Don’t shame binge-watchers: TV tells us life has meaning
The poet comes clean on his small-screen obsessions and why his life story falls into ‘The Twilight Zone’
I’ve rarely written very honestly, or at least with any allegiance to the facts. Facts in poetry mostly get in the way of the truth. Indeed poetry’s main attraction is that I get to make things up, and improve on the look of things, the outcomes of events. While my younger poetic colleagues all make a fetish of their authenticity, I’m about as naturally confessional as a housebrick.
But recently I decided that this couldn’t hold: too much was happening in my life that required actual honouring, not a word I can normally use without choking. It was then I remembered The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s classic series of paranoid tales that began at the height of the Cold War, and when McCarthy was a very recent memory. The formula is straightforward: someone is tending a bar, landing a plane, cleaning a glass – then a natural law is bent or broken, a huge lie is uncovered, or another dimension revealed. I realised that most of the important things that have happened to me – a death, a deception, a sudden change of circumstance – had the force of a paranormal event, in that they ripped a hole in the fabric of the known. So I ended up writing a book, Zonal, which read my own life through the lens of The Twilight Zone.
But Zonal is also really a book about television. It covers all my other obsessions and addictions – guitars, American billiards, video games, Solpadeine Max (the painkiller’s painkiller) – but it also ’fesses up to just how much TV I watch. It wasn’t always this way. After I left Scotland in the 1980s, I gave it up on the reasonable grounds that there was nothing much worth watching. Even the stuff we thought was probably wasn’t. (Have you seen a Dennis Potter play recently?) The TV in my classically grim Tottenham bedsit was literally unwatchable anyway: a mid-1970s sexy horror of a black-and-white set with smoked plastic glass, which turned everything into a seance. It was actually easier to follow the snooker on the radio. After that, I stayed TV-less for almost 20 years, and read instead...