Life, in miniature

I sat, the other day, in front of a box of video cassettes. We’ve just moved house – a thrill, as commonly acknowledged; and one of the items that moved with us was this box. I opened it, the cardboard rasping angrily, and caught my first glimpse of the giant black plastic briquettes lurking inside: unwatched for years. Indeed now unwatchable, as we have no video player.

video cassette

Taking one out, the first thing that hit me was the sheer enormity of the thing. In this age of DVDs and USB sticks and hard drives we’ve got used to technology being slim, finger-sized, dainty. There’s nothing dainty about a video tape. Holding it my mind reeled, scale slipped. I momentarily imagined that I had shrunk to the size of an infant. Nothing else could explain the thickness of this piece of would-be techno wizardry, the way it stuck out comically on both sides of my hand.

I turned it over. It rattled. Video tapes always rattle, like old cars, with the suggestion that some flimsy plastic crankshaft or cog is going to snap and leave the thing idiotically spooling out its black strip, shiny as innards, into the unimaginable and certainly unmaintainable depths of the video machine.

Speaking of spools, I stuck my finger, fascinated, into one of the huge white clownish ratchets. It turned, a bit, the way they do, then jammed with every suggestion that the slightest pressure would prove terminal.

And yet this piece of barely solidified petrochemical, this over-sized chunk of Lego, this slither of magnetic simplicity had sustained me for years. The label, like a chest covered in medals, bore witness to its longevity. A dozen films and TV shows at least had been carefully inscribed on the yellowing paper, scribbled out, re-written until the only space left was vertical and the compressed writing had descended into straggling hieroglyphs.

It wasn’t just this one soldier who had spent so long on the front line: all the tapes had seen such service. Fifty or more of them, each one containing at least ten ghost shows underneath whatever had finally been recorded. That’s 500 shows and films, each one of which I probably watched a couple of times.

So a thousand hours, give or take. Or, given that I probably didn’t tend to watch more than one on the same day, nearly three years of my life. Echoes of my misspent teenage existence confined within obsolete technology.

Now here’s the thing about the modern age. I write books. I love books. In that same house-move we had dozens of boxes of books, and I don’t even want to begin thinking how long each one took to read – and how many I’ve read more than once – and how much of my life that is.

Evidently, as a book person, I mistrust some modern technology. I watch people glued to their iPhones and tut internally (given that one of them is my wife, I reasoned early on that tutting externally was a bad idea). I wince at the word ‘dongle’. As data gets compressed and shrunk into ever more fiddly handsets I sense we’re losing something precious.

And yet these boxes of books, and that box of videos, are big heavy things, as you realise when you move house. Sometimes the idea of shedding that weight, of having everything saved on one little memory stick that you can slip into your back pocket as you slip out of the door, and onto a path that winds into the unknown, is very appealing. Travel light, as the marvellous Frank Turner always reminds us. Shackle yourself to the road: it’s the only way to be free.

The amount of text that can be fitted onto one memory stick is astonishing. All those boxes of books could fit easily onto one little flash drive right now. In five years’ time, what price a device, no bigger than a stick of gum, on which you can keep all your favourites books, music, pictures and films? And why stop there? Why not your favourite wallpaper, furniture and candles, ready to be projected onto the walls of any room in which you lay your head? Your memories and your home, to take with you wherever you go, so that from Melbourne to Madrid you can set yourself up amongst what you love at the flick of a switch…

Part of me would mourn the death of the tactile, the tangible, the massy furnishings of life. But another part of me, the part that felt my heart lift as I silenced the qualms of nostalgia and threw away the entire box of video cassettes, would rejoice. Travelling light through life, alongside my wife, daughter tucked under an arm: it doesn’t sound like a bad way to go.

[Didn’t throw away any books, mind you. I’ve only managed to throw away three or four books in my entire life, and they were guidebooks from thirty years ago with no spines. Ah well. Weight is there to be carried, after all…]


This blog will be published weekly or thereabouts. Explore the links above for more about Will le Fleming and his writing.

4 Responses to Life, in miniature

  • Lou says:

    Will! Long time no see.Great blog. after reading your first post i went into foyles with a friend and we started trying to remember the opening lines of our favourite novels before checking them. This was on a friday night after a few drinks! Your second post reminded me of a boyfriend I once had who used to throw a book away once he had read it. Very worrying. Look forward to reading more :)

    • will says:

      Hey! Great to hear from you, and thanks re blog. Foyles after a few drinks: yes, I can see that… If you remember any admired lines you could add them to the positive cavalcade of first lines here: #bookfirstline. And boyfriends who treat treat books as expendable should only expect to be treated the same way themselves… Hope all good with you Wx

  • Bruce Reed says:

    I know what you mean – having collected a legion of videos due to my addiction to a variety of Science fiction Series, my then girlfriend and now wife was less than amused when they had to be packed up for my moving in with her. What staggers me is how one videotape of a serial encompassed two episodes and took up as much space as one season on DVD. As you mention, with live streaming and USB, the amount of space required is now a fraction of what it used to be. That said, there is something bizarrely quaint about what is now obsolete technology. It reminds me of people in my youth who used to keep Old Betamax cassettes or Indeed 8 track cartridges. I must admit, I have increasingly begun to jettison my video collection.

    Great blog, by the way – glad to see you’re still as eloquent as ever…..

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Will le Fleming is a novelist. His debut, Central Reservation, is published by Xelsion and available now. Read more...

On a grey Thursday morning Holly lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wished her sister would die. Five hours later her wish came true. Read more...

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The first post explains all - find it here.