Impolite Conversation is a place where we can talk about the things we were told not to discuss in polite company - politics, sex, spirituality & religion and money - as well as science, culture, personal development and more. Our content is not all risqué or even rude: When we use the word "Impolite", we're talking about an attitude - one of not blindly following conventions or authority, especailly when they divide (or even oppress) us. Are you Impolite? Find out more about us here and join or community here

From Encyclopaedias to iPhones

- but is Twitter really a step forward?

Photo: Stewart Butterfield (Creative Commons)


I must admit I’ve been struggling to write for the past few days. I’m not a natural writer of articles; I’m much more at home with a full-length book. Sitting down to begin a document that will exceed 100,000 words fills me with a deep and abiding joy; sitting down to write 1000 words for a magazine brings me out in a cold sweat. 1000 words you say? About what? Anything I like? Seriously? Because that last statement just removed any intelligent thought from my brain. It’s hard enough (for me) to write 1000 words on a given subject but you want me to choose my own subject? Oh good lord, pass me the gin.


I’m sure it won’t have passed you by that this magazine is called Impolite Conversation: let’s talk about the things your mother always told you not to talk about in polite conversation. Well that may have applied in your family; unfortunately mine was not so considerate. From an early age I was allowed to join in family dinners that always ended with my father and his brothers and sisters, all highly intelligent and successful people, arguing about politics, or religion, or philosophy, or some such thing. I was encouraged to add my opinions, if I could get a word in edgewise, but it quickly became obvious to me that if I hadn’t got my facts right, I was going to be verbally shot down in flames by my loving family members. I was ten.


I soon learnt. I learnt that I first needed information – the facts – and then I needed an opinion, one of my own, not a borrowed one or something I’d heard, because that way disaster lay: I would be found out and exposed without mercy. Finally, I needed the vocabulary and the conversational skills to get my point across in both a skilful and clever manner in order to defeat my opponents or naysayers. In my case, a table full of loud, boisterous, cigar-smoking, brandy-drinking, quick-thinking, forty-something’s. I would like to point out at this juncture that we did not have a television in the dining room… Or the kitchen… Or any of the bedrooms. In fact, we just had the one television, which had its own room from which it never strayed. Let’s face it: it took two grown men to lift it. If an intellectual impasse were reached, I would be dispatched to my father’s study where a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica awaited. Not that it made a lot of difference. If the encyclopaedia didn’t agree with my family, then it was quite obviously wrong.


On the plus side, this led me to a love of books and an ability to win debating competitions. I can argue black is white till the cows come home but I think the love of reading has probably been the more important factor. Nowadays, forays into the world of lively after dinner debate tend to leave me a bit stupefied. People aren’t stupid, but a lot of them are very ignorant. There’s a difference. No one does their research any more – about anything. People’s information nowadays seems to be wholly gleaned from the Internet and therefore it’s all pocket sized. Everybody knows a little bit about everything. Most of the information people are accessing at the moment has been condensed into Wikipedia-sized pieces and as such is generally pretty useless.


Maybe it’s the people I hang out with. Maybe if I lived in a rarefied and academic environment, I wouldn’t be feeling like this. Maybe I’m just being a snob but I don’t think so. Well maybe just a little bit, but the likes of Twitter and Facebook have made everybody’s thoughts available to the rest of the world – insert scream face here – and dear god on the whole they’re pretty mundane. I suppose at this point I should admit, and with a modicum of shame, that I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to Facebook – but at least on Facebook they are my friends, people I actually know, and generally, they’re a pretty entertaining bunch. The ones that aren’t, I just remove from my newsfeed so I don’t get put off my breakfast. But Twitter? Really? It’s like a horrendous global stream of consciousness with no edits and no real thought, just spewing out willy-nilly onto my screen and something I just can’t get into. Of course, there are a few genuinely funny and interesting people on Twitter, or so I’m told, but wading through all the shit to get to the nuggets of intellectual gold, well frankly the mere thought of it exhausts me.


I’m not even sure any more what constitutes impolite conversation. Sex? Good lord it’s everywhere, even twelve-year-olds are watching hard-core porn on their mobiles and entire families go on the Jeremy Kyle show to tell the world they're sleeping with their sister. Religion? Everyone’s talking about it, about Islam, about Israel, about paedophile priests (which of course is sex AND religion). Politics? So few of us are politically committed now – even the politicians are indistinguishable policy wise – would it still be a hot potato over the coffee and after eights? I doubt it.


One thing the Internet, combined with the smart phone, has given me though is a slight edge over my father, now in his eighties and still as sharp as a tack. Just recently we were out walking in a remote part of Kent where the land is really rather flat. In the middle of a field, there was a small and interesting-looking hill so we climbed it. Well, it was there. At the summit we found a graveyard and the grave of Jeremy Sinden, Actor, 1950-1996. Inevitably there was some discussion as to whether this was the son of Donald Sinden or not. Without his precious encyclopaedias to refer to, my father was forced to watch as I Googled it on my iPhone. Donald Sinden was Jeremy's father. I was right, Dad was wrong. Hah! Dad changed the subject quickly, reeling off the Latin names of some wildflowers growing nearby, while I basked in a warm glow of self-satisfaction from having got one over on a pensioner. If that seems a bit uncalled for on my part, the next time I visited my father he had an iPhone. Oh well, it was good while it lasted.


Jane Owen

About the Writer

Jane Owen is best known as the author of Camden Girls, the international cult bestseller set in the era of Brit Pop. Her latest novel, Caballo, is fast, funny, a tiny bit dark and now available as an e-book. She's a keen horsewoman and lives with her fiancée on the South Downs.


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