So, it turns out giving up News is harder than giving up chocolate. Harder even, than giving up the internet. It’s not as hard as giving up cafés; that year I failed at Lent and failed early. But giving up news is tricksy because news is everywhere. It’s not just the internet. It’s radio and newspaper headlines and then there’s people who just tell you things.
I had stated my Lenten terms in advance, telling my husband: don’t give me News unless we win the lottery or the queen dies. Even if war is declared, I don’t want to know. If there’s a nuclear apocalypse I’d rather vaporise in ignorance. (Not that anyone would nuke Northumberland, England’s most wildly beautiful and sparsely-populated county. But what I do I know? We could make a useful demo target for an evil megaweapon. Next week I could be standing next to Darth Trumpster saying: “No! Northumberland is peaceful! We have no weapons, you can’t possibly… ”)
Eleven days into my news blackout, I told my husband I was glad I’d given up News for Lent because the News had been so bad recently, and fascinating and addictive, especially the News from America. “Hey, they’ve had a recount, he says, “and Clinton has won!”
He doesn’t do Lent, my husband. He’s a relaxed, confident sort of atheist. If it isn’t animal, vegetable or mineral it doesn’t exist, whereas I believe in Mystery and on a good day, Grace. That’s as far as I’m prepared to go which is still way, way beyond animal vegetable or mineral. So, I’ve given up News for Lent out of curiosity and for mental exercise and to see what, if anything, animal vegetable, mineral or even spiritual fills the void in my life where the News used to be.
It’s been so much harder and more ridiculous than I thought e.g. On Thursday night, I averted my eyes from the newspaper a friend was reading on our makeshift wine bar at a concert (never been tempted to give up wine) and it made me remember there is a Jesuit practise known as ‘guardianship of the eyes’ which I only know about because one of my favourite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins practised it, keeping his eyes on the ground for months at a time, refraining from visible earthly distraction.
Dear Father Gerard, I’m a great fan of your work – your poems, that is. Your Terrible Sonnets I know off by heart. (I think of the time I marched round Edinburgh muttering: “No, I’ll not carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee”). I’m sure you would have found the Internet a distraction in many ways but you would have been astoundingly brilliant at Twitter, @GerardHopkinsSJ, revelling in those 140 characters and wondering if your Jesuit superior might permit a link to Poemhunter. I know you would have prayed for your trolls. I’m sure you would have been upset by the News.
I’ve missed the news bulletins on Radio 4, those little anchors in my day. I’ve missed news on the hour like a smoker misses a smoke.
The most surprising thing of all is that after just one week of news abstinence, I’ve found myself thinking about the people whose voices I only know from podcasts. Radio 4 will officially endure until the apocalypse but I can’t be sure about the American podcasts I follow. Will they still be there to comment on the Last Trump? Two podcasts in particular: Foreign Policy “The ER” (The Editor’s Roundtable) An excellent podcast. It’s killing me giving it up for Lent. And Trumpcast. Susan Hennessy from Lawfareblog has been on both these favourite podcasts. My heroine. If she had gone to my girls’ school she would have been Head Girl. And from Foreign Policy there’s Julia Ioffe whose Russian backstory and “It’ll be worse tomorrow” pinned tweet appalls me and blows my mind and Rosa Brooks – nerves of steel, shrugging off the trolls and death threats, I wouldn’t mess with her, and Kori Schake whose voice is amazing, like she’s spent her entire life singing contralto like Dietrich through a haze of blue smoke.
And I so miss David Rothkopf who is such an arch sarcasticist he does not deserve my sympathy but he has it anyway. I’m glad he has daughters to keep him in line. I loved the episode when he made reference to the Pismo Beach Disaster in the context of discussing fake news and political misinformation.
Once, before Lent, I heard Rothkopf’s instantly recognisable American voice on Radio 4, and I turned the kettle off so I could listen better. I actually stood there without filling the teapot because I really wanted to hear, right then, what he had to say. It was disconcerting hearing him in a different audio context, like bumping into your ski instructor in a bowling alley. “Gosh, what are you doing here? So you go bowling too?”
I am also missing Jacob Weisberg who started Trumpcast. Another great voice: shrewd, humorous, instantly likeable. He was once on Foreign Policy, discussing what fiction to read in the present catastrophe, and he laughed more than the other voices I’ve mentioned (apart from Kori Schake whose laugh stops me in my tracks, it’s so dramatic. Her laugh could stop a train.) I’ve found myself caring about these people, wondering how they’re getting on.
See the power of the podcast? The audible voice turns out to be more necessary to me than the writer’s voice and God knows I love the writer’s voice. I miss the news podcasts because I miss their personalities and their repartee and their conscientious efforts to inject academic rigour into their looping conversations and I also miss their swearing and their outrage and the kind of humour that subverts fear, whether they are aware of that last bit or not.
I miss you, podcast voices from America. I’ll hear you again at Easter – if we are spared.
“Later, when we were discussing the Pismo Beach Disaster,
I decided I needed a complete makeover,
only this time I makeover my soul.”