This month.....

Let’s all be nonagenarians

My maternal grandmother died when I was 3½ years old, so we are talking more than half a century ago now. She had been ill for a little while and I have very clear memories of her and going and seeing my grandparent who lived on the East side of Reading about 60 miles from my parental home, a big journey in those days.

During my grandmother’s illness I remember my parents investing in two items of technology to make things easier. Firstly, we got a phone installed. We had a party line, remember those, so you had to pick the phone up carefully as there might be someone already on the line. The phone was there so that in an emergency my grandfather could contact us. He also phoned when there wasn’t an emergency, but he didn’t have a phone himself.

To make a call my grandfather would go to the house next door but one, that became a well-known phrase of my early childhood “next door but one”, the house two doors down. My grandfather would then phone from there and I presume we would then phone him back so that the neighbours bill wasn’t impacted too badly.

When we wanted to phone my grandfather my parents would phone “next door but one” the people there (I must ask my mother what their names where, I used to know them but I’ve forgotten) would then go and get my grandfather. We would put the phone down and call back 10 minutes later giving him time to get to the phone.

Well that was posh enough, having our own phone at home, but when my grandmother came to stay that was the excuse to get the second bit of high tech, a television. My uncle had a television and I could remember marvelling at it, it was like the radio but with pictures. It had an amazing 4” black and white screen and when you turned it on you could get yourself a drink in the time it took to warm up.

Well if I thought we were posh when we got a telephone I knew we were posh when we got a television it had a massive 14” black and white screen and, like radio, it worked off VHF and had 405 lines to make up its picture; it was magic. My earliest memory of what I watched was Churchill’s funeral. Later momentous events I remember were the Mexico Olympics in 1968 and of course Neil Armstrong walking on the moon live, I wrote about that last year.

The television was purchased from “Smith’s Radio” the Radio and TV shop in the village, can you imagine a Television shop in one of our villages nowadays? Mr Smith was part of a family who had owned businesses in the village for a number of generations and we got to know him very well as changing electrical valves in our TV became a regular event. Mr Smith had a good business in those days.

So, because of my grandmother’s illness, we ended up on what felt like the cutting edge of technology. We had a telephone (yes with a party line but a telephone) and we had a huge 14” black and white television. Admittedly by the time I left primary school about half the children came from families with a television and one family even had a colour version. Having a telephone was becoming fairly common too.

Even when I had left university most of my friends didn’t have a personal phone line for a few years after we graduated. I didn’t get a phone until I’d been out of university for nearly 5 years and that was in the late 1980’s. I had bought a black and white portable television in the upper sixth at school but the excuse for that was that I needed it as a monitor for my Sinclair ZX81 and then when I went to university I upgraded to a Sinclair Spectrum which was the most powerful computer I had access to, outperforming the computers we had access to in the Physics department. I wrote the software for my 3rd year project on that computer, so it wasn’t just a toy!

I feel very fortunate to have had access to this technology and the main point is that I was also very aware that I was in a minority of people who had such access in those early years. It wasn’t that my parents were rich, we never went on foreign holidays for example, it was really my grandmother who prompted my parents to make the decision to adopt these technologies sooner than later.

Even quite recently we used to ask people if they had a telephone number expecting many to say no. Nowadays we just ask “what’s your number?” and I cannot remember a couple talking to me about a wedding or a baptism who have not given me a mobile number in response to that question in the last 10 years. We’ve nearly got to the same situation with e-mail, soon we will just ask people what their e-mail address is and be surprised if they don’t have one.

I’m very aware that over the last months we have become even more dependent on the Internet. This hasn’t been a sudden change, over a number of years many services have moved online and it has become more and more difficult to do some things other than via the Internet, for instance taxing a car, submitting our Tax returns, doing our banking and many many other aspects of daily life are moving online. The last couple of months have just accelerated that.

I’ve had many meetings online and few days go by without me being part of a video call or conference and I’m fully expecting that a good number of meetings that I’ve been used to going to have effectively permanently moved online. I’ve had at least three meetings online that would have taken me a whole day or more. One was due to be in Salisbury, one in London and another was to be a 24-hour residential meeting in Yorkshire. The first took 3 hours the second and third took 2 hours and the last one saved the organisation £1800 in accommodation costs.

What is obvious is that we are not heading to ‘going back to normal’ we are moving to a new way of doing so many things in our daily lives. Over the last months Joanna and I have been saying morning prayer, joined by others each day, via video conferencing. On no occasion have we been on our own and we are normally joined by at least half a dozen other people. I expect that this is how we are going to join in daily prayer from now on.

Our streamed Sunday services attract about 25 streams which I guess are watched by at least 50 people and that is live, others watch later. It’s estimated that perhaps as many people again watch later in the day, so we may have a congregation of about 100 people! We are also aware that some of our regular attenders of our online Sunday services are people who have not been able to attend church regularly in person but can now do this virtually. We are having to think about how we are going to look after our virtual congregation when we can get back into Church.

But in all of this I am very aware that there are some people out there who don’t have access to the Internet and who are left out of all this. I’ve been very grateful to those in our villages who have printed off Sunday service sheets, grapevine and other information and pushed those through people’s doors who don’t have Internet access so they can at least be kept in the know.

When I was a child it was cost that prevented people having a phone (does my mum really believe me when I tell her that on her new contract she has infinite phone calls and text messages? It’s not so long ago that she kept phone calls to just a few minutes because of the perceived cost). Now few people don’t have a phone and it’s amusing that mobile phone calls are cheaper than land line calls for most people. Most people of working age only keep a physical line for Internet access.

But there are people who don’t have access to the Internet and it’s not likely to be cost that is the issue but that it’s just one more thing to learn to do. I quite understand this. I’m certain that my grandparents wouldn’t have bothered with the phone in the early 1960’s if it hadn’t been for keeping in touch with a family that was spread over quite a distance. I grew up in a community where no one I knew had relatives living within 40 miles.

The Church has always used the latest technology. Letters in the time of the New Testament. Controversially the printing press in the 15th Century helped fuel the reformation. Telephones and even Television in many parts of the world in the 20th Century and from the 1980’s the Internet.

With the adoption of all these technologies it has been the message that has been important but the means that might have caused the problem. The New Testament letters being transferred via the Roman postal system. The printing press enabling a congregation to read what the Bible said rather than being told what it said by the priest; leaving disadvantaged those who could not read. Television enabling people to relatively cheaply reach a huge audience, if they had access to at least a community television. And now the Internet enabling us to get our message out to people all over the world (the furthest person joining us for worship lives in the North East as far as we are aware) but leaving out those without access.

We are at one of those points of massive change and we move into a new way of doing things that we won’t fully understand until we get there but as things change we will, as has happened in the past, leave some behind and we should be aware of this and also aware that it’s okay to decide not to adopt something new.

Everyone who I have ever known who was 90 years old or older (and at one point I knew 6 people over 100) have had one thing in common and that has been their attitude to technology. They’d looked at it and asked themselves if they wanted to be bothered. If they have, they have taken it onboard and made the most of it; I’ve known many people in their 90’s who thought their smartphone was just brilliant and were up with all the latest aps. Others have decided they were not going to be bothered with it and they’ve not worried about it and let it go.

It tends to be the young who worry about new technology and in this context a young person is anyone in their 80’s or younger. Perhaps we need to learn from those nonagenarians and be relaxed about technology, whether we adopt it or let it pass us by, as long as we make an informed decision about it and find a way to keep accessing the message by whatever means we feel comfortable with. Always of course testing the validity of that message, fake news isn’t just on the Internet!

Keep safe, keep well and keep relaxed about technology!

Richard Curtis


PS. I’ve just noticed that since I know we are only going to produce electronic copies of the magazine this month (to prevent putting people at risk) that I’ve subconsciously not worried about my word count!!!