It’s the festive season and traditionally the time to give gifts. I’d love to give you all something but I’m broke, so instead I’m going to tell you a love story. As this is digital, think of it as a virtual bottle of prosecco and box of Quality Street.
I’m always interested when the death of something or other is announced: books, radio, social skills or romance. For all these things the Grim Reaper is Digital; a gleaming iPad in a sombre cover cutting down all the beautiful traditional things with it’s fancy scythe app. An apocalyptic disrupter which will take away all that we love and hold dear and reduce us to automata in a world penned by Charlie Brooker; nothing more than cogs in the machine.
Except that, I don’t think any of this is true.
We still read, so books in some form will always be needed. In fact books in book form appear to be in decent health. Spotify is a modern marvel, but so is Radio 6 Music — we might stream it, but we’re still listening to it. And recently The Independent reported that vinyl records are outselling their digital counterparts (there are murmurs that there may be some fancy accounting here, but it’s still impressive). And we do have social skills. Yes, they’re channelled through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat and therefore utterly impenetrable to the likes of Piers Morgan, but they’re still there. Interestingly the rise of video content suggests that we want to use digital media to get as close to the experience of talking to each other as we can. Who wouldn’t rather Skype than phone?
And so to the death of romance. In a swipe right/dick pic culture is there space for good old-fashioned wooing? I say emphatically yes! And in lieu of any empirical evidence to support this assertion I’m going to share my story with you.
You may know from an earlier piece that I met my partner at LocalGov Camp, which is a sort of unconference/safe space for digital revolutionaries and local government malcontents. Dyfrig (pronounced dove-rig) and I had spoken before on the phone and followed each other on Twitter, but this event was our first actual meeting.
And, like a scene from a film that I would never believe; I walked into the venue, saw him across the crowded room and the lights went out on everyone else. We said hello and I then spent most of the day being frustrated by our inability to be in the same room at the same time. Eventually I grabbed him for ‘a quick five minute chat’ and this turned into an hour long discussion during which every other delegate left for the pub and the venue was closed and cleaned around us. Like I said, if this was a film I wouldn’t believe it.
We finally left the venue to walk through Digbeth (actual romance capital of Birmingham) walking slowly to maximise our last few moments together; and to avoid walking into lampposts as we kept sneaking sideways looks at each other and smiling goofily each time our eyes met. I cannot emphasise enough how much I would not believe this if Richard Curtis had written it.
And then we left our romcom bubble and got on a train to Cardiff (him) and drove to Exeter (me).
The protagonists have met, felt an unexpected but unmistakable shot of adrenalin to their sputtering hearts and are now twain; 100 miles apart. So what next for our star cross’d lovers?
I managed to wait a respectable 24 hours before sending a jaunty DM on Twitter late Sunday afternoon. And he managed to wait about 30 minutes before responding. We spent the next few days sending some light messages back and forth. Our ostensible reason was that Dyfrig was writing a post on his learning from Localgov Camp and I was contributing with some of the things we had discussed. So far, so very professional. We shared a Google doc to edit the article and I noted that he described my session as his favourite of the day. I told you this was going to be romantic.
Our messages branched out to cover flat pack furniture and moving house (he just had, I was just about to), food (he cooks savoury, I bake cakes) and books (we both bloody love them). All this was still couched in discussions about working and planning a trip to Cardiff for me to learn more about service transformation — not a euphemism. By now the conversations were getting too involved for Twitter DMs so I suggested taking the next step in our burgeoning relationship;
“Started writing whole reply about secondment and stuff that I’d like to learn, but it could be epic reply. Would it be good idea to Skype or something instead sometime?”
Clearly I could win an award for producing the most self-effacing message ever written. Astonishingly, Dyfrig ignored the escape routes I’d offered him and the fact that I almost apologised for existing and agreed to Skype. We arranged to talk at 8pm on Thursday. And stopped talking at 12.30am on Friday. Our conversation covered politics, films, books and food: at one point he told me how much he loved Margaret Atwood and I swear my heart skipped a beat. He was reading China Mieville’s The City and The City. I was literally mid house move at this time and having no capacity for hard copy book reading I downloaded the audiobook so we could read it together and discuss it.
We also had some fairly robust conversations about music: Dyfrig is a huge vinyl fan while I favour Spotify. But we both love sharing music so we started sending each other links to YouTube videos of songs we loved; then we switched to Spotify links and finally I received a link to a Spotify playlist called ‘Caneuon am cwympo mewn cariad’ containing the songs we’d already shared, with new ones added every day after.
A few days later the opportunity for a work jolly to Wales fell through, but emboldened by receiving a playlist of love songs, I screwed my courage to the sticking post and suggested that I visit Cardiff anyway on my next free weekend. He said yes.
And because this is my real life romantic comedy I can tell you that we talked and laughed for hours with no awkward moments and barely a chance to catch breath. He played me a record by The Gentle Good and took me to an amazing Thai restaurant staffed entirely by people with no concept of appropriate drinking limits. And on a summer evening in Canton I told him that I loved him. And he said that he loved me too.
An old-fashioned romance
We’ve been together for six months now. He still lives in Cardiff and I still live in Exeter and we both work full time and have busy, complicated lives. Digital tools give us the opportunity to have a romance; really to have a relationship at all.
Because of this I was fascinated to read Mark Boyle’s article in The Guardian stating his intention to live without technology to get his life and his soul back. I don’t necessarily disagree with his apocalyptic vision and I do think there are real tangible benefits in switching off and being present and mindful to the world around me; but I can’t see the logic of a scorched earth approach that means sacrificing the many benefits of the digital tools we have. It feels like the debate is always nature/trees/books/human interaction/having a soul versus the big bad of digital and technology. For me technology has helped me to connect with, and stay connected to, my soulmate; it’s helping us to communicate and share. It’s human interaction enabled by digital.
Every morning that we’re not together Dyfrig adds a new song to the playlist on Spotify and sends me a link. As a result we’ve shared some incredible music; and by this I mean he has introduced me to Jets to Brazil, Sweet Baboo and Waxahatchee and in return I’ve made him listen to Miley Cyrus. We Skype during the week and have worked on Google docs together, including the one for this article. I’m learning Welsh (slowly and painfully) and as I don’t live in Wales, and so have limited access to Welsh speakers, the natural resource for me is an app.
Admittedly we have varying degrees of digital romance. On National Poetry Day I recorded myself reading love poems and then Whatsapped them to him throughout the day; which may be the most romantic thing I’ve ever done — or will ever do (let’s manage expectations right here and now). On the other hand we’ve genuinely linked our Google calendars to manage our schedules and organise our time together. But I figure that as long as we keep our relationship to a maximum of 30% logistics we’ll be ok.
Essentially all of this is just doing what people have always done. We’ve written each other love notes, we’ve talked, we’ve shared books and music and poetry.
He sends me a love song every morning. It’s the simplest, most romantic thing in the world. It’s a troubadour balladeering outside my bedroom window; it’s John Cusack with a boom box. It’s what people in love have done since they could fashion musical instruments out of rocks and draw pictures for each other on cave walls. It’s what we’ll still be doing when we’re beaming songs directly into each other’s brains.
My quill and standish might be a smartphone and his boom box is a playlist, but the romance and the desire for human connection has never changed. And I don’t think it ever will.
Note: Our Spotify playlist is here if you fancy a listen.