Tuesday 18 June 2019

David Robbins: Forget Twitter and stare aimlessly out of a window instead -- it's just a thought

A thought struck me as I was sitting and looking vacantly out of the window of the Dart this week. A small thought. Not a full-blown pensée, mind you, but the germ of an idea that could lead to great things.

It was this: we have lost the ability to sit and look vacantly out of train windows.

All about me, people were playing games on their smartphones, or reading books on their Kindles.

But no one, apart from me, was just sitting there, letting their mind wander where it would, absently watching the scenery go by.

The thoughts that flitted through my idling mind were as follows: I thought of my recent holiday in France, where between us all, we mustered six iPhones, two iPads and two laptops.

My iPhone disappeared every day, only to be found two hours later, battery dead and screen covered in chocolatey finger marks.

Everyone else's phone was kidnapped, too, and at one stage, we found all six kids up in the attic, all playing Minecraft on purloined mobile devices.

Then I thought of my wife, probably at home by now, playing Harbor Master on her iPad. I am a Harbor Master widower. I have lost my wife to an app.

Not that I am immune myself. I have been known to play Flick Rugby now and then, and went through a nasty Angry Birds phase.

I have given myself a good talking to since, but there was a time when I couldn't go anywhere without asking whether they had wi-fi.

In shops, hotels, bars, restaurants and even the Tate Modern, the first thing I did was to go to 'settings' and see if there was a network available. Those three little bars filling up lifted my heart. I was connected.

It was a little more difficult in France. The French for wi-fi is, ah, wi-fi, but they pronounce it weee-feee. It sounds close enough to "whiffy" to make six kids between eight and 13 crack up every time.

I hit rock bottom on a trip to London. We were treating ourselves to a meal at Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurant, Nopi.

The only table we could get was at a communal trestle affair in the basement. (I didn't tell them who I was, of course.)

I have been cooking Ottolenghi's food for a few years now. Or trying to. His list of ingredients is daunting, and several key elements are often unobtainable. He has a fondness for preserved lemons, for instance. However, he's worth sticking with.

So here I was, at the table of my master, and what did I do? Yep, opened 'settings' and checked for a wi-fi signal. There was one, even in the basement, and I asked the waitress for the password.

"No, sir," she said, "that's our office network. Diners cannot access it." And she gave me a look that conveyed to me the utter depravity of my addiction.

You're here to eat, to enjoy the food -- which was excellent, by the way; a sort of über-tapas affair with lots of small, delicious dishes -- and the wine and the whole, 360-degree experience, her look seemed to say, not to check your email.

I was suitably chastened. I realised that the desire to be connected is part of the modern dread of being left alone with your thoughts.

No one now wants to be seen to be simply staring gormlessly into the middle distance. They want to seem busy, hip and popular. They take out their phones.

Yet it is into these vacant moments that the most profound thoughts find their way. Archimedes famously came up with the idea of displacement while in the bath.

Newton came up with gravity while walking in his orchard. Bertrand Russell, the great philosopher, wrote an essay entitled In Praise of Idleness. There is even an annual periodical called The Idler that campaigns against the work ethic.

In his essay, Russell tells the story of the traveller to Naples who sees 12 beggars sitting in the shade. He offers a lira to the laziest. Eleven jump up to claim the prize but, of course, he gave it to the 12th, who was too lazy to move.

Back in my Dart carriage, alone with my great idea, I faced a dilemma. What to do with a thought this big? Hmmm. Twitter or Facebook?


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