Last word: the shock of the new

Self-confessed Luddite Brian Sewell does not own a computer or a mobile phone. But he admits to owing a debt to technology.

 It was as an adolescent in the immediate post-war years that I lost my faith in innovation. Progress, all politicians told us, must not be impeded; whether of high or low degree, they could never quite define it, only utter exhortations that in its way we must not stand. They were bright-eyed and messianic, these Tony Blairs of their austere day. Yet, as from local council office and House of Parliament, they imposed their often crackpot notions on education, health, social housing and every other aspect of our lives, the beautiful vision of the Welfare State became the Slough of Despond.

I have always shared the view of William Hogarth – he who despaired of Parliament, Gin Lane and Beer Street – that society should be ‘a self-regulating community of equals’, but I am old enough to be certain that this can never be. ‘Discouraging apprehensions’ set in early – disillusion with the giant sluggards of nationalisation, disappointment that state education made so little effort to be as good as the great private schools (the only way to rid ourselves of the burden of class), and the discovery at Suez that politicians lie, dissemble and deceive. It was then, more than half a century ago, that my Scholar Gipsy retreat from progress and innovation began.

The seeds of it were sown at school where, in mathematics, physics and chemistry, the light of my mind automatically switched off, the shutters closed and the doors locked. For me it was of no interest to know how a dynamo powered the lights on my bicycle, nor, as Arthur Mee assured those foolish enough to consult his confounded Children’s Encyclopaedia, how the Queen Mary would one day cross the Atlantic on a thimbleful of coal atomically split. For me, the stars were magical embodiments of ancient myths, not cold, dead matter immeasurable distances away in time as well as space. Science fiction was an insufferable bore, and I had no friendship to spare for boys who constructed cat’s whisker wirelesses and pinhole cameras.
 
What am I now, two full generations on? I am an old fogey who wishes his car still had a starting-handle with which to swing it into life when the battery is flat. Music no longer echoes through the house, as once it did, until the gramophone died – I can still hear the mocking laughter of the man to whom I took it for repair. Vinyl piles of Beethoven and Mozart still lie mute in the hope of reinvention. I tried tapes, but in their wild unwinding these could be the serpents of Laocoön. A foolish friend has given me an iPod; trapped in a hospital bed, I heard it once, but have now misplaced the instructions and cannot make it work.

All these are now consigned to the cupboard of lost hopes, to keep company with the recording machine that long ago I thought might be useful when excavating in Aphrodisias, with a tattered Box Brownie and two state-of-the-art Pentax cameras now defunct.

Like half the population of this kingdom, I have no computer. In writing by hand, I make a cat’s cradle of immediate corrections as I go, and this is made legible with a manual typewriter. Having no access to Google or Wikipedia, I have a lifetime’s gathering of useful books, and if I look for Orcagna in the 1911 Britannica, I have the pleasurable diversions of Owls and Origen on the way. Sans email – for years puzzled by the increasing ubiquity of this French word on other men’s letterheads – people must write to me, but secretary girls with Essex accents seem not to know how to send a letter and do not understand the terms envelope and stamp.

Nor have I a mobile phone; without one I cannot park a car in Westminster but this is a trifling vexation, for it is the most intrusive of all modern innovations. Besides, my cardiologist opines that – like the beastly microwave I’ve never had – it will disrupt my pacemaker. My cardiologist? The man who peers into my heart from time to time to see what more is wrong with it? The man who cooled me to freezing point, sawed open my chest to re-plumb the heart, and with all sorts of miracle technologies has kept me going for far longer than either of us thought I’d last? Now there’s a thought for a Luddite who, but for innovation and technology beyond his comprehension, would quite certainly be dead.