I have this memory of being nestled in the cleft of a rock on the isle of Cumbrae, my bike propped up beside me as I sit watching the sea and eating fizzy laces (they were cola-flavoured, or maybe strawberry). I’m on the rugged side of the island, where yellow eyes and strange animal faces are painted onto cliff walls and sometimes if you stare hard enough at the ocean you can see seals. On the other side of the island, you have the little town of Millport, with all the white and pastel-coloured houses looking out onto the harbour. Everything is still, soft, crisp – the texture of sorbet – so that the only sounds you can hear are the steady lap of the waves sloshing against rocks, and the occasional cry of a wandering cormorant. The island to me is like the shyest of kisses: the kind that taste of rain and raise your spirits. Yes, I’m eleven years old and I feel invincible.
You see, I’m on a bike ride, travelling twelve miles right round the island. I’m wearing jeans with the bottoms rolled up and spattered with black oil from the chain; I’m gripping the handlebars so tight I can feel the blood burn and tingle in the tips of my fingers. I’m pedalling even faster than my sporty brother and my father and I know I’m going somewhere because the landscape changes the faster I go. Life rushes by like a montage peeling back luscious scenery. I pass other families on their bikes but they don’t see me; I’m caught on the drift of the wind that they’re battling and I’m going faster than they could imagine. The sun is on my back and I’m flushed and my hair tangles around me, caught in the straps of my rucksack. I want to get there first; I want to be the first one to reach the secret beach.
You can stand there in your bare feet and I remember the cockle-shell rocks, greenish with sea leeches and weeds. Nearer the sea the sand is velvety thick and oozes up between your toes. My child’s eye spots the starfish and sea anemones, and I wish I had a jar to take some home. I’m teasing my brother about something and he throws a stone into the ocean, watching it bounce five times over the waves. Sullenly I watch it. Then in my head I tell everyone I’m a mermaid and paddle in the shallows, looking out for the shoals of fish that swim by in miniature shimmers. We’d wander back up to the rocks and pick our seat; and that’s where I’m sitting, now, in this moment, looking out to the mainland without worrying about a thing. I’m just admiring the craggy shapes of the distant cliffs and the way the cloud looks like billows of cigarette smoke coating the landscape.
The worries would come later, in the dreamy space that opens before sleep. I’m trying to get at the dregs of this memory. The exact details of colour and light, the way that the April air felt and the shapes of circling time. You go right round the island and come back to the start. You paint the strokes of the green hilltops and the silver belt of the road. It’s nearing summer so the day drifts endlessly through night; it doesn’t get dark properly here, not really. Not until the depths of winter. A shower of rain that’s a spray of glitter. Maybe there’s a lighthouse shooting beams of white across the bay. Ships passing ghostlike in the night and you wouldn’t even know. I remember the cold blasts of wind you get on the ferry, with the horn of other boats and the marvelled awe of other children looking out towards the harbour. I call up all these things and wish for more.
Maybe all that remains of this memory are the sea-smoothed shards collected in a jar that sits on the sill of some window in my mind. You can remove the lid and pick the best colours, turn them over separately in your palm, but you can’t make them real again. Time has softened the sharpness of their edges, added layers of distortion to their rays of shifting colour. Hold one up to the light and you will see the bubbles that mark each year that’s passed, arranged in no order other than chaos.
Somewhere, there is the shimmering bleep of slot machines from the cheap casino room of a ferry. A man asking for tickets and a car stuck on the gangway. The taste of peanut butter sarnies gritted with sand, the crispness of silver foil in my hand. If I close my eyes, dizzy and thirsty, I am back there, my body nauseous with the pull of the sea, the boat rocking to and fro with the turn of the words that mutter on my tongue. My hair whips over my face and it smells of salt and seaweed and I can feel the island growing ever so closer to me as the ocean moves towards the setting sun. It’s not that I’m eleven again – nothing is the same twice over – but it’s the feeling of a memory that you can hold up to the light, watch it distorted, watch it glimmering bright.
Growing up in Ayrshire – in fact, pretty much anywhere in Scotland – you will find that the poetry of Robert Burns is ingrained in your mind from a young age. A chance to make children reflect on both their literary heritage and the Scots language (that nowadays they often find themselves alienated from amidst the overwhelming discursive presence of Standard English), learning Burns’s poems is, I suppose, a great activity for a primary school child. But what about the likes of myself, Hertfordshire-born but Ayrshire-bred? As I grew up in a school just a few miles from Burns’s birthplace, I found myself trying to wrench and drill my sullen Southern accent into a lively Scottish dialect that just wouldn’t fit.
At primary school, I used to dread the month of January because it meant Burns recitals for our annual assembly. Each class would be given a poem to learn off by heart. Sure, there would be explanatory footnotes, but I still struggled over every syllable, my normally sharp reading abilities dulled against the quick wit of Burns’s verse. Every year my mum used to make me practice reading the poem aloud at home and every year I found my tongue tangled over the abrasive turns of impossible pronunciations. I can’t roll my r’s and I can’t make that rasping in my throat that seems to adorn every gruff recital of a Burns poem. I would watch the more dazzling of my classmates stand up and confidently perform the chosen poem, their voices catching all the jokes and lively intonations, and I would feel very stupid. I guess I just didn’t get it.
Until one year, when for no particular reason, it clicked. Oh, I’m sure my accent really was terrible (in fact, I cringe inside thinking of it now), but I decided that year to give as good as I could get. I think the poem we had been set was ‘The Sair Finger’, a relatively easy one, with the kind of rhymes that make sense and dialect words like ‘skelf’ (splinter) with which I was actually familiar. I practiced it over and over, determined not to suffer the humiliation of previous years when I was forced to stand up and read it out in class. Every year, the teacher had to pick someone to read their class’s poem aloud in our Burns Assembly. In our class, it was always the same two boys who were chosen every year (and deservedly to them too), but this year something was awry as the teacher quietly offered it to me. Probably, I think she only offered it to boost my confidence, but even if she genuinely was impressed by the improvement on my Scotticisms, I had to turn it down. The thought of standing up in front of my whole school in my mum’s ill-fitting tartan skirt, shakily twisting my vowels, was just too much.
I guess, in that sense, Burns and I didn’t get off on the best foot. But although I struggled with the linguistic detail of his poems, there was something about the mythology of ‘Tam o’Shanter’ that I’ve always been drawn to. The strange tale about Tam and his horse Maggie and the orgiastic goings-on in the old Alloway Kirk is a gorgeous example of Burns’s mastery of the interplay between dialect and Standard English. In a way, the chief pleasure of ‘’Tam o’Shanter’’ is in the mode of storytelling itself. We get the intimacy of the narrator’s shared perspective with Tam – his empathetic appreciation of Tam’s drunken debauchery – alongside incisive lines in Standard English which both emulate and mock the antiquarian tradition of collecting folktales. Burns’s attention to local detail really put Ayrshire on the literary map – even Wordsworth and Keats made a pilgrimage to so-called Burns Country to pay their respects to the influential poet. I should add here that my flatmate and I have a longstanding rivalry about what exactly constitutes ‘Burns Country’. My flatmate’s from Dumfries, and both Dumfries and Ayr like to milk the Burns Factor when it comes to upping their tourist game. Nobody really knows who has true claim to the title. Also, I should add that the Tam o’Shanter Experience in Ayr (the one before it got renovated) used to be the site of a lovely afternoon hot chocolate on Sundays after a stroll around Rozelle.
Anyway, another interesting point about ‘Tam o’Shanter’ is its weird ending. It isn’t Tam whose punished for voyeuristically dropping in on the Satanic revelries in the old kirk, but his poor horse, Maggie. While watching the dancing witches, Tam (in the only speech he has in the poem) cries out excitedly, “Weel done, Cutty Sark!”, which translates roughly to “Well done, mini skirt!” in modern day parlance. Tam finds himself chased by the vengeful witches over the bridge, but, as servants of the devil, they cannot pass the running water. So Cutty-Sark reaches out for Tam and instead grabs his horse’s tail, pulling it clean off to reveal a bloody stump. The narrator ends the tale (tail) with the strange moral:
No, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother’s son take heed;
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think! ye may buy joys o’er dear –
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.
So next time you decide to be a lecherous male, spying your pervy eye on a coven of witches, remember that your horse might lose its tail. I guess there’s phallic implications there, what can I say?
But ‘Tam o’Shanter’ isn’t just a poem of comic revelry and uncomfortable sexual punishment; it also contains some beautiful picturesque passages that establish their author as a definite early Romanticist, who went on to inspire the likes of the great Romantic Celebrities (Wordsworth and Keats being key players here):
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You sieze the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white–then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.–
Here Burns blends his beautiful floral metaphors with the quiet violence of time’s transience, captured in the image of the fleeting rainbow. There is a simple spirituality here that connects the human world of consciousness and experience to that of the cosmic and natural worlds, and all condensed into a handful of lines. Although Burns, like William Blake, has often been left out of narratives of the Romantic movement – his work and style, laced as it is with literary and political ambiguities and tensions – I think it’s important to reclaim Burns within our conceptions of this exciting cultural period. While the likes of Wordsworth were in awe over the rugged sublimity of Scotland’s impressive landscapes, Burns was busy recording the authentic idiosyncrasies of its culture, humour and people. These days, when questions of what it means to be Scottish loom large over the rarely dull political skies, Burns remains as important as ever. While Sir Walter Scott (I’m sorry for making the sort of sweeping statements that rile the marker’s red pen in essays) added to the mythology of Scotland as a place of both legal, political, social and supernatural intrigue, Burns chipped in a great deal by immortalising Scots in the kind of deceptively simple but actually complex poetry that warrants his frequent comparisons to Blake.
So in a way, I’ve come full circle towards Burns appreciation. These days, I’m almost always wearing some kind of tartan (largely unconsciously, unlike the obligatory tartan headband I used to wear to school on the day of Burns Night), I work in a restaurant adorned with beautiful paintings of Burns and his myriad lovers, and I’ll be studying his work along with other Scottish Romanticists (indeed, the likes of Walter Scott) for my Romantic Lit course later this semester. Although today, on Burns Night, I forgot to buy whisky, and had toast instead of haggis for tea, I like to think this little article is a tribute of sorts from me.
We brought you home for the first time one sunny day in the year 2000. Seems strange saying that now: the year 2000. I guess it was a long time ago; before Twitter and being a grownup and even 9/11. Nobody even really had mobile phones then, did they? I guess that makes you special, that you were born in the year 2000. You might’ve been a dog, but you were a proper Millennial.
You were such a tiny thing, with little floppy ears and massive brown eyes like polished conkers that blinked back at me full of curiosity. You were a collie dog, except there were crosses in you, so that you had lovely patches of chestnut brown on your face. Mum wanted to call you Bella, but for some reason this annoyed me at the time – probably because there was some Disney princess with the same name, and/or I had some ridiculous mythical title lined up for you. I remember when Twilight first came out, years after you were born, I couldn’t stop giggling at how the protagonist shared her name with my little old dog. But Bella means beautiful, and beautiful you were. You spent all afternoon scuttling round the garden, nibbling playfully at our ankles, before falling asleep in the flowerbed. We really panicked until we found you, curled up among the bluebells and buddleja.
I think having a puppy is a brilliant idea to lessen sibling rivalry. My brother and I spent less time pulling out each other’s hair and shoving each other about over who stole whose Game Boy game and more time throwing ball for our new dog. We took you to Kelburn Country Park and you walked about a mile with your tiny legs before giving up. Mum and Dad took turns to carry you all the way to the car. After that you rarely let anyone try to lift you up – you always retorted with a snarl when they offered. Maybe you were embarrassed at having once had to be carried. You were as sporty and competitive as my father. Probably because when you were a bit bigger he used to take you out running for miles and miles. You were like the wind, chasing after a ball or dashing after Dad’s bike. He took you to some of the finest golf courses in Scotland. Mum, my brother and I took you to some of its remotest campsites, where you would curl up in a tent with us as the rain and wind howled outside.
One of the best thing about collies is their ears. Floppy and fluffy; soft and furry on the outside and pink and waxy on the inside. When I was younger I could sit and stroke your ears for hours; it was such a comfort, like the way a baby sucks its thumb or a stressed-out adult chews their fingernails. One day, one of your ears suddenly pricked up, straight and triangular like an Alsation’s. The other remained flopping over for another week or so before joining its partner. They never fell back down again, but remained tall and alert. They were a bit like rabbit ears, the way they fell back when you were scared or angry, but mostly just stood up with a look of mild absurdity or surprise, like when people pluck too much arch into their eyebrows. You could probably hear everything in the world, with ears like that.
You had crazy amounts of energy. You went through a phase where all we had to do to exercise you was take you to an open space and shout, ‘Ready, Steady, Go!’ and you would run around us in endless, frantic circles, occasionally yelping with excitement. It was as if we had unlocked some unknown, race dog gene in you. Whenever we were in public, you would abandon your loyalty at the drop of a hat (or stick) if it meant you could get someone to play with you. When we were tired of playing endless games of fetch, you would wander off and drop your ball or stick at the feet of some other family, before sheepishly trundling back when we called your name repeatedly. There were a few times where you gatecrashed people’s games of frisbee and ended up winning (or breaking their frisbee with your teeth).
You would cut up people’s lawns with the amount of running you did. If we went for a walk with you, you’d trot on ahead then circle back to check we were all still together, as if we were sheep. You weren’t a trained collie or anything, but clearly you had the protective instinct in you. Like when you went through a phase of dragging my beanie babies into your box, as if you were pretending they were your puppies. I used to resent the way I’d have to put my beloved, saliva-slathered animals through the wash, but now I guess it’s kind of sweet.
Then there was the bi-annual task of giving you a bath. It was a feat of will for both us humans and you. If we tried to call you into the bathroom, the merest hint of the word ‘bath’ would send you running. Once, you hid in the laundry basket. My job was often to keep you soothed while Mum rubbed your coat with flea shampoo and my brother sprayed you with lukewarm shower water. You were awfully fussy about temperature. There was one time when you managed to get one half of your back covered in white wet paint and we had to shower you outside with the hose. You would think that you’d be grateful for the warm indoor shower after that, but maybe you had a short memory.
I’d like to apologise for the time we were staying in the Lake District and we had been out walking and you were covered in mud and stinking river water (funnily enough, you loved water when it involved jumping in oceans, lakes and rivers for sticks), and I decided the best thing to do would be to give you a shower. The problem was, we thought human shampoo would be too harsh for you, so we ended up washing you with vegetable oil and vinegar, because I’d read online somewhere that oil was meant to be nourishing for your hair, and vinegar good for your scalp. I think they meant olive oil, or coconut oil or something, because afterwards you smelled like a chip shop; although your coat was super shiny. Maybe that was just the grease. Still, you didn’t seem to mind because you got lots of smothering attention and god knows how many dog treats as a consolation afterwards.
Perhaps you were at your best at Christmas. There was something about the festive season that you just loved. Maybe it was having the family together and having everyone in high spirits. You could sense human problems as quick as you could sense someone turning on the hoover. If we were having some kind of argument, you would always sit in your box quivering and looking sad. At Christmas, you morphed into a four-year-old child, ecstatic at the prospect of presents, food and Santa. When we were unwrapping our own gifts, you tried to butt in with your paws pattering everywhere and your nose sniffing every present we opened. I used to tie all the excess ribbon, string and tinsel around your collar, so that by the end of Christmas Day, you were as decorated as a festive reindeer, or a walking advertisement for Paperchase. Often, we would paint your nails sparkling red with Rimmel’s finest, and have to explain to fellow dog walkers that no, our dog’s feet weren’t bleeding, she just happened to have her seasonal manicure.
You were a much-loved dog, and everyone who visited us at Christmas seemed to bring you some kind of present, which you gratefully whined over excitedly until us children had helped you unwrap it. You were bought stockings of doggy chocolate and other treats, your favourite Schmackos sticks, fluffy toys and weird squeaky creatures. When I was too young to buy you my own present, I’d carefully pick a stuffed animal toy that I didn’t want anymore and pass it on to you, as a sibling passes down old, grown-out clothes. As I got older, I graduated onto collars. I bought you the prettiest, tackiest, gothiest collars I could find in the aisles of TK Maxx and Poundland. You had red, gold, studs and skulls, leopard print and silver glitter. When I was Christmas shopping this year, I walked accidentally down the pet aisle and it brought a tear to my eye. I was surprised at how much I missed this; it was like walking up the stairs and mistaking empty space for the final step. I was reminded that you were gone.
I have to admit, there were times when you could be hard-going. You had a temper, which maybe you learned from the people around you (hell, nobody’s perfect) and you did bite people a few times when you were over-excited or pissed off. Nothing serious, but enough for us to fall out with you over. But only for a few days, until the sorrowful look on your face as you plodded into the kitchen melted our attempts at icy reserve.
Another problem was that often you also had terrible breath: a sort of stale, fishy smell that we could never work out the origin of. We had some of your bad teeth removed; we gave you dental chews. Sometimes the smell was okay, but you could really notice it up close when you were panting happily in people’s faces. I blamed your diet, which consisted of dog biscuits and ASDA SmartPrice tins of meatballs. The odd helping of tuna. I used to gag and hold my nose as I poured the grim pasty reddish mess into your food bowl. You seemed to love it though, especially Lidl’s Luxury Irish Stew that you had for Christmas Dinner. When you were old and frail and your joints were riddled with too much arthritis, we had to squirt a horrid-looking medicine in your dinner and find ingenious ways to get you to take your pills. The most effective way was to crush the pill and roll it up in a piece of brie – you always were a dog of class.
In car journeys, you’d either be an angel or a nightmare. My brother and I would argue endlessly about how we were going to shove your arse off the seatbelt so we could buckle ourselves in and set off onto the road. It was better when we were old enough to sit in the front. Sometimes, you got to sit in the front while we had to pile in the back. You would sit bolt upright, back straight and ears pricked high as you looked straight ahead. One time, a ticket lady made a joke about how handsome Mum’s husband was. When we drove off, it took her a while to realise that the lady was joking about Bella, sitting up all serious and erect in the seat beside her.
In traffic jams, you would get fidgety and whiney, which didn’t make life much better amidst the din of Motown music on Radio 2 and the smell of the steaming poo you had done, now tied up in a bag on the dashboard, slowly releasing its awful odour. There were some tough hours but we got through them together. Luckily, you fell asleep and the traffic eventually dissipated enough that we could stop at a service station and dump your mess and spray the car with aftershave. I used to hate the way that you’d never get out the car when we stopped on long journeys, like you thought we were going to leave you behind.
You used to hate when we went off to school in the mornings, as you jumped up at the window, scratching the glass with your paws, or sat whining at the gate. But there were other ways of keeping you involved. You had your own MSN, Bebo and Facebook accounts. You were a popular dog. When we took you for walks around Maybole we literally had to fight the strays off you because clearly you were the sassiest bitch in town. The box that you slept in even had the Kerrang! sticker to prove it.
And well, there isn’t much else left to say. You were the best dog a kid could ask for, with your endurance, energy and sense of humour – your almost human personality. It feels weird talking about pets passing away; perhaps there’s less of a taboo around animals than there is humans dying, but still, not many people write about their dead pets. I still talk about you in the present tense, and get pissed off when people correct me. It’s a year since the vet came for you because you had fatal tumours, and a year since you last sat in your box, a year since last Christmas. I’ll never get used to the space you left, the way you’re not there to jump up excitedly when I come home to Maybole. Not there to take for walks, even though you were slow as a tortoise in the end. I didn’t want to be sentimental, writing this; but it’s true, I miss you.
My experience of watching Black Mirror: White Christmas was a sharp departure from the usual mindless festive telly fare. Like a lingering nightmare, it will hover over the dreamy limbos of television’s ‘Christmas Special’ tradition for years to come. Black Mirror (while we can certainly argue that some episodes are better than others) has successfully created a lethal concoction of technological speculation, sharp drama and black humour that stands out amidst the genres of science fiction, reality tv or documentary which tend to be employed to convey the themes explored in Black Mirror’s fictional anthology series. Themes like the impact of technology on our everyday lives, relationships, desires, minds.
On Twitter, the show’s writer, king of cynicism Charlie Brooker, promised that his Christmas offering wouldn’t be anything darker than what writers at the BBC had in store for the residents of Albert Square, but having only read a handful of bemused Facebook statuses to account for said Eastenders episode, I don’t feel fit to judge between the two programmes. Black Mirror delves into the future that hangs over us like an Apple update that keeps stalling our computers. The future that is five minutes (or, if your MacBook is as slow as mine, five hours) away. Drew Grant of The New York Observer has aptly described Black Mirror’s episodes as ‘self-contained parables about the modern condition’. The parable is a good description of Brooker’s show because it highlights the importance of the moral conclusions and dilemmas which entangle every episode. In this one-off Christmas Special, Brooker weaves three tales together through a darkly layered story of love, loss, crime, voyeurism, punishment, seduction and of course technology. What comes out at the end is a Beckettian acceptance of the futility of time; a sense of the fragility of everything in the face of time’s endurance. Watching Brooker’s characters recount the bittersweet and painful tales of their lives, against the sinister backdrop of technology and the ironic happiness of Christmas, I was reminded of Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape. The protagonist Krapp stares into and sometimes physically leans over a tape recorder, which plays back the tapes he has made himself, voices recalling distant and familiar memories. There is the same sense of alienation and poignancy, the same mechanical desire that intermingles in the softness of human despondency.
What drew attention to this particular episode was its casting of Jon Hamm as a lead character. Hamm has become something of an icon for his role as the womanising advertising director Don Draper in Matthew Weiner’s period series Mad Men, but in this feature-length Black Mirror episode he proves his talents lie beyond smoking, nipping bourbon, cheating and delivering great advertising speeches. Hamm isn’t known for playing sinister figures, but then Brooker is never so simple as to create any such ‘simple’ characters. In Black Mirror, the basic components of the technology presented (often already recognisable in our daily lives) are underpinned by an endless constellation of questions and implications. Everything is always layered, complex, ethically challenging – from the ontological questions about what is really real in our hyper-mediated modern lives, to how new technology plays out in more concrete areas like the justice system. This is not a one-dimensional view of the future, but a conversation woven with logical gaps, technical and ethical problems, which invites the audience’s participation. We create our own fates; Brooker doesn’t dictate the determinism of technological evolution, but reveals our own often regrettable involvement in our dystopian downfall.
The show begins in a remote cottage where a man named Joe (Rafe Spall) awakens to the sound of familiar Christmas music. He looks gloomily in the mirror and touches a photograph of a girl that’s stuck there. He walks into the kitchen to discover what appears to be his roommate, Matt (played by Hamm), whipping up Christmas dinner. The tale then unfolds as the two sit down, and the charismatic Matt persuades Joe to be a bit sociable for once and enjoy some conversation over lunch with him. It’s uncertain what the relationship between these two men really is. The story proceeds through a series of flashbacks, as Matt tells Joe all about his past. The story is meant to explain why he is here, since Matt is looking for Joe to tell him why he is here. This central setting for the story that frames the narrative from start to finish harks back to that old tradition of framing devices that is often used in what we might call ‘ghost’ stories of sorts. Journeys to the dark heart of human nature: think of Marlow, travelling up the Thames in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as he recounts his tale of colonial horror along the Congo in Africa; think of the epistolary narrative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; think of Wuthering Heights, where much of the story comes to the reader through the yarn woven by Nelly Dean the housekeeper as she sits knitting and talking to our primary narrator, Lockwood. In all these texts, characters are not so much human beings as they are shadows of discourse, and maybe you could say the same about the state of people in the digital age…
Such framing and meta-awareness of storytelling is of course prominent in cinema too, although often for different purposes beyond the sense of alienation and epistemological confusion evoked by such literary techniques. The likes of Martin McDonagh, in his stage dramas and screenplays, employs this technique or trope to reflect on – among other things – the problem of mediated reality in a so-called ‘postmodern’ era. In Black Mirror, Brooker goes beyond the televisual technologies which defined the era of high postmodernism to incorporate a future of duplicating, haptic and intensely interactive technologies. It is hard to shoehorn this programme into ‘science fiction’ or ‘crime fiction’ or merely ‘dark drama’. Everything is ambiguous, just like White Christmas’ central location. The audience doesn’t know what or where here is, other than a snow-coated cottage in the middle of nowhere. There’s a flickering fire and sense of impending disaster. Matt jokes that the cottage was only meant to include essentials, but weirdly that included a string of red tinsel. You can’t get away from Christmas, as Joe’s unfortunate avatar finds out in the episode’s end. In the three parts, we shift between the stories of Matt and Joe, as well as a broader story about the systemic use (and abuse) of technology, and the interwoven stories of the characters whose lives connect with our protagonists’.
You see, this is Black Mirror; things are never straightforward or linear. Matt used to be some kind of romance coach who provides dating advice to men by talking to them internally like an inner voice. Taken out of context, the person in question would look like they were talking to imaginary voices, like a caricatured schizophrenic. Implanted technology allows Matt to witness every action taken by the other man, Harry, through Harry’s own eyes. What kind of panopticon effect would this have on our consciousness, if we knew that everything we saw was being seen in directly the same manner by someone else? I’m immediately thinking of Google Glass here: technology that interacts with the optical function, that projects information between the eye, the world and the brain. Our own perception is shared through wireless communication, in ways that maybe we can no longer control. There are sinister consequences here, as Matt’s advice inadvertently leads the other man, Harry, to successfully seduce a rather unstable woman who is convinced that since they both hear voices they should pass to the ‘next stage’. The next stage being death; not just quitting her job, it turns out. She feeds him poison and he dies right there on screen, for Matt and his audience to see. It turns out that Matt helps shy and lonely men seduce women as a hobby, and in turn shares the footage of these encounters with other men, in what seems to be a sinister extension of contemporary internet ‘live-cam’ pornography. Only, the woman and man in question don’t know the extent to which their actions are being viewed and exploited. It doesn’t seem too far off from the hacking scandals that plagued the likes of Jennifer Lawrence’s iCloud only this summer. The story deals with these issues of consent and broadcast communication on the one hand, but also the ease with which Harry succeeds in seducing women with Matt’s tricks is a little chilling (not merely just unconvincing). In the context of a wider narrative on mediation, it makes us reflect on how much human attraction is based on pre-scripted ideas that are encoded in our brains from so much exposure to romantic discourse – from the old technics of writing and literature to computer games and cinema.
The poison scene weirdly reminded me of a corrupted version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Hamlet’s father is killed by having poison fed into his ear. An untimely revenge; perhaps the consequences of inauthenticity. The ghost of Hamlet’s father reappears in the play, and even when he is not present, the spectre of his wish haunts Hamlet’s frustrated consciousness. White Christmas is also concerned with ghosts. We might even consider the title an ironic reference to Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’: ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know’. Well, these lyrics seem pretty sinister in the context of this episode, where what’s white is the symbolically smothering snow and the egg-shaped ‘cookie’ device that connects to an implant in people’s brains. An implant that duplicates the self into a ‘cookie’, a cookie which is externalised and given a simulated body. A body that might not be real, but is certainly sentient.
If we used to know Christmas as pure and white, all love and peace and Sainsbury’s-spouted Christmas truces and freedom from suffering, Black Mirror throws this day of spirited possibility into suspicion. The twist of the tale reveals a moral dilemma that haunts the use of such duplicating technology that takes us towards the realm of cloning; but, as in episode Be Right Back, keeps it close enough to the present state of technological reality to really disturb. Is it wrong to harm things that aren’t real, but still feel pain? Can we keep our simulated extra-selves as slaves to enhance our lives, even if it forces them into a lifetime of torture? What does it do to our personal identity to be physically conscious of doing harm to some simulated duplication of ourselves?
As with Hamlet, the theme of retribution runs rife through the episode. Partners punish one another through ‘blocking’: a way of cancelling out an entire person – as you may do on Twitter and Facebook – only in real life. The person in question becomes a pixellated greyish blur, like a glitch from a computer game that you can never quite get close to properly, even though they could still do you physical violence. Weirdly enough, the blocked figures in White Christmas reminded me of Pokemon Red and Blue’s ‘Missingno’, which appeared as an odd remainder of scrambled code that never quite got fixed in the games’ final cut. A Pokemon that appeared mysteriously without indexical recognition; an unknown creature. The name ‘Missingno’ also seems somehow relevant here, as it stands for ‘missing number’, as if the human in question was stripped of his/her name and personality, and left only as the grey matter of their brains, the bureaucratic residue of a ‘missing number’, 1984 style.
Only, unlike the geometric shape of Missingno (oddly resembling a missing puzzle piece), in Black Mirror you still see the human outline of the person you block. The fluid movement of their head and limbs. Their speech roars at you like a radio out of tune and communication will never ultimately travel as you want it to. Even in photographs, the blocked person dissolves from view. An absence cut permanently from your life; or at least until they unblock you. With great precision and a balance between steely analytic satire on contemporary social media and emotional humanity, Black Mirror explores the human consequences of such technologies: heartbreak, misunderstanding, new forms of enduring punishment. Matt is ultimately punished for his role in inadvertently causing Harry’s murder by being universally blocked, so that all humans are to him blobbed and distorted like a sea of Missingnos, and to everyone else, Matt becomes a red blur. We might think back to the days of MSN Messenger, where if we blocked someone from talking to us, on their Contact List we would forever appear as the red ‘Appear Offline’ icons. Always within reach but never fully present or within contact, we would linger elusively on their list of contacts but every message they tried to send would be lost in the ether. Technology, from the beginning, is a story of both absence and presence, communication and severance. It is all too easy to talk to someone across the globe, to love them truly even though they may be a stranger; it is equally all too easy to cut someone out of your life seemingly forever at the click of a button, given how much time we devote to living online.
I think it’s appropriate that such an episode is aired at Christmas time; the time when everyone finds themselves worshipping at the circuitboard altar of a new tablet or phone or smart-watch. It issues a kind of warning, at the same time as being dramatically gripping and comedically entertaining. We live in an age of Sony hacks, Gamergate, iCloud leaks, attempted murders committed by children under the influence of online Creepypasta mythologies, Twitter abuse storms and the rife availability of online child pornography, smartphone apps which track your every dietary intake and calorie burned, as if you were some cookie of yourself trained and disciplined by the ethereal whims of your own idealised higher being. Technology is clearly something we frequently use to abuse ourselves and one another as human beings; it brings out whatever darkness is already in our nature and provides the platform for exhibiting this darkness more effectively. If we lose ourselves to this ease of abuse, where will we be in five, ten, twenty years time? Maybe only Charlie Brooker knows.
If Back to the Future got some things right about 2015 (pollution, nostalgic 1980s cultural revival), and others pretty wrong (hover-boards and flying cars) it’s difficult to say how much Black Mirror gets right about our future. The most chilling aspect of all Brooker’s episodes is perhaps how much they touch on a prosthetic logic whereby we lose ourselves to the tools we employ to help us that is already in operation today. A prosthetic logic that only needs a few more steps in Santa’s workshop to become Brooker’s nightmare vision of reality. There is nothing wrong with the technology itself per se, the show suggests, but the way we lose our humanity by giving ourselves up fully to the wonders of its operation. Surely the best metaphor for this is Oona Chaplin’s character, who literally forges a double of herself (called a cookie) and enslaves this poor spirit animal to a life of making toast and adjusting the volume of ambient music, simply for the benefit of a more efficient and technically-enhanced lifestyle. If we surrender all morality and consciousness to the endless improvement of this so-called ‘lifestyle’, aren’t we forgetting the things that make life worth living? White Christmas ends with Matt drifting out into the ultimate alienation of universal blocking, and Joe in a hysterical condition in his prison cell whilst his cookie lives in an infinite torture of Wizzard’s ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day’ being played on repeat while he exists forever trapped in the isolated kitchen. This manic but also slightly funny conclusion reveals the show’s unique blend of human sympathy and nightmare desolation. No matter how many times he tries to smash the radio, the song keeps playing. It’s like that time Celebrity Big Brother decided to lock Basshunter in a room for six hours with his song ‘All I Ever Wanted’ playing on repeat really loudly. Sure, Brooker’s ending is a bleak reminder that Christmas isn’t always great for everyone; but it’s also a reminder that you should be careful what you wish for. After all, it’s easy enough to become slaves to the technology that enchants us, but not so easy to sever ourselves from this technology, once we’ve realised that it’s usurped our humanity, and maybe even our sanity.