Alan West has another of his odd terns..
The homeward ferry from Brittany is gliding past the Isle of Wight; past Ventnor to be precise and I am standing on deck in the evening sun, enjoying the offshore breeze. How can I be so precise from three miles out? Well, Google maps and the satellite navigation in my smartphone knows where we are, and it tells me.
On a whim, I wave to a long lost friend who I recall, lives in Ventnor.
It is a brisk day with a peerless blue sky and the odd wisp of cloud here and there. A graceful white seabird, with a throat of the palest yellow, freewheels overhead. A northern gannet, a bird whose name belies it beauty; this most beguiling bird passes directly overhead and deftly avoids colliding with the radar mast. Life is dangerous and contradictory and on a day like today, beautiful.
In Ventnor, my long lost friend is piling dead magpies (or could it be grey squirrels) onto a pyre in her front garden. They do this routinely on the Isle of Wight, I am told. How do I know all this? I don’t of course, but the poet in me wants to believe such things.
Not that long ago I had a holiday checklist. That checklist contained those essential holiday accessories like filofax, camera, walkman, maps, guidebook, phrasebook and the accessories to the accessories – assorted lenses, batteries, chargers, CDs and tapes. I might have added torch, compass, calculator, bar code scanner (!) and a thousand other things I still don’t know I need. Now I just carry a smart hand-held device which allows me to do all of the above, including email and surf the web – oh, and make the odd phone call.
The coast of the Isle of Wight is sailing briskly by. My long lost friend looks out from her cliff-top villa and, for no particular reason, waves to a large boat passing on the horizon.
How do I know all this? How do I even know if she is in the country? Well, I don’t know exactly, but Google does. And, if only I had taken up Google’s offer to join something they call Latitude, I too would know exactly where my friends are, and they me.
Back home a few days later, I get an email from Facebook. It says I might know this person; do I want to ask them to be my friend? A few clicks and here she is again, my long lost friend, kissing the head of a baby. Amazing. It’s like déjà vu but without the déjà and without the vu. Let me explain. We were friends as teenagers. I had written execrable teenage poetry to her in the style of Dylan Thomas and John Lennon. The last time we met was in the summer of 1969 when there was a man bouncing around on the surface of the moon. We watched it in black and white because everything was in black and white back then. More than thirty years later our mothers died and we exchanged emails for while, and then communication stopped.
There’s something not quite right. I don’t mean about my lopsided account of events or the timing of the email, but about the photo. The woman in the photo bears an uncanny resemblance to my friend and could be related to her but it’s not her. Not, at least, the person who in my mind’s eye must be around sixty and is, like the rest of us, greying and fighting gravity. This person looks almost the same as my friend looked when we last met. But wait, here’s a photo of her daughter with another baby, perhaps even the same baby.
People of my generation have no particular reason to be paranoid but we are anyway, just in case. We’ve developed a list of things we don’t ‘get’ and this Facebook thing is one of them. Even for the few of us who embrace such things as online banking or buying stuff off Amazon, the idea of spilling the beans on Facebook or Twitter and the whole panoply of ‘social media’ sites is a step too far. Some if this stems from technophobia, that crippling condition of the greyer mind, but also from a congenital need, as my father would have put it, to keep ourselves to ourselves.
I am not at all like this. But there is still something that is troubling me. It can’t be the privacy thing. I’m in favour of openness, suspicious of people with secrets. Of late, I have begun to wonder why the government wants to spend eye-watering sums of money on identity cards and bloated patient records systems; schemes that are doomed to failure, destined for the scrapheap with billions of our money wasted on them. Why bother with this expense, when the government could just ask Google or T-Mobile where we are at any moment in time? Amazon could tell them exactly what we buy, what we read and what we listen to. Facebook knows our friends and their friends and the friends of their friends. It knows where we’ve been, who we were with last night and has photographic evidence to prove it. Why can’t the government just sign up to Facebook and ask to be our friend? This might seem scary to some, but if Facebook, rather than the government, were running the country, at least we’d all be friends.
I study the photo again. I weigh up balance of probabilities. This really must be my long lost and exceptionally well preserved friend. Is it the risk or intrusion or is it the old fear of rejection? Whatever it is, I decide not to click “be my friend”. Perhaps, after all, it’s the teenage poet in me that prefers to suffer the possibility, the poignancy of loss.