Tuesday, 10 June 2014

My most favourite places in the (virtual) world

If I had the power to disapparate, HP style, there are a few choice locations that I would revisit in a flash. Sipping a drink on the roof terrace of The Habit in York, with a prime view of the Minster, is one of the first to spring to mind. Then there’s the beach front at Whitstable, or better yet, at Barcelona, at that little seafront bar decked out in twinkly fairy lights.

We all have those little corners of the world that we’ve carved out as our own, our main claim to ownership being little more than the good memories or nostalgia attached. So it makes sense that given how much time most of us spend within the realm of the Internet, we’ve all carved out our own little corners in that world, too.

Within the big ol’ World Wide Web, there are places like oh I don’t know, the Daily Mail sidebar of shame, that are basically the online equivalent of Westfield on a Saturday – you know it’s not really doing you any good, going there again, packed as it is with crap that you don’t really need but that a questionable part of you feels the need to indulge in. Then there are the online equivalents of that terrace – places you revisit again because you feel like you belong there, or like you get something really good out of going there, or simply because you enjoy what you find. Everyone’s corners are different, as in real life, but here are just a few of mine:

At the age of 11, while I was busily creating perfect Sims families and analysing The OC in between ad breaks over the landline, American teen Tavi Gevinson was setting up her own fashion blog, The Style Rookie. This blog would go onto become such a success that before long she had millions of readers, and a place in the frow at Fashion Week. Her next step (as if that wasn’t impressive enough) was to create Rookie, an online magazine written by girls, for girls.

Rookie is everything I wish I’d had access to as a teenage girl. While I was stuck with the ‘cringe’ pages and ‘How to nab your crush’ type rubbish produced in the likes of Bliss magazine, Tavi and co. produce content that is, as Tavi puts it, ‘written through the feminist gaze’. That’s not to say it’s a bunch of precocious Simone de Beauvoir wannabes spouting off before their time, it’s just a refreshing approach to writing for the younger female, one that acknowledges that they’re interested in far more than just their male counterparts.

Discovering the site a few years ago as I did, I admittedly missed their target age range, which is more of the teenage persuasion.  But it’s still one of my absolute favourite corners of the Internet. I am completely in awe of Tavi, who even now is just 18, yet has already achieved more than I could ever hope to. Read her interview with Lorde (a long-time Rookie reader herself), and you’ll see her clearly considerable intelligence in action. Or take a look at her editor’s letters, the likes of this one on that month’s theme of ‘Forever’, which I found myself rereading several times because I was so struck by it.  

Then there’s the rest of the site, filled with content written by young women from across the world. Covering anything from ‘How to deal with Internet burnout’ to an e-mail exchange with Morrissey, in a realm that’s also unfortunately inhabited by the likes of trolls and sadists and narcissists, it’s so refreshing to read Rookie and think hey, there are actually plenty of creative and lovely people out there. I always think it’s a shame that Rookie wasn’t around for me when I was an angst-ridden 16 year old, but I’m so glad that there are thousands, millions even, out there for whom it now is. 

Funny how the Internet, as one of the main contributors to the letter’s demise, also happens to be the source of some of the best I’ve ever read.

‘Letters of Note’ is a site that archives – you’ve guessed it – letters of note from across the world, and across the decades. A few of my personal favourites include the farewell note from Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor after their first breakup (‘You’re off, by God!’), along with JK Rowling’s response to a young Harry Potter fan’s letter (‘Jo, to you'). E-mails of note just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?

I cannot overstate just how much I love Desert Island Discs. After discovering the online archive with 70 years’ worth of castaways available a few years ago, I quickly became well and truly addicted. This week alone, I’ve listened to the episodes of Jamie Cullum, Danny Baker and Maya Angelou – and that should give you some idea as to just how varied these castaways are, and how far-reaching their appeal. At 43 minutes apiece, I listen to them on my commute, in (particularly pruney) baths, or on lazy Sunday afternoons, and I’ve never once come away from one without having learnt something.

In fact, listening to these interviews, I’d say I’ve learnt a hell of a lot. Stretching across decades and featuring people from all walks of life and within all kinds of industries, it would be impossible not to. It’s only through listening to Desert Island Discs, for example, that I learnt that Dustin Hoffman was only the second choice for his part in The Graduate, after a certain Robert Redford, or that while Emma Thompson met her future husband Greg Wise on the set of Sense and Sensibility, he’d also spent a good deal of the filming attempting to woo her co-star and then relative unknown, Kate Winslet.

In the same way that you can learn a great deal about someone by nosing through their real life CD collection, you also gain a great deal from hearing the castaways’ musical choices. Hearing Zadie Smith choose Mo Money Mo Problems, and Madonna’s Human Nature, along with her reasoning for this, for instance, I’d say I easily learnt more about her as a person than I could have done from any lengthy profile piece. People often surprise you, too – I can’t say I expected Hugh Grant to choose a recording of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit as one of his discs.

Hindsight also plays a particularly interesting part as you listen. With Hugh Grant, speaking as he was in 1995, I learnt about his days at Cambridge, when he had far greater aspirations of writing than he ever did for acting. His clear infatuation with Liz Hurley is also a funny thing to hear, knowing as we do now about the subsequent paths that both their lives took, filled as they have been with ‘love children’ and Shane Warne and Hacked Off campaigns. There are also the recordings that these days take on a considerably sinister undertone, knowing what we do now about the likes of Rolf Harris and Gary Glitter.

I’ve always been fascinated with people - what makes them tick, and what they’re really thinking, and an episode of Desert Island Discs is one of the easiest ways to find out all of these things. Whether it’s to Lynn Barber or Steve Coogan, or even recently, Ant and Dec, I cannot (and I suspect will not) stop listening. 

I question my continued presence on Facebook more and more these days. Being able to stalk the carefully edited highlights of the lives of one-time acquaintances and long lost classmates has long since lost its sparkly appeal. These days, it’s useful for mainly practical purposes, namely keeping in touch with friends dotted across the country. But in amongst the selfies and insights into the latest episode of Made in Chelsea, there is one thing that frequently manages to brighten my day as it pops up in my feed.

Originally a blog, the site is essentially a collection of photos taken of every day New Yorkers, snapped on the streets of NYC by photographer Brandon Stanton, along with a quote from whatever conversation he had with them. 

The quotes include everything from the highly poignant to the merely chuckle inducing, and make for a truly lovely snapshot of humanity. It would be easy to dismiss it in the same way that I just did Facebook, as another carefully edited and completely romanticised view of the city’s population.

But with quotes ranging from the purely mundane – a cheeky little kid telling him. ‘I sometimes stay up past my bedtime’ to an old guy deadpanning, ‘They say it’s gonna snow tomorrow. Well I just got a bottle of whiskey. So let it fucking snow’, there’s just something so brilliant about the way it elevates even the most throwaway comment to something entertaining or revealing. I think we could all do with the occasional reminder that even the most ordinary of things can sometimes be extraordinary, and Humans of New York helps with just that.