Yesterday I did something that I probably haven’t done in the last ten years; I spent my day offline; no mobile phone, no computer, no iPad, no Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram, no blogging, no Internet searching… Nothing!
Now, fear not; I didn’t do this because I think all of these things are in some way, shape or form wrong. They aren’t. I love them all… But I did fancy a day of being unhooked from the World Wide Web, an escape, a bit of, dare I say, freedom? I wanted some quality time to think & reflect about the next academic year & the challenges & opportunities that it may bring both within and away from the school where I work. Everything was switched off shortly before midnight on Sunday evening and nothing was switched back on again until this morning. It would be over-egging it just a little to say that I was nervous (about what?) but I was intrigued to see if I was indeed able to stick with it throughout the day. Would I crumble at the moment when I had the perfect 140 character comment to make on Twitter? Seeing the sun glint against the water of the Kennet & Avon Canal, could I resist the temptation to grasp my phone, snap a picture & upload for all to see via Instagram?
I woke, climbed out of bed but quickly lay back down, this time on the sofa. To my side was a pile of books that are at risk of becoming ornaments as they have been sitting on my coffee table for quite some time, unread. I picked one of them up; Paul Theroux’s The Pillars Of Hercules. I bought this quite a few years ago and read it at the time but retrieved it recently from the bookshelf as it is the only book I know of which recounts a journey around the shores of the Mediterranean and so is a valuable source of research for my own little bike trip next summer. I spent a good hour reading about the author’s experiences in Gibraltar. When did I last spend a continuous hour reading a book. I had some ironing to do so I switched on the radio and, for another full hour, without distractions, I listened to Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour which had, for a special Bank Holiday edition, joined forces with Radio 5’s Men’s Hour* to broadcast a joint programme all about secrecy. I listen a lot to the radio but when I do, I’m usually doing something else – often online – which distracts from quality listening. My ironing took me only fifteen minutes so I spent a good half an hour doing nothing but listening to the radio. I resisted the temptations of jumping up and Googling things that were mentioned in the programme and of which I was curious to find out more. I just listened & thought.
(* Shouldn’t it be ‘Man’s Hour‘?)
I then went into town to do the food shopping (after a week away, the fridge was bare) pausing en route at Waterstone’s, WHSmith’s & Staples. I had no mobile phone on me so at that point I really was cut off. At least at home, if anyone really did want to contact me they could have picked up the landline and dialled my number, just like people did in the old days. That said, who knows what my landline number is apart from members of my family? I sometimes struggle to remember what it is myself? 3022 at the end? Or could it be 4022? I seem to spend an increasing amount of time when walking around looking at the screen of my iPhone thinking of the latest witticism to post on Twitter or responding in a clever fashion to those of others. I didn’t have that to occupy my mind so my eyes were lifted to the buildings, trees and people around me. OK, this is Reading so I didn’t see Renaissance palazzos or Milanese catwalk models around me but it was nice to amble along and just pass the time of day with the things that I could see rather than those which I couldn’t.
Shopping done I went to the pub with the newspaper. It’s what Wetherspoon’s was invented for, no? People on their own, reading the paper… Again, just like I had spent quality time with Paul Theroux in Gibraltar earlier in the day and then Jane Garvey and Tim Samuels had my undivided attention during Woman’s Hours, I spent a good couple of hours reading about (amongst other things) a visit by a journalist to see Asil Nadir in Northern Cyprus twenty years ago, about Sandy Toksvig’s new novel, Valentine Grey, all about a young woman who goes to fight in the Boer war in a bicycling regiment (did you know that such a think once existed?) & spent a few moments trying to find a solution to the problem posed by one reader who is looking for advice as to how to tactfully ask her upstairs neighbour to stop shagging so loudly. It’s a tricky one (and I don’t have any suggestions sorry). I didn’t, sorry I couldn’t break off mid-sentence and decide to Google some tit-bit of information that was mentioned in passing or search Wikipedia for more info about the bicycling regiment of the Boer War (but I did just now and here it is). I simply read the newspaper and thought about it.
My time in the pub wasn’t quite finished; my mini tour of the stationers of Reading had resulted in me finding the best value Moleskine books that I could find. Normally, I would have perhaps done this research online prior to setting off but it wasn’t too much of a struggle to work out that the answer was Waterstones (‘buy one, get one half price’ so I did even though I only needed one; perhaps not such a good deal after all). I opened a double page of the notebook and sketched out, in spider diagram form, my thoughts, plans, aspirations, dreams, (fears?) for the academic year approaching. A second, similar diagram focussed on my cycle along the Eurovelo 8 from Athens to Cadiz pencilled in for summer 2013. Yet again, a bit of quality, uninterrupted time devoted to thinking…
Back home, sleepy after the beer, I succumbed to a bit of slumber before reading a little more of Paul Theroux. The app on my phone that tells me what’s on the TV was not available so I picked up the newspaper and searched for the listings. Nothing to scroll, nothing to click on, just a list of the programmes on each of the main channels. It’s quite an effective way of deciding what you want to watch and I think it may catch on. I knew that anything I chose would have my undivided attention so I chose some highbrow options; University Challenge (Jesus College, Oxford had clearly been shamed by last year’s pitiful performance and actually made an effort with team selection; they beat Queen Mary College, London), Only Connect on BBC4 with the ‘is-she-annoying-or-not?’ Victoria Coren and then a fascinating, at times scary must-see Horizon documentary entitled ‘How Big Is The Universe?’. I’m not giving the game away by saying that it’s very big, very big indeed (which we all knew anyway but I guarantee you will be scratching your head & saying to yourself ‘that’s not what they told me at school’ if you do chose to watch it). It was the kind of documentary that requires your undivided attention; 100%. Nothing else will suffice as if you miss even a minute, the thread is lost and you’ll get confused. The perfect programme to watch when you have decided to spend a day offline… I paused and thought carefully about what I had seen. I’m still thinking about it now.
It would have been tempting at the end of the day so say ‘Hey! That’s 24 hours up! I’ll go back online now’ but I resisted and went to bed ignorant of the new Twitter followers I had gained, unknowing of comments made @CyclingEurope (or indeed @ReggieTheBike), oblivious to any new ‘likes’ on the Good Vibrations Facebook page, or how many new Kindle sales had been made, unaware of any ‘important’ emails, texts, calls or answer phone messages.
I enjoyed my day. The only downside was the challenge involved in trying to minimise the number of times I thought “I’ll just look that up on…” or ‘That would look good on…”. I spent some quality time doing some quality activities and although I have no intention of repeating the exercise anytime soon (although may well do so when I need to do some more serious thinking), I do need to perhaps choose my online moments a bit more carefully. Move away from the phone and read, listen, watch, think. Just as vinaigrette will only stay mixed if you keep shaking the bottle (and it does taste good when you stick it on some lettuce), the quality of the olive oil, vinegar & mustard can only really be appreciated when you taste them alone. Or is that an analogy too far? It’s all this quality thinking time.