The last unwired man on earth

If there was ever a case for someone to be on the Internet, our resident poet Martin Newell is it. But he remains a devotee of snail mail. He would rather read a book than spend hours online. He finds a piano more useful than a computer. Welcome to the world of the unplugged
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The Independent Culture

I can't remember when I first heard "The Threat", but I think it was about four or five years ago. Great song. This is how the lyrics go: "In about two years time, everybody's gonna be on the Internet and if you don't get yourself on it you'll be left behind, lose all your work, your partner will leave you and your dog will die." Well actually, that last bit isn't quite true, it's just that I occasionally mix real life up with old Country & Western lyrics.

I can't remember when I first heard "The Threat", but I think it was about four or five years ago. Great song. This is how the lyrics go: "In about two years time, everybody's gonna be on the Internet and if you don't get yourself on it you'll be left behind, lose all your work, your partner will leave you and your dog will die." Well actually, that last bit isn't quite true, it's just that I occasionally mix real life up with old Country & Western lyrics.

I am Internot. That is, I have no desire to be on the Internet.

A book published last year, David Rowan's Glossary For The Nineties contains two expressions which could apply to people such as myself. " The Digital Homeless - Unwired old timers who are going to miss out on the new communications world." Or: " Offliner - one who prefers not to use the Internet."

The small Essex town where I live is just down the road from Essex University. It's also an hour's commute from London, so it's favoured by quite a few City workers too. I'm well aware of the Internet. Boy, am I aware of the Internet! I cannot move for people setting up websites, talking www-slash-dotcoms and worrying about updating and upgrading. You can buy and sell houses on the Internet. You can book holidays, buy a pool-table and, so I hear, even get a divorce on the Internet. In fact, if my dog's life ever was in any danger, I could even consult a vet on the Internet. Or maybe he's called the Intervet.

Years ago I remember reading an underground comic called Wonder Warthog. In the story, our hero, Wonder Warthog, had to save Planet Earth from the Pigs of Uranus. The Pigs of Uranus had one objective, which was to get everybody consuming as much as possible. To this end, they simply moved all the citizens into apartments, each one containing only a television and a toilet There was no bed in the apartment because you weren't encouraged to sleep. Periodically, one of the Pigs would come round and sell you a jar of uppers to keep you awake. The idea was that each earthling would be watching, consuming and excreting as much as possible until the planet was a sufficiently polluted-enough environment for the Pigs of Uranus to take over.

The more time gets on, the more I begin to think that Wonder Warthog wasn't just some old deviant satire on the evils of capitalism, but an astute, if slightly crude prophesy.

Information released recently stated that the number of home-users of the Internet doubled to five million in the first 10 months of this year. It also said that 40 per cent of the people in Britain -- that's 18.6 million people to you, used it to spend £2bn in the past 12 months. We can sit in front of our screens, ordering whatever we want, whenever we want, 24 hours a day, and pay for it all electronically. Watching, consuming and excreting. If ever there was a case for a man needing to be on the Internet, I might be it. Although I work as pop poet and writer now, I started off as a musician. I was in several bands, most notably the by now notorious Cleaners From Venus, who recorded a brace of pre-Britpop albums and singles in the 1980s.

When I got fed up with them, on the eve of a very important German tour, I ran away and became a gardener. Our keyboard player, Giles Smith, later wrote a bestseller, Lost in Music, in which he described me as "an anguished pop guerrilla". Great press, but I was just skint and knackered. Later on, I formed the Brotherhood of Lizards, whose chief claim to fame was that we toured England by bicycle to promote our first album. Numerous solo projects and collaborations with luminaries such as Captain Sensible, formerly of the Damned, and XTC's Andy Partridge, eventually led to my becoming a cult (I think that's what they called it) in Japan, America, France and Germany.

In other words, there was lots of product. Still is. Most of the old stuff has been re-released in some form by small-but-worthy record labels. Should I be promoting this stuff? Er, I dunno. And anyway, I'm a jocular poet now, with several books out and regular performances. I don't have a marketing plan. Stuff comes out. People get hold of it. So what? In fact I've got another book coming out soon. It's called "New". You want it. Go and find it.

To complicate matters even further, I live well away from London and hardly ever go there. I don't have a mobile phone and I don't intend to get one. Can't drive a car. Won't fly. Not keen on meetings, and won't travel abroad any more. According to certain people I know, I should have been homeless in a doorway with a four-pack of Special Brew by now. Or at least unemployable. And yet I always have work.

"But how will we get hold of you?" people ask, in a tone I usually associate with anguished parents pleading with a runaway daughter calling from a phone-box. Well... you can telephone me. Or fax me. Or you could try writing me a letter. The new expression for writing letters is snail-mail, apparently. Trÿs declassé.

From what I know about the Net, or the World Wide Wait as I once overheard it called, perhaps Lt. Pot should hang fire for a while before he starts calling Capt. Kettle black. As a congenital sender and receiver of snail-mail, I can only remember about two occasions in twenty -odd years when a letter has gone astray. Exactly how many bits of info has your machinery swallowed this month, brave cybernaut? There's the access to information though. While doing some research on a fairly esoteric subject earlier this year, I was told by a friend that 37 Internet pages existed upon the matter. He downloaded them for me. Mostly they were useless. The information I received was largely superficial and in one or two cases, inputted (I believe that's the word) by someone who I suspect may have had a kangaroo loose in his top paddock. In the end I went to the local reference library, where a reassuringly stern librarian plonked a huge pile of books on the table in front of me and said: "That should be a start." I had everything I needed within an hour and a half.

Computers are so ugly and bulky. Buying a laptop I can understand, because you can put it away. But all that dreadful grey-white office junk in your living space? My own word-processor is very small with screen, keyboard and printer all in one unit. It can be quickly shoved in the cupboard when I'm not using it. In fact, even this is too ugly for me, and in a fit of defiance which horrified a techie I know, I glued a piece of tapestry on the space between the keyboard and the screen to make it look more homely.

I almost bought a computer once but decided that a piano would be more useful and more fun, so I spent the money having one fork- lifted up into my first-floor living room. While others are getting neck-ache and headaches and running up their phone bills, rest assured that I've almost figured out how to play the first few bars of Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat". Albeit in C minor.

Speaking of music, I hear that we are now downloading our music from the Net. Well, my loves, whatever it is that over-excited musicians might tell you about the record companies not having caught up with technology yet, and whatever bills our rulers may try and rush through parliament pertaining to intellectual property, I do not believe that the art/money equation will in any way be changed by the Net. As long as musicians make music, businessmen will find ways of stealing money from them.

As I may have hinted at earlier on in this piece, it strikes me that the main reason the Internet exists, apart from being a thing in itself, is for shopping and advertising. Now I know a little bit about shopping, because I get on my bicycle and go to the greengrocers every once in a while. There's also this marvellous little alternative to it's called my local bookshop. It has human beings working in it. Whenever I want a particular book, I just walk down there or telephone them, and they find it for me. Within a day or two I always have it.

It could be that I've got the Internet all wrong. In common with everyone else, I see the full-page newspaper ads offering me the whole kit and caboodle and telling me that I can get myself Connected And Talking in time for The Millennium. It usually costs just under a thousand pounds. Wow! What a bargain. I could get a Hammond organ fork-lifted up here for that. It could be that I'll be forced to get on to the Internet one day. By that time, however, it will have devolved into one tiny little module about the size of an answering machine. It will cost about fifty quid, and it will be instant, as well as idiot-proofed for people like me. More importantly, it will be so common, that you would no more tell anyone in the pub that you'd just spent four hours on the Internet than you would tell them that you'd just spent four hours watching television. The message to the kit-makers here is: if you want to sell me stuff, make it simple and cheap.

Surprisingly enough, although I'm not connected, I did actually find myself on the Internet. I didn't know what to think about this at first. A friend sat me down in front of his screen and we looked me up. Someone had set up an official website for me. I started to read it but I couldn't finish it. And there was more: pages and pages of stuff, fed in by fans of my past musical crimes. Stuff that even I didn't know. Records I'd forgotten making. Things I'd forgotten saying. It was embarrassing and boring and I got a headache after gazing at the screen for half an hour. It was also painfully slow. And the sound of that Thing, what do you call it? The Hard Drive? It kept breathing and clicking and revving till I wanted to belt it with a stick.

I don't hate the Internet. Why would I hate something that I'm uninterested in? The Internet has this capacity for making everything look boring. Even me. What a terrible indictment that is. "I looked myself up on The Internet and I was really boring." Maybe Wonder Warthog will come back and save me.