor Hugo did it naked, standing at a lectern facing a third floor window of his Guernsey home, overlooking St Peter Port harbour. Tennessee Williams couldn’t stop doing it and worried constantly about it. George Orwell thought it “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness”, while Evelyn Waugh required “merely silence” to do it; he preferred his children to be “away”. John Lennon thought it ‘torture’ and GK Chesterton believed there was only one way to do it.

penFor many authors, writing is not a pleasurable experience, although Victor Hugo may have discovered a fun element.

Why am I writing about writing? Well, I’ve written one book and I’m desperately trying to write a second. I didn’t begin writing my first until into middle-age and it took me a few years to complete.  I’d always wanted to write, so why did it take me so long?

Because I will do anything rather than sit down and write; tasks I normally hate: cleaning, paying bills, laundry, suddenly take precedence over writing, even though it’s the writing and the ideas for writing that are constantly swirling around in my mind. When I finally force myself to write, the early stages are the hardest, the period when nothing will come, when I believe I’m an utter moron and question my ability: “who are you kidding, thinking you can write?” This is often the stage where I just have to do that extra piece of research, read the latest book on how to write or the latest author biography, switch on that must-see TV programme – or just give up and open a bottle of wine.

But why is writing so hard?

John Yorke, in his recent book Into the Woods, shows that stories follow a pattern, a common structure. This is not a new idea, far from it, but Yorke believes that the archetypal structure matches deep psychological needs within us all: order from chaos, characters changing, confronting their demons to become the people they were always capable of being. This supplies a need for the reader, who is comforted by the process, identifying with the character that brings order from turmoil, confronts and slays the enemy. The detective story is a perfect example: a problem is solved; there is resolution. Most of us do not confront what we fear; we hide and play it safe. This explains the hunger for stories, be they in books, films, soap operas or reality TV shows: secret fears are confronted and overcome.

I have oversimplified outrageously, but I believe that for many writers the process of sitting down and writing is also, like story structure, a confrontation with the enemy: self-knowledge, not only in the sense of revealing oneself but in conquering doubts over one’s ability. In practical terms writing should be easy, you just sit down (or stand naked at a lectern) and do it. But it isn’t easy. Steven Pressfield in The War of Art puts it bluntly:

“How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumours and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive smart-phone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is telling us to? Resistance defeats us.”

I love the idea of writing, I want to write but hide from its practice, unless … unless I force myself to sit and write, probably awful stuff, for at least an hour. Then, miraculously, something happens – not always, it’s not that easy – and the awful stuff begins to make sense: it flows, ideas appear from everywhere, ideas that had been locked away, ideas locked away by me while I resisted and wasted my time, pour onto the page, ideas I didn’t know I’d had; plots change, characters change, and for a blessed few hours I am creating something, something worthwhile and I am enjoying writing. But that initial process of beginning – it’s hard, and I resist it much more often than I embrace it.

The truth is that writing is very hard work; you have to be dedicated and professional to keep going. Norman Mailer put it well:

“One must be able to do a good day’s work on a bad day, and indeed, that is a badge of honor decent professionals are entitled to wear.”

Apparently more than 80% of people say they want to write a book, but less than 1% do. Not all those would-be writers have the ability to write – The X Factor shows us that believing you have talent and actually possessing it are two very different things – but I’m sure there are many talented people among that group telling themselves every day that they will start that novel tomorrow or next week or after they’ve finished researching the history of Florentine art for that Renaissance murder mystery they’ve been planning for five years. Steven Pressfield, straight as ever, gets right to it:

“We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed.”

And GK Chesterton’s

“one way to do it”

his method of getting it done?

“Apply the seat of the pants to chair and remain there until it’s finished.”

I’m about to do just that, right after I’ve cleaned those windows, they’re filthy.