Sunday 21 June 2015

Slow TV - what about slow books?

Last month, BBC4 broadcast some programmes for their ‘Slow TV’ series. I would have missed it altogether if it hadn’t been for my mother who watched the first one on birdsong (I missed that one unfortunately) and another on a slow canal trip which she enthused about. I managed to tape the canal one and finally got around to watching it recently.  It was two hours in length and we the viewers were taken on a trip, as if we were on the barge itself.  There was no voiceover: the only sounds to be heard were the various birds singing in the trees on the banks, the occasional ducks, the wind in the grasses, the occasional distant cyclist or walker along the towpath and, of course, the sound of gently rippling water as the barge chugged along at 4 miles per hour.  Occasionally, information about the canal – the London to Bristol - would appear on the screen but never was the viewer overloaded with information.  That was rather the point.  You could sit back and enjoy the relaxing journey. Apparently the canal trip alone drew in 506,000 viewers and a peak of 599,000, above the BBC Four slot average of 340,000.

In this day and age of speed and ever-increasing information overload this is a novel way to escape.  (I will return to that word novel, shortly). But when our lives are saturated by busy social media newsfeeds vying for attention; photos, videos, pages asking to be liked, blogs requesting to be read and commented upon, is it any wonder we cherish this escape into slowness? Time was, when you would perhaps escape the slow drudgery of a slow-paced life, into an action packed thriller on TV.  You might imagine that two hours of scenery along a canal travelling at 4 mph would be a bit boring, but suddenly you are in a different - and quite enchanting - world.  I found myself looking forward to what was coming round the next bend or stretch of the canal. Was that a bridge in the distance?  Was that a person on the bridge?  What an interesting tree. What season might it be? Are those new buds on the trees or last summer's remains? And so on…

And so on to the novel. I am in various writers’ groups on Facebook and Linked In where writing discussions abound.  One blog was posted recently in a Facebook Group about good storytelling versus books where nothing happens.  This is one of those discussions that crops up periodically.  ‘Books where nothing happens’ is usually directed at literary fiction where plot, such as it is, often tends to be light and slow-moving and subservient to characters and their internal environments. Environmental descriptions may be too long for today’s readers, who want a fast page-turner. Or do they?  Of course there’s a place for the fast-paced action-packed page-turner but not everyone is looking for the same kind of book to read. Even the same person will want to escape into a slower world from time to time to enrich their experience or reflect their mood.  Slow TV has shown there is a place for slowness: the savouring, the slow-burning, indeed the extraordinary in the ordinary.  Too many times I’ve heard people complain about lengthy descriptions in books as if they have no place. Slowness doesn’t always mean nothing happens either. Often description can be a great way to build suspense and control pace.  At other times, description can be enjoyed for its own sake and in this sense has a lot in common with poetry.  So next time you read some descriptive or atmospheric prose, don’t just skip over it, enjoy the journey itself, the appeal to the senses on all levels, rather than racing to the story's destination.  You never know, you may be captivated.


  1. Well said. You make the point about going 'slow' really well. Enjoyed the blog.

  2. I love a good rollicking page-turner as much as the next reader, but completely agree with you - "something going on" doesn't have to mean fast-paced external action from page one.

    I'm always delighted when an author can crook their finger at me and say "Come, have a look over here" and before I know it, we've turned a corner on the street, or cruised around that bend in the canal, and I,m lost in the world they've created

  3. Thanks for your feedback, Piper. I'm glad there are others like yourself who see it that way too :)