9:15am – Still in bed, I scroll through Facebook on my phone. I’m half rejoicing at the freedom, half despairing at the imprisonment. I scroll past unwanted adverts from bookmakers, pretending to doubt my ability to succeed at various straightforward football quizzes, the usual poorly-informed, badly-written sexism, and a time-lapse video guide to making a 7-tiered pepperoni pizza with a poached egg on top, a crust made of bacon, and 18 cheeseburgers attached to remote control drones circling overhead.
If anything vaguely personal catches my eye on Facebook, it’s when I’m occasionally arrested by someone trying to simultaneously engage me and raise their self-esteem with invented, exaggerated life stories. Now beyond tiresome, these are misleading, self-aggrandising misrepresentations that only reveal half the necessary information. When a psychologically generous / totally unaware Stepmum or a two-faced / seeking return engagement ‘friend’ feigns sympathetic interest and asks a question, they’re completely ignored – Because in order to answer, the myth-originator must now either directly lie, or reveal the myth’s actually quotidian, faecal heart. More importantly, if they give the answer, the ‘story’ comes to an end. Both marketers and this infected generation of numb, personal-cliffhanging-clickbaiters must tactically keep their audience ‘captive’ (which, don’t forget, means taken prisoner) mid-narrative.
The piece of ‘content’ that stops me fully is a clip from TV’s ‘Robot Wars’. As both versions are infinitely far past their use-by dates, I can’t tell if it’s from the recent desperate revival or the original with Craig Charles. (The original presenter was actually, briefly, Jeremy Clarkson, before an incident with a black robot that meant Clarkson had to be upgraded to questionable, furious coke-head Craig Charles.)
The reason Robot Wars stops me is that it takes me vividly back to 1999. I didn’t like it then either, but I watched it anyway. I also watched The Simpsons immediately before despite not liking that either (though I do now). Why was I watching an hour of programming that I disliked? Perhaps a cocktail of early onset self-destruction, avoidance of squabbling parents in a medium bungalow, and us only having 4 channels and no internet. So I consigned myself to watching the UK’s first big wave of divorced Dads taking their red-eyed sons on BBC2 to have systematically destroyed something they’d spent every Sunday for a year building together in the new bachelor pad’s garage. This was probably quite an effective robotic representation of what had recently happened to their family, but that didn’t make it any less bleak.
Around this time, at primary school, I sat opposite two boys who had previously been my friends, but were now verbally bullying me every day due to my obesity. I sort of enjoyed the challenge – One of the boys was, deep-down, my best friend, and the other was a dunderheaded moron, so I was usually able to ‘win’, just after some moderate difficulty – Perhaps why it was so rewarding. These two boys watched Robot Wars every night, so I did too. I can’t remember my angle, maybe to share material and frame of reference in the following day’s argument, or maybe just trying to keep aware of what was going on, so when the day came that they’d talk normally to me, wanting to discuss Robot Wars (and The Simpsons) I’d be ready. So I watched it nightly, it feeling like something I just had to endure, regardless of my opinion.
Robot Wars was clearly supposed to be enjoyable. I gathered as much from the way these boys discussed it, the studio audience’s cheers, and commentator Jonathan Pearce’s ridiculous, grating bellows. It has since become apparent that he hadn’t initially intended to shout, but found his voice naturally raised and strained in fear and horror as he found himself being assaulted on-the-job simultaneously by both Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, in the gantry alongside him, scouring the robotic battle zone below for vulnerable children to whisk away from Dads distracted by trying to avoid getting their robotic post-divorce masterpieces torn a new one by Sir Killalot.
All I felt when I watched Robot Wars was sadness at seeing something somebody had handmade get thoroughly destroyed, smashed up, set alight and discarded. Maybe other viewers felt this too, but just weren’t saying it, but I didn’t think so – I’ve often descriptively expressed sad, dark thoughts that fall completely flat as it becomes apparent that many people just haven’t ever wanted to mentally visit those same places. Maybe everyone thought it was just great fun, that these robots were just meaningless scrap metal forms, designed for televised, exhilarating destruction. Certainly a Google search just now for “Robot Wars Complaint” “Robot Wars Issue” and “Robot Wars Psychological” yielded nothing to corroborate any of my feelings at all.
It’d be a Psychological manipulation too far if I suggested that what Wikipedia describes as “A robot being turned over to the house robots for further punishment” (if immobile for 30 seconds), plus other 90’s CBBC staple Get Your Own Back’s temporary “Forfeit Furnace” (The losing child would have their favourite possession cremated by their grown up) and other equally haunting TV memories are responsible for any contemporary, callous, mercilessness among my generation, but it’s true to say both those things make me extremely sad and uncomfortable now, as they did then and have done ever since.
Maybe my pain and sadness at a robot’s destruction just highlights an extortionate, uncontrolled empathy that has periodically plagued me into despair, to the extent that the argument “They knew the robots were going to fight when they signed up for the show” is largely irrelevant. In my more pedantic, disruptive moments, I’d even attempt to claim that it makes it even worse, given how bluntly it exposes our species’ thirst for self-destruction. A concept that’s laid bare again right now as I ponder that here I am in 2017, waking and instantly watching a short video clip of a TV programme that I don’t like now, didn’t like in 1999, and haven’t liked for the zero-to-adulthood’s worth of years in between. Perhaps it’s time to question where I’m pointing my eyes. But first, a bit of Twitter, and a bit of something horrible for breakfast.