I was a sucker for the very idea of “Only connect” when I first came across it in E. M. Forster’s ‘Howard’s End’. I was an undergrad studying English at Trinity College Dublin and I thought the instruction magical. Profound. Yes! The answer – though to quite what question I am not sure I knew even then. But it was so quotable, usually in deeply mysterious tones brooking no argument. And so thrilling when you did, and someone recognised it – “Ah Forster!” they would say. “So true!” And you felt as if you had found a kindred spirit in a hostile world. You shared a moment, felt superior for a second – in fact, what you did was connect. Go, Forster.
The irony is that, in the late 60s, to leave university was to become immediately disconnected from many of the friends you had made: they went to the Forces and got sent far away; they joined VSO and went to South America for a year, but then never came back; they even scattered in the British mainland, but who was great at letter-writing then? And grotty flats may have had no phones and flights cost the earth. Ours is the generation that reconnected via Friends Reunited and Facebook, but there was much dislocation and disconnection in between.
The trouble is that when everyone was enabled to adopt our literary mantra, “Only connect”, in a later age, see where it got us.
Last month I attended a conference with a fine array of speakers. Eight years in a job in which organising five or six conferences a year was part of what I did has taught me a lot about speakers. Like a good man, a good speaker is hard to find, and his price can come close to diamonds. I actually attended many conferences for which I was not responsible just to find speakers for the ones I did – experience taught me the dangers of trusting anyone else’s judgement. Things might still go wrong on the day – a different day, a different audience, a different alignment of the stars – and sometimes what you got was not as good as the first time you heard them. C’est la vie of a conference organiser. But at least you could say how wonderful he was (and it’s usually a he – women are thin on the public-speaking ground) when you heard him in Wigan or wherever, an answer to “What possessed you?”
So I have a lot of respect for conference organisers: I know how hard they try to match audience to speaker; I know how much they really believe that Bloggs will be worth hearing – trust me!
And on their behalf, as well as that of Bloggs himself and all his willing colleagues on platforms, my blood boils when – visibly – no one in the audience is listening. And why? Because they are sitting in the audience actually connected to their outer world, wherever it may be, and in whatever time zone. From the stage, from the speaker’s podium, it certainly looks as if they are only connecting – but not with Bloggs. With everyone else – as in a Tweet. With anyone else – as in a personal communication with the boss or the underling or the wife or the mistress (do they still exist or am I just showing my age?) or the child about to go into an exam room a hundred miles away – bless!
I want to shout: “I don’t care – pay attention!”
Now we connect with the world, but not necessarily with the person in front of us. Speakers on stage are – maybe – a special case. They grab us or they don’t, and if they don’t the “Sod ’em” seems to be fairly universal. You turned up, didn’t you? Probably paid for the privilege. And you haven’t left, have you? You’re still there, grabbable if what they say is suddenly, surprisingly more interesting than what Fred in marketing thinks you ought to know even if you are a hundred miles away. I mean, it would be really rude if you just got up and left, wouldn’t it?
But it’s rude not to pay attention! I am realistic enough not to be surprised people do it, but when did it actually become perfectly acceptable for whole audiences to blatantly do something other than listen?
The notion of an audience having some responsibility for its own engagement seems to have gone for a ball of chalk. “Grab me!” says today’s audience, already flipping open phones, and poking devices various, when perhaps – sorry, nostalgia talking – it used to say, collectively, “I will give you my attention – it’s part of the deal, I hope I will enjoy what you have to say”? Nowadays even theatre audiences, faced (usually) with great actors and excellent texts and paying (certainly) a fortune for their seats, give attention grudgingly and with phones on silent, but not actually turned off for real. The instinct to connect is too demanding.
Actually, it is foolish perhaps to lament the lack of attention in audiences, whatever is on stage. For the most part, your life is not going to depend upon that attention being paid. But it may well depend upon paying attention when you are driving, and look at the horrifying statistics for road accidents occurring when a driver has been talking or texting on the phone. Pedestrians also, of course – in a busy part of London, I have seen too many dozy commuters unable to cross a road without their eyes fixed on their phones, apparently oblivious to traffic or lights.
In the rush hour, progress on London streets is seriously impeded by the number of people making their way through the crowds but on the phone, usually with the breathtaking information that they are on their way to the station. When did we become so needy, so desperate for the sound of a known voice that we cannot disconnect – literally – to save our lives?
And if I may briefly pursue two other thoughts springing from this wonderfully versatile quotation: if students were not able to manage it for themselves, schools are now instructed to enable students to connect – it is a skill to be overtly taught. “Look at how successful people are connected,” we say. “And look how the upper and sharp-elbowed middle classes make use of their connections to get where they would like to be! It’s a vital skill, and if you don’t have it, we must teach it, because never mind education, connecting is the ladder for social mobility. Capitalise on whom you know. Get work experience. Get an internship. Get a job. The son-in-law also rises.”
Boarding schools have always been great for introducing children from all over the world to each other – building friendships and establishing real connections to people whose homes are in Hong Kong or China or anywhere in Europe. What the schools actually taught in class was only half the boon of being a boarder. In a shrinking world, with job opportunities in multinational companies stretched across it, to have friends in far places has become as important as having them in high places, perhaps more so. And they may of course be both.
Hilary Moriarty is Founding Partner – Education for Greenings International