Tales of the City: The medium is the message

Truly, he is a man of the cloth
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The Independent Online

It was, I think, when I yelled at the children to stop playing 50 Cent on the kitchen ghetto-blaster because I wanted to watch Rachel Weisz in The Mummy, and later found one of them using a Sony Ericsson mobile to photograph a still from a new, extravagantly violent GameCube entertainment called LA Mugger or something equally edifying, and send it to his cousin in Ireland, that I began to wonder about the takeover of our lives by The Media.

The word used to mean merely your living-room TV, your alarm-clock radio and your morning paper, nothing more. Now it extends from the hundredweight of newsprint in the recycling bin outside the front door to the seven internet access sites on bits of machinery all over the home, from the Toshiba laptop in the shed to the Bluetooth-activated, make-supper-at-your-command cooker in the kitchen. A simple inventory reveals that I now live among three plug-in telephones, four mobiles with messaging and videoing facility, four televisions, two videos, three portable hi-fis, two personal stereos, one fax machine (defunct), two desk-top computers, two laptops, six radios and an old green Adler portable typewriter.

This means that the amount of stuff in the outside world being communicated to me every week is about 2,000 times more than it was 10 years ago. Accordingly, my capacity to use the media to interface with the world has increased by a similar factor. But do I? Do I hell. I tell myself we have to get three papers every Sunday in order (as sophisticated consumers) to compare media coverage, discern political partisanship and detect evidence of news management.

The fact that I end up reading three reviews of Shaun of the Dead, and retain not a single story from the news sections, is presumably just an aberration. I watch far less TV than I used to, I ring friends less than I used to (what is e-mail for except for getting in touch without worrying about one's tone of voice?), I have a handsome library of 120 classic-film videos without having any time to watch most of them.

Arrgghhh! I'm in a classic bind of the modern age - living in a tendrilous, bleeping network of electronic media without the time or the chill-out impulse to enjoy them, and a nagging feeling that I hate the endless, sleeve-tugging claims they make on my attention even as I'm tuning in for my latest fix. How do you learn to love the things from which you're always trying to escape?

The novelist David Hughes has been wrestling with this conundrum for some time (his own inventory of electronica is worse than mine) and in his sparkling new book, The Hack's Tale (out soon from Bloomsbury), he decides to do something about it. He delves into history to examine the lives of three men who invented "the media", and ask why they did it. The men are Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales first drew the human race into considering the lives of ordinary people picturesquely different from ourselves; Froissart, the French historian of the Chronicles, the first to realise how irresistible good eye-witness reportage can be; and Boccaccio, of The Decameron, who gave the pop-eyed world its first crisply adult believe-it-or-not stories.

Hughes's inspired journey to the roots of historical medialand takes him all over Europe and sees him conclude that he could live without it all ("I have steeled myself into becoming the one and only force that can invade my privacy") while admiring the original impulses behind journalism, reportage and juicy revelation. But the ending is charmingly ambiguous. He is found lying in hospital, getting over a nasty leg operation, while he philosophises about not letting our lives be ruled by images, electronics and media whatnots. And that's when the surgeon arrives with a complimentary record of his operation on video. Blimey. When did our own traumatised insides become a subject of entertainment and souvenir?

Truly, he is a man of the cloth

I once worked at Victor Gollancz, the publishers, when they'd just brought out Ian Wilson's book about the Turin Shroud. It was a huge bestseller and, as I sat in the publicity department, sending out photographs and posters and laminated stills to thunderstruck readers, I became more familiar with the sorrowful face of Christ than with my own lovely 23-year-old visage.

It was quite a story, about the large funeral cloth on which the face, body, arms and legs (complete with nail-wounds) of a lanky, long-haired, bearded man could be very dimly perceived - until, that is, you took a photograph of it and the resulting negative made everything spring into alarming focus. How, Wilson asked, could the imprinting on the cloth have happened? The only explanation was that it was annealed there by a burst of radioactive energy, the kind of once-in-a-lifetime blitz of crazy weather caused by the Resurrection, about 1,970 years ago last Sunday. (The "oo-er" factor was strong among believers, and caused a fair old frisson among non-believers, too. I can still feel it stirring tiny rabbits on my spine.) Then some carbon-dating experts said the cloth was made in the 1300s, so it couldn't have been around at Calvary (not to mention the label saying "Hand Wash Only" in Aramaic) and we all felt rather cheated.

So I was suspicious when I heard that the Institute of Physics in London had examined the Shroud and announced that they'd found "a ghostly image" on the back of it. No, it isn't a picture of the back of Christ's head, it's another face, on which you can make out a nose, eyes, hair and beard.

But whose face? Who could possibly be sufficiently deserving to share the burial garment of God? There's only one possible candidate. Check out those sardonic blue eyes, that slightly manic smile, that air of wounded self-righteousness. It doesn't take a genius or a carbon-dating machine to discern the lineaments of Mr Mel "I am the Way, the Truth and the Light" Gibson.

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